It isn’t often enough that I encounter a good apologia for a Wes Anderson film, especially his underrated finest, The Royal Tenenbaums. They say about some of history’s greatest films that they were shot down when first released. When Tenenbaums finally ascends to the status of “not-just-cult-classic,” this guy and I will be there administering just punishments to all those who put it down when it came out. His point regarding style as a narrative device is right on. There are also some great images on the site.
Well, here we are. I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a couple days ago in Santa Cruz – we took in the matinee showing largely out of reservations over the quality of the film we were about to watch. I even decided to forego popcorn, unsure as I was that the movie was worthy of a $6 snack. Bottom line: the jury is still out.
We saw it and all five of us were unanimous that it pretty much sucked. But now I’m not totally sure. And right up front, I would like to say that my thinking has changed largely because of the essay and following debate here. Because here is the thing: it’s exceedingly difficult to go into a movie like this, when you’re so intimately bound to the three originals (yes, all three of them). There are different ways of watching movies, and I say with utmost shamelessness that I hope I never lose that way of watching movies like kids watch them. I don’t see why that has to go away when one becomes educated as to “how to watch a film.” That beings said, I probably watched this movie with overly nostalgic eyes rather than giving it a chance as a potentially complex and unique film in its own right.
As others have done well to point out (see above link), Spielberg didn’t just pick up after Last Crusade and do Crystal Skull. He did a whole bunch of other stuff in between, and he actually made quite a shift in his own filmmaking style during that period. So we should expect something different from the first three Indies. When I think back on the film keeping that in mind, I’m actually struck by how much continuity there was with the “originals.” I would like to list some examples here, but this is a movie that I don’t want to spoil for others. Well, perhaps I can be vague… There was the theme of fatal lust for knowledge – it got the bad guys at the end of Raiders and Last Crusade, and it came into play significantly in this one. D did well to notice the poison darts in the first adventure scene with Shia. This effectively identified him with Indy in the very first scene of all the movies, as he runs from the natives and the rolling ball in Raiders. Other things are coming to mind, but I think they qualify as spoilers.
In a word, this movie needs a repeat viewing, but not necessarily because it’s just “so much fun,” although plenty seem to feel that way about it. The case has been made that Crystal Skull needs to be viewed on its own terms rather than as a skeptical fan demanding certain things and excluding new and different possibilities. Let the story do what it will. It isn’t what I would have chosen, but there it is. Once we can all get over that, we can see that there’s a lot more to the movie than we would have otherwise noticed.
UPDATE (and response to Ailsa): Saw it again, with a cleaner slate, and noticed a couple more things. For one, Kamiński’s cinematography deserves recognition. More than Slocombe in the previous three Indys, Kamiński seemed interested in shots that raised Indy above his surroundings. In the early warehouse scene, at least three times Indy is far above the commies that are around him, whether he climbs up stacks of crates or is running across planks near the ceiling. In particular, shots of him climbing, and then the over-the-shoulder shots while he stands above the others are striking, given that Indy has just been unloaded out of a car trunk and his heroism is largely based on luck. Shortly thereafter, he emerges from the refrigerator, climbs (again) up a hill, and dwarfs the landscape below him as it smolders following the atomic blast. As noted earlier, this scene parallels a similar one late in the film that also has Indy in a high foreground as we watch the action in the lower background. The somewhat awkward scene toward the middle that had Indy and Mutt descending into a cave contained another overt height-shot of Indy. As Mutt wonders at Indy’s career as a “teacher,” the camera does a shot-reverse-shot of Indy standing up on a ledge as Mutt looks up at him. Enough of these shots were used in the film to validate the point, but one wonders as to the meaning. More thoughts are pending.
It took three or four sittings to watch Robert Altman’s Nashville, for no good reason. As I’m working my way through “The List” (which, I realize, I need to make accessible here somewhere as I check them off), sometimes a screening isn’t totally convenient, and though some might argue that it would be better not to watch a film at all than to watch it over four days, I say it’s better than nothing. It’s even possible that an Altman film is a better film to stretch out and divide than most others. They’re generally very segmented, with various “connective tissues” (Altman’s words) used to string together otherwise only thematically-related stories. Plus, I figure I’ve digested the film slower than I would have in one sitting, which could be an advantage.
From the opening credits, there is Altman’s trademark incessant dialog as the film self-consciously opens with an announcement for itself over the credits, even naming the director aloud. As an aside, I am always delighted at such things as this. The film was released in 1975, and you have in it a little technique of the sort that directors are using all the time these days and getting the credit for them. The more you watch stuff any earlier than the 90s, the more you see that these “new auteurs” are often glorified hacks. Even the great Kurosawa was credited with the first direct camera shot at the sun in 1950 in Rashomon. But watch Gustav Machatý’s 1933 film Ecstasy (Ekstase), and there it is, seventeen years earlier.
Anyway. Nashville is remarkable for having politically-charged subject matter but being quite apoliticial at heart. The film is more of a commentary on politics in the USA and its social effects. Like anyone with a proper interest in politics, Altman is more concerned with the welfare of the people that politics promises to protect and serve, rather than the fine points of political discourse. By injecting political ramblings into the film in the form of a campaign van with a recording on loudspeaker, Altman points out that even the sorts of promises Americans most want to hear from its prospective politicians are usually impersonal at heart and not much more than a broken record.
But of course, this film is really about the music, the musicians, and the aspiring musicians (that pretty much covers everyone and everything in the film). Toward the beginning, the film implies a contrast between the white and black styles of making music in Nashville. A white group is in a studio recording, and a black group is in another. Cuts between the two groups demand a comparison/contrast. The white musicians are led by Haven Hamilton, a domineering, middle-aged godfather of mid-70s Nashville. His contribution to the music consists in crooning in his own booth and telling everyone else how not to play. He has a fit and leaves the studio because an out-of-town hippie named “Frog” isn’t playing piano right. Meanwhile, a black choir full of gospel soul sings and dances in unison, with Lilly Tomlin taking part not only in the choral singing but in a brief solo. Her out-of-place-ness (and unfortunate vocal contribution) doesn’t phase the rest of the choir. Perhaps this is taking it a step too far, but the black choir’s music is a celebration of life, whereas the white choir’s lyric material had a strongly defensive tone to it, with a chorus of, “We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last 200 years.”
The BBC woman claiming to make a documentary of Nashville was arguably the most interesting character in the film. Not that the character herself was particularly profound, but her status as a true outsider and self-mocking stand-in for Robert Altman offered some fascinating scenes. She sees the people of Nashville exactly as they present themselves: a spectacle. She completely buys into the idea of their music as performance as she voyeuristically pries into every person, place, and thing she can set her sights on. She only loses interest when someone begins to open up in a vulnerable, honest way. Only the juicy and sensational are worth her reporting. Her constant commentary on everything she sees and hears may serve more as Altman’s preemptive strike at the critics of this film rather than as his own stand-in. Her wordy diatribes are inherently empty and pretentious, and though the film’s final tragedy doesn’t directly result from her reporting, there is an undeniable connection. She scoffs at anything that is less than attractive or successful, as shown when she is taken aback and rendered speechless when Lilly Tomlin’s character tells her that both of her children are deaf and therefore could not have a career in music.
Apparently 1970s Nashville didn’t smile upon Altman’s film or the music that it contained. It’s difficult for me to comment on this with anything like objectivity. I’ve experienced a lot of Tennessee, including Nashville, and the time gap separating the present day from the era of this film seems insignificant. Perhaps it’s because I’m “west coast,” but Altman’s Nashville and the one I’ve seen don’t seem very different. Not that Altman was going for a documentary, but he was surely attempting to capture the place and time realistically. When a people presents itself on a stage, you have little choice but to see them that way: on a stage, as Altman’s many wide shots of the performers on wide stages show. In this way, Altman’s eye is not a voyeuristic one – he didn’t have to find a hole in the door. His interest in such things continued to the very end of his career in A Prairie Home Companion, which took advantage of another group of musical performers who enjoyed the stage.
Altman had a gift for a detached camera that has a humanlike expression to it, like a person’s face. He moves and point the camera in a way similar to how a person communicates with a smirk or eyebrow. Because of his technique, it doesn’t feel like one is watching a mere documentary – especially one claiming to be neutral. Once again, a camera and a gift for editing can say much more than pages of dialog. But in case there was any question, the style and lyrics of the country songs say a lot. This is bound to offend both Southerners and fans of this genre, but there is a simplicity to these country songs that doesn’t translate well to a mass audience and commercialism. Bluegrass music (at least in the old days) was full of rural wisdom, and it said things in such a way that the listener actually was better for having heard it. Many songs on this soundtrack are full of blind pride, arrogant pretense, and stupid patriotism. We are who we are and we’re the best and God put us here to always be the best, is the idea. The subculture depicted in A Prairie Home Companion, ironically, is much closer to old-school southern wisdom and humor than the world of Nashville.
“Making a picture in America brings with it one single risk: the risk of becoming the object of a discussion so wide in range that the quality of the film itself is forgotten.” Though Antonioni said this about Zabriskie Point, and about making a film in the US, the principle is much broader than those topics alone. This was considered Antonioni’s “flop,” but of course prevailing factors may have led to that conclusion, rather than the film itself leading to it. Antonioni’s first stint in America, after the mammoth success of his first English-language film (Blow-Up), was undoubtedly overhyped. Antonioni chose a quintessentially American topic to illustrate a quintessentially human condition. But by depicting the youth counterculture movement of the Sixties, Antonioni was accused of naively identifying himself with the youth rather than “The Man.”
The documentary-style opening to the film is rather unlike Antonioni’s previous films, which are more like canvasses for his repainting of reality in highly aesthetic visuals. Similarly, his use of color is less overt than it was in Blow-Up, which was less overt than it was in Red Desert, his first color film. But to label Zabriskie Point as a “counterculture” or “protest” film does great violence to Antonioni’s work. In the same way that Antonioni portrayed mod London in Blow-Up not as London per se, but as his version of London, so Zabriskie Point depicts America and its youth movement at the time as Antonioni saw it, and as he saw it through the eyes of the youth themselves. Blow-Up was shamelessly and wonderfully shot through the eyes of David Hemmings’ character the photographer. Antonioni was considered a genius for shooting a film through the lens of a photographer within the film. But in Zabriskie Point, by removing the somewhat literal camera device from within the film, it seems that many have missed the subtlety that Antonioni would have his viewers watch through the eyes of another, for a particular perspective.
In superficial terms, this may be the most “realist” of Antonioni’s films, at least since L’Avventura. Whereas in the past, Antonioni mainly went with trained actors (at least for his protagonists), this film’s main characters were not only completely untrained but went by their given names (first and last) within the film. Likewise, the student group within the film went by the actual name of the group they were playing. The beginning scene signals a documentary feel that will pervade much of the rest of the film. Below the surface, however, the film is fairly typical of Antonioni’s previous works. To equivocate Zabriskie Point with all that he did before would do it a disservice, though. I noticed a major difference between this film and Antonioni’s others from before. The depiction of love was the purest and most optimistic yet. For once, a couple was not falling in love illicitly or in a one-sided manner. L’Avventura had a man and woman becoming infatuated with one another while they were supposed to be searching for his girlfriend and her best friend. La Notte had an unhappy marriage with a tortured woman and an unfaithful man. L’Eclisse had a single woman eventually allowing herself to be seduced by a man with a wandering eye. Red Desert may have featured a relatively stable marriage, but the husband and wife were all-too-willing to participate in an orgy, and the wife allowed herself put herself within reach of another man. Blow-Up‘s main character was utterly dispassionate, and saw woman only as an opportunity to play or as a means to his own ends. The one marriage shown in the film had a husband objectifying his wife and a wife who couldn’t think about him even in the most intimate moments. In Zabriskie Point, the two young innocents have a Romeo-and-Juliet-like affair, but of a purer sort. Their love is not unrequited, but it is impossible, considering the scenario in which the young man is caught. Though something resembling an orgy does appear in the film, it is relatively monogamistic, with a couple brief exceptions. (It was a time of free love, after all.)
Notes: fuzzy, unfocused, uncertain, flinching, disoriented camera of students in opening credits (similar to camera in opening credits of Red Desert). “Willing to die?” Fake “natural” scenery in city on buildings. Lots of billboards. Identifies himself as “Carl [sic] Marx” to police. Priest also booked, along with professors. Fake plastic people and animals in commercial being screened by Rod Taylor et al. “Sunny Dunes Land Development Company.” Outside RT’s office window is another building, American flag between. Shot of RT from below desk – tape recorder, RT, window, flag on next building. Can’t get sandwich, but gets a plane. RT’s office discusses “cost of blasting rock slopes.” Young boys chase her. “I needed to get off the ground.” Still shot of dead trees as they drive away. Barren but beautiful landscape. She says it’s peaceful, he says it’s dead. Antonioni as usual identifies with the woman. She says nothing is terrible when he says childhood was. Most reciprocated lovemaking in all of Antonioni? One with landscape – covered in dust. 90-degree shot switch after he aims gun at cop near outhouse – perspective changes radically. Investigative work by cops & press after plane robbery – unusual for Ant. Camera movement around plane after landing, shooting. She hears news on radio among cacti in desert. She avoids artificial pool, gets wet in natural falls. Explosion from many angles, repeatedly. Lawn furniture, Wonder Bread, newspaper, books, magazines – reminiscent of plastic commercial earlier.
My first foray into German Expressionist cinema was, fittingly, F.W. Murnau’s infamous Gothic work Nosferatu. The mother of all horror films (chronologically speaking), Nosferatu marvelously executed some great intercutting, showing parallel story lines simultaneously. And of course, Count Orlock was wonderfully “creepy,” as the film’s text pointed out explicitly a few times. Other than that, the film might be remembered mainly for the controversy it caused by supposedly violating intellectual property rights claimed by Bram Stoker’s widow for imitating Dracula a bit too overtly. Some effects were well-done for the period, such as the horse-and-carriage coming and going at breakneck speed, as well as the opening/closing doors and lid floating up and onto Orlock’s coffin. The film might have been one of the first to establish the juxtaposition prevalent in most horror films ever since, between carefree happiness (seen in Hutter waking up twice with a smile and a stretch) and sheer terror. Themes of eating and sleeping were also present, as horror feeds upon the most common and natural processes in order to instill maximum fear in the viewer. Though this was a work of Expressionism, the realism of the film was striking. Perhaps the Expressionism mostly lay in the subject/object relationship, the effect that the film has on the viewer. The effect would have been substantially less if not for the realism which fools the viewer into believing in the possibility of such horrors.
The second and last collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Âge d’Or is quite a bit more than Un Chien Andalou. Though the latter was shorter and perhaps more shocking originally (though that is arguable), this film is more complex and slightly more withheld. The outburst and subsequent ban it received for many decades would not be surprising for that time period, otherwise.
Since the two films were joint efforts between the two artists, a comparison of the two films seems fair. Both were concerned with similar themes/objects: insects, eroticism, and the church. Un Chien Andalou featured a man with a hole in his hand from which ants poured forth. I believe there were also flies at various points also coming into contact with humans. L’Âge d’Or began with what appeared to be a documentary about scorpions. The scorpion shown attached and devoured a mouse, with intermittent paragraphs about the scorpion for the viewer’s enlightenment. Later in the film, while a man is being escorted through rocky terrain, the camera closes in for a shot of a beetle on the ground. The man immediately and deliberately squashes the bug. Then the forced escort resumes.
Un Chien Andalou contained obviously erotic scenes, which, like L’Âge d’Or, were quite shocking for their time: the groping scene, the “beard,” and the woman’s bare back, most notably. This film, though comprised of a series of vignettes, largely revolved around the unconsummated love between the man and woman. The woman in particular couldn’t seem to quench her thirst from the man, even transferring her affections to a passer-by after becoming bored with her first partner. The toe-sucking scene is famous, but prior to that both characters engaged in suckling of their digits, which seemed more suggestive than the statue’s toes. Perhaps that the toes belonged to the statue of a religious figure made it more controversial. L’Âge d’Or also featured the scene of the couple attempting to make love in a mud puddle next to a large crowd of people in an otherwise dry and rocky area. The couple was broken apart against their wills, illustrating the repeated theme of very strong, uncontrollable erotic desire in Buñuel’s characters. In both films, seemingly at random, characters cannot restrain their highly sexual thoughts and actions.
The only theme of these films to which the aforementioned takes a back seat is church imagery. Un Chien Andalou had the two priests being drug underneath the pianos with rotting donkey carcasses on them. The priests in this scene are shown very comfortably despite their situation, chatting with hands folded across their chests. Similarly, L’Âge d’Or has numerous scenes with clergy in perilous or blasphemous situations, but they do not protest their predicaments. Early on, three bishops are scene in all their pomp seated amidst the rocks as the Majorcan tribe makes their way through the area looking for food. As the tribe comes back through the area, the bishops are still there but have been reduced to skeletons. Toward the end, a character by the name of “Duke de Blangis” emerges from a castle where he has just enjoyed 120 days of orgiastic living with numerous adolescent girls. When he emerges, he looks very much like the popular conception of Jesus, with white robes, a dark beard, and long-ish dark hair. A scream is heard, and he re-enters the castle. When he leaves the second time, his beard is gone. The camera cuts to a shot of heavy snow coming down on a crooked cross with seven scalps (presumably belonging to the girls) hanging on it, to the accompaniment of some very jolly-sounding music.
The surrealistic nature of these films is perhaps most “surrealistic” not in its dream-like imagery, but rather in the comfort with which it displays the images. To this day there are many films that have provocative, disturbing images, some of which are dream-like in nature. But they are encoded in such a way that they not be understood as “normal.” Buñuel and Dalí here juxtapose the vile and disturbing with the happy and flippant. The music often sounds like we should be seeing a boy running through a field with his dog, while instead we are watching a boy get shot by his father, then shot again once he is down and already dead (meanwhile, onlookers are amused but don’t care). It makes one wonder what the point is of surrealism. There are many surrealist paintings that are striking and fascinating in their own right, but they force the onlooker to question them, since the onlooker doesn’t have to stare at it for 63 minutes, as he does with this film. Buñuel’s belief in the surrealist film movement was that it could not be analyzed theoretically, but rather psychoanalytically. Most critics and academics can’t avoid picking apart these films in the way Buñuel said not to do so, which is too bad, because Buñuel’s way actually does seem best. Even if I can’t figure out why surrealism exists or to what end, it should still be greeted on its own terms. These artists were honest about the fact that they were putting into an art form what came out of their minds, apart from reason or explanation. It can be interesting to look at the sorts of things about which artistic minds obsess. But I think it stops at “interesting.” There may even be a certain beauty in it sometimes, but that beauty is incidental, really more accidental. One can no more wonder about this film than one can wonder about the nature of dreams. There is certainly much to wonder about, as Freud has shown. However, dwelling on dreams when reality is before us seems like dwelling on a dark closet when one could instead go outside. Artists who try to swim in the seas of the ineffable can easily end up drowning in them. Thank goodness for us, Buñuel moved on to different styles after this film.
Saw this one day-of, and at the risk of exposing my hand, it was easily one of the best comic book movies so far. Being a sucker for the beginnings movies (Superman: The Movie, Batman Begins, etc.), this was especially enjoyable. The structure was pretty cool, as its first 1/3 or so was a short movie on its own. As others have noted, John Favreau clearly knows best how to entertain audiences through comedy, and here he shows his ability to use a compelling story and impressive effects to accompany funny moments. Of course, were it not for Robert Downey, Jr., one can only wonder as to how passable this would have been. You know an actor has done his/her job when you can’t imagine anyone else filling the role. That similarly goes for Jeff Bridges. He seems to become unexpectedly bad once he gets inside his suit, but then, he probably just needed the opportunity. Never before has he so been not “The Dude.”
A major purpose of this e-journal is to record thoughts so I won’t forget them later. Since I plan on many repeated viewings of this guiltless pleasure, I have no worries of forgetting anything.
UPDATE 5/6: Saw it again last night, and Downey Jr.’s acting compels me to comment again on how refreshing it is to have someone who is not Clark Kent or Peter Parker be the hero of a comic book movie. They’re lovable, and Bruce Wayne is to be feared, but Tony Stark may be the only truly cool alter-ego. You know that really painful part of Spider-Man 3 when Peter danced to funk music on the sidewalk…not cool. Also, was struck by the similarity between Iron Man’s first helmet and that of a hero only Generation Y can appreciate: The Rocketeer.
Amazingly, I have something in common with the great Jean Renoir. In high school, I helped author and direct a one-act play that has some remarkable similarities with The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu). My intention was to turn the murder-mystery genre on its head while keeping with certain clichés, such as setting the play on a train (incidentally, a train bound from New York to Paris). As with Renoir’s film, the play was a critique of modern upper-class society through an exposé on the irony and hypocrisy in conventional etiquette. My teacher at the time (bless her heart) insisted that the play have a moral to it. Being filled with artistic pretense even at such a meager age, I refused to instill a moral in the story from the outset, preferring instead to see where the story took us. In the end, the teacher didn’t see the moral, which was surprisingly subtle and powerful (in my mind), and I fought with her to gain a couple points back that she had previously knocked off. This was, quite truly, the first and last time I ever exercised anything resembling the beginnings of artistic creativity. Best quit while you’re as ahead as you’ll ever get.
Before The Rules of the Game, I had seen from Renoir only The Grand Illusion, though I happen to own Renoir’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, a double-disc from Criterion along with Kurosawa’s film. Renoir’s style has been called “poetic realism,” and that seems accurate. No offense intended toward Truffaut or Godard, but Renoir’s French cinema is one that draws little attention to itself and its maker and more to what the screen captures, which perhaps likens him more to Bresson. This style has an American echo in the films of Robert Altman, whose Gosford Park plays tribute to The Rules of the Game while distinguishing itself as decisively 21st century. If you haven’t seen Gosford Park yet, learn from my mistake and watch Renoir’s film first.
Stylistically, one of the aspects of the film that grabs your attention is the foreground-background interaction. Renoir’s eye is highly three-dimensional, and his deep lens brings to focus and attention the goings-on behind the main action. Once everyone has arrived at the country chateau, Christine tells the group about the relationship she has shared with André, while André stands beside her. Christine’s previously noted social awkwardness as a result of being an outsider from Salzburg is uncomfortably evident during this scene. Behind and between the two of them are Robert, her husband, and Octave, the family friend (played by Renoir). These two squirm and make knowing glances toward one another as Christine early on breaks the conventional rules of society’s game. Renoir’s positioning of the four figures also establishes the conflicted relationships present. From left to right, the order is André (foreground), Octave (background), Robert (background), and Christine (foreground). The two in the back are what separate the two on the front from an active relationship: Octave constantly discusses with André the impossibility of attaining Christine’s affections. The reason for this is Christine’s marriage with Robert, who also stands behind. And by placing Christine and her husband on the right half and André and Octave on the other, Renoir divides the screen into competitive halves.
The titular issue is presented rather straightforwardly. However, probably to avoid viewers’ oversimplification, Renoir’s introduction states plainly that the film is not about “manners,” per se. Manners certainly play a dominant role, but they serve as a means to an end. They reveal that the characters are preoccupied with superficialities and social customs rather than truth and integrity. In the film’s opening scene, André lands his plane to a swarming press crowd after a record-breaking flight across the Atlantic. When Octave breaks the news that Christine is not there to greet him, he furiously rants into microphones that the woman for whom he made the flight didn’t even have the decency of welcoming him back. Octave chastises him for his childishness, when he is in fact a “hero.” André’s immediate break of cultural rules establish the importance of the rules in the film.
Further, the film is at pains to affirm and reaffirm that its characters are involved in what is nothing less than a “game.” Life in general is referred to more than once as playing cards, plays are staged casting the film’s main characters as the performers (some dressed as animals), and they foray into the woods for a competitive round of hunting. The hunting scene contains numerous close-ups of rabbits and pheasants being shot while the men and woman laugh, howl, and fight over whose shot it is. The deaths of the animals seem less a statement about Renoir’s animal ethics and serve rather to lend a gravity to the scene of which the main characters are unaware.
In the film’s finale, a character is shot in the midst of an otherwise lighthearted series of fights between lovers and ex-lovers. The death that occurs is labeled an “accident,” though only the most superficial aspect of it could be called accidental. The film is quite enjoyable and funny until its ending, when the comedy becomes a tragedy, not so much because of the death but because of the characters’ blithe reaction to it.
Notes: Everyone but Christine (the outsider) is well aware of the rules. They teach her while breaking the rules themselves. Rules broken: constant cavorting outside of marriage, complaining of Christine to radio press, Christine showing affection to Parisian men, Robert’s mistress Geneviéve, Octave’s interaction with maid, maid’s husband posted at country house, Marceau sets traps on Robert’s property, Robert doesn’t want fences on property, Geneviéve invited to house for week, Marceau’s interaction with maid, Christine kisses André, Christine tells all about André & herself while holding hands, Christine seats André at her right, chef won’t obey woman’s food orders, Christine chats with Geneviéve about intimate life with Robert, Christine confesses love to André, Christine refuses to let André talk with Robert (“We’re in love. What does it matter?” “But Christine, there are still roles.”), maid’s husband fights with Marceau/Robert/André, he gets gun, maid gives her cape to Christine, Octave running off with Christine, maid tells Octave it’s okay when it’s for fun but not really living together, husband shoots André. FIlm’s last words regarding Robert: “He has class, and that’s become rare. That’s become rare!”
With a particular attraction toward Japanese film, am trying to lessen the number of important works that I haven’t seen. One that can now be crossed of the list (in terms of a first viewing) is Woman in the Dunes, by Hiroshi Teshigahara. The film is image-driven and becomes exceedingly tedious, even maddening, to watch.It has been called a postmodern example of the “missing-man” movie. Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which came a couple years before, featured the apparent protagonist going missing early in the film. Antonioni’s camera wanders as much as his emerging protagonists as there is never an indication of where Anna went. Woman in the Dunes reverses the perspective, with the camera trained on the missing man rather than on any attempt to discover his whereabouts. Perhaps it would be better to say that the camera accompanies the missing man, as it is rather more trained (along with the man’s gaze) on the young widow with whom he resides. The man reads a bulletin late in the film reporting that he, along with a host of others, have been identified as missing and unaccounted for. This confirms what the viewer already expects: that his disappearance was noticed, but the mystery left unsolved.
The sand has been heavily commented upon. It has an organic quality to it, constantly shifting, sinking into the pit where the two live. The woman in particular speaks of the sand in anthropomorphic terms, “swallowing” people up. It is also a substitute for water, both in the woman’s speech and her actions. She speaks of getting a couple inches overnight while washing dishes in the sand.
Close-ups are the dominant mode of camera use in the film. Often the shots begin from such a zoomed-in perspective that it is unclear what fills the frame. Teshigahara emphasizes the texture of these close-ups, usually consisting of sand alone, sand on skin, or water on skin. Without the option for a panoramic view, one must move in for detail. The result is a combination of realizing the beauty of detail and resulting insanity at having only detail to appreciate. With detail alone comes a loss of perspective, otherwise known as obsession. The man’s initial unwillingness to acquiesce to his entrapment in the pit fades away as he acknowledges his lack of choice in the matter.
What results is a very interesting fusion of eros, agape, hatred, and resentment. Though the woman is held captive as much as he is, she came to terms with her situation long ago and now has no desire to leave. Further, she probably could not do much to liberate him even if she wanted to. Still, with no one else to interact with, the man allows himself to become seduced by her. The seduction has a magnetic hold on him, such that once he has the opportunity to leave, he returns to the pit. His need is less for her than for what she has to offer. By limiting his life to the hut in the pit, every pleasure can be a sublime pleasure; ignorance of the outside world becomes bliss.
Notes: Opening credits with subway city sounds in background – a suggestion of the life he comes from. Passport stamps and fingerprints – allusions to missing while traveling. 1st shots from close-up -> slowly cut out to sand. Nightmarish, chilling string music. All initial shots of him from behind as he hikes through desert, then front, then side, then pause for facial close-up at ocean. Hand-held walking camera. At first dinner together, they discuss destructive nature of sand – it rots wood, while he says it’s fundamentally dry and couldn’t rot anything. Wandering, non-deliberate camera – qualitative-style camera work consistent with man’s style of research. Body contours identified with contours of sand. Shadow & light. He objectifies her while she sleeps, but she allows and even invites it. Silence. As he realizes he’s trapped, landslide (sandslide?). Hitchcock/horror premise. Music is Psycho-esque. Highly aesthetic, avant-garde, surrealistic. Numerous camera shots through wood planks while they sleep. “My blood is going to rot” b/c of sand, he says. “If it weren’t for the sand, no one would bother with me,” she says. Very few full-body shots; one while he photographs her, which she resists. Extremely textural scene while she bathes him: sounds, close-ups, soap, water, skin, b&w contrast, silence, breathing, cuts to windy dunes. Point-of-view shot as he emerges from pit. Maddening. Burns his insect collection. Villagers demand exhibitionism in order to “let him out,” but she refuses. He says, “We’re pigs, anyway.”
Released today here.