Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - August 2001
The Plow That
Broke the Plains
The River (1937)
Strike (1925)
Lost Horizon (1937)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Kael and Farewell

Women on the Verge
Our Song
The Circle (2000)



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 its leaves.

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 sunlight).

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, really.

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.

(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 pirate.

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 there.)

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