"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 14, 2011

"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) by Alain Resnais (Film review)

Last Year at Marienbad  (L’année dernière à Marienbad) is a 1961 French film helmed by New Wave director Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the radical master of the "new novel." Not surprisingly, this film is like a surreal dream, if not a nightmare where past and present are mixed in an ambiguous cloud - some even say it is a ghost story.

There are three protagonists, all unnamed: a handsome man, X, who speaks with a slight Italian accent (Giorgio Albertazzi); a beautiful woman, a brunette, A (Delphine Seyrig); and M, a man with a gaunt face (Sacha Pitoeff), who could be A's husband.

The location is a palace or luxurious European baroque hotel (or perhaps a hotel in such a palace), with glittering mirrored salons and geometric gardens featuring shrubs and statues, everything elegantly shot in black-and-white widescreen by Sacha Vierny.

The film starts with a justly famous, long tracking shot in which X wanders through the hotel's corridors cataloging in a voice-over items he sees, accompanied by discordant organ music: "Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other."

Both voice and organ music have an intoxicating quality, like a many times repeated incantation, and they will be with us for the whole duration of the film. Increasingly, the voice tells us shards of a story that took place the year before, and these story fragments, too, are repeated with slight variations.

The narrator X approaches A, claiming to have met her the year before at Marienbad. He asserts she must be waiting for him now, as she has agreed to leave with him if only X would be willing to wait one year, but she insists that they have never met.

The narrator stalks the reticent woman through the corridors and salons of the palace and tells her more and more details about their (supposed) previous meeting. Their conversations are repeated with slight variations in several places in the palace and gardens, as if we are caught in an endless loop.

But the more he tells her, the more his story shows internal discrepancies - made clear by the director by having different images accompany identical parts of the man's narration. Gradually, we feel that the atmosphere of uncertainty contains a threat, as if some danger lurks in the background.

The man with the gaunt face who may be the woman's husband, repeatedly plays a mathematical game called Nim with the narrator, and by beating him each time at the game, he as it were asserts some sort of dominance.

The nightmarish quality is enhanced by the fact that the other glamorously looking characters, presumably guests to the hotel, mostly sit or stand frozen, in mannerist poses and with a glazed look on their faces.

At the end of the film, the stranger leaves with the woman, but we do not know if that is happening now, or last year, or whether it is just wishful thinking.

With is ambiguous flashbacks and shifts of time and locations, the film is a conscious enigma. Is this an investigation into the nature of memory, does everything take place in the head of the narrator, even as a dream or the memory of a dream? As Resnais said, "For me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes." Or in the words of Robe-Grillet: "The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a "persuading": it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words."

I agree with the interpretation that everything takes place in the head of the narrator, but there are other explanations possible: for example, a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; everything takes place in the woman's mind; everything takes place in the man's mind, and depicts his refusal to acknowledge that he has killed the woman he loved; or the characters could be dead souls in limbo.

Take your pick! This great film deserves repeated viewings.

P.S. The film was shot in various palaces around Munich, and not in the actual Czech spa town of Marienbad.
P.S.2 Inland Empire (2006) by David Lynch was influenced by Last Year at Marienbad.

Note: I have learned recently (2014) that the film was in fact inspired by the novella The Invention of Morel, written in 1940 by the Argentinian author Adolfo Bioy Casares - a lifelong friend of Jorge Louis Borges. See my post on The Invention of Morel. What Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel have in common is that characters in both repeat their actions and conversations. In my review of the novella I suggest that they are not real persons but a sort of "holograms," three-dimensional recordings which are indistinguishable from reality. This would indeed mean that the characters are dead (although no "dead souls in limbo"), for in Bioy's tale the recording of part of their lives also transfers their souls to the "hologram." I now believe this is the best solution to the enigma of the film.
Last Year at Marienbad is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

"12 Angry Men" (1957) with Henry Fonda (Film review)

"12 Angry Men" (1957) by director Sidney Lumet has been called a "courtroom drama," but it really is a "jury room" drama, because the viewer is locked up together with a deliberating jury for almost the whole duration of the 90 minute film. That is quite a suffocating experience. In 1957, the jury was all white, and all male. And these men are angry: for having to act as jury members, for being locked up while there are nicer things to do such as attending a baseball game, because they have to discuss the case seemingly endlessly, although there is only one dissenting member, and everything is clear, isn't it? "That colored guy, that immigrant, murdered his father with a knife, there are two witnesses, more or less, so lets quickly decide on a 'guilty' verdict, they are all scum after all, and we want to get out of this room as quickly as possible..."

The dissenter is Henry Fonda, and gradually he convinces the other eleven, not that the accused is innocent (they don't know that), but that he - like everyone - should get a fair trial and that the evidence is full of holes. In other words, there is plenty of room for a "reasonable doubt." In the process, every jury member is shown as an individual character, whose background may be pushing him to take a certain stance. The story comes neatly full circle, but it is a bit too neat, "Hollywood-style," and the prosecutor's work is shown as just too sloppy (not to talk about the defense) to be realistic.

Anyway, I am glad I am not living in a country with a jury system. Seeing the flimsy grounds on which most of the jurors decide (personal prejudices) does not inspire confidence in such a system. It is only a more civilized form of lynching. If Fonda would not have held out against eleven others - most people would have gone along with such an overwhelming majority - and patiently argued the case with the "angry men," the accused would have been wrongly executed.

It is interesting to watch the cultural traits in this film: the body language, the fact that these American (Western) men simply can't sit still, and also have trouble concentrating - but in the end, they do get the job done. They all have clear opinions and state these loudly and confidently. The discussions are rather confrontational. One of the men acts as chairman (of course, as is usual in A,merica, his authority is challenged at a certain time - leaders have to prove themselves all the time), but the whole process is quite disorderly. I realized how used I am to more quiet and orderly processes because of my life in Japan. When in a meeting, Japanese don't get up to pace the room all the time, the discussions would be more polite and general procedure would be more structured. But whether that means the job would be done faster, I don't know... (although it would be done in a more pleasant atmosphere).

12 Angry Men is worth watching for these cultural traits - there is also excellent acting all-around the table, and the story satisfies as the "good guy" (Fonda, who uses both his mind and his heart) wins. But this film is not the great plea for democracy some people have made out of it, on the contrary, it only shows how dangerously fallible the jury system is.
Twelve Angry Men is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

November 10, 2011

"The Gold Rush" (1925) by Chaplin (Film review)

The Gold Rush (1925) is Chaplin at his most characteristic. It was also the film Chaplin himself liked best. But there are two "buts" standing in the way of my enjoyment: when I was a kid, The Gold Rush was played so often on TV (with other Chaplin and slapstick stuff) that even today I can remember all the gags - there is no freshness left (others call it the "collective memory of our culture"); and the "Little Tramp" is a rather mawkish figure, a sort of sentimentality that simply is not of our time. I am more a fan of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd - see for example my review of Girl Shy.

The tramp has become a lone prospector, venturing into the snows of Alaska to make his fortune. The first half hour of the film is set in a cabin around which the snow storm blows. The scenes I could remember are from this part and include the prospector's cabin teetering on the brink of the abyss, the consumption of a leather shoe when food has run out, and - for the same reason - Chaplin envisioned as a juicy chicken by another hungry inmate. After that, the story moves back to civilization in the form of a rough and ready gold-digger's boomtown, where Chaplin visits the saloon and meets the unavoidable girl (Georgia Hale). Of course, he falls in love with her and by a nifty trick (a more sophisticated element in the film) is led to believe this feeling is mutual.

One of the weak and sentimental scenes is the one in which Chaplin has been made to believe that Georgia is coming to Christmas dinner in his cottage - he has prepared a real feast, shoveling snow to get the money for all the delicacies, spending lots of time setting the table - but of course she doesn't show up...

Chaplin filmed only the opening scene of the film on location, in the mountains between California and Nevada. You see a long line of black "ants" crawling up a mountain pass through the snow. But the rest was made in the studio, which better fitted Chaplin's slow way of working (real snow would melt before he had taken his second shot).
The Gold Rush is available in the Criterion Collection.
 (Revised August 2014)

November 9, 2011

"The Lady-killers" (1955) with Alec Guinness (Film review)

The Lady Killers (1955) is one of the last comedies made by the Ealing Studio in London before it was wrapped up for having fallen behind the times. And indeed, although there are flashes of interesting black humor, as a whole the film is rather too soft and cosy, like the frayed finery in the Victorian mansion where most of the action takes place. The criminals are bungling bumpkins you can spot from a mile distance, the policemen are your favorite son-in-law who helps old ladies cross the road, and although several persons get killed, the process is totally bloodless. The story is funny in a cartoonish way, but there is not a shred of real suspense.

That is not to say there is nothing to enjoy here. 77-year-old Katie Johnson steals the show as the indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, renting out rooms in her Victorian house, and Alec Guinness plays criminal mastermind Professor Marcus, a fine comic performance of a man becoming gradually more unhinged. He is also over-polite in a sinister way and wears monstrous false teeth. His oddball gang of thieves includes a thuggish Peter Sellers and murderous Herbert Lom.

Professor Marcus pretends to be a musicologist who now and then will be receiving colleagues to rehearse music (they play a Boccherini record to mislead others) and uses Mrs Wilberforce's lodging rooms as hideaway. Her house is conveniently located at the end of a cul-de-sac, above the railroad tracks near St. Pancras Station, and the sweet old lady looks as if she is just as conveniently daft. But as usual when a crime has been carefully planned, something unforeseen happens during the robbery of 60,000 pounds from an armored bank van, and then the criminals also make the mistake of accidentally revealing their stack of banknotes (hidden in a cello case, which falls open) to the old lady.

So instead of fleeing, they decide they have to kill their landlady first - initially so harmless they even used her to carry the stolen cash from the station depot to her house, she now has become a liability. Well, easier said than done. The old fox, who looks so naive, easily outwits the five men. The thieves start quarreling among themselves, and instead of doing the old lady in, they end up finishing off each other, as each one looks for a chance to escape alone with all the loot. The last one, the "professor," is killed by a railroad sign while hanging from the bridge over the railroad tracks near the cul-de-sac (from which he has thrown several colleagues to their death). The old lady is very law obedient, so she goes to the police to inform the authorities and return the money left in her house by the dead robbers, but the police regard her as dotty and laughingly send her away. All the better for the old lady's finances...

Director of this film was Alexander Mackendrick, who would move to the U.S. and there make the cynical The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The Lady Killers is pleasantly silly and entertaining enough to help you pass a rainy afternoon, but not much more than that.

(Revised August 2014)

November 8, 2011

"It" (1927) with Clara Bow (Film review)

One of the funniest silent films is undoubtedly It from 1927, helmed by Clarence Badger and an uncredited Josef von Sternberg, and starring Clara Bow as the resourceful  shop-girl who is the veritable personification of the "roaring twenties." I quite like "silent films," but a fact is that many of them are a sort of museum pieces, outdated stuff that we watch with a mix of polite academic interest and boredom. Not so with It: this is an amazingly entertaining film, a romantic comedy that sizzles in all its reels, and is still as fresh as when it was made - and that all thanks to the electrifying screen presence of Clara Bow.

But what is "IT?" Well, there once was a novelist called Elinor Glyn (1864 - 1943), who pioneered mass-market women's erotic fiction (you can find samples of her writing on Gutenberg, including Red Hair that was also filmed with Clara Bow). Today she is forgotten - and there is nothing scandalous about her books anymore - but in the 1920s Glyn was a popular author who also wrote scripts for Hollywood. That her novels were considered quite risky was expressed in the following doggerel: "Would you like to sin / With Elinor Glyn / On a tiger skin? / Or would you prefer / To err with her / On some other fur?" (from Wikipedia).

In her writings, Madame Glyn had famously coined the term "IT" for an elusive quality found in certain people, a sort of animalistic magnetism that attracts the opposite sex. Of course, "IT" simply was a round-about and inoffensive way to describe "sex appeal." By using the term, the film also shrewdly evaded the scissors of the censor.

Author Elinor Glyn plays a cameo in the film, in the scene set in the dining room of the Ritz, where she has the chance to explain "IT" herself: "a self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold." The studio paid her $50,000 for the "IT" idea, but for the story they used a totally different script. They did enlist Glyn's help in promoting Clara Bow as "The IT Girl." And the vivacious, saucy and free-spirited Clara Bow truly has "IT" ("she is top heavy with "IT","as someone in the movie remarks) - the movie was made as a vehicle for Bow and it indeed boosted her Hollywood career.

At the beginning of the film, the concept of "IT" is enthusiastically explained to Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno), heir to a department store emporium who has just succeeded in his father's footsteps, by his friend Monty Montgomery (an obviously homosexual William Austin, who does some rather weird things with his eyes). Monty proposes to look around in the store if any of the shop girls possesses this quality, but Cyrus has more important matters on his mind. When both men leave the store, the new, young boss Cyrus - a handsome millionaire - attracts the eyes of all shop girls, including Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow). Monty spots Betty and decides she is the only one among hundreds of female employees who has "IT." He arranges to meet her, and Betty talks him into taking her out for dinner at The Ritz - a ruse to see her boss Cyrus again, for she has overheard that he will be there with his fiancee. Dirt-poor Betty has no suitable evening dress, so in a very funny scene she just cuts up her everyday dress into a gown - giving her the chance to show some skin on the go - and it looks great!

At the dinner, Betty keeps casting meaningful glances at Cyrus. His high-society fiancee Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden) indeed is beautiful, but also boring - clearly not an "IT-girl." When the dinner has ended, Clara manages to have Monty introduce her to Cyrus, who admires her beauty. She makes a bet with him: next time they meet, he will not recognize her. This is of course exactly what happens the next day in the department store. Cyrus has to "pay" Betty by taking her out - and this time it is not The Ritz, but Coney Island, where they eat hot dogs and enjoy the rides (again a chance to show some leg), all quite a new experience for the rich boy. But when Cyrus tries to kiss her, he gets a slap in the face - she doesn't like "Minute Men" ("men who the minute they see a girl, think they may kiss her").

Betty is also kind-hearted and that almost upsets her scheme. Her sick friend Molly (Priscilla Bonner) is an unmarried mother and Betty allows her to stay with the infant in her apartment. When a meddlesome civic group threatens to take the child away as they deem Molly too ill to take proper care of it, Betty claims the child as her own. Because of the fracas, reporters have stormed in and also Monty happens to be there. So Betty's claim is reported in the papers and Monty informs Cyrus that his flame already has a baby...

Cyrus is shocked, and his ardor suddenly cools, even though Betty drapes herself over his desk, batting her eyelashes and sticking our her legs. She won't let him jilt her! With the help of Monty, who has something to make good, she plans a strategy that will play out on the yacht of Cyrus. I won't disclose the details, but in the final scene they embrace on the anchor of the boat (called the ITola), wet after an accident and full of "IT," while Monty and fiancee Adele conclude that they simple haven't got "IT."

Clara Bow (1905-1965) was a very dynamic actress who played sparkling and energetic heroines. She was the personification of the uninhibited and flirtatious flapper. In addition to being a great star, Bow was also America's first sex symbol and received 45,000 fan letters a month. But her light only shone briefly, chiefly because she had trouble making the shift to sound - indeed, she can do great things with her face and eyes, typical for silent pantomime. It is also rumored that she had a terrible Brooklyn accent (she had been born and raised in dire poverty, and had come to film thanks to winning a photo beauty contest), but that doesn't seem to have been the chief reason: she just didn't like "talkies." So Clara Bow retired in 1933 with her husband, cowboy star Rex Bell, to a ranch in Nevada and never came out of retirement again. Her best film is arguably It, but she also played an interesting role in the mediocre Wings (1927), where she eclipses all the other actors, only to be herself eclipsed by the aerial dogfights in the WWI film. For the rest, she seems to have been mainly cast in fluffy stuff. That makes It all the more precious.

(Revised August 2014)

November 6, 2011

"A Woman of Paris" (1923) by Chaplin (Film review)

A Woman of Paris (1923) is an a-typical Chaplin film, produced and directed by him, but without the figure of the tramp - Chaplin only plays a small cameo. It is an old-fashioned melodrama: country boy Jean (Carl Miller) and country girl Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) are in love with each other and as both parents are not very cooperative, they decide to run away to Paris. When Jean fails to meet Marie at the station she goes off alone to the City of Light, of which she has been dreaming all her life.

There she soon manages to become the mistress of a wealthy playboy, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), who keeps her in affluent circumstances (and presumably will continue to do that), but who is also set to marry another heiress. By chance Marie meets Jean again, who also has come to Paris and is trying to become a painter. She lets him do her portrait, but they are almost like strangers now. Jean explains he couldn't meet Marie at the station because his father has suddenly died. Now he lives with his mother (Lydia Knott), who strongly disapproves of Marie and her flashy call-girl life.

So they don't come much closer to each other, but Jean starts hating Marie's rich friend. He follows Marie and Pierre into a restaurant, and gets in a shuffle with Pierre before he can use the pistol he brought to kill him. Strong waiters remove him from the scene and he then kills himself outside.

Chaplin apparently made different endings of the film for the U.S. and European markets. For the U.S. he made a heavy-handed moralistic ending: Marie joins the mother of Jean in running a catholic orphanage in the countryside - Pierre passes her once by car, but they don't recognize each other. In the European version, she stays with Pierre. I saw the American version, but would prefer the lighter, European one. In America the film was a flop (viewers wanted Chaplin himself), but in Europe it was quite successful at the box-office.

I had read some reviews before seeing the film and was actually prepared for the worst. To my surprise, although rather unsubstantial, the film was entertaining and even now and then funny. It starts off a bit gloomy in the countryside, but the settings in Paris are lavish (Marie's dresses are great). It is fun to see the soap-bubble life Marie leads, and hear the banter she exchanges with two girlfriends who are of the same profession.

Once, when she quarrels with Pierre, Marie throws her pearl necklace out of the window, but when Pierre lets her know a tramp has picked it up, she runs into the street and snatches back her jewels. And when she says she dreams of children and a husband who respects her, Pierre points to a scene outside where two young parents are struggling with their fighting brats.

In fact, it is the character of Pierre, played by Adolphe Menjou,  that brings so much light to the film. He is a suave, somewhat older playboy, always with a small laugh on his face as if he is constantly experiencing something funny. And he is by far the best actor in the film - Edna Purviance is unfortunately no Greta Garbo and even no Clara Bow.

[Revised February 2015]

November 4, 2011

"Marnie" (1964) by Hitchcock (Film review)

Marnie Edgar (Tippie Hedren) is one of Hitchcock's typical heroines: a lovely, cool blonde, looking very proper, but hiding a psychological scar that entices her to criminal conduct. She is afraid of the color red, thunderstorms, and above all, she harbors an unnatural fear and mistrust of men. She is also a thief and habitual liar. She works secretarial jobs and after a few months robs the company and disappears. Then she tries the same thing in another city, with a false social security card for a new identity.

Publisher Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) knows what Marnie is up to, for by chance he has seen her in action at her previous employer. But he hires her when she comes to him for a job. Not only that, he is so smitten with her that he tries to help her confront her psychological problems and overcome them. Instead of calling the police when she tries to steal money, he forces her to marry him.

Unexpectedly, this is also a form of punishment for Marnie for she can't stand to have a man touch her. The honeymoon is a disaster and Marnie is shocked enough to attempt suicide.

Mark then investigates her past with the help of a private detective, thinks he has found the cause of her problems and together with Marnie visits her mother. There he helps her bring out her repressed memories: her mother was a prostitute, who once - during a thunderstorm - was attacked by a customer; small Marnie tried to save her mother by hitting the man with a poker, accidentally killing him. And, apparently, in this way he sets her on the path to healing.

Marnie is clearly not one of Hitchcock's strongest efforts. It came after the glorious sequence of Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) and in contrast to those films, which are all fresh and new, seems a rehash of old themes, such as those from Spellbound and Vertigo. Suddenly, in Marnie Hitchcock's heavy psychologizing looks very old-fashioned. What works in a film from 1945, is a piece of antiquated junk twenty years later.

Today, nobody believes in these easy psychological explanations of repressed human beings. We known humans are more complex than that. Freud, still riding strong in Hitchcock's time, is today completely out. Therefore the mechanism of the film has lost its spring. The story has become rather unconvincing.

There are other things that grate today, so as the easily recognizable back projection whenever the characters ride in a car, or when Marnie rides her horse. This looks like a cheap B-movie, as do the obvious matte paintings - although the image of a huge ship's hull almost entering the narrow street where Marnie's mother lives, is "aptly Freudian" (quoting the film's ideology).

Connery gives a solid performance, although any moment you expect him to ask for a dry martini - these were the years of Dr. No and Goldfinger. Hedren has been called too weak as an actress to carry the weight of this psychological drama on her slim shoulders, but I felt she has the right tone, indeed prim and frigid, but also frightened. Hitchcock was such a strong director that he could make his actors and actresses do anything he needed on screen. If necessary he would grab their face and mold it with his hands into the expression he wanted!

P.S. Hitchcock's cameo: 5 minutes into the film, in the hotel corridor when Marnie walks by.

"The Great Dictator" (1940) by Chaplin (Film review)

The Great Dictator (1940), a satire on Nazi Germany, was Chaplin's greatest commercial success, but it has aged badly. There are only a few really funny scenes, the whole hangs badly together, and - most of all - the Nazi's perpetrated such terrible crimes that it now seems irresponsible to turn them into buffoons. That is of course hindsight, but history is history.

That Chaplin had the same piece of dirt (some call it a mustache) below his nose as Hitler, had of course been noted and Chaplin uses the "resemblance" in this film. He plays both dictator "Adenoid Hynkel" and his double, a poor Jewish barber, who suffers from amnesia because of WWI and when he finally returns home finds the ghetto were he used to live the hunting ground of Nazi bullies. The film intercuts between the persecuted barber and the ego-maniacal Hynkel and only brings these two strands together in the last 15 minutes when the film finally  becomes the expected "mistaken identity" tale.

Some funny scenes are the ballet between Hynkel and a balloon globe, or the competition between Hynkel and "Benzino Napaloni" aka Mussolini, played by Jack Oakie in a very strong performance (such as cranking up their barber's chairs when they have a shave together, to sit higher than the other). The scenes where Chaplin plays the Jewish barber are much less interesting due to their mawkishness, although we have Paulette  Goddard as Chaplin's girlfriend. The best sequence is a syncopated shave Chaplin gives a customer to the tune of one of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms, all in one take.

But other scenes in my view go wrong. For example, while  Chaplin enacts a good copy of Hitler's speech mannerisms, by using only silly German words like "Schnitzel" and "Sauerkraut" he turns the threatening figure of the dictator too much into a lightweight fun character.

As has often been noted, the weakest spot of the film is its ending. Chaplin, speaking as the Jewish barber who is impersonating Hynkel, suddenly becomes Chaplin himself and holds an impassioned plea to end tyranny, obviously forgetting that satire is a sharper weapon than mere sermonizing. If direct address would be sufficient, film (art) would not be necessary anymore.

Concluding: on the positive side, Chaplin in this film had the courage and the foresight to attack the Nazi's, but on the negative side they turned out to be real evil and evil is not something to lampoon. In the end, The Great Dictator is too soft to fit the crime.

November 3, 2011

"The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933) by Frank Capra (Film review)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a rarity in the work of director Frank Capra due to its war violence and exotic location. It is also a rather "artsy" film for the populist director. Due to the theme of love between a white woman and a Chinese man, which 1933 audiences in the U.S. could not stomach - women's clubs actually campaigned against the film (something so weird seen from today's perspective it is almost unbelievable - civilization and human feeling do indeed advance) - it flopped at the box office. Reviving it proved a hard task as prejudices took long to dwindle and today it has another problem: it is a film about China without any of the major actors being Chinese.

But it is quite an interesting story. American Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in Shanghai where civil war is raging to marry her missionary friend Robert Strife. Robert takes her immediately on a rescue mission of an orphanage in a war engulfed section of the city. In the tumult they are separated and Megan is captured by General Yen (Swedish actor Nils Asther) and brought by train to his palace.

The general develops a weak spot for the white lady, but he is a real gentleman and never bothers her. Fired by missionary zeal, from her side she tries to convert the "infidel," but gradually also begins to dress in Chinese gowns and harbor tender return feelings for the courtly and wise man. In one of the most striking sequences of the film, she even dreams about him.

The gentlemanly General is indeed a great contrast to his Western adviser, a Mr Jones (Walter Connolly), who is the typical capitalist, colonial money grabber without a shred of morality. This Westerner is the exact opposite of a gentleman.

Megan uses her influence on the General to have him pardon his mistress Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), who is accused of betraying military secrets to the enemy. Yen grants the request of the naive Megan and spares Mah-Li's life. That will be his undoing, for Mah-Li continues her double doings with as result that an enemy attack on general Yen's troops succeeds. The war tide turns against the General who now has only one option: to drink poisoned tea. His love has become his nemesis.

The most interesting point of this film is that it shows not only how ineffective the Christian mission in China was, but also how it backfired (said with all respect for those who dedicated their lives to it, among whom were also the first serious scholars of Chinese culture). That comes out in two ways. In the first place, at the beginning of the film one missionary tells about his experiences in the Chinese countryside. The Chinese there were extremely interested in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, so the "Man of God" was happy and full of hope to win countless converts. The locals kept asking for details of the story! But when he later returned to the same village he saw that he had been crying victory too soon. Crucifixion had become the major punishment for crimes! Apparently the always so practical Chinese had only been interested in the Bible to get some useful information about a new form of punishment...

The second and more important example is the film itself, where Megan Davis is led astray by her Christian compassion and has the General spare a dangerous enemy. Her good-willing interference is not based on any knowledge of Chinese culture and therefore has the opposite effect. This, one could say, is what went wrong in general with Western influence in China - and still goes wrong today when the West meddles in other cultures without taking the trouble to first understand them.

Stanwyck is more prim than usual, but the Chinese gowns look great on her. The sets are lavish, although not without mistakes, as I suppose Chinese in the 1930s would not put Buddha statues in their homes (for Chinese, these belonged in temples, not in homes - Western art collectors were the ones to treat Buddhas on the same level as other antiquities). Nils Asther does a great job as General Yen, he even manages to hold his own against Barbara Stanwyck, which is no mean feat. But it is true, he is not Chinese and today that grates on our sensibility.

November 2, 2011

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) (Film review)

It would be good if anti-war films really could prevent wars. But no, when All Quiet on the Western Front was made about WWI, which had just ended 12 years before, Europe's nations were already gearing up for a second round which would break out in less than 10 year's time (those wars together killed 60 million people; in the first half of the 20th century "cultured" Europe was in fact the most murderous place the world has ever known). In many countries this film was forbidden until far in the sixties, as if authorities were afraid of its message.

That problem didn't exist in 1914. War was greeted with enthusiasm everywhere in Europe, people danced in the streets for joy: it meant being free from school or factory labor. War was seen as a holiday of a couple of weeks, at most months. Fun to hold a gun! But Europe's youth was in for a nasty surprise: four long years they would be suffering hell in muddy trenches, exposed to constant fire of cannon and grenades. The military tactics were still from the 19th century (storming the position of the opponent), but the weapons were so terrible that these antiquated strategies only meant total carnage (as already experienced in the American Civil War, and the war of 1905 between Japan and Russia in North-eastern China). Between 1914 and 1918, in Europe, a whole generation of young men was wiped out, starting the glide towards lesser relevance of the continent in the world.

All Quiet on the Western Front is based on German author Erich Remarque’s novel of the same name and was made in 1930 in Hollywood by director Lewis Milestone. The muddy fields of northern France were recreated in the outskirts of Los Angeles and thanks to the help of war veterans the film manages to be very realistic in the war scenes. The story follows a group of young men, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) and his friends Kropp, Leer, and Kemmerick, as they allow themselves to be urged by their jingoistic teacher to quit school and go as volunteers to the front. They get their first negative experience at boot camp where the previously so modest janitor of their school now acts as sadistic sergeant.

When they arrive at the front, the real horror show starts:
  • there is a severe shortage of supplies, especially food;
  • on their first mission, to string barbed wire, one of the boys is blinded by shell fire and then killed as he mistakenly runs towards the enemy lines;
  • the soldiers have to cope with an invasion by rats;
  • many suffer from sleeplessness and homesickness and have nervous breakdowns;
  • there are endlessly long days of continued bombing and machine gun fire from the enemy side;
  • when they get out of the trenches and storm each other's lines, Milestone shows with crane shots how the soldiers fall like dominoes and how thousands of dead bodies lie in the mud - but as the battle lines go back and forth, at the end of the day both sides are still stuck in the same trenches - proving how pointless this war is;
  • we see how a soldier is blown to smithereens by a grenade, only his hands are left gripping barbed wire;
  • when Paul has killed a French soldier he watches the painful agony of the dying man and feels deeply sorry, the more so when he also finds photos of the man's wife and children in his pocket;
  • the soldiers experience a growing sense of futility; when Paul returns home on leave and is asked to give a speech at his old school, he tells the truth about life in the trenches, and therefore is called a coward by the people in his hometown.
I almost desperately wanted to love this film, for it has an important message. But despite the realism of the battle scenes, I felt the film as a whole was too stiff and old-fashioned. The actors are remarkably inept, almost on the level of an amateur theater society. As a viewer, I could not feel involved in the story nor in the characters.

But the end was impressive: in the last days of the war, Paul is killed by an enemy sniper when he reaches out of the trenches to look at a butterfly. Then we see a field with crosses and a ghostly march of the dead, looking full of reproach at us, the viewers...