Aguirre, Wrath of God: understated study of obsession and megalomania is worth watching

Werner Herzog, “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (1972)

A dramatic fictional rendition of the 1560 expedition of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Ursua down the Maranon and Amazon rivers, and his overthrow and murder by rebel soldiers led by Lope de Aguirre, becomes a study of the pursuit of impossible ambitions and obsession to the point of madness and destruction in the hands of German director Werner Herzog. The film brought early acclaim to Herzog as a director and to lead actor Klaus Kinski for his acting, and was the first of five film collaborations that started with “Aguirre …” and ended with “Cobra Verde” in the late 1980’s. The two might have made more films together if Kinski hadn’t died in 1991: though Herzog and Kinski had a love-hate relationship to the extent they both apparently plotted to kill each other while working on “Aguirre …”, they at least respected each other professionally to want to work together again on further movie projects.

The first several frames of “Aguirre …”, where the actors are traipsing down a narrow path on a steep mountain side, carrying cannon and a heavy sedan-chair among other things, are at once hair-raising for sheer audacity and the danger involved, and breath-taking for the scenery. The expedition that’s just come down this way is under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), younger brother of the more famous Francisco who found and brought down the Inca empire in Peru, in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Separated from the nearest Christian settlement by hundreds of miles, Pizarro splits his expedition into groups and puts one such group, 40 men in total, under the control of Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as second in charge, to go on ahead by rafting downstream. Joining this group are Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo), Aguirre’s teenage daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera), the monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) and an aristocrat Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling). Almost immediately after Ursua’s group starts its trip, it runs into trouble: one raft with several men gets stranded in an eddy in the Amazon river and the rest of the group debate as to how to rescue them with Aguirre suggesting the raft be abandoned. A rescue group eventually reaches the other side of the river to rescue the stranded men but discover they have been killed mysteriously. The rest of the rafts then get washed away by the river and Ursua tries to return to Pizarro’s main expedition but Aguirre, eager to find El Dorado and win fame and wealth, leads a rebellion and replaces Ursua with Guzman as nominal leader. Ursua is tried in a kangaroo court and found “guilty” but Guzman as judge spares his life.

Aguirre fetes the foolish Guzman as emperor of a new territory and the rebels formally proclaim their breakaway from the rule of Spain. They build a new raft and sail down the Amazon but over time, starvation, isolation and attacks by hostile natives who never confront the soldiers directly (there are no actual scenes of fighting in the film) take their toll on the men. Yet they continue their quest for El Dorado as Aguirre is an oppressive leader who punishes disobedience and disloyalty with death and only Inez de Ursua dares to challenge his authority. Guzman is found dead, presumably murdered, and Ursua follows him soon after in death. Shortly after, Inez deserts the failing group. Eventually an attack by unseen Amazon natives wipes out the group including Flores and only Aguirre is left alive, nursing his obsession and going mad as the raft continues its fruitless journey downstream.

Viewers expecting much melodrama, frenzied action, shouting, hammy acting and bloody scenes will be very disappointed: the whole film is shot and directed very minimally so it has the air of a nature documentary or home movie. Acting and dialogue are minimal as well with a sketchy, mostly improvised narrative. The film in its last 30 minutes has the quality of a bad dream and a magic realist moment of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort comes late in the proceedings when the starving and delirious soldiers spy in the distance a galleon stuck in a tree far above the ground and start arguing over whether the scene is for real or they’re just hallucinating. Of course the symbolism of that sighting is completely lost on the men, let alone the immediate physical dangers it portends. Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is restrained, studied and calculating: his madness is more implied than open in the increasingly contorted way he stands and struts about and in the way he looks at the camera in close-ups, his head aslant, his eyes glassy and staring. Originally Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed maniac and clashed with Herzog over his portrayal; Herzog allowed Kinski to blow his top off and then filmed Kinski after he had calmed down. I’m not sure that I’d accept Kinski’s interpretation if he’d been allowed his way: I might have found it shocking at first, amusing second and then tiresome and campy. Under Herzog’s interpretation, Aguirre’s madness seems more plausible, as much caused by circumstances as the man’s own ambitions, and there’s a suggestion that even after the story has ended, Aguirre’s madness deteriorates further with the arrival of the monkeys. The boredom of life stuck with other barmy people on the raft, the frustration of following a dream that may not be real after all, the effects of starvation, fear of the forest and the unknown, and ever-present death … all these make more impression with matter-of-fact direction than a more conventional story-telling approach might have done.

The minimal camerawork with its long shots enables the Amazonian environment to emerge as a significant character in its own right: the river traps a number of men in a whirlpool and the forests along its sides hide dangers and unimaginable horrors beneath their silent leafy canopy. Staring at the bland, banal greenness all day long, knowing what terrors lurked within and expecting death at any moment, any sane person might go clean round the bend. Small wonder that Inez, once ashore again and in some kind of trance, wanders away into the forest and allows it to swallow her up. You become aware of the camera only when it starts to circle the raft at the very end, mimicking the whirlpool that trapped the other raft early on and emphasising Aguirre’s extreme isolation and descent into madness.

Understated and minimal as it is, the film’s not likely to appeal to most people expecting a strong narrative and lots of continuous action and dialogue that push the plot. Yet for all the long shots where you’re just looking at trees, people’s immobile faces, reflections in the river or even a mouse collecting its babies, the pace of the film is surprisingly fast for something that seems so static. It’s arguable that the spare approach makes a deeper impression on people than one where there’s so much busyness that viewers end up remembering very little of what they see and hear. Even so, I’d still recommend people should watch the film for a number of reasons: true, it’s entirely fictional but seeing people cooped up on a raft trying to cope with boredom, hot and sticky weather and getting on each other’s nerves in an unfamiliar and frightening environment may tickle some folks’ fancy (they’re the people fixated on watching “Survivor”); and among other things you become aware there are different approaches to telling a story which need not be all about action and fighting. As arthouse or cult movies go, “Aguirre …” is one of the easier ones to watch as there’s still a definite narrative and just enough loopiness for a mainstream audience to accept as credible.

The real Lope de Aguirre was perhaps very much the man Kinski had in mind: the man was a megalomaniac and paranoid who, as in the film initially, followed Pedro de Ursua with 300 soldiers and several hundred natives on an expedition down the Maranon and Amazon rivers in 1560. In 1561, Aguirre overthrew Ursua and then Fernando de Guzman and took over the expedition, had himself proclaimed prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and the Chilean provinces, and led his men to the Atlantic Ocean via the Orinoco river, destroying native settlements along the way. He reached Barquisimeto in Venezuela where he was attacked by forces loyal to Spain. Realising his situation was hopeless, he killed his teenage daughter Elvira, who had accompanied him, to save her from being raped and mistreated as the child of a traitor. He was captured, shot and beheaded and his body was cut up into pieces and thrown into the streets.

Agora: Hypatia’s life and times not done justice by film plot and structure

Alejandro Amenabar, “Agora” (2010)

This Spanish production presents a fictional account of the final years and death of the Greek female scientist / mathematician / philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. In Western literature, the death of Hypatia has often symbolised the decline of classical Greco-Roman civilisation and the values associated with it (in particular, free scientific inquiry and questioning / re-examining one’s beliefs and authority) and the rise of early Christianity and the values associated with that (unquestioning belief and faith in authority, literalism, bigotry and intolerance, the repression of women) and the film picks up this representation to decry religious authoritarianism and the damage it can cause. It’s an ambitious film with beautiful sets and actors with talent swanning around in gorgeous costumes but it’s let down by a confused and broken story that tries so hard to be relevant to modern audiences that clarity and emotional drama got left out.

As Hypatia, reputedly a woman of great beauty as well as of intellect, Rachel Weisz is not a bad choice: she does a good job with what she’s given though I think the film-makers could have given her more meaty work. The real-life Hypatia exercised some political and intellectual influence and leadership in Alexandria, and in this aspect of her life, Weisz isn’t quite so convincing as she is Hypatia the scientist: at one point in the film, she suggests that her persecutor, Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), should be arrested but on what basis, she doesn’t say and doesn’t back up her statement with argument or emotional force. As slave-owner to Davus (Max Minghella), Weisz’s Hypatia should be more ambiguous than she is: true, she’s gentle and treats him well when she feels he deserves it or gets hurt but when the plot calls for her to treat Davus as the slave he is, she isn’t severe or commanding enough. Spending much of her screen time trying to reconcile her Neoplatonic beliefs about an earth-centred universe where the planets move in perfect circles with actual astronomical phenomena that suggest something else – and finding the solution to her questions in a heliocentric view of the universe in which the earth and its sister planets revolve around the sun elliptically – Weisz’s Hypatia strikes me as a refined and perhaps detached aristocrat who seems at a loss as to how to deal with the changing social and political realities that eventually claim her life. She offers no opinions on the various religious ideologies vying for the Alexandrian citizens’ hearts and minds and can only say that she believes in philosophy (but what kind, the film doesn’t say).

The film’s plot is mired in a fictitious love triangle of Hypatia, her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who later becomes prefect of Alexandria, and the slave Davus: since Hypatia spurns both Orestes and Davus as lovers, and these two never actually meet, why do the film-makers even bother setting the three of them up in the first place? Davus, fed up with Hypatia’s condescension towards him (he is her slave after all, what does he expect?), converts to Christianity and leaves her service to join Cyril’s congregation but finds himself torn between his loyalty to Christianity and his passion for Hypatia. Orestes goes from being an ardent, red-blooded pagan wannabe suitor to an ineffectual, morally conflicted Christian politician who admits to feeling lost without Hypatia’s advice. That’s about all the character development the film offers and it’s wasted on two support roles. Of the characters of Hypatia and her enemy the Bishop of Alexandria, and their motives for being and acting the way they do, there is no development: Hypatia is just a self-interested geek who sometimes dabbles in politics and the Bishop is a sinister cult leader who manipulates his followers all the way through the film. Wearing black turban-like cloths around their heads, these followers are made to resemble current enemy flavour of the day the Afghan Taliban in case we don’t quite get the message.

The film’s earnestness and desire to relate Hypatia’s times to us modern ignoramuses is emphasised by the camera’s occasional pulling back from the action, right, ri-i-ight back to take in a Google Earth satellite view of Alexandria (lovingly done at times, as if to say, wow, isn’t this reconstruction of an ancient city beautiful?) and of northern Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region. We get the picture: religious bigotry and violence existed 1,600 years ago as it does now in the same parts of the world. The implication is a bit despairing, as if the conflict has always been an ongoing thing and only the actors change; first it was Christians versus pagans then Jews, now it’s Jews versus Muslims. The film breaks in half with two time periods in Hypatia’s life, one in which the Christian mobs pick on the pagans and sack their temple and library, the other taking place several years later with pagan worship outlawed so the Christians have to sledge the Jews instead. In the intervening period, Orestes has converted to Christianity and his character mellowed while Cyril has been promoted to Bishop of Alexandria. If viewers don’t get lost trying to figure the connection between these two arbitrarily chosen periods and why Orestes has become Christian and how his personality can have changed so much while Cyril stays much the same but with better pay and the lifestyle to match, I’ll be surprised. 

The film might have done better if Davus had been made the main character and observed his mistress’s downfall and death; he might also come to realise he has been brainwashed by Bishop Cyril and try to break away from him. Usually the purpose of having a fictional character in a movie about real-life people and events is to provide a focal person for the audience to follow the action and maybe comment on it. Through Davus’s eyes we might have seen Hypatia as a different woman, one more authoritative perhaps, more arrogant even, arrogant enough to think her status as an intellectual, political advisor and local celebrity warmly regarded by both Christians and non-Christians alike would protect her from a lynch mob. We might have seen the attraction of Christianity for someone like Davus and the danger of religious manipulation and extremist behaviour, and understand his inner conflict better.

As it is, the film is a good-looking introduction to a historical figure most people know little about in a period of ancient Roman history not previously covered by most films that cover the Roman Empire. I find it a shame that “Agora” is let down by an unnecessary plot vehicle, a protagonist and antagonist whose characters are rather flat compared to some others and a structure that just about derails the whole project by breaking in half. The pity is that Hypatia’s life and times contain enough real human drama and conflict about the forced retreat of science and reason before political expediency and religious extremism; the film could have made the point that Hypatia was as much a victim of Roman imperial policy and attitudes and of inaction on the part of local rulers in Roman Egypt as she was of the Christian lynch mob.

Heart of Glass: metaphor for downfall of German and Western civilisation

Werner Herzog, “Heart of Glass”, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (1976)

An 18th-century tale of a town dependent on its glass factory becomes a metaphor for the downfall of German and Western civilisation in this early film by Werner Herzog. The unnamed town, located in Bavaria, produces glass products with a ruby-red colouring but the knowledge of colouring the glass has died with the death of the foreman, Muhlberk, at the glass factory. As a result the townsfolk lapse into depression and madness and the local landowner / factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Gaettler), hereafter referred to as H, resolves to discover the secret of colouring the glass red for himself. He pores over old manuscripts, he threatens to exhume Muhlberk and have the local cowherd-cum-seer Hias (Joseph Bierbichler) talk to the corpse, he even has his servants barge into Muhlberk’s house to bring him an old sofa so he can rip through the cushions and search the stuffing. Later on he orders other people to take some of the ruby glass products and throw them into the lake to discover the secret (but the men flee with the items and sell them in another country). As all his schemes fail, H resorts to even more drastic measures to find the secret including murder and arson, ruining himself and plunging the town into chaos.

The pity of H’s actions and their results is that Hias has foreseen everything and tried to warn everyone of the doom that will follow; in spite of his lowly status as cowherd, he’s so good at forecasting that he can even foretell individual people’s deaths. (Why he doesn’t charge for his services remains unexplained: surely he could have forecast the wealth rolling his way if he did.) Early on in the film we meet two town drunks Anscherl and Wudy who sit in the tavern discussing what they’ve heard from Hias about how Anscherl will die. After then digesting this information in shared silence, Wudy smashes his glass on Anscherl’s head; the glass shatters but Anscherl merely brushes the shards away and blinks as if waking up. He then pours beer over Wudy’s face and Wudy barely registers the attack. At this point you realise the actors are beyond seriously drunk, in fact they’re not even drunk but either on some heavy drugs or hypnotised. A later scene in which the townsfolk walk more or less in single file shows they are all in the same mental state as Wudy and Anscherl. Herzog did indeed have all the actors except Bichbierler hypnotised which explains their odd actions throughout the film: they sit or stand staring into space with no interactions until it’s their turn to say or do something and even then, in the case of two women characters who have to scream in separate scenes, they sometimes miss their cues. (Bit like watching some very old episodes of Doctor Who where actors really did stand around on the set waiting for their turn in full view of the cameras.) This gimmick, for want of a better term, is a metaphor for the way society acts and reacts generally: we generally sleepwalk our way through life, waking up and blinking occasionally if something hits us, then going back to open-eyed sleep.

H and his obsessive quest are a metaphor too for Germany’s leaders who took their nation into two disastrous wars in mad quests for more territory and resources among other things. Like most of the actors, Gaettler has been hypnotised and camera close-ups often show him with eyes half-shut, to demonstrate the often unthinking, reactive nature of German politics. Huttenbesitzer’s father, who hasn’t stirred from his chair in twelve years, laughs at people and only gets up and walks around to look for his shoes when the town has been destroyed by fire, represents those people absorbed in petty problems and the trivia of life, failing to notice the disasters coming upon them. The maid Ludmilla can be seen to represent perhaps the workers and supporters of society, like the armed forces: she is told by Hias to leave the Huttenbesitzer mansion but continues to serve her masters faithfully and ends up a sacrifice.

While the town is collapsing around him, Hias continues to have visions about what will come: he sees a time when peasants will be the equals of townfolk and women the equals of men. His predictions trace the history of Germany through the two world wars and the American occupation. The townsfolk accuse him of having the Evil Eye and throw him into prison with Huttenbesitzer. Hias is able to escape and returns to his cave lair only to grapple with an invisible bear. The film’s budget was either very threadbare or Hias is going insane. After killing the bear, Hias “sees” an island of people at the far end of the earth in the distant future, who wonder what is at the end of the ocean horizon; four of the islanders then set off in a boat to sail to that very end to find the answer.

Everything in “Heart of Glass” serves a purpose, even the beautiful shots of nature that bookend the film: the early shots of mountain and river landscapes with overhanging clouds and the waterfall cascades, overlaid with a melodic electric guitar soundtrack by the German band Popol Vuh, exist to mesmerise the audience and put it in the right mood to see the tragic events unfurl; the later panoramic shots of the islands emphasise their remoteness in both time and space from civilisation. These scenes also emphasise the allegorical nature of the plot. Popul Vuh’s soundtrack which includes acoustic and chanting matches the style of filming and acting in its strangeness and is used sparingly and appropriately; most of the film runs without any background music and this lack together with the sparse zombie acting helps to create a sense of distance between the characters and the audience. If we feel any sympathy at all for anyone, it would be for Hias who, though the only clear-headed person here, is unable to save his people and ends up a lonely outsider losing his grip on reality; and perhaps also for Ludmilla who won’t or can’t escape when offered the opportunity. At the same time, “Heart of Glass” isn’t without moments of humour – intended humour or unintended, it doesn’t matter – as in the aforementioned scene with Wudy and Anscherl in the tavern and Anscherl’s death scene where the drunks are laid out exactly as Hias predicted. Many such scenes and others seem to be totally irrelevant to the film though they are all linked in some way.

Obviously this isn’t a film for everyone but if you’re in the right, ah, frame of mind or consciousness to see it, you shouldn’t pass it up. And if you’re not but you wish to be, you’d be better off hearing some nice instrumental Popul Vuh music rather than ask someone to whack you on the side of the head with a beer glass.

Wings of Desire: lovely and gentle meditation on divided Berlin and nature of being

Wim Wenders, “Wings of Desire” (1987)

A romantic fantasy about an angel who yearns to be human becomes a meditation on the nature of physical being and spirituality and how they complement each other under the direction of Wim Wenders in the gentle and melancholy “Wings of Desire”. Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) watch over the city of Berlin, divided into West and East Berlin at the time the film was made, listening to the inner thoughts and feelings of the cities’ inhabitants, and seeking to preserve the history of this troubled and divided metropolis. The angels try to offer comfort to those in distress and experience a kind of delight and joy when children see them and smile. Damiel and Cassiel have lived for hundreds of years in this way, watching Berlin grow and develop, and occasionally reminisce about particular periods in Berlin’s long evolution; they even remember a time when the city did not exist and talk about glaciers having covered the landscape so their age can’t be measured in human-defined terms. No wonder then, while sitting in a convertible in an auto showroom – don’t ask why winged creatures would want to do this but they do – Damiel confesses to Cassiel that though he enjoys his immortal angel existence, he yearns to have a material body, to feel and experience mortal life as humans do, to interact with humans themselves. This desire becomes all the more urgent when one day the angels see a French trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), performing her routines in a small circus that’s losing money and has to close; Damiel later follows Marion to her trailer and discovers she lives a lonely life with the prospect of waitressing in an endless succession of cafes and restaurants and never being able to be a near-angel again. He feels her pain, distress and loneliness but try as he can to comfort her in her loneliness, his spiritual being makes communication between him and Marion impossible.

In their travels across Berlin, the two angels encounter other people, many of them also struggling with issues of being and existence, not just their own but their city’s being and existence: they see an aged man called Homer (Curt Bois) who, unlike his ancient Greek namesake, wants to be a poet recording Berlin as a place of peace, not as a place of war; they offer sympathy and help to a pregnant woman being taken to hospital; Cassiel tries to comfort a potential suicide; and the two angels observe an American actor, Peter Falk (Falk playing himself), come to Berlin to make a film about Berlin’s Nazi history. In one memorable scene, Falk is able to sense Damiel’s closeness while buying coffee at a food bar and addresses the angel directly, wishing that Damiel could be present physically so he can offer him friendship; Damiel is only able to stand and listen to Falk but cannot reply though the audience can see in his face that he too wants to be friends with Falk. Why is it that Falk, alone among adults, can detect Damiel’s presence?

You need to sit through three-quarters of the film to find out why Falk can talk directly to Damiel and whether Damiel’s wish to be human and to connect with Marion (and she with him) succeeds. The symbolism can be puzzling to viewers unfamiliar with Berlin’s history and grappling with the notion that once upon a time it was divided between two opposed ideologies, one of which now seems dead and gone, the other looking more and more like a cartoon parody of itself and, if anything, starting to resemble the one that’s dead and gone. On paper the plot is threadbare and banal but the film is really about the nature of Being (or Sein as Germans would say) rather than doing, and in that respect it’s a very German film with a very German theme. There was an American remake “City of Angels” starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan which, being American of course, turned the film of being into a film of doing. No room for Peter Falk there.

The sketchy plot allows for an exploration of opposites within the film: Damiel and Cassiel’s angelic being opposed to mortal human being of Marion and others; Damiel’s desire to be human and Cassiel’s opposition to that desire; Falk’s improvised and plain way of speaking opposed to the often poetic lines uttered by Damiel and Cassiel, composed by poet Peter Handke; and Berlin’s past culture represented in statues and a library building opposed to its current reality represented by abandoned city lots decorated in graffiti, people in their apartments living with unfulfilled dreams and desires, and music gigs attended by groups of punk rockers. Appropriately one such gig is given by the real-life Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds who perform “From Her to Eternity”, the lyrics of which echo Marion’s loneliness and Damiel’s desire; these days Cave zips between “high” and “low” art with his music and literary output so he was a good choice to perform in the film. The opposites represent the divided nature of the city with the implied hope that one day Berlin will be reunited and its halves reconciled. Even the film’s appearance is divided between the monochrome of the angels’ point of view (representing their inability to experience Sein in full) and the colour of the human point of view. Views of Berlin showing its faded glorious past and its current grungey appearance make quite an impression on this viewer.

Bruno Ganz is perfect as Damiel, at once immortal and ageless yet naive, energetic and bursting with child-like wonder. His face especially is a wonder, all thoughts, feelings and emotions, some being experienced for the first time, all mixed in together. The scene where he and Falk finally meet for real is memorable just to see the different expressions flit across Ganz’s face and imagine the thoughts he must be having. Peter Falk is a great choice to play against the German-speaking actors with his distinctive accent and direct, warm style which would make him the least likely of all people to be a former angel (spoiler alert) – this contrast between what he is in the movie and his surface appearance simply confirms the confounding of notions of “high” and “low” culture.

Parts of the movie can drag and seem overlong, especially the scene where Damiel and Marion meet which comes across as a bit overcooked. Nevertheless it’s a lovely film that captures and muses on a particular period in Berlin’s history and evolution. I understand that to appreciate this film more fully, I need to watch the sequel “Faraway, So Close!” which, like the opposites explored here, is itself opposed to “Wings of Desire” in its being, structure, themes and characters.

Made in Dagenham: perky comedy-drama that’s a little shallow but enjoyable nevertheless

Nigel Cole, “Made in Dagenham”, BBC Films / UK Film Council (2010)
 
Much in the vein of other British comedy-dramas that revolve around social and economic problems faced by working class people and how they deal with them – think of “Brassed Off” and “The Full Monty” which dealt with coal mine closures and mass unemployment – this film is a brisk fictional dramatisation of the fight by a group of women machinists for equal pay and recognition of their skills against their employer Ford Motors in Dagenham in 1968. The story of their struggle centres around Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) who we first meet as a shy young worker, married to another Ford Motors employee at the same plant and raising two school-age children in their apartment on an estate close to the plant. Rita and her co-workers sit at machines furiously stitching together car-seat covers in hot, stifling conditions in a basement whose ceiling leaks badly whenever there is a storm. Rita seems an unprepossessing candidate for a firebrand leader for social and political change when early on she confronts her son’s teacher for caning the child for no reason and the fellow harangues her for her social and economic background, implying that this makes her a “bad” parent. Upset and close to tears, Rita flees the classroom, bumping into another woman (Rosamund Pike). Not a good start, it seems.
 
Encouraged and supported by the plant’s shop steward Albert (Bob Hoskins in an undemanding role) and co-worker Connie (Geraldine James), Rita finds the confidence and inner steel to speak up before the Ford Motors management and her union representatives to demand equal pay for work of equal skill as the male Ford workers are getting. The women machinists throw their full weight behind Rita and go on indefinite strike. Their action is noticed by the media, one thing starts to lead to another, and Rita and the other women are plunged into a round of union meetings, more demonstrations and an invitation to speak to women machinists at another Ford Motors plant who also go on strike. In the meantime, Rita’s husband (Daniel Mays) valiantly tries to manage the household. Ford Motors retaliates by shutting down its Dagenham plant, throwing the men out of work and into conflict with the women, and threatening to shut down its entire UK operations altogether if the women continue with their campaign.
 
The film does try – not successfully – to show that the women’s fight isn’t all smooth sailing. Rita comes perilously close to losing her husband and home, Connie’s involvement indirectly leads to her husband’s suicide and a young worker, Sandra (Jaime Winstone), is tempted by the Ford Motors management to model for a series of advertisements. The movie’s energy and upbeat mood steam-roll across the short episodes of tension, conflict and tragedy which is unfortunate as these periods are necessary to give audiences pause for thought and quiet away from the “on-on-on!” pace of the film and to round out the characters as three-dimensional human beings with lives away from the shop floor. Where the film does succeed is in detailing the general extent of sexual discrimination against women as a group: we become aware that in 1968 the discrimination was widespread across class divisions (the male workers at the Dagenham plant do not support the women strikers and the management tries to exploit this apathy) and many women themselves, represented by the lady Rita brushes past early on at her son’s school, internalised this discrimination as their lot in life: the stranger turns out to be a university graduate who allows her Ford Motors senior manager husband to intimidate her and treat her like a slave. In spite of her intelligence and poise, the woman, hamstrung by her class, can only offer Rita minimal support in the form of a bright red frock to wear to her meeting with starchy UK politician Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). Watching this film, you could learn nearly as much about men’s attitudes and treatment of women and the women’s meek acceptance of such treatment in the 1960’s as from watching several episodes of “Mad Men”; there’s the added benefit of seeing how corporations used these attitudes as weapons to divide and beat working-class people and sap their collective strength, and that not even Castle was immune from being patronised by people supposedly working with and for her.
 
I wish I could say that Hawkins portrays Rita as a woman who, in the process of becoming a leader, discovers a new self and goes through significant personal change but with the way the film charges ahead once Rita challenges the union reps, her character quickly gets locked into an onwards-and-upwards rut. There’s little opportunity from then on for Hawkins as Rita to express self-doubt, anxiety and feelings of losing control over aspects of her life, and to plead with her husband and others to support the women’s cause. Without some character development, Rita becomes a bit of a stock character and her husband is reduced to wallpaper support, and an opportunity to see them both grow and develop as human beings is lost. Hoskins’s mentoring character is also reduced to cheerleader status as a result. The drama around Connie and her husband, traumatised by his war experiences, is sketchy and viewers have to guess at why he commits suicide. The actors around Hawkins provide great support and with the exception of Richardson’s slapstick scenes don’t compete for attention. Perhaps as a result, in the few scenes where both Hawkins and Richardson are absent, the film tends to stall a little, the dynamism falters and viewers will feel like yelling “Bring Rita BACK!”
 
Details like fashion, hair-styles and the music of the period add colour and zip to the film and account for some of that perky, energetic mood that must have swept the film crew and the script-writers along with the actors. For all its shortcomings, this is an enjoyable film with a positive message for all those who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves, like Rita, thrust into positions they feel unsuited for.

Winter’s Bone: flimsy plot backgrounded by real poverty and catastrophic social problems

Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Meet Ree Dolly: she’s a 17-year-old girl caring for her severely depressed mom and two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee, on their farm located somewhere in the Ozarks region in the southeast United States. Dad hasn’t been seen for some time and is due to appear in court on charges of illegally making methamphetamine in a backyard lab. One day the sheriff pays a visit and warns Ree that if her father doesn’t appear in court, the family property which also includes a timber-cutting business will be repossessed as Dad had put it up as part of his bail conditions. This forces Ree to set off on an arduous search for her missing father, one that forces her to beg favours of members of her extended family and to navigate and test the limits of her impoverished community’s mores and codes of honour. We discover that nearly everyone is either unemployed or, like Dad, is engaged in cooking and trafficking in methamphetamines, and the whole community has always been suspicious of the police for reasons unexplained but which must go back a long way in the area’s history. This complicates Ree’s task as we learn that people also consider her father a snitch for talking to police and therefore deserves whatever happened to him.

Flimsy plot and crime-noir conventions aside, the film is memorable for the strong performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes and its portrayal of a clannish society wracked by extreme long-term poverty and the associated problems: drug abuse, low school retention rates, teenage pregnancy, violence, distrust of police. Lawrence virtually becomes Ree with minimal or subtle acting; hard to believe she’s never been to drama school. But that may be a plus since drama school might teach students certain methods or techniques that would be out of place in a film like this where a “non-acting” acting style is called for. Contradictions in Ree’s character become credible: she has courage, she is forthright, she is smart and keeps her family together yet she’s suspicious of police and won’t ask them for help, and is sufficiently naive enough to want to enlist in the US army just to get the cash to pay her dad’s bail. Hawkes as meth addict Teardrop also reveals unexpected aspects: initially unpleasant, unpredictable, unhinged and unhelpful, he proves a loyal ally to Rees and gradually assumes a stand-offish role as guardian to her family.

The Ozark mountain community seems familiar and yet unfamiliar in surprising ways: with the men hooked on meth and with little else to do apart from cooking illegal batches of the stuff, the women preoccupied with keeping their families and networks together and policing invisible boundaries between themselves and the men, they’re like what I imagine Mafia family networks or impoverished Australian indigenous desert communities to be. The men do their thing or waste their lives on alcohol, drugs or being sick, the women do all they can to keep family and clan networks intact and functioning, both sexes keep to their specific domains with the women deferring to men in making decisions and outsiders, especially representatives of the law, are regarded with suspicion. It would be easy to caricature and criticise these insular, suspicious mountain people but Granik portrays them in all their contrariness and their culture, where it seems everyone can do almost anything with instinctive ease (chop wood, hunt and skin animals, play a musical instrument, work a farm, cook crank), with sympathy and humanity.

The aspect of this community I was unfamiliar with is the methamphetamine epidemic: before seeing this film, I was simply unaware that crank use was so widespread in the US rural Southeast; in 2003, state police in Indiana alone found 1,260 small-scale lab facilities making meth, up from 6 in 1995 (source: Wikipedia). I had imagined alcohol and narcotics abuse, dealing in illegal weapons and people joining militias and white-power groups would be the main headaches for police. The dangers of making meth, easy enough but requiring the use of toxic, inflammable chemicals in extracting and purifying it, are made all too obvious in “Winter’s Bone”: early on, Ree is called on to inspect the charred remains of a shed that housed a lab where a batch went wrong; dialogue in the scene initially suggests her father was a victim in the accident. The whole area around the shed is poisoned and the community can’t afford to clean up the land and water supply. But while it’s arguable that the environmental damage of the meth epidemic should be the community’s immediate worry, there are other more sinister forces capitalising on the people’s helplessness: the US government, capitalising on the meth addiction to increase its police-state control of the people, and on the area’s poverty to drive young kids like Ree into the US army to fight never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely rates as the major threat to the Ozark mountain people’s survival and integrity.

Ree does become older and wiser but her future remains uncertain; the only thing she knows that ensures she still gets out of bed in the morning and away from crank abuse herself is her family’s dependence on her, as she acknowledges to Sonny and Ashlee: “… I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back”. It’s a heartwarming statement that confirms the power of family ties but given Ree’s context, very depressing as well.

Ran: stock characters make this film merely good, not truly great

Akira Kurosawa, “Ran” (1985)

“Ran” (“Chaos” or “Revolt”) was Kurosawa’s last attempt at creating and filming an epic historical drama set in Japan’s Kamakura period when feudal warlords ruled the country. At the time he made it, it was Japan’s most expensive film ever at a budget of US$12 million, financed mainly by French producer Serge Silberman. The film’s initial inspiration was stories about a 16th century daimyo (warlord), Mori Motonari, but the screenplay was also influenced by the famous play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

The film revolves around aged daimyo Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the consequences of the decision he makes in dividing his lands and the responsibilities that attend them, among his three sons prosaically named Taro, Jiro and Saburo (“one”, “two” and “three”, played by Akira Terao, Jinpachi Neru and Daisuke Ryn respectively), while retaining his titles, the symbols and privileges of his position. Taro and Jiro happily agree to the arrangement but Saburo, foreseeing trouble as Hidetora had not exactly been a model dad or a just ruler, objects. For his disobedience, Hidetora angrily banishes Saburo who is then forced to take refuge with Fukimaki, one of two rival warlords – the other named Ayabe – wishing to marry their daughters to him. Saburo allows one of his retainers, Tango (Masayuki Yui), to continue serving Hidetora in disguise.
 
Hidetora plans to spend his twilight years boarding at Taro and Jiro’s castles in turn. It’s not long before Taro, egged on by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada),whose family was murdered by Hidetora, finds a way to boot out Dad and his retinue so the aged man seeks Jiro’s help. Jiro, forewarned by Taro, also finds an excuse to refuse hospitality so Hidetora finds refuge in Saburo’s recently abandoned castle and lands. Alas, even this isn’t to the older sons’ liking as they join forces to storm the castle, killing nearly all of Hidetora’s followers and forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While exulting in the destruction, Taro is killed by Jiro who had been plotting all along with his generals to usurp Big Brother.

Hidetora’s fool (Peter) and Tango locate the old man and help him find refuge with a hermit who turns out to be Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), young brother of Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Years ago, Hidetora had killed the young siblings’ parents and blinded the son. Confronted by the evidence of his evil deed, Hidetora begins to lose his sanity and leaves the shelter. Meanwhile back at the Jiro ranch, Jiro is approached, seduced and manipulated in turns by his brother’s widow, Lady Kaede, who has shrewdly guessed his ambitions and persuades him to repudiate and kill Sue and marry her instead. Sue is forced to flee for her life so she finds Tsurumaru and they go to their parents’ abandoned castle ruins. Hidetora and his two followers have also arrived there and on seeing the young people, Hidetora descends further into madness and runs onto the plains of Azusa.

Tango returns to Saburo who then prepares his army and returns to the family territories to find Hidetora. Jiro, forewarned by messengers (dontcha just love the Pony Express that operates around here? where can we get fast express delivery like that?), leads his army to meet his brother’s. In the battle, Saburo’s disciplined forces rout Jiro’s with gunfire; in the meantime, Saburo receives news of Hidetora’s whereabouts so he personally goes off to retrieve him. Jiro guesses at what he’s doing so he dispatches assassins to follow after. He then receives news that Ayabe’s army is advancing on his castle so his army hurries back with Saburo’s forces on his tail. Jiro and his generals manage to get back to defend his stronghold. One general, Kurogane, who had earlier defied Lady Kaede, confronts her and finds out she has intended all along to destroy Hidetora and his two sons, so he kills her. Anchorless, Jiro and his generals find themselves and their exhausted, depleted army facing the full onslaught of Ayabe’s fresh forces.

Saburo finds Hidetora and they joyfully reconcile but Saburo is cut down by one of Jiro’s unseen assassins. Overcome by the disaster that has resulted from his rash decision, Hidetora collapses and dies. By this time, Sue and her maid have also been killed to fulfill Lady Kaede’s wish. This leaves Tsurumaru stranded at the family castle ruins, clinging to a painting of Amida Buddha that Sue had given him – which he accidentally loses down a cliff-like wall.

It’s a splendidly shot film with great visual beauty and dynamics: Kurosawa often uses landscapes to enhance a sense of extreme isolation, as in the scenes where Hidetora and his fool hide out in the ruined castle, or to suggest chaos falling in on Hidetora when he is first cast out into the wilderness. Even the weather and the time of day are important: the film opens during a bright part of the day with thunderclouds gathering overhead and ends during sunset with a blood-red sun. In the film’s opening scene, Hidetora and his sons, mounted on horses, are standing at right angles from one other looking for something and this scene portends the division, conflict and chaos to follow. There is close attention to technical detail, at least in battle scenes and those scenes that take place in castles, some of which were built for the film, though it’s possible Kurosawa took some liberties with actual historical details for the purpose of the film. The use of guns suggests the film’s events occur during the late 1500’s / early 1600’s which coincide with Shakespeare’s life-span and it’s likely the battle between Jiro and Saburo’s forces is partly based on the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, which Kurosawa dramatised in “Kagemusha” (1980), in which the use of guns overcame cavalry.
 
Nakadai as Hidetora is credible in the way he deteriorates mentally and physically; his make-up, based on Noh play conventions, reflects his gradual downfall. At the same time he becomes less of a stock character and more of a human being with feelings and weaknesses. The problem I have with Hidetora is that, unlike Lear in the Shakespearean play, Kurosawa passes up an opportunity to have him become a more caring and compassionate person towards his fool and others. Perhaps Hidetora is restricted by his social role not to care for others lower on the social scale and indeed most characters in the movie are one-dimensional stereotypes restricted by their social niches. This is true particularly of Lady Kaede whose make-up, stylised movements and monochromatic clothing render her a highly artificial and refined alien creature nursing a demonic hatred for Hidetora’s family; she’s the least human of the whole cast. Did her upbringing as well as Hidetora’s treatment of her and her family turn her into a devil? Hidetora’s fool on the other hand, moves naturally and expresses the full range of human emotions including courage and grief, and is clearly the one sane person in a highly dysfunctional world. Harada and Peter’s performances as these two characters are by far the most memorable in the film, not least because these characters behave outside the accepted gender norms for their society and class.

My impression of “Ran” is of a world of people trained and restricted by their roles in life to act as unthinking ants for the amusement of indifferent gods, an ontological view expressed by a minor character in the film. The collapse of this society is total with the unnecessary death of Sue, so devoted to Amida Buddha and forgiving of Hidetora, and Tsurumaru’s total abandonment when he loses the painting. The conclusion  is melodramatic, perhaps overdone – even Shakespeare didn’t obliterate all his main characters in “King Lear” – but it certainly illustrates an extremely pessimistic, nihilist view of the universe. Even in this world though, I still think there’s room for character development for Hidetora and maybe his sons, and this would have made “Ran” a classic film rather than merely a very good one: the tragedies that befall them would have been so much greater and more painful, and the universe become more harsh and uncaring, if the men had come to regret their actions and tried to make amends to others, only to be smacked down for their efforts by capricious gods.

Nazi Literature in the Americas: Bolano novel could have been shorter and better

Robert Bolano, “Nazi Literature in the Americas” (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), Picador, ISBN 978-0-330-51388-3 (2010)

You might have feared that an alarmingly titled work such as this would run to a 20-volume encyclopedia set but in English translation it’s of modest dimentsions at 259 pages. All the biographies of the writers mentioned within are entirely fictional though I’m sure many details and the general thrust, for want of a better term, of most accounts here are based on fact. After the shock of the book’s title fades, you realise it’s meant to be a playful and sly joke that relies on you knowing something of the tragic history of much of the 20th century, not just in Germany and Austria but also in parts of North and South America where many Nazi war criminals and their followers and sympathisers fled and managed to keep their heads low, though not so low that while they escaped the intense scrutiny of Israel’s Mossad they couldn’t offer advice to various politicians, military folk, captains of industry, crime organisations, police and academia among others.

Naturally, knowing that the book’s title is a joke, you expect writer Bolano to work it for all it’s worth or as far as taste permits (and then some). Visions come to mind of a bored clerk sitting low in the public bureaucracy, by day stamping forms that will send innocent university students, tutors and lecturers to a makeshift torture chamber in a soccer stadium in an Argentine city, and by night writing his first novel of a boy suffering from spurned puppy love, loneliness and bullying at school, discovering his true origins as an alien baby sent from the far reaches of the galaxy and crash-landing on a farm in remote Patagonia, realising his true super-powers will come to him when puberty hits … or imagine a rancher, descended from no-nonsense Scottish-Irish immigrants, on his remote farm in Idaho nursing his collection of assault rifles and shot-guns and printing his utopian manifesto of a nation returned to God, old-time religion, the right to bear arms and African-Americans returned to Africa with US$2 billion to set up shopping malls so they can feel right at home … think of a witty and suave academic in a prestigious North American university surveying various psychology studies to write a tome on why non-white people may be clever at copying technology but will never innovate on their own … or a retired Chilean politician writing his memoirs of flying fighter jets in the air force, “reluctantly” participating in the 1973 putsch, disposing of the country’s enemies and helping Pinochet to ensure law and order. By way of postscript, bookshops and libraries in Santiago and elsewhere consign all copies of the memoirs to the fantasy part of the fiction section. My favourite vision is of a cocaine lord in his remote Amazon jungle realm, fancying himself a successor to UK authors Enid Blyton and Ian Fleming, and so penning a series of children’s action thriller pot-boilers and foisting them on his agent and publisher. The two worthies, noting the stories’ numerous outrages against spelling, grammar and plot structure, and mindful of their client’s fearsome reputation, advise him to keep on writing while using the manuscripts as props for staff PC screens. One employee, idly flicking through a manuscript while waiting for his computer to reboot, falls off his chair laughing at one plot highlight in which a lone girl, mumbling with her teeth still in braces, shoots 20 corrupt police officers clean through the head with one round of bullets from her Kalashnikov, though all the men are head-and-shoulders taller than she is and all are standing in a narrow street alley where everyone travels in single file.

Alas my imagination ran more rampant here than did Bolano’s. The book’s attraction dulls quickly after the first several biographical entries and most of these emphasise biographical trivia, the subjects’ personal peccadilloes, a rundown of the subjects’ usually mediocre works and maybe an appraisal of some or most of what they wrote. Bolano’s style of writing ranges from factual and neutral to subjective (even slightly mocking) and descriptive; and then, in the entry on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman near the end, to personal with Bolano writing in first-person narrative as himself. Nothing about any really significant people, events or other influences in the subjects’ lives that set them on the straight and narrow right-hand (wing?) path appears in any of the entries apart from one where a woman is held as a baby by Adolf Hitler. Many entries don’t strike me as particularly National Socialist: the entries on the Schiaffino brother poets reveal them as little more than thuggish populists and ultra-nationalists. In a parallel universe somewhere, someone has written a book called “Stalinist Literature of the Americas” and the Schiaffino brother poets have entries here that, mutatis mutandis, are the same. Given what’s in the public domain about right-wing forces and institutions in the Western Hemisphere, it strikes me that none of the fictional subjects ever belonged to or formed militias, a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations or similar organisation, secret ultra-conservative Roman Catholic or other sinister religious cults, or had contacts with the Nueva Germania colony set up in Paraguay by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the sister of the famous philosopher) and her husband in the late 19th century. One point the book makes is that the kinds of people who would write extreme fascist literary works often have a sinister relation to power or to extremist groups that readily use violence or unethical means to seize power and impose ideologies and structures that benefit such organisations and their followers, create hardship and misery for others, and destroy those who oppose them or offer alternatives: these groups often have myriad origins, some often setting out with humanitarian, even socialistic ideals, in diverse settings and I wonder that Bolano didn’t try to explore how certain organisations (fictitious, of course) could have evolved from humble and harmless settings into ferocious beasts in some of his fictional biographies.

As I figured, the book is also an opportunity for Bolano to satirise the literary scene in Chile and other countries where many writers depend on government grants to survive yet are convinced of their worth and importance to society at large without having to prove their value. In certain periods, such writers also willingly swallowed whatever personal integrity they possessed and collaborated with the regime to produce literary propaganda that glorified it or its achievements. Speaking of satire, one of the fictional biographies could have been something of a mise-en-abyme, a satire within a satire, in which a so-called fascist turns out to be anything and everything but fascist. Now that would have been really satirical!

In short, I had expected more and better from Bolano in fewer and more varied literary biographies with detail that justifies them as Nazi as opposed to specifically fascist. I suppose though “Extreme Fascist Literature in the Americas” doesn’t have the same thrill and creepiness factor as “Nazi Literature …” in a world reliant on hair-raising headlines. As is, the book is best taken in small doses: the long entries on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman and Argentino Schiaffino and some of the short entries on speculative and science fiction writers are recommended to get an idea of how nutty and eccentric the book can be.

La Fille du Rer: film of connections that doesn’t quite connect

Andre Techine, “La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train)”, Strand Releasing (2009)

Not a bad drama but I couldn’t quite see the point of making a film based on a real-life incident in 2004 in which a young woman falsely claimed to have been attacked by a group of Muslim youths who’d mistaken her for a Jew, without exploring the incident and some of its aspects in some detail. You’d expect the director and scriptwriter to look at the woman’s motives and psychological background, see if there’s anything unusual or “out of the ordinary” like a history of mental illness or childhood sexual abuse that would indicate a need for attention, a cry for help, an attempt to connect with others. Instead Techine delivers a combination of a soap opera and a coming-of-age story about two families who have a past secret connection. The theme underlying the plot is connection: how people make their way in life through connecting to others through love, travel, media and even incidents that throw particular people together. The acting ranges from competent to good but some fine actors have little more than walk-on parts that don’t require their particular presence or talents.

The movie divides roughly in two parts. In the first part, Jeanne Fabre (Emilie Dequenne) lives a carefree life at home with mum Louise (Catherine Deneuve), rollerblading along the streets and trying to apply for secretarial jobs: one such job is at the law firm of Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a former friend of Louise’s husband and possibly her secret lover. Jeanne flubs her interview and application for that job so she goes home; on her way back, she meets a young man, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who gets her email address. Over time a relationship develops between them and she eventually moves in with him into an apartment over a shop he looks after. One day an incident at the shop lands Franck in hospital and Jeanne in trouble with the police who tell her that the shop was a front for a drug-running operation. Jeanne is cleared of wrong-doing but when she sees Franck in hospital, he tells her he knew she lied to him about having a job when she didn’t and rejects her. Dejected and upset, Jeanne goes home, mutilates herself and then goes out into the night.

The second part of the movie focusses more on Samuel Bleistein’s quarrelling son (Mathieu Demy) and daughter-in-law (Ronit Elkabetz) as they prepare for their son Nathan’s upcoming bar mitzvah. In the meantime, Jeanne reports her faked anti-Jewish attack to the police and the supposed incident makes news headlines. Louise hears of the attack on the news and confronts her daughter who reacts with apathy. Louise contacts Samuel for advice and he invites her and Jeanne to stay with his family at their weekend home. Here Jeanne meets Nathan who convinces her to tell the truth while both are sheltering in a little shack during a night-time storm. Jeanne owns up to Bleistein who directs her to write an apology. When Jeanne and Louise return home, Jeanne turns herself in to police and spends 48 hours in a jail cell. Later she is required to attend psychiatric therapy and when we last see her, she is rollerblading in the countryside and thinking about a recent letter from Nathan, who has just celebrated his bar mitzvah with both his parents, grandfather Bleistein and relatives and friends. In the letter, Nathan professes a growing affection for Jeanne and wishes to see her again when they are older.

Fair enough, the “actual” faked attack is a very minor part of the movie so there’s no need to actually see Jeanne report it to police – it’s explained in voice-over. The film doesn’t go into much detail on the consequences of the faked attack and the effect it has on Louise and Samuel Bleistein and whether they will see each other again after the events covered in the movie are over. We learn nothing of what Nathan’s parents think of Jeanne and how their opinion affects Nathan’s burgeoning feelings for Jeanne. Why he feels the way he does towards her is rather strange: he sees through her lies so he seems a good judge of character for one so young, yet he’s falling in love with her? The film’s treatment of Jews’ place in French society and the tensions between and among different groups within a multicultural, multireligious society still governed by traditional French social and political hierarchical structures (and what these say about broader social connections), is superficial to the point of non-existent. I start to wonder what the film is really trying to say.

The acting is fine: Dequenne has a difficult role to play, a shallow immature young woman who has little appreciation of the impact her lies have on people and who probably learns nothing from the experience, but she’s credible in the part and that’s all that can be expected; and Blanc and Deneuve are good in their supporting roles. Deneuve’s acting can be subtle, particularly in a scene where she nervously waits for Blanc’s character and then decides not to meet him directly, and it seems a shame Techine doesn’t focus more on their characters’ secret history and relationship and where that might go. But this isn’t their movie after all. Demy and Elkabetz’s characters provide some light relief as an estranged warring couple who reconcile, temporarily anyway, for their son’s sake but I feel that any particular set of actors whether good or bad could have played their roles. My impression of Elkabetz from seeing her in the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is that she is a very good lead actress and could have played a bigger part here other than just being a mother, wife and law firm employee.

For those viewers wondering if there’ll be a sequel where Louise and Samuel Bleistein meet again and decide to make their relationship less secret or more permanent, real life has provided a postscript to prod Techine if he runs out of ideas for films: in Marseilles in April 2007, nearly three years after the hoax incident that inspired the movie, a young woman really was set upon by two men of Middle Eastern appearance who noticed her Jewish chai necklace and cut her hair, slashed her T-shirt and drew swastikas on her bare chest, in a way similar to the hoax incident. Life keeps on imitating art deliberately, it seems.

Playtime: Tati celebrates human values but needed machine values to make it

 
Jacques Tati, “Playtime”, Madman Cinema / The AV Channel, DVD  (1967)
 
 
Said to have been the most expensive movie made in France at the time of its release involving the construction of an elaborate set over nine years that included an airport terminal, city streets with a multi-lane traffic roundabout, various office and other high-rise buildings, and the film itself taking three years to make in grand 70mm format, “Playtime” really is one of a kind, never to be replicated, at least not in these economically strait-jacketed times. Only Hollywood these days might have the money to finance a remake should a suitably fruitcake obsessive director be up to the job – hmm, why do I think of James Cameron as the man to do it? – but with MGM Studios facing bankruptcy at this time of writing, even a pale replica now appears impossible. All the more reason to treasure “Playtime” in spite of its near unwatchableness for most people.
 
“Playtime” plays like a satirical comedy and superficially in parts it resembles old silent film comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Visual gags abound and it’s necessary to view the film at least twice to catch most of them. The opening scenes in the movie look as if they’re occurring in a hospital but the building turns out to be an airport terminal. Main character Monsieur Hulot (director Tati himself), if we can call him that – he features in less than half the film – gets caught up in various slapstick situations, many of them featuring no dialogue or dialogue-as-background. Viewing the movie twice myself though, I sense a fairly serious and sometimes dark message about the place of humans and humanity in a world ruled by rationality and cold intellect as evidenced in the architecture, layouts and technology of 1960s Paris. At first we see people dwarfed and directed by their surroundings – they move in straight lines, they get tricked by walls or doors of near-invisible glass, they mistake a lampshade holder for a bus pole – but as “Playtime” progresses, the failings of an environment governed strictly by efficiency and rationality become obvious, and when technology fails as it does in the restaurant scenes, people react with spontaneity, warmth and reaching out to others.
 
No plot exists as such: the film is a snapshot of 1960s Paris over a 24-hour period, parts of which are experienced by Monsieur Hulot and a group of female American tourists of whom one young woman, Barbara, is always lagging behind the others for one reason or another (one of several ongoing jokes in the film). The film easily divides into seven segments, depending on where the camera is focussed: first up is the airline terminal segment where the tourist group first arrives. Much action takes place in longshot, forcing viewers to look everywhere over the screen to catch all the activity. The second segment takes place in an office building: Hulot has a meeting with an official and spends most of his time either ill at ease with the office chairs, trying to find the official or getting lost in the building. We get a good view of the impersonal style of the office building: people work in office cubicles that all look the same and are laid out in ways that resemble a geometrical maze; meetings take place in glass-walled areas that supposedly preserve privacy inside and out; and Hulot and the official alike are baffled by the building’s spacious dimensions and geometry as they continually miss each other.
 
Hulot stumbles from the second segment into the third which takes place in another look-alike office building that is holding a trade exhibition. Barbara’s tourist group visits this exhibition as well after Barbara is nearly left behind while trying to photograph a flower-seller. Hulot himself is mistaken for a thief who pilfers one exhibition’s publicity material for a silent-closing door but is quickly exonerated. In the meantime a lady in front of another exhibition demonstrates a household waste-bin cunningly disguised as an Ancient Greek relic; that might say something about Tati’s opinion of the modern world’s respect for history.
 
Hulot eventually leaves the building and catches a bus during evening peak hour. Commuters appear as comic conformist clones: they line up close together like segments of a centipede to catch a bus and hang onto a lampshade post instead of the bus railing. In one scene, four men dressed exactly alike enter four identical cars parked close together at much the same time and drive off, one after the other, in a perfectly timed sequence. When Hulot leaves the bus, he meets an old friend who drags him into his apartment and the apartment block where the friend resides is the focus of the film’s fourth segment. We see four families in the apartment block watching TV through their ceiling-to-floor windows and it’s obvious they’re all watching the same TV show. Because the TV sets are stuck into common walls, the families on the ground floor appear to be watching and reacting to each other: in a role reversal scene, a man strips his shirt off and the woman next door peers closely at her TV set at the same time as though seeing a peepshow. It’s a wonderful visual joke, plausible and implausible at the same time.
 
Most of the second half of the film is taken up with opening night of the newly refurbished Royal Gardens restaurant and there are numerous gags here. Several waiters prepare and season a dish repeatedly for a couple, only for that dish to be taken away to another table. One waiter forced to retire outside the restaurant after tearing his trousers on a chair finds himself lending out his jacket, tie and shoe to other waiters with similar accidents throughout the evening. A pillar placed in a high-traffic foyer proves a constant nuisance for waiters and customers alike. Part of the ceiling collapses, a glass door shatters, there are air-conditioning problems and the electricity supply goes erratic. Waiters aren’t always attentive and customers at the bar keep falling off their stools. As the night progresses and more disasters occur, everyone relaxes and starts making their own fun, dancing and singing along. Barbara appears at the piano, playing a tune (yes, the tourist group came to dinner) and meets Hulot who offers to buy her a gift.
 
The sixth and seventh segments take place during the bleary-eyed hours of the early morning when the restaurant closes and customers go home. In the drugstore segment, a couple of workers manage to siphon some free wine into their pipes (the plumbing sort of pipes, not the smoking sort) while the sales attendants are elsewhere. Hulot finds a gift and passes it onto Barbara, already late boarding her tourist bus, via an impromptu messenger. In the seventh segment, the focus is on morning peak hour traffic circulating around a multi-lane roundabout in slow, mechanical clockwork fashion.
 
Tati’s message about humanity and modernity appears optimistic – a machine-like society is apt to break down and humans released from such a society will re-discover warmth, creativity, spontaneity and connection – but offers nothing about how to change such a society permanently to something less grim. “Playtime” has a circular quality – it begins and ends with camera shots of blue sky with clouds – which suggests that the machine society and natural human warmth and spontaneity will always be at loggerheads. Why should that be?
 
Perhaps Tati himself wasn’t the appropriate person to offer a more human-based alternative: to make such a hugely expensive and elaborate film like “Playtime” with its huge and detailed sets and carefully choreographed action must surely demand a personality bordering on manic and obsessive if not tyrannical. Tati fans already know the film didn’t recoup its massive production costs and Tati was forced to declare bankruptcy and to sell his home. He must have had something of a love-hate affair with the modernist ideal to have made a series of films revolving around Hulot that focus on the French obsession with brutalist modern architecture that is often impractical and overscaled and on emulating American consumerism and pressure-cooker lifestyles. Technology wasn’t necessarily an issue: in a later film, “Trafic”, Hulot appears as an inventor driving his self-made car full of gadgets to an exhibition. Speaking of impractical and overscaled, “Playtime” is not exactly amenable to viewer comfort: filmed in epic 70mm with no close-ups or over-the-shoulder action, it is a BIG picture which dwarfs its human characters in scale and action, and with so much going on all at once, the film must be seen at least a few times in its full format to be fully understood and appreciated.
 
Yes that’s the paradox about “Playtime”: for a film that celebrates the playful human values of yesteryear, it had to embrace the values of machine-like precision, rationality and obsession with growth and massive scale that it gently derides just to get made.