Flicks

THE PURCHASE PRICE
(William Wyler, 1932).

Barbara Stanwyck plays a singer in Montreal who is sick of being pushed around by her gangster boyfriend (Lyle Talbot). She runs away, but he pursues, so she ends up changing her identity and answering an ad for a mail-order bride from a hick North Dakota farmer (George Brent!). The farm country imagined by the screenwriter (Robert Lord) is populated by drunken oafs and other idiots, and the wedding and ensuing celebration are comic disasters. After his new wife rejects his inept wedding night groping, Brent´s character spends most of the rest of the film angry at her, while she gradually grows to respect and love him, trying in every way she can to gain his affection.

Plot complications inevitably ensue, including a lecherous neighbor and the gangster finally tracking down his girl. None of this is believable, or even very interesting, but what the film does have is the unflagging energy of the 25-year-old Stanwyck, who lights up the picture with her charm and charisma, is very engaging in the early scenes as a tough woman weary of her life, and is later endearing as someone improbably enamored of a simple farmer. (Brent was a weird choice for this role, but he manages to submerge what personality he has into it.) Not one of Wellman´s best pictures, but like most of them, watchable.

SIR ARNE´S TREASURE
(Mauritz Stiller, 1919).

In 16th century Sweden, a rebellion of the King´s Scottish guards is put down. Three of the rebels make a daring escape from a prison tower, but on their way through the snow to a fishing village where they hope to find a ship, extreme cold and hunger drives them mad with desperation. When they come to the mansion of Sir Arne, they murder him and his family, steal the treasure, burn the castle down, and escape. But a girl named Elsalill (Mary Johnson) survives the carnage by hiding. Years later, adopted and living in a different town, Elsalill falls in love with a noble young lord (Richard Lund), unaware that he was one of the murderers.

Stiller was already a veteran director when he adapted this Selma Lagerlof story to the screen, and it is a masterful work, as advanced in technique as anything that had been seen at the time, albeit on a smaller scale than Griffith´s epics. He makes extensive use of the moving camera, which was rare, and his habit of cutting into the middle of an action creates an effect more modern than in most silent films. The scene in which neighbors rush to the burning castle brilliantly conveys chaos and terror. Over the entire film, in fact, there hangs a mood of ominous fatefulness and "the uncanny,"exemplified by marvelous sequences in which the young woman dreams of her dead sister. In addition, Stiller handles Elsaill´s love for the Scottish nobleman poignantly, yet with very little sentimentality.

Shot by Jules Jaenzon, Sweden´s preeminent cinematographer, Sir Arne´s Treasure is an uncommonly gorgeous motion picture. The ending scene with the procession across the ice is among the most haunting and beautiful in all of cinema.

PETULIA
(Richard Lester, 1968).

Archie, a recently divorced doctor (George C. Scott) encounters the beautiful eccentric Petulia (Julie Christie) at a San Francisco charity function. She tries to seduce him; he´s charmed by her quirkiness but understandably resistant. As it happens, she´s married to an abusive man (Richard Chamberlain) who mirrors the dominating ways of her father (Joseph Cotten).

The charming kook was a recurring character in the films of the 1960s, and Lester, who of course directed the first two Beatles films, specialized in kookiness. What seemed fascinating then has lost some of its luster-I was repelled by Christie´s character at first. The style is also very much of that era: quick cuts, oblique camera angles, flashbacks and flash forwards. In terms of screen personas, I can´t imagine more complete opposites than Christie and Scott, but in an odd way that ends up helping the film. Both performances feel very sincere, and the story, adapted from a novel by John Haase, has a tone of sorrow and regret that makes it more interesting than a more typical 1960s romp would have been.

The picture makes enough room for the characters´ backgrounds to come haltingly to life. Archie´s ex-wife (Shirley Knight) has hooked up with a new man who is reliable, but dull. Petulia, we discover, felt sorry for a Mexican orphan and brought him home, with disturbing consequences for her marriage. These well-to-do people are increasingly dissatisfied, and the glimpses we get of the "summer of love" counterculture surrounding them only serve to emphasize the feeling of loss. Ultimately what´s at stake is whether a conventional man like Archie is willing to take a chance for something different, and whether Petulia has enough courage to break with her past. The conclusion seems satisfyingly real. Nevertheless, the picture seems unfinished in some way, as if the ideas about the changing world Lester wanted to convey can´t be properly expressed through these characters or this story. The film remains a minor pleasure, mostly due to the skills of the two leads.

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES
(Chantal Akerman, 1975).

This is one of those unusual films that had a great influence on other filmmakers as well as the critical vanguard, and gained a following with cinephiles, while only rarely being screened. Criterion´s recent DVD release was the first chance for most people to see what all the fuss was about.

The title character, played by Delphine Seyrig, is a widow with a teenage son who spends her time taking care of the apartment where they live, and occasionally turning tricks with middle-aged male clients who visit her home. Over its three hour and twenty minute running time, the film shows Jeanne washing, making the beds, cooking meals, and performing other mundane household chores, during a three day period. The camera is static, reverse shots are not used, and cuts are usually at a 90-degree angle to the action.

The form that Akerman employs is, in a sense, more important than the content. It defines itself by what it is not, or what it is pushing against, and this is inescapable for the viewer, who of course is used to the dramatic form that cinema has almost always assumed. In an interview she explained her belief that there is a hierarchy of images in film that places a car accident or a kiss "higher in the hierarchy than washing up...And it´s not by accident, but relates to the place of women in the social hierarchy." Thus the film very methodically includes hours of detail that would be cut in a conventional drama. There´s an "in your face" quality to this project-rubbing the viewer´s mind against habits of viewing conditioned by a male-dominated culture.

Obviously the film violates one´s expectation to be entertained. It is deliberately boring, and there´s no getting around its nature as an endurance test. It is also an intellectual challenge-a puzzle of sorts-and a meditation on materiality. The mistake would be to think that it´s an attempt at "real time" naturalism. Even for a person as controlling as Jeanne, reality would be messier and more random than this. The almost mechanical regularity of her actions, punctuated with the sounds of doors being closed and light switches being turned on and off, is intended as a heightened version of the quotidian. There is very little dialogue, with unusual silences between her and her son, and this serves to make things seem even more isolated and repressed. But if we think that drudgery alone is the point, we ignore the middle class setting and the theme of prostitution. Akerman melds the image of the prostitute with that of female domesticity, and the satiric intent is there, however muted.

What was once a radical experiment eventually came into its own. The long take and the focus on the ordinary spaces between "dramatic" events is now a staple in art cinema, from Jia Zhangke to Cristi Puiu and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. As an example of feminist structure in film language, however, the picture still stands alone. Try to watch it in one sitting, with a concentrated frame of mind. You probably won´t ever feel the need to see it again, but it will make its mark.

ACE IN THE HOLE
(Billy Wilder, 1951).

Kirk Douglas plays a cocky, ruthless reporter named Chuck Tatum, who ends up working for an Albuquerque newspaper after being fired from a major urban daily. Looking to get back up the ladder with a big story, he happens upon a man trapped in an Indian cave dwelling, and milks the emergency for all it´s worth. Soon the whole country is in a frenzy over the trapped man, while Tatum manipulates the situation to his advantage.

This was Wilder´s first picture without screenwriter Charles Brackett, with whom he parted ways after Sunset Boulevard. He wrote this one himself with some help from journeymen Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels. It was Newman who brought a true story of a cave-in in Kentucky to Wilder´s attention, and from it he fashioned this scathing satire of press sensationalism and the American propensity for mass hysteria.

The film was shot on location in New Mexico. It is one of the few Wilder films, perhaps the only one, with the gritty look of a non-studio shoot. The production values are nonetheless first-rate. Wilder is especially adept at showing us crowds: an overhead shot of a train arriving and unloading a huge batch of tourists, with a country song on the soundtrack, is a real beauty. Also notable is the performance of Jan Stirling as the trapped man´s wisecracking, amoral wife.

Even to an audience accustomed to Wilder´s acerbic wit, Ace in the Hole was too much. It flopped at the box office. Although the movie was ahead of its time, its failure with the public is understandable in some ways. The main character is a hateful person-Tatum even deliberately prolongs the suffering of the trapped man in order to create more drama. Kirk Douglas was never afraid to play a heel when he was called upon to do so, and he plays it to the hilt here. He has also never been known for subtlety, and the performance tends to be one-note. Overall, the vision of humanity presented by Wilder is so dark and uncompromising (the word most used at the time to describe the film was "cynical") that audiences in 1951 would of course recoil.

It is astounding, and discouraging, to see how prescient Wilder was about mass culture. We see now, and almost take for granted, the media´s generation of a circus-like atmosphere around events that have been largely invented by the same media. Even more penetrating was Wilder´s depiction of a public hungry for vicarious identification and excitement, all too willing to buy into the latest manufactured spectacle. And the dressing up of this idle, solipsistic gullibility with phony "Americanism"and pseudo-religious "values" strikes a vulnerable spot even today. In 1951, it must have seemed like a deliberate insult. To watch Ace in the Hole, which you should do at least once, is to be made uncomfortable. And that´s exactly what was intended.

2011 Chris Dashiell
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