Monthly Archives: August 2012

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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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on The Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s landmark epic war film from 1930, is a powerful film.  The battle scenes are huge and spacious, the cast is large, and the size of the acting, typical for 1930, matches the size of the drama.  However, the greatest triumph of All Quiet on the Western Front, beyond special effects and epic battle scenes, is how convincingly the movie shows us the tragedy of sending young men like Paul, its protagonist, to war.

Paul in his (short lived) cheerful new recruit phase.

Through the course of the film, Paul grows from naive schoolboy to jaded soldier.  Along with his schoolmates, Paul decides to enlist in the German army for the First World War, encouraged enthusiastically by his high school teacher. We follow the young men through three years of training, living in the trenches and fighting in the war.  The movie’s deepest emotional punch comes when Paul returns home on leave after being on the front lines.  Back home, there’s an eerie distance between him and his family, not to mention everyone else around.  He tells a group of young students, who are in the same position he was in before he joined the war, the truth about how horrible fighting on the front lines really is.  The students call him a coward, and his old teacher objects to what he says, but Paul is simply telling the young boys the truth about what he’s experienced being a soldier in the war.  The film asks us if being a soldier and fighting for your country is worth the sacrifice it requires, and here Paul gives one resounding opinion on the matter: “When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”

The crew used real dynamite to create the shell holes on the battlefield, hopefully when no one was around.

When compared to other war films, the cast of All Quiet is younger, and this is a great strength of the film.  We believe that all the young soldiers are fresh out of grade school, because the actors were actually that young, and it makes the tragedy of seeing Paul at the end of the movie so much more powerful: we come to see him as a brooding and pained old soul, even though on the surface he is still so young.  Physically, Paul looks slightly older than the sixteen-year-old new recruits at the end of the film, but in terms of experience of the world and its tragedy, the difference is like night and day.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of the movie to take in: it’s one thing to see Tom Hanks struggling to live with war in Saving Private Ryan or Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter, but it’s another to see Ayres dealing with it at half their age.

Paul back home with his mother and sister. “You’re a soldier now, aren’t you? But somehow, I don’t seem to know you…”

We’re brought closer to Paul as the movie goes on, while in the film, he ends up all alone.  No one seems to understand what he’s going through, and perhaps no audience member can completely understand his experience unless they’ve been to war themselves.  It seems to me that this is why people make movies (and all art for that matter) about war.  When a war movie is successful, like All Quiet is, it may not be able to get us to know what it’s actually like to be a soldier, but it can help us begin to feel the tragedy of the sacrifice it requires.

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Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s film is all about heat.  In the hottest part of the summer, the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant do what they can to keep cool without the help of air conditioning, jumping in front of open fire hydrants and engaging in a rather liberal use of ice-cubes, but they’re still burning up.  Heat is the backdrop of the movie, and the heat spills over into the plot: Bed-Stuy is rife with hot tempers that clash and risk boiling over, and the hottest pressure point in the neighborhood is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, owned by an American-Italian family trying to get by in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Bed-Stuy residents generously helping a man, and his convertible, cool down.

The film follows Mookie, played by Spike Lee, a young pizza delivery boy who works for Sal but doesn’t take his job as seriously as his boss would like.  Sal has a problem with a few of Mookie’s friends, including one Radio Raheem, a generally silent character with a very loud boombox, and a young man known as Buggin’ Out who wants to organize a boycott of the pizzeria because Sal’s wall of fame features only American-Italians and has no blacks.  His complaint seems fair enough: Sal’s is in a black neighborhood, and serves black customers, but Sal refuses to adapt to the complaint, and the tensions mount to a breaking point.

Spike Lee as Mookie, and John Turturro as Sal’s angry son.

The plot is simple enough, but it’s really just a vehicle for Lee to showcase racial tensions and look into the mess people get into when they don’t get over their differences of color (speaking of color, the film is full of it – the colours are as loud as Radio Raheem’s boombox, and part of the sense of heat in the film comes from the bright reds and oranges of the buildings and costumes).  Lee takes enough time to play around with a great cast of characters, including, notably, Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘Senor Love Daddy’, a good-humoured and entertaining radio show host, who serves as the show’s grounding force, and links the other characters back into reality.  During a memorable sequence, Lee shows characters of various ethnicities yelling racial profanities at each other, and it’s Jackson’s character that Lee uses to get them, in his words, to…

‘Cool that shit out!’

The film leads us to suspect something catastrophic might happen – it’s too hot, the tempers are too testy for something not to give, especially from Sal’s overwhelmingly racist son played by John Turturro – but the climax the movie delivers is still shockingly disastrous.  Lee probably wanted something as dramatic as the ending to shock us out of our complacent indifference, and make us pay attention to what he’s trying to say about racism.  At the end of the film, he shows us two seemingly disparate quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr about racially inspired violence, where King says, very fittingly at the end of this movie: ‘Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral…[It] ends by defeating itself.  It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.’  And that’s the truth, Ruth.

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A Bout de Souffle/Breathless (1960)

A Bout De Souffle is famous for its editing, and Jean-Luc Godard’s fast-cuts are the most striking part of this film.  What seem like important events fly by, people zip around rooms, and pieces of conversation are unnaturally slapped on top of each other.  We have no idea what we’ll be looking at next, and it’s very exciting.

Godard’s film jumps more cuts than Michel Poiccard jumps cars, which is a lot.

The film is driven (often literally) by Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a reckless European playboy, who steals cars, toys with women, smokes all the time and gets into a lot of trouble.  Before long, Michel finds himself in over his head: he’s wanted by the police for the murder of an officer, something that happens so fast that we’re left wondering, like Michel might be, if it actually happened.  Unfortunately for him, it did, and it’s not long before the police have his wanted photo on the front page of the Paris newspaper.  Michel has no time to lose: his plan is to go to Rome, but first he needs money, and he needs to convince the woman he loves to get in his car and drive away with him.  The money he can get; the girl proves to be not so easy.

Patricia, an aspiring reporter from America played by Jean Seberg, is a bit too complicated to be won over by Michel’s plan of escape, at least at first.  She says she doesn’t know if she loves him, if she wants him to love her, or if she wants to go to Rome with him.  She really just likes having fun with Michel.  In the middle of the movie, Jean-Luc Godard puts them in her tiny apartment together for about twenty three minutes: he’s trying to get her to go to Rome, but is really just paying attention to her, and she’s trying to get him to keep paying attention to her, and stop talking about Rome, and nothing happens.

Well, nothing really happens.

The scene is great because they’re both having a lot of fun, and because Godard’s camera work jolts us into attention every once in a while.  Suddenly he’s under the covers and she’s wearing a different dress, now she’s looking at the mirror in the bathroom and he’s found a bathrobe, now we get a flash of his chest and her dimples, and Godard continues to find something new to appreciate about the two characters and their relationship.  The scene is long, but it’s a delightful change of pace from the feverish opening, and sets us up for the finale, where, as in all movies about men on the run, what Michel is running from finally catches up to him.

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