Archive for Paths of Glory

So Quiet on the Canine Front

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2015 by dcairns

Can’t discuss this one without spoilers, so watch out.

WHITE GOD, from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó is a very impressive dog’s dinner of a film, channeling various influences through some powerful scenes and into a peculiar, visionary but confused parable. An abandoned dog is trained for illegal fights, then escapes and leads its fellow canine oppressed in a revolution on the streets of Budapest.


The first major influence, name-checked in the title, is Sam Fuller’s allegorical fright film WHITE DOG. Taken literally, that’s a film which doesn’t make sense — we’re asked to accept the retraining of a racial attack dog as a metaphor for racism in general. If the dog can be trained not to attack black people, maybe there’s hope for humans. Of course, it doesn’t follow, in any literal, logical way — Fuller is dealing with metaphor, but doing it via his usual high-impact, tabloid all-caps cigar-chomping way, so that some viewers don’t impute the film with the intelligence to be allegorical. A mistake — it knows what it’s doing.

Despite coming with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, WHITE GOD doesn’t quite inspire the same confidence, partly because it also owes a vast, unacknowledged debt to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. But while the Hollywood blockbuster has a miracle breakthrough in genetics as plot device, so that the simian revolution, no less an allegory than WHITE GOD’s, can also make sense in science fiction terms, the Hungarian quasi-remake goes from a plausible first half, in which Hagen the beloved mongrel pet undergoes a believable transition to brutalized killer with filed fangs, its second half, showing him suddenly become undisputed alpha male of a whole dog home and leading them to escape and practically take over the city, is quite unbelievable in rational terms, and unprepared-for except by an opening sequence which I think most viewers assume is a dream. When we see the city deserted save for this vast wolfpack, we think “Well, that’s an arresting image, but no way that’s actually going to happen in this film.” But then it DOES — and for no reason.


In other words, the early part of the story, which has echoes of AU HASARD, BALTHASAR and CALL OF THE WILD, is more effective because more believable. It’s quite emotional and features amazing dog acting and dog wrangling. The humans are all a bit one-note, though the tough, uningratiating performance of Hagen’s 14-year-old owner, Zsófia Psotta, is admirable. A title at the start states that everything terrible is a thing that needs love — but the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have applied that charity to his human characters, so many of whom are uncomplicated shits, whose bloody death at the jaws of revengeful mutts seem intended to invite our applause.

But all sections of the film are achieved with some visual skill, including the epic scenes of uncivil unrest. The large-scale dog action is jaw-dropping, and the dogs are always credible, apart from a  few shots of them running rampant in the streets where they don’t seem interested enough in their potential human victims. They’re just jolly dogs, running about on a spree.


The film has one more swipe up its sleeve, achieved with some grace and skill. Zsófia plays her trumpet to Hagen early in the story to calm him, so when the dog army converges on her dad’s place of work at the end (for unexplainable reasons: as John Sayles once put it, these monsters all have some kind of mysterious radar that leads them to their equivalent of Tokyo), she soothes the horde with music, which hath charms to etc. Lots of shots of dogs emoting. Someone wonders whether to call the authorities. No, says dad. Give them a little longer.

Is he aware that he’s quoting the last lines of PATHS OF GLORY? Mundruczó is certainly aware that he’s quoting the last scene, almost shot for shot. Remaking a WWI movie with dogs is not a new idea, however. Take it away, DOGVILLE SHORTS ~

So Quiet on the Canine Front – The Dogville Shorts (1931) from ahorseshorse on Vimeo.

Necktie Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2014 by dcairns


Talking to Michel Ciment about the thinking behind CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Stanley Kubrick gave a summary of the anti-lynching movie which serves as a fairly devastating critique of William Wellman’s THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (and Fritz Lang’s FURY and the rest). Most anti-lynching movies show an innocent party being lynched or almost lynched, which would never deter a real lynch mob since they are generally convinced, however erroneously, that they have the right person. In CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick chose the guiltiest character imaginable, to show that even in such an extreme case, certain human rights should be considered inalienable.

(In turn, Richard Lester devastated PATHS OF GLORY as a supposed anti-war film by pointing out that the film basically shows some corrupt and incompetent generals: “If Kirk Douglas had been leading the troops we’d all have been able to go out and kill Germans more efficiently.” Neither of these arguments stops PATHS OF GLORY or THE OX-BOW INCIDENT from being great films, though…)

What’s sensational about OX-BOW is the emotional force it builds up, the psychological acuity of its analysis of lynch-mob mentality (I’ve never been part of one but it feels true), the boldly-sketched characterisations and the generous sense of plenty. It feels like nothing was enough for his scenarists —


Let’s not just show a lynch mob, but let’s crowd the film with characters and situations. Let’s give Hank Fonda a sweetheart who’s jilted him while he was out on the trail and has married a short-arse Napoleonic stuffed shirt; let’s have a religious black guy as the conscience of the film if we can’t actually have a black victim (lynching as a social phenomenon chiefly impacted black people in the south, always); let’s have Jane Darwell as a cackling sadist on horseback (we can hire a matte artist to paint out the rocking chair grafted to her backside); let’s make Fonda a mean drunk who picks fights and kicks a guy in the face; let’s make him totally ineffectual as hero; let’s make the victims widely disparate and not wholly noble (they are sympathetic because Dana Andrews is nice, Paul Hurst Francis Ford is pathetic, Anthony Quinn is unbelievably cool); let’s have a twisted ex-officer and his coward son he’s trying to make a man of; let’s have the coward show more backbone than Fonda.

It’s very RICH, thanks to Lamar Trotti’s writing, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s source novel (a novel is a good source precisely because it usually gives the scenarist TOO MUCH) and Wellman’s direction. At the film’s climax, a quiet scene contrasting with the violence of what would SEEM to be the climax, Fonda reads a letter. It’s a defense of the rule of law, but what makes the scene far more than an eloquent bit of preaching is Fonda’s steady performance — he’s basically re-doing his big speech from GRAPES OF WRATH, and it’s not just the cast that make the film seem very Fordian — and Wellman’s framing. This may be the best shot of his career, even factoring in Cagney’s two (two!) death scenes in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.



It could easily seem contrived. As Fonda reads, Wellman tracks in slightly — no problem with that, since a long speech almost demands some camera movement to keep it alive. Rather than cut to the various listeners, Wellman just retains Harry Morgan, Fonda’s lovable rodent sidekick, in shot, or part of him anyway.

Where we end up is with Morgan’s hat brim occluding our view of Fonda’s eyes, so that Morgan;s eyes, as they listen, have to supply the visual emotion to compliment Fonda’s reading. It’s a very simple reading — Fonda doesn’t pretend to stumble over the words, but he plays it fairly flat, like someone who’s not much of a reader. The delicacy and restraint are more powerful than reaction shots and bluster could ever make it.

The closest equivalent in terms of this identikit shot — one guy’s mouth and another guy’s eyes — is VERY different in tone and effect.

Lynch mobs exist now mainly online: some news story provokes outrage and disapproval, and the public joins in condemning somebody. Sometimes the subject is serious and worthy of discussion, sometimes it’s just a feeding frenzy. The filmmakers have usefully portrayed the behaviour of a lynch mob so that you can tell if you’re part of one. You are part of a lynch mob if you have joined a crusade and ~

1) You don’t really care.

2) The sense of outrage is secretly pleasurable.

3) It’s reassuring to be surrounded by people all het up about the same thing.

4) Appeals for calm seem threatening.

5) Anybody who suggests you’re all hysterical must be an enemy.

6) Your own guilty secrets fade from memory in the warm pleasure of denunciation.

More suggestions are welcome, I’d like to make this definitive and free of wriggle-room.

Mud and Blood

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by dcairns

WOODEN CROSSES (CROIX DES BOIS) still impresses. Raymond Bernard’s big WWI film — the French equivalent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — has many of the expected elements, but quite a few unexpected ones.

There are the double exposures that show phantom soldiers trudging off to heaven, which seem to have been a staple of WWI cinema since Gance’s J’ACCUSE (see also ALL QUIET, or Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WIRE), but they’re really the only obvious element of sentimentality. The battles are colossal, easily matching anything in Hollywood films on the subject, and with the explosions going off in the sky, they surpass PATHS OF GLORY in sense of scale and spectacle.

But the more surprising elements make all the difference. Bernard, as in his enormous LES MISERABLES, lets the camera run handheld through the action, evoking the panic, flurry and chaos of battle, not only long before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN but long before the WWII documentaries of John Huston which inspired that look. There must surely be WWI footage with a similar look, but I haven’t seen it. The stuff you see in war docs from that era always looks very stable. It would be amazing if Bernard latched onto the effect purely as a stylistic choice, rather than to mimic documentaries.

The narrative is extremely loose, driven by a series of situations, some short (picking the lice out of uniforms), some protracted (the anxious wait as Germans dig under the trench to plant a mine and blow everybody to blazes — they can’t leave unless ordered) which butt up against one another without the usual cartilaginous connections. And the ending is so devastatingly horrible you can’t quite believe it. The simplicity of ALL QUIET’s famous ending comes with poetic melancholy, but that’s largely obscured here by the sheer grueling brutality. Bernard’s intent is to make the audience actually feel gutshot. Strong stuff.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)


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