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WHITE GOD - Kornél Mundruczó

 White God has almost no thematic content. It doesn’t need any. It’s a spectacle: A hypnotic, suspenseful, surprisingly moving riot of human-on-dog, human-on-human and dog-on-human cruelty; unfocused social protest; and disruptive, assured cinema revolving around one – no, two – charismatic canines – Hagen, played by Hagen and his brother. Director Kornél Mundruczó presents his text with such technical and emotional bravado, you think there must be some subtext in there someplace. In this, White God resembles Daisies or other Czech revolutionary films of 60 years ago: things you’ve never seen before + directorial brio, but to what end? What end – beyond the welcome lessons that 1) We should be nicer to doggies, 2) There’s more to any doggie than meets the eye, 3) Mutts are superior to pure-breeds, and 4) Doggies possess more soul, poetry and, indeed, humanity, than most people.

Even showcasing things you’ve never seen before, White God revels in dog-movie tropes. There’s the sensitive young girl who alone values the doggie-protagonist at his true worth. There’s chase scenes featuring ineffective dogcatchers who symbolize the repressive power of the state. There’s a rageaholic, divorced dad who’s taught love by his daughter’s devotion to a doggie. There’s even a dog-hating orchestra conductor with silvery, orchestra-conductor hair who emotes with his nostrils. And there’s a brand-new trope: doggies as the visual locus of ambitious European art-movies. Godard’s Goodbye to Language introduced this trope with its many minutes spent following an adorable mutt. As ever, other filmmakers pick up what Godard puts down, and in this case, that’s doggies. One baffling trope is the title. Is it homage to Samuel Fuller’s unwatchable anti-racism parable, White Dog? Or does it reference Jack London’s immortal White Fang, another tale of a worthy beast turned bestial by human cruelty?

 White God is about something. It’s just never clear what. If Mundruczó offers specific commentary, it remains opaque. Lowlife citizens make contemptuous references to ‘mutts’ and ‘mixed breeds’: is that an indictment of Hungary’s descent into fascism and anti-Semitism? The delicate ‘tween protagonist labors in an orchestra; does that mean only classical culture can redeem Hungary’s youth?  These possibly thematic moments, presented with unrelenting intensity, play like signposts to a deeper meaning. They turn out to be background – the context through which Hagen lives his doggie life, with all its doggie terrors, joys, abandonment, violence and redemption. Every moment seems momentous and laden; the story stays compelling. The viewer’s mistake might be thinking any moment carries any greater weight than another. Weightiness proves to be the biggest tool in Mundruczó kit, that’s all. He’s certainly in command of his material. He elicits rich, nuanced, weighty performances from everyone. Hagen and his brother demonstrates a broader emotional range than most of their human co-stars. The humans under- or overplay depending on whether they’re downtrodden or villainous. The drama stays sufficiently gripping, most of the time, anyway, to render the lack of aboutness unimportant.

White God proves to be a Bizarro Ol’ Yeller. And Ol’ Yeller remains the most heartbreaking movie ever made. If you’re an adult and have not seen it, stay away. You will never recover. Ol’ Yeller was crude and made cheaply. White God is knowing and polished. Though, as in Ol’ Yeller, the human-on-dog cruelty proves almost impossible to watch. Hagen the doggie possesses more moral agency than anyone except his beloved owner, as did Ol’ Yeller. Humans get put down for the common good, as was poor Ol’ Yeller. When Ol’ Yeller turned violent toward people, he had rabies and was out of his little doggie mind. When Hagen takes his vengeance, White God presents his actions as a perfectly rational response to provocation.

The doggie performances are astonishing. The extended scenes of 250 doggies acting in concert are pure pleasure. The director wisely cuts away from showing humans beating doggies. He tries gamely to show a vicious dogfight in gory detail. Anyone who ever owned a doggie will see these are two doggies wrestling playfully with mean-doggie sounds added later. Moments like this – such as when Hagen’s brother appears in close-up and is so clearly not Hagen – lessen the film’s considerable hold. As with the lack of aboutness, it’s hard to say why the story stays so involving, but it never lags.

In the end, White God is about the joy of watching doggies. Want to see 250 joyous doggies splash at top speed through a 50-yard puddle? Want to see them race in a malevolent block-long pack through deserted, moonlit Hungarian backstreets? Want to see the lead doggie turn into a white whale and kick major Hungarian Ahab ass? Of course you do, and why not? Hagen’s revenge provides plenty of catharsis, and not just for Hagen.

 The finale, with its homage to trumpet solos and quasi-religious overtones – man prostrates himself before dog – makes absolutely no sense, but hits with the power of an ancient fable. The final shot of all those poised doggies waiting for….something, evokes Kubrick and The Birds in ways that bypass rationality altogether. This is the source of White God’s power. Mundruczó connects with the archetypal and profound in the animal nature of humans and and the human aspects of dogs. And that has nothing whatever to do with meaning.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


Rystetur means Rigor: The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

 "No matter where he directed – France, Germany, Norway, Sweden – he found himself in constant conflict with producers and backers. They regarded him as an obstinate artist, and a costly one, because of his fanatical attention to detail and atmosphere."

                        Ephraim Katz

                        The Film Encyclopedia

Elements of a Director’s Style: Carl Theodor Dreyer 

 1) Subject Matter

a) How our emotions serve as the doorway to spirituality.

b) How morality is reflected in physical character; body is spirit.

c) The endurance of injustice and self-delusion in the face of the Divine.

d) The cultural details of the era of his stories.

e) Life's persistent quality of transcendence.


"Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry." 

                                                                        Carl Theodor Dreyer

                                                                        Thoughts on My Craft

2) Script:

Dreyer began his working life as a barroom pianist. His most substantial money earning came from his work as a court reporter. Both jobs influenced him greatly: the role of art in sanctifying the profane, and the transcendence available through (deceptively) simple, rigorous re-creation of life. He made only fourteen films in fifty-three years. At issue was money, Nazi repression, audience & critical scorn, money…but Dreyer never took on a project half-assed. If he needed five years to sort out his visual sense of story, then five years it was. Few filmmakers have so married visual narrative to emotional narrative, and few have been able to so scrap 'story' narrative for the emotional. By depicting every quark of every feeling experienced by his characters, Dreyer lets the 'story' unfold through the expression of his characters' emotions. This is, obviously, backwards from almost every other filmmaker. Most let the events of the narrative serve as the engine of their characters' emotions. (For example, Keanu experiences distress because there's a bomb on the bus.) While that should make Dreyer's films opaque, they are instead, luminous. His characters’ emotions are never unclear, and neither is the sequence of narrative events.


" His greatness lies in making tranquil pictures of overwhelming feeling. The sanctity of emotions is his faith and the cinematic ability to make an aesthetic and ordered narrative is his aim."

                        David Thomson

                        The Biographical Dictionary of Film


3) Images - Composition and Lighting

Known, rightfully, as the master of the close-up, Dryer's images are simple, uncluttered, direct, packed with narrative information and somehow filled with space that contextualizes the people or events each shot contains. His style alters not from film to film, but from period to period; his earlier silent films (and Vampyr is on the cusp between his sound and silent work) harken visually to his idol, D. W. Griffith. But Dreyer relied less on the American style of hurly-burly, hyper-active frames and more on a European, painterly understanding of how each element within a composition could wield spiritual, emotional and narrative power. The stateliness of his framing, the intensity of his compositions and the transcendent effects of his images, have earned him a kind of Film Society-only rep, the great filmmaker whose films should be worshipped but are too boring to be enjoyed. If you've never seen a Dreyer film, Joan of Arc will dispel that notion in the first five minutes.

            Whether Dreyer utilizes close-ups or weird tracking wide shots, the weight of his purposefulness palpably fuels his camerawork and composition: you will know and understand the emotional valence of a shot instantly, and that knowledge (and the feeling it provokes) will grow as the shot is held. His direct, recognizable purposefulness does not obscure the transcendent quality of his images. That manifest directorial will only makes the sense of divinity and awe grow. When you figure out how he accomplishes this, please let me know.

"What interests me is reproducing the feelings of the characters in my films. The important thing is not only to catch hold of the words they say, but also the thoughts behind the words. These are the expressions of the depth of the soul."

            Carl Theodor Dreyer

            Thoughts on My Craft


4) Acting Performances

            Dreyer’s actors are usually amateurs, chosen for their faces. Director Eric Rohmer, who calls Dreyer one of his 'dream masters,' echoed Dreyer's casting technique: he found actors whose faces bore a key quality he wanted his characters to manifest. Or, if not amateurs, Dreyer's actors might be avatars in other realms, like the poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, who plays a tormented priest in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer ran his actors through a million takes; he almost killed poor Maria Falconetti, who plays Joan. Dreyer's insistence on capturing the most minute emotional truth, his willingness to shoot and shoot and shoot, his imperious and often obscure direction over eighteen months of shooting…all this lead Falconetti to never act again. 


5) Pace, Cadence and Rhythm

Dreyer's films always seem – in the first couple minutes – like they're going to take a long time to get to the point. But, unlike fellow Transcendent Robert Bresson, Dreyer never makes a story longer than it needs to be; Joan of Arc is shockingly compact. The intensity of each shot might make the pace seem slower than it really is. When a Dreyer film ends you're left still wishing it would go on, if for no other reason than to give you time to digest all you've felt. Dreyer paces to his own rhythm, and he's not compelled by separate acts or theatrical structure. He gives each scene the weight he thinks it warrants for its precise place in the (emotional) narrative and then moves on. A crucial scene might last for one close-up or it might take ten minutes.


"Throughout Dreyer's films and his writings about films there runs a consistent thread of ambiguity: whether art should express The Transcendent or the person (fictional character or film-maker) who experiences The Transcendent: whether Transcendence is an inner or outer reality."

            Paul Schrader

            Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer


6) Editing

Because Dreyer is famed for the power of his close-ups, you might think he structures his films primarily though cutting. He maintains that his editing is almost incidental, and that each shot so holds its own narrative purpose that it need not be juxtaposed against another to have its full effect (Kubrick and Tarkovsky operates similarly). I'm not so sure I believe it. Such a position is purposefully antagonistic to the classic Eisensteinian position that a shot’s meaning derives solely from its juxtaposition to other shots. Eisenstein held that an effective sequence of shots produces an effect greater than the sum of its parts. Dreyer cuts as if each shot was a film/painting/novel/universe unto itself. He has a knack of Eisensteinian reduction in action sequences – he eliminates every unnecessary visual moment to build sequences of great rhythm and narrative drive.


" Dreyer demonstrates triumphantly that the close-up was not just a means, but an end."

            David Thomson

            The Biographical Dictionary of Film


7) Use of supportive elements: design, costumes, music, etc.

Dreyer, like Rohmer after him, lets the costumes speak volumes about power, class, aspiration and social place. Each character is understood and known visually, and that knowledge comes from his or her dress. Yet, treading adroitly on the blurred line between reality/un, Dreyer places these almost realist figures in an almost purely expressionistic space. Deeply influenced (during this era of his career, at least) by German Expressionism, Dreyer's sets are never quite as real, as symmetrical, as naturalist as his costumes. He likes his wholly real figures to move in a world that is bent just enough to express not physical, but emotional reality. And the universe of soul and spirit lurking behind and occasionally expressed by that emotion.



"It's okay with me" THE LONG GOODBYE


 A modernist absurd take on the classic Raymond Chandler novel featuring Hollywood private detective Phillip Marlowe. Elliot Gould brings an offhand, shambling grace to a character burned into America’s memory as hard-boiled and in control. Gould’s Marlowe never even attempts control: he’s much too aware of the randomness of fate and the pointlessness of any proactive behavior.

            For Altman, Marlow’s a man of the 1940s trapped in the ‘70’s. Marlowe wears old suits, drives an antique car and holds himself to an outdated moral code. His code includes loyalty, fair play and a refusal to sell out. Any man adhering to such a code, Altman contends, will experience serious problems living and working in modern Los Angeles.

            Alienated yet determined to survive, Marlowe’s mantra is: “It’s okay with me,” by which he separates himself from the grasping of those around him. Marlowe’s anachronistic personality functions as his salvation and as the root cause of his lack of success – the struggle between these personal morality and career striving being a recurring Altman theme.

            More than pace or rhythm, Altman is a master of mood, and his shift from sequence to sequence is usually dependent on one mood ending and another taking hold. This narrative use of mood is enhanced by Leigh Brackett’s sarcastic, but, in its way, utterly sincere screenplay (Brackett contributed to the screenplay of 1946’s Chandler adaptation The Big Sleep). Brackett sees Marlowe and Hollywood through the prism of her thirty years in The Show Business; her nasty humor and unexpected violence give the story its edge.

            The constantly shifting, constantly searching camera mirrors Marlowe’s quest and reveals a shadowy world hidden beneath L.A.’s sunshine. That shadowy universe includes a drunken author, his scheming wife, and a vicious, neurotic gangster played by director Mark Rydell (The Rose, On Golden Pond). Stories held that Rydell took the part to learn how Altman dealt with his actors. Everyone except Marlowe is neurotic in that L. A. Showbiz way; they’re neurotic and proud of it.

            Perennially doomed Noir hero Sterling Hayden, unrecognizable beneath a huge hippie beard and tangled gray mane, plays the doomed writer. Jim Bouton, author of the groundbreaking baseball tell-all Ball Four, plays Marlowe’s absent friend. Nina Van Pallandt – famous in the early ‘70’s for her role in a since-forgotten front-page, high-society scam – is the femme fatale and Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoys his first dramatic role (bodybuilding soft-core aside) as a mob enforcer. Blink and you may miss him.

            A hundred wonderful hidden jokes and references to other films noir run through but never detract from the picture. Among the most subversive is that the film’s theme song plays on whatever music source is close to hand: Gould listens to a jazz rendition on the car radio; when he walks into the grocery store the Muzak version picks up without missing a beat. When Marlowe visits a remote Mexican village, a funeral band marches by blaring the refrain.

            A touching, funny, suspenseful parody of detective movies that is among the best detective movies ever made.

                                    A Girl and A Gun; The Complete Guide to Film Noir

Sterling Hayden and Elliot Gould

Subject Matter

1) Self-delusion and the mechanisms that enforce it; how we announce our own delusions unceasingly and still ignore them; the tenacity with which we cling to the fantasy that no one notices the dissonance between our talk and action; how pissed off we might become if they do.

2) The hard hard road facing anyone determined to live by a moral code; the difficulties facing anyone who will not conform; the punishment due anyone who deals in truth.

3) Payback is a what?

4) Camera movement

 2) Script

            Because Altman encourages his actors to improvise, it’s hard to tell which lines emerged in the heat of the moment and which from the page. Not that it matters; wherever the words derive, they hang together. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett is Hollywood history incarnate. Her credits include The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, Hatari!, The Rockford Files and The Empire Strikes Back and here, for once, she seems unleashed, able to release her id, her nastiness, her dark side, and still the story rolls along, perfectly structured scene by scene and act by act. No moment, however much it serves as commentary on itself, is wasted as plot-point or narrative advancement. Brackett and Altman, hurling the story into a modern era while emphasizing an existential, crippling self-consciousness that Marlowe never before suffered from on the screen (but which runs through all the books), make sure that character always serves narrative and vice versa. In Noir and thrillers in general, usually one suffers for the other. (The Bourne Identity is a surprisingly good example of narrative fueling character) Their screenplay underscores the character’s issues using modern language and gesture, but never strays from the soul of the source material. In mood, pacing, understanding of the moral struggle, transposition of character and, most importantly, understatement - a critical Chandler attribute - this is the finest adaptation of his work. And let’s not forget Chandler’s sophisticated view of the machinations of society, which tend to disappear in some adaptations. Here, nobody’s trying to make the story dumber. 

3) Images - Composition and Lighting

            Altman’s camera conveys the narrative action and the psychological underpinnings of that action. His camera travels, questing, seeking, never letting us grow comfortable viewing from one position; it’s a Cubist approach, wherein Altman shows us every angle of every moment.

            Do you know how difficult this is for a camera crew? Moving constantly, changing focus every second, letting actors travel as they will and then catching up to them… Think of this film, even more than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as jazz improvisation, where no matter how far afield the ideas are flung, the melody is never lost.

            Functionally, the constantly moving camera is a metaphor for Marlowe’s quest, his and our confusion, and a reminder that a single mystery underlies this story and we are all looking for its solution. Plus, the motion symbolizes the hopeless moral/personal confusion of every character: their houses are built on sand; there is no safe place to stand, no one clear perspective from which to view the struggle.

Contrast this with the simple stately camera in Lawrence of Arabia, which by its stateliness and god-like omniscience tells us: this is a moral world with clearly defined compass points. Come, observe how this world works and trust this perspective. Altman/Zsigmond say just the opposite: come, here’s total fucking moral anarchy barely perceptible under a truckload of existential dread; let us show it to you the only way we can, from multiple perspectives originating from a godless, answerless, baseless void. 

4) Acting Performances

            Godard said: “Realism isn’t realistic,” he meant that naturalism takes as much work as formalism. You might watch the apparent off-the-cuff natural performances in The Long Goodbye and think they were easier to attain than those in say, Contempt. They ain’t.

            Altman rehearses his actors like a theatre company. He spends, or spent at the time, more time rehearsing than shooting. His actors knew their characters, and their relationships, and each conversation seems remarkably real, including the scenes with amateurs Jim Bouton & Nina Van Pallandt. Here, as in all Altman’s best films, folks behave like folks; they interrupt, talk over one another (something Altman took from the French New Wave and something almost no other American director has ever had the guts to try or the charm to convince his/her actors to attempt), often say the opposite of what they mean and often show the opposite of what they really feel.


 It’s my pet theory that Altman’s early films -- M.A.S.H, The Long Goodbye & McCabe & Mrs. Miller -- changed the face of American movie acting. I think he took us from the tortured formalism of Method, and moved us into a new conversationalism. All our stars of a certain age: DeNiro, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Meryl Streep, the guys who came out of Mamet (Mantegna, Macey, etc.) do not respond to screen moments like actors; they respond like normal confused people who often do not know what they feel but always want to appear in control. This is very Altman. Elliot Gould gives the performance of his life.

5) Pace, Cadence and Rhythm

            Because the camera never stops moving, and because the story appears to shamble around - even though it’s quite directed, purposeful and intentional - you might be left with the illusion of randomness. But the story mirrors Marlowe’s perception of the mystery, as Chandler’s books always do. In the beginning, when Marlowe’s baffled, the story moves quickly here, slowly Marlowe’s sense of events grows clearer, the pace becomes more definite. No one thinks of Altman as a structualist  - no one thinks of Godard in that way, either - because his films seem to be driven by emotion. But a careful viewing, or maybe a second viewing, show an artist in total control of his material.

6) Editing

            Again, seemingly random and confusing, but in fact always purposeful. Because the camera never stops moving, the cuts from wide shots to close-ups are especially powerful. As is Altman’s’ habit of letting the lens veer away from the main action as a scene winds down, zooming in to some peripheral but worthy moment, and then editing off that zoom to a whole new scene and another moving camera. The cuts from motion to motion are sublime and grant the film a kind of musical flow.


7) Use of supportive elements: design, costumes, music, etc.

 Nobody American understands mise-en-scene like (early) Altman. The foreground in his best pictures always vanishes into the background, which holds all the clues of class, place, the relationship between the characters in that moment and the ruling emotional gestalt of wherever the scene is set. Altman’s locations – an expensive L.A. nuthatch, a Malibu beach house, a rundown private eye’s apartment – seem so recognizable, so ‘of course that’s the way it would look.’ He achieves this by shooting in real locations, but also by choosing locations that are perfect archetypes of themselves.

            Altman’s a subtle, purposeful costumer; Nina Van Pallandt and Jim Bouton’s leisure clothes are so much more assured that Gould’s ‘40’s suits or the gangster’s slimy polyester. But the differences are never obvious; as with all the other self-delusions on display, everybody thinks they look their best.

            Except Marlowe, who can’t be bothered. 



 In honor of Ken Russell's passing, here are notes on his style perpared for my cinema studies course "Up Jumped The Devil."

 “He raised funds for Tchaikovsky by telling investors it was ‘a love story between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac’.”     

 David Thomson

 Biographical Dictionary of Film

Elements of a Director’s Style: Ken Russell


 THE DEVILS   (1971)

1) Subject Matter: 

The sensual pleasure/terror inherent in just about everything.

How self-destruction grows from ambition, passion, desire, creativity or love.

How love, creativity, passion, desire and ambition fuel self-destruction.

How society undermines the odd, the creative, the independent.

How desire makes women neurotic and men bestial.


Extremes of emotion

History & biography in which facts matter less than drama.


2) Script:

Based on the Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon, The Devils more or less follows a power struggle between Cardinal Richelieu of France and a roguish priest who serves as governor of the town of Loudon. Richelieu, determined to turn France Catholic by slaughtering anyone who was not, insisted that towns tear down their fortified walls – that towns make themselves more vulnerable. The priest/governor of Loudon refused, but was undone when local nuns accused him of Black Masses, seducing them, etc. The presence of Satan was detected, the Inquisition came to town and bad stuff happened.


Like all Russell scripts, the historical events (the life of Tchaikovsky or Liszt or Mahler or Isadora Duncan) serve as a jumping off point for Russell’s singular ability to exaggerate every human emotion or interaction. You’d think that scenes of nuns masturbating themselves bloody with crucifixes wouldn’t require much exaggeration, but Russell finds a way. Like most of Russell’s scripts, The Devils is too wordy, too self-aware, too full of its own flare. And, like most of his scripts, the story remains compelling. We want to know what’s happening and why, even as we peer through this fog of self-indulgence.

 Given Russell’s juvenile penchant for epatier le bourgeois, he should regard The Devils as his triumph. His detailed depiction of Catholic blasphemy got the film banned in Italy. The two stars – Oliver Reed & Vanessa Redgrave – were threatened with arrest should they ever visit that country.

 3) Images - Composition and Lighting

The colors are lurid, the light is too bright and the camera makes bravura moves, which, like all of Russell’s effects, call attention to themselves at the expense of audience involvement in the story. Though Russell understands the grammar of cinema well enough to fuck with it non-stop, it’s as if his eye can’t bear a simple expository shot. Every emotion or narrative point in the frame has to be underlined five times and pointed out to us in neon.

This renders his films hypnotic and exhausting. And leaves an audience feeling messed with as well: sincerity and/or naturalism are not Russell’s modes. That said, Russell knows the power of a close-up and how to structure character through scale and placement within a frame. He’s a good visual storyteller and for better or worse, keeps the narrative – however fractured - moving forward. And, as Pauline Kael said of Godard, Russell turns most viewers into film critics. You can see his technique in front of you constantly, so you start thinking about why he’s doing what he does.


Cinematographer David Watkin shoots The Devils with a combination of late-‘60’s psychedelic expressionism and early ‘30’s Carl Dreyer austerity. His fixed compositions are stately and frightening. His hand-held work, while shooting too close in close-ups and moving all the time, remains unflinching. It’s a beautiful film.

 4) Acting Performances:

Over the top and then some. Sometimes. Think of Tina Turner as The Acid Queen in Tommy. Conversely, think of William Hurt and Blair Brown in Altered States. The former is pure camp, like most of Glenda Jackson’s and Oliver Reed’s performances for Russell. The latter are understated, naturalist and true. Understated, that is, by Russell’s standards. If Altered States is Russell’s most conventionally successful picture, then it naturally features his most conventionally successful performances.

Russell has gotten startling work out of stars whom we do not think of as actors, like Richard Chamberlain, and gotten worthy actors to star it up all over the place, like Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils. Russell’s actors are involved. No one goes about his or her job half-assed. Their performances often feature the exaggerated facial exercises of the silent era.

 5) Pace, Cadence and Rhythm:

 Maddening…Russell will bring the story to a complete halt to indulge in some ludicrous moment that no one cares about save him, or present a scene with such delicate awareness that you want to weep. Mostly, his films lack rhythm or pacing. Scenes lurch into one another, shift season or year without warning, jump-cut across eras or across the dinner table. He knows and understands suspense and how to build it, in his own overly dramatic stylized way. Because The Devils unfolds in one place and in a unified space/time continuum  (unlike, say, the life of Tchaikovsky), Russell sustains a pace that seems suitable to the tale.

No, that is not Warren Zevon.

6) Editing:

Flashy, irritating and very effective. Russell seems to thinks that no one in the audience has ever seen a film before, and will – like primitive tribespeople astonished by mirrors – have their minds blown by cuts to weird close-ups or grand guignol effects that startle nobody. Like his actor’s performances, the redeeming strength of Russell’s cuts is his overwhelming intentionality. He knows he’s going somewhere and wants you to come along. His conventional within-a-scene cutting  -from master to two-shot to close-up and back - is often hackneyed and television-like, as if conversation, even those key to the plot, bores him. If the subject is white-hot passion  - jealousy, lust, impending depravity - Russell cuts with greater ferocity as the characters interact. If the scene is exposition, he can’t be arsed.

 7) Use of supportive elements: design, costumes, music, etc.

The English punk/madman director Derek Jarman (Jubilee, The Tempest) served as Production Designer and seems to have modeled his sets after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He and Russell did not remake the historical period of the tale. They present a combination of futurism, retro and Expressionism. A hedonist, Russell is infatuated with color and texture and revels in the fabrics and brocades of the historical period.. Russell understands the political hierarchy of decoration within the Church, and he shows how power accrues to those permitted, say, to wear purple. The score is, as always, overdone and intrusive. The Devils showcases sets, costumes and interiors as commentary on the story/characters and as characters on their own.




Victor Sjöström’s Death has a tough gig. He drives the Phantom Carriage – a rotting wooden-wheeled wagon pulled by a decrepit horse - and gathers up dead souls. Death didn’t apply for the job, either. Reflecting perfectly pessimistic Swedish predestination, whomever dies nearest to midnight on New Year’s Eve becomes Death. Death serves, like Miss America, for one calendar year. The following New Year, some other poor dead sucker inherits the cowl and scythe and takes the reins.


Of course, Ingmar Bergman pretty much has a lock on the default image that comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘Death incarnate’: the black-robed, pale-faced, frog-eyed specter who challenges Max Von Sydow to a chess match in The Seventh Seal. His urbane manners and abiding patience make him creepily familiar. He’s one scary, passive-aggressive father figure and no one who sees the film forgets him.

 Swedish cinema titan, technical innovator, director, leading man and cranky bastard Sjöström - Bergman’s idol, mentor, bête noir, occasional father figure and cast regular - knew a thing or two about Death. Embracing his mortal terror, Sjöström adapted Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf’s novel and cast himself in the lead. Criterion delivers an immaculate print of Sjöström’s 1921 moral melodrama and special effects tour-de-force The Phantom Carriage, which Charlie Chaplin cited as the greatest film ever.

 Unlike Bergman’s archetype, Sjöström’s Death has neither manners nor patience. He’s tetchy and wore out, and little wonder, what with creaking hither and yon 24/7, chucking another soul into the carriage and rattling on to the next. In lesser hands, that would be the tale. But for Sjöström, as for Bergman decades later, Death is a means to an end, a prism through which to view the real story.


That story involves drunkenness, the Salvation Army (!), a forbidden love that does not fear Death, a love that lives beyond it, redemption (of course), and some hard-earned self-forgiveness. Yes, it’s a weeper, and should by description be a little ridiculous. But, like D.W. Griffith, Sjöström offered a gift to the future:  the expressive force of his close-ups. The poetry and realism of Sjöström’s compositions - his placement of characters static and in motion – and the power of the faces of his cast create archetypal images of which Death is not even the most memorable. Sjöström had a profoundly modern grasp of what makes inhabited cinematic space. His influence on both Chaplin and Bergman is plain. The emotional truth of his frames overwhelms the melodrama of his plot, most of the time anyway.

 Sjöström plays David Holm, a violent, reprehensible, endearing alcoholic. He had an enormous, mobile, dramatic face, as did all his co-stars. Sadly, no 90-year-old film draws a modern soul completely into the narrative. Much of the fine acting plays at a remove, until one of several wrenching moments crosses the divide of nearly a century. One of the more startling moments features Sjöström, in a drunken, psycho frenzy, bashing through a door with an axe so he can attack his terrified wife. Stanley Kubrick copped this assault chop for chop for chop in The Shining.


The Phantom Carriage creates ghosts and their interaction with the living through then groundbreaking special effects utilizing triple and quadruple exposures. They’re among the most evocative of their kind, consistently fascinating, and they help sustain attention during the most melodramatic moments. These see-through figures inhabit the mind well after the movie ends. This has been my experience of most of the great silent films, like Murnau’s Faust; I watch at a distance, never immersed, but later, image after image recurs with surprising clarity.

 Criterion’s DVD extras provide crucial context and history. There’s a lugubrious, revealing interview with Bergman about his relationship with Sjöström (Bergman bugs the hell out of me); a superb essay on Sjöström’s life and career by Peter Mayersberg, the genius who wrote Croupier; and an understated, almost perfectly appropriate score by composer Matti Bye. The score, recorded live at a public screening of Carriage, leaves the melodrama to Sjöström. The sophisticated of the score echoes how unnecessary to the drama – not the melodrama – the spoken word title-cards become. Sjöström was a visual storyteller, and the entire tale is right there in the frames.

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