London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)

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From the formal statues of its center to the supermarkets and bus stations at the outer reaches of the underground map, Patrick Keiller spent the year of 1992 training his camera, always static, on England’s capital. An architect turned filmmaker as flâneur, Keiller is keenly attuned to the fissures of history, whilst not immune to creating new mythologies. Throughout London, a playful sensibility meets sincere anger at the ravages inflicted on the city and its inhabitants through thirteen years of Tory rule.

The two protagonists of London remain unseen. Our narrator (Paul Scofield), a cruise ship photographer, is recalled to London following a seven year absence by his erstwhile lover Robinson, to join his “exercises in psychic landscaping, drifting, and free association.” Journeying by foot and by bus, the two delve into the “problem of London”, whilst searching for the roots of English romanticism. Robinson’s character is named for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, making the narrator his Man Friday, and the city itself an island. The exiled Russian socialist Alexander Herzen is quoted: “there is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London.” The narrator considers the city is “full of interesting people, most of whom, like Robinson, would rather be elsewhere.” On a series of walks across the capital, their meditation through literature, politics and the urban environment blurs the edges of narrative, documentary and essay filmmaking, making London an engaging cousin to the work of the Left bank directors, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Agnes Varda.

Through image and narration, the past and present rub together, but this is to be no nostalgic expedition into the city of the popular imagination, as this observation by the narrator quickly confirms: “Robinson is no conservationist, but he misses the smell of cigarette ash and urine that used to linger in the neo-Georgian phone boxes that appear on London postcards.” His taste is for the uncelebrated corners of the metropolis, its street markets and shopping malls. Reflecting this, Brent Cross Shopping Center is the only location privileged with something approximating a tracking shot, thanks to the camera’s placement on an escalator.

On two occasions the couple cross paths with a pair of Peruvian musicians, successors perhaps to the foreign visitors of the past whose travels are alighted on: the aforementioned Herzon, the romantic interludes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Apollinaire. And Monet. Mischievously delaying a cut to the River Thames, Keiller discusses the view seen from his hotel window as the camera trains its attention on a huge billboard displaying a member of the male striptease troupe The Chippendales. Of such distant travelers to the city, the one perhaps most apposite to the project of London is Laurence Sterne, a regular visitor to the city following the success of Tristram Shandy in 1759. For Robinson, Sterne’s claim that “duration is the succession of ideas which follow and succeed each other in our minds like the images on the inside of a lantern turned round by the heat of a candle” marks him as the inventor of cinema. Tristram Shandy itself is a novel built on a series of comic digressions, much as the route of the flâneur consists of one digression after another.

London contains plenty of digressions, from an excursion to the trooping of the color ceremony that marks the Queen’s official birthday, to a lunch in IKEA. More seriously, the couple are repeatedly waylaid thanks to the regular planting of bombs by the Irish Republican Army. While the link isn’t made explicit, we are invited to consider the atrocities of the IRA next to the actions of the British State when couple witness the Queen Mother unveiling a statue commemorating Sir Arthur Harris. The statue today sits largely ignored in the Aldwych but, as documented in the film, it was highly controversial in 1992. ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible for devastating attacks on German civilian centers, including Dresden, during World War Two, and protests against the monument came from both citizens of London and from German officials.

Contemporary politics give the film some of its most memorable monologues. The backdrop is an election year, the first after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, and for Robinson, as for all of us living in London at that time, the stakes were high. He worries for his job, the libraries, public transport, and the city continuing without an elected local authority following Thatcher’s politically motivated abolition of the Greater London Authority. On election day itself, the couple observe a trio of confident young urban professionals exiting the polling station on Charing Cross Road, and late that night they stand out of place on the edge of Smith Square where re-elected Prime Minister John Major addresses the crowd. Robinson ruefully observes that “the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed it was in their interest to do so,” before predicting a series of horrendous consequences leading to his early demise. “For the old or anyone with children it would be much worse,” he continues.

Keiller has directed two sequels to London. While Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) depart from the city to explore other parts of the country, twenty five years after Robinson and his Man Friday ventured across their island, I find myself wondering what a return to the capital might look like. Whilst I doubt Robinson would have admired New Labour (I have not seen Robinson in Ruins at the time of writing ), Blair did resolve two “problems of London,” reintroducing an elected body to the city and ushering in the Good Friday agreement, bringing an end to attacks by the IRA. Today, London faces a very different kind of terrorism. A fancy of Robinson’s, that the financial center of London might again become a destination for bohemians, was undoubtably unrealistic. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth, the well heeled City workers having now settled into the then affordable, artist filled neighborhoods of Stoke Newington, Hackney, and even King’s Cross. The last, highly insalubrious in 1992, was one to which I myself was making regular pilgrimages at the time, my nascent interest in cinema drawing me repeatedly to the still much missed Scala Cinema.

From the children playing in the street by their council estate to the Notting Hill Carnival, Patrick Keiller focuses on a London defined by its diversity. This is a city that welcomes millions of incomers every day, be they commuters from the suburbs or stray musicians from another continent. It is a city that has welcomed those, like Alexander Herzen, forced to flee their own country, whilst colorful figures such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, and so many names unknown, have added their own patchwork to the metropolis. Viewing the film today, one of Robinson’s most poignant laments regards the Londoner’s fear of Europe. Brexit, and the weakened Conservative government seeking to usher it in, would surely loom over a new version of London. Robinson might get cold comfort from the knowledge that the closed vision of Britain which narrowly won the referendum was roundly rejected by the inhabitants of its capital.

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Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)

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By the time Nicolas Roeg came to Don’t Look Now, his third narrative feature, his interest in the intersection between spirituality and both narrative and formal fragmentation was already well established. In his debut film, Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), a working class gangster finds his identity fracturing while he hides out with bohemians who are delving into Eastern mysticism. In 1971’s Walkabout, the Australian wife of a successful executive negotiates the shiny appliances of her suburban home as she reminisces on a teenage trek through the outback with an indigenous boy who is on a spiritual rite of passage. On their journey, she undergoes a  The sexual awakening that she undergoes on their journey collides with a culture beyond her understanding.

That Don’t Look Now, an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier short story, has similar concerns is suggested in the midst of its tense opening sequence, when the camera pauses to catch the title of a book cast aside: Beyond The Fragile Geometry Of Space. The words alert us that here the basic rules of physics do not apply, that time and space themselves will be disrupted. They further hint at two forces at work within the drama, the natural and something existing outside of our rational everyday world.

The rupture hinted by the book title has already been encountered within the first two shots of the film, although we aren’t yet aware of it. In the first we are outside, watching rainfall splash into a pond surrounded by long grass. The second brings us indoors, where sunbeams pierce between window slats. Each image is taken from a different time and place. This fragmentation captures that manner in which memories may be recalled, appropriate in that Don’t Look Now concerns a couple whose grief holds them in the past. Yet, at the point at which the film’s narrative begins, these two images occur not in the past but in the future. Time is not linear, it may shift backwards or forwards without warning.

Don’t Look Now famously begins with the accidental drowning of little Christine, of which her father, John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) appears to have had a premonition prompted by the appearance of a blood-like streak of liquid on a photograph. An unspecified amount of time following this, he travels with his wife Laura (Julie Christie) to Venice, where he is commissioned to work on a church restoration. The city they find themselves in isn’t the crammed tourist mecca of repute. With the season at an end, the hotels are closing. Rats congregate at the water’s edge beneath crumbling passageways. One character considers Venice as “a city in aspic. Left over from a dinner party. All the guests are dead and gone.” That a serial killer is on the rampage, with bodies being pulled from the depths, does nothing to leaven the atmosphere.

The film proceeds, less with outright scares than with a palpable sense of dread. It is aided in this by Clifford’s razor sharp editing, Pino Donaggio’s hauntingly evocative score, and an embrace of ambiguity ranging from the supporting characters to the disquieting blurring of the natural and the supernatural. Not least, an eerie repetition of elements create echoes throughout, once more evoking the nature of memory. The most obvious of these is perhaps encountered in those opening shots, the blue of the pond (behind the blue lettering of the credits) and the red of the sun. These colors crop up regularly, notably in the sequence of Christine’s drowning, where rapid crosscutting splinters the narrative into shards, contrasting her iconic red coat with her brother’s blue jacket, the blue pond with a red bike and from there to the sky reflected in a shattered mirror. Simultaneously, Laura sits in a blue shirt in front of a roaring fire whose reflection dances on the surface of a table, much as the reflection of the red coat does in the ripples of the pond. Later, John negotiates Venice wearing a red scarf submerged into a deep blue coat. Their hotel room combines red wood with blue wallpaper and fabrics. Mirroring Christine, the city itself, it’s many churches filled with red carpets and lighted candles, is slowly sinking into the water.

Colors are imbued with symbolic properties. That red signifies danger is clear well before dashes of the color start to appear disconcertingly in the background of Venice’s scenery. Blue commonly represents faith. The symbolism of the color comes into play in Venice, when Laura goes to the assistance of two Scottish sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic claiming to have ‘seen’ Christine sitting between her parents. The parents respond to this news differently, John with angry denial, a comforted Laura by seeking out a church to pray in and a priest’s hand to kiss.

Rationality and faith might sometimes be considered conflicting positions, but in Don’t Look Now the difference is blurred. A second featured paperback is Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. The play, which was the source for Costa Gavras’ film Amen (2002), concerns Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity with the Holocaust, the spiritual conniving with an evil claiming scientific justification. This combination is embodied in John Baxter, who disavows both organized religion and the supernatural whilst harboring strange powers of his own. Twice John is given reason to leave the city. The first comes as a warning through a seance that his life is in danger if he stays. The second, in the form of news that his son is sick in England. The spiritual and the rational combine to push John away, but neither fear nor parental responsibility is sufficient to move him.

Just as the film plays with the experience of perception and memory on a structural level, individual characters have their own issues with sight. The sister with second sight is blind. The sister whom Laura comes to the assistance of is temporarily blinded by something in her eye. John’s gift of second sight announced itself with a premonition of his daughter’s death and was subsequently repressed. His inability to engage with this gift will have serious ramifications. Newly optimistic following her strange encounter, Laura’s own eyes are reopened. As with her husband, her first observation has discomforting connotations. Fully taking in her husband’s body for the first time since tragedy struck, she notices that the lumps on his side have returned. Despite her apparent unconcern, Laura’s words inevitably cast a pall over John’s future.

Laura’s observation of the lumps marks an unusual precursor to one of cinema’s most famous (even infamous) sex scenes. While John and Laura’s intercourse achieved notoriety because the sex appeared so real, what actually is so remarkable about the scene is how the actors’ superb performances make the relationship itself ring so true. Two people damaged by a shared trauma find temporary relief in a tender connection.

The lovemaking marks the high point of John and Laura’s post-Christine marriage. Roeg and Clifford repeatedly cut from the couple in bed to their getting dressed in the aftermath and back again, already hinting at a downfall. Laura glows as she applies her lipstick, but the couple are now placed in separate compartments. Having previously shared the bathroom in intimate nudity, Laura now occupies this space while John puts on his clothes in the bedroom and pours himself a drink alone. At one point he views Laura as he crosses the hallway, but he doesn’t enter the room. At the end of the sequence the couple walk together through the hotel foyer. Happy, they hold each other close, but the thin red carpet that they tread resembles a blood-like streak, like the one seen earlier on the photograph. As if to underline the point, the camera rests on the restaurant’s furniture, shrouded like ghosts to await the next tourist season.

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From this point on, John and Laura become increasing separated. That evening, John’s surprise sighting of a small figure in a familiar red coat comes as the couple are a few meters apart, Laura having fled some rats. The next day, when Laura joins the sisters for a seance her skeptical husband is caught listening from the corridor as the blind woman, in a trance, lets out orgasmic sounding groans. From their loving congress in bed, he is now reduced to being his wife’s peeping tom. Extending this split, John’s decision to let Laura return to England without him represents a betrayal of his familial duties (“You should have gone,” the priest informs him). Following another unexpected sighting, John’s struggle to reunite his family brings the film’s complex interplay between rationality and belief on the one hand, and sight and memory on the other, to a head.

There is much more that could be said, but this oft spoiled film really is best approached with its mysteries intact. In shattering the fragile geometry of space, Don’t Look Now emerges as a horror masterpiece that transcends its genre, offering a profound meditation on the condition of grief.

What Have I Done To Deserve This? (Pedro Almodóvar, 1984)

 

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Early in Pedro Almodóvar’s outrageously funny fourth feature, a grandmother (played by the ever wonderful Chus Lampreave) assists her eldest grandson with his literature homework. Tasked with placing a series of classic writers into one of two categories, she confidently labels Ibsen a romantic, Byron a realist, and so on, giving the wrong answer every time. This inversion of the two schools might be taken as a self-referential comment on the film at hand. The director has claimed that What Have I Done To Deserve This? primarily alludes to Italian neorealism. But this is a warped neorealism, concerned with straitened urban existence, yet finding space in its splattering of genre and plot lines for a shot from a lizard’s point of view, a plan for the forging of Hitler’s letters, and a little girl who harbors Carrie-like powers of telekinesis.

Arriving eight years after the death of Franco, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, shares with Italian neorealism a concern for a society as it transitions away from fascist dictatorship. While not filmed in the desolation of post world war two Italy, it nonetheless depicts a traumatic upheaval, with the past often viewed with nostalgia. I wonder if in this film we can see Spain’s relationship to its past, present and future coded in terms of gender.

The central drama occurs in a complex of grim oblong tower blocks overlooking the highway through Madrid. Kathleen M. Vernon writes that the film “depicts a world created by the urban non-planning of the Franco years, growing out of a policy that actively sought by passive neglect of urban social services to discourage immigration to the ‘corrupt’ cities” (33). Centering his drama within the domestic sphere, and three compartments within one of these blocks, Almodóvar carves a feminine space, albeit one defined by the presence or absence of males.

At the film’s center, Carmen Maura’s harried Gloria is sniffing the washing machine soap as if her sanity depends on it. Sharing an overcrowded apartment with her brutish taxi driving husband Antonio, her eccentric mother-in-law and two sons, she pivots between taking care of her own home and cleaning other people’s. Next door, vivacious prostitute Cristal entertains her clients at home, while upstairs Juani, a dressmaker bitter at the loss of her husband, makes the life of her young daughter miserable. From the stash of mineral water that the grandmother sells to her son for profit, to Gloria’s fruitless struggle to get housekeeping money from her husband, the lives of all these people revolve around the constant negotiations and transactions of the free market. When a lizard is adopted into the home, the grandmother choses its name from a list of her favorite items, finally settling on “Money”. As Alex Cox puts it, the oppression of consumerism has replaced the oppression of dictatorship.

Miguel, Gloria’s youngest son, is a gay twelve year old boy who plays with a zoetrope in bed surrounded by the cutout images of movie stars. As an obvious surrogate for the director, it is surely no coincidence that he is given the most transgressive storyline, and one that would have been unimaginable prior to the new freedoms that had opened up in Spanish society. The boy’s entry into the film comes with an accusation from his mother that he has been sleeping with his friend’s father again. Despite her admonitions, the mother connives to bring about the most outrageous transaction of the film, arranging for the child to move in with his pedophile dentist. Through this exchange, the mother avoids the dental fees and is instead able to buy a curling iron. For his part of the deal, Miguel negotiates art lessons and ensures that he will have access to a video recorder.

Miguel’s sexual proclivities contrast with the film’s representation of male hetrosexuality. It opens with a case of male impotence, as a spontaneous attempt by Gloria to have anonymous sex (with a partner subsequently revealed to be a cop) goes awry to her great frustration. It is just the first example of a motif running through the narrative, of heterosexual men unable to or uninterested in sexually satisfying women. Indeed, the only example of sexuality as enjoyed by a woman is recounted in a bizarre television commercial. An unnamed woman (Celia Roth) recounts her story of a night of passionate lovemaking which is followed in the morning by her husband tripping while bringing her a cup of coffee. We might consider the burning liquid that permanently disfigures her face as a punishment for pleasure, and this as a projection of the misogynistic Antonio who alone is watching the screen. Male impotence is not purely sexual. Witness the writer who cannot get published and the policemen who unwittingly destroy vital evidence.

The stresses of life in the capitalist economy require a salve that goes beyond Gloria’s dependence on her cleaning supplies. Addiction courses through the film, with characters variously dependent on prescription pills and fairy cakes, or struggling with alcoholism or kleptomania. “I don’t have any vices,” announces Gloria’s eldest son Toni as he clutches a cigarette. Significantly this teenager, whose own contribution to the economy is as a drug dealer, is the only character appearing to have a surfeit of cash.

When not simply numbing themselves in the present, characters desire to be somewhere else, invariably involving looking forwards or backwards. Cristal, her very body a subject of exchange, is the most forward looking and dreams of becoming an entertainer in Las Vegas. Elsewhere, Antonio reminisces on his previous life in Berlin, while his mother longs to return home to her rural village, and Toni dreams of accompanying her in order to tend the land. These characters yearn for a return to a world of the past. News of two suicides, that of Müller and a villager suggest the hopelessness of this mindset. Happiness comes from looking forward, not back. Past and future are also bound in the relationship between Juani and her daughter Vanessa. The cruel treatment of the child is related to the reminder that she presents of the absent father, the missing male representing a neutered history that the mother is still attached to, while the child (with her telekinetic powers) a fantastic future.

The film’s most convoluted episode concerns a plot to counterfeit Hitler’s letters. The plan, which takes the concern with trade into the multinational arena, ties into the theme of backwards looking. Vernon connects this aspect of the plot to the work of his fellow melodramatist Werner Rainer Fassbinder, linking the character of Ingrid Müller to the titular subjects of Veronica Voss and Lili Marleen. Indeed, the whole film seems connected to Fassbinder’s great project, albeit with a twist. If Fassbinder’s work confronts a society that has moved on without confronting past sins, Almodóvar reveals a society struggling to move forward, and then shows how it might.

The outcome of the forgery plan is the dissolution of Gloria’s family, with the killing of Antonio and his mother’s return to the countryside with Toni. At the same time, a change can be noted in a key patriarchal figure. Through his career, we might link the cop, with whom Gloria failed to have intercourse, to the repression of the Franco regime. Now, with the help of a woman, Cristal, he is finally cured of his impotence. The first act of this reborn male is to refuse to detain another woman (Gloria) despite a confession to murder.

In a finale torn from classic melodrama, Gloria returns to her apartment lost and alone, accompanied by the grand sweep of the music on the soundtrack. Proceeding directly to the balcony, she leans over the railing as if preparing to jump. A small figure enters the frame far below her and waves upwards. Miguel has returned to a building that, in the world of this film at least, is now entirely female. Reunited with his mother, his ironic assertion that his mother needs a man around draws attention to how different this child is to the sexually flailing, brutish and boastful representatives of the male gender seen previously. A poster depicting a bucolic lakeside scene is fastened to the wall behind Gloria and Miguel as they face each other in the last shot of the film. The camera zooms in slowly until the poster fills the background, placing the couple within this new scene. There is no need to leave Madrid, the country is being transformed from within. The future is optimistic, and it is female.

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The Small World of Sammy Lee (Ken Hughes, 1963)

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Soho, that once seedy web of central London streets, plays host to Ken Hughes’ enjoyable early sixties film about a desperate man who needs to make quick use of his legs and even faster use of his tongue if he is to dig himself out of the trouble he’s in.

Following a disastrous all night poker session and a failed attempt to recoup his loses on the horses, Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) discovers that the mob are demanding payment of his debts in full, and he is able to negotiate just five hours to come up with the money he owes if he is to end the day intact. Between shifts as compere at the tawdry Peepshow nightclub, Sammy races through the London streets from one contact to the next, pushing a dizzying array of deals in every corner of his manor in a bid to hustle the money he needs. To complicate matters is the arrival of his sometime object of affection Patsy (Julia Foster), off the train from Bradford having been spun a yarn about her boyfriend’s glittering career in London. She quickly discovers that Sammy can’t get her the job she hoped for, but that the club manager might have a less savory use for her.

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The central performances are superb. Lovable rogue Sammy Lee is a great creation and Hackney born Newley, who famously began his showbiz career as the Artful Dodger and ended it as a Vegas crooner, is a natural in the role. His Sammy is sympathetic and ultimately almost heroic, despite his willingness to take advantage of those who support him,with his treatment of Patsy being particularly appalling. Given little by way of exposition, Foster beautifully conveys a cocktail of love, disappointment, fear, and horror at the situation in which she unwittingly finds herself. Peppered throughout the film are an array of actors who in the years to come would become stalwarts of British comedy: Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe & Son), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Lynda Baron (Open All Hours), and Roy Kinnear. Characters are generally rich and entertaining, not least the bickering heavies played by Kenneth J. Warren and Clive Colin Bowler, their constant antagonism bemoaning a lowering of etiquette amongst London’s criminal class.

Ken Hughes is best known, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for the kids film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The Small World… is adapted from his own TV play Sammy, which was broadcast by the BBC in March 1958. In that drama, Sammy (Anthony Newley again) is alone in the confines of his flat, frantically using his phone to make deals and raise the cash. In a moment of particular tension in the film, Sammy is at home when an unseen neighbor begins playing his drums. The beats crashing through the ceiling reflect and exacerbate his mounting stress. It is a great use of the diegetic sounds that abound in the crammed city quarters, and beautifully complements Kenny Graham’s jazz soundtrack.

The Small World of Sammy Lee opens on Soho in the early hours, a cleaning truck hosing the down refuse from the night before. Accompanied by the splendidly melancholic score, the camera leisurely guides through its still empty streets. Soho is a draw for those on the fringes of mainstream society. Not just the strippers working at The Peepshow, or the prostitute welcoming johns to the apartment down Sammy’s hall, but those set apart by birth, be it through race or sexuality. Restaurant frontages speak to the Italians, Indians and Chinese who live and work in the area. Black men eke a living playing jazz in the clubs, and the protagonist himself, as we discover when he pays a visit to his brother’s Whitechapel store, is Jewish. Sadly Derek Nimmo’s gay nightclub assistant plays to the comedic conventions of the era, but the film proves more remarkable for its time in its representation of race. Having made a stereotypical assumption about black musicians that might pass without question in a much later film than this one, our hero is given a righteous dressing down.

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As Lee runs from one meeting to the next, cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky takes his camera back into the bustling streets and alleyways, and the crisp black and white location shots from half a century ago provide one the film’s great pleasures. With day turning to evening the tone changes and what begins as a witty crime caper turns darker, Suschitzky investing seedy pool halls and basement rehearsal spaces with the chiaroscuro of classic noir. As night falls, potentially happy endings crumble and Sammy makes his final stand on a grim patch of bombed out wasteland. The main light source comes in the form of an empty billboard standing above the scene, projecting bright white like an empty cinema screen penetrating the darkness. For years, this empty space might have represented The Small World of Sammy Lee itself, prior to its beautiful restoration and home release by StudioCanal in 2016. It’s a welcome return, because The Small World… is a classic of sixties London cinema.

Company Limited (Seemabaddha), (Satyajit Ray, 1971)

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The much cited view of Satyajit Ray as an outstanding humanist director but not a political one sits uneasily with me. Take for example, Days & Nights In The Forest (1970), where complacent young middle-class men from the city are confronted with rural poverty, Distant Thunder (1973), with its treatment of the caste system, or the abuse meted out against a poor man by a wealthy brahmin in Deliverance (1981) as he seeks a wedding date for his daughter. Company Limited’s central characters are too richly drawn to act as mouthpieces, and as always he ascribes no ideology to his work, but the film contains a withering examination of the corrupting nature of corporate culture.

Company Limited forms the second part of Satyajit Ray’s informal Calcutta Trilogy, in between The Adversary (1970) and The Middleman (1976). Each film stands independently but addresses the city at a time of crisis. While Company Limited is set firmly amongst the elite, the chasm that exists between their environment and life as experienced by much of Calcutta is clearly defined in the opening shots. Here, documentary-style footage reveals the crowd outside Calcutta’s unemployment exchange, while the dire rates of unemployment in the city are recounted in voiceover. Poor job prospects were not the sole cause for concern. In his biography of the director, The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson describes the Calcutta of this time as an “urban guerrilla battleground,” with violence meted out by Maoist insurrectionists known as the Naxilites responded to no less brutally by the police. Subimal Misra claims that of approximately 200 monthly murders in the region, 130 were committed by the police.

This initially appears far away from the luxurious world of Company Limited. Shyamal Chatterjee stands removed from any of the unpleasantness that is going on beneath the height of his company owned apartment. Charming and likable despite an all consuming ambition, he has risen from modest beginnings to become the sales manager of his employers’ fan division, where the possibility of further promotion and a seat on the board now hangs alluringly before him.

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We are guided through this privileged world alongside Tutal, Chatterjee’s sister-in-law, who pays a sudden visit. While Chatterjee’s wife limits her activities to gossip and magazines, Tutal proves a deeper and more perceptive character. While it is she who occupies the moral center of the film, her position is more nuanced than that suggests. She is at once seduced and discomforted by this new environment in which she finds herself. It is Tutal who will unwittingly provide both idea and impetus for Chatterjee’s eventual corruption. For now however, she is happy that success has not made her brother-in-law into a monster. For his part, her intelligence encourages him to make her the confidant that his shallow wife cannot be, and a crude joke about marrying the wrong sister quickly acquires a degree of seriousness. Tutal’s symbolic enrollment into the class of her hosts comes with the loan of a wristwatch, an indispensable tool of Western workplace efficiency.

The of-its-era sexism that pervades corporate life might be attributable to foreign influence, and it is towards the post-colonial status of India that much critique is aimed. While in the past ten years the Indian upper classes have gained access to the country clubs, the very name of Chatterjee’s employer, Hindusthan-Peters, suggests that India has reached an accommodation with its former masters, rather than true independence. This is emphasized by the lecherous Indian board member, Sir Baren Roy, who talks of having “wrestled the British on equal terms,” but his title and Rolls Royce suggest a joining of the enemy. However, the starkest criticism of British influence is reserved for its corrosive impact on the family unit. Chatterjee has shunted his son off to boarding school. The grandparents moved to Calcutta along with their son but, in a breach of tradition, the company does not permit them to share their apartment. Arriving unannounced at their son’s apartment and finding a party in full swing, the elderly couple find themselves unceremoniously swept into an adjoining darkened room by their embarrassed son, anxious to hide his lower-class parentage from his colleagues. Chatterjee’s son writes of missing his Mom and Dad. His parents miss Patna, the city previously their home.

Given the shallow nature of Chatterjee’s world it is fitting that when the crisis occurs, it appears on a surface level. Discovering that the paintwork on the fans in a consignment ready for shipment is faulty, he faces ruin. If the shipment is sent, it will be refused. Should it be delayed, the company will be in breach of contract and his reputation will be lost. One way out exists: to create the conditions that enable the “Act of God” clause to be evoked.

The unstable conditions endured by the citizens of Calcutta, previously so distant, now encroach. In the sequence of events that Chatterjee unleashes, with the provoking of a strike and the throwing of a bomb, a man is injured. Beginning these actions necessitated Chatterjee’s overcoming a moral crisis, and a visit to the worker in his hospital bed heralds a second one. Still, he receives his place on the board, and in the workplace celebrations his misgivings are swept aside. For the death of a poor man, a large wreath would have sufficed to put things right. And further enhance the generous reputation of this company limited.

Ray’s camera constantly draws our attention to plugs and switches, but the unreliability of the mechanics that underpin his lifestyle is evident from the outset. Soon after we meet Chatterjee, he complains that his residential phone line is faulty. Later he discovers that a light on his billboard advertisement is malfunctioning. Now, as he returns home for his family celebration he discovers that his building’s elevator is out of order. As Chatterjee trudges up the staircase, his increasingly hot and uncomfortable climb comes to mirror his career ascent. Previously, his wife extolled the height of her apartment compared to living down below “with the dust… flies… pollution… everything else…” No longer above the dirt that fills the city, our protagonist appears to carry it before him. With darkness subsuming his home, innocence remains at floor level, where a group of children happily kick a ball around in the sunshine.

Changing Taiwan – an allegorical reading of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day

 

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In his 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang revisits the gang culture and rock and roll mania of Taiwan in the early sixties, recalling the true-life case of a schoolgirl murdered by a classmate that had fascinated him and his friends as a teenager. In seeking a meaning behind this appalling act, Yang utilizes a mammoth four hours and a similarly huge cast to uncover the wounds of history and politics as experienced by his generation, and that of his parents, on the island.

Here I offer an allegorical reading of the film, with spoilers necessarily included. Rather than providing a comprehensive scene by scene analysis, I am focusing my attention on the school building, the institutional structure given most weight in the film, and on the characters of Ming, Honey, and Jade, and their impact on the character of Xiao Si’r. I argue that the school represents the island of Taiwan, with each of the three characters symbolizing a different phase in the island’s modern history. Associated with each other, Honey and Ming contribute to a sense of duality that presides over much of the film, with its fade to black dividing the narrative in two, just as the night and day shifts divide the school. Jade’s importance comes to the fore as the film approaches its climax, pointing to a new way forward for the island.

A Brighter Summer Day begins ten years after the arrival of the waishengren, the name given to the wave of mainlanders who landed in 1949 following the defeat of the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. Those who arrived from mainland China previous to this exodus, and who live largely apart from the waishengren, are known as the benshengren. Taiwan’s indigenous population, as Tony Rayns notes in his commentary to the Criterion Collection edition of the film, are absent from the film’s narrative.

With their hopes of returning to the mainland dwindling, the waishengren exist in limbo. The children are adrift, their parents’ attachment to the past depriving them of their own ability to regard Taiwan as home. They sleep in houses built for the former Japanese occupiers, while the icons of history and culture through which they struggle to find themselves, such as American rock and roll, Japanese swords, and Russian novels, also come from elsewhere. The young respond to their insecurity by forming gangs, in this case the Little Park or the 217s. The adults attempts to advance themselves by using their connections from the mainland resembles a gang culture of their own.

In 1987, the year that Edward Yang began to conceive his film, thirty-eight years of martial law in Taiwan came to an end. Reacting to the threat from China, Taiwan began an “indigenization process, recognizing its valid cultural roots … in the aborigines, calling for officializing and revitalizing the Taiwanese dialect and the tribal languages” (Beus 307). Over time, the differences between the waishengren and the benshengren have reduced as Taiwan asserts its own identity. The making of A Brighter Summer Day should be seen in this context.

Near the start of the film, Edward Yang provides some clues for reading his narrative. Xiao Si’r receives what David Bordwell describes as “probably the most unemphatic introduction of a protagonist in Taiwanese cinema”, the teenager sits with his friend Cat in the rafters of the film studio situated next to their school. Beneath them, a chaotic shoot is interrupted as the director argues with the lead actress. She doesn’t like the dress she is supposed to wear. “It’s a black-and-white film!” the director cries as he sends her to change her clothes directly below where Xiao and Cat are stationed. In introducing us to the movie set at this early stage in the film, Yang suggests an environment in which there may be multiple ways of seeing. Actors break from roles to become their true selves and films may be in color or black-and-white. From his omniscient perch above the set, Xiao is confirmed as our guide to this complex world. However, as Cat loses his grip on the book that he is holding and it falls to the ground below, causing them to flee, we are warned that his view may not encapsulate the whole story.

Xiao grabs a torch as he runs from the studio and its beam will soon be illuminating things better left unseen, be it lovers kissing in the moonlight, or the aftermath of a massacre. It is connected to a further motif, that of flickering light. Often associated with Xiao, who suffers from blurred sight, the use of erratic lighting symbolizes the absence of clear vision. Prior to the sighting of a mysterious girl whose identity will prove crucial, Xiao moves through the grade school at night, switching lights on and off. Much later, as he sits in bed the night before he kills Ming, Xiao’s confused state of mind is visualized through his repeated use of the on/off switch on his torch. Finally, when he has seen enough, Xiao will return the instrument to the studio. The motif also appears on a wider level, for example, regular power outages mask goings on at the 217 gang’s pool hall.

The most significant example of flickering light might be represented in the two shifts, day and night, that the teenagers’ school is divided into. The institution is symbolic of Taiwan itself, and hence the division embeds this murky vision into society as a whole, whilst simultaneously representing two populations of Taiwan, the benshengren and the waishengren. In their analysis of the tunnel vision perspective found throughout A Brighter Summer Day, Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis claim that “schoolyard politics are a microcosm; they authorize and stand in for a militarized, authoritarian civil society” (104). This is true, and the symbolism extends beyond that, to the place of the island itself.

As befits an island under martial law, discipline is carried out by two masters of conduct, one civilian and one military. The basketball court embodies an outside influence on Taiwan and is an arena of conflict. Sporting instruments are constantly retooled as weapons by the teenagers. The injured repair to the school clinic, staffed by a kindly volunteer doctor who also maintains a practice serving the wider community. The doctor, for reasons that I will return to, represents the United Nations.

The Taiwanese border is represented by a vestibule that marks the entryway to the school. Occasionally, this is the site of skirmishes, as when a basketball is ‘fired’ out of the darkness at Xiao and his friends. To one side a stall is managed by Red Bean, a young woman who is an object of fascination for the teenage boys. The table on which she sells her wares represents an open gate, allowing easy passage through. As the boys pass her, they speculate on the color of her underwear (the basis of her nickname) and otherwise torment her. Red Bean was born in Taiwan during Japan’s fifty year occupation of the island. When Cat lifts the back of her dress, confirming the suspected color of her underpants, the view that he obtains, a red circle surrounded by a white dress, is that of a humiliated Japanese flag.

Taiwan’s relationship with the outside world is also represented elsewhere, by the radio that sits in Xiao’s house. It is through this instrument that his father listens disapprovingly to the result of Kennedy’s victory over Nixon in the 1960 election. Later, dismantled and reassembled by Cat (the character most obviously associated with the United States), the radio works only intermittently. The static represents Taiwan’s isolation, while the awkward angles at which the radio must be placed in an effort to avoid it evoke Taiwan’s lopsided relationship with the world, an island occupied first by the Japan, and then the United States, its status uncertain and at the mercy of others.

If the school represents the structure of Taiwan, then the three characters – Honey, Ming, and Jade – symbolize different eras of the island post-1949. Honey represents a moment of hope, the optimism that existed immediately after the flight from the mainland to Taiwan, a time when people believed they would soon be returning home, but also when another option was available to the new arrivals. The possibility existed to reach out to the existing population of the island and put down roots of their own. Ming represents the Taiwan that existed after optimism had faded, the long years in which martial law continued while the hopes of a return to the mainland dwindled. As Xiao will come to argue with the film director, it is an unnatural position. Jade, whose importance increases as the film moves towards its climax, represents a new Taiwan, the one that was beginning to emerge as Edward Yang made his film.

That Xiao is able to guide us through these periods is hinted at via another motif. Xiao’s mother possesses a watch that was a gift from a couple who live separately, the husband having returned to work on the mainland, providing a link between past and present. Whenever Xiao or his brother Lao Er need money, they steal and pawn the watch, reclaiming it later. Its disappearances and reappearances evoke a Proustian sense of time lost and regained, the stasis and backward looking that inflicts the waishengren. With this in mind, the film’s sole other mention of a watch appears significant. When Xiao, walking with Ming, is accosted by 217 gang members who want to rob him, it is established that he doesn’t possess a watch of his own. Xiao is cast outside of the constraints of time, and thus able to relate to Honey, Ming, and Jade in their symbolic representations.

The differences between these three characters is highlighted in their respective attitudes to the possibility of change. The subject comes up in two conversations with Ming. The first before Honey’s reappearance:

“Honey’s like you. Everyone’s scared of him, but they don’t realize he’s straight as an arrow. He can’t stand things that are unfair. He takes it on himself to straighten things out. I tried to convince him that he can’t change the world by himself. He’d argue with me and blame me for discouraging him. But now that he’s gone, I miss him so much. I just cry and cry.”

The second comes within Ming’s last words:

“You want to change me? I’m like this world. This world will never change! Who do you think-”

Xiao discovers that Jade is happier than Ming. Change for her, rather than being impossible, is simply unnecessary:

“Now you seem eager to change me. Am I your little biology experiment, or what? You have a lot of philosophical ideas. I’m happy with the way I am, but are you?”

I will now examine the three characters in turn.

In his fugitive status, Honey embodies both the actual circumstances of the waishengren and also their dreams. Like them, he is exiled from home, in his case because he has killed a leader called Redhead. The Nationalist exile stems from their failure to kill a ‘redheaded’ leader of their own. Honey’s absence weighs heavy over the first half of the film, blamed by Cat for divisions within the Little Park gang. When he reappears from his hiding place in Tainan (commonly known as Phoenix City), having established a respectful relationship with the benshengren gangs, we feel momentarily that now the gang’s troubles will be resolved. However, if Honey represents a sweeter “brighter summer day” of the title, then the hope that he represents is already fragile. The missing ’s’ from the translation of a line in Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? signals a brief and singular respite.

When Honey makes his appearance he is disguised in a sailor suit, the perfect costume for the symbolic representative of an island. While Ming runs to speak to him, the two of them are only seen together for a few seconds and we don’t hear what is said. Suddenly she runs crying through the middle of the screen (a path soon repeated by Honey), and out of the parlor. These brief moments represent the only time in the film that we see Honey and Ming together. Narratively the two remain bound, but if they do indeed represent different periods of time, it is impossible for them to share a frame.

Honey’s connection to Taiwan is such that when he arrives outside the concert for his third and final scene he ignores the Chinese national anthem, to which all the other youth are standing to attention (with the exception of Jade who, inside the auditorium, is making eyes at Ma). A few minutes later he is walking with the new 217 leader, Shandong, whose very name (Shandong being a province of China) traps him in another time and place. Honey’s final words are the last of an hopeful Taiwan: You look so dark and dreary. Don’t be so unhappy. What’s there to be afraid of?

The death of Honey, pushed off the screen and under an approaching car, occurs out of sight. It might be said that this early hope for Taiwan was lost while the attention of the world was focused elsewhere. Perhaps, like the teenagers of this movie, the world was distracted by American pop culture. From the fade to black that follows Honey’s fall, Yang cuts to a suited band singing Don’t Be Cruel in the concert hall. The death of Taiwan’s “heart that’s true” is later deemed an accident. While Xiao’s torch isn’t present to shine its beam into “what should be left unseen,” car headlights in this instance serve the same function.

With Honey dead, the potential for positive change that he represented lies with Xiao. Ever since Ming’s description of Honey as someone who “can’t stand things that are unfair,” Xiao, himself a frequent subject of unjust accusations, has seen a connection between himself and the gang leader. Honey has asked Xiao to take care of Ming in his absence, and through the second half of the film, Xiao is driven by the twin desires to ‘protect’ Ming and to ‘become’ Honey. He makes some progress with the latter objective, in the first instance meeting with Honey’s friends in the benshengren gang who will wreck vengeance with a massacre at the 217 headquarters. More significantly, when Uncle Fat, a benshengren store owner with whom his family have constantly fought, suffers a heart attack, Xiao overcomes an initial impulse to beat him and instead saves his life. Fat’s gratitude opens up a business opportunity for Xiao’s father, who is compromised by suspected links to the mainland communists. The offer goes nowhere. Had Xiao’s father taken the position, it would have represented a second instance of the waishengren allying itself with the benshengren.

As we have seen, the ‘hope’ of Taiwan died as the teenagers listened to the songs of Elvis Presley. The film’s last overt reference to Taiwan is made by the American singer himself. In a letter to Cat, he makes reference to “that unknown little island.” We might relate these words to Ming, the “unknown girl” first encountered by Xiao running out of the grade school classroom.

Leaving the room, Ming crossed a map of China. This is the first of three scenes where she is seen in a state of discomfort in relation to the mainland. In the second, her knee bandaged following an accident on the baseball court, she and Xiao stand round the corner from the vestibule while the homesick military school officer talks to Red Bean about the region he has left. “We can’t stay here forever,” she states, words loaded with symbolism, and the couple are next seen climbing over a wall, crossing the border out of the school. Later, Ming has her knee examined in the clinic while the disembodied voices of the same homesick officer and a nurse conduct a similar conversation in the next room.

Ming lives in a more precarious situation than other characters. That her father is dead and her mother suffers from serious asthma is symbolic of the island’s loosening connection to the mainland. With this comes a lack of agency, as is Ming forced to move across the strata of Taiwan’s waishengren communities in a way that no other character does. She is alternately ‘claimed’ by both the Little Park gang and the 217s, and can therefore be seen to represent the waishengren as a whole.

Various males appear to fall for Ming during the course of the film. Symbolically, the need of so many to possess her reflects a lost generation’s thwarted desire to build and belong to a country of their own. The secretive deals between Sly and the 217s ostensively relate to the concert, but they are directly linked to Ming. Sly’s need to keep her presence at the grade school secret and his rivalry with Tiger for her affections are what drives him to sell his gang out. These meetings might plausibly be interpreted as representing the international agreements concerning the status of Taiwan to which the island itself is not party.

In this vein, we might note that although Ming is sought by many, we do not see her consummate a relationship in any sense of the word. Other than towards Honey, there is only one hint of an emotional bond on her part. Ming’s jealousy on learning of the engagement of the young doctor is hard to make sense of unless looked at in the symbolic context that I have already raised. His engagement to another woman represents the 1971 expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations, the affections of which are now directed elsewhere.

As befits the representative of an island under martial law, Ming has an affinity for the military. Her father was an officer, and at the time of her death she is living in the house of a General. Her favorite place to spend time alone is the army training ground, and she tells Xiao that were she a boy, she’d want to join the army. One evening, she and Xiao stand to one side as tanks drive past them both. She holds the torch as a guide, motioning the vehicles forward. For all the connections between Ming and the military, she is revealed as being essentially harmless. Playing with weapons at their friend Ma’s house, Ming fires what she believes is unloaded pistol in Xiao’s direction. To her surprise, the gun is loaded, but Xiao ducks and miraculously the bullet misses him. Or does it? There is no apparent damage caused by the bullet that she fires. Just as she has no kind of physical relationship with a boy, with the gun she is revealed as fundamentally impotent. All militarized Taiwan’s displays of weaponry are revealed as purely bravado.

Both Ming and Honey die in a public space. Whereas Honey’s death occurs away from the eyes of the world, Ming dies in full view, except that for some time no one seems to notice. “You’re hopeless! Shameless and hopeless!” Xiao cries. These words for Taiwan stand in sharp contrast to the message of comfort contained in Honey’s final question before his own death.

While Honey represented the possibility of change, and Ming the futility of pursuing it, Jade offers a third way. When Xiao, struck by the example of a transformed Sly, talks of the comforting nature of change, Jade responds that she is happy as she is. In other words, that it is possible for Taiwan simply to be happy as it is. She reveals a noble gesture in her past, having agreed to “become” the unknown girl in the grade school classroom in order to protect Ming, out with Sly while her own boyfriend was missing. Having already taken her place on that occasion, Jade will again take Ming’s place as a new Taiwan comes into being.

Tony Rayns recalls that when preparing for A Brighter Summer Day Yang rehearsed with his young cast for a full year. Beyond the work at hand, the director saw his role as a nurturing of the next generation of Taiwanese actors. While the narrative recalls the past, the project itself was looking towards the future. In two scenes that form a coda to the film new connections to the outside world are established. Cat receives the ring in the mail from Elvis Presley, and the radio establishes a clear signal. It is early yet, but signs are emerging that from a tragic history, this island can find its place in world. Taiwan’s youth may at last find the home that has always been denied them.

(Tragically, Xiao Si’r will not benefit from the new Taiwan. Chang Chen, the actor who debuted in the role and has subsequently enjoyed a successful career, certainly did. Six years after the release of “A Brighter Summer Day,” Chen appeared in “Happy Together” (1997), Wong Kar-wai’s allegorical work anticipating the handover of Hong Kong to China. Chen plays a philosophical young Taiwanese man who reveals that, like Xiao, he had suffered from eye problems as a child, and that he developed stronger hearing as a result. As motifs associated with the senses prove so important to A Brighter Summer Day, their careful use will continue to be important for regions within China’s orbit in the years to come.)

Works cited

Yifen Beus. Far Away, So Close? Nation, Global Chinese Cinema and the Question of Identity. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 25:4. 306-314. 15 July 2008. Web. 23 March 2017.

Bordwell, David. “A Brighter Summer Day: Yang and his gangs.” Observations on Film Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

Rayns, Tony. Audio commentary. A Brighter Summer Day. Dir. Yang. Perf. Chang Chen, Lisa Yang, and Chang Kuo-Chu. Criterion Collection, 1991. Blu-ray.

Yeh, Emilie Yueh-yu., and Davis, Darrell William. Taiwan film directors: a treasure island. New York: Columbia U Press, 2005. Print.

Elevator To The Gallows (Louis Malle, 1959)

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I reviewed Louis Malle’s debut for Oregon Artswatch back in September. Click on the link for the full review.

It begins in classic noir fashion: urgent declarations of love cross a telephone line before Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) sets out to commit the perfect murder. At least, it might have been perfect. But having dispatched the man who is both his boss and his lover’s husband as he sat in his office, then preparing to drive away, Tavernier realizes he has left a crucial piece of evidence behind. Returning to retrieve it, he is trapped in the building’s elevator when the power is cut off for the weekend.