Criterion Dreaming: 5 Movies That Made Me a Cinephile

51y6xRUTHbLLife grants us a limited number of “mothership” moments: raptures of sudden belonging, occasions when our weirdness transforms into an asset, when something beloved and elusive enfolds us.

The Criterion Collection has played a more-than-supporting role in quite a few mothership moments that I’ve had over the course of 25 years.

You might say that Criterion has been the Ward Bond in my love affair with cinema. Or maybe the Edward Everett Horton. Not the object of my affection, but an oft-present catalyst, a cherished pal, a wry observer, an intermediary, a bringer of joy and plot developments.

I see a clear trajectory in my attachment to Criterion films. Through 5 DVD experiences, I evolved from that odd teenage girl who liked to watch old Hollywood movies into a far-gone cinephile—somebody who devours information about film and always hungers for more.

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Even when I set aside personal favorites and epiphanies, Criterion served as my introduction to almost every essential art film that I’ve seen—though I have plenty of shameful blind spots—whether through a DVD I owned, a library loan, a title I streamed, or a college screening I attended. When I go over the highlights of that list, it sounds like an art-house litany: M, La règle du jeu, The Seventh Seal, L’Avventura, Hiroshima mon amour, À bout de souffle… and so on.

I can only write about and understand film by looking through the lens of who I am, but the movies I watched during my formative years as a cinephile refined and focused that lens. And many, nay, most of the movies that taught me how to look at movies came with Criterion spine numbers.

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As a millennial, I belong to arguably the first generation that discovered film through home video and video on demand, not through television like my parents did. I was spared the effort of scouring the most recent issue of the TV Guide and staying awake until 2:00 a.m. to catch that Bela Lugosi movie. I just added it to the Amazon cart, and, mother permitting, in approximately 2 weeks (Remember the sorrows of a pre-Prime world?) the DVD was mine forever, mine to watch on my own terms.

My digital-bred cinephile memories center on curation and control rather than scheduling and scarcity. I chose and acquired movies to suit my tastes (and later to fill out my education), based on a matrix of factors, including my interests, budget constraints, and availability.

As a result, my relationship with film is wedded to brands. I can vividly picture the portrait-style box art of my Universal Monsters VHS cassettes. I recall running my finger along the spines of the DVD stacks in my college library, plucking out the Warner Archive blues.

(If that seems like an excessively commercial relationship with an art form, let’s remember that classic movie audiences would’ve known a given film’s studio but probably not its director. And what are most film texts if not products designed to deliver a certain effect?)

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Explicitly defining itself as a collection, Criterion embraced the sensibility of home video as curation. With their sophisticated flair, sleek logo, and eye-catching art, Criterion boxes and discs weren’t mere carriers of digital transfers but objects of aesthetic contemplation.

In the early days of my DVD collection, Criterions were coveted, luxurious, ceremonial possessions. Many offered hours of additional entertainment through essay booklets, commentary tracks, interviews, and documentaries new and old. And their price enhanced their allure. I could’ve bought 2 or 3 less lofty DVDs for the price of a single Criterion release, so I owned a treasured few.

Let me tell you about how it started.

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July 2004: There Were Warning Signs

If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Amazon.com. Filter back to, say, 5 years ago, and the most cursory glance over your purchase history (oh, it’s still there) yields a personal narrative recorded through consumption, an auto-anthropology of needs and desires.

When I rewind to 2004 in “Your Orders” (well, my mother’s), I can confirm that my first Criterion Collection DVD was a 2-disc set of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955). The act of verification was strangely touching but unnecessary. I remember my infatuation with the item.

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The gold cover design featured a haughty man in black armor on horseback—a spiky, warlike image that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a heavy metal album. With its separate disc of supplements, this DVD set differed from any I’d previously encountered.

I took the set, a talisman of my major-league crush on Sir Larry, wherever I went. My mother still shakes her head over how I opted to stay in our hotel room during a family vacation and rewatch Richard III with commentary instead of sunbathing on the rooftop deck. (In my defense, I totally rock the consumptive pallor look.)

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A 13-year-old girl who repeatedly watches a 158-minute Shakespeare movie from the 1950s is unusual enough. But one who repeatedly listens to the commentary track? It’s a wonder my parents didn’t send me to a counselor.

What bound me to Criterion #215? My rising fascination with Shakespeare prompted the purchase, since Richard III was the first Bard play I’d read on my own time, not for school, but that can’t fully explain the fixation. No, the “high-definition transfer… with restored image and sound” captured my imagination.

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The pristine image quality let Olivier’s characterization charm me through the screen, as he’d intended: “Richard would be flirting with the camera—sometimes only inches from his eyes—and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could.” The wicked, fourth-wall-breaking intimacy of his performance indeed felt like a courtship, entangling me into complicity with the antihero’s crimes.

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The film’s fairytale palette, with its saturated heraldic primary blues, golds, and reds, its pastel walls and Medieval gowns, its nightmarish cobalt and violet shadows, also initiated me to the extravagant glories of Technicolor. Much of of Richard III resembles a live-action Disney fantasy somehow hijacked by a beguiling, misshapen psychopath.

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Then there was the commentary track by Russell Lees and John Wilders. With their close analysis of acting styles, cinematography, set design, and more, they gave me a guided tour of the film and taught me how to read the screen. Behind the pleasures of plot and character, the pleasures of dismantling and interpreting movies beckoned to me with boundless possibilities.

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It was during this phase of my budding obsession that, on a stroll down our country road, my mother and I had a discussion about my future, a conversation that strikes me as particularly ironic in retrospect. (For some context, I was one of those straight-A, type-A kids preoccupied by the complex calculus of prestigious college acceptances from a tender age. Parental pressure didn’t exist in my home, so I have to take responsibility as a self-created monster.)

“You spend so much time watching movies and reading books about movies. Maybe you should study film,” My mom suggested.

I was scandalized. “Are you crazy? I would never do that. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to make movies. I want to be a professor or something. And what’s the point of studying movies? I just like to watch them, okay?”

“Okay.” She shrugged.

We kept marching down the dirt road. I proceeded to talk her ear off about the obscure British movie from 1946 that I’d just watched in 12 installments of 5 minutes on her work computer.

(Damn those parsimonious YouTube length constraints of the early aughts. And damn mothers. They’re always right.)

August 2007: Tears for a Villain

I get nervous when stringing together words about Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). I’m not worthy. Someday when I’m a better writer, I’ll have the courage and skill to praise it adequately. For now I’ll content myself with saying it’s the first truly great movie that made me weep.

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Charles Foster Kane doesn’t make me misty, but Harry Lime gets to me. That I should shed tears for an exquisite scoundrel alarms me. Do I cry because I admire his will to survive and thrive? Because his cavalier defense of amorality sets him apart from the petty, rationalizing evils that appear to us in cloaks of humility and piety? Because in the dank Vienna sewers he displays the remnants of his decency with a weary nod, giving his best friend permission to execute him?

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All of the above, I suspect. Plus the glittering, slick streets that wink at you throughout the film. And the piquant zither score that mocks a shattered world.

My out-of-print Criterion set bears obvious marks of affection: white flecks of wear around the box edges and light scratches on the discs. I acquired it during a summer-long Orson Welles binge, around the time when my love of movies hit critical mass. Today, this shot of Harry in the sewers, featured on the Criterion disc fold, remains my desktop wallpaper, the center of my digital existence.

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February 2009: At the Gate

The start of my second semester of college was the nadir of my life so far. A health crisis had caged our family in a gray-walled hospital for a week. My mother was ill and emaciated from something that nobody can cure, and I hated the universe. Dorm life had driven me almost to the point of a clinical breakdown. No rest. No one to confide in. Nothing but work on a diet of anxiety and bagged black tea and cafeteria pizza.

That was the semester when I took my first film class: Japanese Film, to satisfy a requirement. My life turned around from there. Never underestimate the power of Akira Kurosawa.

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I arrived at the first course screening about 15 minutes early on a blustery Vermont night. The professor, a lady of seraphic calm and erudition, was setting up. On the screen, over the flickery image of a crumbling Asian temple or gate, I saw the familiar Criterion logo and menu. A good omen.

“Oh, I love the Criterion Collection,” I gushed, unaware that the series had a loyal following.

“Yes, don’t you just want to collect them all?” My new teacher kindly replied.

The lights dimmed, and Rashomon hit me with the same force that it must’ve unleashed on unsuspecting Western audiences in 1950. I had no background in Japanese cinema, no expectations. I didn’t need any. I could’ve watched it without subtitles and it still would’ve floored me. Kurosawa’s dark, sensual, epistemological dance of sun and shadow took my mind in so many directions that I could hardly think straight when it was over.

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Staggering out of the screening, I called my mom (you’ll notice a motif here) to talk through all the emotions. “Ohmygod, I just saw the most amazing movie. It was about, well, this rape. But not really. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like, but it was so beautiful. I mean, it has to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen…”

That night I discovered what I’d been missing by concentrating on movies from my own culture. Thank you, Kurosawa, for slashing through my ignorance with your katana-sharp vision.

April 2010: Getting Out of the Boat

Black Narcissus? I blush to admit I had never heard of it when I saw the DVD in a jumbled pile at a church rummage sale. But it was a Criterion DVD, and I knew it was well worth the $2.00 asking price.

I sometimes muse about the person who gave this sublime film up. Could they have been blind to its lurid Jack Cardiff hues? Was it a stray possession left at a significant other’s house after a breakup? Did the owner die and donate all earthly goods and chattels to the church? I grasp for a plausible explanation.

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Now, I could go on about how Black Narcissus messed with my head, but I already did so a few years ago on this blog:

“I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating…. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

“The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. ‘Holy ****!’ I exclaimed to myself. ‘Sister Ruth got out the boat!’”

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December 2011: I Shouldn’t Have Come

My screenwriting professor stood a lanky 6’3”, fluently dropped F-bombs in front of students, and ate the occasional Charleston Chew for breakfast in class. I called him “dude.” He called me “dude.” I wonder if he realized that he was the closest thing I had to a friend at college.

My film professors were the coolest gang of people I’d ever met: an imposing white-haired authority on Antonioni, a transmedia expert who wore hand-knit Etsy shawls and taught me how to tweet, a former ballet dancer who sparked my fascination with the Production Code, my miraculously level-headed and brilliant thesis advisor, and my badass screenwriting teacher.

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I haunted their office hours for no other reason than to pick their brains about my favorite films and theirs. When I got the chance to do some light filing and video editing for the department as a campus job, I got to hang around even more. I think they were all amused, but a respectful kind of amused. They too were cinephiles, after all.

One day I was going about my usual stapling of documents and updating of spreadsheets, when the dude slouched in to make some copies. We got chatting (I forget about what), and he was about to leave when he issued an invitation.

“Hey, I’m showing a movie tonight for the Screenwriting 1 class that you might like, Trouble in Paradise…”

That I might like? “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”

He smiled. “It’s screening in Twilight at 8:30 if you want to come.”

Oh, I wanted to, alright. But a nasty, heavily-weighted assignment, due the following morning, on Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris reared its ugly head.

“Aw, man. I can’t make that. French paper.”

“That’s cool. If you change your mind we’ll be in Twilight auditorium.”

I returned to my spreadsheet, cursing my smug 18th century lit professor, Mercier, and the whole damn French Revolution.

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Around 8:20, my brain cooking over the syntactical implications of Mercier’s prose, I grabbed my coat and split from the whole f’ing program. Destination: Paris, Paramount.

As I dashed to the screening, airy flakes of snow fluttered down, heavenly in the beams of the streetlights. I tilted my face upward, stunned by the ethereal scene—and a big, wet wad of snow hit me in the eye. So much for ethereal. Shivering, I rushed into the screening hall with a false shiner of dissolving mascara and ice water.

Ernst Lubitsch once said, “At least twice a day the most dignified human being is ridiculous.” You know, I think he had a point.

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Apart from my appropriately droll eye makeup mishap, Trouble in Paradise (in its dreamy Criterion transfer) reminded me that life is worth living. The unironic laughter of students my age restored my faith in timeless wit—and even boosted my faith in my generation.

Early in the film Miriam Hopkins frets, “I shouldn’t have come!” when she shows up at Gaston’s room. But Destiny already set out the champagne for her. She knows full well that she wanted to come desperately, that nothing could keep her away. I could relate.

When I ditched my paper for about 2 hours, I shed the qualities that I mistook for my identity: borderline-masochistic discipline, dependability, competitiveness. In fact, what drew me to Lubitsch—joie de vivre, the love of beauty, and the gift of finding humor in one’s own absurdity—revealed much more about who I was.

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Friends, I make no claims on wisdom, but I will advise this: pay attention to the things you do “out of character,” for they will tell you the truth about your nature. Patterns sustain themselves. Anomalies happen for a reason.

After graduation I’d abandon my type-A, straight-A compulsions. I’d turn my back on the rush of academic pressure and achievement. I’d find a job that gave me freedom and paid my bills. I’d devote all of my remaining time to a vocation that didn’t pay me a thing but made me happy. Cinema gave me the strength to reinvent myself. That’s where the story ends for now.

A Conclusion in the Best Exculpatory Tradition

I feel that I should deliver a warning to the young and impressionable. Never trust cinema. Don’t look directly at the frame when confronted with a masterpiece. Abhor the company of auteurs and their works. You will ruin yourself for all other passions. You might throw away some respectable hobby—or, heaven forfend, some respectable career—for a deviant pursuit, a pernicious philia.

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Cinema is the slyest of gentleman thieves. Just as Gaston Monescu would snatch the garters off your thighs, cinema will steal the heart out of your chest. It will make blocks of 70, 90, 158 minutes disappear. It will evaporate the comforting boundaries of your world. It will empty your bank account whilst cluttering your shelves.

That’s what cinema did to me. And you know something? I don’t regret it. Not one spine number, not one cent, not one second spent dreaming my Criterion dreams.

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This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to read all the delightful entries!

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My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.