Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

The first (i.e. the fourth) Star Wars changed the space film forever, and while it makes a few missteps, the strides it took have enriched mass entertainment to an incalculable degree. 

Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
Gilbert Taylor

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
– The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

This is where it all started: in the middle. In 1977, George Lucas, who had turned 33 just a few days earlier, released his third feature film, the first part of what would become a trilogy, and ultimately the first trilogy of three. It featured three main characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – and would become not just a cult science-fiction but also an incredibly popular film overnight, racking up more than $300 million at the time. For a film made for just $11 million (around $46 million in 2017), that is quite an achievement.

Star Wars has gained a major following over the years, even though its status as a foundational piece of blockbuster entertainment was slightly tarnished by the “origin trilogy” (the so-called prequels: Episodes I, II and III) released 1999–2005. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (originally released as “Star Wars“), the cornerstone of the series, the story starts in medias res, and there are frequent reminders of events the viewers of 1977 had no knowledge of. Mentions of the Clone Wars or dramatic irony would only be revealed with the release of the prequels many decades later. Thus, while the film slots well into the overarching story, it can also be rather frustrating for the uninitiated.

But that is quite beside the point. Those unfamiliar with the back story might be slightly misled, but the result is slight mystery instead of confusion, and the effect is a desire to know more. By contrast, Star Wars fans who have seen the earlier episodes will be up to date on the details of the Empire, but the mystery will turn into an appreciation of why certain kinds of information are being misrepresented or withheld. And the experience is at times incredibly moving.

Such is the case with Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom we get to know here as “Uncle Ben”, a solitary individual who has lived for decades deep inside the rocky region on Tatooine called the Jundland Wastes. At the beginning of Episode IV, the small but chirpy R2D2 unit is given a hologram message by Princess Leia of Alderaan to deliver to Obi-Wan. Thus, this droid, along with its gold-plated humanoid robot companion C3PO, arrives on Tatooine, where it is promptly abducted by the tiny cloak-wearing Jawas and sold to the Lars family, to whom Obi-Wan had delivered Luke as a baby.

Luke’s family is his uncle and aunt, and whenever his father comes up in a conversation, usually very obliquely, Luke is all ears, but there is no mention of him beyond his death. Thanks to earlier episodes, we know something the character does not, which is very effective in setting up expectations and creating tension. Viewers of the film back in 1977 did not share this knowledge, and thus the revelation of Luke’s heritage in Episode V would come as a complete surprise. At last, watching this film in the correct chronology (after the earlier episodes), we immediately understand why Obi-Wan responds with such a chilling silence when Luke tells him: “I wanna learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”

Episode IV reveals what an important role the droids, R2D2 and C3PO, play in Luke’s evolution. An orphan raised on an isolated farm somewhere on the dusty planet of Tatooine, he appears to be stuck in a rut until the family needs a new droid. When he and his uncle go shopping, they buy C3PO, but instead of his trusted companion, they opt for R5D4, a red-coloured droid. Fortunately, this R5 unit malfunctions (the film doesn’t show this, but there is widespread suspicion, based on subsequent novelisations and radio performances, that R2 sabotaged the droid on purpose), and R2 ends up in the hands of the Larses.

Arguably, without R2D2, Luke would not have seen the hologram destined for Obi-Wan, in which Leia begs the old Jedi master for help and requests that he go to Alderaan to deliver the plans hidden inside the droid. Taking a fancy to Leia, hearing about the Force from Obi-Wan, receiving his father’s lightsaber and losing his adopted family, he decides to set off for Alderaan. In no small measure, all of this is thanks to R2D2.

But to get there, they need a spaceship and someone desperate enough for money to steer it. They manage to persuade Han Solo, a full-time smuggler (emphasis on the “smug”), who brings along his giant hairy companion, Chewbacca. While Han Solo’s gift of the gab ensures a constant volley of good-natured insults that he lobs with both charm and admirable dexterity, he should not be underestimated. Inside the Mos Eisley cantina, shortly after Han strikes a deal with Obi-Wan, he is confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter who has come to collect him dead or alive. Han shoots Greedo point-blank without blinking.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that, in the version released in 1977, Han Solo shot first. It is clear as day. Greedo was fighting with nothing but his rhetoric. But George Lucas, who loves to tinker with his own work, creating a new director’s cut as technology allegedly catches up with his vision, had Greedo shoot first (with a gun that appears out of nowhere) in the 20th-anniversary re-release in 1997. In yet another release, the two seem to shoot simultaneously, but Greedo misses. Whether this is of any consequence is a good question, although Lucas seems to think it does. Then again, Lucas has changed or added so many (often extraneous) details that we should honestly ask whether his vision will ever be complete, and whether his vision even matters. Probably not. But this was obviously not a question of technology catching up; this is just blatant re-directing.

What everyone remembers about Han Solo is not his indifference to killing people but his pointed quips, which, whether delivered to an enemy, a friend or a potential love interest (he keeps referring to Leia with variations of “Your Worship”), never cease to entertain us.

Lucas’s streak of comedy here is much stronger than his subsequent, fatally cringeworthy attempts in the origin trilogy, and the only reason is Harrison Ford’s comedic timing. Leia’s unflappable demeanour goes a long way towards establishing her stability amid the adrenaline, the hormones and, frankly, the emotions of the men around her.  

But the director, here as in most of the other episodes he helmed, with the possible exception of Episode III, is hopelessly inept at staging action scenes. Blaster bolts usually shoot into all directions, no matter how much training the one behind the trigger has, and the shootouts aboard the mammoth Death Star space station are particularly slipshod when the images recede behind a blur of seemingly random streaks of red plasma.

In other respects, however, the film’s undeniable visual effects accomplishments had arguably as much of an impact on the genre as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obi-Wan, in perhaps the most understated but most important line in the franchise, tells Luke, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.” In a way, all viewers of Star Wars were uninformed and weak-minded before they laid their eyes on this raucous space opera. But Lucas fixed that, and this single episode would continue to make ripples decades down the line.

American Graffiti (1973)

American GraffitiUSA

5*
Director:
George Lucas
Screenwriters:
George Lucas

Gloria Katz
Willard Huyck
Directors of Photography:
Ron Eveslage
Jan D’Alquen

Running time: 112 minutes

What a difference a night makes. The entertainment value of George Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti, does not depend on special effects or easy laughs from pratfalls or whatever childish behaviour we have come to behave from film teenagers. The action takes place over the course of a single night, from sunset to sunrise, when everyone’s lives will inevitably change forever as some of the individuals go off to college while others stay behind to either stagnate or begin their lives as adults.

It doesn’t matter that this film was made many decades ago, at the beginning of the 1970s, and took as its central characters a group of friends in 1962, the seriousness of their decisions is timeless and still relevant to viewers in the present day.

Set in California in the last year of innocence in the United States, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the soundtrack to the lives of the handful of friends we follow is a compilation of music from the 1950s and the early 1960s so lively that the only viewers who don’t feel like dancing along are those who don’t have a pulse. The music is not just extra-diegetic but also produced in the world of the film itself, be it on the radio or by a band at the high-school dance.

At the brightly illuminated Mels (sic) drive-in, where cars pull up to order meals that are delivered to their open windows by waitresses on roller-skates, four friends barely out of high school gather to spend their night together. Steve (Ron Howard) is waiting for his longtime girlfriend, Laurie, whom he will be separated from for months at a time once he is away at college. She is expecting him to ask her to marry him, but when he suggests, instead, that they see other people to test the strength of their relationship, she is understandably rattled and after giving him the cold shoulder, she gives him a proper tongue lashing (and not the kind he was expecting) at a dance. More on that dance later.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is conflicted over his imminent departure to the north-east for college. He has received a scholarship from a local diner, but he doesn’t know whether he is the kind of person who is “competitive” to survive the college environment. At the beginning of the film, a blond “goddess” drives past him and seems to mouth “I love you” in his direction, but he will spend the whole film looking for her, further rooting himself to the town and his hopes there. He also becomes involved in the activities of the local gang, the Pharaohs, and seems to have a hidden talent for criminality.

Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) is an awkward boy with glasses whose life is made when Steve bequeaths his 1958  Chevy Impala to him for the night. This car gives him the self-confidence he never had, and he ends up with a platinum blonde girl named Debbie with whom he has adventures no one could have imagined when evening fell, or just how right he was when he predicted at the beginning of the film that “Tonight, things are gonna be different.”

And then there is John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the boy who never grew up, who drives his pimped-up car up (with license plate THX 138, the title of Lucas’ very different previous film) and down the streets to race anyone who dares challenge his superiority on the road. John, who is also looking forward to spending the night with a girl, ends up babysitting his potential prey’s teenage sister, and what this does to his character development and our empathy for him is truly stunning.

The writing as a whole is equally “boss,” and while the songs on the soundtrack — ranging from “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “The Great Pretender” to “Johnny B Goode,” “A Thousand Miles Away” and “Get a Job” — are as appropriate and relevant as they are full of rhythm, they never overwhelm nor amateurishly overemphasize the scenes they accompany.

One of the highlights of the film sneaks up on us totally unexpectedly. A rare crane shot swoops down on a parked car, where Steve and Laurie are discussing their relationship while Five Satins’ “To the Aisle” softly plays on the soundtrack. Their short conversation is followed by Steve’s pathetic attempt at seduction that borders on assault, before he is thrown from the car. Laurie, far from being hysterical or made a victim, is in the driver’s seat.

This follows an earlier altercation between the couple, once again perfectly captured by Lucas, who uses an unbroken take of some 92 seconds that comprises a backward tracking shot and a nearly 360-degree pan as the camera focuses in close-up on Steve and Laurie dancing while she makes it clear she knows his secrets and has made her peace with them.

In terms of the strength of the screenplay, one need look no farther than the opening sequence, in which the dashing of Laurie’s expectations to get married is followed by Steve giving Terry the keys to his car, and Terry promising to “love and protect this car till death do us part.” But it is the combination of the dialogue, the soundtrack and the acting that make the film so compelling and ensure all the stories continue to grab us, even as four different trajectories are woven through the night. Perhaps it is because the camera doesn’t look down on its characters: Even when they sit on the curb or slide underneath a car, the camera goes where they go.

Whether it is credible for the whole town to seemingly keep driving up and down and around throughout the night is a little beside the point, as the experience is so thoroughly immersive we follow the characters wherever they choose to go, even if they wander without much of a goal except to have fun.

This is what a coming-of-age film is supposed to look and feel like. Never treating the children like infants, never abusing the expected anguish over the transitional nature of things but highlighting the beauty of experiences when we (and they) know these may never be repeated again. American Graffiti remains the most enjoyable, heartfelt film George Lucas ever directed and one of the best films about the bittersweet end of childhood.

Orders (1974)

Les OrdresCanada
4*

Director:
Michel Brault
Screenwriter:
Michel Brault
Director of Photography:
François Protat
Michel Brault

Running time: 107 minutes

Original title: Les Ordres
Alternative English title: Orderers

It was almost as if the Canadian government had too much space in its prisons, so it rounded up people at random on a large scale to incarcerate, isolate and torture. The experience, as presented in the film, is wholly Kafkaesque: Locked in their cells and interrogated about places they’ve never been to and people they’ve never met, they are never charged or even told what they are suspected of. And yet, it is all based on events that really took place in Canada towards the end of 1970.

The “orders” in the title refer to the justification for this chaos and trampling on fundamental human rights. Though the prison guards treat their new inmates the same way they presumably treat everyone else locked up in prison, nobody can say what the reason for this treatment is, but it must be for a good reason, because the orders come from high up in government.

The actual reason, which director Michel Brault only hints at during a summary at the beginning of the film, is that two political figures were kidnapped by the Quebec Liberation Front, the FLQ. Though never named here, they were British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Province’s Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte. The government deployed the War Measures Act that led to a wave of arrests, but in the end nobody was charged and those arrested were released.

Orders follows five individuals who were arrested by the police, without apparent reason, during this time, and the film is based on some 50 interviews conducted with those who lived through this ordeal. They are Clermont Boudreau, a union representative who works at a weaving mill; Marie Boudreau, a housewife, who is Clermont’s wife; Jean-Marie Beauchemin, a doctor in charge of a community health clinic; Richard Lavoie, who is unemployed and taking care of his young son; and Claudette Dusseault, a social worker.

The most interesting characters are the Boudreau couple and Richard Lavoie, who loses his beard when he is taken to prison in a scene that is devoid of sentiment but provokes great emotion in the viewer, especially as Lavoie is shaved against his will next to another man, who loses his very thick beard, too. The feeling of despair is palpable, and we don’t need the characters to put their objections into words.

Brault, who had a background in documentary filmmaking, here goes about blurring the lines between fiction and fact in a very clever way. When each of these five characters is introduced, they also appear in interview form: The actors introduce themselves, say whom they portray, and then immediately slip back into their role to explain what their characters do, but they do so in the first person. In this way, there is no alienation, but rather an undeniable symbiosis between the real actors and their fictional characters embroiled in historically factual events.

It is interesting to note that when Richard Lavoie is asked for his date of birth, he provides the date of birth of the actor who portrays him, Claude Gauthier.

The film has a political slant, to combat not just the injustice of the situation but also the hypocrisy of the government and the silence of a large swath of the country that didn’t resist the government’s grab for power and suppression of its own people.

The very first words the film shows us are those of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, made more than a decade before the events for which he would be responsible:

Whenever any form of authority unjustly abuses a man,
all the other men are also guilty;
for it is through their silence and consent
that they permit the authorities to commit this abuse.

These words ominously, correctly anticipate the stunning silence from the Canadian public in general when the arrests took place. At the end of the film, we learn that, while the media reported on the arrests, there was little reporting when the individuals were eventually released — some after three weeks of incarceration — without ever being charged with any crime.

Orders is mostly in black and white, although the scenes inside the prison, depicting a world away from the everyday, are presented in colour. It is unclear whether this was meant to give a documentary quality to life outside the prison whereas the incarceration is presented as something almost unbelievable, but what is certain is that the prison scenes have more artistic freedom than the scenes outside (with the exception of a final crane shot, at odds with the rest of the film).

In particular, there is a shot similar to the famous scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle is rejected by a girl over the phone and the camera tracks away rather than show us his heartache. Here, we see Clément Boudreau, who had been on a hunger strike because he received only “pig swill”, or cold porridge, day in and day out, finally getting some crisps and a can of Coke. He breaks down in tears as the camera pulls back to leave him his privacy. It is a breathtakingly powerful scene that respects the character and emphasises the pain he is going through in a visually striking way. A slightly more “filmic” representation of the material involves the fainting of Lavoie, shot as a slow-motion fade-out.

The film gives an intimate portrait of some of the individuals who were affected by the Canadian government’s acts during 1970’s October Crisis, and while many may criticise the film for not naming names, the focus on the people themselves shows that Brault was interested in the effect of the events on people, rather than looking for answers about their origins.

Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird (1970)

Georgia

3*
Director: 
Otar Iosseliani
Screenwriters: 
Dimitri Eristavi, Otar Iosseliani, 
Sh. Kakichashvili, Semyon Lungin,
Otar Mekhrishvili, Ilya Nusinov
Director of Photography: 
Avtandil Maisuradze
Running time: 78 minutes

Original title:
იყო შაშვი მგალობელი

Transliterated title: 
Iko shashvi mgalobeli

It’s not an objection critics often have, but in this case it is absolutely valid: Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird is a nice enough film, but could have been a truly engaging film had it only been about 30 minutes longer. At 78 minutes, the film tells a small story of about 36 hours in the life of young orchestra percussionist Guia Agladze (Gela Kandelaki), whose charm might or might not be illusionary, but it skips between so many different parts of the story that no firm connection with anyone else is ever established, except his mother with whom he shares an apartment.

The film has an energetic opening, where the main thrust of the plot is also quickly set up and Guia’s character is sharply drawn as one who likes to take chances and usually gets away with being so flippant about serious matters. This is, of course, something that will come back in the final scene. Rushing up the grand staircase of a theatre in Tbilisi with a girl, Guia leaves her behind and worms his way through backstage corridors while putting on his jacket en doing his wait and finally reaches the door that leads onto the stage, where the number performed by a large orchestra is reaching its climax. He sits down in an empty seat, some of the musicians knowingly snicker at him and his antics, and then he takes on an air of seriousness, picks up his beaters and beats the kettle drum in front of him at exactly the right moment.

Guia quickly gets rid of the girl, as we assume he done so often before, and decides to try to find a place for him and his friends to drink. He fails to make up to another girl who has a big place but who hasn’t forgiven him yet for some past indiscretion and he ends up going to bed alone, the very intrusive sounds of planes, trains and automobiles outside his window.

He seems to be a composer, but having drawn the clef on the left of the sheet, he quickly loses interest and decides to go looking for fund outside, where he either notices girls he fancies, or meets girls he has been with in the past. The crisp black and white images certainly contribute to the impression one has the film is taking place in the 1950s rather than the 1970s, but the very happy-go-lucky attitude of the central character also harkens back to characters such as Fellini’s I vitelloni.

Two incidents are important and keep us interested: The first is Guia’s constant tardiness and our fear he might once be too late and cause total chaos. The other is the appointment between him and the theatre director that keeps getting pushed back but which ought to be, by all accounts, a very important meeting and should provide the film with some fireworks.

But we get no fireworks, except for one very funny but out-of-place scene in which the camera cuts wildly from an apartment whose tenants are fighting and one guy is pushed, his back hits the railing and sends a pot plant flying off the balcony, to the street where Guia narrowly misses the plant that comes crashing down to earth. In general, director Iosseliani’s camera thinks of itself as having omnipresent powers and easily cuts between walls and even between floors, creating shots with unknown characters that also result in a complete lack of anticipation, since the viewer always knows what is coming.

Again, the lone exception is the final scene, but although it is visually well-presented, it does not make up for the very loose, jumpy character of the rest of the film, in which characters come and go and we have no way of figuring out Guia’s connection to most of them. Guia shows absolutely no character development and while the film is short enough to enjoy, despite some bad acting and rather inept use of the camera (in one scene, the camera pans and zooms in on faces as if testing out this new technology), there is far too little substance to the production.

To Forget Venice (1979)

Italy

4*
Director: Franco Brusati
Screenwriters:
Franco Brusati
Jaja Fiastri
Director of Photography:
Romano Albani

Running time: 101 minutes

Original title: Dimenticare Venezia

Quite extraordinary. Here is a film that reminded me of Bergman’s playful After the Rehearsal in its treatment of memories – nonchalantly inserting them into the physical fabric of the present – and yet it had the lush sexual undertones of a provocative Fellini. It deals primarily with the passing of time, and yet this is no cause for anguish but rather a reason to reaffirm the happiness that life can provide. In typical Italian style, the film is warm and very human despite some melancholic themes, and deals frankly with issues relevant to all of us.

The film starts with an opening credits sequence that at first seems wondrous and radiating childlike energy, as groups of children play in a forest with barely an adult in sight, while opera music bellows on the soundtrack, transporting us to a place of rapturous enchantment. One of the only adults around is Claudia, a girl in her late twenties, and toward the end of the sequence, she notices a young man and woman having sex in the distance. She sneaks a peek, but makes sure the children don’t see the couple, and moves on.

One very short but infinitely clever moment is staged by director Franco Brusati: Three small girls sit at the base of a tree trunk lifting up their skirts ever so slightly. In front of each of them, going downhill, a shallow furrow has been dug out. When all is clear, and the signal has been given, the girls let loose to have their urine race against each other and make it to the end of the furrow in first place. It is a moment of sublime beauty and minimalism that will be visually referenced later in the film at a point that offers a stark contrast to the feel-good ambience of this youthful scene.

At a farmhouse in the Italian countryside, the middle-aged Anna (Mariangela Melato) is living with her partner, the young Claudia, and Anna’s late uncle’s widow, the aging opera singer Marta (Hella Petri). Marta is planning a trip with her family to Venice, and has invited her brother, Nicky (Erland Josephson), and his very handsome young boyfriend Picchio, along for a small family reunion.

Nicky and Marta have not seen each other in a long time, and Nicky’s arrival back home brings all sorts of beautiful memories, of his own sexual awakening and of the joy he saw on his sister’s face during childhood. One of these flashbacks depicts a birthday party (set to the sound of an Italian lullaby, Ambarabà ciccì coccò) that is straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film and is the highlight of the film, both blissful and soulful in its representation of a memory that underscores one of the film’s constant threads: the ineluctability of the passage of time.

But heavy as this theme is – and its effects are very visible, if not devastating, from a chance meeting with the much-older version of a young Rosino, who had once shared pornography with the young Nicky, to the brutal cut from a young birthday face to the same face at the gates of death – it is modulated by the theme of love that is subtly underscored by the different relationships, all of them gentle and understanding, and only once made explicit, in Marta’s impromptu performance of “L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s opera Carmen during a lunch excursion in the forest.

Everyone is convinced times stands still for them, and they have such illusions because their memories haven’t faded, but once they are confronted with the visible effects of time, as Nicky is during his meeting with the old Rosino, can serve to thoroughly disabuse them of such ideas. In a late-night conversation with the gorgeous Picchio, during which Brusati shoots and lights him so as to cut a very angelic figure, strongly lit from above, Anna makes the same mistake of saying “Everything around us changes, grows, matures, dies, but we don’t.” She is wrong, but she still has a long way to go before such a realisation will dawn on her.

An unabashedly joyful celebration of life, To Forget Venice is nostalgic without being sentimental. The significance of time, and the healing power of the passage of time, is very quietly implied, but the film’s characters seem aware of it only obliquely. Nicky has come to be comfortable with himself, though he has lost his quirky boyhood looks, while Picchio is still beautiful but has not really become truly comfortable in his skin, or in his relationship with others. In one scene, before the very old maid Caterina enters his and Nicky’s room, he pushes the two beds apart “for Caterina’s sake”, while Nicky just looks at him, amused at the young man’s fear of being found out. It is a pity the director did not have the same level of comfort in presenting these relationships to us and there is barely any physical contact between the couples.

It is a pity this film is not more accessible (at this writing it is not available on DVD and even a VHS copy is near impossible to track down), but Erland Josephson’s presence, as in Bergman’s and Tarkovsky’s work, is a dependable sign the filmmaker chose to examine the finer parts of human existence with an eye and a paintbrush that few others possess. That filmmaker is Franco Brusati and with To Forget Venice he has created a very important film that deserves to be seen.

Stalker (1979)

USSR

4*
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenwriters:
Arkadi Strugatsky,
Boris Strugatsky
Director of Photography:
Alexander Knyazhinsky

Running time: 163 minutes

Original title: Сталкер

Andrei Tarkovsky has a reputation for making films that are slow. This reputation is not entirely warranted, except for that eternal take inside the empty swimming pool in Nostalghia. His films usually have an average shot length no longer than 60 or 70 seconds, and his debut, Ivan’s Childhood gallops along at a refreshing pace. Now, compare that number to the films of someone like Béla Tarr, and you’ll see what “slow cinema” really means. Stalker is the second Tarkovsky film that I’ve watched in a week – the other being Solaris – and what struck me at the beginning of Solaris, and all the way through Stalker, was the amount of monologues and dialogue in both. These minutes of speech, though necessary to sketch the characters in real-world terms, constitute my major gripe against both; however, they remain my favourite films from this extraordinary director.

Stalker is an incredibly simple story set in a film that constantly generates different perspectives on the theme of religion, and Christianity in particular. The “Stalker” is a man who guides anybody with enough money to a house deep within the forbidden area called “The Zone”, where it is alleged that their innermost wish will come true. In this story, the Stalker leads two anonymous men – a Writer and a Scientist – to the “Room” that is their Jinn. However, the Stalker never sees anybody again after their encounter with the Room, and he has never tried it himself. All of this can be taken as a metaphor for Heaven, from which no one has ever returned but whose existence, according to those who believe the guide, in the form of a preacher, cannot be denied. But Tarkovsky’s film never pivots to any particular interpretation of events and remains wholly ambiguous from beginning to end. While the mystical nature of the Zone may just be hogwash, the events may easily be interpreted, by those who believe the words of the Stalker, as proof of the Zone’s sentience.

The Zone is one of the most beautiful areas ever conceived on film. The different shades of green, the water, the fog and the serenity of the silence make for an atmosphere that can only be described as heavenly. At the same time, however, the characters are mostly enclosed by frames – window frames, door frames, walls – and seem to be trapped even while they should feel completely liberated. One very impressive use of this technique occurs during a scene where the characters wait in a room where a telephone suddenly starts to ring – a moment that startles because the landscape around the building is littered with broken telephone poles and power lines. Tarkovsky, by means of sound and image, suggests a boundless complexity in his characters; however, as I mentioned above, it is unfortunate that a few very long speeches contribute to this complexity, but even so, they are relatively effective.

There are a few obvious religious references, such as the narrated Biblical story of Jesus’ meeting with two men shortly after his death without being recognised by either of them. It is the voice of the Stalker that relates the story to us, but the story is changed slightly: the men don’t have names either. The choir’s rendition of “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony also ends the film on a beautifully spiritual note.

While the film deals with hope, desire, dreams and religion, it has been composed in a way that eludes definitive interpretation, but is easily accessible and while a few scenes do drag on a bit, in particular the climactic scene at the Room, as well as another silly scene in a room full of small sand dunes, the film overall is an absolute joy. The film’s cinematography is pitch perfect and the entire film is on the level of some of the other very moving moments of beauty in Tarkovsky’s films, such as the frozen lake in Solaris and the final shot of The Sacrifice.

Solaris (1972)

SolarisUSSR
4*

Director:
Andrei Tarkovsky

Screenwriters:
Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Andrei Tarkovsky
Director of Photography:
Vadim Yusov

Running time: 160 minutes

Original title: Солярис

The reality of the world in Tarkovsky’s Solaris seems to be as clear as daylight and yet as difficult to pin down as the reality of the three individuals on board the Solaris Space Station. Things seem to be straightforward (despite being a science-fiction film, there are no aliens here), but as characters’ memories start to physically materialise around them and we realise that no one can really trust the physical existence of anyone or anything around them, the world of the central character, Kris Kelvin, becomes very flimsy indeed, and many essential questions can never be answered.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, arguably one of his most accessible (together with Ivan’s Childhood and The Sacrifice), is based on the novel Solaris by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, which was published in 1961. People and their situations constantly shift in and out of focus, and while the central dilemma is quite easy to comprehend (Kelvin is confronted with the physical manifestation of his late wife), the questions resulting from this situation are profound and incredibly relevant today given mankind’s ability to (re)create images.

Kris Kelvin is a psychologist sent to the space station above the planet Solaris to investigate the situation there. Solaris itself is covered by a whirlpool of an ocean, and Kelvin soon discovers that the ocean is sentient. At the space station, a close friend, Gibarian, has committed suicide under strange circumstances, and the only crew members remaining are a Doctor Sartorius, who spends all day locked up in his laboratory, and Doctor Snout, who tries to warn Kelvin about the unexpected apparitions onboard.

These apparitions take the form of someone whose trace of a memory is found deep in the recesses of a crew member’s soul, and in the case of Kelvin, it is his late wife, Hari, who committed suicide 10 years ago. Kelvin is visibly affected by her appearance, even though he knows that she is not real. After he sends her out into space, a substitute appears. These substitutes are, of course, externally identical but always copies of the memory. As such (and this is an important point that is made much clearer in the 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh), Hari can never know anything that Kelvin does not.

Even though Kelvin knows that Hari is merely a copy, he interacts with her in a way that causes him joy instead of sadness. She does not remind him of a loss as much as her presence makes him happy, and therefore, ultimately, Solaris fails to succeed in torturing Kelvin.

The film opens at Kelvin’s house next to a lake, where clouds or fog are always visible in the background. The environment seems pure, and a lone horse passes through the frame now and again while Tarkovsky takes care to show us water flowing over lush green water plants. It seems to be nature at its most innocent, but the film slowly and surely subverts our preconceived notions until we are left with the realisation that things in the world of the film are never quite what they seem.

Solaris is long and contains a number of scenes that would have benefited from a number of cuts, including, most importantly, an early scene during which we watch a film extensively detailing a mission to Solaris. Another scene, which takes place in a library on board the space station, has some interesting components, including references to Don Quixote, a work of literature that also investigates a world where reality is no longer virginal.

Bach’s organ choral prelude (“Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”) is used in a striking way throughout the film, and the film’s final scene, when we are confronted with a frozen lake that brings to mind a painting by Bruegel (“The Hunters in the Snow”) shown in fragments earlier in the film, produces a moment of such beauty it nearly brought me to tears.

During a scene that immediately precedes Kelvin’s journey to the space station, viewers are obliged to immerse themselves in the flow of sound and image rather than story. It reminded me of sequences from Koyaanisqatsi and shows a car driving along the highways of Tokyo, at different speeds and in different colours, the sound changing as well to produce a sequence of indescribable energy that finally serves to propel the story itself forward, and Kelvin into space.

The film has a few scenes in black and white, but they are not entirely distinct from other scenes in colour, though sometimes they are flashbacks and sometimes they are not. However, our inability to easily distinguish flashback, dream and immediate reality from each other is of course part of the dilemma that the film poses to us and to Kelvin.

The examination of reality in a world where copies resemble the original to such a great extent is very pertinent and has recently been treated in many other films, from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I found the plot more interesting and more accessible than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though they are both enigmatic in their own ways and lend themselves to hours of interpretation.

The Wild Child (1970)

The Wild ChildFrance
4.5*

Director:
François Truffaut

Screenwriters:
François Truffaut
Jean Gruault
Director of Photography: 
Néstor Almendros

Running time: 87 minutes

Original title: l’Enfant sauvage

The Wild Child is one of François Truffaut’s best films, and the key to grasping its significance for Truffaut himself lies in the film’s opening dedication: “To Jean-Pierre Léaud”. Léaud was Truffaut’s alter ego in his feature film début, The 400 Blows, in which he starred as the 12-year-old Antoine Doinel. The character of Doinel in this film had much in common with the young Léaud, and Truffaut took the actor under his wing, eventually becoming a father figure to the troubled youth.

In The Wild Child, Truffaut stars as Jean Itard, a physician who is confident that he can make a cultured human being out of a young boy who has spent his entire childhood fending for himself in the woods. The story is based on a real case treated by Itard of a boy found in the French countryside in 1798.

This treatment may also be described as training, and it is this uncertainty about the exact nature of the procedure that makes the film so interesting, for, while Itard is not presented with very much complexity of character, he uses his experience with deaf-mute children to instruct the young boy, whom he names Victor. When Victor is discovered, he is dirty, seems to be deaf and employs the most basic of gestures to express himself since he never learned to use his mouth for anything besides eating and drinking.

It is impressive to watch Victor’s development, which Itard is in a rush to complete, but which naturally takes much longer than he anticipates. In the process, Itard is rightfully scolded by his housekeeper, Madame Guérin: “You want him to catch up in one fell swoop!” Also, since Victor has no experience with the ways of people, he acts out whenever he is frustrated by dropping to the ground, waving his arms and flailing his legs about in a way that reminds one of a seizure. If he encounters resistance from someone, he is also prone to sinking his teeth into an unsuspecting arm. Itard has many clever strategies to conduct his experiments and gain knowledge about Victor’s capacity for learning, but very often he seems to ignore the bridges between one stage and the next, for example, the difference between a picture of a book, the word “book” and the book itself, which Itard takes as something quite self-evident.

Truffaut is excellent as Itard, who shows a remarkable level of commitment, patience and humanity throughout, even when it is very difficult to judge what the wild-eyed boy wants from him. We can understand both of them, both their positions, and the reason for their frustration with each other is clear, because there is no easy way to bridge the communication gap that divides them. It is clear that Itard observes without taking as much trouble to learn Victor’s customs as Victor takes to learn his.

The film is a sequence of small incidents charting Itard’s progress with Victor and there are a few very moving moments that make our and Itard’s hearts beat fast with excitement at the possibility of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the film does not sufficiently address the nagging question of whether it is appropriate to try to integrate the child into society, nor does it even question the legitimacy of erasing the useful skills that Victor had acquired on his own in nature. These are important questions in the background that Truffaut could easily have touched on, but he aimed for a more inspirational film, albeit based on historical documents.

Almendros’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is perfectly suited to the story, as is Vivaldi’s “Mandolin Concerto”, which accompanies most major events in the plot. Truffaut engages our attention throughout, as actor and as director, but one scene that fails to convince takes place when the wild boy is captured at the beginning of the film. While dogs bark and growl on the soundtrack, the images we see are of the boy’s arm grasped very gently by a dog’s mouth, and if the sound were removed, it would appear that the two were just amicably horsing around.

Jean-Pierre Cargol, who stars as Victor, the titular Wild Child, never overplays his part and is a great attribute to the film. While almost never uttering a sound, Victor will find sympathy with most viewers because of our curiosity to see the development of a boy for whom most experiences are “firsts”, including the use of clothes, shoes, a spoon, a mirror and many others. He also displays many remarkably touching characteristics in a subtle way, such as his love for the countryside that is made clear when he goes to the window every time he takes a sip of water. The film is a touching tribute by Truffaut to the boy he wanted to teach about the world, and even if it was always just a work in progress, The Wild Child makes it all somehow seem worthwhile.

Days of Heaven (1978)

USA
4*

Director:
Terrence Malick

Screenwriter:
Terrence Malick

Directors of Photography:
Néstor Almendros
Haskell Wexler

Running time: 95 minutes

Terrence Malick is a big ol’ romantic; just consider Badlands and The New World. Days of Heaven is in the same vein, and its images are breathtaking. It stars Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, who pretend to be brother and sister, lest other people “start talking”, and go to work in the Texas Panhandle in 1916, where they sack the wheat on the farm of a bachelor roughly their age. The farmer is never given a name, but ironically, he is the best-drawn character of the three.

Days of Heaven starts with the music of Camille Saint-Saëns, the famous seventh movement (“Aquarium”) of his “Carnival of the Animals”, and the music sets the tone for the rest of the score, composed by the master, Ennio Morricone. Malick’s images are dreamlike in colour yet very clearly “of this world”, and his characters seem to float through existence even though we can easily project our own fears onto them. For once, I think the film’s images themselves surpass even the beauty of the film’s Criterion DVD cover (the poster image at the top).

The film was famously shot mostly at magic hour (that brief window of time after sunset and before darkness), and as a result the horizon is often bright orange, the sky is tinted purple-orange and the characters are bathed in hues of pink. Malick’s decision to shoot primarily (though, importantly, not exclusively) at this time of day inevitably led to some trouble, including errors in continuity, because shots would change from magic hour to full sunlight in a single scene. However, his directors of photography, Almendros and Wexler, knew how to cope with the demands of their director, and for the most part these changes in lighting are not very significant.

It is true that the film has less plot than some music videos, but honestly, one doesn’t really care. Malick is a visual storyteller, and he easily manages to fill an entire film with action set on a single farm. The majestic farmhouse, perched on a hill, which looks out over the whole property and is reminiscent of the famous farmhouse in George Stevens’s Giant, appears in many shots in the background, and sometimes the camera pans from the action in a pond or in the fields back to the house in the background.

Brooke Adams’s character, Abby, who looks like a young Ali MacGraw, catches the eye of the farmer, who asks her to stay on at the farm past the end of the season. Her boyfriend, Billy, had heard that the farmer is ill, and they decide to let Abby stay on so that they could inherit the farmer’s money when he dies. Of course, he doesn’t die as quickly as they’d like,  and this fact generates some frustration in Billy. But Abby is carefree and starts to fall in love with the farmer, played by Sam Shepard, who never looked more handsome and genuinely cares for her.

Days of Heaven plays as a kind of memory – an idea supported by the voice-over of Abby’s young sister, Linda, who also joins them at the farm. But for some reason the Linda on the soundtrack is the voice of the Linda as a young girl, which doesn’t make much sense. Also, the point of the view of the camera is always displaced from one character to another.

The inspiration for David Gordon Green‘s film, Undertow, is obvious, especially in the way both directors use dialogue in their respective films. In scenes with dialogue, Malick uses the age-old rule of starting a scene as late as possible and ending it as quickly as possible. These conversational moments are effective, although some scenes exist purely for the sake of producing one or two lines of important dialogue before we move on to the next poetic scene with wheat ears quivering under a gentle breeze.

Days of Heaven‘s finest moment, the attack of the locusts, may be compared to the buffalo hunt in Dances with Wolves, but it also has a very important symbolic role to play, as it comes at a critical point in the narrative, and Malick makes use of this moment to introduce his only vertically downward shot – a divine point of view that plays on the locusts’ significance in a biblical context as well.

But for all the beautiful imagery, the central story and in particular the characters of Abby and Billy needed to be fleshed out a bit more. Abby, in particular, seems to have no real attachment, and one doesn’t get a clear idea of her true interest. The film contains some interesting glances from smaller characters who are suspicious of the relationship between Abby and her “brother”, Billy, and these are well integrated into the flow of the story.

Terrence Malick’s film is enchanting and, despite any objections one might have about the story or the characters, he demonstrates that the cinema has a powerful ability to present even the simplest of stories in harmonious sounds and images that can be truly astounding.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

UK
4.5*

Director:
Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Ross
Director of Photography:
Jean Tournier

Running time: 145 minutes

Wiretaps, torture, terrorism… it seems like the OAS (“l’Organisation de l’armée secrète” or the Organisation of the Secret Army) was the 1960s version of al-Qaeda – at least, in the kind of behaviour they provoked in government and law enforcement officials. The OAS was a French nationalist group that resisted Algerian independence and was furious when General de Gaulle finally relented and granted the country its freedom in July 1962.

The Day of the Jackal, based on the book of the same name by Frederick Forsyth, stars Edward Fox as a killer for hire, codenamed “The Jackal”, who has been recruited by the OAS to assassinate de Gaulle. This part is fiction, but the story’s context is true to life, including the setup in August 1962 where de Gaulle’s motorcade comes under fire in an ambush staged by Jean Bastien-Thiry of the OAS. Bastien-Thiry is executed, in real life and on film; soon after, according to the fiction, the OAS started to hatch plans again to kill the general.

This is a quintessential thriller: It is all build-up to the climax. But the film gives us, the viewers, ample time to form our own questions about the events and to generate expectations: Will the Jackal be found out? Are we on his side or on the side of de Gaulle? Will the Jackal be successful (he himself says that de Gaulle has the best security service in the world), and will the film essentially rewrite history? Who is the Jackal really?

His main opponent is Claude Lebel, the very methodical deputy commissioner who is not used to the limelight and is often rather awkward in public, despite his formidable skills as a detective. Lebel is played to perfection by Michel Lonsdale.

The film is put together extremely well and has tantalising omissions all over the place, a result of fine editing, clever screenwriting and insightful direction. At a very early stage, we are made aware of certain papers that the Jackal has asked his specialist counterfeiter to produce, but it will only be at the end of the film that we realise precisely how well this professional killer has planned the assassination. That moment, when everything comes together, is not drawn out for the sake of the audience, because director Fred Zinnemann has made as many preparations as the Jackal himself, and we can easily keep up.

While the characters are English, French and Italian, they all speak perfect English, which was perhaps the most commercial option at that time (and would still be today), but the film never seems contrived, because the narrative itself keeps us interested and makes the events cohere into a very strong story line.

The film uses very little music, and it is surprising, and very refreshing, to have many important moments played out in almost complete silence, which creates anticipation for sound and yet allows us to focus more intently on the visuals, which will be the only source of meaning.

The climax intercuts documentary and staged material very well and demonstrates Zinnemann’s skill as a director for the big screen, especially when he puts on scenes of de Gaulle during the city-wide celebrations of Liberation Day on August 25.

The Day of the Jackal may have a slightly stilted performance by Edward Fox as the Jackal, and it contains a rather ludicrous video recording of OAS member Viktor Wolenski in which the “hidden camera” is sometimes right in his face, but the film exudes a thrill that is difficult to equal by any other film that contains so little real action.