“Army of Shadows” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)

In the latter part of his regrettably shortened career [1,2], Jean-Pierre Melville made his great films noir depicting the darkness of the French criminal underworld, including Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972). In the middle of this film-noir sequence, however, was a work that might appear to be an anomaly: his Army of Shadows (L'Armée des Ombres, 1969) about the activities of a French Resistance cell in World War II. Nevertheless, this film, despite its far different setting, is as dark as any of them and fully worthy of the film noir label.

To be sure, Army of Shadow’s historical background combined with its noirish atmosphere probably confused critics and the public at the time of its release in 1969.  This was, after all, in the aftermath of the 1968 French student protests, and the leftward-leaning critical fraternity, led by Cahiers du Cinema magazine, erroneously dismissed the film as “Gaullist film art” [3], as if the film was primarily a celebration of the WWII French Resistance under de Gaulle.  In my view the film is just the opposite – it is one of the more disturbing antiwar films that I have seen.  Nevertheless with its poor critical reception, the film was not widely distributed, and it was not released in the US until 2006, at which time it experienced a critical renaissance and was showered with plaudits [4,5,6].  Today many people consider it to be Melville’s greatest work.

One reason for this is probably that the film certainly is a very personal work. For one thing, the events in the film are drawn from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel Army of Shadows, which was a fictionalized account of Kessel’s own experiences in the Resistance.  Then Melville added the perspective from his own personal experiences, since he had been drafted into the French army in 1937 and had served in both the Resistance (operating inside occupied France) and later in the Free French Forces (combating German forces from outside France) [7]. However, even though the action shown in the film is inspired by real events and recollections, Melville did not want  to make a historical treatise.  He was surveying his own memories from a distance of twenty-five years.  As he remarked [7],
“I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance.  So I removed all realism. . . “. 
And his memories of those times were clearly draped in the dark noirish shadows of those desperate circumstances.  In any case Melville had the right idea about  movies [8]:
“A film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact recreation of it.”
In fact films reflect our nightmares as much as dreams.

As I have discussed elsewhere, particularly in my review of Le Doulos, film noir narratives have three key features:
  • Fatalism – Most of the characters have pasts they want to forget (and are unknown to the viewer) and no hopeful futures.
  • Truth – Everyone is lying or hiding something, and the truth is invariably elusive.
  • Loyalty – Given the ubiquity of deceit, loyalty is the most prized virtue, and once loyalty is sworn, disloyalty is the ultimate sin.
Many people may expect these features in a story about gangsters, but perhaps not in war films, especially not in the so-called “good war” of World War II.  But these three elements are continually evident in  Army of Shadows.  Of course, there is no such thing as a good war, and the real experiences of people in war are probably closer to the categories of film noir than people realize.  Certainly the picture Melville presents of the Resistance fighters trying to survive inside a Nazi-controlled France is full of the darkest despair.  It primarily suggests to me that the struggle to survive can drain the humanity from people and turn them into killing machines.  This is why Army of Shadows reminded me of another great antiwar film that was released at about the same time – Miklos Jancsó’s The Red and the White (1967).

The story of Army of Shadows passes through six narrative segments concerning a French Resistance cell operating in 1942 in the south of France (which was for most of that time still nominally controlled by the Vichy government).  In most of these segments, there isn’t much action or heroism.  We merely see the Resistance operatives desperately struggling to escape their German predators, the Gestapo.  Almost from the beginning we know that the noirish sword of doom hangs over all of them and that they are unlikely to survive.

1.  Gerbier Escapes
It is 22 October 1941, and Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura) is put in confinement at a Vichy-controlled concentration camp. Gerbier, we will later learn, heads a small cell of Resistance men operating out of Marseilles and Lyon. Ventura, as he did earlier in Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle, presents an interesting persona. His thickset physique is far from glamorous for a film protagonist, but he is clearly vigorous, alert, and reflectively aware of his surroundings at all times. His generally soft-spoken demeanor, accompanied by wry smiles of agreement, belies a capability of violent and brutal eruptions. In general he embodies a kind of an action everyman that gives a visceral touch to Melville’s films.

Gerbier quickly works out an escape plan with a fellow inmate, who is a communist.  But before they can carry out the plan, he is reassigned to another, more fearsome, prison in German-occupied territory.  Upon arriving at the prison and just inside the prison’s doorway Gerbier suddenly kills a sentry on duty by snatching the sentry’s own knife and stabbing him in the neck, and then he somehow manages to flee out onto the street.  He escapes his pursuers by quickly ducking into a barbershop and getting a shave from a complicit barber.   Gerbier has escaped, but just like the first sequence in Le Deuxième Souffle, Ventura’s heavy-breathing and unlikely getaway seem so desperate and improbable that it sets a gloomy pall over the rest of the story.  We get the feeling that his days must be numbered.

2.  Execution of a Comrade
Sometime later, Gerbier is now sporting a mustache and back working with the agents under his command: Claude “Le Masque” (Claude Mann),  Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), and Guillaume “Le Bison” (Christian Barbier).  Gerbier has given them all the task of executing a fellow agent, Paul Dounat, for having given up secrets to the Gestapo and thereby betraying Gerbier (there is no further backstory about Dounat). This is an excruciating sequence, because Dounat is a young man barely out of his teens and totally submissive.  It is later revealed that noone can withstand the unbearable Gestapo torture, and prisoners would readily commit suicide but are prevented from doing so.  Dounat seems like an innocent lamb to the slaughter, and the point of killing him seems pointless except to make him pay.  Nevertheless, Gerbier and his men ponder how to kill their victim without making any noise.  They eventually opt for strangulation and mercilessly carry it out.  If the first segment emphasized fatalism, this one shows the dark side of (dis)loyalty.

3. Wider Circles and a Trip to London
Things turn a little brighter in the third segment.  Felix runs into an old friend, Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and recruits him into the Resistance. Jean-Francois is quickly given an assignment to go to Paris, and there he meets another key agent, Mathilde (Simone Signoret). Before returning to Marseille, he pays a quick visit to his older brother, Luc (Paul Meurisse), who is an esteemed, but unworldly, mathematical philosopher. 

Back in Marseilles, Gerbier organizes his team, now including Jean-Francois, to shepherd two passengers onto an allied submarine bound for London.  It turns out that the two passengers are Gerbier himself and Luc Jardie, the academic, who is now revealed (only to us – not to Gerbier’s cell and not even to his brother, Jean-Francois) as actually the big chief of all the on-the-ground Resistance operations. 

In London, Gerbier and Luc Jardie can relax a little, and they briefly meet Charles de Gaulle, who awards Luc Jardie with some kind of medal of honor.  However, Gerbier is exposed to another side of the war not seen in France – air raids.  He is amazed to duck into a dance party among young service personnel who are evidently used to and unmindful of the bombs dropping outside their window. But Gerbier gets news that back in France Felix has been arrested by the Gestapo.  So he rushes back to Lyon.

4.  To Rescue Felix
Mathilde quickly shifts down to Lyon to take Felix’s place as Gerbier’s right-hand operative, and she proves to be invaluable.  When the always ruthless Gerbier suggests that they plan to somehow kill Felix before he yields to torture-induced confessions, Mathilde reveals that she has a clever plan to rescue Felix.  As they make preparations, Jean-Francois, unbeknownst to his fellow agents, gets himself arrested by the Gestapo so that he can facilitate the rescue from the inside.
Mathilde’s plan involves disguising herself and two aids as German medics, and they con their way inside the Gestapo facility.  But it is too late. Mathilde learns that Felix is already dying from the torture, and she is barely able to abort their mission and escape from the prison. Jean-Francois is left inside with only his cyanide pill to save him from his own torture.

5.  To Rescue Gerbier
Now it is Gerbier’s turn to get arrested by the Gestapo.  He is about to be executed by a sadistically conceived firing squad, when Mathilde comes up with another ingenious plan and stages a miraculous rescue – this time successfully. 

6.  Another Payoff
This final segment is the grimmest of them all and serves as a fit culmination of the nihilistic world depicted in this film.  It subscribes to the inhuman logic of what war is: a massive-scale death machine.  You need to see this sequence yourself, without foreknowledge, in order to feel the existential desolation that is generated.

Melville set out to make a faithful film of Kessel’s novel, and he does include most of the events in the novel.  But the film’s overall tone faithfully adheres to his own grim take on film noir.  Fatalism is the key.  At one point Gerbier in voiceover ruminates on his own interior existential view of hope and the denial of death,
“It’s impossible not to be afraid of dying.  But I’m too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don’t believe it to the last moment, to the very last split second, I'll never die. What a revelation.  The chief would love it.”
But Gerbier’s acceptance of the war ethic results in his never hesitating to issue death condemnations for others  – for whomever it suits his schemes   When he is on the exterior side, death for others is readily prescribed.

And truth is always elusive. Jean-Francois never does know that his own brother is the big chief of the organization he serves. Moreover, Jean-Francois’s heroic self-sacrifice is never known to others, and he dies a presumed traitor. Mathilde’s Resistance life is unknown even to her husband and teenage daughter. What went on in Mathilde’s mind at the end is also unknowable.

Warmongers always invoke patriotism and try to drum into youthful minds notions of loyalty – not loyalty to love, compassion, and human values – but to the demands of reductionist and doctrinaire militancy.  Army of Shadows shows that side of it.

  1. Jean-Pierre Melville died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of fifty-five.
  2. For more on Melville's career, see: Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des Ombres”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, XV:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York.
  3. J. Hoberman, “Fog of War”, The Village Voice, (18 April 2006).
  4. Amy Taubin, “Out of the Shadows”, The Criterion Collection, (11 January 2011).
  5. Robert O. Paxton, “Melville’s French Resistance”, The Criterion Collection, (11 January 2011).
  6. Roger Ebert, “Army of Shadows”, RogerEbert.com, (21 May 2006).
  7. Rui Nogueira, “Melville on Melville: Army of Shadows”, Army of Shadows, The Criterion Collection, pp. 30-40.
  8. World Film Directors, Vol. II., John Wakeman (ed.), Wilson, co., NY 1988, quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des Ombres”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, XV:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (2 October 2007).

"Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds" - Daniel Schmidt (2012)

Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds (2012) [1] is a documentary film that concerns itself with perhaps the ultimate question: what is the nature of reality?  It addresses this issue by seeking a bridge between two worlds that, even with all the efforts of philosophy and natural science, have always remained separate:
  • the inner world of our conscious experience – Think of your experience of seeing that red flower over there.
  • the outer world with which we interact and over which we have limited control – Think of light rays of various wavelengths that reflect off that red flower and come to your eye and strike your retina.
Indeed philosophers have a special term for this separation: the hard problem of consciousness [2,3].  Despite all the advances in neurological science, the reductionist nature of modern physical science keeps it from arriving at an understanding of consciousness. I am among those who believe that this disconnection between the inner and outer worlds will persist in the academic sciences and humanities as long as they continue to rigidly isolate objective reality from the observer's subjective participation [4].  The creators of this film, however, are looking to bridge this gap and establish a merging of these two worlds.

The film’s principal creator is Daniel Schmidt, who is the writer, director, cinematographer, and computer animator of the film.  On his Web site Schmidt describes himself as a Canadian meditation teacher with interests that “include Vipassana meditation, dark retreats, ancient knowledge of the enlightenment process, and exploring the common experiences of awakened beings and mystics from all cultures.” [5].  The film comprises four relatively separate 30-minute disquisitions, that are continuously accompanied by evocative and illustrative images, on the nature of reality:
  1. Akasha
  2. The Spiral
  3. The Serpent and the Lotus
  4. Beyond Thinking
Though there is a progression to these sections, they can be viewed separately. 

Overall, there are positive and not-so-positive aspects to this film.  On the positive side are the brilliantly crafted and composed visual images throughout the film, along with the accompanying music that complements the imagery perfectly. These images invariably incorporate dynamic movements, including many fascinating computer-generated fractal images that continuously evolve into new shapes. On the downside, however, is the repeated and somewhat indiscriminate confluence of science, magic, pseudoscience, and spirituality.  I will comment more on this latter issue below.

The film opens auspiciously with a quotation from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” that serves as an invocation of what is sought:

            To see a World in a Grain of Sand
            And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
            Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
            And Eternity in an hour.

Then it proceeds through the four sections.

1.  Akasha
‘Akasha’ is the ancient Hindu term for the essence of all being, and this considers man’s quest for an understanding of the ground of being.  The narration states,
“There is one vibratory field that connects all things. It has been called Akasha, Logos, the primordial Om, Indra’s Net of Jewels, the Music of the Spheres, and a thousand other names throughout history.”
OK, but then the narrator goes on relate akasha to the physics notion of the vacuum (empty space), which is the medium in which Schroedinger waves oscillate.  The physics model of the vacuum has no mass by itself, but it has some properties.  He then wrongly relates this to the Higgs field, which is related to the Higgs boson – a notion from the Standard Model of physics that has recently had some empirical verification. However, although the Higgs field is thought to permeate all space, it is not the same as the vacuum. Later the narrator wrongly correlates akasha with the physics notions of “dark matter” and “dark energy", which is a mistake.  Although those aspects of matter may be pervasive throughout much of space, they are not the ground of being.  So there is a reckless invocation here of various  physical concepts that appears to be an attempt to put a scientific stamp of authenticity to the author's thinking.

There are further somewhat pompous and problematic statements:
  • “All energy in the universe is neutral, timeless.”
  • “With the creation of things comes time, which creates the illusion of solidity.”
  • “Science is approaching the threshold between consciousness and matter.  The eye with which we look at the primordial field, and the eye with which the field looks at us, are one and the same."
We can grant some poetic license, here, but the frequent conflation of many technical terms in the narration, such as 'matrix', 'field', and 'force', in the same breath can be misleading, at best.

Then things get back on a more  promising track with a fascinating depiction of fractals, which visually invokes the idea that the complex structure of the universe is infinitely recursive, as represented by some mathematical notions of nonlinear dynamics. The trajectories of nonlinear systems near an equilibrium exhibit this form of fractal structure.  They are not simply random, nor do they have simple forms.  Instead they have recursively repetitive forms of unending complexity.

Disturbingly, however, the discussion now moves to a consideration of cymatics [6], which is a pseudoscience that is fascinated with standing wave patterns of liquids in elliptically-shaped bowls. Also shown are trivial similarities between fractal images and ancient Buddhist figures.

The main idea of this Akasha section seems to be the assertion that modern physics is approaching an understanding of consciousness – something that the ancient mystical practices knew all along.  Although I respect ancient mystical practices and notions of spirituality, it is wrongheaded to suggest that physics and various ancient pseudoscientific practices, which should be distinguished from truly mystical spirituality, are converging towards a unity.  In fact it is misguided to identify ancient spiritual wisdom with now obsolete theories of natural science that were contemporaneous with the spiritual practitioners of those ancient times.  People who today stubbornly hold on to those outdated physical theories are pseudoscience practitioners.

It is useful to keep in mind just what a pseudoscience is.  It is not magic – magic refers to special and (usually) secret powers that are possessed by some privileged agents.  Pseudoscience, however, is not secret; it is in fact publicly proclaimed as objective science.  However, for a thought system to be a true science, it must be able to make predictions that are falsifiable [7].  Then when some predictions of the system are observed to be false, the science can be adjusted or mended in some manner so that it later makes more correct predictions.  But a pseudoscience, such as astrology or palmistry, fails this test of falsifiability in one of two ways:
  1. a pseudoscience makes too many false predictions.  This is the case with astrology, which despite veiling its predictions in vague statements, routinely makes false predications.
  2. a pseudoscience obfuscates its statements so that they are not falsifiable.  I have seen palm readers behave this way by making predictions that could be interpreted in almost any way.
So, unfortunately, the Akasha section is littered with presumptuous and problematic assertions.

2.  The Spiral
In this section the focus is on why the physical universe is structured in the way it is – that is, why does it have the particular mathematical structure that we observed it to have?  In particular and as metaphor for this general question, there is an interest in the mathematical nature and structure of the spiral, including connection of some spiral with the mathematical notion of the Fibonacci series, as well as the many manifestations of the spiral throughout nature.  

This topic is more promising.  There are many beautiful and fascinating images in this section, and the visual display alone is rewarding.  However, the discussion eventually shifts to earlier natural theories of meridian lines, prana, chakras, etc. (much of which has not been substantiated by modern empiricaL scientific investigations) that have incorporated metaphorical notions of the spiral into their imagined imagery.  In particular, the narrator makes the provocative assertion theat kundalini is the primordial spiral.  And then he asks rhetorically,
"but how did ancient people know about the spiral if modern science is just starting to recognize its significance?”
This question contradicts what has already been shown visually.  The spiral appears regularly in nature, and it was natural for ancient people to adopt it as metaphor.  The suggestion that modern science is catching up with the ancient mystical traditions (some of which are littered with pseudoscience and magic) and thereby connecting up with them is misleading. 

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating question as to why the observed universe has the mathematical structure that we observe.  Is it due to something intrinsic to the natural world, or is it intrinsic to the observer?

3.  The Serpent and the Lotus
In this third section there is, thankfully, very little reference to modern science. Instead there is a lengthy display of historical man-made images associated with two metaphorical symbols:
  • serpents (and snakes in general), which is generally associated with descent.
  • birds, which are associated with ascent. 
The serpent is associated with Dionysian, animalistic urges.  It represents downward movement and is the “manifested spiral”.  I am not sure what that means, but he connects this to kundalini as a life force.

Birds are metaphorically associated with upward movement towards the celestial, spiritual realm. Not surprisingly, he connects this to the Holy Spirit.  However, he later abandons the bird symbol and switches this upward representation to that of the lotus (the “flower of life”), which he goes on to connect with geometric shapes, in particular perfect geometric solids.  Each chakra is a lotus, he claims.

There are many beautiful and compelling dynamic images in this section, too.

4.  Beyond Thinking
The last section concerns that aspect of consciousness associated with “reflection”, or “thinking about”.  As one might expect from a meditation coach, the narrator wants us to go beyond thinking.  However, he goes too far when he blames all the world’s problems on thinking.  He urges that we empty ourselves of all ambitions, which I would say is simply an urge towards passivity. 

What is really wanted, I believe, is a proper balance between reflective thinking and compassionate engagement. It is true that we must accept what is, but then we must adapt to whatever has changed in the world (a practice that the narration does recommend) and carry on with our loving and compassionate efforts. After all, doesn’t the author want us to think about what is being communicated in this film and then, as a consequence, to sometimes, but not always, go beyond thinking?

Even so, this is still the most satisfying of the film’s four segments, because it does get into and consider the wonders and possibilities of being engaged with the world.

Despite my misgivings about various aspects of the thesis presented in this narration, I believe that the film is worth seeing.  It will help make you contemplate the beauties and infinite possibilities of your world.

Visual Imagery:       ★★★★
Narration (the text): ★★
Overall:              ★★★

  1. Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds, available here.
  2.  “The Hard Problem of Consciousness", Wikipedia, (9 October 2015).  
  3. David Chalmers, "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness", Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3): 200–219, (1995).
  4. However, there are current efforts to include the observer in fundamental scientific theories, see, for example: “Relational Quantum Mechanics”, Wikipedia, (20 April 2015).
  5. “Breathe True Yoga”. Note that Schmidt’s partner, Eva Dametto, is also credited with creative contributions.
  6. “Cymatics”, Wikipedia, (12 October 2015). 
  7. "Falsifiability", Wikipedia, (21 Septermber 2015).

Wim Wenders

Films of Wim Wenders:

“The Salt of the Earth” - Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado (2014)

Noted dramatic feature and documentary filmmaker Wim Wenders has tended to move back and forth between those two cinematic forms of expression over his forty-five year career.  And in both of these cinematic forms, he seems to have had particular interest in two themes: people on the road and what it is that drives creative artists.  Interestingly, both of those themes came to the fore in his latest documentary film, The Salt of the Earth (2014), which was co-written and co-directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado [1]. 

The subject of the film is the life and work of world-famous “social photographer” Sebastião Salgado, whose long career has been devoted to extended projects documenting the lives and circumstances of Third World people under stress.  When Wim Wenders approached Sebastião Salgado in connection with making a film about him, he learned that Sebastião’s son, Juliano, was already occupied with making a documentary about his family.  So after some negotiation, Wenders and Juliano Salgado agreed to collaborate on a single film [2].  In fact the issue of multiple perspectives concerning how the world is seen is a significant theme of the film, as I will comment on below.

The resulting film has been a big success. The Salt of the Earth was nominated for the US Academy Award for Best Documentary at the 87th US Academy Awards; it won a “special prize” [3] at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival; and it won the César Award for Best Documentary Film at the 40th César Awards (the French “Oscars”).  What makes the film particularly attractive, perhaps, is that is appeals to people on different levels.  Some people are fascinated by the dynamic exploratory personality of Sebastião Salgado, himself.  Other people are interested in the dramatic subject matter that he photographed.  And still others derive satisfaction from the narrative journey of Salgado’s life and the degree to which it has come to some positive resolution.

Sebastião Salgado has spent his career traveling to remote regions of the world and photographically capturing in a single image an entire world suspended in a state of dramatic tension.  They say every picture tells a story, but Salgado’s pictures evoke breathtaking stories that make the viewer linger on them at length.  It is as if Salgado has gone as far as possible to encapsulate narrative within a single static shot.  How Salgado came to take all these pictures is the subject of the biographical aspects of this film.

In fact Sebastião Salgado’s life by itself is interesting [4].  Born in 1944 to a modest farming family in the inland southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, he studied economics at a local university and, like many young people in the late 1960s became interested in politics.  The advent of a brutal military dictatorship in Brazil at this time made life dangerous for politically minded people like Salgado, and so he and his wife Lelia left Brazil for France.  Banking on his economics background, he soon found employment working for a coffee organization, which meant occasional trips to Africa.  His wife Lelia gave him a camera to take along on one of these trips, and soon he became more interested in his photographs than in the job he was supposed to be doing. 

So in 1973 he decided to switch careers and try to make it as a photographer.  His first major project was “Otras Americas” (1977-84), which took him to a number of South American countries (while still avoiding Brazil) [5].  This set the thenceforth lifelong pattern for Sebastião – he would spend long stretches away on self-assignment from his family while enmeshing himself in the local lives of the people he was photographing.  His subsequent projects took him to Asia, Africa, and far reaches of the globe, usually photographing indigenous peoples struggling to adjust to, and often just to survive, the ever-expanding world industrialization.

Although not explicitly articulated, the film suggests that Salgado had an almost morbid fascination for the usually grim encounters between local cultures and the effects of globalization. However later extended visits to Africa and Asia Minor brought him face to face with the horrifying details associated with
  • the slaughter in Rwanda of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, followed by subsequent devastations suffered by Hutus;
  • depredations inflicted on (or natural disasters made worse for) minorities in Congo, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan;
  • wholesale slaughters in Bosnia and Serbia; and
  • Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s departing attempt to incinerate Kuwait by setting fire to its oil fields.

By the latter 1990s, all these man-made afflictions had sickened Salgado both physically and mentallly, and he abandoned his photographic expeditions.  He returned to Brazil, and at the suggestion of his wife Lelia, they began to restore their family farmland by planting trees on a large scale and establishing an eco-sanctuary known as Instituto Terra [6]. This eventually restored Salgado, and he returned to photography. His latest project “Genesis” (2004-11) was dedicated to portraying pristine areas of nature and human habitation [5]. So the narrative depiction of Sebastião Salgado’s life has its ups and downs, but it culminates on a positive note of rebirth and optimism in mankind’s possibilities.

The Salt of the Earth, however, is more than just a portrayal of a famous man’s life.  It carries within it an implicit contemplation of how we know and communicate to others our understanding of the world.  In this connection we might reflect upon the fact that when the photographic camera was invented, it was supposed to present an objective view of reality.   However, Salgado, himself, knew this was a fantasy and has always asserted that each person’s recording of the world – even with a camera – depends on his or her personal history and perspective.  Six people photographing the same scene will return with six different pictures.  This is again the idea that every picture tells a story, and that story includes the picture-taker’s story as part of the tale. 

And yet the picture-taker/storyteller is usually trying to present what they consider to be objective reality.  For example, Sebastião Salgado has always produced black-and-white photographs.  For him, color is less truthful.  That defficiency may have been more evident at the outset of his career, when color film tended to present saturated colors and had a limited contrast range compared to black-and-white film.  But now color film has much greater capacities in this area.  Nevertheless, Salgado still feels color film lies [4]:
“I never see this red in my life. . . . It was a huge exaggeration — when I saw my colour picture, I was much more interested in the colour than in the personality or dignity of the person. How can I go to a person and make them my story, and I don’t feel the story in my photographs? Of course, black and white is an abstraction, but from the brightest white to the darkest black what you have is greys, and these greys are what I had in my mind when I took the pictures.”
He feels the greys and shades are more expressive: “‘I have a big excitement for the greys. I luuuurve the greys!’ he cries, when explaining why he shoots only in black and white.” [4].  In this connection see what you think when you examine one of Salgado’s most famous photographs (shown with this review) showing the desperate human sprawl when viewed looking down at a Brazilian gold mine (mid-1990s).

In The Salt of the Earth, however, there are several levels of reality under presentation:
  1. Level 1 is the brute physical world encountered by people.
  2. Level 2 is the world seen and presented by Sebastião Salgado.  It is “colored” by Salgado’s contextual understanding and perspective.
  3. Level 3 are the worlds seen by Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado.  These two worlds are combined into the film and include the contextual perspectives of Wenders and Juliano Salgado.
  4. Level 4 are the respective worlds seen (and accordingly constructed) by the viewers of this film.
As I have remarked in earlier reviews of documentary films [7], documentary filmmakers have adopted different strategies in this respect. 
  • Many documentarians present a lecture about what is claimed to be objective reality. 
  • Others (“direct cinema”) attempt to present an objective view by acting as if the camera is an invisible recorder of reality – the viewers are to form their own opinions about what is presented. 
  • Then there are still others who are willing to acknowledge the presence of the recorder (“cinema vérité”) and explicitly include his or her perspective as part of the record. 
Here in The Salt of the Earth, Wenders and Juliano Salgado present their views of Level 2 by showing Sebastião Salgado’s photographs and then add a cinema vérité touch by having Sebastião provide his own personal commentary concerning what he saw when he took the photographs.  He looks directly into the camera and reports what he thinks – is he talking to the viewer or Wenders?  Each viewer will come to his or her own conclusion about that.  And of course, Wenders and Juliano Salgado do not present their own contextual perspectives (Level 3) in the film, so at that level they adopt a more traditional mode of presentation.  We would expect that Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado would have highly different personal perspectives in this regard, but we can only sniff around the edges in this connection.  So ultimately we might say that this film is an attempt to present an objective view of Sebastião Salgado’s personal perspective.  Most viewers, though, will roam across all four levels while watching this film.

  1. Along with Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado, David Rosier was also a co-writer of the film.
  2. Larry Rohter, “‘The Salt of the Earth’ Presents a Photographer’s Life and Lens, in Focus”, The New York Times, (20 March 2015).
  3. It won the “Un Certain Regard Special Prize” at the festival.
  4. Bryan Appleyard, “Sebastiao Salgado: The Unfiltered Lens”, The Sunday Times (UK), (3 March 2013).
  5. Kenneth Turan, “'Salt of the Earth' Captures Photographer Sebastiao Salgado”, Los Angeles Times, (11 December 2014).
  6. Instituto Terra, Brazil.
  7. See, for example: The Film Sufi, “‘Close-Up’ - Abbas Kiarostami (1990)”, The Film Sufi, (10 December 2009).

John Frankenheimer

Films of John Frankenheimer:

“French Connection II” - John Frankenheimer (1975)

French Connection II (1975) is an American action-adventure film that was a followup to The French Connection (1971).  That earlier film was a huge commercial success and won US Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Though the sequel under discussion here, French Connection II, was also commercially successful, the overwhelming majority of viewers preferred  the first film.  But not me – I think French Connection II is the superior film. Admittedly, The French Connection was polished, entertaining, and had non-stop audiovisual  pyrotechnics, but it didn’t quite match some of the sublime passages of French Connection II. And, overall, even though The French Connection had a fascinatingly gritty surface, it lacked the existential delirium of its successor [1].

Both films feature an epic battle between New York Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and the wealthy French drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), but they have different settings and, aside from Hackman and Rey, different casts.  The contrast between these two antagonists, particularly in French Connection II,  is striking: Charnier is upper-class, polished, and seems to have unlimited resources: while Doyle is lower-class, socially clumsy, and usually acts alone. The earlier film is primarily set in New York City, while French Connection II is set in Marseilles.  The viewer of the sequel does not really need to know anything about the earlier film.  The main thing is that Charnier got away at the end of that earlier story, and Popeye Doyle is still after him.

The story of French Connection II is divided into three almost equal-lengthed acts.  In fact these three acts are so distinct that they seem like three separate stories.  The real payoff comes in the last act; but, still, your appreciation of that last act has been setup by what has come earlier.

1.  Popeye Arrives in Marseilles
Detective Popeye Doyle, with his signature pork pie hat, arrives at the Marseilles police yard (“Hotel de Police Services Generaux”) and introduces himself to French Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), to whom he has been assigned to work under in order to hunt down drug mastermind Alain Charnier.  This first act is devoted to highlighting just how much Doyle is a fish out of water and how difficult it will be for him to make headway in this foreign setting.  Although Doyle is presumably a hardened professional concerning police activities, he seems naive and socially insecure on the interpersonal level.  Perhaps to compensate for his self-perceived limitations, he is aggressively rude and vulgar to anyone who doesn’t immediately accommodate him.  On top of that, he seems to have a slew of despicable racial and cultural prejudices.  Nevertheless, as the story proceeds, Doyle’s vulnerabilities and predominant genuineness draw the viewer as an existential passenger aboard Doyle’s tumultuous experiential train. Despite whatever misgivings we may have about Doyle’s character, we are empathetically drawn into Doyle’s world, despite ourselves, and this is what makes the entire story compelling.  Credit for this more alluring psychological ambience present in French Connection II, must probably be given to two key production figures who were not part of The French Connection – director John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Claude Renoir, who was the grandson of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a nephew of Jean Renoir.

These early sequences of Popeye are intercut with some scenes showing an ocean liner in dry dock at the Marseille port.  An adjutant of Alain Charnier, Jacques (Philippe Léotard), watches the liner intently, and he later furtively passes a money bag to a Japanese ship officer associated with the liner.  Clearly these people are part of the drug operation that Doyle seeks to foil. 

To show the magnitude of just what the lone and alienated Doyle is up against, we soon see Charnier amiably discussing his operations with an American, who turns out to be a high-ranking US military officer.  So even important people inside the US military are part of Charnier’s criminal syndicate.

Also in this act, the contrast between Popeye Doyle and Inspector Henri Barthélémy as police operatives is highlighted.  While Barthélémy emphasizes due process, Doyle is reckless and risks human lives to capture a suspect.  This is shown in one scene of a police drug raid in which Doyle’s rash pursuit of someone fleeing the scene, but who was actually a police informer, led to that person’s death.  But that is the way Doyle operates: possible collateral damage doesn’t enter his mind.

Later during a long-distance phone conservation between Barthélémy and Doyle’s US-based superiors, it is revealed that Doyle sent to Marseilles without being told that he was to be used as bait to draw Charnier out in the open (so we see that disregard for collateral damage seems to be routine on the US police side). Barthélémy regards this as unethical but agrees to go along with it and assigns two of his men to secretively trail Doyle at all times in order to protect him.

Doyle’s isolation is further depicted as he is shown cruising around Marseilles looking for girls at bars and chatting with bartenders, all the while struggling with the fact that he cannot speak French and noone he encounters can speak English. In the course of these activities, he is surreptitiously spotted by Charnier.  When Doyle detects that he is being shadowed by French police, he gives them the slip and is then immediately captured by Charnier’s men.

2.  Popeye’s Torment
The narrative now moves to Act 2, and it seems like we have been transferred into a different movie.  The pace slows down, and Popeye’s world shrinks to his handcuffed confinement in a small flophouse hotel under the supervision of Charnier’s men. They want to know what he knows about Charnier’s operations, and in order to get him to talk, they give their prisoner daily injections of heroin in order to get him addicted. Then they will torture their prisoner by only offering him further injections if he spills the beans.  At first Doyle is defiant, but gradually he slips into a drug-induced haze.  He finally confesses that he knows nothing and that he was sent over to France simply because he was the only one who could recognize and idenetify Charnier.

There is one interesting red-herring vignette when an aged British lady comes to his room and consolingly speaks to him.  Finally, it seems,he has met someone who speaks English and appears to be sympathetic.  The viewer’s anticipation that she might help is soon crushed when it is revealed that she is also a heroin junkie and has only approached him in order to steal his watch.

Charnier’s gang finally give Doyle what should be a lethal dose of heroin and then dump him on the road. Barthélémy and his men quickly find Doyle and attend to his emergency circumstances by pumping his stomach and giving him cardiac arrest treatment. Afterwards, they choose to detox him by making him go “cold turkey”, instead of by gradual withdrawal. This agonizing detox period is shown for the next ten minutes of screen time and slows the film’s pace even more.  For some viewers this section of the film is too drawn out, but it does offer Gene Hackman a platform to give a bravura acting performance as he goes through his withdrawal symptoms in front of the patiently attending Barthélémy.  In particular there is a memorable seven-minute monologue during which Doyle tries to explain his interest in baseball and its arcane culture, including his early encounter with the legendary Mickey Mantle, to the uncomprehending Frenchman.  Any baseball fan will sympathize with Doyle’s frustration when his listener doesn’t even know what a southpaw is. 

Gradually Popeye recovers from the addiction and sets about rehabilitating himself in order to renew his struggle against Charnier.

3.  Popeye Takes Over
After the painful and dolorous 2nd act and now with Doyle back at full strength, the narrative pace is cranked up maximally for Act 3. Notions of due process now take a back seat to Popeye's impetuosity. This is where the film really comes into its own, but the previous two acts set things up for this final fever pitch to have its full effect. There are three high-tension episodes in this act that keep the relentless narrative momentum of this act rolling at a high speed:
  1. Torching the Flophouse
  2. Battle in the Dry Dock
  3. Busting the Drug Lab

3.1 Torching the Flophouse
The first such episode occurs when Popeye, now back out on the street, finally notices a sign that he recognizes is associated with the flophouse where he had been incarcerated.  He immediately gets a can of gasoline and torches the whole place.  This vengeful and impetuous action may have cost some lives of the inhabitants, but it flushes everyone out of the flophouse.  Popeye then savagely catches and beats a person that he recognizes fleeing the blaze and forces him to reveal the whereabouts of Charnier: he is at the ship dry dock seen at the beginning of the film.

3.2 Battle in the Dry Dock
The second episode follows on immediately when Popeye, Barthélémy, and some police rush over to the dry dock where Charnier’s gang is removing metal containers, presumably carrying drugs, that were welded to the ship’s hull.  When Charnier’s man, Jacques, notices the police sneaking up on them, a spectacular gunfight breaks out, with Jacques blazing away with a submachine gun.  Popeye and Barthélémy get trapped in the bottom of the dry dock, and the gang proceeds to open the floodgates in order to drown them.  Popeye and Barthélémy barely survive the battle, and Charnier gets away.
The next day Barthélémy is about to arrest the ship’s captain for complicity in the heroin trafficking when Popeye convinces Barthélémy to let the man go free. By surreptitiously tracking operations at the docked ship, he argues, they can trace a connection to Charnier.  By now Popeye is calling all the shots, and the hitherto more methodical Barthélémy is gradually adopting Popeye’s breakneck style.  Popeye’s philosophy of shoot first and ask questions later has taken over. When they trace another one of Jacques’s moneybag transfers to Charnier’s drug lab headquarters, the stage is set for the third episode.
3.3 Busting the Drug Lab
When they reach Charnier’s drug lab, they don’t block all the exits and lay siege to the place, demanding surrender. That would be too logical.  Instead they just burst through the door with guns blazing.  Again there seems to be a needless loss of lives by the police acting so recklessly.  And again Charnier slips away, but Popeye follows in hot pursuit.  We now come to the sublime final 7 minutes and 40 seconds of the film, when Popeye exhaustively chases after Charnier.  This passage is accompanied by oddly contemplative background music by Don Ellis (he also did the music for The French Connection) that further adds to the effect and makes the rivoting ending of the film almost surreal. 

Fernando Rey is very good in the role of Charnier, and even minor changes to his facial expressions often convey changes to his thinking while he is in conversation. Also effective is the performance of Bernard Fresson as Henri Barthélémy. But Gene Hackman’s performance as Popeye Doyle stands out above all, and his performance in this film was, in my opinion, the best of his stellar career.  It must have been extremely strenuous for him. There are many shots showing him maneuvering in perilous situations where his clear visibility indicates there was no double used [2]. He is the one who creates a character that connects those three disparate acts into a meaningful whole and makes those final minutes so memorable.

  1. A detailed comparison of the two films might be interesting, but I won’t pursue that topic here.
  2. Indeed those chase scenes inivolving Hackman must have been particulary strenuous for him, since he was suffering from a damaged knee  – see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073018/trivia.