Retrospective Roundtable

In Memoriam, 2019-2020

Two years since the publication of our inaugural In Memoriam retrospective, we take the time now to look back at those we’ve lost the past two years. This small space can not possibly encapsulate the tremendous impact of these losses nor can we begin to craft an exhaustive look at the many people who contributed to film who sadly passed away these past two years, but we hope that this brief retrospective will serve as a respectful tribute to a few of the figures who are no longer with us. In addition to this retrospective, we published individual retrospectives for Agnès Varda and Chadwick Boseman.

The Snake Pit (1948)

By Kevin Jones

MV5BYzhhZGE0YzQtMTIyZi00OTVkLWEzMTctYzI1YjJlMDBkZDc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk3NTUwOQ@@._V1_The Snake Pit, directed by Anatole Litvak, is one of Olivia de Havilland’s finest performances. She stars as Virginia Cunningham, a woman who finds herself in a mental institution without any recollection of arriving and who is haunted by visions. It is a haunting and harrowing picture, one completely without any star, glamour, or gloss. It is a film so often told in De Havilland’s face, from bewilderment to horror as Virginia tries to wrestle with what is and is not real.

While De Havilland in modern times may best be known for the costumed beauty of Gone with the Wind or as a love interest such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, she was able to carve out her place as one of Hollywood’s best actors in the 1940s. The Snake Pit is chief among them, taking a very insular character and capturing every expression in incredibly authentic ways. In a time where knowledge of mental health was limited, De Havilland plays the role with grace and understanding. It is not over-the-top, aiming to understand this woman’s plight as wrestles with reality and endures horrifying shock treatment. It is a role that epitomizes De Havilland’s thoughtfulness as an actor, from meeting with real mental patients and psychiatrists, and it is this empathy that powers her performance. She understands the mindset and plays it out on her expressive face and her powerful delivery. It is a wonderful, multi-faceted performance that shows just how immersed in a character De Havilland could become.

A Woman is a Woman (1961)

By Timan Zheng

MV5BNDIwMTEyOWUtMzE0ZS00ZTNhLTlkZGItNGFmMjI0MjJkYTRmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_This decade marked the passing of several prominent figures of the French New Wave, the most recent of whom being Anna Karina. Renowned for her collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard, Karina was an inseparable symbol of the movement and arguably the most prolific actress of the era. She boasted an enormous oeuvre, working with the New Wave mavericks Rivette and Varda as well as foreign auteurs such as Fassbinder and Visconti. And yet, her image has always been synonymous with Godard, partially due to their personal lives, but also the series of iconic performances that she gave in his films. Whether it be the tragic depiction of a poverty-stricken prostitute in Vivre Sa Vie or the wide-eyed naivety of Odile in Bande à part, Karina was at the helm of Godard’s visions for much of his early career. While she may be best known for her roles in serious, auteur-driven arthouse films, often forgotten is her playful performance in A Woman Is a Woman. This is the film that put her on the map and stands as a meta-musical comedy — directed by Godard no less.

Before Pierrot le Fou and before Alphaville, there was A Woman Is a Woman. Karina plays Angela, an exotic dancer who yearns for a baby, only for the refusal of her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy). Their relationship is a slow-motion train wreck; they fight, bicker, and argue with every passing moment. The baby fiasco aggravates to the point where Angela plots to cheat on Émile with his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who already pines for her. This love triangle is the crux of the story but Godard hardly treats it with any severity. The most melodrama in the film involves Émile riding a bicycle around the dinner table mid-argument. This is a Godard picture through and through, intent on breaking rules and deconstructing conventions. A Woman Is a Woman is a musical with no dancing and one song, but it feels like a musical with palpitating colours and over-the-top performances. Karina steals the spotlight with her goofy, lively charm and displays genuine bursts of emotion working within Godard’s awkward staging. She is even given the opportunity to sing, a sparsely seen talent in her films. It is a charming and distinct performance, and while the film may be a lesser-Godard, it is absolutely worth revisiting for Karina.

Dr. No (1962)

By Will Bjarnar

MV5BMzk1MDdhYjYtOGQyOC00YTIzLThmNTAtMTdhNWE2OGM0YTk3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_There’s a central element to the art of being James Bond. Actually, there’s probably 132 and a contract to be signed in blood, one that includes a stipulation requiring the Bond to wear a suit everywhere from spin class to the beach. But the one we’re most familiar with — the one we’ve become accustomed to being even more affixed to the Bond narrative than the Aston Martins and the gadgets — is the act of being debonair. Maintaining it, practicing it, embodying it. 

Considering that such characteristics exist in a state of resolute certitude makes it even more difficult to note that Sean Connery didn’t begin his 007 tenure as confident nor as suave as the position tends to require. In 1962’s Dr. No, Connery’s Bond began as a bit more diffident than anticipated. Hindsight helps you make sense of it now; he once described the role as “a cross, a privilege, a joke, a challenge… as bloody intrusive as a nightmare.” It makes sense, considering that he was the son of a truck driver and a cleaning woman, a man who once worked as a milkman and wasn’t yet used to fine suits and expensive drinks. You learn that and you immediately grasp that it merely took Connery some time to become immortal, to allow the role to intrude the actor’s soul like his secret agent counterpart would intrude on an enemy’s sinister manor, gallantly and seamlessly. The only thing I can advise a fellow early-Bond viewer is to bask in the fact that his development took time, and then marvel at the fact that  took very little time.

It’s not easy to carry the weight of a recurring, beloved character’s prowess, so perhaps my fascination with Dr. No is that while it marks the beginning of Connery’s journey as Bond and through stardom, he never let it chart his course as the character. You could make a reasonable argument that Dr. No is a bumpy ride, unfortunately received as a spoof with a lagging pace, but there’s a much more significant value to it when you see its hinting at what Connery’s Bond could be, and what Connery could be as a star at large. There’s a reason all James Bonds spend much of their films looking bloody and battered, but leave with a straightened tie and a perfectly ironed jacket. Credit Ian Fleming for the design. Worship and remember Sean Connery for the character’s evolution and its execution.

Persona (1966)

By Jessica Moore

MV5BYjE0ODUwYzQtMjM2Ni00MzgwLTg1ZWEtMWYwZDYzZjg5MjJiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTA2ODMzMDU@._V1_Cinema endured a momentous loss in the passing of Bibi Andersson. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona saw one of Andersson’s most notable performances: Nurse Alma, a raconteur for psychosomatic mute actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman). Beyond the luminosity of her performance, and as owed to the film’s monologic construction, Andersson’s portrayal vocalises one of Bergman’s greatest thematic concerns: the vertigo of being.

Initially, Alma’s sororal affection and voluble curiosity towards Elisabet signal her simple desire to unveil the unknowable mind of her patient. She narrows the field of her assignment, the vague task to nurse Elisabet to health by attempting to get Elisabet to speak. Alma recalls intimate memories, musings on apathy, performance, and the occupational reality of being observed (as an actress), and being the observer (as a nurse). Exposing oneself incites an exchange of trust, one Alma believes is in the interest of her patient. Though it can be justified as such, the process entails an act of self-reflection, for which Alma is unprepared. Attempting to manifest a dialogue, Alma projects a listener onto Elisabet, whose illegible presence is so scarce that it reflects Alma’s words back unto herself. Elisabet is an audience to this volatile oscillation, she sees Alma’s disillusionment accelerate with each redirection of her salacious confessions — each cuts deeper than the last. Elisabet’s impenetrable silence combined with her apparitional presence spins Alma into a crisis of uncertainty, a rupture of selfhood visualised exquisitely by the conflation of her’s and Elisabet’s faces. This disjointed close-up, one of the most memorable shots in all of Bergman’s films, offers an instance of mutuality, of metamorphosis. Alma’s absorption of Elisabet’s persona reconciles the irreconcilable; it disrupts the chasm between oneself and others; it reckons with existence in balancing the real with the spectral.

The Offence (1973)

By Kevin Jones

MV5BYjc0OWQyN2UtM2I2YS00MDk4LWJmZmYtOTZhNDg2NzcwYmMwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_While Sean Connery has earned plaudits for his charisma and confidence over the years, epitomized in the Bond films, he had considerable range and never shied away from showing that off. His work with Sidney Lumet in films such The Hill or The Anderson Tapes offer that quality, but perhaps none is better than The Offence. Connery stars as a detective who violently attacks a man during an interrogation. The man is a child molester and while one may understand what could cause this detective to snap, there is a lot more to the film and the role. It is a challenging, often unpleasant work that rests almost entirely on Connery’s shoulders. The Offence is an adaptation of a play and, as with many of Lumet’s films, he gives his actors space to figure out who their characters really are. Connery jumps at the chance, delivering a powerhouse of a performance. The detective is a character with considerable intrusive thoughts, violent tendencies, and a deep seeded self-loathing, all of which come out during that interrogation and throughout the film. Connery captures it all in his eyes, a look of recognition there that perhaps he is not too far removed from the men he investigates. A weakness in his voice as he faces in his inner demons and a quick break into anger as the truth becomes too hard to bear. A character that is hard to come to term with, this detective is one that Connery is able to make feel incredibly human and, most impressively, disappear into. For stars, it is a challenge to truly trick audiences into not seeing them as themselves, but in a role so far removed from his usual persona, Connery succeeds throughout.

The Ascent (1977)

By Timan Zheng

The AscentLarisa Shepitko is one of Russia’s greatest filmmakers and a talent whose career was tragically cut short. Her career-defining film The Ascent is a staggering masterwork and one of the finest war films ever made. In light of the recent passing of Boris Plotnikov, one of the film’s lead actors, it is worth revisiting Shepitko’s swansong not only to shed light on this Soviet-era gem but also in admiration of Plotnikov’s tremendous performance. Combine the poeticism of Dostoevsky and the man-against-nature dynamic of Dovzhenko, and the result is the essence of Shepitko. The Ascent may appear to be a cut-and-dry war film but it transcends its genre confines by doubling as a biblical allegory for the tale of Jesus and Judas. Set amidst the German occupation of Belarus during World War II, The Ascent follows two Soviet soldiers who are dispatched to fetch food supplies for their starving platoon.

One of whom is Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), a stoic and battle-hardened veteran, and the other is Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov), a frail and sickly schoolteacher turned soldier. Faced with the harsh Belurisan winters, leaving their faces grizzled by the sub-zero temperature, it appears as if German soldiers are the least of their worries. After finding a farm animal at a local village, they attempt to escort it back to their unit but are ambushed by German patrols. The Soviets win the firefight but Sotnikov is wounded so the two seek refuge with an unsuspecting family, much to their dismay. Unfortunately, German troops catch wind of this and arrest Sotnikov and Rybak as well as the family. They are held captive at a German military base and meet Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), a Russian turned German ally — there they are pushed as to the limits of the human condition as the Soviets both face a deep moral quandary. Plotnikov excels as the disillusioned but persistent Sotnikov, holding his own in a one-on-one with longtime Tarkovsky collaborator, Solnitsyn. The sheer grit of his physical acting is exceptional, the feeling invoked by his cold, expressionless gaze into the everlasting winter landscape indescribable. While The Ascent is often praised for its philosophical themes, it carries an outstanding performance in Plotnikov which is one aspect of the film that deserves more recognition.

One Hundred and One Nights (1995)

By Henry Baime

MV5BNjg4MzZhMDktZGYyZC00Mzg1LWI5M2ItMTBkNzRhODU0NzRkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_One hundred years after the beginning of cinema (depending on your definition of when it truly began) Agnès Varda put together the greatest cast of cinematic giants who were alive at the time to make a One Hundred and One Nights, a reflection on the history of cinema and its various movements and an examination of what cinema really is. It centers on Simon Cinéma (Michel Piccoli), the personification of cinema, as he receives such visitors as Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Robert De Niro, and Catherine Deneuve, along with dozens of other screen legends who appeared either in new scenes made for the film or archival footage that was interspersed into the narrative. Each performer was purposefully chosen to bring the full weight of their body of work to the screen and play off of Piccoli’s status as the star of so many foundational films to create something that reaches far beyond what is immediately apparent on screen and question how different film figures would have differed if placed in a different movement. Varda and Piccoli have both recently passed, and the film landscape will suffer for having no further direct contributions from two of its greatest artists, but when watching One Hundred and One Nights, perhaps more than any other film, the profound impact that cinema can have is clear and it becomes not a time to mourn the passing of great artists but to celebrate the everlasting life and influence they will continue to have through their immortalization in film.

Driveways (2019)

By Will Bjarnar

MV5BODM4ZDQ5OWMtY2FiOC00YWM3LWJhMjAtOGFlNDVjYzg3YWViXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_Brian Dennehy spends much of Andrew Ahn’s stunning, understated drama Driveways where he spent most of his career: in the background. But there’s a difference here to those roles he held in Cocoon, Rambo: First Blood, or Presumed Innocent. He remains actively involved in Driveways, but never to the point where he becomes the star, nor to the point where he could be considered foraying into the foreground.

In one of his final roles, Dennehy plays Del, who spends much of the film sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, much like your grandparents, my grandparents, and the world’s grandparents. He maintains a watchful eye over the operations of the neighborhood and the street in front of his house- regardless of the fact that he may go unnoticed, unbothered, he’s fine with it. In a way, the Del character — whose bond with young Cody (Lucas Jaye) is what drives the sweetest film of the year — is a perfectly poignant note for Dennehy to end his career on. He went much of his career playing characters who were noticed, but rarely bothersome as a presence on screen, but never quite like this. Ahn gives him the room to be tender, to be remarkably subtle, to be himself. He gives him room to never raise the volume too high, but to say the most with the least to say. Dennehy, as he never failed to do, took the chance and gradually walked with it, a practice that is as effective as an all-out sprint in his case.

Toward the end of the film, he gets a moment to deliver a riveting, yet serene monologue about mortality, about connection, about love, and about sacrifice. It’s the kind of moment the Academy Awards would jump at the chance to use for a nominee’s showcase clip, one they won’t play for a Dennehy nomination, but should certainly consider for when his name crosses on their annual In Memoriam tribute. For Dennehy deserves a moment all to himself. In his own very distinct way, he was a gentle titan of industry; and yes, a titan. With him, giant feels too feeble a word.

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