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Trifecta of Westerns: Death Rides a Horse (1967), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) & One-Eyed Jack’s (1961)

February 12, 2015

What has always drawn me to Westerns is the interesting play on ethics that is present, the singular male, and the presentation of the primary female figure(s) (or lack thereof). Within the narrative, there is an internal system of ethics that is maintained despite whatever cultural norms we might apply to those scenarios today. Some of the tropes the viewer sees on display are both fantasy and reality in the present, and upon further reflection from within the closed system of the American-made Western or the Spaghetti Western, we can see various threads of the presentation of an ethical dilemma; the predominance of and lack of remorse over “justified” death and the revenge plot within the closed system of expectations; the patriarchal hegemony’s foothold in all aspects of society and intimate relationships; the presentation of all other men (besides the primary lone wolf) as savage, uncivilized, clearly “unethical” along internal standards, and sometimes (usually also) sex-crazed beasts; the perpetuation of the species (impotent or not) despite all odds; amongst other things. What is interesting is that Jane Austen isn’t the only one with consistent marriage plots; if we deconstruct the notion that perpetuation of the species is possible outside of the traditional marriage plot within the Western genre, we see that, indeed, the spreading of the lone wolf’s seed is a consistent trope in many of those films. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the situation with the consistency of rapes and what I’m calling impotent perpetuation of species—the act performed but to no result other than the act of violence itself.  In the cases of the Western, Spaghetti Western, the Peplum (Sword & Sandal) genre, or any classical text, like Homer’s Odyssey–in which the singular male follows an internal beacon “home” (if he can be said to have a  home, truly) where his woman is always on the precipice of being defiled by another man, or many men; where he runs up to find the act in medias res; or he is always beating them off as they continually push the boundaries of his possession over the female. And no Western (or Classical) story would be complete without a peripatetic moment, when fortune is reversed dramatically for the protagonist and those in “his” midst.

Within that closed system, the viewer sees many presentations of similar values on display–for instance, the metaphorical stabbing of people in the back, the revenge trope, the lone wolf trope, the raping or near-raping or constant threat of defiling of women, the singular female in need of rescue by the lone wolf male protagonist, the loyal sidekick, the  showcasing of masculinity or cockfighting prowess, the dichotomy (“good” versus “uh….not as good,” the “good” versus the “obviously not good,” the “I know that’s the good guy because he was just minding his business and didn’t do anything to anyone and is just trying to avenge his family’s death” versus “I suppose that’s the bad guy since he’s the one who actually did things to hurt the guy who I’m calling the good guy”).  There are no true “good” or “bad” characters, but scenarios that lead the viewer to believe that, under certain circumstances, some rise above others. That’s the internal system of ethics that I’m referencing above. But the lines of ethics are blurred in many, many ways. The good guy in the film is also technically the bad guy because of what he does within that closed system.

Recently, I watched three Westerns: two American Westerns and one Spaghetti Western. First, I watched Death Rides a Horse, also known as Da uomo a uomo (As Man to Man), a Spaghetti Western from 1967. What stands out about this film is that there are no female leads; the only females really are Bill’s mother and sister who are raped and killed in the beginning. After that, it’s a story about two men, revenge, demonstration of skill and showcasing of masculinity, and ethics. What’s amazing about characters in Westerns is that they can perform terrible acts, or be a part of terrible acts being performed, and yet they still have a sense of ethics toward “someone.” That someone differs from case to case. In the case of Ryan, who is the older gunslinger who comes back to get/give perspective on an act that got him put into prison 15 years beforehand (which is really a side effect of his drive for revenge), he has a sense of duty to Bill; eventually, however, Bill realizes Ryan’s participation in the massacre of his family. By then, Bill has grown somewhat distantly fond of Ryan and doesn’t exact revenge on him because he didn’t actually rape or kill his family; everyone else, however, isn’t as lucky.  What’s interesting about this film is that it leads in with the rapes and massacre, the terror on a little boy’s face (the peripeteia IS the beginning of the narrative–life as he knows it is no more), and the revenge plot unfolds from there–the driving force of his entire life is revenge, which is subdued by the end when the seeming, now-revealed enemy becomes the “uh….not AS good” character that’s not as bad as the obviously bad character(s). Mild, but not permanent, guilt by association. The internal system of ethics in this film is this: kill people who piss you off and challenge your masculinity or skill; kill people who have killed someone you love without a good reason; don’t kill people who show you they’re actually not “as bad” as the other guys because they treat YOU well and they didn’t actually rape your mother (though more than likely, outside of the diegesis of this story, that character probably raped someone else’s mother or sister)…but the character didn’t do it to me, so….

In The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the viewer has the same lead-in as Death Rides a Horse with the raping of Wales’ wife and the massacre of the wife and son. Like Bill (who was a child at the time), Wales appears to be a gentle father and a hard worker, as the viewer sees him plowing his own field and showing his son how to do it; he also appears to not be a fighter at all because he is easily defeated by the “red boots.”  then there is the peripeteia–the reversal of fortune. Wales’ intense drive for revenge leads him to become a proficient gunslinger and after a stint with the Southern resistance, he becomes the lone wolf, hunted by someone with whom he once rode fighting a common enemy, but who ultimately had completely ironic respect for him as he hunted him down. The viewer is exposed to two acts of violence against women in this film because someone Wales encounters later, who will become his love interest, is attacked violently and nearly defiled. Later in the film, Wales couples with her and tries to leave her the next morning (typical of the lone wolf male), but is forced back because the compound is being attacked by the Union red legs who have finally caught up to him. Eventually it appears he settles down but not without a lot of internal struggle; in fact, it is pointed out to him in the film that he is a good fighter because he has an edge. It’s clear to the viewer that the edge he retains is because he’s not tied down by love or a woman, but is driven by hard-core revenge for his massacred family. He softens at the end, but not at the expense of a lot of lives in retribution for their acts of violence against his family and his former resistance fighters.  Death comes to those who deal death to others; even in cold blood, death is dealt ethically in this film, as in all other westerns, because of the internal system of expectation that 1. you do me harm, 2. you try to hold me back from my justified revenge, or 3. you do harm to those whom I love or who are otherwise innocent (even if they’re whores).

In One-Eyed Jack’s (1961), the protagonist, Kid (aka Rio), is a complicated character who appears to be a creature of habit in terms of deception, which the viewer can interpret as a coping skill he has developed to survive, and in the case of women, to get what he wants out of them. But even within that, remorse and real feelings are somewhat revealed throughout the narrative as he struggles with how he interacts with Louisa, a love interest that’s maybe more than just for fast love, but it’s hard to tell how long lasting it could have had the potential to be as a result of the trajectory of the narrative. Along with deception, revenge is also a major trope in this film, as Kid and his antagonist, Dad (and no, the nomenclature isn’t lost on the viewer), attempt to outwit each other with stories of deception to keep the other from knowing his ultimate goal: to kill the other–one in revenge for leaving him to be captured; the other out of guilt for what he’d done.  This one could go metaphorically deep–Dad deceives Kid; Kid goes to prison for 5 years as a result; Kid escapes and comes after Dad and realizes an opportunity to milk ambiguity to get deeper into Dad’s graces before the deed is exacted on his life. One of the ironies about Kid’s personality is that he seduces women and yet can’t stand to see prostitutes manhandled by men. He manipulates others, and is manipulated by them; but he draws the line at whores. Interesting. Same thing happens in The Outlaw Josey Wales–he can’t stand to see a woman manhandled, but Wales isn’t a womanizer like Kid. Kid sort of gets what he deserves karmically. But then again, within the closed system of ethics, he is not truly violating any codes; it’s the others who do that and turn on people within their group unexpectedly. So while Kid is the noticeable “good” within the system, he is not that good really. But the film ends with his revenge exacted, his deflowered and now pregnant conquest willing to (….wait for it…) WAIT until he returns at some mysterious time in the spring, AFTER she has had “her” baby. Like Penelope, in perpetual longing for her husband after an excruciating TWENTY YEARS, so Louisa will wait for Kid. The chances are high he will likely forget about her as there is no indication throughout the narrative that he has any fidelity to anyone other than his male companions (who all turn on him except for his Mexican prison mate, Chico). This is the trope of the lone wolf male–he will keep going. She will long for his return and still be in love with him, though he will be absent, and even if present, emotionally unavailable because, as could be seen in their interactions, despite her pleas to let go of his revenge, he cannot and is miffed by her insistence that he relinquish his grip on his goal.

Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns are great examples of the presentation of ethics within a closed system of the “old American West.” Death is doled out and punishment for cold blooded murder isn’t the norm if it’s systemically justified. Men are out doing their things. Women are at home trying to tie them down when they just want to be free.  I see nothing wrong with being free!

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Duck, You Sucker (1971)

June 21, 2010

Ahhh…how good it feels to see a full-on, well-made, spaghetti western again, and not one of those cheap imitations! I’ve been on a bit of an Italian-film diet after numerous complaints about my film choices never being after 1970 and always Italian.  In my own defense, I do tend to choose foreign over domestic, but they aren’t always pre-1970. Here we have a happy medium with Sergio Leone’s 1971 Duck, You Sucker, apparently a.k.a. Fistful of Dyamite. Fitting.

This film has all the elements of Italian cinematic magnificence, even if it is two and a half hours long, is a bit slow in places, and is full of cheesy 70s motifs.  But wait! That’s exactly what makes it magnificent!

Like most spaghetti westerns, Duck, You Sucker is a film about male camaraderie amongst the unruly, lonesome, uber-moral men of the west. We can look back on Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and report on this same trope with the lone Biondo/Joe (a.k.a. il buono…Eastwood) and his nemesis Angel Eyes/Col. Mortimer (a.k.a. il brutto…Lee Van Cleef), along with the usually annoying hanger-on, Tuco (a.k.a. il cattivo…Eli Wallach).

Duck, You Sucker also has a Tuco-esque hanger-on, and that’s the Mexican bandito, Juan Miranda, played by Rod Steiger.  Though I will say that Wallach’s attempt at a Mexican accent was a lot better than Steiger’s (it was quite painful at times), seeing them both (and others) in these roles is a chilling reminder that even in the 1970s, there was a reluctance to use Mexican actors, or even Spanish actors (considering it was filmed in Spain like The Dollars Trilogy), out of the desire to appeal to a particular audience that would want to continue seeing its white, male, American actors in lead roles. Fellini did it, Argento and Antonioni did it (with British actors such as David Hemmings), and Leone certainly did it with his previous movies. What’s done is done.   At least James Coburn played an Irishman (IRA member John Mallory) though his affected accent faded in and out.

Overall, this was an amazing film: the storyline, the character development (you can develop a lot in 2.5 hours!), the action, the humor. The scene on the stagecoach when Mallory is kneeling at the shrine that Miranda’s family had set up, just moments before the “cigarette” he had just lit exploded in vengeful triumph against Miranda’s attempt to detain him, is classic dramatic irony. The viewer knows it’s a dirty trick, but Leone capitalizes on the innocence of Miranda and his crew, perhaps in a way to insinuate the intellectual superiority of Mallory (???).  Miranda tries to trap him; Mallory blows their stuff up; in the end, they work together.  I guess it all works out.

But how CAN Miranda be both innocent (in terms of his own ignorance) and so corrupt at the same time?  I suppose Leone presents the viewer with a tale of men and the spectrum of possibilities amongst them. The viewer will notice that absolutely NO female characters are present in this film other than in flashback or in the beginning when Miranda has his way with the lone woman on the hijacked stagecoach (she doesn’t resist once the viewer sees she is not displeased with his presentation).  This is typical of this genre of film, and other genres preceding (I’m thinking of sword-and-sandal films with Hercules out on manly adventures alone in the world): the absence of woman means an overemphasis on man and man’s camaraderie with himself.  Not necessarily homo-erotic, though there are always scenes in which sweaty, dirty men are wrestling around with each other.  But by the end of Duck, You Sucker, Miranda and Mallory are setting off on an adventure together, as companions, with no other ties to anyone else in the world, therefore reinforcing the importance of male bonding/companionship. Of course, the honeymoon doesn’t last long, as Mallory meets his death in the only way befitting an IRA explosives-man:  with a bang!

Back to the duality of Miranda’s innocence/corruption versus Mallory’s ability to outwit:  the only way I can reconcile this is that Leone is presenting the viewer with a premise for one being the intellectual superior, though in the end, it’s Miranda who lives and Mallory who dies. So the line can’t be drawn quite so distinctly. Perhaps Leone is telling us that we have to learn from each other, work with each other, and support each other in order to make it through life; and in the end, make sure you know how to dodge bullets really well—this is something Miranda was much better at in a school-of-hard-knocks sort of way, whereas Mallory had more of an Odyssean quality of honed guile and wit—able to get out of sticky situations but sometimes always teetering on the edge of being outgunned.

Lastly, the flashback sequences of Mallory back in Ireland present almost an anachronistic quality to the film in addition to a very cheesy, 70s feeling. Though set in the deserts of Mexico, periodically the viewer would be treated to slow snippets of Mallory’s past life with motor cars, wool jackets and turtlenecks, girls with ribbons in their hair, and IRA raids in public houses—all in slow motion. It is in these flashbacks that the viewer sees more of a sense of homoeroticism, in Mallory’s strange love triangle with a fellow IRA member and what appears to be their joint girlfriend. It’s hard to tell who’s jealous of who in these sequences, to be honest. It isn’t until nearly the end of the film that the viewer sees the culmination of this retrospective jealousy, but it does lend some credence to the idea that male companionship and bonding is a very deliberate and predominant theme presented to us by Leone, and it spans cultures.

I’ve only barely scratched the surface here.

I don’t think I could get away with talking about this film without mentioning the amazingly beautiful music by Ennio Morricone. Wow! So perfectly timed, comical, and dramatic. What an amazing composer. Leone’s lucky to have kept him for this film.

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Seraphine (2008)

May 25, 2010

This is a French film about  self esteem, sanity, and being stuck in a rut.  Seraphine is a poverty-stricken cleaning lady, somewhere in her 40s/50s,  who appears to go through life on a very unenjoyable plateau of habituation (I would like to say the French word, habitude, here because there is a point in the film when she focuses on that particular word, but I can’t use it in the prior sentence correctly).  She scrubs floors, absorbs insults from everyone, and is generally out of place, as in a hair in a customer’s soup—that is, gotten rid of quickly so no one will ever know it was there in the first place.  She dresses in black or dark blue, her hair is falling out of her loosely tied top-bun into her eyes, and her expression rarely, if ever, changes beyond a blank, doe-eyed stare.  Only in her actions does she appear to be taking any pleasure in life: climbing a tree, bathing naked in a river, or making homemade paint out of blood from a cow’s liver, and even then the pleasure is muted.

But underneath her subdued exterior is some sort of artistic genius. She is a painter, though she must work very hard to earn the money to buy the supplies to then make her paints. But her vision, as told through her paintings, is a colorful, voluptuous nature—plants with so many leaves it’s impossible for there to be any realistic quality to the object in the painting because the object itself has multiplied upon itself in a way that overwhelms the viewer with its insensibility.  Well, that’s how I see them at least.

Turns out there is a real Seraphine, known as Seraphine de Senlis, upon which this film is based.  They are her paintings; it is her life the film represents.  And what the film tells me is that a sense of self and place can be maintained by habituation, even in the midst of the most awful circumstances, but when a door to the outside world opens up, is shut, opens up again, and is shut again (so she thinks), then an already fragile sanity hangs in the balance.

This is what happened to Seraphine: she managed to live her cleaning-lady/closet-artist existence by accepting the habits of daily life without ever anticipating relief, but when a spectacularly unimaginable escape was presented to her (having a benefactor, the possibility of showing her art in Paris, etc.), and the ECONOMY (the US stock market crash of 1929) caused a ripple effect all the way out in the outskirts of her already meager living, she could no longer fathom a return to a one-room, laundry-washing existence.  I guess she cracked. The divine hand of the guardian angel who guided her art told her to give away her things, and dressed in a virginal wedding gown of denied conjugal love, she walked out of a life of art and creativity and into a life of white walls, straight jackets, and tears.

I suppose we should all take away from the story of Seraphine, a will to practice and perfect our own creativity in whatever outlets we are naturally geared toward; despite economics or joblessness or even employment, happiness is being able to reconcile our self within our self.

The image I’m left with from this film is Seraphine dressed up in her white silk and taffeta wedding gown, heading for the marriage of her soul to god, I suppose—the first time she’s worn anything that wasn’t black or dark blue—and it’s then that she’s picked up by the police because of her behavior; stripped down to her very core, that part of herself that was raw and pure and mentally unstable, she is no longer protected by the dark exterior of her cleaning clothes and her habitude, and she is hauled in to spend the rest of her days in an asylum with white walls that mock the very idea of the painter’s canvas. Sad.

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Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

April 1, 2010

Wow. I haven’t written in a while. Well, let’s get on with it and not wallow in the sorrow of wasted time!  And, there’s no better filmmaker to begin again with than Werner Herzog.

I’m sure I’ve said it in nearly every single post I’ve ever written about a Herzog film, but what I like most about his films are their characteristically Herzoggian qualities: real footage, clearly real people used as actors, slow folky music, and many times the spasmodic intensity of Klaus Kinski. Now, don’t get me wrong here: I’m not going to go into a rave over Kinski’s acting skills or something like that; rather, I’d prefer to just point out that Kinski’s ability to unleash himself in front of the camera is part of his mystique. Actually, Kinski-as-Count-Dracula doesn’t specifically take up a large amount of face-time on camera; but when he’s there, he’s there. When Dracula lunges at Jonathan, it isn’t in a pull-your-punch sort of way–a surge from Kinski is a surge from the real Count. This was an appreciably noticeable quality also in Woyzeck, when Woyzeck is stabbing Marie.  Herzog has a way of framing his characters that provides an added layer of intensity, and when Count Dracula enters Jonathan’s room for the first time, the poised hands, bulbous white head, and cowering shadowyness of the vampyre makes the viewer react similarly to Jonathan (run!) although not with quite the same shriek!  Imagine yourself looking up to find those luscious lips against such pale skin coming after your neck.

As with most Herzog films, the issue of trust in science was brought up. Lucy clearly didn’t trust the efficacy of Dr. Van Helsing’s proposed scientific method for determining the root of Jonathan’s ailments. Multiple times he proposed a thorough scientific evaluation and she brushed him off. In the end, though he had to trust that the vampire book held the key to their troubles, he still sought to find a scientific explanation for the general problem. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s riding off into the desert on a horse, seemingly insane, seemingly succumbing to his multiple vampire bites.  Maybe there are no scientific explanations for things; or there are no reasons to attempt to identify, scientifically, the root causes and cures for certain diseases. There certainly seems to be some sort of message about mental illness that Herzog’s trying to tell us because Jonathan’s boss, Mr. Renfield, is clearly insane.  Renfield’s insanity helps propagate Dracula’s disease(s)–he brings vampirism and the plague with him from Transylvania. Either Renfield was already insane and was somehow planted by Dracula, or he was driven insane by his orders (i.e. the letter he received from Dracula) to send Jonathan across the Carpathian Mountains to certain death…one might wonder what the point was of sending Jonathan at all….hmm….maybe a plot-hole.

We know for sure that in other Herzog films, such as Woyzeck, there is a severe doubt cast on scientists, doctors, and academics so there’s something to be said about that in this film also.  And, we might as well throw religion in there as well. One of the funniest moments of the film, if any moments could be categorized as funny, is when Dracula is hiding his various black caskets around the city when he first arrives in Germany. One of the locations he places a casket is in an old ruined church; after he has set down the casket, he notices a crucifix hanging on the wall and he gives it a “hrmmmphf” and a swatting of the hand, then he barrels out the door on to his next location.

I’m not much into the lore of vampires and Count Dracula so I don’t quite understand the significance of bringing the plague to Germany with him other than to give credence to the theory that vampires don’t actually exist, but it is actually the plague that kills people. I can’t imagine why Count Dracula would want to decimate his ready-dinners by killing them all off with plague first. Must be some ulterior message in there.  But Herzog does have Dr. Van Helsing drive a stake into Dracula’s heart nonetheless, just in case, since that’s what he read to do in the vampire book.

I wish this could be a better post, but for the time being, it’ll have to do until my brain can be re-vamped!

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Food, Inc. (2008)

December 5, 2009

The one thing I would like to say about this documentary film is that they should be ashamed of themselves for plagiarizing The Future of Food (2004). In The Future of Food, the documentarian (Deborah Koons Garcia) tackles the organic food vs. GMO food issue in decent detail. She interviews individuals who have been affected by GMOs: farmers, mothers of sickened children, consumers, experts. She presents a link between the behemoth Monsanto and its exploitation of farmers over supposed GMO patent infringement. She reveals the blatant conflicts of interest between current (at the time in 2004) and former executives of Monsanto and current and former officials in the US Government and its various regulatory agencies. She interviews experts. She presents scientific data about what a GMO really is (including the 6-7 the viruses and bacteria that go into genetically modifying those organisms to make them Roundup Ready). Yes, it’s got an emotional appeal, but then again, what documentary doesn’t?

What is nauseating is that Food, Inc. acts like it came up with its own format, when in actuality, it plagiarized and appropriated its format directly from The Future of Food!

Shameless!  It makes me sick that within a mere 4 years, another filmmaker could come out with the same film and not even reference its predecessor.

Sure, in Food, Inc., they based the first half of their film on the mass production of MEAT, which was not covered in The Future of Food, but in exactly the same vein as The Future of Food, the 2nd half of Food, Inc. was devoted to GMO soybeans and corn (GMO corn is covered to a great extent in The Future of Food) and the exploitation of farmers by who else but MONSANTO!

I’m disappointed that, as a viewing nation, we are too stupid to even recognize, or care about, the obviousness of this plagiaristic appropriation.

We have too few memories.

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

December 5, 2009

Without doing any actual research to confirm my suspicions, I have to assume that this film was blacklisted by the Germans because it too closely resembled the political and social insanity that was brewing in 1933.  The film’s titled prologue tells the viewer that it wasn’t until 1951 (if I recall correctly) that this film was shown in Germany. I can see why. I don’t think the concepts of allegory and metaphor were lost on the Nazis, especially the ones capable of the propaganda they have become so famous for.

What I liked about this film was first its amazing special effects, and second, the ballsyness of its allegory.

First, the special effects seem quite advanced. But then again, the film is directed by Fritz Lang so the viewer is not entirely surprised. If we recall Metropolis (1927) with its industrial setting and its explosions and mechanization, we can see Lang’s practice made perfect in Dr. Mabuse.  One of the most notable effects moments is in the opening sequence when Mabuse’s thugs explode a barrel of some sort of fuel, which causes a massive explosion and a clean slate afterward. I was surprised by the cleanness of the explosion and its aftermath. Boom! Gone but not forgotten.

Much later on in the film, when Dr. Mabuse’s ghost comes a hauntin’, the viewer is treated to a very creepy, totally transformed alien-like face for Dr. Mabuse. His eyes are big and buggy, he’s crouched over, and more importantly, he’s spectral on screen. Why does this stand out so much as a feat of cinematography? Well, I suppose because it was 1933 and Lang was already perfecting his techniques of overlay. The viewer can’t help but be impressed is what I’m trying to say.

In terms of the ballsyness of this film’s allegory, I’d have to say that the final scene is indicative of a real sense of “stick it to ya.”  When the tides have turned for Professor Baum, who has now assumed Dr. Mabuse’s place in the psych ward, Commissioner Lohmann says something to the effect of: ‘I’m just the police. I don’t understand things like this,’ in reference to the clearly disturbing nature of the Mabuse-Baum crime ring, and the way in which Dr. Mabuse’s criminally insane spirit has now taken over the body and mind of Prof. Baum, an otherwise professional, educated (presumably a “should-be-smarter-than-that” kind of person), and well-respected man. What Commissioner Lohmann is saying, to me, is that a devotion to such levels of insane behavior and thought is beyond his comprehension, even though it is his business to deal with the criminal mind. So I suppose he is saying that there are degrees of criminality that the common man, and police man, can fathom; and then there are levels of criminal insanity that are beyond even a seasoned professional’s comprehension. Certainly, in retrospect, the rest of the world knows this is truth because we know the extent to which the Nazis and Hitler were willing to go for their insane plan of purity and purification. Ouch! Stick it to ya!

This film was very well made on quite a few different levels. The narrative/writing was impressive: especially the scenes in which the investigators were piecing together the puzzle Hoffmeister had left for them (having etched Mabuse’s name into glass upside down). And today, we think the concept of ” CSI” is something new to behold!  The acting was impressive: from Dr. Mabuse to Professor Baum to Hoffmeister, and even to Commissioner Lohmann: all embodied their characters perfectly, naturally. The cinematography and effects were impressive, as mentioned before. And, last but not least, the allegory Lang presents lends well to true meaning-making for the viewer.

I think the viewer can relate to this film because it is allegorical: we can see the obviousness of the message in retrospect. But at the time, I suppose it was too fantastical, kind of like the lengths to which the Nazis went to spread their terror in that BIG LIE sort of way.

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Stalker (1979)

October 28, 2009

This film, by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is apparently based on a novel called The Roadside Picnic (1971), by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky. I have not read this novel but I just might, now that I’ve seen this adaptation. The film is classified as Science Fiction. And I would say this is correct insofar as 1984 (novel and film) is also considered SF. Meaning, of course, that neither films are SF. It appears as though the novel, The Roadside Picnic, is pure SF, however.

This is a pretty long film, at 2  1/2 hrs.  And, considering I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (1972), I considered myself in for a slow ride with Stalker. I’d like to note here that having read Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (1961), and seen the Clooney/Soderbergh (2002) remake of the film, the 2002 film is more committed to the novel’s narrative, and Tarkovsky’s film is more abstract.  From this I can perhaps intuit something about the potential for Tarkovsky’s artistic license with his adaptation of The Roadside Picnic.

With that being said, the most prominent thing about this film is clearly the cinematography. There is a stark contrast between the Town and the Zone. The Town is filmed in sepia-tones (sometimes perhaps in B/W) and the Zone is filmed in color. In Town, the atmosphere is muddy, grey, povertified (seems like a good time to coin a new term). All of the floors have mud and water on them in Town. Everything glistens with mud. A complete look at the setting itself is obscured from the viewer, and even when the Stalker is driving the Writer and the Scientist around, avoiding the police, there is no real perception-of-space-or-place because of the way the scenes are shot. This gives way to a feeling of limited space; in other words, of a sense of living and existing in confined quarters, in a confined neighborhood, in a confined city, in a confined country; in a confined psyche perhaps?

The Zone, once they get there, is richly green. Trees and grasses everywhere. Then the viewer notices that all of the characters have blue eyes, characteristics otherwise obscured from the viewer in Town. There is clearly a difference between what goes on in Town and what goes on in the Zone. As the film progresses, it becomes perhaps a little more obvious as to why. Strewn throughout the Zone are downed power lines and rusted out tanks and automobiles. Apparently a meteor fell to create the Zone, and all of this devastation must have been the aftermath. However, there isn’t sufficient information provided to the viewer about the meteor, the fallout, why the Zone was created, other than civilization is sectioned off from the Zone, behind barricades, in order to keep people away from it (nature, the mysterious) out of fear of the place. Very much in a Brave New World sort of way in terms of the reservation; or in a 1984 sort of way with the Prole sectors. Or better yet, exactly like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We (1921), with its cordoned off sector for civilization hermetically sealed off from the wilderness (i.e. disorder and nature).

Something that becomes obvious in the Zone is that it is also a muddy, wet place, like in Town. Eventually the three men make their way to some buildings, where the elusive Wish Room is, and it is full of water and mud and discarded objects, and old sewer-looking tunnels, and ponds of chest-high stagnant water that must be trudged through. The entire environment is damp and muddy. A cesspool. A beautifully-lit cesspool, I might add.

The way the three men make their way through the Zone to the Wish Room is very interesting. The Stalker is the guide, but his process is very meticulous and rigid to the rules he has learned from his predecessor (the late Porcupine).  The Stalker has to first throw a bolt with a bandage attached to it, one of his companions must go first toward the bolt, then the rest of them follow. Then the Stalker picks up the bolt, throws it, and this is how they make their way. They do not go straight. In this way, they sort of “test” their path first before embarking. Almost in a way that they are notifying the Zone itself that they are going in that particular direction, along that particular path. The Zone is apparently an ever-changing place, full of tricks and traps and mystical happenings. They zig-zag up and down and all around. It is the process itself that is the most important part. It is the respecting of the sanctity of the Zone’s temperament that is the most important rule.

When the three men finally make it to the Wish Room, there is a peripatetic moment : The Scientist (a.k.a. the Professor) has been carrying a bomb, intending the entire time to blow up the Wish Room. The Writer seems to be in agreement with this action because he cannot yet bring himself to enter the room and be granted his innermost wish. The Wish Room grants you what you want deep inside of you, not what you think you want. This is something he is not ready to accept so he feels the Scientist’s decision to blow it up is better for everyone involved (so that maniacs and aristocrats can’t come to the Wish Room and get what their perverted hearts truly desire). But the Stalker cannot let this happen. Eventually, the Scientist is talked out of this drastic measure by means of the other two talking it out.

So what is this film about? The final scene in the Zone presents the viewer with an interesting position: while the three men (the Stalker can not enter the room anyway) sit outside the room, staring in, the camera brings the viewer inside the room, deep. What does the viewer see? Nothing; just the three men on the ground, in the water, crying, sulking. But then, as the viewer, you realize you’re in the Wish Room!  Tarkovsky is forcing the viewer to reflect on his/her innermost wish.   And as all of this is taking place, as the viewer is in the room, the room which the viewer technically cannot see all of, cannot see what the men are seeing, the Writer gives part of the mystery away: the Wish Room is essentially faith in God, and battling to destroy God from the outside is science and logic/reason, represented by the Scientist (he’s a physicist) and the Writer (he’s a novelist). It is the Writer who reveals this truth to the viewer in an abstract way. I can’t quote here because first of all, the subtitles were clearly off because of their poor grammar, and I didn’t write any of it down; you’ll have to trust me.  The Stalker, then, represents a conduit to God that is unable to attain, for whatever reason, that which is available to everyone else. He does not appear to represent the clergy, for instance. But the Stalker is the most faithful. He leads people there at his own peril. But he is sworn to not enter the Wish Room.  One thing is for certain: a theme of compassion is presented throughout the film in terms of the Stalker’s dialogue. A need to understand and practice compassion in the world. He is somehow a conduit to God via compassion. Perhaps the answer is this: he is compassion and compassion is a conduit to God.  Something like that maybe.

At the end of the film, the three men return to the Town, after none of them entered the Wish Room, the Stalker’s wife comes and gets him (and his newly acquired Zone dog–clearly a metaphor for something), and they return with their daughter (a.k.a. Monkey), past a smoking 3-4 stack nuclear plant, to their home where the wife proceeds to tell the viewer directly that her husband has always been touched by God, and therefore ridiculed for it, that he is a prisoner of the Zone in the sense that he is so faithful to leading people to it, that he can do nothing else. Then the film ends on Monkey (who has crippled legs) out on the porch moving drinking glasses using telekinesis while a train rumbles by (same train rumbling by that began the film).

I think the Dalai Lama would like this film for its message of compassion.  It really is beautifully filmed. The dialogue is such that it needs to be re-watched in order to really understand the ultimate goal of the film. The viewer can walk away at the end with an idea about compassion and God and science and logic trying to kill God, but there’s much more in there to find out by re-listening to the characters’ words.