An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
A Blonde in Love (Miloš Forman, 1965)
The blonde of the title is Andula, a pretty, doe-eyed girl who slaves all day in a provincial, state-run shoe factory, only to go home to an all-female dormitory. At the front of the film Forman sets his tone by placing a flatly shot sequenceof a plump girl singing with awkward aplomb a pretty, Beatle-ish pop song, which clinches its chorus with this couplet: “My love for her was so great/It turned me into a hooligan.”
Andula probably dreams of a boy who would become a hooligan out of love for her, and he seems to arrive in the form a pianist accompanying a saxophone-dominated R&B band, hired to play for a contrived, government-sanctioned mixer. Arranged by their factory’s manager –– who appears to function as its social director, too–– the glum get-together forces Andula and her co-workers into a starkly over-lit function room to face down a trainload of horny army reservists who appear to be mostly middle-aged married guys with male pattern balding. Forman pumps lots of forlorn comedy from the scene as most of the girls, with thinly disguised disdain, brush off the men’s fraternization attempts and run off in small giggling huddles.
Andula, however, catches the eye of the pianist, Milda, who recognizes a plum ready for plucking and coaxes the girl upstairs into his room, “just to talk.” The seduction scene that follows is notable for its honesty, humor, and dead-on realism. Talking is clearly not what’s on Milda’s mind, and, as the timorous virginal Andula begins to insist on leaving, he suddenly finds it necessary to give the girl a lesson in self-defense, which initiates physical contact. With a jump cut, Milda and Andula are naked but hampered in getting down to business by a comically recalcitrant window shade.
Featuring the famous image of Milda’s head nestled casually but provocatively in nude Andula’s pubic region, the scene with the lovers’ post-coital conversation is the heart of the picture. Luxuriating in the buzz of spent sex, each sounds the other out, but neither wants the other to know the respective realities of their social lives. Andula lies about the source of a ring on her finger, saying her mother give it to her, whereas her boyfriend did, and Milda swears he has no girlfriend back in Prague, yet it’s clear that he tries to sleep with anything female that moves.
Once Milda departs, Andula can barely let any time pass before acting on his half-serious invitation to visit him in Prague, carrying a suitcase filled with high hopes of a life begun afresh in a loving relationship. At least Milda has given her the correct address, at which she finds a cramped apartment where the ladykiller lives with his parents. At the moment, Milda, however, is absent, tomcatting about town and so, with nowhere else to go, Andula finds herself marooned at the apartment, wilting under the glare of a very puzzled mom and pop.
Forman keeps several balls in the air here: Andula’s predicament may be sad and awkward, but it’s funny, too –– and when Milda finally tiptoes in at dawn, her final disappointment is played against the screwball hilarity of his contentious but dependent relationship with his parents. Andula’s cycle of denial-disillusionment-denial carries a deadpan comic despair that Forman slyly links to the Czech experience of living under Soviet occupation.
Czechoslovakia/1965/81min./B&W/In Czech with optional English subtitles/OAR 1.33:1. Released in the UK on DVD(PAL) by Second Run in 2011.
The Lighthouse (Maria Saakyan, 2006)
Once Lena understands just how dangerous everyday life has become in the village, she attempts to convince her frail grandparents to leave it, while she herself must question where her own place in the world should be. Saakyan’s film is image driven and much dependent on the director’s choice of location, a mist-enshrouded village and landscape that provides a mystical, timeless background to Lena’s struggle. As she extends her visit, the season edges into the beauties of spring –– captured with enormous delicacy by cinematographer Maksim Drozdov –– and there are many long shots of Lena as a small figure midst rocks, rills, and blossoming trees. This gorgeous yet unsettling film is memorable not only for its image-making but for its vivid evocation of a wartime population making do while living under constant fear. Its visual glories are well served by Second Run, which includes a short film by Saakyan, Farewell (2004), as an extra.
Russia/2006/75min./Color/In Russian and Armenian, with optional English subtitles/1.78:1 OAR,16:9 anamorphic/PAL. Released on DVD by Second Run in the UK in 2011.
The Clowns (Fellini, 1970)
Coming on the heels of Fellini Satyricon (1969), The Clowns inaugurated a trio of autobiographical films, the others being Fellini’s Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973). Both The Clowns and Roma were produced for Italian television, and the medium, with its lowered expectations, seemed to have loosened Fellini up. Satyricon had come after a near emotional collapse in the wake of his abandoned project The Journey of G. Mastorno; by the late sixties, burdened by the pressure to out-Fellini himself in high-budgeted projects, the director’s discovery of a faux documentary conceit –– and the free-associating, collage-like structure it provided –– was that of any great artist finding release and joy in a new direction that uses simplified means, like Picasso and his ceramics or Matisse with his cutouts.
Yet, for all its improvisatory feel, The Clowns seems to have been tightly scripted, making the film’s status as a documentary a deliberate sham; the director’s “crew” is really a bunch of actors (the sound man, Alvaro, for example, being played by Alvaro Vitali, a highly recognizable Fellini stalwart); and the spontaneity of the interviews is more than suspect. Because Fellini makes the deceit part of his concept, the appearance of non-actors –– like the old retired clowns, a clown historian — and Chaplin’s daughter has a dissonant but bracing effect.
While he interviews, we see the crew and Fellini himself filmed as they film; the real voices of most of the retired clowns have been replaced in post-production dubbing. Chance meetings with old friends, like Anita Ekberg, are clearly anything but: visiting a still active circus in Paris, Fellini runs into the Dolce Vita star, and Anita explains that she’s there to purchase a tiger, but we’re not convinced. It’s a scripted moment, burlesquing the eccentricity of movie stars; we know it, and Fellini knows we know it. Re-enactments of bygone clown routines can have an audience member staring at the camera, which shatters the illusory frame, too. (Fellini pulled the same trick in Satyricon: during Trimalchio’s feast, more than one actor glares at the camera, breaking that cardinal cinematic rule.)
Thus, allowing a film’s illusion to show through wasn’t new for Fellini, and in later work, like Fellini’s Casanova (1976) and The Ship Sails On (1983), the reveals would widen even further. But here in The Clowns, he seems to use the open-handed contrivances to undercut the idea that the documentary form can really chase down the meaning of its subject. Fellini’s voice-over characterizes his film as a quest to capture the meaning of clowns, but,outside of a very personal but intangible meaning and factoring in time, death, and the fragility of any filmed records, the quest seems futile and more than a little mournful.
The film opens with an extended lyrical sequence memorializing what purports to be Fellini’s first encounter with the circus, picturing himself as a boy in a Little Nemo nightshirt awakened by the sounds of a big top being erected right under his bedroom window in the middle of the night. It’s a perfectly envisioned childhood memory: in rhythms set by an invisible gruff barker, the massive tent –– which is endearingly and hallucinogenically a miniature –– seems to inflate itself like some mysterious deep sea creature. Observing the process, the boy simply doesn’t understand what he’s seeing, and the next day, when he enters the tent, he finds the physical reality of the circus so sensual and violent as to be nearly unendurable. Here, as at the film’s end, Fellini allows a run of clown acts to escalate into a mindless fury of bonking and pratfalls, none of which is remotely funny but instead frightens little Federico and makes him cry.
Feeling like a warm-up for Amarcord, a series of narrative vignettes follows, likening the clown dialectic –– that is, the authoritarian white clown versus the subservient, victimized Augusto tramp clown –– to contrasting, small town village “types” that populated his Rimini childhood. Thereby, in a strategy that might appear glib on paper, the director forces the two modes of clowning into archetypes of fundamental human behavior, with the white clown symbolizing the moral and ethical strictures of parent, teacher, and the super-ego, whereas Augusto is the rebel of puerile chaos, “the kid who poops his pants,” the unchained id.
As Fellini develops his thesis, it darkens, and death enters the big top. We hear a few aged retired clowns reminisce; some still show signs of glee and perform their shtick for the crew; others are reclusive, depressed, bitter –– but all of them represent the end of an era. Is the art of clowning dying? Fellini asks. Then magically, he conjures a mythic tale of a fatally ill clown, who, escaping a hospital ward in ‘twenties-era Paris to catch the legendary act of Footit and Chocolat, expires unnoticed in the stands as the crowd cheers the fabled duo.
In the film’s final sequence, a clown widow wails for her dead clown husband; the funeral march that follows has Fellini directing it on the side of a sound-stage circus ring. While it begins solemnly enough, the march, with a burst of double-time circus music, accelerates round the ring into a frenetic mockery of the passerella finale of 8 1/2.When all the color and noise eventually explode into silence, Fellini arranges a peaceful coda set to the poignant strains of the old standard “Ebb Tide,” in which two combative clowns reconcile by playing the tune, in conversing phrases to each other, on trumpets across a vacant circus ring. It’s a masterstroke,and one of Fellini’s most eloquent expressions of a coming to terms with the contrarieties of human existence.
Raro Video’s edition comes packed with extras. Its booklet contains a long essay by Fellini written to introduce a coffee-table monograph issued after the film’s release; entitled A Journey Into the Shadow, it shows the maestro making an unusual amount of sense in explaining his goals for The Clowns. The disc offers an affectionate and informative visual essay on the film, as well, and Fellini’s 16-minute Un Agenzia Matrimoniale, his contribution to the 1953 omnibus film, L’Amore in Città.
Italy/92min./Color and B&W/In Italian and French with English subtitles. Released on DVD by Raro Video in 2011.
Senso (Visconti, 1954)
Opera, which Visconti reportedly considered the highest art form, was indeed guiding his sensibility as he created Senso. Set in the era of the Risorgimento –– the mid-19th-century rebellion against Austrian occupation that led to a unified Italy –– the film begins in the actual La Fenice opera house in Venice, where a tenor is bellowing Di Quella Pira to a sea of white-uniformed Austrian officers on the house floor. The aria provides the powerful curtain to the third act of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and the Italians in the boxes, using it as a call to arms, momentarily intimidate the Austrians with shouts of liberty and patriotic solidarity.1
Rebellious Italian troops did indeed sing certain numbers from Verdi operas during the conflict, with the composer’s name being appropriated as an acronym in a rallying cry,2) but the film’s ties to the composer go deeper still and to Verdi’s follow-up to Il Trovatore: La Traviata.
Senso stars Alida Valli as Countess Livia Serpieri, who, as the story opens, is a secret patriot of the Risorgimento in league with her cousin Luca (Sergio Fantoni), a major player in the revolt. Luca has entrusted her with hiding a mass of jewels and cash to help finance the revolution when Livia meets the dashing young Austrian officer Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). With little resistance on her part, Livia begins a torrid affair with Franz, literally sleeping with the enemy. As long as she rendezvouses with Franz in a ramshackle part of Venice, Livia plays it relatively safe, but when she and her husband retire to their summer estate outside the city, Franz delivers himself to the Countess’s bedroom one night, and Livia can compartmentalize no longer. Manipulated by her young lover, she makes some fateful choices.
Early enough, the audience may suspect Franz is a con artist, but Livia doesn’t and essentially throws her life away — including her political convictions — for the sake of her passion, the senso of the title. In her abandonment of her social standing, her ideals, her pride, not to mention her sanity, Livia may fit the definition of a traviata even better than Verdi’s Violetta. The opera’s title, its heroine’s sobriquet, is derived from the Italian verb, traviare, meaning to be led astray, to fall from the straight and narrow; thus, a traviata is woman led astray, a lost lady. What Franz awakens in Livia leads her irrevocably down the path to personal ruin and an act of vengeance that unhinges her mind. Shot nocturnally in Verona, a final image has Livia screaming her beloved’s name as she meanders along empty high-walled streets that resemble massive stage sets.
Visually, and with the help of Anton Bruckner on the soundtrack,3 the depiction of Livia’s fall carries the same kind of operatic “emotional grandeur” that one of Criterion’s commentators heard in Maria Callas’s vocal artistry. Callas was much on Visconti’s mind as he filmed Senso; if she hadn’t been away in New York at the time, she most likely would have appeared and sung in the Trovatore excerpts at the film’s opening. And if Alida Valli doesn’t physically resemble Callas very much, the faces of the two woman share a dark, emphatic Mediterranean quality that, in stillness, has a mask-like effect the director knew how to exploit. “Don’t move too much,” he told the singer, “unless the drama calls for it,” and he may have given similar advice to Valli: her character’s elegant physical reserve –– her figure swathed in yards of exquisite fabric, her face often veiled — will be undone by the violence of her emotions.
Granger, who passed away only weeks ago at this writing, projects just the right mix of faux gallantry and self-absorption, but you wonder what the young Marlon Brando would have done with the role had he accepted it after Visconti pitched it to him. Apparently, Brando had been eager to play Mahler, until he was advised to withdraw because of Visconti’s communist affiliations.
We learn this from one of Criterion’s supplements, which run deep, especially in the case of a 1966 BBC documentary. The hour-long program allows the viewer valuable face time with the director himself and several eloquent talking heads from the period, including Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein. For good reason there are as many shots here of Visconti directing opera (with Carlo Guilini at La Scala) as there are of him directing a film. Seeing Visconti’s intimate direction of singers at rehearsal, with just the pianist and Guilini beating time, is a moving sight. Also revelatory is the sight of him pouring over the fabric for the production’s (Verdi’s Don Carlos) costumes: the expressive deliberateness of the period costumes in films like Senso and The Leopard is no accident, but the result of Visconti’s intense commitment to all aspects of his films.
Italy/1954/123min./Color/Monaural/In Italian with English subtitles/1.33:1 aspect ratio. Released by The Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray disc in 2011.
Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton, 1923)
The 1925 film is funny enough –– and a terrific supplement to this disc, since it contains not only the train but Keaton himself, in an uncredited role as an Indian –– but the photography merely functions to capture the staging of this or that comic situation. For Our Hospitality, though, Keaton takes exquisite care in framing and lighting (all of which was necessarily natural at the time), and he makes the most of his location settings. Whatever small town was involved in the filming — I don’t think it’s a set –– the director manages to give it the look of an old albumen photograph. In spite of the sophistication involved, the director’s accomplishment seems effortless, a sure sign of mastery, yet Keaton’s career as a director would end with just a handful of films to his credit.
Our Hospitality’s story was inspired by the near-mythic Hatfield/McCoy feud, which actually occurred much later, post Civil War, than Keaton’s timeline of 1810-1830. The film’s prologue, set in 1810, opens on a dark and stormy night, during which two sons from the warring clans manage to kill each other, leaving on the McKay side a young widow and year-old infant son, Willie (Buster Keaton, Jr.), and, on the Canfield end, the need to continue the feud.
Keaton plays the events in the prologue straight, and, while a double murder might seem an odd way to begin a comedy, Buster knew what he was doing. As a supplement, Kino supplies a curious artifact, left in Keaton’s estate, that possibly points to the director’s careful handling of his film’s dramatic factor. A 49-minute cut of Our Hospitality (interestingly entitled simply Hospitality, and presumably cut by Keaton) excises much of the comedy, exposing the larger edit’s armature of drama — a Romeo/Juliet blossoming of love between boy and girl set against a background of tribal hatred. Deducing that it had been assembled before the final cut, one of Kino’s commentators wonders if Keaton assembled it to see if he had the right dramatic elements in place to push his film into an expressive realm beyond a mere succession of comic bits (however inspired these might be).
After the prologue, we jump two decades and meet the 21-year-old Willie McKay, played by Keaton as another in his string of effete youths who must find their mettle and in the process win the girl. Willie’s been raised in New York City by his mother’s sister so that he may grow up ignorant of the feud, but when he receives word that he’s inherited his father’s estate down South, his aunt spills the beans. A kiss and a hug later, Willie leaves to meet his destiny by catching the train, the aforementioned, lovingly detailed reproduction, also named The Rocket.
Willie’s journey on the primitive, antique train is an inspired set piece that nearly overwhelms the rest of the picture. Keaton’s re-creation of 1830s train travel is at once historically accurate and ludicrous. Although the replicated locomotive and passenger cars are spectacularly real and seemingly authentic, the train remains charmingly toy-like, chronically dysfunctional, and hardly a speedy mode of travel, since Willie’s dog is able to comfortably traverse the same distance, unnoticed, at a leisurely gait beneath his owner’s car.
The railroad line appears to have been laid out and engineered by Dr. Seuss; the rails, unattached, float on or even above the ties and make preposterous concessions to the terrain. But while Keaton keeps the sight gags coming at a steady pace, there’s something unaccountably lyrical –– not to say profoundly nostalgic –– about the inelegance and incompetence of a mechanical contraption that, in 1830, as Buster shows us, was so modern and exciting that folks would gather at a remote crossing just to watch it pass, much like today’s citizens clustering across from Cape Canaveral to experience the space shuttle launch.
On the train, Willie can’t help but begin a courtship of the demure Southern belle sitting next to him. Played by his wife at the time, Natalie Talmadge (girlish and the very pretty sister of Constance and Norma), the girl is won over by the boy’s unassuming gallantry toward her, and, once arrived at their destination, invites him over for supper at her family’s palatial homestead. Showing up, Willie finds himself surrounded by ostentatious wealth and hostile male Canfields, who want to kill him but can’t because of Southern rules of hospitality –– meaning he’s safe from assassination as long as he stays in the house.
Willie’s initial strategy is to remain the Canfields’ guest indefinitely while continuing to romance the girl, who eventually learns of Willie’s identity as an enemy McKay but decides to stick by him. Willie finally breaks out from the manse, which leads to an extended cat and mouse chase filled with the kind of intricate physical gags that Keaton would enlarge upon in The General (1925). When a huge waterfall threatens the lives of both Willie and the Canfield girl, Buster stages a giddily implausible last-second rescue that, by emphatically out doing it, seems to mock D. W. Griffith’s famous ice floe rescue in Way Down East (1920).
A valuable supplement included by Kino is a succinct documentary revealing Keaton’s clever special effect troubleshooting in staging these final scenes, which appear to take place high on a rocky promontory overlooking vast pine forests, but of course are, safely, just feet off the ground, with the pine forest landscape a painstakingly built miniature placed in the sun and blurred by long-focus lenses. Kino’s high-def transfer, while not sourcing the same kind of near-pristine elements as they had for The General, still looks fabulous, and there are two choices for musical accompaniment: an orchestral score by Carl Davis (one of his best) or a score compiled by Donald Hunsberger.
USA/1923/Colortinted B&W/75 min./1.33:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc in 2011 by Kino/Lorber.
William S. Burroughs: The Man Within (Yony Leyser, 2010)
Leyser’s documentary, released on DVD by Oscilloscope directly after their disc of the celebratory film Howl (2010), gives us the cerebral, isolated chill of Burroughs to contrast with the mystic, congregationist warmth of his pal Ginsberg. Burroughs rejected membership in any group. While in the sixties Ginsberg threw himself gleefully into the counter culture, Burroughs kept his fedora on and explored ways he could free himself from control –– anything from the mind control of publishing fascist Henry Luce to his own heroin addiction. Language itself he felt was a mode of control, and he sought liberation in his writing by adopting the randomness of the cut-up method, invented by collaborator/artist Bryon Gysin.
You could say that Burroughs, who died in 1997, was another of America’s magnificent weirdo geniuses –– a crowd that includes Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Ryder, and Joseph Cornell — but Burroughs’s outlaw strangeness upped the ante on all of them. His uncloseted gay lifestyle, aspects of which fueled the scandal over his novel Naked Lunch, necessarily put him on the fringe in the late fifties and early sixties, but his extroverted drug use — also exposed in his writing — made him a cultural pariah for a time. Burroughs has said that if he hadn’t, in 1951, accidently shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, he wouldn’t have become a writer. But the publicized incident, clearly the result of bizarrely tragic, drunken/stoned horseplay, linked to behaviors already considered aberrant and/or criminal, gave Burroughs an unsavory, even scary edge to citizens who had yet to read Junkie or Queer and made it unlikely most ever would.
One of the film’s talking heads opines that Freud would have considered Burroughs mentally ill, then qualifies that by saying, “very mentally ill,” the point being that none of the friends and associates interviewed here think he’s crazy at all, but rather creatively sane, a font of cultural insight, a role model, even. The doc also gives us Bill the avid gun enthusiast, firing off rounds into the Kansas landscape, surrounded not by aging beats or punk acolytes, but by other gun enthusiasts, who could be considered rather unsavory themselves. But the interviewees are an interesting bunch — including poet/songwriter Patti Smith, director John Waters, artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and musician Laurie Anderson — and they all clearly loved Bill.
In the end, Burroughs, if not exactly adorable, does seem kind of lovable; more than one admirer declares how funny — both in his writing and in person — he could be, and it shows in the film. When in the 1990s, members of Sonic Youth invade his privacy armed with a camcorder, he looks downright avuncular as he shows them his Orgone box in the backyard. The documentary and special features carry lots of casually shot footage of the octogenarian writer just hanging out with friends and fans and enjoying the attention. The Burroughs we see here, though mentally fit and carrying a powerful memory, is also a fragile old man, with a penchant for hugging Patti, and less the coruscating intellectual dissident he must have been in his younger days.
Yet Genesis P-Orridge, in particular, speaks to Burroughs’s continuing emotional isolation, which becomes touchingly clear in a brief segment in which an elderly Ginsberg asks an equally elderly Burroughs, “Do you want to be loved?”
“Depends,” drawls Bill, “on by whom or by what. I like my cats, certainly.” It’s a cool, level answer, and in another video clip, when a hanger-on asks Burroughs if he ever has conversations with the young hustlers he picks up, he says, matter-of-factly, “no, I don’t demand that.” But P-Orridge, commenting on Burroughs’s last days, points to a final scrawl in Burroughs’s journal that seems to hint at a need for love. “I’m glad he finally got there,” he says.
USA/2010/87min./Color/1.78:1 OAR. Released on DVD by Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2010.
- The aria is indeed a call to arms, but not against a country’s oppressor; in the opera, Manrico is gathering forces to save his mother from being burned at the stake. [↩]
- Viva VERDI:V(Victor)-E (Emmanuel)-R (Re, king) – D (Di, of) – I (Italia [↩]
- For the entire underscore, Visconti excerpts long passages from the first two movements of Bruckner’s 7th symphony, a hugely dolorous work that the composer wrote in anticipation of his hero’s (Richard Wagner) death. [↩]
- The short comedy was directed by the recently disgraced Fatty Arbuckle, who would often work as a director either uncredited or under the pseudonym William Goodrich. [↩]