An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
The sheer enthusiasm radiated by Strike –– the willingness to try anything and to get away with it –– wouldn’t be matched until 25-year-old Orson Welles unleashed Citizen Kane in 1941. Watching Kino’s new Blu-ray edition of Strike, along with Warners’ new Blu-ray of Citizen Kane, makes you feel kind of sorry for poor disaffected Soderbergh, but then, knowing what would happen to each of them, downright mournful for citizens Eisenstein and Welles. It’s hard to find anything like their creative joy evidenced in movies today, even though I assume it’s out there somewhere.
Strike is more than a warmup for the near-perfection of the director’s next film, The Battleship Potemkin (1925), but it has its rough edges, and its blending of propagandistic polemic with propulsive, montage-fueled excitement is not quite as well judged as Potemkin‘s. As in that film, Strike is based on a real event, a factory strike in 1903, out of which came a pre-revolutionary organizing effort that was brutally struck down by the Czarist military. Eisenstein films the final slaughter with ferocity, at one point cross-cutting the systematic violence with a cow’s throat being slit, an effective image to be sure,1 but a shock cut whose effect lacks the cumulative horror dealt by the director’s editing of the Odessa Steps massacre in Potemkin.
Animal imagery figures big throughout Strike. In the first of the film’s six chapters, we see the workers have already begun to organize, as, all the while, they’re under intense scrutiny by the company’s undercover agents, who each operate under handles culled from the animal kingdom, e.g. The Fox, The Owl, The Bulldog, and so on. Eisenstein casts these goons –– and the factory’s upper management –– as cartoon-like archetypes made to suffer such low-comedy humiliations (as the strikers momentarily gain the upper hand) that it’s easy to see why the director became so fond of Walt Disney. Once the strike empties the factory of workers, ducks and rabbits nestle in the abandoned machinery. It’s like something out of Bambi (1942).
The match to the strike’s accelerant is provided by a worker’s suicide; falsely accused of stealing an expensive micrometer, and not willing to endure the resulting shame, he hangs himself, defiantly, in the middle of the factory in plain sight. The workers gather round the body, uniting in their collective rage, and while this might seem a mythic image more worthy of a poster than a convincing narrative, you remember the events of this year’s “Arab Spring” as being touched off by the Tunisian street vendor’s suicide last December, an act of disconsolate frustration not unlike the factory worker’s. In Potemkin, Eisenstein used another martyr, a murdered sailor, as a catalyst to incite collective action. That both films become such moving celebrations of Lenin’s “unity of action” leads you to realize that Eisenstein works the theme, however well it fits the definition of propaganda, with deep sincerity.
Kino Classics’ Blu-ray edition is a fabulous package, containing a tight, highly detailed HD transfer (with excellent gray scale) of the film, which is accompanied by an astute score compiled and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Supplements include the director’s very first film, Glumov’s Diary (1923), a four-minute short featuring a rather scary clown. A documentary, Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit (2008, 37 min.) has film historian Natacha Laurent contextualizing Eisenstein within the aftermath of the 1917 revolution and the work of compatriot filmmakers.
USSR/89 min./B&W/Silent with musical accompaniment/1.33:1 OAR. Released by Kino Classics on Blu-ray and DVD in 2011.
Unlike Eisenstein’s, Janscó’s film, although just as ideological, willfully avoids gut-stirring propaganda, or the forward propulsion of a coherent narrative that might’ve expressed it. Red Psalm refuses to advance to the rhythm of montage; the director instead insists on constructing the film’s 82-minute length out of 28 long takes. Given the precedence of similar takes in his groundbreaking ’60s films, we shouldn’t be surprised at the strategy of the ’71 film, but Red Psalm pushes Janscó’s aesthetic to further extremes, resulting in a kind of cinematic objet that, although visually quite beautiful, tests the involvement the viewer by strategically distancing him. Other than the unvaried larghetto pace of the long takes, the chief alienators here are the lack of storyline and protagonist, and with Janscó supplying nary a morsel of traditional movie-going gratification, experiencing Red Psalm can prove unnerving, or even dull. I’m still undecided as to whether Janscó has overplayed his progressive filmmaker’s hand here.
Ostensibly the film is about the militarist crackdown on a series of peasant uprisings, apparently organized by the fledgling Social Democratic Party, taking place between 1890 and 1910. “Uprising,” however, seems too violent a description of the going-ons in Red Psalm, which mostly resemble noncombative demonstrations that happen to coincide with the bucolic song and dance of some kind of folk music festival. Throughout, there’s a rambling minstrel on guitar, and the Socialists sing songs aplenty, many of them tunes associated with civil strife, like “La Marsellaise” (fitted with new words), others simple folk ballads, and at one point, “The Lord’s Prayer,” recited instead as a Socialist pledge. Here and there, girls and boys perform ring dances.
It’s unclear if the workers and celebrants are merely staging a work stoppage or if they mean more threatening business, as, at one point, they dump an argumentative bailiff into a potato sack and then head off screen with it. Whether assassination or simple humiliation, we never learn the bailiff’s fate.
Then there are the women workers, who mostly gather separately from the men. Three of the youngest and most attractive of them enjoy walking about topless, linking arms like the Three Graces; once, in order to defuse a tense, confrontational situation, the three strip completely naked to disrupt military discipline. Spotting the peeled girls, the soldiers break rank and run about, hollering like frat boys. In the excellent essay that accompanies the disc, Peter Hames sees the nudity as a way for the women to “demonstrate solidarity and humanity,” and while I agree, I wonder if Janscó is not also referencing the then recent, late ’60s, “make love not war” gestalt, in which youth showed a propensity for getting naked whenever possible. Regardless, the nude girls in Red Psalm do have a way of perking up some of its longueurs.
Apart from this trio of bared breasts, several faces of the ardent Socialists become familiar over the course of the film, but nobody gets installed as hero or heroine, or villain, for that matter. Circulating among the folk is a mustachioed organizer, who resembles a diminutive Marlon Brando as Zapata, yet even he refuses to take on the barest nuance of a character as he instructs or berates his comrades. People do die, on both sides, but these deaths are understated or stylized. The realities of an uprising –– death, denial, disorder, the hopeless fervor of the revolutionary –– are all staged abstractly, as if the director’s presenting them as performance art, a passion play, or even a Catholic Mass, which seems odd, since the clergy is one of the workers’ chief enemies.
Front and center in this film, however, is Janscó’s technique, and most specifically camera movement. Eisenstein, of course, wasn’t shy about conspicuous technique –– in his case editing –– but in Red Psalm, the camera’s perambulations nearly displace content. In his essay, Peter Hames can’t stop himself from using the words “balletic” and “choreography” to describe Janscó’s camera movements, and I don’t blame him. After what must’ve been excruciatingly detailed set-ups by director and crew –– laying tracks and instructing and placing actors –– the filmmaker’s camera does indeed glide like a dancer soloing midst the corps du ballet, which here consists of militia on horseback and various groupings of workers, dancers, and singers. Purposefully, it seems, the camera movements allow the viewer no consistent spatial bearings in any given scene, and thus, however elegant the tracking shots, this constant displacement of unified space becomes monotonous, lending a static quality to the film overall –– which I think the director fully intends.
When, late in the film, Janscó stages a massacre in an aerial long shot, it doesn’t act as the film’s climax (nor does my mentioning of it constitute a spoiler); it seems instead, with its muffled, theatrical quality, a carefully designed letdown, as if Janscó has given us a sardonic shrug at the whole revolutionary show. But this view, I think, shortchanges the film, as does the all too convenient pigeonhole of irony.
The director follows the killing with a slow pan across dead bodies and objects symbolic of the workers’ struggle, emphasizing the ritualistic, celebratory feel that Janscó has built throughout, and I was surprised to find myself moved, realizing that the film requires multiple viewings before one can glimpse its intent.
Red Psalm is a gorgeous color film, and Second Run’s presentation is customarily lovely to behold. It’s gratifying to see their relationship to Janscó, who just turned 90 in September ’11, continue. The disc also includes Message of Stones: Hegyalja (54 minutes), the third film in the director’s documentary series, Message of Stones.
Hungary/1971/Color/82 minutes/In Hungarian with optional English subtitles/OAR 1.85:1/16.9 Anamorphic. Released by Second Run in 2011.
“Let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped!”
Beloved by a multitude of filmmakers over the decades, Sjöström’s film comes at us now as an odd mixture of Victorian sentimentalism and psychological and social realism. Much of its 19th-century sensibilities, especially those by way of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, was likely embedded in its source, the novel Körkarlen (The Coachman) by Selma Lagerlöf. Directed by Sjöström, photographed by Julius Jaenzon, the film’s precocious realism comes from several angles, not the least of which is the remarkable, multilayered performance by the director himself in the starring role as the consumptive, alcoholic bully, David Holm. Until the redemptive denouement, and with no loss of expressive power, the director manages to dovetail the realism with the fantastic elements of the narrative, which presents itself as a sort of Swedish folk legend.
The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a sickroom where a Salvation Army sister, Edit (Astrid Holm), is dying from tuberculosis in the presence of her mother (Concordia Selander) and her friend and co-worker Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm). Despite Holm appearing a bit too robust (and pretty) for her to be in the final, ravaging stages of the disease, the scene, ostensibly lit by a single kerosene bedside lamp, feels distinctly, smotheringly real. Clearly, the art direction took great care with the room’s furnishings, but the lighting design, here and throughout the picture, caps the effect.
The careful recreation of an era –– when the diagnosis of TB was more or less a death sentence –– sets the stage for the quality of the acting, which seems understated and “natural” at first but then is clearly something more than that. Not unusually for a 1921 silent, Sjöström allows for just a few close-ups, but the intensity of the performances are such that he doesn’t need them anyway. The actors, especially Sjöström as Holm, are able to project complex states of inner conflict with such psychic force that you begin to think of the films of the director’s most celebrated fan, Ingmar Bergman, who of course used Sjöström as an actor in more than one project, but most famously and movingly in Wild Strawberries (1957).
On her deathbed, Sister Edit passionately wants to see David Holm before she expires, but he, busily getting soused in a cemetery with two other stew bums, adamantly doesn’t want to see her. But with midnight fast approaching, the high concept of Lagerlöf’s fable kicks in: whosoever dies at the stroke of midnight on this eve must drive death’s carriage for the following year, collecting all the souls of the dead. As the fateful hour approaches, David gets into a brawl with his buddies and promptly receives a fatal blow to the head just as the old year ends.
When the death carriage arrives, the driver turns out to be Georges (Tore Svennberg), an old drinking pal, now sobered up considerably after dying a year ago and since then performing the job’s melancholy drudgery. Before he hands over the reins to David, though, Georges takes on the roles of at least two of the Dickensian ghosts, and walks him through his past and present.
Flashbacks to David’s past allow Sjöström to create a thoroughly unpleasant character, who becomes even more unpleasant when, released from prison after serving time for public drunkenness, he comes home to find an empty homestead. Wounded to the core by his wife’s desertion, he vows vengeance. When Sister Edit, who has taken on the task of rehabilitating David, attempts to reunite the couple, he appears willing to resume the marriage, but this is a ruse. Reconnecting with his wife is only a means to enact his revenge on her by simply resuming his identity as a drunken lout.
In one horrific scene, his wife, finally grasping the ugly logic of his brutality, locks David in the kitchen, while she dresses her children in an effort to flee. But David grabs an axe and, in a sequence that can’t help but remind you of Nicholson’s “here’s Johnny” moment in The Shining (1980), reduces the door to splinters. David’s forced entry is every bit as violent as that of Kubrick’s Jack, but, as Paul Mayersberg points out in his essay included in Criterion’s booklet, Nicholson’s Jack is inexplicably, monolithically insane,2 whereas David’s psychology is much more complex and grounded in the real world of alcoholism, festering inner wounds, and dire poverty. Once he’s obliterated the door, David finds his wife has passed out through sheer terror; after he runs to get her water, which he administers to her, he begins to brutalize her all over again as she regains consciousness. Sjöström’s portrayal of this bruised, abusive man is disturbingly vivid, yet leavened with contradictions in a way Griffith never allowed Donald Crisp’s monster to be in Broken Blossoms (1919).
With David’s return to form, his wife and two children are reduced to living in a one-room hovel, conjured by Sjöström/Jaenzon in as much squalid detail as any slum photo by Jacob Riis. When Sister Maria arrives here in search of David, she finds only the two children asleep and the wife, sitting in the shadows facing the wall. In the center of the room is its sole source of light, a lamp placed on an upturned box. The camera lingers on Mrs. Holm in her silent, anguished position, placed tellingly midst the wreckage of her surroundings, illustrating Ingmar Bergman’s remark concerning Sjöström’s eloquent placement of figures in space. As Sister Maria leaves the room with Mrs. Holm, she carefully extinguishes the lamp, which throughout the scene has acted the role of mute witness to the consequences of David’s wrath.
Bergman’s thoughts on his mentor and collaborator come from a 1981 interview, excerpted from Gösta Werner’s film Victor Sjöström: a Portrait and included on the disc, which has further Bergman connections to make in a visual essay by Peter Cowie on Sjöström influences on the younger filmmaker. The film is accompanied by the choice of two contemporary scores: Swedish composer Matti Bye’s score, played by a chamber orchestra, is effective, especially in producing the terrifying squeal made by the carriage. Sometimes, though, his choice of genre is puzzling, as in a recurring tango underwriting some of the melancholy of Sister Edit and a jaunty uptempo klezmer-tinged tune accompanying the drunken activity of David and his chums. The other underscore, by the KTZ duo, is electronic, computer-derived soundscape that delivers, appropriately, a constant rumble of dread.
Sweden/1921/106 minutes/B&W with tinted color/silent/Swedish intertitles with English subtitles/OAR 1.37:1. Released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2011.
Count me a fan of Reichardt since Old Joy (2006), and even more so since Wendy and Lucy (2008), when the director wisely engaged Michelle Williams, a resourceful actress with a remarkable range, to lend depth of character to Rechardt’s 2008 stripped-down, nearly one-woman drama. In Meek’s Cutoff, she’s cast Williams as Emily Tetherow, the stouthearted wife of Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), and once again, although midst a bigger cast, she carries the film. It’s the year 1845, and the Tethrows are one family of three trekking through the wastelands of eastern Oregon toward the promise of a newly opened settlement in a mountain valley. But all is not well.
As the film opens, the three Conestoga wagons have been diverted from their planned route by the expedition’s guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a frontiersman sporting a goodly amount of facial hair and a version of the same deerskin regalia I remember wearing as an art student for a week or so in the late ’60s of our last century. Styling himself as honed to exquisite instincts by vast experience in the Western wilds, Meek, in spite of his surname, has little patience with the settlers’ timidity, and fronts his gruff confidence with a hard-line stance concerning renegade Indians, who he speculates may pop up at any time to carry away the womenfolk.
Yet nobody trusts him, not even the children, with whom he is uncomfortably garrulous. Meek has placed the wagon train, which has a limited water supply, in clear jeopardy within a vast desert with no mountains in sight. Clustering out of earshot of the women and Meek –– and, much of the time, of the audience –– the men murmur their suspicions that the guide’s shortcut is a means to sabotage their journey. The settlers can only guess at Meek’s motives, and out of fear and frustration wonder if they should just hang him and be done with him.
By filming the men’s huddles in very long shots –– and making them nearly inaudible as the women, and the audience, struggle to hear them –– Reichardt sets up the women’s POV and thereby emphasizes their marginalization. Here in the antebellum West, the women are neither privy to discussions nor involved in decision making, but when Emily pumps her husband for answers as to their intentions for Meek, all she hears is indecision and weak resolve. These guys would not have the gumption to roll into action against 9/11 terrorists, as the men of Flight 93 apparently did. Here in the film, though, it’s clear that Emily is the one with the spine to take decisive action, even when that action may result in disaster.
Tensions mount as the water dwindles and Meek keeps up his assurances, but Reichardt refuses to milk these tensions for the sake of a traditional western’s conflict/resolution. The film’s pace is in fact nearly as grueling as the settlers’ ten-mile-a-day creep (women on foot, men on horses, no one in the wagons). The dogged pulse of one long, uneventful take after another, joined with the near pitch black of the night scenes,3 can seem like rather simplistic one-to-one equivalents to the reality of westward travel via covered wagon: that is, these folks experienced soul-numbing monotony during the day and a fearful abyss of darkness at night, and, therefore, so do you.
But our interest ratchets up considerable when a rogue Indian (Rod Rondeaux) does appear, and is promptly captured. Meek wants him summarily executed, but at this junction Emily seizes the reins of the situation, perceiving that the Indian may have knowledge that could lead to their survival. She’s no more a fan of Native Americans than Meek, but she attempts to communicate with the captive, who seems to have lots to say in his own unintelligible language (no subtitles here, although Rondeaux seems to be speaking something authentic) and takes to drawing indecipherable pictographs on rocks. No one, including Emily, has a clue as to what he may be trying to get across to them, if anything, and from our perch in the audience, it seems that the Indian may even be manipulating the situation to his advantage.
Williams’ scenes with Rondeaux, in which they regard each other across an immense gulf of conflicting cultures and absence of trust, are the best in the film, and the most authentic-seeming I’ve seen of any such encounter in the movies. When Meek finally loses patience with the Indian’s continued presence and prepares to kill him, Emily grabs a rifle, aims it straight at Meek, and puts down that notion for good. Something of the Indian’s real self has entered her consciousness, and with that a glimmer of potential coexistence. It’s not mere pragmatism that prompts her to disarm Meek.[Spoiler ahead]
Emily staring down the barrel at Meek should be the climax of her empowerment over this clutch of male entitlement and control, which, under the big skies and threat of extinction, is something pitiful anyway –– but Reichardt is not one to match the expectations of her audience. So, instead of a feminist touchdown for Emily, the director goes for something more mysteriously open-ended. Effectively disarmed, Meek yields the train’s leadership to Emily. Yet, shortly thereafter, with the storyline begging for its resolution –– are these folks going to survive, or not? –– Reichardt abruptly ends the picture. This strategy has probably alienated more than one viewer, but, along with nagging uncertainty, Reichardt leaves us with a powerful image that yields the uncertainty’s intent. As Emily turns a troubled gaze toward the Indian climbing a hillock in the distance, her vision seems to arch over the demented optimism of Manifest Destiny toward the Union’s ambiguous, discordant future –– a symbolic finish worthy of a Melville or Hart Crane.
USA/2010/104 min./Color/OAR 1.37:1. Released on Blu-ray and DVD (in one package) in 2011 by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Go West, in fact, seems like an elaboration of an idea suitable for one of his 20- to 30-minute shorts, expanded into this feature’s length of 68 minutes. As he did in most of the shorts, Keaton here plays his alter-ego, Buster, with porkpie hat and the rest of the signifying wardrobe in place, struggling with his character’s ongoing, lonesome ineptitude. Opening in the state of Indiana, the film has a destitute Buster swap his meager possessions for a loaf of bread and a foot’s length of salami, and take a boxcar East. After landing in New York City, he flees the teeming sidewalks and heeds the incantations of Horace Greeley to head West.
Riding the rails of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, Buster finds himself ejected haphazardly from his boxcar into the featureless plains. Nonplussed, he wanders past a herd of cattle grazing and gets himself hired as a ranch hand who lacks not only experience as such, but the foreknowledge of what it takes to extract milk from a cow. Immediately the butt of cowhand practical jokes, Buster winsomely accepts his outsider status and bonds with another outsider, the unproductive milk cow, Brown Eyes.
Although his relationship with Brown Eyes has perversely romantic overtones, Buster all the while keeps his eye on the pretty daughter of the ranch’s owner (Kathleen Myers), who, touched by the bumbling young man’s attachment to the hapless cow, becomes incensed with her dad when he selects Brown Eyes for the next shipment to the slaughterhouse. Buster, though, takes action to save his beloved and stows away on the train with the doomed cattle.
Keaton sure loved his trains, and here, after some rail-side adventures en route to the city, he stages a breathtaking shot of himself prancing topside down along the boxcars as the train hurtles into downtown Los Angeles circa 1925. Yet the train doesn’t function as an outsized prop, like other ones would in films like The General and Our Hospitality (1923). Here, the prop arrives in the form of an ungainly herd of cattle, which in the film’s climax Buster must singly and heroically manage to shepherd through the city streets to the slaughterhouse and, simultaneously, toward the salvation of his boss’s fortune, his daughter’s affections, and of course the survival of Brown Eyes.
Keaton throws a multitude of gags into the basic problem of controlling a large number of rampaging bovines in an urban setting, and, while some of the jokes fall short, the final bit, which gets Buster, the cows, and the film to their destinations, is a beaut. Improvising madly, Buster enters a clothing store and dons a red devil’s costume, complete with tail, and the entire herd, mostly steers I guess, know nothing except to chase it and him. Which leads to this question: why is the simple sight of Keaton running (like hell) so funny? Perhaps this is a mystery that should be kept as such, but I wonder if it has to do with Keaton’s innate athleticism, which his films hold under wraps until moments like this, when we’re joyously surprised to see the character’s ectomorphic disaffection yield to an astonishingly fleet sprint, aided by under-cranking, perhaps, but accomplished in uncommonly good form. Keaton’s sudden surge of energy gets guaranteed laughs in any of his films, but it’s especially hilarious when he’s encased in a head-to-toe Lucifer outfit.
Alfred’s campsite, however, offers nearly all the comforts of home along with his valet’s continued micromanagement of every aspect of his existence. But when he crosses paths with a spunky “mountain girl” (Sally O’Neil), Alfred’s snug, tightly controlled universe unravels. However improbably, the two fall instantly in love, but find their matrimonial plans squashed by the mountain girl’s macho father and brother, who declare that their lineage must continue only through the girl’s mating with strong, masculine stock. Being who and what he is, Alfred’s hopes sag, until his valet stumbles on a scheme in which he could confuse his identity with that of a lightweight boxing champion also named Alfred Butler (Francis McDonald), who goes by the moniker Battling Butler, and thereby fulfill the genetic requirements of the mountain clan.
It’s a ruse that can only work if no one sees an actual fight, and hectic convolutions evolve as Alfred tries to keep it that way –– until the real Battling Butler appears to retire from fighting and Alfred is commandeered to fight as The Battling Butler in an upcoming bout with The Alabama Murderer. We may see it coming, but when Keaton’s customary, climactic burst of adrenalin finally arrives, it packs a wallop.
Both films survive in less than pristine shape, but on Blu-ray they look far better than any 86-year-old film should look. Eric Beheim contributes a synthesized score for Go West, while Robert Israel relies mostly on a small string ensemble for his score to Battling Butler. Fittingly perhaps, extras are eccentric. There’s a 60-minute audio clip of an aging Keaton pitching a plot for the TV show Wagon Train; excerpts of a screenplay written by Keaton for a 1943 remake of The Battling Butler; and a 12-minute Hal Roach short, Go West (1923), the cast of which consists solely of a troupe of monkeys trained to act like humans. Roach’s film is in extraordinarily good shape, but the comedy and the monkeys are strenuously not funny.
Go West: USA/1925/B&W/68 min. Battling Butler: USA/1926/tinted B&W/85 min. Both films 1.33:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray and DVD by KINO Classics in 2011.
- Francis Ford Coppola appears to have channeled this “Kuleshov effect” when he cross-cut Willard’s assassination of Colonel Kurtz with a very similar cow-slaughtering (via throat slash) image. [↩]
- As I read the Kubrick film, Nicholson’s character is not insane; he’s possessed by various evil impulses living in the hotel, but this doesn’t alter Mayersburg’s point. [↩]
- These minimally lit scenes, with just a flicker of campfire doing duty, remind me of Pauline Kael’s jibe concerning the overall darkness of Clint Eastwood’s film Bird (1988): “Did someone forget to pay the light bill?” [↩]