Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Friday, December 24, 2010
Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a rail engineer who has no discernable life outside of his work. He even maintains that he is married to his locomotive. The opening credits allude to dark demons inside him, but they are nowhere to be seen as the film opens. Robaud (Fernand Ledoux) is a stationmaster married to Severine (Simone Simon), who seems a bit too young and beautiful for someone like him. Nonetheless, when we first meet these people they all appear to be content.
The “event” that starts the dominoes tumbling is insignificant - Robaud berates an unruly passenger who turns out to be a powerful businessman. Fearing that the man will make trouble for him, Robaud asks Severine to ask her wealthy godfather to intervene on his behalf. She does, but instead of moving forward, Robaud becomes obsessed with exactly what price his wife paid for his peace of mind. As he questions her, it becomes clear that Robaud has his own demons, and the contrast between the doting husband of the films opening and the violent cuckold presented here is startling.
Robaud decides that the godfather has to die for his sin, and has Severine arrange a rendezvous on a train. Robaud ambushes the adulterer in his compartment and stabs him to death. What I find fascinating about this crime is the motivations for binding his wife to the murder. She is present during the murder, and besides the fact that her involvement ensures her silence, there is also the idea that by killing her lover in front of her, he is rubbing her face in her infidelity. Severine, for her part, does not react with quite the horror and revulsion that we might expect. More like quiet resignation, perhaps, like she is somehow accepting of the penance.
The murder goes smoothly, except for one detail. When the killers emerge from the cabin, there is someone there, casually having a smoke – Lantier. The moment when the two confront Lantier in the narrow corridor is filmmaking at it’s best, as Severine sees him first, then Robaud gradually comes to the realization that she is looking at something, and then it hits them that this thing just got a lot more complicated. When the murder is discovered, Lantier starts to realize that he knows who the killers are, and that they must suspect he knows. When the police question him, he inexplicably says he saw nothing.
Lantier is the wild card here, and the killers are forced to make him an ally. The thing is, they can’t even begin to imagine the baggage their new partner has. As I mentioned above, the opening credits tip us off in advance about Lantier, and how he felt he was paying the price for the sins of the generations before him. It’s not immediately clear what that means, however. He seems normal enough with his railway buddies, but it’s in a meeting with an aunt early in the film that we start to see inside him. He encounters a girl who we surmise he has been involved with in the past, and as they draw close to a sexual encounter, he is suddenly overtaken by an impulse to kill her, but snaps out of it in time. In modern terms, we would say that Lantier is bipolar, and this knowledge casts new light on his loner lifestyle.
Now skip back the scene where the police interrogate him after the murder on the train. As he begins to talk, he makes eye contact with Severine, and Renoir lets the image of her face go out of focus for a second. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s a telling point of view shot that establishes a couple of things: First, that Lantier is attracted to this beautiful young woman, and second, we are seeing a possible hint of one of Lantiers murderous “black-outs.”
Severine starts a tentative friendship with Lantier, at first to ensure his complicity with the murder, but it gradually develops into some thing far more serious - a full-blown love affair. It’s during the development of this relationship that we start to see Severine more clearly. The two men have their issues, obviously, but what about her? Severine has her demons, as well. Trapped in an abusive marriage, she turns to another man who has the potential to be even worse. She seems to have a tendency towards self-destructive choices. During her time with Lantier, he shows an alarming fascination with the mechanics of the murder, but this doesn’t set off any alarms for her.
Lantier and Severine form a strange co-dependant union. She sees him as her salvation from the tyranny that she faces with her husband. He, in turn, probably believes that she can deliver him from the violent impulses in his head. It’s no surprise then, when these two damaged people decide to get rid of the one obstacle that keeps them apart – Robaud.
Lantier, however, finds himself unable to go through with it, and that tragically changes the dynamic with Severine. She looks at him differently from then on, and essentially ends the relationship. It’s only a matter of time then before Lantiers demons are released, and he commits an act from which there is go going back. He knows it, too.
It in the aftermath of Lantiers murder of Severine that my favorite images of LBM occur, as Lantier sorrowfully walks away from the murder scene, knife in hand. This is followed immediately by a shot of the broken Robaud standing in the same spot, looking at his murdered wife, and clutching a watch taken from the murdered godfather. It’s a beautifully lyrical way to tie the three principals together, and underscore the way that all three have been destroyed by their base urges.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Sunday, December 05, 2010
Friday, December 03, 2010
When Georges Meiles made A Trip to the Moon in 1902, the Wright Brothers were still a year away from their first flight in Kitty Hawk. Viewed in those terms, Meiles masterpiece of interstellar adventure stands as a remarkable achievement in imagination.
The film, which clocks in at less than 15 minutes, can rightfully lay claim to being the cinema’s first science fiction work, as well as one of the first examples of a filmmaker putting a story on the screen, as opposed to simply filming an activity.
ATTTM is told without subtitles, but they really aren’t needed. The film opens with a group of scientists in a heated discussion, and a blackboard indicates the topic – How to get to the moon. The method is something you might expect them to come up with. A huge bullet-like capsule that is to be fired out of a cannon, but in looking at the craft, it is not dissimilar to that which the Apollo astronauts flew to the moon decades later.
The inspiration and concept for the film came from that great font of futuristic speculation, Jules Verne. His novel From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865, and like much of Vernes’ work is eerily prescient about out the world to come. Meiles film shares that quality – That pedal-to-the-metal feel of an imagination running rampant.
Putting aside the scientific aspects of ATTTM, it’s also fascinating to consider it as a world of cinematic art. Meiles greatest contribution to film history is that he was the first filmmaker to truly incorporate what we now call “special effects” into the language of film. Stuff like fade-outs are invisible to the eye of the modern viewer, but in this film, in this context, they are magical.
ATTTM is also surely one of the earliest examples of a director focusing on casting, costumes, and set construction. Take for instance Meiles use of female ballet dancers in this film. There’s no reason for the arc of the story for there to be shapely female characters, but I guess they suspected even then that sex sells. Or take the acrobats who play the moon men. Their inclusion gives the aliens an otherworldly vibe which must have made them completely enthralling to audiences watching at the turn of the century.
It’s not hard to watch ATTTM and see how their concept of alien life was taken and expanded upon in countless Sci-Fi films throughout the years. The malevolent creatures of the Alien and Predator movies are direct descendants of Meiles Moon-men in their skeleton costumes.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
The Big Combo – So-so Noir from 1955 concerns a cop(Cornel Wilde) in pursuit of a slippery gangster (Richard Conte). This film still gets talked about, and it’s always for the same thing – The oh-so-peculiar relationship between Conte’s two henchmen as played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman. They are drawn in fairly standard terms for much of the movie, but when Van Cleef is awakened for a job, and he turns over to wake Holliman in the next bed, it’s a great WTF moment. In the same vein is the great line by Van Cleef as they hide out from the law – “They’ll be looking for us in all the closets.” Cinematography is by John Alton, who also lensed Noir landmarks Raw Deal and T-Men.
The New World – Terence Malick’s take on the Pocohontas story is a bit of a muddle, which is really too bad. On the plus side, it’s visually gorgeous, with almost every frame suitable to hang on your wall. On the minus side, like all Malick films, it is heavily narrated throughout. Voiceover narration was a strength in early Malick efforts like Badlands and Days of Heaven, but not here. Much like his most recent work The Thin Red Line, it suffers in the voiceover sections, because you can hear a screenwriter trying too hard.. Therefore, it’s a split for me – Lovely to look at, frustrating to listen to.
Monday, November 08, 2010
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
You notice right away that Olmi doesn’t take a Disneyesque approach to things. There are scenes of communal bliss, certainly, like the farmers singing together while they shuck corn, but there doesn’t appear to be much joy in daily life for these people. They work hard and long, and there are no frivolities. They’re simple uneducated people to whom there are three pillars of life: Work, family, and God.
I said “uneducated” just now. Early on, we eavesdrop on a meeting between one of the farmers and the local priest, in which the priest attempts to tell the farmer that his gifted young son needs to go to school, instead of becoming just another farmer. The father is hesitant, and his reasons are mixed. He is concerned about the long daily walk his son will have to make, but he is also uncomfortable that the boy will drift away from his family and his roots. The concepts of family and community are that strong in this place. Eventually, the father agrees.
ToWC is unusual in that everyone you see onscreen is a non-actor. The entire cast was taken from local peoples of the Bergamo district of Italy (Olmi grew up in the area). This harks back to the work of the great Italian neorealist filmmakers of the 40’s, and in particular Vittorio De Sica, whose masterpiece The Bicycle Thief is recalled in this film. Olmi was striving for the look and feel of a documentary here, and the non-actors help him achieve that. Take the memorable scene where the farmers slaughter a pig. There are no tricks here – a real pig is being killed onscreen – but instead of reacting with revulsion, I found a certain nobility in these people quietly going about this grisly, yet necessary task.
It’s tough to keep a family together here. One of the women is a widow with six kids, and it’s a constant struggle for her to keep things going. Her oldest son starts working at 15, just so he can help out, and there’s a fascinating scene where she meets with the priest about her predicament. The priest tells her that the local orphanage would be able to take her two youngest if she wishes. We would expect any movie mother to say “No! I’ll never give up my kids!”, but in this case, the woman is pragmatic. Certainly the idea scares her, but she also needs to think about the family as a whole, and whether she can provide for six of them. When she tells the priest that she needs to check with the oldest son, she’s absolutely serious. The son insists the family stay together, but his solution is heartbreaking in its own way. He will take an extra job, and the next oldest – all of 12 - will start working.
There are three generations in the farm community, and the movie makes a point of illustrating the interaction amongst them. The widows’ elderly father lives with them, and the film follows a touching little story thread where he and his granddaughter plan to grow tomatoes that will be ready before anyone elses in the spring. There is no false sentimentality in these bits, just the sense of a wise older man passing his knowledge to a child. That feeling of the passing of a way of life from generation to generation is one of the true joys in watching this film.
The widow, who already has enough to worry about, faces a crisis when the family cow falls ill. The veterinarian recommends slaughtering the animal, but she refuses to give up. She draws water from the river, while praying for God to provide his blessing. The animal recovers after drinking the “holy” water, and this sequence invites some discussion. Is Olmi suggesting that God has intervened and saved the cow? Isn’t this at odds with the films ultra-realistic styling? I personally think this sequence is more about the woman than the cow. I don’t completely discount the possibility of a miracle, but the main thing is that the woman’s faith never wavers.
I’ve made this world sound like a closed society, and that’s what it is. There’s not really a sniff of the outside world until well into the film when we follow a young couple on their honeymoon. There was a lot of political turbulence in Italy at that time as the country crept towards socialism, and when the couple arrives in the city, there are violent clashes in the streets. The contrast between the innocent young couple (They spend their wedding night in a convent!) and the bustling city is very stark indeed.
A capsule review of this film would mention the “crime” that the movie takes its title from, how the father of the young boy cuts down a tree to make a new pair of clogs that the son can wear to school, and is thrown off the farm by the landowner. That is certainly true, but this event is only part of a larger tapestry, and it is only significant to us because we have lived with these peasants for two hours. The act of the theft is freighted with deeper meanings, like the fact that after being opposed to the son going to school, the farmer is willing to commit a crime to ensure that he can continue. Also, what kind of man is willing to cast a family out of their home because of a hunk of wood? When the farmer and his family (Which includes a newborn baby) have to pack up and leave, the rest of the peasants watch from inside their homes. Olmi is not suggesting that the others are fair-weather friends, but is rather pointing up the hard reality that for the others, life has to go on. We’ve seen some of the others load up a wagon with rocks in order to cheat on the price for their crops, thuso they all know that that could just as easily be them.
Strangely enough, I thought of Bruce Springsteen while watching this film. In his song Reason to Believe, he ruminates on those to whom faith is as much an imperative as oxygen or water.
It struck me kinda funny. Seems kinda funny, sir, to me. How at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.
That describes these people, boiled right down to their essence. They live in a harsh world, and most know that they can’t hope to achieve much beyond it, but they keep on going.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
Drunken Angel – Akira Kurosawa really became a legend with the release of Rashomon in 1950, but the man was already an established filmmaker at that point. This one, from 1948, stars his two greatest stars, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Shimura is the angel of the title – A gruff alcoholic doctor who makes it his personal quest to save a tubercular gangster played by Mifune. As a general rule, I like Kurosawa’s “modern” films more, and this one is very good. Mifune stands out as a tough guy who makes a lot of noise about not wanting to be saved, but who always seems to turn up on the doctor’s doorstep. Recommended.