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Showing posts from 2015

Review: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Best known as Shakespeare’s great tragedy that supplies archetypes of young, innocent lovers wrecked by rash, inauspicious love and the interminable enmity of their feuding families, Romeo and Juliet, conceived at the dawn of the dramatist’s career, is in many ways a blatant departure from what a traditional tragedy is like. Throughout the play the comic, oftentimes farcical, elements are astoundingly profuse, insofar as the tragic coda seems lack of a crucial, consistent built-up to generate any eruptive climax. One is inclined to label the play a “tragicomedy,” but then isn’t every of Shakespeare’s play to a certain extent and in some respect a tragicomedy?
The fact that the comedic and the tragic are basically interchangeable in Shakespeare’s play testifies to how thoroughly the dramatist knows of the volatility of human nature: the laughter of one may easily be the tears of the other. Two contrasting moods may be divided only by a thin film, and a typical Shakespeare’s character is…

Review: To Have and Have Not (1944)

Howard Hawks was once on a fishing trip with Ernest Hemingway when the director casually betted that he could make a good film out of the latter’s worst novel. The bet took place in a period when Hemingway, though already produced most of his major works and thus established the status as America’s great writer, had found little favour with the cinematic world. Only two notable adaptations were made- Frank Borzage’s pre-code A Farewell to Arms, starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, and Sam Wood’s box-office hit For Whom the Bell Tolls, of which Hemingway personally handpicked the leading cast, including Cooper (again) and Ingrid Bergman. A third one would soon be making its way to the screen, and it was brought about unpropitiously by a fatuous bet.
Hawks ultimately plumped for To Have and Have Not, which he contemptuously called “a bunch of junk.” Critics had been equally acerbic to the book: “Mr. Hemingway’s record as a creative writer would be stronger if it had never been published…

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The epigraph to A Streetcar Named Desire is a stanza from Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower”:
  “And so it was I entered the broken world   To trace the visionary company of love, its voice   An instant in the wind [I know not whither hurled]   But not for long to hold each desperate choice.”
These words, and with the poignant image they evoke, resonate enchantingly with a mood of unmitigated desolation, of both the protagonist and the locale, that pervades the play, which is now considered one of Tennessee Williams’s best, and indisputably his most well-known. Continuing his interest in the paralysing effect of misplaced hopes and dogged delusions, Streetcar repeated the success of The Glass Menagerie, by all accounts the play that catapulted Williams to fame, when it opened in Broadway in 1947. A cinematic version soon appeared in 1951, of which Elia Kazan, fresh from his critical success with the stage version, reprised his role as the director. The production features most of the original…

Review: L'Avventura (1960)

Roundly and resoundingly booed halfway into the film, the director Antonioni and its star Vitti fled the theatre. Both could probably half-guess the audience’s hostility- being fed on films that abide by the dictates of consistency and logic, many could hardly brookL’Avventura’s general uneventfulness and the director’s irrepressible urge to detract the storyline from its central current; but none expected the film to win, days after the disastrous premiere, the Jury Prize, the third most prestigious prize of Cannes festival. And more awards followed up, as the film blazed through the Continent, incurring more ire and bemusement.
The hullabaloo was intense but short-lived. Counterculture that initiated by the discontented youngsters swept through the Western world like virus; the iconoclasts of the yore now found themselves ironically amongst the majority. It was considered “hip” to revolt against the established order, to denounce traditional values and to revel in moral depravity. Ar…

Review: Marnie (1964)

In the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie, the director describes his latest picture as one that is difficult to classify: “It (Marnie) is not psycho, nor do we have a horde of birds flapping about and pecking at people willy-nilly.” With his distinctive, devious drawl suggestive of sinister presentiment, Hitchcock refers to the two protagonists as two “very interesting human specimens,” one of which, the heroine, may be called a “sex mystery.”
In view of other mysterious femme fatales of Hitchcock’s former works, Marnie shares very little of their competence at keeping her cool and concealing her secret motives when in adverse conditions. Her role as a kleptomaniac and a pathological liar is disclosed at the outset. She flusters at the sight of red objects and at the sound of thunderbolts. Invariably recoiling from intimate contacts with humans of all kinds, she devotes a frustratingly unreciprocated love to her mother, whose bizarre lack of affection for her only daughter give…

The Tin Soldiers

She was always criticised of being slow off mark when random objects were thrown her way - a ball, a passing remark, a handkerchief redolent of fragrance, a smile indicative of mysterious imports, or simply a rapid, piercing cry uttered by a tiny hapless robin before it was crushed by a nameless, reckless foot. Her customary response to such moment was one of stunned puzzlement; she would then proceed to curl her body into an awkward form of an exclamation mark, whilst involuntarily subjecting herself to the mocking laughter that rippled through the jeering crowd. Her mother once remarked that this was precisely why she was never anyone’s favourite.
But in dreams her senses were the keenest. Numerous disparate scraps of remembrance that risked a wholesale deletion from human history were salvaged by her retentive memory. In dreams she was inclined to travel back to the happiest moments of her life- the time when her everyday was intimately bound up with the tin soldiers.
The tin soldier…

Review: Red Desert (1964)

As a leading figure of Italian Modernist cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni made films that defy facile understanding. With their sharp deviations from conventional approach to storytelling, and a freewheeling style of filmmaking as constituted by a propensity of interspersing main events with disparate incidents, many of Antonioni’s famous works, including L’AvventuraLa Notte, andL’Eclisse, are bold statements of a revolutionary redefinition of cinematic art.
It was with an incredible sense of audacity and surprisingly little resistance that, straight after the making of L’Eclisse, the reception of which was, much like the other two that preceded it, a mixture of raves and rants, Antonioni undertook his first venture to the realm of polychromatic film. The result was Red Desert (1964), a stunning classic that looks hardly like the director’s inaugural attempt at an unexplored medium, in which the colours, though appear bizarrely gaudy and unnatural, assume primacy of reflecting the chan…

Review: The Innocents (1961)

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has sparked disputes over years with largely two sides of critics endeavouring to constitute a tenable interpretation of this canonic ghost story. Edmund Wilson, who had recanted his views incessantly, ultimately settled on the proposition that the ghosts in the story are non-existent and merely conjured up by the hyperimaginative, delusional governess. Countering that line of thought is Brad Leithauser, who chooses not to dismiss the probability of supernatural occurrences, but also considers the process of arriving at a definitive conclusion especially problematic when taken into account that the story is recalled by a possibly deranged mind.
But what is James’s stance on this? Inkling can be deduced from the preface to his last ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” according to which the author expresses his preference for ghosts that are extensions of everyday reality: “… the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.”

Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Wallace Stevens writes in “Imagination as Value”: “The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before reason has established them.” Both imagination and reason are the chief mechanisms of constructing our worldview: postulated first by imagination and henceforth affirmed by reason. Elsewhere Stevens talks of noble art as “imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality,” acknowledging creativity as the potential force of disentangling men from the fetters of mundanity. These two meditative epigrams posit our perceptions of the world as shaped largely by imagination- not that of a virginal imagination perhaps but one that is refined by the developing of a cognition. But, one may ask, what is the genesis of our cognition? Is it yet another product of the imaginative faculty? Or is it also partly in thrall to the tyranny of reason? In the midst of such paradoxical argument a plausible interpretation arises: imagination and reason are, in essence, two sides…

Eugene Delacroix, "The Death of Sardanapalus" (1827)

History is punctuated with moments of chaos and beauty. Seemingly antitheses by nature, in aesthetics there are myriads examples of how these two manage to converge in single works and enter a pleasing balance. Amongst them there is Tintoretto, a consummate devotee of violence and drama, whose bewildering depictions of many biblical episodes redefine the meaning of “chaos” as a synonym to sheer “epicness” or “monumentality.” Rarely does his pictorial crowdedness amount to an unrelenting sense of knottiness; as fastidious as is his exactitude on the minutiae, Tintoretto never failed to see the forest for the trees. Every single brushstroke and colour he applied onto the paintings was sure to be conducive to an immediate effect of harmony and order.
In the early 19th century France entered Eugene Delacroix, an exponent of what would come to be known as French Romanticism. Most of Delacroix’s renowned works of large-scale historical scenes were considered a scourge to the genteel nouveau …

Edouard Manet, Boy Blowing Bubbles (1867)

1867 was a fateful year for Ă‰douard Manet in that his art, hitherto idyllic and placid, shifted drastically to the moods of poignancy and relentlessness. Two deaths signaled the change: his old friend and enduring champion, Charles Baudelaire, and the tragic emperor Maximilian I, who was executed by the Juaristas after a failed foreign initiative in the Mexico empire. The seminal work, Execution of Emperor Maximilian, would not see its completion until two years later, as Manet’s progress and insistence on a faithful portrayal were incessantly impeded by the inaccurate accounts of the event. The intervening period yielded a result that continued this preoccupation with grief: in the weeks followed Baudelaire’s death Manet summoned his godson, Leon Koella, to blow soap bubbles in his studio on the Rue Guyot.
The soap bubble, with its brittle form and enchanting presence, has been a popular subject of the vanitas, a genre that serves to remind of the futility and transience of earthly li…

Review: The Wrong Man (1956)

In Life’s feature on the bizarre case of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero, a bashful, honest, family-loving string bass player of the then snazzy Stork Club, who was arrested for crimes he never committed, Herbert Brean, the writer, supposes the inconceivable event possessing the “somnambulist quality of a bad dream.” Alfred Hitchcock, basing a film on the incident three years later, conferred on the “bad dream” a touch of Kafkaesque disquietude. Though jettisoning much of the suspenseful streak that characterises his style, Hitchcock introduces in The Wrong Man (1956) a new suspense that is induced by a palpable sense of emotional detachedness. For years to come this would ultimately evolve to a semi-documentary approach of impassive-observing that culminates in the menacing sobriety ofPsycho.
To enhance the desperation of a tangled, never-ending nightmare, Hitchcock pardonably distorts a few facts to give rise to the dramatic. In the film, Manny’s quest of proving his innocenc…