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


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

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

Spoorloos, dir. by George Sluizer, 1988

A note on the method: one of the key questions we must ask when analyzing any work of art is whether the artist expresses a pessimistic or optimistic point of view. It’s typically “either – or”, because the mixture of both is practically never even, and tends toward either optimism or pessimism (most commonly the latter). Determining a pessimistic or optimistic point of view of a film is often easy, because in most works the climax and resolution leave no place for doubt: it’s either a happy ending, or a “downer”. For example, Ingmar Bergman’s “In the Presence of the Clown” (1997) is unmistakably one of the most pessimistic films even for this generally ruthless director: in the dilemma of “sinking” versus “rising” he chose “sinking” in the climax. In a somewhat less obvious case, “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), also by Bergman, a grain of hope remains at the end, but knowing the previous history of Johann and Marianne, we can be sure they will never truly reunite. On the other hand, “Fanny and Alexander” (1983) and “The Magic Flute” (1975) are optimistic stories, despite their inevitably ironic endings.

To be able to define a film as optimistic or pessimistic, we should have clear understanding of its main theme.  ”Some people are lucky to get a fair treatment, but ultimately, the justice doesn’t exist”. Theme: justice; attitude: pessimism.  ”People do suffer unfairly sometimes, but in the long run justice always triumphs, even if not completely”. Theme: justice; attitude: optimism. “God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t give a damn about His people”. Theme: religion; attitude: pessimism. “God is perfect, omniscient and omnipresent, and His will determines everything that happens to us, even if we don’t understand Him”. Theme: religion; attitude: optimism.

Having defined the theme and the outlook, we must determine whether the artist gives artistically compelling, competent proof of his pessimistic or optimistic position. And finally, we must choose whether we agree or disagree with the offered point of view, and why.

Analyzing “Spoorloos” (literally, “Traceless”, known in US as “The Vanishing” and in France as “L’homme qui voulait savoir”) we have to conclude that even though the film has a deceptively optimistic climactic point (Rex has a vision of reuniting with Saskia) – it ends with a perfectly pessimistic resolution: Rex and Saskia are dead, their photos are apart from one another on the newspaper page, their murderer enjoys impunity, and even his deep existential angst emotionally underlines the bleak mood of the ending.

The film deals with the theme of communication, and asserts pessimistically that human contact is impossible despite any effort. Did  the director George Sluizer prove the idea convincingly? Do we agree with him? I won’t retell “Spoorloos” in this article: I assume the reader has seen it. Instead, I’ll sketch a list of themes treated in the film, and scenes that illustrate those themes.

Blending in with nature: the opening shot of the stick insect attached to a tree, followed by a panorama across the blooming meadow. Rex and Saskia’s choice to explore the countryside. The shot of the praying mantis in the grass at the end of the film. The bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s graves. Animals on a torn poster next to the poster of the vanished Saskia. This theme must be interpreted in two ways: as an expression of a desire to achieve a state of harmony with nature, and as a visual metaphor of mimicry. The image of the praying mantis in particular offers a number of relevant allusions: the insect makes itself near-invisible in the environment, lying in wait, and then attacks its prey suddenly, with terrific speed. It’s a cannibal insect, known for devouring its mates during copulation. It’s clear that the praying mantis metaphor points at Raymond, the film’s sociopathic antagonist. However, the protagonist, Rex, initially displays a lot of similar qualities: in the beginning of the film, having just abandoned Saskia in a car stranded in a middle of a dark tunnel where she may be killed by a passing truck, Rex, in his own words, feels more in love with her than ever before.

Survival: expressed in the film metaphorically through the recurrent motive of the Tour de France bicycle race.  The all-permeating race for survival is one of the major factors contributing to the impossibility of true contact in the material world. As long as we’re preoccupied with having to survive, we are competitors in the race to every other survivor, and therefore cannot truly unite with them. Rex’s ability to overcome his urge to survive is the key turning point in his character development arch.

Superficiality of communication: one of the film’s notable features is the nonsense “small talk” type of dialogue illustrating lack of contact between people. It’s introduced in the opening scene of the film, when Rex and Saskia rant about animals, insects and trees (all things nature). Later, Rex and Raymond compare the nonsensical Dutch and French last names. Ironically, Rex appears to have much better rapport with the murderer of his wife, than he had with her. Raymond also calls out Rex’s superficiality by labeling him as an “amateur cyclist”. Raymond’s behavior appears to be anything but superficial: his meticulous preparation to a murder is a masterpiece of organizing. However, Raymond’s relationship with his wife and daughters is beyond superficial: being a sociopath, Raymond lacks empathy in any form, and his contact with members of his family is limited to using and manipulating them. In one memorable bit of dialogue, Raymond directly tells his wife about his obsession with committing an act of ultimate evil – but he omits the specifics, and what he says may be attributed to his obsession with their country house, proving that even when the truth is told, the listener is likely to interpret it from a subjective point of view. The importance of this episode is underlined with subtle, eerie music. In a more dramatic way, Raymond’s interaction with Rex may be interpreted as a highly perverted, doomed attempt at establishing a contact.

Isolation: Saskia’s recurrent nightmare about floating through space trapped in a golden egg. (There’s another golden egg drifting nearby, and should the two eggs collide, it will all be over.) Rex having the same dream. Rex and Saskia being trapped in a car inside the dark tunnel. Saskia’s terror of abandonment. Of course, the climactic event of the film is the ultimate metaphor for the state of isolation. Most importantly, the isolated photos of Rex and Saskia in the newspaper. The physical isolation in “Spoorloos” is horrifying, but the psychological alienation described in the film is probably even more profoundly disturbing, and I do not refer here only to near-autistic mental isolation of Raymond preparing for the murder. The isolation of Rex throughout the film is subtler, but no less complete. After Saskia has vanished, Rex is naturally terrified for her, but that doesn’t prevent him from being a lot more preoccupied, even if only momentarily, with the theft of their bicycles. Only two years later he is already in love with another woman, Lieneke, and would choose her over his former love, should Saskia suddenly reappear. Lieneke, however, is not happy with Rex, because he never stops thinking about Saskia, and the true contact between him and Lieneke never occurs. Rex’s curiosity about Saskia’s fate is so obsessive that he would rather choose the situation in which she is dead but he knows what happened to her, than her being alive on the condition that he knows nothing. Even the main motivation that ultimately leads Rex to his sacrifice is curiosity, rather than love. George Sluizer emphasizes the similarity in the opposing characters of Raymond and Rex, asserting the nature of Rex’s relationship with Saskia – the nature of any “normal” relationship, really – as inherently sociopathic. There’s a great deal of resemblance between what Rex does to Saskia in the tunnel and what Raymond does to her off-screen. Raymond is claustrophobic, and his idea of  ”the most horrible deed that is worse than killing” is, of course, the act of trapping a living being in complete and hopeless isolation.

Subjectivism: yet another manifestation of the isolation. I already mentioned the dialogue of Raymond and his wife that expresses the notion of subjectivism very clearly. Raymond’s younger daughter is sure that he has a mistress, and Raymond doesn’t try to convince her otherwise. In the tunnel, Saskia’s suffering is Rex’s triumph, and he subjectively believes that at that moment he’s in love with her, just while she’s at the peak of hating him, tormented by her fear of being abandoned. A single woman who interprets Raymond’s approach as an attempt to pick her up. Saskia, blinded by her love to Rex, falling into the murderer’s trap because she hoped to buy a gift for her husband.

Rex in the beginning of the film is self-centered and oblivious of the emotional needs of Saskia. It’s rather natural that Saskia finds herself isolated even in his presence. After Saskia has vanished, the mounting pressure, the urge to know what happened to his wife gradually transforms Rex, making him take action to overcome his lack of awareness. The only chance to destroy superficiality and subjectivism, the only one way to establish a connection with another human being is to discard the ego by putting oneself through the same experience. Having allowed himself that choice, Rex took the ultimate step toward uniting with Saskia and breaking through the shell of the “golden egg”. Rex’s character arch leads him from the state of natural isolation to the conscious choice of becoming the other person by living through the extreme ordeal that person had experienced, even if it means death in the end. Having thus shed his ego, Rex becomes the true hero. There’s just one problem with his self-sacrifice: it’s naive and ultimately useless. Even in recreating Saskia’s experience, Rex remains isolated within his subjectivism, and his final vision of  reuniting with Saskia is nothing more than wishful thinking of a dying man. The reunion only takes place in his imagination. Even the strongest, least conservative action doesn’t lead to lifting the limits of isolation. Death turns out to be not the way to unite with another human being, but merely the way to achieve the ultimate harmony with nature: by dissolving into it, becoming it. Hence, the two separate bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s final resting place.

I am forced to admit that within the limits of the given story, I find the point of view of George Sluizer well-argued. Philosophically, it’s an uncompromising position, and I respect that. And yet, everything in my belief system prevents me from accepting that point of view. Yes, we are limited by our material bodies and social statuses, by language and emotions, and of course we’re bound by the shortness of our lifetime and the need to survive. But I simply can’t allow myself to give up hope that my connection with someone I love is real. Even if true human contact is an exception to the general rule, I want to implement that exception in my reality.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Friday, April 1 2011, 10:13 PM, New York

M, dir. by Fritz Lang, 1931

Film storytellers who aim to make strong moral statements may choose to rely on extreme, controversial perspectives in order to get their message across. For example, Liliana Cavani in “The Night Porter” (1974), wishing to express the power of romantic love, selected a Nazi torturer and his female victim as a pair of star-crossed lovers. Similarly, Lars von Trier in “Breaking the Waves” (1996), striving to emphasize that a wife can achieve saint-like enlightenment by submitting unquestioningly to her husband’s will, made the husband a sexually obsessed paraplegic who forces his wife into the life of prostitution. In my opinion, both filmmakers failed to cope with their unmanageable material and fell into relishing of sadomasochistic aspects of perverted relationships they attempted to justify. Extreme perspective is a risky method, demanding highly developed taste and a great deal of healthy rationality from any artist who wishes to use it. As a significantly more successful example stands out Merian C. Cooper and Earnest B. Shoedsack’s “King Kong” (1933), in which the power of a femme fatale to ensnare and destroy even the most resourceful and violent male was famously illustrated by pitting a seemingly innocent and helpless young actress against the murderous oversized ape of the title.

One of the finest examples of cinematic narration that employs such “broad brushstrokes” dramatic technique is “M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder “, written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, and directed by Lang in 1931. The central character of the story is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre’s arguably most famous role), the maniac who terrorizes Berlin for months by luring and killing children. Hardly any character in film history would seem to deserve less compassion than Hans Beckert – and yet compassion to that monster is precisely the emotion Fritz Lang leads his audience to experience.

The animal nature of the Homo Sapiens has enough power to dictate our behavior; history offers countless illustrations for the scope of viciousness of our species. We brought ruin to nations, ethnic groups and entire civilizations; we even murdered our God. And yet I refuse to regard myself as merely a beast with a somewhat better developed brain: I choose to believe that at the core of every human being’s psychological setup there’s a well-defined structure of moral principles that should govern that individual’s decisions. Some people may be less sensitive to such inner postulates, and others may have no way whatsoever of connecting with their conscience, but I can’t help thinking that it’s more than just the social taboo or biological survival-of-the-species imperative that prevents us from destroying each other at every opportunity. I may be too optimistic, but I’d like to hope that an average human being is imbued with the deep sense of empathy that forbids us to cause evil to others. At the very least, I think that any person aspiring to spirituality should develop such sense.

So how can it happen that any human being, even though inherently moral, may give in to an impulse to do evil? In what ways does our demonic nature triumph over morality?

According to Fritz Lang, nature and society have conspired to create a loophole in our moral code, allowing any human being to circumvent the inner interdiction of causing harm to others. The loophole that can be metaphorically named “M” consists of justifying an evil deed with high moral considerations. A person may consider any malicious act as acceptable if it’s being done “for the greater good”.

Every one of us needs to see self as “good” and “right”. We need to experience our philosophy as correct. Such sense of moral righteousness forms the basis of our ability to assess the environment, and is therefore essential to our physical survival. And yet none of us is absolutely good. We can only be good by comparison with someone else whom we consider “worse than us”. That’s how very early in life we learn to demonize others in order to justify our actions: we develop the need for having an enemy. We mark the enemy for destruction with the proverbial “M” and feel justified in our desire to destroy.

A serial murderer of children qualifies as the ideal candidate for the role of the enemy. It’s easy to hate him: no one is more ignoble than he is. Even the criminals who have to kill for survival feel justified in their righteous urge to punish Hans Beckert – and up to a certain point in the film we, the audience, may even emphasize with the criminals, who stop at nothing to capture the maniac; we, too, want him killed.

But even though Der Schränker, the master criminal, asserts that his organization must destroy Hans Beckert to protect the children, that’s not the real motivation. The crooks want Hans Beckert out of commission because their criminal business is disrupted by daily raids the police has to conduct in search for the maniac. Saving the children is only a noble pretense that hides purely economic interests… and yet even those interests become secondary by the time the maniac is finally at the mercy of Der Schränker and his kangaroo court of thieves. The masks are off and the audience finally realizes the true underlying motive of the violence: the sheer sadistic pleasure of destroying someone completely helpless.

This notion is best expressed by Hans Beckert himself in his climactic monologue. The monster describes being chased by his “other self” and the ghosts of his victims, and confesses that only the moment of actual killing gives him temporary sense of relief and freedom from guilt.

When neighbors write anonymous letters to the police about each other, accusing each other of being child murderers; when drinking buddies spontaneously decide to ostracize one of their own and expose him as a pedophile; when a street bully towers over a little old man and then drags him to a police – all these events in the film are rationalized by the hunt for the child murderer, but in reality the urge to expose a maniac is only a pretense: people simply use it to feel justified in their hatred to their neighbors and in their desire to dominate and destroy another human being. The crooks set up their court not because they want to punish the evil deed, but simply because they need, for once, to experience the sense of liberating righteousness while committing a murder.

The true reason for violence is the sensation of power it can give. The wicked do evil so that they can experience the doing. Anything else is merely a rationalization. The existence of such rationalization is the main theme treated by Fritz Lang in his film. The message is twofold: we must be able to recognize the truth when someone is using a beautiful justification for an evil deed; and even more importantly, we must be aware of our own inherent desire to do evil, and must prevent our attempts to use the loophole in our ethics and justify our potential wickedness by any kind of greater good. No matter how monstrous our enemy may be, if we succumb to hatred, we destroy our own souls.

You may think this idea is way too abstract, but it’s immediately applicable to the current reality – to any current reality. The ruse of justifying evil actions with noble considerations is well-known and has been used consistently all through history. People were tortured and killed in the name of true faith and spiritual enlightenment, salvation of their own souls, national unity, protection of society, duty, and, on many occasions, even out of pacifism (as in “Sergeant York”, dir. by Howard Hawks, 1941). When my country attacks another country on the opposite side of the globe, whether to destroy a tyrant, establish the democracy or protect innocent civilians, I am repelled, because I know that all these beautiful motives hide the ugly truth. Wars are waged for money, influence, power – and for the joy of killing.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 22 2011, 2:15 AM, New York

L’Arrivee d’un train, 1895

My goal in writing this article is to prove that “L’Arrivee d’un train” is remarkable not merely as one of the early examples of moving image, but more importantly, as an early work of cinema as art – thanks to its profound philosophical controlling idea. I know the film in two different versions, marked with the same number: Lumiere #653. One of the two versions includes the footage of a lavishly dressed woman and her tiny daughter, running together hand in hand alongside the railroad track. The other version can be recognized by the image of a man wearing a light suit and a cap, walking backwards in front of the camera, likely aware that he’s in the shot, but probably not realizing that the apparatus he’s being filmed with is Le Cinematographe Lumiere.

According to the famous urban myth, during the premiere of this 50-seconds-long film in 1896 in Lyon the audience was so terrified of the image of the arriving train that many people leaped up from their seats, screaming, and ran to the back of the screening room. That myth may or may not be true, and yet, it appears certain that Auguste and Louis Lumiere, when they captured the approaching train on film at the most expressive angle they could think of, did expect to elicit strong emotional reaction from their audience. This was the likely reason why they didn’t stop the camera immediately after the train arrived to the platform, but kept rolling to record the hubbub of disembarking passengers and people greeting them on the platform: the pre-climactic buildup of the locomotive filling the screen was too powerful and needed a relatively longer period of relief.

People at the premiere of the film knew that the train was merely an illusion, a sequence of  photographs projected onto a white screen – and yet their reaction to the illusion was real. Seeing the arriving train made people tense up, hold their breath, perhaps even gasp, their heartbeat quickened, the palms of their hands moist, their mouths dry – or, if the legend had any basis in reality,  maybe some of the viewers did scream and run in panic.  Whatever the reaction was, it was intended by the Lumiers, the masters of illusion. And their intention can help us to recognize the controlling idea, the intrinsic philosophical message of this early example of the art of film.

“L’Arrive d’un train” says that even though we may be aware of the illusory nature of a certain event, that event is nevertheless likely to elicit a strong emotional response from us, and therefore, to motivate us to action. The emotion provoked by an event may be positive or negative, and therefore we may act out of fear or desire – but whatever the motive, we end up acting all the same, and become involved, entangled, in the various manifestations of the material world – or, metaphorically, in the idle dither of the crowd greeting the proverbial train that rushes on to crush us. With that crowd we chase that train, no more capable of releasing ourselves from the claws of illusion than the tiny girl on the platform can free herself from the grasp of her oblivious mother – and even if we realize the hidden mechanisms of the occurrence and decide to move against the flow and avoid being “in the shot”, like the backward-walking gentleman in the light suit and a cap, we still can’t help being “captured” – objectified by the material and social system – against our will.

Obviously, this message refers to much more than just the illusion of images moving on a screen. Any type of illusion works in the same way, whether it’s money (in our age, nothing more than abstract arrangement of particles on the disks of banking computers),  terrorists (modern boogeymen, replacing communist conspiracy in public mind and forcing countries into wars), medicine (pills that promise to save us but put our health out of balance instead) and myriad of other things. So the idea at the core of this film is not only deep but also practical.

Despite its apparent pessimism, the Lumieres’ philosophical warning offers hope. If we know where the trap is laid for us, we have a chance to avoid it, so by being aware of our human propensity to act on impulse stirred by the illusion, we can counterpose our conscious refusal to follow that impulse.

The idea, expressed by the Lumieres, is congruent with their chosen medium: the method fits the message. With “L’Arrivee d’un train”, Auguste et Louis became the founders of the tradition of cinema exploring and exploiting its own illusory nature. The pinnacle figure of that tradition was, of course, the great Ingmar Bergman who, remarkably, titled his autobiography  ”Laterna Magica”, thus implying that his life and creative work constituted a mere succession of illusory projections.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 16 2001, 4:12 PM, New York

The complete title of the film discussed in this article is “L’arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”. It was produced and directed by the French inventors of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, in 1895.