On the Edge of the Volcano: Isabella Rossellini on Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Stromboli (1950)

stromboli_posterIt all started with a letter. In 1948, Ingrid Bergman (at the height of her Hollywood career) wrote to Roberto Rossellini (triumphant director of Rome, Open City and Paisà) to express her admiration for his films. She hoped to act for him in the future.

Her letter not only set into motion one of the most notorious celebrity scandals of the 20th century, but also sparked one of the most fruitful director-muse collaborations in cinema history.

At the Cinémathèque Française this summer, Isabella Rossellini, one of Bergman and Rossellini’s three children, shared memories of her parents and reflected on their legacy. Her interview in French* with Serge Toubiana, following a screening of Stromboli, was the highlight of the Cinémathèque’s retrospective to celebrate the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth.

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Isabella Rossellini in conversation with Serge Toubiana on the stage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Salle Henri Langlois (my photo).

Rossellini explained that her mother’s letter was by no means an unusual gesture for her. “Mama wrote many letters to directors whose films she liked. Sometimes she’d say, ‘If you have a character that you think would be right for me, I’d really like to work with you.’”

Unwilling to let studios dictate role after role for her, Bergman actively sought out cinema’s innovators. In her daughter’s words, “She wasn’t vain at all, not the way people think beautiful actors are. She was a great actress and a great artist who had an enormous curiosity about working with many directors with different styles.”

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In this case, however, the proposed partnership seemed an unlikely one. What could a neorealist director, who favored working with non-actors, do with a talented top movie star who, by her own confession, could say only “ti amo” in Italian?

Rossellini found his inspiration one day while driving past a refugee camp, where women from northern European countries lined up along a barbed wire fence. The director stopped to observe and the guard motioned him away—but not before a Latvian woman, with a look of “mute intense despair” seized his arm. When Rossellini returned to the camp with a pass, he discovered that the mysterious woman had married a soldier and left to live in the Lipari islands.

As he replied in a letter to Bergman, “I tried to imagine the life of the Latvian girl, so tall, so fair, in this island of fire and ashes, amidst the fishermen, small and swarthy, amongst the women with the glowing eyes.” His vision for Stromboli, the first of 5 films he’d make with Bergman, was born out of this chance encounter.

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Shortly after Bergman travelled to Italy, Rossellini and his then-married star became lovers. Bergman’s resulting divorce from Petter Lindström and her pregnancy outside of marriage ignited gossip columns and outraged the American public.

The affair destroyed Bergman’s image of ethereal, on-a-pedestal purity and stirred up prejudices still rankling from WWII. As Isabella Rossellini noted, “The idea that she fell in love with an Italian, from a country that 5 years before had been America’s enemy, that shocked people.”

Bergman’s Swedish nationality made her an easy target, according to her daughter: “She was already a foreigner and Americans tend to distrust foreigners…. The Senate took a position against my mother, saying that foreigners who came to live and work in America, since Hollywood could have such a phenomenal effect on someone’s success, needed to be under moral control.”

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While the American press gloated over the fall of an angelic icon, Bergman had more pressing challenges. Like the character she plays in Stromboli—Karen, an urbane Lithuanian bound to a primitive culture by a marriage of desperation—Bergman was ill-prepared for tribulations of life on a rugged Mediterranean island.

Bergman “was used to sets with very specialized crews, hundreds of people, but they made Stromboli with about 15 people who all carried the equipment,” Rossellini says.

Fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the arduous production exists, thanks to one of Bergman’s hobbies: “She made little home movies for herself, and we see that everyone carried these heavy burdens, for example, to the top of the volcano.” (You can watch snippets shot by Bergman’s camera on YouTube courtesy of the Criterion Collection.)

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The actress also had to adapt her technique to a cinematic style—and cast—very different to what she was accustomed to. As her daughter said, “Mama found herself without Cary Grant, without Spencer Tracy, with a fisherman that Papa picked!”

“If Papa needed a fisherman, he got a fisherman,” Rossellini explained. “A real fisherman will have the gestures, the sunburned face, the authenticity you’d never get with an actor.”

In the starkly sensual Stromboli, Bergman’s conflicted, expertly communicated emotions set her apart from the borderline awkward naturalism of the other cast members. This contrast, far from a drawback, contributes beautifully to the film, since Karen rebels against, and is largely rejected by, the island’s benighted world.

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To achieve the improvisational feel he sought, Rossellini had to work around his non-actors’ unease. As his daughter told her audience at the Cinémathèque, “Italian films are often dubbed, so you don’t have to know your lines. My father would direct by saying, ‘There’s a scene where you come in for lunch and people are sitting down, so act like you would in real life. Say “Hello, goodbye, how are you, and so on.”’

“That was difficult for an actor [Bergman] who was used to learning a text, to having everything written beforehand…. A bigger challenge was that the non-actors were extremely intimidated by the camera and wouldn’t speak. Instead of saying, ‘Hello. How are you? Have a seat,” they’d stand there frozen with terror.

“So, Papa would say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter what you say, because I’m going to dub it afterwards.’ So, Mama would come in and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and the non-actor would go ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’”

Describing such odd “dialogue,” Isabella Rossellini laughed, “Rossellini’s realism was just on the screen, because if you visited the set, it was surrealism!” (To be fair, though, I think most of us would freeze up in the radiant presence of Ingrid Bergman.)

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Though lauded as a epiphanic neorealist masterwork today, Stromboli flopped at the box office in 1950—despite all of the inflammatory free publicity. However, “the French recognized that a film that didn’t work at the box office, that didn’t sell a lot of tickets, could be an important film.”

Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois in particular saw the genius in Rossellini’s work and was a good friend of the director’s family. Isabella shared an amusing personal reminiscence of Henri Langlois and his wife as somewhat, ahem, fragrant and unwashed bohemians: “My mother and father would say, ‘Isabella, you mustn’t say that they smell bad. Shush!’”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cinephiles bred by the Cinémathèque would latch onto Stromboli and the other Bergman-Rossellini collaborations as examples of the kind of personal, documentary-style cinema they respected. “My father was more of a director who’d influenced other directors than a box office success,” Rossellini recalled. “It was Cahiers du Cinéma that rediscovered my parents’ movies.”

Roberto Rossellini returned the favor by becoming a mentor to the future Nouvelle Vague directors: “When I saw Godard three or four years ago, he told me, ‘Your father was kind of a like an uncle to me. He said, “Why be a critic? Why not make your own movies?”’ So my father also encouraged Truffaut and Godard—when they were movie critics—to make films.”

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When her father passed away in 1977, Rossellini’s family received a touching tribute from Godard: “the most moving telegram I’ve ever gotten. He wrote, ‘We are alone in the woods.’ Because my father was such a patriarch. He was my dad, but he was also the Taviani brothers’ and Godard’s father in a way.”

The Taviani brothers paid tribute to Roberto Rossellini somewhat differently: by offering Isabella her first significant film role, in Il Prato (1979). Remembering Rossellini’s objections to movie careers for his children, “I thought, ‘Dad’s going to turn over in his grave. He would be furious. He gave the Tavianis a prize and now they want me to act for them.’”

But Ingrid Bergman urged her daughter to accept the offer. “My mom came in and said, ‘No, you have to take advantage of this. It’s an adventure. You can’t turn up this chance to try to be an actress. And, in any case, they work in your father’s style, with non-actors, so you’re not going to be an actress…. You’ll have an experience with great artists.’”

The diverging opinions on Isabella’s acting career were typical of Bergman and Rossellini, a striking case of “opposites attract.” She was introverted and methodical. He was outgoing and unpredictable.

“My father was infinitely disorganized,” Rossellini said. “He was Italian, so we don’t have very many of his things left. My mother was Swedish—and infinitely organized. She saved every letter, every photo, every film poster.”

At one of the most poignant moments of her interview, Isabella Rossellini revealed the insight that motivated her mother’s methodical collecting. “I remember when my mother was sick, she had cancer, there was a big room where she was storing all these things. Mama was very humble, very simple, and extremely shy. I said, ‘Why did you keep all this? You were born in Sweden, you went to America, then you went to Italy, then you went to live in France… why did you drag all of these photos, all of these letters, all of these newspaper clippings with you?’

“She gave me a response that totally shocked me. She said, ‘Because I’ve always known that my life as an artist was very important.’

“I was scandalized by this pretension! But she said, “You know, I think that we’re part of the most influential art of the last century. When we were young, we all watched movies as much as we read the great classics. We read the classics in school because we have to, we go to museums from time to time, but everyone goes to the movies and loves the cinema.’”

It’s reassuring to know that Ingrid Bergman recognized her place and significance in cinema history—from Intermezzo to Autumn Sonata, from Casablanca to Stromboli, from Gaslight to Elena and Her Men.

100 years after her birth, Bergman’s versatility, her spontaneity, and her fearless defiance of convention remain as modern as ever. Will we ever quite catch up to this goddess of incandescent contradictions? I doubt it.

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*Please note that all quotations of Isabella Rossellini in this article are my translations.

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Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

soulsThe first time I watched Carnival of Souls, I was planning to make fun of it.

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

I had borrowed a DVD of this Public Domain film with a humorous commentary track by the Rifftrax guys (whom you might know best as Crow, Servo, and Mike from Mystery Science Theater 3000). These fellows routinely lampoon atrocious B-movies and deliver the kind of cathartic belly laughs that sustain me through this drab existence. So, I popped Carnival of Souls in and braced myself for an evening of comedy.

CUT TO: me, lying awake that night in cold sweats. Serves me right for wanting to dismiss a cult classic.

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While watching the movie, I didn’t even crack a smile. I can’t remember a single joke the Rifftrax boys made. I write that not as an insult to those talented comedians, but rather as an homage to the sublime creepiness of Carnival of Souls. Something about this film shoots you through will a chill that you can’t shake. I mean, I watch a lot of horror films, new and old, and while many have disgusted or disturbed me, few have actually scared me. This is one of them.

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Directed by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker on vacation (who also played the chief ghost), this ambitious indie horror film yanked me into its vertiginous parallel universe. Despite my initial inclination to denigrate the low budget masterpiece, Carnival of Souls immediately impressed me with its stark cinematography. Harvey adroitly manipulated lighting and camera angles to conjure an oppressive sense of doom closing in.

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For instance, in the scene where Mary Henry, presumed dead, staggers out of a riverbed to the astonishment of onlookers, the screen floods with an atmosphere of the uncanny. We know, from the way the sequence is shot, that this woman belongs dead. As Mary stands on the edge of a sandbar, jutting out into the rapidly moving waters, almost an abstracted geometrical form, the world around her seems separate. Open space crowds her.

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Bystanders scramble down from a bridge to meet her, but we see them as tiny, pointless figures, even more dwarfed than Mary. Trauma is etched on these deep focus images that visually convey and anticipate the truth of that famous Toni Morrison line from Beloved, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”

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Carnival of Souls offers many flourishes of unexpected creativity. On a recent rewatching, I noticed how Mary Henry, gazing down at the site of the accident, resembles a ship masthead figure, her Baroque 1960s ’do blown back and lit from below like a waxworks.

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As she reaches for her car ignition, we get a sort of trick match-on-action to her pulling out the stops on an organ. The fluid transition from the interior of her car to the somber beauty of an organ showroom reveals a great deal about her character. Even if the script didn’t clunkily inform us that Mary can’t “put [her] soul” into her career as a church organist, her detachment speaks to us through that false match cut.

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Mary’s visits to the abandoned amusement park wound us with their irony. For instance, her taut, worried face pointedly contrasts with the sensual pin-up girl on a poster. The grids of fences, lattices of shadow, tangles of streamers, and exotic pavilion-style architectural forms combine to create a shifting funhouse of suspense.

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In this movie of eerie silence, I detect a certain homage to silent films, especially when that silence begins to invade the usually bustling daytime world. However, we also see that link with silent films through the use of locations associated with iconic Roaring Twenties amusements. The tawdry dance halls and rotating tumbling cylinders of pre-talkie rom-coms appear as melancholy, strange relics that fragment the screen with disjointed shapes.

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At the risk of sounding rather grim (in contrast to my usual perky self), Carnival of Souls frightens me because it suggests that perhaps in the midst of life we are all actually dead. And that death, far from the state of peaceful repose or blissful ascension we might hope for, is a restless, ashen whirl of numbness.

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Above: Mary with her oily date. Below: Mary in the arms of a ghoul.

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The ever-circling ghouls of the condemned carnival aren’t so different from the living who plod forward in the compulsive pursuit of pleasureless things that they crave only because they’re told to want them. In fact, Mary only demonstrates any real passion in the scene where visions of ghosts torment her; as she practices the organ, she slips into a montage of dissociation. The first time she plays “with soul,” she gets castigated for blasphemy and fired! Paradoxically, it’s contact with the dead that can make her come to life.

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Why else select an abandoned amusement park, the real-life resort pavilion at Saltair, as the locus of terror? Deserted places of recreation possess an aura which unsettles me more than memorials to some tragedy or other. We brace ourselves for the presence of death in locations scarred by suffering and, thus armed, can sometimes emerge unscathed and unmoved. However, the ruins of a place that once echoed with laughter and joy remind us of the predestined end to all our amusements. The knowledge that sorrow could last forever haunts us less than the realization that pleasure (or a reasonable facsimile) doesn’t last very long at all.

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Director Herk Harvey explained that he wanted to make a movie in the art house vein, citing Bresson and Bergman as influences. Indeed, like a lot of European art films made around the same time, Carnival of Souls works at digesting the gristly concept of alienation. This film scares us on a metaphysical level; its shocks are not of the “Boo!” ilk alone. Instead it jolts us into an heightened awareness of everyday isolation, of the futility and awkwardness of “normal” human interactions.

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When we look into the grotesque chalky faces of the undead, we’re not as horrified by them as we are by the possibility that we might see our own faces among them.

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Carnival of Souls may strike modern viewers as somewhat tame. However, if you sit back and let it wash over you with an open mind, I think it’ll strike a chord with almost anyone. The piercing organ score, the blanched, smeary faces of the phantoms, the contamination of ordinary locations, and the depiction of destiny as a kind of cosmic Chinese finger trap will eat away at you. When you’re in a church at night. When you’re out shopping. When you’re driving down a lonely highway. When you’re somewhere that connects you to the past.

Even if you want, as I did, to chuckle at Carnival of Souls, I suspect that its coven of ghouls will have the last laugh.

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Carnival of Souls is in the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. Enjoy!

Telefono Nero: Story of a Love Affair (1950)

123Call me a philistine, but I tend to prefer practically any director’s debut picture over their mature work. Yes, yes, I realize that this predilection makes me something of a traitor to the cause of auteurism.

Nevertheless, I find something supremely beautiful in the faltering first enunciation of a vision, unwieldy in its boundless ambitions, that you can only detect in early efforts of great artists. I’ll take The Lodger over Vertigo any day, and I refuse to apologize for it.

So, it should surprise no one that, when pressed to name my favorite among Michelango Antonioni’s cinematic children, I will completely bypass L’Avventura, his color-saturated 1960s canon, and even The Passenger in favor of his first feature film: Cronaca di un amore (English title: Story of a Love Affair). This narratively conventional, yet formally flamboyant thriller, bears all of the hallmarks of an Antonioni film. Long takes, surreally out-of-context shots, and absorbing camera movements contribute to a grisly analysis of dying relationships and upper-class—oh, well, I might as well say it, everyone else has—ennui.

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I had the honor to take a seminar class on Antonioni, so I’ve seen almost all of his films on a big screen. I consider him one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. And even I have to admit that his masterpieces can wear thin on you.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “beginner’s mind,” that magical state of creative openness that one inhabits when starting to wade into a new field of knowledge. This concept, as coined by the Zen master Suzuki, can be summarized by his adage: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Still couched in beginner’s mind, Antonioni unfolded a whole world of dark passions and a breathtakingly memorable film.

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In 1950, the alienation, the numbness of pleasure, the ugliness of wealth, the general squirmy discontent of post-war Italy all writhed in each frame of Cronaca with a freshness that Antonioni never again achieved. By anchoring his penetrating gaze with the framework of a much-loved genre, film noir, the budding auteur delivers a movie that feels less forced and ponderous than his later art house classics. Antonioni delivers the pleasures of genre viewing while gleefully subverting them.

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Philip Marlowe? Sam Spade? Mike Hammer? No—it’s Signore Carloni, the detective!

The plot initially slaps you across the face with its echoes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—which Visconti had already adapted/ripped off for Ossessione. A bored wife and her lover conspire to murder her wealthy, boorish husband. It’s the same old story… or is it?

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Cronaca begins with photographs, still images of an exquisite woman, being piled up on a desk as a private investigator comments on them (a movie opening that Chinatown would rip off years later). A suspicious rich man has hired this private eye to look into the mysterious past of his wife, Paola. The detective does exactly that—and in so doing, he actually brings about what the rich husband had initially feared! Probing around, asking questions, the private eye unleashes a series of events that reunite Paola with her ex-lover Guido.

This bitter irony—the fact that the husband’s paranoia provokes the very situation that he wished to avoid—adds a touch of classical tragedy to the film. More importantly, the eerie self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of the tale motivates the abundance of inexorable camera movements that guide and control many a scene like the hand of fate and inscribes the motif of surveillance and guilt on the screen.

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The camera claustrophobically monitors Paola and Guido, these two lost souls, with a fixity that marries Neorealism to noirish romantic subjectivity. The ever-cagey Antonioni even confirmed that he was aiming for a deeply introspective gaze, a kind of interiorization of Neorealism:

“I chose to examine the inner side of my characters instead of their life in society, the effects inside them of what was happening outside. Consequently, while filming, I would follow them as much as I could, without ever letting the camera leave them. This is how the long takes… came about. At the time, everyone criticized me for avoiding social themes… But I was just acting as a mediator between these social themes and the screen.” (Quoted in The Architecture of Vision)

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In the film’s most famous long take, Paola and Guido meet up on a steel bridge and discuss their plans to engineer the death of Paola’s husband. The shot opens with the camera following a car down a road… before it suddenly pans to reveal Paola’s face, looking down at the vehicle from the bridge. The sudden shift from a long shot to a media close-up without a cut can only be described as shocking. The boundaries between exterior and interior life blur.

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In the ensuing masterstroke of simmering tension, the camera never leaves Paola and Guido alone as they swap recriminations for a death they caused years ago.  You see, Paola was in love with Guido, but he was engaged to another; they both chose to look the other way when she was about to back into an empty elevator shaft.

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The camera explores their ambiguous responsibility for her death. In one segment of the long take, Paola walks backwards towards the railing of the bridge and the camera tracks to follow her, in a movement reminiscent of the murder-by-silence that killed Guido’s fiancée. Even as she accuses her lover, “You killed her! You killed her!” and rejects her own guilt, Paola becomes a kind of stand-in for the murdered woman and reveals the extent to which she has internalized that guilt.

There’s no escape from its prying eyes, just as one can find no escape from one’s own accusing conscience.

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I applaud Antonioni’s ability to put his own spin on the long take as a cinematic tool. Unlike Orson Welles’s deep focus coups de théâtre or Renoir’s emotionally-fraught, story-driven camera movements, the long takes in Cronaca di un amore, although not devoid of passion or drama, seem almost scientific, abstracted, psychological. Exactly what one would expect from a chronicle of a love affair. Not a love story, really, at least not in the traditional sense, but an interrogation of a relationship.

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In many of Antonioni’s films, the important moments seem cut out, missing, as though the key to the whole central love plotline had been omitted from the film. And so it is with Cronaca. The first time we see Guido and Paola together after years of separation, they drive to a set of stairs by the sea, sit, and haltingly talk. We, the viewers, are made to sense the awkwardness of their reunion through our own uncertainty of how to put together the pieces. Do they love each other? Do they desire each other? Why? What kept them apart? Who left whom?

In the black-and-white cinematography, the sea shimmers white, like a great absence, and the past and future lovers appear on the cusp of falling into it.

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Each frame of Cronaca bristles with a sinister allure, a putrescent beauty barely contained by the impassiveness of the camera’s intent. This tug-of-war between an internal Neorealism and noirish perversity makes Cronaca one maltov cocktail of a movie.

When making Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said that he wanted every shot to look like there was a corpse hidden somewhere. Well, every shot of Cronaca looks like a murder has just been committed—or is about to be committed! Not because of violence or grittiness, but because of the cockeyed angles, always a little too high or too low, every shot a little too close for comfort or too long to feel inviting. Characters face opposite directions or turn away from the camera as if ashamed.

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Cronaca also overflows with brilliant, self-assured stylistic touches—especially those that peel away at the surface of the oft-touted coolness of Italy and the glamour of its bourgeoisie.

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Two bottles fill the frame… and it takes a car whizzing by them to make us realize that we’re looking at a landscape and two giant advertisements, not a dinner table.

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The mirrors of a fashion salon turn a chic setting into an inferno of class warfare, jealousy, and self-loathing as Paola comes eye to eye with a woman she suspects of stealing Guido.

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A perfumed, glossy bedroom—which wouldn’t be out of place in one of Italy’s vapid, faux-Hollywood farces, or telefoni bianchi (“white telephone”) films—transforms into a place of discomfort. This idealized boudoir serves as the marketplace where Paola trades sex for her grotesque husband’s ongoing acquiescence in her flagrant, empty spending.

(If you’re in any way hesitating about watching this film, you ought to dig it up for the black pearl splendor of Lucia Bosé, a former Miss Italy and Antonioni’s lover at the time, whose muffled femme fatale sexuality as Paola steals the movie. She unceasingly mesmerizes.)

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Speaking of white telephones, I have no doubt that Antonioni intended to give his audiences a little sick joke by making sure that every telephone in the film is not white in the manner of the telefoni bianchi, but a black one! The sheen of the “white telephone” film, the Neorealist lens, and the dark glitter of film noir all merge in Cronaca di un amore. It’s to die for.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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Portrait of the Artist as a Madman

“My professor as a painter drives me to look attentively at the faces, the physiognomies, that present themselves in my path, and you know what a pleasure we draw from this ability which makes life more living and more meaningful to our eyes than to those of other men.”

                                                                                        Charles Baudelaire,

“La Corde”

 

 

 

[Abandon hope of spoiler-free reading all ye who enter here!]

A man hangs, his arms twisted over his head which lolls backwards. We cannot see all of him and it takes a moment to discern what we’re actually looking at.

The image crackles in distressed shades of sepia, sometimes overexposed and light, sometimes darker, but always fizzling, grainy, unstable. The figure, just shoulders and a jaw, bob in slow motion. It reads as a shot from a hand-cranked silent film.

And then the man screams. Thus begins Pupi Avati’s La Casa Dalle Finistre Che Ridono (The House of the Laughing Windows), a movie that opened up hitherto unsuspected realms of subtleness in the giallo canon for me.

The trauma of hearing that image—redolent of 1920s silent era textures—howl in agony shocks the viewer on a truly primal level. It’s as though you could hear a painting or smell a sound. Avati makes us feel like the image were extending across another dimension. The warped, distant sound of the scream heightens the impression not so much of hearing the man moan, but of hearing it in our minds. If you look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream long enough, you start to be able to hear it. Avati simulates this kind of artistic mind-meld that the most profound and morbid of paintings can produce.

Protracted, lyrical, and reminiscent of other times—the Renaissance as well as the 1920s—this opening credits sequence slaps us across the face with one of the key questions at the heart of horror as a genre. Should horror be beautiful? In other words, what are the moral implications of aestheticizing violence and death? It’s a tour-de-force introduction even before the obsessive, rumbling voice, that we later learn is the mad artist Legnani, begins to rant about his colors, the colors in his veins, the living colors…

The buoyant, undulating movements of this torture victim remind me of the surrealist short films, like Un Chien Andalou. The mismatch of beauty and brutality, visual lushness and moral ugliness generate a conflict collision in the mind of the spectator before we even dip a toe into the plot of the film. The dying man’s cries are also spaced out so that the spectator is allowed to linger in contemplation of the various shots of the body in agony before being brought back to the pain.

This kind of sequence practically traps us with the imminence of cinema. Even with letters of actors’ names appearing over these shots of stabbings and cries, we feel as though we are watching a man suffering before our eyes, at this instant. On the one hand, the look of the scene suggests that it occurred sometime in the past, but, on the other, the power of the image ensures that, on some level, it’s always happening now, right now.

This introduction etches itself so powerfully upon the brain that it takes a while to really concentrate on the plot, which concerns a young art historian, Stefano, called in to restore a mural of Saint Sebastian in a rural church in Italy.

Of course, the mural was painted by a deviant called Buono (should’ve been Cattivo, if you ask me…) Legnani, known as the “Painter of Agonia,” which means “death throes” not just agony in Italian. Along with his two sicko sisters, Legnani liked to be around dead people. However, his sisters actually like killing them, too, but I’ll get there soon.

Nevertheless, the mural will serve as a vital tourist attraction for the town—which is ironic, since so many shots in this movie look like they came right out of a 1970s tourist guidebook of Italy, only enhanced by slow pans and gliding shots from within classic cars. The film positively reeks of beauty and we, as audience members, have been trained to know that something evil lurks beneath that bucolic splendor—prepared by both giallo conventions and the indelible opener.

Don’t trust this travel-guide-worthy beauty!

We also recognize, in static form, the torment of the opening credits victim as soon as Avati shows us the mural. The director discloses the picture at the end of a long take which builds moment as a priest and Stefano walk down the nave of the church, when, with a graceful crane lift, the camera rises to focus on the picture.

We also get lingering, studious shots running over this mural, as a kind of visual imperative, “Look! See!”

Similarly, once the murders start (well, duh, it’s a giallo), Avati examines every hanging, bloody victim from multiple angles and shot lengths, cut together in a deliberate, pensive pace. He seems intent on giving us a class in anatomy—and in our own varied reactions to different parts of the same overall picture. The film resembles a painting, too, with its rich Rembrandt lighting, meticulous compositions, and abundance of frames within frames.

Art lives (and dies?) at the core of this film which forces us to become conscious of where our eyes travel and what they bring back. For instance, take the scene in which Stefano visits the town Mayor and surveys his collection of Legnani paintings, including one of the artist’s head on a woman’s body.

As the Mayor explains that the artist took to painting himself because no woman could satisfy him, we get a cut to a gauzy flashback (whose flashback, though, is not clear). The bare-chested artist smears paint on his arm, in a gesture reminiscent of a junkie shooting up heroine, and turns to a canvas.

I had to watch this sequence twice before I realized that we’re not actually looking at the artist, but at the artist’s reflection in a mirror. We see him looking at himself… looking at himself. It’s part of our own apprenticeship in looking.

Stefano, like many a hapless giallo protagonist, dies. I’m sorry, but I think pretty much anyone would see that coming. This likelihood allows the viewer to taste the bitter irony of every shot of Stefano restoring the mural. As he pulls away the plaster to reveal two wicked hags and adds life to the picture of Saint Sebastian’s death, he’s participating in his own demise as well. His act of restoration and creation engenders his destruction.

If art both gives life and takes it away, drawing from the subjectivity and the life force of a painter, what are we to make of recording, of mechanical ways of preserving life? It turns out that Legnani’s cuckoo sisters believe Norman Bates-style that they’re keeping their brother alive. Buono Legnani immolated himself in a final act of depravity and macabre fascination.

However, his elderly sisters keep his charred body preserved in formaldehyde and play his gravelly, heavy-breathing voice on a tape recorder.

In the top shock-horror scene of Laughing Windows, Stefano discovers the witchy sisters stabbing a victim to death when they proceed to show them their “brother,” the corpse and the recording.

The camera, from Stefano’s perspective, looks shakily from the one to the other twice, as if to ask, “What insane person could call this anywhere near a representation of life? Or even of death?” This facsimile strikes me as a grotesque parody of a person—it’s skin and bones and it speaks, what more do you want? A repeated voice recording and a husk of a body. It also reminds me of some of the intensely gross medieval depictions of death as the utter defeat of the flesh. By preserving their brother, the sisters totally miss the point of his art—capturing fleeting glimpses of human life slipping away, not worshipping cadavers.

This corpse-revelation launches a deeply disturbing scene. It could’ve been played for humor, but it’s not. The sisters are hacking up another sacrifice in hopes of reviving their brother. A lot of very stirring horror films revolve around this idea of preserving something (The Mummy, DeToth’s House of Wax, Psycho, all come to mind) and I think in this way that they’re attempting to cope with the cinema as a form of embalmment. Laughing Windows pokes fun at hollow mechanical or technical means of merely preserving or even of reanimating a dead person. Avati instead hints that the only things that truly live forever are those which have been strained through the filter of human creativity. Legnani may have been a nutso great artist—his sisters are just nutso.

Stefano is too dizzy, judging by the waffling of the handheld camera, to protest when they urge him to take a look at the slaughter. He doesn’t resist and his somnambulist pliability in the situation gives the whole thing the fuzzy, unreal vertigo of a nightmare. And then a blade flashes into him. We could’ve seen it coming, but somehow, we just don’t expect it when it comes.

And so, to the final sequence.  Stefano manages to flee with his open chest wound to a local church where he hopes to ask for help from the kindly priest. Well, the priest turns around, smiles, and begins to speak in a female voice. “He” is actually one of the hooded sisters. Stefano stares wide-eyed, unable to respond as the other sister waddles in, ready to finish the job. Avati cuts back and forth to the painted hags torturing Saint Sebastian in the mural and the film comes full circle.

Stefano is about to meet the fate that was right under his nose the whole time. We brace ourselves for viscera and more struggling torture.

We get a cut away to the façade of the church. Is that cut merciful or cruel, though?

After all, we can still hear the Legnani sisters twitter and giggle as Stefani moans. We don’t see it, but it’s there for us on the soundtrack. Now, there are actual “laughing windows” in the film…

But the windows of the church really laugh at us, a laugh of complicity, because we know what they conceal.

Seriously, now, you can try and tell me that Martin Scorsese didn’t totally think of this ellipsis when he came up with that terse, horrifying last shot of the Lighthouse in Shutter Island, but I won’t believe you.

With the final shot of The House of Laughing Windows our apprenticeship in looking is complete. We, the spectators, now occupy the position of the painters of horror, having been trained to look at ugliness, beauty, surrealist spectacles, details, life, and death. And as those witchy cackles and cries punctuate the soundtrack, we can imagine, we can make the image in our minds, although we might not want to fill the ellipsis. We can conjure up the fuzzy tormented elegy of the beginning (since that credits sequence is an accurate depiction of what’s going to happen to Stefano) or we can mold a new vision.

We become the painting, we become the cinema. It’s not the first time I or anyone else has made this observation, but great movies often invite audiences to “remake” or to participate in them. They’re constructed as partnerships, kept fresh and living by the disgust, pleasure, and, above all, the creativity of the viewer.

Preservation is not art, Avati tells us. Nor is cinema mere preservation, capturing living things as they are—soon to be were. The cinema dwells in gaps, lacunae, death in life. Truly knowing how to look and how to fill in those gaps renders us capable of seeing things as alive. And something alive is always on the edge of death. Perhaps the greatest art always flirts with death, absence, non-meaning and needs something else to complete it.

When we learn not only to look, but also to see, we are art, which is the intersection of life and death. And that should scare the hell out of us. I give a lot of credit to La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono for pulling all these threads together in a giallo.