Monday, June 29, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part 2

Pamela Villoresi in Marco Bellocchio's adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) (1977).

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I was published here last week.

It seems strange to think of the iconoclastic, Godard-influenced Italian director Marco Bellocchio, who came into movies in the mid-sixties with the jagged, coruscating dark comedy Fists in the Pocket and the startling class satire China Is Near, settling on the idea of adapting Chekhov’s The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) to the screen. One can imagine Bellocchio identifying with the protagonist, the young tragic aspiring playwright and short-story writer Konstantin Treplev, when he protests, “We must have new forms!” before presenting his symbolist play to a small audience of family and friends that includes his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress. (When she refuses to take his efforts seriously, he rings down the curtain and goes off in a huff.) But The Seagull, first performed disastrously in 1896 and resurrected two years later by Stanislavski and the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre, is one of the signal works of theatrical realism, and Bellocchio plays it straight. This movie never opened in North America, hardly anyone on these shores has ever seen it (it’s available on an Italian DVD), and except for Laura Betti, who also worked with Fellini, Pasolini and Bertolucci, I didn’t recognize a single actor in the cast. But the ensemble is impeccable, and this is certainly the best movie anyone has made yet of The Seagull.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Potentially World-Destroying Virus: World on Fire

Zofia Wichlacz in World on Fire.

This review contains spoilers.

Watching the sprawling, emotionally gripping seven-part drama World on Fire on PBS Masterpiece Theatre has increased my frustration with those (mostly) policy-makers who draw analogies between the COVID-19 virus and World War Two. Boris Johnson has fantasized that he is the second coming of Churchill and Trump absurdly sees himself as a wartime president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a position that pundit Max Boot hilariously debunks in an acerbic column. In a more serious vein, an historian who has written a book about the politics of mourning wonders why Trump would urge the citizenry to see themselves as “warriors” and return to work even if it means sacrificing themselves, when there has not been even a hint about top-down national (as opposed to personal) mourning, given that, as of this writing, over one-hundred-thousand Americans have succumbed to this virus.

What World on Fire does is to put in perspective how our current crisis, even with an invisible enemy, pales in comparison (provided robust testing, contact tracing and isolation, social distancing and personal hygiene protocols remain in place) with a more lethal form of pestilence, World War Two. I say this with the caveat that the first season takes us only to the fall of France and the epic rescue of British troops from Dunkirk during the spring of 1940. Whereas most war dramas focus on leadership (Darkest Hour about Churchill), a specific episode (Dunkirk) or the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), Fire offers a larger canvas including Manchester, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. Writer Peter Bowker, reflecting a modern sensibility, explores subjects that are usually passed over or given short shrift through the interlocking stories of ordinary people, their fears, the decisions they make and how the war changes them. What is noticeably missing are the usual nationalistic tropes – the flag waving, the inspirational speeches, the spotlight on masculine prowess – as the characters are primarily driven by personal motives.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I

A still from Three Sisters (1970).

The reason you can keep looking at productions of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – is that there’s so much there. A good director and a good cast illumine corners of the text that you haven’t paid attention to before, or shine an unfamiliar light on one of more of the characters, or put the parts of the play together a little differently from their predecessors. I had that experience recently with two little-known Chekhov movies from the seventies. One I was returning to: Laurence Olivier’s 1970 Three Sisters, which transcribed his stage production for the National Theatre. It’s modest – like the movies he starred in of Uncle Vanya in 1963 and Othello in 1965 (both directed for the screen by Stuart Burge), it feels, with the exception of a couple of self-consciously cinematic sequences, like a filmed play. It was released in England, but on this side of the ocean audiences only got to see it as part of an experiment in stage-to-screen translations called American Film Theatre, which visited only large cities for two-day engagements. The other I encountered for the first time: the 1977 adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) by the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio, which never opened in North America at all. Like Three Sisters, it’s available on DVD, but only from Europe. Both movies, I think, are wonderful. In this piece I want to talk about Three Sisters; I’ll deal with The Seagull next week.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Neglected Gem: The Russia House (1990)

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House (1990).

When Australian director Fred Schepisi’s 2001 film Last Orders came out, the best film of that year (yes, even better than the first installment of The Lord of the Rings), I read with astonishment a critic’s description of Schepisi as a “good, second-tier director.” The director of Barbarosa (1982), Roxanne (1987), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and Lost Orders a second-tier director? What the hell does a guy have to do to move into the first tier?

Monday, June 8, 2020

Forsterland: Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in the BBC's Howards End (2017).

I approached the 2017 BBC adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, which landed on Masterpiece Theatre last season, with some trepidation, just as I did the 1992 Merchant Ivory movie version. That’s because I’m in thrall to the book; which is one of my half-dozen favorite novels in the world. In it, as in his A Passage to India (published in 1924), the form of the Victorian novel collides, brilliantly but lingeringly, with the twentieth century. Howards End is beautifully constructed, but it isn’t a mechanical triumph like the great works of Forster’s predecessors (Dickens, Eliot, Hardy) that it takes off from. Forster gets himself into perilous territory – into issues he can’t bring into harmony in the final pages. And the book is, I think, more immense, more moving and of course more modern, because he can’t. It begins as a Jane Austenesque high comedy. Helen Schlegel, the impetuous younger daughter of a German-English family, goes off on a country weekend and falls in love with the younger son of her hosts, Ruth and Henry Wilcox. At least she thinks she has; in fact, it’s the whole Wilcox family she’s enamored with, and Paul, she realizes almost immediately, is just the convenient outlet for her unaccustomed feelings. Helen, her older sister Margaret and her kid brother Tibby – orphans – form a throbbing intellectual enclave that interacts with the world in an entirely different way from the Wilcoxes, who belong to the new business aristocracy, and Helen is fascinated by their style at first. Margaret explains the real difference to Helen:
The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character.
In the embarrassing aftermath of the momentary romantic tangle between Helen and Paul, Helen loses her quickly formed affection for the Wilcox world and shrinks in revulsion from their unpoetic pragmatism. But then, unexpectedly, Henry Wilcox rents the London house across the way from the Schlegels’, and Margaret finds herself drawn to the family – through Ruth, who, in her last months, forms an attachment to her that exerts an extraordinary influence on the younger woman.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fabula: Transgression and Transformation in the Work of Müller and Giradet

Contre-Jour (Backlight) 2009/Festival of Gijon, 2010.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in Arcade Project Magazine on May 25, 2020.

“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1935.

“Your camera is the best critic there is. Critics never see as much as the camera does. The camera is more perceptive than the human eye.”  – Douglas Sirk, 1955.

The two members of this creative pair of collaborating film artists are also visual archaeologists, conducting a rich excavation at the site of cinematic mythology. Sometimes a meaning is lost in translation, other times its essence is found in translation. In the case of the contemplative film experiments of Matthias Müller and Christoph Giradet, the immediately familiar territory of conventional storytelling, the art of fabula, and those cinematic stereotypes most often utilized in order to register meaning and emotion, have been translated from pure entertainment into pure reverie. None of the unconscious content embedded in their sources, however, has been left behind. On the contrary, as they explore the virtual edges of our visual domain in their compelling and challenging works, we are thrust into a jarring juxtaposition of painting, photography, storytelling and dreaming with our eyes wide open.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Allen Garfield: A Fond Farewell

Allen Garfield and Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man (1980).

Allen Garfield died on April 7 at the age of eighty, one of the early COVID-19 casualties in the acting community. He was a fantastically vivid performer who managed to straddle the line between the old Hollywood and the new. He was a character actor who, like the most memorable big-studio stock-company players, could bring verve and wit to supporting roles that lit up the margins of the movies he appeared in, but his bristling, aggressive, off-center style was quintessentially modern. (He had attended the Actors Studio in New York.) He belonged in the American renaissance era; he would have been too daring, too subversive for the forties or the fifties.