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 fa├žade 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.