Tuesday, 11 February 2014


“Los Olvidados” (“The Forgotten Ones”) is a film shot in Mexico in 1950 and directed by the great Spanish visionary, Luis Buñuel, who in 1929 had made the haunting, dream-like surrealist film “Un Chien Andalou” with Salvador Dalí. “Los Olvidados” is a kind of social realist picture, at times almost like a documentary. The story concerns a group of street kids subsisting in a desolate, crumbling Mexico City. The main characters are El Jaibo, an anarchic Jack the Lad who is basically amoral and his gullible sidekick Pedro, who actually has a conscience.

The film is pretty depressing actually. Most acts of kindness or humanity are met with indifference or lead to tragedy and overall the movie paints a picture of life as nasty, brutish and short.

Now, I don’t intend here to explore the various themes of the film and Buñuel’s cinematic treatment of his subject (although I will just mention the surrealist dream sequence that seems almost out of place in the otherwise bleak realism of the film). Instead, I just want to draw your attention to one little scene which is almost inconsequential but highly memorable. A man has two dogs dressed in little costumes with hats, which he takes around the slums to entertain people with and earn a few pennies. The street children go crazy when he comes and all shout out “the dancing dogs, the dancing dogs!”. You then see a few minutes where the camera is basically held on these bizarre, absurd but poignant dogs dancing for the crowd.

I’m sure academics and film historians have written very significant interpretations and analyses of what this scene means. (It is, in fact, one of several references to and actual appearances of dogs in the film.) It is an interesting bit of cinema verité: obviously, the filmmakers must have seen the dancing dogs while they were shooting or perhaps they knew the owner or just ran into him. However, the thing that struck me most about this scene was the fact that it was really quite incidental. It just happens to be there and doesn’t really add  much to the plot. In fact, once you’ve seen it you just remember it as the bit with the dancing dogs, even if you can’t really say how (or where) it fits into the film.

There are in fact a lot of scenes, characters or things that just happened to get included in films largely at random and which don’t really drive the plot or mean much more than themselves. But somehow they stick in the mind simply because they are strange or poetic. Perhaps they function as symbols or metaphors, but often they are really just opportune (and opportunistic) bits of footage where the director of the film just thought they worked.

Here’s another one. In “Stromboli” (also made – coincidentally – in 1950), Ingrid Bergman plays Karin, a displaced Lithuanian woman who finds herself in an internment camp at the end of the Second World War. She conducts a romance with a Sicilian fisherman through the wire fence of the camp and ends up marrying him. They return to his home village, which is tiny and religiously conservative, on the island of Stromboli, near Sicily. The local women are very unimpressed by Ingrid Bergman and her free-spirited attitude to life. (At one point she is sent to Coventry and impugned for her lack of “modesty” after she decorates the fisherman’s cottage with a mural.)

Like “Cleopatra” (1963) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, "Stromboli" is more famous for what happened off-screen than on. Bergman fell in love with the director, Roberto Rossellini, and they had an affair while they were making the film. (The US was scandalised when Bergman gave birth to Rossellini’s son – they weren’t married – in the same month as the film’s release.) The couple tied the knot later (in Mexico) and went on to have twin girls – Ingrid and Isabella. Isabella Rossellini, of course, is the woman whose main credits include her role in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (which also relaunched Dennis Hopper's film career) and the fact that for many years she was the face of L’Oréal.

Now, again, this isn’t really a critical study of "Stromboli". I will just note that it’s a strangely wooden, halting piece of storytelling that never really gets going on an emotional level. Instead, what you remember when you watch it are the incidental, “background” set pieces, which include actual footage of the volcano on Stromboli erupting at the end while Ingrid Bergman is clambering over the rocks on her way to freedom. The most powerful scene, however, is where all the men of the village go out fishing. They row out to sea (at night?) and when they arrive at the fishing ground they spread out a huge circular net – and wait. This is a village where fishing is de rigeur and it’s communal. It’s also for men only (although the impudent Karin rows out to join her husband, much to the surprised delight but also social embarrassment of her husband). Eventually the fish arrive and then the men start heaving the net upwards, with all the biggest fish thrashing around as the haul nears the surface. The men sing as they work and they all (literally) pull together. Once the fish are at the surface the men then set about clubbing and spiking them in a truly horrific scene, which the uninvited Karin/Bergman is also forced to observe – along with the viewer. (This is definitely one of those films you want to watch after you've had your dinner - especially if it's tuna.)

As with the dancing dogs, once you’ve seen the Stromboli fishermen you’ll never forget them. And again, this is really an opportune bit of documentary reportage spliced into a much weaker movie. The power of the scene comes from the fact that you’re not watching actors but real people at work doing what they have been doing perhaps for centuries. In fact, although this kind of real-life scene is common in post-war Italian neo-realist film-making, it’s always surprising when you actually see it. You get the same frisson as from looking at old photos where people stare out at you from the past as if through aspic. Or when you see something personal and poignant in a museum like a child’s doll or a pair of gloves with a hole in one of them. It’s really something human, not artificial or contrived. It’s like hearing someone scream or cry: it bypasses the intellect and the rational mind and hits you in the stomach or touches your heart.

I’ll just add a third and final incidental scene from another black-and-white post-war classic. This time it’s Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “Bicycle Thieves” (“Ladri di biciclette” in Italian) which like the other films is a story of ordinary people trying to survive in a bombed-out, post-traumatic world of concrete rubble and shattered ideals. In “Bicycle Thieves” a young married man with a small son living in Rome has the possibility of getting a job putting up film posters for the newly-resurgent movie industry – but only if he has a bike. He and his wife knock their heads together trying to think of how they can come up with the money needed. Eventually, she decides they have to pawn (or hock) their linen. Again, it’s one of those scenes that creeps up on you without warning and then sends you reeling with a sensation of shock and pity with historical fascination and poetry all mixed in.

The pawn shop is huge. It’s basically a warehouse and when the woman hands over the bundle it gets taken through a huge stack of towering shelves and carried up a ladder onto a perilously high rack. There’s linen everywhere – thousands of uniform bundles all packed onto shelves and waiting to be redeemed. Indeed, this one really is symbolic – the shock of the scene is partly that you could never have imagined such a huge pawn shop – but also historical in the blow-to-the-stomach way described earlier: it seems as if the entire working-class population of Rome have pawned their belongings (which they probably had). I suppose the place must have been well-known to the film-makers (I haven’t really looked this one up) or maybe they just heard about it as they were filming. Anyway, the effect it has on the viewer is devastating – and, although it happens in a different way – so is the ending, which of course you will have to watch for yourself. (Let me just say here that it’s one of the saddest endings of any film ever made – so have some Kleenex handy; you’ll need it.)

Well, there you have it. I’m not really sure what these scenes mean – or if they were consciously intended to mean that much, but they are all equally memorable and although you can’t imagine these films without them they don’t really function as indispensable narrative devices. In fact, that’s partly what them makes them so interesting: they’re just there. They simply sit in their respective places and will forever jump out at an unsuspecting audience or viewer and have the same or at least very similar effect for ever.

I think this is a topic I’ll be returning to – not necessarily from films, but from novels, paintings and other media. I like the idea of having a collection of memorable but inconsequential moments; of people, animals and places that just happen to have been included in a larger narrative; of odd, vivid memories that seem both random but significant and suggest a life beyond that of that the immediate film or book and its characters.

(c) Robert Dennis 2014

Incidental but memorable: dancing dogs from “Los Olvidados”, the fishing scene from “Stromboli”  and the pawn shop from “Bicycle Thieves” 

Note: I checked a few facts while writing this post (mainly dates), but I haven’t re-watched the scenes described to ensure that I have recalled them exactly. However, the emotional impact they make is unmistakable – so in this sense they’re like other trace memories in life: a feeling that stays with you, even if the exact details are slightly fuzzy.