Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Marketa Lazarová (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)

Although the story of Vlacil’s film about clan rivalry in the middle ages is essentially straightforward, its whys and wherefores on a first viewing are occasionally opaque. Surprisingly, this matters little as the film’s realisation of a medieval world, shot through with mysticism, folk beliefs, and an interpenetrating paganism and christianity is so convincing that the disorientation helps to draw us into the film. It is as if we had been dropped bodily in a world we only dimly apprehend, but which is alive with portent and ancient significance. We are like the child shown gnawing on a joint of meat by the fire as the adults talk of important matters with an unknown guest. We hear and recognise the names in their talking, their voices increasingly rough with drink, and we will follow their will. What follows are notes made after a first viewing which, I hope, give a taste of the world in which the viewer is immersed and which also try to preserve that delicious state of partial comprehension that is so thoroughly involving.

The lamb of god wandered through the mud of the early spring thaw and into an encampment, where it was slaughtered and eaten; eaten even by its own shepherd while he was drunk. Bereft, he then stumbled to the hills where he followed the bleats of an escaping thief. Later he took to the tracks once again and a goat served for his needs.

This is a thoroughly elemental film, a film of wind and flame, of marshes and mud. The winter is long here. We are so long with the snow that when an hour in, Lazar announces that the thaw is coming and water drips from the melt on the rooves, we are also expectant for the tentative warmth of spring. Instead we see the cold glister of chain mail on a man’s back as he rides home. At dusk, horses’ silhouettes skitter across the thawing ground which has the sheen of mercury, a slippery bed for the rough violation of a stolen girl. Wet, claggy snow clings on cart wheels. Pied carriage dogs hold their ears alert.

Marketa’s sleeves extend to the base of her fingers, a comfort nearly as soft as the down of the dove she pulls from her breast, its feathers loosed to the wind; an offering for the devout. Alexandra offers a blood sacrifice and a necklace of beads and feathers to the skulls on the fetish tree, kisses her brother’s left arm. The seeds of the wild grasses ripen in the sunlight. A serpent watches.

The creaking of ice, the wind through stone passageways and windows, the muted hammering on an anvil, the clank of implements hanging from carts, the splitting of carcasses and the beating of hides, the thunk of stone on a head, a chain against a breast-plate, the clash of swords, bells on a sled, the splash through water and the rolling of wheels, the burning of wood, the howl of wolves. These are some of the sounds behind Zdeněk Liška’s film music.

Clear air after snow, horses and their muck, burning brands, coltsfoot and butterburr, leather and hide, warmed skin, charred meat, pine woods, a bed of leaves, marsh mud, burning tallow tapers, burning logs, stale sweat, fear, blood. These are some of the film’s smells.

Characters call out to each other and catch sight of one another across time and space. Premonitions and memories fly, land and flash into vision, as if the falcons tethered to branches had been loosed. Men and women are assailed by visions, and omens have as much bodily presence as any reality. Black beasts and deer approach. Kozlik’s antlers are bigger than branches. Man is transient as a shadow.

The air is thick with voices, arrowed from the darkness of a wood at dusk. The trees talk. Later, limbs are but logs among the twisted branches and the leaf mould. Voices are ever on the air, echoing through Straba’s delirium around the walls of Rohacek, along with cries, whip cracks and the faintest of knocks on a thick wooden door. A sister offers the warmth of fur, a brother feels the rough, thick knots of a cord garment across his shoulders.

There is much hiding here, behind scrub and lacerating thorn-thicket. A white mare struggles to escape from the marsh, leaps through the water, but cannot pull herself out from the suck of the mud, watches us, then grazes on the marsh grass as we look back over our shoulders. We are caught, like the wood mice that snuffle between apparently sleeping fingers.

On a blasted bone-strewn heath, love and certainty fought with cruelty and doubt for the issue of the children’s souls. As ever was.

May your house be filled with health and happiness. May your oxen thrive.

Sundays and Cybèle (Serge Bourguignon, 1962)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)

Sundays and Cybèle (Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray) is a profoundly elemental film. Water, fire, trees, even glints of light are shown to be of essential significance to the story. They are filmed not as mere background to the human interest of the relationship between a pilot (Hardy Kruger), traumatised by the killing of a child in a colonial war and the young orphaned girl (the 12 year-old Patricia Gozzi) whom he meets as he waits to recollect both memory and the scattered parts of his self, but as central elements of their time together.

Beginning with a clash of cymbals that we later learn is taken from a Tibetan ceremony that signifies the encircling of the universe, we see Pierre, a fighter pilot, through a screen of flashback, in a raid over an Asian village. As he flies, water appears to sparkle in the sun in the fields below him. We then see that these glints of light are reflected from his own cockpit. He flies in close and fires at the village. His bullets pummel the quicksilver land which accepts the seeds of his future harvest. As he flies in closer still, a child’s terrified eyes are imprinted in his mind, he rips away his oxygen mask and floats free into stilled silence.

when I was glass
the land below me was glass
that would shatter at my touch
but at my approach it was water
and then earth I was seeding
and my body was this earth
rent by my fire
and a child took my eyes
and filled me with her fear

The surge of a train recalls Pierre to his surroundings, the railway station of Ville d’Avray. Now a bewildered man-child living with Madeleine, the woman who nursed him, he rises from his bench to regard the passengers that go past, looking for some kind of contact or recognition. A man and a chld arrive in his orbit and he is asked for directions to a convent which he cannot give. He catches eyes with the child and, distressed by her crying, follows them outside, where he attempts to console her by offering a handful of shining stones which he shows her by the light of a match. ‘Take one’, he says, ‘it’s the piece of a star.’ Her father will not allow it. ‘But it was just for fun’, says Pierre. ‘It’s water, only water’, and points of light, the first of those that gleam and sparkle throughout the film, twinkle in his and the girl’s eyes. As they head to the convent through the inky night, the whites of their faces, and the car lights that pass seem like planets in a dark night sky. A little while later, when, through chance and happenstance, Pierre has come to be taken for her father, and he and the girl, Françoise, are shown together, in silhouette in the dark of his room, the light from the landing catches the few reflective surfaces around them, and, for a while, it seems that they have formed their own universe.

They make their home in water, in the ripples of a lake that are set in motion when they dislodge a stone as he spins her around in play. As they look into the water, the trunks  and branches of trees loom large above their reflections, protective but dominant, knowing all already. ‘We’ve entered the circle’, says Françoise, and we see their reflections walk among trees in the water. Pierre’s vertigo, his fear of falling into water, is replaced by a fear of falling into the present.

with nothing to offer but stones
I offered stones, in lamplight
spilled across a cobbled road
a child appeared, and made
a home for me in water
that rippled our reflections
wavered the winter trees
and these I hung with flames

These ripples circle out into the rest of the film, into the coffee bowl that Pierre holds when he visits his friend Carlos, to help him construct a circular cage for his birds, into the music of the Tibetan ceremony that they listen to, into the windows of the derelict temple on the hilltop that Françoise first sees while looking through the facets of one of Pierre’s stones, into the finger bowl into which Pierre drops a stone at a wedding lunch when he cannot be with Françoise, into the dampened glass rims on which fingers circle their notes, into the broken rim of a champagne glass that cuts Pierre at his private Christmas celebration with Françoise at the derelict temple.

During one of their Sundays, Pierre carries Françoise through the trees around the lake. She stretches out across his arms as if she is floating upside-down and dreams of a Christmas together, a fir tree hung with stars and garlands, and glistening champagne, this image resonating with Madeleine’s eyes as Pierre tries to tell her, but cannot, why he is happier these days. The curious mixture of healing with subterfuge and misunderstood intentions, the adult conversations and emotions between children, one of whom is an adult, is too difficult to broach. Then winter comes and the lake is iced over. Their stone skitters across the surface, and they must break the ice with a foot for their weekly homecoming ceremony.

As part of his Christmas gift, Pierre hangs the boughs of trees around the ruined building  with candles liberated from the church, and which shine like picture-book stars in their own sky. As her gift of thanks and love to Pierre, Françoise gives him the one thing that matters more to her than anything – her real name, the ancient one the nuns have tried to erase, which she writes on a piece of paper that she tucks into a matchbox and hangs on a tree. Her name is Cybèle, the earth mother, goddess of trees and the earth, of fertility and nature, of regeneration.

Meanwhile, the film has been heading ineluctably towards the tragedy borne of misunderstanding that has been intimated all along, the payment perhaps for Pierre’s actions against the earth that began the film, but which is worked through people’s habitual suspicions about the couple.

Best to leave instead with two of the many beautiful images from the film that come to my mind. The first is of the headscarfed Madeleine, secretly watching Pierre and Francoise in the trees by the lakeside to assuage her fears. As she sees them playing, listening to trees, her face relaxes into a smile tinged with melancholy as she turns and walks away.

Secondly, I think of the smiling, earnest face of Cybèle, eyes sparkling with promise in the light of a fire, as she tells Pierre that when she drinks her Christmas champagne she will make a wish, a wish that they will go to the seaside. She has never been, but she has read that there you can see fish that have wings, and which can fly.

when the water froze
glints of ice lodged in men’s eyes
let us go to the sea, the child said
I have heard there are fish that fly
this I can give you

Unearthly Stranger (John Krish, 1963)

(written in 2009 and previously unpublished)

To the sound of a pulsing alien hum that intensifies into an ear-splitting squeal, a forlorn and desperate Dr Mark Davidson runs through the inkily damp, lamplit London streets to his office at the Royal Institue for Space Research, where he charges up the spiral staircase, parks himself in front of a Grundig reel-to-reel, waits for Edward Williams’ music to stop, and then begins to speak his final words into the microphone: ‘John, in a little while I expect to die ... to be killed, by something you and I know is here, visible, yet moving unseen, amongst (here fixing the viewer with a significant raise of his eyebrows) us all, each moment of the day and night. There were times when you thought I was insane, but listen to this tape I beg you, so you know what it is you have to fight. Or is it too late? Even if I had known what I know now, could I, or anyone, have held back … the terror?’

So begins Unearthly Stranger, John Krish’s treatment of the ‘they are here with us already’ fiction. In truth, its dramatic start is a little at odds with the fairly low-key approach of the rest of the film, nearly all of which takes place in an office suite, a cottage and a car in a lane, and whose best bits are in the details rather than the overall conception. (Its opening is nothing next to the ludicrously inaccurate text used for the posters; anyone enticed into the cinema with the words ‘Terrifying … Weird … Macabre, Strange things walk among the living to quench their vile desires’ would have nursed a justifiable grievance on their exit). In terms of the plot, the real beginning comes with Professor Munroe (a Scottish Warren Mitchell) announcing to Miss Ballard that he has solved the first part of a formula and that she should immediately telephone his colleague with the news. Well, Jean Marsh’s face full of foreboding is unlikely to be a wasted on the minor role of a secretary without an ulterior motive. Very soon afterwards, the alien shrieking (seemingly made up of strings, squealing train wheels and ghostly cries punctuated by the occasional whiplash twanging of overhead train lines) fills the air, the camera tilts, there is the sound of an explosion and Professor Munroe, brain ‘blown out of existence’, is no more.

Called back from Switzerland, with his mysterious new wife in tow, Dr Davidson takes over Munroe’s job at the experimental research unit. An intense, pursed-lipped boffin, with little more than a slide-rule to help him solve the unit’s pet theories of harnessing the power of concentration to enable minds to travel across time and space, he is also – surprisingly for one engaged in such research – unerringly and irritatingly dim to the conclusions that certain facts, such as his unblinking wife not having a pulse, might awaken in others. In fact, characterisation in the film is inconsistent throughout, with knowledge and scepticism regarding who knows and suspects what passed around like a game of pass the parcel. ‘You will find there must be some logical explanation,’ says the momentarily sniffy Professor Lancaster of Munroe’s mysterious death, moments before outlining his Department X theories of mind-space travel using ‘a hitherto unknown force that lodges in the back of all our minds – the force we call TP91’. Not being mentioned again, this mysterious force remains unknown for the remainder of the film too.

As security chap Major Clarke, Patrick Newell brings his enjoyable Dr Watson-ish persona to the mix, switching between sweetie-sucking Bunterish bonhomie and sly scepticism, occasionally even turning on an assassin’s grin. He unwittingly hits the nail on the head to Davidson when he asks him about his new wife: ‘She’s a alien isn’t she?’, ‘She was born in Switzerland,’ flat-bats Davidson in reply. When the Major visits said wife Julie in her home, his enigmatic, man-in-the-moon face seems to imply that he could well be an unearthly stranger himself, though this tricksy notion is soon quashed when he, and Davidson’s precious documents in his hand, are zapped by an attack of the alien squeals.

The film makes good use of simple effects, such as picturing Davidson against a blind which makes shifting binary pattern criss-crosses with the lined opaque glass behind it, or the tear tracks that scald Julie’s cheeks after she has made a baby cry and repelled a playground full of children by simply staring at them over the fence (her particular ‘vile desire’ being to fall in love with the human being she is meant to kill). Notable too is the film’s dramatic music from composer Edward Williams (who would go on score David Attenborough’s Life on Earth), especially the moment when his romantic ‘new wife waiting at home’ theme curdles into something more sinister as Davidson enters the house to find Julie cataleptic on the bed.

Unearthly Stranger makes a few pointed barbs along the way about integration of foreigners into a society, not least when Davidson notes that the programme director’s wife wouldn’t need to undergo the same level of scrutiny as his, being from ‘a nice respectable English family’. Such lines add another dimension to the film that perhaps grew out of Krish’s own experience as the son of a refugee and who had also, in 1960, made the film Return to Life for the Foreign Office to celebrate World Refugee Year. This context makes Miss Ballard’s final lines linger in the mind. ‘You talk a lot about love,’ she says to Davidson, ‘love of freedom for example, but do you have it? Do you really have it? It’s an illusion, and we have learned to live without illusions.’

Lancaster and Davidson’s answer is a clumsy attack that sends her through the window, ignoring her warning that there are already too many of them to combat – something they soon realise the truth of as they lean over her empty coat and find themselves staring up at the encircling faces of ordinary women, who before that moment they would have passed in the street without a second glance.

No Blade of Grass (Cornel Wilde, 1970)

(written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems)
As the opening credits roll over bleached, cracked earth, an apocalyptic orange sun and sketches of fleeing figures that recall prehistoric rock-paintings (albeit with a gun), to the tune of a doleful guitar, Roger Whittaker sings words that – if you weren’t already aware of John Christopher’s flintily unsentimental 1957 source novel – give a fair idea that things are going to end badly, for everyone: No blade of grass grows and birds sing no more / No joy or laughter where waves washed the shore / Gone all the answers, lost all we have won / Gone is the hope that life will go on.

’By the beginning of the seventies,’ says director Cornel Wilde, also on narrator duty, in words that chime closely with the sharpened concerns our own age, ’man had brought the destruction of his environment close to the point of no return. Of course there was a great deal of rhetoric about saving the earth, but in reality, very little was done.’ To press home the point, stock footage of car dumps, belching chimneys, sulphurous skies, exhaust fumes, clogged roads, and brown smog blanketing a city lead us into the film, and then – to press home the point a little harder – there’s more footage of smoke-belching chimneys, sewage-spouting pipes, poisonous river spume, open-cast mining, oil spills and dead fish. And then a nuclear explosion to cap it all off. No blade of grass here and no blue above / No you and me, it’s the end of love, sings Roger.

‘And then, one day, the polluted earth could take no more,’ says Wilde, as the blue planet seen from space is smeared with orange clouds. Welcome to Earth, circa 1970, where London is no longer any place to be, a fact to which architect John Custance is alerted by a middle of the night phone call from her daughter’s boyfriend Roger, telling him that, as they have been expecting for some while, the situation has suddenly turned critical and the government is sealing off the cities. As they grab their suitcases and ready themselves for a hasty exit, the film winds back a year to the news breaking on television of a desperate famine in China and south-east Asia caused by an epidemic of grass disease, derived, according to the ‘emergency committee of world ecology’, from cumulative residues of pollutants and pesticides in both soil and atmosphere. As joints of ham are carved on a buffet table and diners feed their faces, images of famine appear on the screen. More worrying reports then come through, of cannibalism and, in China, nerve-gas bombings of major population areas. Well at least that couldn’t happen here. Could it?

With the themes of eco-disaster and over-consumption now well and truly established, the film then – barring a few intermittent fill frames of more dead fish – drops them for a by-the-numbers treatment of the well-worn theme of a band of disparate survivors travelling through a decimated, dangerous country of unofficial checkpoints and intermittent crackly wireless news, mixing action scenes with disconsolate wandering across bare moors as the party head to the safe haven of Blind Gill, a Yorkshire farm owned by John’s brother. Nigel Davenport plays the eyepatch-sporting leader of the group, the archetypal decent man forced to adjust his behaviour to the needs of the time, while Jean Wallace, as the director’s wife, takes the role of Mrs Custance. Their party is boosted by Pirrie, handy with a rifle, and his pouty, petulant wife (a black-haired and well-upholstered Wendy Richard), who has an eye for anything in trousers. Her attempted seduction of Custance leads Pirrie to debate throwing her out of the group. ’She's got a survival kit between her legs,’ he says, but then he shoots her anyway so she doesn’t get the chance to use it.

Although Wilde attempts to jazz up proceedings with flash-forwards that signal (in tinted blinking red) the dangers they will face along the way, including a rape and an attack by horned-helmeted bikers, the leaden script, which veers between shock one-liners and flaccid sentimentality (‘a year ago I wouldn’t have believed it could happen to us’), means the film loses its way on the journey. At one point, Burnell Whibley’s music signals, somewhat unexpectedly, that we are in a western, following a group of pioneers on the trail, but by the time we get to watching a biker’s nightmare as a motorbike hits a rock and explodes in slow-motion, the plot, and any focus on ecological issues, has long taken a back seat to set-pieces and not-so-fancy effects. It doesn’t help that some time before a coup has been announced on the car radio by a spokesperson who seems to be none other than Peter Sellers in the guise of Fred Kite: ’This is the, er, citizen’s emergency committee in London,’ he says, ‘we've taken charge of the BBC’. Let’s just say that the film’s ambition outstrips the talent and judgement available for its realisation.

It does capture some of the matter-of-fact, casual brutality of Christopher’s novel in which killing has become a necessary part of survival, and a scene that plays out in negative in which men seem to kill a squealing dog for food with rocks and a spade is genuinely unsettling. (’No living creature was killed or mistreated in the making of this film’, assures a disclaimer.) In the end though it can’t justify its grandiloquent final claim that ’this motion picture is not a documentary ... but it could be’.

As evidenced by Penguin's 2009 ‘Modern Classics’ edition of the original novel, with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane (who notes that Wilde’s film is so ’arrestingly bad that Christopher himself has never been able to watch more than a few minutes of it’), the story itself still carries a powerful charge and relevance over half a century after its creation. It still awaits a film adaptation that does it justice.