“Our Hospitality” - Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923) was the first of Buster Keaton’s 1920s silent comedy masterpieces, which also included Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Together, these works put Keaton, along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, as one of his era’s true comedy masters [1].  Indeed many critics now consider Keaton to be even better than Chaplin and rate him the best of those three.  Noted film scholar Kevin Brownlow, for example, remarked [2]:
“In retrospect, Buster Keaton was probably the best comedy director in the business. Chaplin’s use of film was pedestrian by comparison.”
What elevated Keaton’s work above the “pedestrian” was his unique use of pure cinematic expression to evoke feelings of an existential nature.  Chaplin was a humanist (i.e. an essentialist), while Keaton added a manic existentialist touch.  (For more discussion on the distinctions between essentialism and existentialism, see my essay, "Phenomenology and Red Desert [3].)

Keaton achieved his accomplishments by working from a very young age as a pure auteur.  Although others were credited with the cinematography, editing, and sometimes even co-direction of his films, it was Keaton who retained total control of all camera positions and editing decisions [4,5].  Even most of the scripts were extemporaneously made up under his guidance during the shootings of his films [4].  And it was Keaton who was the sole originator of many of the most creative sight gags in his films. It was also well-known that Keaton did not use a stunt double for any of the dangerous stunts he performed in his films, and on several occasions he had serious accidents while performing these stunts that almost killed him [5].

Keaton’s films invariably feature himself as a shy and innocently earnest young protagonist who relentlessly seeks his goals in the face of a daunting world of challenges.  The cinematic depictions of these events are often shown in terms of three distinct narrative schemes of presentation:
  • The Quaint
    This is a ludicrously old-fashioned world reflecting in exaggerated terms the Keaton protagonist’s background.  Thus this is an imaginary essentialist social world.
  • The Slapstick  
    Here the innocent protagonist must somehow deal with an evil cohort of adversaries, and this is where the classic silent-comedy slapstick pratfalls are performed. So the protagonist is now in a world full of nefarious, ill-intentioned villains, but it is still an essentialist world.
  • The Maelstrom  
    In the final stages of many Keaton films, it seems that the entire universe has turned against the protagonist and has released its unfathomable fury.   It is here that we enter into an expressionistic depiction of existential annihilation, and these are the scenes that always linger in the viewers’ memories. 
In Our Hospitality these three schemes of narrative presentation appear sequentially in the three distinct sections of the film.  Note that this film uniquely has four members of the Keaton family in its cast.  Besides Buster Keaton, himself, the film also features his wife, Natalie Talmadge, in the female lead; his father, Joe Keaton, as the railroad train engineer; and his one-year-old son, Buster Keaton Jr., as the protagonist when he was a baby. 

The story of Our Hospitality was inspired by the notoriously deadly Hatfield-McCoy family feud (1863-1891) in the US Appalachian region in the 19th century [6].  That feud was fueled by an endless succession of back-and-forth revenge killings, and entered American folklore as an iconic element for mindless resentment and revenge.  However, to satisfy his own fascination with American historical development, Keaton set this film mostly in 1830, when the American train system was just getting started.  This was a technologically primitive time when even the pedal-driven bicycle was not yet in use, and Keaton accurately shows himself using a human-leg-propelled “dandy horse” to wheel himself around in an early scene [7].

The film opens in The Quaint narrative tone by setting the scene for subsequent comedic mayhem.

1.  Going to Claim the Inheritance 
The film opens in 1810, during the deadly McKay-Canfield family feud, when the last adult male Mckay family member is killed.  One-year-old Willie McKay’s mother takes her boy to New York City in order to escape the horrors of the family feud.  In 1830, however, 21-year-old Willie McKay (played by Buster Keaton) receives a letter informing him that he should go to Appalachia to claim his inheritance as the sole heir of the McKay family estate.  So the young man decides to take the train there, and much of this section of the film depicts the quaint primitiveness of early 19th-century American life, even seen from a 1923 perspective.

McKay shares a seat in his train coach with an equally shy young woman, Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge, Buster Keaton’s wife), who, unbeknownst to McKay, is a member of the feud-linked Canfield family.  It is interesting when I look at Natalie Talmadge today, by the way, to see a kind of classic feminine beauty that was apparently a feature of the 1920s but which seems, regrettably, to have disappeared from our current imagery of glamor. 

Anyway, much of this section of the films depicts the ludicrous frailty of the early train system, where, for example, train personnel found that when they encountered a stubborn mule on the train tracks, they found it easier to move the tracks to the side than to move the mule.  After a series of such comedic mishaps, the ramshackle train makes it to its destined southern town, and its passengers alight.

2.  Our Hospitality     
In the town, the film’s narrative moves into slapstick mode.  Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts) and his two adult sons discover that the still unsuspecting Willie McKay is in town and make immediate feud-fuelled attempts to shoot the young man. But various slapstick moments of accidental circumstance save him on each occasion.  Keaton is again faithful to the historical context in these scenes by showing the limitations of the gun technology of those days, when revolvers were not yet in use and single-shot guns were the norm.

Virginia Canfield, though, is still unaware of McKay’s family identity, and she invites the young man to her family home for dinner.  When he arrives, he is greeted graciously, but the Canfield sons make immediate preparations to shoot him.  However, the Canfield father quickly privately admonishes his sons that the rules of “Southern Hospitality” [8] prohibit them from killing any guest on their home premises.  

McKay finally gets wind of his precarious situation, too.  He now realizes that as long as he can stay inside the house, he is safe; but if he steps a foot outside the door, he is likely to be shot.  There follows a cat-and-mouse game of characteristically Keaton-crafted slapstick encounters involving attempts to get McKay to leave the home so that they can kill him.  During this time, too, McKay and Virginia are gradually falling in love.

3.  The Maelstrom 
Eventually McKay manages to escape the Canfield home by dressing up as an old lady.  The Canfields quickly discover the ruse, and the mad chase begins.  The film now enters its surreal, existentially threatening phase, when Keaton seems not only to be fleeing human adversaries but is also threatened with existential annihilation by Mother Nature, herself.  And this is where the film achieves its memorability.  Some of the ensuing scenes must have entailed incredible engineering ingenuity in order to play out so miraculously.

McKay, hotly pursued by the Canfields, runs madly into town and jumps onto a train and then onto a horse, which carries him madly into a wilderness.  He steals another train engine and gets into its tender car.  When the careening train derails on a mountainous track, the tender car somehow crashes off the tracks and down into a roaring river, with the tender box becoming a boat that McKay manages to try and steer in the raging waters. 

Virginia, worried about her new love, has also been looking for him.  When she sees him in the river, she gets into a boat to try and save him.  But things get only more precarious, and the raging torrents leave McKay and Virginia both frantically swimming in the water and heading for a catastrophic waterfall.  McKay’s breathtaking rescue of Virginia at the waterfall’s edge is the film’s highpoint and one of the most memorable scenes in silent movie history.

In the end, McKay and Virginia make it back to town and are immediately married by the kindly village parson.  The Canfield men discover the fact of the couple's union too late, and their own rigid adherence to their traditional mores and protocols forces them in the end to welcome Willie McKay as a new member of their family.


On the production side of things, we can only marvel at how Keaton managed in the filming of Our Hospitality the mechanics of all those carefully choreographed slapstick and maelstrom scenes.  In particular, those closing maelstrom scenes can be said to represent Keaton’s opening steps into the cinematic pantheon.  In fact those scenes are so breathtaking that we might likely overlook some earlier jump cuts or some other actually very nice touches, such as Keaton’s evident fascination with and fondness for dogs.

Looking at Our Hospitality from today’s increasingly hostile and perilous world perspective, we can appreciate Keaton’s dismissive take on the inanity of revenge and resentment, as well as the vacuity of rigid adherence to social protocols that are not supported by an innate sense of compassion.  In today’s utilitarian-focused world of individual attainment, it seems that we are forgetting about a fundamental aspect of human existence – our intuitive compassion for everyone we encounter, including our so-called (and often arbitrarily so) enemies [9].  This feeling of human compassion, not selfish resentment, needs to underlie what social protocols we may claim to adhere to.  In his high-spirited way, Keaton was reminding us more than ninety years ago that open-hearted compassion and resourceful, never-say-die optimism are the ways to go.
★★½

Notes:
  1. Jim Emerson, “Buster Keaton’s ‘Our Hospitality’ (1923) at Film Forum (Aug 01)”, Alt Screen, (1  August 2011).    
  2. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By, (1968), passage quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Buster Keaton ‘Our Hospitality’, 1923”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXI:1), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (31 August 2010).  
  3. The Film Sufi, “Phenomenology and Red Desert, The Film Sufi, (11 September 2010).  
  4. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Buster Keaton ‘Our Hospitality’, 1923”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXI:1), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (31 August 2010).  
  5. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).    
  6. “Hatfield–McCoy feud”, Wikipedia, (18 May 2018).  
  7. “Dandy horse”, Wikipedia, (26 April 2018).  
  8. “Southern hospitality”, Wikipedia, (28 April 2018).   
  9. Pankaj Mishra, “A Gandhian Stand Against the Culture of Cruelty”, The New York Review of Books, (22 May 2018).  

John G. Blystone

Films of John G. Blystone:

Martin Smith

Films of Martin Smith:

Vilgot Sjöman

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Alf Sjöberg

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Robert Siodmak

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Hiroshi Shimizu

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Daniel Schmidt

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Juliano Salgado

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Bimal Roy

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Arthur Robison

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Singeetam Srinivasa Rao

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  • Pushpak - Singeetam Srinivasa Rao (1987)

Atiq Rahimi

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Vadim Perelman

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Vincent Paterson

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G. W. Pabst

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Mira Nair

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Sebastián Moreno

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Shaun Monson

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Bennett Miller

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Fernando Meirelles

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Rudolph Maté

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  • D.O.A. - Rudolph Maté (1950) 

Berit Madsen

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Frank Lloyd

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Alison Klayman

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Michael Kirk

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Nacer Khemir

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Duncan Jones

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  • Moon - Duncan Jones (2009)

Norman Jewison

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John Huston

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Drew Heriot

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  • The Secret - Rhonda Byrne and Drew Heriot (2006)

Poul-Erik Heilbuth

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Paul Leni

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Michael Haneke

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Lasse Hallstrom

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John Goetz

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Ben Goddard

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Terry Gilliam

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  • Brazil - Terry Gilliam (1985)

Alex Gibney

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Lee Fulkerson

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Cary Joji Fukunaga

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Howard Hawks

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Marc Forster

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Philippe Falardeau

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Blake Edwards

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Stanley Donen

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Philippe de Broca

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Michael Curtiz

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Ethan Coen

Films of Ethan Coen:

Joel Coen

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James Cameron

Films of James Cameron:
  • Avatar - James Cameron (2009)

Michael Cacoyannis

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Rhonda Byrne

Films of Rhonda Byrne:
  • The Secret - Rhonda Byrne and Drew Heriot (2006)

Simon Broughton

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Kathryn Bigelow

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Laslo Benedek

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Maziar Bahari

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Chris Atkins

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Ben Affleck

Films of Ben Affleck:
  • Argo - Ben Affleck (2012)

Mike Anderson

Films of Mike Anderson:

“Travellers and Magicians” - Khyentse Norbu (2003)

Khyentse Norbu, aka Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, is a distinguished Himalayan Buddhist Lama [1] and a unique cultural figure, because he expresses himself to a wide public audience through both his writings and his filmmaking [2,3].  A native of Bhutan, Norbu is that country’s only feature filmmaker. He got his first closeup exposure to feature filmmaking when he served as a consultant for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), and he first came to prominence on his own when he wrote and directed Bhutan’s first feature film, The Cup (Phörpa, 1999), an award-winning story about soccer-obsessed novice Tibetan monks in northern India.  Norbu’s second film, Travellers and Magicians (2003), was even more impressive.  This film, which like The Cup featured a local cast with no professional acting experience, was the first feature to be shot and produced entirely in Bhutan, and yet its production values stand up to the highest professional standards [4].

Travellers and Magicians consists of two parallel narratives, one of which (the Tashi story) is told as an inner story by one of the characters of the outer story (the Dondup story).  And indeed it seems that storytelling, particularly the stories that we tell about ourselves to ourselves, is a key theme of this film and one that is presumably connected with Buddhist insights.   

Dondup 1
The outer story starts with Dondup (played by Tshewang Dendup), a young government official who wants to leave the small village of Khumbar to which he has only recently been assigned and travel to the America of his fantasies.  From the outset we can see that the long-haired and well-fed young man is self-obsessed and dreams of a disco world full of scantily-clad young beauties. Life in his small Bhutanese village is just too slow and boring for him to endure.  When he gets a letter from a friend informing him that an American visa can be arranged for him if he can get to the capital city of Thimphu in a few days, he dons his trendy basketball shoes and “I [Heart] NY” tee-shirt and rushes off to catch the long-distance bus that makes trips to the city.  However, various delays slow him up and cause him to miss the bus, so he is forced to try and get there by hitchhiking.

Out on the road, Dondup is disgruntled to be joined by two other hitchhikers who will now make it more difficult for him to find a ride for himself:
  • a taciturn peasant apple seller carrying a big bushel of apples,
  • a sociable Buddhist monk (The Monk, played by Sonam Kinga).
They all trudge along the road together, but Dondup doesn’t want to cooperate with his fellow travellers.  After not finding a ride all day, evening falls, and they stop to eat food that The Monk prepares from his pack.  Then to while away the time, The Monk begins relating to his new friends the Tashi story.

Tashi 1
Before relating any details of the Tashi story, however, it is worth first considering further the nature of narrative [5,6].  Narratives always exist within a layered, embedded structure, wherein the agents in one narrative usually have inner, imaginary narratives that fuel the main narratives within which they are operating.  Thus within the Dondup story there is The Monk’s elaborate Tashi story that he begins telling his new co-travellers.  But, of course, there are other little narratives in the Dondup story, too.  For example, Dondup, himself, carries around with him in  his mind two of his own imaginary mini-narratives:
  1. the boring, humdrum existence he imagines his future life being if he stays in Khumbar
  2. the romantic, endlessly exciting life of American wealth and mass consumption
These imaginary inner-narratives are often just bundles of similarly-typed narrative fragments that are usually only implicitly present in the stories we are told, but they are more significant here in Travellers and Magicians.

The Tashi story in this film is special, because it is an example of film noir – indeed it has characteristics reminiscent of the classic film noir The Postman Always Ring Twice (1946).  A notable feature of films noir is that the imaginary inner-narratives of some of the main characters are often dark and occluded – these characters have unknown pasts and obscure futures that are dimly disturbing.  This particular contrast in the inner-narratives of the two main stories – the Dondup story and the Tashi story – is a major feature of Travellers and Magicians.

In the Tashi story, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) is a young man studying under a master to become a magician, but he is a lazy student who, like Dondup, just dreams of babes and entertainment.  His younger teenage brother Karma, though not permitted to study magic, is more ambitious and secretly tries to spy on the master magician’s lessons.   One day while out in the fields with his brother, Karma gives Tashi some chhang (a Bhutanese home-brewed alcoholic drink) spiked with his own hand-picked “magical” concoctions. After taking the drink, Tashi looks up to see a saddled horse that his family has apparently just acquired.  As soon as he mounts the horse, it takes off on a wild uncontrolled gallop, carrying Tashi deep into the forest.  Eventually the horse throws Tashi off, leaving him lost in an unknown wilderness.  Then it starts to rain violently.  Lost and desperate for shelter, Tashi stumbles upon a cabin deep in the forest that is inhabited by a reticent old woodcutter, Agay (Gomchen Penjore), who reluctantly allows Tashi to come in out of the downpour.

Dondup 2
The telling of the Tashi story was interrupted by Dondup’s falling asleep.  The next morning the three hitchhikers continue their efforts along the picturesque mountainous east-west road, with Dondup continuing to be uncooperative.  They eventually hitch a ride on the back of a flatbed truck, and they are soon joined by an elderly rice paper seller from Khumbar and his comely teenage daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo).  After awhile the truck breaks down, and while the driver attends to making the repairs, the hitchhikers get out and The Monk resumes with his story.

Tashi 2
After sleeping the night in Agay’s house, Tashi wakes up to discover that the elderly Agay has a sensuous young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom).  He also learns that the dour hermit Agay is physically abusive towards his woman.  Since Tashi is still lost, Agay goes out with him and guides him part of the way to the next village, and then the hermit returns alone to his home.

Dondup 3
With the truck fixed, the Tashi story is interrupted and the travellers continue their journey until they are dropped off at a crossroads, where they have to start walking again.  After a lot of walking, they stop to rest, where they have the following revealing conversation:
  • Sonam's Father: “So, is it really true you're not coming back to the village?"
  • Dondup: “I have a great opportunity to go to America. If I'm not in Thimphu tomorrow I may miss it.”
  • Sonam's Father: “Will you go there for good?”
  • Dondup: “I don't know, maybe.”
  • Sonam's Father: “It must be very beautiful there.”
  • Sonam: “I've heard they don't even know where Bhutan is.”
  • Sonam's Father: “What a pity. I hope you'll come back to our village. We need young people like you. Why are you going there?”
  • Dondup: “I can make lots of money.”
  • Sonam's Father: “Doing what?”
  • Dondup: “Anything. Washing dishes. Picking apples.”
  • Sonam's Father: “Oh, picking apples?”
  • The Monk: “So, you're giving up an officer's job to pick apples?!”
  • Dondup: “I can make a lot more money.”
  • Sonam's Father: “Well, I guess you've made your mind up to go.”
  • The Monk: “Just don't get lost there like Tashi!”
Although they speak dreamily of the presumed beauty of America, the viewer of this film can see the evident natural beauty of Bhutan that is all around them.  Then The Monk resumes his story.

Tashi 3
Tashi can’t find his way alone in the heavily forested wilderness and eventually wanders by chance back to Agay’s house in the forest, where he is allowed to stay until Agay can make his next trip to the village. There is a marvelously filmed sequence here showing Deki giving a bath to Agay in their outdoor hot-water tub while Tashi looks on in fascination.  He is clearly becoming entranced by Deki’s naturally sensual demeanor.  Then after Agay drinks some chhang and falls asleep in the house, Tashi sneaks out to covertly watch Deki bathing alone in the tub.

Dondup 4
Continuing on the road, the travellers are still seeking a ride, and Dondup happens to see a car rush past them that we see being driven by a middle-class woman looking like Deki from the Tashi story we have been watching.  But despite Dondup’s avowed claims to be pursuing his dreamland quest, it is evident that he is taking a growing interest in the modest young country girl Sonam.  In a  private conversation he asks her about her goals, and she reveals to him that although she has the grades to get into college, she feels it is her duty to stay in Khumbar and look after her elderly, widowed father.  She also urges Dondup, like The Monk had earlier urged, to give up smoking.  While Dondup had ignored The Monk’s earlier preachy recommendation, this time he does give up smoking when Sonam asks him to. 

When nightfall comes, the weary travellers stop and The Monk resumes his story.

Tashi 4
Tashi has now stayed on in Agay’s forest home for many weeks, and he and Deki have secretly become lovers.   When Deki discovers that she is pregnant by him, she tells Tashi that they must murder Agay and run away.  So Tashi prepares a poisonous mixture of herbs that he had learned from his magician apprenticeship and mixes it into Agay’s chhang.

Dondup 5
Now more involved with his local social surroundings, Dondup is becoming more cooperative and helpful, especially in connection with anything specifically having to do with the demure Sonam.  Seeing this the ever-observant Monk teasingly suggests to Dondup that perhaps his dreamland isn’t so far away, after all.  When a bus stops for them with only one available seat, the others, knowing Dondup’s urgent need to get to Thimphu, offer the seat to him to take it.  But the now more considerate Dondup selflessly defers to the apple seller to take it.

Tashi 5
Agay is in his death throes from the poison Tashi had prepared for him, and Tashi runs away in terror at what he had done, with Deki desperately pursuing him.  After crossing over a dangerous stream, he hears Deki’s screams behind him and returns to learn that the girl has fallen into the stream and drowned.

Then Tashi wakes up from his nightmare, and we see that he had been dreaming everything after drinking Karma’s magic potion.  So ends the Tashi story.

Dondup 6
Back on the road with the hitchhikers, a tractor-and-trailer with two available seats stops for them, and the ever-courteous rice-paper seller insists that Dondup and The Monk should get on.  When they are finally moving off down the road, The Monk looks at a reflective Dondup and knows he is thinking about Sonam.  He reminds Dondup that
“a peach blossom is beautiful. . . but a blossom is only beautiful because it is temporary.”
Then he cheerfully launches into a new story for his listener, this one about a local government official whose dream of going to America to pick apples was interrupted when he met a beautiful girl just as he was getting on the way.  Hearing that, Dondup smiles and muses thoughtfully,
“and so he forgot about going to America . . . ”.

The entire presentation of Travellers and Magicians is beautifully executed, with excellent use of a constant stream of meaningful closeups that convey soulful ruminations and feeling.  It is not easy to create a naturally and intuitively progressing visual narrative when using so many (potentially distracting) closeups, and credit must be given to the outstanding cinematography of Alan Kozlowski and the smooth editing by John Scott and Lisa-Anne Morris that makes the embedded narrative flow mellifluously.  Also effective is the haunting indigenous background music that casts an atmospheric spell over all that is portrayed.

What the film Travellers and Magicians reflects on is something profound about life and the way narrative construction guides our way through it.  I often hear Buddhist practitioners proclaim that we should meditate by ceasing to think.  Turn off your mind and enter into a samadhi of thoughtlessness they insist.  But I think the situation is not that simple – I don’t believe that one should simply suppress his or her consciousness. 

We are constantly fabricating little mini-narratives as we make our way through life, and these  mini-narratives are frequently collected into little bundles, as was the case with Dondup.  But these mini-narrative bundles can fixate our attention and blind us to the richness of life that is going on all around us.  The world is constantly presenting us with beautiful opportunities for heartfelt engagement, and we need to be open and alive to these temporarily available (like the peach blossom) beautiful opportunities.  Dondup gradually found himself more engaged with his local surroundings right in front of him, particularly in connection with the innocent Sonam, and he gradually let loose of his narrative-bundle fixations.  I do believe that mindful meditation is one of the practices that can help release us from these fixations.  In fact it may possibly be the case that mindful meditation, like pure love, can help us let go of the conscious world of essences and facilitate our conscious awareness of our existential agency. For more discussion on the distinctions between essentialism and existentialism, see my essay, “Phenomenology and Red Desert [7].

To be sure, the Tashi story was clearly a fabricated story of destruction, a story about passion taking over one’s life and driving oneself to desperate actions.  And in that inner Tashi dream, Tashi lost himself and succumbed to his desperate passions.  In the Dondup story, though, we see  something different – a man who is on the way to finding his authentic self by letting go of his obsessions and looking around for the constantly emerging new opportunities that can engage his true soul (i.e. the essential, often overlooked, loving godliness inside each of us). 

Khyentse Norbu conveys these ideas effectively in this film and, to me, offers an uplifting image for a meaningful spiritual message.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. He has been recognized as the third incarnation of the founder of Khyentse lineage of Tibetan Buddhism [2].
  2. “Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche”, Wikipedia, (9 March 2018).   
  3. Publications, Siddharta’s Intent, (accessed 17 May 2018).   
  4. Dave Kehrjan, “Nothing Like a Pretty Girl to Energize the Quiet Life”, The New York Times, (28 January 2005).   
  5. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.        
  6. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  7. The Film Sufi, “Phenomenology and Red Desert, The Film Sufi, (11 September 2010).   

Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche)

Films of Khyentse Norbu:

“King Lear” - Grigori Kozintsev (1971)

Grigori Kozintsev’s five-decades-long filmmaking career in Russia stretched from the Eisenstein-Pukovkin era fertility of the 1920s to his final film in 1971.  Over much of that time, he, like other Russian cultural figures, struggled to work within the confines of a restrictive creative landscape that was dominated by the coercive Russian Communist government, wherein many social topics were out-of-bounds.  One way to try to evade such censorship was to make films of recognized world classics, such as the works of Shakespeare [1]. This he managed to do with his final two works, Hamlet (Gamlet, 1964) and King Lear (Korol Lir, 1971), which are now considered to be the greatest renderings of Shakespeare on film.  Indeed ‘rendering’ is the key term here, because Kozintsev said his Shakespeare films were
“renderings rather than translations. . . . The object of screen adaptation is to preserve not the text, but the metaphor."[2]
Kozintsev’s cinematic renderings delve more deeply into Shakespeare’s themes than most so-called “faithful to the original” theatrical stagings of Shakespeare’s work. 

Unfortunately, Kozintsev’s films, steeped in high production values though they clearly are, have not been widely distributed and are not so well known.  I was moved to track down and see King Lear because of the high regard in which the film is held by one of my favorite film critics, Jugu Abraham [3]. Indeed Jugu has ranked Kozintsev’s King Lear as the greatest film ever made [4]. 

Note that this film includes the artistic collaboration of two of the iconic cultural figures of 20th century Russia. Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak translated Shakespeare’s play into Russian and Dmitri Shostakovich composed the film’s musical score.  But it is the mise-en-scene of Kozintsev, working with his cinematographer Jonas Gricius, that creates the moody, expressionistic tone that permeates the film and underlies its greatness.

Actually King Lear is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays – I find the story too complicated and the title character of King Lear too weak and pathetic for my taste.  So you might wonder how much of Shakespeare’s original work did Kozintsev alter in this film to make it so great?  As a matter of fact, Kozintsev preserves almost all of the events from the play, but he manages to convey them in an original and highly emotive way.

One key factor was Kozintsev’s choice of Jüri Järvet to play the lead role of King Lear.  Although diminutive in stature, Järvet is energetic and passionately expressive – just what is needed for this role.  The Estonian Järvet spoke little Russian and had to have his voice dubbed for this film; but even so, his expressive gestures and overall demeanor were effective for conveying the pathos that Kozintsev wanted.  I don’t know how connected Kozintsev was with Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, but both Järvet and Donatas Banionis, who plays the role of the Duke of Albany in this film, would one year later have the lead roles in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).

Another key factor in Kozintsev’s film is the atmospheric black-and-white cinematography in cinemascope, which presents a grim landscape of frail humans struggling to gain their petty privileges in a fundamentally barren and forlorn world.  This is supported by effective diagetic noises that convey bleak, soulless mechanics of a heartless natural world.

The story of King Lear, which Kozintsev has divided into two equal halves, concerns what happens to an elderly English king of the past, and it moves through four general phases.

1.  Acquisitive Offspring 
The film opens showing impoverished peasants moving across a barren landscape and looking  up obediently at a massive castle.  This opening scene wordlessly conveys the great distance separating the peasants from their imperial overlords.  Inside the castle we are introduced to two family groupings:
  • King Lear and his three daughters:
    • Goneril, who is married to the Duke of Albany
    • Regan, who is married to the Duke of Cornwall
    • Cordelia, the youngest and unmarried
  • The Earl of Gloucester has two sons:
    • Edmund is the older son, but because he was born illegitimate, he is not the lawful heir to the earl’s estate
    • Edgar, the earl’s lawful heir.
For both these family groupings there will be unprincipled efforts on the parts of some of the offspring to increase their wealth and power.

At the outset the elderly king summons his three daughters and announces his decision that, in order to avoid family squabbles concerning the division of his kingdom after his death, he intends to retire now and divide up his kingdom equally among his three daughters.  But first the vain monarch wants his three daughters to individually swear how much they love him.  Goneril and Regan each make ridiculously exaggerated claims of their love for their father, while their more sincere and honest sister Cordelia makes only a modest, dutiful claim.  Disappointed at not hearing more extravagant flattery from Cordelia, he petulantly disinherits her on the spot and banishes her from his kingdom.

Elsewhere we see the unscrupulous Edmund plotting to sabotage his brother Edgar by falsely attributing traitorous activity to him.

So early on we see that Lear and Gloucester are surrounded by two contrasting types of individuals seeking their favor:
  • the sincere and honest – Cordelia, Albany, Edgar, and the loyal Duke of Kent
  • the dishonest and corrupted – Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund
The rest of this story is not just a melodrama concerning these two types but more of a deeper examination of how society is organized in the face of such social complexity.

2.  Falling out with Goneril and Regan 
The next part shows how contemptuous and mean-spirited are Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund.  The truly loyal Kent is captured by Cornwall and the fleeing Edgar has to find refuge out on the heath among a band of mad beggars.  Meanwhile instead of the veneration that he expects from his two supposedly loyal elder daughters, Lear finds himself dismissed as a useless and unwanted old man.  In despair, Lear, too, runs out onto the heath, accompanied only by his loyal jester, The Fool.

3.  Chaos and War
Due to Edmund’s boundless avariciousness, Gloucester is captured as a traitor by Cornwall.  After having his eyes gouged out, Gloucester, too, is sent out to wander on the heath.  So our protagonists – Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Edgar – have all been cast out of human “civilization” to wander in the wilderness.

Meanwhile Cordelia, who had earlier gone off and married the King of France, arrives with a French military force bent on restoring Lear and true, principled civilization to the English throne.  At this point Lear is taken to Cordelia, and the repentant Lear tearfully expresses his love for his daughter.  However, when the battle is engaged, the English army, led by the nefarious Edmund, wins, and both Cordelia and Lear are taken away with orders from Edmund that they be executed.

4.  Aftermath
Cornwall had earlier been killed, so the honest Albany is now the ruler.  But the evil coalition of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan falls apart. Albany has Edmund arrested on suspicion of treason, and a duel is arranged between Edmund and a masked Edgar to decide the result.  In the event, Edgar fatally wounds Edmund.  Regan and Goneril, who had both lusted after Edmund are now in despair, and so, offscreen, Regan fatally poisons Goneril and then herself.  With his dying breath Edmund repentantly tries to rescind his death sentence of Cordelia, but he is too late.  Lear discovers her corpse hanging from a noose, and he soon dies, himself, of grief and weariness. 

At the close, the saddened Albany, Kent, and Edgar are left to try to pick up the pieces and restore social order.


As the story of King Lear unfolds, it becomes deeper and more moving.  The first half of the film is somewhat bogged down by relating the perfidious machinations of the various antagonists.  It was only in the second half of the film that I began to get the feeling I was watching something great.

There are several interesting themes of King Lear that Kozintsev has effectively highlighted.  Overall we have a picture of dystopia – "a generalized picture of a civilization heading towards doom", as Kozintsev put it [3].  The general problem here is how to maintain a civilized social order in the face of rampant, unprincipled predators. The traditional approach uses loyalty, and that works with the dutifully loyal Kent.  But loyalty is easy to break down when notions of pride and dignity come to outweigh feelings of human compassion.

Anyway, loyalty is not enough to ensure a humane and well-functioning social order.  What is needed is a commonly agreed upon collection of social narratives within which people can find their own proper roles.  Various people in this story find themselves bereft of any role and thus are on the verge of madness.  At the beginning of this story, Edmund finds himself excluded from the role he wants in order to establish his dignity, and he is unscrupulously willing to go to any lengths to secure a higher role for himself.  In a certain sense we could see Edmund as a ruthless  utility-maximizing modernist, who is outside the scope of human morality.  Edgar, on the other hand, finds himself so deprived of any social identity that he becomes a madman.  However, he does recover his role and his sanity in the end.

Lear and Gloucester, our protagonist social commanders, are more or less lost in the face of all the disloyal perfidy around them.  Gloucester, blinded and ruined, ultimately loses faith in any salvation, ultimately lamenting to Edgar out on the heath that
“as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.”
Lear, however, never gives up and is the ever-struggling thinker in this story; his ruminations about his frustrations with life are always fascinating.  These are enriched by the sarcastic commentary of Lear’s prankish companion, The Fool, whose caustic remarks may reflect Lear’s own guilty conscience. 

In fact at one point out on the heath, Lear comes across the wandering band of poor, half-mad and naked wretches, and he says to himself,
“Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
 That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
 How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
 Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
 From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta'en
 Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
 Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
 That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
 And show the heavens more just.”
Thus there is a glint of social compassion in this soliloquizing statement that points the way to Lear’s belated enlightenment.  This is further confirmed when he later expresses his simple, unqualified love for Cordelia.

All of these thematic elements are well presented by Kozintsev’s expressionistic mise-en-scene.  He shows the chaotic destructiveness of nature  always lurking in the background.  This brings about a feeling of alienation that is further brought about by Kozintsev’s pictorial emphasis on depth and separation – there are so many scenes that depict people separated by great expanses of space.  In particular, the battle scenes are especially effective in visually depicting in just a  few shots the stressful clamor of war. 

I have already mentioned the crucial acting performance of Jüri Järvet in the role of the king, but there were other commendable performances, too, for example in the roles ot Lear’s daughters – Elza Radzina (as Goneril), Galina Volchek (as Regan), and Valentina Shendrikova (as Cordelia).  It was good that Kozintsev presented the two older sisters as unglamorous, middle-aged matrons, which cast the exploitative Edmund’s positive responses to their romantic entreaties in an appropriately cynical light.  And the presentation as a whole is generally enhanced by Shostakovich’s music, which though sometimes noisily intrusive, is often evocative of the film’s fatalistic and melancholic mood.

Overall, I would say this is the way Shakespeare’s rich social tapestries were meant to be presented – not as the stentorian declamations of over-heated theatrics, but instead as a fully expressionistic rendering of an entire view of the world.  Perhaps we could even say that Kozintsev’s way of presenting the Bard’s work stands as an original contribution on his part.  In any case, I would say that Kozintsev's King Lear is the best film of a Shakespeare play that I have seen.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Peter Sellars, “Peter Sellars on Grigori Kozintsev”, King Lear (DVD), Facets Video, (2007).
  2. Michael Walsh, “Rendered, not translated, the Screen's greatest Lear speaks Russian“, Reeling Back (1981/2014).   
  3. Jugu Abraham, “64. Russian (former Soviet) director Grigory Kozintsev’s 'Korol Lir' (King Lear) (1971): An unsung masterpiece on 'civilization heading to doom'", Movies that make you think, (27 May 27 2008).    
  4. Jugu Abraham, “The Author's Favorite Top 10 Films”, Movies that make you think, (2017).  

Grigori Kozintsev

Films of Grigori Kozintsev:

“The Zoo” - Satyajit Ray (1967)

Satyajit Ray was not only a great filmmaker and screenwriter, he was also a gifted graphic artist, musical composer, and author.  In particular he had a strong penchant for detective fiction, and he wrote 35 popular novels and stories featuring his detective hero Feluda.  Before writing  his first Feluda novel, though, Ray first ventured into the detective-fiction world with his film The Zoo (Chiriyakhana, 1967), which was based on a 1953 novel of the same name by popular Bengali detective-fiction writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhya. 

Actually, there was a certain amount of serendipity in Ray’s coming to make this film at all.  Ray wanted to keep his hand-picked production team together, and to do that they needed continuous work on film projects.  But there were at that time disruptions and disturbances in the Indian civil society that threatened the stability of the Bengali film industry [1].  So Ray’s production team had gone ahead on their own and secured rights to make a film of Bandyopadhyaa novel Chiriyakhana.  However, the team ran into difficulties with the producers, and so Ray was called in to take over the direction of the film [1]. 

Although Ray was capable of working across a range of film genres, he knew that detective fiction was not always an ideal fit for cinematic expression, since these kinds of stories usually have a lot of verbal expression at the end that provide a detailed explanation of what happened and how the crime was committed.  Nevertheless, he went ahead and fashioned a decent work out of  Chiriyakhana.  In fact Ray would go on to make two further detective-fiction films, on these occasions based on his Feluda novels – Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1971) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Mystery of the Elephant God, 1975).  

Here in The Zoo, Bandyopadhya’s favorite detective, Byomkesh Bakshi, is played by Bengali screen idol Uttam Kumar, whom Ray had earlier cast as the lead in his Nayak (The Hero, 1966).  Ray tones down Kumar’s glamour in The Zoo by having him wear horned-rim glasses, just as he had de-glamorized Sharmila Tagore with horned-rim glasses in Nayak.  In both cases the horned-rim glasses seem to signify a reflective character.  Of course, that is what we often expect in a detective story – an analytical rationalist in the fashion of Sherlock Holmes uses empirical evidence and logical deduction to solve the mystery.  Indeed direct allusions are made to Holmes, when Byomkesh’s assisting friend, Ajit, in The Zoo is referred to as Byomkesh’s “Watson”.  Ray spices up the Byomkesh character a bit by outfitting his office with a human skeleton and having him play with his pet baby python snake from time to time; but basically Byomkesh is a Holmesian rationalist who relies on his deductive acumen to solve the crimes.

The story of The Zoo involves our protagonist sleuth, Byomkesh, facing the task of resolving at least four concurrent, and presumably linked, crime/mysteries.  We can look at its presentation as comprising four basic acts.

1.  Visit to the Zoo
In the beginning Byomkesh Bakshi (played by Uttam Kumar) and his assisting friend, the writer Ajit Bandyopadhyay (Shailen Mukherjee), are visited by retired judge Nishanath Sen (Sushil Majumdar), who now owns a small dairy farm and plant nursery.  Because of the guilt Sen later felt for sending twenty-two convicted criminals to the gallows during his time as a judge, Sen now uses his farm as a charitable home for social outcasts, such as ex-convicts, who cannot find a place in ordinary Indian society.  This menagerie  of social misfits living in Sen’s colony is referred to by outsiders as “the zoo”. 

The reason for Sen’s interest in Byomkesh’s services is that he wants to find out who sang a song titled, “What Do You Know of Love?” from some forgotten movie made years earlier.  Byomkesh and Ajit immediately visit film scholar Ramen Mallick (Jahar Ganguli), who remembers the song, the movie, and the actress who sang the song (it was not dubbed by a playback singer) named Sunetra Sunayana.  Mallick also recalls that at the time this film was being made seven years ago, his young friend Morari was murdered while making love with Sunayana in a room above the film studio.  Although Sunayana was originally a suspect, noone was convicted, and the crime was never solved. Sunayana disappeared from sight, and her whereabouts remain unknown.  Apparently Sen suspects that one of the women in his colony of outcasts is Sunayana in disguise.

Byomkesh and Ajit are then invited to visit Sen’s colony to investigate.  Disguised as a Japanese horticulturalist (a humorous touch on the part of Ray),  Byomkesh comes and compulsively takes photos of all of Sen’s motley collection of “inmates”.  Sen also mentions that every few weeks someone has been coming at night and mysteriously tossing old automobile parts through a colony window.  Byomkesh guesses that this might be associated with some sort of blackmail.
 
So now there are three mysteries to be solved:
  • Mystery #1 - Who among the women living in Sen’s colony is Sunetra Sunayana?
  • Mystery #2 - Who is responsible for the murder of Morari?
  • Mystery #3 - Who is behind the motor parts threats?
2.  That Night at the Zoo 
That night at 10pm we see that a number of the inmates to whom Byomkesh was introduced that day are up and engaged in obscure (to the viewer) activities.  Sen makes a phone call to Byomkesh at this time informing him he has new information for him; but before he can complete the call, he is bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant. So now there is a fourth mystery:
  • Mystery #4 - Who killed Nishanath Sen?
And the people in the colony who were awake at the time of the murder may be implicated, at least as potential witnesses.

Byomkesh comes to the colony the next day and begins interviewing everyone.  Of course a detective always looks for a motive behind the committing of a crime, and among the various shady characters living in the colony, almost everyone is a suspect.  Included among the suspects is Dr. Bhujangadhar Das (Shyamal Ghoshal), a doctor who lost his license to practice medicine for performing illegal abortions.  One piece of evidence that seems to clear Dr. Das of Sen’s murder, though, is that everyone who was awake at 10pm on the night of the murder remembers hearing him playing his sitar at that time.  During Das’s interview, he and Byomkesh engage in a brief discussion about the relative weights and importance of personal morals versus social norms (including laws).  This is one of the occasional philosophical elements in the film that concern themselves with the nature of crime and guilt and that add interest to the film.

Afterwards Byomkesh, Ajit, and Mallick go to a film studio to see a screening of the song “What Do You Know of Love?” sung by Sunayana.  This is pleasant Bollywood musical song, and it is interesting to know that it was written by Satyajit Ray, in a further demonstration of the range of his many talents.  When they watch this film clip, Byomkesh and Ajit can see that Sunayana does not really look like any of the four main women living in Sen’s colony:
  • Mukul (Subira Roy), the daughter of inmate ex-prof and former criminal Nepal Gupta,
  • Najar Bibi (Subrata Chatterjee), who is the wife of Sen’s driver Mushkil Mia,
  • Banalakshmi (Gitali Roy), who is a peasant outcast girl of unknown background from a local village,
  • Damayanti (Kanika Majumdar), who is Sen’s wife (and now widow).
3.  Further Suspicions Arise 
So far Byomkesh has seen some suspicious characters but doesn’t have a lot of evidence.  He has pasted all the photos he has taken of these colony people on his office wall so that he can examine his gallery of suspects. But he is still searching for more clues and a motive.

Then inmate Brajadas, who is an ex-con and former employee of Mr. Sen, comes to Byomkesh and reveals that Damayati was not Sen’s legal wife.  He explains that some fourteen years earlier Sen had sentenced Damayati’s husband to death for some crime.  But a higher court had overruled the death sentence and imprisoned the man, whose sentence was now up.  In the intervening time Sen had taken Damayati as his mistress.  Damayati’s husband was presumably now out of prison and engaged in secretly blackmailing Damayati by periodically throwing the motor parts through her window.  So this information seems to clear up Mystery #3, but its connection with the other mysteries is unclear, except that it indicates that Damayati is not the disguised Sunayana.

Then another inmate, Panugopal, who may have witnessed Sen’s murder, is bludgeoned to death in exactly the same way as was Sen, which extends Mystery #4.  Byomkesh now goes ahead with more detailed interviews of some of the remaining key suspects, and he uncovers some important clues.  He also visits Dr. Dash’s flat in town and discovers the doctor’s tape recorder.

4.  The Final Reckoning
Byomkesh finally summons all the colony suspects to the police office for a climactic meeting.  His analytical mind is still searching for a criminal motive that would explain the three remaining mysteries.  After presenting to the assembled gathering the evidence he has collected that conflicts with some of the testimony of the suspects, he finally elicits a confession from the woman who was the real Sunayana (she was one of the four suspects I listed above).  Her confession leads to the unraveling of the mysteries and the true identity of the one man responsible for the murders of all three victims – Morari, Sen, and Panugopal.


As can be seen, the story of The Zoo is quite complicated, even for the usual ratiocination-filled detective story.  Given the need for unraveling four intermingled mysteries involving a host of suspicious characters (most of the people in “the zoo”), it was perhaps inevitable that the result would be a film that is a bit too talky.  Nevertheless, Ray and his cinematographer, Soumendu Roy, do their best to make things visually interesting, with a number of atmospheric evening scenes and extended tracking shots.  In the end what we have is an interesting but minor work in Satyajit Ray’s illustrious oeuvre.
★★ 

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 291-92.