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Un Flic

“You can’t move a camera like that anymore.”

We all giggled while watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic (1972), during a shot of a blonde cocaine mule carrying a pair of trick-suitcases onto a train. The camera follows his hand to the door, which he locks, and then traces a shaky path toward the suitcases, where from each he lifts a shirt and then a panel to reveal empty space. The camera lingers there unsteadily for a beat.

Melville is a master, known for work like Army of Shadows and Un Cercle Rouge, two taut, serious works about the French Resistance during World War II and highly choreographed theft, respectively. Un Flic, which means “A Cop,” is not, in technical terms, one of his best. The editing is jumpy and the dialogue goofy. You wouldn’t call it campy, it’s more like Melville couldn’t be bothered to smooth over all of the film’s imperfections. That attitude makes Un Flic memorable in a way that many of today’s films aren’t.

Take the scene in the bathroom of a moving train where Commissaire Edouard Coleman, the titular cop, attempts to bust a crime in progress. After descending from a helicopter to the train car, Edouard pauses, and the film with him. He carefully styles his hair, cleans his face, and changes from a dirty jumpsuit to a dapper robe before walking the halls of the train. It is a slow scene, and drags longer than it needs to do. I liked it, though, because it demonstrates the labored execution of Edouard’s plan. His entry into the train is not about the effortless, slick acrobats of superhero films and Tom Cruise vehicles. The bystanders do not fall away as our star comes to take care of the bad guys. They are obstacles, which is why Edouard makes himself over to look like a first class train passenger before venturing into a hallway filled with observant ticket punchers.  Edouard is a patient and thorough planner. He even brings a comically large generic magnet on board with him, which he uses to slide open the lock of his pursuit’s train cabin.

Imperfect old films like Un Flic refresh one used to the smooth action films we see today, where everything looks high budget and rigorously rehearsed. They respect their audience more, and trust in their ability to suspend disbelief and, more importantly, to fill in the gaps the film leaves with imagination. In a pivotal scene of Un Flic, the characters walk through a museum. Behind them sits a hazy painting of the continued museum halls and visitors. Now, for all I know, there is such a museum in France where a bland mural decorates the end of a hallway. But in the framework of the film, this mural operates as a loosely defined backdrop, more akin to a stage piece than a film background. I’m sure many a would be filmmaker, rich with ideas but low on cash, wishes they could get away with such shortcuts today.

Later, a rinky-dink model of a helicopter hovers unevenly over a cheap looking train set. These playroom models represent the setting of the climax. A modern director might use flashy CGI, elite stuntmen, and a dramatic score to enhance this scene. Not Melville. But though we all laughed when these models first appeared on screen, they did not stop us from engaging in the tense climax. By that point in the film, we were invested in the cops and crooks drama, and we didn’t mind pretending the models were real trains.

With films like Un Flic, not all details are provided for us, and that’s fine. The viewer must do more work, and the director pulls them into a more active role, encouraging them to engage with and author their own details of the film. I will remember Un Flic for its flaws much more than I will remember the last blockbuster I saw for its perfection.

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Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film Face of Another is based on Kōbō Abe’s novel about a businessman, Okuyama, who burns his entire face in an unspecified industrial accident. Repulsed by his disfigured face and angered by his wife’s failure to accept it, Okuyama seeks the help of Dr. Hira, a psychiatrist who promises to build a mask to hide Okuyama’s burns.

Doctor's Office

Teshigahara weaves Okuyama and Hira’s story with that of a young woman. She shares with Okuyama disfiguring facial burns, though hers cover only part of her face. She covers them well with her long hair, but not perfectly. The image that stays with you is the burn, not the beauty:

Face of Another’s elegant visuals will remain with me for a long time, even though the film as a whole does not rise to the expectations set by its excellent imagery. At times the conversations between Okuyama and Hira are too clunky, describing each concept the film raises to its most minute detail. Dr. Hira reminds Okuyama again and again that by wearing the mask, he may find himself assuming a new identity. If everyone began wearing masks, Hira speculates, familiar social structures would crumble. Families would not cohere, crime would go unpunished, vice would flourish. Dr. Hira delivers his predictions with absolute conviction, making them seemed dated in today’s world of DNA testing and “anonymous” internet communication. We know how to reveal an individual’s identity with absolute certainty in specific cases using molecular signals. Meanwhile, the number of “anonymous” hackers revealed and punished by the FBI grows steadily. The idea that one could hide behind a simple, physical mask seems quaint now, when even utmost digital protection cannot provide true anonymity.

The Face of Another

One wonders, in the face of such dialogue, whether Teshigahara does not trust his examination of identity and appearance to be merit enough for The Face of Another to exist. Why else would he have devoted so much screen time to transparent attempts to outline the societal implications of his plot line? In fact, the film stands more powerfully if one views it less as a vehicle for exploring the power of realistic facial masks, and more as a general commentary on the face.

The Face of Another

Two individuals, Okuyama who strives to hide his deformity and the young woman who decides to surrender to hers, provide enough behavioral commentary on the nature of identity and its relationship to our fragile, manipulatable faces. Both suffer from a lack of physical closeness to others. Throughout the film, strangers and family avoid contact with the two, presumably because they find their faces too repulsive to approach. Being wealthy and successful, Okuyama uses money and connections to secure a pristine looking mask with which to cover his dense, raised scars. With his newly masked face, Teshigahara impersonates a stranger and seduces his wife. But while he thinks he has tricked her into adultery, she knows all along that the masked man is her husband in disguise. Even within the film, a feigned face is not enough to hide one’s true identity. Okuyama does achieve closeness with his wife, even intimacy, while wearing the mask. The still above shows Okuyama and his wife’s legs intertwined beneath a table. Teshigahara beautifully captures their limbs’ tender dance around each other.

When Okuyama accuses his wife of committing adultery, he demonstrates his own shortsightedness. Would she have shared such easy foot play with a stranger she had just met? Could she have done so? If you were to ask her, she would certainly say no. Of course she was upset. After all, if his wife could tell who Okuyama really was beneath his false face, why couldn’t Okuyama sense that his wife knew who he was?

Face of Another Girl

The young woman, meanwhile, lacks the resources to disguise her injury that Okuyama has. She works, it seems, with World War II veterans. Even the crude boys who come on to her as she walks to work would never embrace her, and she turns instead to her brother’s attention, which he gives in the form of shame-powered kisses. Their physical love is a violent exchange, his every touch pressing aggressively into her flesh. Even so, her face settles into restful acceptance as they fall upon her.

The young woman drowns herself at the film’s end. Before doing so, she claims to see another war coming, one that will start the next day. Perhaps she was burned by atomic waves, and still fears the onset of World War III. Or, perhaps, she can no longer bear being looked at with disgust. I found myself happy to see her die, clad in white, innocence and acceptance still emanating from her.

3 Women

3 Women

Female breakdowns, fainting and hysteria. Sounds quaint when you put it that way, like something you’d read about in a nineteenth century novel. But Persona and many other films revisit the pressurized madness more broadly associated with women than men, and they explore it with more nuance and diversity than my beloved Romantic novels ever did.

Robert Altman’s 3 Women, an attempt to capture a poignant dream the director had, shares elements with Persona. In it, Sissy Spacek’s character Pinky develops an unhealthy obsession with Shelly Duvall’s Minnie. The latter is a self-asserted boy magnet, even though the men with whom she flirts respond to her with ridicule. The film layers scenes of delusion, obsession, rejection, and violence to form a chaotic experience that cannot be understood easily. Why Minnie clings so eagerly to the men who reject her and how those same men come to admire Pinky’s version of Minnie’s traits and identity so readily is unclear. One wonders if the whole thing is a  bad dream that Minnie has upon meeting the spooky Pinky, whose watery blue-eyed admiration for Minnie is by nature creepy. Pinky stares for too long at Minnie, reads her diary, and wonders aloud what it’s like to be twins. In Minnie, Pinky searches for a strong identity that she’s never before had. Even Pinky’s parents barely seem to know their daughter. They have nothing to say to her when they come to visit her in the hospital. No one’s ever noticed Pinky, and Minnie’s got more personality than she get fit in her tiny frame.

Meshes of the Afternoon, directed by Maya Deren, explores a woman’s unraveling of a different sort. The experimental short opens with Deren, who also stars in the film, witnessing her housekey’s percussive tumble down a flight of stairs. Deren picks it up and walks us thorugh her home, the camera alternating between first person shots and close-ups of Deren’s body parts. We examine her eyes, her feet, her abdomen. The layering of house tour and panning over Deren’s body suggests that in some way, Deren herself is a piece within the home, something to be admired for physical traits. A steamship hums in the background while the screen transforms into a door-window-as-porthole view of a black-shrouded figure on the walkway leading to Deren’s home. The figure has no face, we see as it turns toward the camera, and it walks away before a running Deren can catch up to it. It floats away, never identified nor caught, and Deren’s failure to catch it dooms her to loop through the same routine. A kitchen knife follows her. She can see her warped reflection in its blade, and the force of that revelation sends her reeling. Deren can’t escape her own shadows, and knows that her demons will wrap ever tighter around her. The dark  figure returns and enters her home, but Deren still hasn’t regained her bearings. She stumbles up the stairwell and can hardly reach the second story of her home. She watches the still faceless figure place a flower on her bed. It turns in her direction and seems to “stare” her down before disappearing.

Real life examples of the tension wrought by sexuality abound. In America, we know the classic story of a pop star, someone like Britney Spears, crashing under the pressure to be perpetually pretty and ogled over. Her trajectory did not have an end so tragic as that of South Korean performer U-Nee, the talented pop star and dancer who hung herself in 2007. Forced by her record label to become sexier, to alter her body, in spite of her talents, U-Nee’s depression grew deeper. I don’t know much about U-Nee, but it’s easy to project upon her. Presenting a faux-sexuality brings one to a dark place. Men may not know how strongly their gaze may reconfigure a woman, especially one who goes from unnoticed to lusted-laden.

So much mental illness seems an issue of pressure and tension, of one’s internal feelings battling against personal and societal expectation. Pinky’s love for Minnie moving from obsession to action, Maya Deren’s housebound restlessness erupting as violent visions, and U-Nee’s forced sexuality triggering self-annihilation. When there are no other apparent outlets, one must take extreme actions. Before medication and expertise, the treatment of mental illness must start with an understanding of individuals who feel too ashamed or scared or proud to reveal what bothers them. Helping those people is less an issue of clinical treatment, and more a matter of changing society to a more accepting and expressive climate, one that appreciates the unique issues faced by women, in particular.

Ingmar Bergman's Persona

Persona‘s women fall into each other, like fingers interlaced, so similar that one cannot distinguish herself from the other. The two share fair hair, soft features, light skin, a resemblance emphasized by a veil of black and white film. Liz Ullman’s Elisabet Vogler, emphasis on her plump, expectant features, is silent. Alma, nurse to the now-silent actress Elisabet, chats incessantly while the two stay alone together in a beachfront home. The home belongs to Elisabet’s doctor, a stern chain-smoker, who hopes that her employee Alma will convince Elisabet to speak again. Before long, it is clear that Alma has become more of a patient than Elisabet is. After a career of tending to other’s needs, she is relieved to use Elisabet as her psychoanalytic outlet. In a thick night of never-empty drinks, Alma, who once claimed total fidelity to her fiance, admits to an orgy with strangers, a woman and two young men. Perhaps Alma hopes that her sincere confessions will shake Elisabet into speech. Her inebriation, however, implies another motive. How light it feels to talk, how good, when one’s audience is sure not to judge verbally. As Alma shares her story, curled in an armchair with Elisabet lounging across the room, she fidgets and demurs. She adopts flirtatious mannerisms shared by sheepish girls talking about their first kiss at a slumber party. Recalling the story brings back old arousal for Alma, and her eyes search Elisabet’s for sympathy, understanding, or any of the other emotions for which we wait after telling a story exhibiting us at our most primal. There is no absolution for Alma the confessor, however, not from Elisabet. She grants no validation of Alma’s lust-driven spontaneity. The women lurch toward real intimacy but never achieve it, in spite of their isolation together, and Elisabet only smirks when Alma tacitly begs for some sort of appreciation for her outpouring of honesty. Now Elisabet, having played so many roles on stage and at home, is the audience as Alma expresses the doubt and self-consciousness putting her in tension with the wholesome nurse persona she usually performs.

Elisabet denies Alma a critical element of communication. For all of the talking Alma does, Elisabet never reacts to what her nurse says. While Alma felt relieved to finally burst free with all of her sins, she did not feel any better afterward. She perhaps expected Elisabet to be compelled by such soul-baring to speak, to tell her nurse “You are OK. You are not a bad person. That must have been hard for you.” Instead, mute Elisabet smirks knowingly, as though her nurse’s tawdry but banal story does not surprise her at all.

No one else witnesses their unidirectional communications, save the viewers of Bergman’s’ film. Elisabet’s mute lips and constant smirk create conditions approaching solitary confinement for Alma. Delusions dance across days of living death for the frail-minded nurse. How can you confirm what you experience is true without any communication, tacit or explicit, of it being so? Consider when Alma hears Elisabet say “You ought to go to bed, or you’ll fall asleep at the table.” Elisabet denies speaking, but we viewers and Alma heard her do so. Alma feels a whisper of madness, remembering the physical and mental reality of Elisabet’s brief words but having no way to ascertain whether they occurred. Elisabet has an incredibly amount of control over Alma, in this regard, and it would be easy for her to engineer further breakdowns for her nurse. As the only two characters with whom we viewers are intimate blend together, it becomes even harder to tell what is true and what comes from paranoia and our scrambling toward logical consistency. We become as mad as Alma, as pliable in the hands of Elisabet as the lost nurse is.

Swinging

Daisies, Věra Chytilová, 1966

Věra Chytilová could not have predicted that nearly every frame from her 1966 film Daisies would, over forty years hence, seem perfectly composed for Tumblr, the social blogging platform. Yet each colorful scene from the Czech New Wave film drips with a sinister cute charm that Tumblr users gobble up and share readily. Thus it would be easy to dismiss the film as a slight girly frill, something pleasant to see but not worth thinking about for long. That is how I approached the film, even though I knew of its grounding in feminist defiance. Viewing it, however, proved me wrong. With the overwhelming majority of filmmakers being men, it is easy to underestimate how refreshing a female filmmaker’s touch can be. Chytilová entices her viewers to ogle Marie I and Marie II, the gamine beauties at the heart of her film, before allowing her stars to gleefully spit upon the expectations of the men and viewers they encounter.

“We’ve gone bad, haven’t we?”

     Marie I

The world is rotten, and it seems only logical that Marie I and Marie II should “go bad.” They travel with scissors in hand, literally and figuratively cutting whatever and whomever they encounter. In one scene, as a man named John declares his love for Marie II, the girls sit on their bedspread snipping sausages and fruit into pieces.

Don't treat me like this, when you know I love you

Daisies

Marie II does not wince at his words in the photo above. She’s just concentrating as she cuts the pickle. When she later leans on the phone and disconnects the line, Marie I asks why she did that. His outpour of emotions was their afternoon entertainment, not something over which to stress for long. The girls have quite an eager stream of would-be sugar daddies, and none are slated to last long.

The heroines ascend (or descend) into unbridled jouissance, their pleasure so pure it frightens those around them. The staid couples at an evening supper club enjoy the choreographed lovers who dance for them, but cannot tolerate the real drunken giddiness of Marie I and Marie II. The two are thrown giggling and stumbling from the bar by a humorless waiter. Those witnessing their debauchery display visible nausea and nerves, the result of a confrontation with Marie I and Marie II’s thorough stomping of behavioral norms. The club is a venue for slowly sipping wine and observing stylized dance, a place where vice is indulged within stringent boundaries of good taste. Any true indulgence seems out of place in such a constructed setting.

Off with your head

Daisies

The frictionless rapidity with which the Tumblr community cycles through images does not give justice to works like Daisies. Once posted on the site, each item referenced becomes passe. It might elicit a laugh, a share, or a raised eyebrow, but it generally does not enter any discourse beyond that. It’s hard to overstate the joys of browsing through hundreds of animated GIFs and clever screen grabs, but some visually stimulating content deserve a closer examination than the internet’s rapidity affords. Girls admire the good style and biting subtitles in Daisies when they see screen grabs from it, but I wonder how many, like me, hold off on seeing it. 

Daisies draws to a riotous end. The Maries find an elaborate banquet spread in an empty room, and set upon it. Though at first they pick timidly at the food, they progress toward full feasting indulgence. They dance ecstatically upon the dining table once they’ve had their fill. Marie I strips to her bra and slip, while Marie II wraps herself in the room’s curtain. The camera closes in on their heels as they grind them into still full plates piled with food. The fashion show climaxes in a swing from the room’s crystal chandelier. No one enters to stop them, begging one to ask whether the girls are actually being “bad” in comparison to those who have wasted and ignored the available food. But guilt still stalls the girls momentarily. A jump cut moves the girls quickly from the chandelier and into choppy water. They call to potential rescuers, but none offer to save them, and the girls wonder whether it is because they’ve been bad. Another cut brings them back to the banquet room, now dim when once it was brightly lit.  “When we’re hard working and good we’ll be happy…we’ll be happy because we’re hard working,” the girls agree. First uttered in this film made in a communist state, the words are still held true in the U.S. by those stubbornly clinging to the tenets of rugged individualism. Marie I and Marie II whisper as they begin working while bound in suits of rope and newspaper. The girls rearrange broken plates and glasses, but can’t fix them. It is a farce of reform, and it doesn’t seem like they’ll stick to it long. A falling chandelier ends their well-behaved moment along with the movie. Surely the reckless heroines rebound into more capers after its landing.

This film is dedicated to those whose whole source of indignation is a messed up trifle.

Closing title of Daisies

For more beautiful stills from Daisies, see.

Another film by Věra Chytilová, Fruits of Paradise (1970)

Sometimes the internet still provides.

My boss asked me to look up some examples of toy packaging, so I googled “Playskool”. Nothing too useful came up, so I set the image size to large.

I scrolled down, but had to stop when I found this:

Years of internet what-the-fuckery behind me,  I still paused at this. Don Glut, I learned, is known as a DD movie director and dinosaur fanboy. We should really think of him as a producer and scholar of dinosaur lore. His Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia (1999) is 1,088 page monolith of dino knowledge. Amazon reviewers approve:

If you are a serious dinosaur lover with some money to spend, this is the book. At the time of publication, every classified species was included, along with pertinent details and from 1-3 pages of write-up. It talks of the holotypes, it has 1-2 photos on every page, it gives it all. It is exhaustive, well written, and just simply outstanding. Put it this way, paleontologists and reconstructionist-artists keep this on their desk like the military folk keep a copy of Jane’s.

It’s a ringing endorsement you’ll need, since the book costs nearly $300.

Or, if you’re a pervert like me, just browse his site. Remain in awe at the bright-eyed and enthusiastic looking girls Glut has wrangled into his geek haven. Though each could have made a quick career out of American Apparel modeling, and I’m sure some have, they’ve chosen to pose for Glut. Now, I know he was a film director, but even he admits that the ones he made from 1953 through 1969 are “unwatchable” now. Sure, maybe some of these girls were promised parts. Perhaps they thought they’d’ become the muse to inspire him to pump out one more movie. To me, however, it seems like they just wanted to be there. In age of dirty and alienated internet porn, there’s something truly refreshing about these eager softcore posers. I  suggest starting with this gallery, where you’ll find quite a few gems.

 You’re still getting an education here. In each set of photos, a young lady poses with a collectible, rare, or simply curious piece of dino culture. In the photo to the left, our female guide poses with a “Mechanical head of a “prehistoric” giant gorilla  made by Messmore & Damon  for their “World a Million Years Ago” attraction at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. This ape, like King Kong, seems to like the ladies.”  Each link takes you to a historical account of the object displayed, and Glut often explains how he obtained it too. It’s a rabbit hole of information, the likes of which I haven’t found since discovering young Wikipedia.