WARD SIX (Lucian Pintilie, 1973).
A bachelor doctor (Slobodan Perovic) lives a lonely existence in a
remote Russian village, treating patients at the local hospital by day,
and in the evenings wistfully complaining to a friend over a drink that
there isn't enough intellectual stimulation in this rural backwater.
Nevertheless, he seems settled in his humdrum way of life, until by
chance he wanders into the hospital's mental ward. There he meets an
angry inmate (Zoran Radmilovic) who claims that he's been unjustly committed
there. The doctor feels himself drawn to this man, whose conversation
is more interesting than that of anyone else he knows, and he continues
to visit the ward, engaging in passionate philosophical arguments with
The film is based on a story by Anton Chekhov, one of his most powerful,
and the Romanian director Pintilie is quite faithful to the source.
It is a disturbing tale that conveys meaning on several levels. The
doctor's spiritual emptiness prevents him from seeing how his privileged
middle class status shields him from the extremities of suffering. The
film also explores the tenuous line between sanity and madness, and
how that boundary is defined as a way of maintaining the social order.
And there's a political dimension as well -- hanging over Chekhov's
story is the turmoil and struggle of the Czarist twilight, while at
the same time it eerily foreshadows the horrors of Stalinism.
Pintilie does a lot with a low budget. A palette of black, brown and
dark green expresses the town's suffocating provincial atmosphere. As
the doctor walks from his small house to the hospital each day, we hear
a monotonous, mechanical hammering sound in the distance, as if from
some neighboring factory, and this has a rather unnerving effect. The
low-key acting is fine, especially by Perovic in the lead role. It's
a small film, however, intended originally for Romanian television,
and this creates a feeling of artistic limitation that gets in the way
of the picture's final impact. Unlike the story, the movie doesn't allow
us into the inner world of the doctor, and this, along with the director's
limited means, diminishes the effect. Still, it's one of the better
Chekhov adaptations on film, and the themes are of universal significance.
STROSZEK (Werner Herzog, 1977).
Stroszek (Bruno S.), a mentally disturbed alcoholic, is released from
a Berlin prison and returns to his hermetic life as a street musician.
Moving in with him is an old friend, Eva (Eva Mattes) a prostitute who
is continually harassed and abused by her brutal pimp and his friends.
When the abuse gets to be too much to bear, the pair decide to go off
to America with an old man (Clemens Scheitz) who has relatives in Wisconsin.
But their experience in the new world doesn't match their expectations.
Bruno S., himself a schizophrenic and the victim of prolonged abuse,
was one of Herzog's most fortunate discoveries. He has a marvelous and
inimitable screen presence. He had previously starred in Herzog's Every
Man for Himself and God Against All, in which he was terrific as
the mysterious Kaspar Hauser. Here he plays a character that is more
like himself, and it is a wonder to observe the openness, honesty and
vulnerability of his performance. His childlike devotion to Eva, his
disappointment at the difficulties they encounter in America, and a
certain quality of indomitable wilfulness, comes across with complete
clarity. You never notice him "acting," but there's nothing crude about
him either -- he seems just completely natural being himself in front
of a camera.
Herzog's body of work is distinguished by its difficulty and lack of
compromise. But although Stroszek's emotional terrain is rocky,
it's easily the director's most accessible work. The mood is curiously
expansive, even light-hearted at times, which seems appropriate for
a story about emigrating to the American heartland. Herzog presents
the U.S. as beautiful, but also weird and forbidding. Although the characters
don't adjust well to life in their new country, the picture is not really
a critique of American society. It's a tragicomedy about the modern
predicament in general, the American milieu only accentuating the spiritual
malaise that was already present, opening it up and giving it a wider
metaphorical field on which to play.
Mattes, one of the great unsung German actresses, is wonderful -- her
scenes with Bruno S. couldn't be more moving. The photography (Thomas
Mauch), camera placement, and music (Chet Atkins and Sonny Terry) are
impeccable. Herzog alternates a matter-of-fact style, a sort of "gazing
into the distance" mood of detachment, with bold surrealistic touches
that haunt the memory. It's a poem about feeling lost in the world,
wandering around unable to find a home or a sense of self, and the strange,
bittersweet mysteries of love and betrayal. Absent is that artificial
sense of plot imposed on life -- the story seems created on the fly,
but with enough passion and humor and sense of loss to make it real.
AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY
(Marshall Neilan, 1918).
Amarilly (Mary Pickford), a spunky young woman waiting tables in a
poor urban neighborhood, catches the eye of a wealthy, fun-loving artist
(Norman Kerry). He wants to marry her, but his family disapproves, and
their upper class ways clash with the manners and habits of her boisterous
The recent revival on video of Mary Pickford's work proves what film
historians have been pointing out for decades: her range and appeal
were much wider than the myths surrounding her image would indicate.
For one thing, she did not always play little girls -- in this film,
her character is past the legal age, and bright, funny, and attractive
as well. Almost everything works in this sentimental comedy -- Frances
Marion's script zips along merrily, using slang and dialect in entertaining
ways, and Neilan's framing and pacing of the scenes (he was Pickford's
favorite director) is nimble and consistently engaging.
Contrasting the sincerity and down-to-earth good nature of poor folks
with the snobbish and hypocritical ways of the rich was a standard method
of audience flattery in those days, since the great majority of movie-
goers were from the working class. So here we see the rich society matron
(Ida Waterman) turning up her nose at the frankness and coarse manners
of Amarilly's mother (Kate Price), and the picture even cuts back and
forth between the dull formality of a society dinner party and the chaos
of dinnertime at Amarilly's house, with children and dogs running around
and knocking each other over in riotous fashion. The exaggeration is
obvious, but the scenes are played so well that you can't help going
along with it.
Most of all, the film works because of Mary Pickford. Here you can
really see why she was such a huge star. She combined so many different
things that audiences could identify with -- she was smart and pretty,
able to admit mistakes, but not gullible or willing to endure injustice
or nonsense from anyone. She and Marion (who wrote many of her best
movies), crafted a female character who was the master of her own destiny,
and this must have corresponded to the secret wishes of many women in
those days. In this film she learns that "you can't mix ice cream and
pickles" -- a regressive take on class mobility, to be sure -- but she's
really the one giving everyone else lessons in honesty. It's also clear
why she would never have much success in sound films. Her art was that
of energetic physical expression and gesture, a sense of pantomime that
in her seemed completely natural, unaffected, and inevitable.
A STAR IS BORN (William A. Wellman, 1937).
Small-town girl Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) goes to Hollywood to
be a star, and catches a big break when established leading man Norman
Maine (Fredric March) falls in love with her, but when her career (as
"Vicki Lester") soars, her husband's plummets, and his decline is abetted
by his alcoholism.
After going independent in the mid-1930s, David O. Selznick needed
an A-picture that would establish his studio's reputation. This movie
-- essentially a re-working of Selznick's earlier What Price Hollywood?
-- was designed to do just that. He brought in Wellman, one of the industry's
best directors (they'd worked well together on several previous films),
shot the picture in Technicolor (excellent work by W. Howard Greene),
had Max Steiner do the score, and closely supervised the screenplay
himself. Eight different writers (including Dorothy Parker) had a hand
in the script, but it was really Selznick's show all the way. All his
strengths and weaknesses are in evidence: a solid sense of craft combined
with great production values, hobbled by shallow, sentimental dramatic
ideas. The picture was a very big hit at the time, but with the passage
of years, unfortunately, the weaknesses have become more evident than
Although the film pretends to deflate the popular mythology of glamour
surrounding Hollywood -- showing, for instance, how Vicki Lester's image
is manufactured for the public out of half-truths and fabrications,
and contrasting this with her real-life struggles -- it subtly reinforces
the legends of stardom with its melodramatic story about Norman Maine's
fall from grace. The script is piled with elevated hokum designed to
overwhelm us, from the kindly grandmother giving the pep talk to Esther
about never giving up although your heart is breaking, to the bathos
of March's character, self-pity posing as sacrifice, as he begins to
see himself as a burden to his wife's career. None of the characters
seem like real people, and the aura of self-importance surrounding the
whole story prevents anything like actual emotion from breaking through.
Gaynor is quite good in the lead role -- she even does a few star impressions
during a cocktail party scene (Hepburn, Mae West, etc.) that are amusing
-- and March does as well as could be expected in the difficult task
of playing a lovable egotist (a real charmer like Cary Grant would have
been better). Lionel Stander is excellent as a vengeful, cynical publicist.
But the film feels empty and unconvincing -- you have to settle into
an outmoded, superficial narrative stance in order to enjoy it.
The 1954 George Cukor remake
with Judy Garland is a better film, for several reasons, most decisively
because it's a musical. The unreality of this story is softened by the
injection of singing and dancing interludes -- musicals are supposed
to feel artificial, and therefore it holds together better. This earlier
"Star" may be a "classic," but its charm has a half-baked mustiness
SUNDAYS AND CYBELE
(Serge Bourguignon, 1962).
Pierre (Hardy Krüger), an amnesiac traumatized by his experiences
as a pilot in Indochina, is transformed by an accidental encounter with
a 12-year-old girl (Patricia Gozzi) who has been abandoned by her father.
He poses as the father in order to take her from a Catholic boarding
school on Sunday outings, and their relationship awakens feelings of
passionate attachment in both of them, but he is afraid to reveal any
of this to his clinging girlfriend (Nicole Courcel), the nurse who had
helped him recover from the plane crash in which he lost his memory.
Bourguignon's first feature won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language
Film. Its appeal lies in its unabashed identification with the kind
of romantic desperation common to early adolescence. Amnesia is certainly
one of the most over-used (and silliest) dramatic devices in film --
here, at least, it's only employed as a way of making the mind of the
adult hero more childlike, so that his strong bond with the girl will
be more moving and believable. And Krüger does a good job portraying
the young man's lost, restless, searching qualities. Gozzi is something
else -- she conveys the girl's morbid emotional states with harrowing
intensity. Francoise is looking for someone to love her, and she rewards
Pierre's attentions with a fierce, voluble devotion that is tinged with
more than a little erotic energy. In fact, it's one of the picture's
virtues that it doesn't try to deny the erotic aspect of the relationship,
but chooses to face it head on.
The director uses a variety of expressionistic techniques to create
alternating moods of lyricism and ominous storm clouds. Shadows, reflections
in water, a mixture of classical and Tibetan music -- the evocative
style is, if anything, too rich, too mannered, so that the picture comes
off as more melodramatic than I would like. We are never quite convinced
in these people as real, so the charged atmosphere has to stand in for
depth of characterization. The movie was greatly overrated on its initial
release (and Bourguignon never achieved much else of note), but for
the depiction of a certain delicate stage of emotional life -- needy,
at odds with conventional social life, obsessed with death and the beauty
of the fleeting moment -- in short, the time of hypersensitive, budding
adolescence, few films have done a better job.
©2004 Chris Dashiell