The Pianist (2002)

Every survivor has a story, and few are as compelling as that of Władysław “Władek” Szpilman, the Polish composer and musician whose autobiography is the basis for Roman Polanski’s 2002 film, The Pianist. Szpilman is a beloved figure of modern Polish culture, his many themes still popular more than ten years after his death in 2000 at the age of 88. His life can be viewed as one of ultimate triumph, his spirit not cripplingly embittered by his experience in the Warsaw ghetto. Viewing this film has only served to whet my appetite for Szpilman’s autobiography, to see if I can discover afresh in print some of the philosophical underpinnings that Polanski developed, and that I cherish, in the film version. The fact that it is usually the other way around with books and film only enhanced my enjoyment and respect for this film treatment.

Most people have seen The Pianist, but I hadn’t until recently, for two fairly straightforward reasons. First, since viewing Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, Shoah, about twenty years ago, I had been unable to watch another film about the Holocaust. That film, in a word, did me in. The other reason was my own mini-protest against Roman Polanski for reasons that are all too well-known and which won’t bear any fruit upon repeating. Thus, it isn’t for me to write much about the plot of a film that is already ten years old, other than to say it is a frank and almost unrelentingly bleak story of survival against overwhelming odds.

In a sense, I already knew the outer shape of the story, how from 1940 until 1943 the Jews of Warsaw were rounded up and walled into a ghetto where most of them either succumbed to starvation or disease, were slaughtered in the streets or their homes, or were shipped to Treblinka. Annihilation, if you can begin to imagine it, by as many means as you can conjure. All of that is here within Polanski’s film.

Then there is the pianist, Szpilman, the man whose characterization is so deftly carried by Adrien Brody. Szpilman is a man whose temperament, upbringing, talent, and an intersection with luck combine to keep him alive. It is the character of Szpilman which fills the story and makes The Pianist complete and outstanding.  Early in the film, even as his career playing piano for Polish radio is abruptly curtailed, Brody’s Szpilman is a man who maintains a gentility and posture that never becomes defensive. Szpilman is open, eager, and never attempts to hide who he is as a man, even though much of the film depends upon the suspense that revolves around his physical status as a person in hiding. He is vulnerable in the most painstaking, important sense of the word, and there are not many cinematic or literary themes more exciting for me than a subtle portrayal of a person who chooses to remain vulnerable in places which would seem to demand otherwise.

Within The Pianist lies the question of dignity and whether it is better to mount a fight and perhaps die on more even terms, or whether, even if it means clinging to the boots of a man who has just delivered a beating, the ultimate proof of strength is to be found in letting go of defense. Survival, not of the most powerful, but of the most human.

This brings me to the scene I would like to freeze and make permanent in my mind. It comes near the end, when Szpilman is found by a German officer who may or may not harm him. Polanski’s skill allows the viewer to feel the exposure, cold, hunger, and fear that he himself certainly knew as a child and that Brody projects so well as an actor. When the well groomed, crisply uniformed German forces the starving Pole to play the piano for him, there is nothing to do but smile at the defiance in Szpilman’s choice of Ballade No.1 in G Minor by Chopin, that most romantic and emotional, and Polish, of all composers. It is a moment which flings the sensibility and beauty of art into the face of all which is supposed to be true but is only a puffed up lie. What happens after that is the reason you should see The Pianist.

Moneyball (2011)

Come with me for a bit, let’s fall back slowly to un-see Moneyball. That’s right. Ideally, I’d take you along with me this way, beginning with last night’s audience reaction in my hometown theater, back to the meaty minutes within the film where its fulcrum is held, then further back to a sketch of the plot and characters. It would be like instant replay, only in reverse. Then, we’d zoom again and again to that brief bit of dialogue, the pivotal exchange that would have us both cheering inside and wanting to jump from our seats to punch the air. Yeah, I’m that enthused for this film and would give anything if such an approach would work. As it is, you will just have to see the film, and I’ll have to upend my thoughts, slow down, and take it from the top…

Moneyball takes place in the gritty urban setting of Oakland, a city dimmed just a bit in proximity to its shining neighbor. If director Bennett Miller had shown it, the glint of wealth and polish from San Francisco pouring across the bay with the late day sun might cause your eyes to burn. Wisely, Miller is a much more subtle and finer artist who makes no such comparison. In Moneyball’s Oakland, within the A’s clubhouse, the cheap fluorescent lighting and harsh paint of the club offices do enough to make sharper the distinction between a team with its small market payroll and that of the one who’s just handed it a drubbing, the ever flush Yankees. Much of the film takes place in the drab workings of the Oakland Coliseum, and you can practically smell the feet tramping the worn indoor-outdoor carpet as fading banners from the A’s glory days hold tenuously outside, testament to something that hasn’t been seen there in a while.

Moneyball begins in October 2001, and loss of the American League title to the Yankees weighs heavily upon Oakland’s general manager, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. Beane is a man whose life has been shaped by a decision that he once made based upon numbers and whose ability to do his job is stifled by the lack of numbers representing team wealth. He’s in his forties, divorced, a manager who moans, “I hate losing more than I love winning.” He’s more anxious than superstitious, able to watch or listen to games only from the club weight room or his pickup truck. Pitt brings a depth and mystery to his characterization, a bit of off-kilter specialness that imbues his Beane with both a thinking person’s distance and a whiff of vulnerability. When he visits his daughter in the ultra sleek home of his ex-wife and her husband, there’s an almost imperceptible shift in his bearing that is more endearing than hundreds of sentimental screen moments in succession could ever be.

When he travels to Cleveland for some 2001 post-season trading, Beane meets a young assistant to the Indians’ general manager, the precise and articulate Peter Brand, played with wonderful freshness by Jonah Hill. Brand is recently graduated from Yale, with an economics degree and big ideas spoken credibly, if tentatively. Beane is so impressed with those ideas that he tells Brand, “pack your bags, Pete, I’ve just bought you from Cleveland.” Thus, the two men begin to reshuffle the 2002 Oakland team, looking far beyond the traditions of baseball to craft their lineup and, in the process, causing upset within the organization. Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent and witty screenplay cleanly propels the film with dialogue, pulling the audience along in the swoop of thought and play without once stooping to twist or manipulate.

It’s in the person of Billy Beane that Brad Pitt stretches into greatness. For me, he’s always been an uninteresting actor, his bland chiseling seemingly inhabited by nothing more than boredom, perhaps with his looks or celebrity. In Moneyball, he’s a person, a bit grizzled and weary, shadows crossing his face, ones that can’t be washed away by the fleeting nature of victory. It’s this central nugget of Beane’s character, the doubt and consideration, that’s delivered so well by Pitt more than halfway through the film when, in a few minutes of exchange with Peter Brand, Beane muses about the difference between the beige, forgettable nature of winning in professional sports, “the champagne, the money, the rings” — and what he wants it to mean. I could have kissed the screen.

If you are wishing for an easy feel-good film, one that fills you with a sense of triumph, you might shy away from Bennett Miller’s thoughtful release. But if you want to zig when zagging would be the comfortable choice, if you want to see a film about limits within the cults of money, success, and personal achievement, and then so many other things that you will take the long way home just to think about them all, well then, don’t be the last dog at the bowl. Race for your chance to see Moneyball.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

I’ve been thinking about this film for a while now, ever since the Friday night in early autumn when I decided to cap a week’s labor by viewing Vittorio Di Sica’s masterpiece about an impoverished Italian family in post World War II Rome. On that particular Friday night, it seemed everything in the immediate world needed to halt so that I could falteringly stumble into the realism lauded by so many as one of the most important films of all time. Lacking any knowledge for comparison or categorization, I was left alone on the sofa with Bicycle Thieves, viewing it with the same sort of work-weary eyes that surely attended its first showings in the provincial towns of Italy in the bleak years of the late 1940s.

Bicycle Thieves is not difficult to view in the technical sense. Di Sica presents the story as a straightforward, almost factual course. An out of work man, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), receives word from the local employment officer that he is eligible for work distributing movie posters, a position for which he must provide his own transport, a bicycle. This work has been a long time coming, and Antonio’s bicycle must first be redeemed at a sacrificially high price from the local pawn shop. On the proud first day of his new employment, a young man brazenly steals Antonio’s bicycle, leading the man and his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), on a journey through Rome in a desperate search to retrieve the means of their livelihood.

With such a simple premise, as the disc loaded I wondered if the film would be a fable-like musing on the importance of work, or if Di Sica would be giving me a lesson in post war economics. No such thing. For the viewer, Bicycle Thieves is akin to walking the streets tucked inside the coat pocket of Antonio or Bruno — dirty, hungry, filled with a cautious optimism one moment and utterly bereft of it in the next. The film’s careful use of light, rain — even the Roman pavement and architecture — all create a world of  painstaking realism. The portrayal of poverty as experienced by one family, and especially as it is borne by the child, reaches across the years with a firm tap on the shoulder.

While Bicycle Thieves presents an unsentimental primer on the desperation and the hard work that comes with being poor, it gracefully holds in its other palm a glimpse of the beautiful mosaic of family ties undiluted by the sort of upward striving that elevates individuals from poverty while rending them from home. Little Bruno, who has his own job at a gasoline station, is crucial to the search for the bicycle. He and his father share desperate moments, a terrifying separation, and a joyous episode of abandon. Antonio’s strides are long and not always easy for Bruno to fall into, but cling close the little boy does, father and son inseparably bound in the work of searching.

One line, spoken by Bruno, caused me to stop what I was doing, weeks after seeing the film. “We’ll look for it, piece by piece, then we’ll put it together.” With these few words, Di Sica captures an essence of childhood that is nearly impossible to describe but important to feel. Knowing that the child is the father of the man, Di Sica reveals in Bicycle Thieves the portrait of a man who is wordlessly instructing and encouraging his son at the childhood truth of keeping hope in the face of defeat.

The film’s climactic scene almost tramples what has been so carefully constructed, as the unfailing dignity of Antonio goes through a momentary, and shocking, transformation that threatens to tear him from Bruno in the cruelest manner. But the realism of the clinging child brings to the characters one of the few snippets of satisfaction to be found in Bicycle Thieves. The ending, painful though it is, somehow can be viewed as holding slim seeds of  possibility, the father and son relationship intact, boy and man together into the gray duration.

Bicycle Thieves rewards with infinite angles of complexity, themes that surface and recede upon reflection, and a final sense of ambiguity that stretches the viewer and stirs up questions about individual response and just how important it remains to snatch meaning from a work of art and to take it for ourselves, forever.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

There is always so much clamor going on. Attention seekers shout to the left and the right of things, up one side and down the other, round and round, backwards and forwards- it’s a noisy world. Good, then, for the occasional chance to escape the ruckus for an hour or so with a classic, a Western that promises rich storytelling and delivers, not only richness, but kernels of truth easily forgotten in the racket of modern discourse.

John Ford’s cinematic vision incorporates his belief in the beauty of human camaraderie, and he uses that solid foundation in order to pierce the ambiguities he himself flourishes on the screen; it’s one of the reasons he will always remain the consummate film director. When watching one of his films, I always enjoy the dark, unspoken corners into which his characters are allowed to wander, their silent attempts to stand strong alone, their inner sense of isolation, even self-loathing. At the same time, the subtle thump of Ford’s belief in community never fails to illuminate as deftly as his lighting a fine idealism that is as true today as it has always been. Ford’s belief in the dignity of humans acting in imperfect accord fairly hums through My Darling Clementine, an anthem sweeter and more lilting than the titular folk song.

My Darling Clementine bills itself as a retelling of the story behind the legendary alliance between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday culminating in the October, 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Wyatt Earp, played by Henry Fonda at his clean cut best, early on meets the dark side of humanity in the shape of the Clanton family, a cohesive unit of brutal, lying thugs who will stop at nothing to increase their cattle holdings. Ford then places the initial conflict between Earp and the Clantons skillfully into the background as Earp becomes Marshal, meets and befriends Doc Holliday, superbly played by Victor Mature, and falls in love with Clementine. At first glance, this might seem to be the straightforward telling of an old legend, but Ford’s intellectual range and skill imbues the narrative with detours and characterizations that dot the landscape of the story with poetry.

Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is the lawman’s lawman– observant, non-violent, and thoughtfully moral. Victor Mature’s Doc is a masterpiece of contradiction and dim, shadowy interiors, his individualism set aside in a crucial moment to quietly (with cowboys whooping and hollering in the background) portray something more central to the notion of America than Monument Valley, the idea that we can only have a finest hour as individuals when we are an integral part of a community that accepts and bears responsibility for one another. Ford’s characters might sashay it alone at times, but they do it right into the bevy of their neighbors’ arms.

My Darling Clementine, like most of John Ford’s work, is the kind of multi-layered marvel that rewards viewing and re-viewing. Sometimes it’s all about the lighting. Sometimes it’s all about one character or another. Sometimes it’s all about America. And sometimes it’s all about all of us.

Blowup (1966)

Recently I enjoyed viewing Blowup for a second time this year. After an initial experience last winter, I knew that the 1966 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni would be something special to me for a long time. Now, I understand why.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young London photographer, Thomas, played by David Hemmings. Thomas’ world is populated with the fashionable, the beautiful and sexy, the avant-garde young British who epitomized Swinging London of the 1960’s. Thomas enjoys great freedom, upscale living, the overweening attentions of young women, and the unapologetic solitude of his art. Openly contemptuous toward others, he moves with that stolid determination which the  self-absorbed carry as their right.

Antonioni unhurriedly allows the viewer to slide along with Thomas in some of his pursuits, to a morning photo shoot of high-fashion models, on a drive through London streets, into an antique shop for a bit of browsing, onto a large paper palette for casual sex. Thomas is a man who exists on his own plane, it would seem, one from which an intersection with anything not of his choosing appears unlikely. Therefore it’s a bit surprising, and wonderfully effective, when Thomas takes a slow walk into London’s Maryon Park and into that spot’s green world of summer-full leaves, spongy grass, and languidly unfolding intrigue. To say more would spoil the central pleasures of Blowup. This is a film to watch carefully, in a quiet room where, say, the tinkling ice of the evening’s margarita pitcher has been a pleasant precursor for the intimacy and discovery of this film.

It’s safe to say that nothing will lurch from without to make you jump during Blowup. There may be a few minutes, especially early on, when many viewers will wonder just where things are heading. Certainly that was the case for this viewer. But the beauty and surprise to be found in Blowup has everything to do with the purity of the beauty and surprise to be found in the sights, sounds, and feel of the medium. The final scene should not fail to lurch at you from within, when the grand finale of a charity rag intersects with such force in Thomas’ life that to watch the last minutes of Blowup is to experience  a sense of just how much a superbly crafted and emotionally replete film can express, all without a word.

In the Fog – Persona

Mr Webster defines fog as “a murky condition of the atmosphere or a substance causing it.” Dense fog rolled in here exactly one week ago and will not let go. It pushes against me from all around, disallowing any semblance of clarity on the ground and trying to obscure what is within. Forcing itself everywhere, the fog pervades –  from waking in its unearthly light until stumbling home beneath its dark weight and tamping of even the nearest lights. For all of its wispy meteorological properties and the faux dreamscape it renders, fog is harsh. The daylight, especially, struggles to find any place to fit within the earthbound clouds. What comes through is a hard brightness, a silvery attempt at definition allowing only impressions and uncertainty.

Fitting, then, that I chose to watch the 1966 film, Persona, in the middle of this foggy week.  The weather outside lent itself to all of the film’s grey notions and any murkiness within the viewer. Which is to say that amid Persona’s black and white, I can find very little that is clear, and much that causes me to want to push back against that quality, to struggle and place meaning where there is no straight view, to emerge from the fog.

Ingmar Bergman’s startling portrayal of two women who are, like dense clouds, close to the ground, uses imagery that is at once bleakly detached and vibrantly, even sexually, charged with closeness. Persona is, barely, the story of an actress, Elisabet Vogler, played by the majestic Liv Ullmann, and her nurse, Alma, rivetingly portrayed by Bibi Andersson. Elisabet, a maestro of words upon the stage, is stricken silent during a performance of Electra. The camera halts in a garishly bright, lingering view of her panicked, empty face, her pained mouth, haunted eyes, and sweat suffused lip. “She apologized afterward, saying she had got the urge to laugh.” But the frozen moment turns into a period of near catatonia and hospitalization for the actress.

Elisabet’s doctor places her in the express care of Nurse Alma, a young woman who has her life figured out, it would seem. “I’ll marry Karl-Henrik and have a couple of children, which I’ll have to raise. All of this is predestined. It’s inside me. It’s nothing to think about. It’s a safe feeling.”

Alma and Elisabet travel to the doctor’s seaside cottage to facilitate the silent actress’ recovery. There, as the center of the film unfolds and the viewer experiences the world of alienation and pain inhabited by both women, the only thing plain about the film is its universality. “Life trickles in everywhere.”

The women, their gauzy clothing and carefully lit skin placing a thin façade upon their overt sexuality, settle into their new locale. Elisabet begins a tentative, silent response to Alma’s caregiving by taking oceanside walks and writing letters. When a sudden downpour finds them inside for an evening, Alma, faced with the uncomfortable notion that she is the only one able to speak, begins to disclose secrets to which Elisabet responds with barely perceptible enrapturement and tightly restrained prurience. The cinematography which dwells upon the faces of both women reveals them to their pores and follicles.

Alma and Elisabet are women displayed by Bergman in raw, earthy aspect. They are alienated, alone, separated by intractable distance and pain from one another and from the world. It is an agonizing and yet beautiful thing to watch. Their attempts to care for one another, their efforts to dismiss and wound one another, the conflicted caring they impose upon others, all combine flawlessly to produce an unforgettable experience. Each woman has sought respite, Elisabet in silence, Alma in the numbing, fleeting liberation of sex. The viewer is free to go right there with them, into their skin. The film spends long minutes upon facial closeups of Ullmann and Andersson, blending and blurring their identities until the only thing visible, truly, is the image, not of one or two women, but of the viewer in a sharp moment of self-recognition.

Persona is a film that gathers resonance and impact long after the reels  symbolically burn in the closing.  Far from the “ingenting” left to Elisabet and Alma,  Persona is a film to be savored, lit from within, and kept for the bewildering journey.

The Misfits (1961)

Sometimes it’s better to start with the ending. I’d never seen any of Marilyn Monroe’s films until recently, though I’ve always admired her extravagant femininity and the dominant, native intelligence of her style and photogenic savoir faire. As an object of both glamour and human frailty, she remains on top of the heap. She’s easy to view alternately as both thing and person- the ever enigmatic public figure, the feminist puzzle, the cinematic cipher dripped in fantastical sheen that seemingly never dulls. How glad I am that my first Monroe film, her last, is the one about which its director John Huston quipped, “She had no techniques. It was all the truth, it was only Marilyn.”

The Misfits, released in early 1961, was, by the reckoning of any age, a financial and emotional boondoggle of production. The monetary costs were the most ever for a black and white film at four million dollars. The cast and crew suffered both self-inflicted maladies and the punishing heat of a desert locale. The story itself is less wasteful, spare even. Four people meet in Reno, Nevada and decide to party at the deserted ranch home of one of them, Guido, played by Eli Wallach. The revelers are themselves remnant of brighter, younger days. Clark Gable portrays a middle aged cowboy, Gay Langland, Wallach an underemployed WWII pilot, Thelma Ritter an older woman, Isabelle, who rents an apartment to new divorcée Monroe, as Roslyn Taber.

Intoxicated by one another as much as by the desert air and whisky they’re inhaling, the quartet form an instant bond, a rectangle of connection whose corners are solid. Ritter and Monroe, mutually protective and solicitous, are ends to sides of the two longhorns immediately fixated upon Monroe. Gable and Wallach, jockeying for position and attention, spend the evening dancing with Roslyn, getting her drunker until she whirls into the desert for something Rumi himself might smile upon.  Monroe,  shot-in-soft-focus be damned, unwinds early in The Misfits, her voluptuous glory and unique presence powering at you from somewhere real within, daring you to come along, make yourself fractionally as vulnerable as she is, then hang on for the bull ride.

For it’s to a rodeo they soon go, lazily picking up Montgomery Clift enroute. Clift’s Perce Howland is unforgettable, one moment all false bravado and the next a crumpled heap of confused and rejected cowboy. In my favorite scene, Perce luxuriates in the tender ministrations of Roslyn as they rest unceremoniously in an alleyway, Monroe’s dusty legs and dress serving as his pillow and rejuvenation. It’s an incomparable stretch, two shockingly beautiful humans, one with a comically bandaged head, licking their wounds and communicating with no wasted words, no junk, amid the garbage cans.

Monroe bonds with each man in the truest sense. She befriends them in three distinct ways, evolving into their moral compass, their not-so-silent inner voice. Guido, Gay and Perce plan to go “mustanging”, rounding up wild horses that they sell for a very rough maintenance. Monroe goes ”along for the ride”, but that’s such a tremendous expression of disservice to the emotional power she brings to the film’s centerpiece. It’s impossible to rope you any further without giving away much of this film’s dry, prickly beauty, which, to my surprise and delight, has nothing to do with any of Monroe’s physical appearance and everything to do with what can only be described as her guts. John Wayne was never this strong. Monroe in The Misfits is an almost feminist marvel, and for the first time I really saw her as a person, someone making a statement about what her life meant. And, equally, I wondered how she could manage such strength even as that life unraveled.

In searching for just the right photo to use here, I learned that earlier this fall, most of her images were judged as belonging to the public domain. She’s ours now, lock, stock and barrel, the push-pull between any vestige of her privacy and that of her stardom forever tipped to the side of the hungry public. But these are just photos. She lives in The Misfits.