Sunday, 18 February 2018

Review: The Docks of New York (1928)

Josef von Sternberg once jokingly proclaimed that his films should be viewed upside down to better appreciate the play of light and shade, which the director regarded as the dominant components of his film. As a consummate aesthetician, Sternberg was willing to sacrifice the care for scripts and storyline to that of pictorial logic, or, with Marlene Dietrich for example, who was the outsize star of his seven films, to a more pressing need to accentuate the lustrous appeal of the actors. For wordless visual has a story of its own, which frequently departs from, or contradicts, the story it is supposed to supplement. With silent films, the visual assumes a preponderant role in storytelling, though words, in the abstract form of ideas, or scraps of disparate thoughts, are the real driver behind the images.

Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928) nonetheless offers a rare instance in which two stories, sometimes deceptively overlaid, are told respectively by the visual and the words, seemingly without the knowledge of the director. It is known that each shot of Sternberg’s film can stand on its own as an exquisite still photograph. If there was a photographer whose style Sternberg may be emulating, the fog-girt and seedy locale of Docks confers on the film a crudeness that is not without its peculiar charm – much like the photographs of Brassai, those images, coloured by the story they tell, are a blend of hard realism and sexual mystique. 

Another key to the appeal of the film’s cinematography is its emphasis on a sense of equilibrium set off by the play of contrasts: brawny hero and petite heroine, he toiling as a ship stoker all his life and she attempting to end her miserable life as a prostitute, their love is kindled and nurtured in a dingy room, and their faux marriage witnessed by a crowd of roisterers in a tavern. If it seems as though the writer jibs at embellishing the love story with any depth or moral sublimation, the visual suggests otherwise: the pair are joined with an aura of intimacy that is only made pronounced when their space is trespassed by intruders; there is something tender and devastating, and very well amounting to love, with two complete strangers brought together by fate, but struggle to move forward, or to turn back, from their distrust of fate.

Unlike Sternberg’s more star-centred extravaganza, The Docks of New York shifts its focus away from the actors and highlights instead the resonance of a simple narrative effected by its deft handle of mise-en-scene. But since the visual has a trick of telling its own story, there are moments when the actors, their faces like inscrutable artworks necessarily subjecting to various interpretations, seem to be implying something unexpected. One of those moments is the final sequence: before the hero is being led away to serve a 60-day sentence for theft, the heroine promises that she will “wait forever” for him. Her face after the intertitle is grimaced by a smile of cynicism and resignation, and there is a hint of weariness in her welled-up eyes. We wonder: will she really wait forever for him?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Review: Vivre sa vie (1962)

In Emile Zola’s Nana the heroine, a high-class courtesan of the Parisian demimonde, is likened to “those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons;” her beauty is poisonous, like “a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage;” always the victor, she remains “as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal,” reigning over a host of ruined men, who fall from her hands “like ripe fruits… lie rotting on the ground.”

Like her possible namesake, the heroine of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) is a victim of the society’s increasing commodification of feminine attributes. Wearing her hair in a sleek, Flapper bob, this Nana also recalls Louise Brooks’s character in Pandora’s Box (1929), whose lethal sexuality eventually blindfolds her to danger, and dies at the hand of Jack the Ripper. Nana, though a striking beauty, lacks the skill of coquetry and the air of conspiratorial knowingness peculiar to an archetypal femme fatale, and is thus portrayed in a more sympathetic light, as an aspiring actress sidetracked to the seedy world of prostitution. Her expressive eyes, apt nonetheless to stare abstractedly and inscrutably at a distance, are cracks of her composed veneer: into these cracks we see a tender soul susceptible to the pain of her kind (she is moved to tears when seeing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc), and we see how she laughs at a man’s joke and breaks into an impromptu dance to the jukebox music – there is a child in her that is impervious to the travails of the adult world.

The film is composed of twelve chapters, most of which are brief and fragmentary, and end in an inconclusive note. This desultory narrative style is accompanied by an austere, at times voyeuristic photography by Raoul Coutard, whose previous works with Godard (Une femme est une femmeA bout de souffle) reveal a more capricious and idiosyncratic manner that complements the latter’s jauntily erratic storytelling. The general tone of this film is comparatively subdued and contemplative; its character study centralises on a subject that is stubbornly elusive – the opening credits of the film, which show only the rear and the profile of Nana, are symbolic in indicating her dogged impenetrableness – and yet we are readily commiserative of her suffering and tragic fate. Our relation with the protagonist yields both a connection and a rupture: not much information of Nana can be gleaned through those sparse chapters, but enough to intrigue us that the lack of knowledge invariably succeeds in doing.

This uncertain balance between the known and the unknown is at the core of Nana’s conversation with a philosopher, played by Brice Parain, Godard’s philosophy teacher. They discourse on the paradox of language – it is both a means of communication and an insuperable barrier to conveying what really is on a person’s mind – to which the philosopher’s stance is one of resignation, since it is not until one is on the brink of death that language is suddenly and decidedly transcended. The fact that men cannot live without language is often presented as first a dubious premise that Godard, in his films, sets out to dispute: there are in the characters’ obstinate laconicness and occasional whimsical display a defiance for the accessibility of language; but after casting about vainly for probable substitutes, it is language, of the most fractured kind, that they ultimately submit to.

As in Godard’s more prominent pictures, Vivre sa vie steers clear from the overtly abstruse: it is when the director forgoes pedantic intellectualising that he is unmatched in telling a story whose connotations cannot be adequately expressed by words, but are common and intelligible to all. In a sense Nana is right in saying, during her debate with the philosopher, that there are emotions of which silence constitutes the best illustration – those of the tragic kind are one of them.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Review: Lola (1961)

Life consists of equal parts of choice and equal parts of chance. This is what those who subscribe to indeterminism, which argues against the notion that causation is invariably explainable by reason, would have us believe. Aristotle was one of the early thinkers to ponder on the wonders of what would be known as aetiology, the establishment of causes and origin for an event, and concluded that there were accidents in life that could be attributed to no other cause than chance, which stands outside the disciplines of activities developed out of necessity. But it is also this inexorableness of chance that subjects every rigorous system of thought to the threat of precariousness – every journey is liable to be suddenly swerved from its determined path, just as every traveller is warned never to take his arrival for granted. 

In theory, the elusive presence of chance defies the interference of man, or anything that is man-made. In other words, the attempt to manifest the notion in words, or simply to tell a story in which chance figures as an inevitable, if not an accentuated, element would amount to transforming its essence into something artificial. The chance proper is what happens when we do not consciously will it to happen, when our calculations of what might have happened fails in its oversight and insufficiency. It can be inferred that an accumulation of such experience has trained us to be less bewildered and more vigilant when faced with the caprice of life. We have come to accept chance as an “expected” occurrence whose unexpectedness is implicit in the grand scheme of things.

To reproduce such “unexpectedness” in a story will only succeed insofar as creating a counterfeited reality, a hyper-real world that mirrors, perhaps too familiarly, the world that we know of. Jacques Demy, with his 1961 debut Lola, trifles with this implausibility of chance occurrences that is integral to a fictional world. The story concerns a disparate array of personages whose lives are curiously connected to one another, and whose trajectories in Nantes, a coastal town in western France, crossed and recrossed. The central characters, Roland and Lola, were childhood friends separated by war, and now reunite by chance as Lola is working as a cabaret singer, and Roland, a daydreamer tempted by a diamond-smuggling plan that would take him to South Africa. All the people that they have crossed paths with in the course of the story serve more or less as their variants: a little girl also named Cecile (Lola’s real name) with an aspiration of becoming a dancer, an American sailor who casually beds Lola and befriends the little Cecile, and Michel, who abandoned Lola and her son to seek for fortune, returns seven years later a rich man to reclaim the pair. 

The lyricism of the camera work and Nantes’s own idyllic charm raises the film above what would otherwise be a silly roundelay. As would become exceedingly manifest in his later films, Demy fastened on the schmaltzy romance, highlighted often with memorable songs by Michel Legrand, that had been the staple of Hollywood melodramas. There is a sense of diaphanousness with those love stories that, despite their meandering plots and overall tremulous sentiments, registers not much of a profound impact, or yields any emotional import that is not at best hackneyed and outworn. Demy’s reluctance of totally forgoing the conventional, of having any truck with the formally radical cinematic experiment as heralded by the likes of Truffaut and Godard, had made him a peripheral figure of the French New Wave until recently. 

At least with its primary concerns of chance, of love largely dependent on the vagaries of fate, and of the vindication of personal illusion, Lolaexplores the familiar frontier of the French New Wave, though not without the poignancy and tenderness with which we can easily resonate. What finally separates Demy’s films and other of the French New Wave’s is perhaps the former’s firmer grasp on the inescapable knowledge of reality, which often contributes, at the very end, to the ultimate dissolution of relations formed hastily through a mutual need to alleviate loneliness, but are secured with no promises. And just as chance is like a tenuous tie that entangles a random group of people, and be readily severed as it seeks for another temporary linkage, the end of Lola sees the dispersion of the crowd, each heading to his unknown destination, some with ambivalence for the unknown future, others with a broken heart.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Review: Band of Outsiders (1964)

Whim and caprice dominated the ‘60s. It was a period of slow convalescence from the aftermath of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression; a period of unrest and revolt, resulted from a protracted hopelessness the people had felt towards the grim prospect of the immediate future, and a just indignation of their unrelieved squalor. It was also a period that saw a light to the problem of an identity crisis that seized the lost and the dispossessed, as the collective repugnance for tyranny and enforced servility necessitated a call for self-liberation. The naiveté of going against the conventional, as this self-liberation invariably took form, culminated in a radical iconoclasm that favoured a constitution of individuality that obstinately resisted any outward influence. The Theatre of the Absurd was, in a sense, a riposte to this pervasive “counterculture” that sought to disentangle from the past through an arbitrary myth-making. Often in a mock-parodic manner the movement took aim at the absurdity of the cultural phenomenon by acting out this absurdity, attempting to extract meaning from the meaningless, aestheticising the trite and the mundane.

This trend of reinventing selves was, at bottom, merely a reaffirmation of the nature of human identity. According to Heidegger, a being is thrown into existence by the external force with which it comes into contact. This understanding negates the view that a person’s identity is essentially an organic actuality that thrusts its presence consistently on its surrounding. Modern theatre tends more to Heidegger’s conception of a mobile identity, whose manifestation consists of a series of states of being that are variable and precarious. In a strict sense no character can achieve full authenticity as the identity, whose embodiment hinges on the narrative in which it plays a part, is never tied down to one defining aspect. Imitation is a key element whose means those characters, their lack of a fixed personality renders them almost characterless, resort to in adapting themselves to the world. 

This acknowledgement of selfhood as fundamentally subservient to the dictates of nature is a reverse take on Jean Luc-Godard’s films, whose emphases on the primacy of self-autonomy makes a strong claim for humanity as unfettered by the shackles of social protocols. The characters often behave oddly, unbosom their thoughts and feelings freely to the point where their speech makes little sense. With caprice as their only guidance their stories rarely resolved without a tragedy or two; they epitomise a hedonism that has no other end or purpose other than exhausting happiness to the point of death. On the surface these films seem to be celebrating the ‘60s’ teen spirits at its most melodramatic and audacious – on occasions, they even serve as a moral parable, a cautionary tale for the coming generations, or would-be emulators. As in Band of Outsiders, the philosophy is a reckless exchange of the prosaic for the criminal, in its perverse way of redeeming a life largely frustrated with its general futility and aimlessness.

The story concerns two errant vagrants, Franz and Arthur (presumably named after Kafka and Rimbaud, both of whom died during their prime), and a girl, Odile, whom they befriend in an English class. They hatch a plan of robbing Odile’s wealthy uncle, a decision that seems to be made on a whim and attached with no importance or purpose until, however, it is forced into operation, much to the astonishment and reluctance of the wide-eyed Odile. 

Shot in an idiosyncratic style that made Godard the founding figure of French New Wave, the film, as judged in its entirety, is as much about the youth culture of the ‘60s, all its absurdity and waywardness, as it is an exploration, and indeed testament, of the refractory nature of our fluid identity. The tendency to behave impulsively and unreasonably, as what induces many of the characters’ outrageous mischiefs, indicates a destitution for social awareness. What characterises this peculiar spirit of ‘60s counterculture is ultimately what makes us humans – in the particular respect where our resources fail us, where our claim for superiority inevitably succumbs to the immense nebulousness of a changing reality, where our dread of the future compels us to an impasse, miserable and dejected.

But the film ends on a positive note. Though death eventually puts an end to the youngsters’ roguery, the two survivors, now at large, look on with joy their new chapter in a foreign country (Brazil) and realise that, amidst the turmoil of life as outsiders, love is the only thing that tides them over the hardship. The message calls for a “looking ahead,” rather than a “looking back” or “relishing the present.” This recalls a particular couplet from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Youth”: “As for the world, when you emerge, what will it have become? / In any case, nothing of what it seems at present.” 

Monday, 21 August 2017

Review: Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Every adversity in life is a test of one's fortitude, the occasion of which, as proved invariably in the past, man is capable of defying destiny, of reversing the inexorable course to which life is doomed to tend. Too often we sympathise with the travails of the dogged, indefatigable fighter, whose hard-on victory we shed tears of relief and admiration, and whose stories and examples we evoke when in need of a boost of morale or motivation, that our notion of heroism has come to be hallowed with a glow of divinity peculiar to those who triumph in their fights. Those who fail – the martyrs who labour for nothing, who die without fulfilling what they die for – they are regarded with no less sympathy, but to recount their stories we averse, refusing to be reminded of what ultimately makes us humans – our inherent and infinite capacity to fail.

To face up to one’s failures, especially with the forlorn hope that such failures can ever be remedied, requires a special kind of courage. William Inge’s 1950 play, Come Back, Little Sheba, suggests that such courage hinges on an almost implausible light of positivism in the midst of a demoralising gloom. “Doc” Delaney is a former alcoholic who resigns to life’s perennial discontents, giving up a promising career in the medical to be yoked to a faded belle, Lola, whom he married out of obligation for their child, conceived out of wedlock and soon died. Their unhappy marriage subsists on an affectatious ritual of referring to each other as “daddy” and “baby,” and a false cheerfulness supplied mainly by Lola’s interminable prattle, often provoking nothing more than a monosyllabic response from her apathetic listener. 

The pretense does not hold long. A college art student Marie, whose bobby-soxer image belies a simmering lustfulness that mesmerises those around her, comes to stay at the Delaney’s as a boarder. Friction begins to show between Doc and Lola, who clash with their differing opinions as of whether Marie, already bespoken, is allowed to play fire with another man. For Marie reminds both of their youths, Lola a beguiling coquette pursued by myriads dashing young men, and Doc a consummate academic with a bright future ahead. 

Daniel Mann’s 1952 film adaptation rightly centers on the sterling performance of the actors, Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, who bring subtlety and resonance to a kitchen-sink drama whose pathos verges on the platitudinous. The couple’s ruggedness in the wake of Doc’s relapse attests to the moral of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, published around the same period as the play, that “man can be destroyed but not defeated,” and conveys a tenderness that reveals their love to be steadfast despite their mutual rancour. There is a sadness when Booth, moving and endearing in her enforced verbosity, announces to Doc, returning from the hospital dazed but gratified, that it is time she ceases dreaming that Sheba, her missing little dog, would ever come back to her life, and they should face the reality with their chins up; this is a sadness that may be temporarily assuaged by an inspired positivism but is never completely removed from doubt. 

Men are made of stern stuffs but what is damaged once leaves a wound that can never be totally healed. Such is the hidden side, indeed the curse, of fortitude that indicates men’s inherent hopelessness, and the immutable truth that every fighter is in the end a loser in most respects.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: Gaslight (1944)

Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.

The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of Victorian literature. Freedom was a concept that had no longer a purely theoretical abstractness; its pent-up force sought outlet finally in the practical efforts of the few, exerting far-reaching impacts that would, in consequence, changed face of the social climate. Even for those to whom the prospect of freedom was not too implausible a dream, but altogether an unattainable privilege, their growing distrust with the old values and ideals that they used to hold dearly to triggered stirrings of rebelliousness against their secluded lives.

A typical Gothic fiction dramatises this struggle of attaining the freedom of self. Women are chiefly the voice, their stories a model for the oppressed to stand up against the injustice of their present conditions, or the tyranny that condemns their lives to endless fear and suffering. Passivity is no longer a mark of feminine virtue, but an impediment to one’s pursuit of future happiness and self-fulfillment. Instead of resigning to fruitless dreaming, those doughty women set out to rewrite their destiny.  

But not all women in those stories start in a place where their sense of resoluteness or intrepidity is readily evoked in the face of adversity, nor are they wholly aware of possessing those qualities. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight features a heroine who is constantly questioning her own sanity. It is clear from the outset that her husband isn’t totally innocent in the matter: he reproaches her for her incessant forgetfulness and, later, a paranoiac hallucination which convinces her that the gaslight would inexplicably dim whenever he is out. The unravelling of the mystery seems too facile, with every obvious clue pointing to the husband as the cause of the wife’s affliction. He is callous and scornful during his wife’s many mental break-downs, flirting behind her back with the servant and slipping out every night to tend to an unknown personal business.

Intentionally or not, the play’s want of suspenseful elements heightens this uneasy complicity between the playwright and the audience, to the extent that, as the heroine’s suffering of her husband’s cruel treatment becomes increasingly acute, our collective moral conscience is called into question. This manipulation of audience’s response constitutes in the main the mechanism of filmmaking. A filmmaker is, in a sense, more of an interpreter than a storyteller, whose invisible presence thrusts more forcefully between an audience and the film. It seems normally the case that, when viewing a film, especially for the first time, one is allowed not much freedom in diverting from the fundamental perspective through which the story is told.

With George Cukor’s 1944 film adaptation of Gaslight the viewers are subjected to an emotional trial that sees Ingrid Bergman’s Paula Alquit systematically driven mad by her wicked husband Gregory, played by Charles Boyer. Both were acting against their types: Bergman reduced to a crumbling frailty that was oddly efficacious with someone whose tall, robust frame, and whose faultlessly dignified mien, earned her roles in the past of a more fearless, dogged temperament (in fact it was Cukor’s intention that the character should seem in appearance contrary to the tortured victim she then becomes); whilst Boyer swiveled between his signature lover’s charm and a shuddering viciousness.

What ultimately distinguishes Gaslight from other Gothic thrillers of the period is the timelessness of its subject - that our greatest fear derives not from the threat of what we don’t know, but the unsuspected danger inherent in what we know. Gaslight is a perfect metaphor for this: it consists in both light and darkness, offering at most temporary, tentative relief that is constantly accompanied by signs of its imminent extinction.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Review: A Taste of Honey (1961)

Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy- tragicomic if both aspects are given equal measure of awareness; melodramatic when the two extremes are ratcheted up to a boiling point. For most people, it is only natural that they take the good with the bad. An ingrained fatalism dictates their attitudes towards the vagaries of human fate; therefore in joy they wait agonisingly for the day their good fortune is suddenly wrested from them, and in sadness for the glimpse of light that signals a gradual upturn of the dire condition. “Nothing lasts forever”- this well-worn adage becomes almost the guideline of their survival, and a perpetual reminder that life is ever mobile and unpredictable.

Every current of life, regardless of the varying destination it tends to, returns and oscillates invariably between two points: suffering and the struggle to survive. They are as much the fundamentals of human condition as the impetus for the cultivating of human resourcefulness: it is the battle of will between the irrevocable fate and the indefatigable resilience of mankind.

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey explores the extent to which men are capable of withstanding endless misfortunes whilst keeping alive the infallibly optimistic outlook of life. The story is set in 1950s’ Salford, a former industrial town that weathered a gradual decline in commerce and population as people left for the cities to seek for better fortunes. 17-year-old Jo and her errant mother Helen were amongst those who struggled to keep afloat in this implacable squalor, moonlight-flitting from one derelict accommodation to another. The relationship between the mother and daughter was a contentious one; their exchange abounded in sardonic humour and throwaway barbs. Desperate to be released from the straits, Helen ran off one day with an insolent cad, and the abandoned Jo was impregnated by a black sailor and afterward befriended a kind homosexual art student, Geoffrey.

Tony Richardson’s 1961 film version justly evinces a dogged hopefulness that, according to Delaney, is the keynote of the play. But whilst, in the play, this positivism is somewhat weighed down by a sense of unremitting oppressiveness and self-inhibition the cramped locale evokes, Richardson negates this vital contrast by expanding the visual scope, wherein the interiors are much wider, and the characters are taken out into the open, roaming frequently in the country and the dockside.

By muting the ambiguous overtone that makes the original story not only a celebration of human endurance, but an unvarnished observation of the difficult life in post-war Manchester, the film is evidently keen on conveying an edifying message that the brave of heart will eventually triumphs all obstacles. The play nonetheless is much more sceptic in its tone, as the ending sees Helen, back from her disastrous marriage to tend to her pregnant daughter, rush out in the shocked knowledge that her grandchild may be half-black. Although she promises Jo that she is only going to get herself a few drinks, there is no knowing if the fickle Helen will keep her word this time. Jo, left alone again, smilingly hums a tune Geoffrey teaches her, seemingly still in the dark of her friend’s earlier departure.

The film instead closes with manifest signs of hope: Helen is really back from the bar and Jo stares bedazzled by a sparkler. This overall image of hope is accompanied by a more sympathetic portrayal of characters: Dora Bryan as the mother whose maternal instinct atones for her failure as a responsible parent, and Rita Tushingham as a more likeable Jo whose flares of rebelliousness is a result of being perpetually exposed to harsh fate. Like all young sufferers, Jo often discloses her feelings in deceptively simple address: “I’m not frightened of the darkness outside. It’s the darkness inside houses I don’t like” is her way of expressing her wish for a more stable, loving household. One would suggest that such precocity could not have been any more exquisitely captured if the play weren’t written by Delaney when she was only 19.