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Review: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Douglas Sirk once considered the essential elements of cinema: “Cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love.” In brief, cinema is everything with life; a life that is, nonetheless, constantly verging on the limits of human life. Such extreme case of existentialism that Sirk posits in his film is rather a point of departure for a more pressing concern: the feverish pursuit for self-autonomy, which is invariably negated by the primacy and the necessity of staying content within one’s own assigned space. A common trait with Sirk’s characters is this seething rebelliousness, either against the societal prejudices or one’s inner demons, that rages beneath an outward show of sense and urbanity; occasionally they are driven to the brink of despair, but always to be saved by their strength and an incurable sanguinity for the future. The state of defeat is rarely the conclusion to which they bow easily, regardless of how inevitable the circumstances have unravelled, and yet, too…
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Review: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Youth is a bitter mystery even to those who have outgrown the initial perplexity of being young. We thought that being young was synonymous with staying ever at the moment. To the looming presence of time we imparted the same significance as we did the cautious words of our harrying parents – we habitually chose to ignore the warning of an imminent storm, the vague but approaching sound of thunder we pretended not to hear. We told ourselves: what may come will come inevitably; so long as the sky is still vaulted over our heads, we always survive.
But survival is invariably an occasion for painful remembrances, from which we are less likely to release ourselves without certain lasting agonies or scars. Dimly we began to notice the flight of time, and we read James Joyce’s words in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with a premature forlornness: “Time is, time was, but time shall be no more.” Time shall be no more but time also etched in us indelible imprints that, many years late…

Review: Breathless (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s first feature feels oddly like a swansong: in many respects the film seems a self-mockery of what it ostensibly celebrates – the new, the bold, the reckless; the 60s zeitgeist that resurrects the anguished ghosts of the 1920s, who, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow up to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” For the children of the ‘60s, their wars are of a kind in which the opponents constantly change roles: sometimes they are the unmerciful authorities bent on making miserable lives out of their inferiors; in other times they are the society at large, weeding out in its insidious and devious way the errant law-breakers. They all seem to be donning the same masks, through which the warriors recognise themselves.
This fight with one’s inner demon necessarily evokes concerns of mortality and death - timeless concerns that acquire an added pungency in the 1960s: would a dangerous, unheeding spell of hedonism finally defy life’s incontrove…

Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

During the period when F. Scott Fitzgerald was working in Hollywood, he was visited once by a fledgling writer who begged Fitzgerald to teach him the ropes of writing a good script. The young man’s first lesson was to compose a scene which involves only three characters; three different coloured pens were assigned to write the lines, with each colour representing one of the three characters. Enraged by the impression that Fitzgerald was mocking his inexperience, the young writer asserted aloud his qualification for the job and asked for a more constructive assignment. Fitzgerald’s response was one of even greater rage: the young writer was summarily dismissed on the ground of his irreverence for, what Fitzgerald considered, the rudiments of screenwriting.
The virtue of Fitzgerald’s little exercise finds its most manifest justification in Ernst Lubitsch’s films, which regularly explore, often in a tone of frivolity or thinly-disguised sarcasm, the conflicts and the absurd dynamic of the…

Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.
In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures…

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, seem…

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…