Here's a brief review of a few films I watched this weekend, at the PFA in Berkeley. Spoiler alert! These notes contain a few spoilers.
Antonioni's Red Desert
The screen's technicolor was brutally intense, as were the industrial sounds. Where one expected clouds there were towering ships, inches from the lens. When birds should have been singing, tinnital factory whistles blew. Steam vented from every orifice, through valves in factory walls, pipes in the ground, siphoned up through toxic ashen soil. Giuliana's (Monica Vitti's) nervous breakdown seemed a symptom of the industrial waste that consumed her, even as she in turn, consumed a sandwich with bulemic zeal. The only relief from Giuliana's anxiety was the blissful story she narrated to entertain her temporarily paralyzed son, the story of an island girl who hears sirens singing on a remote beach. Her son asks her who the singers were. Giuliani answers, "Everyone." Red Desert (Deserto rosso) has been called the first real color film. I'd call the soundtrack one of the first injections of electronica, or industrial music into the vein of modernist cinema.
Antonioni's La notte
Filmed in Milan, a center of brutalist design and architecture, two of the most beautiful people in the world, played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, after ten years of marriage, can no longer reach each other. Countless scenes transition from one place to another via tall grey walls.
The film's dialog hints at political commentary when a reader asks novelist Marcello Mastroianni, while he's signing a book, something like, (paraphrasing from memory) "Do you always sign your books on the left? A book always opens to the left, doesn't it? I hope you remember that." Mastroianni's character drifts off to the land of millionaires' parties and exoticist nightclub life, without giving pause to helping a big boss reach his lowly workers by being hired to write a biography and history of an industrial mammoth.
Soon after Mastroianni's character agrees to write for this wealthy man, Jeanne, playing his wife, reads him a passage he wrote to her when they were still in love, but he doesn't remember that it was him who penned the loving prose.
The only power left to Jeanne, who is incapable of adultery, is to either withhold her thoughts from him, or remind him of who he once was.
As everyone says, this, his first film, is timeless. Right from the start we become intimately aware of intersections of nuanced emotions (improvised by the actors) experienced by a tight knit mixed-race family of young siblings, growing up together in New York. Issues of passing for white or black, deciding who to date and how, whether or not to protect or free each other from the family group balance on a tightrope of urban beatnik cool. In addition, there's a stronger in-your-face feminist element than any I've seen in films of the last few decades. If only modern screenwriters would tackle race and gender issues and throw out stereotypes and assumptions as well as Cassavetes, with as much humor, subtlety and humanity, we would all be more enlightened. The Mingus soundtrack is also freakin' incredible.
Satyajit Ray's Aparajito
Overheard after the film, "No matter how many times I see it, I can't stop the crying."
This is part II of the Apu Trilogy. Satyajit ray's photographic compositions are precise, and so is the composition of his screenplay. The tragic and quick flow of life running by is like the River Ganges, or the railroads crossing the continent, both deadly and uplifting, ancient and modern. The original novel that inspired this screenplay, by Bibhutibhushana Bandyopadhyay, has been translated into English by T.W. Clark.