Category Archives: Cinema Scoring

Paris, Texas (1984)

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Harry Dean Stanton

We see wide open desert scorched by the sun. Powder blue sky littered with clouds stretching down to the horizon.

We hear an eerie, wavering droning, drifting in the ether. Then a quivering steel guitar slides into the mix.

We see a man wandering through the bright wasteland. The sound of his footsteps barely disturbs the silence.

The bleached colors of this vast landscape are rendered with striking clarity by cinematographer Robby Müller. The trembling metallic tones that hang in the air are played by Ry Cooder. And the haggard man staggering through this barren emptiness is another one of Wim Wenders’ lonely drifters.

Early in his career, Wenders made many movies about people wandering aimlessly from place to place. Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend and others focus on lonely souls who feel cut off from the world around them. They don’t have families or friends. They don’t have a home. They find themselves taking off on melancholy journeys, sometimes without even knowing where they’re going. Wenders’ early work is filled with images of solitary people surrounded by silent, empty spaces.

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Dean Stockwell

Which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you find in the plays of Sam Shepard, who co-wrote Paris, Texas. The stage, by its nature, generally brings people together in a compact space, and the dysfunctional families of pieces like True West and Curse of the Starving Class fill that space with bitter conflict. Shepard’s characters are forced to deal with each other, whether they like it or not, generally resulting in lively, bruising drama.

So Wenders and Shepard would seem to be an unlikely pair, and the process of writing Paris, Texas was long and complicated. Shooting began with an incomplete script, and the two men were continually rethinking the shape of the film, unsure even of how it was going to end. L. M. Kit Carson was brought in to help shape the final version. Apparently creating the film was an open-ended, collaborative process, and no one quite knew where they’d end up.

It may be the difference in the ways Wenders and Shepard approach their work that gives the film its quiet tension. The opening pulls us in with the mystery of Travis, a solitary, sunburned man walking doggedly across the desert. When his brother Walt shows up to take him back to LA, Travis doesn’t say a word, and we wonder if he’ll ever speak again. After some time recovering in the stillness of the suburbs, Travis seems to come around, but then the question is, will his young son ever open up to him? Even as the end draws near, we never know where the film is going, and at the conclusion there are plenty of things left unresolved.

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Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski

Travis is probably the best part Harry Dean Stanton ever had, and he plays it beautifully. Starting as a spaced-out, scraggly wanderer who seems cut off from everything around him, he slowly reconnects with reality. Recuperating at his brother’s house he’s like a child rediscovering the world, but there’s always a sense of pain buried inside. One of the film’s most moving moments is a brief scene where he’s walking across a freeway overpass. A haggard, angry man stands on the pavement, shouting nonsense at the cars speeding by below. As Travis passes by, he reaches out and pats the man gently on the shoulder. He knows what it’s like to be lost.

Stanton gets strong support from the other actors in the cast, which includes Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément and Nastassja Kinski. Hunter Carson does a fine job as Travis’ young son. In Wenders’ films it’s not just the words that matter, it’s the space between the words. One of the film’s strengths is that the actors make the silences as expressive as the dialogue.

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Aurore Clement

The structure of Paris, Texas has a beautiful simplicity. We start in the vast landscapes of the American Southwest, then travel to the comfortable confines of suburban LA, then, at the end, back to the wide open spaces. Art director Kate Altman gives Wenders and Müller the bedrooms, barrooms and rundown roadside concerns that make up the physical and emotional landscape for this story of shifting relationships. Having worked with Wenders on a number of films, editor Peter Przygodda understands the director’s unique sense of timing. Paris, Texas moves at its own pace, always allowing the audience to observe the actors, experience the landscapes. And in the same way, Cooder’s music doesn’t tell the audience how to feel about the action. Instead he allows each cue to grow out of the scene’s emotional tone. The wistful, lilting Canción mixteca is used as a recurring theme. This haunting melody, with its words expressing a painful longing to go back home, sums up the ache in Travis’ heart. But for him, going home isn’t about returning to the place he came from. It’s about finding a way to heal the family that he tore apart.

Paris, Texas may have been a summing up for Wenders, a turning point in his career. While his later films still deal with isolation and loneliness, from this point on his characters start trying to connect with others. In Wings of Desire and The End of Violence we see them reaching out to embrace the world, while The Buena Vista Social Club and Pina are about groups of people who come together to share their joy in music and dance.

In his youth, Wenders seemed to be wondering if love even existed. These days, he’s sure it’s out there somewhere. Maybe it’s just a matter of being open to it.

PT Road Rancho

Ed Wood (1994)

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau

Biopics can be a problem. Most peoples’ lives are so complex that it’s hard to boil them down to a sizeable book, let alone a two hour movie. On top of that, you’ve got the pressures of commercial filmmaking, which demand that stories follow certain accepted formats. And you’re also relying on screenwriters, actors and directors, all of whom have their own perspectives or agendas, to present an unvarnished account of somebody’s life. So you can see where problems might arise.

Back in the studio era, critics and audiences weren’t as demanding when it came to biopics. In some cases they just accepted the film version as being more or less true, even when there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. And on those occasions where the inaccuracies were really glaring, people would often shrug it off. The attitude was something like, “What do you expect? It’s Hollywood.” Nowadays movies about real people come under much greater scrutiny. Just in the last year extensive debates have played out in the media over the accuracy of films based on or “inspired by” actual events. Writers and directors who even seem to bend the truth can become a target for intense criticism.

So if we’re talking about Ed Wood, the low-budget filmmaker best known for Plan 9 from Outer Space, how important is it to tell the truth? Wood didn’t play a major part in shaping American history. He didn’t even play a significant role in Hollywood history. His shoestring productions have gained a cult following among those who wander down some of the darker alleys of American pop culture, but I’ve never heard anyone claim he was a major filmmaker. If somebody makes a movie about him that really doesn’t tell the truth, does it even matter?

Yeah, I think it does. But I still love the movie that Tim Burton made about Ed Wood. It does follow the general outline of the director’s life. Everyone who knew him agrees, Wood was passionate about making movies. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski make Wood an innocent optimist who’s so obsessed with his vision that reality fades into the background. The humor arises out of the distance between his ambitions and his abilities, but the point they make is that it doesn’t matter how talented he was. The important thing is that he knocked himself out to make the best films he could. This is a great premise, and they develop it beautifully.

Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny Depp

Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny Depp

You can see why Tim Burton wanted to shoot the script. Not only does it deal with the low-budget horror films he cherishes, but the hero is a director who’s fighting the system to do things his way. Burton handles this offbeat biopic with impressive style and grace. Production designer Tom Duffield lovingly recreates Hollywood in the mid-fifties, the tacky, tawdry urban wasteland that remained after the ephemeral glamour of the studio era had evaporated. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky captures the bland cheapness of stucco bungalows and low-budget sets, and still imbues it all with a fairy tale innocence. And composer Howard Shore somehow manages to create a blend of cheesy macabre, pop exotica and sinister soundtrack music that’s tongue in cheek without being condescending. He’s having fun exploring all these genres, but he’s not making fun of them.

Johnny Depp is absolutely wonderful in the title role. With a winning combination of charm, tenacity and absurd optimisim, he makes you want to believe in Wood’s madcap visions. It’s a highly stylized performance in a highly stylized film, and Depp pulls it off with incredible elan. He’s helped by an unusually strong supporting cast. Patricia Arquette is completely believable as Kathy Wood, just as innocent as Ed and willing to stand by him to the very end. Bill Murray brings a sense of melancholy resignation to the role of Bunny, the director’s long-suffering friend. Jeffrey Jones plays the Amazing Criswell with marvelous swagger. He’s an unabashed fraud who seems to always be ready for anything.

Patricia Arquette and Johnny Depp

Patricia Arquette and Johnny Depp

And of course, there’s Martin Landau’s remarkable performance as Bela Lugosi. While the other characters are essentially comic, there’s much more depth in this portrait of the aging horror star. The studios are through with him, he’s hooked on morphine, and he’s desperate enough for work that he’s willing to take a chance on a charming hustler like Wood. This is the emotional center of the movie. Wood may be exploiting Lugosi, but he also reveres him. Lugosi may harbor doubts about Wood’s talent, but he’s genuinely grateful that somebody still shows him some respect. For the most part the movie is gleefully superficial, but the bond between the two men is genuine, and you can feel the love between them.

Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where the facts are in question. When the movie was first released, Bela Lugosi’s son went public with a scathing critique, saying the filmmakers had misrepresented his father’s life in numerous ways. We can argue about how important the individual facts are, but Lugosi’s son asked why the filmmakers had never bothered to talk to him. He was practicing law in LA. It would have been easy for them to track him down and give him a call. If they really wanted to respect Lugosi’s memory, couldn’t they have spent a few hours interviewing his son?

Beyond that, the film’s portrayal of Wood is an idealized fantasy that only resembles the real man in its general outlines. It keeps us on his side by presenting him as a grown up kid. He may be a hustler, but he’s still innocent at heart. The reality is a lot more complicated, and not so appealing. They don’t show that Wood was a stone alcoholic. They don’t show him joyriding with a bottle in the car. They don’t show him staggering around a set, too wasted to direct anybody. And the supporting characters in Wood’s real life were a lot less wholesome than the amusing band of eccentrics we see in the movie. The real Ed Wood and his buddies were all hanging on to the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder, and they lived out some pretty twisted scenes.

George Steele and Jeffrey Jones

George Steele and Jeffrey Jones

Who knows who made the decision to clean things up. It may be that Alexander and Karaszewski felt they needed to maintain an air of innocence to give the film a fairy tale quality. Or maybe that was Burton’s choice. Or maybe they all wanted to do something grittier, and the studio told them to scrape away the grime to make it more marketable. As much as I love the movie, I wish they’d just invented a fictional character to hang their story on. You may be wondering why it’s such a big deal for me. If the world isn’t getting the whole truth about Ed Wood, does it really matter?

Again, I think it does. If you care enough about somebody to make a movie about them, you need to really make a movie about them. If not, then stick with fiction. That way you can make up whatever you want.

But if Alexander, Karaszewski and Burton don’t tell the literal truth about Ed Wood, the story they do tell is a beautiful parable with an important moral for all those who are struggling to do what they love. I’ve seen the film many times, and I still get emotional during the scene when Wood runs into Orson Welles at Musso & Frank’s. We may think of them as coming from completely different worlds, but Welles immediately understands the difficulties Wood is facing, and utters these immortal words.

“Ed, visions are worth fighting for.”

Whatever you may think about the movies he made, Ed Wood fought hard to make them. His trials and tribulations on the fringes of Hollywood led him to some pretty strange places, and I’m sure there are many things he did that he wasn’t proud of. We’re all flawed, and we all get beaten down by reality. But those who struggle to do the things they’re passionate about should never let reality get in their way.

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If you’re interested in learning more about this absolutely unique man, there are a couple of good resources for further study. First, I highly recommend Nightmare of Ecstasy, an oral biography by Rudolph Grey, which the movie was based on. The author talked to many of Wood’s closest associates, and weaves the interviews together into a mind-boggling account of the director’s life and times. Some of the stories are shocking, and the details of Wood’s last days are terribly depressing, but the book offers a convincing, complex portrait of this man. On top of that, the book paints a fascinating panorama of the world the director lived in. This isn’t the fantasy Hollywood that the media promotes. This is the actual, physical place called Hollywood, where people struggle in poverty for years hoping to some day hit it big. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is true to life.

I’d also recommend The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., an excellent, imaginative documentary. It, too, features interviews with many of Wood’s associates, and doesn’t shy away from his critics. Some people complain that the views are contradictory and don’t offer a clear picture of the director. I think this approach is more compelling, because the filmmakers allow for ambiguity instead of trying to reconcile the contradictions. There were people who loved him and people who hated him, and others who just didn’t know what to make of him.

On their way to a premiere.

On their way to a premiere.

Wild Bill (1995)

Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges

Most of us know very little about the history of the American West. The realities of the westward expansion that started in the nineteenth century were overwhelmed by the fantasies from the very beginning. Looking to extend its reach across the continent, the US government encouraged settlers to make the trek with promises of fabulous wealth and unbounded freedom. Pulp novelists spun tall tales about heroic cowboys and bloodthirsty Indians. Later on movies took it even further by recreating these stories on a grand scale. Popular stars rode their horses across the screen, their epic battles for justice set against spectacular landscapes. The truth was overwhlemed by the myth.

Walter Hill’s Wild Bill is about the way myth and reality can become hopelessly tangled. Taking as his subject the soldier, sheriff, gambler, gunfighter James Butler Hickok, Hill shows us a man who can no longer separate himself from his legend. The film starts with Bill’s funeral, then takes us back to his arrival in the wild frontier town of Deadwood, and we follow him through his last few days on earth. Bill is a man adrift, passing the time by drinking and playing cards, haunted by his past, wondering where his life went wrong.

Ellen Barkin and John Hurt

Ellen Barkin and John Hurt

The film is a deliberate mix of fact and fiction. Hill based his script on Pete Dexter’s book Deadwood and Thomas Babe’s play Fathers and Sons. In recreating Bill’s past, the film relies on real accounts of the gunfighter’s life, showing us how he earned his reputation. But the story of the callow young man who haunts Bill’s final days is fiction. Jack McCall is an awkward, angry youth who announces to the world that he’s going to kill the famous gunfighter. No one takes him seriously.  In spite of his bravado, it’s clear that he’s troubled and confused. Jack is angry not just because Bill seduced his mother, but also because he promised to be a father, and then abandoned both mother and son. The story has no basis in fact, but by framing it this way Hill takes us into the realm of primal poetry. The film becomes more than just a study of the distance between truth and fiction. It’s also about the distance between fathers and sons.

Bill’s whole life has been defined by violence. A soldier in the Civil War. A hunter fighting for his life on the plains. A lawman with a reputation as a crack shot. He’s survived in a violent world because he’s better at killing than his enemies. But after accidentally killing his own deputy in Abilene, he loses his sense of direction. He drifts from town to town, downing whisky and playing cards. Everywhere he goes, his reputation precedes him.  He’s revered as a hero and reviled as a murderer.  Bill goes on playing the part of the legendary gunslinger, but more and more he seems to be wondering why.

Karen Huie

Karen Huie

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jeff Bridges playing the role. Bridges has a presence that fills the screen, and he’s completely believable as a mythic figure, but he also has the skill to let us know what’s going on inside Bill’s head. He gives us a man who’s proud of his reputation and at the same time uncomfortable with it. A man who displays unflinching self-confidence and at the same time is filled with doubts. The cast in general is remarkable. John Hurt brings a world weary melancholy to the role of Charley Prince, Bill’s best friend. Ellen Barkin plays Calamity Jane with both toughness and tenderness. As Susannah Moore, the woman Bill loved and left behind, Diane Lane has a touching fragility. She knows he’s going to move on and tries to be strong, but inside she’s falling apart. As Jack, David Arquette is a tangle of conflicting emotions.  It sometimes seems as though his repeated attempts to kill Bill are actually just his way of trying to get Bill’s attention.  Even the small parts are well cast and well played. Karen Huie brings an interesting tension to her role as the proprietor of an opium den. Christina Applegate convincingly plays the hard as nails prostitute who finds herself drawn to the weak and indecisive Jack. And Pato Hoffman displays a fierce pride as the leader of a band of Cheyenne.

Pato Hoffmann

Pato Hoffmann

Visually the film is rich with shifting textures, moving seamlessly from past to present and back again. It’s easy to see why Hill has chosen to work with cinematographer Lloyd Aherne over and over again. Aherne seems less interested in capturing reality than in creating a visual landscape that grows out of the drama. The saloons are filled with rich, smoky color, Bill’s opium induced hallucinations are shot in stark black and white, and the frontier streets are often bleached into dusty sepia tones.

The score is by Van Dyke Parks, one of the great oddballs of American music. Parks has had a long, eccentric career, working with everyone from the Beach Boys to Grizzly Bear. Here he uses his considerable gifts as an arranger to weave together a tapestry of well worn traditionals, sometimes tapping into the raw vitality of the the Old West and at other times singing a lament for a time that may have only existed in our imagination. Paying close attention to mood and texture, Parks’ music complements the film’s shifting visual tone beautifully.

Wild Bill bombed at the box office and most critics wrote it off as a failure. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s happened over and over again to directors who stray from the standard formulas and try to do something unique. Since Wild Bill, Hill has continued to work, but he hasn’t attempted anything nearly as ambitious. Which is understandable. He put his heart and soul into this movie. Audiences and critics rejected it. Sometimes people ask why gifted filmmakers spend their time making routine thrillers. But what’s the point of knocking yourself out when you know you’ll probably get kicked in the teeth?

Reverie in an opium den.

Reverie in an opium den.

The Masseurs and a Woman (1938)

Shinichi Himori and Shin Tokudaiji

Shinichi Himori and Shin Tokudaiji

We see two blind men walking along a country road. They’re travelling to a resort in the hills where they’ll ply their trade as masseurs, serving clients in the local spas. The way they talk, joke and argue together, we get the sense that they’ve known each other for a long time. In fact, they’ve made this trip together many times, spending their winters working in the south of Japan and travelling north in summer.

This hillside resort, a place where travellers come and go, is the perfect setting for The Masseurs and a Woman, Hiroshi Shimizu’s story of people who have no home. There are the two masseurs, who migrate according to the seasons. There is the young boy whose parents have died, leaving him no choice but to live with his uncle. And there is the woman from Tokyo, travelling alone, unsure of where she’s headed next. Shimizu’s films often focus on people who have no roots. He seems to feel the isolation and loneliness of people who can’t go home.

In The Masseurs and a Woman, Shimizu’s camera roams through the resort, following the various characters as they meet each other, form relationships, and finally drift apart. He moves his camera a lot, but so unobtrusively that you’re hardly aware of it. He stages scenes to create a sense of space, often with actors placed in the foreground and the background, cutting only when necessary. This gentle, unforced approach allows us to observe these people as they eat, drink, walk and talk, and gradually we get to know them.

Mieko Takamine

Mieko Takamine

Shimizu’s characters want to connect with each other, they want companionship, friendship, love, but somehow these things prove elusive. Sometimes they try too hard. Sometimes their insecurity gets the better of them. And sometimes it’s just not in the cards. It’s sad enough that one of the masseurs falls in love with the woman from Tokyo, when there’s no chance they’ll get together. But even sadder is the tension this creates with his longtime friend. They may never again be as close as they were.

The Masseurs and a Woman seems lighthearted to start with, but as the story goes on, and we realize how lonely these people are, the film is slowly infused with a deep sadness. The score, by Senji Itô, also expresses this change in tone. Itô’s music for the opening credits starts the film off with a jaunty feeling. Later he gives us a lilting melody that echoes the quiet beauty of the Japanese countryside. And at the end, the haunting final cue underscores the loneliness that weighs these people down.

The film ends as it began, on the road, but things have changed dramatically. At the beginning, we walked with the two masseurs as they marched along, chatting amiably to pass the time. At the end, we see one of the masseurs running desperately to catch a last “glimpse” of the woman from Tokyo as a cab carries her away. His friend stands by himself at a distance. Shimizu does nothing to lighten the sense of loss. These people are on their own.

Wandering down the endless road.

Wandering down the endless road.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson

David Cronenberg is fascinated by altered states of consciousness. His characters’ view of the world may be shaped by technology (Existenz) or drugs (Naked Lunch) or mental illness (Spider). Throughout his career, Cronenberg has made films about people who perceive reality in different ways, and he seems completely uninterested in making judgments. In fact, at times he may be asking if their perception of the world might not be valid. In Crash a man and a woman who survive an auto accident find themselves irresistibly drawn toward the violence of car culture. The hero of Eastern Promises has to walk a tightrope between the demands of a Russian crime syndicate and an American law enforcement agency, trying to survive in the space between the two. But survival isn’t always a priority for Cronenberg’s characters. Sometimes they just surrender to their fate.

In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer lives in a universe shaped by the ceaseless flow of cyber-capital. He spends most of the day riding through Manhattan, the financial center of the US, in a gleaming white limousine. It glides along the streets in sleek, soundproof isolation. While he can see what’s happening outside, he barely hears it when protesters are banging their fists against his window. We meet this brilliant young billionaire on the day when his financial empire is quickly imploding. Instead of freaking out, he ponders his misfortune with an odd detachment. Not only is he unruffled by the loss of his millions, he’s amazingly calm about the fact that an assassin is trying to kill him. He takes almost everything with an unsettling calm, and he insists on driving across Manhattan in spite of all the obstacles. “We need a haircut,” he tells his chauffer/bodyguard. Nothing will keep him from that goal.

Samantha Morton and Robert Pattinson

Samantha Morton and Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson gives a beautifully focussed performance as Packer, riding across Manhattan, consumed in melancholy meditation of a reality that appears to be coming apart at the seams. He’s a control freak who realizes that he’s losing control, and rather than screaming and crying, he seems fascinated by the circumstances of his downfall. In the course of his journey he picks up various visitors who accompany him part of the way. Juliette Binoche does a funny, raunchy turn as the art dealer who shows up to have savage sex with Packer, and then discuss the purchase of a painting by Rothko. Samantha Morton maintains an eerie serenity, a disturbing clarity, in her role as the financial philosopher who carefully breaks down the way money is changing our perception of time. She rides along in the limo, cradling her drink, talking calmly about how our reality is altered by the massive pressures of the markets. Morton plays this difficult role with perfect ease, staring off into space with shining eyes, an intellectual entranced by the beauty and the violence of capital. Abdul Ayoola gives a quietly moving performance as the chauffer who takes Packer on the last leg of his journey. And Paul Giamatti has just the right presence to play the grimy loner who wants to kill Packer. Though he’s filled with rage at the way the world has treated him, he seems unnerved when he finally comes face to face with his prey.

I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s book, but I’d really like to. Published not too long after the dot com bubble burst, the author was obviously exploring the new ways in which the markets were changing our world. The film was released in two thousand twelve, and I’m sure many people read it as a comment on the more recent financial meltdown. But Cosmpolis isn’t a morality play about the soulless rich. Packer’s problem isn’t that he has no soul, it’s that his soul is starved. He’s a brilliant young man who spends his days analyzing the ebb and flow of markets, riding waves of currency. Existing almost completely in this alternate universe, this gleaming, abstract future created by the endless flow of capital, he begins to realize that he’s living in a vacuum. We see that there are plenty of women who want to have sex with him, but the one woman he really wants to have sex with, his wife, is out of reach. The bodyguard he’s hired to protect him becomes a nuisance to overcome, an obstacle that keeps him from experiencing the world. And when he finally arrives at the barbershop, we realize it’s not the haircut he needed, but the amiable grin of the guy who gives it to him, a man who knew his father. This chatty old man may be his only friend.

George Touliatos, Robert Pattinson and Abdul Ayoola

George Touliatos, Robert Pattinson and Abdul Ayoola

Composer Howard Shore has been working with Cronenberg so long they seem to understand each other perfectly. The director doesn’t care about drama, or driving his points home. In Cosmopolis the narrative moves forward on its own terms, relying on its own logic, and the music reflects this. Instead of a conventional film score with its dramatic highs and lows, Shore gives us an abstract soundscape that hovers in the background. Relying largely on color and texture, he creates a shifting sonic fabric that echoes the main character’s zoned-out state of mind.

Packer realizes that he’s come to inhabit the world of capital so completely that he’s estranged from simple, physical experience. He turns homicidal, then suicidal. He’s desperate to connect with somebody, even somebody who’s trying to kill him. But through all of this, Cronenberg avoids making judgments. He doesn’t care about putting Packer on trial. He’s more interested in getting inside this boy’s head.

"The present is harder to find.  It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future."

“The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future.”

Wings (1966)

Zhanna Bolotova and Mayya Bulgakova

Zhanna Bolotova and Mayya Bulgakova

After the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet state’s iron grip on filmmakers began to loosen.  Nikita Kruschev actively encouraged more freedom in the arts, and in the mid-fifties Soviet cinema began to flourish once again.  Realizing that the public was weary of whitewashed historical spectacles where the noble worker always triumphed, filmmakers chose to create more intimate works that focussed on individuals.

Larisa Shepitko was one of the young filmmakers who embraced this new approach.  A graduate of VGIK, the Soviet film school, Shepitko’s work places more emphasis on people than politics, though her characters’ conflicts are played out  against the background of the world they live in.  Wings is the story of Nadezhda, once a celebrated pilot in the Russian Air Force, now headmistress at a school.  She’s intelligent, dedicated and hardworking, but she can’t escape the feeling that her life is empty.  In the opening shot we see a tailor measuring her for a coat, and this slow, methodical process sums up the monotony that characterizes her life.

The screenplay, by Valentin Ezhov and Natalya Ryazantseva, digs deep into the mind and spirit of this complicated woman.  We see that she’s a smart, capable administrator, but she can’t relate to the young people who surround her at the school.  We see her spending time with a male friend who obviously adores her, but she seems faintly bored by his company.  The most important thing in her life is her relationship with her daughter, Tanya.  Nadezhda desperately wants to be close to Tanya.  But the mother is so judgmental, so controlling, that she’s continually pushing her daughter away.

The headmistress discovers an unflattering caricature.

The headmistress discovers an unflattering caricature.

It’s not that Nadezhda can’t feel love, or even that she can’t show love.  Throughout the film she tries to connect with the people around her, but in the end she always insists that they adhere to her standards.  What makes it even harder to bear is that she knows this.  Nadezhda sees what she’s doing, and still can’t stop herself.  And so there’s a constant tension inside of her.  She’s always feeling the need to reach out and it’s always trumped by the need to maintain control.

The only moments where we see her relax, where we see her step outside of herself, are the wistful reveries where she imagines herself flying again.  In these lovely, lyrical sequences, we’re floating with her through the air, gliding peacefully past billowing, white clouds.  The only sound we hear is a sad, lilting motif played on strings that underscores her longing for the freedom she felt soaring through the sky.

While Shepitko uses music sparingly, it’s an important part of the film’s emotional fabric.  The composer, Roman Ledenyov, shows an intuitive understanding of what’s needed.  It’s a small scale score, well suited to this intimate exploration of a woman’s life.  A quiet conversation is accompanied by an airy passage played on celeste.  As Nadezhda rides a crowded bus we hear woodwinds playing a vague, dissonant cue.  The only time when the score seems to open up is when she remembers the freedom of flying through the skies.  The short, ethereal phrases played by the strings in these sequences suggest a sense of peace, but also a heavy melancholy.

In the final sequence, Nadezhda visits the airfield she knows from her days as a pilot.  As a lark, some of the young people who are learning to fly put her in the cockpit of a small plane and push it across the field.  They mean it as an affectionate joke.  For her, knowing that they see her as an old woman, past her prime, it’s humiliating.  So just before they roll her plane into the hangar, she starts the engine, taxis down the runway and takes off into the sky.  It’s a brief escape.  When she returns to earth again, all her burdens will be as heavy as before.  But for a while she can remember what it’s like to soar above the clouds.  For a moment, she’s free again.

Longing for the freedom of the sky.

Longing for the freedom of the sky.

Ravenous (1999)

Ravenous 1

Antonia Bird had a long career as a director, but she only made a handful of theatrical features. As far as I can tell, none of them went anywhere commercially. I think in part this is because her films don’t play by the rules that mainstream audiences are used to. Her movies just don’t fall into the usual categories.

Take Ravenous. It tells the story of a young soldier posted to a remote fort in California who narrowly escapes being eaten by a cannibal, only to later find himself becoming a cannibal. Ravenous is not a comedy, though it has moments of very black comedy. It’s not a western, though it has many of the elements that characterize westerns. And it’s not a horror movie, though a number of scenes are truly horrifying. Really it’s a morality play. The crux of the film is the main character’s choice between right and wrong.

The script, by Ted Griffin, begins with a battle in the Mexican-American War. We see the young soldier, Boyd, as he receives a medal and a promotion for single-handedly seizing a command post behind enemy lines. Later we learn the full story, and it beomes clear that Boyd isn’t the hero he appears to be. In fact he’s severely traumatized, and his commanding officer sends him to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas.

This is where he encounters Calhoun, the only survivor of a party that tried to cross the Sierras in the dead of winter. At first it seems that Calhoun is the only member of the party that managed to escape when his companions turned to eating one another. But we soon find out that he’s the cannibal, and that he’s still hungry. We also learn that in eating his victims he acquires their strength and bravery. Calhoun tells Boyd of his transformation from a sickly, tubercular invalid to a healthy, virile predator. He plans to continue eating human flesh, and he invites Boyd to join him.

Calhoun’s character represents the savagery of nineteenth century American imperialism. He’s intelligent and cunning, and totally unapologetic about the fact that he eats human beings. In fact, he sees the practice as a sign of strength. Standing in a graveyard outside the fort, he speaks to Boyd of Manifest Destiny, explaining that this young, hungry nation must eat to grow. The first time we see Calhoun, he’s holding a small cross in his hand, and throughout the film he’s closely associated with this Christian symbol. For centuries, European nations had used evangelism as a pretext for slaughter and plunder, and the US continued that tradition in the nineteenth century. Christianity was perverted to justify war against the indigenous people who populated North America. At the film’s climax, Calhoun paints a cross on his forehead with blood. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.

The film’s design seems to have grown organically out of its themes. The story is mostly played out within the claustrophobic darkness of the fort or the enormous, snowy landscapes of the American West. Against this background of murky shadow and blinding white, we see the dull blue of the soldiers’ uniforms, the bright red of splattered blood, and occasionally the colors of the American flag as it curls in the breeze. This beautifully unified conception is the work of production designer Bryce Perrin. Using this visual framework, cinematographer Anthony Richmond paints a physical landscape that is overwhelmingly huge, while at the same time delineating a psychological landscape that is dark, cramped and terrifying. Sheena Napier’s costumes don’t just help define the characters, they also express the way the characters evolve as the story unfolds.

And these are unusual, challenging characters. Guy Pearce does an impressive job with Boyd, bringing us into his state of mind, allowing us to see these harrowing events through the eyes of this weak, scared, vulnerable man. But Pearce also makes clear that there’s a spark of strength in Boyd that allows him to take a stand against evil. As Calhoun, Robert Carlyle is both frightening and charismatic. This intelligent, articulate cannibal isn’t just a bloodthirsty monster. He believes in what he’s doing, and preaches eloquently on the subject. Sheila Tousey’s Martha speaks few lines of dialogue, but the actress imbues her character with a quiet, stoic strength. And Jeffrey Jones shows his consummate skill at playing offbeat roles, making the softspoken Col. Hart sympathetic, even when he becomes a cold-blooded killer. I can’t think of many actors who could handle the line, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”

The score is just as unusual as the rest of the movie, being credited to a young rock star and an established film composer. Damon Albarn uses traditional instruments to capture the psycho soul of these soldiers trudging through the vast isolation of the American wilderness. Michael Nyman’s orchestral cues are skilfully woven into the texture of the film, underlining the feeling of dread and paranoia.

Antonia Bird’s films didn’t follow the usual patterns, and didn’t offer comforting solutions. Her protagonists find themselves in difficult, overwhelming situations, and they don’t win easy victories, if it can be said they end up winning at all. And this is probably a large part of the reason why her theatrical features never found large audiences.

Bird died last October. She was a filmmaker who didn’t want to compromise, and she paid the price at the box office. It’s not easy to find her work, with some of her films being difficult or impossible to get hold of. This is a shame. She was a unique artist and a gifted director. Her films deserve to be seen.

Shadows (1959)

Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers

Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers

An intense young man walks the streets of New York while a moody, abstract bass line murmurs to us in the background. A young woman stops under a bright theatre marquee to check out the lurid display as a rambling solo sax underscores the scene’s sexual tension. In John Cassavetes’ Shadows, the jazz soundtrack doesn’t just complement the visuals, it’s an integral part of the director’s approach. The spontaneity and sensitivity of the music reflects the loose, open-ended feel of the movie. It’s not just a different style. It’s a different way of thinking about film.

The credits tell us that Shadows was improvised, which isn’t really true. It did grow out of improvisations by the actors, and Cassavetes was open to their inspiration during the shooting. But even if there wasn’t a traditional script, the director had definite ideas about the film’s shape and structure. Cassavetes knew where he wanted to go, even if he didn’t always know how to get there. It was his first film, and he has acknowledged that it’s uneven. Shadows may be messy and chaotic, but its loose, freewheeling approach allows the actors to connect with us in ways they never could in a more conventional film.

Just as a jazz musician takes a melody and makes it their own by opening themselves up to the moment, Cassavetes and his collaborators start with a basic structure and allow themselves the freedom to be spontaneous. They’re not locked into the demands of a commercial film, where the story is crucial and everything is planned and prepared. They take chances, they make mistakes. Sometimes this approach doesn’t work, and the film just seems amateurish and ragged. But at other times it gives us moments that seem remarkably true. An uncomfortable silence that says more than any words could. An awkward gesture that reveals a character’s insecurity. These sparks struck by accident illuminate the film. They give it an immediacy we don’t often see on the screen.

Shadows has been praised for its originality, and in some ways it did blaze new trails. But Cassavetes had his influences, and to a degree the film was an outgrowth of trends that had begun to develop in the late forties. After WWII, many filmmakers had started to venture away from soundstages and shoot their movies on real locations. Europeans, especially the Italian Neo-Realists, had forged a new kind of filmmaking that was rooted in everyday life. And in New York in the fifties there was a growing movement to create an independent cinema. Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke and Lionel Rogosin had all made low-budget films using actual locations.

The film centers on three siblings living together in New York. The three are played by Hugh Hurd, Ben Carruthers and Lelia Goldoni, and the actors’ first names are adopted by the characters in the film. Hugh is the oldest, a singer who’s having trouble getting gigs. Ben, in the middle, plays trumpet, though he’s more interested in partying than making music. And Lelia, the youngest, seems to just be trying to find herself. Shadows doesn’t have a central story. Or rather, it tells a few different stories, and they overlap in interesting ways. The characters hang out in bars, go to parties, make love and have fights just like real people do. The film doesn’t build to a conventional climax. There’s no tidy resolution at the end. Hugh, Ben and Lelia just go on with their lives.

The music in Shadows is by Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi, but apparently recording the soundtrack was just as chaotic as the rest of the production. From what I’ve read, Cassavetes wanted Mingus to compose the score, but apparently the two had a series of disagreements, which may have had to do with money or deadlines or both. No two accounts I’ve read agree on the details, but little of Mingus’ music ended up in the final film. Apparently Cassavetes worked with Hadi on recording the sax solos that make up most of the score. However difficult the process was, the end result gives the movie a tone that is absolutely unique. The cues are discrete pieces, reflecting the mood of the individual scenes. And the freedom we hear in the music is completely in tune with the spirit of the movie. It doesn’t tell us what to feel. It allows us to feel.

After Hours (1985)

Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette

Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette

There is a scene in After Hours where the main character, Paul, is asking a bouncer whether he can enter a club, and the bouncer responds by paraphrasing Kafka. This might seem like just an academic in-joke, but actually I think it has a lot to do with the spirit of the film. Joseph K., the central figure in Kafka’s novel The Trial, is a mid-level bureaucrat who finds his life slowly being consumed by a vast bureaucracy he can’t begin to understand. Paul, the central figure in After Hours, is an office worker who goes out one night to meet a girl and finds himself caught up in a web of events that threaten his sanity and his life. Both characters start as young, smug, middle-class men. Both run into situations that overwhelm them, eventually turning their world upside down. Both end up realizing how little control they really have over their own lives.

Joseph Minion’s script for After Hours starts by showing us Paul in his office, training a co-worker, completely bored with his situation and disengaged from the people around him. Later we see him alone in his apartment, impatiently flipping through the channels on his TV, looking for something that will hold his interest. Finally he goes out to have a cup of coffee and read a book. (The book is Tropic of Cancer, and to my mind the fact that Minion references both Henry Miller and Franz Kafka in the same movie says a lot about the conflicts the author is dealing with.) Unexpectedly, a young woman, Marcy, starts speaking to him. Paul is immediately interested, and she ends up inviting him to the loft she’s staying at. But what he thought would be a simple rendevous turns into an extremely uncomfortable, emotionally charged situation. Paul tries to back out, but it’s too late. From that point on, everywhere he turns there’s a new challenge, and it seems there’s no way he can win. Minion draws us into situations that at first seem completely realistic, then slowly become incredibly bizarre. But the development is so carefully structured that we’re with the film all the way.

Minion’s script meshes beautifully with director Martin Scorsese’s vision. At the time he got involved with After Hours, Scorsese had seen another project fall through and he was anxious to get started on something else. He was given the script and it impressed him. He may have recognized something of himself in Minion’s work. The story has elements that are familiar from the director’s other films. Like many other Scorsese heroes, Paul’s finds that the pursuit of sex can be dangerous, even life-threatening. He meets an attractive woman, and all he wants to do is go to bed with her. But the kind of encounter he’s looking for, the easy comfort of holding his body against someone else’s, keeps eluding him. In Scorsese’s world, the flesh is inherently corrupt. There is no such thing as simple sex. Paul goes to the woman’s loft hoping to hang out for a while and then slide into her bed. But in the course of talking to her, he finds out that she has some major issues. What’s more, she may be a burn victim. Paul is attracted to her physically, but he’s freaked out by what he might discover if she takes off her clothes. And the crazy thing is, he still wants to know.

For Scorsese and Minion, the body is a seductive, fragile, creepy threat. Marcy’s roommate is a wiry New York artist who makes sculptures of human forms writhing in agony. In a restroom, Paul glances at the wall and sees a drawing of a frightening castration scenario. Hiding on a fire escape, he watches as a woman shoots her husband. Symbols of sex, violence and death permeate the film. There is no safe haven. Even places and people that might at first seem benign slowly morph into ugly encounters. A friendly waitress becomes a clinging psycho. An ice cream truck roams the neighborhood carrying angry vigilantes.

The beautiful and scary nighttime landscape that Paul finds himself lost in is photographed by the amazing Michael Ballhaus. The film was shot on a really low budget, and Scorsese needed somebody who could work fast. Fortunately he connected with this talented German cinematographer, who gave the film an eerie, haunting beauty. Ballhaus’ work appears to be simple and straightforward, but he has an amazing knack for capturing subtleties of light and color. He was the perfect choice for After Hours. Howard Shore’s sinister score complements the look of the film nicely. The music is fairly minimal, and that was the right approach to take. The subtle synth tones that accompany Paul’s manic journey through the dark Manhattan streets are an effective counterpoint to his increasingly frazzled state of mind.

As the light of dawn creeps over the city, Paul, tired, exhausted, tattered, is dumped out of a van in front of the office building he works in. He slowly picks himself up off the street. The massive front gates swing open magically. And Paul, rather than questioning the situation, rather than cursing his fate, walks quietly inside. He takes the elevator up to his floor, walks across the empty office, and sits down at his desk.

He’s stopped struggling. He’s learned acceptance.

Espaldas Mojadas [Wetback] (1955)

Mexicans have been crossing the border to work in the United States since the border was drawn back in the nineteenth century. Many make the trip to escape poverty or persecution, hoping to find a better life. There are some success stories, but the vast majority end up working long hours for subsistence wages. Those who don’t have the papers they need to work legally get stuck in exhausting, low-paying jobs, and often the employers who know they’re stuck take full advantage of the situation.

One of the most powerful films I’ve seen about those who make the crossing is Espaldas Mojadas by Alejandro Galindo. While the story is driven by melodrama, and the director makes his points forcefully, the film also has a haunting sadness that stays with you long after it’s over. This isn’t just a movie about a guy who’s trying to make a living and stay ahead of the law. Espaldas Mojadas is about the painful loneliness and crushing isolation that people feel when they have to leave their home behind.

The film begins with a lengthy disclaimer explaining that it has nothing to do with the US/Mexico border, and that in reality it’s about people who break the law and the consequences they must suffer. It’s all totally bogus, of course, but it’s a sign of how worried the Mexican film industry was about offending American audiences. The US market was vital for the Mexican producers, and the fear of losing that market was always hanging over their heads.

David Silva

David Silva

The story opens in Ciudad Juárez, where we find a man, Rafael, desperately looking for a way to cross the border. He’s in trouble with the law and needs to disappear quickly, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs to enter the US legally. Rafael makes a deal with a coyote who takes him across the Rio Grande into Texas, but this is just the beginning of his troubles. He finds work, but his American bosses use him and abuse him. And if he gets fed up and leaves, then he’s back at square one and has to go begging for a job all over again.

Espaldas Mojadas is a lament for all those who’ve been trapped in the US while their hearts are still in Mexico. Though Galindo relies heavily on melodrama, the film doesn’t treat Rafael’s plight as an excuse for action. The director spends a good deal of time with his characters, allowing us to get inside of them. For me it’s the quiet moments that are the most affecting. Rafael standing by the railroad tracks as he talks to a friend about how it feels to be lost in a strange country. A Mexican border official scolding Rafael for working illegally in the US, and then falling silent as his prisoner tells him about the desperation that drove him to do it. But the most beautiful and haunting scene takes place in a work camp where the men have been laying tracks for the railroad. They have a day off. They’ve been breaking their backs all week long, and now they’re lounging under the railroad cars to stay out of the sun. A man with a guitar starts to play, another starts to sing. The song is Canción Mixteca by José López Alavez, and it’s about the loneliness felt by those who are far from home. The camera tracks past the men as they listen, and in this melancholy moment Galindo crystallizes the sadness they feel and their longing for the country they’ve left behind.

While there’s a good deal of music in the film, the underscoring is provided by nothing more than a single guitar, and this was exactly the right choice. Instead of having a full orchestra to pump up the drama, we have a single musician providing a very spare and very effective backdrop for the story. The lonely tones of the solo guitar match Rafael’s sense of isolation perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a thrilling performance by Lola Beltrán and El Trío Calaveras at a bar in Ciudad Juárez. They set the crowd on fire with their passionate rendition of a song about the pride they feel in being Mexican.

Unfortunately, this film, like so many other Mexican films from the same era, is only available as a budget DVD. The print is okay. The transfer is acceptable. But there are no subtitles, which is probably going to keep anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish from watching it.* I’ve written before about the challenges of trying to preserve Mexico’s cinema. I know the list of films that need attention is long, and the money available is short. But is it too much to ask for a quality DVD release of a classic film by a major director from Mexico’s golden era?

Is anybody at Criterion listening?

*
Honestly, Galindo is very good at communicating through images, and I think most people could follow the story even without subtitles. You might miss some of the plot points and some of the humor, but I still urge you to give it a try. It’s a powerful experience.