All entries for Tuesday 31 July 2007

July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007)

Ingmar Bergman

My love of cinema is inextricably linked with my love of Bergman. Had it not been for that beguiling of image of Death and a medieval knight playing a game of chess, then I may never have taken the time to watch The Seventh Seal (1957) – and had I not watched the first of his many masterpieces, then I would perhaps still be unaware of the ability of film to function as art.

Film is a huge part of my life and thus, so is Bergman. An absolute giant of the arthouse cinema that he helped popularise from the 1950s to the 1970s, recent years saw his stock diminish amongst critics’ circles as his work became seen as too theatrical, too dated. Perhaps his death will provoke an overdue reassessment of his unrivalled oeuvre?

What continues to set Bergman apart from the legions of admirers and imitators is the fact that his cinema is unique . The man lived and breathed through his films, pouring his own doubts and concerns into his work. He thereby created a distinct cinematic language that was entirely personal to him, whilst the films themselves plumbed depths of feeling that no one else would even dare to conceive.

The stereotype of the gloomy Swede was perpetuated by Bergman, but those who relegate his work to types have evidently yet to experience the complexity of his brand of darkness. Only after one has undertaken the breathtaking emotional rollercoaster of a film like Cries and Whispers (1972) can one begin to grasp why his followers are so staunch in their dedication. Bergman was a filmmaker who dared to explore and expose the most horrific aspects of our mental anguish, and who at the same time had a propensity for successfully tackling the grandest of moral and spiritual questions. The fact that his work continues to strike such a resonant chord is a testament to the lasting relevance of his themes. And as for the doom-and-gloom aspect, it’s telling that even the arduous Cries is a film that concludes with a positively life-affirming note – something that, contrary to public perception, is a hallmark of Bergman’s cinema: take a look at Wild Strawberries (1957) or Fanny and Alexander (1982) for further proof.

For all his theatrical roots, Bergman was also a remarkable visual stylist. From the lush expressionistic devices he employed in The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries , through the bleak austerity of his “Faith Trilogy”, to the magnificent chamber dramas of Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander – his films were consistently striking upon the eye. Never was this more the case than in his greatest work, Persona (1966) – a film so radical in its innovative use of the film form that it almost makes Godard and Welles look like mice in comparison.

Bergman, for me and so many others, was the embodiment of what cinema could achieve. His films demand our utmost attention, but the voyages of empathy, understanding and even self-discovery that they provoke as a result serve as apt rewards. Losing Ingmar is a tremendous blow to the world of film, in spite of his enviable and lengthy career. It’s a metaphorical loss of that aforementioned embodiment – Bergman’s presence, even if silent, was at least a reassurance that the sanctity of cinema was still safe, still guarded. Without him, it’s as if the world of film seems more vulnerable, more susceptible to the homogeneity, to a loss of feeling that he so ardently worked to establish.

Thankfully, Bergman left us with a legacy that can’t be erased: his films. Amidst all the mourning, it’s those brilliant accomplishments that we should look towards. Certainly, it’s what I’ll be turning to to remind myself that all is not lost, that art can and will survive. For The Seventh Seal, for Cries and Whispers , for Wild Strawberries , for Fanny and Alexander , for Persona and for so many others I will be in eternal gratitude to Mr. Bergman.

So yeah: Thank You, Ingmar. R.I.P.


Recently, I’ve made a series of extended posts at a film discussion board that I frequent. I’ve decided to post them here as well, although their original context means that they’re occasionally quite informal and I can’t be bothered to edit.

Hopefully, I’ll post more as I watch more.

In the meantime, viva la cinema and all that!

Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi; 1954)

Sansho the Bailiff
Without mercy, man is like a beast… even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

This sentence, uttered by the film’s magnanimous patriarch and moral cornerstone, lingers over the protagonists of Sansho the Bailiff forming a tremendous weight upon their shoulders. It’s an affliction because the film devotes much of its length to proving only the first half of the statement, consequently highlighting just how difficult it is to practice the second part. Mizoguchi’s world-view has probably never been this bleak, yet the film is nonetheless one of the most compassionate works that I’ve ever seen. The director utilises his strengths – craftsmanship and storytelling – and adds in a heavy dose of lyrical humanism that is overwhelming in its cumulative power. Gone are the writing flaws that affected Ugetsu, and instead we’re left with a tightly-focused and beautifully-filmed piece of art that comfortably sits alongside the likes of Persona, Stalker et al. as one of the greatest films ever made (at least as far as I’m concerned.)

Sansho opens with a caption that describes it’s literary forebearer as: “one of the world’s great folk tales.” Right from the outset then, we’re given an example of the film’s intent on mythologizing the past. This is applicable to both Mizoguchi as well as his content. The scenes that immediately follow this prologue serve as demonstrations of the characters’ needs to commemorate: Zushio seeking reassurances about his father’s nobility; Tamaki’s memories of Masauji shown in flashback sequences that emphasise the past’s influence on the present; the brief close-up of the Kwannon heirloom; and finally, Tamaki asking Zushio whether he remembers his father’s face and his teachings (reinforcing his values.) Later in the film, Tamaki is also memorialized by her children, notably through the use of song. These compulsive requirements do much to emphasise the timeless qualities of the story – something that is augmented by the film’s focus on travelling: from the passing of the fable as outlined in the prologue; to the initial trip made by mother and children; the separate paths that they take into the worlds of prostitution and slavery; Zushio’s escape; Anju’s spiritual ascendence; even Zushio’s journey up (and down) the social hierarchy. With Masauji’s aforementioned words judging the characters at every step of their respective travels, it’s clear that Sansho has a (probably self-referential) concern with the act of storytelling and the effects that this has upon an audience.

More importantly, in narrative terms, this concern with legends (father, mother, ideals) consigns the film’s principal characters, Zushio and Anju, with a goal to work towards in the unforgiving world that they inhabit. And it really is a harsh life that Mizoguchi depicts here. Sansho’s labour camp makes for a dismal environment with its muddy desolation, forming a stark contrast to the picturesque reverence with which the outside world is often filmed in. Any attempts to escape slavery are met with torture that manifests itself as branding with a hot spear – leaving a mark that permanently erases/standardises one’s identity, a particularly relevant concept considering Zushio and Anju’s struggles with their own identities (note the name-changes.) Sansho himself is the complete antithesis to Masauji, explicitly stating as such: “Have no mercy on them!” he commands, after encountering the young siblings for the first time. Moreover, the camp continues the film’s theme of punishing those characters that dare to display any such mercy – the kindly Namiji is branded, whilst the sympathetic Taro feels compelled to leave.

Much like Ugetsu, Mizoguchi’s situation of the story in the Japanese past means that comparisons with recent history are inevitable. Taking this into account, the labour camp that Sansho so brutally administers reads as an allegorical condemnation of the concentration camps inherent to WW2 and Sansho’s administration is equated to militarism (on a quick side note: if one bears this in mind, the rebellion of the emancipated slaves takes on a thought-provoking new dimension.) Zushio’s loss of ideals then, can be equated to brainwashing as best exemplified by Anju’s pleas for him not to take the dying Namiji away, to which he responds: “It’s the bailiff’s orders.” The erosion of Zushio’s morality is crucial as it heightens the reality of his situation by placing him on a par with those that were engulfed by blind allegiance during wartime. Anju’s preservation of her own decency represents the alternative direction: enduring with dignity. Pervading through all these analogies is another line from the prologue: “The origin of this legend… goes back to the Heian period, when mankind had not yet opened their eyes to other men as human beings.” Mizoguchi’s figurative application of the legend to the decades that immediately preceded Sansho hints at this sentence’s own relevance: in 1945, had mankind really opened its eyes much more than in feudal Japan? The previously discussed mythologizing of the piece means that we can pose another question: has mankind even managed to open its eyes today?

In spite of the historical setting then, Sansho is a thoroughly modern (timeless) film that engages with socially relevant issues. It meditates on the difficult relationship between the humanitarianism at its heart and the political framework that’s necessary for implementing it: “Is it unlawful to love your people?” asks Zushio, “No, but one must obey his superior officer” is a minister’s response. Mizoguchi concludes that both are useless without the other. There’s also an examination of class structures. As Namiji is carried away by Zushio, an old friend prays for her reincarnation: “Be born to a rich family!” This statement oozes with irony when we note the fate of the “rich family” at Sansho’s core. Zushio’s later ascension to, and resignation from, a position of authority accentuates the precariousness of the social hierarchy – although the rest of the slaves’ inability to break out of the mould is arguably a testament to its rigidity? Perhaps what is underlined here is the hypocrisy of such hierarchies – only if one has the right name and knows the right people is mobility an option. Refusing to free the slaves allows the powered elites to protect their own positions. Regardless, it’s an interesting paradox and, as is always the case with Mizoguchi, it provides food for thought.

The thematic complexity of Sansho the Bailiff should, I hope, be clear by now. But much like Ugetsu, this is a film where style is inextricably linked to substance, and I wish to conclude by quickly focusing on three of the film’s most successful sequences: the forced separation of mother from children; Anju’s self-sacrifice; and the reconciliation between mother and son that closes the film. I’ll say now that I don’t just consider these the best sequences in the film, I esteem them as some of the finest moments in cinema full stop.

Sansho the Bailiff

I mentioned Mizoguchi’s aptitude for scenes of horror when discussing Miyagi’s harrowing death scene in Ugetsu. The parallel with Sansho’s most horrific scene is difficult to ignore: same actress playing the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), same concept of mother being wrenched apart from offspring, the main divergence being that in this film the mother doesn’t die – she’s condemned to a life of constant suffering instead. Sansho’s scene is the more overtly stylised of the two, and it’s perhaps that which lends it the greater power, as the director flaunts the entire range of his cinematic weaponry. His setting is perfect, with ominously disfigured trees and a mist-ridden lake dominating the scenery-as-filmed by Kazuo Miyagawa. The sound design is a marvel, with sharp-pitched flutes screeching over the soundtrack as the scene itself crescendos with the intensity provided by the screaming children calling for their mother, and Tamaki and her servant Ubatake’s desperate protests to go back to shore. Framing? As good as it ever was, the pinnacle being when Mizoguchi exploits two deep-focus shots to show us: first – Tamaki fighting in the foreground and the children desperately attempting to escape in the background; and then – the same shot, but a few seconds later and in reverse, revealing the rapidly-growing distance between the boat and the shore. These shots are profound in the dual urgency that they provide. It’s perhaps Mitsuzo Miyata’s editing that deserve particular merit here, though. Mizoguchi is known for the serenity in his style, characterized by the long-take, and up until this sequence, there’s nothing to dispel that myth. Here, however, the director chooses to take his audience by surprise and Miyata’s editing allows him to probably come as close as he ever did to flirting with the concept of montage. It’s a breathtakingly beneficial u-turn in style, The velocity of the cutting rate, and the variety of the shot-making, means that the sequence is comparable to a swift shot to the body – we can’t comprehend what’s hit us until after the event (if that.) Finally, there’s a helping of vicious irony thanks to the gratitude that the family express to the ‘priestess’ before they’re about to depart. Even later, in the midst of the sequence’s terror, the good-natured Ubatake naively asks about the slave-traders rowing her away: “Priestess, are you sure they are reliable?” That the sequence should conclude with a pictorial framing of her death makes this line even more tragic. As a whole, these two-and-a-half minutes terrifyingly, but concisely, expose the absolute worst facets of humanity. Already, so soon after the flashbacks that taught us to be merciful, Mizoguchi is showing us the grimmest of realities – the polar opposite of what we’ve witnessed before, and a sign of things to come.

Sansho the Bailiff

Upon a second viewing, Sansho’s horror sequence is permeated with greater sadness as we realise that it will be the last meeting of Tamaki and her daughter Anju. Of all the characters in the film, it is Anju who best exemplifies her father’s morals and values. It’s important to register the fact that she’s a weaver at the labour camp for this plays into her significance within the narrative. Aside from weaving basic materials together, she also unifies (what’s left of) her family at the cost of her own life. By doing so, one could argue that she’s even weaving the contents of the film, but I’ll stop that mode of thought before I get carried away. It’s easy to forget that Anju’s self-sacrifice allows not simply for Zushio’s escape, but also for the peaceful death of Namiji thanks to her request. The loss of the film’s sole embodiment of compassion (at this point) is a heartbreaking one, all the more so because of the respect with which Mizoguchi films her death scene. Again, a mist-ridden lake is at the fore, this time with less menacing trees framing Anju at the centre. In the distance, her mother’s sorrowful refrain can be heard (“Isn’t life torture?”), as Anju slowly enters the water. We then cut to her old friend, again exquisitely framed in the centre of our screens (this time by the bars of the camp, a contrast with Anju’s natural transcendence), who collapses to her knees in prayer – paralleling Anju’s own submission to the lake, and death. Another cut back to the lake reveals perfectly concentric ripples, our lasting memory of her, before merging into a shot of a Buddha in the temple where Zushio finds safety.
This is a sequence that’s emblematic of Sansho’s curious religiosity. The film’s concept of mercy is rooted in Buddhism, as illustrated by the figure of the Kwannon. Anju embodies this in the real world, and Mizoguchi accordingly treats her death with simplistic veneration as opposed to the dramatics that he could easily cave in to. The fact that an explicit link is made between Anju’s death and a religious symbol that safeguards her brother is suggestive of her own ascendence into the realm of the spiritual – not to mention the fabric of mythology that the film is actively concerned with.

Sansho the Bailiff

For years now, I’ve maintained that Chaplin’s conclusion to City Lights is unrivalled within cinema. Upon my first viewing of Sansho the Bailiff I bawled my eyes out, without really understanding why. I re-watched the ending to try and comprehend… and ended up bawling my eyes out again. I then gave the film itself another viewing and still the tear-ducts were in action. Finally, before writing this I viewed that ending for a fourth time and cried again – although this time I managed to limit myself to only two or three tears and a controlled amount of sobbing. Anyway, all this leaves me with the possibility of two evaluations: a) that I’m simply a shameless cry-baby and that I need a shot of testosterone, pronto; or b) that Sansho’s ending is the most perfect finale in all cinema, trumping even Chaplin’s masterstroke. I’m guessing that both these statements are correct?!

Mizoguchi’s conclusion allows for the cathartic release that we, as the audience, have been waiting two hours for. The origins of its pathos are inexplicable with mere words, but I’ll nevertheless attempt to make some sense of it. First of all, it marks the long-anticipated reunion between Tamaki and Zushio. Mizoguchi’s success at conveying the arduousness that has allowed for this reconciliation makes it all the more poignant, as if the sight of a child reunited with his long-lost mother wasn’t enough. Instead of restoring them to their former glory, Mizoguchi refuses to romanticise and presents us a family in its most pitiful state. The heavy toll that a burdensome life has taken on Tamaki is especially heartbreaking because it manifests itself visually through her appearance. During Zushio’s search we’re led first to expect that she’s a prostitute, then to expect that she’s dead. What we find is more degrading than we could have imagined: a blind and decrepit woman worn down against the seaweed, barely managing to gasp out the song that her children so beautifully memorialised (compare this Tamaki to the woman who we encounter at the film’s beginning.) And then there’s the agonizing dialogue – upon announcing himself, Tamaki mutters: “You wretched being! You’ve come to try and fool me again!”, suggesting that she’s a woman who’s been taken advantage of many a time before as a result of the blindness that prevents her from seeing her own child. And then, the gut-wrenching obliviousness of her statement after learning that Anju has joined Masauji: “Your father? Is he doing well?” The scene concludes with the mother’s reaffirmation of the father’s teachings, before the overwhelming melodrama forces the camera’s gaze away from the reunited family, towards an indifferent image of the horizon as a man goes about his daily work.

This final endorsement of “mercy” is extraordinary when one contemplates exactly what “mercy” has accomplished for Zushio and Tamaki. As a result of this simple concept, they lost almost everything that they ever had, risked losing one another, and were forced to endure countless humiliations. To find the film advocating it in spite of such atrocity is humbling, and again allows us to make a parallel between the then and the now. That Mizoguchi should then summon up the nerve to pan away from this moment of astounding plaintiveness, in order to communicate how even this most significant of filmic events is but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of life… well, it takes guts. More than that, it requires the ability of a confident director absolutely in control of his art. Throughout Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi never once loses hold of his mastery – thus leaving us with an impeccable achievement, an evocative tribute to humanism that startles with its deceptively simple complexity.

Sansho the Bailiff

And if you’ve managed to make it to the end of this shamelessly long-winded review then I thoroughly recommend that you congratulate yourself by viewing it. NOW!

Ugetsu (Mizoguchi; 1953)


Of the three Mizoguchi films that I’ve seen to date, I think Ugetsu is probably the most thematically and stylistically complex. It is at once an allegorical tale of corrupt militarism, a penetrating study of human psychology, a sensual romance, a curious ghost story, and a powerful statement about man’s tenuous ownership of his humanity. Moreover, it juggles the plights of not one but two couples at its epicentre, cross-cutting with modulated precision as their very different wartime fates unfold before the viewer. Ugetsu’s success derives from its director’s ability to mould this heterogeneity into a cohesive whole of affecting clarity, thereby unmasking Mizoguchi’s talents as not simply a superior craftsman of the cinematic form but also as a deft storyteller in the tradition of the legends that he evokes.

I often find that films that look to the past do so in order to comment on the present. Taking both Ugetsu’s primary concern (the effects of war) and it’s year of release (1953) into account, it’s difficult to argue that the film defies the aforementioned template. The fact that it’s set during a point in Japanese history when civil wars plagued the nation allows Mizoguchi to invite comparisons with the tumultuous years of the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, Tobei’s exaggerated fixation on becoming a samurai parallels the nation’s own march towards militarism, whilst the character of his brother Genjuro – intent on gaining profit from chaos – serves as a fairly damning critique of wartime opportunism. Our kinship with these characters elicits some sympathy, but the director doesn’t make it easy for us: take for example the scene when Tobei watches an attendant behead his master (a renowned warrior) and then murders the attendant in order to steal the warrior’s head and thus the prestige associated with it. Our affinity with Tobei, an otherwise likeable buffoon, makes this scene initially come across as wryly humorous (Sakae Ozawa’s performance in the role is quite absurd) but that’s before we witness his abhorrent deed. It finally reads as pathetic yet sobering, when we realise that it’s one of a countless number of examples when good people were blinded by greed with grave consequences.

It’s difficult to sympathise with the male characters in Ugetsu because Mizoguchi’s own sympathies evidently lie firmly with the film’s women and therefore it is they who suffer the most, often as a result of their husbands’ recklessness. This suffering does however afford them the opportunity to display the resilience that so many women – or even civilians in general – are required to draw upon in similar situations. The character of Ohama is a case in point: her husband, Tobei, leaves her to pursue his own goals and in his absence she is raped and forced into a life of prostitution. Despite all this, our first encounter with Ohama-as-prostitute sees her fighting with a client for cash and later, after her eventual reconciliation with Tobei she insists: “Don’t let my suffering be in vain, pull yourself together and work hard.” It’s telling that Ohama, strong-willed and defiant of her oppressors, should end up back with her husband by film’s end, whereas the resourceful but more traditional Miyagi dies (although the film does want to martyr her.) Either way, Ohama’s rape and Miyagi’s death highlight three important points: a) the tragic effects of a military that’s beyond control; b) the fact that female oppression reverberates upon both the genders – when their husbands finally realise the extent of their ignorance, they strive to improve themselves; and c) the desperate, but all too often futile, attempts to protect the family during wartime.

To discuss the women of Ugetsu without mentioning Lady Wakasa, arguably the film’s most memorable female, is clearly an injustice. Although she exists only in Genjuro’s consciousness, she is an essential part of the film’s texture. She shares in Miyagi and Ohama’s sufferings – war brought about the end of her home, her family and her life. Furthermore, she is the embodiment of Genjuro’s fantasies: she’s beautiful, of a noble background and massages his ego by praising both his artistry (pottery) and his self-perceived sexual magnetism. Here is a character willing to be completely subservient to the patriarchal order,, and yet even Lady Wakasa can be seen as a tool for the director’s more feminist tendencies: she’s motivated by her own self-fulfilment. Yes, she’s dependent on the love of a man, but an alternative reading might argue that she’s a thoroughly empowered woman who uses her sexuality to entrap men – this, despite the fact that she’s a product of the male imagination. Nothing is ever black-and-white in Mizoguchi’s world!


The Lady Wakasa episodes imbue Ugetsu with a level of eroticism that’s perhaps surprising for a film made in 1953 – I’m thinking particularly of the scene in the hot spring, where the suggestion is that she and Genjuro will engage in filth (!) as it concludes with Lady Wakasa jumping naked into the water off-screen. However, the principal significance of the Lady Wakasa segments is the supernatural elements that they provide. From the two couples’ crossing of the misty Lake Biwa, we know that the film has an interest in that which is ghostly. Lady Wakasa’s emergence, a slow and mystical shuffle towards Genjuro selling his pots, is a mark of her own eeriness. What is notable about the way Mizoguchi tackles these scenes is how he doesn’t create a sharp stylistic contrast for Genjuro’s fantasies. The transition between reality and reverie is governed by trademark subtlety, leading towards a more resonant dreamworld as a result. It’s less the style and more the content of the scenes that gives the act away: Genjuro talking to his pots, Kutsuki mansion gradually changing from ruin to splendor, and most strikingly the sudden and complete submission of a powerful woman to a peasant which is unfathomable, especially given the context.

Another explanation for the tone of Genjuro’s dream is that Mizoguchi is determined to show us that the real world is a far more terrifying prospect than the supernatural one. The film’s most horrifying scene is unquestionably Miyagi’s murder, a scene that conversely acts as an exquisite representation of the director’s style. It opens with the distant screams of a woman presumably being raped, recalling Ohama’s fate and highlighting Miyagi’s own vulnerability. We then bear witness to hungry soldiers aggressively searching for food, foreshadowing Miyagi’s own fate. There’s a sense of relief when she and her child finally make their escape, only to be harassed by the same hungry soldiers. They steal rice cakes, meant for her child, provoking her maternal instincts to fight back. As her back is turned to us, a soldier stabs her and we gradually realise that the wound is fatal.

Here, we see Mizoguchi’s most devastating insight – wartime stripping humans to their most animalistic tendencies, limited to the primal concerns of food and sex (the latter as foreshadowed by Ohama’s rape, which we presume will also threaten Miyagi.) Miyagi is also stripped to her most natural disposition, with the interest of protecting her child set above all else. As she’s dying, Mizoguchi utilises a deep-focus shot to show her valiantly attempting to continue her journey for the sake of her son in the foreground, whilst in the background we witness the jubilant soldiers bickering over morsels of food. It’s a moment of indescribable power: even as the film’s most appealing character lays dying Mizoguchi refuses to cave in to overt sentimentality, instead insisting that life goes on and that her death is only [u]one[/u] of the faces of war (one which doesn’t prevent the indifference of others.) I’ve so far neglected to mention Miyagi’s child, but it is he who arguably provides the scene with its greatest tragedy. As his mother is dying, he clings onto her, screaming and crying – another innocent corrupted by war, and now unprotected. It’s a pitiful moment, a harrowing image, and an example of how Mizoguchi is an expert at directing horror scenes – except that his brand of horror is so powerful because it is grounded in the realm of bruised human emotions, and is thus entirely identifiable to the viewer. The fact that Mizoguchi places this entire scene immediately after the images of husband Genjuro’s sexual delight creates a masterly juxtaposition that demands the utmost sympathy for Miyagi and her fate. Similarly, the scene that follows this – Tobei’s aforementioned submission to brutality, comparable to the bandits that murdered Miyagi – is lent greater power as a result of it’s own situation in the narrative.

All this praise, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Ugetsu is flawless – but this is not the case at all. There are moments in the film that are too visible as contrivances: e.g. the random kind-hearted woman that helps Miyagi escape the first group of soldiers; the equally random appearance of the priest who just happens to notice that Genjuro’s been possessed as he casually walks past him on the street; or the way in which Tobei’s soldiers advise him to stop at the brothel that conveniently houses his wife Ohama. Speaking of Tobei, the writers take a naive perspective regarding his fate – are we really to believe that, having vaulted up the social hierarchy, he would give up everything and return to a peasant life with Ohama, particularly during a period of war? There’s a certain amount of gullibility that’s demanded of the audience, and this makes the film’s conclusion problematic – especially when the conclusion in question is a conservative affirmation of the social order that advocates an acceptance of the status quo.

Still, earlier I said that nothing was ever simple in Mizoguchi’s world and perhaps that’s the case here? As previously stated, Miyagi’s death could well reflect a pessimism about acceptance/endurance, whilst it’s the experience of the Tobei character as opposed to the resolution that’s important. And of course, the film’s screenplay is itself derived from old Japanese fables, and if we judge the film on that level I think it ably succeeds. Additionally, it should be noted that Ugetsu opens and closes with shots of the same mountain village, the humble place in which its characters call ‘home.’ By bookending the film with similar images, Mizoguchi underlines the prospect of everything we’ve witnessed being cyclical – and if that’s the case, surely the conclusion takes on a much darker dimension? Either way, the proficiency of Mizoguchi’s directorial touch (complemented by cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa and editor Mitsuzo Miyata) results in a unique visual property that irons out – or at least counters – the faults in the screenplay. Like, how about the seamless transition between Genjuro and Lady Wakasa’s encounter in the hot springs that pans left and miraculously merges into a lush meadow? Or the mind-boggling 360-degree pan that greets Genjuro’s return home… it begins in an empty hut and ends by revealing Miyagi cooking dinner?! Cinema exists for moments like these, and Ugetsu is a film that’s brimming with them.


The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder; 1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun

So, I finally made good on my intentions and got around to watching this and wow. This was just remarkable. There’s so much to talk about here I don’t even know where to begin?

I hope I’m not the only that finds it difficult NOT to read Maria Braun (and indeed, Maria Braun) as allegory. Her pursuit of financial success coincides with Germany’s “economic miracle”, and Fassbinder underlines an unavoidable link between the two plights thanks to the emotional detachment that serves as a result of both. There’s undoubtedly a critique of (West) Germany’s postwar direction – which I can’t profess to completely understand, seeing as I’m quite underversed in the history. Nevertheless, this criticism is hardly what one would describe as discreet (intricate though it may be) and I imagine that it’s lost on very few? Compare the Maria of the early scenes: aimlessly making her way through the wreckage as she attempts to track down her husband; to the Maria that viciously mocks and scolds her secretary for no apparent reason. Her resourcefulness in the first scenes and her ability to channel this attribute into single-minded economic progression parallels Germany’s situation at the time – a fact reaffirmed by the numerous radio broadcasts that serve as a backdrop to the film which reveal the changing tune of the government throughout the years.

Upon hindsight, it’s kinda astonishing just how distant Maria Braun felt to me as a viewer, despite my spending two (very) intimate hours with her. Fassbinder seems to consistently deny us the opportunity to witness her feelings – or at the least her vulnerabilities. Of course, there ARE those shots of her running cold water on her wrists (first when she’s misinformed of Hermann’s death, then later following Oswald’s will.) I’m not quite sure what to make of them (any thoughts = much appreciated), but if they’re merely symbolic of her tears then it’s probably enormously telling that in both instances there’s a causal relationship with death.

Maria is a character that I never truly understood or felt I knew, but that only adds to my fascination with her. On the one hand, she’s something of a feminist role model: a successful career woman whose brains have allowed her to manipulate the film’s patriarchs to the point where she seemingly holds them in her palms. Yet, on another level she’s merely a pawn in a man’s world, ultimately a commodity herself in the way that she forms part of the ‘contract’ between Hermann and Oswald. Moreover, her ability to climb the social hierarchy is a result of her decision to suppress feminine traits deemed unsuitable for the workplace (i.e. those that are maternal) and instead focus on those that are accepted by the patriarchy (sexual.) Maria may be shockingly straightforward about her feelings towards the male characters in the film, but in spite of this she can never truly be accepted on her own terms and this, combined with the decline in her relations with her family and her lovers, paints a very bleak portrait of social life in the immediate postwar period.

The film itself had me from that TERRIFIC opening shot. I mean, an exploding image of Hitler? That’s so shocking/daring it’s impossible not to admire it. And the final scene too, is breathtaking and I’m sure there’s a direct link between the opening and the ending. It’s notable how the first thing we see is an ex -plosion, and a new marriage coinciding with the grave cost of war – and yet the ending is almost a complete opposite to this? It’s something of an im -plosion, resulting in the end of a marriage that now coincides with a triumphant and resurgent Germany emerging victorious at the World Cup. Loss of human emotion in favour of blind national ‘success’? And then there’s the fact that our first image if one of Hitler, and our last = images of the post-war Chancellors in negative forms. What’s the link there? And does the fact that Helmut Schmidt’s photo changes from negative to positive mean that Maria Braun ends on a (quietly) optimistic note? Either way, I LOVE the issues that the ending raises.

Oh, and of course there’s Maria’s suicide ... or is it? And if it is, then why? If she ignores the gas wilfully, then could we link it to the postwar desire to wilfully forget the past whilst ruthlessly focusing on the future? Is the eventual explosion (but implosion of the house) a result of the fact that Maria has climbed to the very top of the social ladder having achieved everything that she ever set out for, and is thus left with no purpose but to self-destruct? And why take Hermann with her? Is it because she’s angered by his pact with Oswald? So MUCH to think about!

What I admire most about Maria Braun is Fassbinder’s attention to the minutest of details. Like the dependence on smoking and cigarettes throughout the film; or the absurdity of the confrontation between Bill and Hermann; or the moments where Maria returns to the physical remnants of her old school; or the unexpected humour when she first attempts to talk to Hermann in prison. Or how about the gradual infiltration of the American influence into German life through the flags that pop up in the bar and the courtroom, and the dealings with the American businessman? And then there’s the fact that Maria achieves upward social mobility by meeting Oswald on a train – something mobile in itself, but she does this by bursting into the first-class section?! What a masterful scene, so exemplary of Fassbinder’s dedication to his craft.

Anyway, I should really quit rambling about this? Someone else offer their thoughts please. As you can tell, I liked it a lot, but I must know what others think!

The Marriage of Maria Braun

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Greenaway; 1989)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Prior to this, my only experience of Peter Greenaway had been The Draughtsman’s Contract which was a cerebrally invigorating experience that I admired muchly. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover seems to exist on another emotional plain completely, however? It’s so crass, so savage and so vulgar… and yet at the same time there’s a level of sophistication here that makes the film as intellectually stimulating as Draughtsman’s though Greenaway’s ability to weave in a vicious thread of coarse black humour has the effect of making this a more thoroughly enjoyable experience than the earlier film, imo. Still, like Draughtsman’s, I can’t help but feel that there’s a lot that I missed or failed to comprehend on initial viewing.

I pretty much read this as a conflict between consumerism/capitalism vs. the arts, with Albert (notably entitled The Thief) representing the former and Richard (The Cook) and, to a lesser extent, Michael (The Lover) representing the latter. On a more self-reflexive level, perhaps The Thief could be seen as representing movie moguls and The Cook could be seen as film director? Certainly, the latter’s confessed voyeurism later on could be seen to reflect this… as could The Thief’s conservative palate… except that I’m not quite sure if that’s what Greenaway intended. Either way, the basic point is that The Thief = bad. His is a personality that enforces the submission of others, and he himself is the ultimate consumer, shamelessly feasting like a pig on the refined delicacies/artistry of The Cook. Greenaway’s contempt for consumerism is made more than evident through the actions of The Thief – a man who forces others to eat dog excrement, rapes his own wife and sticks a fork into the face of a relative stranger. Perhaps the film’s most terrifying scene is when The Thief forces a young choirboy to eat his own buttons before slicing his belly -button – it’s probably the film’s pre-eminent example of the corruption of capitalism violently destroying that which is innocent and pure. In terms of the destruction of the arts, he attempts to force cheap cutlery and designs (the flashing sign, “more gold” for the interiors) upon The Cook. And in the opening scene, we’re treated to an introduction where curtains are opened (invoking theatre, art) to reveal the invasion of giant trucks (a symbol of capitalism?) upon the stage.

Greenaway is too sharp to allow The Thief to be a one-dimensional force of destruction, however. To this end, he directs Michael Gambon to an attractively boisterous performance. As The Thief holds court at the centre of Le Hollandais he spouts all sorts of jargon as if he were obscenity’s answer to Shakespeare – and this dialogue really is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before… I’d post a few examples, were it not for the fact that much of its success is due to Gambon’s wicked delivery. Greenaway makes it easy to deplore The Thief, but it’s difficult not to enjoy his theatricality. Still, it’s to the director’s credit that this larger-than-life character doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the film. The constantly tracking camera ensures this, refusing to align us with any one character’s point of view. If, at film’s end, we find ourselves rooting for Georgina (The Wife) it’s purely down to the sympathy she inherits with her role as abused wife. Her sex with The Lover seems more about sheer escapism from the destructive Thief, than passion or romance. Their meetings in various spaces in the kitchen set up an enticing link between sex and food (or, if we’re likening The Cook to an artist, then perhaps art? Or the artist’s thought process?), and their final moments of comfort in the book depository surely suggests that true romance can only thrive in the ream of art + literature or some such thing?!

It’s impossible to discuss The Cook… without mentioning Greenaway’s mise-en-scène. Lavish, extravagant, opulent… you get the idea. Everything is bold and large, from the ridiculously spacious kitchen to the towering ceilings of the book depository. There’s also a curious colour code: the outside courtyard is dominated by blues, the kitchen by greens, the restaurant itself by reds, and the restrooms by whites. Moreover, in the restaurant itself hangs a giant painting as the diners relish the Cook’s gourmet meals – yet again emphasising the link between art and consumption (art watches consumers consume art?!) Even more quaint is the way in which all the characters’ costumes change according to their surroundings – all of them that is, except for The Lover who almost always remains dressed in brown (in another example of Greenaway’s delicious humour, even when served as a revenge dish at the end he’s still brown.) Perhaps the director is trying to equate The Lover and what he represents (art? or perhaps more simply, love?) as the one constant regardless of setting? It’s an interesting idea to consider but honestly, I’m not really sure about it. All I do know is that Greenaway successfully negotiates a duality between his overlty theatrical sets (not to mention Gambon’s performance and Michael Nyman’s grand compositions on the soundtrack) and the cinematic qualities that the medium demands – we view the events as if sitting in a theatre, except this is a stage that seemingly neverends with the camera seamlessly traversing across walls and scenes to create something more akin to a vast canvas than a mere stage performance. And indeed, at some points Greenaway’s compositions look as if they’re straight out of an old painting. It makes for a unique viewing experience but again… I see it, I note it, but somewhere along the line I’m sure I’ve missed the depth?

My lack of familiarity with Greenaway’s concerns does little to diminish my appreciation of this film, however. And if I didn’t enjoy the rest of the film enough, the finale alone would have been enough to buy my love. Possibly the most savage and gruesome moment in a film that’s brimming with them, it’s also the film’s most satisfying metaphor. Aside from providing The Wife with her well-earned revenge, it’s serves as the pinnacle of decadence: after the greedy (read: the Thief) have consumed everything else, what’s left to consume but each other? Even The Thief stalls upon this final act, and is thus unable to eat his own words (unlike The Lover?), subsequently rendering him speechless – note how a lot of the scene’s eeriness is due to the foul-mouthed Thief’s silence. The camera cuts to The Wife, glaring down towards the Thief (but also implicating the audience) who chillingly accuses us (also consumers?): “cannibal!” And then the curtains are drawn, the credits roll, and the performance is over. But like, OMG what a performance! If any scholars/enthusiasts of either Greenaway or this film would care to enlighten me with some more eloquent thoughts I’d very much appreciate it. TA in advance!

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Crash (Cronenberg; 1996)


Crash is only my second Cronenberg, following 2005’s brilliant A History of Violence. The enormous controversy surrounding this one made me desperate to seek it out, and I’m glad that I did so, even if it is stranger than anything I could have imagined. And that’s probably one of it’s strengths? Crash completely dismisses everything that audiences have been geared to expect from film: here, there is barely a narrative in the conventional sense, and instead there’s sex scene after sex scene after sex scene and so on. There’s minimal development outside of sex/cars, and the characters come across as glacial as a result. And indeed, the entire film feels cold and metallic from the harsh silvers/blues/browns of the cinematography to Howard Shore’s appropriately dissonant score. The fact that the actors are so flat and distant is just another part of the emotionless world that Cronenberg constructs – there’s little of the human drama that we’re accustomed to in film: even the death of a major character is treated with nonchalance, and the ending fails to provide any resolution to events that proceeded it (though I doubt that it could have?)

Through this stylized setting then, Crash challenges, and predicts a redefinition of, human interaction. It’s a pessimistic and disconcerting world-view, but I found it all the more enthralling because of it. As the film is overwhelmed by sex, we can assume that this IS Cronenberg’s method of forwarding plot. The lack of psychological depth to the characters is more than evident during these scenes: they engage in lovemaking whilst lacking the ability to summon up the ‘love’ part of the equation. The transposition of sex from the bedroom to the car marks a desperate attempt to uncover some feeling in this gruesome, ever-mechanised world. Is this the next step in the debasement of sex, Cronenberg seems to ask? Are the cheap, primal thrills all that we can aspire to as our roles are further replaced by machinery and we grow ever desensitized to the world? The character of Vaughan attempts to provide some method to this madness, using terms like ‘psychopathology’ – but to me, his words came across as little more than psycho_babble_ and proved yet another sign of the characters’ dislocation. Vaughan does touch on a good point though: as technology continues to infiltrate upon human life, an intrusion into the world of sex doesn’t seem as inconceivable as it should be (or at least, not in Cronenberg’s vision.)

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Crash then, is that despite it’s inherent bleakness, it manages to remain a surprisingly sexy film. Cronenberg’s camera sinuously glides over cars, bodies and wreckage – and as it’s our only method of looking, it’s difficult not to fall into the director’s trap of enslaving the audience as voyeurs but more importantly: potential fetishists. The scars and the mutilation are repulsive on the surface, but should one be seduced by the camera and it’s possible to fathom the attraction on the base level at which the characters exist – and perhaps that’s Cronenberg’s real masterstroke here: he lures us into this world viscerally. He makes it difficult to incriminate the characters by removing most feelings, but should we choose to do so then he suggests that we should also look at ourselves for enjoying some of these thrills. Is it not gripping when Vaughan tries to smash into Catherine’s car as a means of foreplay? And is it possible not to be turned on by Catherine, bare naked, describing the taste of semen? Perhaps the alignment of audience with character is the reason why the film remains so divisive, then? Either way, it’s a film that I admire a LOT for its audacity – even if it is something that I won’t be in a particular hurry to return to.


Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick; 1999)

Eyes Wide Shut

Way back when in 1999, I recall seeing THAT Time magazine cover with Tom + Nicole and reading the featured article… even as an ickle 12 year old I couldn’t escape the hoopla that surrounded the release of Eyes Wide Shut! And yet, despite my curiosity at the time, I’ve never had the desire to watch it in the years following its release. In case you didn’t know, I’m something of a self-confessed Kidman fanboy so you’d think the opportunity to check out Nikki-in-da-nude would provide ample motivation for a young man like myself… but my absolute distaste for Tom Cruise (one of a select group of actors whose presence in a film actually repels me) coupled with a growing disenchantment with Stanley Kubrick (or at least his stature in the canon) has thwarted that potential viewing. Until now, that is. Note that I bought the DVD in a charity shop, and that my motivation behind the purchase was the opportunity to watch the final one of Kidman’s supposedly ‘great’ performances that I hadn’t seen… so you can probably imagine my surprise when, following the initial confrontation between Bill and Alice Harford, I realised that I was becoming quite enamoured with the film. And OMG Cruise wasn’t horrendously bad?! And then, about an hour into the film, during the scene in the Rainbow store, I realised that I was actually very much in love with what was on-screen. My beliefs have been turned upside down, and I like it!

Eyes Wide Shut forms such a remarkable contrast to his only other ‘great’ film imo: 2001…. Whereas the latter probably couldn’t be any more grandiose, Kubrick’s final film narrows in on a considerably more intimate setting: that of the marital bedroom. The director’s analysis of the personal insecurities that arise as a result of tension in this most private of environments feels so accurate and is so alluringly presented on-screen that I’m baffled by those that fail to appreciate the success of his vision?! He consistently toyed with and defied my expectations both in terms of genre (erotic drama? thriller?) as well as through the use of his actors. Regarding this latter point, I found Kubrick’s utilisation of Cruise’s irritating persona particularly notable. Rather than mould Cruise’s limited talents into some repellent hero-type character, Kubrick instead chooses to playfully eek out the ‘flaws’ in the actor’s star image. He repeatedly undermines the heroism one associates with the star by focusing on his character’s failures: in his marriage, his professional life and – most cunningly, considering the scrutiny about Cruise’s ‘masculinity’ as well as the connotations of having Kidman as co-star – his sexual life. For his part, Cruise gamely (perhaps blindly?) takes the bait and while he doesn’t deliver anything close to an acting masterclass (Kidman is superior in her limited screen-time), he does provide a great star turn in the Hollywood tradition – the difference with yesteryear being that his is a performance that is deftly and constantly subverted by the director.

One of the primary themes that struck me was that of identity. The character of Bill Harford is egotistical and self-centred (seriously, casting Cruise was fucking genius!), almost wilfully blind to his wife’s needs as best demonstrated by the foreplay-in-the-mirror scene where he shuts his eyes when lost in passion, thereby remaining oblivious to Alice’s emotional distance. This is a marriage that appears mechanised from the opening scene where the couple engage in a possibly-frequent grooming ritual (Alice: “How do I look?”; Bill: “You always look beautiful” whilst not casting her a glance.) What the mirror scene does is to epitomise Bill’s comfort in his lifestyle and Alice’s _dis_comfort in hers – moreover, it’s immediately succeeded by a sequence that further demonstrates their everyday ritual (the concept of rituals is pretty important too, no?) which serves to again underline Alice’s boredom.

Alice’s initial confession scene is thus explicable but nonetheless surprising for providing a dramatic peak so early on. Moreover, it haunts Bill for the rest of the film, acting as the catalyst for all that follows. Alice’s desires (which remain just that) disrupt Bill’s ideal of her as faithful wife and mother, and as a result the facade of his own alpha-male role is revealed to him and the entire construct of his utopian world begins to unravel. A significant portion of Eyes Wide Shut is devoted to Bill’s naive attempts to reconstruct those ideals in order to restore his belief as sexually desirable male. Of course, Kubrick doesn’t make it so simple and one can sense him getting a kick out of Bill/Cruise repeatedly failing to fulfil his desires. Kubrick even subverts Bill’s role as successful doctor – we never actually see how he saves Mandy from a drug overdose in Ziegler’s apartment, and the rest of our images of Bill-as-professional are restricted to: stereotypes in the aforementioned ‘everyday’ ritual; his failure to save a patient from death; and the repeated abuse of his privileges by wielding his ‘Medical Board’ card. The emphasis then is clearly on artificiality over actuality and the disguises that people use. This is echoed throughout the film by Ziegler (happily-married host/perverse philanderer), Militch (protective father/pimp) and the cross-dressing Japanese businessmen as well as Bill himself and his marriage to Alice (and perhaps even Cruise and his marriage to Kidman?) One could even argue that the film’s recreation of New York-in-England plays into this whole concept. All these ideas reach a climax during the masked orgy sequence, Buñuelian in its exposition of bourgeois affairs and Lynchian in its dreamlike bizarreness. Most importantly, it’s Kubrickian in highlighting man’s destructive impulses – this time through the relegation of love/sex (note the bleakly ironic password of “fidelio”) to trivial ‘fucking’, our basest method of communication. The relationship of this scene to Alice’s final words is paramount.

Anyway, I wanted to say much more about this film: the surprising feminist streak in this film and how Alice and the other females dominate over Bill; the link between dreams and reality; the way the spectre of death lingers over proceedings (did Kubrick know? It’s almost comparable to Altman’s APHC); not to mention the (delightfully) unsatisfying pool table scene which resolves everything by saying nothing – I still can’t get my head around it. And the finale in the toy store… how magnificently conceived! The ultimate symbol of the material, convenient but childish marriage that the pair have. But I frankly cannot be arsed to type any more, so over to you guys please…

Eyes Wide Shut

Nights of Cabiria (Fellini; 1957)

Nights of Cabiria

Oh why oh why oh why did I postpone my viewing of this for so long? Well, probably to save me from the emotional TORTURE that it put me through in that final scene. But still, this was powerful filmmaking that caught me off-guard, despite the fact that I expected something tragic.

The film seems to paint a bleak portrait of life for its title character: Cabiria is victimised by almost everyone around her. Nights is particularly critical of men – every single case of exploitation, abuse or neglect is a result of a selfish or greedy subscriber to the patriarchy. The most sympathetic character aside from Cabiria, is that of Wanda (played with some sort of brash tenderness thanks to Franca Marzi) and indeed, Wanda and her fellow prostitutes provide us with ironically positive role models. In the cold landscapes that Fellini favours (be they ravaged fields or decadent mansions), the prostitutes gift the viewer and Cabiria with the film’s only real sense of community. It’s telling however, that this community is a precarious one, barely held together through its conflicts. And even here, Cabiria is very much an “outsider amongst outsiders.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering this is Fellini we’re dealing with, there’s also a harsh critique of religion. It’s revealed as offering little beyond false promises. The scene featuring the pilgrim’s exemplifies this: Cabiria begs for redemption, but her wishes remain unfulfilled. In the meantime, her fellow pilgrims’ demands highlight the negative effects of religious belief, as they end up deliriously causing havoc when their own expectations aren’t met. And, of course, there’s the notorious “man with a sack” scene where the Church’s failings are reinforced upon the viewer.

Cabiria’s life plays out like a series of struggles against the onslaught of despair. Nights opens by duping the viewer with a scene of idyllic romance… that swiftly veers into potentially tragic territory. Yet even after a near-death experience, Cabiria instantly picks herself up and stubbornly marches on, initially refusing to believe in the failings of the man whom she loved. The aforementioned “man in the sack” scene is especially notable with this in mind, for aside from offending the Catholic church, it also acts as the fundamental point where Cabiria’s faith in men (not to mention a capacity for human decency) is reaffirmed – thereby setting her up for the film’s excruciating finale. Although endearing and perhaps even admirable, Cabiria’s hope and naivety is nonetheless shown to be detrimental to her prospects in the world that she lives in… and perhaps that’s the saddest of all the conclusions that Fellini makes?

The way I’ve been going on thus far, one could easily get the impression that Cabiria is an entirely sympathetic character designed to emotionally manipulate the audience (and I’m not sure that she isn’t.) Additionally, she seems to be written as some sort of hooker-with-a-heart cliché that’s fairly offputting. The fact that the character succeeds (and on SUCH a level) is almost entirely attributable to Giulietta Masina’s hyperbole-isn’t-enough performance. Having recently viewed (and been impressed by) her Gelsomina in La Strada, I was curious to see if Masina would have the ability and range to divorce any memories of that former character with this portrayal. Needless to say, she dispels it and delivers an even more heartbreaking creation in its place. Fellini offsets some potential mawkishness by writing Cabiria as a loud-mouthed and temperamental showoff at face value… and Masina rises to the bait and then some. She’s vulgar, crass and very very stubborn – and yet even in these scenes there’s something lurking beneath the surface, an inherent kind-naturedness and innocence that Masina gradually nurtures until it climaxes in that mesmerising “magician scene” at the theatre (on a side note: does anyone else see a major influence on Mulholland Dr.’s most emotionally revealing scene here?) And of course, the film’s conclusion is a triumph for Masina as well, almost reaching the giddy heights set by the City Lights ending that influenced it. Her expressive features embody all the oppositions posed by the film, radiating both the experience and hope that define Cabiria.

For his part in dealing with such a potentially schmaltzy creation, Fellini tends to avoid sentimentalising Cabiria. Aside from directing Masina to a rough-edged tour-de-force and ensures that the character has plenty of opportunity to display her aggression, he also opts for fairly rough, gritty locales and the stylistic flourishes that would be on display in later films aren’t as evident here. Dare I mention neorealism? The film’s style is certainly not too far removed from 1940s De Sica/Rossellini. In addition, Fellini undercuts many of the film’s sweetest moments with an uncomfortable dose of dry cynicism, that’s perhaps a mark of a pessimistic world-view? Note the aforementioned magician scene, the high-point of Cabiria’s attractive vulnerability, which the director juxtaposes with reaction shots of a mocking crowd. Same goes for the scene where Cabiria joyfully throws herself into a mambo – initially it’s difficult not to share in her delight, but the constant cuts to unimpressed onlookers undermines that.

Nights of Cabiria is melodramatic in its story, no doubt about it, and it could be accused of childlike sentimentality. But regardless of those criticisms, it’s still a surprisingly unpleasant character study and examination of society. And Fellini’s style is so appropriate and his observations so sharp that emotional manipulation becomes somewhat irrelevant in the grand scheme of this film. Moreover, when the vehicle of the viewers emotional involvement is Giulietta Masina providing a performance that’s a work of beauty in itself… well, it’s easy to forgive, right?

Sullivan's Travels (Sturges; 1941)


I’m quite the sucker for films that throw caution to the wind and sprint their way through various styles and genres with complete abandon. Well, I’m a sucker for THIS here one anyway. So there’s a brazen critique of Hollywood and the workings of its studio system; shots of complete and utter beauty that went so far as to remind me of Sunrise (Sullivan and The Girl by the lake under the stars) in both style and tone; a probable hark back to the “social consciousness” films of the 1930s in its latter segment; possible elements of an early “road movie” in the series of ‘travels’ that Sullivan makes; a social commentary in some senses – esp. re: its comments on marriage, the judicial system, even issues of race?; plus Chaplinesque moments abound from the poignant scenes with the tramps through to moments of insane slapstick (falling in the pool) which even border on the cartoonish (THAT chase scene! LMAO!) – appropriate considering the film’s emotional crux in the church. Oh, and the requisitely perfect dialogue of course. The film seems so absurd in its conception, it’s INSANE (it actually is.)

But Sturges holds the entire thing together brilliantly, imo. It’s exquisitely structured, with three ultimately uninformative ‘travels’ before the final inadvertent but enlightening journey. The slapstick that characterises the initial scenes seem to later give way to a more sophisticated style of comedic analysis or something which seems to reflect Sullivan’s own intellectual awakening… perhaps shadowing his journey as a director – after all, wasn’t he noted for making lowbrow comedies? Of course, the ending is a bit problematic if we’re going down that route, but I choose to believe that Sullivan will eventually have a more Sturges-like outlook to filmmaking? Indeed, if we see Sullivan the character as Sturges’ alter-ego then like, the fact that Sturges could make a film as intelligent as this means that Sullivan too might end up doing so? But I’m not sure I go with the Sullivan-as-Sturges thing (at least, not entirely)... ok, I’ll stop right there because I’m confusing MYSELF right now!

Anyway, back to that ending. Initially, I was so swept up by joy (it made me teary-eyed) that I didn’t stop to actually consider what it seemed to be saying. Then when I actually gave it some thought I felt slightly uncomfortable… I felt that Sturges was advocating entertainment over art, or at least the ability of film to be socially relevant. But having given it even more thought, I don’t think he questions the art so much as what drives it. And really, the final emphasis is on the joy that entertainment can bring to people’s lives which is a more than fair conclusion to make – especially from an auteur who thrived within the confines of the studios. Moreover, the fact that Sullivan’s Travels is an intelligent film and perhaps even a social commentary in its own right suggests that the source of cinematic joy doesn’t necessarily need to be lowbrow and mind-numbing. Not to mention Sturges’ running critique of the Hollywood system, which offsets any allusions about a finale that acclaims it.

It’s that final point is probably what I’m loving about Preston Sturges thus far? Nothing is mere black-and-white in his world, and he manages to paint surprisingly complex portraits. Like, in the film’s most romantic Sunrise-esque moment that I mentioned earlier… Sullivan and The Girl walk along a lakeside but as they do so there’s a brief glimpse of a man hanging from a tree! And when Sturges notes human generosity with the Las Vegas café owner, he (kinda cutely) undermines it by having the character act so with reluctance (“I won’t get rich anyway…”) The poverty-ridden only sit through a church service to get a meal at the end of it etc. etc. I love how he reconciles that undercurrent of cynicism with what I believe to be an ultimate faith in the goodness of people (Sullivan, McGinty, Jimmy MacDonald…). Sullivan’s Travels is probably the most perfect achievement of those designs that I’ve seen, and it’s ending is like a self-reflexive celebration of that imo. And it’s just so beautiful?! I’m in love.

July 2007

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