Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - November 2000
Ordet
Kanal
You Only Live Once
The Nun's Story
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

More Will Be Revealed
The Wind Will Carry Us
A Time for Drunken Horses
Solas

Flicks - October 2000
Distant Voices, Still Lives
Dust in the Wind
The Kiss (1929)
Gunga Din

 


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LA GUERRE EST FINIE (Alain Resnais, 1966).

An aging Spanish leftist (Yves Montand), a key figure in the anti-Franco underground, barely escapes arrest while crossing the border to France. The film follows him through three tense days in Paris - trying to coordinate a rescue of his comrades who are being rounded up in Madrid, spending time with his mistress (Ingrid Thulin), and being lured by a fling with a student (an incredibly young and kittenish Genevieve Bujold) who turns out to have radical connections of her own.

Resnais was already a master of formal innovation. Here he once again uses quick cuts and brilliant sound editing to reproduce subjective states - in this case that of a wily political survivor experiencing fatigue and self-doubt. And he adds yet another new technique to the art - the flash-forward, used here to deftly evoke the main character's anxiety about the future. Yet the film's structure is not as complex as in Muriel or other previous Resnais films. The storyline is fairly straightforward. The political issues at stake are presented with clarity - so much so that some critics have complained that the film is simplistic. I think not. The lucid editing style focuses the viewer's mind on the personal experience of the central character as the story unwinds. And Montand brings the right mixture of self-assurance and melancholy to the role. If in the end it doesn't have the weight that we expect from a Resnais film, it still compels one's interest, and it retains the indelible feeling of certain aspects of the 60s that we would do well to recall.

THE TOLL GATE (Lambert Hillyer, 1920).

I don't mind admitting that historical curiosity often inspires my viewing choices. If you're a film buff, chances are you've heard of William S. Hart, maybe even seen clips, but have you ever actually seen one of his films? Now I can say I have, and I'm none the worse for it.

Hart was different in two ways from other screen cowboys of his time. He was a perfectionist about period detail - his westerns looked very much like the actual west rather than a romanticized version of it. And he was equally concerned with the storytelling craft of his films. His heroes are serious characters who face moral dilemmas, and solve their problems in recognizably human ways.

In The Toll Gate he plays the leader of a gang of train robbers who is captured after being double-crossed by his partner. In what is one of the film's better sequences, he escapes from a moving train, but years later he runs into his nemesis in a frontier town and is once more hunted by a posse. Taking refuge in an isolated cabin, he falls in love with a single mother (Anna Q. Nilsson) which causes a crisis of conscience for him when the posse shows up. Should he give himself up or fight it out?

Most of the acting is refreshingly low-key, and the pacing, especially in the film's first half, is quite professional. (Hillyer was to be one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood, specializing in the western.) This is one of Hart's later efforts, so you're looking at a man in his 50s playing at being younger, but overall he has impressive gravity and presence. The story gets rather too soggy in the last reel, along with the print itself, which has suffered deterioration. My favorite intertitle: "Rincon, where a man can do a killin' and get either a decent hangin' or a vote of thanks."

The Kino video also includes HIS BITTER PILL
(Fred Hibbard, 1916), a Mack Sennet parody of a Hart western. In this case the hero is played by the ungainly Mack Swain, and much of the comedy springs from the contrast between the noble conventions of the brave sheriff fighting evil and Swain's ridiculous mannerisms.

THE OLD MAID (Edmund Goulding, 1939).

Bette Davis starred in several so-called "women's pictures" at Warners that often transcended their melodramatic plots through the force of her considerable acting talent. In this one, set in the Civil War era, she plays Charlotte Lovell, who has an illegitimate child with a man in love with her cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins). Delia ditched him to marry for money, but when he dies in the war, and she finds out about the child, she ruins Charlotte's chance for a good match and adopts the child herself.

This movie could probably form the basis for an entire study on gender roles. The women are at first entirely motivated by the desire to find a husband, and later by motherhood. Even the daughter's illegitimacy has as its main dramatic effect a difficulty in getting her properly married off. The war of jealousy between the two cousins is in some ways a classic bitchfest, which of course fails to implicate any of the men in the problem. Yet one feels an underlying tension between these soap opera conventions and the indomitable will and persistence of Charlotte in making her own way despite the judgment of society.

A great deal of credit goes to the wonderful Davis, who plays a character at three different stages of life - young girl, middle-aged woman, and old maid - each with great style and conviction. Hopkins seems to wilt next to Davis' fire - most of the time she wears a fixed, bright-eyed expression that doesn't do much for her character. Jane Bryan is way too emphatic as the daughter - sometimes you just want to slap her. Goulding, one of the more underrated Hollywood directors, has a way with shadows and perspective that heightens the drama very nicely.

In order to get into weep mode here, you have to accept the fact that Charlotte must pose as a severe maiden aunt, hiding her true identity from her own daughter while watching her cousin get all the daughter's love. Kind of a stretch nowadays, but if you buy the premise the story can be pretty wrenching. The Old Maid is not quite in the same league as Dark Victory, not to mention Now Voyager, but Bette Davis is great enough to almost redeem the material. She even brought a tear to my eye at the last scene.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (Clyde Geronimi, 1959).

From the beginning, Disney has mined fairy tales and classic children's literature for its animated features. Even so, Sleeping Beauty was an odd choice. Not one of the more eventful fairy tales, its heroine spends a great deal of time - well, asleep. The writers jazzed things up with a lot of business involving the Three Fairies - Flora, Fauna and Merryweather - and added some lyrics to the music for the Tchaikovsky ballet. All this and beautiful animation still doesn't quite overcome the original handicap.

Many Disney aficionados consider this film second only to Pinocchio in the brilliance of its animation. I'd have to agree - the stylized medieval motifs combined with some truly lovely sequences of magic and transformation makes Sleeping Beauty a delight for the eyes. (It was in Cinemascope too, which must have been something to see.) But the singing lovers, the Princess and Prince, are as generic as can be, and the evil sorceress Maleficent seems like a mere retread of the queen from Snow White. The Three Fairies, and weak comic relief from the Prince's father, are not enough to sustain much interest. (Unless you're under a certain age, in which case I don't doubt that the movie will hold your attention.) In the end, Sleeping Beauty is a curiosity in the Disney canon - a mere bauble in spite of its gorgeous look.

DOG STAR MAN (Stan Brakhage, 1964).

If there's a dean of American experimental film, it would have to be Brakhage, who has been painting with film images for going on fifty years. This was his first major work, an astounding visual poem that has exerted an influence on the avante-garde ever since.

Non-narrative film is of course more difficult to write about. One really needs to see Dog Star Man to believe it. A barrage of images, often edited to alternate at lightning pace, transfixes the eyes in what I can only awkwardly describe as a meta-awareness of the nature of sight. There are shots of trees and other natural objects such as flowing water, shots of solar storms and other astral phenomena, occasional shots of people - or rather extreme close-ups of just a certain part of a person such as the mouth or hands. Images will stretch or be distorted as if in a convex mirror, or numerous images are superimposed on one another in dizzying combinatons - the world as the plaything of the mind. Many of the shots are recurring, which produce a dreamlike quality. In addition, Brakhage creates amazing effects by painting and scratching the film emulsion itself, a technique which was bold in its time and is now a standard method in many experimental works.

After a while I forgot about trying to figure out what the things were that were being pictured, and just gave myself up to perception without the mediation of language. Following the tumultuous symphony of the Prelude, Dog Star Man has a lengthy first part in which a single movement - that of a man carrying an ax, struggling up a steep hill in the snow with his dog, is shot from every conceivable oblique angle, and played in slow motion, to the eeriest effect. Intercut with images of a world of ice-covered trees along with numerous other rapid cross-cuts, the result is bizarre and disorienting in the extreme. Brakhage has an entire symbolic scheme built into this simple action, but I got more out of the experience of watching time being frozen than any profound explanation could ever provide.

The next three parts, featuring otherworldly shots of Brakhage's baby, his wife's nude body, and a return to the cosmic imagery of the Prelude, progressively decrease in length until the film ends with a kind of white light zero experience.

I marvel at the sheer amount of effort that it must have taken to create the movie And even though some of the technique in Dog Star Man has been overtaken by subsequent achievements in avant-garde film, it's still a monumental, breathtaking work. Also, I confess, a somewhat exhausting experience. The picture is utterly silent - no soundtrack, so there is nothing to distract one from the intense visionary journey. It's a workout, but at the end you may feel like you've been catapulted into an altered state.

Chris Dashiell
CineScene, 2000