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just another film blog
a small collection of reviews/comments/random thoughts about various films I've seen
you have seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and want to see more Spaghetti Westerns but have no idea what else is good apart from Sergio Leone? here are some films for your consideration
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Within "[ ]" I added "personalized genre descriptions".
--- Not listed on IMDb:
Episode: 1 (Renzo Martens, 2003) Heliopolis Heliopolis (Anja Dornieden & Juan David González Monroy, 2017) Psychedelic Trip Music And Visuals 2018 (HD) PART 4 (sans soundtrack) (published by sd3345 on Dec 6, 2015) Munchsferatu (Julien Lahmi, 2017) El Guincho - Bombay (Canada, 2010) Couch Gag for The Sampsans Epasode Numbar 553 "Clown in the Dumps" (Don Hertzfeldt, 2014) Fame (Steven Klein)
--- Added to IMDb at a later point (hence listed out of order):
DECK (Leighton Pierce, 2018) [not opened up for voting] Safe Condition: Document in the Past Perfect (Lars Mathisen, 1994) Samouraï / Samurai (Johanna Vaude, 2002) Blade Runner [alternative final cut by Johanna Vaude] / Blade Runner Tribute / Blade Runner par Johanna Vaude - Blow up / Remember futur replications of human experiences (Johanna Vaude, 2013)
These are the films that best evoke dreams for me in one way or another. Dreams as I experience them, and the way they feel to me personally. “Dream-like” is a term that I tend to avoid using without any context, I find it too interchangeably used with “atmospheric”, and atmospheric is great, but this is about a particular type of atmosphere. The uncanny, for example, often is something that does the trick for me, or when events in the film could just as well be seen as manifestations of a character's unconscious.
"Surreal" is another word that I tend to avoid in this context, I associate it too much with symbolism, a work that tries hard to make you derive some metaphorical meaning from it, which often takes away from creating a state of dreaming. Maybe in retrospect you can read a dream in terms of symbols, but I’m not interested in this here, I rather want the actual experience of dreaming replicated as vividly as possible.
Also worth mentioning are the (generally metaphysical) concepts that at least in my mind have some overlay with dreaming, so the films here that you may find have no apparent connection to dreams likely relate to one or some of the following things: Subconscious, collective unconscious, death (or rather the afterlife/netherworld), trance, stream of consciousness.
In approximate order of evocativeness.
List also available at: https://mubi.com/lists/i-must-be-dreaming https://letterboxd.com/systematicer/list/i-must-be-dreaming/
Also on letterboxd: https://letterboxd.com/systematicer/list/pdas-anti-canon-narrative-cinema-2020-edition/
Started in 2013 this list has become an annual tradition of mine. For the first time this year I decided to exclude experimental films, they have been outsourced to their own list. So "narrative cinema" in this case only means non-experimental. Said companion list "PdA's Canon – experimental cinema, 2020 Edition" can be found here: letterboxd.com/systematicer/list/pdas-canon-experimental-cinema-2020-edition/
And the previous editions of this list can be found here:
(letterboxd) 2019: letterboxd.com/systematicer/list/pdas-anti-canon-2019-edition/ 2018: letterboxd.com/systematicer/list/pdas-anti-canon-2018-edition/
(IMDb) 2019: imdb.com/list/ls048261278/ 2018: imdb.com/list/ls028845591/ 2017: imdb.com/list/ls025056739/ 2016: imdb.com/list/ls063998873/ 2015: imdb.com/list/ls079727709/ 2014: imdb.com/list/ls077590099/ 2013: imdb.com/list/ls056860412/
Year of cut-off for this list: 2017
Celles qui s'en font (1928)
Poetic realist short about loneliness, and arguably the first-ever music video
Celles qui s'en font' comprises of two little scenarios, each about three minutes in length. The first shows an obviously poor, "triste" and probably already a little crazy, fairly young woman sitting outside of a pub/bar/whatever having a drink. With great sadness and some disdain she watches the cheerful people around her, then gets up and walks through the streets, sees herself in a mirror and tears start running down her face. The second scenario is in a similar vein, at least in terms of overall feel. A young, unhappy woman strolls through the streets and through flashbacks we see why she is so gloomy. Maybe the scenarios aren't connected but the two women were played by the same actress so I interpreted the second one as quasi being a flashback of the first one (she has a missing tooth in the first scenario so that one would definitely have to come later).
It's all pretty simple, much more poetic realist instead of superimpressionistic like a lot of Dulac's other works. Nevertheless the emotions as well as the localities are very palpable. I was very much reminded of especially the first section of Jean Epstein's 'Coeur fidèle' like when the characters in that film stand or sit ashore and absentmindedly gaze into the ocean. Instead of a longing for love the predominant feeling here is one of utter loneliness and hopelessness.
But probably the most noteworthy thing about this so-called "silent" film is that it is meant to be shown with two specific chansons for a soundtrack. I think it wouldn't be a stretch to make a case for the film to be the first music video ever made, at any rate it apparently was meant to serve as an illustration of two songs. 'Celles qui s'en font' is featured on disc 1 of the DVD box set "Retour de Flamme" (which is also available as individual DVDs) and it shows the film with its intended soundtrack. In the film it looks like the protagonists are mumbling to themselves, which would seem to fit their characters well enough, and this is maybe even what they are supposed to do in the story, but I'm convinced that more than that they are also mouthing the vocals of the songs. In the DVD restoration(?) however the mouth movement never really matches the vocals, so I think something isn't right. Maybe the footage is incomplete, maybe the frame-rate is off, or maybe the music is just not synchronized well. This is quite unfortunate, but at least one gets the general idea of what Germaine Dulac (probably) intended.
One IMDb reviewer wrote that the two chansons that the soundtrack consists of ("Toute seule" & "A la dérive", both performed by Fréhel) were recorded in 1930 and concluded that thus instead of 1928 the film more likely was also made in 1930 (or possibly shortly thereafter), which seems like a very reasonable conclusion to me.
Gekijô-ban: Zero (2014)
Japanese lesbian coming-of-age Gothic ghost mystery with a very Victorian flair
'Fatal Frame' is a Japanese lesbian coming-of-age Gothic ghost mystery with a very Victorian flair, all romanticism, no kink, all yearning, and no consummation. Innocent love? Yes. But anything but harmless.
To go into the film's plot without missing the point its mysteries (and even its main characters) are a bit too ever-changing and evolving, instead I'll say that the main motive of the film has to be John Everett Millais' 'Ophelia', and the film does justice to that evocative painting that is as beautiful as it is tragically sad and even unsettling. The supernatural element (ghosts) can easily be read as manifestations of extreme (often suppressed) emotions like unrequited (and forbidden) love while also being manifestations of a traumatic past. The mysteriousness and eeriness of the film doesn't just exist for its own sake but serves as an apt reflection of what its teenage characters are going through, with their feelings being new, mysterious or even scary to themselves.
If you want to know what you can expect from this film, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' is probably a good reference point in terms of the Victorian girls' boarding school setting, the ethereal beauty, as well as the eeriness in broad daylight. The plot also involves girls suddenly disappearing, but the way in which this fits into the narrative and its function has much more in common with 'Ringu' and its dooming curse than it does with the inexplicable mysteriousness of nature in the Peter Weir classic. But in terms of the general look, feel and pacing it can be somewhat compared to 'A Tale of Two Sisters'. The way in which the mysteries pile up without ever losing the plot and having everything neatly come together is more in line with Vincenzo Natali's 'Haunter' or maybe a compressed version of a mystery anime series.
Even though its eeriness I thought was at its highest towards the beginning and in the last section the piling up of mysteries and their explanations exceed the film's climactic point, the atmosphere never lets up, nor does the subdued beauty of its visuals (I love the texture and color palette of its 16mm Kodak film stock) ever lose its classical magic. 'Fatal Frame' is conceived in the modern Japanese storytelling mode (teen-centric, lots of emotion-centric voice-overs that never leave you in doubt about character motivations, etc.), which isn't to everyone's liking, but if you are OK with this or maybe even have an affinity for that mode and if my other descriptions also sounded good to you then this one comes highly recommended.
The very essence of Gothic literature in cinematic form
I would describe 'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House' as a Gothic short story (or maybe even a Gothic poem) brought to the screen. But forget about all the tropes and visuals that are associated with this genre, it is instead focused on what for me is the essential element of Gothic literature: The dead are alive. This doesn't seem like much to build a narrative on, and the driving force of "Pretty" indeed is not plot, nor characters, nor the solving of a mystery. And while all three things are embedded into its narrative it is first and foremost a tone poem. An important thing about the the-dead-are-alive notion, especially in this film, is that it goes both ways. The living can sense the presence of the dead (AKA ghosts), but the dead actually live on after their death, probably mostly concerned with reliving their past, but they might also be able to sense the living. So who is haunting who?
Consequently "Pretty" presents a ghost story within a ghost story, to put it in simplified terms. In more concrete terms the plot concerns Lily, a nurse who stays in the house of elderly horror fiction writer Iris Blum, to take care of her until her death, which shouldn't be too far into the future now. But it also wouldn't be too wrong to say that the main character is the house that had a few occupants over the course of its lifetime. I don't mean this in the tired old this-and-that-place-is-like-another-character-in-the-film way, the personality of the house certainly is made up of all the people who lived in it. But writer-director Oz Perkins takes the expression "If these walls could talk" and makes it a reality. It is about the people who lived in the house (or more correctly the people who died in it), but for all intents and purposes the main character is the house itself.
"Pretty" starts with nurse Lily's first day at the house and her opening narration tells us that she just turned 28 years old, but that she will never be 29. She talks about death, memory and says "From where I am now, I can be sure of only a very few things." One of those things is her name. So right from the beginning we know that Lily (at least Lily as a narrator) is already dead. Logic dictates that what we see on screen are her hazy memories of her short time in the house. Can we trust her words and can we trust what we see?
In any case, old Iris Blum doesn't talk much. But she keeps calling Lily by the name of Polly. And Lily seems to sense some ghostly presence in the house. Polly, as we soon learn, is the main character of Blum's most famous novel "The Lady in the Walls", a novel of which Blum said it lacks an ending because of "an obligation to be true to the subject" for Polly didn't tell Blum about her ending, but Blum tells us that she is convinced that "as endings go, Polly's was not an especially pretty one." Incidentally there also slowly emerges an ugly, moldy stain on one of the walls in the house that Lily grows concerned about. Is there some connection?
Perkins leaves the viewer in the dark for most of the film's running time about the concrete connections between all the characters, as slow and eventless as the whole thing is it is difficult to keep track of all the points of view. For example Lily isn't the only one whose voice-over we hear, we also hear and see young Blum as she writes the novel, and we hear and see Polly. Those voices also aren't particularly easy to distinguish, and it gets even more complicated when scaredy cat Lily finally dares to pick up "The Lady in the Walls" to read at least parts of it, the content of which is told from both Blum's and Polly's point of view. Through the viewer's natural desire to know the answers the film evokes ideas on the way as we contemplate all the possible answers. Did Polly really exist? Is she buried behind the wall? Are Lily and Polly somehow the same person? Is Lily a fictional character altogether? Or is Lily only imagining things?
Like a poem or a song it evokes first and foremost a tone, a mood, and sparks ideas of what it might be about. It takes further readings/listens to find that in between all the lines it actually tells a story, a simple story perhaps, but nevertheless a story. And this is actually how 'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House' worked for me. The tone and the ideas immediately took hold of me, but it took me two viewings to really make sense of the narrative. This isn't without its drawbacks, because frankly it isn't so much difficult to follow because it floods you with information that you need to sort out, on the contrary, it basically is so eventless that it poses a challenge to stay attentive for the whole time. This was, however, clearly a conscious choice by Perkins, and his approach is nothing if not consequential. But it makes criticisms of the film being "boring" particularly understandable in this case, "Pretty" indeed is very one-note, and unless it is a note you relish or that you learn to relish, it won't be enough for you to satisfyingly get you through a whole feature film.
As it turned out after two viewings, the solution to the mystery is quite concrete and surprisingly not at all convoluted. Nevertheless the ending for me is as chilling as it is simple, and it beautifully circles back onto itself, like a chorus that keeps coming back, just what you would expect a story told by a ghost to be.
Der Nachtmahr (2015)
Donnie Darko meets Enter the Void meets E.T.
17-year-old Tina keeps hearing and seeing a noisy food-craving creature at night that is sitting in the kitchen in front of the open fridge. Are they dreams, hallucinations, is the creature real or is Tina maybe already dead (she has a potentially fatal accident very early in the film)? She starts off being terrified by the creature but as she finds herself unable to have it leave her alone she gradually gets acquainted with it and basically learns to live with it. Does this mean that she is getting better or worse? Is she learning to conquer her fears or is she only falling deeper into the rabbit hole?
This setup is far from unique, but the film feels incredibly fresh, bringing an authenticity to the proceedings that would be notable even for a straight drama, not just in the way the characters interact witch each other in the individual scenes but also in how the "plot" unfolds overall. It is also shot without the use of any artificial light, all hand-held (certainly not "shaky-cam", though) and doesn't seem to use any overdubbing for the dialogues either. What's particularly remarkable is that at the same time the film also is quite a visceral experience, thanks of course especially to the party scenes (which aren't that numerous) that are full of strobe lights and loud techno, but even beyond those scenes this "techno party feeling" that can in turns mean ecstasy or dizziness, bleeds to some extent through the whole film, creating an atmosphere somewhere in between 'Enter the Void' and 'Spring Breakers'. And even when things become quieter the film is paced in such a way that it always maintains a certain level of intensity.
The creature itself (an extremely convincing sfx) is terrifyingly ugly yet once you actually start to look at it and get closer to it it is weirdly cute in its small size, pathetic looks, and its nonthreatening slowness. This creature design alone already makes Tina's very gradual embrace of this thing understandable.
Occurrences involving the creature are presented as completely real, even though nobody else (primarily this concerns Tina's parents) get to see or hear it, and when they do seem to be able to see the creature or the results of its doings there always is some possibility that it might be the girl's own actions that they are reacting to. All this doesn't sound too original, but what helps the effectiveness of this, and what helps to keep the viewer doubting what's real and what isn't, is the fact that while it is clear that the film is told from a very subjective point of view, the way it is photographed give the images a certain sense of objectivity, the camera isn't particularly focused on its protagonist and the film is completely shot with wide lenses. This approach manages to lend a lot of credibility to the existence of the creature.
I think a stylistic choice that perhaps best exemplifies this combination of subjective point of view and the sense of objective camera is when during a few of the party scenes the viewer can't actually make out the spoken dialogue, and instead they are shown through subtitles (yes, pretty much like the nightclub sequence in "Fire Walk With Me"). The impression this leaves is that the camera (or rather the sound equipment) isn't able to pick up the dialogue over the loud music, but at the same time we know that Tina can hear the dialogue. I'd also argue that subconsciously this suggests to a viewer that even though in this case the film fills us in on what we are missing, the images and sounds may sometimes be inadequate to capture Tina's experience. So as much as the camera tries to document everything, the film itself is limited in how much it can get to the core of its protagonist (each person is a mystery, after all). Likely you will end up with a puzzle with missing pieces and it's on you to make sense of that mystery.
The following paragraph is more spoiler-y!!! Things are wisely left ambiguous even as the closing credits roll, even the extent of Tina's drug use is ambiguous, in retrospect I can't even remember seeing her have as much as a drink (well, a beer, maybe). Nevertheless it should be clear that she is a party girl who makes a lot of use of illegal substances which remain unnamed. 'Der Nachtmahr' does a good job of implying things rather than showing them without ever feeling vague. It would be too easy (and probably too reductive) to just write Tina off as a junkie who has lost her grip on reality. There are other aspects to her life that may have a lot of bearing on what Tina is going through. Perhaps most importantly there is a guy in her circle of friends that she is infatuated with, but even though he seems to quite like her too they don't quite get together and instead another girl keeps latching on to him. Naturally Tina hates her guts. From all the partying she probably also simply doesn't get as much sleep as she should and her relationship to her parents may also weight on her.
Achim Bornhak is a dedicated artist who works in several fields and with 'Der Nachtmahr' he realized a passion project that was 13 years in the making. It started out as just a work on a sculpture (the creature), which lead to associations and a narrative, resulting eventually in this art-house genre film.
Happy End (1967)
Comedy a of Philosophy Depressing Underlying The :End Happy
If you have seen the film you will have understood what you just read...
OK, I won't make this post in reverse order even though that was the initial plan. Since in the film it is only justified because it works in both directions and I won't put the effort into my write-up for it to work both ways, it would be little more than annoying to make my comment mirror the film like this.
'Happy End' is a challenge to constantly read in both directions simultaneously, which should make rewatches worthwhile. Luckily the "actual narrative" (which is what I will call what we know the story of this man's real life is, as opposed to how the film presents it, which I will call the "fictional narrative"), is simple enough and at all times clear so that it isn't a necessity to try to follow the dialogues and the plot in reverse order, but it is certainly tempting to do so, and I think one sometimes wants to see the film in correct chronological order, because even though that would make it a lesser film, it would make one further appreciate all the planning that must have went into making it the way it is, for the result looks so effortless. This can be seen with the example of "Memento" of which a chronologically ordered version exists.
OK, so what we have here is certainly a great premise. And cinematically it was cleverly solved with the filmmakers doing a very fine job, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. But is it more than just clever? Well, it's amusing. So, yes, it is. Why is it amusing? Because the dialogues, which in normal order drive the plot along but are rather banal, now presented in reverse order, are written in such a way - line after line - to create amusing conversations. Yes, that's one reason. And yes, even gestures often take on an amusingly fitting alternate meaning by reversing cause and effect. But why else does it cause amusement? It's because negative things become positive. Things getting worse become things getting better. And while the middle section of the film is a back and forth between things going well for our protagonist, and things going bad for him, the beginning and the end both are things getting gradually better for our protagonist in the fictional narrative.
A cow gets slaughtered and skinned, and a woman gets hacked to pieces on screen, and we all laugh, because we see both creatures come to life before us, violence is turned into creation. This is what we witness, but at the same time we are also aware of the actual causality. The reality that is implied in "Happy End" where things keep getting better and better is that nothing ever gets better. From the moment we are born until we die everything only gets worse. Everything is falling apart. To live means to die. Slowly. (If you want to read more on this please see my comment on 'Irréversible': http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290673/reviews-668 .)
So the philosophy underlying all the fun shenanigans is a very bleak one indeed. Speaking of which, it is easy to also bring Nietzsche's concept of the eternal recurrence into this. The man is forced to relive his life exactly the same way he lived it, even if from a bit of a different "angle" this time. He builds his own narrative out of the life he already lived, and building a narrative is exactly what he is doing, because there would be countless narratives to build out of his reversed life, his fictional narrative is merely the interpretation he chooses. But does he really choose it or is he instead driven to build this one?
Because if looked at closer his fictional narrative parallels his actual one, creating a sort of circular movement. The actual narrative, we can gather, is that the man is trapped in an unloving relationship until he falls in love with another woman and they get married. Soon he becomes a cuckold husband who kills his wife and her lover, goes to jail for it and gets executed. Now, in the fictional narrative he gains his freedom, gets to have a wife who is less interested in him than she is in another man, so he wants to kill him and then kill her, or at least return to her to her parents, to be with the woman he really loves.
What I find telling in the fictional narrative is that he almost immediately wants to get rid of his wife, as if what she did to him in the actual narrative still is somewhere in his memory and he subconsciously hates her for it. Likewise, with his (actual) first wife(?) he has the urge to immediately skip to the paradise that is childhood. To live a life without worries, and still with all the hope of a bright future ahead of him. There can only be happiness where there is hope, or you can be happy by at least being oblivious to the fact that there is no hope. The reason why happiness can exist for our protagonist at the end of his fictional narrative is because unlike the certain death that awaits each and every one of us, his fictional narrative doesn't stop at the real end, he just has no memory of what lies beyond it, no memory of his birth and of his first few years being alive. In the direction of his fictional narrative there is no death, only oblivion.
This review is best read in reverse order. Warning! Psych!
Vredens dag (1943)
Being a Witch: The Horrors of Pleasure
'Vredens Dag' or 'Day of Wrath' has a mysterious, unsettling atmosphere quite like Dreyer's previous film 'Vampyr', but it's very understated here. Unlike the Verfremdungseffekt in the previous effort the horror feel in this film is achieved through its setting (an extremely oppressive world) and by the way the plot is told, which is largely by means of suppressing the drama inherent in the situations. By not providing much release for the audience the film emphasizes that the real drama bubbles under the surface, namely it is within the characters, and the drama is a psychological one.
That aforementioned extreme oppressiveness of the environment within the film is one of Christian dogma, it becomes oppressive because all the characters believe in it to a more or less great extent and as a consequence no desire will go unpunished and fear dominates everyone's lives. The guilty conscience that arises from thinking that one broke a Christian law is actually the least of it, with its witch burning premise the film provides a more specific threat. One gets the impression that a woman can be made to burn at the stake by being denounced as a witch by seemingly anyone who feels like it. Further, women can be made to believe themselves that they are witches, which is an even greater exertion of power as it keeps the sincere belief in the existence of witchcraft and the occult alive in people's minds.
Dreyer cleverly maximizes the film's sense of an oppressive environment by presenting the Christian Weltanschauung of that time as unchallenged in people's minds and as essentially in direct control of the law when in reality surely not everyone held the same convictions in matters of faith in Denmark at the time, at the very least there were different branches of Christianity that disagreed with each other on even many of the fundamentals (an example of this can be seen in Dreyer's own 'Ordet'), and witch trials weren't at all conducted by clergymen alone, even THEIR power had limits.
It took a third viewing for me just to realize that among other things 'Day of Wrath' also is a roundabout coming-of-age film, a film about sexual awakening, Anne never experienced sexual desire until she laid eyes on her stepson. In addition to the all-encompassing religious indoctrination of that time this explains her naivety about coming to believe that she has supernatural powers over men, when apparently, without even quite realizing it, she bats her eyelashes, swings her tush, etc. and THOSE obviously are the things that do the trick, it's not her wishing that her stepson falls in love with her that causes this wish to miraculously come true for her through witchcraft.
'Vredens Dag' refuses to take sides, this results in an ambiguity about where the filmmaker stands on the issues at hand, which can easily be frustrating on a first viewing, but makes it all the more intriguing on further viewings and prevents it from becoming uninteresting for there will always remain a degree of mystery. The big ambiguity in this film is that although the Christian doctrine could hardly be shown less favorably Rev. Absalon is basically a kind-hearted and well-intentioned man and husband to Anne, but more significantly Anne's liberation from her life of oppression makes her happy, a happiness and joyfulness that not only has the side effect of turning her selfish (as she has no consideration anymore for anyone else's feelings and needs), but through Dreyer's compositions and lighting and by how the actress plays her, she comes off as evil, she is subtly made to look like the witch that she is believed to be by others, and whom even herself comes to believe to be.
As we all know, women are quite a mystery to men, and in this story woman's sexuality poses the biggest mystery of all, implying that men can't bare such an enormous lack of control, therefore the woman's behavior and her power over people and over men especially can only be explained with witchcraft. By making Anne at times look evil and like she revels in her power over other people the viewer will find it easy to relate to that time and its people, understanding how the belief in the occult could have been so prevalent. Prevalent not only among men who could make sense of woman's inexplicable behavior only through the concept of witchcraft, but also among women who sometimes couldn't explain their own powers and who were so often told that this or that makes them witches that they started believing it themselves. Significantly it is Rev. Absalon's mother who finally denounces her a witch and it is Anne's own remorse that urges her to agree with the accusations against her.
'Vredens Dag' is amazingly deliberately paced for 1943. Around 1960 such pacing in films like 'L'avventura', 'Marienbad' and 'The Naked Island' felt positively revolutionary. With Dreyer having already been an established silent movie director one is tempted to say that his sound pictures simply hark back to the silent era when especially up to the early-/mid-20's films just naturally were very slow-paced. Dreyer's silent movie roots maybe were what enabled his style on some level, but to equate those two vastly different types of slow pacing would certainly be a folly, not least because of how expertly Dreyer uses off-screen sound as a storytelling device, which is what often makes it possible for him to have so many continuous takes run for several minutes in the first place. It can hardly be a coincidence that Dreyer's 'Vampyr' (1932) already practiced something that I think otherwise hasn't really been seen in film until around 1960 in films like 'Vivre sa vie' and again 'L'avventura' and 'Marienbad', namely the back and forth shifting between subjective and objective mode, making it seem like the camera has its own will separate from the characters and the plot.
Thèmes et variations (1928)
The Grace of the Machine
Closeups of working machines are intercut with a ballet dancer's movements, each of which corresponds to the movement of the machines. Before long it seems like the machines are dancing while the ballet dancer's movements seem more mechanical. But then the dancer's footage is intercut with corresponding shots in nature and her movements suddenly seem more graceful until in the end all three elements come together and the machines seem like blossoming flowers.
Personally I'd recommend watching 'Thèmes et variations' without musical accompaniment, without any soundtrack the rhythm of the cuts really does seem to create its own music of visuals, which from what I've read was one of Germaine Dulac's main cinematic ambitions.
20,000 Days on Earth (2014)
Feels thorough, self-contained and complete.
"Who knows their own story? Certainly, it makes no sense when we live in the midst of it. It's all just clamour and confusion. It only becomes a story when we tell it and retell it. Our small precious recollections that we speak again and again to ourselves or to others. First creating the narrative of our lives and then keeping the story from dissolving into darkness."
Occupying a gray zone between documentary and autobiographical fiction film '20,000 Days on Earth' opens with a counter that, you guessed it, starts at zero and rapidly counts up to 20,000 in a mere 1 1/2 minutes all the while on a couple of screens we see Nick Cave in various stages of his life as well as TV footage that corresponds with the number of days (e.g. a boy smoking pot around day 5,000) or people that apparently were of significance to him around that particular time (so in the early days we for example see Johnny Cash, Elvis and of course Barbara Eden). It's a loud and chaotic montage that simultaneously serves as the opening credits. The first scene stands in stark contrast to it, through the storm of the past we have arrived in the present day. We see an alarm clock without a seconds hand giving the impression of time virtually standing still. Nick Cave lies in bed staring at his clock before it starts to ring to officially herald the start of day 20,000.
The film that follows feels thorough, self-contained and complete.
Thorough because it keeps returning to the same memories. First Nick Cave has a session with his psychoanalyst which feels as much like an interview with a journalist as it does like a couch session, for there is no couch but the "interviewer" asks more psychoanalyst type of questions that very often go back to Cave's childhood days. Questions like: "What's your earliest memory of a female body?" or "What's your earliest memory of your father?", each question being answered with a story. Later Cave exchanges memories about the Nina Simone concert that he earlier talked about to his psychiatrist with a colleague who was at the concert as well which of course transforms the same story, it becomes fuller, the atmosphere surrounding it changes, etc. Or at another point Nick Cave goes to the Nick Cave archive because of course when you are somebody like Nick Cave you don't keep your old junk in boxes, you get other people to do that for you...anyway. Objects from the stories he told his psycho-guy pop up again or rather he asks for them, like the copy of "Lo-li-ta" from which his father read to him one day and that made little Nick see a side of his father that he hadn't known before. Or a picture of Susie, who became his wife, which leads into a dazzling multimedia collage of sight, sound and spoken word about Nick Cave's erotic fantasies that climaxes where all good erotic fantasies climax, with Jackie Kennedy at JFK's funeral. Songs come back also, he writes a song, practices a song, records a song, records a background track with a children's choir, and finally performs it in the Sydney Opera House in front of a big audience.
Self-contained it feels because there is a clear core theme which always is a challenge in an (auto)biographical film, because how can a human life be summed up to one idea? Here that idea is that Nick Cave basically lives as a vessel for his memories, to acquire them, to put them into a narrative in order not to forget them, and to use them to create songs. His greatest fear, he says, is losing his memory. "...in some way that's really what the process of songwriting is for me. It's the retelling of these stories and the mythologizing of these stories." The people in those stories become mere figures, figures that he, as he puts it, cannibalizes for his creations.
Unsurprisingly, Cave in the film comes across as self-absorbed and to call the product navel-gazing I think would be a pretty fair assessment. For the sake of context it bears reminding that this film doesn't show much of Nick Cave the private person and instead is much more about Nick Cave the musician and the public person. No doubt his profession is what enables and I think at least to an extent also excuses his constant self-examination, after all he made a successful career out of it.
And finally, complete it feels because the ending, a live-performance of a song we have seen and heard played several times throughout, is aided by footage of old live performances from the band history that often show him making the same movements on stage, reminding not only of the start of the film, but also that this performance that currently is the unfathomable now, will soon become a part of this man's memory turned life narrative. Put on film it shows one version of the event as it happened, something that will help Nick Cave keep the story from dissolving into darkness. But it also doesn't need a Nick Cave anymore to write a song about it, as a film it already is a mythologized narrative and it exists independent of any self-absorbed musicians that may happen to be the subject of '20,000 Days on Earth'.
L'invitation au voyage (1927)
Dreaming of Escape
In an introduction Germaine Dulac informs the viewer that this is her attempt to do a film without intertitles in the hope that the viewer will be able to follow it (such modesty), and lays out the scenario which is that of a woman who feels neglected by her husband, so one evening she goes to a bar where she is approached by a sailor whose interest in her suddenly seems to dwindle when he realizes that she is married.
What the 40-minute long 'Invitation to a Journey' offers indeed is more of a scenario than a story. More or less all the running time is spent in the bar (named L'invitation au voyage) that has some "cruise ship on the ocean" theme going on. We watch a band playing on stage, people dancing and drinking and men coming on to women. And in there we also have the protagonist (La Femme) who sits by herself at a table sipping a drink and of course it doesn't take long before the first suitor makes a pass on her.
Like Dulac's 'The Smiling Madame Beudet' it is a tiny "story" told impressionistically. And 'Invitation to a Journey' is nothing if not impressionistic. The film is so full of dissolves, superimpositions and split-screens that you almost have to look out to find any straight cuts. The function of this formal playfulness is, among other things, to show that while the characters are in the bar their minds are often somewhere else. Especially La Femme keeps fantasizing about being far away on a real ship, and seeing her little tête-à-tête with the sailor more romantically than it actually is. And the sailor too, who is less romantically inclined, can practically already see how his future-conquest offers herself and her naked chest to him in a cabin. La Femme also occasionally thinks back to situations at home and so we learn a bit about what the relationship between her and her husband is like.
An interesting thing to note is that the film plays a bit with gender roles, if not in the characters' actions than in their appearance. La Femme is a tall and quite masculine-looking woman while the men are all rather feminine in their appearance and mannerisms.
Lodz Ghetto (1988)
What was it like to live in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe?
A documentary about life in the Polish Jewish ghetto Łódź (aka Litzmannstadt Ghetto) from 1939 to 1945. It uses the same basic approach as the films by brilliant documentarians Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundrick, completely chronological, no third person narrator (but diary entries that were written at the time, serving as narration), and archive footage, not to say found footage. It doesn't follow this approach as rigorously as the documentaries by the aforementioned team (there's some contemporary footage of the streets and buildings in there and apparently also some diary entries that can't be accounted for), but that all those written accounts and this footage from inside the ghetto exists is amazing and especially the photographs (taken by ghetto resident Henryk Ross) have a real artistry to them. With its atmosphere of funereal quiet it's a compelling watch not only as a historical document but also as a mood piece. If you want to know what it was like to live in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe this is the real deal.
Alan Adelson's short postscript 'Sequel to Lódz Ghetto' (1992), which usually comes as an extra with home video releases, is both a making of and an extension of this documentary that unlike the feature film uses interviews with survivors. Serving as a companion piece to 'Lodz Ghetto' it does a lot in its brief 14 minutes and also is very much worth seeing.
La coquille et le clergyman (1928)
A Celluloid Dream
It is maybe the most accurate depiction of dreams as I experience them that I have seen on film. It gets things right like the gradual construction of images when for example a building keeps changing shape (through dissolves between different buildings that were photographed similarly) before it finds its "final" shape (nothing is final in dreams), or an empty sea becomes a sea with a pier and a ship in it, or the other way around people, for example, dissolve into thin air while the surroundings stay the same. There is an inexplicable obsession with certain objects, but those objects aren't just part of some symbolic decoration without function, they are handled personally by the dreamer (the clergyman), almost as if objects that the dreamer doesn't touch also don't exist.
The dreamer goes through repetitive tasks like opening a door to walk trough a corridor to open a door to walk through a corridor to open...until new images are found to progress the dream. The clergyman is always driven. Even when it looks like he might be in charge of the moment his behavior feels compulsive, like filling one glass after another with a liquid and then letting the glass shatter on the floor again and again like on a loop. None of the other characters quite seem to have an own will either but the clergyman especially kind of seems like he is hypnotized throughout it.
There's also a lot of running here. Running away from something becomes a chasing after something. We see the person that the dreamer chases after but when we see the dreamer there is nobody in front of him. The person is still there and the chase continues, the person just isn't necessarily always visible, that the person's presence is felt is the real confirmation of the person being there.
We have our clergyman crawling towards an exit, in the next shot he crawls through the streets of Paris, then it cuts to some shots of the road obviously taken from a driving car, then a shot of him crawling around a corner, back to a shot of the road, then he runs around a corner, then another corner, and another,...
A rewatch confirmed that there is no film like it. Also that it makes no sense and that for me it doesn't say anything. Usually I wouldn't care all that much for such a film, yet I found it not just compelling but it's maybe also the first time that I'd call a film hypnotic. So here I am with this film feeling that for me it warrants not just a good score but full marks.
Despite the lack of sense and meaning and also the fact that you can never predict what shot you might see next, there is no confusion whatsoever in it. There are no scenes in the conventional sense, nor a story per se, just a constant flow of images with an intuitive progression that I always found very easy to follow. The definition of dream logic? I think so.
Like in a dream there are objects and actions that can be read as symbolic in retrospect in an attempt to make sense of it, but unlike so many other dream-like films nothing here feels symbolic. As far as I can tell it doesn't want you to figure out what it means or if it means anything at all. Nor do I think does it try to provoke, shock or amuse. According to the documentary about "The Seashell", called "Surimpressions", it is less concerned with the representation of a dream than with the "construction of its mental space-time, made of images of the world, in the world, transformed by the resources of cinema". Works for me.
The avant-garde "score for twelve instruments" of the 2005 Arte restoration (41 minutes in length) by a certain Iris ter Schiphorst, fits the film superbly. To quote NRC Handelsblad, 7 April 2005: "The music of the Dutch/German composer Iris ter Schiphorst related to the film quite naturally... a genuine unity of image and music. Sometimes it follows the associations very precisely, sometimes it takes its own path. Ter Schiphorst manages to elicit a very individual sound from the instruments: thin and unreal." "The Seashell" has a lot of varied camera tricks and optical effects but in most avant-garde films it feels like the trick came first, function follows form. Here, without anything making any logical sense, the trickery still feels like a means to an end, an end that is more than just delivering original and beautiful images. That the score isn't exactly comfortable and just as unpredictable as the images yet doesn't upstage them perhaps speaks for their strength.
Flügel und Fesseln (1984)
A successful spin on 'Autumn Sonata'
After finishing her tiring movie shoot star actress Isabelle flies back to Germany to spend some time with her (much more tiring) daughter who stays with Isabelle's parents. What follows is very reminiscent of Bergman's 'Autumn Sonata', conversations that revel in the generational jealousy and bitterness between Isabelle and her mother. Things that are said at one time (e.g. the parents not approving of Isabelle's lifestyle, especially in regard to men) at other times are revealed to run much deeper.
For a while when they both feel particularly lonely (and are a little drunk) they seem to be best friends, and almost behave a little like lovers, talking about their dreams that didn't come true and whatnot. But the harmony doesn't last long and Isabelle gets the blame for the cards that fate dealt the mother and what was love in one minute turns into hate in the other. Like 'Autumn Sonata' it takes its sweet time to get started. The roles here are reversed since the daughter is the successful artist and the mother the devout housewife. With Isabelle having little time to spend with her daughter one can imagine her to grow up to be the Liv Ullmann character and 35 years later she and Isabelle play out the events in 'Autumn Sonata'. Its high points maybe aren't as high as in the Bergman film but I think it's more consistently insightful. And although I compared them a lot 'Flügel und Fesseln' very much stands on its own. If 'Autumn Sonata' is one of your favorite Bergman films this comes recommended.
Thoughts and feelings without words
Nadezhda (aka Nadya), a school director and WWII heroine pilot is greatly respected by everybody. When she expels a boy from school for pushing a girl (she started it) Nadya gets to thinking. She had to make it in a man's world and has to continue being tough every day (deny her femininity, in a way) to get ahead. But is she maybe overdoing it a little? When offered a dance she declines although she would probably like to, and she denies that there is anything more than a platonic friendship between her and a male museum director. In what situations can she allow letting her guard down, allow being seen as a woman? She and her adopted daughter are more like good acquaintances, having completely different ideas about life and about being a woman. Where did she go wrong? She meets women who are quite happy with the modest roles assigned to them, apparently a lot happier than her. Is this the life she wanted?
All this thematically rich contemplating and melancholy of Nadya's happens without words. Mostly what we see is Nadya doing her job, administrating, exchanging words with people who recognize her, dealing with a young student who looks up to her, wandering around, going to bars, etc. She clearly isn't all stern and cold, she puts on a matryoshka doll costume to perform in a school play when a student suddenly drops out, she has a little personal woman-to-woman talk with a bar woman and then waltzes with her through the deserted bar, she gets giddy practically as soon as she smells alcohol and hence makes a fool of herself at her daughter's wedding celebration. In between all this we often see her thinking. What she really thinks about mostly is up to the viewer to interpret. One reviewer, for example, figured that Nadya's thoughts are purely those of nostalgia, for she is stuck in the glory days of her past while the present passes her by. Well, some of the things I think she thought about you can read in the first paragraph, so this review is thereby concluded.
But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
But I Want a Good Movie
A catholic teenage cheerleader is sent by her parents to a reform school for queers before she herself even realizes that she is one.
Even if it is a broad comedy where everyone is gullible and has an IQ of 90 at best, it doesn't seem right that the vast majority of the jokes in a "pro-gay" film do little else but to confirm all the homosexual stereotypes. All the adults in the film are obsessed with the sexual orientation of the kids which is part of the satire, this is one thing, but the film itself seems equally obsessed with it all the time, including the many scenes that don't feature any adults. Everything the kids do seems to relate to their sexual orientation, not even for a minute are they shown being, you know, just human beings.
But the bigger problem is that it is simply not a good or very fun movie. All the characters are incredibly inconsistent and you'll struggle to find anything clever in the plotting or in the humor which is kind of cute, inoffensive, and rarely particularly funny.
It's also not believable for a minute. The reform school is lead by two "teachers" who don't have the least bit of authority. They rely on the teenagers' good-will to pay any attention to their rules and lessons or to even stay at the camp, and paying attention they sure do even when they don't even want to be "healed" (half the time the kids want to become straight, half the time they don't, it changes from scene to scene).
In the end 'But I'm a Cheerleader' seems more like an excuse for the set designers, the costume designers and the makeup artists to go full camp. It's nowhere near impressive enough in those regards that one could actually call the film stylish, but along with the actors who have fun playing their stereotypes it's probably the main thing that keeps the film entertaining enough to be at least quite watchable.
Diabolo menthe (1977)
School, parents, and other problems
1963. Anne is in 7th grade or so. Her sister Frédérique is in 9th grade or so. They go to the same school. 'Diabolo menthe' is a nicely observant and fast-paced series of vignettes about their life, especially their school life. The film is the definition of slice of life.
We get to see the differences between the lives of the two sisters, and their commonalities. Anne often is in a hurry to grow up, to catch up with her big sister. She wants as much pocket money as her, is happy when she gets her first period after which she immediately demands to join her sister when she goes to the dance club, she steals (or tries to), she plays a prank on Frédérique, she goes to a café after school for the first time but has to go home when Frédérique sees her there, she runs away from a guy on the street who's wearing a coat (presumingly because she thinks he is a flasher, or maybe he really did flash her before), etc. She has a classmate who knows all the things grown-ups now, like about sex and white slavery and such. Of course most of it is utter nonsense, but the other children believe her anyway. Every little thing that happens in her life feels like a tragedy, everything seems so terribly important, in school and out of school.
For Frédérique, although a mere two years older, things look quite different. She has become politically active even though politics are forbidden in school. She becomes estranged with her friend in class over political matters and becomes friends with a different girl. She goes camping alone with a boy but grows annoyed of him and drives back home when she hears that a classmate of hers suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. She and the father of the girl who disappeared end up kissing. Etc.
What they have in common is that they have to deal with teachers and parents. The teachers all have the typical quirks and shortcomings. They dish out unjust punishments because they don't even want to understand the children, they struggle with their own insecurities more than they struggle with the children, and so on. Just your average screwed up teachers mistreating children, but you as a child couldn't tell anybody about it, because who would care? A teacher would have to rape you in front of the class before somebody cares, which - spoiler alert - isn't something that happens in this film. Of course the children are devils too if you let them, and a teacher who isn't respected by the children has to go through hell when all the children in a class behave like maniacs as soon as you are alone with them.
'Diabolo menthe' isn't an overt period piece. There are references to the Kennedy assassination and to Alain Resnais' "Muriel" (because one classmate amusingly sports that same name) but overall this could pretty much take place today. Presumingly it's set in 1963 simply because writer/director Diane Kurys was around the protagonists' age at that time. This also isn't a denunciation of the education system like 'Mädchen in Uniform' or anything, it's just about the everyday life insanity. They are all real people and the dialogues are simple, very true to life. It's all very unassuming. Very relatable. Very enjoyable.
You Are Not I (1981)
You are not I, but for three-quarters of an hour we are her
Off-her-rocker Ethel (super lethargic weirdo off-her-rocker, not bats*** crazy hysterical off-her-rocker) usually is institutionalized like a good weirdo but somehow finds herself on the side of a road. She's wandering about a car crash site where she does cute things like putting a stone into the mouth of all the dead people from the crash. Some more or less helpful guys drive her to an address that they think is her home, but it is the house of the sister who used to take care of her until she had enough of the family loon. How will the sister react and what will she do with Ethel? But maybe more importantly what will Ethel do and in her own mind what will she think she is doing?
The American Gothic novel "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite books. The protagonist of that novel is the very strange 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, also simply known as Merricat. The thing is that we experience everything through her skewed perception, it's not so much Merricat who appears strange, but everybody else does. This makes her likable to the reader even as she does and thinks quite evil things. Ethel basically is Merricat ten years later, and she only drifted even further into her own world. For another point of reference think of Norman Bates in the last scene of 'Psycho' (the fly).
Like Merricat we don't really know much about Ethel and we only pick up a few pieces here and there. She's a mysterious character and remains mysterious until the end. And like "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" we see the world tainted in the protagonist's colors and it's all a bit funny in its strangeness. We hear a lot of Ethel's cute ideas, like, she's convinced she can make bad things happen to people just by motionlessly sitting, staring at the floor and concentrating very hard or whatever. Don't expect any logic or consistency in her thoughts. One particularly cute idea of hers is that her sister moved all the furniture, the doors, the staircase, etc from one side of the house to the other since the last time Ethel was there, left is now right, and right is left. She's terribly amused by the fact that her sister must have put enormous effort into moving everything just so that in the end everything looks basically the same as before.
I would like to see a movie adaption of "Castle". 'You Are Not I' isn't it, but to me it kind of had the novel's feel and with the parallels between the protagonists I could consider it a spin-off in spirit. 'You Are Not I' is in black and white and very slow paced. Much of it isn't terribly exciting but the ominous atmosphere keeps it compelling and it makes up for any lengths with an ending that is both revealing about Ethel's character and wonderfully ambiguous and chilling. Not that the film would have to make up for much, it's 46 minutes short.
Closet Land (1991)
A female children book author (Madeleine Stowe) is kidnapped and finds herself in a room with a male interrogator (Alan Rickman) who appears to work for the government, accusing her that her latest book is a thinly veiled allegory of subversive nature. Trying to make her admit her guilt he uses various brutal, unethical and sexist methods.
Brought to you with the friendly support of Amnesty International 'Closet Land' is an anti-government/anti-authoritarian allegory of the most blatant kind, if you can even call it an allegory. More precisely it is about the abuse of power by the government in the form of torture in particular, and the abuse of power by authority in general. Torture in the name of the state of course is a very real thing, but in its details the theatrical scenario bears little resemblance to anything real even if one considers that it is set in the future, which this appears to be. And even taking into account the lack of a real context in the story concerning time and place, the author's behavior in this situation more often than not doesn't ring true to me.
What distinguishes this film from most other anti-authoritarian allegories is its feminist agenda which, however, comes in the form of vulgar self-victimization (Madeleine Stowe's nameless character even is credited as "Victim") and with a portion of misandry. Government is concluded to be a completely male domain. Males are per definition the victimizers and women are the victims, just like the government is per definition evil and the people are good. It also uses copious amounts of sexism as part of the interrogation/torture and a rape plot device which in a better film would probably seem fine but just adds more predictable elements to this unimaginative allegory, making them feel like clichés.
But it isn't all bad, at least towards the end it DOES have some interesting things to say that can make 'Closet Land' a nice conversation piece, most notably it forcefully drives home the point that the seeds of obedience to (male) authority and the acceptance of the (patriarchal) status quo are planted at a very young age, often through actions that may not even seem directly related to obedience to authority and so on. We unwittingly are all accomplices to the system in enforcing those ideals. Of course once the seed is planted in the impressionable child it is unlikely to go away, if anything it only grows. But this, like almost all other insights, is blatantly spelled out, in this case regrettably just after the film had made its point dramatically, if not subtly, at least as an integral part of the story.
The woman's martyrdom at the end (which is recognized as martyrdom more thanks to the swelling music and the pathos in the staging than from any heroism in her actions) is the expected final note before quoting some Amnesty International torture statistics and last but not least we get a Gandhi quote. The Amnesty International thing (the film apparently also was advertised a lot by linking it to the organization) actually wasn't meant to distract from its not very clever, on-the-nose, overzealous feminist message, at least not by director Radha Bharadwaj herself since that quote apparently was put there against her will and she opposes that her film is linked so closely to the human rights organization. Her film, after all, "ultimately has such a far-reaching scope", it would be a shame to "dismiss it as mere human rights propaganda". That's what SHE said.
Tri topolya na Plyushchikhe (1968)
Mother's Day Out
Nyura is a VERY simple-minded but lovable, energetic and quite upbeat country pumpkin and a mother of two. After the film introduces us a little to the daily routine of her simple but hard-working life as a housewife in the idyllic country her fairly stern husband sends her to Moscow to sell some ham, buy some stuff and to check on the possibly unfaithful sister-in-law (if she has filed a divorce from her husband she won't be welcome in town anymore, if she were to show up, her brother, he promises, would give her the beating of a lifetime). Nyura is ill-equipped (especially mentally) for the journey and for the big city, with her naivety she could easily get into trouble having people (and especially men) take advantage of her. A taxi driver who shows interest in her could potentially be one such man but Nyura doesn't quite seem to grasp what's going on. How will she handle the situation? Is the taxi driver maybe a decent guy? What will happen? What COULD happen?
I'm not spoiling anything if I say that nothing dramatic happens. It's more about the what ifs. Nyura is played by Tatyana Doronina who is a plump but beautiful woman with a very expressive face. Her character isn't exactly your typical protagonist and the film does a wonderful job of putting the viewer in her mindset, the tone overall is always fairly light. We largely see her living from moment to moment, she rarely initiates things, rather she reacts to her environment without giving it much thought, and in the course of one or two days we share her little joys and worries, her little hopes and dreams (there are two excellent dream sequences that I think give us quite a bit of insight into Nyura within very little time). Like its protagonist the film has no feminist aspirations, certainly no big ones, which would have been out of place here.
I probably haven't quite communicated yet why the film is as delightful as it is. So let me point out one little moment. Nyura sits in the passenger seat of the taxi. She hasn't really exchanged a lot of words with the taxi driver yet beyond the usual formal talk. While driving she spots on a lane next to her a car with a long piece of stocking sticking out of the trunk, waving around behind the driving car. She glances at the taxi driver to check if he has noticed the car. While trying to suppress and hide her smile she contemplates if she should call his attention to the car. Finally she can't help it anymore and asks him what is sticking out of the trunk of that car over there. He looks at it and says it's a stocking after which she points at it while laughingly saying: "It looks so funny." She laughs at it some more rather quietly and still is a bit embarrassed, half-heartedly covering her mouth with one hand. When she looks at him he is completely stern, focusing on the road, probably thinking something like: "What's that broad's deal?" She, still visibly amused, moves her eyes back to the stocking but now suppresses her laughter again.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Roaring car engines. Spinning Earth. A road at night. A car drives off straight into the darkness. Two cars next to each other get leveled. A race! Cars get checked by race organizers. Money gets exchanged. A man looks at us. Red light in his hand flashes up. Red dies, green is begotten. Engines start roaring again and now two cars drive into the darkness. Man in blue car tells us: "Watch the fight." Blue is our guy. Same game again. Leveling, red, green, roooar and vanish. Cut to the finish line. Blue arrives first. Red lights flashing in the dark in front of Blue. The other car drives on, Blue turns around, drives back. Red flashing lights chase Blue. Blue slows down to pick up friend. Off they go. Red flashing lights lose Blue.
Our man, Blue, The Driver...he's into driving. Not much else. Most of the rest he blocks out. Socially awkward. Except when it comes to setting up races. That he is interested in, so that he can do, motherf***er. Don't tell him how s***ty your life is, he doesn't want to hear about it. But GTO wants to tell him. GTO, a man who likes to talk. Doesn't matter who, anyone will do. A born bulls***ter.
A girl joins Blue. She can because she wants to. No questions asked. The friend and the girl make love, or what one calls "making love". The Driver stays out of it. The girl appears in GTO's car. They talk. She lures GTO into racing against the guys. Or with them. Now she helped The Driver to set up a cross country race, and they have a good talk about the s***ty life of bugs. The Driver and the girl end up...I don't know, making out for five minutes. The Driver now participates in a pointless road game. The girl on the backseat, witnessing the power game. A road accident brings it to a halt.
One time GTO is talking to The Driver he doesn't want to bulls***. Because GTO just watched how the car that he set up the big race with beat his vehicle in a little race. He used to think he could win the big race. He hoped he could. All the things he lost, all the things he tried. But the road life isn't his either. Now what else has he left to hang on to? Words. Just words. But they don't ground enough. And if he's not grounded pretty soon, he's gonna go into orbit.
The girl joins GTO. She can because she wants to. GTO is bulls***ting her about a future together. The girl isn't into it. They walk into a diner. Some boy who looks like the girl sees the two. The girl sees the boy. Meanwhile The Driver wants to find the girl, real bad. He does! The Driver proposes to her a future together. He's not bulls***ting. "No good", says the girl. The guy who looks like her leaves and gets onto his motorcycle. He waits. The girl follows. She can because she wants to. She has to leave behind much of her stuff because there's no space for it on the machine. She doesn't mind, it's just stuff. Three men left behind. They part. Whatever race there once was, it's over. GTO continues to pick up people. To talk to them. To bulls*** them. The Driver is game for his next race.
Enchanting, gloomy, captivating, enigmatic, touching, otherworldly, beautiful, haunting, rapturous - A gem waiting to be discovered
Plot: "Set against the rugged beauty of the Brittany seacoast, it tells the story of a young girl whose lonely isolation under the watchful eye of her stern and bitter father is abruptly shattered by the arrival of a seductive fugitive from the law."
'Rapture' is a coming-of-age tale, a dark Gothic fantasy, a romance, a bit of a melodrama, and maybe a few other things. Its ability to stay clear from clichés despite the familiar dramatic framework alone is astonishing, which makes the film ultimately pretty uncategorizable, not to say anything about how sensible and dare I say perfect everything else is about this relatively layered production that feels grounded in realism while often being quite magical thanks partly due to the script, and partly due to its beautiful dreamy score and arresting as well as intelligent compositions of its CinemaScope black and white cinematography.
Its nationality isn't easily identifiable either. The spoken language is English, the writer of the source novel is British, as is the director, but he was born to French parents, the film (unlike the novel) is set in France and most of the crew is French, as is the main actress. Its overall feel is predominantly French but it definitely also has British and American touches and there's something Bergmanesque about it as well as it often plays like a chamber psychodrama and with Bergman regular Gunnel Lindblom in the cast providing a direct link to the Swedish auteur. Speaking of actors, although without big stars the main players are all recognizable faces who fit their roles excellently and all of which give very good performances with the memorable standout being French actress Patricia Gozzi as the young girl, she bowed out of acting only a few years later but if you happen to have seen 'Sundays and Cybele' you certainly will remember her from that movie.
There are many films I could compare it to, but no comparison would be exhaustive. The enigmatic stranger who enters a family with each person projecting their own desires onto him and them essentially creating their own image of the man is an important element in the film that recalls Pasolini's 'Teorema'. Then there's an impressive section later in the film in which the girl finds herself in Paris for the first time and she is completely overwhelmed by her surroundings and the situation in general, which has something of the same year's 'Repulsion'. In fact I think I saw Catherine Deneuve rubbing her nose in the background in one of the shots...OK, I didn't. Anyway, those comparisons are just scratching the surface.
I'm not really sure to whom I would recommend 'Rapture', but if my genre description made it sound like your kind of thing you may want to look into it. Especially if you loved Chan-wook Park's 'Stoker', I think there are a few similarities between them with a general oddness that is not only captivating with its complex web of character relationships but also feels perfectly natural to the material, in particular thanks to its mentally troubled young protagonist on the brink of sexual awakening who is like a warmer but also more visibly unhinged version of India Stoker with the actress very much having the same strange appeal as Mia Wasikowska as well as the acting chops to go with it.
Although understandably not the kind of film with a huge mainstream appeal 'Rapture' apparently never even saw all that much of a release back in the 60's. The handful of reviews that I found (all written within the past few years) amazingly enough are unanimously very positive, which strengthens me in my belief that this is a gem still waiting to be discovered by a much wider audience. It's only now that the film sees its first wide home video release by the UK label Eureka, so maybe now its time has finally come.
Yoiyami semareba (1969)
When Twilight Draws Near
Japan, 1969. Four bored students in their apartment have been playing games for the past 24 hours and they don't give it much thought when they turn an accidental gas leak into another game. They close the window and the door, make sure not to light cigarettes anymore and the last one to leave the room wins a small pot of money. While sitting in their room they draw parallels to the gassing of the Jews, and that's when the film still is cheery. When an argument arises over why they are playing the game the soul searching begins, what is it that they expect to come from it? What is it that they expect from life? They all have their own reasons for why they are potentially risking their lives in a stupid game, or IS it a stupid game? After everybody else gave up the winner who is convinced that it was more than a game insists that the others admit it as well or else she will strike a match in the still gas-filled room, but is she really capable of going through with her threat? Does refusing to accept the seriousness of the situation save them or will it be their doom? Ironically the ones who gave up first in the competition seem to care least about their lives by not even trying to talk her out of it while the one who figured he plays the game because he's expecting nothing from life so with life being one big long game what else is there than to partake in any competition that comes along, seems to value his life the most and realizes that, game or not, the outcome of the situation depends on his actions.
43 minutes that feel like little more than 10, with enough substance for 90. Existentialism with style, written by Nagisa Ôshima.
Le orme (1975)
Footprints on the Moon / Le orme (Luigi Bazzoni, 1975)
'Le orme' aka 'Footprints (on the Moon)' has an intriguing premise. What if you wake up and you apparently skipped two days? And you find out that people saw you during this time? In a different country. And the people there say they met you but you had different hair and a different name?
It's a mystery that I was always interested in finding the answer to although it didn't give me much food for thought on the way. This changes about 55 minutes in when it isn't anymore all JUST about protagonist Alice Cespi asking one question after another to people who claim have seen her or talked to her and the film for the first time really hints at a possible solution to the mystery, a temporary solution that is sad and evocative. But things don't stop there and the film provides what appears to be the answer before delivering a twist and then finally a dramatic climax which while bringing everything together and creating a full picture of what happened is both satisfying but complex and open enough to stay thought-provoking after the movie is over as it is probably open to interpretation regarding at least some questions.
"Footprints" is a compelling mood piece with many nice locations even if I couldn't tell what country or even what continent this seaside town named "Garma" was supposed to be on. I guess it added to the mystery, it certainly didn't get in the way and now I know the film was shot in Turkey which, thinking back to that town, makes sense (what with the mosque).
One element that is both compelling and a bit goofy in its execution are the moon dreams/visions. Alice claims that it is a movie that she saw years ago and those images now are haunting her for some reason and the scenes indeed seem like out of a different movie, especially the very brief bits with Klaus Kinski. It's compelling both because it made me wonder how this would fit into the mystery and because it addresses movies' likeness to dreams as well as dealing with the concept of movies having the power to transform in ones memory over time to become a dream or even something that you think really happened to you. Kinski seems wasted at first given his miniscule screen time but I'm sure it got him a nice paycheck for an hour's work so it really wasn't a waste at all. Erm, what I actually meant to say was that it wasn't wasted because those scenes indeed turn out to be memories of a movie she once saw (although I suppose it's open to interpretation) so it makes sense to cast a well-known movie star even for this very little role...and I guess it was cheaper to get Kinski than to get Marlon Brando.
As for my personal interpretation, to keep it as short as possible, as a teenager Alice had a vacation fling with a boy named Henry. They were very much in love with each other but she told him her name was Nicole which would make it impossible for him to ever find her in the future. Their ways parted. Now she has a stressful job that she doesn't like and feels very lonely and unhappy. These days she often thinks of him and she comes to associate the moon movie with Henry, she feels like she abandoned him. One day she unexpectedly finds out where to find her childhood love and off she goes. She puts all her hopes into this reunion and pretties herself up for him but when she finds him, or rather when she finds the adult that Henry has grown into it's a devastating disappointment for her, her memories were so much more perfect than the real thing. Traumatized she flies back home and erases the past two days from her memory. But when she wakes up she starts investigating the mystery of two lost days and unwittingly traces back her steps to an event that already ended in an emotional disaster which this time has even more severe consequences.
All this is told in surprisingly prosaic but consistently appealing images that shine even in a subpar DVD transfer and which often have something subtly futuristic about them, naturally this makes the whole space thing fit in quite well after all. As for this being a giallo, it's not, unless in the broader sense that it is both a mystery and Italian. This very much falls into the same category as Luigi Bazzoni's 'La donna del lago' but which in addition also has a crime at its center and has more of a horror feel to it. I found that film about male fantasy and desire to be more evocative throughout but apart from those things the two films have a lot in common and I think 'La donna del lago' would make a good companion piece if you liked 'Le orme'. I consider 'La donna del lago' to SORT of be the Italian 'Vertigo'. I guess this would sort of make 'Le orme' the Italian (and heterosexual) 'Mulholland Dr.', no?
Strange and somewhat haunting
An interesting homage to 'Vampyr' that pretty successfully recreates the Dreyer classic's otherworldly lethargic mood as well as the peculiarity of its dialogues and their delivery but to achieve all this it adopts a glacial pace that almost makes 'Vampyr' look like it's on speed in comparison, combined with its paper-thin plot and carefully enough staged but very minimal mise-en-scène that doesn't exactly dazzle the senses this ought to be the death blow to this quiet two-character piece, but I found its strangeness compelling enough to actually make this surprisingly easy viewing for me.
Like 'Vampyr' it begins with a man arriving at a house to find the front door locked so he walks around the house to enter from a different side. Inside he meets a woman. Plotwise the similarities largely end here apart from a couple of incidental moments and locations. The man has come to purchase the house but the woman keeps avoiding the subject and doesn't want to name a price, she generally seems absent-minded (to put it mildly) so the guy quite naturally keeps hanging around in the house for days and he gradually finds out sinister things about her husband who is nowhere in sight. Or is he? 'Nachtschatten' is a mood piece through and through built on the motifs of "Todessehnsucht", "Liebestod" (sorry, translating those words just seems wrong to me) and all that good Gothic stuff with a strong emphasis on the (German) Romanticism part of it, but almost without any use of its symbolism, a brief but crucial "gravestone dream" being the major exception. Instead it looks more like a Heimatfilm, or rather like the shadow of one, like, if this is a Heimatfilm then it's one that died decades ago and now its ghost flickers on a TV screen at 3am inside a dream.
As technically competently made as it is in its own way the film suffers from a lack of ideas, I found its narrative as empty as its mise-en-scène and even the little substance/narrative it has is certainly at the end of the film blatantly spelled out but it really is more than just alluded to again and again throughout the whole film. Like I said, mood and strangeness is king, this is no twisty horror, it's easy to figure out the whole thing in the first 10 minutes and the rest of the film one watches the characters catching up with you. And that IS a problem, what is a film like this worth if there is absolutely nothing mysterious left? It's not that the scenario actually makes logical sense but the background story does and I just feel it would have profited from being more puzzling rather than having the viewer be ahead of the characters throughout much of the film.
It also has a very sparse but I think carefully put together sound design and music is used seldom in the first half and more frequently in the second half. I think it's noteworthy that this piece of music (it always uses the same one again and again) sounds a lot like the 'Mulholland Drive' theme. You know, this soft droning that is sinister, melancholic, sad, and a few other things all at once. It doesn't fail to be effective. I also should mention that while, like I said, far from visually dazzling, it has a, to me, appealing and appropriately odd desaturated 16mm look.
Maybe the complexity actually is all there and it just failed to resonate much with me. Maybe it resonates more with stand-alone widows who when their husband passed away died a little (or a lot) themselves. So I guess I recommend 'Nachtschatten' to lonely, morbid widows, most other viewers should probably stick to 'Vampyr'.
Ovoce stromu rajských jíme (1970)
The truth, the devil and violent rape
Adam and Eve in paradise. They are one with nature. Carefree sexual beings, but naive like children. Then the snake offers them an apple from the tree of knowledge by telling them the truth, which is that God lied to them, for they will not die when they eat from the tree, but become gods themselves. Eva is eager to know the truth, so she eats the apple.
Skip to the present time. Sort of. A fictitious health resort that doesn't seem too different to paradise. A way to keep out modern social issues and to focus on gender relations maybe? Its people seem to be rather naive and carefree as well much of the time but have become estranged from nature and wear clothes. But lets start with Eva, our protagonist. She is married to Josef. After climbing down a wall a bearded guy (Robert) almost pisses on her head. She approaches him but he avoids her. Later he approaches her when she plants carrots. Now she avoids him. Later again she approaches him and he avoids her. Robert chases after various girls, and avoids others. Without any rhyme or reason, apparently. He even flirts with a 78-year old woman in a wheelchair.
One sunny day the people of the health resort play with a big orange balloon. A key drops out of Robert's pocket. Eva picks it up and uses it to unlock his house and to go through his stuff. She finds a stamp and stamps herself on the leg, just because. It's a 6. She tries to remove it but can't. Later the newspaper reports about the murder of a blonde woman. She was found with the number 6 stamped on her forehead. Now Eva knows that Robert is a murderer. He knows that she knows so now he tries to kill her.
Josef tells Eva that he lied to her about something. How could he?! Her world is shattered. She now sees Josef as being no better than Robert. They basically both lied so he is no better than a murderer. Men are all the same, really. Liars. And the world is rotten. The disillusioned (or just wiser) Eva takes off with her stuff.
Eva chases after Robert again because whatever, it's all rotten anyway. Josef don't like that too much but can't really do much about it except for chasing after her now. Eva runs off, Robert chases after her, Josef chases after her, Eva flirts with waiters, Josef and Robert watch, they chat, Eva chases after Robert again and so on.
Eventually Robert chases after Eva and then Eva chases after Robert and he wants to shoot her. With a gun. He throws the gun to her. She throws it back. He puts it into his coat. Eva says she's cold. Robert covers her with his coat. This was the last time that she believed someone, she says and takes the gun. That's betrayal, he says, and yes, it's all a lie. She takes the gun and shoots him. Eva runs to the wall from the beginning of the film but can't climb over it to "return to paradise".
Eva runs back to Josef. She tells him not to ask for the truth. She doesn't even want to know it herself, but she does know it. She wants to give him a rose. He passes on it and walks on. While this is going on a song concludes the Adam and Eve story. In it Eve eats the apple and offers it to her husband, who eats it as well. They realize that they are naked and when they see God strolling about in paradise they "hide themselves among the fruit trees of paradise".
Chytilová said in an interview that the film was about the occupation. The people "live in a lie, the truth was that they were violently raped". If that was the intention, and I have no reason to doubt it, I have to say it's a very unsuccessfully communicated allegory and the film furthermore doesn't seem to have to say much more than this about its real subject. Seems to me that it was just constructed as an obscured allegory as a sort of daring experiment. Will they find out what her film is really about? She says they didn't, nor that most other audience members "got it".
The Scoundrel (1935)
Miracles can be expected
Damn you Hecht and MacArthur, forcing me again to write a review for a sadly neglected film after the equally magnificent 'Crime Without Passion'.
I had already gotten ready to write 'The Scoundrel' off as a little dialogue-driven romantic drama with by far the smartest dialogue of any film of its time (from what I've seen), but then in the last third it's like somebody suddenly turned the whole thing up to 11 and the film enters the realm of magic realism while still feeling consistent with the tone and intentions of the rest of the film, it becomes very emotional in a - dare I say without sounding pretentious - transcendental way. But I should probably begin at the start.
Again like in 'Crime Without Passion' what's maybe the most remarkable aspect of the film is that the protagonist - here it is the head of a book publishing firm - is an intelligent but highly unsympathetic character who nevertheless is taken seriously by the filmmakers as a figure to identify with, and at least for me very successfully so. When this seemingly irredeemable character finally gets his chance of redemption it is after such a traumatic event and at such a high price that this turn is wholly believable and more than welcome on my part.
'Crime Without Passion's lawyer Lee Gentry and 'The Scoundrel's book publisher Anthony Mallare are actually quite similar characters in general. Both are talented in their chosen field and successful at their job in which they are their own bosses. More importantly both are proud about their wit, pitiless and unabashedly self-centered to the point that they have no real use for friends. The people at his firm he calls his friends acknowledge his brilliance but otherwise mostly talk in negative terms about him which Mallare is totally fine with. About them he says: "I call everybody who is clever enough to see through me a friend." Again you have to look no further than the lines that introduce us to Anthony Mallare to get an idea of who this man is. Here are two more samples:
Colleague: "What did you think of Mrs. Robinson's book?" Mallare: "It rrreeks of morality." Colleague: "You are not rejecting it..." Mallare: "Certainly! To the lions with it." Colleague: "I thought it had a lot of sales value." Mallare: "Undoubtedly. But I refuse to make money improving people's morals. It's a vulgar way to swindle the public. Selling them things they least need. Virtue and dullness."
Colleague: "I don't understand you, Tony, with all the money you throw away on advances, refusing old Slezack." Mallare: "I refuse to be blackmailed. Especially by the lame, the halt, and the blind." Colleague: "And pity - that most vile of virtues - has never been known to you, eh?"
Like Gentry he is looking for the right woman for himself. I guess the key difference is his environment. Gentry was an intelligent man surrounded by "common folk" while the people that Mallare surrounds himself with are not unlike him educated and cynical people who hardly get into contact with people outside their own little circle. Mallare merely is the most extreme of them, but also the most brutally honest and most consistently true to himself and his ideals. After cruelly finishing an unlucky relationship with a smart life-affirming young poet who initially seemed like a great match for him he remains without pity except for himself and actually admits that he doesn't even like himself. Mallare gets ready to lower his expectations and settles for a woman who is very much his cold female counterpart. Tragically even this attempt fails in its infancy making it doubtful that a man like him ever could find his heart's desire or even a real friend let alone a soul mate. And this is when the up to this point very dialogue-driven film takes an unexpected turn and becomes something very different.
In this romantic drama about literates the characters don't just talk like your Average Joes and Plain Janes with a few quotes from classic pieces of literature thrown in (although naturally they do that too) but they actually speak quite like real well-educated people, well, maybe in an idealized form, it is a movie after all and as mentioned a smartly written one at that. The acting also is pretty understated and has an authenticity that is quite unlike anything from that era. I can't really describe it, it just has to be seen, and it probably isn't everyone's cup of tea, if you don't get where those characters are coming from you might not get into it at all.
I was very surprised to find out afterwards that the screenplay actually won the Oscar that year, I would expect this film to have a difficult time finding the right audience, viewers expecting high emotion, sentimental romance and "entertainment" will largely be disappointed and just plainly turned off by the unlikeable protagonist while and the more high-brow crowd would probably find its ambitions to be aiming too low and its romantic tendencies difficult to fully embrace. Up until the last third it's basically a series of dialogue scenes and filmmaking-wise or even storytelling-wise it's nothing special. The less than stellar copy that I had to watch might be deceiving regarding the cinematography, though, and all this changes after the turning point when it becomes more comparable to something like 'Portrait of Jennie' or 'Liliom' but I won't give away any more. Watching 'The Scoundrel' miracles can be expected.