DREAM OF LIGHT (Victor Erice, 1992).
Movies about painters tend to focus on the tortured variety. Think
Van Gogh, or the recent Pollock. Otherwise, where's the drama?
The creative process itself - usually slow and quiet, with much of the
work happening internally - seems antithetical to film.
The Spanish director Victor Erice breaks this unwritten rule in Dream
of Light, to marvelous effect. As a portrait of an artist at work,
it's like nothing else you've seen. The opening sequence shows a man,
in his sixties or older, carefully placing an easel near a quince tree
in his backyard. We watch as he measures with his eye the distance he
needs from both tree and easel, puts stakes in a line on the ground
behind which he needs to stand, and even ties string between tree and
easel. The film shows the same patience as the artist, carefully and
without comment depicting his step-by-step preparations and techniques
as he tries to capture the quince tree and the light shooting through
You'd have to read the video box, or look up the film in a reference
work or site, to know that the artist is Antonio Lopez Garcia, one of
Spain's leading painters, or that the place is Madrid, or who any of
the other people in the film actually are. Erice is interested only
in taking us to a place of stillness where the eye is open to the world's
beauty, and the imagination gently absorbs the vision and transforms
it through painstaking labor into a work of art. To watch Dream of
Light, the viewer needs to be willing to slow down and be receptive
to the little details of life, where the mundane (the lunch break conversations
of the Polish workers, for example, who are renovating the artist's
house) is one with the sublime (the intense beauty of a tree in morning
Gradually we get to know the people in Antonio's world. His wife Mari,
also an artist, is supportive as well as inquisitive about her husband's
aims. An artist pal (Enrique Gran) stops by from time to time to talk,
reminiscing about their days together in art school, offering advice,
or just holding up the string (which apparently measures perspective)
for his friend while he paints. Other guests and admirers visit. Everything
is casual. Even a fascinating discussion of Michelangelo's "The Last
Judgment" seems unrehearsed. Is this fiction or documentary? Neither,
These are actual people going about their business in front of a camera.
Fragments from the outside intrude through a transistor radio - the
Gulf War, the reunification of Germany. Yet Erice eschews the traditional
documentary approach, usually burdened with exposition or voice-over
narrative. And in the final sequence he evokes a dream in which the
sleeping artist unites awareness of his own mortality with an image
of the quince tree fading under the coming winter. This is a fitting
symbol for Dream of Light itself, which beautifully reveals the
inner vision of the artist as reflected in the light of our world -
so real, so dear.
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT
(Alexander Mackendrick, 1951).
Sidney Stratton, an eccentric chemist (Alec Guinness) working for a
clothing manufacturer, invents a material that can never wear out or
get dirty. At first his employer is overjoyed, converting all production
towards this new material, but the garment trade - and the labor unions
- recognize the invention as a death knell to their interests, so they
conspire to suppress it, and if necessary, its inventor.
Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios produced a series of witty comedies
in postwar England, many of them starring Alec Guinness, that still
hold up today. This film, with its delicious skewering of British industry
and class consciousness, is one of the best. Besides Guinness, who is
well nigh perfect as the mischievous egghead at the center of a political
storm, the picture boasts Joan Greenwood, with her deep, delightful
purr of a voice, as the manufacturer's daughter who sympathizes with
Sidney. And then there is Ernest Thesiger, very droll indeed as the
incredibly decrepit leader of the capitalist conspiracy.
The picture has a light touch. It is consistently amusing while never
looking down on its characters, despite their many foibles. It is well-acted,
intelligent, even emotionally stirring in a wistful, offhand sort of
way. Even the way the characters look at each other is funny. The underrated
Mackendrick was a master of the art of restraint, serving the humor
rather than underlining it.
When a comedy comes together like this, and I'm practically glowing
with pleasure at the end, I wonder - why isn't it better known? A satire
without a mean bone in its body, The Man in the White Suit is
an oddly uplifting antidote to gloom.
CAPTAIN BLOOD (Michael Curtiz, 1935).
In 17th century England, a young doctor (Errol Flynn) is convicted
of treason for treating a rebel's wounds. Sold into slavery in the West
Indies, he escapes with a group of his fellow slaves and becomes a notroious
By the time the veteran director Curtiz was assigned to remake this
Rafael Sabatini adventure (Vitagraph had produced a version in the 20s)
the swashbuckler genre had lost some of the box office luster it had
in the heyday of Douglas Fairbanks. When Robert Donat became ill, the
director installed Flynn, an unknown bit player, in the title role,
against studio advice. Flynn had limited range as an actor, but he possessed
an important element - tremendous charisma. The camera loves the handsome
Aussie - whether he's ordering his pirate crew to man the guns or courting
Olivia de Havilland, he projects an infectious air of gallantry and
exuberance. The film made him a star, along with the pretty De Havilland
(barely nineteen) - they would be paired together in movies seven more
times, all but one of those under Curtiz.
For villain we have Lionel Atwill as a ruthless slave master, the De
Havilland character's uncle. Basil Rathbone makes an appearance as a
French pirate - his sword fight with Flynn is one of the high points.
Add a rousing score by Erich Korngold (who would go on to do the music
for many Warner Brothers adventure films) and you have a bona fide classic.
Considered as history, the screenplay - purporting to depict the time
of James II - is pure twaddle, but no one, now or then, watches a pirate
movie for historical accuracy. Captain Blood is just plain fun.
It has everything - wrongful imprisonment, romance, daring escape, battles
at sea in which the pirates swing over to another ship to fight hand-to-hand.
Essentially it is a blueprint for every swashbuckler that was to follow.
And although it's not the very best Errol Flynn movie (most would agree
that The Adventures of Robin Hood holds that distinction), it's
perhaps the one to start with if you want to understand his appeal.
He never did attain much skill as an actor (alcohol played a part in
that). In this movie we can see the energy and freshness that gradually
faded after he gained fame.
Perhaps the greatest workhorse in Hollywood, Curtiz here creates the
illusion of sweeping spectacle on what was in fact a very tight budget.
Watching it is a reminder of a time when movies could offer escapism
of the highest order with minimal special effects.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (Jules Dassin, 1950).
Petty gambler and hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) finds what
he thinks is the perfect score - a chance encounter that puts him in
a position to be a big player in the London pro wrestling racket. But
the mob has a different idea.
Made for Fox while Dassin was under stress from the impending threat
of the blacklist (the ax finally fell two years later) - the picture
failed at the box office. It's difficult to understand why - maybe the
London location was a turnoff for American audiences. (Why is the story
set in London? you may ask. Apparently because it was cheaper to shoot
In any case, Dassin turned in one of the best examples of late "film
noir" style. Night and the City makes abundant use of shadow,
menacing angles, restless camera movement - and the pace couldn't be
better. This is an exciting film. It captures the fatalistic mood and
the sense of evil that are signature noir elements. But the most important
ingredient is Richard Widmark, one of the least vain actors to achieve
stardom in Hollywood. Here he plays a pathetic lowlife who steals from
his girlfriend (Gene Tierney) to support his gambling habit, yet he
seasons his character with enough intelligence, and a sense of constant
striving towards a desperate personal dream, to make us care about his
fate in spite of everything. It's one of his finest performances, holding
the viewer's interest from first frame to last.
The beautiful Tierney unfortunately plays a character who is mere window
dressing. However, there is fine support from the English actors, especially
the massive Francis L. Sullivan as a seedy, malevolent nightclub owner.
The photography (Max Greene) and music (Franz Waxman) are first rate,
the climax features a very exciting fight scene, and the whole thing
is done in such compelling style that you don't notice the plot's improbabilities
until you think about it later.
THE LOWER DEPTHS (Akira Kurosawa, 1957).
It had long been a dream of Kurosawa's to film the great Maxim Gorky
play about the struggles of a group of destitute people living in a
flophouse. He transposed the time and setting to Japan in the Edo period,
when the Shogunate was collapsing, but the film's theme, linking poverty
with hatred and spiritual despair, is a universal one.
A group of society's rejects, including a gambler, an actor, a thief,
an ex-samurai, a prostitute, a tinker and his dying wife, bicker with
each other while uniting in their fear and hatred of the corrupt landlord
(Ganjiro Nakamura) whose wife (Isuzu Yamada) is meanwhile having an
affair with the thief (Toshiro Mifune). The thief, however, is in love
with the landlady's sister (Kyoko Kagawa), and this causes a great deal
of trouble. Into this unhappy situation wanders a mysterious old man
(Bokuzen Hidari) who dispenses a variety of spiritual advice that is
met with varying responses from the others.
Remarkably faithful to the play, the picture suffers from the usual
static quality of filmed drama - the inventive camera work can't wholly
compensate for the fact that most of the action takes place in one large
room. The movie also drags a bit in its middle third. Nevertheless,
it retains much of the power of the original, and Kurosawa accentuates
the humorous elements to give the story even greater force.
Mifune's performance - gruff, comic, vulgar, yet somehow touching -
is the film's best. A most intriguing element - in play and film - is
the character of the wandering old man. Hidari, with his marvelous,
enigmatic smile, brings out the irony in Gorky's conception. The old
man represents religion in both its positive and negative aspects. He
offers a much needed sense of hope to the hopeless, and he is one of
the few characters to demonstrate kindness. But he also sugarcoats reality
with consoling lies, and presents a passive attitude of escape from
life rather than engagement with it.
The film's humorous aspects are extraordinary. Kamatari Fujiwara, playing
an actor who can't stop drinking, drawls his words out to such absurd
effect that I laughed out loud, even though I don't speak Japanese.
A card game scene features an incredibly silly, rhythmic sing-song number,
led by Koji Mitsui as the gambler, that is reiterated to great effect
at the movie's shattering climax, with the characters dancing to weird
"bakabayashi" music while reciting nonsense syllables. Rarely has comedy
and tragedy been combined so well in a single scene.
With its purposely theatrical nature, The Lower Depths is uncharacterstic
of Kurosawa's work. For the most part it succeeds rather well, though,
and I think it deserves to be better known, both on its own terms and
as the best filmed interpretation of the powerful Russian play.
©2001 Chris Dashiell