Monday, April 19, 2021

On the Brink of Life


Ingmar Bergman, in a 1964 Playboy interview excerpted in Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema book: "Women used to interest me as subjects because they were so ridiculously treated and shown in movies." The director never abandoned his project of depicting the lives of women, but his 1958 film (one of two made that year) On the Brink of Life [Nära livet, regularly truncated to "Brink of Life"] zeroes in specifically on the phenomenon of maternity, in all its dimensions; to my mind it may be the greatest film on the subject. It's the story of three women admitted at a hospital sub-ward for problem pregnancies, which constitutes one of Bergman's most austere stagings. I use that word instead of mises-en-scène only because the picture is highly theatrical; with its claustrophobic single-floor setting and loquacious dialogues it could easily be mounted as a play. In fact I had at first assumed that the writing credit to Ulla Isaksson pertained to a theatrical work, but according to Fernanda Solórzano's essay "In the Company of Women" included in the Criterion book the script was in fact an original film scenario, suggested by Bergman, that adapts two of her short stories.

There are Cecilia/"Cissi" (Ingrid Thulin), Stina (Eva Dahlbeck), Hjördis (Bibi Andersson), and Nurse Brita (Barbro Hiort af Ornäs). Each woman takes a different stance towards her pregnancy, or failure thereof, probing the changes, or consequences, that it will bring to her respective life. I'd add that these three patients also take the cast of a particular facet of Bergman's own attitude in regard to having and rearing a child; by 1958, the director had already fathered five children with multiple mothers. That the film begins with the opening of a set of frosted-glass double-doors already suggests the obscurity and incertitude of the child-bearing, and child-rearing, project: a rather clinical word, but one that reinforces the chilliness of the setting and the distance at which a parent might position herself between nursing and non-obligation. The baby-doll dangling from the little girl's hand in the opening scene seems to further the sense of terror visible on Cissi's face as she waits bleeding on a gurney for a doctor to attend to her miscarriage-in-progress. (A few minutes later in the movie, after Cissi emerges from anesthesia, the nurse will relate to her what "a floppy doll" she had been while drugged.) A visit from her husband Anders Ellius (Erland Josephson in his first Bergman film role), with his cloying attempts at providing comfort to her peace of mind (after having already attempted a kind of reverse-psychological spell on her upon admission that everything was going to be fine and that he really wants this baby to live), only cements her decision, made for the time being, that they divorce and she relinquish the desire to assume any role of mother. Stina and Hjördis will, by the end of the film, likewise experience their own epiphanies in contradistinction to the particular mindsets of their babies' prospective fathers (an absent voice over the payphone in the case of Hjördis; with Stina, a doting and fastidious engineer played by Max van Sydow), while Cissi will assume the role of den-mother once adopted by Stina — the former of whom having been previously eyed by the other women upon her arrival as a kind of animal object or specimen. As Cissi later reflects, "Perhaps it's not just the womb that opens up here, but the entire person." By the end, all three have attained the brink of life and thus undergone themselves a new birth: a definite removal from the state of bodies slashed, curtailed (with the exception of Stina in the final moments, wholly enshrouded) by the oblique linear geometries of the frame in the form of bedrails, curtain-rods, and the like...


I'll conclude with Cannes. News broke today from France that the 74th edition of the Festival de Cannes will open with the in-competition-screening of none other than Leos Carax's (and Sparks'!!!) hugely anticipated Annette! Pierre Lescure, president of the festival, says: "Every Leos Carax film is an event. And this one delivers on its promises! Annette is the gift that lovers of cinema, music and culture were hoping for, one that we have been yearning for during the past year." General delegate Thierry Frémaux: "We couldn't have dreamed of a more beautiful reunion with cinema and the silver screen, in the Palais des Festivals where films come to assert their splendor. Carax's cinema is an expression of these powerful gestures, these mysterious alchemies that makes the secret of cinema's modernity and eternity."

What, though, did André Bazin have to say about Bergman's On the Brink of Life in his dispatches from the festival from 1958?

Bazin's first filing relates that Bergman's film (Au seuil de la vie in France) doesn't change the impression of a very mediocre festival (entry 2563 in the Écrits complets). 

The next day he writes (2566): "Yesterday evening I exhibited rather severe and disillusioned feelings with regard to Ingmar Bergman's film, On the Brink of Life. The conditions in which we have to judge the the films in the festival's final days are not, it must be stressed, very propitious to critical lucidity. Fatigue setting in, it happens that a slightly austere work not be seen in the best psychological conditions. This preamble is meant to explain that I've backtracked a bit on my first impressions. The press conference of the three "parturientes" — Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Eva Dahlbeck, held this morning at the Palais du Festival may have something to do with this. In any case, objectivity necessitates asserting that Bergman's film has its defenders, and I even think one of them is on the jury..." 

2572: "The Prize for Best Actress, given to the four lead actresses in the Swedish film On the Brink of Life, is as sympathetic as it is intelligent. Perhaps Bergman is a little too favored in gaining the Prize for Best Director, but there it's a question of dosage, and one would only think to say this recompense is not very deserving in and of itself." 

2573: He cites the movie as one of "Four Estimable Films" at the festival ("even if [he] like[s] them unequally"). On the Brink of Life is the first discussed; it disappointed many people, he reports, himself being one of them, before synopsizing the plot and characterizing it as a "consecutive moral evolution in biological events," likening it to Bresson's gambit in Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, remarking that Bergman stays faithful to his major themes: "the meditation upon life and death, the difficulty of being and loving."

2574: "A rather poorly received film [...] but which probably gains upon reflection and in any case deserves the utmost respect." 

2576: Cited in passing as one of the notable films to play the festival alongside "two masterpieces": Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying [Letyat zhuravli, 1957], and Tati's Mon oncle.



Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mong Kok Carmen / As Tears Go By

 Cool Rules the Wild East

Wong Kar-wai's first film, 1988's Mong Kok Carmen / As Tears Go By, today plays like a glimpse of things to come ("FUTURE" reads just one of the Kowloon cityscape's thousands of neon signs) which indeed came to pass both in the way of a hyper-stylized Asian cinéma du look, and, more substantively, in Wong's body of work over the following three decades. It might not be out of order to alternately pair his films in a program with those of Leos Carax, for he and Wong are two contemporary directors who remind us that style, specifically that which was found in the studio pictures of yore, provides entry to the most sensitive of mises-en-scène — at the term's ontological bases of formal rigor, propagation of discourses, and intellectual-emotional insights. No empty style: if viewed as a 98-minute sizzle-reel, As Tears Go By suggests that WKW's career could have taken one route (the exploration of Longing) or the other (torture-picture). We got the infinitely richer of the two; we find Wong already working with a vocabulary of objects (drinking glasses, soda-pop, mustard-and-ketchup-colored Mong Kok transit), within a syntax of repetition, of time brought to a halt and the fleetingness of 'now.' The Wong of coming and going, staying and leaving, phone calls accorded no connection at 'the end of the line.'

Andrew Lau Wai-keung's cinematography can at last be seen at home in all its glowing splendor with the new 4K scan and restoration (although it's worth noting that in the case of this film and Days of Being Wild, Wong didn't oversee the work) included in Criterion's handsome objet-box World of Wong Kar Wai. A controversial release for a few reasons, which I'll touch upon as I write more in the near future on the films included therein. For now, I'd simply raise an eyebrow at (1) the exclusion of the films' on-screen Chinese titles' translation anywhere in the set, and (2) the inclusion of John Powers, charged with writing what turns out to be a staid, vapid essay that singly represents the main content of an otherwise lavish book that might have been found in the accreditation bags at Cannes. (One new, very interesting document which I'll address soon has also been commissioned: a director's statement by Wong.) Besides being the insufferably chirpy 'movie reviewer' for NPR's Fresh Air, Powers brings the credential of having co-authored in 2016 with Wong one of those Rizzoli books, titled WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai; if this piece is any indication, I'll never touch the tome. In the World of Wong Kar Wai essay, he likens the performance of Jacky Cheung Hok-yau in As Tears Go By to that of Robert De Niro in Mean Streets, perceiving in Cheung "an almost hysterical Method ferocity." — an absolutely foolish observation. Prior, Powers describes lead Andy Lau Tak-wah as "[k]nife-thin," which will come as a surprise to anyone who's seen recent images of the now-shred-ripped Lau and compared them to 1988's perfectly average physique — to my eyes, one not generally accustomed to aid in tearing phone-books. The whole thing enervates. Where were Charles Tesson, or Olivier Assayas, the editors of Cahiers' celebrated Made in Hong Kong special, as only two examples and who aren't even from Hong Kong? 

Assayas being, of course, the author of Irma Vep (Johnnie To citation aside) and the ex-husband of Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, so perhaps that answers that. But it would be remiss to finish without mentioning the now-publicity-shy Cheung, who with As Tears Go By launches her career. In the moment she asks Andy Lau how long he'll stay in town for, and he answers that he hasn't decided, her physical reflex-response — a certain smile, a certain glance off-frame — is worthy of the Ringo Kid's tracking close-up in Stagecoach. A star is born. •


Other writing about Wong Kar-wai at Cinemasparagus:


Monday, April 12, 2021

La strada

The Owl of the Tarp

I would venture to say that Fellini's La strada [The Road, 1954], one of the most famous "foreign films," gained its popularity through two aspects which remain indelible 'sousconscierie' for most who think back on this picture, the memory of which indeed matches the actuality of the story and the images onscreen: (1) simpering, 'simple' Gelsomina's (Giulietta Masina) and barrel-chested Zampanò's (Anthony Quinn) sado-masochistic relationship, replete with a chain that snaps before it is replenished once more; and (2) the totality of the landscape that looks as though Zampanò's motorbike-wagon-combo alone could traverse its mud-clumped topography. Emblazoned on one side of the vehicle's tarp: Zampanò's name. On the opposite: a naïve painting of an owl that might be a stand-in for Gelsomina... — no. The illustration predates Gelsomina's service to Zampanò — is the vestige, perhaps, of Gelsomina's sister Rosa's time with Zampanò, she who died in the 'care' of the vagabond. Sans toit ni loi — the chain is perpetually reassembled. 

Eternal return. The film begins where it will end, on the beach bordering Gelsomina's and Rosa's family home. "Gelsomina...!" sounds in the distance, sirened like a ghostly oath, echoed at the end of the film by Rota's famous theme sung by the woman at the clothesline. Gelsomina answers the call, reeds affixed to her back in an image not unlike something from Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari. She will be sold to Zampanò for 10,000 lire. Mama reasons with her daughter: "It's not your fault you're not like other girls."

Zampanò will have his way with Gelsomina in the back of the wagon shortly after taking to the road. She awakens, smiles at him wanly, and wipes her eyes. Zampanò will later sleep with a bouncy donna following one performance, and another, more ravaged (if not necessarily older) lady in the aftermath of a wedding party, who seduces him in the most circumspect of phrases. The courtship of "il Matto" (the Fool, Richard Basehart) towards Gelsomina results in a deadly outcome. (The first time we see him is as a shade traversing a building in the midst of a tight-rope walk illuminated by projector lights and torches.) Some episode from Zampanò's and il Matto's past remains an open wound — Basehart's own death-wish or masochistic tendencies find him incapable of referring to Quinn as anything other than "Ciufile," a bowdlerization of "Fucile" (or "Rifle") and potential mockery of the old wolf's potency. One suspects un'avventura between il Matto and Rosa. 

Fellini will come full circle again when he parallels the ending of La strada with that of La dolce vita. As Scorsese might put it, both films conclude with a spiritual reckoning. One beautiful moment:

"Where are we?" "In Rome! That's St. Paul's!" On the soundtrack, a dove flitters by.