Saturday, January 5, 2019

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID: 2005 SPECIAL EDITION (Sam Peckinpah, 1973, USA)


Pat Garrett chases the ghost of his past through the thin dry air of desert heat, loaded with Law but empty of Justice, until he finally knocks upon Heaven’s door. Sheriff Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid are reflections in the same dark glass, both share a grim visage whose ghost whispers a bloody truth that the times may be a’changin…but people aren’t.

Director Sam Peckinpah begins the film with a monochromatic visual of Garrett riding into an ambush, and cross cuts (in color, to set the narrative timetable) to Billy and his gang carelessly slaughtering chickens for sport and laughter. This explosive violence imbues the film with its militant nihilism, a philosophy of the human abyss as these two men confront each other as different sides of the same coin, their existence at stake in this fixed game of death. Actor Kris Kristofferson is able to bring a genial humanity to William Bonney, his boyish charm a startling contrast to his murderous nature. James Coburn’s weathered countenance is like a grinning skull and though Garrett is legally on the right side of the Law, Coburn plays him with a monstrous but not unkindly demeanor, a man tainted with self-loathing for selling himself for money and duty. The film is structured as a chase, as Peckinpah cuts between the hunter and his prey, building tension towards the final showdown. His gratuitous use of slow motion mayhem is an orgy of bloodshed, beautifully rendered in vivid color and detail that paints the romanticism of the Western genre from red to the deepest black of despair.

Bob Dylan’s score is subtly masterful adding a poetically mournful narration to an end of an era. As Garrett finally discovers The Kid’s hideout, the Sheriff guns him down and thus destroys the vital part of himself: Peckinpah examines this theme as Garrett shoots his own image in a faded mirror: it is a spiritual suicide. Thus life is cyclical and the very same men who paid him to track down and destroy his cohort eventually murder Garrett: he finally surrenders his badge and his guns are buried in the hot desert sand.

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, 1977, Italy)



The Freeborge School of Ballet becomes a danse macabre, as a coven of hags flourish like a secret garden of blooming iris. SUSPIRIA begins on a dark and stormy night, the cracking thunder and nervous rain drowned under a pummeling crescendo of guitars and bombastic drums. The soundtrack overwhelms the senses while the visuals bleed Technicolor fury as a terrified woman’s final words are muted…and she flees into the night. Director Dario Argento conjures forth a magical sense of dread and destruction with meretricious inventiveness, utilizing vibrant colors and ostentatious set-designs while gradually revealing the ghostly footsteps that echo down the school’s haunted corridors.

Suzy is an American girl, resourceful and independent, who finds herself intoxicated with the ambition of becoming a world-class dancer…and drunk with blood-red wine. Her nights become a restless coma until she finally discovers that her food is being drugged. Freeborge is run like a prison, the teachers the warders, and the students that stay at the school are soon to be awarded a prestigious degree in the Arts…the Black Arts! Suzy clashes with these taskmasters but soon develops a relationship with Sarah, and the two of them soon unravel the twining mystery of razor wire.

Argento shocks with gaudy death scenes and revels in the quick-cut gore, allowing the camera to linger over the sliced faces and nail-pierced eyes, but also allows the characters to breath before their expiration. From the creepy malformed assistant to a ceiling dripping with maggots, he regurgitates many horror conventions but frames them in interesting ways. Argento also divulges the furtive whisper spoken at the film’s beginning and the remainder of the plot focuses upon Suzy’s ability to figure it out. Most of the film is kept within the school, which heightens this claustrophobic terror of being isolated from the real world. Suzy’s meeting with the psychologist is pure exposition, a quick way to disclose background information, but Argento’s use of extreme low angle frames the characters against a blue sky…that wonderfully offsets their tenebrous conversation.
Armed with forbidden knowledge, Suzy seeks to follow the footsteps and confront the Mater Suspiriorum. She traverses the hidden door and wanders towards her doom, realizing she cannot become part of the coven, only victim of it. But salvation is found with determination and a glass feather.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

THE SILENCE (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)


Johan walks amid the silence of a labyrinthine hotel, a way station of death and war, as a spiritual apocalypse rages between his mother Anna and his aunt. Here in convolutions of this nameless city, in the dark alleys and crowded iniquitous bars, Anna fulfills her physical desires, slave to this primal urge, while her sister Ester suffocates slowly from some dreaded disease, bedridden and lonely, translating foreign prose into understandable text. Johan haunts the hotel’s maze, distant and distracted, longing for a mother’s love, encountering strange characters but always separated from their barbed-wire boundary of language: like an imaginary god’s obtuse scripture, a burning bush whose conflagration consumes the human essence.

Director Ingmar Bergman dissects the soul in this triptych of understanding: Anna represents the physical instinct, full of beautiful life, grasping this desperate instinct which may disappear in an atomic flash; Ester courts Death, her sexual urges unfulfilled, fearing the loss of her intellect and becoming something less than human; while young Johan is the innocent and mischievous child, in need of affection and attention. Anna and Ester stare mostly out of windows, observing the world at a distance unable to cross this translucent borderland: like germs trapped under a glass slide… or maybe they are the ones being measured and observed. Anna rides her guilt trip on her back and from behind, and condemns her sister’s judgment in a penetrating ecstasy of delight. She then abandons Ester to this foreign place and takes Johan back home, on a long train ride through the rain drenched night. She opens the compartment window and becomes soaked, her memories and self lost like tears in rain. But Johan has one last parting gift from Ester: a note written in a foreign language. He holds it dearly because he loves his aunt: is there some sacrosanct message or only the whispering gibberish of an inscrutable deity?

Final Grade: (A)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

WINTER LIGHT (Ingmar Bergman, 1962, Sweden)



Jona(s) is devoured not by a whale but the creeping spider-god, vomited out upon the banks of a turbulent river, his empty corpse adjacent to a bridge over troubled waters. He is victim to a consuming silence, caught in the web of belief that can only offer obtuse and vacuous explanations, empty words that bring about nuclear fallout, a self-destructive winter of spiritual annihilation.

Ingmar Bergman’s film is focused upon Tomas, pastor of a small church whose empty rafters echo hollow with archaic scripture, his small congregation reflecting his bored and apathetic malaise like a flu virus shared during communion. Transubstantiation becomes cannibalism, eating the flesh and blood of a mythic creator, an incestuous penetration that extinguishes humanity to become an automaton spouting inane Holy Writ. Jonas Perssons is the everyman, and he seeks the counsel of his pastor to understand the violent and changing world that hovers on the brink of destruction: but Tomas can only speak of himself, caught in the selfish nexus of angst and regret, and can offer no answer to Jonas…only doubt. Bergman shoots this scene in medium close up, creating a cloistered prison while the clock ticks incessantly towards doomsday. There is no understanding a creator who allows mutilation and murder of its own children, and Tomas begins to discard the ghostly saints that haunt him. Tomas also spurns Märta, a spinster who seeks his affections but her intentions are vague: does she truly love him, or does she relish the status of being a pastor’s wife? She refuses Tomas’s blatant emotional vivisection and accompanies him to Karin’s house (Jona's pregnant wife) where he must impart the suicidal impact of her husband's fate. His meaningless offer to share scripture is impractical and pregnant Karin, devastated by the news, must now tell her children. Bergman follows Tomas outside and shoots from his perspective, a voyeuristic glimpse through a glass darkly, and we momentarily hear a child’s mournful cry.

Tomas finally arrives back at the church for mass, and though he is reminded of Christ’s suffering alone, he follows his daily routine and begins the faithless service to a nearly empty room.

Final Grade: (A+)

Monday, November 26, 2018

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (Ingmar Bergman, 1961, Sweden)


On which side of the darkened glass does Karin stand? Is she trapped forever in the spidery murk, the crippled light of hope a taunting reminder of her temporary lucidity; or does she exists in a light that is only sometimes eclipsed by her shadowy fugues? Karin is a shipwreck whose damaged empty hull offers little respite from the coming storm, where her vexing sexuality seeks to destroy her brother: a god’s incestuous love like that of a Black Widow who eats her mate.

Director Ingmar Bergman seeks the inner demons through his four characters that stumble precariously upon the rocky shores of faith, surrounded by the pounding surf, like the slow timeless erosion of the human spirit. Karin is suffering from a sever mental illness while her father David uses her disability as a crutch for his own creativity, his alchemical intent to purify her anguish and transform it into literary gold. His son Minus subtracts from the family, a burgeoning playwright whose own attic is obscured by metaphysical cobwebs; he is a young man who desperately need a father’s love. And Martin is Karin’s faithful husband, his tremulous grip upon hope for his wife’s recovery slipping away in a quicksilver flash of lightening, and the thrum of a gasoline powered deity.

Karin crosses the nebulous boundaries between worlds, the thin peeling wallpaper separating her from god’s presence, and in a dilapidated forgotten room she experiences a true psychotic epiphany. She finally chooses her world and is taken away while David and Minus gaze over the ocean’s cold horizon: David speaks of god as true love, an abstract ethereal concept that infuses creation with false hope…while Minus is only concerned that “Papa spoke to me”. All have chosen and become lost in their own tiny worlds.

Final Grade: (A)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

WALKABOUT (Nicolas Roeg, 1971, Australia)


A British schoolgirl and her young brother escape to the outback where they meet another wandering soul in search of adulthood. Director Nicolas Roeg contrasts different cultures to reveal the naked truth: we’re all alike beneath our skin’s illusory variations.

The young protagonists remain nameless, prototypes of the self-absorbed and crumbling British Colonialism, children of a psychotic god. Taken to the desert, their father attempts a murder/suicide but only succeeds in the later respect; frightened, the children race towards the unknown, lost amid the jagged mountains haunted by a distant life as mysterious as their new environment. These are civilized children, raised in the steel and concrete valleys with no understanding of their predicament; they only plod ever onward, afraid to retrace their footsteps which lead to a ghostly father sheathed in flames. They fortuitously stumble upon a tiny oasis where they are discovered by a young Aboriginal boy, and together the three of them embark upon an adventure of self-discovery.

Roeg’s cinematography captures the beautifully dangerous Outback, the parched and scorched earth or the verdant grassland, a world inhabited by a host of uniquely adapted denizens, as these strangers must struggle in a strange land, a battle against both Nature and human nature to survive. Communication becomes a pantomime of deeds since language is a barrier to understanding though their needs are the same. The Aboriginal boy is a skilled hunter and Roeg magnificently films him killing and skinning his meals, the ubiquitous flies always buzzing around fresh blood. He cross-cuts with a modern butcher shop, comparing the act of slaughter for food, of potentially needless suffering, a lesson for those quick to judge. As the young girl and her brother are led to comparative safety, Roeg shows the taint of civilization upon this virginal landscape, raped by businessmen for self-fulfilling profit .

The magical journey ends with a danse macabre, a paved road leading towards salvation, and though she will live a life of static virtues, she will never return to the land of lost content.

Final Grade: (A+)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

FULL METAL JACKET (Stanley Kubrick, 1987, USA)


“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facin’ up when your whole world is black”
-Paint It, Black (The Rolling Stones)
 
 
The malleable cores of young men are cloaked in metal, their soft hearts made hard to kill, their whole world painted black. Director Stanley Kubrick is not concerned with an authentic representation of the Vietnam War; he purposely disassembles genre conventions and recreates a violent parable that reflects the interior conflict of soldiers with use of hyperrealism and grotesque pathos. This dissociative identity of the film’s structure is apparent from the opening sequence where we see military recruits being shorn like sheep: instead of Jimmy Hendrix or CCR underscoring the scenario we get Johnny Wright! The use of popular music is a viscous counterpoint to the action, indirectly creating a vertiginous sense of confusion and puzzlement, a purposeful aural dichotomy that is subliminally meant to heighten anxiety and deconstruct expectations.

Kubrick splits the film in two, from Paris Island to the crowded streets of Vietnam with an effective fade to black. While at Paris island, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman begins his campaign of dehumanization and habilitation, the recruits castrated by their absurd patriarch who holds complete dominion over them. These boys are relegated to caricatures, their actual names forgotten (or never revealed), and by Christening them Hartman molds them into weapons of flesh and bone. Their juvenile fantasies are replaced by strict discipline barked from a rabid dog, and while losing their individuality they are either subsumed into the larger organism…or self-destruct.

JUMP CUT: Vietnam and our protagonist Joker and his buddy Rafterman, reporters for Stars and Stripes whose half-truths and fairy tales are fodder for grunts. The Film has no driving narrative force, there is no intrinsic goal or destination: it is only a scrapbook of deathly scenarios, a burlesque of Thanatos. Kubrick dresses the dioramas in fiery detail that are haunted by the ghosts of young men, the poetic dialogue carrying its own ghastly rhythm of the damned. The grunts hump their way through Hue city and Joker is finally baptized in blood and guts, his morality anaesthetized. Finally, grim silhouettes stalk the Perfume River inhaling its decaying aroma, chanting the theme song to The Mickey Mouse Club: they have regressed into adolescent fantasies and childhood memories in order to retain their sanity. But they have learned one important truth: The dead know only one thing…it is better to be alive.

Final Grade: (A+)


Sunday, September 23, 2018

THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, 1978, USA)


Michael’s life of absolute control is no longer a sure thing, the Divine Eros of one shot corrupted into a chaotic ugly maxim of pure chance. Director Michael Cimino camouflages the virtual subtext of homo-eroticism beneath a mythological journey into war. THE DEER HUNTER isn't a polemic about America’s involvement in Vietnam: it is tragic love story between Michael and his best friend Nick.
Here in the heart of blue-collar America, a sextet of men are birthed in the furnace of steel factories and orthodox religion, Russian Americans who pledge allegiance to the flag and each other, united under bonds of friendship, honor and love. Cimino begins the film by introducing the men shrouded in flames and molten steel, hidden beneath a thick outer shell of protective clothing. He cuts to the locker room where they undress in chaotic displays of machismo and sexually charged behavior. The first intelligible words are spoken by Nick, who cracks wise with a heterosexual pun: Did you hear about the happy Roman? Answer: Gladiator (or phonetically: glad-he-ate-her). Stan primps himself in the mirror to no avail as Nick jokes once again. It soon becomes evident that Michael is the quiet but headstrong leader of the group as the others defer to him.
Cimino uses a cloistered small town setting to explore unspoken emotional issues about men as the protagonists become a microcosm of manhood. His camera focuses upon Michael and Nick often, cutting to close-up, following their furtive glances and shared expressions. This intimacy between these two cohorts is not shared by any other character including Linda, the woman who stands between them (and yet doesn't separate them). Though Nick proposes seemingly off-the-cuff to Linda at Steven’s wedding, there is no indication that the two of them have a sexual relationship. Michael and Nick still live together and are drifting apart as Nick states, “I’m not into One Shot anymore”. He seems to want something more…but what? I believe the subtext reveals that he wants a physical relationship with Michael, not the suffering (from his point of view) Platonic love that has been offered.
This is read by the films editing patterns, showing the two of them close without showing them together. It’s a subtle message that Cimino offers and one hidden beneath this aura of righteous brotherhood. Is Michael attracted also to Linda? Or does he see her as an obstacle? If the latter, it explains his awkward behavior with her during the wedding sequence. Even Stan, who is rather homely and judges his own manhood by the women he keeps, calls Michael out of the closet. Michael responds with a seething anger and the enigmatic, “This is this”. Well, things are what they are: we don’t always get to decide what we want to be.
Cimino doesn't seem interested in the complex character of Linda but uses her to contrast Michael and Nick’s relationship. When Michael returns home she states quite plainly that she was hoping Nick was along. Both she and Michael miss Nick dearly and their eventual copulation doesn't bring them closer to each other…it brings them each closer to Nick’s memory. Cimino also isn't interested in the politics of Vietnam. He purposely doesn't utilize any overt imagery or music such as drug use, rock’ n roll, or protests; he even depicts Michael’s (and even the “Fuck it” Green Beret from the reception) return as peaceful and accepted (though psychologically damaged). This counterpoint to counterculture is interesting and purposeful so as not to distract from his true intentions: Cimino did not set out to make a documentary of the conflict or an anti-war film. Michael, Nick and Steven even enlist…they aren't drafted. Cimino has created the antithesis to APOCALYPSE NOW. The closest he gets is in the first Vietnam sequence when a Vietnamese soldier throws a grenade into a dugout full of women and children. Michael kills him with a flame-thrower for this needlessly cruel act and the imagery ties in with Clairton and the hellish steel mills. But even this scene is ambiguous: is the soldier North or South Vietnamese? Where the US troops defending the village or attacking it? Cimino doesn't answer and only poses the madding subversive image, and one that yields different interpretations.
THE DEER HUNTER is not a true film of the Vietnam War nor is it meant to be. It is allegory and metaphor, utilizing the VC captors as the pressure to examine the end result of this band of brothers: coal into diamond. If the film is considered to make a statement about the war, then the enemy is an obscene stereotype. If however, one considers the film as myth, these dimensionless characters are treated only a means for the protagonist’s ends. This Russian roulette is a grim corruption of the beauty of Michael’s one shot: he’s the one who forces the others to play. They survive the game and Vietnam by pure chance. Steel is strong but once broken it needs to be re-forged.
Nick is separated from Michael and Steven and stays behind in country. It’s important to note that Nick never knows what happens to his friends: he’s whisked away by helicopter while they fall into the murky river, potentially dead or captured. Cimino doesn't mention this fact directly but infers it through editing. If Nick believes Michael is dead, why go back home? He cannot even bring himself to call Linda and hangs up before the connection is made. We see the same photograph of Linda in both his and Michael’s wallet but to what purpose? They both love her but for different reasons. Cimino also never mentions the promise that a naked and drunk Michael swore the night before their departure to the Army: “Don’t leave me behind Michael. Don’t leave me”, Nick says. And Michael doesn't leave him.
The final roulette scene is tragic in a few different ways. It’s tragic on the surface because Nick fails to escape the chaos of Vietnam, the adrenaline of the game, the addiction to pure chance. In this way Nick is a victim to circumstances. But the rip-current is strong, the subtext drowning, as the tragedy is intensified by Michael’s refusal to acknowledge Nick’s unconditional love for him. Michael begs for him to come home and when Michael says, “You’re my friend”, Nick spits in his face. Friendship is not enough now. As Michael puts his own life on the line to prove his devotion it almost works, but he makes the mistake of mentioning one shot, alluding to an unchanging future of frustration for Nick. Is this a suicide? Is it Nick saying, “I’ll show you who is in control”? “Fuck it” indeed.
Michael’s love for Nick is Platonic, a selfish love that helps him understand the world, make sense of it, to see the beauty in the hunt as addictive and religious. Nick is the catalyst for this but it seems that Nick wants more: he wants physical love. So, when Michael returns and Nick is still lost, he cannot kill the deer. Now it is only suffering and death he sees because beauty is lost to him. His vision occluded, he must find Nick to find the cure. This relationship is only heightened by the hell storm of war, and Linda tiptoes between the two of them, wanting Nick (and never having slept with him) and being with Michael because it reminds her of Nick.
As the friends finally gather for Nick’s wake, they spontaneously sing America the Beautiful, to acknowledge their loss, to find something grandeur to say. I don’t believe this is meant to be ironic or a statement about the war, any more than the preceding 2+ hours was a statement about the war. It is merely a spontaneous recital to acknowledge beauty and loss of Nick to whom they toast. Cimino freezes upon this toast and then cuts to a photograph of Nick, giving us the pulse of the film before it dies gently into that good night.

Final Grade: (A+) 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

DELIVERANCE (John Boorman, 1972, USA)


Mankind’s primal instincts lurk just below the dark mirrored surface of the mind, the animal only temporarily suppressed by Reason and the trappings of civilization. Four men confront Nature and must face the tumultuous rapids and violent confrontation with their bastard brothers; their modern tools only a crutch because they must rely on their Will to Live (and each other) to survive. As modernity clashes with anachronism, like Neanderthal witnessing the extinction of Cro-Magnon, DELIVERANCE is an allegory concerning the contempt that these disparate primates feel for one another and the violent outcome when intelligence is consumed by aggression, when Law and Order breaks down and the only rule is survival. Director John Boorman deftly adapts James Dickey’s novel about three city men and their guide who wish to spend a weekend canoeing on the Cahulawassee River before it is dammed, men who wish to connect with Nature peacefully on their terms, but end up battling the wild deep water, violent natives, and their own insecurities.

Vilmos Zsigmond's lush cinematography projects the illusion of a journey into the wild where civilization is but a dream and anarchy reigns. Boorman creates iconic imagery such as the dueling banjos between Floyd and the craven-eyed boy, and the squealing sexual assault as Bobby wallows in the mud, dominated and unmanned. The anxious feeling of prey being stalked with raptor-like precision is ambiguous; we only experience it from the protagonist’s perspective, and Floyd’s death is never fully explained though it’s interesting that he is the lone dissenter in the democratic vote to bury the dead rapist. Another allusion to this battle between the present and past could be seen in the tools themselves: the wooden canoe breaks apart while the man-made aluminum canoe holds together and takes them safely home. It's also depicted in the weapon that saves their lives: the modern firearm has been replaced by the Stone Age bow and arrow. 

This precarious balance is maintained on the rocky slope, as the bluish sunset casts it ominous shadow over Ed, and he murders the man who is stalking them. In a nerve-wracking moment, Ed’s hands shake and he cannot bring himself to kill, flashback to another scene when he lost the nerve to kill a doe, lacking the essential component to play Lewis' game. But does he kill an innocent man? This is a film concerning decisions and their life-long consequences. The survivors never find the answer and are left to face their nightmares, fearing that the past will resurface like a bloated hand breaking the tepid surface of a lake, making one final accusation.

Final Grade: (A)

Monday, August 6, 2018

HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais, 1959, France/Japan)



Two desperate lovers become entwined and inseparable like twisted steel and melted concrete blocks, unforgettable remnants of Hiroshima’s explosive fate. Director Alain Resnais’ narrative is a complex design of flashbacks and gruesome stock footage of the Allied destruction, utilizing a female voice-over that is often contradicted. An eerie score irradiates the film, creating tension and a vague emotional unease between these disparate characters whose flesh has melded into one.


Lui is a Japanese architect who is married with a family but he has become suddenly obsessed with a French woman: an actress who has a small part in a documentary on Hiroshima. As she narrates the film’s beginning, she is subsumed by her role, speaking as if she were present during the droning doom of the Enola Gay but Lui keeps reminding her that she wasn’t. Resnais doesn’t spare the audience the horrible images and effects of war and does so without condemnation or acclamation...the judgment is ours alone. We soon learn that Lui’s parents were vaporized on that beautiful August day, and Elle begins to open up about her past in German occupied France.

This is an allegorical love story whose outcome is doomed to fail as she begins to unburden herself with the painful memories of the death of her true love: a Nazi soldier. After the Liberation, she is castigated and shaven, flung carelessly into a basement prison for her traitorous desires towards the enemy, though she only saw love and devotion towards this man. Lui’s obsession grows deeper like toxic roots drawing water from a poisoned well, and we wonder if he is willing to give up his family, and Elle hers. We experience her young life through flashbacks, and in one powerful jump cut we see Lui sleeping and his hand twitch, and for an instance we see a dead soldier’s bloody face and last trembling gasp. HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR is a love story that can only end in the dissolution of the nuclear family, its atomic power destructive and all consuming.

FINAL GRADE: (A+)