Godzilla Rides Again (Again!)

| Alex Kies |

Catch Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla films all May at the Trylon Cinema. For more information and tickets, visit trylon.org.


[T]he living horror of last night was over. The only thought left was the paralyzing fear that it could happen today or tomorrow.

–Raymond Burr, from Godzilla, King of the Monsters[1]

On September 2, 1945, in the wake of years of costly island warfare abroad and an aggressive campaign of urban firebombing and the two atomic bombings at home, Japan surrendered to the Allies. A once proud empire had been brought low at an incredible cost.

At the time of the imperial surrender, filmmaker turned soldier Ishirô Honda was a prisoner of war, captured by the Allies while stationed in central China on the Yangtze River six month previously. Liberated and allowed to return home, Honda and his compatriots were paraded through the still-smoldering ruins of the city of Hiroshima. Honda later told film critic and historian Stuart Galbraith IV, “When I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere–a fear the Earth was already coming to an end.”[2]

This fear pervaded the Japanese public, despite only dim public awareness at the time of the full extent of the dangers of radiation. Steve Ryfle, one of America’s foremost experts on Godzilla, notes in his commentary on the 2002 DVD release of the original Japanese film Gojira, that the average Japanese citizen, particularly rural ones who did not live near either Nagasaki or Hirshomia, did not fully appreciate the difference between the atomic bombings and General Curtis LeMay’s firebombing campaign of Tokyo that preceded them. The average person only understood the Atomic bombs as larger bombs, and was mostly ignorant of the unique horrors of nuclear weapons.

            According to Ryfle, domestic Japanese misgivings about nuclear weapons only became acute in 1954, eight months before Gojira’s original release, when a 15-megaton Hydrogen Bomb was tested over Bikini Atoll. Aside from the indigenous loss of life, the occupants of the ill-fated Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (translated as Lucky Dragon #5), which drew inadvertently close to the blast zone, all fell ill with radiation poisoning, and one died.

            This led to a nation-wide crisis, accompanied by a total recall of all Tuna products and a popular campaign to disinvest from the American military and industrial aid that had lifted Japan from a humbled empire to the world’s third-largest economy, trailing only their erstwhile American adversaries and the Soviet Union. This aid was not, of course, entirely humanitarian, as Japan was regarded by Western leaders as an important staging area for the then-raging Korean conflict and any subsequent Eastern proxy confrontations with the Soviets.

            The Lucky Dragon #5 incident was only one of a host of events shaping the larger cultural context for the production of Gojira. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had wanted to make the first Japanese giant monster movie in the wake of a hugely successful theatrical re-release of King Kong two years before, and the box office success of American import The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms. Tanaka brought on board Ishirô Honda, who had worked as the chief assistant director on his friend Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) (Honda would go on to be Kurosawa’s lead assistant on Kagemusha and Ran, in addition to directing “The Tunnel” segment of Kurosawa’s final film, Dreams). Honda was selected because of his wartime experience, documentary work, and his 1943 hit war film Eagle of the Pacific (filmed and released prior to Honda’s own military service). The special effects were assigned to Eiji Tsubaraya, often referred to as the father of Japanese special effects (he later created Ultraman), who had done previous miniature work for wartime propaganda films including (allegedly) Eagle of the Pacific. Tsubaraya’s work was celebrated nationwide for its realism, illustrated by a possibly apocryphal anecdote about Toho executives destroying prints of some films featuring Tsubaraya effects in the wake of the surrender for fear the Allies would mistake his footage for the real thing.

            It is ironic that Godzilla would become synonymous with cheap, unbelievable effects due to its conception as a realistic monster movie. In addition to clever uses of puppetry, “suitmation,” miniatures, and actual wartime footage, alongside ingenious editing and Toho-scope framing, the scale of Gojira was massive. Honda thought a flaw of the American antecedents to Gojira was that the creatures were vulnerable to human weaponry. He thought that incorporating radiation into Godzilla’s backstory would make him seem invincible to conventional weaponry. Contrary to popular interpretations that Godzilla is more or less a direct metaphor for the bomb, Ryfle contends that “the Honda Godzilla is not so much a metaphor for the bomb, but actually a physical manifestation of it.”[3] Honda himself told Galbraith that “the basis of the film [was to make] radiation visual.”[4]

            The early parts of Gojira are intended to mirror the Lucky Dragon #5 incident, where fishermen are irradiated and traumatized by a seafaring glimpse of Godzilla. That said, Honda maintained, “We skirted the issue, frankly speaking, because we felt putting a real-life accident into a fictional story with a monster appearing in the midst of it wouldn’t sit well in the world.”[5]

            Journalists follow the story of the fishing boat to rural Udo Island, an intentional reference to Skull Island in King Kong, where the locals tell them their people have always maintained an uneasy peace with the giant lizard. The film depicts a semi-Shinto ritual to appease the angry monster. The island sequence complicates, for instance, Roger Ebert’s interpretation of Godzilla as a walking nuclear weapon, created by America. The aforementioned incomplete understanding of radioactive fallout is on display in the Udo Island sequences as well, with characters handling and examining explicitly radioactive material, such as the famous giant footprints on the beach, without much compunction. In his commentary, Ryfle contends that a Japanese moviegoer in 1954, perhaps due to American aid, viewed atomic weapons as not a uniquely American threat, but the logical consequence of scientific advancement in warfare. As a result, they would have interpreted Godzilla as a natural force corrupted by modernization, as opposed to some sort of foreign menace. In fact, archeologist Dr. Yamane at one point tells the audience that Godzilla seems to have originated contemporaneously with humankind.

            The relationship between the forces of traditional Japanese life and their rapid post-war industrialization serves as a rich subtext for the film throughout. It is seen in the conception of Godzilla as an ancient part of Japanese fauna, and in the contrast between the life on Udo Island and the urban destruction of Tokyo in the movie’s second half. Another prime example of this dynamic is the film’s love triangle plot between the protagonists: salvage ship captain Hideto Ogata, his lover Emiko Yamane, and her fiancé, mad scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. Emiko breaking off her arranged betrothal to Serizawa in favor of true love with the less prestigious Ogata serves as a sign of the changing times in Japan.

            Another troubling human embodiment of the changing times is the presence of Shinkichi, a child orphaned in Nagasaki and subsequently adopted by the Yamane family. Even as the main characters experience the benefits of Japan’s post-war boom, there are lingering reminders of the horrors of war.

            A contemporary Japanese audience would have recognized the painstakingly recreated miniature Tokyo landmarks Godzilla destroys, including the Toho studios. Although Tsubaraya had intended to create Godzilla through stop motion, time and budget constraints led him to opt for the miniatures and a man in a suit (except Godzilla’s first appearance over the Udo Island hilltop, which is a puppet shot in rear-projection). Although everyone from John Belushi to Mystery Science Theater 3000 have since derided Tsubaraya’s then-cutting-edge “suitmation,” Galbraith IV insists the original effects in Gojira were world-class, and would only be topped years later by Douglas Turnbull’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

            Dr. Serizawa does not believe killing Godzilla is a morally acceptable course of action, as he is only a creature obeying his instincts, and has to be petitioned to employ his fearsome device “The Oxygen Destroyer” by Ogata and Emiko. In a moving climactic argument scene, Serizawa and Ogata come to blows over the safety of Japan, and Honda’s camera glides away from the action, over to Serizawa’s aquarium, the swimming fish a natural counterpoint to the sound of human struggle. This fight ends with Serizawa besting Ogata, but Emiko running to tend to Ogata’s injuries serves as an indication to Serizawa that humanity must be preserved. He uses the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla and then kills himself as penance for his crimes against nature.

            At the time, Gojira became the most expensive Japanese film to date. For comparison, the shooting budget was about 100 million yen, whereas the contemporaneously-produced Seven Samurai cost a third of that and took almost a year longer to shoot. Gojira was not a critical success. Honda said Japanese critics called Gojira “grotesque junk… like something you would spit up.”[6] Critics felt it tastelessly capitalized upon very real human tragedies and ongoing national anxieties. Audiences disagreed. Gojira became the third film to break the Japanese box office record that year, the first two being Musashi Miyamoto and Honda’s mentor Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.[7]

            At the premiere, Akira Takarada, who portrayed Ogata (who only died two months ago), was brought to tears by Godzilla’s death and Serizawa’s sacrifice. He recalled to Galbraith IV: “Godzilla was killed… but Godzilla himself wasn’t evil. Why did they punish Godzilla? Why? He was a warning to mankind. I was mad at mankind and felt sympathy for Godzilla, even if he did destroy Tokyo… Mankind woke Godzilla, and today we have similar issues: air pollution, the ozone layer. That is also Godzilla. They’re the same in that they were all brought on by mankind.”[8]

            Despite its unassailable financial success, Honda remained ambivalent about the final product. Famously hard on himself, Honda opined, “As strange as it may sound, I think the film probably succeeded because I didn’t completely succeed as a director. The film represents only about 65% of what I wanted to achieve… Since we fell short, however, audiences could see that it wasn’t a real story, that it wasn’t like the real war.”[9] This being said, in his later years, Honda maintained Gojira was his favorite and best movie.[10]

            What was truly surprising is that Gojira, a film deeply ambivalent about technology and Western influence, was successfully exported from its original context into an American one. An American distributor agreed to pick up Gojira from Toho with the provision that it would be heavily re-edited for Western release. Honda’s use of journalists as expository devices proved to be a boon to the Western filmmakers, led by director Terry Morse, who inserted Raymond Burr, fresh off his villainous turn in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, into the journalism scenes as a foreign correspondent and old college friend of Dr Serizawa, Steve Martin, who is accompanied throughout his stay by a helpful interpreter.

            While Burr takes the source material very seriously (and reportedly even more so when he reprised the role decades later in the disastrous Godzilla 1985), American audiences did not experience the full realism intended by Honda and Tsubaraya. This was due to the dubbing performed by Jewell Enterprises, the American production company, who decided a straight subtitling and release of the original Japanese film would not be palatable to American audiences. The film was dubbed entirely in an afternoon, often with dialogue that in no way resembled the Japanese it was replacing, without the voice actors having seen the film much less the full script, according to legendary character actor and Minnesota native James Hong, who provided the voices for both Serizawa and Ogata, despite not being of Japanese origin.[11]

            Jewell Enterprises slashed many scenes from Gojira as well as adding their own footage (notably, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! begins with western Red Cross aid workers rescuing people from the ruins of a Godzilla attack), ultimately reducing the runtime by 16 minutes. The excisions and changes have been elucidated at great length elsewhere, but conspicuously absent are several explicit references to the bombings in Nagasaki, and a scene where journalists theorize Godzilla could have been created by rogue German scientists. Honda’s tragic ending is played under an added monologue from Burr’s character about humanity banding together in hope for the future.

            The producers insisted to their dying days that the intention behind these edits was not political, but merely an attempt to make the story easier for Western viewers to identify with. Despite these edits and the corny dialogue, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was a larger financial success in America than its Japanese predecessor had been at home, bringing in over $2 million in box office receipts. In fact, it was so successful that the American version was released with Japanese subtitles in Japan in 1956.

            It was not until that release, titled Godzilla Monster King, that Honda learned of the existence of the American version. Always hard on himself, he felt if this edit could be more successful in this version than his own, it was therefore superior. “I felt that if Godzilla was going to be shown overseas,” he said, “then the American version was probably better, since it was so easy to understand.”[12]

            The darker, more complicated Gojira was not widely seen outside of Japan until a theatrical release of the original in 2004. Despite efforts to contextualize it, it was still widely seen as immature entertainment, with Roger Ebert infamously giving the original Gojira a one-and-a-half-star review in 2004. “Regaled for 50 years by the stupendous idiocy of the American version of Godzilla audiences can now see the original Japanese version, which is equally idiotic, but, properly decoded, was the Fahrenheit 9/11 of its time.”[13] This dismissiveness is characteristic of Ebert, of course, despite his work in the 70s with Russ Meyer.

            When I re-read this simplistic pan from Ebert, the arbiter of middle-brow American taste, I cannot help but feel a little sad as I recall the following quotes from the Honda as an old man, after having garnered a reputation as a maker of schlocky monster movies and not a socially conscious and technically adventurous artist. (One American collaborator even told Galbraith IV that Honda was “the hack of all hacks”[14]). The first is about his life, and it comes from Galbraith’s definitive, 1998, oral history of Japanese monster movies, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: “My nightmares are almost always about war–wandering the streets, searching for something that’s lost forever,” Honda said, “For me the most wonderful fragrance in the world is new film. You can open the canister for the first time and breathe deeply. That night, the same wonderful fragrance fills your dreams.”[15]

The second and more wide-ranging––but no less tragic––quote comes from Ryfle’s equally important Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of  The Big G.” There, Honda states:

It is sad that the number of atomic bombs hasn’t been reduced even by one since [1954]…. We’d really like to demand abolition of nuclear weapons to both America and Russia. That is where Godzilla’s origin is. No matter how many Godzilla films are produced, it is never enough to explain the theme of Godzilla.[16]

But now, Toho, generally quite protective of their big star––which is why Ryfle couldn’t use the word “Godzilla” in the title of his book––has released several of the original Godzilla films in American theaters in anticipation of the 2022 release of the thirtieth Japanese installment: Godzilla: The Kaiju Invasion. And you can see them at the Trylon this month.

Alex Kies is a writer in the Twin Cities. In addition to being a lifelong Godzilla fan, he has been going to the Trylon since it opened its doors.


NOTES

[1] Godzilla, King of the Monsters, directed by Terry O. Morse and Ishirō Honda (Transworld Releasing Corporation, 1956).

[2] Stuart IV Galbraith, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films (London: Feral House, 1998), 23.

[3] The Godzilla Collection, DVD (commentary), directed by Ishirô Honda, Downer’s Grove, IL: Classic Media, 2002.

[4] Galbraith, 23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Steve Ryfle, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of The Big G” (Toronto, CA: ECW Press, 1998).

[8] Galbraith, 50–52.

[9] Galbraith, 52.

[10] Ryfle, The Godzilla Collection, DVD (commentary).

[11] Ryfle, 54–5.

[12] Galbraith, 64.

[13] Roger Ebert, “Idiotic? Yes, but Godzilla represents its nuclear times,” RogerEbert.com, July 2, 2004, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/godzilla-2004.

[14] Galbraith, 76.

[15] Galbraith, 119.

[16] Ryfle, 44.

Edited by Brad Stiffler

The Varda Philes… Or How I’m Surviving the Pandemic

| Terry Serres |

Image from Criterion Collection

The series Agnès Varda: Dieu de Cinema screens every Sunday to Tuesday in May at the Trylon Cinema. For tickets and more information visit trylon.org.


Agnès Varda is variously termed the godmother, the grandmother, or the mother of the French New Wave (in ascending order of Google hits). While it is certainly high praise to be accorded primacy in such an important movement of filmmaking, these phrases imply more of a catalyzing or even ancillary role than one of full belonging. Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker puts the right spin on Varda’s relationship to the movement’s camera- and pen-wielding firebrands: “The truth is that, in more than sixty years of filmmaking, she charted a course unlike any other. Her wave was her own.”[1]

Whether we think of her as off on her own path or as part of the gang, it’s indisputable that Varda was as pioneering and revolutionary and independent as any of her confrères. Her first film, La Pointe-Courte, predates by three years Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, which is the canonical opening salvo (if debatably so) of the French New Wave.[2] Shot for $14,000 with no studio connections, La Pointe-Courte introduces most of the New Wave hallmarks: neorealism, documentary footage, a cast of professionals and non-professionals, shooting on location (with writing credits to local collaborators), long takes, parallel narratives, fractured idealism, ambiguous ending.[3] The New Wave’s trademark jump cuts figure not so much here, but Varda does amazing things with light, perspective, framing, and juxtaposition. Alain Resnais edited the film, getting paid in lunches. Even though La Pointe-Courte never got an official theatrical release, it didn’t exactly fly under the radar. It screened at the arthouse temple Studio-Parnasse on the Left Bank[4], sharing a double bill with Jean Vigo’s documentary short À propos de Nice. Budding film nerd François Truffaut, 23 years old at the time to Varda’s 27, was perplexed by La Pointe‑Courte and on the fence about its merits, but interested enough to encourage his film bros to check it out. His mentor André Bazin was nonetheless a fan. Part of Truffaut’s problem is that he had no way to contextualize Varda’s accomplishment intellectually, that’s how out-of-the-blue she was.[5]

Narratives of a couple’s troubled discourse and the quotidien dramas of a fishing community are treated in counterpoint in 1955’s La Pointe-Courte. Images from video streaming on Criterion Channel: https://www.criterionchannel.com/videos/la-pointe-courte

Trained in photography, Varda first traveled to the port of Sète to snap pictures for a friend who was unable to visit her home town. The port’s fishing quarter, la Pointe Courte, so intrigued Varda that she conceived a story to tell and rented a motion picture camera. She had no filmmaking and scant prior filmgoing experience. The result was vastly more accomplished than merely extending still photography across the dimension of time. (There is an example of photo-montage in Varda’s filmography, the 1963 short Salut les Cubains made soon after the Cuban Revolution, and it’s still pretty terrific. Especially inventive are the passages where image sequences keep time with the music.)

Despite the success of La Pointe-Courte, Varda spent another seven years raising the money for Cléo from 5 to 7. In the meantime she kept her career afloat with commissions from the French Tourism Office: Ô saisons, ô châteaux (O Seasons, O Castles) and Du côté de la côte (Along the Coast), both available on the Criterion Channel in glorious restorations. If Varda had done nothing else but short-form travelogues, she would have had a notable career. You see her talent and themes flourishing already: her knack for free association and word play, her deftness at stitching together cinematic collages from disparate elements, her eye and ear for local color, her fondness for the French countryside and lifelong love of the ocean.

Varda’s journey to becoming my favorite filmmaker was slow and patient. I watched The Gleaners and I with a cinephile friend at the Angelika during a visit to New York City in 2000. It instantly became my favorite documentary, outranking Errol Morris’s microcosmic Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). Oddly, this appreciation provoked no curiosity about the director’s earlier work. I just wasn’t in an auteur headspace. Aside from Woody Allen (whose Annie Hall was for decades my favorite film), Almodóvar (the queer cinema of my youth), and Rohmer (“Cool! Movies about conversations to inspire conversations about movies!”), I seldom sought out movies based on the director’s reputation.

So, I didn’t encounter Varda again until a 2013 trip to Sweden. The Bildmuseet Umeå was showing a retrospective of her multimedia art installations that occupied four of the museum’s six floors. It included enlarged stills from Black Panthers (her 1968 short about the activist organization), unusual triptychs where a central photograph was flanked by looped motion images, her famous seashore nude Ulysse, and the fascinating audiovisual installation Some Widows of Noirmoutier.

Ulysse (photograph, 1954).
Image: https://ps21chatham.org/event/agnes-varda-festival-daguerreotypes-and-ulysse/ulysse-varda/

The Widows installation was a collective portrait of the grief shared by bereaved women in a coastal community whose men had been mostly sailors and fishermen. A large central screen shows women dressed in black, circling a table standing starkly on the beach. Around this screen are positioned fourteen monitors, each with a looped film where one widow tells her story. The gallery’s viewing space has fourteen chairs and pairs of headphones, for each monitor. Visitors move from chair to chair, from widow to widow, from story to story. The footage, arranged sequentially, can now be watched as a conventional documentary on the Criterion Channel. I recall being struck once again by Varda’s deep humanity. But also by how a filmmaker well into her 80s was still experimenting with form and narrative in probing multimedia works.

As absorbing as this exhibition was, another five years passed before I thought to watch the famous Cléo from 5 to 7, which I’m quite sure I had always conflated with Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon. That was in January of 2019, and I was prompted to an immediate rewatch to imprint the magic. At last the spell was cast. I was enchanted by the film’s restraint and economy, by the surface charm and troubling undertow, by the verbal/visual play on the idea of reflection, and by the interiority of Corinne Marchand’s performance. Cléo immediately supplanted Annie Hall as my all-time favorite film. I experienced the epiphany: Agnès Varda—Dieu du Cinéma, to borrow a phrase.

Two months after my Cléo moment, the Dieu du Cinéma had returned to heaven, and I began in earnest an in-depth exploration of her filmography. Each film was a deep dive: watching with English subtitles, then with French subtitles, then without subtitles. If the screenplay was available, I’d read that. When I had the bandwidth, I’d seek out contemporary reviews or read scholarship. Mostly I journaled, penning discursive reviews on Letterboxd––musing and meandering and marveling. A year later, Covid‑19 hit and I expanded my studies to include four more Francophone directors: Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Céline Sciamma, and Mati Diop. I didn’t merely want to watch great cinema. I wanted to probe creative genius through the evolution of a body of work, the trajectory of a career, the feedback between success and failure, the catalysts and constraints of creativity. Currently, I am eighty percent through the five filmographies and it’s the journey of a lifetime. Along the way, I have enjoyed the company of two “film fatales” from the coasts, Michalle and Julia. Under the rubric of Club Varda–Akerman–Denis, we connect through watch parties and never-ending chat threads. These intrepid cinephiles call out my sexism, expose my blinders and blunders and biases, and inspire engrossing side projects. They are keen to remind me that my willful ignorance of Godard is not of itself a virtue.

Like few other directors, Varda arouses in her audience a natural affection and loyalty. (I would say that Akerman inspires similar sentiments, but there is an initial hurdle of intimidation to clear with Akerman’s longer and more structuralist works.) We are in relationship with Varda, a relationship that grows with each new film and each rewatch. Sure, this is in part thanks to the on-screen image she cultivated in her four celebrated documentaries of the new millennium: short and zaftig in flowing dresses, her coif a snow-peaked auburn pageboy. She both embraces and spoofs her reputation as the “godmother of the French New Wave.”

Varda’s look: Godmother of the FNW or Dieu du Cinéma?
Image : https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/29/agnes-varda-oscar-nominated-french-new-wave-director-dies-aged-90

But Varda’s relatability also stems from her knowability. Just two films in, if that, one readily identifies her personality, her style, her quirks, her themes, her totems. Here’s the Vardian elements that I pick up on and respond to, personally, but please have fun finding your own way through her work.

Agnès Varda’s personality is empathetic yet clear-eyed and hard-nosed. Her style consistently incorporates documentary elements, she’s formally disciplined yet playful, and her films all have a recognizable vibe despite their dramatically different tones.

Varda’s quirks include a penchant for corny wordplay (often untranslatable) that would keep dads worldwide on their toes. She also tends to push her visual tropes to the brink of excess: Think of her repeated use of mirrors to underscore the tension between internal and external “reflection” in Cléo. Or her hyper-ironic use of saturated pastels in Le Bonheur. The checkerboard theme brandished throughout Les Créatures. Even the rigorously employed tracking shots of Vagabond go too far when the steadily moving camera abandons Mona during a moment of crisis.

Varda’s use of visual tropes: Mirrors and reflections in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), checkerboard motif representing fate in Les Créatures (1966).
image from Cléo from 5 to 7: https://theartsshelf.com/2020/05/11/the-criterion-collection-announces-the-complete-agnes-varda-15-disc-collectors-set/; still image from Les Créatures from video streaming on Criterion Channel: https://www.criterionchannel.com/videos/les-creatures

We’ve considered some of Varda’s themes already: Her love of the French countryside and its people recurs again and again. So too her love of the ocean. Her grand theme, I believe, is human ecology. How people relate to the spaces they inhabit and to each other within those spaces. All the forces of humanity and fate and nature that influence these relationships. An extension of this is her interest in people on the margin. Once you’re attuned to Varda’s ways, you understand how human ecology informs her ability to balance empathy and tough-mindedness, compassion and dispassion.

Finally, there’s Varda’s totems, themselves another quirk. Linked to her themes, these are the objets-fétiches, the graphic knickknacks that inhabit her every film. Whenever I watch or rewatch one of Varda’s films, I keep a mental scorecard:

 Cats

 Ocean

 Tree Factoids

 Sunflowers

 Goats

 Potatoes

Varda’s totems tend to accumulate over the course of her career. I’ve no doubt that Varda includes them just because she likes them, or simply because she can’t help herself. But they also signal to the audience that we’re on familiar and friendly turf. Individually, a beach or a potato may signify something or signify nothing at all. “Je ne veux pas montrer, mais donner l’envie de voir.” (“I don’t want to show, but to arouse the desire to see.”) The totems are there to welcome us to each Vardian experience and to invite us back to the next one.


NOTES

[1] Alexandra Schwartz, “‘While I Live, I Remember’: Agnès Varda’s Way of Seeing,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/while-i-live-i-remember-agnes-vardas-way-of-seeing

[2] Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School, trans. Richard Neupert (Malden, Mass., and Oxford: Wiley‑Blackwell, 2002), 12.

[3] Ginette Vincendeau, La Pointe Courte: How Agnès Varda “Invented” the New Wave, January 21, 2008, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/497-la-pointe-courte-how-agn-s-varda-invented-the-new-wave.

[4] Now the MK2‑Parnasse, owned by the production company MK2 founded by the prominent producer Marin Karmitz, who served as an assistant director on Cléo from 5 to 7. Eric Smooden, The Paris Cinema Project, June 9, 2016, https://pariscinemablog.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/the-paris-cinema-project-15/.

[5] Richard Neupert, “Certain Tendencies of Truffaut’s Film Criticism,” in A Companion to François Truffaut, ed. Dudley Andrew and Anne Gillain (Malden, Mass., and Oxford: Wiley‑Blackwell, 2013), 242–264.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

The author in a favorite article of Agnès Varda fanwear. Mosaïque, self-portrait from 1953.

Terry Serres is a plant nerd, year-round bicyclist, unrepentant Francophile, and devoted dog dad. He works as a restoration ecologist for Landbridge Ecological. Like Agnès Varda he is a purveyor of tree factoids. He’s waited a long time to watch on the big screen the films in the Varda series. His Letterboxd handle is CineQuaNon.

Rapture and Relapse, Arrebató and Addiction

|Finn Odum|

Arrebato screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, April 7 to Sunday, April 9. For tickets and more information, scroll to the end of this post or visit trylon.org.


I have spent an embarrassing amount of time being mad about vampires, and this piece is proof that I need to have my writing platform removed immediately.

Arrebató is a fantastic film. In his final, career-killing movie, Ivan Zulueta spins an incredible tale about addiction and spectatorship through flashbacks, blurry home movies, and lots of heroin. The focus on the camera as a vessel of addiction unsettled me almost as much as the protagonist’s downward spiral into a heroin addiction. The frantic and unexplained ending makes Arrebató stand out against similar films featuring the camera as an addiction. In a 2002 essay, film critic ​​Roberto Curtilikens Arrebató to Peeping Tom and Videodrome.[1] Peeping Tom’s final act is unsettling but wraps up too neatly, giving the villain a classic, “he was bad and now he’s dead” ending. My beloved Videodrome draws more conclusions about the body than it does addiction––I think the more appropriate Cronenberg reference is Dead Ringers, but the Internet isn’t ready for that conversation. Just because two movies feature vaguely supernatural cameras, doesn’t mean they’re apt comparisons.

On the subject of things people need to stop saying about Arrebató: people need to stop trying to explain the mechanics of the camera and focus more on the human characters instead.

In my first viewing, I was more impacted by the parallel characters of Pedro (Will More) and José (Eusebio Poncela), and how their relationships with each other and addictive substances drove them to their ruin. The men are warped reflections of each other. José is an established director who’s lost his touch, deriving no pleasure from the films he produces. Pedro is a childish home-movie maker who experiences fits of ecstasy from his films; he calls them arrebató, or raptures. Both use heroin, though to achieve opposing results: José craves euphoria, while Pedro uses it to become a mature version of himself. Their shared interest in film brings them together, ut their addiction––their need to seek out the euphoria presented first by heroin, then by the arrebató––is what bonds them.

José’s relationship with addiction is straightforward. While we learn he’s been using since before his first film, it’s evident that his addiction to heroin starts sometime after the success of his directorial debut. He gets himself and his girlfriend, Ana, addicted, which leads to the downfall of their relationship, José remarking at one point that the heroin ruined their sex life, among other things. Even when José claims he wants to kick the habit, all it takes is one conflict before he and Ana are so desperate that they’ll snort heroin off a dirty carpet.

While Pedro also uses drugs, his addiction lies in the films he creates. The time-lapse movies he makes cause him immense distress, and yet, he can’t stop making them. Pedro claims he doesn’t sleep or eat for days, instead focusing on creating his next “rapture”––the fits of ecstasy he experiences when watching one of his films. When he stops making movies, he becomes more social, more acceptable to the public, but at the risk of his own happiness. It’s only when he relapses and starts making films again that he discovers the raptures––a rejuvenating, yet unexplainable event that occurs when he’s filmed asleep. The only evidence he gets is a red splotch that takes up 10 frames at a time. The one time someone intervenes, he goes through something he describes as “withdrawal”: Pedro becomes violent, reckless, and desperate for the next rapture.

These raptures are what eventually destroy Pedro and José, the latter of which is desperate to feel something after his addiction numbed him to the rest of the world. During the film’s final act, after Pedro’s cousin Marta vanishes under the gaze of the camera, Pedro realizes that he doesn’t know what will happen when the red splotch takes up all of the film. Even so, he records his life story, sends it to José, and gives himself to the camera for one last moment of ecstasy. Eventually, José succumbs to the recorded raptures, too.

The film ends with José’s rapture, and these final frames had a profound impact on me. The scene makes quick cuts between the camera, José as he anticipates the unknown in an unsettling glee, and Pedro, whose smirking visage is trapped in film. José’s face fades in and out over him as the two share the unique, horrifying bond of the filmed raptures. The heightened tension, coupled with the increasing volume of the score, pulled together the ending for me. The need to find that euphoria drove Pedro to vanish––to his death, essentially––and José to suffer the same fate as his friend.

There’s no explanation for what happened to the men (or any of the somewhat paranormal events). There doesn’t need to be. This is the problem with most modern readings of Arrebató; somewhere down the line, someone calls it a vampire story, taking the focus away from the broken men and putting it all on the power of the parasitic camera.[2] While the authors aren’t trying to unpack the how and why of the ambiguous ending, it reduces the supernatural storyline to a tired, “vampires-equal-addiction” metaphor. I don’t need to know that the camera is a vampire to be horrified by what it represents. The sentient camera isn’t even the only vaguely paranormal aspect of the movie: Pedro has godly knowledge of José and Ana’s childhoods, and seems to appear and disappear at will. Trying to explain that would ruin the movie even more. I mean, how would you feel if José suddenly turned to Ana and said, “Can you believe Pedro was psychic the whole time?”

At the end of the day, this essay is not going to do Arrebató justice. I was so unsatisfied with other readings of the film because they weren’t reflecting my reading; in the same vein, I’m sure that there’s someone out there who’s going to spend twenty minutes of a podcast discussing the vampiric nature of the camera. That’s okay. Arrebató is an experience––it’s something you need to see and sit with, preferably in a dark room by yourself. Or at the Trylon, I guess––just hope that no one else is having a rapture of their own in the theater.


NOTES

[1] Roberto Curti, “The Act of ‘Seeing’ With One’s Own Eyes: A Look at Ivan Zulueta’s ‘Lost’ Cult Movie,” Off Screen 6, no. 5 (May 2002), https://offscreen.com/view/eyes.

[2] See Curti, “The Act of ‘Seeing,’ and Jared Mobarak, “Arrebato Review: Newly Restored Spanish Horror Lives Up to Cult Classic Status,” The Film Stage (September 2021), https://thefilmstage.com/arrebato-restoration-review-ivan-zulueta/.

Edited by Michelle Baroody


Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead in Five Looks

|Becky Welander|

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead screens from Friday, April 1 to Sunday, April 3. For tickets or more information, scroll to the bottom of this page or visit trylon.org.


I’ve been interested in fashion for as long as I can remember.

I grew up in a very small town in Southeastern Minnesota in the 1970s and 80s, where I spent much of my childhood dreaming of escaping to bigger, fashionable locales such as New York, Paris, and London. As a young child, I aspired to develop a look that combined Little House on the Prairie and LA in the 1970s, particularly the LA seen on Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels. I still remember the thrill of getting my first Gunne Sax dress. When I started kindergarten, my mom made all of my clothes, which were mostly dresses. On the last day of kindergarten, I informed my mother that I would no longer be wearing dresses to school. From now on, I would wear jeans or cords. I don’t know if I really disliked wearing dresses or if I just wanted to fit in, which in rural Minnesota meant wearing mostly jeans and sweatshirts. During high school, I suppressed my desire to dress like my 1980s fashion idols––Madonna, Molly Ringwald, and Malory Keaton from Family Ties––and continued dressing down to fit in as much as possible.

But when Beverly Hills 90210 premiered in 1990 during my senior year of high school, it opened up a whole new world of LA style to me. From that point on, I wanted to be Kelly Taylor. I think I’ve always idealized the fashion of the 1990s because it represents the freedom I felt in college, when I finally escaped what I saw as the oppression of small-town life, where I was finally able to express who I really was through fashion, theatre, art, etc.

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead was released in the summer of 1991; it was the summer following my high school graduation, just like Sue Ellen, Christina Applegate’s character in the film. Like Sue Ellen, I also had dreams of working in fashion. In 1991, I worked at the Express store in the Apache Mall in Rochester, and I was moving to Minneapolis in the fall to study fashion design at the University of Minnesota.

Nineties fashion has been creeping back into our culture in the past few years. Normcore is somewhat inspired by 1990s Jerry Seinfeld. Slip dresses and high-waisted jeans are back. Vogue released a podcast about the nineties in 2020 and The Museum at FIT has an exhibit on nineties fashion running through April 17 of this year.

I had been trying to track down a copy of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead for a few years, because I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere. Then, my husband gave me a copy on DVD for my birthday last year.

Here are my five favorite looks from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead in order of appearance:

Boho look  – When we’re first introduced to Christina Applegate’s character, she’s wearing a loose, black and red floral dress. This Stevie Nicks-inspired look feels both vintage and ahead of its time like the boho looks popularized by Nicole Richie in the 2000s.

Black and white Chanel-esque suit – When Sue Ellen starts pounding the pavement in search of a job in fashion, this look helps her land one. It’s by far the best of her pretending-to-look-like-an-adult outfits.

White, puffy shirt – Sue Ellen wears this when she celebrates her new status as a career woman with her siblings at Chuck E. Cheese. The puffy shirt (made notorious by Seinfeld) was a favorite of mine while working at the Express.

Black bodysuit with high-waisted, rayon pants – Sue Ellen wears this on her second date with Brian, her former co-worker at Clown Dog. I still love this look. Black bodysuits were a staple in my wardrobe in college. My fashion idol, Kelly Taylor, also rocked this look.

Bellhop look – This is just one of many designs adapted by Sue Ellen from GAW stock for the fashion show she puts together to save the company from bankruptcy. I actually wore a short, striped bellhop style jacket to my high school graduation.

I have always felt that Don’t tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead was an underrated movie, and I still love it. I think possibly the title and promotion of the movie suggested a movie with a lot more hijinks. And while it didn’t quite achieve the pop cultural status Clueless did a few years later, it features a much greater range of 1990s styles.

If you love fashion movies, I suggest you give this overlooked classic a watch.

Edited by Michelle Baroody


Allusion and Longing in Satoshi Kon’s MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

|Alexander Gray|

Millennium Actress screens at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, March 27 to Tuesday, March 29. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this post.


On the banks of a manmade lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park stands a line of Grecian columns that are not Greek.

They’re Victorian and salvaged from an 1891 mansion that collapsed during the 1906 quake. Visitors to the park rarely notice the columns, likely distracted (or chased by) squawking waterfowl in Lloyd Lake.

Those who wonder at their improbable location long enough to pull out their smartphone— 

if it isn’t out already, documenting every moment of waking existence in our nation’s garden of technology—find out what these pillars are.

Arnold Genthe, a German-American photographer, photographed these columns shortly after the decimation of the city of San Francisco. He used the charred entry of Alban Towne’s Nob Hill mansion as a frame within a photographic frame. The burnt-out husk of a city peeks out from beyond the blackened edges.

Genthe’s photograph is now in the DeYoung Museum’s photography collection; it has reached its historio-aesthetic apotheosis. I do not know if the photograph saved the marble entryway. And I do not know if the photograph got its title (“Portals of the Past”) after the pillars were relocated to the park.

Lived experience and art can be slippery like that. Delusion, allusion, and illusion all converge in the mind to describe how we feel and who we are and have been.

We enter the heart of Satoshi Kon’s 2001 masterpiece Millennium Actress through a portal to the past, too. Following a documentarian-cum-film actress otaku (Genya Tachibana) and his snarky cameraman, we arrive at the antiquated yashiki where Chiyoko Fujiwara lives. She is the anti-Norma Desmond, a gentle woman who has withdrawn from the public eye much like real life actress Setsuko Hara did after the passing of director Yasujiro Ozu.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) took us through a similar cave—one that also acted as a line of demarcation between a recognizable contemporary reality and something fantastical. Kon is known for the fantastical (Paprika, 2006), but Millennium‘s graceful manipulation of allusion and parallel feels more playful—or at least far less threatening than his other films, like Perfect Blue. Millennium is a film of parallels and mirrored images, of poetic chime and graphic matches. It is a love letter to cinematic history that takes creative license, much in the same way a film like Singin’ in the Rain does.

Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood (1957)
Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress (2001)

The film’s allusions are less familiar to Western audiences: Millennium references Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes (1954); Shichihenge Tanuki Goten featuring Mizora Hibari (1954); Yasujiro Ozu’s oeuvre; and even pop-cultural, one-offs like 1987’s Here Comes Miss Modern. While a casual viewer of the film will recognize kaiju movies like Godzilla, it’s these more subtle glances at Japanese film history that haunt the film and its protagonist. If we look closely enough, we see almost perfect graphic matches of lesser-known cinema classics that were never afforded the international attention they deserved at the time of their production. Many of these films were gendaigeki, seishunmono, or ningen dorama, films that portrayed the smaller triumphs and travails of contemporary Japanese life.

Unfortunately, the Western moviegoing public from the 1950s until, well, very recently, only wanted images of quaint, preindustrial Japan (jidaigeki). [1] Rashomon’s runaway success with Western audiences fit a colonialist and racist image that imagined Japan as a land of samurai and geisha despite having just engaged in an armed conflict with the country that clearly did not involve much swordsmanship.

Through its allusions to these contemporary films, Millennium becomes more nuanced. We see that Chiyoko’s family sympathizes with leftists, just as the schoolteacher in Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes shows concern for a colleague found in possession of a Communist reform pamphlet.

Yasujirō Ozu, Tokyo Story (1953)
Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress (2001)

Chiyoko’s experience entangles itself with the fictional roles she is assigned and brings a more complex understanding to the viewer: namely that we are “like people in history” (to steal from Felice Picano), that we are swept away by time and circumstance. Bumping into a stranger on a snowy day could lead to a life of creative output and passion.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, social turmoil, and in the shadow of a looming refugee crisis and, perhaps, a third World War, this all seems more pertinent than ever.

Other animated films like Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises subtly convey this message too. The films remind us that, while we feel entitled to criticize past generations and assign personal responsibility to people who didn’t resist enough, life is a little too complicated to paint with such a broad brush. Future generations might ask us why the people of our time didn’t regulate Facebook, or why we didn’t do something to halt climate change.

So, in our present age of sweeping historical winds so much larger than ourselves, where we live our lives more and more through the intermediary of digital images and social media, Millennium Actress seems prophetic for a two-decade-old film. We chase after love through the propagation of memes and challenges on social media, through the application of the just right GIF in a text exchange. We are all living like Chiyoko does in her old age: unable to discern the origin of the allusion, the illusion, or the image.

Two nights ago, I dreamt of earthquakes and women in hakama and Napoleonic headgear because of this film. It was strange and mildly alarming, but joy and new thought can be born out of confusion and struggle. The film ends on a similar note (that I won’t ruin for you), but chimes with these lines from Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story: “Despite my fears and my aching loneliness, I believed without a doubt in a better world, which was adulthood or New York or Paris or love.”[2]


NOTES

[1] For more on this kind of argument, see Meghan Warner Mettler, “‘Godzilla versus Kurosawa: Presentation and Interpretation of Japanese Cinema in the Post World War II United States,’” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 25, no. 4 (2018): 413–37, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26613850.

[2] Edmund White, A Boy’s Own Story (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 134.

Edited by Brad Stiffler and Michelle Baroody

The Other Clouzot: Vera Clouzot’s Impact on LES DIABOLIQUES

|Finn Odum|

Diabolique screens at the Trylon Cinema on 35 mm from Friday, March 11 to Sunday, March 13. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit trylon.org.


She was funny, insufferable, generous, crazy, unhappy and capable of making people unhappy; she was sick too; I loved and hated her and, oddly enough, I miss her.

Simone Signoret on Véra Clouzot [1]

Les Diaboliques is one of those rare, gunshot-heard-around-the-world type of movies. Upon its release, its startling imagery and shocking twist ending sent ripples through the film industry. For decades, Les Diaboliques was a blueprint for the genre, spawning thrillers like Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte,and Games (the latter of which also starred actress Simone Signoret). Upon its release, it was hailed as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s greatest work yet.

Retrospectively, I think some of that credit should’ve gone to his wife.

Véra Clouzot was a writer, an actress, and the heart of some of her husband’s best films. It’s hard to determine what Henri-Georges’s career would look like without her; while he definitely made good movies before they met, Véra was the reason he’d made at least two of his best films. Without her, movies like La Vérité and this essays’ subject, Les Diaboliques, would not be the same.

Véra and Henri-Georges met during the production of Miquette, the director’s follow-up to Manon. Clouzot was reluctant to make the comedy, only going through with the production due to contractual obligations. Maybe that’s why Miquette ended up bombing critically and commercially; audiences could feel that his heart was not in the production. Clouzot’s marriage to Véra was the only good thing that came out of it.

Her impact on his life––and his films––was instant. Scorned by contractual obligations–and the French government, who’d already banned him from filmmaking once––Clouzot founded an independent production company named Véra Films. Their first production was Wages of Fear, an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel. Clouzot wrote in a role specifically for Véra; though it wasn’t the biggest in the scheme of the film, the rewrite indicated that Clouzot was willing to do anything for his wife––who, as it happened, wasn’t that great of an actress compared to her contemporaries.

I don’t see being a mediocre actress as a mark against Véra, especially since her love for the camera is how we got Les Diaboliques. After the success of Wages of Fear, Véra encouraged her husband to read and get the rights to the She Who Was No More, a thriller by authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Clouzot acted instantly, snatching the screenplay rights before his main contemporary, a little British man named Alfred, had the chance.

Clouzot and his brother––who served as his co-writer for several of his films––spent 18 months turning She Who Was No More into the vastly different Les Diaboliques. The director’s first decision was to do away with the novel’s insurance scam plotline (which he found unfilmable). He then made the moderately questionable decision of erasing the lesbian subplot and swapping the gender of the main characters. Film scholars swear that it wasn’t due to homophobia, and that instead it was because he wanted to give Véra a bigger role. I’ll give Véra a pass since she didn’t write her character––Clouzot, however, is definitely on thin ice.

Most of Clouzot’s decisions about Les Diaboliques were made with Véra in mind. In addition to the story changes, Clouzot selected his cast based on who he thought would support his wife the best. He settled on Simone Signoret, an incredible actress that Clouzot happened to not like that much. She was somewhat friends with Véra, having met the Clouzots when her husband was in Wages of Fear.

Their friendship did not last. Like most of Clouzot’s films, the production of Les Diabolique was tumultuous from all ends. Both Véra and Henri-Georges were hard to work with. Cast and crew members described the director as a tense, cold man with no humor. All of his passion went to his wife, resulting in constant interventions with production. Paul Meurisse, who played Véra’s on-screen husband, once recounted Clouzot’s attempts to film Véra in a better light and mute the lighting on Signoret. The chaotic filming took its toll on said actress; by the end of the film’s production, Signoret and her husband were no longer on speaking terms with either Clouzot.

In spite of the chaos that unfolded during its filming, Les Diaboliques was an instant phenomenon upon its release. It was remade several times, the most famous of which starred Sharon Stone, Kathy Bates, and Trylon-icon Isabelle Adjani. The twist ending influenced thrillers for years afterwards. It’s even cited as author Robert Bloch’s favorite film––leading me to wonder if it had any impact on the writing process for his most famous novel, Psycho.

Clouzot’s career took a dive after Les Diaboliques. His follow-up movie was a documentary about Picasso, who was an old acquaintance of Clouzot’s. Then came Les Espions, a lesser-known spy film that bombed in France and didn’t get a wide release in America. Clouzot salvaged what was left of his reputation with La Vérité, a powerful Brigette Bardot vehicle that served as her biggest commercial success. We have Véra to thank for that one, too, since she co-wrote the film with her husband. La Vérité was powerful and incredibly well-received. It should’ve been the boost Clouzot needed after a commercial bomb.

Shortly after filming for La Vérité wrapped, and before they could celebrate their commercial approval, Véra Clouzot died of a heart attack. She was two weeks away from her forty-seventh birthday.

Without her, Henri-Georges was not the same. In a cruel combination of his own failing health, his grief for Véra, and the new wave of French directors who wanted to stamp him out, Clouzot’s career fell to the wayside. By the time he retired, he’d been convinced by his peers that some of his greatest movies, Les Diaboliques included, were worth nothing. He died alone and was buried beside Véra.

When film scholars talk about Véra’s role in Les Diaboliques, they often water it down to the fact that she died the same way her character did. Writing her off like that ignores her influence on the movie and downplays the impact of her death on her husband. Perhaps it’s silly to think that people will suddenly start giving her credit decades after her death. But if any movie space is going to give her a second glance, it’s a place like the Trylon.


NOTES

[1] Delphine Simon-Marsaud, “Histoire Orale Des Diaboliques d’Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Cinemateque, October 24, 2017, https://www.cinematheque.fr/article/1112.html.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Liveness in Satoshi Kon’s PERFECT BLUE: A Podcast

| Lukas Lock-Scamp |

Perfect Blue screens at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, March 13 to Tuesday, March 15. Scroll to the end of this post to buy tickets and learn more about the film.


This podcast is an accumulation of thoughts and ideas about the movie Perfect Blue, assembled for a college class final and pieced together by five students. Drawing inspiration from a few authors, such as Sasha Torres, our analyses attempt to shed light on the male gaze, confusion, representation, authenticity, and most importantly, our own opinions. Enjoy!


Kurosawa’s DREAMS in Eight Tarot Cards

|Caroline Rutkiewicz|

Dreams screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, February 25 to Sunday, February 27. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


I. Curiosity

Curiosity turns to fear when our protagonist discovers the rare fox wedding. Only occurring on days where sun shines during a rainstorm, the rainbow contradicts the horror of losing honor, becoming hunted, and being left to survive alone. This dream contains the fear of many children; forced alone after a seemingly simple mistake.

II. Empathy for the Mother

Choosing empathy over success, our protagonist must plead his case for the gods of the peach tree orchard. Whether the gods are truly there is another debate, but this dream reminds the audience that our values are our soul and cannot be taken. The protagonist only wants to protect nature and see it thrive, rather than cut it down for personal gain. 

III. Desperation 

A vicious snowstorm brings our protagonist to the edge of life and death. Seeing a figure that could push him either way, the man is forced to question his own mind and values. Demon or angel, the man must decide what is worth it while stuck in the masses of snow.

IV. Heavy is the Guilt

In a literal tunnel vision, our protagonist now faces one of the worst nightmares of life: war. The ghosts of his past force him to confront every decision he has made as a leader. Growing heavier and heavier, the man could be forever be haunted by this trauma, or he could promise to make up for his mistakes.

V. Admiration

An artist entering Vincent Van Gogh’s world, our protagonist is now witnessing an inspiration in the process of creating. Though Van Gogh never saw himself as good enough, we now see him through a light of admiration from the protagonist. A true dream of every artist, just a moment to witness their idol in action. An exploration through beautiful landscapes and a struggling artist trying to capture them.

VI. Beginning of the End

The beginnings of a possible apocalypse, this dream contains the true mental breakdown of watching your world being destroyed. The protagonist is desperate to protect or run, but all the while knowing there is no way out. The fear of life ending, for yourself and for family, will always be a fatalist nightmare. 

VII. Overgrowth

Possibly within the post-apocalyptic world, the protagonist sees the devastating effects of nuclear fallout. Weeds are growing bigger than humans, humans becoming more like demons. A science-fiction-like take on the politics of nuclear plants and weapons, this dream shows the audience what this power has done and will do to humans. It will corrupts the body, but also will corrupt the minds in power. 

VIII. Learning from the Father

Shifting to a true dream, the protagonist now explores an isolated village that seems happier than any other. Without technology or modern issues, the town can live in peace, even through a death in the community. The protagonist and audience may not understand, but there is no need. The only need is that each discovers what they need to be happy and live a content life. 


The Silly American: Othering in Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN

| Chris Polley |

The Third Man screens at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, February 20 to Tuesday, February 22. Scoll to the end of this post for tickets and more information.


As a teacher, the most unnerving scene for me in British filmmaker Carol Reed’s ever-enduring, post-war thriller The Third Man (1949) has nothing to do with its shadowy figures or labyrinthine sewers. Instead, it’s when the protagonist, pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins (played with equal parts chutzpah and aloofness by Joseph Cotten), attempts to lecture an eager Austrian crowd of literary types only to see everyone quickly decide the man from across the pond is of little interest to them. While Martins is stressed out of his own mind for, indeed, very shadowy/labyrinthine reasons, it is this moment that frustrates me most in the film. The audience thins out one by one, shuffling out of the hall in disappointment, and even though Martin’s life is at risk, I find myself grimacing as I imagine what it’d be like to get that kind of reaction from my students.

Luckily, I feel modestly comfortable speaking to a room of teenagers in a familiar environment about subjects I feel moderately qualified to talk about. Our American hero (zero?) in The Third Man, however, is undeniably out of his depth from the film’s opening frames. He arrives in Vienna ready to entertain a job offer from an old friend named Harry Lime, but immediately after the title sequence, the film clues the audience to see that something’s off about this Yankee’s arrival in the middle of Europe right after the war. Before Martins even speaks, the film’s sparse but curious and rather lively score, performed solo by zither player Anton Karas, suggests that something is amiss. As Will Perkins of The Art of the Title notes, “Like Vienna, the tune is immediately alluring and attractive, but despite that initial appeal, it hints that something very untoward, very wrong might be happening just out of sight.”[1] Taking this interpretation one step further, Cotten’s urgent stride through the foreign town’s cobblestone streets suggests that perhaps, to the locals around him, Martins is actually the untoward element. He, in fact, is the other – not the British occupiers or the Viennese. Again, the parallel to my teaching career is cringingly apparent; it took me a good long while to realize I was the one that was outnumbered and out of touch, and that pretending that I wasn’t was helping no one.

One of the film’s great magic tricks is that we might not even recognize this subtext as Americans viewing the best British film of all time, according to BFI in 1999[2]—rather, we might watch and immediately place ourselves in the shoes of our de facto gumshoe Holly Martins, who quickly learns that Harry Lime, his path to secure employment, died in a horrendous accident shortly before his arrival. And this is, naturally, when our man with a knack for fiction starts to pick apart the versions of the story he’s been fed by eyewitnesses, law enforcement, and mutual friends. “Good for him,” we think, “now he’ll get to the bottom of it.” And while Martins reconstructs the narrative, Reed has a bit of fun bandying about the film’s main character like a ragdoll getting tossed around between wolves, each member of the supporting cast taking turns ripping him apart at the seams, scene by scene.

Sure, Martins gets plenty of chances to challenge both the Viennese residents and the lingering British military forces, but what’s arguably most mesmerizing about the whole affair is that the twisty cat-and-mouse game goes down with such ease and narrative energy that when the truth is ultimately revealed, it’s a veritable punch to the gut. Equally playful and menacing is that the big reveal involves a devilishly magnificent Orson Welles in one of his best roles, which I’m well aware is saying a lot, but so much of the film’s suspense is derived from the anticipation of Welles finally appearing on camera.

While Welles got to play against type and subvert expectations, the script did something similar. In the introduction to his novella based on the film, Third Man screenwriter, and English writer of various canonical novels and short stories, Graham Greene wrote, “The other day in London a surgeon took two friends to see the film. He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had himself enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the war when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.”[3] Greene was clearly not just writing a potboiler that happened to take place in one of the most dour time periods and locales in American history. He managed to reel in the viewer looking for escapism and intrigue, but instead we are met with a reckoning of the banality of evil and post-war guilt.

This allows for a bumbling out-of-work writer like Martins to, basically by default, remain the film’s comparatively moral superior, though he doesn’t exactly walk away a victor in the end. Instead, that honor goes to Croation actor Alida Valli’s character, Anna Schmidt—Lime’s former flame and Martins’s current obsession–– in a deliciously subversive take on the femme fatale trope. Despite exuding a radiant sadness, Schmidt remains on the sidelines for the majority of the picture. (Reed sure did like to play with screen time expectations.) Moreover, Australian director of photography Robert Krasker largely favors canted angles that continually emphasize Martins’s disorienting fish-out-water state and Valli’s frustrating evasiveness throughout the film. Yet, as the story’s coda trails off, the lens straightens and gets downright sumptuously symmetrical, while Schmidt walks down center frame, casually ignoring our protagonist as she wanders into oblivion.

Koraljka Suton of Cinephilia & Beyond explains, “Surprisingly enough, one of the rare straight shots in the movie was not filmed by Krasker, but rather by German cameraman Hans Schneeberger, who was left uncredited.”[4] And while the expressionism is bold both here and throughout the film, the framing coyly suggests that this is Schmidt’s picture, not Martins’s. He just happened to walk into it. It’s telling that the division between nationalities determines the film’s literal construction both narratively and behind the scenes – Martins is othered both with the lens and the ice-cold shoulder that Schmidt gives him as the story concludes.

In an interview with biographer Charles Thomas Samuels, Reed spoke of his contemporaneous preference for “real” or “honest” endings rather than worrying too much about commercial viability. Samuels challenged the director, as surely many did (Reed graduated from breezy adventure comedies to dark noirs to Oscar-winning musicals so effortlessly that few make the argument that he’s anything close to an auteur), but Reed offers his own reveal about The Third Man and its admittedly dour but somehow still incredibly satisfying conclusion. In their encounter, Reed rewinds to the film’s first exchange between Martins and Schmidt, alluding to Cotten’s character incorrigibly asking to speak with Schmidt despite the fact that she’s in the middle of performing a part in a stage play, before exclaiming to Samuels, “the whole point with the Valli character in that film is that she’d experienced a fatal love—and then along comes this silly American!”[5] Schmidt, Reed seems to be saying, will indulge this man (which has as much to say about gender expectations as it does anti-American sentiment), but she is not going to be suckered by him.

This kind of playful and boisterous yet honest and biting commentary is Reed’s bread and butter in so much of The Third Man. The film remains his most cunning masterpiece – proof that Reed never really fit quite into Hollywood nor the European arthouse crowd, and that suited him just fine. He wasn’t the lecturer at the front of the room but rather the shadowy figure in the back clocking the motives of those around him. He showed that sometimes, in order to avoid being othered, you have to not let yourself be the main character. This, as much as anything else, is a brand of figurative advice I try to take with me to the classroom every day.


NOTES

[1] Will Perkins, “The Third Man (1949),” The Art of the Title, April 30, 2013, https://www.artofthetitle.com/title/the-third-man/

[2] “Third Man tops British film chart,” BBC, September 23, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/454744.stm

[3] Graham Greene, “‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film,” The New York Times, March 19, 1950, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/20/specials/greene-astory.html?scp=15&sq=Preface%2520to&st=cse

[4] Koraljka Suton, “Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’: How Orson Welles Stole a Show He Was Barely In,” Cinephilia & Beyond, Accessed February 6, 2022, https://cinephiliabeyond.org/the-third-man/

[5] Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, 1972, https://www.wellesnet.com/carol-reed-on-directing-orson-welles-in-the-third-man/

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Filibus (Re)Introduces Us to the Wild, Weird Women of 1910s Cinema

| Daniel Lawrence Aufmann |

Image courtesy of Milestone Films

Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, January 28 to Sunday, January 30. For more information, see the program notes at the bottom of this post. For tickets, scroll to the bottom of this page or visit trylon.org.


What images spring to mind when you think about silent cinema? Perhaps Charlie Chaplin sliding around in his cabin in The Gold Rush (1925), or waddling off into the sunset in Modern Times (1936). Or maybe Brigitte Helm’s dynamic performance as the angelic Maria and her vampish robotic doppelgänger in Metropolis (1927), or the massacre on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925). And of course, who could forget Filibus, the cross-dressing lesbian master thief, descending from the sky to commit daring robberies before escaping in a zeppelin manned by a crew of loyal male subordinates.

Wait, what? That last one can’t be real, can it? Well, yes. Yes it can.

Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate has only recently been rediscovered and restored by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, and is finally receiving the love and acclaim it so richly deserves. Made in Italy in 1915, Filibus stars Valeria Creti as its title character, an energetic master thief engaged in a battle of wits with the steadfast and––let’s be honest––slightly boring detective Kutt-Hendy. Throughout the film, Filibus commits several daring robberies (for which she attempts to frame Kutt-Hendy), cases her targets in the guise of a rich baroness, and even disguises herself as a man in order to romance Kutt-Hendy’s sister. Clearly, Filibus stands out, for all the right reasons–especially when we look at it alongside the more well-known works of silent Italian cinema, most of which are grand historical epics or tearful melodramas centered on swooning divas. However, what might be the most remarkable thing about Filibus is that, within the landscape of 1910s cinema, it’s not quite as unusual as it sounds.

Image courtesy of Milestone Films

The 1910s were, in a few words, a wild ride, especially for the movies. And importantly for our story, women were at the forefront of cinema on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, female comedians like Sarah Duhamel and Lea Giunchi (and numerous others, as showcased by the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray set Cinema’s First Nasty Women) made prolific short comedies that pushed the boundaries of gender performance and of what was possible in terms of the cinematic art form itself. Films like the recently restored French comedy La pile électrique de Léontine (Léontine’s Battery, 1910), in which a young woman steals a battery and then spends the rest of the day electrocuting people in hilarious ways, are wildly innovative in both their use of film technology and their liberatingly chaotic portrayal of femininity. And in America, as the suffrage movement gained steam in the 1910s, adventurous action heroines, known as the “serial queens,” became some of the biggest stars in cinema as people returned to theaters week after week to watch them perform death-defying physical feats, unaided by nets, wires, or even stunt doubles. Many of these stunts boggle the mind even today, with Helen Gibson’s automobile fistfight with a sexual predator while speeding down a mountain road in The Open Track (1915) offering a particularly spectacular (and socially relevant) example.

I mention these two groups of performers–female comedians in Europe and female action heroes in America–because they provide crucial context for appreciating Filibus, which also takes its cues from Louis Feuillade’s male-led crime serial Fantômas (1913). Indeed, several scenes quote (almost verbatim) from Feuillade’s sensational serial. But Filibus’ joie de vivre, her puckish sense of humor, and relentless battle against social authority resonate more vividly with the short films made by Italian comedian Lea Giunchi, who shares Filibus’ love for disguise and subterfuge. Whether she is masquerading as an automaton to stop her lover from being forced to marry another woman in Lea bambola (Lea as a Doll, 1913), or evading her overbearing parents in order to go skating with her friends in Lea sui pattini (Lea on Rollerskates, 1911), Giunchi frequently performs some kind of disguise or trick in her films, and Filibus wholeheartedly embraces Giunchi’s spirit of mischief. The film’s choice of a woman thief, however, evokes the American serial queen Grace Cunard, who, in 1914, created and starred as the similarly puckish master thief Lady Raffles, and continued to make films about female criminals well into the late 1910s. Cunard may even have been inspired by Filibus in making The Purple Mask (1917), a 16-part serial in which she plays a disguised master thief who commands a gang of obedient male henchmen and frequently travels by airplane. While we cannot be sure if Cunard even saw Filibus, which may never have been released in the United States, the parallels are nevertheless striking–cross-dressing, queer, aviatrix banditry was in the air!

These parallels are not only fascinating but historically significant. They change the way we remember silent film history. As film historian David Bordwell recently observed, the 1910s are an underappreciated decade as far as cinema is concerned.[1] Much of canonical film history, if it deals with the 1910s at all, briefly waxes rhapsodic about the well-known films of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin before moving on to the 1920s as if no other worthwhile cinema was produced between the nickelodeon era and the end of World War I. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The 1910s were a time when creativity ran wild and free. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that anyone could make movies (film industries were still largely closed off to people of color, especially in the United States), it is true that film industries worldwide were considerably more open to women than they were in the 1920s and beyond. The ongoing Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University has identified hundreds of women who worked behind the camera in silent film industries worldwide, and continues to make new and fascinating discoveries. It was a time when filmmakers could devise weirder, more creative, and indeed, more political films than they could get away with under the commercially-minded studio systems of the 1920s onward. And Filibus is a perfect example of this exuberant creativity.

As unique as it is, Filibus shares many defining characteristics with other 1910s films: it’s fast-paced, feminist, wildly (sometimes outlandishly) inventive, and, tragically, not nearly as well-remembered as it deserves to be. Its recent rediscovery, therefore, is not only a gift to cinema fans, but also a reminder of how much more remains to be discovered. Although a massive portion of silent films (anywhere from 60-95%, depending on who you ask) has been lost due to the ravages of time and the intentional destruction of prints, new discoveries and restorations remind us that one thing is never lost: hope! But to realize that hope, we need to look beyond the established canons of silent film and seek out a greater understanding of what’s actually out there. Filibus is an amazing film that fully deserves all the attention it can get. That it is not completely one-of-a-kind is all the more reason to celebrate it. A truly enjoyable film with an irrepressible spirit of feminist liberation, Filibus serves as a valuable reminder that no matter how much we think we know about cinema, there’s always something new waiting for us to discover.

NOTES

[1] David Bordwell, “Thrills and Melodrama from the 1910s,” Observations on Film Art (blog). January 19, 2022. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2022/01/19/thrills-and-melodrama-from-the-1910s/

Edited by Maggie Hennefeld and Michelle Baroody

These screenings are made possible by the University of Minnesota’s Imagine Fund as part of the Twin Cities Silent Film Project, organized by Maggie Hennefeld, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. With live piano accompaniment by Katie Condon and a video introduction by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi (EYE Film Museum).