THE TRIAL (Orson Welles, 1962).
Orson Welles' decision to attempt a film version of Franz Kafka's The
Trial is understandable -- Kafka's fiercely modernist parables have
always appealed to critics of received opinion, and to iconoclastic
artists in general. On the face of it, the American director -- fond
of ornate rhetoric and the drama of emotional upheaval -- was the temperamental
opposite of the Czech-German writer, with his dry analytical style and
understated gallows humor. But that didn't preclude a successful adaptation,
if the director could find the right way to express the writer's peculiar
tone, or else discover a personal interpretation that was compelling
on its own terms. Sadly, he failed to do either, and The Trial
must be counted among Welles' far too numerous misfires.
Anthony Perkins plays Josef K., a middle class office worker, who
is arrested for an unspecified crime, and spends the rest of the film
trying to navigate a bizarre, incomprehensible legal system in order
to mount a defense. I would speculate that Perkins was selected because
he somewhat resembles Kafka. But the performance is all wrong -- full
of impulsive energy and indignation rather than the delicate introversion
and determined belief in the system (or at least the desire to have
such belief) of the character in the novel. It's hard to know whether
to fault Perkins for this, or Welles' direction (I would tend toward
the latter), but it betrays a basic misunderstanding of the source,
and is symptomatic of the entire film's approach: what should be subtle
and enigmatic, with implications both metaphysical and social, becomes
instead a muddled political critique, Welles' attack on totalitarian
Kafka is notoriously difficult to understand. His works are deliberately
opaque, and adapting his work to film would be a tall order for anyone.
But I think it is essential, before anything else, to acknowledge this
difficulty and ambiguity from the outset, and then seek to develop a
style that would successfully convey these qualities. Many bewildering
incidents occur in the film, and we meet a lot of strange people saying
preposterous things, but it mostly comes off as mere confusion, lacking
Kafka's rigorous sense of structure, which evokes an odd combination
of humor and dread.
The picture was shot in Zagreb, Rome, and Paris. Plagued, as always,
with time constraints and lack of funds, Welles resorted to the brilliant
idea of using the Gare d'Orsay, a huge, deserted railroad station in
Paris, as an all-purpose set. These sequences, which constitute the
bulk of the film, are often visually stunning. The stadium-sized room
filled with rows upon rows of civil servants working at their desks,
for instance, is a marvelous way to depict K's office. The maze of corridors,
the forbidding-looking iron stairways, the complete exclusion of the
natural world, and Welles' expressionistic visual style (Edmond Richard,
who would later hook up with Luis Buñuel, was responsible for
the great black-and- white photography) combine to create an eye-popping
spectacle. If only the film had a competent (not even great, just competent)
dramatic sense, it could have worked, but rarely has a film so visually
striking been so dull.
Jeanne Moreau is on hand, and Akim Tamiroff, but to no avail. Welles
himself plays the lawyer, and his preening self-regard is quite annoying.
All the dialogue is spoken too quickly -- it's tempting to ascribe this
to time pressure (no leisure to get the multiple takes that were needed?)
but the fact is, the entire thing needs a slower pace, so that the curious
power of the words can take effect. Here, for instance, the character
of Leni (Romy Schneider) makes no sense whatsoever -- her words and
actions tumble out at a pace that precludes even wonder. And then Welles
changes the ending, offering his own gimcrack conclusions about freedom
and slavery that belie the unplumbed depths of the material.
It may seem that I'm being too severe. The Trial is not a bad
film in the way a movie by some untalented hack would be considered
bad and dismissed in a few sentences. It's just that with an artist
of genius, such as Orson Welles, one can't help but regret the failure
to attain what might have been.
SEVEN UP! (Paul Almond, 1964).
The first in what was destined to become a highly influential series
of documentaries was a forty-minute episode of a British TV program
called World In Action. The idea was to interview a number of
seven-year-olds from widely varying backgrounds, asking them their views
on friends, work, money, the opposite sex, adults, their plans for the
future, and a host of other subjects.
The approach was rather different than usual, because children are
commonly looked down upon and treated with condescension in the media,
or as sources of amusement and "cute" moments. But here, the interviewers
solicit the children's opinions in the same spirit of seriousness with
which one would normally approach adults, and the production as a whole
exhibits a careful sense of proportion and respect. This produces a
slight, yet agreeable, comic effect at times: the dignified narrator's
descriptions of the activities and environments of the kids, and the
film's persistent refusal to marginalize or make light their opinions,
is in itself funny, only because it contradicts our expectations so
completely. But it becomes evident very soon that the filmmakers are
sincerely interested in what these kids have to say -- and since the
overriding tendency in adult life is not to listen, this comes off as
something like a revelation.
There is much to be inferred here about the effects of the class system
on growing up. Three of the boys are well-off and attend a boarding
school -- their talk parrots the establishment prejudices of their parents.
The working class girls are frank and engaging, while the rich girl
Suzy attempts to appear stuffy and dignified (one painful moment features
her saying that she doesn't know any colored people, "and I don't want
to know any colored people, thank you very much.") The son of a missionary
says that his plans involve ''going to Africa and trying to teach people
who are not civilized to be more or less good." Paul, one of two boys
living in a boy's home for the indigent, is touchingly shy and yet very
honest and eloquent about his fears and wishes. It's a remarkable look
at children, taken on their own terms instead of through the filter
of adult expectations. It's no wonder that the show caused a stir.
Michael Apted was the man who came up with the idea for the program,
and he was the assistant director on Seven Up. Every seven years,
he has returned to the subject, directing five more features following
the lives of the kids as they grew into adolescents and adults. First
Run Features has recently put out a DVD set of all six films, called
The Up Series. I look forward to seeing the rest of them.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES
(Terence Davies, 1992).
Popular songs are often used in films as mood- establishing interludes.
The main action of the film, with characters and plot and dialogue,
is punctuated by wordless sequences in which a song highlights the events
or feelings occurring in the story. In Terence Davies' elegiac tone
poem about a lonely 11-year-old boy in 1950s London, this technique
is reversed. The song sequences take center stage, while the story,
such as it is, appears only in hints and glimpses on the edge of the
canvas. The result is one of the most beautiful, and eccentric, portraits
of childhood on film.
Gradually, without being told, we discern that the boy, Bud (Leigh
McCormack), lives with his mother and older siblings in one of the city's
poorer neighborhoods. He attends Catholic church, is bullied by both
teachers and peers at school, and takes refuge in the sounds and images
he absorbs at the cinema. As the youngest in the family, he looks on
-- much of the time in silence -- as his family socializes with friends
and relatives, his brothers go on dates with girls, his sisters put
on makeup and talk about boys, and his mother sings to herself while
doing chores. He looks out of windows -- the outside world both threatening
and beckoning -- as he sits in the comforting safety of home.
This is all conveyed, not by a linear narrative, but by discrete scenes
done in long, often static takes, like snapshots or lightning flashes
that briefly illuminate Bud's life. Ordinary aspects of his existence
-- the rain pouring down in buckets, the shifting patterns of sunlight
on a bedroom rug, or Bud swinging on a makeshift metal bar in front
of the apartment building where he lives -- are set to the recordings
of 1950s film songs by the likes of Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and
Doris Day. In the most impressive use of this device, an overhead panorama
of daily life is accompanied by (of all things) Debbie Reynolds singing
"Tammy." The effect is both moving and disquieting -- lush American
ballads suffusing the drab working class environment with the golden
light of memory. For this is a memory piece -- not related as if the
events were happening now, but shown as filtered through a later awareness,
fragmentary, with coherence supplied only by the aid of song.
The characters sing as well: old folk songs and show tunes sung at
get-togethers, "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve, a performance of
Berlin's "A Couple of Swells" by Bud and his sister at a party. That
most of the film's songs are from romantic movies (what are often called
"women's pictures") seems significant in the light of Bud's attachment
to his mother, his shy, gentle nature, and (one suspects, knowing something
of Davies' biography) his later sexual identity.
It is in the nature of autobiographical films to risk self- indulgence.
Davies avoids the trap by eschewing the conventions of drama altogether.
Taking this radically non-narrative approach, The Long Day Closes
vividly portrays the inner life of memory and desire, while at the same
time allowing us to glimpse a particular place and period reflected
in the mind of a boy. There is no rapid cutting -- the film moves slowly,
like a gentle stream, with the graceful quality of time recaptured.
The photography and muted color schemes are impeccable. This is a one-of-a-kind
movie -- both formal experiment and nostalgic tribute. The ending, with
the title song playing as Bud looks out at a sunset, sums up his passage
from the reclusiveness of his childhood into a wider life in the world.
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE
(Ingmar Bergman, 1973).
It has become an article of faith in film criticism that a movie can
only succeed on different terms than the theater -- that filmed drama
without "cinematic" qualities does not work. But Bergman has always
proved the exception to the rule. Even when he relied extensively on
dreams, distortion, and visual symbolism to enrich his films, there
was always an intense theatrical sensibility at work, a focus on character,
complex dialogue, and the psychology of relationships that placed his
work squarely in the tradition of modern drama. At their best, his films
succeed in both realms. In Scenes From a Marriage, originally
shot for television and later edited down to two and a half hours for
theaters, he showed how to create gripping cinema through the purity
and simplicity of dramatic structure, and his ability to bring out the
very best in his performers.
The picture takes us through a succession of stages in the relationship
of a well-off married couple, Johan and Marianne, played by Erland Josephson
and Liv Ullmann. We first see them being interviewed for a magazine
article about the "perfect couple." The superficiality of this interview
is an ironic prelude to the depths we will watch them experience later.
In the next scene, we see them having dinner with a couple (Bibi Andersson
and Jan Malmsjö) in the final stages of dissolution. Each succeeding
section takes place at a certain length of time later, sometimes months,
or even years. First there are minor signs of dissatisfaction. Then,
suddenly, Johan announces that he is in love with someone else and is
leaving Marianne. They separate, but in later scenes we witness how
a deep emotional bond keeps bringing them back together, despite their
tendency to fight. Eventually they divorce, but the bond remains, and
this strange, painful paradox forces them to learn a lot about themselves.
The majority of the film's running time consists of these two characters
interacting at different stages of their relationship (although they
have two children, we only see them in the first scene, at least in
the theatrical version). Josephson and Ullmann are magnificent -- sharply
intelligent, vulnerable, many-sided and rich with feeling. It's doubtful
whether such performances could be achieved without the extraordinary
level of trust and intimacy that was established with the director over
the years. Both characters can be very difficult, although Johan seems
to come off worse in some ways -- more self-centered and self-righteous.
But the film doesn't judge them: Bergman shows us the full range of
their humanity, and so the viewer tends not to judge them either. The
wonder of the film is how individual, how unique each of these two characters
are, and yet at the same time how Bergman can make their story resonate
so strongly that we identify with these people and recognize their struggles
as our own.
The film could very well be called, "Scenes From a Divorce," because
the story is really about how the marriage falls apart, and what happens
afterwards. A lot of the fighting between couples we see in films and
on TV seems unconvincing and shallow. Bergman, on the other hand, knows
how couples fight. I found the scenes of conflict in this film intensely
moving and even painful. One long scene -- arguably the film's centerpiece
-- has the couple meeting at Johan's office after hours to sign the
divorce papers, and in the course of this one scene they are compassionate,
romantic, seductive, insensitive, bitter, and finally, hateful and violent.
It's a masterpiece, and I don't think anyone who's ever had heavy conflicts
with a spouse can watch it without strong emotion.
As the years go by, the story takes us to unexpected realms. One of
the film's major themes is the search for an authentic self, and how
separating from a loved one can be a part of that search. But it also
powerfully dramatizes how love runs deeper than we know, and how our
love for one another can be redemptive, even despite ourselves. The
recent Criterion DVD contains both the theatrical version and the five-hour
television series. I watched the movie version -- I am told that the
TV version is even better. In any case, this is essential viewing.
THE SQUAW MAN
(Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel, 1914).
This is only for those interested in history -- no, not American history,
Hollywood history. It was the first feature-length (six-reel) film shot
in Hollywood. Designed to jump-start Jesse Lasky's fledgling studio,
it utilized the stage experience of DeMille (who had partnered with
Lasky on three Broadway musicals) and the film experience of Apfel,
formerly of the Edison company. Shooting was dogged by violent interference
from the Motion Picture Patents monopoly, and later the whole project
was threatened by an error in the film's sprocket perforation that prevented
it from being projected properly. That problem was fixed, and the film
went on to make a quarter of a million dollars at the box office, an
unbelievable sum at the time, enough to establish Lasky's studio as
a force for years to come.
The plot seems fairly plausible at first, at least in terms of the
popular melodrama at that time. James Wynnegate, an English aristocrat,
takes the fall for an embezzlement of regiment funds by his cousin,
an earl. Then things get weird. He boards a ship for America, survives
a shipboard fire, and meets a garrulous cowboy in New York who brings
him West to help him run his ranch. Going snowblind while searching
for stray horses, his life is saved by an Indian woman, and eventually
they get married. But she is suspected of shooting one of the local
bad guys, and meanwhile James' old sweetheart from England (by a thoroughly
implausible coincidence) shows up in the same town.
The sets, and especially the costumes, are laughable by today's standards.
The silly hats, the decrepit excuse for an Indian tribe, and the wildly
gesticulating performances (by no means atypical in those days) are
impossible to take seriously. The film stars -- well, probably no one
you've ever heard of. The lead role is played by a lump of dough named
Dustin Farnum. In fact, it's interesting to see how different, or perhaps
just less discriminating, the idea of attractiveness was in these early
dramas. In a way, it's refreshing, because there wasn't yet an emphasis
on glamour -- audiences could be captured by the semblance of a coherent
yarn, and lots of happenings. But nobody in the picture can act worth
a damn, and you start wishing the film would end a couple of reels before
Whatever else you might say about it, the picture moves. Sometimes
it moves too fast -- long gaps in space and time traversed in a quick,
jarring cut. The most interesting aspect of the story is the character
of the "squaw," played by an actual Winnebago Indian named Red Wing
(the only Native American in the cast, as far as I can tell). This woman
saves her man's life twice, bears his child, and is generally strong,
heroic, and noble. But she still ends up at the losing end of the plot.
Another interesting sidelight is that she gets pregnant first, and then
the white man rushes off to find a preacher so they can be legal, no
bones about it. (Of course, there was no Hays Office yet.)
Movie audiences were still the unlettered masses back then. At least,
the majority of paying customers were poor and working class. So it's
a bit ungenerous to deride the ridiculous plots and low-quality production
values of The Squaw Man or other popular features in the early
days. As entertainment, this was actually something of an advance --
with a lot of different situations and sets, and according to some sources,
the first use of indoor lighting in Hollywood. DeMille's movies became
the force behind Lasky's success, and later they helped Famous Players
and Paramount, the studio's later incarnations, rise to the top in the
1920s. He even filmed a remake of The Squaw Man. Twice.
©2005 Chris Dashiell