Thursday, November 15, 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

-Laurence Binyon, "For the Fallen," Fourth Stanza, 1914


The publicity surrounding the BBC broadcast of Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old last Sunday has been rather unprecedented and unusually emotional for a documentary, more specifically a film made up of century-old documentary footage. Finished in time for the centenary of the end of the Great War on November 11, critics have expressed an overwhelming awe of Jackson's film, which was a "labor of love" that took him four years to complete.

In his review of the film, Peter Bradshaw of The Manchester Guardian writes: "The effect is electrifying. The soldiers are returned to an eerie, hyperreal kind of life in front of our eyes, like ghosts or figures summoned up in a seance. The faces are unforgettable." Over at The Observer Mark Kermode writes, "As we watch a line of soldiers marching through mud towards the front, something extraordinary happens. The film seems almost miraculously to change from silent black-and-white footage to colour film with sound, as though 100 years of film history had been suddenly telescoped into a single moment. Stepping through the looking glass, we find ourselves right there in the trenches, surrounded by young men whose faces are as close and clear as those of people we would pass in the street. I’ve often argued that cinema is a time machine, but rarely has that seemed so true."

Kermode reminds me of a wonderful moment in Le fantôme d'Henri Langlois in which Langlois is standing before a screen on which is projected a film made in 1895, and he says, "My goal was to show shadows of the living coexisting with shadows of the dead. For that's the essence of film. It supercedes time and space. It goes beyond the 4th dimension. Here we see Seville in a fragment of a re-framed Lumière film. It's a procession there in 1895. But that's not what counts. What matters is that these people are like us and as they walk, we walk along. So the audience is right there with them."

I'm not sure what Langlois, who collected 50,000 films for his Cinemathèque Française, would've thought about Peter Jackson's tampering with the sacred shadows of the dead. For tampering is what it is. I have a problem with revisionists. When, in 1952, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published, which sought not only to correct mistakes made in the 1611 King James Version, but to produce a text "written in language direct and clear and meaningful to people today,” a Bible as close as possible to “the life and language of the common man in our day,” the result provoked Dwight Macdonald to ask, 

And why this itch for modernizing anyway? Why is it not a good thing to have variety in our language, to have a work whose old-fashioned phrases exist in the living language, to preserve in one area of modern life the old forms of speech, so much more imaginative and moving than our own nervous, pragmatic style? As it enriches us to leave beautiful old buildings standing when they are no longer functional or to perform Shakespeare without watering his poetry down into prose, so with the Bible. The noblest ancient fane must be trussed and propped and renovated now and then, but why do it in the slashing style of the notorious Gothic “restorations” of Viollet-le-Duc? In any event, I think the Revisers exaggerate the difficulty of K.J.V. Almost all of it is perfectly understandable to anyone who will give a little thought and effort to it, plus some of that overvalued modern commodity, time. Those who won’t can hardly claim a serious interest in the Bible as either literature or religion.

Ask Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted most of his life to finding very old - sometimes "lost" - films and restoring them to something close to their original glory, ask him if it's OK to remove these old black-and-white silent films from their context, from their place not in history but as history, and resuscitating them from dead black-and-white to living color. And adding not just actor's voices seamlessly lip-synced to the people in the films, but all of the ambient sounds that couldn't be recorded in 1914-1918. Then there's the creation of additional frames to eliminate the accelerated, jerky motion caused by cameras hand-cranked at anywhere from 16 to 26 frames per second, so that people not only look and sound as good as new, but they move normally, at the standard 24 frames per second. And all this just to make the films more “accessible” to the modern viewer, who probably has never had patience enough to watch an old "grey" movie made before his lifetime - any time prior to 1990, that is.

In the November 14 BBC article, "Viewers were floored by the colour added to WW1 footage in They Shall Not Grow Old," Declan Cashin writes,

Adding colour to black and white historical images has its own kind of intense
emotional power - mostly because it can make an event that seems so far in the
past become instantly more recent and relevant. Think of the work of artist Marina Amaral, whose painstaking colouring of a picture of a young Holocaust victim went viral earlier this year.

“It is much easier to relate to people once we see them in colour," Amaral said of her project. The colourisation of World War One in They Shall Not Grow Old - and the effect of seeing so many young men brought to life in vivid hues - provoked a similarly big reaction from viewers.

The article includes a reproduction of the image mentioned above (someone attached it to a tweet!). It does indeed have an almost supernatural power. But am I alone in finding this digital fixing up of the past, especially the image (a "registration" photo taken by the Germans) of a helpless victim of the Holocaust, disturbing? Is that poor little girl more "alive" merely because a computer has colorized the obvious look of terror on her face? I thought about reproducing it here, but thought better of it. I'd rather not participate in the trivialization of tragedy. I feel sorry for a generation that cannot make the human connection with people now dead because photographs of them have heretofore been black-and-white.

It is true that the technology of the motion picture has gone through several developments - what some people might call "improvements", the most important of which are the transition from silent film to film with synchronized sound, and the much slower transition from black-and-white film to various color processes like Technicolor and Eastmancolor. But as technology was advancing, artists were doing what they always have done by making a virtue out of necessity and developing an aesthetics of film with or without sound and color. Just as black-and-white photography is distinguished by much more than simply the absence of color, a silent film is a great deal more than simply a film deprived the dimension of synchronized sound. Great films were made during the silent era, and their greatness is separable from anything like historical or cultural importance. Charlie Chaplin's Tramp was not deprived of the power of speech. In every one of his silent films he talks like everyone else. We simply couldn't hear his voice until the end of Modern Times when he sings a nonsense song. But the essence of Chaplin's art was silence. Later film clowns like Tati and Étaix used the pretense of silence, as an homage, perhaps, to Chaplin and Keaton. But it isolated them from the world in their films, in which everyone else spoke in voices we could hear. Chaplin's and Keaton's world was silent, but they were substantial parts of that world.

I can't escape the feeling that Jackson's film, however scrupulously well-intended, is in the service of the same philistinism that led Ted Turner to colorize classic American films, misguided tamperings, trying to put old wine into new skins, that were universally condemned at the time. Jackson's palette of colors is far more presentable - not as "tutti frutti" - as Turner's, but they are equally deplorable. The people who were "floored" by the images in Jackson's film should examine their emotional reactions more closely and ask themselves why they were so unmoved by the images when they were black-and-white.

If filmgoers today can't sit through a feature length silent film, it's only because they're not up to the level of concentration that a film like Abel Gance's Napoleon or Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin requires of them. It's the difference between the poetry of silent film that relies exclusively on images and the prose of contemporary film that is closer to nature, with all of the colors and sounds of nature that is ubiquitous today. Knowledge of the technical limitations of films housed in the Imperial War Museum, not to mention a generation of people captured in those films whose lives and understanding of the world and of history have set them far apart from us and from our time, requires an adjustment from the viewer that is tantamount to an act of the imagination. The direct connection between now and then, us and them, has long since been broken. Like a break in an electrical connection, an increase in the current can cause the electricity to "jump" or arc across the broken connection, and an act of concentrated imagination can re-establish contact with the past.

The title of Jackson's film, which is a line from the Laurence Binyon poem written on the occasion of the first great battles, and first great losses, of the war for the British Expeditionary Force, the battles of Mons and of the Marne, is beautiful but it is also double-edged. They shall not grow old ... because they were all killed when they were young. We grow old, which is one of the prices of being alive. Being revisited by them in Jackson's film may bring them closer to us as human beings, but it's a disservice, I think, to them as individuals, even when every face is given a name.

I was reminded of John Donne's famous Ode, "Death Be Not Proud," which assures us that death's victory is, at best, only temporary, since, in killing us, Death sends us to our immortal afterlife.

why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Written in 1609, but published posthumously in 1633, Donne was a member of that last generation of English poets, like Herrick, who, according to George Saintsbury, "have relished this life heartily, while heartily believing in another." But who believes in personal immortality any more? Only religious hysterics, perhaps, whose faith is not impaired by knowledge when knowledge is thoroughly lacking. A better view is presented by Drummond Allison (1921-1943), a British war poet (of the Second World War), in "Come, Let Us Pity Not the Dead But Death":

Come, let us pity not the dead but Death
For He can only come when we are leaving,
He cannot stay for tea or share our sherry.
He makes the old man vomit on the hearthrug
But never knew his heart before it failed him.
He shoves the shopgirl under the curt lorry
But could not watch her body undivided.
Swerving the cannon-shell to smash the airman
He had no time to hear my brother laughing.
He sees us when, a boring day bent double,
We take the breaking-point for new beginning
Prepared for dreamless sleep or dreams or waking
For breakfast but now sleep past denying.
He has no life, no exercise but cutting;
While we can hope a houri, fear a phantom.
Look forward to No Thoughts. For Him no dying
Nor any jolt to colour His drab action,
Only the plop of heads into the basket,
Only the bags of breath, the dried-up bleeding.
We, who can build and change our clothes and moulder,
Come, let us pity Death but not the dead.

Alas, Drummond himself was a casualty of war. Unlike him, Death cannot live on through poetry.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

J'Accuse

In August 1918, pioneering French filmmaker Abel Gance was drafted into the French Army's Service Cinématographique. He had been rejected when war broke out for health reasons, due to a bout of tuberculosis before the war. A filmmaker since 1912, watching as, year after terrible year, beloved friends were killed in the trenches (the French army suffered more than a million killed or missing in action), Gance was anxious to express his hatred of war in a film. Charles Pathé agreed to finance the film that would eventually be released more than four months after the end of the war (on this day, one hundred years ago), as J'Accuse.

"J'Accuse" (I accuse) are the first words spoken by the prosecutor in every French court case, and Gance assumed a staunch prosecutorial stance in his indictment of war. Initially, his film tells the story of a standard love triangle involving François Laurin, a poet named Jean Diaz, and Édith, the daughter Maria Lazare, a veteran "soldier of 1870" in a Provençal village. The film opens with a village festival, and Édith is gazing through a window at Jean. But Jean's mother warns him that Édith is married. François, her husband, is introduced with a dead deer lying on a table beside him as he laughs and drinks, the deer's blood collecting in a pool on the floor. He tries to force his dog to drink it. Then he notices Édith looking out of the window at Jean. The arrival of Édith's father prevents François from becoming violent. But Maria Lazare is consumed by memories of military glory, with his Legion d'honneur on the wall with his military regalia, and a map of Alsace-Lorraine on the opposite wall. François broods alone, the dead deer at his feet, as the revellers dance in the street beyond.

At home with his mother, Jean writes and then recites to her his "Ode to the Sun," and instead of the words, Gance gives us ecstatic images of the beauty of the sun-lit world - a visual poem evoking Jean's words. Finally, the ghostly figure of Édith haunts these images. The earthly Édith, however, must endure the leering attentions of François. François is all body In contrast to Jean's all soul.

When the war is declared on August 2, 1914, the men cheer, the women weep. A little girl runs to announce to her friends, "C'est la guerre!" A little boy asks her, "what is 'war'?" "I don't know," she answers. As the bells ring out, Gance cuts to a dance of death - skeletons dancing around a central figure of death. Every young man in the placid town enlists, including François. (They were also enlisting in similar numbers in England, Germany, Austria and Italy, oblivious of the prolonged disaster all of them would experience.) Only Jean, preoccupied by his sunlit poetry of "Pacifiques," resists the call to arms. Finding a love letter from Jean to Édith, François threatens to shoot him if she doesn't leave the town and go to live with his parents in Lorraine. With Édith gone from the village, Jean looks at photographs of war's destruction, of houses reduced to rubble, and of dead soldiers lying in a trench. The word J'ACCUSE appears above Jean's head as he looks directly into the camera.

With François at the front, Maria Lazare and his old cronies plot out on a map the reported movements of the war. When he receives word that his daughter has been captured by the advancing German army, he collapses. Word spreads in the village, and Jean, swearing vengeance on Édith's captors to her father, decides to enlist.

Meanwhile, at the front, when François receives a letter informing him of Édith's fate, in a rage he charges the German line alone and takes an entire squad of them captive. Gance manages to capture, in just a few shots, the squalor and dangers faced by French soldiers, as well as their proximity to the enemy.

As Fate (and Abel Gance) will have it, Jean's first command, upon his commission as lieutenant, is François's unit. Their initial antagonism toward each other is changed to comradeship when Jean completes a dangerous mission that he was ordered to delegate to François. And they realize how much they both love Édith. As battles rage around them, they swap stories of her. (In one startling shot, a soldier falls and his muddy boots alight on François's shoulder, but François ignores them as he and Jean reminisce about Édith.) A title presents a quote from a "lettre d'un soldat": Sache qu'il y aura toujours de la beauté sur terre et que l'homme n'aura jamais assez de méchanceté pour la Supprimer. [Know that there will always beauty on earth and that man will never have enough malice to suppress it.] An optimistic wish that Gance follows with the Botticelli triptych "La Primavera", but the dancing skeletons appear again and, like the nursery rhyme, they all fall down. So ends the "Première Époch" of J'Accuse.

Although there were film units sent to document the war on both sides of the conflict, there exists very little film evidence of the actual conditions at the front and, understandably, no footage depicting actual battles except from a great distance. The reason for this scarcity of a documentary record of life in the trenches is simple: the authorities did not want to disturb civilian morale by showing them the terrible conditions being endured by the common soldier. The stories that the soldiers were taking home with them when they went on leave from the front were probably difficult for civilians to fully grasp. So censors were careful not to allow newsreel cameramen to get too close to the front or be too explicit with their images of actual warfare. This deliberate censorship would also be used in the next war, even when civilians were directly targeted by military attacks. It wasn't until Vietnam that American television networks felt some civic duty in showing the true horrors of the war to the public, but only because the war was so unpopular and, ultimately, deemed unwinnable. Perhaps the Great War wouldn't have lasted as long as it did if civilians had been shown the truth about the fighting in the trenches.

Four years pass. Jean has taken ill at the front and François receives a letter informing Jean that his mother is confined to her bed and he must return home at once. Jean arrives by train in his village, and Gance gives us a marvelous tracking shot, following Jean as he strolls uneasily toward home. He pauses to take in a view of his beloved village. When he arrives at his mother's bedside, she asks him to recite to her his "Ode to the Sun." But while he ecstatically recites the words and Gance repeats the same images from the earlier scene to evoke Jean's words, his mother dies.

Maria Lazare receives a letter from none other than Édith announcing her return that very night. When he goes to Jean's mother's house in the rain to tell her the news, he finds Jean there and they embrace. Édith arrives, soaked by the rain, but before the men can react to her return, she opens her cloak to reveal a small child. She recounts how, when she was captured in Lorraine, she was raped by the German soldiers. Gance shows us Édith, cowering in fear as the shadows of spike-helmeted Germans on the wall advance toward her. It is a measure, I think, of the change in anti-German sentiment in 1918 that Gance refrained from showing us anything more of Édith's rape. Such scenes were common in American films of the period. Erich von Stroheim made his name playing leering, murderous "Huns," raping a nun and tossing a baby out of a window when its cries interrupt his tearing the woman's clothes off. But Gance was being only slightly more subtle.

Édith's father telegrams François the news of Édith's return, without mentioning the child. There is a celebration among the soldiers at the front, an almost frantic scene of dancing and drinking, as bombs continue to fly. François returns home and his discovery leads him to suspect that she (Angèle) is Jean's child. François and Jean fight, almost to the death, but Édith stops them with the truth. Gance repeats the shots of Édith cowering beneath the shadows of three German soldiers. The Deuxième Époch ends with François and Jean donning their uniforms - girding their loins - again for war, swearing revenge on the German race.

The last section of J'Accuse reveals Gance's ambitions - and his weaknesses - at their extremes. At the front, awaiting the last battle, Jean rouses his fellow soldiers with a tale similar to Arthur Machen's "Angel of Mons" in which a "Gaulois" (the mythical Gaul, not the cigarette), leads the victorious soldiers into No Man's Land. Back home, little Angèle is teased by the children of the village for her German heritage, made to wear a spiked helmet (which she throws into the fire). And Édith is shown to be the symbol of French womanhood, replete with the painfully obvious pose of Christ on the cross.

The soldiers are shown drafting their last letters to their loved ones. Gance quoted in the titles from actual letters from the front, and he employed as many as 5,000 soldiers who had come home to the Midi on leave. It is at this point in the film that Gance made his boldest move. By mixing staged scenes of his actors with shots he and his cameramen took of the actual battle of Saint-Mihiel (Saint Mihel in the titles), September 12-15, 1918, he juggled fact and fiction cleverly, without fully examining its moral implications. So scenes of men actually fighting and dying were used by Gance as a mere backdrop for his "epic" battle. Gance, who had seen war and its effects with his own eyes, knew that if it was to be presented truthfully, it could only be shown as a horrific chaos. There is an unfortunate shot, from Jean's perspective, invalided to the rear because of a head injury, in which the dancing skeletons are superimposed on images of soldiers charging in all directions. This could be taken as Jean's ravings or as Gance's heavy hand.

The battle over (Saint-Mihiel was only a partial victory), with François dying and Jean half mad, François, true to form, bids his "good old dog farewell". He hands over Jean's letters to Édith to the doctor, grips Jean's hand (in the next hospital bed) and dies. 

Édith and Angèle are at home together, when Jean enters suddenly, his clothes dirty and tattered. He is fearful of something outside the door. He has sent letters to all the townsfolk telling them to come to his house at 10 o'clock that night because there is something important that they must know. When they arrive and gather around him in the firelight, Jean tells them the following story, accompanied by stark, nightmarish images:

I was on sentry duty on the battlefield. All your dead were there, all your cherished dead. Then a miracle happened: a soldier near me slowly rose to his feet under the moon. I started to run, terrified, but suddenly the dead man spoke. I heard him say, 'Comrades, we must know if we have been of any use! Let us go and judge whether the people are worthy of us, and our sacrifice! Rise up, all of you!' And the dead obeyed. I ran in front of them to forewarn you. They're on the march! They're coming! They will be here soon and you will have to answer for yourselves! They will return to their resting places with joy if their sacrifice has been to some purpose.

To the villagers' horror, they see the army of the dead, François and Maria Lazare among them, come forward. The villagers scatter or fall on their knees. Jean returns to his mother's empty house and finds his old book of poems, Les Pacifiques, and, laughing contemptuously, tears the pages out one by one. He stops when he gets to his "Ode to the Sun." He goes to the window, looks out at the sun, and recites a new poem in the shaft of light:

My name is Jean Diaz, but I have changed my Muse!
My dulcet name of yesterday has become 'J'accuse!'
And I accuse you, Sun,
Of having given light to this appalling age.
Silently, placidly, without reproach,
Like a hideous face with tongue cut out,
From your heights of blue, sadistically contorted, 
You watch indifferently to the very end!

When his recitation is done, Jean falls dead to the floor, and the shaft of light fades to darkness.

This film, released in 1919, is easily the most mesmerizing film from the period that I have seen. The story, the acting, especially the magnificent Séverin-Mars, the often experimental cinematography by Gance's pioneering cohort Léonce-Henry Burel, and the editing, all contribute to an overpowering effect. It was a great success in France. But when Gance took his film to America, and even got the enthusiastic assistance of D. W. Griffith, the film wasn't shown intact to American audiences. The U.S. quite simply didn't suffer as France had suffered from four long years of war. To Americans, the war was a brief boondoggle. The Irving Berlin song "Over There" summed it up beautifully and glibly. The war lasted only a little more than one year for the Yanks, and they returned home to victory parades and patriotic celebrations. A happy ending was tacked onto Gance's film, and it still failed to impress audiences. It was unclear to Americans just what - or whom - Gance was accusing.

J'Accuse is a silent, black-and-white film that speaks directly to us across the century since it was made. Peter Jackson is making a splash with his colorized and sonorized reconstituted documentary film from World War One, claiming that his efforts somehow bring the soldiers in the old films "closer" to us. But what happens then? The actions of those dead men, and the era they lived in, is just as distant from us as ever. They don't approach us, as Gance's phantom army does, begging from us an answer, an explanation for their sacrifice. We can no longer comprehend them or their sacrifice. All we can do, really, is what Philip Larkin did in his poem "MCMXIV" - comment on how appallingly, and magnificently, innocent they were:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word  the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

It may require an act of imagination that some of us aren't up to to make contact with the generation of a century ago. It isn't because of technological advances that audiences can't fully appreciate films like J'Accuse any more. It's because filmmakers have become incredibly lazy, and audiences are no longer capable of following a narrative that is the least bit unconventional. On this 100th anniversary of the Armistice, Gance's film is a more than fitting memorial to the age, and to the fallen of the "war to end all wars".

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In Absentia





Voting used to be simple, like renewing your driver's license. You heard that an election was looming, maybe you saw the candidates on TV and you got some brochures in the mail. But you registered as a Republican or a Democrat, you stand or you lean on the Right or on the Left, depending on who you are, or where you live, or how much money you make. It was your duty as a citizen, and it was no big deal.


That was then. Apathy has been a problem among American voters for generations. The feeling that so many Americans have had that voting won't change anything, that it makes no difference in their lives which party controls the branches of government, has been pervasive. Some people (like me) didn't vote for most of their lives. And they (unlike me) didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Europeans have always voted in much higher numbers than Americans. They vote more because, if they don't, the outcome could change their lives. If the conservatives don't vote, the communist party might win control of the government. If the liberals don't vote, the extreme right might win. Europeans have a much broader choice in their elections, among three or four or five extremely different parties, with divergent agendas. When communist-party-led labor strikes, and student demonstrations threatened to paralyze the French economy in 1968, sitting president Charles de Gaulle went on national television and, in a magnificently calculated move, offered to resign if it was what the people of France wanted. The following day, the majority of Frenchmen who had been silent throughout the demonstrations, took to the streets of Paris in hundreds of thousands, chanting, "De Gaulle oui! Communisme non!" The strikes ended in a demoralizing defeat for the French Left.

In America, people are telling us that a record number of formerly apathetic voters will turn out in the morning and cast their votes. Since I'm currently living abroad, I submitted my Absentee vote weeks ago. I voted in 2016. Maybe, if I had been living in the States all this time, I would've continued in my apathetic ways and stayed home on election day. Maybe it's because living abroad has made me understand that my right to vote is a responsibility, and that, thousands of miles apart from the country I love so dearly and spent twelve years of my life defending, casting my vote is a way I can take part, raise my hand high - high enough for them to see it - and be counted, and remind my fellow Americans (and myself) that I'm alive and that I can be counted on to contribute.

But there is, of course, a much broader issue at work among American voters, something deeper than apathy. The events that are assailing America, and the rest of the "developed" world, are, for the average citizen, overwhelming. Faced with this, there is a tendency, especially among progressives, to become passive. Today, on the occasion of the mid-term election, what George Orwell wrote on the subject of democracy bears repeating. "There is always the temptation to say: 'One side is as bad as the other, I am neutral.' In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. . . . We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the less, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. . .  If you have to take part in such things - and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy - then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate."

Think of all the voters in 2016 who acted like devils or lunatics by voting for Trump because they could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. What must they be thinking right now? American politics has for a long time been about pain. Liberals suffered under 8 years of George W. Bush, then conservatives suffered for 8 years under Obama. A friend told me once that those 8 years of Obama was "hell" and that now it was my turn to suffer. But we suffered for more than a year leading up to the election, as Trump spewed his stupidities all over us day after day. I stated on this blog when Trump was given the Republican nomination, that the party of Abraham Lincoln had just nominated a man who would bring back slavery if he could. Two years ago just prior to election day, pundits were speculating that, with Hillary assured of victory (how could she not?) it would take 50 years for the Republican Party to recover. Right after the election, they were saying the same thing about the Democrats. But I think they got it right the first time. There may be no Republican Party after 2020.

We shall see.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Somewhat Less Than a World





"Without preferences a critic would be a monster."

- Vernon Young(1)


As taste deteriorates, lists proliferate. The BBC, evidently always looking for ways to kill time, has compiled yet another "Top 100" list. Not, this time, of the 100 Greatest Orchestra Conductors from Birkina Faso. Nor of the 100 Greatest Opera Tenors who prefer Pepsi to Coke. (Maybe I shouldn't give them ideas.) This time, it's THE 100 GREATEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILMS. Here's what they came up with, in their proper order (titles in bold are my own favorites):

1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
2. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)
4. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
5. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
6. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
7. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
8. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
9. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
10. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
11. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
12. Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993)
13. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
14. Jeanne Dielman ... (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
15. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
16. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
17. Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
18. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
19. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
20. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
21. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
22. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
23. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1928
24. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
25. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
26. Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
27. The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
28. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
29. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
30. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
31. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
32. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
33. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
34. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
35. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
36. La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
37. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
38. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
39. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
40. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
41. To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)
42. City of God (Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002)
43. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
44. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)
45. L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
46. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)
47. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
48. Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)
49. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
50. L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
51. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
52. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
53. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)
54. Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994)
55. Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
56. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)
57. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)
58. The Earrings of Madame de ... (Max Ophuls, 1953)
59. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
60. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
61. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)
62. Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
63. Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948)
64. Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)
65. Ordet (Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1955)
66. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)
67. The Externinating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
68. Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
69. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
70. L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
71. Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997)
72. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
73. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
74. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
75. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
76. Y tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
77. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
78. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
79. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
80. The Young and the Damned (Luis Buñuel, 1950)
81. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
82. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
83. La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954)
84. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
85. Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
86. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
87. The Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
88. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)
89. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
90. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
91. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
92. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)
93. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991)
94. Where Is the Friend's Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)
95. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
96. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
97. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
98. In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang Wen, 1994)
99. Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
100. Landscape in the Mist (Theo Angelopoulos, 1988)

Though this list isn't as bad as some others (only because it's about foreign language films), it won't satisfy anyone. If you asked 200 literary critics to name the Top 100 Foreign Language Novels, you would probably reach a much better consensus. Literature doesn't attract fans in anything like the numbers film does. There is simply no other way to account for Claire Denis's Beau Travail outranking L'Avventura, or Amélie sitting there stupidly three jumps ahead of Umberto D

I haven't seen 28 of the films on the list. But that's preferable to simply forgetting magnificent films like Le Jour se Leve, Open City, Smiles of a Summer Night, Lacombe Lucien, The Sorrow and the Pity, and the great filmmakers Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Ermanno Olmi, Mario Monicelli, Masaki Kobayashi, and Jan Troell. These lists are good for critical parlor games: what they reveal is sometimes counterproductive to their intentions. As someone has already pointed out, there are more films on the list from directors named Jean than from women. The statistics have changed dramatically in the past few decades, but exactly what percentage of filmmakers worldwide are women? Far from anything like parity, my guess. It has been forty years since Lina Wertmüller burst onto the world film scene, and a backlash (led, amazingly, by Feminist critics) has brought her down several pegs, but I still regard her as the greatest woman filmmaker. Just thinking about her makes me want to watch Love and Anarchy again, the story of a hapless, pimple-faced anarchist hiding out in a Roman brothel, waiting for an opportunity - that never materializes - to assassinate Mussolini.

How long does it take - should it take - for a new film to enter a canon? In the 1950s and '60s, it took only three years. I wrote about this in 2012, when the latest Sight and Sound Top Ten Critics' Poll was published: "The sense of permanence has long since, I think, gone out of discussions about films - especially Great Films, which the polls have inadvertently, decade after decade, demonstrated. Simply examine the newest film in each of the polls. In 1952, Bicycle Thieves was number one (it now ranks thirty-third) and was just three years old. In 1962, L'avventura was also just three years old. In 1972, Persona was the newest film in the poll, but it was made six years before. This sense that the art of film was a contemporary, ongoing phenomenon quickly began to fade. In 1982, 8 1/2 was the most recent film in the poll, made nineteen years before. In 1992, 2001: A Space Odyssey made its first appearance in the poll, thanks to its restoration and subsequent rediscovery. But it was a twenty-four year old film by then. By 2002, film's slide into the past was to The Godfather, a thirty year old film. In the latest poll, 2001 is again the newest film, except it has got twenty years older since 1992. So the latest film judged great enough to be in the top ten was made forty-four years ago."(2) (Written six years ago.)

So these attempts to create a canon, while filmmakers were engaged in the process of discovering a unified aesthetic for the medium, and while critics were struggling to account for their struggles, are stymied because the works that were central to our understanding of what constitutes film art kept shifting positions. The only answer to the question, What makes a film a work of art? has got to be, When it is made by an artist.

I can always tell an auteurist (but I can't tell him much). They are big on bestowing auteurship on the unlikeliest people (I get the feeling that eventually everyone who ever made a film will be an auteur), but they are terrible at naming what films made by each and every auteur are better than others. The list gives them away in several places. 4 Andrei Tarkovsky films, each one progressively worse than Ivan's Childhood (1961, which is at least unpretentious). I am not fond of Fassbinder, but surely Berlin Alexanderplatz , though a long way from the Döblin novel, is his best? I like Buñuel very much, but surely The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle de Jour are poor examples of his surrealist art? I would replace them with L'Age d'Or (1930), Simon of the Desert (1965) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Krzysztof Kieślowski is a bit overrated, but surely Three Colors: Blue is the worst part of the trilogy. Why not Dekalog (1989-90)? Bresson has only one film on the list, but it is neither Diary of a Country Priest (1950) nor A Man Escaped (1956), better examples of his austere style by far than Au hasard Balthazar. Godard is represented by three films, #s 11, 60, and 74. Breathless was his breakthrough, but Band of Outsiders (1964) and A Married Woman (1964) are immeasurably preferable to Contempt and Pierrot le fou. Making room for 4 Fellini films, then leaving out I Vitelloni (1953)? 5 Bergman films, including his muddled Fanny and Alexander, but ignoring Smiles of a Summer Night (1955 - easily one of the half-dozen most perfect films ever made), the early masterpiece Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), and the best of his chamber films, Winter Light (1962)? I realize that Rossellini's boat has sailed (so has Mizoguchi's), but Open City (1945) remains historically important. Shoah is ranked 96th. According to what aesthetic criteria? I don't mean to suggest that Claude Lanzmann's epochal film is not artfully made (it is deceptively, hypnotically fascinating), but however formidable its artistic merits are, Shoah stands alone and shouldn't have to jockey for position among the likes of Rififi and Amélie.

Further Objections. If you're going to limit Alain Resnais to one film, and you've included Chris Marker's short film La Jetée, why not let Resnais's sole film be Night and Fog (1955), which not only has great artistic merit, but historical relevance as well.

According to the BBC's list, the best decades for film were the 1950s (21 films) and the '60s (19 films). The worst decades were the 1920s and '40s (each with only 4 films).

What is most revealing in the latest lists is the critics' apparent inability to distinguish between what they like and what is good. How can one tell the difference? I like hotdogs, but I know what they're made of. No one is claiming that hotdogs are good food. So why are some critics so enamored of hotdogs like In the Mood for Love or The Spirit of the Beehive or All About My Mother?

But all these lists, which are increasing in number and absurdity, are a symptom of a serious problem among educated people. You can see it in all of the television talent competitions, each more irritating than the next, and even with the cooking competitions and the bake-offs. Self expression, which comes in a myriad of forms, can't be compared or reduced to a competitive sporting event. Some people won't read a book unless they see it listed as a Best Seller. And others want everything to be classified before they can bring themselves to read it or listen to it or watch it. They want to know beforehand if it's worthy of their attention, supposedly because they think that they have so little time to waste. Before they will consent to consuming it, they need it to be pre-digested. The very last thing they want is to be left out of a conversation, but the cultivation of taste that is exclusively their own, without the reinforcement of a support group, is inconceivable. The notion that they could be alone in their preference for a particular book or film or television program terrifies them. What good is personal taste if it isn't shared by others?



(1) Vernon Young, "Somewhat Less Than a World," The Hudson Review, Spring 1967.
(2) see "Poll Position," Widower's Tango, August 9, 2012.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Schalcken the Painter



The Irish writer of horror fiction, J. T. Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873), was much admired by M. R. James, author of "A Warning To the Curious," as well as several other Ghost Stories for Christmas made popular by Michael Hordern and the BBC. "I do not claim for this author any very exalted place," James admitted in a lecture on LeFanu, "but I desire to advance the claim that he has attained supremacy in one particular line: he succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer." James wasn't necessarily a trustworthy authority on the subject, having already discounted the quality of the writings of Poe, which he attributed to the remoteness of their settings. Horror fiction attracted many great writers, probably because of its popularity as a genre.

Reading LeFanu lately, however, makes one wonder if anyone would be attracted to the following specimen of writing:

"To his dying day Schalken was satisfied of the reality of the vision which he had witnessed, and he has left behind him a curious evidence of the impression which it wrought upon his fancy, in a painting executed shortly after the event we have narrated, and which is valuable as exhibiting not only the peculiarities which have made Schalken’s pictures sought after, but even more so as presenting a portrait, as close and faithful as one taken from memory can be, of his early love, Rose Velderkaust, whose mysterious fate must ever remain matter of speculation.

The picture represents a chamber of antique masonry, such as might be found in most old cathedrals, and is lighted faintly by a lamp carried in the hand of a female figure, such as we have above attempted to describe; and in the background, and to the left of him who examines the painting, there stands the form of a man apparently aroused from sleep, and by his attitude, his hand being laid upon his sword, exhibiting considerable alarm: this last figure is illuminated only by the expiring glare of a wood or charcoal fire."

This excerpt is from the story, "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter," which was one of his first short stories collected much later in The Purcell Papers, accounts by a fictitious 18th-century Catholic priest called Father Purcell. There was an actual painter from the 17th century named Gottfried Schalcken, who specialized in portraits and intimate scenes that are lit entirely by a single candle. LeFanu seems to have been acquainted with his specialty, and was familiar with certain details of his life. The story, however, is pure invention. The painting that LeFanu describes in detail doesn't exist.

LeFanu's limitations as a writer pose no problem for anyone attempting to adapt one of his stories to film. In 1979, Leslie Megahey adapted LeFanu's story for Schalcken the Painter (with the corrected spelling of the painter's name) for the BBC's Omnibus series. It approaches the story as if it were a docu-drama from the life of Schalcken. He was apprenticed to the painter Gerrit Douw, who was himself an apprentice of Rembrandt. Rembrandt even appears in the film (an actor made up to resemble the self-portrait from 1663, with Rembrandt wearing a painter's hat) as a sort of historical detail adding authenticity to the otherwise fictional account the film dramatizes. In love with Douw's young niece, Rose, but penniless, Schalcken is witness to a transaction between Douw and a wealthy old man from Rotterdam in which a small casket of fine gold is exchanged for his niece in marriage. But this is no ordinary old man. The scene of his face to face meeting with Rose is filmed exactly as LeFanu's relates it:

"Nine o’clock at length came, and with it a summons at the street-door, which, being speedily answered, was followed by a slow and emphatic tread upon the staircase; the steps moved heavily across the lobby, the door of the room in which the party which we have described were assembled slowly opened, and there entered a figure which startled, almost appalled, the phlegmatic Dutchmen, and nearly made Rose scream with affright; it was the form, and arrayed in the garb, of Mynher Vanderhausen; the air, the gait, the height was the same, but the features had never been seen by any of the party before.

The stranger stopped at the door of the room, and displayed his form and face completely. He wore a dark-coloured cloth cloak, which was short and full, not falling quite to the knees; his legs were cased in dark purple silk stockings, and his shoes were adorned with roses of the same colour. The opening of the cloak in front showed the under-suit to consist of some very dark, perhaps sable material, and his hands were enclosed in a pair of heavy leather gloves which ran up considerably above the wrist, in the manner of a gauntlet. In one hand he carried his walking-stick and his hat, which he had removed, and the other hung heavily by his side. A quantity of grizzled hair descended in long tresses from his head, and its folds rested upon the plaits of a stiff ruff, which effectually concealed his neck.

So far all was well; but the face! — all the flesh of the face was coloured with the bluish leaden hue which is sometimes produced by the operation of metallic medicines administered in excessive quantities; the eyes were enormous, and the white appeared both above and below the iris, which gave to them an expression of insanity, which was heightened by their glassy fixedness; the nose was well enough, but the mouth was writhed considerably to one side, where it opened in order to give egress to two long, discoloured fangs, which projected from the upper jaw, far below the lower lip; the hue of the lips themselves bore the usual relation to that of the face, and was consequently nearly black. The character of the face was malignant, even satanic, to the last degree; and, indeed, such a combination of horror could hardly be accounted for, except by supposing the corpse of some atrocious malefactor, which had long hung blackening upon the gibbet, to have at length become the habitation of a demon — the frightful sport of Satanic possession.

It was remarkable that the worshipful stranger suffered as little as possible of his flesh to appear, and that during his visit he did not once remove his gloves.

Having stood for some moments at the door, Gerard Douw at length found breath and collectedness to bid him welcome, and, with a mute inclination of the head, the stranger stepped forward into the room.

There was something indescribably odd, even horrible, about all his motions, something undefinable, that was unnatural, un-human — it was as if the limbs were guided and directed by a spirit unused to the management of bodily machinery.

The stranger said hardly anything during his visit, which did not exceed half an hour; and the host himself could scarcely muster courage enough to utter the few necessary salutations and courtesies: and, indeed, such was the nervous terror which the presence of Vanderhausen inspired, that very little would have made all his entertainers fly bellowing from the room. They had not so far lost all self-possession, however, as to fail to observe two strange peculiarities of their visitor.

During his stay he did not once suffer his eyelids to close, nor even to move in the slightest degree; and further, there was a death-like stillness in his whole person, owing to the total absence of the heaving motion of the chest, caused by the process of respiration.

These two peculiarities, though when told they may appear trifling, produced a very striking and unpleasant effect when seen and observed. Vanderhausen at length relieved the painter of Leyden of his inauspicious presence; and with no small gratification the little party heard the street-door close after him.

‘Dear uncle,’ said Rose, ‘what a frightful man! I would not see him again for the wealth of the States!’

‘Tush, foolish girl!’ said Douw, whose sensations were anything but comfortable. ‘A man may be as ugly as the devil, and yet if his heart and actions are good, he is worth all the pretty-faced, perfumed puppies that walk the Mall. Rose, my girl, it is very true he has not thy pretty face, but I know him to be wealthy and liberal; and were he ten times more ugly ——’

‘Which is inconceivable,’ observed Rose.

‘These two virtues would be sufficient,’ continued her uncle, ‘to counterbalance all his deformity; and if not of power sufficient actually to alter the shape of the features, at least of efficacy enough to prevent one thinking them amiss.’

‘Do you know, uncle,’ said Rose, ‘when I saw him standing at the door, I could not get it out of my head that I saw the old, painted, wooden figure that used to frighten me so much in the church of St. Laurence of Rotterdam.’

Gerard laughed, though he could not help inwardly acknowledging the justness of the comparison. He was resolved, however, as far as he could, to check his niece’s inclination to ridicule the ugliness of her intended bridegroom, although he was not a little pleased to observe that she appeared totally exempt from that mysterious dread of the stranger which, he could not disguise it from himself, considerably affected him, as also his pupil Godfrey Schalken."

In one respect, the LeFanu story has a relevance for contemporary readers that wasn't lost on Megahey:

"Marriages were then and there matters of traffic and calculation; and it would have appeared as absurd in the eyes of the guardian to make a mutual attachment an essential element in a contract of marriage, as it would have been to draw up his bonds and receipts in the language of chivalrous romance."

Marriages in the 17th century were financial transactions among men, in which women had little or no say. The arranged marriages that we hear about in some Asian and African countries today are widely deplored, but such practices were common in Europe well into the 20th century.

Despite Rose's misgivings and protests, Douw bundles her off to her wedding in Rotterdam and she is literally carried away in an ornate litter with her husband. Days, weeks pass without word from Rose. Then, without warning, she returns to her uncle's house in obvious terror, dissheveled and distraught, begging him and Schalcken to save her. Believing her to be hysterical, they put her to bed and send for a minister. But she keeps babbling incoherently, the words "The dead and the living cannot be one — God has forbidden it!" and "Rest to the wakeful — sleep to the sleep-walkers." She calls for more candles, the room is too dark, and claims that "he" is already there. But Douw and Schalcken see no one. Finally the minister arrives, but a gust of air blows out the candle and Douw, who had been holding her hand, lets go of it and steps through the chamber door. Instantly the doors of the chamber slam shut, with Rose alone within. They hear screams of terror coming from behind the closed door, then one final shriek. Douw and Schalcken finally wrest open the door, but Rose has vanished. They look out of the window to the canal below, but there is nothing to see except "the waters of the broad canal beneath settling ring after ring in heavy circular ripples, as if a moment before disturbed by the immersion of some large and heavy mass."

I won't give away the ending (closely following LeFanu's tale) but the film elaborates on Schalcken's career after Rose's disappearance, on his obsession with painting models resembling Rose, and on his work on the (fictitious) painting that inspired the tale. It would be an understatement to point out how much care was taken to capture the look of the paintings of the time, especially paintings by Vermeer. We watch as Gerrit Douw oversees his students at life drawing and a still life, but what we see of Douw's house, with its parquet floors and latticed windows, is directly reminiscent of the interiors in Vermeer's painting. On a much more intimate scale, Schalcken the Painter repeats what Stanley Kubrick achieved with Barry Lyndon - recreating the past by painstakingly copying period artworks. The end credits of Schalcken thank several European art galleries for their contributions to the production, not just by supplying the originals of paintings by Gottfried Schalcken, but by providing the director, designer, and cinematographer with inspiration for their work on the film. Christine Rawlins designed the sumptuous costumes, Anna Ridley was the production designer, and John Hooper is credited as the "lighting cameraman" - presumably in charge of the cinematography and lighting. Leslie Megahey, the film's director, deserves the highest praise. As I have already pointed out, he reportedly accepted the post as editor of the BBC documentary series Omnibus on condition that he make Schalcken the Painter. Omnibus is a documentary program, but Megahey shot his film as if it were a docudrama about events in the lives of historical personages, making LeFanu's tale seem authentic. The excellent cast includes Jeremy Clyde as Schalcken, Cheryl Kennedy as Rose, Maurice Denham as Dou, and John Justin, who was the handsome hero in the 1940 (!) The Thief of Baghdad, plays the dreadful Mynher Vanderhausen. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Fearless Vampire Killers



Before proving himself a master of the horror film genre with Rosemary's Baby in 1968, Roman Polański made the horror spoof Dance of the Vampires (1966), based on his own (and Gerard Brach's) original story. I have loved it ever since I first saw it on TV, probably a few years after its theatrical release in the States. Unfortunately, the film that I saw was called The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, Martin Ransohoff's clumsily edited (and foolishly retitled) American release version, with 12 minutes cut from the original and a "goofy" voice dubbed over Jack MacGowran's to try and amplify the "wacky" elements of Polański's film. Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert devoted the entirety of his (short) review of the edited film to pointing out the conspicious absence of laughter coming from the movie theater audience. "The night I went to see The Fearless Vampire Killers," wrote Ebert,  "nobody laughed. One or two people cried, and a lady behind me dropped a bag of M&Ms which rolled under the seats, and a guy on the center aisle sneezed at 43 minutes past the hour. But that was about all the action." (January 22, 1968) From his enviable perch at The New York Times, Bosley Crowther acknowledged Polański's desire that his name be removed from the version of his film screened in Manhattan,(1) but, based on what he saw, "there is no sign that Mr. Polański was pointing towards some sly satiric jest, some arrangement of weird allegory so that his society of vampires would have significance apt for today. He was evidently only trying to make fun of horror films, forgetting that horror films, played straight, are now more often funny—unconsciously to—than horrible." (November 14, 1967)

MGM tried to market the U.S. release version as a "farce," but the film that Polański and Brach conceived at an Alpine ski resort during the cutting of Cul-de-Sac was a kind of gothic fairy tale, a "satirical horror drama" with strong Eastern European overtones (Transylvania is in Romania), streaked with Yiddish comedy (the innkeeper, Yoine Shagal, and his wife Rebecca). It parodies every vampire movie cliché (the garlic, the crosses, the sleeping in coffins, the wooden stake through the heart, reflections in mirrors), and toys with the erotic element by introducing a gay vampire (Count von Kroloch's son, Herbert).

Shooting commenced inauspiciously in Austria when all the snow suddenly melted and the production had to relocate to the Italian Alps (the Seiser Alm in the Dolomites). It was Polanski's first film both in color (Metrocolor) and widescreen (Panavision), and he got considerable help realizing his vision from cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, production designer Wilfred (spelled "Wilfrid" in the clever opening credits designed by André François) Shingleton, and a certain "Christopher" Komeda, better known by his Polish name Krzysztof. Komeda composed scores for other Polanski films, including Rosemary's Baby. For Dance of the Vampires, he composed an especially pretty waltz for the grand ball of risen vampires in Von Krolok's castle.(2)

Old Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his young assistant Alfred (Polański) have arrived "deep in the heart of Transylvania" hoping to confirm the existence of vampires. Arriving at an inn run by Yoine Shagal and his wife Rebecca, the professor has to be thawed out from the long sleigh ride through the frozen countryside, and the first thing he notices upon coming to is garlic hanging overhead. He points this out to Alfred and inquires of Shagal if there is a castle nearby. Shagal and the villagers present, but for the village idiot, are suspiciously mum. What's funny about these early scenes is that Abronsius is clearly a fool, but his preposterous theories about vampires are proven to be totally right. The Shagals have a young daughter, the lovely Sara (Sharon Tate, given a pile of red hair to appease a producer who wanted Jill St. John in the role), who has a fetish for bathing "at least once a day." Arthur at first thinks she's referring to sex at least once a day, which wins his somewhat abashed approval. Spying on her through a keyhole, he witnesses the vampire, Count Von Krolok (Ferdy Mayne) attacking her in the bath, setting off the film's main plot - rescuing Sara from almost certain undeath.

Ill advisedly, Yoine takes a big bite out of a garlic knob and goes out into the night to save Sara. He is found next morning frozen to a tree stump. Upon examination by Abronsius, however, he finds that Yoine's death did not come from exposure to the freezing elements. He finds bite marks on Yoine's neck, his wrist, and his belly. When Abronsius tells Rebecca that he must now drive a wooden stake through Yoine's heart, she attacks him with the stake and drives them upstairs. By the time they have a chance to do the deed, Yoine the vampire awakes. He's his same joking self (Alfie Bass is inspired as Yoine) until he sees how intent Abronsius and Alfred are to destroy him. Pursued through the inn (Polański indulges in frequent transitions to silent-film speed in his slapstick scenes), Yoine finds himself in the maid's room. She (the toothsome Fiona Lewis) brandishes a crucifix at Yoine, who laughs and tells her, "Have you got the wrong vampire!" Yoine's appearances throughout the rest of the film provide comic relief. Who knew that a vampire could be funny?

Sneaking inside Von Krolok's castle is treacherous for Abronsius and Alfred. They are caught (Krolok turns out to be a fan of Abronsius's research into vampirism), are made comfortable in the castle, and are even invited to the grand ball to be held the following night. During the day Abronsius and Alfred must find the Count's resting place before the sun sets. After finding the way through a window into the Count's crypt, Alfred slips through, but the professor gets himself stuck halfway. So Alfred has to go back outside to pull the professor out. On his way, however, he finds Sara, as usual having a bath, after following the sound of her plaintive singing. With a bite mark on her neck, that she demurely tries to cover, Alfred finds her even more alluring than before. He remembers the Professor, now half-frozen hanging half-in, half-out of the window, and goes back out to extricate him. But their bag of wooden stakes and crucifixes tumbles off the parapet to the ground far below.

Looking for Sara again, this time Alfted encounters Herbert, the Count's son, in the bathroom wearing nothing but his nightshirt and aggressively interested in Alfred. He forces his attentions on the timid Alfred, who has a little book of love poetry. The little book saves him when Herbert tries to bite him and, thanks to Alfred's swift maneuvering, he sinks his teeth into the book instead.(3) A chase ensues, revealing Polański's knowledge of a scene from a Buster Keaton classic (the castle galleries resemble the decks of the derelict ship in Keaton's The Navigator).

I wondered why there would be mirrors in the castle, and such large ones, other than as convenient devices to reveal - or not reveal - to Alfred that the vampires cast no reflection in them and that Sara, though bitten, is still a mortal. At an appointed hour, the castle cemetery empties of a multitude of decrepit vampires, all dressed for a ball from centuries before, and a macabre dance ensues, accompanied by the aformentioned waltz played on a harpsichord.(4) Abronsius and Alfred skilfully manage to escape confinement, steal some clothes from a pair of particularly ancient vampires and join in the dance, intending to steal Sara from the Count's clutches. How they manage to pull off Sara's rescue and escape the castle I will leave you, dear reader, to discover for yourself. Polański proved himself to be a resourceful director in the film's climax, even sneaking in a twist ending that should come as no real surprise to aficionados of the horror genre.

This was to be Polański's last film made in Europe before his sojourn in Hollywood. He took a few Polish friends along with him to California, including Krzysztof Komeda and Wojciech Frykowski. Frykowski was present on the night - August 8, 1969 - the Manson family visited Polański's residence, brutally murdering Frykowski, Sharon Tate and two others (in addition to Tate's unborn child). It was a sobering reminder that Polański's preoccupation with death and violence in his films (his 1971 production of Macbeth is exceedingly bloody) had deeply personal origins.


(1) Polański stated, “I’ve called them and asked them to have my name removed because I don’t want credit for a film I didn’t really make. The one now showing is far from the one I filmed.”
(2) In December 1968, at a party in Los Angeles, Komeda was pushed off an ledge by the Polish writer Marek Hłasko and suffered a serious head injury which left him in a coma. Komeda died in Poland four months later. Hłasko said, ""If Krzysztof dies, I'll go along." Hłasko died in Wiesbaden shortly after Komeda's death, possibly by his own hand.
(3) Incidentally, the Polish actor Vladek Sheybal supplied the voice of Herbert, a clever trick Polański learned when he had to re-record all the dialogue for Knife in the Water. Since the actor who played the hitchhiker was unavailable, Polański dubbed his lines himself.
(4) The ditty is conspicuously absent from the soundtrack album.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Scare Me


The problem I have with scary movies is that, with notable exceptions, they no longer scare me. I was plenty scared by them when I was a child, but it was because I hadn't yet figured out that the people who made them were simply using tricks of the motion picture medium to manipulate me as a member of the audience. Now that I am more knowledgeable about how movies are put together and how many quite simple technical devices are employed to create an emotional or sometimes visceral reaction, I can no longer suspend my disbelief long enough to get a good scare out of them. Like an old movie ghost, I find that I can see through the special effects to the trickery behind them.(1)

Of course, it's also because I have grown into a skeptical adult, and because horror, the distinct genre of stories and plays and films that have developed (if that is the word) since the 19th century, plays upon conventions - widely accepted formal requirements - that are far from the ordinary lives of human beings. I remain skeptical of the reality, of the existence, of much of its subject matter. Many famous people, some of them reputable, claim to have seen ghosts. Even George Orwell, who was probably the person least susceptible to such an experience who ever lived, described in a letter an encounter with a ghost in Walberswick cemetery: “I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass ... disappearing behind the masonry & presumably disappearing into the churchyard. I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stooping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of the features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only two people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure.... The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination." (Letter dated 16 August 1931 to Dennis Collings)

What else could it have been? However intrigued he was by the encounter, Orwell never wrote a ghost story. In fact, none of the great novelists or dramatists wrote what are narrowly identifiable as ghost stories. There are ghosts in Shakespeare's plays - the ghost in Hamlet even speaks. But none of his plays is about ghosts. Dickens wrote stories featuring ghosts, and even contributed the most famous ghost story for Christmas (a strange and delightful British tradition), A Christmas Carol, that contains no less than four ghosts who pay visits to Ebeneezer Scrooge one fateful Christmas Eve. But it's a Christmas story, not a ghost story.

Dickens was an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe, whose writings, however exceptional they are, are distinguished by a level of conviction that has given them, like Poe himself, a unique place in literature. None of the so-called "gothic" writers who preceded and succeeded him were nearly as good as Poe or as convincing.

There is a ghost story related by the near-insane character Svidrigailov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. He claims to have encountered the ghost of his dead wife and of an old servant. Raskolnikov refuses to believe in them, but Svidrigailov leaves him with a disturbing metaphor for eternity: “We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity.” (Crime and Punishment, Part Four, Chapter Two) However convincingly strange Svidrigailov's accounts may be, Dostoevsky wrote no ghost stories.

Ambrose Bierce, who witnessed some of the bloodiest battles - like Shiloh - of the American Civil War, wrote of ghosts in his stories with a reporter's matter-of-factness that lends them an uncanny quality. I wrote about an excellent short film adapted from Bierce's story about a man about to be hanged for espionage from Owl Creek Bridge. Awaiting his execution, the man engages his imagination in a vivid daydream in which the rope that hangs him breaks and he swims to freedom, being chased and fired upon for miles. He reaches safety and finds himself in familiar surroundings. He finds his own house and his wife and, "As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence! Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."

And Henry James, who liked reading ghost stories, wrote stories and a novel that could be classified as ghost stories. In fact, The Turn of the Screw is widely celebrated as a gripping, if extra-carefuly written, story of the haunting to two English children by two ghosts. In his close reading of the novel, however, Edmund Wilson concluded that The Turn of the Screw is ambiguous as to what actually happens, whether we can take it as a straight ghost story or as a subtle psychological portrait of an emotionally and sexually repressed English nanny. It is this ambiguity, I think, that makes the novel more fascinating than it would be if the reader weren't left wondering, if only in the back of his mind, exactly what he has read.

I have had encounters, two of them, that occurred when I was in the Far East, that have left me wondering about ghosts. The first encounter was in Okinawa when I was stationed there in the Navy. The Japanese island of Okinawa was the site of some of the most intense battles of World War Two. The base on which I was stationed, called White Beach, is on a peninsula on the eastern coast of the island. There are cliffs above the beaches that are pitted with caves, some of which are closed to the public and marked with signs designating them as tombs. Japanese soldiers withdrew from the fighting into these caves and committed suicide, sometimes using grenades to kill themselves. One night in 1993, I was walking with a few friends up the road that wound down from the front gate. I had to use an ATM first, so I told my friends to go ahead of me and I would catch up with them. As I was climbing the hill, I passed a young Japanese man who approached me and, putting two fingers to his lips, let me know that he wanted a cigarette. I gestured that I had no cigarettes, and the young man shrugged his soldiers and continued on his way down the hill. All I remember specifically about his clothes was the cap on his head, which looked like it was military issue, one that I had seen in old photos of Japanese soldiers. When I caught up with my friends, some of whom had cigarettes in their hands, I asked them why they hadn't offered the man who passed me - and who had to have passed them - a cigarette. "What man?" they asked. They had passed no one on the road. Ever since then, I have thought that it was perhaps the ghost of a soldier who had killed himself in one of the caves in the cliffs above White Beach.. Or else it was "an hallucination."

The second encounter took place in the Philippines, where I'm now living. In 2016, a Filipino man I knew died of a heart attack. His widow paid for a traditional funeral, which was preceded by a long vigil, like a wake, that lasted for days. I went to her house by the highway on the first day to give her my condolences. I sat down, but I did not wish to stay very long, because Filipino parties are segregated, with the men outside drinking and carousing, and the women inside cooking and preparing drinks (as well as drinking and carousing). The man sitting next to me was getting drunk, but I wasn't drinking at the time, so I excused myself and headed back down the highway toward home. As I was walking I kept an eye out for a ride, but there was no ride forthcoming. So, since it was another mercilessly beautiful day, late afternoon, I decided to walk the kilometer or so home. After I passed the crest of a hill, it was downhill the rest of the way, and I was alone on the highway. I rounded two curves down the highway until I saw a man standing ahead of me on my side of the highway. I noticed he was wearing a "barong," a traditional sheer long-sleeve shirt that covers a short-sleeved shirt underneath, with black trousers. But why was he standing there? If he wanted to catch a bus - out of town (which is the only bus to catch), he should've been on the other side of the highway. He was facing to the West, where the afternoon sky was already turning orange. And as I approached where he stood, watching my step along the edge of the highway, I recognized him as the man whose vigil I had just left, who was lying in his coffin in the front room of his house, dressed in the same clothes he was standing up in by the highway. He paid no attention to me as, without thinking, I crossed to the other side, while keeping my eyes on him. He was gazing at the sky to the west with a look of utter distraction and peace on his face. I walked past, keeping him in my peripheral view, and proceeded at a normal pace, turning my head every now and then, making sure he hadn't moved. But when the highway wound to the left, I picked up my pace for the rest of the way. It was the last I ever saw of the man. I didn't join the funeral procession to the cemetery a few days later. This Undas, November 2nd, the Filipino Day of the Dead, his widow will visit the cemetery with food and drink, enough for herself and some for her dead husband, and pay her respects. If she doesn't do it, Filipinos believe that his spirit will grow restless again and it will walk the earth. I won't be walking that particular stretch of highway again unless I am accompanied by another living soul.

But the real problem I have with ghost stoires, and with horror movies, is that the best writers and filmmakers usually avoid the genre, just like every other genre, because it imposes an artificial structure on the story or the film that interferes with their discovery of life, with the illumination of their characters with a light that seems to come as much from within them as around them. Hitchcock resorted to horror effects when he made Psycho, but even some of the critics who admired his work were appalled at the result. In his brief notice of the film, Stanley Kauffmann wrote, "Two murders and a third attempt are among the most vicious I have ever seen in films, with Hitchcock employing his considerable skill in direction and cutting and in the use of sound and music to shock us past horror-entertainment into resentment." Hitchcock drags us into an embezzlement scheme, makes us care about what happens next to Janet Leigh, only to then have us take part in her brutal murder by a knife-wielding mental case. Thanks, Al, but no thanks. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho only proved how uselessly formulaic the original was.

Effectively entertaining horror films have been made in the past by skilled filmmakers. I think of William Friedkin, fresh from The French Connection - an effective crime thriller - who made The Exorcist (1973), which is probably the scariest film I've seen. Even if one doesn't believe in God or the Devil, the film will make one jump at most of the carefully appointed moments. (Be careful how you're holding your popcorn.) But Friedkin's skill was just about up to the level of horror-entertainment and not higher. When he thought he was good enough to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, with a budget much greater than Clouzot's, the film (Sorcerer, 1977) was a failure on several levels, and it sent Friedkin's career on a circuitous detour.

Now there is CGI to further complicate matters. Now all manner of horrors can be visualized on the screen, including heretofore unimagined ones. Whatever can be conceived, in fact, can now be realized in a motion picture, including holographic three-dimensional images of actors and entertainers long dead. Such technical advances always have little or no effect on the quality of films.(2) If anything, technical advances set the art of the motion picture back a few years because it takes awhile for filmmakers to master them. As I wrote some time ago, CGI has now made film animation both easy and impossible. The best thing that the latest technical advances has done, I think, is to simplify filmmaking to the point at which it is now quite possible for a film to be made from start to finish and also to reach a mass audience with a great deal less money. If independent filmmakers find it easier to make a horror film (remember the success of the first Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity films), it shouldn't come as all that much of a surprise. Especially to horror movie fans.


(1) For similar reasons, I don't like magicians either. There can be only two reasons why people find them entertaining: it's either because they believe they're witnessing real magic or because they like to be fooled.
(2) It was Stanley Kauffmann who, writing film criticism for 55 years (1958-2013), came up with the statistical estimate that, "in a good year," 95% of the films realeased are trash, 4% are good entertainment [remember that number before underestimating good entertainment], and less than 1% are accomplished art. And that's in a good year.