Thursday, May 23, 2013

Stromboli (1950) - Directed by Roberto Rossellini

For some reason this film has a way of getting under my skin. I’ve seen it twice in the last few months….the first time because I’d been trying to track down Ingrid Bergman’s films with Rossellini, and the second time because I felt compelled to do so, just because the film was so INTERESTING the first time I watched it. Bergman of course famously sought out Rossellini in a personal letter she wrote to him after seeing Paisan. They eventually had a torrid and scandalous affair, got married, had 3 children together, and eventually churned out 6 films during their collaboration. After viewing Stromboli the second time, I’m convinced it’s a beautiful and messy masterpiece, the kind of film that means something personal to me and strikes a chord, even though I know that not everyone is probably going to receive it with the kind of affection that I hold for it. It is the kind of film that asks more questions than it answers.

Stromboli is written, produced and directed by Rossellini, who had complete control over this film, even though it’s release was fraught with the scandal of the affair. There are at least 2 cuts of the film, one a U.S. release at 81 minutes, and the other cut which is 107 minutes. I’m slightly convinced I have seen both versions, as the first version I watched on YouTube and I think I prefer the longer cut which recently played on TCM. Bergman plays Karin, a Lithuanian refugee at an internment camp in Italy, following WWII, who is picked up by a local Italian man, marries him, and he brings her back to the Island of Stromboli off of Italy, which is his home. Soon after reaching the desolate, lava-strewn island (which contains a monstrous, live volcano at its center), Karin enters a serious period of doubt and questioning. Her despair upon reaching the island is holistic….she feels she has been led astray by blanket promises of her husband and his portrayal of the island, when in fact it is a small, strict, aging society, not open to outsiders. Her natural beauty is at odds with both the local women, and the rugged volcanic island. She can also barely communicate with anyone, not even her husband. She can’t speak Italian, and the broken English spoken by some of the residents leads to mostly frustration. She desperately wants to leave the island and voices her opinion often. The film examines her ennui and existential crises, and grows increasingly tense, as she becomes pregnant, the volcano erupts, and she attempts a traverse of the mountain to the other side of the island.

I’m not sure how Rossellini originally intended the film to be viewed, but I have found it interesting that, at least in the prints I have seen, he does not provide subtitles. Even while the Italians are speaking in their native language, the subtitles are not provided. One way to interpret this is that perhaps Rossellini wants us to feel as though Bergman feels, meaning the sense of confusion, alienation and isolation. On the other hand, it might just be that during the editing of the prints that subtitles were never provided, or the two prints I've seen have been poor. I would be interested to hear if anyone has seen a print that DOES contain subtitles.

Rossellini’s choice of filming on Stromboli is the masterstroke, as it provides a gritty, rough texture to the frame, which allows Bergman’s beauty to stand out even more. She is breathtaking in this film and as beautiful as she ever was in any other film. The dry and lava strewn island provides a sort of visual symmetry to the emotionally fraught film as well, kind of like Antonioni’s symmetry  of environmental and human degradation in Red Desert. So here, Rossellini assimilates the erupting volcano to Karin’s despair. In a sense, she disrupts the balance of the island and the island can’t take anymore. She brings a carnality and a worldliness not found there, and everyone from the local men, to the priest, to the women find themselves charged up in one way or another by her presence. It is appropriate to mention Antonioni as I did though. Stromboli seems to presage films like L’aventura, L’ecclise etc. that would rock the cinematic world with their distinct portrayal of emptiness and existential crises, and of the wandering and of the internalization of a character’s disenchantment. In Rossellini’s hands, though, this mode of storytelling comes across as less of a honed “design” or specific thematic tendency and more a necessary approach to the content, the outdoor space, and the story. There is a naturalness here that is not apparent in Antonioni’s films. There’s a stretch of about 10 minutes in Stromboli where Bergman sobs in despair, and meanders about the town, searching for a crying baby she hears in the distance. The sequence goes on for what seems like an eternity, and the camera just lingers on her and follows her on her search. Nothing really happens, but the allowance for nothing to happen gives the film a vitality, a shifting context, and an improvisatory feel that would become far more en vogue in decades that would follow. It’s one of the best sequences in the film. Of course the finale, where Bergman climbs Mt. Stromboli and stares straight into the fuming crater of the volcano, is a brilliantly composed and shot sequence that brings her to the brink of fate and allows her to perhaps find her inner strength at a crucial moment when all seems lost. I say “perhaps” because nothing is really defined for us as the audience. It is a scene of emotional understanding and awakening, even though we don’t fully comprehend it. It would really be a shame if I did not mention Renzo Rossellini’s lovely score, with strains of string and flute interspersing throughout the film. Like I mentioned above, I don’t think everyone will take to this film. It’s rough around the edges and is a bit awkward at times, probably on purpose. But, the naked emotional honesty and the visualization of Karin’s inner turmoil are unforgettable to me. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Match Factory Girl (1990) - Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

Over the last couple years since I watched The Match Factory Girl, I have found that I’ve been haunted by it. I watched it back in 2011, as part of my viewing of Kaurismaki’s Proletariat Trilogy released on Criterion’s Eclipse Series. Thinking back on it, I believe I underrated it at the time. I gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, but have found myself thinking about the film almost on a monthly basis since then. I found that I would recall instances or images from the film at random moments. I feel the first viewing was a sort of introduction to it, but that I really needed to watch it again. So I did again recently. Sure enough I now consider it to be a fully-fledged masterpiece and probably Kaurismaki’s greatest film and one of the best films of the 1990s.

Kaurismaki leaves his mark all over this film, from the writing, directing, and soundtrack choices it is hard to mistake this film from coming from anyone else. Set in his native Finland, The Match Factory Girl regards a young woman named Iris. She slogs away each day in a match-stick factory and lives with her parents, whom she supports. Her lonely existence is compounded by the fact that although she attempts to go out to bars and dances, she is seemingly ignored everywhere she goes, ending up each evening alone. That is until one evening when she buys a new dress, goes to a bar, and is picked up by a random guy named Aarne. She wakes up the next morning at his apartment, but he has already left for work. She assumes he wants a relationship, when in actuality is not interested in her at all, except for sex. This sets up a denouement whereupon Iris gets pregnant, is shunned by this man and her parents, and then in a fit of pent-up “rage”, seeks revenge upon an uncaring society.

Now I’m sure I’m not completely qualified to make this judgement…..but in my opinion, I believe this film to be the darkest, most dead-pan comedy that I’ve ever seen. It is so unrelentingly bleak and dark, that Kaurismaki seems to be daring us to laugh or find this funny. Oh but funny it is and it’s not at the expense of Iris. It might appear to be at first, but she in fact gets the last laugh in the end. Nearly all of the comedy, and in fact the entire film itself, is told visually. This is almost a silent comedy. I point to the scene where Iris is sitting alone at the dance, drinking her orange soda…completely ignored and places her empty bottle down on the floor…where several bottles have already been finished. Or perhaps we could look at the hilarious moment where her father visits Iris in the hospital telling her that she is no longer to stay with them at their house and plops an orange down on the bedstand next to her. She says nothing, but instead begins to peel the orange. Or what about the unbearably awkward scene where Aarne comes over to the family's house and sits awkwardly with the parents as they smoke and drink coffee in complete silence. There’s very little dialogue in the film, but what little there is makes an indelible mark. There’s the moment where Iris tells a fellow co-worker that she’s pregnant. The coworker replies, “Is that so?”, and walks off. Then Iris decides she’s going to buy some rat poison at a store. After the cashier hands it to her, Iris asks “What does it do”? The cashier replies, “It kills”.

Kaurismaki’s choice of Kati Outinen to play Iris was sheer brilliance. In a near wordless performance Outinen is able to project meekness, naivete, joy, heartache, bitterness, hatred, and vengeance without really saying anything at all. She conveys all of these things through her facial expressions and captures this woman’s awkward existence with such bleak melancholy, it’s hard not to sympathize with her, but we are never asked to pity her. Her inner strength comes through at the end and even though she makes some unforgivable choices, we sense the empowerment with which she makes them. Timo Salminen’s brilliant compositions and sense of comedic scoping add a touch of whimsy to the bleak visuals, and Kaurismaki’s surreal sense of musical embellishments takes on additional comedic relevance as the bouncy, bluesy soundtrack is nearly in complete opposition to the proceedings. Although set at a brisk 69 minutes, one does not feel that anything is missing at all. The film is perfectly paced, written, and acted and there isn’t a wasted minute in the entire film. This is the kind of film that I could watch over and over again.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Is it Enough?

Is it enough to know we were there together? Is it enough to know that we shared the same space.....and breathed the same air? Is it enough to know that the Sun that day shined on both of us.....and warmed our skin?

Your voice and mine. Your hand and mine.

Maybe it would be better to be someone else..... or something else?
Could I be the golden glow of your hair?
Could I be the blue in your eyes?
Could I be the red in your lips?

Yes, that's what I want.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

To the Wonder (2013) - Directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s latest addition to an increasingly prolific canon is this beautifully dark masterpiece. I think it’s in fact Malick’s “darkest” film. Here there is no “grace”, like in Tree of Life, nor is there the comfort of the family bonds, nor is there the spiritual rebirth, as there was in the previous film. Gone also is the pat, matter-of-factness that so characterized his early films, like Badlands and Days of Heaven. Even the uplifting moments found in The Thin Red Line, or The New World are not really there, as what beauty there is seems to be negated by the next disappointment. This is a story of doubt, of loneliness, of longing for something that cannot truly be grasped, and perhaps even more so, the mistrust of one’s one feelings and desires. This is not the same final tone that his other films leave you with. There is something darker here that he is expressing, really for the first time in this way.

Malick’s film involves a few parallel storylines. In one, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love in France, where he brings her back to live in his home in the U.S. Soon, their love devolves into a confusing swirl of emotions and dissatisfaction. They split and she returns home. He meets up with Jane, a girl he knew in High School and they have a short fling, and she ends up heartbroken. Soon, Marina returns from France, without her daughter. The Neil and Marina marry and seem to be rekindle the love they once had.....briefly. But, the dissatisfaction creeps back in. In another storyline occurring in the same town, a priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) wrestles and struggles with his faith and his ability to “see” God. He continues to pursue his calling and his work, but his heart is not in it. He is desperate for God to reach out to prove that he is there. These stories connect and diverge at times, but what is clear to me, is that Malick wants us to appropriate these stories together…..that the search for God's love can feel elusive just as the search for lasting earthly love feels elusive, despite the fact that we keep trying to find both.

If this is a personal story that continues along the lines of The Tree of Life, then things are beginning to appear very biographical for Malick. With the continuation of Christian Theological themes even more present here in To the Wonder, it must make us take stock of The Tree of Life as a direct representation of one man’s spiritual rebirth. I don’t see how anyone can mistake the final sequence for anything other than that, considering the questions and themes that continue to arise here. But if The Tree of Life was Malick’s spiritual rebirth, then To the Wonder, is his spiritual doubt creeping in. Paralleling the spiritual doubt with relational doubt here feels like 2 sides of the same coin, and of in fact the same person. In the film it’s easier to tell these two stories from two separate characters, but my reading of this is that the ideas come from the same being….in this case perhaps Malick.

The expression of isolation, and of the inability to really achieve relational and spiritual intimacy is striking. In one sense, Malick is able to convey an unease through the interior shots in the home, almost reminding me of Nick Ray’s claustrophobic interior design in Bigger Than Life. I swear, when you watch the shaky camera movements and odd points of view shots in the home, there is something disconcerting about modern life, about Suburbia, about the disconnection between our modern life and nature/God. When the camera is outside, it swings smoothly, catches it’s breath and breathes deeply of the earth, grass, and sky. There is a freedom to these shots that feels opposite to the interior shots and this must be purposeful. It is no surprise then that To the Wonder, is Malick’s first film to be filmed in the “present day”. This cannot be a coincidence, as he’s able to project a disconnect between the individual and the other, and between the individual and God, paralleled with a modern malaise that makes suburbia feel like a place where souls go to die. Furthermore, it’s not a coincidence that Affleck’s character is researching pollution by a local factory that appears to be polluting the surrounding area. Basing the film in the present day allows for no sentiment or nostalgia for a more innocent time, like in The Tree of Life, mostly set in the 1950’s. And I think Sean Penn’s modern alienation on display there in those few scenes in that film is also echoed in To the Wonder to a large degree. Malick seems to suggest the only thing that keeps one going is to get “out”. The priest achieves a bit of a reprieve when he leaves the church to go walk the town and find people to help. Others find reprieves when they step out in the fields to bask under the sky. That scene near the buffalo as Affleck and McAdams marvel at the beasts is one of discovery and magic, something that Malick seems to indicate we have lost.

I think Malick is moving into more Bergman-like obsessions around spirituality, although his POV is slightly different than Bergman’s. Malick seems a bit more resigned to “this is the way it is”, rather than barking at God in anger. I actually wonder whether the quest for intimacy and purpose is more related to Bresson’s quiet search for spiritual resolve. Ultimately, though, Malick seems content with continuing to search for God, and to seek his love. At the end of the film, Father Quintana says, "Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to seek you." I also wonder whether Malick is working on some sort of trilogy or something. To the Wonder seems like a close cousin to The Tree of Life, and I’m wondering if the next film of his explores similar themes as well. To the Wonder is not an actor's movie though. The actors didn’t leave me with any lingering impression, like Hunter McCracken, Brad Pitt, and Jessica Chastain did in The Tree of Life. There are really no exchanges at all in To the Wonder in fact….even conversations are muted to allow for voiceovers. Emmanuel Lubezki’s tremendous cinematography and the excellent use of musical compositions is astounding though and this makes up for the lack of traditional "acting". Some reviews have complained this film is too “Malicky” for it’s own good. Although I understand that some could see this as nearly self-parody of his own best work, I tend to think he is moving in new directions thematically, and going down darker and deeper paths than he ever has before and I welcome this. Perhaps what many are most uncomfortable with, is the intense spiritual and specifically Christian elements in the film. It cannot be ignored and is a significant key to understanding what Malick is trying to express. To the Wonder will be one of the best films of 2013.