Monday, September 8, 2008

Review of Diamonds of the Night

[Image: “Diamonds of the Night” (1964), aka “Demanty Noci”]

Ask the average studio director working today how to film a simple emotion like sadness, anger, joy or fear and they’re sure to tell you it’s no problem. A close-up is all you need, with loud tears, red cheeks, broad smiles or chattering teeth to give the audience the necessary cue. Performance is, quite naturally, the single most common, quick and accessible way of communicating how a character feels.

Now ask the director how to communicate somewhat more complicated emotions like guilt, regret, doubt or resolve and the answer might not be so straightforward. Performance is still important, but will everyone in the audience be clear? (Remember that studio test screenings allow for zero ambiguity.) Usually the script comes to the rescue, with some device arranged so that the protagonist can simply announce emotions. This might take the form of a narration (perhaps looking back on the event from many years later) or a secondary character, maybe a close friend or observant villain, which correctly interprets for us.

Often a minor character will be created that has no bearing on the plot, but serves as a friendly listener so that the protagonist can lay things out for the audience. This might be a father figure or, in very literal cases, a psychoanalyst. In romantic comedies, it’s an oft-cited cliché for the female lead to have a gay friend and the male lead an overbearing sister. Note that both of these tropes are conveniently free from risk of romantic entanglement with the leads and thus unable to confuse the plot with complications or private agendas.

While these options remain popular choices for directors everywhere, they are not always satisfying or interesting. Is there another way?

Back in 1918, Russian montage theorist Lev Kuleshov purportedly came up with an alternative way of creating meanings and showing emotions: editing. Juxtapose a neutral actor with food, a beautiful woman or a coffin and audiences automatically read hunger, lust or grief onto the performance. This option still sees some use today, though filmmakers rarely experiment beyond the relatively simple relations like those Kuleshov used.

What are some examples of how editing can reveal emotions? The most common cases are past-based emotions like nostalgia, regret, guilt or vengeance where one often finds directors using flashbacks to the original source. Interestingly, it is far less common for a director to use similar techniques for future-based emotions like worry, anticipation, hope or fear. It seems reasonable enough that mental speculation, pre-visualization and fantasizing are just as common as memory, but these devices represent only one of many possible outcomes that have not yet occurred. They stand the risk of misleading and confusing the audience if they do not occur or undermining the tension and surprise if they do. For this reason most mainstream examples are exaggerated fantasies used for comedic effect, where the audience doesn’t feel betrayed, or dream sequences in horror/thriller genres that intentionally play on disorientation and shock.

Now this discussion finally arrives at “Diamonds of the Night” (1964), a Czech movie by Jan Nemec (“A Report on the Party and the Guests”). Nemec tells the short (barely an hour) and simple story of two boys. They escape from a concentration camp-bound train in 1944 and run through a forest for several days before being recaptured. Nemec almost completely foregoes the dialogue and broad, expressive acting that we’ve been discussing as primary forms of character access. Nor does he have any convenient secondary characters to do the work for us. Instead, “Diamonds of the Night” takes advantage of the minimal intrinsic demands of its stripped-down one-act plot to experimenting with the underutilized possibilities of editing.

Before I get too much further I want to make sure I credit editors Miroslav Hájek and Jitka Šulcová. They’re work is absolutely integral, but I’ll be using my usual habit of referring to all artistic choices as though they were made solely by the director.

I’ve talked about some systematic uses of unconventional editing (and my love for it) before, as in my praise for the associational editing in “Petulia” (1968). “Diamonds of the Night” works in a different fashion, using editing to set the tone and to suggest the interior states of our nearly-silent heroes.

Here, as in general, the most frequent interruptions are flashbacks. These are not necessarily used in the classical sense: to catch the audience up on all the key events leading up to the main action. Rather, they are depicted as fragmented, discontinuous and occasionally repetitive memories. They can show us nothing the boys did not directly experience. Often the recollections are on quiet moments of beauty or happiness, more important to the boys than informative for the audience.

[Images: Many of the flashbacks are memories of mundane, unremarkable moments whose faints sounds and familiar sights are nonetheless comforting to the protagonists.]

These memories don’t explain the characters (certainly not in the Freudian sense of showing childhood traumas) or the plot (by showing key turning points like the Nazi invasion, the growing crackdown on Jews or the circumstances of their arrest); they simply show what the boys are thinking at that precise moment. For example, after trudging away for several miles we are shown flashbacks of one boy trading food for ill-fitting shoes while on the train. The sequence is wordless, but concisely draws our attention to the character’s feet. We understand that he is distracted by the pain of walking long before we see his grimacing face or bloody, blistery feet.

[Image: (Top) Difficulty journey over rocky patch. (Bottom) The food/shoe trade takes place in the rear right of this shot. Nemec uses movement rather than centering, close-ups or sound to focus our eyes on the important information.

These highly subjective flashbacks prepare us for the less conventional flashforwards. These also come from the character’s minds, as hallucinations, premonitions and plans. One boy imagines himself dead, his body covered with ants. After several days without food, they confront a farmer’s wife in her kitchen and the other boy instinctively rehearses, in his head, a plan to kill her if it should seem necessary. Perhaps the most famous example is the film’s dual ending where Nemec presents both an optimistic and tragic conclusion. One is the outcome the boys hope for the other is the future they fear. Which one actually happened and which one was only imagined is not made clear.

[Images: Blurring borders between reality and imagination.]

The editing techniques in “Diamonds of the Night” double as a means to set the tone, giving the experience a visceral immediacy. This is also achieved by the largely hand-held filming with the camera weaving through the trees with the boys, pushing through clawing branches and splashing across soggy marshes. The intense beauty of the landscape is noted incidentally and without comment, small comfort as they stumble through their hunger and pain.

Sometimes the attempts to manipulate audience reception through editing have an Eisensteinian feel. This is particularly true in the film’s second half, where a team of local hunters – only those too old to be off fighting – tracks down and captures the boys. Their unflattering close-ups, full of laughing gums and wrinkled drunkenness, have unmistakable political dimension, enhanced by its contrast with the boy’s youth and solemnity. It’s reminiscent of the 1920’s Soviet depiction of stereotyped capitalist fatcats, but adapted for the anti-Old-Guard sentiment of the growing youth movement.

[Images: If the depiction of elderly collaborators seems a bit callous and cheap, keep in mind that convictions ran deep. Less than five years after the film Jan Palach would bring the Czech student movement international attention by lighting himself on fire in Wenceslas Square.]

The hunters’ pursuit alternates rapidly between shots of the old men firing guns and the boys fleeing from them. It has a frightful amount of tension, not least because Nemec never provides a master shot for us to see how far the prey is from the predators. Our expectation of and desire for a master shot works on our nerves even if we don’t notice the absence. The back-and-forth medium shots we get instead form a breathless question-answer pattern: [Gunshot] Did they get hit? [Cut] No, they are still running. Are they out of range yet? [Cut] No, the men are reloading. [Gunshot] Did they get hit? Repeat.

This sequence is cut very rhythmically and rapidly, a technique well-known and even overused for generating excitement. However, it’s important to note that Nemec’s skill at communicating through editing is as much a matter of knowing when not to cut. The opening shot of the boys escaping the train and fleeing into the woods runs 2 minutes and 10 seconds. Nemec realizes that for the audience to believe in a scene and empathize with the characters, to feel the sheer physical effort involved, you must sometimes let it unfold in a single unbroken take. Opposite to most action filmmakers, he often favors this technique for extended movements like a hard trek through a wet bog (46 s) or an attempt to jump aboard a moving truck (1m 12s).

[Images: Frames from a couple of long action shots including (Top) the famous opening.]

“Diamonds of the Night” has many other pleasures for those who wish to seek it out, but I wanted to concentrate primarily on editing for this review. The film is a bit hard to find, since even though it was a significant art house hit during its US theatrical run, it has never received a US or UK release on VHS or DVD. You can purchase a legit copy with English subtitles from the Czech Republic here on a double feature DVD that includes Milos Forman’s first film, “Talent Competition.” Both transfers are quite good and the price (even with international shipping) is reasonable. Some decipherable English instructions for using the site can be found here.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

[Image: One of many Luis Bunuel references.]

3 comments:

Mad Dog said...

Do you have a top 350 best edited movies list?

Walrus said...

Well, I should.

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