OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1941 – HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
“I learned whatever I knew in the projection room – from Ford.” – Orson Welles (This is Orson Welles)
At the 14th Academy Awards, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley beat out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane for Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture. Rumors of ornery Kane template William Randolph Hearst bribing and threatening Academy members to shut out Welles’ beloved classic, and Kane’s current shadow over the film canon, have only solidified the critical vitriol for Valley’s egregious win. How Green Was My Valley is no Citizen Kane (to say nothing of The Maltese Falcon, the year’s true masterpiece), and Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland’s contributions to the art in terms of POV shots and deep focus techniques are unparalleled, but Ford’s film is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of cinema, and it deserves examination on its own accord.
Originally intended to be a Technicolor William Wyler epic, How Green Was My Valley’s dreary monochrome pallet suggests none of the lushness of its title, and the film is better for it. Ford and collaborating cinematographer Arthur C. Miller introduce the eponymous valley, an impoverished Welsh coal mining community fifty years in economic decline, with a series of static shots of houses turned hovels, street urchins, and a shawl-wrapped octogenarian staring wistfully at nothing. As the scene moves backward in time, protagonist Huw Morgan contemplates, in a soothing voiceover, the glory days of his childhood, when the black slag of the coalmines had only begun to cover the valley’s hill, “not yet enough to mar the countryside, or blacken the beauty” of the village. Despite Huw’s warm words, the subsequent image of Huw (Roddy McDowall) and his father (Donald Crisp) poking around a slope of blackened rocks while trails of smog pipe from coal chimneys in the background betray the narration’s sentimental notion of pastoral purity, suggesting much of Huw’s youth was “colored” by naivety.
Miller’s wide shots of soot-coated miners trudging home after a hard day’s labor and singing a traditional Welsh ballad evoke the newsreel grit of Eduard Tisse’s work with Eisenstein, but though the film has a decidedly socialist slant, Marxist ideals of solidarity and the blue-collar pedestal are deconstructed as Miller’s camera gets closer to the colliery. When, against his father’s wishes, young Huw abandons his schooling to work the mines, perpetuating his family’s poverty cycle, his first day underground proves relentlessly backbreaking. Though Huw can’t help crack a smile at the thought of becoming a man and a provider, Ford and Miller’s commitment to source-lighting, and the claustrophobia of the shooting space, anticipate the film’s horrific climax. There, weak lanterns struggle to break through the blackness of a cave-in, and the meditative surreality of death finally overwhelms Miller’s stark compositions, as Huw embraces the dying Morgan patriarch against a coffin of black rock, and for a moment, they are one with the mines.
This dream-like tone finds root midway through the film, when Walter Pidgeon’s moralizing Mr. Gruffydd breaks the spell of Huw’s paralysis (his legs immobile after a fall through the ice) by bellowing “Huw, walk!” It’s a miracle in the biblical sense, and Huw’s slow ambulation across the flowery field, his dark coat and trousers crisp against a backdrop of the Welsh countryside, is perfectly serene. It’s a shot that finds its parallel in the final moments of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, Wild Strawberries, and Gunnar Fischer’s striking use of greyscale, bringing to mind the grace and beauty of death.
The final moments of John Ford’s film exist in a similar valley, as the entire Morgan family reunites on a landscape that is half memory, half fantasy. It is the space to which Huw has longed to return his whole life, a prelapsarian ideal that exists right outside the toils of the quotidian, forever above the smoke, above the ruin.
Posts tagged Ingmar Bergman
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1941 – HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
From the Life of the Marionettes (1980, Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist)
“Most unfortunately in the lives of the Marionettes there is always a BUT that spoils everything”. - Carlo Lorenzini, The Adventures of Pinocchio.
“I don’t have a truth.” - Peter Egermann (Robert Atzorn), From the Life of the Marionettes
The final shot of Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes is of Peter Egermann laying in the bed of a psychiatric hospital, holding on to a raggedy, stuffed bear, as his nurse speculates on the bear’s significance. “Probably a childhood memento,” she muses. For cinephiles, this is a moment of insight. From the Life of the Marionettes is Citizen Kane, or perhaps the anti-Citizen Kane.
Like Orson Welles’ renowned triumph of the silver screen, Bergman’s Marionettes dissects a man’s life, his loves, his hopes, and his fears, through flashbacks following a death. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist even mimics the evocative newsreel style Gregg Toland brought to Kane, departing only to imbue a crucial dream sequence with a hypnotic fluidity. Citizen Kane proposes life is a like a puzzle in which each piece, when discovered, informs the whole. Bergman’s pieces are just pieces, and though some fit, often deceptively well, a total cohesion is impossible. There is always a “but”.
“Rosebud,” Charles Foster Kane’s enigmatic final word, when revealed to be the newspaper publisher’s childhood sled, is the key that informs the man’s every moment, and at the film’s climax, there is understanding. Kane is a man who never lived his youth, and forever grasped for it. When the nurse in Marionette suggests Egermann’s bear is a token of his past, Bergman is playing a cruel joke on an audience seeking a Rosebud. Egermann’s bear only serves to complicate the existence, rife with contradictions, of a human being in despair.
In a crucial sequence at the center of the film, Egermann’s friend Tim (Walter Schmidinger), delivers an anxious monologue into his mirror, ruminating on the impossibility of fulfillment in a world where intimacy and brutality can intertwine with such grace. Later, Tim insists to an investigative officer that Egermann and his wife Katarina (Christine Buchegger) had a “good marriage”, despite their constant fights and infidelities. Egermann’s psychiatrist, Jensen (Martin Benrath), tells the same officer that the couple’s unhappiness was nothing a little Valium couldn’t cure. When Jensen prepares his report on Egermann, he cites a laundry list of Freudian repressions, repressions hinted at throughout the film, to explain the violent turn which Egermann’s life took. The lights go out, and Jensen is literally left in the dark, his clinical explanation not only unsatisfying, but foolish.
Thus, signifiers signify nothing, Freudian imagery and dialogue fold into themselves, and a stark, docu-drama vantage point offers nothing in the way of clarity, but the film stock. “Who was Charles Foster Kane?” sought Welles. With From the Life of the Marionettes, Bergman responds, “Why ask?” in a tone of self-admonishment, having taken his own bait, and finding, of course
Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer: Gunnar Fischer)
It’s only fitting that I finally decided to check out Ingmar Bergman’s much heralded Wild Strawberries a day after revisiting The Phantom Carriage, since Bergman’s piece is essentially a non-genre homage to Victor Sjöström’s horror classic. Sjöström again plays a bitter man haunted by his past choices who, when confronted with his inevitable death, is able to reach a life-affirming epiphany. Bergman’s film, however, is an existential journey, and instead of alcoholism, Sjöström’s Isak faces intangible antagonists of emptiness and abandonment. His is a crisis of faith.
Does God exist? Isak, once a “sensitive” youth who read poems, played piano, and pondered the afterlife, is now a intemperate man of science, simultaneously repulsing and clinging to those nearest him. This juxtaposition of science and faith becomes more prevalent as Isak picks up a trio of twenty-something hitch-hikers on his way to accept a prestigious science award. The two men, Viktor and Anders, one an aspiring doctor, the other a hopeful minister, represent the two opposing forces of Isak, and quarrel endlessly over spiritual matters. The woman accompanying them is Sara (Bibi Andersson), who shares the same name, and is played by the same actress, as Isak’s lost childhood paramour, serving as a constant, bittersweet reminder of his former life.
Frequent Bergman collaborating cinematographer Gunnar Fischer gives the film an eerie sense of continuity between Isak’s dream world and his waking journey, playing with shadows and light, and especially with space. When, after a near car collision, Isak and his fellow travelers pick up a married couple, a sense of unbearable claustrophobia fills the vehicle, and the man’s cruelty toward his wife is a nauseating facsimile of Isak’s own failed marriage. Later, the couple comes to him in a dream that combines the openness of a lecture hall with the asphyxiating rigor of a prison, in which students sit immobile behind wooden barred desks, unable, or unwilling, to react to the Kafkaesque interrogation to which Isak must submit.
Only Isak’s childhood home, and the strawberry fields surrounding it, are bathed in light, even though Isak himself is relegated to the shadows, observing, but never connecting with the simple, pastoral joys of his family life. Especially painful are the memories of his lost lover, Sara, and her infidelities, which again, he watches without intervention, though like the students in the lecture hall, it’s uncertain if this is of his own volition. In the film’s final dream sequence, half memory, half beautiful revelation, Isak is finally approached by Sara, and together they search for his parents. Fishing in a small cove, Isak’s mother and father seem content, and Isak is left alone by Sara, just on the other side of the water. He smiles, enlightened, at the scene. Then the shot cuts to Isak in bed, and his face is aglow with childlike wonder, having remembered this vision of paradise, earthly or otherwise.
Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist)
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 1983
Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is one of my favorite films of all time, a flawless piece of genius that unfolds like a dense novel until the viewer is completely absorbed into its realm. I simply cannot use enough hyperbole to praise this epic. The Best Cinematography category for 1983 was weak (WarGames? Flashdance?), but Fanny and Alexander could hold its own against the strongest contenders from any year. Yes, Sven Nykvist’s award winning camera work is an unusual choice for the Academy, controlled and delicate, but its range is vast, as the film moves from elegant costume drama to stark minimalism to a textured intimacy that seems to capture the way the world feels as no other film does, this sequence especially.
“There are many strange things that can’t be explained,” Aron (Mats Bergman) tells Alexander (Bertil Guve) after scaring him with a marionette puppet meant to look like God. Inside of Aaron’s theater there are illusions and there is magic, men who are two places at once, illuminated mummies, and lost spirits. Alexander has just seen the ghost of his father before being fooled by the God puppet, and while he took the first supernatural encounter casually, at the thought of coming in contact with the omnipotent, he hides, trembles, and cries. Nykvist shoots the scene like a dream that teeters on the edge on wakefulness, on nightmare, and doesn’t flinch style when the puppet is revealed to be fake, keeping the same heavy tone, for to Bergman an act of charlatanism can be as spiritual as an act of God, and God’s absence as terrifying as his presence.