Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

It’s strange now to consider how controversial Le Jour Se Lève was upon its initial release in France on the eve of the second World War, because the way the murder, which was the element the French government took issue with, is shown in the film wouldn’t skim the surface of what’s showcased in modern PG-13. In fact, the film’s infamous opening, the shot which sets up the rest of the plot (everything else is either a flashback or a flash-forward to this moment) may have been shocking to an audience at the time, and it’s still moving if you watch the film on its own terms; but I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit watching the sequence which merged on melodrama.

To paint the picture: there’s an argument from behind the door at the top floor of an apartment building, a shot rings out, and a man slowly stumbles out of the apartment clutching his wounded chest. Just when you think he’ll collapse onto the floor, his facial expression changes from confusion to desperation and he slouches his foot onto the staircase and begins to tumble down the stairs, and then down another flight and then another. Where he stops, a blind man walks in and starts poking him with his cane saying ‘Is anyone there? Someone fell!’

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Although melodramatic certainly and perhaps intentionally a bit comically so, the opening leaves a strong impression, making it an effective centrepiece to the drama, which looks to the man behind the gun as its hero, played by Jean Gabin. Gabin, as usual, takes on the role with his fascinating mix of stoic coolness and a little French charm. Gabin was really the hero of the poetic realist movement in French film (a movement to which this film firmly belongs) just before the French New Wave (which would see the more boyish, flighty Jean-Paul Belmondo take the helm before the icy gaze of Alain Delon in the ‘60s). Although it seems to always play second fiddle to the New Wave in terms of the shows I see produced in art house cinemas near where I live, and attention paid online, poetic realist movies like Le Jour Se Lève, or another Gabin classic, Grande Illusion, known for their ‘impressionistic’ style, are films that aren’t afraid to really let their big moments take time to develop, and they seemed to place some heartfelt attention on relationships between characters that weren’t so flip and flam, especially the romantic ones. I’ll always begrudge Godard and Truffaut (although him to a lesser extent) for swapping out the impressionistic soft-gaze lenses and romantic scenery for that kind of quick hodgepodge of cuts and pastes and zigzagging edits that always leave me feeling dizzy and annoyed, but both movements are certainly fascinating to dive into in their own right.

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Our introduction to François, under a patented poetic realist soft gaze lens

In any case somehow Gabin has always seemed to me to be the most honest of the French leading men. He often played hard-working men stuck in tough situations, which is a bit ironic because his acting always has a real ease to it, like he’s never too concerned or stressed – he wouldn’t consistently knit his brows like the anxious Delon, but nor did he have Belmondo’s holiday smile. Nevertheless, in this film he certainly has reason to stressed – although he doesn’t show it. After killing the man we see in the initial take, he’s trapped in his room at the top of his apartment, as an appalled mob stares in at him through his window from below, kind of like a reverse of Rear Window. Through flashbacks, we learn of his past, his romantic love for his namesake (he’s named François, she’s named Françoise, very poetic realist), and of his ordeal with the conniving man who he murdered (who was, believe it or not, a dog trainer by profession).

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François and Françoise hitting it off

The plot is simple, although there are a couple interesting twists and realizations along the way. The simpleness of the plot, however, showcases its theme in a more poetic, straightforward light, in my opinion: it’s a love story with a couple triangles, but its real message is about jealousy, and how a man can be driven to such extremes solely due to feeling the awful type of powerlessness it is to learn that the woman he loves slept with another guy who is a gigantic schmuck – even if it was before they were ever together.

François is a good man with a tough job (he paints things with a ‘sand-gun’ (?!), surviving off milk all day) but he is in love with a woman who, he believes, really sees him. Françoise (female) tells him that she likes him because he has one eye that’s smiling and one eye that’s a bit sad…and he reminds her of her teddy bear that has only one ear. Compliments? Francois seems happy to hear it, and takes the teddy home for himself as memento. For her part, Françoise, the virginal, somewhat infantilized love interest of the film is not nearly as interesting of a character as Clara, the more experienced woman who Francois rebounds with when he sees his true love dabbling off with the dog trainer. There are some wonderful scenes where we see Clara’s jealousy of Françoise, all in subtext, even as she helps Françoise in her madness after hearing that her lover committed murder. And in a way, Clara’s jealousy mimic Francois’ jealousy of the dog-trainer, and they’re the only two characters who seem to think for themselves, so I couldn’t help wonder what the film would’ve been like had they run off together.

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Enough said.

When the film finally catches up to the murder itself, there’s a powerful moment where Francois, after learning the dog-trainer slept with Francoise just like dozens of other girls he didn’t care about – pulls out the gun, says ‘well look where it’s got you now’, and shoots – and in response, just after receiving the bullet, the dog-trainer goes ‘…and you?’ (Et toi?).

It sunk in for me then that they had been both driven mad by this girl typically oblivious like the ingenues that era seemed to love; we just happened to be cheering for Gabin/François because he’s a better guy in human terms…but who’s the real villain of the story? The old dog-trainer who collects women as objects or the silly girl who chooses to sleep with him anyway?

Poor Clara…

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The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

The creature from the black lagoon is not very frightening. Perhaps sixty years ago it was, but nowadays, it really just looks like a man in a big fish suit creeping around a swamp and lusting after ‘50s pin-up girls masquerading as scientist assistants. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s still a fun movie to watch, but I’d say you’re more likely to laugh than to scream in horror when this creature approaches from the deep, doing its stilted version of the breaststroke (which looks pretty much just like what you’d think it would look like when a stunt man is squeezed into a body suit and told ‘Swim like a lizard, Gerry!’ when its 5AM in 1954).

The creature has it rough in this movie. No sooner is its ancestor’s fossilized arm discovered by an excitable European scientist in the Amazon than a search party begins to look for its like, led by the overly ambitious Mark (an American banker/fundraiser/token greedy heartless bastard) followed by the handsome and openminded anthropologist David and his swooning girlfriend-assistant Kay, along with a charming South American boat captain named Logan, who always seems to awkwardly hold a smile on his cigar-laden face for a beat too long after he’s told someone an interesting tidbit about the Amazonian rainforest. Once this starch-white band of explorers finds the creature in question, Mark leads a nonstop hunt to kill it, bring it to the public, and make “millions”. Of course, the rest of the crew sees the creature in a more scientific, compassionate light, but by the end of the movie, the creature has been harpooned three times, set on fire by having a lantern smashed over its head, chemically poisoned by some strange toxic concoction, caught and trapped in a rope net and beaten with a shovel, although of course it never dies, because there are sequels. Poor Gerry!

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It was hard for me not to feel sorry for this amphibious, mysteriously violent creature from the deep. There are a couple scenes where you see its head close up, and it looks just like a bald, wrinkly old man with gills, slowly puffing its lips out and sucking for air like a little fish does, with these big, obviously fake beady eyes that never really look at anything, just seeming generally disoriented. I was constantly worried it was going to bump into something — watch out! Was the director providing a not-so-subtle metaphor for his fear of aging? That may be a stretch, but was this ever really very scary?

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A mysterious question raised by this movie (or, perhaps we should say: ignored by this movie) is why does it kill? Is it for fun and sport? The creature doesn’t eat anybody…The first thing it does in the movie, besides providing a nice cliched shot of its clawed, webbed arm reaching out of the swamp and grasping at literally nothing is to senselessly murder two local young men and then run away. Was it just having a really bad morning? We are left to wonder. It certainly has a penchant for young Kay, however, as it is enthralled when it sees her recklessly (but very gracefully) swimming in its swamp. If you took the scene where it approaches her from below and grasps at her bare leg a couple times, only to pull its hand away, tortured by its confounding desire and curiosity and yet driven perhaps by a need to kill, or maybe just to get laid (there aren’t many lady-creatures from the deep that we know of), and put it on stage in a nouveau-art dance piece, you might have a cute little scene about longing and repressed desire and the like. Put it in context, however, and it’s a bit strange, and if we were to assume the director was providing some kind of metaphorical physical expression of longing between his two characters, we would likely be giving him too much credit. The idea is the creature is halfway between man and lizard/fish, and so it’s the man-half part that’s into the girl. She, however, is not so smitten. Once again, it’s hard not to empathize.

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Believe it or not, The Creature From the Black Lagoon tries desperately to place its narrative within the sweeping context of evolution, man’s place in the cosmos, and our biological origins as beings who emerged from the watery depths of the sea. The film begins with a serious narration and fuzzy ‘50s visuals depicting the origins of the cosmos, the birth of the world, the expansion of the oceans, and finally pans to a shot of webbed footprints on the earth, symbolizing our journey from the ocean to the land we now live on, and tying our own status as land animals to the mysterious swamp creature we are about to see viciously persecuted for an hour and twenty minutes. The pressing question I want to ask is: why? The answer I’ve come to, after an interesting conversation with my Dad, is that the movie is evidently being pulled in different directions, likely by different creators involved. Why would you frame a creature-feature in such an overwrought evolutionary context, unless it was to try to create a sense of verisimilitude in the same way The Twilight Zone would try to imbue its episodes with the serious tone of a TV series commenting on our actual world? However, if the director was trying to make any serious statement about man’s relationship to his nature by drawing comparisons to the real world, he quickly ceded the investigation when he decided to show absolutely no details surrounding the creature’s origin, its motivations, its natural tendencies, its intelligence, etc. etc., and opted instead to depict it as a randomly violent killer with no further depth to be explored. Perhaps this points to more than one person influencing the movie’s development: maybe the director wanted the tone of realistic science fiction, but the production team needed a senseless horror flick, and decided to cut any sections that brought real sympathy to the creature, because all that would do is make the audience feel something besides fear. Of course, what’s odd about this film as a creature feature is that everyone on the boat besides Mark wants to deal with the creature in a humane way, certainly not kill it — you’d never see that in Anaconda or Alien or Jaws. Sympathizing towards a monster is more like what we read in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein (but certainly not in the campy movie remake, which is a clear example of a production team pulling sympathy and emotional depth from a story for cheap thrills and shock factor). It seems to me to me that The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a film being pulled haphazardly in a few different directions, and since that makes it lose its focus, it is less successful in actually going somewhere as a film; but the fact that it’s oddly multidimensional makes it an interesting movie to talk about.

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As a creature-feature it succeeds in being fun to watch, and whether that was because of intentional choices or just the joy of watching dated horror, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours, and for fans of classic creature features. Enjoy!

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Kes (1969)

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There’s a beautiful moment in the final act of Kes, Ken Loach’s humanizing portrait of a young boy growing up under the shadow of coal mining in North England, when Billy Casper, the young boy we’ve come to know through the film, stands at the front of his class and excitedly tells his classmates about the first time he flew his trained hawk free. Billy is a silent figure throughout most of the film, choosing to bury his hands in the pockets of his tattered blue jeans, lean his frame against a wall or a desk, and pipe up with a Yorkshire-infused ‘I don’t know’ when summoned by one of his teachers to finally speak. But the spark that’s lit when Billy speaks about seeing his bird, Kes, fly over to him for the first time untethered is a glimpse into what we’ve known about Billy all along, and that the teachers and the adults in his life must be blind to ignore: there is much more to Billy than meets the eye, and the innocent spark of passion we see ignited here is hovering just below view all day, not unlike the way his hawk flies along the surface of the ground before meeting him in the field behind his home, a natural instinct to avoid detection.

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The teacher who prompts this side of Billy to emerge is his English teacher, Mr. Farthing, played by the only professional actor in the film, and perhaps he’s a worthy choice as such: he stands out on screen with the weight and presence of a trained actor, just as his character stands out among the flighty, insensitive adults in Billy’s life as the one who’s grounded and listening. Mr. Farthing is an exception in Billy’s world, someone who sees potential in the young boy, sees him as something more than a reticent lad destined for the coal mines (if he’s lucky). The other adults are far less kind: there’s Billy’s cruel and immature gym teacher, who forces him to take a freezing shower because he let in too many goals in a football game mostly played on the field of the teacher’s ego; there’s the principal of the school who’s whips Billy’s hands because he could barely stay awake during the principal’s tiresome lecture, having run his paper route and looked after his bird that morning since 6 AM; there’s his non-existent father, a glaring hole in Billy’s life which leaves his violent older brother as the man of the house after coming home from the mines; and there’s his mother, who’s too busy with her own desperate attempts to find a new husband at the pub to see or encourage the spark of life in Billy’s eyes. They’ve all acquiesced to the life afforded to the working poor in Yorkshire at that time (not that it’s much different now); there’s not much hope in this mining community and if it exists at all it’s in the way Billy lights up when he talks about his bird.

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In the scene after Billy’s speech, Mr. Farthing breaks up a fight between Billy and the towering school bully MacDowell, who seems a bit jealous of all the attention Billy and his bird are getting. Again, Mr. Farthing sees the situation for what it is: a bully picking on a young boy who stands up for himself, and after Farthing pushes MacDowell into the wall and lets him know what it’s like to be bullied, he walks over to Billy who’s covered in soot (they were rolling around of a pile of coal) and asks him why everyone seems to have it out for him. “Are you a bad’un?” Farthing asks. “I know stacks of other kids that’s worse than me, but they seem to get away with it.” Billy tells Farthing about getting caned that morning by the principal, and how his teachers seem perfectly oblivious to the state their students are in: “Teachers, sir, they’re not bothered about it, sir. If we fall asleep they think we’re numbskulls and owt like that, sir. And when they have time, they’re always looking at their watches to see how long there’s left of the lesson. They’re not bothered by us, and we’re not bothered by them.”

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Billy has summed up the major thought behind Loach’s film. Loach gives us a glimpse, through exquisitely human performances, and camera work that sits well at the back of the action, observing without describing, of the incredibly rich inner life of a young boy who likely will not be able to avoid a life in the mines, despite his sensitive talent for understanding and training a hawk, something which we’re told is rarely accomplished by adults, let alone fifteen year olds. But nobody’s bothered indeed.

In fact, ‘they’re not bothered by us’ could be the mantra of the British working class for the decades since the release of Kes. The infamous miner’s strike of 1984 left the coal industry more desperate than ever for good pay for their work, and it seemed that Margaret Thatcher had only alienated the lower class farther from any type of societal respect. It’s been a common refrain, and has led Britain now to the extremes of Brexit, which was of course hailed, at least before the referendum passed, as a sure victory for the working class. Interviewed about the film, Tony Garnett, the adapter of Kes’ script, compares the government’s actions toward the working class to the training of a hawk. “You can’t tame a hawk, but you can train it…or you can kill it”. It remains to be seen what effect Brexit will have on the working class that Loach sympathizes with in much of his work, but in this metaphor, who are the Brexit politicians? Are they like Mr. Farthing who listens to Billy and sees his true potential, or are they like Billy’s older brother Jud, who Billy looks up to in earnestness, but when his back is turned, takes away the one thing that made Billy happy.

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Loach’s film is a stern condemnation of the way England ignores its working class, and has a powerful and sad ending to that effect, but nonetheless it is, to me, a hopeful film. When Billy is burying the bird in the yard out back, he is devastated of course, as a lone flutes plays a quivering dirge in the background. It’s a very moving scene. But as a coda to his story, this scene shows us that the hope we feel isn’t in where we think Billy’s future seems to be going, it is more in the fact that we had a chance to meet him, and to experience his joy at seeing a hawk fly free by his side. After all, growing up isn’t about gaining things, it’s about losing them, so Billy is going through a necessary rite of passage, even if the way it happened was anything other than necessary.

The hope here also lies in the fact that there are boys like Billy in the world, if only we would listen to them. In a featurette about the film, Dai Bradley, who played Billy, is interviewed fifty years after the making of Kes. It’s at first a bit of a shock seeing him directly after watching Kes – he’s old now, gray headed and bespectacled, but much is the same in his demeanour. His whole body still quivers when he gets excited about what he’s saying, as if he could shake the feelings out of himself that are too big for his narrow body to hold – just like how Billy speaks to his class about his bird. Seeing Dai Bradley explain about training the birds for Kes and the joy he had while making the film, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of relief: some boys like Billy really do make it out of there alive. Where Brexit will take them, however, is anyone’s guess.

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Wings of Desire (1987)

Wings of Desire shows us the perspective of life on earth as seen by two benevolent angels who spend their time invisibly watching humans.  We learn what it’s like to be one of these angels, not only because we hear them speak of their experience to each other, but also because the way Wim Wenders uses his camera gives the film such dynamic movement, it feels like we’re flying along with them.  It’s ironic that despite its supernatural characters, much of the film’s interest lies in the simple, everyday details of human life; but seen from the perspective of angels, these details seem uplifting and special.  It’s as if the angels, and Wim Wenders’ camera, cast a light onto everyday humanity, and show us how interesting it all is.  After all, if these angels can find humans interesting, surely we can too.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) looks at his city from above.

The two angels who live in (and above) Berlin are known as Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander).  For mystical beings, they look rather like humans: although they own suits of armor and can grow enormous wings on command, they elect to walk around in dark pea coats and gray scarves, their long hair tied back in neat pony tails.  Still, there’s a kind of an aura around them nonetheless, partly because the film is shot in black and white, and so their costumes contrast the lightness in their faces, but more importantly, because Ganz and Sander have a kind of silent presence on the screen that seems almost ethereal.  Ganz and Sander seem angelic because the humans in the film, realistically, are rarely as still as Damiel and Cassiel.  The humans seem to be more concerned with doingthings and with getting somewhere than with simply and silently listening and watching.

Damiel (left) and Cassiel compare notes on human events they’ve observed.

However nothing last forever, even for angels it seems, and Damiel decides that he wants to stop listening and watching and start living.  He tells Cassiel that he longs to take off his wings and become a human being, ‘even just to hold an apple in my hand’.  There’s another reason Damiel wants to become human, but he doesn’t tell Cassiel right away: he’s falling for a girl.  Marion, a trapeze artist, works for a local circus that’s being closed down.  Her performance involves wearing angel wings and ‘flying’ around the tent on her trapeze, and so they seem made for each other: Damiel, the angel, who wants to give away his wings and live on the ground, and Marion, the human, who wants to grow wings and fly.  When Damiel sees Marion for the first time, the movie briefly changes into full colour, and it becomes easier to understand why Damiel is tired of his angelic, but black and white world.  For him, the colour of life is in humanity, and, as Wenders shows us when he gives us a flash of Marion in colour, in love.

The first time Damiel sees Marion (Solveig Dommartin).

When Damiel finally takes off his wings, the film immerses us in colour, and Damiel couldn’t be happier.  He soon sells his armor at a pawnshop and trades in his peacoat for an almost-ridiculous sweater and hat.  He looks funny in his new outfit, but for the first time in the film, he seems vulnerable, and happy.  He talks to Peter Falk, who plays himself in a ‘special role’ (which it certainly is), on the set of a movie, and begins to try to track down his love, Marion.  The circus is gone and she’s not there, so he goes to the only other logical place to look, a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert.  And the best scene of the film is when the two meet at the bar in the back.

Damiel and Marion, near the end of the film.

The first fifteen minutes of Wings of Desire is the film’s most unconventional.  We don’t meet Damiel and Cassiel right away, instead we follow various humans in the midst of their daily lives, with the actors narrating their own thoughts in voice over.  The camera doesn’t stop very often throughout the sequence.  Instead, we swoop in on people from above, follow birds as they fly through the sky, zip around with bicyclists and families in station wagons, and hear Peter Falk’s thoughts on a plane.  The first shot of the film is an extreme close-up of an eye, and then a long shot taken from a helicopter flying over Berlin, and it’s a fitting way to start a movie that is so much about flight and observation.

Berlin from above, one of the first shots of the film.

The film has a poetic motif, half sung, half spoken by Bruno Ganz, that runs throughout the movie.  The poem, written by Peter Handke, who co-wrote the script with Wenders, is about what it means to be a child.  We see a hand, presumably Damiel’s, writing the poem at the beginning and the end of the film, and it serves as a landmark that we follow throughout the movie.  The poem is about the innocence of days past, and it’s a fitting parallel for Damiel’s journey from being a silent, angelic witness to a colourful, alive human being, and the innocence of his days to come.

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

In the thick of the Second World War, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote and directed The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a kind of elegy to classic British values, that in the opinion of its hero Clive Candy, won for them the First World War.  There is no one named Colonel Blimp in the film, instead we follow the life of Candy (the title of the film comes from a character in a 1930s comic strip, which poked fun at the reactionary values of people like Clive Candy and Winston Churchill).  The film’s greatest strength is in its pacing: the film is long, but never feels tedious, because the dialogue is blazingly fast (though not quite rushed), and the action moves steadily along.

Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) relaxing in the sauna.

The story is told through a long flashback.  Near the end of Candy’s career, an impudent young officer provokes the old man, who is busy relaxing in a sauna.  The film is told as a reminiscence of Candy’s service in the military, and we learn, namely, how he got his big belly and why he grew his mustache.  Throughout his long career, he duels a German man who becomes his best friend, falls in love with a woman who becomes his best friend’s wife, serves in the First World War, and retires into the home guard, where we met him at the beginning of the film.  The most important relationship in the film is that between Candy and the down-to-earth and likeable Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), his German friend.  They meet at various point of Candy’s life, and eventually Schuldorff, a refugee from Nazi Germany, settles down in Candy’s house during the Second World War.

Clive Candy at the beginning of his military career, speaking to the future wife of his best friend, played by Deborah Kerr.

When Candy writes a speech denouncing Nazi tactics after the retreat at Dunkirk, he goes as far as to say he’d rather accept defeat than use tactics such as they have.  He promptly gets a letter informing him that he’s lost his position in the army, and his best friend, an anti-Nazi German living in England tells him where he’s gone wrong: ‘You’ve been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman in peace and in war…but this is not a gentleman’s war.’  The point doesn’t go easily with Candy, who turns for consolation to his young driver (who looks exactly like Candy’s ex-wife, Schuldorff’s ex-wife, and all three roles are played by the same actress, Deborah Kerr) and says ‘You see, even one’s best friend lets one down.’  Candy’s attitude is outdated, and he refuses to see how he might be wrong, but it’s easy to sympathize with him, because he’s still a good old British chap who means well.  Powell and Pressburger’s film is like a swan song to the old reactionary values of Candy, his politeness and manners and gentlemanliness, which seemed to be outdated by the time of the Second World War.

Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) telling Clive Candy why he was demoted.

The pacing of the dialogue in the film is very fast: conversations are witty and quintessentially British.  There’s an interesting parallel between this pacing, that emphasizes wit and intelligence, and the British values that Candy comes to represent by the end of the film.  This is a film full of smart gentleman, and the way they speak is reminiscent of a Noel Coward play: as much as the film sympathizes with Candy’s values, it utilizes a way of speaking that is classically British, just like the values of its protagonist.  Although we may think that the age of the gentleman is long past in our modern times, it can’t be denied that there’s a certain charm in seeing that way of life portrayed on screen, and though it might not have been the way to win the war against the Nazis, it still can be an effective way to win over the ears and minds of an audience.

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Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968)

Watching a Cassavetes film is like sitting in front of a tornado.  His actors engage in a kind of manic dance, spinning around living rooms and hurling emotional javelins at each other.  Cassavetes often gave his actors freedom to do and say what they like, provided they conform to a broad outline of plot.  What’s brilliant about his films is that they are concerned with what’s underneath all this movement.  Cassavetes captures, in long emotional scenes, the underlying tone of the life of his characters, and follows it throughout his films.  They are less about the details of dialogue and action, and more about conveying an emotional note that speaks to what’s really going on in these lives and relationships, underneath the surface details.

Gena Rowlands’ face in Faces.

Shadows and Faces, Cassavetes two first independant films, are very different in terms of the emotional truth they’re searching for.  Shadows tells the story of Lelia (Lelia Goldani) and Tony (Anthony Ray, son of director Nicholas Ray), who fall into a kind of messy love for each other, before Tony realizes Lelia comes from a black family, something he doesn’t like.  The two split off quickly, and though the main thrust of the story is Lelia and Tony’s relationship, the movie spends more time between Lelia and her brothers Hugh (Hugh Hurd)  and Ben (Ben Carruthers).  The family’s relationship is (generally) based on trust and support, and this is the tone we get from the movie: despite the disastrous relationship between Lelia and Tony, we know the family has each other.  In Faces, we see the breakdown of the marriage between Richard and Maria Frost (played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin).  Here, all the secondary relationships in the film seem manipulative and untrusting, like that between Richard and the prostitute he’s infatuated with, Jeannie, played by Gena Rowlands.  Even Maria’s friends seem disconnected, as they fight for the affections of Chet, a young man they bring back from a dance club.  Faces may be a more mature film: the scenes are longer, more focused and intense, and the ending packs a heavier punch, but it lacks the kind of youthful optimism brought to Faces by the relationship of Lelia and Hugh.

Lelia Goldani and Hugh Hurd, playing brother and sister in Shadows. Rupert Crosse, in the background, plays Hugh’s singing agent.

The way Cassavetes shoots his films is a rebellion against Hollywood’s sterile tradition of capturing performances.  The camera lenses are constantly doing battle with dirt and hair, the camera sometimes avoids the actors for no apparent reason, and often it’s hard to hear what the performers are saying.  Part of the reason for his films being this way is the practically non-existent budget Cassavetes had to work with, but all the grainy elements of the film simply add to its style.  Cassavetes is encouraging us to look beyond the glossy perfection of Hollywood productions, and if we can get over the imperfections of the recording itself, we can see the film’s graininess is actually encouraging us to hear what the actors are conveying at a deeper level.  It doesn’t matter so much what they’re saying, what matters is what the tone of their lives sounds like, the emotional undercurrent of all his scenes, and that comes through loud and clear.

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Miss Julie (1951)

In 1951, Alf Sjoberg, veteran director of Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, wrote and directed his own adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie.  The film, and the play it’s based on, follows the young woman of the title, who falls in love (or is it just lust?) with a servant in her household, Jean.  Together, Jean and Julie reminisce over their pasts, and share their thoughts and dreams, and Sjoberg uses his camera to help illustrate what Jean and Julie share with each other.  Sjoberg’s Miss Julie is successful because it doesn’t try to be a play: it uses the medium of film to generate interest in its source material, through projections that establish a character’s inner world and long transitional takes that shift the setting.

Anita Bjork and Ulf Palme in the lead roles, who would both to go on to perform extensively for the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.

Near the beginning of the story, Julie and Jean run off to a forest to dance and share their thoughts.  Julie mentions a dream she has of being at a great height, but lacks the courage to jump off and fall, and asks Jean if he’s ever felt that way.  Jean says he hasn’t, but mentions a dream he often has where he climbs a tree to rob a nest of its golden eggs at the top; he can never quite reach the nest, but someday he swears he will, if only in a dream.  The sequence is a metaphor for the characters’ desire to escape their respective social classes.  Julie’s dream represents her longing to ‘fall’ from her spoilt upbringing into a lower class, while Jean’s dream represents his ambition to climb the social ladder and enjoy the rewards that belong to the top rung.  Their love affair offers both what they long for.  Here, Sjoberg chooses to use projected images behind the close-ups of his actors to demonstrate their desires.  Behind Julie we see a woman in a pure, white dress falling from a great height, while behind Jean we see a man with rolled up sleeves working his way up the branches of a tree.  Sjoberg also chooses to place the actors, and their respective projections, in a mirror image of each other, perhaps symbolizing the oppositional symmetry of their aspirations.  While projectors in theatres nowadays are used extensively (and often regrettably), Sjoberg’s use of projection and close-up together is exclusive to film, and it gives us a feeling of closeness with the characters, allowing us to enter into their thoughts and dreams.

Sjoberg uses projections to illustrate the dreams of his main characters.

We learn the most about Julie and Jean when they each spend time talking about their pasts.  For the transitions involved in the flashbacks, Sjoberg uses un-cut takes to seamlessly blend past and present.  At one point, Julie begins talking of her youth, and Sjoberg slowly pans his camera to another part of the room, where we see her as a young girl staring into a mirror.  Although the take is continuous, Sjoberg clearly shows that the film is in a new setting, yet the action is not broken through cutting to a new shot.  This technique is used often by Sjoberg, and in one take he even has Julie and her past self sharing the same frame.  The technique affects the viewer’s experience of time, and creates a blurry reality where past and present share almost the same space.  In Miss Julie, the main characters often disregard the consequences of their actions, and Sjoberg’s use of un-cut transitions helps us feel that the ‘rules’, be they the rules of remaining in one’s social class, or the rules of time and space, aren’t so much in charge of the piece.  It’s the relationship between Jean and Julie that is in charge, and the film, like the characters, will follow anywhere the relationship chooses to go, be it in present reality, or in their memories of the past.

Julie reminisces while her younger self and her mother share the frame.

Sjoberg’s Miss Julie may be based on a classic play, but it isn’t afraid of being a film.  His technically creative use of the camera allows the text to flow between settings and explore visual depth of characterization.  The film brings a classic text to a modern medium, without losing any of the source material’s power, and adds some technical elements that embellish our experience of the story along the way.  Of course, the film, and it’s technical prowess, is only effective because of great performances by Anita Bjork and Ulf Palme in the lead roles (and a very young Max von Sydow as a rowdy farmhand).  And there’s something great about hearing a classic text in the language it was meant for.

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