DON'T LOOK NOW

Director Nicolas Roeg, adapting a Daphne Du
Maurier story, gives us one of the most unnerving films ever made outside the horror genre. For bereaved parents tragedy can beget its own bizarre offspring, as Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie learn on taking a recuperative working-trip to Venice after their daughter's accidental drowning.  The city of dreams becomes a place of nightmare and hallucination.  Roeg, who learned his movie craft as a cameraman (FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, PETULIA), brilliantly pulls focus between reality and illusion, monument and mirage, up to the story's climax in a moment of mischievous, absolute terror.

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

HENRY V

This film of Shakespeare's patriotic party piece was made to celebrate British victory after the war.  But it transcends that agenda as nimbly as Olivier's camera transcends its first setting, soaring beyond the mock-up Globe Theater where the movie begins.  Having transported his cast to a multicolored landscape where "all the world's" a stage set, the  director-star then counters that artifice with bursts of climactic naturalism - a 'real' Battle of Agincourt in a real field - and breathes his own fire through the film's spaces as King Harry.  Purring like an enchanter or braying like a trumpet, this is a great Shakespearean actor bestriding the greatest Shakespearean film.

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY


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THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS

Ermanno Olmi, the plain man of 1950s neorealism with IL POSTO (THE JOB) and I FIDANZATI (THE ENGAGEMENT), took a color palette and announced a new style with this 3-hour, Cannes Golden Palm-winning saga of rural  life.  From glowing oil-lit interiors to vistas of river, meadow or  olive orchard, this portrait of turn-of-century Lombardy is a sacrament in  honor of ordinary lives.  Tomato-growing; the troubles of small children;  a wedding; a sick animal; the mysterious magic of Mozart wheezing from  the landowner's midnight gramophone.  Like all great movies it is infinitely resonant, not least with Olmi's hints of expulsion from Eden.

                                           ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog one of the flag-carriers of the New German Cinema, set his pennant flying with this stylized melodrama.  The hero (Hans Hirschmuller) is a  humble fruit and vegetable seller who learns new humilities when his wife, as he suspects, betrays him.  Domestic misery and frustrated dreams - he cannot even join his yearned-for Foreign Legion - lead on to cruelty and self-destruction.  Fassbinder's faux-naif style suggests a picture book for grownups.  Gestures are subtly mannered, acting styles both impassioned and impassive.  The restraint makes the audience work to humanize his leading character, who emerges as an antihero in the great tradition of German lumpen-tragedy, worthy of Buchner's Wozzeck.

                                           ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

METROPOLIS

"Great vision of the future, shame about the script" sums up critical opinion today on Fritz Lang's unwieldy masterwork.  Though he laboured hard at his message about Capitalism in this tale of workers rising against bosses in a city of the future, the bromides about equality and social justice - however timely in Pre-Hitler Germany - seem dated and jejune today.  The decor steals the show:  soaring skyscrapers linked by skyways and buzzed by planes, the Moloch jaws of factory machinery, the flooding worker's ghetto.  Best of all, the laboratory where Brigitte Helm's robot comes to life, in a macabre champagne effervescence of sparks, bubbles and electric fizzes. Enjoy, with or without the rock score added in 1988 by Giorgio Moroder.

                                           ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL

With the early films of Glauber Rocha, Brazil enrolled in the best of  world cinema.  Sowing the seeds of a unique iconography in the parched northern plains, Rocha combined landscape lyricism with religious symbolism and a harsh tabloid melodrama.  A white cowman kills the boss who tries to rob him and becomes an outlaw, following a black preacher-saint through a journey of blood and self-discovery.  What became a handicap in later Rocha films - eclectic echoes of Ford and Eisenstein, jagged time-chopping narrative, the sound of Marxist axes being ground - is only a distant threat here.  We are hypnotized by a  story that offers both linear excitement and rich accretions of metaphor.

                                         ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE VANISHING

A Dutch-French film so powerful that it was instantly remade, to less effect, by Hollywood.  Director George Sluizer turns a dormant universal fear - a loved one's unexplained disappearance - into a nightmare broad, and engulfing.  When a young tourist's girlfriend vanishes at a motorway service area he spends months seeking her supposed abductor.  Meanwhile, almost from the film's start, we follow that abductor:  a kindly mannered family man with a penchant for  burying people alive.  He and his hunter finally meet, only to make a  pact that ushers in the worst horror of all.  Sluizer's style, bright and pokerfaced as a travelogue, turns this tale into the high-noon shocker of  modern cinema.

                                         ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS

Fact, fiction and fantasy blend in this incomparable pageant from writer-director team Jacques Prevert and Marcel Carne.  shot in Nazi- overrun Paris, its own wish-fulfillment 19th century Paris is overrun by great actors, glamorous women, sorrowful clowns and lovable rogues. Jean-Louis Barrault's bird-like mime loves Arletty's beautiful courtesan who loves, and is briefly loved by, Pierre Brasseur's vainglorious matinee idol.  Add kiss-curled criminal Marcel Herrand - based like all the males on a real historical character - and the fusion of romance, cynicism and historical lese-majeste is irresistible.  Cameraman Roger Hubert crafted the film's limpid tableau-vivant style.  Alexandre Trauner, a Jew forced into semi-hiding during the filming, designed the majestic sets.

                                        ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI

Who is mad and who is sane?  Long before today's radical psychological theorists, this German Expressionist horror classic blurred the distinction between sane and insane in a serial murder plot of macabre élan.  The studio sets, resembling giant cut-outs, could have been designed by several madmen working to prove they were geniuses: tilted roofs, distorted windows, sharp-angled walls, corkscrewing streets.  Through these walks Conrad Veidt's Cesar, killer- somnambulist, preying on beautiful victims to the despair of his 'keeper' Werner Krauss.  But is everyone really who they seem in this mesmerizing forefather to the Gothic Cinema or have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

                                           ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

BICYCLE THIEVES

The simpler a movie plot, the more ingeniously critics try to account for its enduring power.  In De Sica's 1948 neorealist classic, is the bicycle stolen from the unemployed hero, who needs it for his brief but precious bill-sticking job, a symbol?  Does it stand for life --freedom?  Even cinema?  (The two wheels have been said to suggest the reel-housings of an early movie camera.)  All theories are welcome, but finally the bicycle is a bicycle;  just as the man is a man and his small son is a scene-stealer who helps give this plain-shot story its overpowering charge of pathos and humanity.  David O Selnick offered De Sica a Hollywood budget and Cary Grant.  De Sica said "no," made it without stars in Italy, and the world still cheers.

                                            ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

MAD MAX

The great Australian movie is as elusive as the great American novel. But MAD MAX comes close to being an Antipodean 'Moby Dick':  a revenge-and-obsession tale pitting outsize characters against each other on a turbulent portion of the world's belly.  Mel Gibson won his Hollywood passport as the title-hero, a leatherclad hunk spraying the outback with motorbike fumes as he hunts the killer of his wife and child.  Director George Miller shoots from every imaginable camera angle, while crafting a feral underworld in scrap-heap chic that has influenced a dozen movies from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to WATERWORLD.

                                             ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
A TOUCH OF ZEN

This lyrically shot costume epic won the Cannes Golden Palm and put  Hong Kong cinema on the world arthouse map.  The ingredients matter less than the way director King Hu stirs and mixes them.  Ghosts, abandoned forts, imperiled heroines, swordfights - the traditional stuff of Eastern action cinema is all here.  But the 3 hour plot allows character to develop and a symphonic rhythm to build, as the 'Scope screen alternates supple tracking-shots and eerie shadow play with sudden sforzandi of bravura physicality.  Crackling drapery, flashing steel and gravity-repudiating leaps abound.  And the final flight in a bamboo forest, rustling with menace and pierced by long spears of light, is the finest action sequence in Oriental cinema outside Kurosawa.

                                             ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

PATHER PANCHALI

In an Indian cinema long held prisoner by gaudy studio-shot musicals and adventure movies, Satyajit Ray's first feature was like a window thrown open to outside air and sounds.  His story is set in a poor Bengali village shot in black and white and teeming with real people doing the ruminative everyday things people do:  cooking, talking, surviving, dreaming.  The boy Apu (Subir Bannerjee) dreams of escape to the big city but must live with the smaller journeys and adventures of rural life in this 'little song of the road' (title's literal meaning), The slow pace is not for everyone:  Francois Truffaut famously walked out. But if poetry is the art of finding larger meanings in small things, Ray gives us here one of the great movie poems.

                                               ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

XALA

Senegal's Ousmane Sembene, called the father of African cinema, fashioned this majestically lethal satire on colonialism, giving a literal twist to the idea of cultural emasculation.  A middle-aged Dakar businessman takes a third wife but on honeymoon night finds he cannot rise to the occasion.  Scouring the city for aphrodisiac advice, he is failed in turn by witch doctors, white doctors, mind doctors, quack doctors.  Based on Sembene's own novel, this tale of panic in the heart of civilization tilts alike at colonialised snobbery - the hero uses French mineral water to wash his car - and at the tattered vestiges of tribal belief.  The climax, outleaping comedy altogether, adds a last savage indignant flourish.

                                               ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
ANGEL

Emerald isle meets film noir in this voluptuously intelligent debut by novelist-filmmaker Neil Jordan.  Part thriller, part fable of Irish politics, ANGEL begins with a double murder - a jazz club manager and  a deaf-mute girl gunned down in the blue-and-orange glow outside a midnight pub - and grows into a delayed-action revenge tale like a road-movie Hamlet.  Saxophonist Stephen Rea zigzags across Northern  Ireland seeking not just the killer's identity but his own too (what are his creed and loyalties?) and perhaps his country's.  No Irish film about Ireland has so firmly pushed aside propaganda to explore deeper perplexities of national character, or so deftly mixed narrative populism with allegory and allusion.

                                              ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE

It is a brave Spanish director who punningly likens 'Franco' to 'Frankenstein' before the former had even hied to release Spain from the dark years of Fascism.  Victor Erice's tale of an 8-year-old girl's growing up may be the most perfectly focused debut in modern European cinema.  Through the haunted eyes of actress Ana Torrent we see the banality of family life, the sights and sounds of a 1940 Castilian village and the nightmarish beauty of the icon that lumbers into town one night with a traveling film show.  No sooner has Boris Karloff taken over her dreams than she meets a real fugitive 'monster' and must decide by what rules her life should be lived:  other people's fantasies or her own dawning, newly struggling intelligence.

                                              ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

PERSONA

A great filmmaker battles with the limits of film.  Bergman's innovative agenda is clear from the opening montage: jarring, disconnected images climaxed by the apparent 'burning' of the film in the projector. Next a boy lying in a morgue-like ward reaches towards two faces on a  giant screen, like an artist trying to release his dream.  Finally, the 'story' begins (Liv Ullman) struck mute by some unnamed trauma.  But even here the themes of fractured communication and the agony of the untellable break out from content into form.  Characters speak straight to camera or repeat whole scenes from different angles.  And in one key image the two actresses' are visually elided, to stunning effect, to suggest Siamese twins of the soul.

                                               ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

MIRROR

Man's love-hate relationship with his past is hauntingly visualized in this movie-autobiography by Russia's greatest modern director.  Shot in a grainy monochrome that flickers on the edge of color, it melds past and present, true and reimagined events.  Some scenes boast a documentary realism like those in the hospital where his mother worked, while others - a horse standing phantom-like in a misty field, an oil lamp burning with an otherworldly glow - cleave to the world of Tarkovsky's other parent:  the poet-father who reads his own verses on the soundtrack. The film's defining camera device is surely the contrary-motion zoom- track, perfectly suggesting the push-pull appeal of a bygone but still binding past.

                                               ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

RASHOMON

Truth has as many faces as a jewel, says this teasing, gleaming movie in which four witnesses to a rape give evidence through four conflicting flashbacks.  When a samurai's wife is ravished and her husband killed by a roving bandit (Toshiro Mifune), she, the bandit, a priest and a woodcutter offer their divergent stories; until the ever more multi- faceted incident resembles a diamond being constantly revolved in the light.  Winning the Venice Golden Lion in 1951, the film excited new world interest in Japanese cinema, opening eyes not just to Kurosawa but to fellow masters Ozu and Mizoguchi.

                                               ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

AN ACTOR'S REVENGE

Director Kon Ichikawa, whose first career was as an animator, turns this 19th century murder plot into a moving picturebook.  The Kabuki theater world the hero inhabits - a female impersonator played by veteran Japanese star Kazuo Hasegawa - encourages a lyrical inferno of imagery, from heightened make-up to multicolored drapery of stage costume.  By the time the colors and textures of formal melodrama begin bleeding into the 'real' plot - the hero's revenge on his parents' three murderers - Ichikawa has established his style of high- intensity artifice (partly based on Japanese prints) and we watch the masterly showdown between illusion and reality.

                                              ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
 
THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS

This film that ends with a famous tracking shot to the sea, as the fugitive hero enacts his lung-filling run to waves' edge, ushered in its own  momentous 'wave':  the French Nouvelle Vague.  Truffaut's part- autobiographical tale of a subteen tearaway (Jean Pierre Leaud), striving towards adulthood through truancy and petty crime, and a new era for his country's filmaking.  The stiffness of classical cinema was replaced by improvisation, handheld cameras and locationwork. And a 'cinema stylo' ('handwriting cinema') was born, in which the author's personal signature, however idiosyncratic, was prized above streamlined production values.

                                             ©  HARLAN KENNEDY  

PICKPOCKET

Twenty years after the coming of sound, Robert Bresson effectively reinvented silent cinema.  This movie about crime and redemption proceeds almost by sign language.  The loneliness of the young hero (Martin La Salle) who drifts into pickpocketing is inscribed in his walk and the hang of his head; just as the people around him - victims or fellow crooks - are sketched in subtle, even spartan details of body language.  Inspired by Dostoevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, the film views evil as a test for goodness, a furnace that man must pass through to find salvation.  Bresson himself survived to become a powerful influence on later directors like Muarice Pialet (UNDER  SATAN'S SUN) and Paul Schrader (AMERICAN GIGOLO),

                                             ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

An aesthete's delight and a moralist's nightmare.  Fifty years after history disposed of Adolph Hitler, Leni Riefenstahl's epic documentary in praise of Nazism still sits in film libraries under the heading 'Great Cinema.'  In 1935 the actress-turned-director was commissioned to film the Sixth Nazi Congress at Nurenburg and responded with a paean to national pride and the ultimate 'party political broadcast'.  Awash with banners, a-thump with marches and dizzy with sky-soaring crane shots, that turn base politics to balletic spectacle, the film is a masterpiece of movie craft.  Whether we should disregard what it represents, in admiring what it is, will no doubt go on being argued for generations to come. A classy monument to an evil twerp.

                                            ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE LEOPARD

Unlike the title animal Visconti's film has constantly changed its spots: now cut, now restored, now in English, now in Italian.  Yet this epic never loses its majesty, sprawling across half of Sicily as it recreates Giuseppe De Lampedusa's novel about a declining dynasty and the era  with it.  Against initial ridicule Visconti cast Hollywood he-man Burt Lancaster as the aging hero:  to be rewarded with a performance of spellbinding elegiac dignity.  By comparison co-stars Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale fade into the scenery.  But with scenery like this - ballroom set pieces - what film fan can complain.

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

ROME OPEN CITY

Rossellini's film set a style and standard for postwar Italian cinema. With a cast containing only two established actors (Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi) he painstakingly pieced together this tribute to the Resistance, overcoming budget difficulties and power cuts in the first weeks after Rome's liberation.  The movie's austerity is part of its force. Stripped of decoration, it depicts torture, execution and street death as if they were incidents in a fly-on-wall documentary.  Though initially shunned by Italians, who did not want grim reminders of the war, the film had a rapturous reception in New York and returned to Italy acclaimed a classic.

                                        ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES

A growing-up tale like no other.  Terence Davies' evocation of a  Liverpool childhood is part autobiography, part fantasy.  In sackcloth and amber colors the streets and parlors of 1950s Britain echo to a  grim postwar optimism as radios purr, romances burgeon in bobbed hairdos and the local cinema is showing LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING - to sniffles inside and a benediction of silvery rain outside. Amid the elegiaic gloom Davies has a flair for magical camera tricks - passing between years with a single tracking shot, as if down time's dark corridor - and for surreal singalongs, with the characters swapping sparse dialogue for sudden heart-affecting bursts of song. A splendid film.

                                        ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING

In fact, a medium-sized film (84 minutes) of coruscating power about private and public murder.  Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski's first international hit follows its antihero through bleakest Warsaw, whose yellowish-filtered vistas seem a map of his own alienated mind.  The young drifter casually kills a taxi driver, beating in his head with a rock;  he is far from casually  killed in return by the state.  Part of Kieslowski's  'Ten Commandments" series, this meditation on "Thou shalt not kill" has no forgiveness and no condemnation.  It simply states, in searing images, how cruelty begets cruelty in a world where instinct and automatic justice replace insight and compassion.

                                   ©  HARLAN KENNEDY 

RAN

Akira Kurosawa takes on Shakespeare's KING LEAR in this majestic late epic from Japan's greatest director.  For Ancient Britain read Mount Fuji, its ash-white slopes made ghostlier with mists.  For Lear and his three daughters, read warlord Hidetora and his three sons, serving up turmoil as 16th century Japan blossoms with bloodier war scenes even than KAGEMUSHA.  RAN (meaning 'Chaos') is as savagely lyrical with sound as with image - note the full-orchestral  battle climaxed by a leading character's death in impressive eerie silence.  And few but Kurosawa would cast a female impersonator as the Fool, giving the role a whole new offbeat power.  At 11 1/2 million it was Japan's costliest epic made, and every yen is on the screen.

                                 ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

LA REGLE DU JEU

Jean Renoir's dance to the music of time, made on the brink of World War Two, is the greatest of all French films.  A weekend party at a country chateau unites a large cast of characters, only to disunite them in a crescendo of love, jealousy and accidental death.  The idle rich (the castle's Count and Countess), the chattering wastrel and the hero of the hour (Renoir's  Octave and Roland Toutain's aviator):  all are joined in a celebration of human variety that becomes a lament for human harmony. "Everyone has his reasons,"  says Octave in the film's most famous line; though it is hard today to understand the reason behind the film's vilification on first-release.  Hastily cut to 85 minutes, it was restored and re-acclaimed in the 1950s.

                                  ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
8 1/2

The 'Circus Fellini' has its grandest outing in this category- defying film.  Comedy, fantasy and autobiography explode across the screen, sending their shrapnel of memory and image.  Film-maker Maracello Mastroianni is our hero-guide, a Fellini surrogate around whom swarm the lovers (Anouk Aimee, Claudia Cardinale), the showmen, the spongers and the affectionately sketched grotesques.  Fellini's brand of organized chaos has never been better organized;  its serious subtexts about illusion and the subjectivity of memory never better articulated. The film's influential fall-out can be seen in a dozen modern film-makers from Beneix (DIVA) to Woody Allen (STARDUST MEMORIES).

                                    ©  HARLAN KENNEDY     

AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD

Werner Herzog's cinema is about near-impossible challenges, taken on by both his characters and himself.  In this Amazonian adventure, part epic, part folie de grandeur,  he and his Spanish conquistador hero (Klaus Kinski) descend mist-clad mountains, battle jungles and survive whirlpools in the mystic quest for El Dorado.  Herzog's theme is the way vision turns into hallucination, ambition to obsession.  As the real turns into the surreal - a decapitated head that talks, a full-size galleon on a tree-top, a raft overrun by monkeys - AGUIRRE reveals the true color of madness and the pathos and beauty of the passions beneath it.

                                    ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE CONFORMIST

Before his high-blown international epics, Bernardo LAST EMPEROR  Bertolucci directed this perfect homemade chamber drama about passion and politics.  Jean Louis Trintignant is the weakling hero who struts for Fascism, torn by conflicting fears and guilty sexual secrets. The film strews his path with ironic rewards, including a beautiful wife and mistress (Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda), until the fateful assassination mission which will make or break him.  Full of wry touches - is the Paris professor he is appointed to kill a skit on Bertollucci's own mentor Jean-Luc Godard ? - the film is also a devastating picture of how personal neurosis can be converted into public posture.

                                     ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

BLACK NARCISSUS

Only an eccentric Briton would celebrate a war's end with a film about love-starved nuns in the Himalayas.  But in Michael Powell's glorious 1946 melodrama, drawn from Rumer Godden's novel, the heart-pangs of a convent's womenfolk (led by Mother Superior Deborah Kerr), pining for their unlikely menfolk (led by bare-kneed District Agent David Farrar) clearly stand for much more:  for a whole nation's emotions bursting to be free after the rigors and stiff upper lips of war.  Shot entirely in a British studio, it looks a dream:  which in many ways is exactly what it is.  Even the fevered palette of Powell's THE RED SHOES cannot match the gleaming mountains, the dizzying Technicolor gorges, the wind soughing through the palatial convent like the ghost of forgotten desire.

                                     ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

NOSFERATU

Or Dracula by another name.  German director F.W. Murnau swam against the cultural tide when he shot this 1921 vampire film entirely on     location.  Amid the German Expressionist era’s craze for distorted sets and hothouse artifice, Murnau took his main character to a real castle in real mountains.  Horror is heightened by being conjured from the everyday: crow-haunted skies, steepling crags, dank castle interiors ominous with shadow.  The few flurries of trick photography - fast motion, double-exposure - are the more frightening for their unexpectedness.  And the tall bony Max Schreck, with bat ears, rat teeth and insomnia-darkened eyes, makes Christopher Lee look like your friendly neighborhood banker.

                                     ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

ZENTROPA

A film in the great tradition of "All the world's a train" movies, from SHANGHAI EXPRESS to THE LADY VANISHES.  Danish director Lars Von Trier depicts end-of-war Germany as a nest of conspiracy and suspicion, seen by a naïf American (Jean-Marc Barre) taking a job with his uncle's rail company.  He falls foul of a girlfriend with a secret (Barbara Sukowa), a Nazi gang with a bomb, and a black-and-white movie screen subjected to every known technical trick, from back-projection to color bleeds to KANE-style cutaway-scenery.  Mixing visual kitsch with political satire,  and stirring in a dash of misanthropy, Trier creates a sort of CITIZEN TRAIN:  the rise and fall of the new industrial age and the human casualties  it leaves behind.

                                      ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
L'AVVENTURA

Michelangelo Antonioni's movie is a haunting tale of love and death -  the death of the soul - in modern Italy.  It begins with one vanishing: a girl's mystery disappearance from a volcanic island she visits with friends.  It then gathers itself to explore a larger vanishing:  that of life's meaning in a world where humans have displaced God. The  'spiritual' has been sucked from the 'material' and the new wasteland that heroine Monica Vitti explores, caught in a disenchanted romance with Gabriele Ferzetti (the vanished girl's architect fiancee), is that of culture and hedonism in the late 20th century.  Dazzling even in its  nihilism, the film is like an abstract picture painted with blood and tears.
                                       ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

Or, the apotheosis of the movie close-up. Danish director Carl Dreyer filmed this french story in France, picking his player's faces as if off a gallery wall.  Though virtually an assemblage of still shots, the film is overpoweringly dramatic.  Using transcripts of Joan's real trial, Dreyer telescopes eighteen months into one courtroom day, cutting with a cumulative rhythm between Joan's innocence and the malignity of her judges.  Faces crane into camera like gargoyles; or lean back with lordly sneers; or in the case of Renee Falconetti's Joan, convey by an impassioned stillness the deepest aquifers of grief and fear.

                                       ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

L'ATALANTE

Movie plots come no simpler than this tale of a honeymoon on a barge. The young captain (Jean Daste) takes his bride (Dita Parlo) up-river in a film that slips its own moorings, gently, lyrically and astonishingly, to become a cine-poem in black and white.  When a quarrel separates the lovers, director Jean Vigo uses the imagery of yearning to reunite them: a surreal underwater vision of a swimming bride; cross-cuts between his face and hers, each nestling in a lonely snowscape of bedsheet and pillow; the cracked and haunting waltz music played by the barge's  mate (peerless Michel Simon, France's answer to Charles Laughton). Vilified and cut after its first showing, the film was restored and reappraised in the 1970s..

                                       ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

NAPOLEON

Thirty years after cinema was invented, France's Abel Gance reinvented it.  This 4 1/2 hour epic never merely photographs acted history.  It brings it to life with one visual coup after another. Cameras placed on horseback or suspended like tolling bells; flurries of multiple exposure in crowd or war scenes; and the climactic triple-split screen colored in red. white and blue to match France's Tricoleur flag (Cinerama 30 years before its time). The actors are not left behind in the race towards a total cinema. Albert Dieudonne's Napoleon is a Delacroix portrait sprung to life, while Gance himself is a suavely charismatic St-Just and Antonin Artaud, inventor of the Theatre of  Cruelty guest cameos as Marat.

                                       ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

The favored Sergei Eisenstein anthology piece is usually IVAN THE  TERRIBLE.  But where that epic boasts splendid set pieces amid structural sprawl, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is sharp and flashing as a jewel.  Recreating a mutiny and its aftermath in 1905 Odessa,  Eisenstein spares no horror in this historical accident that became a rallying-call tragedy.  From close-ups of worm-crawling meat on the ship to teeming, reeling bodies on the Odessa steps, where Tsarist troops fire on sympathizers, the movie uses celluloid itself as a deadly weapon.  The film was made for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution, but history may judge Eisenstein not Lenin the  more lasting revolutionary.

                                       ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE PIANO

This New Zealand is less the land of butter commercials, more Conrad's 'heart of darkness':  a primitive swath of rain forest, circa 1890.  The talent mix is no less exotic.  An Australian director,  American leading players, one of whom (Holly Hunter) plays a mute Scotswoman, and a British composer (Michael Nyman) rolling out dark romantic melody as Hunter strays from her arranged betrothal to  missionary Sam Neill. When she falls in love with foreman Harvey Keitel sex, jealousy and the bartered keyboard of her beloved piano are the prelude to more harrowing things.  It might have been risible. But in Jane Campion's hands human absurdism never weakens the tragedy but spices and strengthens it.  Both Hunter and the piquant, expressive Anna Paquin as her daughter won Oscars.

                                       ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

HOUR OF THE WOLF

Ingmar Bergman never had to move far to prove himself part of the Gothic tradition.  HOUR OF THE WOLF is PERSONA or THE SILENCE with extra grand guignol:  the macabre tale of a dream-haunted artist-recluse (Max Von Sydow) and his struggles, real or imaginary, with a strange troupe who perform THE MAGIC FLUTE.  Scary images are undercut with sardonic humor, but Bergman's subject is deadly serious:  the boomerang retribution that can greet an artist, who after boldly letting fly the contents of his imagination sees them fly back to tease and torment him.

                                        ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE THIRD MAN

The best Orson Welles film Welles never directed.  The 1940s wonderboy steals all his acting scenes as charismatic racketeer Harry Lime, luring his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) into an Allied- occupied Vienna seething with film noir menace.  British director Carol Reed, peeling leaves from the Welles handbook, gives us low-angled camerawork, high contrast monochrome and dazzling trick effects. Watch for the shot that passes 'through' a vase of flowers before it frames Welles first appearance in a midnight doorway, his cat-like grin snapshotted by a neighbor’s briefly flicked-on light.  Graham Greene wrote the witty script, though Welles himself invented his great Ferris Wheel speech about cuckoo clocks. 

                                        ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Upper lips were never stiffer than in this classic British romance written  by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean.  Day-tripping up to London, dowdy-hatted housewife Celia Johnson meets handsome doctor Trevor Howard.  They make small talk; swap nervous smiles; fall in love.  Though the film never steps outside the mundane, from railway cafes to borrowed lovenests to snatched idylls on a river - and though a whole tradition of parody was spawned by the choked uppercrust dialogue - the story's emotional sails are filled by its unsurpassed account of repressed yearning.  This is David Lean before ZHIVAGO and RYAN'S DAUGHTER when his big effects were achieved with subtle tiny details  on a tiny canvas.

                                        ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

RED SORGHUM

Zhang Yimou's lacerating film about love, war and the many faces of  betrayal announced the birth of modern Chinese cinema.  The ground shakes almost literally from scene one, as the litter-born heroine (emergent superstar Gong Li) is carried through raw and rocky landscapes to her arranged marriage with a leprous gin distiller. Ensuing scenes of violence, forced passion and hellish merriment - the husband's fellow workers join in the wife-baiting - lead up to the real apocalypse:  war's outbreak and the more ordered, ghastlier carnage of reprisal.  The blood-red color filters, restless camerawork and elemental framings give a giant subject giant justice.

                                         ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES

Was the true ancestor of the movie the mosaic?  Piecing together images from the 18th century world of his real-life poet-hero Sayat Nova, Sergei Paradjanov gives us the most dazzling series of 'montages' since Eisenstein.  Parading in jeweled fragments are animals, people,  churches, icons, robes drenched in dyeing vats, carpets raising their colors flowerlike to the sky (Sayat began as a weaver).  This celebration of artistic freedom and the passion of the senses comes to us from a man often denied both.  Paradjanov died after a history of Soviet persecution and imprisonment, though he lived to see his once-banned masterpiece released in the West in 1977.

                                         ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

UGETSU MONOGATORI

Not so much a ghost story, more the greatest Japanese film ever made. 'Tales of The Silvery Moon After Rain'  (literal title) is about a potter, a wife and the ghost for whom he abandons his marriage, thinking his temptress flesh.  The fourth main character is Mizogochi's unforgettable portrait of mediaeval Japan.  Bustling with reality while eerie with a  bygone grandeur, it is as ambivalent as the specter at its center; or as the lake swathed in mist from which a lone boat emerges in the most stunning single sequence.  Based on supernatural stories by Akinari Veda and Guy De Maupassant, it transcends terror to become a film about love, loss, dreaming and the nature of being human.

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY 
TOKYO STORY

In Yasujiro Ozu's films, as in Chekhov's plays, complexity hides beneath a plain domestic surface.  In this 1953 masterwork two elderly parents leave their seaside home to visit children and grandchildren in Tokyo.  Nothing, in Hollywood terms, 'happens.'  But Ozu's camera,  patient as an ornithologist, catches each breath of tension, each tiny current of love, compassion, resentment, disillusion.  With time intensifying poignancy since the mother is dying, the history of a family is slowly revealed, perhaps the whole human family.  A film of haunting universality, anchored in a piercing particularity.

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

LOS OLVIDADOS

Bunuel's return to film-making in the 1950s after 18 years' silence is a devastating fusion of his early strengths.  Uniting the documentary realism of LAND WITHOUT BREAD with the surrealism of UN CHIEN ANDALOU, LOS OLVIDADOS (catchpenny US title, THE YOUNG AND THE DAMNED) portrays poverty and delinquency in Mexico City.  As social document the film is potent enough:  a grim toll of blindness, mutilation, deprivation and despair. But dream is laid on reality like a succubus, feeding on its victim for its forays into the fantastic.  Spirits rise from bodies, hallucinations are born from hunger.  Conversely and memorably, 'real' truth rises from staged truth in one scene when a boy, as if disgusted with the masquerade of film-making, throws an egg straight at the camera lens. 

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY

THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS

A  4-hour Greek film about history and the national soul - at Cannes in 1975 critics came to yawn but stayed to marvel.  An unheard-of director, giving them barely penetrable chunks of pageantry, kept them gripped through all the long slow tracking-shots - as the foot-traveling acting troupe walk and talk - as well as references to ancient Greek drama and sidelights, symbolic or satirical, on modern Greece.  Filmed in the last months of tyranny under the Colonels, a style that might have seemed pompous and grandiose elsewhere here has a terrible beauty and a forlorn, damned courage.

                                          ©  HARLAN KENNEDY
movie pops
BY HARLAN KENNEDY