Saturday, December 29, 2012

Black Narcissus (1947) Spine #93

In a post I made on September 5th of this year, I noted “I'm fairly certain that when Scorsese and Dickerson are talking about Powell and Pressburger films, they aren't talking about Powell and Pressburger.  They are talking about Jack Cardiff.”  I’m now able to expand on that a bit more with Black Narcissus (1947).

If you are a Netflix subscriber, as of today, Cameraman:  The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) is still streaming, so go watch it.  It not only explains how amazing a cinematographer he was (he died in 2009) but also gives some insight into the origins and development of Technicolor, which Cardiff was the first person to be trained on in England.  This page has a lot of good information on the history and development as well.  In my posts on Taxi Driver and Do the Right Thing, I noted that while Scorsese and Dickerson go off on how great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were, I wasn’t seeing anything great in the films I had seen from them, most of them being in black and white.

My problem with their movies is that they are boring.  Even the ones in color.  But when you throw Cardiff into the mix, things get infinitely more interesting from a visual perspective.  Cardiff gives you something to do, like admire how gorgeous the set is for Black Narcissus.  It is truly stunning, even though there are process shots involved.  And Cardiff’s blues in this film are jaw-droppingly striking.  I have yet to see The Red Shoes (1948), but I know the reds in the film are vibrant, from clips I have seen, and from what I have read and heard, warm colors (particularly reds) are more difficult to capture on film than cool colors.  But the overall plot and characters are so dismissible that I have to convince myself that I am watching the movie just for the visuals, which is not necessarily an altogether bad thing, but shouldn’t one enjoy the plot and characters and not all the pretty-pretty?  I can go to a museum for that.

The “plot” involves a group of nuns who are being sent to a remote complex in the Himalayas where they are to have a school and a hospital for all the poor, stupid natives who need ministering to.  These poor, stupid natives live in a sublime setting, but since they are poor and stupid, they can’t take care of themselves, so the British need to step in and save their poor, stupid bodies and souls.  This has been tried before, by a group of male, God-fearing British, but they didn’t succeed, so the female, God-fearing British are being given a good ole’ college try, pip pip.  In the opening scene, we are beat over the head with gloom and doom by the head mistress who is assigning the new outpost to Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), presumably to give her some training on how to tame Burt Lancaster and Yule Brynner later in her career.  She’s so very young to be given this position and is certain to fail.  The overall portend of disaster, coupled with getting Sister Ruth (who should come with her own dun-dun-dun! music whenever we see her) assigned to the team, sends us smoke signals of tragedy.  Now we get to spend the next hour and a half watching nuns unravel.

And apparently, the reason why these nuns lose their minds so easily once they get to their destination is because the sky is so blue and the air is so pure.  It’s the perfect storm for gazing out over the beautiful mountain vistas to remember whatever horror brought each woman to becoming a nun, for, in Pressberger and Powell’s world, you only become a nun once your life’s in the shitter.  What kind of message does that send?  And being a nun in such a beautiful place, helping all these poor, stupid natives, really drives home for each of them (except for maybe Sister Briony, who seems to actually be the only effective nun there) just how much they no longer want to be nuns.  Sister Philippa shoots their chances of food in the ass by planting gardens full of flowers instead of vegetables.  Sister Honey does not follow policy and tries to save a dying baby (with one dose of Castor oil, way to go!), and when the baby dies, the poor, stupid natives want to kill the nuns.  Sister Ruth is suffering from persecution mania and a raging case of hormones for Mr. Dean, the only white man around for miles who, no matter how cold everyone else is, insists on wearing shorts and his shirt unbuttoned, ‘cause he is all man, baby.  And Sister Clodagh is mourning the loss of her fiancé to the wonders of Michigan to find his fortune sans her.  Does she love Mr. Dean?  Does he love her?  Do I care?  No.  So, the nuns fail and go home.  Poor, stupid natives go back to being poor and stupid.  The end.

This movie is problematic on several levels, but I’ll try to get the important ones in.  And perhaps I should start by saying that this is, by most accounts, a very faithful adaptation of the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden (same title), even though she hated the adaptation.  I’ve never read it and therefore cannot comment.  And there is historical context with India getting its independence from Britain a few months after the movie came out.  But anyhow…

  • There are four speaking roles for the natives – the Young General, the Old General, Kanchi and Angu Ayah.  The only one played by an ethnic Indian was the Young General (Sabu, who I guess was in pretty much every British movie made around this time that dealt with India).  The other three roles were played by white people in makeup.  That’s pretty racist.  I know you’re all thinking “hey, think of the time period,” and yeah, that was still going on in America, but wow…
  •  I pointed this out previously, but it appears that the nuns are only nuns because their lives got so miserable earlier on that the only choice for them was to become nuns.  I’m not a religious person, but that sounds like a really sacrilegious position to take.  Apparently, when the film was to be released in the United States, the Catholic League of Decency asked for the scenes in the film that deal with Clodagh before she becomes a nun (the ones with her fiancé) to be edited.  I don’t know how they were edited, but they at least picked up on how “being called” looked.
  •  “‘It is the most erotic film that I have ever made,’ wrote Michael Powell of Black Narcissus. ‘It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.’” This is taken from Kent Jones’ “Black Narcissus:  Empire of the Senses” and leaves me quite agog.  I know different people find different things appealing, but I was so befuddled by Powell’s use of the word “erotic” that I went and looked it up, thinking I had perhaps been living with the wrong definition for years.  Turns out, my definition jibed with the dictionary (quite a relief), but then left me puzzled with how Powell could level it at this movie.  We have a girl, Kanchi, 17, who was giving Mr. Dean “problems,” and he hopes the sisters could “straighten her out.”  We have the Young General, about her age.  She bats her eyes at him.  He saves her from a beating.  They fall in love.  Whoever didn’t see this coming all the way from the Copacabana is a moron.  Does Powell mean that the batting eyelashes are erotic?  And gee, who’s the only other male in the movie?  Mr. Dean.  But he’s white, so he gets two nuns after him.  And the whole temple complex used to be a “place of women” (read whorehouse) where the General kept his concubines.  But Jones seems to say that “erotic” is the fact that the characters in the film cannot deny the reality around them.  Is denial erotic?  Perhaps.  Is watching two people who can’t get together realize this, in slow motion?  Maybe.  Is watching Sister Ruth’s transformation erotic?  No, it’s disturbing.  Watching nuns lose their minds isn’t my idea of hot (I know, I’m so weird.).
  • Ok, yeah this is a British movie made by two very British directors with a lot of British actors based on a British novel.  Yes, the novel was released at the beginning of WWII and this film comes out two years after WWII and what was known as “The British Empire” is no longer what it used to be.  I know it was painful for them.  But maintaining the natives are essentially poor and dumb and little lost children is grotesque.  At times, it looks like the directors are aware of this.  The lesson that the one little boy who does speak English gives is all about implements of war (“gun,” “bay-o-net”).  But the fact that any time the medicine, which is considered by the natives as “magic,” doesn’t heal, then the natives want to kill the white people and make them pay.  So, do they do the same to the shamans or whoever ministers traditional remedies?  And perhaps the fact that those two groups of holy workers could not keep a foothold in the area rings of the failure of a country to keep its empire afloat.  I’d much rather read the film as an indictment of the failure of faith and Western ideals to “help” a third world country.
  • It’s a beautiful film but an incredible lie, as everything about the set was constructed.  From Dave Kerr’s “Black Narcissus”:  “Despite its dazzling visual sweep, not one frame of Black Narcissus was filmed on location. Instead, the film was shot at the Pinewood studios in suburban London, with a few day trips to an Indian garden in Sussex. The mountains and the castle are the creations of production designer Alfred Junge, with matte paintings executed by Peter Ellenshaw; the special effects were coordinated by W. Percy Day, who had apprenticed with Melies, and the magnificent color photography, surely among the finest work ever produced for the medium, is the contribution of Jack Cardiff. (Both Junge and Cardiff won Oscars for their work.)”
  • Just how effective is Mr. Dean at his job?  What exactly is his job, anyway?  Ok, he’s a British agent, but what does he actually do besides drink and hang out in short shorts?

Ultimately, it is exotic (but a fake), sensual (thanks to an army of well-trained people) and, for me, far from erotic.

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