Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - March 2004
Kagemusha
Gertrud
Under Capricorn
Love Me Tonight
Come and See

The End of the Line
Crimson Gold
Power Trip
Japanese Story

Flicks - February 2004
If...
Henry IV (1984)
The Son of the Sheik
The Good Earth (1937)
Regret to Inform

 

 

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 here.

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 that.

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 of Hitchcock.

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
CineScene