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Beyond the Forest (1949)
Scoffing at the role handed you
This is utter schlock that wouldn't look out of place in a marathon of bad movies. Here are a few pointers as to how outdated. A moralist intertitle announcing we're going to see a film about naked evil. Religious King Vidor at the helm. Omniscient narrator hovers around town setting up the story.
But this is Bette's show as well. Reportedly she was disdainful of the script and tried to walk out several times. I don't know if you can tell by watching that she hates it, the Bette Davis devout might, I haven't had the chance to watch her in a while. She's always so eminently watchable however and no less here, sneering and scoffing her way through the role of contemptible manipulatrix tormenting her milquetoast doctor husband.
She is the 'evil' of the intertile, her naked lust for money, her haughty ego that she's too good for the small Wisconsin town. Her burning desire and ego are visually exemplified in the fire of a nearby sawmill that burns through the night, visible from her window. She writhes and winces a lot, a picture of someone completely at odds with themselves. In a most heinous moment of the story, she calls in her husband's medical debts from the poor workers in town, all so she can go to Chicago to buy clothes. Once there she hopes to elope with a rich guy.
It's all as incorrigible as this. But this is Bette's show, which means a struggle with the fire that burns inside of you, a struggle to harness explosive talent. What does this mean?
This is the film where she famously says 'what a dump'. A more fiery moment however for me is when she demands from the rich guy to marry her. She wants out of the dump badly. Rich guy raucously laughs and points at her, laughing. Is Bette phased at all? She crosses the room and slaps him, hard, and cut to her looking triumphant. He kisses her.
The film is about a headstrong woman who is unhappy with where she is in life. Written as it is, by some guy in the 40s, the film goes out of its way to portray her as truly vile; not just an unhappy wife but unhappy because she can't buy nice shoes and clothes. Fierce but deliberately shown as idle and superficial. But what if we decide to not settle for the cartoon manipulatrix grafted on top of the unhappy woman and instead see someone who wants out from a role she has been squeezed into?
Being a headstrong woman who wants to be in control of her own choices was enough to label you spoiled and ungrateful in the 40s. Bette knew first hand.
Washing up in dreams
With film noir we arrive at a crucial junction where the old certainties just won't do. A world war had intervened, with home deeply upended for a few years, or permanently in many cases. Men and women had been plucked from normalcy and sent away to new unexpected lives.
The American experience of the war differs in an important way. The whole world is disheveled in the chaos of the ordeal, chaos which from the American perspective would have been not without excitement at being part of a collective purposes; a joyous sense of riding to the world's aid, knowing one day soon it would end. But crucially, at the end American homes are where people left them. As a bonus, the Depression has magically gone away, wiping clear the horizon.
So once you return, the world proves to be a disorienting thing, must have been felt to be. Having seen it all become uprooted and airborne, are you supposed to go back to being content with a home and a job you went to?
Tonight I can think of no better entry into the floating dream world of noir than this small film here, none, and I put it above many of the famous ones. It's part of a few Lizabeth Scott noirs she did in the brief time she managed to land roles. An interesting thought I read, she may have managed to squeeze in (along with others) while more established actors were busy with the war.
At any rate, I find myself wholly captivated by her this past week. I think she's someone truly worth knowing, and being able to see her in the context provided by films like this one and Too Late for Tears, just these two are enough. The closest parallel I can think of is Gena Rowlands; the same unaffected beauty; the same hardness around the eyes and smile that cannot conceal hurt; the same sense of a tough broad who knows how to survive and how to be on her own. Lizabeth must have been a tough cookie and although it seems she was wasted in some conventional roles, the material here was just right for her.
This is about everything just said above, the dreamlike tiptoeing out of the loving home of stability, someone nagged by the sense that out there in the city another life could be lived.
With just a few brushstrokes in the opening scenes, we get the illusion that becomes our space for meditation. The perfect American home somewhere in postwar Los Angeles, the wife has just finished cooking breakfast, the husband is getting ready for work. They're not rich but they're comfortably middle-class.
In a marvelous scene while she drives him to work, he wearily wonders if this is all life is going to be. He muses about just keep driving to South America together. It's great to be able to see in these exchanges not some feverish desire, he knows no one is going to be going off to South America or quitting his job, but a quiet and more everyday dissatisfaction, one that underpins so much of modern life.
In this ordinary insurance guy we can see one of those people who were whisked away by the war and returned to probably the same life after. It doesn't even have to be gruesome war in Okinawa or Omaha beach, in his case he was safely stationed in Denver, Colorado.
Another marvelous aside is the notion throughout the film that kids 'these days' have it easy. Trying to read to his son from an old book about western adventures, the kid obviously prefers his stash of comic-books with alien monsters. The kid may have grown up to be an old man musing about how hard they had it in the old days.
This is what's so great to see here, our placement in ordinary life that in many ways continues unabated. He does meet a beautiful woman later that day, he has gone to her place in his menial role as insurance agent. They take a liking to each other. Being with her promises another kind of life where you can just go on a boat-ride and stop for a drink at midday. But she's not some scheming dame, just a working class gal. Their affair is not riproaring passion that turns the soul upside down but a brief dalliance of quiet affection, maybe even just this one kiss we see.
Of course In the dreamlike world of noir machinations have already been set in motion, I will leave you to see what happens. But once more, nothing far-fetched, the sense is that life can just heave this way or that over the course of a few days, ordinary life full of paradox and coincidence. What does kissing another woman one harmless afternoon mean? It means someone is waiting outside your house one night.
This is potent work, rife for meditation, all about slow days that look the same and the wider horizon. The mind sees pictures all day and night long, he explains to his son who is startled by a bad dream. At night some of these pictures wash up in dreams.
Desert Fury (1947)
As far as Hollywood quickies go this is full of hysterical verve as another reviewer aptly points out. It's billed as film noir on here and that's how I came to it but it's not, it's romantic soap opera.
Its first of two real charms is the lush Technicolor, that always gasp-worthy window into a world of splashy color and make-believe light. I've never seen a color film noir that lets us take in the city; whenever producers decided to splurge for it in this milieu, it seems like it needed to have a pastoral desert background, pristine skies in the distance, Nevada here.
Its other charm and probably the real reason you might decide to visit is the story of rebellious young daughter falling for the gangster bad boy in the rural small town. This is against her mother's warnings and really the warnings of every mother in the audience.
He spits insults to anyone who might tell him what to do, she won't stand for her mother's attempts to tell her how to live her life. Both are fresh back in town, both fret with the limits of the established smalltown order. Hodiak and Scott are both superb. We get the sense that in spite of everyone's warnings, she'd jump in his car in a heartbeat to go to LA.
Interesting to note here that the idyllic desert of westerns in her case means a narrative of being married to the good, sturdy guy and settling down together in a ranch, but through her eyes this is seen as stifling. In the usual mode Lancaster would have been the hero and romantic interest, their love would have been thwarted because he doesn't have any prospects.
It's a Bonnie and Clyde origins story, the same story that would resurface in countless other films from Gun Crazy to Badlands. With a temper like his, we get the sense that it would not take much for him to leave dead bodies behind and it would not take much for her to accept it as part of furious passion that rages against the world.
Eventually she does jump in his car and they're off to LA, having spurned her mother. Badlands would go on to give us the violent spree and poetic journey.
Here we are turned back on the road. This is shown as previous life catching up with them. In a diner an odd bit of psychology takes place where he's revealed as never having been the flippant, cocksure guy she was attracted to but an actor strutting on a stage others had prepared for him. The film accepts this as the final verdict, because in spite of everything just seen, we really need her to be back home to reconcile with her mother. In the end she looks over the desert at sunset with the good, sturdy guy, pining for that ranch together.
It's not even the sermonizing type; her mother is portrayed as someone who has known danger and passion like she wants to indulge and came out tired but on her feet There's a youthful yearning here to burst out from the idyll of rural America into dizzying modern life. It wasn't yet time but that would come.
Road House (1948)
Ida's free and easy swim in sultry noir
This is made with enough memorable pieces - the 'road house' in the small Midwest town, the torch singer fresh from Chicago who comes to upset the sleepy routine, the two men, owner and manager of the joint, who lust after her - that it would have been something to see regardless of who was in it.
Someone like Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth would have been equal parts fierce and coquettish in navigating their private wants against the male desire that threatens to create a narrative that engulfs them. That would have been fine and the film worth watching.
But we got Ida Lupino instead, that whirlwind of softly indomitable spirit. I had heard enough about her in my various travels through film, always in context of trailblazing individualism, and have even seen her in a couple of films before. But for whatever reason, this was the first time I was so profoundly captivated by her talent that from now on, she's forever celebrated in my house.
Going by what she achieves here, she should be rightfully mentioned on par with Cagney, that other whirlwind of intelligent presence. It's an ability to float past obvious limits of a narrative, and from there inhabit a self who can freely enter the story, play and improvise on that edge, that makes her unerringly modern. In this case she gives us the soulful ingenue, the one required by the story, but at her choosing, and the next morning freely becomes someone who just wants to look around and explore.
Just look how her ability to shift what she inhabits in an easy and free manner makes the whole context of a scene shift. The scene with going up to the pond for a swim is written for her character to impress Wilde's as not just a stuck-up singer from Chicago. But the way she plays it turns it into she's there for a swim and shucks if he's impressed. Maybe she likes him, but she'll be fine either way.
She's so marvelous in the first half of this (which is largely devoted to her and her romance), you forget you're watching a film noir of the time. It's like watching an actor from 20 years later, a Nouvelle Vague woman. She manages to make the whole transcend and had me feeling what it would be like if more studio pictures of the time were allowed to simply follow along with contemporary life on the streets. We'd have to wait for Cassavetes to start that ball rolling and then onwards to Altman and the others. Ida would have made a dreamy collaborator in those years and would have flourished and shined all the more as both actor and filmmaker.
But this is still a film noir, which means succumbing to narrative controlled by selfish desire. In this case Richard Widmark is not happy that she chose his helping hand around the club; so he conspires to create a vengeful narrative that entraps all three, and no less his own self. The setting for this part is a remote cabin in the woods.
In a great scene the two lovers, looking glum now, sit across the table from each other overseen by Widmark at the head, as if the whole world has shifted to something other than real. Widmark, that early Jack Nicholson of film, deserves a standing ovation himself for all he achieved; not once has his usual mode of seething, petulant menace failed to enhance a film all the more.
The resolutions are predictable and really the last part of of the film is, but it's still decent noir. Taken as a whole, it's a rich primary text and wholly deserves the visit.
Nora Prentiss (1947)
The illusory nature of self
In the sweepstakes of film noir bleakness this one just breaks the meter, I'll have you know right off the start. It's pitch black and can snuff the light out of your whole day.
It's also one of the most overwrought, which means that the several changes of story give us a kind of life that teeters on the edge of the believable and more on the side of cautionary fable. No one leaving the theater would be anything less than smacked in the face with the moral downfall of a man led astray by desire.
But set that aside and you'll see here some penetrating notation on the illusory nature of self.
It starts the way it usually does, perfectly upstanding family man chances to meet a woman one night. His previous life of being always punctually on time at the office and back home again for dinner with the family suddenly seems stifling in light of the excitement that being with her promises.
This desire for escape from humdrum routine is given to us visually in a drive with her to his cabin up to the mountains. A place of seclusion that is gathering dust because no one in the family wants to go there with him. He plays the piano for her, which he hadn't done in a long time.
So what does he do? He dies and disappears in a next life with her. How this is accomplished is one of those far-fetched changes of plot I was talking about that you'll just have to accept was the best solution that came to mind that night. But it's one of those masterful turns that film noir takes, suggestive of an illusory world and malleable self subject to capricious urge. I love everything about this shift, those anxious preparations to sail out of San Francisco, the notion that back home the wife had come to realize it had been tough on him.
So, in New York now everything ought to have been just the way he craved it. Away from routine that stifles the soul, alone with her, finally free to explore.
Except having disappeared the way he did, having shed the identity, he can no longer be the same person. He cannot take up his old practice again to make a living and even has to avoid anyone who might know him from that previous life.
This shift is one of the most startling depictions of desire, and can really jolt you if you watch with attention. It's not that we simply crave after things, that we get or not, and might be led astray in some vague moral sense or not. You'll see here how it hollows out the world, makes it concave. How, having traded away one life governed by more or less the same narrative but playing against a backdrop of implicit freedom, he finds himself in one where he's now prisoner of a meaningless freedom, no closer to the fulfillment he imagined.
Secluded in a hotel room, things grow unhinged, and there is more to glean here. It's not that he can't go out, he's perfectly free to. It's that, without the context of a larger life in which we come together, share talents, and see eaech other in the light of shared narrative, does it matter if he does? He's still (presumably) the same body, mind, personality, so what has been swept aside? Context.
The last part of the film is where it all unravels, therefore the most grotesque. There's growing anger and resentment between them. Our man is heavily made up now to look baleful and unkempt, a pathetic figure like out of a horror movie.
And then in another shift of story that you'll just have to buy, he finds himself back in that San Francisco life he left behind, only now he's recognized by no one and he's already dead in it. We have complete dissolution.
Pitch black but worth your while.
Force of Evil (1948)
This is a change of pace from the norm of film noir. Film noir of course is a varied group of films and there is no one way to do it, certainly not a right one. It was tracing illusory and disorienting existence in the big city after all, itself fluid and malleable, and that's what we get here.
But a few differences help cast a light on what this is:
- the protagonist is not a gumshoe unraveling a case or hapless schmuck crushed by the fates. He's a cocky narrator, as much in control of what happens as anyone else, and in on it from the start. He has the usual fast-talking bravado, he glides smoothly, sweeps the girl off her feet. And yet his real impetus is wanting to pay back a big brother who sacrificed to get him out of tenement life.
- the girl is not some world-savvy dame but a sweet, innocent soul who instinctively backs out of the racket when it starts to feel wrong and is ready to fall for him only tentatively, guarding herself as she gives way.
All through this New York looks gritty rather than sultry, the narrative light is harsh and anxious. The contrast is between not entirely legal but not entirely immoral slum life, and the new cut-throat world of big business coming for the little guy. It's a bit of stretch to show the smalltime hustlers as the personable 'good guys' but that's the short-hand used. Its real progenitors are gangster films.
- And third, there is a scheme underway that resolves all this, to turn a numbers racket run piecemeal from tenement backrooms into a respectable, lucrative business run from Wall Street.
There's a lot of talk throughout, in that rat-tat-tat fashion of Hollywood. The dialogue verges on histrionic, and the whole has a verbose feel, but one that feels like someone has studied this life and is trying to come back with an honest depiction. It has a thickness of world to it, although the mannerisms are obvious.
Here's the cinch and what probably earned the movie a reputation as left-wing and landed the filmmaker in the famous HUAC blacklist.
The scheme works, the older brother eventually goes along with it, who had earlier made a big moral stand against it. The girl is swept off her feet. Our guy stands to make a fortune, help his brother, and get the girl who is not a dame like his boss's wife.
Except, in unchecked capitalism no one is really in control. Police had been watching but it's the nerve-wracked bookkeeper who sets the scene for grievous consequences to follow. The moral resolution is that it works but at what price to the soul; the lesson remains that a life of scheming doesn't pay and I'm not bowled over in this case.
Even more pertinently however, were the smalltime hustlers a boon to their community? They were running much the same lottery, working peoples' money for the promise that maybe this week it'll be you. But it seems there were bonds of community which the merger frays and disturbs. You'll see that it's our hero's tie to a human story rooted in community that really foils the plan.
The evocative finale with the couple descending stairs with the Brooklyn Bridge hulking above them is a favorite. In fact my favorite bits here all revolve around these two and their unlikely bond, their playful interplay against the larger background.
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Another noir with Bogart in the lead, here in the role of American painter who marries a rich English woman. He plays it his way of course, scruffy and hard-nosed, always on the edge of being abusive, and this is the main tension here.
It starts with him wanting to leave one marriage for another. We assume he's been swept by newfound love, the kind that maybe has come a bit late but here it is at last and tough choices have to be made back home. Except no sooner are the two illicit lovers back from their tryst than it starts to devolve. Instead of getting a divorce, poison is procured from a shop.
The shift is made, from temptation and how it weighs on the conscience, to overt and blatant evil. About halfway through, he has turned into a complete villain, Bogart excels in the malicious role, and Stanwyck is her own sublime self, fresh and gently spirited whilst in love but losing her grip in the house as her partner does.
The most interesting bits all revolve around Stanwyck in this house, a spacious mansion in the countryside, as she begins to piece the story and come to realizations. Wind blows all through the night, church bells chime in the distance. The center piece is a game of cat-and-mouse around the house in the middle of the night that plays like in a horror movie and there's a scene where Bogie is unveiled standing before an open window that shows he could have made a marvelous Dracula.
But the point remains, that it makes a very thin sense to have Bogie's character the way we do and the clumsy attempts to explain him (artistic madness) are no better.
See, the greatest attribute of noir is that desire may sneak up on you or me and a small slip that seemed not that big a deal in the moment can have cosmic repercussions down the line. It's the notion that taking this money, or sleeping with that other woman, can maybe go unseen this one time. It's why noir exists in the first place and is so deeply entwined with life in the big city; one rife with opportunities for hidden self and multiple lives, for both good and ill. That's a story for another day but the gist of it is, the noir protagonist is a schmuck, not a villain. It might be all his own doing, and some noirs make the moral point less stridently than others, but we can buy that we could be him on a bad day.
Nora Prentiss, another noir from the same year that I saw together with this, also goes far in how it twists and turns. But the slip into desire is so well handled, it's easy to accept that part. I have seen my share of film noir and would advise you to skip this one.
Somewhere in the Night (1946)
I'm a bit disappointed that I don't find myself liking this more than I do. See, it has one of those dreamy film noir openings, a man emerges from the war unable to remember who he is. Bandaged up in a hospital bed in Hawaii, it's still the Pacific Theater with the war in its closing days, he discovers a letter in his wallet but instead of kind words from a loved one anxiously awaiting for him to come back, it tells him he's loathed and despised. Deciding he doesn't want to find out who he was in that past life, he checks out of hospital without a word.
It's the stuff noir heaven is made of, the notion of a previous life and being karmically reborn into a next one, night in the big city rife with hidden knowledge, demanding we investigate. Coming back to a Los Angeles hotel that was his last known residence before the war, he discovers a satchel he had checked in, and lo, there's a note inside, and one that tells him he was paid a hefty amount of money.
At so many points sparks threaten to fly, evocative places are visited in the middle of the night, portentous characters are looking for him around town. He's beaten up, nearly run over, framed for murder. In the docks he meets with a wily narrator - a pretend spiritualist - who openly tells him he should not trust a word he says. There is another house where a spinster daughter makes as if she knows him but does she? A visit in a sanatorium reveals someone else who is locked up, unable to remember.
So much ought to have been just right here, making this worthy of other entries in my list of top noirs, and yet the best quality of films like Crossfire or Out of the Past is that they are able to ski on the edges of semiconscious knowledge, of self unexpectedly slipping into a world he gives rise to. Here we have a self-conscious filmmaker in control, who, it gradually becomes apparent, is trying to construct that noir sense. Instead of spontaneously slipping out through back roads, we're taken places that someone has just finished renovating for us.
It's the difference between detective fiction of the Sherlock Holmes kind and film noir where a narrator is not fully in control. So of course it all ends with the bad guy finally unmasking himself and making a big fuss of explaining things to us. Of course it's timed just right for the cop to make the arrest.
It's all a bit cleverly here, self-conscious, and you'll see it in the self-referential nod to movies. The same filmmaker would go on to do All About Eve.
The more tantalizing notion in all this for me is that the note professing such hatred for him really was from a loved one he stood up one day, or was it a last letter that he wrote and was planning to send but never got around to?
Tumultuous sea out the window
My interest in Almodovar is rather muted. He doesn't excel in any of the ways of presenting the world that really matter to me but he does several things more than well, so every so often I visit. There is the desire to submerge ourselves in fiction, lose ourselves to self in order to wake to a fabric that extends from self. That's Talk to Her for me.
But like Woody Allen or the Coens, he has consistently worked for so long on the same motifs that coming to him is also a matter of is he particularly inspired that day. I'm pleased to say he is.
In the individual pieces of cinematic craft, this is not particularly exceptional. If you're heavily inclined to how story resolves drama, you will see here something that simply trails off near the end. The symbolic motifs greet us upfront; a deer in slow-motion, tumultuous sea out the window. His bright reds on walls and the like are not something I can get excited about, in this or any film.
But he is inspired today on the fundamental matter of self passing through self. He manages to do this with just a few strands of narrative. There is the young woman who was on her way to all life ahead of her that night on the train, who finds herself yanked by unexpected passion. There is the house of passion in the small fishing village, eerily explored with Hitchcock hues. And there is bewildering loss as she wanders away a widowed mother.
Above all I love here the sense of transition. Almodovar does so well - his actress helps - in spinning narrative to explore tragedy. He says enough about the jittery urge for adventure as a story we throw ourselves in so that we can infer more fleeting illusion around the crushing melodrama about life breaking down. She's not just this grieving woman that another film, say, in the realist format would have simply followed around Madrid; we're privy to all this richness of her young self having set off in search. Things couldn't have only worked this way for her, it's important to see; but sometimes they do, sometimes setting out for open sea means finding yourself marooned on an island, nothing right or wrong.
And Almodovar is ineluctably Spanish, meaning Catholic; so communion with the fleeting, transcendent stuff must take place firmly within ritual, in his case (just like Ruiz before) fiction. The whole is narrated by an author writing the story down as she waits in her apartment, shifting us forward and back. It speaks about the imaginative mind being burdened by the narratives of memory. For Almodovar, there is merit in the effort. Had she not stayed behind to write, she would have missed the letter. Even more pertinently for me, there is a bedridden mother (a mirrored woman) who is allowed to languish in her room, written off as an invalid. But when her daughter comes to visit, the recognition nourishes her back to her feet.
No arriving without going out
This is one to bask in its air for a while, one of several films about transition in life that I've seen in the last few days. It does not ask particularly difficult questions, about love or otherwise. Being able to inhabit transition is still one of the most illuminating uses of our time however. Going out the door, arriving at the last bend of the road before our destination; these are the stuff that make life the awe-inspiring journey it is, worth experiencing.
The double perspective we are offered here is on one hand a quarrelsome world of need and anxiety, a bit cold, with boys pressuring the young woman for her affections, trying to pin her down to a life. Eventually it's revealed to be a much more cruel place, its machinery extending far afield. A private detective with them all this time and having set up his filming operation right next door to the lovers' room.
But there's also the world of going out the door in jittery search; the world of tentative lovers getting to pull back the covers of self from each other. This is a world where taking images (the young one is a budding photographer) doesn't come with a narrative of what they can be used to prove or exact from someone (a trial about custody is looming), they are not 'taken' from, they are shared back in the open for what they signify; people having come close for the occasion.
Seeing is central here, the story is after all in Anna Karenina's lineage (a preeminent story where seeing gives rise to the world of urge). We've just described two different kinds of it; one seeing that is strident and anxious with need, another where the gaze is open and jittery with anticipation.
The gaze of the film itself is soft and languid. It felt like a more robust Wong Kar Wai. There is a marvelous tone poem the filmmaker squeezes in early, reminiscent of Kar Wai's going through tunnels. How exciting to consider that what would have been experimental film in the 1950s, now is part of the common fabric of perceiving. The whole production also deserves a mention; bringing the era alive must have been such painstaking work. They do it, creating a 1950s world that envelops while avoiding the stifling impulse to see 'period' in purely sumptuous terms of a rosy past. I left the film with a sense of Roonie's character as a young student discovering life just like someone would now.
But there is also a third seeing that I would remiss in failing to mention. See, there is going out the door, and there is arriving on the last bend of the road, maybe the one before last. There is discovery and there is how to move forward from it. It's what we have in the final shot. Is she there to say goodbye the way they both deserve? There to announce she's there?
As with the whole, it's not something we've not seen before but I like the things that we are called to inhabit here.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
The house is already swirling
What is horror? Objects move of their own, we have the premonition that something is outside the door. Walls throb with presence. The same mechanism props up scary stories around a campfire and funhouses the world over. Maybe it speaks about powerful animal urge or a desire to enliven a world that is chasing spirits out. But it comes back to walking into a room expecting it to come alive.
Here we have it all quite clearly in a family of storytellers who stage an experience of the beyond for their paying customers inside their house. There are stage props, actors, a narrative of making contact. Fiction but it leads to shivers of actual experience, in this case closure for family members. How is horror, emotions, and self unlike it?
The story is they end up making real contact except it takes them a while to know it. Now it's this unseen narrator who is staging an experience of the beyond around them. The house acquires capricious life of its own, the real thing this time. There is the requisite backstory of course about heinous evil committed in that house long ago, the usual ghastly premonitions.
They acquit themselves well overall, I'm on board. The whole film as a funhouse of course, with some of the same atmosphere of murky oppression as we find in Insidious and that whole slew of seance films but two key differences that set it aside.
One is the attempt for genuine emotion in being visited by a departed father. Insidious-like films tend to use this trope that strikes me as particularly mean-spirited: the loved one we thought we were making contact with had been a demon in disguise all along.
The second is about choreographing expectation. The time comes for the actual show, this is where the possessed start flailing about and now obvious evil ricochets around the house. The usual priest visits with grave news about arcane evil in their midst all this time, there is talk of Vatican experts who deal with this kind of thing. Great, now we'll have to wait for the usual exorcism to be set up.
Except no sooner are we out of the room than someone is thrown to hang. The house is already swirling around us.
The Gift (2000)
Her body floating on the trees
Sam Raimi is an interesting dude. A few things I appreciate here.
I like that it isn't the type of story that simply piles on deceit; we have an emotional center from which to see. The story is about a woman, widowed mother of three, who hasn't come to terms with the loss of her husband. Maybe deep inside she feels she should have done more to keep him from going to work that day, that she squandered her gift of vision.
She's a fortune teller, a caring soul genuinely trying to help neighbors with their emotional turmoil, but we get the sense that she has allowed hers (and her kids') to go unaddressed. When her eldest (who has school trouble and is distant owing to the loss) takes the bold step of coming to her room to ask about their father, she sends him back to bed; so completely unlike her, denying both him and her the same comfort of clarity that she freely offers to others. This moment is pivotal to what this is. There's anger bubbling inside that clouds her intuition about emotional turmoil in her own home.
The horror film proper is about this anger unfurling outside. There is an abusive redneck who victimizes his girlfriend. Another woman who goes around her fiancee's back, betraying love, is found murdered. Flashes of premonition abound.
More could have been done to draw out connections. Although the premise is powerful, a bit too much of the film is spent in turning a plot. But that's my own preference for a cinema that wanders visually through context. It doesn't stop me from appreciating that, horrible murder, garish visions and the like, they all point back to a human being trying to cope with suffering, unsure about what's coming.
It would be nothing without Cate Blanchette of course. She soars, here near the start of her career. It might be simply that I've gone without the company of a great actor for some time; it felt like one of the most resonant works I've seen in a long time. The way she hesitates before easing in, her fragile poise guarded with grace.
The tendency is to celebrate actors within confines of an 'acting craft' that echoes its origins in theater. The type of roles that Oscars and sundry awards are given to tends to solidify this view. How revealing that Gena Rowlands was only Oscar acknowledged once and for a 'mentally ill' role. It keeps us from seeing them as makers in their own right, giving rise to a whole landscape of urge. Were we to be in Cate's presence, we would be in the presence of a master.
One last thing that brings me back to Raimi. We think of classic Hollywood as something that forever went away with its generation of stars. But it survives as a way of positing. Jaws is a Capra town being whimsically toyed with by an unseen beast. This one here, in the way we are eased into a world, in the placement of the camera, in the narrative light, is very much in the language of classic Hollywood.
Sam Raimi is an interesting dude. Come to think of it, I lament that he didn't create his own world to explore the way Lynch has, or his buddies the Coens.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
For cinema of this era I go to Pabst for ecstatic hovering out of self, the self that finds itself at the mercy of narratives; a true master that filmmakers like Lynch are still tapping into the potential of what he showed. Sternberg gives me feverish exaggeration of the same, a kind of grotesque sculpting in emotional air. Pabst seeks to transcend the constraints imposed by fictitious reality on self, Sternberg gives into the anguish they create. Lang turns these same constraints into monumental machinery that strike awe, but his way is much less interesting overall I think.
And then there's this other maker who made the leap from Germany to Hollywood. Yet another way of dealing with fictitious reality here. With Lubitsch I come for the joyous dismantling of expectation; the constraints of fictions, our expectation that story plays out a certain way, are marvelously upended, opening us up to paradox and surprise. Here fictions are fanciful guises we put on to push each other, the constraints are opportunities for improvisation. There's this famed thing people call the Lubitsch 'touch', often in vague terms of exaltation, as any synonym for mastery. It's a specific thing he masters; spontaneous illogicality.
You'll see a great demonstration in just the opening sequence here. It's one I'll keep with me when needing to discuss Lubitsch.
A man lies unconscious in a dark empty apartment at night; something sinister has happened. Now cut to a man and woman meeting in another place. They're both royalty we find out, baron and countess. She had to sneak in there to meet him, improper mischief is implied, a desire to conceal. Soon we understand that neither is who we thought they were and the place where they meet is right next door to the unconscious man.
It's a small masterstroke in pushing back horizon with just a few gestures. Like when the man gets up angry at having been found out, locks the door, draws the curtains; we imagine violence is coming. But they sit right back to eat, kindred souls delighted in each other's brilliant boldness of play-acting.
The rest of the film flows by with much the same play-acting. We see a woman being set up to be conned, a rich Parisienne who scoffs at the men who desire her but falls for his suave charm. He insinuates himself into her home and begins controlling a story, fictitious reality. The suave charm of the film lies in seeing him, ever the cunning narrator, con his way out of difficult situations that might expose him while the noose tightens around him.
Eventual unmaskings come with a certain largesse of heart that can only come by the hand of a filmmaker who sees fictitious reality as one large stage play and revels in the illusoriness of it all. It beats sulking into a corner, taking the caprices of human behavior to heart.
So no hard feelings on her part at having been set up with fictitious romance. She shoos them out like mischievous kids. In turn he regrets that he couldn't split himself in two and leave one self behind to live a life with her. Herbert Marshall has more ruthless eyes than needed to convey longing here (or perhaps the point is that he cannot resist feigning to the end); but he's superb as wily narrator.
But how about this notion as well. His girlfriend partner in crime has been in on the con all along, disguised as secretary in the same house. Had she not caved in to jealousy at the last moment, they would have pulled their plot clean off. It's this outpour of impulsive self that destroys the fiction and allows us to have the generous letting go of.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Here we have another film about the flustering of identity, the storytelling we weave as we try to pursuit our desire, the turbulence of that pursuit. The same thing in a screwball context that underpins so many musicals of the era and of course the early steps that film noir was taking.
Here's what transpires here. She's trying to seduce him, initially for just money on board a cruiser returning from South America. He's a bookish loner, aloof to the advances of other women, preferring his book, which is a way of hinting that here's someone who prefers the world with the clarity that stories provide it rather than as it is, a bit disheveled.
So she trips him, quite literally, and he falls over. On a moonlit deck he professes deep love. Now it's her turn to be swept up. Having perhaps been so guileless to her tricks but so earnest in feeling at the same time, she falls for him. She shields him from her card-cheating companions.
We are as vulnerable, as susceptible to the clarity that cuts through the stories we tell about ourselves, revealing us to be not quite who we thought, as our best attempts to avoid that clarity. Having done her utmost to seduce him, to weave fiction, real feelings pour through.
But now look. He's handed a manila envelope containing a captioned photograph announcing her as a well known crook; another story, complete with images this time, that trips him and destroys that clarity. She protests that people will sometimes do things. Flustered by the betrayal he goes away.
A third story brings them together, again spinning fiction. She has gotten herself invited to his fathers' home in Connecticut, in disguise supposedly as the niece of a neighbor (himself a crook in disguise). She shows up there in resplendent beauty, immediately he's taken aback. In a part you'll simply have to swallow, he becomes convinced that she's not really the same person. The filmmaker juggles this bit well though; another story is dished out to him about twins separated at birth.
As well mannered, bright visitor from England he falls for her all over again, whom he had just spurned as a crook, although she is the same person. It's fun to watch with a lot of slapstick shenanigans and really a lot of the film is. Trying to get close to her over dinner, now the world conspires to make a fool of him.
And then we shift again. Her payback is another story she innocently begins to blurt, about a dozen different sex partners before him. He is indignant, so easily flummoxed again by life that is not quite as he thought it should play out. We have quite clearly the foolishness of this narrator taking shape as the film around him.
The film does not look to make a big deal about how, being so susceptible to stories we have in our heads about how life should be, so rigidly fixated on the idea that self is this solid, immutable, once-for-all thing, which of course goes against everything our senses report to us, that we miss out on the marvelously transient romp of persisting with the ride.
But using this bookish, naively romantic guy who keeps moving away from his heart's desire only to find himself chasing her in another guise, it may be this very romp. It's not quite a masterpiece but come to it for a bit of funny clarity some day.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Half-finished retail space
By now you know this is the second in a row of collapsed artefacts by this studio. The sole reason they exist is that they woke up one day to realize their rivals had built a mall across town that was hoovering up all demand. So belatedly they rushed to built their very own but built haphazardly and by skimping on planning. On opening day, you note lights that don't work, wires still hanging from ceilings, ladders left behind by the construction crew, the place still half- finished.
This is even less of a finished film than the one before. For long swathes it feels as if we're simply watching what could be salvaged at the last moment, what they had to go forward with after they couldn't tinker any longer. Still their choice for a narrative engine makes it far more watchable. This is the 'group band together for a common mission' format that goes back to Seven Samurai. There's a lesson here on narrative dynamics.
The blueprint itself establishes forward momentum. We get the requisite scenes of introducing each one along with their oddball skills; it sets up the anticipation of seeing them in action together. The added irony is that they're bad guys who have to reluctantly do good. The rest is a bunch of action scenes en route to facing this month's super villain who threatens all life on earth.
The only other thing I found interesting was Harley Quinn, this particular version of her anyway. She's the only one who manages to intrigue. Not this Marilyn Mansion version of the Joker, no, who is all tacky rockstar and no embodiment of whimsical chaos in the gears of the world like Ledger's.
I'd like to think that someone in company meetings raised the idea of a William Friedkin-style love film about the two of them going on a spree of havoc first but was overruled by impatient bosses. They were apparently in a bit of a rush to give us another Joel Schumacher debacle.
Reflects corporate need
This was probably never going to be a very good idea to begin with. Having a vs film with these two be a watchable version of itself must be a nightmare of logistics of story and world. By now you know they failed, bitterly so.
You probably knew the moment they announced Affleck. It was the strangest piece of news, the kind I would expect to read in an Onion parody. I remember wincing at the time. Someone like Depp who has actual acting chops wouldn't do either so it's not acting ability. It's because actors are embedded into contexts of how we've known them, how they've been defined by prior work. Sometimes that's why you cast them, hoping to mine that context.
So when he's your choice and no one in the room bats an eye, it's the kind of creative choice that to me presages a certain way of doing things in that room. It told me that executives in charge thought any known face would do or he was the best they could land on short notice. It told me they had no idea what they had in Nolan's Batman. They weren't going to extend that world or work with Nolan's blueprint of prolonged anticipation. It promised a Joel Schumacher style debacle.
It's really as bad as this. You're going to read more acerbic barbs in other comments. I'll just rest with the observation that it has all the marks of a film where company employees sat through meetings trying to come up with a film for no other reason than the company decided it must have this particular product to sell. No one is particularly in charge of overall vision or has some particular creative interest in bringing it to life. Everyone is an employee who simply has to deliver by Friday on the company memos of Monday. Affleck will do. All they probably had in front of them was a timetable of when they had to launch.
What actually happened is their arch rivals beat them to something that proved lucrative, opening up market possibility they were late in noting, so they're now rushing a product to market to avoid falling behind. It's as simple as this and the sole reason this whole filmic world exists. It's the cinematic equivalent of Microsoft realizing they've been squeezed out of the new ecosystem of mobile connectivity and trying to quickly patch their own together, throwing around mountains of money to make up for lost time.
They tried to squeeze a bunch of things in here at the same time as patching together the platform; reintroducing Batman and his world, the story arch the title promises, an Avengers of sorts with joined heroes trying to avert doom while also setting up an Avengers proper for down the road. They bungled it up so bad that Wonder Woman was squeezed in here as introduction while her own film proper was a year away. But that's how rushed they must have been.
I even hunted down for the longer version. No dice. I do happen to think of Snyder as a dull mind; Michael Bay with simply different lists of movie and music favorites. But I don't think him to be this incompetent. This is the work of management.
You'll see the circumstances of its making in the fabric of the film itself. It feels as if different segments have been carted into place upon completion while other departments are still working on theirs; the assumption being that when everyone's finished, the result will be a film.
Everything we come across has potential to enlighten. Watch this to see the result of trying to substitute creative concentration with committee work, how something looks when born out of need rather than immersion. They should have had the patience to sit this round out. Me-too-ism is the path to gaffe.
The Secret Life of Pets (2016)
Pelts, no secret life
I saw this together with the latest from Pixar. Both are animated, feature talking animals making crazy getaways and trying to retrieve loved ones, so you might think they're going to be somewhat in the same ballpark. How significantly lesser can one be? Let's see.
Pixar begin with small, memorable pockets of world that they expand, pulling back to reveal larger vistas. The effort is to have the narrative expansion in as much visually flowing ways. There is thoughtful engineering to this flowing; sequences have been choreographed and given room to unfold. There is an element of discovery. Characters retain a certain human gravity in their wants.
These guys just plop us here and there. The place is an unimaginative New York, simply digitized, poorly discovered. The unveiling of the larger world leaves us with an animal mob in the sewers plotting revenge. Sequences, ostensibly the very same chase scenes, are choppy and without any flow. We just bump on a bunch of things on our way out. Characters are sketchy, one is a wimp, the other is a bully, then we change them around to be caring. The hawk as villainous predator then our hero's girlfriend tells him they could be friends, so as of right now he wants to help.
We're talking levels of difference between Singin' in the Rain and an SNL skit that features song and dance.
And do you ever get the impression some movies simply have lame personality? I find this usually in how characters are presented, in the change of heart they have, in how they pursue what is deemed important. Oddly I never seem to notice the opposite in movies that engage me. Even when I disagree with what I'm being presented with by Noe or Trier but I'm being engaged by a view of the world, not a personality. It seems a certain kind of bad movie reduces the exchange to how things rub me, not having been conceived to do anything else. Well, this is one.
It makes little difference that this was festooned with Oscars this year. I would have come to it regardless for its promise of a youthful look into back streets that we don't get to see very often. I would have come to it eager, for the same reason I've been to Killer of Sheep and Shadows before.
It would be about young people, young black people in Miami. It promised both hardship and discovery as movies about youth ought to. Any opportunity to inhabit a time and place, explore the horizon that life acquires for people that could be ourselves, is invaluable to me, exhilarating. It counts as education of the highest order for me, the visual and intuitive kind.
It does take place in those streets, Miami here but you can imagine it goes on the same way across America. It does offer hardship and discovery; one centered on broken family, the other on sexual awakening. It has a lyrical camera, some marvelous music. Viewers looking for a film that castigates social ills by looking for who's to blame will be disappointed. It's not the vehement kind of film, the Spike Lee kind. We're better off for it. Anger is a meaningless waste of energy, its grown up versions are cynicism and bitterness, not awakening.
In spite of best intentions however a movie must stand or fall with the awakening of gaze it permits. We see not particularly far here; not farther than the cycle of becoming his drug dealer mentor because it's the only decent man he knew in childhood. The filmmaker has plucked a few broad threads and unspooled across time until pain and irony are revealed. An abusive addict mother who years later regrets it. The sexual relationship becomes a handjob by the beach and the awkwardness of meeting again years later. I find overall that it streamlines to a Lifetime movie hook; can we begrudge him becoming who he does?
I do think we're all richer when people reflect on their own worlds from within those worlds. But when faced with a film like this I also find myself hankering for more filmmakers like Cassavetes, black or otherwise. Real souls who will not settle for things being so or in some other way, who can send us back home with none of the comfy words we try to explain with. It's a noble attempt here but I urge you to know Killer of Sheep at some point.
Finding Dory (2016)
No walls in the ocean
I've never been into animation and my comments probably reflect it. Not for any silly quibbles about real cinema versus not, kiddie versus adult; it's simply that the real world that threads itself around us is too marvelous and fantastical, too full of myriad possible worlds to envision, to forego the opportunity. Okay, but this leaves me free to observe these few things here.
It really has taken a quantum leap the last decade in trying to replicate our world after that business with dead eyes was over. Is there anything more extraordinary than texture and light falling a certain way? An audience of Disney's time would have been baffled by what kind of reality this film shows.
The most fantastical quality of reality is that I can open the door and go wherever. The thinking mind will hold me back nine times out of ten, but the fact that our lives play out against the possibility is behind any life worth being lived. Spontaneity. It lies at the bottom of all the other structures we observe around us and at the bottom of almost every great film I know of.
Pixar's main structure in building world - and what sets them apart from previous studios - is finding a small corner of our own world to animate, say toys in the attic, we can then have the delight of secret lives right under our feet. The more ordinary and familiar this corner is, the more often we can imagine passing through it, the better. It's the difference between Toy Story and Cars. It lets them filter in the following way; the larger surrounding human world retains its quality of callous indifference as we think of it ourselves, our gaze is directed to the magical world-within where fragile beings have to struggle with predicaments like ours.
The primary thing to note in tandem with this is how the rest has been engineered around spontaneous expression. Pixar are something of a master in how things flow, how walls can be moved around to facilitate experience. It's all about turbulent motion that zig zags over barriers; through ocean streams, a bird flying us overhead, through tubes inside the marine park, hijacking a truck. Things magically work out, even when our heroes don't land in the right place, they do.
And you'll see this in the story about a narrator who continuously forgets, has no plan about how she's going to accomplish what she wants other than the urge to find her parents, but makes her way by rubbing against limits of where she finds herself, spontaneously opening ways.
Tied to the same place
With Burton I usually pass through with some curiosity without being engaged more. He lauds the sticky-sweet qualities of imagination and nostalgia, gives us struggles of light versus dark; I find myself drawn to filmmakers who cultivate the transience and non-attachment that reconcile opposites in their films. He pumps warm emotional tap water, I would rather be taken to springs in the deep forest.
He offers storytelling as retreat to a purer place than the callous world out there, fantasy will often do that. I perceive storytelling as a tool - one of the most important - for untying knots, knots created by our attachment to things making story-sense a certain way only, it's where so much of our troubles begin, so that our whole world becomes a purer place, purer because we can roam with an unfettered mind.
It comes down to the larger view of how we make sense of the world and our place within it, as both viewers surrounded by narratives and narrators of our own. But I happen to share enough common ground about the value of storytelling, the same one that brings me to Raoul Ruiz on the farther end, so I make it a point to visit now and then.
This is his most poignant since Big Fish and driven by a similar story of uncovering emotive truth in the ramblings of an old storyteller's fantasy. It has some of his most exciting fabrics of world since Ed Wood, particularly the beginning in sunny Florida where mysterious nightmare lurks after sundown outside the suburban home of an old man who is anxiously peering through blinds, later the Blackpool funpark by the sea in the end with a mischievous fight against evil right under the noses of an unsuspecting audience.
So it has enough going for it to make me, who was never a fan but am always rooting for anyone who tries to stir the illusory world to awaken the sense of horizon, regret he has wasted precious time and energy being in charge of Hollywood projects that have as much to do with the art of imagining as decorating Walmart for Christmas. It means he has missed the opportunity to go off on his own to delve with quiet and single-minded passion into what interests him above all. Ed Wood best exemplifies this and is what the film was actually about, someone who is free to play and work with the fabrics of illusion.
Watching this I am reminded of Wes Anderson, someone who also became known for his peculiar inflection, the way colors and symmetries hang, but finally realized he was simply wasting it on skits that amuse. These days he's busy exploring ways to make language fluid and spontaneous, untying knots that stand in the way. He's finally giving us marvelous journeys about escaping bounds because he began by escaping his. I was never a fan before, now fully embrace him.
I have Burton grouped with Peter Jackson and Tarantino as filmmakers who at some point gave up on this journey.
Queen of the Desert (2015)
Pilgrim, Jalāl ad-Dīn's tomb contains no body
Important to acknowledge at the outset that Herzog is not a young man. He's the same age as Scorsese and note how long it's been since Scorsese settled on being an illustrator, a lifetime. Herzog as recently as a few years ago was still venturing out in search.
Having said that, it's hard to fathom this was made by the same man who gave us Stroszek and Fitzcarraldo. In those, the place was real. The protagonists were actual lost souls, not actors feigning. The journey was about actually going where we did to tug for transcendence.
He has a female lead this time, the very first time if I'm not mistaken. He has been hobnobbing with Hollywood people for a decade, perhaps the question was put to him, perhaps he thought he had been remiss himself all this time. No matter, like so many of his characters, he gives us someone who yearns to venture outside maps, explore hazardous edges of the world.
But he has everything else be conventional and streamlined this go round. Actors stay actors whether they're playing Turkish gendarmes or Druze rebels. Oriental music swells over sand dunes like you would expect from any other film. He filmed in Morocco sets standing in for the Middle East.
So yes, atypical for Herzog, a letdown, not one of his high marks. Others fret in comments about Herzog not getting the trivia right, right to left writing and such. What's really the trouble for me is that it dulls the edge of dangerous discovery that set him apart. We're in the Lawrence of Arabia timeline anyway and the film is cut from that Hollywood cloth. We're always more or less safely ensconced.
The film has been so gracelessly attacked in reviews however it makes me want to take a step back. All or some of this would have been obvious to him while preparing anyway, so the question is, what got him out of bed and across the ocean to make this?
No answer is going to be particularly lucid I feel or avoid sounding like excuse. Maybe he couldn't resist the opportunity of going on cinematic adventure, knowing he has only a few more left. It does have the feel of those tail-end films by aging filmmakers who were past their prime but still mounting epics in the 60s.
Maybe he would explain that we're seeing through the narrator's eyes, the world as Persian poem on evanescent love, arrested love as a deeper kind of love. Ridley Scott was briefly considered to direct, no doubt there would be sweeps of battle. Something he couldn't do and Herzog does, in a strange coup, is that it's a very sweet film about yearning.
I would like to rest here. I wouldn't trust the film to be stating too much but for what it's worth; here's a Herzog tract that swaps feverish ego in the pursuit of futile escape from the confines of the world with a heart that submits to the world being confined thus and so and this doesn't stop it from journeying freely.
Islamic poets make a big deal of this, acquiescing to be simply a vessel for luminous mystery. Maybe re-read on that Rumi than get it here.
One last word. Herzog's work is done really. His journey has been vast but is coming to a close. Rather than pounce on him for a film like this, take from his legacy. Don't be a tourist of being, a sherpa of other peoples' reality. We're living in interesting times that require courageous clarity.
And I write this after finding out that IMDb have decided to close down their message boards. It has been a decade for me, more for others. I'm not one for goodbyes, but maybe this one time. Something by way of farewell to people we won't be seeing each other in some time.
Friends, visiting the Mausoleum of Poets in Tabriz wouldn't make you one, not visiting wouldn't stop you. There comes a day when you are called to the back door, going out, you will never be seen again. Learn how to move towards, how to move away, there's no other art. A tree is useful for someone who comes to chop it for firewood or turn it into furniture. May you come to rest in the shade of having less use for things that don't make the heart grow fond :)
Stand high in the base of your mountain
Shackleton's third and last journey to the Pole in this documentary. We avoid talking heads and instead immerse ourselves in the arduous experience of traversing icy wastes. It has all the staples of polar exploits as have seeped into the popular imagination; valiant human endeavor, pitilessly harsh nature that cares none for our feeble attempts to cross it, scenes of increasing despair and privation, endured nonetheless with stoic composure.
They were the moon landings of their time. Crews setting out with lofty aims of expanding the map of human knowledge, broadening horizons. What captivated audiences back home was either more prosaic or more poetic; will they make it alive, human bravery in an alien cosmos, the attending mystery of venturing in uncharted territory.
One part of the film comprises actual footage of the expedition shot by a cameraman who was among the crew, really exciting (silent film) footage of the ship being crunched by the ice, desperately futile attempts to haul it out, playing with their trusted dogs, their makeshift camps as they have to go out on foot. The second part shows modern enactments, presumably captures views like they would have stumbled through, whether or not the very same locales. It's actually South Georgia later. But how different the visual regions when charged with knowledge that we're actually seeing into things as they happened.
I remember being enthralled as a kid by a book on polar misadventures. It was about an earlier expedition - the Discovery - but very much the same grimly claustrophobic experience. (What I couldn't know as a kid was that so much of my book's power came from the notion that these were things that actually happened.) It was the kind of story that makes you freeze simply to read, glad for home.
I have a quite different response these days than simply being aghast at what a cold universe it is out there.
See, these people ventured full of dreams. They were broken just as they were starting, shipwrecked in the early stages. Can you imagine the kind of disappointment that shakes you to your core? To know your dreams are quashed, your expedition is a complete failure. The same tortuous effort you expected to muster in the course of making history will now have to be spent just making it back alive.
So, you expected life to go one way, it went another. What now? Now dust yourself off and come back to us with a story of making a full return from the edge.
Herzog is one of few I trust to snap my eye open with just an image, he's done it a few times by this point. When he won't, he will still intrigue, invite me to swims unknown. He has powerful intuitions, will venture where the ground trembles with disorder. Once there, he s spontaneous enough to let that disorder climb up through the soles of the feet, blossom into insight and wisdom.
It's a German kind of duende that colors his world; the urge or passion a singer cannot quite put to words and responds to with song. I may disagree with him on conclusions of that duende, about the cosmos and the futility of endeavor, but I trust him as explorer and soul.
He's in Antarctica here, another desolate landscape outside of maps that beckons in a most primal way. It's where Scotts and Shackletons wrecked themselves, and why. He enters as anyone else might these days; by plane, one more sleepy traveler among dozens. If you know a bit about him, you will observe a few things.
He is pleased to find McMurdo base looking like a drab construction site with machinery tearing up the ground, confirming his views of a fundamentally wretched humanity that fouls the earth. But he is as pleased to find a forklift operator on the scene who very poetically describes his presence there as a desire to fall off the edge of the world. It's why Herzog has been in most places.
He is also enormously pleased to find that all Antarctica newcomers must be drilled on white-out conditions by wearing buckets on their heads and stumbling after each other while tethered to a rope. You can almost feel his exhilaration when they have to reach a certain point in this state but find themselves in a jumble in the opposite direction.
He includes a tidbit about researchers studying seals, extracting milk from the mothers while claiming they want to be able to study the animals in their natural state. It mirrors Herzog's own endeavor of perturbing to extract truth about it. He tickles us with these researchers; the milk is being collected for studies on weight-loss.
He has the researchers lay down with their ear pressed to the ice. There is a whole world down there that ebbs and calls. An oceanologist had previously explained that the Antarctica - standing for a broader cosmos - is not a big, inert slab of ice as thought in Shackleton's time but an organic entity that is rippling out change. He mentions icebergs the size of Texas that will one day head north.
Herzog finds an entry into that world below via divers, a world of fluorescent jellyfish undulating in eerie blue silence. This world is constant struggle, one of the divers confirms. The link is made to a precarious humanity, perched on the outer layer of unfriendly chaos, this time via sci-fi movies.
So far we haven't had ecstatic truth of the kind which he favors. Herzog eventually finds it in a disoriented penguin that heads inland all by himself towards certain death.
Yes, he has constructed on the way, intruded upon the subject, made it a point to include the bits we have while omitting others. You can imagine that he has sifted through a lot of otherwise unexciting footage. He has staged most of what you'll see. You can tell how well he has (or not) by noting that he first encountered the lone, intrepid penguin and then went back to set it up by filming the exchange where he asks the penguin researcher about insanity among penguins. It couldn't have taken place the other way.
I would disagree in parts, or with the temerity of the physicist who explains on camera about neutrinos as coming from another dimension. It's up to us anyway to choose how to perceive ourselves and our struggle, the universe neither cares nor doesn't. It simply provides the building blocks and vistas.
But he's a trusted explorer with good intuitions and here's why. This isn't the natural world of Koyannisqatsi, fundamentally pure and being imbalanced by us. Herzog finds a world with disorder and transience built right in, and welcomes the fact. He's more spiritual than he would admit.
Melodie der Welt (1929)
There is no fathoming our modern world for me outside the invention of the camera, this newfound ability to take up the world in terms of timeflow and shuffle it in reflection. It is the world standing on the precipice of modernity that silent cinema uncovers after all, looking a little damp and sunless from the centuries, but also a little startled and excited as it prepares to make the leap and finds all around it wondrous tools for that leap, automobiles, trains and cinemas.
It would have been a simple impulse for pioneer filmmakers in the early days, simple but no less exciting for that. All these things were waiting to be documented as if for a first time. It was so in that Leeds film about traffic some thirty years before and so it is here. Ships, streets, structures, activities from the bustle of the modern city to native dances, the film is a travelogue that celebrates the swirl of being able to now have views of all these things in the same space. Among them now are sounds; the film is offered as the first German sound film. They were making so called 'city symphonies' at around this time; the filmmaker behind this being responsible for one of the very best I know. We might as well call this a world symphony.
I wouldn't really urge you to go out of your way to watch this, other than perhaps as a cachet of images from the time when our gaze was beginning to go global. More interesting for me is to note that the impulse behind this type of film hasn't gone away. But it has undergone a shift. This mode continues in films like Koyannisqatsi, only the modern world is presented there in the cautionary light of having strayed too far and is contrasted with the sanctity of the natural order. The modern lunge is here celebrated with wide-eyed eagerness. It makes some sense why. People could not yet see the destructive effects on the environment and society. Still the eye is as rather dull as it would later be in Koyannisqatsi. Contrasts between old and new, far and close.
Because after all the camera is a marker of modernity in another sense as well. It's not simply that far and close could be shuffled now, past and present, it's that the whole unraveling of appearances - all this motion in every direction of perception - reveals a narrative eye with the ability to leap and surge itself, an eye that gives rise to world.
This is what more erudite filmmakers of the time, in Paris and Moscow, were busy exploring, the mechanisms that control that surge of the eye. It would be more interesting to pick up that thread if you haven't already. The vital distinction is between the camera as device that records and as soul that surges through to animate. Such efforts were running parallel to a good deal of modern thinking about how the world is put together; I'd like to imagine, somewhat wistfully, that an alert mind of the time would have been as stimulated by news from Solvay as by the dreamlike uncertainty of a film like Menilmontant.
Salut les Cubains (1964)
Visiting friends, the heart grows fond
I had saved this for a time when I might want to vicariously visit Cuba. Fidel Castro passed away last week so it felt like an occasion on which to look back and reflect. The place is seductive and the guide would not be just anyone. Chris Marker had been there two years before but Varda is second to none in my book.
Agnes is reflecting on her own right here. It's not meant to be a chronicle of anything, much less paean of revolution, but a sketchbook of impressions, glimpses on the road. She had been there and came back with still images which she edits in a playful way. The revolution does loom central of course, in the campaigns to literate peasants and the collective dances of gathering sugarcane, the frescoes and images of heroes, but seen through Varda's eyes, Cuba is a place that above all sways in rhythms and music that well up from inside of it, from generosity of heart. It is collective joy that Varda graces us with and salutes.
It's in the music, the religious dances and masks, the sugarcane work, the women's bodies, such evocative women that even Varda pauses to admire. It's no less in the gallery of gruesome photos from the war, exhibits of pride. Another segment admires soldiers on horseback as movie figures from westerns, ironically admiring the capacity of image to support our own imprints of meaning, able to bridge odd divides. Fidel as the Gary Cooper of the revolution, the narrator muses.
It all turns around form, image, dances of recollection from these, the transient and impromptu. It all points to how the image is pliant, a field where memories and narratives intersect. Some of these she has just improvised for us.
I don't leave feeling like I'm much the wiser about Cuba or revolution, which is okay, I'm fine without being wise in that sense. I leave feeling like I have briefly swayed in the breeze of being able to touch without smudging, partake without taking, know without knowing. More important this.