An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
City of Women (Fellini, 1980)
In Dream of Women, a documentary included on Masters of Cinema's disc, Renzo Rossellini, the surviving producer of City of Women, surmises that Fellini's large-scale 1980s picture was likely not one of his best. He then equivocates a bit — why go about rating the works of an artist like Fellini? Regardless, though, doesn't it only seem realistic to say that Fellini peaked as a filmmaker in 1963, with 8 1/2? Though he kept on making films for nearly three more decades, the director never again attained the emotive, visual wholeness of that picture.
Subsequently, Fellini's themes never wandered far from those that blended so eloquently, via dream sequences, erotic fantasies, and childhood memories, in 8 1/2. In the documentary, Rossellini speaks to Fellini's acute fear of death that blossomed as he entered middle age — he says the aborted film Il Viaggio di Mastorno was to explore it — but after 8 1/2 the director had also become intently focused on ways to mine the phantasmagoria of his inner life, such as uncovering the emotional resonance of the dream state, adopting some ill-defined Jungian mysticism, and even experimenting with spiritualism. All of this mental spelunking underwrites Fellini's follow-up to 8 1/2, Giulietta degli Spiriti (1965), a not totally successful attempt to pour the oneiric wine of 8 1/2 into a new, distaff bottle.
A decade later, Fellini had enjoyed a string of successes with films — some made for Italian television — that mined the childhood wellsprings of his creativity (and sometimes sexuality): The Clowns (1970), Roma (1972), and Amarcord (1973). But then, coming off the creative and financial disaster of Fellini's Casanova (1976) and the miniaturist Prova d'Orchestra (1978), the nearly 60-year-old maestro was moved to revisit, with a renewed grandiosity, the autobiographical, psychic clusterfuck that he had so elegantly tamed in 8 1/2, but with a now much looser, improvisatory technique, gained perhaps from his television films.
Indeed, Mastroianni stars here as a character named Snàporaz, a nickname Fellini had used for the actor since the making of La Dolce Vita (1960). In City of Women, Mastroianni more than once reintroduces an eccentric and cryptic gesture he originated in 8 1/2, in which, crouching like Groucho Marx, he performs the comic's duck walk, while, with each step, spouting these nonsense syllables, "Smeek, smack, smeek, smack." Late in the film, a character calls out to Snàporaz, "Marcello, remember the brothel?" Throughout the picture, Fellini and Mastroianni are clearly winking at each other, which adds an element of playfulness to the proceedings.
But the film cleverly places Mastroianni's caricature within its framing conceit. Snàporaz is dreaming, and the director makes sure we know it. What follows — as unfazed by the assault, the woman exits the train and strides confidently into a bosky Italian countryside with Snàporaz in hot pursuit — is structured, very authentically, as a recounted dream experience; that is, as if Snàporaz were recalling, "first I was on this train, then I followed this woman into a forest, and there was this jungle music, and it was coming from a hotel hosting a feminist convention, and then . . ."
Snàporaz's feverish adventures in the feminist convention bring forth a cacophonous burlesque of the women's movement and its didacticism. As in the harem scene in 8 1/2, Fellini is in his element here and films it all with youthful élan. Wearing a smug, self-satisfied air, Mastroianni navigates the hotel's smoky chaos, with scores of women chanting, proselytizing, or just shouting hither and yon, and it's tempting to view Snàporaz's thinly veiled sneer as the director's own. Fellini had after all articulated his feelings about the movement, stating, "Feminism is a caricature of a need rather than the actual representation of a need." Back in 1980, the film's apparent stance on feminism felt sour and lamely expressed, leading many to wonder why they had submitted themselves to seeing and hearing Fellini's views on it in the first place.
The film's final trope is brilliantly staged. Delivered to a fascist, female tribunal, Snàporaz is made to understand that he must undergo some manner of trial by combat. For Snàporaz's face-off in the arena, set designer Dante Feretti conceived the film's most dreamlike environment: long rows of bleachers, filled with seemingly hundreds of noisy girls and women, facing a sandy pit with a central stone tower that's studded with emblematic but obscure gender-specific images — it's almost as if Feretti had collaborated with Carl Jung. Snàporaz must climb the tower to confront his dream's climax, which Fellini delivers with a virtuosic snap of his finger.
Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979)
As a teenager, I'd read Thomas Hardy's fiction voraciously, but, in attempting a rereading of his 1891 novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, for this review, I found to my surprise that I wasn't enjoying Hardy's company. The Victorian author's voice is one of bemused omniscience, which packs his prose with self-congratulatory, erudite metaphors, epigrammatic observations, and rhapsodic poetic description. While the tale of Tess's downfall into shame and dire poverty is a doleful one no matter who tells it, I realized, witnessing it under the weight of Hardy's less than transparent stylistic niceties, that I'd just rather see Polanski's film for a third time.
Yet the poetic descriptions make for some of the best moments of the book, leading us to remember that Hardy considered himself more a poet than a novelist, and if Hardy can seem a bit too self-satisfied sitting on his authorial perch, he dotes on his heroine. The book comes fully alive in his descriptions of Tess's physical beauty, her naïve intelligence, and her stubborn pride in the face of degradation.2 It's clear the author is infatuated with his own creation, and this is when I start liking Hardy again.
Polanski's film dotes on its Tess, too. Like Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara or Garland as Dorothy, the then 17-year-old Nastassja Kinski is one of those casting miracles that grant a film an enduring, generation-spanning authenticity. Kinski is a wonder not only because she's young enough to play Tess Durbeyfield — and with her youth, extraordinarily beautiful in ways that match Hardy's rapturous descriptions — but also because she can project Tess's complex inner life, which is sensitive, poetically inclined, and above all intelligent.
Living with her dissolute, aging father, a dimwit mother, and a brood of infant and toddlers, Tess sees better than any of them the abyss of catastrophic poverty yawning before them. When her parents take on a chimerical notion that the Durbeyfields share a noble lineage with a nearby nouveau-riche family, the D'Urbervilles, Tess ignores the counsel of her own better judgment and agrees to seek whatever their cousins might be willing to dole out: if not a handout, maybe a job. Unaware that the ancient baronial line of the D'Urbervilles has long been extinct, and that the family merely purchased the right to assume the name (and with it an air of respectability), Mom and Pop Durbeyfield witlessly toss Tess's sexual innocence onto the path of Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), a serial seducer of young farm girls.
Instantly apprising her as worthy of future seduction, Alec hands Tess a job as the estate's hen house overseer, but the girl is soon enough pinioned under the cunning designs of her employer's lust. Although the author diverts our gaze from their coupling, Hardy implies a seduction; Polanski, though, films what begins as seduction but ends as rape, plain and simple.
As Tess begins to heal in this pastoral haven and fall in love with Angel Clare, a viewer might be reminded of Griffith's film Way Down East (1920), especially after having already witnessed Tess perform a baptism on her fatally ill baby, which recalls a parallel scene in the silent film, played with gut-wrenching emotional exactitude by Lillian Gish. Griffith's Anna Moore also seeks refuge from societal condemnation in a benevolent rural setting that, like Hardy's, accepts her only as far as it's ignorant of her secret.
BFI's Blu-ray release is a transfer of a recent, 4K restoration by Pathé of France, and the film looks glorious, brand new in fact. Nearly all of the extra features appear on a second, DVD disc. These all look to have been filmed at the same time, but have been broken up into three relevant topics: a discussion of the process of adapting the novel to the screen, a making-of, and a discussion of experiencing the film's shooting by some of its participants, including Kinski and Polanski. A fourth featurette, deservedly focusing on Anthony Powell's extraordinary costume design, appears on the Blu-ray disc.
Tsar to Lenin (Herman Axelbank and Max Eastman; premiered, 1937)
In the early '20s, Axelbank began to assemble strands from his expanding archive to create a series of documentaries, culminating in Tsar to Lenin, which he completed in a somewhat contentious collaboration with high-profile socialist Max Eastman, who managed to put his own personal stamp on it, along with sharply defined, leftist political convictions.4 Axelbank had approached Eastman in 1928 to write captions for the film and to help with editing, but Eastman took on the project with unexpected zeal and ended up adding more vintage footage and in one instance inserting a few seconds of new film — shot by Man Ray, no less — of the surviving leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky.
At times, as it introduces multiple political figures midst a kaleidoscope of violent and/or political events — with Eastman shouting out, "There's Trotsky!" or, "That's John Reed on the left!" — Tsar to Lenin can resemble a historical flip-book. The filming of this or that meeting or gathering is so on-the-fly and brief that we have just seconds, or less, to register the faces of the revolution's movers and shakers, unless their images have become iconic of those times, like those of Trotsky and especially Lenin. In the '20s and '30s, Eastman was an outspoken Trotskyite and critic of Stalin, and his reverence for the former comes through loud and clear in his narration.
But clear and studied analysis of events and their participants is not what we can expect from this film, in spite of Eastman's brief prologue, appearing as text before the clips commence, which states that the documentary makes no attempt to take sides or defend any man. Since Eastman's narration directs the film's imagery to do just that, it's an oddly disingenuous avowal.
Eastman no doubt wanted to include film of Stalin's participation in the revolution but, due to his minor status at that point, couldn't find any; a brief clip of the dictator late in the film is obviously one from the '30s. When the film premiered in New York in 1937 — to some acclaim in the press — Stalinists, unhappy with its retrofitting of Trotsky's role in the revolution, swiftly organized boycotts of further screenings and sent the film into oblivion, where it remained during the Cold War and beyond. Today, Tsar to Lenin is not only a precious archive of on-the-ground film of events that "shook the world," but also, implicit in the project's collaboration with Max Eastman, a record of what it was like to be a passionate socialist in 1930s America, as Stalin strove to rewrite the history of the Russian Revolution.
The Promised Land (1974, Andrzej Wajda)
When acclaimed filmmaker Andrzej Wajda decided to film an adaptation of Władysław Reymont's 1897 novel, The Promised Land, he discovered within the Polish city of Łódź, the story's primary locale, a complete mise-en-scène preserved and waiting for him.
Reymont's narrative takes place in the Łódź of the late 19th century when it was at its height as the center of Poland's textile industry. Scouting the city for locations, Wajda found the era's factories and their mechanized looms miraculously intact, along with strangely mummified ornate palaces once inhabited by German and Polish nouveau-riche industrialists. In addition to being a boon to production costs, this state of affairs lends a profound rightness to the film's visuals of a heavily industrialized city, its smokestacks belching, cloaked in smoke and soot, with legions of peasant workers hurrying to dismal, diurnal slavery.
But the film begins in a bucolic setting, at the modest country homestead of Karol Borowiecki (Daniel Olbrychski), a young Pole of humble means who nevertheless claims aristocratic lineage. Visiting his widower father (Tadeusz Białoszczyński), he's accompanied by two friends, a German, Max Baum (Andrzej Sewern), and a Jew, Moryc Welt (Wojciech Pazoniak). In spite of the idyllic setting, there are uncomfortable undercurrents. While Karol appears to be engaged to his father's young ward, Anka (Anna Nehrebecka), Max's wounded glances at the couple make it clear that he desires her himself. And as the three of them, in an eruption of youthful euphoria, make plans to build a factory in Łódź, Karol carries a cold gleam of controlling superiority in his eyes, while Moryc appears hysterical in his certainty of the financing (in the city he's part of the massive Jewish banking strata that underwrites the industry), and Max looks way too soft and sensitive to be an industrialist.
Maybe Wajda has a point here, but I have to admit I was uncomfortable with the Jewish characters throughout the picture (the aforementioned scene comes near the film's end). On the whole I managed to temper the negativity of my reactions as I was having them, but then again I'm not even vaguely Jewish. Out of faith in Wajda's character as a filmmaker, I accept the historical accuracy of the film's depiction of the place Jews held in the Łódź's blooming textile industry — that they basically financed it — but it's tough watching the nervous, neurotic quality of much of the Jews' behavior, as it seems to veer into the most timeworn of anti-Semitic stereotyping; individually and in groups there's lots of whining and wheedling here. Yet both Jew and Gentile share equally in the rampant greed that motivates nearly every character.
Only Anka and the elderly fathers of Karol and Max don't buy into the era's unprincipled avarice, which has been fueled by technological advances that are carelessly applied in the factories, causing dismemberment and death among the workers. Wajda shows the bloody aftermath of one worker's fatal mutilation. When Karol arrives on the scene, he attempts to show sympathy to the dead victim's co-workers, but he's more upset by the yards of linen ruined by the injury's gush of blood. Another violent workplace scene involves a hand-to-hand fight between a worker and a factory owner that climaxes in their encounter with a large rotating flywheel, yielding a spectacular, and very disturbing, image of evisceration.
Wajda's film is unusual for several reasons. Much of its nearly three-hour running time is given over to the trio's ruthless financial machinations, and it's not a pretty sight, especially in scenes where a devious Moryc wangles funds from a Jewish banker. In a virtuosic, somewhat delirious sequence set in an opera house, the partners watch a bit of business from Swan Lake followed by vaudevillian comedy acts while the news circulates in the loge that the economic bubble (made by favorable low tariffs on textiles) has burst. Good news for our budding industrialists, apparently, but then an ironic consequence of Karol's philandering ways cuts short their stay of good fortune, and their plans end literally in ashes. Not one of the three main protagonists gains our sympathy; as the film's final scenes leap ahead a decade or more to 1905, we see the three buddies have managed to become, in spite of their youthful bum luck, heartless robber barons. In his interview, Wajda paraphrases a sentiment from Marx, that "industry endangers those who build it," and The Promised Land is a relentlessly detailed and dark vision of that process. The three friends, so energized by youthful euphoria at the beginning, are human shells by its end, their humanity asphyxiated by greed and cruelty.
Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922) and The Wedding of Palo (Friedrich Dalsheim and Knud Rasmussen, 1934)
"Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit."
Nanook of the North, considered by many to be the earliest documentary released as a feature film, is the main attraction of Flicker Alley's recent Blu-ray release, but, on a second disc, they've generously included another full-length film concerned with native life, released 12 years after Flaherty's, the Danish sound production The Wedding of Palo. Unlike Flaherty's use of native peoples in his documentary, the later film casts the Tunumiut people of East Greenland as actors in a plotted drama meant to portray aboriginal life before the natives had contact with whites some 50 years before.
The film was a project seen through to its completion by Danish explorer, ethnographer, and writer Knud Rasmussen, who had made a number of expeditions to East Greenland before deciding to bring cameras and a German director, Friedrich Dalsheim, on his seventh.
The Blu-ray reveals a film in remarkable condition, from which we can appreciate the beauty of its location photography, capturing a rocky but quite spectacular coastal landscape. The star of The Wedding of Palo is not so much the Palo of the title, but his eventual bride, Navarana, played gracefully by a young native woman whose face, dominated by heroic cheekbones, the camera seems to adore.
The Wedding of Palo is a sound film, with much of its dialogue (translated by intrusive silent film style intertitles) unconvincingly mumbled via out-of-sync post-production dubs, and the actors have trouble, understandably, projecting outsized emotions when needed. For a good part of the time they interact with much nervous laughter. Continuity is often a problem, especially when violent or tragic events occur, whereupon the editing becomes choppy indeed, as in the scene where Samo stabs Palo or in the fateful event that ends the film.
In 1920, as he photographed the footage that would become Nanook of the North, former prospector Robert Flaherty was no Murnau either, but he knew the Canadian Hudson Bay region and its native inhabitants well, and had also experimented extensively as an amateur filmmaker. The 1922 film was actually the result of a second attempt to capture Inuit life; the negatives of the first had gone up in flames.
You imagine the bartered hardware would include useful steel tools from the white culture, yet when Flaherty and his crew follow the Inuit family on a seal hunt, we observe the construction of an igloo made solely with "primitive" Eskimo tools, such as a long knife seemingly fashioned from bone. Once the igloo is completed — finished up by Nanook with a nifty window made of a square of ice — Flaherty photographs the family within it, settling down to a night's sleep, and the question has to arise: how'd he get that bulky old camera into that tight space? And how did he illuminate the interior without melting it?
Flaherty, of course, didn't shoot inside the finished igloo, which looks precisely like every cartoon igloo ever drawn; instead, a three-sided igloo structure was built to accommodate the photography. We sense and excuse this necessary amount of fakery just by watching the film, but Flicker Alley's addition, on the same disc, of a 1988 French documentary, Nanook Revisited — which as its title announces visits the production base of the film, Port Harrison, nearly 70 years later — goes deeper into balancing the film's realities versus its illusions. Expertly produced by Claude Massot, this film proves an invaluable companion to Flaherty's, even as it debunks some of its authenticity.
"It was a film made for white people," says the aged Inuit, with a hint of disgust. Another local native, a young man who runs the town's TV station, points out glaring inaccuracies, or clear pandering to a white audience. Inuit, in 1920, he avers, would not be wearing polar bear skin pants like Nanook does, and the scene where Nanook encounters a gramophone for the first time is clearly staged. "Gramophones had been around a while," the TV station operator says, adding, "this is not my favorite scene in the movie." At the end of the scene, Nanook grabs the record off the player and bites it. This, we now realize, is meant to be funny.
In all — the set contains, in addition to the feature films and Massot's documentary, four short vintage films about Arctic life — Flicker Alley has provided a remarkable, open-ended experience, which provokes with complexity, a complexity that only reconfirms the classic status of Flaherty's film. Certainly one of the major releases of this or any year.
- After the two completed Prova d'Orchestra in 1969, the composer died, and Fellini lost an important, lifelong collaborator. No one thereafter could really fill his shoes. Rota's scores did more than just enhance Fellini's films; they in some ways completed them. With Rota's participation, I have no doubt City of Women would've been a different, probably better, film. [↩]
- The subtitle of the novel's 1892 edition is A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. [↩]
- As in the novel, when Tess and Angel are on the lam and come upon Stonehenge, the film has Tess fall asleep on the monument's altar. [↩]
- Beginning in the 1940s, Eastman began to swing politically to the right, even supporting Joe McCarthy for a time. In 1955, the first editor of the socialist journal The Masses became a contributing editor of the conservative magazine The National Review. [↩]
- Soon after the film's run in theaters in 1975, Wajda edited a nearly four-hour version that was broadcast on Polish television. [↩]
- After photography had wrapped, a disgruntled Flaherty abandoned the project, selling his rights to the film to Murnau. [↩]