Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for February, 2012

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Last Year at Marienbad in its entirety.

I was talking with a student yesterday after class, and he mentioned seeing, and appreciating, Last Year at Marienbad recently, so I thought I’d say a few words on this iconic arthouse classic. For some people, Marienbad is easy to dismiss; the central “plot,” if one can call it that, is very simple: a man and woman meet at a luxurious resort hotel, but have they met before? What are their identities, if any? Can we trust our memories, and that which we think we know? Or is human existence a mystery, to be ceaselessly repeated over and over again, whether we know it or not?

As the Criterion website for the film puts it, “Not just a defining work of the French New Wave but one of the great, lasting mysteries of modern art, Alain Resnais’ epochal Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad) has been puzzling appreciative viewers for decades. Written by radical master of the New Novel Alain Robbe-Grillet, this surreal fever dream, or nightmare, gorgeously fuses the past with the present in telling its ambiguous tale of a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig) who may or may not have met a year ago, perhaps at the very same cathedral-like, mirror-filled château they now find themselves wandering. Unforgettable in both its confounding details (gilded ceilings, diabolical parlor games, a loaded gun) and haunting scope, Resnais’ investigation into the nature of memory is disturbing, romantic, and maybe even a ghost story.”

To which critic Mark Polizzotti adds, “So much critical ink has been shed over Last Year at Marienbad that one might wonder if the flood of commentary, once receded, would take the film along with it. Alain Resnais’ second feature has been lavishly praised and royally slammed; awarded the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and nominated for an Oscar, but also branded an ‘aimless disaster’ by Pauline Kael; lauded by some as a great leap forward in the battle against linear storytelling and a worthy successor to Hoffmann, Proust, and Borges, dismissed by others as hopelessly old-fashioned.

The ambivalence is understandable. Marienbad blatantly toys with our expectations regarding plotline, character development, continuity, conflict, resolution—all those elements we’ve come to expect from a satisfying motion picture. Like its nameless hero, the film relentlessly pursues us with a barrage of assertions while giving us little to hold on to as convincingly true, until in the end, we, like Delphine Seyrig’s equally nameless heroine, have only two choices: remain steadfast in our resistance to the seduction or just plain submit.

The plot is disarmingly simple: At a retreat for the Other Half located somewhere in Europe, a man (referred to in the screenplay as X, and played by Italian heartthrob Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (A, Seyrig’s character) that they had fallen in love the previous summer, ‘in Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon.’ In his telling, the putative couple had planned to run away together, but she had asked him to wait one year. The woman at first refutes X’s claim but is gradually swayed by his insistence. After several episodes of muted sparring between X and A’s cooler-than-thou husband-guardian, M (Sacha Pitoëff), mainly over hands of the game Nim that M always wins, A finally agrees to leave with X.

So far, it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and bragging rights. The devil, as always, lurks in the details. Indeed, the more evidence X provides as proof of veracity, the more discrepancies emerge, and the more the enigma thickens. As the film progresses, the image on-screen appears almost willfully to clash with X’s voice-over description, sometimes prompting him to shout at it like an exasperated director with an especially temperamental star.

Incidents and settings frequently repeat, but their details change disconcertingly between one iteration and the next: A’s remembered bedroom veers from bare to baroque; the hotel gardens sometimes boast a maze of shrubbery, sometimes grand alleys as stiff and straight as the gentlemen’s tuxedos. (Resnais obtained this effect by shooting at three different palaces—none actually located in Marienbad.) Added to the narrator’s stalkerlike pursuit of the reticent heroine, these inconsistencies imbue the film with an atmosphere of uncertainty, instability, and threat.”

The image above serves as an apt emblem for the entire film; the people cast images, but the trees that so symmetrically surround them don’t. They exist in a state of eternal stasis, unable to move forwards, condemned to repeat a past which may or may not exist. All the games they play within the film — and the game of Nim quickly became a college fad at the time of the film’s first release — will avail them nothing. Resnais’ cool, distanced images perfectly evoke the equally detached vision of scenarist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who would top this film the next year with the even more mesmeric L’Immortelle, which sadly remains out of print on DVD due to a tangle of rights problems.

But whether you consider Marienbad a mystery, or an exercise in style, or ultimately a statement of the futility of human endeavor, the film is certainly worth watching and thinking about, particularly when many people either dismiss it, or take it for granted that everyone has seen it. Each new generation discovers these films for themselves. This is how it has always been, and should always be.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from Shanghai Express.

I’ve just published an essay on one of my favorite films, Josef Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) in Senses of Cinema; it begins by noting that “of all the delirious exoticisms created by Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg during their white-hot period in the 1930s at Paramount, Shanghai Express (1932) remains my favourite for many reasons. It’s a riotous exercise in excess in every area; the visuals are overpowering and sumptuous; the costumes ornate and extravagant; the sets a riot of fabrics, light and space; and all of it captured in the most delectable black-and-white cinematography that one can find anywhere, more than enough to convince even the most superficial viewer that when black-and-white ceased to be a commercially viable production medium, the world lost a true art form, which colour film – as Sternberg’s quote above suggests – can never hope to replace. There are some films that can exist only in black-and-white, and Shanghai Express is one of them; a world in which the unreal is real, the intangible tantalisingly within our reach, and where luxury and violence are inextricably linked in a narrative that is both preposterous and ineluctably real.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come (1936)

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from Things to Come.

I’ve blogged on director William Cameron Menzies before, especially on his 1953 film Invaders from Mars, and his long and often tortured career as a pioneer set designer — most notably for the 1939 production of Gone With the Wind. But I’ve never really singled out his most ambitious film as a director, from H.G. Wells’ screenplay based on his 1933 novel, Things to Come. The large — and I do mean large — cast includes Raymond Massey, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. To give you some idea of the size and scope of the project, just take a look at the image above.

After Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), it’s arguably the most ambitious science fiction film ever made, and also one of the most prophetic, envisioning everything from giant flat screen televisions to the eventuality of another World War just a few years later. Bogged down by Wells’ insistence that both the actors and directors follow his verbose screenplay to the letter, Things to Come is nevertheless a visual tour de force, and a remarkable achievement both as a film, and as a vision of the future.

Easily available on DVD, including a 2007 version colorized by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen — I can’t believe I’m recommending this, but it’s that good — Things to Come is essential viewing for anyone interested in science fiction, set design, world history, or the history of film. Also in 2007, Network DVD in the UK released a digitally-restored version, which to date is the longest version available anywhere in the world. The two-disc set also contains a “Virtual Extended Version” with most of the missing and unfilmed parts represented by production photographs and script extracts.

In short, if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out immediately; this is where modern sci-fi begins.

Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936)

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936).

Here’s a classic Warner Bros. cartoon from 1936 which has long been a favorite of mine; not so much for the humor, but for the parade of Hollywood caricatures that populate the film. The person who originally posted this on YouTube helpfully provided this list of the stars depicted in the cartoon, many of which will probably be unrecognizable to contemporary viewers. Here it is:

“At 0:53 – Ben Bernie; 1:11 – Walter Winchell; 1:29 – Hugh Herbert; 1:34 – WC Fields & Katharine Hepburn ;1:45 – Ned Sparks; 1:50 – Johnny Weissmuller & Lupe Velez; 2:04 – John Barrymore; 2:18 – Harpo Marx; 2:50 – George Arliss & Mae West dancing; 3:10 – Laurel and Hardy; 3:22 – Edna Mae Oliver; 3:33 – Clark Gable; 3:41 – Gary Cooper; 4:01 – The Dionne Quintuplets; 4:51 – Groucho and Harpo Marx; 5:00 – Helen Morgan, a famous torch singer of the period; 5:18 – Wallace Beery; 5:59 – Edward G. Robinson & George Raft.” Directed by Isidore “Friz” Freling, with animation by Robert McKimson and Sandy Walker, and music arranged and conducted by Carl Stalling.

It’s a sweet reminder of a Hollywood long since past.

Wild Strawberries

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Wild Strawberries.

It’s fashionable now to dismiss Ingmar Bergman as an antique, which he certainly is not, or to remember him for one film only, Persona (1966), which is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but his earlier films, such as the often-parodied The Seventh Seal or the measured, reverential Wild Strawberries (both 1957), are superb examples of personal filmmaking, made possible by Bergman’s long-running arrangement with the Swedish national film company, Svensk Filmindustri, which allowed him to spend the cold winters in Stockholm directing a play, only to emerge every Spring to shoot a new film.

Woody Allen, in particular, is a longtime admirer of Bergman’s, and has remade, after a fashion, several of his films, but all I really want to do here is to call your attention to Wild Strawberries, in particular — remade by Allen as Deconstructing Harry (1997), the tale of an elderly professor emeritus, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), who travels from his home to his former university to accept an honorary degree for his lifetime of work.

Though the Wild Strawberries starts with a horrific nightmare that Isak endures the night before he is to accept the award (see the clip above), the film concentrates mostly on the often-fractious relationships between Borg and his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who is unhappily married to Isak’s son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand).

Nothing much happens, but then again everything happens, and the film ends on a note of redemptive hope, as the visions of Isak’s youth return to him as if in a dream, to comfort and reassure him, as he faces his inevitable death — indeed, actor/director Victor Sjöström, one of the veterans of the Swedish film industry, died shortly after the film’s completion, and before a rough cut could be assembled.

In the midst of life, we have to accept our faults and failures, and keep moving on towards the light, guided by the past, as we move inexorably into the future with each passing moment. Wild Strawberries is a sublime film, and is earnestly recommended, whether you’ve seen it or not. It certainly repays repeated viewings.

Broken Flowers

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer from Broken Flowers.

Bill Murray started out his career in a series of out-and-out comedies, but of late, his work has acquired a real depth and resonance that is missing in his earlier work, as in the 2005 film Broken Flowers, directed by Jim Jarmusch. When Murray’s character, Don Johnston, a retired computer whiz who made a fortune in the early tech era, and who now lives a lonely, desolate life in a sprawling, perpetually gloomy split-level house, receives an anonymous letter from an old girlfriend informing Don that he has a son whom he’s never met, Johnston recruits the help of his next door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), to figure out who the letter is from.

Winston suggests that Don look up all his old flames who might possibly be the mother of his child, and with some reluctance, Don takes to the road, where he has a series of increasingly downbeat encounters with former lovers Laura (Sharon Stone), Dora (Frances Conroy), Carmen (Jessica Lange) and most brutally, with Penny (Tilda Swinton), who has a friend beat Don up for even daring to visit her.

Throughout the film, Jarmusch’s spare camerawork, coupled with a superb reggae track, along with some evocative incidental music, effectively conveys the angst and uncertainty of middle age, when success is tempered by the knowledge that the clock is running out, and time is of the essence. Murray’s work in this film, Get Low, and Lost in Translation is a whole new level for the actor, who really should have won the Oscar for Best Leading Actor in Lost in Translation. If you haven’t seen it, check it out; it’s a really solid film, with a great deal of depth, warmth, and intelligence.

MeTV — Classic Television Programming

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Would you like to see some real television programming? You know, with actors, scripts, solid production values, as opposed to something like American Idol, 1,000 Ways to Die or Hoarders? Well, you may be in luck. A new cable television channel, MeTV (short for Memorable Entertainment Television) may be able to help you, assuming it’s available in your area. What do they run?

How about 12 O’Clock High, Batman, The Big Valley, The Bob Newhart Show, Bonanza, Cannon, Car 54 Where Are You?, Cheers, Columbo, Combat, Daniel Boone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dobie Gillis, Family Affair, The Fugitive, Get Smart, The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O, Honey West, I Love Lucy, Kojak, Laurel and Hardy shorts from the 1930s, the British teleseries The Invisible Man,The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, The Phil Silvers Show, The Rockford Files, The Rogues, The Untouchables, The Wild Wild West, Thriller and a whole lot more?

Tempting?

The best way to use MeTV is to simply set it up to record any of the series above that you wish on your DVR, and then save them up for a night when you can’t sleep, and can thus fast forward through the commercials, which are not, by the way, excessive. I flip on the television, and voila, there are about twenty or so programs saved up for me, and I can skip around as I choose, and enjoy the best of it.

The quality of these programs just leaps out at you, both in the dedication of actors and directors, but also the scripts, and the care of production. They’re television from the Golden Era of the late 50s through the late 1970s, and my only suggestion is that they add Topper and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to the mix. So, if this is an option for you, by all means take advantage of it; the series above might remind older viewers of the excellence of these programs; younger viewers may be surprised at just how thoughtful and intelligent television once was.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/