Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Visual Passion: Elvira Madigan and Other Films

Like Terrence Malick’s lovers on the lam in Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1977), Elvira Madigan (Pia Degermark) and Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) in director Bo Widerberg’s hauntingly beautiful Elvira Madigan (1967) pass through an indifferent world of pastoral beauty and come to a bad end. Did shots of Elvira and Sixten gathering food while they lounge in nature, oblivious to the conventions and responsibilities that make their affair hopeless, inspire Malick’s similar depictions of Bill and Abby and Kit and Holly camping and fishing by a river while the law closes in on them? Did Widerberg’s film also influence the sensual shots of sexually frustrated girls picnicking in the rugged beauty of Australia in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)? Widerberg’s attention to the sensuous and sensual effect of shots of raspberries in thick cream; red currants devoured right off the bush by the hungry Elvira; red wine soaking a white cloth; white lace curtains in a sun-filled room – set to classical music (Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) - seems to be a characteristic of the kind of lyrical cinema made by auteurs of the 1970s. Whether or not the Swedish film Elvira Madigan influenced Malick or Weir in any way, it is clear that nature is often a key element in stories depicting the intensity of the enigmatic biological and psychological processes that cause people to fall in love passionately.

Whatever influence it has had on later decades, Elvira Madigan is very much a child of the 60s. It is about a man and a woman who turn their backs on convention, forsaking everything for love, spending their days together literally rolling in the hay and living like Mother Nature’s children. Hedvig Jensen, a tightrope walker whose stage name is Elvira Madigan, turns her back on fame. Sixten, a nobleman and a cavalry officer, deserts the army and leaves wife and children for his lover. When a fellow officer tries to make Sixten see that he is focusing on a single blade of grass and not seeing the whole world around him, Sixten sounds like a hippie poet when he responds by saying that “one blade of grass can be the entire world.” Sixten goes on to say that “words have lost their meaning.” Also very fittingly for a 60s film, Sixten makes it clear that he is leaving the army because of all that it means, and he proceeds to present a graphic description of the many layers of tissue and muscle pierced by a bayonet before it reaches the gut.

Elvira Madigan is an engaging portrait of mutual passion, memorable for how it reflects inner passion in shots of exterior natural beauty. In contrast, The Deep Blue Sea (2012) takes place mostly in interiors: darkly lit pubs and a drab flat in a building not far from rubble still remaining from the Blitz. In The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies, Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), wife of a judge, falls in love with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome golfer and hero of the Battle of Britain, but the passion soon becomes one-sided, leaving Hester suicidal. Unlike Elvira and Sixten, Hester and Freddie are not wired the same way. Freddie does not feel the same way about Hester, and it is impossible for him to understand how this drives Hester to such despair. Only Hester knows completely how she feels, and I totally sympathize with how she is left “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” unable to change how she feels. She can’t help the way she is wired for passion, and this leads to her despair. The joy in the ultimately tragic Elvira Madigan is that the two lovers are totally on the same wavelength from beginning to end. If they can’t be together, then it’s goodbye world.

There are no golden fields, shady woods, or sunny beaches in The Deep Blue Sea, but the passionate love affair of Elvira Madigan and Sixten Sparre is almost entirely set in exquisitely beautiful and sunny exteriors. Elvira and Sixten try to enjoy their days of heaven together in an idyllic pastoral world as they run from convention, run out of money, and run out of options. Leaving each other and going back to their responsibilities is definitely not an option, and actress Pia Degermark's pure face and entrancing eyes make it very clear why a young man would not want to leave this woman. Nature provides the setting for lovemaking, picnics, an exquisite tightrope walking scene, and beachcombing at sunset. It also provides food, virtually turning them into foraging animals. Sixten and Elvira graze on mushrooms; they catch a fish; they stuff themselves with berries. In one scene, Elvira hungrily plucks clover from the ground, eating it until she vomits. Other than that scene, nature is always benevolent, providing food and sunny days and never a drop of rain. In keeping with the weather, Elvira and Sixten only quarrel once, and they make up very easily when Sixten writes “Forgive me” on a slip of paper and floats it down a creek to Elvira.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"From man to dragon": Coriolanus (2011)

Shakespeare assumed we’d come to the theater ready to use our imaginations. His speeches, as delivered by the performers, provide the drama, but trappings such as weather and the terrain of the setting, as described in the speeches, are up to us to imagine. Similarly, as the texts come to us today, a Shakespeare play is a bare template open to an imaginative director’s visualization. Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have been big on stage directions. In the famous duel scene in Hamlet, the spare stage direction They play has invited countless interpretations for the choreography of this dramatic episode. But Hamlet is the kind of Shakespeare play that doesn’t need a lot of effort from actors or set designers to enhance its language. The language alone is engrossing.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, however, is one of those utilitarian Shakespeare plays whose functional speeches require a little more effort from a director, and Coriolanus, as directed by Ralph Fiennes, gets its drama pumped up by the director’s imaginative approach. Here, Fiennes takes the tragedy of Caius Marcius Coriolanus, the kind of problem general like Patton or Custer (before the Little Bighorn) who gets an A in War but an F in Diplomacy, and establishes a 1990s Bosnia/Serbia mise-en-scène replete with villages in rocky places, garbage-cluttered streets, and unsavory stray dogs. Employing newsreel footage, news channel feeds, and scenes set in the streets and governmental chambers of a place called Rome, Fiennes really fits the language into the setting in a way that works very smoothly so that when CNN-style pundits exchange commentary in Elizabethan diction, it doesn’t seem strange at all.

In this world of a discontented populace protesting the economy and Kevlar-clad soldiers engaged in fierce firefights with insurgents toting AK-47s, Caius Marcius, as played by Ralph Fiennes, sacrifices his blood for his country by fighting Rome’s chief enemy, Tullus Aufidius. As Aufidius, Gerard Butler is superb, enhancing the drama of lines that often lack the memorable imagery of Shakespeare’s better plays. The acting is excellent throughout the film, with Jessica Chastain as Virgilia, Corolanus’s wife, and the especially engaging Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, his mother. Though Redgrave loses us in some of Shakespeare’s more convoluted syntax that cries out desperately for a full stop, her lines are earnestly and believably delivered, and she steals the show when she begs her vengeful, banished son, who joins forces with Aufidius, to spare Rome from invasion.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"What do you see?" - April 14, 1912

On this night, one hundred years ago, the R.M.S.Titanic approached its fateful encounter with a chunk of ice.

After sighting the huge iceberg, Lookout Frederick Fleet rang the crow’s nest bell three times between 11:30 and 11:40 on the night of April 14, 1912.

“Is someone there?” he said over the phone to the bridge.

“What do you see?” said Sixth Officer Moody.

“Iceberg right ahead.”

Over at The Sheila Variations, Sheila has posted a poignant commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic as a tribute to Titanic obsessives.

Being a Titanic obsessive myself, I wanted to post a few comments in way of my own commemoration.

My obsession with Titanic began when I was 10 years old or so and I saw Titanic (1953), with Clifton Webb and Barbra Stanwyck, on television. I was duly obsessed. I watched the movie whenever it was on TV. Imitating the dialogue and sound effects from the film, I re-enacted the sinking in the bathtub countless times.

Despite the film’s romantic and inaccurate depiction of the sinking (an underwater shot shows the ship’s portside hull hitting the iceberg), I still consider it a touching and dramatic account of this tragic disaster. I love how it starts out with the iceberg rising to the surface of the sea. It builds wonderful tension during the moments before the collision. Even James Cameron pays tribute to the film by borrowing the line about “announcing dinner as though it were a cavalry charge” from Clifton Webb. For a much more accurate account, the fine A Night to Remember (1958), based on Walter Lord’s non-fictional account, holds up dramatically.

From these 50s movies, my obsession went on to books that debunked the legends and set me straight on the facts.

Throughout my life, I have enjoyed a number of Titanic thrills:

Reading the National Geographic article of Robert Ballard’s discovery of how the Titanic really sank when I had moved to Cape Cod, not far from Woods Hole where Ballard's expedition began.

Seeing the 28-foot model used in the 1953 film at the Fall River Marine Museum.

Discovering Ken Marschall's glorious book of paintings (the basis for much of the art direction in Cameron's Titanic) before I even knew James Cameron was planning his own film.

Seeing James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) six times at the theater: twice in December, 1997, and then once a month through April, 1998. Sometimes I shudder at some of the film’s silly bits, but this is a meticulously researched film and the depiction of the sinking is amazing. Reading James Cameron’s Titanic, the book about the making of the film by Ed W. Marsh, is an inspiring account of the epic extent to which the creative process can go.

(In defense of the film’s accuracy, I wrote a rebuttal to a local Harbormaster who went on record in a Cape Cod Times article reporting viewers’ opinions to say that the helmsman in the movie turns the ship’s wheel the wrong way to go “hard a’ starboard.” To prove him wrong, I discovered a passage from the Titanic inquest which clearly states that Quartermaster Hichens turned the wheel “counter-clockwise,” as in the film, not toward starboard, because in those days British commands were based on a sailboat with a tiller. Thus, going “hard a’ starboard” meant turning the stern to starboard, sending the ship’s bow to port. I wrote the Harbormaster but never got a reply.)

Seeing the traveling Titanic: the Artifact Exhibit in San Francisco and touching a piece of the hull!

Being inspired by Titanic-obsessed girls in my Drama Club to write my own full length Titanic stage play, with historical and original fictional characters, and producing it at the high school where I teach.

Seeing the re-release of Titanic (1997) - the best screen experience I’ve seen in a long time.

Well, time to go. It’s the night of April 13th on screen and Robert Wagner gets to dance with Audrey Dalton, Clifton Webb learns he is not the father of his “son,” and a drunken Richard Basehart reveals he is an excommunicated Catholic priest. In James Cameron’s film, the night of April 13th covers Frances Fisher cinching Kate Winslet up in a corset. All the drama, passion, heroism, tragedy, and fateful serendipity take place on the night of April 14th – 15th, 1912.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Curtains" - High School Students Write About The Tree of Life

Every year in my A.P. Literature and Composition class for high school seniors, in an effort to change the pace and take a break from reading heady literature, I show Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. I choose this movie because I know none of my students have seen it, and I’ve always been pleased by the very positive responses. After watching, the students write an essay exploring the themes of longing, sin, and damnation in an indifferent world, and how the imagery reflects those themes. I often get essays that are some of the students’ best work.

This year, with the Academy Award nominations coming out at about the same time, my students were aware that The Tree of Life is another film by Malick, and I told them I would show them the opening forty-five minutes and I would ask them to make observations about images that seem to echo Days of Heaven. Very perceptively they commented about “nature,” “snakes,” “curtains.”

When I asked them how they felt about the film, they gave the following responses:

“This movie isn’t about anything.”

“It’s like a long novel.”

“It’s like a bunch of screensavers.”

But responses were positive enough that I decided to show them the whole movie if they would write an essay on it. After finishing the film, most of them were glad they had seen it. One girl said she loved how the film tells its story with symbolism. One boy admitted it just wasn’t his cup of tea. Another girl remarked how she didn’t do well with “that religious chorus music.”

Nevertheless, my students wrote some well-written, perceptive essays analyzing the character of Jack, his conflicts, his motives, and what the imagery reveals about him.

Below, with my students' permission, I have included unedited excerpts written by each of my young film writers: