Elena, 2011, dir. by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Critics and admirers of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” may find it easy to notice the obvious attributes of crime thriller, present in this film, but rarely seem to express their appreciation of its darkly comedic undertone.

Humor begins with the title, whose apparent similarity to the “arbitrarily chosen fist name” titles of many great works of classical literature (such as Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Emil”, or Jane Austen’s “Emma”, to name a few) may be deceptive. The title of the film (which is also the name of its protagonist) is ironic; it points to Helen, the Greek beauty who “infiltrated” the ancient city of Troy as a lover of Troyan prince Paris, and thus brought about the city’s destruction by the Greeks. (Troyan Horse, the fabled ruse of Odysseus, wasn’t, in fact, anything new: Helen, the Greeks’ unwilling “gift” to Troyans, was the original manifestation of the pattern.)

The parallels between Iliad and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ”Elena” are hard to miss: Elena married Vladimir for his riches (and maybe also for love, but time and everyday routine has eroded her feelings), and yet remained loyal to her lumpenproletariat background, and never developed true emotional closeness with her rich husband. Vladimir’s naive trust to Elena’s kills him, and as soon as he’s dead and buried, his stylish apartment is invaded and plundered by the “Achaeans”: Elena’s son, his pregnant-again wife, and their children. (This may be a mere coincidence, but I like to imagine that actors Aleksey Rozin and Igor Ogurtsov had been cast not only because of their acting skills, but also thanks to their classic Greek profiles, resembling those from the red-figure pottery.)

Aleksey Rozin’s entrance, by the way, is one of the funniest episodes in the film, and even though his character was written by Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev in broad brushstrokes, as a caricature “Russian redneck”, Rozin’s acting is so authentic that the audience may be led to believe that Andrey Zviagintsev just hired a non-actor for that role, the way Italian neo-realist directors did it in late 1940s. Andrey Smirnov, as Vladimir, delivers subtle tour de force performance, slightly marred by one seemingly unmotivated emotional outburst in a dialog with Elena early in the film (most likely this effect came as the result of an unavoidable compromise decision, reached during the editing of that scene; it can therefore be disregarded). Nadezhda Markina shines in the title role; some of the most memorable moments are Elena’s Dostoyevskian confrontation with Vladimir’s daughter Katerina (acted by Elena Lyadova), the smile of pure ecstasy that blossoms on Elena’s face after she’s pecked on the cheek by her son, and, of course, the murder scene (“Your room is such a mess!”).

The overall acting style is very organic, pleasantly different from what one may expect from any typical Russian film – which is, of course, the accomplishment of the director, Andrey Zviaginstev, who helped his talented actors to be their best selves.

The work of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman is subtle and psychologically expressive: less acrobatic than in his other films made in collaboration with Andrey Zvyagintsev, but possibly more mature and sophisticated; lighting is superb. Music of Philip Glass, third movement of his Third Symphony, contributes suspense and dramatic significance to the narration.

It’s easy  for anyone who is familiar with everyday Russian reality to overlook the comedy aspects of ”Elena”, and to think of this film as merely naturalistic (which, of course, it is), but an objective view reveals that the writers of the film had been relentless in their sardonicism (or, in the words of a certain popular singing comedian, they “never let up”): well-selected TV shows, functioning as the permanent audiovisual background to whatever else is going on (the “sausage testing” episode would be my favorite, sausage being the unmistakably phallic household status symbol in Soviet and post-Soviet proletarian Russia, similar to owning a Steinway grand piano by a perfectly non-musical middle-class American family); “erotic literature”, offered for sale to middle-aged housewives traveling in suburban electrical railway cars;  migrant construction workers, marching in a really, really long column (just long enough to be realistic, while still being grotesquely long); the ridiculously humungous thermoelectric plant, serving as the backdrop to Sergey’s house and the environs; idle, beer-guzzling, chain-smoking teenage hooligans, whose favorite form of entertainment is getting their ass kicked by other hoodlums behind some rusted-out communal garages; hand-written inscriptions on house walls; the overpowering, all-pervasive terror of the mandatory conscription; the imperative for women to wear something on their heads in church (which functions more like a “99 cents store for the superstitious”, rather than as a religious institution); and finally, the pinnacle of sarcasm: Viagra as the instrument for the perfect murder (and especially the decision to add the second pill, for good measure).

Thematically, the funniest (in a bitter way), and crucially important element of the story is Elena’s key criterion for determining the value of a human being: fertility. The main, subtly veiled, conflict in the story is that between working class mother Elena and the decadent, cynical, sincere Katerina, who is adamant against having children, and whom Elena labels as “infertile”. Elena is driven to murder not by “burning desire for acquiring riches” (to quote Napoleon Hill), but, in roughly equal measure, by her obsessive emotional attachment to her son Sergey, and by her hatred and jealousy of her husband’s childless daughter from the first marriage. Elena isn’t greedy: she is instinctive; her protective impulse hasn’t only killed her rich husband, but has also ruined her son, by cultivating his sloth and depriving him of any self-sufficiency. This form of “motherly love”, rather typical for Russian mothers, and explainable by past and present Russian socio-economic realities, is the target of the film’s ruthless sarcasm.

Religious subjects, addressed in the film, are arguably even more important than its psychological and social themes, and I’d like to finish this article by quoting the words of the brilliant Russian scholar Igor Sivkov:

“It is significant that in church (this scene is very picturesque and stylistically different from the rest of the film, exactly the way it should be), Elena prays for her husband’s health, but soon after, having returned home, immediately kills him. This scene, in my opinion, contains the core of the film: it’s very easy to worship God superficially, but it is extremely difficult, and for most people impossible, to follow Him in practice. Anyone can run to a church and light a candle; any criminal can do it any time. But following God’s principles in life, that is, in practice, is rare: no one does that, and no one even considers that necessary. Elena’s love to her son blocks everything, including God.”

Dimitri Vorontzov,

Thursday, February 21, 2013, 2:00 PM, New York

 

The Saga of Gösta Berling, 1924, dir. by Mauritz Stiller

A spiritual being, thrown into the material reality, inevitably becomes traumatized, mutilated.  Similarly to how in Japan they used to bind little girls’ feet, to conform to the notion that the feet of a fashionably attractive woman must be small (rendering an adult Japanese “beauty queen” practically a disabled woman), or how in Burma, the women of Kayan tribe even in our days still wear brass coils to elongate their necks (the practice that ruins their spines, and distorts the ribcages and collar bones) – so human soul in the material world is twisted and suppressed under the influence of the world, whether it’s social environment, genetics, various forms of psychological or psychiatric deviations and so on – in addition to sloth (material body’s inherent urge for comfort and passiveness).

Most people (including the author of this essay) come of age in the state of fully formed insanity – and will remain in that state through the rest of their lives. God gives us all we need for happiness – but precisely because of all the traumas and “bends” of the soul, because of the “false notions” or “engrams” that a human being can’t overcome, unless by investing a very significant, fully committed effort in it – or, metaphorically, because of “a pack of wolves” that relentlessly pursues every one of us, or, to see it for what it really is, because of the attacks of the devil who wants our soul – we become incapable of ever setting foot on the path of our true destiny.

One must dedicate one’s life to removal of all deviations and inner problems imposed by the material world – we must actively, fiercely fight to escape the bites of the wolves that chase after us. We must incinerate our former lazy and decadent personality, and then build the new, beautiful true character. If we succeed in this effort, we’ll be able to discover the true path God designed for us – and that is the path of happiness.

That’s why, as soon as Elizabeth has realized that her marriage has been a result of her not being true to herself, God annuls the marriage, and as soon as Gösta Berling has reformed, he finds himself in the divine situation of meeting the perfect woman he was meant to be with, whom he can recognize as such for the first time, and who, thanks to God’s Providence, can now recognize him – with the help of Major’s Wife, who, having overcome some of her own inner obstacles, also presents herself in the right place, at the right time.

Dimitri Vorontzov,

Monday, February 27, 2011, 4:20 PM, New York

Madame de…, dir. my Max Ophuls, 1953

This essay is written by a guest author, Yana Skrynnik.

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Madame de… Who is she? In the beginning of the film we see her as a high society woman, leading a rather empty, frivolous life, defined by the norms and customs of her environment. She’s attached to her material possessions: her furs, her emeralds, her diamond cross… Out of all these things she cares the least about the earrings that her husband, the general, gave her as a wedding gift. The relationship between Louise (Madam de…) and her husband is amiable, light and superficial. They do not inconvenience each other with their secrets, and this not prying into one another’s personal life satisfies them both. Ingmar Bergman would call this type of behavior “The Touch”: when the most that’s happening between the two is the physical touch, and there’s no other contact beyond this. Madame de and her husband do not connect on a spiritual level and do not aspire to – the way the majority of married couple live, the way it is approved and encouraged by society. Madame de… – one of many. A spiritual nonentity.

Yet spirituality always gives us a chance. Louise meets baron Fabrizio Donati and falls in love with him. On the surface it might look like just another flirtation, another intrigue to spice-up the monotonous lightness of their being. But for Louise –it’s love. The love that transforms and makes one overcome material limitations of ego and social norm. Congruent with her personality, Louise’s new knowledge of spiritual existence is spontaneous. She didn’t do anything conscious to open her eyes to a different, non-material way of living. But her merit is her uncompromising faithfulness to her feelings, and resolve to follow her destiny in it. She doesn’t even have a choice of not following her spontaneous enlightenment.

The general – Louise’s husband – is also given a chance of transforming himself and his relationship with his wife into something more real than just following one’s social role. As a gifted man he senses that what’s happening with Louise is profoundly more important than a passing love affair (the kind that would be quite acceptable to society). He even envies her, recognizing the difference between an empty life and a fulfilled one. The general apprehends how vulnerable his wife’s condition is: for on one hand society doesn’t approve of something beyond the set rules of the game, on the other hand, baron Donati is not a Tristan. It is not a story of two soulmates. Baron Donati plays his role of a lover very well as long as it stays on the surface. The moment Donati is really challenged in his feelings for Louise (when the general lets baron know he has stepped out of the limits of his patience and accepted propriety) – Donati withdraws. “I’m not here anymore”, – says baron to Louise after his tete-a-tete with the general. But has he ever been there? It’s ironic that Donati prefers to let himself be killed than to become a victim of a scandal and social censure. He’d rather perish in this nonsensical fate than really love Louise. And unfortunately so would the general, who doesn’t choose to become a real friend to Louise, supporting her in her sufferings, being patient and loving. Instead he becomes a social monster and kills his chance for spirituality – and that’s the only thing we can really kill in this life.

Louise dies as soon as her lover’s heart stops beating, but this isn’t “Liebestod”. God takes her because she has no reason to stay in this material world anymore. Spiritually, she is accomplished. Those material things that she adored in the beginning of the movie do not have any value for her now. The earrings she didn’t cherish are precious to her now, but only as a symbol of her love. She parts with their material form as easy as she herself leaves the world. “Madame de…” in the end of the film signifies freedom from social labeling, like in “I’m nobody!” by Emily Dickinson. Not being defined by social means, being beyond them – being spiritual.

Yana Skrynnik,

Sunday, August 14 2011, 5:10 PM, New York

Efter repetitionen, dir. by Ingmar Bergman, 1984

I once met a rather well-educated and experienced film critic who told me that in her opinion, Ingmar Bergman’s films of the later period were way too complex to be ever understood by any audience, no matter how sophisticated and intellectually advanced. According to that critic, “Efter repetitionen” (“After the rehearsal”, 1984) served as a perfect proof that the mind of Ingmar Bergman of “the fifth act” had long departed from the ordinary world, and dwelled in his own singular reality that included no reference points to the common human experience. (I never had a chance to ask her what she thought about “In the presence of a Clown”.) Based on the faulty logic of that critic, Bergman’s films after “Fanny and Alexander” (or, perhaps, even after “The Seventh Seal”) could only be admired for their esthetic qualities, but not appreciated for their ethical content.

“Efter repetitionen” was made for TV and is only seventy minutes long, not even reaching the duration that would qualify it as a legitimate “feature film” (according to American Screen Actors Guild) – but it does require considerable work from anyone who wants to understand its idea. Created by an artist of formidable intellect, this film does not descend to a vulgar viewer, but rather demands that the viewer rise to a higher level of awareness. Every detail matters, and things that appear irrelevant, accidental or may even be perceived as continuity mistakes, upon deeper scrutiny reveal their highly condensed metaphorical (that is, spiritual) value. A thorough intellectual examination also reveals, behind the complexity of the verbal lacework of dialogue, a simple, compact and masterfully designed dramatic structure of the kind that would make any student of Robert McKee proud: all characters in this film have clear, well-defined, easy to understand desires that they pursue by taking increasingly strong and risky actions, and the narration is organized through primal, archetypal conflict and the standard three-act structure.

I do not usually re-tell films in my essays – what’s the point of describing in words something that has already been expressed in moving images? – but Ingmar Bergman’s films are exception from all the rules. I find it impossible to explain the meaning of this film without actually retelling it in detail.

*  *  *

The first act begins with an overhead shot of the boards that form the wooden floor of the theater stage. The camera floats down to reveal red ornate carpet that covers the stage, then a volume of August Strindberg’s plays on a work desk, and finally an aging man, the theater director Henrik Vogler, seemingly asleep behind it, resting his head on his work journal. (“Vogler”, in Bergman’s symbolic system, is the last name inevitably assigned to a positive, spiritually enlightened character.) The rough wooden surface of the stage, covered with scrape marks that look like mysterious hieroglyphs, symbolizes the bare bones of the crude material reality; the carpet, the illusory view of that reality formed by our kaleidoscopic perception. The desk that holds Strindberg’s plays and the work journal serves as a metaphor for the artistic profession, the spiritual calling of the main character. Finally, the sleeping man is the hero, a human being plunged into the dream play of living in the material world.

This opening shot is a direct allusion to August Strindberg’s most famous and influential work for stage, “A Dream Play” (1902). Here’s a quote from Strindberg’s introduction to the play:

“Anything may happen; everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant background of reality, imagination designs and embroiders novel patterns: a medley of memories, experiences, free fancies, absurdities and improvisations.

The characters split, double, multiply, vanish, solidify, blur, clarify. But one consciousness reigns above them all – that of the dreamer; and before it there are no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples, no laws. There is neither judgement nor exoneration, but merely narration. And as the dream is mostly painful, rarely pleasant, a note of melancholy and of pity with all living things runs right through the wabbly tale. Sleep, the liberator, plays often a dismal part, but when the pain is at its worst the awakening comes and reconciles the sufferer with reality, which, however distressing it may be, nevertheless seems happy in comparison with the torments of the dream.”

Not lifting his head off the open journal, the old man on the stage fiddles with the desk lamp, turning it now on, now off. The activity may seem meaningless, and yet within Bergman’s economical aesthetics the primitive pulse of the desk lamp instantly acquires powerful dramatic significance. On / Off. Light / Dark. Good / Evil. Love / Hatred. Life/ Death. Being / Non-being. Time / Eternity. Body / Soul. Material / Ideal. The most fundamental conflict is expressed visually through this basic motion. This is cinema in its purest form.

Henrik Vogler, the film’s hero, has decided to stay on the empty stage of his theater after the daytime rehearsal of “A Dream Play”. After he wakes up, his voiceover monologue reveals immediately that we are already beyond the limits of the mundane: “I may have dozed off, I’m not quite sure. I look around and can’t recognize anything. Something has changed in a strange, inexplicable way.” The action of the film, as it always happens in Ingmar Bergman’s works, blurs the borders of material and the otherworldly, and the audience may never be sure whether what they see onscreen happens in reality, beyond it, or in hero’s mind.

The director doesn’t waste time on preambles. Exactly a minute and sixteen seconds into the film, the antagonist appears: Anna Egerman, young lead actress in Vogler’s current production of “A Dream Play”. Anna is dressed in all red: the color of passion, sexuality, pain and aggression; the color of the STOP sign on the road. Having recognized her talent for acting, Henrik Vogler chose her to for the part of Indra’s Daughter, the divine presence in the diabolic world of the play, and yet, out of her stage persona, in Henrik Vogler’s reality, Anna is the devil. She is creative, but creativity doesn’t imply spirituality. Her first close-up is that of a predator hunting for prey. Very characteristically, Henrik Vogler becomes aware of Anna Egerman’s presence before the audience can even hear her footsteps: he is suddenly alert, like a wild animal that has sensed a predator nearby. (“Egerman” in Bergman’s films is almost always the last name of an aggressive, often sociopathic character who may be experiencing deep inner torment, but whose main agenda is to cause suffering to others.)

A medium full shot reveals a mask of a demonic creature with antlers near the wall, behind Anna’s back. It seems as if the mask is watching over Anna’s subsequent actions, or maybe even dictating them.

Their first briefest exchange of lines between – “Hi!” – “Hi!” – is followed by a grotesquely comical shot: Anna Egerman turns away from Henrik Vogler who is looking at her, and bends forward, offering him the view of her buttocks. Anna justifies this behavior with the pretense of looking for a lost bracelet. This is the first of a very few wide shots in the film, revealing in the background a humongous headless, armless gray statue of Venus, the monster goddess of the material world, symbolizing raw, impersonal lust. The statue dominates the tiny characters on stage, and seems almost alive – and yet its asphalt-gray color gives it eery resemblance to a decapitated, dismembered corpse.

Anna’s presence makes Henrik suffer from the acute sense of alienation. His inner monologue, superimposed over their dialogue: “Distance and torture. Distance and torment. Distance and the sharp taste of iron in my mouth. I want her to leave.”

Henrik responds to Anna’s sexual teasing by reminding her casually that he’s old enough to be her father: “How old are you anyway, Anna Egerman?” – “Guess!” – “You’re the same age as my youngest daughter. Your father and I were making a film together, and each of us was blessed with a daughter, a week apart.”

Anna parries Henrik’s defense, attacking him with guilt: “You and Papa used to have fun back then [...] Papa was always gone and Mama was always sad [...] You were in love with Mama then. Did you have an affair?” Henrik denies the affair, probably untruthfully.

Anna’s dramatic throughline is not obvious at the beginning: Bergman will reveal it only in the third act; however, Anna is active in pursuing her hidden goals. It is also important for recognizing Anna as he antagonist of the story to notice that Anna is embittered and motivated by hatred: she tells Henrik that having to repress her hatred toward her mother used to cause her anguish, but now that the mother is dead for five years, Anna hates her and feels better. (While she is saying that, the gray statue of the naked Venus reflects in the tall mirror behind Anna’s back.)

The fact that Henrik and Anna are opposites is introduced in the most fundamental way when she expresses her materialist philosophy: “Where she [Anna's mother] is now she can hardly be concerned about that [Anna's hatred] anymore. (Laughs).” – to which statement Henrik responds as idealist: “(Sternly). That’s a great question, of course”. Anna immediately tries to catch Henrik at inconsistency, reminding him of his old interview in which he mentioned that he didn’t believe in the afterlife (looking for inconsistencies in the philosophical position of the opponent who professes idealism is almost an automatic default reaction for any self-respecting materialist.) Henrik disarms Anna by giving her a compliment: “You are certainly a girl with a gift for irony.”

And so it continues throughout the short first act – and subsequently throughout the film: attack – defense – stronger attack – evasion – even stronger attack. Anna provokes. Henrik de-escalates. Anna tries to hurt. Henrik responds to hatred with love. It’s almost like a martial arts movie featuring a very aggressive young villainess and the old, wise (even though imperfect) kung fu master – except the two opponents fight without fighting. Quite in accordance with Yin / Yang principle, the master’s imperfection holds the seeds to his probable ruin and the aggressor’s arrogance is self-destructive. Yet everything is extremely subtle, almost minimalist. The dialogue between Henrik and Anna is almost always cordial and polite. All the conflict occurs in the subtext.

Henrik overtakes the initiative and tries to make Anna aware of the mystical nature of the stage that connects the tangible and the invisible. Henrik’s idealism is emphasized by blocking (he turns his back toward the statue of Venus) and is clearly expressed in his monologue (“I’m going to tell you something, Anna Egerman. Here’s what happens in my age. Just lean forward, and suddenly you find your head plunged into another dimension! The dead are not dead, the living behave like ghosts. [...] Sometimes I hear them – often I hear them – sometimes I think I see them…”) (This monologue foreshadows the appearance of Rakel Egerman’s ghost in the second act of the film.) Anna parries his monologue with a silent ironic smile. Henrik calls Anna out on it (a theater decoration representing a temple is visible behind him), then invades her private space, and accuses her face to face of the intention of hurting her mother even beyond the grave. Anna doesn’t back off, and admits having that intention. Henrik reproaches her for acting a role in a play of her own making, breaks the distance, roots himself firmly at his desk, and pretends to block Anna out completely from his mind. Wide shot: the Venus statue is partially hidden behind a screen panel. Anna lights a cigarette. Henrik opens his notes and begins to read.

Anna re-engages, hoping for Henrik’s reassurance: “Why did you want me to play Indra’s Daughter?” Henrik responds with truth: “Because you’re talented”, etc. Henrik opens up, makes himself vulnerable to Anna, and reminisces about his earliest experience of theater that coincided with his first experience of “A Dream Play”. Anna listens, using that time to recuperate for further battle, supported by the reflection of the Venus statue behind her. Henrik leads the dialog toward professional subjects, turning it from a verbal fight to a practical lesson in theatrical craft. He performs the Lawyer’s hairpin monologue (the famous episode from “A Dream Play” that metaphorically expresses the subject of alienation between the two human beings that are supposed to be the closest). Anna provokes Henrik to make a fool of himself and deliver a passionately self-deprecating tirade of a “perfectionist artist”. Henrik catches himself, as expressed in his inner monologue superimposed over his words addressed to Anna: “Why am I saying all these things? They are nonsense. Old clichés. Why am I acting out this mockery of conviction?” Henrik defends himself again with his strongest weapon: his profession. He succeeds in channeling his conflict with Anna into a creative discussion. Anna challenges Henrik’s authority as a director by questioning his belief in her as an actress, and the validity of his creative methods. Henrick reinforces his authority: he tells Anna off, and demands that she “gets rid of the private actress” in herself. Infuriated by her arrogance, he storms out from the stage, on his way to a hotel, to get some sleep before the evening rehearsal. Anna is enraged: “Sleep well!” (subtext: “Burn in hell!”)

Just before Henrik is gone for good, Anna re-engages: “So you think I’m acting in my private life?” Henrik allows himself to be re-engaged, getting caught in a trap of a creative task. He storms back to the stage and towers over Anna. Backstage, behind him, there’s a statue of the angry old man with a white beard, wearing a gray coat, bearing strong resemblance to Henrick – and a statue of naked Cupid blowing a trumpet in the old man’s ear. Anna tries to rationalize her private playacting, and counterattacks, questioning Henrik’s own sincerity. Henrik shields himself with his profession, as before.

Anna pretends to temporarily accept the rules imposed by Henrik, and demands his advice on acting. Henrik provides the advice. Anna puts on the mask of Indra’s Daughter, tries out Henrik’s advice, and finds it helpful. Watching the contrast between Anna as an actress and Anna as a human being, Henrik is suddenly drained of energy. It’s a terrifying paradox that Anna is such a perfect actress that she gives every impression of high spirituality, while being a devil. Anna ignores Henrik and scribbles in her notebook. Henrik watches Anna secretly: her neck, her hair, her hands. At this moment he reminds a schoolboy staring at a girl he has a secret crush on. Anna demands more advice. Henrik obliges. Anna suddenly attacks him with “professional guilt”, accusing Henrik of having victimized actors in the past. Henrik blocks guilt with maturity: “There are many people who bear the scars of my reckless drive, just as I bear the marks of the actions of others.” – and with love: “I love the actors, and so I can never hurt them”. Anna is about to light another cigarette. Henrik asks her not to smoke all the time. Anna complies.

The conflict is lifted, and it looks like Anna is about to leave, but Henrik stops her (close-up shot of Henrik’s hand on Anna’s forearm emphasizes Henrik’s choice to keep Anna from walking away). He calls out her bluff: he knows she wasn’t wearing any bracelet today. Anna feigns innocence and sits down away from him. Henrik “plays with fire”, beckoning Anna to sit next to him on the sofa. His gesture is emphasized by a zoom to a close-up on his hand, more dynamic and therefore more dramatic than the previous similar shot. For a brief period of time, Henrik and Anna are friends. They flirt a little. The chemistry is palpable. Henrik allows himself to pose for Anna a little. Anna gives him the admiration he expects.

After that Anna provides the transition to the Act 2, by reigniting her hatred to her mother, and for a moment even embodying her mother when she quotes her saying: “This is my only means of expression, have no other, whether real or unreal. I suffer, I’m alone, try to understand that.”

Enter the ghost (or a memory) of Anna’s mother, Rakel Egerman, the way she was eleven years ago, when Henrik worked on his previous production of “A Dream Play”.

The second act is a variation to the theme of the first act. As was the case in the first act when Anna first appears, Henrik now suffers from the acute sense of alienation in Rakel’s presence: “Distance and indifference. Suffering. Fear. Helplessness. Helpless outrage. Distance. Distance.” As in the first act, the two active characters often seem nice and caring on the outside, but the deadly combat between them rages in the subtext. The 12-year-old Anna is silently present.

Rakel is a fearsome opponent, not to be trifled with, and gives the impression of being a lot more skillful and aggressive fighter than her daughter will be eleven years later. Rakel starts out by untying her high boots and demanding sex, and then proceeds to unleash a quick series of attacks: she mocks, taunts, titillates, hypnotizes, blackmails and threatens Henrik before he even has a chance to respond in anything but monosyllables. Contrary to how it is with Henrik and Anna in the first act, in the second there’s not a trace of chemistry or attraction between Henrik and Rakel. The mirror that reflected the statue of Venus in the first act is replaced with a fake theatrical mirror that doesn’t have the ability to reflect anything. Rakel’s soul is completely fogged, she is the embodiment of subjectivism.

Rakel demands a bigger, more important role in the production of “A Dream Play” than the tiny role of Edith’s Mother Henrik selected her for. Henrik tries to reason with Rakel. Matching her daughter’s behavior in the first act, Rakel lights a cigarette. She uses gilt and then theatrical tears to incite Henrik, who just laughs: he’d seen it all before. However, he’s not quite impervious to those tears: he stands up from his desk, walks past the silent 23-year-old Anna, and comforts Rakel. 

A brief truce. Henrik asks Rakel about her husband Mikael. Rakel speaks of Mikael with contempt. Henrik enquires about little Anna. Rakel insinuates that Anna may be Henrik’s daughter, and tortures Henrik, describing monstrous relationships in her family where Anna is growing up. Rakel hates Anna probably even more than Anna hates Rakel. Henrik is compassionate: “Poor Rakel”. Rakel is passive-aggressive: “People can do what they like with me, isn’t that so?” She applies a little reverse psychology: “Can you see that my upper teeth are coming loose? [...] I’m rotting, bit by bit.” Instead of denying the truth of that statement, as Rakel has probably expected, Henrik confirms it. She bates him with the pleasant memories they share together, and then tries to seduce Henrik again, exposing her thighs and her breasts to him. She scoffs, sneers and derides Henrik some more. Then she bursts out sobbing and stares into the mirror that reflects nothing.

Henrik plays the shrink. Rakel complaints. Rakel opens up. Rakel invites Henrik to come to her place. Henrik makes up an excuse not to: he’s waiting for someone. To make Henrik jealous, Rakel mentions that she’s having an affair with her doctor, whom she hates and despises even more than her husband. Rakel paces up and down the stage, and suddenly tousles Henrik’s hair in a way that makes her momentarily seem like one of the Bosch’s demons. Little Anna is listening and watching… learning, perhaps. Henrik tries to reason with Rakel, who ignores him and admires her own act in a real, non-theatrical mirror. She makes herself repulsive. She demands bigger roles in theater. She threatens to commit suicide. She laughs hysterically. A true cornucopia of negative emotions, she pours them liberally into Henrik’s mind. She explodes in a paranoid rant, accusing Henrik of contributing to the conspiracy of evil men who try to destroy her.

To add to the overall sense of pandemonium, Anna begins to “flicker” between being twelve and twenty three.

Henrik tries hard to remain calm and ironic, but eventually fails. Entangled in Rakel’s emotional net, he snatches the volume of Strindberg’s plays from Rakel who has been clutching it; he barely stops himself from hitting her with the book. Henrik descends to Rakel’s moral level and accuses her of being the unfaithful and abusive lover in the past.

Rakel presses her advantage and demands sex yet again. Mirroring Anna of the first act, Rakel recites the Dionysus monologue from The Bacchae by Euripidis, saturating it with over-the-top frenzy. She greedily lights a cigarette and smokes it with smug, complacent mien, impressed with her own performance. She mocks Henrik for not being able to deal with the unpredictable.

Henrick responds with the monologue that contains the key to the entire film: “I administrate, communicate, organize [...] I don’t take part in the drama, I materialize it. I despise the spontaneous, the unconsidered, the imprecise. [...] I hate tumult, aggression, outbursts [...] I am not private, I observe, regulate, control. [...] I am not spontaneous, impulsive, part of the action. It only looks that way…” This monologue is so revealing that I prefer to postpone the discussion of its meaning till a little later.

Rakel ignores the sincerity of Henrik’s monologue and celebrates her moral victory over him. She is dominant, and he is oddly diminished. Rakel lapses into histrionics, breaks down, and cries. She does her best to generate maximum repulsion: “I stink like a rotten fish, some fluid is oozing from my skin that smells like carrion. [...] I breathe decay…” She demands that Henrik directs a new version of Molière’s Tartuffe, just for her. Henrik calmly rejects this intrusion in his creative plans. Rakel blackmails him yet again. Henrik, softened considerably by the preceding emotional roller-coaster, hugs and consoles her: “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of you. Every night before my sleeping pill knocks me out, I think of you. You are always in my thoughts. That’s the way it is, Rakel.”

Henrik tells Rakel to go gome; he will come to her place in an hour. Maybe he is saying the truth. More likely, it’s a lie that Henrik resorts to, as the only way to get rid of Rakel. He kisses her and orders her to leave. Rakel walks off backstage and literally vanishes, as if having fallen through a trapdoor.

A moment later, Henrik calls Rakel – and then runs backstage after her. His mental shield broken, Henrik yields to Rakel’s emotional manipulation: “The same old story, I always run after her. And then lies and useless reconciliations. Shame, fear, and curses that I try to suppress. And pity. It’s always like this.” The petrified archaic Etruscan theater mask doubling as a shade for the backstage light on the wall, expresses a complex emotional state of bewilderment mixed with fear, and marks the border between the second and third acts.

Henrik returns to the stage, and reveals the inner nature of his attitude to Anna: gently, with great love and compassion he leans to touch the head of the twelve-year-old Anna with his cheek, and caresses her face. Little Anna sits with her eyes closed, as if in a deep sleep, symbolizing the state of a human being who hadn’t reached spiritual awareness. Henrik’s gesture reflects the famous recurrent line from “A Dream Play”: “Poor, poor people!”

Henrik reaches out to hold Anna’s hand with sympathy. The third, final act of the film begins. Anna admits that she often acts like a child, for her age. Henrik directs the dialogue toward professional subjects, pointing out that childishness is typical for people who work in theater.

By now it’s become clear that Henrik’s through-line has something to do with remaining strictly professional towards Anna. Over and over again he made effort to eschew the personal and stick with his duty as a director. This topic is recurrent in his speech, all through the film.

Anna redirects the conversation back to personal: “When I’m in the grip of passion, I’m not aware at all.” Henrick supports the topic – he is not a prude – but at the same time moves away from Anna.

Anna tells Henrik she’s in love with him. Henrik isn’t particularly impressed, but confesses to Anna that he has a weakness for her, too, and then switches to his professional self again: “I am happy that we have at least five weeks before us, that you are tied to me professionally and therefore emotionally.” Henrik is sincere enough to admit that he’s jealous of Johan, Anna’s boyfriend. Having admitted his jealousy, Henrik finally handed Anna the weapon she needed.

Anna doesn’t hesitate to deliver the double blow: personal and professional. She is three months pregnant. Having said this, Anna succeeds in forcing Henrik into a fit of uncontrollable frustration and rage: by the date of the premiere Anna will be five month along in her pregnancy, and because of that, the performance of Henrik’s new version of the play will be short-lived. Henrik recovers his temper almost immediately and becomes professional again: “To direct you as Agnes in “A Dream Play” is fun. That the production will be closed after two weeks makes it even more fun.” Anna offers to have an abortion. Henrik forbids her to do that: “Not for the theater. It’s not worth it.”

Anna threatens to give up the part. Henrik throws a tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old: “I don’t want anyone else!” Then he begs her: “Anna… I don’t want you to give up the role.”

Anna tightens the emotional thumbscrews some more: “There won’t be any child” – “Have you already had an abortion?” – “Last week. [...] I want to play the role.” Now Henrik begins to realize just how dangerous she is: “Why did you tell me about the child?” Anna enjoys her power: “No idea. It just occurred to me. [...] I wanted to see you lose your face. [...] And you did.”

Certain now that Henrik had been sufficiently “softened up”, Anna escalates the attack: “Now I’m going to wipe away the sad face”. She kisses Henrik on the mouth.

His self-defense almost completely neutralized, Henrik tries to make Anna leave: “You’re a lot like your mother.” – “If you say it one more time – I’m leaving.” – “You are indeed a lot like your mother.”

Anna stays and throws in a little more jealousy and guilt: “Johan admires you. [...] He was the once who convinced me to have an abortion. [...] I wanted the baby even though it wasn’t Johan’s [...] but he convinced me. So now here I am. In your hands.”

It’s at this moment that Henrik loses the battle: “And I’m in yours.”

Henrik confesses that he is lonely. Henrik tries to be professional again: a desperate, helpless last attempt at defending himself against Anna’s relentless seduction. Henrik reminds her that he is old. Henrik paces nervously up and down the stage, while Anna, quite relaxed, sits on a sofa dominantly like a queen. Henrik accuses her of being manipulative. He is a bad loser. The backstage behind Henrik and Anna has been magically transformed into set of decorations representing the interior of an apartment, making he interaction between Henrik and Anna look almost like a bad family scene.

Anna presses her advantage: “Put your hand on my breast.”

Henrik resists feebly. Anna embraces him.

Henrik admits defeat. Anna is victorious. It is over.

And then all of a sudden Henrik reveals the full extent of his true skills as a mental fighter. He puts his arm around Anna’s shoulders and walks with her across the stage. As they walk, Henrik engages Anna in the fantasy of how their love affair is going to progress. Using his powers as a director, Henrik succeeds at igniting Anna’s imagination. The theatrical set behind them is transformed again: this time it’s a backdrop representing city street. Facing each other, seated on two closely drawn chairs,  Anna and Henrik seem like two lovers out on a date in a street cafe in an illusory city. Anna eagerly accepts the game, celebrating her psychological victory over Henrik. What Anna doesn’t realize is that Henrik, having her best interests in mind, “hides the blade behind the smile” and “yields to win”. He starts with a poignant romantic story, and invites Anna to join and to contribute her ideas. Anna does, with great enthusiasm. Gradually Henrik adds elements of crude reality to the idyll – more and more of them, until they merge together and form entirely different picture. Henrik destroys the daydream from the inside, deliberately undermining one by one every romantic notion Anna may cherish about their possible mutual sensual involvement, and about Henrik as a potential lover. He renders himself erotically unappealing, even repulsive. Leaving no “t” uncrossed, he carefully and meticulously stomps out every bit of attraction Anna may have felt toward him. He turns Anna’s own acting talent against her. He directs her emotions: triggers her anger and provokes her jealousy. Anna tries to resist, to bring in some positive emotions, but it’s too late: she is entrapped and manipulated, controlled  like a puppet by Henrik, who molds her mind like soft clay. What started as a beautiful love story turns into a boring “roll in a sack” and a grotesque “dance of death”. Anna helps Henrik to finish off their failed romance.

The illusion of poetry is gone. The decorations vanished, and only the barren brick walls of the backstage remain. All windows that would have been open to the world are boarded, and just one window high above remains open, and through that window bright white light pours inside. There’s no statue of headless, armless gray Venus anywhere.

The demon is vanquished. Hastily, Anna wraps up her conversation with Henrik and dashes away to a rehearsal for the radio she’s completely forgotten about (probably in the same way as she earlier had lost her bracelet) – but not before having secured Henrik’s permission to mention being held up by him as an excuse for arriving to the radio rehearsal too late. Henrik remains onstage alone, and his only worry is not being able to hear the distant church bells (they symbolize the sounds of the great Beyond, where all inspiration and enlightenment come from). Henrik’s liberation is complete, but it has been achieved not without loss.

*  *  *

To see  the dramatic structure of the film a little more clearly, let’s take a look at a brief outline of all three acts.

First Act.

Theater director Henrik Vogler is alone on the empty stage after the rehearsal of “A Dream Play”. Young actress Anna Egerman, chosen to play the lead role, enters the stage and tries to stir Henrik’s emotions, using sexual teasing, guilt and aggression. Henrik resists Anna’s attacks (not quite successfully), trying – and somewhat failing – to remain professional towards her. Eventually Henrik manages to subdue the most acute conflict, but allows himself to flirt with Anna, who is young enough to be his daughter. The grey headless, armless statue of Venus dominates the background, symbolizing the power of raw sexuality.

Second Act.

The ghost of Rakel Egerman, Anna’s late mother, appears in a flashback of an event that may have taken place eleven years ago. Rakel, a failed actress and an alcoholic, who used to be a stage star in the past, repeatedly demands sex and career promotion from Henrik. She applies heavy doses of emotional manipulation, trying to provoke Henrik’s lust, compassion, repulsion and guilt, in a quick succession. Henrik remains calm and professional at first, but eventually fails to protect himself, and becomes vulnerable to Rakel’s emotional blackmail. He admits Rakel’s prominent role in his life, and runs after Rakel after she exists the stage. Anna Egerman (as a twelve-year-old girl or as a twenty-three-year old woman) is silently present onstage throughout Henrik’s interaction with Rakel.

Third Act.

Anna unleashes a series of emotional attacks: she tells Henrik she’s in love with him, confesses being three months pregnant by her boyfriend, then admits having made an abortion and finally makes sexual passes on Henrik. Jealous and angry at first, Henrik finally gives in to Anna’s seduction. But just when it seems that Anna has won, Henrik performs the act of emotional exorcism, frees himself from Anna’s influence and makes her leave.

* * *

It’s quite clear from the above outline that Anna and Rakel, despite their apparent mutual hatred, share the same dramatic throughline – and that Henrik’s throughline is the opposite of theirs. We can understand what’s going on between them if we remember Henrik’s monologue addressed to Rakel in the middle of the second act: “I administrate, communicate, organize... etc. (see above).  It’s Henrik’s professional duty as a director to be able to influence the emotions of his actors, without ever being emotionally influenced by them. Being an artist gives true meaning to Henrik’s life, and that’s why he strives to fulfill his calling in every aspect of his existence. Therefore, Henrik’s goal throughout the film is: “to not allow himself to get entangled in any emotional nets, and to protect his spirituality”. Obviously, Anna and Rakel pursue the opposite goal: “to get Henrik involved in their turmoil, and by doing so, to achieve moral superiority over him and to destroy his spirituality”. Being set on achieving that goal is what makes Anna a demonic presence in Henrik’s life. She may not even be conscious of her intentions, but an unaware, even reluctant devil is the devil all the same.

Seen in this perspective, the nature of Anna’s actions is identical to that of the attempt made by Nurse Alma in Bergman’s “Persona” (1966) to make Elizabeth Vogler speak by threatening her with boiling water. It’s the old familiar pattern of a materialist trying to prove an idealist wrong by the threat of physical or emotional pain.

In many ways, “After the Rehearsal” is also reminiscent of the legend of Tibetan poet–saint Milarepa and the demoness Draug Srin Mo. Milarepa is assaulted by the arrogant demoness, but his adherence to principles of Buddhism disarm her.

Anna is a very dangerous opponent, but Henrik had seen it all before. If he were younger or less savvy, he may have been easily lured into Anna’s emotional trap. That would probably lead to his ruin, or at least to a considerable loss of time and spiritual energy. Henrik is human, so he is not entirely impervious to Anna’s attacks even now. But Henrik is old and wise. He reached that point where, no matter how strong and sweet the temptations may be, he realizes that they are just not worth it; his former relationships had taught him that much. So, in a way, the situation with Rakel eleven years ago, when Henrik wasn’t strong enough to not get involved, served as a rehearsal for a dangerous scene acted out by Anna today.

On a larger scale, Henrik’s entire life up till now may be interpreted as such rehearsal, but now that “the rehearsal” (the period of emotional and spiritual immaturity, trial and error) is over, the “evening performance” (the fruitful, mature period of the artist’s life) has come to replace it. This glorious time requires greater responsibility and greater dignity, and gives us strength to uphold our professional and spiritual integrity against threats and temptations.

Dimitri Vorontzov,

Tuesday, May 24 2011, 1:15 PM, New York

Twin Peaks, 1990-1991

The author of this essay is not a Twin Peaks fan: not only he resents the idea of fandom, but also finds Twin Peaks extremely imperfect. And yet, despite all its imperfections, Twin Peaks, without a doubt, is a great work of art, comparable in its importance with such finest examples of television as “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980, dir. by Reiner Werner Fassbinder), “Fanny och Alexander” (1982, dir. by Ingmar Bergman) or, in a quite different genre, with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch show.

The rest of this essay will expand on the two statements made above.

First, the criticism.

Twin Peaks is flawed by uneven acting (I prefer not to mention any particular actor or actress, but if you know Twin Peaks, I’m sure you can name a few), eclectic directing and, as the series progressed, increasingly uninspired, unimaginative and unresearched writing.

A story is only as good as its villain. Having to reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer in the middle of the second season due to television politics, the show’s creators failed to find another worthy lead antagonist . Compared to tragic, funny and terrifying Leland Palmer, the character of Windom Earle is so flat and dull that it’s difficult to believe that he is indeed such a genius as he is too often advertised in the dialogue. The inner drama of the main villain has been replaced with the bad case of “demented giggles”. Insanity and revenge are cheap motivators, and Windom Earle is driven by both, and nothing else. With the introduction of that character, the show loses direction and begins to wander about between several launched and quickly abandoned subplots: for example, “murderous chess game” (a cliché from the beginning) is replaced with “beauty pageant”.

Even in relatively early episodes, comical relief scenes are often strained, substituting quirks and eccentricity for true humor. For example, deputy Andy Brennan covered in post-its head to toe is one of many visual gags that call for too much suspension of disbelief, and result in nothing more than a polite smile. Eventually, any attempt at humor is completely abandoned, and the show begins to take itself so seriously that it loses most of the spark it used to have in its first season.

Characters are often inconsistent, without any reasonable justification. Donna Hayward’s odd transformation in the beginning of the second season is a good example. Many scenes are so implausible that it’s a miracle of the audience’s loyalty those scenes didn’t destroy  the show immediately. When agent Cooper rescues Audrey Horne from the “One-Eyed Jack’s”, she is unconscious after being injected with a near-lethal dose of heroin by the crook Jean Renault. Instead of taking Audrey to a nearest hospital, Cooper, a FBI agent, leaves her to sleep it off in a log cabin. What if she went into a cardiac arrest and died? Later in the series, agent Dennis Bryson is held hostage by the same Jean Renault and is then released in exchange for agent Cooper. Agent Bryson than quickly changes clothes and transforms himself from Dennis to Denise, the pizza delivery girl. Jean Renault, who didn’t order any pizza, and who’s supposed to be a shrewd, cunning master criminal, for some reason is stricken with temporary stupidity. That’s the only way to explain why he falls for that trick. He doesn’t recognize Dennis in drag and invites him / her in. Moreover, Dennis / Denise, who has been completely helpless against Jean Renault as a male FBI agent, somehow becomes invincible as Denise and defeats Jean Renault effortlessly, saving agent Cooper from certain death. No doubt, it’s the improbable dramatic situations like the one just described that lead to the audience’s eventual loss of empathy with Cooper and Twin Peaks. I appreciate self-irony and self-parody in genre writing, but these things still need to be done within the limits of plausibility and good taste.

I could continue trashing Twin Peaks a lot longer, but I don’t think it would be worth it. Suffice it to say that the series fell victim to the limitations of its own genre. Semi-improvisational, loosely structured serial writing and the rating race tarnished the great potential Twin Peaks contained.

Let’s now move on to praise Twin Peaks deserves.

There’s a lot to be said about the series aesthetic and dramatic originality, but it’s been talked about by thousands of other people before me. The world of Twin Peaks is vivid, multidimensional and haunting. It’s probably one of the darkest stories ever told in moving images, and yet its darkness is so well-balanced with humor, joie de vivre and intrigue that at least the first and half of the second season of the series is a TV equivalent of a page-turner.

But if we want to grasp the true value of Twin Peaks, we must understand its philosophical message. In fact, simply having the philosophical message is something that already distinguishes Twin Peaks from almost every TV series that were ever produced, but the depth and originality of that message abstracts Twin Peaks from its utilitarian purpose of selling coffee and donuts to TV-enslaved proletariat and elevates it, despite all its imperfections, to the artistic level equal to that of high cinema and high literature. That message of Twin Peaks can be recognized by analyzing relationships within and between the groups of its characters – and certain key scenes.

To be continued…

Scarlet Street, dir. by Fritz Lang, 1945

Every aspect of a truly artistic film (or a work of art in any medium) should in some way contribute to the key idea expressed in it. The title is no exception. An ideal title should serve as a metaphor for such idea and be constructed in a way that – a) doesn’t reveal the idea before the climax; and – b) provides the meaningful additional bit of metaphorical meaning that deepens the audience’s understanding of the idea as expressed in the climax.

Seen in this perspective, the phrase “scarlet street” doesn’t refer to any actual geographic location in the film, but rather should be interpreted as a metaphor. The word “scarlet” may be interpreted as the color of blood – or, in its more archaic sense – as “wicked”, “heinous”, “immoral” or “unchaste”. The word “street” of the title may of course refer to the final condition of the main character of the story (who ends up being homeless, that is, becomes a “street person”) – but it can also be interpreted in its traditional meaning, “the public road”. The combination of the two words, therefore, is likely to signify something like the “heinous road”, “road of shame” or the “path to hell”.

(Curiously, a similarly constructed metaphor was used as a title for another classic film that is also usually attributed to the film noir genre: 1950s “Sunset Boulevard” – this title can be interpreted as “road to darkness”.)

But let’s get back to the message of “Scarlet Street” now. It should become obvious after we analyze the behavior of its key characters.

The main character of the film, Christopher Cross, has spent the last 25 years in the state of wasteland: working as a cashier in a bank and barely allowing himself to indulge in his passion to painting as an after-hours hobby. He lives with the woman he hates, whom he had married just because he couldn’t stand the loneliness.  One night he attacks a thug who’s beating up a street-walker, and ends up going out on a date with the woman he’s just saved. Despite all the signs, he refuses to acknowledge Kitty’s profession and prefers to think that she’s an actress who just happened to be returning home from an evening performance. She, in turn, although having instantly identified Christopher as a bank clerk, prefers to ignore it, and manages to convince herself that the aging man she picked up is not only a professional artist, but a rich and successful one, too. This self-deception is so strong that Kitty manages to convince Johnny Prince, her amateur pimp, that they can prosper by shaking down some of the dough from that “rich artist”.

Being a small-time crook, Johnny flatters himself with the idea that one day he may go to Hollywood and become a film star. Kitty is so sure that she is in love with Johnny and that Johnny loves her back and will one day marry her, that she ignores not only the ample evidence that Johnny just uses her to get money for his gambling, but also the fact that Johnny beats her up at every opportunity. Christopher, having met Johnny in the new apartment he rented for Kitty, recognizes him as the street thug who was beating Kitty up, but refuses to believe his eyes, and prefers to trust Kitty’s words that Johnny is her former roommate’s boyfriend.

After Johnny sells Christopher’s paintings to a street dauber (who, incidentally, imagines himself as a true artist and a “master of perspective”) – a famous art critic comes to visit the person who painted these great artworks. The critic mistrusts Johnny, who informs him that Kitty painted all the pictures – but after speaking with Kitty for a few minutes, fools himself into thinking that it is indeed true.

To provide for Kitty, Christopher has to embezzle money from the bank where he works. The bank owner, J.J.Hogarth, nearly catches Christopher red-handed, but chooses to ignore the obvious signs, and just drums his fingers on the envelope containing the stolen cash.

When Christopher finds out that Kitty sold his paintings as her own, he, blinded by his desire for Kitty, paints more artworks and allows her to sign them. He is so certain that she is in love with him, too, that he never even asks himself how such attractive young woman could fall for the aging, ugly, ordinary guy like him.

Missis Cross’s ex-cop ex-husband, long thought dead, reappears and allows himself to be persuaded, against every bit of common sense, that he can get his hands on the insurance cash hidden in his wife’s drawer. This sets Christopher free, and he arrives to Kitty’s place, only to catch her with Johnny and to face the truth he long refused to acknowledge: that Johnny and Kitty are lovers. When Kitty exacerbates that realization by teasing him, Christopher kills Kitty with ice-pick and later frames Johnny, who is sent to electric chair for the murder he didn’t commit. As a trade-off, Christiopher has to give up painting, because any artwork he may produce from now on can implicate him in the crime.

Christopher ends up homeless and insane, tormented by the ghosts of Kitty and Johnny, and watching wistfully how his (Kitty’s) paintings are sold for huge money to people who delude themselves into thinking that they can appreciate art.

At the end Christopher is sunk in a much deeper wasteland than the one he was in at the beginning of the story.

Denial (and active self-deception) lead to subjectivism (insanity) and to meaningless, de-actualized existence. Denial is such a widespread phenomenon, that it requires a great deal of effort to recognize elements of denial in our own attitudes, but it’s necessary because only after removing the denial we can begin to take steps toward meaningful life.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Tuesday, April 26 2011, 10:00 PM, New York

Michurin, dir. by Alexander Dovzhenko, 1948

At a first glance this film may give you a strong impression of being merely a piece of communist propaganda. Marxist ideology and materialistic philosophical notions seem to permeate every scene and every bit of dialogue. Characters in this movie shout a lot, and seem to express their political views in clichés borrowed from the “Pravda” newspaper. Alexander Dovzhenko made this film in USSR in 1948, at the very peak of the period of Joseph Stalin’s personality cult – and received 1949 Stalin’s Prize for outstanding achievements in feature film (the kind of honor that could only be given to creative works fully compliant with communist ideology).

The film is the biography of a Russian biologist Ivan Michurin, the practitioner of botanic selection and one of the precursors of modern genetics. In tzar’s Russia, Michurin’s scientific research was met with public scorn, but the communist revolution of 1917 brought Michurin unexpected success and fame out of all proportions. No wonder that his story could be chosen to illustrate the supposed intellectual superiority of the totalitarianism.

A closer look at the film, however, reveals a hidden philosophical message – unexpected and practical. Let’s see what this movie really tells us.

Michurin works with obsessive passion, struggling to create new sorts of fruit plants that would be able to survive in the severe climate of northern Russia. He has an impossible dream: to have fruit gardens blossom all over his cold, tough country. This work takes many decades, consisting of endless trials and errors, and bringing no practical results: all Michurin’s new plants wither and die, again and again. Michurin’s fanatical, laser-beam-like, single-minded focus on his research renders everything else in his life secondary: even with his beloved wife on her deathbed, the scientist is so engrossed in his work that he addresses her in absentminded monosyllables, not leaving his desk. Corrupt government officials of stagnant, barely out of feudalism Russia, the clergy of Orthodox Church and conservative established scientists not only refuse to support Michurin, but actively try to prevent him from succeeding in his work – and yet Michurin rejects the offer from the US Department of Agriculture to move his research to United States. It’s important to Michurin to give the result of his work to the people of his country – to simple folk from Ural Mountains and Siberia who understand and appreciate what he’s trying to achieve. Michurin doesn’t attempt to wrestle with the bureaucratic Russian system; instead, he focuses even deeper on his work, hoping against hope that one day it will bring fruit. His dedication is a perfect illustration of the Chinese “kung fu” principle in its original meaning: achievement through hard work, time multiplied by effort.

And then a miracle happens. The communist revolution overthrows the corrupt old regime. The people – the simple folk – come to power, and immediately Michurin’s research receives recognition and financing it needed. Mikhail Kalinin, the top official in charge of agriculture in the new government, visits Michurin and in a long, friendly conversation shows a deep understanding of Michurin’s goals. Students arrive from all over the country to learn from Michurin. Encouraged by the overwhelming support, Michurin makes several important discoveries and finally his dream becomes a reality. Fruit gardens blossom throughout Russia.

The message is deeply idealistic, and therefore in its essence has nothing to do with communism. Find your purpose. Invest yourself in it. Concentrate completely on your work. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by any obstacles. Do not try to modify the unfavorable external reality; doing so would only scatter your effort. Instead, focus on doing what must be done in your field. The material world will yield. If you give yourself completely to your high mission, God will grant you the kind of reality that is best for fulfilling that mission’s purpose. If old Russian monarchy system can’t accommodate Michurin’s research, the system has to go. The communist revolution in this film doesn’t occur accidentally: it comes as a direct result of Michurin’s full commitment to his science; it happens only because Michurin needs it. The external world is merely a projection of our inner spiritual reality, so if our thoughts and actions are pure, selfless and focused, the external world has to become what we need it to be.

I admire Alexander Dovzhenko’s courage and creativity in expressing this idea notwithstanding his own external circumstances.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, April 20 2011, 10:20 PM, New York

The Woman in the Window, 1944

Many film connoisseurs mistakenly qualify “The Woman in the Window” as “minor Fritz Lang”, considering it more mainstream, less original and less art-like compared to Lang’s earlier “Der Müde Tod” (1921), “Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” (1922), “Die Nibelungen” (1924), ”Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931). Even critics who acknowledge the importance of “The Woman in the Window” in Lang’s oeuvre and in film history, mainly stress its value as the precursor of film noir genre, rather than the artistic merits of the film itself. In my opinion, “The Woman in the Window” is deeper film than other Fritz Lang films I mentioned above, and it shows the director’s greater maturity as an artist; I hope to prove it in this article.

Viewers usually see this film as a sort of morality tale illustrating dangers of being lured into a sexual trap set by a femme fatale, and the common notion of a single misstep having far-reaching consequences – but such interpretations are not entirely correct. First of all, Alice Reed (played by Joan Bennett), isn’t a typical femme fatale, but rather a victim type: she is not consciously trying to destroy Assistant Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson in one of his less aggressive roles), and isn’t even trying to manipulate him into submission or to take advantage of him in any way (aside from relieving her boredom by practicing her charms on a funny middle-aged man); she is in trouble no less than the lead character. Secondly, even though the “single misstep” theme is present in the film, it’s not the key subject matter here, but rather a form-building technique that gives this story certain similarities with such literary structures as “The Monk” by Matthew Gregory Lewis (published in 1796), and “Das Schloß” by Franz Kafka (published in 1926).

I believe that the true theme of “The Woman in the Window” is the philosophical dichotomy between determinism and free will. The film asks whether all events of our existence are bound by the rigid cause-and-effect structure, or we can freely choose things that befall us – and, if the latter is true, what should be the basis for our choice and how we can make it.

The ancient intellectual conflict of strict causality versus free will isn’t likely to ever be resolved. From deterministic point of view, everything – including our thoughts, actions and decisions – is caused by preceding events, and what we see as “free will” is nothing but our ignorance of the “big picture” of the complex and nearly infinite network of causes. The proponents of the free will, on the other hand, state that there are events even in physical universe that are not connected by any cause-and-effect relationship, and therefore, a conscious mind is free to make a choice that is not dictated by any prior occurrence. Till the late XIX century science seemed to favor determinist point of view, but the most current trend, started by Josiah Willard Gibbs, is to see physical reality in terms of statistical probability and chance rather than strict causality. Philosophers has differed in their opinions through the ages, and offered powerful reasoning in support of determinism and free will, as well as many equally weighty arguments in refutation of both concepts. Ultimately, no measurement can be absolute, no result of mathematical calculation can be confirmed with complete certainty, no physical law can be fully tested and proven – and no philosophical position can be asserted as the truth. It all comes down to individual faith and the personal choice (either predetermined or freely made). First we gain faith in a certain concept for certain combination of reasons, and then we seek best arguments to support our faith. For example, I support the concept of positive reasonable doubt in the matters of idealism versus materialism: I cannot be sure that the material universe is the only true reality, and recognize many things as evidence of higher, spiritual level of being – so I must apply the concept of reasonable doubt and choose idealism as the truth (see “12 Angry Men”, dir. by Sidney Lumet, 1957).

But let’s get back to “The Woman in the Window”. Its dramatic structure contains not one, but several progressive missteps by the lead character.

1. Richard Wanley stops to admire the portrait of the unknown woman in a gallery window. This seems the most innocent misstep, but actually the crucial one. It’s his attraction to the painting that makes the character of Alice Reed materialize. He should have just walked by, which would have been the easiest thing to do – but he doesn’t.

2. Alice Reed appears out of thin air and accosts Richard Wanley, striking up a flirtatious conversation with him. He should have apologized and left, instead of supporting the conversation, and that, too, would have been relatively easy – but he  hasn’t.

3. Alice Reed invites Richard Wanley for “just one drink” in a nearby bar. He agrees, even though he should have said no, which still wouldn’t require a lot of willpower.

4. She invites him “to look at some sketches” at her house. After showing feeble resistance (giving her a list of things that he shouldn’t have done by now), Richard agrees. His willpower, somewhat diminished by alcohol, isn’t sufficient to overcome this new temptation (still relatively minor, but stronger than the previous ones).

5.  At Alice’s place, after showing Richard the sketches, she offers him another drink. It’s the last chance for Richard to escape the quagmire, but as Alice says, “this is much too pleasant to break up”. Richard hurts his finger while trying to open a bottle of champagne (the foreshadowing of the approaching suffering), but this forceful reminder is just not enough to sober him up.

6. A grotesque “force majeure” is introduced, in the form of the jealous millionaire Claude Mazard who storms in and proceeds to strangle Richard. Fighting for his life, Richard stabs his attacker with scissors and kills him. The choice is thus elevated to a new level: to report the murder to the police or to hide the body. There’s more at stake this time: if Richard calls the police, he may lose his job and probably be separated from his family; if he doesn’t call and is later found out, he will face a trial, a prison term or even death penalty. It’s clear that the correct choice would be to confess, but Richard chooses to hide the body of the murdered man instead. During the following several interactions with his friend, the District Attorney investigating the case of the missing millionaire, Richard blurts out several clues that may very well implicate him in the future. (Why he does that will become clear in a couple of paragraphs.)

7. Heidt, the blackmailer, appears and demands five thousand dollars. Richard Wanley defines the choice at this point as threefold: “You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you’re penniless. Or, you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or… you can kill him.” The fact that Richard by that time has already made the choice to kill the blackmailer, and the way he says it, shows that the pressure of circumstances has precipitated his inner corruption, transforming him imperceptibly from an innocent, diffident academician in peril to a violent, cynical predator. (This introduces the very important part of the subject matter: series of wrong choices that we may make are dangerous not so much because they put our social and physical survival at risk, but mainly because they can imperceptibly transform our psyche, turning us into our own evil twins. Such inner transformation is impossible to self-diagnose, because in our subjectivity we’re bound to perceive ourselves as unchanged and basically good, no matter how corrupt we my have become.)

8. The plot to kill the blackmailer fails and backfires: he demands more money. Drained of willpower, confused about his choices and unable to face the responsibility for his mistakes, Richard falls into abject despair and commits suicide.

This outcome reveals theretofore hidden true nature of the key motivation behind Richard’s actions: Freudian ”Todestrieb” (death drive), the desire of any organic life to return to the inanimate state – the secret dark side of the “pleasure principle”, Thanatos behind the mask of Eros. (Evidently, having embraced the American commercial cinema style, Fritz Lang however never really severed his German Expressionist roots.)

The structure of the story very well illustrates the idea that tiny, seemingly insignificant choices we face every day should be treated very seriously, as they are often more important than they seem. It’s a lot easier to make a correct small choice in a situation where not much is at stake and very little energy is needed, than to face a huge quandary, selecting lesser of two evils. To quote from Chapter 64 of Tao Te Ching:

What remains still is easy to hold.
What is not yet manifest is easy to plan for.
What is brittle is easy to crack.
What is minute is easy to scatter.
Deal with things before they appear.
Put things in order before disorder arises.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth.
The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands.

Even though I must accede that “it-was-all-just-a-dream” ending of the film is probably not much of a surprise (it was added after the suicide sequence mainly to make “The Woman in the Window” better comply with the notoriously prudish Hays Code), I think Fritz Lang succeeded in making the movie more profound thanks to that ending. Richard Wanley’s overkill climactic reaction to a strange woman’s request to light her cigarette may seem hilarious, but it actually shows the correct tactic for abstaining from seemingly small temptations. Up to that point in the story, Richard failed to make the right choice each time, because making it would require just a little more willpower and energy than he was prepared to give it. In the humorous climax, however, Richard puts all his willpower and energy into the tiny right choice, refusing the “call to a dark adventure” with everything he’s got – and no matter how funny it may look, that’s probably one of the best ways it can be done.

In “The Woman in the Window”, Fritz Lang tells us that freedom of will is real, and can be actualized by investing our complete commitment into the right choice. “The window” of the title is the opening that allows us to see the reality beyond our mundane world, and “the woman” is any obstacle that blocks our vision of that higher realm. We must therefore concentrate on fulfilling our moral mission, and turn away from any “women in windows”, whatever specific forms they may take in each case.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Tuesday, April 19 2011, 5:55 PM, New York

12 Angry Men, dir. by Sidney Lumet, 1957

Works of art in any medium, including film, may be sorted in two broad categories according to the methods chosen by their creators: art addressing intellect and art targeting emotions. Having stated that, I feel I must immediately emphasize that intellectual art obviously doesn’t preclude emotions, and neither is emotional art the enemy of intellect. At the climax of any film worthy of its celluloid, logic and emotions blend into a single explosive. Still, some of the films employ mainly emotional leverage to produce the climactic effect, while others captivate the audience through the force of logical argument.

I’m convinced that, despite all the turbulent emotions in “12 Angry Men” (and notwithstanding the emotion of anger that made its way even to the title), this film is, at its very core, a purely logical, crystal-like structure – and I’m also certain that all the violent emotions in this story just serve to underline (and sometimes probably even disguise) its sharp, clear, cold analytical edges. Being a work of intellectual art, “12 Angry Men” permits certain level of abstraction, making its theme and idea range wider and deeper than the subject of justice, typical to the genre of courtroom drama, or that of relationships between children and parents, revealed in the powerful climactic scene performed (or rather, lived through) by Lee J. Cobb.

But before we get to the analysis of this film’s message, let’s talk a little about its aesthetic and technical qualities. A viewer caught in the dynamic unwrapping of the story may experience the deceptive feeling of watching a stage play performed in front of the camera. Nothing can be further from the truth. Most of cinema enthusiasts are familiar with the basic imperative that the camera must not cross the eyeline (a.k.a. line of action) between any two shots of two people talking. Breaking that rule destroys the flow of the scene and creates confusion. Things become a little more complicated when a scene involves three people and three corresponding eyelines. A scene with four people has six eyelines. A twelve-people scene contains sixty-six eyelines. Don’t forget that neither of the twelve jurors in the film just sits in one place – each of them moves all over the room in the course of an hour and a half, interacting with each other, entangled in a complex web of constantly changing eyelines. A camera crossing any of those sixty-six dynamic eyelines would ruin the continuity. To make things more challenging, the characters stand up and sit down, changing the vertical angles of each eyeline. Every actor, addressing every other actor, looks exactly in the direction where the eyes of the other character should be at this moment; if they address more than one character at once, they shift the direction of their gaze between those multiple characters. Because of the specifics of lighting setup in one enclosed space, the film was not shot in continuity; so to maintain all the eyelines, the exact position of every character at every moment of story had to be exactly known. There’s more: every object on the desk had to be where it belonged no earlier and no later than necessary. Some shots include rain outside, others don’t; the rain affects the look of the shot even if not filmed directly. It’s hot in the room, and the jurors sweat profusely. Perspiration stains on their shirts had to be smaller or larger depending on each specific moment in the narrative. The camera had to be positioned above or below the eye level and equipped with wider or longer lens, depending on when within the story the currently filmed scene should occur (as the film progresses, lenses become noticeably more long-focus, creating the illusion that the walls are moving in closer, almost squashing the jurors – but the scenes weren’t filmed in sequence, so the lenses had to be changed depending on lighting of each specific scene being filmed ). “12 Angry Men”, from technical point of view, must have been a continuity hell, and it would deserve to be considered a directorial tour de force even if just for that. The acting of every member of the cast is pure Stanislavski – even the actors in non-speaking bit parts are superb. Obviously, none of it would matter without the tight, well-structured dramatic narrative (by Reginald Rose). I was particularly impressed with how skillfully he introduced the necessary breaks of logical flow of the story: having established the order of speaking for the 12 jurors, he quickly breaks that order to make the structure seem loose and spontaneous, almost improvisation-like. Absorbed in suspense and mystery of the story, the viewers may not be as acutely aware of its humor, but the comical is there all right, and adds a lot to the overall style. I must also mention of course the crisp, striking, dramatic cinematography of the great Boris Kaufman (the younger brother of the Russian documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov and the collaborator of Jean Vigo, Elia Kazan, and Samuel Beckett, among many others) – and masterful, assured editing done by Carl Lerner. But enough accolades; let’s focus on the meaning.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the main theme of “12 Angry Men” is truth: the obstacles one may encounter searching for it, and the ways to find it.

It impressed me as the clear sign of writer’s logical and moral depth that he didn’t allow himself an easy solution of declaring truth as something certain and perfectly defined. No, the truth in “12 Angry Men” is realistic: it’s bound within the limits of human perception. The truth we can find is never perfect, and yet we must pursue it to the best of our ability. Henry Fonda’s character, Davis, is not claiming that he knows the truth. He only claims that he cannot be positive that he or the others know it, and that having reasonable doubt, the jurors must assume that the accused is not guilty; that’s the positive truth accessible within his human limitations. This position is not agnostic: it’s objective. “I don’t really know what the truth is, I don’t suppose anybody will really know… Maybe we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. Maybe we’re just trying to let the guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have reasonable doubt. And it’s something that is very valuable in our system.” The truth exists; it must be searched for and found. The truth is simple (one bit of information: “guilty” or “not guilty”) and practical. Discovering the truth or, rather, eliminating the fallacious assumption of already knowing it, is demonstrated in “12 Angry men” as the matter of life and death: physically – for the accused, and morally – for the jurors, who risk becoming murderers of an innocent boy.

The film doesn’t tell us who really committed the murder; it doesn’t even tell us whether the boy accused of murder was indeed guilty or not. But within the realistic limits of human knowledge, “12 Angry Men” shows a perfect example of logical reasoning that brings out the practical and meaningful truth.

The same principles and the same method can and should be applied to any search of truth, and especially to the search for the ultimate Truth. As long as we can have reasonable doubt, we have no moral or intellectual right to choose “guilty”. (As I’ve already mentioned earlier, the value of “12 Angry Men” reaches beyond the thematic borders of its genre. We can even use the methods described in this film to discover snippets of truth in other films or any other works of art.)

Interestingly, in the beginning of the story, Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda’s character) doesn’t seem to have noticed all the inconsistencies in the witnesses’ accounts of the murder. As he explains, he has chosen “not guilty” simply because he couldn’t bring himself to send a young boy to the electric chair without at least talking about it first. This illustrates the notion that the search for truth may be initially motivated by humanism – even though I must note that in many situations humanism may also be a trap (see “Farewell, My Concubine”, dir. by Kaige Chen, 1993). In “12 Angry Men” though, reason and empathy go hand in hand: “I kept putting myself in the kid’s place”.

Another, probably much more important motivation for the search of truth is the feeling of disturbance, lack of inner peace, the irritation experienced when facing the untruth. That sensation is the greatest indicator of the truth not being found yet, and if we pay heed to the sensation and follow it, we can take the first and strongest stride toward the truth. (When everyone sounds too positive, when everything seems to be unquestioned, it may be the sign that everything is false.) On the other hand, if we force ourselves to disregard such inner disturbance, we make a dangerous philosophical mistake that can have far-reaching consequences in our destiny.

What I’m about to say is a platitude perhaps, but lack of indifference to truth is the most important character trait for any seeker of meaning. Everything really is the matter of life and death, and our decisions deserve a lot more depth than we’re normally willing to give them. Not all decisions we ever make are final and irreversible like the one in this film, but all are important. Our choice does matter. Superficiality may be caused by our indifference to the outcome  – we tend to neglect our own lives and lives of people close to us a lot more often than we would want to admit.  But it is possible to know the truth if we really want to, and it is possible to infect other people with our urge to know it. These things are illustrated in the character of the Juror # 8. His is the angelic presence in the story: he wears the symbolic white suite; he has 3 children (a possible allusion to the Trinity); he’s an architect (the Creator). His last name is Davis (another possible allusion: to David, the underdog vanquisher of Goliath.)

What qualities make Juror # 8 a positive character, a hero, a protagonist in the story? He looks deeply into the matter, striving to avoid and omit nothing. He bought the knife identical to the one used in the killing. He analyzed the testimonies and found inconsistencies. He understood the consequences of his choices and realized that he must take every choice very seriously. This is maturity. But more importantly – he is objective (“Nice bunch of guys, huh? – They’re about the same as anyone else.”), and his reason is in full control of his actions.

The positions and behavior of the rest of the jurors in “12 Angry Men” illustrate various fallacies that block away the truth. The film tells the story of overcoming these obstacles one at a time, so I think it would be important for us to consider them one by one.

Juror # 1 (the foreman; played by Martin Balsam): authority challenge. A high school football coach, he represents authority to his students while being aware of not having any real authority or any significant social status. His urge to gain leadership makes him want to take a secure, popular position, and forces him to ignore the signs of untruth in that point of view – as a result, while nominally being a leader, he is, in fact, a follower. He may know the truth before many others, but he can only acknowledge it when he sees that it’s become the position of the majority (exactly the way it happens in the film).

Juror # 2 (the nerdy bank clerk, played by John Fiedler): this character illustrates the power of the subjective opinion based on the phenomenon of “trust to authority” (or trust to someone else’s point of view, or to superficial appearances). The opinion of this type of person may be based on feelings (mainly on the feeling of comfort) – or even on a random choice. It’s the character who settles for the untruth simply because “it just feels right”. This challenge is rooted in his deep lack of self-confidence. This character is not without common sense, so it’s relatively easy to make him recognize the truth simply by offering facts and strong arguments; finding the truth helps him to gain self-esteem and makes him a different man in the end.

Juror # 3 (the monster father, played by Lee J. Cobb): aggressive denial. This core issue is revealed as soon as he opens his mouth to argue his case: “I have no personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about facts.” (no matter what he says, he is the most emotional and personally involved man in the room, which makes him ignore the facts). This character functions as the antagonist in the dramatic structure of the story, and I’ll come back to him yet.

Juror # 4 (the stockbroker, played by E. G. Marshall): this man is convinced of his intellectual, moral and even physical superiority not only over the accused, but over everyone in the room. It may not be very obvious, but having this unique brand of subjectivism, he is the most comical character in the film. (“Pardon me, but don’t you ever sweat?” – “No I don’t”). Neither does he smile or go to the bathroom (while the rest of the jurors run in and out of the bathroom all through the film). Naturally, he can only become aware of the truth after he’s forced to face his imperfections: very characteristically, once the flaws of his memory are exposed, he does sweat. It’s not enough to just make that kind of man face his imperfections once; only by being reminded again of his human limitations, he accepts the fact of his metaphorical (moral) myopia and stops being judgmental.

Juror # 5 (the man from the slums, played by Jack Klugman): suffers from ambivalence brought about by his sense of social inferiority. That’s why he skips his turn to prove the defendant’s guilt. Having been born in the slums, he apparently made a great deal of effort to put maximum distance between his current self and his lowly background– and yet he never quite managed to leave it completely behind. Even though this man’s lower-class past constitutes sharp contrast with his soft-spoken, mellow, guarded persona, it’s eager to reveal itself at the first available opportunity (as soon as he feels offended in his sense of affinity with the proletarian defendant). He has more in common with the defendant than he wants to admit to himself, so his initial verdict – “guilty” – is a form of self-punishment for feeling socially inferior. Recognizing and accepting the objective value of his past helps him to see the truth very soon.

Juror # 6 (the house painter, played by Edward Binns): this character’s challenge in accepting the truth is so general and widespread that it can be considered as the key to everyone else’s. He illustrates the mechanism of arriving to erroneous conclusions just out of need for any conclusion. This fallacy is very common. The uncertainty is frightening, it threatens the hardwired belief in our ability to assess the environment correctly – and therefore makes us fear for our survival. We are so desperate for definite conclusions that we rather prefer to choose something wrong but definite and final than to face any uncertainty. We may try to persuade ourselves that our false conclusions are true, because being persuaded like that may make us feel safer. That’s why this juror is so eager to hold on to something clearly unconvincing but superficially truth-like: the questionable motive for the killing. When forced to deal with the uncertainty, he concedes to the truth.

Juror # 7 (the marmalade salesman, played by Jack Warden): indifference, selfishness, agnosticism and cynicism. (“I don’t care, it’s all the same thing!”) This type sees the reality in terms of personal advantage; that’s why he interprets Davis’s effort to uncover the truth as “soft sell” and wonders if Davis does it just for kicks. He is also more obviously materialistic than anybody else in the room – something that is vividly expressed in his choice of costume, in his shallow charm and in his little tricks. Very characteristically, he is also prone to having great belief in the system and to valuing a socially accepted position higher than the truth (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that to cynical people social status indicates obvious benefits). “The kid had a lawyer, he presented this case, and he couldn’t say anything to defend that kid.” Even when he finally accepts the truth, he does so partly because he just wants to save time for hedonistic pursuits. An agnostic can be swayed, but it’s almost impossible to make him change. Only after his indifference is attacked, he admits that the truth, and not personal interest, must motivate decisions.

Juror # 9 (the old man, played by Joseph Sweeney): a misguided urge for importance and actualized existence. Luckily, this character, thanks to his old age, or perhaps in spite of it, is blessed with profound self-knowledge (metaphorically  expressed as his 20/20 vision). This power of understanding allows him to recognize his own negative qualities in the old man on the witness stand. That’s why this character becomes the first of the jurors to support the Juror # 8. It takes a lot of mental flexibility and great courage to change one’s mind and become a single supporter of someone who alone stands up against the majority. His choice to support Juror # 8 is what turns the tide. That may be the reason why the old man’s name is revealed in the end of the film as MacCardle (“of high valour” in Gaelic).

Juror # 10 (the man with the head cold, played by Ed Begley): bigotry – the most primitive and easily identifiable psychological aberration, and yet the one among the hardest to defeat. Still, after this juror is motivated by his peers to experience deep shame, he is transformed to such degree that not only he discards his prejudice, but also remains speechless through the rest of the story.

Juror # 11 (the watchmaker, played by George Voskovec): it may seem strange, but this articulate, intelligent character suffers from one of the most insidious and dangerous problems among all the characters in this story – mental inertia and stagnation. Not only he does know the truth, but he also offers strong arguments for it, and yet he has a really hard time deciding to say “not guilty”.

Juror # 12 (the advertising man, played by Robert Webber): superficiality. Everything in this character – his occupation, his inability to focus, his humor –  shows that almost through the entire story he isn’t taking anything seriously, being more interested in clever wordplay than in truth. A superficial man is necessarily fickle because nothing concerns him very deeply. That’s why Juror # 12 is characterized by fluctuating between “guilty” and “not guilty” , rather than changing his opinion only once. In the end, his superficiality is outweighed by the old man’s attention to detail that proves intellectually contagious.

So, we now considered the positions of the twelve men and analyzed the foundations of their points of view (even though we still need to take a closer look at the Juror # 3 and his confrontation with the Juror # 8).

This may be relatively unimportant, but I think it would be interesting to recap and see in what sequence the various false notions have been dispelled in “12 Angry Men”. Perhaps that sequence can give us the idea of which fallacies are the easiest and which are the hardest to overcome.

1. Juror # 8 senses the inconsistency of testimonies for the prosecution and is moved by humane considerations to declare the defendant “not guilty”; he stands alone against the rest of the jurors.

2. Juror # 9, thanks to his unusual mental clarity and sense of justice, triumphs over his misdirected need to be important, and supports Juror # 8, thus becoming truly important.

3. Juror # 5 realizes the value of his low-class background, which allows him to let go of his social ambivalence and see the truth objectively. The importance of his background will be further confirmed later in the story, when his expertise at handling a switchblade knife provides a crucial bit of information.

4. Juror # 11 makes several forceful arguments for the truth, then struggles to accept his own arguments and finally realizes that he must take the position opposite of the one he held initially.

5. Juror # 2 gains self-confidence and ability to confront people who spontaneously try to intimidate him. As a result, he earns the nickname “Killer” from the Juror # 7 – and changes his verdict to “not guilty”.

6. Juror # 6 questions his desperate urge for certainty at the cost of truth; the truth wins.

7. Juror # 7 initially concedes to the truth out of indifference, and after being confronted by Juror # 11, expresses the belief that the defendant is not guilty.

8. Juror # 12 is persuaded by the amassed power of the preceding argument that the defendant is not guilty. (A few minutes later he changes his opinion back to “guilty”, having been persuaded by the Juror # 4.)

9.  Juror # 1, who probably saw the truth a lot earlier, declares the defendant not guilty only after realizing that it’s become the position of the majority.

10. Juror # 10 exposes the full range of his bigotry and gets ostracized by the entire group. He is so ashamed of himself that he manages to overcome his prejudice, accepts the truth and remains silent till the end.

11. Juror # 4 becomes aware of his imperfections and his moral shortsightedness, rejects his neurotic urge to deceive himself into feeling superior to others, and states that he now has reasonable doubt. Juror # 12 finally becomes persuaded that the correct verdict should be “not guilty”.

12. Juror # 3 undergoes the experience that amounts to no less than a psychotic episode, and after having confronted his inner demons, re-emerges on the other side with the truth gained at the hardest cost. His verdict of “not guilty” is more important than anyone else’s: without his word, everything that took place before would still have no power.

It’s very clear through the entire film, and especially in the climax, that the main confrontation in “12 Angry Men”, the stand between good and evil, happens between the angelic character of Juror # 8 and the monstrous entity that dwells in the mind of Juror # 3. The confrontation even reaches such heights that Juror # 3 stabs Juror # 8 (symbolically) through the heart with the switchblade knife. So what is the secret nature of their conflict? What exactly happens between these two?

Juror # 8 applies a highly rational, logical approach to prove the accused boy not guilty. In contrast to him, Juror # 3 pursues his goal – of proving the boy guilty – with a great deal of passion, and is only eager to hear and accept those arguments that conform with his preconceived opinion. What makes these Juror # 8 and Juror # 3 the protagonist and the antagonist in the story is their relentless desire (to set the boy free and to administer the punishment, correspondingly): both are a lot more proactive in their pursuit than everyone else in the room. Juror # 8: “No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure”. Juror # 3: “We’re trying to put a guilty man in a chair where he belongs”.

It’s rather obvious that Juror # 3 is motivated by hatred to his estranged son who offended and left him (“pierced his heart”, figuratively speaking). That’s why Juror # 3 emphasizes so strongly with the murdered man, and wants to punish his own son by putting in the electric chair the boy who is accused of stabbing his father through the heart (that boy is the “son figure” for Juror # 3). However, the father/son aspect of the story is only a particular. What is important here is that Juror # 3 identifies himself primarily as the “wronged father”, and that self-definition serves as the substitute for the true essence of his character. His denial of truth stems from the pain rooted so deeply that it appears to be the very core of his personality, and makes Juror # 3 believe erroneously that his spontaneous, uncontrollable emotional and even physical reactions to that pain constitute his fundamental values (whereas in reality they are nothing but dark replacements of those values that turn him into a doppelgänger, a sadistic social monster driven to destroy his own son).

When truth challenges what we perceive as the very core of our existence, we have a choice : either to accept the truth and give up our false sense of self – or to ignore the truth and hold on to the falsehood that we imagine as conditio sine qua non of our sanity and survival. That’s when we may fall into the trap of aggressive denial. A human being in that state is highly susceptible to violent emotions, and prone to ignore any clear fact and any reasonable argument (like many people who suspect that they may be wrong but refuse to acknowledge that suspicion, Juror # 3 gives every indication of believing that if he says something forcefully enough it may become more true). That is the hardest, most impenetrable and lethal fallacy – but it, too, can be overcome if we realize that the false things inside us that we’re trying so hard to defend are not what we truly are. That’s how, in “12 Angry Men”, Juror # 3 defeats his pain and hatred by discovering the truth about his relationship with his son. This truth equals unconditional love and absolution, the very things that every child would want from a father: “No. Not guilty. Not guilty.”


In memory of Sidney Lumet

Dimitri Vorontzov

Thursday, April 14 2011, 11:25 AM, New York

Dogtooth, dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009

I want to begin by deciphering the meaning of the film’s iconic logo, used in its opening credits and posters. If we understand the meaning of that image, it will be a lot easier to recognize the message conveyed in this work of cinematic art. Here’s the full image, combined of three elements:

Dogtooth Logo, Medium Image

In the film, the logo appears one element at a time. First, the yellow flat line:

Dogtooth Logo, Flat Line

Yellow is a color of gold, a measure of social value; of the Sun, the center of the planetary hierarchy, and therefore, of the ruler, the government, and any kind of social system. A flat line, in medical terms, is an attribute of death (no heartbeat); metaphorically, it’s an expression of ethical and personal neutrality. A social being, characterized by the flat line, exists in the state of complete conformity; that being is morally inactive and cannot make mistakes. Neither can it achieve any spiritual heights, so is neither “good” nor “bad” because it’s personality had been reduced to zero.

The yellow flat line on the screen is followed by the red figure that has a certain resemblance of a semi-swastika:

Dogtooth Logo, Semi-Swastika

Red is the color of blood, danger, sexuality, suffering (inflicted or experienced); and, very fittingly, red has inevitably been chosen as a color of organized rebellion (whether of French, Russian, Chinese, South American or any other variety). The “semi-swastika” figure grows out of the preceding flat line and retains the flat line as its part, with medium-sized dogtooth-like protuberances growing up and down. The flat line part of the figure points at the compromise at its essence; a state of a human being, illustrated by that figure, is that of an excruciating conflict between the need for freedom and the urge to follow rules. The figure illustrate a painful and futile attempt at self-liberation, marred by fear.

Finally, after the red “semi-swastika” figure, the blue sinusoid appears:

Dogtooth Logo, Sinusoid

Blue: the color of sky, freedom, and spirituality; the color of God. The sinusoid represents the full range of fulfilled human potential and experience in all its aspects, achievable only to those few who can let go of their slavery to the yellow flat line. The blue sinusoid is the ideal state of spiritual freedom that wasn’t achieved by anyone we see onscreen in “Dogtooth”. (There may be a small probability that such spiritual freedom had been achieved by the absent character of the “escaped brother”.)

In this essay I want to focus on the themes and idea of “Dogtooth”, but I can’t help praising it, even if only briefly, for its aesthetic qualities. The authors (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) must have thoroughly brainstormed the subject matter. The film explores every aspect of its material, and maintains the steady supply of freshly shocking scenes. The son killing a cat with pruning shears. The setup of vicious guard dogs in the dog training sequence, and the visual “punch line” of a tiny, confused, intimidated white mutt, the owner barking at it: “Rex! Rex! Rex!”. The whole family barking mad (literally). And just as you think the film can’t avoid repeating itself any longer, it shocks you even more. Fish in the swimming pool. “Grandfather’s” song. Father and mother mouthing words. A wedding anniversary dance by the two sisters. Delightful!

Even though most of the action in “Dogtooth” contained within one family (and within one house and yard), it’s not a movie about interactions between parents and children or husbands and wives (even though the truths formulated in this dark comedy without a trace of a smile can be applied to family relationships, too). The family in the film serves as a model of oppressive society… not that there can be a society that is not oppressive. (Using the microcosm of a family to express ideas pertinent to society isn’t anything new in film history; “The Shining” (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of the most famous examples.)

The limitations imposed by society bring about numerous psychological and behavioral aberrations in people under strain: masochism and sadism (“the game of endurance”, cutting off the feet, hands and nose of a doll, and the “attack of a cat armed with a hammer” sequence); ferocious, predatory competitiveness (fighting over toy airplanes); infantilism (for example, in the episode where the son, who could be in his thirties, can’t sleep because of the full moon and climbs into his parents bed); lack of confidence and self-esteem (the siblings’ vocal delivery and body language are remarkable in their expression of expecting punishment for any wrong move). Incest is promoted for the sake of integrity and safety of the family.

Fear and misinformation are the most important instruments of the oppressor. Subjects consumed by fear will have to obey the ruler. We’re all well familiar with how it works. “The cat is the most dangerous animal there is. We have to be ready in case it invades the house or a garden.” (We’re so used to security guards handling the contents of our bags in libraries, museums and theaters – the guards who don’t really look into our bags; we’re so used to taking off our shoes and approaching metal detectors in airports barefoot – that we think of these idiotic rituals as something normal and don’t even feel humiliated by them anymore. How shameful!) Misinformation requires certain effort, but in the long run is almost as effective as fear: the father who removes the labels from water bottles and spear-hunts the live fish he put in the swimming pool, and the mother who narrates the modified vocabulary lessons for her children are bound to be obeyed and respected as the ultimate authority figures.

Society promotes competition and administers tests. The winner of any competition is predetermined, and the purpose of the tests is not so much to gauge the compliance of the subject with the social standards, as to impose those standards. The very act of testing, followed by qualification, is the event where the rules to be complied with are introduced and ingrained in the minds. Whenever you’re subjected to any type of testing: whether IQ tests or other forms of psychometric and aptitude tests, or any kind of personality questionnaires, be aware that you are being molded into the norm, and some part of your inherent originality is being destroyed. The people of the system who give you the tests are trying to enforce their authority over your mind by testing you. Tests eliminate your originality, they transform you into a mediocrity that is easy to control. Things like “high IQ” , or even “high emotional IQ” are not really indicators of true intelligence, and the intelligence itself is not the indicator of your true value. Those are just social mechanisms to assign a label and a place in the grid for you. Any talents you may have – whether to drawing, music or medicine – will be placed in service of the system.

Aside from tests, there are more direct ways of imposing notions on minds. Society does that non-stop, defining our reality for us and adding ageism, sexism and multiple other “isms” to our perception: “What’s the most creative age of a man?” – “Between 30 and 40!” – “What’s the most creative age of a woman?” – “Between 20 and 30!” Names of those who managed to escape the influence of the system are used to instill more fear: “Your brother was killed because he leaved the safety of our house”. Entertainment offers one of the most effective methods of brainwashing. The scene in which the father uses “Fly me to the moon” (sung by the British Frank Sinatra impersonator Fred Gardner) as an indoctrination tool can serve a great illustration of the mechanism. (Ever wondered why true art of intellectual cinema barely survives in dilapidated “art-houses” while some idiocy like “Saw XXVII” boldly occupies large screens in cineplexes? It’s not because commercially successful intellectual cinema isn’t viable; it’s because society needs dull, witless entertainment to keep you stupid. Our entertainment movies work much in the same way as Goebbels’ propaganda films.)

Society applies “dog training” methods to human beings, keeping us imprisoned until we pass the “stage 5″ of our training: complete submission, total elimination of our inherent characters, pure social function: a zombie.

But that’s not the worst; and that’s where we approach the message of the film.

“A child is ready to leave the house when the right or left dogtooth comes out. Only then is your body ready to face the dangers that lurk. To leave the house and be safe outside, we must take the car. A child is ready to learn to drive when the dogtooth grows again.”

Society has a safety mechanism against the rebel types. There are rules for the rebellion. In “Dogtooth”, the older daughter falls into a trap of rebelling “by the book”: similarly to the group of characters in Luis Buñuel’s “El ángel exterminador” (1962), she can’t just force herself to walk out of the gate; she finds in necessary to execute the program installed in her mind by society. The scene in which the older daughter knocks out her tooth with a dumbbell and then locks herself in a trunk of her father’s car, illustrates the heroic pains a typical rebel takes, hoping to break free from the system, but in reality blindly following the explicit commands provided by that system. Think of how often we put ourselves through painful acts of fulfilling what society imposes as the conditions for our freedom: we go out of our way to free ourselves, but do it according to the rules determined by society (through hard work, humiliation or any other type of self-inflicted suffering). The scene of knocking out the dogtooth demonstrates the illusory nature of any initiation ritual and oppression at the core of any mythology in service of society.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Monday, April 4 2011, 11:oo PM, New York

The original Greek title of this film is Κυνόδοντας, (Kynodontas), it’s produced by Iraklis Mavroidis, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Yorgos Tsourianis at Boo Productions in 2009.