Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Witches (Pier Paolo Pasolini Mauro Bolognini Vittorio De Sica Franco Rossi Luchino Visconti, 1967)


One of the stronger entries from the 60’s spate of European anthology films, The Witches is a five-part showcase for Silvana Mangano (which might admittedly seem, across this time and distance, to be a peculiar undertaking). Two of the segments barely register – Mauro Bolognini’s is a one-joke thing (albeit a well-handled one), and Franco Rossi’s barely even that. Luchino Visconti’s opener, a frostily languid look at a celebrity’s spiritual malaise hits mostly familiar beautiful-people-in-crisis notes. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s is the most formally and thematically intriguing – a zany, sometimes Chaplinesque comedy in which a bereaved man and his son search (mostly through urban wasteland) for a new wife/mother, striking out with the likes of whores and shop dummies before settling on a lovely deaf girl (Mangano at her loveliest), who utterly suffices until she dies from slipping on a banana peel while standing on one of the upper levels of the Colisseum (yep), which isn’t a problem because she returns from the beyond and things go on as before, yielding the motto that being dead and being alive are the same thing (some other Pasolini films might not lead one to interpret this premise as positively). It’s at once the most frivolous chapter and yet the most socially-anchored and spiritually questioning. The film ends with a Vittorio De Sica piece in which the star plays a bored, frumpy-looking wife, her marriage drained of passion, trying to buck up her low-energy husband while living a much more exciting inner life, all of which is considerably lifted by the fact of the husband being played by a (dubbed) Clint Eastwood in one of his all-time loosest, most game performances: it’s one segment that you might wish had been longer. With the added bonus of its strenuously nutty opening credits, it’s a diverting if inherently odd package, generally boosting one’s appreciation of Mangano’s range.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)


Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind contains some of the most deliriously striking pictorial compositions, within one of the most jaggedly disturbed psychological structures, in all of classic Hollywood cinema; every moment (from the astoundingly dynamic opening credits) is a submission to a startling spectacle, to a degree that feels personally destabilizing. On a trip to New York, dissolute oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) rapidly falls for one of his company’s executive secretaries, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall); he marries her, cleans up his act, and brings her to the family’s Texan home base, a setting dominated by his unhappily promiscuous sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), whose behaviour is at least partially driven by her unrequited love for Kyle’s best friend and fixer Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who can only look on her as a sister, and who in turn is in love with Lucy (Sirk weaves in a rich number of Freudian threads, including Kyle wishing that Mitch’s father had been his own). Stack and Malone both give heightened, physically unrestrained, often almost gargoyle-like performances, their great wealth and potential power only accentuating their personal inadequacies – when, in Kyle’s case, the symbolic inadequacy appears to become a primal medical one, such that he believes himself to be sterile, there’s no recourse except inwards, into drunkenness and madness and beyond. At times, the film feels like Gothic horror, the vast family home seeming almost demonically possessed (for example, in the cross-cutting of Marylee feverishly dancing in her bedroom and her despairing father taking a fatal fall down the stairs). It follows then that Mitch and Lucy, the representatives of relative normality (to the extent that anything about the fifties seems normal in retrospect) can only find closure by fleeing the site of trauma, leaving Marylee as the inheritor of familial power, the final shot laden with unresolved sexual threat.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (Shiro Toyoda, 1956)


Shiro Toyoda’s Shozo, a Cat and Two Women often feels rather trifling and (at two and a quarter hours) protracted, but ultimately achieves a bleakly stubborn persuasiveness. As the film starts, Shozo’s wife Shinaka is more or less hounded into leaving him by his dominating mother, who wants him remarried to his younger mistress Fukuko, mainly because of the accompanying financial benefits (Fukuko’s father also holds the mortgage on their house). Shozo’s erotic attraction to Fukuko (especially, it seems, to her legs) is made clear enough – the film is quite ribald at times (and striking in its portrayal of Fukuko’s proud sexual self-determination, for which we’re told she’s even made the newspapers in the past) – but his only real emotional affinity is for his aging cat Lily, disliked by Fukuko, and only of interest to Shinaka as part of her plot to get Shozo back (her options otherwise looking grim). All of this entails a fair amount of repetitive histrionics, but one driven by real anxieties about basic survival – Shozo’s immaturity and general inability to engage with reality (left to his own devices, it’s clear that the little store from which he makes a meagre living would hardly function at all) seem like a defense against a hard-edged post-war landscape he otherwise finds impossible to engage with. Lily being a cat, it’s a recurring mystery over whether Shozo’s elevated view of her is at all reciprocated, not least at the end, when he basically leaves the two women (by then seemingly headed for a domestic version of mutually assured destruction) behind and bets everything on her, leading to a strikingly desolate ending. The film’s philosophical strands are clunkily underlined by Shinaka’s brother-in-law, supposedly obsessed by philosophy, which as manifested here basically just consists of dropping words like “existential” into everyday sentences (to his wife’s understandable bemusement).

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

How Green was My Valley? (John Ford, 1941)


Like Citizen Kane, which it famously beat as the best picture Oscar winner of 1941, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley? is heavy with remembrance and regret, for a time of vanished coherence and beauty. Ford’s film is far more conventional than Welles’s, and looms far less large in the collective cinematic memory, but much about it is beautiful and moving, even if there’s little that doesn’t seem simplified and/or idealized (it’s in black and white, but still, one feels that the valley was never that green, that life was never in such perfect equilibrium). The film constitutes the childhood memories of Hugh (played as a boy, very sweetly, by Roddy McDowall), the youngest of six brother and a sister (Maureen O’Hara) growing up in a Welsh mining village. At first, all seems idyllic (the film rings with choral renditions of many Welsh-language classics), but many of the opening precepts are shown to be false or fragile: the economic relationship between the mine and the workers deteriorates more with each passing year, causing an inevitable outward migration and erosion of community; the centrality of religion is exposed as a ritualistic sham (Walter Pidgeon plays the local minister, ultimately all but driven out by cowardly hypocrisy); the inherent danger of the work floods the valley with loss, and slowly poisons those lush vistas. Saddest of all is the decision of academically gifted Hugh to follow his family into the mine rather than continue with his studies, speaking sad volumes about the imposed smallness of his world, his inability to grasp broader possibilities. The film may be at its weakest when Ford indulges his liking for boozy camaraderie, but impresses with the confidence of its storytelling, not least with how much its ending leaves unresolved, both for the individuals and for the world they inhabit.