Au Hasard Balthazar
Au Hasard Balthazar’s greatness and beauty lie in its tragically honest, u n c o m p r o m i s i n g adherence to the reality of man’s moral shortcomings. The film, directed by the legendary Robert Bresson in 1966, follows a donkey, Balthazar, from birth to death, focusing on his several owners and the ill manner in which they treat him. Balthazar’s doleful journey propels the story, but Bresson uses him more as a device to examine the enigmatic nature of human cruelty. Balthazar is a victim, as is his first owner, a young farm girl who is the only one who ever really loved him. Harsh reality, concerning both the business of life and the morally wayward people who sometimes control it, separate the girl and the donkey, thus setting up Bresson’s challenging yet sublime narrative.
Bresson, arguably France’s finest director and one of the most eminent auteurs of the 20th century, was as much intrigued by the possibilities of film as he was concerned with separating it from theatre. The histrionics of the latter are never present in his work, as evidenced by his use of nonprofessional actors and the lack of emotion in which their scenes are performed. Bresson referred to actors, somewhat tongue-incheek, as models, human faces to be placed in front of the camera for the viewer to study. Rather than using theatrical drama to spell a mood or idea, Bresson relied merely on raw human emotion found in the face to convey his interests.
Bresson would at times shoot a scene repeatedly until an actor was worn down, devoid of any artificial sentiments. This may sound like a recipe for insipidity, yet Bresson’s technique creates a surprisingly potent experience. We feel we are seeing human beings rather than performers attempting to exhibit emotions. Consequently, his movies can seem formidable, for by not allowing his characters to spoonfeed the audience, the viewer must study them, their expressions, their solemn words and figure out what is trying to be said.
Au Hasard Balthazar might be Bresson’s most difficult film, because not only does he use this unusual method with his actors, but he tackles some of the murkiest depths of the human soul without giving any clear insight into his subject. The movie demands multiple viewings, and even then it might not be fully understood.
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that “Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and Au Hasard Balthazar is his most heartbreaking prayer.” We see this in the innocence of the victims, Balthazar and the farm girl, and in the rugged, modern society in which they are torn to pieces. There is a dark, at times inexplicable beauty to the movie, chiefly lying in the purity of the donkey and the girl, the mystery as to how they could be treated with such indignity, and the solemn grace with which Bresson manages to capture it.
Is a movie’s goal to take away the pressures of real life or to make us face them? Why not try both? That’s essentially what comedy icon Preston Sturges tries to do in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a biting social satire that offers genuine insights into life while never failing to entertain its audience.
Initially it is a movie about movies; as a successful director, John L. Sullivan attempts to shoot an important picture about “modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.” He wants to call this magnum opus “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which happens to be the source for the title of the well-known Coen Brothers film (and though that movie is chiefly inspired by the Odyssey, there are numerous references in it to Sturges’ film). Sullivan’s producers do not share his ambition, partly for commercial reasons, but also because he could hardly make a movie about poverty when he has but only ever lived in luxury. Sturges, with his penchant for all things absurd and unpredictable, sets the narrative in motion by having Sullivan embark on a quest to learn about destitution by becoming a hobo himself.
Of course, from a comedic perspective there is something appealing about a man intentionally throwing his wealth out the door to live with the vagabonds. Taken with a sense of humor, the comic scenarios pile up, and yet one of the joys of Sullivan’s Travels is the way in which Sturges never lets the audience second-guess the development of the story. He does not just juxtapose a man of wealth with the dregs of society, but permeates the narrative with expectation-defying twists and turns. Here is a film so rife with comic energy it makes contemporary comedies comparatively dull.
Yet what really elevate the movie are the important questions Sturges broaches while still managing to maintain a consistently playful tone. Besides commenting on the mentality of Hollywood executives and the state of the poor, Sturges shows how certain emotions, particularly laughter, create a bridge between the upper and lower classes. Despite economic differences, there are still distinctly human features in all people that make life for the less fortunate a little more bearable. Sullivan’s Travels asks us to consider the human condition while simultaneously giving us diversion and laughter. It is the rare film with two agendas.
This amalgam of farce and sophistication is Sturges’ trademark, and the central reason why he is placed in the upper tier of comedy directors. Working in a time when formulaic screwball was the template for comedies, Sturges managed to break the molds of tradition and usher in a new wave of experimental filmmaking. Also of note is the fact that he usually wrote his own screenplays, which today is often a mark of a great filmmaker, yet at the time was nearly unheard of.
One cannot but admire a figure whose work was innovative yet also truly decent and respectable. To see Sullivan’s Travels, or any of Sturges’ movies, is to see the work of a man with an indelible sense of humor who finds new ways to express fundamental truths of human existence.
Though historically the first science fiction movie was Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, the prime early landmark of the genre is undoubtedly Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s both beautiful and frightening to look at, an astonishing feat of visual imagination and technical innovation. The notion of the dystopian futuristic city so prevalent in classic books, movies and television shows was really established by Lang’s film.
The movie’s title refers to a great city, an exorbitantly wealthy place on the surface that seems to be the mark of futuristic industrialism and success. Yet at the root of this opulence is a secret, namely that the city is divided and has a lower half, in which the poor are forced to suffer while the wealthy bask in luxury above them. Adding insult to injury, the poor are also slaves, forced to endure brutal conditions while working the elaborate machines that run the upper city.
Lang of course has a fairly solid plot to go along with his foundation, which, in short, concerns the son of the city’s head, his discovery of the underground world, and his quest to find a mad scientist to aid those under his father’s power.
But for Lang (who was a bit of a mad scientist himself), Metropolis was not just a chance to delve into issues of urban plutocracy, but to produce a fully realized future dystopia through an amalgam of innovative sci-fi design and German Expressionism. The latter was an artistic movement in Germany, mainly popular during the 1920s, characterized in cinema by elaborate sets, unusual shadows, warped images and an overall lack of realism.
The dichotomy of German Expressionism and reality is expressly meant to relate a mood, state of mind or idea. Many of the sets and visual images do not make logical sense, yet they impart something Lang wants to communicate about the city. But more importantly, they are a marvel to look at. Lang is operating on a vast canvas, creating sets and visual effects that at the time were inconceivable and today still look surprisingly real. It is hard to comprehend how such a bold vision translated onto the screen without modern digital trickery.
Metropolis was not an instant success upon its release – people complained that not only was it derivative of Lang’s own early literary mishaps, but that the story was fanciful and illogical (perhaps they did not consider the film’s German Expressionist roots). But the movie quickly ascended in prominence and is now seen as both a cinematic masterwork and a watershed in science fiction. Among its most obvious descendants are Blade Runner, Dark City, Inception and even Batman’s Gotham City.
Yet while the film has flourished, it has always been slightly tarnished due to significant amounts of lost footage. For most of its existence, the film compensated for missing reels by using subtitles explaining pieces of the lost story. While this helps with the continuity of the narrative, it does not do Lang’s original vision justice.
Yet almost miraculously in 2008 one of the original prints of the film was found in Argentina, and after two years of pain-staking restoration it was released back in theaters and then on Blu ray. Barring new discoveries, the movie is now likely as close to Lang’s intended version as it will ever get. It’s still not perfect, but considering that most silent films are fully lost, the restored Metropolis will yield complaints from no one.
The modern heist film seems drunk on the idea of glamour, style and the glorification of criminals. Such a template is not a problem insofar as the primary goal of a heist film is to entertain its viewers. Yet if you are in the mood for the complete antithesis of the above description, namely a heist film which does not compromise realism for the sake of the audience, the great Rififi (1955) is waiting. In spite of a title that resembles the name of some pet, this is a dark and serious crime thriller about a group of hoodlums and its elaborate plan to rob a jewelry store.
lthough it may sound as if it were meant to defy the general conception of the heist film, it was actually made in 1954, long before it became popular to glamorize criminals. As the title indicates, the movie is French, but it was directed by an American, Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for supposed Communist sympathies. Consequently, he went to France, and there showed that the cinema was an ideal medium for a great heist story. A novel can certainly get the facts across, but to really experience a heist and all the machinations related to it, one needs visuals. Dassin recognized the benefits of the medium and used them to bring the jewelry robbery to life with painstaking authenticity.
The complex heist occupies 28 minutes of the film, creating a nerve-inducing half-hour in which every meticulous detail of the crime is presented. It is almost as if Dassin is offering an instructional video for an impeccable robbery. Even if this is the case, his ultimate conclusion seems to be that the perfection of a crime cannot withstand the imperfections of those committing it. The mastermind behind the heist oversees every possible detail except for the fact that his team consists of smart yet terribly flawed individuals. He has confidence in the logistics of the crime because he can control it, yet the aftermath of it is beyond his grasp. Rififi’s heist sequence may be the film’s great highlight, yet what makes it transcendent is the way in which it shows how intelligent criminals morph into savages once they obtain the treasure. I won’t reveal the juicy details here. Suffice it to say that the ramifications of the heist reveal with eerie precision how honor among thieves quickly turns to dishonor.
Rififi is a film that has basked in glory since its release. Despite the fact that Dassin was blacklisted, he neither had trouble making the movie nor getting it to show in America (where it was a big art house success). And, unlike his fellow blacklisted contemporaries, he did not have to live under a pseudonym once the movie came to the states. 57 years later, Rififi lives on vibrantly. And despite its uncompromising nature compared to more modern fare, it is still considered the gold standard for heist pictures.
In life there are certain pleasures we simply cannot imagine living without. For me, one of them is Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). While I’ve had an undying love for Hitchcock’s most popular titles, such as Vertigo, Rear Window and North by Northwest, Notorious is the one I cling to most, the one I call perfect. In many circles it is regarded as one of his finest achievements (in his famous 1962 interview with the Master of Suspense, director Francois Truffaut went so far as to call it his favorite Hitchcock film). Yet for the general public it has remained somewhat shrouded by the aforementioned classics. (Perhaps it is because Notorious is in black and white, which might repel most modern viewers.)
On the surface Notorious seems to be a fairly typical espionage thriller: the American daughter of a convicted spy is hired to infiltrate the house of a group of Nazis to spy on clandestine meetings held there. But the movie takes this premise and, rather than expanding it with the expected red herrings, deceits, killings and contrived plot twists, focuses on the psychological and moral complexities of the characters.
What allows Hitchcock to hone in on them so carefully is that the only way the woman, Alicia (played by Ingrid Bergman), is able to insinuate herself into the Nazi organization is by forming a romantic relationship with its leader (played by the incomparable Claude Rains). This ultimately leads to a proposal of marriage and extends Alicia’s inner-tension beyond the fear of just getting caught.
This is where the genius of Notorious lies. Alicia’s initial dilemma produces the movie’s incessant, albeit quiet, suspense. Then Hitchcock raises the suspense up a notch by inserting the complication of Alicia being asked to marry a man she is opposed to, and a truly ethical question is at stake.Further complicating things is that Rains’ character, though he is the villain, is presented as very human and at times even sympathetic.
A thriller with such mighty ideas on its mind is irresistible, but the film’s withstanding appeal also lies in its romantic tension. Coupled with the false romance between Alicia and the Nazi leader is the subtle attraction the American agent in charge of the mission (Cary Grant, in a more subdued role than usual) feels for Alicia as the story progresses. The audience would love to see these two unite, but this would then compromise the mission that brought them together in the first place.
I think this is a perfect film not just because of the complexities that grow naturally out of the simple plot. Consider the perfect casting of Bergman, Rains and Grant, who not only share tremendous chemistry, but arguably give their finest individual performances in this. Or examine how the film is photographed, making grand use of the mansion where most of the film is set, and climaxing in the legendary dinner party tracking shot that is impossible to miss. And, finally, in what might be a deterrent to more impatient viewers, see how Hitchcock creates suspense, not with obnoxious noise or overlong chases, but through simple items like a key and bottles of wine filled with petroleum. See all this and you will understand why Hitchcock is considered the master of his genre.
The Sweet Smell of SuccessSometimes the best movies are the ones that don’t make compromises. They thrive on a world that’s grim and hardly ever smiles. At other times, a picture’s all about style, showmanship and theatricality. It bursts with energy. These two types seem incongruent, and yet the great 1957 American film The Sweet Smell of Success manages to combine them in an entirely convincing way. From the title’s alliteration, to the firecracker dialogue, to the jazzy Elmer Bernstein score, to James Wong Howe’s noir-ish compositions, the film is completely soaked in atmosphere, which brings to life the very real world of newspaper tycoons and press agents in New York City of the 1950s.
The world in which J.J. Hunsecker lives is an intimidating one. Played with domineering intensity by Burt Lancaster, Hunsecker is New York’s finest gossip columnist – so powerful he can break a man with words. He has a kind of ruthless pride that permeates the world he seems to dominate. The only problem is that in actuality he has very little to be proud of, which is why he explodes when he learns his young sister is planning to marry a jazz guitarist he deems inappropriate. She is the only thing he really cares about, the only love in his otherwise cold and sardonic universe.
To solve his problem, Hunsecker turns to press agent Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) to smear the guitarist’s reputation. Falco is Hunsecker’s man, wiry and grasping, like a bully’s sidekick. But he’s also artfully cruel, “a cookie full of arsenic,” as Hunsecker calls him. Like many press agents, he’ll do anything for money.
That The Sweet Smell of Success is both flashy and real is a testament to the nature of the world of New York media. Everything happens at night, where the lights flash, jazz fills the air and the important people leave their beds. As you listen to the dialogue in the film – lines like, “He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster” – you wonder if there’s some hyperbole involved. But then you learn that Hunsecker is based off real-life columnist Walter Winchell, and you realize that people like this really do own their environment.
The movie is generally labeled as film noir, and that makes sense. Visually, of course, it fits the part, since cinematographer James Wong Howe’s New York is one of night skies and heavy shadows, filled with weathered faces that have seen the worst in man. But the real reason the film is classified alongside crime classics is because of its state of mind. It shows that the post-war cynicism that pervaded the world of detectives and mobsters was also present in the glitz of media life. It all sounds fairly glum, but The Sweet Smell of Success is surprisingly fun to watch. It’s fast and snappy like great jazz, biting and pungent and true – like J.J. Hunsecker himself.
Army of Shadows
Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s tale of World War II French Resistance Fighters, is every bit as mighty and grand as those tales by the American Melville, after whom this French master of cinema stage-named himself.
There is little dispute that it is a great film, and yet for years it was held in abeyance after a poor initial reception during its European premiere in 1969. Leftist Parisians unfairly derided it for its Gaullist sympathies, and this early negative word-of-mouth went a long way. When news reached these shores that the movie wasn’t good, it was promptly denied a release. Melville’s epic, stamped with such passion, personal sentiment and meticulous craft, had died, barely having seen the light of day.
Fortunately, Melville’s status as a filmmaker did not perish. After his death in 1973, he gained prominence through the years, not only as a preeminent auteur, but also as the father of the French New Wave.
The fact that Army of Shadows had been unjustly shoved into a dark corner became more and more apparent, until finally in 2006, 37 years after its original release, it found a home in American theaters. Unsurprisingly, exuberant fans and critics alike were quick to declare it Melville’s masterpiece.
What’s striking about the film is that although Melville has intensely deep feelings about the entire project (he personally took part in the Resistance), there’s very little feeling or emotion actually presented in the movie. It’s not because it is coldhearted or cynical, but because it so strongly adheres to the impassive nature of the Resistance.
The fighters in the movie, led by Lino Ventura as Phillipe Gerbier, are deeply human, and if they were in another line of work they would probably be the best of friends. But here their relationships cannot extend beyond a smile or a nod. To be a fighter one must be intelligent and willing to risk one’s life, but, most importantly, a fighter must be devoid of emotional attachments.
Melville doesn’t tell us any of this, but shows it through the film’s sense of ceaseless dread and unease, its palette of grey hues and nighttime skies, and through scenes in which fighters are killed for their very human errors.
That Army of Shadows is devoid of emotion is the very reason it’s such an achingly human story. It is not so much when we see a person’s emotional side that we are moved, but rather it is when we see someone fighting to hold back emotion because he is loyal, knows his duty and has a job to do. It is that fight, that struggle that makes him human.
Here’s a film that is intense and exciting, but I would hesitate to call it an action movie or even a thriller. There are many scenes that would be at home in a summer blockbuster, and yet their purpose is something other than to provide a pulse in the viewer. It’s all about a mindset, a sense that the paranoia and fear are somehow worth the struggle.
So when we see a disguised female fighter arrive at a Nazi hospital to “transfer” a wounded prisoner, she shows complete indifference when she learns the prisoner will be dead soon anyway. Since revealing any sign of objection or emotion would give her away, she simply gets back in the ambulance and leaves. We know she feels deeply for this man, but nobody else can know.
Graham Greene's Brighton Rock
Graham Greene’s oeuvre is filled with so many masterworks that it’s hardly worth selecting one over the others. That old question of choosing Keaton, Chaplin or Lloyd certainly applies here. The response I find most satisfying to such a quandary is that one should just pick them all. Holding his best works equal, then, I must still select a specific title to praise, and I find myself being pushed toward his gangster tale, Brighton Rock.
The book is a tough one to describe, not just because its narrative takes unusual turns, but because it fits somewhat awkwardly into Greene’s overall canon. And yet this is precisely the reason I’ve chosen it. Greene began his career in 1929 primarily writing crime thrillers that gave him a name but not much esteem as a novelist. Then, in 1938, came Brighton Rock.
One reads the first half and feels that Greene still hasn’t moved beyond the limitations of genre fiction. Pinkie, his protagonist, is a teenaged gangster bent on getting a first-class ticket to Hell. He’s responsible for the death of a young newspaperman, and he takes all possible measures to ensure that the crime is covered up. This includes taking the naïve Rose under his wing and pretending to fall in love with her, because she might know something of the killing. It’s all very entertaining, and yet up to this point, the merits of the book do not seem to extend beyond its general craft.
Then Greene takes a turn, arguably the most important of his career, and finishes the book by abandoning the gangster world in order to zero in on Pinkie, Rose and their mutual quest for damnation. The book becomes preoccupied with a plethora of ideas concerning secular and religious morality, spiritual and earthly justice, and the mysterious possibilities of mercy. Greene lays out this weighty material carefully, subtly making claims of his personal convictions while never forgetting to focus on the strange, poetic, sublime beauty of the story. For let’s not forget that though Greene was Catholic, he did not like to be labeled a Catholic writer, but rather a writer who happened to be Catholic.
Pinkie was raised on religion, but he strongly avoids it, since the compass of calculated evil guides him away from any sort of notion of grace. Greene is careful about giving information about his protagonist, yet every so often there’s a glimpse into his soul, such as when he sits in a darkened theater with Rose:
“He shut his eyes to hold in his tears, but the music went on – it was like a vision of release to an imprisoned man. He felt constriction and saw – hopelessly out of reach – a limitless freedom: no fear, no hatred, no envy. But being dead it was a memory only – he couldn’t experience contrition – the ribs of his body were like steel bands which held him down to eternal unrepentance.”
Throughout the book Pinkie seems to take pride in his actions. He sees them as a sign of power, when in fact, as this passage suggests, he’s already behind bars and only pretending that he’s sitting atop the world.
Of course, I’ve merely offered a glimpse of what the book has to offer, and yet I think the point is clear as to its significance. Its second half marks the point at which Greene’s complex ideas found their way onto the page, ideas that – expressed so well in this and in other novels – would soon cement him as one of the foremost writers of the 20th century. Previously he was a solid prose stylist and a good craftsman of somewhat -superficial crime stories, but after Brighton Rock came a string of great literature: The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, among others.
Brighton was significant for Greene’s career, for sure, but it’s also great on its own terms. And it’s worth reading just for the final page. I have yet to encounter a more shocking and stunning ending to a novel.
Southern Music and its Modern Savior
If southern music originally served as a preservation of the soul, what does it preserve now? Perhaps that’s actually the wrong question. For sure, it can still preserve something, but there seems to be a more urgent matter, namely, can country music itself be preserved?
One needs only to spend an afternoon with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe or soul’s father Ray Charles to see a running theme of music serving to entertain, to distract and to soothe. The songs were not just meant to be a diversion from reality, but a reminder that there was something good amid the struggle and something peaceful beyond it. Looking back all the way to the days of the minstrel shows in the 19th century, one finds black performers singing of a heaven free from white oppression. Or think of the field holler, widely considered the precursor to the blues, and the solace it gave during a tough day in the sun.
In the 20th century, numerous musical genres formed in the South as a response to and an antidote for affliction. Ragtime and early jazz players saw music as entertainment and a relief from segregation and racism, while Woody Guthrie earned the title “Dust Bowl Troubadour” for his somber ballads depicting the Great Depression and the southern migration to California.
Meanwhile, the early hillbilly music of the Carter Family transformed into country music as Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers became gods of the genre. Country music went deeper south and became more grounded in sad songs and loneliness while expressing a strange beauty and truth amidst the desolation. This reached its pinnacle in Texas, not with the outlaw scene of Nelson and Jennings, but with Townes Van Zandt, a lowly hero who abandoned a life of wealth to play songs in old music halls and dive bars. Haunting, melancholic and darkly romantic, Van Zandt’s music is brutal and beautiful and has every right to be, because Van Zandt lived the life worthy of such songs. It is in this sense that southern music originally preserved souls.
Where did all this go? Why is it no longer a question of what the music preserves but rather whether it can be preserved? Essentially, it comes down to the fact that hardships gave way to money, and the kitchen table to the recording studio. With the heart of southern music centered on the alleviation of troubles, it makes sense that country music would fade as life improved. And while originally, southern music meant folks gathering at a house and playing songs together, the advent of radio and record labels gave these musicians a chance to go beyond the home and play for a nation (and of course make a few bucks doing it).
The original ethos of southern music is surely gone, but rest assured, the sound is being preserved. I do not simply mean by fans plugging in Lefty Frizzell or Lee Dorsey on the Internet and listening to their songs, but by musicians today who are carrying on the southern tradition, gaining followers and reminding listeners what the South meant to American music.
One in particular, who may very well be the most significant of all, is Justin Townes Earle, the son of underground country star Steve Earle and named after the aforementioned legend Townes Van Zandt. As a musician, Earle, only 30, has pretty big shoes to fill in the country genre, yet rather than even trying, he has instead chosen to champion as many southern music genres as possible. A child of Nashville, Earle realized that the roots of most southern music surrounded his home. Just east he could find Old Time, to the north, bluegrass, and then right out west, the blues, R&B and rock n’ roll.
And so Earle has taken the geographic landscape of southern music and applied it to his four major albums. From his debut record The Good Life to his most recent Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (one of the better long-title albums in recent memory), the ambitious Earle has traversed all the way from Old Time string music and country to Memphis soul. In his own words, he really does feel like he’s preserving southern music.
And yet simply mimicking old styles is not enough. The songs themselves must stand on their own terms, and Earle makes sure that they do. A brilliant wordsmith who has had enough intense experiences to last a lifetime, Earle writes meaningful songs with beautiful melodies that bring cadence to the chaos of his early life. Although he says he does not remember much of it, we get glimpses, feelings, thoughts and stories that suggest otherwise. A running theme in his songs is his desire to be a better man, but he also often reminds us that one thing that will not change is his hatred for his negligent father. In “Mama’s Eyes,” he regretfully writes that he picked up a handful of his dad’s traits, but he finds comfort that at least half of his genetics come from his mother.
It is this combination of exceptional songwriting and storytelling with a variety of southern musical styles that makes Justin Townes Earle a man on his way to creating his own legend. I do not suggest that because of people like him, southern music is as alive and well as it once was. Rather, his songs give us a glimpse of what southern music was and still can be. The kitchen tables and many of the hardships have disappeared, but the spirit of southern music lingers, and that is something well worth embracing.