Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - July 2002
The Merry Widow (1925)
Sabotage (1936)
The Green Wall
The Awful Truth (1937)
The Brother From
Another Planet

If It Works...
Sunshine State
Time Out (2001)
The Rookie (2002)

The Primal Seen
The Fast Runner

 

 

THE PUPPETMASTER
(Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1993).

This story of the life of Taiwan's eminent puppeteer Li Tien-lu, from childhood through young manhood, roughly coincides with the painful history of the island's occupation by the Japanese. It is no ordinary biopic. Hou's narrative style combines an elusive poetic sense with a naturalistic feeling for the larger environment in which the characters move. The tale is punctuated, moreover, with occasional narration by the 83-year-old puppetmaster himself. This mixture of fictional style with documentary elements plays subtly on the theme of storytelling - just as Taiwan's sufferings and triumphs find expression through Li's artistry.

His life story is lonely and fraught with suffering. After the death of his mother, Li (played after the childhood sequences by Lim Giong) is abused by his stepmother, with the collusion of his selfish, arrogant father. Against their will, he marries into a theatrical family and becomes an apprentice to a puppeteer. Later he is forced by economic hardship to do puppet shows for the Japanese, and he finds solace for his loneliness in the arms of a sophisticated Taipei courtesan.

Beautifully shot by the great Ping Bin Lee, the picture evokes the passage of long periods of time while avoiding the grand manner of the epic form. Hou tells the story in discrete long takes, with the scenes taking place in something close to real time. The past is therefore not bathed in the light of retrospection, but is presented in the ordinary, nondramatic tones of immediacy. Instead of continuous memory, we have sequences that are like flashes within the darkness, alternating with examples of Li's puppet shows, also done in long takes, and shot for the most part straight on from the perspective of the audience. Experience and art, memory and performance, are but two sides of the same reality.

When we are shown the real-life Li, relaxed and friendly, telling us his story, Hou will sometimes allow the film to simply focus on this telling of events, without needing to show us. At other times, Li will tell us things we've already seen, but with subtle differences and contradictions - another way for Hou to make connections between the forms of memory and fiction. He even shows Li wandering into the background of fictionalized scenes of his own life. In addition to these layers of personal and artistic meaning, The Puppetmaster conveys the political reality as another framework in which the story - involving submission, loss of cultural identity, covert resistance, and ultimate regeneration - mirrors the ordeal of Taiwan itself, climaxing in the liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II. All of this is presented in a style that is both austere and beautiful - plain as can be, yet suffused with an appreciation for artifice as a way of survival. The film is, quite simply, a work of genius, by a master of cinema whose work has still not been seen widely enough in the West.

NOSTALGHIA (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983).

A Russian poet (Oleg Yankovsky) is traveling in Italy with a beautiful translator (Domiziana Giordano), researching the life of a composer from the Czarist era who had lived for a time in Bologna. The translator is attracted to the poet, but he stays withdrawn within himself, his experiences evoking fragmentary memories (in black-and-white) of his life in Russia, and an unnamed sadness and longing involving his wife and child. He then becomes strangely fascinated by a deranged loner (Erland Josephson), who was ostracized years earlier for locking his family up in order to protect them from the world.

Tarkovsky was among the most unusual directors in film history - a poet of ideas and subjective states, working in a visual, narrative-oriented medium, he often strives against the grain of conventional cinematic form in order to express his concepts and depict his dream-like vision of life. In Nostalghia this takes the form of the deep silence and almost transfixed point of view of Andrei, the main character who sees everything around him from an estranged, otherworldly perspective. The director's method has more of the character of meditation on a single event or idea, until its essence and depth of meaning slowly unfolds, rather than the usual dramatic approach of setting things in motion and examining them from different angles. In some of Tarkovsky's works - such as Solaris or Stalker - this approach makes the experience almost unbearably prolix, extended beyond its means, but in other efforts - such as this film and the later The Sacrifice - his concentration is such that the levels of significance, the interlocking themes and emotional states, reveal themselves with a terrible beauty to the patient viewer.

The film's intense visual style (the stunning photography is by Giuseppe Lanci, who would do great work in later years with the Tavianis) discloses its meanings like an echo - as in a scene where the drunken poet stands in a watery ruin railing in Russian at an uncomprehending Italian child, or another when he's visiting the lunatic played by Josephson and opens a door to what looks like an eerie Russian landscape. The world of dreams and memories is more important to the poet - and to Tarkovsky himself - than the supposedly real life of the everyday in which he travels. The film's unsettling style reflects this tension between inner and outer worlds.

The picture has too many layers and poetic strands to trace in a short review. The central one, however, concerns the relationship between Andrei - paralyzed by homesickness and a feeling of disengagement from the place he has come to - and Domenico, the "madman" whose quasi-mystical ravings against the modern world strike a responding chord in the soul of the Russian. Both of them are forced to take a position which is opposed to their time, but Domenico seeks the world's redemption through a ritual that he has been unable to successfully perform - walking across the windy village spa, with a lit candle, from one end to the other without letting the candle go out. He asks Andrei to attempt this feat for him before he returns to Russia. It is characteristic of Tarkovsky's rigorous method, indeed of his entire way of seeing things, that the significance of this act is never coherently expressed, but only enacted with the most painstaking and solitary attention.

The director was himself an exile from his native land when he made Nostalghia. As the title indicates, the film is to a great degree an exploration of the meaning of nostalgia, or rather its secret workings in the mind of an exile. The relationship between the translator Eugenia, who combines a Botticelli-like grace with a character that is more modern and impulsive, and the brooding introspective Andrei, represents the contact between the Russian and Italian cultures that Tarkovsky was experiencing at the time, evoking a strange play of tensions and contrasts. The pains of exile, as it turns out, extend outward into a pained contemplation of the sorry state of things worldwide. And although the film, like all the director's work, is a search for Truth, its findings take the form of hints, visions, and questions only partly articulated.

In a sense one must come prepared to Nostalghia - it demands a stillness from the mind of the viewer that is much like that portrayed in the mind of its wandering hero.

THE MAYOR OF HELL
(Archie Mayo, 1933).

James Cagney plays Patsy Gargan, a two-bit racketeer who is awarded a post as deputy commissioner of a boys reform school as a political payoff. The reformatory is run by the corrupt tyrant Thompson (Dudley Digges) who mistreats the boys. Gargan falls for the school nurse (Madge Evans) and takes up her ideas about self- government as an alternative to the current punitive approach. He changes the system, allowing the kids to run the school themselves, with the result that their health and morale rapidly improves. But Thompson is scheming to bring Gargan down and restore the old order.

Although this is a Cagney picture, much of the screen time is devoted to the juvenile delinquents, particularly a defiant gang leader (a sort of mini-Cagney) played by Frankie Darro. In its portrayal of lower-class urban youth, the movie is in many ways typical of Depression-era Warners style, with a great deal of cliché and ethnic stereotype thrown into the mix. Most embarrassing is the long scene where a gang of boys is sentenced, each one approaching the bench with a parent who mugs in the exaggerated style of an ethnic type, such as Italian, Jewish, and (worst of all) an idiotic wide-eyed "colored" father. Watching these kinds of films requires a bit of what you might call historical concession - after all, the picture does take the trouble to include a black kid in the gang (as much as that seems improbable in a segregated society) and even shows him comforting a white kid at one point by holding his hand.

The Mayor of Hell is really a rather odd combination of gangster-turned-hero romance and socially conscious Depression drama. Warner Brothers was churning films out like sausages in those days, and sometimes it seems like Cagney is sprinting through the movie on his way to another assignment. He radiates his usual cocky charm, however, and although Evans is a poor female lead (I guess Loretta Young was busy), the picture is never boring, and leads to a rather exciting climax in which the boys stage a revolt.

The whole story is of course completely unbelievable. But it's interesting how progressive ideas (reforming delinquency through kindness and empowerment rather than punishment) could sneak into some of these Warners genre flicks in the early 30s. The same problems, unfortunately, face us now on a bigger scale. The Mayor of Hell is worth a look for this reason alone.

THIEVES LIKE US (Robert Altman, 1974).

Three convicts (Keith Carradine, John Schuck and Bert Remson) escape from a Mississippi prison during the Depression and go on a bank-robbing spree. Along the way, the youngest thief (Carradine) falls for a shy, gawky girl (Shelley Duvall) he meets at a gas station. But before he can run away with her, there is one last job to pull...

The story is a remake of Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night ('49), but Altman's style and purpose couldn't be more different from that darkly romantic work. Here the outlaws are portrayed, with startling realism, as brutal, ignorant, and amoral, and the film has an overall tone of deadpan social comedy. By limiting the characters' psychological horizon to a minimum prescribed by the 1930s American cultural milieu, the director achieves a sort of tragicomic determinism. These guys rob banks because they don't know how to do anything else very well, and society doesn't really offer them any other way to get ahead. It's a brilliant strategy because it manages to tell these people's stories in a fresh and provocative way, while at the same time wryly commenting on our own (and the characters') romantic preconceptions that are based on fiction rather than the way people really act.

One of Altman's primary devices towards this end is the omnipresence of radio, particularly radio drama, as a counterpoint to the action. Radio was the TV of that era, and the crooks are constantly listening to crime and adventure shows on their car radio - the melodramatic stories and pretentiously high-flown speech of the announcers on these programs form a delicious contrast with the crude, inarticulate ways in which the real people in the movie actually communicate. The director knows he's on to something here, so he uses this method a lot, to the point where at times it seems heavy-handed. Still, it's a vantage point on that era that had rarely been explored on film - the ambivalent relationship between the common people in the Depression and the messages they were getting from the media.

The acting, for the most part, is alarmingly good, with Remson's genially vulgar opportunist a real standout. The film doesn't indulge in a moralistic view of the bank robbers as psychological types - they are so individual, so human in their various limitations, that one can only observe them with Altman's laconic, naturalistic eye. My only problem, and a minor one at that, is with Duvall, one of the director's favorite performers, who I suppose is meant to embody an antidote to the 30s cliche of the crook's tough, glamorous, fatally naive girlfriend. Duvall is of course not a bit glamorous, and she's very good when she's stolid, but at other times she seems to play a more 70s type of innocence, which I thought clashed with the period.

Although bitterly funny at times, the picture also creates a somber mood that is very affecting. Altman is adept at using long shots to emphasize the characters' smallness. One bank robbery sequence is shot completely from an overhead angle, which conveys with remarkable clarity the criminals' emotional detachment. The excellent screenplay, never faltering in its commitment to a loose, non-dramatic approach, is by Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham, with help from Altman. The film failed to find an audience at the time of its release. Perhaps its hope-free vision was just too strong for people to take.

LACOMBE LUCIEN (Louis Malle, 1974).

In 1944 in southwestern France, an aimless and uneducated rural youth (Pierre Blaise) falls, by chance, under the influence of the local Fascists, and ends up becoming a member of the Gestapo's Vichy police. While mutely going along with the cruelty of his Nazi mentors, an encounter with a Jewish tailor leads to his falling in love with the man's beautiful daughter (Aurore Clément).

Nazism and its horrors have inspired many a meditation on the nature of evil, and this film has been characterized, not inaccurately, as a dramatic extension of Hannah Arendt's famous idea of evil's "banality." Certainly in Malle's portrayal of the French collaborators and their hangers-on we can see how ideology is often a mere smokescreen for the desire for power, money, and domination, and how even the worst people (such as the vicious police spy played by Stéphane Bouy) have something of ordinary charm or friendliness in their nature - qualities that nevertheless don't prevent them from committing atrocities.

The film's approach is most interesting in the case of Lucien himself, who has no moral sense, and doesn't know enough to even be petty. Blaise's delicately handsome baby-face is like a blank slate on which is inscribed all the insanity around him. Malle's point (and that of co-author Patrick Modiano) is not merely that social backwardness and lack of self-knowledge are ripe for exploitation by evil forces - this would hardly be worth making a movie about. Lucien is, rather, a portrait of blind self-will in a pure form, unsullied by ideas, only seeking for some kind of affirmation. He has not known love, and therefore he finds his self-esteem through power. The movie shows how the brute power that a human being can wield over another leads to a kind of self-esteem. For the first time in his life, Lucien is "somebody."

The only hope Malle offers us from this bleak vision is that, before the mind is forever ruined by hate-justifying ideas, the human need for love can pose a counterforce to evil. Lucien becomes obsessed with the Jewish girl (her name, ironically, is "France"), and although his efforts to win her are as selfish and grotesque as his acts of allegiance to the Gestapo, his unspoken need for her love inevitably clashes with his Nazi training.

Malle's camera presents an unflinching view of the time of the German occupation of France, and of the mindset that sustained the collaborationist Vichy government. The characterizations and period detail are very fine. Most compelling is the bizarre relationship between Lucien and the elderly tailor, played with a striking mixture of gentleness and disdain by Holger Löwenadler. The old man is afraid of, and exasperated by, the attentions of his daughter's Nazi suitor, but for reasons he doesn't quite understand, he can't completely hate the young man. There is, perhaps, a deeper innocence in Lucien that he recognizes on some level. This idea of innocence, as salvagable from within the heart of evil, albeit only by means of the most unlikely - that is to say, fortunate - circumstances, is the source of the picture's troubling power.

Malle ends things rather abruptly. I would have liked to have known more, but I think perhaps the idea was to leave the character of Lucien as an open question, something that will cause us to consider, uneasily, our own vulnerability to that which is worst in human nature. It also prompts us to examine what parts of our nature, perhaps existing at a more elemental level than we would normally admit, can actually help redeem us from the urge to power and turn us instead to a way that is guided by love.


©2002 Chris Dashiell
CineScene