The Arrival of a Train (1897)

The 50-second recording of a train’s arrival at La Ciotat Station was neither one of the first films ever made nor a reason for filmgoers to run in terror from the theatre.

train-ciotatFrance
5*

Directors:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Screenwriters:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Directors of Photography:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière

Running time: 50 seconds

Original title: l’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
Alternate title: l‘Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat

The Arrival of a Train, while so often credited with being “the first”, was actually anything but. It was not the first film to be recorded, nor the first to be shown, nor even the first “arriving train” film that its makers, the two fathers of the cinematic art form, ever produced. But for good reason it has become a symbol of the power of movement and verisimilitude that rapidly propelled this monochrome curiosity into the pantheon of art forms.

The story goes that this 50-second shot showing an oncoming train created such terror among the room full of cinematic neophytes that it sent them scattering for their lives. The incident allegedly took place in January 1896, that is in the weeks that followed the very first screening of brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first 10 “views”, each roughly 1 minute in length, at the Salon indien du Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895.

Did they or did they not flee from their seats when they saw the train approach? Although the story above has become one of the foundational myths of the cinema and has been recounted in countless film studies books and classes over the years, it no longer holds much sway.

In theory, the story makes absolute sense, not only because of the novelty of seeing almost life-sized movements from up close but also because Paris, where the first screenings of the Auguste and Louis Lumière’s one-minute films were held, was the setting for a famous train derailment just weeks earlier: On 22 October 1895, a locomotive like the one in the film sped towards Montparnasse Station, but when its brakes failed, it crashed through the barriers, careened across the station concourse and plummeted into the street below.

But here’s the rub: The famous Arrival of a Train that has become such an icon of the early days of cinema was actually shot a full 18 months after the inaugural screening at the Salon indien. And it was the Lumières’ second attempt at capturing this scene. Of this first film, which might or might not have had the same title and was projected in multiple venues starting in Lyon on 26 January 1896, only the copies of 32 representative frames remain, published as part of an article on the working of the cinematograph in the journal La Science française (no. 59, 13 March 1896, p. 89). These images, whose quality is just good enough to confirm they belong to a very different scene than the one in Arrival of a Train, may be viewed by clicking here.

As with most of the Lumières’ works, which fit into what film historian Siegfried Kracauer dubbed the “absolute realism” camp, this particular “view” is exceedingly straightforward: In the opening frame, a man on a station platform is hauling an empty luggage cart behind him before disappearing off-screen. But blink and you’ll miss him looking straight into the camera, which is likely why the film was cut in such a way as to prevent the viewer from noticing this breaking of the fourth wall (it is conspicuous that no one else appears to notice the Lumières’ giant camera/cinematograph and hand-crank operator/director of photography on the platform).

The man’s departure from the frame reveals behind him a crowd of people waiting in line for a train to arrive, which happens almost immediately. One of the people in the crowd is a woman holding hands with her child, dressed in white; walking briskly alongside the train, in the direction of the viewer, they pass by and exit the frame moments before the train comes to a complete stop.

This woman is Marguerite Lumière (née Winckler), the wife of Antoine, and the child is their three-year-old son, Andrée, who starred as the lead (and titular) character in Feeding the Baby (Repas de bébé), directed in February 1896. And the appearance of Andrée, born on 22 June 1894, is proof that the film could not have been shot in 1895, because the child onscreen is clearly much older than 12 months. In fact, Arrival of a Train was shot in the summer of 1897 at the train station in the seaside town of La Ciotat, along the Côte d’Azur, just southeast of Marseille. 

The story of the terrified filmgoers may be nothing more than marketing, but the film itself is one of the crowning achievements of the Lumière brothers. With a single, fixed shot, they make the train the central character entering the scene with flair that almost certainly evoked a (measured) reaction in the viewer thanks to the movement inside the frame. This was the beginning of something big.

Gravity (2013)

At once intimate and epic, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama does things differently than its counterparts – and way better.

gravityUSA
5*

Director:
Alfonso Cuarón

Screenwriters:
Alfonso Cuarón

Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 90 minutes

Films like Gravity are one in a million. Besides reminding everyone of the incredible visual talents he has that never overwhelm the story he tells, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who has honed his skills at directing long but dynamic scenes with a single take, ambitiously faced the challenge of a minimal cast and has delivered a film for the ages.

Although an opening title card informs those viewers who have never seen Alien or read its famous tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream,” that there is no sound out in space, and that life for humans is impossible in such a void, the silence throughout the film is truly deafening.

Drifting high above the blue marble, NASA scientists Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are leisurely at work on the exterior of their spacecraft. The experienced Kowalsky is listening to some music, propelling himself from side to side with his jetpack and having a lot of fun. Stone is a little more tense. She’s young, and until recently her familiarity with space had been limited to time spent in a simulator, always with disastrous results.

NASA’s mission control, on the other end of the line, patiently listens to Kowalsky tell his stories for the umpteenth time, and all the while we are immersed in the beauty of Planet Earth’s blues and greens in the background. This may be the first feature film that actually warrants the IMAX ticket.

But even while we are awestruck by the beauty of the scene, shot in a seemingly unbroken take for several minutes, there is a gentle shift toward exceptional danger. First, Stone asks Kowalsky to switch off the music, which is being pumped through her headset as well, so that she can concentrate. The silence, only disrupted by the duo’s breathing, suddenly makes for a much more dramatic soundtrack. Stone is struggling to finish her work, and Houston is not picking up whatever she is doing. And then, suddenly, chaos envelops the scene.

Debris from the destruction of a Russian satellite hurtles their way, causing a chain reaction with far-reaching effects that will last until the end of the film. It’s mostly small bits of material, but at the velocity they’re traveling they are miniature mobiles of death, and when the spacecraft starts to break up, we realise how quickly this can turn catastrophic.

What makes Gravity so exhilarating is not only the very obvious technical mastery of its director, but the combination of elements that are perfectly controlled yet never feel like they are calculated to elicit a particular response from the viewer. The minimalism of the cast, the setting and the action may well lull us into a false sense of comfort, but every so often we get another jolt to the system because we are reminded how perilous the vast emptiness of space can be to an earthling. 

As Stanley Kubrick knew all too well when he made his landmark science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, silence is not only necessary because it faithfully recreates the conditions in space but also because its effect on the viewer can be devastating. Whereas Kubrick’s film had an astronaut’s oxygen supply cut during a spacewalk by a disgruntled computer, and a soundtrack that cut all sound as we saw the poor man drifting out into space, Gravity has scenes of large-scale destruction in complete silence, which is absolutely chilling to watch.

Stone and Kowalsky survive the first incident, but as the story progresses, their oxygen tanks running empty and them having to face recurring disasters, all the result of that Russian satellite exploding offscreen, we see how small things can lead to heavy damage.

Cuarón, whose director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki already did some terrific visual work with single takes in the director’s Children of Men, here again uses special effects in ways that bring us closer to the story. At one point, the camera is right up against Sandra Bullock as she tumbles farther and farther away from Earth. Every time she breathes, we edge closer, until the camera seems to penetrate the helmet of her space suit. It continues, until it turns around (inside the helmet!) and shows us her point of view.

The only misstep takes place late in the film, when the camera becomes an invisible presence pointing out a potential hazard that the character in the scene fails to notice.

But Gravity is not only about the visuals. While mostly focusing on the drama to survive the constant ordeal and steer clear of flying debris that only accumulates, it also has some beautiful moments that create a connection between us and them. To reveal the content of these moments would be to give away too much, but one particularly effective gem comes in the form of a radio conversation in which neither speaker can see or understand the other, but ends with us emotionally wrecked.

Gravity does not stand in awe at the mystery of space that made 2001: A Space Odyssey such a hit and still fuels discussions about its meaning. It does not try to reinvent the wheel; it is a story about staying alive in the most desolate place imaginable, and Cuarón’s handling of the space-fiction material is epic but never self-important and takes our breath away.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Real-life story about family and forgiveness is brilliantly told in one of the best feature-film débuts of all time.

Fruitvale Station

USA

5*
Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriter:
Ryan Coogler

Director of Photography:
Rachel Morrison

Running time: 85 minutes

Fruitvale Station is not a film about race and immediately accessible to a very wide audience. The story is about the beauty, the frustration, the dreams, the indecision, the memories and the love embedded in one man’s last day on earth. With mesmerising performances, an intimacy that is utterly compelling and a main character that is far from perfect but does his best until his past catches up with him in the most tragic way imaginable, this is one of the best débuts I have ever seen.

The director is Ryan Coogler, who shot the film in 20 days only a few weeks after his 26th birthday. His story is small enough to focus on the details of Oscar Grant’s last day, based on the real events that took place New Year’s Eve 2008 and early on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station of Fruitvale in Oakland, San Francisco. Its more ambitious moments, namely a handful of unbroken takes, don’t draw attention in a way one would have expected from an inexperienced filmmaker. They never stand out from the rest of the production, and perhaps the reason is the dynamite performance of the actor who plays Oscar, Michael B. Jordan.

The film is bookended by the events of New Year’s Day, and the opening scene is clearly shot with a cellphone camera or some other handheld device with low-quality images. The reason for this is only explained at the end, although the documentary quality accurately indicates the origins of the story with actual events. What we get during the film, then, is New Year’s Eve, which not only builds towards the evening’s midnight celebrations in San Francisco but also the birthday dinner of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

Over time, we learn a great deal about Oscar’s life through his interactions with those closest to him: his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother and his tight-knit group of friends. One of them is Cato, played by Coogler’s brother, Keenan. Cato works at the Farmer Joe’s Marketplace supermarket in Oakland, where Oscar was recently fired for turning up late to work once too often. The two are friends, but when Oscar’s attempts to get rehired by the otherwise affable manager are unsuccessful, he fails to mention this to Cato, instead telling him he will start again the following week. Oscar, whose tattoo spells out “Palma Ceia” (one of the gangs in the neighbourhood of Hayward) and who was recently caught cheating on his girlfriend, is actually a very vulnerable individual, and Coogler reveals his character with details that are surprising short but impressive.

Such moments include a flashback to a year earlier when his mother had visited him in prison, and another very intelligent add-on when he sees an ownerless dog, strokes it, before seconds later hearing a yelp from the highway, where he picks up the dog and carries its bloodied body back to the side of the road. Of course, this anticipates the events at the end of the film by showing us how quickly a creature can go from smiling and energetic to still and lifeless. But it is nonetheless (perhaps therefore) intensely poignant and may even move us to tears.

The seemingly mundane, within the context of a single day and given our knowledge that all of this is leading up to something terrible, takes on extraordinary meaning, and Coogler should be given all credit for imbuing his story with both energy and affection that always come across as entirely believable. Even Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), is a natural in front of the camera and cannot be faulted for a single false move or response.

Fruitvale Station shows us the story of one man who has his faults but is totally likeable throughout and whose life is filled with some of the experiences and feelings we all share, conveyed with the utmost sincerity. His beautiful smile, his love for his daughter, his aggression in the face of injustice and desire to change his life for the better are all attributes we admire. This is not the story of someone up against the system, but rather about someone up against himself and especially his past.

It is difficult to believe this was Coogler’s first feature film. Especially the slightly risky move of presenting one of the final scenes without showing us the face of its central or focal character is jaw-droppingly astounding, bringing with it the necessary uncertainty that the scene calls for. I for one cannot wait to see what Coogler does next.

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.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express 2Hong Kong

5*
Director:
Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriter:
Wong Kar-wai
Director of Photography:
Christopher Doyle

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: 重慶森林
Transliterated title:
Chung Hing sam lam

Chungking Express has boundless energy, revels in repetition and is quite simply one of the most absorbing films ever made. This may be the only film made by director Wong Kar-wai that I have ever enjoyed (with the possible exception of Fallen Angels, released in 1995), and it is because whatever stylisation takes place always serves to propel the story forward. There is never a dull moment. The repetition is aural, not visual, and although often slightly manipulated, the images are infused with a gritty Hong Kong realism and feature two of the most likeable cops you’re ever likely to see.

These two cops are #223 and #663, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, respectively, and they both suffer from broken hearts. Their tales are told in two separate story lines, with the Midnight Express fast-food stall serving as the only solid connecting thread between the two. 

The film has one of the most exhilarating opening scenes I have seen in my life. The images jump off the screen, and for a while we are blinded, not by the visuals, but by the music. Michael Galasso’s “Baroque” cranks the action forward with rhythms and sounds that immerse you in a world that is audibly — and then, you notice, visibly, too — in motion. Coming after about 1 minute of opening credits (simple white text on a black screen) in complete silence, the score hits a nerve.

The pictures we get are also different from what we’re used to. A step-printed sequence of images (which means the 24 frames per second shot by the camera were altered in post production to unspool at the same speed, but every second frame has been duplicated, and every other frame discarded) makes for dizzying action, captured with a mobile camera that seems to move both more quickly and more slowly than we are used to from the world around us — or, for that matter, the worlds we know on film. The step-printing process is used again at various points in the film, and it continually succeeds in adding another layer of frenzy to a film that positively throbs with adrenaline in the stiflingly humid, concrete jungle that is Hong Kong.

The action in this first scene, and elsewhere in the first story, takes place at Chungking Mansions, a marketplace where everything can be found because every colour and creed on the face of the earth seems to be hawking their wares here.

In the first story, Cop #223 — whose name, He Qiwu, is only mentioned at rare intervals — has just broken up with his girlfriend, May, whom we never see. He hangs out at Midnight Express, a fast-food joint, almost every night, where the manager (played by “Piggy” Chan Kam-Chuen, who was the film’s still photographer) tries to set him up with girls who are waitresses in his employment. But #223 is not interested. He has decided to grieve for one month, until the 1st of May (yes, the name of his ex), when it will also be his birthday, before seriously pursuing any girl again.

The film’s joyous opening scene ends with #223 brushing past a woman in a blonde wig and is accompanied by a voice-over in which the cop tells us he would soon fall in love with her. At the same time as we follow his melancholy-laden trips to grocery stores where he buys canned pineapples set to expire May 1, we also see snippets of this mysterious blonde’s life. She is dealing with a group of  drug smugglers but when she delivers them to the airport and turns around, they’ve suddenly absconded with copious amounts of cocaine.

Honestly, there are parts of this film that do not gel together all that smoothly. The blonde’s working relationship with the owner of a nightclub, who is also deeply involved in the drug business, takes a few viewings to piece together, and even then it’s not entirely clear, because we are asked to infer meaning and function from mere glances. But thanks to the rapid editing that also accelerates the pace at which the stories are told, small jumps are effortlessly papered over, as it were, by the colourful neon.

The first time around, the viewer may be disoriented by the first part, as there are a few very brief shots (lasting no more than a few seconds) with the three main characters from the second part, whom we don’t know yet. But first, a word about the second story.

Cop #663 meets Faye at Midnight Express, where she starts working at the end of the first story, just as #223 disappears from the film (something else that is never explained). He has a sometime girlfriend, an air hostess, but she gives up on their relationship and hands the key with the “Dear John” letter to Faye, who hangs on to the letter for a while, and on to the key to #663’s apartment for much longer. Meanwhile, she becomes fascinated by this man and even starts going to his place (these scenes were shot in DOP Christopher Doyle’s apartment) to clean and reinvigorate his home (some may think of Amélie here). Here, there are questions of credibility, as she replaces certain items, which #663 notices but doesn’t question.

Faye, the air hostess and the cop all make surprise appearances in the first part. First, the air hostess appears outside the airport when the woman with a blonde wig escorts her Indians with their drugs to the departure gate. While the woman in the blonde wig waits outside a toy store, Faye exits with a massive Garfield toy, which we will see again in #663’s flat later on. Moments later, when #223 leaves Midnight Express, there is a short take on #663 looking down from a raised platform, seemingly at #223, but since geography is rarely established in this film, we cannot be certain.

These are very minor points, but they suggest a film that is slightly experimental and strives to make it clear all the buzzing belongs to the same world yet tells its story at full speed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, producing a vibrant combination of narrative, sound and colour that stays with you.

You’ll never hear The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” again without thinking of Tony Leung and Faye Wong. Few other directors — Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick with Badlands and A Thin Red Line, and Oliver Stone with Platoon — have managed to pull off such an exquisite audiovisual melding using music that had been around for a long time.

Oddly enough, the repetition of the music holds the unconventional storytelling together: Not only is the film divided into two parts, and do the characters from the one turn up unannounced in the other, but like the sequence in Citizen Kane that telegraphs the dissolution of a marriage, a quick succession of scenes involving an array of fast food for the girlfriend precedes the actual introduction of the girlfriend — in a flashback, no less! But Wong Kar-wai breezily ignores the convention of narrative linearity, and yet the viewer stays riveted because these are all such wonderful people.

We love the movies we love despite their faults, not because we think they lack any. Chungking Express, with its numerous awkward plot transitions, is as good an example as any of this, but because I trusted the film from the very first moment and let myself be carried along the stream of images of audio and was never let down by the story or its gentle characters, this remains a truly dazzling film.

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.

Hunger (2008)

UK
5*

Director:
Steve McQueen

Screenwriters: 
Enda Welsh
Steve McQueen
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 90 minutes

There is greatness behind every shot in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. This film marks the début of a remarkable talent that does not come round very often and demonstrates what is still possible within the realm of so-called alternative cinema. All the conventional tricks have been avoided, and they have been replaced by new approaches to representation and produced a work that is poetic yet immediate, at times subjective yet never silly, has gritty realism yet shines with an amazingly distinct visual style and is never drab. And despite its minimal use of the spoken word, it rolls along fluidly.

At the end of 1980, after more than four years of a “blanket protest”, during which prisoners refused to don the prison uniforms, since they considered themselves a different kind of prisoner (i.e. a political prisoner), and a “no-wash protest”, which is self-explanatory, an Irish republican named Bobby Sands decided to go on hunger strike in protest against the British government.

Bobby Sands is played here by Michael Fassbender, and his performance strips him down to the bone, both physically and emotionally. The word that jumps to mind is “visceral”, and it covers much of the film, which contains many scenes of prisoners being beaten with many different kinds of weapons – hands and handheld.

In the film’s first 15 minutes, barely a word is spoken, as we follow a prison guard, whose knuckles always seem to be raw, from his home where he looks under his car before puling out of the driveway every morning to the prison where he works. A new boy has just been admitted, and immediately upon arrival, he sides with the rest of the prisoners at the prison (it is Maze prison, which used to be located just south-west of Belfast, in Northern Ireland) in refusing to wear the prison uniform. He is taken to his cell, where the walls are covered in faeces and food.

In one scene, urine streams down a corridor, cascading from mashed potato embankments inside the cells. In another, maggots crawl next to a sleeping inmate inside his cell. To this scene, shot with from a stationary viewpoint, McQueen brings the same beauty as when the prison guard smokes outside in the snow and a close-up of his hands (often repeated throughout the film) shows a snowflake melting on his reddened knuckles.

McQueen fully engages both image and sound, and he stages his action in a way that pushes his film towards a kind of transcendentalism. In another scene, the prisoners are subjected to a cavity search. Scores of guards, in riot gear, line a corridor while a naked prisoner faces the onslaught of batons, fists and feet, until he reaches a central area and is rectally searched in the most violent manner possible. The camera swerves to mirror the energy of the moment, and yet the effect is not confusion but rather inspirational empathy with the prisoners. Then, towards the end of the scene, we realise, with great surprise, that one of the prison guards has been reduced to tears and is standing behind a wall, sobbing.

This brief moment, perhaps more than the technical and visual dexterity of the director, shows his compassion for the whole spectrum of characters in his film and made me think of those few seconds, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when the vicious monster that was unleashed on Luke is destroyed and this monster’s keeper is similarly heartbroken. So few film makers realise that it is always more interesting to have characters do the unexpected than the expected actions of their narrative peers.

But it is the film’s much-commented scene at its midpoint, an unbroken take 16½ minutes in length featuring Sands and a priest, that pushes it into the upper echelons of film making and underscores the genius of the filmmaker. Though very different in tone from the aforementioned scene of the full cavity search and some truly violent interactions between the prisoners and their guards, our attention is kept rapt thanks to both the performances and the courage of McQueen, which deliver a breathtaking moment of stasis at the centre of physical chaos.

Even as the film turns towards a more spiritual perspective, while Sands is suffering from the physical effects of being on a hunger strike, the film elegantly switches between direct point of view and oblique point of view, which affects the camera’s movement while still regarding him from the outside. The addition of superimposed birds swarming over his face while the camera hovers menacingly over his hospital bed is no simple-minded Gus van Sant-inspired gimmick but a perfectly distilled, truly magnificent expression of a state of mind.

One minor flaw is the introduction of Bobby Sands’s character – he simply appears, as if from nowhere, to take centre stage. The characters we meet in the faeces-covered cell give a human perspective to the material, and when they are replaced by Bobby’s plot thread, the connection to the story is retained despite the lack of a back story for Sands. So, while McQueen handles this transition very well, the balancing act does not completely make up for the fact that an important part of the story is missing. Perhaps McQueen assumed we would forgive him this oversight since Sands has some messianic status, an argument underlined by a moment in which he is carried, Pieta-like (or Marat-like?), from a bathtub back to his bed.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

France

5*
Director:
Georges Méliès
Screenwriters:
Georges Méliès
Gaston Méliès
Directors of Photography:
Michaut
Lucien Tainguy

Running time: 11 minutes (at 20fps)

Original title: Le Voyage dans la lune

Méliès was the magician of early cinema. He didn’t only lift the seventh art form to new heights by using it to depict fantastical stories, but in the process he evoked a sense of wonder in his audience that would colour and enrich many different kinds of films and inspire most of the filmmakers that came after him. He was the first who dared detach the medium of film from its realistic basis – the Lumière brothers had filmed real trains arriving, real human beings leaving a real factory, and real water spewing from a real garden hose to water real flowers. But Méliès had other plans. He had stars in his eyes and his desire to make the impossible visible, even with very rudimentary means, led to this masterpiece called A Trip to the Moon.

Jules Verne, if not an inspiration for the film, was certainly an influence, or at least a kindred spirit. The film opens in a grand hall where astronomers with big pointy hats have gathered to listen to their astronomer-in-chief, Barbenfouillis, who gesticulates very animatedly and makes a drawing on the blackboard indicating  his intention to send a spaceship (though it rather resembles a missile) to the moon. Five astronomers are chosen to accompany him on this mission: Nostradamus, Alcofribas, Omega, Micromégas and Parafaragaramus (yes, the spelling is correct).

The names of theses characters have both real and fictional origins, and the combination is quite appropriate to the kind of film that Méliès was producing. Nostradamus, of course, is the renowned sixteenth-century clairvoyant. Alcofribas is the name used by the novelist Rabelais, whose works incorporated the grotesque and is best known for his novel about two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Micromégas was the title of, and the name of the main character in, a short story by Voltaire. Said Micromégas was an alien visitor who lands on the earth and observes the strange customs of humans. Besides the Greek root of Omega (the word refers to the last letter of the Greek alphabet), I know nothing about it, nor does Parafaragaramus mean anything to me, though it conjures up images of characters in the world of Goscinny & Uderzo’s “Asterix & Obelix”.

After surviving a fall into a bucket of nitric acid, Micromégas joins the other astronomers aboard the spaceship, which is shot from a cannon into space. The décor throughout is theatrical but never expressionist, and though many of the sets are clearly painted pieces of cardboard, the effect of having these characters move over the painted roofs into a spaceship gains a lot of its energy from the adventure inherent in the imminent exploration of outer space.

Exactly halfway through the film, the spaceship hits the moon, in one of the most famous shots of silent cinema. It is a moving human face, and this man-moon fits perfectly with the slightly strange atmosphere of the film that is about to become even more peculiar. Once the astronomers land on the moon, and their presence is seen as an intrusion, they are punished by Phoebus, who covers them with snow. They hide in a crater, filled with lunar flora, where a planted umbrella takes root and grows to become a giant mushroom. The surreal image is wonderful to behold because of the continuous growth of the “plant”, its movement, inside the frame without any cuts.

With this film, Méliès, the first master of cinematic magic, showed how to dazzle an audience, and he deserves all the recognition of being the first dreamer of the cinema and for engaging our fantasies in a way that demonstrated the far-reaching possibilities of filmmaking.

No Man’s Land (2001)

Bosnia and Herzegovina
5*

Director:
Danis Tanović
Screenwriter: 
Danis Tanović
Director of Photography: 
Walther van den Ende

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Ničija zemlja

No Man’s Land is a small yet devastating film about two soldiers from opposing sides stuck in a trench on the battlefield (no man’s land), somewhere near Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. The central action of the film takes place over the course of a single day, and in these few hours of sunlight, we get a very human take on the story of war and especially the lives affected by it.

One night, under thick fog, a group of Bosniaks forming a relief squad are led to their base, but the guide gets lost and they end up falling asleep. At daybreak, they discover that they are sitting ducks and when the Serb forces arrive in their tanks, the Bosniaks have to run for cover. Čiki (Branko Đurić), who wears a Rolling Stones “Tongue and Lip” T-shirt all the way through the film, initially appears to be the only one to survive, and he ends up in a trench halfway between the Bosniak and the Serb camps – in no man’s land.

When two of the Serbs are sent to the trench to make sure that all the Bosniaks had been killed, one is killed by Čiki and the other, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a young inexperienced soldier, is injured. Nino and Čiki, both speaking the same language, Serbo-Croatian, have a heated discussion about the origin and the development of the war, and Čiki, his gun pointed straight at Nino, finally has to agree that the Serbs started all the madness. Many such admissions are made under duress, and Čiki doesn’t fail to remind Nino who has the gun.

But they are both stuck in the trench together for two reasons: Neither of them can be sure that the other side will respect a cease-fire if they are rescued or return to camp; and a bouncing bomb had been placed under a Bosniak soldier, who turns out not to have been dead, and unless a deminer saves the soldier, Ćera, his friend Čiki insists that they all stay in the trench. Since he has the gun, there is no use arguing.

Tanović’s script is light on action but heavy on tension and very incisive dialogue that clearly captures the human face of the drama of warfare. These are two people who often don’t know what to do next, but when one of them sees an opportunity to establish power over the other, he goes for it. Caught in the middle is Ćera, who can’t move for fear of setting off the bomb underneath him and blowing them all to pieces.

When UNPROFOR (the United Nations Protection Force) is called in to mediate and resolve the situation, we realise very quickly that they are out of their depth, somewhat willingly, and refuse to get involved because they are in Bosnia strictly for the purpose of delivering humanitarian aid. A French sergeant, Marchand (played by Georges Siatidis, who is fascinating in this role), is clearly frustrated by his superiors’ lack of compassion but manages to secure media exposure (and pressure on UNPROFOR), when he meets Jane Livingstone, a news correspondent out in the field.

Livingstone’s overly dramatic character, and her news broadcasts, are perhaps the only weak spot in the film and suffers from the film’s small budget, but her purpose is clear: Her presence at the scene compels the UN to protect lives instead of merely sustaining them, but she will also go to great lengths to interrogate all the parties implicated in the story without really grasping anybody’s point of view. From the outside, the whole setup seems like internal madness, but the subtitles provide the viewer with a very fine understanding of the different reasons for the soldiers’ actions.

The film shows the inadequacy of the UN and especially UNPROFOR during the war. This is understandable, given the international forces’ infamous timidity when faced with the situation at Srebrenica in 1995, which they allowed to happen because of such administrative restrictions as a mission of non-involvement.

No Man’s Land advances in a way that gives us a sickening feeling of inevitability, and a situation that is grim because we see people doing things they know to be wrong, but which they must do to save face or to obey the orders of their callous superiors. The humiliating effects of these decisions are visible in the close-ups of Ćera’s face. The film contains almost no extradiegetic music and makes important points in a subtle way, by means of a photo in someone’s hand or a story about a girl in Banja Luka whom both Nino and Čiki had known.

Tanović is a Bosniak himself, but his film treats the two sides with equal respect and is certainly one of the most poignant war films of our time. A comment by one of the men in the relief squad at the beginning of the film (“A pessimist thinks that things can’t get worse; an optimist knows that they can”) becomes more and more relevant to the situation the men find themselves in. These are not heroes: They are men caught in a war, and they don’t want to die. No Man’s Land‘s acknowledgement of this basic truth makes the film stand out from the crowd.

Napoléon (1927)

France
5*

Director:
Abel Gance
Screenwriter:
Abel Gance

Director of Photography:
Jules Kruger

Running time: 240 minutes

Napoléon, by French filmmaker Abel Gance, is an experimental epic that has achieved the status of legend, with good reason. The story of the young Napoleon Bonaparte (the film charts his development from school boy till the age of 27, when he successfully invaded Italy) is presented as a visual feast that keeps churning out scene after scene, the one as breathtaking as the next. The entire film is accompanied by a masterful orchestral score composed by Carmine Coppola that deftly integrates melodies from a few other works, including, among others, the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”. The 2000 restoration of the film has a score by Carl Davis, which has been performed at various public screenings of the film in the past few years, most notably at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

The film is a cinematic tour de force and contains a multitude of memorable scenes, from the snowball fight at Napoleon’s school and a scene with his pet eagle to the scene where crowds of people learn the new French national anthem, a double storm scene and the climactic tricolour triptych that makes visible Napoleon’s desires for himself and his country. At one point, during a chase on horseback across the Corsican countryside, Gance even fixes his camera to a saddle in order to give us Napoleon’s point of view.

These are all scenes that one can talk about extensively, for they demonstrate the skill of the director and the joy he found in telling the adventurous story of Napoleon’s rise to power. I was incredibly moved when the song’s composer, Roget de Lisle, sang “La Marseillaise”: The soundtrack had already been hinting at the gorgeous melody for a while, since Danton, Marat and Robespierre had received word of the composer’s arrival, and when de Lisle finally performs his work, the effect is overwhelming exhilaration. The combination of the music itself, the passion on de Lisle’s face, the emotion on the listeners’ faces, in close-ups presented in rapid-fire succession, and the sunlight that pierces the stained glass windows behind them all signal this moment as a cohesive turning point for France and national unity. It is an absolute gem of a scene; if you thought the performance of “La Marseillaise” in Casablanca was wonderful, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

However, as much as this rendition of one of the country’s definitive trademarks elicits emotion in the viewer, there are even greater things to be said about the effect that a completely liberated camera can have on the viewer’s reception and interpretation of events on screen. In a well-known scene referred to as the “double storm”, Gance cuts between a physical and a metaphorical storm simultaneously brewing in different places. While Napoleon is stuck at sea on a small sailboat, the sirocco throwing him hither and thither like a wet rag doll in waters ready to swallow him at any second, people at the Paris Convention are growing more and more impatient with each other, and ultimately their event degenerates into complete chaos. At the convention, as blood begins to boil, the camera starts swinging from the ceiling, over the heads of the revolutionaries inside the enormous hall. The result is an awesome sequence of shots unlike any other I have ever seen in a film.

From the very beginning, it is clear that Napoleon Bonaparte is a testy little upstart, but rather than wanting to provoke, he acts out of pride and concern for his country. Born in Corsica in 1769, when France conquered the island, he sees himself as French, though his fellow schoolmates don’t quite agree. Napoleon has a born sense of strategy – as is made evident in a brilliantly staged fight against other boys, which he wins despite being hugely outnumbered and underestimated – and a genuine love for France. He is fearless, and his audacity leads to a moment one could compare to the scene in Birth of Nation when the Confederate flag is rescued from the front lines of the Union.

Later in the film, shortly before the sopping wet Battle of Toulon, Napoleon orders one of his officers to replace a cannon. When the officer tells him that it is impossible, Napoleon firmly asserts: “Impossible is not French!” Napoleon’s delicate features and slight frame hide a soldier with nerves of steel, eyes like a hawk, and military brawn like few others. “He is made of granite heated in a volcano”, declares one of his school teachers in Brienne.

There are many other great scenes to mention, including a pillow fight at his school that precedes Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite by more than five years and ends with a frame subdivided first into four, then nine, different angles of the same scene to reflect the different points of view of the schoolboys.

The film has rapturous energy, and while I didn’t much care for the scenes dealing with his courtship of Joséphine de Beauharnais, nor the scenes taking place shortly after their very unromantic wedding, in which he becomes a sentimental fool, writing her one letter after the other in which he proclaims his love for her and his frustration at being separated from her, the film is strong enough to cope with such whimsy.

Napoleon as a boy (Vladimir Roudenko) and as an adult (Albert Dieudonné) were both cast very well, and even at a young age, Roudenko’s eyes convey a striking maturity. Napoleon is an inspirational figure, who persuades his nation to do things they never allowed themselves to dream about, and in the process he becomes a messianic figure. A messianic figure with an instantly recognisable bicorne – something Gance teases us with when Napoleon first appears on-screen as a young boy.

The film deserves all the praise it has received. Not only did Gance make an epic film worthy of its subject, but he employed techniques unheard of at the time that served the story incredibly well and keeps the audience galloping along all the way as history unspools in front of our eyes. The film was meant to represent the first part (out of six) of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, but Gance spent his entire budget on this first instalment, and therefore Napoléon ends before the title character even gets to the throne. Nonetheless, this monumental film shows what the cinema is capable of and serves as a rousing reminder that representations of real events can be every bit as exciting as life itself.

Final note: This review refers to the 1981 edition of the film. Around the turn of the millennium, Kevin Brownlow added about half an hour’s worth of footage to restore the film to a version that approaches the original. The running time of 330 minutes on some websites refers to the film’s length when shown at 20 frames per second (fps), as opposed to the 240-minute version shown at 24fps.