Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Faust (2011)


A Deal with the Devil

The Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, produced Faust between August 17, 2009 and September 8, 2011. The movie cost 9.3 million Euros and was funded from sources in 38 countries. Sokurov directed in Russian, although the film was post-synchronized in German. The technical crew was Czech and some of the film was shot at Barrandov Studios near Prague, the location of the largest soundstage in Europe. Exteriors were shot a Kutna Hora, a medieval town in Bohemia and, on the premises, of a number of castles in the Czech Republic. The Director of Photography is a French cameraman, Bruno Dubbonnel, who has worked extensively in Hollywood – he lensed Harry Potter and the Half-Breed Prince. The film’s concluding sequences were shot in hell.

The logistics of producing a major film in hell were daunting. Costs exceeded estimated budgets and Sokurov ran out of money. Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of Russia, learned that Sokurov’s film was languishing for want of funds. He invited the director to his summer house in the country where the two men conferred for several hours. Sokurov told Moscow journalists that he advised the Prime Minister that "culture is not a luxury. It is the basis for the development of society." Two weeks later, Putin informed Sokurov that a charitable organization endowed for the arts in St. Petersburg had agreed to finance the remainder of the film. Sokurov and his crew returned to their location in hell and, after some additional privations, completed the picture.

Some critics regard Faust as a welcome sign that Russia desires to return to Europe and European culture. Sokurov attributed Putin’s generosity toward the film to the Prime Minister’s "deep understanding" and "appreciation" of German culture – Putin served in the KGB in East Germany. Sokurov himself asserts that his masters are "Dickens and Balzac" – that is, great European novelists. The level of international cooperation required to create an enormous and complex film like Faust has been deemed evidence of a willingness on the part of Russia to co-exist and cooperate, at least,with European sponsors of the arts.

At the conclusion of The Russian Ark, the principal consciousness informing the film, the man whose transit through the Hermitage we have watched, looks out a door at the foot of a vast and palatial marble stairway. The door opens onto a limitless sea and Sokurov’s meaning is that the "Russian Ark" as embodied by the Petersburg Hermitage Museum, has set sail, presumably carrying the precious freight of Russia’s unique culture away from Europe. The voice dominating the film says "Adieu." Some think Faust represents the landing of the Russian Ark on the Ararat of Goethe’s giant poem, a text central to Europe and its fate.

When Faust was awarded the Golden Lion in Venice in 2011, Putin called Sokurov by telephone a few minutes after the prize was bestowed to congratulate him. In recent months, Putin has been pressuring Sokurov to dub Faust into Russian. Sokurov says that the film’s fantastically complex sonic landscape would be destroyed by such dubbing and that the sound-track is too fragile to be tinkered with in that manner. So he has refused Prime Minister Putin’s request.


The Tetralogy

Faust is the fourth and, perhaps, the central film in quartet of pictures that Sokurov has called "the tetralogy of power." These movies explore how political power affects human beings and distorts their perceptions. The first of these films was Moloch (1999), a movie about Hitler and Eva Brann at Berchtesgarden. Taurus (2001) is about Lenin’s death and his inability to restrain Stalin. The Sun (2005) concerns a 1945 encounter between General McArthur and Emperor Hirohito resulting in the Emperor’s declaration that he was no longer a living deity. These three films were relatively short and observed Aristotelian unities of time and space: each movie took place within one closed environment (Berchtesgarden, Lenin’s home, the imperial palace) and the events depicted occurred within the scope of a single day. Faust is longer, spans more time and many locations, and seems unrelated in many ways to the preceding three films.

The preceding films in the tetralogy focus on powerful men at the point where they are about to stripped of their power. In Moloch, the radio reports on the battle of Voroznh, a precursor to Stalingrad and an encounter that military historians regard as stalling the Wehrmacht’s advance and, thereby, forcing Hitler’s troops into a disastrous winter war. Lenin, who is dying in Taurus (his astrological sign), goes for a picnic, meets a young Georgian politician, and, then, has supper with his wife – he is so ill that he can neither walk nor dress himself. Hirohito in The Sun is summoned to meet with General McArthur and has vivid visions of the bombing of Tokyo. In all three films, the powerful men are portrayed as clownish, isolated, physically unhealthy, and prone to strange obsessions. Hitler rants about vegetarianism and belittles his girlfriend who, in turn, makes fun of him; he does a ridiculous polka and twice is shown defecating. Lenin has to be dressed by his long-suffering wife and when his guest departs, he asks: "Who is this Stalin? Is he Georgian or something?" (Taurus has been interpreted as demonstrating that Stalinism is rooted in Leninism, a controversial point in Russian history.) Hirohito has to be dressed by courtiers in The Sun, pauses interminably before a door because he doesn’t know how to open it (he’s never had to open a door himself) and talks obsessively about horseshoe-crabs; the American soldiers who take him to McArthur are unimpressed by his appearance and call him "Charley" on the basis of his resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. In all three films, the creaturely, physical existence of these powerful men is emphasized as if to dramatize that these dictators are merely human beings. (Some critics have called the first three films in the tetralogy, the "dictator" or "tyrant" trilogy – Sokurov, however, dislikes this label and says that his themes are not political, that he isn’t concerned with dictatorship or tyranny, and that his interests in power are deeper and more metaphysical, an argument, perhaps, borne-out by Faust, a film that doesn’t seem to cohere with the other movies in the cycle.)

Sokurov has argued that the unhealthy pursuit of power derives from simple, human unhappiness. Sokurov says: "Pathological unhappiness in ordinary life drives these people...unhappy people are dangerous." This latter phrase: "Unhappy people are dangerous." is actually spoken in Faust.


Alexander Sokurov was born in southeast Siberia in 1951 (Irkutsk region) and educated in Turkmenistan. He is the son of a military officer and has repeatedly expressed great sympathy for Russian soldiers and sailors. (His very long documentary about Russian troops in Afghanistan, Spiritual Voices, should have been mandatory viewing by U.S. intelligence services – presumably, if that film had been studied by the American military, we would have avoided the pointless incursion into that country.) One of his recent films, Alexandra is about a Russian mother’s visit to the front-line to see her son, something that is apparently condoned and even encouraged in the Russian military. The film is a very clear-eyed and moving depiction of the war in Chechnyea and extremely sympathetic to the plight of the soldiers involved in that conflict – while also expressing considerable sympathy for the Muslim civilians caught in the fighting as well.

Sokurov studied history in secondary school and considered becoming a historian. However, he was hired at 19 to work for Gorky City Television as an assistant director. (Gorky is now called Nizhinii Novgorod.) For six years, he worked for the TV station and produced documentaries. While working at the TV station, he took night courses and completed a degree in history.

Sokurov’s documentaries caught the eye of some local film critics and they suggested that the young man submit an application to Moscow’s All-Union State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK), the Communist state’s film school. He was accepted to that school in 1975 and awarded an Eisenstein scholarship. At the film school, Sokurov met Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia’s leading director, and worked as an assistant on some of his pictures. Sokurov’s diploma film was an "unconventional rendition" of several short stories by Andrei Platonov. The film was considered subversive by his professors and banned by the Soviet censors – indeed, the movie was thought to be so offensive that Goskino officials (the censoring agency) ordered the destruction of the film’s negative. The movie’s cameraman didn’t want to see his work so blithely destroyed and so he hid the negative and, even, made a couple of prints. For a decade, the film called Lonely Human Voice, circulated unofficially as a "film-phantom" shown covertly at big city cinema clubs. Sokurov’s teachers at VGIK were sympathetic to the young man, despite their political reservations about him, and they suggested that he substitute some of his documentary work done for television in re-edited form. These films were accepted and Sokurov was awarded his diploma but as an "external student" who did not graduate with the rest of his class. Interestingly, Sokurov’s diploma submissions were also promptly banned and not authorized for release until 1988, the year the proscription on The Lonely Human Voice was lifted.

Sokurov is famously pugilistic and confrontational. Not surprisingly, a number of the films he made for Lenfilm, the official Soviet studio, were censored and, in fact, shelved. Sokurov seems to have courted misunderstandings and was typically in "hot water." Beginning around 1988, official attitudes toward his pictures thawed and since that time, Sokurov’s production problems have been primarily self-inflicted. (For instance choosing to shoot The Russian Ark in one continuous take on location in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg using largely natural light on the shortest day of the year – a day on which there are only four hours of natural sunlight.) Sokurov’s approach to his material is often perverse and, even, flippant. In Soviet Elegy, a documentary about Boris Yeltsin, Sokurov ignores all of the political controversy swirling about his subject and primarily focuses on silences between cryptic utterances by the politician. Sokurov’s documentary about the famous Fedor Chaliapin, a great Russian singer, never mentions music at all. His film about Leningrad is composed of official newsreels only and lasts 13 hours. A film called ...dolce has a 22 minute shot of an immobile character. Spiritual Voices opening shot, which is singularly majestic, lasts forty minutes. Audiences at Cannes thought that the projector bulb had burned out when The Sun was premiered – the picture seemed too dark to be seen. Whispering Pages, apparently based on Crime and Punishment, never shows Raskolnikov or any of the main characters and contents itself with exploring gloomy subterranean arcades and canals for 80 minutes. Stone, ostensibly a documentary about Chekhov’s house, involves a long encounter between Chekhov’s ghost and a bemused night-watchman. In The Second Circle, the entire action of the film consists of laborious, rather comical efforts to extract a corpse from an apartment building in the dead of winter. (It is something like Laurel and Hardy’s famous The Music Box only substituting a corpse and unwieldy casket for the piano in the Hal Roach two-reeler.)

Sokurov has worked in every possible genre, albeit unconventionally. (Sokurov has even had a television show, The Island of Sokurov, that was broadcast from Moscow in 1998 and 1999). He is a master of the technical aspects of film making and boasted that his film The Sun contained more CGI than The Lord of the Rings, but that his effects were designed to be "invisible." He favors making sequences of films – that is, cycles. In the West, his most famous film is Mother and Son; the sequel to Mother and Son, not surprisingly is Father and Son. Sokurov is scheduled to make another picture in the sequence called Two Brothers and a Sister. Sokurov has said that he favors literary adaptations and prefers books to movies – he has adapted Flaubert, Chekhov, Dostoevski, and George Bernard Shaw to the screen.

Rather disingenuously, Sokurov proclaims that he doesn’t care if anyone sees his movies. "Unlike a book," he says, "which must be read, a movie can exist without being seen." Despite his clashes with Communist censors, Sokurov is openly nostalgic for the Soviet empire. He is pro-military, nationalist, highly conservative, and extremely religious – all characteristics not typical to American or European film directors. Sokurov regards the Russian language as a unique vehicle of truth and, further, asserts, particularly in The Russian Ark, that Russia is the last bulwark of the great Christian cultures of Europe and that it must resist pressures eroding those cultures – he is opposed to feminism, avowedly homophobic, and, perhaps, even czarist in his political sensibilities.


The first two film versions of Faust occur at the dawn of film history: Lumiere’s Faust: apparition of Mephistopheles (1897) and Georges Melies Faust et Margerite in that same year. The great German director, F. W. Murnau’s 1926 version of the story, the last film he made in Germany renounces Goethe and is described as based on an old "Deutsches Volksage" – that is a "Germanic folk legend". At least a dozen other films adapt the story: notable versions are Brian dePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), the musicals Damn Yankees (1958) and The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire (1953); Raquel Welch and Dudley Moore starred in Stanley Donen’s 1967 Bedazzled, a film remade in 2000; Richard Burton plays the title role (with Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy) in an adaptation of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (1967). Jan Svankmajer’s grotesque animated version of the Faust story is one of the best and most literal versions; we saw it with this group and it was made in Czechoslovakia in 1994. Probably hundreds of films adapt the tale in an oblique way: examples are the Al Pacino film The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The recent film A Master Builder (2014) reminds us that the source for that film, Ibsen’s play A Master Builder (aka Master Builder Solness) is a variant on the legend.

When someone talks about "Faust" either as an artistic creation or as a character, the first and most important question to raise is this: Whose Faust are you talking about? The subject of the legend, an arrogant and brilliant man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wisdom or love or worldly success is so resonant that the story has been retold innumerable times. As may be expected, variants on the story differ extensively in their emphasis, thematic concerns, and ethical stance.

The literary critic, George Steiner, argues that our modern world brought into being by the European renaissance was founded on three myths, all of them unknown to medieval and ancient people. The renaissance gave birth to the paradigms of Don Quixote, Dr. Faustus, and, a bit later, Don Juan – these three figures, literally unimaginable before 1550, characterized intellectual themes important to the renaissance that are foundational to our sensibilities even today. Don Quixote is a man misled by popular culture who interprets the world around him in light of cheap and meretricious works of literature that he has read – he imagines himself a noble questing knight and imitates heroic romances on which he has fed his imagination. Steiner argues that Quixote is an new, innovative figure because he is not merely satirized and rendered ridiculous by his creator, Cervantes – instead, we come to see Quixote as heroic himself and, even, noble in his folly. Dr. Faustus is a alchemist, the precursor to today’s scientists, who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for arcane and, perhaps, deadly wisdom. He represents striving beyond all rational bounds, the desire to extend the limits of human understanding into realms where our knowledge may prove deadly to ourselves and others. The spirit of Faustus is, in some interpretions, the same spirit that invented the atom bomb and that destructively warms our climate in order work the miracles of modern technology. Don Juan seems a lesser figure, but one that is, perhaps, more prevalent – he signifies the willingness of modern people to pursue pleasure in an exorbitant, addictive and destructive manner; he is the spirit of the AIDS epidemic, the inventor of Internet pornography, the figure that embodies the boundlessness of human desire. Each of these figures represents humanity in transgression against the ordinary boundaries established by the human condition – they are Promethean figures that assert that the human imagination should be unbounded in its scope and not circumscribed by societal and political limits.

Dr. Faustus first appears in a cheaply printed, rather disreputable-looking chapbook published in Nuremberg in 1585, The Historia von D. Johann Fausten. The pamphlet – it is about sixty pages – collects legends about an alchemist said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for

what we would term scientific insight into "materials science" and chemistry. The little book is related to the then-prevalent German obsession with witchcraft and sorcery, a concern that plagued all of Europe at that time and resulted in the torture and execution of many alleged witches. But the book is also rooted in the revival of the arts and sciences characterizing the renaissance. The Historia reminds us that, at least in central and northern Europe (including Prague and London), the renaissance was, in large part, magical and grotesque – the study of necromancy, astrology, the search for the philosopher’s stone, science practiced by quacks, con-men, charlatans. In the chapbook, Fausten transacts business with a stinking and filthy late medieval devil and, thereby, wins great wealth, and is, then, torn to pieces by a flock of demons – nothing remains of him but bloody fragments of offal. The story is short, primitive, and horrible.

Almost immediately, Christopher Marlowe adapted the story into one of the monuments of Elizabethan theater, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1604). Lessing and a number of other German writers tried their hand at presenting the story as a play. Then, Goethe took up the subject beginning in the last decade of the 18th century. Goethe’s initial effort is known in Germany as Urfaust – that is, the "primary" or primordial Faust. The work was a Sturm und Drang play, one of the most effective in German literature, that transforms Faust’s story into a bourgeois romantic tragedy – Goethe imagines Faust as an old man who is rejuvenated as a result of a transaction with the Devil so that he can win the affections of a beautiful young girl, Margaret (or familiarly known as Gretchen.) The young Goethe’s concerns are primarily sexual and erotic and Faust mirrors his creator – with the connivance of Mephistopheles, Faust seduces the young woman; he also murders her brother, conspires with her to poison her duenna, an intermeddling Aunt, and, when she gets pregnant, abandons the girl. Poor Gretchen gives birth to Faust’s child, goes mad, and kills the infant. She is arrested, tortured, and, then, hanged. Urfaust is brisk and nasty and was regarded as thrilling theater. But, of course, Goethe was not willing to leave the story in this initial state and spent the rest of his life expanding the narrative into a vast epic, the closet drama that we know as Faust, published in parts between 1806 and 1832.

Goethe’s epic is central to the German language and consciousness. For Germans, the work is equivalent to Shakespeare’s plays, an index of cultural attitudes, aspirations, and prejudices. Most Germans probably know fifty or more proverbial sayings derived from work and it is the most-quoted piece of literature in the language. Conceived as a play, but almost never performed, the work is encyclopedic in its ambitions – Goethe poured all of his remarkable genius into the poem and it contains every conceivable kind of verse: there are ballads, long and philosophical discourses composed in noble diction, passages of bawdy obscenity, famous lyric poems, wild and extravagant sections of phantasmagoria. The sordid tale of Faust and Margaret occupies most of Part One of the play, although Goethe equips the love story with elaborate prologues, lengthy discourses on alchemy, magic, and demonology and a Walpurgisnacht sequence involving demons and naked witches cavorting on the Brocken moutaintop in Saxony. Part Two is more discursive and episodic; it is also vastly more lengthy and, in fact, probably unknown to most Germans, even those who habitually quote from the work. Part Two is remarkable, however, in that involves Faust’s efforts to interfere with nature to benefit human beings – he drains swamps so that gleaming new cities can be built. At the end of Part Two, Faust dies, but the army of demons who come to snatch his soul are repelled, in part by the soul of Margaret who has become Faust’s female savior and who intercedes on his behalf. It’s all immensely complex, difficult, and wonderful – the last thirty pages of Faust (II) are among the most majestic and noble in all of world literature. The ending of Goethe’s Faust is decisive in European art, particularly in the field of musical composition – both Wagner and Liszt composed symphonic tone poems on that subject and Mahler’s Eighth symphony sets chorales from the climax of the poem.

After Goethe, just about every major German writer (and most European authors in general) have tried their hand at Faust. Grabbe puts Don Juan and Faust together in a rather comical play written in 1826. Nikolaus Lenau and Heinrich Heine wrote versions of the story as did Pushkin and Paul Valery. In the twentieth century, Thomas Mann’s last and, perhaps, greatest novel Dr. Faustus (1947) applies the theme to the catastrophe that befell Germany between 1933 and 1945. In Mann’s novel, a wildly ambitious composer encounters the devil and sells his soul in exchange for being granted creative, if diabolical, imaginative powers. The composer, Adrian Leverkuehn, becomes famous for his sinister musical creations, but goes mad – his insanity coincides with the destruction of Germany and German culture at the end of World War Two. Mann is too scientific and rational to suggest that the devil is unambiguously real – he provides an alternative explanation for Leverkuehn’s genius and insanity: the young man intentionally infects himself with syphilis in order to derange his senses into genius. Mann’s book is a great Gothic cathedral of a novel and also one of the monuments of German literature.

This literary history exists primarily to be disregarded. Like most versions of the Faust tale, Sokurov focuses on the fatal romance between the protagonist and the young girl, Margaret. The erotic element of the Faust story has been its most popular aspect – this is the kernel of the tale in Goethe’s initial Urfaust and the subject of most romantic-era treatments of the story, for instance, Gounod’s opera. That said, it’s my estimate that, at least, half of the dialogue in the film consists of quotations or allusions to Goethe’s text. Sokurov’s use of those materials, however, is idiosyncratic and perverse – the characters seem to be perpetually muttering fragments of Goethe’s verse, but, often, in contexts alien to the original narrative use of those words. An example is Margaret’s whispered statement that her spirit is sad, that she has lost her serenity – her words are derived from a very famous lyric in Goethe’s Faust (Part One), a poem recited by Margaret that is generally known as Gretchen am Spinnrade ("Gretchen at the spinning wheel;" this poem is famous as an art-song in setting composed by Franz Schubert – indeed, the little poem is one of the most famous of all German Lieder. Sokurov’s film shows Gretchen mumbling a few lines of the poem – but she doesn’t speak the entire verse and, of course, unlike the play (and the song) certainly doesn’t sing the words while spinning.



Sokurov is fishing deep waters with his Faust. The leviathan in those waters in F. W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust, a landmark in cinema history. There is no avoiding comparison between the two films.

Murnau’s film, like Sokurov’s version, is visually exorbitant and represented state of the art film making in its day. Indeed, Murnau’s film is an important example of the elaborate and effective special effects that German technicians were capable of orchestrating at UFA’s Babelsberg studios. Sokurov’s movie also relies heavily on CGI, although the Russian director typically conceals his manipulation of the image – slight distortions that have the effect of creating an uncanny atmosphere. (Sokurov foregrounds distortion in his use of anamorphosis, that is, lenses that seem to compress and lengthen the image; this obvious form of distortion, an apparent and overt and, even, irritating special effect is deployed to suggest that the world itself is perturbed and misshapen by the presence of evil in it.) Most notably, Sokurov uses Murnau’s aspect ratio, known as 4:3 (technically Murnau’s Faust is 1:29:1) – that is, an almost square screen that will appear pillar-boxed on most Tv sets. Silent film was ordinarily shot in an aspect ratio of 1:33:1. Sokurov’s aspect ratio for his version of Faust is 1:33:1. This is an unusual aspect ratio for a modern film and contributes to an effect that seemingly interests Sokurov a great deal: the notion of things being crowded into narrow space into which they don’t exactly fit. (This curious obsessional element is reiterated again and again in the film: several figures try to squeeze through a door at the same time and get stuck; Mauritius leads Faust to Hell through a narrow fissure in which they both get pinned from time to time.) Both pictures exploit a sense that the image is claustrophic, that it contains more than can be reasonably shown at one time.

Although I admire, Murnau’s Faust, the film has always left me cold emotionally. The director’s chiaroscuro effects are awe-inspiring but, also, seem an empty exercise in stylistic ingenuity that doesn’t contribute to the narrative. Pictorially, the film conflates two major influences: Albrecht Duerer’s apocalyptic engravings and woodcuts and Casper David Friedrich’s spectral landscapes. Murnau’s Faust is a handsome old man whose beard and white mane are suffering from a "bad hair" day. The film’s spectacular beginning seems to mix references to Exodus and Job. The devil, played with enormous gusto by Emil Jannings – he is the real star of the film – confronts a rather pallid, if statuesque, white angel. The two quarrel about whether goodness exists on earth, resulting in a wager: if the Devil can corrupt the virtuous Faust, then, the Angel loses the bet. Mephisto, as the Devil is called in the film, hurries to earth where he stands like the Matterhorn towering over a quaint medieval city. He wafts the plague into the town and people start dropping like flies. Faust tries to save the sick, but fails. In despair, he summons the devil at a crossroads in a murky, sinister meadow. The devil is a portly slovenly figure with a strangely shaped head, a slicked-down reptilian profile, and a nasty squint. He is instantly comical – Jannings is obviously enjoying the role immensely. He offers Faust one day of power to save the sick and the hero does succor a number of dying persons successfully. But when he is repelled by the crucifix held by a moribund girl, the mob turns on him and hurls stones at his head. Faust flees into his study, bolts the door and decides to kill himself with a deadly potion. As he is about to quaff the poison, he beholds the face of a beautiful young man reflected in the lethal decoction. Mephisto is hovering nearby and tells Faust that he is seeing himself as a handsome young man. Mephisto offers to restore Faust’s youth if he will sign a pact in blood. As in Sokurov’s film, the tempter has very poor, even childish-looking handwriting, although Murnau’s devil, at least, can spell. (Murnau’s Mephisto offers the contract on a parchment in which the words blaze in fiery letters.) Poor Faust can’t resist the chance to be young again – after all, Mephisto tells him, you spent your life groveling in dusty books and have never even really "lived." He turns Faust into a youth and rejuvenates himself in the bargain: Mephisto becomes an unctuous-looking, rakish young devil who looks exactly like a fat Bela Lugosi. Throughout the picture, Jannings is ridiculous, grotesque, and very, very funny. Throughout the picture, Murnau is shrewd about Faust’s hypocrisy: for instance, when Faust first encounters the written contract to sell his soul, we see that he focuses on two words: Macht and Herrlichkeit (that is, Power and Splendor or Glory). Thus, although Faust persuades himself he is doing business with Satan to save the villagers, it’s pretty clear that his principal motives relate to securing power and glory.

Murnau’s credits never mention Goethe, but it’s apparent that his film has a sort of "Cliffs Notes" relationship to the poet’s huge epic.

M –

In an European review of Sokurov’s Faust, someone referred to Faust’s tempter, called Mauricius in the film, as "Mephistopheles." Sokurov immediately took umbrage and said: "The name ‘Mephistopheles’ occurs nowhere in my film. Is that word spoken at any time in the film?" In my view, this reaction is a bit disingenuous. After all, Sokurov assigns many famous lines from Goethe’s Faust spoken by the satanic Mephistopheles to Mauricius in his film. The most noteworthy of those lines is Mauricius’ self-description to the effect that he "is the one who does good by perpeturally denying goodness" – I am paraphrasing: in German the line is "Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint" (I am the spirit that continuously denies – that is the spirit of negation.) If Sokurov didn’t want people to perceive Mauricius as Mephistopheles than he shouldn’t have given this character many of Mephistopheles’ lines.

In Sokurov’s film, Mauritius is a "Wucherer" – that is, a "usurer." He is described in the subtitles as a "moneylender". It is interesting to note that the somnolent Russian in the carriage immediately reacts with instinctive hatred when confronted with this usurious "moneylender" and tries to strangle him. Sokurov suggests, in a not particularly subtle way, that the Russian people (the man seems to be a peasant) are instinctively enemies to the kind of evil represented by Mauricius.

Mauricius, of course, is a Latinized variant on "Maurice." Sokurov’s film explains the meaning of the name: "it means black..." This is not exactly correct but close: "Maurice" derives from "Moorish" and, originally, described someone who was dark-complected, swarthy.


The final twelve minutes of Faust were shot on-location in Hell. On the basis of tax incentives and an aggressive Film Board that promotes production in that place, Hell has become an attractive place to make a movie. Just as Toronto is now the favored location in the Western Hemisphere to shoot a film requiring urban locations (Toronto has "stood-in" for New York, Boston, and Chicago), so Hell has become an increasingly popular as a place to shoot footage requiring extremes of heat or cold – several recent pictures involving imagery of desert warfare, including parts of Zero Dark Thirty, were made in Hell as were a number of movies involving mountaineering, most notably the German epic Nordwand (2008), making use of the infernal regions zones of snow and ice.

Until digital video technology, Hell’s frigid cold and blazing heat posed serious problems for film production. Celluloid film either melted in the fiery parts of the country or the mechanical mechanisms of the camera froze-up in its icy sectors. Most films were shot on the ramplike terraces connecting the different rings or circles that make up the hellish landscape. New digital technology enables film makers to lens action in both the hot and cold circles, thus opening up a variety of dramatic vistas for movie production.

Hell’s Film Board, Infernal Productions, offers tax incentives and a variety of amenites and perquisites to those casts and crews willing to brave the difficulties of the location – after all, one must surrender all hope when entering into the inferno. But Hell’s denizens are eager for the revenue connected with film production in their various zones of damnation and infernal catering services are said to be particularly excellent. Hell, of course, is non-union, offering crew and other personnel who will labor long hours for non-standard wages. Both the Mayo Clinic and Hormel Foods have operations there.


Thematic Analysis

What does Sokurov’s Faust mean? Why was it made? No single answer can be proposed to these questions. Most viewers will initially experience the film as a chaos of discordant images and sounds. The picture overwhelms its audiences with a sense of grotesque plethora – there is simply too much in the film, too many subtitles, too many peculiar locations and odd-looking extras, too much philosophical discourse half-ranted and half-muttered on the frontiers of a sound-track that is sometimes difficult to hear. Too many of the things that we see are inexplicable: what is the dangly thing on a chain in the opening shot? Who or what are the hideous figures that appear to stalk Faust after he has successfully bedded Gretchen? What can’t Mauricius spell? Why doesn’t Faust’s father loan him any money? These matters, and many others, are enigmatic and mysterious. To some extent, we see without seeing – the images that we watch are hard to interpret both literally and figuratively. But, despite the apparent capricious chaos, certain patterns can be detected in the film.

One access point to the film’s thematic concerns is the concept of the Germanic grotesque. Much of Faust is clearly intended as comedy, as a kind of raunchy slapstick humor. This humor partakes in the genre of the "grotesque." German scholars and literary critics have written extensively on the concept of the "grotesque" in art and literature – the most famous example is the work of the German literary critic, Wolfgang Kayser. Kayser identifies a strain of the German imagination that is fascinated by things that are misshapen, ugly, monstrous, and, yet, also somehow comical – he cites as examples E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (about a monstrous figure that blinds bad children), interludes in Jean-Paul Richter’s novels, Goethe’s diabelerie in Faust, Kafka’s stories and novels, and films like The Golem and Nosferatu made in the Expressionist period. Kayser argued that the grotesque arose from an unresolved clash of discordant elements. (Later German literature contains many examples as well – the nightmarish details in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus and much Gunter Grass’s work, for instance, The Tin Drum with its monstrous dwarf with magical powers.) An important theme running through these works is human nature is fundamentally "grotesque", absurd, and comical – we perceive ourselves to be ensouled, beings with spiritual psyche and essence, and, yet, our souls are trapped in prisons of decaying meat exuding nasty secretions and odors. Practitioners of the grotesque think in comical and absurd to be "embodied". In a sense, the Grotesque represents a necessary antithesis to German idealism – if reality is essential "ideal" in the sense that it is an impalpable, ever-evolving spirit or Geist (as Hegel argues), then, what are we to make of all of the detritus comprising the material world. The more that we yearn to be spiritual, the more confounded we are by the humiliating and carnal Stoff from which are made.

Fausts first image of a human being is a giant close-up of the greenish penis of a decaying cadaver. Sokurov’s film continuously emphasizes the genitals as a primary symbol that human beings are made from rotting meat. Faust’s father roots around in the vagina of his swooning patient. (He extracts an egg from her that is inexplicably hard-boiled – and she promptly eats it.) Later, we see a close-up of Margaret’s mons veneris, a correlate to the image of the decomposing penis in the opening moments of the film. Mauricius has his genitals stuck in the cleavage of his buttocks, something that amuses the laundresses who leer at him; his penis reads as a greenish tale attached to his coccyx. People stick their heads in other people’s groins. At one point, Faust lifts Margaret’s petticoats to look at her vulva.

In broad terms, most of the film proceeds under the emblems of genitalia, death, and sickness. Figures are shot from strange camera angles that shatter them into fragments, body parts, seemingly severed heads appearing from beneath floors, strangely contorted images of people who seem like reanimated corpses. The film is clogged with odd gestures, strange grimaces, peculiar prancing or staggering ways of walking. Faust’s father cradles Faust’s head as if his son has been decapitated and people are continuously falling all over one another, embracing in bizarre ways, entangling limbs and bodies in weird hugs and wrestling matches. In this world, Good doesn’t exist but Evil does – a fundamental tenet of the Grotesque. The earth under the feet of the character is mined with strange subterranean tunnels – there are odd, inexplicable connections between places, cavernous public baths, fissures and nooks and crannies. Characters jam themselves into corners or stand in cubby-holes too small for them. Everything is heavy, material, bodily: Mauricius twists his reptilian body to fart after blithely downing the hemlock and, then, stinks up Faust’s already noisome atelier with his flatulence. Mauricius has to defecate and squats on the public street until he suddenly has the inspiration of going into a church to empty his bowels, presumably on the altar or in the sacristy – on the soundtrack, we hear him moaning and growling as he shits. Everything is as grossly physical and material as possible.

This grotesqely embodied world is mirrored by Sokurov’s bizarre camera technique and editing syntax. The director doesn’t use establishing shots. In most sequences, we can’t tell exactly where we are located. Spatial continuities are disrupted and scrambled: the viewer often can’t reliably locate the characters – where are they? There are odd elisions and gaps in the editing. Shots are inserted showing action that we can’t interpret – only later is the image explained: there are delays between our seeing something and being told what we are looking at. (For instance, we see Mauritius clawing at some bedding – the image is unmotivated and seems inexplicable. But the next shot contains some dialogue that retroactively establishes that Mauritius has lost his list, presumably an index of his victims, and is searching under his pillow for his ledger.) Startling images are interpolated into the film that don’t seem to have any real narrative consequence: we see Faust apparently lifting Margaret’s petticoats to look at her genitals. There is a close-up of her placket and bare skin. A longer shot, however, shows that she seems completely unaware that she is being probed in this way – it’s as if the two adjacent shots are occurring in parallel universes. Adding to our disorientation is the film’s unique color scheme: a combination of over-exposed yellowish close-ups that make Margaret look ethereal and other-worldly, almost like of Spielberg’s aliens from Close Encounters, faded browns and sepia tones, and, most notably, a sort of nacreous green described by one critic as the color of "lichens."

The world presented by the film is chaotic, filthy, and congested, so absurdly confusing that the only rational response is suicide. Faust is cheerfully and casually planning to kill himself with hemlock. That is, until Mauricius swigs down the lethal decoction as if were Mountain Dew. As a prelude to his self-slaughter, Wagner, Faust’s insane henchman, paints the great philosopher and doctor’s toenails and, then, has Faust cool his feet in a frothy bath of water infused with nettles. (The emphasis on the feet is an important thematic motif in the Grotesque – a focus on the lowest aspect of the human body. Sokurov’s focus on Faust’s feet seems to me to mirror a famous scene in Murnau’s Faust in which the feet of a corpse loom like cliffs in the foreground of the image – a pictorial scheme derived from the foreshortened Christ in one of Andrea Mantegna’s paintings.) The emotional tone is completely discordant to the narrative: Faust’s preparations for his suicide are blithe, indifferent, and the film observes the whole thing with comic aplomb. Wagner is too close to Faust and seems to yearn to be his lover. But, then, everything in the movie is too close, too overwhelmingly physically present, shoved to close together.

Sokurov ties this altogether with an astounding, simple, and bizarre metaphor – this is the motif of constriction. The landscape of the movie is filled with obscene strictures, things clogging passageways, claustrophobic spaces crammed too overflowing with too much stuff. Examples of this motif are innumerable. However, I will point out some of the most noteworthy specimens:

1. A funeral is underway. The cortege goes through a low passageway and gets hopelessly entangled with a mob of farmers who are dragging a cart full of pigs to market. There are too many people for the confined space and everyone tries to elbow everyone out of the way;
2. Alleyways are always full of soldiers, Hasidic Jews and wandering rabbis, goats and sheep and all sorts of domestic animals. The streets are too narrow, it seems, for the traffic on them;
3. Faust, Mauricius, and his landlady all try to squeeze through a tiny door at the same time with predictable and comic consequences; they seem to wrestle for the key to open the door;
4. Faust and Mauricius get into a tiny, foul-smelling coach where there is a drunken Russian who tries to strangle the moneylender; everyone is jostled together in the small enclosed space;
5. Wagner has made a homunculus (it looks like something out of an early David Lynch movie) and carries the thing around squeezed into a glass retort – the little slimy figure is clearly too large for the glass prison in which he lives;
6. In Hell, Faust encounters three dead men lying by a stygian river. The men jump up and wrestle with him, trying to warm themselves with his body heat. After Faust drives them away, we seem them lying together, all touching one another, crowded into the frame of the shot;
7. After Faust sleeps with Margaret, Mauricius crams him into armor that seems about three sizes to small for the hero. The two, then, depart for Hell, a journey that takes them through an absurdly constricted and narrow fissue in what appears to be a vast lava-field.

Throughout its length the film proceeds in an systolic-diastolic pattern of contraction and expansion, a rhythmic opening up and, then, crushing together. Scenes showing open space are usually immediately followed by episode involving figures cramped together in places that are simply too tight and too confined for them. The movie opens and closes, expands and, then, immediately clenches itself shut – it is a movie designed on the principle of the sphincter.

Most remarkably, this pattern of constriction is reflected programmatically in an utterly peculiar shot at the film’s outset. As the clouds part high above the medieval city, we see a mirror hanging on a golden chain. The chain leads upward out of the frame. The mirror has an elaborate gilt frame and there is a veil, it seems, pendant to one of the framing corners of the glass. The mirror reflects blue sky dappled with clouds. We don’t know who is supporting this mirror and so far as I am aware no critic has remarked upon this apparition although it figures prominently in the first twenty seconds of the film. Either the camera ducks down toward earth or the hanging mirror is dragged upward and so, no sooner glimpsed, it vanishes from the film never to return. What does this mean? The mirror is shaped like a conventional cinemascope aspect-ratio. It seems that God is holding a chain from which He dangles a mirror that we read to be the size of an ordinary cinema image, an elongated cinemascope aspect ratio. That mirror shows the same sky that the pillar-boxed shot in which the mirror appears is located. Sokurov seems to be drawing attention to the shape of his screen: the elongated frame suggests the aspect ratio that we expect when we go to the movies and draws attention to the fact that the screen that faces us is conspicuously more narrow and confined than the screen ratio that we cued to expect. Sokurov is showing that his picture frame is too narrow and too confining. The aspect ratio in which the film is shot, accordingly, creates images that contain too much for the size of the screen. This creates a continuous sense of claustrophobia, constriction, and paranoid confinement.

This device explains an element of the film that critics have universally found irritating – the anamorphic images that distort the shape and appearance of the characters and flatten the pictorial space by foreshortening our perspective. Probably about 10 percent of the images in the movie are distorted by using a lens that crams the figures together in a disorienting way in the field of the picture. With this device, Sokurov signals that his pictorial field is continuously too small and tight to effectively show everything that obstructs and clogs the world shown in the film: there’s simply not enough space to dramatize and show all the material stuff that is stuffed together in the film’s images.

I will make a last observation on this subject but, perhaps, the most important. Goethe’s Faust is too big for the movie. It contains too many themes, philosophical inquiries, too many characters and places, too many Greek and Roman gods, too many witches and devils, too much of everything. Sokurov’s movie is filled to overflowing with dialogue, incidents adapted from Goethe, muttered asides invoking famous proverbs from the poem, but still the movie seems too small for the epic subject matter. The motif of constriction and confinement, accordingly, also applies to the whole project. Sokurov tries to stuff as much of Goethe as possible into his movie and so the film becomes bloated with discourse, a balloon inflated to the point that seems always about to explode. The geyser shown at the end of the movie, perhaps, is an emblem for this surfeit of material – it rhythmically subsides, heaves, and, then, expands a plume of steam and water into the air. As Faust notes, the hot water rises encountering in the same narrow passageway – yet another sphincter – the denser cold fluid sinking down "to the interior of the earth." The cold water boils, expands, and blows itself out of the geyser’s hole. Like the geyser, the film is a kind of perpetuum mobile, a perpetual motion machine, that shoves too many things together in too tight of a space, forces discordant images into collision with one another, and, then, periodically erupts.


"Totalitarianian states don’t mean to destroy artists but rather desires to make them submit to the state’s will..." (Sokurov was slated for transport to a Siberian labor camp. He was saved, he claims, by Gorbachev coming to power.)


"I’m a very literary person, not so much a cinematographic person. I don’t really like cinema that much..."


Some critics complain of the torrent of words that fills Faust. Sokurov’s response was simple: "Of course it annoys the audience as they believe that cinema is created for the viewer..."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

House of Mirth

Devastating:  "What is truth?  With respect to a woman, it's a story that's easy to believe," so says Gillian Anderson as the doomed Lily Bart in Terence Davies' The House of Mirth (2001).  An adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel of the same name, Davies' film is sumptuously beautiful, disturbing, and profound:  the movie has the amplitude and scope of a Shakespearean tragedy.  Lily Bart is a beautiful young woman, spoiled and arrogant.  She lives under the protection of her wealthy Aunt, a censorious, strangely prudish and reclusive former socialite -- one suspects that the embittered woman's life has been battered by some kind of romantic catastrophe.  Lily Bart loves a sardonic and somewhat indolent lawyer, Mr. Selden, but socially they seem to be mismatched and the romance between them, which both resist and, even, deride, can't progress notwithstanding the erotic attraction between the couple.  (Selden and Lily have a couple of rapturous onscreen kisses that are so intense that it is arduous to watch them -- obviously, they have been intimate, but they are both too intelligent and too distrustful to pursue the relationship.)  Selden has also had an affair with one of Lily's married friends, the poisonous Bertha Dorset, and there are incriminating love letters that play a role in the story.  Lily is high-spirited and willful:  she's the kind of young woman who will attend an opera wearing a resplendent scarlet gown with two men to whom she is not married.  Although she is innocent of any actual wrongdoing, she is naïve and her conduct triggers a scandal and, then, a series of scandals that results in her being cast out of polite society and disinherited by her Aunt.  Lily's tragedy is classical in scope and meaning because it results from a defect in her personality that also defines her character, a flaw that is inextricable from her greatest virtue:  she is vain to the point of self-destructive pride:  but her vanity and pride also evince a kind of hopeless integrity.  The very impulse that causes her to defy society results in her calamity.  (On a more pragmatic level, she has gambled for money and finds herself with debts that she can't pay without subjecting herself to some species of high-society prostitution -- most of the men in the movie ask her to become their mistress at one point or another, a request that she denies because of her love for Selden and out of self-respect.  In some respects, Lily Bart resembles the heroine of Ophuls Earrings of Madame de-- undone because of relatively small domestic indebtedness -- although she is much more intelligent, active, and has a penetrating understanding of moral defects in the social milieu that she inhabits.)  Davies', a great director, has made an extraordinarily beautiful film:  the colors and costumes are derived from the high-society portraits of John Singer Sargent and the turn of the century locations (the movie takes place between 1904 and 1905) are spectacular -- palaces, formal gardens, Italian villas and New York mansions, and a yacht adrift in the gloriously turquoise blue of the Adriatic Sea (the first shot of the yacht is literally breathtaking).  Davies' direction is subtle and restrained:  he edits the film as a great, dignified larghetto and, in the center of the movie, there is a rapturous series of tracking shots moving from sheeted and veiled furniture in a huge marble mansion to a rainstorm in formal gardens and, then, encompassing sun on the water in Italy, a kind of visual aria scored to an actual aria from Cosi Fan Tutti that is every bit as splendid and beautiful as the famous tracking scenes in The Long Day Closes scored to Debbie Reynolds singing "Tammy."  Gillian Anderson (she was Scully in Tv's X-Files) is fantastically effective as Lily Bart; her acting here is justly renowned as one of the great performances in film history -- at first, she seems sarcastic, narcissistic and rebarbative, but as the film progresses and her plight becomes more humiliating and hopeless the film achieves a kind of tragic grandeur.  Consider, for instance, her polite rejection of Sam Rosedale's offer of marriage, her measured and gracious response, her cautious and diplomatic words and gestures that are intended to reject the man but keep the door open -- for, after all, Lily recognizes that she is probably doomed to become a courtesan at some point.  But when the earnest and kind Rosedale leaves the room we see Lily's visceral revulsion -- a revulsion that is not directed so much at Sam, but, at herself, for being tempted by him.  (Lily's later scenes with Sam are even more powerful.)  "The world is vile" Lily says at one point -- an extreme statement but one whose validity, perhaps, the film demonstrates.  Consider the scene where the socialite Bertha Dorset has apparently betrayed her husband with an Italian suitor.  Lily stays up with the husband, who, in fact, loves her, waiting for the errant wife to return.  The next day, Bertha diverts attention from her own misdeeds by accusing Lily of adulterous intentions with respect to her husband and Lily is unceremoniously "cast off the yacht" -- this scandal, added to the others begins Lily's descent into poverty and disgrace.  The entire thing is exquisitely staged, brilliantly and mysteriously acted, an exhibition of savage cruelty that hides at the heart of this glittering world of wealth and privilege.  The film is two hours and twenty minutes long but it never seems repetitive and, in fact, the picture increases with power as it progresses to its shattering conclusion.  Davies is one of the world's greatest directors and, I think, future critics may regard this picture as his magnum opus -- it is deeply distressing that no one went to see this film and that it is almost unknown.  Make no mistake about it:  House of Mirth is a great masterpiece:  Seek it out!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Long Day Closes (film group essay)

"The radio waves are heard from deep space..."

The last line in the published screenplay of The Long Day Closes

"The film is a radio oratorio."

David Thomson on The Long Day Closes


Financed by the British Film Institute and released in 1992, The Long Day Closes is the third film in a series of autobiographical motion pictures directed by Terence Davies. Davies’ films are intensely personal and poetic, the kind of movie that can not be made today – at least according to some writers. Critics have lamented the demise of the art-house feature, the kind of artistic, ambitious cinema that first arose in the late nineteen-fifties, flourished in the sixties and, perhaps, expired in the mid-nineties. Lyrical, idiosyncratic film-making like Davies’ movies has no commercial outlet – at least, so it is argued.

But, of course, poetic personal film making has never been commercially viable. Hollywood has never produced pictures of that sort intentionally – to the extent that such movies have been made in Los Angeles, it has been with stealth and cunning; no studio mogul wants to be associated with anything that bears the name of art. In Jean-Luc Godard’s great Contempt, Jack Palance playing a Hollywood studio executive says: "When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my checkbook" – a reference to words apocryphally spoken by Dr. Goebbels or Hermann Goering: "When I hear the world ‘culture’, I reach for my gun." The meaning of Godard’s line is a bit obscure, but, in context, the words certainly mean that no Hollywood executive would ever intentionally subsidize a film whose objectives were primarily artistic – he will reach for his checkbook, it seems, to hide it. From time to time, personal and artistic films originate in Hollywood – in most cases, these films are contraband smuggled into the studio system.

The great art films of the sixties and thereafter made in Europe or on other continents were typically produced by artists working in environments with strong government financing for the arts. Bergman’s pictures were subsidized in part by the Swedish government; similarly, the German new wave was financed largely through endowments administered in Bonn. Kiastorami’s highly personal films made in Iran were financed as prestige products by the Iranian government and largely subject to administrative control by State censors. Art of the sort made by a director like Davies appeals to only a tiny percentage of the film-going public, probably less that one-tenth of one percent. Productions of this sort can not possibly make money and are offered only the most limited release.

And, yet, we must acknowledge that today there are probably more venues for experimental film making of the kind exemplified by Davies than ever before. Most televisions now gather the signals of over 500 stations and movies of every kind are widely available in DVD format and streaming. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the number of screens available for films like Long Day Closes has decreased. During the golden age of the art cinema, so-called, in the mid-seventies, for instance, a person interested in serious European films could see movies in re-release or first-run at the Oak Cinema in Stadium Village at the University and possibly at the Cedar movie theater on the West Bank. Art movies were shown at the University of Minnesota Film Society on a weekly basis, usually two or three films in first-run in the Upper Midwest and, perhaps, two weekends a month at the Walker Art Center. Today Twin Cities theaters showing art pictures, indies, and foreign films account for about ten screens weekly – there are four or five screens devoted to fare of this kind at Lagoon Theater in the Uptown-Lake area; across the street, the Suburban World shows one film of this kind on a big screen with amenities – in the balcony you can buy booze. The Edina Theater at 50th and France generally devotes four screens to European, Indie, and Art House films. And the University of Minnesota Film Society continues to screen three or four new European or foreign films weekly. (The Walker Art Center also shows new and important films, although that institution seems more in thrall to Hollywood today than previously.) Silent and vintage films are sometimes shown at the Heights Theater in Arden Hills and there are also several venues devoted to showing Bollywood pictures on weekends, usually Hindi melodramas and musicals. So, on balance, by my computation, there are probably three-times more screens available weekly to non-Hollywood, non-commercially viable films then there were in the supposedly great decades of the European art film forty years ago.

Financing difficulties attending the production of The Long Day Closes make this point. After Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies was world-renowned. He had received a standing ovation on the red carpet at Cannes and was acclaimed as one of the world’s great film makers. But Davies was unable to raise the 2.2 million pound budget required by The Long Day Closes, a more ambitious film and one requiring more complex technology and effects. A budget of 2.2 million pounds was not particularly lavish in the late eighties, but no one was willing to finance the production because the script was thought to be experimental and non-narrative. Davies eliminated some of the more complicated camera movements and was able to reduce his proposed budget to 1.75 million pounds. Ultimately, the film was financed by British Film Institute’s Production Board – the BFI determined that if it couldn’t help the United Kingdom’s most famous and lauded director make a movie, then, it really had no reason to exist. Funding the picture through the BFI limited administrative costs (but, also, limited PR to promote the film). Predictably, the movie lost money. Until reissued on Criterion disk in 2008, the movie was only rarely seen and almost never screened in an actual theater.

In my view, no useful point is served by lamenting the failure by commerce to support worthwhile and exquisite projects such as Davies’ The Long Day Closes. Most people would find this film completely baffling and a waste of time. By reasonably objective aesthetic standards, we can probably agree that The Long Day Closes, although flawed in some respects, is a magnificent work of art. But audiences, by and large, attend films to be entertained and, for most people, a non-narrative essay on the past, even one as rapturously beautiful as The Long Day Closes simply doesn’t deliver the pleasures that most people expect when they pay for a movie ticket and buy a bucket of popcorn to eat during the show. Rather than lament an alleged lack of taste on the part of the movie-going public, I suppose, we should be thankful that challenging films like The Long Day Closes even exist and are available for us to watch on DVD.


Superficially, the career of Terence Davies resembles to some extent that of another Terence, the American director, Terence Malick. Like Malick, Davies has made only a handful of films in a career spanning almost fifty years. Both directors are exacting craftsmen and control all aspects of the films that they produce. (Davies’ scripts are so precise and detailed that the cameraman on The Long Day Closes, upon reading the scenario, confronted the director with these words: "What do you need me for?" – according to the D.P. on the film, the script specifies the length of shots down to the second, the type of lens required, all aspects of lighting, and nature of the composition; notations identifying the length of shots in seconds are required due to the many musical cues and other imported sound cues in the film.) The two directors each seem to favor highly personal, even autobiographical, subject matter. And both directors are primarily visual in their orientation – there is often a disconnect between the dialogue or sound cues and the imagery shown on the screen. In each case, the film maker’s objective seems to be primarily lyrical and poetic. (If one were to edit the bombast from Malick’s recent The Tree of Life, that film would seem similar in form and intent to The Long Day Closes).

Davies was raised in poverty in the slums of Liverpool, a place not known for its support of the fine arts. When designing sets for The Long Day Closes, Davies was at a disadvantage – his family had been so poor that it didn’t own a camera and there were no childhood photographs of any kind at all. His education seems to have consisted primarily of canings and he reports that he was beaten-up every day throughout the entire school year by bullies. At 15, he was glad to leave school, his primary education completed.

Davies worked as a Liverpool shipping clerk and lived with his mother. After several years, he left the shipping clerk job and labored as an assistant in an accounting firm for a decade. Between his 15th and 25th year, when he became an atheist, Davies attended Church daily praying on his knees to be freed from the affliction of his homosexuality. When he was 27, Davies moved to London, a place that terrified him, and attended a third-rate acting school. Davies was handicapped in many ways – he had a thick Liverpudlian accent, was physically unprepossessing (he has white hair and a moon-shaped face and wears thick glasses), and was homosexual at a time when sodomy was a felony offense. Some people drift into film and make movies because it is their profession or on the basis of a mild interest in the art. By contrast, Davies’ was driven to make films by a terrible, visceral need and overcame enormous obstacles to become a movie director. Even before, he attended acting school, Davies had written a scenario for a short film, Children, the first of the trilogy. He sent a copy of the script to the BFI Film Production Board and the government agency reluctantly offered money to finance the project – the BFI was hesitant to provide funding because, although the script was brilliant, it "did not present homosexuality in a positive light."

In any event, Davies was able to make his trilogy of short autobiographical films between 1976 and 1983. This group of films, shot in black and white, have been released in compilation called The Terence Davies Trilogy (1983). (Rather proudly, Davies notes that some critics say that the trilogy is so grim that "these films make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis.") Complicating the situation is the fact that The Terence Davies Trilogy is, itself, a part of a larger autobiographical trilogy – the second and third films in the series are Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and the final movie in the group, The Long Day Closes (1992). This group of films is renowned. Many critics claim Distant Voices, Still Lives to be the greatest film ever made in the United Kingdom – unfortunately, the picture is not available on DVD and, for reasons inexplicable to me, not readily accessible in the United States. (Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed Distant Voices, Still Lives to be "wholly magnificent." )

Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945, the youngest surviving child of an Irish-Catholic family with ten siblings (only seven children survived childhood.) His trilogy of autobiographical films is a vast Proustian summoning of Davies’ memories of his boyhood. Davies is gay – he calls himself "a repressed homosexual." The first three films collected in The Terence Davies’ Trilogy mostly concern his adolescence and the suffering that he endured coming to terms with his sexuality. Distant Voices, Still Lives depicts his earliest childhood memories and ends with the death of his savagely abusive and alcoholic father – Davies has said that the has never attempted to depict with any accuracy the abuse that he suffered at the hands of his father because "it is unspeakable" and if shown on screen "would not be believed." (When he was an infant, Davies’ mother sought to escape a beating from her husband by hurling herself out of a second-story window with her baby in her arms. A passing sailor caught her and she was not harmed.) The Long Day Closes studies the relationship between Davies and his widowed mother after the death of his father – the film follows the protagonist, called "Bud Davies," through the end of his middle school (or junior high days). Davies’ regards this part of his life as probably his happiest period and parts of the film resemble an idyll. Throughout these three films, Davies is unsparing in his depiction of poverty and brutality – but, curiously, the films, although sad, are not depressing and, indeed, they all end on a somewhat optimistic note. (The trilogy reminds me of Satjayit Ray’s great Apu trilogy about a young boy from a poverty-stricken Indian village who goes to the University and becomes an educated poet and college professor; Davies work is also somewhat similar to the Taviani brothers film Padre Padrone, about a poor Sicilian shepherd boy who survives savage beatings inflicted by his father to become an important philologist in Rome.)

In 2000, Davies directed an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth starring Gillian Anderson, the actress who became famous as Dana Scully in The X-Files. The film is highly regarded, although, of course, it was unsuccessful at the box-office. Anderson’s performance, in particular, is said to be majestic. (In 1995, Davies directed The Neon Bible based on an unfinished autobiographical novel by John Kennedy O’Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Duncesreviews of this film are mixed and I recall the picture as puzzling; Davies grasp of the rural southern milieu was thought by some to be uncertain.) Of Time and the City is a intensely personal, although paradoxically grandiose, documentary about Liverpool, tracing the changes in the city from the era of its poverty exemplified by Davies’ neighborhood in his youth through the era of the Beatles. This film, released in 2008, is similar to The Long Day Closes in that Davies evokes Liverpool through a series of complex sound-cues – he makes the city sing to him, intercutting imagery of great Victorian buildings with the demolition of the crowded slums where the filmmaker had been raised. The film is exceedingly complex and digressive; it features a rapturous voice-over narrative by Davies himself. Davis, a great admirer of poetry, reads many poems on the soundtrack as a kind of counterpoint to the music surging under his images. (Davies’ notes that the opening scene of the roses decomposing in The Long Day Closes is based on T.S. Eliot and his love of that poet’s work, particularly The Four Quartets.)

In 2013, Davies film of the Terence Ratigan play The Deep Blue Sea was released to wide critical acclaim. I had never seen any films by Davies and was skeptical that I would enjoy that picture, a movie about a love triangle set in the late forties based on a rather conventional London-based West-End play. I had some vague notions about Davies and understood him to be a sort of confessional film maker who directed movies about his abusive, alcoholic father, his difficult childhood, and his burgeoning recognition that he was homosexual. Of course, these subjects seemed unpromising to me and I had, more or less, resolved to avoid his films. But, on the strength of many strong reviews, I decided to take a look a The Deep Blue Sea. I was overwhelmed by the film’s peculiar moldering beauty and its emotional intensity and resolved that I would have to see all of Davies’ work. The Long Day Closes is, at once, his most experimental and most personal film, but, also, perhaps, his most moving work.

Davies is indisputably the greatest British film maker and, despite his limited professional output, highly influential among practitioners of art cinema. Notwithstanding this status, though, Davies has remained a controversial and disputed figure in some respects. Roger Ebert cites Daniel Mendelsohn’s remark on his own homosexuality: "there is no gay man of my generation (Mendelsohn was born in 1960) whose first experience of desire was not a kind of affliction and that did not teach us to associate longing with shame..." Davies is a gay man, raised as a Catholic, and fifteen years older than the Mendelsohn. Accordingly, Davies’ attitude toward his own homosexuality is fraught with complexities and tinctured with a sense of shame. By contrast to the New Queer Cinema, movies made by homosexual film makers like Derek Jarman, Davies’ pictures are repressed, morose, and his view of gay sexuality carries with it the darkness and reclusion of "the closet" – simply stated, Davies and the figures in his films are not good role models for young homosexuals and there has been some discontent about the director’s ostensible "self-loathing." Furthermore, Davies’ speech and his demeanor have something of the archaic aspect of a nineteen-fifties British queen like Quentin Crisp – his style of homosexuality which is ornate and baroque, expressing itself in adoration of the "fabulous" movie musicals of Davies’ youth is, also, perhaps, politically incorrect. (Davies’ extravagant bearing reminds me a bit of Withnail’s Uncle Monty – "I wept in butcher shops." In an interview Davies said: "I just adored Doris Day. I desperately wanted to be Doris Day – I still want to be Doris Day.") It may take another generation for some gay audiences to distance themselves enough from the existential struggles of people like Davies’ to fully appreciate his work.


The Long Day Closes is a Proustian exploration of Davies’ memories of the years 1955 and 1956 – that is, the time when he was 11 and 12. An important distinction must be made at the outset. Davies is not interested in dramatizing events that he recalls from that time, nor does he wish to provide a narrative of what actually happened to him when he was boy on the verge of puberty. Instead, Davies’ interest, his obsessive concern, is with memory itself – that is, he conveys to us the texture of recalling things that happened forty years ago. Thus, the film’s actual subject is memory: how thoughts and recollections decay and what images and sounds are retained in our imagination of things that happened four decades earlier. This thematic concern with the workings of memory is evidenced by the opening title sequence: while we hear the jaunty Boccherini sonata, we are simultaneously watching the imperceptible decomposition of a pot of roses. Contra Dali, memory isn’t persistent – rather, it is always threatened by decay.

Some of Charles Ives’ greatest muscial compositions have this same effect: in a musical piece like The Unanswered Question or The Housatonic at Stockbridge or any of Ives’ later symphonies, we have the sense that the tunes, the melodies, the voices, as it were of the past, are coming to us across a great distance, distorted by time and memory. The Long Day Closes is similar – students of the film have remarked that the picture is essentially a "musical"; Davies recalls songs and snippets of film dialogue, the 20th Century Fox fanfare, show-tunes, but these fragments embedded in his memory are half-ruined – they are like the poster for a movie starring Richard Burton, The Robe (1953) that we see half-decayed, ripped, and almost illegible in the opening tracking shot. (The reference to that film is significant; the picture was the first movie shot in wide-screen Cinemascope aspect ratio – Davies’ reference is not merely to a film, but to a moment in film history.)

The shots of the black coal bins underlying the tenements are significant in this light. Memory is always poised over oblivion. Most of what we have experienced is forgotten forever. The dark voids in the movie are like the plaque accumulating in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient – these dark cavities signify forgetfulness. "Erosion," as the film reminds us, is everywhere and inevitable. When we see "Bud" swinging over the blackness of the coal bin, we have a sense for the fragility of memory, how a few things alone – some fragments of dialogue in a movie, a bit of song, the recollection of an injustice or a beating – survive the wreck of time.

Unlike many film makers whose primary influence is other motion pictures, Davies is not a cinephile in the conventional sense. Until his father died when Davies was seven, the future film maker had never seen a moving picture. (His father, who was mentally ill, imprisoned the family in their tenement to isolate them.) When Davies’ father died, "in agony" the director recalls after two years suffering from stomach cancer, the first thing that the family did together was to attend a movie – as it happened, the first film that Davies saw was Singin’ in the Rain. Thereafter, Davies and his siblings attended the movies weekly. The pictures that most influenced the future director were American musicals, pictures that contrasted powerfully with the gloomy, impoverished, and wet Liverpool slums. (The movies that Davies loves includes disreputable specimens such as Pajama Game and Tammy and the Bachelor.) Davies did not attend art films and was not familiar with the French "nouvelle vague" or the Italian neo-realists. Until he was 27 his knowledge of films outside of popular entertainment was limited to movies that he saw on television. Davies was an admirer of Max Ophul’s Letter from an Unknown Woman and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, but these were pictures that he knew only from watching them with his mother on TV. (In interviews in 1992, he names Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as the first "art film" that he saw in a movie theater.) Davies’ movies, accordingly, don’t cite European and Japanese models and, unlike a director such Martin Scorsese, he is not learned in the history of film. His primary influences are American musicals and many critics regard The Long Day Closes as a kind of musical, albeit one forged under the melancholiac sign of Saturn. (The picture required 47 clearances of music and sound materials – it has more musical episodes than most film musicals; negotiation of the rights to the music and soundtrack required for the picture was one of the most daunting aspects of the production.)

The Long Day Closes plays an important role in Davies’ career and, I think, that there are aspects of the picture that are extra-filmic – that is, elements of the project exist for idiosyncratic reasons other than their narrative or esthetic significance. Rather, the film’s production, and certain of its features, have personal significance to Davies that can not be known in any exact way by the audience watching the film. The effect is similar to elements in Proust that are clearly implanted in his novels for talismanic reasons, that is, on the basis of a purely private, and, even, concealed significance to the writer. This is demonstrated in two ways: the production of the film and the incorporation into the picture of elements whose significance can not be understood by the audience (or, at least, can’t be understood without footnoting).

Davies’ insisted that much of the film’s budget be devoted to building a replica of the street in Liverpool where he lived during the four year idyll after his father’s death. That slum was torn down in the early sixties and, as Davies rather gleefully notes, "not a brick remains." No pictures existed to show the neighborhood and so Davies, with his set designers, had to reconstruct the neighborhood from memory – memories that the set decorators recall as incredibly detailed. The set built for the movie is exceedingly elaborate – it is detailed down to imitation bird-droppings on some of the wrought-iron railings and the dense "furring" of coal soot on the bricks. Davies’ also insisted that the interiors of his family’s flat be built to actual specifications – this resulted in a warren of tiny rooms that made shooting difficult, particularly since the camera was frequently mounted on cranes or dolly tracks. (All of the walls in the interiors were "fly walls" and could be removed to facilitate camera placement.) Davies’ also insisted on shooting many sequences in Liverpool. The church interiors were shot in Davies’ old parish church with the bemused participation of the local parish priest. The school sequences were filmed in an actual Church of England or Anglican middle school in Liverpool. Whenever possible, Davies worked in the authentic locations. Renowned as Britain’s greatest director, and flush with his success at the Cannes Film Festival, Davies had the bittersweet pleasure of returning to places where he had been bullied and beaten as a kind of conquering hero. There seems to be an element of mischief, even revenge, in Davies’ insisting upon shooting the church sequences in the very place where he had spent so many years on bleeding knees pleading with Christ to free him from his homosexuality – "such a waste of time," he cries out in an interview.

The film’s deeply personal significance to Davies is dramatized as well by certain aspects of the movie that are completely hermetic – that is, details that can’t be understood except when explained by Davies. In the frightening scene involving Bud’s nightmare, Davies notes that, after his father died, he was assigned his parent’s death bed. Accordingly, when the nightmare seizes Davies, the little boy is resting on the bed where his terrifying, and tormented, father died. In one shot, a haggard-looking man walks across the screen. The man is isolated and not a character in the movie. Davies notes that there was a man in the neighborhood dying slowly of throat cancer and that everyone was appalled and afraid of him – this shot refers to that man, although the audience has no way of knowing this. A final example: in one puzzling shot, Bud looks up and sees a door incongruously nailed to the ceiling above his head. What in the world does this mean? Davies explains that his father removed every door internal to the house and used them to repair leaks and as the roof to a lean-to on the back of the flat. This explains why there are no doors inside the tenement – but there is no narrative explanation to this effect. (Another footnote: Bud waits outside the movie theater in pouring rain waiting for an adult to take him into the theater. This is because the film that he wants to see Love me or Leave me, a Doris Day picture, was an A-certificate picture – this means that children could not attend the film without being escorted into the theater by an adult.)

When filming The Long Day Closes, Davies met one of the older boys, now grown into a man, who had mercilessly bullied him. The fellow was avuncular and friendly and Davies’ was horrified that the man had no memory whatsoever about bullying the younger boy. Bitterly, Davies remarks that cruelty that changed his life and that made his days and nights miserable had meant nothing at all to the bully – it had merely been a mild, forgettable diversion as far as the bully was concerned. A critic asked Davies’ if he felt that the movie, with its painstaking reconstruction of the past, had been a kind of "reclamation". (That term seems wrong to me, although in the interview the critic insisted upon it – I would have used the word "reparation.") Davies replied: "Maybe, I thought that way at first. But there’s no reclamation. No catharsis. When the movie was complete, it just increased my sense of loss. What was all this terrible suffering for?"

The Long Day Closes, a title drawn from a "glee" by Sir Arthur Sullivan – we hear the chorale at the end of the movie –has another significance to Davies. Davies says that the "long day" refers to the period of his greatest happiness, the four years from the death of his father in 1953 ending in his adolescent torment in High School, beginning when he was twelve. During that period of time, Davies explains that he thought that he would live a normal life, that he would fall in love and have children, and that he might experience the normal pleasures and pains of growing up. The "closing" of the "long day" is Davies’ renunciation of his hope to love and be loved, the sunset of his dreams of being ordinary and the inception of the sense that he will forever be an outsider, shunned and despised by others.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Sugarland Express

Steven Spielberg's 1974 The Sugarland Express was the director's first feature-length theatrically released movie.  (A sort of infant prodigy, Spielberg had already made several renowned made-for-TV movies, most notably Duel staring Dennis Weaver and a menacing semi-truck.)  The premise of The Sugarland Express is simple, direct, and has some of ancient dignity of old-time Western -- indeed, Ben Johnson plays a supporting role as a weary lawman pursuing the doomed outlaw lovers.  Luejean Poplin, played ferociously by Goldie Hawn, intends to go to a place called Sugarland, Texas to retrieve her toddler, Baby Langston.  Baby Langston, an unhappy sniveling infant, has been placed in foster care in Sugarland on the basis of a court order that Luejean is an unfit mother -- she has several shoplifting and larceny convictions. although she claims to be reformed and that a short stint in prison has made "a woman of (her).  She takes a bus to a desolate correctional facilty and during a family visitation weekend, the local Jaycees have helpfully provided lemonade, she busts her hapless, dimwitted boyfriend out of the jail -- he has only four more months to serve.  The fugitives hold hostage a young policeman, equally naïve and dimwitted, and, fleeing in his squad car, set off across the Texas to Sugarland.  The entire episode is an exercise in magical thinking -- Luejean doesn have any realistic perception for how this is all likely to work out.  Her boyfriend persuades himself that things will be okay in the end and, even, the callow baby-cop, who becomes friendly with his kidnappers, naively thinks that there is a possibility that the unlikely scheme will succeed.  In its time, the film was famous for Spielberg's brilliantly conceived car chases and crashes  -- of course, movie technology has far outstripped any spectacle that Spielberg could mount in 1974, but his action sequences remain excellent and powerful because they are not merely loud and spectacular, but also expressive.  The cars in the movie don't merely zoom and speed and crash -- they express states of minds of the participants:  exuberance, panic, and, in the final, shocking run to the border, exhausted desperation.   Even at this early phase in his career, Spielberg isn't much interested in romance or sex: unlike Bonnie and Clyde or the lovers in Altman's Thieves like Us, the attraction between Luejean and her amiable husband is not important to the film:  Spielberg's concern, something that he would obsessively reiterate in later picture, is a child custody dispute, a child deprived from its parents, and the parent's (or parents') frantic attempt to reunited with the lost child -- this is the subject matter both of Spielberg's worst movie, Hook, and, probably, his best picture, Empire of the Sun, and the theme is already manifest in The Sugarland Express.  The picture is impressively lensed -- the color schemes are largely monochromatic, and Texas looks muddy, impoverished, miniature.  Spielberg already has a propensity for staging action during the magic hour -- there are several shots filmed in the lingering twilight and, also, several sequences shot at dawn.  But the colorful lighting effects of those scenes settle into grim, grey November landscapes with little shabby towns huddled under stark leaden skies.  Spielberg runs the risk of patronizing the Texas folks that occupy the film and there are a  couple cringe-inducing scenes in which the director seems condescending to his characters -- but, by and large, the Texas environs are effectively portrayed and the small-town people in the landscape seem plausible and sympathetic.  Everyone has a gun and the film might be viewed, in a way, as sly commentary on gun rights in the Lone Star State.  Everyone grasps that the only solution to the plot is a death by gunfire:  baby Langston's dignified stepfather suggests to an officer that the police man use his rifle to shoot down the escaped convict and Luejean's father says that, if he had a gun, he would kill her himself.  Two terrifying Texas rangers snipers, both elderly men who store their bullets behind their ear-lobes, propose from the outset to gun down the fugitives and it is only Ben Johnson's patience and compassion that keeps the hero and heroine alive for the 110 minute stretch of the movie.  Certain things don't exactly work:  there is a scene in which the fugitives hide in a RV and watch a Roadrunner movie on an adjacent screen that tries to do too many things at once.  (Technically, this sequence is brilliantly conceived but too showy for the rather unassuming rest of the film.)  In that same sequence, we don't know exactly where the pursuers are located and it's not clear why they have withdrawn from their tight pursuit of the couple -- the sequence reads as idyll and a kind of interlude and, although its emotionally effective, the narrative elements of the scene don't seem right.  The final sequence, involving a run to the border, violates entirely the film's modest and realistic narrative -- suddenly, we seem to be in another picture, one involving big cliffs, deserts, and the old Rio Grande, filmed in elegiac golden light:  this is also impressive (Spielberg always gets the effects he wants), but doesn't ring true.  The Texas that we have been seeing look like southern Minnesota or eastern Nebraska -- but, suddenly, the geography changes and we are in the middle of the old West.  These are minor cavils with respect to film that retains it power to surprise and fascinate the viewer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Red Desert (Film Group Essay)


In 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura stunned critics and inaugurated revived international interest in Italian cinema. L’Avventura premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita from that same year signaled a renaissance in art films from Italy. For a decade, Antonioni was regarded as one of the world’s most important, and challenging film makers. His pictures characterize that period in the sixties when critics as diverse as Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Susan Sontag recall that "there was a new masterpiece each week," a era of vibrant innovation and the golden age of "arthouse" cinema.

L’Avventura, a film that is genuinely eerie, beautiful and haunting, was unlike anything audiences and critics had seen before. At Cannes, the first showing of the picture was met by much booing and catcalls. But, after subsequent screenings, viewers came to acknowledge the film as a masterpiece and it won the Cannes jury prize with Kon Ichikawa’s sex comedy Kagi. (Fellini’s movie was awarded the "Palm d’Or.") Antonioni was hailed as a significant director whose films were major cinematic events. On the strength of this reputation, Antonioni was given a free hand to direct his next three films. Those pictures are La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), and The Red Desert (Il Deserto rosso) (1964). The first two of these features, taken together with L’Avventura, are said to comprise a trilogy, exploring similar themes and employing an austere architectural mise-en-scene that virtually eliminated dramatic conflict and event from the narratives of these movies. The Red Desert is notable for being Antonioni’s first film made in color – many critics regard it as closely related to the preceding trilogy in style and content, to the extent that the 1964 picture is frequently regarded as a sort of addendum or appendix to the black and white films.

As early as 1940, writing for the Fascist film magazine Cinema, Antonioni predicted that technicolor films would supplant black and white pictures. In his 1940 essay, Antonioni imagines a young film-maker meeting with Samuel Goldwyn at MGM. The young man says that he wants to make a picture exploring color and the effect of colors on human emotions and action. In Antonioni’s fantasy,Samuel Goldwyn is not impressed and has the young man ejected from his office. The young director says: "Today’s audiences are tired of black-and-white. In the future only color will be acceptable and black and white pictures will be viewed as unendurable."

After the international success of The Red Desert, Antonioni was, in fact, offered work in Hollywood and, indeed, contracted with MGM, his old betes noire to make three pictures. These were Blowup (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (starring Jack Nicholson) released in 1975.

Antonioni suffered a stroke after making his last important film Identification of a Woman in 1982. (He had worked with Monica Vitti on his previous film The Mystery of Oberwald, an early example of a film shot entirely on high-definition video in 1980 and 1981). He continued to work on short films but was partially paralyzed and could not speak – fortunately for him, he had a young wife, 34 years junior to him, and she was able to assist him. With Wim Wenders as co-director, he completed In the Clouds in the late eighties. (Wenders is an example of a director intensely influenced by Antonioni – but, apparently, the collaboration between the two men was not a happy one; Wenders noted that he had been retained to "co-direct" the picture with Antonioni, but that the old man was very much in command of his faculties, capable of directing even though he was literally speechless, and, ultimately, cut almost all of the footage that Wenders’ shot.) In 1995, Jack Nicholson presented Antonioni with an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony. Nicholson asked Antonioni which American directors and films recently made he most admired. To everyone’s dismay, Antonioni visibly mouthed the word "none."

In 2000, Antonioni returned to Taormina in Sicily, the base of operations for the shooting of L’Avventura and traveled to the Eolian Islands where the girl vanishes in that film. Witnesses to this trip remarked on Antonioni’s physical toughness and fortitude in the face of difficult conditions.

Remarkably, Antonioni died on the same day as Ingmar Bergman, July 30, 2007. He was 94. Bergman and Antonioni’s encounter in paradise was strained. Bergman regarded L’Avventura and La Notte as masterpieces but said that most of the director’s later films were overrated and boring.

Antonioni’s influence must not be underestimated. In my view, his style and technique for making movies has come to dominate the genre of international art films. Unlike the mercurial and perverse Godard, or the fundamentally traditional Bergman and Fellini, Antonioni’s trademark style is instantly recognizable and, problematically, readily imitated. Just about every prominent European filmmaker has made a pictures that appropriates stylistic devices and themes from Antonioni. And, in an important essay, the great film critic David Bordwell has shown that Antonioni’s stylistic devices are the signature of a specific genre – that is, the art film about alienation. Bordwell has demonstrated that Antonioni’s elliptical style, his long takes, and deliberate de-dramatization of action comprise characteristics of a genre just as surely as black streets reflecting neon in puddles or vistas of Monument Valley announce that a movie is film noir or a Western. I think a good argument can be made that Antonioni is the most influential serious film maker in the history of film as an art.


The Production of Il Deserto Rosso

The Red Desert was shot over a period of 19 weeks in the Winter of 1963 and 1964. The weather was cold and the production of the film was arduous. Antonioni made the picture in the industrial Po river delta, near Ravenna and at petrochemical plants located in that area. Monica Vitti, the film’s leading lady and a muse to Antonioni, was the director’s mistress at the time that the movie was shot. However, their relationship was strained and Vitti left Antonioni to initiate an affair with the film’s director of photography, Carlo di Palma before the picture was edited. Antonioni worked closely with Ms. Vitti in devising the screenplay (also written Tonino Guerra). Apparently, Vitti had suffered some kind of nervous breakdown in the months preceding the film’s production and she draws on that experience for her performance in the movie.

The film’s remarkable monochromatic color was accomplished by using blue filters over the camera lenses and by, literally, tinting the landscape with spray paint. Several examples of spray painted landscapes appear early in the film – the industrial debris that Vitti’s Giuliana sees when eating the roll was painted onto the canal-side detritus; similarly, the desolate street in Ravenna named after Dante Alighieri was spray-painted grey – this is obvious from the scene in which the street vendor roasting chestnuts offers produce, including apples, all colored a dreary and uniformly ashen grey. (In later scenes, a house has been painted entirely black and a grove of trees are also spray-painted black.)

Italian directors are effusive and Antonioni was no exception. He said that the film was conceived to demonstrate the birth of a "new man," a human being evolved to co-exist in harmony with vast, intimidating industrial facilities and high technology. (Antonioni answered Godard’s question about whether the robot attending on the little boy’s bedside was a good or bad thing by remarking: "It is a very good thing. The little boy will become used to living with science and scientific inventions and be well adapted for the future.") The Red Desert depicts the plight of a woman, Giuliana, who is unable to adapt to this future, someone who resists becoming a "new man." Like the Italian Futurists, Antonioni worshiped fast cars, airplanes, and machines – he declared the petrochemical plants belching fire and steam "far more beautiful" than the pine forests and swampy Po river marshes where these facilities were located. "The new laws of beauty does not lie with Nature," Antonioni declared describing the landscapes in the film, most of them examples of the "technological sublime." Human beings, Antonioni proclaimed, must adapt to this new environment or perish. How seriously we should take these kinds of proclamations, of course, is a question that the film poses. Like most great film makers, Antonioni’s images and editing, his use of music, and the design of his narrative, signifies meanings far more complex than his relatively simple-minded manifesto-like declarations about the movie. Indeed, the film’s esthetic, supposedly driven by Futurist principles, is, in fact, more akin to the Metaphysical School in Italian painting and art – the work of de Chirico with his enigmatic arcades, his towers and remote locomotives, the "mystery and melancholy" of his deserted and dreamlike streets. (And the color scheme in the film is highly influenced by the work of contemporary artists, the Catalan Antonio Tapies, and, most importantly, the still lives and cityscapes of the great Giorgio Morandi.)



An interpretive caveat may be in order: we perceive Antonioni’s "industrial sublime" through history now permeated with environmental catastrophes. In an era of global warming, after the Valdez disaster and the petrochemical pollution of the Gulf of Mexico, it may be difficult to grasp Antonioni’s ambivalence towards the clouds of toxin and the estuaries clogged with effluent in The Red Desert. But here are some facts to consider: Italians were delighted to discover large reserves of natural gas lurking under the marshes in the Po delta. This discovery in the mid-fifties played a vital role in Italy’s economic recovery from World War II. SARAM and INAC, the two big companies operating refineries in the Ravenna area, were highly respected and thought to be the engines of modernization in Italy. Joris Ivens was a radical left-wing film maker – he made The Spanish Earth, a famous documentary about the Civil War in Spain and, later, was invited to China by Mao where he shot several films. Ivens was hired by the Italian petrochemical industry in 1959 to make a documentary about the exploitation of natural gas reserves in the Po delta and Sicily – the film, which Ivens enthusiastically produced, is called Italy is not a Poor Country. Marxists saw the industrialization of Italy and its development of the petrochemical sector as a necessary pre-condition to the expansion of Communism in the country – you can’t have a Communist revolutions without an industrial army of workers. Indeed, the opening shots in the film depicting the strike, imagery that seems stranded in the movie and that leads to nothing in the narrative, articulate this theme. If a socialist regime is to be instituted in Italy this will occur only when the workers in industrial complexes such as those shown in the film’s opening develop class consciousness and organize. Like the dictatorship of the proletariat, a period of red terror preceding the institution of a classless society, the pollution enacted by the industrial complexes shown in the film represents a necessary byproduct of modernization – socialism can’t exist without workers; and socialism is dependent on industrial activities that (temporarily, it was thought) degrade the environment.

The soot-grey fields and debris-strewn river banks display a visionary desolation that Antonioni equated with certain forms of modern art. Antonioni was an admirer of the paintings of Jackson Pollock and some of the images in the film resemble that artist’s more monochromatic works. Antonioni felt that Abstract Expressionist art infected with anxiety, that this art showed the panic of human beings in the face of relentless modernity. He particularly admired Mark Rothko and wrote in 1958 that Rothko’s images expressed a "cosmic panic." Rothko reciprocated Antonioni’s admiration. He told Antonioni that he wished to give him a painting and the two men met at Rothko’s studio in 1964 when L’Eclisse was premiered in New York City. It’s not known exactly what happened – there may have been a quarrel; in any event, Antonioni doesn’t seem to have received the picture.

My point is that we must remember that there was a stage in Modernism, at least in Italy, that the kind of polluted vistas shown by the film were regarded as signs of economic vitality, opportunity, and, as Antonioni declared, landscapes suitable to a new kind of robust and liberated humanity.


An Example of Antonioni’s elliptical approach to narrative
About a half-hour into the film, Monica Vitti’s Giuliana walks the streets of Ravenna with Richard Harris’ Corrado. The two of them encounter a vendor and there is some discussion about "the live ones... costing more." This is puzzling to the viewer since the context of the discussion is not established. Suddenly, we see Giuliana startled, recoiling from something – she throws her hand up to her face and darts off-screen. In the next shot, we see her vanishing into a courtyard that seems to be forty or fifty feet away. Corrado starts to tell Giuliana about sea creatures in the ocean depths being "transparent". Giuliana says she doesn’t want to hear about that subject and that Corrado would be surprised to know the many things that frighten her.

This sequence is deliberately opaque and enigmatic. In the shooting script, Giuliana and Corrado see a vendor selling eels from a push-cart or truck. They approach and someone says that the live eels are more expensive than those already killed. A live eel is displayed and slips free of the vendor’s hand, falling to wriggle on the cobblestones. Giuliana is appalled and flees in fear. Corrado catches up with her in the courtyard adjacent to the vendor’s push-cart. Giuliana says that she has always been afraid of eels because they are "slippery and ugly". Corrado, then, makes his comment about "transparent" sea creatures to which Giuliana replies.

Clearly, the film is far more mysterious than the shooting script. Antonioni has edited out the explanatory narrative integument. What we see in the film is that something unknown startles Giuliana without warning – she responds viscerally, running away. The dialogue mentions something about life and death and commodifies those characteristics, putting a higher price on "living ones" – we are not told what kind of "living ones" are meant. Antonioni mystifies us: Giuliana’s crippling anxiety is not explained, not given an object; it is an emotional state that seems triggered by anything and nothing. The dialogue between the characters is clipped and seems to consist of non sequiturs; crucial copula are elided – we don’t know why Corrado suddenly mentions undersea creatures or how this comment should be taken. A narrative is truncated by a process of elimination into disconnected lyrical ejaculations – what began as dialogue is cut into a fragments of monologue that each character seems to be expressing to himself or herself.

Antonioni said that in L’Aventtura, he wrote and even shot a sequence in which the body of the young woman who disappearance engenders the films’ narrative is dragged out of the sea. But, of course, he cut that sequence from the finished film, thus, producing the haunting sense of enigma that is characteristic of the director’s most famous pictures.



Antonioni’s mature films are, often, strikingly beautiful and concern wealthy, attractive, and sybaritic characters. As in the work of Fellini, there are many parties, much carousing, and, frequently, the implication that the merely convivial is about to evolve into an orgy. But, despite these surface characteristics, at heart, Antonioni’s films are austere and puritanical. His important films insist upon the importance of questioning, the necessity to interrogate experience and the environment. This concern is programmatic to the movie that initiated Antonioni’s international fame, L’Avventura. In that movie, a beautiful young woman on a pleasure-cruise to islands off the coast of Sicily simply vanishes. For two hours, the characters search for her until, being merely mortal, they give up the quest and forget about her. In Antonioni’s eyes, the abandonment of the quest is the ultimate betrayal. Human virtue, in the modern world, is embodied in questioning and maintaining faith with those questions, never ceasing from questioning.

Martin Heidegger and other Continental philosophers posit questioning as central to retaining humanity in the modern, technological world. To act is to be, Existentialists maintained. But Antonioni’s films, in keeping with Heidegger’s interrogations of modernity and technology insist that human being is inextricably bound up in questioning. This idea is a variant on Descartes cogito ego sum – "to think is to be." The mode of thinking required by modernity is questioning.

Heidegger and others argue that all true questions, all interrogatories that are truly Fragenswuerdig, that is, things worthy of being questioned, are unanswerable. Significant questions can’t be glibly answered. Rather, they lead to more questions. Within this philosophical structure, the search is not for answers, but for better, more penetrating, questions. A valid questions opens a space in the world that otherwise presents itself to us as sleek, impenetrable, seamless, glistening, and self-evident. The space hollowed out in the self-evident world is a place for human beings to stand, a place where human being can be present. The question opens a space where human beings can stand in some relationship to the truth. This relationship can’t be characterized with any authenticity as "grasping" or "representing" the truth – rather, the relationship is defined as questioning, interrogating, a mental activity that opens a path for a motion toward more incisive and precise questions.

Antonioni presents modernity as unheimlich. The German word is typically translated as "uncanny" but literally means "un-homely." Giuliana is not "at home" in her world. She is surrounded by peculiar and inexplicable phenomena that she can’t comprehend. Antonioni’s soundtrack burps and wails and a female voice intones a strange melody that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere. Huge clouds of toxic fumes roll out of industrial facilities – why? What is the meaning of these eruptions of steam and fire? Periodically, ships that seem to be landlocked cruise across what appears to be dry land. The lanes of the city are strangely depopulated. Where have all the people gone? Are they in Patagonia or otherwise at the ends of the earth? People gaze off into space but we can’t see what they are looking at. Giuliana’s house seems built at the edge of a canal where ocean-going vessels dock. The house is singularly unheimlich – that is, not cosy nor comfortable; its furniture and furnishings seem purgatorially uncomfortable.

The film begins with a familiar gesture toward neo-realism, the cinematic school that is the basis for all post-war Italian cinema. We are at the locus classicus of neo-realism, the industrial strike. But what is the strike about? Why are the workers striking? A situation that lends itself to some sort of narrative is immediately abandoned – the strike is forgotten as the film proceeds. But the strike has a symbolic meaning.: a strike is intended to induce a kind of industrial paralysis – this paralysis is metaphorically linked to Giuliana’s inability to progress with respect to her mental illness and her child’s literal, if probably feigned, paralysis. Paralysis engulfs the world. In the face of strange and inexplicable phenomena, all these pipes and tubes designed for God-knows-what, these storms of fumes and off-screen noises that no one can explain, these spidery radio telescopes interrogating the center of the galaxy, no one can act. The ground is unstable. Abysses open up under your feet. Giuliana drives her car to the very end of the pier in the fog. At any moment, it seems that she might lunge off that pier or dive into the cold waters beneath the oil-drigging rig or, perhaps, simply throw herself through the window of a building.

Within the first few minutes of the film, the audience is confronted with this question: What is the matter with Giuliana? The protagonist is represented as desperately hungry at the most basic level – she buys a roll from one of the managers watching the arrest of a striking worker and, then, abandons her child to slink off into the wasteland to eat. In the context of Italian society, traditionally convivial with respect to food and eating, the image of Giuliana gobbling down the roll, alone, in the sooty, denuded wasteland is, perhaps, the most transgressive image presented by The Red Desert. This sequence raises the film’s central problem – what is the relationship between Giuliana’s malaise, her anomie, and the environment around her?

Clearly, Giuliana is unhappy with her marriage. Her glib, somewhat smarmy husband, doesn’t seem to grasp the depths of Giuliana’s despair and believes that her car accident triggered her melancholia. But, in fact, we come to understand that this car crash was, in fact, a suicide attempt and that the accident is a symptom of her mental illness, not its cause. The narrative, therefore, asks not only "What is wrong with Giuliana?," but also, "What can be done to help her?"

All traditional avenues for reconciliation with the world are barred: Giuliana’s attempt at work is nonsensical – she plans to open a shop to sell something to someone, customers whom she can’t quite characaterize, apparently choosing the most desolate possible location in a town that is empty of people and, itself, totally desolate. There is no trace of religion or its consolations in the film and the movie is wholly apolitical – there is no sign that political engagement is an option for making sense of the world. Similarly, society offers no meaningful consolation – the one social gathering that the film presents, the flirtatious encounter between the three couples with the detached and sullen Corrado along for the ride yields nothing but flirtation and a would-be orgy that deteriorates into haphazard, half-hearted groping; the worker and his girlfriend with the beehive hairdo openly express their contempt for the upper class managers and their sluttish, frustrated wives babbling about aphrodisiacs – "I prefer doing to talking," the girl says with a smirk on face. Religion, family, work, marriage, society, politics – none of these concerns offers any hope to Giuliana. Accordingly, she is left to the one haven remaining in a heartless, inhuman and unheimlich world – this is the hope of romantic love in the form of a liaison with Corrado Zeller. If there is nothing else in the world to which we can cling, at least, we can embrace one another and work out our mutual salvation from within that embrace. The notion of romantic, illicit love as salvation, our last, best chance, as it were, drives most of the film’s narrative or, if you like, it’s non-narrative.

The inconsolable, crazy Giuliana poses a serious problem, I think, to most viewers. The film is too long and Giuliana, despite her great beauty, is ultimately too fragile a vessel to carry the weight of the movie’s many insoluble enigmas. In fact, Giuliana is not particularly mysterious. She is the paradigm of a figure that most people know and have encountered – the crazy girlfriend who seduces with her neediness and, then, ultimately repels her lover with her continuous, hopeless demand to be saved. Giuliana is the type of the female hysteric who is exquisitely successful at seducing men – her desperation is highly attractive to the male ego: "you have what is necessary to save me," the kind of woman declares: "it is you and only you who can redeem me with your love." But, of course, once the lover succumbs to this appeal, these blandishments directed to his ego, he finds himself trapped. What is wrong with Giuliana is not going to be solved simply by making love to her – sexual arousal and pleasure is not the answer to Giuliana’s ongoing, existential crisis. Her persistent demand that her lover rescue her becomes irritating, then, repellent, and, at last, infuriating. The film has a crazy authenticity about Giuliana’s panic and desperation. But this authenticity is so great that the audience, like Corrado, ultimately, rejects the heroine as appalling, self-centered, a hopeless case. The problem with The Red Desert, in my estimation, is not that it is too mysterious and poses too many questions that it can’t really answer – these are not defects in a film of this kind. The problem with the movie is that the restless, selfish, perpetually needy and demanding Giuliana is too banal, too obviously the "crazy girlfriend" that most men have encountered and, then, had to flee. (I write from my personal perspective; but, no doubt, women reading these lines can imagine male correlates to Giuliana, men who offer their love on the basis of this exchange: I will love you if you will rescue me – from what? From my unhappy marriage, from my unhappy past, from my sorrow or alcoholism from, ultimately, myself.) Those of us who have endured the misery of having a crazy girlfriend, don’t really want to be reminded of that suffering and, certainly, not at the length proffered by this picture. The film’s overriding question – how is the toxic environment related to Giuliana’s mental distress? – can be answered all too simply: it isn’t. Giuliana is crazy, mentally ill, and her sickness isn’t caused by the fumes and banging sounds or, even, the fruit and vegetables painted soot-grey. (Of course, answering the film’s central interrogatory in these terms destroys the movie – it makes the picture’s fantastical surface completely meaningless.) Most people have made love to a crazy man or woman and, probably, reject as banal the notion that the crazy persons hysteria was caused by the alienating conditions of modern life.

That said, the film suggests a mechanism for reconciliation with the unheimlich and disquieting aspects of the modern, technological world. The mechanism is suggested by the film’s mise-en-abyme, that is, its story within a story – this is the narrative that Giuliana tells to her ill child, the fable about the girl alone on the island with the beach with pink sands. We should notice that this narrative answers no questions; it doesn’t solve anything and, in fact, merely poses additional questions that can’t be answered. Why is the girl alone on the island? What is the meaning of the strange sailing vessel that approaches her, but that departs when she tries to swim toward it? What is the source of the singing in the world? Why do the forms of rock in the hidden cove suggest naked, and contorted human bodies? Certainly, the story that Giuliana constructs mirrors her plight – like the girl on the island, she is completely alone. Human beings around her seem to have been frozen into statuary – the cove with its metamorphosed human bodies suggests the Laocoon implied by the industrial piping that we see on the petroleum drilling rig, serpentine, voluptuous forms that vaguely suggest the human body. The sailing ship that moves without apparent guidance and meaning represents, simultaneously, the wish to escape this paralyzed, technological world, the technology that controls the world but that no one, in turn, seems to control (the ship is without captain or crew) and, at last, escape by suicide or death – the girl’s swimming out to sea toward the sailing vessel that then retreats away from her suggests eluding the meaningless of the world by committing suicide. The story has no meaning. It merely replicates Giuliana’s plight. But here is the key point: Giuliana’s narrative, although we can’t construe its meanings, seems to cure her son of his paralysis. Antonioni’s argument may be that asking questions in the form of a narrative is some sort of remedy for the illness that besets his heroine. In this context, the film itself, Il Deserto Rosso, is the medicine that Giuliana, and others like her, need to survive in the world. The movie offers itself as a pharmakon, as a powerful medication against the anomie that envelopes its characters.

In the end, Giuliana recognizes that the yellow smoke is toxic. The birds survive because they avoid it. The huge vessels soundlessly gliding through the lagoons of our cities carry men speaking incomprehensible languages and are marked with enigmatic signs that no one can read. A yellow flag, the color of the toxic smoke, is raised above these vessels – this flag means that the vessels’ crews have succumbed to the plague and must be quarantined; the ships are full of contagion and cadavers. But, at least, we can read the sign in the yellow puff of poison and, perhaps, avoid inhaling the toxins ourselves. Why is yellow a sign of poison? What exactly is the toxin? Why is it being produced? We don’t know the answer to these questions. But, at least, the film inoculates its protagonist and us against exposure to those fumes – if you see the yellow flag, either smoke or a banner, then, you must flee.