Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: <em>The Italian, Traffic in Souls, Privilege, Wings, The Ascent, Tropical Malady, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, J’Accuse</em>

The Italian (Reginald Barker, 1915) and Traffic in Souls (George Loane Tucker, 1913)

The Italian of producer Thomas Ince’s 1915 film is Beppo Donnetti, played by George Beban in a performance that much improves once he sheds the gondolier’s outfit he wears (with strolling guitar) in the initial “Old Italy” sequences. In his native land, which features an odd mishmash of Venetian canals and rustic, southern Californian countryside, Beppo is something of a narcissistic wastrel who proves he can support his intended, Annette (Clara Williams), by sailing to America and snagging a position as shoeshine boy.

Established with a living wage, Beppo sends for his sweetheart, whereupon a wedding ensues, and baby makes three. Tenement life looks dingy enough here, but a title card proclaims, “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and Beppo’s ethnic exuberance wins over the Jewish landlord when the Italian can’t pay the rent. At street level, the melting pot seems to hold a happy stew, but there’s the Irish, who got there before Beppo and have had time to learn the ropes of corruption and power on which you climb to a house in the ‘burbs.

Just such an Irishman is Alderman Corrigan, a backslapping slumlord who gets a laugh from his confederates when he calls Beppo a wop. Beppo himself is blind to the mechanics of rich vs. poor until the day — his baby deathly ill from unpasteurized milk while the city suffers an unending heat wave — Corrigan denies the desperate father aid (a few pennies for healthy milk) and drives off in his motor car dragging the unfortunate Beppo along the street as he clings to the running board.

When the desperate ironies of the American dream prove too much for Beppo’s kindly nature, he snaps and seeks vengeance in a not so credible plot twist that nonetheless provides the film with a powerfully downbeat conclusion. Projecting overwhelming grief, Beban reveals some hefty acting chops, and The Italian certainly gets its liberal point across, a model of how American movies dress social consciousness in the garb of melodrama. Even here, in its infancy, feature film was eager to pick up the call for social reform that sounded out in urban America before the First World War.

If Traffic in Souls1 feels less of a reformist rant, it’s because it would rather be a race-against-time-save-the-girl thriller. It’s also, possibly, an Ur-text of that reliable genre, the police procedural, complete with cutting-edge crime-stopper technology that allows an investigation to bug a politico’s office by recording the incriminating evidence on several shiny Edison cylinders hidden in a secretary’s purse.

The film is a mild exploitation of a very real panic at the time, the white slavery scare. Aided greatly by the media, fear-mongering reformers excited the public with images of innocent maidens being pressed, often right off the street, into the ever-ready grip of prostitution. With sexual slavery very much alive today, especially in Asia, the reality of this nefarious threat to white American maidenhood should still be open to debate, I guess, and back then, it got legislation moving both in the U.S. and Britain; here, it led to the Mann Act.

In the 1913 film, the NYC police department focuses on busting up a white slavery ring that not only cruises nubile arrivals from Ellis Island, but sends out an unctuous, straw-boated Adonis to lure a thoroughly American young lady — working in a candy shop — to a potted palm dancing emporium where, disoriented from the pheromone-thickened atmosphere, she accepts a Mickey-laced drink and falls susceptible to the fate worse than death: waking up in strange surroundings and being told to wear a kimono. That’s as close as we get here to the realities of prostitution, but for the 1913 audience, I’m sure it was enough to ground freckled Clara Sue or pigtailed Adeline for a few weeks.

Flicker Alley has scored again with this release of two early cautionary tales of immigrant life. Both films — transferred from good to excellent prints — are well paced and entertaining, and, with plenty of urban location work, enlivened by glimpses of ragtime city life. Adapting “authentic photoplay music,” the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies The Italian. These guys are better than ever, playing with such musicianship that they came close to distracting me from the film. Philip Carli takes to the piano for Traffic in Souls. Three Edison shorts detailing the splendid work of big city police — Police Force, New York City (1910), The Call of the City (1912), and McQuade of the Traffic Squad (1915) — are generous bonuses.

Perils of the New Land: The Immigrant Experience (1910-1915). The Italian (US/1915/ min./B&W and tinted/Silent/1:33:1 aspect ratio. Traffic in Souls (US/1913/ 74 min./B&W/Silent/1:33:1 aspect ratio. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2008.

Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967)

With its recent DVD release of Privilege, part of their ongoing series of the films of Peter Watkins, New Yorker Video generously includes Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter’s 26-minute documentary Lonely Boy (1962), which economically details the mechanisms of pop idol Paul Anka’s burnished supper-club persona. All of nineteen at the time, Anka glows with health, confidence, and a non-cynical awareness of how he — and his managers — got all that teenage flesh to come out and scream at him. In preparation for Privilege, Watkins studied Lonely Boy as a basic text on the molding of pop stars and the resulting out-of-control celebrity worship. He even pulled a few lines of dialog from the film.

In some ways Lonely Boy foreshadows the technique and form of Pennebaker’s roughhouse cinema verité documentary on Bob Dylan’s 1965 English tour, Don’t Look Back, which premiered the same year as Privilege. But where Dylan is moody, introspective, angry, and seemingly unprepared for the deluge of celebrity worship coming his way, Paul Anka, back in ’62, can’t wait to get on with it. Insuring his survival in the music scene, Anka had a self-propelled talent for writing easily digestible pop ballads. As a rule, teen idols — especially totally manufactured ones like, say, Fabian — are not tortured geniuses; Dylan’s pop status in the England of ’65 was clearly a case of mistaken identity.

In Privilege, rock star Stephen Shorter (Paul Jones, lead singer for Manfred Mann) is neither an updated, melancholy Beat like Dylan nor a chrome-plated entertainment machine like Anka. Instead he’s merely one unhappy boychick, a human shell nearly drained, not only of any individual creative drive (which both Dylan and Anka could sustain within their pop whirlwinds) but also of any discernible personality — and here you might wonder how Shorter, in this Britain of the “near future,” could end up the object of the biggest cult of personality in the history of mankind.

What do the girls see in him? The non-actor Jones, pallid and painfully thin, projects a morbid, self-protective inwardness — a pop Hamlet. Occasionally, like the Dane, he snaps and has a fit of pique, but mostly he looks punchy and brittle, like he’s coming down with the flu. As he’s too tired and withdrawn to project any sexual energy, maybe the boppers just want to bed him so that they can coddle him into sitting up with some soup and crackers.

In Watkins’ bravura verité opening sequence, lucky fans watch Shorter perform in a mimed display of police brutality where uniformed goons pummel the singer into a holding cell. Supposedly the staged vignette will resonate, Watkins’ voiceover tells us, with an actual prison term Shorter enjoyed, part of the past we assume his corporate and government handlers have fabricated for him.

Contrived as cathartic medicine, Shorter’s stage act hopes to depoliticize anxious youth in anxious times, an interesting Big Brother gambit that rings true. Perhaps intentionally, the few songs that Jones gets to sing are tepid and eminently resistible. If there was a soundtrack album, I’m guessing few copies sold. For these, check ebay.

When artist Vanessa Ritchie (supermodel Jean Shrimpton) arrives to paint Shorter’s portrait, the film’s drama attempts a jumpstart, but Watkins’ confusion of tone and technique — already all over the place with documentary-inflected satire, a couple of weak-kneed attempts at parody, and even a backhanded homage to Triumph of the Will — works against the engine’s catching the spark. Shrimpton’s face, a geometric perfection of flesh over bone, is a fantastical sight, but her scenes with Jones lack juice, even as she persuades him to submit to a little sexual healing. When Ritchie removes Shorter’s shirt, we see violent flagellation scars on his naked back, like Christ’s, over which Ritchie sighs with pity, not arousal.

But Watkins is too engaged, too innovative a filmmaker for Privilege to go dead in the water. The scenes featuring his management team — who themselves are being managed by Britain’s “coalition” government — feel right on the money. Their staged interviews, spiced with skillful improvisation, are often ruefully funny, and get Watkins’ sardonic points across better than anything else in the film. When Watkins, in his later masterworks Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, seems to single-handedly invent a new, intuitively constructed form of filmic biography, he integrates the same technique, the faux interview, to even greater effect — despite (or, because of) its being more of an illogical, frame-shattering device than in Privilege.

On DVD — kudos to both Project X and New Yorker Video — Privilege is beautiful to look at. Watkins’ manipulation of vivid Technicolor while using indirect lighting — not much done in those days, as Watkins points out in the accompanying booklet — yields a slightly grainy look that is at the same time remarkably sensual, allowing a provocative tension to play against the film’s angry, cautionary message.

U.K.-USA/1967/Color/1.85:1 anamorphic/103 min. Released on DVD by New Yorker Video in 2008.

Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1977)

For Eclipse’s eleventh issue, Criterion has boxed two powerful works by the Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, who, with just four features to her credit, died at the age of 40 in a car crash. The films here are her first and last, and their emotional range and technical assurance bruise the mind when, necessarily, you wonder what might have been.

Taken from a novella by Vasili Bykov and set during Germany’s WWII occupation of Russia, The Ascent follows two Russian “partisans,” Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov, above) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), as they break off from their starving squadron to forage for food in the blinding white immensity of a snowbound landscape. They do their best to evade the Nazi “punishment squads,” but eventually the Germans corner them in the cottage of a peasant woman, who, like the headman of the village, is implicated and arrested as a partisan merely because the soldiers came to her out of naked need: frail and seriously ill, Sotnikov — beset with pneumonia or TB and coughing violently — is also wounded in the leg.

The pre-sanctioned slant of its WWII storyline, with its grim depiction of Nazi occupation, must’ve blinded the Politburo to the film’s central religious metaphor and its Christ figure/hero, Sotnikov. The mixture feels uniquely Russian — as in Dostoyevsky — but also recalls Billy Budd, in which Billy’s fundamental goodness makes Claggart feel uncomfortable and forces events to Budd’s martyrdom.

Staunchly non-compliant yet strangely beatific, the captured Sotnikov nearly disarms the evil, collaborating Russian police investigator, Portnov, played with chilly malevolence by Anatoli Solonitsyn, but it’s clear to Sotnikov and the rest of the prisoners that they’re doomed. In the presence of death, the fading but spiritually triumphant Sotnikov begins his “ascent,” while his companion, Rybak, grovels for his survival in the shit of collaboration.

The drama of redemption/damnation takes place in the prisoners’ dank underground holding tank, where the condemned ones hover over the feverish Sotnikov like supplicants in a cave of miracles. You could argue that the film is simply about moral courage in the face of all those nasty Germans, but Shepitko’s subversive use of Christian allegory and bold turns of imagery takes it above and beyond any patriotic Soviet polemic and guides us to a place where human suffering opens up mystic, superhuman vistas. Great silent films can do this — Abel Gance’s La Roue comes to mind — but also, to name two works that visually mutate King Lear — so do sound films like Kozintsev’s King Lear (1971) and Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).

Shepitko’s 1967 Wings is quite another matter: an intimate chamber drama focused on the disappointments of a middle-aged, secondary school headmistress who also happens to be a WWII aviatrix-hero. Still lauded by the state twenty years after the war, she can wander into a museum of war memorabilia and find pictures of herself hanging next to those of her dead lover, a fellow pilot vanquished in a dogfight. Earthbound by banalities like her job, her estranged daughter, and a gentle but boring boyfriend, Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova) keeps dropping in on her old comrades at the airfield in the hope she can jump into an old MiG, take off, and touch the clouds again.

The sharp-featured and very beautiful Bulgakova gives a performance remarkable for the intensity projected from its core of stillness. Watching regret, confusion, and yearning flash across this actress’ face — and accomplished with such spare technique — I was reminded of Helen Mirren’s nuanced performance as the frustrated, alcoholic, but pointedly intelligent Jane Tennyson in the Prime Suspect TV series.

Both of these wonderful films look terrific on disc, with the younger Ascent in mint condition. Praise be to the Eclipse series for their resurrection.

Wings (1966/Russia/85 minutes/B&W/monaural in Russian with optional English subtitles/1.33:1 aspect ratio.) The Ascent (1977/109 minutes/&&W/monaural in Russian with optional English subtitles/1.33:1. Released on DVD in 2008 by The Criterion Collection.)

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

The “beast in the jungle” in Tropical Malady is not the clear shining metaphor of the Henry James novella: it’s an image — an actual beast, in fact — whose precise meaning eludes us. In modern-day Thailand, Tong (Sakda Gaewbuadee, above), a lad from the countryside, may be the dangerous shape-changing tiger for which the conscripted soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) searches in the nighttime depths of the jungle. In the first part of the film’s bi-part halves, set mostly in a bustling urban environment, Tong keeps his shape as the good-natured but somewhat diffident target of Keng’s lust. The two of them enjoy a playful grope in a movie house and lots of languorous hanging-about until, one evening, Tong simply disappears into the dark at the jungle’s edge just as news comes of a tiger stalking livestock near the village — at which point, another film abruptly begins.

Apichatpong frames this second half as deriving from an ancient Thai legend filled with ghosts and lurking predators. For the rest of the film, as Keng, sweating profusely in his soldier duds, tracks what he assumes is a big cat, he’s observed by a naked Tong, until Keng catches sight of the boy, gives pursuit, and tackles him in the reeds. Viewed in long shot, Keng’s tussle with the naked Tong is an eerie sight, a hallucinogenic gay version of Jacob wrestling with the angel. But the writhing, manic Tong slips from Keng’s grasp, and, later, the soldier stares down a gigantic man-eating tiger standing high midst the soughing trees. Keng has been given a choice: either kill the beast or “be devoured and become part of its world.”

Tropical Malady is a rich journey for the senses, but it’s especially tactile. When the boys go out on the town, they behave like inexperienced teenagers following the social norm commonly called “dating” and its attendant exploratory touching. Hands to hands, a hand along an arm, a hand to a knee — it’s all so gentle and tentative. Rarely have I seen sexual vulnerability displayed more specifically and sensually in a film.

The textures of the physical environment, of both town and jungle, are vivid, too. Tracking the ghost-tiger, Keng comes upon scratch marks on a tree; he investigates their humanness by placing his own hand to them and letting it run the length of the marks — the tree may as well be Tong’s body, or, his own. It’s the film’s provocative sleight of hand that it causes these marks of an unseen terror in the jungle to resonate with the earlier shy fumbling between the men.

Second Run comes through with a vivid transfer and a couple of special features: a short film by Apichatpong called Thirdworld, and a newly filmed interview with the director, who needs to be better known in the West.

Thailand/2004/114 minutes/Color/in Thai with English subtitles/OAR: 16:9/1.78:1/PAL. Released on DVD by Second Run in 2008.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jires, 1970)

As an allegory of puberty’s terror of sex, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders can seem perversely featherweight, but it has its depths and a sense of humor, too.

Post-credits, in a gauzy, long-ago time — late 19th century perhaps — the precociously beautiful 13-year-old Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) experiences her first period as she skips along a garden path. Looking down, she sees that she’s deposited little dollops of blood on a daisy. She smiles at the effect, not recognizing that the doused flower is both a symbol of the end of her girlhood and a harbinger of the springtime arrival of weasels, vampires, pedophile priests, and, good god almighty, a lesbian aunt — all of whom conspire to warn her that there’s a big wide world of scary nookie out there.

When Valerie, coming upon a gaggle of buxom servant girls splashing playfully in a stream, fondles her own chest, disappointed at what’s budding there, I wondered if we were in for some soft-focus David Hamilton-type imagery of a young girl “discovering” the pleasures of her body, but, nope, that’s not on Jires’ agenda. You begin to get the idea when you see Valerie crossing herself at a roadside shrine featuring male and female wooden figures — Adam and Eve? — in which honeybees swarm their pubic areas. It’s the most potent image of untrammeled sexuality in the film.

Within Valerie’s darker iconography, Jires — and I assume Vitezslav Nezval, whose novel Jires adapted — is harsh with the Catholic Church, which we see sexually repress young girls, rape them if it can, and then submit them to genital slavery in the form of sanctified marriage. There’s more anger in this film than you would anticipate from its opening wistfulness.

The beast in this film is a skittering weasel that easily transforms into a vampire of the Nosferatu sort that combines with Bergman’s bald, white-faced Death from The Seventh Seal. Seemingly in league with the Church, the vampire may or may not be Valerie’s father. He, too, like one of the priests, tries to rape her. Soon enough, Valerie’s emerging sexuality gets her in big trouble: accused as a witch, she’s brought to the town square to be burned.

In the end, though, it all comes out in a phantasmagorical wash. Valerie’s visions gather in a Garden of Earthly Delights where the vampires lose their fangs, the rapacious priest finds himself caged like a mad dog, and girls and boys gambol in the sunshine, their innocence intact. Valerie has come to terms with her demons, and she didn’t have to wait until menopause like Fellini’s title character in Giulietta degli Spriti (1965).

The film is carnival of images, and although these are often coruscating and violent, the director has a light touch, so that the end effect of Valerie is charming and strangely quaint. This is also a very pretty color film that Second Run honors with an excellent transfer.

Czechoslovakia/1970/73 minutes/Color/in Czech with English subtitles/OAR: 1:33/PAL. Released on DVD by Second Run in 2008.

J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)

Gance’s film of WWI, J’Accuse, which began shooting while the conflict still raged, ended up not as an anti-war statement, but as a special plea for the dead: that is, if the living recognize the value of their sacrifice, the countless dead won’t regret their horrific annihilation, and French citizenry may all feel a little better about the slaughter.

It’s a hard message to swallow, at least nowadays. As with Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), the message in Gance’s picture slows the medium. The French director is even more insistent than Griffith in making sure the audience gets the point, using techniques gleaned from the American master. Like D. W.’s image of Lillian Gish as The Woman Who Rocks the Cradle in Intolerance, Gance provides J’Accuse with a recurring idée fixe in the form of a circle of dancing skeletons, not to mention a constant repetition, in dialog or in bold, type-faced declarations, of the words J’Accuse.

One wearies of billboards, and Gance’s message seems muddled. It’s possible an angry Gance, fresh from his own experiences as a soldier, aggrieved that so many friends and colleagues had simply disappeared, wanted to make an anti-war film, plain and simple, but then pulled back from a nihilism that would’ve alienated a war-weary, grief-stricken audience. But furnishing the war with a redemptive meaning misdirects the finger-pointing polemic and leaves it searching for reasonable targets. In the end the hero can do no better than point at some wartime profiteers; a couple of faithless women; and finally, a passive and cosmic observer of the horror, the sun in the sky.

Yet, again like Griffith, the filmmaking is so vivid, so alive with emerging possibilities, that you forgive the confusion and embrace the far-fetched melodrama, which relies on the same 19th-century dramatic symmetries and literary plot contrivances that inspired Griffith. Verdi could’ve made a hell of an opera out of this material — two men, loving the same women, ready to kill each other, a war intervening, a few dramatic ironies — something on the order of La Forza del Destino.

It helps that the film’s hero, Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé), is a poet. In the days before the war erupts, the morose Diaz is immune to the sunshine that drenches his little village in southern France. Although chided by his aging mother, he can’t help but moon after his lost love, Edith (Maryse Dauvray), who has married the sadistic brute François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). A remarkable bedroom scene underscores the tragic dimensions of the marriage: while a half-naked Edith cowers on the floor, the grinning fetishist François lounges on the bed above her, fondling a lacy undergarment.

Bruises on Edith’s neck signal the abuse to Jean during one of their rendezvous; on his end, François suspects that Edith is having an affair with the poet. Potential violence hangs heavy in the air, but once the war arrives, much of the nearly three-hour film goes to detailing how the two men, thrown serendipitously into the trenches together, enter into an intense friendship as they acknowledge and accept their shared love of Edith. While this Spartan romance blooms, their beloved Edith is abducted by the Germans, gang-raped, and then released — pregnant.

Seemingly the George C. Scott of his generation, Séverin-Mars gobbles up every performance in sight, but, as he would prove again in Gance’s La Roue (1923), Séverin-Mars is on the short list of silent film’s greatest actors, his face a churning powerhouse of emotion that never yields to the stagy artifice that many associate with silent film acting. When he disappears for a time in J’Accuse’s second half, Joubé’s performance, as a shell-shocked Jean Diaz gone mad with visionary truth, comes to the fore, his poetic diatribe against the sun the film’s stunning capper.

Within six months of their release of La Roue, Flicker Alley treats us to another major work by the French master. The transfer on display here, from a restoration by Lobster Films, is magnificent, with an astonishing amount of detail throughout and a well-preserved gray scale. The color tinting is excellent, too, as it never pushes dark values too far to black. Robert Israel has arranged and conducts a somber orchestral score that takes on some Mahler and a bit of Wagner in the scene where the dead resurrect in front of Diaz. As much as I usually hate it when an underscore utilizes high-profile music from a composer like Mahler — who never envisioned his music as an accompaniment for anything — the haunted sonic landscape chosen here is chillingly effective.2

The extras on the two-disc set are unusual. An accompanying booklet contains two essays, one an engagingly personal piece by film historian Kevin Brownlow, the other a provocative offering by Leslie K. Hankins — a professor of English and film at Iowa University and president of the International Virginia Woolf Society — proposing that Gance’s film and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway explore the madness of WWI with similar intent and Modernist experimentation, albeit in different mediums.

Two short films are included, both French titles made during WWI. One of them, Paris During the War (1915), takes a humorous tack, and the shtick on display here — performed by French vaudevillians — goes far in explaining the Gallic lionization of Jerry Lewis later in the century.

France/1919/166 min./B&W with color tinting/Silent/1:33:1 aspect ratio. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2008.

  1. Flicker Alley’s website includes a fascinating detail: “According to legend, Traffic in Souls was filmed surreptitiously at Universal Pictures with the producer (Jack Cohn) and director (George Loane Tucker) prepared to buy the picture in case the company wouldn’t release it.” []
  2. When filmmakers opt to use music from the classical canon, it’s not that I feel the music’s being mistreated or cheapened, it just seems like cheating. Music composed as underscore — and I love film music — can be manipulative enough, but when a director like, say, Oliver Stone, uses Barber’s Adagio for Strings in his film Platoon — well, shoot some footage of me writing this column, insert Barber’s music under it, and watch the act of typing become profoundly moving. []