Criterion Sunday 63: Carnival of Souls (1962)

This early-1960s oddity was a one-off feature from its creators, but it somehow stands out from other low-budget quickly-shot exploitation-themed films of the era by virtue of the polish and expertise it shows both in the filming and the acting. Largely this is because its makers had a lifetime of experience in industrial filmmaking, turning their hand early in their careers to something a bit more genre in a long-shot hope of wider success, though that took several decades to arrive. It follows a young woman, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), involved in a near-fatal car accident in Lawrence, Kansas near the beginning from which she is the only survivor. Feeling traumatised, she goes on the road, ending up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she takes a room. Increasingly she finds herself haunted by a demonic presence (in fact, her director in white greasepaint make-up). Fairly simple elements, really, but they’re made effective by the quality of the photography and the eerieness of the atmosphere, which is created partly by the organ score (Mary plays a professional organist), as well as by the distinctive quality of Hilligoss’s performance. She is called on to drift affectlessly through the film, as if in some kind of limbo between life and death, a liminal state only further emphasised by Hervey’s ghoulish appearances as well as periodic slips into a sort of non-existence during which people don’t seem to be aware of Mary’s presence. It suggests something of a protean The Sixth Sense, and though playing with a lot of familiar horror film tropes, it’s definitely a fascinating outlier in film history.

Criterion Extras: Quite a packed collection for extras is this one, which aside from having both cuts of the film (the original 75 minute release, and the extended director’s cut), also has some featurette extras. The lengthiest is The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a local Kansas TV piece from 1989 about the film’s re-release (its first official release on VHS) and rise to cult fame, which catches up with the director, writer and some of the cast as they recall its making so many years before, along with clips of the (re)-premiere that year. The same TV presenter returns for The Carnival Tour, a shorter segment revisiting the film’s locations around Lawrence, Kansas as well as the spectacular pavilion near Salt Lake City, Utah (Saltair) that was the film’s inspiration. Both pieces, despite their low-budget lo-fi 80s TV origins, are nicely put together and have a local’s enthusiasm to them that is of a piece with the film.

There are in addition a number of illustrated (text-based) essays, one about the history of the Saltair resort, and interviews by each of Harvey, writer Clifford and star Hilligoss, interspersed with plenty of images of them making the film as well as movie ephemera and promotional materials.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Herk Harvey; Writers Harvey and John Clifford; Cinematographer Maurice Prather; Starring Candace Hilligoss; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 November 2015 (and again at home, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016).

Criterion Sunday 53: 椿三十郎 Tsubaki Sanjuro (Sanjuro, 1962)

After the success of Yojimbo the year before, Kurosawa practically rushed into production of this sequel, ahead of his bigger production High and Low the year after. It seems on first pass to be a talkier thing, as Toshiro Mifune’s wandering (and effectively nameless) samurai happens upon a plot by nine youngsters against an apparently corrupt chamberlain, an intricate court intrigue that can be at times difficult to follow. However, the gist is that the more experienced Mifune has the sense of the situation, guiding the youngsters away from rash action and directing their energies towards the real target, a henchman (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the local superintendent who is manipulating events to his own advantage. In doing so, Mifune finds himself in plenty of situations in which he is called upon to fight, but this time he’s not just out for money as in the first film, but for more honourable reasons. In fact, the film finds even more comedy than the first film, especially in the foolishness of the nine kids Mifune is in charge of, who act at times rather like a wayward family of cygnets following their mother (visualised literally at one point, as they follow him off screen in a line). It’s a beautifully shot film, too, with a large number of perfect compositions framing the ten faces, Mifune always set apart from the others. For all that it seems to have been made quickly, it’s in many ways the equal of Yojimbo and a worthy successor.

Criterion Extras: This is a relatively slender package, with a small gallery of production stills featuring Kurosawa and his actors on set, as well as a commentary by scholar Stephen Prince, and another episode of Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Prince covers all the bases pretty well in his exhaustive discussion, including various of the swordplay moves, and some careful notes on the framing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Kurosawa (based on the novel 山本周五郎 Nichinichi Heian “Peaceful Days” by Shugoro Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi 小泉福造 and Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015.

Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1962)

I have this feeling that among the famous auteurs of the French New Wave, Éric Rohmer is the one most apt to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s that he lacks a really stand-out work (although 1969’s Ma nuit chez Maud gave him some of his initial success), or that his directorial style avoids much of the flashiness of his contemporaries. His film career, too, took a little longer to take hold, not least because he was heavily involved as editor of the influential Cahiers du cinéma film journal in the early part of the 1960s. Certainly, his debut feature film, produced in 1959, the same year as the other notable debuts of Truffaut and Godard, was delayed in its release for a number of years, and never really attained the same kind of either critical or commercial success. But this is all a bit unfair to the film, which has plenty to recommend it. Le Signe du lion is a beautiful evocation of Paris with a great sense of place (Rohmer always seemed to have the most knack for capturing the spirit of wherever he was filming), shot in luminous black-and-white in some iconic settings along the river and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

If the film’s shooting locations are quite swanky locales, even by the standards of over 50 years ago, it only serves to emphasise the distance its protagonist Pierre (Jess Hahn) has to fall. He may not start off rich, but he cuts a louche, overfed figure, from a solidly middle-class American-Swiss family, and pursues a bohemian lifestyle (as a musician with distinctly modernist proclivities). When a promised inheritance windfall doesn’t materialise, the debts he’s accrued begin to take their toll, and with all his well-connected friends off for their summer holidays (the date intertitles are given prominence), he gets progressively more desperate as July wears on into August. Streets which were once packed with familiar faces start to become more alien to him, friends replaced by Europeans on holiday. This disconnect is made literal as a downwards class mobility by his ever more grubby clothes and dishevelled appearance.

Aside from this sense of place, what Rohmer captures so well, and so subtly, is the way that Pierre’s desperation takes hold. At first he lives on credit at various hotels, having run-ins with the staff, barely making ends meet. We see him walking the streets in his freshly laundered shirt and jacket, passing rough sleepers while frittering away spare francs on inessential items like stain remover for his trousers. But when finally kicked out of his accommodation, it doesn’t take long for this to seem ridiculous, as his shoes start to give way and he’s reduced to fishing out flotsam from the river in the hope it might be discarded food he can eat. But the film isn’t all grimness, and there are periodically sparks of hope, as when he falls into the company of a fellow homeless artist-of-sorts alongside the river.

Throughout all of this, there are continuities with Rohmer’s later filmmaking. Its setting over the summer holiday period is one that he would return to many times (not least in Le Rayon vert 25 years later, likewise marked out by title cards with the date, as well as 1996’s Conte d’été and others). Then we have those solo male protagonists, so often creatures of high-flown intellectual taste, which might suggest some form of autobiographical self-identification, but if so, it’s one riven by self-criticism. For his male protagonists, though they may be nice enough guys, are never really heroes, and are often marked by some weakness in their morals (which is partly the great subject of his six subsequent films, grouped together as the ‘Six Moral Tales’). In Le Signe du lion, there’s a compassion instead for the experience of homelessness, and the way the homeless are patronised and barely tolerated by polite society, but I’m not always convinced that this compassion extends to the protagonist. There’s a nagging sense in my mind that Rohmer is judging Pierre, whether for falling into this situation, or for his slight sense of aloofness even when he’s at his lowest ebb. This judgement would only become clearer in subsequent films (and I hope to convey this in future reviews, whenever I get round to them; they’ll show up in my Criterion Sunday series).

I don’t mean any of that to be a criticism of Rohmer – if anything I think it marks him out as being every bit the equal of his contemporaries as a director and screenwriter, with a great concern for his characters. Le Signe du lion is a first feature, but it should stand alongside those other more famous titles, as a great work in its own right.

The Sign of Leo film posterCREDITS
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Rohmer and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jess Hahn; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.

Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live, 1962)

“God knows where He leads us but we know not the path of our journey.”
“Deliverance?”
“Death.”

— Carl Theodor Dreyer, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

After he’d got his start in feature filmmaking with À bout de souffle at the age of around 30, Godard maintained a prodigious output, through all his many phases. This film, known variously in the English-language world as My Life to Live or It’s My Life, came just a couple of years after his debut but already he’d made two features and a short film, and his 1960s output would be sustained at two or even three features a year thereafter.

Formally — and, as flagged in its very title, it is very much concerned with form — Vivre sa vie is a provocation. The structure is 12 chapters (“douze tableaux”) which are each set out with an intertitle featuring, as in a screenplay, a description of the setting, but also a laconic précis of what will happen. If this strategy means to flag the film up as a constructed work of fiction, then the viewer is left in no doubt by the distancing tactics in the first scene proper, which presents a conversation between the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) and her husband Paul from the backs of their heads (first hers then, at length, his). It’s a bold aesthetic choice, which is carried through to the rest of the film (and shows up increasingly in Godard’s later films), though it happens we’ve already seen Karina’s face, first in profile, then head on, and then profile from the other direction, beneath the opening credits. It’s a hint that whatever else the film might deal with, it’s above all interested in Karina — yes, at some level with her character Nana, but also Karina as both an actress and as a wife.

Karina was Godard’s first wife and their marriage was quite recent when the film was being made. Indeed, with such a tireless work ethic, it’s no surprise perhaps that the feelings and issues Godard was dealing with in real life should have suffused the films he made. If certain aspects of his use of Karina do not reflect well on his opinion of her — she is one of the first of his central characters to play a prostitute, and far from the last — there’s still plenty of self-criticism too. The men in her life are ineffectual and treat her with barely-suppressed contempt: the final sequence is shocking as much for the off-handedness with which it unfolds as for its outcome. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard hold Karina at the heart of the film and if the narrative keeps the film at a studied distance from the audience, the camera certainly doesn’t do likewise for Nana. She rarely gets the chance to escape the camera’s gaze, in fact — the camera loves her, or at the very least is fascinated by her. In this, she is like Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Dreyer’s great silent film about Joan of Arc shot in disorienting close-up, which Nana goes to watch in a cinema. At the same time, she is in a sense trapped (as a character into prostitution, as an actor by the camera) — during the sixth ‘chapter’, shortly after falling into prostitution, Karina/Nana looks directly at the camera with a haunted look. Like Joan, Nana is a doomed icon, filmed in evanescent black-and-white.

Nana’s move into prostitution is never precisely explained — she asks several people early in the film if she can borrow 2000 francs, she is seen running from her landlords, and speaks of getting work as an actress — but ultimately the prostitution theme seems more a part of Godard’s interest in commodification. The quotations he uses and the narrative influences he takes (Brecht is only the most prominent in this film) just foreshadow his later decisive move into overtly political filmmaking (his late-60s and 70s work engages with a Marxist-Leninist dialectic). It’s all part of the society Godard is analysing, where Nana becomes a chattel traded amongst men just like the records she’s seen selling early on in the film. Her status as object is in some ways not just a thematic concern but is integrated into the very formal and visual strategies the film adopts, not just the Brechtian distancing of the chapter headings, but also Godard’s prominent frontal staging and lateral tracking shots as well as, most notably, his insistence on lighting scenes so as to minimise depth of field — all strategies that would be extended over the decade and can still be perceived, ever more distilled, in Tout va bien ten years later.

Quite aside from these formal and thematic concerns, I think the film stands as a wonderful piece of cinema, with Karina’s gaze having since become an iconic image of the French nouvelle vague. There’s still a freshness and enthusiasm to the performances that belies the very rigid ways in which the camera moves, though even here Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography has never been more beautiful. For me, in many ways, Vivre sa vie stands as the film in which the formal concerns that would come to dominate Godard’s later period are merged most easily with his pulp influences to produce a film that remains a wonderfully invigorating piece of cinema that stands up 50 years later.

Next Up: For me, Godard’s most formally ambitious film of his early phase is Le Mépris (1963), a reflection on the nature of filmmaking itself, featuring international stars and a spectacular use of widescreen colour compositions, but retaining an appropriately Olympian detachment that makes it difficult to love wholeheartedly.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013).