Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

USA

4*
Directors:
Maya Deren
Alexander Hamid
Screenwriter:
Maya Deren
Director of Photography:
Alexander Hamid

Running time: 14 minutes

Though she directed it with her husband Alexander Hammid (credited as Alexander Hamid), Meshes of the Afternoon has come to be firmly associated with Maya Deren. An amazingly solid surrealist film, it easily inhabits the space that is usually filled with the pompous ego of Un Chien Andalou.

From the outside, Meshes of the Afternoon seems to tell the tale of a slightly disturbed woman, perhaps with suicidal tendencies, who goes to sleep in a chair (it what might or might not be her own house) and proceeds to dream an equally disturbing dream, before, well, it’s not clear at all what happens at the end of the film because over time the apparently clear distinction between dream and reality is elided to the point where Inception would be straightforward.

A few symbols, most prominently the key and the knife, are constantly evoked over the course of this 14-minute film, and it is the way in which they feature and the way Deren and Hammid make them manifest onscreen that turn everyday objects, inanimate as they may be otherwise, into objects of uneasiness. A few jump cuts (and remember, this was 15 years before À Bout de souffle) are used to great effect to unnerve the viewer and another impressively staged sequence involves the main character slithering through the air, or perhaps across the ceiling on her back, in ways that seem possible in a dream.

The film is silent and it goes not for visceral horror, as in Buñuel and Dali’s film, but for a sweet darkness that plays with light and shadow, has an appearance by the Grim Reaper whose face is a mirror (another symbol that will reappear towards the very end of the film) and drags us ever deeper into the hole of uncertainty regarding the clean separation of realities. A bizarre number of close-ups involving feet are also there to interpret as you wish.

What is most admirable about the film is its deft transition between points of view and its seduction of the viewer by making us comfortable with one kind of reality while positioning us to accept another much less definable reality almost immediately. The film certainly succeeds in holding our attention, though towards the end, after shards of a mirror abruptly fall into the ocean (though, unlike the end of Un Chien Andalou, the action does not suddenly shift to the seaside), the film does become slightly less compelling.

The use of the camera is astounding and such simple motions as rolling it from side to side to simulate the sensation of being on a boat, even while the action is inside the very stable confines of a house, is perfectly suited to the material and evokes a slight nausea that is useful if not essential to the viewer’s experience.

The film has more shadows than actual characters and the lack of character names is a fact as interesting as it is significant. The well-known image of the central character looking out of a window, seemingly trapped by a transparent sheet of glass, has been used by many subsequent films and is one of the rare images where the intention and the meaning seem to be apparent.

Meshes of the Afternoon is a rabbit-hole film that would be endlessly fruitful for discussions of the subconscious and the way in which our light and dark desires can manifest themselves in our dreams, not only in images but in movements and most importantly in atmosphere.

Black Narcissus (1947)

UK
3*

Directors:
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger

Screenwriters:
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger

Director of Photography:
Jack Cardiff

Running time: 100 minutes

Nuns on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr is the sister superior tasked with establishing a convent on a cliff in the Himalayas, “at the back of beyond”, overlooking a valley hundreds of feet below. This convent, Saint Faith, is housed in Mopu Palace, which used to be the harem of a general living nearby. Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is trying to keep it together, but the winds are howling 24 hours a day, and the crisp mountain air has awakened “nature” inside the newcomers. The sisterhood is losing its nerve, and it is up to Sister Clodagh to get everybody back in line; to do this, however, she must first deal with her own “ghosts”.

These “ghosts” refer to Clodagh’s flashbacks, seen now and again, whenever she spots something that reminds her of a specific incident in her former life. These objects that facilitate the transition from present to past are very awkward and quite simplistic, but the flashbacks themselves do serve an important purpose, namely to show us that Clodagh’s path has had its twists and turns and that she joined the order so as to escape something else; if she were to be confronted with the same situation once more, what decision would she make this time?

Clodagh is joined by four other sisters, all of whom lose their minds over the course of the story, and at least two of them, Sister Honey and Sister Ruth, become absolutely hysterical. This hysteria becomes unbearable, and while Kathleen Byron (starring as Sister Ruth) does a fine job of seeming possessed, her eyes bulging out of their sockets, she is also the object of the camera’s affection, and Cardiff lights her face beautifully, accentuating her eye-line while obscuring the rest of her visage.

Black Narcissus earns its place as a landmark Technicolor production, and the film’s director of photography, Jack Cardiff, who would go on to light and shoot the equally breathtaking Red Shoes the following year, doesn’t disappoint for a moment. However, for all its colourful images and exquisite lighting, the film is rather bland, perhaps because some of the emotions are so extreme that one easily becomes indifferent to the nuns’ emotional turmoil.

While Sister Ruth snaps at all the women around her, finding fault with everything they do, a new girl arrives at the convent – Kanchi, a young girl with many piercings, played by Jean Simmons – who needs to be educated, since she has arrived on the doorstep of the General’s agent, Mister Dean, and expects to be made his bride. Fortunately, for his and for our sakes, he has no interest in the girl. Her character is terribly irritating and cannot be taken very seriously: In every scene, she has a lascivious look on her face that drips with heat, and while her appearance is clearly meant to be juxtaposed with the nuns and their white habits, her slithering around the General, who quickly gives her what she wants, is rather embarrassing. Luckily, when Ruth imitates Kanchi in a later scene, she is not successful in her attempts at seduction and therefore only embarrasses one of the parties: herself.

Throughout the film, we wait for the inevitable. We get a few very beautiful shots of the bell being rung at the top of the precipice, and it is rather obvious what all of this is leading up to. The power play between the nuns themselves and between the nuns and the natives, including the General and Mister Dean, has the most resonance, and directors Powell and Pressburger, together with Jack Cardiff, compose beautiful shots, particularly notable in some of the first scenes, in which ceiling fans, or their shadows, may be spotted in every frame.

Black Narcissus, shot almost entirely inside Pinewood Studios, with painted backdrops standing in for the actual Himalayas, wants to tackle the conflict between human nature and the restrictions of an order such as that found at a convent, but given the influence of the Catholic League of Decency at the time, this film was not allowed to go very far in its investigation, and it falls woefully short of communicating anything of real substance. But Cardiff, as he would do in The Red Shoes, creates images that  sear into one’s memory, and it is his work that manages to elevate the film into the realm of the “must-sees”.

Bambi (1942)

USA
3*

Director: 
David Hand
Screenwriters: Larry Morey
Perce Pearce
Gustaf Tenggren
Director of Photography:
Max Morgan

Running time: 70 minutes

I grew up without ever watching Bambi. I had heard about the fate of Bambi’s mother, of course, and I’ve known about it for 20 years, but having been exposed to many other Disney films over the years – The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King, all of which had villains that really scared me, not to mention the film made of Pinocchio – I decided to wait it out. The wait turned into more than a decade, and now that I have finally seen the film, I am a little conflicted about my response.

It is a film of its time, coming shortly after the groundbreaking work initiated by Walt Disney in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and continued, in spectacular fashion, in Fantasia (1940). Its animation rather resembles a moving picture book and very often the animals are the only elements of the frame that are in movement. As the deer play among the tall grass, the grass barely moves, and even though the treetops seem to sway, the grass remains firmly rigid. But these are not my primary objections to the film.

The film starts with the birth of Bambi, a young stag, deep in the forest. He is lying next to his mother, but his father is absent. And his father’s absence is never explained or justified. The father is alive and well, named the Great Prince of the Forest, but he is distant – regal and silent – and only makes an appearance when his wisdom or experience is called for. Bambi’s mother isn’t very actively involved in her son’s upbringing either, and he spends most of his time – including an outdoor trip, when he says his first words! – with his friend Thumper the rabbit, whose father is mentioned repeatedly but never seen, unlike his mother. Bambi spends very little time with his mother: The most significant incident takes place at the meadow, when she warns him that danger lies beyond the forest, and that he should take care.

The meadow would be the place where his mother is killed by the humans (whom we never see), but this central event of the narrative occurs offscreen, and since we hadn’t seen Bambi in his mother’s company very often, her subsequent absence in his life wasn’t going to upset our idea of his world all that much.

The most noteworthy scene in the film has to be the big forest fire that breaks out and forces many different animals to flee. The role of humans in this desperate situation is unmistakable, and it is this scene, much more than the death of Bambi’s mother, that would inspire sympathy in the viewers and make us aware of the point of view of the animals.

Without giving away too much, I must say here that the final scene, though meant to be a joyous occasion, has a very eery feel to it, since it can easily be interpreted as another beginning, similar in kind to the beginning of the film, and therefore it plants the idea that the future will be a repetition of the past.

The film has a very appropriate soundtrack, which also tells us when danger is approaching, since we don’t see the humans, and I particularly enjoyed the rhythmic effect of the simultaneous appearance of rain drops on screen and “April Shower” on the audio track. However, this film is too short, and it skips over important moments (the death of Bambi’s mother; his grief; his subsequent growing up) while it focuses a long time on relatively insignificant details (playing with Thumper on the frozen lake; and his strange relationship with Flower, a young male skunk who clearly fancies him).

The death of a mother is sad, but in this case, the film cares little about her, or her relationship with her son, and therefore it is difficult for the viewer to care much more, beyond a general, universal desire for innocent mothers not to get killed.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

USA
2.5*

Director:
Preston Sturges
Screenwriter: 
Preston Sturges
Director of Photography: 
John Seitz

Running time: 90 minutes

This is my first Sturges film, and I like the Capra quality of the thing. There is something very warm and fuzzy about the story, even though it deals, albeit obliquely, with the idea of poverty. I also like films that deal with the film industry, and Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy about the commercial infeasibility of making films that deal with socially relevant topics rather than straightforward comedies, which almost inevitably do better at the box office. However, whereas Capra had a comedic way of presenting dramatic and important messages (Mr Smith Goes to Washington: “Stand up for what is right!”; It’s a Wonderful Life: “Don’t ever think that you haven’t made a difference!”; It Happened One Night: “Down with the walls of Jericho! We are in love!”), this film by Preston Sturges doesn’t quite rise above its comedic simplicity.

The film was made at the beginning of the Second World War and was released at the end of 1941, around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack that escalated the American military’s participation. Social issues, such as unemployment and low income, are raised in the film (this was at a time when U.S. unemployment figures, of a population still rattled by the Great Depression of the 1930s, were around 15%), but the central character regards everything from a comfortable distance. Sure, he mingles with the hoi polloi and even shares a table with them, but there is very little – if not a complete lack of – interaction between him and those he wants to represent on the big screen.

In fact, one can easily forget that Sullivan is actually a director. He doesn’t seem very awkward in his scenes with the homeless, and such moments of uneasiness as there are (at the communal dinner table, for example) have very little screen time and do not communicate much except a little comedy. Chaplin dealt comically with the life of a tramp, but even his films have emotions and insight into the life of someone who is homeless to a much deeper degree than anything in Sullivan’s Travels.

Sullivan’s Travels opens with a marvellous scene: Two men, accompanied by very loud, very enthusiastically bombastic music, are fighting on top of a train advancing at full speed through the dark night. This turns out to be the final scene of another film, screened for some producers. Such metatextuality is refreshing, considering the banal nature of most of the rest of the film.

The film contains at least one very bad scene. In prison, where there is a lot of hardship (although the only real hardship we ever see inflicted on anybody is on John Sullivan), the prisoners go to watch a movie one night: cartoons by Walt Disney. The moment the picture starts, the prisoners burst out laughing, to such a degree you might think they are having seizures. It is an absolutely ludicrous way to communicate the message (comedy works, even in hard times), and I found it thoroughly simpleminded.

Based on my experience of Sullivan’s Travels, a film that is supposed to be Preston Sturges’s masterpiece, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that he was no Frank Capra, and while there is some amusing banter between Joel McCree and Veronica Lake, in the spirit of screwball comedies, the film never seriously investigates the social milieu its main character wishes to study.