Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is a prime example of the 1970s giallo films where murder mystery often driven by sexual themes meets psychological horror. No wonder the popularity of gialli eventually gave birth to the American slasher movie: the core of this peculiar subgenre consists of gory violence powered by voyeuristic fascination and a basic whodunit plot shadowed by the gruesomeness of the central crime. ‘Solange’ showcases the elements of giallo in many ways and succeeds at expressing, and even exploiting, the societal obsession with sexual violence directed toward women.
‘Solange’s opening is a telltale sign that a sexually obscure series of crimes is about to unfold. An Italian teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) and his high school student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) frolic on a boat when Elizabeth witnesses a crime where a man attacks a woman in the woods, penetrating the victim’s vagina with a knife. Unable to concentrate on fulfilling her companion’s erotic expectations, Elizabeth is met with accusations of making up excuses to avoid sexual intimacy. While assuring us of Enrico’s innocence of the crime for plot’s sake, this opening draws a suggestive parallel between young women’s romantic escapades and bloody violence rooted in sexual revenge. This proves to be an interesting combination, as the film goes on to explore young women being punished for sexual exploration, which eventually results in Solange’s (Camille Keaton) mental illness.
The association of female sexuality with brutal violence is a theme typical of gialli. In ‘Solange’ some of the murder sequences are shot from the point of view of the killer, putting us in the position of the mysterious man in the black gloves. Gialli are understandably accused of being ‘exploitation cinema’ as they provide voyeuristic access to women’s private lives and evoke identification with the experience of killing, which typically takes the form of punishment. While it’s easy to interpret the connection between women and violence in a film like ‘Solange’ as exploitation, it is also possible to see gialli as a reflection of the male psyche and an artistic expression of feelings of guilt and shame surrounding sex, an experience shared by men and women alike.
In ‘Solange’ young women are portrayed with a combination of sweet purity and bubbling, almost aggressive sexual curiosity. As Elizabeth and her friends transition into womanhood, they carry the essence of childhood along with an eagerness to transform into sexual beings. A pivotal scene in the film shows Solange being forced by her girlfriends to abort a pregnancy. They had shared a sexual adventure and now Solange has to pay for it with a painful, invasive procedure.
Somehow the abortion leads to Solange’s regression into an infantile mental state. Aside from the lack of logic in this—logic is not the strongest attribute of the genre—it is interesting that the punishment for an arguably premature experience of sexuality should be a return to infancy. It’s as if the film conveys a subconscious message here: if you do a deed out of step with your age, you might just entrap yourself in it. As Solange remains trapped in trauma-induced childhood innocence, her girlfriends go on to pay for their transgression by knives to their genitalia.
There is a sense in which the film speaks for the society’s intolerance for women’s sexual freedom. Despite the lascivious use of violent imagery to shock and entertain, ‘Solange’ displays undertones of our subconscious fear and guilt surrounding sex. The most striking example is the murder of Elizabeth. Because she remains a virgin, she escapes the usual knife-to-the-vagina penalty. Instead, she gets strangled naked in the bathtub, i.e. in her cleanest, purest form, as a red towel wraps around her legs giving the impression of blood gushing out from between her legs. Elizabeth is silenced for her testimony to the murder, but she is symbolically punished for her desire for Enrico, despite the fact that it never came to fruition. In ‘Solange’, women are not only subject to punishment for their actions but also for their desires. Coupled with the oppressive discipline of the school, tantalizing images of girls showering together peeked at through a hole in the glass, the film reflects on a so called ideal treatment of women and then shatters it mercilessly in an attempt to mirror our prejudices against women.
In the tradition of most gialli What Have You Done to Solange? suffers from incoherence in plot structure (Solange and her story only becomes central to the ongoing conflict in the last third of the film), lack of motivation for the protagonist to pursue the killer, awkward dialogue and unrealistic performances. But what it lacks in these domains it makes up for with its bold camerawork, slick production design, suggestive editing and artistic style.
No doubt the film succeeds in the realm of pulp horror pictures, but it is interesting to look more deeply into the genre’s popularity and interpret the sensational imagery of violence and eroticism, searching for its counterpart in our collective psyche.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 26, 2017
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Influential French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte (1956) is a great reminder to modern cinephiles what film-viewing experience can be. Following the footsteps of Italian Neorealism and in the wake of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte serves as an amalgam of the kind of films that transformed our understanding and appreciation of film language and aesthetics. It not only represents a major step in cinema history, but is also a refreshing viewing experience for the modern moviegoer who is accustomed to conventional plot and character development and an easily discernable protagonist.
La Pointe Courte differs from most mainstream films in a few ways. First, it has two storylines that don’t connect by a cause-and-effect relationship. One storyline witnesses local fishermen’s struggle against the government inspectors who threaten their livelihood by placing restrictions on their fishing zones. The string of impersonal documentary-like scenes of fishing, sharing mishaps with inspectors and ordinary familial events is intercut with a more personal narrative where a married couple questions their love for each other. The couple has intimate dialogues that are specific to their innermost feelings and philosophical ruminations on love and marriage, using the fishing town as an agent of change, which first agitates their romance, then replenishes it.
The film is also inventive in that Varda uses entirely different visual styles for filming the two worlds. She evokes the Italian Neorealist tradition for the fishermen, where non-professional actors are filmed living their ordinary lives almost in real time with seemingly little manipulation from the filmmaker. This documentary-style allows these sections of the film an unsentimental reality. Even the death of a child becomes a commonplace event in an unchanging world that’s only marginally disturbed by government officials. Varda skillfully mirrors the Neorealist concern with social and economic issues of working class people.
On the other hand, the couple’s world is highly stylized. Varda’s choices of uncertain, downbeat music, meticulously composed mise-en-scenes, symbolic inserts of images that intensify the couple’s dialogue and the choice of expressive settings are the foreshadowing elements of the French New Wave’s way of experimentation with the film form.
For instance, the couple’s walk on the beach or through town in lengthy tracking shots are intercut with static shots of crabs, a dead cat, eels caught in a net, a fork in the road, train tracks to match the tone and content of their conversation. As they speak about their failing marriage and how difficult they find it to relate to their love for each other, they’re inside the skeleton of an old wooden boat as if inside a womb, out of which their relationship will be reborn. Another noteworthy aesthetic choice is the unnatural framing of the actors’ merging faces. Varda’s compositions precede that of Ingmar Bergman’s stylistically influential Persona, filmed a decade after La Pointe Courte. Varda’s visual style is clearly an inspiration for the developing aesthetics of European art house cinema.
Varda interlaces her seemingly disparate storylines and visual styles in a way that draws attention to a major distinction in social and behavioral norms in French society. In contrast with the slow, flowing scenes of townsfolk’s daily struggle and acceptance of what they have and have not, the couple dissect and question their thoughts and emotions in a cryptic language, in discord with each other and their environment’s rhythms. Varda depicts a modern, urban couple moving around in a world they don’t belong, while life flows around them free of existential crisis. Their landlady’s statement, “They’re always talking; they mustn’t be happy,” sums up this distinction.
The intellectual, overwritten dialogue, coupled with erratic editing and an expressive music score sets the couple’s scenes clearly apart from the townsfolk’s. Varda, without seeming to do so, elicits commentary on life’s ironic contrasts with images, sounds and editing –the great weapons of film language– while remaining equally distant from both of her storylines.
From a modern perspective it is a hard task to enjoy a film like La Pointe Courte. It is remarkably slow-paced; performances are blunt; the plot is hardly engaging and the structure is fragmented. However, Varda’s invitation to step in and feel the film, as opposed to merely consume it, is a priceless gift for the modern film lover. Simply observing the ebbs and flows of a slice of life in a town called La Pointe Courte, and absorbing Varda’s artistic vision through images and rhythms is enough to appreciate what cinema has to offer.
–This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on July 23, 2017
Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away is at once outrageous, weird and guiltily seductive. As the poster suggests we’re in for passionate love and sex on a beach. The affair’s unlikely pair of counterparts are a rich socialite, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and a communist deckhand, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). The pointedly ironic mismatch, namely the rich girl vs. poor boy tale, seems at first to be the basic premise of the film. But soon enough, Wertmüller’s unapologetic boldness in handling her material makes the film truly stand out. The film has four distinguishable chapters that differ drastically in tone and content, and provide evidence of Wertmüller’s unique storytelling technique.
Wertmüller paints this simple tale with a raw, flawed, hard-to-pin-down approach. The 45-minute introduction sets up the political opinions of the two leads in a cumbersome, simplistic, repetitive series of scenes. We are asked to sympathize with the benign and comic Gennarino and share his resentment toward the rich yacht guests, the outspoken and spoilt Raffaella in particular. This comedy sketch-like opening paints a black-and-white picture of politics. The rich and the poor are stripped out of context and reduced to parroting very basic views of what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor. The rich are tyrannical, self-indulgent and rude; the poor are powerless, envious and resentful. While the film could do with more complexity and depth in its portrayal of political views by adding more context and backstory for the two leads, its lack of dimension brings a naivety and cartoonishness that lighten the mood and increase the power of the brutishness that is to follow.
After finding themselves shipwrecked, the primitive island life sucks them in; the power roles are reversed. With money taken out of the equation, the poor communist Gennarino suddenly has the upper hand. The social structures built around the class struggle are at once laid bare and ridiculed. Gennarino is savvier at hunting for food, building a fire and finding shelter and uses his capability as currency against Raffaella. He mercilessly exercises the privileges of his newfound status in his instant kingdom. Raffaella’s obeisance is not enough; she has to serve him and submit to his supremacy if she wants to survive. Primitive life apparently calls for primitive relationships. Money is replaced by survival skills; the fascism of the rich gives way to the fascism of the capable. Wertmüller suggests, in no uncertain terms, that even the poor will turn tyrannical when he holds the power; it is human nature.
If the opening chapter on the yacht gave us a watered-down version of fascism, the second chapter on the island reveals the fascism that resides in all of us. The third chapter turns our attention to the sexual tension between the castaways, and it is sex that finally brings complexity to Swept Away, filling its dull politics with conflict, giving them stakes and sophistication. The face of fascism once again changes: it leaps from fascism of the powerful to fascism of the male, and both kinds apparently look the same.
In the third chapter of Swept Away, Gennarino takes one step further in his insatiable desire to overpower Raffaella. In a near-rape scene, he attempts to conquer her body, but the catch is that he wants her to beg before he’s willing to bestow her the honor. Here things get increasingly murky. When Raffaella was the one in power, Gennarino loathed her and revolted against his position, but when the power equilibrium shifts and she is demeaned and forced to beg, she begins to enjoy it.
Primitive conditions first showed us that nature strips us of our class and enforces equality and cooperation upon our relationships. But now, Wertmüller dares to imply that once the woman loses her artificial power (one that comes with money and social status), she would surely come to appreciate and even crave her subordinate position. That her nature is, in fact, submitting to male power and brutality. Raffaella eventually chooses her privileged old life over a life with Gennarino on the island, but it is with great sadness and regret, as if she’s going against her true nature to fit back into her social role as a socialite.
The sadomasochistic relationship that develops between Gennarino and Raffaella is loaded with potential subversive readings. But if we take this couple as an individual entity, and not as male and female archetypes, then we can ease into accepting the strange possibility of Gennarino’s preposterous demands and Raffaella’s exaggerated willingness to become Gennarino’s slave. Just as the passionately intertwined mass of limbs we grow accustomed to watching, we also learn to see sexiness in the aggression and beauty in the haphazardness.
The last chapter of the film has a melodramatic tone that has an altogether different vibe than the rest. Civilization sweeps Raffaella off her feet despite her resistance. Gennarino and Raffaella know deep down that she would fail in her devotion to Gennarino once they’re back to the realities of a capitalist society. But, Gennarino takes yet another unexpected step and tries to win back Raffaella’s heart by buying her a diamond ring – the ultimate capitalist gesture. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Raffaella is too caught up in her life to return to Gennarino, but she has also learned that love cannot be bought.
At its core, Swept Away is a film about simple dualities of rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, communist vs. capitalist. It starts out with a basic premise and takes us through the murky waters of desire, power, ego and love. If only for the nonchalant outrageousness of Wertmüller’s cinema, Swept Away is worth a look from today’s increasingly complicated perspective on feminism and politics.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on June 2, 2017
Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a rare science fiction movie about humanity’s first attempt at making contact with the Extraterrestrials. The film’s representation of aliens is in many ways unique, but it’s Zemeckis’s approach to yet another underrepresented and often misunderstood species that makes the film exceptional, namely the terrestrial woman.
Twenty years after its release, Contact remains an outstanding depiction of not only a woman scientist, but one who is bright, strong, passionate, ambitious, stubborn, daring, unapologetic and -lo and behold- single and not looking. Ellie, portrayed by one of the ‘90s’ fierce female leads, Jodie Foster, succeeds in her fight against an army of men whose main objectives are to shape her into the scientist they are comfortable seeing – not one that wastes her potential on a laughable pursuit as discovering aliens. Since her work is ultimately funded by her male colleagues, she depends on her relationships with men to persist in her scientific goals. And somehow, remarkably, she hangs in there long enough to get the men’s attention.
Ellie’s fascination with Extraterrestrials has its roots in her deep-seated feelings of loneliness. As an 8-year-old she asks her dad if they could talk to her deceased mother via radio signals. Her desire for traveling into the heart of an abyss in search of the unattainable is somewhat romantic, if not melancholic. Herein lies Ellie’s inner conflict: she’s a scientist who only believes in the provable, tangible reality, primarily concerned with gathering empirical data to prove we are not alone in the universe. However, her desire comes from a place, not reason, but of love and a longing for existential truth. Ellie, as a female hero, is a complex amalgam of an unshakeable realist and the hopeful romantic, which makes her even harder to stomach for her male counterparts.
Ellie’s inner conflict is put to the test by her relationship with God and religion. Despite her academic qualifications and personal discovery of the alien signal, she is severely interrogated based on the male perspective that a representative of humanity must believe in a conventional understanding of God and faith. And what that conventional understanding teaches is that male superiority and domination is a natural truth in the patriarchal social organization. Ellie’s very being, regardless of her religious beliefs, complicates and challenges that assumed dominance.
Never mind all that she has accomplished, in the eyes of her male counterparts, she has already failed the test. This unexpected blow to her goal of travelling to a distant star comes from a place of rigidity, intolerance, and stern didacticism – presented as primarily male attributes in the movie. Even though her underlying goal is ‘connection’ – a most Godly notion demanding spiritual communion over an inert acceptance of God, she is reprimanded for her lack of blind faith. While her nemesis is celebrated for his faith in something he’s not even seeking to connect with, Ellie is rejected because she chooses to reach for and commune with God keep searching.
When Ellie finally gets a chance at making the journey to the star system Vega, her meeting with the Extraterrestrials is one that ironically requires reliance on personal, visceral experiences, rather than tangible evidence. In Contact, the alien species proves to be a shape-shifting yet comforting presence. They download Ellie’s memories and appear to Ellie in the form of her father and in a setting that is familiar and special to her. Contrary to the way aliens are typically represented in the movies, either as grotesque, threatening monsters or big-eyed, charming, wise messengers, Contact offers a truthful, honest and compassionate being that remains unknowable. Zemeckis seems to believe that since all we have about aliens are theories and speculations, humanity is not yet ready for them, and he presents us with a plausible picture as the beginning of what is likely to be a long conversation.
Though Ellie comes away transformed from the experience, back on Earth, things have not advanced very much. Strangely, the very men who had no trouble believing in a grandiose idea of God without any direct or indirect experience, have trouble believing a woman’s word that she has made contact. They want proof; they blame her for hallucinating, dreaming, and even fantasizing as a result of her personal losses. She is no longer a cold scientist, but a delusional woman. The antagonistic forces modify their attack tactics, but one thing remains unchanged: Ellie is not to be heard.
In Contact, women and aliens are rejected, feared and unwelcome. Ellie has more in common with aliens of Vega than with the men of the Earth. The film makes a final point that proves Ellie’s experiences in Vega were true, after all. Ellie never gets to find out about this proof. She doesn’t need it. She will continue her exploration of the unknowns of the universe, not with faith imposed on her by others, but with a ‘sense of adventure’ all her own.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on April 8, 2017
Kenneth Lonergan’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nominated Manchester by the Sea is the most compelling screenplay I’ve come across lately. I deeply enjoyed breaking it down to its parts to better understand how it was so effectively and economically put together.
This breakdown is based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet method. Please read on if you’ve already seen the movie! Enjoy!
Three boys in one beloved boat, on one beloved ocean. Lee (Casey Affleck) kids around with his nephew Patrick as his big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) helms the boat. They are connected through the ocean and their love for each other.
Lee works as a janitor, servicing the residents of four apartment buildings. His character is set up by its contrast to the people whose lives continue uninterrupted despite his presence in them. The residents have relatives, responsibilities, plans, schedules, worries, and preferences, whereas Lee is a blank page, as if without a past and a future, a socially inept bypasser, there to unclog and repair and nothing more. Lee is portrayed as someone who has picked a life of doing the dirty work of lives lived by others – a man outside of the rhythmic continuity of other people’s lives.
Lee has a temper, cause of which is yet unclear. When he is pushed or when he is alone, he stumbles into trouble. He cannot connect with people, except when he quenches his thirst for connection by needless violent outbursts.
When Lee heads back into Manchester following the Catalyst (see below) his past is slowly revealed, establishing what the ramifications of this ‘catalyst for action’ might mean for Lee, what’s at stake and what he must overcome to meet his challenge.
Following Lee’s unexpected indiscretion with one of the residents, his boss has a chat with him. He tells Lee that he can’t be so careless and unpleasant in life, implying that Lee simply doesn’t fit in a civilized world. This first challenge to Lee’s deep-seated attitude towards life shows us that we’re about to explore whether Lee will be able to re-enter the social, connected world. Will he make an effort to get along? Will he make room for others?
Lee gets a call from the hospital: Joe had another heart attack. He drives back to Manchester as he did so many times before, but this time Joe is dead. Manchester is calling for Lee to tend to Patrick and, in doing so, to pick up the pieces of his own life.
According to Joe’s will, Lee is to become Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) legal guardian and look after him until he turns 18. So the central debate question is, ‘Will Lee accept the duty of being a guardian to Patrick?’ But, since Patrick has a lot to lose by leaving Manchester to live with Lee and Lee has no real excuse to stay in Boston, the real question is ‘Will Lee move back to Manchester?’ When Lee is hit with this question in the lawyer’s office, his tragic past is revealed to intensify what this move might mean for him. How near impossible a task is being asked of him. In light of his personal past, the guilt he feels for what happened to his family, will he be able to stomach living in Manchester again, let alone take responsibility for another person?
Break into Two
Lee doesn’t see sending Patrick to live with his mother as an option. So he decides to temporarily move to Manchester until he figures something out and move them both to Boston. But even before a clear moment of decision occurs, Manchester has already sucked Lee in. He is already engaged in the daily tasks, responsibilities and decisions for Patrick’s life; he has already assumed a parental position.
Fun & Games
Lee and Patrick’s life together. Patrick’s daily schedule, friends, girlfriends, school, sports teams, music band, his boat, his problems come at Lee with full force. Lee’s dull and subdued personality, and unwillingness to function as a giver of guidance, support and discipline, starkly contrasts Patrick’s ease in his social connections, and outspokenness about his desires, fears and goals. Lee’s callousness vs. Patrick’s liveliness provides an entertaining respite from the grief they are yet to process.
Despite their differences and the inconvenient circumstances they are brought together in, Lee and Patrick bond. Patrick is social, popular, pumped up with hormones and desires, love, humor and gusto. He is at the center of a web of connections, bubbling with life. He is the antithesis to Lee’s disconnected, unwilling, dispassioned shuffle through life. Their evolving connection becomes a point by which the theme of the film is discussed: will Lee integrate back into society with the help of his new role as a guardian to Patrick?
Patrick has an emotional breakdown – a rare occasion where he abandons his carefree attitude and falls into the claws of grief over his dad. When Patrick is confronted with stacks of frozen chicken and a sudden onslaught of grief overwhelms him, Lee does his work as a compassionate, loving guardian. This is a moment when we feel the transference of their shared suffering. We ask: could Patrick be the antidote to Lee’s deep feelings of guilt and sorrow?
Bad Guys Close in
Lee lays down what will happen to Patrick: temporary stay in Manchester and then move to Boston. Patrick is cross with Lee; the tension between them builds. On the other hand the boat is in bad shape and will require either selling or investing in, both of which don’t quite work for either of them. More pressure is introduced when Lee looks for jobs in Manchester but it’s clear the townsfolk still holds some grudge against him. Furthermore, despite Patrick’s hopeful attempt, Lee proves to be less than capable of making even small talk with another person.
A big blow comes when Patrick’s –and Lee’s– last hope for finding Patrick an appropriate guardian falls through. Patrick’s mum and her fiancé are clearly not the right match for him. Finally, it’s obvious that Lee and Patrick are stuck together. To counteract this disappointment, Lee finds a way for them to keep the boat and gives Patrick a break to enjoy his girlfriend – two sweet gestures that ease the tension between them. But soon Lee will encounter the biggest challenge of all…
All is Lost
Lee runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) pushing a stroller down a Manchester street. Randi’s confessional apology has a shattering effect; the love and pain between them are palpable. Lee is crushed under the weight of Randi’s compassion and the knowledge that it is too late to mend their unsalvageable, grief-stricken relationship.
Dark Night of the Soul
Lee’s self-destructive defense mechanism takes effect immediately. He starts a bar fight and gets damaged enough to prove to himself that’s exactly what he deserves. What’s more, in a heart-wrenching moment, he sees his dead children warning him of a fire he’s about to cause. Lee’s jolted out of his stupor to tend to the spaghetti sauce burning on the stove. This classic Dark Night of the Soul moment underlines the haunting nature of Lee’s grief.
Break into Three
Lee does the only thing that he can do under the circumstances. He arranges Joe’s best friend to adopt Patrick. He tells Patrick that he simply cannot stay in Manchester, because he’s too heartbroken, because he can’t beat his demons.
Joe is finally buried on a spring day. Lee has a job in the big city and is looking for a bigger place to live. When asked why that is, he explains the extra room is for Patrick to come visit. Lee and Patrick bounce a ball between them as they continue to bicker. Regardless of how happy or unhappy they are now, it is clear that Patrick continues to live the life he chooses to live, and Lee has picked a safe zone for himself to function and made room for another person.
Lee and Patrick are out fishing on their boat – the only common ground quiet and gentle enough to hold the connection between them.
A field suggests possibilities; its openness welcomes any old soul to seek his treasure; its terrain allows all sorts of physical or spiritual pursuits. The title, A Field in England, immediately brings to mind a vivid image, and gives away a carefree attitude about which field is the one in question, and what happens on it. The obscurity and infinite possibilities of the film’s narrative and style are hinted at first in the title.
Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s field is a simple field adjacent to a battlefield. Theirs is one of possibilities for personal battles, discoveries, treasures, friendship and mind-altering mushrooms. Unsurprisingly, A Field in England cannot be contained in a single genre category, confined by one aesthetic style or another, or limited by the use of a distinct narrative device or two. It mishmashes a number of devices and forms, as well as lenses, sound effects, visual effects and music.
It is recognized as a historical psychological thriller, and while it has elements of all of these genres (and more), it also defies their conventions and expectations. Though clearly set in another century, we are not informed of its 17th century setting, as this information is not altogether relevant. The costumes and dialogues are perfectly naturalistic to the period, hence giving the film an air of realism, and yet it makes no effort to reveal its historic background and the culture in which the story takes place.
The film is more interested in the simple crevices of its four main characters’ psyches, but only as they succumb to the influence of the mushrooms they eat. Mostly, their goals and conflicts with each other are in plain sight, rather than obscured by some psychological dramatization.
As for the thriller/horror aspect, even though there is some gore involved in this classic tale of battle against evil, and unsettling events involving a skull, a smoky black sphere, and blood-curdling sounds of a witchcraft session do occur, these details are as humorous as they are disturbing.
A Field in England is more accurately an unexpected cross between (1) a British take on a classic Western in which hats, pistols, camaraderie and male bravado are the order of the day, with a characteristically British field taking the place of mountains and deserts, (2) a road movie, which has a singular goal, though it does shift from reaching an alehouse, to recovering some documents of alchemy, to finding a treasure, to outwitting the villain to save oneself, and (3) an allegorical comedy on the effects of mushroom circles, ruminations on occult mysticism and forming unlikely friendships along the way.
The shifts in genre are accompanied beautifully by the episodic changes in camerawork, editing, sound and music. The first quarter of the film is devoted to the chaotic impact of war on the bodily senses. The camera captures macro images of eyes, juxtaposed with frantic images of grass and weeds. Soon these settle into a rhythm of longer, calmer shots showing the characters getting to know one another. Tabloid images of the men uniquely invoke paintings in which characters theatrically enact a period we can no longer experience or even imagine. As we are plunged into the fake reality of this time, music remains more instrumental and sound design more realistic.
Once the mushrooms are introduced, there is a literal reenactment of the idea that it may take four men and a rope to pull one out of a mushroom circle. The fast-paced, cartoonish editing of this scene naturally gives birth to the warped images of the characters as they go deeper and deeper into their nightmarish, violently psychedelic state. Strobe effect, split screens where images fold and shift around, fast cuts between two simultaneous events that speedily convey information to the audience are a few of the radical methods Wheatley mixes together.
The relentless wind, the unnaturally quiet, echoing voices, increasingly electronic tones in the music, and the narrative genius of a reappearing dead man take the ever-escalating insanity of the story to new heights. By the time the wind dies down, the grass relaxes, the dirt settles, and our hero stands triumphant, Wheatley brings us full circle to the adjacent battlefield. Only now, the hero has achieved his goal; he is no longer the fearful, desperate, lonely man he was at fade in. Despite all the weirdness of its aesthetics, Wheatley manages to sustain a conventional tale of friendship, attainment of goals and personal change.
A Field in England is a refreshing modern specimen of the avant-garde movement, and a celebration of guerilla style filmmaking. Its professional amateurishness and elegant mixing of aesthetic expressions create an abstract beauty for modern cinema-goers to treasure for years to come.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 16, 2017
Polish master filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog is a unique film project based loosely on the Ten Commandments. Kieslowski’s dramatization of the ten religious ideals owes its success to his keen understanding of the complexities of human nature and morality. While the films speak volumes about the human condition and the moral structures we live by, they also refrain from judgment, preaching and dogmatism.
There are a few major threads running through the films. All ten films are either set in or start off from the same apartment complex. This typical eastern bloc setting functions like a pair of gloves, holding the ten stories together. The characters are not only neighbors but also represent a panoramic set of human conflicts stemming from one cultural, religious and socio-economic source.
Another, and an even more interesting common thread is the recurring character of Artur Barcis. He appears in almost all films as a passive bystander who makes eye contact with the protagonist, but doesn’t interfere by action or words. There are many interpretations of the meaning and role of this enigmatic figure. Judging by the pivotal moments he appears, I’m inclined to think of him as the Angel of Death. Most poignantly, he is a homeless man sitting by a frozen lake, which will eventually break and kill the protagonist’s son in Dekalog: One, and an orderly in the hospital where the protagonist’s husband lies in his deathbed In Dekalog: Two.
Dekalog: Five, the feature-length version of which is A Short Film About Killing, is the only film where the Angel of Death comments on the protagonist’s action by imperceptibly shaking his head. Jacek, who is on his way to kill a taxi driver in a famously long and arduous attempt, retreats into the shadow of the taxi upon looking directly into the eyes of Death. Later, Death reappears in the corridor when Jacek is sentenced to death, marking yet another killing, this time the hero’s.
In Dekalog: Six, aka A Short Film About Love, Death plays an altogether different role. When Tomek secures a date with Magda, he joyfully circles the courtyard dragging his milk cart. Death, for the first and only time in the series, smiles at the hero, enjoying the exhilarating and yet temporary nature of love and happiness. Milk –another motif that appears in most Dekalog films– represents Tomek’s innocence, which is about to be lost following his brief but painful love affair with a sexually promiscuous older woman. Later, when Tomek’s date ends in humiliation and disappointment, Death watches Tomek, albeit this time in dismay, run back into his building to attempt suicide.
In all ten films Kieslowski uses death, literally and metaphorically, as punishment, threat, or simply the outcome of actions. In Dekalog: One, the protagonist is literally punished with the death of his son because he favors science over faith in God. In Dekalog: Two, the heroine begs the doctor to predict whether her husband will survive his illness. Her decision to keep or abort her illegitimate pregnancy depends on the doctor’s medical opinion, which is tinged with his own direct experience with death and suffering.
In Killing, Jacek’s decisions and actions directly cause the death of the taxi driver. This seemingly pointless killing results in his own death carried out by the State. In Dekalog: Eight, the professor knows if she sends away the Jewish girl at her door she will be killed. Even though the girl survives and comes back to confront her, the professor’s life is plagued by her choice to send the girl to her death. In Dekalog: Nine, the woman’s moral choice of infidelity results in her vulnerable husband’s suicide.
In some Dekalog films death is symbolic and takes many forms. Most prominently in Love, Tomek sacrifices his innocence for love, and later attempts to give up on his life. Magda in return exercises a bitter revenge by shattering Tomek’s idea of love, but by doing so, her bitterness dissolves and she is healed.
In Dekalog: Three, a man and woman dwell in their shared past, risking their current stability and happiness. In Dekalog: Four, a father and daughter play with fire when they entertain the thought of their union as lovers, risking their lifelong bond as a family. Dekalog: Seven tells the story of a young woman whose identity as a mother is robbed from her by her own mother. In the end she realizes her identity as a mother is forever lost.
In the last and only comedic Dekalog film, Dekalog: Ten, it is the death of their father that brings together two estranged brothers. As they lose themselves in the material pursuit of protecting their father’s heritage, the trust between the brothers is compromised, signifying a sort of death as a result of greed.
The Dekalog series is a joy to watch together. One can spot the crossing of the paths among the characters, experience the atmosphere of the setting through the lenses of nine different cinematographers, dwell on the meanings of recurring motifs such as milk, blood, glass and water in its different forms, not to mention tracking who I call the Angel of Death appearing as a symbol of death on various occasions in various forms. Most of all, it is the web of moral decisions and their consequences that makes Kieslowski’s saga of human conflict and suffering most attractive.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on December 6, 2016
If we had to pick a single film from Alfred Hitchcock’s individually unique and brilliant filmography to stand as his cinematic signature, it would undoubtedly be Rear Window. It is the most literal expression of his fondness for our ‘peeping tom’ nature and a great example of his expert coalescence of suspense and humor. Disguising what is primarily a love story, the murder mystery in Rear Window is a classic Hitchcockian tale seen completely from the point of view of the protagonist.
Hitchcock establishes his voyeuristic vision for the story as early as the film’s opening credits. As the blinds roll up on Jeff’s (James Stewart) windows, we are positioned looking out into a courtyard where a cat walks up a staircase and leads us to scan the neighborhood on a hot, lazy morning. Jeff’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) further emphasizes the suspiciousness of our guilty gaze by scolding Jeff: “you see something you shouldn’t see and you’re in trouble.” She will keep badgering on about how she can smell trouble as she helps out the wheelchair-bound Jeff, who can barely satiate his photographer’s curiosity by watching his neighbors.
Hitchcock’s comically obvious approach to creating an expectation of ‘trouble’ coincides with the real trouble Jeff is working with. A dark shadow looms over him as he opens his eyes to find Lisa (Grace Kelly) – the true source of his conflict. As with all Hitchcock films it is the human psychology, emotion and sexuality that are in the forefront of the suspenseful murder story. ‘Will Jeff fall in love with Lisa and surrender to married life’ is the central dramatic question, for which the murder mystery is merely an agent of change.
The neighbors not only contribute to the murder story, but also create a panorama of romantic relationships: a contented married couple, an unhappy married couple, a pair of newlyweds, a young woman having some fun in the absence of her lover, a lonely, melancholic man, a lonely, melancholic woman, and of course Jeff, the happy bachelor with a loving and gorgeous girlfriend anyone would be a fool to refuse. As Jeff and Lisa embark on a journey to solve the murder mystery, Jeff will see a new and adventurous side to Lisa and helplessly witness his love and affection for her.
Part of what creates the suspense – and the humor – in the story is the fact that Jeff cannot move. His nurse, girlfriend and detective friend come and go entertaining his whimsy and curiosity. These dialogues are funny and suggestive, giving the impression of a farce.
There are many moments when we wonder if we’re watching a comedy about a desperate man who almost wants a murder to compensate for his boredom, or a thriller revealing a terrifying question about our daily lives, namely, if we were to watch our neighbors for a week who knows what we might find?
Hitchcock’s approach to creating suspense in the murder mystery / love story is very much connected to his use of music and editing. When we begin scanning the neighborhood we hear the scales of what will later be a love song. When the Thorwalds are introduced to the story, instead of the diegetic music, we hear sirens going off in the distance. By the time Lisa climbs in through the murderer’s window in the finale – a gesture that proves to Jeff her adventurous spirit, the romantic, even sexy song waltzes through the courtyard. The song, in contrast to the suspenseful music we might expect to accompany this action sequence, underscores Jeff’s emotional transformation as opposed to his external goal of solving the mystery.
There are striking visual choices to delay or quicken what we see, creating an interesting approach to suspense. In the finale, Hitchcock’s weapon of choice for Jeff is the flashing light bulbs of his camera, which delays Thorwald’s approach. The pace of the editing then quickens when Thorwald finally attacks Jeff. These aesthetic choices not only mark Hitchcock’s ‘pure cinema’ method of primarily relying on images, editing and sound to create suspense and drama, but also, by invading the peeping tom’s lair, reflect the idea of the sinister face of life seeping into and shattering the formerly innocent and banal act of voyeurism.
In the end, aligned with the symmetrical resolution of all the characters’ stories –like, the newlyweds turning into a bickering old couple, the older couple getting a new dog, the girl reuniting with her lover and the lonely man and woman coupling up– Jeff appears with both legs in a cast, a victorious Lisa by his side in a surprisingly modest outfit. The suspense story once again returns to its farcical origins by coming full circle to the idea of marriage. In Hitchcock’s world there seems to be nothing better than an old-fashioned murder mystery to bring lovers together and seal their fate in a happily ever after. The suspenseful mystery ends on a funny note, as if to say humor is always right alongside murder and tragedy.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 19, 2016
One of the most accomplished auteurs of American cinema, John Cassavetes makes a subtle, honest and deeply sincere film about being a man in western society. In Husbands, his three suburban New Yorker husbands represent the traditional male status quo, that of the married man with children, a dull job, a house, a car, a garage, a debt, a receding hairline, and a few buddies who faithfully remind them they are still who they always were, namely, hopeful young boys.
Husbands is about what it’s like to have had a vision of himself as a young man and what it’s like to have lost it without having stopped once to notice it slipping by. Gus (John Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) mourn the death of a close friend, whose sudden passing reduces them from a happily deluded quartet to a saddened and confused trio. Except, they don’t know how to mourn. Instead, they suddenly transition from middle-aged, middle class, professional family men to your average obnoxious, vagabond teenagers.
Stylistically radical, Husbands invites the audience to take an audaciously long and personal look at living the male bravado and the ultimate delusion of manhood – that man is free and immortal. The first half of the film is spent showing the three husbands drink, race each other, play ball, physically and verbally attack each other and their companions, display a scattered sense of self and life, and basically use up a day and a night in the pursuit of their lost youth and freedom. Only in the second half, prompted by Harry’s last of many fights with his wife, they all decide to go to London to take their depressed feelings to the next escapist level.
When you watch Husbands from a modern audience perspective, first thing to notice is its shocking freedom in exploring its subject matter. There seems to be no constraint on screen time, no stylistic limits on camerawork, lighting or acting, and seemingly almost no intention to make the movie fit in one category or other. It is simply and freely what it is. If this were a modern movie, the trio would be going to London by minute 25 of the picture, whereas Cassavetes shows us a phenomenal hour and 15 minutes of three guys mucking around, philosophizing in fragments, and getting nowhere… Husbands reminds us this is what movies could be, or perhaps should be, all about: life itself.
As the invisible onlookers and eavesdroppers, we get to experience life from the perspective of three husbands living out a bittersweet period of their lives in real time. The improvisational, fly-on-the-wall style of the film makes the occasional fleeting moments of subtle wisdom all the more poignant. We feel that we catch glimpses of raw truth about the male reality. Archie says at one point: “What do you prefer to do, if you had a preference?” Another time we hear from Harry, simply: “I’m confused,” and “There were four of us, now there are three of us, and you wanna be alone?” They utter uncensored expressions of contained passion, discontentment and frustration: “The legs, the breasts, the mouth”, “We have two lovely wives, the only problem is to go home and make love to them”, “Gotta be an individual.” In these lines, drama and deep emotions seep through between the lines without an ounce of sentimentality.
The most exquisite thing about Husbands is its finale. The men’s infantile romp is over, and they have not grown any wiser. Archie and Gus leave Harry, the more confused of the three, behind in London. On the sidewalk, they divide the toys they bought for their kids. It’s a solemn moment that screams with disappointment and perhaps relief from the unknowns of their great adventure in London. As they walk to their homes, Archie turns to Gus and repeats twice: “What is he going to do without us?” Never mind the childishness of assuming one grown man can’t do without the other two, the real meaning of this desperate remark is even more dramatic. It feels like Archie really means to say: “What are we going to do without each other? What are we going to do without us?” Just like they demand of the woman in the drawn-out singing contest early in the film, they are in search of ‘warmth, heart and soul’ and there is nothing else they can do to satiate their deep need to return to the basics but cling to each other.
The husbands in Husbands, just like most of us, are perpetually dissatisfied with and doubtful about life. By finale, we are not any wiser either, but we have faced our own delusion of freedom and immortality. Cassavetes’s portrayal of fragility of being a man in western society has captured the raw and painful side of a delusion we all share.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on August 11, 2016