The Ballad of Narayama, a 1958 film by Keisuke Kinoshita, a Shochiku studio stablemate of Ozu and Mizoguchi, opens with an unconventional gambit for a Japanese melodrama from the 1950s. A masked M.C. knocking two blocks of wood together matter-of-factly announces the film’s title and offers a brief abstract of its content. The fabric behind him proves to be a curtain, drawn aside after the credits are displayed–Narayama is staged as theatre, filmed by a movie camera. The voiceover narration, accompanied by music plucked on a shamisen, draws on traditional Japanese styles of drama. The sets are lavishly dressed with flowers, trees, and even gently burbling brooks. And Kinoshita’s repeated strategy of changing sets in full view of the camera by pushing platforms to the side, casting a shadow across a character, or suddenly dropping a curtain or background to reveal a new scene behind, is borrowed from the kabuki tradition.
Ivan’s Childhood opens, unexpectedly enough, inside a dream. The film is impatient. Its dreaming actually begins before the Mosfilm logo has faded from the screen, as the call of a cuckoo echoes softly on the soundtrack. Young Ivan appears, surrounded by trees (their pine needles dripping with what must be cool morning dew), our view of his face criss-crossed by the lines of a spider’s web strung up between the branches. The shot is perfectly composed, with the tree’s slender trunk and one of its branches creating a secondary, off-centre frame around the boy’s face. Ivan pauses there for only a moment–he must be looking for the cuckoo–before turning abruptly out of frame, a move that sends the camera skyward, moving vertically up the body of the pine and revealing more of the landscape. When the camera finishes its ascent, Ivan is again visible, in the midground of the image. His scrawny body, now seen in apparent miniature, turns again towards the camera. Nature is large and beautiful; he is small and, while lovely in a way, still awkward in his skin.
There’s nothing quite like Koyaanisqatsi. Some six or seven years in the making, the mid-1980s arthouse favorite was a genuine screen spectacle that gave audiences a taste of the avant-garde and elevated Philip Glass to the status of popular musician. It’s the 1970s brainchild of Godfrey Reggio, a progressive activist and community organizer who lived in New Mexico and took a dim view of industrialization in general and the information revolution in particular. Accordingly, it exalts the natural landscape, recoils from the computer-chip gridwork of the modern city, and wallows piteously in the human condition.
If there were any doubt that the Dardennes discovered what would be their lasting aesthetic with La promesse, it was dispelled in the opening moments of Rosetta. The earlier film spent a lot of time following characters around, hovering behind them as they made their way through their world. As Rosetta begins, we’re again in close to a character, but this time we have a velocity: The girl, Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne), is storming from room to room in some kind of industrial facility, and the Dardennes’ camera is following her at speed. This isn’t a virtuoso tracking shot out of Scorsese or P.T. Anderson, though; Rosetta isn’t accommodating the camera. When she exits a room, she slams the door behind her and the camera is caught up short, forcing an edit. When she erupts onto a factory floor, she ducks underneath the machinery, making her own passageways where the camera cannot go, and again forcing a cut. We are not welcome to follow.
Since the mid-1990s, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been the standard-bearers for French-language Belgian cinema. Born in Engis and raised in nearby Seraing (both located in the industrial Belgian province of Liège), the Dardennes started making documentaries in the 1970s, followed by a pair of narrative films they immediately disavowed. 1996’s La promesse was a completely fresh start. The Dardennes’ non-fiction work demonstrated a social consciousness that remained in effect once they found their narrative voice, and it’s amazing how fully realized this effort is, exhibiting many of the formal strategies and much of the narrative sensibility that would serve them well over the next decade and a half.
1951’s Summer Interlude offers a glimpse of Ingmar Bergman’s later career in embryonic form. Maj-Britt Nilsson plays a sexy, precocious teenager in love, and if that doesn’t sound very Bergman-esque to you, know that she also plays a wary, regretful dancer approaching the functional end of her career at the Stockholm Royal Opera. The story darts forwards and backwards in time as the dancer, Marie, recalls an ill-fated love affair on the Stockholm archipelago while considering the status of her current relationship, a tentative affair with a newspaper hack who doesn’t deserve her.
There’s a tradition among purveyors of BDSM pornography to append a coda to their project in which the participants in various potentially alarming scenarios are finally glimpsed, all smiles, reveling in the afterglow of a clearly consensual exercise. I assume this practice has very practical benefits — for one thing, it might help stave off prosecution for obscenity or sex-trafficking. But it’s also a signal from the community making the videos to the community watching them that the performances are undertaken with high spirits, lest there’s any misunderstanding about the actual circumstances of their making. Despite any apparent unpleasantness, dear viewer, all involved (top and bottom, dominant and submissive) are working toward the ultimate goal of pleasure, not pain.
In the late 1930s, as a little man named Adolf Hitler prepared the fearsome German army to run roughshod over the country’s European neighbours, Charles Chaplin, one of the greatest of all film artists, responded to the threat of war in the only way that made sense: He prepared a new comedy, The Great Dictator, that mocked Hitler directly. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Chaplin could have done anything else. Ignoring Hitler was already out of the question. The similarities between Chaplin and the Nazi leader were often remarked upon, including by Chaplin himself. For one thing, they obviously shared the same moustache. (More than coincidence?) They were born within the same four-day period in April 1889. They both grew up in poverty, and there were superficial similarities in their sensibility–Hitler was a frustrated artist and, like Chaplin, a fan of Wagner. Chaplin’s son famously remembered his father saying, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”