Social Distancing & Art House Cinema of the 1960's

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With an unprecedented wave of new and exciting cinema movements sprouting up across the globe in unexpected pockets, the decade of the 1960’s was certainly an exciting period for film lovers the world over…

From the UK and France, to the Czech Republic, and even Japan and the far east, a new generation of daring filmmakers were bending the creative parameters; rewriting (and in some cases disregarding altogether) the rigid rules and laws that had been laid down by the Hollywood major picture studios of decades prior.

Themes of isolation (whether it be the lonesome cowboy riding off in the sunset, or the private detective staking out his/her prey from some dimly lit corner) had served as staple traits of cinema’s protagonists and antagonists since the advent of the craft. And yet, with this new decade came an artistic shift in the way these stories were now being manufactured. With stylised visual elements, methodical pacing, minimal dialogue and artistic framing, many of these films wilfully spurned the more dialogue-driven and linear-structured plotting of their Hollywood counterparts, whilst still managing to pay homage to them in their own way.

A number of noteworthy foreign filmmakers active at the time revelled in peeling back the textual layering behind the psychology of what it means to be isolated; creating deeply contemplative and often thought-provoking character studies that prompted audiences to attach some sort of meaning to better understand their own lives. The solitary characters within their worlds were sometimes disconnected, misanthropic, austere… in other instances they were lone-wolves who appeared bold, fearless and even noble. Some were isolated due to physical location or cultural barriers, whilst others willingly isolated themselves as a result of their own deeds, misdeeds or actions.

With a significant majority of us now grappling to find ways to keep positive and stay inspired during this period of social-distancing, these art house films have witnessed a resurgence in popularity; as those of us uncover new relevance and meaning to the drama and symbolism behind their constructed worlds.

This month, Privilege of Legends shines the spotlight on five exemplary pictures from this prolific decade; each produced outside of Hollywood by five heavily influential foreign filmmakers, that dealt with the theme of isolation in bold and explorative ways.

Tystnaden (The Silence)Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden 1963

A sleeper train coasts through open fields and past a seemingly endless procession of military tanks, before pulling up in an undisclosed town. Johan (a young boy) rubs his eyes wearily, as his mother Anna, and his aunt Ester rouse themselves reluctantly from sleep. He points to a small notice posted on the carriage window, asking his aunt (a translator by occupation) what it says. ‘I don’t know’ is Ester’s curt reply; and with that the mould is cast for Ingmar Bergman’s third instalment in his loose trilogy exploring the idea of belief.

It quickly becomes apparent that the travelling family of The Silence have become disconnected from the alien environment of which they have found themselves; a fictional place on the brink of war that we soon learn is called Timoka. But in typical Bergman fashion, as we delve deeper under the skin there is something far more sinister at stake. The palpable tension and conspicuous physical distancing of both sisters soon manifests onscreen as an emotional wedge; a blockage between them that is slowly growing toxic and gangrenous.

With the black and white framing of Bergman’s right-hand man, Academy Award winning cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Nykvist went on to shoot a plethora of notable films, including Roman Polanski’s The Tenant-1976, Bob Rafelson’s version of The Postman Always Rings Twice-1981, Sleepless in Seattle-1993 & What’s Eating Gilbert Grape-1993), The Silence  is in itself a stark depiction of the slow and subtle breakdown of family. This is shown through the eyes of a young boy that is desperate to amuse himself amongst the banality and boredom of his predicament; caught between an aunt who is suffering in silence from the wretched vulnerability of her deteriorating health, and a mother who continually seeks salvation through her outward sexual encounters.

When asked about the themes in this, Bergman’s 11th full-length picture, the director offered one simple explanation that he was exploring the idea of ‘god’s silence’. Yet, the only time that the idea of god actually makes an appearance is when Anna desecrates the floor of a house of worship in a fit of lustful passion (simply because it’s the only temperate and secluded spot she can find). Perhaps this is precisely his intent; as it would seem that the absence of god has left the characters of his world adrift and forsaken.

Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes) – Toho Films, Japan 1964

When an Entomologist searching for insects falls into a cavernous dune whilst conducting a field trip in an unnamed seaside town, he finds himself the unwitting specimen in an isolated village’s voyeuristic science experiment.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s poetic masterpiece of the Japanese New Wave was adapted for the screen from Kõbõ Abe’s surrealist novel by the author himself… a creative relationship that would see 3 more film collaborations, and earn 2 Academy Award nominations, including Best Director (an unusual feat at the time for a Japanese art house film).

Often poetic and melodically crafted- yet at times hellish and nightmarish, Teshigahara manages this balancing act with a consummate finesse; casting a dreamlike spell over its audience through the film’s stunning and powerful imagery. The metaphorical significance behind the constant pushing back of the incessant sand (lest the Entomologist and the woman of the dunes be buried alive) is irrefutable, as the claustrophobia of their enclosure reaches a point that is almost suffocatingly stifling. In many ways, the sand is the protagonist (or antagonist) here; with its isolated captives mere pawns at the mercy of the constant ebb and flow of it’s erosion and encroachment… a plight which leaves the Entomologist in the end to ponder the question:

‘Are you shovelling to survive, or surviving to shovel?’

Woman of the Dunes is one of a handful of worthy Japanese pictures of the 1960’s that dealt with themes of isolation (The Naked Island-1960, Onibaba-1964, and Teshigahara and Abe’s other collaborations, Pitfall-1962 & The Face of Another-1966 all come highly recommended), testament to the wonderful cinema that was drawing the rest of the world’s attention to the far east at this time.

‘Unlike some parables that are powerful the first time but merely pious when revisited, ‘Woman in the Dunes’ retains its power because it is a perfect union of subject, style and idea. A man and a woman share a common task. They cannot escape it. On them depends the community – and, by extension, the world.’ – Roger Ebert

Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert) – Gustavo Alatriste, Spain 1965

“(Simon of the Desert) makes for a startling, charming and healthily wicked little anecdote, with easily more sense to it’s hard theology than one could find in a whole tribe of biblical epics”.  -Monthly Film Bulletin 

It’s no secret that auteur filmmaker and outspoken, larger-than-life character Luis Buñuel liked to ruffle the church feathers with his artistic endeavours from time to time. In fact, his scathing attacks on the Vatican and the right-wing government that held power even forced him into voluntary exile, a good number of his best years consequently spent in Mexico, where he made many underrated pictures that never really received the praise they were so deservedly entitled.

One of these outstanding films produced in Mexico has to be Simon of the Desert; loosely based around the story of a 5th century Syrian saint who lived for 39 years atop of a narrow stone column. Adapted to the screen from a novel by Buñuel himself, one would be justified in assuming it to be rather peculiar subject matter for the master director to delve into.

This was the third Luis Buñuel film to explore religious themes (after the controversial Viridiana, released in 1961 and The Exterminating Angel, released the following year), and the third film to star actors Silvia Pinal (playing the the devil here with wicked believability) and Claudio Brook in major roles.

Whilst dealing with the obvious adversities and hardships that would accompany such physical isolation, Simon of the Desert also tackles the natural human vices of temptation and the inner struggle with our own ego, whilst still retaining many of the surrealist tropes of his earlier oeuvre.

It’s a story of the strength and resilience of willpower and the human spirit- but it’s devilishly ironic and contradictory too. There are scenes of the story’s saintly hero submissive towards god, and yet he struggles to find any sympathy for his ailing mother when she pleads with him. In another memorable scene, he restores the arms of an amputee, only to see the man’s first use of his arms to slap his child. In the end it raises some key questions that aren’t exactly easy to answer- like, for example is there beneficence in all self-sacrifice, or can it be self-righteous and misguided? Is it, in the end a question of humility or one of pride?

Repulsion – Compton Films, Britain 1965

It’s startling now to think that in Roman Polanski’s intention to release a marketable horror film in order to raise the desired capital for his key project (in what would be his 1966 comic-thriller masterpiece Cul-de-sac), that film would turn out to be Repulsion, one of the greatest unconventional horror films made outside of Hollywood.

The story follows Carol Ledoux (played by Catherine Deneuve), a young and innocent French woman, newly relocated to West Kensington in the big city of London where she takes up temporary residence in her sister’s apartment. We get a sense early on of her distorted ideas about her sibling’s relationship with partner Michael; but it’s when the couple take a vacation and leave Carol all alone in the flat that things really begin to get dark.

Repulsion’s apartment scenes, shot by B.S.C alumni Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, Star Wars: A New Hope) capture the harrowing claustrophobia of being cooped up in small city dwellings; a prison-like box where the film’s female protagonist/antagonist is left to fester in her own web of hallucinatory visions and paranoid delusions. This growing detachment from reality and the world outside only heightens her feelings of sexual anxiety and social repression; culminating in the end with a vicious slashing scene that would rival Hitchcock’s disturbing shower scene in Psycho five years prior.

‘There can’t be many other films which so plausibly show an entire, warped world created from a single point of view’. – Peter Bradshaw

With stylised black and white framing and surreal dream sequences, Repulsion is thick with symbolism: the cracking apartment walls, the rabbit carcass that’s left to decay in the kitchen, the untended bath that is brimming and overflowing onto the tiles… all of these images add to the breakdown and erosion of foundations, the delicate thread of sanity as it hangs in the balance, and the gradual descent into the deranged as the scales tip and eventually fall.

The first English speaking film by Polanski, and the first that would form his loose ‘apartment trilogy’ (including Rosemary’s Baby-1968, The Tenant -1976), the Polish filmmaker would encounter several roadblocks in obtaining financial backing (both Paramount Pictures and British Lion Films turned the film down), opting in the end to go with little-known company Compton Pictures, known primarily at the time for its production of ‘B-movies’ and soft-core porn.

Le Samouraï – Filmel, France 1967

‘There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle…Perhaps.’  

Jean-Pierre Melville’s suave and stylish neo-noir; a Parisian ode to the romanticised lone-wolf characters of Japanese folklore, is definitely one of the more renown films of the director’s extensive catalogue. The story literally traces one Jef Costello (played perfectly by Alain Delon, in what might arguably be his finest performance), a stoic and taciturn contract killer who hunts down his prey like a prowling cat.

Methodical in its delivery and pacing, with an underlying tension that pulsates beneath the slow-burning action like a trapped nerve; the end result is a crime thriller that revolutionised the format… proof if anything that you don’t need that breakneck, snap-crackle-and-pop action to produce a serious gangster flick.

‘To me, Melville’s movies are existentialist, as you find in the loneliness of the characters played by Yves Montand in Le Cercle Rouge and Alain Delon in Le Samouraï. Nobody cares for them, nobody knows who they are; they are loners, doomed tragic figures, lost on their inner journey’. – John Woo 

Although to some degree, Le Samouraï is Melville’s nod to the trench-coated heroes and anti-heroes of noir (the film draws strong parallels to Frank Tuttle’s 1942 crime film This Gun For Hire), its cinematic look and feel would more accurately be in the vein of films produced by his comrades and counterparts of the French New Wave, like Shoot the Piano Player-1960, Breathless-1960 or Band of Outsiders-1964.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Le Samouraï just works so well is because Melville wrote the script with Alain Delon specifically in mind. Quite possibly it’s due in part also to the incredible cinematography of French New Wave staple Henry Decaë (Bob le Flambeur-1955, Elevator to the Gallows-1958, The 400 Blows-1959), whose early work as a WWII photojournalist and documentarian helped give the film that gritty, realist edge. More accurately, the answer most probably lies in the sum of its creative attributes… an attention to detail that has kept this film head and shoulders above its competition.

Written by Sonny Arifien of Privilege of Legends

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