Ludwig (1973)

Luchino Visconti | 3hr 58min

The final piece of Luchino Visconti’s thematic ‘German Trilogy’ speaks more directly to the nation’s true history than its largely fictitious predecessors, and in striving to chronicle such dense passages of monarchical politics, he also ends up with his longest film yet. Ludwig stands at an imposing four hours long, though quite astoundingly, its pacing never drags. The odd exception here is in those uninspired, documentary-like monologues delivered to the camera by various supporting players in King Ludwig II’s life, offering criticisms of his rule that would never otherwise be expressed freely in his royal court. This is a far stronger film when it is interrogating such dissent as an extension of its rigorous character study, targeting the strange mix of sexual insecurities, mental illnesses, and artistic obsessions which roil around in the Mad King’s troubled mind. Within the opulent palaces of 19th century Bavaria, he loses himself in the decadence of extreme wealth and fantastical dreams, and Visconti beautifully details it all in his exquisite, operatic staging.

With his angular eyebrows, sharp jawline, and bright blue eyes, Austrian actor Helmet Berger is a dashing fit for the role of the young King, who ascended to the throne at the age of 18. His sensitivity is revealed in his two great passions – the classical music of German composer Richard Wagner, who he seeks to relocate to Bavaria, and his charming cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whose affection he pursues. The first half of Ludwig is dominated by these storylines, manifesting as a pair of romanticised ideals that can never quite compete with the realities and pressures of being King.

Some splendid framing of close-ups, pouring over Berger’s dashing features as a young King Ludwig II.

Inside the royal halls of his reign, Visconti surrounds him with the sort of elaborate period designs that carry centuries of historical weight, precisely carved to the traditions of an empire renowned for its ravishing architecture, textiles, and décor. Colourful walls and large frescos often form ornate backdrops to the historical drama, which is blocked through meticulous arrangements extending deep into his compositions. In his vibrant office of embroidered seating and scarlet wallpaper, oil paintings hang in golden frames above its royal occupants, while elsewhere giant candelabras reach all the way up to the ceiling in a cavernous corridor. Softening the intensity of these painstakingly curated interiors are large, leafy plants, infusing otherwise contrived designs with a lush greenery not unlike that which Visconti used to similar effect in Death in Venice. It also helps that he shot many scenes on location at many of Ludwig’s actual castles, making the most of their authentic halls and exteriors as the settings for his dramatised historical account.

Highly-curated production design all through King Ludwig II’s German palaces, here matching the embroidered chairs, patterned wallpaper, and flourish of roses within the vibrant red palette.
Visconti also makes extensive use of shooting in the real palaces, composing his shots with patterns and perspectives.
Visconti also makes superb use of classical paintings within his shots, using them as backdrops and arranging them around the image.

Ludwig certainly relishes this extravagant living, and yet he possesses a dreamer’s mind that is detached from reality, preferring to shape his surroundings into wondrous fairy tale images. Upon the grounds of Linderhof Palace, he whisks himself away into a fantastical, artificial grotto that he built with the intent of staging operas, and in a wooden room that seems to be built around a tree, he hosts orgies with his servants. In his ideal world, Wagner would have unlimited funding to keep on composing music, though such lofty aspirations of enriching the minds of the people is not easily realised with the artist’s philandering and profiteering, eventually forcing Ludwig to send his friend home. Likewise, his love for Elisabeth is stifled by the expectations placed on him as a King to instead marry her sister, Sophie, which itself is further complicated by his repressed homosexual desires.

The fantastical worlds of Ludwig’s dreams, brought to life through his own mad ambition.

Unsurprisingly, many of Ludwig’s handpicked companions are men who, despite his Catholic guilt, arouse a romantic desire in him. Against a deep purple sunrise, Volk the waiter strips down and goes swimming in the lake, while Ludwig surreptitiously watches from behind reeds obstructing Visconti’s voyeuristic shots. When the servant is thrown out, presumably due to the King’s own inner torment, he is simply replaced with another who continues to inspire a guilty lust. Later in life, his hiring of actor Josef Kainz to follow him around and recite poetry to the point of exhaustion manifests this sensitive longing as an eccentric, poisonous obsession, which only worsens with his degrading mental state.

A gorgeous purple sunrise accompanying Ludwig’s lustful voyeurism.

This deterioration is a physical one as well, and Visconti’s stylistic choice to roam his camera around scenes with zoom lenses pays off particularly well when we begin moving into close-ups of Berger’s now-grotesque face. With his black teeth, unruly hair, and red-rimmed eyes, it is clear that all self-care has disappeared from his routine, while his pale skin bears the mark of his reclusiveness from the outside world. Berger conducts himself with obstinate hostility in many of these later scenes, furiously ranting against the Bavarian government who dare to commit treason against their King, and simultaneously digging his own grave with his unhinged behaviour.

Huge transformation in Berger’s physical appearance – red-rimmed eyes, unruly hair, and blackened teeth.

From The Leopard to The Damned, Visconti’s storytelling has consistently sought to understand historical empires through the larger-than-life characters defining them, and yet even after four hours of studying Ludwig’s erratic reign, there still remains something compellingly mysterious about his legacy. As he is arrested and confined to a manor where he receives psychological treatment, his surroundings finally reflect the pitifully tragic state of Bavaria’s own monarchy. Opulent decadence is replaced by monochrome, minimalist décor, with only a few simple paintings and a cross adorning the stark, white walls of his bedroom. This “tyrant who knows no limits in order to indulge his fantasies” is stripped of even those, and denied the liberty to imagine anything but an escape from his desolate prison.

The lingering uncertainty of the deposed King’s memory is best summed up in Ludwig’s final freeze frame, his wet, lifeless face withholding any answers as to how he died. “I am an enigma. I want to be an enigma forever, for those outside my world and myself,” he tells his psychiatrist not long before his death, and through Visconti’s tenderly drawn characterisation of this lonely, troubled figure, he is perhaps, at the very least, granted his last wish.

Ludwig’s final prison is a stark, white prison, a punishment for his overindulgent, decadent living.
A freeze frame on Ludwig’s lifeless face – there are no answers to Ludwig’s enigmatic life or death.

Ludwig is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


1900 (1976)

Bernardo Bertolucci | 5hr 17min

Most of Bernardo Bertolucci’s grand historical epic 1900 is set over a huge expanse of roughly 44 years, and none of them are the one referenced in the title. The death of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1901 marks the date that Alfredo Berlinghieri is born to wealthy landowners, and that Olmo Dalcò is born to a poor labouring family working on their estate, signposting the melodrama with an operatic landmark right at the start. So too does a significant piece of Italian history mark the major turning point in their relationship as adults, with their nation being liberated from the fascists at the end of World War II, and Alfredo being ousted from his inherited position of padrone. The title 1900 does not refer to a year, but the cultural and political shift of a century, condensed into a gloriously vivid 5-hour epic by Bernardo Bertolucci and a line-up of America and Europe’s greatest cinematic forces.

Simply assembling a creative team consisting of composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro already points 1900 towards success, but with a cast led by Robert de Niro and Gérard Depardieu, and featuring Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Hayden Sterling, and Alida Valli, the sheer abundance of talent is tremendous. Outside the world of cinema, Bertolucci draws heavy inspiration from Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo in his visual staging and composition of rural Italian country sides, even using his most famous work, ‘The Fourth Estate’, as a backdrop to the opening credits. As the camera slowly zooms out from the face of the man in its centre, we slowly grasp the extraordinary scope of the workers’ strike behind him, and Bertolucci immediately lays out the film’s socialist politics which will dominate every aspect of his characters’ lives.

Through the opening credits, Bertolucci slowly zooms out from the painting ‘The Fourth Estate’, depicting a labor strike led by three workers.

The effect that this radical movement has on the two friends on either side of the class divide becomes the primary point of tension in 1900, building brilliant form in the constant counterpoints of privilege and poverty. Both their grandfathers, Alfredo the Elder and Leo, lead their respective divisions of the estate, one being the kind padrone who owns the land and the other being the spokesman of the peasants. Like their descendants, there is a mutual respect between them only barely concealed by Leo’s show of disdain, though when their grandchildren end up sharing the same birthday, little can hide the shared joy they feel.

The game these friends play on the train tracks becomes a recurring motif of unity and courage, returning at key points in their lives.

Before de Niro and Depardieu take over the parts of Alfredo and Olmo, we spend a full hour and a half in their childhoods, observing how completely opposite circumstances drive them closer together. In the large hall where all the workers eat, the food is plain, the community is strong, and Olmo is condemned by his own father to always be a bastard, “son of peasants, doomed to hunger.” His lowly station in life is as ingrained his identity as Alfredo’s entitlement, whose patrician feast of cooked frogs in his family’s countryside manor stands in direct contrast. Storaro relishes using the murals of flowers and plants as stunning backdrops to the aristocratic drama, where Alfredo is disciplined by his parents and distanced from any warmth. The dynamic camera movements that float down from ceilings and through walls instil both scenes with equal liveliness though, and ultimately bring both boys to each other in search of companionship away from adults.

Excellence in production design from the workers’ hall to the lavish dining room, formally comparing both sides of the wealth divide.

The match cut which jumps forward in time to the end of World War I lands with immense power, as the interior of a train carrying boys with red flags is darkened by a tunnel, before emerging again in an almost identically blocked image – though this time with de Niro’s Alfredo at the centre, surrounded by black-uniformed soldiers. The visual impact is huge, immediately sapping Bertolucci’s costumes and scenery of the rich colours which defined the film’s cinematography up until now. The bright country landscapes of verdant grass, thriving livestock, and golden sunlight fall away to bleak war camps, grey fog, and withering trees reflected in the large, silver lake, accompanying the rise of Italy’s fascist paramilitary group, the Blackshirts.

A smooth match cut leaping several years into the future, even arranging the actors in a similarly staged arrangement.
The colour palette changes drastically too, sapping the scenery of its warmth until the stark, lifeless forests are virtually monochrome.

It is a very different world to the one Olmo and Alfredo grew up in. The patriarchs of both families have passed, leaving Alfredo’s cruel father, Giovanni, to take over the role of padrone, who in turn hires the psychopathic Attila to replace Olmo’s father as foreman. In place of the warmth that both Lancaster and Hayden brought to their roles, we instead find Donald Sutherland’s toothy snarl, projecting a purely evil sadism out into the world that compensates for the lack of character complexity with sheer, brutish terror. Over the course of 1900, we will see him brutally headbutt a cat to death, swing a boy around a small room until his head caves in, and kill an elderly woman to take her property, each time getting away with it due to his powerful influence. Like Giovanni, he is sympathetic to the fascists taking over Italy and their hostility towards workers, though perhaps the most chilling part of it all is how easily Alfredo gives in to his will when he finally ascends to the role of padrone.

“The new fascist movement doesn’t want vengeance. We want order first. We are the new Crusaders, and we must instil courage in our youth.”

Within the context of interwar Italy, Attila thus becomes representative of a huge cultural and political shift taking place, not just exploiting workers, but also those in positions of power who are too weak-willed to stand against the tide of fascism. Frequently implied in this anti-union sentiment is the rising trend of automation, taking jobs from horses and labourers, and giving them to machines that never grow tired or protest conditions. As such, it is just as much in the gradual technological developments as it is the historical landmarks that Bertolucci illustrates the passage of time in 1900, consistently raising the stakes for Olmo and his fellow workers across all five hours of the film’s colossal run time.

A daunting performance from Donald Sutherland as the tyrannical foreman Attila. A pure force of evil.

It is fortunate that Bertolucci’s craft is so dauntingly impressive in moments like these, as the second half of 1900 tends to falter at times, denying Olmo’s wife Anita a proper death scene, resurrecting her later in a very brief appearance, and featuring some poor dubbing. This is an undeniably ambitious film though, and while it is dotted with flaws which hold it back from reaching the heights of his greatest work, The Conformist, Bertolucci’s compelling narrative and sweeping scope is more than worthy of huge admiration.

Like so many socialist-minded films before it, 1900 is especially captivating to watch in those scenes where masses of common people unite in huge demonstrations of worker rights, as Bertolucci makes the most of his epic canvas to stage scenes of immense hope and pride. As the Blackshirts come riding down towards Alfredo’s farm in one scene, he tracks his camera along a wave of peasant women lying flat on the ground, guarded from behind by the men waving sticks to block the soldiers’ path. Later on, Olmo and Anita lead a protest in the town square calling out the names of the men murdered by fascists, and are soon joined by an entire procession of fellow workers adorning their dark mourning clothes with splashes of red tied around their necks, showing solidarity for a cause the Blackshirts just can’t seem to quell.

Marvellously staged scenes of worker protests against the Blackshirts, consumed in these dreary, washed out landscapes.

For every victory though, there is a crushing defeat, as Alfredo’s final decision to fire Attila for attempting to sell off Olmo is followed by a purely evil retaliation. Before he departs the estate, he rounds up peasants behind barbed wire fences in the pouring rain and shoots them, leaving them to lie in the muddy ground. This is perhaps the most dour, colourless scene of the entire film – a far cry from the bright palettes from the prologue, which we are incidentally on the verge of returning to in marvellous bookends four or so hours apart.

In 1945, where we open and end the film, rebellion surges like a flash flood from the moment Mussolini’s death is joyously proclaimed, seeing the peasants wield the tools of their own subordination against the ruling class, Alfredo included. Held at gun point by a farm boy, de Niro’s gentle repetition of the assailant’s mutinous catchcry is at once quietly hopeful for the peasants’ future, and despairing for his own.

“Long live Stalin.”

Almost as if in response to the preceding scene of Attila’s cold-hearted murder some years earlier, a rainbow shines in the sky, marking a new beginning for a nation that has long lived under the cloud of a fascist dictatorship. The barbed wire fences which doomed them to his brutal massacre are torn down, slogans are painted over in blissful victory, and from beneath a giant red flag, Bertolucci filters sunlight that wraps the liberated peasants up in the colours of their socialist movement.

A return to bright colours as Italy is liberated from its fascist dictatorship – yellow vegetation, clear skies, red flags.

Such bright-eyed optimism is short-lived though, as with the arrival of new authorities calling the peasants to turn in their arms comes a recognition that the class struggle may never die. Olmo only saves Alfredo’s life by convincing them that the role of padrone is dead, and therefore their fight is done. Alfredo, however, knows better.

“The padrone is alive.”

In the now-empty courtyard, a pair of boys clash, much like Olmo and Alfredo did decades before. Sometime in the future, the two men, looking significantly older, continue to play fight in vineyards and along train tracks. By the end of 1900, Bertolucci’s bold artistic statement comes full circle on the patterns echoed throughout the lives of friends from opposing sides of society, landing the full weight of their intrinsic connection as operatically as the decades of Italian history it represents.

A brilliant return to the train tracks to end 1900 – a formally astounding choice that brings everything back to this unconventional friendship.

1900 is not currently streaming in Australia.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg | 2hr 19min

Perhaps the first thing we notice about David Bowie’s off-beat, androgynous alien, Newton, is how remarkably human he is. There is no suggestion of him being an extra-terrestrial in the title The Man Who Fell to Earth, nor do many of the people he comes across suspect that his biology is any different to theirs. In stark contradiction, the second thing we might realise is his innate, irreconcilable foreignness. With his mismatching eyes, blazing red hair, alternative fashion sense, and British accent setting him apart from the rest of New Mexico, the social concept of the ‘Other’ is manifested here as a lone, tangible figure. Though we get the odd glimpse of his true visage – a white, hairless figure with yellow eyes and vertical pupils – it is primarily Bowie’s natural, otherworldly presence which reveals the sheer distance between Newton and his Earthly surroundings, literalising the alienation felt by citizens of a material, modern world.

Quite unusually for the science-fiction genre, The Man Who Fell to Earth is not based on high-concept hypotheticals or dazzling production designs, but rather seeks to understand its central alien character from a sociological perspective, built through an eccentric array of montages, flashbacks, and cutaways. There is no surprise that this is the work of Nicolas Roeg, whose piecing together of disjointed visual fragments picks up where Jean-Luc Godard’s avant-garde editing left off, and goes on to assemble an image of existential isolation within maximalist environments.

Roeg has a commitment to avant-garde visuals, turning his actors towards the camera and stretching their faces in mirrors.

Newton is further than ever from his home planet of sprawling, arid deserts, and though Roeg’s exotic mise-en-scene is notably bizarre with strange train-like hovels and a particularly striking spaceship interior of protruding, black cylinders, intricate world building is not the aim here. Instead, it is Earth that becomes the playground of our exploration, experienced through the eyes of an alien whose soul is torn between two worlds. Finding and bringing water back to his drought-stricken home planet is Newton’s goal here, and although he encounters an abundance of it when he first comes crashing down in a New Mexico lake, it doesn’t take long for him to get side-tracked. On Earth, this precious, life-giving resource is taken for granted, while the luxuries of television sets and alcohol tempt its people into escapist fantasies, paradoxically uniting them under an indulgent disconnection.

World building is not necessarily Roeg’s main focus here, but he still crafts bizarre alien scenery in Newton’s many flashbacks.
Even greater production design in Newton’s spaceship, looking like a wine cellar of black bottles with a giant, white orb in its centre.

Newton is not impervious to this either. For all the wholesome facets of humanity he absorbs with an open mind, he equally keeps falling deeper into its cheap decadence, even going so far as to set up an entire room of television sets for maximum exposure to the outside world. Animal documentaries play next to comedy shows and old Hollywood movies, forming a kaleidoscopic backdrop of sorts behind his human lover, Mary Lou, as she furiously chastises him for his indulgence, and is ultimately drowned out by their incomprehensible noise.

Rooms and walls lined with televisions, packing these scenes with a great deal of social commentary without hitting it too hard.

Within Newton’s mind, this ability to perceive so much information at once is simultaneously a remarkable neurological gift and a crippling weakness, shifting his attention away from his original goal and bouncing it around splinters of memories, diversions, and worldly pleasures. Just as montages cut rapidly between the various images flickering across his television sets, so too do they tenderly unfold his new, settled life with Mary Lou, seeing them play together naked and seek out his home planet with a telescope. Red lens flares and camera zooms often unexpectedly punctuate these scenes too, developing a curiously agitated aesthetic that Roeg blends well with his mix of jump cuts and long, dreamy dissolves, pushing his violently jagged pacing to its limit. With several sequences displaying a skilful intercutting between locations, characters, and timelines to top this off, his bold exercise in avant-garde style and structure effectively matches the erratic mind of an alien who can barely settle on a single train of thought.

Red lens flares become a formal motif tied to Newton’s alien character.
The greatest feature of Roeg’s film – the editing, diverse in the techniques he employs but always potent.

In this way, further connections are built between Newton’s culture and the one he is discovering on Earth, drawing surreal parallels between human and alien sex as vaguely common ground. Upon discovering her lover’s true identity, Mary Lou initiates awkward, passionless foreplay with him, though Newton’s mind can’t help drifting back to grotesque images of his species’ version of the act, seeing pale, extra-terrestrial bodies flipping around each other and drip with a viscous, white fluid. Through Roeg’s inventive collision of these sexual rituals, we understand how the differences between both races can be reconciled on a basic, biological level, and yet the moment that the truth of his identity comes light, there is no recovering the connection they shared before. As Mary Lou suffers a breakdown over this realisation, Roeg swaps out his regular lens for a fish-eye effect, briefly warping what was once a familiar space into a twisted, extra-terrestrial world.

Skilful cross-cutting between human and alien sex, tying both species closer together.
A fish-eye lens as Mary Lou breaks down in the kitchen, perhaps seen through Newton’s alien eyes.

Much like the ‘human zoo’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave spends the final years of his life, the stark, white room where Newton is ultimately captured and studied by scientists becomes a prison of sorts, passing several decades in what feels like minutes. Where Dave ages and eventually evolves into a new life form though, Newton’s fate as a perpetually youthful, unchanging being carries sadder implications. He continues to indulge in the alcohol and entertainment of the human world, and his contact lenses are even fused to his alien eyes by accident during one unfortunate operation, keeping him from appearing as his natural self ever again. Ultimately though, the lonely space he occupies between the two species is impossible to ignore. The title of Roeg’s film may suggest a science-fiction tale of great wonder, but with this ending, it describes a darker, more urgent social allegory – this is a man who could have been great, but fell to Earth’s worldly distractions, cheaply imitating a life he can never truly embrace.

Newton’s prison designed much like the ‘human zoo’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey, seeing the decades fly past in what feels like a short expanse of time for our protagonist.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Husbands (1970)

John Cassavetes | 2hr 18min

There is nothing terribly special about the three middle-aged men at the centre of Husbands, and we can tell that somewhere deep in their subconsciouses, they recognise that. To bring this existential self-awareness to the surface may be crippling though, and besides, watching them dance around their insecurities for two and a half hours reveals far more about their lonely, desperate characters than any grand reckoning might have. If Richard Linklater was to shift the focus of his hangout films to a much older age bracket and turn his trademark idealism to pessimism, then perhaps the result would look something like this. At the same time though, it is impossible to imagine him centring characters as disturbingly boorish as those which John Cassavetes creates here, or aiming to create an experience that is as unpleasant as it is thoughtfully stimulating.

As is typical of his realist style, Cassavetes is not beholden to any plot convention or character development that might turn this into a more traditional drama, so any time such an advancement does take place in the film, it often feels purely incidental. By the time they touch down in London just past the halfway point, we have already spent enough time with them in bars, pools, and bathrooms to know that this sudden change of pace isn’t going to fix their deep-seated fears of inadequacy and mortality. Just as the film’s title suggests, wives are largely absent from this portrait of indulgent, toxic masculinity, leaving these emotionally inept men to seek out their own feeble solutions to the bitterness and grief that plagues their minds.

Cassavetes’ is more likely let his camera wander naturally around environments, but he still finds the time to stage these thoughtful compositions, pressing the environment in on his characters.

The film’s inciting incident lands in the opening minutes with the realisation that this group of three was once a group of four, framing everything they do from this point on as some indirect sublimation of their mourning, and trying to convince themselves that they have plenty of years in front of them. The only glimpse we get of their lives before the death of their friend, Stuart, comes through a montage of still photos at a public pool. While their children and wives splash around, they strike manly poses for the camera, putting on a front that is immediately undermined by the sharp cut to Stuart’s funeral. Rather than using the time to sort through their feelings around this tragedy though, Gus, Harry, and Archie would rather complain about all the pomp and circumstance, holding onto the air of manliness that they can’t let slip away.

“People get symbolic over death. They get very formal, and it’s really ridiculous. Because it’s probably the most humiliating thing in the world.”

A montage of photos at a swimming pool preceding Stuart’s death opening the film, flashing through images of performative masculinity.

Though the camera follows the funeral proceedings from afar, Cassavetes’ telephoto lens zooms in close to the bereaved faces in the crowd, positioning us as intimate but totally invisible observers. It is an intrusive perspective that persists through much of Husbands, and one which demonstrates Cassavetes’ absolute commitment to the primal realism of the piece, naturally letting his actors’ bodies obstruct frames as they move around, and consequently immersing us even further into each scene. His goal here in stripping everything in Husbands back to a bare, minimalist style feels like a precursor to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement in the 1990s, with natural lighting, handheld camerawork, and location shooting dominating the film’s chosen aesthetic, and thereby giving weight to the purely naturalistic performances by the main trio of actors.

Excellent use of a telephoto lens observing the mourners at Stuart’s funeral in close-up.

Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself take on the roles of the three friends at the centre with organic ease, and while many of their lines weren’t quite ad-libbed on camera, it is not surprising to learn that most of them were written into the screenplay from improvised rehearsals. Robert Altman might have been the director who would solidify himself as the master of overlapping dialogue, but Cassavetes’ control of such aural chaos is admirable here, using it to underscore the recurring conflicts between the men, as well as the textures of an indifferent world that keeps moving independent of their existences.

After a period of time running through New York streets, skinny dipping, and revealing their sheer lack of coordination in a clumsy game of basketball, these men congregate at the local bar where Cassavetes submits us to a scene lasting over half an hour, watching their drunken singing gradually develop a sadistic edge. Around them, pitch black walls envelop them in a stifling depression, and Cassavetes populates his mise-en-scène with half-empty jugs and glasses of beer, telling the story of their night up to this point.

The bar scene lasts for almost forty minutes, as Cassavetes immerses us into its uncomfortable, drunken atmosphere.

If listening to their piggish behaviour for so long is a wearying experience, then the discomfort only intensifies when they escape into the bar’s equally dark bathroom and start retching, forcing us to stick with them through every ugly facet of their lives. With perhaps the most confined space of the film comes a slight shift in Cassavetes visual direction as well, swapping out the telephoto for a wider-angle lens, and sitting the camera right behind the toilet as they uncomfortably heave into it.

The telephoto lens is gone when we move into the bathroom, as the camera now sits behind the toilet to uncomfortably press up against the actors’ faces.

Husbands can’t be described as punishing in the same way one might associate that descriptor with Gaspar Noe or von Trier, but by lingering on scenes like these for longer than what’s comfortable, it does exhaust its viewers in a similar way. Gazzara especially works to alienate his character more than anyone else, as the abuse that erupts from Harry within his own home reveals the logical conclusion of what sort of man we have surmised him to be. The fountain of red and yellow flowers pouring from a vase in his dining room only adds a meagre touch of colour to an otherwise cheerless scene, which sees him push his wife to her knees and force out a reluctant “I love you.” That he despises his own family this much speaks a lot to the unresolved anger he clearly doesn’t know how to deal with, and in this moment, Harry fully reveals himself as the most damaged of all three men.

“I hate that house. I only live there because of a woman. You know, the legs, the breasts, the mouth.”

A meagre splash of colour in Harry’s home life barely distracts us from the misery that exists inside these walls.
Very simple blocking with Cassavetes sitting on the lawn and Falk standing on the driveway in this long shot, but the barren minimalism is a purposeful and impactful choice.

With each attempt to reclaim their youth leaving them unfulfilled, an impromptu trip to London becomes a last resort, though even in its flashy casinos there is still no glamour to be found. Dialogue continues to roll out like aimless, verbal anarchy, and the awkwardness only amplifies when they each take a different woman up to their hotel room. With Cassavetes’ long takes often comes handsomely staged compositions of his actors, and one of his greatest unfolds here with Gazzara lying along the bottom of the frame in the foreground, while the camera pans between his five other companions clumsily interacting behind him. As they split off into pairs, their insecurities become more evident than ever. Gus is rash and overbearing in his attempts to initiate sex with his terrified partner. Archie panics the moment his woman even kisses him. It is disappointing that Harry’s scene is so short in comparison to theirs, because his brief conversation reveals a guilt and helplessness that he has never let surface up to this point.

“I feel so goddamned disloyal. I feel like my – my heart is breaking.”

The camera pans left to right and back again in the London hotel room, lingering in the awkwardness of these interactions.
The precise angle of the door catching Falk’s reflection in the background, emphasising the loneliness.
An inspired close-up with this oblique angle coming from above – complete melancholy.

The rain pouring down on London’s streets the next day becomes a perfect backdrop to the melancholy resolutions each man settles on. Where Gus and Archie accept that there is no exciting life for them outside their families, Harry has sunk completely into the delusion of his youth, deciding to stay behind in London and continue in his pursuit of women. His separation from the group thus formally marks Husbands with a pair of poignant bookends, leaving the remaining men crushingly isolated. “What’s he gonna do without us?” Archie yells to Gus as they both head home, but the question applies in the other direction as well, leaving each husband to wonder what their respective futures look like without their truest companions – not that they would ever admit to such vulnerability.

Cassavetes making the most of a rainy day to shoot the depressing ‘morning after’.

These are messy characters, and while it would be fair to say that they are largely responsible for their own misery, it is evidently the culture of unbearable machismo they have collectively built among themselves which has become their main obstacle to happiness. Somewhere along the way, their friend’s death is lost among the crass humour and toxic aggression of their exploits, and for as long as that grief remains repressed, it will just keep eating away at their minds and egos, all the way to their not-too-distant graves.

A bleak, hopeless ending as two men return to their families without their companion, wondering how any of them will get by without each other.

Husbands is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse | 2hr 15min

For the bohemian misfits of Cabaret, it is easy enough to believe that the Kit Kat Club is a safe refuge to escape the political tensions of Germany’s Weimar Republic, tucking them away into a small, dark pocket of Berlin where sexual and creative freedoms may flourish onstage. Within these walls of distorted mirrors and black show curtains, Joel Grey is our pale-faced, gender-fluid Master of Ceremonies, irreverently commenting on the world outside with his bawdy musical numbers. When his songs aren’t breaking the narrative up like fleeting escapes into the artistic minds of its characters, Bob Fosse is skilfully intercutting them with scenes of hope, love, and violence, orchestrating a vivid tension between the dwindling, carefree escapism of one subculture and the burgeoning totalitarianism of another.

Cabaret is steeped in this dramatic irony right from the opening scenes, where the Emcee’s multi-lingual welcome to his realm of riotous laughter and his burlesque wrestling act briefly passes over a Nazi being kicked out. Clearly his greeting only extends so far – those who preach intolerance have no place in this diverse melting pot of nationalities, sexualities, and identities, and it is with that ethos in mind that British writer Brian finds a home among its patrons. It is especially with its bubbly American cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, who he strikes up an affectionate friendship with, after moving into the boarding house where she resides.

Expressionism in Fosse’s mise-en-scène, lighting up this stage with silhouettes and striking poses.

Carrying on the tradition of musical excellence set by her famous Hollywood parents, Liza Minnelli takes the spotlight here as the flighty, wide-eyed singer onstage at the Kit Kat Club, living life like one long song and dance she never wants to end. Relationships are easy to come by for her, calling friends and strangers alike “darling” within the first thirty seconds of meeting them, and falling for new lovers like one might try on a new outfit.

If Minnelli belongs to a lineage of movie-musical actresses that her mother, Judy Garland, sits atop of, then Sally’s characterisation can similarly be drawn back to the 1930s, where Marlene Dietrich’s playful cabaret headliner, Lola Lola, stole the hearts of multiple men in The Blue Angel. Upon vibrant stages respectively designed to the audacious visual stylings of Josef von Sternberg and Bob Fosse, both women strike dramatic poses on chairs and sing rousing love songs, passionately dedicating their voices and bodies to the art of performance. It is also notable that in one scene of Cabaret, Sally even name drops Emil Jannings, Dietrich’s co-star, suggesting to someone she is trying to impress that she knows him well.

Liza Minnelli takes centre stage as Sally Bowles in one of the great performances of the 1970s, exploding onstage with impassioned musical numbers and offstage carrying a complex character arc.

For all her messy flaws and idiosyncrasies though, Sally is a far less antagonistic character than Lola Lola, as Cabaret chooses instead to offer her great empathy for her naïve hope that the world is a better place than it is. Right after her first kiss with Brian, Fosse bathes her heartfelt solo ‘Maybe This Time’ in a gentle blue and orange light, while passionately blending it with scenes of their blossoming love. Despite their many differences, both possess a youthful ambition that drives them forward in their creative endeavours, as well as an open-mindedness to alternative lifestyles that make it easy enough for them to gradually grow their friend circle. Soon enough, they are joined by wealthy playboy Maximilian, German merchant Fritz, and Jewish heiress Natalia, and between the five of them Fosse draws out a rich web of complex relationships. Sally delights in some light mocking of Natalia’s posh manner, flippantly turning casual conversation to the subject of syphilis, and elsewhere jealousy roils around in love triangles and affairs, leading to revelations that sting with playful honesty.

“Screw Maximilian!”

“I do.”

“So do I.”

For now, each of these characters are living with some level of privilege, though as the political climate within Berlin shifts, tougher, life-changing decisions await them further down the line. Sally’s accidental pregnancy brings fears of settling down to the surface, pushing her to seek out an illegal abortion, but perhaps even more concerning than this is the love which emerges between Natalia and Fritz, who realises he must announce his Jewish heritage if he wishes to marry her. Back in the Kit Kat Club, the Emcee amusingly maintains his love for a gorilla in the number ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’, right before landing the punchline that he is really defending the fact she is a Jew. The social satire is evident, but in his sharp editing Fosse is making an even sharper point about the nature of this entertainment – any social issue that holds real weight on the outside is humorously undercut in the club, which is simply not equipped to handle the real world with any sincerity.

‘If You Could See Her Like I Do’ is an amusing musical number that packs an even better punchline. A masterfully comedic performance from Joel Grey.

As cabaret performers send up traditional German folk dance wearing flamboyant lederhosen, Fosse punctuates each comical slap with the beating of the club’s owner in the alley outside by a gang of Nazi youths. As the Emcee leads a burlesque army of dancers in Nazi regalia, ridiculing their customs and mannerisms, we cut to Natalia discovering her brutally slaughtered dog in her yard. Fosse’s editing lays down a bold formal contrast in this way, setting close-ups of exaggerated facial expressions and swinging limbs against hateful, violent atrocities taking place outside, and choreographing them all to the cabaret’s cheeky rhythms.

Juxtaposing the light irreverence of the club with the horrific darkness of 1930s Germany. One of the best edited films of the decade, thanks to Fosse’s unique skills.

Given the birthplace of expressionism in early twentieth century Germany, it is fitting that Fosse brings this stark visual style to his smoke-filled cabaret numbers, cutting out sharp silhouettes of his performers as they strike dramatic poses up onstage. Though there is certainly visual beauty outside the club in the brown décor of the boarding house and some flourishes of camerawork around his characters, Fosse evidently prefers the stage to reality for its theatrical spice. Like von Sternberg before him, he carries a keen sense of cinematic blocking in these settings, foregrounding legs, chairs, and bodies that frame performers as they dance. Along the walls and up on the ceiling, he hangs wavy mirrors that uneasily distort his actors’ faces, especially reflecting the expressions of the exuberant Emcee who might be a little too cheerful for our comfort.

Fosse obfuscates his frames in these compositions much like Josef von Sternberg before him, building his mise-en-scène around Minelli.
Distorted mirrors offer an undercurrent of warped darkness to the cabaret, marking both the opening and closing shots of the film.

The Kit Kat Club is no doubt a exciting place for thespians and free spirits, but bit by bit, the sinister undertones pressing in on it grow too significant to ignore. The complacency that allows such virulent antisemitism to breed in Germany is not just confined to our main characters, though they certainly typify that thinking.

“The Nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans, but they do serve a purpose. Let them get rid of the Communists. Later we’ll be able to control them.”

As much as Fosse’s characters dismiss them as mere pests, his camera never treats them as anything less than a terrifying threat to the very foundations of liberty and justice. While a dead Communist bleeds out on a street in broad daylight, he cuts between parts of his frozen tableau, where Nazis and onlookers stand around in chilling silence.

Chilling montage editing underscoring the stillness of this brutal murder.

Perhaps the most disturbing depiction of their political ascension though is one which does not depict any sort of physical violence at all, as Brian and his friends drop in at a rural beer garden for an easy day out, only to be met with a young, blonde boy singing the only song of Cabaret which does not take place inside the club, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. As the camera pans down from his face to reveal a Swastika patched on his sleeve, this ode to Germany’s natural scenery transforms into a militant anthem for the Third Reich, and around him, the rest of the audience stands one by one, adding their stern voices to the chorus. Fosse does not exempt this wildly disparate song from his zealous montage editing either – as he energetically cuts between close-ups of the proud faces in the crowd, he is sure to slip in some shots of the unhappy few who remain seated, resisting the overwhelming wave of fervent nationalism.

Rhythmic montage editing again in the only musical number that doesn’t take place in the Kit Kat Club, serving an entirely disturbing tone.

Sure enough, there is little any of our characters can do about Germany’s shifting political landscape by this point. After a rage-fuelled confrontation with a pair of Nazis campaigning on the street, Brian is left with nothing but a black eye and the realisation that his love for Sally does not outweigh his own fears and ambition. Not long after, he departs Berlin, leaving his cabaret-loving sweetheart to keep singing her heart out to whoever is left to watch her perform, dazzled by her own dreams that she is too naïve to realise will never flourish under the reign of the Nazi party.

“Life is a cabaret,” she joyously proclaims. “We have no troubles here,” asserts the grinning Emcee. But it is hard to read this delusional ending as anything but a tragedy as the camera pans across the warped mirrors one last time to view the twisted reflections of the uniformed Nazis, now dominating the audience. For the first time, there is no music playing in the Kit Kat Club, or even any movement among its patrons. There is simply an eerie, deadening silence, banishing whatever traces of dissent once held the power to overcome it, but which instead chose to keep partying on inside its tiny, bohemian bubble.

A silent pan across the distorted mirrors, revealing an audience now consisting almost entirely of Nazis – a horrifying pay-off to the steady rise we see leading up to it.

Cabaret is not currently streaming in Australia.

The Parallax View (1974)

Alan J. Pakula | 1hr 42min

Floating somewhere in a vague, black void, a committee of seven indistinct men sit on a panel delivering a public statement on the recent political assassination of presidential candidate Charles Carroll, describing the deceased killer as a psychotic, misguided man acting out a violent vendetta. The official narrative is that tragedies such as these are aberrations of a dignified society that strives to protect its citizens, governing them under fair, democratic processes. Any suggestion that they are more akin to covert cogs in a rigged machine working exactly as intended can easily be brushed off as a ridiculous conspiracy held by a select few obsessive recluses. As the middle part of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy though, that is exactly the perspective that The Parallax View takes in following its tightly wound narrative of collusions, false identities, and government corruption, stoking the embers of bitter mistrust burning through 1970s America.

This ambiguous committee announcing the official narratives of political assassinations. They are boxed into this dark space like puppets on a stage, their strings pulled by whatever shady forces lie just outside its boundaries.

The second and final time we are brought to the official committee we met at the start is in the final shot of the film, though whatever faith we might have once put in their words has been well and truly eradicated by this point. Now, this official-looking bench looks a lot like a stage upon which these men sit as empty puppets, the darkness around them concealing whatever secretive forces are pulling their strings, and as Pakula’s camera dollies back to shrink them into the abyss, they suddenly disappear from view, bringing this performance to a close. It is tough to imagine this scene being as ominous as it is had it been shot by anyone other than Gordon Willis, whose cinematographic credentials as the Prince of Darkness are backed up here by the pervasive silhouettes, shadows, and dimly lit interiors concealing the horrific secrets that one plucky journalist seeks to expose to the public.

Joe Frady’s interest in the seemingly coincidental deaths of six innocent Americans who collectively witnessed a political assassination three years prior is only piqued when his ex-girlfriend, Lee, becomes the latest victim. It is a harsh cut that Pakula uses in transitioning from their meeting to the reveal of her cold, dead body, but it is the jolt we need to land us in the grip of a mystery that compels Frady to chase answers through American cities and rural towns, each one infested by the long, sticky fingers of the furtive Parallax Corporation. Pakula stages his investigations upon miniature railways, beneath bursting dams, and in expansive buildings where Wellesian low angles impose rigid formations of ceiling lights upon characters, setting them against the heavy weight of bureaucratic structures fighting to keep them down in their pursuits of truth. Bit by bit, small pieces of information come together to reveal the corporation’s methods of recruiting psychologically troubled men and converting them into political assassins, carrying out watertight schemes that cover traces and frame easy scapegoats.

From rural to urban America, Pakula makes brilliant use of his modern architecture like Michelangelo Antonioni, carving out a harsh culture of domineering constructions that consume and shrink its citizens.
There is plenty of Antonioni present in the mise-en-scène, but Pakula doesn’t hold back from Wellesian low angles of magnificently imposing ceilings either, weighing down on his characters.

Those bright, open spaces where psychopathic murderers seamlessly blend in with ordinary Americans are unsettling enough on their own, but the sharp contrast they draw against shots where Pakula’s camera disappears into darkened rooms makes the lighting schemes of both environments all the more disturbing. The Parallax View is flooded with compositions that have entire segments blocked out by patches of darkness, carving them out from the geometric shapes of backlit furniture, and at one point using a wall to draw a sharp divide right down the middle of the frame, keeping the adversaries on either side suspensefully unaware of each other’s presence. The scene in which Frady arrives home only to find Parallax recruiter Jack Younger waiting for him makes especially excellent use of Willis’ beautifully sinister photography, with the vague light reflection off his polished boots perched on a table being the only indication that there is anyone lurking in this stifling darkness. Later when Frady is forced to improvise a new lie for his blown cover, Pakula in turn keeps us at a tense emotion distance by silhouetting his profile, concealing any potential giveaways written on his face.

Gordon Willis can manipulate the light and darkness of a shot like few other cinematographers in history, using patches of black space to split frames down the middle and wrap around characters in isolating compositions.
A vague reflection of light off polished boots, the only unsettling indication that there is someone lurking in this darkness.
Warren Beatty’s face is silhouetted when his first lie is caught out, keeping his facial expressions impossible to read and driving up the suspense in a huge way.

Frady’s successful entry into the organisation does not immediately herald an abundance of answers, but Pakula provides us with just enough to lead us towards assumptions about the psychological manipulation taking place there. For several minutes we are forced to watch the same video montage that all new applicants are subjected to, cutting together words and images intended to inspire intense emotions across the spectrum of the human experience. Pakula orchestrates a deranged emotional conflict here in opening with shots of children, American icons, and picturesque landscapes, before dotting in images of the Hitler and guns, running at an accelerating speed towards sex, hate groups, and violence, and then finally pulling back into the initial peaceful imagery. Whether this is some sort of brainwashing or profiling isn’t entirely transparent, but the implicit values of the corporation ring out clearly. Insensitivity and contempt towards one’s fellow citizens are essential qualities for potential assassins, whose anger can easily be manipulated for political purposes at the discretion of the wealthy elite.

A disturbing rhythmic montage mixing wholesome, patriotic imagery with violence and evil. It lasts for several minutes as well, fully subjecting us to the Parallax Corporation’s murky ethics and ideals.

There is also a sensationalism present in this suspenseful narrative though which shouldn’t be brushed over, because as much as Pakula is drawing Antonioni and Welles in his arresting modern architecture, there are set pieces here that are distinctly Hitchcockian in their suspenseful plotting and staggering pay-offs. Early on, a thrilling wrestle with a suspected assassin atop the Space Needle draws in the iconic monument to highlight the uniquely American characteristics of this corruption and paranoia. Later, the silent pursuit of a potential bomber at an airport feels like a high-stakes spin on the stalking scene in Vertigo, anxiously cutting between close-ups of Frady’s face and his point-of-view shots until an explosion punctuates its climax.

A Hitchcockian set piece in using the sheer height of the Space Needle to send someone toppling to their death. A gripping scene to open the film.

Pakula reserves his greatest set piece of all for the final scene though, harshly painting out the duality of American civilisation at the dress rehearsal for Senator George Hammond’s political rally. The patriotic red, white, and blue of the auditorium’s circular tables arranged in orderly grid formations clash right up against the sinister darkness hanging above them, where Frady pursues shady figures setting the politician up for murder. From these daunting heights, Pakula often slices his frame horizontally, with the top half imprinting black shapes of beams and light fixtures against the bright background, and through his manipulation of this lighting he leads us right into the chilling reveal of a silhouetted rifle sitting on the wire mesh above the hall below. Frady’s realisation that he has been scapegoated comes far too late, as his dash for a bright exit is only met by death, thus incriminating him as the likely culprit of Hammond’s assassination.

Silhouettes pervade the thrilling final set piece of the film, sharply separating America’s patriotic colours in the bright light from the sharp darkness hanging above it. Rafters, light fixtures, and guns become cutouts of negative space imprinted upon the assassination below.

The third and final instalment of the paranoia trilogy, All the President’s Men, may reflective reality more accurately in taking on the authentic investigation of the Watergate scandal, and yet there is something about the crushing despair and pessimism of The Parallax View which feels even truer to the psyche of Cold War America. For every great exposé of political corruption, there are hundreds of other scandals which never make it into the public eye, and which clearly haunt Pakula’s mind with the terror of the unknown. With Willis’ camera dwelling on those dark, apparently empty spaces, our suspicion of what lurks out of sight gradually becomes an aggrieved, quiet dread – not of some lonely psychopath seeking to kill innocent strangers, but of the establishments that swear to protect us from them.

A dash towards the light, only to be met by more darkness – pure pessimism in Pakula’s ending.

The Parallax View is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, or Amazon Video.

Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 37min

They say that dogs often look like their owners, but in the modern world of Trafic where automobiles become companions to humans on their endless journeys to nowhere, Jacques Tati cannot help noting the shared characteristics between them. One suited man sits in a black Mercedes-Benz, puffing on a cigar while his windscreen wipers drag themselves in slow, steady motions. Elsewhere, some other wipers on a car driven by a senile old man weakly twitch on the verge of breaking down, another pair clearing the vision of two chattering women match their flappy hand gestures with equal erraticism, and those on a hippy truck seem to groove along in rhythmic unison. In Tati’s magnificently whimsical worlds, characters are not defined by their personal thoughts and feelings, but by the modernist infrastructure around them, acting as extensions of their own idiosyncratic personalities.

Cars used as extensions of people, connecting humanity to their inefficient, idiosyncratic machines.

By that logic, it follows that these new technologies aren’t the faultless solutions to contemporary living that they are cracked up to be – if humans are inherently flawed, then so too are their creations. Therein lies the perfect entrance for the bumbling Monsieur Hulot in his fourth and final film appearance, this time as a car designer with a new model to show off at an auto show in Amsterdam. Quite appropriately, this vehicle is as unorthodox as its owner, being created for the specific purpose of camping with a shaver built into the steering wheel and the front grille transforming into a literal barbeque grill. It is nothing less than the product of a mad inventor, acting on his own creative impulses untethered from conventional notions of what customers think they need, or what businesses think will make them money.

It is quite fortunate that this is the car Hulot and his publicity agent, Maria, are stuck with on their cross-country drive to the auto show, especially as it proves to be a hit with the police officers who impound the vehicle for failing to stop at border control. The reason is simple enough – the wave the custom guards give to stop them is simply taken as a friendly greeting, and this misunderstanding quickly escalates into one of many major delays encountered on their journey. Tati delights in devolving ordered arrangements of road travel into beautiful chaos all through Trafic, expertly choreographing one freeway pile-up like a comical ballet of cars impressively balancing on their front wheels, pirouetting off to the side, and bonnets flapping up and down of their own accord. In the aftermath, about a dozen drivers stumble out of their damaged vehicles in a confused daze, and without any notion of what to do next, silently begin stretching their limbs and cleaning up the minimal debris with a dustpan broom.

An expertly choreographed freeway pile-up plays like a comic ballet of cars performing complex dance moves.

Inane as it is, the rigid order that we impose upon ourselves through car and traffic systems evidently cannot stand to be broken, making virtually every aspect of automobile culture the perfect target for Tati’s satire, from the hardcore fans to the everyday drivers. It goes without saying that his framing of physical gags in wide shots is consistently seamless in playing with our perspective of specific events, such as Hulot stepping into a car at the auto show, before swiftly revealing the punchline we couldn’t see before, like flipping that car upside-down to expose it as a bisected display vehicle.

The silent cinema influence is showing in Tati’s framing of these gags in wide shots, framed perfectly to conceal the full context of the scene until the punchline.

But Tati also does not get enough credit as a skilled montagist, particularly displaying his talent here in matching the rhythms of his cutting to the mechanical routines of cars and humans. In the opening credits, the automobile manufacturing facility chugs its machinery along to consistent, comical beats, and later Tati turns the tedium of rush hour into an amusing sequence that simply observes drivers picking their noses and yawning, as if bound by common ritual. Such arbitrary customs extend into the auto show as well where he plays his mise-en-scène like an orchestra, opening and slamming car boots in syncopated patterns, and swallowing up an entire crowd of enthusiasts collectively sticking their heads under a single bonnet.

The opening montage at the automobile factory setting a rhythm carried through the film in its sound design and editing – Tati plays the mise-en-scène like an orchestra.
Social satire caught in these images with machines literally swallowing up humans.

Trafic may not possess the sheer ambition of Tati’s previous films, least of all the monumental feat of production design that is Playtime, but his resourcefulness remains as remarkable as ever in picking apart humanity’s absurd and futile attempts at progress. Within the mere image of heavy traffic, he uncovers an endlessly rich source of satirical material, recognising that the attempts of those drivers trying to get somewhere while helplessly sitting in stagnant crowds of high-tech metal boxes may be the ultimate paradox of an inept modern society.

The perfect paradox of modern society – these machines designed to push us into the future keep us rooted to the spot.

Trafic is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich | 2hr 6min

Perhaps in the days of the Old West, the tiny Texan town of Anarene may have been a bustling hub of oil mining and transportation. By the time The Last Picture Show picks up the story of teenagers Duane, Sonny, and Jacy in 1951 though, that landscape of idealistic prosperity is nothing but a sad, faded memory, whistling in the wind down the empty main road and faintly recalled in the crumbling facades of old storefronts. The adults who keep it running are an assortment of disillusioned schoolteachers, small business owners, and blue-collar workers, parenting a generation of children who have no frame of reference for anything greater. Whatever the American Dream looks like for them, it is not going to happen here.

Bogdanovich’s creative and thoughtful uses of his deep focus lens to capture compositions like these, making full use of both the background and foreground to build out the small town of Anarene.

As a film historian, Peter Bogdanovich does not so much pioneer cinema in The Last Picture Show as he does reflect on its past and the cultures it has represented. It should be no surprised that Orson Welles acted as his mentor during production, and the influence there extends far beyond the mere fact that he encouraged him to shoot in black-and-white. The deep focus photography that so beautifully captures Bogdanovich’s ensemble layered through frames in strikingly staged compositions directly calls back to Welles’ own distinct visual style, and the thick air of melancholic nostalgia that has settled over this once-glorious town at times even feels like a post-war Southern transposition of The Magnificent Ambersons. Car doors and diner blinds become frames through which we watch characters haunt these streets like wandering ghosts, drifting down lonely roads or otherwise congregating with peers to pass the time, waiting for the day they either escape this town or die in it.

The town’s infrastructure becoming frames trapping its inhabitants within its own boundaries, whether through a set of blinds or a car door.

For the teenagers living here, that is essentially the choice they are presented with, and the end of high school is the deadline for it to be made. Accordingly, anyone over the age of eighteen is part of the population that decided to stay, whether out of some sentimental loyalty or lack of prospects. As wonderful as the younger cast is here with Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Cybill Shepherd each affectingly capturing the ennui of youth, there is an even deeper poignancy to the performances from Bogdanovich’s older actors, with Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn both stealing scenes as disillusioned housewives, Ruth Popper and Lois Farrow, each living inert existences. “Everything gets old if you do it long enough,” laments Lois to her daughter, Jacy, actively trying to corrupt her naïve idealism into the same tired discontent that has taken over her generation, and it is only a matter of time before she is successful.

Ben Johnson similarly has a world-weariness about him as Sam the Lion, though as the small businessman keeping the local pool, movie theatre, and café alive, he also carries a spark of the town’s old pride about him. He is stern but kind towards the local teenagers, evidently caring more about their growth than anyone else, and even spending time with them out at the “tank”, a bleak fishing spot depleted of fish. It is the flat, bleak Texan scenery which entices him there, and as he sits rolling cigarettes with Sonny and Billy, a mentally disabled neighbourhood boy, he wistfully reminisces the “old times” just twenty years ago when he took a past lover out to this same pond. Bogdanovich slowly dollies his camera in on his face, inviting us into his story of how they skinny dipped and rode horses across the water, and telling of the bright zeal for life he saw in that woman. “You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed,” he wistfully ruminates, and given the later reveal that this woman was in fact Lois, we can infer that he is mourning the cultural shift in its people just as much as he is the physical landscape.

Flat, rural Texan scenery on the outskirts of Anarene, with dead trees and overcast skies making up Bogdanovich’s mise-en-scène.
Dollying in on Ben Johnson’s affecting monologue, reminiscing a long-gone past.

Cynical as she is, it isn’t hard to imagine a younger version of Lois behaving much like her coquettish daughter. Back then she might have flirted with men she wasn’t supposed to, but by the time we meet her here she is more or less representative of the adults in town, neglecting the widening emotional gap between her and her child. With little guidance from their elders, the teens of Anarene meander from one social gathering to the next, hoping to lose their virginity just for the sake of saying they have done it. All across the town, through cars and diners, Hank Williams’ twanging country vocals provides the diegetic soundtrack to their lives, matching their own lonesome struggles with bluesy musings over lovesickness and longing. Breaking this monotony does not prove to be easy though, with even sex proving to be dissatisfying and attempts to stir up controversy brewing nothing but shame.

Superb blocking of both actors and set dressing across layers of the frame, bring visual depth to the town and its community.

Still, what else is there to do? We get the sense that Sonny’s affair with Ruth, the wife of his school coach, has little to do with any genuine romantic feelings, and more to do with a desire to rebel, though even when word about it gets out into the community the reaction is disappointing. Meanwhile, Jacy is on a fruitless quest for attention, strip teasing at a pool party and choosing to date whoever she thinks might make for a good story. Shepherd is simply luminous in this role, naturally drawing the eye even in crowds, and challenging our sympathies when she so thoughtlessly discards the emotions of others in favour of her own self-centredness. Much like virtually everything she does, her elopement with Sonny is nothing more than an attempt to win the attention of her parents. When she catches sight of a police car on the road to Oklahoma, a little smile appears in the corner of her mouth, grateful that she is being stopped before following through on her small rebellion.

Cybill Shepherd is luminous as Jacy, always the centre of attention in Bogdanovich’s framing and lighting.
Sam’s funeral is a sombre affair, sunk low in the frame in this wide shot with Jacy once again standing out in her white dress.

With the death of Sam and the closing of his movie theatre, there is little hope left that this town will ever return to the glory of its old days again. Red River is the last film to play there, projecting a vision of the Old West up on the screen for the tiny audience of Duane and Sonny witnessing this part of the town’s history die out. Not long after, the two friends part ways, their decisions made regarding whether they will continue to haunt this limbo or make their way into the larger world beyond its borders. Given that the Korean War is Duane’s destination, it is tough to say whether he will find the meaning in his life that he is searching for. Still, at least it is a change of pace from Anarene’s dreariness, growing even more mundane with each passing generation.

In the end, Bogdanovich leaves us exactly where he picked us up at the start – stranded on the dusty, windy streets, panning across its desolate infrastructure as if searching for some lingering sign of life. It might be a barren beauty which infests The Last Picture Show, but as we grow to understand the small lives and histories dotted through its community, Bogdanovich also sensitively paints it out as a tactile landscape of feeble dreams and disappointments.

The deteriorating architecture of Anarene photographed beautifully in these wides, turning the town into its own crumbling character.

The Last Picture Show is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Camera Buff (1979)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 52min

It isn’t that Krzysztof Kieslowski lacks a sense of humour, but it is surely no coincidence that whenever small pieces of comedy emerge in his films they are placed in the capable hands of his muse, Jerzy Stuhr. Camera Buff capitalises well on those talents, sending Stuhr’s amateur cameraman into inappropriate situations that he hopes might prove interesting to audiences. He doesn’t discriminate between subjects – when asked what he shoots, his reply is simply “Anything that moves.” Given the success Filip finds in competitions and inspiring others, there is no doubt he possesses the talent to back up his hobby. But there is also an insidiousness to his singularly focused obsession, throwing off his balance of responsibility and passion, and slowly disintegrating his once-happy family life into a fable of poignant tragedy.

Camera Buff remains firmly in the world of social realism that Kieslowski is very familiar with at this point in his career, though his political critiques aren’t immediately so overt. Filip first picks up his camera just before the birth of his daughter, intending to use it to document this precious time in his and wife’s life. If there is one thing that he never loses sight of throughout the film, it is the beauty of mundanity, and it is evident that his ability to preserve these moments in time and share them with others is a truly valuable gift. Problems arise when his camera turns away from his loved ones and towards others, thereby avoiding any opportunity for self-reflection. The lens is his portal into other lives, disconnecting him from his own “quiet life” to the point that it no longer feels like enough.

Kieslowski and Stuhr achieve a fine balance here in their sympathetic development of Filip, never distancing him so much from the audience that he becomes entirely repugnant, even when he acts purely in his own self-interest. His habit of framing his fingers like a camera viewfinder is an amusing mannerism we warm to, though when he is caught out imagining how he might shoot his wife storming out after an argument, it only worsens the situation. Even when he is happy to let his baby keep crying for the sake of a good shot, we still resist despising him too much when his excitement exudes such a genuine innocence.

There is also something of an underdog persona about Filip as well that ingratiates us to his cause. As a labourer working within the rigid structures of Communist Poland, the opportunity to seize on something creative and be recognised for it feels like a victory, and it is within this social context that Kieslowski begins to turn Camera Buff to more serious political critiques of censorship and control. At the factory where he works, the local Communist Party boss enlists him to film its jubilee, and besides a few requests that he cut shots considered too invasive, he does receive praise both from superiors and judges at a film festival. Later when he takes more initiative to capture subjects of his own interest, the pushback grows stronger. Given his value to the Party he is relatively safe from their threats, though his supporters are not so fortunate.

Even as Filip loses his family, Kieslowski still draws out an affecting beauty in his documentaries, suggesting that his obsessive efforts are not entirely fruitless. “It’s beautiful what you guys do. A person’s no longer alive… yet she’s still here,” contemplates one man upon seeing footage Filip shot of his late mother, overtaken with gratitude. Another man, a dwarf with whom he works, is similarly moved by seeing his humble life depicted on film and broadcast on Polish television.

It may be virtuous work, offering others the opportunity to reflect on their lives, though it is also a tool of distraction, letting Filip point the lens in every direction except towards himself. For Kieslowski, neglecting the personal aspect of creation is to disregard its most fundamental foundation, and so it is with that one mind that Filip finally steps in front of the camera to examine his own lonely life. In its dark lens, Kieslowski captures a faint reflection of his face, infused with the very instrument of his obsession. With the closing shot letting Filip dominate the frame in a close-up though, he becomes the independent centre of his own focus, prepared to take responsibility for his actions by finally his own story.

Camera Buff is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The Scar (1976)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 52min

Somewhere deep in the heart of Poland, loggers, developers, and civil servants are hard at work discussing plans. Their silhouettes stand behind columns of trees, splitting the frame into fragments that will soon coalesce into whole images as the natural vegetation is cut down. It might look as if the forest is collapsing in on itself, though down below we can clearly see men with chainsaws carving out a blank canvas for their associates to build on. Krzysztof Kieslowski had experimented in the realm of documentary and television before this point, but his theatrical feature debut The Scar acts as a launch pad for an illustrious career that would only go on to reach grander heights, probing questions in the realm of politics, metaphysics, and religion.

Relative to his great masterpieces of 80s and 90s cinema, The Scar is a modest piece of social realism, so grounded in the details of Communist Poland’s bureaucracy and use of non-professional actors that one might mistake certain scenes as being entirely real. At town forums where locals protest the development of the new chemical factory, dialogue spills out chaotically, and it isn’t hard to believe that the constant stumbling and interruptions might just be authentic expressions of anger. Though we are sympathetic to their plights, it is Party member Stefan Bednarz whose journey is placed at the forefront here, struggling against both the short-term thinking of the angry townspeople and the inefficient administration of his own co-workers. Kieslowski’s scathing critiques of Poland’s attempts at progress are organically woven into these interactions, each one chipping away at Stefan’s idealism until all we are left with is a frustrated, disillusioned man.

From behind glass windows, Stefan looks out at the industrial results of his efforts. Steel beams and towering concrete structures imprint against the frigid white landscapes of the Polish winter where trees once stood, like colossal monuments to human progress. Though The Scar is rooted in a realistic style like most of Kieslowski’s early work, there is something a little otherworldly in his sparse musical score, particularly memorable in the scene of Stefan switching the lights on and off from within his office. When it is dark, we can see the industrial architecture outside, though when the lights come up we catch his reflection in the glass, infused with the modern development that, depending on any character’s perspective, has either destroyed this small town or given it a future.

“We haven’t accomplished all we wanted to here. And neither have I,” laments Stefan towards the end of the years-long project, wishing to leave it at the earliest possible opportunity. Seeing his colleagues kick out a reporter with whom he has developed a casual friendship is one of the last straws. The government’s lack of openness not just with the public but within its own ranks is its ultimate downfall, failing to connect with the state of the world in any meaningful way.

That detachment is one that pays off towards the end as the men in suits stand multiple storeys above the congregating factory workers below, staring in fear at what possible unionisation might be taking place to dethrone them from their tower. The sequence is wordless but powerful, delivering both a sense of unease and a taste of hopeful change on the horizon. Perhaps this potential uprising could have been averted had there been more men like Stefan in the Party, though that may be too optimistic for Kieslowski. As far as we see in The Scar, Poland’s soulless, corrupt bureaucracy is operating exactly as it was intended.

The Scar is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.