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.