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Mr. Klein (1976)
This is a very interesting way to approach the Holocaust -- a portrait of a life, fairly slow to get its rhythms (at its worst, Losey directs the film in a stale manner), told ostensibly as a mystery, with truths about the Holocaust (that come into effect at the end of the film) and how the daily routine of it felt for an observer. It's a brutal revenge story (we know that Klein is being punished for making money off the deaths of others from the beginning), but also an allegory for the self-loathing Jew who, in this case, runs toward his death, aware that it's coming and trying to avoid it but actually walking right into it, a nasty bit of determinism.
The beginning of the film has a title that suggests this film is about not a person but a phenomenon -- a composite of various people -- but just what phenomenon are they talking about? Art dealers during the Nazi occupation? That could be, but how many of them had their identity essentially stolen from them? I think the phenomenon they're referring to has more to do with that allegory than it does with the literal happenings of the film. But what's so impressive about the film is that the literal happenings are taken very seriously.
Delon's performance here, as per usual in his later years, is very good and very subtle. He's not a ruthless man, and there's a very interesting balance he pulls off between being annoyed at his police troubles and trying not to offend anyone, especially the Jews, as he tries desperately to get off their newspaper mailing list. Of course there is no grandstanding, and his aging beauty gives him a perpetually over-tired face, a pretty boy whose looks are slowly deteriorating. He must have been aware of that, as his worn face matches the dull, rainy Paris landscape in the film. 8/10
I guess it's hard to address serious issues when you're dealing with a plot about a flamboyant southern belle who raises her son to be a natural-born-whore, because this movie is considered to be a failure even though it really isn't. It's neither the ready-made slice-of-life that Sundance specializes in, nor is it an innovative film like "Pi," so casual independent fans have little reason to like this (they probably dislike Paul Morrissey, too). So there's already a few misconceptions about the film, but add to that that it's an actor's film: what else are we supposed to expect from Nicolas Cage? The movie is a mix of piano music and prostitution, and it's just like Cage's acting -- hyper-real and over-the-top, classy and trashy at once.
The movie is partially a series of differing acting styles -- Blethyn's comic exaggeration, Franco's sleepy mysteriousness, Stanton's quiet control, Cage's funhouse tricks. But I think Cage deserves a certain amount of credit -- he doesn't scuzzify the material or romanticize it; he creates some interesting scenes (and handles most of the more potentially offensive ones with as close to grace as possible); he indulges all of his actors. And there is some real pain in the story, about not being able to switch jobs, and how vagabonds have nothing to show for their life. There are times when this goes where few films do in terms of honesty, yet the script does have increasing problems as it goes along. A scene like the one where Cage makes his appearance, seen through Sonny's drunken haze, works only because of the oddness of it; it feels stolen from other films because it's supposed to be there for the type of movie this is. But the film is at its best when it resists any "type." 8/10
Not being overly familiar with Bible stories or Christian history (and the fact that the opening rolling titles are impossible to read), the factuality of this film will escape me. But Jarman is a visual artist, and his film has more in common with the many paintings of Sebastian than it does with factual storytelling. Jarman's ornate decor can sometimes feel dull and bland -- his films can seem lifeless, bogged down by the set decoration. This calls to mind "Velvet Goldmine," a complex film I didn't care for, even though I love Todd Haynes; I want to like Jarman -- I love his books -- and this is the first film of his that I've been actively enthusiastic about. It has much more to do with sex than history; and it's apolitical and political at the same time.
Consider the film's approach to homosexuality. No one is defined as being a homosexual, so that at first seems like a de-politicization of sex -- all there are are acts, and acts are not political. But at the same time, it's acts that are disdained and made illegal, and without the "political" approach to defining (and thereby defending) people as homosexuals, it leaves the acts open to censorship and condemnation -- politicization. As a film itself, though, it is not pedantic or accusatory -- in fact, Sebastian is killed, it seems, because of the lust of Severus, who he refuses. Like the Christian God who Sebastian loves and sees as more beautiful than Adonis, Severus wants Sebastian. But it isn't just condemning lust, either -- Anthony and Adrian are openly lovers, and the abundance of male nudity, and the eroticism of it by Jarman, could hardly be called prudish. In fact, there is a scene at night of the men grabbing each other, their dark-lit bodies, and the soldier pressing his near-naked, muscled body on his lover, that still seems shocking in its passion today.
It's more like a lyrical tone poem, and Brian Eno's New Age-y score goes well with that. Jarman isn't a bully, and when the crucifying comes around he doesn't bludgeon us -- first we see a close-up of his face, as arrows pierce through Sebastian's skin, silently with the exception of the wind, and Jarman gives us one final distorted image to meditate on the death of the one we can't have. 9/10
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
This is just another confirmation that Cassavetes, along with Dreyer and Tarkovsky, is one of the very small number of geniuses in film, whose every film is an extension of their genius -- some more mature than others, but impossible to be "bad"; they are beyond terms like "good" or "bad" -- they are the great art works of the century.
This film isn't about a "crazy" lady; it's not about putting a woman in an institution; and it's not about people talking about your crazy wife, though all of this happens in the film. Those are merely the events that take place over the course of the film; what it's really about is our misunderstanding, our experience as an audience. Just like the characters, we misunderstand Mable's childlike actions. What Cassavetes does is turn *us* into children -- it's as if we're experiencing things for the first time all over again, because it's a totally new experience, the same with watching a movie like "Andrei Rublev." That is an amazing thing to pass onto an audience. That's why I've never been bored watching a Cassavetes film -- something is always happening, things are always changing. The reality of what we're seeing is always undergoing augmentation, so we can never get fully situated.
It's never unrelenting gloom the way many so-called realistic films are (and this film goes far beyond mere "realism"); it's devastating watching it, watching Mable ask people if they want spaghetti one by one. But it's loving when Nick jokes about someone hugging her too long. It's communal during a scene at a dinnertable where Mable takes a pride in feeding "her boys." But each scene goes through a transformation as it happens. When Mable goes home with another man, he makes it clear that he's not to be used, but also that she shouldn't punish herself. It's not a screamy moment with a woman hiding in the bathroom; his avuncular twang is disarming.
There's a complete lack of self-consciousness in the film, and I mean that in terms of the characters (during Mable's key freak out scene, Rowlands does, I think, go too far) -- that's why the kids are s terrific in the film. When a boy says, "It's the best I can do, mom," it's an incredible moment because it's managed to be included without being offensive, mugging for the camera with cuteness. The film has such a strange relationship with kids -- they're like little people. And if that sounds odd, you'll understand when you see the film. The characters are constantly changing their minds; they're so aware of themselves that they're unaware -- Mable doesn't realize she's giving off a sexual aura (despite the fact that Rowlands can at times look like a blond beach babe). As with Julianne Moore in "Safe," we don't know what's wrong with her. She's a frenetic, guideless woman trying to do the guiding.
The way Cassavetes sets up the film, with ominous piano music that comes in when Falk is trying to speak, blinded by frustration; or setting the film inside this house with gigantic rooms, makes everything feel larger and emptier at the same time. It's like the scariness of the echo of something you'd rather not hear. Someone said that they wouldn't want a single frame of "2001" to be cut, lest the experience be changed. I think that applies more aptly to Cassavetes' films, because he never treads over the same thing twice, even when he's doing exactly the same thing he's just done. It's always something new. 9/10
This could be taken either as a farce or a serious drama, or an intermingling of the two -- I think that's the best way to watch it, as some scenes are undeniably funny, but to view *all* of this as a joke would suggest that it's a lot more distanced than it is. This is really an ode to and worshipping of nakedness -- real nakedness, blemishes and all -- naked genitals, naked emotions. (What makes the naked emotions so interesting, dealing with most of the performers except Dallesandro, is that they're based on extreme affectation -- "I've got to get some aaaacid" -- but still reveal more than the majority of more "accomplished" acting does.)
It would be easy to look at this as a parading of freaks -- the light bulb credits, and Geri Miller dancing topless to the line, "Mama, look at me now!" But that wouldn't take into account the fact that Miller is nothing if not sincere. The movie works by capturing literal abstractions, if that makes any sense -- out of focus close-ups that work both as simple pieces of formal beauty (Joe's silhouetted face on the street, with a golden background, as he talks to Andrea Feldman), and as insistent closeness.
This is the real reality of drug use -- dirty, pimpled, de-glamorized, and, above all, boring. Morrissey has always worked with satire and seriousness intertwined, so it might be difficult for some people to note the complexity of his work. When Joe begins to rape a woman, it turns into semi-passionate sex. Another woman hears about this and asks him to rape her. Another woman suggests that, since you have sex with strangers, why not family? Morrissey is making fun of all of this at the same time as he's probing into it; this isn't *just* a comedy, it's much more than that -- look at the scene where Jane Forth says to Dallesandro that his complexion is looking a little rough, a statement so intimate, so aware, so personal that it knocks him off guard. (Sometimes it's just sex without any moral judgment, such as when Holly Woodlawn, in a performance that defies categorization, declothes and fondles a young boy.)
It's often absurd, as in the scene where Joe is stoned stupid and naked, and Forth and her husband are bickering as he stumbles around their living room, a scene of bourgeois mockery. When Forth's husband asks him what it's like being a junky, his curiosity almost makes it seem like the junky life is a worthy life -- at least it's individualistic. 9/10
The film is just a story, but it's very, very good storytelling, and I'd be hard-pressed to explain why it's so good. It has to do partly with the fact that at first we think we know right where it's going, and that the worth will be in how it gets there -- we're amused by Nico's interest in girls, he's obviously gay (right?). What makes the Dani and Nico characters so believable is in the handling of the material, and the very smart decision to not really define anything. It's very realistic about the first sex between boys, and how it so often has to do with sex games (here, masturbation tips).
Before we have a clearer handle on the (differing) sexuality of the two characters, their sex seems to play like this: they see girls, they get aroused, and they take out their sexual frustration on each other. And that works because of the two characters' subtle manner -- Dani's creepy preening, Nico's goofy charm, and how at first it's Nico who seems to be the most "gay" of the two boys, simply because he has precise features and is abnormally skinny. (Like "Edge of Seventeen" or "Beautiful Thing," two of the best gay self-discovery films, the boys here look real.) The emotions, and the past histories of the characters -- like the man whose house Dani goes to, or the woman who, too, had a special girl friend when she was young -- are kept appropriately inexact.
Aside from the talent at passing along this story, there is also a nice feel the film has -- something like a cross between the accessibility of a Western and the human interest of Ingmar Bergman... It's like a funky road trip, with that harmonica music and the very apt photography, as well as the suggestive intertitles of dialogue that will occur later in the film. A comparison between this and "Y tu Mama Tambien," of the following year, would not be in vain. 8/10
Dog Stories (1992)
It's difficult to tell who this documentary is making fun of more, the dogs or the owners. Well, obviously it's making fun of the owners and *getting* fun out of the dogs, but it's not cruel, it's just poking light fun at the various interviewees, like the woman who makes her dog dance ("dancey dancey..."), or the one who orders his dog to get baseball equipment. But some of the interviewees are clever in their own right, like George Toles, who is wry and funny and gives a description of his dog creating "lakes" of urine. It's about our relationships with dogs, and while at times it feels like a nonfiction Christopher Guest comedy, when one character describes having to put his dog down, not being allowed to hold it as the pet is injected with the needle, you couldn't claim that the film doesn't have a heart. This was shown in a film class, so its availability might be scant. 8/10
Springtime in Greenland (1981)
Deadpan, colorful, and vaguely homoerotic, the master stroke in this short, absurd comedy is the narrator, which in its forced enunciation sounds like John Wayne playing an Indian in one of his Westerns. The mostly visual story is about a smiling, sneering macho man with dark sunglasses and a porn star mustache vs. the sensitive, silent man in the skimpy red speedo as they challenge each other with competitive dives into the swimming pool. I haven't seen any of Paizs' other films, like the more famous "Crime Wave" (apparently this silent character is recurring in his films), but it makes sense that he would have directed episodes of "Kids in the Hall." I don't know how readily available this short is, as it was shown in a film class. 8/10
Zamri, umri, voskresni! (1990)
I don't know why I've seen so many reflexive, "only a movie" films lately, but here's another. It makes you wonder whether a viewer can choose to alter a film in his own mind, and take out the bits -- like this, for instance -- that partly ruin or deplete the experience for you. Aside from that, the film, which has rightly been assessed as being a kind of Russian "400 Blows," is awfully good, but since nothing really happens you may find yourself wishing it were shorter; but for me, it's enough to just enjoy the beautiful black and white cinematography, and the performance of this boy. It's a remarkable performance -- he's loud but not obnoxious, a little whiny but not snotty, cute but not sickly sweet. Even though the look and the feel of the film is unique -- or, a unique amalgam, I'll say -- even had it not been, it could rest quite well on the face of this boy, which is open, feminine, and almost Asian in its features, with sharp, tiny black eyes.
There are some pretty raucous scenes -- the most effective being a scene where villagers are clamoring for food handouts and one man eats a "pancake" of flour and mud, but also one at a cultural event (a ball of some sort?) where the visitors turn to drink. And like that other children's classic, "My Life as a Dog," it has one scene that will stay with you a while -- that one had the bottle scene, and this one has a scene where our hero gets peed on. (Unlike that film, not much attention is paid to sex; although there is one act of desperate adolescent sexual desire -- although it's more like a begging -- that's pretty good.)
The oblique narrative is sometimes hard to understand -- at least to me -- not tonally (it's neither light nor harsh, but it has a specific feel) but literally, and that's probably aided by the fact that the film is mostly a series of events rather than a kind of plot. That's fine, because many of the individual scenes are thoroughly interesting, and every once in a while we get one like the ice skate thieving, which is disorienting and lyrical at the same time. What's particularly interesting about the film, I think, is that it goes beyond mere mischievousness -- like James Dean, we are presented with a kid who wants to do the right thing, but everything he does gets screwed up. And it's surprising that we end up on his side, considering the fact that he at one point tips over a train. 9/10
La virgen de los sicarios (2000)
This is one of those movies that you're wary about, because the criticisms are so obvious. Yet I think this is something close to a minor masterpiece. This is quite rich material -- very literary, in a way -- and the invoking of Catholicism (and, for me, Genet) through the title is apt, for the way it delves into accepted perversions. At first I was wondering what the much-discussed shocking aspect of the film was, thinking perhaps it was the (would-be) sensuousness of this Latin boy-lover (the shared drink is not something you'd get in common fare), but it seems like it's more the violence that people react (or object) to. While it didn't upset me, I think the violence is interesting in two ways: one, the digital video makes the dispassionate killings have little impact, because it makes the film seem somewhat amateurish (with aid of the acting), like a genre film made on a shoestring budget; and two, the film as a whole is anti-dramatic -- for instance, when the revelation occurs, in a dramatized film it would be devastating: the truth of your lover revealed, and the swirl of emotions it creates; here, nothing -- so there is no cathartic violence (as in "The Godfather," for example), and it isn't lush. But it isn't brutal, either -- you don't get your nose rubbed in it, and I cherished that generosity to the audience.
The digital also helps keep the film grounded -- the only really attention-grabbing aspects of the film, as cinema, are the opening and closing framing of very beautiful music, and one nice over-the-wall camera move. It's like a cleverer "Man Bites Dog," in the sense that this *doesn't* draw attention to itself, that there is no winking or overt displays of cleverness. The film as a whole is subtle (at one point it feels like magic realism, even though we are told, I guess, that it's not), even though individual scenes are not (that the euthanizing of the dog is the only killing that has feeling is very heavy-handed). It's also incredibly easy to watch, and I think that must be due in part because the digital -- clear, crisp, and clean, with a smooth lucidity -- helps you seep into the film quicker, without any fuss. Indeed, without any film atmosphere at all. 9/10
Opening Night (1977)
It was once suggested by Pauline Kael, never a fan, that Cassavetes thought not like a director, but like an actor. What Kael meant was his supposed lack of sophistication as a filmmaker; to take that comparison further, to me, it never feels like Cassavetes is directing himself in a film, it feels like Cassavetes implanting himself inside his own creation, like Orson Welles. Cassavetes is just as much of a genius as Welles, but far more important as a true artist (as opposed to a technician or rhetorician). This is like a cross between Italian passion (though Cassavetes was actually Greek) and Scandinavian introversion. Never before have inner demons been so exposed physically.
It's about the mystery of becoming, performing, and acting. Like a haunted Skip James record, it's got the echoes of ghosts all around. Rowlands' breakdowns, which are stupefying and almost operatic, surprising coming from Cassavetes, are accompanied by a jumpy, unsettling piano. Who is this dead girl? The metaphysical possibilities are endless, and it's amazing to find this kind of thing in a Cassavetes film, just the overt display of intelligence (there is also a brief bit of voice-over at the beginning). But then, he always was intelligent, he just never flapped it around for easy praise. This is not "Adaptation"; here, the blending of reality and fiction and drama is not to show cleverness but to show the inner turmoil and confusion it creates.
There's so much going on. The pure, joyous love when Rowlands greets her doorman; the horror when she beats herself up... The scene where the girl talks about how she devoted her life to art and to music is one of the most effective demonstrations of understanding what it means to be a fan of someone. You can see some roots of this in "A Star Is Born," and Almodovar borrowed from it for "All About My Mother." I think the ending is a little bit of a disappointment because of the laughing fits, but the preparation leading up to it is almost sickening. (You can shoot me, but I think the alcoholism, despite its urgency in many of the scenes, is a relatively small point about the film.)
It's a living, breathing thing, and it feels like a process: it could go any direction at any time. Like "Taste of Cherry," we are reminded that "you must never forget this is only a play." Yet it is dangerous: when Rowlands says that line, is it great drama? How will the audience take it? Is she being reflexive or does she just not care? Her (character's) breakdowns are incorporated into the performances, and ultimately the film, in such a way that it's like witnessing a female James Dean. 10/10
Stranger Inside (2001)
What would probably be referred to as a "gritty slice of life drama" on the movie box (I saw it on TV) is interesting insofar as it presents another perspective -- it's the female equivalent of the "Oz" TV show (produced by HBO films), without the smarmy sexuality (the women are appropriately mannish, but the film doesn't feel the need to make their sex aggressive and off-putting). There are a few brief moments of tenderness between the women, but it's mostly the same thing you get with the majority of prison life movies -- fights, friendships, back-stabbings, immoral guards -- just with female machismo. It sets up the inner life of the prison, these people who inhabit it, but it doesn't show us human beings in prison (despite the old-timers' advice in group therapy sessions), it shows us prisoners. I liked the ending, so it gets an extra point for that, simply as a story; but if you're looking for "cinema," look elsewhere. 7/10
The Balcony (1963)
The transplanting of Genet's writing to film is odd indeed. It feels strongly allegorical, and it is: it's about a made-up revolution going on in the streets, violent scenes of apocalyptic fighting, where the two opposing forces, the police chief and the leader of the revolution, meet in a brothel where fetishistic sex scenes are enacted. So Genet's play seems at first to be about how sex binds, but it's more a post-modern sort of play, where all is an illusion and we play roles -- in Genet's world, our choices are governed by sex (which the film's comic ending uses to end the conflict through nakedness).
That's all well and good, but the revolutionary aspect doesn't come together too well, because the mocking of people who believe anyone who's presented to them isn't really successful; it's told more than it's dramatized. (Three joes from the brothel who act out their fetish scenes are made to participate in the battle outside as the people they play in the brothel.) The fakeness of the sets (complete with fake horse neighs and jury murmurs for the various acting out of fetish scenes) makes intellectual sense to go along with the fakeness of the rest of it (Winters' closing line is great), but the literal, set-like play, and the lousy stock footage, takes away from the melodrama, I think. It's a little difficult to watch, and the direction isn't very good; the decadence, the threats made by Falk, some of the lines -- it'd work better on the page. But it becomes larger as it goes along, and is successful in an unconventional way.
The strangest moments are the emotional ones, where emotion pierces through the artifice -- which, honestly, is rare, almost limited to the scene where the man licks the prostitute's shoe and she begins to cry, or the one where a prostitute-turned-file-clerk longs to be a prostitute again just for an hour. The most instantly recognizable Genet-like image is the one of Nimoy behind bars, his hairy chest exposed. Nimoy, whose appearance is brief, is very good here; he has the emotion through movement that Falk instead strains for. If Daniel Day-Lewis was doing Columbo in "Gangs of New York," then Falk is doing Bill the Butcher, with his German-Southern accent, mustache, and histrionics.
The three men from the brothel are necessarily flaky -- they seem to be acting in another film. I think the awesome Shelley Winters is the only one who really nails her performance: her recognizable inflection, the effortless "a" pauses in her speech, the svelte hand movements; she's most in tune to what's going on, and she pulls it off beautifully. There's a startling kiss between her and a girl from the brothel that must have been a jolt to audiences at the time; it still seems violent, even though it's done seemingly out of affection. 8/10
Histoires extraordinaires (1968)
After ten minutes of the Vadim film, which features a convoluted story about some kind of Cleopatra liberation thing, bored narration, and relies on ominous music to suggest evil, I skipped it. Is that cheating? I don't think so -- if each of the directors had made their shorts and released them separately, I doubt I'd be interested in Vadim's. (Though I still want to see "And God Created Woman.") As a side note, I mistakenly thought that the woman in "William Wilson," the Malle film, was Claudia Cardinale instead of Bardot; I figured that while Jane Fonda was in the Vadim film, that Bardot would have naturally been in the Vadim film, too. Silly me.
Malle's film, on the other hand, starts with a classic scene of dread -- a bloody-faced man running, quick cuts, loud music. Malle is the one director who gives into the classic Poe sense of foreboding. He delves immediately into childhood and summons up a strange, sadomasochistic and almost sexual perversion of the young Delon amidst the boarding/military school, torturing for fun, always with his bemused, blank face. At times the film tests your patience -- Why does Delon constantly have a group of followers around him wherever he goes? Why is there a seemingly real operation? Why is he permitted to whip a woman? -- but its logic oddly works, even though it makes very little literal sense. Delon's performance in the film is, as usual, very good: he doesn't get much to do, but he manages to be psychotic, insane, bemused, sexually frustrated, and sublime at different points throughout the film. I think Roman Polanski must be a Delon fan and must have seen this, as the ending (not to give anything away...) is very similar to that of "The Tenant," and there's a hilarious image in Fellini's film that also shows up in Polanski's film. (And aside from that, his "Knife in the Water," though stylistically and tonally different, has similarities in content to "Purple Noon.")
And a pop culture Fellini! His segment is quite reflexive, to the point that it does a twofold honoring of Terence Stamp: his character is a great British actor honoring Italian cinema, with mentions of Dreyer and Pasolini (who Stamp worked with that same year). It's partly a mockery of awards and film academia, with babble about conceptualizing and structuralist film. As is often the case with Fellini, it's hard to separate the genuine weirdness from the comedy, and with Stamp he finds an actor who can slide into the role of a harried actor with the same ease and gift for buffoonery as Mastroianni. It's hard to see any relation to Poe until near the end, when the film morphs into an interesting highway ghost story, complete with a ludicrous punctuation mark of comic goriness. 8/10 (for both Malle and Fellini's films).
F. est un salaud (1998)
Judging by the few IMDb votes this film has, and the fact that it's seven years old, it appears that this one escaped the consciousness of even the gay audience, which is a shame, because it's actually very good. Its emotional detail is just about note for note on target. I'd put it in the same class with "Edge of Seventeen," a deceptively simple movie with the same kind of quiet, intelligent emotional resonance. (I'm looking forward to see if I can get some of Gisler's other movies, which looks like it may be a task.)
The film starts, "Sunset Boulevard"-style, with a tragedy, but luckily the film proper is fully fleshed-out -- it doesn't feel like an afterthought; it's more like the framing device used is a nice little stylistic device. It doesn't need to be there, but it doesn't detract, either. I felt while watching it that the film would make a very good book -- and it was based on one, apparently. But because this is a film, and a fairly small-budget one at that, it focuses primarily on the intimate, and that's what makes it such a consistent pleasure. The intimacy is quite startling; the first sex, for instance, with Beni's spit dangling from his lip to Fogi's skin, exploring Fogi's body with his lips and nose. It's incredibly erotic. But better than that, there's a rare tenderness that's very admirable. And I don't just mean their kisses (though that is part of it), I mean the generosity the filmmaker gives to the characters, the way he indulges in the druggy ecstasy of the first lust/love but also doesn't shy away from their tendency toward self-hatred.
Their relationship is very much a role-playing game: it's the rock star fantasy, and Beni, in his tight shirt, is a male groupie -- Fogi's special boy. His infatuation with Fogi makes sense if we get in his head, but the film doesn't make us feel it, especially; we don't feel the "rebellion" that Beni sees in Fogi (and Fogi's music isn't very memorable, or outrageously "rock"). As the relationship deepens, the role-playing becomes more sexual in nature, but the undercurrent of damaging emotions remain. Beni becomes a slave boy to his studly master, and the emotional degradation we begin to witness (Beni clinging, in his underwear, to Fogi's legs as he kicks him out) brought to mind Frank Norris' writing -- Beni barking like a puppy dog for sexual play, but also with a degree of self-loathing. (It recalls the rush of contradictory emotions in the scene in "Blue Velvet" where Isabella Rossellini begs Kyle MacLachlan to hit her.) It would seem that, when we see this formerly innocent fanboy now nuzzling his face in Fogi's crotch after having been humiliated by him (Fogi pours milk on him when he refuses to move), the Beni character has taken an unbelievable turn, but the transitions -- both of the film and of Beni's character -- feel smooth. (And the emotional specificity of the sexual games ring incredibly true.)
I think, by the time the end comes around, a certain sense of sadness permeates the film that is quite fine. The ending works according to the delusional aspect of the relationship -- at first Beni's recollections seem almost ridiculous, but it's very much in tune with what we've just seen. Heartbreaking, because kids do think like this. 9/10
Raining Stones (1993)
Like many, I often found the accents hard to decipher. But I think it speaks to Loach's formidable talent that it's never really in question as to what's happening: we get the story in visible strokes, and we get the emotional feeling in the most minute, detailed way possible. To use a clichéd phrase, it has the drama of life, and Loach has a loving touch, even though the outer view of his work is rough and hard: he doesn't separate the funny bits from the painful bits, he lets it all run together. And despite the fact that some find him an "uncinematic" director, I think that's mostly baloney. No, he doesn't impress with his visuals, but that doesn't mean that they're uncinematic; he's working in a way that's more interested in recording emotions (and he still tells a story) and that is cinematic.
The film espouses a wonderful philosophy -- love and prayer is enough. Yet while the film is sympathetic to the emphasis the family places on communion (getting into Heaven), at times it feels like a condemnation of Catholic greed and pie-in-the-sky fantasies of those relying on God to solve their earthly troubles -- after all, He doesn't buy communion dresses. I think that's why the film works so well. It never spells out how intelligent it is, because that's not Loach's intention. Yet what he does is incredibly smart. (Likewise, you can see the politics behind the film, and that's why they work, too: they're behind it, not in your face.) The ending might seem a little too cheery (though cheery is perhaps the wrong word), but I think it works in the tradition of great humanism: things WILL be alright in the end, if you just believe. And because it's humanism, it's true: everything else might be awful, but you're alive, you have a family, you're fighting to go on: that's wonderful.
Loach makes a brilliant choice with the car crash, because it solves something and yet it makes the moral universe of the film more complex: Is he scott free now? Who is the bad guy here? And Loach of course includes the most pragmatic priest in the movies -- pray for the worthless soul as any good Christian would, but realize that he who causes fear in the hearts of good people is not a life worth wrecking yours over. Consider the car crash an act of God (which indirectly benefits God, by supporting a family of followers), rewarding he who believes yet still exists in the practical world trying to make things work (he who doesn't just lay around waiting for God to save him). THIS is Catholic cinema. I'm agnostic, and this touched my soul. It gets at the roots of what real religion does, or is supposed to do: heal, protect, love -- not preach, frighten, or intimidate. So I think even though he opts for a "faith" film (that is, he does not offer a text book on how to solve your problems), Loach's "realism" and pragmatic philosophy still suggests that the everyday is important -- keep at it. It's what leads to the faith, it's what's needed for the faith to work. 9/10
Divine Trash (1998)
The various film clips show Waters' unique kind of freak-glamour -- to him (and to many of us as watch the films) these are the most glamorous people in the world. The films have always worked so well in part because they're silly and they're outrageous in a good-spirited way (Waters brilliantly points out that "Pink Flamingoes" is essentially a baby movie that would likely play well for Kindergarteners), but really in the sense that, as Paul Morrissey points out, they make fun of what's proper, thereby being quite serious films themselves, even though they're ludicrous -- and in such a way that it still seems outrageous today: a pretty girl with a penis; an obese man-woman being raped by a giant lobster, for instance. Perhaps no filmmaker has so reshaped the way we respond to sexuality by filming it -- Waters essentially takes the mick out of sex, whether straight, gay, consensual, forced, S&M, kink, or fetish.
It's great to see Waters' and Divine's upright-seeming parents (neither of which have seen "Pink Flamingoes") and how positive they are, how supportive -- Waters' mother took him to play in junk yards as a kid. We're all rich because of that encouragement. And it's good to contrast how the parents react as opposed to one woman of similar age who worked for a censor board, and who, thirty years later, still can't get over a blasphemous crucifixion scene intercut with a "bead job" from one of Waters' early movies. (And while it certainly uses her for an example of extreme reactions to his films, the film never makes her into a "villain.") It's a nice choice to focus mostly on the early films, I think, as many of them aren't widely available and this can give us some sense of them.
The work that Waters and Divine did together (his "inflated, insane Jane Mansfield"), I think, can stand alongside any of the great cinema partnerships, whether it's Cassavetes-Rowlands or Fellini-Mastroianni. Waters' own influences range from the camp Kuchar films to William Castle schlock antics to Bergman, Fellini, and Kenneth Anger (who, along with Russ Meyer, chose not participate in the film). And while it might be tempting to lump Waters in with the gay set, he isn't really a part of it -- it's more sexual "terrorism" than anything else; he's like a Surrealist in that sense. I think that's probably why his own influence is so far-ranging -- no one is safe in his films. 8/10
How much value you find in this will depend on two things: the degree to which you're interested in an artist's personal life, and the degree to which you have a personal interest in Sergei Eisenstein. I'm not much of an Eisensteinian myself, even though I will gladly watch his major works -- "Battleship Potemkin," "Strike," "October," "Alexander Nevsky," "Ivan the Terrible" parts one and two -- to get a good sense of what it is he was after, and how he did it. He's a film pioneer whose films still thrill -- think of how amazing that is. Consider the person who created English grammar -- would you still want to read that? Well, Eisenstein, if we move past Chaplin, Griffith, Edison, the Lumieres, and Melies, essentially created modern film grammar, and film is a language like any other. (Your views on how to use that grammar may differ from Eisenstein, as mine do, but that doesn't change the fact that he set a solid foundation for others to work on -- or away from.)
The film is essentially a narration of Eisenstein's journals, and what's disappointing is that there's nothing very revealing about it. It's basically Eisenstein giving a brief summary of his childhood, how he got into films, what famous people he met, etc. (It's great to finally put to rest the common confusion of Einstein and Eisenstein -- he met the scientist, who gave him an autograph signed "from Einstein to Eisenstein.") And none of it is really very "secret," either: some remembrances of his films, and the briefest mention of "latent" homosexuality. (Funny that we learn Jean Cocteau was a fan, but the gay slant isn't touched upon.)
Knowing Eisenstein's satirical cartoonist past (and we get to see some of his cartoons, which are wonderfully grotesque) it's easy to see why he so revered Walt Disney; and it's not a claim that exists to be "shocking," this "propagandist" who likes animated features: he may well have been a propagandist, but he was foremost a stylist of spectacle -- the morality of what his films did or did not influence is really beside the point; he himself was reportedly surprised that in France his work was appreciated almost solely due to the socialist content; in America he was referred to as a "bandit." (And anyone who harbors notions of Eisenstein-the-evil will be glad to see a public announcement he makes against racial inequality.) For all the criticism Eisenstein gets for being too intellectual, too mechanical and technical (and it's a criticism I share), it's important to note that it was always tied to the art of the films. Perhaps the most interesting bit of information in the film is that he met James Joyce, who played him a recording of "Finnegans Wake," and how Eisenstein felt the "interior monologues" would have great use in cinema. 6/10
Near the beginning of the film, Hitler's secretary tells a story of a concentration camp guard asked if he felt pity for the victims, and that he replied yes, of course he does, but that he had to get over it for the greater good. His sense of morality was still intact, just perverted. Like that line in "Rules of the Game," everyone has their reasons. The film forces us to humanize the "bad" guys -- this is an old woman, and, with the exception of Leni Riefenstahl, nobody wants to immediately hate an old woman, least of all one was never a member of the Nazi party and whose own husband died fighting. She got the job largely out of chance: during her typing test, which she was doing terribly on, a phone call (which would prove life-changing) came in for Hitler and she had time, while he was on the phone, to calm herself down and type properly.
The film isn't much as a film, but the director does something very smart in showing her watch the film herself. On the one hand, it allows her to go back and make an addendum should something seem incomplete or out of context, and on a subject as touchy as this that makes sense. (And it's something that allows her to remain dignified -- the aim here isn't to "catch" her admitting to something, nor is it to make her into a symbol we can feel sorry for: she cries only once, and even then it's brief.) But on the other hand, it could also be seen to be allowing her to backtrack on her own admissions. For instance, at one point she dismisses her descriptions of Hitler as being "banal," and with the exception of her description of the joy he took in showing off his dog's tricks (that's too obvious a comparison for it to speak of his manner in dealing with humans), the insight she gives is valuable because it explains her experience, how it felt at the time. The atrocious digital video is painful on the eyes, but the director's decision to cut to her watching the video herself has a secondary value; at one point as she is watching the video she adds a question, asking rhetorically if Hitler had found Jewish blood in him, would he have gassed himself? Because it is so casually interspersed with the interview proper, and because of the echo in the room, it's a haunting moment, and it adds an aesthetic dimension to the film that is otherwise lacking (and maybe rightfully so).
She describes her house as being one raised by a man (her grandfather on her mother's side; her father was absent) who favored ideals such as backing down and making sacrifices. That, and the fact that she openly admits to being endeared to Hitler based partly on a paternal image, partly explains her naivety, but even the background reasons for why she didn't understand who Hitler really was (or what he was really doing, as she had a closer understanding of "who" he was than those of us who pontificate from a distance) doesn't do anything to change the fact that she can't live with herself because of it. The film doesn't really take an in depth approach at that, at the nature of her depression; it more listens to her relay the information as she experienced it, which is an interesting perspective. We get a good sense of her guilt when she describes Hitler's private courteousness vs. his bombastic public persona. Which was the evil one? If he had ideals in his private life, they became evils in his public life. But his success could not have been achieved if it was not for the collective "us." THAT is a troubling thought, and it betrays the common image we have of Hitler as the great evil. It's no wonder she was so distraught that after years of silence (and disinterest in her story) she emerges to make this film -- and then die after its release.
As a woman she has certain insights into the Hitler phenomenon. She never understood why Hitler received so many fan letters from women, remarking that she didn't see him as a sexual beast (she only once witnessed him kiss his wife Eva Braun on the lips), and that he had relatively "primitive" views on women -- he could never understand that a man might cheat on his beautiful wife with a less attractive woman; after all, what else could he want aside from his wife's beauty? She also speaks quite eloquently about eroticism, and it might seem out of place to praise her for it (or to praise the filmmakers for including it), but just hearing her, a woman of a certain age, talk openly about giving yourself over to the erotic (and how Hitler never did) is a pleasure in itself.
Those looking for a revelation into the Holocaust's inner workings will likely be disappointed -- even though she was in the bunker, she doesn't solve the Hitler suicide question (she heard an officer claim to have burned the body post-suicide, but didn't go look). But it's fascinating regardless, and she finds it fascinating too -- it's interesting to watch her fairly calm and reserved demeanor grow more excitable in the last half hour as she remembers certain bits of information. Listening to her, we get a pretty full sense of the mania of the last days -- she recounts the story of a wedding going on and the party afterward with someone playing an accordion; this, as Russian artillery fires in the background. Then she finds a rather poignant Hitler quote when she and others, knowing what Russian soldiers do to the women they catch, ask for cyanide tablets and Hitler consents, saying he wishes he could offer a better farewell gift. 8/10
Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)
The first of the three segments is perhaps the sunniest film ever made. It's a totally original film (at least from what I've seen); so original, in fact, that at first it's kind of off-putting -- the artificiality of the bubble gum colors (in the first segment, as they change slightly as each moves into the next), the constantly moving camera, and the fact that all of the lines are sung makes it hard to get situated within the film, for the same reason that you turn the car radio down when you're driving down a street trying to read house numbers. ("I can't follow the plot, they keep singing...") And yet Demy isn't satisfied with just being sunny (and his brightness is never garish); each segment has a specific feel, the grandest being the last, with an ending that's just right. (Though it should be said that Demy never once sacrifices the pleasure he creates, nor does he fall into any stale conventions, even while his story is based on the oldest of movie clichés -- wait for me!).
I hesitate to use the word melodrama, but that's essentially what the film is, both for the meaning of the word "melo" (music) and for the heightened emotions brought on my the music. It feels like we've got our head in the clouds, not least of all because the acting is aided by, well, the singing. The music, which is nearly always splendid (and never song-and-dancey), compliments the actors. At first the acting is very plain; or at least, it seems that way. I think that's due to the unconventional approach. Deneuve's loveliness as a young woman keeps us from responding to much aside from her beauty (and she starts off as a typical love-struck sixteen year-old), but by the end she's quite a different person, and to overuse a term applied to Deneuve, she becomes elegant. (I kept looking at her handsome costar thinking Alain Delon would have been perfect in the role; then I learned his most noteworthy film aside from this one was the Delon-starring Visconti film, "Rocco and His Brothers.) Surely some people would probably vomit at a film of such shameless exhibitionism and style, but I was left astonished, thinking, How in the hell did they pull it off? 9/10
L'enfant sauvage (1970)
A movie like this can be viewed in two main ways: a human example of a scientific study (with on screen replications of the study, and a moral conclusion); or a lesson in learning for the participants (the wild child will learn how to spell his adopted name; his teacher -- and we the audience -- will learn how to feel!). Truffaut kind of merges both into something of unique value. It feels a little removed, and it becomes clear that that's to prevent sentimentality. It's unsentimental, but Truffaut is a quiet master; as is the case with David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," his auteur sensibilities shine through the story so that it fits in neatly with his catalogue -- here we have another film with a naked boy's bum, and young children being goofy and walking in packs. What the film is is an intense magnification of the troubles of child-rearing, emphasized twofold by Truffaut's role in the film: he is the "mother" giving birth to the film; and he is the father raising this "wild child" within the film; good-natured, but without the inherent understanding of the boy that his housekeeper has (and without the inherent understanding Truffaut the director has of cinema).
Is it possible to feel bad watching a Truffaut film? And even better than making you feel good, he's not being sneaky about it -- instead of crass manipulation (and what kind of film could be more easily made manipulative than a one about boy left to survive in a forest and how he learns to be "human"?), he imbues each frame with soft, gentle love; so instead of jerking our emotions around via contrivance of the characters, he trusts us enough -- and his own talent enough -- to allow us to latch on to feeling his respect and love for cinema itself. (And he wisely keeps the film in mostly medium shots.) Nothing is really highlighted, but occasionally a particular image will be so fine that it's hard not to notice it, like the one where the camera is raised above Victor as he slouches back to his room after being told he can't accompany Truffaut to the doctor. (Or the sly visual gag where Truffaut is teaching Victor letters with the boy's fingers, and he manages to basically flip the audience the bird -- then has Truffaut swat his fingers with a cane.)
Truffaut isn't interested in the kind of acting displays that normally accompany this kind of film; the acting is subdued and realistic (but then again, how would we ever know how a wild child would act?). The boy is limited to acting without words, and it's a very good performance: whether he's grinning wildly in a bath or swaying back and forth or opening his mouth as wide as it can go in an act of effrontery, it's a performance that refuses to indicate how we should feel. There are some scenes that portray confusion so well but don't rub our noses in it, like the one where he's trying his hardest to follow instructions and eat his soup properly, but can't help himself and sticks his face in the bowl. After Victor makes a craft and impresses Truffaut with it, Truffaut writes in his ongoing journal how joyful he is but to forgive his enthusiasm over such a small triumph -- that's the best way to describe how the film feels: a series of small triumphs of gentle subtlety. 9/10
The Indian Runner (1991)
There are a few of us who feel that Sean Penn is one of the major driving forces in American cinema, an actor of pure artistic intentions, utter sincerity and empathy, and thoughtful (if often misconstrued) politics. He's kind of an heir to a few different giants -- Brando, in terms of rough sexuality and pugnacity; Nicholson, in terms of intelligence as an actor (he shares with both a volatile, sometimes over-the-top acting style and tendency to play human beings with emotions rather than playing acting techniques); and Cassavetes, emphasized with this film (which he dedicates to him). He's more meticulous and crafty than Cassavetes, but just as emotionally direct. (And like him, there may be times where you don't know what to think of what you're seeing; I think that's true of anything original, or anything that eschews typical film conventions.) But despite that similarity, the film isn't quite real -- the Indian mythos, the narration of David Morse, Viggo Mortenson hopping on a moving train. It's the stuff of hazy dreams. The whole picture is imbued with a quiet feeling -- you wish you could show it to those on the right who hate Penn for his outspoken politics, just to prove that he cares deeply about exactly the type of people they think he and his Hollywood friends are against.
At first the Indian stuff is a little cheesy, but it leads up to a climax where it really works and feels organic. More than being an actor who can direct, Penn is at times a real master -- he's got a rare gift of ending films with a real punch, without it being cheap. Here, the film gets more technically flamboyant as it goes along -- the camera moves a little more, the inter cutting between a few different scenes gets quicker -- and it ends wonderfully. You have to have a certain willingness to go along with the story that Penn's telling (many times characters do things that don't make any logical sense, but emotionally it fits), and the semi-metaphysical closing really worked for me.
Part of the value is in the chance to see good actors work; it's strange that actors known for their histrionics so often direct films that are completely devoid of showiness in terms of acting. That is to say, when Mortensen freaks out on his wife (Patricia Arquette, whose constant squeals are incredibly -- and aptly -- uncomfortable), it's tense because of the exchange of emotions and not because of any actorly shaking or screaming. Penn is a very generous director, and I think that's shown by his allowing Charles Bronson to do some of the finest work of his career. The movie feels very indebted to the '70s, what with a few of the zooms, the folk/rock music, and the kind of small, rural movie this is that rarely gets made anymore. (It owes something to Dennis Hopper's own films, I think; specifically in Mortensen's speech about the "math kids.") 8/10
Mat i syn (1997)
After opening with a distorted tableau, Sokurov moves slowly into images of stones, grass; he's a naturalist who's addicted to nature; a humanist who's dedicated to the intimate. (The mother and son in his film are not characters or types or ciphers or "performances.") The camera movements are so beautifully slow that they're hard to describe -- imagine the precision of "Ordet" had it been made in color, those images still and hazy, like pastoral paintings with glowing hues of light. They're some of the purest images I've ever seen, comparable to "Barry Lyndon" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." What is so startling is that the color makes the film seem modern -- and such a hazy yet lucid color, Maddin-like in its Expressionism and schemes: fable-like and emotionally incestuous. It exists outside time, its only indicator a train within the film; existential emptiness represented visually. The film passes by quickly, with the perpetual wind that sounds like the ocean. It's as if the film is a progression of the most beautiful visions imaginable, the various images of death.
It is something different -- art should be unique, if we're talking about art in the vein of Picasso, Shakespeare, and Bach, shouldn't it be an experience like no other? In fact, this could easily be compared to Tarkovsky, the most obvious comparison. But for me it feels more like Dreyer without the self-conscious dialogue. It couldn't be said to be complex -- it's two characters talking rather simply. But what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in singularity. (The images are at times so rich that it's almost comical -- is this a film set or not?) It's the kind of film that's easy to make fun of, intruding on the most personal moments of this pathetic-looking mother and her son who constantly speaks in a hushed tone -- you imagine one of those "Seinfeld" Village Voice parodies. It isn't emotional or intellectual; I don't even know if it's profound. But it's a masterpiece, plain and simple. 10/10
The Connection (1961)
This is a very difficult film, austere and hard, but after about ten minutes you can calibrate yourself to its rhythm, which is slow -- or, not so much slow as not fast, with extremely long takes in a one-room setting. The film, which is about a group of jazz musicians waiting for "the connection" (heroin) in an apartment, is essentially a filmed piece of experimental theater; it's very interesting, I think, and valuable for its honest portrayals of blacks (not all of the characters are black, but those who are are allowed to give equal amounts of monologues to the camera). The film itself, which is a product of the beat culture, is an experiment in subtle documentary satire -- the film is a film that's being made by a documentarian and his camera assistant; the documentarian becomes involved in the "film" himself by interacting with the musicians, trying to get them to act naturally for the camera by saying he's one of them, that he "reads" them. (The film is also a kind of Method film in the sense that the performances are strained and melodramatic -- the main character who owns the apartment has a boil that makes him scream at a few points -- and that everything is about the documentarian retaining emotional truth.) As the documentarian gets involved with the group (and after the connection arrives, with a female religious preacher in toe), the film feels almost like a public service announcement. It's a really fascinating document. 9/10
Christo in Paris (1990)
This film makes you ask, Why do this? What does Christo get out of this form of art? Essentially the film is a journey to create art, but it's mostly the journey to get permission for it -- we do see the Pont-Neuf being wrapped, and we see it wrapped in all its splendor (though not the dismantling), but the majority of the film is the various detours that Christo and his wife (who looks like Illeanna Douglas) have to take being allowed by the government to create their unconventional art. (What's just as interesting is the love between the smiling Christo and his wife, who knew in marrying him that he would give her a fascinating life.) We see how even Christo's art, which is not political in any real way, is still dangerous to the politicians that allow it -- Jacques Chirac, the major of Paris, says he will only allow it once the '83 elections are over.
The documentary captures street bystanders so we understand the reaction of the citizens to the wrap -- some find Christo abnormal, others defend him as transforming a famous landmark temporarily (all of Christo's wraps are ephemeral -- here the memory exists in the mind's of those that see it, as well as this film). One observer very astutely notes to one man telling him why he is vehemently objected to the wrap that "if the bridge weren't wrapped, we'd never have spoken to each other." The wrap itself does have its clear aesthetic qualities -- much like wrapping someone's face in clay, it takes away the definition but reveals a broader sense of the overall construction of the face. It's more of a curio than a triumphant masterpiece of art; I think the conceptual aspect of it is most interesting, specifically the fact that it is temporary -- and being such, it is not art that could ever exist for monetary gain.
The Maysles film itself is a very good document of the experience of the bridge, even more so because if it didn't exist, the film, there'd be no way for we Westerners to experience it at all, with the exception of flying to Paris. The music employed in the film is especially good at emphasizing the experience of the bridge. It's a hard film to track down, and I found it in my university library, a copy taped off of the CBC, hosted by Adrienne Clarkson. 8/10