Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cast
Director
Producer
Author

Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Music

90 minutes

In France, the afternoon hours from five to seven are known as the hours when lovers meet. On this afternoon, nothing could be further from Cleo’s mind than sex. She is counting out the minutes until she learns the results from tests she believes will tell her she is dying from cancer. Agnes Varda‘s “Cleo from 5 to 7” is 90 minutes long, but its clock seems to tick along with Cleo’s.

Varda is sometimes referred to as the godmother of the French New Wave. I have been guilty of that myself. Nothing could be more unfair. Varda is its very soul, and only the fact that she is a woman, I fear, prevented her from being routinely included with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer and for that matter her husband Jacques Demy. The passage of time has been kinder to her films than some of theirs, and “Cléo from 5 to 7” plays today as startlingly modern. Released in 1962, it seems as innovative and influential as any New Wave film.

Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a fresh-faced, perky young pop singer who has yet to experience great fame, although she has a few songs on the radio and on juke boxes. Wandering into a cafe, she plays one of her songs and we overhead a woman complaining to her table companion about the “noise.” I don’t know if Cléo hears that, even if we do. One of the devices in the film is to note the casual conversations of other Parisians that take place near Cléo as she passes her time. In another cafe, two lovers are breaking up, for example.

There is something psychologically accurate about this. When you fear your death is near, you become aware of other people in a new way. Yes, you think of the others, you think your life is going on its merry way, but think of me–I have to die. Cléo’s awareness of that deepens a film that is otherwise about mostly trivial events.

She begins at 5 p.m, for example, by visiting a reader of the Tarot deck. The cards are seen in color in an otherwise b&w film. We aren’t Tarot readers, but they look alarming to us. The Hanged Man and Death make their ominous appearances, and the Tarot reader reassures Cléo, as such readers always do, that the cards “can mean many things.” Later, when Cléo asks for her palm to be read, the reader looks at it and says, “I don’t read palms.” Not a good sign. Cléo seems a shallow enough woman that these portents depress her.

Wandering through Paris accompanied by her maid, she stops in a hat shop and tries on many hats, which are reflected back at her in countless mirrors. Which look will she adopt for the moment? It is a summer day, and yet she chooses a black fur hat, which crowns her head as a storm warning.

Cléo and the maid return to her apartment, which contains a piano, a bed, two tussling kittens and a lot of empty space. She occupies the bed as a sort of throne, and receives her lover (José Luis de Vilallonga) in a scene that for both of them is clearly more ceremony than passion. One meets one’s lover between 5 and 7? Very well then, they will behave as expected. Also in attendance is Bob, her rehearsal pianist, played by Michel Legrand, the film’s composer.

It is clear in her behavior with lover and pianist that Cléo is enacting a superficial pop heroine, an inconsequential and trivial young women, all style and pose. The two kittens, which Varda somehow succeeds in including within the frame, are like props in a silly musical. And yet all this time Cléo’s awareness of her mortality vibrates like a soft bass drum beneath the surface. As she plays singer, lover and shopper of hats, she is playing always a woman who expects to be told she has stomach cancer.

The role is more difficult than it might appear, and Corinne Marchand better in it than she may have been credited for. What she does here is as extraordinary in its own way as Anna Karina’s unforgettable character in Godard’s “My Life to Live.” It is tricky enough to play a sprite who skips lightly through life, but how in doing that do you communicate your awareness of mortality? (Both Godard and Karina appear in cameos in a brief silent film sequence, shown in a clip below.)

Unlike most of the New Wave directors, Varda was trained not as a filmmaker or as a critic, but as a serious photographer. Try freezing any frame of the scenes in her apartment and you will find perfect composition–perfect, but not calling attention to itself. In moving pictures, she has an ability to capture the essence of her characters not only through plot and dialogue, but even more in their placement in space and light.

While many early New Wave films had a jaunty boldness of style, Varda in this film shows a sensibility to subtly developing emotions. Consider the sequence near the end. she wanders into a deserted area of a park and encounters the young soldier Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller). They speak. They walk, they travel by bus, they walk again. Observe with what enormous tact and restraint he speaks to her. He doesn’t know of her day’s health worries, but he has worries of his own, and Varda’s dialogue allows an emotional bridge to exist between them. Then Cleo is told her test results with almost cruel informality by her doctor. Then she and the soldier talk a little more. If you want to consider the differences between men and women, consider that what Antoine says here was written by a woman, and many men would have found it out of reach.

Agnes Varda, born 1928, is one of the nicest people I have ever met. There’s no other way to put it. “Saint Agnes of Montparnasse,” I called her, in blog entry I wrote in 2009.

In her magnificent autobiographical film “The Beaches of Agnes” (2009), she comes walking toward us on the sand in the first shot, describing herself as “a little old lady, pleasantly plump.” Well, she isn’t tall. But somehow she isn’t old. She made this film in her 80th year, and looked remarkably similar to 1967, when she brought a film to the Chicago Film Festival. Or the night I had dinner with her, Jacques and Pauline Kael at Cannes 1976. Or when she was at Montreal 1988. Or the sun-blessed afternoon when we three had lunch in their Parisian courtyard in 1990. Or when she was on the jury at Cannes 2005.

Her face is framed by a cap of shining hair. Her eyes are merry and curious. She is brimming with energy, and in “The Beaches of Agnes” you will see her setting up shots involving mirrors on the beach, or operating her own camera, or sailing a boat single-handedly down the Seine under the Pont Neuf, her favorite bridge.

And she has given us the most poetic shot about the cinema I have ever seen, where two old fishermen, who were young when she first filmed them, watch themselves on a screen. Yes, and the screen and the 16mm projector itself are both mounted on an old market cart that they push through the nighttime streets of their village.

That shot made near the end of her career contains the mystery of cinema. She filmed these men when they were young, and now half a century has passed for all of them, and the shot endures. You sense the same life and sympathy in “Cléo from 5 to 7,” where she sees the surface so clearly, and what is under it still more clearly.  The film is on DVD in the Criterion Collection, and is streaming on Hulu and Hulu Plus.  

Spirited Away (2002)

Cast
Written and Directed by
Directed by

Adventure, Animation, Family, Foreign

Rated PG

124 minutes

Viewing Hiyao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” for the third time, I was struck by a quality between generosity and love. On earlier viewings I was caught up by the boundless imagination of the story. This time I began to focus on the elements in the picture that didn’t need to be there. Animation is a painstaking process, and there is a tendency to simplify its visual elements. Miyazaki, in contrast, offers complexity. His backgrounds are rich in detail, his canvas embraces space liberally, and it is all drawn with meticulous attention. We may not pay much conscious attention to the corners of the frame, but we know they are there, and they reinforce the remarkable precision of his fantasy worlds.

“Spirited Away” is surely one of the finest of all animated films, and it has its foundation in the traditional bedrock of animation, which is frame-by-frame drawing. Miyazaki began his career in that style, but he is a realist and has permitted the use of computers for some of the busywork. But he personally draws thousands of frames by hand. “We take handmade cell animation and digitize it in order to enrich the visual look,” he told me in 2002, “but everything starts with the human hand drawing.”

Consider a scene in “Spirited Away” where his young heroine stands on a bridge leading away from the magical bathhouse in which much of the movie is set. The central action and necessary characters supply all that is actually needed, but watching from the windows and balconies of the bathhouse are many of its occupants. It would be easier to suggest them as vaguely moving presences, but Miyazaki takes care to include many figures we recognize. All of them are in motion. And it isn’t the repetitive motion of much animation, in which the only idea is simply to show a figure moving. It is realistic, changing, detailed motion.

Most people watching the movie will simply read those areas of the screen as “movement.” But if we happen to look, things are really happening there. That’s what I mean by generosity and love. Mikayazi and his colleagues care enough to lavish as much energy on the less significant parts of the frame. Notice how much of the bathhouse you can see. It would have been quicker and easier to show just a bridge and a doorway. But Miyazaki gives his bathhouse his complexity of a real place, which possesses attributes whether or not the immediate story requires them.

The story of “Spirited Away” has been populated with limitless creativity. Has any film ever contained more different kinds of beings that we have never seen anywhere before? Miyazaki’s imagination never rests. There is a scene where the heroine and her companion get off a train in the middle of a swamp. In the distant forest they see a light approaching. This turns out to be an old-fashioned light pole that is hopping along on one foot. It bows to them, turns, and lights the way on the path they must take. When they arrive at a cottage, it dutifully hangs itself above the gate. The living light pole is not necessary. It is a gift from Miyazaki.

His story involves a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who isn’t one of those cheerful little automatons that populate many animated films. She is described by many critics as “sullen.” Yes, and impatient and impetuous, as she’s stuck in the back seat during a long drive to a house her parents want to examine. Her father loses the way in a dark forest, and the road seems to end at the entrance to a tunnel. Investigating it, they find it leads to an abandoned amusement park. But at dusk, some of the shops seem to reopen, especially a food shop whose fragrances steam into the cool air. Her parents fall eagerly upon the counter jammed with food, and stuff their mouths. Chihiro is stubborn and says she isn’t hungry. Her parents eat so much they double or triple in size. They eat like pigs, and they become pigs. These aren’t the parents of American animation, but parents who can do things that frighten a child.

The amusement park leads to a gigantic floating bathhouse, whose turrets and windows and ledges and ornamentation pile endlessly upon themselves. A friendly boy warns her to return, but she is too late, and the bathhouse casts off from the shore. Chihiro ventures inside, and finds a world of infinite variety. She cannot find her way out again. The boy says everyone must have a job, and sends her to Kamaji, an old bearded man with eight elongated limbs, who runs the boiler room. He and a young girl advise her to apply to Yubaba, who owns the bathhouse. This is a fearsome old witch who exhales plumes of smoke and a cackling laugh.

This is the beginning of an extraordinary adventure. Chihiro will meet no more humans in the bathhouse. She will be placed under a spell by Yubaba, who steals her name and gives her a new one, Sen. Unless she can get her old name back again, she can never leave. One confusing space opens onto another in the bathhouse, whose population is a limitless variety of bizarre life-forms. There are little fuzzy black balls with two eyeballs, who steal Sen’s shoes. Looming semi-transparent No Faces, who wear masks over their ghostly shrouds. Three extraordinary heads without bodies, who hop about looking angry, and resemble caricatures of Karl Marx. There is a malodorous heap of black slime, a river creature whose body has sopped up piles of pollution. Shape-shifting, so common in Japanese fantasy, takes place here, and the boy who first befriended her is revealed as a lithe sea dragon with fierce fangs.

Sen makes her way through this world, befriended by some, shunned by others, threatened by Yubaba, learning as she goes. She never becomes a “nice girl,” but her pluck and determination win our affection. She becomes determined to regain her name and return to the mainland on a daily train (which only runs one way). She wants to find her parents again.

Miyazaki says he made the film specifically for 10-year-old girls. That is why it plays so powerfully for adult viewers. Movies made for “everybody” are actually made for nobody in particular. Movies about specific characters in a detailed world are spellbinding because they make no attempt to cater to us; they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves. As I watched the film again, I was spellbound as much as by any film I consider great. That helps explain why “Spirited Away” grossed more than “Titanic” in Japan, and was the first foreign film in history to open in the U. S. having already made more than $200 million.

I was so fortunate to meet Miyazaki at the 2002 Toronto film festival. I told him I love the “gratuitous motion” in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or sigh, or gaze at a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

“We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ‘ma.’ Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ‘ma.’ If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.”

I think that helps explain why Miyazaki’s films are more absorbing than the frantic action in a lot of American animation. “The people who make the movies are scared of silence” he said, “so they want to paper and plaster it over,” he said. “They’re worried that the audience will get bored. But just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time doesn’t mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions–that you never let go of those.

“What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970’s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you. This is our principle.”

He said he has been amused to see a lot of animation in live-action superhero movies. “In a way, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation. Animation has become a word that encompasses so much, and my animation is just a little tiny dot over in the corner. It’s plenty for me.”

It’s plenty for me, too.

The Life of Oharu (1952)

Here is the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman. It begins on a chill dawn when the heroine wanders, her face behind a fan, until encountering some of her fellow prostitutes. “It’s hard for a 50-year-old women to pass as 20,” she observes. She says it has been a slow night: She was only picked up by an old man, who took her into a candlelit room filled with young men. “Look at this painted face!” he told them. “Do you still want to buy a woman?” To be held up as a moral spectacle is a cruel fate for a woman who has been treated immorally almost every day of her life, and who has always behaved as morally as it was within her power to do.

 

The women find a friend who has built a fire, and huddle around it. “I heard you served at the palace,” another prostitute says. “What has led to your ruin?” Saying “do not ask about my past,” she walks away from them and wanders into a Buddhist temple. One of the images of the Buddha dissolves into the face of a young man, and then a flashback begins that will tell Oharu’s life from near the beginning.

Her life is the fate in microcosm of many Japanese women for centuries, in a society ruled by a male hierarchy. Kenji Mizoguchi, its director, was as sympathetic with women as any of his contemporaries, even Ozu, who whom he is often ranked. He made prostitutes a frequent subject, as in his “Street of Shame” (1956). He was known to frequent brothels, not simply to purchase favors, but to socialize with their workers; it made a great impression on him that his own sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a geisha. The same thing happens to Oharu in this film.

The character is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who appeared in 14 of his films, and this one, made in 1952, helped redirect her career from early years as in ingénue toward more challenging roles. One of her strengths as Oharu is her success at playing the same character over a period of 30 years.

As Oharu’s flashback begins, we learn she was born in respectable circles, and was a lady in waiting at the court when she and a young page (Toshiro Mifune) fell in love. This was forbidden, the page was condemned to death, and Oharu and his family were exiled. Her father never forgives her for this, and indeed after the scandal she becomes unmarriagable in respectable circles. There is a brief respite when he is able to sell her as a concubine into the household of Lord Matsudaira. Her duty there is to bear him an heir, which she does, but then is coldly sent back into poverty and prostitution. Her father, who now considers her entirely in terms of her wage-earning ability, sells her as a courtesan, at which she balks, and finally sells her into service as a maid to a lady who uses elaborate wigs to conceal from her husband that she is half-bald. She loses this job because one of her employer’s customers recognizes her from the shimabara (red-light district) and makes crude jokes which reveal her background.

Now comes a deceptive respite from her misery. She meets a nice man, a maker of fans, and settles in peacefully, but he is killed. She receives no legacy. In a convent, she tells the superior she wanted none: “All I want is to be a nun and be near to Buddha.” In the convent, there is an ambiguous scene. A man who knew her comes to demand repayment for a gift of cloth she was given, and in a fury she strips off her clothing and hurls it at him. Her nudity is reflected only in the man’s eye, but the discovery of this event leads to her banishment from the convent.

All of this time she dreams of seeing the son she gave birth to, but when this finally happens she is allowed only to get a glimpse of him sweeping past as a grand man, oblivious to her existence. That brings us back to her current life, as a cold, hungry, unsuccessful prostitute.

Although a good deal of the film is shot in a straightforward way, some of it from Ozu’s favorite the point of view of a person seated on a tatami mat, Oharu is often seen from a high-angle view well above eye level. In camera grammar this tends to diminish and objectify the subject, and Oharu increasingly comes to seem less like an autonomous character and more like a subject for study–and pity.

“As the story goes,” the superior told her on arrival at the convent, “the morning’s pretty face is a corpse by evening.”

The story as I have outlined it sounds like a lurid melodrama, but “Life of Oharu” studiously avoids taking advantage of the sensational aspects of her life. It is all told as a sad memory of fate, and paced by Mizoguchi to avoid any sensational story climaxes. His attentive use of period locations, costumes and rituals makes his heroine’s experiences more like enactments of a ritual. A great deal of the story’s pathos comes from the fact that no one except Oharu knows the whole of her life history; she is judged from the outside as an immoral and despicable women, and we realize this is no more than the role society has cast her in, and forces her to play.

We watch the film in disbelief. Surely no women could have such misery thrust upon her through no fault of her own? Mizoguchi makes no attempt to portray any male character–even the father–as a self-aware villain. The men behave within the boundaries set for them and expected of them by the traditions of their society. Even the fan maker does so, but because of the independence given him by his occupation, society allows him more choice–or perhaps simply doesn’t care.

Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) is today named as one of the three greatest Japanese directors, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Kurosawa, considered the most “western” by the Japanese, was the first to gain world wide fame, with such readily accessible films as “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.” Ozu was considered “too Japanese,” until the critic Donald Richie famously took a group of his films to the Venice Film Festival, and found, as he expected, that they had a universal appeal. (My feeling is that the more specific a film is, the more widely it may be understood).

Mizoguchi won Western praise earlier than Ozu. His “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953) won the Venice Film Festival, and twice appeared on Sight & Sound magazine’s ten-yearly poll of the greatest films of all time, which pointed me to him in the early 1970s. But it was “Life of Oharu” that he considered his best film, perhaps because it drew from roots in his own life.

The most influential Western writing on Mizoguchi is an essay by Robert Cohen titled “Why Does Oharu Faint?” The British critic who signs as “Kubla Khan” writes of it: “Oharu faints thrice in ‘The Life of Oharu,’ and on all occasions, wakes up feeling kinder and more forgiving… Cohen says that Oharu’s spiritual transcendence is gained after ‘she abandons her gender identity and sexuality,’ and in a sense, her victory is only pyrrhic.” He adds that is “is far more interesting and appealing than any spiritual excuse that could account for how Oharu has become a saintly character and her fainting spell at the beginning and in the end is more a physical and psychological surrender to the awful life that she has lead till then.”

Years before the rise of feminism in the West, the great directors of Japan were obsessed with the lives of women in their society. No woman in a Japanese film that I have seen is more tragic and unforgettable than Oharu.

The film’s Criterion edition is streaming on Hulu Plus. It can be viewed in in nine parts via non-Criterion but quite good edition on YouTube. Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff” are also written about in my Great Movies Collection, which includes many titles by Ozu and Kurosawa.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Drama, Foreign, Indie, Mystery

Rated Unrated

115 minutes

For its 60th anniversary, a restored digital presentation will play at the Music Box, April 22-28.

The young priest only smiles once. It is on the day he leaves the cruel country town to catch a train and see a doctor. A passing motorcyclist gives him a lift to the station, and as he climbs on behind him we see a flash of the boy inside the sad man. It is a nice day, it’s fun to race though the breeze, and he is leaving behind the village of Ambricourt.

For the rest of the time in Robert Bresson’s “The Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), the young man’s face scarcely betrays an emotion. He looks solemn, withdrawn, stunned by the enormity of his job. His faith and vocation are real to him, but the parishioners in Ambricourt scorn and insult him, and tell lies about him. He is unwilling or unable to defend himself. He cannot understand the hostility. He keeps a daily journal in which he records his actions, which seem futile to him.

This film is the story of a man who seems in the process of offering himself to God as a sacrifice. He lives only on bread, wine and a little potato soup. He gives up meat and vegetables. Whether this is because his stomach won’t hold down anything else or whether his diet is destroying his health is unclear until later. He is thin and weak, he coughs up blood, he grows faint in the houses of parishioners, one late night he falls in the mud and cannot get up.

It is a bleak winter. The landscape around his little church is barren. There is often no sign of life except for the distant, unfriendly barking of dogs. His church and the manor of the local count are closed off behind bars, as if gated against each other. Girls in catechism class play tricks on him. The locals gossip that he’s a drunk, because of his diet, but we never see him drunk. Bresson often fills the frame with his face, passive, and the stare of his unfocused eyes.

“Diary of a Country Priest” has been called one of the two greatest Catholic films, along with Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” I see them both as tragedies about true believers in the face of cruel societies. Both lives end in death, as Christ’s did. The priest goes about his duties. He says a daily Mass, often attended by only one person — and her motive is not spiritual. He calls on the people in his parish, so weak he can hardly speak with them, crossing their names from a list and stumbling back into the cold. A local man quarrels with him about the cost of his wife’s funeral. People sneer at him as “the little priest.”

He tries to counsel the governess of the count’s daughter, who the count is having an affair with. The count insults him. The daughter is angry with her father and everyone else. The countess knows of the affair but doesn’t care; she lost her son at a young age, and is still in mourning. In the great scene that supplies the center of the film, the priest urges the countess to have faith and accept Christ’s love, and she undergoes a remarkable spiritual rebirth. Even this conversation is lied about and held against him.

Robert Bresson does nothing in a superficial way to please his audiences. The rewards of his films unfold slowly from their stories, and pierce deeply. He is very serious about human nature and the indifference of the world. He is not a Catholic but an agnostic who values any consolation his characters can find, in or out of faith.

His visual strategy doesn’t break scenes down into easy storytelling elements but regards them as unyielding facts. In this film he opens and closes many passages with old-fashioned iris shots, reproducing the act of opening our eyes to the world, seeing its reality, and closing them again. There is a lot of background music, some of it vaguely spiritual, some of it saccharine, all of it more ironic than consoling. The look seems dark and depressing at first, but his films live not in the moment but in their complete length, and for the last hour I was more spellbound than during a thriller. Bresson does nothing to make me “like” the priest, but my empathy was urgently involved.

Bresson (1901-1999) was one of the great figures in the French cinema. In 50 years he made only 13 features. I saw the final one, “L’Argent,” at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, and recall that the press screening was unlike those of most directors; you would have thought the critics were in church. It is ironic that his films are more deeply spiritual than, in my opinion, anyone else’s. He did not believe, but he respected belief, and hope.

Not for his characters the consolations of tidy plots and snappy conversations. They are faced with the existential dilemma: What is the point of life when its destination is death? In “The Diary of a Country Priest,” the young hero welcomes the advice he receives from the local doctor and the old priest of a nearby parish. The doctor examines him, observes all the local people have been weakened by the alcoholism of their parents, warns him is undernourished, admonishes him, “face up to it!” The priest (as only a French priest might) attributes some of his problems to the fact that he doesn’t drink better wine. The priest’s advice is kind, practical, involved with the management of a parish. He treats the young man like a son. We sense he is a good old man and a good priest, but wary of devotion carried to dangerous extremes.

The star of this film, Claude Laydu, can hardly be seen to act at all. In life he was quite lively, and indeed hosted a TV show for children. Bresson had a famous theory that actors were “models.” He didn’t require them to act, and indeed would repeat a shot time and time again to remove visible signs of “acting.” The scenario, the visual strategy and the editing would encompass his story. The actor must not seem too proactive because his character is after all only a figure pushed here and there by life and fate. This sounds like a severe artistic discipline, but the result can be purifying. After emerging from one of his films, you may sometimes see conventional movie acting as foolish: The characters actually believe they can influence the outcome!

A film like “Diary of a Country Priest” gathers its strength as it continues. There’s always the sense that Bresson knows exactly where he’s going and the simplest way to get there. Consider the devastating effect of the priest’s journey to visit a specialist in Lisle. We never even hear the second doctor’s opinion. We learn it through the journal, read aloud, as all through the film key moments are narrated. After leaving the doctor’s office the priest goes to visit a friend of his from the seminary, now living a secular life in poverty because of illness, and seeks this man (who is living in sin) because he is still, after all, a priest, and can offer consolation and absolution.

One thing we are sure of is that the “little country priest” takes his vocation and faith very seriously. Nor does the film question them. It is about precisely the dilemma we must all face: How far can our ideas support us in the approach to death? The young priest’s ideas prove to sustain him in the final moments, but they did little earlier to console him. He leaves behind a world of cruelty and petty ignorance. He did nothing deserving blame.

Notes: The hand and handwriting in the film belong to Bresson. “The Diary of a Country Priest”is in national release in 2011 in a new digital presentation commissioned for its 60th anniversary. In my Great Movies series I’ve also written about Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and “Au Hazard Balthazar.”

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Drama, Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Rated R

147 minutes

It’s well known that David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Dr.” was assembled from the remains of a cancelled TV series, with the addition of some additional footage filmed later. That may be taken by some viewers as a way to explain the film’s fractured structure and lack of continuity. I think it’s a delusion to imagine a “complete” film lurking somewhere in Lynch’s mind — a ghostly Director’s Cut that exists only in his original intentions. The film is openly dreamlike, and like most dreams it moves uncertainly down a path with many turnings.

 

It seems to be the dream of Betty (Naomi Watts), seen in the first shots sprawled on a bed. It continues with the story of how Betty came to Hollywood and how she ended up staying in the apartment of her aunt, but if we are within a dream there is no reason to believe that on a literal level. It’s as likely she only dreams of getting off a flight from Ontario to Los Angeles, being wished good luck by the cackling old couple who met her on the plane, and arriving by taxi at the apartment. Dreams cobble their contents from the materials at hand, and although the old folks turn up again at the end of the film their actual existence may be problematic.

The movie seems seductively realistic in several opening scenes however, as an ominous film noir sequence shows a beautiful woman in the back seat of a limousine on Mulholland Drive — that serpentine road that coils along the spine of the hills separating the city from the San Fernando Valley. The limo pulls over, the driver pulls a gun and orders his passenger out of the car, and just then two drag-racing hot rods hurtle into view and one of them strikes the limo, killing the driver and his partner. The stunned woman (Laura Elena Herring) staggers into some shrubbery and starts to climb down the hill — first crossing Franklin Dr., finally arriving at Sunset. Still hiding in shrubbery, she sees a woman leaving an apartment to get into a taxi, and she sneaks into the apartment and hides under a table.

Who is she? Let’s not get ahead of her. The very first moments of the film seemed like a bizarre montage from a jitterbug contest on a1950s TV show, and the hotrods and their passengers visually link with that. But people don’t dress like jitterbuggers and drag race on Mulholland at the time of the film (the 1990s), not in now-priceless antique hot rods, and the crash seems to have elements imported from an audition, perhaps, that will later be made much of.

I won’t further try your patience with more of this mix-and-match. Dreams need not make sense, I am not Freud, and at this point in the film it’s working perfectly well as a film noir. They need not make sense, either. Conventional movie cops turn up, investigate, and disappear for the rest of the film. Betty discovers the woman from Mulholland taking a shower in her aunt’s apartment and demands to know who she is. The woman sees a poster of Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” on the wall and replies, “Rita.” She claims to have amnesia. Betty now responds with almost startling generosity, deciding to help “Rita” discover her identity, and in a smooth segue the two women bond. Indeed, before long they’re helping each other sneak into apartment #17. Lynch has shifted gears from a film noir to a much more innocent kind of crime story, a Nancy Drew mystery. When they find the decomposing corpse in #17, however, that’s a little more detailed than Nancy Drew’s typical discoveries.

What I’ve been doing is demonstrating the way “Mulholland Dr.” affects a lot of viewers. They start rehearsing the plot to themselves, hoping that if they retrace their steps they can determine where they are and how they got there. This movie doesn’t work that way. Each step has a way of being like an open elevator door with no elevator inside.

Unsatisfied by my understanding of the film, I took it to an audience that hadn’t failed me for 30 years. At the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I did my annual routine: Showing a title on Monday afternoon, and then sifting through it a scene at a time, sometimes a shot at a time, for the next four afternoons. It drew a full house, and predictably a lot of readings and interpretations. Yet even my old friend who was forever finding everything to be a version of Homer’s Odyssey was uncertain this time.

I gave my usual speech about how you can’t take an interpretation to a movie. You have to find it there already. No consensus emerged about what we had found. It was a tribute to Lynch that the movie remained compulsively watchable while refusing to yield to interpretation. The most promising direction we tried was to delineate the boundaries of the dreams(s) and the identities of the dreamer(s).

That was an absorbing exercise, but then consider the series of shots in which the film loses focus and then the women’s faces begin to merge. I was reminded of Bergman’s “Persona,” also a film about two women. At a point when one deliberately causes an injury to the other, the film seems to catch on fire in the projector. The screen goes black, and then the film starts again with images from the earliest days of silent film. What is Bergman telling us? Best to start over again? What is Lynch telling us? Best to abandon the illusion that all of this happens to two women, or within two heads?

What about the much-cited lesbian scenes? Dreams? We all have erotic dreams, but they are more likely inspired by desires than experiences, and the people in them may be making unpaid guest appearances. What about the film’s material involving auditions? Those could be stock footage in any dream by an actor. The command about which actress to cast? That leads us around to the strange little man in the wheelchair, issuing commands. Would anyone in the film’s mainstream have a way of knowing such a figure existed?

And what about the whatever-he-is who lurks behind the diner? He fulfills the underlying purpose of Lynch’s most consistent visual strategy in the film. He loves to use slow, sinister sideways tracking shots to gradually peek around corners. There are a lot of those shots in the aunt’s apartment. That’s also the way we sneak up to peek around the back corner of the diner. When that figure pops into view, the timing is such that you’d swear he knew someone — or the camera — was coming. It’s a classic BOO! moment and need not have the slightest relationship to anything else in the film.

David Lynch loves movies, genres, archetypes and obligatory shots. “Mulholland Drive” employs the conventions of film noir in a pure form. One useful definition of noirs is that they’re about characters who have committed a crime or a sin, are immersed with guilt, and fear they’re getting what they eserve. Another is that they’ve done nothing wrong, but it nevertheless certainly appears as if they have.

The second describes Hitchcock’s favorite plot, the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. The first describes the central dilemma of “Mulholland Dr.” Yet it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.

Pale Flower (1964)

Action, Drama, Foreign, Thriller

Rated Unrated

96 minutes

At the center of “Pale Flower” stands a very quiet man, closed within himself, a professional killer. He works for a gang in the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia, and as the film begins he has returned to Tokyo after serving a prison sentence for murder. He did the prison time as the price to be paid for committing a murder, but although we see his gang boss several times, even in a dentist’s chair, there is no effort to make him seem worthy of such loyalty. He is an ordinary older man. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), the yakuza, seems loyal more to the ideal of loyalty, a version of the samurai code. It is his fate to be a soldier and follow orders, and he is the instrument of that destiny. He thinks his crime was “stupid,” but he is observing, not complaining.

“Pale Flower” is one of the most haunting noirs I’ve seen, and something more; in 1964 it was an important work in an emerging Japanese New Wave of independent filmmakers, an exercise in existential cool. It involves a plot, but it is all about attitude. Muraki, elegantly dressed, his hair in a carefully stylized cut, his eyes often shielded by dark glasses, speaking rarely, revealing nothing, guards his emotions as if there may be no more where they came from. He glides through nights and an underworld of high-stakes gambling clubs and hooker bars, but lives in a rude and shabby room as if it is merely a cave for sleeping.

After his first night back in his familiar world, he goes to a clock shop where Shinko (Chisako Hara), his young lover, lives and works. She clings to him abjectly, and they have sex without ceremony. He betrays no affection. He advises her to find a husband and start a family. He returns to the customary life of the gang without ceremony, as if dwelling on the prison term would be unseemly.

He likes to gamble. The movie began with a gambling sequence, there are several more of them, and visually they’re as elegantly composed as a scene by Ozu. The director of “Pale Flower” is Masahiro Shinoda, whose visual choice is widescreen black and white and whose characters move with the grace of Antonioni’s at about the same time. That Shinoda worked a an assistant to Ozu may explain some of his precise framing. The gamblers play the Flower Card game involving thick cardboard chips that click when they touch; listen carefully to the sound track by Toru Takemitsu, the masterful composer who, Shinoda says, told him “record all the sounds and I will use them.” He segues from the clicking of the cards to recorded tap-dancing and then to discordant chords, as if the rhythm of the game gives way to angular interior emotions.

Seated across from Muraki is a beautiful women, very young, who gambles with the same recklessness she uses to meet his eyes. This is Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Like Muraki, she has no small talk and betrays no emotions. She seems equally indifferent if winning or losing. There is a man at the games who does not play. He is Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), said to be a new employee of the boss. He sits against the wall, regarding the room with aggressive objectivity. Shinoda uses a series of shots in which Muraki leans back to regard this man, who returns his gaze as if to say, “I would kill you or anyone else without a second thought.”

Saeko asks Muraki if he knows of a game with bigger stakes. She seems addicted to excitement. She betrays emotion only twice, when after a high-speed drag race on empty city streets she begins to giggle almost orgasmically, and again when she giggles after they are almost caught in a police raid. She says that “Yoh,” the malevolent newcomer, seems “exciting.” Perhaps she finds it exciting, too, that Muraki is a murderer.

Shinoda chose Ryo Ikebe as his star when the actor was at a low ebb, having been fired from a play for freezing onstage. In an interview included with the new Criterion edition of the film, the director recalls Ikebe, depressed, asking, “Why do you want me? I’m just a ham actor.” But Shinoda had seen him in Ozu’s “Early Spring” (1956) and other films, where he was sleekly handsome, and he says he wanted to feel the quality of a man down on his luck. In this film, Ikebe reminds me of the also handsome Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” (1967), another film about a detached hit man. Here the performance depend on Ikebe’s ability to maintain a Charles Bronson-like impassivity. It is the quality of a man wary of emotion, and the story depends on how he becomes helplessly becomes fascinated by Saeko because she seems even more distant and guarded than he is.

He warns her against drugs. One night she tells him she has shot up. She says a friendly doctor gave her the shot. But Yoh has the skin and the aura of a drug addict. What does Muraki think? He never reveals. But when the boss asks for a volunteer to murder the boss of a rival gang, Muraki says he’ll do it. He doesn’t have to. The boss has already given him an exemption because he’s just finished one prison term. If you meditate on why Muraki volunteers, I think you will close in on his motivation, and find the theme

In his interview, Shinoda shows himself familiar with avant garde art. He was chafing at working within the studio system, and even though “Pale Flower” was produced by the major studio Shochiku he considers it an independent film, and so, apparently, did the studio. “After the screening, the writer said it wasn’t the film he had written,” he recalls, “and that was the excuse the studio needed.” At a loss for how to deal with it, Shochiku shelved it for months, although when it was finally released it was a great success, no doubt because it captured the sense of both film noir and the emerging European art films.

The writer, Masaru Baba, began with a novel by Shintaro Ishihara. His approach was apparently conventional, and he disagreed sharply with Shinoda about the gambling scenes. “We just write ‘they gamble,'” he told the director. Shinoda nodded, kept his peace, and used the novel as a basis for shooting the extraordinary card games. The film makes no effort to explain how the game is played, but is visually acute about the details: The goading rhythm of the croupier, the ritual of a card withdrawn from concealment and folded within a cloth, the placing of bets. Shinoda gives great attention to the implacable faces of Muraki, Saeko and (at a greater distance) Yoh. The gambling scenes are not about the game but about the emotional signals being exchanged by these three; Shinoda has little interest in the other players.

Not many scenes take place in daytime. The film is shot mostly indoors, or outdoors on sometimes rainy streets. The opening establishes Tokyo, but Shinoda shot mostly in Yokohama, where an older look and many narrow lanes gave him a feeling he was looking for, of the night pressing down on Muraki. One cat-and-mouse foot chase through empty streets and shadows is particularly well done.

Although the tone of the film is set by Takemitsu Toru’s discordant score, a late climactic killing is scored by an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas.” It goes to slow motion, and is intercut with unexpected stained-glass windows. What is happening here, as you will understand when you see the film, is the equivalent of an orgasm created by Muraki for Saeko.

Film noir is almost always about a central figure who is destroyed by his flaws. This figure often tries to live by a code, even a criminal code, but is defeated by some kind of moral weakness. In noir the fact that you’ve killed someone may not be a moral failing, but simply an expression of the duties of your milieu. Muraki has schooled himself to not feel, and to not care for Shinko, who cares for him. But by her very inapproachability, the mysterious Saeko defeats his defenses and sets in motion those decisions that cause him to kill again, and trap himself. At the end of the film, he discovers what his choices have left him with. It is an ending of bleak sadness and empty destiny.

The Green Inferno

As far as scary movies go, there’s a particularly nasty micro-genre tucked way back into the corner of the annals of exploitation horror, only illuminated by the most iron-stomached aficionados. Behold: “cannibals in the jungle,” which, over the years, has been the purveyor of some of the most brutal, appalling snuff flicks ever committed to celluloid. Leave it, of course, to director/stylistic curator Eli Roth to bring such wanton grotesquerie into a contemporary context with his latest endeavor The Green Inferno. He’s the brand of filmmaker who feels the need to combine the “parody” of something like a Date Movie film spoof with the likes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 Cannibal Ferox, crafting something that has neither the ostensible self-awareness nor the controversy of either.

Inferno, which actually cribs its title from the movie-within-a-movie of Cannibal Holocaust, took its sweet time getting to theaters. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, it was scheduled for release almost exactly a year ago, only to be shelved at the last minute until the taste-making budget-horror maestros at Blumhouse Productions picked the film up and, thanks to their multi-platform label, BH Tilt, finally revealed Roth’s long-gestating splatterfest in all of its blood-soaked glory.

Roth’s jab at so-called “social justice warriors”—typically young, financially stable, non-marginalized progressives who hear about one injustice or another in the world and decide it’s their duty, without consideration for context or cultural acumen, to step in to help (think college freshmen learning about global atrocities for the first time)—The Green Inferno never moves beyond sophomoric mockery or pale imitation, making Roth’s deep-seated dislike for such people seem all the more pointless and bitter. In fact, Roth adds nothing new to the formulas he emulates besides some modern context: If you stumbled across this on a warped VHS tape from the early 1980s, it would probably be a hardcore cult classic, but in 2015, it’s more funny than horrifying.

The Green Inferno finds Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman in New York, falling in with a group of activists led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a caring stud who, when we first meet him, is on a hunger strike for janitor’s rights. Incensed by the injustices she’s just discovering outside the purview of her sheltered suburban existence, Justine joins Alejandro and his cohort on a trip to Peru to stop, among other timeless indignities, the bulldozing of the rain forest and the annihilation of an isolated indigenous tribe. The rub? Their plan actually works—but on the way back, their plane crashes in the jungle and the very tribe they rescued from eradication darts them, throws them in a cage, and, as bloodthirsty headhunting cannibals, systematically tortures and devours the do-gooders.

Somehow Roth feel obliged to translate his disdain for SJWs as a feature-length lampooning of the old “no good deed goes unpunished” adage, but his conclusions are so empty, so juvenile that he might as well have attached a “wah-wah” sound effect to the shitty trauma here (no joke, there’s a scene where a girl sprays diarrhea all over and children laugh at her). Not to mention that at one point, getting the villagers high on a paltry amount of weed forms the core of an escape plan—which does lead to the most hilariously vicious case of the munchies a movie’s possibly ever compiled.

For all the blood and violence, The Green Inferno isn’t even particularly shocking. Roth’s Hostel movies are far more graphic, easily so much more unsettling, and even with eyeballs plucked from skulls or young white people getting butchered alive—or, grossest of all, implied female genital mutilation—here Roth turns away, editing around the gruesomeness or employing such jittery camera work that there isn’t much to actually see. The movies Roth apes are admittedly, even 30-plus years later, hard to watch, and while most casual viewers will find plenty to make their guts lurch, it’s probably safe to say that even moderately attentive horror enthusiasts won’t find much remarkable here.

Roth succeeds in populating his film with the kinds of caricatures he probably finds in the ranks of typical SJW enclaves: flatter than people used to think the Earth was, completely uninteresting, all obnoxiously terrible—Roth seems to want audiences to root for people to die. No one displays even a shred of personality, instead carrying a collection of random character traits: Dude who smokes weed; fat guy in love with hot girl; bitch. At least getting eaten will shut them up. Yet, like in Hostel, the film dawdles in its early scenes, apparently to make audiences care? By the time anything finally does happen, the contradiction has doomed the whole enterprise. Because we don’t care, and even before the teeth start gnashing we know where Roth’s going with all this, reducing all tension to an obligatory exercise in forcing oneself to form a coherent narrative.

What about the tribe being portrayed as nothing more than savage maniacs crazy for human flesh? The films The Green Inferno draws inspiration from all follow the same lines, but Roth makes no distinction between his responsibility as a modern filmmaker to rectify the ignorance of old tropes and his allegiance to providing an homage with little reason to exist outside of ribbing the perspectives of privileged college students. It’s like watching the monotone portrayal of Native Americans in old westerns. Beyond that, within the framework of the movie, Roth seems to want to make a point about the POV of modern activism, but his faltering method amounts to just a big middle finger to vague PC types.

And so The Green Inferno doesn’t add anything to, doesn’t try to build anything off of, doesn’t climb on the shoulders of what came before. It is simply content to stand next to its ilk, doing exactly what they already did, unwilling to defend its existence past indulging one of filmmaking’s most indulgent filmmakers.

Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Eli Roth, Guillermo Amoedo, Nicolás López
Starring: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns, Nicolas Martinez, Ignacia Allamand, Daryl Sabara
Release Date: September 25, 2015

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Drama, Foreign, Indie

Rated Unrated

112 minutes

Two middle-aged students take their old teacher out to dinner, and he gets thoroughly drunk and is overtaken by sadness. We are alone in life, he tells them. Always alone. He lives with his daughter, who takes care of him, who has never married, who will be left all alone when he dies. He tells Hirayama, the hero of “An Autumn Afternoon,” to avoid the same mistake: Marry his daughter now, before she is too old.

 

“Ummm,” responds Hirayama. He reveals no apparent emotion. He lives at home with a son and daughter, and she waits on both of them. Another son is married. He considers his teacher’s sorrowful advice. At his office, a young women his daughter’s age is getting married. Perhaps the old man is correct. The night of the dinner, the students take their teacher home. They find he and his daughter now run a noodle shop, and she is fed up with him for getting drunk again. She cares for her father, but is trapped and unhappy.

The more you learn about Yasujiro Ozu, the director of “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962), the more you realize how very deep the waters reach beneath his serene surfaces. Ozu is one of the greatest artists to ever make a film. This was his last one. He never married. He lived for 60 years with his mother, and when she died, he was dead a few months later. Over and over again, in almost all of his films, he turned to the same central themes, of loneliness, of family, of dependence, of marriage, of parents and children. He holds these themes to the light and their prisms cast variations on each screenplay. His films are all made within the emotional space of his life, in which he finds not melodramatic joy or tragedy, but mono no aware, which is how the Japanese refer to the bittersweet transience of all things.

From time to time I return to Ozu feeling a need to be calmed and restored. He is a man with a profound understanding of human nature, about which he makes no dramatic statements. We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on. He embodies this vision in a cinematic style so distinctive that you can tell an Ozu film almost from a single shot. He films mostly indoors. His camera is at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat. The camera never moves. His shots often begin before anyone enters the frame, and end after the frame is empty again. There is foreground framing, from doors or walls or objects. There is meticulous attention to the things within the shot.

Ozu arranged the props in a shot with obsessive care, his collaborators recalled. In particular there is a little teapot that occurs in film after film, almost as the maker’s mark. The objects themselves are not as important as their compositional function; he often composes on a lateral within the unmoving frame, leading our eyes forward and backward. “An Autumn Afternoon” is one of his six color films, made between 1958 and 1962, and in it he makes particular use of the color red to draw our eyes deeper into the frame. In almost every shot there is something red or orange in the foreground, middle distance, and back. These are not obvious. They may involve a stool, a sign on a wall, an item of clothing hanging from a hook, a vase, some books. They mean nothing in particular, but because red is a dominant color, they lead our eyes through his usually pastel compositions and prevent us from reading a shot only in a flat pane. They give his films a depth of space that mocks the pretension of 3D.

If you love Ozu you do not need to be told that “An Autumn Afternoon” stars Chishû Ryû, who appeared in almost every film Ozu ever made. He always plays, we feel, the Ozu character, reserved, neat, quiet, and, like Ozu himself, often a heavy drinker, more meditative than demonstrative. In “An Autumn Afternoon,” his Hirayama is a salaryman at an unspecified factory, who lives with his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita), 24, and son Kazuo (Shinichirô Mikami) a little younger. An older son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), is already married. Hirayama is tall, slender, always well-dressed. What he feels is left to us to infer; Ozu prefers the empathy of the audience to dialogue revealing inner feelings. That monosyllable “ummm” is used over and again as Chishû Ryû’s character respond without committing themselves. Two or three times in “An Autumn Afternoon,” I heard the older son also using it, and I smiled with recognition.

The film takes place in Hirayama’s office and home, in a few bars and restaurants, and in his son’s home. A great many scenes involve steady drinking. These have echoes in Ozu’s work; a reunion with an old teacher can also be seen in the similar story of “There Was a Father” (1942), also starring the neither young nor old Chishû Ryû, this one living at home with his son.

There were a few things that happened to Ozu, apart from the military service he never displayed in his films: He went to school (where he smoked, drank, skipped class and was expelled), he worked, he never married, he drank too much, he was lonely, he spent much time with colleagues who loved him. These are the elements of his stories. Whether he felt trapped by his mother, whether he wanted to marry, we cannot know for sure. There were rumors of some troubles over a geisha in the 1930s, but no engagements or great romances. He worked almost always for the same studio, Shochiku, which revered him. The Japanese considered him their greatest director, but unlike Kurosawa he was unknown in the West. Shochiku considered him “too Japanese” to travel well, until the critic Donald Richie arranged for some of his work to be shown at the Venice Film Festival in the early 1970s.

As an extra on the Criterion DVD of “An Autumn Afternoon,” we see the French critics Michel Ciment and Georges Perec from a TV show of that period, discussing this great director who had come into their view a decade after his death. They try to describe the effect of his work. Ciment: “It is Zen, the rapture of the present lived moment.” Perec: “It’s what is happening when nothing is going on.” Mono no aware.

Perec reveals he cried twice in what must be the film’s emotional high point, on the daughter’s wedding day. She turns, radiant in her traditional bridal costume, so her father can see her. What are they thinking? She had argued she should not marry because her father and brother could not manage without her. She agreed with her father’s wishes. We haven’t even met the man she will marry. It isn’t who she is going to that’s the point; it’s who she is leaving. Hirayama looks at her. “Ummm,” he says. Observing, recognizing, accepting. There is no laughter. This scene of separation is as close as Ozu comes to violence. There was no indication that father and daughter shared any great love or need. But they were settled into a fixed existence, and marriage has ruptured it.

The soundtrack music by Kojun Saitô sounds Western (Italian, indeed), as it often does in an Ozu film. This is not an anachronism; Western music was well known in Japan. It is winsome and nostalgic. Its cheer is muted. It states what no one says in words: We carry on. We do our best. We are contained within our fates. Things change. In the final shot, we see Hirayama alone at home, in the kitchen at the end of an empty corridor. He pours himself some tea, probably, from the common yet distinctive little teapot that accompanied Ozu on his journey through his life’s work. The maker’s mark.

Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

In a vast Spanish plain, harvested of its crops, a farm home rests. Some distance away there is a squat building like a barn, apparently not used, its doors and windows missing. In the home lives a family of four: two little girls named Ana and Isabel, and their parents, Fernando and Teresa. He is a beekeeper, scholar and poet who spends much time in his book-lined study. She is a solitary woman who writes letters of longing and loss to men not identified. The parents have no conversations of any consequence.

 

It’s an exciting day in the village. A ramshackle truck rattles into town announced by scampering children, who shout, “The movies! The movies!” A screen and projector are set up in the public hall, and an audience of kids and old women gather to see “Frankenstein” (1931).

For the children, the movie had might as well only be about the monster, so tellingly performed by Boris Karloff. The creature comes upon a farmer’s young daughter tossing flowers into a pond to watch them float. Perhaps because of censorship, the film cuts directly from this to the monster mournfully carrying the child’s drowned body through the village. Perhaps because of censorship, we don’t see that he did not drown her, but threw her in with delight, thinking she would float as well. For the two girls, especially Ana (Ana Torrent), this makes a dramatic impression.

Her misunderstanding of the scene will shape the events to follow in Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” (1973), believed by many to be the greatest of all Spanish films. Although the time is not specified, it would have been clear to Spanish audiences that the film is set soon after the end of the Spanish Civil War, which began Franco’s long dictatorship — so soon after that the same day, a wounded opponent of the regime takes refuge in the barn-like outbuilding.

Only a few years separate Ana and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), but they form that important divide where Ana depends on her big sister to explain mysteries. The little girl runs carefree all over the farmlands, and in the barn she discovers the wounded soldier. That night, her eyes wide open in the dark, she asks Isabel to explain why the creature drowned the little girl. “Everything in the movies is fake,” she’s told. “It’s all a trick. Besides, I’ve seen him alive. He’s a spirit.” That of course serves for Ana as a possible explanation for the wounded man, and the next day, she sneaks him some food and water, and her father’s coat.

What follows is considered a coded message about Franco’s fascist regime, but it’s not for me to connect the dots. I relate to it more strongly as a poetic work about the imagination of children, and how it can lead them into mischief and sometimes rescue them from its consequences.

“The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of only three features and a short subject directed by Erice (born 1940). Like such films as Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), it is a masterpiece that can only cause us to wonder what we lost because he didn’t work more. It is simple, solemn, and in the casting of young Ana Torrent, takes advantage of her open, innocent features. We can well believe her when she accepts her sister’s explanation, which goes far to account for her behavior later in the film.

This is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. Its cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, bathes his frame in sun and earth tones, and in the interiors of the family home, he creates vistas of empty rooms where footsteps echo. The house doesn’t seem much occupied by the family. The girls are often alone. The parents also, in separate rooms. Many of the father’s poems involve the mindless churning activity of his beehives, and the house’s yellow-tinted honeycomb windows make an unmistakable reference to beehives. Presumably this reflects on the Franco regime, but when critics grow specific in spelling out the parallels they see, I feel like I’m reading term papers.

More rewarding is to read the surface of the film. When Ana’s good intentions to the “spirit” are misinterpreted, and when she is linked to the wounded man by her father’s pocket watch, this sets up a situation that could be dangerous for both father and daughter. When she runs away and inspires a search — the lanterns of volunteers bobbing through the night — we feel how the behavior of innocent children can lead them into trouble. In a later scene when Ana plays a trick on Isabel, the older child also discovers how her myth-making has repercussions.

Ana Torrent starred in another notable Spanish film, Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos” (1976). She has gone on to a successful career, making 45 films and TV series, including Saura’s “Elisa, My Life” (1977), his first film after Franco’s fall. But child actors are often bathed in a glow of enchantment that no later role will quite capture.

Note: “The Spirit of the Beehive” is on DVD in the Criterion Collection and is streaming on Hulu Plus. Also in my Great Movies Collection: “The Night of the Hunter.”

Badlands (1973)

Drama, Romance, Thriller

Rated PG

95 minutes

Holly describes her life as if she’s writing pulp fiction. “Little did I realize,” she tells us, “that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.” It is the wondering narrative voice that lingers beneath all of Terrence Malick’s films, sometimes unspoken: Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.

Holly is practicing her baton-twirling on the front lawn when she meets Kit. She is 15. He is 25, and has just walked off his job as a garbage man. We never learn anything about his earlier years. He walks out of nowhere, sees her, and sweeps her up in his whirlwind. Within a day or two he has shot her father dead, set her house afire, and they are on the run across South Dakota.

Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) tells a story that has been told many times, of two lovers who are criminals and are pursued across the vastness of America. “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) comes first to mind. Malick’s direct inspiration was the story of Charles Starkweather, the “Mad Dog Killer,” who in 1957-58 with his girl friend Caril Ann Fugate went on a killing spree that left 11 dead, including her parents and younger sister. She was 13, he was 18.

Malick finds no meaning in their crimes, no psychological explanation. Kit is a handsome psychopath who, Holly tells him, looks like James Dean. Holly is an unformed child who seems simple and remote. She describes their odyssey in the third person, as predestined fate. Neither seems to react emotionally to death. Listen here to how she slides over the death of her dog: “Then sure enough Dad found out I been running around behind his back. He was madder than I ever seen him. His punishment for deceiving him: he went and shot my dog. He made me take extra music lessons every day after school, and wait there ‘till he came to pick me up. He said that if the piano didn’t keep me off the streets, maybe the clarinet would.”

Malick opens on the leafy streets of a small town, where Holly’s house on the corner resembles the house Malick used in “The Tree of Life” (2011). We sense his own memories at work. Then he moves into hiding with them in a series of breathtaking scenes, as they live in a forest and roam mindlessly across the empty Great Plains, the quarry of a national manhunt. In the last of their stolen cars, a big Cadillac, they leave the roads and cut cross-country over unfenced prairies, summoning associations with pioneer settlers. “At the very edge of the horizon.” Holly said, “we could make out the gas fires of the refineries at Missoula, while to the south we could see the lights of Cheyenne, a city bigger and grander than I’d ever seen.”

“Badlands” was one of the great films of the flowering of American auteurs in the 1970s, a debut film chosen to close the New York Film Festival. It starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. He was 33 and had done much television acting but this was his first important feature. She was 24, and it was her second movie. Both looked younger than their years. Sheen, with carefully combed hair, blue jeans, checked shirts and Lucky Strikes, had the Dean look; after Charles Starkweather saw “Rebel Without a Cause” he deliberately patterned himself on the movie star. Spacek, red-haired, freckled, slight, seemed a girl, not a woman. Sex has little to do with Kit and Holly’s relationship, although we see some kissing; they seem to be children who are role-playing.

Their shallowness is in conflict with their deadliness. A friend of Kit’s, who seems to help them but then runs for a phone, is shot in the stomach and left to sit, dazed, dying and contemplative. He’d attempted to lure them into a field with a tale of treasure. That Kit believed him took childlike credulity. A family is killed for no other reason than that Kit and Holly come across their farmhouse. A rich man is spared for no reason at all, and Kit later observes how lucky he was. He uses the man’s Dictaphone to record a fatuous final statement: “Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat ‘em like enemies. There’s always an outside chance you can learn something. Try to keep an open mind.” He thinks that because he’s famous, his words have meaning.

Nature is always deeply embedded in Malick’s films. It occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles. There is always much detail, of birds and small animals, of trees and skies, of empty fields or dense forests, of leaves and grain, and always of too much space for the characters to fill. They are nudged here and there by events which they confuse with their destinies. In his “Days of Heaven” (1978), his characters ride the rails into a Texas prairie. His “The Thin Red Line” (1998), a war movie, his characters are embedded in the jungles of Guadalcanal. His “The New World” (2005), shows Native Americans at home in primeval forests while British explorers build forts to hide in. There is a strong sense of humans uneasily accommodated by the land.

“Badlands” is technically a road movie. That is a form which breaks filmmakers free of tight plotting and opens them to whatever happens along the way. They can introduce and dispose of characters and subplots at will. The travelers are all that is constant. In “Badlands” Kit and Holly are fleeing toward nowhere, although Kit talks vaguely of “heading north” and becoming a Mountie. Kit follows along not so much because she must, but because she had a crush on Kit and her father (Warren Oates) angered her by forbidding her to see him. She seems to regard her father’s death only as a convenience.

There is an idyll in a dense forest, where Kit constructs an improbable tree house possibly intended to evoke Tarzan. He rigs alarms and sets booby traps. They lead a natural life, an idle one, aimless. Lacking personal resources, they occupy a default state of boredom. One early shot of Kit shows him walking down an alley, stamping on a tin can to flatten it, then kicking it away. That gives him something to do.

The film has a mystical scene in which Malick has Holly looking at slides through or far-away places through her father’s 3D Stereopticon: “It hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me?” She realizes perhaps that she had no meaningful existence before Kit. Toward the end of their long flight over the land, Kit’s appeal runs out: “I’d stopped even paying attention to him. Instead I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of mouth where nobody could read them.”

Terrence Malick, born 1943, is a legendary figure in American film, often described as reclusive. In fact, he is simply private, absorbed in his own work, happy with a circle of friends, and declining to join in even token efforts at publicity. I am unaware of a single interview he has given; the many second-hand reports from those who know him paint a cheerful man, friendly, obsessed with details, enraptured by nature. There is a hint of Kubrick. “He can talk to anyone about anything,” Jessica Chastain, the star of “The Tree of Life,” told Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times. He declined to appear at the premiere or press conference for “Tree of Life” at Cannes 2011 (where it won the Palme d’Or), but was seen all over town at dinners and screenings. In five movies in four decades, he has, in his own way, fashioned one of the most distinctive bodies of work of his time. Very much in his own way.

“Days of Heaven” is also reviewed in my Great Movies Collection.

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