Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ideology vs. Art

Film: Olympia 1: Teil—Fest der Volker (The Olympiad Part 1: Festival of the People), Olympia 2: Teil—Fest der Schonheit (The Olympiad Part 2: Festival of Beauty)
Format: VHS from Scott Community College (Part 1) and Muscatine Community College (Part 2) through interlibrary loan, both on big ol’ television.

First, a note: Both “The Book” and IMDB list the English title of the first part of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the 1936 Olympics as “Festival of the Nations.” However, anyone with even a smattering of German will tell you that “Volker” translates as “folk,” or “people.” Thus, I’m going with the translation here that makes sense to me, which also happens to be the title given on the copy sitting next to me at the moment.

Admiring Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary duo Olympia 1: Teil—Fest der Volker, and Olympia 2: Teil—Fest der Schonheit (The Olympiad Part 1: Festival of the People and The Olympiad Part 2: Festival of Beauty, hereafter referred to as Olympia 1 and Olympia 2, and jointly as Olympia) is sort of like admiring the poetry of Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound—great poet, Nazi sympathizer. Leni Riefenstahl—groundbreaking filmmaker, essential component of Nazi propaganda machine. It can certainly be argued (and successfully, I think) that Riefenstahl did not support the Nazi racial ideology, but it can just as easily be argued that films like Olympia did a great deal to enhance the National Socialist agenda in the late 1930s. In a way, it feels like saying, “Y’know, Joe Stalin didn’t have much of a record as a humanitarian, but boy! What a dancer!”

This advancement of Nazi belief occurs only at the beginning and end of each part of the documentary. The opening of both films is decidedly Aryan, with blonde youth cavorting in various sports, often nude. In the first film, we see the torch coming from Greece to Berlin, with scenes of the torch being passed overlaid on a map of Europe as the torch makes it to the stadium. We also get a glimpse of the opening ceremonies, and how strange and fascinating it is to see (for instance) French and Canadian athletes marching into the stadium giving the Nazi salute.

The second film opens with a montage of male bodies diving and swimming. I’d call it homoerotic save for the fact that Riefenstahl was a woman. I guess I’ll just have to call it erotic and move on from there. Again, there is a particular Aryan-ness to this opening.

With both films, though, we move into the sports, and the coverage is surprisingly even-handed. We see, for instance, many events in which athletes from countries other than Germany win. Additionally, we often see the medal ceremonies and hear long stretches of national anthems other than “Deutschland Uber Alles.” Jesse Owens gets star treatment here, as he richly deserved. It’s noteworthy, though, because as a non-Caucasian, Owens is unquestionably “untermensch,” and not a part of Aryan ideology. Still, Riefenstahl depicts him as an athletic deity, which goes a long way in suggesting that her own racial politics were different from that of her bosses.

The first film deals almost entirely with track and field events, and we get them in ridiculous detail. We see people long jumping for huge stretches, throw after throw in the javelin and discus, and leap after leap in the pole vault. There’s some track and field in the second film, but it branches out into boating, rowing, cycling, field hockey, and other events that don’t center on the main stadium in Berlin. Again, the treatment is decidedly even-handed. We’re given a detailed account of the field hockey finals in which India destroyed Germany by a score of 8-1, hardly a victory for Aryan pride. Boxing, strangely enough, is missing entirely.

This is all worth noting, because Riefenstahl could have easily made this an Aryan-only film. Germany actually won the medal count in the 1936 Olympic Games with 89 total medals, several dozen more than the U.S., which finished second with a total of 56 medals.

Riefenstahl chooses to show the results of some events and not others. For instance, we see a great deal of men’s gymnastics, but get no commentary on the events, and hear the names of no winners. Other events that today have a much lower profile, like the Pentathlon, are given a full treatment here.

One of the most interesting things to see here is the differences in the various sports from then and now. Gymnastics evidently took place in the center of the main stadium outdoors. The high jump is particularly interesting since this Olympics took place years before the advent of Dick Fosbury and the “Fosbury Flop.” Some of the numbers feel low as well—the pole vault, for instance, was won with a jump of about 14.5 feet, which wouldn’t even qualify today.

The main reason that Olympia is worth watching at all is because of the revolutionary camera work. Riefenstahl manages to get camera angles that almost had to be intrusive in the events. There are shots directly under the high bars in jumping events, shots that feel so close to the athletes that I have trouble believing they didn’t affect performances. She manages to show the human body in action from virtually every possible angle, and in spite of any apparent ideological desires from her Nazi overlords, gives this treatment to people of all nationalities and colors.

The goal, essentially, appears to be the depiction of the human body as a work of art or a thing of beauty. She succeeds. Much of what we are shown is in crisply-filmed slow motion, allowing for a real study of the bodies in motion. And, since the bodies are in general those of highly trained and exquisitely fit athletes, there is a particular beauty to them, as well as a grace and sense of physical power.

If anything fails in the version of the film I watched (there are evidently three—German, English, and French), it’s the editing. In the second part, we see horse after horse in the steeplechase jump the same fence and into the same pond. We see dive after dive after dive off springboards, endless javelin tosses, and what feels like hours of guys jumping over bars. Women’s events are almost entirely ignored as well in favor of the men. Whether this is specific to her vision or demanded as a part of the commission she was given is unknown to me. It does leave a taste of “the job of women is to produce children for the 1,000-year Reich,” though.

Regardless of these issues, Olympia is the beginning of the sports documentary, and has influenced generations of filmmakers since it was first unveiled. It may feel like weak sauce in this day and age of continual and continuous sports coverage, but virtually every sports movie, most documentaries, and certainly everything ever produced by NFL Films owes Leni Riefenstahl a debt that cannot be fully repaid.

In other words, “Leni Riefenstahl’s politics might have been a little suspect, but boy! What a filmmaker!”

Why to watch Olympia: Revolutionary coverage of sports.
Why not to watch: How many horses do you want to see jump into the same puddle?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Closer than a Close-Up

Film: Faces
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There are few directors in cinematic history who could get the sort of honest portrayal of real life the way John Cassavetes could. There are few films that demonstrate this particular skill as well as Faces. Faces is a film about infidelity, about loneliness, about looking for a way to fill the emptiness of life. Specifically, that emptiness here is being filled up with new relationships, sex, and worthless pleasure.

Cassavetes’s other talent is depicting dialogue that comes across tonally as being truly reflective of real dialogue, a skill only matched in recent years by Tarantino. The people in Cassavetes’s films talk like real people. They swing from happy to angry, aggressive to passive, laughing uproariously to devastated because of a wrong statement or a word that doesn’t strike the correct tone. A lot of this happens, at least in this film, because the characters are constantly fueled by lakes of booze. There’s a lot of laughter in this film, and it really comes across as genuine. Interestingly, and tellingly for this film, a great deal of this laughter is not only honest in appearance, and seems to be hiding something deeper and uglier.

Our main character is Richard Forst (John Morley), who has a loveless marriage with Maria (Lynn Carlin). He looks for happiness with Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), a young and attractive woman who may or may not be a prostitute, or at least something quite a bit like one. Maria has her own affairs with Chet (Seymour Cassel). Forst eventually leaves Maria and shows up at Jeannie’s place, where his relationship with her seems to mimic his marriage in many ways.

The central conceit here is that no one is really happy, no one really loves or cares about anyone else, no one has what he or she wants. There is a tremendous undercurrent of dissatisfaction in every conversation and on every face at all times. No matter the person, the person’s importance to the plot, or the length of time on screen, there is a terrible (in the original sense of the word) sense of wanting more and not quite knowing what is desired. Instead, there is a sense of desperation, of desire so strong that something must be done, but with no sense of what to do.

Faces was shot in high-contrast black and white, which has several effects on the film. The first is that there is a graininess that gives the film a particular grittiness. In essence, the film looks amateur, and because of this, it gives the impression of far less artifice and a deeper sense of reality. Second, the high contrast puts the faces in stark relief. Every flaw is exposed and real, which further adds to the overall sense reality.

So, while this film is fiction, a story, there is a sense here of documentary filmmaking, that this is a slice of someone’s reality. Certainly, there are any number of people who could have connected with this film on that level when it was made, and could connect with it now—laughing continuously so that there is no crying, finding no real enjoyment in anything but trying to fill up the gap in their lives with anything they can find, really enjoying nothing but telling themselves that they enjoy everything, except for those moments when they can no longer hide their inner pain, and every attempt to look for happiness ends up tawdry, failed, and laden with guilt feelings.

With a film like this, one that truly attempts to depict life rather than reflect a part of it, two questions become important: is it any good, and (in this case) do I like it. Faces is unquestionably great, something truly staggering in the way it is created, the way it looks, and its real attempt to show the tawdriness and crushing despair of daily life. Cassavetes has created a true work of art with this film, revealing and excising something painful beneath the skin of society.

Do I like it? On this score, I’m not as sure. This is not a terribly easy film to watch. There’s a lot of pain here, even when everyone is smiling and looks like he or she is having a great time. Everything is painful here—love, sex, friendship, conversation. Emotional and spiritual pain becomes an environment in this film, and while people try to escape from it for a few moments if they can, no one is ever really able to.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not I like this film becomes one of how much time I really want to spend being shown that life is a series of disappointments and unfulfilling experiences that essentially mean nothing in the grand scheme. I respect it, I appreciate it, I’m glad I watched it. I think that maybe that’s going to have to be enough for this one.

The last question regarding this film is the name. Of all the things that Cassavetes could have called this film, why Faces? If I had to make a guess (and I suppose, in a way, I do), I’d say that he called it this because a great deal of the film focuses on the faces of the characters. Much of the film is told in close up of one character or a pair.

Why to watch Faces: Cassavetes gets so close to reality that it’s uncomfortable.
Why not to watch: How much more reality do you really need?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sin: More Fun to Experience than Listen to

Film: Lola Montes (The Sin of Lola Montes)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library projected on big screen.

Max Ophuls is regarded as one of the greatest directors in film history. Shows what I know—as far as I know, I’d never seen anything he’s directed until today. Ophuls is best known for camera movement, particularly circular movements. If Lola Montes is any indication, he’s got a thing for picky little details and opulence as well.

Lola Montes, alternatively known as The Sin of Lola Montes, is the story of the eponymous woman, an Irish-born entertainer of questionable moral character. The film is loosely based on a real woman named Elizabeth (possibly Eliza) Oliver who used the stage name Lola Montes, posing as a Spanish dancer. Whatever her talents may have been, she is best known for her series of high profile love affairs.

The film, in what I can only assume is a huge chunk of artistic license, begins in a circus where the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) is telling the audience that his troupe has a special member—the infamous Lola Montes (Martine Carol). The show starts with the audience being allowed to ask her anything (each question costs a quarter) about her scandalous life. From here, we start a series of flashbacks of Lola’s life, not really going further back than her first major affair, with composer Franz Liszt.

This is the path that the film will take over and over. The circus troupe essentially performs Lola’s life with Lola center stage, and we then regress into the major events of Lola’s life. The most significant is her affair with Ludwig I of Bavaria. The film follows her rise to something like power (as Ludwig’s concubine), her fall from grace, and ends with her eventual position as little more than a sideshow attraction at a circus, charging a dollar for men to approach her and kiss her hand while she sits in a cage near the menagerie.

So, obviously, it’s a rise and fall movie, with no corresponding rise at the end. There is no reward here, no redemption for anyone, least of all Senora Montes. At this point in her life, Lola is alive, but not really living. She’s going through the motions of life, (as evidenced by the decision of the circus to leave the net up when Lola performs on the high wire), but there is no longer anything in life for her to enjoy. The good part of her life is over—all she has left are her memories of faded lovers and times when her beauty did more than remind people what she once was.

It’s difficult, of course, to tell if the film version of Lola Montes is anything like the actual woman. The affairs with Liszt and Ludwig are at least based in fact. Beyond that, though, there’s really no way to know if the character portrayed by Martine Carol is anything like the woman who raised eyebrows around the continent for years. If I had to guess, though, I’d suggest that there are a few specific similarities combined with a host of inaccuracies, many of which are caused by the actor’s (or director’s) choice and/or limitations. That probably needs a better explanation.

The real life Lola Montes had numerous affairs in a very short amount of time. She married over and over, had to flee England because of bigamy charges, and appeared to change husbands like other people change their pants. She also seems not to have much in the way of real talent other than the talent of making men go bibbledy over her. The real woman must have been something very special. Martine Carol is nothing but flat. She seems not to have much personality on the screen. She’s sort of lifeless and passive, allowing things to happen to her rather than causing things to happen. Frankly, that’s kind of disappointing.

The circus, and the life told through flashback, are nice metaphors for this film. Lola’s life does appear to be something like a stage show—much more attractive from the audience than the reality of it could ever be. I like this metaphor quite a bit, actually. Lola is put into the spotlight as almost a cautionary tale—and more as a way to bring in the women customers as well, since the hope is that the women will want to live through the story as a sort of vicarious thrill.

Ophuls’s work is beautiful. There’s no denying that. But really, that’s all I have to say about it. Beyond the metaphor of the circus, I can’t say that Lola Montes made much of an impression on me in any way.

Why to watch Lola Montes: It’s your only chance to see Max Ophuls in color.
Why not to watch: It’s the same basic plot over and over.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I Was so Much Older Then, I'm Younger Than That Now

Film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Much of life is a confluence of events. Things happen, and these things cause other things to happen. Ripples in a pond, if you will, flowing ever outward, bumping into each other, and changing the pattern. This, more than anything, is the central theme of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There’s more to it, of course, and the film goes on at length about this idea, and about fate, and love, and kismet. Hell, the thing is close to three hours long—it had better be about more than just one thing for that length.

The tale is one of magical realism, set in the current world, but filled with the sort of wonder that only the movies or a particular type of book can provide. The film starts with the story of a blind clockmaker whose son is killed in World War I. As a testament to his son, he creates a clock that runs backwards, hoping to turn back time, hoping that this would bring his son back. At the same time, Benjamin Button (played by a variety of actors, most notably Brad Pitt), is born. He is born an ancient, wizened thing—cataracts, no hearing, ossified joints and arthritis. As the film continues, it becomes evident that he is growing younger while everyone around him grows older.

We follow Benjamin through his life, starting at a retirement home in New Orleans where his father (Jason Felmyng) abandoned him, terrified of the ancient baby his wife died giving birth to. Here he is raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and her paramour Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, whose first name would be a hell of a Scrabble word).

When Benjamin is about seven and looks about 80, he encounters the main love of his life for the first time in the person of Daisy (also played by several actors, primarily Cate Blanchett). Daisy will enter and leave his life over and over throughout the course of the movie. It is the fate of these two and their relationship with which the film is primarily focused, after all. However, because she is aging like the rest of the world and he is aging in reverse, their relationship has a doomed quality to it, truly blooming only when the two of them are similar in age.

Benjamin leads an interesting life, traveling the world as a crewman on a tugboat, seeing a little action during World War II when his ship is shot out from under him by a German U-boat. He continues to show back up in New Orleans, reconnecting with his adopted mother, and eventually with his actual father. Throughout this, Daisy continues to come back into his life for short stretches that end when one of them leaves the other for one circumstance or another.

All of this is told in flashback as Daisy lays dying in a hospital bed in New Orleans, just on the brink of Hurricane Katrina. Benjamin’s story is being read from his journal by Daisy’s daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond), with frequent interruptions and remembrances from Daisy. We learn well into the film that Caroline is the daughter of Benjamin, and not the man she believed to be her father.

The culmination of the film is essentially what you would probably expect. Benjamin is growing younger physically and older mentally, eventually ending up with Alzheimer’s in the body of a toddler. Daisy is growing older normally, trying to care for an irascible infant who continues to regress physically at the end of his life. While the ending may be uplifting, it certainly isn’t anything I’d call happy.

The most obvious parallel film is Forrest Gump, but I like this movie a hell of a lot better. The connection here is that both films tell the story of an ordinary man leading an extraordinary life. But there are other obvious connections as well, not the least of which is that both films came from the pen of the same screenwriter. The women in both films fly in and out of the main character’s life, settling down with him when it suits her and regardless of what he might think, desire, or feel. Both take place primarily in the South, feature a lot of action on a small boat, and have the title character inherit a great deal of money in one form or another.

And yet, I really hate Forrest Gump, and I liked this movie fairly well. I like the characters more here for one thing, and that helps a great deal. I like the story more here as well—Benjamin is a fascinating character who is worth watching and worth becoming involved with as a member of the audience.

The performances here are excellent, with the breakout belonging to Taraji P. Henson, who is magnificent. Fincher is an excellent director as well—one of my current favorites—and he does a lot with his cast and with the story. It would be easy to turn this movie into a full-blown fantasy of magical thinking, something like a dramatic Field of Dreams about romantic love instead of baseball and daddy issues, but Fincher plays it pretty straight. For the most part, the only truly outré part of the film is Benjamin’s issues with aging.

This is not a happy film by any stretch of the imagination, though. The ending is perhaps a foregone conclusion, based on how it begins, with Daisy gasping her last in a hospital bed while the most destructive hurricane in decades begins to pound the New Orleans shoreline. Despite this, there is a particular beauty to it and to the way the story unfolds. \

If I have a complaint here, it’s similar to one of my complaints I have with Forrest Gump. In Gump, Jenny comes across as a selfish, awful person even if we are supposed to think otherwise. Similarly, Daisy is terribly selfish—much of what is revealed here, including her ballet career, is unknown by her daughter until she reads of it in Benjamin’s diary. I find it difficult to find such characters sympathetic. Queenie at one point says, “I never took you to be the selfish type” to Daisy. How wrong she was for thinking that, and how right she was for saying it.

Why to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Because sometimes the best way to find value and affirmation in the real world is to see it in a magical one.
Why not to watch: Why does Hollywood forever give us terrible selfish characters who end up getting what they want?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

He Wrote Me...

Film: Sans Soleil (Sunless)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various media.

If you look up Sans Soleil (Sunless) on the Internet and start reading through the criticism or the reviews on IMDB.com, you’ll see the phrase “Sans Soleil is a unique meditation on [insert subject(s)]” over and over. Evidently, this is an art film geek’s way of telling people that this is an art geek film, one that can be appreciated only by those who wear berets, sip Chateau d’Something, and smoke clove cigarettes.

So let’s get this out of the way right away: Chris Marker’s film is absolutely a meditation on life, culture, art, time, and more. As for unique, I’m not entirely sure. There were large chunks of this film that reminded me pretty strongly of films like Mondo Cane, even down to the actual filmed deaths of wild creatures and some of the more disturbing parts of the circle of life—vultures pecking at the eyes of a dead giraffe, for instance.

The film is essentially a 100+ minute montage of images, primarily from Guinea-Bissau and Japan. There is no chronology or story; instead, the film is a series of short monologues delivered by a narrator, who is herself describing letters she has received from the filmmaker, Marker’s alter ego. Parts of the film act as history lesson on Guinea-Bissau and its rise to nation status from Portuguese colony and its bloody birth and early years. Other parts are commentary on Japanese television and culture, as well as the emerging culture of video games—still brand new in the film’s year of 1982.

Marker draws metaphors everywhere, linking Pac-Man to life, for instance, although not in the way that I would have. He comments through his narrator that the game symbolizes the relationship of individual and environment. To my mind the metaphor works better seeing the eponymous hero of the game as an endless consumer, pursued through an unending maze by little personalized demons that eventually trap and kill him…but then I’m not the filmmaker here, am I?

Regardless, Marker does not shy away from terrible images, seeking a sort of beauty in horror that he attributes is also a part of Japanese culture. Even pain must be exquisite, he says, and he gives us a taste of the horrific. It is a terrible moment to see a giraffe shot through the neck, blood fountaining in twin geysers from each side of the neck, terrible to see a man walk up and put a rifle bullet through the creatures head, terrible to see the giraffe’s fate as vultures plunge neck-deep into the eye socket. Terrible also are the images of death of the people of Guinea-Bissau plagued by war and revolution after revolution.

It is entirely possible that I am not the right person to truly comment on Marker’s work here. What I can say is that this film is special. It comes across not so much as a film with a cohesive or connected story, but as a meandering expression of ideals and philosophy. It comes almost as stream of consciousness as the narrator skips from topic to topic and back again, going where the images take her, or perhaps the images instead follow her train of thought through the letters received from Marker’s persona. It feels almost like reading someone’s private journal entries, provided the author majored in philosophy.

Is it unique? In some ways certainly, although Mondo Cane is its natural parent and Koyaanisqatsi is a direct sibling. I can say that while I probably didn’t understand all of it, I found it visually fascinating, even when it was also visually disturbing and terrible. I was never bored by it.

I feel like I need to watch it again, or perhaps again and again, to truly understand what Marker was trying to accomplish here. It’s a film that doesn’t seem to do well on a single viewing, only acquiring meaning and relevance through repeated exposure. It demands and deserves to be taken seriously and studied, and that may be its most defining character trait. It is important, almost certainly in ways that I only partially fathom.

This is not truly a documentary, because it documents nothing beyond our unseen and unheard author’s musings, but it does play and feel like a documentary. Also, I watched this film on several different media, so it’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly where I watched it. I think, ultimately, Marker would approve of that.

A few last notes. I was tempted to watch Vertigo, since a lot of parallels are drawn to that film, but I simply didn't have time. Second, I can see where many would find the soundtrack here annoying or disturbing, but I really liked it, particularly at the end. Third, films like this don't bore me, but they do have a tendency to make me sleepy.

Why to watch Sans Soleil: Interesting and meditative.
Why not to watch: Disjointed and sometimes gruesome.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kurosawa, Sans Samurai

Film: Ikiru (To Live)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

Say the name “Akira Kurosawa” to a film geek, and the one word response will be “samurai.” This is only natural, considering that Kurosawa’s most lauded and best-known and loved films all center around the fearsome Japanese warriors of old. His name brings up particular films instantly: Rashomon (story of a murdered samurai), Throne of Blood (samurai MacBeth), Ran (samurai King Lear), Yojimbo (samurai acting alone), and The Seven Samurai (self-explanatory).

Ikiru (To Live) is out of character, at least on the surface. It’s the opposite of a samurai film. Our protagonist, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a low-level bureaucrat, a paper pusher whose greatest accomplishment in life is not missing a day of work in more than 30 years. He’s dead on the inside, enjoying no part of his life. He merely exists.

This is okay, even if it takes a little getting used to. It’s natural to expect samurai and battle sequences when Kurosawa is at the helm. Great directors, though, can work in multiple genres. Billy Wilder sure as hell did. So does Spielberg. Even Hitchcock and Kubrick tried comedy.

We also find out immediately that Watanabe is dying on the inside as well. He has a cancerous growth in his stomach that will kill him.

Watanabe misses his first day of work in nearly 30 years to go to the doctor and discover the root of his stomach troubles. While in the waiting room, another prospective patient tells him the doctor’s method. If he’s told he has a mild ulcer and should watch what he eats, it’s a death sentence. This other patient then goes through a laundry list of stomach cancer symptoms, and it is evident by the changing expression on Watanabe’s face that he has experienced these symptoms, and now realizes that his stomach problems are serious.

This causes an awakening in this man who has been emotionally dead for years. He removes a tidy sum of cash from his bank account, wishing to spend it, but realizing that he has no idea of how to enjoy himself. His cancer prevents him from being able to keep alcohol (or much food) down. He relates these problems to a drunken novelist in a bar, who decides to take the dying Watanabe out for a night on the town. They go, and the old man finally lives a little. He discovers women who will dance with him, pachinko parlors, and other joys of life.

It also becomes evident that his awareness of his illness has caused him to realize that his job is worthless and terrible. He says to a co-worker at one point that he has no memory of any specific thing he has ever done at work, only that he was always busy and always bored. This co-worker, a vibrant young woman, becomes an obsession for the old man, but not in a romantic way. What he desires of her is her life. He realizes, even as she leaves the civil service for a job making toys, that she is desperately alive, and he clings to her as a way to shore himself up, a bulwark against his own mortality. After some time, he finally confesses his illness to her—something he is unable to confess to his own son, who thinks instead that his father is spending his inheritance on a cheap floozy.

As a concurrent plot, a group of women in the area are trying to get a cesspool in one of the poorer sections of town removed and built into a park. However, the bureaucracy (which started here with Watanabe) runs them around over and over, essentially throwing them back to square one at every turn. Once Watanabe returns to his office in Public Affairs, he realizes that getting this park created could be the one thing he does in his life that has meaning—the one act of creativity and generosity that will define his life and give his existence meaning.

This is a fascinating film, albeit slow paced, almost dreamy. It takes nearly 90 minutes for Watanabe to realize that creating the park will be his legacy, and just as he does, the film jumps ahead five months to his wake. The last hour is mostly here, as his superiors take credit for the work Watanabe put in for the park and his co-workers and peers try to understand what happened in his last five months to drive him so desperately to make the little park a reality.

Many of the scenes, particularly those with his son and in the doctor’s office, are fascinating because of how they are filmed. In many a movie, these would be played for comedic effect—Watanabe is in fact told that he has a mild ulcer that will cure itself, and his reaction is as if he was told the truth. In a comedy, he’d really have a mild ulcer, and his reaction (based on what he was told by the other patient) would be darkly humorous. Here, it is deadly serious, because we as the audience have already been told that the cancer is real. Similarly, the misunderstanding with his son is tragic, but could just as easily be comic if spun ten degrees in one direction or another. That Kurosawa manages to hold these scenes as tragic speaks to his mastery of the camera and the language of cinema.

It comes as a shock when Watanabe dies with nearly an hour left in the movie, but the final scenes include frequent flashbacks as his co-workers and peers remember his last few months and the lengths he went to getting the park created. So, while the man is dead, in these last moments of the film, he lives on, which may well be the lesson of the film. However, it may not be, and thus we have a spoiler.

*** TO SPOIL ***

The three last scenes are arguably the most important. We see Watanabe’s last moments, sitting on a swing in his park in a snowstorm, singing to himself and calmly gliding back and forth on the swing. It’s a beautiful moment. He is completely content with himself. He’s gotten no praise for the park, no official recognition, and no official thanks. In fact, the deputy mayor has claimed the park as his own, almost didn’t invite Watanabe to the park opening, and did not mention the man in his speech. But Watanabe is happy. The park—his park—has been built.

His co-workers vow to act like Watanabe-san, but the next day in the office, they cave in, and go back to their typical grind. One man tries to rebel, but is quickly cowed by the others, and the men simply push papers along their desks, continuing to do nothing while remaining busy.

Finally, the last shot of the film is children playing, months hence, in the park that Watanabe created. There’s no feel-good of the park being named after him, no specific remembrance of the man, but there is something tangible that he left behind. And maybe that’s all that really matters, even if the name of Kanji Watanabe is no longer remembered.


Ultimately, it seems, no one knew the man the film was about, but we as the film audience do. Is Kanji Watanabe pitiful? Tragic? Sad? Perhaps yes to all three, but ultimately, he is also grand, heroic, and a man to emulate.

This is a remarkable film, and it makes me wish I’d looked at more of Kurosawa’s collection before I was this old. Every film of his I see makes me like him more and respect him more. Marvelous, sad, poignant, and powerful. Ikiru deserves to be on this list, and should be on a list one-tenth this long as well.

Why to watch Ikiru: Life-affirming, poignant, and beautifully sad.
Why not to watch: Your protagonist starts with stomach cancer. Depressed yet?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Southern Belles, Nukes, and W.T. Sherman

Film: Sherman’s March
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

What happens when you’re prepared to make something great and your world crumbles around you? This is what happened to Ross McElwee, and the result was Sherman’s March. It’s impossible to call this a strange little film, since it clocks in at just over 150 minutes, but strange it is. It’s the Seinfeld of documentaries—essentially about nothing more than McElwee’s life during the mid-1980s. He discusses relationships, nuclear war, dreams, women, and sometimes William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the ocean and the burning of Atlanta.

And that’s really it. In reality, the film is a rambling collection of McElwee’s musings, his dreams about nuclear war, his witnessing a nuclear test on the eve of his 13th birthday, and a series of women who wander into his life, and just as frequently wander out of his life again, leaving him alone. McElwee seems to want simple human connection, but also seems to want to be alone and actually make the film he intended. He’s a man of contradictions.

He quickly becomes obsessed with women, and each one who enters his life becomes the center of his world. Additionally, one of his friends becomes obsessed with making sure that they become the center of his film while he is with them. Each one, however, has a dream that doesn’t involve him at all.

He continues through the film to touch back on Sherman, mentioning how misunderstood the man was—he was reviled in the South for his march to the sea, hated in the North for being too soft with his surrender terms, and generally unloved wherever he went for years after the war. It’s impossible not to draw the metaphor here that McElwee is making between himself and Sherman. The women he involves himself with, or is forced into involvement with by others, are involved with other men, have dreams of their own, or simply aren’t suited to him.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with him at some point. His plight is a pretty common one, after all. At the time of the filming, McElwee was in his late 30s and still unmarried, a situation that certainly raises eyebrows in the conservative South of the time (and presumably still today).

And the women…there’s a definite reason that some of them were available. One is attempting to be an actress, and is obsessed with Burt Reynolds (who does make a sort of appearance in the film at one point), wanting nothing more than to be a part of that world. Another, a friend of his sister, is a borderline survivalist convinced of Christ’s imminent return. Another, a linguist, leaves McElwee for someone else simply because he was available and didn’t need to leave her hippie lifestyle to earn a living. Another is a confirmed Mormon, and will not marry outside of her religion. Another is pursuing a recording contract in New York. Another is obsessed with an old boyfriend, and hooks up with him again while McElwee is visiting her. In each case, he willingly allows himself to consider that “this might be the one.”

I mentioned above that this is like a Seinfeld episode, and that’s as good of a metaphor as I can develop for it. McElwee’s camera films whatever is in front of him at the moment, his current female target of potential affection, and sometimes, if he happens to be in the area, a piece of ground that is at least somewhat relevant to Sherman’s March. Mostly, it ends up being about his own desperation, evidenced by his frank narration of both his situations and his feelings.

There are some truly remarkable people in this documentary about nothing. The survivalist strike me as some of the strangest, particularly when they spend an afternoon sitting on their front porches firing at sticks of dynamite. There’s some boosterism for the South as well, with one woman evidently convinced that many of the slaves were such because they chose to be.

While not a difficult film to watch, I’m not sure of my reaction to it. It’s certainly gutsy, if for no other reason than McElwee’s willingness to expose himself at this level and to this extent for a film audience. I learned very little that is of any use to me, although I imagine that there are some life lessons tucked within that will strike me in the coming days. Ultimately, Sherman’s March is a difficult film to judge, and that’s going to have to be good enough here. If you press me, though, I’ll say that it’s worth seeing.

Why to watch Sherman’s March: Because honesty like this is rare and precious.
Why not to watch: It’s got cinematic ADHD.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Loverly Lyrical Linguistics

Film: My Fair Lady
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I just had my laptop rebuilt, which cost a little more than I’d like, but the gent who rebuilt it provided me with DVDs that will allow me to rebuild it myself should the worst happen. I appreciate that, because while it’s a pain in the backside to have this happen, being able to handle it myself means not having to shell out the cash when it’s needed. So, after reinstalling Office and recovering my backup of this blog’s archive, it was time to christen the machine with a movie.

Admittedly, for a horror/thriller/action movie fan like myself, My Fair Lady seems like an odd choice. Re-christening the machine with My Fair Lady says you; re-christening the machine with Audrey Hepburn says I.

For those not otherwise aware of it, My Fair Lady is one of the more lavish musicals coming at the tail-end of the Hollywood blockbuster musical period that bloomed in earlier decades. Our heroine is Eliza Doolittle (the always-wonderful Audrey Hepburn), a poor Cockney flower girl by trade. We discover early on that Eliza is not the brightest crayon in the box of 64, but whether this is by accident of her low-class birth or lack of native smarts, we aren’t sure yet. She is warned about a man taking down her speech, and immediately wigs out.

The man proves to be professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) a phoneticist with a penchant for pegging people within a few miles of their home. He claims that Eliza is a guttersnipe not because of her clothing, but because of the way she speaks, and with proper training, she could be passed off as a society maiden inside of six months. As it turns out, he makes this boast to a man named Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who is himself a student of Indian dialects, and the two wander off, leaving Eliza on her own. We’re also introduced to Eliza’s father, who is a wastrel. After slipping him a little cash, she remembers the conversation from the night before, particularly the part about getting her a job considerably better than hawking flowers. She arrives at his house and demands lessons.

Higgins tries to get rid of her, but Pickering, who happens to be there, wants Higgins to make good on his boast of the night before. He agrees, she tries to back out, he bribes her with chocolate, and we have a plot.

As painful as it is for me to say this, Audrey Hepburn is really annoying for the first hour of this film. Oh, Audrey…you’re a good girl, you are, but you need to shut up.

Regardless of this, what we get is lessons for poor little Eliza, who struggles to overcome her poor background. It doesn’t seem to be working until, in that movie way that things happen, it suddenly does, and Eliza can say “mainly” and “plain” instead of “minely” and “pline” and “a cup of tea” instead of “cuppatea.” And it becomes time for Professor Higgins to test the girl out at a day at the races. Everything goes amusingly until she becomes very excited at one of the races and yells for her horse to “move [its] bloomin’ arse.” Despite this, she’s charming enough that she catches the eye of Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett). It’s somehow important that Freddy and his mother are the people who bump into Eliza at the start of the movie, because they certainly don’t recognize her now.

Then we jump forward to the night of the bet, and Eliza is the hit of the night. Importantly for Higgins and Pickering, one of the guests at the ball is a Hungarian language expert named Zoltan Karpathy (Theodore Bikel). He determines to find out the truth of Eliza’s origin, and after a dance and some study, he determines that she is actually Hungarian royalty, which fills our phoneticist friends with glee. They congratulate each other for their cunning scheme, completely ignoring Eliza.

So, of course she runs away, back to where she started, but quickly discovers that she doesn’t fit there either. And, of course, Henry Higgins realizes just how empty his life is without her now that she’s gone.

This is a movie that pulls me in a variety of directions. On the one hand, it’s a musical, and it’s the type of musical in which people suddenly break into fully orchestrated song at the drop of a hat, making me wonder when they all had time to rehearse. That bothers me on a deep level. Whether because it’s a musical, or simply because of the time in which it was made, there’s also that lack of verisimilitude of Eliza suddenly changing her accent at the drop of a hat that galls a bit. Her accent at the end of the movie cannot be placed. She actually does sound like English is her second language, with perhaps Hungarian being her first.

So that’s the bad. Here’s the good. We can start with Audrey Hepburn, and as far as I would normally be concerned, we could stop there. Audrey Hepburn covers a lot of faults. But more than that, this is a film about language. Henry Higgins’s opening song/speech (more on this in a sec) is dead on—people are often kept in their positions because of how they speak. Many a person on the fringe of society could move toward the middle if he or she could quit speaking in an un- or undereducated patois.

As a guy with a degree in linguistics, I appreciate the fact that linguistics takes a central role in one of the great musicals in Hollywood history. Admittedly, Higgins is far more proscriptive than descriptive, which is sort of a linguistic no-no, but no matter. It’s cool to see the stuff that I geek out about take center stage in something that other people geek out about for different reasons.

Finally, a word on Rex Harrison. He doesn’t so much sing as talk his parts in rhythm with some attention to the notes. It works for me. I couldn’t take a steady diet of it, but I really like his take on a lot of the songs.

Why to watch My Fair Lady: Because despite all the singing and musical film unbelievability, it’s about linguistics! Yay, linguistics!
Why not to watch: Because most linguists are not so proscriptive.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Staying Power

Film: Diwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge (The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

When I was a kid, Star Wars played at the second-run theater in my town the entire next summer. It lasted in the first-run theaters for months; it seemed like it would never go away. Star Wars was nothing compared with Diwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge (The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride). Originally released in 1995, this film played at a theater in Mumbai well into 2007—more than 600 weeks. This would be like finding The Matrix still playing at your local multiplex. To put it another way, it opened during Bill Clinton's first term in office and closed during George W. Bush's second term.

This does seem pretty amazing, especially for a movie that, really has a plot that’s been around since before there were movies. You’ve seen this film before, at least in terms of the plot. Boy meets girl, girl hates boy, girl is promised to another, girl falls for boy, boy goes to steal girl away. Multiply this by three hours, have everyone speak Hindi, and throw in some huge musical numbers, and you’ve got this film.

So let’s look at this version of this time-worn tale. Starting in London, we have a young, working class girl named Simran (Kajol), who is longing to meet the man of her dreams, a man who she has not seen yet. She sings about this at length and with great passion to her mother (Farida Jalal). You should expect the singing. You should also get really used to this tune, because you’re going to hear it. A lot.

We’re also introduced to Raj (Shahrukh Khan), a wealthy young wastrel who has followed the family tradition of failing out of school. He convinces his father that he’d like to take a vacation in Europe. Coincidentally, Simran convinces her father, Baldev, of the same thing. She has just been promised in marriage to the son of his childhood friend back in Punjab. Incidentally, Simran’s father is played by Amrish Puri, best known to American audiences as that dastardly heart-ripping-out bald guy in the second Indiana Jones movie. Simran wants a month of life before she is married off to a man she’s never met in a country she’s never seen.

It’s important also that Raj and Simran’s father have met. Raj happened to scam some beer off Baldev at his store. This will become of critical importance later.

We get a meet cute on the Eurorail train as Raj and his friends and Simran and her friends leave for Paris. Both of them are running late, and he jumps on the train, then pulls her aboard. He pretends that the two of them are locked in their train car, and he flirts shamelessly with her. Eventually, the two reunite with their respective friends, and the two groups meet up with each other in Paris. When the groups leave for Zurich, Raj causes Simran to miss the train, and they wind up traveling together for a bit.

What happens should surprise no one. He annoys her, teases her, but also comes to care deeply about her. She is annoyed by him, aggravated, and eventually comes to find him desperately attractive. The truth is that for the first hour of the film, Raj is a complete dick. He does soften up a bit a few times, and eventually, the two start to gently fall for each other. There’s a nice scene in a church in which Simran prays for something, but won’t tell what it was. Raj returns to the church and prays for her to get what she wants, showing that under the bluster and flirting, he’s actually a decent guy.

Eventually, the Europe trip has to end, though, and the two return home. Simran admits to her mother that she has found the man she really wants to marry. Sadly, her father overhears this and packs the family off to Punjab so the promised marriage can take place. Raj, naturally follows her, promising her that he will not elope with her, but will win her—and her father—honestly. This is made more difficult by the fact that Baldev remembers the beer prank, and has also made a promise. It’s further complicated by Raj’s father (Anupam Kher) promising him to Simran’s fiancé’s sister. And, naturally, her proposed husband, Kuljit (Parmeet Sethi) is a swine (think Gaston from Beauty and the Beast).

I won’t spoil the ending. It’s probably different than you might expect, but not very different.

I am, I admit, somewhat flummoxed by this film. While it was released in 1995, for all the world it looks like it was made in 1985. Raj is straight out of a Bollywood version of an early John Cusack movie. He also has a near constant giggle that I find grating. It comes out virtually every time he speaks, not too much different from an American kid who says “like” every third word. At some point, I wanted to plug up my own ears.

Simran is ridiculously romantic as well. Everything must be the way she wants it—she’s high maintenance in a way that I wouldn’t stand for. She cannot wear Kuljit’s ring, she must have Raj be the one who breaks her fast…or everything is ruined! Ruined! This is a character archetype I don’t really understand. Well, I do understand it; I just don’t understand why someone would want to make the sympathetic character like this.

Despite this, there is a particular charm to this film. I love the fact that the characters speak in rapid-fire Hindi mixed with English throughout. Conversations go “bunchawordsIcan’tunderstand…Okay? Thank you very much! BunchaotherwordsIcan’tunderstand.” It’s actually quite charming. Raj’s father is a treat, too. Upon meeting Simran for the first time, he kisses her forehead, blesses her, then looks at Raj and shouts, “Excellent! Fantastic! Done!” Even his red beret and goofy ‘80s-style jacket make me like the guy.

I’m perhaps not the best judge of Bollywood films in general. I haven’t seen many of them. The numbers are a lot of fun. Simran’s voice (I don’t know if it’s really the actress or not) is high-pitched and chipmunk-y, though, and there are times when it really made me cringe. If I’m going to watch an epic-length Bollywood bonanza, my choice (limited though my experience is) is Lagaan.

As a final note, there’s a reason why I tend to use the foreign title for these reviews. This film is listed under half a dozen or so English names. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure title. The Brave-Hearted/Bold/Lover Will Take/Carry the Bride/Woman. Yoikes!

Why to watch Diwale Dulhaniya le Jeyenge: Pageantry.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen this movie a dozen dozen times.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Native Son

Film: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Plenty of people in this world love the idea of living in a simpler time. I fall into that particular trap myself sometimes. The modern world is a complicated one, and there are many times that I think it would be nice to live in a world with fewer concerns, fewer pressures, and more time to myself. That said, there are plenty of things about the modern world that make me happy to live in it. Antibiotics, painkillers, rapid transportation, and all sorts of other things make the current era far better and safer than previous ones. Another of these things is racial justice.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s still plenty of racism in the world (and one need not look any further than much of the reaction against our current president to see a lot of it). But only a fool thinks things are worse now or as bad now as they were 50 or 100 years ago. As a case in point, we’ll take The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. True, this takes place in Australia, but the underlying sentiments of the people aren’t much different than they were in large chunks of the U.S. during the Civil Rights Movement and before. True, we’re talking about Aborigines instead of African-Americans. But the connection still stands.

Racism, after all, is racism. Our main character is the eponymous Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste, meaning he is half white and half Aboriginal. He is raised in a missionary school, giving him the benefit of a “white” education, although he frequently spends a great deal of time with his tribal kin out in the bush. When he has grown up (shortly after the beginning of the film), he moves away to seek his fortune in a land that, essentially, hates him. Jimmie is caught between two worlds, never fully welcome in either.

This is especially true of the white world that Jimmie aspires to. He is constantly and consistently cheated by his white bosses, who demand work (he specializes in building fences and paddocks despite his name), and dock his pay every chance they get. Eventually, he meets up with a white woman named Gilda (Angela Punch) who will have him. Of course, in wanting a white wife, Jimmie can’t be too particular—he marries Gilda when she is pregnant, and the baby she has is white, not the one-quarter caste he predicted.

When a few of his relatives come to visit, things turn ugly for the Blacksmith family. The Newby farm, where Jimmie is working is dead set against Jimmie’s relatives being a part of the package. In fact, the Newbys are so dead set against Jimmie and his family that they offer a separate place to live to his wife and her child to get her away from her “part savage” husband. When he’s refused pay and groceries for his work because of the presence of his kin, he retaliates in to most ferocious way possible—out of the blue, he attacks the man’s family with an axe, killing the wife and all three of the daughters brutally. This is a horrifying scene, since it happens out of nowhere. The brutality is sudden and terrible.

From this point on (and it’s the middle of the film with a good hour to go), Jimmie has declared war against the white world. It’s important to note here that Jimmie, while on a rampage and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way, has not become a complete monster. He allows the Newby son to escape, and rather than kill the infant child in her crib, he feeds her before taking his wife, her child, and his family on the lam into the wilderness. He then goes on a spree, hunting down everyone who wronged him, and targets the women.

So here’s the dilemma of the film. While Jimmie is undoubtedly forced into reacting against his white bosses, his reaction is so extreme that it’s almost unfathomable. His actions cannot be condoned even if his rage and frustration can be. So where do the loyalties lie here? Who is to by sympathized with? On the one hand, we have a cold-blooded killer who hacks up women. On the other, we have a society of racists. It’s easy to say that Jimmie is a product of the environment he lives in, and that is to some extent true, but it hardly allows for such brutal, heartless slayings.

I’m put in mind of three things here. The first thing that came to me was Richard Wright’s Native Son. It’s been a long time since I read that book—so long in fact that I’m sure I don’t remember all of the details of it—but Wright’s character was far more sympathetic than Jimmie Blacksmith if only because the death of the young woman was accidental in his case. However, much of the overall gist of the story and the actions of the characters in both play similarly.

The second thing I’m put in mind of is A Clockwork Orange. In that book (and film), the main character is also a product of his society, and unable to choose his own fate. Instead, at every turn, his fate is chosen for him—he reacts to what he has become by the forces that shape him rather than overcoming said forces. In the complete text of Burgess’s novel, Alex does overcome those forces, but in the version of the text first released in the U.S. and in Kubrick’s film, Alex is always a character unable to truly decide anything for himself. Instead, he’s always a product of something else.

The third thing I think of here is In Cold Blood. I’m not sure why, but there is something of Capote’s book in the crimes. The brutality, perhaps, or the heartlessness of the crimes.

And so, that’s the question with this film. Is Jimmie a product of terrible racism, and is his reaction, while extreme, understandable? These questions can’t be answered without having seen the film, I think.

Why to watch The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: Because there are many possible results of racism, all of them bad.
Why not to watch: It’s not easy to see where one’s loyalties lie here.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Hooker with the Heart of Tin

Film: Klute
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

After the last few movies, I needed something a bit easier on the grey matter and on the retinas. A mystery/thriller with Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda? Sure, why not? It might be entertaining, and certainly wouldn’t be filled with the attempted gross outs (Mondo Cane), extreme excesses (Satyricon), or realistic wartime horror (Idi i Smotri) I’ve spent the last few days enmeshed in. Challenges are good and all, but sometimes, I need a break.

Klute is a pretty straightforward thriller, actually. A businessman named Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli, who appears only in a photograph) has gone missing. The sole lead in the case is a pornographic letter written to a New York prostitute named Bree Daniel (sometimes Bree Daniels, depending on who’s talking, and played by Jane Fonda). Daniel has told police that she received additional letters as well.

With the case stalled, an executive at Gruneman’s company, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), hires a detective named John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to investigate the crime. Klute is a friend of the Gruneman family, and is thus above suspicion in the current case. Klute heads to New York, takes a room in the basement of Bree Daniel’s building, and taps her phones. He also confronts her with questions about the missing man.

Eventually, he admits to her that he’s been bugging her apartment and asks again for help. She tells him that a few years previous, she was viciously beaten by a john, but she doesn’t recognize Gruneman from the photo. She does remember that she got the name of the john from her former “boyfriend” (read: pimp), Frank Ligourin (Roy Scheider). When asked, Ligourin reveals that one of his other girls passed the john on to both Bree and a hooker named Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan). The original girl committed suicide, and Page is now a junkie.

Klute and Daniel, now beginning a sort of romance, track down Arlyn, who is completely strung out. She remembers being attacked by a john as well, but says that Gruneman wasn’t the man—the culprit was an older man. A few days later, her body turns up as well, another apparent suicide. Naturally, this piques Klute’s interest, and he starts narrowing down his list of suspects. He also believes (and probably correctly) that Bree Daniel is next on the list of targets.

There are some nice touches in this film. One of my favorites comes quite early. As we learn about the life the Bree Daniel leads, we see her interacting with one of her johns, a businessman from Chicago. During the culmination of their business together, she seems to be enjoying herself, and is whispering sweet nothings into the guy’s ear, and just for a second, she looks at her watch. She doesn’t break stride and he never notices it, but that two seconds of film tells more about the character than any conversation in the film. It’s a great moment, and a revealing one.

We are also privy to the therapy sessions Bree has with her analyst. At first, she seems to suggest that while she wants to move away from her life of prostitution, it has particular benefits for her. Because of the situation, she always knows what to expect, and she’s always in charge of everything that’s going on. While there’s no real connection between her and her clients, she does come away with a sense of being in control, at least for the hour she’s with them. We also see her attempting to launch an acting and modeling career, and that going pretty poorly, which is why she continues to turn tricks. As the film continues, she reveals more and more about herself in these sessions, and the portrait of the character becomes much more complete.

Fonda’s performance is a good one, and carries the film. Sadly, I didn’t find a lot else here that did much for me. It may be that I’m a jaded moviegoer or that films have made me attuned to subtle shifts and glances into character. It may be that when the camera lingers on someone or something for no apparent reason it’s because there really is a reason and we just haven’t been told yet. Maybe I’m just really good at guessing the ending. Whatever it is, I was not surprised by the reveal. I pegged it about halfway through the film or so, and was not surprised by the last 20 minutes of the film.

Additionally, the romance between Bree and Klute feels forced. It doesn’t really work for me except in the sense that we have a male and a female character on screen together for a lot of the time, and so the film naturally squishes them together in the only way men and women fit together in a film. It’s a cobble, and not one that I buy into.

Finally, and tragically, despite the fact that I knew what was coming, the ending builds up a great deal of tension. And then…the mystery culprit does something that to me feels completely out of character and sent the whole house of cards crashing down. The last five minutes or so of the film don’t ring true to me, which is really disappointing.

So, is the film worth watching? Sure. It’s by no stretch of the imagination a great film, or even one of the best noir films out there. It is, however, a film that shows off the real talents of Jane Fonda at the peak of her career. It may very well be her best role (and it did win her an Oscar). That said, it’s not my favorite of her movies—I found They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to be far more moving and far more watchable.

Jane Fonda’s certainly had her ups and downs, and plenty of people (fairly or unfairly) dislike her because of her political past. Regardless of that, this film is worth watching for her because she inhabits this role beautifully.

Why to watch Klute: Jane Fonda, pure and simple.
Why not to watch: The unfolding of the plot is more ho-hum than it should be in a thriller.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hell is War

Film: Idi I Smotri (Come and See)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Films in general have a history with war, and most specifically with World War II. Many war films take a gung-ho point of view toward conflict. Wars are seen as honorable, noble, something that makes a man a man. This may well have been true in a day and age when men stood across a field from each other and fired volleys, but it still probably was only true in stories. Regardless, for a good chunk of the history of cinema, war was depicted less as a hell and more as a grand adventure. People die climbing mountains and crossing deserts, and people die in war. Those who survive, though, become real men, and the risk is worth it.

There’s still some evidence of this in plenty of war films even today. Certainly there is more than a whiff of the horrific in a film like Full Metal Jacket, but there is also a sense that if Joker survives the war, he comes out the stronger man for it. Joker will undoubtedly be changed by his experiences in Vietnam, but he will not return a broken man. There’s a little of the same in Saving Private Ryan, as horrible as the opening sequence is, there is certainly an ennobling quality in how many of the characters are perceived by the film’s end. Certainly this depiction was much more realistic than many past ones, but there is still a sense of war as ultimately having some sort of function.

However, many modern war films take a much different approach, showing war as something truly terrible that breaks and destroys those it doesn’t kill outright. One of the greatest of these is Idi i Smotri (Come and See, although more technically translated as Go and Look). War in this film does nothing but destroy. It’s as if a film can only truly depict the real horrors of war if the filmmaker is from a country destroyed and devastated by a great conflict. One can’t know its true destructive powers until one has seen these horrors first hand, and seen these horrors inflicted on old women, children, and innocents without regard.

In 1943, with the Germans enmeshed in Russia, a boy named Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) wants nothing more than to join the partisans fighting for his native Russian state of Byelorussia. However, to join the partisans, he first must find a gun, which he does by digging up a rifle at the site of an old battle. Conscripted into the partisans, Florya is naturally excited by everything he sees. He looks the part of a young, eager boy, particularly in his good suit, which is several sizes too big for him. Nonetheless, he is a patriot for his people, and happy just to be a part of the fight against the Nazis.

He’s left behind, though, and forced to give up his boots, but eager for combat, he tails after the marching ranks of partisans anyway. It is here he discovers Glasha (Olga Mironova), who he has seen at the camp. She is infatuated in her own way with Kosach (Liubomiras Lauciavicius), the leader of the partisans, and it becomes evident that Florya is guilty of a little hero worship himself. The two survive the bombing of the partisan camp, an attack that leaves Florya partially deafened, which is mimicked by the high-pitched ringing and muted dialogue of the soundtrack.

As the film continues, Florya witnesses the complete terror that war brings, both in his role as a partisan and as someone who essentially should still be a civilian. Despite the beauty of the setting in the Byelorussian forest, what he witnesses is the most terrible of events. Slowly, these events start to take their toll on him emotionally, mentally, and physically. As the film progresses, Florya slowly becomes more and more shattered and fragmented.

He and Glasha return to his home to find his mother and baby sisters murdered along with the rest of the town. He witnesses his comrades gunned down by German troops, sees a church full of Byelorussians burned to death by Nazis, who take pictures of the blaze, then rape a woman who escaped the fire. Over and over, the worst atrocities take place in front of him, each one stealing his innocence, and eventually his mind.

By the end of the film, Florya, still a boy physically, has the face of an ancient man. He has acquired the 1000-yard-stare of a man who has seen the worst of the world and survived it only by becoming a part of it. His eyes are surrounded by lines of fear and panic, his forehead creased like a man’s five times his age. Florya has looked into the abyss, but he has not seen it staring back at him. Instead, he’s still staring into the abyss.

That these terrors take place in what is frequently gorgeous scenery makes them doubly horrible. That the happen at all, let alone to a young boy, makes them unspeakable. Kravchenko gives a performance here that an actor with twice his age and ten times his experience would find daunting. He is a haunting and haunted presence on the screen, and his slow descent into the depths of whatever madness awaits at the other end is all the more terrible for being filmed so beautifully.

Anyone who is in favor of any war at any time should watch this film. It stays with its viewer for a very long time.

EDIT: I do not apologize for the fact that sometimes an insight or idea occurs to me after I've written about a film. It's more common, I think, with a film as emotionally shattering as Idi i Smotri than lighter fare. What I think is the real meaning of the last 10 minutes of the film rolled into my brain this morning, though. If you have not yet seen this film, don't read the following spoiler. This is a conclusion worth finding on your own.

*** SPOILER ***

Florya finds a picture of Hitler in a puddle, and overcome with rage, he begins shooting it. Interspersed with his shots, we see file footage of the atrocities of war and Hitler speaking, but we're also traveling backwards in time. With each of Florya's shots, we retreat further, eventually going through Hitler's rise to power, and the era between the wars. Florya continues to shoot into the picture, and we run backwards through World War I and Hitler's childhood. And then, we see a picture of Hitler as an infant. Florya stops, stares, and tears leak out, dribbling down his cheeks. He puts up his gun and joins his comrades.

It's important that he doesn't shoot the infant. Despite how shattered his mind and emotional state, Florya has retained his essential humanity. Whether this is propaganda (possible, at least to a small extent) or simply a small offering of hope I cannot say. It doesn't mitigate the horrors that Florya has seen. But perhaps there is a small measure of hope in that Florya has not lost all sense of his own humanity. Somewhere in his shattered mind, there's still that kid from the start of the movie.


The more I think about this film--and I will think about it for a very long time--the more I want to find other people who have seen it and discuss it with them. It is the most powerful anti-war film I have ever seen, and I'm not sure I want to see one that's more powerful.

Why to watch Idi I Smotri: It is staggering.
Why not to watch: It is also unrelenting and brutal.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Film: Satyricon
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m not a big fan of hedonism as a philosophy. On the surface, it looks like a pretty benign way of thinking. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure is, well, pleasing. At its fullest expression, though, it becomes indistinguishable from sociopathy. Essentially, at its extreme, hedonism is less about pleasurable experiences and far more about doing anything for one’s own pleasure regardless of consequence. On the more benign end of the spectrum, you get people doing things they like and carrying those pleasures to an extreme that affects them, but not others. At the other end, you get something along the lines of Salo.

Satyricon, otherwise known as Fellini Satyricon falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, and from what I can see, it leans further toward Salo than it does toward, say, The Big Chill. I had the damnedest time making sense of this film in any sort of context other than witnessing gaudy excess and personal pleasure at the cost of everything else (the personal pleasure of the characters on screen—certainly not mine in this case).

Satyricon is based on what is believed to be the first ever novel, or at least the first one of which fragments have survived. Fellini made this film to match what was left of the original document—the film is similarly fragmented, ending one scene and skipping ahead to the next without any sort of transition between. In fact, the film ends in mid-sentence much like the surviving manuscript.

The film, which evidently takes place at the height of Roman decadence, vaguely tells the tale of Encolpio (Martin Potter). Encolpio is obsessively infatuated with Gitone (Max Born in his one and only film role), his young male slave. Sadly for Encolpio, Gitone has been sold to a flamboyant actor (Fanfulla) by his roommate, Ascilto (Hiram Keller). Encolpio goes to get his slave/sex partner back, and then fights with Ascilto. The two decide to part ways, allowing Gitone to choose where he’ll go. He goes off with Ascilto, leaving Encolpio heartbroken and ready to commit suicide until an earthquake intervenes.

Scene shift. Encolpio meets the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone) in a gallery and the two head off to the estate of a wealthy man giving a banquet. The man, Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), considers himself a poet even though he has no real skill (according to Eumolpus). The two poets have a falling out, and then Trimalchio stages his own funeral. We get a little vignette about a widow using her husband’s body to save the life of a young soldier.

Scene shift. Encolpio is now a prisoner aboard a slave ship. Gitone and Ascilto are there as well. Forced to fight the owner of the ship in combat, Encolpio is instead spared because of his looks, and then forced to marry the man, Lichas (Alain Cuny), in a ceremony aboard the ship’s deck. Sadly for Lichas, the current Caesar is overthrown and he is beheaded, once again allowing Encolpio to chase after Gitone and other young boys.

In the struggle for power, a man and his wife commit suicide rather than allow their property to be handed over to the new Caesar. Ascilto and Encolpio arrive at the house and find a willing slave girl still there, so they spend a little quality time with her, leaving only when the soldiers of the new Caesar arrive and burn the bodies of the former masters.

Scene shift. Encolpio and Ascilto meet a caravan headed to an oracle. The people in the caravan are hoping that the oracle, a hermaphroditic albino child, can cure their mistress of her nymphomania. Until they reach the oracle, though, the woman’s husband pays the two men to keep his wife satisfied. To help maintain some semblance of order in the caravan, the woman is tied down in the cart, and left tied down during the “satisfy my wife” sessions. Eventually, they reach the oracle, and decide to kidnap the child by killing his keepers. However, the child can’t stand the heat or sun of the desert and dies, and they then kill the man who persuaded them to commit the kidnapping.

Scene shift. Encolpio is thrown into the den of the Minotaur, who takes pity on him and refuses to kill him. As a reward (punishment?), he is told to get busy with Ariadne, a pretty young maiden, while a crowd watches. He can’t, and is publically humiliated. He then discovers his old friend Eumolpus, who is now ridiculously wealthy and corrupted. He suggests a sea voyage to the Garden of Delights to restore Encolpio’s manhood, but this doesn’t work.

And on and on. Eventually, Ascilto is killed by a ferryman, and Eumolpus dies, leaving his fortune to anyone who is willing to devour his corpse.

Seriously, what the hell?

I have no idea how to react to this film. Fellini has a thing for physical freaks and disturbing images, and nowhere does he indulge in that more than in this film. It’s almost as if he’s giving in to his own hedonistic urges at the expense of the audience’s sanity or enjoyment. I felt assaulted by this film, like it was seeing if it could cause me some sort of psychic damage during its running time.

I’m certain that someone wiser, worldlier, or more scholarly could wax rhapsodic about the true value of Satyricon, but unfortunately, you’re stuck with me. From where I’m standing, this film was a pointless excursion in excess, a film about nothing but itself. It left me with nothing but an empty feeling, a touch of queasiness, and the faint beginnings of a whanging headache. It feels like waking up after sleeping a little too long and having a slight metallic taste in the back of one’s throat. It’s both unpleasant and completely unexplainable.

Screw you, Fellini!

Why to watch Satyricon: You’ve got time to kill and a sense of joy in hurting your own brain.
Why not to watch: It not only makes no sense, it’s ugly to watch.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Shock Treatment

Film: Mondo Cane (A Dog’s Life)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

When I was a kid, videotapes became the latest thing, and everyone wanted in on the act. In my area, there was only one video store. It was about 10 minutes from my house, out in the middle of nowhere. The place was called “Video Bug,” and they stuck the boxes for their tapes up on the walls. Each box had little strips of Velcro on them with little tabs. Red tabs were for VHS tapes and blue ones represented Betamax. If you wanted a movie, you took the little tab to the desk, paid, and got your film.

While the place certainly did a brisk trade in more standard films, such was the nature of things at the time that a vast amount of their stock in trade was films on the lower end of the film spectrum. You might not, for instance, be able to find Casablanca, but you could certainly find multiple copies of Faces of Death. That was the market, and they played to their chosen consumer.

I’m aware of this in no small part because those appeared to be my brother’s choice of films more often than not. Tom was attracted to the seamier side of film in his late teens. I can distinctly remember him renting Dawn of the Dead about every six months or so. He’d sit in the den with a six pack and cheer for the zombies. I can’t say how often he rented Faces of Death, but I’m certain he did, because I can remember walking through the den and seeing a couple of minutes of it.

Mondo Cane (A Dog’s Life, although more accurately translated as A Dog’s World) is the first excursion into such “shockumentary” style filming, at least to my knowledge. Vaguely documentary, the film shows scenes from around the world of people and animals behaving badly, strangely, or in shocking and horrible ways. We see victims of shark attacks in Malaysia as well as those same people taking revenge on the sharks by stuffing the gullets of the creatures with poison sea urchins. We see drunk German people standing passed out in the middle of streets, or lying on the sidewalk completely inebriated. Tubby Japanese businessmen vibrate on electronic devices designed to cure their hangovers, and then they are publically bathed by young women.

Much of what is shown here is intended to be silly, but quite a bit is intended specifically to shock, disgust, or cause revulsion. We see, for instance, a Chinese man prepared for the grave, the brutal butchering of hogs for a festival, and the force feeding of geese to create fois gras. We see diners in New York feasting on a meal of insects, the quick skinning of a snake in preparation for the cookpot, and dogs in small cages awaiting the same fate.

Is it shocking? Horrible? Some of it certainly is. There is a certain type of person who finds a film like this entertaining or worth watching, but I am not one of those people. There is no fascination here for me. There is no pleasure in seeing the results of shark attacks or watching animals prepared for slaughter or tortured. I find no joy in this vision of the world. I’m hardly naïve about such things; I’m jaded enough and worldly enough to have known about many of these things before watching this film. That doesn’t mean I need to or want to see them played out in front of me. I’ve seen enough drunk people to not get entertainment value watching German men pee in public. I don’t need to watch a necrophiliac practice his particular perversion to know that such a thing exists, either. There’s not pleasure in seeing bulls have their heads removed by Gurkha warriors, or seeing men gored by bulls in Portugal.

By modern standards, Mondo Cane is pretty tame after all. Its importance is not so much what it shows on the screen, but how it shows it. It undoubtedly influenced a huge number of filmmakers interested in shocking the public with something new and terrible. And I do have to admit that the car crusher scene was pretty dang cool.

Ultimately, there’s not much here to recommend. There’s more shocking film available, more notorious film, and other ways for people who are into this sort of thing to get a bigger thrill. Even the naked women covered in paint and rolling around on canvases is less titillating than about 50% of television.

Important? Sure, because it did create something new. Worth watching? Only in that sense. I can’t think of much to recommend it. Voyeurism might be someone’s kink, but evidently it isn’t mine.

Why to watch Mondo Cane: There’s a market for shock cinema.
Why not to watch: You aren’t a part of that market.