Posts Tagged feminism

Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, 1954)

Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart.

How fitting that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar should commence with an explosion in the Red Rocks of Sedona. After all, the director will come to show little regard for the codes and conventions that govern his mythological, Western setting – so indeed, why not launch a full-scale offensive against so beloved a terrain from the outset? (This won’t be the last such onslaught against the scenery either.) Already, Ray signals his subversive intents, whilst appropriately prefacing a film whose narrative will rest upon a fulcrum of emotions that are primal, piercing, passionate – and yes, explosive.

Into this paroxysm rides our eponymous cowboy: lonesome, remote, and not really a cowboy at all. Following the initial blasts, he sights upon a stagecoach robbery (certain conventions need to be upheld) and observes detachedly – the safety of distance cocooning him from his conscience. Heroism is an archaic, if not quite obsolete concept in our director’s universe, failing to sufficiently account for the bruises and scars that are etched upon the human psyche by experience. Johnny may not have said a word to this point, but a perception of him has already been cultivated: aloof, enigmatic and jaded. His is to be a journey from apathy to empathy, passivity to activity; his ongoing refusal to capitulate to valour – despite the numerous opportunities afforded to him – will backfire until there is no choice but to concede to a chivalric code (albeit a castrated one). And still he’ll do so only reluctantly, with his own vested interests in mind.

There is a woman. Yesterday’s love, still in bloom. Her name? Vienna. What a woman! More handsome than beautiful; the appearance apparently mirrored in her character: “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” – The Great Emasculator. She is to play our protagonist (Johnny offers simple diversion), and her very presence causes archetypal gender roles to convulse into fits of confusion. We meet her from below, a dominatrix on a pedestal peering down at her male admirers (of which there are many, so captivating is her sexual ambiguity), completely in her element. This is her saloon, built from sweat and “exchanged confidences” – here, she will answer to no one and lord over everyone.

A man can lie, steal and even kill, but as long as he hangs on to his pride he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. Must be a great comfort to you, to be a man.

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Yet Vienna is full of contradictions and ensnared between gender roles. Her dilemma is the need to successfully negotiate a compromise between her conflicting identities. Following her emphatic introduction, we bear witness as she dines with a potential business partner – using her wiles to charm, maybe even seduce him if necessary. Alas, the scene swiftly dissipates as a hostile party from the local town arrives, thereby prompting the hostess to turn into a potential gunfighter as she whips out her holster and springs into action. This uneasy clash between coded femininity (sex) and masculinity (violence) finds itself amplified by Ray’s decision to borrow the ideal of ‘the domestic paradise’ – central to many a “woman’s picture” – and recast it as the key frontier of his unorthodox Western; the saloon-as-home-as-fortress thus becoming a natural extension of its mistress’s subconscious, with its red, sandstone walls suggesting an interiority that penetrates much deeper than mere shelter or warmth.

Moreover, Vienna displays a keen maternal instinct; a necessary antidote to the wounded machismo that surrounds her. Several times, we see her cradle a submissive manchild in her arms, at one point going so far as to feed a slain fugitive from a bottle (albeit a bottle of whisky – this is Nicholas Ray’s picture). Her compassion and desire contrast with the grit and resilience that define her entrepreneurship – which nevertheless smacks of displaced prostitution, as she and the business are inextricable to the point that the saloon wears her own name. Vienna’s defiance is borne from necessity, not choice (options are limited for spinsters-in-waiting), and her world is still a man’s world, even if it’s one whose patriarchy derives not just meaning but also authority from its women. This peculiar social order births consequences that are staunch in their disregard for tradition: men now become the sex objects, subservient to the whims of commanding proto-feminists. (“You remember, I don’t. That’s the way it goes.”) All the while, Ray slyly inverts Jungian psychology as his trouser-clad females repossess the anima, forcing unto men the animus, with the film itself actualising either type: it looks like a shoot-’em-up, but reads like a romantic melodrama (or vice-versa).

Naturally, boys will be boys, but their tendency to mindlessly brawl in the name of genre (the power of the Western compels them) is offset by their own increasing feminisation: in the midst of one such near-brawl, Johnny – donning a pink shirt and a patterned china teacup – strolls down between the opposing sides and casually declares that all a man really needs is “a smoke and a cup o’ coffee”, a distinct regression (progression) from the gun-crazy chauvinism towards which the scene was headed. With Johnny and his gender unable (or unwilling) to perform to expectation, even the sphere of violence now finds itself regulated by women. Vienna’s domination over the men is underscored by her ability to continually strip them of their guns, and in one instance she actually caresses an ex-flame’s pistol in order to pry it from his hands (she fails, but the subtext is glaringly obvious). In addition, almost the entirety of the film’s bloodlust stems from an indomitably feminine source: Emma, the obsessive arch-rival of our protagonist and Johnny Guitar‘s own Wicked Witch of the West, whose ruthless quest to obliterate her adversary will culminate with a historical, all-female duel.

Emma’s contempt for Vienna knows no bounds, though its roots remain intriguingly unclear. We hear that she’s in love with “The Dancin’ Kid” (a moniker commonly and appropriately shortened to “The Kid”, for he leads the film’s involuntary outlaws), an implication that would fit neatly into the torrid psychosexual planes of the drama: Emma wants The Kid who wants Vienna (thus driving Emma insane) who wants Johnny. In these entanglements of yearning, it’s the women-as-men who hesitate to express the depths of their feeling – their hunger expulsed into their surroundings, whose rich, near-decadent colour schemes lustrously articulate the magnitude of this unspoken longing. For Emma, dressed as if a wayward puritan, “hesitation” turns into outright repression, riddling her deceptively meagre frame with violent spasms of self-loathing, which in turn electrifies her relations with her foe. With her capacity for love stifled, this deranged villainess is left solely with hate – and so it is the object of that hate who must function as the object of desire; her confrontations with Vienna generating the bulk of the film’s awkward sexual energy. In a world dominated by forlorn characters she is its most pitiable, her anguish self-mutilated to the point of no return.

A posse isn’t people. I’ve ridden with ’em and I’ve ridden against ’em. A posse is an animal. It moves like one and thinks like one.

Pure hatred needs greater outlets than ineffectual stand-offs however, and Emma exploits the weaknesses of the male townsfolk to whip up a moral panic against Vienna and her perceived cohorts. Her savagery is astounding: where all others display an aversion to needless bloodshed, Emma remorselessly heads straight for the kill like a rampant berserker; her murderous hysteria insatiable (“HANG THEM!”). In moments of indecision, she takes on the role of a proselytising evangelist, lambasting any deviations from socially-sanctioned norms and preying on her audience’s innate fear of outsiders. It’s here that the film veers into the ethnographic; critically observing as an entire community is moulded into a lynch mob by a charismatic bigot, leading to an all too familiar scenario in which the majority attempts to expel and then exterminate the undesirable minority. Law and order is disregarded – the town’s Marshall is first ignored and then silenced – as the purported civilians attempt to pulverise the supposed outlaws (Ray asks: who is really who?). The inquisitions and coerced testimonies that occur as part of this strife invite comparisons with contemporaneous events in the US (which makes the film’s indictments of such acts all the more audacious), though as with so many texts set in a mythical past, Johnny Guitar‘s assertions tend to transcend time. When Emma damns the outsiders as a “filthy kind” and makes an inflammatory remark about “new people from the East”, she posits the film in a universal realm that mournfully reveals an acute understanding of human behaviour: just why are we so fearful of others? Fortunately, our director will display no such fear – on the contrary, he chooses to embrace those that are deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, whilst wholeheartedly sympathising with the predicaments faced by the socially-ostracised: crucially, the outlaws’ only serious crime is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurring as a direct result of Emma’s own spite. Hate, in the end, will only breed more hate.

It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between. Not a thing… You got nothin’ to tell me cos it’s not real. Only you and me – that’s real. We’re having a drink in the bar at the Aurora Hotel, the band is playing, we’re celebrating cos we’re gettin’ married and after the wedding we’re gettin’ outta this hotel and we’re goin’ away so laugh Vienna and be happy – it’s your wedding day…

Oh, to be happy. Of all the problems that afflict Nicholas Ray’s characters, the pursuit of this elusive state of mind is surely the greatest. The director’s undying love for his outsiders exists because he knows that life has inflicted pain and hardship that has left them in perpetual disrepair, ill-equipped to undergo such inevitably-futile voyages. The inhabitants of Johnny Guitar are haunted by this knowledge. Surely, one of the most poignant scenes in Ray’s entire oeuvre must be that in which Tom – Vienna’s quietly loyal right-hand man, who spends much of the film hiding in the background (“just part of the furniture”) – utters the following upon his deathbed: “Everybody’s lookin’ at me… it’s the first time I’ve ever felt important.” The moment’s incongruity merely amplifies its sorry power, exhibiting the director’s belief in the sincerity of the individual truth; his camera stringent in its commitment to allow chronic misfits the time to say their piece. Vienna, Johnny and even Emma are cut from this tradition of desperate romanticism, where sorrow is the deepest form of human expression and where suffering must be paramount. Why else would Vienna choose to live in so hostile an environment? Why else would Johnny stay behind and protect her? Neither is capable of taking the easy route out (both are probably unaware that an easier route exists), preferring instead to elevate plausible realities (love, safety, security) into intangible fantasies – kept at arm’s length, but nonetheless clung on to at all costs. (One notes that even the very notion of ‘Johnny Guitar’ is an artificial construct, conceived by its bearer as a means of escaping his violent past.) Unfortunately for them, theirs is not a world that takes kindly to such delusions. So it is that we experience the film as an operatic foray into melancholia; a chromatically-resplendent, generically-schizophrenic surge through a tempestuous wasteland in which our heroic anti-heroes suffer beyond even their own wildest dreams. At film’s end, Vienna will have lost her home, her finances, her friends and finally, her foes. What else is there to do at this point but kiss the lover that survives alongside her? Kiss as if there were no tomorrow… no yesterday… no today. Kiss – because when all else has been destroyed, the fantasy must live on.

Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart. It belongs to Johnny Guitar.

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Daisies (Chytilová, 1966)

Has the desire to transgress ever been as giddily infectious as it is in Daisies (1966)? Though constructed in a manner that stubbornly defies all forms of categorisation, Věra Chytilová’s cinematic acid trip is inseparable from its context: a Czechoslovak “New Wave” feature whose title anticipates Flower Power and whose content foretells the Prague Spring, this eerily prescient film is practically a revolution unto itself. A brisk, seventy-minute shot to the senses that counters the counterculture with its anarchic bravado, Daisies teems to the brim with a psychedelic mêlée of absurdism, Dadaism and nihilism. Whether or not the director would care for such heady philosophies is another matter altogether, for the bulk of the film’s tone is informed by a swaggering rambunctiousness that cogently eulogises the sheer joy of rebellion. It’s this blissful irreverence which thereby reveals itself as the name of Chytilová’s game – and it’s a game in which she has few, if any peers.

Plot and characterisation are but peripheral concepts in this most capricious of satires. Two young women – the exact status of their relationship remains unclear – decide on a whim to go “bad”, and accordingly proceed to run riot in the society to which they had previously subscribed. Daisies‘ shrewd trump card is to have Chytilová running riot alongside them, with both the director and her protagonists thus working in tandem to recreate the rapture of liberation from their respective orders. As the film’s insouciant duo upend and overturn social codes and conventions, Chytilová entirely rescinds the rules of narrative filmmaking, instead choosing to illustrate her gifts as a radical aesthetician. Formal eccentricities are abound: rapid-fire jump-cuts and photomontages, flagrant discrepancies in film stock, and an erratic use of colour filters all serve to electrify her canvas – doing little to unite the disconnected (though interrelated) scenarios, but nonetheless intriguing the viewer enough to function as some sort of visual glue that coagulates the film (Chytilová unsurprisingly revels in the paradox). In Daisies‘ most startling setpiece, the director redefines her spacial parameters, splicing the actors with their settings and embedding them into a cinematic collage that astonishingly renders both foreground and background impotent – the helpless victims of a cubist assault upon the frame.

Any attempts to locate substance in this impenetrably florid exercise are audaciously repelled by the filmmaker’s commitment to ambiguity. In a rare, coherent piece of dialogue, one of the girls tellingly enquires: “Why do they say ‘I love you’? Why don’t they say, for example, ‘egg’?” By querying the sanctity of such an emotionally-loaded phrase, she subliminally points towards an endemic breakdown in everyday communication (if “I love you” has no meaning then what does?) – a concern that Chytilová upholds by exalting action over words and supplanting spoken language with film language. But therein lies the key to the text, for as nonsensical as Daisies aspires to be, its avant-garde farce is not beyond comprehension; fragments of a political agenda are readily discernible upon overcoming and interpreting its visual ingenuity. What, for example, does one make of a character’s decision to slice up phallic food items with a pair of scissors whilst a pining lover professes his devotion down the phone? Or how does one construe the ritual exploitation and subsequent repudiation of all potential “sugar daddies”? Resistant though the film may (quite rightly) be towards feminist labelling – why should all female-centric efforts with a woman behind the camera be instantly suspected as such? – it nevertheless soars as an exhilarating celebration of femininity itself. How refreshing a subversion it is to witness women embracing their bodies, minds and spirits in such reckless abandon, with only the most superficial of needs for those creatures that we know as “men”.

And yet, both director and audience are acutely aware that such indulgences cannot last. Certainly not in a state where citizenship and obedience take precedence over gender and sexuality. Perhaps Daisies‘ sole instance of sincere profundity resides in a sequence that maps the women’s reactions to society’s silent immobilisation of their rebellion: as the males that they challenge now learn to neutralise their delinquency with blanket disregard, our heroines’ ensuing confusion exposes the fundamental need for attention that predicates a successful insurgency. In refusing those needs, the social order unmasks itself as a sterile leviathan; its mundane surfaces an inadequate disguise for the formidable foe which quashes resistance with little hesitation. Surely, sadly, it is naïve to expect anything but. The incendiary merit of Chytilová’s despondent finale – where the “bad girls” offer up a vain appeasement by going “good”, only to then get crushed anyway – derives its weight from the opening montage that it mirrors: a ragged chassé between shots of a turning flywheel and scenes of man-made destruction; the implication of cyclical carnage and the futility of revolutions colouring the picture from its outset.

Within these stark bookends however, the director scribes a manifesto whose guiding principle is exemplified by Daisies‘ most gleeful escapade: a whimsical jaunt in a nightclub, where our beloved twosome throw caution to the wind and replicate the headlining act by dancing and drinking to their hearts’ contents – much to the distaste of their bourgeois comrades. The joie de vivre of partaking in this caper is a welcome contagion that uncovers the film’s deepest, most revelatory tenets by (typically) asking a series of questions. Is it more worthwhile to be a passive observer who engages with society, or an active participant who engages with life? Would we rather exist for a century as unquestioning conformists, or risk an early death by living but for a few brief minutes? For all Chytilová’s glorious abstractions and cryptograms, the mystery of where her film’s allegiance lies is not really a mystery at all – betrayed during Daisies‘s runtime by the iconoclastic potency of her vision, her immortal, concluding tribute merely adds icing to the cake:

Dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.

Enough said.

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Les vampires (Feuillade, 1915)

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Paris, 1915. A city of darkness, thrown into paralysis by an unusual, uncontrollable epidemic: Vampires. These creatures of the night are not the famed blood-suckers of folklore however (though causing bloodshed is certainly of their essence), but a fearsome gang of cat burglars and criminal masterminds who orchestrate the virtual strangulation of an entire metropolis. So great is their proliferation of French society that even the president of the nation’s Court of Cassation is eventually exposed as one of their accomplices – and somewhat tellingly, he’s seen as totally expendable. Having initiated a wave of corruption that poisons every rung of the social ladder, the key members of this hedonistic troupe retreat into underground lairs and sordid taverns (their destination of choice: a club called “The Hissing Cat”) where they concoct ever greater heists and swindles during raucous bacchanals, all the while plotting the extermination of their primary foes: Philippe Guérande, a self-righteous newspaper editor, and Oscar Mazamette, his happy-go-lucky sidekick; a pair of (relatively) law-abiding citizens intent on bringing the Vampires to justice. The imminence of impending doom reverberates upon both sides of this war, and with the streets of the city curiously shorn of life (a different, greater war is felt in spirit but never once referred to), Paris becomes a shell of its almighty reputation – humiliatingly stripped of its populace as it nervously awaits an inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil.

Louis Feuillade’s famed ten-part serial is nowadays renowned as one of the high points of cinema’s formative years: a sprawling epic that continues to withstand the hazardous tests of time almost a century after conception. Nevertheless, on the basis of artistry alone, Les vampires can read like something of a disappointment. The director’s construction rests almost entirely upon the long-takes of a stationary camera – a decision that fails to distinguish the film from its innumerable peers of similar, theatrical pretensions. Look again however, and Feuillade reveals himself to be an early master of mise-en-scène, utilising remarkable depth of field to reinforce the tension within his modest set-ups. His is a cinematic world built upon audience uncertainty, induced by actively encouraging the awareness of off-screen space. Thus, although his staging appears conventional, the director frequently bestows atypical prominence to doors and windows, ensuring that they remain centred within his static frames. Given that Feuillade’s Paris is conceived as a labyrinthine series of tunnels and passageways which allow the Vampires ease of access to their victims, his decision has major ramifications upon both his narrative and the viewer’s response to it. Any opening that provides contiguity with the exterior world consequently breeds anxiety, allowing the acrobatic gangsters an orifice from which to penetrate the lives of others; psychosexuality, naturally, simmering beneath all surface action. Additionally, the director’s settings are often more complex than meets the eye, boasting a series of trap-doors, secret compartments and false artefacts that render even the familiar unsafe (as if to reinforce this, one of the film’s more ludicrous scenarios finds the Vampires-as-estate agents letting an apartment with a particularly conspicuous “safe” – whose removable back opens up into their own, adjacent domicile). Alongside the agoraphobia (open spaces are recast as playing fields in which criminals are free to plunder humans at will) and distrust (duplicitous identities are abound and double-crossing is rampant), Les vampires plays out like a full-scale assault on the very notion of bourgeois security.

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Its gumption now apparent, the film’s key problem nonetheless continues to linger: six hours with a motionless camera is a stultifying, archaic experience for the modern cinephile. But alas, Les vampires just so happens to be an exceedingly modern film. For all the innate darkness within Feuillade’s depiction of a menacing criminal empire, his treatment of the material is defined by an airy lightness of touch and a host of moral ambiguities. Accordingly, whilst the aura of unpredictability hangs over proceedings like a dead weight, the director seeks to counter the discomfort by actualising this threat in its most outlandish forms, thereby diverting his narrative into increasingly preposterous directions; a progressive knotting into if ever there was one. In the space of mere nanoseconds: unsuspecting daydreamers can be lassoed from third-storey windows; enormous cannons can appear as if from nowhere; and sizeable ballrooms can morph into luxurious gas chambers – all to the growing bewilderment of the audience. The last of these cited spectacles is both the most exhilarating and, more importantly, the most emblematic. Les vampires, at its gleeful peaks, is a daringly anti-establishment tirade that lampoons Paris’ ineffectual police force and ridicules its pompous aristocracy. When its supposed villains therefore decide to asphyxiate a group of these clueless buffoons, it’s almost with sadness that we discover that the inhalant which they deploy provokes little more than an extended slumber – so successfully does the director glamorise his merry band of thieves. Still, the deaths that are caused by the outfit are notably almost exclusively reserved to members of the ruling classes, and when at film’s end the Vampires meet an overdue demise, Feuillade appears to intimate that its their own accession to these patricians’ vices which causes their undoing.

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If the text is guilty of mild socialist/anarchist leanings, then it’s surely also a progressive pioneer of early cine-feminism. Les vampires‘ most compelling character by far is the notorious ‘Irma Vep’ (a much-noted anagram of “vampire”), perhaps the nascent medium’s first real femme fatale, dependent upon interpretation. Enigmatic yet completely alluring, she assumes a mind-boggling array of disguises throughout the film’s runtime: bank clerk, chemist, hotel receptionist, housemaid, noblewoman, spinster – at one point, she even dons drag in an delightful (though not quite subversive) gender-bending exercise. Of course, her most iconic garb remains the black, skin-tight catsuit worn to scurry across Parisian rooftops by night; a breathtaking injection of identifiable, earthy sexuality (the get-up does an unsurprisingly great job of accentuating her curves). More than any of the film’s purported heroes, it is this bewitching villain who comes to embody its (admittedly limited) emotional core: late into the drama, the instinctive shock that she displays when confronted with an act of genuine benevolence marks the only instance in which Feuillade alludes to a character’s backstory (life has been cruel, to the point where she no longer comprehends what kindness is). Ferocious and independent in spite of the numerous capitulations enforced upon her by male suitors, Irma Vep is a character who honours defiance until the bitter end. After her entire world has crumbled around her, she steadfastly maintains her refusal to submit to the accepted patriarchy – instead, it’s a fellow female (albeit one who’s not half as interesting) who ends up pulling the fatal trigger on her. And even on the verge of death, this anti-heroine finds time to make one final, blazing statement: a clenched fist, raised to the air in fury.

For all its sinister overtones and ideological undercurrents, one needs to remain aware of the director’s primitive, primary goal: to entertain. To this end, Mazamette (one of the film’s two purported ‘good guys’) scampers around the screen like a vaudeville clown, constantly breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with his audience – primarily by offering a jocular wink every time he senses another triumph/escape. If Irma Vep bestows Les vampires with its substance, Mazamette is designed to comically undermine it at all costs. Wielding a photo of his children and pulling puppy-dog eyes every time he finds himself in trouble, and constantly turning up at opportune moments of crisis in order to save the day, the character’s boisterous pantomime act is very much a product of its time. And yet, although it initially seems outdated, with another lens it’s also quite strikingly ahead of its era. Mazamette can easily be seen as the chief proponent of the film’s meta-narrative, commentating upon on-screen events as they occur whilst simultaneously participating in their development. Moreover, he’s not the only such device in the film – his young son, a juvenile delinquent, turns up in a particularly farcical episode and offers a dastardly imitation of his father (thereby causing a riot as not one but two characters take on this extra-filmic role in close proximity to one another), and even Irma Vep herself offers more than one knowing glare into her audience. Feuillade’s integration of such humour is, if not quite postmodern, then at least somewhat Pirandellian in its design – and he deploys it most brilliantly in an act of self-reflexivity which gets to the very lifeblood of his opus. After an ill-fated bank executive declares that he’s “fanatical about the cinema”, he promptly takes a trip to a theatre called the Gaumont Palace and proceeds to watch newsreel footage of the head Vampires travelling incognito in the forest of Fontainebleau. This simple act at once discloses: an early endorsement of cinephilia; an advertisement of the film’s production company (Gaumont Films – the theatre used was an authentic one); and, crucially, a tribute to a still fledgling medium and its potential to innovate in the field of storytelling. Les vampires may not fully utilise the tools available to it in terms of technical ingenuity, but in its infectious spirit of blissful abandon and unruly escapism it sets an early standard for high-concept cinema – and it’s a standard that’s rarely been equalled in the years since.

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Devi (S. Ray, 1960)

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A colourless, classical sculpture appears on screen in close-up. Shaped like a head, faintly visible contours reveal the most basic of facial features amidst its blankness. A shrill, orchestral arrangement disturbs the peace, instantly spawning a sense of unease; the discernible jitters of the handheld camera doing little to alleviate the tension. Suddenly, those foreboding musical strains morph into the more traditional, comforting sounds of sitars and sarods and, out of nowhere, the blank model acquires a visage. Once faint contours now become boldly delineated, though the most notable revision is the presence of a perturbing third eye. Alas, it appears that this is Kali – the feared and revered Hindu goddess. Though the now charming score encourages us to view her amicably, her claustrophobically direct glare into her audience nonetheless induces anxiety. Suddenly (again), the baritone howls of a distant organ jolt the soundscape and Kali morphs once more. Now embellished with shimmering jewellery and ornate headgear, the newly-decorated idol maintains her inscrutable, unsettling glare. The string accompaniment is augmented synchronously; the rhythmic, percussive chants of thundering tabla frenzying the aural experience until the music collapses from its own velocity and devolves into the sound of voluminous bell-ringing. Finally, we’re pulled away from Kali’s gaze and obliged to view her in a high-angle shot that exposes the full extent of her luxurious aureola (not to mention her intimidating ten-armed body). The frame subsequently dissolves as the camera zooms out, revealing both the temple that houses her and the (numerous) subjects that worship her. Meanwhile, those frenzied tabla return to the soundtrack, this time diegetically as musicians and dancers come to dominate the foreground, intensifying the festive atmosphere.

Swiftly, we switch to a low-angled (reverential?) shot of a well-groomed male elder, solemn in his prayers, before switching again to Kali – the camera zooming out to reveal her as the recipient of the man’s piety; the scene concluding as he lowers onto his knees and places his head on the ground in deference. This quasi-spiritual interlude finds itself abruptly replaced as the camera once again takes us outside the temple, tracking past the musicians as it makes its way towards a ritual slaughter. A knife is raised in the air, and then…  CUT: to the patriarch of the previous scene, observing the action in silence; CUT: to the tabla again, each drum banged ever more furiously; CUT: to the moment of the strike, the suspended knife now accelerating downwards; and CUT: to fireworks in the night sky, the sound of multiple explosions substituting for the unheard cries of the mammalian victim. We rest temporarily upon the affectionate interactions of a young family enjoying the pyrotechnical extravaganza, only to revert back to Kali’s fate mere seconds later. Now we find her entire form carried along by worshippers in a mind-boggling procession; long shots highlighting the extraordinary numbers involved in the journey. The celebration ends abruptly however, as before we know it the goddess is pushed into a river – the sequence’s final shot lingering upon her inexpressive face as she’s compelled to succumb to the forces of nature.

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In an introduction that lasts little over five minutes, Satyajit Ray establishes the principle concerns of Devi with consummate precision. Though the film will resist another outpouring so ebullient until its wrenching finale, the dynamism behind this early montage ably lays down the foundations upon which the director’s otherwise meditative narrative rests. As the gradual beautification of that initial, blank sculpture suggests, Devi marks an investigation into the construction and destruction of identity – specifically when applied to females and deities. Ray flaunts his credentials as a secular pro-feminist with laudable bravado, castigating the socially-sanctioned moulding of women into man-made idealisations whilst condemning the overwhelming pre-eminence of blind religious devotion in contemporary Bengal (the film unfolds in the 19th-century, but its setting within a relatively isolated rural estate renders it unavoidably atemporal). Somewhat expectedly then, the male elder of the prologue turns out to be a wealthy landowner – a figurehead used by the director to highlight the entrenchment of patriarchal subservience in a society obtusely hung up on outmoded praxes; the man’s gender and his visible affluence guaranteeing him a dangerous degree of influence in local affairs. Thus, when said patriarch decides that his beloved daughter-in-law, Doya, is actually the human reincarnate of the prologue’s Kali (following a “vision” that’s brilliantly executed to accentuate the malevolently ethereal elements within spirituality), both his relatives and his subjects lapse into unquestioning acceptance of his apparition. Ray subsequently forges a socio-religious critique that politicises his text in a manner that invites comparisons with his outspoken Marxist contemporaries in the world of Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. At its most elementary level, Devi functions as a societal microcosm, a staunchly left-wing perspective of power in action: concentrated within the hands of the privileged few, and imposed upon the disenfranchised masses who acquiesce in the name of supernatural delusions. Of course, educated dissenters exist, in this instance the patriarch’s son, Uma (Doya’s husband), whose enlightened intellectualism appears conceived to indulge the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity – though the elephantine weight of the former remains nigh-on impossible to repel. As Uma confronts his father with the assertion that he’s “going mad”, the old man responds by invoking his heritage and reciting an ancient Sanskrit poem whose rigid orthodoxy proves as chilling as it does foreboding:

No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…

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And yet, despite the potency of Ray’s criticisms, Devi‘s foremost attribute is its sensitivity. There’s little doubt as to where the director’s allegiance lies in the clash of old and new, but for narrative purposes he nonetheless ensconces himself firmly within the expanses of grey between the opposing viewpoints. His is a cinematic parable that offers a judicious caution: when consumed by our fixation with the desires of ‘higher’ beings, we risk losing sight of the human beings whose needs are surely more pressing – and Devi makes a stern point of demonstrating its commitment to the latter. Though his subtextual web engrossingly interweaves fanaticism and mysticism alongside feminism and rationalism (alongside a surprising acknowledgement of the colonial question), Ray’s approach is marked by observational tranquility in the face of increasingly tumultuous sentiments (one recalls the quiet affection shared by Doya and Uma during the fireworks of the opening sequence), and in doing so he scythes right to the emotive core of his variegated drama. Thus, the patriarch’s vision is treated not with contempt or scrutiny, but with unassuming respect while it’s presented to the viewer as a harrowing epiphany – and so it follows that his insistence upon Doya’s deification is grounded in a genuine belief in the reality of his metaphysical experience. Noting the character’s absence of malice and the sincere presence of love for those whose worlds he’s upending, Ray refuses to damn his father figure, instead channelling his anger towards a system which grants such individuals their immense leverage in the lives of others whilst concurrently disenfranchising those that deviate from the accepted figures of power: namely the object of the father’s worship herself, Doya. Burdened with not only her divinity but also the femininity which forces her subjugation, the film’s titular “goddess” tellingly utters the fewest words of all the film’s leads – and her silence is deafening. Denied access to the education that empowers her husband, Doya finds herself a helpless victim of dogmatic hypocrisy; her precarious fate completely at the mercy of the film’s idealistic males. Naturally, there can be only one conclusion from thereon out. And so it is that as the limitations of religious belief make themselves sorely announced during Devi‘s tragic finale, the everlasting image of the prologue’s drowning goddess assumes a resonance that reverberates throughout the ages.

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The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)

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A melodrama that refuses the melodramatic, a romance that discards the romantic, but a tragedy that wholeheartedly embraces the tragic – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) marks an early crystallisation of the tendencies that have come to epitomise Kenji Mizoguchi’s immeasurable contributions to film art. Scaling a summit of stylistic delicacy that he himself wouldn’t reach again for over a decade after its release, the director furnishes an archetypal tale of forbidden love with the intimacies and intricacies of detail, thereby negating the predictability of preordained heartbreak. His ill-fated lovers are cut from a familiar mould: Kiku, affluent (but talentless) heir to a popular theatrical dynasty, falls for Otoku, his baby brother’s wet nurse, after the latter breaks a wall of silence that shields the former from his professional inadequacies. A now standard Mizoguchian journey follows; a pathetic, poignant prolapse into poverty and perpetual misfortune that will eventually sever the coupling and leave each party stranded beyond the point of reconciliation. Throughout this plight, the director will launch deceptively indignant critiques against the codes and conventions of a society that so blindly sanctions such hardship, whilst casting a particularly sceptical eye on the rigidity of outmoded gender roles.

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With his cinematic vocabulary at its most complex, Mizoguchi restrains his story’s dramatic tumults whilst nourishing areas of thematic agency that would otherwise remain concealed by the exuberant bathos of his narrative. Chrysanthemums consequently finds its emphasis shifted to length: both in terms of the duration and the framing of its shots. Aided by the director’s seamless dollying and unobtrusive pans, the film’s remarkable fluidity creates unbroken streams of passion that threaten to overwhelm with their raw power. Yet Mizoguchi is careful to maximise the potential of his newly-elongated dramaturgy, and so he studiously upholds the text’s aloofness: a respectful distance is maintained between the viewer and the intense, piercing sentiments of our woebegone heroes – and within the expanse of visual and figurative space that subsequently emerges, the director constructs his own running commentary upon on-screen action. The vicissitudes of Chrysanthemums‘ subtexts are thus explored with remarkable dexterity; the nuances within Mizoguchi’s technical mastery illuminating his lovers’ travails whilst simultaneously consecrating their interiority. Consider one of the director’s most impressive sequences, in which Kiku and Otoku encounter one another for the first time (at least in the filmic world): Mizoguchi documents this pivotal moment with an uninterrupted, five-minute tracking shot that gracefully glides alongside the duo during their impromptu moonlight stroll. He outright refuses to fracture the lucidity of this scene – hence, he avoids cuts and records in long shot, whilst masterfully using blocking to express what cannot be registered in close-up; the ongoing saga of who walks before whom (and in what proximity) substituting for a courting ritual, not to mention a wry critique of the power dynamics within the blossoming relationship. Otoku, despite the wounds that she inflicts upon Kiku’s masculinity, will eventually recede to a position firmly within the latter’s shadow – a position in which she’ll stay (not necessarily against her will) for the remainder of the film.

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This exquisite, extended take is also a key exemplar of a decision that’s to become the central component in Chrysanthemums‘ stylistic framework: the adoption of what can only be described as the societal gaze. Mizoguchi’s camera here comes into its own as an independent analyst, assuming an active yet objective perspective that definitively reshapes his emotionally-florid scenarios whilst imparting reams of information that elucidate the internal workings of their environment. Thus, as the lovers take their midnight walk, the director makes a simple choice – to film them from a low angle – and, in doing so, immediately reinforces their social status (particularly in Kuki’s case), according these protagonists a modicum of respect that will swiftly dissipate in later scenes as their misfortunes escalate; this adversity reflected in Mizoguchi’s switch to high angle shots as they slide further and further down the socio-economic hierarchy. The chasm that the director enforces between character and audience now possesses an ulterior motive: to doggedly marginalise the heroes’ love story, thereby replicating society’s own condemnation of their inter-class affair. We peer at them from behind doorways (often with their backs to us), or in compositions that obfuscate their presence by foregrounding inanimate objects. Most stunning of all are the dynamic flights of fancy embarked upon by Mizoguchi’s camera, which effortlessly traverses through walls and even entire buildings in order to stay attuned to its subjects – the gesture augmenting the sheer artificiality of their man-made barriers; the Mizoguchian conception of “civilisation” thus exposing itself as yet another synonym for repression.

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Transcending one’s social limitations is an aspiration that informs the very foundation of the director’s oeuvre, so when his camera soars his characters’ dreams soar alongside it. But these lovers’ torrid yearnings are undone by the constraints of Chrysanthemums‘ universe – the pressures of which Mizoguchi scrupulously articulates, even outside the successful implementation of his societal gaze. Note that the film’s narrative is divided into segments which observe Kiku and Otoku’s odyssey through criticial junctures over a five-year period. Each of these stages opens with a depiction of life inside the theatre to which Kiku happens to belong at that point, and a number of the director’s most inventive flourishes are to be found in centrepieces that recreate the art of Kabuki performance. Kiku’s inescapable theatrical background doesn’t simply allow the director to flaunt his stylistic flair though, it reinforces the film’s key theme by underscoring the idea of role-playing. Kiku’s familial tribulations exist because he refuses to conform to his father’s wishes as a man and fails to perform to his father’s expectations as an actor, thus leaving him no choice but to reject the patriarchal inheritance endowed to him – and along with it, the power of social status and the adulation of fickle audiences. Otoku’s dismissal by her employer is not unrelatedly brought about because she’s erroneously viewed as too “ambitious”, therefore breaking the code of conduct that’s silently imposed upon women of such lowly ilk. (Naturally, social mobility is discouraged at all costs by the ruling classes.) Mizoguchi is careful to forge a link between performance and predestination and, once established, he adroitly applies it to the romance itself. Neither protagonist here is particularly likeable: Kiku is a selfish narcissist almost through to the final scene, whilst the lachrymose Otoku’s predilection for total abnegation is as frightening as it is offputting. The film’s dramatic framework is recoloured accordingly – relentless in his impulsion of these archetypes, the director’s characterisations beg the question: where does this sorry tragedy lie? Is it a tale of forbidden love quashed by a ruthless society of oppressors, or is it a saga of two losers cruelly thrown together and making the best of a miserable situation? Mizoguchi’s bitter coda wisely elects to preserve the ambivalence, but it nonetheless reveals more than we could possibly wish to know about the world that he enshrines: no matter how fast we run, the roles that we were born to play will always catch up with us in the end.

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