La Jetée (1962)

La Jetée, Chris Marker’s classic short film about time travel, is as intelligent, as unconventional and as emotionally engaging today as it was upon its release in 1962.

La JetéeFrance
4*

Director:
Chris Marker

Screenwriter:
Chris Marker

Director of Photography:
Chris Marker

Running time: 28 minutes

Perhaps best known today as the short film that inspired Terry Gilliam to make 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker’s La Jetée is very unconventional as a moving picture precisely because the pictures do not move. Unlike the overwhelming majority of films out there, of which movement is a defining feature, this 28-minute work of science-fiction employs photographs to tell its story, and the reason is quite simple: These are supposed to be fragments of memory, and memories are experiences that we almost never remember in their entirety but rather in snippets.

The first few moments already hint at the distorted nature of the world we are about to encounter when the opening credits themselves are altered, albeit very subtly: Upon expressing thanks to the research department at the national public broadcaster, the Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), the credits change momentarily from “Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.” to “Service de la Trouvaille de la R.T.F.”. In French, the word “trouvaille” means a “(lucky) find”, and the fact that most viewers might only notice this change during a second or a third viewing underscores the notion that there is more beneath the surface than we may realise at first.

Indeed, the entire story depends on our impression of reality, constructed on the basis of fragmented memories, that in the end is revealed to be defective in a crucial way that the main character (and we) realises all too late.

The film has almost no diegetic sounds but does have a narrator. This narrator’s voice belongs to Jean Négroni, whose surname is curiously, though perhaps intentionally, written without the requisite diacritical marks in the opening credits.

Set mostly in a dystopian environment (what used to be Paris) after the end of the Third World War, a nameless man (played by Davos Hanich), is haunted by an image burnt into his memory as a child. Shortly before the outbreak of the war that would destroy most of mankind, he was standing on the viewing pier (the “jetty” in the title) at Orly International Airport in Paris. There, he saw a woman, but the rest of his memory is blurred by a feeling of violence and the perception that someone had died.

Today, huddled up in subterranean passageways under the Palais de Chaillot because the world above is too radioactive for human life, there are victors and victims, and the former are conducting experiments on the latter: The prisoners have to imagine a moment from their past so intensely that they are transported back and can eventually bring help from the future into the present. But there are many failed attempts, with the experiment’s subjects either dying or losing their minds.

With the image of the woman seared into his brain, the main character is successful at making the past vibrate with such life that it becomes a living memory, although not without pain. And all the while, in a nod to the events of the Second World War, which had ended barely 17 years before La Jetée‘s release, the people conducting the experiment are ominously whispering to each other in German.

When the man starts forming images in his head that appear to correspond to the peacefulness of the past, the narrator insists on calling them “real”: “a real bedroom”, “real children”, “real birds”, “real cats” and, deliberately anticlimactically, “real graves”. And yet, there is a firm suspicion on our part that these are merely imaginary projections, most importantly because there is no movement. Another ackowledgement of the likely fictitious status of the events comes when the narrator explains that the man “never knows whether he moves towards her, or is pushed, whether he’s made it all up, or is only dreaming”.

But this is where the intelligence of Marker’s chosen form starts to reveal itself, because before long, the man and the woman from his past find themselves in a museum with stuffed animals. By this stage, the viewer has already started to ascribe movement to the film’s frozen images, and therefore the exercise now engenders a cognitive animation of the immobile animals, too, which produces a frisson and a feeling of confusion, not unlike what the main character is experiencing. This bewilderment is particularly palpable when we see a close-up of a shark baring its teeth right next to the couple. At another point, in a timeless space filled with statues, the narrator also describes his memory as a kind of museum.

The final development in La Jetée, during which the man is sent to the future, is a little ridiculous and compares badly with the rest of the film, as expressionless, alienoid humans with medallion-like objects on their pale foreheads learn of the desperation in the present.

The ending will leave the viewer breathless, because at the end of a brief but brilliant action montage, insofar as that label may be applied in this case, the smallest revelations suddenly hit us like a brick wall and leave us pulverised with despair. The final image is held just long enough for us to take in but not fully digest the gravity of the narrator’s explicit closing of the circle of life – and with it, of hope.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Mexico

3.5*
Director:
Luis Buñuel
Screenwriter:
Luis Buñuel
Director of Photography:
Gabriel Figueroa
Running time: 88 minutes

Original title: El ángel exterminador

The Exterminating Angel demonstrates how elusive explanations for human behaviour can be, and while we can often feel confident that rationalisation will eventually win out, or that time will tell why people behave the way they do, it’s not quite as simple as that. It is true that people have their reasons, but these reasons may be obscured by so many other factors that an explanation, though it may seem just beyond our reach, could in fact be forever out of reach.

The film is surreal, which means the pieces don’t quite fit together unless you allow for the loose traits of a dream. However, unlike more avant-garde works such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, this film by Luis Buñuel has a general plot outline that can very easily be summarised.

At the house of a rich couple, their servants all decide to leave one night just as a whole host of guests arrive for a dinner party. They do so with their own very obviously made-up reasons, but it’s not made clear what their real intentions are. Only the majordomo remains. At the end of the evening, after many backstabbing bits of gossip between them, some drinks and a piece played on the piano, the guests prepare to leave, but then they realise they cannot bring themselves to do so.

They end up spending many days in the house, mostly inside one room, where their once mannered behaviour lapses and they descend to a level of basic needs and uncivilised outbursts, though the actual occurrence of some incidents is brought into question by the presentation of the material in the film.

The first shot of the film shows the name of the street on which this mansion is situated: Calle de la providencia (Providence Street). And the last shot in the film is of the exterior of a cathedral. The role of religion in the film is very oblique , although the title obviously has that connotation. The most straightforward connecting tissue would be the issue of free will and predestination, but Buñuel doesn’t make these themes explicit in any real way.

The easiest solution to the film lies in its inception. Having just left Spain after the controversy sparked by his Viridiana, and suffering under the rule of General Franco, Buñuel returned to Mexico to make this film, and it presents no obstacle to being interpreted as a demonstration of what happens to a group of people cut off from the rest of civilisation, left to fend for themselves in a small space and unable to leave.

The metaphor is problematic, especially because so many of the possible escape routes we think of never get tested, or the film discards them as soon as they are raised, for the example the possibility of pushing someone across the invisible but apparently insurmountable threshold inside the house.

“Life is amusing… and strange,” says one guest shortly after she realises she will be stuck against her will. At first, it seems it is the good manners of the guests that imprison them, as they are all too embarrassed to admit they want to leave, and simultaneously the hosts feel they cannot ask their guests to leave. But this explanation also unravels somewhat once the guests make it clear they truly want to go home. Unfortunately, the situation is summed up very explicitly in a laughable bit of dialogue by the character of the doctor, when he states that “no matter how hard we try, we cannot leave this room.”

One man dies, and two people commit suicide, and while the bodies rot and the stench drifts into the room, people are literally passing out from hunger and thirst. However, whenever they do get a bite to eat or something to drink, the small respite seems to prolong their stay even more – another potentially political statement.

The film isn’t always entertaining, as it has too many different characters who are never properly introduced or distinguished from one another, and the acting isn’t great either, but Buñuel’s ellipses between reality and dream are exceedingly well executed and often keep us in suspense as to the true events.

The Exterminating Angel contains numerous bizarre moments involving animals – among them a bear and a flock of sheep roaming around the mansion, and a bird in someone’s purse – that are left unexplained but never fail to pique or renew our interest in the events on-screen.

As social commentary, the film is biting, and its political slant is also difficult to miss. However, by refusing to explain why certain solutions are not available to his characters, Buñuel often doesn’t answer our questions and it is tough to read the film as a serious work of art. Dialogue scenes are too short and fragmented, and characters who start an important conversation or make a valid point are often interrupted and we are left hanging.

With a very sharp outline, the film’s central premise is difficult to forget, and while the film has its ambiguous moments, most of the plot is presented as if the actions of the characters were taking place according to the physical rules of nature. Determined filmgoers will scratch their heads about many of the events, and Buñuel likes to tease the viewer, as in the scene with a young boy who makes it onto the house’s grounds before, inexplicably, backing away. But all too often, explanations remain out of reach, and parts of the film cannot satisfy the viewer who demands some kind of cause and effect.

8½ (1963)

otto e mezzo Italy
5*
Director:
Federico Fellini
Screenwriters:
Federico Fellini
Tullio Pinelli
Ennio Flaiano
Brunello Rondi
Director of Photography:
Gianni Di Venanzo

Running time: 137 minutes

Original title: Otto e mezzo

The splendour of Fellini’s eighth and a halfth film lies in its ability to entertain us so effortlessly while being simultaneously incessantly creative, weaving together dream, fantasy, recollection and present reality, and commenting on the struggles of an artist while doing all of the above completely coherently.

After all these years, just like Citizen Kane, the film it is often compared to, despite the two being very different in many ways, it is still a gorgeous piece of work that, mostly thanks to the music of Nino Rota, glues your eyes to the screen as it is never quite obvious what might follow next. It is funny and sad and sexy and naughty and breathtaking, and there is nothing out there quite like it. This was made before postmodern cinema was à la mode and it is all the better for it, as the focus is not on connected texts in film or literature; instead, the film looks inward, at its main character, a director named Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, and by extension at Fellini, who treats the ennui of his character with droll asides and yet evokes real empathy in the viewer.

We first meet Guido in a dream immediately after the opening credits. He is sitting in a car in a traffic jam in Rome and tries to escape from his vehicle, but can’t. Everyone around him is staring at him in stony silence while his deep breathing is become more and more pronounced, anxious. In one car, a man is stroking the exposed arm of a voluptuous woman as she purrs. Suddenly, Guido is seen flying out of the car, along the cars stuck in traffic. He flies up towards the clouds, past an unfinished construction that we would later learn is part of the set for his film, before he is pulled down by a piece of rope, or string, attached to his leg, and falls into the sea.

There is much to analyse here, from the setting of the beach and the excited woman in the car to the smoke that fills his car as he tries to escape and all the people passively looking at him in silence. But it is the images themselves that catch our attention. The stark black and white and the surreal visual of Guido flying along the road, into the sky, before crashing down into the sea when someone pulls the rope and another commands it by reading from a screenplay, “Down, for good!” suggest Icarus but also the fragility of his own position, a prisoner of strangers’ looks.

The first time we see Guido’s face in close-up, he is looking in a mirror. Perhaps sooner than us, he realises he has to face himself, and much of the film will be devoted to this enterprise, and although the things he finds are not discoveries and don’t necessarily lead to some kind of catharsis, it helps the viewer accept the final moments of the film, one that does not offer closure but that simply extends the merry-go-round of Guido’s life one has been presented all through the film.

Guido has checked into a spa to relax and work in peace on his latest screenplay, but he is at his wits’ end, and very playfully, but intentionally ominously, we share his point of view when he arrives outside, people greeting him with a nod of the head and a smiling, all the while looking straight into the camera, and Rota’s rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries takes over the soundtrack.

The only bit of self-reference that comes into play is from the mouth of Carini Daumier, the script consultant who very likely represents the worst of the worst self-involved and terribly opinionated film critics out there, who discusses Guido’s screenplay with him and tells him bluntly:

You see, what stands out at a first reading is the lack of a central issue or a philosophical stance. … That makes the film a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism. You wonder, what is the director trying to do?

These words refer, of course, to the film itself, and while Guido plays the main part in the flashbacks of Fellini’s film, it might not be Guido but rather the main character in Guido’s own film, and in this way the two overlap significantly, though it is irrelevant to our entertainment what scenes belongs to which film. In the final scene, for example, a character from Guido’s childhood, Saraghina, appears, though this scene is suddenly set in the present, and she hasn’t aged. Was that scene not a memory but rather a scene Guido had in mind for his own film? At another point, early in the film, Guido’s walks down his hotel corridor singing Rota’s music we’ve been hearing on the soundtrack. How is this possible? Was the music actually playing in his world? Where, and who played it? These are the kinds of questions that demonstrate the film’s clever interplay between different fictions in the story, and the fact we don’t mind so much signals the skill and success of Fellini with this film.

The film is packed with scenes that can be either memories or potential events (most likely autobiographical in some way) in Guido’s own film. But far from being “gratuitous episodes” as Daumier fears, they are absolute marvels of storytelling, often with either a great deal of dialogue or a complete lack of dialogue. One is spoilt for choice for examples, but among the most talked-about scenes is the one that takes place in a bath house, or more accurately Guido’s harem. 

Fellini’s  is daring and adventurous and eschews an intellectualisation of its subject while making us wholly aware of the trials and tribulations of the central character and not undermining the severity of his situation. The theme is not overwhelming and the actions themselves are often staged in restricted spaces, but the film is as monumental as anything the cinema has produced. After so many years, the film still delivers a powerful blow to the system, because it shows what can be done with the medium. Like the enigmatic formula Guido as a young boy is told to repeat to protect him at night, “Asa nisi masa”, there is a formula to this film, but the power of the director is such that it takes on a magical quality only he knows how to wield.

This is one of the finest films ever made.

The Housemaid (1960)

South Korea

3.5*
Director:
Kim Ki-young
Screenwriter:
Kim Ki-young
Director of Photography:
Kim Deok-jin

Running time: 111 minutes

Original title: 하녀
Transliterated title: Hanyeo

South Korea’s Housemaid is a bizarre, over-the-top melodrama that is as enthralling as it is embarrassing. The acting is wooden on the one hand, completely histrionic on the other, and the story often lacks credibility, and yet there is a continuous sense of psychological anguish that extends to the country’s cinema today.

Made in 1960, the film features a working-class family and in particular the husband and father, Mr Kim, a piano teacher and part-time composer, who is assaulted by numerous females whose obsession with him seems to lead his family to certain destruction, though he never sought to bring such dishonour on his household.

And the females are certainly a force to be reckoned with. Mr Kim leads the small choir at a factory, where young females quickly take a liking to him and try to make a move by attending private lessons at his home. When the film opens, one girl in the choir, Ms Kwak, leaves a love letter for him in the piano, but when he finds it he reports her and she is kicked out of the factory.

Kwak’s housemate, Kyunghee Cho, decides to take a chance and starts paying for private lessons at Kim’s house. Kim’s wife is expecting their third child and they are about to move into a larger house. They need the money, but they also need someone to take care of the new space and at Kim’s urging, Kyunghee finds a housemaid for them: an obviously evil woman who must have been an inspiration for Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, except this one doesn’t even seem normal at the outset.

Both the housemaid and Cho become more and more unhinged as the film progresses, but theirs are not the only psychological problems that may be detected. Kim’s young daughter Aesoon is suffering from some physical malady and spends the whole film on crutches, which makes it easier for her young brother Chengsoon to tease her and generally be a mean sibling. Aesoon subsequently spends most the film sobbing.

It must be a terrible traumatic state of affairs, but the absolutely spineless Kim shows no courage or determination to make the house a good environment for his family. He is weak, without any backbone whatsoever, and when the young women start twisting him around their little fingers, threatening to accuse him of rape, he duly becomes a piece of clay in their hands. A woman scorned is nothing to be trifled with, but a lunatic scorned is something you don’t even want to contemplate.

Over the whole narrative hangs the constant threat of rat poison, placed in a kitchen cupboard to repel the rats which cause Kim’s wife to suffer fainting spells so severe she must be dragged to bed every time one of the long-tailed creatures make an appearance. And together with this poison, the probability of someone committing either suicide or homicide is very real, and creates notable suspense.

We can ask ourselves at many points why the family doesn’t just kick the housemaid out. Are they so hard up that they absolutely require someone cleaning the house, even if that person is totally insane? Honestly, these are not model parents. Even when they have discovered the housemaid’s pitch-black intentions, they still allow her to roam the house freely, cooking meals for them (which they prefer not to eat, for fear she might have poisoned the food) and interacting with their children.

This is a film about lunatics, and perhaps that was director Kim Ki-young’s purpose, for an opening scene shows the happy couple, before the intrusion of the housemaid, reading about a man elsewhere who had come to a terrible end after his involvement with a housemaid. This scene hints at a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-style setup, a hint that is only reinforced in the closing coda, but in between these two scenes there is a very real sense the characters are at the mercy of the housemaid, exaggerated and incredible as her acts may seem.

What does one make of a melodrama as ridiculous as this? One can only laugh. But those bookends are very interesting and if examined through these two lenses, the film takes on a new, insightful and vastly superior tone about the nature of the cinema, since the filmmaker seems to acknowledge his story, which takes place in a world where it rains most of the time and where lightning strikes every time something ominous is happening, is a fabrication. And yet, such exaggeration can be enjoyable. Not because it appeals to our desire to see something real, but because, first and foremost, such a clearly fictional story can evoke very real fears in the viewer.

Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Japan

3*
Director:
Kon Ichikawa
Screenwriters:
Kon Ichikawa
Ishio Shirasaka
Shuntarō Tanikawa
Natto Wada
Director of Photography:
Kazuo Miyagawa

Running time: 170 minutes

Original title: 東京オリンピック
Transliterated title: Tōkyō orinpikku

Made in the years before cameras were strapped onto the backs of motorcycles to follow runners or cyclists in ways that make it seem like the viewer is literally taking part, Tokyo Olympiad is a mammoth film that tries to condense the sporting events of the famous 16 days of glory that are the Olympic Games into one viewing experience. Filmmaker Kon Ichikawa approaches his subjects, with its many disparate parts, in an equally incoherent fashion and the result is a work that, while it certainly gives a good idea of the 1964 Olympics, pales in comparison to more recent productions, and is at best a catalogue of events rather than a representation of them by one man with a specific vision.

When it comes to films made about the Olympic Games, Bud Greenspan’s  “16 Days of Glory” television films have set the standard for many years, and while he only focuses on a small part of each four-year celebration of the Olympic spirit, he does so through the eyes and experiences of a number of athletes with very attractive stories of perseverance and beating the odds. Ichikawa tries his hand at one such story, without ever getting close to his subject, before simply dropping him and moving on to the next event.

This lack of a human connection to the games is an important failure. Ichikawa shows many pictures of the spectators’ reactions to the events on the field or on the track, but the only person who ever speaks is the invisible commentator Ichirō Mikuni. It would be unfair to say Mikuni doesn’t bring human emotion to the account of events, but the fact he is the viewer’s only link is unsatisfactory and cannot substitute the real athletes and their stories.

Ichikawa begins his film with the opening ceremony and ends with the closing ceremony, while the first half is set almost entirely inside the athletics stadium and the second half is dedicated to all the other sports. He looks exclusively at the finals of every single sport practised at the games, with the exception of discus throw and judo, but where a sport is subdivided into many separate sections, for example wrestling or weightlifting, he only casts a very brief glance at one or two categories.

That is understandable, since it is impossible to bring together every single event and still make a film that would shine with excitement and rhythm. There are moments in Ichikawa’s film that are quite brilliantly depicted. Besides the details his camera picks up, from the athletes ducking to avoid the doves when they’re released during the opening ceremony to the freeze frame on the tense face of Soviet shot putter Irina Press at the moment before she launches the ball, or the ritual of fellow countryman Adolf Varanauskas who rolls around the ball against his neck in anticipation of the big throw.

Another freeze frame shows us the moment when 10,000 meter American runner Ben Larrieu is lapped and his faces tells a story of shock and disappointment. These are the kinds of characters who merit more attention, but Ichikawa limits the focus of the film to a far-off glance at the events and the participants as they behave on their big day.

The film has a multitude of shots dedicated to the raising of flags and the playing of national anthems, as is to be expected in such a film, but his artistic transformation of certain moments could have made a greater impact if he’d had the courage to pursue this approach more determinedly. During the 10,000 meter race, for example, the camera looks out onto the pack of athletes from far away, then pans away from them and follows an empty track before reaching them again.

Ichikawa sometimes focuses on specific athletes, like the physical and mental preparation of Japanese athlete Ikuko Yoda before her 80 meter hurdles race, or the runners who come in last in the big races – the Ceylonese Ranatunga Karunananda in the 10,000 meters and the Nepalese Bahacur Bhupendra in the marathon. They add a necessary human veneer to the greatness of the Olympics.

But beyond the all-too-rare moments of genius, like the opening of the gymnastics sequences, in which a female gymnast does a vault in a Muybridge-like image, the complete silence in the presentation of the hurdle race, save the crashing thud when the first hurdle is knocked over, and the silence of the open division wrestling final interrupted only by the breathing of the wrestlers, the film displays little artistic sensibility and rather opts for a dry recounting of the events as they occurred, without the human component. By and large, that human component, hinted at in examples above, in short mentions of the marathon runners’ professions, and in a very brief bit about a young Chadian with the interesting face, Ahmed Issa, who competes in the 800m and advances to the semifinals, is missing from the film and makes the production uninteresting from numerous points of view.

In terms of politics, the film also completely avoids the interesting tension, visually and ideologically, of the USSR following the contingent of American athletes into the stadium, or of India and Pakistan’s meeting in the field hockey finals.

The land of the rising sun (the latter a symbol often repeated in the film), the first country in Asia to host the Olympic Games, staged a very competent Olympics that, going by this film, seems completely peaceful and devoid of the politics that would make the future games so rife with tension, but at the same time the peace limits our engagement with the film’s narrative as almost no characters are really examined. As a document of the games, the film is good, but Bud Greenspan’s human-oriented documentaries about the games are infinitely better.

The Best Man (1964)

USA

4.5*
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriter: Gore Vidal
Director of Photography: Haskell Wexler

Running time: 95 minutes

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, which dates back nearly half a century, is as relevant to our understanding of the American political system as ever. As of this writing, the 2012 GOP candidates have not been narrowed down to a single front-runner yet; since many have speculated about the likelihood of a brokered convention, I thought a film that deals with this term might be rather apropos.

What is a brokered convention?

A convention is the party in the big tent with all the delegates (and, if it is the Democratic Party, all the superdelegates as well), usually held in August or September in a big ol’ sports arena or convention centre, where the candidate who has survived six months of primaries and caucuses formally accepts his party’s nomination as candidate for the presidency and the election in November.

A brokered convention occurs when no such candidate has obtained a majority of the votes and has to undergo the added stress of being put on a ballot during the convention and surviving round after round, with candidates dropping out one by one, until one candidate remains. The delegates of candidates that drop out have to realign themselves with the remaining candidates and in this regard a lot of dealing inside back rooms goes on in the process.

In The Best Man, there are two clear front-runners for the presidency: A former Secretary of State, William Russell is a careful politician who seems to overthink every problem before making a wholly informed decision and therefore is perceived to be passive, even weak. Think Obama without the charisma. The other candidate is Joe Cantwell, an anti-communist anti-mafia, religious activist whose rhetoric is enough to hordes of screaming fans who mistake fundamentalist zeal for patriotism.

In the film’s first minutes, we learn that the former president, still a major force in this political party, which is never named and whose platform is never stated, is about to endorse either Russell or Cantwell, and obviously both candidates are courting his approval.

It is also made quite clear that Russell has been a very unfaithful husband, though his wife is prepared to become first lady and therefore go along with Russell’s bid for the White House for the time being. Cantwell has also discovered some unsavoury records of Russell’s mental state (think Thomas Eagleton), which he is ready to release if it would be politically expedient.

Despite Russell’s philandering, his questionable mental stability and his atheism (oh, yes, a big negative for a presidential candidate in the 1960s and arguably even worse today), he is a likeable character who seems to want to lift the country up, not just himself. It certainly helps that the character is played by Henry Fonda.

Eagleton, Clinton, Obama and the 2012 Republican candidates for the presidency are just some of the real-life political figures I had in mind while I was watching the film. The succession of 36 faces during the opening credits, from Washington to Johnson, all leading up to a full-screen shot of the White House, always impresses the historical scale of the office on the viewer, and in this case we are reminded again there are no perfect candidates: only candidates who will be more preferable or less embarrassing holders of the office.

The film’s background is peppered with catchy slogans (“Hustle with Russell”, “MerWIN to WIN”) and the action is set over a very short period of time: less than 48 hours. The characters and the party they belong to are vague, but being politicians this quality makes them specific enough to be entirely credible and representative of all kinds of recognizable political personas.

With a screenplay written by Gore Vidal, based on his play, this film has an ear for great dialogue and a very vivid sense of reality. One excellent moment among many others belongs to the former president, Art Hockstader, who, upon learning of Cantwell’s devious plans, gives him a look full of hate and proclaims: “It’s not that I object to you being a bastard… It’s your being such a stupid bastard that I object to!”

This film is better than the other well-known political films from the early sixties, such as The Manchurian Candidate or Seven Days in May, because it comes to the point very quickly, is filled with people and events that we recognize, even today, and the story contains a big conundrum that the characters need to resolve before a satisfactory conclusion can be reached — and this is exactly what the film pulls off, with significant consequences. There are few scenes between the candidates and their wives, but what we see is to the point and reveals a great deal about the domestic politics of the presidency.

The mudslinging and the possibility that a ludicrous attack just might stick also hit close to home, as the recent (2012) GOP primaries have shown. In one comment, a character mentions that once, in the South, “a candidate […] got elected for claiming his opponent’s wife was a thespian.” This comes on the heels of a discussion about the alleged homosexuality of one of the candidates for the presidency, and Vidal’s use of this theme shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — it is handled well, discreetly, but the scenes with a, erm, whistleblower, a guy called Sheldon Bascomb, are excruciatingly uncomfortable and make the film drag at the only point during its 95-minute running time.

Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson are both excellent in the main roles, but it is charming former president played by Lee Tracy who really makes an impression as someone who is playing the system with a good political head, even as he loses faith in the system because he knows what corruption is possible (and permissible). Fonda’s character has some of the same insights, though he is slow to react and it is very sensible on the part of Vidal to make us wonder whether we should support him despite our misgivings — a timeless question.

Z (1969)

France

4.5*
Director: 
Costa-Gavras
Screenwriters:
Jorge Semprún
Costa-Gavras
Director of Photography: 
Raoul Coutard
Running time: 127 minutes

It might be dialogue-heavy and overtly ideological in its unashamedly anti-establishment approach to historical events, but director Costa-Gavras’s Z is passionate, personal, and pushes the envelope the way very few films dare to. Based on events in the director’s native Greece  in the early 1960s, where freedom of expression was threatened, and democracy ultimately supplanted by dictatorship, the film is a direct depiction of the assassination of a Greek political figure in 1963 and the subsequent investigation that shook the government. The title, which stands for “ZEI”, meaning “He lives”, refers to the Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated under circumstances almost identical to those shown in this film.

The opening credits make clear that the film is not in the business of subtle allegories: “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons dead or alive, is no coincidence — it is deliberate.” One doesn’t have to dig very deep to notice the parallels between the historic events in Greece in 1963 and the blood-curdling hunger for control and suppression of a pacifist opposition that Costa-Gavras puts up on the screen.

Yves Montand appears as the anonymous “Doctor”, probably a reference to Lambrakis’s profession as a physician, a calm but determined man who is set to deliver a major speech against the bomb – he obviously has some influence in the public sphere, because the government puts every possible obstacle in his way to ensure that the venue for his speech can accommodate as few people as possible. He has a small group of very loyal supporters around him, including Manuel (Charles Denner) and Georges (Jean Bouise).

Though the film is set in an unnamed city where all the characters speak French, the Greek music on the soundtrack, by left-wing exile Mikis Theodorakis, leaves no doubt about the film’s real-world underpinnings. Costa-Gavras also cast the famous Irene Papas as the Doctor’s wife – a casting decision that has theoretical soundness but since she is barely given any dialogue, her performance becomes a bit schmaltzy and seems out of place given the aggressive nature of the story.

The two characters at the centre of physical violence in the film are named Vago and Yago, and the former is portrayed as a real creepy fellow with suggestions of homosexual paedophilia. At the same time, the police force is not only heavily anti-communist (though they have no objection to anybody attending the Bolshoï ballet), but anti-semite and anti-Chinese. The man at the top is the Chief of Police (Pierre Dux), whose disgust for the peaceful opposition protesters is equalled by the violence with which he attempts to suppress them. Comparing their “ideological illness” to mildew, he states in the opening scene that the “treatment of men with appropriate solutions is indispensable”, and thereby pre-emptively washes his hands of all wrongdoing.

The person tasked with establishing the truth is the inquest judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who learns both sides of the story and needs to weigh his own sense of justice against the possibility of prosecuting persons at the highest levels of government. Working separately but with the same goal of finding the truth is the photojournalist played by a very youthful Jacques Perrin (here he reminded me of Diego Luna).

This highly ideological film is certainly much more willing to take sides than a film such as Oliver Stone’s JFK (about another assassination in 1963), and yet it easily ropes us in to the political malevolence and sinister conspiracy taking place in a foreign country. Director of Photography Raoul Coutard, known for his work with a filmmaker who would like to see himself as politically savvy yet producing films of cerebral rather than entertainment value, Jean-Luc Godard, records the events with a sense of intimacy that produces images both informative and deliciously suggestive. Two significant examples are the arrival of Papas at the hospital, when past and present alternate in fragments (the result of a certain kind of jump cuts called “faux raccords”), making her own confusion very visible and teasing us with moments from her life with Montand, and  the final sequence of close-ups on uniform medals and ribbons that build to a very satisfying conclusion.

It is refreshing to see a director who goes big, both ideologically and cinematically, and Costa-Gavras succeeds in capturing our attention on both counts. Z is a spectacular film that provides a window on events in Europe in the 1960s (don’t forget that the film was made around the time the student riots shook Paris in May 1968) and reminds us, as did Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, that authoritarian regimes find imagination suspect, for it signals a lack of control on their part.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

France

4*
Director: Agnès Varda
Screenwriter: Agnès Varda
Directors of Photography:
 Jean Rabier,
 Alain Levent
Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Cléo de 5 à 7

A morbid sense of impending doom hangs over this seemingly lighthearted frolic in the Parisian sunshine. Cléo is a young woman who is expecting the results of a medical examination, which a fortune-teller leads her to believe might be catastrophic and certainly involves the prospect of death. We follow her as she passes the time buying a hat, driving in a taxi, meeting friends and trying to relax in the Parc de Montsouris.

Cléo from 5 to 7 takes place in real-time, though director Agnès Varda crams much more into her 90 minutes (the film is really Cléo from 5 to 6.30, but the title wouldn’t have had the same zap) than is actually possible, but never mind – the effect of watching everything unfold in apparent real-time is exhilarating. The audience shares the ups and downs of the main character, Florence Victoire, nicknamed Cléo – for Cleopatra – by her friends, though admittedly her melodramatic nature (a point made over and over again) does make her appear wholly unstable at times.

Varda as a director is very active in this film, which seems deceptively improvised, but contains many moments that visibly enrich the thematic texture of the film. Starting with the tarot card of death in the opening scene, the only part of the film that is in colour, Cléo from 5 to 7 has a whole array of very brief shots – either from Cléo’s point of view, or from the camera’s point of view, though the camera often identifies with the main character and we get many looks on the street directed at the camera. Besides a broken mirror and a scene at the aftermath of a gun shot, we also see funeral homes, a café called “Bonne Santé” (Good Health), a street performer piercing his biceps in a scene of real body horror, and we hear a radio report of Edith Piaf’s latest operation. Another very well-crafted moment occurs in the darkness of a tunnel, when Cléo tells her friend Dorothée that she might be seriously ill.

At the time of the film’s release, the spectre of colonial war, the conflict in Algeria, was pervasive, but also serves an important function in this film – a function that only becomes clear towards the end of the story, in the calm setting of the 14th arrondissement’s Parc de Montsouris.

While Cléo from 5 to 7 was not Varda’s first feature-length fiction film (her 1955 film, la Pointe courte, had already established her as a force to be reckoned with, or rather one to be inspired by, and anticipated the revitalisation of the French film industry at the end of the 1950s that would be called the Nouvelle Vague), it has the same kind of playful humanity that made Godard’s À Bout de souffle such a charm, and the play with form is best appreciated in a short silent film which the boyfriend of Cléo’s friend Dorothée, a projectionist at a cinema, screens for them. The film shows two different kinds of realities, one seen through darkness (or sunglasses), the other without them, and perhaps the only other silent-film-within-a-film that I have seen which has amused me as much was Almodóvar’s Shrinking Man in Talk to Her.

The film constantly reminds the viewer how much time has passed, and how much time is left, by means of text on the screen that informs us of the current time as well as the main protagonist for the next part. A little tongue-in-cheek, the different “chapters” go up to number 13, clearly linking with the numerous mentions of superstition throughout the film; it is an unexpectedly beautiful and emotional moment when we realise who the protagonist(s) of the final chapter are.

Cléo from 5 to 7 has a ditzy central character who is waiting for some news that might change her life, or maybe her life will be changed in the process of waiting. The film is simple and consists of small conversations from daily life that do not seem staged for the benefit of a fiction film, but rather evoke a certain feeling of humanity that is so important in a film that wants both the dread and the sunshine.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

USA

4*
Director:
John Frankenheimer
Screenwriter:
George Axelrod
Director of Photography:
Lionel Lindon

Running time: 126 minutes

The Manchurian Candidate leaves the viewer with a lasting impression of conspiracy and treason at the highest levels of government, and is filled with magnificent set pieces, from the brilliantly staged nightmare sequences that frighten us because horrific acts are perpetrated with poker-face serenity and a willingness to carry out the orders given, to the film’s thrilling climax at a political party’s National Convention.

In light of the film’s premise, that evil forces are at work and will stop at nothing to infiltrate the government and take over the country on a wave of anti-communist nationalism, the film slowly picks up speed before charging towards its suspenseful resolution. These final moments are enormously rewarding, for despite having received confirmation of all the characters’ intentions and desires, we are still left with lingering doubts about the plot, which soon clear up once the tension reaches breaking point.

The film is about brainwashing and about communism; however, in a reversal of the usual approach, the former is treated very seriously while the latter is used for the sake of humour, though it has some darker implications. In 1952, a soldier and his platoon are captured in Korea, but on their arrival back in the United States, some time later, this soldier, Raymond Shaw, is awarded the Medal of Honor for having saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, who – each and every one of them – describe him as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

Shaw is the stepson of Senator Joseph Iselin, a buffoon who is about to be re-elected, the campaign run by his devious, ambitious wife – Shaw’s mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury). Shaw clearly has some mother issues, but these will only come into focus in the second half of the film. For the time being, we are treated to Shaw’s former captain, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who struggles with the same hellish nightmare over and over every night, in which he sees the decorated Shaw forced to murder two soldiers of the platoon – the exact same soldiers who were supposed to have “died” in Korea.

It is revealed that Shaw has been brainwashed to respond to certain cues – phrases or images – that make him susceptible to suggestion, and these are directly linked to his relationship with his mother, a diabolical woman who will stop at nothing to quench her lust for power and her unspoken lust for her own son. In case you were wondering: yes, Freud is mentioned explicitly, though not within the context of Raymond and Eleanor. In flashback, Raymond’s first love, Jocelyn, mentions Freud when she tells him of her father’s fear of snakes.

The film does have its handful of flaws, most important of which is the development of Janet Leigh’s character, Eugenie, who meets a tired Marco on the train, speaks to him in what seems like coded language, and proceeds to fall head over heels in love with him. Perhaps this part of the story was included to counterbalance the tragic relationship of Raymond and Jocelyn, but Eugenie brings very little to the plot and could have been ditched completely. The role of a Korean interpreter, Chunjin, who comes to America and takes a job as Raymond’s valet, is also left too vague, and by the end of the film we have no idea whether his intentions were pure or not.

As a cautionary tale, released around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War, shortly after the McCarthy years and one year before the assassination of JFK, the film was relevant to the point of being clairvoyant. It contains some unforgettable scenes, including a tense scene with the Star-Spangled Banner, though the music at other points in the film can be quite heavy-handed. The idea of a communist acting as a publicly anti-communist crusader is also still very relevant today, as can be seen in the American Congress, where quite a few closeted gay men are, in public, vehemently opposed to homosexuality. Today, watching Eleanor mention the kinds of emergency powers she intends to secure for her husband, saying that they would “make martial law seem like anarchy”, one immediately thinks of the Patriot Act, which just goes to show that politics change very little over time. It’s not entirely clear to what extent Senator Iselin is aware of his wife’s grand design, but the fact that he dresses up as Abraham Lincoln during a dinner party (and is reflected in a portrait of the president in another scene) provides interesting clues to his awareness of what everything is leading up to.

Frankenheimer, who would go on to direct another political thriller, Seven Days in May, slowly reveals the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and in the end we do get the whole picture, but some pieces seem to belong to a different puzzle.

Seven Days in May (1964)

USA
3.5*

Director:
John Frankenheimer
Screenwriter: 
Rod Serling
Director of Photography:
Ellsworth Fredericks

Running time: 118 minutes

John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May is a slow cooker, and even though it doesn’t punch you as hard as some other political films, most notably Frankenheimer’s own The Manchurian Candidate, released two years earlier, it is as eerily relevant today as it was during the Cold War.

It’s early May in Washington, D.C., and the temperature is rising fast. Outside the White House, protesters are lamenting the president’s decision to sign a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, which, they say, would put the United States at a disadvantage, and demonstrates the naiveté of their commander-in-chief, President Jordan Lyman. On their side is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a four-star general named James Mattoon Scott, who has nothing but contempt for the treaty and the Russian communists it seems to appease.

The story centres on the administration’s concerns with Scott and his secretive dealings at the highest levels of the government, including the construction of a secret base near El Paso. Thanks to a number of fortunate slips of the tongue in the company of one of Scott’s subordinates, General Casey, known simply as “Jiggs”, a plan to overthrow the government slowly comes to light, and it is the administration’s task to contain the imminent threat to their national security.

Two questions surface: How does one go about containing this threat, when this act of sedition (by one of the most public, vocally patriotic individuals in the government, no less) is almost unthinkable? And does General Scott, despite his plans being labelled as treason, actually have a point when he stands up to defend his country against what he deems to be enemies both foreign and domestic?

The first question is obviously the narrative thread of the film, while the second question relates to the film’s relevance to politics today. Does patriotism (or nationalism) ever trump democracy and its institutions? The populism of General Scott is made clear during an address to a stadium packed with like-minded individuals furious at the president’s insistence on peace with communist Russia. Scott declares that patriotism, loyalty and sentiment define the USA, but he fails to recognise the importance of the institution of democracy. He has a Messiah complex and pretends to speak for “the people”, but his judgement is clouded by arrogance and a refusal to compromise or to discuss. Referring to the era of uncertainty brought about by the Cold War, Lyman makes the following statement:

And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white and blue. Every now and then, a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott. 

Parallels with current politicians and presidential candidates are self-evident, although they make a point of using the Constitution to protect themselves, even though, more often than not, they confuse the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

The film has many highlights, including our first view of General Scott – in close-up, from behind, so we can’t see his face during a committee hearing. When Jiggs watches television, to see General Scott speak in front of the big crowd, the tension built up by the crowd’s euphoric reaction (they keep chanting “We want Scott!”) is also very well depicted by means of quick-fire editing, both inside the frame on the television set, and between these images and Jiggs’s face. There are also two excellent scenes inside the White House: In the first, Jiggs tells the president of his suspicions; in another, the showdown between the president and General Scott, the atmosphere is electric.

But the film also has its faults. Boom and camera shadows are visible, some scenes seem a bit too contrived (the scenes at El Paso, both in the restaurant and at the base, and the extraordinary timing of a key piece of evidence in the final scene), and the film ends with a speech every bit as cheesy as President Thomas Whitmore’s victory speech in Independence Day.

The film was ahead of its time with its use of videophones (giving an accurate impression that the film was set a few years into the future), and it has some wonderful moments of sharp dialogue. The use of actor Martin Balsam, who had appeared as detective Arbogast in Hitchcock’s Psycho a few years earlier, is also very clever, and when he picks up the phone after a significant encounter, we know that he won’t make it back in one piece.

Seven Days in May is a serious look at the potential for betrayal in government ranks and is worth a look. Though it doesn’t have the dramatic power of The Manchurian Candidate nor the power of drama disguised as comedy, as in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the film provides an insightful glimpse of the fear that the Cold War not only had dire international, but also intranational, implications. And these fears have not disappeared with the fall of the Iron Curtain, for populism and the likelihood of a man or woman “on a white horse” are even more frightening as the years pass.