Spione (Spies) / Fritz Lang / 1928

1Fritz Lang’s previous film Metropolis -probably his most well known- was a financial disaster, the costs of production far exceeding the return at the box office. In fact the situation was so bad that UFA Studios in Germany were considering dropping Lang from their roster of directors.

Lang managed to win back the confidence of UFA with a comprehensive letter to the studio bosses. He sealed a contract with them to make a further two films, on condition that they would be made under considerably smaller budgets (reduced by about eighty percent) and in a considerably shorter time frame. Roughly one hundred days per film, as opposed to the approximately three hundred day shooting schedule of Metropolis.

With these restrictions in place, Lang and his then wife Thea von Harbou (the writer of Spione) had to seriously rethink their approach to filmmaking.

Mostly out of financial necessity, Lang abandoned the lavish Gothic and Art Nouveau sets of Metropolis filmed in wide camera shots, opting for smaller intimate set constructions with less ornamentation. Much of the action was now contained in rooms with white washed walls with little in the way of props, using close-ups and medium shots. This effectively abstracted the film by removing any sense of place. Add to this precise surgical editing, a shot lasting the absolute bare minimum needed to convey its information. Inadvertently Lang was forging a new style of filmmaking with Spione, a style described by one critic as ‘Abstract Realism’. It can be seen in full bloom in his first sound films a few years later, ‘M’ and ‘The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’. Lang would continue to explore this style for the remainder of his career, until his final film ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse’ in 1960.

Filming of Spione began with the films few exterior action sequences, the berserk two-minute sequence that opens up the film (a rapid succession of supremely edited shots from disparate locations) and the other two at the tail end of the film. One an episode involving the sabotage of a train carriage and another a car chase starting on a country road and ending in the city (the locations of the film remain mysterious) streets with the car plunging through the wall of Haghi’s headquarters. Such action sequences laid the groundwork for future Bond style espionage films, which would also mine Spione’s use of  gadgetry, like the miniature thumb nail size camera discovered on a cover agent by agent No.326. Spione can be seen as the little known granddaddy of them all. Lang himself was much fascinated by and drew ideas from master French filmmaker Louis Feuillade’s highly influential silent crime serials like ‘Les Vampires’ (1915-16).

Spione differs significantly from the espionage thrillers that were to follow. Unlike them, in typical Langian fashion, it favors the villains over the heroes. Government spy No.326 gets little screen time in comparison to super-villain Haghi who is seen in practically every second shot. There is nothing heroic about any of the characters in the film. No.326 enters the film in the disguise of a tramp, in need of a bath and a shave. He is slightly built and fairly pathetic looking. Haghi, apparently crippled, has a blanket over his legs in his wheelchair behind his huge desk with its various telephones, microphones and panels with rows of buttons. The desk acts as a barrier between him and the outside world. Its an imposing geometric shape dividing each frame it appears in into two, creating an uncomfortable separation between himself and this clientele on the other side of it. The majority of his physical connections with the world seem to be made through the apparatus of his desk, the controls of which he toys with to establish communications with his network of accomplices. It’s almost as if the way the film unfolds is determined by Haghi, as he pushes various buttons. Throughout the film, we return to the master controller behind his desk.

A plot (one among many counter plots) involves a Russian woman Sonja, who is simultaneously Haghi’s coerced right hand and in love with agent No.326. She becomes tangled in another plot involving a peace treaty which agent No.326 is trying to protect. Haghi is bent on stealing the treaty (which signifies peace between the Weimar Republic of Germany and Japan) from Japanese diplomat Matsumoto. The loss of this treaty could have serious consequences for Germany. Haghi’s agents intercept Matsumoto’s as they are in the process of delivering the treaty to Japan, murdering them in the process of acquiring it. In an eerie double exposure, Matsumoto hallucinates his three dead agents returning three fake treaties to him. Matsumoto promptly commits Hara-kiri.

Unlike the linear Ian Fleming narratives of the Bond thrillers, Lang populates his film with ambiguous images and situations. Spione has the logic of a dream. On the surface, Haghi seems to operate from within the office of a large bank, of which he is apparently the president. But the architecture of angular criss-crossed iron staircases and platforms suggests the inside of a prison block. At one point a man, who Haghi has just freed from death row, is dragged up the staircases by masked men in black overalls and brought into Haghi’s office where he is pardoned before his desk. The fact that Haghi constantly has a private nurse grooming him in his office, suggests he may actually be a patient inside a hospital or the director of that hospital. Haghi has another persona; he is also Nemo the clown. In a mischievously inserted scene we see Nemo (Haghi) in his dressing room backstage putting on his clown make-up, while he holds a conversation with No.326 and his superior, adjusting his wig and make-up in the mirror. Indeed one becomes lost in the labyrinth of Spione’s  intersecting plots within its one hundred and fifty minute (the restored version) running time. Apparently the American release of the film was edited down by a third of the time, certain events even changing position in the film, in an attempt to make the film more comprehensible by ironing out the ambiguities.

In the final minutes of Spione, Nemo is on a stage in his clown suit with painted face surrounded by strange props. He looks out at the large crowd seated around the perimeter of the stage, wielding a toy pistol, shooting at giant music notes rising up from his piano and a puppet fly hovering over the stage on strings. He laughs hysterically, as does the audience. At the sidelines of the curtains backstage we see agent No.326 and other agents poised with their guns pointed at Nemo. They have finally succeeded in putting two and two together with the help of some incriminating document, identifying him as one and the same person. Haghi (Nemo) realizing he is trapped puts the gun to his head and shoots himself as part of the act. The black curtain drops obscuring the stage, as the word END appears.

2

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) / Jean Cocteau / 1946

La-Belle-et-la-Bete-the-beauty-of-black-and-white-30608107-500-377Probably the most enchanting version of Beauty and the Beast ever committed to film, it’s hard to believe that this graceful picture was born amidst great conflict during bombing raids at the end of World War Two. Besides the complications of the war, it was a production apparently fraught with many other difficulties given it’s grand ambitions. Cocteau himself apparently struggled on through severe health problems to complete it.

In the opening titles of La Belle et la Bete, we see Cocteau in person unpretentiously writing the credits in large cursive script  on a classroom blackboard. The camera sits on a title for a few moments, then it is erased with a black board duster. He writes the next title. This is followed by a scrolling epilogue on a black background, also in the same handwriting, signed at the end with the iconic ‘Jean Cocteau plus star symbol’ signature.

The film begins with a domestic scene -sometime in the Seventeenth century perhaps- at the generous country manor of Belle and her family. She is the daughter of a once wealthy merchant. We meet her two sisters, her brother Ludovic and his handsome playboy friend Avenant, who fancies Belle. Belle’s father is in financial difficulty. He is off to a nearby port town on horseback to find the root of his problems.

There he discovers he has lost everything. Destitute, he rides home at night entering a forest and loses his way to emerge from the woods in front of a mysterious castle. His shadow falls on the large wooden doors of it’s entrance and magically they open. Belle’s father enters.

A row of naked arms magically unfold one by one from the wall, holding candles that spontaneously light as he ventures further in. He arrives at a dining table next to a fireplace with a vigorous fire burning. Statues either side of it hold up the mantlepiece. Their eyes move following Belle’s father. Smoke billows from their nostrils. Another arm in the centre of the table comes to life and pours some wine into a goblet. This magical set piece with its animated statues, is the ingenious work of production designer Christian Berard captured in the marvellous black and white cinematography of Henri Alekan, then only a fledgeling in his career, this his third film. Apparently Alekan’s photography was inspired by the drawings of Gustave Dore, an artist Cocteau recommended he research for the kind of lighting he was thinking of for the film. The incredibly dark sets -only lit by the windows and candle light- were something of a technical challenge for Alekan, as was the filming of the entrance of Belle’s father with the spontaneously combusting human arm chandeliers. One of the films many magical moments, this  effect was created entirely ‘in camera’ with the assistance of director Rene Clement (Purple Noon). The sequence was apparently filmed in reverse to get the effect of the candles bursting into flame. The actor walking backwards towards the entrance doors as candles were lit and blown out one by one. Played forward it appears the candles light by themselves as he passes them.

Belle’s father is confronted by the owner of the castle ‘The Beast’. Another wonderful piece of grotesque costume design by Christian Berard. His body covered in thick hair, he has a giant catlike head and clawed hairy hands usually concealed by black bejeweled velvet gloves. The rest of his outfit equally sumptuous. Frightened out of his wits by this spectacle, Belle’s father is told he must return to the castle in three days and give his life for trespassing or alternately give up one of his beautiful daughters to The Beast.

The Beast puts the merchant on a magic white horse called ‘Magnificent’ that takes him safely home to his family. Belle’s father is ill. His financial troubles combined with his harrowing encounter with The Beast, have left him stricken. He tells his story about the magic castle and his encounter with The Beast and the terrible pact. Of his daughters, Belle is the only one who volunteers to go in his place. He refuses her offer saying he is old and about to die anyway, he will return. That night Belle sneaks away on the white horse, which returns her to the Beasts castle back the way her father came.

She finds the castles entrance and the doors open magically once again, admitting her. In a hypnotic slow motion sequence she ascends a staircase to the upper floor of the castle, a shard of light from a large window penetrating the darkness, spilling over her upper body. Once again I am astounded by Berard’s set and Alekan’s incredible cinematography. She slides down a hallway as if gliding above the floor amongst drapes blowing in the wind, she is being drawn toward a room.

Belle encounters The Beast. Athough grotesque, she does not find him terrifying. She explains she has come in her fathers place to redeem him. The Beast accepts Belle under one condition. That every night at Seven O’ Clock he may make her a proposal for marriage. She is allowed to reject it indefinitely, but must entertain it.

Seated at the dining room table in an incredible dress with pearls, next to the fireplace with its living statues, she seems to sense his approach with a thrill as he comes up behind her. Once again he makes his proposal and she rejects it, saying she cannot marry as he is too ugly.

Belle has her own room upstairs. It has a magic mirror in which she can see her father. His condition seems to be deteriorating. Belle believes he is dying. She asks The Beast if she may return home to visit him. He says under one condition. That she must return to the castle within a week. The beast gives her his right hand glove revealing his large furry hand with its talons. By magic, when she puts it on, it transports her to her fathers room. In a marvelous optical illusion -like one in Cocteau’s earlier Surrealist masterpiece “The Blood Of a Poet’- her hovering body appears to come out of the wall of his room.

Belle’s father is very grateful to see her, although he is not dying as she supposed and has merely still ill. Her sisters are envious of her spectacular dress and jewelry. Based on Belle and her fathers descriptions of The Beasts castle, her siblings surmise that he must have enormous wealth. Avenant and Ludovic plan to plunder the castle, they get Belle’s sisters involved in the plot too. They distract Belle, pleading for her to stay home longer. They Leave her in her room, taking her golden key to the castle, which they give to Avenant. In the barn the siblings try to work out how they can find the castle, Avenant has managed to get nothing out of Belle. Fortuitously, just at that moment Magnificent appears to collect Belle. In a pouch on the horses back, the sisters find Belle’s magic mirror. They take it, while Avenant and Ludovic jump on the horse which starts them on their journey to the castle. The sisters look into the mirror and are met with ugly phantom reflections of themselves, one a monkey and the other an elderly woman. Disgusted they take the mirror to Belle. They find her in her room dressed up like a princess. Unimpressed they dump the mirror on her bed and stride out of the room.

Belle now has her magic portal to the castle back. She looks into the mirror and sees The Beast. He is suffering and she feels his pain. She must return to the castle. Next to the mirror Belle sees the magic glove. Remembering, she puts it on and is transported back to her room at the castle, although realizes her key is missing. She runs through the rooms of the castle and out into the garden searching for The Beast, whom she finds pathetically lying by the edge of a pond on which swans drift. He seems to be dying. Belle puts his glove back on saying it will revive him.

Meanwhile Avenant and Ludovic are stalking through The Beast’s garden looking for a way into the castle. Instead of using Belle’s key, which they believe could set off a trap, they climb up a vine aiming to get in through a window. On the roof they find a skylight into an incredible treasure room, its heaps of valuables emitting rays of brilliant reflected light.

Belle is still trying to revive The Beast from his morbid state. She says, “Don’t be a coward! Use those powerful claws. Fight! Get up and let out a roar! Scare death away!”

The Beast says, “Belle if I were a man, perhaps I could do as you say… …but because I am a beast I can only grovel on the ground and die.”

Avenant breaks the glass of the skylight and lowers himself into the treasure room. As he is doing so, a statue of a woman with bow and arrow comes to life and shoots an arrow into his back. Magically he transforms into The Beast and drops to the floor of the treasure room and dies. At that same moment the dying Beast beside Belle is transformed into Avenant who has now become a prince. He springs to his feet. After Belle has had a few moments to take in this miraculous transformation, she says, “You look like someone I used to know…”

After some playful conversation, The Prince says he is taking Belle to his faraway kingdom. They ascend into the sky getting smaller and smaller as they disappear into a cloud of smoke.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Zazie Dans Le Metro / Louis Malle / 1962

zazieFrom the few images of Zazie Dans Le Metro that I had seen, I thought here is Louis Malle’s shot at a conventional comedy. Turns out I was in for a real surprise. Knowing this directors other films I should have expected something special.

What I discovered when finally sitting down to watch it, was a labyrinthine multi layered experiment. A frightening yet exhilarating blend of situation comedy, surrealism, horror and social critique. A homage to Nineteen-Twenties silent film situation comedies with it’s jerky sped up frame rates and even the occasional ‘white hand lettered font on black background’ inter-title (just incase you didn’t already get it). This extends to the some of the characters that seem straight out of that era in terms of dress and hairstyles. Unlike those films Zazie Dans Le Metro is bathed in a lurid mustard Technicolor. It has an almost psychedelic spectrum of Pop-art primary colours. These are combined with surreal lighting effects that at times border on the hallucinogenic.

A continuous tracking shot opens Zazie Dans Le Metro. A train racing along the Parisian Metro lines into the city from the fixed P.O.V. of a camera apparently attached to the front of the train. It arrives at the Metro minutes later.  A young girl dismounts the carriage with a beautiful woman who we assume is her mother. From the trailer I saw I’m able to discern this is Zazie. She is a petite brunette who looks to be about nine years old. The woman races off into the arms of a man, while Zazie runs excitedly in the opposite direction towards another man. This man turns out to be her ‘Uncle Gabriel’.

They head back to Uncle Gabriel’s modest flat in amongst a frenetic hive of human activity in central Paris. Zazie meets the woman who lives with her uncle who apparently does the housework, maybe his wife. Uncle Gabriel is a late riser. He doesn’t apparently have much to do. He says he works in ‘Entertainment’. One morning while he is still sound asleep, Zazie decides to go off on her own to try find the Metro she is so obsessed with. To her dismay she finds the Metro is closed, the trains are un-operational due to a strike. She uses this as an excuse to go off on her own exploring Paris.

A friend drops by the flat to alert Uncle Gabriel to the fact that Zazie has run off. Uncle in a panic, gets up reluctantly mid morning. Gets dressed. He has to find her. A strange well dressed man buys something for Zazie in the street. She insinuates that he is a pervert and she scoots off, ducking and diving amongst obstacles in the market place. The pervert continues to pursue her around the city. This endless game of cat and mouse forms Zazie Dans Le Metro’s manic backbone. Around which all the action seems to revolve. This is all impeccably edited together in an almost avant-garde fashion. Uncle eventually catches up with Zazie. But not for long as he is apparently kidnapped by three blonde American cheerleaders on a tour bus heading for the Eiffel Tower.

Zazie Dans Le Metro is comedy tempered by a healthy dose of existentialism. Towards the end of the film an apocalyptic party is escalating out of control, becoming quite surreal. Objects and plates of food fly about the inebriated crowd. Plate glass windows smash. Is this some kind on comment on the debauched nature of the Parisian working class? A man says at random, so sneakily amongst all the chaos you might miss the subtitle, if you weren’t paying attention “God is dead”. People literally start breaking down the walls of what appears to be the interior of a bar revealing yet another facade and another until we are inside the lobby of a large wood paneled house. By this point we the viewer are completely disoriented.

At the Eiffel Tower, where Uncle Gabriel is apparently being pursued by the three blond girls and Zazie, he climbs the framework of the tower in a death defying stunt that is genuinely terrifying to watch. I find myself queasy as he teeters on the edge of a steel ledge with no support structure. He whimsically tiptoes along it, as he engages in a casual monologue about his mortality. He seems on the brink of a rather casual suicide. Minutes later he actually falls of the tower, a pile of sand below on the road absurdly breaks his fall accompanied by cartoon sound effects, he smiles broadly and gets to his feet walking off as if nothing has happened.

Zazie’s uncle drops in at a bizarre theatre full of religious icons and statues amongst turquoise drapes. In the centre is a revolving circular stage with Can-Can dancers kicking out their bare legs. A man in a polar bear suit juggles fire in the background. There is a man at a piano. This is presumably where Uncle Gabriel works. They seem to be rehearsing. It goes haywire as the dancers in stockings fall over each other and the juggler sets fire to the drapes and backdrop.

The cat and mouse game continues amongst marvelously orchestrated scenes of rush hour traffic. A surreal fifteen second cut of  Zazie behind the wheel of a large convertible Citroen like car apparently driving it all by herself as uncle and some others tail her in another vehicle.

Nightfall descends. The frenetic persuit continues in a cinema verite fashion as a hand held camera follows Zazie in amongst the dusky colours of the nighttime crowds as once again she tries to find her uncle. We see her trying to sleep with head nestled in folded arms on a table amongst the mayhem of yet another wild party. Eventually morning comes and Zazie is re-united with her mother at the station. They board the carriage. We see the train disappearing down the tracks as the camera races along behind it, in a reverse shot of the opening.

can-can

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Evil Dead 2 [Sam Raimi / 1987 / 84mins]

bridge

Evil Dead 2 is not so much a sequel as it is a reboot of Raimi’s original Evil Dead film (1981). Although it lacks some of the rawness of the original Evil Dead, in my humble opinion after -after revisiting it recently- I find it superior in it’s craft. Seven years down the line, Raimi seems at the height of his creative powers, with an marginally increased yet meager budget at his disposal and even more imaginative camera tricks up his sleeve. Still, it retains the grainy low budget film stock aesthetic of it’s predecessor.

There is the same cabin in the woods from the first movie although the narrative is slightly different. The route to the cabin is more perilous. They cross a bridge over a dramatic ravine to get there. This time round our hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) is visiting the cabin with his girlfriend for a romantic weekend. After a cheesy melodrama kissing scene, Ash wanders off into a room of the cabin -as in the first film- and discovers a tape recorder and an ancient looking manuscript book (The Book Of the Dead) on a table.

Ash foolishly presses the play button on the tape recorder, listening to the professors recorded voice relating his research and the story of the book. The back-story is that the book was discovered on an expedition to the ruins of a medieval castle. He came to the cabin along with his wife to research the book in peace. Before Ash realizes what is happening the professors voice is reciting some evil incantation from the book, summoning a demon.

The audience looks through the camera’s eye as it races through the woods towards the cabin, knocking over trees and obstacles in its path. This P.O.V. shot idea of the encroaching evil presence is carried over from the first film, although here it is brilliantly expanded. These sequences of the hyper-kinetic camera rushing through the underbrush and the rooms of the cabin, as it pursues Ash and the other victims are arguably the real genius of Evil Dead 2. Raimi employs an eclectic array of camera lenses to create all manner of distortions of the image, enhanced this time round by a talented new cinematographer on board the project (Peter Deming) who would go on to shoot David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ and ‘Mulholland Drive.’

Unlike the first film, Evil Dead 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously. It could be argued the Raimi is taking stabs at nineteen seventies horror cliches and even his own earlier Evil Dead, in the process creating some demented brand of horror-slapstick. Ash’s girlfriend becomes possessed and he has to kill her, beheading her with a spade. He buries her, only to see her rotted corpse rise from the dead a few scenes later, in the throws of a deranged pirouette. A scale model puppet stop motion sequence that even Ray Harryhausen would have been proud of. Ash butcher’s her once again. This time, bisecting her corpse with a chainsaw he finds in the tool shed.

The professors daughter arrives at the cabin with her boyfriend and two rednecks who helped them get around a destroyed bridge, presumably consumed by the demon. Ash fires at them with a shotgun thinking it is the demon outside, shooting the rednecks girlfriend in the shoulder. They break into the house through the boarded up doorway, seeing blood spattered walls and a bloody chainsaw on the floor. Immediately the prof’s daughter jumps to the conclusion that Ash has butchered her parents. They strong arm him and lock him in the cellar. The daughter plays back the tape recorder learning of her fathers real demise. The professor goes on to reveal how he had to kill his wife and bury her in the cellar. You know what happens next..

Dead relatives come back to life. Raimi and his prosthetic make-up team heap latex gore onto the characters as they become possessed by the demon and cartoonishly disfigured. If I could fault the film, it could be that these excessive comic gore effects risk overshadowing the economy of the brilliant kinetic demon camera. An exception though would be the iconic episode where Ash’s hand becomes possessed and he has to cut it off. The hand becomes an entity in it’s own right, scuttling around the cabin like a rat. Ash replaces his missing hand with a modified chainsaw which becomes his trademark weapon along with his sawed off shotgun.

Rapidly everybody in the vicinity is possessed by the evil and Ash kills them off one by one until he is the only one left. Just when he thinks he has defeated it and he can finally rest, he’s sucked into a time warp along with his car and transported back to medieval Europe. Ash with his chainsaw arm and shotgun -followed by his yellow 1970’s Oldsmobile Delta- drops out of a hole in the sky onto a patch of desert sand while an army of knights gather around the strange new objects. Naturally they consider this something of a miracle and a deeply reluctant Ash becomes their new champion, leading into the sequel ‘Army Of Darkness’.

demon

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Giants and Toys [Yasuzo Masumura / 1958 / 95mins]

In Giants and Toys three rival sweet manufacturers Giant, World and Apollo battle for control in the japanese marketplace.

A young marketing executive (Nishi) working for World sweets, discovers an attractive teenage slum girl called Kyoko. He comes up with a brilliant scheme to get his corporate bosses to use her for World’s new Ad campaign. Nishi pays an underground pornographic photographer to shoot a series of raunchy photos of her and has a series of magazines published. In return for her work Kyoko receives an initial Two-Hundred-Thousand Yen check. The magazines start to circulate in the streets and Kyoko becomes something of an icon. On the strength of this, Nishi pitches his ad campaign idea to his older generation conservative bosses. An idea he got from a competing young female executive in a restaurant. ‘Space Suit’. At a company meeting to discuss the campaign we see their huge boardroom table littered with wind-up space toys and various high level execs having fun with them.

Kyoko is a stunning eighteen year old girl with really bad teeth. In a poster campaign for World sweets she is photographed in a bogus space suit with a toy laser gun. The photographer they used earlier cracks a bad joke to get her animated for the shoot. She doubles over laughing, mouth open wide revealing her rotten teeth. A whole campaign forms around her. Posters, magazine ads, radio and TV commercials. Her teeth gleefully on display. The public love her. Kyoko is becoming a superstar and a wealthy one. She receives a steady supply of princely checks from World sweets.

Meanwhile the three rival sweet companies are at war. They each come up with their own absurd ideas to market their sweets. The one companies factory burns down, and so it is just the two companies battling it out for the best publicity and sales. One of World sweets younger execs is fired. He double crosses his old employers by stealing Kyoko, who has no trouble walking away from the sweet company because she now has more money than she knows what to do with.

Kyoko is now pursuing a career as a singer through the new medium of television with her new manager (the fired World sweets exec). She is seen in public in glamourous dresses and has also had her teeth fixed up. Kyoko has her own stage show. It’s a really weird tribal affair with back-up male dancers in loin cloths. A bizarre rumination on death. She turns out to be an extraordinary dancer and singer. A riveting piece of choreography unfolds under murky green and red spotlights. Kyoko moves her half naked body serpentinely under the spots, singing “Traveling from one darkness to another, to a funeral.”

Nishi tries in vain to get Kyoko back for a new World sweets campaign. On the misguided advice of a senior company executive, who has now become somewhat deranged, he tries to use sex to win her back. But with all her new found wealth and power she of course laughs him off.

In the final scene we see Nishi and his senior executive at night, alone in the offices of World sweets. The company executive is coughing up blood. He seems to be drunk. He says to Nishi who has given up hope, “Fool! We must sell candy. We must win!” In an absurd gesture Nishi strips out of his clothes and puts on the space suit with its glass bubble helmet and walks out in to the street amongst the shadows of the night crowds populating the main walkway, clicking his toy lazer gun, shouting some advertising slogan as he walks off into the distance becoming lost in-between the people.

In Giants and Toys we see Masumura’s directorial skills in full bloom. It’s full of wonderful images, clever editing vignettes, double exposures and exceptional compositions. Stunning use of colour. Marvelous lighting. In short, it’s a graphic masterpiece. It also has an excellent script and great actors to boot, perhaps relatively straightforward in counterpoint to the films radical imagery.

Giants and Toys is a hilarious and remarkably contemporary comment on rampant consumerism controlled by the mass media, viewed through the alien lens of a late Nineteen-Fifties Japan trying to emulate and compete with America. As one of the sweet companies marketing exec’s says ‘It’s a dictatorship of publicity’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Legend Of The Surami Fortress / Sergei Paradjanov / 1984

“In the temple of Cinema. There are Images, Light and Reality. Sergei Paradjanov was the master of that temple.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Surami Fortress was Paradjanov’s first film in sixteen years following The Colour Of Pomegranates. During that period he had been in and out of Russian prisons, on charges ranging from homosexuality to trafficking in illegal art objects, political subversion and incitement to suicide.

It’s clear that he spent a great deal of that time thinking about his next film projects, as this singular work of art testifies. Incomparable with anything in the history of filmmaking, except some of the directors earlier films. Based on the Georgian folk tale of the creation, destruction and rebuilding of the Surami Fortress, it is a series of sprawling quasi historical scenes documenting two generations of a monarchy and a young boy who’s fate is inextricably tied up in the future regeneration of the fortress through his being imprisoned within its walls.

Beyond the scant narrative -which is really nothing more than a point of departure for Paradjanov’s vision- and enigmatic inter-titles, the film is a fragmented series of masterful set pieces playing out like a schizophrenic time lapse ballet. These are further enhanced by the radical  juxtapositions created through Paradjanov’s abrupt ‘jump-cut’ editing style. They appear to be working on the level of massive and mysterious symbols, spanning a period of what seems to be a hundred years. Bizarre wars, ceremonies and rituals shrouded in mystery, ranging from simple still life tableaux involving single characters and objects to complex landscape scenarios involving myriads of animals and people. None of their behaviors resembling anything naturalistic, stylized to the point of abstraction.

Paradjanov’s real genius is the pungent atmosphere he manages to cook up within the confines of the fixed camera frame. In and out of such frames with carefully placed objects, furniture and temple architecture details in the background, wander lavishly costumed Georgian people with mysterious instruments, some of them galloping through on horses. Herds of domestic animals flood scenes. Unfathomable performance pieces unfold amidst clouds of smoke. At first it all seems highly improvised. But then it dawns on you that it is all meticulously choreographed -even camels and horses perform bizarre rehearsed actions- within impeccably composed shots, often starting with a simple symmetry and evolving into increasingly complex geometries.

Its sound design is as strange and wonderful as its images. Sound effects, animal sounds and exotic percussive folk music and singing are sprinkled into this exotic stew apparently at random, often at weird tangents to the action. Sounds are juxtaposed with other sounds. The overall effect of the rhythm of the sound and images, is to put the viewer into a trance like state. Indeed I was spellbound the entire journey. Surami Fortress is like the filmic equivalent of a highly intoxicating drug trip or some kind of feverish lucid dream. It seems to last much longer than its eighty minute running time.

I reckon the mark of any significant film experience, is that after leaving the screen, you find your perception of reality ever so slightly skewed. As I looked out through the glass sliding door into the night, at the housing complex lights and pine trees across the field, they seemed familiar yet alien.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Night Of The Hunter / Charles Laughton / 1955

 

The Night of The Hunter is extraordinary. Its hard to believe that it was the first and last film actor Charles Laughton would ever make. Baffled, audiences and critics at the time had no idea what they were seeing. It follows that it was a financial and critical disaster, that led to this one time director being blacklisted from making another movie for the remainder of his career.

The film seamlessly blends film noir, silent film german expressionism and fairy tale into a graphic masterpiece, realized by the mesmerizing black and white photography of Stanley Cortez. The effectiveness of the film is in no small part due to the considerable directing skill of Laughton, who apparently had a gift for coaxing very fine performances from his actors.

At the heart of The Night of The Hunter is preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a truly loathsome character. In an early scene we see him in a burlesque hall, in trademark black preachers suit and hat, together with other men watching a dancer on a stage. He looks angry. The camera zooms into his left clenched fist, tattooed across his fingers just below his knuckles are the letters ‘H-A-T-E’. Anything but a preacher, we learn he is in fact a thief and serial murderer of widows. He is imprisoned for a petty car theft and shares his cell with a man Ben Harper. Unknown to the police leaving a murdered woman behind. One night he overhears Harper talking about hidden money in his sleep. Harper is on death row for a robbery in which he shot two men. He probes him about the money with no success. Just before Ben Harper was arrested he left the money hey stole with his two children, who have hidden it somewhere no one would think to look. Harry Powell is released a few weeks later. He has not learned anything from Ben Harper about the money as only the children know where it is, but he has learned where Ben’s soon to be widow and children live.

The preacher finds his way to the town where the Harpers live. We see him at the local Ice Cream parlor run by Mr and Mrs. Spoon, somehow he has learnt Wilma Harper (Shelley Winters) is working there. Harry Powell is handsome and incredibly charming. Both ladies are laughing at his wry humour. They call him affectionately Mr. Powell, the name which he will now be known by in the town. Wilma’s three year old daughter Pearl is on the preachers lap, while Pearls brother John stares at them unimpressed. Mrs. Spoon asks Harry Powell about the tatoo’s on his knuckles. Across his right is the word ‘LOVE’ and the left ‘HATE’. He explains them to John and the others using one of his biblical riffs:

Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E!…

Mr. Powell continues to elaborate as the amused woman stare on transfixed by his diabolic magnetism. These satirical biblical references appear throughout Night Of The Hunter. In no subtle way Laughton is examining the hypocrisy of religion. Something that terrified him as an English gay man.

In what seems than less than three days after Harry Powell has met Wilma Harper and Ben Harper has been hanged, he has already made a marriage proposal to her. Wilma has naively accepted, believing Harry to be nothing short of a saint. That evening after their wedding, Wilma is in the bathroom preparing herself for her first night in the marital bed with her newly wed. She discovers a flick knife in Harry’s suit pocket. She smiles and says to herself, “Men.” She walks into the bedroom to receive a sermon from Harry regarding their need for celibacy. It is clear that he has no physical interest in her and has only one thing on his mind. The hidden money.

John and Pearl Harper are remarkably brave in the face of current events. They stoically accept the death of their father, even indifferent to the mean children teasing them about Ben’s hanging in the playground. But John, who appears to be about eight years old, does not trust Harry Powell at all. Pearl is too young to understand. John spends his days at Uncle Bertie’s boat landing by the lake, where Bertie is helping him mend his dad’s old skiff. The preacher is asking them with increasing frequency about where the money is hid. Unknown to preacher Powell, it is actually hidden in Pearls rag doll. One afternoon he loses control and threatens Pearl, “Tell me where the money is or i’ll tear your arm off you little wench!” Wilma just happens to enter the house at that moment. Harry now is certain that she knows what he is up to.

The preacher doesn’t waste any time. That evening in their attic bedroom he gives Wilma another of his mortifying sermons, dramatic light pouring onto him from a window above, as he raises his arm to the light  and makes his hand into a claw. With his other hand he pulls out his flick knife and walks over to Wilma, prostrate on the bed in a position of prayer. He leans over her slowly, his shadow blocking out her face.

Moments later the children are awoken by the car starting up below.

The next day Mr. Powell is at the Spoon’s Ice-Cream parlor and explaining in put on exasperation to Mrs. Spoon how Wilma has left him and the children. She just drove off in the middle of the night. Mr. Powell says in between faux sobbing, “Can’t nobody say I did’nt do my best to save her!”

As he says these words the scene fades into a fantastical set piece, revealing the truth about Wilma’s disappearance.

John and Pearl don’t know what has become of their mother, but they suspect that she is probably dead and Harry Powell had something to do with it. That day they plan to escape down the river in Ben Harpers old skiff. Mr. Powell confronts them in the basement, asking them one more time about the money. Pearl frightened, reveals that it is in her doll. Mr. Powell lunges for her as John knocks a shelf of bottles on top of him. He is momentarily stunned, the children make a run for it and head to the willows by the river bank where they have hidden the skiff. The preacher lunges after them through the undergrowth by the river bank. They make a narrow escape, pushing off in the skiff down the river. Behind them a small aggravated figure wading through the water with arms raised to the dusk sky wielding a knife, making an ungodly howling noise.

So begins a strange and beautiful fairy tale like chapter in the film, as the children meander down the river and Pearl sings. Their little boat drifting beneath the stars. Destination unknown. They dock the skiff at a bank upon discovering a barn and decide to spend the night there. The preacher meanwhile has been following them down the river bank on a stolen horse. John awakes in the barn to the distant sound of Harry Powell singing his signature hymn, “Leaning. Leaning. Safe and secure from all Alarms…”. In the distance we see a tiny silhouette of Mr. Powell on his horse through the window of the barn. The children take this as a cue to keep on moving down river.

They have now been drifting down the river for what seems like days.

Eventually they drift onto a bank. They are awoken by a friendly mother goose like character surrounded by children. Mrs. Cooper invites them inside her house where she learns from John that they have no mother and father. It turns out that the other children in Mrs. Coopers care are also orphans. John and Pearl have become part of the family.

One evening while the oldest orphan Ruby is in the village, illicitly hanging out with local boys, who should she run into but preacher Powell. After charming Ruby, he learns that John and Pearl are in Mrs. Coopers care.

Soon Harry Powell arrives at Mrs. Coopers house on his white horse. He greets Mr. Cooper at the veranda and says he believes his children are with her. She notices the word across his knuckles as his hand rests on the wooden banister. She calls John and Pearl to the front entrance. John says, “He ain’t my dad Mrs. Cooper and he ain’t no preacher neither!” Mr. Powell pulls out his flick knife and runs after John who is trying to hide under the house. Mrs. Cooper comes back with a shotgun and steers the preacher away. He leaves saying he will be back in the night.

That evening as Mrs. Cooper sits in her rocking chair by the porch screen with her shotgun, she hears the preachers song, “Leaning on Jesus. Leaning on Jesus. Safe and secure from all alarms…” His small silhouette is perched on the picket fence, the house in the background.

He has snuck inside the house. Mrs. Cooper fires at him with the shotgun. He howls and prances comically like an animal, as he runs outside to hide in the barn. Mrs. Cooper calls the police, who find him there and arrest him with the charge of the murder of Wilma Harper.

Amidst mobs of torch wielding local people shouting “Burn Blubeard!” Harry Powell is sent back to prison.

Later at Mrs. Coopers house we see it is snowing. Its Christmas. They all share presents. Mrs. Cooper smiles at the camera and says,

“Lord save the little children. You would think the world would be ashamed to name Christmas for one of them and go on in the same old way. My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot. Lord save little children. They abide and they endure.”

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment