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Black and Tan (1929)
Only for Diehard Ellington Fans
Practically plotless excuse to feature the music of Ellington, accompanied by Harlem dancers. Only for the most died-in-the-wool Ellington fans. Essentially a very primitive early music video of mainly historical interest. Ellington's recordings from that era abound, so that the film's main value lies in its serving as a visual document.
The sound is abysmal, the plot corny, and the dancing nothing to dance about. Many of the images are so murky and dim as to be unintelligible. The entire film consists essentially of 3 tableau set pieces, ornamented with some rough camera tricks, too arty by far. The central plot, the dancer's death, is unconvincing and shrilly melodramatic.
Of note is the derogatory racial stereotyping of the two characters who begin the film by showing up to repossess the Duke's piano. They are ridiculed for their illiteracy and for how easily they are dissuaded from their duties with a bribe of a bottle of hooch.
One Day in September (1999)
The Germans Bungled Everything
(Kevin MacDonald, 1999, 92 min.) Documentary about assassination of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at 1972 Olympic games. Noteworthy for exclusive interview with only surviving terrorist, who is in hiding "somewhere in Africa." Composed of interviews with German authorities involved in the episode, TV clips, etc, and narrated by Michael Douglas.
Interestingly, East Germans colluded with the terrorists, showing them around the Olympic village prior to the operation. Truth stranger than fiction. The ineptitude of the West Germans is astounding. Imagine paunchy German cops, clad in athletic sweats, trying to pass themselves off as Olympic athletes, their automatic weapons in plain sight, positioning themselves to launch a "surprise" attack on the apartment in which the hostages are being held while their every move is being televised worldwide; it's only at the very last minute, when they realize the terrorists too are watching them on TV, that they call the raid off. This is the only attempt they make to storm the apartment building.
Even after an Israeli's bullet-ridden naked body has been tossed out a window down to the sidewalk below, the games continue; the International Olympic Committee refuses to stop them; athletes are sunning themselves within sight of the hostage standoff; and, of course, the media has descended like a horde of flies ready to feast on a carcass. Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, offers to send a trained anti-terrorist unit, but the Germans, who have no such attack force of their own, who are in disarray, disorganized, and frankly at a loss as to what to do, refuse.
The terrorists are taken to a nearby airport in helicopters to a waiting jet. German cops, who are stationed in the jet and disguised as a flight crewm at the very last second, just as the helicopters are about to land, chicken out and abandon their posts. The head of Mossad, who by now has joined the Germans at the airport, is incredulous at the lack of professionalism of the whole ambush; also, he accuses the Germans of taking the hostages out of the Olympic village just so the games can continue. Sharp shooters positioned at the airport are not in radio communication with the outside or among themselves, have no idea of how many terrorists there are, and end up shooting each other and killing one of the helicopter pilots who has broken free. The coup de grace, the vilest insult to injury, comes in the aftermath of this debacle: Three Palestinian terrorists survive the gun battle at the airport and are taken into custody. Within days a nearly empty German airliner bound from Beirut to Frankfurt is hijacked by Arab terrorists who demand and obtain the release of the 3 terrorists in custody. One of these 3 later recounts how the whole thing was a setup: the German government colluded with the Arabs to stage the hijacking simply to rid themselves of the captured terrorists and to avoid the embarrassment of a trial.
Dekalog: Dekalog, dziewiec (1990)
Moribund Melodramatic Over-reaction
Surgeon reacts to a diagnosis of impotence as if it were a terminal illness, urging his wife to take a lover and plunging into suicidal depression. His wife, however, is willing to live with the diagnosis and swears to a love above and beyond sex, which he rejects, at first; the movie is about his struggling with and final acceptance of this Platonic ideal. Jealousy leads him to spy on and covet his own wife, ergo the commandment. But this only humiliates him further. In a parallel, somewhat superfluous plot, a young female patient asks his advice about a risky operation which would enable her to sing, her life's dream. Both face the same dilemma of whether or not to accept a physical limitation which deprives them of their life's passion. Unlike him, the young woman is willing to live with her disease and forego singing. He changes her mind.
I thought the surgeon and the film, both, over-reacted to the diagnosis, assigned too much weight to it. The melodramatic lack of perspective makes the movie as moribund as its subject matter. Of course, it's amply color coded; the passing stranger in white rides by again; and, again, there's lapse of credibility: the surgeon shares a cigarette with the patient who is supposed to have a disease so debilitating as to prevent her from singing--this makes no sense. But, once again, K. knows how to make the final scene count, canceling earlier shortcomings, at least for a moment.
Overwrought arty soap opera.
By this stage of the series one is right to be more than a little weary and wary of having the same heart strings tugged on to play the same melancholy tune.
Dekalog: Dekalog, osiem (1990)
Movie Itself Bears False Witness
American Jewish Holocaust survivor returns to Poland to confront the woman who refused to save her from the Nazi's by refusing to falsify her Baptism papers when she was 6 (same age as the little girl of VII). This issue of the long-buried, unresolved/unresolvable hatred of the victim and guilt of the tormentor was much more effectively dramatized by the movie Death and the Maiden. As in VII, so much of the conflict takes place in the past, that the film ends up overly talky, too chatty. As usual, color coding intrudes.
Two major problems make the movie specious, morally duplicitous. One, the survivor's physical features, her thick lips, big nose, dark eyes, and coarse black hair, conform exactly to the derisive stereotype of the Jew used in myriad anti-Semitic cartoons dating from the 19th century through the 3rd Reich. It's like casting an African-American who looks just like a cartoon Sambo. Her homeliness stands in marked contrast to the attractiveness of each and every other female in the series. One can only wonder to what degree this was unintentional, unconscious, reflecting an accepted assumed bigotry.
Second, just like the contortionist in the park (was he meant to mock the film?), K. bends over backward to exonerate the Pole from guilt. The plot twist of her having received word in advance that the SS was sending out children in need of Baptism papers as decoys is just too convenient (again, that problem of credibility). Her belonging to the Polish underground is even harder to swallow, even more unlikely. What Polish underground? That must have been a really exclusive minority. There was no organized effort by any Polish underground to save Jews; whatever Jews happened to be rescued were done so by individuals acting on their own. To claim otherwise, as K. does, is to lie. Widespread deep-seated Polish anti-Semitism both predated and survived the Nazi invasion; Poles killed Jews even after the Nazi's retreated. To this day they make life insufferable for the scarce Jews who remain in their country. (I have this directly from a Jewish colleague who grew up in and fled modern Communist Poland.)
The bonding between victim and tormenter seems a hollow contrivance to evade responsibility. This is the only episode with a pat ending. In fact, it casts all those that preceded in a dubious light. It itself bears false witness.
Dekalog: Dekalog, siedem (1990)
Another Freudian Forray into Child-Parent Relationship
Custody battle between 22 year-old mother and her own mother over daughter born to the former when she was just 16. Thus, touches on overweening parental possessiveness alluded to in IV, VI and VIII. Very modest in scope, using few actors, a minimum of sets. Like VI, it suffers from lack of credibility: the young mother, a reasonably intelligent woman, undertakes a rather scatterbrained kidnap. Too much of the conflict takes place in the past, not in the movie itself. And, yes, there's color coding. Despite its shortcomings, the anguish is real, and deep enough to force one to recall one's own relationship with one's parents: Another Freudian foray.
Dekalog: Dekalog, szesc (1990)
Cat and Mouse
Cat-and-mouse game of voyeur and victim, with an exchange of roles between the two about halfway through. Seems to have been well-received by the critics, but I found it too coy and contrived, not to mention compromised by a lack of credibility: The supposedly naive pure idealistic love of the voyeur, a 19 year-old boy, fails to acknowledge the inherent ugliness of voyeurism. Voyeurism entails a sinister imbalance of power between watcher and watched; it consists of cruelty and exploitation more than love; all of which the woman seemed to overlook much too easily. If the boy truly loved her, he would have stopped stalking her; his isn't love, but disease. The whole affair is intellectual structuralism at its worst, a plot concocted to demonstrate a point. Apparently, the woman spied upon "adulterates" the boy's love by humiliating him, as well as being unfaithful to her lover and unfaithful to love itself by her cynicism (thus violating the commandment, though unmarried). Her repentance and reversal seems as sudden and arbitrary as everything else in the film. Silly color coding abounds; the stranger in white (angel of death?) here carries a suitcase and shopping bag. The only intriguing element for me was the surrogate mother's sexual possessiveness, a tickle of evil.
Dekalog: Dekalog, piec (1990)
The Best of the Series
Dostoevskian descent into hell, Dostoevskian comprehension of evil as inseparable from good and inseparably alloyed to suffering, thus deserving of mercy, no matter how brutal. The piling up of detail, the flow of events, is tight, relentless, funereal, and ominous, shot through half-smoked glass to lend it the surreality of a twilit underworld (compare to Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son, 1997). With a minimum of strokes, the murderer is fully realized; his face alone is unforgettable; his flicking of coffee grounds at the girls in the cafe window illustrates in one simple gesture his murderous innocence. The killing itself is harrowing, hands-on ugly. The narrative is Spartan, matching its hardness to the tale. The only spurious step is the editorializing by the attorney against capital punishment; he would have been more effective if more reserved in his passion and anguish. To its credit, there's no silly color coding, no overtly intellectual structuralism. This is easily the most transparent, thus powerful, storytelling.
Dekalog: Dekalog, cztery (1990)
Flirts with the sexual ambiguity of the father-daughter relationship. A mysterious letter left by her dead mother to be opened only upon her father's death disinhibits the daughter's Electra complex. The father, of course, is complicit in its opening. The movie, deliciously slippery and sly, matches its playful ambiguity to that of its subject matter; appearances are skillfully manipulated, realities shift. The friendly sexual antagonism is the female counterpart to the Oedipal hostility of Polanski's Knife in the Water.
Like the artificially notched-up conflict in III, there's a long unconvincing scene of direct confrontation between father and daughter at the heart of the movie that would have been better toned down or left out; the daughter's acting lessons similarly could have been deleted or minimized (we don't need to be told about subtext); both are too expository, too obvious, and detract from the momentum. Intrusive symbolism takes the form of a man repeatedly seen carrying a white diamond-shaped punt, i.e., for all intents and purposes a cross, which I found inadvertently funny. I thought the plot reversal near the end ingenuous; others have complained. After all, the letter and its contents are trivial compared to what they represent psychologically. It's a tease.
Dekalog: Dekalog, trzy (1990)
Wild Goose Chase
"Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy."
On Christmas eve a taxi driver is compelled by his former mistress to leave home and family to search for her husband. The quest is Kafkaesque, gloomy and bleak, leading to the fringes of the city, parts of society outside all holiday's. We are supposed to glimpse the hunger within us all, here the loneliness of women, including at the last moment, to our surprise, the man's own wife. The conflict between the man and the mistress is often notched up just for dramatic effect; there seems no point to a police chase other than for the excitement of the chase. A naked man repeatedly walks through dragging a Christmas tree, lamenting "Where is my home?" (an example of spurious symbolism). The search itself turns out to be spurious, an allegory. Moral: honor god, his Sabbath, by succoring your fellow mortals. There is no other relief.
Dekalog: Dekalog, dziesiec (1989)
A poor man's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A black comedy about two hapless brothers who inherit Poland's most valuable stamp collection from a father who sacrificed everything, lived a monastic life, to amass it. (The father, stamps in hand, makes a cameo appearance in VIII.) They, too, are drawn into the erudite greed of philately, ownership for the sake of ownership, to a bad end. Everything rests on the puzzle of the plot, on who can outsmart whom, and how. But the details are sketchy, not thought all the way through, thus, again, resulting in a problem of credibility; the punch line, by the time it arrives, lacks punch, isn't, say, the same as seeing all one's gold dust blow away on the wind. But, of course, there's always color coding to keep one occupied.