A discussion of Hsin Chi’s THE RICE DUMPLING VENDORS (1969), a rare male melodrama. The protagonist kicks his wife out of the house for perceived infidelity; as soon as he does the whole family falls apart and is plunged in a spiral of poverty, the father at one point abandoning his baby even as his two minor children take on jobs in order to buy milk. The film documents a society on the cusp of modernity and suffering the effects of the social and economic effects produced by it. Stylistically, the film is highly skilled and gorgeous to look at. Character’s thoughts are offered in voice-over or through song. There is a mix of genres: noir/action/family-melodrama/documentary. It’s a cinephile’s film, with references to PSYCHO (1960) and other films. The music borrows from CINDERELLA (1950) as well as then current pop-hits as Sinatra’s version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. We also discuss the extent to which this film is an influence on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE SANDWICH MAN (1983). The more Hsin Chi films we see, the more we like and value them.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, this trailer will hopefully entice you to:
We were delighted to see Su Chu (The People’s Grandmother), Chin Tu (Veteran Thespian), and especially Chin Mei (Tragic Goddess).
We once more thank the Taiwan Film and Audio-Visual Institute for the opportunity to see these marvellous copies of Lin Tuan-Chiu films. In the podcast we discuss the combination of genres in the film — melodrama, court-room drama, documentary, murder-mystery, musical. We discuss the acting in relation to revue theatre. We wonder if a scene from Hou’s Cute Girl finds its inspiration here….and much more.
After a brief gap, José Arroyo and Richard Layne return for the 24th episode of the Youssef Chahine Pocast, an extended discussion of L’autre/ The Other, a film about Orientalism, Imperialism, Terrorism; an examination of class structures with a gender analysis; a film about a land and its people…yet one that also recalls popular melodramatic and glitzy works like Dynasty. Not quite top Chahine but a film that’s nonetheless made us think and that we’ve grown to love. Edward Said starts off the film with a delicious lecture/advice/framing paradigm:
The following excerpts are discussed in the podcast and should be of interest:
The discussion with Edward Said:
The fantasy sequence:
The hommage to Duvivier’s Carnet de bal
The sexual violence:
Connection to Dynasty:
Some of you may also be interested in this conversation with Marianne Khoury, Youssef Chahine’s niece:
A discussion of Le sixième jour, which Chahine dedicates to Gene Kelly as a thank you for having filled his youth with joy. A rare Chahine film that is centred on a female star, female desire and female self-actualisation in a patriarchal culture. A hybrid of a woman’s film and musical. It’s set during a cholera pandemic, which resonates with the present, and also features a story of the unrequited love of a 26 year old street performer for an unhappy and much older housewife, one that still feels transgressive. Richard loved it very much. I less so. But we agree that it remains essential viewing for fans of Dalida and Youssef Chahine.
A teen musical à la Tennesse Williams with Shakespearean overtones and a blood wedding that would put both García Lorca and Game of Thrones to shame. Richard Layne and I discuss all of this in the context of both Chahine’s career, it was his first film after the Trilogy of Defeat (The Land,The Choice,The Sparrow) –and the political context of the time, with the Civil War in Lebanon, one that was to last fifteen years, starting in 1975, the year before this Algerian-Lebanese-Egyptian co-production was produced.
The film is structured around the Old Testament Story, with a Cain and Abel structuring device also accompanied by a Romeo and Juliet story, in this case, and in keeping with the film’s Marxist analysis, a love made impossible by a class divide. It also borrows from the André Gide short story of the same name which explores the impossibility of having one law that fits all.
The film is a very hybrid generically, but it IS a musical. In The Arab National Project in Yousssef Chahine’s Cinema, Malek Khouri writes,
The first musical number takes place at school where the two young dreamers Rafida and Ibrahim express their friendship and love for each other. The second song accompanies Ali’s release from prison and introduces us to his character through flashbacks of his lost time in prison and his consequent disillusionment with his political dreams and hopes. The third follows the fight between Ibrahim and his father Tulba, as Ibrahim and his father Tulb, Ibrahim and Tafida join other youths in proclaiming ‘The streets are ours,’ reflecting the solidarity and determination of youth in the fight for social change and freedom. The final song is inItially heard when Ibrahim is bit by a scorpion, and is heard once again as a mantra towards the end of the film as the bloody chaos explodes at the Madbouli household’ (p. 108)
The music is glorious, as you can see below in the footage of Sadat’s funeral, that leads to a full-blown musical number, with dancing.
The film’s first musical number is this lovely one about the ending of school.
This is continued by a song that refers both to Egypt after Nasser but also to the love story between our two young protagonists.
A song that. is reprised in the incredible finale for the film, which is as lurid and violent as anything in Titus Andronicus:
…and as always, Chahine puts his hopes in youth and the future:
I made this trailer for the podcast that gives a flavour of the film as a whole:
Burt Lancaster got his contract with Hal B. Wallis at Paramount on the basis of a test directed by Byron Haskin with Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott for Desert Fury. Lucky for him, the film was not ready to shoot for another six months and he was able to fit in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers(1946) for producer Mark Hallinger at Universal beforehand. Desert Fury started shooting two weeks before the release of The Killers but there were already whisperings of Lancaster as a big new star, and the whisperings were so loud that Hallinger gave him first billing and a big publicity build-up rather than the little ‘and introducing….’ title at the end of the credits that was then typical, and is indeed the billing offered Wendell Corey in Desert Fury as you can see in the poster above. Before Desert Fury started shooting, Hal Wallis knew he had a big fat star on his hands and that his part had to be beefed up so as to capitalise on it.
By the time the film was released on September 24th, 1947,, Burt Lancaster was the biggest star in the film. The Killers hit screens on the 29th of August 1946. As Kate Buford writes, Ít was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise ¨faster than Gable´s, Garbo´s or Lana Turner,¨as Cosmopolitan said years later (Buford, loc 1260). In New York the movie, ‘played twenty-four hours a day at the Winter Garden theatre, ‘where over 120,000 picture-goers filled the 1,300 seat theatre in the first two weeks, figures Variety called “unbelievably sensational.”‘ Brute Force was the fourth film Lancaster made, after I Walk Alone, but it was the second to be released, on June 30th 1947. According to Kate Buford, it too ‘set set first-week records at movie houses across the country’ (loc 1412).
Lancaster’s status as a star is reflected in the lobby card and poster above, where in spite of being billed third, what´s being sold is what Burt Lancaster already represented, the publicity materials giving a false impression that he is much more central to the narrative than is in fact the case. His image dominates in both, and even the tag lines are attributed to him: ‘I got a memory for faces…killer´s faces…Get away from my girl…and get going’, is the tagline in the lobby card. The text on the poster reads, ´Two men wanted her love…the third wanted her life.
In the ad below, he´s billed second, as ´the sensation of The Killers, Dynamite with the fuse lit’
When trying to recapture a past moment in relation to cinema, it´s often useful to look at trailers and other paratextual publicity materials. Trailers hold and try to disseminate the film´s promise to viewers. Of course, its purpose is to sell, to dramatise its attractions so that viewers will go see it. And of course, they often lie, dramatising not what is but what they hope will sell. That said, those promises, lies and hopes are often very revealing.
As you can see above, the trailer is selling melodrama — violent passions — in a magnificent natural setting filmed in Technicolor. Burt Lancaster’s name is only mentioned 39 second into the 1.41 trailer, after Lizabeth Scott with her strangeness and her defiance of convention and after John Hodiak with his secrets and coiled snakeyness. And Lancaster’s introduced as ‘hammer fisted’ Tom Hanson, erroneously giving the impression that this will be an action film. But note too that by the end of the trailer, Lancaster is given top billing.
According to Kate Buford, in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Lancaster thought ‘Desert Fury would not have lunched anybody’, later ‘dismissing it as having ‘starred a station wagon’ (loc 1157). The film is really a series of triangles: Eddie (John Hodiak) and Tom (Burt Lancaster) are both in love with Paula (Lizabeth Scott), Fritzy (Mary Astor) has already had an affair with Tom who is currently pursuing an affair with her daughter Paula, Paula and Johnny (Wendell Corey) are both in love with Eddie etc. I have made a not-quite-video essay that nonetheless well illustrates the Johnny-Eddie-Paula triangle, surely one of the queerest of the classic period, which can be seen here:
Tom is really a fifth wheel in the narrative. But by the time the film started shooting, Burt Lancaster was already the biggest star in it. His part was beefed up to take his new status into account, scenes were added, According to Gary Fishgall, the film was based on a 1945 novel, Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, and ‘ Lancaster’s role was an amalgam of two of the novel’s characters: the embittered, sadistic deputy sheriff, Tom Hansen, and a likeable highway patrolman named Luke Sheridan. Neither character was romantically linked to Paula (p.55). But in the film, he ends up with Lizabeth Scott at the end. All these additions probably contributed to the film seeming so structurally disjointed.
In Desert Fury Tom, a former rodeo rider, just hangs around waiting for Paula to get wise to Eddie, leaving her enough rope to act freely, as he does with colts when taming them, but not enough so that she hangs herself, or so he thinks. Really, he’s extraneous. He gets to walk into the sunset with Paula at the end of the film but the film really ends once Paula and Fritzy kiss, on the lips. He certainly doesn’t get much to do during it, except for a couple of great scenes where Fritzy tries to buy him into marrying her daughter (above) and another bit of banter when she thinks he’s come to accept her offer (below). Mary Astor steals both scenes. In fact she steals everything. Every time she appears, her wit, weariness, intelligence, the intensity of her love for her daughter — she lifts the film to a level it probably doesn’t deserve to be in. But Lancaster is good. These are the only scenes in the film where he looks like he’s enjoying himself.
Tom is the closest the film has to a ´normal character’. Indeed, aside from the character he plays in All My Sons (1948) this is the closest Lancaster had come to such a type during the whole of his period in film noir in the late 40s and which includes all of his films up to The Flame and the Arrow in 1950. Even in Variety Girl, which is an all-star comedy where he and Lizabeth Scott spoof the hardboiled characters they’re associated with, the surprise is that they’ve already created personas to spoof in such a short time (see below).
According to Fishgall, ‘Lancaster –billed third before the film’s title — acquitted himself well in the essentially thankless other man’ role. Still, if Desert Fury had marked his screen debut as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have achieved stardom quite so quickly. Not only did the film lack the stylish impact of The Killers, but so did the actor. Without the smouldering intensity of the Swede and his first pictures’ moody black and white photography, he appeared to be more of a regular fellow, and guy-next-door types rarely become overnight sensations’ (p. 67).
In Desert Fury we’re told that unlike the drugstore cowboys who are now criticising him, Tom used to be the best rodeo rider there was but a while back, whilst wrestling a steer, he got thrown off and is now all busted up inside. Being ‘busted up inside’ is what all the characters Burt Lancaster plays in the late ’40s have in common. He thinks of returning to the rodeo all the time but knows he can never be as good. He used to be a champ, now all he can hope for is to be second best. He knows he ‘ain’t got what it takes anymore’. He’s in love with Paula and she knows it. But she doesn’t know what she wants. He think he does: ‘you’re looking for what I used to get when I rode in the rodeo. The kick of having people say “that’s a mighty special person” I’d like to get that kick again. Maybe I can get it with just one person saying it’. He will, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the movie.
But even in this, Lancaster doesn´t play entirely nicey-poo, true-blue, throughout, and his Tom is given moments of wanton bullying and cruelty where he gets to abuse Eddie just because he’s a cop and wants to. And it´s interesting that it´s that moment, which jives so well with the ´brute force´Lancaster was already known for, and which would attach itself to his persona for many a year, that is the one chosen for the trailer.
According to Robyn Karney, in Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man, ‘As the straightforward moral law officer in a small Arizona town who rescues the object of his affections from the dangerous clutches of a murderous professional gambler, Burt had little to do other than look strong, handsome and reliable. Despite Wallis’ much vaunted rewrites, the role of the Sheriff Tom Hanson remained stubbornly secondary and uninteresting, with the limelight focused on John Hodiak as the villain, fellow contract players Elizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey’ (p.31).
I mainly agree with Robyn Karney except for four points, two textual and stated above: the first is that even in this Lancaster is playing a failure, someone once a somebody that people talked about but now all busted up inside; the second is that that element of being ´busted up inside´leads to a longing that gets displaced onto Paula. If the rodeo is what made feel alive and gave him a reason to live before his accident, now it´s Paula, and the idea that she might also be an unobtainable goal leads to his outbursts of unprovoked violence towards the rival for his affections, Eddie (John Hodiak).
The other two points of interest are extra textual. Desert Fury is gloriously filmed by Charles Lang. A few years later, in Rope of Fury, Lang would film Lancaster as a beauty queen: eyelashes, shadows and smoke, lips and hair (see below):
Here, even with his pre-stardom teeth and his bird´s nest of a hairdo, Lancaster sets the prototype for the Malboro Man:
He looks good in technicolour, and Lang brings out the blue of his eyes:
More importantly, the film visualises him, for the first time, as Western Hero, a genre that would become a mainstay of his career from Vengeance Valley (1951) right through Ulzana´s Raid (1972) and even onto Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981):
Desert Fury was not well reviewed. According to the Daily Herald ‘The acting is first-class. But except for Mr. Lancaster as a speed cop, the characters in the Arizona town with their lavish clothes and luxury roadsters, are contemptible to the point of being more than slightly nauseating’ (cited in Hunter p. 27),
The Monthly Film Bulletin labelled the film a western melodrama, claiming, surprisingly, that ‘The vivid technicolor and grand stretches of burning Arizona desert give a certain air of reality to the film’. Hard for us to see this thrillingly melodramatic film, lurid, in every aspect, evaluated in the light of realism. The MFB continued with, ´This reality is however counteracted by the way in which the sharply defined, but extremely unnatural characters act. Everything is over dramatised, and the title is a mystery in that the desert is comparatively peaceful compared with the way the human beings behaved…Lizabeth Scott is suitably beautiful as Paula and Burt Lancaster suitably tough as Tom. (Jan 1, 1947, p. 139)
Thus, we can see that on the evidence above, the film was badly reviewed, Time magazine going so far as to call it, ‘impossible to take with a straight face’ (Buford, loc1293). But Burt Lancaster´s performance was either exempted from the criticism or its faults where attributed to the film rather than to himself. More importantly still, the film was a hit, Burt Lancaster´s third in a row. Finally, as I´ve discussed elsewhere, the film is now considered by many a kind of camp classic, a leading example of noir in technicolor as well as arguably the gayest film ever produced in the classic period.
A melodrama of exquisite sadness and a worthy successor to Hungry Soul. The action seems to take place in a cloud of of jazz and melancholy. Will Mayumi (Yukiko Todorki) marry Mr. Shimotsuma (Shiri Osaka) in spite of her children´s disapproval? Will Reiko (Yoko Minamida) leave her crude and cruel husband for Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi), the dreamy man who loves her? If they do, what effect will this have on their children? It´s 1950s Japan, we see in the credit sequence it´s a Japan of industry, TV, neon. But have social mores modernised along with industry?
These women are given impossible choices, romantic love vs social respectability and the well-being of their children. Society will punish whichever choice they make…and so we must cry. Hungry Soul leads us, gently, understandingly, to the tears that follow in the gap of that which is vs that which should be.
I´m beginning to be more attentive to Kawashima´s skillful mise-en-scène. The lovely shot of Reiko after her dance, when the camera shifts from her with Tachibana´s flowers onto the mirror – is another life, one of soul, spirit, feeling really possible for her? The shot in the mirror shows us hope, a contrast between her current oppressive conditions of existence and …a possibility of something else.
I also noticed a lovely tracking shot as Mayumi goes to return money to her sister and the camera tracks horizontally through every room in that happy house, the type of house and home Mayumi longs for, even as her pragmatism leads her to managing a type of love motel.
The film accents the melo in melodrama. After characters are done speaking, often of melodramatic stock pharses, beautifully expressed, the music takes over and the situations soar into the real of feeling.
Note too the shadows throughout, some of it like in a noir, This is a wold where such feelings can oly be contemplated in the shadows, behind screens, in secret.
The mise-en-scène is clever in so many ways. Note how at the end , when Reiko and her husband are in the plane and he´s reading the paper, we know he´ll eventually get to the article announcing the death of Tachibana. Then the camara cuts to the newspaper article and we think he´s seen it. But no, the article is facing us. He´s reading the other page and she remains completely oblivious to the fact that all her hopes are dashed. And there´s an omniscient narrator, a gentle and kind one, who will allow a lingering of this moment of happiness which will soon come to an end.
Hungry Soul is a quick moving film that is not afraid to linger over people´s feelings, make them worthy of scrutiy, spin out every development and ramification of sadness. It´s gorgeous.
*Many thanks to Edmund Yeo for helping me match the names of the characters to the names of the actors. Much appreciated.
(Our two-part discussion on the previous Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is available here and here.)
The Star Wars saga ends – for the third time – with The Rise of Skywalker, a return to J. J. Abrams’ whimsical ways, following Rian Johnson’s creative and dramatic work in The Last Jedi. Disney and Abrams have clearly taken the vocal response of the franchise’s self-appointed guardians seriously, overwriting everything we liked about Johnson’s film, offering us mild, defanged plot developments and characterisations, but once we accept that, we find a lot of fun in this closing chapter’s sense of adventure and melodrama.
It’s clear from five minutes in, having been told three times that Rey’s parents, revealed to be nobodies in The Last Jedi, are actually hiding a secret that makes them very important indeed, that The Rise of Skywalker intends to do away with everything that made the last film so interesting and challenging. It’s a disappointment, but in declaring its intention to simply continue the soap opera and gallivant around the galaxy, the film needs to at least do a good job of that. And it does, José remarking upon how pleasurable it is to see a film of such high production values, and Mike finding that Abrams manages here to really capture the adventurous spirit of the original trilogy that he succeeded only in imitating in The Force Awakens, those core ideas of quests and gangs and brand new planets all working smoothly here. It’s an arguably surprisingly beautiful film too, light and dark dramatically interacting in geometrically precise shots that emphasise scale and power. And that melodrama between Kylo and Rey that we so loved in The Last Jedi, returns and develops here, the bond between them creating shared, tangible, intimate spaces just for them.
On the negative side, not only does the sense of corporate damage control never go away in the film’s refusal to make anything of The Last Jedi‘s developments, but weak, insulting attempts at inclusivity and representation also rankle, a gay kiss especially conspicuous for just how momentary it is, a shot of two extras crudely implanted within the film’s celebratory denouement simply drawing attention to its own tokenism. José suggests that the return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando is a similarly insincere and lazy effort at racial representation, as his is a minor character in the original trilogy, undemanding of the send-off given here to Luke, Leia and Han, but as the only non-white character in Star Wars of any significance whatsoever, he’s brought along for the ride. And underneath it all, a real character, a big part of the gang in Episodes VII and VIII, Rose, has her role reduced to almost nothing here, an obvious response to the truly vile behaviour of the fans towards actor Kelly Marie Tran.
It’s a mixed bag overall, a film to watch with one eye earnest and one cynical, but we’re thrilled with its action, adventure and spectacle, and its central melodrama is evocative and rewarding. A good conclusion to the saga… until Episode XII, of course.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón are two of the great directors of Mexican Cinema´s Golden Age. Dolores Tierney is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Film at Sussex University and an internationally renown film scholar who has written an important book on the work of Fernández, Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins, and who has also written extensively on Gaváldon.
As Dolores writes in Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins (Manchester University Press, 2007):
For seven years, from 1943 until 1950, Emilio Fernández (1904-1986) was regarded as one of the foremost puveyors of Mexicanness,’ as one of the most important filmmakers of the Mexican film industry…, and as one of the most famous filmmakers in the Western world. His distinctive, ‘authentically Mexican´ visual style — developed over an extensive collaboration with photographer Gabriel Figueroa of thirteen years and twenty-two films — was praised for bringing international attention and prestige to the Mexican film industry…At the height of his career in the 1940s he was loved by audiences and critics alike, not only for bringing international attention and artistic glory to the Mexican motion-picture industry but also for defining a school of Mexican films. Indeed, he underscored and in some ways initiated this approach to his work by repeated claiming ´!El cine mexicano so yo¡/ I am Mexican cinema´
In his introduction to La fatalidad urbana: El cine de Roberto Gavaldón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2007), Fernando Mino Gracia writes:
What would Mexican cinema be without the the sure look — distant, reflexive — of Roberto Gavaldón. We would have lost no less that the most rounded, audacious and finished oeuvre, one that explains a fundamental period of Twentieth Century Mexican cinema, that which covers the period of the end of the Second World War to the start of the 70s. Because Gavaldón is the the filmmaker who best diagnosed, over the entirety of his work, the pulse of a society in the process of consolidation. Nothing was the same by the end of the 1950s and Gavaldón was a privileged witness and chronicler. A mirror which re-works with complex subtlety the inequality of that society and which today, for better and worse, gives us sustenance (p. 19, trans my own).
The podcast below is a wide-ranging discussion on the films and careers of Fernández and Gavaldón with the hope of drawing attention to these immense works of world cinema and also to Dolores Tierney´s invaluable writing on both of these directors.
In the podcast, Dolores and I discuss the work of each director, their collaborations with leading stars such as Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores Del Rio, María Felix, Arturo de Cordova; Melodrama, Mexican Nationalism and its discourses, how the films, be they noirs or melodramas or even rural sagas, fit into a post-revolution political project whilst also being dialogue transnationally with classical Hollywood cinema.
My hope for the podcast is that Dolores´enthusiasm will lead you to the films and that my own will lead you to Dolores´invaluable work on them.
Those of you wishing to pursue further links might enjoy this video essay by Dolores Tierney and Catherine Grant on the ´cabaretera´films of the period.
I have also written on several Gavaldón films and you can pursue links here:
Much to Mike’s disdain – he throws tantrums about Netflix films – we settled in with a KFC to discuss Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a semi-autobiographical film about the live-in housekeeper to an upper middle class Mexican family. Carefully composed and inflected with a neorealist aesthetic, it’s been making countless year-end lists and is being touted as potentially Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards, so Mike wasn’t allowed to say no.
The film is remarkable for depicting modern-day indigenous Mexicans, people to whose existence many outside the Americas might not have ever given any thought. Yalitza Aparicio, Roma’s star, is a non-professional actor of Mixtec and Triqui origin, and simply her appearance is interesting, let alone the film’s use of Mixtec language (Mike gets this name wrong at first but don’t hold it against him) and its development of the indigenous population as lower class workers. We consider the use of black-and-white imagery – José questioning what it brings to the film – and the ways in which the sound design and long panning shots attempt to place the viewer within the film’s environments. Mike explains a prejudice he holds against “personal” films, and José considers Roma‘s place alongside Cuarón’s previous work, and the melodrama of the birth scene.
As for us? We find areas of interest, things to both agree and disagree with, in all the articles we read. José was deeply riveted by Roma despite a reservation or two and continues to see Cuarón as a great director. Mike was less interested, admitting that had he been watching the film alone, he would likely have turned it off before the halfway point; an issue with watching things at home that isn’t as pressing at the cinema (he wouldn’t have walked out of a screening). But that’s a tantrum for another day.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.
We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.
We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.
Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?
And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
From the very beginning of La Diosa arrodillada,the viewer is plunged into a heightened world of dreams and desires, a world of feeling which the characters express through diaries, letters. They speak to each other in a heightened tone, with poetic language and presented to the viewer through symbolic use of imagery. The films is, to borrow J. Hoberman’s words, ‘part film noir, part grand opera’.
La Diosa arrodillada opens with Raquel (María Félix) eagerly awaiting her lover Antonio (Arturo de Córdova) at the airport. She smiles with pleasure at his arrival, and before he sees her, thus conveying to us that her feelings for him are real. In the first few lines of dialogue, we know they’ve done this before, that their time together is fleeting and precious, snatched from other commitments and obligations. There’s then a dissolve. We first see a carafe of wine, smoke curling up the frame. We hear her voice, ‘to think I never ask you anything. I’ve never wanted to ask you anything’. The camera pulls back. ‘That’s the proof of our love’, he responds, ‘We must never interrogate the past if we value our love’.
‘But it’s so difficult to be strong when alone’, she says, ‘and we see so little of each other. Let’s never abandon each other. It would be like death.’
‘If so, let’s close our eyes and live that dream’.
Cut to an extraordinary close-up of Félix, as if in orgasm, saying: ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed to prevent my soul from escaping this dream. That is my promise Antonio’.
From the beginning we’re plunged into a world of feeling, dreams, a place where life is to be lived in the intense now without regard to the past and bracketed away from the future and from the society that intrudes on this world of feeling and may shatter it . But these wishes won’t come true; the promises won’t be kept. The world will intrude. They try to do what they think is right but are propelled by a force of desire they can’t control; he especially as despite the film’s title, this is not the story of a kneeling Goddess but of a fallen man.
What drives the narrative engine of The Kneeling Goddess, the motor of all noir, is desire. In this case, Antonio’s for Raquel. The film tells us this most directly. When he returns home to his office and his wife, Antonio looks outside, to a sign urging lovers to ‘Use Desire, the Perfume of Lovers’. The film doesn’t want us to miss this so the score urgently and loudly underlines its significance.
‘What do you understand by desire,’ Antonio asks his butler? ‘what one longs for, what one wants..’. ‘Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s a force that obliges you. That propels you to obtain what you want, and to keep it if you’ve already obtained it. Isn’t that right?’
‘But that force can grow, take shape, take on a life of its own, become stronger than you, and could end up destroying you. And what’s worse destroy all those closest to you.’
Antonio looks of a picture of his wife, who’s been in ill in a sanatorium in Cincinnati, probably the reason he hooked up with Racquel in the first place. It’s at that moment that Antonio decides to stop seeing Raquel. Raquel, however, has beat him to it, leaving a letter for him, saying she’s got a past, one she doesn’t want to divulge to him, and in spite of her promises, can’t continue seeing him. He never gets that letter because, reminded of how much he loves his wife and how much his wife needs him, he ends up not going to Guadalajara to see her and thus does not receive her brush-off.
But fate won’t let them be. When he returns home, his wife has been completing work on the garden. They’ve put a fountain. And she decides that the only thing missing, is a statue, something like the Venus de Milo. He goes to a gallery and finds the statue he’s looking for, a statue clearly modelled on Raquel, who he finds there, half-dressed after having posed for the sculptorp. It’s called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’, she informs him, ‘but it’s really just a woman on her knees, the way men like to see them be.’
In the clip below, you can see, how Gavaldón shows us the effect of that statue, of Raquel, on Antonio and his marriage. He becomes transfixed. His wife watches the statue take hold of him. There’s thunder, lightning, rain. Like Sirk, Gavaldón is not afraid to externalise feeling. But unlike Sirk, Gavaldón does not ironise, distance, or make strange. The obsession depicted comes from the heart and is meant to be understood as such. When he returns to his study, we hear him tell himself in voice-over:’ there’s nothing worse than fooling yourself. All my struggle has been for nought. I understand it’s stronger than I’. Reason and will recede, and he succumbs to desire and the unconscious.
Thus begins Antonio’s decline. Once he was a happily married man, a rich industrialist with his own chemical company. Soon he’ll be chasing through the tropics following a cabaret singer selling more than songs in cheap dives. His wife is surrounded by friends, chandeliers, formal paintings of herself, she plays classical music. Raquel in contrast is shown naked in marble, showing off her body in Panama’s Paradise singing popular song and embracing unknown sailors. The film is not afraid of over-emphasis and the contrasting ways in which each woman in Antonio’s life is symbolised is consistently and continually underlined.
Time is a persistent theme in the film. At the beginning, Raquel wants to deny the past and the future and live in a continual present. They have little time. Later on, Antonio’s wife dies. In an extraordinary scene, Gavaldón shows us the married couple, the wedding cake celebrating their anniversary in the foreground, the statue that threatens the marriage behind them in the background. In seconds, Antonio will put poison in a drink. His wife will see him put that poison in one of two drinks. Is the poison for her or for himself? We don’t know but in the next shot an obit shows us the wife’s already a goner.
Raquel believes he may have done it out of love for her. This rather thrills her. It might be what made him go to Panama, to get drunk watching her sing of the treachery and uselessness of love and marriage and allowing herself, like Gilda, to be felt up by the men in the audience. When she asks him why he’s followed her to Panama, he, drunk on the floor with alcohol, and drunk in the head with desire for her, cups her breasts and then moves his hand up her throat and tries to strangle her. Time as feeling in the film stands still; time as narrative gallops along at an insatiable pace.
The question of time is uttered constantly in stylised language and shown to us through a symbol that encapsulates so many of the film’s themes. A lighter (see below), that is also a watch, and that has a secret compartment which can carry poison. Thus, a desire that sparks, that will burn, with an intensity that can only ever be delimited before it is extinguished, and that carries a poison through which one can kill oneself and possibly others. All encased in time. It’s brilliant.
Like in a musical, the songs in the Panama Paradise sequence are used to comment on the story. The first part of the number, starts with Raquel partner’s singing to us: ‘I just screwed up, I got married, and fell into the woman’s trap’. She in turn begins her song by saying how women have to act submissive and be smart to catch a man. ‘I confess I don’t know what love is’ ‘You have a heart of crystal,’ sings her partner.
Then the tone changes and Raquel goes onto perform her solo which begins in the talk-singing style later made famous by Rex Harrison and which begins the clip above. ‘I’ve known love. It’s very beautiful. Burt for me it was fleeting and traitorous. It made dishonest what was once glorious. My law is pleasure…for money,’ and then she begins the song proper. Love was her cross and her religion but love’s revenge was marriage, after which their love became only pretend, a farce they’re now condemned to keep on repeating.
The last bit of the number, a duet once more, sings of the glories of not getting married and that to be happy one must never listen to one’s heart and forget about love. Something that Antonio, in the audience, and having drunk his way to unconsciousness due to his feelings for her, is beginning to learn. But as the song ends, a coochie dancer appears, shakes her bum, and lets the audience in the scene and the audience watching the film know love’s got little to do with anything: that it’s all about the sex.
David Melville notes the comparison to Von Sternberg in this sequence: ‘This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy’.
Raquel only begins to be sure of his love once she suspects he may have killed for her. This paves the way for getting married and the return to Mexico,. As you can see in the fantastic sequence above, the film turns quasi-Gothic, like a combination of Rebecca and Suspicion. She wears black, wonders around the house at night, finds his bedroom locked to her. She sees that the portrait of Antonio’s dead wife dominates the living room, that her reminder is everywhere in the house. He in turn spies her contemplating his dead wife’s painting, which he then becomes obsessed with. This is dark, murky, territory, where the darker feelings that edge and constantly pull on desire — guilt, disgust, fear, jealousy — are symbolically visualised.
The picture of Raquel that drives Antonio so wild with desire, The Kneeling Goddess, is meant to be of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And María Félix is often adorned with feathers, beautiful, but a bird of prey (see examples above).
Raquel is also often associated with animals. The Giraffe print in the Schiaparelli-esque dress on the left, the mermaid or siren look in the picture on the second from the left, the spider web dress in the second from the right, and of course in fur on the right.
As Moviediva argues, ‘La diosa tackles one of Gavaldon’s recurring themes, death, in this case the death of a man’s spirit, as he is corrupted by his love for a femme fatale. He loves the use of mirrors, used to demonstrate duality, and here, also the decay of the hero’s morality. Because there was no Production Code in Mexico, this film is surprisingly sexy for a 1940s film’. Indeed as you can see in the images above, whereas the wife was always associated with high culture, refinement and respectability, Raquel is constantly associated with sex, a Circe who will drive men to ridicule and ruin. As J. Hoberman writes, The Kneeling Goddess ‘is the most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes …(and María Félix is) a femme fatale to rival any from 1940s Hollywood, Félix embodies a moral ambiguity beyond good and evil.’
Paco Ignacio Taibo has written that when the film came out in Mexico it was denounced as an ‘insult to the morality of the country’, an attack on Christian morality, There were demonstrations. Taibo is particularly harsh on the film’s wardrobe, which as you can see from my comments above, I heartily disagree with; and also with the film’s dialogue: ‘I’ve had to fight very hard to win your heart’; ‘I’ve tried to fight a fire with a sea of dynamite’; ‘You either give yourself to me or destroy me’.
I see the dialogue as one of the film’s strengths. It is like opera, it is meant to ‘sing’ a realm of feeling. External realism has very little place in film’s of this type. Like in many film noirs, melodramatic passion is what’s on visual display; how desire can drive a man to his doom, desire for whom, and how. As we can see in the final sequence, where Raquel runs to the jail to inform her husband that he’s been declared innocent, that the night is gone forever, all whilst images show her and then him and then them, imprisoned by their past, their desires, their actions: the dream they wanted to hold onto by closing their eyes turned into a nightmare, his fears regarding his desires, being proved all too true. And then the film, rather than ending on him ends on her, in the mansion that is now hers, looking at the statue that she posed for, and pondering that power of that which it represents. What is the significance of her look as the camera follows her gaze and tracks into a closer look at the stature? It’s a great sequence in a truly great movie (see below)
Pequeñeces/ Trifles is one of the super-productions of Cifesa, arguably the most important studio in Spain during the Franco era, and certainly the one that best toed the party line and reflected its ideology. It’s got a sparkly star cast — Aurora Bautista, Jorge Mistral, an early but important appearance by Sara Montiel — and high production values. The director is Juan de Orduña, one of the era’s better and more successful ones.
It’s a period piece set in the era when Amadeo de Saboya temporarily took over the throne in 1870-1873 from Queen Isabella II, after she was forced to abdicate and before her son Alfonso XII took over the throne. The narrative revolves around the rich and powerful Curra (Aurora Bautista), the Countess of Albornoz and how her intrigues at court and in her love life lead her to neglect her child. She’s wilful, selfish, accustomed to getting her own way; proud and certain that her social position means that she can get around all the laws of men. Which she manages to do for quite a while, carrying on an affair with the handsome and trecherous Marquess de Sabadell (Jorge Mistral) right under her husband’s nose.
Everyone in society knows except the husband — played to great comic effect by Juan Vázquez — who only seems to be interested in his food. They also know that Sabadell is cheating on Curra with Monique, a French courtesan played by Sara Montiel. Sabadell has been selling state papers that don’t belong to him and pays for it with his life, rhyming with the death of Curra’s previous lover and secretary at the beginning of the film. It’s a death too much.
As a result of Sabadell’s murder, their affair becomes public knowledge and Curra is socially shunned. Worse, her son hearing the names she’s being called tries to defend her, even though he chose to leave home and go to a religious school because he caught his mother in flagrante with her lover, and in doing so drowns both himself and Sabadell’s son. But no matter, the boy speaks to the mother from heaven and lets her know his death is an opportunity for her to redeem herself and become the good person he’s always known she is. That religiosity — I’m not sure if it’s a false one since the film is an adaptation of a book written by a Jesuit — is the alibi for all the racy elements in the film. It’s a bit C.B. De Mille-ish. You can show all the sexyness and excitement so long as you moralise about how wrong it all is. Wish it were more exciting here. It would make it easier to bear all the sermonising priests and angelic children.
José Luis Tellez in his excellent piece on the film in Antología Crítica del Cine Español has called Pequeñeces an ‘unquestionable masterpiece and an exemplary melodrama’. I don’t see it. I hate this movie. I hate the hypocritical religiosity; the sentimentality over children, the choppyness of a narrative which has to rely on voice-over, letters, sermons, and even a voice from beyond the grave; and most of all I hate Aurora Bautista’s performance. She’s the Greer Garson of Spanish cinema in this period, lady-like, heroic, important, without an ounce of humour about herself, not the least sexy, and yet theatrically ‘expert’, which means she hits all the right notes whilst never being believable. Everything she does grates.
It was one of the most expensive films of the period, a super-production costing four million pesetas, forty prints were struck so that it could premiere simultaneously across Spain, and it was a hit at the box office, running continuously in one Madrid theatre for 107 days. The message is that what one might see as mere trifles might have a great effect on society and on one’s children. Yawn.
For me, if you’re not an afficionado of Franquist Spanish cinema there are only three reasons to see the film:
It does have interesting imagery (see an example above, when the priests at the school are searching for the boys).
There’s an early appearance from a young zaftig young girl in the process of becoming Sara Montiel (see her entrance in the film in the first clip below)
There’s also the only representation of a gay man I know of in this period of Franquist cinema, clearly coded as such. I apologise for not knowing the actor’s name (and perhaps one you can help with this) but he’s Jacobo’s uncle Francisco, and you can see Jorge Mistral and he in the second clip posted below
‘Alain Delon ne parle jamais si bien que quand il se tait’/ ‘Alain Delon never speaks so well as when he’s silent’, François Mauriac, Le Figaro littéraire.1
Le Samouraī is all slate-grey sadness edged by Courrèges-like white modernist elements and encased in lazy jazz. Plus Alain Delon in his prime: Gorgeous. I had the luck to see it at the Cine Doré, the cinema where Benigno (Javier Camará) goes to see the silent ‘The Shrinking Man’ in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and which acts as a metaphor for a loving violation. It’s worth remarking that the Spanish title of Le Samouraï, El silencio de un hombre, which translates literally as ‘A Man’s Silence,’ here markets noir, whereas a woman’s silence, like the women in Talk to Her, women whom circumstance prevent their speaking their truth, would instantly connote melodrama. The connections between noir and melodrama interest me and Le Samourai, like Talk to Her, is mired in muteness.
Delon’s Jeff Costello appears to us as languid loneliness enveloped in puffs of smoke from the first shot and he remains – not autistic, not even impassive – rather recessive, detached throughout. Is it that he can’t speak his ills or that he simply doesn’t know them? No matter, Melville and the film do, and every frame and camera move speaks them. The world of Le Samourai is a dirty one for a professional hit-man who claims some honour. Delon’s Costello is focussed on doing but disconnected from being, yet wanting. He’s desired but unable to reciprocate such longings: desire would imply longing, wanting and indicate a rooted and fleshly existence that Costello seems detached from. It’s a glorious film. Lovely print too. My main visual memory is an image of Delon as Costello, filmed outside his car window, rendered out of focus by fog and rain. The most memorable scene is the last one, where his professionalism battles his honour and Being succumbs to Nothingness.
Cited in Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, p. 188. Translation my own.
An interesting instance of popular Global Cinema that does not primarily address a Western audience, SPL2: A Time of Consequences is a very loose sequel to Yi Wai-shun’s drama about police corruption, SPL or Kill Zone (2005). The film jumps from Hong Kong to Thailand through the China Seas and unfolds in four languages. I was thrilled to see that it’s had a mainstream if limited release through Cineworld — it’s been a smash hit in Asia — and I rushed to see it.
Watching SPL2: A Time of Consequences reminded me of Carlos Monsiváis comment that melodrama is easy and addictive. It is easy if, like here, you have a young child who will die unless she has an organ donor and other children who are being senselessly kidnapped and brutally killed for their organs: I dare you not to feel. It is addictive, in spite of the crude way they are fictionalised and narrated, because these films seem to speak about and to a more recognisable world that more sophisticated films often eschew. This is a world where friendship, family, love and other bonds forged through shared struggle are the only protection against the nightmarish brutality and injustice, sometimes random, that pervade everywhere and persist past the film’s conclusion. It’s crude but most effective.
The plot reminded me of Arthur Laurents comment that plots were easy because all he had to do was come up with a set of characters, throw them into conflict and then realign the ways they reconnected through their struggle into a conclusion. Let me say just say here that there are two brothers: one who’s built his fortune on illegally harvesting organs (Louis Koo); the other, the only one who can match his brother’s blood-type; a prison guard in Thailand with a daughter needing a transplant (Tony Jaa); a Hong Kong cop with a heroin habit (Wu Jing) who ends up in a Thai prison and is the exact match for the daughter: the uncle of the Hong Kong cop (Simon Yam)and a martial arts wiz of a prison warden (Max Zhang). Throw it in the air, put it back together, and you’ve got a serviceable plot.
But plot is the least important part of these films. The reason why they continue to enchant is the action. Here both Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are superb at demonstrating their martial arts in some sublime action sequences where we get to see their art in full flower: Li Ching-chi, who directed the action set-pieces, has the wit to allow us to see their bodies extended in motion to complete an action before cutting on to something else, thus allowing us to appreciate their grace and skill. The stars are very charismatic with and without movement, which is a plus. There’s a slight suggestion of homophobia in the way the villains are coded as gay (a tender fingering of a tie between biggest baddie and second biggest baddie) but it’s brief. The film won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography, and one can understand why. I liked it.