“Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor”
It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that we’ve all been both guilty of and been the victims of the breaking of this commandment, which is probably why stories about the falsely accused have resonated through the centuries. It’s what fueled Othello on stage and The Count of Monte Cristo on the page. Alfred Hitchcock made a career directing films about the wrongly accused. The Fugitive captured the attention of TV viewers in the sixties and later moviegoers in the nineties. Stephen Sondheim dramatized how being falsely accused can lead to murder and madness in his musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the fact that users of the Internet Movie Database (imdb) have routinely voted The Shawshank Redemption as the number-one movie of all time week after week for years now certainly says something about the power of such stories.
Yet what happens when the person who bears false witness is a five-year-old girl? One who genuinely loves the accused and who simply acted out of frustration, not malice? That question lays in the heart of The Hunt, a superb thriller directed by Thomas Vinterberg.
The central character is Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor who is perhaps best known for playing the villain in Casino Royal and the title character in Hannibal), a divorced man approaching middle-age, living in the same town he’s lived in his whole life, save perhaps for when he went to college. The town is an insular community in rural Denmark where families have known each other for generations. He lives alone, except for his springer spaniel Fanny. His son (Lasse Fogelstrøm) is about to come over for Christmas and is also planning on moving back in with Dad. During the winter Lucas and the men he grew up with go deer hunting, followed by a round of beers. He’s also in the early stages of an affair with co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), an Eastern European emigre who speaks better English then Danish.
Lucas was a college professor, but the school where he taught closed down. Needing work, he’s taken a temporary job teaching kindergarten at a local school. He’s clearly overqualified for such a job, but he’s known many of the children since they were babies and has a genuine rapport with them. In one scene, a boy is sitting on the toilet and asks Lucas to wipe his backside. Since I don’t have any children I don’t know if such a thing is acceptable in the U.S. Lord knows I’d be uncomfortable doing it.
One of his charges is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). Since her parents are having problems, Lucas often takes Klara to and from school. He also let’s her walk Fanny from time to time.
Klara is clearly very attached to Lucas. One day at school she makes him a present, a little plastic heart which she hides in his coat. Also, during a game, she jumps on top of Lucas and kisses him on the lips. Afterwards he takes Klara aside and tells her that it’s not right for her to kiss anyone but her mother and father on the mouth. He then produces Klara’s gift and suggests that she should give it to her mother. This hurts the young child. She denies having given Lucas the gift and goes off to sulk in another room.
The school principal (Susse Wold) spots little Klara and asks her what’s wrong. She claims that she “hates” Lucas. She then says that he “has a penis”. Well, all men do, says the principal. But then Klara gives a description of Lucas’ manhood that’s surprisingly graphic for a five-year old.
Earlier, we saw Klara’s older brother carelessly showing her a pornographic image on his iPad, so we know where Klara’s understanding of the male anatomy comes from. But the principal doesn’t. Frankly, Klara probably doesn’t remember where she saw it. She simply said something about Lucas because her feelings were hurt. In the past, a teacher or principal might have just shrugged such an accusation off. Today of course, teachers can’t just dismiss such claims as being the mental images of a child’s imagination. There have been way too many cases of sexual abuse towards children. The matter must be looked into.
Lucas is questioned by the principal, who suggests that he should take a leave of absence until things are straightened out. Klara and her parents are then called into the school. A child psychologist (Ole Dupont) is also called in. He questions the girl, but after a while the inquiry takes on the feeling of cohesion. Here little Annika Wedderkopp gives one of the most extraordinary child performances I’ve ever seen. By the time the meeting is through Klara is simply confused. It’s very easy for children to believe something they’ve imagined, especially when adults start insisting that it was true.
Soon this leads to a police investigation and, perhaps inevitably, Lucas becomes a pariah. Usually a very calm and reserved man, Lucas begins to lash out, sometimes at the wrong people. Nadja is one of the few people to stand by him, yet he takes his anger out on her. His son eventually does come and visit him, and he too defends his Dad. Still, things get uglier and uglier. This includes a scene where Lucas is evicted from a supermarket and an unpleasant scene at a midnight church service.
Along with fellow Dane Lars Von Trier, director Thomas Vinterberg co-founded the Dogme 95 movement. The goal was to take a cinematic “vow of chastity” and to make movies that abstained from cinematic razmatazz in order to emphasized character and story. Vinterberg’s Celebration is considered the first of the Dogme pictures and was one of the first theatrically released features ever to be shot entirely on digital video. The technology was very new at the time, and more than a few people found it unwatchable.
Today, digital video has become the dominant medium in filmmaking and may or may not render celluloid obsolete in the near future (for the moment at least, film has been given a reprieve. Many top filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan have made their desire to work with celluloid known, thus resulting in several studios renewing their contracts with Kodak). Digital Video has certainly caught up with film as far as image quality is concerned and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen beautifully creates the proper foreboding mood that will almost certainly remind you her fellow Scandinavian cameraman Sven Nykvist, who lensed so many of Ingmar Bergman’s films.
The Hunt is timely because pedophilia has only recently been recognized as an abnormality. For centuries in western culture it was covered up, ignored or in some cases even socially acceptable. On the one hand it’s very good that we’re aware of it and are doing something about it. Children should not be afraid of telling an adult they trust if they’ve been abused. But at the same time have we become too hysterical? Do television shows like To Catch a Predator just lead to paranoia? The Catholic Church’s decades of covering up sex scandals has probably damaged their image irreparably. Most priests would never harm a child, yet many of them are looked upon with suspicion. Adults who act too affectionate towards children are sometimes called into questions. Back when photo labs were still the norm, some employees reported people who had taken pictures of their children in the bathtub.
But regardless of the crime, the need to scapegoat and punish presumptive evil doers is one of the major flaws in our selves, not in our stars. We’re told we shouldn’t judge less ye be judged. That everyone is innocent until proven guilty. That he who is without sin shall cast the first stone.
It’s safe to say in The Hunt that Klara is without sin. As angry and bitter as Lucas gets, he clearly can’t bring himself to blame Klara. Also, while the whole ordeal is more than she can ever understand, she slowly realizes that she’s done something terribly wrong, even if she doesn’t quite understand what it is.
The Hunt is now streaming on Netflix and Amazon
Animation is bigger then ever nowadays. Disney’s in-house animation department is thriving thanks to recent hits like The Princess and the Frog, Wreck it Ralph and the monster hit Frozen. Their subsidiary Pixar has thus far mined nothing but gold, scoring a home run this year with Inside Out.
For decades, Disney had a virtual monopoly on animated features. Not anymore. DreamWorks Animation, founded by Disney’s former head-of-production Jeffery Katzenberg, has launched such lucrative titles as Shrek, Madagascar, Kung-Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. The Connecticut based Blue Sky Studios has given us Ice Age and Rio while Sony Animation has given us Cloudy with a Change of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania. From England we get Nick Park’s Ardman Studio, responsible for Wallace and Gromit and the upcoming Shawn the Sheep. Like Ardman, the Oregon based Lika has given us the stop-motion features Coraline and Paranorman. I do hope that Disney will start producing more ink and paint animated films soon, but in the meantime Japan’s Studio Ghibli, founded by the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki still relies on good old traditional cell animation to tell their whimsical stories. And of course there’s plenty of animation for adults and kids on television and the web.
But it wasn’t always like this. In the seventies and throughout much of the eighties, animation, at least on the big screen, was considered dead. Well, dead unless it was a Disney feature, though the quality of their films began to decline after Disney’s death, hitting its nadir with the hopelessly saccharine (though very profitable) The Fox and the Hound in 1981.
Yet even in the darkest of times animators could be found bent over their drafting tables trying to create something unique that can’t exist in our physical world. Ralph Bakshi, the one-time animator for CBS Terrytoons and the Fleischer Studios independently produced Fritz the Cat, the worlds first X-rated cartoon. It’s pretty tame by todays standards, especially when compared to shows like South Park, but it’s also really funny and was a huge hit when it was released. Alas, Mr. Bakshi never came close to having as big a hit, despite directing such ambitious films as Heavy Traffic, The Lord of the Rings and American Pop.
In 1971 Disney animator Don Bluth lead an exodus of animators frustrated over the direction of the studio. He achieved a great deal of critical acclaim thanks to his brilliant 1982 feature The Secret of Nimh and then enjoyed commercial success as well when he paired up with Steven Spielberg for An American Tale (1986). Bluth eventually lost his luster thanks to the resurgence of Disney in the late-eighties, but he still produced an impressive repertoire of animated films that include The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Anastasia and his highly ambitious animated sic-fi movie Titan A.E.
One familiar name that has dipped in and out of the animation industry from time to time has been George Lucas. Ever since the first Star Wars film blazed across the screen in 1977, Lucas has used all sorts of animation techniques to raise the bar in field of special effects through his company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), blurring the lines between live action and animated movies. He’s also from time to time dabbled in fully animated films.
He first experimented with animation while at the University of Southern California, directing a few experimental animated shorts. Later he would lure a young animator named John Lasseter away from Disney to help start-up a computer animation division at Lucasfilm. Soon after he sold the division to Steve Jobs, the co-founder and recently ousted (later to return) CEO of Apple Computers. That company would become Pixar, creators of the worlds first CG short (Luxor Jr.) and feature (Toy Story).
In 2003 Lucas founded his own animation studio – Lucasfilm Animation – in Singapore. It’s been responsible for the Clone Wars TV show and earlier this year produced the little-seen animated musical Strange Magic. The company was acquired by Disney two years ago, along with the entire Lucasfilm empire.
Lucas’ first foray into feature-length animation was as the Executive Producer of an overlooked little gem called Twice Upon a Time. The film was the brainchild of fellow Bay Area filmmaker John Korty, who co-directed the film with Charles Swenson.
Skilled in both animation and live action, Korty’s most widely seen work has probably been the TV mini series The Autobiography of Miss Jane Putnam. Yet Korty has for years also run his own little film studio/animation house in the San Francisco area, some of his animation has shown up on Sesame Street over the years.
Korty’s desire to produce an animated feature drew the attention of Lucas, who would later also hire Korty to direct the TV movie Ewoks: Caravan of Courage. Lucas brokered a deal with Alan Ladd, Jr., the studio executive at Fox who had given Star Wars the green light. Now an independent producer (he left Fox because other executives didn’t like the deal the studio made over distributing the Star Wars sequels), Ladd enjoyed great success with Body Heat, the surprise Oscar winner Chariots of Fire and the first Police Academy movie. He also produced Blade Runner and The Right Stuff, two films that didn’t do well at the box office at the time of their release but have since gained reputations as two of the greatest films of the eighties. With the help of Ladd and Lucas, this truly off-beat animated film managed to see the light.
The film uses a process that Korty named “lumage”, making figures out of felt and lighting them from underneath. While the cut-out style of animation will surly remind you of the animated sequences Terry Gilliam created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the movie has a look that’s all its own and quite beautiful.
The story, such as it is, deals with two imaginary worlds. One is called Frivoli, where a fellow named Greensleeves sends “figments of imagination” – little grape like creatures – to earth in order to give people good dreams. The other place is a forbidden, industrial world with the unbecoming name of Muckworks. It’s ruled by the comically evil Synonamess Botch, who sends his vulture like creatures called “rushers” to earth where they drop bombs on our planets slumbering populace, thus giving them nightmares.
On the surface, this might sound like the plot for a something like the Care Bear movie. Thankfully, gooey sentiment is not the goal here. Everything is handled with a tong-and-cheek style of humor and has more of a Rocky and Bullwinkle sense of humor then your typical Disney film, with jokes and puns flying at you fast and furious. Botch himself is more in the tradition of utterly incompetent bad guys like Boris Badenov and Dick Dastardly, rather than the purely evil wicked step mothers or Cruella DeVill from the Disney films. In fact, one of the voice actors in this movie is Paul Frees, the veteran performer who provided the voice of Boris Badenov.
Botch’s plan is to permanently botch everyone in the world from ever having a good night sleep by stopping time and dropping his bad dreams on everyone. The first part of his plan is to kidnap Greensleeves, thus preventing him from sending any pleasant nocturnal fantasies out. The second is to trick a couple of dupes into capturing the “mainspring”.
And what is the “mainspring?” It’s a spring from the cosmic clock, which seems to be just an ordinary wall-clock hanging in an ordinary old hardware store somewhere on Earth. His dupes are Ralph and Mumford, a pair of misfits living in Din, a world located between Frivoli and Muckworks.
Mumford is a human and a mime. Ralph is an “all-purpose animal.” In other words he’s a shape shifter who can change into a lion, an elephant, a kangaroo, whatever the situation calls for. Ralph is voiced by veteran voice-actor Lorenzo Music. You may not recall the name but you’ve certainly heard his voice. He was the never seen voice of the doorman filtered through the intercom on Rhoda. He also provided the voice of Garfield in a number of TV specials, Peter Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters, the voice of one of the crash-test dummies in a series of very popular seat-belt PSA’s in the late eighties, plus numerous other credits.
Ralph and Mumford (nicknamed Mum) are put on trail for incompetence. To prove their worth they are given the job of taking out Din’s garbage. While performing their sanitation duties they meet Flora Fauna, a ditzy aspiring actress and the niece of Greensleeves. She tells Ralph and Mum about her uncles abduction and the two of them decide to rescue Greensleeves, that’ll surely prove their usefulness. Alas, Synonymous Botch botches their plans by tricking our unlikely heroes into getting the mainspring for him!
Ralph and Mum are then sent to the real world, which is depicted via black and white photographs of New York and other cities. This was done partly to save money, of course, but it also gives the film a very unique visual style. Admittedly the story is a bit uneven and even a little confusing at times. There’s also a pretty generic sounding 80’s pop soundtrack that I could do without. But the characters are all rather delightful and the visual style is wonderful from beginning to end.
Many people probably think that Robin Williams was the first voice-over actor allowed to go off script and improvise his lines. Well, there was apparently quite a bit of improvisation on Twice Upon A Time. Today almost every movie boasts a cast of celebrity voices. Sometimes they are inspired, other times their names are above the title simply to get grown ups to watch them. No one famous provides a voice in Twice Upon a Time, though at the end the voice over artists are shown a rare sign of respect, with both their picture and their name appearing with their corresponding character. The film also shows a photo montage of all the people who worked on the film. Among the contributors were special effects artist David Fincher, who would go on to direct Se7en, Fight Club and Gone Girl , animator Henry Selick, the future director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, and Harley Jessup, the future production designer on Monsters, Inc. and Ratatouille (ironically, in the movie Synonamess Botch has a strange, rat like pet named Ratatouille).
While I don’t claim that Twice Upon a Time is a great animated feature, it is certainly entertaining, unique and worthy of your time. Unfortunately it’s also notoriously hard to find. It took years for it to be released on VHS. When it was broadcast on HBO they apparently used a cut that John Korty didn’t approve of. After he threatened legal action, HBO stopped airing the film. The Korty approved version did later appear on Showtime.
Thus far Twice Upon a Time has not appeared on DVD or Blu-Ray. It was shown on TCM a few weeks ago and last winter was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where John Korty announced that it was finally getting a DVD release. Of course, DVD releases are notorious for being held back. None the less, keep checking for the films availability on Netflix. It’s a hidden gem that predates and I have no doubt helped influence the too clever-by-half TV animation of The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Spongebob Square-Pants and any other cartoon that’s sophisticated enough for adults but can still tickle the funny bone of the the small fry.
Once at a lecture, actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica told a story about his first experience with acting. He was cast as a martyr in a parochial school production. At the end of the play, students were supposed to “stone” him to death with fake rocks. One of his fellow students believed that he should have gotten the role, not De Sica, so he threw a real rock rather than a fake one. De Sica was hurt but the audience lauded the young man for his incredibly believable performance.
Even at this young age, De Sica learned the power of realism.
One of Italy’s greatest filmmakers, Vittorio De Sica began his career as an actor, appearing in his first film in 1917. By the 1930’s he had become a matinée idol, starring in numerous escapist comedies. Sometimes referred to as the Carey Grant of Italy, he would continue acting for the rest of his life, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for the film version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.
In later years, De Sica became a master of directing comedies. He basically discovered Sophia Loren (not that she was easy to overlook) and cast her in The Gold of Naples, Marriage Italian Style, Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today plus the drama Two Women, for which the divine Sophia won an Academy Award. Late in his career he had a major success with Midnight in the Garden of the Fitzi-Continis, a film about the rise of anti-Semitism prior to World War II.
His most lauded accomplishments, however, came after the war when he was a pioneer of the neo-realist movement. Rebelling against the “cinema of the white telephones” – the very type of film that made De Sica famous – the neo-realists were a group of left-leaning, in some cases Marxist film artists who yearned to illustrate the plight of the poor and downtrodden following World War II. The movement was started by Roberto Rosellini who, along with screenwriters Sergio Amidei and soon-to-be master filmmaker Frederico Fellini, inaugurated the movement with Rome, Open City (1945). Filmed on the streets of the Italian capital right after the fall of Mussolini, Open City was shot with whatever film-stock was available on real locations, using available light and in most cases, using non-actors (one exception was Anna Magnani, who would later win an Oscar for the American film The Rose Tattoo).
Part of this approach was just making the best of a bad situation. Rome was bombed out and had descended into chaos. Cinecitta, Rome’s primary film studio, was decommissioned. Primarily though, this bare bones production method was also an aesthetic choice, developing an objective cinema whose style (or lack of) was never meant to be intrusive, only to observe. The films usually did employ a healthy dose of melodrama and were not above using children and animals as a means of emotional manipulation and once in a while the results were somewhat cloying. But at their best the neo-realist movement helped bring the cinema back into the real world and helped influence the more naturalist post-war American cinema, the French New Wave and many other film movements to come.
De Sica’s first major contribution to the neo-realist movement was Shoeshine (1946) which told the story of two juvenile bootblacks who are unfairly sent to a detention center. It was one of many films that De Sica would collaborate on with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who first met De Sica when he acted in a film Zavattini had penned called I’d Take A Million. Though Shoeshine has not, in my opinion, aged as well as many other neo-realist movies of the period, it certainly made an impact on the world of cinema. It received a special Oscar in 1948, Pauline Kael described it as one of the most devastating moments of her film-going life and Orson Welles marveled that De Sica managed to do what he never could do on Citizen Kane, simply making the camera disappear so as to allow life to unfold before our very eyes.
Two years later De Sica directed what is not only considered the greatest of all neo-realist movies but one of the most sublime achievements in cinema history. The Bicycle Thief tells the simple story of a poster hanger who needs to get his bicycle out of hock in order to do his job, only to have the vehicle, and his livelihood, taken away from him by a thief. If ever there’s a film that every human being on the planet must see, it’s The Bicycle Thief.
In 1952 De Sica directed Umberto D., the story of an old man trying to survive on a meager pension. To play the lead role of Umberto Dominco Ferrari, De Sica cast Carlo Battisiti, a former linguistics professor who was himself dealing with retirement and old age. As De Sica once pointed out, “there is one role that anyone can play, themselves.”
The film opens on the streets of Rome, and the Eternal City has undergone a great deal of renovation and restoration since Open City. Umberto takes part in a demonstration along with a number of retired gentlemen, protesting the meager pensions they receive after a lifetime of working in the public sector. Umberto himself spent thirty years of his life working for the Minister of Public Works. Now as an old, enfeebled man he can’t even pay his rent.
Umberto has no family, except for his little dog and constant companion, Flike. His landlady (played by Linda Gennari, one of the only professional actors in the movie) is not only threatening to throw Umberto out but she’s already renting out his room by the hour to prostitutes and their clients. To pay his back rent, Umberto sells is gold watch and some textbooks plus he’s leant some money by a friend. He tries to give his landlady the wad of cash, but it’s only five thousand lira, and he needs fifteen thousand. As far as she’s concerned, it’s either all or nothing.
Also living in the apartment is a young pretty housemaid (Maria-Pia Casillo). She confides in Umberto that she is pregnant. She’s not sure who the father is, having had relations with two different soldiers at a next door army base. She knows that the landlady will fire her and throw her out when she finds out about the pregnancy but she doesn’t seem terribly melancholy. Unlike Umberto, the weight of the world has not yet crushed her.
That evening our hero develops a fever and is taken to the hospital. His motive is to get well, but he also hopes that by staying in a hospital ward that he can save some money on food (I can’t imagine that back then hospital food was as bad as it is now). He meets a patient in the bed next to him who knows how to manipulate the sympathies of the nurses (all of whom are nuns) and extend his stay. Frankly, Umberto is too proud for this.
After a few days in the hospital he returns home. To his horror he finds workmen in his room, tearing out one of the walls. He learns that his landlady is getting married and that she is planning on turning Umberto’s room into a new parlor. And that’s not the worst of it. The housemaid, who promised to look after the dog, informs Umberto that during the renovation on his room, Flike ran out of the apartment and has been missing ever since!
Umberto uses what little cash he has to take a taxi to the dog pound. He frantically looks at all of the canines in the cages but doesn’t see Flike. He does see a cage full of dogs being shoved into a gas chamber. This scene was, of course, shot in a real dog pound. We the audience know all to well that for these dogs, it’s not “only a movie”.
Thankfully, Umberto finds Flike just before he leaves the pound. Cynics could sneer at this scene and dismiss it as manipulative drivel. But most people who have dogs or cats do at some point face the prospect of their beloved animals running away and the sheer horror of realizing that they may never see them again. Because we see that Umberto has no one in the world but Flike, and because De Sica doesn’t sugarcoat the possibility of what Flike’s fate will be if he’s not recovered, the emotions one feels at Umberto and Flikes reunion is genuine.
The joy is short-lived though. Umberto is still broke and still facing the prospects of homelessness. In one scene that does come dangerously close to being coy, Umberto, who is too proud to beg for money himself, gives little Flike his hat and instructs the little mongrel to sit up and beg with the hat in his little jaws. Admittedly this almost seems like something that Eddie on Frasier would do. When one of Umberto’s former colleagues walks by, Umberto quickly takes the hat back and insists that Flike was just playing.
With no money and no prospects, Umberto says goodbye to the housemaid and begins to wander the streets of Rome. Now truly at the end of his rope, he finds himself trying to find a new home for his four-legged companion so that he can finally put an end to his life in this cruel world.
Umberto D. is not as perfect as The Bicycle Thief. Indeed, hardly any films are. But it is a film that packs an emotional wallop and was justly rewarded in its day, winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Film while Cesare Zavattini received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Ingmar Bergman once cited Umberto D. as his all time favorite film and De Sica himself considered it his personal favorite of all his films.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, De Sica was not a committed Marxist. De Sica lived well his entire life and indulged in one of his greatest loves, gambling, which on more than one occasion nearly ruined him. Many of his peers condemned The Bicycle Thief for not attacking the rich as well as highlighting the plight of the poor.
Still, there is an undeniable political undercurrent in Umberto D. that rings true today. Every odd year in this country politicians make noise about cutting social security and medicare, only to retract such statements in even years (seniors vote in record numbers, you know). Today many old people cannot afford to retire after a lifetime of hard work. They have either lost their 401k’s or find themselves living on a fixed income that does not keep pace with the cost of living. In cities the world over there are people like Umberto, unable to work, too proud to beg and facing the prospects of spending their remaining years in destitute. Hopefully they have a companion to ease the burden.