Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - December 2004
Traffic in Souls (1913)
Brute Force (1947)
I Married a Dead Man
Fires on the Plain
The Gunfighter (1950)

Identity Theft
Infernal Affairs
Being Julia
Sideways

Flicks - November 2004
Quilombo
Wild Boys of the Road
A Woman Under
the Influence
Close Up (1990)
I Know Where I'm Going!
(1945)

 

 

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 thinking.

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 it does.

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
CineScene