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.
Author Joe Galm
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.
The words “Je ne sais pas” (“I don’t know”) escape the pursed, near quivering lips of Odile (Anna Karina) with such echoic frequency throughout Jean-Luc Godard’s seventh feature, Band of Outsiders, that one may be inclined to agree with petty criminals Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) when they openly lament her idiocy. A naiveté with both a penchant for romanticism and farcically simple grasp of intimacy (eyes shut and mouth agape, her tongue stiffly protruding, she once awaits a kiss from Arthur), the primary female representation in the film is a marked reduction of the women in Godard’s previous works, in particular those also played by Karina. But to make the actress – who, at this juncture, was the director’s wife – portray more a bumbling effigy than feminine icon was, of course, a conscious decision on the part of the auteur. Like that of the film, the essence of Odile is one informed by a combination of American pop and archaic cinematic mores.
Be it calculated or simply fortuitous, the transition from stagey to alfresco scenery near the two-hour mark of Lawrence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III comes as an optically welcomed contrast, an abrupt visual decompression of the work’s previously bottled grandeur. Knowing that one mustn’t casually take an oblique, abstruse route in reworking the Bard’s material – or perhaps, due to his roots in theatre, a personal fondness of the arts prevented such a thorough reworking – Olivier employs the fifth-act battle scene as a way to finally sculpt the work cinematic, noticeably straying from his beloved medium shot and capturing the horizon with an opulently wide framing concern. What follows is as novel as it is organic, for it marks film’s first departure from the eloquent constraint of Shakespeare’s prose. What’s finally seen is movement and staging that’s less than exactingly choreographed, as Olivier relents some directorial control in apropos unison with Richard’s (portrayed by the director himself) failing psyche; the mere presence of such broad landscapes are read as lysergic – the gesture a microcosm of the character’s personal narrative.
Those who meet me anew usually come to difficulty in apprehending how I once was no friend to lucidity. Likening perceptive normality to but one of many lenses through which to filter existence – specifically, one that has roots in the survival-driven, neurological evolution of our species – I found sober vantage points too constricting and socially absolute for my comfort, especially when contextualized against the stability of my suburban milieu; threats to my survival, be it on mortal or economic grounds, always seemed like specious, distant thunder. And so I imbibed. There were likely many reasons why I so enjoyed, to put it romantically, distorting the planes of my reality, but the most conceptually fascinating of the lot has to do with metamorphosis– the permutation of one’s mental faculties as a result of consuming something corporeal.
Have any filmmakers implanted their evocations so ardently in the fertile soils of other artisan realms as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? Proffering their cinema as not only a protraction of life but also of art’s variable forms, the famed duo often call upon established means of expressions – and usually in juxtaposition of some sort of conflict or war – as if to suggest not only art’s importance to art but the everyday as well. Their 1948 masterwork, The Red Shoes, probably best encapsulates this reverberating dynamic, positing the multifarious nature of creation as, because of human pride, existing in something of a constant state of friction, its participants often striking discord rather than harmony in attempting to collaborate; visionary struggle becomes a microcosm for existence. Other examples of course befit this distinction: one of their late post-war efforts, The Tales of Hoffman, has the pair adapting an opera through a lens of filmic agency. And even their works of less direct influence – such as I Know Where I’m Going and A Matter of Life and Death – still emit hints of oral storytelling traditions and the ability of [art] to shape our worlds, or at least our perception thereof. (Powell’s own Peeping Tom, too, is an erudite exhibition of the medium’s connections to both voyeurism and reality.) In any case, the common thread of such a sweeping canonical gesture is one that deals in a dialogue of producers and their participants, the architects of social order and those who abide their formations.
Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) hauls garbage, remnants of modern life whose use has faded, articles and scraps that have become more burdensome than practical. It’s not a glamorous profession, but its demands happen to fall within the breadth of the wayward twentysomething’s skillset: a certain tolerance for dirty work, base monetary needs, and most importantly, a strong, young back. To be sure, picking trash isn’t a romantic vocational choice, though it is, if nothing else, a job necessitated by contemporary models for living, and director Terrence Malick, in his first full-length output, finds a poetic mystique in this underlying social need of removal and severance; in Badlands, a tale of building an identity in an image obsessed cultural structure, his philosophical angle is one set on exploring not a rejection of customs and mores, but of this idea of conscionable loss and abandonment.
Somewhere off-screen, flesh crackles and blisters. Liquefied on contact by fire-lit iron, the forehead skin of the slave first melts and gnarls before finally congealing into its new, permutated state. Now forever marked, the servant lives out his buffeted existence as a walking monolith, a human insignia, to the cost of defiance: Oppression, torture, and deformity of both mind and body alike.