Monday, October 15, 2007

The Birth Of A Nation: Review

Here is another review about The Birth of A Nation from TV Guide

This notoriously problematic melodrama is the first true screen epic and arguably the most important motion picture ever made. Virtually overnight, THE BIRTH OF A NATION compelled cultural gatekeepers to reckon with cinema, not as a mere arcade novelty, but as a uniquely vigorous, wholly credible art form. As the film unfolds, with a majestic assurance undiminished by time, the viewer can practically see director D.W. Griffith inventing the narrative conventions, editing style, and production techniques that have dominated Hollywood cinema ever since.

That this undeniable masterpiece is also a wholesale endorsement of white supremacy is an irony that may reveal more about the American past than some of us want to know. Griffith's naive, deeply held, and unquestionably vicious notions of race and history are on full display here. Jim Crow is explicitly endorsed; slavery is romanticized; the Ku Klux Klan is glorified; lynching is condoned; and blacks are represented as simple-minded beasts driven primarily by lust and envy (another respect in which Griffith set the tone for many later Hollywood movies). On viewing the film at a special White House screening, President Woodrow Wilson (whose racial views weren't much different from Griffith's) famously observed that THE BIRTH OF A NATION is "like history written in lightning." Far from it: it's more like ideology conveyed--unforgettably--in lightning, and the rhetorical power of this new medium was not lost on manipulators of opinion worldwide.

Based on two popular novels and a stage play by ultraracist ideologue Thomas Dixon, Jr., THE BIRTH OF A NATION aims to bring a tragic period of American history to life by tracing the interconnected fortunes of two fictional families. In the antebellum South, the Camerons of Piedmont, South Carolina, play host to visiting friends from Pennsylvania, the Stonemans, whose stern patriarch (Ralph Lewis) is the leading abolitionist in the House of Representatives. Romance blossoms between his daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish) and Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), but when war breaks out, the Cameron boys enlist with the Confederates and the Stoneman sons sign on with the Union forces. Battles rage as history unfolds on the screen--the burning of Atlanta, Sherman's March, the surrender at Appomattox, and Lincoln's assassination are rendered in epic style (Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer modeled many of the historical tableaux on period photographs from Matthew Brady's studio; the director believed that film could quite literally recreate, or "picturize," historical reality).

In the film's second half, Griffith's warped view of the Reconstruction period--complete with venal carpetbaggers and their simian black stooges--forms the backdrop for a myth of national rebirth involving the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. After Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) dies resisting a rape attempt at the hands of "renegade Negro" Gus (white actor Walter Long in blackface), Ben, now known as The Little Colonel, organizes the Klan, thus countering the machinations of scheming mulatto Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) and restoring stability--i.e., a white supremacist social order--to the American South.

Although Griffith saw his film as a vivid history lesson, it is probably best understood as domestic melodrama played out on a national scale. The American nation is represented as a family in crisis, torn apart by the advent of a menacing other--the black race--and nearly destroyed after the death of its benevolent patriarch, Abraham Lincoln. Conversely, the domestic story line is developed so as to mirror historical events and social currents--the final union of Ben and Elsie, for instance, is meant to symbolize the reconstitution of a divided nation. Griffith's narrative technique and symbolic method are seminal, and no one who hopes to understand how movies reflect and construct ideology can afford to ignore THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Griffith was a great admirer of Dixon's play, The Clansman; the director's own wife, Linda Arvidson Griffith, had starred in a cinema adaptation made by the Kinemacolor Company in 1909 (the underexposed footage didn't print properly, so the picture was shelved). Griffith's cowriter Frank E. Woods, who had written the earlier screen adaptation, suggested the project to the director. Brought in on a budget of about $100,000, this remarkable picture set a box-office record unsurpassed for silent films. By 1931, it had returned more than $18 million for Epoch, a company created especially for the production by Griffith and Harry E. Aitken, whose Triangle Film Corporation had recently lured the director away from American Biograph. (Violence.)

Roger Ebert, Great Movies: Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation (1915) is one of the most popular articles and full films in "Cinema and Literature". I thought you like to read more about this movie. The following is the review by Roger Ebert:

Roger Ebert / March 30, 2003

"He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. "

These words by James Agee about D. W. Griffith are almost by definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great film critic. On the other hand, the equally distinguished critic Andrew Sarris wrote about Griffith's masterpiece: 'Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation' has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored...and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.' (Enlarge Image) Here are two more quotations about the film: 'It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.' -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly after seeing it at a White House screening. The words are quoted onscreen at the at the beginning of most prints of the film.

"...the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."--Letter from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the NAACP, which protested against the film's blackface villains and heroic Ku Klux Klanners.

Nobody seems to know the source of the Wilson quote, which is cited in every discussion of the film. Not dear Lillian Gish, whose "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me" is a touchingly affectionate and yet clear-eyed memoir a man she always called "Mister" and clearly loved. And not Richard Schickel, whose "D. W. Griffith: An American Life" is a great biography. Certainly the quote is suspiciously similar to Coleridge's famous comment about the acting of Edmund Kean ("like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”).

My guess is that Wilson said something like it in private, and found it prudent to deny when progressive editorialists attacked the film. Certainly "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.

Cited until the 1960s as the greatest American film, "Birth" is still praised as influential, ground-breaking and historically important, yes--but is it actually seen? Despite the release of an excellent DVD restoration from Kino, it is all but unwatched. More people may have seen Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916), made in atonement after the protests against "Birth." It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that I included Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919) in the first Great Movies collection, but have only now arrived at "Birth of a Nation." I was avoiding it.

But it is an unavoidable fact of American movie history, and must be dealt with, so allow me to rewind to a different quote from James Agee: "The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in 'The Birth of a Nation.' I have heard it praised for its realism, but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like..."

I have just looked at the battle charge again, having recently endured the pallid pieties of the pedestrian Civil War epic "Gods and Generals," and I agree with Agee. Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievement was made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation once able to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; to understand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the Founding Fathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal.

Griffith will probably never lose his place in the pantheon, but there will always be the blot of the later scenes of “Birth of a Nation.” It is a stark history lesson to realize that this film, for many years the most popular ever made, expressed widely-held and generally acceptable white views. Miss Gish reveals more than she realizes when she quotes Griffith's paternalistic reply to accusations that he was anti-Negro: "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."

Griffith and "The Birth of a Nation" were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.

To understand "The Birth of a Nation" we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. "The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.

But it is possible to separate the content from the craft? Garry Wills observes that Griffith's film "raises the same questions that Leni Riefenstahl's films do, or Ezra Pound's poems. If art should serve beauty and truth, how can great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies?"

The crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil. In that case, "The Birth of a Nation" is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America. (The contemporary works that made the most useful statements against racism were “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and "Huckleberry Finn.")

Racism of the sort seen in "The Birth of a Nation" has not been acceptable for decades in American popular culture. Modern films make racism invisible, curable, an attribute of villains, or the occasion for optimistic morality plays. "Birth of a Nation" is unapologetic about its attitudes, which are those of a white Southerner, raised in the 19th century, unable to see African-Americans as fellow beings of worth and rights. It is based on Thomas Dixon's racist play, The Clansman, and the fact that Griffith wanted to adapt it reveals his own prejudices.

Griffith, for example, was criticized for using white actors in blackface to portray his black villains. There are bizarre shots where a blackface character acts in the foreground while real African-Americans labor in the fields behind him. His excuse, as relayed by Miss Gish: "There were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast" and "Mr. Griffith was accustomed to working with actors he had trained." But of course there were no Negro actors, because blackface whites were always used, and that also explains why he did not need to train any.

Griffith's blindness to the paradox in his own statement is illuminating. His blackface actors tell us more about his attitude toward those characters than black actors ever could have. Consider the fact that the blackface is obvious; the makeup is not as good as it could have been. That makes its own point: Black actors could not have been used in such sexually-charged scenes, even if Griffith had wanted to, because white audiences would not have accepted them. Griffith wanted his audience to notice the blackface.

Some of the film's most objectionable scenes show the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of a white family trapped in a cabin by sexually predatory blacks and their white manipulators. These scenes are credited with the revival of the popularity of the Klan, which was all but extinct when the movie appeared. Watching them today, we are appalled. But audiences in 1915 were witnessing the invention of intercutting in a chase scene. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: Parallel action building to a suspense climax. Do you think they were thinking about blackface? They were thrilled out of their minds.

Today, what they saw for the first time, we cannot see at all. Griffith assembled and perfected the early discoveries of film language, and his cinematic techniques that have influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since; they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them. We, on the other hand, are astonished by racist attitudes that were equally invisible to most white audiences in 1915. What are those techniques? They begin at the level of film grammar. Silent films began with crude constructions designed to simply look at a story as it happened before the camera. Griffith, in his short films and features, invented or incorporated anything that seemed to work to expand that vision. He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or "establishing") shots and various medium shots, closeups, and inserts of details. The first closeup must have come as an alarming surprise for its audiences; Griffith made them and other kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story.

In his valuable book On the History of Film Style, David Bordwell observes that Griffith "is usually credited with perfecting the enduring artistic resources of the story film." Bordwell has some quarrels with that widely-accepted basic version of film history, but Bordwell lists Griffith's innovations, and observes that the film "is often considered cinema's first masterpiece."

One of Griffith's key contributions was his pioneering use of cross-cutting to follow parallel lines of action. A naive audience might have been baffled by a film that showed first one group of characters, then another, then the first again. From Griffith's success in using this technique comes the chase scene and many other modern narrative approaches. The critic Tim Dirks adds to cross-cutting no less than 16 other ways in which Griffith was an innovator, ranging from his night photography to his use of the iris shot and color tinting.

Certainly "Birth of a Nation" is a film of great visual beauty and narrative power. It tells the story of the Civil War through the experiences of families from both North and South, shows the flowing of their friendship, shows them made enemies as the nation was divided, and in a battlefield scene has the sons of both families dying almost simultaneously. It is unparalleled in its recreations of actual battles on realistic locations; the action in some scenes reaches for miles. For audiences at the time there would have been great interest in Griffith's attempts to reproduce historic incidents, such as the assassination of Lincoln, with exacting accuracy. His recreation of Sherman's march through Georgia is so bloody and merciless that it awakened Southern passions all over again.

The human stories of the leading characters have the sentiment and human detail we would expect of a leading silent filmmaker, and the action scenes are filmed with a fluid ease that seems astonishing compared to other films of the time. Griffith uses elevated shots to provide a high-angle view of the battlefields, and cuts between parallel actions to make the battles comprehensible; they are not simply big tableaux of action.

Yet when it comes to his version of the Reconstruction era, he tells the story of the liberation of the slaves and its aftermath through the eyes of a Southerner who cannot view African-Americans as possible partners in American civilization. In the first half of the film the black characters are mostly ignored in the background. In the second half, Griffith dramatizes material in which white women are seen as the prey of lustful freed slaves, often urged on by evil white Northern carpetbaggers whose goal is to destroy and loot the South. The most exciting and technically accomplished sequence in the second half of the film is also the most disturbing, as a white family is under siege in a log cabin, attacked by blacks and their white exploiters, while the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue.

Meanwhile, Elsie (Lillian Gish), the daughter of the abolitionist Senator Stoneman, fights off a sexual assault by Stoneman's mulatto servant Lynch. Stoneman has earlier told Lynch "you are the equal of any man here." Returning home, he is told by Lynch, "I want to marry a white woman," and pats him approvingly on the shoulder. But when he is told his daughter Elsie is the woman Lynch has in mind, Stoneman turns violent toward him--Griffith's way of showing that the abolitionists and carpetbaggers lied to the freed slaves, to manipulate them for greed and gain.

The long third act of the film is where the most offensive racism resides. There is no denying the effectiveness of the first two acts. The first establishes a bucolic, idealistic view of America before the Civil War, with the implication that the North should have left well enough alone. The second involves unparalleled scenes of the war itself, which seem informed by the photographs of Matthew Brady and have an powerful realism and conviction.

Griffith has a sure hand in the way he cuts from epic shots of enormous scope to small human vignettes. He was the first director to understand instinctively how a movie could mimic the human ability to scan an event quickly, noting details in the midst of the larger picture. Many silent films moved slowly, as if afraid to get ahead of their audiences; Griffith springs forward eagerly, and the impact on his audiences was unprecedented; they were learning for the first time what a movie was capable of.

As slavery is the great sin of America, so "The Birth of a Nation" is Griffith's sin, for which he tried to atone all the rest of his life. So instinctive were the prejudices he was raised with as a 19th century Southerner that the offenses in his film actually had to be explained to him. To his credit, his next film, "Intolerance," was an attempt at apology. He also once edited a version of the film that cut out all of the Klan material, but that is not the answer. If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

NEWS: An insiders guide to film adaptations | BostonNOW

Authors on the movies of their work

Jean Bentley, BostonNOW Correspondent

To read the book or see the movie, that is the question.

The genre of the film adaptation provides a unique quandary for viewers. Read the book first and spend the whole movie thinking about what was cut and changed. See the movie first and kiss your imagination goodbye, since you'll only be able to see what the filmmakers have already created.And what of the authors whose work gets adapted? Some are integral in the book-to-screenplay process. Others have no say in how their work is interpreted on screen.

On Thursday, Oct. 11 at the Coolidge Corner Theater, the nonprofit writing center Grub Street will present 'Adaptations II: Novels into Films,' a panel of authors whose works have been turned into movies.

'The authors will spend some time talking about the ways in which novels have been adapted into films, what artistic choices have been made, and what role the author plays in that process,' said Grub Street Program Coordinator Sonya Larson.

Grub Street held a similar (sold out) event in 2004, and Larson said a highlight was an interactive book/movie comparison. 'The authors will read a scene,' Larson said, 'then they'll watch the corresponding scene in the movie and talk about what changed."

Thursday's event will feature Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter), Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha), Scott Heim (Mysterious Skin), and Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic), and will be hosted by Steve McCauley (The Object of My Affection).

Adaptations II: Novels into Films at the Coolidge Corner theatre on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7:30 p.m. Presented by Grub Street. Tickets ($15 non members, $12 members). 617-734-2501.

Published on October 11, 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Halycon Goes After Philip K. Dick

by Monika Bartyzel

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick has always been a vault for great sci-fi movies. What's impressive is that most have been pretty darned successful. Sure, there's flicks like Impostor and Paycheck, but there's also the first to hit the screen -- Blade Runner -- as well as Total Recall, Minority Report, and my personal favorite, A Scanner Darkly. The thing is, this is only the tip of the Dick iceberg -- he's written over a hundred short stories and 45 novels. In a fairly excessive deal, Variety reports that The Halcyon Company has signed a 3-year, first-look deal with Electric Shepherd Productions (run by Dick's daughters) for all of his writing. That's right -- all of it. With this renewable deal, they can pretty much pick and choose between Dick's other stories and novels (those that haven't been adapted), and bring them to the big screen, home video, and even other media. For the writer's fans, this can be either wonderful news or a possible kiss of death. Will the company just motor through a bunch of ideas to make money, rather than stay true to his work? Or, will they pick and choose carefully? Luckily, the deal also states that they must be made in conjunction with ESP, so that should help with quality control. With the floodgates open, which Dick novel or story would you like"

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Adaptations From Book to Movie: It was a Mook!

Written by Reena Tabita
Published October 08, 2007

Inspiration comes from many sources. For many filmmakers, the inspiration can come from the written word. Books — and in some cases, short stories — have been adapted into movies. This has been such a trend that bookstores have a section where they display books that have been made into movies, advising, "Read the book before you see the movie." People have debated which version is better. Which really is better? Is there even an answer to that question, as a general rule?

The thing that sparks these debates is that the books people choose to adapt are timeless and popular to a certain degree such as The Harry Potter series, Running with Scissors, The Green Mile, Secret Window, Atonement, and The Devil Wears Prada. A significant part of the population is familiar with these books, have read them (sometimes even multiple times), and hold opinions about the plot, characters, and much more.

Readers have formed images and ideas about how they see the book as a movie. Disappointment or excitement happens when the movie either matches or diverges from what they imagined. In discussions, they would voice their opinion on whether the book or the movie is better.

Is it fair to compare? After all, books and movies are different types of media. Everyone has their own imagination and has thought about how that scene is supposed to go, or what that character is supposed to look like. Not everybody will be pleased. Some things do get lost in the translation and transition from page to screen.

Comparison, while inevitable, is rather unfair at times. A fan will not be able to influence the actor, the director, or the animator. The only comparable things are theme and atmosphere. Did the movie capture what made the book interesting? Did the movie have the same tone and atmosphere as the book? If the answer is yes to both, then it's fair to say, in comparison, the book and movie are as good as each other.

When other aspects are brought in, however, comparisons become unfair and the question of which is better becomes unanswerable except by opinion and on a case-by-case basis. Look at Jurassic Park and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Jurassic Park is an excellent movie and an excellent book. It helped a lot that the book's author, Michael Crichton, co-wrote the screenplay and was willing to change things around to suit the film media. He made the action of the story move faster and gave the characters more depth and emphasis on a personality trait to create better tension on the screen.

The movie version of Alan Grant wasn't too fond of children (he claimed they were "smelly"), but the book made it clear that Grant was someone who didn't mind kids and recognized a shared excitement for dinosaurs. The movie version of Grant worked well for adding some tension in the movie, as Grant got stuck with the kids, and provided a challenge for the character that was funny to watch at times.

Steven Spielberg was the perfect passionate director to channel all of these elements. He made the action and characters faster, crisper, and tighter. The flawless, careful casting for the movie contributed to its success. I am not be ashamed to admit that I hear Sam Neill's voice whenever I read Alan Grant's dialogue in the novel.

The Harry Potter movies, specifically Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, while perfectly cast as well, suffer from having had different directors. Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, and Mike Newell all had their own visions. David Yates is the latest director to have his own vision about the material, and it feels like he changed the tone of some of the relationships in the fifth movie, especially between Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Ginny.

At times, the relationship and action become so manipulated, confusing, and awkward that it became hard to watch. Take Emma Watson's Hermione. The most natural performance of hers was in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (with that in mind, please bring back Alfonso Cuaron!).

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Emma sometimes does what the fans have termed "eyebrow acting," and it makes it look like she's trying so hard to get Hermione's lines out. I think that's either due to bad direction or a conflict between the translation of the character in this particular book to how she was to come across onscreen.

Suffice it to say, the movie is a good movie, but an incredibly disappointing adaptation, but what do I know? The film won a National Movie Award, and Emma bagged the National Movie Award for female performance.

Maybe that is the case for most adaptations. By itself, a film might just be that - a good film, but as an adaptation, it might be disappointing and lackluster. It can also happen the other way - the movie might be better than the book!

Everyone has their own opinions about books and movies, but if one goes into a movie or tackles a book with a clean, open mind cleared of (most) expectations, then maybe you might just enjoy it for what is it and not mind the price.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Stephen King’s Shoddy Cinematic Status

He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.

From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.

All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.

It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.

Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.

Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.

But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.

Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.

In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.

Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.

All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.

And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.

Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).

Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.

So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible.

—Bill Gibron

'Austen Book Club' disappoints

The Virginian-Pilot

© October 6, 2007

You're invited to attend a book club meeting in which five women whine and complain about how badly they've been treated by men. That's about the level of the somewhat disappointing "The Jane Austen Book Club."

We expected more. For one thing, it is based on the 2004 best-selling novel by Karen Joy Fowler. For another, Sony Pictures Classics, the releasing company, can usually be depended upon for above-average, somewhat literary movies.

We celebrate any film that has such great respect for the written word, but the characters in this book club seem to have particularly ordinary and cliched lives. A husband (Jimmy Smits) leaves his wife (Amy Brenneman) for another woman. The wife goes into trauma while he is noticeably regretful about the whole thing. Even in the first scene, we have an idea that they'll probably get back together.

A prissy, uptight high school French teacher (Emily Blunt) is upset that her insensitive husband has called off their trip to Paris just because he has a business meeting. She has her eyes, reluctantly and blushingly, set on a little teen stud muffin (Kevin Zegers) who is one of her students. But she's fighting the urge. We lose interest in this subplot before they do.

An older woman (Kathy Baker), married five times and still jolly about it all, proposes a Jane Austen book club for the girls to get together and discuss the author's plottings about love and such. They are joined by a rich but lonely guy who wears tight bike shorts (Britisher Hugh Dancy, who stole what there was to steal of the underrated "Evening"). There is considerable speculation given about which woman he'll end up with. Each member is assigned a different Austen novel as a special ty when they meet in what amounts to, even though they won't admit it, an attempt to relate Austen's plots to their own lives.

This is a chick flick supreme, although I had sworn not to use that term again because several women told me it is tasteless and derogatory and if I did it again they would beat me to death with their bras. But, dang it all, there's no other way to describe "The Jane Austen Book Club."

The trouble is that nothing much happens to these women. Maria Bello, who was so good in "A History of Violence," is added to the mix as a dog breeder who is such a control freak that she has no time for her own life.

There is, however, one hilarious performance that makes it all, almost, worth watching. That is the very droll and pretentious creation of actress Blunt as the French teacher - occasionally blurting out lines in French and always diminishing the others' supposed lack of literary knowledge of Austen. Blunt stole every scene she had as the secretary in "The Devil Wears Prada," and she does it again here as an uptight, superior phony who has to put up with a macho husband. She's a light in the darkness. We can't wait to see Blunt in other movies - elevated, we hope, to star status.

Lynn Redgrave has a brief bit as the over-the-top hippie mother of Blunt's character. She chews up the scenery and is promptly ordered to get out. (Fine. The movie needs some color, but not badly enough for us to put up with this character.)

Robin Swicord, heretofore a writer of such movie adaptations as "Little Women," "Matilda" and "Memories of a Geisha," makes her directorial debut here and is, still, obsessed with things literary. Those who don't know Austen well will be needlessly intimidated by the degree of detail put into the discussions. Those of us whose familiarity is centered mainly on the Austen movie versions will feel just as wanting. Movie fans may well remember the several versions of "Pride and Prejudice" as well as "Sense and Sensibility," "Emma," "Persuasion" and "Mansfield Park." Titles of the novels serve to divide the movie into "chapters," but this also serves to remind us that we don't know as much as these characters. (Actually, we aren't missing much, because efforts to compare these little subplots to the Austen novels yield only the most skimpy rewards.)

There is something encouraging, if not altogether believable, about the way these characters are obsessed by Austen's writings.

We only wish Robert Altman were still living, and making films. He was the master of creating believable, involving little moments while juggling five or 20 subplots. He could have made a classic out of "The Jane Austen Book Club." As it is, it's merely a suitable refuge for those who want to escape the violence and tastelessness in other theaters. It will take that kind of alternative to drive audiences to this "Club."

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347,

Friday, October 5, 2007

Absorbing nuances while reading and watching

"I believe it is impossible for anyone to absorb all the nuance present in a carefully written book in a single reading or to take in with one viewing of a film the concatenation of such disparate cinema elements as photography, set design, costumes, music, dialogue and action."
Ralph B. Sipper (afterword to Books into Film)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

NEWS: Lily Allen debuts in Jane Austen spoof

Lily Allen debuts in Jane Austen spoof

Staff and agencies
Thursday October 4, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Glastonbury 2007: Lily Allen
Bound for the big screen ... Lily Allen at Glastonbury. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

Lily Allen is to make her mainstream acting debut in a period British romp spoofing the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice. The film, entitled Jane Austen Handheld, is scripted by Robert Farrarm and will be directed by Tristram Shapeero, who cut his teeth on the TV comedy shows Peep Show and Green Room.

The off-kilter take on the novel will star Allen as Lydia Bennett and comic and TV presenter Russell Brand as her suitor George Wickham. Stephen Fry will play the role of her father, Mr. Bennett. Elizabeth Bennett has yet to be cast.

One might say that the film business is in Allen's blood. The singer is the daughter of film producer Alison Owen who was Oscar-nominated for her work on Elizabeth and Keith Allen, whose previous credits include Shallow Grave and The Others.

Jane Austen Handheld begins shooting early next year with a slim budget of £2.5m. Pride and Prejudice was previously filmed back in 2005 and bagged an Oscar nomination for its star, Keira Knightley. It seems a safe bet that this new version will not be troubling the Academy voters.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

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Camus and Carné Transformed: Bergman's "The Silence" vs. Antonioni's "The Passenger"

Film International, issue: 27

The Silence (Tystnaden) (1962) and The Passenger (1974) are two of the great modernist films of their period, and two of the most enduring. From the standpoint of a new century neither is dated and both are richly rewarded by DVD rewatching. Yet their genesis lies in a previous era to their own, that of French classical cinema and the rise of existentialism in philosophy and writing. The former produced one of France’s great film directors, Marcel Carné, and the latter one of its great modern writers, Albert Camus. This is all the more remarkable since neither France nor French culture is conspicuously present in either picture we have mentioned. The Silence is an intimate chamber drama set in a fictitious eastern European country and The Passenger takes place in two continents, Europe and Africa, and four named countries – Chad, England, Germany and Spain. While both are films about journeys to foreign countries, the methods of filming are utterly different. In essence Bergman delivered a tight interior shoot at Råsunda studios while Antonioni’s film for MGM was a logistically complex location feature that added one extra (non-diegetic) country, Algeria, in its shoot for the desert sequences.

The French connection

If there is a tilting towards Carné’s romantic fatalism in Bergman’s early films like It Rains on our Love (Det regnar på vår kärlek) (1946) we could argue that The Silence, which is much more abstract, echoes the fatalism with little trace of the romance. Like Quai des brûmes (Port of Shadows) (1938), the latter is also a brilliant dissection of jealousy en famille with a subtextual prehistory. Carné’s jealous guardian Michel Simon is horrified by his young ward’s attraction to Jean Gabin because, we guess, it exacerbates a forbidden desire for the teenage girl in his charge (and may echo transgressions already committed). Bergman achieves the same with Ingrid Thulin as Ester, a jealous older sister, humiliated by Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and her sibling’s desire for a complete stranger in a foreign city. If we take the interior look of Bergman’s picture, we can see that Carné’s legacy, complete with hotel mise-en-scène permeates its dream-like hotel atmospherics (at which the Frenchman specialized) and its sense of an enclosed, designed world full of sharp, off-kilter detail. In both its look and its feel The Silence also references Hôtel du Nord (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939).

If, on the other hand there is a tilting to Camus in The Passenger it is because the North African crisis of its Anglo-American protagonist echoes those in Camus’s famous novel L’Étranger (The Outsider) (1937) and his desert stories of L’Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom) (1957). Yet we can easily switch things around. Antonioni started his film career as an assistant director for Carné during the war on Les Visiteurs du soir (1942), and as a post-war critic in Italy was to acclaim several of Carné’s films in a period when the Frenchman’s reputation was already on the slide (Turk 1989: 197, 296). Bergman, meanwhile, directed Camus’s existential power-drama Caligula early in his stage career and towards the end of the 1950s was in negotiation with the independent Hecht-Lancaster company and with Camus himself to direct an adaptation of La Chute (The Fall) for the big screen, a project aborted by the Frenchman’s fatal car crash in 1960 (Bergman 1973: 26–27).

It is a fascinating crossover. After the Second World War the young Bergman proclaimed Carné’s poetic realism as the way forward for cinema, while as late as 1994 at the Göteborg Film Festival the veteran Bergman still named Quai des brûmes in his eleven all-time favourite films (Bergman 1994). Likewise, Bergman has also expressed his dislike of the films of Jean Renoir, Carné’s close rival, who openly denounced Quai des brûmes as ‘fascist’ on its release in pre-war France (Andrew 1995: 267–68). In his 1968 interviews with Swedish critics for Bergman on Bergman the Swedish director acknowledged the impact of existentialism on his work and claimed Camus’s version of that fashionable but elusive philosophy to be more ‘refined’ than Sartre’s (Bergman 1973: 12–13). With Antonioni we can explore a different configuration. What he shares in common with Carné is the designed architectural look of his images. While Carné’s studio films are usually an atmospheric studio abstraction from city locations – a Le Havre, for example, that is half real and half imagined – Antonioni is master of the location shoot that renders strange the actual physiognomy of a living city – Milan in La Notte (1961), Rome in L’Eclisse (1962) and London in Blow-Up (1966). While Antonioni fuses Carné with the architectural look of neo-realism, The Silence, on the other hand, crosses Carné with the Kammerspiel effect of the Scandinavian masters – Ibsen, Strindberg and Dreyer. Yet both modernist directors then go on to transcend their sources. They move away from the staged melodrama of classical film into a world of oblique signs where plotlines are never clear and strangeness overpowers the familiar, a world that is existential and uncanny at the same time.

The Camus paradigm

Here the literary writing of Camus offers a bridge between the classical and the modern in the culture of the last century because at its best it explores the abiding centrality of strangeness in modernity, and does it on a terrain that is deceptively familiar. Camus specializes in defamiliarizing the natural object or the natural condition, rendering it strange with a calm and blinding lucidity. In L’Étranger Mersault leads a humdrum life in Algiers, yet fails to grieve over his mother’s death and commits murder for no clear reason, as an acte gratuite. There is a chilling edge to Mersault’s banal existence ending in that murder, which has a universal resonance.

Both in his fiction and stage plays, Camus’s existential view of the human condition is not humanistic – as many believe and he himself claimed – but thoroughly Nietzschean in its agonistic vision of the operation of power. It was Sartre who reassured us in his acclaimed post-war essay that existentialism was a ‘humanism’ (Sartre 1946). Camus goes in the opposite direction. Plays like Caligula, Le Malentendu (Cross Purpose) and Les Posédés (The Possessed) take the spectator to the very abyss of nothingness, through a calculated strategy of probing the limits of nihilism. His fiction, meanwhile, cues us into its deadly obsessions through its titling – strangeness and The Outsider, the doomed kingdom of North African exile in Exile and the Kingdom, the sardonic, existential fallenness of La Chute (The Fall). In all of these texts the dynamics of power are Nietzschean, menacing and fatal.

Antonioni and Bergman focus on different spheres of the Camus paradigm. Bergman explores the power dynamics of troubled intimacy that affects sisters in a forbidding hotel in a foreign land. He moulds his narrative, obliquely, as a Cold War fable. The existential strangeness of a hostile country on the brink of war is a measure for the outwardly assured but inwardly troubled Bergman of the time, of God’s ‘silence’ in a world without transcendent values. If Bergman’s film has a vaguely northern European feel to it, the Mark Peploe screenplay for Antonioni looks south in its take on the complex power relations in the new Africa of the 1970s. Thus the estranged colonial subject of Camus’s North African fiction, firmly pied noir, has been replaced a generation later by the ‘impartial’ anglophone reporter on roughly the same terrain. While Camus’s poor French colonials cling to landscapes that fascinate and alienate in equal measure, the postcolonial case is different. Antonioni’s reporter is upended by his logos of BBC neutrality, the new British quest for ‘objectivity’ that is meant to signify the absolute end of colonial power and a new enlightened positioning, but is febrile to say the least. For Locke (Jack Nicholson) follows the pattern of Mersault’s double exile, estranged from North Africa but also from his homeland (in this case England not France), his deranged desert epiphany mirrors the trauma of Camus’s French evangelical missionary in ‘Le Renégat ou un esprit confus’ – ‘The Renegade or a Confused Mind’ – kidnapped by fetishists in a desert town of salt; but it also echoes the salesman’s ‘unfaithful’ wife in ‘La Femme adultère’, who escapes at the dead of night from their hotel in a remote fortress town, to experience orgasmic communion with the desert and the stars. A common thread runs through these contrasting situations. Oblique power games are intimately connected with a breakdown of language: equivalence of foreign land and foreign tongue, dislocation in voice and image. The first hotel sequence of The Silence, the first desert sequence in The Passenger make it clear that not only are the voices foreign, but also the culture’s visual signs. In both, the foreigners use sign language to communicate with locals but do so uncertainly and with little success.

Hotel passions: Carné and Bergman

These modernist departures are compelling because they retain Carné’s trope of hotel destiny while utterly transforming the sensibility. While the hotel room remains the key site of fate for Bergman it is no longer the site of romantic doom. In Carné we are transfixed in the hotel room that is the last haven of desperate lovers Jean (Jean Gabin) and Nelly (Michèle Morgan) before the fugitive Gabin perishes or by the daily dramas of the Hôtel du Nord, where Arletty is finally shot to death in her room. No contrast is greater between Bergman and Carné than this: the morning-after scene between Jean and Nelly in Quai des brûmes, their poignant leave-taking before he boards ship for Venezuela, and the steamy, oppressive pick-up sequence in The Silence where in defiance of Ester, her dying sister, Anna picks up a predatory waiter (Birger Malmsten) and later makes love to him in a room down the hotel corridor. In Carné’s film, Gabin is the rock-like male subject, tough fugitive and army deserter on the run whose fate we hypnotically follow. In Bergman’s film, Malmsten as the opportunistic cafe waiter, who had played ersatz Gabin roles in earlier films like It Rains on our Love and Three Strange Loves (Törst) (1949), gives his best performance for Bergman a decade later when he transforms Gabin into pure object, when he objectifies the icon as a voiceless object of female desire, a blank predator. In the realm of God’s silence this bleak film inhabits, the echo of human perfidy is to be found in those tactical silences of calculated lust, which Malmsten calibrates to perfection. Bergman thus replaces Carné’s doomed romanticism with a tight claustrophobic power play. The quartet of two warring sisters, bemused son and his mother’s silent lover in proximate hotel rooms is a veritable antechamber of hell, Bergman’s Huis Clos. Here Bergman uses narrow recessional shots, both in the long hotel corridors but also in the sisters’ adjoining rooms where he often shoots in deep-focus from Ester’s bed through the open partition door to the far mirror over Anna’s dressing table. The mise-en-scène is so totally interior (and studio-bound) there is not one exterior shot of the hotel in which the two sisters and young boy are caged. In this drastic economy of scale any homage to Alexandre Trauner, Carné’s great set designer of street exteriors, is conspicuous by its absence. We should also note the poetic harshness of Sven Nykvist’s high-contrast photography, in complete contrast to the soft oneiric diffusions of light in Carné’s Le Havre of mist and shadow. Bergman’s monochrome extremity is pitiless and takes no prisoners.

Gabin and Nicholson: the fugitive kind

If The Silence is indebted to Carné’s atmospherics and hotel-room destiny, theme-wise The Passenger owes Carné an even greater debt (though how conscious this is, we do not know). In Quai des brumes Gabin, the army deserter, plans to escape France by sailing to Venezuela by taking another man’s identity through doctoring the passport of a painter (Robert Le Vigan) he has met in the port and who subsequently drowns in a freak accident. Near the start of The Passenger Locke (Jack Nicholson), after his breakdown epiphany when searching for desert rebels he fails to find, decides to become a fugitive by doctoring the passport of a look-alike Englishman, Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) who has died suddenly in their remote Chad hotel. He then abdicates his identity as reporter and assumes, as he later finds out, the dead man’s identity as gunrunner and its grave risks. In both cases, we see an attraction of opposites in the transfer: fugitive soldier/modern artist, television reporter/arms dealer. In Carné’s film the subterfuge briefly works to move on the plot: but in Antonioni’s existential travelogue it slowly and agonizingly hives apart and becomes the subject of the film. Everyone – friends, police, secret agents, ex-wife and current lover – is after Locke in the famous long take at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna. The slow forward shot out of his barred hotel window which quickens as it turns 180 degrees to film the window from the outside, shows Locke’s past catching up with him, as the burnt-out reporter who has sought freedom in subterfuge is finally trapped by what he dearly wished to escape, the baggage and ballast of his former life. Released from the failed identity he has shed, he is kidnapped by its clear residues and killed by the fatal risks of the one he has taken in its place.

If Bergman’s nameless waiter objectifies the figure of Gabin, Antonioni’s reporter retains a subjective, Gabin-like iconography in Nicholson’s brilliant acting but the film also objectifies him by reinventing him and at the same time dissecting his past profession with a clinical, documentary eye. This is mirrored precisely in the archive film clip watched by his estranged wife, Rachel and closest friend, Ian Hendry: in it, Locke’s interview-subject, an African witch doctor, suddenly turns the camera round on Locke himself in the middle of the reporter’s interview. With the reinvented Locke the paradox becomes foundational: the narrative forges a persona who is truly existential but only by being someone other, by creating for himself a virtual non-self. While Gabin’s Jean is quick in a crisis to react, to raise his voice or use his fists, he is solidly knowable. Nicholson’s reinvented Locke (now Robertson) is cool, affable, seemingly at peace with ‘himself’. As a non-person his crisis appears to be over.

His change of identity is a change to calmness after his reporter’s rage-epiphany in the desert, or the flashback-cued book-burning in the garden of his London home, that signifies self-destruction and the end of his marriage. Perhaps calmness is the last thing we would expect from someone facing the dangers of his adopted profession – trading in guns to African rebels. Yet danger gives him an inner peace where professional ‘objectivity’ has unhinged him and as he comes, ironically, face to face with the political subjects who had eluded him in his former life. There is a fleeting likeness in the ending of the two pictures that should also be noted: the choosing of fate. The fugitive Jean seals his by returning impulsively from the portside ship bound for Venezuela to say goodbye to Nelly one last time. On his return we see him shot in the street by his love-rival, gangster Pierre Brasseur. Bound for the ferry that will take him to Morocco and thence perhaps, to his point of origin in the Chad desert, Locke seals his fate by electing to go en route via the Hotel de la Gloria, marked as the last assignment in Robertson’s diary. He keeps his alter ego’s appointment when he has no need to, and dies. The shot that kills him (if indeed there is one) is heard offscreen when he too is offscreen in the middle of the penultimate take. It is a bold double absence. In Quai des brûmes we witness a full-on melodramatic climax: in The Passenger the camera is pointing in the other direction.

How uncanny is Freud’s ‘Uncanny’?

So much has been written about Freud’s version of the uncanny there seems little point in adding to it. But let us consider this. The key illustration his essay gives the reader from his own life is highly scenic, highly visual: it evokes a landscape we might associate with De Chirico or later with Antonioni. Walking one hot summer afternoon in the deserted streets of a southern Italian town, Freud had lost his sense of direction and returned (involuntarily?) three times to the same labyrinthine part of town where the streets were narrow and ‘nothing but women with painted faces were to be seen at the window’. ‘I found myself in a quarter,’ he comments tortuously, ‘of whose character I could not remain long in doubt’ (Freud 1985: 359). This uncanny repetition of the same not only conceals unspoken desire (amusing here where the joke is on Freud) but also evokes in his failure to escape the labyrinth ‘the sense of helplessness experienced in some dream states’ (Freud 1985: 359). His presence now conspicuous in the quarter of disrepute, eventually he does escape, making his way back to the town piazza with great relief. But the point is made. In the off-kilter perspectives of De Chirico’s paintings, their ‘making strange’ of classical design that Antonioni often injects into his cinematic staging of Italian townscapes, is a sense of the familiar made unfamiliar – the classical, transparent and reassuring now angular, threatening, asymmetrical and yet still a version of the same, of what we think we know. And it is dream-like: it does convey helplessness because it does concern the return of the same. It is, in a word, uncanny.

Here, Bergman is not far off, yet his uncanny is very interior. In The Silence Anna’s disconcerting venture into the bowels of the city looks in his mise-en-scène like a Freudian nightmare the jealous Ester might have had in the confines of her airless hotel room, fearing her sister’s desire but helpless to prevent it. And Bergman’s version of the uncanny, of the familiar as strange or vice versa? The troupe of performing dwarfs which son, mother and sister all see separately in different contexts, a precise tripartite formation. They are collectively the key link between the hotel and the city. In performance they are unsettling, but otherwise they are ordinary – apart of course from their size. While Anna sees them onstage and Johan in their hotel room, Ester sees them at the end of the long jealous encounter with Anna which leaves her shattered. In yet another deep-focus shot of the hotel corridor, they are seen ambling back towards her from their cabaret gig, their costumes in disarray, intent on nothing more sinister than a good night’s sleep. The return of the repressed? Yes, with a bittersweet bathos. They pass the disconsolate Ester in the corridor and politely bid her goodnight. As the sisters’ intimacy moves from bearable to unbearable, the dwarfs offset the stretched emotions of the chamber drama by heading in the opposite direction, from the strange to the familiar.

Antonioni’s uncanny

For Antonioni the uncanny matches exterior to interior. It is an architectural trope that resonates through his Italian trilogy L’Avventura (1960), La Notte and L’Eclisse. Here in The Passenger it is less central, except at key moments. One is Locke’s double sighting of the twice-seated Girl (Maria Schneider) who claims to be an architecture student, first near a brutalist 1970s apartment block in Bloomsbury, then in the grand Modernista lobby of Gaudi’s Palais Guell in Barcelona. Another uncanny moment is Locke and Robertson as lookalike anglophone professionals in the same remote hotel in Saharan Africa. But the main, less obvious moment of the uncanny is the actual doubling of Locke’s fateful hotels (among the many hotels of his long journey), the run-down hotel full of flies in the Chad oasis where the reporter swaps identities with the deceased gunrunner (how in fact did he die?), matched with the Hotel de la Gloria where Locke meets his end, and thus repeats the fate of his double. Since these occur right at the start and finish of the picture, they create an unusual and unexpected circular effect. The film may lack the visceral circularity of Vertigo (1958) or Lost Highway (1997) but its circular effect creeps up on the spectator unawares, creating an uncannily delayed reaction.

Before we return to the matching of hotels, let’s backtrack a little. By shedding his unwanted skin, Locke hoped to embrace an open world where any destination, Dubrovnik or Barcelona, is as good as any other. But by getting under the skin of his new persona he is drawn back inexorably to the world he has abandoned. If any film has nailed the puzzle of free will and determinism that afflicts us all at some point in our lives, then this is it. Locke thus appears to inhabit the open terrain of Europe, crossing frontiers at will, only for his past to catch up with him and box him into a corner. He is both a free spirit imitating a bird in flight on the cable car above the harbour in Barcelona and a captive spirit caged like one of the birds we see in the market stalls on the Ramblas. At the same time it is his choice, with the apparent surety of the girl at his side – perfidious romance indeed – to take a second chance on Africa. In other words, if he escapes Osuna then the open desert awaits but then, because his cover is already blown there is no escape, no real either/or, no sanctuary. The cage is invisible but it is still there.

One of the clues to circularity lies in a specific sign of the ‘uncanny’, a crucial detail, the identical look and design of the door panelling in the two hotel interiors. Ingeniously, art director Piero Poletto makes the doors and corridors of the Chad and Osuna hotels facsimiles even though their interior colours differ. Indeed the hotels mainly contrast. Like Bergman’s hotel in The Silence, the Chad hotel has no real exterior look. Conversely the Osuna hotel defines itself through a truly uncanny exterior. And here, like Trauner’s unnerving pencil-thin apartment block for Le Jour se lève, the Poletto design gives us something both naturalistic and surreal at the same time. We think memorably of the fugitive Gabin holed out in his top-floor apartment of Trauner’s studio edifice. But Antonioni’s white stucco facade is basically single storey with an attic room and looks more like the frontage of a tiny Andalucian town house on a dusty piazza (which it probably was before the director commandeered it for his movie since, in its favour, it was opposite the stadium of a disused bullring). It is in fact a strange, made-over hotel on a deserted piazza not in Osuna but in Almeria, the arid region further east where Antonioni shot most – if not all – of his Andalucian sequences and many of his African sequences too. Indeed the first question the spectator asks on seeing the compact exterior is ‘Where are all the rooms?’ There only seem to be two bedrooms, the adjoining rooms in which Locke and the Girl are staying. Thus the hotel has a truncated look, too squat and small, just as Trauner’s ‘tenement’ in Le jour se lève is too thin and tall. It is that minor deviation from the norm that plants a seed of doubt in our minds about the reality of what we see.

to read full article, please click: Film International, issue: 27