Welcome to Sarajevo

I knew about the siege of Sarajevo. I mean, I watched the news, saw the images of the bombed-out and burning city. I remember hearing on the radio the accounts of civilians who survived the first Markale massacre, when Serbs shelled a crowded open-air market. But the siege lasted for close to four years, and I will confess that the war in Bosnia was not uppermost in my thoughts for all that time.

The film focuses on the journalists who covered the war in the mid-1990s. They’re shocked by the carnage, and frustrated by the indifference of the public back in Britain, who can’t stay focused on the crisis. Not when the Duke and Duchess of York are getting divorced.

So watching “Welcome to Sarajevo” brought more than a pang of guilt. You see people getting shot, randomly, while going about their daily business. You see residents of the city running for their lives through “snipers alley”—risking their lives for water, or food. You see the bloody bodies of kids lying in the street. You see summary executions carried out casually by Serbian soldiers and the emaciated bodies of Bosnian men behind barbed wire in a concentration camp. You don’t see the rapes of Bosnian women, but we knew about those, too.

I found my mind wandering backwards and forward, to other times when the outside world proved indifferent to the suffering of innocent civilians and international bodies seemed powerless to prevent the carnage.

Following the second Markale massacre, the Serbs claimed that the Bosnians were shelling their own people, to build support for a NATO strike, and the Russians supported their claim. It took two years before NATO actually enforced the no-fly zone established to protect the Bosnian people, two months longer before the the United Nations Protection Force fought back against Bosnian-Serb forces. Before that happened, over 10,000 Sarajevo residents had already died and another 56,000 were wounded in the conflict, among them 15,000 children.

The film offers a glimpse of the trauma, but actual photos from the time tell the story much better.

Tess

I first read Tess of the d’Ubervilles during a long and lonely train ride through the French countryside. I was fifteen, returning from a summer language immersion, and Hardy’s tragedy struck a chord.

Maybe it was the feeling that Tess was stuck in a world whose rules were made by others. Honesty, innocence, goodness:  these counted for nothing. Not even love could save her. She was doomed from birth and she knew it. By the time I reached Paris, Hardy had me convinced, too.

Polanski’s film captures the spirit of the novel. The mood struck me as exactly right, and the fact that “Tess” was filmed in the French countryside didn’t hurt, even if the spell is broken whenever Nastassja Kinski opens her mouth.

Fortunately, she doesn’t say much. Watching her face, with its somber beauty, I was reminded of a line from the French Romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine:

I plunged myself into the abyss of sadness.  An illness, without a doubt, but an illness whose actual texture is seductive rather than painful, wherein death comes to seem like a voluptuous surrender into infinity.

Hardy himself considered Tess of the d’Ubervilles “an impression, not an argument.” Watch the film with this in mind and you may also find yourself surrendering to the voluptuous melancholy of Polanski’s vision.

 

Sunday Bloody Sunday

The kiss was the killer.  Peter Finch’s character, who shares a much younger (male) lover with Glenda Jackson’s character, kisses said lover (Murray Head) on the mouth.  In close-up.

The kiss is not particularly passionate—none of the sex in the film is passionate.  In fact, this is my complaint about “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  The kiss shows that the two men are comfortable together as lovers, which was shocking to film audiences in 1971.  But we’re supposed to believe that Finch’s character is mad about the boy, or that Jackson’s character is mad about the boy.

They aren’t.  Finch got mad as hell in “Network.”  Mad enough to win an Oscar.  Here he’s just mildly disgruntled, even when his lover fails to call, or walks out on him during a party, or abandons him to go off to New York.  “People say to me, ‘he never made you happy.’  And I say, ‘but I am happy.  Apart from missing him,” Finch tells us at the end of the picture, in a poignant little monologue.  “We were something,” he concludes.  Well, yes.  But what, exactly?

As for Jackson, she’s nothing like the firebrand she played in “Women in Love.”  Sure, she’s involved in a love triangle, but she’s like a long-suffering wife who puts up with her husband’s philandering for the sake of appearances.  I guess she doesn’t want to appear like the lonely divorcée she is—although the way she drifts into bed with one of her clients, a married man who has come to her agency looking for a job, suggests otherwise.  She’s not particularly interested in sex with this guy, either.

I liked both Finch and Jackson.  I liked the cinéma vérité feel of the picture, which comes across in Penelope Gilliat’s dialogue and John Schlesinger’s direction.  It just says something that, minus the shock effect of that kiss, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” presents a thoroughly domesticated treatment of illicit love.

Death in Venice

You don’t watch this film for the story, you watch it to lose yourself in the sad beauty of decaying Venice, a metaphor for European grandeur just before World War I.  There’s the haute bourgeoisie, elegantly dressed men and women from all over Europe, vacationing with their families by the sea. They don’t seem to do much, other than sit and stare at one another in the hotel dining room or on the beach, making the occasional foray into the city to take in the sights. They seem like ghosts, moving through the scenes at a stately pace, leaving a vague impression of well-bred pleasure.

Into this tableau of hushed opulence arrives a German composer, Gustav von Aschenbach. He seems to be suffering from a case of nerves—a common fin-de-siècle affliction, particularly among artistic sorts—and is inclined to make a fuss about everything. But then he glimpses the beautiful adolescent son of an aristocratic Polish woman and everything changes. Obsessed, he follows the boy and convinces himself that his love is requited. Soon he is trying to reclaim his youth, a pathetic effort. Then he dies of cholera.

As I said, don’t worry about the plot. Visconti’s take on the Thomas Mann novella is a feast for the eyes, and the Mahler soundtrack enhances the lugubrious effect. When Venice has sunk into the Adriatic, we’ll still have this film to remember it by.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Humor alternating with suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s trademark, are on display in his 1935 thriller, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The opening vaudeville act in the music hall, with Mr. Memory being heckled by the crowd:

Heckler: How old is Mae West?

Mr. Memory: I know, sir, but I never tell a lady’s age.

Man in audience: What causes pip in poultry?

His wife: Don’t make yourself so common.

Man in audience: Our fowls have it, haven’t they?

This delightful anarchy is disrupted by gunshots, and the next thing you know, our Canadian hero, played by the suave Robert Donat, is escorting a lady (Lucie Mannheim) from the theater. A woman of mystery with a foreign accent, this lady turns out to be a spy. She’s the very person who fired the gun, hoping to escape her pursuers by creating a diversion, and Donat’s character will soon discover her with a knife in her back. Serious stuff, but Hitchcock can’t resist playing with us in their first encounter outside the theater.

Mannheim: May I come home with you?

Donat: What’s the idea?

Mannheim: I’d like to.

Donat: It’s your funeral.

We see Donat on the run, evading both the police (who suspect him of Mannheim’s murder) and the true killers, hopping onto the train to Scotland, sharing a compartment with a pair of corset salesmen and a clergyman who can’t resist ogling their wares. Another tense moment as he is spotted in the Edinburgh station, this one ruptured by a stolen kiss as Donat foists himself on the unsuspecting Madeleine Carroll, pretending to be her lover. Carroll promptly turns him in, but we know she’ll end up as his romantic interest, although it takes awhile for the two to get together (handcuffs are involved).

But, hey, what’s the hurry? You wouldn’t want to miss Donat delivering a political address on behalf of some Scottish candidate for M.P., improvising madly to stay on stage because the police and the bad guys are in the wings, ready to nab him. He does such a good job of giving the audience what they want to hear that he gets a standing ovation.

Mixed in with the comedy is a bit of melodrama reminiscent of the silent movie era. Donat takes refuge with a Scottish farmer and his wife (played by the young Dame Peggy Ashcroft). Ashcroft’s character believes his story and helps him to escape, knowing full well that she will incur her jealous husband’s wrath. Donat suspects as much, but allows himself to be persuaded otherwise. It’s a poignant scene that deepens the story and raises the stakes, somehow. A moment of real communication between two fine actors, well worth watching again all on its own.

Far From the Madding Crowd

You’d think that a movie based on one of Thomas Hardy’s cheerier novels, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates in their prime, with Peter Finch and a surprisingly sexy Terrence Stamp, and directed by John Schlesinger, would be pretty great, but you’d be wrong.

I saw it years ago, and remember being bored, but decided to give it a second chance the other night.  Halfway through the three-hour epic, I found myself nodding off, so it took me two nights to finish the thing.  I’m just glad that it’s been thirty years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd—which I loved—so I don’t feel betrayed on that score.  I’ll probably reread the novel now, to get the film out of my head.

As Roger Ebert said in his review at the time, “The spacious landscape of Dorset is photographed in stunning beauty, and we get panoramas of hillsides with heroic characters running up and down them.”  That’s about it, I’m afraid.  Excellent cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and a nice soundtrack with plenty of English folksongs.

Here’s Stamp’s character, mourning his dead lover:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

checkpoint2We’re going through a period of nostalgia for the bad old days of the Cold War. Back then you knew who your enemies were and you all played by the same rules. Sure, it was a dirty game, but our core values were at stake:  justice, freedom, human decency. We’d gone to war with the Nazis to preserve these values; they were worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for. And sacrifice we did, we and our British allies especially.

Oh, yes. And the Russians. They were our allies in World War II, and they also suffered, but things changed. Practically overnight they became our enemies. We were still fighting for justice, freedom, and human decency but now we were fighting Them, the Communists, who represented everything we hated. They were deceitful, underhanded. They cared nothing for human life, betrayed loyal comrades at the drop of a hat. Only the worst characters survived under such a corrupt system. We, on the other hand, remained pure.

John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold shattered these certainties. Not only did it expose the cynical maneuvering of international espionage—which was nothing like the glamorous world James Bond traveled in. Morally speaking, We were no different from Them. Perhaps we were even worse, because we pretended to be decent whereas they admitted the truth. Nobody’s pure, the good don’t survive anywhere, and there’s no such thing as a noble cause.

Richard Burton’s burned-out spy, Alec Leamus, perfectly conveys the book’s message. Here was someone, as le Carré said, “who had cut throats in 39-45, who had done it all, been through the stuff, who had lived that secret crusader life.” He’s brought back to England, regains his humanity (he falls in love with the wonderful Claire Bloom, who had been Burton’s lover in real life some years earlier) and this is what allows his spook handlers to betray him.

Director Martin Ritt’s sympathies were with the Left, but he held no illusions about the Soviet Union and never joined the Communist party. Blacklisted for years, his own sense of having been betrayed, by Communism (his “lost love”) and by America is what gives the film its power. I’m not sure that the recent action-packed adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has the same bite.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Clint doesn’t wear the poncho until the end of the movie. Two hours in, he’s changed outfits several times, trading his dark patterned shirt and duster for a Confederate army uniform, then changing into a sheepskin vest and the trademark beaver hat, but he dons the poncho only as an afterthought.clint

He takes it off a dead Confederate soldier — he’d given the boy his own coat, as a blanket, then didn’t have the heart to take it back after the kid died. He’d given the boy a couple of puffs from his own cigar, too.  Held the thing between the kid’s lips, a surprisingly tender gesture.

Clint and his cigar. That’s how his character shows emotion. When he and the Eli Wallach character, Tuco, first meet and Clint gets the idea of selling the Mexican bandit for the bounty on his head, he seals the deal by putting his cigar in Tuco’s mouth. Later in the picture, the two are heading away from the Spanish Mission where Tuco has been rebuffed by his brother, a priest. Tuco’s trying to put a good face on it, telling Clint’s character that his brother gave him a bowl of soup and begged him not to leave, but Clint’s character knows the truth.

“After a meal, there’s nothing like a good cigar,” he says, handing Tuco his cheroot.

I wouldn’t change a thing about this movie. Not a single thing. Ennio Morricone’s score: can’t get it out of my head. Eli Wallach’s Brooklyn accent: there he is, taking a bubble bath in some half-destroyed hotel room, when a one-armed bad guy barges in, holding a loaded revolver in his left hand. The last time we saw this guy, Tuco had left him for dead after a shoot-out. He’s been out for vengeance ever since, he tells Tuco, and in the time it’s taken him to find the Mexican bandit, he’s learned to shoot left-handed.

Blam! Tuco blows him away.  “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” says the Brooklyn boy. Love it!

(2 January 2011)

Breathless

This film hasn’t aged at all. The Paris exteriors, the cafésbelmondo along the Boulevard Saint-Germain: you feel as if you’re right there, having a drink at the next table. Or driving fast in a stolen cadillac, the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the wheel. He’s doing that sexy thing where he runs a thumb over his lips, not looking at you or the road, looking at himself in the rearview mirror. Talking to himself, posturing like Humphrey Bogart, pointing a gun out the window and pretending to shoot.

How did Godard get that intimate feel, and sustain it over an entire picture? You’re in Jean Seberg’s rather cramped hotel room, in bed with Belmondo. It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just hanging around, bored. One minute you’re watching him boxing in his underwear, the next he’s telling you his all-or-nothing philosophy of life, which is only half-cooked, or half-true—you don’t know which half—like everything he tells you.

But you keep watching anyhow, not because he’s Belmondo . . .  Okay, you keep watching because he’s Belmondo, but also because you’ve been let in on his character’s private thoughts. You and the rest of the audience, but it’s as if you alone are witnessing the day unfold as naturally as a day in your own life. That’s what makes Breathless so great. It feels fresh, original, even fifty years on, and after repeated viewings.

You’re watching Belmondo run from the cops. He’s been shot in the back and he’s zig-zagging down the street, clutching his wound.  He falls just as he reaches the crosswalk.  Jean Seberg’s trailing behind and she’s there in time to hear his last words:  “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”

She didn’t catch them, or she doesn’t understand what he meant.  Isn’t life like that?

Pelle The Conqueror

Frozen epics have a certain charm when there’s two feet of snow outside and the temperature is below zero.  Sitting on the couch, wrapped in an afghan, you can watch Scandinavians battle the elements and their own demons while sipping a glass of red wine.

The chill penetrates, though.  Max von Sydow is the Swedish widower who travels to Denmark with his young son, Pelle, in search of work and a better life.  Luck is not on his side; the two end up at a farm run by a brutal overseer.  Beauty, love, innocence:  all are crushed in this harsh environment.  Pelle is hardened by the misery and cruelty he observes and yet somehow manages to stay open to life.  This is the miracle of the film:  the boy’s wonder and gentle spirit survives.

Along the way, you get some stark landscapes.  Snow-covered fields give way to bleak and rain-lashed vistas of early spring.  Scenes of the stormy ocean, a schooner tossed on the waves, breaking up in the North Sea.  A man dies.  The sunlit summer days pass by all too quickly.   Mostly it’s winter, but in the last scene we see Pelle turn his back on cold Denmark and make for America.  A boy can dream.

(4 February 2011)