Martin Scorsese can make compelling films with a great flare, and apparently Mean Streets was the first time he got popular doing that. But like some of his other stuff, this one didn’t seem particularly substantial. He was quite honest about the film being autobiographically based. As a boy in Little Italy in New York, he observed things happening on a regular basis that he integrated into the film. Because of that background, Mean Streets is strikingly authentic, or so people say who know New York intimately. Scorsese filmed the story in the armpit of Little Italy (surely it has/had a nicer side), complete with all of the peeling paint, 7-Up ads, and rust that seemed to cover the city at the time. The early montages set to rock music have been imitated ever since – De Niro’s bar entrance to the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was classic. Scorsese’s camera and editing are distinct: fast, driven, and landing like punches to the gut. It’s gritty, as it should be considering the mood. If he does nothing else well, Scorsese weds his style to his setting and story.
Notes: Opening credits – shows film projector, small screen – home video footage – from post-film time? Charlie’s inability to reconcile the church with the streets. Opening shots introduce each character, then name. Scorsese is voice of priest in church? Charlie always trying to hold finger over flame – be priest/God, but can’t do it. Identification with St. Francis fails. Charlie not driven by others, but by self. Quick cam, unstable cuts. Camera circles action. Broken-down Jesus on building, arms spread over streets. Church as business. Swastika on table. Shooting in bathroom – influenced by Godfather? Cut to different scene mid-conversation, resuming conversation. Charlie: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Drunk-cam. Johnny Boy lies on grave – foreshadow. 3 scenes with characters watching film within film.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen was a highly stylized, post-apocalyptic, retro-surrealist film that presages Jeunet’s later, more famous, Amelie. The film used a variety of dark colors (especially reds), and materials were exclusively metallic, wooden, or flesh – no plastics. (In one scene, a character’s drinking glass appeared plastic, which catches the eye when everything else is non-plastic.) Jeunet used a very wide-angle 35mm lens, which seems to be in style these days, especially in style-driven films. You get the impression that you’re watching the film through the peephole of a door. This effectively created the sense of claustrophobia that the characters were feeling. The sequence of all the tenants gradually performing actions to the same rhythm of the squeaky bed, as well as the intercom-like pipes, provided good support to a group of people that were slowly becoming ever-too-close to their fellow residents. The cannibalism wasn’t overdone, which it would have been if done by an American director. And like Amelie, Jeunet’s protagonist in this film (Louison) is a naive, optimistic hero who is able to improve the lives of others by realizing the existence of evil only in time to save the day, then returns to playing his musical saw. As opposed to the very American Krusty the Klown, Louison so enjoys his clown work that he rehearses his acts even when working as a general fix-it man, by himself in his apartment, fondly recalling the days of companionship with his old partner “Dr. Livingstone.” If there isn’t a lot of depth to Jeunet’s films, he can certainly be applauded for his lack of cynicism and the interesting look of his work. In closing, the bullshit detector was hilarious; wish I had one.
This is a remarkable film. I suppose that’s the point of almost all the films I’m posting on here these days, but this one is unique for its accessible complexity. It’s highly psychological, ingeniously edited, beautifully shot, philosophically oriented, and powerfully didactic. Before this, had only seen from Bertolucci: The Sheltering Sky and Besieged. Have somewhat avoided his other stuff on moral grounds, but this one was on the list. Reading the chapter on it in Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Marcus, 1986, Princeton) was quite enlightening. So if anything below seems particularly intelligent, that’s where it’s from.
Marcello Clerici, the title character, only holds the title of “the conformist” ambiguously and, more than that, ironically. The idea is that he conforms to Fascist idealism during World War II in order to suppress tendencies (both psychological and sexual) that resulted from a traumatic experience as a child. He marries a simple, unintelligent woman, joins the Fascist secret police, and drowns his “other” desires in heterosexuality, all to meet the status quo.
Early in the film, Marcello meets his blind friend Italo in a radio studio. Clearly, “Italo” personifies the nation at the time, blindly adhering to Fascist ideology under Mussolini. Through a glass, the two men see three women performing. They are dressed identically, singing in unison, and dancing together. They seem to illustrate the nation of Italy at that period in all its conforming. Following their performance, Italo goes on the air to spread Fascist propaganda, which seems to be linked not only to his blindness, but to the previous performers.
The shots of the office of the minister (where Marcello receives his orders) are curiously similar in style to the walls of the asylum where Marcello’s insane father is housed in a straight jacket. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but it seems consistent with the rest of Bertolucci’s style.
The film’s editing is amazing. It’s rather violent, just as the flashbacks that we witness are intrusions on Marcello’s psyche while trying to fulfill his orders. An early shot of the Eiffel Tower seems out of place until later, when Marcello and his wife find themselves there during Marcello’s psychological crisis. There are also lots of split screens – split by walls and room divisions, often while the characters are still conversing through the dividers. This pictures not only Marcello’s solitude, but his fragmented and conflicted state of mind. The crooked, diagonal shots (almost surreal in nature) also seem to indicate Marcello’s skewed view and non-conformism. Despite his efforts, he does not fit into the mold in which he has placed himself.
The flashback of Marcello’s childhood trauma is orchestrated with supreme competence. (Though Bertolucci is lauded for the editing, in interviews, he gives all of the credit to his editor, without whose input Bertolucci would have never considered doing it the way he did.) Marcello’s present movement flagging down the car are paralleled to perfection with those of his while he was a child. When he was a child, his flagging down a car led to his first pseudo-murder, just as he knows that flagging down his personal thug Manganiello will also result in murder at his hand. The continuation and conclusion of the flashback while in the confessional solidifies that Marcello is in a moral dilemma with very moral ramifications. His sense of guilt from his past requires him to confess his sins. But more than that, he is pre-guilty over the murder he will commit in the near future. Knowing that it must be done, however, he visits the priest for absolution before he commits the sin. The priest tells Marcello that his sexual liaisons thus far in his life are not “normal,” as he believes. The priest urges Marcello to normalcy by having a wife and family. Now the church, symbolic both of Italy at the time and of the moral status quo, tells Marcello to conform further. At a party shortly thereafter, Italo, surrounded by other blind friends, speaks to Marcello more about being “normal.”
One of the most significant parts of the film occurs when Marcello finally meets with Professor Quadri in his study. Marcello brings up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Bertolucci cinematographizes the myth by allowing light from only one window to enter the room, with Marcello’s shadow cast up on the wall until he opens another window, causing his shadow to vanish immediately. It is Quadri who makes the explicit connection between the allegory and Fascism in Italy. By linking The Conformist with Plato’s allegory, Bertolucci again indicates that this film is about morality. What is not mentioned in the film, but further reading of Plato teaches, is that the lesson of the allegory is not chiefly epistemological but rather ethical. The man who discovers the truth by coming out into the light of day is constrained to revisit the cave and tell his companions there of the illusion versus the truth. Quadri’s escape to Paris to form an anti-Fascist movement (that does nothing but distribute pamphlets) is a cop-out. Rather than returning to the belly of the beast (Italy), he flees and does not fulfill his moral obligation to root out Fascism where it exists.
Also, Bertolucci has made clear that cinema is an example of Plato’s allegory. It has light cast into a theater by means of a rear projector while an audience watching the images on the screen, often taking them to be real. Bertolucci’s film is making a moral statement: that its viewers leave the theater to spread truth, the sort of truth portrayed in the film about psychological honesty and political obligation.
The dance scene is another famous example of Marcello’s inability to conform. After sitting while the others dance, he eventually gets up, but remains by himself in the middle of the floor, moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the dancers, who are joined by hands. Five years later, he teaches his daughter the Ave Maria. His daughter is blond-haired and blue-eyed, unlike her parents but just like one of Marcello’s victims, Professor Quadri’s wife, whom Marcello desired. The walls in his daughter’s room are painted to look like blue, cloudy skies. Not only does the image connect with an earlier one when Marcello walked past a similar painting, only to have its background be nearly identical, but it again pictures Marcello living in an artificial and contrived world in which he does not belong.
The film’s final scene almost perfectly correlates to Plato’s allegory. But significantly, though Marcello is facing the truth about himself psychologically and sexually, the fire is neither in front of nor behind him, but rather beside him. The ending is ambiguous, leaving the decision in the hands of the viewers. Bertolucci acknowledges Marcello’s dilemma but transfers the moral responsibility from the character to the viewer.
Italian neorealism was seen as coming to an end when Vittorio de Sica made Umberto D. De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Rosselini’s Rome, Open City triggered the film movement, but by the time Umberto D. was released, de Sica’s statement of the end of neorealism went unappreciated. The movement characteristically included an objective camera, true-to-life storylines, social critique, and future prospects beyond the narrative parameters of the film. Umberto D. departs from these criteria in a few ways.
First, the camera moves into subjective mode in a number of places. While observing Umberto in the confines of his apartment, in the temps morts of his quotidian dwelling, the shots are medium and the scenes uneventful. When, late in the film, Umberto looks out the window after hearing the trolley pass, the camera’s quick-zoom at the tracks and cobblestones intimates the thought of suicide. This subjective camera technique ends as quickly as it begins. But as Umberto leaves his neighborhood by bus to find a place for Flike, the shots at the buildings from within the bus again are from Umberto’s point of view, rather than the more dispassionate shots of him and his surroundings.
The realistic nature of the film is in line with neorealism. As others have pointed out, the film never veers into territory that would rob it of its innocence of genre. It could have easily become romance, melodrama, or tragedy, but de Sica avoids those tendencies. The character is neither completely lovable nor completely deplorable. While we sympathize with his plight, often we note that he might improve his situation ever-so-slightly were he to think a little differently. His attempts to pawn off his timepiece to those just as poor as he, his using others at the soup kitchen to feed his dog, and his broken promises and ignored possibilities to be a father figure to Maria all frustrate the audience, who feel he should know better. Particularly uncomfortable is his all-too-healthy posture and movement while buying time at the hospital.
What social critique the film contains is subtle and underdeveloped. The opening scene has Umberto as just one of many elderly faces protesting their measly pensions after years of faithful social work. Olga, Umberto’s landlady, seems to symbolize the state of Italy at the time of the film. Umberto tells Maria (the young maid) that during the war, he gave some of his rations to Olga, who used to call him “Grandpa.” After the war, Umberto tells Maria, Olga “went crazy,” and now harasses him endlessly about his unpaid backrent. Her ascent up the social ladder – marrying the local theater-owner, operatic singing lessons, and remodeling of the apartment, including the destruction of Umberto’s room – has caused her willingly to forget her country’s recent history and discard sensitivity toward Umberto. De Sica was surely illustrating the end of neorealism in Olga: the people had quit acknowledging the sorrows that Italy endured under war and fascism. Better to wallow in the affluence of better times than remember past horrors.
Finally, the film does not end with a clear path for Umberto’s future. Whereas de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief‘s finale was clear and certain, Umberto walks away with Flike down a sidewalk before a group of playing children hide them from view. All that Umberto has decided is that his crisis is not worth suicide. Having regained the trust of Flike, he will continue forward, not knowing what that might entail. In this way, the film is more of an aesthetic parable than a fixed narrative. One could not read a script and grasp Umberto D. It is another example of the fact that modern cinema (post-neorealism) is equal to more than the sum of its parts. It has been said that, in this film particularly, de Sica paved the way for the style of Fellini and Antonioni. Arguably, those directors never ended on a note of certainty, and no story or shot said anything in itself. Shot after shot after shot, however, composes a complete artwork that cannot be broken down and retain its meaning and power.
Notes: Similar opening to Bicycle Thief, first a crowd, then zeros in on one man. Maria sprays/burns ants on wall. From Maria’s cot – shot of cat walking on grating above; identification with stray cat. UD – afraid of living in shelter, afraid of sending Flike to shelter. Tries to beg but can’t; teaches Flike to beg. UD’s distorted reflection in bus below Commendatore, who has skewed image of UD.
The General has to be one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s rather embarrassing to have just seen my first Buster Keaton film, but some things are worth being shameless about. Have loved Chaplin for quite some time, but Keaton is something all his own. A combination acrobat/comedian, Keaton moves his body, save for his face, like a cartoon character. Aside from that famous and obvious fact, The General was structured with remarkable precision. It has a sense of balance to it that is hard to find elsewhere. The two train chases almost perfectly reciprocate one another, as Keaton first chases and then is chased. And somehow, he made trains, of all things, appear not only to be characters in the film, but very funny characters. It’s amazing to know that this film flopped back when it premiered.
Notes: 2 loves in his life: his engine, and [cut to photo of fiancee]. “If you lose this war, don’t blame me.” Jumps on bike while running! Not enough gunpowder while shooting at both of his true loves. Track curves when canon fires – great sight gag. Raised camera shots above train; depth shots from one train to another; tracking shots next to trains. Facial expressions restricted to blinks and subtle eyebrow movement; no Chaplin-esque smiles or curtsies. Highly dangerous stunts – removing planks from track. More sight gags: chopping wood atop train, heading north, while Confederate army retreats in background, unbeknown to him. Stuck under table while Union officers meet. Cigar burn-hole gives gives him view. More earnest than Chaplin. Tables turned in second chase. Woman presented as helpless and kind of stupid. Strong sense of balance. Blade flies off handle, impales Union soldier. Kiss-saluting.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a Bergman film. Went through a stage a year or more ago that included The Seventh Seal, The Silence, Wild Strawberries, Fanny & Alexander, and Cries & Whispers. Winter Light was supposedly Bergman’s favorite of all of his films. It’s dense, direct, and brief. But any longer and it would be too long.
The setting is a pastor, Tomas Ericsson, in a small town in very wintry Sweden. The pastor’s glory days in his parish have passed, due to his wife’s death chiefly. Since then the numbers in his church have diminished, and rumors have swirled about his relationship with a woman, Märta. The cold, icy setting of the film effectively reflects the mood of most of the characters, especially Tomas. The shots following the credits, accompanying Tomas’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, are a montage of the snowy outdoors, with dead or dormant trees and the absence of life. About eight people comprise the congregation. Two of them, a married couple, come to speak with Tomas following the service. The woman tells the pastor that her husband, who is unwilling to speak, is fearful of the news that China is experimenting with nuclear weapons. It soon is apparent that his fear is less of China and more of death in general. It seems more than coincidental that the woman is played by the protagonist of Bergman’s following film, The Silence, in a role that in many ways is the continuation of this character. Also, the husband is played by the knight who plays chess with Death in The Seventh Seal, already identifying him with that grave subject matter. The pastor’s attempt to help the man turns into a reverse-confessional booth, with Tomas coming clean that he, too, has no hope and cannot believe in God. Shortly thereafter, the husband kills himself. The rest of the film has Tomas wrestling with the thought that sent his parishioner to suicide.
Bergman, quite the agnostic believer (or believing agnostic), never seemed to tell anyone to believe or not to believe. Films such as this have him wrestling with the idea of God and the seeming incompatibility of existence with God. But Bergman no more lands on one side or the other than does Tomas. One scholar has interpreted the film’s end as Bergman’s hope that as long as there is still one person to minister to, there is hope. That seems quite wrongheaded. Granted, the last person is Märta, who for the first time begins to move beyond mere hostility toward belief in God and longs for some kind of truth. However, the crux of the story and the theme is Tomas. The hunchback sexton is the only character who has true faith. He not only attends services, comes early, and lights the candles, but he concerns himself with the most core matter of what faith entails. Whereas the church is covered in bloody crucifixes, obsessed with the physical pain of Jesus, the sexton points out that Jesus’ physical pain was intense, but very brief. The sexton, in his life, has likely experienced more pain than Christ did. The sexton states this matter-of-factly, with no sacrilege intended. As the sexton listed all that Christ endured, I waited, wondering if he would ever get the the real heart of the matter: Christ’s final doubt on the cross, His feeling that God, his Father, abandoned him. The sexton saved it for last because it is by far the most important fact of Christ’s suffering. This humble fool is likely what gives Tomas the push to go forward with the service, despite his strong doubts. Still, that Bergman gave the film’s last word to the sexton could lead one to hasty, simplistic conclusions. Bergman isn’t endorsing faith anymore than he is endorsing suicide. He seems rather to be illustrating the difficulty, the conflict in a person who realizes the ramifications of belief/unbelief in God. Early in the film, Tomas says that he is free (from belief), but as the film continues it is clear that suspending or rejecting belief in God is not always as freeing as one hopes it will be. He longs for a kind of freedom that seems not to exist. The sexton believes in God, thereby enslaving himself to that belief. Jonas rejected God and killed himself. The only character who does not actually seek freedom is the sexton. Interestingly, all he seeks is sleep. He reads the Bible to cure his insomnia.
Notes: All shots during services completely symmetrical – order, perfection. Very severe. When girl winces at wine, pastor furrows brow. Pastor talks about bliss, peace, and blessing, but appears utterly stoic. Montage of ritualistic, inanimate church imagery; shows monotony, emptiness of rituals. Tomas tells sexton same hymns for next time. Husband’s name is “Jonas Persson” – sort of a John Doe, everyman. Like Tomas, Jonas faces toward window and away from other people. Tomas says, “We must trust God,” but he appears troubled. Huge emaciated Jesus hanging on cross behind pastor in office. “What a ridiculous image” – pastor on crucifix. “God’s silence” is bothering him.Märta says, “God has never spoken because God doesn’t exist.” Skull & crossbones on wall of church. Märta “reads” letter staring straight at camera – no escape. She says Tomas was unable to pray for her. “I never believed in your faith…God & Jesus were always just vague notions.” Conscience/guilt has her looking at him. “If there is no God, would it really make any difference?” Life might make more sense, he thinks. Camera closes in on Tomas’ face, then, “God, why have you forsaken me?” as camera pulls back. As body is loaded into van, high, long shots – contrast with camera in rest of film – close-ups. Tomas rejects Märta’s love. Loved his wife – “When she died, I died.” Calls Märta an “ugly parody” of her. Still asks her to accompany him to Mrs. Persson’s. As they approach train crossing, Tomas: “It was my parents’ dream that I become a clergyman.” Sexton says maybe Christ’s pain wasn’t mainly physical – Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, lack of disciples’ understanding & obedience, Christ’s loneliness. Then, above all, God’s forsake. “In the moments before He died, Christ was seized by doubt…God’s silence.” Märta: “If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.” Camera cuts to Tomas, head in hands; decides to go through with service. Märta only one in attendance besides sexton, the hunchback of faith. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” End.
Our first experience at the midnight Friday showing at the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz was the priceless Dr. Strangelove. Our second was this past weekend, and it was E.T. We even claimed two of the three prizes awarded in the pre-show raffle. We came out of it with two DVDs (Hook and E.T.), two bumper stickers, two boxes of Reece’s Pieces, and a pass good for two tickets to each of the next four midnight showings. Pretty cool. Then came the movie.
Steven Spielberg was largely responsible, along with George Lucas, for the modern blockbuster film (e.g., Jaws, Star Wars). And that’s what he does best. I don’t know how you couldn’t like E.T. It’s sentimental in all the right ways. The kids are symbols of purity and innocence (even the bad kids, in the end), while the adults are better kept in the dark about earth’s first contact with extra terrestrials. Even as a 5-year-old, I remember the most frightening part of the film: when those NASA astronauts start invading the house. It was genius of Spielberg to make the film this way. It’s also devoid of that cynicism that has come to define kids of subsequent generations. Elliott’s door has a sign on it saying, “ENTER”. Granted, once E.T. moves in, Elliott adds “DO NOT” to the top, but that’s to protect his new friend. It’s become cliche nowadays for doors to kid’s rooms to say things like, “STAY OUT!” Elliott and his siblings get along and grow closer through E.T. Imagination is valued above education. Etc. It just feels good where it should. And the only scientist who turns out to be a good guy is a good guy by virtue of not letting go of his childhood, telling Elliott that he, too, had been waiting for E.T. to come since he was a boy.
The idea is that aliens aren’t the ones we should fear. Human beings are the real troublemakers. It’s this thought that Spielberg held close in the early days (also see Close Encounters), but that he discarded when he ran out of ideas and decided to film War of the Worlds. Though he included children in that story, the camera was more focused on Tom Cruise than Dakota Fanning. He was the hero in that film, and Dakota was naive and foolish. I have heard that, early in Spielberg’s career, he insisted that he would never film H.G. Welles’ book, because he was against the idea that extra terrestrials should be considered evil and malicious. Even when Spielberg broke character and did Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, he showed that, while human beings were capable of saving the day, they were also the ones that could really ruin it.
So I find it best to forget about Spielberg’s recent work (am already nervous at the implication that the new Indiana Jones will feature aliens, probably bad ones), and wallow in the nostalgia of those glorious old ones. And one last random thought: another thing that allows E.T. to retain its status of “classic” is that the only face from this movie that we’ve seen outside of it is Drew Barrymore’s. He went with unknowns, and they stayed unknowns, aside from their roles in this film. Too bad for them, but great for us.
It has been said that Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) is Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece. Maybe so. But each of his previous three has also been called his masterpiece. Antonioni himself made a shift with this film, but it was subtle enough that some have called it the end of his “tetralogy” instead of the first film to follow his famous trilogy. Aside from “Antoniennui” style, the main bit of continuity Red Desert shares with his previous three films is Monica Vitti. But as Antonioni had to point out, her character is the “exact opposite” of her character in L’Eclisse. Whereas in that film she played an internally driven character who could not commit to any relationship, her character in Red Desert is affected externally and is actually content within her marriage.
As the title implies, color is of great importance in the film. When Jean-Luc Godard interviewed Antonioni for Cahiers du Cinema, he asked if perhaps color replaced verbal language as the primary means of communication. Antonioni confirmed that it was. His first color film, Antonioni apparently painted both the man-made and natural surroundings to suit the mood properly for each scene. He wondered if it wouldn’t be more accurate to speak of “painting” a film rather than “writing” a film. Strikingly, the one scene in which Antonioni uses colors in the standard way is a story that Giuliana tells her son. The story is about a prepubescent girl (significant, considering the sort of scarring that Giuliana has experience in her adult life) who finds her own private beach. The water is transparent, the sky is blue, the rocks themselves appear human, and the only other sign of life is a beautiful frigate on the horizon. This contrasts with the rest of the film’s ultra-industrial setting, dark yet cold colors, polluted landscapes, and absence of real vitality. Where most filmmakers would use realistic lighting and colors for everything but the story sequence, Antonioni reverses it.
It has been pointed out by man, including Antonioni himself, that the film has to do with Giuliana’s inability to adapt. She lives in a world that is technological and industrial, but she longs for a more primitive and natural setting. She desires innocence, but the world is stained/colored by man. Antonioni’s point is to demonstrate the beauty is artificiality, or in “plastic,” as he and Godard have said. That there is beauty is a landscape never touched by man is intuitive. So he shoots scaffolds, beams, cement walls, smoke, and factories in a way as to exploit their extraordinary nature. Things like this are not found in the natural world. The world is moving in a technologically progressive direction, and we shouldn’t complain about that. Rather, we should adapt and embrace. Antonioni did well to point out that the problem with the world is not the technology, but humanity. All too easy it is to point our fingers at our own creations rather than back at ourselves, the real culprits of the malaise that dominates characters like Giuliana.
Antonioni points out a certain irony in the humanity-technology relationship. Almost whenever the two are pictures in the same shot, the human character is dwarfed by the machine or building. The person is always positioned at the mercy of man’s creation. The only exceptions are with Giuliana’s young son, whose robot is stuck in the “on” position while he sleeps (thus bumping into his bed constantly).
Many have also commented on Giuliana’s last words in the film. When her son points to the yellow smoke above the factory stacks, she tells him that the smoke is poisonous. Her son asks if birds die when they fly into the smoke. She replies that the birds learn not to fly into it. By pointing this out to her son, Giuliana begins to realize the solution to her paranoid schizophrenia. There are aspects of worldly existence to appreciate from a distance. A certain degree of interaction can be unhelpful and paralyzing. What is most remarkable to me about these final lines in the film is that they are so unique when compared to the trilogy. Antonioni comes much closer to actually answering the question or offering a solution in Red Desert than he did in L’Avventura, La Notte, or L’Eclisse. Certainly his next film, Blow-Up, offers anything but certainty in the end. And to be sure, Giuliana is not experiencing certainty or answers as much as an epiphany that her anguish can be avoided and perhaps even cured. For Antonioni, this is a strikingly bold statement.
Notes: opening credits: out of focus; barren, industrial; soprano singing. Camera slowly closes in on factories. Flames expelled from stack – continuity from ending of L’Eclisse? She buys 1/2-eaten panino – child doesn’t want any. Flame in background. Pan of blackened landscape, from industrial pollution – still smoking; garbage. Personless shots of factories. Married to important factory employer, but no food? Husband: “She always seems distracted when driving.” Much red from rust – matches Giuliana’s hair. Smoke/steam pours of of factory as two men watch; no explanation, but they whisper. Darkness: night and day. Husband tries to assure her of her temperature: “It’s normal.” He draws her close twice, she pulls away. She wants cool colors in her shop, to set apart pottery she will sell. She seeks out white walls to stand against; contrast, alienation. She sits next to cart – conveys lack of balance. Door frames. Huge scaffolds of red pipes. She wanders from crowds; prefers isolation. Industrial landscape different from natural one in L’Avventura? Dockhouse scene: red coming from inside small room – coldish white on outside; mattress is floor inside; upon entering, they only read, hang out; too bored for activity; aphrodisiac; she enters, is drawn only to mirror inside; “What do you feel” “Not much”; they all fall asleep. Two people in same scene often facing diff. directions. “You ask what you should watch. I ask how I should live. It’s the same thing.” As they watch through window a ship loading/unloading. Fear of infectiosu disease on boat sends her running away with others following. Four people disappear from her sight as fog rolls in; she panics, possible attempts suicide again? Boy’s drops: 1+1=1. 1st man in Antonioni who begins to understand? But he fails her – Corrado. “Why do I always need others?” Violating 180-degree rule constantly while in bedroom with Corrado. Shrouds herself in white sheet – red hair stands out – connection with dockhouse and red room. Writhing as if in pain. Man fails her – sickness of Eros. Though he is there, she wakes up alone. Dispassionate shots. Coda from beginning: Giuliana and son wandering around outside of factory. They exit the frame; shot remains on factory with industrial noises and yellow smoke.
Having only seen Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou so far, Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary was a departure. The film is somewhat infamous for its sacreligious content, re-depicting the pre-Nativity story from the perspective of a modern-day virgin Mary. Pope John Paul II famously said something like, “The film deeply offends the religious sentiments of believers.” It seemed to me fairer to say that it probably offends the religious sentimentality of some Roman Catholics. Many “believers” have no problem thinking of the biblical Mary in very human terms, as Godard depicted her. Certainly the film’s prologue implicitly denies the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, as her parents split up and she visits her father on weekends. Godard said earlier in his career that if he ever did a film about the life of Christ, he would film the parts that the Gospel narratives never recorded; the more mundane aspects of Jesus’ existence. He essentially did this with Mary, omitting the actual birth scene.
The film has some beautiful shots and a good use of darkness to illustrate Mary’s solitude and confusion. Following the birth, there seems to be more light, but perhaps this is incidental. Notes: Mary drawn to apples and eggs, particularly slicing/breaking them. Discusses triangles to some length with her father, and triangular images appear later in the film – trinitarian imagery? Chopin & Mahler music dominates first half of film, Bach & Dvorak second half. Repetition of “At that time” – biblical language. Fascinating contrast of Mary with other female student – one pure, the other not. Differentiation of body/soul discussions – teacher is theoretical and hypocritical, Mary is experiential and sincere. Lots of rippling water – waves appear toward film’s end along with birth. Uncle Gabriel the divine messenger with an edge. Chastity: “To know every possibility without straying.” Lots of nature imagery. “I am a soul imprisoned by a body.”
Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is Dostoevsky meets The Bicycle Thief. Vittorio de Sica’s film focuses on the man rather than on the whodunit?, and in the same way, Bresson’s film centers on the character Michel and the effect that his actions have on him rather than on the actions themselves. Both films have to do with stealing, though they are reversed in terms of the thievery of the protagonist. Whereas in The Bicycle Thief the main character is the victim of stealing and then, in his desperation, feels forced to steal (and is caught), in Pickpocket the character steals from the beginning and only by the end seems to become sobered to his actions. Still, Pickpocket is not primarily a moralistic tale. In this way it feels much more like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov, Michel is a slave to his small, dilapidated dwelling-place. His over-sized coat is as much to hide stolen items as it is simply the only coat he owns. He holds his cards very close, suspecting even his closest “friends” (i.e. acquaintances) of knowing his covert doings when they sometimes, but often don’t, have a clue. But as opposed to Raskolnikov, Michel has more of a late-20th century air about him. He would not have the gall to commit murder (not only like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov but also Camus’ Stranger). He is more apathetic than ambivalent. He is increasingly noncommittal as the film draws to a close. Paralyzed by fear and conscience, he craves complete control of himself and his surroundings, not even venturing to the realm of intoxication.
The camera, like Michel the character, both needs and is repelled by crowds. A sense of claustrophobia resides wherever he does. During pickpocketing scenes, point of view is generally restricted to either over-the-shoulder (Michel’s) or a 90-degree of his face along with the face of the other whose pocket he is picking. The film’s structure is interesting, with Michel caught at both the beginning (at a horse race) and the end (also at a horse race). The film’s thrust seems to lie more in its epilogue, however, when Jeanne visits him in jail, and he states, “Oh Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.” His dialogue confirms what has heretofore been the case, that he is to be the object of our attention. All that we have seen so far has not been for its own sake – this is not Ocean’s Eleven – but rather for the impact they have on Michel and where they take him in the end. Throughout the film, hands (particularly Michel’s) are of import to the camera. In the final scene, though he grasps through the bars of prison, he cannot hold what he wants: not her wallet, but her.