Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance
4*

Director:
Jean Vigo

Screenwriter:
Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tackles America’s original sin with a mesmerising lead performance by the director, but Parker would have benefitted from honing his skills first before bringing this weighty topic to the big screen.

birth-of-a-nationUSA
3.5*

Director:
Nate Parker

Screenwriter:
Nate Parker

Director of Photography:
Elliot Davis

Running time: 120 minutes

Jacques Rivette would have been horrified by one shot towards the very end of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s historic depiction of an unsuccessful uprising among the slave-owning population of south-eastern Virginia in the early 19th-century. Starting with a close-up of a black man hung by the neck and dangling from a tree, the camera slowly and all too elegantly tracks back slowly to reveal six more people – men, women and children – who have suffered the same fate.

The sharp contrast between the brutality these people have suffered and the sophistication of the visuals is similar to the oft-cited indictment of a shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 film, Kapò, which led Rivette, at the time a film critic for the Cahiers du cinéma and already a filmmaker in his own right, to pen a scathing article on the use of a dolly shot to transform the abhorrent – his article was titled “On Abjection” – into something pretty and digestible.

Parker wrote and directed The Birth of a Nation 100 years after DW Griffith’s eponymous epic about the Civil War that is often berated for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its shocking presentation of black characters. He also stars in the lead role as Nat Turner, a black preacher who is employed by his owner and childhood friend, Samuel, to keep other slaves in line by talking to them about God’s love for them and his desire for them to work hard so that one day, presumably after a lifetime of abuse, they can reach heaven.

Turner, who shared his last name with his owner, as was the usage at the time, has a face we cannot look away from, and Parker’s performance is soft yet riveting. He is a reluctant hero; his awakening is gradual and one that he evidently wants to repress because he knows the likely outcome. And yet, after turning too God to soothe the pain of slavery, blunt the anger he and his fellow slaves feel and talk away the daily abuse, he finally recognises that the Bible has at least as many points justifying an uprising as it has relenting to domination by another.

We first meet Turner as a young boy, the son of slaves working on an estate in an outwardly idyllic setting: the lush green forests of Virginia. It goes without saying that the social environment is altogether very different, and despite the desire of the owner’s daughter to raise the precocious Nat in their home to read the Bible (other books are for whites only, she warns), the power structure is immediately clear as Nat’s own mother has no say in the matter.

Over time, he sees the monstrous way in which slave owners in the vicinity handle their workers, especially Raymond Cobb, the ruthless man who went after his father. And while he manages to ignore the harrowing cruelty, it ultimately affects his life directly when two women in his life are raped by smiling white gentlemen. One can almost hear the words of Ezekiel 25:17, made famous by Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, resonate louder and louder as the injustices build on each other with alarming normalcy: “I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

Unfortunately, there is a palpable sense that this is the film of a first-time filmmaker. For all its meandering, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave always felt like the work of a director with a vision, a firm hand and a sense for quality. The Birth of a Nation has a powerful overarching story and a notable though all-too-brief third act, but the camerawork is forgettable (when it is not objectionable, as in the example at the top of the review), shots of hallucinations with backlit angels are beyond silly, and the performance of the actor playing the young Nat is too serious and controlled.

The director also underestimates his audience, for example when he recaps the major moments of hatred that Nat has witnessed – all of which we have seen – before burning the words of 1 Samuel 15:2 into the screen as a way to tell us that things are about to change big-time. This kind of repetition assumes the viewer has not been paying attention, even though the iniquities are always immediately apparent and often gruesome to watch. 

The Birth of a Nation has a theme and a story every bit as important as those of other major films about slavery, but the depiction is often watered down for mass consumption, the story is too slight, and the execution is too amateurish to have a great impact on the viewer. Except for telling a story that really happened but had not been brought to the screen until now, the film does not distinguish itself from its brothers and sisters and is a missed opportunity. However, it does provide a much-needed corrective to D.W. Griffith’s unabashedly racist rendering of black Americans.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.