Category: Film

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Jeanne in handcuffs from Robert Bresson's "The Trial of Joan of Arc"

Crossed Examination: On Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962)

Few historical figures have occupied as many works as that of Jeanne d’Arc. For someone having only lived 19 years, her death in 1431 is considered both iconic and cruel—that this young, illiterate peasant girl from a small French town could somehow be summoned by angelic voices to lead the French Army in the One Hundred Years War. Even as I write this, the events within such a deeply misogynistic society seem implausible—the story of legends.

And yet, there really was a Jeanne d’Arc and the events as we’ve been told really did happen. Perhaps this is why so many have attempted to relay her tale—each imbuing themselves into whatever image one imagines. Just as there are no known images of her—no paintings, no pictures—we are faced with the dilemma of constructing our own idea of Jeanne. Just who was she?

Robert Bresson admitted in a 1962 interview with Page Cinema that he’d always been drawn to do a film about her. “An attempt to make her present,” he said. “We are kidding ourselves if we see Jeanne as the little peasant girl of the legends. I think she was very elegant. Witnesses, people around at that time said this. I see her as a modern young girl,” he added. […]

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A soldier on the beach from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017): Style, Not Substance

Is there a better example this year of a film carried along by pure technique than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

Let’s get the goings-on out of the way, first. Luckily, there’s not that much to explain:

It is World War II. Allied forces have been effectively ousted from France by the Germans. The last of the French hold the Germans at bay, while the British await evacuation off the port town of Dunkirk in Northern France. Home is a Channel away, but as falling pamphlets early in the narrative indicate, the Germans surround them with Luftwaffe, U-boats, and infantry. The film is divided in three parts: Land (“The Mole”), Sea (“The Sea’) and Air (“The Air”), interconnected by event, but not necessarily by time. Typical of Christopher Nolan, the film’s conclusion contains a dovetailing of each section, tying the plot, and diegetic time, neatly together. We mainly follow a few officers, infantrymen, citizens on volunteer vessels, and RAF pilots, each in their respective section. Essentially, the officers fret over time and attack, the infantrymen die in hordes and attempt to escape, and the RAF pilots pick off attacking Luftwaffe until the citizen volunteers arrive, and the British ferry around 300,000 to safety across the Channel. The film ends with the surviving ground forces back in a celebratory Great Britain, one of the officers overseeing the evacuation of French troops, and one of the RAF aces captured by Nazis after his plane is downed.

And that’s the plot, really, save for that we follow select individuals along the way…and yet, do they matter all that much? […]

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Character pointing gun in John Sayles's Lone Star

John Sayles’s “Lone Star” (1996): Racial Drama, Greek Tragedy, Western

At its core, John Sayles’s Lone Star is about such demarcations, and who, ultimately, gets to do the demarcating. It’s also about the oftentimes tense relations between the multi-ethnic populations of a small town on the US-Mexico border, as well as the corruption that stems from evil; and, as if those weren’t enough to handle, there’s enough time for a tender tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s a testament to Sayles’s skills as an artist that Lone Star manages to juggle all these narratives (and more) while still coming across as a coherent whole, its themes bold enough for most audiences to detect their presence but deployed with such subtlety to reward repeated viewings. It’s the above quotation, however, that reveals John Sayles as not only the great American independent filmmaker but one of the medium’s keenest observers of societal conflict, whether it be in urban cityscapes (City of Hope), the colonial tropics (Amigo) or more fantastical, rustic settings (The Secret of Roan Inish). That he puts these words in the mouth of a mildly bigoted bartender, in a moment of seemingly throwaway comedy, shows his attention to detail, as even tertiary characters are given more than one dimension and are treated not as window dressing but as ordinary people with their own wants, aims, and philosophies, despite their brevity. It’s ordinary people, after all, who live among such demarcations, and it’s ordinary people who suffer men like Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds to administer, encourage and/or expunge them. […]

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A shot of two actors from Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light

Classic? Re-evaluating Lino Brocka’s “Manila in the Claws of Light” (1975)

A dirty corner of the street. Late evening. Julio Madiaga’s face in the lamplight. The vibrancy of his eyes is caught in desperation: a silhouette in the window above him. A woman arranges her hair. A memory from a past paradise flashes into frame. Madiaga had a girlfriend, once upon a time. Their paths diverged after a cruel woman took her away on a boat to the capital. She vanished shortly thereafter. He can only guess at her fate, but the city provides him with many educated guesses. (The pimps who cajole him on the curb with their wares – prostitutes, often blank faced, or simply faceless – suggest some sinister end.) Already the city has battered him into destitution, and on the intersection of Misericordia and Ongpin, what he’s come from the provincial town of his birth to find is barred behind a rectangle of light, which immobilizes him, brightens every twitch on his face, and discloses the answer to his question within a shadow – the claws of light, indeed. Illumination, in this story, is no comfort, and often is representative of some misery of either Madiaga or, more cogently, the city which consumes him. […]