Critics clash over City of Life and Death

<i>City of LIfe and Death</i> (dir. Lu Chuan)

City of Life and Death (dir. Lu Chuan)

(Cross-published on dGenerate Films)

Lu Chuan’s controversial Nanjing Massacre movie City of Life and Deathpicked up the Best Director award at thefourth Asian Film Awards, held during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. While the film continues to gain attention following its successful theatrical run in China and international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it has yet to be shown theatrically in the US, following an aborted spring release with National Geographic.

Meanwhile, it’s generated a bit of a quarrel among film critics. Shelly Kraicer, who reviewed the film earlier on our site, issued a lengthier critique in Cinema-scope. An excerpt:

"A look at City of Life and Death’s genre and narrative strategies can demonstrate its importance in helping to establish what I’d like to call a nascent post-zhuxuanlu cinema. It is a full-out war epic, massively budgeted and vast in ambition. Huge sets of devastated Nanjing were built, and thousands of extras mobilized to illustrate the battle scenes that open the film. Lu films his striking set pieces in a beautifully modulated black and white, where cinematography, art direction, staging, music, and sound design all conspire to create massive, intentionally overwhelming images of violence, horror, and devastation."

The review has drawn the ire of Asian film stalwart Tony Rayns (who happens to co-program the Asian film selections at the Vancouver Inernational Film Festival), who issues seven bullet-pointed rebuttals to Kraicer’s review. An excerpt:

As a long-term resident of Beijing, Shelly may have noticed that China’s unelected leadership (so sensitive to the least whisper of criticism) decided some years ago to stop pushing Maoist/communist slogans to legitimate its rule and decided instead to promote a strong nationalist consciousness. All factions of the leadership do it, including president Wen Jiabao’s and premier Hu Jintao’s. We saw the fruits of their endeavors in the behavior of Chinese students overseas when they beat up pro-Tibet and pro-Xinjiang protestors during the international tour of the Olympic torch. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Shelly that the hostility to City of Life and Death in China – after its initial enormous success with the public – might have something to do with its refusal to bow to this neo-nationalist tide. Nobody watching City of Life and Death could seriously interpret it as being pro-Japanese; the film shows Japanese soldiers committing numerous war-crimes, and does so without sensationalism and without finding any vicarious pleasure in the spectacle. But Lu’s decision to make one of his recurring protagonists a naïve Japanese sergeant effectively defuses the nationalist thrust found in earlier films about the massacres, such as Wu Ziniu’s unspeakable Don’t Cry Nanjing. In attacking Lu’s film, Shelly seems to be reaching for solidarity with his nationalist friends in Chinese film circles. My view is that the film deserves to be defended from their fatuous and dishonest attacks.

On the Cineaste website, dGenerate’s Kevin B. Lee has his own take . An excerpt:

The imperative to honor the longstanding domestic account of the tragedy, offset by the desire to avoid fraying international ties, and further complicated by the desire to appeal to a global audience with its own expectations of art-house entertainment, makes for one of the most compelling filmmaking gauntlets to be found. These three agendas—political, cultural, commercial—wage a battle within City of Life and Deaththat’s as compelling as the one the film depicts. The film certainly qualifies as an “incoherent text,” to borrow Robin Wood’s phrase, informed by competing social ideologies and commercial ambitions that result in a work of fascinating dissonance.

Full review here.

For an alternative view of the Japanese occupation of China and the story of “comfort women” – women who were forced to sexually serve Japanese soldiers – check out Ban Zhongyi’s extraordinary documentary Gai Shanxi and Her Sistersscreening at Asia Society on April 9.

A Belated report from Berlinale

My, it's been quiet here for some time. What have I been up to? I guess things fell off on this blog about the time I went to Berlin - so maybe I should link to my coverage for The Auteurs. You'll note special attention paid to the films of Yasujiro Shimazu and to the Forum Expanded installations, both of which were the most exciting things I saw in Berlin. Here's a video I shot of the James Benning installation Tulare Road (hope he doesn't mind), which is particularly amusing for one German infant's interactive participation with it:

Cassavetes' LOVE STREAMS next Monday, March 29


LOVE STREAMS (dir. John Cassavetes, 1984)

WHEN: 6:45 pm, Monday 29 March 2010 WHERE: Room 471, 20 Cooper Square (Bowery and East 5th) ALL WELCOME.  Refreshments – stiff, copious – provided.

“Making a film has been compared, by many good directors, to a love affair.  What hasn’t been said is that this film, the recipient of the love, is the victim of an organized orgy.” (Cassavetes)

LOVE STREAMS is John Cassavetes’s last film.  He made it as he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.  Critically disavowed, yanked off screens after just a few weeks, only briefly available on video in the States, it’s the story of the close relationship between Robert, a feckless lush (played by Cassavetes) who’s “writing a book on night life”, and Sarah (Cassavetes’s real-life wife Gena Rowlands), who describes herself as a “very happy person”.  Both are alive, lonely, lost.  Both, in their different ways, are quietly howling with grief.  Then comes the goat.

John Cassavetes’s films, Jim Jarmusch has written, are about “love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity”.  For that reason, their stylistic distinctiveness, and for their fierce and galvanic independence, they’ve long been touchstones for equally fierce, equally galvanic directors such as Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas and Pedro Almodovar.  LOVE STREAMS, in its rawness and desperation, its wild-eyed confrontation with human isolation and need, is hard to watch and equally hard to look away from.

LOVE STREAMS will be presented by Kevin B. Lee, a critic, filmmaker, and programming executive for dGenerate Films, a digital distribution channel for Chinese independent films. He contributes to ‘Time Out New York’, ‘Cineaste’, ‘The Moving Image Source’, and his blog Shooting Down Pictures, among other publications.

Part of the series THE SPEED OF YOUR HAIR: A series on love. Organized by Sukhdev Sandhu and The Colloquium for Unpopular Culture.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Paul Clark,

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

- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk



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

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

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

- Eric Henderson, Slant

Review by Jonathan Kim, The Huffington Post:

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

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

- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict

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

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

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

- Vince Leo

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

- Interviewed by Alison Willmore,


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

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

- Gary W. Tooze, DVD

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

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

- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict

The Shooting Down Pictures YouTube Film Festival

To think that it's been over a year since the YouTube shakedown of 2009, when I temporarily lost my account during a particularly zealous effort to manage the content on YouTube containing copyrighted material, such as my video essays.  Well here we are a year later, and if anything there is even more copyrighted stuff to be found on the site - and we're not just talking videos like mine that re-appropriate media, but entire feature films.

I'm no longer sure what mechanisms are in place to regulate copyrighted content, but judging from what I'm finding on the site, whatever guidelines are in place are being enforced rather hazily. Whatever the case, there's a cornucopia of great films to be watched in their entirety on the site, especially rare and hard-to-find films that have mostly been distributed within the domain of file sharing networks.

I've already benefited from YouTube being the source for at least three films I've watched for Shooting Down Pictures: Subarnarekha, Toute une nuit, and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (in the case of the latter, the video I linked to watch the film was taken down, but since then another upload has become available).  And a recent conversation with Fernando Croce yielded links to several other films, including Victor Erice's El Sur, a film that I watched for my project just a couple months ago on an unsubbed import DVD while following a printout of the subtitles. Now you can watch it on YouTube with the English subtitles perfectly synched.

I'm not sure whether I should bring attention to these films for fear of them being taken down.  But I figure that these videos were put up to be watched, and if they are going to be taken down, then might as well encourage people to see them while they can.  Nothing on YouTube stays secret for long anyway.

And so, here's the first (and only?) edition of the Shooting Down Pictures YouTube Film Festival, a handpicked selection of films that are part of the TSPDT 1000 that can be watched in their entirety on YouTube.  Of course there are many more to be found, but I'm hedging my bets by singling out just these five. I consider all of them to be masterpieces.

And since this is a do-it-yourself film festival, I encourage you to share links to films that you've found on YouTube or elsewhere, be they part of the TSPDT 1000 or just cool films you want to share. I've included some of Fernando's recommendations at the bottom of this post.

TSPDT #909: Seventh Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)

SPD entry

TSPDT #918: Jour de Fete (1949, Jacques Tati)

TSPDT #981: Mothlight (1963, Stan Brakhage)

TSPDT  #972: Chloe in the Afternoon (1972, Eric Rohmer - RIP)

TSPDT#919: Sonatine (1992, Takeshi Kitano) - dubbed in Spanish!

More tips from Fernando, not from the TSPDT 1000 but highly recommended:

Fighting Friends (1933, Yasujiro Ozu):

Lotna (1959, Andrzej Wajda):

Cantata (1963, Miklos Jancso):

Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang):

Daughter of the Nile (1987, Hou Hsiao-hsien):

998 (133). Tale of Tales (1979, Yuriy Norshteyn)

Screened February 8, 2010 on veoh (see embedded video after the break) TSPDT #992  IMDb Wiki


First off, I want to encourage everyone in New York City to take advantage of an opportunity that I will sorely miss: an in-person appearance (alternative link to event) by  Yuriy Norshteyn. This legendary 68-year old Russian animator rarely comes to the US; he may very well be traveling to raise funds for his first feature film The Overcoat, which he has been working on for nearly 30 years. In any case, please go in my place, as I will be on a flight to Berlin as he makes his appearance at the SVA Theater:

Monday, February 15: School of Visual Arts Theater (333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th/9th Ave.) This event is billed only as a Q&A so be aware that there may not be a screening. No price is indicated so I’m also assuming it’s free.

To be honest, I am a recent convert to Norstein, like, as of this week. He has been touted on this site before, as one of the 100 Most Important Directors of Animated Shorts, as voted on by my colleagues at IMDb. Still, when Tale of Tales appeared for the first time on the TSPDT 1000 upon its most recent update, I had never heard of the film, despite it being voted the greatest animated film of all time at polls conducted by two animation film festivals.

So I won't pretend to be an expert on this film when I've been acquainted with its filmmaker for all of a week, and when there is already a book length study by animation scholar Claire Kitson available, which I will seek out. I will only say that I've seen this half-hour masterpiece four times in four days, and it feels like it's stayed with me for four years. It's as if Norshteyn sat with these images all his life, drawing them with such lucidity and palpable depth of feeling, that they make even the untold hours of ingenuity and laborious craft behind Pixar films feel relatively disposable. It summons a concept of the fermented image: a vision that has stayed with a person for as long as they've been breathing, and perhaps beyond that, like the wolf that lurks throughout the film, a folkloric figure as old as Russian blood.


It's a vision that nurtures, like the suckling breast that satiates the infant who sees the wolf just as its eyes pull into sleep.


The whole film seems to be a drunken/lucid suckling of images, images that have nourished a lifetime of sublime melancholy and wonder, reflected in so much of what's on screen. And the way each image is rendered with a delicacy verging on dissolution conveys a yearning for that same image, as fragile as the decaying memorabilia of one's childhood:


or one's memory rendered through a ghostly gauze - such as these tangoing couples about to be severed by the War raging around them...


Another recurring motif feels slightly more contemporary (with sharper lines, brighter hues and more fashionable clothing), involving an apple-loving boy who fancies himself feeding crows in the tree boughs as his parents loiter on a bench below:



The film cycles through these visuals in such a way that the repetition invokes instant affection and nostalgia, as with films by Duras or Wong Kar-wai. The wolf figures as the protagonist, the only one who seems to traverse from one zone of memory to another, often by crossing through forests that at times give the only acknowledgment of late 20th century modernity:


But his experiences of the hopscotching bull, the dancing phantoms, even the snowbound family, are all mediated by some sort of illuminated threshold: an entrancing fire on the hearth, or light raptruously emanating from a doorway or from a manuscript, as if these visions are liminal states into which he is lulled repeatedly. But it still doesn't account for other images that seem to inhabit an interzone apart from the more sharply defined worlds, an eden blanketed in Tarkovskian dampness and mist:



And all these visuals still don't account for images that I didn't capture because they only make sense in motion: soldiers marching into a swallowing blackness; windows boarded up without hands or hammers; a pile of wood suddenly combusting; a tablecloth that seems to billow under the breezes of history. Or the sounds: a record skipping as men disappear from their lovers' embrace; the wolf blowing on his hands as he tries to handle a hot potato. And the lullaby that begins the film and tips the film's hand as a lullaby to all of us, whisking us to a world of beauty whose liquid lucidity can only exist in sleep, except when an artist is somehow able to extract these moments from a lifetime of dreaming. Again, it would be a privilege to meet such a person.


Watch Tale of Tales on Veoh

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

Doug Cummings, One-Line Review (2009) John Davies, One-Line Review (2009) Keith Griffiths, Time Out (1995) Annecy Festival, 100 Films for a Century of Animation (2006) Cinematheque Quebecoise, FIAF: Film History (1995) Film: The Critic's Choice, 150 Masterpieces of World Cinema-The Art of the Impossible (2001) Olympiad, The Champions of Animation (1984)


Despite its simple beauty, "Tale" was not made with children in mind. In the sequence imagining the huge losses Russia experienced in World War II, couples dance to the famous tango "Weary Sun." Every time the old record skips, one man disappears from the frame and then the women dance alone.

Norstein says "Tale of Tales" is a film about the way memory is conjured up. He says the role of the artist is to allow people to "experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art."

Fans like to watch the film again and again. "I have seen it many times," says Yulia Zotova, 42, who attended the exhibit of Norstein's work in Moscow. " 'Tale of Tales' evokes these emotions in me. I've always been fascinated with the character Little Wolf because he's a symbol of wisdom and love. My impression is that spiritually we are searching for this wisdom and this love and we find it in his films."

In the last quarter of a century, the film has inspired filmmakers, animators and writers. In June 2002, the Zagreb International Animation Festival published the results of a poll of animators to establish the best animated film of all time. It was "Tale of Tales." A 1984 poll of animators came up with same result.

- Peter Finn, The Washington Post


Norstein’s initial script treatment for Tale of Tales was approved by the Soviets but he summarily dismissed it, producing a much more ambiguous and emotionally complex piece than was originally planned. Tale of Tales juxtaposes images of innocence and gaiety with images of war and vanishing soldiers, nostalgic visions of childhood with an alcoholic parent chugging a bottle of vodka. The Soviet film authorities, baffled by the film’s poetry, deemed it subversive for its lack of social realism, and demanded that Norstein make extensive changes. He refused, and luckily, had just been awarded a State honor that made it virtually impossible for the authorities to enforce their demands or suppress the work.

- Doug Cummings, Film Journey


Tale of Tales is laminated with enchantment. Layer by layer. A suckling baby is sung a lullaby, wooing it to sleep lest the little grey fox abduct him to take him into the scary woods where a green apple glows wet with rain.

The little grey fox is maligned. He is sweet, clever and curious. He flirts with himself in shiny hubcaps. The exhaust fumes of cars make him sneeze and his sneeze startles birds into flight. A hot potato burns his paws. A young girl jumps rope with a steer that, every now and then, likes to take its turn. A poet anguishes over what to envision, what to say. Women and men dance underneath a streetlight and each time the record skips another husband / father / son is lost to the ravages of war. A one-legged veteran plays a sad concertina. A fish floats in the sky catching the attention of an idle cat who, by caterwauling, teaches the poet how to orate. A boy imagines himself befriending winter birds on a tree limb above him. Is the baby dreaming all of this? Is this where the lullaby has taken him? Is this where it has taken us? Whimsical and poignant, Tale of Tales masterfully purveys a deep realm where images are deftly woven into feelings.

- Michael Guillen, The Evening Class


Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, figuring out a specific meaning for each scene is difficult if not impossible and useless. Norstein, like Tarkovsky a few years before him, is delving into his own memories and displaying the results (...) Thus, it could be said that the only one who truly understands Tale of Tales is Norstein. What keeps me from embracing this criticism is that, impermeability notwithstanding, I was constantly occupied with emotions and ideas throughout the film’s duration. Does it matter that I don’t understand every scene? Am I supposed to? I don’t think so. This film is going more for rhythms and moods, different drawing styles alternating between each other, each suggesting a different reality: there’s the parent storyline of the little wolf; there’s the poignant visual poem about the effects of wartime on civilians; there’s the aside to the apple-loving boy and his alcoholic father; and finally there’s that bit with minotaurs, jumping ropes, and harps. These sections weave together and combine. Memory and dreams emerge from the fantasy of the little wolf. We navigate each reality, notice melancholy patterns: departures, time lapses, destruction, burning, death, and other natural cycles. Free association takes us to random places, but there seems to be a structure, an emotional core. I have only seen Tale of Tales once. These kinds of films have a way of being new with every return. You find currents and threads that had been invisible during the introductory voyage.

- Elevator to Alphaville


Voted as the best animated film of all time by animators and critics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, is a personal, and often profound, statement of atavistic recollection. Norstein uses the animated form to recall primal and ancestral sources of human feeling and experience. Fusing folk-tale, memory and personal symbolism, Norstein achieves associative relations which move beyond the realms of standard representations of time and space, privileging the psychological and emotional as the focusing agents in relating images, rather than using orthodox modes of story-telling. As Norstein himself suggests, 'The sanctity of the image, or rather its construction, seems to move in gradually from all sides; the elements that coagulate create the image'.

Whilst the workings of an artist like Norstein may, in the first instance, seem impenetrable to the viewer, it is important to recognize that such methodologies foreground the idea of image-making as a tension between conscious and unconscious experience. This may be understood as a process which accepts and includes images which emerge from a number of sources and which seem at first to have no particular relationship. Further, such images, whether they are perceived constructions of real physical space, fragmentary recollections of dreams, half-remembered visions, hallucinations and fantasies, or pictures without past or purpose conjured in the mind, are not forced into a coherent story, though they do possess their own narrative which informs the relational conception of the film. The images possess an ontological equivalence, and in being valued as equally valid and important whatever their source, occupy a narrative space which refuses to categorise any one character or event as its presiding or dominant element. Tale of Tales refuses all obvious signposts of plot, preferring instead a system of leitmotifs, recurring images that play out their own subtle differences and developments as part of a wider scheme of recollection. It may be useful to stress that Norstein's work is recollection; a gathering of images which define the psyche and the act of memory as an act of creativity. As Mikhail Yampolsky has noted, 'What confronts us is not simply a film about memory, but a film built like memory itself, which imitates in its spatial composition the structural texture of our consciousness.'

Animation is especially suited to the process of associative linking, both as a methodology by which to create image systems, and as a mechanism by which to understand them. Understanding these images only comes from an active participation in the images as the repository of meaning in their own right, and not necessarily, in direct connection to other images. Norstein and Tarkovsky create works which ultimately require the viewer to empathise as well as analyse, and this dimension of feeling - what Norstein calls the 'spinal cord' of emotional recognition - is the quality which lyricises the image. The 'deductions' that are made possible by this kind of involvement are those which relate the personal to the universal. Norstein essentially engages with his childhood during the war, and through the accumulation of the everyday details and events (real and imagined) of his past life, given special emphasis by the selectivity of memory, he creates a text which elevates the expression of the psyche's own sense of history to the level of poetic insight and spiritual epiphany.

- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation. Routledge, 1998. Pages 93, 94

Widely acclaimed as the best animated film of all time, Tale of Tales is a poetic amalgam of Yuri Norstein's memories of his past and hopes and fears for the future: his post-war childhood, remnants of the personal tragedies of war, the little wolf character in the lullaby his mother used to sing, the neighbors in his crowded communal flat, the tango played in the park on summer evenings, and the small working-class boy's longing to emerge from the dark central corridor of the kommunalka into a luminous world of art and poetry. In Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey, Clare Kitson examines the passage of these motifs into the film and delves into later influences that also affected its genesis. More than merely a study of one animated film or a biography of its creator, Kitson's investigation encompasses the Soviet culture from which this landmark film emerged and sheds light on creative influences that shaped the work of this acclaimed filmmaker.

- From jacket description of Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: an Animator's Journey, by Claire Kitson. University of Indiana Press, 2005



IMDb Wiki

Yuri Norstein, who has been working for years under the veteran Russian animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano, has emerged as one of the world's leading animators. His film, The Tale of Tales , was considered the most artistic production to come out of Eastern Europe in years. The success of this film, as well as others such as Hedgehog in the Mist The Vixen and the Hare , and The Heron and the Crane , is due to his unique style of multidimensional figures and backgrounds that have depth, roundness, and shading, giving a visual quality to his scenes seldom seen in other films. His humor is full of human observation, contrasting emotion over a broad scale from gaiety and laughter to sadness and disappointment. The fact that these moods are happening to animals and birds with their own particular environment provides an element of magic, and once again proves that the art of animation can bridge the biological barrier between human and animal worlds.

Norstein considers animation to be a new field of art, but underestimated, its artistic plasticity and social significance not having been explored so far. According to him its principles are taken from life, avoiding a documentary approach in describing a social situation. Aristotle said, "art, above all teachers, allows people to enjoy life." This principle still holds. Norstein takes his own material from an ordinary situation and develops it in his own particular way. His material consists of human emotions: joy, tears, love, and all levels of emotion within the experiences of life. Norstein, apart from being a filmmaker, is also a good painter and brilliant illustrator, which explains the high visual quality of his backgrounds and the expressions of his characters. He has a close relationship with his young children and closely considers their reactions before making a film. He thinks that only those who understand children's psychology should make a film for them. If one has sympathy with them and can play with them, one is able to look at the world through their minds and eyes.

On the question of visual quality, he thinks that animated film directors should be interested in fine arts, especially painting, since films have a dual objective: the creation of a new and original setting and a defined dramatic action within the setting. The spectator should be able to adapt to such a background and participate in the film on the terms present in the subject. Norstein recognizes that a film is composed of various elements. It contains myth, fantasy, cosmographic ideas, sound, absolute realism, and naturalism. The combined quality of these elements could be of great value, lifting animation above all other media, but so far he has not seen any film, short or long, able to make full use of such total potentialities. He holds that a feature-length film should not only tell a story but present the richness of human life, make full use of the specific properties of animation, and look for its own way of development.

John Halas, Film

Norstein was born during World War II and spent his childhood in the northern suburbs of Moscow. Though Stalin’s reign of terror softened a bit in the postwar era, anti-Semitism and intense cultural control remained, constraining the young Norstein on many occasions. Luckily, his entry to adulthood coincided with the Soviet Thaw during the more liberal Khrushchev era of the late-’50s, which saw an influx of foreign art and an openness to experimentation. Films such as The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959), and Destiny of a Man (1959) were being produced which invigorated the cinematic milieu. (Unfortunately, history would reverse this opportunity when Russian resources dried up duringglasnost at the height of Norstein’s acclaim; he’s still trying to finish The Overcoat, a film he began in 1981 with his wife and longtime collaborator, Francesca Yarbusova.)

Norstein studied at the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio, which began producing a small but sophisticated body of work that appealed to adults as well as children in the ’60s. For years, he worked as an unassuming animator until he began directing his own films during the less-hospitable Brezhnev era of the ’70s, known for banning art and artists that weren’t deemed properly Social Realist. “In one word,” Norstein says, “[the era] was stuffy. We didn’t have enough air. But the strange thing is that when a lot of things outside you are closed off, you go inside yourself and find the freedom you need.” Norstein developed a highly complex and nuanced style of multiplane animation using paper cutouts on layers of glass; it produced the internationally venerated works The Fox and the Hare(1973), The Heron and the Crane (1974), and Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). (All of these films are available on DVD in the Masters of Russian Animation series.)

Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union kept Norstein out-of-work for many years, but he was finally able to travel, and has spent the last couple decades lecturing and attending tributes to his career. He also continues producing The Overcoat (his first full-length feature) and occasionally provides short pieces for commercials and title sequences for Russian and Japanese television. Fervently in love with his homeland, Norstein has rejected several international offers to finish The Overcoat abroad, choosing instead to develop the film little by little, year after year, in the country of his birth. Let us hope the film materializes fully formed one day soon.

- Doug Cummings, Film Journey

See also Cummings' report of Norstein's visit and talk at the University of Southern Calfornia, Los Angeles

The nerve center of Norstein's life -- both as a filmmaker and as the husband of artist and collaborator Francesca Yarbusova -- is their studio. Drawings of little gray men scratching backs, scratching noses and picking up spoons cover the walls. Yarbusova draws the figures and imbues them with a haunting beauty and sense of loss.

"We are tied together and we are interdependent," Norstein says, sitting in his merrily cluttered kitchen, the walls covered with photos, sketches, an icon, bric-a-brac and shelving spilling over with videos. "I draw all the compositions, but this is the dry soil which must then be filled with feeling. We have scandals and rows. But now her work is on display and she says to me, 'It is all you -- you were guiding me.' "

"Francesca participates in the movies as much as Norstein," Bossart says. "The two of them are one artist. He couldn't exist without her."

- Peter Finn, The Washington Post

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

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

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


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

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

Skip ahead to 3:30 in the following clip:


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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

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

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


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

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

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




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

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


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

Acquarello, Strictly Film School


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

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

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

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

- Upperstall Cinema


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

- Chris Fujiwara, The Bpston Phoenix


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

Chris FujiwaraBoston Phoenix


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

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

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

Basu Acharya, Bangalnama


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

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

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

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

- Omar Ahmed, Ellipsis


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

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

- Dennis Grunes


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

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

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

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

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

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

- Erin O'Donnell, Jump Cut


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

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

venicelionThe Case for Global Film








Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer

You might have been a bit more indulgent towards us if you only knew how many fences we have to cross to make a film. […] Filmmakers like us will be gratified if people just accept the fact that we are fenced in. […] You are a fence yourselves, the most ominous, perhaps.

- Ghatak, quoted by Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

(More words from Ghatak at the bottom of this entry)



IMDb Wiki

Ritwik Ghatak - an artist who exerted a profound influence on the modern Indian cinema but who was critically recognized abroad only after his untimely death in 1975. A native of East Bengal, Ghatak was shattered by the partition of that "orphan state" (later to become Bangladesh), and his stories and images are permeated with the personal urgency he felt for the people whose lives and culture were irreparably ruptured.

Yet his films also have a vital, regenerative power, fed by the artist's insatiable intelligence and his skillful integration of popular forms of culture - melodrama, songs, and dance - into politically radical themes. His major influence was Eisenstein, and he said, "I have wanted to use the cinema as a weapon". But if he shocks, he does so with photography that is thought made visible, editing that turns melodrama into a form of music, and music that tells its own bold and surprising story.

Through his films and his short tenure at the Film Institute in Pune, Ghatak influenced a generation of filmmakers including Kumar Sahani, Mani Kaul, Ketan Mehta, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan - names that today are synonymous with the Indian art film. Ghatak was a complex man who was much loved by his students but was viewed by the film establishment as an eccentric iconoclast; he died a chronic alcoholic at the age of 49.

Calcutta Web

Ritwik Ghatak's cinema vividly illustrates the idea that it is about the flow of time. It is memory that links his characters to themselves and others around them as they swim against the murderous tides of history and politics. Time and remembrance flow out of each other. Seldom has such a thought been expressed with greater feeling or perception than in the eight feature films Ghatak made between 1952 and '74.

There is lucidity in Ghatak's cinematic vision that renders complex ideas simple. Early training in his gentleman-scholar father's library reading the epics - namely Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Upanishads, Jatakas amongst others; and, soon after the writings of Marx, Engels and other western philosophers and a grounding in group theatre with Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) - the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India - made him realize the value of communicating with very large audiences.

Unlike other film makers in the world espousing the Communist cause to whom religion was anathema and who took refuge in existentialism like Wajda and Godard, or a considered atheism like Eisenstein, political ideology and aesthetic expression were fused effortlessly in Ghatak's cinema. Long before Fidel Castro discovered the virtues of non-interference with the religious beliefs of his party members in Communist Cuba, Ghatak had informed the Committee examining the ideological positions of IPTA and the CPI 'song squad' it would be imperative to remember that the Indian people, and certainly the proletariat who had been sustained culturally/spiritually by the epics would be best served if the party and its operatives read and appreciated these great books.

- Partha Chatterjee, Outlook India

Ajantrik / The Pathetic Fallacy (1958)

Ghatak's first film was Nagrik (1952) about a young man's search for a job and the erosion of his optimism and idealism as his family sinks into abject poverty and his love affair too turns sour. Ghatak then accepted a job with Filmistan Studio in Bombay but his 'different' ideas did not go down well there. He did however write the scripts of Musafir (1957) and Madhumati (1958) for Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy respectively, the latter becoming an all time evergreen hit.

Ghatak returned to Calcutta and made Ajantrik (1958) about a taxi driver in a small town in Bihar and his vehicle an old Chevrolet jalopy. An assortment of passengers gives the film a wider frame of reference and provided situations of drama, humour and irony.

But perhaps his best work was Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960),the first film in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition. The protagonist Neeta (played by Supriya Choudhury) is the breadwinner in a refugee family of five. Everyone exploits her and the strain proves too much. She succumbs to tuberculosis. In an unforgettable moment, as the dying Neeta cries out "I want to live…", the camera pans across the mountains accentuating the indifference and eternity of nature even as the echo reverberates over the shot.

Ghatak followed it up with Komal Gandhar (1961) concerning two rival touring theatre companies in Bengal and Subarnarekha (1965). The last is a strangely disturbing film using melodrama and coincidence as a form rather than mechanical reality.

Unfortunately for Ghatak his films were largely unsuccessful, many remained unreleased for years and he abandoned almost as many projects as he completed. Ultimately the intensity of his passion, which gave his films their power and emotion, took their toll on him, as did tuberculosis and alcoholism. However he has left behind a limited but rich body of work that no serious scholar of Indian Cinema can ignore.


Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were in fact clearly admirers of each other's work. Praise from both sides can be found in print on a number of occasions. Indeed Ray, a member of the Ritwik Memorial Trust, provided the foreword to the published volume of Ghatak's writings on cinema in English, Cinema and I, reprinted in Rows and Rows of Fences. He is full of approval for Ghatak's work:

Ritwik was one of the few truly original talents in the cinema this country has produced. […] As a creator of powerful images in an epic style he was virtually unsurpassed in Indian cinema.

Likewise, in his Row and Rows of Fences, Ghatak's praise for Ray is high: “Satyajit Ray, and only Satyajit Ray in India, in his more inspired moments, can make us breathtakingly aware of truth, the individual, private truth”. Ray's Pather Panchali(1955) is lauded in Ghatak's essay on literary influence in Bengali cinema: It is true that this film was also based on a famous novel. But for the first time, the story was narrated in the filmic idiom. The language was sound. Artistic truth was upheld. The fundamental difference between the two art forms was delineated.

In the essay “Recollections of Bengal and a Single Vision”, Shampa Banerjee offers an interesting anecdote from Dopati Chakrabarty about the relationship between the cinemas of Ray and Ghatak: Satyajit Ray once said: Had Nagarik been released before his Pather Panchali,Nagarik would have been accepted as the first film of the alternative form of Bengali cinema.

Nagarik (The Citizen), the first film Ghatak ever made, was completed in 1953 but in fact released posthumously in 1977. Pather Panchali was released in 1955. The central character of Nagarik, Ramu, opens the film looking for a job in Calcutta, while his family struggles to make ends meet. Incredibly, in a memorial lecture on Ghatak, given after his death, Satyajit Ray had this to say: Ritwik was a Bengali director in heart and soul, a Bengali artist much more of a Bengali than myself. For me that is the last word about him, and that is his most valuable and distinctive characteristic.

Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Bari Theke Paliye / The Runaway (1958)
Bari Theke Paliye / The Runaway (1958)

When one closely looks at any of his films, one can witness the chaos with which his movies are cut; from high, to abrupt low or from wide lens to his sudden shift to telephoto lens and vice-versa, but within the schema of such chaos lay the harmony. Ghatak’s mise en scène is the representation of such harmony, which was made amidst the chaos of money, depression and desire reflected beyond the mimesis that Ghatak’s captured and represented. His mise en scène that was largely built on the foundation of various influences – scars and nostalghia – which he had been bearing with him for years. Also his choice for every movement of the camera, every gesture of the character and every relationship that the shot, the setting and the subject expressed reflected his deep longing and desire. (...)

His usage of the wide angles lens in capturing and representing the exteriors that he so fondly captured is indebted to his memories of his growing years in Bangladesh. It’s precisely the reason why most of his characters in the trilogy are always lost in the spaces which they inhabit and are in incessant search for something or longing. The search and longing that were expressed through music were an important source, not just to add depth to his expression, but it also became a catalyst for exposing the inner truth when fused with his montages.(...)

Normally most melodramas are classically constructed and the mise en scène also moved in that pattern, Ghatak’s does just the opposite, his film cuts at odd angles; from high to low, low to high and juxtaposes odd angles. This is an important ‘distancing’ technique he has used in his montage. Now this shift from different odd angles creates a chaos that could have made his entire work and especially this trilogy unwatchable, but it’s the genius of Ghatak’s that he could blend seamlessly such distinctive angle and cuts, and form such poetic rhythm. Furthermore, his montage and his mise en scène were guided by his mastery over different modules of sound effects. That gave a distinctive tension to the expression he usually brought out from the sequences.

Nitesh PahwaIndian Auteur

Ghatak took one rupture in the history he witnessed as central – the partition of Bengal. As he went on extending that event into a metaphor for everything that was alienating and destructive in the experience of his community, and talked about the pervasive degeneration of his country sometimes solely in terms of it, he faced puzzlement and even incomprehension from his contemporaries. Wasn't he being obsessed with a single event? Wasn't he living in the past, cutting himself off from the contemporary? The full irony of the situation is probably now coming to light: the Partition – a joint treachery committed by the colonial power and the nationalist leadership – cost millions of lives (mainly in Punjab and Bengal, but also in other provinces as the communal riots spread) and left millions homeless (11), but had hardly any thematic impact on film or literature. People forgot to talk about it. In the face of this silence the history model of narration itself had to be played with, it had to be crossed with elements borrowed from traditional community-centred forms – epic, chronicle play, allegory, musical theatre. But in the face of historical denial Ghatak would also resort to a drama where a few hapless characters would say just that – 'we deny it'. These are people who howl against the rocks that they want to live, who place negation against negation by closing the circle before violent interdictions of change. A particular kinship relation takes on an acute dimension in this drama. It works to defeat the melodrama of couple formation even as it destroys the logic of the other, pre-bourgeois melodrama: the feudal family romance.

Moinak Biswas, "Her Mother's Son: Kinship and History in Ritwik Ghatak", Rouge.

Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)
Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

There are two basic ways that a filmmaker can relate to film history: to work within an existing tradition or to proceed more radically as if no one else has ever made a film before. I think it would be safe to say that at least ninety-nine per cent of the films we see in theaters are made according to the first way. The Danish narrative filmmaker Carl Dreyer and the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage are two of the rare exceptions who might be said to have followed the second way. Even though they too both worked to some extent in existing traditions, their principles of editing and camera movement and tempo and visual texture are sufficiently different to require viewers to move beyond some of their own habits as spectators in order to appreciate fully what these filmmakers are doing artistically. Without making such an effort at adjustment, one’s encounters with the films of Brakhage and Dreyer are likely to be somewhat brutal in their potentiality for disorientation.

Ghatak, I believe, is another rare exception who followed the second route I have described, and one who provides comparable challenges of his own. And his methods of composing soundtracks for his films as well as his ways of interrelating his sounds and images are among the things I would point to first in order to describe his uniqueness as a filmmaker. One might conclude, in other words, that he reinvented the cinema for his own purposes both conceptually, in terms of his overall working methods, and practically, by rethinking the nature of certain shots he has already filmed – specifically, by starting and/or stopping certain kinds of sounds at unexpected moments, sometimes creating highly unorthodox ruptures in mood and tone.

It might be argued that these ruptures were not necessarily intentional. At least I’ve found no acknowledgment of them or of many of Ghatak’s other eccentric filmmaking practices in his lectures and essays such as ‘Experimental Cinema’, ‘Experimental Cinema and I’ and ‘Sound in Cinema’. (1) But by the same token, I find little if any acknowledgment by Carl Dreyer of his unorthodox editing practices in his own writings. And the issue of artistic intentionality remains a worrisome one in any case, because artists aren’t invariably the best people to consult about their own practices, and it can be argued that what artists do is far more important (at least in most cases) than what they say they do. And the radical effect of Ghatak’s ruptures in his soundtracks strike me as being far better illustrations of his manner of reinventing cinema than any of his theoretical statements. To put it as succinctly as possible, they reinvent cinema precisely by reinventing us as spectators, on a moment-to-moment basis, keeping us far more alert than any conventional soundtrack would. And this makes them moments of creation in the purest sense.

Jonathan RosenbaumRouge

In the 1960s, Ghatak translated Brecht’s The Life of Galileo and Caucasian Chalk Circle from English to Bengali. In numerous essays and interviews, he discusses the impact on his work of Brecht’s epic approach, alienation effect and use of coincidence. Ghatak draws upon the diverse theatrical traditions of IPTA, Brecht and Stanislavski, and the various cinematic visions of Eisenstein, Godard and Bunuel to come up with use own melodramatic vision. The technical details of Ghatak’s melodramatic style include the following stylistic traits: frequent use of a wide angle lens, placement of the camera at very high, low and irregular angles, dramatic lighting composition, expressionistic acting style and experimentation with songs and sound effects. With this combination of cinematic devices, Ghatak creates a melodramatic post-Partition world in which he constructs his vision of “Woman” and “Homeland” in post-Independence Bengal.

In cinema, the family, the home, with women — mothers, wives, daughters and sisters as the key players — is the primary site of domestic melodrama. In Bengali culture, the home houses the heart of Bengali society: the family. And at the core of the Bengali family is ma, the mother. Within the homes of Ghatak’s post-Independence Bengal lies the site of both ananda (joy) and dukkho (sorrow), emotions intensely expressed by his female characters, frequently through song. These songs and music distill the essence or rasa of the joy and sorrow that Ghatak’s characters experience, and the music track enables these emotions’ full force and weight to be communicated to the audience. The ability of music and song to express powerful emotions beyond the visual dimension of a film, even beyond the film text itself, is particularly evident in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, and Subarnarekha.The film sound scholar Caryl Flinn relates in her book Strains of Utopia:

“Melodrama critics assert that the non-representational register (i.e., music) reveals elements which cannot be conveyed through representational means alone, a fundamental split that seems to guarantee the genre’s potentially ‘subversive’ effects.”

Erin O'DonnellJump Cut

Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965)
Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965)

I was drawn to consider Ritwik Ghatak because of the dedication by Mira Nair at the end of The Namesake, a film I am using again as part of a course on ‘diaspora cinema’. Nair was referring to the ‘Masters of Bengali Cinema’ – with Ghatak alongside Satyajit Ray. But she might also have been referring to a master of diaspora cinema or more properly ‘exilic cinema’. (...)

Ghatak is not as widely known as he should be (i.e. outside the circle of serious cinephiles and historians of Indian Cinema). He was at least as important as his contemporary Satyajit Ray and in some ways more so, given his brief stint teaching at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) at Pune in 1966 in which he influenced future directors such as Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. His fame has spread outside India over the thirty years and more since his death.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that Ghatak’s work is not immediately accessible to audiences. He avoids the populism of commercial cinema, yet doesn’t have a coherent humanist art cinema style like Ray, or even a committed political stance like Mrnal Sen. In the same sequence, he might move from what appears to be a conventional social realist approach to portraying village life/city life to a highly expressionistic portrayal of a moment of emotional tension. On closer inspection, however, his seemingly conventional realist camerawork is often undermined by staging in depth with disturbing angles and compositions. Music is integral to the trilogy of ‘exile’ films (which includes the earlier A Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandahar (1961)). Cloud-Capped Star shares with Subarnarekha a brother-sister relationship in which the woman is a singer of Bengali songs, many written by Rabindranath Tagore (1876-1941), the towering figure of Bengali literature.

venicelionThe Case for Global Film

Some critics accuse Ghatak of being oversentimental about 'desh' or 'homeland'. With him, they feel, the experience of Partition remained imprisoned in nostalgia, never a noble emotion, however painful its portrayal may be. According to Iraban Basu Roy:

Partition was Ritwik's own passion but that passion did not get any creative inspiration or language in his films. Not that he was not aware of rootlessness; but whenever it came to representation of collective tragedy that surpassed personal pain, it seemed that Ritwik withdrew his passion... So Partition remained loosely attached to his films, never turning into the central motif. That the Partition was not of a particular moment, but had long drawn effects on the personal and collective consciousness is understood in a film like Shyam Benegal's Mammo; this extended influence is missing in Ritwik's films. Except for a few stray moments, there is no permanent depiction of the pain, harassment and nightmare of the Partition in his films. Like Bengali fiction, Ritwik's films too just make stray references to it. On the other hand, like many other 'myths' about Ritwik, a baseless myth about the Partition also got created.

Madhabi Mukherjee, the actress who played the role of Sita in Subarnarekha, once told her interviewers that when the film was being made she was too young to ascertain fully the intensity and depth of Ghatak's personal feelings about the Partition. But she mentions that at times Ghatak used to say, 'Lambu ('tall one', meaning Satyajit Ray) never experienced Partition'. She also emphasizes the fact that even in a traumatic film like Subarnarekha, Ghatak, the tragic bard of Partition, ends on a note of redemptive hope. In an interview published in The Statesman, commemorating forty years of the making of the film, Mukherjee syas:

No matter how deep the tragedy is, how intense the suffering, the filmmaker refused to end on a totally negative note. Remember the last phase of Subarnarekha where the child is pulling his uncle to take him to the land of butterflies and beauty? Or the unforgettable lines of Tagore: 'Joi hok manusher, oi nabajataker, oi chirajibiter' ('Glory be to man, to the newborn, to the eternal') with which the film ends?

Partition was indeed the single most traumatic experience for him, but Ritwikda did not stop there. He did not conform to any particular discipline. However, he was steadfast in one aspect - he refused to accept the defeat and degeneration of human beings as final. He hoped against hope.

Somdatta Mandal, "Constructing Post-Partition Bengali Identity through Films". Published inPartitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement and Resettlement. Edited by Anjali Gera Roy, Nandi Bhatia. Published by Pearson Education India, 2008. pp 72-73



Subaltern Cinema is proud to present an excerpt from the thesis submitted by noted Indian filmmaker Ritwik Kumar Ghatak to the Communist Party of India in 1954. It remained undiscovered till 1993. The thesis remained buried for many years, and was only discovered in old files in the Communist Party Office. Going through the thesis, it becomes vivid that the same situation persists even today. As a result, such a strong pen is relevant till this date.

Wide Screen Journal

The multicolored pattern of Ritwik Ghatak's life depicted a unique coherence of determination, a kind of necessary insubordination. In spite of all his rebellious activities, all his intemperance, he had an exclusive commitment, a single determination, a complete vision. The twists and turns of life never led him away from his true destination. Cinema for Ghatak was an instrument to reach the masses. His films reflected the frantic urge to communicate, to transform apathy into rebellion, to assert that truth, beauty and the human spirit will survive after all. He said: “I have done many things in my life. I ran away from home a few times. I took a job in the billing department of a textile mill in Kanpur. I hadn’t thought of films then. They dragged me back home from Kanpur. That was in 1942. Meanwhile, I had missed two years of my studies. I was fourteen when I ran away from home. ……I had a creative urge, and began my artistic career with a few useless pieces of verse. I realized later that I wasn't made for that sort of thing. I couldn't get within a thousand miles of true poetry. It was after this that I got involved with politics. This was 1943 to 1945. Those who remember these years will know of the quick transitions in the political scene of the day.... The anti-fascist movement, the Japanese attack, the British retreat, a great deal happened in quick succession. Life was placid in 1940 and ’41. Suddenly, during ’44 and ’45, a series of events took place the price of foodstuffs soared, then came famine things changed so fast that it gave a great jolt to people’s attitudes and thinking....By that time I was an active Marxist; not a cardholder, but a close sympathizer, a fellow traveler. I started writing short stories then. This was not like my earlier nebulous and false attempts to be a poet. The urge to write stories arose out of a desire to protest against the oppression and exploitation I saw around me…… But later, I came to feel that short stories are inadequate. They take a long time to reach the people, and then few are deeply stirred by them. I was a hot-blooded youngster then, impatient for immediate reaction…..I started taking an interest in drama, became a member of the IPTA. When, at the end of 1947, a revised version of Nabanna was produced, I acted in it. After that I was completely involved with the IPTA…..I was also leader of the Central Squad. I wrote plays myself. Drama elicited an immediate response, which I found very exciting. But after a while even drama seemed inadequate, limited…….. But, when I thought of the cinema, I thought of the million minds that I could reach at the same time. This is how I came into films, not because I wanted to make films. Tomorrow, if I find a better medium, I’ll abandon films…..I have wanted to use the cinema as a weapon, as a medium to express my views....”

Premendra MazumderRitwik Ghatak: The Committed Creator

Titash Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titash (1973)

In the art of filmmaking, who have influenced or inspired you? And how those inspirations or influences have worked their way into your art?

It’s not just me, anyone in the world who is a serious artist, who has done any serious work in Bengal or elsewhere, anyone whose name you have heard -- each and every one of them is inspired by one individual and his name is Sergei Eisentein. We wouldn’t know “f” of filmmaking if Eisenstein were not there before us. He is our father. Godfather. When we were young, his writings, theses, and his films made us go nuts. And those were not easily available back then. We had to hide them and import them very carefully. This man Eisenstein -- and you can ask Satyajit Ray, too, and "he will admit that he is the father of us". From him, we learned how to cut – editing is the key to filmmaking. Then there is Pudovkin. He was here in 1949 and I was fortunate enough to meet him. Party instructed me to follow him, spend time with him and learn from him. Pudovkin told me something that is the basis of all of my education. He said: “films are not made, filmmaking does not make any sense – a film is built”. Brick by brick, exactly like building a house. That’s how you build films, by cutting one shot after another. It is built, not made. These two individuals and then there is Carl Dreyer. I watched his films in Pune long time ago. The Passion of Joan of Arc. I totally lost myself after watching that film. And there is another person who I must admit to be one of my gurus. Luis Buñuel. They are my true gurus. Oh, and Mizoguchi. After watching Ugetsu Monogatari, I was “staggered”, I mean I went completely crazy. That’s what a real film is! Everything I know about films, I have learned from these people.

Will you talk about a few of the greatest films that you have watched?

The greatest film – you want me to name it? Battleship Potemkin. There has not been a film which can top that. None. The Odessa Steps scene – no one will ever be able to shoot anything greater than that. Film is all about editing. Cutting, editing. The scissors are the films – when to throw away, after exactly how many frames. The whole film depends on that. No one has created anything greater than Battleship Potemkin.

As an industry, film is capital-intensive. So how much dissident can it really be?

Totally and absolutely. But it all depends on who are building the film. If an artist is fearless and not spineless, he or she can do anything. In their films, they can capture the struggles and plight of the entire universe. But what can we do if they don’t? And usually they don’t. That’s why our films have become so ridiculous.

There is a tendency among film society audience to only watch uncensored vulgar pornographic films. How can we resist this temptation and stop what has been hurting an important movement?

You can not really do anything because some of these rascals -- excuse my language --are only interested in that. And if they demand it, you will show those movies because you are thinking of getting some of your expenses back. "Film society has become another business". You need to "decry" this and loathe this completely, but you don't. This country is in a deep downward spiral. I am a drunk -- and I do not hide the fact; most people know quite well that I drink -- so leave me out of this, but you all need to be a lot more vocal and aggressive. You see, I -- and Satyajit as well -- do not go to watch your film society screenings any more because the films you are exhibiting can not be watched by gentlemen. I do not want to show them to my wife, my daughter. You will have to take up the fight. I can not. I have taken myself out of this. You know what is in my hand and that much I can do, but film society screenings and audience, you will have to...

- Excerpted from a five part interview with Ritwik Ghatak, by Prabir Sen, published in Ritwik Kumar Ghatak (edited by Atanu Pal, Banishilpa, 1988). Posted on Dipanjan's Random Muses

Jukti Takko Aar Gappo / Reason, Debate and Story (1974)

A Pre-Valentines Treat: Cassavetes' LOVE STREAMS screening (free!)


“You eat,” Luke said, “at the speed of your hair.”

“What does that mean?” said Nicole.

It took an effort of will not to say, “It means I want to spend the rest of my life with you.  I want to be with you when you are old, when your hair is grey…”  What he actually said was: “I don’t know.  It just seems true.”  His plate was empty.  He watched her eat, looked at her hair.  He is in love with me, Nicole said to herself.  She looked up again.  Their eyes met.  It felt as if they were kissing.  Luke poured another glass of wine for himself.

“Gulp,” she said, touching his hand.  “Gulp.”

Love Streams (1984)

LOVE STREAMS (dir. John Cassavetes, 1984)

WHEN: 7pm, Tuesday 9 February 2010 WHERE: Room 471, 20 Cooper Square (Bowery and East 5th) ALL WELCOME.  Refreshments – stiff, copious - provided.

“Making a film has been compared, by many good directors, to a love affair.  What hasn’t been said is that this film, the recipient of the love, is the victim of an organized orgy.” (Cassavetes)

LOVE STREAMS is John Cassavetes’s last film.  He made it as he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.  Critically disavowed, yanked off screens after just a few weeks, only briefly available on video in the States, it’s the story of the close relationship between Robert, a feckless lush (played by Cassavetes) who’s “writing a book on night life”, and Sarah (Cassavetes’s real-life wife Gena Rowlands), who describes herself as a “very happy person”.  Both are alive, lonely, lost.  Both, in their different ways, are quietly howling with grief.  Then comes the goat.

John Cassavetes’s films, Jim Jarmusch has written, are about “love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity”.  For that reason, their stylistic distinctiveness, and for their fierce and galvanic independence, they’ve long been touchstones for equally fierce, equally galvanic directors such as Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas and Pedro Almodovar.  LOVE STREAMS, in its rawness and desperation, its wild-eyed confrontation with human isolation and need, is hard to watch and equally hard to look away from.

LOVE STREAMS will be presented by Kevin B. Lee, a critic, filmmaker, and programming executive for dGenerate Films, a digital distribution channel for Chinese independent films. He contributes to ‘Time Out New York’, ‘Cineaste’, ‘The Moving Image Source’, and his blog Shooting Down Pictures, among other publications.

Chinese Documentary Master Zhao Liang in New York This Weekend

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

This entry is mostly lifted from an announcement posted at dGenerate Films.

In the recent Top Ten Chinese Films of the 2000s poll, one of the top-ranked documentaries was Zhao Liang’s Petition: The Court of the Complainants. A pretty impressive showing, given that the film was just released last year and has been seen by relatively few people, even in Chinese cinema circles. Tonight folks in Minneapolis will have a chance to see what some are calling the most exciting Chinese documentary since West of the Tracks.

Zhao Liang will be visiting New York City this weekend to present his films Petition and Crime and Punishment at the China Institute in New York, and the Center of Religion and Media at New York University. I'll be at both so hope to see you there.

Information on his films and a schedule of his programs after the break.

“Zhao Liang has endurance, an endurance that he shares with many of those who appear in his documentary films. The individual stories of the underprivileged are what interest him, and he makes this a starting point for his exploration of the general constitution of Chinese society. Zhao captures those sides of life that are ignored by official politics and, in so doing, acts as a chronicler of everyday life. Futility, running idle, stubbornness, and stamina are motifs shared by all of his films, while the dramatic consequences of the rapid economic and structural transformation in China constitute the continuous backdrop to his work.” (Quoted from the catalogue of the 2008 Berlin Biennial)

Crime and Punishment (dir. Zhao Liang)

Friday, February 5, 8:00 pm – The China Institute, New York City

Crime and Punishment

Shot near the director’s hometown at China’s border to North Korea, Crime and Punishment follows a few young officers at the local police station as they carry out their law enforcement duties and features cases too insignificant and absurd to be reported in the media: A mentally ill man calls them for a “corpse” he has found in his bed which turns out to be a pile of blankets. An apparently mute robbery suspect would not provide them with the needed confession. The long and penetrating shots of the director gradually uncover the real human stories and key themes from a China that is both regimented and rapacious. This witty picture, whose comedy often has a chilly edge, provides us with an insight into how the social structure is influenced by the omnipresence of police. The film was the winner of the Best Director Award at the 10th One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival and the top prize at the Festival of Three Continents, 2007. In Mandarin with English subtitles, 122 minutes.

Saturday, February 6, 1:00pm – The Center for Religion & Media, New York University

Petition: the Court of Complainants

Since 1996, Zhao has filmed the “petitioners” who come to Beijing from all over China to file complaints about abuses and injustices committed by the authorities. He follows the sagas of peasants thrown off their land, workers from liquidated factories, and homeowners who have seen their dwellings demolished but received no compensation. Often living in makeshift shelters around the southern railway station, the complainants wait months or even years for justice and face brutal intimidation. Filmed up to the start of the 2008 Olympic Games, Petition arrestingly illustrates the contradictions of a country experiencing powerful economic expansion. Premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. 2009, in Mandarin with English subtitles, video, 120 minutes.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography


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

- Stephen Holden, The New York Times



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

- Joshua Katzman, The Chicago Reader


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

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

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

- James Travers, Films de France

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

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

- Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Film


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

- R.F. Cousins, Film


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

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

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


994 (129). Menschen am Sonntag People on Sunday (1930, Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann)

Screened January 19 2010 on BFI DVD rip downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Los Angeles, CA TSPDT Rank #984  IMDb Wiki


"A film without actors" reads the subtitle of this title card. You have to think about what a concept like that meant back in 1930 Germany, why it would be perceived as a selling point instead of a drawback. A desire to get away from the excesses of Weimar Expressionism (Caligari, Metropolis, Murnau) whose overt theatricality and expensively staged, light-and-shadow spectacle were perceived as out of touch with the reality of Germany. All the better for a band of up-and-coming German filmmakers to make a distinguishing statement for themselves. Ulmer, Zimmerman, Siodmark, Wilder, Schüfftan (whose pioneering work in special effects seems antithetical to the spirit of this particular production): no one at the time could have imagined what a dream team of legendary talent this would prove to be. (My deranged mind summons this as a contemporary hip-hop equivalent)


Wilder's silent dialogue screenplay doesn't give much indication of the verbal brilliance that would grace his future scripts; but the story, basically chronicling how two guys pick up and dump a couple of girls on a weekend tryst, does give a whiff of his trademark cynicism. The story, such as it is, was based on "reportage" by Robert Siodmark (I can see it now; Siodmark telling Wilder, "I know this guy...")

In the opening montage that introduces the main characters, Schüfftan's way of framing people flirts with the Soviet propaganda style, shooting ordinary working folk in a statuesque, heroic manner, like cab driver Erwin Splettstsser:


But when he gets around to the Erwin's friend Wolfgang von Waltershausen, an "officer, farmer, antique dealer, gigolo, wine trader..." the staging and lighting is less flattering:

officer, farmer, antique dealer,
gigolo, wine trade


One also might wonder if the multiple job labels appended to Wolfgang signify him as a Berlin Everyman, in that there's a shadiness in men of all stations, which makes them less inconographic and more complicated - and thus more real - than their Soviet onscreen counterparts.

When we get to Erwin's galpal Annie, an unemployed model who lounges all day in their apartment, we are back in the realm of G.W. Pabst/Louise Brooks decadence, though made less sensationalistic and more quotidian - she's less the symbol of Weimar moral depravation as just a girl killing time picking her fingernails, waiting for a job but too lazy/depressed to go and find it.


The plot kicks off at a bus stop with Christl, introduced as a real life movie extra - her casting as a lead here may be a conscious inversion of the pecking order of actors. Wolfgang picks her up and makes a date in this shot, shot in a telephoto on a bustling street with real pedestrians and presumably a real police officer who doesn't know he's being filmed.


It's a verite technique that (permits be damned) continues to this day, so long as the desire for street realism persists. The first time I was ever conscious of it was when Siskel and Ebert pointed it out in their review of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies:


For an outstanding present-day example of this technique, check out Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl, which will be released this spring in the US. (The film's street cinematography is highly influenced by Hou Hsiao Hsien's use of the technique in Cafe Lumiere).

This is just one of several strategies used by the film to infuse its wisp of a narrative with a real-time, real-world immediacy and texture. Aside from cinematography, there's also montages of street shots that break in between scenes involving the main characters, as if to say, this story is just one plucked from the many people and experiences happening now. The montages also provide invaluable incidental details on Berlin circa 1930: how people got around (trolleys, cars), how streets looked:


But again, realism in narrative cinema isn't just a matter of shooting everyday streets and scenarios and leaving it up to whatever happens to pass in front of the camera, at least as far as this film is concerned. There's a distinct craft on display. All the technical resourcefulness and attentive eyes that blessed German filmmaking of this period is now trained not on outsized spectacle or melodrama but on capturing, staging and conveying an unmistakable impression of the real, and making it feel effortless and incidental. This paradoxical effort truly comes through in the scene where Edwin comes back home to find Annie lounging. Their mutual sense of malaise slowly simmers through a series of mundane actions that erupt into a shared tirade. Count how many shots are used in this sequence, moving deftly across the room, moving ever tighter, as if the walls were closing in as surely as that incessant dripping of the faucet:

At last, to get at each other's goat, they tear down a wall's worth of matinee idol lobby cards (actresses for him; actors for her), an arresting image and yet another dig at the wall of conventional moviemaking that this film attempts to undermine - as if all these fantasy images were symptomatic of the self-oppression and alienation from reality that may be plaguing this couple (and really, how far have we come?). But before they can really have it out, Wolfgang waltzes in and the buddies pick up a game of cards, leaving Annie looking on helplessly. We get one devastating close-up before the camera recedes from this tomb-like chamber of discord.



The next day Wolfgang and Erwin meet up with Christl and her friend Brigitte, a salesgirl, for a jaunt to Nikolassee, a grand park and recreation area on the outskirts of Berlin. In this extended passage the film is a world away from the tightly rendered naturalism of Erwin's apartment, and indulges in a series of bold ventures in alternative narrative cinema. To set things up there's a titillating sequence where the youngsters awkwardly undress, hiding in the rushes along a river.


Later on they picnic in a nearby spot, engaging in some jocularity leading to Erwin getting playfully spanked. This triggers a jarring jump to a scene of schoolboys spanking each other. Is it a cutaway to some other part of Berlin where this is happening? Is it a flashback to Erwin's school days?


This leads to an idyllic passage that roams the park landscape ripe with families picnicking with naked babies frolicking on the sunny grass - the film seems to be moving intuitively through a series of moods and associations of gaiety and youthful innocence...


But as the sun-drenched visuals continue, a sense of afternoon languor starts to creep in: the shots move back to the city, baking in the midday heat. Adults slump on park benches or slouch over windowsills. The montage comes to a rest back in the apartment of Annie, finding her sleeping:


And then leaps back to the park, where we find our party similarly resting in the sun. At least Erwin is behaving himself so far from his girl's sight, though that leaves Wolfgang to casually lay his paws on both girls at once:



Another vaguely associative cut, jumping back to the city and the shot of a mannequin in lingerie basking in the harsh shadows of late afternoon - seductive yet strangely deathly in its inertness. The death theme creeps in further as the montage shifts to shots of a gravesite:



Which then matches graphically with the windows of an apartment building:


and then the montage shifts to a scene where a beach photographer takes souvenir photos, which are incorporated in the montage. The internal logic of the sequence seems to be a desire to overcome a creeping sense of death and languidness that threatens to extinguish all this life...


Immortalized by the camera:


... or in a moment of sexual fantasy. A moment unlike any other before in cinema - clearly no love involved, at least on the male side, so for the viewer there's no pretense of romantic idealism attached to the moment.


It's just the pure erotic charge of a moment, where woman's common sense (I know this guy just wants to bone me, and yet...) puts up an initial resistence...


And yet... the intense sensation of touch, the warm breath of his nostrils under her palm, the sweat and pulse of sexual excitement. The moment where a girl and The Cinema both discover the feeling of sex...


... all in this shot...


And so, a film ostensibly about capturing the lives of everyday people funnels into a full-circle depiction of their desire to escape the everyday, if only for a moment...

Jump forward nearly 80 years - the push-pull explosive exertion of this moment hasn't been forgotten, at least not by Jean-Luc Godard. Witness his trailer for the 2008 Viennale:

And see also the films of this guy to see how the spirit of People on Sunday lives on... Everyday people, enraptured in everyday fantasy.


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

Arne Scheuermann, Senses of Cinema (2004) Erik Ulrichsen, Sight & Sound (1952) Guy Barefoot, One-Line Review (2009) Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007) Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982) William Brown, One-Line Review (2009) Cinematheque Royale de Belgique FIAF: An Archival Viewpoint (1995) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films


Five young filmmakers, unknowns at the time, but who would go on to have illustrious careers in Hollywood, collaborate on an experimental feature  part documentary, part narrative, and starring a cast of five Berliners playing themselves. Dubbed "A film without actors", People On Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) is a surprisingly modern work that is a major document in the history of German avant-garde cinema.

The film originated from a reportage by Kurt Siodmak (screenwriter, The Wolf ManI Walked With a Zombie) that became a screenplay by none other than the great Billy Wilder. It was shot by Eugen Schüfftan (cinematographer The HustlerEyes Without a Face) and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), and directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers) and Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour). With that much talent behind the camera, it's no wonder that the end result of this fortunate bit of happenstance is nothing short of fascinating.

Perhaps owing to its use of non-actors, People on Sunday has a remarkably modern feel to it, and the cast never employ the exaggerated gestures or acting style one tends to find in silent cinema. If anything, the film has more in common with the French New Wave than it does the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) that was dominating German cinema at the time (Lang, Pabst, Jutzi.) The boyish playfulness of Erwin and Wolfgang combined with their romantic machinations (and partner swapping) is right out of Masculin Féminin or Bande à Part.

Much of the narrative portion of the film is shot in close-up (Dreyer-esque at times), and Schüfftan's framing of the good-looking cast is nothing short of stunning, and fitting for the awkward intimacy of the foursome. This is in sharp contrast to the vérité style montages of Berlin that are interspersed throughout the film which aim to capture the breadth of the city. An unforgettable sequence of random faces from the POV of a portrait photographer makes use of the freeze-frame, which some credit as being pioneered by Schüfftan (though I believe Vertov may heave beaten him to it.)

Much more than a mere curiosity, People on Sunday is at once a final look at a great city that in a year's time would be forever changed, and a rare first glimpse into the minds of six artists who would leave a lasting imprint in the history of cinema.

- Filmbrain, Like Anna Karina's Sweater

The motion picture’s dual appeal as both an art and a pastime is tied up in the camera's ability to capture reality at the same time that it conveys fiction. Movies are an enchanting admixture of unvarnished truth and comforting anecdote, or, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, they can offer a slice of life and a slice of cake. This seems particularly true of the 1929 German independent filmPeople on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag). Shot on weekends, and on a shoestring budget, the film features five young Berliners essentially playing themselves. Its “plot” is gossamer thin, the action confined to a single day, roughly, and centered on a double-date outing to a park. The movie was a modest effort devised as a calling card for some would-be filmmakers with a rough-hewn aesthetic unlike anything coming out of Berlin’s prewar powerhouse film industry. Yet, in the history of film, it proved to be of major importance.

- Bruce Bennett, who offers a detailed account of the film's production in Humanities magazine

People on Sunday is as much a love letter to the proletariat as the films of the Bolshevik giants, but politics are ultimately pushed aside for a celebration of a pursuit of happiness that’s in some way about transcending social class. As a snapshot of the last wave of youthful abandonment before the Hitler era, it’s a heartbreaker.

Sunday takes several breaks from the flirt swirl of its four main protagonists to remind the viewer that their story is just one of hundreds taking place in Berlin’s parks and waterfronts on any given weekend. In shots reminiscent of Soviet cinema, workers begin their day-off by marching en masse to their chosen recreation locations. In a montage of photographs taken by a street portraitist, we see that Sunday leisure is not just for the young and pretty–even the old and haggard have smiles on their faces. For all, it’s the one day of the week to put daily drudgery aside and pursue personal dreams and desires. If the other six days are spent working to live, Sundays are not just restorative, but transformative: it’s the one day out of seven that the worker can devote to shaping his/her own identity.

- Karina Longworth, Spout

Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak directed it, Billy Wilder wrote it, Fred Zinnemann handled the camera, and Eugen Schüfftan did the lighting -- a Rosetta stone of Germany's post-Lang-Lubitsch-Pabst wave, but first and foremost a bunch of guys meeting in a café and deciding to make a movie. The air-filled location shooting is closer to Nouvelle Vague more than to neorealism, the camera high as Wolfgang von Waltershausen picks up Christl Ehlers at a trolley stop, to catch passersby on both sides of the street, bustling their way through Berlin circa 1929. Just two of a quintet of "real" people picked to enact a little city-symphony drama for the lens; the others are taxi driver Erwin Splettstößer, record salesgirl Brigitte Borchert, and model Annie Schreyer. Shaving cream on movie-star portraits, dripping faucets and arguments over the brim of a hat signal domestic suffocation in the cramped flat, so Splettstößer leaves Schreyer oversleeping to spend Sunday with Waltershausen and the other gals by the lake. Crisscrossing flirtation during a picnic, one couple switches with the other, a kiss in the woods triggers a languid circular tilt left, over the trees and across the garbage cans, before returning to find Waltershausen fixing his tie and Borchert laying on the floor, grinning. In between, the notion of cinema as snapshots of life is literalized by taking random pics of people along the way, with screen freezing into portraits -- children and women striking mock-glamorous poses, a glimpse of Valeska Gert sneaked in. Images are easy to record, yet emotions are capricious, a cracked record and another pair of girls ending the day and spiking the lyricism with transience. Authorship remains diffuse with so many auteurs, so the movie belongs less to a single person than to an epoch, when Berlin could rank alongside Paris as a dream burg, or perhaps when budding artists could grab a camera and simply take to the streets. So back to work on Monday for these characters, and off to Hollywood for the makers.

- Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

A documentary fiction, a fictional documentary: Menschen am Sonntag, ein film ohne Schausppieler, written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak and, to a minor extent, Fred Zinnemann, is the last notable silent film from Germany—an experiment in which young filmmakers flex their love of cinema. It is indeed “a film without actors”; the five main characters are played by nonprofessionals, who, titles tell us, returned to their ordinary jobs the next day.

The brilliant cinematographer is Eugen Schüfftan, who would photograph seminal black-and-white films, including Marcel Carné’sQuai des brûmes (1938). He and the filmmakers collaborate on a spontaneous air and fresh, crisp, exuberant, sometimes volatile images. Much of the framing surprises—and yet makes total sense: for instance, when Brigitte changes into her swimsuit she occupies a small lower portion of the screen and is surrounded by tall reeds that fill up the screen.

- Dennis Grunes

Emerging from an experimental movement known as 'Neue Sachlichkeit' (or 'New Objectivity'), the young filmmakers involved in 'People on Sunday' (Robert and Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer - all of whom went on to have illustrious careers in the industry) wove their drama from the ordinary details of life, in a novel blend of feature and documentary - yet so little actually happens in traditional narrative terms, and so unaffected are the performances, that it is easy to forget this is a feature at all, although impossible not to be charmed by these characters' youthful clowning, courting and petty jealousies. The whole spirit of the enterprise is encapsulated in a central sequence in which people from all walks of life pose one-by-one in front of a beach photographer, their images then captured candidly in freeze frame (an effect not seen before this film) - for 'People on Sunday' is precisely a series of snapshots of common-or-garden reality, in which anyone and everyone can have their day on screen.

For all its revolutionary invention, 'People on Sunday' remains a timeless celebration of the meaningless pursuits that make life worth living - as well as an essential document of 1920s Berlin.

- Movie Gazette



I'm going to do some speculation here - occasionally because of frame rate conversion from older silent films that are mastered in HD we can have 'trailing" or what we call "ghosting" as a process of the transfer of such an older film. I don't think though that this was transferred progressively (one frame at time) and can possibly be the same reason it shows limited 'ghosting' and 'combing' (see last capture). Regardless of that - the image looks marvelous - absolutely super. There was contrast flickering evident but it was often on the very last frame or 2 of certain scenes. I assume that the intertitles are new - and they look perfect as do the optional subtitles. There was minor dirt and scratches at times, but all 'flaws' of this image are more-or-less expected from a 75 year old film... but more - from a film virtually lost (original negative gone for good) and reconstructed. Amazing!

BFI have brought us an important film from cinema history and we applaud them for it. I'll admit it - I was mesmerized while viewing. I feel like locking this DVD in the safe every night (if I had a safe). The liner notes extras are great for appreciation of the film. The "This Year -London" short featurette has some relational camp. I think People on Sunday was worthy of a commentary being that it is quite short, but I won't be a nitpicker. An ESSENTIAL DVD!

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

people on sunday ulmer siodmal wilder dvd review bfi PDVD_012



Curt Siodmak was almost single-handedly responsible for the flowering of the second horror-film cycle. He wrote the best of Universal's 1940s horror films and influenced all the others. While by no means a great writer, Siodmak is a gifted, sometimes inspired hack, who, in the course of a prolific career, has created many striking and enduring characters and concepts. He has described himself as an idea man, and he has certainly come up with ideas on which he and others have rung variations, time and again.

- Film



Quotes from TSPDT profile page:

"Siodmak's most successful projects - Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers - represent a fortuitous conjunction of such attractive actresses as Ella Raines, Dorothy McGuire, Ava Gardner, and even an absurdly lurid Deanna Durbin, with perverse subjects and expert technicians all whipped together with a heavy Teutonic sauce and served to the customers as offbeat art." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

"Being Jewish, Siodmak had to flee the Nazis, arriving in Hollywood in 1940. Film noir gave him the opportunity to use his pictorial sense and his narrative skills, and he directed a string of atmospheric thrillers, including Phantom Lady (1944), The Killers and The Dark Mirror (both 1946), Cry of the City (1948) and Criss Cross (1949)." - (The Movie Book, 1999)

"An innovative and cinematic director, he explored the criminal or psychotic impulses in his characters through the ambience of his elegant mise-en-scène. The control of all cinematic tools at his command - camera angle, lighting, composition, movement, and design - was used to establish effectively a world of fate, passion, obsession, and compulsion. Although his reputation has been elevated in recent years, his name deserves to be better known." - Jeanine Basinger (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"During the 1940s, Siodmak developed into a formidable director of suspense and crime films. He was influenced by the German schools of expressionism and realism prevalent in the 20s. Both rubbed off into a blend which distinguishes his Hollywood period." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Robert Siodmak's career is one of the more underrated and misunderstood in the history of Hollywood. The merit of Siodmak's cinematic art is also one of the most controversial. Among fanatic cinephiles, particularly those with a penchant for film noir thrillers, Siodmak is considered the primary architect of the genre. No other director has produced more quality film noir thrillers than Siodmak. His canon is a viewing list for any authentic study of the genre. His most notable film noirs include Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordan. However, among a small minority of film critics, he is considered a one-dimensional “yes” man who simply followed marching orders established by studio executives. These critics suggest Siodmak's success was a direct product of the studio system and the cadre of filmmakers studios arranged for him. Lastly, Siodmak's popularity among casual movie fans is virtually nonexistent. Many have never heard of him, and when they have, they rarely can even pronounce his name (see-odd-mak – emphasis on the “odd”). The latter two assessments of Siodmak's career are inaccurate, because he was the primary auteur of one of America's most important film genres.

- Chris Justice, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

people on sunday ulmer siodmal wilder dvd review bfi PDVD_009



The films of Edgar G. Ulmer have generally been classified as "B" pictures. However, it might be more appropriate to reclassify some of these films as "Z" pictures. On an average, Ulmer's pictures were filmed on a six-day shooting schedule with budgets as small as $20,000. He often worked without a decent script, adequate sets, or convincing actors. But these hardships did not prevent Ulmer from creating an individual style within his films.

Linda Obalil, Film


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

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

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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

- Time Out

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

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

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

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

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

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

- Ed Howard, Only the Cinema

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

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

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

- Nancy Thuleen, University of Wisconsin


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

- Maria Racheva, Film

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

- German Films

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

Kluge writes:

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

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

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

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

- Michelle LangfordSenses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge

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

- Christopher Pavsek, Cinema-scope, Issue 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Alexander Kluge interviewed by Gary Indiana, BOMB Magazine

Accentuating the Positive: Favorite TSPDT films I Saw Last Year

Since my last entry had some less-than-flattering commentary on the TSP1000 list, here's a post that highlights some of the best movies I saw last year, all thanks to the TSP1000 . You can click on the respective titles to see what I wrote about each. Unfortunately it seems that each one is on a slippery slope due to the new update, and a few have dropped out of the list entirely.

I'm also surprised and delighted by the number of comments that last entry received, and to know that others are using the TSP1000. So what films from the list have you seen in the past year that you enjoyed most? You can scan through the list to jog your memory if needed. In the meantime, here were my favorites:

Under the Bridges (1945, Helmut Kautner) (was #829, now #889) Limite (1931, Mario Peixoto) (was #683, now #732) Moonrise (1948, Frank Borzage) (no longer in the top 1000) Toute une nuit (1989, Chantal Akerman) (was #975, now #977) Bienvenido, Mister Marshall (1953, Luis Garcia Berlanga) (was #915, now #955) Lucifer Rising (1972, Kenneth Anger) (no longer in the top 1000) Video  Essay Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin) (was #948, now #975) The Ladies' Man (1961, Jerry Lewis) (no longer in the top 1000) Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven) (was #974, now #898) The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray)  (was #740, now #760) Video Essay

Shuffling the Deck (& Losing Cards): Thoughts on the Latest Update to the TSPDT 1000

mother-india First off, I want to commend Bill Georgaris on another monumental round of collecting, compiling and computating in delivering the latest update to the 1000 Greatest Films on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? The January 2010 edition incorporates 216 more films than the previous update of December 2008, resulting in the replacement of 68 films in the list of 1000. The good news for me is that the update only sets me back four spots in my quest to see  all 1000 films. My countdown will resume with Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl at #993 instead of #997.

I'm expecting the Shooting Down Pictures project to finally conclude in the weeks to come - though I'll be taking time to savor the remaining films as best as I can, at least as much as Matthew Dessem appears to in his entries on the Criterion Collection catalog. (Many thanks to him for giving me a mention in his profile by Roger Ebert.)

There is one film in the "left to see" column that has proven incredibly difficult to obtain, and that film is Douce / Love Story by Claude Autant-Lara. I can't find a video copy of this film anywhere, and as of now it's looking like I will have to spend a few hundred Euros to rent the film from France and then rent out a theater to screen it. If anyone out there knows of a way to access this film without considerable financial cost, please don't hesitate to contact me at alsolikelife at gmail dot com.

I feel that I should follow up on last year's version of this "state of the project" post (which itself was a rehash of issues I raised the year before), in which I offered a mild complaint that the list has consistently shown a lack of regard for world cinema (unless your idea of world cinema is Europe or Hollywood movies set in Middle Earth), as well as experimental films and films by women. Maybe I'm betraying my own biases towards films I consider underrepresented, but on the other hand there seem to be no shortage of supporters of the mainstream. The latest version of the list grimly bears this out.  I don't so much mind that Jaws is now part of the top 100 films, even if it bumps off Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, a Surrealist equivalent of a cinematic shark attack on the unsuspecting viewer. I have more of an issue with the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy being shoehorned in by however many fanboy lists taken from any number of popcorn geek sites.

The numbers offer further discouragement. The number of films from North America and Europe keep climbing, from 900 to 905. At least the number of films by women went up one notch - the list traded Jane Campion's Angel at My Table for Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I, bringing that total to 17. The experimental field dropped to 18 films (Mothlight and Dog Star Man replaced Flaming Creatures, Scenes from Under Childhood and Lucifer Rising).

Last year I tried to make my move to buck this trend by calling out to world cinema and experimental film scholars to contribute their lists. Unfortunately, my calls were met with typical responses of "I don't do lists" and "how much does it matter anyway?" At the start of last year I considered the TSPDT 1000 a cultural landmark, something that people, especially young aspiring cinephiles, would turn to for guidance in their exploration of movies, and thus it was vital to make sure that the list represented a diversity of cinema. But after hearing so many film experts whose opinion I respect give a collective shrug to the project, I'm all but burned out on the idea of canons and their importance.

I do thank those individuals who sent lists my way, which I duly forwarded to Bill for inclusion. I would like to give a special thanks to one particular person, Nitish Pahwa, who took my call to action more to heart than just about anyone. He went to the trouble of transcribing an issue of Outlook magazine in which 25 Indian film directors were polled to pick their favorite Indian films of all time, the results of which were compiled. (Since this list doesn't exist anywhere online to my knowledge, I plan to post it sometime soon.) I considered this a major find, given that India continues to make more movies per year than any other country, and yet they receive very little exposure to a world audience. I dutifully forwarded the results to Bill, as well as the findings of a similar poll of South Asian cinema organized by the BFI some years ago. To my chagrin, neither of these polls were figured into the current update.

In an email, Bill had told me that he could only count top ten lists for all films, and not those only focused on national cinemas. But if you look at the PDF Companion to the current 1000 films, which lists every source cited in the compilations, you'll see numerous lists from the American Film Institute (AFI) that celebrate only American films: "America's 100 Most Thrilling"; "America's 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres". There are countless genre-specific lists as well that focus only on sci-fi, horror, comedy, even "Spiritually Significant Films."

If these topical lists can be considered, then why can't a list on Indian or African or Asian cinema? Especially if it's the only way for Indian film experts to be counted, given that these Indian specific lists are the only instance of their input on the subject? Otherwise, if you look at who voted for the Indian films, they're almost exclusively European or American critics. Really then, what is this list but an echo-chamber exercise touting whatever films a Euro-centric pool of "experts" happen to see? Maybe this would explain why several Satyajit Ray films remain on the list, while Mother India, arguably the most revered film among Indians, dropped out of the updated list of 1000 - despite being mentioned repeatedly in the lists I collected to give to Bill.

I really hope that Bill reconsiders his position on the lists I submitted him, because for me they embody a crucial underpinning to the cultural significance this list has to offer: to what extent it can truly claim to offer the "greatest" in "all" of cinema,  according to a truly representative selection of film "experts." As someone who has followed this list for years,  and has been one of its most ardent supporters, it pains me to raise these questions. But I wish to make the stakes clear: nothing less than ensuring the credibility and value of this list.

Poll: Chinese Films of the Decade

Running on Karma (dir. Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai) Over on the dGenerate Films website, the results of weeks of emailing Chinese film experts and tabulating of ballots to determined the top Chinese language films of the last 10 years. I'm kind of whateverz about the top pick, which I've reflected upon already, but I think results are quite interesting. I didn't expect West of the Tracks to place so highly, and didn't realize Devils on the Doorstep had so much support as well. But the showing for Oxhide was truly amazing - and heartening. I still need to write at length what I think about that film as well as it's equally astounding sequel.

I didn't submit a top ten list to the poll to avoid conflict of interest, but for what it's worth here's what mine would have looked like:

Before the Flood (Yu Yan and Li Yifan) Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang) - still waiting to see Petition though Hero (Zhang Yimou) Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow) Oxhide (Liu Jiayin) Platform (Jia Zhangke) Running on Karma (Johnnie To and Wa Ka-Fai) The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang) West of the Tracks (Wang Bing) - sort of the 800 pound gorilla whose massiveness can't be denied Yi Yi (Edward Yang)

See what everyone else voted by going here

Top 50 of the '00s (as seen on Twitter)

For those not following, here's the rundown: 50: ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (04 McKay) The purest, most protean offering from the Judd Apatow juggernaut. 49: HERO ('02, Zhang) Up there with TRIUMPH OF THE WILL among great propaganda movies. (The '08 Olympic ceremonies could have this spot 2) 48: CACHE. Former #1 of '05 4 me, but I've lost interest in Haneke's puppet-stringing along of his audience no matter how masterful 47: WOMAN ON THE BEACH (06) My favorite Hong Sang-soo film b/c it goes furthest beyond the psychosexual self-flagellation of prickish males 46: WEST OF THE TRACKS (04 Wang Bing) The SHOAH or SATANTANGO of the '00s? Europe/Asia say yes, US has no clue - I'm somewhere in between 45 KUNG FU HUSTLE (04) Not as deliriously funny as Chow's 90s work but more consistent, world audience-friendly, and still crazy inventive 44 GRIZZLY MAN (05 Herzog) Rarely has a filmmaker revealed so much of himself (boorishly & brilliantly) by sifting through another's work 43 WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (06) 25th HOUR is great, but Spike Lee's 4 hr Katrina doc is like a Mahler symphony: 1 long cumulating heartbreak 42 BEFORE THE FLOOD (05 Yan Yu, Li Yifan) docu inspiration for STILL LIFE, w/o the arthouse dressing. Sometimes raw is better than cooked. 41 PAPRIKA (06 Satoshi Kon) like an anime Cronenberg movie, and even more chockfull of animation styles than SPIRITED AWAY 40: MOOLAADE (04 Sembene) A feel-good movie on female genital mutilation: one of many contradictions from this African JOHNNY GUITAR 39 FOUR MONTHS THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS (07 Mungiu) The terrifying splendor of claustrophobic long takes. 38 ESTHER KAHN (00) Less multitasking/audience-pleasing, more focused/iconoclastic than Desplechin's more touted films. Sinuous + defiant 37 THE HURT LOCKER (09 Bigelow) thoroughly exploits the paradox of its premise. War = cinema = traumatic high 4ever beckoning 36 WALL-E (08) My favorite Pixar film of the decade; their most purely cinematic achievement, at times approaching a musical formalism 35 RUSSIAN ARK (02) Yes it's a stunt, but it pushed digital cinema to uncharted territory. The last 5 minutes always takes my breath away. 34 MY ARCHITECT (03 Nathaniel Kahn) Essay on architecture woven into a heartfelt father-son dialogue. The final scene in Dhaka DESTROYED me 33 THE GLEANERS AND I (00 Varda) timely theme of recycling thoroughly explored to become a manifesto for living, seeing and filmmaking 32 HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (04 Miyazaki) Prefer this to SPIRITED AWAY - narrative more vibrant and disruptive, sentiments more adult. 31 BORAT (06 Larry Charles) Many arguments for, many against. Ultimately, I laughed my ass off more than any other film in 2000s. 30 THE CLASS (08 Cantet) One of the smartest, most energetic and immersive depictions of institutional education among fiction films. 29 JACKASS NUMBER TWO (06) The most meta Hollywood comedy of 2000s, exposing desperation and terror behind the endless pursuit of laughs 28) CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (07 Zhao Liang) 1 of the best Frederick Wiseman docs not directed by Wiseman. 1 of the best police movies period. 27 BEESWAX (09 Bujalski) Transcends "mumblecore" - too busy peeling away the intricacies of language to be bothered with labels. 26 PEPPERMINT CANDY (2000, Lee Chang-dong) Like diving headlong into a festering national wound. Absolutely devastating. 25 TAKE CARE OF MY CAT (01 Jeong Jae-eun) Sublime chronicle of pre-adult friendships fading - if only Hollywood teen movies were this good. 24 VIBRATOR (03 Hiroki Ryuichi) Of the many films about the malaise that hit 2000s Japan, this one was the most fun and inventive. 23 BATTLE IN HEAVEN (05 Reygadas) A camera that dances like a needle, sinuously weaving together the disparate patches of a society 22 HAPPY GO LUCKY (08 Leigh) Has serotonin levels rivalling MGM musicals, but also thoughtful reflection on social politics of happiness 21 MILLION DOLLAR BABY (04) Forget Paul Haggis' script - it's just a vehicle for Eastwood's determinist battle waged in light and shadow. 20 THE CENTURY OF THE SELF (02) Adam Curtis may be England's answer to Michael Moore; but this treatise on human desire is worthy of Bunuel 19 THERE WILL BE BLOOD (07) My favorite movie with a capital M this decade. My tastes so different from 10 yrs ago (MAGNOLIA my #1 then) 18 THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX ('09) a deceptively breezy, anthropomorphic masterpiece that dares to dance upon humankind's self-made tomb. 17 BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE (00 Bong Joon-ho) Comically obsessive, socially incisive. Set the template for Korea's best director of 2000s. 16 MIAMI VICE (05 Mann) For me this was the film that advanced digital cinematic art into Hollywood filmmaking (or vice versa) Romantic trifecta: 15) EVERYONE ELSE (09 Ade), 14) BEFORE SUNSET (04 Linklater) 13) ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (04 Gondry) 12) THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (05 Christi Puiu) Romanian health care = Dante's Inferno. When's the US remake? Oh yeah, we're living it. 11) THE WAYWARD CLOUD (05 Tsai Ming-liang) Can't think of a braver, more inventive film about sex and movies. So darkly candid it hurts. 10) BY COMPARISON (09 Harun Farocki) Film on how bricks are made around the world becomes a stunning probe into humankind's destiny. 9) BAMAKO (06 Sissako) The world put on trial for Africa's cultural genocide. Witness "reclamation cinema," scathing and serenely eloquent 8: L'INTRUS (04 Claire Denis) the ultimate anti-Tom Friedman book: the world ain't flat, it's got as many curves as your dreams and fears. 7) LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF (03 Thom Andersen) Had a profound influence on my own criticism/filmmaking - I can only hope to be as good. 6) YI YI (00 Edward Yang) The best instance of the decade's worst subgenre, the multi-character globalization drama. All downhill from here. 5) A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (01 Spielberg) 4) PLATFORM (00 Jia Zhang-ke) 3) OXHIDE (04) and OXHIDE II (09). Liu Jiayin turns mom, dad and their tiny apartment into 2 experimental yet heartfelt Cinemascope epics 2) WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? (01 Pedro Costa) The best documentary AND romantic comedy of the decade. 1) THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN (01 John Gianvito) Changed my view on the meaning of movies like no other film.

Stay tuned for a podcast between me and another critic who shares my choice for #1...

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


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

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

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

- Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORICAL REVIEWS (Courtesy of Silents are Golden)


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

PHOTOPLAY, August, 1928:

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

THE FILM SPECTATOR, June 23, 1928:

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