Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Le Trou

The prison break drama has been around for decades, and has been done with varying degrees of success. Jacques Beckers’ 1960 drama "Le Trou" is one of the great ones, and part of its appeal lies in what it leaves out.

The film opens with Claude Gaspar being assigned to a new cell with 4 other prisoners. Their names are Manu, Geo, Roland, and "Monsignor", and they’re not a very friendly lot. They eye Gaspar warily and gently ask him questions about himself, and about the crime that brought him to prison. Gaspar explains that he wounded his wife during an argument, and since the gun was preloaded, he was charged with attempted murder. This admission seems to cause the 4 to relax somewhat, and Geo states "You are looking at 10 years." The full story eventually comes out. The four existing prisoners are in the midst of planning an escape, and they need to know if Gaspar will assist them. Staring at a long sentence, he agrees to help.

Many prison break dramas rely on elaborate plots and gimmicks to allow their protagonists to break out, but this one is a different animal. Quite simply, they will try to smash their way out of the cell, and in one brilliant, almost real-time sequence, they use a chunk of metal from a bunk bed to pound through a concrete floor. It’s hard work, and it LOOKS like hard work, as they take turns breaking the floor away, with no sounds except that of concrete giving way, and men panting from their exertion.

Breaking through the floor of the cell, of course is only part of the battle, and Roland and Manu go beneath the prison to scope out the rest of the work. Roland is plainly the brains behind the escape, and seems to have thought everything through. A small hatch door leads them to where they will need to go, but if they break it down it will be noticed. Roland comes up with a brilliant method of leaving the door intact while still allowing them to get through it. The final obstacle will be to break through the walls of the sewers below the prison, but this one will take quite a bit longer – a couple of days.

An interesting point to make here about "Le Trou" - The film has no interest in what the convicts have done (apart from Gaspard). There is the suggestion that Manu is in for murder and is scheduled to hang, but the film never really pursues it. Roland has certainly been behind bars before – It’s noted by Monsignor that Roland has broken out 3 or 4 times. It is pretty safe to assume that the entire group of four deserves to be in jail.

There is one interesting sideplot that comes up. Geo has been front and center in the digging, but tells Roland in a private moment that he isn’t going to escape with them. He states that his mother almost died when he was arrested, and that if the police show up at her door looking for him, that it might kill her. Geo’s sacrifice will take on a poignant irony at the films’ close.

Finally, the tunnel is ready, and the 5 make plans to escape that night. Gaspar receives notice that the superintendent wants to see him, and comes back to tell the others that his wife has dropped the charges against him. Manu notes "You were gone 2 hours – What did you talk about?" His inference is clear – Gaspar now has no reason to go through with the breakout, and may have betrayed them to the prison authorities.

A fragment of broken mirror attached to a toothbrush has been a useful tool to the 5 throughout the movie – They stick it through the peep-hole and use it to check the outside hallway. This same toothbrush now provides the films most memorable image, as it becomes clear just what Gaspar talked about for those 2 hours. Becker isn’t finished with the betrayals, however, and his last one is a doozy. Roland has the last word in this one, and his final line is laced with sarcasm, pity, hatred, and maybe just a tinge of gallows humor.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I Am Cuba

"I Am Cuba" is a little-seen film that has acquired legendary status for two reasons – For its striking images and for its quaint Communist propaganda. The propaganda is easy to dismiss today, but the black and white photography remains as arresting as it was on the day it was released.

The film was made in 1964 as a sort of valentine to the Cuban people, courtesy of Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, and although Communism isn’t directly mentioned in the story, its shadows hang unmistakably over the proceedings. The films "Western" characters are without exception portrayed as vacuous, sex-starved, or fascist.

"I Am Cuba" tells its story through four short vignettes, which are unrelated to each other. A shy Cuban prostitute loses the man who loves her as a result of a dalliance with a foreigner. A poor sugar cane farmer learns he will lose his land and home. A group of idealistic students clash with police and a simple farmer has a political awakening after a meeting with a young Fidel Castro.

The first features the shot that IAC is most renowned for. The camera starts on the roof of a luxury hotel, goes over the balcony and down the side of the building where it picks up on a young woman and follows her into the pool, ending up under the surface of the water – All in one unbroken shot. The film then moves to concentrate on the fruit seller Rene and his fiancĂ©e Maria. He talks of all the things he will do for her once they are married. The scene then shifts to a nightclub and focuses on a small group of foreigners. A blond, obviously American businessman stands out for his almost comical vulgarity. Surveying the prostitutes at the bar, he announces "I’ll have THAT tasty morsel!" This world is also a part of life for Maria, or Betty, as she is also known. Going home with one of the capitalists (who has the audacity to try to buy her crucifix!), she is discovered by Rene in a scene of sublime sadness.

The second story revolves around Pedro, an elderly sugar cane farmer. Pedro works his land with his son and daughter, and his story is told in an astonishing dream sequence which lasts only a few seconds, but which speaks volumes. One day he is visited by the owner of his land who announces that it has been sold to a large fruit company, and he will have to move out. Pedro goes back to work and Kalatozov depicts him cutting cane in a frenzy of machete strikes and metallic ringing. Finally, a defeated Pedro sends his children to town and torches his crop and farm.

Story Three is in many ways the most powerful of all, as student activist Enrique backs out of an attempt to assassinate a murderous cop, and promptly sees the same cop kill one of his colleagues. Police with fire hoses then interrupt a huge student rally, and Enrique comes face to face with the corrupt cop once again. This sequence achieves creates incredible energy as the crowd is whipped by hose spray and smoke. This segment concludes with a sequence where the camera follows a funeral procession, the leaves it to climb the side of a building, where it pans through a room of men rolling cigars, then goes over the balcony and seems to glide in midair over the procession again. It’s truly a virtuoso bit of cinematography.

Finally, in the final sequence, the quiet farmer Mariano finds Fidel Castro at his doorstep. After feeding him, the pacifist farmer sends him away, then has his home destroyed by an airstrike. Mariano announces to his wife that "I have to go and fight now", eventually ends up meeting you-know-who again. The film ends with a happy band of rebels emerging from the mountains, the revolution having been won.

"I Am Cuba" is above all else a product of its time. It was made on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis and as such, wears its anti-capitalist beliefs without apology. If the passing of time has revealed those beliefs to be naive, so be it. What remains is the film itself - Beautiful, exciting, provocative and endlessly innovative.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Jano the fisherman silently returns home to his family. On his way to the house he passes Anada, drawing water from the well, and they exchange a glance. His wife Zuzka lies in bed ill with typhus, and his son reads to her as she sleeps. Jano testily asks his son "Why do you keep reading to her?" he has brought medicine from the city for her, and as he prepares it, we hear shouts from outside the house.

Thus are we indoctrinated into the world of Jan Kadar's "Adrift", in which an outside element disrupts and ultimately destroys Janos' world. The outside element is the girl Anada, and her story is framed between two situations where Jano attempts to save her from drowning.

The film begins with the second instance, as the shouts alert Jano "Anada is in the river!" He rushes to his skiff, and paddles out to try and save her. He shouts for her, but she is nowhere to be found and the scene fades to black. He awakens on the shore, and it is unclear just how he has gotten there, or how much time has passed. He finds his way to a campfire and encounters three mysterious men who question him about Anada. They seem, however to know the answers already. This interrogation, which is interspersed with flashbacks takes us back to the beginning of the story, starting with the first time that Anada is found in the river. She is brought to shore naked and barely alive, and Zuzka decides after nursing her back to health that she would like to have her live with the family.

Jano is unhappy about having this stranger in his house, and suspects her of stealing from him. For all his protestations, however, we realize that his feelings are perhaps confused. At mealtime he talks in a voice-over about her "Picking at her food." ,and then the camera promptly cuts to his wife with food stuck to her face. Then, in the film's centerpiece, he secretly watches her swimming, and in a surreal slow-motion shot, she rises naked from the water and walks right by him with an expressionless sideways glance. From this point on, he is infatuated, and ultimately finds his way to her bed. He grows defensive and becomes frantic when he believes that a handsome local playboy is involved with her.

The film's world has a foggy, dream-like quality that moves it slightly out of the realm of everyday life. Even the time and place are hard to pin down. It is stated that the river in question is the Danube, but the locale looks like it could just as easily be the American south. Striking images pop up time and gain, such as a funeral flotilla on a fog-enshrouded river and a lone steamboat awash in lights.

The three interrogators draw more and more of the story out of Jano, and eventually we end up back where we began, with Jano preparing the medicine for his wife. This time ,however, we see more details. He drops one , then another, then another dose of medicine into the cup. And then Anada disappears into the river for the second and final time.

What do we make of this film? It can be taken on a literal level, where a married man is tempted by a mysterious woman , a la "Sunrise", but I think that "Adrift" has levels beneath that. Is it possible that Anada doesn't even exist except in Jano's mind? The movie dances around this idea but doesn't address it.Then , there are the 3 interrogators. One of them tells us "We come when there is a death", and near the end one of them spells it out for Jano - "Don't you know who we are?" Jano only realizes too late as his world fades way in front of him.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Fires on the Plain

Kon Ichikawa's black-as-tar masterpiece "Fires on The Plain" lays the ground rules down early. The film's opening image is that of a face being slapped, and it's an early indicator that this is going to be a war movie like no other. The traditional touchstones of valour, camaraderie, and patriotism are all missing here. The overriding motivation of everyone that we meet in this film is "How can I live another day?"

The film follows a tubercular Japanese soldier named Tamura as he wanders through the dying days of WW2 on the Philippine island of Leyte. Not wanted at the front because he's sick, and not wanted at the hospital because he's not sick enough, he wanders in limbo. Sent away from the hospital, he is told that if his unit won't take him back , then he must commit suicide. "Use your hand grenade!" Ichikawa then proceeds to obliterate this Catch-22-like world, as the hospital is suddenly destroyed by an air strike. Tamura sits on a hill overlooking the carnage, and says in a voice-over "Some of you might still be alive, but I won't come to help you, Why should I, when I'll soon be dead myself?"

Tamura leaves the scene as the voice-over intones "I was told to die, and intend to", but his intentions aren't as cut and dried as he would have us believe. He wanders into a small village in the hope of finding food, and is suddenly attacked by wild dog. Presented with an opportunity to die, his instinctive will to survive kicks in instead, and he skewers the dog on his bayonet. Tamura flashes a wicked smile as the dog dies, then appears to catch himself enjoying the kill. He has had an insight into the barbarism that he carries inside him, and it is hammered home a few moments later, when he cold-bloodedly shoots a girl who has also wandered into the village and screams at the sight of him. He again seems distraught , but when he spies a supply of salt under the floorboards of the hut, he hungrily throws the girl's body out of the way to get at it.

The fires of the film's title are far-off smoke columns that Tamura sees repeatedly as he walks. We never really see who is making the fires, but there are theories: It's American soldiers, or it's farmers burning corn-husks. It doesn't really matter , because for Tamura, the fires represent the hope for salvation and deliverance.

Tamura's quest takes a final, dark turn when he comes into contact with the wounded sergeant Yashuda and his companion Nagumatsu, who talk of hunting for "monkey meat". There have been hints about cannabalism earlier in the film, including one fellow soldier who holds up a bony arm and offers it "After I'm dead", but the realization of what monkey meat really is brings Tamura to a moral cul-de-sac. If he breaks down and eats human flesh to survive, he will have discarded the last thread of humanity that he posesses. This is the line in the sand that he will not cross. His two companions, however, have long since crossed it, and circle each other in a game where the loser pays the biggest price possible.

"Fires on the Plain" is a film of immense power, and the question it asks is a big one: What really separates us from the animals?" Pity poor Tamura, who gets to see the answer up close. The film's final image is of him walking towards yet another column of smoke, with the voice-over again: "I just want to be with people who are leading normal lives". Too bad they don't exist for him any more.