“The Mirror” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1975)


Andrei Tarkovsky’s fourth film, The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), was his most personal work, and perhaps that partly accounts for its great popularity among his admirers [1].  For the British Film Institute’s 2012 polls of critics and film directors concerning the all-time greatest films, The Mirror was ranked 9th on the directors’ poll [2] and 19th on the critics’ poll [3]. Tarkovsky’s own comments about the film reflect how special the film was for him [4]:
"As I began work on Mirror I found myself reflecting more and more that if you are serious about your work, then a film is not the next item in your career, it is an action which will affect the whole of your life. For I had made up my mind that in this film, for the first time, I would use the means of cinema to talk of all that was most precious to me, and do so directly, without playing any kinds of tricks."
In fact the film is virtually a testament to Tarkovsky’s insistence that the film medium transcends the limitations typical of textual narratives and engages the viewer on a direct existentially experiential level.  However, the film’s loose, nonlinear structure also makes it difficult to follow for the average viewer.  Many people only come to appreciate The Mirror after several repeated viewings. 


The subject matter of the film concerns the memories and reflections of a 40-year-old man, Alexei, who has been diagnosed with a terminal health condition. These are told in the form of various separate vignettes from the man’s childhood as well as from his present circumstances, and the sequences jump back and forth in time without much motivation or explanation.  So somewhat like the films created by Tarkovsky’s friend Sergei Parajanov, it is up to the viewer here to assemble these pieces into something meaningful – but we must bear in mind that Tarkovsky did not have a hidden (textual) “message” behind these elements.  They were put together by Tarkovsky from his own personal experiences in an intuitive manner to reflect his feelings rather than thoughts.  This approach led him to specifically use some elements from his own personal life in the filming:
  • The film features a number of poems that were written, and recited on the soundtrack, by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky, who was a famous Russian poet.  In addition the actor who appears in the film as Alexei’s father looks quite a bit like Arseny Tarkovsky did at the diegetic times (30-40 years prior to the filming) of his appearances in the story.
  • Andrei Tarkovsky’s own mother appears in a small but important role in the story.
  • Tarkovsky’s second wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, also plays a small but significant role in the film.
But though he incorporated elements from his own life, Tarkovsky was still unsure how to structure the tale.  Even working with screenwriter Aleksandr Misharin, they entered into the filming process with many issues structurally unresolved [4]:
"The scripts of my earlier films were more clearly structured. When we started work on Mirror, we made it a deliberate point of principle not to have the picture worked out and arranged in advance, before the material had been filmed."
This is a dangerous way for a filmmaker to operate, particularly for a director like Tarkovsky who employed lengthy moving camera shots that must be mapped out prior to shooting (in the case of The Mirror, there are only about 200 shots making up the 100-minute film [4]).  Nevertheless, Tarkovsky had his own instinctive cinematic devices, and he once again employed atmospheric sound effects, such as the sound of dripping or slushing water and brisk wind-blowing noises, to provide a moody, contextually-grounded feeling to the film.

The story elements of the film are set in three distinct time periods associated with Alexei’s life:
  • Time1 – this appears to be 1935, when Alexei was about five years old.  Alexei lives in a country home with his mother, Maria, and his younger sister.  Alexei’s father, we later learn, had abandoned the family just prior to this time.
     
  • Time2 – some time during World War II, perhaps around 1942-43.  Alexei’s family has been evacuated to another area and live in a small cottage.
     
  • Time3 – around 1969-70.  Alexei is ill, and his face is never shown in the film.  He is divorced from his wife Natalie, and they have a son, Ignat, who is an early teenager.
The story elements appear out of chronological sequence without evident narrative motivation and are shot sometimes in color, sometimes in black-and-white, and sometimes in a sepia-toned monochrome.  Further complicating the viewer’s discernment is the fact that two key actors play multiple roles in the film:
  • Margarita Terekhova  plays two key roles
    • the thirty-something mother Maria in Time1 and Time2 and
    • the similarly-aged Natalie in Time3. 
  • In addition the same actor, Ignat Daniltsev, plays the young Alexei in Time2 and Ignat in Time3.
There is basically nothing done in terms of makeup or hairstyle to distinguish these multiple roles, so the viewer is clearly invited to partially merge these commonly-acted characters – something that presumably took place in the narrator Alexei’s imagination.  In fact Tarkovsky admitted that his conception of the film went through various stages as he thought about this film project over a number of years [4].
  1. His first conception was to make a film of his personal reminiscences “full of elegiac sadness and nostalgia for my childhood” [4].
  2. He later decided to incorporate his mother’s perspective by interspersing material he planned to obtain by conducting interviews of her.
  3. He finally decided to merge material from his own thoughts and his mother into a complex psychological fabric. 
And then it was only at the last minute that he and Aleksandr Misharin went further and decided to bring together the two major feminine rolls by having Margarita Terekhova play both of them.  This was a most important aesthetic decision, because it essentially makes the feminine roll of Terekhova into the film’s major visual focus.  Although the film consists of Alexei’s reflections, the major subjective theme is his mother and the effect she had on his consciousness.  Even Alexei’s failures with Natalie are cast in his mother’s shadow.

Although any identifiable plot structure to The Mirror seems to be obscure at best, we can say that the film does go through several phases of focus.

1.  Maria
The first phase of the film comprises several sequences, mostly set in Time1.  The focus here is on Maria, Alexei’s mother.   Initially, in a color sequence, she encounters a doctor who has lost his way and wandered over on to her homestead area.  In their brief conversation, the doctor tells her that people are rushing about everywhere and are missing out on the richness of their present existence.  He complains, reflecting Tarkovsky’s own spiritual views, that in this constant rush towards a future, we are not trusting the nature inside us.

Then in black-and-white, Alexei dreams of his mother having her hair washed in slow motion.  Maria here gazes at her reflection in the tiled wall and sees herself as an aged woman (from Time3).  So although the focalization is on Maria, we are reminded that this is all really Alexei’s vision.

After a telephone conversation between Alexei and his mother in Time3, there is an extended and atmospheric sequence showing Maria working for a publisher and being concerned over a possible editing error she has made after a publication has gone to print.  There is a sequence of four lengthy (~one-minute-long) tracking shots of her rushing past the working printing presses and looking for a final-edit copy that she can examine.  She is finally relieved to find out that she had not erred, but shortly thereafter she is reduced to tears when her close colleague unexpectedly and abusively tells her off and calls her a hopelessly selfish person whose ex-husband was right to abandon.  This sequence gets us into Maria’s character, a woman who can worry over work-time issues but can still stop and smile at life’s absurdities, such as subsequently when the water shuts off in the midst of her shower.

2. Alexei   
The next phase of vignettes shifts over more directly to Alexei.  There is a sequence in Time3 when Natalie and Alexei (who, of course, is never seen on camera) argue over who should have custody of their son Ignat. At one point later when Ignat is left alone in the house, he sees an unexplained (as to what her relation to the others in the film may be) woman asking him to read a passage from a book quoting Pushkin’s famous 1836 letter to Chaadaev:
“The division of churches separated us from Europe. We remained excluded from every great event that has shaken it. However, we had our own special destiny. Russia, with her immense territory, had swallowed up the Mongol invasion. The Tartars didn’t dare crossing our western borders. They retreated to their wilderness and Christian civilization had been saved.  To attain that goal we had to lead a special kind of life, which while leaving us Christians, had made us alien to the Christian world.”
This view of the Russian Slavic people’s unique character was undoubtedly a subject in which Tarkovsky, himself, had a strong interest, so he included it in this, his personal work.  After reading this passage, Ignat has to answer a knock on the front door, which reveals a woman that appears to be his grandmother, Maria. But neither the woman nor Ignat recognize each other, and the woman apologizes for knocking on the wrong door.  This brief segment is not only confusing to the viewer, it was confusing even to Tarkovsky [5]:
"There are many complications there which I don't even completely understand myself. For example, it was very important for me to have my mother in some scenes. There is one episode in the film in which the boy, Ignat, is sitting . . . in his father's empty room, in the present, in our times [Time3] ....And as he is sitting there we hear the doorbell, he opens the door. This is my mother. And she is the grandmother of this boy who opens the door for her. But why doesn't she recognise him, why doesn't the grandson recognize her?...one has completely no idea. That is...firstly, this wasn't explained by the plot, in the screenplay, and secondly...even for me this was unclear."
Clearly this was a moment when Tarkovsky’s intuition was dominating his rational faculties. 

This is then followed by material covering the period in Time2 when Alexei and his fellow teenagers were being trained by the Russian military to be snipers.  There is also black-and-white newsreel footage showing the famous Russian military crossing of Lake Sivash in the Crimean WWII campaign (Time2), as well as newsreel coverage of Russian atomic bomb blasts and also the Sino-Soviet conflict (Time3). Finally, there is a scene showing Alexei’s father returning from the war front and having a brief reunion with his children (Time2).

Most of these elements show us that Alexei’s concerns were more with external, real-world events in those days than with issues important to his own family.  In fact during another quarrelsome conversation with his divorced wife Natalie, she tells him about a writer she is considering marrying.  But Alexei dismisses the man, whom he calls “Dostoyevsky”, because he hasn’t published anything and is therefore a nobody.

3.  Visit with Nadezhda
The next (and perhaps oddest) phase of the film returns the focus to Maria and Time2.  She and the teenage Alexei go to visit the home of the doctor shown at the beginning of the film. Nadezhda is interested in purchasing some pearls from Maria, and the way she is portrayed appears to make a clear reference to Vermeer’s famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1655).  Again we have a portrayal not of objective reality but of a colored and emotional landscape as remembered by the narrator.  The focus, though, is on Maria, her exhaustion in those moments, as well as her disturbed feelings when she is asked to slaughter a cockerel. 

Inserted in this section is a black-and-white dream shot from Time1 showing Alexei’s father stroking his wife’s hand while she floats in mid-air above her bed. 

4.  Closure
The final phase shows a growing conflation of Alexei’s memories as he nears death.  The young Alexei of Time1 is shown talking to his mother, Maria, in the yard, but when he looks at her he sees an old woman, the Maria of Time3.  There is also a memorable 90-second panning shot in Time1 that comes to rest on Alexei’s father and the presumably pregnant Maria lying in the grass and thinking about what will be the sex of their expected child. So Alexei’s reflections have finally come all the way back to the womb, back when he and his dear mother were one.

The final shots, including a contemplative 90-second panning shot to close the film, show the old Maria (Time3) walking with the young children and Maria of Time1.  All of Alexei’s memories have now converged into a jumble of impressions and feelings.



So what we have in The Mirror is a relatively unstructured look into the fragmented thoughts of a man’s consciousness.  For Tarkovsky, this kind of exploration was an example of what he considered to be the raison d’etre of aesthetic creativity [4]:
"The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
With specific regard to The Mirror, Tarkovsky said [4],
"I wanted to tell the story of the pain suffered by one man because he feels he cannot repay his family for all they have given him. He feels he hasn’t loved them enough, and this idea torments him and will not let him be."
Did Tarkovsky really succeed in this effort to probe and portray the raw essence of conscious experience?  I have my reservations about that, and I think what he has presented in this film does not quite compensate for the absence of an identifiable narrative journey.  Nevertheless it was to my mind a bold and innovative undertaking on the authors’ parts.  And it was immeasurably assisted by the magnetic performance of Margarita Terekhova in the two key emotive roles.  She evinces all the complexity and vitality that invigorates the life around us – if we only take the time to engage in it fully with all our love and compassion.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Jugu Abraham, “146. Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Zerkalo” (Mirror/The Mirror) (1975)”, Movies that make you think, (2 June 2013).
  2. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  4. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).
  5. Matthew Sheldon, “Mirror, The (1975)”, Classic Art Films, (31 July 2015).        

Sergei Parajanov

Films of Sergei Parajanov:

“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” - Sergei Parajanov (1965)


Sergei Parajanov (originally “Sarkis Parajanian”, 1924-1990), like his friend Andrei Tarkovsky, managed to create a number of highly original and artistic films despite working under restrictive and oppressive conditions imposed by the government in Soviet Russia. An Armenian born in 1924 in Georgia, USSR, Parajanov studied at the famous VGIK school of cinematography in Moscow under Aleksandr Dovzhenko among others.  But even at an early age his creative attitude and independent lifestyle made his path difficult.  In 1948 he was sentenced to a five-year prison term.  (Although he was released from this prison term after three months thanks to an amnesty, Parajanov was repeatedly imprisoned over his remaining years for expressing his views.)  In 1950 he married a Tatar Muslim woman, but her conversion to Parajanov’s Christianity and the demented notion of “honor killing”, which is still prevalent today in some backward regions, led to her being murdered by her own brother. 

After his wife’s murder in 1951, Parajanov moved to Kiev, Ukraine, and entered the film industry there, where he made a number of conventional feature films and documentaries.  But it wasn’t until 1965 that Parajanov came to international attention when he made his first highly original masterwork, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini Zabutykh Predkiv).  Based on the novella by famed Ukrainian author Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky (1864-1913), the film recounts the doomed, romantic life of a young man growing up among  the isolated and provincial Hutsul (aka Gutsul) community in the remote Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine.  Although upon the film’s release the authorities and local press denounced the work for not conforming to Soviet nationalist cultural values (referred to as “Social Realism”), it was well received abroad.  It quickly won 16 foreign film festival awards and immediately established Parajanov as a major figure in world cinema [3].


What attracted wide critical acclaim for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, though, was also a source of confusion for analysis: the film’s wildly over-the-top cinematography and mise-en-sceneParajanov and his cinematographers, Yuri Ilyenko and Viktor Bestayev, used a panoply of extremal camera techniques to provide a unique visual presentation of the story. It is almost as if the movie camera is an extra character in the tale.  This certainly gave the film a robust flavor of peasant pageantry, as if one were watching an extravagant village folk festival.  But the techniques used also violated many film narrative conventions and seemed almost intended to confuse the viewer.  As film critic David Clark remarked [3]:
"To say that Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors violates every narrative code and representational system known to the cinema is an understatement—at times, in fact, the film seems intent upon deconstructing the very process of representation itself."
Among the cinematographic techniques used were

  • Wildly moving hand-held panning and tracking shots.  In many cases the cameraman is evidently running after a character, as the camera bumps and sways up and down to the jogging motion of the person holding the camera and chasing the action.
     
  • Circular swish-pans.  In some cases the camera does several 360-degree pans in succession.
     
  • Very low-angle shots looking upwards at characters.
     
  • Obscured views, as the camera looks at action that is obscured by branches or wooded building slats.

  • Slow-motion action scenes.
     
  • Tight closeups of characters who are many times looking straight into the camera (and thereby breaking the “fourth wall” of narrative presentation). 

  • Heavy use of extreme wide-angle lens shots in scenes involving character movement.  This gives an unrealistic, head-spinning feeling to these scenes as characters move towards or away from the camera.
     
  • Rapidly elevating crane shots.  The camera would start at head-level and then elevate quickly to look down on the same scene.
     
  • Camera pans from objective to subjective perspective: 
    • The camera starts with a view of one person looking at something off-camera (objective view).
    • It then rather nonsensically pans upward, looking straight up into the sky.
    • Then it pans downward to a view of what the character was looking at (subjective point-of-view).
       
  • Extremal use of color. The images sometimes shift from vivid to faded coloring, and sometimes to black-and-white.  At other times a high-contrast image with a narrow color range gives an ethereal feeling to a scene.
These camera techniques are combined with a lively musical sound track featuring Ukrainian folk ballads accompanied by traditional instruments, notably jaws harp (aka Jew’s harp) music in order to create an affective atmosphere.  The viewer is almost forcibly immersed into the scenes presented.  Some people might be put off by these effects and complain that the film looks like a new film-school student’s efforts to try everything with the camera.  I would agree that not all of these camera procedures in the film work effectively, and some of them are so contrived as to distract and distance the viewer at times.  However, Parajanov was a seasoned professional at this point and clearly had artistic control.

The story begins sometime in the 19th century with an opening comment about the film’s setting:
“The Carpathians, a Gutsul land forgotten by God and people.”
And as the film proceeds, the viewer is given a closeup view of the coarse, full-bodied, and passionate world of these rustic people.  The focal character is Ivan, who first appears as a young boy of about ten years of age.  He attends a church ceremony, where his father insults a wealthier member of their local community, Gutenyuk, who he says is satanic.  The viewer is plunged into the intensity of the father’s contempt by showing his denunciation in tight closeup looking straight into the camera.  The two enemies immediately face off with axes outside the church, with Gutenyuk’s axe, seen head-on, splattering the camera lens with the father’s blood and killing him.

At the ensuing funeral of Ivan’s father, the boy strikes up an acquaintance with Gutenyuk’s young daughter, Marichka.  And this is a key to the narrative style of the film.  While his father’s death was undoubtedly traumatic to Ivan, his meeting with Marichka is what he remembered most about that time in his life – meeting a girl that he would come to love.  Throughout the film, the viewer is given not so much a fully structured narrative, but experiential fragments – the precursor mental images that are lodged in a person's memory and subsequently used to construct the narratives that he or she will later tell about himself (even to himself).  These are presented in the film as impressionistic vignettes – sometimes just as remembered routine activities, sometimes as key remembered moments.  These precursor-to-narrative vignettes are not always told from Ivan’s point of view, however, and so it as if the viewer is an intimately involved (but invisible) empathic participant in the story.

The film then proceeds through twelve separate titled segments outlining the course of Ivan’s life.  In the first of these segments, “Ivan and Marichka”, we see that even though the two young people are from families that hate each other, they become friends.  And as they grow up they gradually fall in love. 

These early scenes about their growing love are moving and lyrical, with the camera lovingly circling all around them as they sensitively interact, in stark contrast to the earlier brutality of the father’s death.  Eventually, though, a now grownup Ivan has to go work in another area as a hired shepherd, and he and Marichka must separate for a season.  But they promise to think of each other whenever they look up into the heavens at their favored star.  After they part, Marichka is walking outside and meets a busybody old woman who feels her tummy and says, “oh, it’s full”, suggesting that Marichka is pregnant  with Ivan’s child.

The following segment, “Meadow”, shows the bucolic life and routines of the Hutsul shepherds.  Then one evening Marichka, while thinking of Ivan, wanders outside to look at their favorite star and encounters a lamb in danger of falling off a cliff.  But in her attempt to rescue the lamb, she falls into the river and drowns.  Ivan, sensing that something is wrong back home, rushes back and is heartbroken to learn what happened.

 
The film now moves into the black-and-white “Loneliness” segment depicting Ivan’s grief over his lost love.  After some years of Ivan’s grieving, though, the concerned local people do manage to get him to rejoin society. The pace of action slows down as the film moves further into the coverage of local color.  A voluptuous young woman, Palagna, becomes attracted to the now partially rejuvenated Ivan, and soon they are engaged to be married.  The film covers the local pageantry of Hutsul weddings, with Palagna’s joyful participation in their being “yoked” in holy matrimony energizing the goings on.

Although Palagna is sensuous and vibrant, Ivan cannot forget Marichka, and he still moons over his lost love. Sometimes he has visions of Marichka appearing just outside the window looking soulfully at him. He has no passion for his new wife, and he appears to withdraw from her lustful embraces.  Hoping to have a child, Palagna turns to what many of the locals do in difficult circumstances: sorcery.  She starts seeing a local sorcerer, Yurko, who is full of boastful machismo, and she soon becomes his mistress.

At the tavern, Ivan observes the arrogantly scowling sorcerer caressing Palagna, and a violent confrontation becomes unavoidable.  In a 34-second shot, Ivan is shown circling around the tavern interior and struggling with what he is going to do about Yurko.  They finally confront each with axes (just like his father had done with Gutenyuk), and Yurko strikes Ivan forcefully. The succeeding 70-second shot shows the now-stunned Ivan reversing his circular path around the room, but this time everything is in a dreamlike slow motion, with a ghostly high-contrast and red-tinged image.

While Palagna calls Yurko her darling, Ivan staggers outside and down a desolate, charred slope to a river bank.  There he sees a vision of Marichka, and they talk of their undying love.  As Ivan dies, her hand reaches out to touch his.

The final segment shows the burial of Ivan, with the village life returning to inebriated boisterousness as the vodka flows at the wake ceremony.



Although Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is full of vibrant and emotion-filled imagery, the film’s unusual mise-en-scene has led to a diversity of interpretations as to its meaning. The issue concerns how one sees the narrative role of the camera, which is the unseen witness to what happens.  Clearly the camera does not play the role of an objective observer.  As Bohdan Nebesio has observed [4],
“The representational [my emphasis] role of the camera is deliberately undervalued at the expense of its active emotional involvement.”
But what is the camera’s concern? Ultimately Nebesio asserts that the film’s final sequence reflects a commitment to life and a rejection of death.  Perhaps along similar lines, J. Hoberman feels that the camera’s narrative stance is to represent the collective consciousness of the Hutsul people [5].

David Clark suggests that the film is not a narrative at all and is instead something of a quasi-religious essay [3]:
“The effect of both the soundtrack and the color system, like that of the film's optical distortions and dislocations, is to destabilize the spectator perceptually, and therefore psychologically, in order to present a tale that operates not at the level of narrative but of myth: youth passes from innocence to experience to solitude and death in a recurring cycle, eons upon eons. This is the "shadow" of "forgotten ancestors," the archetypal pattern that outlasts and transcends all individual identity.”
I would argue, on the contrary, that the film is indeed a narrative and that we need to consider the nature of how we understand the world in order to fathom Parajanov’s tale.  When we experience things in the world and try to make sense of our interactions, there are various levels of our comprehension. These are basically models of the world as seen from different levels of abstraction.  Although we might consider these levels to be merely arbitrary designations along a continuous scale, I will suggest here three levels:
  1. At the lowest level there are merely brief sequences of images and feelings that come to be lodged in our memories.  These are not just snapshots; they have a temporal element to them and they are essentially the retained outcomes of interactions.
     
  2. At higher levels are the narratives we construct from the material of Level 1.  These are the stories that we read and watch, as well as the stories we tell about ourselves.  But they always have a narrative (i.e. narrator’s) focus.
     
  3. At the highest levels are our “objective” models of the world.  In these models, the personal, subjective perspective is removed, and we presume to have an objective understanding of the world that is independent of any personal perspective.  Thus they are presumed to be scientific (i.e. independently confirmable).
When we use the written word, we ordinarily communicate our understandings at Levels 2 and 3.  But film has the unique capability of representing things at Level 1.  This is where much of Parajanov’s work resides.  Many of the sound and image sequences of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are essentially reflective of Level 1 experience [6].  It is up to the viewer to take this raw material and develop his or her own understanding of what has been shown.

A friend asked me recently what is a “second-person narrative”?  She knew what a first-person and a third-person narrative perspective are, but was puzzled by what a narrative in the second person could be.  Now I am not an expert on this terminology, but it seems to me that Parajanov’s mise-en-scene could offer something of a second-person perspective in this regard.  It is up to you to take his impressionistic material and make sense out of it.


And the narrative understanding that I constructed from watching the film differs from those of the aforementioned critics.  They saw things from the “life goes on” perspective – the local folk culture’s extensive rituals that are presumed to be communal and extend beyond individual hopes and dreams.  From that point of view, the film’s ending is supposed to be a happy one.  But I saw things differently. To me the film is about eternal love – something wonderful that can elevate existence to the sublime – and how that love can appear even in the midst of somewhat brutish circumstances.  The closing sequence of the film, which shows the world sliding back into drunkenness, was not a happy one, but merely provides a contrast to the heavenly feelings that Ivan and Marichka felt for each other.  And even if their time together was short, their love was eternal. 

What Parajanov presents in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is not a thesis, but the raw material from which you can arrive at your own thesis.
★★★

Notes:
  1. "Sergey Paradzhanov”, New World Encyclopedia, (23 March 2015).
  2. Roger Ebert, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”, RogerEbert.com, (30 January 1978).
  3.  David A. Cook, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Film as Religious Art”, Post Script 3.3 (1984). See also
  4. Bohdan Y. Nebesio, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Storytelling in the Novel and the Film”, Literature/Film Quarterly 22.1 (1994): 42-49. 
  5. J.  Hoberman, “It Takes a Village”, The Village Voice, (23 October 2007). 
  6. I would also venture to say that Wong Kar Wai’s films operate at this level, too.

Luis Bunuel

Films of Luis Bunuel:

“Los Olvidados" - Luis Bunuel (1950)


Luis Bunuel (1900-1983) is a unique figure in the history of cinema.  Almost universally admired and widely celebrated in his later years, he was nevertheless often a controversial iconoclast, and his career had many ups and downs along the way [1].  Critics sometimes simplify his rather complicated artistic career by dividing it into three eras [2]:
  • early avant-garde surrealist films (1929-1933) made in France and Spain;
  • more conventional work in the late 1940s and the 1950s mostly in the Mexican film industry;
  • international co-productions of surrealistic satires in the 1960s and 1970s.
Many critics focus on the first and third eras, while viewing the second era, those early days in Mexico, as a less-significant period when Bunuel was struggling with limited budgets and demands to meet conventional box-office tastes.  But it was in this period when he made what to me is his greatest film, Los Olvidados (literally: “The Forgotten Ones”, but released in the US under the title The Young and the Damned, 1950), a film about a gang of juvenile delinquents in Mexico City’s poor districts.  And it was via this film that Bunuel emerged as a great filmmaker on the international stage.

Bunuel evidently knew what he wanted for this production – he shot the film in just eighteen days, with a mixture of professional and non-professional actors conforming to Bunuel’s uncompromising instructions [2].  When Los Olvidados  premiered in Mexico City, however, it was met with full-scale hostility, as audiences felt the film demeaned the entire nation for its grim picture of Mexican youth.  The producer closed the film only three days after its release, and it looked like the film would be a total loss.  Fortunately, though, leading poet Octavio Paz championed the film and helped it secure entry to the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, where it was enthusiastically received, especially by French Surrealists and other intellectuals.  Bunuel won the Best Director award at Cannes, and the film also received the FIPRESCI International Critics' Award.  After that international recognition, Los Olvidados reopened in Mexico City and this time proved to be a hit with the public.  Bunuel at age fifty had suddenly moved from being an esoteric artiste to become an international celebrity.

Despite his growing international reputation, though, it has always been challenging to categorize Bunuel’s style, particularly during his fecund Mexican period, because of the wide-range of his subject matter.  But there nevertheless always seems to be something uniquely “Bunuelian” about his films, even though it is often difficult to specify just what that is.  In the case of Los Olvidados, there were immediate stylistic comparisons with Italian Neorealism [3], particularly Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) (which admittedly may have had some influence on Bunuel – indeed he spent considerable preparation time investigating the conditions in Mexico City reformatories, and he claimed that much of the material in Los Olvidados was based on real cases).  But there are thematic and stylistic aspects of Los Olvidados that significantly distinguish it from the Neorealist films of that period and that make Bunuel’s film stand alone.

One distinguishing feature of Los Olvidados is the wide compass of the film’s focalization.  Focalization in films concerns the general perspective of the information provided to the viewer in a scene.  When a film or story focalizes on one character, it provides the information surrounding that character that could be known by him or her.  Many times a film might focalize on only one character, and the viewer only knows what that character knows in terms of what is going on.  If there is parallel action, then of course there is more than one focalization.  In any case, whenever a film focalizes on a character, it is likely to induce some degree of viewer sympathy for that character.

In Los Olvidados there are many distinct focalizations, and the viewer thus sees things from many angles.  This is different from “zero focalization”, where the viewer is presented with an objective,  “God’s eye” view of what is happening from a more distant perspective.  In the case of Los Olvidados, the specific focalizations on individual characters project the viewer into the perspectival spaces lived by those characters, and we can’t help but momentarily empathize with those conflicting perspectives.  And this is one of the things that makes watching the film a fascinating experience.

There are nine characters in Los Olvidados that are focalized in the story (and thus with whom to some degree we empathize); yet at least seven of these characters are at times engaged in reprehensible actions that quash our sympathies.  Thus the viewer is tossed back and forth on this turbulent emotional landscape.  The nine focalized characters are
  • From the teenage gang of boys:
    • Jaibo, an older miscreant who has just escaped from a juvenile prison
    • Pedro, a younger  boy and disciple of Jaibo
    • Julián, a more responsible boy who is about the same age as Jaibo.
  •  Other youths:
    • "Ojitos" (meaning “Cute Little Eyes"), a younger boy who has been brought to the city and abandoned by his father.
    • Meche, a teenage girl and younger sister of gang member Cacarizo.
  •  Adults:
    • Pedro's Mother, a widow who works all day as a cleaner to support her four children.
    • Don Carmelo, a blind street musician tormented by the gang
    • Julián's father, a hopeless drunkard
    • The principal of a reformatory “farm school”.
The story proceeds rapidly through five acts.

1.  Introducing the landscape
The film opens on a bunch of idle teenage boys playing on a back street and trying to show off to each other. Their leader is Jaibo, who has recently escaped from incarceration.  Jaibo is their mentor in criminality and seductively assures the boys that if they follow him, they will get money.  He arranges for them to rob an elderly blind street musician, Don Carmelo, but his initial plan is foiled.  Afterwards, though, he and his two main disciples, Pedro and Pelon, follow the blind man to a more deserted area, where they mercilessly beat the man, take his money, and destroy his drum that he uses for his livelihood.

Another one of the teenage boys, Julian, has a job and in the evenings tries to shepherd home his perpetually drunk father. When the two of them pass by Julian’s friend Pedro on the street, Pedro, who boastfully claims only morons work for a living, laughs derisively at Julian’s inebriated dad.  Clearly Pedro enjoys playing the tough guy, and he loyally follows his idol, Jaibo.  In the evening when Pedro comes home to eat, though, his mother is sick of his late-night carousing with street punks and kicks him out of the house.

We also see Ojitos, who has been abandoned on a street corner by his father.  Don Carmelo kindly takes him in as a servant.  Later we see gang member Cacarizo’s pretty sister, Meche, who lives with her extended family in crowded, squalid quarters.  It soon becomes clear that she is the object of Jaibo’s despicable ambitions.

So our sympathies at this point are attuned to Meche, Don Carmelo, and Ojitos.

2.  Jaibo’s treachery
Jaibo believes Julian previously informed on him to the police, thereby sending him to prison, and he wants revenge.  He induces Pedro to take him to Julian and then deceitfully smashes Julian from behind and beats him to a bloody pulp.  Later Jaibo and his gang sadistically beat and rob a legless man who can only move about on a dolly. This is just a further display of Jaibo’s depravity.

A short time later, the gang learns that Julian has been found dead, and the police are trying to find the culprit.  Although Pedro had tried to stop Jaibo from beating Julian, his presence implicates him in the murder, and Jaibo warns him about this.

There are also scenes in this segment showing the ignorant beliefs of the people we have recently been drawn to. Don Carmelo dispenses harebrained folk medicine to Meche’s mother, while Ojitos gives Meche a stolen dead-man’s tooth, which he claims will serve as a talisman.

At the end of this act, Pedro sneaks home to his bed and has a surrealistic dream that is justly famous and has been the subject of much analysis.  In the dream Pedro looks under his bed and is shocked to see the blood-stained body of Julian.  Then his mother rises from her bed and approaches him with the loving tenderness that he has longed for.  When he asks her in the dream for some meat and she gives him some, it is Jaibo this time who rises from under the bed and seizes the offered meat from his hands.  The images of Pedro’s love for his mother and dread of his bête noire Jaibo (who he may fear represents his own demonic side) bring us inside Pedro's disturbed consciousness.

3. Jaibo and Pedro hiding out.
Both JaIbo and Pedro are separately trying to steer clear of police inquiries about Julian’s death.  Pedro, trying to become the boy his mother wants, gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. His mother is unresponsive, though, and his plans are ruined when Jaibo comes to visit him while the blacksmith is out and steals a valuable knife, the crime for which is blamed on Pedro.  Later Jaibo comes to Pedro’s home while Pedro is out and manages to seduce his mother into having sex with him.

4.  Pedro’s struggles
Pedro is still seeking his mother’s love, and comes home to wash himself.  But his unforgiving mother tells him to get lost, and then she beats him.  Pedro then dejectedly tells his mother that she can do what she wants with him, and she turns him into the police.  Wrongly convicted of stealing the blacksmith’s knife, Pedro is sentenced to a reformatory “farm school”.  His mother had told the police she didn’t care if her son was imprisoned, but in a final meeting at the police station, she comes around at last to believing in her son’s innocence.

While at the prison farm, Pedro becomes even more depressed and after getting into a fight with some of the other boys, throws a fit and cruelly beats two farm hens to death.  Seeking to halt the endless rounds of anger and violence, the farm school principal tries a kinder approach and says he freely trusts Pedro with 50 pesos to go outside the farm and purchase some cigarettes for him. Pedro is delighted to receive some unexpected kindness from an authoritative figure and rushes hopefully out the gate.

5.  The last payoffs
Once outside the prison farm grounds, Pedro runs into Jaibo, who immediately steals the 50 pesos.  This later leads to a brutal fight between Pedro and Jaibo, after which Pedro publicly accuses Jaibo of murdering Julian.  This is overheard by the blind street musician Don Carmelo, who ultimately informs the police.

Later Pedro finds out where Jaibo secretly sleeps (which is in a loft in back of Meche’s home) and goes there with a knife to demand the 50 pesos.  However, Jaibo gets the better of him and kills him.  Jaibo runs away, but the police track him down thanks to Don Carmelo’s information and gun down Jaibo. In a second and even more memorable surrealistic scene, Jaibo is shown swooning as he lies dying, thinking to himself:
“You’ve been fixed, ‘Jaibo’.  Right in the head. Watch out, here’s the mangy dog. Look, he’s coming. That’s it, I’m falling into the black hole. I’m alone. Alone.  As always, boy, as always.  Stop thinking. Sleep, boy. Sleep.”
In the final scene Meche and her grandfather discover Pedro’s body, and fearful of police meddling, decide to dump the corpse on a desolate garbage heap.  On the way there, they unknowingly pass Pedro’s mother, who is out looking to bring her lost son home.


There is no simple moral tale to Los Olvidados.  Some people would say that only Pedro was redeemable, but he missed out – all the others were already ruined by the debased circumstances in which they lived.  From my perspective, though, they were all basically redeemable in this narrative; only I don’t think redemption was the issue with Bunuel.  To me it was compassion, and Bunuel elicited in me compassion for all the suffering characters in this story. None of these characters is clearly virtuous, and none is beyond our sympathy, either.  In fact many of the focalized characters show themselves to be capable of hate-filled acts:
  • Pedro abuses the blind and legless, kills the two hens, and comes to threaten Jaibo with a knife.
  • Pedro’s mother is often heartless to her son and, almost until the end, rejects his love.
  • Julian’s drunken father runs out onto the street with a knife threatening murderous revenge.
  • Ojitos at one point threatens to smash the blind Don Carmelo with a heavy stone.
  • Meche, fearful of Don Carmelo taking sexual advantage of her on another occasion, is ready to knife the blind man – with the onlooking Ojitos’s enthusiastic encouragement.
  • Don Carmelo is abused, but he is also a miserly and hateful person who wishes all the young delinquents  to be killed.
And yet the viewer is made to sometimes empathize with these same disparate characters.  Pedro wants love and wants to be good. Even the selfish and deceitful Jaibo is understandable in a way, and the viewer is cast into his existential despair during Jaibo’s surrealistic death sequence.  He is not just a bully. He, like the rest of us, was just struggling to be, to escape, to be free.  Thus Bunuel’s depiction of life in Los Olvidados is deeper and more mysterious than the usual fare.  Andre Bazin recognized this immediately when he first saw the film, pointing out that in Los Olvidados Bunuel avoided typical psychology and morality and confronted existential issues about love and life [4].

In fact Bunuel’s mise-en-scene in Los Olvidados is neither intellectual nor aesthetically artistic – it is ultimately intuitive and visceral. (For just one example, his curious fixation with images of chickens and roosters may suggest many things, such as mindless agitation, but there is something disturbing about them that goes beyond our rational explanation.)

Bunuel, himself, admitted to this tendency of his [5]:
"I have observed things that moved me, which I wanted to transfer to the screen - but, always, with the kind of love I bear for the instinctive and irrational. I've always been attracted by the unknown or strange side of things, which fascinates me without me knowing why."
★★★★

Notes:
  1.  “Luis Bunuel”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2016). 
  2. Charles Ramírez Berg, “Los Olvidados”, Austin Film Society, (n.d.).
  3. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan”, The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008)..
  4. André Bazin, “Cruelty and love in Los Olvidados”, What Is Cinema? (Vol.3) - originally 'Los Olvidados', L’Esprit, XX, n. 186 (1951 or 1952), pp. 85-89. 
  5. Andre Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, "Conversation with Buñuel", Sight and Sound, 24, no. 4 (Spring 1955), p. 183.  – cited in Radu A. Davidescu, “Themes of Subversion in Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados and Subida al Cielo”, Collected Essays, (11 June 2009).

“Strangers on a Train” - Alfred Hitchcock (1951)


Strangers on a Train (1951) was something of a showpiece for Alfred Hitchcock, for it gave him the opportunity to present a range of dazzling cinematic artifice in a single film.  Based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel (Strangers on a Train, 1950), Hitchcock took Highsmith’s kinkiness and added his own extensions to create an utterly perverse masterpiece. 

The story concerns the scheme for a “perfect murder” that is devised by one of two men who happen to meet for the first time by chance on a railway train.  The idea is that since the two men don’t know each other, they have no connection with each other’s lives.  Therefore if perchance they each wanted to murder someone in their own circle, they could perform an exchange – each one, without any hint of motivation, would murder the target in the other’s life.  In each case the one who wanted the victim to die would have an alibi and could prove he had nothing to do with it.

This is the kind of tricky plot device typical of Highsmith, whose tales, which often featured a cynically manipulative and amoral principal character, were made over the succeeding years into a number of popular films [1].  Strangers on a Train, though, is perhaps the most memorable one, even though at the time of the film’s release, the critical reaction was mixed. 

One aspect of the film that has dominated critical reflection over the years (and has probably contributed to the film’s ceaseless popularity) is the underlying homoerotic connection between the two principal characters, i.e. the strangers who meet on the train.  There is no doubt that there is a gay subtext present in the two men’s relationship, but I think this issue should not overshadow the basic elements of the story.  I agree with film scholar Mervyn Nicholson that the more general aspect of male competitiveness, not just gay attraction, is the real psychologically driving force in the story, and this is something that everyone can relate to [2].

As mentioned, there are a number of interesting and memorable cinematic set pieces in the film, and I will mention a few of them in my description.  The story has five basic segments, two of which are basically set pieces on their own.

1.  A Bizarre Proposal
The first set piece shows just the lower shoe-clad legs of two men who men who are boarding a long-distance train.  They are shown separately in an extended sequence of relatively close shots and moving across the screen in opposing directions.  Clearly the two men are fated to meet in this story.  And meet they do when one of the shoes accidentally bumps into its opposing number while they are sitting in the train’s dining car.  One of the men, Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker), recognizes the other, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), to be a famous tennis player and strikes up a conversation.  It seems that Guy is not only famous as a tennis player but has also been featured in the gossip columns, and Bruno knows all about it.  Guy is known to be seeking a divorce from his wife so that he can marry his current love, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who happens to be the daughter of a US senator.

In the course of insinuating himself into a more intimate discussion with Guy, Bruno invites Guy to his private compartment and expresses his sympathies with Guy’s plight.  Then, in a half-humorous way, he brings up his “perfect murder” scheme. Everyone, he claims, wants to murder someone, but balks at doing so because of the likelihood of getting caught.  For example, he goes on, Guy would want to murder his wife, while Bruno himself wants to murder his wealthy father.  So he suggests that they swap targets: he will murder Guy’s wife and Guy will murder Bruno’s father.  There will be no evident motive for either murder, and they will get away with it.

Guy dismisses Bruno’s ideas as laughably crazy and then gets off the train at Metcalf, New Jersey, to meet with his wife about his divorce plans.  But he forgets his cigarette lighter when he departs, and Bruno pockets it.

In Metcalf Guy visits his estranged wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) and is disturbed to learn that, even though she is clearly promiscuous and carrying another man’s baby, she refuses to agree to a divorce.  In a subsequent phone call to his girlfriend Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), Guy expresses his frustration and tells her that he felt like strangling Miriam.  Hitchcock has shown Miriam in such an unsympathetic light that the viewer feels she really is contemptible (actually, she is just a hedonist).

There are also some scenes showing just how weird Bruno is, and indeed the focalization of the entire film will switch back and forth between Guy and Bruno, contrasting their personalities.  Guy is a modest, straight-shooting gentleman who amiably responds to what he encounters.   Bruno is an effeminate mama’s boy who is emotionally hyped-up and pushy.  Guy is a hardworking achiever who plays by the rules.  Bruno is a spoiled rich man’s son who has accomplished nothing on his own in life. Little by little we see, in fact, that Bruno is a full-blown psychopath.

In another set piece sequence, Bruno takes a train to Metcalf and finds Miriam’s address so that he can stalk her.  In the evening he follows her and her two male admirers to an amusement park, where she  joyfully wanders from one attraction to another, including a rollicking ride on the merry-go-round.  (This amusement park setting establishes the key tenor of the film, as I will comment on below.)  Eventually after a “tunnel of love” boat ride takes her to a darkened area, the pursuing Bruno comes up and quickly strangles her.  Then he slips away without anyone suspecting.

2.  Stalking Guy
When Guy returns to his home in Washington, D.C., he finds Bruno lurking outside.  Bruno tells him that he has killed Guy’s target and now it is Guy’s turn to live up to his end of the “bargain”: he is to kill Bruno’s father.  Guy shows no sign of sadness of Miriam’s death, but only horror at what Bruno has gotten him into.  What Guy had dismissed as a joke turned out to be a horrifying reality.  He tells Bruno to stay away from him.

Because of the gossip columns discussing Guy’s marital problems and the fact that he has no verifiable alibi for the time of the murder, he is immediately a police suspect, and police are assigned to trail his every move. Even Anne suspects Guy, since he had told her that he felt like strangling Miriam. The rest of this segment depicts mounting paranoia, with Bruno persistently following Guy around town and insisting that he go ahead with the second murder.  Even during Guy’s tennis matches, he looks into the crowd to see Bruno’s persistent fixed stare upon him.

There is a memorable party scene in this segment at the home of Senator Morton (Anne’s father), where Bruno shows up and begins making his over-the-top social gestures of conviviality.  At one point he charms some elderly women with his cordial and cheeky talk about how easy it is to murder someone.  With his hands playfully around a woman’s throat he happens to see Anne’s younger sister (impishly played by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia), whose thick eyeglasses remind him of Miriam and throw him into a psychic fit.  He almost strangles the elderly woman before passing out.  Seeing this, Anne starts putting two and two together and suspects that it was Bruno who killed Miriam.  Guy, of course, knows this, but has no feelings for revenge.  He just wants to get this pestering psychopath off his back.

The next two segments are essentially self-contained set pieces that tantalize the viewer and heighten the suspense but basically delay progress towards the denouement.

3.  The Red Herring
In this segment Guy phones Bruno and tells him he is going to go ahead with Bruno’s desired second murder that evening.  He takes the gun and the house key that Bruno had sent him, sneaks away from his police guards, and makes it to Bruno’s mansion.  The viewer can only be shocked by Guy’s decision, but Guy gives every indication of going through with the job of killing Bruno’s father.

When Guy makes it to the father’s room and sees someone in the bed, he says he has come to warn the father about Bruno’s psychotic condition, not to kill him.  So the viewer has been tricked into falsely assuming that Guy had joined the murder plot, and in fact this whole scene is basically a red herring to spice up the plot.  The person under the covers in the bed, though, turns out to be Bruno, not the father.  The two of them get into an argument, and before leaving, Guy informs Bruno that he will never carry out the second murder.

Later Anne visits Bruno’s house to warn Bruno’s mother about her son.  The mother, however, dismisses Anne’s concerns and mindlessly refuses to consider any negative ideas about her son.  Before leaving, Anne is met by Bruno, who tells her that Guy did kill Miriam and had subsequently asked him to go fetch his cigarette lighter that he had left at the amusement park grounds.

4.  The Tense Buildup
Now it is clear to Anne and Guy that Bruno is going to plant Guy’s cigarette lighter at the Metcalf fairgrounds in order to incriminate Guy.  Guy needs to head Bruno off before the police see the “evidence”. This sets the stage for the next set piece, which depicts the obstacle-strewn race between Guy and Bruno to get to the grounds, which is shown by Hitchcock in a classically tense sequence of parallel action (this is almost a textbook sequence for novice filmmakers to study).

In order to elude his police tails, Guy first must quickly complete a tournament tennis match and then sneak away to Metcalf after the match.  At the same time Bruno is also headed to Metcalf to plant the lighter.  Each of them must deal with unexpected delays, and Hitchcock uses these to play up the tension.  Guy’s tennis match turns out to take longer than he hoped; while Bruno accidentally drops the cigarette lighter down a sewer drain and struggles mightily to retrieve it.  For   eight minutes of screen time, the camera switches rapidly back and forth between Bruno and Guy trying to get past these frustrating obstructions.

Bruno eventually gets to the amusement park first, but he has to wait for the sun to set in order to plant the cigarette lighter surreptitiously.

5.  Finale on the Merry-Go-Round
At sunset, everyone converges on the amusement park: Guy, Bruno, and the police.  When Bruno sees Guy, he jumps onto the turning merry-go-round with Guy in hot pursuit.  The trigger-happy police fire at Guy but kill the merry-go-round operator instead, causing the merry-go-round to start rapidly spinning out of control.  On the wildly whirling carousel, Bruno and Guy get into a deadly fistfight over the lighter before the carousel finally crashes to a halt.  Bruno is mortally wounded, but even with his dying words he still accuses Guy of the murder.  As Bruno dies, though, the lighter drops from his hand, and Guy’s innocence is revealed.


Strangers on a Train is a real horror film, a horror film about how madness can invade an ordinary person’s life.  Hitchcock took Highsmith’s novel about a wickedly clever crime scheme and turned the film into more of a nightmare that is conveyed by the expressionistic effects of lighting, camera work, editing, and diegetic music. 

In fact the camera work of cinematographer Robert Burks won the film’s only Oscar.  The music was also effective, but it was not Dimitri Tiomkin’s customarily intrusive score that I liked but the diegetically-based organ music from the amusement park’s merry-go-round.  This was a mechanical rendition of traditionally upbeat songs, “The Band Played On”, “Carolina in the Morning”, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”, and “Baby Face”, and we hear the music played to eerie effect in both Acts 1 and 5. In Act 1 Miriam and her boyfriends joyfully sing “The Band Played On” while riding the merry-go-round prior to Miriam’s murder.  In the final act that same song becomes another death signal for the climactic finish.  It is my understanding that this organ music was Hitchcock’s idea, not Tiomkin’s [3].


The acting is also appropriately melodramatic, particularly the oily and disturbingly invasive performance of Robert Walker as the lunatic Bruno Anthony. Unfortunately, Walker had his own mental problems and had received treatment for a psychiatric disorder at the Menninger Clinic in 1949.  Shortly after completing the filming of Strangers on a Train, Walker was forcibly injected with amobarbital medication by his psychiatrist, whereupon he quickly lost consciousness, stopped breathing, and died at the age of 32.

It is interesting to compare Strangers on a Train with another film based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, The American Friend (1977).  Both films are expressionistic and detail the meddling schemes of unconscionable psychopaths entangling innocent men that they encounter.  The American Friend, though, offers a more empathetic view of Jonathon (the psychopath’s innocent target) and his experiences. The viewer is more likely to get inside Jonathon’s head and feel his anxieties as he or she watches the film. As such the film has an existentialist aspect to it. 

Strangers on a Train, on the other hand, is more directly a horror show.  This is where the amusement park metaphor comes into play.  It as if the entire world presented in this film takes place inside an amusement park’s “house of horrors”, and we are the helpless witnesses.  It is not so much that we identify and empathize with the "victim", Guy Haines, but more that we are totally cast into a nightmarish reality where almost everything is strangely tilted – and we are just observers to what goes on.  This was Hitchcock’s way and how he told this tale.
★★★★
           
Notes:
  1. Films of Highsmith’s novels made by top directors include René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960), Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977), Claude Chabrol’s Le Cri du Hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987), and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).
  2. Mervyn Nicholson, “Stranger and Stranger: Hitchcock and Male Envy”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 February 2007).
  3. “Strangers on a Train (film)”, Wikipedia, (11 June 2016).

“The American Friend” - Wim Wenders (1977)


The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund, 1977), one of the greatest of all films noir, came not from the US and French film-noir traditions with which we usually associate the genre, but from an upstart young German writer-director, Wim Wenders. Of course when you think about it, the film-noir tradition provides a cinematic vehicle for expressionistic representations of doomed, hopeless existence.  And who better to push the boundaries of this artistic mode than someone from the German culture, with its great heritage of German Expressionism [1]?

Wenders was only 31 at the time of this production, but he had already established himself with a string of films including The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, 1972),  and his celebrated Road Movie trilogy – Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten, 1974 ), The Wrong Move (Falsche Bewegung, 1975), and Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976).  In contrast to those earlier films,  all of which had loosely constructed plots depicting the aimless wanderings of their youthful protagonists, The American Friend moved squarely into the dark, dramatic intensity of the film noir.

The story is based on the work of American crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, primarily Ripley’s Game (1974), but also elements of Ripley Underground (1970).  Highsmith’s provocative thrillers were adopted many times over the years by top filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960), Claude Chabrol’s  Le Cri du Hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987), and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); and many of these stories feature Highsmith’s unconscionable psychopath Tom Ripley as a central character. It was Wenders’s genius, however, to shift more of the focus in The American Friend over to the other principal character in the story, and that is part of what elevates his version of the tale to another level.

In this story there are several dramatic elements that heighten the tension and fascinate the viewer.  First of all there is the psychological contrast between the two principal characters [2].
  • Tom Ripley is a wealthy American “cowboy” (in fact he usually dons a cowboy hat) businessman living in  Hamburg, Germany.  He comes across initially as cordial, but he is utterly ruthless when he feels the need.  Although he is emotionally volatile and reckless, he is also sensitive to others around him and is often insecure on the personal level.  In general he seems to be desperately searching for something that he doesn’t understand.
     
  • Jonathan Zimmerman is a skilled artisan picture framer who operates his own modest shop in Hamburg.  He is a pensive and sensitive perceiver who listens to those around him and doesn’t push himself on others.  He, too, is desperate, but the source of his ultimate anxiety is clearly and constantly in focus: his imminent death from a fatally progressive health condition.
Ripley is the unscrupulous provocateur, and it his “game” to draw the essentially decent and caring Zimmerman into his dark underworld.

Secondly, remember that film noir has three essential narrative obsessions: fatalism, truth, and loyalty [3,4].  In The American Friend each of these aspects is pushed to the extreme end of the scale:

  • Fatalism
    Usually the main film-noir characters have pasts they would like to forget and have no higher hopes than to escape their currently desperate circumstances.  But here the protagonist Zimmerman is faced with what seems to be utterly certain annihilation – there is no escape.
     
  • Truth
    The truth is always elusive in a film noir, with many double-crossers ready to trick you along the way.  Here in this film, untruths are incessant and almost the norm.  Even the basically honest and well-meaning Zimmerman finds himself lying to those around him.
     
  • Loyalty  
    Because almost noone in a film noir can be trusted, including the cops, there is an emphasis on profound loyalty to a trusted individual.  In The American Friend, a mysterious sense of loyalty drives individuals to what can only be considered to be bizarre actions of support.
Thirdly, there is the dramatic element of situating pivotal narrative elements on a train.  There is something mysteriously compelling about such train films.  The cramped feeling of confinement, the limited escape paths, and the strange awareness of a rapidly approaching destiny are all part of this. They all heighten the existential tension of the story.  For a stunning example see Europa (1991). Hitchcock, in particular, exploited these effects in a number of his films, for example The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).

All of this dramatic tension is further amplified by Wenders’s expressionistic mise-en-scene, involving the camera work of Robby Müller and editing of Peter Przygodda, both regulars on Wenders films. They employed a considerable number of emotive closeup shots that are smoothly woven into the visual flow of images. These closeups are crucial to the presentation of the byplay of Ripley and Zimmerman and their respective emotional journeys. Equally, if not more, important is the dramatic musical score by Jürgen Knieper, which overlays the film with a feeling of existential alarm.

One further interesting element in the production was Wenders’s filling the cast of dramatic roles with a number of film directors who were variously associated with the film noir tradition.  This included Dennis Hopper, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, Jean Eustache, and Rudolf Schündler. This will probably fascinate the inveterate cineaste, particularly seeing Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, but will not needlessly distract the average viewer.

The story of The American Friend plays out in three international cities – Hamburg, Paris, and New York City – but most of the action takes place in Hamburg.  Although the core narrative constructs are clear, some of the details behind what goes on are a little obscure, and seeing how everything fits together can heighten the enjoyment of a second viewing.  The narrative has four main segments.

1.  Ripley’s Fraudulent Art Game
The film starts in New York with American Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) talking to  an eccentric artist Derwatt (Nicholas Ray), who apparently fraudulently produces new “originals” of a famous deceased painter [5].  We also see Ripley lounging around his garishly decorated mansion in Hamburg. 

Later at a posh Hamburg art action, Ripley’s confederates bid  up the price of a Derwatt painting on sale before it is purchased by a Canadian friend (David Blue) of a local picture framer, Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), whose wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) works at the auction ceremony.  After the sale, the auction proprietor introduces Jonathan to Ripley, who extends his hand for a shake.  Jonathan somewhat rudely refuses Ripley’s extended hand, saying “I’ve heard of you”, and Ripley quietly fumes.  After Jonathan departs, though, the auction proprietor tries to excuse him by whispering to Ripley that Jonathan is depressed because he is terminally ill from some sort of blood disease.

Later at Ripley’s mansion, he is approached by a French gangster acquaintance,  Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain), who wants to contract Ripley to murder some of his enemies.  Ripley has his limits, though, and tells his friend Minot that he doesn’t like to murder people.

Ripley then visits Zimmerman’s shop to get one of his pictures framed, and the picture framer grudgingly apologizes for rudely refusing the handshake.   He tells Ripley, not knowing that he is in fact a criminal, that he doesn’t usually like people who treat art merely as a business investment.

Zimmerman then gets a telegram from his Canadian friend expressing sorrow over having heard that Zimmerman’s death is imminent.  Jonathan is alarmed, because although he has a life-threatening illness, he had thought that it had not progressed lately.  He rushes to his doctor, who assures him that his illness has not progressed, as was implied by his friend’s telegram. 

We will later learn that the telegram was faked by Ripley as part of an elaborate revenge for the insult of the spurned handshake.  He also apparently told Minot about Zimmerman’s condition. Minot then approaches Zimmerman and offers him a large sum of money to carry out his gangster killing, which he wants performed by an unknown so that he can avoid gangland retaliation.  Minot tells Zimmerman to fly to Paris, where he will pay for a second medical opinion as long as Zimmerman carries out the murder.

By this time the narrative focus has shifted from Ripley to Zimmerman.  Jonathan feels that he will die very soon and leave his wife and five-year-old son destitute.  He, himself, has no future, but he wants to leave something for them; and getting money to kill a known gangster criminal, as Minot assures him his murder target is, may be the only thing he can do for them. 

2.  A Visit to Paris
We are now closely following Jonathan’s angst, as he visits a medical clinic in Paris and gets results (fraudulently faked by Minot, we will later learn) that his condition is indeed hopeless. In a brilliantly filmed 12-minute sequence with no dialogue, Jonathan then stalks his target in the metro with a gun that Minot has given him.  Jonathan is in a daze of fear and confusion but eventually blunderingly carries out the execution and escapes undetected.

Back in New York, an American mafia chief (Sam Fuller) learns about the killing of one of his  top men in Paris.  Jonathan has momentarily escaped and is relieved, but now he has to lie to his wife about why he went to Paris.

3.  A Train Ride from Munich
Minot now offers Jonathan even more money to carry out a second killing.  This time his target is Minot’s ultimate enemy, the American mafia chief.  Jonathan is instructed to go to Munich and carry out the murder on the return train from there back to Hamburg.  It is at this point that we enter into the deliriously riveting 12-minute train ride sequence.

On the claustrophobic and fast-moving train back to Hamburg, the still-dazed Jonathan blunders again and is about to be killed by the mafia chief’s two bodyguards, when Ripley miraculously appears and dispatches them instead.  In fact Ripley does it without even taking the cigarette out of his mouth. Jonathan is shocked and cannot understand why Ripley was on the train to save him. They make it to Hamburg safely, although the targeted mafia chief has not been killed.

4.  Closure in Hamburg
Back in Hamburg Jonathan thanks Ripley and offers him half of his loot for getting rid of the two gangsters.  But Ripley declines and tells Jonathan to keep the money.  Asked what he really wants, Ripley simply says,
“I would like to be your friend.”  
By this point in the story, Jonathan knows that Ripley fabricated the story about Jonathan’s imminent death, so he asks him,
“Why did you spread this rumor. . . that I am with one foot in the grave?”
Ripley responds that he did it to take revenge on Jonathan for not shaking his hand at the auction.
Jonathan: “Is that all?”

Ripley: “Isn’t that enough?
This is what it is all about for the two men.  For Jonathan it is about existential survival.  For Ripley it is about losing face – which for him was also about existential survival.  But Ripley intervened on Jonathan’s behalf when it came to the second murder, because that was not part of his revenge plan against Jonathan – the second murder operation was Minot’s addition.   Such is the strange sense of loyalty and honor in the film-noir netherworld.

There is still more action to come, however.  Minot comes to Jonathan in Hamburg, reporting that his flat in Paris has been bombed by the mafia and wanting to know what got fouled up on the train operation.  Jonathan confesses to him that Ripley helped him. 

After Minot leaves, Jonathan calls up Ripley and reports that his confession has probably implicated Ripley.  Now things are coming to a head.  The mafia are out to get Minot, who may be in turn out to get Ripley.  And the mafia may be out to get Ripley, too.  They all converge on Ripley’s mansion – the American mafia boss with guards, Minot, even Marianne shows up – where Ripley and Jonathan are waiting for the dramatic denouement. You need to view this great film, yourself, to see how it all comes out.


What makes The American Friend compelling is the moody tone it gives to our vicarious experience of Jonathan’s angst-filled passage.  We are empathic fellow travelers on his bizarre journey that has been concocted by Ripley.  The music, the cinematography, and the editing all contribute to this experience.  Wenders even uses certain colors, not as symbols, but as mood-affecting expressionistic artifacts.  For example, the color red stands out in connection with Marianne and also with Ripley’s bedroom. The combination of all these elements provides a rich demonstration of why film can capture existential feelings that cannot be conjured up just from reading text. 

Jonathan Zimmerman’s struggling being-towards-death is contrasted with Ripley’s needy narcissism.  We follow Jonathan into the maelstrom initiated by Ripley, empathizing with his plight and even understanding (though not approving) how he can stagger into a murder plot.  At the same time we are fascinated by the odd “love” that Ripley feels for Jonathan.  Ripley doesn’t just want to be Jonathan’s friend.  He seems to want something more that is not explained.  (In fact a hint of sexual ambiguity is frequently in the background of Highsmith’s stories.)  All of this adds to the intrigue of the tale. 

In order to convey these psychological states, subtle acting is needed, and Wenders got excellent performances from Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, and Lisa Kreuzer.  In fact even though our main empathic focus is on Jonathan, the focalization of the film is not exclusively on him.  The film sometimes focalizes on Ripley and sometimes on Marianne, too.  But in all cases, the viewer is following the action from the perspective of Jonathan.

At the end of the film, noone has gotten what he or she wanted.  Ripley is abandoned and alone on a desolate beach. He reflectively says to himself, 
“Oh well, we made it, anyway, Jonathon.  Be careful.”
This is the film’s closing irony.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).
  2. Francine Prose, “Little Lies and Big Disasters”, Film Essays, The Criterion Collection, (12 January 2016).
  3. The Film Sufi, “Film Noir”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2008).
  4. The Film Sufi, “Le Cercle Rouge”, The Film Sufi, (26 April 2016).
  5. The thought occurred to me that Derwatt may have faked his own death in order to promote the value of new posthumously discovered works, as in the fashion of The Art of Love (1965).