AU HASARD, BALTHAZAR
(Robert Bresson, 1966).
A film's effect is usually felt in the time we watch it, and its power
often seems to lie in its immediacy. One of Bresson's rare gifts was
to create moments on film which have all the tentative and incomplete
quality of actual experience, only to burn in the heart later with a
mysterious sense of restored memory. This film is perhaps the foremost
example of a work that stirs fully to life only after one has seen it.
The title role, the film's main character, is a donkey. Balthazar is
adopted by a group of young children. The early scenes are like paradise
before the fall, a time of play, of immersion in the joy of the moment.
One of the children, Marie, is especially drawn to Balthazar. One might
think that they would be able to stay together in happiness from then
on. But then comes separation in all its forms. Marie's father takes
over the management of an estate, and they move away. The donkey is
bought by a baker, who uses him to make deliveries, and beats him. Over
the course of the film, Balthazar is owned by an abusive drunk, a circus
owner, and a sadistic young man named Gerard. His life is of course
always in the hands of others, and his lot is to endure. In the meantime,
Marie keeps reappearing in his life, and she also undergoes great confusion,
disappointment, suffering, and abuse.
Bresson's lean, impassive visual style, and his restriction of emotive
expression from the actors, gives the film an uncanny air of intense
materiality - as if we, the observers, were trapped in a body like Balthazar,
unable to change anything, only to suffer. Each successive incident
in the lives of Marie and the donkey seem to reflect another stage of
spiritual affliction - the seven deadly sins as impersonal force. There
seems something almost pitiless in the way the film presents characters
such as Gerard, or the drunken Arnold - not wanting to draw any lesson
from the narrowness and viciousness of their lives, but only to show,
without sparing us, the absence of grace.
After seeing Au Hasard, Balthazar, the sounds and images come
back to disturb me, like dreams. The donkey's fur contrasted with Marie's
skin, his hooves as he stumbles over stony ground, the flowers she drapes
over him, his bray. It is remarkable how Bresson has fashioned a tragedy
which evokes so much of our lost human ideals, and a love that endures
all trials, in a story about an animal. The result is, despite all appearances,
not a film of gloom and depression, but of strange and ineffable beauty.
OUT OF THE PAST (Jacques Tourneur, 1947).
An ex-private eye (Robert Mitchum) trying to make a new life for himself,
has his past catch up with him in the form of an old flame (Jane Greer)
and her gangster boyfriend (Kirk Douglas).
Although this movie has a great reputation with "film noir" conoisseurs,
after seeing it for the first time I'm surprised that it's not better
known. The screenplay (Daniel Mainwaring adapted his own novel, under
a pseudonym) is amazingly intelligent, witty, and even quite moving
at times. Mitchum is sensational - an utterly engaging, tough and tender
performance, clearly one of his best. The story is involving not so
much because of all the twists and turns (there are plenty of them)
but because the director's technique creates marvelous tension and suspense
- I really worried about what was going to happen next. The visual style
is outstanding - brilliant photography (Tourneur's colleague from his
horror pictures, Nicholas Musuraca) creating a shadowy atmosphere of
intrigue, with self-assured editing and camera movement, make this picture
one of the best looking of the 40s. In every respect it bears comparison
to The Big Sleep, and in some ways I think it's better. So why
is the Hawks' film on everybody's list of classics, while few people
mention Out of the Past? I'm not sure. Maybe Bogie has more iconic
value than Mitchum. And maybe Jane Greer's femme fatale has less appeal
than Lauren Bacall's tough good girl. (Sure, Greer's character is a
cliche, but she's still great.) Comparisons aside, I defy anyone to
watch this movie and not be drawn into its fatal charm.
IT'S A GIFT (Norman Z. McLeod, 1934).
W.C. Fields plays the owner of a hardware store who dreams of buying
an orange farm in California. He is henpecked by his wife, and has a
kid who goes everywhere on rollerskates. And, well, um...the story actually
has no purpose or meaning at all except as a way to frame a series of
gags. Which is exactly as it should be, because this is a comedy in
the great old Paramount style - and in my opinion, Fields' best film.
Although he seems to be forever associated with drinking, and with
an attitude of misanthropy, what really made Fields funny was the sense
of life being just one damn disaster after another. Things are so bad,
they're funny - and Fields' air of weary resignation, sprinkled with
occasional and ineffectual defiance, makes them funnier. The best classic
sequence, among many, has him trying to take a nap on the porch as a
series of intrusive noises and interruptions - a coconut slowly rolling
down the stairs, an obnoxious salesman, Baby Leroy dropping objects
on him through a hole in the landing - reduces all his efforts to futility.
There's something very individual about what makes us laugh. For some
reason, It's a Gift puts me in hysterics every single time I
see it - I'm actually choking, wheezing, holding my stomach because
I'm laughing so hard, tears of laughter streaming down my face. And
I've seen this film at least a dozen times over the years. Meanwhile,
my partner sits next to me, watching the same film, chuckling occasionally,
but staring at my contortions as if I were insane. What is so funny?
I could go on and analyze some more, spill more ink about Fields' superb
timing, facial expressions, inimitable voice, the sense of total and
unremitting failure that permeates everything he does. But in the end
I suppose it's no use trying to explain. I love It's a Gift as
much as, or more than, any classic work of art, because it always cheers
THE SACRIFICE (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986).
An aging writer (Erland Josephson) is spending the summer on an island
in the Baltic with his wife, family and visiting friends. A dinner party
regresses into spitefulness and the settling of old scores. But suddenly
their little dramas lose all meaning. The news breaks that a nuclear
war is about to begin, and the world itself may not last the night.
Reviews had led me to expect an agonizingly slow film, and so I braced
myself for the kind of tedium I had experienced in the director's Solaris
and Stalker. But although the movie is long, I found the talk
interesting and thoughtful, the visual style compelling, and the movie
as a whole quite haunting and beautiful. Tarkovsky was a master of the
long, continuous shot, with characters moving within the frame in symmetrical
patterns that complement the dialogue. The photography is by the great
Sven Nykvist. The look of the film gets more intense as the color gets
darker and more somber. Just with its style, The Sacrifice evokes
a hushed moment of crisis, a time of dread when everything hangs in
The absence of the spiritual dimension in modern life is Tarkovsky's
great theme. Alexander, the writer, must find this dimension within
himself in order to save the world. This linking of the individual and
personal with the cosmic and universal might be said to be the point
of the film. It involves Tarkovsky in some curious symbolism. I can't
say that I am completely sympathetic with the idea of bargaining with
God, or with some of the strange places that Tarkovsky goes with this
idea, but I can't deny that, as an artist, he has a vision which is
his own - nor can I help but admire how he follows it to the end.
The Sacrifice does not hold out the hope that people will look
beyond the petty grievances that consume their days. But it says, paradoxically,
that for us to be able to continue as a race, with all our quarreling
and suffering, someone - anyone? - must step out of the stream of time
and live as if already dead. It's a film with a shattering effect, if
you can let it in, and it was Tarkovsky's last. He died a year later.
ROOM AT THE TOP (Jack Clayton, 1958).
An accountant and war veteran (Laurence Harvey) from a working class
background wants to climb the social ladder and become wealthy at all
costs. To accomplish this he woos a rich man's daughter. But his plans,
and his attitudes, are challenged when he finds himself falling in love
with a married woman (Simone Signoret).
This was one of the first English films from the so-called "kitchen
sink" school of realism, which was to transform British cinema. Nothing
quite like it had been seen before. The characters talked like real
people and there was a frankness about sex that was startling to audiences.
It was a huge success. In hindsight it is not nearly as interesting
as some of the films that followed it from such directors as John Schlesinger,
Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz. But it is still a nicely constructed
little drama, and Signoret, who won an Oscar for her performance, is
marvelous as a woman both sensual and intelligent. Harvey is certainly
a dominating presence here. He is never dull, but there is something
cold about him which makes the wind-up perhaps less moving than it could
be. English critics tended to be shocked by the picture. Their genteel
notions about what a film should be would not survive much longer.
PAYDAY (Daryl Duke, 1972).
Wild, self-centered, party-loving country singer Maury Dann (Rip Torn)
lives on the road and dangerously near the edge.
Often when we talk about the brief period in the early 1970s when there
was the promise of a new kind of American film, it seems as if the same
few famous names and films come up. But perhaps more significant is
that a film like Payday could be made - remarkably free in tone
and sense of character, with a screenplay by Don Carpenter that has
the gritty, honest feel of a good novel, along with a mesmerizing performance
from its second-tier star, surrounded by an excellent cast of virtual
unknowns. Even in its tenderest moments, the picture stays completely
free of formula and sentimentality, which seems almost unthinkable nowadays.
The story comprises two or three hectic days in the life of Maury Dann,
who drinks too much, and takes pills so that he can keep moving without
having to sleep. He goes from one gig to another, with an entourage
of manager, girlfriend, roadies, bandmates and groupies. Caught in the
spell of his charisma is a hopelessly naive country girl, played by
Elaine Heilveil with a vulnerability that is both humorous and agonizing.
Dann quarrels with his friends, gets into fights, screws whomever he
can, botches an awkward visit with his ex-wife, and finally gets into
the kind of trouble that takes some real ingenuity to get out of. Rip
Torn is intensely watchable in a role that would probably have been
less interesting with a more handsome actor. His not quite good looks
are undercut by a strong sense of despair and inner dissolution. It
is one more sign of the film's originality that Dann's fate does not
seem inevitable, only one more stop on a crooked highway.
Daryl Duke is good with the actors - for some reason his career never
went anywhere. The film didn't go much of anywhere either, in terms
of box office. The real star, besides Torn, is the Carpenter script,
which has that rare quality of fully knowing the world it reveals, inside
and out. Little known, insufficiently appreciated, Payday is
no grand statement, preferring to tell its story in small and telling
details. Seeing it was like rediscovering the lost spirit of the 70s
in American movies.