Daily Projections, 4-19-2019: L’Arbre, le Maire, et la Médiathèque (1993)

Title: L’Arbre, le maire, et la médiathèque
Director: Eric Rohmer
Country of Origin: France
Year: 1993
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Of the 16 Rohmer films I’ve seen so far, this is probably the closest he gets to a manifesto (Rohmer was a royalist and dedicated environmentalist who claimed to have never driven a car or ridden in a taxi). Ostensibly about a socialist small-town mayor determined to build a multidisciplinary library and cultural center encountering plenty of political snags along the way. In reality, the story is really only half of the film. About 30 minutes in the middle of the film all but abandon the plot entirely while a freelance journalist interviews villagers about farming and local economics and their entertainment habits before finally reaching local schoolteacher M. Rossignol (played by Rohmer veteran Fabrice Luchini) who gives probably the most memorable (and typically Rohmerian) speech in opposition to the proposed médiathèque of the film. Rohmer is really reaching for something beyond simple environmental conservation here. He’s looking for a conservation of “the old ways”, hence discussions of changes in farming techniques and the aesthetics of modern architecture and the ethics of erecting a new building in an old village. “Did it never occur to you to have a space that serves no purpose? That’s the problem with modern architecture, it’s too functional.

Daily Projections: Mieheke (1936)

Title: Mieheke
Director: Valentin Vaala
Country of Origin: Finland
Year: 1936
Screening format: DVD
Setting: Home
First viewing? yes

A little white lie spirals out of control. How many times have we heard that one before? It’s films like Mieheke, I suppose that lead to the inevitable comparison of Valentin Vaala with Ernst Lubitsch. It certainly isn’t the serious melodramas like Ihmiset Suviyösää, beautiful though they may be, that gave Vaala his reputation for “sophisticated urban comedy”. Mieheke gives Finland born, Michigan raised actress Tuulikki Paananen the first major role of her brief career (the most well-known in the US being Consuelo Contreras in Lewton’s The Leopard Man). Paananen plays a young woman who lies about being married in order to obtain a job as a secretary. When her employer insists on meeting her husband, she plucks one from the cafe across the street in the form of Tauno Palo. In true “sophisticated urban” fashion, the men are incorrigible philanderers and the women love to tease. In keeping with the Lubitsch tradition, there are even a handful of musical numbers. Tuulikki Paananen, in her first starring role, is an absolute delight as the waifish mastermind of this particular marriage plot. We also get to spend a few memorable minutes with a still quite young Regina Linnanheimo a few years before she would turn in a blistering performance in Teuvo Tulio’s Levoton Veri.

Daily Projections: The Clock (1945)

Title: The Clock
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1945
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? no

Could Vincente Minnelli’s whirlwind wartime romance The Clock have been made had it not been, well, wartime? In a sense, yes. Light speed romance movies had been made before (Lonesome: 1928) and since (Before Sunrise: 1995) with several others in between. But The Clock has a subtle lyricism about it that I don’t think can be found in similar films, and much of that is due to the wartime setting. Robert Walker is, after all, a soldier on leave, about to return to the front. As such, there is a cloud of potentially impending doom constantly hovering in the background. And, though characters rarely address it directly, they do live as though every moment is precious because there really may not be a future for them. It’s actually refreshing to see Judy Garland act without breaking into song at any point. And James Gleason is always a highlight of any film he appears in. But what is most remarkable about The Clock is the elegance with which the subject matter is treated. Minnelli never really resorts to melodrama or sappy romance, though the temptation must have been very real. The Clock is instead funny, romantic, suspenseful, heart-breaking and uplifting. It is genuinely sweet and unselfconscious and, like any whirlwind romance, over all too quickly.

I Once Was Blind: King of Kings (1927), Cecil B. DeMille

DeMille’s King of Kings airs on TCM at 1:00 AM Eastern Time, Easter night (that is, Monday morning)

Just about every year around Easter, TCM airs Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. To me, it is essential viewing, not simply because DeMille epic grandeur (I mean, you’ve seen his Ten Commandments, right?) but for the sensitivity with which he relates the story.

I have no idea how many times they’ve tried to film the life of Christ. It’s a lot, I know that much. And while they each serve a purpose in their own way – Ray’s King of Kings (Technicolor), The Passion of the Christ (historically graphic violence), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (hysterical, heretical) – DeMille brings a poetic approach to the story that I can’t recall finding in any of the Jesus movies I’ve watched. Of course, I believe that all 155 minutes of King of Kings are worth watching, but on this particular point, the poetry of the image (DeMille’s film is silent, after all), there is one moment that perfectly captures my meaning.

The film opens with several accounts of Jesus and his miracles, people recounting to other people what the things they’ve heard about Jesus. “I have seen him heal the blind.” “’Tis said he can raise the dead.” It sounds great, but it sounds like little more than gossip and rumors. DeMille hasn’t even shown the audience what Jesus looks like. A crowd gathers outside a house. He’s in there, we’re told, but still no sight of him. Even now, Jesus is nothing but a story.

It is about ten minutes in that DeMille first introduces a young blind girl, groping her way through the crowd, desperately seeking Jesus, to no avail. Like her, we too are looking for Jesus while DeMille, obstinately, refuses to bring us to him. It is then that a formerly lame boy, Mark (yes, the Gospel writer), hears her cries, takes her hand, and promises to lead her to Jesus. Mark brings her to Mary who brings her to Jesus. And yet, we, the audience, have still never seen him. We know he’s there, but he is still hidden from view.

And the girl pleads with Jesus. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Will you open my eyes?” And the screen goes dark.

When a small shaft of light begins to break the darkness. Slowly, the light grows brighter as an image begins to emerge, at first faint, overexposed and out of focus, but growing stronger until it is revealed to be the face of Jesus.

This is a perfect illustration of what is so powerful about DeMille’s approach to the story of Christ. Our first glimpse of Jesus is not in a simple, documentarian manner. There is no “hey, that’s Jesus, by the way” moment like there is for the introduction of every other character in film. We are not introduced to Jesus as disinterested, third party observers. We see Christ first through the eyes of a blind child who had lived her entire life in darkness until she met Jesus. And the message is clear. We are that blind girl. We, too, have been living in darkness, never truly seeing until we have seen Jesus.

Introducing: The Lewton Ledger

The Val Lewton Papers, in all their microfilmed glory

What began for me as a last minute trip to Washington, D.C. to burn up some rewards miles last week turned into a frantic, intensive study session in a windowless room deep in the Library of Congress once I learned that the Library also happened to be home to a collection known as The Val Lewton Papers. I am, of course, a huge fan of Mr. Lewton (as so many are). The symbolism and classical literacy of the films he produced at RKO were instrumental in inspiring me to look closer at the often neglected theological content buried in popular cinema. So, of course, once I learned that, after a brief vetting process, I could have free access to some of the man’s personal papers, I had to jump at the chance.

After proving my identity to the folks in the main office—the Library of Congress’s collections are open to just about anyone (and I mean anyone, not just Americans) over the age of 18—I wound my way through the series of nondescript tunnels that connect the library’s buildings until I eventually found my way to the Manuscripts Reading Room where I was vetted again and pitched my research to the folks in charge before being allowed access to this particular branch of the library. Once I was officially cleared, I put in my request for the Val Lewton Papers and waited.

After about 10 minutes, five reels of microfilm were delivered to my workstation. Five reels of microfilm don’t really look that impressive in person and, frankly, it is a bit disappointing at first for a nerd like me to I will not be allowed to interact directly with the objects of my fascination. But my disappointment faded quickly once I had loaded the film into the machine and began to wade into the information at hand.

At first, I tried to read everything. Taking notes on what I found interesting and skipping over the rest. But after an hour, no matter how far I advanced the film, the supply of unviewed film seemed the same as when I had started. AND I WAS ONLY ON THE FIRST REEL! It was then that I really began to understand why the Library of Congress policy allows researchers to scan materials for research purposes. I have no idea how many thousands of pages of letters, journals, scrapbooks, and screenplays are included on those five reels, but it was far more than I could have ever consumed in my three days at the library. The best I could do was scan anything that looked remotely pertinent and bring it home to work on here.

So, here we are. I have a flash drive full of Val Lewton documents and only a rough idea what they contain. Now, I can’t simply upload them somewhere for you—there are signs all over the Library of Congress saying that’s not allowed—and besides, that wouldn’t be any fun for me. What I can do is give you a little window into my research process.

With that, let me welcome you to The Lewton Ledger. As I read through this digital stack of documents, I’ll keep you posted of any possible insights or hunches I have as to what made this master of psychological horror tick. So far, I can tell you this much, young Val Lewton was head over heels crazy in love with his wife Ruth. Like, seriously, it’s so cute.

Also, he loved boats.

Daily Projections, 2-12-2019: Cold War (2018)

Title: Cold War
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Country of Origin: Poland
Year: 2018
Screening format: DCP
Setting: Belcourt Theatre
First viewing? Yes

Notes: I’ve barely made a sound since this one finished. No one in the theater did, either. Everyone left the room in silence. It seems wrong to behave any other way. Going in, I had my doubts that Cold War could ever live up to the impossible standard set by Pawlikowski’s last film, Ida. They are, certainly, distinct from each other, but are propelled by the same icy poetry that buoyed Bergman’s best films of the ’50s and ’60s (the same era in which Cold War—and Ida—take place). Cold War is the story of a single romance told through vignettes against the backdrop of the Cold War. Each character lives a separate life that happens entirely offscreen. It could easily seem that Pawlikowski is taking the easy way out, ditching exposition altogether in favor fleeting vignettes. But that is the point. At one point, Wiktor refers to Zula as “the woman of my life”. Those moments are everything. They are the only thing. In some sense, I suppose Cold War is a road movie about two people traveling in separate vehicles whose journeys sync up only when fate (and traffic) allow. The music (brilliantly chosen throughout) makes for a wonderfully evocative third character. It’s also pleasant to note that Lukasz Zal’s perfect cinematography in Ida was no fluke.

Daily Projections, 1-11-2019: Winter Woman (1977)

Title: Winter Woman
Director: KIM Ho-sun
Country of Origin: South Korea
Year: 1977
Screening format: Streaming (YouTube)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: Winter Woman was, apparently, the best selling Korean film of the 1970s, based on a popular novel with a rather leftist message (at least for 1970s South Korea). I haven’t read the novel and I won’t pretend to be an expert on that period of Korean history. All I can say for sure is that Winter Woman, especially the first hour, tends to err on the side of confusing. I had to pause the film multiple times to consult a synopsis of the novel in order to understand what was happening on the screen only to find out come the end that Winter Woman the film is only kinda like the novel to the point that, if you changed the title and the character names, someone familiar with both could easily write off any similarities as coincidence. Anyway, the film made Chang Mi-hee a star in Korea, but so much of her performance is overshadowed by an overindulgence in non-diegetic sound (far too much reverb on all narrated segments and a soundtrack alternating between Bach and cheesy 1970s synthesizers). I know the point of the film is, ostensibly, the sexual autonomy of Korean women, which is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that I-hwa’s naïveté sets her up for trouble early on. Twice, she tells a man (different men) “I’ll go anywhere with you”. Not a good idea.

Daily Projections, 1-3-2019: Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

Title: Twilight of a Woman’s Soul
Director: Evgeni Bauer
Country of Origin: Russia
Year: 1913
Screening format: DVD
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema. It’s interesting to note the stark difference between this and the groundbreaking work of the likes of Eisenstein and Vertov only a decade later. Not that Evgeni Bauer is without his merits. Surely, he is one of the first true masters of cinema. Those familiar with films of this era will note the difference in Bauer’s framing and composition, even in this very early example of his work. Vera is a wealthy but lonely aristocrat who has decided to dedicate her life to helping the poor. On one particular outing, she is raped by an “injured” man who she, in turn, kills. Later, when her new husband learns of these events (on their honeymoon, no less) he leaves her. At least, I think he leaves her. It’s possible she leaves him. The lack of intertitles makes it a little difficult to tell if she is kicked out or decides to leave willingly. What is not unclear is the surprising emphasis everyone seems to place on the sex part of the rape (rather than the crime of it) and the fact that the subsequent murder is, practically, an afterthought. Overall, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is a film about guilt: Vera’s guilt over her past experiences and her husband’s guilt over treating her with undue harshness. The only ones who appear to experience no guilt are the poor, who are not painted in a good light at all.

Daily Projections, 1-3-2019: Your Name* (2016)

Title: Your Name
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Country of Origin: Japan
Year: 2016
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? yes

*This review is for the Japanese language version with English subtitles. I have not seen the English dub yet.

Where do I even start with Your Name. Makoto Shinkai returns to some of his favorite subjects, the flexibility of time, the meaning of memory, and the boundlessness of human connection. Is it really true that these two are communicating with each other through time and space? It’s no use asking what is and isn’t real in Makoto Shinkai film. Maybe none of it is real, but it is, nevertheless true. It’s hard to make any sort of analytical comment about the story structure of this or any of the Shinkai films I’ve seen. It would seem to do them a disservice to reduce it to a simple story when their most distinct characteristic is a nebulous ineffability. Even now, two hours after watching this for the first time, I almost feel as if I haven’t watched anything at all and yet I already feel a longing to be immersed in it again. Which is, in a way, precisely the world in which Your Name takes place: a world that isn’t there and yet is, a present that has not yet happen yet is already in the past. That’s time, I guess. And, of course, the animation, as always, is superb. There is a texture to the drawings in this that other animation lacks. The whole picture seems to glow almost, like a Rembrandt. Not since The Tale of Princess Kaguya have I been so awestruck by the look of animation.

Daily Projections, 12-29-2018: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Title: Au Hasard Balthazar
Director: Robert Bresson
Country of Origin: France
Year: 1966
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Another Bresson. A lot to unpack here. It’s tempting to look for a one-to-one correlation (“[Christ] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” – and who embodies the very nature of a servant better than Balthazar, a donkey battered, beaten, and dragged around with no will of his own). But watching Au Hasard Balthazar, my thoughts continue to fall on Old Testament figures, namely Job and Hosea. After all, not all Biblical symbolism is Christological. And Balthazar is far from the only such figure. Gérard, perhaps a bit of Beelzebub in him, though I tend to look at him as Vice or Sin in general who has the run of the town and to whom the Prodigal Marie always comes when called, even if she puts up a brief, feeble fight at first. Marie, all of mankind, in possession of her own free will who twice rejects an offer of marriage from the only real Christ figure I see in Balthazar (the landowner’s son, Jacques—the landowner is God, by the way), first citing her inability to truly love him then her own checkered past as reasons not to choose him. Au Hasard Balthazar is not so much allegory, perhaps, as it is parable. But it is all masterpiece. And who (but perhaps Bresson) knew a donkey’s face could be so beautiful?