Rosemary’s Baby

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When you watch old Horror films it is so easy to feel underwhelmed. What may have been scary for an audience in the 60s is now so far removed or normalised for a modern audience, all the actual scares will often just leave you cold to the effect that is talked about at length. Think of the scenes of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) and their (at the time) horrifying depictions of possession. All the head-spinning and vomiting may have been shocking to a naïve 70s audience, but in this age of realer than real CGI and more informed directorial shock tactics they can feel almost laughable to fresh viewers.

Whilst I do still feel there are scares to be found in the film and others like it, Psycho (1960, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock), being another prime example) the disconnect with the hysterical shocks remain an unfortunately unshakable barrier for me to actually recommend The Exorcist as a shockingly scary film any more (at least to a younger audience). This is not to say of course that all older Horror films lack impact and with Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) we can see that through effective direction and mood that perhaps chills rather than shocks are the more lasting effect of some of these Horror classics.

The story focuses on Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes), a young couple who move into a huge old townhouse flat and are greeted by a series of strange encounters. Firstly Rosemary meets a young woman who’s being rehabilitated from a junk habit by Rosemary’s new neighbours, the eccentric Castavets. Shortly after meeting the woman she kills herself, this is of course a surprise to Rosemary and yet they strike up a friendship with the elderly Castavets and things only get weirder for her from there.

To explain this plot further would for me be a disservice to the film as so much of the joy of Rosemary’s Baby is to be found in its hesitancy to reveal what is true and what is not. This is a total mood piece by Roman Polanski, as the story progresses both Mia Farrow’s Rosemary and John Cassavetes’ Guy play their parts with extreme conviction, Farrow in particular lending Rosemary a particular innocence which only serves to add to the mood of the piece even further. It is partially this innocence in Farrow but also the brooding detachment shown by Cassavetes that seem to mesh into this strange psychological chess game between the characters, however the game is often being convincingly won by the male characters in the story. These performances and the narrative arc of the film as a whole really do give off a very strange feeling for the viewer, whilst these two are meant to be in love, this strips away and although they do have sex in the film you cannot help but feel that already there is a sexless nature to the relationship as a whole. And yet Polanski often uses the men in the film to exert a particular dominance over Rosemary in a very creepy and unsettling way. The sexless nature of their relationship as the film progresses has the audience looking at the men in the story as bad guys even if they are seemingly innocent.

It is clear then from this that Polanski is far from aiming for a straightforward Horror film and as I mentioned before seems to be aiming for mood and chills rather than the grandstanding moments so often associated with the genre. Polanski is questioning relationships and friendships, continually asking the audience to distrust almost every interaction a person has with Rosemary. It is this disturbing psychological game that Polanski brings to the film that really makes this film stand so proudly in the horror cannon, the sense that just under the surface there’s a whole world of weirdness waiting for our heroine, if only she knew how to find out exactly what was happening to her and those around her.

The other main character that Polanski uses to create this suffocating mood is from the setting of the apartment itself. We see early on the couple refurbishing the space, from an old woman’s decrepit forgotten home to a modern light space. The lighting remains bright and flat in the apartment for much of the film and yet we rarely go outside, as Rosemary stays in the flat the tension rises and the camera slowly creeps in towards her. When the couple are in their housewarming stages the camera is often further back showing more of the flat but as their relationship diminishes in the story and Rosemary’s own journey takes over the camera will often just show Farrow grappling with her demons and her situation. The close-ups of Rosemary near the climax of the film even start to become unhinged with the director using a handheld style to both reflect the characters psyche but also just to bring this coiled spring of a film to an almost unbearable breaking point.

As you can probably tell I’m fairly in love with this film and if you haven’t had the time to see this or even better if you don’t know anything about it I really do recommend this as an alternative actually scary old horror film. A brilliant example of tell don’t show genre filmmaking with a compelling and creepy narrative and an iconic ending scene which gives me chills just writing this.

-Ed

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Rosemary’s Baby

La Strada/Nights Of Cabiria

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In an interview with Charlie Rose I recently watched, Martin Scorcese is talking about Fellini. He is recounting when he wanted show his daughter 8 ½, however he decides not to show it to her as her first Fellini film, he instead guides her through her viewing by showing her the three films that preceded that. Now, prior to seeing the interview I had not seen La Strada or Nights of Cabiria but had seen La Dolce Vita and the aforementioned 8 ½. Being the cinema nut I am, I had lept to the films that were most obviously Fellini in my mind. However having now watched his collaborations with his wife Giulietta Mansina you really get the sense of an artist evolving into himself, even in the space of two films. This is not to say I didn’t like 8 ½ when I saw it, quite the opposite, the viewing of 8 ½ in the NFT 1 of the BFI will long stay in my mind as a life altering experience in the cinema. I just feel that now I have caught up with the two preceding La Dolce Vita I understand this titan of world cinema more than I did when just watching his 2 most famous films.

He is a filmmaker much talked about by film scholars as one of the greatest of all time, and without a doubt in my mind you can see this from just a few scenes in his 60s work. But by just watching La Dolce Vita with no prior knowledge of what got him there I tend to agree with Scorcese, that you just don’t understand what ‘got him there’.

LA STRADA

La Strada opens in a small seaside town with a girl being in effect sold to an older man in order for him to take her around performing as part of his muscle man act. This seems a pretty grim situation from the off, however this is just the start for our tragic heroine Gelsomina played with incredible subtlety by Fellini’s muse Giulietta Mansina. Whilst in his later work Fellini focuses much more on internal turmoil and with the struggles of the mind, here Fellini is still working with reality as many great Italian directors had before him. Life is hard for the people of La Strada and getting by depends on solid hard work, going from town to town playing your act for different towns and audiences in order to get by. Anthony Quinn plays the brute Zampanò who subjects the innocent figure Gelsomina to an education in this life the hard way round. He is a man who knows this life and has grown jaded to others, he has no interest in friends or frivolities. Anthony Quinn plays him with such conviction that by the end of the film you really have no choice to be sick at the sight of him. He is such an intensely unlikeable figure, it hurts you to see such a man impose himself on Gelsomina throughout the film.

Giulietta Mansina gives a strange but incredible performance, she is often completely without dialogue and yet manages to convey intense emotion just through her face. The setting of the film in the world of circus acts and clowns makes sense of the performance. Much like the famous clowns of the silent era she uses expression to convey emotions more than in her dialogue. Whilst this may could end up as cloying or sappy, she uses these facial expressions with such aplomb it’s incredible. At points you can almost see inside her head to see how she is seeing a certain situation, something I’ve seen very few actors able to do just with their face. Much like a clown, Mansina paints her expressions on her face, this is yet again in complete contrast to Zampanò whose macho intensity leaves him with about 3 expressions he seems able to use, cynical, angry and neutral.

Fellini here uses the couples travels around different performances and encounters  with other circus performers to show a corruption of a soul. Gelsomina is clearly the innocent and Zampanò the weathered working performer. He performs the same shit routine to crowds year round, no interest in anything other than getting food or wine and maybe a shag on the side. Gelsomina being completely new to this world has to adapt, she has to shut up and do what he says despite not knowing anything of the trade she has been thrust into.

In terms of showing Fellini as a different director in terms of style, La Strada has Fellini at a crossroads. He is showing his movement slightly out of the realist stylings of his earlier work and moving into a more existential guise. This is not to say La Strada doesn’t have realist tendencies, but instead it serves more as a parable on human cruelty and corruption of innocence.

NIGHTS OF CABIRIA

If La Strada has Giulieta Mansina as an innocent character, Nights of Cabiria has her playing the opposite of this. This is not the rolling countryside of La Strada, instead it is the seedy underbelly of a bustling city, in which prostitutes scrape a living by working at all hours of the day. Fellini here is still clearly interested in the underdogs of society, those that are far away from the glitz and glamour of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ . Mansina enters the film as a ball of energy, after being rescued from a mugging which results in her almost drowning in a river she explodes with energy off the screen and displays a woman who knows exactly what kind of world she is in.

Cabiria (Giulietta Mansina) is not at all jaded by her life, she just accepts that this is what she must do to get by. However throughout the film she is always trying to find a way out, a way to escape from her life and move to something greater and more conventional. This theme of being discontent with the life that you are in is something Fellini is obsessed with, especially at this point in his career. Every film from his 50’s and 60’s work tackles this to varying degrees. The hope displayed by Cabiria is heartbreaking at points with Mansina putting in a performance completely opposite to her turn in La Strada but with as much passion and conviction. She won the best actress award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, and with good reason. Cabiria is the heart of this film as the title may suggest, but it is Mansina’s performance that once again makes the audience really hope and care for her.

Fellini is once again rooting himself in reality but yet again he is toying with this reality, becoming a more adventurous filmmaker with more expressive camera movement and set design. He shows Rome as a dark city, one that does not much care for the underclass. Whilst the movie stars and priests live in massive highly decorated worlds, those having to scrape a buck live in bombed out wastelands left from the war. In one particularly striking sequence Cabiria comes across a man giving food and clothing out to the poorest of Italian society, instead of houses they are forced to live in caves in the ground. Cabiria is struck by the charity of the man and follows him, in a world in which people use her for their own pleasure she finds it fascinating to find a truly selfless man. This comes shortly after her encounter with a movie star who uses her to have a shoulder to mope on shortly after a falling out between him and his girlfriend. Cabiria is unimportant and doesn’t mean anything to him, however Cabiria is yet again fascinated by the wealth and opulence he lives in. Her story shows the yearning for something greater, a life more meaningful than what she has at the time maybe even more than Marcello’s in La Dolce Vita. Whilst he has everything and is looking for a more meaningful life in the glitzy world of the film world in Rome, Cabiria has nothing and just wants simply to be loved.

Fellini has a difficult relationship with Religion, whilst there is often a lot about it in his films he seems to find it impossible to not question it. He was not a religious man and yet Italy is so deeply rooted in Catholicism to not tackle it within his films would be an oversight. The way he portrays religious people can at times be positive, however it always seems to be blaming the church for something else. In this film for instance the church almost seems to be a vehicle for false hope and fear. Cabiria goes to mass and instead of feeling enlightened by the experience she is terrified by it and you can see her wondering if there is any point at all in praying if it doesn’t actually fix any of the thousands of people around hers problems. It is obvious here that he is looking at Religion in a highly critical light, as he does in many of his films.

Nights of Cabiria displays a director yet again evolving in style, moving towards even greater things. Cabiria shows all the verve and brio of a classic Fellini character but also the introspection and internal angst that would be the guiding forces of his next two films. The move towards more expressive and abstract sequences would come to a head in his later films but here the mix of realism and magic balances itself beautifully.

Before watching these films I may have understood the great man’s vision. But now having the route up to his other two masterpieces I can see the true breadth of his genius as a filmmaker. He is a much more emotional and individual force in the history of cinema than people give him credit for. He is at once brutal and tender in these films, blending the brutality of Italian Neo-Realism with a quintessentially Italian voice producing something truly amazing in the process. Essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding Fellini further than just the obvious masterpieces.

-Ed

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La Strada/Nights Of Cabiria

Come And See

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Come and See (1985) is a descent into hell on earth the like of which I have never seen. I am saying this just to warn those of you who haven’t seen this film that it really is a heavy watch. This is possibly the hardest film to watch at points that I’ve ever seen, not because it’s bad but just because of the sheer weight of the events unfolding onscreen.

Now before I continue I must admit that it’s been about a month and a half since my first viewing of Come and See. Whilst this may seem like a long time to leave a film to review the film felt like it deserved more than a snap judgement of it. It is a film which commands and deserves respect, not only because of the artfulness of its direction or its value as a film, but also because of the attention it draws to a particularly overlooked event in the Second World War.

Come and See charts a young boys journey in the German occupation of Belorussia and the horrific treatment of people as the Nazi’s cleared the countryside’s small villages. This obviously dark and difficult subject matter which could easily be handled badly is handled with a level of care unprecedented in other war films. Instead of merely replaying the incidents on screen to show us what happened, Elem Klimov seems to try to put the audience in the events. This is just as uncomfortable and challenging as it should be, war should not always be handled lightly as it has been often. This is especially the case with the Second World War which has enough tales of heroism and scope to inspire a wide range of features from Inglorious Basterds to Schindler’s List, both arguably great in their own way. However Come and See stands in a league of its own in my mind. Instead of being bogged down by clear narrative form and character development, Klimov aims to just show the harsh reality of what war is.

Aleksey Kravchenko is absolutely astounding as the young boy who leads us through the landscapes of horrors that dot this film. He gives a performance both filled with emotion and also at points completely detached from events unfolding in front of him. One standout scene sees him climbing through a bog in an attempt to escape from the realities of what he has seen. This scene is etched in my brain, the despair that you can see on screen is palpable. Klimov choosing to frame the films ‘narrative’ (if it can even be called that) around a child makes the films aim even more pointed. This is what war does to people, these are the people that it effects.

This film is without a doubt the truest depiction of what war brings and how it feels to be within the midst of a human atrocity. There are many ways to pinpoint why it is that this is the greatest war film of all time. Instead of any kind of music there is just a low constant white noise throughout the film which grows and subsides with the events being depicted, the louder the noise the more horrible the scene. There really is no way to describe the experience of watching Come and See as it is a completely singular film in my mind. The discomfort you feel throughout just serves to add more to the films quest to depict these events, it’s as close as I’ve come whilst watching a film to just wanting it to end because of the heavy burden of human suffering forced at you.

Come and See is both surreal and brutally realistic, angry and sad, horrific and beautiful. The film defies genre as it is more horror film than war film. This may all seem very breathless and hyperbolic but I really do think this about Come and See. As soon as it was over I was sure it was one of the best films I have ever seen and it may seem like this is a film that you shouldn’t ever watch, and I can’t lie there really is no good time to stick on a copy of Come and See. However I would say that you owe it to yourself to watch this film because it really is enlightening despite how hard it can be to watch. Elem Klimov said of this film that it was his last because he had ‘nothing left to say’, a sentiment you totally understand after watching it. Everything from the plot to the characters to the cinematography feels like a filmmaker making their final statement. This film is undeniably a masterpiece.

-Ed

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Come And See

Harold and Maude

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Dear Reader, today marks the first post not written by this site’s first author. This essay concerns Hal Ashby’s 1971 picture, Harold and Maude, and is written by a dear friend of mine, currently studying a degree in English Literature and Film Studies. I won’t say any more, other than he’s seen far more films than I have and I envy him greatly for it.

-Alex


 

‘If you want to sing out sing out, and if you want to be free be free’

Cat Stevens

Harold and Maude is a name you very well may have heard and know, however why is this? This story of two lovers, one in his early 20s and the other bordering 80 has been a central example of cult cinema since its release in 1971. However what is it that has drawn people to this deeply strange 70s romantic comedy, despite the film not being a great success upon first release?

The film does not perhaps have the same cult status as something like Blade Runner or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have become lauded by either critics or fans. Harold and Maude instead has retained its popularity steadily throughout the decades seemingly just through the strength of the film itself and not through any real dedicated effort by a fan base. This is not to belittle the previously mentioned films, Harold and Maude is just an interesting inclusion to what has now almost become a genre of films in and of itself. Cult cinema is usually rooted in genre, most noticeably horror or sci-fi, for a romantic comedy to occupy the same status is odd. However it does feel apt when it comes to Harold and Maude for it to retain this status as a cult classic. The film as already mentioned has an off kilter subject matter which may deter viewers, however this is to their own detriment.

The film when just taken at a basic plot level shouldn’t work, a boy obsessed with staging his own suicide falls in love with a youthful old woman. It’s just such an unusual way to stage romance. But when seen it is clear that the absurdity in the story gives the film such a lasting effect in the cannon of cult cinema. Much like Wes Anderson, whose clear influence from the film has been noted the offbeat nature of the love stories in his films have only elevated him in this post-modern landscape to great success. If only Hal Ashby in his time had been able to enjoy the same virtues.

The films tone could easily slide into the realm of creepy or even saccharine but this is deftly avoided by Ashby. Upon release Roger Ebert hated the film stating ‘The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell.’ A sentiment which whilst as always incredibly well written I disagree with. While this isn’t the most visually stimulating of films, I feel that this is not what the film is trying to achieve. Harold as a character may be a strange and morbid boy but he is in a way the emotional heart of the film. Despite Maude in her youthfulness and appreciation of life, it is Harold who I felt really grabbed me. Through his indifference to the world you can see why he is like that, with nothing to do and no one to talk to he can only express himself in violence and nihilism. Following the death of his father he has become obsessed with trying to be dead despite wanting to be alive. He is stuck in a distinctly conservative American world, one where everyone around him feels he needs to do more even if that means going to war in Vietnam. Harold’s attitude for life should strike a chord with anyone who’s felt the crushing boredom of not knowing what or why they are doing anything.

Maude as a character embodies almost the complete opposite to Harold, if Harold is darkness Maude is blinding light. Ruth Gordon is such a strongly optimistic portrayal of a woman in old age it is hard to not fall in love with her yourself. After being shown the darkness of Harold’s mind-set, the optimism and light which comes from this old woman with everything to live for and nothing to lose is beautiful. The question of age shouldn’t and doesn’t matter to these two, and in turn it doesn’t matter to the audience.

This all being said I don’t think that this should be heralded as some example of incredible film-making. This is why I feel that perhaps Ebert is a little harsh to the film in saying it makes everyone look like a wax figure. Yes its death obsessed and has a muted visual style but does it really matter in a film like this? It’s more a character study and a rallying cry for the little man than Ebert gives it credit for. By focusing on these two weirdo’s on the outskirts of society Ashby is looking more at character and dialogue than his own auteurship. The acting may not all be brilliant and there is a naivety to it which could easily be grating. I can also say that I don’t love every scene of this film, for example I could have done without the sequence with the policeman which came off a bit too ‘haha look at the narc’ for my taste. This is definitely a case of me being in a different audience to those in the early 70s, it just does seem as subversive any more in the 2010’s. It’s the characters Ashby wants to shed a light on and not his film-making, which is far from boring but also not a visual feast. Direction is not the be all and end all of great films and I feel this film shows that.

Following on from the slightly dated policeman scene, it is obvious that this film is being made in the wake of the 60s hippy dream failing. Despite the optimism that the 60s brought, all that is left now is the conservative aftermath of that. This is why there is so much contempt for any kind of authority. The biggest laughs in the film come from these authority figure like his war loving uncle despite losing an arm. His mother played with brilliant gusto by Vivian Pickles who just seems to reek of societal compliance, has completely shut off her emotions. She cares not for Harold and his antics and instead busies herself with trying to make Harold ‘normal’.

Despite all this morbid subject matter and depressive view on the world itself, the film promotes being different in a really lovely way. The film is without a doubt sweet in nature. For me, it doesn’t trip over into being sickly because of this darkness. The weirdness only helps me understand the place from which these characters are coming from and heightens the emotional impact of the main characters relationship. I fell in love with Harold and Maude, presumably in the same way generations of people have been before me and long may it continue.

-Ed

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Harold and Maude