Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, USA, 1933)
Few will be able to question a dogmatic stance that John Stahl’s Only Yesterday is a towering masterpiece of the classical melodrama given its rarity (not even on VHS!), but be assured such a work is deserving of the praise. As soon as the film’s seemingly trivial depiction of Black Tuesday (but delightfully so—suicide never seemed so funny) begins to feel staid, Stahl suddenly shifts toward innocent love, bitter disappointment, and ultimately the value of life an unappreciated life. John Boles moves through his wife’s fancy dinner party, unable to answer any questions about the crisis until he locks himself in his office. With the gun loaded, he notices a private letter for him, leading him down memory lane to a young woman named Mary Lane (Margaret Sullivan) he met during the war and then abandoned, while she became the woman who does not forget (for reasons both emotional and physical). Movement seems to be the game that Stahl plays. Either the camera moves, or the characters move, often in opposition, passing just for a second. The narrative involves passing movements as well, these rare chances when diagonals of life can finally cross, but only for a moment, and one that may lack recognition (Stahl’s was the first adaptation of Letters from an Unknown Woman, but where Ophuls highlights physical tragedy, Stahl turns toward the metaphysical). A meet cute ends first as a comedy, secondly as a tragedy, and thirdly as something beyond us entirely, a navigation of emotional territory rarely felt in the American (or any) cinema. When the two lovers finally collide first via a slow exchange of silent close-ups and then finally via words, each phrase out of Boles’s mouth is an emotional dagger, cutting right into Sullivan’s heart. But her continued gaze and affectation is the core of the film—she is willing to let this man reveal his own hollowness, and unwilling to believe their night was not destiny. Sullivan comes from a theatrical background, but her close-ups stand in stark relief, a blank face also a canvas of tears held back. While it’s wrong to create pointless value judgements, Stahl does silent, black and white close-ups in a way that rival any devastation created by Douglas Sirk, sometimes letting the gaze of Sullivan carry all the pain in a way much riskier than a gambit by Sirk’s spilling of emotions. His work is toward a quiet reverence that always respects its protagonist, and never once falters toward anything of pity. She is a triumph of human testament to live despite (a word beyond her vocabulary). The ending of Only Yesterday, both in terms of narrative and the carefully constructed mise-en-scene of the final bedroom, brings to mind Dreyer’s Ordet. There is no literal transcendence for this melodrama, but there is instead an emotional one.
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2013)
At Berkeley seems like too broad a subject for Frederick Wiseman’s camera, and yet over the film’s four hour running time, it becomes seemingly clear how succinct his vision of this institution is, as well as his broader take on the triumphs and weaknesses of American public education in this time of budgetary crisis (the impetus for the film appears to be the reduction to Berkeley’s operating accounts to only 16% by the state of California). Wiseman’s film is not about the actual structures of institutions, but of an ethos when it is confronted with daring problems. The film is essentially about the paradox: Berkeley stands for free speech, liberalism, and diversity, but to operate under hard times, it must be about conserving resources and limiting its vision as an “equal for all” institution. What fascinates Wiseman then is how everyone from administration groups to research labs to English classroom discussions on Thoreau find a creative solution to this problem—of action and systemization. The opening classroom discussion might be about idealism for public education, but as the professor explains, it’s about how to institutionalize “charity into policy.” If such an idea goes against contemporary liberal ethos, one shouldn’t faint that the film doesn’t sympathize with the students who are losing, fighting against the policies put that deny the free education the school once provided. There’s one particularly devastating moment as a student explains her plight of being too rich for financial aid but too poor to make by without it. But Wiseman once again asks for rational thought. Each moment becomes an echo of a previous sentiment. A conversation on constructing robotic legs begins to reflect the same discussions budget committees have about how to create unique offers to lure strong professors to the school. Constructing a plot might seem like a misstep for Wiseman, but here it’s a chance to see theory in practice, and the film’s epic third hour sit in shows three sides brilliantly: the protesters, the administration in action, and even the students laying in the laws who go on without even noticing. Wiseman’s camera is always curious but never didactic; it’s tough to say where exactly his sympathies lie, both in terms of his fascination with certain characters like the Chancellor Robert Birgeneau or even the single man who mows every single acre of the institution’s lawn. But the sprawling movements begin to take shape into an institution that might place liberal free speech students with ROTC trainees in the same space, between one that can’t compete financially and yet provides services beyond the above in a negotiation of quality. And what seems like a university at ends with its paradox is yet a shining beacon of thinking and possibilities outside of any box. If anything, one of the major takeaways from At Berkeley is to acknowledge the potential of such an institution under huge financial duress. Think what would happen if they didn’t even have to fight for money.
Bastards (Claire Denis, France, 2013)
To say Bastards is a departure for Claire Denis leads to the question: what are the tangible auteurist properties of her work? In her films, glances do the heavy lifting, and a single touch is practically cathartic. Each frame feels, to give into the tactile sense of cinema that began with Chocolat. To name a film that stands above her work feels strange; she is the opposite of the Coen Brothers, whose individual works are more enjoyable than when taken as a messy whole. Denis is more fascinating on individual shots and edits, which feel of a particular digital vocabulary. But Bastards is in fact her first digital work. Denis’s digital makes objects sharper, more dangerous. Even when the world was dangerous (the mystery of Trouble Every Day, the lurking war in White Material), Denis always makes it seductive and intoxicating; a place tantalizing with sensuality. The case is the opposite of Bastards, whose world is cold, harsh, and striking. The tactility of the image lurks out; each image feels closer to a knife than a desirable plane, the glances display lust, but with an anger and menace hidden just under the surface. Even the soft skin of Lola Creton, a figure who has been casted before for her virginal qualities, now has blood running down her legs. This reflects into the film’s narrative, which could be describe as film noir, but Denis’s editing style and aversion to straight exposition shouldn’t be confused with generic trappings. Denis sets up the major relationships and tensions within the first act, leaving most of her game to filling out details: a man who moves into an empty apartment, another man with capital and desire to exploit those without, and a series of black haired women, vulnerable to both men’s sinister games. The ellipticism of Denis comes almost to a fault in Bastards. It’s a film about corporate and sexual intrigue, in which we see neither. A glance toward a shirt transfers toward a symbolic passing of cigarettes and then reappears during an awkward encounter with unintended consequences. The chess game seems quite obvious at first, and the resolution almost too simple, even if the details come in and out as focus throughout. Erasing themes of her previous work, and giving her imagery a more pointed, cutting tactility (as sharp as those heels), questions remain in a way that how we are supposed to walk away, especially given its final, surveillance footage, and at least one symbolic reference taken from Faulkner’s Sanctuary that leaves more puzzles than clarification, both tangibly and emotionally. The work feels left unfinished in some way, the pieces left to be filled in with feelings left unsaid, often spoken by a single frame (supercoherence at its most specific). Which is to say, Bastards is a Claire Denis film.