An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
On BFI’s especially generous disc, we have not only the Quay Brothers’ first live-action feature film, Institute Benjamenta, but also three of their shorter films that range from 1990’s The Comb, to Songs for Dead Children (2003) and Eurydice, She So Beloved (2007).
It’s good to have The Comb and Songs, which both feature pure animation, in close viewing proximity to the 104-minute live-action film; whether directing human beings or wooden puppets, the Brothers’ methods and grammar — the persistence of very shallow-focus spatial gambits, for example — remain the same. So too does their fixation on the mystical luminosity of lowly objects. At the Institute, much is made of the vocalizing of fork tins and the malevolence of thimbles, not to mention the fairy-tale eroticism of elk antlers.
The Quays’ film is based on a novel, Jakob von Guten (1909), by Robert Walser, a modernist author much beloved by the brothers. It’s interesting to learn that Walser, as a young man, trained as a servant, but spent the last 26 years of his life in an insane asylum: as a school for servants, the Institute Benjamenta offers a strictly held regimen of incomprehensible monotony that must resemble the drudge of asylum existence.
But Jakob (Mark Rylance), a Dostoevskian, angst-ridden schlemiel, is a seeker, anticipating an obverse salvation in subservience. Thus von Guten desires the obliteration of the self, yet from the very beginning can’t quite accept his faceless status at the school nor deny his curiosity over what makes his sexy but repressed headmistress, Frau Benjamenta (Alice Krige), tick. The building housing the school bristles with strangeness, and his first night there Jakob makes an expedition to explore its vacant rooms, finding one fitted with indecipherable murals and a bell jar, mounted on the wall, containing a small mound of white powder that is clearly labeled the dried ejaculate of elk. In an adjoining room, Jakob finds that, by viewing the murals through an angled peephole, their elongated distortion — like that of the skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors — rights itself into an image of two elks rutting.
With Frau Benjamenta as a kind of dominatrix Snow White to a small cadre of students as her dwarfs, we watch several daily exercises that prepare her charges for servant life; Jakob joins these complexly choreographed routines like an inexperienced chorine, fumbling the moves, say, of how to fold and swing a starched towel onto one’s forearm. These sequences, directed by Frau Benjamenta with a cane tipped by — what else? — the delicate hoof of a juvenile elk, are disturbing but witty, too. In one, we see a cryptic diagram on a blackboard that the students must somehow replicate with a white tablecloth; it turns out to be an origami version of a bishop’s mitre that’s placed on the head of a student, who is subsequently held aloft and carried out.
Notwithstanding an ambiguously perverse relationship with her brother, Johannes (the unnerving Gottfried John1), Frau Benjamenta is clearly sexually frustrated. For a good portion of the film, she circles in heat around poor Jakob, who seems thoroughly befuddled by her attentions, especially when she insists on escorting him, like some kind of Virgil, into the underworld of the school, into which they descend by entering a large zero drawn by chalk on a blackboard.
If Walser’s novel develops a story line, the Quays’ film seems to have dispensed with it; what we have instead is mood and surreal circumstance, with no denouement save a fairy-tale death that brings to mind, once again, Snow White, but also brings with it a tincture of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). And by “surreal” I mean not the loosest sense of the word but the most honest, if rarefied kind of surrealism, like that of the boxes of Joseph Cornell or the photographs of Hans Bellmer. Cinematographer Nic Knowland shoots the darkling, obsessive universe of the Institute Benjamenta in consistently difficult light, and the results, fully captured on BFI’s Blu-ray disc, are so exquisitely limned that what is moribund becomes ecstatic — allowing a reveal of an odd sort of creative joy that is perhaps the Quays’ singular achievement. BFI’s transfer is the truest and loveliest capture of black and white photography I’ve yet seen on the new format.
UK, Japan, Germany/1995/black and white/101 minutes/OAR 1.66:1. Released by BFI in a two-disc, dual format edition of Blu-ray and DVD in 2010.
There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
One lonely-guy evening — when the entire household has emptied out to fulfill their various extracurricular activities — an emasculated Cliff (wearing a fluffy apron, washing dishes) runs to answer the doorbell to find the glamorous Norma Vail (Barbara Stanwyck) in the doorway. Initially not recognizing her, Cliff is shocked to be greeting a former employee (doll designer) whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years, apparently a then somewhat mousy girl Cliff had casually dated, discarded, and forgotten.
In the intervening years — as Cliff raised a family and a successful business — Norma avoided marriage and transformed herself into a confident fashion designer, who now, no spring chicken herself, looks pretty gosh-darned fine in her own fashionista product. Yet, as we and Cliff learn, Norma’s been carrying the torch for her old boyfriend/boss ever since he dumped her. In her purse, she keeps a tattered old snapshot of the youthful Cliff; when he accidentally sees it, her feelings for him are outed.
Cliff is now somewhat in the position of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin when he meets the mature Tatiana late in the poem: here’s this once awkward, homely girl — she wasn’t good enough for him then — now radiantly beautiful. And Norma is genuinely interested in everything about Cliff . . . she wants him, he wants her! But, flipside from Onegin, he’s the one trapped in a marriage. As chance puts them closer together, Cliff is pushed to the brink of betraying his family, but it’s Norma who comes to her senses when two of his kids come to her hotel room looking for some answers.
It’s a painful scene, very well played by Stanwyck. Cliff’s college-aged son, Vinnie (William Reynolds) — accompanied by his teenaged sister — is convinced his father is cheating and wants it to stop. Confronted, Norma won’t admit to an affair, but turns the tables on the kids, telling them that, if they want to hold on to their father, they’d better pay some attention to him, give him some love. Food for thought! The kids go home, shamed. It’s a rather bizarre lecture, but Stanwyck, who is superb throughout the film, brings it off, projecting the earned righteousness of a lonely but experienced and perceptive woman. When Cliff arrives to run away with her, Norma convinces him that they have no future together because, however unfulfilling it’s proven to be, his family defines him.[Spoiler ahead] Sirk genuinely subverts our expectation with the film’s final scenes, in which we anticipate Cliff will realign with the joys and rewards of family life, and the kids, having learned an invaluable lesson, will once again appreciate and love their father. But nothing’s changed: the kids think a brash “hi, Dad!” is enough to fulfill a loving commitment before they return to ignoring him.
Sirk lays on the irony when the teenybopper daughter gets back on the phone with a girlfriend to discuss “emotional problems.” Cliff’s clueless, unexceptional kids have no idea the kind of emotional problem dear old Dad is saddled with, and neither does his bland, diffident wife, who all too willingly accepts Cliff’s evasive answer as to why he hasn’t been himself lately. With some relief, wife and kids physically detach from Cliff to retreat to other spaces in the house, while solitary Cliff hears the drone of the airplane overhead taking that last chance of happiness away from him.
It’s surprising that a major studio would release such a woeful — nay, tragic — film during the Eisenhower years, which — with some exceptions like the work of Nicolas Ray — hysterically upheld the necessities of the family unit. An interview with Sirk, included on the disc, reveals the studio did cut one of his ideas: late in the film, when Cliff realizes he’s lost Norma, Sirk shoots a deep-focus setup that has a robot toy, dubbed The Mechanical Man, racing toward the table’s edge, where Sirk had it fall to the floor to writhe about in frustrated motion. The producers had the shot cut just as the robot reached the edge; apparently, the final fate of the impotent robot — a vivid (if unsubtle) symbol of Cliff’s trapped, purgatorial existence — sent Sirk’s dark message home a bit too forcibly.
Masters of Cinema’s transfer of the film is a gorgeous capture of the black and white photography that’s especially rewarding when Sirk’s carefully prepared lighting has the characters move in and out of shadows that hold so much expressive weight.
Extras include the 2008, 61-minute documentary, Days with Sirk, which features interviews and footage shot in 1982. Also, original continuity and dialog script (PDF) and a booklet containing an article by Andrew Klaven and excerpts from a 1977 interview with Sirk.
USA/1956/B&W/81 minutes/1.85:1 OAR/Region 2, PAL. Released on DVD by Eureka, Masters of Cinema in 2010.
Valley of the Bees (Frantisek Vlácil, 1968)
The opening wedding celebration is that of the boy’s father, who has taken a teenaged bride not much older than his son, Ondrej, himself barely out of puberty. There is something of a spark between Ondrej and his new stepmother, but the extent of the boy’s jealous anger over the marriage only becomes clear when he delivers, as a wedding gift, a basket of flowers that hides a pile of bats dozing at its bottom. Bride and bridesmaids scream at the sight of the bats, but Lenora, the stepmother, also seems intrigued by the prank, sensing its motivation.
On his end, the father is enraged, and in a move that’s reminiscent of Von Sydow’s killing of the boy in The Virgin Spring (1960), gathers his son up and throws him bodily against a stone wall, only to instantly regret the violence of his action. With his bloodied unconscious son in his arms, he pledges to give his son to God if only He will allow Ondrej to live.
“Given to God” means that Ondrej (played as an adult by Petr Cepek) pledges to the Teutonic Order, a monastic order of Crusader knights to which a supplicant must commit for life. An older, well-established knight, Armin (Jan Kacer), appears to take Ondrej under his wing in a strange seaside scene that features a fully costumed and helmeted Armin (the knights wear a loose white tunic — with a large cross on either side — over chain mail) looming over a naked, adolescent Ondrej squatting in the sand. When we next see “the brothers,” Ondrej is an adult and he and Armin are both naked, lying next to each other on the same beach, arms entwined in the roiling surf.
Pointedly, we are being led to wonder about the relationship and how sexual it might be; in the male-only, prison-like culture of the Order, has Ondrej become Armin’s punk? Probably not, but as the film progresses and without making it explicit, Vlácil suggests that the force driving Armin is an explosive pairing of militant, religious extremism and suppressed sexual desire, which, as in Wyler’s 1959 Massala/Ben Hur dialectic, becomes a one-sided emotional equation with tragic consequences.
When Ondrej decides to bust out of the Order and return home, no one except Armin feels a need to track him down, and he does so with a zealot’s — or obsessed lover’s — dedication. Ondrej evades him successfully and reaches his homestead, where he finds his father dead and his stepmother, Lenora (Vera Galatítová), urged to take the veil. As Ondrej reconnects to a rustic life, mutual feelings between him and Lenora, planted there at childhood’s gate, stir again and blossom as grownup passion. In spite of her recent vows and an implicit case of incest (though neither is related by blood, medieval morality might look askance at a union of son and stepmother), a wedding is planned. Retribution and doom, however, hover in the air.
Armin, who’s been lurking around the compound for some time, presents himself on the day of the celebrations. Not exactly weeping for joy — he is nearly mute in the presence of the newlyweds — Armin nonetheless manages a subversive wedding present: a leather pouch containing soil from the Holy Land, obtained when he was there on Crusade. Armin desperately wishes Ondrej to return to the Order (and to him); does he imagine that the holiness of the gift will inspire him to do so? But Ondrej misunderstands the source, seriousness, and motivation behind the curious gift, thinking it merely sand from the Northern beach near the knights’ monastery, and thus a souvenir of his previous life. When he hands it over to a bemused Lenora, she proceeds to empty its contents onto the floor. Soon thereafter, violence erupts, just as it did when Ondrej offered up his wedding present at the beginning of the film.
Valley of the Bees is not the visceral, immersive, time-out-of-joint experience of Marketa, which on first viewing is nearly disorienting. With its simple, linear plot, Vlácil’s later film proceeds at a stately pace, and this time the director’s camera lacks the hyperkinetic swooping movements often featured in Marketa. But both films share the theme of personal freedom, in which characters strive to break free of feudal, gender-defined, and theocratic yokes, but are successful only insofar as their repressive times permit them.
Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell, 2008)
Troell has his fictional Maja grow from a prepubescent girl in 1907 to a grown woman at film’s end. Played by three actresses, Maja provides much of the story’s point of view — and backgrounding. Maja’s voice-over tells us how her mother (Maria Heiskanen), while being courted by her future husband, Sigfrid (Mikail Persbrandt), won a camera at a carnival, but after enduring an increasingly bumpy marriage and bearing three kids, had forgotten about it. Desperate for cash while her stevedore husband is on strike, Maria’s first thought upon finding it again is to sell it. She dashes to the nearest photography studio, but here, the kindly photographer/shop keeper, Sebastian Pedersen (Jasper Christensen), talks her into keeping the camera. When Maria unexpectedly finds solace and joy in seeing images of her children emerge in the developer bath, Pedersen gently supports and mentors her new avocation.
Despite the brevity of their infrequent encounters, Maria and Pedersen develop strong but never openly acknowledged feelings for each other. After one trip to his studio, Maria comes home, unwraps her newly-gotten photo supplies, and finds a dried rose nestled within them. It’s as close to a declaration of love either will make to the other, and one’s belly swoons at such retentive yet delicately expressed tenderness.
Along with her unrequited love affair, Maria’s plight as an artistic soul fettered to a life of drudgery and spousal abuse may sound like something of a stacked deck. To be sure, the creative spirit must triumph, albeit fitfully; personal artistic fulfillment for Maria is mitigated by her own compromised sense of self-worth, and, morally, by what she feels is demanded of her by her family. In a tearful visit to Pendersen, she confesses a fear that photography has made her a neglectful mother.
Troell avoids the mawkish and the melodramatic through the depth of his characterizations and a detailed depiction of the mores and culture of turn-of-the-century Sweden. Temperance, Socialism, and WWI are all in the air — societal forces that push and pull the Larsson family apart and together — and Troell weaves them in and around Maria and Sigge’s shifting conditions of intimacy. Within the marriage each of them is unfaithful in their own fashion: Sigge with his barmaid, Maria with the increasing demands of her craft. Visually the film is swathed in splendor, but you can also see the alcoholic sweat coming off her husband’s forehead, not to mention the lines of disappointment and anger etching themselves around Maria’s mouth as she ages.
In this country, Jan Troell is remembered not for his Hollywood misfire, Zandy’s Bride (1974), but for his visionary films about Swedes settling in 19th-century America, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). What was most vivid about both films was Troell’s ability to visualize how America might’ve looked in those days to those fresh to its shores. The sight of a steam locomotive rounding a bend, belching smoke, had a shocking newness to it, like something never seen before. Similar pictorial magic happens here. Shot mostly in available light, Everlasting Moments carries a copper-gold tint that’s neither nostalgic nor dull but an equivalent to a vanished era’s wash of sunlight over brick or a morning’s bluster through white curtains. This is a realism strongly felt and intuitively forged in imagery that, in its equivalencies, seems filtered through the sensitive eye of Maria herself.
Criterion’s wondrous Blu-ray disc includes an hourlong documentary on the filmmaker’s career, Troell’s Magic Mirror, and a shorter one, Troell Behind the Camera. Narrated by Troell’s wife, Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell, there is also a video presentation of photographs by the real Maria Larsson. A booklet contains an essay on the film by Armond White.
Sweden/2008/131 minutes/in Swedish with English subtitles/1.78:1. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD in 2010 by The Criterion Collection.
Chicago (Frank Urson and/or Cecil B. De Mille, uncredited, 1927)
Married to upright tobacco shop merchant Amos (Victor Varconi), Roxie appears to keep her well-heeled lover, Casey (Eugene Palette),3 merely in order to stock up on the fancy lingerie her husband can’t afford. When Casey shows up early in the film to give his mistress “the air,” it’s understandable that he might’ve tired of her meager charms; transparently trashy and vapid, Roxie looks to have bought a one-way ticket to floozyville, and ultimately the gutter. Turning on a dime, Haver is adept at transforming her soft cutie-pie face into the scowling mask of a harridan. It’s a brave performance; the actress, still in her twenties, often looks unattractive, and much older, too — by the end of the film, she’s a sad, aging slattern who finds her prospects for fame and fortune suddenly evaporated.
But at the start of the film, her husband unaccountably adores each and every one of her peroxide curls, and when Roxie summarily shoots Casey dead the minute he announces the end of the affair, Amos arrives at the crime scene and decides to stand by her all the way — a true leap of faith, since he sees through Roxie’s duplicity from the start. Roxie swears to Amos she shot a burglar, but he quickly puts two and two together by matching a garter from the dead man’s pocket with one of his wife’s on the floor. Yet, when the police arrive, Amos attempts to confess to the shooting, a maneuver undone by a clever DA, who tricks Roxie into revealing her guilt.
The ironic implausibility of Amos’ selfless loyalty to Roxie is heightened by Varconi’s subtle performance, which projects the inner struggles of a thoughtful, sensitive man. In De Mille’s previous project, King of Kings (also 1927), Varconi had brought his considerable acting chops to bear on the part of an equally ruminative and conflicted Pontius Pilate. In Chicago, Varconi is so good that its second half essentially becomes Amos’ story, the mainspring of which is his decision to commit a criminal act himself in order to keep Roxie from frying in the chair. When Amos brings in the best of criminal defense lawyers, the flamboyant William Flynn (Robert Edeson), Flynn instantly demands an exorbitant retainer fee. Desperately short on funds, Amos ends up burgling Flynn’s cache of ill-gotten greenbacks (there’s a hint here of Flynn’s involvement with the mob), putting himself at risk of incarceration just as Roxie triumphs in court.
The central set-piece of the film is of course Roxie’s trial where, prepped by Flynn, she strikes a series of female victimhood poses, culminating in an unrehearsed swoon in front of the jury box. The escalating silliness is very funny, but not for Amos, who grows steadily more chagrined at the spectacle. The tension in the final act is really whether Amos will finally have endured enough of his wife’s callowness to allow him to ditch her and take up with the sweet-natured maid, Katie (Virginia Bradford), who’s secretly devoted to him.
An article in the liner notes makes a strong case for this show actually being helmed by producer Cecil B. De Mille, who, thinking it negative publicity to have his name emblazoned under the tawdry Chicago while his reverential King of Kings still played in the theaters, gave directing credit to his assistant director, Frank Urson. The proof of De Mille’s direct involvement is in the pudding, I think. Chicago is an astonishingly well-made entertainment, especially in how it negotiates wild swings in tone. Much of Roxie’s rise and fall is played as rambunctious comedy — nestled securely within a slick satire of the news media’s ability to affect and degrade the process of criminal justice — but the mood can segue instantly into edgy melodrama, especially when it details Amos’ slow crawl to self-awareness.
In an article in Flicker Alley’s accompanying booklet, Rodney Sauer, the leader of The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, discusses the challenges of arranging a score for such a mercurial film, but he’s crafted a beauty. The story’s lighter moments often carry a sweetly swinging period pop tune, and here Sauer’s crack eight-piece ensemble sounds like a pit band for a twenties Jerome Kern musical. Sauer also expertly arranged a few well-judged sound effects; never have I heard a more convincing jangle from a garter rimmed with little bells.
Flicker Alley’s release is a two-disc set, with the second disc containing a pair of unusual documentaries: The Golden Twenties, a 64-minute look at the decade from 1950, and The Flapper Story (1985), a short (29-minute) but fascinating analysis of women’s newfound freedom in the ’20s, featuring interviews with several octogenarian gals who were there.
USA/104 minutes/B&W/silent/1:37:1 OAR. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2010.
The Unpolished (Pia Marias, 2006)
Pia Marais’ debut feature throws us helter-skelter into the uneasy day-to-day existence of adolescent Stevie (Céci Chuh), who seeks nurture and structure from her drug-dealing parents Lily and Axel, but receives little of the former and virtually none of the latter. Set in contemporary Germany, the film opens on the day Axel (Birol Ünel) is released from prison; the family has moved from Portugal to Berlin to take possession of the house Lily (Pascale Schiller) inherited from her deceased father. Lounging about the house, swilling beer, are two hangers-on, partners in crime (we assume) with Lily and Axel. Twenty-something Ingmar (Georg Friedrich) likes to hang out shirtless, a young thug in repose, but it’s the older Eric (Joseph Malerba), with his shaved head and air of ominous calm, who looks most like a seasoned criminal, remaining mysterious and mute until the show’s last act.
While Lily and Axel like to party and have casual sex with whoever might drop in, Stevie is truly left to her own devices. She’s perceptive enough to be disdainful of her parents’ immature self-involvement — Marais describes them as “lost” — but Stevie doesn’t just stay put and stew; somewhat heroically, she seeks to engineer the normal life of a teenager all on her own. She yearns for her own notion of a normal family, much of which is as chimerical as you might suppose, but she has sensible, achievable goals, too, like enrolling in the local school system, and, along the way, making some friends her own age.
Some of the film’s best scenes show Stevie attempting to get in with the local high schoolers, who are of course locked into cliques that have rigid codes of behavior and dress. To these middle-class kids, Stevie is weird and lame — an untouchable — but she shows remarkable resilience in the wake of rejection, and eventually her obstinacy pays off.
Marais, in her brief interview offered on Second Run’s disc, talks of being offended when some viewers in early screenings pronounced harsh judgments on her adult characters. Fair enough, but the director must know she’s being provocative when she leaves us unescorted, so to speak, as we watch a 13-year old girl shoring her defenses up against an emotionally diffident mom, a sketchy, ex-con dad, and — most uneasily — against Ingmar and Eric, who, judging by first impressions, look to be capable of raping the child. Call it a knee-jerk reaction, but through a good first quarter of the movie, I was scared for Stevie’s physical safety, and somewhat disgusted at her parents’ lack of concern and basic common sense. Where is social services, I’m asking.
But Marais sets us up for this kind of reaction, making our experience of the film an emergence from simplistic judgments and the convenience of putting people in boxes labeled villain or victim. As much as we expect these conveniences from the movies, Marais is having none of it. Stevie herself is no paragon of childhood innocence, for example, and she’s capable of serious missteps. In one scene, confusing sex with love, she attempts to seduce Ingmar, whose character and inner life turn out to be quite a bit more complicated than the one-dimensional, debased personality one had imagined for him early in the film.
Shot on the fly, The Unpolished is nonetheless visually thrilling, with bright, hot colors and expressive framing; Second Run’s vivid transfer is a marvel. Here’s yet another cinematic epiphany made possible by this indomitable company.
Germany/2006/94 minutes/color/in German with English subtitles/OAR 16:9/Region 0, PAL. Released on DVD by Second Run in 2010.
- John played the pivotal role of Reinhold in Fassbinder’s TV film of Berlin Alexanderplatz. [↩]
- Indeed the Kander and Ebb musical seems to have taken a few cues from Chicago‘s 1942 remake, Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers as a down-and-out gal who thinks her Broadway ambitions might be advanced by falsely admitting to a killing and becoming a famous murderess. [↩]
- Palette went on to a long career as a character actor in the talkies, playing a memorable Friar Tuck in 1939’s Adventures of Robin Hood. [↩]