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
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.