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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2006


The difference between men and women transcends clichés and simplistic psychobabble. It surpasses planetary platitudes to Venus and Mars and hormonally charged cheats to spell out a specific, basic diversity. If you want to believe all the bullshit, the X and Y chromosomes have never seen gene to gene, and a battle royale of the sexes has existed as long as there’s been biological gender. The conflict between the reproductive roundelays exists as a perceived never-ending engagement between emotion and detachment, machismo and tenderness.


Even under today’s enlightened code, the sapien of the species is supposed to be programmed to hunt and gather, fight and conquer. Under this Neanderthal new deal, the so-called weaker sex is predestined to bear the children, nurture their needs, and serve the warrior in whatever way he wants. But somewhere in the social firmament, an agenda-based movement was started, a faction to finally free the female, to make equality and parity a priority, no matter the sexual category. For the most part, it has half-worked. We have elevated the woman to the status of a strident know-it-all, the best bet for figuring out the glass ceiling corporate scheme and making sure our kids are raised right and barely irregular. In the new millennium, the female has been stripped of her physical identity, fostered by a non-stop diet of deception and expectation to become both dominant and submissive, mother and father. But decades before, it felt like women could actually overcome, that they could defeat the male monster of the id and run the world better.


3 Women is this feminist pre-manifesto deconstructed. It’s the notion of femininity diagrammed and dissected. It’s the final act of the paternalistic society’s stage play as the good old boy network is swept back into the primordial ooze and the non-objectified superwoman takes control of the political climate. It’s a film as figment, a fractured mirror on the caregiver and the careless. It’s magnificent. It’s frustrating. And it’s one of the best movies of the 1970s.


Millie Lammoreaux works in a geriatric spa in the desert of California. One day, she is asked to train a new girl, a childish imp named Pinky Rose. Among her co-workers, Millie is a vacuum, an empty space where no one dares tread, but Pinky finds the mannered gal fascinating. She even begins to emulate her. When Millie’s old roommate moves out, Pinky takes her place and soon, she and Millie are inseparable. Millie brags about the boyfriends she has (which don’t exist) and her skills as a cook (which are questionable at best). Pinky just absorbs it all, drinking in the dry, droning personality. Millie takes Pinky to her favorite drinking spot, an off-road tavern built around a ghost town theme called Dodge City owned by Willie and Edgar Hart. They also own the gals’ apartment complex, the Purple Sage. Willie is an artist. She paints strangely erotic alien murals. Edgar is an ex-stuntman who hides his machismo behind a roguish rummy’s grin. Willie is pregnant with their first child.


Millie soon realizes that Pinky is becoming far too much like her. She feels her life disintegrating and her identity slipping away. When a planned dinner party for friends falls apart, Millie hits the town, looking for excitement. When she comes home with her far too familiar “date,” it drives a wedge between her and Pinky that results in a near-tragedy. The resulting psychological fallout from the event leads to personality and paradigm shifts, with roles reversed and even lost. Another tragic event leads to a final resolution between Willie, Millie, and Pinky. It is these 3 Women who must reclaim the nature of the female, to save it from being constantly eroded away by everyone around them.


Without a doubt no single director better represented the auteur nature of the experimental 1970s better than Robert Altman. His string of important, groundbreaking motion pictures, beginning with 1970’s M*A*S*H up and through 1978’s A Wedding marked a streak of stellar innovative directorial romps, each one testing the cinematic limits of audio, visual, storytelling, and acting. Altman believed in himself first, his images second, and the actors third. If the first three things gelled, then the narrative and the audience would take care of themselves. His technique revolved around seeing life unaffected through a totally stylized, myopic view. He allowed dialogue to overlap and disappear, letting the viewer fill in the blanks and overhear only what was necessary in order to secure his point. He never let subject matter unnerve him and treated all issues, from war to love and back again, as if they were composed of the same emotional sentiment (and usually, he was right).


Somewhere in the early ‘80s, after the misunderstood Popeye suggested he had lost his way, Hollywood and the creative community gave up on Altman, figuring that his impressionist mantle was usurped by such strong, dreamscape directors as David Lynch and—recently—Paul Thomas Anderson. But Altman is to American movies what Fellini was to Italy or Kurosawa was to Japan. He took the typical Tinsel Town language for film and retranslated the text, breaking down barriers where need be and reinventing the jargon whenever it was required. Movies would not be what they are today without the idioms imagined by Robert Altman. He remains a truly monumental figure.


That is why 3 Women is worth celebrating. It represents Altman’s ultimate interior masterpiece (it can be argued that both M*A*S*H and Nashville have bigger scopes to scrutinize). It is a magnificent mixture of reality and fantasy fashioned into what in the end looks like an attempt at a modern mythology made out of the snippets of sense memory. Based in a personal dream that Altman once had and liquid in its tone poem parameters, it’s a film that suggests just the slightest amount of story, but manages to create an entire eerie universe out of visuals, location, and intention. It contains perhaps two of the best performances ever given by actresses on film and manages the Herculean task of turning the deserts of Southern California into an oasis of unfulfilled dreams and lonely lost souls. 3 Women is all about the process of dignity development, of discovering who you are and what you represent within the natural order. It moves beyond its simple men versus women, us versus them philosophy to paint a portrait of humanity as a work in progress. As the tagline (taken from a French movie poster) suggests, it’s the saga of how one woman entered into the life of two others and found a facet that eventually connected them all. The way in which this intermingling is accomplished, though, leads to questions of sanity vanquished and innocence vanished.


On the most basic of levels, 3 Women is a movie about personality theft. It’s the story of how an unfinished female named Pinky enters into and subsumes the life of a lonely medical assistant named Millie. Millie is also an empty entity crafted out of advertising and social stigma. She is formed out of fashion magazines, educated by articles she reads in the beauty parlor periodicals, and is living a life in which all homes and gardens are better and her housekeeping incurs a seal of goodness. Yet she is all but invisible to those around her. She is ignored and mocked—never to her fragile face, but behind her ever-bending back—and yet feels utterly connected to the individuals around her. When Pinky walks in, she is childhood and brattiness personified. She disregards the rules and shirks her responsibilities. To this wayward woman-child, the world is a playground and everything’s a toy, including Millie’s existence. Thus begins the slyest of plans: the gradual takeover of Millie’s quintessence, of her knowledge of processed foods and quick kitchen shortcuts. Pinky wants to take all the hopes, the dreams, and the designs that this isolated social butterfly has fixed for herself and swipe them, using them to create the soul she is sorely lacking. How this psyche stealing occurs and the backlash that results from it are at the core of 3 Women‘s plot.


There are other elements of individuality at play here, issues hinted at by Altman in his treatment of the ancillary characters. We meet a set of twins and learn how their identities are as different as their outer shells are so very much the same. The façade plagued singles scene is also explored, with the swinging residents of Millie’s homestead, the Purple Sage Apartments, reduced to nothing more than players in an arcane alcohol or beer ad. All the men have one-syllable names like Tom or Dave, suggesting the one-night stand nature of their being. The woman are interchangeable and unimportant, more like arm candy than actual paramours. And then there are the elderly, those exiled members of society shipped off to homes and spas to pass away their final days out of sight of the young. These non-descript collections of wrinkles and memories are either dismissed outright (Pinky’s aged parents attend to her when she is in need, and she claims they are imposters) or ordered around like inventory in life’s holding dock. All Millie’s potential dates are unremarkable, assembly line residents at a local hospital, indistinct doctors who hit on her when they sense she is vulnerable (and easy), and the carbon copy crowd down at Dodge City, who shoot, either a gun or the bull, as a means of making a small connection to the “dudes” around them. Indeed, men are the litter along the landscape in 3 Women‘s wonderland of women. They represent a necessary evil, something that society says each lady should strive for. But they rarely appear to be worth the effort, and oft times become more expendable than dependable.


On a deeper, more monumental level, 3 Women is the representation of a new mythology for the female, a reinvention of the traditional Greek design with all its classical internal elements accumulated and acclimated for the new world order. Plainly stated, Millie is our hero, our wide-eyed fool who has lived with all the aspects of her life neatly arranged and organized. There have been no real experiences except those that she’s read in magazines or heard about on television. Into that ordered and sheltered void comes Pinky, a temptress, a disrupting force of naughty nature looking for a victim for her mental vampirism. She plans on stealing Millie away from herself, as both a suggested and actual detachment for her current existence. For Millie, paradise is Dodge City, a garden of earthly delights draped in men and meaning. Within this exterior ecstasy of exhibitionism lives Willie, the mentor, the driving force for femininity in reservation. She offers both a goal and a warning for Millie, a chance to see what she could become, both for her benefit and detriment. Lingering around this playground for unrequited passions is the beast, Edgar: violator, instigator, and unapologetic ruiner of all around him. Throughout the various locations for this interpersonal quest are mandalas, murals to spiritual anarchy and role-playing redolence that serve as an omen for the shape of things to possibly come. It is up to Millie to weed through the temptations and the tribulations, to experience the suffering and the sanctuary to come out clean and reborn on the other side. Her saga, her epic poem of personal growth and acceptance, is the new legend Altman is making.


He is also rescaling the family dynamic for a new culture based in divorce and nuclear unit dissolution. Millie needs to find her place in this scattershot hierarchy, to move beyond the marketing suggestions for career gal glory and discover what her actual life is all about. Pinky just wants to be Millie, and when she can’t accept the unexpected responsibility, she reverts further to a state of near womb-like regression—even attempting a return to its watery depths. Willie just wants to be a mother, to validate her socially mandated place as a mature married woman. The agonizing act of birth, an incident that changes all 3 Women forever, underlines the beginnings of what would become the eventual youth coup of all communal ideals. We no longer live in a world where adults dictate the rights and duties owed and won. Instead, parents hoping to protect their offspring mandate the limits to freedom and liberty for all. Without a child to certify Willie’s place—artistic ability being totally unimportant—the trio of ladies need to reconfigure their formation, to link into each other and form a new kind of reciprocal relationship. So when the ending reveals the final design these females have constructed, we at last understand our current state of anxious affairs. They become like Shakespeare’s weird sisters in Macbeth, or the Fates from Greek folklore. They are predicting the path that many will soon follow while weaving their own life strand. Their lasting configuration is one being created by Clotho/Millie, shaped by an optimistic infant named Lachesis/Pinky, and controlled and ended by the final word of wisdom, Atropos/Willie.


Yet there are other elements of the fairy tale, symbols and icons that reveal the truth inside this sometimes surreal character study. Altman’s use of visual representations is legendary, but nowhere is it more prominent than in 3 Women. Water is a major thematic image in 3 Women; it’s tide turning, cleansing, life giving, and essence drowning properties are present in almost every single frame. Millie and Pinky work for a geriatric home where mineral springs provide the majority of the medicinal healing. Willie uses the bottom of swimming pools—both abandoned and active—as the canvases for her freaked out mosaics. Pinky meets one of her two Fates at the hands of a body of liquid. And all the women are finally bonded by an event that starts with the breaking of water and utilizes the liquid to protect and surround a prenatal life.


It requires acting of a rare and dazzling tenure to make all these implied personalities and personas come to life, and Altman finds an amazing cast to carry it with breathtaking grace. Shelley Duvall has never given a better performance than she does here, managing the magnificent feat of turning the jabberbox joke Millie into a truly remarkable heroine. In this pitch perfect turn, Duvall plays the pattering misfit with no internal monologue in a strangely involving and sympathetic manner. She personifies the outcast so well that you instantly connect with her cockeyed attitude and suffer the setbacks and insults right along with her. Sissy Spacek is so shockingly benign in her portrait of a manipulative demon that she transfixes you every time she is on screen. Pinky goes through the biggest personality arc in the film, and yet Spacek never makes the psyche shifting obvious or overt. She merely “becomes” someone new, assuming the identity that she so desperately lacks. And then there is Janice Rule, a trained New York stage actress, essaying the complicated and mostly silent role of Willie Hart, the haunted, melancholic artist. Married to a man who is now a stranger to her and compelled to paint murals of tortured sexual beings in jackboot tableaus, hers is a performance of the eyes and the posture. Rule’s Willie seems to be encumbered with the weight of all women on her shoulders, full to bursting with the hopes of all mothers-to-be. Through this absolutely staggering performance, Rule finds a way to show knowing and naïveté, familiarity and foreignness in almost every move.


And they have all come to take their place in Robert Altman’s cinematic masterwork. 3 Women is his living art. Altman uses his camera as a paintbrush, his performers as his oils, and the desert as his canvas to blend and smudge and spackle together a work that transcends its elements to mimic the greatest of great works. Altman’s direction can be mannered and manipulative at times, but here he seems completely liberated and fluid, moving his mysterious motion picture along on his skill with tone and his ability to engage. Like David Lynch, who explored his own split personality parameters in the equally evocative Lost Highway, this is the closest Altman’s ever come to capturing a dream on film, and the results are spellbinding. 3 Women is a lost treasure from the 1970s, as important in the oeuvre of auteur theory as Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. It represents the pinnacle of American moviemaking, the opportunity to see a unique voice functioning well within his aesthetic capabilities while exploring new areas of motion picture nuance. From its tiny moments of observed excellence to the purposefully opaque fantasy sequences and shot selection, 3 Women is a classic of monumental proportions, a timeless elegy to the moment where women stopped being victims or chattel and reclaimed their femininity for the whole world to witness. 3 Women is one of the rare films that completely understands the concept of womanhood—from cradle to grave, from child to child bearer. How a man of many craftsman colors could conceive of such a stoic statement is unbelievable. 3 Women is the new myth, the starting point for the legend of gender relations. And it’s a perfect example of what makes movies so magical


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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2006


“The sun shines forever through a child’s eyes…”
—Bananarama


What, exactly, is innocence? Granted, it literally means the freedom from guilt or, on a far more metaphysical level, the freedom from culpable consideration, but what, in the actual realm of the real world, does innocence actually propose? We should really consider its consequences before showering it on individuals who either don’t deserve it or can’t appreciate its potential. Consider children. We look at their fresh-faced, wide-eyed stares, their quick-witted curiosity and unfiltered honesty, and instantly recognize them as innocent. Yet what exactly are we absolving them of? As with all humans, experience begins to mold us from the moment we draw cognizance and every action, every emotion, every triumph, and every defeat chip away at our raw, unformed mantle. By a still-tender age we have personality traits in place, fears and loathing almost locked in, and philosophies and flaws already forming. All that’s required is a single step, a catalytic individual or incident that forever closes the gate on purity, tipping the scales toward perception and maturity.


For young Ana, that event is a screening of Frankenstein in her small Spanish town. Instantly captivated by the monster and its interaction with a young child, this impressionable six-year-old suddenly sees the world in a much darker, more definitive manner. For adults, it’s just a troubling scene in a Hollywood horror movie, but in the mind of a so-called innocent, it’s the fuel to light a thousand inner fires. In many significant ways, that singular moment will transform Ana. She will no longer be just a little girl. Instead, she will become The Spirit of the Beehive—the closed-off environment which is her harried home life.


Suddenly obsessed with death, the concept of spirits, and the ability to control both, she asks her sister how she can contact the creature she’s just seen. As luck would have it, Isabel claims to know where it lives. In an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a dried-up and desolate field, Isabel claims she’s spoken to the “spirit.” Ana is quickly consumed with the place, visiting it often, constantly on the lookout for her fiend. Then one day, she discovers someone. It’s a moment that will have a profound effect on her life, her family, and her town. It will break the beehive-like isolation everyone experiences, while simultaneously rebuilding the barriers created by the country’s newfound flirtation with fascism.


If one had to sum up Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive in one single sentiment, it would probably go something like this—the moment in every child’s mind when naiveté turns to knowing. Perhaps a better way of explaining it is as maturity’s first exploratory steps into the juvenile arena. It’s imagination giving way to certainty, possibility undermined by actuality. Combining memories from childhood, the grave ghost of the Spanish Civil War, the ferocious growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive is like a young girl’s diary dissected and displayed for all to see. It plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction after years of domestic struggle. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood, from learning how the body works via a classroom effigy, to the discovery of the distinction between reality and filmed fantasy. Told completely through the eyes of, and the available information within, our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. It sometimes swirls in place like a whirlpool, while in other instances it seeks out and fills in the smallest of creative crevices. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.


Therefore this is not an instantly “likeable” film. Erice’s use of this very confusing format almost destroys his narrative. Purposefully making sure that no element is officially explained, he lets scenes sputter, focusing away from the action at times, and allows tone to take over where exposition should be. The result is like scanning a watercolor for plot points or listening to the sound of a faraway train for clarifying character description. Beehive is actually more of a painting than a motion picture, a collection of carefully controlled canvases that, when linked together, reveal a submerged storyline full of vexing visual ideas and mixed metaphoric messages. Audiences used to being spoonfed their filmic information will languish behind as Erice continuously forges forward. He is disinterested in clarity and could care less if you understand his undertaking.


For him this is a personal proclamation, an attempt to recapture the country that was taken away from him by war, corruption, and despotism. Staying strictly within the perception of a child and never once allowing adult ideology or inferences to influence the tale, the directorial decisiveness on display here is overwhelming in its arrogance and power. Shots of our little leading ladies miniaturized against a vast, vacant landscape shores up the symbolism of isolation and disconnect, but there is more to such a vista than loneliness. It’s actually a true-to-life look at how people interact with the planet and how humans are frequently humbled by the natural elements around them.


Frankly, Erice could deliver two hours of such astounding pictorials and we would happily drink in each and every one. The Spirit of the Beehive wants to get you drunk of such optical wonders, preparing us for the more troubling elements to be delivered. If explained, the struggles of the individuals in this film would be not so much simplistic as readily recognizable. The father, Fernando, is trying to design a better beehive, so to speak, creating a glass honeycomb with clockwork agitation that’s supposed to stimulate production. Instead, it seems to turn the insects into an angrier, less effective swarm. The link to the authoritarian state is obvious, but Erice is subtle enough to leave the comparison purposefully open-ended. Similarly, Teresa the mother has her secret desires and usual attributes as well. Writing letters of devotion to men off at war, turning the heads of every gentleman she passes, there are hints of adultery, dissatisfaction, and wanderlust in her sad, sullen eyes. We can see that she loves her children (there is a sweet scene between herself and Ana that speaks volumes), but spends relatively little time with them. In fact, she’s a guardian in name only. Neither she nor her husband are ever around when the girls need guidance or affection. Instead, these children are left to fend for themselves and each other. Naturally, such internalization leads to longing, curiosity, and the need for satisfaction.


As for our leads, Ana and Isabel represent the two-pronged approach to discovery that most children typically mix and match. Though she initially seems like the far more levelheaded and learned child, Isabel is actually starting to toughen. Life without her parents has piqued her interest in subjects like life, death, fear, and control. She enjoys terrorizing her little sister, faking a fall or filling her head with pre-bedtime bad thoughts. There is one scene in particular between the child and her pet cat that sums up the situation perfectly. Though we love to call children complete innocents, the truth is that they are nothing but pure learning machines. Psychologists tell us that personality and proclivity are determined through a constant process of learning and rewarding. We experiment with ideas and actions, gauging the feedback and using said data as the mortar for our very makeup. In this case, Isabel pushes the limits of cruelty to see how she responds to such a situation. It’s shocking, but not all that surprising. She’s testing, using trials and their corollaries to guide her future decisions. In the end, Isabel becomes the forgotten child, left to her own occasionally wicked whims and bereft of the importance within the family that Ana will have. Unlike her little sister, she’s by now developed her personal patterns and very little can change her already-forming future.


Ana, on the other hand, is the movie’s main concern. Erice obviously understands how vital she is, since he constantly focuses on actress Ana Torrent’s amazing five-year-old face. Wise beyond its years, wearing epochs of emotion where none should technically exist, Torrent becomes very important as a tool for this filmmaker. Since he is unwavering in making sure that his narrative is realized through the eyes and perception of a child, he needs the perfect juvenile filter. Torrent is that flawless facet. She gives a performance so striking, so lost in complete belief in the subject matter and storyline that it’s almost documentary-like in its realism. Ana’s reaction to Frankenstein is the film’s key conceit—her discovery of death, the link between childhood and loss, and the overwhelming desire to make a similarly-styled connection calls forth all manner of mysterious elements. It raises questions as callous as why would this child need to know mortality this soon in life? What has happened around her to pique such interest? Is she genuinely questioning, or just caught up in a psychological cyclone that’s leading her down a too-dark path? Watching Erice suggestively address each and every issue is one of Beehive‘s many masterful delights. In fact, the overall effect is like the manufacturing of a masterpiece directly into the mind’s eye.


Erice received a great deal of praise for this film and it is easy to see why. Many moviemakers don’t purposely play with perspective, eliminate necessary dialogue, or keep the content clearly limited to that available to a single set of characters. Such restrictions would otherwise hobble a skillful cinematic exploration. But Erice is clearly an artist, able to draw out meaning from the most mundane of images. Something as stereotypical as children playing with fire takes on portents of ominous evil in this director’s approach to such a sequence. Similarly, Isabel’s supposed fall is extended and explored in such a manner as to constantly build both suspense and suspicion. From village streets that look decades removed from life or living to a constant honey-colored cloud that hovers over everything that happens, the use of specific visual cues and obvious signs (the honeycomb-stained glass that covers every window in the girl’s home) draw us purposefully into the world of The Spirit of the Beehive. Thanks to the performances and plot particulars, we are more than happy to settle in and stay. Some may view Erice’s efforts as slightly indulgent, as purposefully perplexing as his fellow Spanish cinematic icon Luis Buñuel. Yet unlike said satiric surrealist, Erice is concerned with the nuances and necessities of narrative. He is out to tell a story, not just pretty up the screen with strange, evocative images.


That’s why one needs a little preparation before taking on The Spirit of the Beehive. If you realize that what you are about to witness is a clever, considered look at how children see the world, process its problems, and respond to its challenges, you’ll quickly sync up with the story and become entranced. This is not a movie you can fight. You can’t pigeonhole it into some manner of recognizable Hollywood archetype. It unravels at a luxuriant, leisurely pace, slowly divulging its secrets and its statements. Though made in the early ‘70s, there is also something startlingly contemporary in the filmmaking. It’s experimental but emotion-driven, David Lynch-like in its approach to visual juxtaposition but more like a fairytale than a harrowing history lesson (the movie actually starts with the words, “Once upon a time…”). Like another classic Spanish artist—the amazing master Pablo Picasso—Victor Erice has delivered a stunning study of youth caged and corrupted in a manner unlike any other individual working within his medium. The Spirit of the Beehive is a remarkable look at the most important time in the life of a child. We all have those moments where existence starts to click over the tumblers toward adulthood. While we can’t hold them off forever, we can remember what it was like prior to their detection. The Spirit of the Beehive provides such a signature souvenir. It is a work of staggering genius.


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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006


Love at first sight is such a frightening concept. The notion that, without warning, your emotional circuits could fire all at once, sending you off into sentimental fits so profound that you may never recover from them, is chilling. Some can mistake lust for love, or physical attraction for something far more ephemeral, but when a single glance creates infinite adoration, the possibilities are endless—and so are the potential problems. For you see, love is not an easy emotion. It does not translate well, nor does it affect every person the same exact way. We can try to allude to universal opinions, but the truth is that love means different things to different people. Passion may seem boundless, but everyone has their own set of borders. Crossing over into it can be the best—or the worst—thing that ever happens to you.


Like an elegy to the emotion it best exemplifies, Le Notti Bianche is a tender, bittersweet slice of unbridled radiance, an ode to the concept of the instant connection, and a prayer for a preference of the present over the past. Though it only deals with three main characters, it speaks for all individuals caught up in the perplexing feelings of devotion and attraction. It’s a visual representation of complicated thoughts forced into an ethereal, enchanted world. Italian master Luchino Visconti creates a lilting lullaby, a gentle breeze of a movie that wafts over your soul like a sudden zephyr on a hot summer day. Though taking place mostly at night, this is the bright side of love at first sight. Sadly, like clockwork, every evening brings the harshness of day. Just like any emotion, the brilliance of love can—and does—bring about the gloom of unsatisfied desire.


While strolling the streets of a Venice-like city late one night, Mario (Marcello Mastrioanni) runs into a sad and weeping woman named Natalia (Maria Schell). Instantly taken with her charms, he asks if he can escort her home. Reluctantly, she agrees. Over the next several nights, the couple meets—sometimes purposefully, other times by happenstance—and they soon begin to connect. Mario asks Natalia why she seems so sad all the time, and she tells a long, involved story about her present home life.


Her grandma is a near-invalid who repairs rugs for a living. She also takes in boarders to help pay the bills. Natalia helps her grandmother, as she is the last remnant of the old woman’s family (Natalia’s mother and father ran off years ago). She also feels trapped in her surroundings. But that is not what makes her unhappy. One day, a strange Tenant (Jean Marais) arrived at Natalia’s house looking for a room. The young girl, seeing the startlingly attractive older man, fell madly in love with him, and an unspoken affection began. Soon, the Tenant claimed devotion to Natalia, and the young woman, seeing a possible way out of her subservient life, clings to the hope that they will be together. Out of the blue, however, the Tenant announced that he must leave; he is in a lot of trouble and has agreed to go away for a year. The couple then makes a pact—if they still feel the same for each other a year from now, they will meet along the back-alley bridges of the city, where they will rekindle their bond. It has been over a year now, and Natalia has been back every night. That is why she is upset. She has kept her word, but the Tenant has yet to show.


This information complicates things. Mario wants Natalia all for himself. While she likes this new man, Natalia still sees the Tenant as the answer to her prayers. Mario will continue his pursuit, but Natalia will not let go of the past.


Le Notti Bianche is a tragedy. It’s the story of love unrequited and incomplete, set within the shadows of a gloriously gloomy locale. The dreamscape backdrop may suggest a sort of unkind fairy tale, a dour fable without a happily ever after, but the truth is a little more complex. This is myth masquerading as mystery, an enigmatic movie that reveals its layers in slow, deliberate stages. True, the main narrative thread is the poetic pursuit of a perfect, rhapsodic fidelity, but it is foolish to feel everyone in the film will find his or her own Prince/Princess Charming. At least one character seems settled at the end of the film, and the other two are prepared to live off the implications of that, if not forever, at least for the time being. The subject of the setback may seem novel, and the twisting of masculine/feminine roles may require a little getting used to, but Luchino Visconti—as he has done in several other sensational motion pictures—finds a way to shift and shape his story to fit the format of his feelings. Here, love is inscrutable and unobtainable, always interrupted by elements outside the lover’s control. So naturally, the setting should be surreal. Emotional barriers are a lot more transient than real ones.


The first thing you notice about this film is how inexplicably beautiful it is. Le Notti Bianche frequently resembles a series of sublime charcoal sketches come to life. Like walking through a divine gallery where, around every corner, a new masterpiece awaits, Visconti’s monochrome magnificence is heartbreaking. There are times in Le Notti Bianche when you don’t want the characters to move. The scenery is so stunning, so breathtaking in its interplay of shadow and light that you just want to sit there, drinking in the inherent drama and beauty until your unquenchable aesthetic overflows. It’s not just the places and the presence that is rapturous. Visconti employs three amazingly handsome actors—Marcello Mastroianni (looking better here than he did before, or ever will again), Maria Schell, and Jean Marais—and situates them as icons among the everyday people populating the city. As a result, our eye never wants to leave the characters. We want to experience their exquisiteness, and contrast their fantasy facade against the reality that surrounds them.


This juxtaposition is important, because it helps to emphasize the theme of isolation and loneliness in the film. Visconti wants his characters to be different and distinct, the better to keep them locked in their own often-oppressive world. Mario is a loner, a man who ran from home, kicked about the country, joined the military, got a job, and basically fends for himself. As the movie begins, he’s only just arrived in this vision of Venice, and it’s a daunting and intimidating locale. He is a stranger in a strange land, lost in his thoughts and sticking to certain areas to satisfy his casual curiosity. This is perhaps why he is so struck by Natalia. Aside from being lured by her looks, he senses her remoteness, her connection to something that is making her sad, and it stirs inside him intense, familiar emotions. The reason we buy the love at first sight angle of this film is that Visconti sets us up with characters who seem prepared—or at least predisposed—to such sudden emotional lightening bolts. Mario wants to care for Natalia the first time he sees her, just as Natalia wants to melt into the Tenant’s arms the minute she sees him. All three characters are lonely, not just alone. Such a shared personality trait brings the story’s triptych tendencies to the fore. This is not just a movie about Natalia and Mario. It’s a film about the Tenant as well, and what he means to the burgeoning couple.


It is interesting to note that, as melodramatic as the premise sounds, Visconti does not fill his film with histrionics. This is a movie about small moments, about the casual glance between hopeful lovers, the sharing of a word or the passing of the hour hand. Visconti avoids crowds at first. He wants his potential paramours to remain mysterious, distant, almost unapproachable. As their affection grows so do the number of people in the streets. In perhaps the most stunning sequence in the entire film, Mario attempts to avoid Natalia (he has his reasons) while strolling through a crowded market square. The press of people and the ever-present glances from other women seem to condemn the man, and Mastroianni orchestrates the sequence exceptionally well. Equally telling is a dance hall scene where Mastroianni thinks he’s won the battle for Natalia’s heart. As the music goes from classical to the slink and sexuality of late 50s rock (Bill Haley and the Comets kicker “13 Women (and Only One Man in Town)” is perfectly placed here), we sense the eventual consummation of the couple’s relationship. They dance with abandon and share a closeness that is almost stifling. Yet the minute Natalia hears it is after 10 p.m. (her ritualistic Tenant time), she completely changes.


Such a switch is at the core of Visconti’s vision. He wants to argue that love is not only blind, but cruel and calculating. Every character here suffers from sentimental shortsightedness. Mario believes he can win Natalia, Natalia thinks the Tenant will return, and the Tenant has either put all his faith in a fickle, unpredictable child, or has used his position of paternal power to turn the head of a naive young girl. No one is really focused on the big picture, of how their passions will play out over decades, not just days. Natalia never exhibits the kind of steadfast resolve we expect from someone convinced of their conviction. Instead, she constantly sways between mania and depression, giggling incessantly or weeping torrents. Mario wanders the streets in kind of a happy daze, never really illustrating his professed isolation. Sure, he seems to befriend anything in his path (including a hungry dog), but we never really feel that this minor man has a major problem. This is why the character of the Tenant is so important. He is a mirror and a blank slate, a way for both Mario and Natalia to project their own images of perfection. She sees him as love personified. He sees him as the mysterious object of an undying desire.


Visconti himself is also guilty of playing with our perceptions. He uses his backdrop deceptively, always hinting at unseen evil in the alleyways, untold vices going on in the barely perceptible shadows. As a filmmaker, he understands that the best fairy tales are crafted out of good and evil, not just straightforward virtue. There has to be a threat—a haunted woods, a wicked witch—to keep the fantasy definable. Visconti achieves this through his amazing visual work in the film. The night shots seem brighter than the day imagery. Crowded streets are claustrophobic and chaotic. Rain becomes a representation of the passion in the air, and a sudden snowfall in the final act seems to suggest a breakthrough in our lover’s lives. With the help of his excellent cast (Mastroianni is just superb) and controlled narrative desire, this is a movie that creeps up on you and steals away your subjectivity. When Le Notti Bianche starts, you want Mario and Natalia to find happiness. As the movie ends, you realize that such a goal was antithetical to what happiness really is.


Though there is a density to Visconti’s designs, Le Notti Bianche is not a deep movie. It is base and broad, a testament to the power of love and an indictment of the blindness in said bliss. It certainly functions like a fable since it appears to offer a sad, succinct moral to what, initially, appeared to be a typical boy-meets-girl panorama. Like that first great obsession that you never quite got over, or that intense emotional pull you experienced from someone who is now no longer part of your life, Visconti wants to exemplify the yin of pain to affection’s extreme yang. For every white night (the movie’s title translation), there’s a dark day, either of location or of spirit. Funny thing is, there is no difference between the two states of being. Both exist within the core concept of love. There is no happiness without sadness to signify the difference—and vice versa. For Mario and Natalia, they see salvation in the arms of another. For both Mario and Natalia, what they want may not be the best thing for them after all. That is the lure of love, and the problems of falling into it at first sight. That is also the message of Visconti’s moving visual feast.


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Tuesday, Nov 7, 2006


There is a grand distinction between being antisocial and being insane. One does not necessarily follow from the other, and people who are psychotic often have their tendencies misdiagnosed as against society when they are really anti-everything. No, people who prefer their own company have reasons for the self-imposed exile, most of them very private and very prickly. They tend to see themselves as isolated, islands in a large sea of dissimilar personalities. Such a sense becomes a barrier, a constantly refortified buttress that must be maintained and rebuilt whenever anyone attempts to break through it. With each advance and repair comes psychological scar tissue, formed from the anxiety of interaction and the tranquility of evasion. It’s no more Pavlovian than that—people cause stress, the lack of same causes peace. As we are creatures of comfort by nature, the tendency toward unfriendliness is not unexpected. It is just not a state of being we usually relish.


But for those with a delicate artistic temperament, for anyone who has ever felt stigmatized or marginalized because they were different—physically or socially, for people who perceive the world as a great big playground that they are not allowed to enter, a desire to alienate and retreat from the human condition is part of the process. It’s art’s mandate. It’s emotion’s missive. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be far from the maddening crowd, or lost in a world of your own devising and design. It’s when the outside realm not longer has meaning, when the brain confuses fantasy with fulfillment that problems occur. For the painfully shy Janet “Jean” Frame, a poverty-stricken existence on the outer edge of New Zealand was already about as removed from civilization as one could get. But with her wholly introverted manner and lack of interpersonal skills, tragedy and truth ganged up on her, leaving her vulnerable and violated. She would be hounded by claims of mental illness all her life, even hospitalized for it. But she always had a savior, a guardian at her side. As Jane Campion shows in her amazing film from 1989, Frame had writing. Her love of language and the written word saved her. It was an angel at her table.


Janet “Jean” Frame was the miserable middle child in a household constantly falling into financial ruin. Her father worked for the New Zealand railroads, and her mother was a mighty matron trying to raise four girls (Janet—or Jean—was one) and an epileptic son. As she grew, Jean’s childhood was a series of isolated instances: making and breaking friendships, scolding and holding blames. By the time she reached adolescence, she was socially stunted and emotionally crippled. Tragedy seemed to be eroding her fragile psyche when she least expected or wanted it, and there was never any support, either from peers or parents.


Still, Jean loved to write. She worshipped poetry and found herself humbled by prose. She would spend hours poring over books and filling her journals with stanzas and skylarking. While away at teacher-training college, her mournful, saddening sonnets got the attention of the faculty. One thought she needed help, and it wasn’t long before Jean was a resident of Seacliff, one of the country’s most notorious mental hospitals. She spent eight years in asylums, receiving over 200 electro-shock treatments to “cure” her misdiagnosed schizophrenia. Again, it was her words that saved her. An administrator discovered that one of Jean’s short-story collections had been published, and was the winner of a prestigious award. She was soon back home, and well on her way to becoming one of New Zealand’s, and the world’s preeminent authors. Jean eventually chronicled her collapse in a trilogy of insightful memoirs—To the Is-Land, The Envoy from Mirror City, and An Angel at My Table.


It was Harlan Ellison who once said, and this is pure paraphrasing, that one of the most important parts of maturity is learning to understand the difference between being lonely, and being alone. When you learn to stop feeling lonely, and learn to enjoy being alone, you enter the realm of true wisdom and earn a key to that most misunderstood of realms known as adulthood. Why people panic about being alone is an interpersonal mystery of many facets. Sometimes, it’s the way one was raised that affects this emotion. Individuals who enjoy families filled with love, those blessed with best friends and a substantial social calendar may seem lost without a constant stream of humanity humming about them. Others whom like the connection between people and places may appear alarmed when not surrounded by the pulsing and pushing of life. But when you can be by yourself, and not feel frightened or fidgety, that is a sign of development. It is an acknowledgment of individual mortality. It is recognition of personal worth.


Besides, being alone has its benefits. It is the catalyst for self discovery, and a way of learning about preferences and proclivities. We uncover much more about our own way of being when we are by ourselves than any amount of interaction with siblings or confidants. It’s like looking in a metaphysical mirror, and trying to see what’s beneath the forced facade of communal dictations and cultural signs. That journey, and the eventual discovery of the hidden human treasure inside, is one of the great voyages anyone can ever go on. Being lonely has its side effects as well. Alienation and isolation can come calling as companions to the state of longing, and without immediate gratification or the promise of a people fix, the addiction drives deeper and hurts harder. Soon, the need for another person becomes a plague, a tiny tendril of fear that eventually rages like a fever all over the body. Thoughts then become muddled, motives foggy and shrouded.


In Jane Campion’s moving and magical biography of New Zealand author Janet “Jean” Frame, we witness the cinematic expedition of one woman’s shift from painful loneliness to acceptable solitude. It’s a tragic tale of missed opportunities, lost loves, and many misconceptions. Frame found solace in writing, but it would not be an easy notebook to navigate. Throughout her growing years, Frame was an outcast, a lower-class bumpkin with an unruly mop of iconic red hair. Yet what we learn is that, once she understood that being different was all right, that there was nothing so terribly wrong about losing oneself in words and sentences, Frame found her own inner peace. That is why An Angel at My Table is such an epic undertaking. It moves from the miniature to the major, from a celebration of solitude to a statement about those wide-open personal spaces, both external and internal. Based on Frame’s own autobiographical trilogy and conceived for New Zealand television as a three-part miniseries, Campion reconfigured the long-form feature for a big screen release. And the results are resplendent.


This is indeed a movie in movements. Since it was conceived in segments, it is easy to view Campion’s command of the cinematic language in each and every phase. “To the Is-Land” is childhood as impressionism and rose-colored romanticizing. There is no real linear narrative in Part 1 of Frame’s life, just a series of shots and a collection of moments that begin to paint her person in broad, bravado strokes. We see Frame as a baby, wandering the overly green grasses of New Zealand’s farmland. Later, a more mature child walks down a long, lonely highway by herself, inner monologue working overtime about her outsider status among the community. Right from the start, Campion is emphasizing isolation. The young actress essaying the role of Frame is practically lost in the vastness of an opalescent Kiwi horizon. More parts are painted in—happiness and heartache, with everything being set up for the second section of the story.


“An Angel at My Table” shifts the focus to Frame’s college years, and does a more normative job of highlighting the girl’s tragic tale. The main focus here is Frame’s horrifying hospitalization. While avoiding Snake Pit-like proselytizing, we instantly recognize the indignity of placing a shy but talented girl who really only needs some attention and a kind hand into the barbaric restraints of the New Zealand mental health system. Seacliff is the most notorious of them all, a squalid place that we first view when a young Jean sees the city’s train station from a coach window. There, she witnesses the castoff mentality of the nation’s citizens as “loonies” wander freely, frightened and fighting their own angst-ridden demons. She immediately understands the reputation derived from a stay at such a place. Unfortunately, Frame stays for almost eight years. Campion depicts the passage of time in tableaus of decreasing conditions. The beginning phases are seen as almost tranquil. But by the end, Frame is in fear for her mental life.


Many may wonder why this sequence is not the heart of An Angel at My Table‘s story. After all, the horrors of the psychology industry are at the heart of many melodramatic movies. Yet this is not really what Campion wants to discuss. Certainly, Frame’s stay is important, but it is more empowering than entrapping. Prior to her commitment, Jean is seen as scattered and unskilled. She wants to be a writer, but can’t find the way to make anyone understand it. When she has her first breakdown (during a teacher’s evaluation), it’s a sign. It’s her mind telling her to quit this mundane masquerade and get on with the art. So Campion is out to show how the written word saved Frame’s life—and indeed it does. It is her prose that frees her from the institution. It is her poetry that questions the diagnosis of intellectual dysfunction. Once “cured” by the love of language, Frame simply has to find her place in the world. Once again, writing would come to the rescue.


“The Envoy from Mirror City,” the last act in the story, differs dramatically from the other sections in Campion’s film in many ways. Parts 1 and 2 take place over years, time having no meaning or place within the main narrative drive. Events are used as accents, highpoints in an overall personality profile. But by the time we reach Frame in her late 20s, she has already suffered through death and defeat, experiencing a hundred lifetimes in the unruly one she’s been given. So Campion concentrates on a single section of Frame’s later story—a fabled trip to Europe and, most specifically, Spain. It is during this holiday from hopelessness that Frame finally grows up. She experiences responsibility and rejection. She looks for love and finds it. Sex shows up and divulges its secrets. And Frame finally discovers that there is more to life than writing. Throughout the final phases of the story, we see her happy and content—or at least as happy and content as she can be—and we realize that somewhere inside her is the capability of solace without language. Luckily, at the end of her adventures, she has both to keep her sane.


This is why An Angel at My Table is unlike any biography you will ever see. Part character study, part carefully crafted human sketchpad, we are prompted to view our heroine from the inside out, not the circumstances in. Indeed, Frame’s life—aside from her stay in the asylum—plays out like most notable stories of growing up. Sure, this little girl ages to be a published author, but there is a significant lack of skeletons and scandal in her closet. The most iconic element about Frame, and something Campion uses consistently as counterpoint, is her brazen bush of hair. Flaming red as if her mind is constantly alight with fires of inspiration and anxiety, this girl is a body under a halo of follicle happenstance. There is one amazing shot, after the bomb has been dropped on Pearl Harbor, where a pre-hospitalization Frame goes walking away from a group of friends. As the camera stays put, we see her silhouette fade off into the distant. Once it loses its human form, the image becomes symbolic. Frame appears as an object with a large, domineering dome situated on its apex. It marks her as a woman with a head loaded with ideas and talent. It also argues for an unfortunate whose psyche is about to burst.


Another reason An Angel at My Table is so unusual is that it has the feeling of a fairy tale, of a story unstuck in real time. Though world events touch this tiny part of New Zealand, the Frame family appears lodged at the literal fringes of existence. Campion paints her native country in as many mesmerizing strokes as fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson would in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Within this realm of real magic, Campion places her characters, and allows them to interact with the landscape. There are dozens of shots of people set against the horizon, of fences climbing hills and livestock overrunning the land. This director seems to be saying that Frame’s story of growing up and maturing is almost in sync with the expansion of New Zealand’s national identity. Both are closed off and isolated universes. Both contain talents and terrors. Each has a rugged desire to endure, and both come out as survivors of a sort in the end. It is not easy to name another film that allows tranquility to so readily slip into fear as An Angel at My Table. New Zealand is still a wild and woolly environment during Frame’s childhood, much like the girl herself.


Of course, Campion requires more than just beautiful backdrops to make her points. She needs actors capable of transcendence, performers blessed with unbridled tenacity. Required to carry the majority of the movie on her back, Kerry Fox is fantastic as the adult version of Frame. Though the actresses playing her younger selves (Karen Ferguson as the childhood Jean, Alexia Keogh as the adolescent Frame) add equal amounts of depth to the portrayal, Fox is left with the most complicated part of our heroine. She must transport all the youthful issues locked up inside the various stages of her saga and let them flow across her in a constant stream of psychological unease. It helps tremendously that Fox has a perfectly fragile voice. When she speaks, in a low lilting tone, it’s like listening to lace disintegrate. As her doomed sisters, Melina Bernecker (as Myrtle) and Samantha Townsely (as the feisty and fiery Isabel) also leave lasting impressions. They argue for what a non-artistic Jean could have ended up being. They are girls of the game, promiscuous and proud, using their physicality and sexuality to crawl out from under the paucity around them. They can’t help their sad sibling just as she cannot save them. Everyone is doomed, yet An Angel at My Table also argues that, sometimes, we hold our own salvation in our hands.


Interestingly, this is not a feel-good fable. There is no major amount of emotional uplift at the end of this story, no five handkerchief histrionics where life is reaffirmed and melancholy mopped up. No, for Jean Frame, there is just a happy state of solemn eccentricity. Established now as an author and her own person, she lives alone in a caravan, existing in a kind of nominal no-man’s land where everything is calm and creative. She has the world when she wants (or needs it). The same goes for her writing. It is a credit to Campion that we don’t obsess over this idea. We see it for what it is—the natural result of Jean Frame’s arduous personal journey. It was hard to even doubt she would ever make it. After all, she had art to look after her, and there is no better angel at one’s table than talent.


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