“The Pear Tree” - Dariush Mehrjui (1998)


At first The Pear Tree (Derakht-e Golabi, 1998) seems more like a contemplative meditation than a story. There doesn’t seem to be a clear narrative journey, but only a collection of memories of the distant past on the part the man character.  But as you follow along, you see that the film reflects the protagonist’s interior passage towards self-discovery. Directed by Dariush Mehrjui and co-scripted by Mehrjui and Goli Taraghi, the seemingly meandering and uneventful The Pear Tree actually turns out to be one of the most interesting Iranian films and one whose theme is universal. In fact when I saw the film, it evoked for me not so much thoughts of other Iranian movies or of Iranian society but of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957).

The film stars Homayoun Ershadi and Golshifteh Farahani in the principal roles, and both gave memorable performances.  Ershadi was a successful architect who came to the film world relatively late in life – his first leading role came only the year before, at the age of fifty, in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (Ta'am-e-Gīlās, 1997).  But although Kiarostami’s film won the Cannes Film Festival’s 1997 Palme D’Or, I would say that Mehrjui’s The Pear Tree is far superior.  And Ershadi’s performance in the latter film is correspondingly much better, as well.

Golshifteh Farahani, who has established herself as Iran’s leading screen siren (although she has recently been exiled from her country by the Iranian government), made her debut with this film when she was only fourteen.  Even here with her first film and barely a teenager, Ms. Farahani displayed the kind of innocent radiance that has left its indelible stamp on all her films.

The story of The Pear Tree concerns a successful writer and intellectual, Mahmoud, who has gone on a retreat to his family’s rural estate near Mount Damavand, northeast of Tehran, in order to overcome a serious case of writer’s block: he has been unable to complete the current chapter of his book project for the past six years. While he is there trying to write, he begins to think a about some past events in his life that he had long suppressed.  What triggers these thoughts is the contemplation of a familiar pear tree in the garden behind his house.

The story actually amounts to something of an internal struggle in Mahmoud’s own mind concerning what were the driving concerns of his life and what was his true, authentic nature.  It reflects the eternal tension between the needs of the inner life (the life of the ego-dominated self) and the outer life (the immersion of the self with the external world of others).  It is a dualism that has been given many variants, from Romanticism versus Classicism to the Nietzschean dualism of the Apollinian versus the Dionysian.  A way of looking at this dualismis to say that on one side of this divide, there is the internal self that is isolated from the rest of the world and looks out onto it in an calculating and analytical fashion.  This is the “inner/ego” stance. On the other side of the dualism, there is the urge to abandon that isolation and become one with another, external being – the “outer/selfless” stance.  We all pass back and forth between these two conflicting modes, never settling in one place.  For Mahmoud, the awareness of this tension came for him when he was twelve years old and spending his summer at this same rural estate where he is now trying to cure his writer’s block.

The story passes through five uneven stages as it explores the tension between Mahmoud’s (and our) two ways of being.

1.  Mahmoud and the Pear Tree
At the beginning of the film, Mahmoud is in his study at his estate, “Damavand Garden”, trying to put pen to paper.  He is locked into the inner/ego mode. His concentration is interrupted by his old family gardener, who pesters Mahmoud about their pear tree that “refuses” to bear fruit this season. The gardener feels that Mahmoud is all-powerful and can cure this petulant pear tree by a simple command, but Mahmoud just wants the gardener to go away and stop bothering him.  After all, he has promised eight articles to four newspapers and his students and publishers are awaiting the completion of his current long-overdue book project.  As far as Mahmoud is concerned, what goes on in the garden is inconsequential, for he is addicted to the life of philosophy and art.

But the gardener and the local village chieftain, who is also a gardener, won’t let go.  They remind Mahmoud of the time (probably at least thirty-five years earlier) when he watched his cousin, Ms. Mimcheh, ride a donkey near that same pear tree.

2.  Remembering Mimcheh
This reminder awakens in Mahmoud some long suppressed memories, and the film moves to a series of flashbacks when he was twelve years old and kept company at the estate that summer years ago with his female cousin, known to everyone in these recollections only as “M” (in Farsi: “Mim”, the diminutive of which is “Mimcheh”) [1]. Mim was an attractive, naughty tomboy, who is said to be “a few years older” than Mahmoud. The recollection of Mim shifts Mahmoud’s thinking over to the outer/selfless mode. Mahmoud at that recollected time was a shy young lad and totally infatuated with the insouciant young lady [2]. 

In these sequences there are many recollections of Mahmoud’s romantic obsession with his beautiful cousin.  Although Mahmoud is totally enamored and a willing slave to her every whim, she dismisses his ardor with cordial derision.  She makes the lovesick boy do her bidding.  For example since Mimcheh despises her opium-addicted uncle, who is a retired military colonel, she assigns Mahmoud the task of stealing his military uniform so that they can use it for their costumed play-acting. Mahmoud dutifully carries out the task as ordered, and thereafter Mim dresses up as a colonel, giving even more orders for Mahmoud to carry out.  They do share a common passion, though – for poetry and philosophy – and they discuss together the books that they read.  Mahmoud dreams of being a great writer, while Mimcheh dreams of being an actress and often spends her time organizing dramatic episodes in the orchard for herself to star in.

There is one particularly affecting scene showing Mahmoud secretly watching Mimcheh taking an afternoon nap. It is subtly filmed and skillfully suggests both Mahmoud’s watchful admiration for his sleeping goddess and the way such moments and images can long linger in one’s memory.

But there are threats to this idyl looming. Mim, though young, is of marriageable age, and Mahmoud is worried that her family will arrange a marriage for her before he gets old enough to contend for her hand.  He begs her to wait for a few years for him to grow up.  Moreover, Mim gets a letter from her father, a political refugee living in Paris, inviting her to come to live there with him.  That offer is evidently soon accepted, because except for a brief encounter with Mahmoud in Tehran the following winter, Mim disappears from his life.  That long-ago period when he was twelve is the last time that Mahmoud and Mimcheh ever spend time together.

3.  Back in the Garden with the Pear Tree
The scene shifts back to the present and Mahmoud’s inner/ego mode. He is still unable to write, and begins to berate himself for wanting to write merely to satisfy his ego-driven desire to be famous in the community. The gardeners are still pestering him to do something about that recalcitrant pear tree. Exasperated with this trivial interruption of his creative process, he tells them just to go ahead and cut it down.  But the village chieftain exhibits his compassionate side and urges the others the pear tree a little more time.

Alone again, Mahmoud wrestles with self-accusations in the form of imaginary discussions with his university students, who look up to him and are impatiently waiting for his next work to be published.  But as he tries to force himself to write some sentences, he pauses and falls again into a reverie about Mim and what happened later.

4.  Mahmoud’s Early Career
Mahmoud thinks back about the start to his professional career as a writer, and again there are flashbacks. In this section, there is a more intimate struggle between the inner/ego and outer/selfless sides to Mahmoud.  He is retrospectively trying to reconcile the two.  But he is at this point recollecting a period in his life that was more matter-of-fact and “objective”, and so all the flashbacks of this section are shown in black-and-white.

He recollects that his first published work was a book of poems dedicated to Mim, who was then living in Paris.  As he recollects, he says to himself that he was then still in love, but in a more mature way – “this is a new and truthful love which is more worldly”. 

But he also recollects how he came to be hoodwinked into dedicating his life to politics. He became a leftist and a political opponent of the Shah’s government; and as an utterly devoted political party member, he gradually forgot about Mim. The many letters that she wrote to him from Paris, increasingly inviting and amorous in tone, went unanswered. She no longer wanted to be an actress; she had by then taken up literature, like him.  In her letters, she tells him that she is waiting for him.  But Mahmoud is too busy to respond. The present-day Mahmoud recollects to himself about this:
“Had I answered Mim’s letters, everything would have turned out differently.  I wanted to do everything else and then attend to her letters.”
His professional life had become dominant.  He didn’t abandon her; he was just preoccupied.

In another flashback, he recollects a terminating, cataclysmic moment. He was finally jailed by the Shah’s police for his political activities and thrown into a cell. From one of his cellmates, a distant relative of Mim, he learns that Mim had died in an accident in France.

In a final visionary dialogue with one of his imaginary university students, there is the following exchange: 
Student: “Were you serious when you wrote to Mim and told her that you would come to her ‘next year’”?

Mahmoud: “Yes.”
But our powers are limited, and despite all our efforts, some things cannot be undone or redone.

5.  The Pear Tree
In the final scene Mahmoud goes out to the garden again, alone this time, and stares at the pear tree.  He sees it now as just another living part of the great, unfathomable web of life.  At the film’s close he peacefully sits himself under that pear tree and recollects a time during that long-ago summer when he was just sitting on a branch high up in that same pear tree and
“staring at a spider that was knitting a thin web quietly and patiently.” 
Mehrjui’s cinematography in The Pear Tree is superb.  There are very many tracking shots, dissolves, and soft focusings, but they are unobtrusive and are all effectively and seamlessly woven into the film’s fabric. The film stands as one of Mehrjui’s most accomplished pieces of cinematic storytelling. Nevertheless, the most memorable imagery is associated with Golshifteh Farahani’s performance as Mimcheh. Her impact on the film is a reminder that the most important aspect of filmmaking is not what you do with the camera, but what you have in front of the camera.

As I mentioned earlier, it is interesting to compare The Pear Tree with Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.  There are several points of commonality:
  • Both film titles focus on a tasty fruit, which symbolically suggests nature and perhaps youth.
  •  Both protagonists are elderly intellectuals who were shy and felt awkward in intimate situations.
  • Both protagonists recollected their pasts and felt that they had perhaps made the wrong choice in life and had missed out on a big chance at true fulfilment.
  • However, both protagonists come to some form of acceptance at the end of the story.

Wild Strawberries is a fine film, but for me The Pear Tree is even better than the more famous Bergman film (which is considered one of that master’s best).  The Pear Tree is more immersive, more luscious, more passionate than Wild Strawberries.  And it resonates deeply with my own personal experience.

At the end of The Pear Tree, the viewer is given to believe that Mahmoud has come to terms with his life.  In precisely what way, though, is not clear.  Is he now more settled concerning those lingering memories about what Mim may have meant to him, and is he now ready to go on with his work?  Or has he just given up and now feels there is no compelling reason for him to continue to write at all?  Should he just let things be and be content with whatever is?  The film’s final tone suggests personal contentment, but I see no real narrative progression to such a state.

We don’t know much about what happened in Mahmoud’s life in the two decades following his prison term in the Shah’s jail. We know he became a very successful intellectual and writer. He mentions early on, when he reflects on why he has gone alone to his family estate to write, that he is now free – “no wife and children”. So we can presume that after Mim’s death Mahmoud went on to marry and raise a family. But Mim represented something more than just an attractive woman to him. One might say that she was his aesthetic ideal, his poetic muse – an image that fired the affective side of his consciousness and helped make him the writer he became.  But was that all she meant to him?  I wonder. 
★★½

Notes:
  1. It seems that Mahmoud could not bring himself to pronounce her full name.
  2. In Iran, first cousins can marry each other.

“Iron Island” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2005)

Mohammad Rasoulof’s second feature film, Iron Island (Jazireh Ahani, 2005) was a bold and creative offering even for the Iranian film climate, where films often have a deeper philosophical perspective to them. In this case Rasoulof fashioned an allegorical fantasy, without the benefit of in-studio architectural fabrications or computer-generated imagery.  However, despite the film’s clearly allegorical suggestiveness, there have been different interpretations concerning the overall message of Iron Island.

Though only in his early thirties at this point, Rasoulof signaled with this film the coming of a potentially major film artist on the Iranian film scene.  His next film after Iron Island was the fascinating documentary, Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008), which described the Iranian people’s widespread efforts, in the face of the autocratic government’s severe media censorship, to get information from the outside world via the use of officially prohibited satellite dishes. Regrettably, Rasoulof was arrested after the disturbances following the 2009 Iranian presidential election.  In 2010 he and major Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi were sentenced to six years in prison, plus a 20-year prohibition from leaving the country, talking to the press, or participating in filmmaking [1].  So Iron Island’s themes of autocracy and liberty take on  added poignancy in light of these subsequent events.

Most of the story of Iron Island takes place on an abandoned oil tanker off the Persian Gulf seaport of Bandar Abbas.  Captain Nemat operates the boat as something of a live-in work commune, managed solely by himself, for destitute locals who need a place to live.  The locals belong to the Sunni Arab minority that lives in this part of southwestern Iran, and many of them are severely impoverished.  Nemat takes them in and gives them various jobs to do in the collective.

In fact Captain Nemat manages everything on his ship.  He carries around a notebook in which he keeps account of all transactions.  There is no monetary currency exchanged; the residents work, and then their lodging charges are deducted from their wages in his notebook.  Everything works OK, as long as everyone operates according to his instructions.  The destitute residents of the ship buy into Nemat’s benevolent dictatorship, because he seems to be a reasonable man making decisions for the collective good.  So the ship represents a microcosm for an entire society managed by an autocratic elite.

When it comes to optimizing material benefits, Captain Nemat’s approach may seem plausible.  But sometimes there are other needs and desires that come into conflict.  In this respect other figures on the boat symbolize such alternate needs and generate the underlying tension of Iron Island.  The film narrative goes through approximately four stages as it proceeds to unwind these elements.

1.  Introduction
The opening section of the film introduces the viewer to the floating apartment building that the ship represents. People come and go to the ship by means of a motorboat that is part of Nemat’s equipment set. Early on Captain Nemat escorts a newly arrived family to their quarters on board and shows them around the premises.  This includes:
  • an on-board bakery
  • a burqa factory staffed by the women on the ship.  (The burqas in this community include a decorative face mask for women when they are in the company of men.)
  • a classroom for the children (it has both boys and girls together)
  • a mobile phone rental service
  • men who dismantle various metalwork on the ship and sell it ashore for scrap.
Nemat manages the entire supply chain for all operations. When, for example, cooking oil or medicine is needed, he supplies it.

But we are also introduced to a conflict.  Ahmed and another boy get into a fight, because Ahmed had sent a message to the other boy’s sister.  Of course family “honor” is at stake for the other boy, who feels he must control his sister’s contacts for reasons of pride.  In fact the film’s pre-title sequence showed Ahmed at night using a lantern to secretly signal someone.  In the interests of maintaining order, Captain Nemat sternly warns Ahmed to stay from the girl (we’ll call her “The Girl”).  The notion of amorous love has no place in Nemat’s scheme.

2.  Extractive Materialism
The story then moves on to elaborate what was initially shown in outline.  Captain Nemat’s society operates according to extractive capitalism. They are slowly dismantling the ship, but they are not really producing much, except the burqas.  The ship’s schoolteacher, who symbolizes a society’s intellectual class, timidly points out a “truth”, to Nemat – that the ship is slowly sinking into the water and has sunk two meters over the couple of years.  Like current global climate change skeptics, though, Nemat dismisses this news as an event that is too far off into the future to worry about.  What matters to him is current profit and loss.

In fact we learn that Nemat, while publicly making his case that he operates for the common good, is a schemer and profiteer. 

  • He has all the residents’ identity cards collected so that he can use them to acquire and then resell “green cards” on the black market.  This he can do, because as Ahmed points out to a skeptic, Captain Nemat “knows lots of people”.
  • The father of The Girl, who serves as a sailor on another ship, stops by on one of his bi-weekly visits to express his concern about his daughter.  He is worried about his “honor” and asserts that he will kill her if she threatens his manly pride. But Captain Nemat calms him down and promises that he will arrange a lucrative marriage for The Girl – the side effects of which will mean extra bonus payments for both Nemat and the father. 
  • The men on-board manage to drill into the tanker’s oil tanks and are then able to pump out some oil that remains there and partially fill some barrels. These barrels are then dumped off the side of the ship so that the ships’ boys can swim along side and shepherd the floating barrels to the shoreline, where they can be collected and sold. The filming of this sequence, incidently, is skillfully performed, but it must have been dangerous to carry out.
When the ship’s owner (Nemat’s business relationship with this person is not clear) notifies Nemat that his group intends to scrap the entire boat, Nemat protests that the residents cannot be turned out.  “What will happen to them?”, he protests.  But we know that he is looking out for his own interests, too.

In contrast to the extractive materialism that occupies Nemat’s every waking moment, there are other people on the ship looking at things differently. 
  • An old man, Sadegh, stares every day at the Sun, looking for some unnamed deliverance.
  • A young boy known as “Baby Fish” spends his time rescuing little fish that have gotten trapped inside the ship’s hold and throwing these fish back into the sea.  He is a lifesaver. 
  • Ahmed pursues his clandestine romance with The Girl and secretly exchanges temporary gifts with her by lowering a rope into her quarters after dark.  In a touching scene, he tenderly gives her his red shirt to hold, and she gives him her burqa mask in return.
3.  Maintaining Order
Captain Nemat shows that he must exercise discipline in order to avoid chaos.  After a pregnant resident woman dies in labor, Nemat subsequently discovers that the ship’s boys were clandestinely watching TV at the time.  So he tosses their TV and satellite dish over the ship’s side. 

Later, when The Girl is married off to the rich suitor in accordance with Nemat’s deal-making, the disconsolate Ahmed steals the ship’s motorboat and heads off. But Nemat "knows lots of people" ashore, and Ahmed is quickly captured, bound, and delivered to Nemat.  Then, in front of the entire tanker community, Nemat cruelly subjects Ahmed to a water torture (presumably like waterboarding), which utterly breaks the boy down.

4.  The Promised Land
With the ship’s scuttling imminent, Nemat makes another deal.  He gets all the ship’s residents to grant him their “power of attorney” and arranges to acquire land on their behalf in the desert, where he proposes to build a new community.  He still has big plans.  But the film’s ending reminds us of the other narrative strands.  The longings of Sadegh, Baby Fish, Ahmed, and The Girl remain unfulfilled.

Iron Island’s presentation, cinematography, and mise-en-scene are remarkably well done.  Rasoulof has taken that oil tanker and made of it a true microcosm.  Veteran actor Ali Nassirian, in the role of Captain Nemat, is excellent, even though he was over seventy years old at the time of filming [2]. Rasoulof uses Nassirian’s unique countenance and posture, along with his iconic head scarf to maintain a striking visual motif of the leader throughout the story. All the other actors were nonprofessionals who were recruited from the local region. 

The enigmatic suggestiveness of Iron Island has led to multiple interpretations.  The idea of people on a ship’s journey led by a charismatic leader has appeared many times, from Noah’s Ark to Captain Ahab’s Pequod.  However, the ship is only a metaphor here, and we could be just as well be comparing Iron Island’s community with those led by Moses or Mohammad.  In fact Rasoulof’s originally conceived story did not even take place on a ship; he changed his story when he happened upon the oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and altered his script [3]. 

The question is what to make of the charismatic Captain Nemat?  Is he a benevolent figure?  Certainly Captain Nemat is not a draconian ruler. He seems to operate sincerely according to his worldview, which seeks to optimize material resources.  Even when he tortures Ahmed, he explains that this must be done in order to avoid social chaos. (Of course, using the bogeyman of disorder to justify authoritarian punishment is counseled in many quarters around the world, from Iran to Singapore to China.)  Sympathetic to Nemat's sincerity, a number of critics have seen the social contract under which Nemat operates in a positive light.  Accordingly, they feel that the “journey” of Nemat and his people is ongoing and still has a bright future at the end of the film, if the people will only just all cooperate under his leadership.

However, I do not go along with such an optimistic interpretation.  The extractive system of Nemat has a finite lifetime, just as does a nation’s economy that is entirely dependent on the extraction of resources under the ground.  At the end of the film, the people are out in the middle of the desert with nothing at all.  Nemat proclaims that they can build a city, but these people don’t have the knowledge or the means to do it.  They simply trust that their leader will tell them what to do. Whenever he is not present, they just sit idle in the desert. There is no sense of independent industriousness. The seemingly only independent figure among them, the teacher, makes his own blackboard chalk, but he is isolated from the rest and is not integrated into an interactive community.

Everyone on the ship is instructed to hand over whatever autonomy they have so that Captain Nemat can perform his optimizing operations.  When the ship’s schoolteacher timidly asks to examine for himself the document concerning the handing over his power-of-attorney to Nemat, he is brushed off by the Captain and told that he can read it at a later date.  Similarly the teacher was brushed off when he meekly protested the water-torturing of Ahmed.  The intellectual community, represented by the schoolteacher, is unable to have any effect. 

This is the general problem with autocratic, extractive leadership, and Rasoulof has done well to present the problem without demonizing the figure of Nemat.  Captain Nemat is sincere and pragmatic, but that can only take you so far. For a nation to prosper, it must go beyond extraction and offer the opportunity for creative production.  And such production arises when people have the opportunity to interact in their own newly discovered ways, not just by following orders.

Near the end of the film as the tanker is abandoned, Captain Nemat sees Baby Fish with a bucket of fish that the boy has found in one last rescue effort.  Nemat tosses the fish back into the ship’s hold and tells him to let the fish grow bigger, “then we’ll catch them and eat them.”  Baby Fish sees the fish as vital, alive, wonderful; Nemat sees them as food. In the final scenes, Ahmed and The Girl encounter each other, Sadegh is still looking to the sky, and Baby Fish runs off into the sea.  They do not have answers to the pragmatic demands of material existence, but they know there is something else beyond all that.
★★

Notes:
  1. Michael Sicinski, “When the Salt Attacks the Sea: The Films of Mohammad Rasoulof”, http://cinema-scope.com/features/features-when-the-salt-attacks-the-sea-the-films-of-mohammad-rasoulof/.
  2. He has appeared in several films directed by Dariush Mehrjui, including Gaav (1969) and The Cycle (1978). More recently Nassirian appeared in the rabidly anti-Jewish Iranian-produced film, The Saturday Hunter (2011).
  3. Chale Nafus, "IRON ISLAND (JAZIREH AHANI) Program Notes", Austin Film Society, http://www.austinfilm.org/page.aspx?pid=720

Tom Hooper

Films of Tom Hooper:

"Les Miserables" - Tom Hooper (2012)


A few moments of grace can profoundly change one's life, making the entire world look different. This is perhaps the key theme of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Misérables (1862), that came across in the subsequent musical stage play and film. Hugo’s original novel ran to some 1,500 pages and can almost be considered to be five novels rolled into one, with numerous subplots interspersed with serious political commentary and philosophical digressions about the life and society of his day. More than a century later, a French musical stage play that managed to incorporate the main plot elements of the novel was somehow concocted out of all this material.  But this musical’s initial 1980 run was only three months.  However, the English language version of the musical that opened in London five years later turned out to be an enormous success and became one of the longest running stage plays in history.  Now the British film version of this musical, directed by Tom Hooper, has also been a huge success and has been nominated for eight US Academy Awards (“Oscars”). 

In view of this artistic lineage, the film could be (and has been) critiqued from many angles.  We have here a sequence of attempts to translate an artistic vision into another medium:
“reality” ➔ novel ➔ French musical ➔ English musical ➔ film

Anywhere along the line, a critic might complain that the artistic translation was not faithful to the “original” on which it is based.  Of course, any deviations from the original could represent improvements, but such alterations are unlikely to satisfy the loyal fan base of the original work. Anyway, I only mention this in passing, and I primarily look here at the film as it stands, by itself, and am not concerned with the degree to which it is a faithful translation of something else.  This point is still worth mentioning, because a number of critics have complained about XX’s performance as being different from what they had seen on the stage. I am not concerned about that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter whether some virtues or faults in Hooper’s film are due to something on which this film is based.  We will just look at the film as it is.

In terms of the story, we would expect that with such an epic novel, there would be a number of narrative strands.  But when looking at the film as a whole, there are really three main narrative themes that are interleaved in the film:
  • Jean Valjean’s story
  • Marius and Cosette
  • The Revolutionaries

Jean Valjean’s story
This is the encompassing narrative, in the context of which the others can be said to embedded.  At the beginning of the story in 1815, Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving 19 years for having stolen a loaf of bread (and also for some unruly behaviour in prison).   At this point we are also introduced to officer Javert, an upright prison guard who will be Valjean’s implacable foe.  When Valjean is released, he is placed on lifetime parole.  If he ever commits another crime or breaks parole, he will be returned to prison for a life sentence.

Once on the outside Valjean finds life hard going; noone will hire him for work, because his personal documents (his “internal passport”) show he has a prison record.  He finally finds shelter in a Catholic church; but upon leaving the next morning, the now embittered Valjean takes the opportunity to steal two silver candlesticks. Valjean is quickly apprehended by the police, but the Catholic bishop Myriel, in a pure act of altruism, invents a story that he had given the candlesticks to his guest. Valjean, used to the brutality of prison life, is shocked by the bishop’s kindness and mercy; and over time he becomes a changed man.

The film fast forwards to 1823 where, astonishingly, Valjean has become a successful business man and mayor of a small town.  Equally astonishing, the police chief of this town turns out to be Javert, who apparently doesn’t recognize that the mayor was once one of his prisoners and is therefore a parole-breaker.  A young woman working in his factory, Fantine, is an unwed mother of a young girl, Cosette.  Fantine works hard at the factory to pay for Cosette’s being cared for by another family, the Thenardiers, who greedily mistreat Cosette and overcharge Fantine for the upkeep.  It soon comes to pass that the unlucky Fantine is unjustly fired from Valjean’s factory, put in prison (by Javert), and becomes terminally ill.  As she lies dying in the hospital, she asks Valjean to look after Cosette, and he solemnly vows to do so.

For the rest of the film, the Valjean story pits the compassionate Valjean against the moralistic Javert.  It is a metaphorical case of situational ethics matched up against a strict legalistic interpretation of how society should be governed.

Marius and Cosette
The film now jumps to 1832, and Valjean has moved to Paris with Cosette, who is now a beautiful young woman. She encounters a young student, Marius, who is active in the revolutionary movement, and it is love at first sight.  This thread of the film concerns their love affair. It is embellished by the presence of another young woman, Eponine, who happens to be the grown child of the Thenardiers and whose love for Marius is unrequited.

The Revolutionaries
Marius is a member of a group of student revolutionaries led by another student, Enjolras.  Also joining this group are Eponine and her younger brother, Gavroche.  This thread, which is the weakest in the film, concerns the conflicts Marius feels between his idealistic loyalties towards the goals of the revolution and his amorous feelings for Cosette.  Eventually, the revolt is called, and the students set up barricades on the Paris streets, hoping for a mass uprising.  Their hopes are dashed, however, and all of them are killed by French troops (led by Javert), except, Marius, who is rescued by Valjean.

By the end of Les Misérables, although Marius and Cosette live on, most of the principal characters have been killed off, including Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Enjolras, Eponine, and Gavroche. So there is a lot of anguish expressed in the story, and it is presented in expressionistic extreme – almost all of the scenes are exaggerated and almost outlandishly over-the-top.  There are all sorts of incongruities that I won’t go into, such as the numerous escapes that Valjean makes from Javert’s clutches throughout.  Your enjoyment of the film will depend on the degree to which you can buy into this kind of fare.  Personally, I had mixed feelings.

On the positive side, there is the music.  It is not as though the songs are all that memorable, but this is a sung-through musical (no spoken lines) and that maintains a kind of lyrical tint to the whole film.  And there are a lot of songs – over fifty of them by my reckoning. My favourites are all the ones involving Samantha Barks, who plays Éponine.  Even though the role of Éponine is a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of the film, Ms. Barks’s performance was so compelling (even with her incongruously manicured eyebrows) that it almost all by itself made the movie for me.

Also positive were many of the acting performances. Hugh Jackman, as Valjean, is not as brawny as that character is supposed to be, but his performance sustains the entire film. He has  the kind of masculine compassion that works perfectly for this role. Russell Crowe is effective as the grimly dedicated Javert, and Anne Hathaway, in the role of Fantine, elevates the film when she is in focus.  And, as I mentioned, Samantha Barks was particularly good in the role of Éponine. Unfortunately, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who play the buffoonish Thenardiers, did not come across for me.  I have enjoyed both of them in other films, but on this occasion, their presentations of comic relief were unsuccessful.

But there are also negative aspects of the film that in fact ruin one’s enjoyment.  The main problem is the cinematography, which of course means that the principal fault here is with the film, not with its musical forebear.  This isn’t the first time I have had a problem with Hooper’s work on this score (see The King’s Speech). 
  • The use of hand-held cameras with telephoto lens just doesn’t work.  It results in very unsteady framing that is continually irritating.  This problem is accentuated by the nervous swish-pans that are frequently employed.  The use of a telephoto lens, with its short depth of field, to pick out and isolate the in-focus subject from the blurred background was used effectively by Michaelangelo Antonioni in other contexts, but it is completely misguided here.
  • Similarly, the backward-moving tracking shots (the camera facing the actor moves backward as the actor moves forward) are also disconcerting.  You lose all of the environmental context by doing this.  Presumably Hooper was looking to energise the frame, but these tracking shots here only defeat his purpose.
  • The in-your-face closeups, particularly during the arias, were also a bad decision.  When one watches a person belting out a song, but in extreme closeup, one is distracted by the physicality of the singer.  This completely subverts the music-hall style for which these songs were meant, where a seated audience would be watching performers at a distance on stage projecting their voices.  When the camera is brought in so close to the performer, it should be for a more intimate interaction.  This is particularly noticeable in Anne Hathaway’s solos, which are ruined by the crowding of the close-in camera.  Hooper cannot even fall back on a claim that these closeups were a mistaken pre-production decision.  He has remarked that the decision to go with the tight close-ups was made in the editing room [1].
  • When I saw the film (at a first-run theatre), the picture frames appeared to be cropped on the top.  This was so bad that sometimes the frame did not even take in the principal actor’s eyes – they were just off screen.  I cannot believe that the cameramen would frame a scene like this, so I assume that this problem was associated with post-production or projection.
  • The decision to do live on-set (as opposed to dubbed) sound recording had mixed results.  It was not effective for some of the songs, particularly in the “Master of the House” piece with the Thenardiers, where the lyric articulation was unclear, both for the chorus and for the solo singing.
Anyway, the performances of Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks almost made up for these deficiencies.  They generally managed to convey the lyrical thought of Hugo’s that is the film’s ultimate message:
“To love another person is to see the face of god.”
★★½  

Notes:
  1. Frank DiGiacomo, The Movieline Review, 12 December 2012, http://movieline.com/2012/12/25/tom-hooper-interview-les-miserables-defends-close-ups/

"Underworld" - Josef von Sternberg (1927)


Josef von Sternberg’s first big commercial success was the silent movie Underworld (1927), which is considered to have launched the gangster film genre. Based on Ben Hecht’s short story about the Chicago gangster scene, the film earned Hecht an Academy Award for Best Original Story [1].  Already with this film, von Sternberg’s complete mastery of cinematic artistry in its many forms is evident.

While Hecht’s story is all about the brutality and fierce codes of honor that reigned in the criminal gang world, von Sternberg introduced a more personal feeling of existential desire and isolation to the story.  Hecht was so unhappy about the changes that he initially (before he became aware that the film would be a hit) wanted his name removed from the credits.  But von Sternberg’s narrative additions greatly enhanced the story.

The film’s story concerns events surrounding the exploits of a notorious gangster, Bull Weed, whose daring, violent robberies seem to be beyond the police’s ability to do anything about them.  In this film, the focus is on individual gangsters and not, as it would be in later gangster movies, on the ruthless extent of the “mob” – seen as some kind of shadowy shape-shifting force with near limitless reach.  Although Bull Weed seems to have a gang of accomplices, you rarely see them in the film.  His principal rival is not the police, but another ruthless gangster, Buck Mulligan, whose “cover” occupation is the operation of a flower shop.

Bull Weed has a beautiful girlfriend, “Feathers”, whose dresses always feature feather adornments. Naturally, her attentions are coveted by rival Buck Mulligan.  Bull Weed also befriends and picks up out of the gutter an alcoholic ex-lawyer, known as “Rolls Royce”, who becomes a de facto member of Weed’s circle. The distinctive character types of these main figures and the interpersonal relations between them provide here for the first time what would be a von Sternberg romantic metaphor across most of his cinematic narratives:
  • Bull Weed is the super-confidant and assertive macho male.  He is unreflective and thoughtless, but he is not usually cast as an inherently bad guy.  He is just used to getting his way with women and running roughshod over the more sensitive types of people.
  • Rolls Royce is the civilized, sensitive, and more cautious figure, particularly when it comes to romantic situations. This personality is presumably a reflection of von Sternberg’s own persona.
  • Feathers is the beautiful, passionate idol – the object of everyone’s desires who must choose between the two men who desire her.
The film narrative runs through four stages of narrative development among the characters.  Note that Hecht’s original story really only covered the last of these stages, or acts, and essentially everything before that final act was added by von Sternberg.

1.  Bull Weed meets “Rolls Royce” (20 minutes)
In the aftermath of a bank robbery, Bull Weed grabs a loitering drunk who might be a witness  and takes him back to his hideaway.  The drunk assures Bull Weed that he is as quiet as a “Rolls Royce”, and that becomes his nickname. Bull Weed and Feathers are later seen at the Dreamland Café, a hangout for the criminal element, where Rolls Royce is now working as an attendant. Weed's rival, Buck Mulligan, is shown as brutal, but his impotent, secondary status compared to Weed is clearly established in this sector.

2.  The Focus on Feathers (25 minutes)
Later Bull Weed takes Feathers back to his hideaway and shows off his accomplishment – he has cleaned up Rolls Royce and made him respectable again. Rolls Royce is now a refined, erudite figure of some class, but he is working for Weed and living at the hideaway. Feathers finds him fascinating, but her appreciation for Weed’s pilfered jewelry shows that she still belongs to the gangster.

They all attend the annual “armistice” ball that is held by the underworld and at which all rivalries are set aside for the evening. Von Sternberg’s visual display of the extravagant goings on here is lavish, and displays his powers of expressionistic presentation. He would offer up further examples of this nature in Dishonored (1931). As the night wears on and debauchery descends to drunkenness, Bull Weed passes out at his table, giving Buck Mulligan a chance to move in on Feathers.  He corners Feathers in a back room and tries to put the make on her.  Bull Weed, however, is revived in time and staggers over to break up the sexual harassment just in time.  Then he chases Mulligan back to his flower shop and shoots him dead.

3.  Jail (19 minutes)
Bull Weed is quickly arrested for the murder and sentenced to hang and thrown in jail.  Now Rolls Royce works to prepare to spring Weed from jail before he can be hanged. With Weed away from the hideaway, though, Rolls Royce and Feathers find themselves mutually attracted to each other, and they consider running away together before guilty consciences make them drop their plans.

At this stage von Sternberg builds up the tension with four parallel theatres of action:
1. Weed waiting in his cell and playing checkers with the guard,
2. the gang arriving outside to try a breakin,
3. Feathers waiting in a car to pick up Weed and take him to safety, and
4. Rolls Royce at the train station as a decoy. 
For unexplained reasons, however, the police get wind of the breakin plan, ambush the gang, and foil the plan.

4.  Weed Escapes (17 minutes)
Weed, thinking that Rolls Royce has betrayed him, manages to break out of his cell anyway and make his way back to his old hideaway. There he finds Rolls’s cigarette case with one of Feather’s feathers in it – further confirmation in his mind of the betrayal. Feathers now returns to the hideaway, unknowingly trailed by the police, who now know they have cornered Weed inside. An intense police machine gun bombardment  ensues, with Weed firing back with his own stock of weapons.  Rolls Royce heads back to the hideaway, too, to see what he can do. This leads to the melodramatic climax.

Although Underworld has themes of loyalty and honor, it is not these elements that make the film stand out.  What is truly memorable about the film is its expressionistic evocation of the dark, relentlessly intense psychological environment of the criminal world – a world of reckless machismo excitement that often ends badly.  This is what makes Underworld one of the great early films noir

The acting is expressionistic, too – perhaps more of a necessity in the silent era.  The exaggerated broad gestures of George Bancroft, in the  role of Bull Weed, starkly contrast with the refined, nuanced expressions of Clive Brook, in the roll of Rolls Royce.  And the allure of Feathers, played by Evelyn Brent, is primarily conveyed by her emotive glances in closeup.  The existential presence of personhood is, of course, entirely confined to the underworld element; the police are essentially an abstract, faceless force

What I especially like about Underworld, though, are the various moments of pure cinema that von Sternberg employed to convey the expressionistic mood of the outlaw world:

  • The short bursts of violence, which are in the form of robberies, bombing, killings, and police captures, are startingly brief and brutal. They seem to come out of nowhere like a flash of light.  When Weed’s gang is ambushed, it’s all over in seconds.  When Weed breaks out of jail, the viewer barely sees what happens, it’s so quick.
  • This contrasts with the slow movement towards intimacy between Rolls and Feathers in the second act.  This is all conveyed by meaningful glances and gestures.
  • During the third act there is the remarkable buildup of tension as Weed plays checkers with his cell guard while he waits for his rescue. Time seems to be moving at a snail’s pace.  Then, as mentioned above, his gang is quickly captured in an ambush; and it’s all over in seconds.
  • The violent shootout at the end is also spectacular. It goes on and on, and it seems that  the vast horde of policemen shooting at Weed’s upstairs window have the intention of destroying the entire apartment building.  Nevertheless, even in the midst of all this incredible violence, it seems that Weed becomes more human and less of a role player. At the end his narrative journey is as important as those of Rolls Royce and Feathers.
Underworld was a remarkable achievement for von Sternberg, who was at the early stages of his career.
★★★½
Notes:
  1. The awards now known as “Oscars” were not yet called by that name then.