Reintroduction #1: Persona (1966, Bergman)

Reintroduction #1: Persona:

In recent days, I have made an important and permanent decision regarding my viewing habits. My constant drive to expose myself to new films has shifted into a more balanced determination to revisit films I have only seen once or twice. I recall little from many of these films. Many I consider favorites and yet have seen a measly single time in my teenage years. I never denied the importance of getting to know a film beyond an introductory how-do-you-do get-together. But my priorities always lay with a greedy desire to taste things I hadn’t before. My tastes have changed quite a bit between my fourteenth and twenty-fourth year and films I did not like, liked but did not love or loved very much must be revisited. No; it goes backwards, past revisiting, past re-familiarizing. I speak of basic reintroductions. And while a lot of these films are essential canon works and have been deconstructed to their limits, every once in a while I would like to jot down some thoughts on a few of these re-watches (let’s officially call them ‘Reintroductions’ when it fits), as well as keep track for any readers which Reintroduction films, whether I write about them or not, I have been spending time with.

So far this year I have re-seen: Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, Ugetsu, Rashomon, The Night of the Hunter, Three on a Match, Alien, The Navigator and Persona.

Persona is a difficult film to write about. First, because its initial elusiveness has made it that much more a target for analysis. Second, because at its core it is an intuitive poetic experience that almost defies words. At a certain point, despite all discourse being entirely justified, it scrapes away at the film’s core profundity.

The first thing I thought after the film was over was that, to a considerable degree, it makes all the praise I heap onto other films seem like overblown hyperbole by comparison. Persona is the rare film that can never wear out its welcome. Each viewing seems like it would be a slightly, and maybe even radically, different journey for the viewer. A rejuvenating quality amidst its construction makes room for viewers to inscribe individual meaning, to interpret freely and to bask in its black-and-white bliss.

Time, memory, and a sense of self slipped away from me in considerable chunks during Persona. This is not something that often, or ever, happens.

There may never be a more striking or memorable use of black-and-white. The great Sven Nykvist forms a union with the film’s other qualities. The minimalist sets and costumes, the beach that surrounds the seaside cottage, the postmodern narrative and formal techniques, and the dependence on Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman’s faces. These all come together through Nykvist. Stark yet sensuous and uncomfortably honest, he creates a majestic palette where basic truths may be questioned.

What do we know of the two central characters? Alma is a nurse, looking towards marriage and kids with a ‘preordained’ acceptance. She is increasingly unable to reconcile her perceptions with her actions, which Elizabet points out in her letter. Elizabet’s presence is causing her to fall apart at the seams. Her identity and self-understanding cannot handle the scrutiny of Elizabet’s silence, judgment and questionable sincerity.

Elizabet is an actress who has chosen silence as her form of expression. She rejects the roles of wife, mother and actress, reducing the fact of her life to an invigorating simplicity. She did not want her child and is assumedly hyper-aware of the part she plays towards him. Where is the line between being an actress in work and in life? She spends her time studying Alma and she has trouble coping with catastrophe in the world.

Based on only a second viewing and some reading about the film, some questions that Persona seems to raise come to the forefront. What is real when it comes to the individual sense of self and the cinematic medium? In life, can we stay true to ourselves? Is it possible to retain authentic identity despite the constant self-betrayals daily life perpetuates? Can you truly reconcile this and how do we do so? Do responsibilities define us? Can you get at truth within a medium, or any medium for that matter, when it is all construct? That Persona also grapples heavily with female identity, an issue that almost fifty years later is grossly underexplored, only adds to the film’s treasures.

There is so much more. Who knows what I will see and feel the next time I watch it? Some of those questions may not make themselves known and new ones will sprout up. Maybe there is a possible answer or two to be found. Maybe a clearer interpretation of the narrative will gel. Maybe an understanding to the rhyme and reason with which Bergman uncharacteristically pushes and plays around with the form itself.

Most essentially I look forward to the fresh and previously unformed gut feelings and new experiences to be had. As I said before, at a certain point all dissection must be let go in order for this film to be simply felt.

And then there is the act of losing oneself in the expressions of Bibi Andersson and especially Liv Ullman, whose face here is elevated to the honorary position of being its own medium. Both lead performances are raw, vital and erotically charged. But Ullman is a work of art within a larger work of art. Like said larger work, Ullman is tantalizing and impenetrable, but only up to a point, otherwise she and the film would be distancing where the opposite is in fact true.

To conclude my thoughts with the somewhat obvious and unoriginal statement; Persona is an endlessly mesmerizing and challenging masterpiece. As I go through life, I have a feeling that few films will end up meaning more to me than this one.

Edit: After watching it a third time, Persona has made its way into my all-time top ten favorite films.

Review: Dishonored (1931, von Sternberg)

Of the seven films that paired director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich, 1931’s Dishonored is perhaps the least written about. The film follows Dietrich’s X-27, an Austrian prostitute who is recruited as a spy against the Russians. She meets a Russian soldier (Victor McLaglen) with whom a mutual touch-and-go lust erupts. Where another film would depict their relationship as one of epic romance, it is just the opposite here. They have an undefinable desire towards one another that refreshingly does not trump all, yet they willingly allow it to.

The plot itself is ultimately meaningless, and it goes without saying ludicrous, as von Sternberg has other fish to fry. Von Sternberg is one of the narcissistic giants of the silver screen, so in love with his own fetishistic and thematic concerns that they tend to overshadow anything within the actual story. His collaborations with Dietrich are doubly responsible for this, as he had found a center to his imagined world that represented everything he wanted to convey on the screen. Once you get past the fact that the story is not important, Dishonored becomes a treasure trove of the director’s trademarks.

Not least of which includes showing Dietrich off as the ultimate sex symbol and a stand-in for linking the occupations of prostitution and spy as one and the same. Both require that she use her sexuality to succeed, and her character stands for the patriarchal squashing of female-owned sexuality, even when it comes complete with dignity. Those who need, admire, and lust after her are the same ones who ultimately reject her for using the skills they had previously admired. Women with these kinds of survival instincts will never be accepted. Von Sternberg is saying that there is no room for X-27’s in a contradictory and unfair society.

Not once is X-27 ever seen as a victim and she is in total control of everyone around her, including the audience, every step of the way. Despite her fate, we never feel pity because she clearly doesn’t need it and wouldn’t want it. Her inevitable death at the end is not indicative of her failure, but a matter-of-fact sign that even a force of nature like her is doomed. We learn so little about X-27 because she has deems it so. She is constantly calling the shots, even in the moments before her death when she requests to be executed in the clothes she was recruited in; the clothes she wore as a prostitute. In short, she owns every inch of herself.

Her characterization is almost non-existent, but what we know of her comes to us in a series of key recurring symbols; a piano, a black pussycat she always has with her and the bouncing dancing figurines in her apartment at the film’s start.

Pre-camped out Dietrich never fails to be spellbinding and it all comes down to being a visual showcase for both the director and its star. Camped-out Dietrich is a blast, but there is something fresh, youthful and impossibly fleshy about her that leaps off the screen in the very early 1930’s. Von Sternberg’s penchant for filming her veiled in shadow, curtains, lace and from different angles as a series of poses is, as always, in full effect. The two are really just showing off and it works; there is nothing quite like Josef von Sternberg filming Marlene Dietrich.

Also present are other stylistic adornments we expect from the deliciously flashy Austrian. The party scene, an imperceptible smorgasbord of streamers, confetti, masks, celebration and kinky flirtatiousness emerges as an obsession for him. The majority of his films feature a scene of extravagance like this that he lingers on, unwilling to move on when other directors would.

Something that stands out here is the sequence that has Dietrich posing as a peasant girl who favors cat-like meows and motions in order to seduce a Russian officer. It is at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum of how the icon is normally seen, and is surely one of the most bizarre sequences in any film of its kind. Its nuttiness makes it all the more singular and Dishonored is worth seeing for this alone.

There are times when von Sternberg is unable to form a cohesive whole that binds his decorative self-indulgence, his thematic concerns and an interest in the story he is telling. This is admittedly one of those times; the plot becomes a footnote when in this case it cannot quite afford to. Still, Dishonored has more to say than it gets credit for and is a worthy addition to their pairings. While I much prefer some of the other von Sternberg/Dietrich films, there is far too much to be gobbled up here for its unjustified dismissal.

Screening Log: June 1st-15th, 2012 – Films #166-192

All grades are ultimately arbitrary and are just there for personal posterity.

167. Senso (1954, Visconti): A

168. The Furies (1950, Mann): A-/B+

169. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Fellini): A

170. Prometheus (2012, Scott): B+/B

171. The Devil and the Deep (1932, Gering): B-/C+

172. Faithless (1932, Beaumont): B-

173. Dishonored (1931, von Sternberg): B+

174. Rain (1932, Milestone): C-

175. Dames (1934, Enright/Berkeley): B+

176. Murder at the Vanities (1934, Leisen): B-

177. Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998): B+/B

178. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970): A

179. Claire (2001): C

180. Little Otik (2002, Svankmajer): B+

181. Come Drink with Me (1965, King Hu): B-/C+

182. Yes, Madam (1985): A-

183. She Shoots Straight (1990): B+

184. Sukeban Deka (1987): B

185. Gymkata (1985): F

186. Jack and Jill (2011,Dugan): F

187. The Beastmaster (1982): F

188. Rock n Roll Nightmare (1988): D

189. Roller Boogie (1979): D

190. Sextette (1979, Hughes): F

191. Betty Blue (1986, Beineix): B+/B

192. Infernal Affairs (2002, Lau & Mak): B+

Review: Take This Waltz (2012, Polley)

“Take This Waltz”, a song by Leonard Cohen, with loosely interpreted lyrics from a Federico Garcia Lorca poem, is crammed with images of beauty, sadness, longing and passion. Sarah Polley’s second feature, executed with an acute assuredness, is named after the song, a film that combines all of these elements into a candidly adult look at the matter-of-fact cyclical nature of relationships.

Margot (Michelle Williams) has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years. They live in their house in Toronto (some of the best modern-day art direction in years). She writes things like tourist information for attractions, and he is working on a cookbook of chicken recipes. Overall they are still quite happy and love one another, even if he is preoccupied with his book. Additionally, she is in a constant state of unacknowledged restlessness and sex is a rare occurrence. Oh and did I mention the foxy artist/ricksaw driver who lives across the street?

All of this sounds like a recipe for yet another indie film that takes the middling approach to relationships with some quirk thrown in, misguidedly putting on airs as something authentic. Luckily, Take This Waltz is authentic and goes far in representing a mature, mercilessly honest look at a situation with no easy answers. As Margot allows herself to spend time with Daniel (Luke Kirby), she immediately understands that his presence will complicate things. They are instantly drawn to each other, and the more they spend time together, the harder it becomes for her to repress her desires. She is racked with guilt, while he puts no stock in the institution of marriage. He remains patient, never pushing too far and always waiting for her to be the one to take the next step.

Refreshingly, there are no helpful shortcuts provided by writer/director Polley. Lou is a genuinely good-natured guy without it being overkill. When Margot tells him she loves him, she isn’t lying. Daniel does not turn out to have nefarious baggage or commitment issues. There is no circumstance in plot that allows one of these men to be taken out of the picture, nor does it shy away from forcing Margot to solve her dilemma.

Take This Waltz is about what often happens with two people have been together for a long time. With familiarity comes comfort. But once the novelty of comfort wears off, all you are left with is familiarity, and with that comes longing, melancholy and unfulfillment. Daniel forces Margot’s latent feelings to surface in a big way. The idea of cyclical love runs throughout; the newness of Daniel gleams before her.

Especially when her dynamic with him is much different than it is with Lou. Margot and Lou have a playful interplay. In this way, Polley captures the idiosyncratic nature of long-term relationships and the individuality of a world you create with someone else that is entirely your own. Most of the playful material between the two will likely be irksome to viewers; but isn’t that the point? That is why the world created by two people remains largely private; because it’s often silly, obnoxious, childish and most importantly, endlessly repetitive. Polley gets the awkwardness of being an outsider looking in on this stuff, and she plunges us into their daily lives. In this way, the film reminded me of the central couple in the 2010 German film Everyone Else, albeit in a much healthier form.

Margot and Daniel, on the other hand, have an erotic charge whenever they are together. Some of Polley’s best work are the scenes between the two that are dripping with lust despite them simply talking, going on a ride, swimming, walking, etc. Although there is some graphic sexual dialogue between the two that happens to be almost illegally sensual. Considering that sex is the major thing missing in her marriage, Daniel dangles infinite sexual possibilities in front of her that are increasingly impossible to resist. Williams is drenched in sunlight during her scenes with him; she is once again vibrant, attracted by the shine of the new.

Michelle Williams does not really need to continue proving that she is arguably the actress of her generation, but she nevertheless does with her reliably astonishing work here. Margot is a complicated and flawed figure, and Williams fleshes her out to the point where no doppelganger of her character exists in any other film; a rare feat. She is guilt-ridden, awkward, childish, loving and empty. We feel an all-too human empathy for her situation because its unfortunate common occurrence in the real world is all too recognizable. It is all the harder to take because films tend to skirt the complexities of this everyday issue, sugarcoating reality and constructing circumstances that make the choice an easy call for characters.

There are a few missteps here and there. Kirby’s character is painted in strokes a bit too broad. We get a sense of him and his unconventional views, but he never feels characterized enough, despite the fact that this is Margot’s story. One speech early on about “being afraid of being afraid” is a stereotypical indie-movie-monologue nightmare. It took an hour to fully shake the cliches of that one off.

Sarah Silverman’s character placement, Lou’s recovering alcoholic sister, feels too “written”. We can see from the start what her eventual purpose will be and Polley’s hand setting the cards in place is distractingly deliberate. And lastly, can we kill the trope that says a couple watching TV automatically means a relationship is in a rut? Seriously.

“There is always going to be a gap”, Sarah Silverman’s character says, and this is pretty much the message of Take This Waltz. It does not shy away from its scenario which goes relatively unexplored in film, at least in ways that feel relevant. This feels relevant. It’s also nice to feel respected by Polley as a receptive audience member. There are so many moving instances, scenes and performance moments to be had and its final act is quite the bold move. It is apparent pretty much at the outset that some are going to be very annoyed by this film, but frankly, it comes with the package. By the end I was extremely thankful that Sarah Polley had successfully executed a serious and awkward romantic drama that comes from the female perspective.

Take This Waltz is currently available in a Pre-Theatrical run OnDemand.