The Years of Watching Avidly

THE SHOP ON THE HIGH (MAIN) STREET – Directed by Jan Kadad & Elmar Klos — February 8, 2017

THE SHOP ON THE HIGH (MAIN) STREET – Directed by Jan Kadad & Elmar Klos

This sad and devastating film, made in 1965 and which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and a nomination for Best Actress in a Foreign Film (both well deserved), takes us on a journey which begins in the realm of comedy and culminates in the land of tragedy.

The film is set in 1942 and Tono is a small town carpenter – he is neither ambitious nor greedy but sadly his wife, whose sister is married to a high-ranking officer in the Slovakian right-wing military, is and she desperately wants to have the same lovely clothes and foods supplied by the status and influence her brother-in-law holds. To this end, Tono is appointed by his brother-in-law, whom he heartily dislikes, as ‘Aryan Controller’ of a small shop in the town which has been owned by Mrs Lautmann, who is Jewish, for many years. Tono’s role, to his wife’s delight, is to take over the shop without having to pay for it and it gives a clear indication of the direction in which the film is travelling.

Tono presents himself at Mrs Lautmann’s shop, which has very little in the way of stock, and attempts to introduce himself and to explain why he is there. However, Mrs Lautmann, who is extremely hard of hearing, and perhaps has some confusion, mistakenly believes that Tono is there to work for her. Indeed, Tono is far more interested in restoring Mrs Lautmann’s beautiful old furniture than selling buttons and threads, which is the shop’s speciality, and happily lets the old lady believe he is her employee.

The Jewish community, together with people who wish to help them, restock Mrs Lautmann’s shop and agree to pay Tono a weekly salary so that he will be able to demonstrate he is making money from the situation and Mrs Lautmann can continue to be none the wiser. The development of the friendship between the two of them is a delight as Tono treads a very narrow path between protecting her and convincing his wife and family that he is very much the ‘Aryan Controller‘. His wife is sure that Mrs Lautmann has gold hidden away and nags Tono to find it, ‘to take up floorboards’ as ‘she’ is sure to have squirreled it away for safe keeping. Tono bursts into life at this point, his anger manifesting itself as he hits his wife, over and over again. By punishing her for her avarice (ironically that which the Jews are constantly accused of) he is also punishing himself for the position he finds himself in.

As the film unfolds so we become more aware of the threat to the Jewish community of the town – a huge monument bearing the crest of the Slovakian supporters, which is being constructed throughout the first half of the film, has been been completed and stands in the town square, surrounded by loudspeakers so the voices of the Hitler copyists can dominate the town. In one stroke the poor and elderly Town Crier has lost his job as the war machine takes over to manage what information the people will hear.

The speeches are full of the rhetoric, well recognised now, and threats which are always made, in this case both to the Jews and the ‘Jew Helpers’ of which Tono is now one, albeit by default because formerly he had been totally disinterested in anything outside of himself. One of them, a man who has always been much respected and who is incensed by what is happening, is taken and badly beaten and thrown into the street with a sign declaring ‘I am a Jew Lover’. Tono now realises the danger that he is presented with as well as Mrs Lautmann, who has been, until now, completely oblivious to the war and the changes it has created in attitude toward her and her faith.

The moment she understands that the Jews gathered in the town centre, with their belongings around them, are fated to die she begins to cry out ‘Pogrom, pogrom’, and the past horrors meted out to her forebears are being played out before her eyes. We are witness to a brilliant performance from Ida Kaminska, a renowned and respected actress and founder of a Jewish theatre group, as is that of Jozef Kroner as Tono. The fate of both Mrs Lautmann and Tono will not be revealed here but suffice it to say that the opening comedy of the film is no longer present.

I would urge you to seek out this work which holds an important place in the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s and whose directors made the (Communist) authorities so nervous and neurotic many films were banned for years. Films of this importance and power are the most challenging of art and so vital in what will always be a less than free world.

WADJDA — January 22, 2017


chris-r-0736 Image by Mark Renney

WADJDA (2012) – Written and Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour

Wadjda is not only delightful but also an immensely interesting study of the role of women within Saudi Arabian society and the cultural issues which, in the most conservative and religious households, render them virtually voiceless. Indeed, they are constantly being reminded not to raise their voices so that men may hear them speak.

Wadjda is a young schoolgirl who is naturally rebellious – despite it being very much frowned upon she is friends with Abdullah, a boy of her own age whose admiration for Wadjda leads him to declare, toward the end of the film, his intention to marry her. Abdullah, being male, and I use the word advisedly, has all the advantages – he teases Wadjda but also gives her gifts. However, her real interest is that he has a bike and can use it to ‘get away quickly’ when he grabs her head scarf and which means Wadjda arrives at school inappropriately dressed., something which brings her the unwelcome attention of the Head Teacher.

One day, as she heads home, Wadjda sees a bike atop a van and she runs after it to the shop where it is on display with a sale price of 800 ryals. This becomes her goal – to find ways to earn money enough to purchase it. Wadjda visits frequently to ensure the bike is not sold and her persistence and cheek earn her enough respect from the shopkeeper so that he does in fact keep the bike for her. Her ambition is to not only challenge Abdullah to a race but to beat him and to show that, girl or not, she is equal to him.

Wadjda’s home life consists of her and her mother – Wadjda’s father visits perhaps fortnightly or monthly but he is under pressure from his mother to marry again (under Islamic Sharia law men may take four wives as long as they can prove they have the finances to manage more than one household). We learn that Wadjda’s mother, who follows the rules of society and religion obediently, nearly lost her life in childbirth and her husband wants a son, which she is unable to give him. Part of this obedience consists of her refusing to consider buying the bike for Wadjda because it is deemed that this may cause her to break her hymen and therefore lose her virginity, rendering Wadjda unmarriageable.

Her mother is in competition with the potential bride(s) to be and is determined to outshine all of them at a forthcoming family wedding and she shops for a glamorous gown which will, she hopes, show her husband that he does not need another wife. It is at this time that we learn Wadjda’s father declared his love for her when they were both young and this mirrors Abdullah’s declaration to Wadjda.

But how to earn the money for the bike? Wadjda scrapes together some money by acting as a ‘go-between’ for an older schoolgirl and her illicit boyfriend and manages to get paid twice over, once by the girl and once by the boy. However, this only adds 40 ryals to her savings of 47. Then, the Head Teacher announces that the prize money for the annual competition of learning sections of the Koran and reciting them in prayer, word perfect, together with a question and answer section on the meaning of various obscure phrases therein. Wadjda, who previously has not shown any active interest in being devotional sees this as the opportunity she needs. The prize money is to be 1,000 ryals and suddenly, the wayward child who is not particularly respectful (in the eyes of the obedient), appears to be maturing in the way society requires her to. No longer are her Converse type boots anathema to the teaching staff (other girls wear white socks and black Mary Jane shoes beneath the long tunics). Wadjda studies hard and manages to wrest the prize away from the girls one would expect to win. However, when asked what she will use the money for her response is not pleasing at all to the Head Teacher (who has what is an open secret of her own), who reiterates that riding a bike is not appropriate for a girl and that instead the prize money should be donated to Palestine. Wadjda makes her feelings known when she refers to the Head Teacher’s ‘handsome thief’ who it is conjectured is actually her boyfriend who visits her at night. When asked by Abdullah about the prize money Wadjda spits out ‘It is in Palestine’.

Returning home, she finds her father seated in the main living room – he has been trying to contact his wife all day but without success. She is not answering his phone calls and does not appear to be at home. As he leaves he asks Wadjda to tell her mother that he loves her. He is going to be take a second wife that night.

The gown her mother had planned to buy is no longer of any use and Wadjda’s mother uses the money instead to buy her the bike. She tells Wadjda that is now just the two of them and one hopes that this also means that the woman who has been so devout and obedient because of her husband’s demands that she be subservient, silent and covered will step out into the light at last. Perhaps now she will take a job at the local hospital where women do not have to cover their faces despite working alongside men.

The closing scene is that of Wadjda, who is equal to any son, on her beautiful green and white bike challenging and apparently beating Abdullah in a race. We watch as she speeds into the distance, toward the main road, and we hope that she is heading into a more enlightened space and that she will be one of the women who spearheads the fight for greater equality in a world where men rule absolutely.

TONY MANERO — January 15, 2017


cropped-cropped-chris-r-0844.jpg Image by Christine Renney

TONY MANERO (2008) – Directed by Pablo Larrain

This, the first film of what is now termed ‘The Chilean Trilogy’ by Larrain, is a riveting examination of what it is to be ambitious to such an extent that the lives of others hold no worth to the protaganist.

Raul, played by Alfredo Castro who appears in all three of the films, is obsessed by the character of Tony Manero in ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and aspires not just to imitate him but to become him. He leads a small, amateur dance troupe which performs in a café/bar to a few admirers of his ‘art‘. Raul is disinterested in the other members of the group (a mother, Cony, her daughter, Pauli, and Pauli’s boyfriend, Goya), except when they showcase his ‘talent’ and this is paramount. He is a cold character who is strangely desired by Cony and Pauli and yet when they try to engage him sexually he is unable to respond other than to masturbate. Raul has two interests only – himself and Tony Manero and thus he is rendered almost impotent by this narrow focus of life.

His psychopathic tendencies are depicted in several incidents involving those outside of his enclosed world – one shows an elderly woman in the street below his flat and whom Raul hears through his window calling for help. She is being attacked and robbed. Raul dresses quickly and makes his way downstairs to assist her. The victim thanks him profusely and he carries her shopping to her home where he is invited in. She talks to him but Raul does not respond. Raul sits with her for a while and then, suddenly and shockingly, stands over her and beats her death. He calmly eats a meal, feeds the old lady’s cat and steals the colour television which was her pride and joy and he carries it through the decaying streets of Santiago, avoiding the military patrolling the streets, to his home.

This disregard for the lives of others when they have something he desires is typical of those seeking absolute power because the goal is, to them, more important than what is lost in the gaining of it. Raul’s dream is to enter and win a televised competition where famous people are impersonated and the winner is the entrant who receives the most applause from their audience. The character of Tony Manero is to be the centre of one such show and Raul believes that he will be triumphant in taking the crown and puts all his efforts into ensuring this. His actions, when he finds out Goya is also intending to take part, are vengeful and humiliating such that I turned away from the screen the first time I watched the film. Raul has no empathy or generosity. Why he is like this can only be guessed at but whatever created the monster has taken over, sadly familiar to us in the real world.

The final scene shows Raul on the bus after the competition. He has not won but has been awarded second place. The winner, with his wife, is sitting a few spaces in front of Raul whose eyes burn into his rival’s back. We do not know what, if anything, happens next but we fear the worst. Raul is the minor Pinochet here and capable of anything.

This, the first of Larrain’s three works examining the Pinochet regime and times, is a powerful declaration against those who are admired by the rich and the ignorant. The second ’Post Mortem’, which deals with the advent of the military coup and the alleged suicide of Allende also places us in a world overwhelmed by violent events and the freedom it appears to grant those of us who are jealous and greedy to take what we want without punishment. The third ‘No’ depicts the campaign fought in 1988 to show the Chilean leaders that there was a swell of opinion turning against them and so is more factual but then sometimes the massacres and genocides that are committed do not seem anymore than fiction to those who have not experienced them.

AUTO-WRITE — January 12, 2017
MEN IN WAR — January 10, 2017


Chris R-0040.jpg Image by Christine Renney

‘MEN IN WAR’ – Directed by Anthony Mann (1957)

A man whose politics were left-wing, Mann made some of the most interesting Westerns ever produced, and many with James Stewart who was a renowned believer in hard right politics. Mann is spoken of as the director who endowed his works with psychological insight by not relying on the Hero of the West mythology as mined by people such as John Ford. By turning the ‘charm’ of Stewart on its head in films such as ‘Winchester ‘73’, ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘Naked Spur’ Mann achieved a degree of manic coldness not usually present in Stewart’s past performances.

In ‘Men In War’ set during the Korean engagement Mann achieves the same turnabout with (the personally liberal) Robert Ryan, whose career was founded on his playing characters who were cruel, bullying and prejudiced (see ‘Crossfire‘). This is not the Ryan we see in what could have been a formulaic war film but which in fact, as much due to limited budgets and therefore lack of hardware such as tanks, had to become a study of the interaction between the characters, their varying personalities and the puerile waste of life for a cause which was to repeat itself in the equally brutal conflict in Vietnam some two years after the truce between the North and South Koreans.

The premise of the narrative (officially scripted by Philip Yordan but it is believed he was a front for Ben Maddow who was blacklisted) is that Lieutenant Benson (Ryan) has to lead his Unit to capture Hill 465 but they have become separated from the battalion with whom the radio operator is trying to contact but with no luck. The men are surrounded by the North Koreans who are able to steal up on them – one young soldier is bayoneted to death and no-one is any the wiser until it is his turn to take guard duty. This feeling of being watched but isolated and therefore vulnerable, is something that is beginning to undermine the men who, because of the waiting and not knowing, have begun to lose some faith in themselves. We see Zwickley (Vic Morrow) suffering from shellshock and Killian (James Edwards) encouraging and helping him as a brother or father would. We become family at these times. Further evidence of the need to establish close relationships comes in the form of Seargant “Montana” (Aldo Ray) whose unit has been decimated and who is left alone with his Colonel who is also suffering with shellshock. Montana has become the carer of this man for whom he has the greatest respect and who, it is later revealed, Montana views as the father he never had.

Montana appears to be gung-ho in contrast to Benson but he is an experienced soldier and one who has learnt the way his opponents think, rather than the language, as Benson is doing. Montana’s anger at the effect on the Colonel informs much of his apparent risk-taking, such as when he fires on and kills three G.I.s, which horrifies Benson, until the bodies lay at their feet and are clearly North Koreans. Benson, shocked by this act irrespective of who the dead men are, finds it difficult to relate to Montana and tries to make things as difficult as possible – he views Montana as expendable because he is as dangerous to the unit as the enemy.

This depiction of the differences between the two men, which is at the heart of the film, is well executed and shows how a team or unit needs to build on the strengths of the individual and support the weaknesses. Mann’s experience as a director of film noirs also shows in the photography of Ernest Haller, who had worked with some of the great actresses of Hollywood and was the DP on ‘Mildred Pierce’.

The ending of the film is harrowing and this is where we question whether the capture of what is after all just a hill can be worth the cost in lives and minds. After all, both in ‘Men In War’ (which is an excellent title and holds a significant meaning) and in real battles such as the Somme in WWI, the world forgets in a blink of an eye what it was all for.