Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - September 2004
Ashes of Time (1994)
A Woman of Affairs
Taxi! (1932)
War Requiem
The Specialist (1999)

Long Time Gone
Festival Express

Flicks - August 2004
Conspirators of Pleasure
L'Argent (1983)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Seven Chances
Mayerling (1936)

 

 

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 him.

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 Irish family.

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 the strengths.

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 about it.

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
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