The following guest posts appeared on Beyond Willow Bend in 2012. The writers come from a variety of disciplines and offer unique perspectives of their favorite films.
An Exotic, Surreal Road Trip on The Darjeeling Limited
by Diana Guenzburger
I have seen The Darjeeling Limited twice, once when it was released in 2007 and once recently, and I still cannot make up my mind about whether I like it or not. But I certainly was impressed by it. Directed by Wes Anderson. it is a film that may be seen and analyzed at several levels. At the most superficial level, it may be regarded as a comedy in the form of a “road movie”, since it describes a long trip in the imaginary luxury train “The Darjeeling Limited” across India made by three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). The trip provides numerous opportunities for humor as the brothers come in touch with mystical and colorful aspects of the Indian culture so exotic to the western eye. Many times the brothers are disappointed in their expectations, such as when they go visit the “Temple of the 1,000 Bulls” for what is supposed to be a spiritual experience. But when they reach the site, they find that it had turned into a huge fair with vendors selling cheap stuff for tourists.
The film, however, has another, deeper level, which becomes clear as it is revealed that the real motive for Francis to bring his brothers on this trip is to search for their mother, who has disappeared for more than a year and was seen in some secluded convent in the mountains of India. At this level, many conflicts that are embedded within this family are slowly disclosed. Peter has taken some objects that had belonged to their father, which shows that he had been always unsure of his father’s love; when Francis finds out about the appropriation, he is deeply upset, revealing his jealousy. But the most touching aspect is the relationship with their mother (Angelica Huston), whom they finally find in a convent in a mountain. What occurs during the reunion suggests that her relationship with her sons has such a deep fissure that it cannot be mended.
However, the film ends in a cheerful note, with the brothers entering another luxury train to go back, after leaving behind all the heavy luggage in leather bags that had belonged to their father. The message is that, in life which is the train trip, one can go on, if one can leave behind the sorrow brought by broken human relationships.
What I don’t like about this movie? In spite of its numerous qualities, the mixture of surrealistic and exotic comedy with such profound human problems makes me uncomfortable, as if the director (who is also one of the scriptwriters) is trying to deny the deep feelings that afflict human beings by approaching them in a humorous context.
Diana Guenzburger was born in Rio de Janeiro; she has a Masters degree in Chemistry from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and a Ph.D. in Physics obtained at the Brazilian Center of Research in Physics, where she made a career doing research in those areas. She is married to Don Ellis, who is a professor of Physics at Northwestern University. The two of them spend their time between Rio de Janeiro and Chicago. Diana is now retired and dedicates herself to writing and to art.
The Delectable Madness in King of Hearts
by Ellen Wade Beals
A favorite movie, and source of solace, is the French film, King of Hearts, directed by Philipe de Broca, and scripted by Daniel Boulanger from a concept by Maurice Bessy. It came out in the United States in 1966 or 1967 and was a cult hit for many years after.
The time is October 1918, at the end of the World War I. The Germans are retreating from a small village in northern France. Before departing, they stash a bomb there and set it to go off at midnight. The town barber learns of these plans and warns the villagers who flee for safety, leaving behind the circus animals and the residents of the lunatic asylum. The barber manages to send one last message to the Allies warning them of the bomb, but he is unable to give full details before he is killed. What they know is this: “The knight strikes at midnight.”
A Scottish soldier (Alan Bates as Charles Plumpick) is sent to the village to find the bomb and stop it from exploding. He and his carrier pigeons go, and once there, he is almost captured by the last remaining German patrol. He hides in the lunatic asylum, taking his place with other patients around a huge house of cards. When the soldiers question the patients, Plumpick says he is the King Of Hearts, unaware that this is just who the asylum patients are awaiting. Satisfied, the Germans leave the asylum. Plumpick follows so that he might send a message but, in his gusto to do so, hits his head and gets knocked out.
Meanwhile. the residents of the asylum assume the roles of the townspeople and plan a coronation for their new king. So this is the setup, will Plumpick be able to sort through the madness and find the bomb?
I don’t have to tell you how it ends. What you think will happen does. That’s part of the charm of the movie. We’re all in on the joke. At first the audience knows more than Plumpick, but after a while he figures things out and by the movie’s end, everyone seems to be winking. The ensemble cast provides much of the movie’s charm; sure, the crazy citizens and the bumbling soldiers are stereotypes, but stereotypes tweaked just so. One can’t help but fall for the reluctant King, with his crown atilt and look of befuddlement. Then there’s the music; it might be a jaunty polka or a cello keening a song, but the scrambling musicians enhance every scene they’re in.
What might be most appealing is the story itself. It is just on the right side of allegorical, silly enough that I’m swept away but never so heavy-handed as to be clunky. Though it might be too sweet for some, King of Hearts is delectable to me. Plus there’s its message: that maybe the “crazy” ones are really the sanest when it comes to recognizing life’s absurdities. It is a sentiment that appealed to my teenage heart when I first saw the film and still does today.
Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland. In 1999, her short story “Picking” was awarded Willow Springs fiction prize, and her poetry has placed in local contests (sponsored by Evanston Library, The Guild Complex, and www.chicagopoetry.com). Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is the editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words (Weighed Words LLC, an imprint of Hourglass Books), which was awarded the gold medal for Anthology of the Year by Next Generations Indie Book Awards and the silver medal by ForeWord Reviews. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com. Most recently she has a poem on www.porkopolis.com and work in forthcoming in Ardor, Lummox, and Intentional Walk.
Film as Musical Inspiration
by Amy Williams.
I have always loved films for many, many reasons (and not usually for the music…)—brilliant acting, smart humor, unnerving plot twists, nail-biting suspense, and sheer cinematic beauty.
Over the past ten years (and finishing up this year), I have been composing a series of chamber music pieces entitled “Cineshape.” The films that were the inspiration for these pieces are, in order: Chunhyang, Time Code, The Lives of Others, Run Lola Run, and Rope. The influence of the films is not programmatic, involving a retelling of the original plot. Rather it is more of a structural approach, in which I translate particular camera techniques (close-up, fade out, zoom in, wide angle) or I model formal designs (montage, climax/denouement, divided screen) or I rework particular motifs from the films.
For example, Cineshape 1, inspired by the stunning Korean film, Chunhyang, models the traditional folk story-telling genre (called pansori) that the film is built around. In the film, there is a narrator-singer accompanied by a lone drummer. In the piece, the duo is reconfigured as an alto flutist and percussionist. Although the narrative arc of the film is modeled, building to a climactic moment near the end, none of the film’s intense story line becomes musical material. Rather, a more discreet quality of the film—breath and breathlessness—becomes the singular sonic focus of the piece.
The trio of characters from The Lives of Others is re-formed in Cineshape 3 with a flutist, cellist and percussionist. The central theme from the film is consistent: an objective observer (one instrument) causing transformations—sometimes subtle, sometimes monumental—in other characters (musical materials). From Rope, with its famous “single take,” I first wrote a long melodic line that runs through the whole piece and then orchestrated around it. I also attempted to maintain the tense atmosphere of the film in the piece.
There have been many films that I wanted to use but found their structures too complex to translate into music (Pulp Fiction, Memento, Babel). Perhaps my first opera will be the appropriate medium for one of these….
Amy Williams is a pianist and composer of contemporary music. She has appeared at major festivals around the world as a composer and frequently performs and records with the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo. She is currently Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh and has previously taught at Bennington College and Northwestern University.
Amazon Links to CDs:
Cineshape & Duos
Stravinsky in Black and White
Edgard Varese: Ameriques; Morton Feldman: Piece for Four Pianos; Five Pianos
Ginastera: Popol Vuh / Cantata Para America Magica [Super Audio Cd – Dsd
Nancarrow: Studies & Solos (transcribed for duo piano)
Nancarrow: As Fast as Possible
Amy Williams: Crossings
The Humor and Twists in Ladykillers
by Dolores Cullen.
Ladykillers (1955) is a gem said to be Ealing Studios (London) last great comedy. While poking around motion picture trivia, I discovered that the film had been “remade.” You judge if that’s the proper term.
A 2004 version updates the British movie to please (?) the American audience. The setting is Mississippi—emphasis on garbage and large, black trash bags. The dialogue boasts generous amounts of vulgar and sexual references. So much for that.
Now to the 1955 classic. Ladykillers, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, was a success in Britain and the US. Starring Alec Guinness, the film has lingering charm. Central action takes place in a small, lopsided house. It could be a quiet little place—except for trains that scream and thunder through the adjoining railway yard.
Guinness, a master-mind, is planning a heist. He rents rooms in the ramshackle house, because of its proximity to the caper. He and his cohorts meet there under cover of rehearsing as a string quintet, no less.
Cecil Parker, the Major, often seen in a supporting role in Guinness’ films, is a con man.
Herbert Lom adds a suave foreign element, but is, in truth, a vicious criminal.
Danny Green plays a large, slow-witted former boxer called “One-Round,” indicating his pugilistic capability.
A bit of a surprise is Peter Sellers. This is his first significant movie. Still in his twenties, he plays a pudgy, baby-faced young punk.
These “gentlemen” have only to keep the secret of the heist they’re planning from the dowdy little lady who owns the tilty house. Once the robbery is a success their real challenge begins. They are no match for Widow Wilberforce.
The part is perfect fit for Katie Johnson who’d been on the stage since 1894 (!) and in her first movie in 1932 at age 53. Her portrayal gained her a British Film Academy award. She reminds me of an antique, lace-edged Valentine. Her home, crowded with memorabilia, is a still life of Britain’s bygone glory days.
The whole of the action is entertaining, at times startlingly funny, with a satisfying twist at the end. I must see it again!
Thank goodness it’s available on DVD from Amazon.
Dolores Cullen went to college after raising her family. When she was introduced to Chaucer, it changed her life. She became fascinated with the double meaning hidden in the Canterbury Tales and the double images concealed in each of the Canterbury Pilgrims. Cullen has written and spoken about this fascination on many occasions. Amazon lists her books. Her website—CelebrateChaucer.com—and her blog—Chaucer ain’t like Gospel!—are filled with ideas out of the ordinary regarding the first great writer in the English language.
Paradox in La Grande Illusion
by Joan Corwin
I was a college student in the 70’s when I first saw Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), a French film about the First World War. The plot involves two French aviators, the aristocrat de Boeldieu and the mechanic Maréchal, who join with Jewish officer Rosenthal to escape a German POW camp in the mountain fortress of Wintersborn. The escape plan is complicated by the mutual regard and affection that develop between De Boeldieu and the camp commandant, who is also an aristocrat. La Grande Illusion is miraculous in many ways, as art, certainly, and as a commentary on war. But what has always moved me most profoundly is its underlying theme—the death of Chivalry at the dawn of the modern age. The film is a paradox, both an elegy to the beauty of a past steeped in medieval codes of honor and a celebration of a new universal humanity, one that defies social and national chauvinisms. Add the classic performances by Jean Gabin as Maréchal and the incomparable Erich von Stroheim as the commandant von Rauffenstein, and you have a movie that satisfies and enriches viewers in any era. La Grande Illusion inspired me to set my own novella during the Great War, and to this day, it continues to influence the way I think about both literature and cinema.
Joan Corwin has a Ph.D. in English from Indiana University and has taught English and Victorian social history in Chicago area colleges and universities. Nonfiction publications include essays and book reviews on her area of specialization, the Victorian travel narrative. Her fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals, among them StoryQuarterly, Sycamore Review, Inkwell, The Madison Review, River Oak Review and Roanoke Review, as well as in the anthologies Solace in So Many Words (Weighed Words, LLC) and Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters (Hourglass Books). Honors include the Dana Portfolio Award, the Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction, the Tusculum Review Fiction Prize and the Pearl Short Story Award. Her short story “Hindsight” was a winner in Chicago Public Radio’s Stories on Stage Competition. Her prize-winning novella Safe Shall Be My Going was published in the first annual Press 53 Open Awards Anthology.
Amazon Links to Joan’s work:
The Haunting: A Classic Scare
by Victoria M. Johnson.
I love a good ghost story and one of my top favorites is The Haunting (1963) based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House. To study the existence of ghosts, Dr. John Markway recruits two subjects to join him at Hill House, a mansion made notorious by its violent past. He chooses Eleanor for her psychic abilities and Theodora for her ESP skills. Luke, a family member who will inherit Hill House, joins them.
Eleanor is the lead character and the story starts with her. We see what a terrible situation she is in, and what a lonely life she’s had caring for her sick mother who just died. This scene is important as the film gets rolling and bad things start happening because it answers the question: why doesn’t she leave Hill House? (I know I would’ve packed my bags at the first hint of a ghost!) Eleanor has led a sheltered and unsocial life for 11 years and it’s established that she has nothing to go back to. This introductory scene also sets up the ghostly encounters Eleanor will have. And as the team finds answers, we’ll understand why Eleanor has the reactions she has. All this makes us care for her and amps up the frightening experiences we’ll witness.
Markway and the others learn the hard way that ghosts are indeed haunting Hill House. The movie is scary and suspenseful, but not gory. It focuses on our fear of the unknown and puts a character we care about in relentless jeopardy. On the other hand, I found the 1999 remake not that scary, as the film seemed to focus on special effects—showing us what we should fear. I am a firm believer that the fear of the unknown is much scarier. Our imaginations can conjure up some terrifying images. The fear of the unknown is a primal fear—and primal fears are what scare us the most! Primal fears are what give us nightmares.
Victoria M. Johnson is a professional writer and a filmmaker. Whether writing a World War II drama, a romantic comedy, or a thriller, her goal is to entertain, enlighten and surprise her readers. Her work has been published in national and international newsletters and magazines and her first creative non-fiction book, All I Need To Know In Life I Learned From Romance Novels, received favorable mention in People Magazine, Mode Magazine New York, Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, Library Journal, Romantic Times Magazine, St. Petersberg Florida News, National Women’s Review, Teheran News and many others. She launched Mi Casa Su Casa Productions in 2007 to participate in the 48 Hour Film Project, and, since then, has produced and written one short film and written and directed three short films. She participated as a script supervisor on a feature length horror film and was an assistant director on a short thriller film. Visit her websites for more information, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.