ORIANA (Fina Torres, 1985).
Upon the death of her aunt Oriana (Doris Wells), a young woman named
Maria (Daniela Silverio), travels to the hacienda in Venezuela that
she has now inherited, where she is flooded with memories of her stay
there as a precocious adolescent, and her fascination with the mystery
of her aunt's reclusive life.
As the film proceeds, two strands of memory flow through the narrative
with increasing strength: the time of the younger Maria's visit, where
her insatiable curiosity about Oriana's secret past was met with angry
resistance from the family's Indian maid (Mirta Borges), and Oriana's
own fleeting memories of her childhood and youth, where her love for
her adopted brother Sergio led to an unknown calamity that for some
reason made her decide to become a recluse.
Torres' allows the time periods to shift gently from one to the next,
like a dream, and the whole picture has a subtle Gothic flavor, with
a sensitive performance from Maya Oloe, as the teenage Maria, that pulls
the viewer into the mystery. The film's soft visual texture (photography
by Jean-Claude Larrieu) adds to the picture's restrained, elusive style.
Ultimately, the discovery that Maria makes about her aunt is not much
of a surprise. Underneath the moodiness, the story itself is rather
thin, but Torres brings style, and an admirable restraint, to the material,
so the film manages to hold one's interest throughout. Oriana is best
in its silent moments, and the ending, which is about the desire to
retain a sense of mystery in life, is quietly satisfying.
MACK SENNETT COMEDIES VOL. 2
A collection of Keystone shorts starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and
Mabel Normand. Although I had read about these two for many years, and
had seen various clips and excerpts, I'd never watched any of the shorts
in their entirety. Indeed, they're difficult to find, outside of ordering
videos through a catalog. This compilation was put together by Blackhawk
Video, which I'm not sure is even in business any more.
The best of the bunch is Fatty's Tintype Tangle (1915), which
was directed by Arbuckle, and displays the speed and inventiveness for
which Keystone was famous. A photographer takes a picture of Fatty on
a park bench, when he happens to be sitting next to a woman he doesn't
know. The woman's husband (Edgar Kennedy) gets the wrong idea and comes
after him. Fatty tells his wife he has business out of town, and flees
in a panic. Fatty's wife then unknowingly rents Fatty's room to Kennedy
and his wife. Fatty returns home unexpectedly....and so on. This is
all an excuse for escalating slapstick, with Kennedy shooting at Fatty,
everyone running around and into one another, and the Keystone Kops
racing in at the last minute. It's crude, fast, and funny. Arbuckle
is extraordinarily agile -- at one point he gets trapped on some telephone
wires and bounces up and down on them with alarming skill. Mack Sennett
had come up with the idea of cranking the camera a little slower so
that the action was slightly speeded up, and I think Arbuckle does that
Mabel, Fatty and the Law (Arbuckle, 1915) features Arbuckle
and Normand as a married couple who go to a park where "No Spooning"
signs are displayed everywhere. Another couple shows up, and through
a series of mistakes, each is arrested for spooning with the other's
spouse. Then they go to the police station, where the usual chaos involving
the Keystone Kops ensues. Other than inspiring some amused curiosity
about national mores in 1915 (were there really "No Spooning" signs
in parks?) this movie wasn't very funny or interesting. Much of it seems
half-hearted and off the cuff. One needs to remember that the studio
(which was part of Triangle by this time) was churning these shorts
out by the dozens, shooting quickly and cheaply.
Fatty and Mabel Adrift (Arbuckle, 1916) has a more promising
story, with the two playing country bumpkins who get married, making
an enemy of Mabel's doltish former suitor (Al St. John). When the newlyweds
move to a seaside cottage, St. John falls in with some criminals to
get revenge, and they end up pushing the cottage out to sea while the
couple is asleep. All this is a set-up for having Mabel and Fatty wake
up to find their house floating in the ocean and quickly filling up
with water. Teddy, the Keystone dog, swims for help and steals the picture.
I imagine this must have seemed hilarious at the time, since the ridiculous
situations were completely new. The picture is at a disadvantage now,
close to ninety years later, because a host of similar gags have been
done in countless comedies and cartoons since then, most of them more
skilfully. I barely cracked a smile watching this, and neither of the
two films featuring Normand in this collection explains her enormous
popularity. She just seems mildly charming and befuddled. I will have
to try to see more.
For some unknown reason, Blackhawk stuck a 1924 Will Rogers short called
Our Congressman (directed by Rob Wagner) on this tape, even though
it wasn't produced by Sennett, but by his rival Hal Roach. It's a meandering
little satire, with Rogers playing a congressman from the sticks who
tries, and fails, to act sophisticated in the company of Washington
snobs. Rogers' humor was primarily verbal, so most of the few laughs
here come from the intertitles (example: after Rogers is berated by
his home town friends for forgetting an appointment, a politician says
"Pay no attention to them. They're only voters.") When sound came in,
Rogers came off better than he does in this forgettable little movie.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
(William Dieterle, 1939).
Charles Laughton made a triumphant return to Hollywood playing Quasmido
in this lavish RKO version of the Victor Hugo classic. Undergoing an
impressively grotesque makeup job, he brings out the pathos of the hunchback
character in convincing fashion. Once having seen this performance,
you won't likely forget it. Laughton was smart enough to know that he
could emphasize the character's idiotic side, and his potential for
menace, without diminishing our sympathy. The picture is a glorious,
old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle, but he makes it seem like more than
Maureen O'Hara, in her American debut, plays the gypsy Esmerelda. She's
stunningly beautiful, if not exactly gypsy-like. Thomas Mitchell is
on hand as the beggar king, and an impossibly young Edmond O'Brien is
quite entertaining in one of his rare chances at a romantic lead --
the poet Gringoire. Rounding out the excellent cast is Sir Cedric Hardwicke
as the villain Rollo, who plays his part with a gloomy implacability
that attains just the right tone of self-righteous malevolence, in contrast
to the usual antics of Hollywood "heavies."
The talented Dieterle lets his impressionistic tendencies run free,
with wonderfully choreographed crowd scenes, dynamic moving camera (the
picture almost never feels static), and a talent for bringing night
scenes to brilliant life (with help from his great cameraman, Joseph
H. August). The scenery, costumes, and overall production design represents
the studio system at its finest. The screenplay even achieves a certain
poetry at times, although there are clumsy elements that break the spell,
notably the portrayal of the king (Harry Davenport) as a sort of kindly
old liberal grandpa. The script also reverses Hugo's anticlerical message
(attacking religion was a no-no in Hollywood), and changes the ending,
but this is widely regarded as the best film version of the book, and
I would have to agree. The final shot, with Laughton talking mournfully
to a gargoyle, is among the most moving cinematic images of all time.
GASLIGHT (Thorold Dickinson, 1940).
A married couple (Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard) moves into a house
that had been the scene of a murder twenty years before. The wife starts
to have a mental breakdown, or at least that's what the husband seems
to want her to believe.
Although the film is adapted from a stage thriller by Patrick Hamilton,
its method is completely cinematic, with a deft use of silence, graceful
camera movement, and evocation of off-screen space to create dramatic
tension. The mid-Victorian period is recreated in a style both subtle
and convincing. One splendid sequence has Walbrook attending a low-class
show in Picadilly with his coarse young maid (Cathleen Cordell), intercut
with the efforts of the kindly former policeman (Frank Pettingell) to
solve the mystery in his absence. Close-ups of the singers and performers
on the stage accentuate the viewer's preoccupation with events going
on elsewhere, in a heightening of nervous anticipation that is reminiscent
Dickinson focuses on the bewildered inner struggle of the wife (a fine
performance by Wynyard) to reconcile her love for her husband with an
instinctive belief in her own sanity. This is the sensible approach,
since the plot itself is rather implausible, although much less so than
in the 1944 George Cukor remake. Any discussion of this film will inevitably
involve the remake,
which starred Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, not only because the
Cukor film was more widely seen (and won Bergman her first Oscar) but
because MGM had infamously sought to destroy the negative and all prints
of Dickinson's film as part of its deal with British National (luckily
another negative survived). Cukor's film is certainly not bad, but it's
not nearly as good as the original, which doesn't try to be something
more than it is -- a modest little psychological thriller. As is often
the case in the art of movies, less is more.
TEOREMA (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968).
A young man (Terence Stamp) stays as a guest at the mansion of an upper
class family. Each person in the household (the maid, the son, the daughter,
the mother, and finally the father) is irresistibly drawn to the visitor,
in a way that seems both spiritual and sexual. Then, as abruptly as
he arrived, the young guest leaves, and they all experience a catastrophic
loss of meaning, a crisis with which each deals in a different way.
In direct opposition to the realism which dominates Italian film, and
indeed most narrative film, Pasolini sought here to dramatize abstract
concepts, so that the situations and characters in his film are allegorical
in the strictest sense. It is all fine and good to say that human beings
seek to find meaning in life, that religion and sexuality are both expressions
of that search, and that the absence of this spiritual dimensions leads
to a despair that produces a variety of responses, for good or ill.
But to replace these abstract ideas with people, and then perform this
theorem as if it were some sort of passion play, produces a a much different
result in the mind. If successful, the experiment will create an effect
of numinous significance and contradiction. But Pasolini is only partially
successful in Teorema. His grasp of cinematic language is not
fluid enough to prevent the film from becoming, at times, maddeningly
opaque. But the effort is sometimes a fascinating one.
The picture was something of a scandal on its first release. It was
first given an award by the Catholic Film Office; then the award was
withdrawn and the film was banned as obscene; finally the ban was lifted.
Critics were also baffled. The young guest was almost universally described
as having seduced every member of the family. But this is clearly false.
The sexual acts are initiated by the family members -- they clearly
long for a connection with the young guest. He obliges them with an
air of benign acceptance and love, not with seductiveness. But the very
idea of an essential unity between spirituality and sexuality was foreign
to people's thinking, and to a large degree still is.
There is so little dialogue in Teorema that you could practically
call it a silent film. Pasolini places a great deal of significance
in glances, movements, and gestures. The performers (besides Stamp,
the film features Silvano Mangano and Massimo Girotti as the parents)
don't act so much as stay still for the camera so that it can explore
their vulnerabilities. Only after they have had their contact with the
guest do they try to explain their feelings in words. Since the father
is an industrialist, and the film opens with the story of his giving
his factor away to the workers, a political meaning is added to the
mysterious force that is the guest. Is he God? Some supernatural being?
Everything is hinted rather than stated.
If Pasolini had been able to attain a cinematic rhythm, the film would
be far more powerful than it is. Unfortunately, the pacing is frequently
sluggish, producing an unpleasant, ponderous effect. His habit of showing
silent actions accompanied by radically different kinds of music, is
only intermittently effective. The eerie, modernist music by Ennio Morricone
has an intensely alienating effect that is perfect for this film. But
at other times he uses Mozart's Requiem, which seems like overkill,
or a banal jazz theme that doesn't work at all. (If nothing else, the
movie is a textbook illustration of how different musical scores can
produce different experiences in the viewer.)
Teorema tends to excite either admiration or total rejection.
I lean towards the former, making allowances for the director's low-budget
methods and conceptual limitations. Few film artists have even dreamed
of Pasolini's tragic sense of the eternal co-existing with the everyday,
his feeling for the suffering and despair inherent in the human condition.
Throughout the picture, we are shown glimpses of the wind blowing across
an utterly desolate landscape, a haunting image that becomes more specific
in the final sequence. There are many such images in the film, which
act as doorways to difficult and potent reflections. Teorema
inspires thought. It's one of those films that you may never want to
see again, but you should see at least once.
©2004 Chris Dashiell