Blood (Pedro Costa, 1989)
Like Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, Costa’s debut feature imagines a trio of kids forming a makeshift family unit as they enter an alienated, even dangerous, junction in their young lives. Denied what they need from adults, children must take care of children.
The film begins a
At home, the father remains withdrawn and angry, yielding neither information nor nurture to his sons before, without warning, he dies in bed. Hiding the corpse from Nino and society at large, Vincente seeks the help of a local girl, Clara (Inês de Medeiros), who gazes at the boy with the same inchoate longing that Natalie Wood throws at James Dean in Rebel. In a safer world, Costa’s teenagers would date, hold hands, make out, and have furtive sex within a familiar, preordained sequence, but poverty, crime, and death force these two to leap into existential voids for which neither is prepared.
Together they lug the corpse to a night-enshrouded cemetery where Clara spots an open grave in which Vincente can plant the body. Effectively erasing the father’s existence and death, the kids find themselves fearing the adult world and its power to separate them. It’s Christmas Eve, and Vincente and Clara have begun to form an emotional bond, but they’re too young to grasp the full-scale consequences of their isolation. Their feelings are on tenterhooks; mutual need makes them advance and retreat to and from each other. Briefly, boy and girl play mother and father to young Nino until an uncle (Luis Miguel Cintra) appears and breaks up the fragile family unit.
For the rest of the film, the three are dispersed, with Nino living in troubled fosterhood with his uncle and a solitary Vincente running up against threats of violence from his father’s gangster cohorts, partners in some subscription-based scam that yielded the cash for the cancer treatments. Like an angel, Clara trails Nino as he’s taken on a shopping trip with his uncle.
Blood’s narrative design provides few setups for situations, yet the effect is far from episodic –– although the story’s ellipses put demands on the viewer. With its minimal, non-expository dialog, Costa’s flow is instead richly visual, a stream of dark-inflected mood fed by the outstanding black and white photography of cinematographer Martin Schäfer, who gets maximum expressive value from his contrasty exposures. No scene demonstrates this better than that of a nighttime, outdoor dance where Vincente and Clara alternately find and lose each other in the shadows, finally linking up on a riverbank from which they and other celebrants watch a boatman pull a body from the water. As mist rises to cover the river, the shadows of the spectators are projected onto it as phantoms floating over the Styx.
Born in 1959, Pedro Costa is an active filmmaker whose work after Blood abruptly veered away from the lush pictorialism in his debut film toward more documentary-styled films shot in color. Despite Costa’s ever-clarifying direction toward understated naturalism (his latest project, Ne Change Rien , is a documentary), we must treasure Blood, a gem of late-in-the-day arthouse cinema.
Portugal/1989/95 min./B&W/In Portuguese with optional English subtitles/OAR 1.33:1. Released on DVD (PAL) by Second Run in 2009.
Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001)
The wedding in question is that of a daughter of well-off, middle-class parents living in suburban comfort on the outskirts of Dehli. The Vermas’ modern, luxuriously furnished home, complete with manicured lawn and pool, would not be out of place in LA’s Brentwood. As the film opens four days before the nuptials, the father of the bride, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), nearly apoplectic with entitled rage, screams into his cell phone at the lower class “event planner,” Dubey (Vijay Raaz) about an archway of marigolds that’s shedding its petals. Marigolds are everywhere in this film, and Dubey likes to eat them while taking out his entitled rage on his even lower class underlings.
While the household bristles with preparations and the arrival of relatives, the college-age bride to be, Adita (Vasundhara Das), hangs out at a TV station studio, hoping for some minutes with her current boyfriend, who happens to be much older, married, and the host of a popular talk show. Adita’s unhappy but exciting affair is still very much on the back burner as the groom for the prearranged marriage, Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), arrives from Houston.
Hemant is good-looking, athletic, and thoroughly Americanized. Unexpectedly, when the pre-arranged husband and wife meet, they actually like each other. Sloe-eyed Adita, however, has her secret affair bubbling in the background, and she’s faced with a moral dilemma as to whether to present Hemant with the facts of her sexual life, a revelation that might deep-six the wedding. Adita’s slightly older cousin, orphaned as a girl and living with the Vermas, carries another, much more disturbing and hurtful secret that pops open on the eve of the festivities, placing the bride’s father in his own moral quandary.
Monsoon Wedding‘s poly-narrative structure can remind you of Robert Altman’s, and specifically, of course, of the multilayered goings-on in his 1978 film, A Wedding, but without the American master’s dollops of cynicism and ironic switcheroo. There are strands of at least five stories woven into Nair’s film, one of the most touching being that of the wedding planner, Dubey, who, growing infatuated with the Vermas’ young servant, Alice (the lovely Tillotama Shome), begins to plan his own wedding. In the opening sequences, Dubey’s hyper-driven, gesticulating character comes on as something of a dissonance, but the actor’s revelation of Dubey’s emotional isolation –– and his emerging awareness of it –– leads to the film’s crowning image of one solitary soul greeting another with a declaration of love.
Shot almost exclusively with a hand-held camera, Monsoon Wedding has a joyous forward thrust, as if the frame can barely contain this ungainly mass of life. If there seems an afterimage when the film ends, it’s from the saturated riot of colors in the flowers and fabric of the wedding decor and celebrants, but there are dour rainy shots, too, of Delhi in monsoon season and of Adita’s tear-streaked face the day before the party begins.
The director admits that her short film, The Laughing Club of India (2000), was something of a warm-up for Monsoon Wedding, building on that documentary’s primary editing technique: jump cuts that leap from interviews to scenes of everyday life in modern Bombay. There is much poverty and congestion on display here, and Nair’s toggling structure makes clear the reason for the sudden eruption of these social clubs. Along with a little yoga, they offer a simple outlet for release and relief: for an hour a day, a varied sample of Indian society will congregate, often in public parks, and laugh out loud at each other. Many of the club members are older women who have spent their lives in restrictive conjugal existence, or for decades nursed a grief in solitude, and the communal hilarity seems to allow them a kind of crazy joy they’ve never experienced before.
India/2001/114 minutes/Color/In English and Hindi with English subtitles/1.85:1 OAR
Seven short films: So Far from India (1982), India Cabaret (1985), The Laughing Club of India(20000, The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), 11’09’01 –– September 11 [Segment: “India” (2002, Migration (2007), and How Can It Be? (2008)
Released on Blu-ray disc by The Criterion Collection in 2009.
The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)
Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles, shot in ’58, follows a group of young Native Americans, émigrés from an Arizona reservation, as they drink, fight, and lust throughout one long hot Los Angeles night. Mackenzie clearly has points to make about the day-to-day struggles, with identity and economic survival, of this young, migrating generation –– that it’s the degradation of an entire society –– but, even more than that, it seems he wants to make an exciting film. Although events in The Exiles are scripted and staged, the actors, or rather non-actors, play themselves, introducing us to their existence through voiceovers, and these carry no special pleading of social injustice, but are instead dry statements of isolation and inertia midst a half-acknowledged sense of displacement.
Mackenzie’s only misstep, I think, is a brief preamble featuring images of early 20th-century Native Americans by Edward Curtis, who brought to his photographs a romanticized vision of a noble, vanishing race at a time when Native communities needed less ennobling and more ways and means to keep them from vanishing. Mackenzie wants Curtis’ images of dignified head-dressed chiefs to contrast with his urban characters’ lack of dignity, as they drink, gamble, and hit on women, but this is precisely the kind of pleading the rest of the film proves it doesn’t need.
If anything, Curtis’ elegant pictorialism, born of 19th-century painting aesthetics and featuring the velvety lights and darks of platinum prints, is effective as visual contrast with the grainy high-speed black and white emulsion of Mackenzie’s visuals. Indeed, watching The Exiles can be like seeing one of Robert Frank’s photographs from The Americans come to life, then proceed deeply into unfathomed contexts in ways that still photography can’t. Like Frank, Mackenzie captures an image of this country on the fly that, when this film appeared, then disappeared, in 1961, must have seemed unrecognizable to the few mainstream (i.e., white) Americans who saw it. Jack Kerouac, however, would have loved it.
No one exactly stars in the film, but we spend the most time with Homer (Homer Nish), a tightly contained and combustible mixture of sullen diffidence and non-specific rage. When he and the other guys step out for the night’s prowl, there’s no question that Homer’s pregnant girlfriend Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) will be left behind to her own devices.
Homer’s voiceover tells us that, other than lots of drinking, he’s looking forward to starting a fight or two. Mackenzie’s documentation of Bunker Hill’s bar culture is detailed and visceral, with all the strata in place: the cliques of the younger habitués, the solitary old drunks, and the one demented wacko who doesn’t belong, in this case a piss-eyed white kid jabbering up and down the bar creating an atmosphere for violence. Disengaging from his friends, Homer sinks into a pool of ominous silence, from which he suddenly emerges, in a blur of fists, to pounce on an unsuspecting bar patron. Captured in long shot, Homer’s explosion feels like it’s glimpsed through a beer-haze; it’s an intense spot-on grab of shit-faced devilment that’s over almost before it’s begun.
There are moments of drunken ecstasy, too. As a white convertible full of sexually charged youth hurtles through a tunnel, the camera catches a shower of sparks from a girl’s cigarette, a startling metaphor for bursting hormones and a universalizing one. These aren’t just poster children billboarding the alienation of Native American boys and girls, they’re angel-headed hipsters, too, cruising the same misaligned, postwar landscape that Allen Ginsberg described in Howl.
Late in December of last year, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress announced its latest inductees, and, overshadowed by news that Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller had been included, was its belated addition of The Exiles to the list of films needing preservation. I’m assuming Milestone’s attention to the film is what got the Registry’s attention; as for home video, Milestone’s DVD release is one of the most essential of this or any other year.
US/1961/72 min./B&W/1.33:1 OAR. Released in 2009 by Milestone Film &Video.
Since the ec
In the February ’09 issue of Bright Lights, I reviewed Kino’s new edition of Buster Keaton’s The General, which, transferred from a print struck from the original, allowed the film to blossom into a fresh experience I did not expect to be bettered. Released last November, the same transfer on Blu-ray yields a still more remarkable field of resolution that’s not just about revealing more detail. Again, I’m struck by the format’s ability to deliver a more lifelike equivalent to a film’s core reality, that is, its origins as emulsion on a cellulose negative.
Watching a movie in a theater we’re very close to that physical, filmic reality, which home video necessarily puts at a far remove. Yet Blu-ray gets us nearer on our TV sets than ever before to film as a photographic entity, a dimension wholly missing from magnetic VHS tape and only hinted at on DVD. It’s a phenomenon all the more miraculous for a work like The General, which although shot in a deliberately non-stylized manner, is very skillfully and formally beautiful, in the manner of 19th-century photographs printed from slow-emulsion glass plates. By this I mean not so much the work of Mathew Brady, who is so often conjured in discussions of Keaton’s film, but that of the early photographers of the landscape of the American west, like William Henry Jackson.
The look of Keaton’s film, which includes unobtrusive but meticulously researched costumes and art direction, goes hand in hand with the director’s intent to inject a visual comedy, featuring both small scale and epic sight gags, with an undertow of levelheaded authenticity. It’s what gives the film its unique piquancy, and why Keaton’s achievement exists in a realm far above mere slapstick comedy.
Masters of Cinema places both versions on a single Blu-ray disc. The upgrade means that the Czech version looks even better than it had on Fox’s DVD; it’s now near the standard set by The General. But what the enhanced resolution cannot resolve, of course, are the print’s cuts, which substantially diminish the film’s impact.
For me, the worst offender is a major trim of the trolley ride sequence near the film’s beginning. With exquisite economy –– the entire ride must take less than a minute –– Murnau films the dreamlike journey the couple takes from a lakeside pine tree forest into a gradually more urbanized environment, until the two vulnerable passengers, who are emotionally devastated from the husband’s recent near violent act, step down from the trolley into a city square bustling with people and autos. The Czech print slices maybe 2/3 of the trip, thereby eliminating most of the oneiric, soft-focus images that I like to think Karl Struss,1 a former Photo-Secessionist still photographer, shot with his customary pictorialist élan.
Other cuts are less damaging but still noticeable if you know the film; the removal of just a few frames from any sequence can derail Murnau’s meticulously constructed visual rhythm and blunt his intent. Although the Czech print is good to watch in order to view the splendid clarity it does retain, the only proper way to appreciate Murnau’s vision in Sunrise is to watch the damaged, beat-up Movietone print, which, I’m happy to report, has benefited greatly from Blu-ray treatment. Masters of Cinema’s accompanying booklet explains that the American print was adjusted in contrast to match that of the Czech print, which explains why it improves so much on the dull gray scale range of the Fox release. Furthermore, Sunrise’s Movietone print on Blu-ray — even with its damage highlighted further by high def –– makes for a better viewing experience because of its increased integrity as a reproduction, warts and all.
Put simply, the grain’s in focus.
The General/US/1926/Color tinted/78 min./Silent/1.33:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc by Kino International in 2009.
Sunrise, a Song of Two Humans/US/1927/B&W/93 & 78 min./1.20:1 & 1.37:1 OARs. Released on Blu-ray disc by Eureka Masters of Cinema in 2009.
8½ (Fellini, 1963)
8½’s Guido Ansel
In 8½’s final scene, the harried and creatively blocked Guido also yields to a celebratory coming-to-terms. Round a huge circus ring and to the tune of a blustery march composed by Nino Rota,2 dozens of dramatis personae from his own psychic drama –– mother, father, wife, mistress, colleagues, religious authority figures, every woman he’s ever glanced at, and he himself –– join hands and step lively. But here Guido’s acceptance is not of life at large but of the turmoil of his inner life –– why fight it, Guido concludes, this big overpopulated circus is simply who I am.
In The Last Sequence, a documentary (included on Criterion’s Blu-ray disc) on a lost alternative ending to the film, we hear Fellini talk circles around the meanings of 8½. At times he sounds as if he’s been reading, or actually writing, a self-help book. “Don’t try to solve the problem,” he proclaims, “live the problem!” By “problem” here, I think he means “life,” and this rather rationalizing concept connects us to the “confusion is me” epiphany in the film.
Yet what might seem glib or self-serving coming from Fellini’s mouth, he forges into something quite profound, in spite of at least one uncomfortable one-to-one equivalency in the casting: Sandra Milo, playing Guido’s mistress, was actually Fellini’s mistress, too.3 But Fellini’s overwhelming visuals absolve the film of all narcissism. Unapologetically autobiographical, 8½ is a portrait of an artist nearly undone, but then renewed, by the messy contradictions of his own humanness.
For much of the run time, an anxious, rather fragile Guido is hounded, manipulated, and talked at by wife, mistress, producer, actors, or film crew. But dovetailed with all the harassment, shouting, and caviling is Guido dreaming, fantasizing, remembering. Often silent, with only Rota’s music and/or minimal dialog, these sequences are the soul of 8½.
One of the most haunting takes place when Guido, in bed with his mistress, Carla, and taking a post-coital nap, slips into a dream about his parents. Shot in bright midday sunshine midst what looks like the ruins of some gigantic fascist building, Guido follows his diffident and dead father into a glass mausoleum where he pleads for, but can’t sustain, his father’s attention. Suddenly back in the barren landscape, Guido weeps, and as he helps lower his father into the ground, his mother appears, kisses him on the cheek, then passionately on the mouth. Pulling her away, he finds she’s turned into Luisa, his wife (Anouk Aimée).
All this may appear on paper as fairly standard dream sequence material –– the confusion of the mother with the wife is barebones Freud –– but as filmed with its startling sunlit imagery, the scene carries a naked sincerity that plants itself into the viewer’s consciousness forever. Other sequences, too, especially those filled with memories of prepubescent longing and the horrors of a Catholic education, have an emotive power the director never matched again in his career.
Photographed by Gianni di Vernanzo, 8½ is also one of the most beautiful black and white films of its decade, and Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release goes beyond expectations in rendering its vast range of values, which go from the slightly overexposed glare of Guido’s first visit to the resort’s medicinal springs to the subtle capturing of a dwindling light at dusk in the last scene.
The Blu-ray contains all the special features from Criterion’s previous two-disc DVD edition, but with the aforementioned documentary, The Last Sequence (2003), being new to it and adding yet more depth to one’s appreciation of Fellini’s masterwork. One of the best of the older supplements is an affectionate, nearly hour-long tribute to Fellini’s lifelong collaborator, composer Nino Rota.
Italy/1963/138 min./B&W/In Italian with English subtitles/1.85:1 OAR. Released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray disc in 2010.
Death in the Garden (Buñuel, 1956)
Luis Buñuel at on
But sending the more exterior themes of Death in the Garden –– and its tropical settings –– through the prism of his intellectual, political, and somewhat wise-guy surrealist sensibility, the Spanish director takes the adventure/survivor story into realms untrod by Huston and films like Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951).
In Huston’s version of Death in the Garden, the antihero, Chark, would have been played with laconic verve by Humphrey Bogart; but Buñuel casts a tanned, handsome, but rather bland Georges Marchal, whose career otherwise subsisted mostly on sword and sandal productions and costume dramas. Chark enters the story just as an armed mob of diamond prospectors — who have been working a remote part of South America and are angry at the local, military-led government voiding their land claims — face off the militia in a village plaza. The soldiers convince the crowd to disperse by firing their weapons in the air, but when the dust settles, there’s Chark, alone with his burro, paying no heed to the guard and their rifles. Ordered to halt, he merely gives them the finger and moves on.
Like Bogart in any number of films –– directed by Huston or not –– Chark is in it only for himself, a stance we know the film must gradually reverse, and he’s irredeemably coarse at the start, lacking any of Bogie’s innate gallantry toward women. After making a scene at the local drinking hole flirting cruelly with pretty, deaf mute Maria (Michèle Girardon), the teenaged daughter of one of the prospectors, Castin (Charles Vanel), Chark casually beds down with the town’s whorehouse madam, Djin (Simone Signoret). Landing in jail for a crime he may or may not have done, he escapes by jabbing the sharp end of a quill pen into a guard’s eye. This is one rude son of a bitch.
Chark is swept up by something greater than himself when he steps into a full-scale riot, complete with barricade, begun by the organized mining prospectors against the repressive militia, who order substantial reinforcements to squash it. Facing certain execution the next day, Chark and the old prospector Castin flee the area with Maria, Djin, and the village priest, Father Lisardi (Michel Piccoli) in tow.
Once they commandeer the boat of the shady whore-smuggling Chenko (Tito Junco) –– the boat is reminiscent of Bogart’s chugging vessel in The African Queen –– they head up the Amazon toward Brazil, but then when a police skiff is about to catch up with them, they abandon the boat for a hazardous jungle trek.
The jungle is where the director begins to have fun. In the lush vegetation, with its overly vivid hallucinogenic greens, you can sense Buñuel pushing the Eastmancolor to its saturation point. Here, too, the old surrealist begins to insert his unique brand of heightened imagery –– one example being a sudden shot of a boa constrictor carcass overrun by red ants. Another jump cut takes us to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, complete with moving traffic; after a couple seconds, the image freezes and becomes a postcard in the hands of a demented Castin, who had dreamed, after marrying a reformed Djin, of returning to France and opening a restaurant there.
Needless to say, such hopes are there to be dashed, and when the starving, haggard group suddenly happens on the wreck of a plane crash –– another superb jack-in-the-box image from Buñuel –– tragedy beckons. The area around the wreck is strewn with foodstuffs, suitcases full of clothing and jewels, and, although we don’t see them, fifty corpses, which Father Lisardi insists they bury. The discovery of the wreck seems to signal their survival, but when the women begin wearing the clothes of the dead and covet their jewelry, it bodes ill for the fugitives. The oddness, midst the wreckage and the jungle, of the whore in a stewardess uniform and the young girl in a fashionable summer dress is a visual –– indeed, surreal –– disjoint that only Buñuel could milk to such doom-laden yet sardonic effect.
Transflux Films’ transfer is very strong, making the film a joy to watch. Special features on the disc include two on-camera interviews with Michel Piccoli and Buñuel scholar Victor Fuentes, who wrote a book on the director’s Mexican period. A booklet contains essays by Javier Espada; Juan-Luis Buñuel, the director’s son; and a lengthy piece by Susan Hayward on the peculiarities of casting Simone Signoret as the prostitute, Djin.
Mexico-France/1956/100 min./French and Spanish with English subtitles/1.66:1 OAR. Released on DVD by Transflux Films in 2009.
- Struss shared cinematography honors –– Sunrise won the ’27 Academy Award for it –– with Charles Rosher. [↩]
- Rota entitles this piece La passerella di addio, but nowhere can I determine that passerella is a musical term or in fact a word used anywhere outside of Rota’s title. This leads me to think that the composer made it up, possibly modeling it after the French term passapied, which refers to a type of dance, meaning literally “pass-foot.” Taking “ella” as a diminutive suffix, passerella might be Rota’s mischievous attempt to label the final dance in which Fellini’s characters, moving in a circle, prance with “little steps.” [↩]
- In the Maestro’s distaff version of 8½, Guilietta degli spiriti, Ms. Milo went on to play Suzy, the zaftig, hedonist neighbor who attempts to play sexual mentor to the repressed Guilietta, played by Fellini’s actual wife, Guilietta Masina. How did Masina take to the film’s idea of the mistress teaching the wife how to enjoy sex? [↩]
- Huston’s Under the Volcano came out in 1984, the year after Buñuel died in Mexico City. [↩]