Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Massacre (1912) - Directed by D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith was a cinematic pioneer who became known for his epic and historical documents that incorporated terrific elements of drama, melodrama, cliffhangers, battle sequences and well-staged crowd sequences. No less interesting are his short 2-reelers that are filled with terrific insights and filmmaking techniques that can be traced to his later works. Several of these 2-reelers were actually westerns. Of particular note is The Massacre, a masterful example of a western from this era but also one of the first examples that I can find that has a sympathetic eye toward the Native American point of view.

In the densely plotted half-hour, we meet a woman (Blanche Sweet) who is being courted by two men. She chooses one who promises to take her out west. They have a small child and embark on a covered wagon journey. The other, named Stephen (Wilfred Lucas) who had courted her but lost the courtship, becomes a scout, who leads a cavalry troop on an attack of a Native American village and where many in the tribe are slaughtered. The film comes full circle when the young family’s wagon train becomes led by the same scout who led the slaughter of the tribe. However, the remaining tribe comes back to attack the wagon train killing nearly everyone in the wagon train in revenge and retribution. Both battle sequences in the film are framed and executed with Griffith’s flair for spectacle. Not only is the violent combat filmed well at close range, but the distance shots allow for the visual of battle to unfold with its requisite confusion and paranoia.

What's most interesting about this film is the distinctive attention paid toward the Native American perspective. We see the peaceable inhabitants of the tribe, with their young babies and children living comfortably among themselves prior to the attack. These short but important images of them prior to the attack sets up the audience to understand and sympathize with them as being subject to unwarranted attack. Additionally, a very long shot of the battlefield after the attack shows Native Americans lying dead. This is perhaps the earliest example of a decidedly Native American sympathy. This image forces the viewer to look upon the dead in remorse, as is only human. But it also sets up a scenario where the Native Americans are of need to retaliate and we understand the retaliation is somewhat justified within the context of the film. We also realize, though, the anti-war message through the futility of such needless bloodshed……killing begets killing and the cycle of unrest is filled with sadness. The only people to survive the attack upon the wagon train are the woman and her young baby, as they crawl out from under the pile of dead. This allegorical portrayal of new life blooming from such bloodshed yields a thought in my mind that through learning from death and strife such as this, new  ideas and ways of thinking can be born. It doesn’t have to be this way and this young baby can prove in his life to rise above this maelstrom. In Griffith’s effective final sequence, he shows a title card that says “In Memoriam”. In my mind, it is a thought applied to the whole bloody conflict… Native Americans, to Settlers, to all of us. His respect shown in this moment is also a reminder that the types of events portrayed in this film were in the recent memory of those who may have participated in the making of it. It was made only 22 years after The Battle of Wounded Knee. And that’s one of the key learnings from watching western films from this early era of filmmaking. The events contain an element of realism, not the usual mythmaking, because the events had occurred in the recent past. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Woman's Vengeance (circa 1920) - Directed by Harold Moody

(Note: In honor of Wonders in the Dark and their upcoming Top Westerns Countdown, I will be spending the next few months reviewing westerns.....some you may know, and some you might not.)

In one of the great, fascinating early western two-reelers, we find a film that not only reverses typical gender roles found in western cinema, we also find that it’s done without any sense of camp. This film, apparently directed by someone named Harold Moody, and apparently directed sometime around the year 1920, is one of those little gems, that makes you stop and contemplate what you know about the western genre and makes you realize that people have been making "revisionist" westerns from the get-go. There’s very little information out there about this film in the blogging world, but it’s about time we discussed films like this as it helps us to have a better grasp of the genre as a whole. And although there’s a bit of missing footage toward the end, there’s something fantastic about this little film.

In this silent short, Fritzi Ridgeway plays Nell, a gun packing sharpshooter who has been taking lessons from her friend Dick. Her father has a run-in with a local gang who harasses him and Nell finds her father lying dead on the road and swears revenge. She hunts down her father’s killer, challenging him to a draw in the street ("You murdered my father. DRAW.......DRAW!"). First he declines, but as she walks away he reaches for his gun, whereupon she whirls around and blows him away. Oh but that’s not all! Nell goes after the rest of the gang, gets shot in the arm and is bloodied, but not too wounded to save Dick  from his impending death by watery grave in the cliffhanger finale.

It’s refreshing to find a feminist western from this long ago. Fritzi’s Nell is a confident, hard charging woman, with no fear whatsoever of taking on men in battle. This reversal of roles with the female taking on the typical male-dominated role of gunfighter or revenge seeker is something rarely seen ever again throughout western cinema. Yes, Johnny Guitar famously has some strong gender reversed female roles that play against stereotype. And of course there’s the Sharon Stone flick, The Quick and the Dead, Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder and Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou, however back in 1920, the spirit of the portrayal is done with utmost sincerity, allowing Nell to play a true heroine. Instead of the meek, virginal western town woman, Nell is the aggressive, sharpshooting, vengeful killer. She even falls off the side of a cliff holding her shotgun and gets up and staggers away! A Woman’s Vengeance is the kind of film that needs to be seen to be believed. It is a work that bucks genre stereotypes and stretches what I think I know about the western. True, though it's technical merits are not anything to write home's the ideas therein that make it fascinating to me. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Odd Man Out (1947) - Directed by Carol Reed

Carol Reed’s 1947 masterpiece, Odd Man Out, could probably be qualified as an EPIC film noir. The term epic and film noir don’t often sync together, but I think an argument could be made that this film reaches a kind of rarefied air. Normally film noirs contain an economy of storyline and often films are in the 90 minute range. This one clocks in closer to 2 hours, and has a winding storyline that slowly takes in multiple points of view and multiple characters along it’s way. If anyone ever had the inclination to presuppose that Reed didn’t have as much influence on the classic noir The Third Man (in reference to Welles’ supposed take-over of that film), one need look no further than Odd Man Out to determine that theory is bunk. The dark lighting and  on-location shooting, the conflicted moral ambiguity, the fateful sense of doom, the loyalty of friends and lovers…..all of these things are held in common with The Third Man and indicate that Reed was clearly at the top of his filmmaking abilities in this era.

James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, a recently escaped Irish Nationalist leader based in Northern Ireland. He’s got a small group of loyal members at his beck and call….and also a devoted woman who loves him named Kathleen, played with touching emotion by Kathleen Ryan. He plans a bank heist to help pay for funds for his cause, but the heist goes awry, and Johnny ends up killing a man outside the bank. In the fight, he is shot in the shoulder and finds his way to an air-raid shelter in a poor part of town. He hides out there while his friends try to find him and get him to safety. The film then goes on to follow Johnny on an odyssey or quest of sorts, as he encounters everyone from kindly nurse ladies, to a horse-cab driver, to a bum, to a bar tender, to a drunken artist, and everyone has a different approach to his predicament. Some of them want to help him but are afraid of what it might look like to help someone like him, while others see him as a way to make money, as there is a reward out on him.

Overall, the film’s refined and romantically fatalistic tone is less in line with American film noirs like The Killers or The Big Heat, which tend to rely on more sexual undercurrents and violence. As such, it stands apart, along with The Third Man at least among film noirs that I’ve seen. There’s nothing hard-boiled about this film. Mason was always a refined kind of actor and his presence at the center of this film gives it a far different feel, with his whispy gentility and professorial delivery making the film far more polished than most film noirs would appear. Mason, although the central character in the film, doesn’t really have a significant amount of screen time, as the time is split among myriads of actors as his journey through the night to find safety continues. Reed’s way of introducing new characters throughout the film makes the film continually feel alive and vital.

Although the political angle of the film seems to draw a sympathy for the Irish Nationalist cause, it is not to a degree that is agenda driven. I didn’t feel like I was being manipulated into feeling a certain way. This story becomes about this man on this night and how he is treated by those he encounters. There’s also a fantastic surrealistic angle going on. Mason’s hallucinations in the bunker, at the bar table staring into the bubbles on the table in the spilled beer, and the one while he sits in the chair being painted by the drunken artist all add a sense of the absurd and allow for some interesting visual flourishes. The film score by William Alwyn is spectacular, as is the cinematography by Robert Krasker (who also would go on to photograph The Third Man). My only complaint is that this film is a bit difficult to track down and doesn’t exist in a proper print in the U.S. from what I've found. The only copy I could find was an old Image DVD from 1999. It does appear that the film is available in its entirety on YouTube, but I think this gorgeous masterpiece deserves a restoration and a wider release. It’s a must-see.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Journey to Italy (1953) - Directed by Roberto Rossellini

Journey to Italy is thought of in some circles as one of the truly great films. Of course the Cahiers du Cinema crowd hailed back in 1953 as the harbinger of something new. Even in last year's update of the Sight and Sound poll, it placed at #41, in the top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, ahead of several canonized masterpieces like Play Time, City Lights, and Ugetsu. It in fact was Rossellini's only film that made the top 100, placing ahead of other films of his like Rome Open City, and The Flowers of St. Francis among others. I've watched the film twice over the last couple of months. The first viewing I responded well to, but felt like something was missing in the final 15 minutes. A second viewing opened up my appreciation to the film even more and I felt like I finally comprehended the undercurrents going on in the film. I'm not so sure it deserves to be mentioned above some of his other great masterpieces, but it's a masterpiece in it's own right.

If Stromboli strikes us today as Rossellini's infatuation and developing love toward Bergman, then Journey to Italy marks a strikingly bold attempt to convey marital discord. Perhaps due to his own failing marriage to the actress, the film parallels their real life struggles by examining two characters, Katherine and Alex Joyce, who have been married roughly about 8 years, who have had no children, and have found themselves traveling down to Naples to deal with some family business. Along the way, they've entered a period of stasis and carelessness toward each other's feelings. They are callous and coarse with each other, and when she decides she wants to begin touring the nearby artifacts and historical sites, he wants nothing to do with it. In a fit of frustration, Alex decides to leave the villa where they are staying to go to the Isle of Capri for a couple days while Katherine continues to tour the relics and art museums. He returns a few days later whereby they both proclaim they want a divorce. In the film's final moments, their intentions and devotions are called front and center.

There's one thing you're going to have to get over if you're watching this film, and that's the dubbed voices. Neither Bergman's nor Sanders's wonderful voices are heard in this film, because the entire film is subtitled in English while the film is spoken in Italian. It's a shame that somehow the film couldn't have been written with their English language being chosen as I think there's something lost when you don't get to hear the actor's inflections and nuance of voice. However the film becomes often about the face instead and I find that the less I focus on how they're saying things, I can focus on what their eyes are saying. Both Bergman and Sanders give terrifically subtle performances here, and particularly Bergman is looking so much older than just 3 years ago in Stromboli. Here her hair is cut short, and there is a wisp of gray showing, and her features are harder and more pointed. She is given the air of a woman well past her prime, and filled more with regrets about the past than optimism about the future. Rossellini's script, just as in Stromboli, allows Bergman time to wander.... this time among the actual relics and sights around Naples. Having Bergman walk among statues and catacombs gives the feeling that time never ceases, that death is imminent...that all things must pass and come to an end in this life, and in particular, the sense in her case that she has wasted this time that she has been given. In particular there are 2-3 moments in the film where there is the indication she regrets not having any children, that there is nothing for her to pass along to ANYONE. There is a quiet despair on display in this film, and there's also a coldness here. Those smooth marble statues staring back at the camera literally give me the creeps.

The key difference for me in finally "getting" this film was understanding the conflicting intentions of our two lead characters at the end. Alex returns from his frolic on Capri, WANTING Katherine to feel like he has slept around with other women (even though he hasn't). She wants him to THINK that she hasn't missed him at all while he's been gone. She feigns not caring. There's that key moment when he has returned to the villa and has said good night to her to sleep in his own room. He returns to the living room and reminds her he doesn't want to be disturbed, and makes a particular point of reminding her that he hasn't had much sleep lately, even though we know it's a lie. He is distinctly trying to hurt her and make her think that he doesn't love her anymore. Much of the final third of the film must be spent trying to understand the fact that these two characters are doing and saying things completely opposite to what they actually want. They really want to love the other, and they want the other to love them, but neither of them want to show or admit to the other that they still love the other. It's a very complicated emotional process to be able to portray this to the camera, and for some reason, it took me two viewings to understand this. All of this comes into play in the final moments when the couple is reunited in love and understanding and each finally admits they love the other still. But if you haven't followed the delicate game they've been playing with each other, the ending seems rather trite. When you view it understanding they've been aching to admit their love to each other, the final moment comes as a terrific release. Rossellini's compassion and humanism is always on display in this film, but it also feels very personal and intimate, which are sometimes not things I feel when watching his other films. There is something painful he's trying to express here and he does so with beautiful poignancy, and aching hope. He and Bergman, though, would divorce within 3 years of the release of this film.