Monday, 14 December 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 allowed to transition freely between them, even in the space of a few lines. This makes for highly entertaining dramas, but, some may say, it also yields inconsistent plotlines and absurd personages.

To truly grasp the essence of Shakespeare’s play one needs first to accept that reality is often weirder than we suppose, and that it cannot be governed by any set rules or logic. The same can be said of our psyche, which resembles a giant maze that defies solution and comprehension. Such complexity of the world and of the human is reduced to something deceptively simple through Shakespeare’s imagination, and to navigate wisely in this intricate kingdom that he conjures up the reader is advised to always follow the straight route, never be fooled by the ramification that stretches towards gathering shadows.

It is by “following the straight route” that one comes to realise that to extract truths from a fool one must first learn to think like a fool. And so, by the same token, we need to inhabit the young lovers’ minds to make sense of their irrationality when driven by a desire that seems senseless but impulsive and potent enough to precipitate disasters. This is not a romance that demands the nurturing of sentiments, but one that is electrified by speed. Speed is a prerogative for the young, who nurse no concern for the future and acknowledge no rules or God as guidance of their every action. The only authority they submit to is intuition, which allows them to live recklessly and to love shamelessly. When we were young, why would we be cautioned of acting on the spur of the moment or apprehensive of the critical consequence that attends our thoughtlessness? To die young is never a foreseeable outcome of what amounts to, but the prospect seems as beguiling as the ephemeral display of fireworks, flashing across the grim heaven with their splendour that causes lasting impression. Indeed, young lives are like fireworks.

One of the notable virtues of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet(1968) is its decision to cast actors close to the age of the protagonists to retain the youthful spirit with which the original play is suffused. Both actors are still in the first bloom of youth (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were 17 and 16 respectively when they played the roles), virtually greenhorns of the business and craft of acting that sees them sometimes plodding through or blurting out the rhetorical pronouncements like students dutifully reciting poetries they have little knowledge of. But this unknowing, guileless purity is exactly what gives the love story its distinct beauty, and its tragic conclusion an especial poignancy. Seeing the material realisation of the play tugs at our heartstrings even more so than that of reading it in print. The sensation is peculiar- we all were in some moments during our adolescence dogged imitators of full-blown adults, but never do we realise how profoundly sad it is, now that we’re removed from the experience, to witness two children trying and failing to affect comportments that are beyond their age.

This film is not a faithful rendition of Shakespeare’s play. The dialogues are severely pruned, and the Elizabethan language no more than a muted humming struggling to be made heard amidst the razzmatazz of modern music. Any humorous exchanges or anecdotes that assume such significant part of the play, but may be too arcane for the new generation, are weeded out from the script. All these lead to a result that may not be as welcoming as Zeffirelli envisaged when he blatantly finalised the changes. By separating the story from the language, or the plot from the context, is simply misreading and tampering with the art of Shakespeare- this is grave error for anyone who is bold enough to erase the role of the author and suppose he can outsmart the genius.

Nevertheless my verdict still qualifies the picture a flawed masterpiece. And this has much to do with Nino Rota’s beautifully elegiac soundtrack, which consists largely of a G minor ballad that weaves neatly through the merriment of the ball scene to the mournfulness of the death sequence. Also worth noting is Pasqualino De Santis’s deft camerawork, which intersperses the lushness of artificial colours with the earthiness of Verona’s natural landscape. This north Italian city is characterised by its mercurial nature and crowdedness; a place where privacy is hard to come by. The cinematographer retains such urban trait by making the setting almost scenic. There is a scene where Juliet anxiously eludes from whatever is pursuing her. Suddenly, a shaft of light darts towards her, to which she responds with a quick wary glance. For once our complicity of the young lovers’ secrets and assignations feels wrong and unnerving.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

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,” J. Donald Adams of New York Times lamented. The novel centres on the adventures of Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West during the Great Depression. His clients consist largely of the illegal immigrants and Cuban revolutionaries who seek illicit means to escaping the hunger and poverty that ravage the well-being of the residents. War- large or small, physical or mental- is the dominant concept of the stories. Near the end of the book a Cuban revolutionary contends: “War is a purifying and ennobling force. The question is whether only people like ourselves here are fitted to be soldiers or whether the different services have formed us.” Such confession negates the conventional notion of war as an inherent privilege for the potent and the powerful. War is, in many occasions, also the inevitable outcome of a lifelong struggle with fate and society. It embodies the fury of the aggrieved and the bereaved, a conflagration that cannot be summarily put out and is aimed to destroy all, including itself.

These profound ideas are inexplicably weeded out from the film treatment. In fact, the final screenplay departs so radically from its source novel that one wonders if the film should still be titled “To Have and Have Not,” since those five words convey little relevance now that the story is completely altered. Harry Morgan is played by Humphrey Bogart- hard-nosed, boorish, doughty; the portrayal resonates but seems at times a shade too jaunty to accord with one who, in the original, is dogged throughout by his inner conflicts and flagging conviction. The hero’s ruggedness is curiously offset by a mysterious beauty who dangles the cigarette in her mouth like a seasoned sleuth, and whose voice is as sonorous as Bogart’s is reedy. Hers is a character absent from the novel and invented partly to inject attenuating elements to an essentially masculine drama. She is played by Lauren Bacall, who in her debut is encompassed by an indomitable aura that most actors may toil for decades to attain. The supporting cast as well put on a memorable performance: Dolores Moran beguiles as Mme Helène de Bursac, and Walter Brennan interrupts with moments of screwball comedies as Eddie, a perennially inebriated, loyal sidekick of Morgan.

Hawks allegedly won the bet with the film opened to rave reviews from the audiences and the author. However, for one that is so enthralled by Hemingway’s expertness of declarative writing and the staggering power that it generates, I humbly beg to reverse the verdict. In point of fact, the book is never considered one of Hemingway’s greats; there are passages where the narration bungles and falters; the characters, whilst interesting at first blush, are never allowed the chance and space of developing further depths. But here comes the salient element of textual balance that distinguishes one outstanding work from the rest, and one can always rely on Hemingway to strike just the pertinent balance that makes his story a vivid mirage, so much so that even the most barren imaginative faculty needs little goading to conjure up scenic images. Thereby our disappointment is justified when we gawk with dismay at the motional images that bear meagre resemblance to those that we visualise when reading the book. And if the face is no longer one we’re familiar with, we can’t expect the heart to stay unchanged- the general spirit of the film is the coup de grâce that severs any remaining link with its source novel: gone are the grim and the tragic, in are the banal and the feel-good comedic.

We may also want to charge Hawks one last grave error of banishing from the film any traces of the tragedy that figures a prominent presence in the book. Hemingway once said in an interview that “simple wounds which do not break bone are of little account. They sometimes give confidence.” Hawk’s To Have and Have Not is a surface reading of such view of survival, in which the protagonist is made ever more invulnerable by the increase number of wounds he receives. In Hemingway’s novel, however, it is the accumulation of small inconsequential wounds that hurts. In the end, the author simply would not let his hero go easily: Harry Morgan struggles for hours from a gunshot wound before he dies in a surgical room. Ironically, the doctor assures his wife that he suffers little before breathing his last.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

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 Broadway cast, excluding Jessica Tandy, who was replaced by Vivien Leigh in a bid to generate more public interest (Marlon Brando was still then a virtual unknown). Selected for preservation by US’s NFR, the film is noted for the bleak but realist directorial skill of Kazan, and the galvanising performance of the sterling cast, amongst them a young Brando exemplifying the barnstorming vigour of method acting, all combined to do full justice to Williams’s remarkable artistry.

While reading the play, one gets a feeling that each scene is perpetually steeped in a smouldering gloom; its characters, like spectres, materialise gradually from the void once summoned. This is especially true in the case of the heroine- Blanche DuBois, a wired, prissy, volatile southern belle whose “delicate beauty must avoid a strong light.” Elsewhere in the play she proclaims: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” In the film Blanche consciously and incessantly dodges the onslaught of light by seeking refuge in darkness, on occasions with only half of her face visible in close-ups, her eye flits and glowers following many nerve-jangling conversations with other characters. Such fear of light somehow evolves to a fear of whoever that assumes the power of a thunder, dispelling the looming shadows and compelling her out of her pretense. This untoward assailant of Blanche’s illusion is Stanley Kowalski, her rumbustious, louche, unapologetically brutal brother-in-law, who, in the play, is described as possessing an “animal joy” that is “implicit in all his movements and attitudes.” In the film Kowalski is rendered less of an animalistic sadist than he should be, as Brando brings in an almost sympathetic grace to the character, evident in his sweet and sometimes hilarious verbal exchanges with his wife, Stella, and a genuine though latent pity for the languishing Blanche.

Though at times mannered and stilted in her performance that makes Blanche almost like a Shakespearean tragic heroine, Leigh’s deliverance is lyrical and nuanced, her seamless shift from a subdued kitten to a howling tigress is no less astounding than Brando’s offhand, brassy attacks on all kinds of put-on civility. The pair’s seething ferocity has its moments of armistice, however, and is shrewdly complemented by the relative equableness of their supporting cast- most notably Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Blanche’s staid suitor, Mitch.

Playwright Peter Shaffer once commented that Williams’s play could not “fail to be electrifyingly actable. He could not write a dull scene.” Such enduring entertainment implicit in Williams’s work belies a lingering sense of woe and nostalgia. Invariably those characters fight for their ideals and dreams and lose; their masks of illusions are brutally torn asunder and their future remains uncertain as before. Williams once wrote that: “We are all civilised people, which means that we are all savages at heart but observing a few amenities of civilised behaviour.” Those words find an unparalleled testament inStreetcar, in which civility is a delicate piece of “blue piano” music occasionally interspersed with the animal cry of savages. All are victims in the end.

Monday, 21 September 2015

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. Artistic creativity became an instrument of social revolution, a vehicle for disseminating thoughts and sentiments of freedom. Amidst such fraught climate of an almost mobilised anti-conservatism, L’Avventura went from the butt of contemptuous laughter and scurrilous attacks to the benchmark and prototype of a new age of filmmaking. Followers and admirers read into the film the obsessive preoccupation with mundanity, of daily life and human conditions, that borders on a transcendental reckoning of selves. Many filmmakers adhered to this interpretation and their own understanding of the Antonionian template, and had taken to making serious art out of long-drawn boredom and insipidness.

One reason why L’Avventura has remained in the canon half a century after its release, even after the 1960s’ counterculture had begun falling out of favour with the passing generations, is its timeless relatability with the contemporary audience. The film, in many respects, can almost be conceived as a prophesy of the changeless, irremediable malaise that has persisted, in ever worrying tenacity, for many succeeding decades. For one, the  growing detachment of human relationships is especially keenly felt amongst the 21st century neo-Lost-Generation. This is compounded by a fear of the unknown, and an apprehension of a rude awakening from a protracted period of habitual oblivion. To say the least, the plausible connotations of L'Avventura are cruel and devastating.

The story concerns a mystery without a denoument, a search of a missing girl that, an hour or so into the film, is more or less declared futile. The remainder of the film charts the unlikely romance between the missing girl’s boyfriend and her best friend. Their budding relationship, if any, is incessantly haunted by the glaring absence of the missing girl, who, being initially the primary purpose of their union, is becoming the menace that nudges them towards a possible, imminent separation. That skein of tension induced by the unfortunate event is clumsily concealed under a withering façade of the couple’s dissolute idyll- the viewing of the film is disquieting in that we are anticipating the break-up of such deception, which we are certain will be coming. Those impassive sybarites have simply stuck too long in the emotional limbo that any little feeling that seeps into their consciousness is bound to bring shivers, and tears. After a night of empty pleasure with a hooker, the man, being caught in the act by the woman, breaks down in tears; the woman, though greatly angered by the man’s inner weakness, and chronic infidelity, lays her hand on his head and comforts him, whilst both stare into the break of dawn. Rarely could Antonioni’s coevals create something as emotionally charged and poignant as this spellbinding coda.

Antonioni’s deliberate forgoing of a linear perspective echoes a similar technique of the modernist literature of the 1930s, which enjoyed an ephemeral but effective resurgence in the 1960s. Critics of that period thought the face of cinema would be forever changed- somewhat, but hardly. The descendants of Antonioni’s tradition were few and after numerous fruitless attempts to match the auteur’s pre-eminence, many deserted the abstract and went back to the literal. The division between entertainment and art has thus remained clear ever since.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

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 gives one a false impression that Marnie is in fact not her biological child. Such mysterious past is indeed, as it transpires, a fundamental cause of her mental problems- though the story isn’t remotely about an exchanged identity or a changeling. The theme is, however, amongst the psychological stock themes that populate the cinematic landscape of 1960s: a searing study of a troubled psyche, a victim in thrall to unknown trauma that triggers involuntary acts of crime and pretense.

What the film lacks in, perhaps, a less hackneyed storyline it makes up for in its robust characterisation. Never had Hitchcock tackled with that much danger and audacity the intoxication of human relationship. This is all largely in virtue of the introduction of Mark Rutland, a volatile sadist who has with him no less of an aura of mystery than Marnie, an obsessed pervert who can be bone-chillingly cruel than, say, Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). He is the owner of a publishing company who hires Marnie despite suspecting her dodgy ways. His warped desire for Marnie is never properly accounted for; he seems to care for her on his own terms and yet turns beastly during their honeymoon, which is preceded by a more or less fraud marriage. Though by no means graphic, the portrayal of an enforced sexuality had prevented many from taking the film seriously; it even cost the job of screenwriter Evan Hunter, who suggested cutting out the rape scene.

Time is now changing and with the public’s growing acceptance and tolerance to the then proscribed topics in cinema, Marnie still manages to shock and disturb. Much of those ire and criticisms direct to the heroine’s inextricable bondage to the aberrant hero, even after she recovers from her repressed memory and repents her wrongs. Some may link this to a less flagrant case of Stockholm syndrome, others diagnose in Marnie another stage of hang-ups she may never be cured of. This was not the first time Hitchcock enlarged the enduring matter of hierarchy between sexes, in which men are invariably on the higher rung, and women are essentially means of exploitation for egotistic ends. The film’s closer counterpart is perhaps Notorious (1946), which has Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia as a sexual bait against the backdrop of WWII, in love with a man who callously persuades her into a treacherous marriage with the man he spies on.

Nevertheless Marnie is still, in my opinion, one of the greats amongst Hitchcock’s sprawling oeuvre. The opening sequence is a reminder of the timeless aesthetics that set Hitchcock above his coevals; it even retains the elusive magnetism that envelops the director’s then obscured masterpiece, Vertigo (1958), now widely exalted as the best film ever made. I am particularly taken with the emotional appeal of the narrative mood, which Hitchcock handles so dexterously that the film does not shade into a melodrama. The brilliant Tippi Hedren delivers what is perhaps the most heartfelt line of the film: “I’m a cheat, a liar, and a thief…but I’m decent.”- this testifies to the director’s affirmation of the tenacity of female prowess despite protracted periods of trials and tribulations. They may not overcome the hardships whole as a renewed character, but in some way they survive and live on.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

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 soldiers, dozens of them, with their backs erect, their uniforms of red coats, indigo breeches and glistening, tricorn hats, their solemn demeanors that bespoke utmost deference for the unknown authority, all lining up meekly at the command of either her spasms of mischief or enduring affection. They gave her joy and had buoyed her through many occasions of despair. But as of why and when she formed such attachment to, what her brother would call, the “stubby, drab-looking woodmen,” the sort of toy that seemed so incongruent with her girly nature, she could never explain. Just as she couldn’t explain why, amongst the troop, she had an especial fondness for one who was slightly cock-eyed, with hat askew, uniform dishevelled, one leg- through unknown causes- shorter than the other, so was always of a wonky stance, and face all scrunched up, as though in perpetual pain.

Thus her childhood endured and elapsed, barely perceptibly as one would barely perceive the brewing of storms that happened behind showers of blazing sunlight. The day when her life was encroached by the shadows of war, she naively thought all would be abated somehow, just as every unfortunate event that she’d undergone. Every day there was new evidence of destruction and ravage, of order and peace dissolved into pell-mell, of woes that hastened in the wake of grief. She carried through in a manner of unspoken tranquility, insofar as her family thought she simply yielded to the assaults of stupefaction, rather common to anyone who lacked the grip of reality when in face of crisis. They wouldn’t mind her staring at the tin soldiers for hours on end, for they had far too much to worry about than attending to a silent child. There was still no news of her missing brother, who was conscripted to the army not long ago, and not long ago tidings came that the front line was collapsed; the nation suffered a thorough drubbing. Even the dullest people would be gifted with a febrile faculty of imagining, and storytelling, at a moment like this- between weeping and wailing her parents would envisage all kinds of horrible fates that may befall their doomed son. She would then stare at those graphically conjured images in awe.

During war she went to bed every day with the foreboding that tomorrow would be her last. After many nights of such fatalistic apprehension she no longer feared of the imminent peril, but went to bed every passing day despondent of the unrealised outcome that she slyly anticipated. Life seemed to her until that point too tedious a smooth sail; the sea had made very few waves. Nevertheless the unforeseen did happen- and who could blame the inexperienced heart that dismantled all that had been sedulously planned out by the sober brain when the event struck? After the first rush of astonishment that traversed her body like thunder, she instinctively hid herself in a closet, whilst downstairs her parents could be heard bawling and shrieking; there were a few kickings and various household items tumbling down, followed by three sharp bang-bangs, and all fell silent.

Life was sustained by such moments of excitation. She suddenly realised that the tin soldiers were still out on her bedroom floor. She nipped out of the closet and tried to gather as many tin soldiers as she could and stuffed them into the closet. From not far away she could hear the approaching of some steady, menacing footfalls; coupled with the dutiful and still cheerful tickings of the cuckoo clock; punctuated at times with the conspicuous droppings of the tin soldiers. When he peered in through the door she hadn’t even the time to start; there were still several soldiers missing. A few grunt of foreign words splashed down her head. Her eyes made a slow travel before it made out the whole forbidding presence that stood before her. She couldn’t recognise who he was but he looked just like one of the tin soldiers. A sudden swoon assailed her.

Silently he fished out a stray soldier from beneath the bed. She saw, lying inert on his palm, the grotesque little stubby woodman that, amidst the chaos, she didn’t even realise was missing. His uniform was torn, his eyes flared up into a frenzied stare, his curiously lopsided mouth curled into a shuddering grimace, and, the most agonising of all, his whole body now reduced to only an upper torso. She tried to muster tears but her eyes were dry and bleary. Years of chronic impassiveness had inhibited her from giving in to elementary sensations; she knew the language of grief but she knew not how to say it.

She could feel his fingers meandering about her face. He smelt faintly of peppermint and clove. She gave no sign of her eagerness to retrieve the wounded soldier from his hand; all she did was to keep staring. Suddenly he tossed it away. And darkness bore down on her. The moment of fear was acute but ephemeral. She heard from not far off the gentle rumbling of a storm-tossed ocean; its choppy waves lashed violently against the flinty rocks, and a little bird serenaded impishly to the tempestuous night. She felt safe and solaced. In her mind’s eye she could see, the wounded soldier smiling at her.

Years later she went back to her old home and the tin soldiers were gone. They removed the old closet, presumably along with some of the tin soldiers, as the old building now needed to be torn down. She made a few rounds of the room, peering in this nook and that, before conceding to the fact that what was once lost could never be recovered. He was fated to be parted with her. Although much grown the fire of naiveté within her still simmered. She closed her eyes and tried to summon one last sweet image of her favourite tin soldier, but instead she saw stars and moon, light and thunder, the ocean and the lone bird, the restive earth and the sleepy sky, a world that was ever enshrouded in myth and silence. As a valediction of all, she mustered a smile.

Friday, 31 July 2015

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 changing moods of the narrative and the emotional arcs of the characters.

Monica Vitti, the enduring muse of Antonioni’s major works and one of Italy’s great thespians, again commands attention in Red Desert as Giuliana, the victim of a recent car accident, which leaves her physically unharmed but psychologically disturbed. She is wife to an apathetic husband, who makes little effort in assuaging her excitable whims and caprices, and mother to a largely negligible son, whose devious means of playing truant unwittingly adds to the weight of her crushing nerves. Richard Harris takes on the dubbed role of Corrado, a mining recruiter that seems the only one able to penetrate into Giuliana’s troubled psyche, before his lust and virility induces him to overstep that fine line of a budding platonic friendship.

Contrary to Vitti’s prior personae as the assured, listless, laconic bachelorette in Antonioni’s black-and-white features, that cool façade in Red Desert is utterly effaced, for we have now instead a fidgety, high-strung, neurotic textbook case of PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). There are moments when she can be seen bunching her hands and flitting her eyes about nervously whilst jovial conversations and activities are conducted at the foreground. Other times she is simply the misplaced heroine of a Bergman’s drama, unburdening her pent-up woes to a stranger who does not understand her language.

Italy in the 1960s witnessed a widespread economic boom. Factories and industrial structures mushroomed; many major cities were underway of a mass scale modernisation. The major concern of Red Desert, according to the director himself, is men’s inability of functioning around and adapting to the new way of life, and the feeling of alienation that engenders through this fraught relationship with an altered society. And yet Antonioni still manages to confer novel beauty on a tarnished landscape- the colourful chemical potions that issue from a factory’s smokestack brightens an invariably livid sky, underneath which men are dwarfed by the colossal industrial buildings just as they are dwarfed by the rocks (L’Avventura) and the sculptures (La Notte and L’Eclisse).

One of the remarkable moments of the film occurs in a bedtime story about a young girl on a desert island. She encounters an unpeopled ship that idles near the island and then sails away; a mysterious singing voice that later is said to have no definitive source but come from “everywhere and everything.” This elusive allegory illustrates vividly Giuliana’s frustrations with not only her failing grasp with the changing world, but her growing distrust of mankind that results from it. In the ending sequence, in answer to her son’s query of why the birds are avoiding the yellow poison that puffs out of the factory, Giuliana says that the birds have learned not to fly near the danger. In dealing with her mental illness and the society at large, she submissively decides on shutting herself in.

Monday, 20 July 2015

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.”

Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents, attests to James’s ideal by meshing the strange and sinister with the normal and easy. Such is, in my opinion, the touchstone of great horror films that effortlessly craft an eerie atmosphere by wheedling the audiences first into that region of seeming familiarity. The effect is stunning if this kind of confidence trick is utilised with the right materials and at the precise moments.

The lighting of the film is especially instrumental in meddling with our perceptions of the strange and the normal. Excessive radiance invades many scenes, insofar as the blazing sun of a warm summer day, or the pearl-like pallor of the children’s faces inspires in us even greater fear than, say, the gloom that encompasses the grand gothic mansion, or the disgruntled, spectral face that materialise from the engulfing darkness. A new source of horror is thus introduced, the sort that resembles that when one’s equivocal conscience is exposed under the light of day, for all to see. A sense of unease and disquietude that resorts to night and darkness as the surest refuge and concealment, since day and light invariably entail more dangers in store.

Quite relentlessly the film prompts reassessing the values of many common virtues. Amongst them is innocence. How many times has one questioned if children’s innocence is only a fragile mask, concealing that knowing precocity that borders on inconceivable wickedness? The governess convinces herself so and attributes the children’s adult-like wiles to the possession of the unmitigated spirits. Readers of James’s classic may posit readily that all is only a projection of the governess’s fear regarding her own sexually repressed mores. The film, however, discounts somewhat such reasoning: two of the most controversial scenes have the boy kiss the governess on the lips with lingering passion, and the girl watch a spider devouring a butterfly with unfeigned nonchalance. Innocence retains only a nominal value.

Both the book and the film close with still many questions unsolved. The major one being: are there ghosts or are there not? It shouldn’t be any wonder if James intended The Turn of the Screw to be a veritable horror story, being himself consumed with the pleasure of telling throughout his life, but such linear reading is complicated by the use of an unreliable narrator. And what makes a narrator unreliable if not his possible skill of deception, his ebullient storytelling that is on the strength of his febrile imagination? Imagination is the fundamental element that runs through The Innocents. At the opening sequence, the twitchy governess, during her interview with the children’s uncle, starts when asked if she has an imagination. In reflection, what an odd question it is when in a job interview!

Monday, 6 July 2015

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 of the same coin.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus probes into exactly along the line of the above paradox: the gradual merging of imagination and reason in human perceptions, and the tragedy that results from a forceful endeavour of telling the two apart. The story, though borrowing elements that are rather hackneyed, is a complex, labyrinthine affair that encompasses religion, morality, allegory, romance, horror, and even some light doses of fantasy. A small group of Anglican nuns, led by the austere, hard-headed Sister Clodagh, journeys to a hinterland of the Himalayas to carry out their evangelical mission of establishing school and hospital. No sooner do they settle in the dilapidated palace, once home to a lascivious emperor and his harem, than they are assailed from all sides by worldly temptations, their ruling passion driving them further away from the path that their faith calls for. Curious events unfold: Sister Ruth, who shows signs of unhingedness prior the trip, fastens her ravening heart on a local British agent; Sister Clodagh is brought back incessantly to the memory of a failed romance, a heartbreak that induces her to relinquish all and join the Order; another Sister takes a sudden fancy to tempestuous, odorous flowers; all are dogged nightly by the howling wind.

The photography of the film is instrumental in augmenting that feeling of suspense and disquietude. Jake Cardiff, the cinematographer, cited Johannes Vermeer as the chief influence of his creation. There are indeed visual similarities between those two: the pictorial arrangement, the emphasis on optical phenomena, and the deft handling of light that engenders a rather natural, convincing chiaroscuro. In regard to the chromatic scheme, however, the use of vibrant, blazing technicolour gives the film an unnerving, almost implausibly futuristic aura of the surrealist painting. All of these aesthetic elements, highly revolutionary the time Black Narcissus was made, conspire in throwing into relief the stoical, rigorous, repressed inner world of Christian devotees, whose semblance of religious fervour ultimately gives way to an already shaky belief and mounting self-doubt.

Imagination and reason, when and where are the two ever distinctly apart in the film? Narrowly escaping a murderous attempt by the jealous Sister Ruth, Sister Clodagh abandons her charitable mission and departs with the other nuns, disillusioned and unknown of how much more unwaveringly her conviction to God still sustains. Stoutly she stands her ground and resists her temporary yearning develop into fiery rebelliousness like that of the renegade Sister Ruth, but is such astuteness equivalent to an unerring faith? Or is the God to whom she pledges allegiance only an invisible idol of her own making? Anyone who ponders on these insoluble questions is urged to enlarge on a key information the story divulges: the sect to which these nuns belong is a voluntary Order, namely the vows are renewed annually. There is always a chance of one’s self-interest triumph over the overwhelming sense of duty.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

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 riche, whose aesthetic sensibility for decades had been informed by the surreally immaculate, luminous beauty of the Neoclassicist paintings. Delacroix’s stand a marked contrast to such obsessive pursuit of the implausible ideal. In keeping with the tradition of past masters, especially those of the High Renaissance, the French romanticist was unafraid of probing the underside of beauty- predominantly, the violence and the chaos, both of which are the mainstays of the making of history.

One of the keys of rendering the depictions of war scenes less of a clunky, tangled affair is to suffuse them with a feeling of rhythmic movement. As such the edge of intensity is rounded and the phenomenon of drama more readily registered. In Delacroix’s most famous, Liberty Leading the People, the rhythm can be distinctly felt in the goddess’s ruffled garb, the furled flag and the general inclination of the ensemble towards the right foreground. This is juxtaposed with the deathly stillness of the wounded figures, piling up beneath the feet of the advanced crowd. The fighters are putting up a stout defense regardless of the toll; their swiftness of movement is a sure sign of their optimism; from above their heads clouds are beginning the disperse; victory is imminent.

Delacroix also tackled eroticism. There is something dangerous in explicating sexual matters in a displayed work- every of its viewers is made an enforced voyeur of the carnal pleasure; art is reasonably capitalised as a vehicle for the forbidden fruits. It is hardly unprecedented, though, that high art should be the unlikely agent of bridging the chasm between the superior and the low- nudity, from time immemorial, has been generally regarded as an idyllic, innocuous element especially amongst the divinities. Yet an intentionally detailed depiction of an orgiastic bacchanal can easily put to test the society’s instinctually squeamish reception of sex in art.

Delacroix’s erotic paintings are a response, or a counter-response, to those that water down their graphic contents in pandering to the straitlaced public. The Death of Sardanapalus is based on a scene from the eponymous play of Lord Byron, a personal favourite of Delacroix, that tells of Sardanapalus, king of Assyria, ordering a massacre of his concubines when learned of his military defeat. The French romanticist is as ruthless as the notorious Greek king in conceiving in grisly details the great disorder and horror that accompany the bloody carnage. The use of bright colours is especially instrumental in spelling out the violence- those red divans look eerily as if smeared with the bloods of the youthful harlots. As its dominant feature a nude prostrates herself on the divan in supplication for the king’s mercy; her gesture offers an agonising sight of doldrums amidst the rippling chaos.

Charles Baudelaire aptly summarises Delacroix’s legacy as one who was “passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible.” Delacroix’s unparalleled representations of historical events proved only a meteoric happening as, after his death, there were Manet and the Impressionists; serenity, though in a much different guise, would again hold sway as the dominant mood.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Edouard Manet, Boy Blowing Bubbles (1867)

1867 was a fateful year for Édouard 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 life. In paintings, the soap bubble’s especial appeal amongst children is underscored; most of these innocent and endearing evocations of childhood fun, however, belie an allegorical message of delicate lives “nipped in the buds.” Though it wasn’t known if an “implication of death” was the precise end Manet sought to arrive at with his painting, Boy Blowing Bubbles, with its overall sombre effect, poses as a modern example of memento mori.

Boy Blowing Bubbles is a perfect indication of Manet’s unorthodox artistry. The boy, dressed in a beige sweatshirt, is set off against a stark background. The dearth of a more nuanced colouration contributes to a curious deflatedness of the figure, rendering the result more like a cut-out than a painting. There is every reason to suppose that the boy is less a human being and more of a petering-out spectral. First there is the vacuous expression, caused possibly by the tedious posing session that every of Manet’s sitter was obliged to undergo, that creates a shuddering sense of disinterestedness that contrasts sharply with an activity (blowing bubbles) that is bound to produce joy. Secondly, if observe closely the painting, one can notice immediately the crudity and uncertainty of brushstroke, which makes the outlines of the forms, to use a term that may seem anachronistic in this context, “pixelated” and blurry to a degree that, like a decrepit sandcastle, a sudden wind can shatter the whole thing into flying dusts.

It is hardly an unprecedented instance to amplify the horror of thememento mori by deliberately rendering the personage a ghostly figure. Hieronymus Bosch’s Death and Miser is a gruesome case in point: the miser, before choosing whether he should succumb to the temptations of Evil or embrace the salvation of God, looks uncannily a growing resemblance of the former with his livid skin and shrunken frame. This seal of fate is as final as the underlying message is potent and definitive: if you decide to nurture a miserly love for earthly goods, you will soon be joined by the devils before having a chance to reverse the wrong path.

As a portrait Boy Blowing Bubbles manifests how strikingly remote Manet was from his fellow Impressionists. A notable affinity with the past can be felt, reverting less to the style of Manet’s artistic heroes, Velazquez or Goya, and more to that of the earlier period: the Early Netherlandish. There is the similar inscrutable impassiveness of the figure’s mien and a marked sense of solemnity enhanced by the restrained nature of the composition. Like the Flemish master Jan van Eyck, Manet is versed in the trick of how to mystify and awe his viewers.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

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 innocence is devastated by the removal of the three people that might provide him alibis- two are dead and one cannot be found. Vera Miles delivers a superb performance as Manny’s affectionate, stalwart, suffering wife, whose resilience snaps under the weight of mounting stress, resulting in a protracted nervous breakdown that doesn’t seem to dissolve at the end of the film, where she remains unmoved by her husband’s cheerful news.

Amongst other concerns, the harrowing tale of Manny Balestrero reveals the defect of an unquestioning social system when dealing with plausible cases of mistaken identities. Interviewed by Life of the specific things he’d learned from the experience, Manny, true to his magnanimous, expansive, amiable character, credited his family and friends of making the ordeal more bearable, and believed the detectives and witnesses to be largely blameless for the blunder. When confronting the real stick-up man in the police station, Manny stared into the man’s deep-set eyes, of which he noticed immediately a resemblance, and asked: “Do you realise what you have done to my wife?”

Yet on reflection, the callousness of those who are responsible for sending a wrong man to jail is truly the most chilling aspect of the event and the film. One of the witnesses remained impenitent and said it wasn’t her intention of wronging an innocent man, but she still thought her impulsive reaction was right. In the film, the witnesses fled in guilt when they saw Manny, and the detective, his stern expression unrelaxed, merely gave Manny a pat on the back and said, “Alright, Manny?” In the Life article, the writer wryly observed that Manny received no apology from the detectives or the witnesses, and Manny, after much thought, said he believed they would’ve acted differently if they had “a bit more conscience.”