An insularly tailored domestic “comedy” with hugely reverberative implications, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1925 silent, Master of the House, earns its potency both acerbic and chilling primarily through innuendo, specifically in how it suggests the casualness and rampancy with which men abuse their wives. Released into a world of crumbling economic stability, the film indicted the kind of self-pitying male egos that felt entitled to the status quo – haughty patriarchs who would stratify their own family as society would workers. To evoke such lordly behavior, Dreyer uses one family, the Frandsens, as a template for what’s shown to be a ubiquitous issue of the time; his avatar for over-compensatory, limp masculinity acts as a veritable tyrant to his spouse and progeny, who spend the majority of their day evading and diffusing his bitchy tantrums.
Author Joe Galm
Before gifting us the cinema of blood spurting phalluses (and talking foxes!) in 2009, before he ended the world in 2011, and before he, in graphic yet clinical fashion, challenged the sexual mores of society and the filmic facsimiles thereof this past year, Lars von Trier made Breaking the Waves, a work that’s as much a remonstration as is its younger brethren. Despite the late public courts decreeing him more a provocateur than auteur – even a hybrid moniker like “provocauteur” feels like a concession of his talents – the confrontational tenor that pervades his films is one that’s distinctly personal, an extension of his own musings on social and artistic orders, his own phobias and anxieties, and his own feelings on what constitutes beauty and amity; his characters often reflect this, bearing the weight of the director’s cognitive crosses as they march themselves perforce toward martyrdom. What’s of important note, however, is that while von Trier readily projects his own traits and concerns unto a protagonist, he’s able to refrain from painting himself a sacrificial lamb – he never truly characterizes by way of surrogacy. Thus, his films take the form of largely candid but wholly exotic outlets, works that are imbued with a certain intimacy even when at their most oblique or didactic; to find appeal in von Trier’s cinema is to realize that his essayist intellectualism and his coarse humanity are complimentary tendencies of the same persona.
Though jarringly oblique in way of presentation, Persona is a work that’s brimming with tidy cases of contrast, ostensibly neat binaries whose borders are purposefully blurred as if to make broader points – or perhaps, to raise broader questions – about the ambiguity surrounding reality and the ways we define it. As humans, our communal sense of history has allowed us to accrue more than a few modalities for communicating our initially ineffable experiences on Earth, and director Ingmar Bergman makes it a point to underscore several of these methods throughout his 1966 “art house” prototype: His camera lingers and focuses upon gestures and the unconscious dance of hands; faces are featured in penetrating close-up to bring forth the kind of expressional wrinkles that we ourselves are blind to; and variegated methods of human invention, from letters to theater to radio to film to television, make cameos that evince how acts of art and creation have come to shape, even dominate, our concept of existence. But such examples of conveyance, particularly the manmade tertiary group, are mere constructs, and it’s important to note that Bergman understands and utilizes them as such. His film makes it not a point to explore these modes of communication, but to demonstrate the complexity and sophistication with which we attempt connection and empathy through them.
It’s a paradoxical body, the filmography of David Gordon Green, a collective that’s oft regarded as something in a near dependable state of decay. Immediately peaking with George Washington or perhaps All the Real Girls, the theory goes, the director slowly fell victim to a clot of expectations and misgivings, eventually coming to favor illusorily safe narrative choices over the somewhat naïve, though no less poignant, rhapsodic lilts that typified his earliest works. The idea here is that vocational experience is supposed to beget formal refinement, which in turn should beget expressional maturation. But this criticism, like many other reductive exercises, is great with fault. Envisioning a strictly linear interpretation of progress, the suggested notion posits a rather capsular view of how artists develop, ignoring, if not outright rejecting, the complexity and dynamicism of the individual. While fiscal burdens and critical pressures may help to curtail some of their more audacious tendencies, a filmmaker is ultimately a multifarious and evolving entity – even, yes, a human being; to decry thematic or ambient shifts in their oeuvre is to assume motive, and moreover, romanticizes the notion of personal stagnancy.
Nymphomaniac begins with a familiar enough motif. As snowflakes fall delicately from the sky and the trickle of water chastely tings off tin roofs, we happen upon a crumpled Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying motionless in an alley, her face worn and ecchymotic, her skin stained sanguine from trauma. The concept here is, in some ways, one of defense and humility on the part of filmmaker Lars von Trier – that despite moments of concord and tranquility, there will always exist, if we’re to look hard enough, pockets of human abjection. An artist often implicated on misogynistic criticisms, von Trier’s opening to Nymphomaniac seems like something of a bifurcated plea bargain, at once confessing that he’s headed for familiarly offensive territory but arguing the circumstantiality of such charges. It’s true, of course, that the women of his films are oftentimes models for all varietals of abuse, though I would argue that this is never carried out in fetishistic or apathetic tenors. No, instead he often employs such brands of battery and subjugation as methods for pointing out systematic and institutionalized bias, being a bit theoretically and formally hyperbolic in the process, but not, I don’t think, ever being without a fitting conceptual alibi. The women who suffer in his works do so in an allegorical sense, not unlike the protagonists of the sometimes ill-criticized Coen brothers; tragedy and endurance become things to be examined rather than scorned, and the events are less used for characterization than social critique.
The tenth (tenth!) bullet fired in Godard’s 1960’s cinematic fusillade, Masculine Feminine begins not, as many recollect, in a café with its idealistic male avatar, Paul (a young Jean-Pierre Léaud), stumbling through clumsily written poetic passages, but with the sound of someone (likely him) whistling “La Marseillaise” over the opening credits, a tune that’s quickly interrupted, overtaken even, by some non-diegetic gunshots. Of course, immediately after this little audial exercise is when we do find Paul staring impassively at the poetry before him, trying to approximate a feeling cadence and intonation but conveying only greenness with his reading. That one of these events happens before the other is less important than acknowledging they both exist, and moreover, are incremental in shaping both the film and Godard’s fast evolving vision of mid-60’s Parisian youth.
Chaplin’s 1931 masterwork City Lights opens, appropriately enough, with a title card labeling it a “Comedy Romance in Pantomime,” a distinction that extols its status as a silent picture in an era fastly falling smitten with diegetic sound. But the word “pantomime,” naturally, carries with it other implications aside from a cinematic form of expressive gesticulation. Chaplin’s signature character, The Tramp, is also but a creature of imitation and role-playing, his mannerisms, however polite and well meaning, clearly parroted from more high society citizens. From the opening scene – a delightfully prickly scenario set at a statue’s unveiling – the friction inherent to such a bipolar class system is present, with The Tramp acting as a surrogate for, if not the desolately impoverished, those socially marginalized by economic difference; the character’s mere presence is a reminder to the glitterati that poverty persists despite their gentrifying efforts. Throughout City Lights, Chaplin amusingly illuminates how elitism permeates societal custom, as there’s little mistaking Chaplin’s tatter-clothed protagonist as anything beyond a kindly guttersnipe, no matter how courteously he might tip his bowler or how playfully he might twirl his cane.
The island is a capsule, and in every sense of the word. Physically isolated, its inhabitants needn’t worry about the social boundaries accrued from generations past, the likes of which now seem but arbitrary and distant constructs, impediments to newfound stirrings of communal bliss. Knowing civilization is not typically bore of spontaneity, the dwellers of the land – all adolescents, boys – share an optimism for the society they’ll together forge, one that’s as manageable as it is insular and that will capitalize on the mistakes of antecedents. But the children are still just that – children. Their purviews both individual and collective are capsular in their inability to see past their rather limited temporal scope, or moreover, their further limited sense of mortality. Most of their actions at this developmental stage aren’t driven by instinct but social charade and mimicry. In this manner, not only are the boys closed off from outside institutional influences, they’re severed from maturational ones as well. How could they expect to better modern governance armed with only a cursory understanding of republics and a puerile grasp of life itself?
With its tonal arrhythmia and fidgety interest in perspective, Marketa Lazarova is a film of awkward transcendence, its swaths of beauty and visual charm so broad that my initial concerns of cohesion, I feel, can be justifiably dismissed. An obliquely portentous prologue sets the tone for nearly three hours worth of frames, evincing the philosophical curiosities of director Frantisek Vlácil as those pertaining to human nature and our thirst for endeavor, particularly within the arts. To this end, the opening of the picture, what with its kinetic imagery and punctuated sound design, becomes something of a testament to the random, subtly overlaying the agency of chance in what we pass on genetically as well as creatively – how that which endures (in life, in art, in culture), for whatever reason, is what ultimately constitutes reality. Vlácil appears comfortable in whatever the fates may bring, and through his work we glimpse an artist more interested in exploring – or perhaps experimenting with – the myriad whys of existence rather than one who merely accepts the end products, the tangible and real, as insularly perfect; his film is one that cherishes and finds humor in the happenstantial, showing how the flawed ingredients of yesteryear give way to a flawed, though no less imminent, world of today.
In an era where civic duty and personal heroics are often conflated – or, more likely, confused – with clamorous projections of fantastical masculinity, it’s easy to mistake the phallic armory in Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma as symbols of power, cylindrical totems to androgenic potency that grant their wielders dominance and authority. After all, the film is largely concerned with such dynamics, and especially so with regards to how they fall across gender lines. It doesn’t require particularly strong observational acumen to feel the unease of one particular early scene, in which a gang of men leer explicitly at an insular female presence; the woman, a bartender, nervously pours drinks while the fellas ocularly objectify her, and both the words spoken and smoke exhaled seem to overtake the very nature of the saloon, turning the diorama into a smoldering balancing act of bestial fervor. In this, the threat of sexual violence is one felt as certain and real despite never being directly stated. The male gunslingers hold an implied power over the female barkeep, who has but a small wooden wall and a smidge of social courtesy protecting her; she’s literally in a position of subservience and vulnerability. But what about later – how are we to read an ensuing scene that depicts two men, outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and farmer-cum-deputy Dan Evans (Van Heflin), engaged in a sweaty power tussle in a hotel bridal suite? That Ben is ultimately confined to a bed at the behest of Dan’s shotgun is telling, but incomplete – the dynamic present isn’t one of physicality or even metaphorical virility. Ideas of masculine symbolism are quickly nullified by the introduction of an outside agent, one that’s, in the face of archaic male-centric power structures, subversive to primal orders: money, and the tiered socioeconomic systems it abides.