Robert Enrico’s Civil War Trilogy based on stories by Ambrose Bierce

Though Robert Enrico would spend most of his career directing French crime films, he remains best known for his short film, An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge (aka La rivière du hibou), which was included as an episode of the Twilight Zone. La rivière du hibou is actually a part of a trilogy of films that Enrico made about the American Civil War, all based on stories by Ambrose Bierce. Using dialogue and voice-over economically, all three stories rely heavily on the rural landscape, and how it is transformed through war and the psychological state of the protagonist, to convey their ideas.

Tonight, a presentation so special and unique that, for the first time in the five years we’ve been presenting ‘The Twilight Zone’, we’re offering a film shot in France by others. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival of 1962, as well as other international awards, here is a haunting study of the incredible, from the past master of the incredible, Ambrose Bierce. Here is the French production of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.

La rivière du hibou remains the most famous of Enrico’s oeuvre. It is the tale of a man who is about to be hanged, and at the last moment, the rope magically breaks and he plunges into the water, and manages to escape. The first ten minutes or so of the film are the moments leading up to the hanging. No words are spoken, and the focus is almost entirely on the ritual and detachment of the executioners. It is clear from the onset that the person about to be hanged has not had a trial, and has had no time at all to come to terms with his fate. Desperate and confused, he can only focus on his surroundings, as he still hopes for a final chance of escape. In one of the very last moments, he cries out for who we can presume is his wife… and we realize that he will not only lose his opportunity to say goodbye to her, but she will probably never know what became of him.

By some miracle however, the rope snaps as he falls into the water, and manages to escape from the firing of his executioners. The film never quite lives up to it’s opening, and though the impressive and captivating nature of the chase is incredibly well executed, the anticipation to his death is far more tense and exciting. The roving camera of the opening, as we move behind the trees to witness the final moments of this man’s life are deceptively beautiful. The lack of sentimentality and apparently clinical nature of the proceedings really dehumanizes the characters involved in such a way that seems to completely eliminate any semblance of humanity. It becomes something of an act of God, as the camera becomes an all seeing eye, who can take any position and perspective, while a man is “punished” for seemingly no other reason than him being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the protagonist’s fear of death and desire for life, his execution does not seem especially cruel. Though this is definitely the least dream-like (ironically…) of the three films in the trilogy, the absence of context creates a strange sense of dread and unease, thus entering the circumstances into a realm of the Gods rather than that of human law.

As with all the films of the trilogy, the use of sound is pivotal. Again discussing the first part of the film, pre-execution, sound is used to create a sense of tension and dread. The sound of a chorus of singing birds opens the film, it is before dawn. The scene progressively becomes louder and more anxious, as the protagonist is set up for his death. The sound of men walking along a wooden bridge mirrors that of a metronome or a ticking clock (the sound of a watch is also integrated, quite beautifully, alongside a fantasy/flashback of the protagonists’ wife). The noise of the noose being tied, and the fabric wrapped around his legs to hold him still are amplified to an aching degree. The rickety wood echoes, until with a loud clack, the board is set free, and he crashes into the water below.

Though the sound remains strong throughout the film, it also tends to rely a bit too heavily on the use of voice and narration.  The greatest weakness of all the films tends to be the use of language, in part because it is quite obviously dubbed. Even beyond that, the voice-over style ultimately does not seem necessary as everything is so wonderfully conveyed through the images and the voice-over seems superfluous.

It is unfortunately difficult to discuss the full effects of this particular piece without revealing the ending. So, if you are either unfamiliar with the story, I recommend to stop reading now. The final revelation that the entire escape existed only in the mind of the protagonist could have easily been a cheap twist in the vein of “it was all a dream type ending”, but it is actually very affecting (on screen and in print). I think this is in part because of disrupts our perception of time and space. The timeline of the “escape” probably runs a few hours in the mind of the character, and takes up two thirds of the running time of the film. In “real time”, the entire imagined event actually only takes place within a fraction of a second, from the moment that the protagonist falls to the point that the rope gives in, presumably resulting in an instantaneous death.

Though the most famous, La rivière du hibou, is actually the middle story in the trilogy. The first is Chickamauga, named after a battle from the American civil war which marked a very significant Union defeat. It is also remarkable for the imagery it inspired, notably in inspiring the unofficial naming of the Chickmauga river, as “the bloody pond” due to the fact it apparently ran with the blood of the over 35,000 soldiers who died during the two day battle. This particular film is told from the perspective of a deaf and mute child, who wanders off the day of the battle. When he eventually stumbles upon the aftermath of the fight, it is presented as a surreal dream.

The boy’s disability hinders his ability to truly understand death, which is why he can wander through it so freely. He never hears the sounds of battle, or the cries of the dying, and apparently did not face death before this moment. He is aware of a change in his environment however, because the once sunny landscape is now obscured by thick smoke. His curiosity is what draws him to the source, and he is met by a man dragging himself along the ground in the distance. The boy is not disturbed by this and. imagines the man as both a large pig and a bear from the circus, being dragged along on a leash.

The child’s emotional detachment from the unfolding events becomes increasingly difficult to swallow, as the casualties and injuries mount. The full scale of these atrocities are explored through continual use of tracking shots that pan across the forest, revealing that the ground has been effectively “flouded” with an innumerable amount of human bodies, both alive and dead. The child manoeuvres his way around and over these bodies, occasionally interacting with them, but only as if they are a game. The extended scene is without any sounds of death, as the young boy being deaf, probably cannot fathom what suffering sounds like. Instead, the scene is scored with patriotic music, and an eerie original score that would be fitting in any horror film.

The child’s imagings suggest a complete lack of understanding of war and death, but his actions demonstrate a knowledge or awareness of violence and soldiering. Throughout the entire film he carries a wooden sword that he uses in imaginary fights against imaginary enemies. Though he never uses it against any of the soldiers, during his interactions with them, he wields it as a weapon, and seems to perceive himself as some kind of military leader. It is unclear as to whether he misinterprets this dying army as the “real” version of an attacking army, or simply sees them as subservient due to their childlike nature.

When he finally tires of this scene, he finally returns home. The once peaceful southern cottage is in flames, but the boy still remains unaware or unreceptive to the meaning of this. It is only when he discovers his mother, lying dead, that he seems to realize what true meaning of death.

Returning to the film’s opening, there is a montage of art depicting the war between the American forces and the Indians, along with a song sung about the child. The repeated phrase is “boy, war is your heritage”. The sheer power and strength of the film’s imagery allows it to stand-alone as a work in aesthetics, but its power as a document and instrument of change is also remarkable. The fact that the boy’s identity is tied to war, and he cannot hear or speak, makes for something of an easy analysis, but that does not necessarily underscore the power of its execution or implications within the text. Also worth noting, is that in the final moments when the boy becomes aware of what death is, he had just discarded his sword into the fire. I think this is meant to convey how we must construct false realities in order to justify war, and to cope with individual involvement as soldiers.

The final film in the trilogy, The Mockingbird, further explores the psychological of the soldier , as a man tries to come to terms with the knowledge that he killed a man. While standing the evening guard one night in the woods by his camp, Pvt. Greyrock slowly becomes aware that someone else is in the forest with him. As he moves almost aimlessly through the dark, searching anxiously for the source of the noise, suddenly about two dozen feet ahead of him, a figure appears; he shoots, killing the man. This sets off gunfire across the camp, which disorients and frightens Greyrock. He remains at his point until sunrise, when his superiors find him. They reward him for keeping guard during a moment of chaos, which only further disturbs his state of mind.

The next few days are difficult for Greyrock; he is given a medal, which he not only feels he does not deserve (he only stayed at his post out of fear), but is teased mercilessly by his fellow soldiers because they think he is a coward for not actually fighting (no one is aware that Greyrock opened fire, let alone killed a man). Driving him to the brink of an apparent breakdown, Greyrock asks for a day’s reprieve, which he hopes to use to find the body of the man he killed. He searches the forest for hours, wandering the uninhabited land dreading and hoping to find a body. After an unsubstantiated amount of time, he seems to give up, and lies in the grass, only to fall asleep.

He dreams about two twin boys and their pet mockingbird. Their relationship defies the need for words, and their bond is so strong that they might as well be one. We follow them over the course of the day as the play and care for their bird. Eventually they are rowing along a river and it begins to pour. The rain completely overwhelms the landscape, and seems to weigh down and almost destroy their pet. When they return home, they find out their mother has died. The two boys are separated, with one heading in one direction, the other in the opposite one. There are no words of parting, though the boys try to cling onto each other, before being pulled apart by their new guardians.

Greyrock then awakes because he hears the song of his childhood pet. Is it just a dream? He follows it, only to finally discover the body of the man he killed, who is none other than his estranged twin brother. Though at some point during the flashback/dream about the twins, it becomes somewhat obvious as to the outcome of the final scene, it does not eliminate any of the shock of the revelation. Pvt. Greyrock kills Pvt. Greyrock, and it is nothing short of eerie. Death is at the heart of the “twist” of each one of these films, and the implications are always haunting. There is no new life in death, only the sad realization that we are continually orchestrating our own demise, and at what cost? Even the survivors of these stories are faced with a grim future; one without happiness or hope. Death is a disease that continues to spread, and even with the physical body intact, it can infect and destroy us.

I’m not sure words can do this spectacular trilogy justice, especially as they rely so completely on their visuals as a means of captivating the audience. I am honestly completely taken by each one of them, and they are already the source of incredible inspiration. The skill, care and passion involved in making them peers through each and every single shot, and they demonstrate beautifully cinema at its full strength.  Whether or not the stories interest you on the surface value, the economy as to which they are told is enough to recommend them. These are films that any and every person who aspires to make films should see.

Read Ambroise Bierce’s stories

Chickamauga

The Mockingbird

An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is not meant to be a subtle, “restrained” portrait of a family crippled by pain, hatred and coldness. At one point, Eva performs Chopin’s Prelude for her mother, who then tells her that her interpretation twists the initial intention, transforming a work of incredible depth, into something simplistic, sentimental and overtly feminine. Bergman fights against this perspective, presenting a film that is not only straightforward, but sentimental, and often deceptively blunt. A large section of the film is comprised of back and forth conversations, occasionally matched with flashbacks, that leave little to the imagination. Every thought, emotion and memory is laid out on the table without a hint of embellishment or deception.

Though far from my favourite Ingmar Bergman film, in many ways, it is probably the one I relate to most. This might simply be because, though retreading similar emotional battlegrounds, in this film they are fully articulated. Many of the conversations about love and anxiety seem to hit very close to home. Though I can’t say my relationship with my mother is as fraught with insecurity and abuse as in this case, the issues and symptoms that this toxic relationship causes are universal. One of my few gripes with the film is the character’s apparent omnipotent understanding of themselves, especially Eva who seems to be able to carefully map and understand the reason and means of her emotional history. I’ve always understood anxiety as being something that is self-perpetuating, in part because the source is often so deceptive. Though there are hints that Eva was not always so clear-minded about her mother’s involvement in shaping (or mis-shaping) her identity, at this point of my life, I find it difficult that one day all the pieces will comfortably fit together.

In this sense, Charlotte, is a more “realistic” portrait. I relate more to the physical and emotional experiences of Eva. A lot of her anguish and frustration, even her self-destructive behaviours, match my own to an almost frightening precision… but I somehow understand Charlotte better, because Charlotte does not understand anything at all. The only thing that is truly cryptic about this film is Eva’s reasoning for inviting her mother to stay. It’s clear that there is a huge amount of animosity between the two; they haven’t seen each other in seven years, and Eva is purposefully evasive concerning certain circumstances that she knows would upset or discourage her mother’s visiting. Are her lies motivated solely by her desire to rekindle a relationship with her mother, or is it part of a larger scheme of revenge? A lot of Eva’s actions suggest that she is trying to bring her mother to a point of realization… to reveal to her mother all the pain she has caused over the years. Or perhaps it is finally her chance to demonstrate that she is not the weak child that she once was, and that she will no longer allow her mother to dominate her completely.

On the sidelines of this intense psychological face-off are Viktor (Eva’s husband) and Helena (Eva’s sister). Both characters are the only ones that are apparently capable of love, but are also unfortunately shut off from any kind of reciprocation. Viktor offers an incredible outsider’s point of view on the action that is taking place, and is a voice of great reason and passion. His affection for Eva is incredible, though it is clear that she does not feel the same way. She relies on him, she loves him, but she has never been in love with him. What seems to be the most heartbreaking for him though, is the fact that Eva will never truly understand that he loves her without any expectations or conditions… she has been so ruined, that there is no way he can say “I love you”, because she no longer trusts words. The only person Eva ever apparently loved is her son, and her pregnancy and his childhood transform her completely. His death did not revert her back to the person she was though, because in her mind and soul, he is still alive. It is his love that keeps her alive. I think it is this situation, and the fact that her mother’s long-term partner had just died, that motivated her to bring her mother back into her life. She was unfortunately wrong, and her mother though hurt by her partner’s death, is never apparently marked by it like the other characters are.

Charlotte’s circumstance is heartbreaking, because there is never any hint that she has felt love in the same way as Eva, or Viktor, or Helena do. It isn’t to say that she didn’t love Leonard, but he never reached her in the way that would truly transform her life. In essence, she lives a life without love… I can’t imagine a life that is more painful and empty, and it is one I fear every day. What is worse, it seems that it is Charlotte’s fear that keeps her at a constant distance with those who surround her. As terrible as the anxiety that Eva describes, the internal suffering that plagues Charlotte seems all the more worse.

She seems to suffer greatly and her only way of handling that pain is to spread it among those who surround her. Charlotte’s most human moment comes in her confession that she wishes that Eva would have understood as a child, that they were equally helpless. It is a moment of incredible conceit, as Charlotte seems completely detached from her responsibility and role as a mother, but it is difficult not to empathise with her weakness. I think we all want to believe if someone wraps their arms around you, all the problems of the world could potentially evaporate… that human love and understanding can overcome all and any anxieties, even for a short time. Simultaneously, we fear this release, and this makes that freedom an impossibility.

How could a person living under those circumstances succeed so completely at being so apparently passionate, suggesting an illusion of incredible vivacity and passion for life? The moment she is alone, there is this incredible restlessness and pain… but there is no apparent emotional comfort in company either. How could she be so apparently blind? How does she survive, when the people around her crumble physically and psychologically? Why can she persevere, while Helena fades away?

There are no answers to these questions, and they are ones that come up time and time again in Bergman’s work. It reminds me very much of Winter Light, and the different reactions of the disillusionment with God from Tomas and Jonas. Even their struggle with faith, very much mirrors Charlotte and Eva’s struggle with love. In some senses, it is the same struggle, simply fought on different grounds.

I find that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most difficult filmmakers to write about, especially since it is so easy to get caught up with words and ideas. His craft extends far beyond dialogue and performance, and as much, if not more is conveyed through the composition and quality of his images. Autumn Sonata is one of his colour films, and it is shot in autumn tones. The characters wear shades of red, orange and yellows, or else muted neutrals that are effective by the warm light that envelopes nearly every scene. In many ways, it seems ironic considering the romantic associations of the tone of light. Autumn invokes are lot of sentiments about life coming towards its end, which is very reflective of Charlotte’s current “state”. What effect is this meant to take in context of the film? Frankly, I’m not even sure. Her lifespan and the situation of the film seem at once closely tied and completely inconsequential to the action that unfolds. Though the fact that she is in her own autumn years seems to be touched upon, the fact remains that Charlotte remains stagnant, young or old, she has not changed and probably never will.

J’ai tué ma mère (Xavier Dolan, 2009)

Xavier Dolan was just nineteen years old when he wrote, directed and produced his first feature length film, J’ai tué ma mère. The film was also included in the 2009 Cannes film festival, winning three awards. His debut film is not without its problems, but in this case, many of the film’s faults and inconsistencies, only lend to its “fresh” feeling. Dolan emerges as a youthful and raw voice in cinema, one that has not quite settled down, and seems to be bursting with unrestrained emotion and creativity. The presence of handheld camera work, poetic musical interludes, and moments of fantasy born out of a unique film and cultural background, create a collage-like portrait of a tumultuous adolescence and family life.

The film’s weakest point is probably the dialogue, though I think in international releases and subtitles some of that may be lost in translation. Moments of incredible poignancy are often matched with facile language clichés that can be only overlooked mostly due to the strength of the performance and intensity of emotion. It is a fault nonetheless, one that will hopefully be polished out in Dolan’s follow-ups. In many ways, it reminds me of Autumn Sonata, which I watched earlier tonight, and which covers a very similar ground. Both films are extremely melodramatic, even cloyingly sentimental… it is only that, the sentiment is often rooted in strong anger or hate, and one without wars or great action, so that it is easy to “overlook”. Especially since both deal with apparently egomaniacal mother figures, the line between soap opera and insight becomes tricky. In a way, it is easy to point fingers at parents, and to engage in simple Freudian  cause and effects within these kinds of narratives. Both films seem to mostly overcome these trappings, but never completely. In both cases I think that style and emotion overrules intellectual insight, something that I don’t necessarily have a problem with, but the fact that I notice also irks me somewhat. In the end, both films opt for incomplete resolutions marked by temporary acceptance of human imperfection. Bergman’s resolution seems to ache, though, with the incorrigible pain of several lifetimes, while Dolan’s protagonist seems healed, albeit temporarily, from that anguish.

As an apparently autobiographical film, it is difficult to imagine what Dolan’s mother must have thought of his portrait of her; to say it is unflattering is an understatement. She embodies a familiar kitsch variety of modern woman, who holds herself up as being a pinnacle of grace and style, despite the fact her lifestyle is a materialistic bizzaro world of the high class world she is  so desperately trying to embody. She is crass, short-tempered and self-centered. Somehow though, she never falls into the realm of caricature. Much if this is due to Anne Dorval’s incredible performance, one that rivals most of the very best of last year. There is also an understanding on Hubert’s (Dolan) part of his mother’ confusion, inexperience and inability to cope with a life she never wanted or expected. It isn’t necessarily that being a mother was “accidental”, but expected of her, and being the kind of person she is… she does what she must in order to feel acceptance. This does not soften either his interpretation of her great faults as a mother, or create a strong empathically feeling from his character towards hers.

Hubert has two means of escape from the empirical control his mother has over him, his art and his relationship with Antonin. The film handles Hubert’s homosexuality with a wonderful understatedness, and though it contributes to the rift between mother and son, it avoids most of the familiar clichés of a close-minded parent dealing with the revelation of their child’s “unexpected” sexual preferences. Dolan creates a great deal of comfort and eroticism in the scenes between Antonin and Hubert, which is especially remarkable considering his age. There is nothing cheap or fake about the intimacy felt by the two characters, and in a realm where most films made by, for or about teens tends to take the emotion out of sex, this was a wonderful surprise. Even so, their relationship is not without complications, something that only adds to the complex nature of the interpersonal relations in the film.

Though not without its faults, J’ai tué ma mere is an incredible feature that does not feel like a debut. So much of the film feels like an adventure; the work of a young and excited artist trying new things out, and paying homage to great talents that inspired him. At just 21 years old, we can only hope that this is the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Dolan, and that he will continue to shock and awe his audiences with his filmmaking. His new film, Les amours imaginaires (2010), premieres at the Cannes film festival next week.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) and Halloween II (1981)

I rarely write about the uninspiring horror remakes and “reboots” that come each year, despite the fact I drag myself out to see nearly every one of them.  Though this year I haven’t been to the theatre as much as usual, half of my viewings have been horror films. In spite of this rather high average of genre viewings, there is only one of them that I’d deem as good (and it’s not the one directed by Martin Scorsese.)

I sometimes wonder why I torture myself and sacrifice my hard earned money when I know more than half of the time I will walk away disappointed. If only there was a critic or a consensus out there I trusted, but even if there was… I can’t imagine trusting them enough to evaporate that inkling of hope that the remake of *insert favourite horror movie ever* won’t be amazing.  I could always wait for DVD or indulge in some illegal downloading activity, but for me, nothing beats seeing a great horror film with a great horror audience. It is simply an incomparable cinematic experience.

Last week I HAD to see the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Something deep inside was telling me that I would love it; that I would see in it something that no one else did, and I would have a horrific revelation.  I had been excited for weeks; I had even planned it as a birthday event so that I could share this awesome experience with all my awesome friends. I made sure to buy my tickets in advance in case it was sold out, I chose some of the best seats in the house, I got my popcorn and I waited excitedly for the film to begin. An hour and a half later, I was not very happy. There were no scares, there was no suspense. The film had two upsides; a hallway turning into a pool blood, and the so-bad-its-good quote “Who can remember being five years old?” I could easily write a long essay tearing apart every minute aesthetic, narrative and thematic device that went wrong, but I don’t get paid to do this. There are many critics out there who have already laid out everything wrong with this film; I don’t need to reiterate what has already been said.

My appetite for horror hasn’t diminished, despite my recent string of bad luck. I am still craving some good old fashioned heebeejeebees (ones that do not include human centipedes, no human centipedes… plz and thank you). Tonight I rented Halloween II (1981), hoping I would be cured of my slump. I wasn’t. Though not as bad as many of the horror remakes and sequels we get today, there is nothing exceptional about Halloween II. It is at least well constructed; the craft is there… it just does not live up the expectations of its predecessor.

Interesting deaths don’t compel me as much as they apparently do many horror viewers (my experience watching movies in theatres tells me, cool death = loud applause), and I tend to treasure the lead up more than the creativity of the death. Halloween II does this with moderate success, and the build-up is stressed as being more important than the shock value. That being said, my favourite death of the film is one that is “creative”, so to speak.

The death of the head nurse happens off screen, her character had long disappeared from the narrative and we could only imagine what had happened to her. When Jimmy realizes Laurie is missing from her room, he searches the hospital for her. Instead he stumbles upon the nurse who has been strapped to an operating table. Despite being dead, she seems completely unscathed. He moves closer only to notice that a needle has been stuck into her arm, and she has been drained of all her blood which now covers the floor. It is an eerie death, one that gets under your skin. It is perhaps the most unsettling moment of the film, and the overhead shot of Jimmy lying in that pool of blood (he slips), apparently dead, is perhaps the most potent in the entire film.

On the other hand, this does not seem to fit Michael Myers. A slow death is not really a part of his repertoire, and even the deliberate act of psychological torture seems well beyond his capacities, at least as presented in the first two films. If the original film did not make it clear, its sequel does; Myers is something more (or less) than human, and his methods are hardly sophisticated. At times he’ll play little games, or use strategy, but there is no real sense of joy in the death itself, as much as there is a joy in tearing living things into little pieces.  I don’t even wish the rest of the film was like this moment. I don’t particularly enjoy body-horror, with the exception of David Cronenberg who makes it smart and somehow palatable. Is this even body horror? Probably not, but torture, maiming, draining, etc. Etc. Is just not something I particularly enjoy. I don’t know why I like this moment, perhaps because as an image it is so striking, so strange… Despite the fact it doesn’t quite fit the film it is an awesome sequence of inspiring dread, and I can’t help admiring that.

Another way the film handles dread well is in the use of hallways (it uses them well, but it also doesn’t use them enough). I think surrealism uses a lot of hallways and doors to convey the anxieties of the unconscious mind, and it is a very effective image. Brutality and torture may be upsetting, but nothing beats the fear of the unknown. It is something that truly gets under your skin, because it so effectively can be mapped onto our everyday fears and anxieties. Even though I’ve been obsessing (in the worst possible away) about the horror that is the Human Centipede (a film I probably won’t see) because the idea of so absolutely disgusting and upsetting to me, it evokes a visceral kind of disgust that I don’t see as being enduring or compelling. I know for a fact, that the idea of the film is far more upsetting than the actual execution, which only supports my thesis on “less is more” in horror cinema. A long dark hallway in a hospital; that is a truly haunting image, if only because we have no idea what lurks beyond those doors.

It reminds me of the kind of horror David Lynch evokes, like the painting in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, of the room and the door. It’s eerie without any hint of violence, it is just an unnatural state of mind; one that inspires the idea of a hidden world, or the idea that death is lurking just around the corner. The film touches, very briefly, on the idea that Myers is some kind God or reaper… an unstoppable force of evil and the entire film may have been better if they followed up on that line of thinking. The original film is so great in part because there is that mystery about his existence, and his sheer inability to be killed. The fault of a lot of recent remakes, like (2010), is an attempt to explain away all the nuance and mystery of its monsters. Halloween II (1981) is also guilty of this, with it’s now infamous twist, which frankly makes no sense at all, as it adds nothing to story and is never used or explored in any meaningful way.

Maybe I am simply over-thinking these films, or maybe they just kinda suck.  Either way, I’d like to be surprised in the near future by something truly great, because I’m not giving up now. If I’m burning out on horror, I want it to be on a high note damn it. Maybe recommend me something :/

Five Best Films I saw in April

I saw so many great films this month, it’s the first time in a long while that it’s been difficult to narrow it down to just five. As always, alphabetical order and only first time viewings.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)

Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)

Maelstrom (Denis Villeneuve, 2000)

Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

Female Power Struggles and Paranoia in Laura and The Marriage of Maria Braun

This was written for a class assignment, I’m decently proud of it, or I wouldn’t bother to post… so yea :/

Both Maria Braun and Laura in their respective films utilize their femininity as a means of exercising power. InLaura, the titular character’s rise to success happens before the film has begun, and the effects her social standing has on those around her inspire fear and violence. On the other hand, The Marriage of Maria Braun charts one woman’s rise to success, very much in the model of traditional melodramatic narrative models like Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (Jones). While the character’s use their beauty and female wiles to succeed, it also creates conflict, as their methods inspire vulnerability and attachment in the men they ensnare. This role reversal is not taken easily by the men involved, and inspires a strong sense of paranoia within individuals and society.

The flashback narrative of Otto Preminger’s Laura, complicates the spectator’s ability to perceive Laura accurately. Waldo Lydecker narrates these flashbacks, and he is an unreliable narrator. Waldo has a literary flair, and a dramatic edge that consistently overrules facts. When, for example, McPherson catches a factual mistake in his column; Waldo responds by saying that his version of events are far more interesting. Also taking into account the fact that Waldo believed he had murdered Laura, he has a great amount to conceal, and would probably de-emphasize his emotional dependency on her in order to protect himself.

There is also evidence that the Laura of the flashbacks is different from the Laura of reality. In the second half of the film, Laura’s her behaviour and mannerisms are different from those presented in the flashbacks. Though some of this can be explained by the tumultuous events that colour her return, if we are to compare the first flashback sequence where she confronts Waldo and later confrontations, her attitude and tone of voice is very different. Whereas in the first confrontation she is soft spoken and compassionate, in the latter half of the film, there is a roughness in her tone of speaking, as well as a sense of combativeness that contradicts Waldo’s interpretation of events.

This establishment of the ambiguity regarding Laura is important, as Waldo Lydecker takes responsibility for her success. However, both his dependency on her and the inaccuracy of his claims points to Laura orchestrating her own future. Two statements made by Laura in the latter half of the film, also reveal her ambition and independence. Within the same scene, while speaking with McPherson, she talks about her nature. First she makes a passing comment about knowing how to cook, but more specifically, she refers to her long standing desire for a career; “mother always listened to my dreams of a career, then taught me another recipe.” Later on, when McPherson asks why she lied to him, she answers, “you forced me to give you my word. I have never been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.”

The social context of Laura is not explored in great detail; the setting is established simply as being the summer of 1944 in New York City. World War II is nary mentioned, nor is any strong pop cultural allusions presented. However, one can ascertain facts from the context the characters find themselves in. Laura, for example, is the only woman employed in an important position at the advertising agency. Though Lydecker claims to have a big hand in making this possible, her own creativity and ambition is what really propels her to success.

Laura’s power is further emphasized visually, especially through her portrait, as it dominates nearly every scene. It takes precedence over the male characters, and even over the real Laura in some cases. Another example of Laura’s dominating image is during the party scene, where she first encounters Shelby. She is the only character draped in white, and the costuming clearly isolates her from the crowd. The costume is also worth noting, as it emphasizes her femininity, as it fits her body in a way that highlights her curves. This is important in context of the film, as Laura’s success is not tied to her usurpation of masculine qualities, but rather through the use of her femininity.

Though never stated explicitly, her femininity is at once alluring and disorienting to the men who surround her. McPherson may fall in love with Laura, but he is just as disturbed by her overwhelming power over him. In the first half of the film, while Laura is still thought to be dead, her strength is exhibited through the set design of her apartment. McPherson’s masculine persona is destabilized by this setting, especially as he finds himself looking through her drawers and even smelling her perfumes. Later in the film, when Laura has returned alive, he brings her to headquarters in order to interrogate her. When she asks why he needed to leave her home in order to conduct this interview, he answers “I was at a point where I needed official surroundings”. The “official surroundings” oppose Laura’s apartment completely in their sterility and bareness. For McPherson to be able to maintain a relationship with Laura, he has to re-establish his masculinity and alleviate his unease.

Lydecker’s conflict with Laura is in her ability to exist and thrive independently of his influence. If Laura puts McPherson’s masculinity into question, she no doubt puts into question Lydecker’s “prestige”. His inability to control and possess her is what leads him to his murder attempt. This psychopathic drive also puts into further question his earlier claims regarding his position in her life. Lydecker is never able to overcome these feelings, and makes a further attempt on Laura’s life. This however gives opportunity to McPherson to reassert himself. When McPherson shoots and kills Lydecker, he is placing himself in a position where he is able to protect Laura, as well as demonstrate his power over her. There is also something to be said for him destroying Lydecker, who is very sexually ambiguous, further establishing McPherson’s masculine dominance. This final act restores natural order, and alleviates any sense of paranoia and unease that plagued his character.

Unlike Laura, the focus in The Marriage of Maria Braun is in the titular character’s rise to success through her manipulation of her feminine talents, rather than exploring the destabilizing effect this success can have. Context is also far more pivotal in Fassbinder’s film, as through his female protagonist he is able to describe “the unconscious, collective enactment of an essentially negative action, namely the suppression of historical memory, through melodramatic heroines whose fates are intertwined with the imperatives of their awful historical moments” (Jones). Maria Braun represents both these fading illusions, but also a generation of women who took charge of roles that were once dominated by men, only to be faced with having to give it all up again in the end.

Maria Braun continually takes advantage and adapts to changing social norms as a means of maintaining power; it is her flexibility that allows her to flourish in a tumultuous era in German history. Excluding her husband, she first couples with a black American soldier. He represents change in Germany, as he is a vehicle that frees the country from fascism. Their relationship however is short, as Maria’s husband makes an unexpected return and the American soldier is murdered. Though it is Maria who kills the American soldier, Hermann, her husband, takes the blame. This demonstrates, in part, Fassbinder’s view of men as he believed they “behave the way society expects them to” (Jones). In this case, they represent an outmoded form of patriarchal sacrifice that holds onto the ideals of a past era. His sacrifice is self-destructive, especially in context of a post-war era. It also demonstrates reluctance to embrace change, as he makes a mockery of the American run court, which was serving as a transition between the old and new Germany. He will spend most of the remainder of the film behind bars, while Maria flourishes in the outside world; physically free but emotionally devoted to her husband.

Though Maria maintains continually throughout the film that she is loyal and in love with her husband, it is important to note that she never spends more than a few hours with him. The film begins with their marriage, amidst an air raid. They will spend less than a day and a night together, before Hermann is sent off to fight on the Eastern front. Maria is essentially free for the film’s running length, first with her husband at war and then in prison. It is this essential emancipation from married life that allows her to rise to success. Though her husband most obviously cannot advance in the immediate post-war period, many of the other men that Maria involves herself with are equally vulnerable or stagnant. On the other hand, she continually demonstrates her ability to adapt, while also proving to be an adept businesswoman and diplomat.

The male characters inability to grow during this era is in part due to their fear and paranoia relating to the changing world. There is an inability to cope with the world’s negative perception of Germany which leads to a national identity crisis. Though other countries were able to return to life after war, Germany had to re-evaluate its position within the world. This struggle proved especially difficult for patriarchal figures, due to their direct involvement in the war as soldiers, or as important figures within industry. During the war and in the period immediately following it, industry was now being controlled by outside forces (like the court being run by the American military) or women in new positions of power, like Maria.

Maria Braun’s position in society though, becomes less significant, as conditions return to normal. The circumstances that allowed her to rise to a position of power and success; even to build a home, eventually give way to a “normal” way of life and she is expected to return to the subservient role of a housewife (Toteberg). This is explored in the film’s final scene, which takes place nearly ten years after the beginning of the film.

The Marriage of Maria Braun’s final scene is marked by Hermann’s return from prison. While Maria caters to him, a football game is broadcast over the radio. The game in question is significant because it marks, in part, Germany’s “restored” sense of national pride. Ronald Hayman in his book on Fassbinder, explains why this game is significant within the narrative and for Fassbinder himself;

At the end of The Marriage of Maria Braun the point of featuring the football commentary is that Germany is winning the world championship for the first time since the war. It might seem as though this should have had nothing to do whether or not the Germans regard themselves as defeated people, but to Fassbinder, who since his boyhood cared passionately about football, the victory marked the end of an epoch, which was also an epoch of female domination (116).

Unlike Laura though, who eventually yields to male dominance in the film’s final act, Maria is unwilling to allow her husband to regain his masculinity. Though she speaks of giving everything over to him, her heart does not seem to be in it. It is also the only portion of the film that she does not appear to be full of life; she is indecisive and cold. Her behaviour of continually changing in and out of clothes demonstrates a sense of uncertainty she does not exhibit in any other part of the film.

Even so, Maria seems to be willing to give up her life and career for Hermann and at least to attempt to take on the role of a housewife. This is until the reading of Oswald’s will (Oswald was her boss and lover) that reveals a contract between Oswald and Hermann that essentially figured Maria as an object that could be passed from one to the other (Toteberg). This exposes to Maria that she has been living a lie, that despite her belief that she has been in control of her life, she has simply been an object used by men. Though the football game indicates Germany being restored as “world champion” at that very moment, this is several years in the making and Maria’s role within society has long been restored, unbeknownst to her (Toteberg).

It is in her reaction to this news though, that separates her from Laura. Instead of accepting her role as a subservient female, which would restore order and alleviate all fears and paranoia, Maria lights a match that destroys both her and her husband. This not only undermines his power and position, but that of the society at large. Germany’s restored dominance is tainted because of Maria’s action, which reflects Fassbinder’s view of a society that has repressed the horrors and anxieties of its past. Maria’s murder/suicide does not allow society to return as it was, which is both an act of defiance and a reflection of a social state of paranoia that continually pervades the German psyche.

Though Laura represents an independent woman who is able to build her own success, the limitations of the classic Hollywood model necessitate a return to normalcy; therefore she is relegated back to a position subservient to patriarchy. Fassbinder on the other hand, though inspired from traditional narrative structures, undermines these expectations by allowing his female protagonist to break free from social norms. The nature of Maria’s freedom subverts traditional order; normalcy is not restored, and what remains is an incredible sense of unease.

Works Cited

Hayman, Ronald. Fassbinder: Film Maker. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984.Print.

Jones, Kent. “Heartbreak House: Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy.The Criterion Collection. 29 Sept

2003. Web. 23 March 2010.

Toteberg, Micheael. “A Market for Emotions: The Marriage of Maria Braun Production

History.” The Criterion Collection. 23 Sept 2003. Web. 22 March 2010.

Glamorama: An Epic Poem for the 90s?

I’m currently reading Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama, his 1998 novel about a very good looking model living in New York City. I don’t think in my entire life have I been so bombarded with pop culture, and yet, the novel probably doesn’t even come close to touching on the real celebrity and cultural saturation I’m exposed to on a daily basis. I’m far from finished the novel, and I haven’t even hit the midpoint, so I’d appreciate no spoilers from this point on but I can’t help wondering if any film has successful captured the anarchy, lifelessness and over-saturation of celebrity and brand culture. I can think of some filmmakers who come close, in one way or another, but none who do it with the viciousness and skill of Ellis.

Two names do come to mind, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Kelly. Tarantino’s oeuvre is unfortunately too limited to really touch on what I am referring to, though I think he is capable of what I’m searching for. Death Proof especially brings Tarantino’s favoured classic throwbacks into a candy coloured 21st century, porn-ification and girl power coming face to face. Richard Kelly, most notably in Southland Tales, probably comes closest to achieving a kind of over-saturation of shallow material culture, but lacks all of the artistry, violence and comedy that Ellis is so good at.

From what I can tell, Ellis may be the closest we have to an epic poet for an era. His vision may be limited, but it is focused on the central “ideological” founding of most of our lives. I remember once doing a brief, mostly un-memorable, project on the poet Ezra Pound, who had attempted and failed to write an epic poem about the era he lived in. At its core, an epic poem is not just a piece of art, but it is an instructional pamphlet on the ways of life and values of a particular culture. Pound found the globalized, capital obsessed 20th century impossible to really pin down, and he never completed his piece (which was focused almost entirely on money), but maybe Ellis comes close. If there is one thing that even Ellis’ detractors can agree on, is his rare ability to evoke and capture an era, even if it is largely negative.

Personally, though there are certainly a lot of problematic ideas and interpretations associated with post-modernism, would argue the necessity of a lot of its artistic “tools”, in reflecting our modern era. For a film or any piece of art to truly capture or reflect our modern culture, and still be critical of it, I cannot see how you could avoid or ignore elements of pastiche, collage and referencing. To ignore the intertextuality of the world that surrounds us is futile, even conversationally and in terms of connecting with each other, pop culture has taken the place of religion and ethnicity.

Of course, maybe it’s wishful thinking that any filmmaker could truly capture the insanity of Glamorama, or maybe we’ll have to wait several years down the road for some visionary to capture the work of another visionary. Film has a way of sometimes needing to catch up with fiction, and I’m not sure there exists a filmmaker who is insane or ambitious enough to tackle this pickle. Then again, American Psycho was made… and it’s a decent film.

Some inane questions:

  1. In an ideal world, who would you choose to adapt Glamorama?
  2. What film would you say is most reflective of our current way of life, at least in the sense of an epic poem… not only an accurate re-creation of our world, but one that embodies or even criticizes our values, etc. You can also set your own boundaries in terms of years, and location, if you so desire.