Friday, October 20, 2017

Siberian Lady Macbeth

Based on my research (details on the internet are skimpy at best), in 1961 Andrzej Wajda, fresh from Innocent Sorcerers (modern middle-European angst) and still riding the crest of the success of Ashes and Diamonds (the war), left Poland in protest of its lack of creative freedom and went to Yugoslavia to make Siberian Lady Macbeth (Sibirska Ledi Magbet) with a cast and crew that spoke no Polish. Later Wajda complained that the experience was creatively frustrating and that it was better for him to seek creative freedom in Poland. His very next film - in Poland - was Samson, which presented him with even greater challenges.

The Nikolai Leskov novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, published in 1865, is more famous for its 20th-Century adaptations than for its literary merits. It's a bit like The Brothers Karamazov if Grushenka were the central character and if she had been sexually insatiable. How refreshing, though, to find sex treated as it is in Leskov, and not as part of some moral agenda in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. (Turgenev was virtually asexual, which is probably why Henry James admired him so much.) "Oh! Oh! Let go of me, Katerina Lvovna moaned softly, weakening under Sergei's hot kisses, and involuntarily pressing herself to his powerful body." Not what students expect to encounter in a Russian Lit. class.

The brilliant 29-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich chose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as the subject of an opera that not only altered the course of his career but radically changed the course of all "official" artistic expression in Stalin's USSR. Composed in 1932, the opera was already phenomenally successful when Stalin decided to go and see it in January 1936. After storming out of the performance during the last act, the opera was denounced in Pravda (the USSR's official news source) two days later. The opera closed and Shostakovich expected to be arrested and possibly sent to Siberia. Stalin imposed strict guidelines on artists, insisting that their work reflect the ideals of "Socialist Realism," keeping far from modernist abstraction or, in the case of composers like Shostakovich, atonality. Shostakovich survived and eventually managed to be rehabilitated in the eyes of Stalin. His opera, however, was never performed again in its original form in Shostakovich's. After Stalin's death, he reconstituted the opera and called it "Katerina Izmailova". It was first performed in Moscow in 1963. On being expelled from the USSR, Mstislav Rostropovich smuggled the manuscript of the 1932 opera to the West and recorded it in 1979.

The memory of the original opera outlasted Stalin's censorship. In the opening credits of Wajda's film, Dušan Radić is credited with the music, "based on the motives [sic] of the opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' by Dmitri Shostakovich". Even filmmaking with such broad strokes as Wajda uses in Siberian Lady Macbeth, the use of Shostakovich's music is not intrusive but quite effective, especially the scene in which Sergei and Katerina dispose of her husband's dead body in a pigsty full of strange woolly pigs.

We are introduced to the precincts of a well to do merchant named Boris Izmailov, whose son Zinovy is away assessing the damage to a mill by a recent dam burst. It seems the old man has nothing to do all day but shout orders to his serfs, collect dead rats that have eaten the poisoned bait he leaves for them under the floor boards, eat and drink tea. Katerina, his daughter-in-law, who has failed to give his son a child, has even less to do with her husband away but walk around the house like a panther pacing her cage. Nothing to do, that is, until a strapping young swineherd named Sergei sallies forth.

In the opening shots, the setting looks like something from a Western - plain, makeshift buildings in the middle of a flat, dusty landscape. The widescreen photography, by Alexander Sekulovič, reinforces the impression that we are on a frontier where domesticated animals outnumber people. It is all exactly as Leskov describes in his novella:

"It was clean everywhere, it was quiet and empty everywhere, icon lamps shone before the icons, and nowhere in the house was there a living sound, a human voice. Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom, and climb the stairs to her marital bedroom in the small, high mezzanine. There, too, she sat, looked at how they hung up hemp or poured out flour by the storehouse again she would start to yawn, and she was glad of it: she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant's house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself."(1)

Sergei no sooner meets Katerina than he changes into a proper shirt and heads straight for Katerina's bedroom. She feins indignity at his advances, until he's on top of her in her marriage bed. Afterwards (and there never was a more disappointing segue), her father-in-law enters downstairs, Katerina tells Sergei to scram and the old man catches him climbing down from the bedroom window. Old as he is (in the novella he's supposed to be 80), Boris hauls Sergei to the barn where he beats him mercilessly. Katerina covers her ears, but Sergei stifles his own cries by biting into his nice shirt (a nice touch Wajda copied from Leskov). Finished beating Sergei, Boris, exhausted, returns to Katerina and threatens to drag her naked through the streets. Without hesitation, she poisons his soup.

After the funeral, Katerina and Sergei spend all their time in bed until, without warning, her husband Zinovy returns. Having heard of his father's death and the rumors of his wife's infidelity, Zinovy confronts Katerina. Emboldened by the poisoned tea he has just drunk, Katerina, instead of denying the accusations, brings in Sergei (who was hiding outside) and, when Zinovy attacks him, together they finish off Zinovy.

There is an ecstatic scene in which Katerina and Sergei are riding in a horse-drawn wagon with Sergei joyously whipping the horses onward and Katerina lying back on the sacks of flour. But Katerina's problems are far from over. A relative arrives with claims on her estate. Another murder must follow. Wajda planned to tell the story in flashbacks as Katerina and Sergei plod on their long journey to Siberia. Incidentally, Mtsensk in a city in Ukraine. Siberia is where Katerina is exiled after her trial. I think Wajda was right to abandon the idea and tell the story straightforwardly. It gives the film a cumulative effect that is far more satisfying. In fact, when the two are at last caught and sentenced to life in exile, I thought, "the film should end here. Why continue?" But the final moments of the film are worth waiting for, as Katerina drowns Sergei's new girl and then herself in the river as the ferry drifts away behind the rain. It's a spectacular ending to a shamefully neglected film.
Special mention must be made for Ljuba Tadic as Sergei. He is almost pitiable in the final sequence, subject to his own nature, acquiring socks from Katerina to warm his feet on the road to Siberia, only to trade them for the favors of a pretty blonde in the group of exiles.

One searches in vain for antecedents for this film. Bergman's The Virgin Spring, made just two years before Wajda's film, comes close - except there is no violated virgin in Mtsensk. The violation(s) are all committed by Katerina Lvovna. There is also a spooky scene in which Katerina and her maid invoke the fertility of a pregnant mare. I have to admit that I found Katerina's (Olivera Markovic) arms around the mare's belly, pressing her breasts against it and kissing it, disturbingly erotic. The scene corresponds to the witch's (Gunnel Lindblom) appeal to Odin in The Virgin Spring. Bergman tried to repudiate his film by claiming he was heavily under the influence of Kurosawa. Kurosawa, to bring influences full circle, was deeply indebted to Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky.

As for the influence of Siberian Lady Macbeth on subsequent films, the two most famous Bulgarian films, The Peach Thief (1964) and The Goat Horn (1972), show clear echoes of Wajda's film. Harold Bloom once claimed that Kurosawa's Throne of Blood was the greatest "Shakespearean" film ever made. Bloom had probably never seen Siberian Lady Macbeth, but using his definition of "Shakespearean" (Kurosawa's film, coincidentally based on Macbeth, had to dispense with all of Shakespeare's text), there are very few films that come as close to the spirit and power of Shakespeare as Siberian Lady Macbeth.

(1) Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Friday, October 13, 2017

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

In 1964, Rod Serling bought the rights to the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge for $25,000. I'm stealing it back.

Robert Enrico's film, produced in France under the title La Riviere du Hibou, was based on the short story by American Civil War veteran, journalist and fiction writer Ambrose Bierce. Enrico had already adapted the Bierce story "Chickamauga" and later incorporated it and a third Bierce adaptation, "The Mockingbird," in Au coeur de la vie, after the original title of Bierce's collection of stories In the Midst of Life first published in 1891. I haven't seen the other two films but I've heard high praise for Au coeur de la vie.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge had won awards at Cannes in 1962 and at the Oscars in 1963 for Best Live Action Short. The producer of the fantasy/horror television series The Twilight Zone, hosted by Rod Serling, saw the film and finagled the broadcast rights for $20,000. An additional $5,000 was spent on re-editing. I probably saw the version originally broadcast in 1964, but I can't attest to its alterations of Enrico's film, except for Serling's obtrusive editorializing at the film's conclusion:

"An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: in two forms, as it was dreamed... and as it was lived and died. This is the stuff of fantasy, the thread of imagination... the ingredients of the Twilight Zone."

The episode has since passed into legend, but it is due solely to the power of Enrico's film, which has been done a disservice by having been assigned to the fantasy/horror genre. Though it draws a considerable amount of its force from the brevity of Bierce's style, the film stands on its own as a remarkable work of art. It is simply the story of a man who knows that he is about to die and the thoughts that pass through his mind in the moments leading up to his death.

Bierce saw so much death in the Civil War and was so personally affected by it that his war stories are haunted by astonishing visions and frequented by ghosts. His accounts of the war, both journalistic and fictional, are a fitting companion to the war photography of Mathew Brady. In their uniqueness and in their power to make something as common as violent death in battle so shockingly new and real, they are, I think, as valuable as Isaac Babel's stories of the Russian Civil War written thirty years later.

Under the credits, the first thing we see is a charred tree stump on which a poster has been placed that reads:


caught interfering with the railroad bridges,
tunnels or trains will be
The 4th of April 1862

Moving among the trees, the camera shows us a railroad bridge suspended across a stream. By the time the credits are over, we see a small group of soldiers in a single rank. An officer orders them toward the bridge. Preparations are being made for what appears to be a hanging: a soldier with sergeant stripes walks to the center of the bridge, throws a rope over a suspended beam and improvises a noose at one end. A man dressed as a civilian has his hands tied behind him and he is led forward by the arm to where a wooden plank is resting on top of the rails, with one end reaching a few feet over the water. With an officer standing on the other end of the plank, the man is moved onto it and placed near the outer edge, turned around, and the noose is placed around his neck. Two men bind his legs together at the knees and ankles. All the while the man is looking around him with a look of fear in his eyes. He glances below him at the slow-moving stream and we hear him thinking [exactly as in Bierce's story], "If I could free my hands, I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home."

What the film hasn't told us is that the Owl Creek Bridge is in Northern Alabama, that the man about to be hanged is Peyton Farquhar, whose family lives thirty miles away, that he is a slave-owner and keenly supportive of the Confederate cause, and that he sought to set fire to the bridge, was captured and summarily sentenced to death according to the order of the Union commandant.

In the film, the condemned man closes his eyes and we are shown his thoughts - a large house in the sunlight, two children playing and a woman in a hooped skirt getting up from her needlepoint and walking towards us, all in slow motion to the distorted sound of a ticking clock. The condemned man is startled from his reverie by an order shouted by an officer, and the sergeant adjusts the noose around the man's neck and a gold watch is removed from his pocket. This is Robert Enrico's visualization of the following paragraph:

"He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift — all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by — it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and — he knew not why — apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch."

Enrico's liberties with Bierce's text are minor. For instance, in the story the rope doesn't snap right away under the hanged man's weight. In the film he plunges straight into the creek. Upon his reaching the surface of the water and filling his bursting lungs again with air, the man's rapturous rediscovery of the beauty of the Spring morning that was to be his last is immensely moving in Enrico's film. And everything he experiences thereafter until the tale's abrupt and shocking conclusion is brilliantly handled. 

I would compare this utterly unique short film with one made in 1954 called A Time Out of War by Denis Sanders, that captures the strangest quality that the American Civil War exudes all these years later. There seems,  especially now, to be an immense distance between that particular past and the present that no film or work of fiction has been able to bridge. I am not the first to notice this, but the people who were engaged in one of the most decisive events in American history still seem (and in photographs look) like aliens from another planet. Isolated from its historical context, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge remains astonishing.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Le Amiche

There are moments in some of Michelangelo Antonioni's films in which one of his characters is obviously bored and can't seem to find anything to occupy them. They are extraordinary moments because they are so courageous - provoking critic John Simon to ask how a filmmaker can accurately portray boredom without boring the audience? Comparably, how can a filmmaker accurately portray superficiality for the entire length of a film without seeming to be superficial?

Antonioni's fourth film, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) looks inside the world of a circle of fashionable women in Turin. Every one of them, including a talented artist invited to exhibit her work in New York, is a sphinx without riddles. Even Rosetta (played by Madeleine Fischer), who fails in a first attempt at suicide and succeeds in a second, throws herself at the husband of a friend, who is poorly equipped to love anything but his own illusions of artistic talent.

A professional woman, Clelia (Eleanora Rossi Drago), arrives in Turin to oversee the opening of a fashion salon and is plunged into this tepid pool of nullities when she happens to find herself in a hotel room adjoining the one in which Rosetta has taken an overdose of sleeping pills. She is pulled into the group of Rosetta's friends - Momina, Nené, and Mariella - out of curiosity about the lives of these privileged women (whom Clelia had once held in contempt) and about Rosetta's motive for taking an overdose. 

Men play various roles in their lives, as lovers and husbands (or both), but they are, typically in Antonioni's films, colorless and ineffectual. Gabriele Ferzetti plays Lorenzo, husband of Nené (Valentina Cortese) and lover of Rosetta. And it's as if his role is a dry run of Sandro in L'Avventura, also played by Ferzetti - another disaffected artist (an architect) who always manages to let the women who love him down. Then there is Cesare (Franco Fabrizi), architect for Clelia's salon and estranged husband of the permanently unfazed Momina (Yvonne Furneaux). Carlo (Ettore Manni) presents Clelia with a sentimental journey through her working class origins, but he is also a big letdown as we watch him at the film's conclusion hiding behind a mobile newstand as Clelia's train pulls out of the station.

We, too, become involved with Rosetta's troubled life, but not because she is any more substantial than her friends. She throws her life away, after all, because she is rejected by Lorenzo. She is unable - or unwilling - to see his advances for what they are, as definitive proof of his unreliability. For his part, Lorenzo refuses to leave Nené because she alone understands this about him. ("But why do you still love me?" he asks her. "Perhaps because I pay such a high price for you," she replies. Valentina Cortese even places her hand on the back of Gabriele Ferzetti's head, the same gesture used by Monca Vitti at the end of L'Avventura.)

Clelia manages to avoid prolonged suffering over Rosetta's suicide by throwing herself into her work, returning to her job in Rome. She is the most complex character in the film by far because she is the most self-sufficient. Carlo represents her sentimental nostalgia for her youth in Turin. Wandering the streets looking for furniture for her salon, she and Carlo happen upon her old neighborhood. She even thinks she recognizes a woman from her past life, now older, and wonders if she herself might have turned out like she did if she had stayed in Turin. Carlo even suggests that they might have married. But Clelia is too intelligent to give in to such daydreams. And so, ultimately, is Carlo.

Winter in Turin. The cinematography, by Gianni di Venanzo, is superb, especially in the exteriors of Turin and an excursion to the sea that is supposed to cheer up Rosetta. The beach in winter is cheerless ("Look how dirty the ocean looks!" Momina exclaims), but it provides Antonioni with opportunities for some striking compositions - figures grouped in foreground and background, a slight movement of the frame taking in a pair of lovers in the sand. And always Rosetta isolated against the surf. Some of the girls express concern, but Momina tells them, "Listen, if she would throw herself into an ocean like that, there's really no hope." Rosetta eventually throws herself into the still dirtier Po River.

Antonioni based his film (liberamente ispirato) on the next-to-last work published in the lifetime of Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide (in a hotel room) with an overdose of barbituates in 1950. In his novella, Tra Donne Sole (Among Women Only), Pavese's strategy was to introduce to an established milieu a character from the outside who provides us with an objective view of it and his own inability to engage with it, either because he doesn't have the proper emotional equipment or simply because he or she is incapable of escaping from their native solitude.

By making Rosetta's motivation for killing herself more explicit than in Pavese, Antonioni somewhat lessens its impact. That Pavese's suicide was partly motivated by his fizzled affair with Hollywood starlet Constance Dowling may have been in Antonioni's mind. Still, it is a plot device from a filmmaker who would eventually eschew plot altogether in his best work.

Antonioni uses his long takes effectively. The film looks splendid, as every Antonioni film does. I watched as eight principal characters - five women and three men - systematically fail one another until one of them can't take it any more and drowns herself in a river. The remaining characters blame one another or console one another, but nothing changes except Rosetta is no longer there to disturb the sleek surface with her troubled presence. It reminded me at times, unflatteringly, of a Visconti film.

A curious encounter occurs near the end of the film that has no bearing on the story. At the Turin train station, Clelia is waiting for Carlo to appear before her 10 PM train departs. She stops at a phone booth and tries to call him. A man, with his back to the camera, acts as if he recognizes Clelia or wishes to speak to her. When he approaches her we see him smiling at her, but she simply gives him a deprecating look and walks away to her train. There are similar scenes in both L'Avventura and La Notte in which Antonioni shows us women (Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau) being confronted by the unwelcome attention of men. In both cases, the woman walks away and the film resumes on its course. One is left wondering if such scenes represent Antonioni's attitude toward the human male or toward a certain class of Italian males.

Unlike Pavese's novel, which was published in 1949 when Italy was still regaining its feet, what the film exudes from the start is affluence. The women are all dressed like they stepped out of Vogue, circa Winter 1957. (All of the clothes in the film were supplied by the House of Fontana.) In fact, the actors' clothes are more than a little overwhelming. Even Rosetta is dressed in an evening gown and earrings when they find her after her suicide attempt. This was always Antonioni's chosen world, and he would explore it in his subsequent work, with the exception of the experimental Il Grido.

I'm guessing that the smothering fashionable clothes was Antonioni's point - that these people, as much use as so many tapeworms, are so frivolous, what they wear is what they are: fashion statements that are timely for only the moment, chic but shallow. He would visit the world of fashion again in Blow-Up, in which he was absorbed by the life of a successful young photographer and by what he witnesses - or thinks he witnesses - take place in a pretty little London park.

Looking back on Antonioni's career, every film that he made prior to L'Avventura (1960) was a failure. But they weren't all the same failure. Since every film he made in the '50s leads us to L'Avventura, one of the greatest films ever made, we can be thankful for them. In every one of them, in The Story of a Love, The Lady Without Camellias, even in the muddled Il Grido and the three-part I Vinti, we can see that Antonioni was reaching for something he couldn't quite grasp. In Le Amiche, however, he managed to touch, at moments, what he was reaching for. It is the best of his films before L'Avventura. If any other director had made it, its admirable qualities would've caused us to remember him. Asked in an interview when Le Amiche was released what advantage, if any, he had over Cesare Pavese, Antonioni said simply "I'm alive."

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Widower's Tango: Ten Years Gone

"Changes fill my time, baby, that's alright with me

In the midst I think of you, and how it used to be."

(Robert Plant, "Ten Years Gone")

I started this blog quite unceremoniously ten years ago to this day. My opening post read: "Tired of seeing my words scattered on the web, in some unlikely places, I thought it might be wise to collect some of them in one place, my own place."

I was an armored car driver then living in my sister's house in Anchorage, Alaska. I had already given my boss notice that I was leaving the States in October to go and live for an undetermined period in the Philippines. I missed my first flight and didn't leave until November 7, 2007. I have tried to chronicle what has happened since in a number of posts on this blog.

It hasn't been the happiest decade of my life. Events beyond my control have lengthened my stay in the Philippines. I have stoically weathered two typhoons (in '08 and '13) and an earthquake (last July). My sister died suddenly last year at the age of 65. She was waiting - sometimes impatiently - for me to come home.

In October 2008 I discovered that I could utilize this blog to engage with my experience here among the tinkling palms, watching events unfold in the States from a distance, making sense of the chaotic country in which I live, continuing to watch and read and listen, and - most important - to dream. It has been quite a ride. Of all the things it has been for you, dear reader, I hope it hasn't been boring.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Scent of an Oscar

It always amuses me whenever an actor wins awards and praise from critics for playing a disabled person. Only someone who has never acted or who doesn't know what actors do would think that playing a disabled person is especially difficult. Richard Dreyfus had the acting opportunity of a lifetime in the film Whose Life Is It Anyway? when he had to play a quadriplegic - a man who was paralyzed from the neck down. Think about that from an actor's perspective. The only thing you have to use to express yourself is your face. You don't have to worry about what gestures to make with your hands, about how to stand, sit down or stand up.

Similarly, playing a blind man simply means that the actor has to pretend that his eyes don't work. It doesn't mean, unless he is wearing dark glasses, that he can't use his eyes, that he can't use them to create a dramatic effect. It gets even easier when the actor wears dark glasses, as Jamie Foxx demonstrated when he played - and won an Oscar for playing - Ray Charles in the movie Ray.

Now imagine the sentimental possibilities of the following plot: a young man is tasked with accompanying a blind former military officer on a journey. Not your typical blind man, the former officer is arrogant and offensive, driven by an insatiable attraction to women, whom he can smell from a distance. He tasks the young man to be his eyes, to tell him what every woman within range of his nose looks like. What potential for any decent satirical novelist or filmmaker! If handled carefully, the results have every reason to be eminently readable or watchable.

Anyone who has seen the film Scent of a Woman (1992) with Al Pacino will recognize the plot. Long before Pacino played Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, however, the plot was first used by the Italian novelist Giovanni Arpino, best known as the author of the novel Un delitto d'onore that Pietro Germi turned into the classic film Divorce Italian Style in 1962. Arpino's title for the novel was The Darkness and the Honey (Il Buio e il Miele), which was first made into an Italian film called Profumo du Donna in 1974 and eventually Scent of a Woman. Not having read the novel, I don't know to what extent Dino Risi and Ruggero Maccari, who adapted it as Profumo di Donna, kept faith with it. Bo Goldman, who wrote the script for Scent of a Woman, clearly took much greater liberties with Arpino's original story. I suspect that Arpino isn't to blame for the more blatantly distasteful aspects of both adaptations. 

I had heard of Profumo di Donna since it was shown in New York in the '70s but never had a chance to see it until recently. It is better than the American film in two ways, one major and one minor. The two films provided opportunities for two great actors, Vittorio Gassman and Al Pacino, to give award-winning performances. Gassman won three European awards, including a Golden Palm at Cannes, for best actor in 1975 and Pacino won the Academy Award (the Golden Bowling Trophy) for Best Actor in 1993. But the roles that these two actors play are, like the films in which they play them, worlds apart.

The American film is, like its protagonist, seriously impaired in its characterizations and its acting. It concerns a young man (played by Chris O'Donnell, a lifesize wet blanket) from a working class family in Oregon who is enrolled in an exclusive boys' school back east. Rather than go home for Thanksgiving, which he can't afford, he answers an ad to be a caregiver for the long weekend to an infirm Lieutenant Colonel. Once he has introduced himself to the Colonel, the young man discovers, once the Colonel's family is gone, that the old fart has planned a trip to New York City where, he announces to the boy, he intends to stay at the Waldorf, eat a fine meal, sleep in a magnificent bed, make love to a beautiful woman and then blow his brains out. The young man goes along with this escapade, since the Colonel is paying for everything and has assured him he will be returned to Baird (the name of the boys' school) in plenty of time to resume his studies. 

The Italian film, which has flaws of its own but which is at least original, concerns a young officer cadet named Giovanni who is assigned to escort disabled captain Fausto from Turin to Naples via Genoa and Rome. Fausto, who lost his sight and his left forearm in a peacetime explosion, decides to call Giovanni "Ciccio" (baby fat), is always impeccably dressed and is a menace to attractive women, whom he can smell from a distance. And it isn't their "perfume" he smells, but "l'odore di femina." He is going to Naples to visit an old army comrade who was blinded in the same accident. Unbeknownst to Giovanni, he plans to persuade his blind comrade to go through with a suicide pact.

The script, by Dino Risi (who directed the film) and Ruggero Maccari, is noteworthy in the extent to which it goes to make the blind captain as thoroughly unsympathetic as possible while still expecting us to be interested in his fate. In one scene, Fausto plays a trick on an unsuspecting young nun. Hiding his intact right arm inside his jacket, he tells her he needs help using the toilet. She accompanies him to the bathroom where she has to unzip his fly and hold his penis while he urinates. While a look of undisguised satisfaction spreads across Fausto's face, the nurse closes her eyes, perhaps wishing she were blind. It's like something out of American Pie.

One could argue that Fausto is out to alienate everyone, including his beloved Anna, an old flame, in preparation for his suicide. When he's confronted with Anna in Naples, who loves him despite his injuries, Fausto becomes genuinely cruel to her. Knowing that she loves him makes it that much harder for Fausto to drive her away. I don't buy this interpretation wholeheartedly, especially since I see no reason why everyone along the way from Turin to Naples has to put up with this impossible man's antics merely because he is blind. Giovanni does it only because he is under orders.  

The captain's intolerable behavior toward everyone around him is matched by his self-deprecation. He uses his blindness both as a weapon and as a shield behind which he can hide. We don't know until he arrives in Naples for his rendezvous with his old - and blind - comrade why he burned all of his bridges along the way. Because he finds his blindness unacceptable, he has decided to die. But in failing to carry out his own death sentence - and be his own executioner - Fausto realizes that even a life without sight is preferable to total darkness in death.

Clearly, American film audiences are always having to be reassured that even the most despicable worm can be turned, that Scrooge will always have a change of heart, and that the world, though temporarily upset, will always be put right. In Scent of a Woman, the story refuses to end with the boy's foiling the Colonel's attempt to "blow his brains out," even after Pacino's cri de coeur, "I'm in the dark here!" Hollywood had to redeem him somehow, with a ludicrous trial scene at the boys' school in which the Colonel defends the boy's integrity when he refuses to "snitch" on his classmates. Stanley Kauffmann called it "the mustiest kind of old-fashioned hokum."(1)

Profumo di Donna's blind captain is granted no such reprieve. He finds that he can't go through with his end of the suicide pact - he shoots his blind comrade but doesn't have the requisite nerve to turn the gun on himself. Giovanni and Anna secure his escape to an abandoned house outside Naples. While Fausto's comrade recovers in a hospital, Giovanni, having done his duty, departs, leaving Anna alone with Fausto. The film ends with her guiding him away from the house to the strains of Armando Trovaioli's music.

Al Pacino saw the role of Lt. Colonel Frank Slade as a gift. But I think he failed to fully realize the man. As I mentioned before, playing a blind character relieves an actor of having to use his eyes in his performance. So Pacino assumes the same glassy stare in scene after scene.  

Vittorio Gassman, however, chose to use his eyes in some surprising ways in his performance. He is always seeming to concentrate on trying to see. (Pacino acts as if he was born blind instead of suddenly finding himself deprived of sight.) For example, Gassman often resorts to slightly crossing his eyes. There is a somewhat strange moment, when he asks for the blessing of a priest in Rome (2), when he looks up after the blessing has been given and gazes intently before him, as if he is trying to force his eyes to clear, somehow expecting his sight to be miraculously restored.

But if there is one aspect of Profumo di Donna that makes it unarguably superior to its sequel, it's in Dino Risi's impeccable eye for locations. In scene after scene, Risi places his actors in outdoor cafés or on terraces by the sea. Alas, the cinematography of these splendid locations, by Claudio Cirillo, uses far too much diffusion, as if everything is covered in the "honey" in the title of Giovanni Arpino's novel. 

I'm guessing that Profumo di Donna overemphasizes Fausto's predatory sexuality. But it is only when he is in the company of young women that Fausto seem to be having a good time. Dino Risi's alteration of the novel's title certainly reveals the extent to which he was counting on an audience full of Brunos, who would cheer Fausto's apparently insatiable lechery. 

Advocates for the rights of the disabled might argue that only a truly disabled person can properly impersonate a disabled character. But as long as there are actors looking for awards and critics foolishly prepared to give them one - or several - we can expect many more films in which unimpaired actors take on such juicy roles.

(1) The New Republic, January 25, 1993.
(2) The priest is played (uncredited) by the ubiquitous Vernon Dobtcheff.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Life Without People

"We're all out here 'cause we ain't all there."

Since I departed Alaska in 2007, the state has become a popular destination for reality television shows. I sometimes have the unsettling image of the region crawling with the casts and crews of reality shows, all aching to give viewers snug in the suburbs a glimpse of wild, pristine nature and the oddballs who live on its fringes.

Lately, two of my favorite television programs are "Life Below Zero" and "Where the Wild Men Are", both on BBC Earth. The first program follows some people ("four households") living rough in the Alaskan wilderness and the second, hosted by Ben Fogle, goes to places all over the world where people have abandoned their successful, conventional lives in the city (London, New York, Sydney, New Delhi) to go and live in some godforsaken outpost in an African desert or on a tropical island in Panama or the Philippines, or in the frozen north of Sweden. When Ben Fogle visited an older married couple living in the Alaskan wild, they assured him that they hadn't chosen the life because they don't like people. But it seemed to me they were simply trying to dispel a somewhat obvious conclusion about them. 

The BBC often opens the program with an warning: "The following contains scenes of animals being killed for food. Parental discretion is advised." The killing of the animals (caribou, moose, fox, lynx, etc.) doesn't bother me so much as the license with which they are killed. It's evidently federal land that these people are living on (except for a lone woman living in Kavik, close to the Arctic Sea). I'm sure they have all the applicable hunting and fishing licenses, but the strangely proprietary way in which they slaughter the wildlife is unsettling.

At first, like everyone else I suppose, I was fascinated by people who turned their backs on the life we all live in society, dependent on people we don't even know - farmers and fishermen - for our survival, working for someone else to make a living. They have developed skills that simply have no value in society, like how to build a shelter out of trees felled by themselves, how to set traps or snares to catch anything from a muskrat to a wolverine, or how to skin and gut a caribou to get at the meat that can keep them alive for weeks in the winter.

But the longer I watch the program, the more disenthralled I've become by these people and the things they are compelled to do, like destroying portions of the plant and animal life around them simply because they're there to be exploited. Having visited the Alaska Bureau of Fish & Game in Anchorage, and knowing how strict the hunting laws of the state are, I take it for granted that the people featured in "Life Below Zero" have valid licenses to hunt and fish. But who or what (in a broader sense) authorizes them to take as much as they please from the environment around them? I'm not arguing that they're putting any measurable dent in the population of fish and game, but where do they get the belief that it is all theirs for the taking? The animals are only being taken because these people are there to take them. It's acceptable if they are natives, whose people have been living that way for thousands of years. One episode features a seal hunt in which only natives are allowed to take part. But only one of the households in "Life Below Zero" is inhabited by natives.

Two of the "households" that the program depicts are inhabited by one person, living in total isolation in an environment that is not just indifferent to their survival but actively hostile to it. When you have to worry about where you're standing outdoors, about whether you're upwind or downwind from an apex predator like a bear, a wolf, or a wolverine - when you realize that you're a potential meal for these creatures, your perception of that environment changes drastically. Besides, thinking about the sheer amount of solitude that such an isolated person endures, with such a storehouse of memories of all the things they've seen and thought and no one to share them with exposes the ultimate uselessness of such a life. George Orwell was right when he asserted that, if Daniel Defoe had actually been a castaway on an island, he would never have written Robinson Crusoe.

At certain points in every episode of "Life Below Zero" someone says something like, "this is better than a 9 to 5 job," or "it's better to hunt and kill your own food than buy it at the supermarket." Having repudiated the responsibilities of living in society, these people have also forsaken its obvious advantages. Very often when they go hunting, we see these people come away empty handed. There are either no moose or caribou to shoot at or they're out of the range of their rifles. One of the show's regulars has a modest arsenal of firearms but obviously, even with telescopic sights and a tripod, couldn't hit the broad side of a bear at 50 yards. When I cash my steady paycheck and go grocery shopping in the market, I never come away empty handed.

It was impossible for me to watch the resourcefulness of these people surviving - some of them thriving - in the wild without being reminded of Christopher McCandless [see photo], whose sad story of failing to survive in the wild was told in Sean Penn's film Into the Wild. This evidently intelligent young man died in the Alaskan wilderness after eating a poisonous plant that he mistook for an edible one. He had to eat the plant because he was starving to death, having failed to find and kill any wild animals that he hoped would provide him with sustenance. 

Reviewing a film on a similar subject, Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

"The places that are relatively untouched by civilization [the film implies] are the best treasures of that civilization and must be preserved. We might think, however, that it is only the existence of civilization that makes these places attractive - for some. Most of the thought and energy of the human race has aimed at taming the wilderness."(1)

I think the presence of these individualists on America's Last Frontier is probably transient. In one episode of "Life Below Zero," one of them comes across a cabin that had been abandoned - he estimated - for thirty years. It showed signs of having been ransacked recently by a bear, which strew the cabin's contents, some of which were still usable and valuable, all over the ground outside it. There were no indications of what might have become of the person or persons who built the cabin. Perhaps it was a structure constructed to provide shelter for a season by someone just like the man who discovered it thirty years later? 

(1) The New Republic, October 3, 2005.

[Postscript October 13: Since writing the above post, my views about the exiles in the wilderness chronicled in the BBC Earth program "Life Below Zero" have hardened considerably. I am by now far less sympathetic to them and their imperious relationship with nature. Occasionally - though not at all consistently - they will pause for a moment over the dead carcass of whatever wild animal they have harvested for their larders and mutter some mumbo-jumbo about the "spirit" of the animal as a kind of tribute before they are disemboweled. I think such dubious ceremonies are ridiculous and hypocritical. I would believe them if they were native Americans, who believe that animals have spirits that need to be placated lest the hunter's luck be removed. But coming from Anglo-Saxons who were expelled from paradise a thousand or so generations ago, it sounds downright silly. 

I mentioned the film Grizzly Man, made by Werner Herzog, which makes a point about how nature is not to be trifled with or underestimated, and how even the greatest animal lovers are, under the worst circumstances, nothing but another meal for an apex predator. If the people in "Life Below Zero" wanted to give something back to nature, I think they would do a lot worse if they followed the example of Timothy Treadwell, who gave his life (and his girlfriend's) and the meat on his bones back to nature. It would, I think, be a more noble end than the one I predict for more than one of them: being found frozen to a tree stump with a look of rapt surprise on their faces. I, for one, wouldn't be at all surprised.]

Monday, September 11, 2017

Best Remembered

Since the appearance of the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in 2001, I have had the distinct impression that Harry Potter is where British actors go when they die. So far the franchise has claimed four of the greats: Richard Harris (Professor Dumbledore) in 2002, Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) in 2016, and this year, John Hurt (Mr. Ollivander) in January and Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge) in July. Whatever these marvelous actors accomplished in their decades-long careers, in many people's minds they will always be a "Harry Potter actor."(1)

This is a shame, since these older actors accomplished so much in their professions, performed so many roles in so many plays and films. But I suppose it's a good thing that it is thanks to Harry Potter that a great many more people felt a sense of loss at the deaths of these actors than there would otherwise have been, people who wouldn't otherwise have known who they were or everything they accomplished. 

And this sad phenomenon is certainly not restricted to actors. How many people know Louis Armstrong for the song "What a Wonderful World" that he recorded in 1967, while remaining utterly ignorant of his towering accomplishments as a jazz trumpeter? Last April, the death of film director Jonathan Demme inspired numerous tributes, all of which mentioned two films for which he is best remembered, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, while neglecting to mention the two films he made near the beginning of his career - Citizen's Band and Melvin and Howard - that were far superior.

I remember a particularly fascinating panel discussion about adapting novels to film I watched in the early 1980s with Avery Corman, John Gregory Dunne and E. L. Doctorow. Corman was the author of the novels Jacob's Ladder, Ghost and Kramer vs. Kramer. Dunne had written True Confessions. And Doctorow was the author of Ragtime. When Corman claimed that a successful film adaptation could increase the shelf-life of a book, Doctorow told him, "I don't think you should admit that, Avery!" How many great writers are doomed to be remembered for writing the "underlying story" of a popular movie? How many millions more people have seen the movie version of A Clockwork Orange, clever as it is, than will ever read the brilliant novel by Anthony Burgess?

When the death of John Hurt was announced last January (and the words "Harry Potter actor" appeared in every one of his obituaries) some of the tributes to him made it quite obvious that, while making worthwhile appearances in dozens of films for more than fifty years, many of which I have seen over the decades, a sizable portion of his fame as an actor rests on his stage performances, not one of which I had an opportunity to see. Most of the notices of Hurt's death mentioned that he was a theater actor, but that he is "best remembered" for his many movie roles. His obituary at the Guardian, written by a contemporary (Michael Coveney) who followed his career with great enthusiasm, gave a balanced assessment of him and his impact as an actor, emphasizing the importance of his theatrical performances, since the roles were, from a purely cultural perspective, immeasurably more significant than the mostly moribund films in which he appeared.

I remember a college professor in the '70s resurrecting the famous debate between theater critics Max Beerbohm and George Bernard Shaw over the comparable talents Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. Ancient film footage of both actresses exists that offer tantalizing glimpses of exactly what Beerbohm and Shaw were arguing about, without providing convincing proof that Duse's subtleties outshone Bernhardt's grand gestures (or vice versa). The debate lives on as a purely literary dispute between brilliant theater critics.

But a theater critic's review is as close as most of us can get to theatrical performances in Paris, London, or New York. That is the nature of theater. Even if a stage performance is later recorded for film or television, seeing the recording of the event isn't at all the same as having been there, in the same space, breathing the same air the actors breathe. 

Among John Hurt's theater triumphs, according to Michael Coveney in The Guardian, were in David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, and Pinter’s The Caretaker. He himself claimed to have made more than 150 films, choosing to play “the unloved … people like us, the inside-out people, who live their lives as an experiment, not as a formula.” 

The number and variety of roles played in films by John Hurt is more than enough to attest to his greatness. Unfortunately, many other great stage actors never managed to find film roles to equal their best performances on the stage. The most obvious example is John Gielgud, unarguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. While he was famous enough to the public to have enjoyed plenty of parts in films as long ago as the 1930s, he was certainly no matinee idol. But he was also not nearly as brilliant on screen - with notable exceptions through the years - as he is reported to have been on the stage. One longs for a time machine that would take one back to the Old Vic in the 1930s to witness any one of a number of productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night in which Gielgud - not to mention other great actors of his generation like Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Peggy Ashcroft - performed. Gielgud died at the age of 96 in 2000, having missed the Harry Potter sweepstakes by just one year. Who knows but that, had he lived long enough to make only one film in the Potter franchise, even he would've been eulogized as a "Harry Potter actor."

(1) I write this mindful of the fact that it was Star Wars that suckered Alec Guinness into playing Obi Wan Kenobe. Poor Alec, stalwart veteran of stage and screen, is remembered by millions today for that role alone. The Star Wars people have lately persuaded Max von Sydow (with a handsome check) to play in one of their latest numbers. Who knows but that the man who gave us so many unforgettable performances in Swedish films by Bergman and Troell will be stigmatized with the moniker "Star Wars actor."