Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Little Fugitive (1953)

LITTLE FUGITIVE                 B+                  
USA  (75 mi)  1953  d:  Morris Engel   co-directors:  Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin

This is a small and often overlooked film that tends to fall through the cracks, rarely part of the discussion of Orson Welles in the 50’s or John Cassavetes in the 60’s when one recalls the history of American independent or low-budget films, where the film is listed here:  AMERICAN INDEPENDENT FILM - Movie List on, but not here:  American independent films.  Made for just $30,000 during the heyday of the studio system, the film is barely mentioned next to the influential, independently financed films made outside the studio system, such as Welles’s OTHELLO (1952) or MR. ARKADIN (1955), or experimental short films made prior to that.  LITTLE FUGITIVE (1953) was the first independent feature to be nominated for an Academy Award, in this case Best Original Screenplay, while also winning a Silver Lion Award at Venice.  Shot using a cinéma-vérité style, this American film predates most of Jean Rouch’s documentaries, one of the founding fathers of the style, and is often cited as having an influence on François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), one of the seminal works of the French New Wave, while also having an impact on the Iranian New Wave films from the 70’s to 90’s that often sought to tell religious or metaphorical stories through a child’s eyes.  Storywise, the film is something of a cross between The Cat in the Hat, a mischievous children’s book by Dr. Seuss that suggests pure anarchy exists while Mom’s away, and the Chaplin Silent era where the Little Tramp lives on the fringes of society, usually a victim of circumstances, often observing the exploits of people of privilege from the vantage point of a hungry Tramp having nothing at all.  After Mom goes away for a 24-hour period due to an emergency medical situation in the family, she leaves behind two mischievous brothers who are instructed to stay home, 12-year old older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) and 7-year old younger brother Joey (Richie Andrusco), leaving a few dollars on the table for food.  But these boisterous kids are seen earlier continually hanging out on the cramped streets of Brooklyn, New York with other boys, exploring the vacant lots nearby, shooting guns at targets, and even playing baseball in the streets, perpetually hanging outside, only coming indoors when they’re hungry, so the idea of staying home all day seems beyond their capabilities. 
As the youngest, the older boys continually pester and pick on Joey, usually trying to get rid of him, as they really don’t like him tagging along, a spoiled and often whiny, freckle-faced kid with dirt and slime constantly on his face with an everpresent toy gun in his holster, so they design a cruel hoax where it appears Joey has shot his older brother, using ketchup like they do in the movies.  Believing the worst, suddenly wracked with guilt and afraid of all policemen, Joey is encouraged to high-tail it out of town “until the heat dies down,” suddenly feeling all alone in the world.  Grabbing the money his mother left on the table, he hops on the subway, getting off at the end of the line, which happens to be Coney Island, wandering around alone, where the rest of the film is a somewhat mystifying, mostly wordless odyssey through an amusement park as seen through a child’s eyes, initially dejected, lost and alone, but eventually discovering the delights of the crowds, the funhouses, the merry-go-round, ball-throwing and shooting galleries, batting cages, cowboy photographs, pony rides, not to mention all the food vendors, where Joey can be seen eating to his heart’s content.  Shot in Black and White, a minimalist film told in a naturalistic manner, the overall key to the film is using a portable, hand-built 35mm camera by Charlie Woodruff that could be strapped to the shoulders, designed by the cinematographer and co-director Morris Engel who refused to use a tripod, insisting upon the mobility of constant street movement, a remarkably effective technique that caught the eye of young American director Stanley Kubrick who wished to rent the camera and Jean-Luc Godard who wished to purchase it.  Engel was able to hold a remarkably steady camera image long before the development of the Steadycam.  Of interest, much like Italian Neo-Realism, the film was shot without dialogue, so every word of dialogue had to be re-synched back in the studio afterwards, where the earliest sequences suffer the most, resorting to predictably generic dialogue, while Engel’s wife Ruth Orkin co-edits the film, a first time experience for both of them, teaming up with a friend, Ray Ashley, to co-write, co-direct, and co-produce the film.     

Joey eventually discovers the crowds at the beach, learning he can return disposable pop bottles for a cash refund, where he interweaves throughout the human throngs grabbing discarded bottles, receiving a nickel for each returned bottle, where the stark and somewhat downbeat realism of his existential wanderings often contrast with a few whimsical moments when he plays with even smaller kids.  Joey’s real passion is the pony rides, which he returns to again and again, developing a friendly relationship with Jay Williams, the Pony Man, who eventually suspects something is up with a kid wandering around without any adult supervision, which only scares the poor kid off, where one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes is the transition into nightfall Little Fugitive: Nightfall scene - YouTube (1:38), where the musical soundtrack throughout is Lester Troob’s lone harmonica, using “Home On the Range” as the movie’s musical theme.  In the morning, Joey dusts himself off after spending a night outdoors and washes his face in the public fountain, copied identically by Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups).  In the early hours when the beach is empty and there are no crowds, the Pony Man again befriends Joey, letting him help with the horses, trying to alleviate his suspicions, but also acquiring information where he obtains an address or phone number, getting ahold of Lennie who makes a beeline to the Pony Man at Coney Island, but Joey has again disappeared, where the camera follows Lennie in his search for his younger brother, oddly similar, but due to the age difference, less compelling, as Joey is the real star of the show, giving a heartbreaking performance that can’t be matched by anyone else, literally owning the audience’s sympathies.  Veering back and forth between sidewalk shots and aerial views, giving a time capsule glimpse of Coney Island, there’s a gorgeously photographed rainstorm where people rush for cover, where the beaches empty and crowds hover under the bleachers waiting the rain out, reminiscent of an era when people had time to wait, where they weren’t rushing to get somewhere, but could simply wait out a storm.  Afterwards, Joey is once again alone on the vast emptiness of the beach, engulfed by the enormity of it all, just a speck in the sand until his brother spots him, where of course no one makes any mention of an adventure when Mom returns home.  The film was inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1997. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Cool World

THE COOL WORLD            A-                   
USA  (105 mi)  1964  d:  Shirley Clarke

There goes Duke, he’s a real cold killer.   
—from the imagination of Duke (Hampton Clanton)

A landmark film, coming on the heels of John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959 – both versions), each set on the streets of New York where the documentary style, cinéma vérité reality brings the city to life in ways never seen before, so vividly depicted that it actually becomes the lead character of the film.  This is a true radical work, however, using an in-your-face experimental style that is never comfortable, where the freewheeling visual style matches the frenetic intensity of the Dizzy Gillespie jazz-driven musical soundtrack, written by Mal Waldron, along with the starkly superficial, plainly dubbed in spots, overlapping, improvised speech patterns of non-professionals that at times suggests the need for subtitles, that might be more representative of the first, rarely seen, entirely improvised, and perhaps more amateurish version of the Cassavetes’ film that fellow avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas preferred.  From the opening shot of a Black Muslim street preacher who doggedly derides and degrades the white man’s place in the world, this is truly something different to behold, especially coming years before the rise of the Black Panthers or any Black Power movement in America, and must have been stunning to behold when it was released.  Made immediately prior to Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man (1964), among the best American black-themed films ever made, each starring the first two roles of actress Gloria Foster, both films currently in the Library of Congress National Registry, which contains few black films, though both interestingly enough were written by white Jewish men.  Adapted from the novel by Warren Miller, set entirely on the streets of Harlem, the novel was a favorite of Harlem-born author James Baldwin who couldn’t tell if the author was black or white, this film predates Claude Brown’s epic street novel Manchild in the Promised Land, released in 1965, which similarly features young men growing up too fast, told with a lightning speed quickness that provides a visceral, spontaneous feel for the rhythm of life on the streets of Harlem.  

Literally a story about a young teenage boy who wants to buy a gun, thinking this is the way to ensure his young gang will be protected from outside interference, namely other gangs, and where he envisions respect as he passes down the street, until he realizes too late that this is a foolhardy plan.  Instead the film rises and falls on small incidental details of each passing day, where friends meet on the street, or a young street gang meets in a clubhouse, playing music, smoking pot, drinking, and having sex with a girl Luanne, Yolanda Rodríguez in her only screen appearance, brought in as exclusive property of the gang.  The aggressive intensity of the film is mildly offset with nocturnal images of the city set to a smooth jazz score, luminous impressionistic moments of quiet before each day bursts with energy anew.  The oldest gang member Blood (Clarence Williams, later Linc from TV’s The Mod Squad) initially intimidates and manipulates the younger members, but they soon realize he’s rarely around to enforce his gang rules, so Duke (Hampton Clanton) quickly rises to the leadership position, supplanting Blood, who becomes an addict, seen here as the lowliest, most pathetic dregs of the earth.  As the leader, Duke is pestered into providing the game plan for taking out their rival gang, which he assumes will be no problem with a gun, but he can’t raise the $50 bucks needed to buy it from an older gang lord named Priest (Carl Lee, script co-writer, later seen in SUPERFLY [1972]). 

Along the way Duke takes Luanne to the ocean for the first time in her life, as it’s something she’s always wanted to see but never realized it was accessible by subway.  The Coney Island scenes are memorable for the mad rush of energy they provide, where they soon realize there’s a life outside the few city blocks where they live, leaving Duke more hesitant than ever to carry out his own plans of gang revenge.  The aggressive nature of the film will surprise viewers, as will the jarring or at times hard-to-hear overlapping layers of dialogue which were recorded before the era where director Robert Altman specialized in this specific cinema technique.  While Altman reduced the actual words to secondary status, making character the central focus of the film, Clarke’s improvised dialogue provides windows into her various characters, many of whom continue to be introduced as the film evolves.  Duke also has narrated passages that flow over the sea change of street activities captured by Baird Bryant’s highly active camera.  This is nearly a first person, stream-of-consciousness, coming-of-age story that encounters unexpected difficulties each passing day, each of which changes the landscape for this young man, whose future slips farther and farther away from his grasp, instead capable of living only in the present.  By the finale, by the sheer audacity of filmmaking bravado, the audience has lifelong impressions of Harlem that are surprisingly authentic, even when seen 40 years after the film was made.  Of interest, this film was produced by documentarian Frederick Wiseman and working with Shirley Clarke represents his initial entry into the film business.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ornette: Made in America

Shirley Clarke with Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman, William S. Burroughs, and Buckminster Fuller (left to right)

ORNETTE:  MADE IN AMERICA                 B             
USA  (85 mi)  1985  d:  Shirley Clarke

A film twenty years in the making, as Shirley Clarke went over a decade without making any films at all after PORTRAIT OF JASON (1967), initiating a film about jazz with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whom she met in the 60’s through Yoko Ono, but the project floundered until she discovered the video camera in the 80’s, making a few shorts before returning to this film.  Video techniques play a prominent role in the making of the film, as it allows the director to mix and match how she wants to effect the screen image, mixing realistic images with animation and elements of surrealism, creating an otherworldly effect, which matches the endlessly expanding universe that at least partially explains the music of Ornette Coleman.  Seen in the opening sequence receiving an honorary plaque from the mayor and a key (which astronaut Alan Bean had taken to the moon and back) to the city of Fort Worth, his home town, his first hometown appearance in 25 years, the site of a world premiere of his “Skies in America,” a combined jazz and symphonic work utilizing his regular combo along with the Fort Worth Symphony.  In fact, much of the documentary is a recording of this performance which is the centerpiece of the film.  In it we hear Coleman’s free jazz style, which is completely non-melodic, played at such a rapid tempo with such quickly maneuvering improvisation that some are apt to question whether it even qualifies as music.  During the 50’s, other musicians walked off the stage in defiance when he played, some destroyed his instruments, while others physically attacked and beat him, deemed a jazz pariah, and to some an embarrassment, receiving some of the harshest music criticism along with fellow avant garde pioneer, pianist Cecil Taylor.  Both seem to play in abrasive clusters, characterized by an extremely energetic and physically aggressive approach to sound, never allowing it to remain static, but continually challenging the listener’s capability to comprehend.  Even today, more than half a century later, the jury is still out on that.  But this is not the focus of the film, which instead allows his music, and Clarke’s visual style, to continually expand what the audience is used to.

One of the surprises is realizing just how much of Coleman’s music is written composition, similar to filmmaker John Cassavetes, where both are attributed to using an improvisational style of art, yet each carefully compose and scrutinize every note and word ahead of time.  However, neither artist believes it ends there, as they constantly tinker and adjust and rewrite, allowing the work to breathe like a living organism, where it’s never really cemented in time.  Coleman rarely plays jazz standards, concentrating on his own compositions, where there seems to be an endless flow of enormous sound.  Ironically, Coleman’s demeanor is that of a quiet and unassuming man, not at all vain, egotistic or reflective of the assaultive power of his work, where his mind is continually tinkering with new ideas and perceptions, heavily influenced by Buckminster Fuller, an inventor, futurist, and theorist, and also beat writer William S. Burroughs who is seen performing a reading dedicated to Coleman.  Fuller, however, best represents what feels to Coleman like an ever expanding but mathematically ordered universe, where Clarke shoots a string ensemble sequence inside one of his geodesic domes.  Coleman was particularly influenced by Fuller’s view that there was no up or down, but simply the concept of outward, as we are all effected by being inside or outside the gravitational pull, where he has always been driven to push his music outside orthodox realms, like a spaceship breaking through the boundaries of gravity.  Clarke has some fun with animated sequences of Coleman in a sporty The Jetsons style space ship juxtaposed over grainy images of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk.  During these space images, it was hard not to think of equally controversial jazz leader Sun Ra, whose musical mantra was always “Space is the place,” often seen performing in concerts dressed as a space traveler, with the band wearing an equally distinctive science fiction uniform, where he was an ardent believer that avant garde artists took themselves much too seriously.                          

One of the more questionable ideas was using a child actor to play Coleman as a young child, where he wanders alone by the train tracks carrying a saxophone, images which are interjected periodically throughout the film, rather manipulatively reminding us of the roots but also the pathos of poverty.  Some of her other ideas are equally misguided, using abstract expressionist video techniques coinciding with abstract streams of Coleman’s music which have a diminutive rather than enhancing effect.  Somewhat mysteriously, Clarke may actually misunderstand the musical artform, as she accompanies the music with some trippy psychedelic sequences that may have seemed cutting edge at the time, but they’re completely out of synch with the awesome power of Coleman’s music.  Like many greatly misunderstood artists in their youth, Coleman’s refusal to acquiesce to popular tastes led to a reversal of critical opinion, calling him an uncompromising jazz genius later in his lifetime.  Clarke’s film, showing different stages of his career from 1968 to 1983, doesn’t really capitalize on this clamor of support, where Coleman’s innovation clearly outshines that of the film director, who strains to keep up, using quick cuts, some unusual editing, where time moves simultaneously backwards and forwards, never in a traditional linear fashion, which makes this a somewhat rare and unusual documentary, but one that fails to honor the unique stature of the featured artist. 

Too little information is provided about the man, too few interviews, too few performances, no archival footage, and barely a hint at the peculiar path he took to greatness.  Only one interview from a jazz critic in New York gets it right, recalling a magical moment in New York on a snowy night when Coleman broke out in Charlie Parker style, often copied but never equaled, yet Coleman matched that same eccentric passion and precision, playing on into the night, never once faltering, matching the near impossible physical and technical demands of one of the most heralded musical greats in all of jazz.  Yet when asked to explain his unforgettable performance afterwards, Coleman nonchalantly indicated he likes to do that every once in awhile “just for fun.”  Clarke began her artistic career as a dancer and studied with the Martha Graham Dance Company, among other dance luminaries, developing an artistic kinship to jazz as a free form artistic expression, perhaps similar to what she was trying to accomplish in film.  Her first films were dance movies, becoming more radically experimental, adding racial issues and a social conscience, often blurring the lines between fiction and documentary.  This was Clarke’s last work, failing to capture the energy and imagination of her 60’s films like The Cool World (1964), which also happens to have an exceptional jazz musical soundtrack from Mal Waldron.  Nonetheless, flawed as it is, the fusion between Ornette Coleman and Shirley Clarke can’t help but generate interest, both unheralded yet rare artists whose stature has only grown over time, where this unusual film is a part of jazz and cinema history.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge)

A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT (Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge)        A 
France  (240 mi)  1977     re-edited 1993 US version (180 mi)  d:  Chris Marker 

The workers will take the struggle from the fragile hands of the students.

One is unlikely to ever see so much collected Communist footage without watching propaganda films, as Marker, a member of the “Left Bank” of the New Wave for his Marxist inspired politics, fought in the French Resistance during World War II, and his films, like ¡CUBA SI! (1961), are often sympathetic to Socialist movements around the world.  His work combines social issues with formal experiment, getting his start as a foreign correspondent and inquiring reporter, where he is especially interested in transitional societies, “Life in the process of becoming history.”  His films are not only set in specific places, they are about the cultures of those places, calling his approach “Involved objectivity.”  An epic, years-in-the-making history of militant/revolutionary struggle from the 1960’s, there are essentially two versions of this film, a 1977 four-hour version in French, which would probably score a higher grade, and a 1993 re-edited, three-hour English language translation, which likely loses something without the original French speakers, such as Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who are among the collective of French narrative voices.  Ideally, in film essays, one appreciates the tone of the narrative voice, such as the authoritarian, yet highly personal voice of Terrence Davies in Of Time and the City (2008), whose eloquence and perfect diction reflects his devout Catholic upbringing, which he angrily rails against in his heavily autobiographical film.  Without hearing the intended voices when Marker made the film, one can only surmise what must be missing from this American version, as the dry and emotionless English language narrator continually takes the air out of the wealth of material with his monotone and often lifeless readings.  That’s unfortunate, as certainly one of the revelations of this film is the rare historic nature of the collected archival materials, where the narrator should help put this invaluable footage in perspective.  Consider this segment with a French narration, presumably Marker himself, beautifully recalling a childhood experience when he first watched Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) Grin Without a Cat (Opening Sequence) - Chris Marker - YouTube (4:04), emphatically describing that magical moment when he first hears the words “Brothers!”  This opening POTEMKIN sequence is utterly enthralling, especially with that mix of militarism and Mozart in the original score written by Luciano Berio, using carefully edited clips from the original movie, then cleverly introducing chosen footage of 1960’s demonstrations that resulted in bloody clashes with heavily armed police, mirroring the chaos and pandemonium from the Odessa Steps sequence. 

Along with Jean Eustache’s film The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), these are definitive expressions of innocence lost, reflecting the aftermath of the failed French revolution in May 1968 and the end of the French New Wave, while Bertolucci’s film Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione) (1964) is a wonderfully insightful critique of the Communist Party leading up to that promised day when the revolution would finally come.  Marker’s video essay is comprised entirely of archival footage on revolutionary events between 1966 and 1977, dividing his work into two parts, first examining the unity and optimism gearing up for May 1968 in France, while also documenting the subsequent collapse of global socialist struggles, leaving the Left fractured and in disarray afterwards.  If there is one word that encapsulates what the 60’s was about, that word would be Vietnam.  Marker shows footage of American armed merchants selling their wares, including explosive devices that can be hooked up to common household items such as soap dishes, proudly displaying their effectiveness, claiming this could easily blow up a car as well.  America’s fascination with weapons is displayed by an overzealous Air Force pilot filmed while on a mission dropping bombs and napalm on Vietnam, positively exhilarated that he was able to obliterate live targets seen running on the ground out in the open Air Force pilot in Vietnam: at war and loving it - YouTube (2:00).  Perhaps the poster faces of revolution in the 60’s were that of a youthful Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, both advocates of guerilla warfare.  While this tactic may have worked in Cuba, leading Parisian socialists were not so quick to pronounce this an effective strategy in Europe.  Nonetheless, there is plenty of footage of Castro analyzing the various international strategies, such as the Cuban Missile crisis or the Russian decision to abandon Cuba, where more than any other, he is the most featured speaker.  The film examines the effectiveness of Stalinism, suggesting one of the problems of the Russian Revolution was the lack of input from ordinary citizens, where it was not a people’s revolution, ruling instead through despotic control, using the police and armed military to prevent dissent, so the socialist mindset was never accepted by ordinary citizens, believing it was imposed upon them rather than a collective method where everyone contributed to the whole, which is exactly how Russia always portrayed itself in the propaganda films.  By contrast, the Chinese Revolution is a people’s revolution, where ordinary people are the engine that generates activism, where they have a personal stake in the output, generated by local party council meetings where they are constantly feeding input to the top.  The problem, however, is corruption, where a few would rather consolidate their own power, taking advantage of their position in the party for special favors.  Nonetheless, effective or not, there was a growing influence of Maoism, especially after the Sino-Soviet Split, where even the American Black Panther Party carried around Mao’s Little Red Book, aka Quotations from Chairman Mao.   

Without ever endorsing any particular method, Marker is careful not to editorialize, but offers perhaps the best composite overview and critique of his own failed Marxist dream, occasionally interjecting an eccentric electronic score that adds a fragmented touch of dissonance or discord, where the events leading up to May 1968 are prefaced by other Protests of 1968, including a worldwide series of demonstrations and strikes, largely comprised of students and workers, including the Tlatelolco massacre of 200 protesters in Mexico ten days prior to the 1968 Summer Olympic games, where not a single country lodged any protest.  May 1968 is significant because the world might be a different place had there been a different outcome, truly a historic moment in time when the Parisian student demonstrations combined with nationwide French worker strikes creating the largest general strike in the history of an advanced industrial nation, a prolonged two-week strike involving 11 million workers and nearly a quarter of the French population.  The impact was so significant it brought about the collapse of the De Gaulle government, but there is still plenty of disagreement about what went wrong, where the general consensus is the lack of a cohesive direction, where the Communist Party all but supported the government, as the leftist student movements never made the case for a worker’s movement, the foundation of any socialist revolution, allowing a wedge to be brought between the two groups which the government capitalized upon.  Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton is seen in his Pentagon offices describing the capture and killing of Che Guevara in the mountains of Bolivia, proudly gloating at this success, eager to assess blame that Che’s mistake was relying upon a Communist Party that hadn’t established a footing and never connected with the locals in Bolivia, leaving him isolated and vulnerable.  This event seems to foreshadow more ominous occurrences yet to come. 

Marker’s analysis of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968 is nothing short of breathtaking, perhaps the high point of the film, as it capsulizes the deflated hopes of those advocating international socialism, that call to arms for fraternal brotherhood so brilliantly depicted in POTEMKIN.  Even Castro is outraged, calling it an illegal act when a socialist nation militarily occupies another nation, as it goes against everything the international brotherhood of socialists stand for and only weakens their position worldwide.  Marker also provides stunning footage of recently elected Socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile addressing a gathering crowd, charming and completely relaxed, displaying a candid logic and intelligence while attempting to alleviate tensions about converting the nation to a socialist state, claiming there are already capitalist precedents.  He is also seen giving a surprisingly honest speech about the necessity of imposing a wage freeze to avert inflation, for which he received jeers and hisses at a worker’s hall gathering where he speaks about a worker’s moral obligation, but he was the tragic victim of a U.S. backed military coup shortly afterwards, allegedly committing a forced suicide while surrounded by an armed opposition, immediately installing military head Augusto Pinochet.  We see Allende’s daughter Beatriz gravely addressing a crowd in Cuba afterwards, receiving a warm reception, but she later committed suicide.  A collection of TV reports, guerrilla newsreels, government propaganda, speeches, and various interviews, the images are drawn mainly from rarely shown footage shot by others, chiefly outtakes from other documentaries, Marker has a way of distilling seemingly disparate ideas in surprisingly provocative ways.  A memorial to those free spirits who fought for liberty, equality, and human solidarity, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the national motto of France, Marker’s film is bluntly critical, while remaining poetic and perceptive in its analysis, a landmark work where there is nothing else remotely like it.  Unfortunately, a moving and significant credit at the end remains untranslated in the American version, paying tribute to the collective nature of filmmaking, “The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly pitted against that of the powers that be, who would like us to have no memory.”

Excerpts from a 15-page Marker essay entitled Sixties originally released by Icarus Film Distribution Company upon the film’s 2008 DVD release, seen here:

In May anyway the final whistle came quickly: with the first casualty. Not too serious for revolutionaries, but it’s a fact, the murder of Pierre Overney by a Renault watchman would bring everyone back to the real value of lives, things and words. On the workers’ front, the great wave finally met its dikes, a phenomenon summarised by former minister Edgar Pisani in one sentence, ‘a terrible connivance between the conservative apparatus of the CGT (the communist-led union) and the conservative apparatus of the government’. And a great disorder fell on everyone’s mind.

Strangely, the small clannish fights used to draw a kind of overdetermination from the fact they had developed in this fuzzy space of the imaginary revolution. Left to their own devices amidst a reassured country, they became weakly and purposeless. Historical Anarchy had died – heroically – in Spain. To refer to it now made no more sense than being a royalist, unless it became an ideological business, quite profitable at that. The Communist Party had missed every helping hand offered by History and started the long spin of a motorless airplane. French Maoism would remain a landmark in the history of teratology. The foolishness of morons is a plague, but statistically speaking we have to put up with it. What is fascinating is the foolishness of clever people and in this particular case, some of the cleverest.

Elsewhere, things were more violent, more difficult than in France, but the curve was the same. For having gleaned a few traces of these luminous and murky years, I tinkered with these films. They don’t claim to be any more than that: traces. Even the most megalomaniac, A Grin Without a Cat (originally four hours long, wisely reduced to three but without modifying the content, just shortening it, with a short monologue at the end), is in no way the chronicle of a decade. Its inevitable gaps would become unjustifiable. It revolves around a precise theme: what happens when a party, the CP, and a great power, the USSR, cease to embody the revolutionary hope, what looms up in their place and how the showdown is staged. The irony is that thirty years later, the question is irrelevant. Both have ceased to exist and the only chronicle is that of the unending rehearsal of a play which has never premiered.

Friday, February 22, 2013


VERTIGO                   A                    
USA  (128 mi)  1958   restored version in 1996 (129 mi)

Man does not yield himself to the angels, nor to death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
—“Ligeia,” epigraph, by Edgar Allen Poe, 1838

Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can take possession of a living being?      —Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore)

VERTIGO is the midway point of the Hitchcock voyeur trilogy, beginning with REAR WINDOW (1954) and concluding with Psycho (1960), all films that deal with heightened personal obsessions that lead from being a curious snoop and a neighborhood nuisance to sheer madness.  As films that reveal the most insight into the director himself, these movies are invaluable, becoming case studies of the man behind the camera.  What makes the film so unique is how deeply personal it is, yet simplistic, mainly consisting of only three characters, where for the first time in a man’s life he’s fallen deeply in love, but it turns into a Surrealist, nightmarish obsession.  Despite its elevated status, voted by critics in the latest 2012 BFI Sight & Sound once-a-decade poll Sight & Sound 2012 Polls | BFI | British Film Institute as the #1 film of all time, finally overtaking CITIZEN CANE (1941), the first time since 1962, VERTIGO is not nearly as entertaining as the other two films in the trilogy and is one of the more downbeat and slowly developing of all Hitchcock films.  Coming directly after The Wrong Man (1956), it would be hard to find two back-to-back commercial films from any major American director that end on such a grim note, and it was not a box office or critical success upon release, but its reputation has only grown.  VERTIGO is a sophisticated suspense thriller, a thinking man’s movie, the kind Hitchcock built his reputation upon and the kind critic’s admire.  At heart a ghost story, the story concerns a woman who is inhabited by the ghost of an ancestor, who wanders the streets and can’t remember where she’s been, who may be a danger to herself as the ghost committed suicide at the same age.  It doesn’t hurt that the lady is easy on the eyes, Madeleine (an icy blond Kim Novak), the wife of an old college friend of Scottie (James Stewart), an ex policeman recently retired from the force, where we learn why just after the exquisite Saul Bass opening credit sequence.  Chasing an escaping criminal across the barely lit rooftops of San Francisco, Scottie clings to a gutter, otherwise dangling from a high rise building, while his partner falls to his death trying to help him.  Like a cliffhanger sequence shown in weekly serials, Hitchcock never explains how he managed to get down safely, but the scene moves effortlessly back to normality in the next scene.  Scottie feels the man’s death is his fault and suffers vertigo symptoms ever since.  His recovery under the tutelage of friend and confidante Midge (screenwriter Samuel Taylor’s invention, as she was not in the novel), a comforting and bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes, an artist who still carries the torch for him but is too shy to show it, couldn’t be more banal, as Scottie is obviously bored stiff, too caught up in his own self-pity, where he can barely keep his mind on the conversation.  His friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks Scottie to tail his wife, believing some harm could come to her, as she doesn’t seem herself these days.  Scottie initially has little interest, but once he sees Madeleine, showcased by Hitchcock in a stunning entrance, he’s hooked. 

Hitchcock uses his experience from Silent era films, as a good opening portion of the movie is almost entirely wordless, where Scottie passively tails Madeline, always seen as remote and distant, cast in an air of mystery, yet alluringly beautiful, using fog filters for a dreamlike effect, seen as a walking ghost as she visits various sights around San Francisco, Ernie’s restaurant, Podesta’s flowershop, Mission Dolores, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, and Fort Point with dazzling views of the Golden Gate Bridge, becoming a veritable travelogue of one of America’s most photogenic cities, shown in glorious Technicolor on perfectly sunny days where there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Shot by Robert Burks, the clarity of colors is unusually clean, especially with recently restored prints, including 70 mm screenings.  For decades, VERTIGO was impossible to see, one of The Five Lost Hitchcocks where their rights were bought back by the director and willed to his daughter, kept out of circulation for more than 25 years.  Unfortunately, as they were stored privately in less than ideal storage facilities, these films required extensive restoration work by film historians Robert Harris and James Katz, but except for a few smudged moments, the prints are pristine.  This is also one of Bernard Hermann’s most gorgeous musical works, a hypnotic, intensely romantic score using classical Wagnerian themes reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde, a bold, widely expansive, dreamlike love that is induced by a love potion in the opera, creating the magical illusion of love, especially the Liebestod, which has ominous love-death implications, where Madeleine similarly appears to be sleepwalking her way through her various wanderings, as if in a dream, especially since she can’t recall where she’s been.  When she throws herself into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, she becomes George Bailey, the James Stewart role in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), while Stewart himself takes on the role of Clarence, her guardian angel, gallantly rescuing her and warming her up afterwards by the fire in his nearby apartment.  This casual acquaintance suddenly turns into something more, becoming lovers despite knowing she’s married to one of his best friends, but Scottie can’t resist, wanting to be with her all the time, obsessed by the illusion of love where women are an unattainable ideal, existing only in the form of wish fulfillment, where they take trips together into the nearby old growth forests of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz, or the panoramic vista of Cypress Point at Pebble Beach, where their first kiss is accentuated by thunderous crashing of waves, or head south down the coast to the Mission of San Juan Batista (where there is no tower, it was painted into the scene), which plays such a prominent role in the film, as it’s a place she describes to him in her dreams.  But when he brings her there, thinking everything will magically blossom into love, hoping to make the illusion come real, she fatalistically throws herself off the bell tower to her death, where Scottie is mortified, helpless to save her from his vertigo which prevents him from reaching the top of the tower.  This comes as a shock to the audience, as she’s been the focus of nearly the entire opening half of the movie, where there’s likely been a growing connection established, and suddenly she’s gone.   

Adapted from the French novel D’Entre les morts (From Among the Dead), written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the same duo that wrote Diabolique (Les Diaboliques), where Hitchcock had expressed an interest in obtaining the rights to the book, so the writers for all practical purposes had Hitchcock in mind when they wrote the book.  Storywise, VERTIGO harkens back to Fritz Lang’s 1921 film DESTINY (Der Müde Tod), an expressionist fairytale where a woman whose lover has died enters the Kingdom of Death to plead for his life, only to relive her loss in three successive reincarnations.  Madeline’s death, replicating the suicide of the ghost that haunted her, is only the first half of the film, where Scottie’s name is cleared from being implicated in her murder, but the coroner (Henry Jones) lays it on pretty thick about how outrageously convenient it is that he suffers from vertigo, as had he not had this condition Madeleine would likely still be alive today.  This sends Scottie into a catatonic state, suffering from his own nightmares, blaming himself for her death, reliving the experience over and over again, where nothing seems to clear his head from this horrendous nightmare.  Following the experience of intently watching a mysterious woman, the film shifts its focus of attention onto Scottie himself, where its his interior world that seems to matter.  At some point later, he’s back on his feet, where he sees visions of Madeleine everywhere, as if the ghosts are calling out for him, returning to all the familiar places, but he’s only frustrated, until by chance, he sees someone walking down the street who bears a strange resemblance, following her to her hotel where he attempts to meet her.  Though she’s a brunette and talks differently, Kim Novak also plays Judy Barton, much more forward, more carnal, proudly wearing no brassiere, supposedly a working class girl from Kansas.  But all Scottie sees is Madeleine, becoming infatuated with every detail of Judy’s life, again wanting to spend every waking minute with her.  At first reluctant, finding his advances somewhat clumsy and old school, she eventually capitulates, where in flashback we realize the truth, a daring device revealed only to the audience, shown very matter of factly, but she keeps it from Scottie as their relationship progresses.  Instead of the love she hoped for, Scottie grows impatiently overcontrolling, obsessively convinced she’d look better if dressed the way he insists, or wore her hair the same as Madeleine, demanding that she transform herself into the dead woman he still loves and dreams about.  The fanaticism displayed by Stewart is discomfiting, a startling demeanor from a guy perceived as predictably comfortable and safe, a kind of normal everyman, now veering towards the panicked anxiety of Norman Bates in Psycho.  This obsessive compulsion, however, perfectly describes the Hitchcock blonde, the inclination of the director to transform all his leading ladies into cool and sophisticated, icy blonds, such as Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, and a dozen more, perhaps going all the way back to Anny Ondra in BLACKMAIL (1929) Hitchcock's earliest blonde: Anny Ondra « Feminéma.  What’s especially creepy is seeing how Scottie’s compulsion to mold a woman into what he wants is so prevalent in the movie industry and our consumer oriented society, where magazine covers, music videos, and scantily clad female performers all sell some pre-conceived idea of what men supposedly want to see, such as the most recent Super Bowl halftime show Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Style With Destiny’s Child: Total Touchdown.    

What Hitchcock does with shifting camera angles and expressionist color schemes in the second half of the film is near delirious, especially his use of the color green from the neon sign outside Judy’s hotel window, never more sensuous and seductive, but also deadly, even going animated, perhaps second only to HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (2009), recently reconstructed by directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea from 13 hours of unfinished footage shot by Clouzot in 1964, showing manic hysteria through kinetic energy with lights pulsating on and off continually altering the experimental 60’s look of the screen.  Hitchcock’s vertigo shots are also tantalizingly risqué, where stairways in Scottie’s eyes have an additional form of constant movement, where looking down he only sees instability, with stairs advancing and receding at once, creating a shape-shifting state of imbalance.  What’s also interesting is the exaggerated state of dark humor used by Hitchcock, where Scottie goes so far off the rails that an audience is amused by the razor-sharp focus of detail.  After an afternoon shopping in an exclusively upscale women’s store in an attempt to replicate the exact outfits of Madeleine, Judy has grown exasperated, literally pleading with Scottie, “Couldn't you like me, just me, the way I am?”  Rather than an embrace of reciprocated love, Scottie instead remains transfixed at what’s missing in this complete transformation, “The color of your hair!”  Scottie then leaps at the opportunity, completely oblivious of how it makes her feel, blind to the degrading humiliation, and completes the conversion from a lowly brunette sales clerk to a sensuous ice goddess, where in a Hitchcock film sexuality exists only as an obsession, one that degrades women and deranges the minds of men.  Stewart develops a mania by the end of the picture that rivals his state of frenzy in Anthony Mann westerns, like Winchester '73 (1950), the first time anyone had seen this maniacal side to the otherwise calm and gentlemanly nature of his character.  In VERTIGO, the relentless obsession only grows more feverish, where it would be hard for anyone not to break under such intense scrutiny.  A film of intense personal devastation and lost love, existing in what amounts to a state of illusion, where Scottie desperately tries to remake Judy in Madeleine’s image while Judy just as desperately hopes Scottie will fall in love with her for who she is, and not some dead ghost from the past.  In Hitchcock films, the darker side always wins out, where the dead rise from their graves and wreak havoc on the living. 

It should be pointed out that film essayist Chris Marker explores this film in greater detail in his own work SANS SOLEIL (1983), a film that questions the role of time and memory in shaping our ideas of history and the past.  He includes striking footage from the film, perhaps drawn to the material because, very much like his own observant work, it’s a film about watching, where seen from Scottie’s viewpoint, the audience is also drawn into the developing fixation on unraveling the mysteries of the film.  According to Marker, “the vertigo the film deals with isn’t to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent—the vertigo of time.”  Madeleine’s character unleashes a flood of memories and suppressed emotion, where both Scottie and Madeleine are already haunted by ghosts of the past before they meet, becoming more combustible when they grow close, as if combining their haunted pasts provides an incendiary effect, where memory has a way of resurrecting itself.  SANS SOLEIL is a film about the impossibility of memory to be truly accurate, conjuring up excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday Poetry X » Poetry Archives » T. S. Eliot » "Ash Wednesday":

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place

Eliot’s poem is a struggle between the worlds of time and that of the eternal, as moments take place in a singular space, never to be repeated.  Similarly, time will never be recreated, where like the dizzying effects of vertigo, the closer one seemingly gets to it, the farther it moves away in a pulley-like push-pull effect.  Marker is particularly fascinated by the San Francisco travelogue aspect of VERTIGO, as he uses a similar technique in SANS SOLEIL, where the mysteries explored are contrasting cultures and images through excerpts of documentary footage, or fragments of the past.  Marker draws upon history much like film characters rely upon their own memories.  For example, Marker revisits many of the locations used by Hitchcock in the film, splicing in the actual VERTIGO footage with his own pilgrimage, offering his own observations of both the present and how he remembers the past, recalling his experiences of initially viewing the film in a theater, while the audience will bring their own recollections of the film to Marker’s comments, producing an echo effect, where film is used to create a unique blending of memory.  A perfect example Hitchcock creates is the moment when Judy walks into the bathroom but comes out as Madeleine, as if resurrecting a ghost, yet this is the woman Scottie yearns for, where past and present, illusion and reality, finally merge.  Time and again Hitchcock shows us images reflected by mirrors, suggesting only one is real, while the other is a reflected illusion, an idealized substitute, suggesting memories are interior mirrors that have a life of their own, where illusion and reality are often indistinguishable, altering and reshaping themselves as we grow, producing reverberating emotions even as we try to understand their powerful effects upon us.  It should also be pointed out that the opening shot is a close up of the human face, seen as a mask that one wears, and as the eyes dart back and forth, it is suggestive that one never knows what goes on inside the mind of a person, where the title actually comes swirling out of a close-up of an eyeball, suggesting we are all uniquely different, as the subjective nature of the film then goes on to prove, where Hitchcock is concerned with our deepest impulses, with what defines us as human, providing a window into a darkly disturbing vision of the world.    

Note – Hitchcock’s personal appearance comes at about the 11-minute mark walking across the foreground at the shipping yards as Scottie is about to meet with Elster.