I’m proud to announce that my short film, BREATHE, was selected to the New York Tri-State International Film Festival. The September Festival will run from September 17-20.
Visit the website to check out some great films this weekend!
I’m proud to announce that my short film, BREATHE, was selected to the New York Tri-State International Film Festival. The September Festival will run from September 17-20.
Visit the website to check out some great films this weekend!
Over a black screen, the title reads: “TEXAS 1868.” After the title fades the screen is finally illuminated as a door swings open and the silhouette of a woman stands in the open doorway. As the woman steps forward the camera slowly follows her through the doorway and outside and when it turns we are given the signature, most beautiful shot in the outstanding career of John Ford. John Wayne, deep in the distance, flanked on each side by two massive rock formations in Monument Valley, riding slowly on horseback from background to foreground as his sister in law Martha, the silhouette, now stands in full color in the foreground waiting for her brother-in-law and Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards. The breathtaking shot and subsequent reunion that opens The Searchers, temporarily masks the real conflict of the film, which is the fact that Ethan Edwards, in perhaps John Wayne’s greatest performance, is a Confederate soldier, returning home form the Civil War, full of hate and bitterness, unable to accept the defeat of the Confederacy. Ethan’s hatred doesn’t stop with his War experience as we will soon find out that he detests Native Americans as well. While they were made twenty years apart and at almost opposite ends of the American landscape, the Texas frontier of the mid 1800’s and the gritty, filthy, and steamy New York City Streets of the 1970’s, The Searchers and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver share almost identical protagonists.
The Searchers has always been one of the most misunderstood films of all time. Sadly, a large portion of the moviegoing audience saw this film as another heroic performance by John Wayne as he hunts down the Comanche Indians who have murdered his brother’s family and kidnapped their young daughter, Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. Ethan Edwards, along with his nephew Martin, played by Jeffrey Hunter, embark on a years long journey to track down Debbie. When they finally catch up with her they find that she has been indoctrinated into the Comanche civilization. This becomes too much for Ethan whom upon rescuing Debbie, contemplates whether or not she would be better off dead. The film ends with another doorway shot only this time we are on the inside looking out. Looking out at Ethan as he stands helplessly outside his family’s home, knowing that he cannot go inside while at the same time, completely unsure of where he will go next. The film is not a glorious tale of John Wayne rescuing his young niece from danger. It is a tale of hatred and how it can consume a man and turn him loose on the world around him. It is clear that Ethan Edwards is suffering some type of PTSD from his Civil War experience, not to mention him having a particular disdain and bloodlust for Native Americans. This is a direct line to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s story about a Vietnam Veteran returning to normal life, feeling increasingly isolated in the summer of 1976, a time when New York City was quite possibly more dangerous than the Wild West.
Summer of 1976. As the fictional Democratic Presidential candidate, Charles Palantine ramps up his campaign, a taxi driver named Travis Bickle begins arming himself with several automatic weapons with seemingly no motive in sight. What starts as a way of defending himself on the tough and dangerous city streets spirals out of control when Travis begins writing violent and deranged missives in his diary about “cleaning up the garbage and the filth in the city.” He then shoots and kills a thief in a deli. before he befriends a teenage prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster. As Travis and Iris get to know each other, Travis sees that Iris is being controlled by her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel with his long hair parted down the middle resembles a Native American, even going as far as telling Travis that he once had a horse in Coney Island. Travis then makes it his quest to save Iris from her abusers, mush the same way Ethan quested to save Debbie from the Commanche’s. Travis goes on a killing spree at the end of the film as he rescues Iris from another session with a John. This is the plot of Taxi Driver, Scorsese and Schrader’s journey into the decay and danger of New York City in the 1970’s and how it can push one lonely and isolated man to the breaking point. Much like John Wayne in The Searchers, this is definitely one of the best performance’s in the scintillating career of Robert De Niro. Travis Bickle not only shares the intense hatred of humanity with Ethan Edwards but with his arsenal of revolvers and cowboy boots, Travis looks like he belongs next to Ethan in the Wild West, battling with Commanches.
Martin Scorsese has always referenced John Ford and The Searchers in particular but it was in maybe his most daring film Taxi Driver that his devotion to the great John Ford was on full display.
Akira Kurosawa. John Ford. Two directors considered to be the quintessential filmmakers of their respective countries surprisingly have much in common. While most of the similarities stem from Kurosawa’s admiration of his elder, Kurosawa definitely shared and expanded on Ford’s legendary style. Of the many aspects that connect the two, there are I believe, three major ones that stand out.
The first and most obvious connection between the Kurosawa and Ford is their focus on specific time periods as the settings for their films. John Ford is synonymous with the Hollywood “Western.” In his career as a director, Ford made twenty five Western feature films as well as a number of Western TV episodes. Not only did Ford favor the Western genre, he made it his own with classics such as Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A John Ford Western became an epic presentation of not only the dramatic endeavors of the characters but also a sweeping and mesmerizing view of the American landscape. For Kurosawa, his “Samurai” epics were no different. From the aptly titled Seven Samurai to Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa gave the audience, through costume and action, an authentic adaptation of Japan’s medieval history. In the ten Samurai films that Kurosawa made, he also employed the same style of Ford’s Westerns by showcasing the Japanese landscape in epic proportions.
The two directors shared a very similar composition and shooting style. In the opening scene of The Searchers, John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran returning home, rides on horseback toward his brother’s ranch. The shot is breathtaking in the sense that it is not a long tracking shot or a pan across the wide open landscape, but that it is classic Ford: having his subjects move from background to foreground or vice versa in an attempt to convey the depth of the image on screen. Almost twenty earlier, Ford debuted this shot several times in his classic Stagecoach. From the moment the coach rolls away from the camera into Monument Valley on its way from Tonto to Lordsburg, the audience can see that the road ahead stretches all the way to the horizon. In Kurosawa’s classic Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, one cannot deny the similarity to The Searchers as the Samurai rides his horse frantically toward “Spider’s Web” castle. Moments later, when we are introduced to Wahizu and Miki, the two main characters, we see them on horseback, lost in a foggy forest. Kurosawa’s use of the two men on horseback appearing like ghosts on the landscape, riding from background to foreground through the fog is magical. Like Ford, Kurosawa used the depth of the image to convey that Washizu and Miki were lost and riding back and forth in the same direction. Keeping them inside the frame rather than panning with them from side to side gives the viewer the sense that the two soldiers are trapped inside this location.
As well as Throne of Blood, there is also a similarity to Ford’s style in the opening scene of Yojimbo. The “Ronin” played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune, is introduced in a medium shot walking among the tall grass with large mountain peaks on the horizon. After throwing a stick in the air and letting the wind decide which direction he will go, Mifune starts off down the road, straight down the center of the frame. The shot is meant to grab the audience as if we are following the Ronin down the long path.
When most people hear the name John Ford, only one thing comes to mind: John Wayne. “The Duke” made his career starring in many of Ford’s classics but he wasn’t John Ford’s only favorite. Another of Ford’s favorites was Henry Fonda who portrayed Wyatt Earp, Abraham Lincoln, and Tom Joad, certainly a wide array of hero’s and anti-hero’s of American history. In My Darling Clementine, as Wyatt Earp, Henry Fonda finds himself entering the town of Tombstone, Arizona at the start of the film and finding its inhabitant’s terrorized by criminals. The same can be said for The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach and Ransom Stoddard and Tom Donophin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Kurosawa repeated this in Yojimbo when the Ronin arrives in town and finds people hiding indoors and peering out windows. He is then accosted by thugs which he dispatches with the toughness and calm of Ringo or Wyatt Earp. Both Ford and Kurosawa liked to portray their hero with a toughness and swagger that could withstand even the most dangerous villains. And almost always, the tough hero of their films were the same person. For Ford it was John Wayne and for Kurosawa it was Mifune. These two legendary actors were both groomed by their respective directors and arguably gave the best performances of their careers because of it.
Whether it is the red majesty of Monument Valley or the grassy plains and mountain peaks of medieval Japan, with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, it is always the same result: a masterpiece of cinema that takes the audience on a ride into the depths of history and into the depths of the landscape on the silver screen before them.
It’s February 26, 1942. The 14th Academy Awards are taking place at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. With 9 nominations, Citizen Kane is poised to have a monumental night and the crowning of Orson Welles as the new king of Hollywood seems only to be a formality. But when the night is over, the Best Picture and Director categories would be swept by How Green Was My Valley, the epic tale of a Welsh mining town starring Maureen O’Hara and directed by none other than…John Ford.
Even the most arbitrary film fan could tell you that Citizen Kane is known as the greatest film of all time. An opinion shared by film fans and filmmakers alike, but most notably the American Film Institute. So why did it lose on Oscar night? Maybe Orson Welles himself is the best person to explain it. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Welles was asked by reporters which directors inspired him, to which he famously replied: “I prefer the old masters…by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” It is widely rumored that Orson Welles watched Stagecoach continuously while filming Citizen Kane. One needs only to watch the blocking and framing of both films as well as the practical sets used in both to see the similarities. But Orson Welles had more than just an affinity for John Ford while making his own masterpiece. He had Gregg Toland, one of the finest cinematographers in film history. Just before shooting Citizen Kane with Welles, Toland had just done two films with John Ford. 1940’s Oscar nominee The Long Voyage Home and the other was the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s quintessential Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath would not only win Ford his second Best Director Oscar but would also be another work of art to add to the outstanding portfolio Gregg Toland was already building. Before dying in his sleep of coronary thrombosis in 1948 at the age of 44, Gregg Toland was at the height of one of the finest bodies of work in cinema history. In addition to photographing The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath, Toland also shot classics such as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Best Years Of Our Lives, and Wuthering Heights, for which he received his only Academy Award.
In The Grapes Of Wrath, Toland and Ford combined to bring Steinbeck’s classic novel to the screen and tell the quintessential story of the Great Depression. John Ford would trade in his stagecoach for the Joad family’s flatbed truck and run it through the wide open Western landscapes while Toland, drawing from photographer Dorothea Lange’s incredible series of portraits documenting the Depression era up close, produced shot after shot depicting the raw reality of Americans on the brink of poverty. With Henry Fonda, a John Ford favorite, playing the Depression era outlaw Tom Joad, Toland used both wide open spaces and tight framing in the opening shots to not only introduce the main character but also foreshadow where he is headed at the end of the film.
The film opens with Tom Joad walking down an empty country lane. In both wide shots and medium shots Joad appears as a shadow on the wide open, barren Midwestern landscape. It isn’t until he hitches a ride with a truck driver that we finally see a full shot of Henry Fonda’s face. Toland brilliantly frames Tom Joad in a tight shot inside the truck’s windshield. Joad who we will soon find out was just released from prison, already shows the feeling of confinement. Right away we can tell that the tall, thin man we just saw casually strolling along the country roads with his hands in his pockets is now stiff and getting increasingly uncomfortable with the truck driver’s inquisition about who he is and where is he going? When Joad gets out of the truck, he gives the driver a parting sneer as he sets off walking along the road, as he started the film and as he will end it…alone.
Moments later, after meeting the Preacher, Tom Joad returns to his family home and finds the farm and property deserted. Together, with the Preacher, Joad explores the dark, empty house with only the light of a candle. When the two men get spooked by a noise, they discover the Joad’s neighbor, Muley, hiding on the property. When they invite him into the house the three men crouch down around the candlelight as Muley relays the story of how the farm land was taken away from the families by the government. Leaning on the dark tone of the scene, Toland brilliantly exploits the darkness of the house. With the candlelight flickering off the faces of Joad, Muley, and the Preacher, Muley’s story takes on the air of a ghost story, with the Joad homestead resembling a haunted house. Muley caps off his tale of woe, one of the thousands shared by families of the Great Depression, describing himself as just “a ghost in a graveyard” as he remains unlawfully on the property that was taken from Tom Joad’s family.
The Grapes of Wrath would prove to be a monumental work for both Ford and Toland as it would cement Toland as a force behind the camera and it would give Ford his second Best Director Oscar, setting him up to become the first Director to win the award in consecutive years.
The other collaboration of 1940 between Ford and Toland was The Long Voyage Home based on plays written by Eugene O’Neill. A film about sailors coping with homesickness, threats from Nazi U-boats, and trying to sneak in a few drinks without the officers knowing is certainly not John Ford’s finest. The cramped quarters below deck handcuffed the man who was so talented at exploiting the wide open spaces of the American West. It is Toland who outshines Ford in this picture as we see his love for the Low Angle shot on full display. Using the narrow lanes of the ship’s port and starboard sides, Toland placed his camera on the deck and captured the sailors as they paced back and forth, having conversations, peering out to sea, or slipping and sliding as they try to take cover from a German aerial attack. One fabulous scene in particular is when the ship runs into bad weather. As waves crash on top of the deck, we see the camera being engulfed by the rushing water. It is clear that the low angle brilliance of The Long Voyage Home would only be a warmup for Toland’s next project with Orson Welles…Citizen Kane.
John Ford was born John M. Feeney on February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In his late teens, the son of Irish immigrants followed his older brother, Francis to Hollywood where he changed his name to John Ford. Ford found work as an actor, stuntman, and set handyman before landing as an Assistant Director. Notorious for his sardonic humor, when Ford was asked in his later years by a documentary filmmaker, “How did you get to Hollywood?” The legendary filmmaker replied, “By train.” More comical than that remark is the thought that Hollywood’s most decorated filmmaker only got his first opportunity to direct while working on a Western as an AD and his boss failed to show up due to a hangover.
In the 1920’s, John Ford gained a reputation as a solid, efficient, no nonsense Director, which put him in demand among all of the major studios. By the time the 1930’s rolled around Ford went on a successful run of films that cemented his legend as Hollywood’s greatest director. Beginning with The Informer in 1935 for RKO, Ford began flexing his wide array of filmmaking muscles. Those familiar with Monument Valley John Ford would be shocked to see that the film is deeply inspired by German Expressionism. Ford himself stated that he drew from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise but there are also many similarities to Fritz Lang’s M. The film opens with the main character Gypo Nolan wandering through the fog drenched streets and alleys of Dublin, Ireland, where shadows lurk around every corner. When Gypo’s friend is murdered by the Black and Tans after Gypo informs on him for a cheap reward, Gypo sets off roaming through the city in a paranoid daze, reminiscent of Peter Lorre trying to evade the police and angry mobs in Berlin during M. True to German Expressionism form, Gypo begins seeing the Reward Poster and his best friend’s face appear on screen, tearing away at his guilt while at the same time he blows all of his reward money on drinks and celebration. The truth finally catches up with Gypo in a basement inquisition, equally reminiscent of the moment Peter Lorre meets his fate in M. Dabbling in German Expressionism definitely agreed with John Ford as The Informer would win him his first of four Academy Awards for Best Director. Four years later, Ford would direct a film that would not only become the greatest Western of all time but it would also launch the career of the most popular film star ever.
In 1939, John Ford released Stagecoach, the epic tale of eight people on a stagecoach ride through dangerous country, each passenger dripping with dramatic presence. Stagecoach was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture where it was up against Hollywood mammoths like Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. While it lost in the Best Picture category to Gone With The Wind it has certainly stood the test of time better than its competitors. Where Gone With The Wind’s disgraceful portrayal of African-Americans finally caught up with it, and The Wizard of Oz being reduced to a children’s fairy tale, Stagecoach has endured as a testament to the art of filmmaking.
With so many aspects that make it timeless, it really is the characters that stand out above all. Ford was way ahead of his time, having not one anti-hero in the film but three. While Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his portrayal of the alcoholic but courageous physician, “Doc Boone”, and John Wayne launched his legendary career with his performance as the outlaw “Ringo Kid”, it is the performance of Claire Trevor as the much maligned prostitute, “Dallas”, and her status clash with the prim and proper wife of a soldier, “Mrs. Mallory” that outshines the typical action and gunfights of a Western film. The arc of these two characters is remarkable, going form Mrs. Mallory not even being able to sit next to Dallas at the dining table due to her disgust, to Dallas winning her over with kindness and compassion while she helps Doc Boone deliver Mrs. Mallory’s baby. John Ford’s greatest achievement in Stagecoach is not the action packed finale or the wide beautiful shots of Monument Valley. It is the compelling drama portrayed by two strong women, something that is still uncommon in 2021, let alone in 1939, when Hollywood was entrenched in the Dark Ages of racial and gender bias.
On the next episode of Director’s Spotlight: John Ford…by the time the United States entered World War 2, Joh Ford had already won his second Academy Award for Best Director, laying the foundation for his dominance of Hollywood. Everyone was now taking notice of John Ford, especially the “Boy Wonder” from The Mercury Theater in New York…Orson Welles.
John Ford directed over 150 films in his career. From silent shorts to big screen epic features, Ford laid the foundation for the last century of filmmaking. On Season 2/Director’s Spotlight, I’ll talk about how his fingerprints are all over the films of some of the greatest filmmakers in history, from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa to Quentin Tarantino, and many others who have all been inspired by John Ford.
So let’s dig into the career and legacy of not only Hollywood’s most decorated filmmaker but also America’s Greatest Director.
Ava Duvernay is right now the best female director in the world. In a year that just saw Chloe Zhao become only the second woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director, beating out Emerald Fennell for the prize, it is still Duvernay who stands on top of the mountain. Chloe Zhao’s win for Best Director only underscores the struggle for women and people of color to gain recognition in films. In 2014, Ava Duvernay’s outstanding and powerful film SELMA was nominated for Best Picture while Duvernay was shockingly left off of the list of nominees in the category for Best DIrector. Fortunately, the film MIDDLE OF NOWHERE did give Duvernay the well deserved “Best DIrector” prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is an intense character study of Ruby, a young African-American medical student, played marvelously by Emayatzy Corinealdi, and how she deals with the difficulties of trying to support her incarcerated husband, Derrick. The situation jeopordizes the couple’s future together and without offering any spoilers, Ruby eventually begins a relationship with a new man, Brian, a bus driver played by David Oyelowo. Although the scenes between Ruby and Brian are sweet and tender, Duvernay never lets the movie turn into a sappy romantic story. She keeps the focus more on Ruby and the relationships she has with her sister Rosie and her mother Ruth.
This film is not only directed by a woman but it is about women. Two of the most effective scenes involve on screen, save fo the dinner scene where Ruby’s young nephew is present. Early in the film, Ruby finds out that Derrick is eligible for early parole. Ecstatic, she gets dressed up and takes the 2 hour bus ride to the prison to visit him. On the bus, we see Ruby joking chatting and laughing with a familiar woman. The women share a moment of “girl talk” about their husbands who are both in prison. During the conversation the women are framed in Medium Shots but a few Wide Shots of the bus sprinkled in between shows us that the all of the passengers are women, the same as Ruby, making the long journey to visit the man in their life who is in prison. The scene’s cheerful tone is the perfect set up for the bad news that is waiting for Ruby when she arrives at the prison and sees Derrick.
Towards the end of Act Two, Ruby attends a dinner with her Mother and Sister that quickly spirals into a major family quarrel. Ruby’s Mother, played by an always brilliant Lorraine Touissant, begins lashing out at her daughters. Ruth accuses them of throwing away all of their potential with the mistakes they’ve made and at the same time demanding that they show her more love and affection. For Ruby, this is too much to take, and while she refuses to take the bait and enter into a shouting match with Ruth, Ruby storms out of the room with the realization that it is not too late to take back her own life and follow a path toward happiness, not bitterness.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is an excellent reminder of why Ava Duvernay is the best female director and one of the best directors working in film today. Her virtuosic skill as a writer and director were on full display in this film, which was only her second feature.
“It’s something I’ve had to navigate my whole life – am I American or Chinese? I think I was quite lost a while in terms of what my voice is.”
Lulu Wang, Writer/Director of The Farewell
“The Farewell: Lulu Wang Made The Year’s Most Exciting Hit By Refusing To Whitewash It” – INDIEWIRE, Eric Kohn 7/18/19
In a short period of time, Lulu Wang has distinguished herself as one of the best young female directors in the film industry. Born in Bejing, China, Wang emigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old. Her family settled in Miami, FL. As a child, Wang was trained as a classical pianist and her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in Music. In 2005, Wang graduated from Boston College with a double major in Music and Literature. It was during her university years, however, when she decided to pursue a career in film.
In her final year at Boston College, Wang decided to take a few film production courses. She then went on to make a few award winning student short films with her Boston College classmates. After a few more short films, Wang directed her first feature film, “Posthumous” in 2014. Shot in Berlin, the film debuted at the Zurich Film Festival and played at the Miami International Film Festival. Wang was beginning to be recognized by a wider audience and critics alike. It was also in 2014 that Wang was awarded a Directing Fellowship from the Film Independent Spirit awards. The following year, with more confidence and exposure, Wang would write and direct the first of two very personal films that would bring her more recognition and acclaim.
In 2015, “Touch”, a short film written and directed by Wang, premiered at the Palm Springs International ShortsFest. The film is a powerful and controversial examination of culture clashes. Based on a true story, the film follows a Chinese family living in the United States and how their world is turned upside down when the Father of the family is accused of sexual assault of a child.[ii] Wang does an amazing job of putting the viewer in the middle of the scene when the old Chinese man innocently crosses the line with a young boy while the two are in a public bathroom. The Chinese couple’s son helps his father through the legal process all while feeling shame and confusion as to why his father would make such a mistake. It is clear that this struggle between old/young generations and immigrants and their “Americanized” children hits close to home for Wang. Having emigrated from China to the United States herself at a young age she can relate to the struggle to adapt from East to West culture. Her next film, “The Farewell” would go even deeper into her own personal experience of being from two very different cultures.
“The Farewell” is Lulu Wang’s most successful film to date. Wang originally had a difficult time getting the film made. She said that she almost gave up on the film after getting rejected by Hollywood and a Chinese producer telling her “You need a white guy in your movie.”[iii] This suggestion was especially disheartening to Wang because as she told IndieWire that even the Chinese producers are “so influenced by Hollywood.”[iv] A deeply personal story based on how her family hid her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her was nominated for both a Golden Globe and British Film Academy Award. Filmed in China and New York, the story follows Billie, a young Chinese immigrant in the United States and how she copes with her family’s decision to follow a Chinese custom and not tell her grandmother that she is dying of lung cancer. Through Billie, Wang gives the audience a glimpse of her own experiences being torn between two worlds: her home country of China and her adopted home in the United States. The scenes in China are very strong because we get to see the main character view the country that her parents took her away from. It is clear that as Billie finds herself at a crossroads in the United States, she begins to feel what her life would’ve been like had her parents kept the family in China.
One scene in particular is a very powerful moment of realization for Billie. While in China, she attends a dinner with her extended family. During the dinner a contentious debate breaks out between two sides of the family over the desire to leave China and live in America. Billie’s mother believes that children have more opportunity in the United States than in China. After the argument ends the families retreat back to their hotel. What follows is textbook filmmaking by Wang. As the family members exit the elevator and walk to their hotel rooms, Billie trails behind the group. She stops at a room and looks inside the open door. We then see her point of view. A group of men sit at a table in the room drinking, smoking, and playing majong. Flanking the men at the table are two young women, dressed provocatively. One of the women turns slowly and looks at Billie. She stares blankly at Billie and Billie stares back. Without using any dialogue, Wang gets the point across very effectively. It is clear what Billie is looking at. This girl who appears to be the same age as Billie, is a prostitute. After the dinner conversation we just heard in the previous scene, Wang makes it clear that Billie is realizing that this could have been her fate had her family stayed in China.
I was very impressed with “The Farewell.” It is a film that deserves high praise for showing the movie audience a different perspective. I am so happy to have discovered Lulu Wang as well through this film. I admire any filmmaker who steps out on the ledge and tells a deeply personal story and does it so artistically. I hope this not only gives Wang more exposure and opportunities but also more women and Asian-women filmmakers the same exposure and opportunity.
FROM SILENT TO STREAMING
EPISODE 3: WINGS
Larisa Shepitko is quite possibly the greatest filmmaker that no one knows about. Born in 1938 in the Soviet Union, Shepitko and her family were deeply affected by World War Two having to face hunger, poverty, and constantly moving to avoid the danger and violence. The War would certainly shape her films, especially her most popular film, The Ascent, which in 1977 won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shepitko had a reputation for pushing herself and her crew very hard, enduring very difficult conditions like the freezing Russian winter in The Ascent, or the sweltering heat that actually melted film stocks on her award winning student film, Heat. Shepitko was a student in Moscow of the legendary Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, even adopting his motto: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” Sadly, this would be prophetic of The Ascent as two years later in 1979, while scouting locations for her next film, Shepitko was killed in a car accident at the age of 41.
Wings, from 1966, is an outstanding, emotional character study of a former Soviet fighter pilot. Nadya, a decorated fighter pilot, now 41 years old and the principal of a vocational college, finds herself struggling to connect with the changing society around her. From the opening scene we see that she is a very well respected, even powerful woman as she commands the men around her at the college. Her appearance is a brilliant move by Shepitko as Nadya is seen in a stiff business suit with very short, cropped hair. She almost appears to be a man even though we do see her having a relationship with a man who works at a museum and we find out that she has a daughter. The film uses classic Russian editing as Shepitko shot several point of view shots of Nadya’s face in close-up with reverse shots of her surroundings. Nadya wanders through the movie almost ghostlike as she really only gets noticed as her former self, “The ace female fighter pilot”, which only adds to the strain that she is facing: how does she move on from the War when it seems to be the only thing that defines her? It also seems to hold back her feminine qualities, as she seems very indifferent to the affections of her museum worker boyfriend, Pavel, as well as her clumsy and awkward interactions with her estranged daughter Tanya. When visiting Tanya and her new husband, Nadya comes off more like the stern “father of the bride” than the doting mother.
The film’s title is exploited with great precision by Shepitko. Breaks in the film come with aerial shots from planes ascending high into the sky and breaking through the clouds. The accompanying opera music adds another level of beauty to these already magnificent black and white shots. It certainly puts the viewer in a position of being not only inside the cockpit but also inside Nadya’s head and feeling, perhaps, the same freedom she felt in the skies as compared to her life as a stern principal.
For me, the most telling scene came when Nadya returns to the air field and visits her old squadron. Towards the end of the film, this is not her first visit to the air field but it will be different than all of the others. Nadya finds an old fighter plane unattended and climbs into the cockpit. Now in the cockpit, Nadya, shot in closeup, the emotions and the memory from the War consumes Nadya. She begins to weep before a group of airmen notice her and give her a ceremonial push around the field. The scene is surprisingly almost identical to the one with Dana Andrews in William Wyler’s, The Best Years of Our Lives, where Fred, a former bomber pilot from World War Two, also facing his own struggle in adapting to post war life back home, finds a graveyard of old Bombers. He climbs into the cockpit and in a brilliant shot by Wyler, is shot from outside the glass bubble. This gives him an the appearance of being captive as he is frozen with emotion, hearing the sounds of War blaring in his head. One cannot miss the irony of how two respected filmmakers from the United States and the Soviet Union chose identical ways to express the pain and sorrow of soldiers returning to normal life after the Second World War.
Wings from 1966 is an outstanding debut from Larisa Shepitko, one of Soviet cinema’s and World cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
EPISODE 2: LE BONHEUR (1965): Agnes Varda’s exploration of marital “Happiness”
In the opening scene of Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, we are introduced to what appears to be a perfectly happy married couple and their children. Despite Varda’s use of beautiful, bold colors and a score by Mozart, we eventually find out that this family is far from being happy or perfect. We first meet Francois and Therese as they spend Father’s Day with their children having a picnic in the countryside. A series of scenes follows where we see Francois working at his wood shop and Therese working at home as a seamstress as well as taking care of the children. All seems normal until Francois meets Emilie, a receptionist at the post office. Unbeknownst to Therese, the two quickly begin a love affair. A month later while on another countryside picnic, Francois reveals the affair to Therese. Tragically, Therese disappears while Francois is sleeping and drowns herself in the lake nearby their picnic. After a few weeks of mourning Francois finds Emilie and convinces her to move in with him and the children. Tragically, the film ends with a portrayal of Emilie as just an easy replacement for Therese. The final shot underscores this as we see the family, once again on a countryside picnic with Emilie resembling Therese as the wife and mother.
The film is bursting with beautiful colors from the actors wardrobe to the large bouquets of flowers in certain scenes to the colorful dissolves that connect scene to scene. I believe that Varda was intentionally using these bold warm colors in order to distract the audience from the dark subject matter of the plot. One early scene in the film shows how Therese fits into the household. We see Therese wearing a blue robe standing in front of a blue wall filling a vase with flowers. Therese blends in with the wall so perfectly that she could almost be invisible. As the film develops, especially when Francois gets closer with Emilie, we realize that Therese is in a way invisible. She is there only to serve Francois and the children but not to be recognized by any of them. When Francois first meets Emilie, she is at the post office working. She is dressed in blue but behind the wooden desk and against the yellow walls there is no way she will blend in. Varda clearly wanted Emilie to stand out as she flirted and smiled with Francois. Later, after the couple have made love, they lay in bed talking. Francois tells Emilie that although he loves Therese she is different than her. When comparing the two women he tells Emilie that his wife is like a “potted plant” and Emilie is like “an animal set free.” This is a very harsh criticism of Therese and his marriage but Francois does not seem to care. He truly believes that he can love both Therese and Emilie.
Therese and Emilie are portrayed to be the same in appearance but very different in substance. Therese is shown as the hardworking housewife. She is always at home with the children. Sometimes we don’t even see Therese onscreen. Varda shot scenes of Therese ironing, making bread, feeding the children but all of theses actions are just close-ups of Therese’s hands. It tells the audience that she is not important only her hands that perform the domestic tasks for the husband and children. Emilie however is portrayed with strength and independence. We see her at work, which unlike Therese, is in a public space not at home. We also see Emilie interacting with the public and helping customers at the post office. The only time Therese gets to interact with the public at work is when a young woman, with a slight resemblance to both Therese and Emilie, asks her to make a wedding dress for her. The woman specifically shows Therese the design of the dress from a popular magazine. This was Varda’s way of showing the impact popular magazines and advertising had on the housewife of the 1950’s and 60’s. Advertising campaigns were always showing women in their ads not only performing domestic tasks, but looking happy while they did it. Just like the magazine ads of the 50’s and 60’s this film is showing a warped sense of happiness. The only difference is that the film was intentionally distorting the idea of happiness. Varda’s feminist message in this film was to say that domestic life was not a road to happiness for women. She was trying to show how women are expected to get married, have children, and then give up their lives to serve their families.
The title of the film Le Bonhuer means Happiness but who in the film is actually happy? The answer is Francois. Francois has an extramarital affair and then when he tells Therese about it he tries to convince her that it is not a problem for their marriage. He even has the audacity to tell Therese that the affair has made him a better husband and father. The only time Francois shows any hint of unhappiness is when Therese commits suicide and at the funeral. Right after the funeral he immediately reconnects with Emilie. The film ends with Emilie replacing Therese and being Francois housewife and although she smiles we as an audience can’t help but think that she may end up facing the same problem Therese did. Another irony in the film is what becomes of Emilie at the end. We have already seen Emilie as an independent single woman with a job and her own apartment. Quite a contrast to the domesticated Therese. In the end, however, she tells Francois that she wants to move in with him and the children. She even goes as far as saying that his happiness is her happiness. This is when Varda masterfully shows the transformation of Emilie by repeating several of the shots from earlier in the film of domestic chores performed by Therese. This time they are performed by Emilie, smiling, and appearing happy in her new role.