Film Double Bill: The Pawnbroker/Still Life by John A. A. Logan

A friend’s visit can be an excellent reason/excuse to re-watch old favourite films, or dig out some never-watched gem from the ancient dust-gathering VHS collection.

Sidney Lumet’s 1964 masterpiece, The Pawnbroker, based on Edward Wallant’s novel, and featuring Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, was long overdue for a re-screening…

Sol Nazerman may as well be on the Moon, he is so far distant from the rest of the human race at the point where the film’s narrative takes up his life…but of course, things were not always that way, and the film unveils in a series of searing flashbacks…sometimes literally the flashing of images on the screen for a microsecond between contemporary shots…the origins and reasons for Mr Nazerman’s despair.

Jesus Ortiz sees Mr Nazerman, at first, as his teacher, and the short lessons in the pawnshop, on gold and money, are memorable indeed…but the ghosts from Nazerman’s past are finding ways in through the fabric of time…he is hearing their voices, seeing their faces again…and it cannot be long before a reckoning, or an unravelling, occurs, which will test how far from the human race Mr Nazerman has finally become.

Lumet’s direction, and Steiger’s repressed emotion, create a boiling cauldron, swirling storms which will have to find their way to the surface and break through somewhere, and at what final cost?


Second film on this August Double Bill was one I had never seen before.
I only had it on VHS because I had recorded a series of 9 Iranian films shown on TV 10 years ago, but had then not watched them…or even kept the tapes dusted very well as I saw when I went to find them…

Directed by Sohrab Shahid-Saless in 1974, Still Life is, ostensibly, the story of an elderly railway guard and his wife, depicting the daily ritual of their lives in the house by the railway barrier which the guard raises and lowers throughout the day when necessary by cranking a manual winch.
When not working, he sleeps, smokes, drinks tea, eats…while his wife makes tea, weaves carpets, mends clothes…until one day news comes of the railwayman’s retirement in the form of a letter which he himself cannot read.

This film would have worked as a social realist drama depicting the plight of the rural Iranian poor…but there seems to be some other element at work also…an element in fact which undermines the social realism itself.

After long, slow scenes showing the reality of the couple’s daily life, something happens which is so startling, and happens so fast, that it jars the viewer’s consciousness…or at least it should…and later I went hunting for reviews to see what others had made of this, and it seems that most viewers just…never noticed it!
Those that did notice the jarring jump in narrative put it down to a (deliberate?) continuity error, or jumbling of time…but I’m not sure I can accept that as, apart from this one series of scenes, the rest of the film was in linear chronological order…

It is even possible that the cinema reels had been shown out of sequence…but the film won the 1974 Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival…and has been shown at other Festivals last year, and this year…surely someone would have put it on record if there was a “dodgy” version of this film doing the rounds…

In any case, these explanations were not my own first instinct about what had happened in the narrative as I watched the film…my understanding was that for a period in the film we, the viewers, were being allowed to see something which was only in the old woman’s imagination/fantasy/hallucination…in the following scene this apparition is gone, not visible to new visitors to the room…and yet a little later the apparition has returned, and is now visible to the old woman, and to her husband who had not been able to see “it” earlier…at this point, is the old man sharing his wife’s “fantasy”?
The old man even sleeps on the floor, by his wife, so as not to disturb the bed where the “apparition” “sleeps”…

This was my understanding of the narrative as I watched the film.
The director himself does not give the viewer any help at all with this…the viewer must deal with these issues in their own mind, in their own way…which I have to say I respect!

Or…on the other hand…did the cinema reels just get jumbled up in the edit process, and no-one ever noticed?

Perhaps not…there are some other echoes/clues to suggest that the usual social realist interpretation of this film is insufficient…
In the film season intro from 2004, we are told that the director’s favourite authors are Camus and Chekhov…that there are tones of Beckett in his work…but there are definite strains of Kafka, too, in the Railway’s cold, strange bureaucracy, in the mentions of the flood which never materialises but is always watched for, and in the arrival of the replacement Guard, who begins to haunt and follow the old man, even sitting outside his house in the dark until the old man finally opens the door to allow him in…and to let his wife give the new Guard his dinner…  

No great wonder then that a Kafka-esque story might play with time and have an “apparition” here or there that not everyone can see…just a bit of a shock (and a bit of genius) to encounter one in the midst of an Iranian social-realist tale…I’ll be on the lookout next time, though, when I watch the other 8 Iranian films lurking on those 3 old, dusty VHS tapes!


Áine said…
Be sure to have the other 8 dusted by the time a friend visits again!
Kathleen Jones said…
There's a strange, surreal episode in one Iranian film, which I think is called AT Five in the Afternoon, which involves a dead or dying donkey and it is a bit of a narrative shock! I think this may be a characteristic of Iranian narrative style.
Very interesting blog, John. I must look out for this film.
lynnann50 said…

I've actually seen this! and did quandary as to the continuity (being the nitpicker that I am)

Will now re-watch it...thanks for a wonderful review!

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