10th 09 - 2014 | no comment »

The Last Movie (1971)

Director: Dennis Hopper

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By Roderick Heath

Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. He often recited dialogue with a halting, eddying, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.

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Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the counterculture. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.

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Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper seemed to be setting himself up to become public sacrifice and cautionary example, feuding with Fonda over royalties, getting in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and letting his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in that subject—or so it seems. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded as a livewire addict and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.

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Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he constructed a rudely expressive, but essentially linear film, before, legend has it, his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky mocked his straitlaced structure and encouraged him to attack it like an Abstract Expressionist slashing his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie clearly expands on the form- and mind-bending elements in Easy Rider while essentially telling its fans to fuck off.

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Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.

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Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile, as he does throughout the entire work, his headspace dictating the reality depicted.

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The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini happenings, and strange rites.

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A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.

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Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.

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Islets of quintessential hippy romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.

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Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson contorts in raw, erotic pleasure and plainly wants to join the couple on the floor before lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child in the film’s most direct and bitter portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.

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The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.

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Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin-like drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to the gold mine with some explicit references to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.

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Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. For the locals, this activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do, but comes to look rather like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of cultural imperialism, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival, as the film’s finale invokes two different forms of ritualised theatre, film production, and passion play, blending in perfect mirroring.

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Few satires on the movie industry are quite as brutally logical and funny as the director here, who combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with Mexican bandit and military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas, who tries to flee from their clutches, busts out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, first tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.

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During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s final title, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic, hacking up movie time. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy.

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Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.

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Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy comedy of Easy Rider’s campfire scenes, before Hopper closes on one of the film’s repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set—a shout-out to Cecil B. DeMille’s burning bush?—with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.


23rd 06 - 2014 | 2 comments »

The Last Day of Summer (Ostatni dzien lata, 1958)

Director/Screenwriter: Tadeusz Konwicki

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Winner of 1958 Grand Prix at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Films in Venice, The Last Day of Summer, author Tadeusz Konwicki’s first foray into filmmaking, radically altered how the world saw him. While still a noted writer with more than 20 titles to his name, he is now perhaps more famous as Poland’s first experimental film auteur. At a little over an hour long, The Last Day of Summer has the brevity of most experimental films, and it creates a dreamlike ambiguity that makes an almost too-subtle comment on World War II, particularly as compared with his anarchic Salto (Jump, 1965). At heart, I don’t think film was really his metier because these film are so derivative of experimental masters Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel, but especially with Last Day, Konwicki shows a touching regard for his characters that is something all his own.

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Voiceover narration by the unnamed female protagonist (Irena Laskowski) suggests the hardships of war, talking about trains packed with what might be refugees or condemned Jews, with no traces left except dogs’ paws. Three planes flying in close formation buzz overhead, as the woman emerges from the ocean naked and covering her breasts. As she tries to zip herself into her bathing suit, she becomes aware of a young man (Jan Machulski) observing her. He is playful and boyish, but she angrily demands to know how long he has been watching her. He answers “two weeks,” ever since she first showed up on the beach. He is smitten with her, but she is wary of him. Besides, it is her last day by the seaside before returning to her everyday life.

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She pins her wet hair and lays down to nap in the sun. After a fade, she awakens as the young man watches her nearby. With an overabundance of energy, he runs into the sea and starts to flounder. The woman goes in and rescues him from the rushing surf. When they are safely on land, he tells her that when he ran into the water, he forgot he couldn’t swim. She briefly softens to him, but then is unhappy that she is all wet again. She tells him to avert his eyes, which he mostly does, as she changes into a skirt and blouse. They build a fire together to dry off their wet things and cook a fish she has packed to eat, and he sets up a sundial in the sand using small pieces of driftwood to measure off her last day of summer.

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The film consists of a dance of approach and withdrawal, as the woman alternately enjoys the young man’s attentions and fights to be practical. She was abandoned by her sweetheart during wartime—he went to England, apparently—and broken-hearted, she has remained alone, which the young man has surmised by her solitary visits to the beach each day. Every time she tries to break away, she ends up following him, their circling intimacy getting tighter and tighter. But when push comes to shove, the woman refuses to abandon her plans to live on the beach, idle and free, with the man. His subsequent disappearance has her wading into the ocean searching for him as the movie fades out.

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Konwicki doesn’t set any impenetrable traps with this conventional look at the psyche of a lonely, aging woman. Her emergence from the sea at the beginning of the film is like a birth—imagine swimming nude to keep one’s bathing suit dry!—and her successive returns to the water are plunges into the unconscious, a chance at rescuing her youthful, buoyant animus unfortunately thwarted by her caution and doubt. It seemed fairly certain to me that the young man did not exist at all, but was sent by her unconscious to keep her from taking the final plunge into the darkness to which she eventually succumbs—the flattering admiration of a handsome, younger man a balm for her ego, a proposed escape from her drab existence a proffer of liberation and fulfillment. The shot of her after she has donned her clothes showcases the soft beauty elicited by his attentions.

Cinematographer Jan Laskowski composed many beautiful landscape and overhead shots, and his close-ups capture every nuance of emotion. Nonetheless, between him and Konwicki, the visuals are a pretty close rip-off of Maya Deren’s At Land (1944). Take a look:

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The intrusion of the airplanes may have been intended as a grounding device similar to the dinner party in At Land, but it was much less coherent. Without some tie to the woman, these scenes did not have the perhaps desired effect of offering a tangible foreboding. Much more effective was the man’s use of a pocket knife, repeatedly throwing it idly to stick in a log near the sleeping form of the woman. Interestingly, when she gathers up their belongings in preparation for going back to her hotel to pack, she removes the knife and returns it to the man. Unlike the old saw that a gun produced in the first scene will be fired by the last, the knife is never used directly. Instead, it implies that the woman’s life may be in danger, but as the film progresses, the danger is really only from herself.

This film, part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Sunday, June 29, 3 p.m., and Wednesday, July 2, 6:15 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.


13th 11 - 2013 | no comment »

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, 2008)

Director/Screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A little over a week ago, I reviewed the feature film Hannah Arendt (2012), about the famous German-Jewish philosopher during the period when she observed the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and wrote a series of articles and a book about it. Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to suggest that Eichmann was an efficient bureaucrat who had literally lost the ability to think for himself, that his fiendish crimes became normalized for him to the point that there seemed to be no moral imperative surrounding his actions at all. Hannah Arendt centers around an observer of evil, and even though it includes some of the actual footage of Eichmann testifying during the trial, we, like Arendt, remain on the outside looking in.

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As scary as it sounds, what would happen if we could actually experience the world as Eichmann did, from inside his head? What we would learn? Argentinian director/screenwriter Lucrecia Martel takes on just such an improbable mission with her intriguing and somewhat exasperating film The Headless Woman. The film concerns itself with a hit-and-run accident that occurs on an isolated road when the driver, Verónica (María Onetto), takes her eyes off the road for a moment to answer her cellphone. The bulk of the film actually tries to put us inside Veró’s head as she tries to process the fact that she may have killed someone.

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The opening scene of three boys and a dog running along and across the road, jumping into and climbing out of an empty viaduct, and generally playing around is shot in the clear, sunny day with a sharpness that emphasizes their youthful vitality. The scene shifts to a group of women moving to their cars in a parking lot, with snatches of conversation that resemble Robert Altman’s overlapping dialogue, though in this case, we are brought into a dialogue that has been ongoing for weeks and must hunt for meaning. One woman compliments Veró on her blonde coiffure, and Veró responds that the chlorine is making it fade.

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Another cut reveals Veró driving alone, listening to the radio. When her cellphone goes off, her head turns toward us and then down. The car is jostled as we hear one and then another loud bump. Veró eventually stops, visibly shaken, and sits catching her breath for several long moments. She looks in her rearview and sideview mirrors. We see what looks like a dog laying by the side of the road, but the car is distant enough to make identification difficult for us. Eventually, Veró puts the car in gear and drives off. She continues to monitor her car mirrors with worried confusion.

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The next time we see her is at a hospital. She has a small bandage on her forehead, and is admitted for x-rays. A man (Daniel Genoud) comes to see her, and she embraces him to be comforted with sex. Who is he? We won’t find out for some time, but when Veró returns home, we learn that he’s not her husband Marcos (César Bordón). Much of what we learn about her comes indirectly from the people around her who are carrying on as usual—Veró herself says almost nothing for days, moving like a stunned animal through her home, her dental practice, and her social engagements. Eventually, however, she moves out of the shock of denial and shares with Marcos her fear that she killed someone on the road.

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The terrible burden of moral culpability is what is on display in The Headless Woman. Martel tries to put us inside Veró’s head, conjuring a sensory experience that is both heightened and disoriented. The bright, sharp look of the opening scene gives way to a darker, more diffuse look that communicates a world gone out of focus, leeched of recognizable detail and simple joy. Martel trains her camera intently on Veró, tightly shooting her face at the edge of the frame, often with actions occurring behind her. Onetto often looks as though her thoughts are painfully fragmented, that she is “headless” in the aftermath of the accident. The withholding of information, the shards of relationships glimpsed in passing, all serve to draw us into Veró’s emotional universe.

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They say that naming the problem is the first psychological step to solving it, and for Veró, sharing her secret not only relieves some of the pressure, but also allows others to intervene on her behalf. It is here that the film moves out of its almost experimental phase and progresses as a slightly more traditional narrative, or at least one that fills in a lot of the blanks. The threads of what were just images now come into focus—these are Veró’s aunt and cousins, this is the volunteer work she does at a school, here is confirmation that she has two daughters. And significantly, here are the employer, friends, and family of the boy she killed, completely unaware of who she is.

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Martel is so intent that we virtually experience Veró’s trauma that despite her cuts that compress the week or so during which this narrative takes place, we seem to experience it in real time. Onetto has a huge job, on camera for nearly the entire running time, a camera peering into her face looking for Veró’s soul. She is never less than compelling to look at, but Martel has set up what I think is an impossible task. Just as Hannah Arendt tried, and actually failed, to divine the mystery of Eichmann’s soul, we cannot simply look at Veró’s face, even one that communicates emotion and trauma, and feel inside her. Indeed, we can’t do that in face-to-face interactions.

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A secondary commentary arises after Veró shares her secret, that of class entitlement. Veró is from the professional class, and as her shock wears off, so does her moral quandary, a fading that becomes all the more easy as her husband “takes care of” her problem by erasing any traces of her actions. In some ways, it was comforting to see a more conventional resolution to the movie, with Veró washing that dead boy right out of her hair by going back to her natural brown color—though she hastens to add to her friend that her hair has probably gone grey under the serial dye jobs. It’s frustrating trying to feel something it’s impossible to feel unless you’ve actually had the experience of killing someone accidentally. But some of us can relate to someone taking care of our problems for us, and we can all relate to recovering from a trauma and finding ways to go on with our lives that often involve willful forgetting. Is that what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that Eichmann had lost the capacity to think? For The Headless Woman, the answer appears to be “yes.”


2nd 09 - 2013 | no comment »

Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963)

Director: Alain Resnais

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Alain Resnais can rightly be called the grandmaster of French cinema. At 91, he continues to work and create films of bold experimentation and a deep feeling for the joys and suffering of being alive. Deeply marked by the traumas of war, his films have examined the psychic meaning of both World War II and the Algerian War for independence, conflicts that drove a wedge into France’s self-image, reawakening the fissures within the country that had led to the French Revolution of 1789. Royalists, sometimes eugenic in their belief in the hereditary superiority of the aristocracy, pitted against the common folk in France and its colonies belie the myth of a united country fostered by Charles De Gaulle and the Popular Front during the 20th century. The myth may have been necessary to prevent France from plunging into another bloody civil war over the betrayals of Vichy, but the roiling undercurrent of rage and animosity would not be quelled, particularly among France’s filmmakers. The “quality” films against which the French New Wave rebelled were a meager attempt to calm nerves and ease suffering through a headlong plunge into nostalgia. The New Wave would have none of it, though the appropriation of another country’s reaction to postwar malaise—what the critics of the French New Wave dubbed “film noir”—was still another form of avoidance for a country that had not found a language to speak the unspeakable.

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As artists often do, Resnais tuned into the cultural zeitgeist and his own unease as a witness to the outrages of Vichy and Algeria and crafted a series of films that offered both a visual catharsis and a pointed critique of attempts to erase the past by confusing reality with a less precise and damning narrative: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and the film under consideration here, Muriel, or The Time of Return. The first film was explicit, if not graphic, about the human cost to life and love of World War II, and the second an examination of memory and the fracturing of the simplicity of love that was a hallmark of pre-WWII life and a symbol of France to the world. With Muriel, Resnais develops and marries those themes in a film that commands one’s interest through the urgency of its emotion.

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The story is simple. The widowed Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée) await the arrival of Hélène’s old flame Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), whom Hélène has asked to come to see her at her home in Boulogne Sur Mer. Hélène and Alphonse were lovers in 1939, just before the Nazis invaded France, and Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. While Hélène perhaps hopes that she and Alphonse can return to a time before conflict tore them apart, Bernard is haunted by what he has witnessed and participated in while serving in Algeria. The film chronicles the attempts of Hélène and Bernard to assuage their pain by coming to terms with the past.

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The strategies Resnais uses to expose the psychological traumas his characters have suffered reflect the fractured nature of their reality. Bernard has given Hélène the impression that he is engaged to a woman named Muriel and is forever disappearing from the flat he and Hélène share to visit her. In fact, Muriel is a horrific memory that he feels compelled to revisit time and again by watching some film he shot while in Algeria in his ramshackle studio above a stable. Wracked by guilt over what he and the men in his unit did to her, he tries to amass evidence of the incident, though it is unclear what he intends to do with it. It seems more important for him to keep the memory alive, to avoid the trap of forgetfulness or putting the war behind him, as his comrade Robert (Philippe Laudenbach) has. Thus, Bernard constellates the France that cannot forgive and forget the Vichy collaborators and the horrors they visited on their brothers and sisters, as well as the France that condemns the widespread colonial torments of a “noble” France against the Algerian people.

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Hélène, too, is haunted by the past, and the perhaps too obvious metaphor for her nostalgia is the antique store she runs out of her home, living with and using furniture and decorative items she intends to sell in the careful, provisional manner one holds memories in one’s mind. (Indeed, Boulogne is a similarly provisional abode, a town bombed near to flat, with pockets of the old world juxtaposed with modern architecture.) Hélène’s reunion with Alphonse has an odd tenor to it, with Alphonse wanting to embrace and kiss her, but Hélène avoiding both, still stung by Alphonse’s abandonment of her. Like Bernard, she wants to find out what happened, to get her facts straight so that she can move forward without the nagging doubt that something important was missed. Like Robert, Alphonse has seen fit to paper over the truth to mooch off whatever marks are near at hand, including the attentions of his mistress Françoise (Nita Klein), who accompanies him as his “niece,” and approbation for his service to his country during the Second World War and Algeria. In fact, Alphonse is a bigot who never went to Algeria, and he fails to note his real relationship with Françoise or his marital status to Hélène.

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Françoise is an interesting character to ponder. More than 20 years younger than Alphonse, Françoise is a Parisienne, instantly recognizable as such to the provincial residents of Boulogne, a sophisticate who thinks it would be, to use today’s parlance, “funny” to meet her lover’s old girlfriend. She tells Bernard, who has seen through her ruse, that there was just something about Alphonse that she responded to, and the fact that he was married seemed little more than a detail. The French tradition of men having a wife and a mistress is a long one, but in this instance, the illicit relationship seems a conjoining of habitual liars. When faced with the pain and earnest questioning of Hélène, Françoise comes to loathe the day they met. It’s hard to face the past, even when it’s not your own.

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Resnais uses quick cuts at the start of the film to confound the usual establishing shot—we may eventually figure out where we are, but what Resnais seems more interested in establishing is a subjective point of view, our location, the monkey mind that records and randomly rolls through images and thoughts both immediate and distant. Similarly, the passage of time is imprecise, and the melancholy Hélène may display in one scene immediately cuts to a festive dinner, as though to show her state of mind while in the midst of everyday activities. Seyrig expertly balances her character’s various depths, making the abrupt cutting more coherent than it might have been, and her haunted compulsion to visit the town’s casino seems a physical need as strong as a junkie’s for heroin. Beside the callous obviousness of such characters as Alphonse, Robert, and Françoise, she ably shows what becomes of a broken heart. While less skilled than Seyrig, Thiérrée’s conscience provides another touchpoint of truth in a film filled with mendacity. Further, Resnais’ use of the elements, particularly when Bernard goes horseback riding on the bluffs looking across the water toward England, grounds the film in a reassuring timelessness that helps stabilize the audience in this highly unstable scenario.

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While Muriel is the work of a developing filmmaker and has a certain obviousness in some places, for example, a view of Bernard through a kaleidoscope that shows him fractured, it is nonetheless an honest film that accomplishes its mission to bear witness to some uncomfortable truths by helping its audience share the emotions of its vulnerable and sensitive protagonists. Better than a talking cure, Muriel offers a symbolic release. It’s a beautiful and still urgently needed film.


29th 06 - 2013 | 4 comments »

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Peter Strickland

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By Roderick Heath

British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Berberian Studio of Post-Production, a labyrinthine facility and a niche for creating the aspect of cinema perhaps least appreciated by laymen and yet amongst the most vital. This particular netherworld, where glowing, pulsing red lights wait with infernal meaning for Gilderoy, is guarded by a beautiful Circe, Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), armed with all contempt for the merely human expected of a fashion plate functionary in a magic kingdom filled with makers of fame and fortune. Gilderoy, middle-aged and gnomic, certainly seems especially human, like the intrusion of a sewage worker in a royal bedroom. But Gilderoy has gifts, gifts impressive enough to have inspired director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to have imported Gilderoy from England to mix the soundtrack of his latest film, The Equestrian Vortex.

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Gilderoy has recently won an award for his work on a documentary about rural England, evoking the delicate textures of a genteel and pastoral landscape, but now he finds, to his queasy discomfort, that he’s engaged on a blood and thunder flick, filled with bizarre supernatural emanations and grotesque torture. Light years out of his comfort zone, this homely, homebody savant of sound is worried about his aged mother back home, disturbed by the material he’s working on, and gnawed at by financial distress since he spent all his money on the plane ticket and can’t get anyone to reimburse him. He finds himself surrounded by people driven by unpredictable emotions and private agendas, the alienation exacerbated by a language barrier. Gilderoy sets to work with his exacting and deeply introverted method, only to find himself falling into an abyssal trap of anxiety and mystery.

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Writer-director Peter Strickland’s only previous feature work was the eerie, compelling revenge thriller Katalin Varga (2009), set and shot in Romania, and it’s possible Strickland’s experiences working on such menacing fare in a foreign language and locale helped inspire this far more enigmatic, deeply discombobulated follow-up. Berberian Sound Studio is, on the surface, a tribute to, and evocation of, the hallowed era of Italian giallo horror film, which came near the tail-end of an epoch of Italian exports from a film industry uneasy with English-language cinema, which it constantly tried to annex. Tales of disconnection and confusion in that time and place are many and amusing, and have already provided fodder to some filmmakers as far back as Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). The mood of Berberian Sound Studios is similar to some other movies about moviemaking, particularly Anthony Waller’s chiller Mute Witness (1995), which offered Hitchcockian suspense in a near-deserted Russian film studio; Roman Coppola’s playful CQ (2000), depicting this often happenstance, esoteric and self-involved world where personal creativity and messy necessity often blend in unpredictable ways; and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), which turned the craft of its hero, a sound-effects man, into a deeply tactile, experiential drama where bottomless depravity is uncovered through layers of media. Strickland, whilst evoking such progenitors of method, ultimately has a distinct and peculiar purpose. Rather than segueing from the fakery of filmmaking into a zone of “real-world” drama, Berberian Sound Studio instead uses the paraphernalia and artifice of film to conjure an interior journey into places of disquiet and dread.

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Gilderoy is the innocent abroad here, and innocent he is, a bachelor and mummy’s boy who seems to have scarcely ventured out of the garden shed of his recording studio in years. He’s no signposted weirdo, however, only a timid and easily cowered man who has to undergo a sink-or-swim immersion in the ways of a corner of experience at once even more hermetic than his own but through which far more worldly characters occasionally tramp, violating the texture of his immediate surrounds and expectations with excruciating results. Gilderoy, upon arrival, learns that Santini worships his talents, but his hoped-for meeting with the director is delayed for some time and then proves a frustrating meeting with a patronising egotist. Gilderoy spends most of his time accompanied by Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s producer, always poised on a knife-edge above poles of professional facility and virulent irritation. When Gilderoy presses him about getting his ticket reimbursed, Francesco fobs him off on Elena, who passes him on to anonymous functionaries before Gilderoy learns about dealing with such matters here—get loud, get angry, and get the money—which is, of course, extremely difficult for a timid Englishman, especially one faced at every turn by language problems and wilful obfuscation. For extra genre cred, the studio is, in neat mid-’70s fashion, beset by random power cuts, with candles ready to illuminate the place after sudden plunges into stygian blackness.

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Gilderoy is hired specifically as a sound mixer, but as the post-production lumbers on and the shortfalls of the film shoot have to be plastered over, he’s drawn into helping create sounds through foley work, the artful manipulation of elements to create apt aural versions of what’s occurring on screen. Strickland’s wicked sense of humour in exploiting this element is introduced early on as Gilderoy is first shown some footage of the film whilst the two official foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozef Cseres), provide accompanying effects. They hack at watermelons with brutal force, evoking the savagery of killing on screen through the most blackly hilarious of indirection, as Gilderoy squirms in his seat: one of the Massimos offers him a slice of the melon to eat, and Gilderoy regards it like a severed body part.

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Strickland’s core conceit is that he never shows any footage from the film, allowing the sound effects the crew are providing and sometimes with a sketchy description of the plot to do the work. Ironically, the only bit of the film we do see is the opening credits sequence, a dynamic pastiche of ’70s-style design effects, which stands in for Berberian Sound Studio’s own credits. The Equestrian Vortex is evidently inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976), though with overtones that seem closer to the work of trashier giallo directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino: the plot seems to involve young women who find that the equestrian school they attend is infiltrated by witches with a history dating back to gruesome medieval witch trials. Santini balks, naturally, at having Gilderoy describe his movie as a horror film: “This not a horror film. This is a Santini film! … This is a part of the human condition.” Santini airily expresses his desire to evoke the horror of historical misogyny, but, our suspicions that it’s utter trash are confirmed by the reactions of his crew and particularly the female cast members like Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro) and Silvia (Fatma Mohamed).

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Berberian Sound Studio is a display of dazzling technique attached to a mysterious-feeling, ultimately interior tale of a solitary man’s mental disintegration, or possible transcendence, conveyed through the methods of his own craft. A gift for film buffs but one that nimbly avoids descending into a mere pastiche for the sake of tickling facile recognitions, Berberian Sound Studio is more an attempt to comprehend the peculiar nexus of artistic endeavour, private psychological credulity, and workaday labour. Strickland celebrates a world, one rapidly fading into history, of analog technology by which so much of the great cinema of the past was created. In its time, Gilderoy’s art represented cutting-edge capacity, but now it smacks of retro fetishisation as Strickland delights in depicting methods of constructing the densely layered compilation of devices we glibly call a movie. Strickland reminds us of the almost fanatical attention to craft that often goes into even the seamiest piece of crap, and which, on the level of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s scrolls of hundreds upon hundreds of crew names in closing credits, feels close to a religious enterprise. There’s more than a hint of connotation here, in that culturally we want to reward modest DIY artisans like Gilderoy, but the industry tends to win out in every other respect. Strickland’s camera roves over Elena’s desk with typewriter and rubber stamps arranged on a trestle like an abstract sculpture, the buttons and dials and charts and tapes that form the paraphernalia of Gilderoy’s art becoming runic, inscrutable alchemic devices for conjuring spells.

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Strickland creates a uniquely strange atmosphere, and tension, but not by offering any specific source for unease, save for the oneiric atmosphere generated by his work. A parade of actors moves through the studio, making perverse and unnerving sound effects for terrified and slaughtered women, witches, and lurking goblins, filling the studio with disturbing inferences and the unpleasant sensation of everyday technical effort being suffused with menace and the ghosts of appalling acts. One scene sees Katalin Ladik, playing herself, recording the sound for her role as a witch, acting the incantatory part, face twisted into a visage of terrible delight, mimicking the faces of death and morbid ecstasy often glimpsed in De Palma and Argento’s films, exposed in artifice and yet still wielding a strange power. Santini proselytises to Gilderoy about his need to depict the horrors of witch trials to awaken his audience to historical crimes, except, of course, that Strickland notes the same crimes, in a far subtler and less immediately deadly fashion, going on in the studio. Santini, the smooth and imperious stud, is accused of casting with his dick, and Silvia, evidently involved with him in some fashion, is filled with disquiet and disillusionment. She forms a tenuous bond with Gilderoy, with his seeming status as meek, attentive gelding in contrast to the brash Italian alpha males, and advises him in how to combat the studio bureaucracy. Francesco warns Gilderoy about getting too close to Silvia: “Be careful of that girl…There is poison in those tits of hers.” Like Gilderoy, Silvia is another foreigner out of her element. Appearing with witchy portent in the dark of the studio and seeming alternately entrapped by the filmmaking and its dark avatar, Silvia finally goes on a rampage of destruction all too cruelly exact for the filmmakers: she destroys reels of sound and footage to announce her furious departure from the project, a special kiss-off to Santini.

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Meanwhile Santini and Francesco push Gilderoy in implicating himself in the professional drama that has overtones of the imaginary one, finally conflating as Francesco forces Gilderoy to turn up the volume on recorded sound effects to literally torture a potential replacement for Silvia into giving a decent sounding scream. The sneaky truth to the casual sexism and contempt for employee needs, like Gilderoy’s, passed over for the joy of working in the big wonderful world of filmmaking, melds with Gilderoy’s evident frustrated sensuality, a sensuality channelled into his work. Gilderoy is something of a gentle magician: in one mesmerising scene, when a power cut leaves the actors and crew bored, Gilderoy is talked into entertaining them by creating eerie sounds with household items, conjuring a UFO from a lightbulb scraped across a grill. Just recently I’ve been much fascinated with the work and life of Delia Derbyshire, a brilliant boffin who helped invent electronic music from the anonymous ranks of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, most famously creating the Doctor Who theme: Gilderoy is characterised as just such a classic English eccentric whose introversion masks the ability to create worlds and invent futures, a delicate gift unable to withstand the pressure of industrialised art filled with egotists and moral vacuums.

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One of the film’s most evanescently strange moments comes in one of the several turns in which Strickland uses the blackouts as a way to seamlessly and, with momentary disorientation, change scenes: Gilderoy is awoken in the night, and leaves his room, passing into blackness. The sounds of crunching detritus, as if he’s walking on fallen leaves, are heard, and Silvia emerges from the darkness, clutching a candle, an emanation from an ethereal beyond. Actually, they’re in the studio during another power cut, with Gilderoy recording his footfalls as background noise. Nonetheless Gilderoy’s tactile enjoyment of the moment evokes the very different world he’s used to, a quieter, more natural world. This moment reminded me powerfully of a similar motif in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), in which the antihero smothers his face longingly in natural detritus, mourning his isolation in a denaturalised world. Gilderoy sleeps in a room adjoining the studio, and his situation, and seemingly fragmenting consciousness, often seems to dissolve boundaries between liminal and subliminal zones. The rubbish bin filled with all the pulverised vegetables used in the foley work begins to turn into a toxic mass of putrefaction, standing in for the mangled flesh on screen: “Well, I was hoping for a more dignified end than this,” one actress quips upon seeing the mashed marrow that represents her on-screen character’s brutal death.

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Berberian Sound Studio is, in many respects, an experimental film, an extended attempt to explore the pure texture of cinema, a layered journey through the act of creation itself that becomes at the same time a mesmerising experiential plunge. There seems to be an emerging strand of what could be called pseudo-abstract genre work in recent independent filmmaking, mimicking the forms of traditional horror and science-fiction films, but doing so to extract and isolate qualities of tone and method whilst excising literal story development: the U.S. and British film scenes have produced several filmmakers, including Shane Carruth, Brit Marling and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, Ben Wheatley, and Ti West, who have deconstructed filmmaking pitched on the edge of the fantastic or the ominous to varying degrees; works by European filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier have also grazed this zone. Strickland’s effort here stands closer to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Fonzani’s Amer (2009), which boiled the traditional visual essentials of giallo down to an enigmatic narrative freed from responsibility to the boilerplate requirements of genre entertainment. Rather than offer the usual coded metaphors for a descent into a realm of nightmares and the irrational, Strickland goes straight for the purified sense of dread and implication of a solitary man who specialises in creating hints of wonder but is too vulnerable to being immersed in his own works.

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Berberian Sound Studio therefore feels closer to some far more offbeat by-products of the ’60s and ’70s film milieu than to the giallo to which it pays surface tribute. David Lynch is an evident touchstone. Strickland references the shibboleth of Mulholland Drive (2001) through the flashing sign “Silenzio” outside the studio, the intimate examination of decay suggests Blue Velvet (1986), whilst the narrative doublings and dreamlike metamorphoses recall Lost Highway (1997). But where Lynch was fond of creating surrealist textures out of pulp stories, Strickland offers much less immediate strangeness, preferring to create a more definably psychological texture. The peculiar counterpoint of a technologically enabled tinkerer able to transform everyday ambience into strange art and a situation rife with discomforting expectation of violence recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1976): the heroes of both are sound experts engaged in creating evocations of the uncanny and faced with the disintegration of their presumably stable lives. But the ultimate method feels to me closest to Ingmar Bergman, as in Persona (1966), mental breakdown is conveyed through the literal breakdown of cinema itself, whilst Hour of the Wolf (1968), where an artist’s neuroses consume his life, realised through dreamlike reductions of gothic horror imagery to their phobic essences. Where Bergman referenced the expressionist chillers and Bela Lugosi flicks he’d loved as a youth, Strickland evokes giallo, but both modes are for each filmmaker a style to emulate rather than a genre to copy, a wellspring of expressive ambiguity and nightmarish textures.

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Like the protagonist of Hour of the Wolf, Gilderoy disappears within the ghostly fantasia his mind seems to be projecting. As Gilderoy’s perception of his world becomes increasingly warped, everything becomes charged with a capacity for communing with a nightmare world, and the very filmmaking conspires against him. Gilderoy’s periodic letters from his mother take a dark twist as she recounts the massacre of a nest of bird hatchlings they’d been watching over before he left. Gilderoy’s private reality becomes increasingly mixed up with the film as one of the auditioned replacements for Silvia recounts the letter. We know who Gilderoy is, but what’s his last name? Why was he hired for this project? Why can’t the studio accountants find his flight booking? Is he here at all? Is the whole experience just his dream? Or is he, as the film repeatedly suggests, simply a figure at the mercy of his filmmaker, free to create him and then pull him apart, like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953)? This seems ultimately the perfect analogue for Berberian Sound Studio, an exercise in layers of cinematic construction becoming its own malefic stunt. Time eventually reboots; Gilderoy, suddenly a speaker of fluent Italian, becomes the high priest and witch hunter, pummelling the eardrums of his actress-witches and lighting candles in prayer to dark gods of nature even as he remains ensconced in his technological cocoon.

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Strickland saves his smartest antistrophe for a sequence in which Gilderoy imagines some hidden force crashing against the door of his bedroom, snatching up a knife and stalking out to search for the shadow enemy, only for the footage of his earlier fear in the room to start unspooling on the projection screen. Then the film melts and gives way to, of all things, the rural documentary Gilderoy won his prize for, tranquil footage of English dales and grass-munching sheep presenting a far more jarring and mercilessly funny twist than any supernatural ambassador could provide. Gilderoy is terrified of the price he will pay for success, of the world battering in his door and implicating him in its evils, anxiety attaching itself to the art he’s prostituting himself out to create. As in many horror films, however, the forces of good and light may have their victory over darkness. Gilderoy finds himself confronted by self-animating equipment that projects a spot of growing light, transfixing Gilderoy and promising to swallow him up, 2001–style, the beckoning promise of transcendence into ecstasy, or obliteration, a final surrender to the irrational. It’s easy, too easy, to imagine Berberian Sound Studio earning the wrath of viewers who would have it finally offer some sort of familiar gothic pay-off. But for anyone who engages with Strickland’s seriously peculiar yet remarkable style, this is a genuinely galvanising film experience—and those are pretty rare at the best of times.


24th 10 - 2012 | 6 comments »

CIFF 2012: Holy Motors (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Leos Carax

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s one thing that people rarely talk about and yet is vital in our lives: dreaming. I don’t mean night dreams, but daydreams. They are man’s best companion, wonders of existence.

French director Leos Carax said the above in an interview about his 1999 film Pola X, the film he made eight years after completing his self-described “variation on the least original theme possible: boy meets girl”—The Lovers on the Bridge. In truth, it’s hard to imagine a more original version of that formula, with its gritty, hallucinatory visions and hard-luck, abusively passionate lovers living on Paris’ famous Pont Neuf. Now here we are again, wondering where Leos Carax has been for the 13 years since Pola X premiered. Frankly, I don’t care. In fact, I wish more directors would go away and come back only when they have something they feel compelled to express, particularly if the results are as explosive and stunning as Carax’s new film Holy Motors.

The opening quote is very pertinent to the “plot” of Holy Motors. The film plays like a series of short stories tied together by one character, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob) to various parts of Paris in a white limousine to act out a wide variety of roles. These roles are the active daydreams of their orchestrator, Carax, crafting found objects from his experiences into both ordinary and extraordinary moments. Indeed, the most extreme of his daydreams, one involving the abduction of a high-fashion model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot in the Père Lachaise Cemetery by Lavant as a demented leprechaun strongly reminded me of the daydreams Sally Potter had as she tried to write a murder mystery involving a dwarf and some Paris fashion models in her film The Tango Lesson (1997). If Carax did, in fact, crib the idea—and I have no way of knowing whether he did—it is only fair and proper for any dreamer to recycle material for his own purposes.

Despite the plethora of hit films with convoluted plots that sometimes go nowhere—for example, the inane summer blockbuster Inception (2010)—I imagine a lot of moviegoers will feel frustrated by Holy Motors. You see, it doesn’t exist to be a brain teaser you can use to smartly assert your own powers of reason and deduction. From the very beginning, Carax signals he is presenting his own dream material—he has a man go into an airport hotel room, pull the drapes, and then enter a grand movie theater through a chink in the wall where an audience is watching a film projected on a screen. Now that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? But who is the man? Why is he in the airport hotel? Where is he going when he checks out? Who gives a damn! His “real” life couldn’t possibly be more interesting or exciting than the dream life Carax has given him and us.

Of course, Carax immediately plays with our initial plot expectations by showing us Monsieur Oscar exiting an enormous, gated mansion with the farewell shouts of his children seeing him down the winding driveway. His bodyguards follow him in a black sedan as he walks to the white stretch limo and greets Céline, who tells him the information for his nine appointments that day are in place for him to peruse. He makes all kinds of captain of industry noises into his cellphone as he looks at the first folder. Then we see him shift to the side of the limo we haven’t been allowed to see. A theatrical make-up mirror and racks of costumes and props stand at the ready as Monsieur Oscar begins his transformation into an old beggar woman. The limo stops below a bridge, and the disguised Oscar stands on the bridge, his bodyguards near at hand, and begs for money. When he returns to the limo, his bodyguards largely disappear from the scene as he makes his rounds, with stops that include working in a motion-capture studio, assassinating a prominent businessman, scolding “his” teenage daughter, and saying good-bye to “his” beloved niece while lying on his deathbed.

Oscar even has an interlude where he meets Jean (Kylie Minogue), someone he seems to have a past with who also travels Paris in a white limo acting out roles. So is there a real Monsieur Oscar? A real Jean? When they finish their appointments, all of the play actors end up not necessarily where they started the day, and the drivers return to the Holy Motors garage. Céline dons a mask that suggests the role the actress who plays her had in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, and leaves. When all the lights are out, the two dozen or so white limos parked in the garage blink their lights and carry on a conversation about their eventual obsolescence as the size of machines keeps shrinking.

So what can we glean from the various parts of this rollercoaster adventure? Carax reveals some of his own thoughts about his world. He speaks with someone who might be his employer (Michel Piccoli) who wonders about Oscar’s waning interest in the job because he fears there is no longer a “beholder” to view his creations, Oscar says he keeps on “for the beauty of the act.” This is the essence of the pure artist—art for art’s sake. He deplores the shift from the large cameras of filmmaking days gone by, wondering how anyone can even see the tiny digital cameras used today, a sentiment about the miniature, yet all-powerful machines we have all come to rely upon. Not a Luddite, rather a connoisseur of the industrial design of the past, he also finds extraordinary beauty in motion-capture technology, as Lavant in a black body suit and the incredibly flexible Reda Oumouzoune in a red body suit simulate the elegant contortions of oral sex and coitus as their movements are transformed into writhing, animated dragons on a screen above them.

By contrast, the sexiness of the fashion model kidnapped by Lavant in his Monsieur Merde persona (from Carax’s contribution to the 2008 trilogy film Tokyo!) is subverted by the feral midget. After he has escaped to his underground lair through the Paris sewers, he rips cloth from her diaphanous gown and turns it into a burqua, stripping naked himself to curl up in her lap. Perhaps the wild man who seems a huge danger—hilariously, he bites off the fingers of the photographer’s assistant who seems to think she can make him part of the shoot—really only wants a mother’s nonthreatening love. Have we been all wrong about male aggressiveness and female objectification?

Many moments in this film are hilarious. Besides the shockingly funny finger-biting moment, the deathbed scene ends with uncle lifting “his” niece’s (Elise Lhomeau) head as he gets out of bed to go to his next appointment. Their polite, perfunctory pleasantries and farewells make the artifice of an already melodramatic scene irresistibly funny. I found the interlude between a loving working-class father and his teenage daughter to be quite touching, particularly since the girl is played by Carax’s own daughter, Nastya Golubeva Carax. When Lavant discovers the girl has lied about her experience of a party and the whereabouts of her friend, he orders her out of the car. It’s not as frightful as all that, as they are in front of their own apartment building. The anticipated punishment is not what she expects—he merely tells her that she will have to live with herself the rest of her life. While this sounds like a lily-livered parent getting out of being a disciplinarian, the effect is a lasting indictment of her character, of all of us who lie and misrepresent ourselves.

We can take these little postcard messages from the film, but the main pleasure is simply in the watching. Holy Motors is mirthful, rueful, beautiful, ugly, miraculously original while still feeling quite familiar, particularly to cinephiles, and already has the earmarks of a modern film classic. It and its star, Denis Lavant, were the richly deserving winners of the top prizes at the Chicago International Film Festival. Bravo, Monsieur Carax, bravo!

Previous coverage

Night Across the Street: Raul Rúiz’s last completed film is a surreal and frequently comic float through the memories of a man who is ending his work life with the feeling that death is stalking him. (Chile)

The Scapegoat: New adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel in which a schoolteacher impersonates an arrogant aristocrat and has a warming effect on his dysfunctional family. (UK)

Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)

Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)

Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)

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20th 10 - 2012 | 3 comments »

CIFF 2012: Night Across the Street (La Noche de Enfrente, 2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Raul Rúiz

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The extraordinarily prolific experimental filmmaker Raul Rúiz did not know he would die only four months after completing Night Across the Street in 2011, but he had faced death only the year before, when the outcome of a life-saving liver transplant was still in doubt. Perhaps curiosity about his own final journey sent him from his adopted home in France back to Chile, his country of birth, to film Chilean writer Hernán del Solar’s most popular collection of children’s stories, Across the Night, which Rúiz certainly must have read in his youth. Night Across the Street, another of Rúiz’s many literary adaptations, happily intermingles Del Solar’s stories in a beautiful and bewildering free float through the end of the career and life of its main protagonist, Don Celso Barra (Sergio Hernández), who is vaguely a surrogate for Rúiz himself.

The credits roll over a panoramic shot of the ocean where it meets the sandstone cliffs that edge the coast of Chile. The action commences some time in the late 1940s or early 1950s on a character who is meant to be the real-life French writer Jean Giono (Christian Vadim) as he is instructing a class of boys and, incongruously, Don Celso, in French-to-Spanish translation, using Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as a text; significantly, Rúiz met Giono, as well as adapted the Proust novel for his 1999 film Time Regained, signaling that we may be headed off into a reverie on Rúiz’s own life. During the class, an alarm clock rings, causing Don Celso to fumble to turn it off, shake a pill out of large bottle, and open a hip flask to wash the pill down with whatever liquid the flask contains. The bell signaling the end of class rings, and Don Celso and Giono walk together along the dock in Antofagasta, where we learn later in the film Giono moved because he liked the town’s name (supposedly, this also occurred in real life). Don Celso mentions a new translated novel he just read, and Giono neither confirms nor denies that he was the person who did the translation.

Don Celso goes to his office at the ship-building business where he is employed. His boss complains that Don Celso is not doing his best work, to which the elderly man says he has no more ideas; the assembled members of the office staff mention that his retirement is imminent that week. Don Celso and the staff recite strange poetry, and throughout the film, we will see a wide variety of wordplay among them, from pompous speeches to loose word association that introduces an adolescent sense of play to Don Celso’s latter years that helps us segue into his memories of his own boyhood.

When we meet Don Celso’s younger self (Santiago Figueroa), he is showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects, but particularly of classical music. His favorite composer, Beethoven (Sergio Schmeid), appears and accompanies the young Celso on his wanderings—to the movies, to an athletic field, and to a fireman’s funeral, with Celso explaining the scientific advances of the 20th century they come across. Young Celso also meets up with Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra), a reference not only to Rúiz’s film Treasure Island (1985) but also to Del Solar’s story “Pegleg.”

One of the stories, “Rhododendron,” is manifest as a magical name/word young Celso uses for himself and, later, the name the elderly Don Celso gives to a garishly painted plaque of a fish he has hanging on the wall of his room at Nigilda’s (Valentina Vargas) boarding house. Don Celso’s room is filled with toys, taxidermy animals, and posters more appropriate to a child’s room, reminding me of the anteroom of death in Rúiz’s biopic Klimt (1995). He also has a collection of ships in bottles he built, a fairly clear reference to Rúiz’s film output.

The most dramatic story to be told is of Don Celso’s premonition of death, which Rúiz shoots as a thriller/melodrama involving Nigilda and a young man named Rolo she says is her nephew, but treats far too familiarly for that. Don Celso calls him Rhododendron, certain that the man has come to kill him. Rolo and a young woman on a bicycle who appears to be his actual lover are, in fact, plotting to kill Don Celso and take a fortune he has hidden somewhere in the boarding house. Death becomes an overriding theme from this point onward, as the boarding house becomes a haunted house where seances are conducted. Don Celso walks down the barrel of a gun, which poetically has people inside it from its own memories, and into the light as the white cliffs of the Chilean coast bring us full circle.

The look of this film is lush and intriguing, and Rúiz’s slow horizontal pans constantly change the perspective and views, framing characters in doorways and moving them out of view again like a half-grasped memory. I have read complaints about the use of DCP video for this film, but I was enraptured by the slightly softer edges and almost 3D foreground of characters on detailed backgrounds. The period details are meticulously placed, and the environments, from the boarding house to the barrel of the gun, exert both a nostalgic and specific pull as we share in Don Celso’s memories and fantasies. However, Rúiz never forgets his source material, offering the solution of a radio show on which Don Celso reads stories to his audience to get us into some of the more outlandish situations he films.

There are moments of wonderful humor, particularly with regard to Don Celso’s retirement party. The company president makes an almost incomprehensible speech of appreciation, losing his train of thought in the middle, and Don Celso answers with a fairly incomprehensible thank-you speech that the office secretary Rosina (Chamila Rodríguez) transcribes in short, staccato bursts of the typewriter. He is presented with his retirement gift, an enormous plaster head that looks a bit like Tweedle Dee, and shows his pleasure by tipping his wine glass to its lips to get it to drink. He has to use a wheelbarrow to get it into his room at Nigilda’s. A slight political edge also creeps in as one Chilean asserts that the Yanks need to go, that Hitler was only trying to do right by his country and that Chile could do with a Hitler in charge. This short speech is shocking, but gives some clue as to how Pinochet’s military junta could eventually overwhelm the country, forcing Rúiz to emigrate to Paris.

Rúiz’s frequent musical collaborator Jorge Arriagada provides a haunting score, interspersed with romantic pop tunes of the 40s and 50s that forward the story and provide exceedingly pleasant pillows on which to rest from the confusion of the narrative. There is no question that Night Across the Street is a challenging film, but as its director’s final complete effort, it bids farewell to his career, his life, and his unique gifts in an extremely satisfying way.

Night Across the Street screens Monday, October 22, at 8:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Previous coverage

Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)

Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)

Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)


11th 10 - 2012 | 3 comments »

CIFF 2012: The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Rania Stephan

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For the record: I don’t expect there to be a more exciting film at the Chicago International Film Festival this year than Lebanese video artist Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni.

After viewing a number of ho-hum and near-miss films during my prefestival screenings, I literally bolted forward in my seat as I watched this fascinating experimental film—a rarity itself for this festival—that in the simplest terms could be called an interpretive biopic of the popular Egyptian actress Soad Hosni. However, Stephan’s assemblage of nothing but film clips from among the 82 feature films Hosni made from the 1960s through the 1990s offers more than a portrait of the artist. Hosni’s roles are arranged by Stephan to progress from the freshness of youth and ambition to stardom, through to adult pains and a dramatic death, thereby illustrating how the flickering images of our most cherished stars reflect back to us the archetypal dramas of our own lives. You’d have to watch Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart for anything close to a similar experience.

The popularity of Golden Age Egyptian cinema throughout the Arab world made Soad Hosni a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East. With the decline of the Egyptian film industry, the loss of many films through decay and fire, and the 2001 death of Hosni herself from a suspicious fall from a balcony that was ruled a suicide, Stephan felt three distinct losses, or disappearances, that she wished to note in her film. She used images from available copies of Hosni’s films, without trying to restore, color-correct, or remove any of the faded subtitles (she simply superimposes new ones) from the VHS tapes that bear witness to these disappearances.

Soad Hosni, in looks, figure, career, and influence, reminds me very much of Elizabeth Taylor, the last great Hollywood goddess. Like a goddess who represents something immutable in all women, Hosni is shown being greeted by the many different names of the characters she assumed in quick cuts that enliven and add humor to the early part of the film, exemplifying the energy of youth. Stephan does not shy away from Hosni’s sensuality. She emphasizes through scenes of Hosni emerging from the sea in a wet bathing suit and provocatively dressed to sit for an artist the importance of the actress’ “attributes” in launching her career. It is through her own determination to become a star, signaled in a number of scenes in which her characters voice that ambition, that we learn it takes more than a gorgeous face and body to get to the top.

Romance and marriage soon follow, with steamy kisses (some complete with censor cuts) and highly suggestive bedroom scenes that offer the kinds of fantasies both men and women long for at the movies. In a sly commentary on Hosni, some of her characters are shown getting married to the pictures’ leading men, suggesting the four marriages Hosni entered into herself. In a cliché of the serially married movie star, Hosni’s characters descend into unhappiness, with one ending her marriage by saying she no longer respects her husband. At the end, to show the complete degradation of the memory of a fabled movie goddess, Stephan cuts together several brutal rape sequences, all the more harrowing for their rapidity and the struggle Hosni puts up in each of them to maintain her honor.

Throughout the film, a character Hosni played is shown laying on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to remember events of her life. This clever device amounts to something like the voiceover narration given by Natalie Wood, Hosni’s contemporary in time, career, and mysterious death, as she chronicles her life in the rise-and-fall show biz picture Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Thus, whether or not one is familiar with Hosni and her body of work, moviegoers will have no trouble recognizing her story.

The shocking ending of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni packs an emotional punch that I would not dream of spoiling here. I will consider my reportage on this film festival successful if I induce any of my readers to seek out this original, finely crafted example of experimental film at its best.

An excellent article about the film and an interview with Rania Stephan can be found here.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni screens Sunday, October 21, at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 4 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Previous coverage

Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)


25th 06 - 2012 | 6 comments »

A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippêji, 1926)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.

Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to tellng the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.

The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.

A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.

The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.

A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.

Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.

The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.

A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.


22nd 03 - 2012 | 10 comments »

Shirin (2008)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Several years ago, my blog partner Rod made a comment on one of my posts: “Stephanie Zacharek recently, and correctly, said that audiences go to the movies to see beautiful, exotic, or at the very least, vividly interesting people on screen, and that it’s one of the great pleasures of going to the cinema.” If nothing else, Abbas Kiarostami’s experimental film Shirin confirms this observation. He chose more than 100 of Iran’s leading actresses to play audience members watching what I took to be a film adaptation of the “Khosrow and Shirin/Fahrad and Shirin” section of Persia’s well-known medieval epic poem the Shâhnâma, and all of them are beautiful, exotic, or vividly interesting to look at. Are they interesting enough to look at for nearly 90 minutes? You’d better think about that before you decide to watch this film, for the entirety of what we see on screen is these women watching a story we only hear, and read, if Persian is not a language we understand.

Shirin is not the most compelling of films to watch, but I found it a fertile experience for monitoring my own reactions to what I was witnessing and bringing to the surface actions that human beings perform unconsciously when we take in a person’s face and figure. I also found it an interesting experience in multitasking, dividing as I had to the images Kiarostami shot while keeping track of the sad story of Shirin, an Armenian queen who left her kingdom for the love of Khosrow, a dethroned Persian king, and ended up alone and unhappy. Finally, I found distinct pleasure in moments of recognition. Not only did I enjoy thinking, oh look, it’s the actress I just saw in A Separation (Leila Hatami—I’m not that good at remembering Iranian names), but I also liked seeing people fidget with their clothes, hands, and faces as they settled into the picture, whisper to the person next to them, doze off for a few seconds—in other words, do the same things I do when I watch a movie.

An Iranian would have a much better time ticking off the names of all the famous women on screen, but since I do not have this familiarity, I found myself really looking at the faces, many of which looked familiar, and remarking to myself how beautiful many of them were. A natural extension of this realization, and something women almost always do with other women, was to analyze the various attributes that lent them distinction. I noticed how many of them had carefully shaped eyebrows, often with the thick inner brow squared off with the upper bridge of the nose. I examined their lips to see who was wearing lipstick and who was not; that appraisal led to an overall inquiry into how much make-up each woman wore. I also checked for jewelry, feeling a bit surprised to see earrings on a few of the women who didn’t appear to be wearing make-up. I also checked to see if all the women were veiled, and I think I spotted only one woman without a hijab, though it was hard to be sure. Even Juliette Binoche, the only Western actress in the film, wore a hijab, letting me know we were definitely in Iran, which subjects all women to this form of attire, regardless of religious affiliation.

Binoche also added artifice to the film, reminding me, as is Kiarostami’s habit, that I was watching actresses playing roles, not genuine reactions caught documentary-like on camera. For example, at one point, the actresses, including Binoche, shed tears. I know she speaks a number of languages, but as far as I know, Persian isn’t one of them. Since it’s unlikely the film would have been subtitled for showing in Iran, how could she have known what the characters were saying? Having witnessed Binoche’s ability to cry on cue in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), I assumed her reactions must have come some other way. It was not surprising to me to learn during my research that Kiarostami filmed the actresses in small groups, instructing them how to behave or what to think about as they stared at a dot-filled card near the camera lens.

Through careful editing to match the narrative of the unseen film, Shirin appears to take place in only one setting. To add more veracity to the illusion that marks the film as fiction, men were also in the audience, including one man who seemed to be accompanying his wife. The men, always at the periphery of the frame, served something like extras. They sometimes grabbed my notice, particularly the bottom half of one face that appeared to belong to Jafar Panahi, the beleaguered director who is awaiting “execution of the verdict” to begin a six-year prison term for sedition, as well as a woman with two black eyes and a bandage over her nose, which, given the composition of the “audience,” I thought was probably the aftermath of a nose job. Like many glancing encounters we have every day, the reason for her appearance can be guessed at, but never known. We thus create a narrative for the things we see that are as individual as our experience of life and the way we process data.

By bringing new faces into the frame throughout the film, Kiarostami seeks to engage the processes described above for the entire running time. I, however, got tired of the game. I might have turned the film off entirely except that the story of Shirin was really quite involving. In relatively short order, I mainly “tuned out” the faces and approached the film as a radio play, barely noticing that I was reading the dialogue. I have listened to radio dramas all my life, so this shift was not only natural, but also quite pleasurable, and allowed me to create pictures in my mind in the same way Kiarostami invited us to create narratives for the pictures of the peripheral members of his fictional audience.

Shirin is quite in keeping with Kiarostami’s usual approach to cinema, even if it seems more unorthodox than most of his films. His reflexive examination of illusion and reality is very much in play here, and is approached more subtly than in his controversial conclusion to Taste of Cherry (1997), though Certified Copy truly is the apex of his examination of this subject. Kiarostami also does one completely unique thing with Shirin that I don’t remember experiencing with any other film: he restores the oral tradition that was always associated with the Shâhnâma, in particular, and with epic poetry, in general. We actually get the chance to imagine the story of Shirin through audio cues and the faces of those who are listening as stand-ins for the storyteller who would emote during the recitation. Thus, not only do we get to learn an ancient tale from the classical Persian canon, we also get to time travel to experience it as it might have been experienced in medieval Persia. I, for one, enjoyed the ride.


29th 06 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Kenneth Anger: Films from the Magic Lantern Cycle, 1947-1981

Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)

By Roderick Heath

The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.

Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.

His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including his sailor, armed with rude weapons found on the street.

Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime, religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.

Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.

Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.

Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.

As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity perhaps out of Intolerance (1916): glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.

Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.

Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.

Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.

With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.

As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.

Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.

Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.


28th 05 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Confessions of an Opium Eater (aka Souls for Sale; Evils of Chinatown, 1962)

Director: Albert Zugsmith

By Roderick Heath

Albert Zugsmith was one of those characters who make cinema history much livelier. Like Samuel Fuller, with whom he shared many artistic traits, he was a former journalist with leftist ties—his sister was an author of “proletarian” novels in the 1930s. After a time as a lawyer, during which he represented Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster in their suits against DC Comics over Superman profits, he became a maverick cinematic entrepreneur and landed a job high in the ranks of Universal Studios. He gave Orson Welles his last Hollywood project, 1958’s Touch of Evil, and produced several films for Douglas Sirk before striking out as an independent filmmaker during studio Hollywood’s sharp decline. Zugsmith’s produced or directed films of the period are a series of startling switchbacks in style and ambition, including the teen exploitation flick High School Confidential (1958), the camp satire Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), and the failed Disney-imi Dondi (1961).

Zugsmith also tried to cash in on the early tremors of the counterculture and managed to beat Jack Kerouac to copyrighting the phrase “Beat Generation” for his 1959 film of that name. Zugsmith’s best film took its title and essential mood from the infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of English essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey. At the start of the 19th century, De Quincey wrote about his drug-state visions, and became perhaps the first legitimate psychedelic artist. Zugsmith’s film is not an adaptation, but a kind of purple-poetic fever dream spliced with a swashbuckling noir tale, infused with morbid, semi-tragic pseudo-philosophical discursions and a delight in pounding into unexplored territory, all worthy of a high Romantic artist. Filming on an evidently very low budget, rather than trying to hide that fact, Zugsmith made the mixture of thrift-store hype and underground film invention part of his film’s uniquely woozy texture, and created the world’s first cheapjack pulp-surrealist masterpiece. Confessions of an Opium Eater anticipated not only the trippier excesses of ’60s cinema, but also elements of later action cinema and modern pulp revivalism, including the directly influenced Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and other East-meets-West remixes. It also represents a weird and fascinating islet of virtually experimental cinema in the context of B-movie thrills, rampantly assaulting settled mores of both art and culture in a violently deconstructive fashion.

Vincent Price plays Gilbert De Quincey, apparently a relative of Thomas, following in his existential footsteps, an adventurer and occasional opium fiend who washes up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1902. In a lengthy prologue, his voiceover helps weave a fantasy texture as a gang of tough-looking men on a beachfront discover a rotting skeleton wrapped in seaweed, one eye gazing out malevolently, whilst out at sea a boatload of captive Asian women are being transported to the shores of America on a huge junk. The women are hauled out of the hold, and the crewmen herd, batter, wrestle, and hurl the girls into a great cargo net to get them off the ship and onto a waiting schooner before a Coast Guard cutter reaches them. When the schooner’s crew bring them on the beach, the waiting men prove to be rescuers who try to overcome the slavers. One of them, who is revealed later to be crusading newspaper editor George Wah (Richard Loo), engages in a battle with one of the pirates who threatens one of the girls, Lotus (June Kyoto Lu, credited as June Kim). George is knocked down by his opponent, but the pirate is suddenly attacked by a panicked white horse, which kicks him over a cliff. Some of the pirates’ confederates arrive in a car and quell the battle with a blast from a tommy gun. The drag away Lotus from Wah’s crumpled body.

The images of death, the exotic ship emerging from the mystic ocean as reported through De Quincey’s eyes (“I see a junk…”), and the metaphysical image of good easily recognised in the white horse immediately establish a mood of dreamlike strangeness and symbolic perfervidness. De Quincey enters the story in downtown San Francisco, mulling over his own aimlessness, as a seagull portentously drops dead at his feet. He has to sneak into Chinatown, which the police have cordoned off because of the threat of tong wars. There he encounters the shadowy factions vying for power in the Chinese community, with Ching Foon (Philip Ahn) seemingly among those trying to continue the crusade of George Wah to end the sexual slavery in Chinatown run by mysterious, ancient kingpin Lin Tang. On the opposing team is ravishing femme fatale Ruby Low (Linda Ho), Lin Tang’s senior madam and operational chief, who runs the labyrinthine demimonde. Breaking into Wah’s offices, he discovers Ching Foon is hiding Lotus in a secret room, but Lin Tang’s tong goons bust their way in and force them to flee via a secret elevator that takes them into the sewers. There, after a valiant effort, De Quincey is knocked out, and Lotus spirited away by the slavers. Awakening deep in the bowels of the underworld, De Quincey encounters Lo Tsen (Caroline Kido), and the midget Child (Yvonne Moray), two women who were once sold in Lin Tang’s flesh market. Now they’re imprisoned in bamboo cages, being starved to death to rid their husbands of their inconvenient persons after they’ve proven too encumbering or problematic. De Quincey and the women try to escape, but that proves a very tall order.

Zugsmith’s mise-en-scène, conjured with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who did similarly great work for Fuller and Robert Aldrich, is at once solid and stripped-down in a fashion familiar from low-budget cinema of the era. Yet it is replete with swiftly glimpsed, oddly elusive images and stylised environs: riddling secret passages, characters who vanish and return, people who seem to switch sides and back again with swiftly adopted and swapped identities, glimpses of corpses, drug-dream visions, inanimate objects filmed as if they’re alive and menacing. Most clever are the ghostly mechanisms of the crane system that the slave girls’ cages slide about on that sees their captives whipped from room to room, sliding unexpectedly out of shadows like spectral emanations.

The effects are often ropy, from the camera speed effects used to give action more pep throughout, to the mid-film surrealist dream where distorted faces and stock footage commingle to wonderfully tacky effect, yet it’s precisely the film’s bald-faced lack of hype that’s part of its unique style. For example, early in the film, De Quincey follows Ruby Lo out onto the street, only for a banner to drop unexpectedly into the frame, signalling the eruption of a tong battle. The soundtrack is filled with the screams of women and children and the rattle of machine guns, and Ruby Lo dashes into a doorway, only for a sliding panel to drop, stopping De Quincey from following and leaving him outside on the completely deserted streets. Trying to break into Wah’s office, he’s assailed by a suddenly looming vision of a dragon’s face, which proves to be only a menacing kite, which he then cleverly uses to hitch a rope to the roof so he can penetrate the building.

Whilst its fleshy texture is clearly compiled from generations of trash sources, Confessions has a tone quite unlike anything before, save for the strangest works of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, and little since. De Quincey is a strange and uncommon kind of movie hero, constantly thwarted in his attempts to escape and rescue the captive women. An adventurer who’s scoured the world in search of his destiny, beset by an awareness of his own rootless alienation, he’s a fan of the opium pipe, and gains initial introduction to Ruby Lo because he sports the tattoo by which fans of the drug recognise each other. De Quincey’s literal act of infiltrating Chinatown immediately plunges him into a serpentine jumble of motivations and mysteries, as nobody’s quite sure who’s on what side of the coin, and indeed the notion that there is no coin anymore lingers threateningly. Wah, the liberal hero of Chinatown, so famous that even Lotus had heard of him back in China, is the film’s yardstick of decency and upright morality, and yet he’s believed dead. Everyone else is improvising. The falling bird at the start is definitely the albatross around the neck of the doomed mariner, as he encounters his idol/enemy/lover/angel of death Ruby, who likewise sees in him a personification of something ecstatic and annihilating. Hilariously, at one point when Ruby has De Quincey bound in her apartment, and comes on to him in a lengthy scene where the camera only studies her sensually rapacious features, she kisses him and it seems that they’re about to consummate their forbidden passion. However, they’re both wily survivors, and when De Quincey grabs Ruby’s hair to try to manhandle her, she promptly bashes him unconscious.

The screenplay’s flagrantly weird twists and turns are in accord with screenwriter Robert Hill’s dialogue, a free-styling mix of fortune cookie Orientalisms, philosophy, and hard-boiled noir quips. When De Quincey awakens hanging from a hook in a room filled with exotic costumes and he complains he’s not a side of beef, Ching Foon retorts, “Not sure if you side of beef or a side of man. Look like you man of many sides!” Gilbert De Quincey’s peculiar wandering character and his deep knowledge of Chinese culture mixed with an age of Yankee sarcasm is an interesting prefiguration of a contemporary multicultural ideal, the Indiana Jones type of globetrotting buccaneer who also would cross-cultural barriers, and a kind of prototypical hipster in search of experiences beyond not just the ordinary, but perspective-altering, life-changing, perhaps even life-ending. It feels as if Zugsmith was aware that he was making not just a period fantasia, but also a film about the nascent yearnings of the then-contemporary underworlds — the drug culture, the Beat and psychedelic scene, and the gay world, aspects of the general counterculture just about to grow in force from bohemian hideaways. This aspect is discernible in the importance given to the secret signs by which members recognise each other, the way portals into different realities swing open and slap shut, and how cultural tropes blend in polymorphous fashion or polarise fatally. More than a decade before Robert Towne used the word “Chinatown” to invoke everything unknowable and deceitful in the world, Zugsmith and Hill had already investigated that notion into the ground, for whilst the mystery world of Chinatown is here certainly filled with exotic threat, it’s also a place where the heroes are fighting for its soul and definition. Community is one of the film’s underlying themes, as De Quincey searches for connection with other human beings, a connection he constantly snatches at in trying to make contact with captives through bars and doors, chasing Ruby Lo, Ling Tan, and his own fate like the proverbial white rabbit.

There are hints that Zugsmith’s work with Orson Welles laid seeds that sprout here. The seamy, multitudinous, trash-romantic universe he evokes both resembles The Lady from Shanghai (1946) and Touch of Evil in many places and anticipates Welles’ adaptation of The Trial from the following year in the paranoid atmosphere, the use of sets, lighting, and busy frames with deep-focus photography. Intentionally or not, too, the film’s ideas reach out in accord with both fellow exploit/liberate artists like Russ Meyer (with whom Zugsmith would later work on the failed Fanny Hill [1965]), and Jesus Franco, and overtly arty experimentalists like Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard. Another comparison that jumps out to me is the same year’s Dr. No, the first James Bond film, which likewise reinvented pulp and serial material in a pop-art fashion, but completely avoided this film’s self-aware, reality-bending appropriation of De Quincey’s alternative reality trippiness, so that the racist fantasies are more or less left intact. You’d have to look to much more recent crossbreeds like The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) to see the mainstream assimilation of Zugsmith’s sensibility here, in almost all characteristics—the blend of elemental action and philosophical enquiry, post-modern genre and cultural blending, dream-or-reality quandaries—but still lacking the vitality of this film’s humanism, strangeness, and eroticism.

Speaking of eroticism, Zugsmith gains some mild grindhouse sex appeal from his material, as in the lengthy sequences towards the end in which Lin Tang’s men make their captive women dance in alluring fashion for their would-be purchasers, but yet also manages at the same time to critique this objectification. Zugsmith in Sex Kittens Go to College had cast Mamie Van Doren as a genius no one takes seriously because of her looks; here, ironies proliferate as the brutality of the kidnapped girls’ slavery is emphasised. In one gloriously camp moment that evokes Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1963), one of the audience of girl-buyers irritably tears off the wig hiding the baldness of one of the dancing girls. The sex appeal is literally pasted on to hide the de-feminising punishment doled out to the would-be escapee. Yet the whole project is orchestrated by Ruby Lo, who dresses up to play the part of Lin Tang, who died years ago, leading to the delightful image at the very end in which she tries to stamp on Gilbert’s fingers as he hangs on for dear life, lifting her masculine dress to reveal stilettoed heels. Ruby dreams of using the accumulated treasure of Lin Tang to muster an army of conquest back in China.

De Quincey’s main helpmate is the perverted image of a courtesan imposed on the midget Child, whose own blackly comic sensibility marks her out as one of cinema’s rarest characters. Completely immune to emotional degradation or intimidation, she giggles over the most sadistic designs and sighs laughingly over her fate, having once been the real Lin Tang’s “baby doll” before he sold her to a lettuce farmer in Salinas: “I pick lettuce long time!” When Lo Tsen cries out to De Quincey from her cage for food, Child mocks her: “She crazy. They fed her last week!” And when De Quincey, trying to horsetrade with Child, offers her “her life,” she retorts, “No good. What else you got?” In a particularly nightmarish moment, Gilbert is shown the body of a girl who’s been drowned in a tank with a rock tethered to her neck. The undercurrent of honest brutality in the film helps makes the urgency of Gilbert’s mission more than theoretical.

The film’s most memorable scene comes halfway through, when, having been separated from the women in escaping from Lin Tang’s dungeons, Gilbert hides out in an opium den to which he finds a secret door in a toilet cubical. After smoking a pipe and going into a delirious dream in which severed hands crawl around and Ruby’s face merges with that of a grinning alligator, De Quincey wakes up as enemy goons assault him. Replicating the hero’s dazed, drugged-up state, Zugsmith shoots the next five minutes of the film in woozy slow motion, at first without any sound. De Quincey makes an escape by leaping from bunk to bunk in the opium den, knocking over his assailants, and then hurling himself out a window, only to find he’s on a high floor, and finishes up sliding down a roof to hang desperately from a gutter. Zugsmith draws out the quickest motions to unbearable lengths (aided by composer Albert Glasser’s eerily droning Theremin music), as Gilbert wavers on the edge of a great drop, unable to got back or forward, as a hatchet-clutching henchman leaps after him from one balcony, and another with a gun lines up a shot from a distance away. De Quincey makes a leap through an awning onto an adjoining balcony and climbs through a window, only to encounter a smiling, yet creepy butcher who wields a huge cleaver to cut the head of a pig’s carcass in half. Gilbert runs on through the building, passing through a disarmingly quiet tea parlour and then hearing someone shouting “help!” and following the sound. It proves to be a squawking cockatoo, which is scared off its perch as bullets smack into the wall behind it, and Gilbert is chased again by goons, driving him to take a fall off a balcony where, instead of falling normally to earth, he’s transmogrified into a spinning cut-out. When he awakens next, he gets a dish of water from Ruby right in the face (the camera), ending the dreamy state with a shock. It’s one of the most original and unique action scenes I’ve ever seen, and, in its way, as formally radical as anything being done in the era’s art cinema.

Confessions vibrates with its anarchic assault on many different surface realities within its structure, building to the dizzying finale in which it is revealed that George Wah is still alive. He poses as an elderly girl-buyer and then tries to pass off plaster casts for bushels of opium in payment for buying Lotus. Gilbert and Wah punch their way out, back to back, like Ladd and Heflin in Shane (1953), as George congratulates De Quincey: “You wreck the joint as fast as ever!” The rush of action here is surprising, as both Lo Tsen and Child die battling their captor—Lo Tsen takes a fall with one from a high stairwell, and Child gets a knife in the back, beseeching De Quincey through the portal of a sewer grate to say hello to her ancestors—and a wounded De Quincey and Ruby are swept away in the sewer waters. De Quincey’s final voiceover, as purple as ever, is almost exultant, declaring “all passion spent, all evil behind us…as once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death, or the gates of paradise?” Like the film as a whole, these last moments are both ludicrous, yet rare in their depth of feeling.


7th 04 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1927)

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.

You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.

The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”

A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.

New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.

When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.

Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.


26th 09 - 2010 | 4 comments »

CIFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The year’s Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, has earned enthusiastic notices from critics around the world, testament to the arrival of its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul among the elite of world cinema. This Thai screenwriter and director has a refreshing point of view that pays tribute not only to his personal history and his country’s traditions, but also to the influence of the Chicago experimental film scene to which he was exposed while attending the film school of Chicago’s Art Institute. Festival goers who are unfamiliar with Weerasethakul’s films or point of view and who simply want to see what captured the top prize at Cannes are likely to be disappointed with this film. It takes more patience than the average film, and its magic realism isn’t of the twee variety most Americans are used to. Thus, I’ll pass on some advice Mexican director Francisco Athié gave me and the rest of the audience attending a screening of Vera, his psychedelic meditation on death: “It is like an LSD trip. If you go with it, you will have a good trip. If you do not go with it, you will have a bad trip.”

The film is set in a rural area of northern Thailand, where the title character Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has a successful farm. We see him out among his workers, one of whom shows him the pest problem they have in their tamarind grove. Boonmee is concerned about his farm and his workers, since he is in end-stage renal failure and has no heirs to whom to leave the farm. His sister-in-law Jen (Jengira Pongpas) has come up from Bangkok with her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to look after Boonmee. She worries about the immigrants he has employed to work on his farm, particularly a young man from Laos who handles Boonmee’s dialysis treatments: “Aren’t you afraid they will kill you and steal from you?” It’s obvious that Jen will not accept his offer to give her the farm, even with Boonmee’s promise that he will return as a ghost to help her out.

This promise isn’t as empty as a Western viewer might think. During a dinner the three are sharing, the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears. She says hello to her sister and nephew and later tends to Boonmee’s care after his Laotian helper returns to Laos to marry. Also joining them at the family table is Boonmee and Huay’s long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has become a monkey ghost. His dark form and glowing red eyes don’t seem to frighten anyone, and he tells his father he watched the search parties Boonmee sent out to look for him but didn’t dare return. He had set out into the woods to search for a monkey ghost he had photographed and ended up mating with it. Weerasethakul films the flashback—the darkroom where the photo was developed, Boonsong’s search in the forest, the search party—one of the films within the film.

The main film will be interrupted several times to tell different stories that may or may not relate to Boonmee’s past lives, including an absolutely mesmerizing story of a homely princess who mates with a catfish that quite reminded me of a mythic story of agrarian communities I heard from Joseph Campbell about a maiden who mated with an eel. It seems clear that Weerasethakul based this film not only on a book of past-life stories a monk collected from people he encountered, but also on universal mythic traditions. He also seems to chart the evolution of the human race, as Boonmee, followed by Jen and Tong, is led into a deep cave like a salmon to its birthplace and, there, expires. His funeral comprises the last leg of the film, which will see a worldly monk from Bangkok become spooked in the rural monastery and seek refuge in Jen’s hotel room, and one final surprise from Weerasethakul. Not only does the monk use the hotel shower in an extended sequence that vaguely echoes the homoeroticism of Weerasethakul’s previous films, but he also goes out to dinner with Jen, only to look back before they leave the room to see them still sitting on the edge of the bed watching television. Weerasethakul’s comment about cinema’s ability to have two “lives” occurring simultaneously (the real life of the actor, including his ability to watch himself on the screen while sitting in a theatre, and his character’s life) is a staple of experimental film, but it also refers to his examination of reincarnation.

Uncle Boonmee is the last part of Weerasethakul’s “jungle” trilogy (I’d call it a reincarnation or time trilogy myself) that includes Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. With each film, the director has grown more confident in mixing the worlds he has wanted to explore. The first film was clearly demarcated into two halves: one, a standard drama of a budding homosexual relationship and a fable about the encounter between a soldier and a powerful shaman who transformed himself into a tiger that suggests the consuming power of love. Syndromes and a Century looked at the continuity of human behavior and interactions and, thus, history’s tendency to repeat itself, as Weerasethakul explored his parents’ history in its first half and then updated it to modern times with the dialogue nearly the same in each half. With Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul has gone for the big score, showing how all times coexist—and certainly personal memory mixed with national history and the collective unconscious shows this to be true. The ambition of this film is enormous, and that Weerasethakul pulls it off with grace, humor, and beauty shows his is a talent that has finally matured. I sincerely hope audiences will dig deep and allow his connection with our symbolic and mythic dimensions to reach them.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives screens Sunday, October 10, 3 p.m., and Friday, October 15, 6:30 p.m. (rush tickets only). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)


28th 06 - 2010 | 5 comments »

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director: Luis Buñuel

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If ever a great director ended their career on a high, prototypical note, it was Luis Buñuel. I’ve always said that everything Buñuel was about as a filmmaker is in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Among his many dreamscapes—from his early, surrealistic L’Âge d’Or to his mysterious, blasphemous Viridiana and kinky sex farce Belle de JourThat Obscure Object of Desire must be seen as Buñuel’s ultimate dream, the final, clear telling of the story of his inner life. It recycles his trademark obsessions almost as jokes on himself and his fans and foretells that this will be the last time he and his anima will spar on camera.

We are barely into the film before Buñuel dispenses a couple of his trademark flourishes. Opening shots of Seville segue to a large home as its master, Mateo Fabert (Fernando Rey, Buñuel’s marvelously pompous alter ego in a number of films), walks through a red, upholstered door into an ornate bedroom and instructs his valet (Andre Weber) to burn a blood-stained pillow he is picking off the floor. “Burn it all!” he says in disgust, as the valet picks up and shows Buñuel’s favorite fetish objects—a pair of high-heeled shoes and a pair of lace panties.

Mateo has decided to leave for Paris, and climbs in his large American car to be driven to the train station. We see another man get into a chauffeur-driven car and a close-up of the car ignition. With one turn of the key, the car explodes in a ball of fire. “They’re even here,” Mateo says, in a “there goes the neighborhood” manner, of the terrorists who will plague the film. As he boards the first-class train carriage, it fills with people he knows—a neighbor (Milena Vukotic) traveling with her young daughter and a judge (Julien Bertheau) who is a friend of his cousin’s. Last into his car is a dwarf—a psychologist whom the judge knows from the courthouse, where he gives expert testimony. As Mateo looks out the window, he sees a woman (Carole Bouquet), black-eyed and forehead bandaged, striding along the platform looking into each carriage. We see him hand some money to a reluctant train porter, who goes into the toilet and emerges with a bucket. When the woman reaches Mateo, the object of her search, he dumps the full bucket of water on her head. She brushes at the water with disgust, throws her suitcase to the ground, and boards the nearest carriage. This act provokes the curiosity of Mateo’s carriagemates, and they listen with relish as he relates the story of “the worst woman on the earth.”

Mateo met Conchita when she was engaged to serve as his maid. She knew nothing about being a maid and had hands too delicate to have done serious housework. Smitten, Mateo made plans to seduce her that very night, but was politely rebuffed by Conchita (now played by Angela Molina). Upon arising the next day, he learns that the object of his desire has quit and left for parts unknown. He loses her and runs into her by chance a couple of times, first in a nightclub, where she is working as a coat checker, and later, in Lausanne, when he is robbed of exactly 800 francs by a couple of young men, and finds out Conchita was behind the robbery to get them only what they needed to buy train tickets back to Paris. He tells her to keep the money she tries to return and extracts her address in Paris, a humble flat on an ancient block of buildings that she shares with her religious, widowed mother, Encarnación (Maria Asquerino) who is too bourgeois and useless to work.

Mateo becomes their benefactor, and eventually the coy Conchita agrees to be his mistress in his rarely used home on the outskirts of Paris. Their encounter at his estate is a teasing comedy in which Conchita is disturbed by the photo of Mateo’s late wife in the bedroom they are to occupy and insists on another room. Once there, Conchita tantalizes Mateo by exposing her breasts, only to reveal that she is wearing a garment that amounts to a chastity belt. They take up residence in the villa, but Mateo catches her sneaking one of the young men with whom she was traveling into her bedroom. For the rest of the movie, Conchita will toy with Mateo, dancing naked for some tourists in a cabaret where she is employed, and wheedling the deed to a lavish home in Seville, only to lock him out, curse his very existence, and make love to a young man in the courtyard while Mateo watches briefly in fascinated horror.

And perhaps predictably, even after relating the entire story to his captive audience, he and Conchita disembark the train and go off together on a shopping spree. After viewing yet another Buñuel trademark, a seamstress sewing a rend in a lace garment Conchita has left with her (reminiscent of Arturo de Córdova’s character’s plan to sew his wife’s vagina closed to prevent her from straying in El), the pair walks off, only to be obscured by the smoke and debris of the explosion that ends the movie.

In his wonderful autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes at length about his lifelong fascination with dreams and imagination. That Obscure Object of Desire is, I believe, his most completely realized dream. Despite the resemblance to reality that is Mateo’s train journey, Buñuel has populated it with the ultimate dream cliché—a dwarf, who, humorously, is a psychiatrist trying to analyze Mateo’s experiences with Conchita—as well as people he knows in some way, as we all do in our dreams.

Buñuel, born in Spain, adopted France as his home and returned to work there in his last years after many years in Mexico, during which he became a Mexican citizen. The director actually has two mistresses—France and Spain—to which he feels affinity, if not fidelity, creating an unstable situation. But it seems to me that what he is really trying to do is to join harmoniously his male aspect and his female anima; this explains why he can’t just break with Conchita with resolute finality, for which of us can truly escape ourselves.

He doesn’t understand his female aspect. She is constantly changing, signified not only by the two actresses who share one role, but also by their different levels of refinement. Carole Bouquet, the face of the most chic couture house in the world, Chanel, is effortlessly beautiful, sophisticated, and importantly, French. Angela Molina is earthy, more brazenly sensual, and Spanish. The language Buñuel chooses for the film is French, but he dubs both actresses with a third one, confusing the issue even further. Buñuel dubs Rey with Michel Piccoli to bring perfection to Mateo, who is called Mathieu in many reviews and subtitling, though we can clearly hear Conchita call him Mateo. The duality of Buñuel’s expatriate status, therefore, also is acknowledged.

For once, Buñuel gives his antipathy toward the Catholic Church a bit of a rest, even though he ascribes most of the terrorist attacks to the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Again, this seems like an in-joke, a way to get one of his trademark themes out of the way so he can focus his attention on his main project of reconciling the duality in himself.

His anima entices him with words of love, pursues him when he rejects her, deceives and berates him, and tells him she doesn’t need his money and can’t be bought. When he calls her the worst woman on the earth, he is actually chiding himself, seeing the native intelligence, integrity, and mischief in himself in terms of his feminine aspect. Does he want to dominate her? Would he if she yielded to him? That, Buñuel seems to suggest, could never happen. The final scene—the closing of the symbolic vagina—leads to an explosion we can assume causes Conchita’s and Mateo’s annihilation. Perhaps this is Buñuel closing the book on his career and life, feeling that a final reconciliation of the anima and animus can come only in death—or at least, he won’t be making any more movies trying to work on the problem.

Otto Rank is one of the many psychologists whose theories come up frequently when looking at Buñuel (much to the director’s amusement, claiming his imagination was not a subject for psychoanalytic study). In looking at this Wikipedia passage about Rank, however, you don’t have to be Fellini, so to speak, to figure out Buñuel:

On a microcosmic level, however, the life-long oscillation between the two “poles of fear” can be made more bearable, according to Rank, in a relationship with another person who accepts one’s uniqueness and difference, and allows for the emergence of the creative impulse—without too much guilt or anxiety for separating from the other. Living fully requires “seeking at once isolation and union” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 86), finding the courage to accept both simultaneously, without succumbing to the Angst that leads a person to be whipsawed from one pole to the other. Creative solutions for living emerge out of the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, “originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life” (1932/1989, p. xxii).

That Obscure Object of Desire moves in a dreamlike way, its flashback structure encouraging the mixture of reality and imagination (as Buñuel said “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories”) that becomes a dream truth. The switching between Molina and Bouquet is confusing, disorienting, further plunging the viewer into the undersea world of the unconscious. That’s when the great director is most effective in weaving his magic, a truthful untruth we are seduced into following to its illogically logical conclusion.


20th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd, 2003)

Directors: Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth released a seminal experimental short called The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske) that became something of a fetish film for another Danish director—Lars Von Trier. Leth’s film examines physical characteristics and capabilities of a representative man and woman (Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen), providing labels (“This is an ear. This is another ear.”) and descriptions of actions (“This is how the woman lays down.”) as though the film were a nature documentary for a bunch of anthropologists from another planet. Von Trier, one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement, seemed both fascinated and cheesed off by the word “perfect” in the title of Leth’s film, as well as its artistry and unemotionalism. He set out with The Five Obstructions to save Leth from himself.

A statement I’ve quoted before from the Dogme manifesto is the driving objective behind The Five Obstructions:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

It is Von Trier’s contention that Leth would be a more complete and truthful filmmaker if he could let go of imposing a vision on his material. To “help” Leth overcome this shortcoming, Von Trier devised an exercise to break Leth’s normal creative rhythms. Von Trier compels Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times, adhering to strict rules Von Trier devises. Brief moments from the original film are shown as the two directors discuss what obstructions will be put in place. After each film is finished, we and Von Trier view it in its entirety.

The first set of obstructions Von Trier devises includes sending Leth to a country he has never visited (Cuba), no built sets, and edits in post-production that can be no longer than 12 frames in length. Alas for Von Trier, these obstructions, particularly the 12-frame restriction, prove to be a gift to Leth. The staccato rhythm of Obstruction #1: Cuba adds a comic objectivity to Leth’s regard of his perfect humans, and the lush use of color creates a vibrant, tropical milieu that enlivens the repetitive moments and conveys the sensuality of the surroundings that seem to have inspired him.

Von Trier decides that Leth must have an encounter that will strike fear and loathing in him, reasoning that it will be difficult for Leth to be artistic if he is shaken up. Leth confesses that a previous trip to Bombay was very disagreeable; therefore, Von Trier sends him to Bombay and further requires that he film next to something very disturbing, but must not include the disturbance in the film. Leth decides to take the role of the perfect man himself, and the resulting film shows him acting out the dining and jumping scenes from the original film in the red light district of the city. Von Trier chastises him for placing the Indian residents behind a semi-opaque screen behind him, thereby violating the rule that they must remain off-camera. Once again, the film is intriguing and tasteful—the exact opposite of what Von Trier wants.

The next two Obstructions don’t go very well for Von Trier either, as Leth proves over and over how creative he can be—indeed, the obstructions seem to heighten his ingenuity. During his filming in a Brussels hotel, in which is he charged with answering the questions posed in The Perfect Human, he overhears a couple having loud sex. With this inspiration and the French-speaking actors he has cast, the film becomes something of a French noir. Obstruction #4: Cartoon results from Leth and Von Trier’s mutual hatred of cartoons. But again, employing Bob Sabiston, the animator of Waking Life, and sending him footage from the Bombay shoot results in the most artistic and interpretive film of the series.

The final obstruction, filmed at Leth’s home in the Dominican Republic, requires Leth to read a script that Von Trier has written—a script that admits defeat. Leth’s apparent perfection as a filmmaker precludes him from letting go and becoming a mere recorder of events. I, for one, was thrilled with his victory. I really enjoyed this fascinating experiment in boundary-testing, and confirm the pleasure I get from the creative output of a director like Leth. Each of his reimaginings of The Perfect Human is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking.

Von Trier hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, for example, allowing the expressionism of music to communicate his characters’ truth in Dancer in the Dark. Because Dancer came out in 2000, it seems rather disingenuous for Von Trier to insist that his friend Leth eschew a similar artistry. While The Five Obstructions is something of a game between the two friends, it’s not without a philosophical purpose for Von Trier. Any filmmaker who has the nerve to issue a manifesto about the direction of cinema obviously has more than a mercenary or creative interest in his work.

Von Trier is interested in human truth, thus making Jørgen Leth and The Perfect Human ideal specimens for his “nature documentary” on “The Perfect Director.” Von Trier does not seem to want to give up creative narrative entirely, thus pushing filmmaking back to its “actuality” beginnings. But he is suspicious of the manipulations of narrative, and many cinephiles join him in a distaste for having their buttons pushed. Apparently, he does not consider the approach Robert Bresson took—of filming nonactors performing the same scene countless times until all inauthentic mannerisms and inflections were bored out of them—to have been successful. Or maybe he just wants to find another way that is not so time-consuming and precise.

Since Von Trier can’t seem to tame the creative impulse in himself, I would hazard a guess that his work now seems to be pushing audiences past their boundaries, refusing to let them tuck comfortably into a story, to arrive at this truth he keeps seeking. Maybe he’ll eventually have his breakthrough. In the meantime, successful or not, his works will continue to evolve, and that’s something that should excite any true film fan. l


2nd 02 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates 1968)

Director: Sergei Paradjanov

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By Roderick Heath

An authentic piece of cinematic shamanism, Sayat Nova was a work that placed its brilliant Georgian-born, ethnic-Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov in hot water with the Soviet-era authorities. At first glance, this seems nearly incomprehensible. What the hell was so subversive about a plotless, characterless, almost-silent extended montage of beautiful and mysterious images? Perhaps therein lies the answer: nothing upsets the bureaucratic mindset like mystery. Of course, there are layers to such a controversy. Paradjanov was a dedicated nonconformist, a bisexual bohemian linked to nationalist and civil rights groups and celebrator of pan-Caucasian folk traditions, and his film was an aggressive act of cultural dissembling. Damn it if the commissars didn’t sense something under all the strange gestures and allusions to Armenian history. The Soviet Union, like Tsarist Russia before it, had always maintained a hegemonic domination of the many smaller nations it bordered and swallowed, and Paradjanov’s fetishist celebration of his culture’s dreamtime past seemed a jab at that hegemony.

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A contradictory quality of much post-Stalinist Soviet cinema is what appeared to be its relatively unfettered artistic bent, producing wondrously innovative cinema from the likes of Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Klimov, Konchalovsky and others, which rarely betrayed any sign of subordination to the familiar rigours of narrative appeal. Indeed, Paradjanov was taking to an extreme something Eisenstein had begun in his historical films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible Part I (1943) and Part II (1946) in reducing mise-en-scène to iconography and acting to gesture: the distance from Ivan the Terrible’s wedding dance to Sayat Nova’s figurations isn’t so great, even if the gothic force and giddiness of Eisenstein’s style is dispensed with. Such a retreat into formalism and poetic allusion angered authorities, but it often was the only mode of expression left to genuine film artists when “Soviet realism” was defined only as sanctioned realism. Either way, Sayat Nova was edited, retitled as the less culturally specific The Colour of Pomegranates (reflecting one of the first images of the film) and often completely suppressed; its director was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, including that he raped a man bigger than he was.

None of which says much really about Sayat Nova as a piece of artistry, which in intent and effect transcends the immediate agonies of its history. Named for and, after a fashion, telling the life of famed 18th century Armenian “ashug” (poet-troubadour) Harutyun Sayatyan (his popular title means “King of Song”), Paradjanov refused to create a biopic, instead preferring images illustrating poetic metaphors and vaguely describing the key acts of Sayat Nova’s life. The opening seems to be juxtaposing images associated with one of Sayatyan’s poems on the stages of the soul’s ripening. Paradjanov apparently identified deeply with the poet, and the on-screen biography seems partly imbued with aspects of Paradjanov’s own life: both men were born in T’bilisi outside of their ethnic homeland.

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In vaguest outline, Sayat Nova is similar to Paradjanov’s good friend Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev: both examine the role of the artist in terms of society in historical contexts infused with allegorical purpose. Each embellishes sketchy life narratives with similar details as both films’ heroes reject the world after youthful pains and burrow deep into monkish asceticism, only to spurn such mortification as death-in-life, and return to the world without spurning faith. It’s easily discernable why such a narrative could fascinate artists in a troubled political milieu. There, however, similarities end: where Rublev is allusive and illustrative in a rarefied but comprehensible and mostly realistic fashion, Sayat Nova is pure artifice, exploring Nova’s poetics and life through tableaux vivant that achieve a synthesis of the aesthetics of early cinema; the Byzantine-influenced, flat-perspective stylisation of Orthodox religious art; and the ritualised dance and theatre of folk cultures.

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The biographical details Paradjanov evokes of Sayatyan’s life (he’s played at different stages of his life by Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, and Giorgi Gegechkori) can be discerned through this panoply of artifice. We see him in childhood, the son of wool vendors in a small village. He is taught a love of books by a priest and introduced to the human body and eroticism by spying on men and women in steam baths. His life as a courtier and traveling diplomat, his ill-fated romance with a princess, his retreat into a monastery, his final disillusionment with such a withdrawn life, and his failed attempt to return to the world all follow, before his final violent death at the hands of invading Persians. Much of the film was shot in or near the 1,000-year-old Haghpat Monastery, where Sayatyan really met his end. It’s how Paradjanov invokes such details that is amazingly creative, relying on the viewer’s visual literacy, for instance, ability to infer from a woman’s beauteous mode of dress and bearing what her social rank is, and how she holds a veil of embroidery over her face to suggest the barriers of form and propriety that keeps Sayatyan from being able to love her. The fact that the same actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays both the young poet and his princess amour suggests the narcissism often inherent in young crushes (and also an inherent sexual ambiguity in Paradjanov’s sense of the artistic figure); Paradjanov juxtaposes this with a pair of mimes enacting a ritualised romance between the figures of a devil and an angel.

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In between the identifiable moments of narrative in Sayat Nova is a cornucopia of evocative imagery, built out of the cultural and religious tropes of classical Armenia, and essayed in not-quite-surrealist terms. The wonder of music as it is presented to young Sayatyan is evoked by his standing with music teachers amongst a number of hovering instruments; a love of literature explicated in a remarkable moment when a priest has him and others rescue soaked books and dry them upon the roof of a church, the young poet standing amongst dozens of the wind-wavered pages. The necessary connection of artistic passion to the earth is communicated when the young poet pours earth from a dish onto a cloth he holds; later, when his sense of life has degraded, he holds up an empty dish forlornly. A late crisis in his sense of life is communicated through an awe-inspiring sequence in which the roof of the church transforms into fields reaped by labourers, whilst the aged poet stands on a ledge, his pale body contrasting dead stone whilst the chaff rains, his separation from the natural wellsprings of creativity confirmed.

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Interestingly, Paradjanov criticised Fellini for driving ever deeper into mystification. This is a curious stance because mystification seems an objective for Paradjanov, and the men used not-dissimilar techniques. But it becomes apparent that such an affection for the corporeal, the tangible, an attempt to suggest through texture alone the solidity of things rather than mere dreaminess through surrealism, is altogether exceptional: Paradjanov ransacks and offers up the very building blocks of a culture in its many manifestations (songs, poems, books, architecture, clothing, paintings, dance, acting, religious and social ritual, design and pattern) as wrought from the same tactile relationship with soil and nature. Paradjanov’s visions take on the characteristics of mystical incantation, even magic, but they are certainly nonetheless linked to a subtle dialectic between spirit and flesh, earth and aesthetic, that refuses the celebratory, but arguably solipsistic reinvention of reality that Fellini offered up in his final films.

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Nonetheless, in structure and effect, Sayat Nova is a rite, a liturgy, an invocation for the sake of remembering, as well as a study in the nature of poetic elucidation and the formation of artistic character. The film is almost entirely lacking in spoken dialogue, and indeed many immediate sound effects are also muted in favour of folk music styles on the soundtrack, and recitations of Sayatyan’s poetry. Paradjanov notes a child’s fragmented, distracted way of reading existence in the early sequences, full of jagged observations of such fleeting wonders as the feet of women dancing upon carpets being washed in his home village where such carpets are made, boiled up in vats of crimson dye that becomes interchangeable with blood and therefore sustenance. Likewise barnyard animals constantly appear throughout the film, most memorably, a chicken that sits on the poet’s arm like a natural aide, and a flock of sheep that invades the church. Such glimpses are linked to the much later, more complex metaphors of the grown artistic imagination. Later in the film, the cloistered Sayatyan is visited by nuns, one of whom, looking like the princess, magically strips off her black gown, stepping out in blinding white, and comes to him with a carpet, as if embodying the lingering spirit of the fecund, romantic, industrious life he left behind: when she moves to kiss him, he pulls the carpet up between them, echoing the veil the princess once held up to him and reinforcing the self-imposed barrier he’s put up against life.

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This encounter precipitates his crisis, however, for the poet’s search is for an utterly selfless kind of love, and yet discovers in such a moment that his retreat is self-obsession. Begged to come perform by villagers, he ventures back into the landscape with the blessing of the monastery’s abbot to spread his art through the land. But he seems to be too late, finding nothing but empty dishes and encountering the white-clad woman’s burial. Escorted by cherubim, he returns to the monastery. There, however, he meets her again, incarnated now as a nature goddess or angel of resurrection: she tips a vat of red dye over him, symbolising his final murder, falling victim finally to utter corporeal truth. But as he dies, a workman holds up lengths of pipe and calls for him to sing; his songs echo forever from the pipes, a plain metaphor for the ability of the artist’s work to transcend death, and his songs become part of the structure of his culture and nation. The angel provides the final, reigning image, of an evergreen creativity.

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Whilst all of this might sound obscure and dull, the images flow with hypnotic rapidity and teeming imagination that always tantalise and stimulate even at their most bewildering; it’s also a weirdly, subtly sexy movie in its layered textures and obsessive refrains to Chiaureli’s ambisexual beauty. Sayat Nova moreover doesn’t so much demand intellectual dissection as emotional involvement with the intricacy and beauty of its images. Certainly such a conjuring requires an intensely shared cultural basis to work from, as well as a keenly developed symbolic imagination. Still, peculiar and unreproducible as it is, Sayat Nova also seems to have influenced many a director, like Pasolini, Scorsese (in Kundun, 1997), Theo Angelopolous, Gus Van Sant and Bela Tarr, through perhaps to Todd Haynes’ Dylan flick I’m Not There, which sustained a similar conceit of using multiple actors, including a woman, to embody a hero reduced to a series of quotes and affected figurations.

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It’s worth noting in such light that Paradjanov’s impish sense of humour is often in evidence, in moments such as when a number of monks are bathed by their fellows and then carried away as if in preparation for some rite, but actually for treading wine grapes; a flashback the poet has to his childhood of a wool fair that sees a gusting wind upsetting everyone’s wares; and those sheep in the church circling whilst the monks repeat sonorous cant to mourn their dead Patriarch evoking the silliness of religious solipsism and Pavlovian habits of worship. And yet the film’s texture surely confirms two of Paradjanov’s personal statements of his aspiration: “Direction is about truth. It’s about God, love, and tragedy”, and “Beauty will save the world.” Whether he’s right or not, Sayat Nova certainly suggests an untapped world of cinema still awaiting conquest. l


13th 01 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Rose Hobart (1936)

Director: Joseph Cornell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been enamored of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. These assemblages of found objects, neatly arranged in glass-fronted or interactive boxes, create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia, fun, and creative surprise in me the way an absurd joke can make any of us break out in a laugh of recognition. Cornell extended his assemblages to film, buying boxes of films that were languishing in New Jersey warehouses, cutting and cataloging them according to his interests, and eventually splicing them into a number of short films.

The most famous of these films is Rose Hobart, a 19-minute assemblage of footage taken from the 1931 Universal Pictures film East of Borneo and what looks like a motion study that depicts the circular ripples of water after a large rock is thrown into a pond. On the rare occasions when he exhibited the silent film, he accompanied it with a recording of Holiday in Brazil (1957) by Brazilian composer Nestor Amaral, who contributed a couple of uncredited songs to The Gang’s All Here costarring fellow Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Cornell would project the film at a slowed-down speed through a blue filter, though in later years, he took to using a rose filter.

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For those familiar with silent films and their use of color tints to suggest lighting, blue is the color of night, a perfect complement to the dreamscape Cornell conjures from the remnants of East of Borneo and an evocation of the feminine. Together with images of an eclipse blotting out the masculine sun and an erupting volcano, evoking the feminine Pele, he pays homage to the Goddess. Here the Goddess is given form by the star of East of Borneo, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s editing allows for intense observation of the Goddess, who, like the eclipse suggests, is sensed, even desired, but never really known. Our world, he suggests, may be the conjuring of Her own dreams, as She is shown in the beginning of the film reclining behind a mist of mosquito netting.

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The Goddess inhabits an exotic land of palm trees, servants in sarongs, and luxurious surroundings. Sitting females praise her with clapping and singing. She is entreated by two men, one of the East and one of the West, but neither finds favor. Her most meaningful interaction is with a wild creature—a monkey delivered to Her by a servant that She talks to and pets until it, too, lays down to slumber.

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Alone, She is most Herself, gathering together Her bag of tricks that includes both a lace handkerchief and a pistol, a reminder that the Goddess responds as often with natural violence as with delicate beauty. The image of the concentric rings of displaced water fascinate Her—the pool of the unconscious and its perfect, circular form. Cornell invites us to enter this pool several times in the film; only the most hard-headed observer will resist.

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It’s interesting to consider Cornell’s reluctance to share his film creations, the perhaps apocryphal story of Salvador Dali’s anger that Cornell had stolen his dreams, the rather corny music Cornell used to suggest a tropical setting. We are dealing here with the deep and vulnerable unconscious of a single man, the collective unconscious for which Dali spoke, and the simple tunes that keep observers anchored in a homey familiarity (this is very reminiscent of the silly tune that recurs in Bruno Dumont’s nightmare film Twentynine Palms). Cornell doesn’t dwell in the lasciviousness of many dream films, for example, those of Luis Buñuel, declaring as he once did that he did not identify with the dark magic of the surrealists. He preferred the white magic, and that is very plain in his gentle art and films, and the care with which he treated his found objects and reassembled them into works of wonder and delight.

Cornell was a pioneer who worked with and influenced such avant-garde filmmakers as Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt. His films and those of his colleagues in the avant garde are among those most in danger of being lost. Get your hands on this jewel of a film and think about the delights this rich and under-explored corner of cinema offers.

Anthology Film Archives preserved the only print of Rose Hobart, which was personally given to them by Joseph Cornell. The film is also a part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set.


21st 07 - 2008 | 11 comments »

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966)

Director: Věra Chytilová

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read numerous summaries of Daisies, a seminal film of the Czech New Wave, as well as a few analyses, and I must say that I feel rather dissatisfied with all of them. Among the many labels attached to this film is that it is feminist. I’ve mulled this experimental piece of pop art quite a bit, and darn if I can find anything particularly feminist about it. I guess that’s just a boilerplate assumption about movies directed by women. Certainly, if I had to characterize the approach Chytilová takes with this film, it would be feminine, not feminist. She’s a delightful, spirited girl who likes nothing better than to misbehave. She scribbles all over her coloring book, imaginatively making things the wrong color, and moves her “dolls” through various pretend-to-be-adult games, like going on a date with father, having grown-up drinks in a nightclub, and being a beautiful woman with whom all men fall in love.

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The film opens with an aerial view of bombed-out buildings, then moves in on a machine grinding through its gears. Two sisters, Jezinka (Ivana Karbanová) and Jarmila (Jitka Cerhová), sitting in bikinis against a wall, move mechanically with machinelike sounds emanating from each bending joint and wonder what to do. They get up and walk through a very green thicket to a large tree hung with brightly colored fruit. Each pulls a piece of fruit off the tree and chows down. The girls then head into the world for a series of madcap adventures.

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Jezinka is at a restaurant with an elegant older man, when Jarmila comes in and makes herself at home. She orders with abandon and eats like a horse. The old gentleman is taken aback by Jezinka’s sister, but tries to be polite. Jezinka worries about her train. The trio race to the train station and play a game of Chinese fire drill. The train carries the man off without Jezinka. The sisters are gleeful at pulling this trick off, but Jezinka worries that Jarmila will tell that she goes around with old men. The pair pulls this stunt several times in scenes Mack Sennett would have been proud to include in his Keystone Kops comedies.

The girls go to a nightclub, entering through a backstage door and disrupting the tango dancers on stage. They take a booth, start drinking, and begin jumping up and down in their box (surely a trampoline is hidden below), while the dancers glare at them and soldier on to the end of their act. The drunken sisters are escorted out and go home.

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“It’s so nice to be home,” they say, using one of several cliched lines that pop up throughout the film. Their home looks like a little girls’ room, with pictures pasted on the walls. Paper streamers and apples are strewn about. They paint their eyes with long slashes of a paint brush, the kind of improvised make-up kit girls would use to be like Mommy.

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Jarmila goes out on a date. She enters her date’s room, which is covered wall to wall with butterfly specimens. Jarmila removes her clothes and holds two cases, one with two butterflies and the other with one, over her breasts and genital area. She moves coyly across the room when the man plucks the lower butterfly out of its frame. He whispers words of love as he does so. Jarmila runs back home with the words echoing around her as she sits with Jezinka on their bed. We can imagine the echo comes from all of the “butterflies” in the man’s collection, and Jarmila is completely unmoved by them in her remembrance. Nonetheless, she takes a pair of scissors and cuts Jezinka’s dress to pieces, saying, “You don’t mind, do you?” This line is repeated several times until they light the contents of their home on fire in an aggressive scene of destruction.

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The climax of the film is the food orgy. The sisters smuggle themselves up a dumbwaiter into a banquet hall resplendent with elegant and exotic dishes and proceed to eat, throw food at each other, and smash dishes with abandon. After this epic food fight, they end up swinging on the crystal chandelier hanging above the table. They suddenly must repair everything they have broken, placing pieces of dishes together like a mosaic and piling cakes back into something like the shape they started in. The busy-bee buzzing of the voices of the girls working at this pathetic repair are frantic, mechanical, with the film speeded up. When they finish their task, they lay down in the center of the banquet table. The chandelier comes crashing down on them, and we switch to another aerial view of carpet bombing.

Daisies%20cut.jpgDaisies is the kind of film that just sweeps one along in its antic merriment. The eye-popping cinematography and editing of Jaroslav Kucera and Miroslav Hájek, respectively, are a dazzling array of color, super-quick cutting, and strong close-ups that envelop the viewer in the detail of the moment. One scene, in which the sisters cut each other with scissors, is a riot of floating heads, limbs, and torsos. Karbanová, as the dark-haired sister, seems slightly more demure than Cerhová, her daisy-crowned sister, who subtly acts as the leader of the pair. Her playful sexual awakening seems to unleash a certain aggression, escalating to the banquet scene–a painful act of destruction that is, nonetheless, a lot of fun to watch. I felt very happy to spend time with these girls.

The Czech government was not at all amused, however, wondering how public funds could be thrown away on “trash” that made no sense. They also didn’t like the display of wasted food. Chytilová was unable to make films for years until she wrote an impassioned and lengthy letter vowing her dedication to socialist principles and explaining that the film was meant to show how small acts of destruction can build up and create an atmsophere in which greater destruction can take place. Well, this is one way to look at it, and since she’s the director, I guess she ought to know. What I tend to think is that she let the genie out of the bottle, bringing vibrance and life to what had become a drab existence under Communism. Her playfulness, sexual freedom, and flower power attitude are very much in keeping with the Czech films I’ve seen (especially I Served the King of England by Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel) and still have their allure today. l


3rd 02 - 2008 | 11 comments »

La Jetée (1962)/12 Monkeys (1995)

Directors: Chris Marker/Terry Gilliam

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Director Terry Gilliam has sought inspiration from the world of fantasy for his choice of films—from the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm to the fictional adventures of Baron Munchausen to the absurdist-humanist epic of Don Quixote by Cervantes (an aborted project). His attraction to the science-fiction tragedy La Jetée might have signaled a more serious consideration of the dangers of scientific experimentation and the human capacity for cruelty. But in execution, 12 Monkeys is a totally different film from its poetic inspiration. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. 12 Monkeys is solidly, if sometimes annoyingly, entertaining. But if it sends audiences scurrying to see the source of its inspiration, it may do them a disservice; La Jetée is bound to confound the popcorn crowd to which Gilliam always plays. Nonetheless, both films share an important element beyond the outlines of their stories: the strategies people use to escape their lives. Unfortunately, while Marker illuminates the dark corners of human survival to powerful effect, Gilliam provides the escape itself, leaving audiences as unaware as ever of what they are doing.

Chris Marker is a French renaissance man with one of the most fertile, creative minds in cinema. At the age of 86, he is still creating art, unabashedly thrilled with the new technological advances available to him. La Jetée reflects both the horrors of World War II and the tensions of 1962, when he and the rest of the world stood on the precipice, as the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to break out into another world war, this time with nuclear bombs and missiles serving as the conventional weapons of the day. The horrible sense of déjà vu that must have enveloped Marker and his peers must have heightened his existing interest in memory and time. La Jetée uses a straightforward science-fiction device—time travel—to explore the paradoxes of the human mind that allow us to experience simultaneously the past, present, and future.

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The film opens on a still photo of the observation deck (called la jetée, or pier, in French) of an airport. The sounds of jet planes are heard and then a swell of mournful choral music that quite reminded me of Jewish liturgical music accompanies the opening credits, which identify the film as a photo novel (the world’s first graphic novel?). Two title cards are shown that translate as: “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene which upset him and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later happened on the main pier at Orly Paris airport sometime before the outbreak of World War III.” The entire film is told using this narrative voiceover (James Kirk in the English translation) and splendid and evocative black-and-white stills. We zero in on the memories of the man as a boy, at the airport with his parents to make a recreation out of watching the planes land and take off. He recalls the face of a woman, then a disturbance, realizing only slowly that he had just witnessed a man die on the pier. His memories move forward to the destruction of Paris in a nuclear bomb attack. Images of crumbled buildings end with a manufactured photo of the Arc de Triomphe with its top span missing. The human race must move underground to avoid the worldwide radioactivity contaminating the surface.

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A group of scientists are conducting experiments. These experiments have killed some and made others go mad. The Man of our story (Davos Hanich) is chosen as the next guinea pig. He imagines confronting someone like Dr. Frankenstein, but instead meets a reasonable, rational man (Jacques Ledoux) who explains that they are trying to send a subject back in time to get supplies, food, and information that might help them return to the surface. The Man was chosen because he has an extraordinary attachment to a memory from before the war—the memory on the pier. They place large patches over his eyes and inject him with something. Whispers in German accompany this ritual.

La%20Jette%20pier.jpgHe goes back, viewing “real children, real birds.” He comes back. Says the narrator, “They begin again. The Man doesn’t die, nor does he go mad. He suffers. They continue.” The Man is sent on several forays into the past, where he meets the same woman (Hélène Chatelain) again and again. She comes to see him as her phantom, appearing and disappearing but always kind. The Man progresses through her world, walking with her in the park (“he remembers there were parks” at one time on Earth). They view a cross-section of a giant sequoia tree with different dates in history marked at the appropriate ring. The Man points somewhere outside the circle of the tree: “I come from here.”

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He unfolds his story to her; she doesn’t laugh. She takes him to her home. We see a series of photos of the woman asleep on her bed. Then we are startled by the only moving images in the film—the Woman’s face, full front to the camera. The Man seems to have found an animated image of life by falling in love.

Abruptly, the experimenters tell the Man that his work in the past is finished. He is sent to the future, where he meets apparently mutated human beings living in a sterile sort of world we never see. He is brought back to his present, but learns that the beings of the future also time-travel. They return and invite him to stay with them. He says he would rather go back to the past, to be with the Woman. There he is sent and watches the memory of Orly that started it all, realizing that he was the man who died.

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La Jetée uses a novel presentation to emphasize the snapshot nature of memory. But his images are extraordinarily beautiful and put together with great style, suggesting movement and emotion by allowing us to linger on them and fill them with our own experiences of nostalgia and déjà vu. The longing for the past, the sentimental simplicity of childhood, tugs at the Man—an escape from the lightless, seemingly lifeless present. But like all people who yearn for the past, the Man cannot truly live there. The scene at the sequoia tree pays homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart as Scottie has a similar scene with Kim Novak as his love Madeleine. When the Man considers the Woman, he realizes that in his time she is, in fact, dead. But he doesn’t make the mistake of trying to revive her as Scottie did with Madeleine. Life as we know it is a linear progression forward; without a present or a future, humanity must die. Echoes of the past—for example, Marker’s references to German experimentation on humans during World War II—are meant to inform and warn the present. Thus, the existence of all times at once—the timelessness of time, if you will—must be part of the project of living.

That’s a lot to pack into 28 minutes. The hubby and I watched this film three times in 48 hours. We could watch it three more times and still find more to ponder.

12 Monkeys is a long, dense 126 minutes that gives an onscreen credit to Chris Marker and La Jetée. But all Gilliam wants is the story, not the insights. The films starts with the Man transformed into James Cole (Bruce Willis), a criminal locked in a cage in the underground world of the future who is chosen to help the powers that be by going above ground to collect specimens of life forms that have survived the biological plague that has wiped out nearly the entire human race. He does well and is offered the opportunity to be sent into the past to retrieve a pure sample of the virus, before it mutated beyond a cure, and earn a pardon.

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The scientists, an assortment of grotesque figures typical of Gilliam films, are not precise in targeting the time to which they send Cole. He ends up in 1990, where his assault on some cops lands him drugged up and restrained in a lunatic asylum. His psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), is unusually sympathetic and drawn to Cole. Once he is properly medicated to avoid addition outbursts, he is released into the day room of the asylum, where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a truly wild and woolly head case whose father (Christopher Plummer) is a microbiologist working on some sort of biological manipulation. When Cole attempts an escape, he is put in an isolation room and strapped to a gurney. He disappears, however, when his superiors call him back to his world.

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Another attempt to send him back puts him on a World War I battlefield with his fellow time traveler Jose (Jon Seda). Both are wounded. Cole is quickly extricated and sent to the proper time, 1996, just before the virus first appeared. He kidnaps Kathryn and forces her to drive him to Philadelphia, where the outbreak first occurred. She’s terrified, but still drawn to him. When he shows sign of pain in his leg, she extracts the bullet he took on his previous “trip” and is surprised to find it looking antique. She tries to get him to turn himself in for psychiatric care, but once again, as capture seems imminent, he disappears. She becomes convinced that his story is true when she learns that he accurately predicted the outcome of a rescue attempt of a child who fell down a deep well. When he next returns, she does everything she can to help him avert disaster, even though Cole has warned her that he can’t change what happened in the past, only take back information to help in the future.

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Gilliam creates a nice little mystery out of his story, as Cole and Kathryn piece together scraps of information to find out who the bioterrorist is. Their feelings of familiarity are explained and brought to a logical and poignant conclusion. In between, there are some great set pieces, particularly during the kidnapping sequence. At other times, the look of the film veers wildly into Gilliamland, with electronic surveillance a prominent feature—from Kathryn and Cole, now fugitives from justice, caught on multiple TV screens in a store window to an orb fixed with cameras moving intrusively into Cole’s space as he is interrogated by the scientists. Gilliam even trots out the transmitter in the tooth, now as old a bit as “take my wife, please.” Brad Pitt, the head of a band of guerrillas called the Army of the 12 Monkeys that is fighting for the environment in 1996, overacts to the point of disgust. Gilliam also seems to have fitted him with a contact lens to make him look goggle-eyed. It’s pure shtick that does absolutely nothing for this movie. Likewise, Madeleine Stowe lacks depth in her performance, and Gilliam seems to have directed the majority of the cast to create caricatures.

Only Bruce Willis comes near to approximating the anguish and longing of the Man in La Jetée. His concern for Kathryn, for the human race, for his own sanity are moving and painful to watch. The 1990s was a time of psychological malaise in which sarcasm became the dominant form of cultural discourse. It’s completely in keeping with this sensibility that Gilliam finds a way to tell us “don’t worry, be happy” about the end of humanity. He disobeys his movie’s internal logic by creating new evidence for the future that could help them to stop the spread of the virus, not just collect the specimen. This window out of the mess science has created lets the audience off the hook in terms of considering the real implications of biological tampering and getting up in arms to do something about it. It also plays into the primitivist fears of science and AIDS that fueled the religious fundamentalism of the time and its denunciation of homosexuality without critiquing these sentiments. 12 Monkeys really is nothing more than a disaster film.

Each film is a product of its time. Forgive me, please, if I prefer a time that was brave enough to care.


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What others say about us

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