Maldone (1928)

22 05 2009

I had seen only one Gremillon film prior to this one, and it was the decent but otherwise underwhelming Pattes blanches. All the talk about his rhythmic editing, his documentary-like observations, the poetic touches were completely absent from said film. In his defense, he made it 21 years after this so perhaps some of his magic was beginning to rust? Whatever the case, this impressed me a great deal and confirmed my suspicions that Gremillon had more to offer than a simplistic melodramatic narrative.

The setup here is rather simple. The titular character is an aging wagon driver, who becomes infatuated with a much younger gypsy girl, Zita. While he is busy falling in a deep love-induced trance, his brother is dying. Gremillon cross-cuts Maldone’s silly attempts at flirting with the tragic death of the brother. With his brother’s death, Maldone must now take control of the family manor, which delays his potential relationship with Zita. Eventually, he submits to a marriage with Flora. The newlyweds are in direct dichotomy; Maldone is reluctant and still festering feelings towards Zita while Flora is oblivious to her husband’s feelings and sees their union as an exciting beginning.

Three years later, Maldone is still unhappy, perhaps more so than ever. He takes his wife on a vacation, which only makes things worse when he sees Zita, now a club dancer. He is able to verbalize his feelings, which he has contained inside of himself for so long, to Zita. She has moved on, though, and tells Maldone that she is merely flattered to play a role in his past.

Gremillon doesn’t tie up his narrative at all, which is, of course, a very good thing. There are plenty of impressive elements here, some technical and others thematic. I particularly enjoyed the very fragmented style, which perfectly underscores the cerebral wanderings of the protagonist. Even the intertitles seem to play up to his rapid-fire pace of pondering. Towards the end, specifically, where little dialogue is produced. Instead, the intertitles are poetic translation of feelings that a lesser director would have dressed up in some half-hearted symbolism. Gremillon himself almost falls in to this trap with the mirror sequence, but usually, the intertitles explain in a simple, yet heartbreaking fashion things like “Suddenly, Maldone felt anger inside himself.” Of course, such anger is never manifested in the form of physical violence, but instead in a suicidal passivity for which Maldone operates.

It wouldn’t be the most original description or even the most helpful, but I’d say that this a good representation of “first person filmmaking.” It is a PoV film that just happens to not be filmed from the character’s physical point of view. Instead, we experience his emotional and mental point of view. Through him we jump to the past and the present, to the future and fantasy. While Gremillon has made a film look like a documentary with some visually expressive touches, he has made the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a completely personal cinematic experience. Unfortunately, it is not as immediately overwhelming as I’ve made it sound, but it is okay when its lingering power is so great.

Lost Horizon (1937)

22 05 2009

While this is pretty far from my ideal set up (it is a “fantasy” film after all) I found it to be, by a very wide margin, the most impressive feature I’ve seen from Frank Capra yet. It’s a fantastical science fiction and theological mess on paper, but Capra’s earnest and genuine expression shines through his rather stilted material. Even though it is an adaptation, it seems like the sort of film that is so achingly personal that to recognize it as anything less than a near sacrifice to express something would be the greatest of insults to not only Capra, but the rest of the cast as well.

Now I get a very personal sentiment from the Capra films I’ve seen as well – they are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life, but for some reason I never was able to accept the romanticism and sentimental nature of Capra’s images. I’m not sure why; Ford and Borzage provide a similar tone in their best work and I never had trouble connecting with their work. Truth be told, I guess Capra is more of a magical realist than a melodramatic romantic. In all of his other films I’ve seen, the magical tone comes from miracles, improbable events, physical and mental sacrifices. There’s signs of those elements here, but they seem dominated by the biggest fantasy element in the entire film – the town of Shangri-La itself.

My half-developed logic is flawed, I admit, but the story itself is purely fantasy with real, believable characters injected into the drama. This is, at least in my opinion, the inverse of Capra’s other films. Realistic situations with unlikely occurrences – both emotional and physical carrying a majority of the narrative’s development. On the other hand, though, maybe Capra’s general “fantasy-esque” realm of cinema just needed the aid of some poetic cinematography. This is the first of his films that I can say is visually stunning. Another 180 degree turn from the Capra I know, the visuals in his other films are so dry and simplistic, almost on purpose it seems.

Surprisingly, I found Capra’s romantic longings (or at least the cinematic manifestation of them) to be more genuine and perhaps even more pronounced than the average Borzage film. I’d say Capra comes much closer to reaching the spirit of Borzage’s silent films with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farnell than Borzage’s output afterward did. In other words, he’s kind of out-Borzage Borzage here. The reason behind this, though, seems very obvious to me. Capra had this one personal project to unleash everything he was holding within himself, while Borzage had a seemingly unending stream of opportunities for personal expression.