Wednesday, July 27, 2016

#810: In a Lonely Place

(Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Something a little different this time - I guested on a Criterion Close-Up episode discussing the first Bogart entry in the Collection.

Criterion Close-Up Episode 45 - In a Lonely Place

Monday, April 25, 2016

#804: A Brighter Summer Day

(Edward Yang, 1991)

"You can't even tell real from fake. How can you make movies?"

Art is objects made to look like symbols, or perhaps the other way around. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. In cinema, this takes the form of actors and sets and music and title cards, but the most interesting thing in film has always been the illusion of fantasy made real; the rudimentary science fiction of A Trip to the Moon; the Depression-fighting glamour of The Thin Man; the television-fighting Christian epics of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur; the current kid-fantasy comic book deluge. All of these genres are wildly different and intended for different audiences. But they represent the history of cinema as an artform primarily concerned with the artificial and imagined conceits of society turned literal on screen.

The real and the fake constantly bleed together in Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, his four-hour masterwork finally available in the US on home video (or any kind of wide release) after 25 years of bad bootlegs and fleeting repertory screenings. The blurring starts at the top. Taiwan itself is a simulacrum of China, a "republic" in exile, convinced that it will return to claim its country. The generation that lost China's civil war, represented as parents in the film, dreams of  retaking the mainland, yet seems more intent on displaying to themselves their readiness than actually delivering on it - a false show of force rather than the implementation of it.

The implications of this myth - and the dependence upon it - are all around the characters of the film, despite the fact that the movie's core story is not overtly political. S'ir's family lives in a house formerly occupied by the Japanese, a constant reminder that Taiwan is a nation in flux and without the ever-present history of their former country. Tanks roll down the street to nowhere in particular. The night school S'ir is demoted to uses military-style uniforms that mask the ganglife reality of its students (a layer of deceit later extended by Honey's return, where he wears a military uniform to avoid the police).

Within this context, it's no wonder that S'ir and his classmates would turn to American culture, a worldview created by the children of immigrants in a land where tradition is constantly erased. Elvis's disciples in the film, particularly Cat, present renditions of his work that are difficult to visually reconcile: young Chinese men and boys singing like, posturing like, hoping to move like American rock-and-rollers. Cat, subtly one of the most important characters in the movie, does not understand the words but uses phonetic translations of the music to recreate nearly perfect renditions. Is it "a brighter summer day" that Elvis sings, S'ir's sister wonders? The film's English title, it seems, could itself crumble under closer scrutiny.

S'ir and Ming are the false lovers at the center of this story of misunderstood run-ins and quiet injustices. The relationship is built out of imagined connections, mainly because Ming is so obtuse that she allows any boy (or man, in the case of the doctor) to ascribe to her whichever need they have the urge to satisfy. In the case of S'ir, this plays out as the role of protector. Ming's early acquiescence to this dynamic illustrates the typical peril women face in innocent games; what is taken as flirtation and innocence by S'ir is actually Ming's defense against the already typical pull men feel toward her. In Ming's shoes, their interactions are superficially meaningful. She is drawn to S'ir because she thinks he doesn't want precisely what her attention is stirring within him. Look at the final crime that brings their dalliances to a final tragedy: S'ir does not intend to stab her until the very moment he does it. This crime of passion was originally (presumably) intended for Ma (whose own power over Ming by employing her mother casts further tragic light on the girl's facility for choice outside the intentions men place on her). Even this most-real moment is something far different than it looks. As S'ir stands over Ming's body, with the surrounding shoppers as oblivious to what has just happened as they are to the world of teenage games that we've lived with for nearly four hours, he looks down and screams at her that she is not dead. It's hope for reality to pull him out of his nightmare despite the fact that we know it's the other way around.

This final moment couldn't have come without the interrogation S'ir's father experiences. In the most jarring narrative shift in the film, Yang cuts from the white-knuckled terror of the pool hall massacre to the White Terror of Taiwan's purging of suspected Communist sympathizers. This rug pull is addressed in the essay accompanying the Criterion release, though Rayns seems to take it at face value. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Yang timed the massacre for the halfway point of his epic, nor does it seem surprising that he would follow it with the rest of S'ir's world crumbling around him; this film is a symmetrical arc with a second half that descends into emotional chaos for father and son alike. But the fact that Yang chooses to avoid any of the immediate aftermath of the massacre is the mark of a true storyteller. Like, Ozu, Hitchcock, or Resnais, Yang knows when his viewer can make a narrative jump more elegantly than the average filmmaker does. And here, too, the film's reality bumps up against artifice.

S'ir's father is of course a good citizen of the Republic of China. Though he's taken the same kind of hit most middle class former Chinese men have in the move to Taiwan, there's no indication in the film that he regrets his decision. We even meet a woman whose husband opted out, returning to Mao's China in the 50s to attempt to open up the country during the Hundred Flowers Campaign. This is also why Zhang is interrogated, of course. He happened to be friends with the wrong people, who are really just the people that anyone would know in a messy separation like that of the Communist revolution (mirroring the lower stakes HUAC era in the States). Zhang is a true citizen of Taiwan's Chinese government, yet fear of Communism has turned citizens into spies. Zhang's friend Wang talks a big game, but it's not clear if he is able to back up this posturing; S'ir's mother wonders aloud to her husband if he wasn't behind the kidnapping himself. The ultimate fa├žade crumbles as Zhang is pulled from his interrogation room to glance in on another interrogation - just like his own - taking place in the next room over. It's an assembly line of false confessions, designed to blur the line between truth and fiction and serve up a generation of traitors to excuse the sorry state of the resistance, long since exiled to a tropical island.

As the film's devices extend into metaphor, so too does the push and pull between real and fake. The most overt example of this is the flashlight, a wonderful display of Yang's deliberate plotting and delicate hand with symbolism. S'ir steals the flashlight in the early moments of the film from the movie studio that sits next to his school. From there it winds its way through the plot as doggedly as S'ir himself, almost immediately playing a key role in illuminating Sly's makeout session, but then bleeding into events at school, encounters with Ming, and perhaps most notably in the chilling massacre S'ir is witness to at the pool hall. In the commentary included with the film, Rayns posits that S'ir initially intends to steal the flashlight simply to read in his bed. But this seems far-sighted for a clearly impulsive kid like S'ir, who likely just grabbed the first thing of value on the guard's desk when he was unattended to. Still, the ways in which S'ir (and others) use the flashlight are often childlike and innocent, even when what it reveals is more sinister. S'ir returns the flashlight (where he says the line at the beginning of this post) just before his final act; he's put away childish things and turned toward his fate.

Flashlights are frequently metaphors for truth, shining a light on what was dark. Yet their light is artificial, cutting through the natural darkness to glare at things that were meant to be hidden. The pool hall massacre takes place in the dark because the Taiwanese government is unable (or more likely unwilling) to keep the lights on. S'ir's flashlight cuts through this darkness to reveal the truth hidden by his government. As the tanks roll by, Ming turns the light on and off, bouncing the fake beams off the giant machines lumbering through their world. A war has become a game (just as the doctor accuses Ming of turning love into a game), and the normalization of violence persists. The flashlight's origin in the movie studio extends the metaphor: this light is from a temple of light, a place where without exposure there is nothing. The coincidence of the flashlight motif and the concept of a brighter summer day no longer seems so coincidental.

Yang's basic premise for A Brighter Summer Day, using a real-life tabloid murder from his childhood to construct a wholly fictionalized narrative about his and his father's generation, is filled with potential for exploring the battle between real and fake. Of course, the very nature of cinema, referenced literally in the studio subplot of the film and in the quotation at the beginning of this post, is ripe for examination of the duality - the technical process of individual frames implying motion is just as much of an illusion as the developed method of storytelling within the medium (editing, set design, acting, post manipulation, etc.). Yet there are many conscious and unconscious layers of narrative piled on top of reality. The film's Chinese title is "The Murder Incident of the Boy on Guling Street," yet the boy is not the boy (his used name in the film is not his "real" name in the movie - yet his "real" name is the real name of the actor who plays him, just as his fake father is played by his real father) and the street is not Guling street, but rather an elaborate set constructed for the film. Real-life events are either inserted into the film to anchor the fictional story to history (the Nixon/Kennedy election) or altered to fit the narrative's momentum (the massacre that serves as its turning point is loosely based on a real-life crime that occurred years after the film is set).

The concept can be extended to Yang's directorial style, one that was in line with many of his peers in New Taiwan Cinema. Long takes, amateur actors, and stories that detail the real lives and political context of everyday life are all devices frequently used to eliminate the "lies" of cutting, method acting, or wish-fulfillment and/or pure entertainment in mainstream films. This was not necessarily the conscious intention of these filmmakers, many of whom took their influences directly from previous titans like Ozu, whose frames within frames are on full display here, and Herzog, who showed Yang that film can be deeply personal and need not conform to commercial standards. But they nevertheless reject both Hollywood and what the filmmakers were seeing within their own industry, where romance pictures and war propaganda were being churned out by a tired studio system out of touch with the realities of second- and third-generation life in Taiwan.

The real/fake relationship can be felt everywhere in the film, both literally and metaphorically. The implications of this dichotomy, pulled throughout the film's mammoth running time, are less straightforward. What does this continual process of illuminating obscured truths say about the world Yang wants to depict? Rayns mentions on the commentary that Taiwan's history was tightly controlled through the first thirty years of its history under Chinese rule, to the point where huge massacres like the one that inspired the pool hall incident were not even covered in the paper. So perhaps Yang's intentions were political, a statement about the struggle of Taiwanese 2nd and 3rd generation children to decode their past. Told lies and half-truths for so long, it would seem cathartic to experience a film like A Brighter Summer Day. This political slant ties nicely into the rest of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, where films shed light on similarly papered-over but significant events like the February 28 Incident where thousands of native Taiwanese were massacred by the Chinese government.

However, I think Yang's intentions were much more personal, and therefore universal. At the end of his brilliant commentary, which, as would indicate its impressive scale, I've already referenced quite a bit, Tony Rayns says that he believes the film is about both father and son and their inability to reconcile their own personal system of beliefs with that of the authoritarian state under which they live. This is as good an explanation of the film's larger purpose as any that I have heard or read, but I'll offer one more.

A Brighter Summer Day seems to be not so much about the individual versus a social or political structure as it is about the fundamental nature of identity - "who am I?" not "how can I be myself?" The rocky path father and son find themselves on is not laid exclusively by the powers that be, but partially by their own doing. One of the key moments in the film is Zhang telling S'ir "if a person will apologize for the things he didn't do, he is capable of anything." This is directly relevant to the situation both find themselves in, where the father is accused of sympathies he does not harbor and the son is associated with the gangs to which he does not belong. But it's also indicative of their internal struggle to make a place in the world. Yang once said that the film was made to address the unspoken choice Taiwan must eventually make, to declare independence or reintegrate into China. Either approach is an acceptance of defeat, and for me this is why the film is not so much about the destruction of the individual as it is about the struggle for a moral and certain dignity within any state, though particularly an oppressive one.

In this regard, both men have fought a losing battle by the second half of the film. Zhang is a shadow of his former self walking home from his son's former school, recreating the scene from earlier where he laid down his stand against false confession. As Rayns notes, S'ir himself is pushed out of the film by the camera, depicted either outside the frame or with his back to us for the final stretch. This is not the oppression of the state - we've seen that come down on him for the first three hours of the film -  but the elimination of identity, his final chance for redemption pushed aside with him. The movie opens with S'ir's fate being discussed by other people as he sits outside. The value of education in the world of the film makes clear the role the radio broadcasts of graduating students play in the film's bookends: this is tragedy of lost potential, of sacrifices made that were never redeemed. Of course, virtually none of the children we've met during the film will be included in any broadcast like the ones we hear, so there are certainly social implications here, the idea of a lost generation. But the continuation of the Zhang family's household chores (and the absence of the men) in the final moments points toward a more personal tragedy. S'ir's cinematic dissolution is a democratic call to Yang's generation, and a tribute to the failed struggle of his father's. These are statements with far-reaching political implications, but they apply first to the individual.

Many people have talked about the novelistic qualities of A Brighter Summer Day; the detail in the setting and plotting; the huge number of speaking parts; the many threads of story that are intertwined so tightly that the running time could not be reduced without sacrificing key moments, a rare case of a four-hour film without any fat. In the modern era, this is most reminiscent of the praise surrounding The Wire, David Simon's five-season examination of the American City at the turn of the 21st century. I am not the first to compare this film to The Wire (on the day of the blu-ray release, Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting made an illuminating comparison chart of gang names on Twitter) but I do so here because the theme of the individual within a system, as A Brighter Summer Day also alludes to, was at the heart of that show's run. But where the two works part ways is on the issues of identity that I think are so vital to the purpose of this movie.

Unlike the father and son of A Brighter Summer Day, the characters of The Wire were unapologetic about who they were. McNulty, the central character of the series, is almost wholly driven by his inability to play by the rules, yet the small amount of impact the wire has on both the drug system and/or policing in Baltimore comes directly from the supreme confidence in his own nature. In fact, attempting to pretend your identity can be altered is often punished. Many of the most significant deaths in The Wire  - Wallace, Omar, Stringer - come when the character attempts to change and get out of "the Game." But their deaths do not come from the system, they come from their own conscious choices to drift back into their old habits, their true identities. There are of course exceptions to the rule; Bubbles and Pryzbylewski have significant character arcs in the show where their identity becomes an awakening. But these exceptions are intentional, and point to the insidious nature of the system, where expectation of even the most revolutionary individuals (McNulty, Marlo, Carcetti) is baked in.

Ultimately, The Wire is a cynical show, not about human nature but about the economic and political structures humans have created. People are people in The Wire, not good, not bad, but flawed and resilient. Partially because it's set in the past, A Brighter Summer Day is something else entirely. The individuals in the film have long since passed the point of change, but it's not too late for the 90s. The movie's events seem so detailed and familiar that they must be real. But they are not. They are constructed around a false memory and lost identity that does not need to be fate and the individual alone can transcend. Yang is telling the viewer that honesty can change Taiwan.

The comparison still continues to hold water because the superficial comparisons are also apparent - a portrait of society as told through its young gangs, storylines we enter midway with a narrative uninterested in providing exposition to ground the viewer, sprawling casts with fully realized biographies just offscreen. It's these elements that in many ways make the two works so appealing (and so seemingly authentic) to such a wide number of people, despite the fact that they never make any attempt to adjust people to lives of the characters - they simply are, and in so being, we recognize humanity. But these similarities - the ones that make them still so popular and vital to outsiders - belie the individuality of each work. These complex, richly symbolic narratives thrive on their dedication to the truth of their characters and the hyper-local world that surrounds them. Unsurprisingly, A Brighter Summer Day was embraced by the Taiwanese youth on its release, just as The Wire found favor with inner-city drug dealers in the 2000s. Specificity and detail go a long way toward tearing down the barriers between real and fake.

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The basic premise of this blog (which was never expected to last long enough to need to stick to any sort of premise) is to record my thoughts immediately after my viewing of a film without any additions or editing beyond typos in a second pass-through (many don't even get this low level of editing as you may have noticed). I've broken this rule a handful of times, usually with something like Last Year at Marienbad or Shoah that affected me a great deal but required more reflection to translate my feelings into words (though both went largely unedited - I just took my time writing them). A Brighter Summer Day is so complex and thought out that both approaches seem unworthy of the movie, which is what prompted me to write what I have written here after seeing the film a second time with commentary and watching some of the extras, not to mention spending a few weeks sitting with it. While I don't consider the observations I've made here to be the final word on the meaning behind the film, I haven't seen this aspect of the movie explored yet, and I think it's an approach to the sprawling story told here that helps illuminate the psychology behind both this film and Taiwanese cinema in general. Any movie with such a rich tapestry of characters, plotlines, and consciously implemented symbols (the radio, the flashlight, the baseball bat, the use of knives and swords, basketball, Elvis, etc.) leaves room for many interpretations. But this is a particularly impressive feat here because Yang's execution is so detailed and both time- and place-specific.

I don't think any of us fully comprehend the impact this film will have in the coming decades now that it is widely available, not just to an American audience, but to international viewers (including those in China) who are willing to import it. Although Yang is not doing anything particularly revolutionary with his camera work or story structure, the complexity and depth of his achievement here unlock the door to cinematic perfection through brute force. Furthermore, his dedication to the world he constructed and his insistence on the specific without concern for internationally familiar context should serve as an inspiring roadmap for developing cinema all over the world. In the last Sight and Sound poll, A Brighter Summer Day ranked #84 overall and placed behind only In the Mood For Love in terms of Chinese films. I expect to see it grow in estimation with its newfound exposure, similar to the current #1 film (and long my go-to choice for my own personal favorite movie), Vertigo, which was also "lost" for decades. In fact, I expect to see this movie in the top ten by the 2032 poll. It's that good, that massive.

One final thing - I don't particularly care to compare the film to Yi Yi, Yang's more successful (internationally) and widely available final film, because they are very different works and are intended to reach the viewer in different capacities. That later movie had a deep emotional impact on me and it continues to be a personal favorite. A Brighter Summer Day is the more important film, however, and this Criterion release will cement its reputation as Yang's masterpiece. As this post likely implies to the reader, I'm perfectly fine with the distinction.

Friday, April 15, 2016

#805: A Poem Is a Naked Person

(1974, Les Blank)

It says Leon Russell's name on the cover, but A Poem Is a Naked Person might as well have "A Snake" in its place (or any one of the other myriad characters here) for all the movie is about Leon Russell. This might be chalked up simply to the style that Blank has used in his many shorts, most of which can be found on Always for Pleasure, the superb retrospective Criterion released a few years ago. But as that collection showed, Blank was more than capable of giving a subject its proper due, most notably on Sprout Wings and Fly and The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, the latter of which was likely the film that got him this for-hire gig after Russell and his business partner landed on a wild idea that was likely matched with equally impressive amounts of illegal narcotics.

The more likely reason Blank drifted away from Russell says little about the nature of Blank's talents and more about where his interests lay. Most notably, Blank was a student of tradition and the dying micro-cultures of America. Music was one of his major pursuits, and this is why his pairing with Russell made at least some sense. But Russell's primary musical success came with a very trendy at the time style of blues rock merged with gospel and country underpinnings, something that likely horrified Blank more than it interested him. It's easy to see where Blank's interests overlap with Russell's: a full George Jones acoustic performance (and a superb one at that) is given its due, as is a rousing session musician rendition of "Goodnight, Irene," a standard country song. When Blank talks to Ambrose Campbell or the man the film's press release claims to be a suspect in the famous D.B. Cooper hijacking case, you get the sense he really wishes the movie was about them, not Russell. On the other hand, Russell's concert performances are often shot haphazardly and rarely played out for more than a short beat. If you didn't know the movie was supposed to be about Russell, you wouldn't know watching the film, though you might think Blank was a little more into the guy than it seems considering he was ostensibly paid to film him.

Like Blank, I won't be taking much Leon Russell away from A Poem Is a Naked Person, despite enjoying the film very much. I have mixed feelings about Russell, who wrote some great songs and did a lot of session work for great musicians, but never seemed like much more than an average performer for his times. He was often susceptible to the common indulgences of the times both in his recordings (which are uneven) and his live performances (which are dated). Still, I do think he comes off well enough here, and as mentioned the performance of "Goodnight, Irene" that he leads is one of the highlights of the film. What's most memorable about the movie is the infusion of Oklahoma and Texas, particularly the balance of traditional conservative middle America and the offbeat revolution that was sweeping the country in the early 70s. It's wonderful to see the crowd at Willie Nelson's performance at Floore's, priceless to hear from the everyday folks coming out to see buildings get taken down in the city, and the way Blank balances it all on the precipice of art and commerce, yesterday and tomorrow, makes the film more than just a movie about someone it doesn't want to be about.

#780: Code Unknown

(Michael Haneke, 2000)

Code Unknown is accurately titled. The movie is constructed out of a loose collection of scenes that wouldn't be that disconnected if it wasn't for the slow fades that separate them. The way Haneke constructs each scene requires the viewer to get his or her bearings in the first moments, unsure of who we are with, how it is connected to what has come before, and when we are with Juliet Binoche, if the scene is part of the movie or the movie within the movie. Films that are about how the world is big and diverse and we are all disconnected from each other often hit you over the head with their message - think Babel or Crash - like a person you already agree with yelling at you too close. Code Unknown takes another route, leaving the viewer feeling as detached from the movie as the characters within it are from each other.

I'm not a huge Haneke fan, though I haven't seen many of his most famous films like The Piano Teacher or Amour. I feel like in a lot of ways Cache is the more accessible version of this film, and I liked that one much better, though again it didn't really stay with me. He has obvious technical skill, but I find his work very cold and, like Lars von Trier, he often seems more interested in how his films make the viewer feel than in what is happening on screen. That's certainly okay, but I think there's a higher bar for provocative cinema, and I don't think Code Unknown clears it, not the least because I wasn't particularly provoked by what I was seeing. I was bored.

Friday, April 1, 2016

#797: The New Land

(Jan Troell, 1972)

The New Land picks up immediately where The Emigrants left off, yet it is a distinctly different movie. First off, it's significantly darker, with two specific sequences that are incredibly disturbing. Secondly, and more importantly, its momentum is on the decline, with a distinct backward-facing focus.

In an interview Treoll gave recently, he mentioned that there was one sequence in the book that convinced him to make the movies. It involved Ullmann's character remembering a doll she had dropped down a well in Sweden, and how the doll got more beautiful in her memory as the years went by. This sequence didn't end up in the movie after all, but he used this when developing this second movie (and during the swing scene at the beginning of The Emigrants, which is a sort of placeholder metaphor for the sequence, and one I have to think inspired Malick when he made Tree of Life and really all of his films). If The Emigrants was about beginnings and potential, The New Land is about endings and regrets. The final scene in which von Sydow is shown surrounded by his descendants in a picture just before his death will forever be etched in my memory, particularly the line about how his children no longer speak Swedish. This, to me, represents the heart of the film, the idea that all that has come before it means nothing.

The symbol Criterion chose for its cover backs this up. Here is a massive tree that has stood in Minnesota for generations, simply taken by von Sydow with a crude etching on the trunk. It is a uniquely American idea (At least in the West) and alternately inspiring and tragic. The tragedy is of course most stark in the sequence involving the American Indians who attempt to fight back against the injustice brought down on them, only to fail and be executed. But it's here in even the most innocent of encounters, like when von Sydow first meets his new neighbor.

The most noteworthy sequence in the film is surely the flashbacks to the brother's journey toward California, one of the most intense and jarring sequence I've seen from this era of filmmaking (surely Inarritu has seen this film many times). It makes you remember just how conscious of a filmmaker Troell is, something that is easy to overlook given his loose and seemingly instinctual style, but it's also simply a pleasure to watch because it's so rhythmic and visceral.

After six hours of this story, I felt genuinely sad and moved when this was over. I was a little worried about the length of this story, especially after having a mixed response to Here Is Your Life. But this is a great movie (it really should be considered one full movie, as it was sometimes shot concurrently and always intended as a full story), and one that was consistently engaging and surprising. I read one person's comment somewhere on the internet calling the film "the prequel to Fargo," and I like that characterization even though it belies the universality and scale of the film. This is a movie about the making of our country that fits nicely next to El Norte as a superior humanist depiction of the immigrant experience.

#796: The Emigrants

(Jan Troell, 1971)

The Emigrants is that rare sprawling epic that feels persistently human-scale. Despite covering thousands of miles, many characters, and countless sets and structures, the film never feels like anything more than the story of three people, a husband and wife and his brother, struggling to make a place for themselves in the world. The entire first half of the film takes place in Sweden, with the intermission hitting as they first glimpse the ship that will take them to America. Yet these early scenes never feel superfluous or slow because the characters are so vivid and the filmmaking so poetic.

Like many directors who are their own cinematographer, Troell uses his camera in a primal, instinctual fashion. His work consequently feels less refined than most directors, but his eye and talent for drawing the camera toward the most interesting thing in the field elevates this tactic and gives his work a unique feel. Despite the fact that film is an adaptation (of one of Sweden's most popular series of novels) and Troell was approached to adapt the book rather than choosing it on his own, the film always feels like it has just one hand at the helm. This approach underscores the affection for the characters, making this a movie about the experience of these people rather than just a story about specific individuals. We are emigrating along with them.

There is criticism of The Emigrants from some for painting a picture of the journey of American immigrants in the 1800s as too rosy, framed by a sentimental nostalgia. I actually agree with this characterization of the film. Yes, there are horrible deaths and crushing labor here, and certainly the experience of traveling far away from your home in awful conditions with only slight hope of making it is conveyed effectively. But even this negative experience pales in comparison to what people like this actually went through to get to America in the 1800s. An actual film about this experience would have likely been substantially darker and more explicit, something that likely wouldn't have flown in the early 70s, but more important would have made for a far different movie.

Rather than damn the film, however, I think this more lyrical approach elevates it. The Emigrants isn't meant to depict the true experience of the journey as much as the emotional and psychological effect on these characters. The delivery of this content is meant to underscore the things that are lost and gained by the family along the way. The naturalism of the scenery and Troell's technique fit with the devotion to the land and the Earth they move across. The movie isn't about learning how awful people had it in the mid 1800s, but about the potential in these leaps of faith, potential that we all know was fulfilled by subsequent generations. That the movie comes from Sweden and not the United States makes it more bittersweet - this is a generation of Swedes that saw their system broken and strove for a better life. Sweden itself would soon modernize just like the US, but these were the people who couldn't wait. In this way, The Emigrants is a story of striving, not struggling.

Monday, March 28, 2016

#768: The French Lieutenant's Woman

(Karel Reisz, 1981)

The French Lieutenant's Woman has to be one of the biggest surprises for me in the Collection in some time. When it first appeared in the coming soon section, my response was "uhh, ok." I've been putting it off because I assumed it was classy award-bait, a film that lacked real heft propped up by the presence of Meryl Streep and a strong pedigree from a popular novel. I had seen Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (which would be a great addition to the Collection) but I had never even heard of this movie.

I loved this movie. It's approach to the adaptation (written by Harold Pinter) is brilliant, one of the best techniques I've ever seen to take a novel's structural device and translate it into cinematic grammar without losing the thematic thrust of the original text. It reminded me a bit of Adaptation, but where that movie drifted completely away from the source material to examine the process of creation, Pinter's script is consistently true to the book (at least as far as I can gather from what I've read). The cuts back and forth between the Victorian setting and modern day are seamless and provocative, highlighting the struggle of Streep's characters to assert themselves in very different ways throughout.

What's funny about my unexpected response to the film is that the movie still kind of is that film I had expected to dismiss. As would be expected from this cast, the performances are great, and both Streep and Irons deliver surprises and deep emotion without stressing the flashiness of the roles they have been given. Similarly, the film's Victorian story is somewhat straightforward, and the movie generally does have a sort of staid Oscar feel to it, even when its structure eschews convention. But this would rank with the best of Victorian-set films for me even without the inclusion of the modern day components. Both Pinter and Streep lost to On Golden Pond, and while it's nice to have another Oscar for Kathrine Hepburn this film is significantly better than that one, and miles ahead of Chariots of Fire which won the Best Picture Oscar that year (this wasn't nominated for the big one). These losses likely contribute greatly to the film's lower profile, but I'm very happy to have seen it

A note on the cover - I love the concept behind the artwork, discussed in a post on Criterion's site, but the lack of color and subtle appearance of the type online has likely hurt this film's profile in the Collection. I'd love to see more talk about this one, as it might be the most underrated release of 2015 and one of the best.