Red River (1948)

17 03 2020

In 1884, a journalist named Charles Fletcher Lummis traveled from his then home of Chillicothe, Ohio to Los Angeles, California. Absurdly, he accomplished this by foot. Upon his arrival, he was immediately appointed as City Editor for The Los Angeles Times. During those times, LA was yet to be the global city it is recognized as today. The boom would begin roughly twenty years later, as if almost triggered by Lummis’ arrival. (It wasn’t.) Howard Hawks’ beloved Red River opens similarly. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), along with Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), defect from their cattle drive headed to California. They reverse course to Texas, to pursue Dunson’s dream of opening a cattle ranch.

Along the way, they run into Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). Upon seeing the wide expanse of Texas land, Dunson is stunned, “Water and grass….and plenty of it.” To which Garth replies, “who does it belong to?” Not missing a beat, Dunson claims it for himself. Seconds later, he disposes of a Mexican ranch hand and tells another to inform his boss that the land now belongs to him. 14 years passed, and Dunson’s dream has come true, to an extent. He has established a cattle ranch in Texas, but the end of the Civil War has left the South deeply impoverished. Dunson decides to move his entire cattle empire to Abilene, Kansas.

The main tension at the core of Red River is the relationship between Thomas Dunson and his adopted son, Matthew Garth. Because this is a western, there is much talk of “rugged individuality” and the dueling masculine forces at play appear to be participating in a staring contest to determine who is more stubbornly committed to their principles. In the film’s opening, Dunson leaves behind a cattle drive to California. The driver’s leader protests, “you signed a paper” to which Dunson replies in Wayne’s iconic and stoic voice, “I signed nothing.” The Dunson-Garth drive to Abilene, Kansas has similar deserters, but their fate is far worse. Dunson himself uses the same line, “you signed a paper” but when he’s challenged on this, he doesn’t let the deserts go. Instead, he kills them.

While the main tension in the film is the dichotomy present in Dunson and Garth’s relationship, their twinned masculinities seem to be developed independently. There’s a lot of writing about the film that seems to flatten the relationship to a father-son relationship, but that simplifies and maps over the complications they each individually face in coming to terms with their principles. They are both stubborn, perversely so, something that Hawks makes a mockery of in the film’s hyped-up final showdown. Leading up to this, we are taught to buy into their individualism. It is seen as admirable, perhaps even sage and noble. This nobility slowly dissipates, even so that Dunson resembles a would-be villain in a more conventional film.

Dunson’s inconsistent politics regarding defection from cattle drives also relates to a Western (that’s Western world, not the genre) individualism. He leaves behind a cattle drive for his own dreams. He is fueled by love, and also by a desire that greatly resembles manifest destiny. The land, the profits, the cattle, the women – they all belong to Dunson, if only because he has a deeper drive than anyone else. That’s how he can justify deserting a cattle drive, and then later shooting the potential deserters of his own cattle drive. This principle is chipped away at, as it is constantly challenged not by Garth alone, but by everyone else around Dunson. His principles which once seemed noble, become absurd and tyrannical so quietly that the eventual mutiny is endorsed by the audience themselves. The noble, individualistic hero falls because of his hubris.

Hawks doesn’t end the film on this note, though. Garth’s perspective takes over after the drive abandons Dunson. He becomes a hero, by default, and Dunson the villain. Garth picks up a love interest, Tess, but leaves her behind in a bittersweet moment of longing, the same Dunson left behind his lover at the film’s opening. A student of dramatic filmmaking would understand this decision, but it is kind of preposterous in reality. Tess eventually follows Dunson to meet up with Garth in Abilene. She gets there early and throws herself at Garth before the built-up standoff. The standoff comes, no guns are drawn, but instead Garth and Dunson fight with their fists. Tess quickly interrupts, disgusted by the childish confrontation, “What a fool I’ve been, expecting trouble for days when anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other.” The high drama quickly dissipates, and it becomes yet another balloon Hawks has deviously poked with a needle.

Two for the Road (1967)

18 04 2019

It has been quite some time since I’ve written much of substance on film, be it here on elsewhere. For better or worse, life has gotten in the way in the past two years, and while I’ve still maintained a diet of cinema, I’ve basically taken a break from thinking about it critically. The only film during this period that legitimately inspired me to almost come back to this was First Reformed, a film which effortlessly balances the pragmatic cynicism that is the destruction of our planet with the hope for some sort of revolutionary change. The dire rubs up against the triumphant, but the final note is a sour one. Two for the Road, which could be described as Stanley Donen’s most experimental film but shouldn’t be declared as it, strikes a similar chord. It is both misanthropic and playful, accurately portraying the oscillation between sweetness and bitterness that happens in a relationship.

Henry Mancini’s swooning romantic score opens up an artful title card sequence, which eventually gives way to an equally romantic image: a wedding. The newlyweds in questions don’t look particularly happy, though. This exact observation is made by a woman passing by in a car. She is Joanna Wallace (Audrey Hepburn) and she directs the remark to a man, Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) who we can quickly identify as her husband. He somberly adds, “why should they be happy? They’re married.” Mark and Joanna are about to begin a vacation, but there’s very little excitement between the two of them. The pre-flight drink they share is met with an astonishing amount of indifference. They don’t hate each other, although they will both say so later on, and they don’t love each other either, though they will also say that later on. Instead, they treat their traveling as another chore. Their present-day flight passes over the past, where the two first met. Back then, Mark was also losing his passport and Joanna was also still finding it for him. The film immediately announces a playful interpretation of time.

All of Two for the Road operates with the temporal understanding as the sequence described above. By situating most of the actions on a literal road, Donen and screenwriter Frederic Raphael, brilliantly set themselves up to bend with time. Sequences aren’t arranged or driven by the limitations of time, but instead are connected through space. At one point, Mark remarks “If I ever have a car, I’ll never pass a hitchhiker” while a car passes by him. The driver of that car is him in the future blissfully ignoring some hitchhikers in the same location. The collections of moments that make up the film, then, are not even related by the emotions shared between the two lovers.

In fact, the most brilliant moments of Two for the Road come when a moment of intense romantic happiness is punctuated by one of two things: the couple’s aforementioned indifference towards each other or an outright disdain for each other. The characters themselves position the timeline of the relationship at twelve years, which provides ample time to show the highs and the lows that occur in a relationship. Saying a relationship has “ups and downs” sounds like a cliché recited by an armchair therapist, but there’s a truth to it, albeit a shallow one. What Donen challenges here, then, is the very nature of what romantic love looks like in cinema. Although Two for the Road is not as outright self-reflexive as Godard’s similarly bitter romantic road movie Pierrot le fou, it does meditate on the understanding of love we have in cinema. Since most of our first examples of romance are ones on screen, the ones we eventually dream for ourselves are shaped by these depictions.

Cinema shaping our understanding of love is likely not a healthy thing, since most popular depictions of love fit within a three-act structure. There is the meeting, the turmoil, and the eventual overcoming of it. The temporally loose nature of Two for the Road’s structure bears a closer resemblance to the reality, since we’re never quite sure what “stage” of the relationship we are witnessing. We get the impression that the most bitter moments are towards the end but there is hostility shared in the beginning as well. Henry Mancini’s score often plays under the bickering, reminding us of what once there. Two for the Road eventually ends on a hopeful note, perhaps too hopeful for my liking, but it doesn’t underdo the rest of the film, which exposes the nature of relationships. They are hard work, and sometimes hopelessly so. But sometimes they are worth it.

Hikô shôjo / Delinquent Girl (1963)

31 08 2017

In 1962, Kirio Urayama released the brilliant Foundry Town, a late shomin-geki that effortlessly weaves labor and Korean-Japanese relations into the rich tapestry of a studied family drama. Released by Nikkatsu, a production company associated with slick and energetic crime dramas, Urayama’s film is a rare breed. It lacks the fervor and chaos one may read into anything adjacent to the Japanese New Wave. At the same time, it would be unwise to pin him down as old-fashioned, even if that would bring him into contact with Naruse and Ozu, two of the greatest filmmakers ever. Delinquent Girl, made only a year later, brings him closer into contact with something that resembles the New Wave’s concerns. A film about unruly youth and their agitated politics, its surface is not far from something like Cruel Story of Youth. Yet it switches up a melodrama with exploitative potential into a sympathetic, albeit broadly drawn, study.

Saburo returns from city life in Tokyo to his rural hometown. There, he is reminded of the resistance he faced during a period of youthful organization. His parents and siblings are equally confused by his inability to find steady work. In particular, his conservative brother, sees this idleness as inseparable from a leftist politics and an urban life. Saburo befriends Wakae, a young girl whose academic struggles are greatly overshadowed by the way the townspeople use her.

Wakae’s potential is seen by Saburo alone, who undergoes an attempt to Pygmalion her into an intellect like himself. He tries to finance her scholarly life, but she uses the money to attend to her more immediate needs. His reservations about her are buoyed by the endless gossip around town. Her reputation is constantly under attack, and despite Saburo’s own history of facing the town’s ire, he cannot completely believe Wakae.

Urayama sets up a melodramatic love story, a would-be apprenticeship between the titular “bad girl” and the optimistic scholar returning from the big city. Everything is drawn broadly here. The ridicule that Wakae faces seems stretched out for a fifteen year old girl. Yet, the film establishes that she’s already spent most of her life with her youth undervalued or unseen by those surrounding her. The implication of past sex work sets up a bulletproof explanation for a population of lecherous drunks that Wakae ignores in favor of the “new life” that Saburo’s interest promises. If the film unfolded in such a way, I would roll my eyes and dismiss it. But it switches from a set-up where Saburo is a master then lover to one where he is woefully unprepared to provide for Wakae. He might love her, but love is not enough for the forces bearing down on the couple. Their repeated misses with each other might read to some as graceless narrative developments, but they flesh out a romance that is initially lacking in explanation.

The film’s crucial shift, that from Saburo’s perspective to Wakae, suggests that the opening thirty minutes are a red herring. This is not a triumph of romance, but a continuation of Wakae’s hardships. Life of Oharu might be a helpful reference point here, but Uriyama does not linger in the tragedy of his heroine’s continuing disappointments. Unlike Oharu, Wakae moves on, steadily and with the hope provided by her youth. Saburo, who we once thought was our hero, becomes another detail in her life of hardship. To be skeptical of their romance is not to be skeptical of Uriyama himself, who wants us to question the impulse to buy into a relationship that seems to be tainted from the start. In cinema, it is not always right to fall in love.

Dni zatmeniya / Days of Eclipse (1988)

4 08 2017

Regarding the films of Aleksandr Sokurov, an acquaintance of mine one emphasized the idea that his films are “not bound to Earth.” For whatever reason, this phrase has always stuck with me. There’s a precedent for this in art film, of course. Filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky often looked up to the heavens and towards a life after this one. I think this phrase, “films not bound to Earth” probably stuck with me more because of its poetry. I kept returning to that it while watching Days of Eclipse. While it is not an entirely untrue description, I find the reverse equally accurate. In other words, Days of Eclipse is deeply bound to Earth and invested in exploring its finite quality.

Sokurov opens his film with an overhead shot of a desolate Turkmenistan town. Complimented by a saturated sepia filter, one is hit by the dry heat of the landscape. Housing is visible, but family units seem bunched up together, as if they are trying to blanket themselves from the dead, unoccupied space that dominates it visually. The camera’s acceleration express discomfort. This is the territory most of us only dare to inhabit through the filter of Orientalist anthropology. We can’t actually stay here. Alas, the camera plummets into the ground. In this instance, Sokurov’s film is quite literally “bound to Earth.” More importantly, we are stuck in a village destined to vanish in the haze of its stiff climate.

The crash of the camera is followed by a extended montage of the town’s people. They are often elderly, sometimes grotesquely malnourished, and always displaying the bruises of the inseparable twin forces of climate and poverty. When I first saw Days of Eclipse years ago, I particularly loved this sequence because it reminded the edgy budding cinephile I was of Harmony Korine’s Gummo. In that film, a disaster from the past has reshaped the space of a city’s inhabitants. By extension, it has also reshaped their lives. In Sokurov’s film, there is no one disaster from the past. Instead, it is a natural disaster occurring, the disaster that is our current geological age. It should be emphasized that none of this “natural” even as it pertains to nature. Malyanov is a physician and in this context, represents the idealism of science. Perhaps he and it (“it” being science) can find a solution, but his devotion runs into countless obstacles.

Unlike GummoDays of Eclipse ties its attention towards one individual. The aforementioned Malyanov is our hero, and he is an impressive one. He is youthful, optimistic, and strikingly handsome. It is unclear how long he has been in this village and why he continues to stay. The film’s first line of dialogue is him, perhaps jokingly, informing us that he is on vacation. He is endlessly reminded that he can and should return to Russia. His research is also unclear, but he maintains that he is invested in the region. Despite this, he seldom leaves his house, never interacts with the locals, and accomplishes little. The strangeness of the space overwhelms him, and he is also bogged down by the inseparable forces of poverty and heat, although he gets more relief from it than the townspeople do.

With Malyanov’s perspective privileged, we never reach beyond the surface of the “everyday life” of the other people in the town. When they are present, Malyanov is usually not far off, drifting aimlessly around a local congregation and gazing at them in bewilderment. We are treated to a few more montages resembling the one in the previously described opening. For a film in which the camera often lingers on its protagonist, it seems all too eager to speed through the surrounding population. On the surface, this is a criticism. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky set the film’s source text, Definitely Maybe, in Saint Petersburg. Sokurov has relocated the action to rural Turkmenistan. As a drama about the end of the world, or as I prefer to describe it, a world-ending drama, one would not be without evidence to suggest Sokurov’s move as Orientalist fantasy.

Yet, Malyanov never becomes the European hero to the repressed and darker third-world. Russia’s historical identity is in flux. Today, we now know it as Europe. Cultural imaginations of race or ethnicity can be, at the same time, tightly enforced and vaguely understood. An enormous continent was once Asia, but now it is Europe. In Days of Eclipse, we are in a timeline when the Soviet tentacles stretch towards and sap the energy and resources of places like Turkmenistan. The landscapes has been redesigned to fit the iconography of Soviet’s historical heroes and yet it has also been left behind. It speaks to Sokurov’s power that he can communicate this relationship in one shot, and then extend this imagery by lingering on the spatially-induced heartbreak felt by Malyanov’s closest friend, Vecherovsky. He was forced out of Russia with his mother and father, both of whom he never sees because “they live on the other side of town.” His anguish, it should be said, occurs in the film’s most impressive interior space, a spacious house that his parents left for him before they moved.

It is not all that novel a concept to link science fiction with climate politics. If anything, it has become increasingly unavoidable. Middle-brow Hollywood films, financed by the pockets of industry liberals, make enough noise at the box office to demand a return to the well. Smart mainstream critics can single out these films as “interesting” and speaking to our specific moment. They make the rising tides and record heat-waves the thrilling catastrophes they already are, hinting at the urgency with which we should approach this epoch. In real life, we linger. Like Malyanov, we sit in our rooms, curious for the answers, but unproductive. The reserve energy of the youth is surpassed by a deteriorating landscape that doesn’t even make our leaders blink. Days of Eclipse does not play to our fears of a dystopian future, but instead captures the lassitude of our present. Sokurov’s wide-angle lens fits every inch of beauty possible in the neglected spaces. He has made a movie tenderly bound to Earth, speaking to its beauty and pain in the same breathe. As a result, those rising tides and record heat-waves are not thrilling, but heartbreaking.

L’Enfer (1994)

3 08 2017

My appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock tends to fall short of the fanatical devotion that his rich filmography rightfully deserves. His work is endlessly fascinating, but as someone who spent probably too much time in the world of academia and the cinephilia and the places they overlap, his omnipresence is overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why I never attempted to familiarize myself with Claude Chabrol, who is commonly described as French cinema’s Hitchcock. To me, though, my prior disinterest comes from an unfair association I made between his films (especially his later ones) and the idea of a “French mainstream erotic thriller.” The type of movie that American critics love because it balances the right amount of lasciviousness with competent filmmaking. In watching L’Enfer, I can see why I made such an association but I now see no reason to impulsively reject such a thing.

L’Enfer is a conspiracy film, albeit a sexual conspiracy. In the film’s opening moments, Chabrol gives us Paul and Nelly. We see quick flashes of their initial meeting, their courtship, their marriage, and then the birth of their first child. These happy moments, we will later find out, are fleeting. They are brilliantly presented by Chabrol as slippery to begin with. Each “big” event is given barely a minute, if even that, and then abruptly fades out. With the couple’s happiness established, we immediately move on. What follows is Paul’s gradual descent into madness.

One might feel the need to correct my description of L’Enfer as a conspiracy film. A more accurate reading would be that it is a film about paranoia. While the two often go together, they are not interchangeable. Conspiracy suggests a plan formed by powerful individuals, which often masks an uncomfortable truth about the status quo. If we are to map this onto Paul and Nelly’s relationship, it feels a bit forced. Nelly’s possible infidelity is not a secret plan devised by a group to mask the truth from poor Paul. However, the film achieves status as a conspiracy when the infidelity is framed as something that is done to Paul. This sounds uncomfortably anti-woman, a minimizing of Nelly’s potential to be a fully formed character. In L’Enfer, she isn’t one.

This sounds like a criticism of the film, but I’m not quite sure. In typical conspiracy films, the paranoid protagonist pursues their suspicions, which often provide enough tension between the real and the fake. They dive deeper down the rabbit hole, yet remain aware that they are “going too deep.” In these films, the paranoid individual’s perspective is privileged, and a good conspiracy film can do a lot with this playing of fact and fiction. Chabrol does this brilliantly halfway through the film when a friend of Paul and Nelly projects his summer home video. At this point, Paul’s reality has already been compromised. He’s suspicious that Nelly is being unfaithful, but this is the first instance in which his perceptions have been filtered through technology. A “film” should be hard evidence, and even in the contemporary world, it is often viewed as something objective. Grainy home video of Nelly merely talking to other men is quickly thrown up against glossy, highly stylized compositions of her being explicitly erotic towards them. Paul finally breaks, but it is more about him than it is about Nelly. We cannot pick out the “evidence” from the images his insecurities project. Furthermore, there is no need to.

From this point on, Paul is an unquestionably abusive spouse. His tactics before could be described as mentally violent, but following the home video, he becomes physically violent. He interrogates Nelly’s every breath. Flustered by her husband’s brutality, she seldom produces answers that are satisfying to him. Chabrol deprives us of any moral balance. Nelly does not get revenge, nor does she even escape from Paul’s suffocating grasp. Instead the film ends in ambiguity, explicitly so, as the title card reads “Without End.” It’s difficult to describe L’Enfer as feminist. It chronicles an abusive relationship and does so through the eyes of the abuser. He remains unscathed, save for a self-inflicted cut on his head. Yet, I find something deeply critical in Chabrol’s position. There are countless “erotic thrillers” where the mean, jealous man gets his comeuppance.  These victories are short-lived, not to mention merely fiction. The pain of the individual woman turns out to be temporary, but the moral re-balance, sets the stage for the continued pain of women in general. The former is a short-lived satisfaction, but a satisfaction all the same. There’s something deeply upsetting about the place where Chabrol leaves us. We should be upset.