Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ivan's Childhood (1962) - Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Ivan’s Childhood is a call to order. It is Tarkovsky’s first film and it’s also a film that quite remarkably, contains the blueprint for his career. Yes he would go on to produce more ambitious features, and more enigmatic ones, but it could be argued that the emotional, tactile, and visceral imagery of his feature debut would never be surpassed. His assured command of the physical/spiritual content and the way to connect psychological meaning through starkly beautiful imagery is intact from the beginning. This was my first viewing of this film and I must say I was completely floored by it. From beginning to end it is a penetrating visual experience that pulls you in under its spell and doesn’t let go. I am in love with this film.

Ivan’s Childhood stars Nikolai Burlyayev as a 12 year-old Russian boy whose family has been killed and at the beginning of the film, we find out he had joined a partisan group and was trying to cross the front line to enter Soviet territory. He is captured by the Soviets, and quickly becomes ensconced into the war effort. He is jaded and rather stand-offish toward the officers, fitting right in it seems. He wants to stay on the front lines to embark upon reconnaissance missions, which he believes will be successful due to his small size. There is also a subplot involving an army nurse named Masha (Valentina Malyavina), and her burgeoning relationships with two soldiers.  

Part of the major appeal of this film lies in Tarkovsky’s method of telling the story with dream sequences interspersed. Ivan’s dreams/memories of his mother and other moments from his childhood prior to the war are deeply affecting and magnificently staged and photographed, as is the entire film. Vadim Yusov's cinematography is breathtaking and the fluid camerawork that Tarkovsky’s films would be known for is on display here. Of particular note is the “birch forest scene” where Masha and her lover walk amongst a forest of white birch trees. White and black contrast magnificently in this striking sequence. Also, Ivan’s sequence in the bunker by himself is an intense examination of shadow and light with some brilliant editing. Furthermore, the dream sequence on the apple cart, with the “film negative” background, ending with the horses eating apples on the beach might be the most beautiful sequence in the film.  Ivan’s trip across enemy lines in the boat through the flooded forest is an examination of low-light compositions, barren trees, and reflections. In the film’s chilling final act, the setpiece in Berlin among the ruins and ashes as the soldiers sift through prisoner documents is equally memorable. 

What also strikes me about this film is Tarkovsky’s ability to convey the altered state of mind as completely essential to the storytelling. These scenes are not just cinematic flourishes, but the means to an end that fully conveys the altered universe that war creates. He would examine state of mind, and literal and imagined parallel existences later in other films, but here it’s so elemental to the boy’s comprehension of survival that these dreams and sequences must be filmed with a heightened state of consciousness and imagery. The boy, and we as the audience, “feel” through the images. The images are the conveyance of emotion. The use of organic materials- trees, water etc.- give a tactile presence to the images. You can feel them with your hands just as you can feel the emotional connection they make to your head and heart. Russia’s war ravages the countryside and damages nature along with any connection to it, just as it damages people and their lives and their connections to each other in this story. This is not to say that acting is relegated to the background. Nikolai as the small boy is absolutely compelling and intense. Rare is the performance by a boy of this age that is able to project true independence and fortitude, as well as brokenness as he is here. Perhaps Hunter McCracken’s performance is equally potent in Malick’s Tree of Life (2011). Most memorable though, is Tarkovsky's vision, which is on full display in this masterpiece.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Heiress (1949) - Directed by William Wyler

In William Wyler’s astute and pointed masterpiece, The Heiress, we find pleasure in what I would call the art of simplicity. Here we have a film that relies upon the foundation of a great script, solid dramatic acting, observant deep-focus cinematography, and a score that heightens the tension. I had never seen this film before until recently. I was aware of it’s status as a solid dramatic film from the 1940’s, and of Olivia de Havilland’s performance. What I wasn’t so prepared for was how solidly and assuredly the film is put together. Wyler has a great knack here for heightening dramatic effect through the observance of behavior within confined spaces. He essentially made a “chamber drama”, which Bergman in subsequent decades would perfect. Wyler allows the acting to develop through each scene, giving each actor time to create the moments within the scene, without cutting them short.

This film is based on the stageplay from 1947, which was based on the book, Washington Square by Henry James. Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a woman with very little experience in the matter of love or relationships with the opposite sex, but she possesses quite the inheritance from her deceased mother and also which will come from her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), whom she lives with, along with her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). Catherine is starting to get some wrinkles around her eyes, and is past her prime for getting the attention of men. Her father is possessive of her and critical. Her aunt pressures her to try to meet people. They attend a dance party where Catherine meets a handsome younger man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He pursues her rather heavily despite her shyness and timidity, soon proposing marriage to her. In the process of Morris asking Dr. Sloper for permission to marry, it’s clear that Dr. Sloper feels that Morris is only out to marry Catherine for her money, and threatens to withhold her inheritance. Catherine feels this is her only chance at marriage. Her father feels she is going to be robbed of her money and true love.

What I find so mesmerizing about the plot, is the fact that we really have no idea what Morris's intentions are. There are certain scenes where I am sure that he’s up to no good, and then there are other scenes where I’m sure that he is nothing but completely sincere in his love for Catherine. Clift plays the role magnificently, keeping us completely in the dark about his motives until we absolutely can’t stand the suspense any longer. His role is the key to making the chamber drama work. He is the one through which the plot engine churns. It’s his subtle nuances that count here most of all. I am also impressed by Olivia de Havilland, who is able to make me believe that she is the na├»ve, timid woman at the beginning of the film, and also the rather moody and direct woman she is at the end. Ralph Richardson is also terrifically curt, suspicious, and rather spiteful as the Dr., a man with deep-set flaws regarding his perfectionism and greed. Miriam Hopkins also provides a breezy counterpoint in several scenes that is most welcome here.

Deep-focus cinematography by Leo Tover is incredibly engaging and adds to the dramatic tension. I like the way that characters are framed in the classic dramatic triangle, with three people standing at different points within the frame, allowing us to see each one at the same time. Aaron Copland's score is also a tremendous asset to this film as well, adding the underpinnings and exclamation points to key moments. It’s the kind of score that doesn’t call too much attention to itself, but you notice that it’s working well with the film and enhancing it. In thinking about William Wyler’s ability to wring dramatic moments from his actors and focus on the drama of the scene (a la Dodsworth), I find a bit of a kinship with Sidney Lumet, who also got the best from his actors and from a focus on the essential elements of the film, a simplicity if you will. It’s something to think about anyway when we try to categorize Wyler. By any standard, though, The Heiress is one of the great Hollywood pictures of the 1940’s and not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) - Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Wendy Hiller. The amazing Wendy Hiller. One of the greatest actresses of all time-- Wendy Hiller. She only appeared in a handful of films due to her preference for stage work. Even though  she produced a small body of work, what a remarkable collection it is. I’ve seen a handful of films recently that she appeared in. What is so consistent with her, is her ability to project a certain inner confidence and determination. Her work holds up terrifically well today and I think her approach stripped away any tendency to delegate her emotional response to any male characters. It’s always an internal motivation to project “the self”, the independent spirit that carries her purpose. She doesn’t need anyone to feed off of, but rather is so strikingly original that she carries the lifeblood of any film on her shoulders, whether it be Major Barbara (1941), or Pygmalion (1938), or perhaps her greatest work on display in this film, Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!.

Powell and Pressburger made one of their most unassuming and romantic works, in this film, which not only is a meditation on fate, but also an examination of spontaneity and the spark of chance and how these two- fate and chance- play a role in our lives. We’re introduced to Joan during the opening credits. This opening credit sequence is a brilliant cinematic subversion---covering several years in between carefully placed credit titles.  We’re told how Joan always has known what she wanted and where she wanted to go from a young child through her young adulthood. Joan meets her father for a drink and dinner where she tells him she is about to be married to one of the wealthiest men in the UK, someone whom she hasn’t even met. She is soon to board a sequence of trains and cars and boats which will take her to the Isle of Kiloran in the Scottish Hebrides where she will marry the wealthy Sir Robert Bellinger. She has almost reached her final destination, when a series of bad weather events (fog, wind) prevent her from taking the final ferry boat she must take to get there. So she must remain on the Isle of Mull in the meantime. While there, she and another man, Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesy) who is also trying to get to the Isle of Kiloran, begin to be drawn to each other. The longer she must wait out the weather, the more she spends time with Torquil, throwing off all of her plans.

Back in November of last year I spent 3 weeks in the UK for work, during which time I had the great opportunity to spend about 5 days traveling around Scotland. My friend and I were driving from Inverness to Glencoe one day, which was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. While on the road, there was a sign indicating where we could take a road that would take us to the Hebrides, and immediately I remembered this film. I was suddenly taken with the idea of driving off west toward the Hebrides and finding my own slice of romantic Scotland which I could claim for my own for a few days. Of course I didn’t have time for such an excursion, but I wanted to see this picture again when I returned. It’s so nice to see the location scenery in this film, which is just gorgeous by the sea and mountains. There’s also a Scottish pride on display here, particularly in the sequence where Joan and Torquil watch the Scottish pipers playing tunes while everyone in the hall dances. This is such a terrifically shot sequence of motion, faces, and romantic longing.

So back to Wendy Hiller. From 1937 to 1956, she only appeared in 6 films! Oh how I wish we had more examples of her film acting from this era. She is one of those actresses who commands your attention. She’s not even particularly what one would call traditionally beautiful by Hollywood standards. She's a bit angular and has a face resembling a horse or something to that effect.But there’s something about her that draws you in and it’s her personal spirit. This film, one of the great romances of the era, works so well because we really like the Joan character. We just so desperately want her to be happy because we like her so very much. We root for her and we want her to find happiness, whether it be through fate or chance or whatever, just so long as she finds it. This film is as much a romance between the viewer and Hiller as it is between Joan and Torquil. It’s a terrifically written film, with wonderful subversive sequences (credit titles, dream sequence), great cinematography in Scotland, terrific performances all leading to one of Powell and Pressburger's breeziest entertainments and greatest films.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Faces (1968) - Directed by John Cassavetes

In my newfound appreciation (or tolerance) of Cassavetes, I have begun to understand something. Arduousness can itself be something which allows material to develop, elevate, and enlighten a particular theme or emotion. Here we have again another example of Cassavetes drawing out impact through sheer, sustained discomfort for the viewer. For me, this film is not something enjoyable to sit through, but rather a test of wills for me that is then rewarded in the end by a heightened state of emotional response. Through bludgeoningly tiresome dialogue and lengthy scenes, Cassavetes seemingly alienates his audience in the first half. Those that remain through the end of the film, though, are rewarded with one of the great hours of American independent cinema.

Plot here is not so important. Faces regards a middle-aged married couple, Richard (John Marley), and Maria (Lynn Carlin). They have drifted apart and this film basically picks up at the point in which Richard asks her for a divorce. In fact, once he makes his request, she can do nothing but laugh. Perhaps she’s so shocked and relieved that she finds it funny. Both Richard and Maria will end their night in the arms of someone else and this film examines the pit into which the modern marriage has disintegrated into. Malaise, unhappiness, frustration, loss of purpose……it’s all here in achingly painful and tedious detail.

I’ll admit, the first hour is nearly impossible to watch. I found it disorienting, sloppy, annoying in the worst way. I was not prepared, though, for how well everything would come together in the second half. Of particular note, is the lengthy scene when Maria and her girlfriends go to the club, and bring home a gigolo (Seymour Cassel) and concluding with the morning after sequence. Each woman is married and all are flirting in their own way with him. It’s apparent though, only one woman has real intent to have sex with him…..Maria. Her eyes tell the whole story. This sequence, of the women making fools of themselves, of the painfully humiliating discussions and opinions, of the girlfriends one by one exiting the house, leaving Maria and the man alone is absolute brilliance and Cassavetes at his very best. Of course, the morning after includes a further extending of the pain and desperation on display. It’s simply astounding filmmaking and raw emotion at its most heightened. This final hour of the film took my breath away.

Faces is filled with tremendous performances from many involved. John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Gena Rowlands, and Cassell all come off great here. But it's Carlin who takes the prize as the best performance in the film. She breaks my heart and is achingly honest. Cinematography, in 16mm, by Al Ruban, Maurice McEndree and Haskell Wexler is remarkable for its ability to exude harshness and beauty at the same time. If I have any complaint toward the film, its that the length and uneven quality of the film tends to create too much emphasis on the second half. And yet, I’m not really sure that this is a fair complaint. I wonder if the despair of the second half would be as impactful without the drawn out male-female interactions of the first half that seem to go nowhere. It's as if the tension building from the beginning sees it's release by the end. I can't help but think that Cassavetes knew his pacing was difficult to watch, but the only way to get his points across. Yes it’s arduous to sit through, but Faces is incredibly potent.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) - Directed by John Cassavetes

I’ll admit right out of the gate that Cassavetes has not been my cup of tea in the past. I saw Shadows (1959) several years ago and had a hard time focusing. I also watched The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and just really found it to be a nasty, ugly film. I understand that there are many who find these films to be masterpieces, but I didn't particularly like them. One film I've been avoiding is A Woman Under the Influence, which is considered to be one of Cassavetes’s best films and one of the watershed moments, especially in American Cinema of the 1970’s. I’ve been aware all along of the standing of Gena Rowlands’s performance as one of the best of that decade. Yet, I was still avoiding this film as I just really didn’t want to go through the ordeal of watching it. I came in with low expectations but came away with a high appreciation for it. It’s the first Cassavetes film that I can honestly say I appreciate, and in fact, applaud.

A Woman Under the Influence is a about a woman named Mabel (Rowlands), her husband Nick (Peter Falk), and their 3 children. To put it mildly- Mabel has issues. She drinks too much and is probably an alcoholic. She is also severely unstable and could probably be considered bi-polar or schizophrenic as well. She is a stay at home mom and her husband is a blue collar worker. This film is an examination of this woman and her relationships to her husband, her kids, her extended family and her connection/disconnection to reality. Cassavetes is less interested here in particular storylines and is focused on the psychological breakdown of Mabel and her familial incapacitation.  From the very beginning of the film we realize this woman is not right, and she’s going to get worse.

Of course the film’s impact is probably greater because of the way it’s filmed. I’ll be honest- this film was really difficult for me to sit through. It’s probably one of the most arduous films I’ve ever sat through, in fact. It’s long. It’s raw. It’s disjointed and at times clumsy, but I couldn’t look away from it. Watching a film that conveys the sorts of raw emotions this one does surely doesn’t stray too far from other directors who work with intense feelings, like Bergman. But, Bergman is far more composed cinematically and enwraps the viewer with a “comfortable presentation”. Cassavetes’s unsteady camerawork and grainy stock adds an ugliness to the already difficult proceedings. Even the way the compositions are put together are difficult to watch. People are not framed in their entirety. We get scenes of people that are filmed in close quarters, where people’s heads are not in full view, nor their bodies. We always see portions of people not their entire selves. Editing of course is also given short shrift. Scenes carry on and linger beyond that which is considered conventional. All of this adds a claustrophobia to the entire film. Even this, though, works towards the film's end goals. It feels part of the means to the end.

Because of how emotionally rough the film is, it’s hard to really know how to evaluate the performances because there is just so much that feels un-edited and rough. Rowlands is heartbreaking and annoying, true and false. She keeps you on your toes as you’re not sure what you’re going to see next, but sometimes I felt like I was watching a performance. At other times my heart was breaking for this woman. Peter Falk is tremendous, and probably a bit more consistent, but I’m not sure I always bought his interactions with his children. Taken together, I think the ordeal of watching this film is what stands out the most for me. It’s devastatingly uncomfortable and not like anything else I’ve ever seen and it's the intensity of the film that makes the biggest impact. I think it’s both flawed and a masterpiece at the same time, and really the full weight of the story isn’t felt until the final 20 minutes or so. I don’t think I’ll ever want to see it again, but I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it.