Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Frank Capra is the embodiment of the American Dream. He moved to America from Sicily as a young boy, and his early life was plagued by constant financial difficulties. It is no coincidence, then, that Capra’s films are as American as, well, apple pie. He worked his way up from nothing to attain success. He was grateful for the opportunities that America provided him, and he never took his fame and fortune for granted. In fact, his poor upbringing caused him to suffer from insecurities throughout his life. It was his firsthand experience with these issues that made him the spokesperson of Americana. He had empathy and compassion for his characters, and that is why his films are some of cinema’s most beloved classics. His pursuit and fulfillment of the American Dream also made him especially suitable for the romantic comedy genre, which he essentially invented. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town is the perfect reflection of Capra’s life and his trademark social consciousness and commentary.
While Capra had made romantic comedies before Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, it marked a break from his previous work in its explicit social commentary. “Beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, my films had to say something” (Capra 185). A staunch Republican, Capra “felt compelled to be more American than the Americans…Though he did not particularly enjoy his money or the possessions it could buy him, he cherished it as his protection against his humiliating immigrant past” (McBride 238). He astutely realized that Depression-era audiences sought reassurance and comfort. “It was despite his political views, not because of them, that Capra was capable of responding emotionally to the plight of the poor and unemployed in Mr. Deeds…” (McBride 339). Clearly, Capra understood the story because of his background, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town fiercely celebrates the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversity.
All in all, Frank Capra has been praised and criticized for his sentimentality. He responded to the world as he saw it: “That was my needed job: Lift the human spirit” (Capra 203). He developed compassion and conviction as a result of his background, contrary to what his detractors say: “Capra truly wants to be generous – but, finally, he is too unadventurous, too fearful and self-protecting, to be good at it” (Harvey 159). He deserves more credit. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town works on a deeper level because of his personal connection with the story and his striking similarity to Longfellow Deeds. In his autobiography, he somberly reflects, “There is no greater punishment for a creative spirit than to wake up each morning knowing he is unneeded, unwanted, and unnecessary” (Capra 494). Truly, Frank Capra will never be any of those things.
The Czech New Wave is perhaps the most overlooked national movement in the history of cinema. This paper gives the historical background and context of the Czech New Wave. During this time, in the late 1960s, Czechoslovakia was under stifling Communist control, and the New Wave filmmakers rebelled against this oppression by creating expressive works with a social conscience. The government banned many of their films and even forced some of the filmmakers out of the country. This was a distinctly Czech movement, but it also reflected trends in other national cinemas of the time. The Czech New Wave films are not easily categorized or definable. There are not really any common characteristics that are shared by all, except that they focused on diversity, emotions, personal expression, and social commentary.
One of the most important and popular films of the period is Jiri Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains, released in 1966. The film is so successful because it combines aspects of many genres, such as comedy, coming of age, and suspense, while still maintaining a traditional Hollywood linearity. The characters are interesting and three-dimensional, especially train dispatcher Milos, the young, self-conscious, confused protagonist. The film is visually and aesthetically stunning, and its seemingly straightforward narrative approach is deceptively brilliant in its deeper complexities.
At the end of this paper, I share some personal insights about my time at Columbia and my thoughts on various questions raised by cinema, such as author films versus Hollywood films, the moral responsibilities of filmmakers, and my opinions on the Czech New Wave and what I learned from it.
During the 1960s, Americans tackled the free speech movement, the civil rights movement, a cultural revolution, and the Vietnam War. However, the decade was characterized by social upheaval worldwide, and the Czech New Wave emerged as a result of the tension that gripped the country due to Communist control. “In the 1960s something interesting happened in Czechoslovakia. Artists started to realize that the aesthetics of social realism contrasted with the realities of their everyday lives…The films of the so-called Czech New Wave rose as a movement in response to the political and historical reality of Czechoslovakia” (Buchar 9). These filmmakers recognized the inherent dangers in Socialist Realism, which “is best understood in negative terms: by replacing genuine realism with an appearance of realism it prevents the contemplation of the human condition and the investigation of social issues” (Kenez, “Soviet” 55). The proponents of Socialist Realism simply hope that the art will act as a pacifier for the masses. Maybe if they see it in films and other artwork enough, they will start to believe it. Basically, the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave challenged the system and bravely exposed reality.
When discussing national film movements, perhaps none is more difficult to define than the Czech New Wave. There are no specific features that all of the films have in common, so the movement is really characterized by this diversity. For instance, Closely Watched Trains expresses a very basic story, while Vera Chytilova’s The Fruit of Paradise requires multiple viewings to even begin to break its code. Also, the filmmakers valued the emotional quality of art. These films tend to emphasize feelings more than typical narrative conventions. Unlike today’s greedy society, these directors made films for the sake of art and not to make money. They worked because they enjoyed it, and these filmmakers often collaborated on each other’s projects and formed a close and intimate community. In such a turbulent time, the Czechs never lost their sense of humor and “created a cinema of sharply observed social comedy” (Ellis 294). Comedy fused with allegory and satire to produce works such as Daisies and Report on the Party and the Guests. Some films take a more serious approach while still managing to comment on the problems in society, such as Diamonds of the Night. While the government tried to impose conformity on the country, the Czech New Wave celebrated individuality and self-expression.
According to Josef Skvorecky, “I am convinced that the reason Jiri Menzel did such a superb job with Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains lies in the fact that he himself is essentially Milos Hrma, the shy apprentice who unsuccessfully tries to make love to the pretty conductress Masa” (161). It seems that Menzel’s motivation to make the film stemmed from a personal attachment to the story and a sense of empathy with the characters. Additionally, he used the film to comment on the futility of war. “It is in subverting the stereotypes, showing everyone as human, war as absurd, and heroism as accidental that the film contrives to be both reassuring and thought-provoking” (Hames 179). Clearly, Menzel recognized the influential nature of film and the accompanying moral issues. Closely Watched Trains does not impose morality on the viewer forcefully; rather, it cleverly initiates a thought process by which the viewer will remember Menzel’s message. By diminishing the significance of the war in the film, he offers his criticism and passes moral judgment, effectively denouncing war and also any sort of totalitarian regime.
In spite of the comedic aspects, Closely Watched Trains also resembles a drama. For example, Milos is deeply tortured by his condition of premature ejaculation, and he struggles constantly with his insecurities. The ending of the film is certainly tragic, although that depends on how the viewer interprets Milos’ death. This film also functions on a suspenseful level, especially in the final scenes with the hearing for Hubicka’s behavior coinciding with the arrival of the doomed ammunition train. Most of all, Closely Watched Trains falls into the category of a coming-of-age film. During the course of the film, Milos must grow up and deal with his sexual issues and lack of self-confidence. It deals very candidly with the pressures of entering adulthood. At the beginning, Milos can barely speak to a woman, but at the end, he finds the courage to defy the Nazis and blow up a train, even if it results in his death. His inner journey to find peace, happiness, and self-discovery propels the story and matters more than the surrounding war. By including several different genre types and modifying them to suit the story, Closely Watched Trains offers something for every viewer.
Even though Closely Watched Trains seems like so many other films in its narrative structure, it is completely unique in its sensitive and honest treatment of the characters. Also, it stands out due to its gorgeous visual style, intelligent sense of humor, and thoughtful examination of humanity. Most importantly, this film just tells a story well, better than most films, and its simplicity is touching. Compared to other Czech New Wave films, Closely Watched Trains marks a distinct contrast, which probably accounts for its international acceptance. Many of the other films rely on an experimental style that involves disruptive editing, a frantic use of the camera, and a bombardment of images and sounds, like Daisies or The Fruit of Paradise. They often avoid conventional narrative storytelling at all costs, much like Diamonds of the Night. Closely Watched Trains differs from other Czech New Wave films because of its purity, simplicity, and the emphasis on a script and a story.
All in all, the Czech New Wave is one of the most fascinating and complex movements in film history. It developed quickly as a result of the political and social atmosphere and initiated a period of unabashed originality. Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains still resonates today as a powerful and poignant representation of the period’s intense creativity. Unfortunately, the Czech New Wave is also one of the most underappreciated movements, barely even mentioned in film history textbooks. Conditioned by the blatant nature of Hollywood that requires no imagination whatsoever, many people are simply unwilling to devote any energy to understanding these demanding films. For people willing to make the effort, though, the Czech New Wave films offer a completely unusual and rewarding experience that allows the viewer to glimpse the tumultuous history of Czechoslovakia.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
During a period of cinematic innovation known as the Czech New Wave, Vera Chytilova emerged as one of the movement's leading figures, as well as one of its only women. In accordance with the goals of the Czech New Wave, Chytilova utilized allegory and satire to make challenging, expressive, and often abstract films. Her two most renowned and important films are Daisies and The Fruit of Paradise. Chytilova's feisty, feminist, indomitable spirit endures in her work and her legacy.
In her career, Daisies (1966) and The Fruit of Paradise (1969) are unquestionably her most famous, thought-provoking, and significant films. Daisies features two girls who wreak havoc on society. By commenting on the self-destructive nature of society itself, the film works as a powerful satire while also offering a highly aesthetic viewing experience. A biblical allegory presented in the form of a symphony, The Fruit of Paradise relies less on plot and more on the blending of symbolism, image, and sound into a unified whole. While these films brought her considerable success and acclaim, she suffered the same fate as other filmmakers following the invasion and was not allowed to make films again until 1976. She still works on films today, as well as teaching directing at the Film Academy (Buchar 71).
Throughout her own life, she stood up for her beliefs and made sure that her voice was heard, as she undoubtedly still does today. As a strong woman, she brought a unique perspective to her films, which may contribute to their lasting appeal. “In a true feminist tradition Vera combined intensive intellectual effort with a feminine feeling for beauty and form” (Skvorecky 112).
Cashback, an Oscar-nominated narrative short film written and directed by Sean Ellis and released in 2004, explores the concepts of time and beauty by focusing on the ennui of the night shift at a grocery store. Sound clever? Unfortunately, it is not. Ellis had the chance to make something witty and insightful, because everyone can relate to the idea of time passing ever so slowly. However, he decided to make a sexist exploitation film in the guise of art. The main character is Ben, an art student. His way of passing the time is to imagine the world frozen, on pause so to speak. During this intermission, he wanders amongst the preposterously gorgeous female customers, now naked for his viewing pleasure. He and Ellis pretend this is all in the name of art, since Ben loves sketching the female body. Instead, it comes off as invasive and perverted, nothing more than cheap pornography. While the film is aesthetically inventive and impressive, its message is utterly offensive. Cashback also reflects society’s obsession with youth and a distinct, unrealistic standard of beauty.
Despite its innumerable flaws, Cashback looks stunning. Ellis manages to capture the ennui of the setting through the hypnotically buzzing fluorescent lighting that eerily bathes the store. The viewer can practically see the lighting sucking the life out of these employees. Cashback begins with a remarkable tracking shot across the drab beige ceiling, punctuated by the loud, echoing beep of the register. Similar skill is exhibited in the expert Steadicam shot of Barry’s clueless face as he rides around the store on his scooter. Being an artist, Ben stares at a bag of spilled peas on the speckled cream linoleum. This is perhaps the film’s most beautiful shot, a mass of neon green specks that looks both haphazard and orderly. In fact, the shot recalls pointillism and a work like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The audience sees this mess through a painter’s eyes.
Suddenly, Ben emerges from the ethereal blue glow of his Swedish goddess. A red glow engulfs the screen, and the audience is transported back to the store, accompanied by solemn classical music. Evidently, that red glow was some sort of magic clothing removal device, because all of the women in the store are now completely naked. He creepily moves amongst the perfect mannequins, wondering in voiceover, “And would it be wrong? Would they hate me? For seeing them? I mean, really seeing them?” The notion that their naked bodies can define their worth and beauty as human beings is not only shallow, it is blatantly insulting. Naturally, as an artist, he intensely sketches them. Their immobility only enhances this disgusting objectification of women. Nothing could possibly be as invasive as this kid staring at women while they have no control over themselves. He is basically raping them with his eyes and his sketch pad. They are utterly powerless and defenseless, and they will undoubtedly emerge from this experience feeling dirty and wanting to take a long shower and not knowing why.
Unfortunately, Ellis squandered the film’s potential. It could have been playful and funny, because everyone can relate to the idea of time dragging. Ben, in his disaffected way, occasionally offers some astute observations: “When you fall asleep, you are unaware of sleeping until you awake.” Due to the exploitative nature of the film’s final minutes, it is difficult to determine the filmmaker’s intentions or to extricate any themes. One can reasonably guess that Ellis is commenting on the nature of time, both its transience and permanence, as well as reflecting on beauty and its necessity. But his idea of beauty is limited, at best, so that might be giving him too much credit. Every single naked woman is a size two or less and looks like a supermodel. Is this really the definitive standard of beauty? Beauty can be found in anything, like the peas spilled on the floor. As an artist, Ben should not be so narrow-minded in his assessment of beauty. He should go look at a sunset or maybe pick some flowers; after all, they are clichés for a reason. There is more to the world than young, nubile women.
All in all, Cashback is visually and technically remarkable, but it lacks depth and substance. Ironically, it is as one-dimensional and surface-oriented as those caricatures of women frozen in their resplendent nudity that it so wholeheartedly embraces. It looks good on the outside, just like the women, and the rest is shallow, superficial, and inconsequential. This film is as tasteless, degrading, and utterly misogynistic as anything out there. Pornography masquerading as art is still pornography. Ben is a pathetic, loathsome scourge on society who desperately needs to find a new hobby. He commands no sympathy or empathy whatsoever, so the film leaves the viewer completely empty and unfulfilled. In Cashback, Ben freezes time to make it pass more quickly. If only the audience possessed that same ability, because never has fifteen minutes felt so interminable. If the point of the film is to make the viewer feel like time has stopped, mission accomplished.
In Spike Lee’s career, Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled are two of his most provocative attacks on racism. His angry stance on racial prejudice is similar and evident in both films, but he employs very different narrative and aesthetic methods to make his points. Released in 1989, Do the Right Thing, one of Lee’s first films, is much more raw, fiery, and confrontational. Bamboozled, released in 2000, is a satire that utilizes more sophisticated techniques. These two films highlight a progression in Spike Lee’s career and reveal him as a true auteur.
Even though Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled are both Lee masterpieces about racism, the time gap in between them allows the viewer to discern a notable evolution in his filmmaking. With Do the Right Thing, Lee was just starting out, and his youthful energy pulsates off the screen. It is not an immature film by any means, but there is something very fresh and raw about it. His anger is obvious, as furious as the flames that engulf Sal’s pizza shop. Bamboozled displays more sophistication and subtlety - narratively and aesthetically. It takes place in the corporate world, one he was very much a part of at this point in his career, and his views on corruption are evident. It is not literally in the viewer’s face like Do the Right Thing, but it is just as poignant and socially conscious because of the brilliantly nuanced satire. Do the Right Thing basically introduced Spike Lee to the world, and Bamboozled, with a different approach, proved he was not going anywhere.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
In her first major starring role, Audrey Hepburn burst onto the world stage with an Oscar-winning performance as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. She is most famous for these fairy tale roles, but she proved, from the very start, that she was a serious actress with enormous talent. The evolution of her career and her screen persona can be traced throughout three films – Roman Holiday, The Nun’s Story, and Two for the Road. In Roman Holiday, she defined the role of the gamine. The Nun’s Story, a very subdued drama in which she plays a nun struggling with her faith, marked a drastic departure. While Two for the Road was not her last film, it represents the peak of her career. It is her best and most mature performance. She plays Joanna, a very real woman with flaws dealing with the breakdown of her marriage. The sections on the individual films focus on detailed descriptions of her performances, as well as the differences in the personas. There is also biographical research and analysis, as these films point to and often parallel aspects of her personal life, such as her not-so-innocent childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, her charity work, and her own children and relationships, including a marriage that was falling apart while she was making Two for the Road. Roman Holiday, The Nun’s Story, and Two for the Road are arguably the three most significant achievements in a tremendous career and display her growth as an actress and a person. Her influence, as a movie star and as a human being, is simply unmatched.
On the surface, Roman Holiday might appear to be the quintessential lighthearted romance, but in fact, it “may have been the first romantic comedy with an unhappy ending” (Harris 91). It was also her first major introduction to the world in an American film. Under the skilled direction of William Wyler, Hepburn deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress. Tired of her responsibilities, Princess Ann asserts her independence by venturing out into Rome alone. Unfortunately, this outing is hampered by the effects of a tranquilizer given to her by her doctor after she throws a tantrum in defiance of duty. When reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, meets Ann, she is lying face down on a bench. Nearly catatonic, she still remembers her manners. Almost falling off the bench, Joe catches her, and she spouts the pleasantries, “Thank you very much. Delighted. No, thank you. Charmed.” Looking up at him, Hepburn nods slightly in assessment and flicks her hand in a casual, yet assertive, way. “You may sit down,” she mumbles dismissively. Hepburn convincingly conveys the debilitating effects of a tranquilizer while at the same time showing how ingrained Ann’s royal duties are in her.
By the end of their magical day together, Joe and Ann have, of course, fallen in love, but Princess Ann grimly chooses her life of duty over love. In the presence of her advisers, she stiffens, her jaw set firmly, and crisply spits at them, her voice somber with emotion, “Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not have come back tonight. Or, indeed, ever again.” This is a completely different Ann from the wide-eyed, spoiled girl who jumps around on her bed and throws tantrums at the start of the film. She has grown up, and that naiveté is gone. Duty has a high price, but she accepts her fate with cool resolve. Hepburn expresses Ann’s radical transformation and pain with her cynical tone, firm expression, and watery eyes. At a press interview the next day, where Ann discovers Joe’s true identity as a reporter (his love has, naturally, caused him to abandon his scoop on her), she is asked which city she enjoyed the most. She starts to reply diplomatically, but her true feelings come out, “Rome. By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.” A smile crosses her face as she says this confidently, looking right at Joe. Hepburn’s voice is deliberate and full of emotion, and her face brightens as Ann vocalizes her love in veiled terms.
In addition to her fragile home life, Hepburn contended with World War II firsthand while living in Holland. “For five long and appalling years, from the time she was eleven until she was sixteen, Audrey lived under the Nazi occupation of Arnhem in conditions of terror, poverty, and deprivation…” (Morley 18). The war inflicted emotional trauma on Hepburn, but it took a toll on her physically, as well. “The malnutrition that Audrey suffered throughout the war also permanently affected her metabolism…Just keeping herself from becoming too thin was a lifelong struggle” (Harris 45). All of these experiences forced Hepburn to grow up fast, and the sweet innocence she portrays so convincingly in her films conceals maturity and wisdom. Despite these hard times, she managed to retain a fabulous sense of humor. While in an elevator with ex-fiancé James Hanson, two women were speaking Dutch about Hepburn, and they figured they were safe since no one else could possibly understand Dutch. “`We didn’t say a word to each other, but just before we got out, she rattled a stream of Dutch at me as if I was just as much a native speaker as she. They had been talking about her in a rather bitchy way, and they were in shock as we got out’” (qtd. in Paris 74). This example demonstrates her uncanny ability to make the best out of any situation.
With The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn dramatically altered her screen persona. “Having played mostly ingenues and Cinderellas to date, Hepburn decided it was time to prove herself as a serious dramatic actress in a part that submerged her own sunny personality beneath a much deeper set of emotions” (Paris 142). Directed by Fred Zinnemann, Hepburn delivers a remarkably restrained performance, but that restraint makes it more powerful. She relies on her voice, gestures, and facial expressions to convey a raging inner struggle. The character of Sister Luke (originally Gabrielle van der Mal) possesses independence in a vocation that requires blind obedience. Right away, it is obvious that Sister Luke is not the typical nun. While prostrating herself on the floor, Hepburn peeks up at her superior over her folded arms, while all of the other nuns-in-training are looking at the ground. Upon eye contact, Sister Luke hastily places her head down. With her tentative and curious expression, Hepburn captures Sister Luke’s true spirit.
When her father visits her after she returns from the Congo, he expresses concern over her emotional well-being. He asks how she is “in here,” indicating his heart. Her tired face plastered with a peaceful smile, she pauses and averts her eyes before countering, “How are you in there?” With this question, she playfully touches his chest. Hepburn makes Sister Luke’s coy dismissal effective with a very powerful gesture, one of the best in the entire film. World War II continues to strain Sister Luke’s faith, but when her father is killed by Nazis, that is her final breaking point. She can no longer deny who she is, and she decides that she will be more useful helping the war effort. In the final poignant shot of the film, after Sister Luke changes out of her religious garments and becomes Gabrielle again, Hepburn slowly walks out of the open door into the world. The camera remains steady as she walks, and each step feels heavy with meaning. At the end of the street, Hepburn hesitates briefly, but then she confidently turns right and walks away, expressing Gabrielle’s defiant approval of her choice. In The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn’s performance is all about control and restraint. While it is probably her most subdued role, it is certainly one of her most powerful, because she expresses so much with so little.
In Two for the Road, Audrey Hepburn delivers the most complex performance of her career. Director Stanley Donen “calls Two for the Road the first Audrey Hepburn movie to deal with the aftermath rather than the initial euphoria of falling in love” (Paris 234). The film spans twelve years in the marriage of Mark (Albert Finney) and Joanna Wallace, but their story is cleverly told out of sequence, leaping around in time and space. The audience receives clues in the form of hair, clothing, and car models, but it really forces the viewer to pay close attention and make connections, creating a rewarding viewing experience. As Joanna Wallace, Hepburn shows off her skill and range. After she meets Mark, all of her traveling companions have come down with chicken pox, and when the final unaffected one starts to scratch, Hepburn teases her. She just says the girl’s name, Jackie, but she draws it out in a mocking, accusatory tone. Then, she starts to make clucking noises like a chicken, getting shriller with every cluck. Finally, her clucks trail off into laughter. This scene wonderfully highlights her playfulness.
When Joanna returns to Mark after having an affair, Hepburn creates a heartbreaking portrait of a truly repentant woman. He is stubborn at first, so she keeps trying. Her face contorted with pain, she insists in a choked voice, “Mark, I’m back!” He tells her that she has returned after humiliating him. She stares at him intensely, pleading, and then she nods her head, beginning to cry. Through her tears, she practically gasps, “That’s right.” Just when everything seems okay, Mark makes a snide comment the way husbands do, and Joanna runs outside. When he follows her, he ends up tripping and falling into the pool. As this happens, Hepburn expresses so much with facial expressions. She looks at him, furrows her brow, bites her lip, and cocks her head to the side, smiling. In addition to looking apologetic, her face is a mixture of love, adoration, and pity that the poor jerk fell into the pool. Hepburn is astounding in her ability to convey such a wide range of emotions in such a short period of time.
At the end of the film, Joanna and Mark have basically realized that their marriage may not be perfect, but they are perfect for each other. In the final scene, Mark frantically searches for his passport in the car. As he looks in the trunk, Joanna calmly places it on the steering wheel. When he sees it, it prompts one of the most poignant and appropriate endings in film history. He challenges, “Bitch.” She replies, with a note of amusement in her voice, “Bastard.” These words, the perfect terms of endearment for them, are said very affectionately, almost like foreplay. Actually, the fact that she always has his passport (this is not the first time he misplaced it in the film) sums up their relationship, because marriage is about the little things just like that. Almost forty years after its release, Two for the Road is still relevant and incredibly truthful. Everyone who has been in a serious relationship has gone through the same euphoria, uncertainty, and pointless arguments. In this film, Hepburn wears a bathing suit, talks about sex, has an affair, and even swears, quite a contrast from a princess and a nun. However, her biggest achievement in Two for the Road is portraying the most realistic character of her career, complete with human vulnerabilities, in a truly mature and sincere performance. In fact, even though it was not her last film, Two for the Road represents the culmination of the evolution of her screen persona.
In one of her most uninhibited moments in a film, Audrey Hepburn, as Joanna Wallace, blasts Albert Finney with water from the shower head and demands to know, “Do you love me? Do you? Do you?” How can the answer be anything but a resounding yes?
Written for a survey art history course covering the Stone Age to the Gothic period, this paper examines two different pieces found in the Art Institute of Chicago in order to find similarities and differences between the cultures that produced them. The two works are both busts, one entitled Portrait Head of the Emperor Hadrian (from the height of the Roman Empire) and the other Head of an Apostle (French Gothic). Each displays a unique approach to depicting the human head in accordance with its respective culture, and the specific facial features are analyzed in-depth. While created almost a thousand years apart, these works both functioned as tools of propaganda (one secular and one religious) in society. Overall, despite the obvious physical differences, both works share a fascination with mortality, human representation, power structures, and propaganda.
Upon looking at Portrait Head of the Emperor Hadrian, there is no doubt that this is a specific, individual person. The features are rendered naturalistically, such as the thick and curly hair on top of his head covering half of his intricately carved ears. The wavy lines indicating the locks twist tightly in an intricate pattern and give the impression of lush, silky, soft texture. While his beard and the faint moustache above his upper lip are carefully trimmed and very short in comparison to the hair cascading generously from his head, this facial hair adds additional texture to the sculpture. His beard and moustache, neat but also rugged, lend him an air of masculinity and dominance, perfect for a strong Roman emperor looking to impress his subjects.
As far as Hadrian’s expression, he exudes the confidence required of a leader. His eyes, narrow and focused, gaze intently at the world. They appear lifelike because “during Hadrian’s reign sculptors began to incise the contours of the irises and bore holes for the pupils” (Art Institute of Chicago “Label for Portrait Head of the Emperor Hadrian”). The irises and the pupils lend the head an eerie quality, like Hadrian is watching the viewer. His thin and delicate eyebrows press together in consternation, which creates a dimple in the space between the eyebrows. While he exhibits the strain of his job in his serious and mildly anxious expression, he mostly looks firm and unyielding. His lips are pursed together tightly in resolution. His mouth also turns down a bit and is puckered at the corners, yet there is something smug about his expression. But above all, a Roman emperor could not be too accessible. Successful propaganda involves presenting a tough exterior in addition to instilling fear and awe in people, and Hadrian’s expression perfectly captures that combination of authority and intimidation.
While Head of an Apostle displays naturalistic tendencies, the emphasis of the sculpture is clearly on symbolism rather than reality, because his proportions are strikingly distorted. The focus of this work is the spiritual and meditative nature of the subject, not the realistic portrayal of the human anatomy. His elongated face seems to droop with its own immense weight, like his whole face has been stretched out. The unrealistic proportions cause him to look emaciated, and his cheeks are sunken and hollow where his massive cheekbones harshly mark his flesh, which seems thinly spread over the bones. Due to the distortion of his features and proportions, the apostle achieves a hieratic, otherworldly presence. At the same time, the deliberate, almost ghoulish, deformation of his face makes him incredibly intimidating, a truly fitting representation for a Last Judgment portal depicting hell and horror.
Particularly appropriate for a Last Judgment portal, the expression on the Head of an Apostle is incredibly judgmental. In fact, his stare is almost chilling in its intensity. Certainly, no viewer would escape his gaze. His haggard and weary features make him look old and tired. While he appears cold and unforgiving, he is basically practicing a form of tough love by shocking the viewer into action. This sculpture is expressionistic in the deliberate attempt to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer. Viewers would undoubtedly have been frightened by the imposing scene before them on the doorway and would have entered the church eager to accept God and find redemption for their sins. By distorting otherwise naturalistic features and depicting a spiritual figure in a disturbing way in order to influence viewers, Head of an Apostle confirms that propaganda even has a place in religion.
Released in 1934, RKO’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage was plagued with problems from the start, mostly surrounding star Bette Davis. At first, Jack Warner refused to loan her out, but Davis wore him down, convinced it would be her star-making vehicle. She also dealt with an abortion and the hostility of cast members. Of Human Bondage received critical acclaim, but it was a box office flop. Bette Davis was the winner; as she predicted, it made her a star.
When Of Human Bondage was released, the critics loved it, but audiences did not feel the same. “Audiences were dumbstruck by Mildred’s tirades against Philip, shivered and averted their eyes from her horribly dissipated appearance at the end, and actively despised her” (Spada 105). People were not used to seeing such a violent and ugly character, and they could not accept the fact that Philip kept forgiving her. It was a huge box office failure and “wound up a $45,000 loser” (Jewell 74). But it did what Davis expected – it made her a star. There was an uproar when she did not receive an Academy Award nomination for the role. She received the award the following year for Dangerous, a gesture that many felt was the Academy’s apology.