Thursday, May 28, 2020

WINGS (Larisa Shepitko, 1966, Soviet Union)

Nadezhda has become an anachronism, an old colorless photograph displayed as museum exhibit to be gawked at and superficially honored while grounded forever. Though she was a fighter ace during the Great Patriotic War, her exploits still applauded, she is still a single woman in Patriarchal society, given only genial approval and denied the basic rights extended to lesser men. As a school principle, she lives a humdrum life of post-war readjustment, a single woman who never married and is not allowed to enter a restaurant unescorted, while one of her expelled male students is offered this intrinsic right. This feminist split from male entitlement is the dichotomy is at the heart of the film; the rights of women trampled beneath the boots of a sole-less Socialism where the dead male hero is more acclaimed than the living Nadezhda.

Director Larisa Shepitko gloriously frames the sharp beauty of her protagonist and seems to question her sexuality: in one scene, Nadezhda dances with another woman in a spasm of spontaneity that temporarily frees her from human bondage, while men leer ominously through a glass darkly. She is awkward in social settings, unsure of her role and boundaries, often being more aggressive and stern than her male counterparts. She had adopted a daughter but has no Motherly instinct, unable to emotionally or intellectually relate: she believed that raising a little girl will help her to assimilate but it only brings the pain of distance and regrets. Shepitko lets her heroine drift amid the clouds, the vaporous rapture embracing her like a lover before dissipating into memory. She was in love once and we experience her trauma through flashbacks with desperate freeze-frames, as he was killed in action…and she helpless and isolated, watching from the cockpit of her own plane.

Nadezhda is denied the privilege to fly again simply because she’s a woman and she often drifts back to the airfield to speak with her comrades. Finally, she claws her way into an aircraft and the students gather around, playfully pushing her like a child in a toy car, cheering for her last “flight”. This grim and debasing metaphor almost ends in the dark tomb of a hanger…before she takes control of the metal coffin and soars towards the heavens and her salvation.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

DIARY OF THE DEAD (George Romero, 2007, USA)

“What does a camera see? I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a camera see into me- into us -clearly or darkly? I hope it does see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the cameras do better.” (From the Philip K. Dick novel A SCANNER DARKLY)

George Romero revisits the theme of his original masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: a small group struggles to survive in the first few desperate hours of the end of the world. Whereas NIGHT was a devious and challenging social allegory this version is crude, obnoxious, and as subtle as Hiroshima. This film within a film THE DEATH OF DEATH creates space, projects an emotional distance between the audience and the characters, which is (I believe) exactly what Romero intended. DIARY is a self-referencing post-modern look at an often creatively dead and buried genre and Romero attempts to resuscitate our interest.

Our protagonists are a small film crew working on their college thesis when they hear the breaking news. Of course, they are filming a generic horror film with all of the typical conventions: the shambling corpses, woman trips, monster rips her shirt revealing bosom, etc. These clichés are put to rest in the final act but it’s not surprising, cunning, or ironic: it just seems mostly harmless. Romero falls victim to his own hackneyed contrivances as he must find a unique way to kill people: an Amish man puts a scythe through his own head or electric paddles zapped to the head with eye spurting gore. What was once fun is now tired and overused excess. The characters are poorly defined and the dialogue is insipid and uninspired: they just blather about the importance of documenting the apocalypse thus preserving the Truth. But the reality is altered when the camera is turned on; the composition of a shot absolutely changes viewer perception and we see only a representation…a filmmaker’s interpretation of what is real. And Romero’s camera sees darkly.

These are grandiose ideas and worth exploring but here it falls flat, here we don’t care about the characters and they just putter about in a small land full of zombies. Romero leads us by the nose and asks the obvious question: Are we worth saving? But we shouldn’t be directed to his manifest answer…the film should be ingenious enough to let us discover our own.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

THE DEVIL, PROBABLY (Robert Bresson, 1977, France)

Charles cannot see the forest for the trees, lost in a philosophical conundrum: it is not the absence of compassion to be considered, but rather the absence of awareness of compassion. Director Robert Bresson creates a cerebral tempest of ennui and disillusionment, a militantly nihilistic drama of a young man imbued with Nietzschean superiority, whose invisible humanity is like vibrations that disturb the air around him…but makes no sound because there is no receptor.

This utterly bleak and pessimistic worldview could be the genesis of Michael Haneke’s emotional glaciation trilogy: we see the world through frozen eyes. Bresson’s characters wander through the story with a pretentious lethargy, teenagers purposely severed from their bourgeois lineage, a cruel bloodletting that becomes a ritual of apathy. Charles is surrounded by a few acquaintances and he is cold and shallow, manipulating them to fuel his wants and desires…but even this leaves him empty like a sputtering prayer in a deserted church, dying embers upon an altar of despair.

Bresson often crosscuts between Charles’ indifference and two students who view caustic films of pollution and extreme violence: the modern reality of oil spills and baby seals being clubbed to death, while a neutral voice narrates this apocryphal documentary. Bresson contrasts one extreme with the other, unconcerned with the plot’s linear structure but focused upon the montage’s fervent denouement. Charles haunts the streets and homes of his friends, and though his cohorts like him he is unable (or unwilling) to reciprocate. This dichotomy shows the lower depths of his palsied morality: the others offer kindness without charge or attachment while he can only take advantaged of their good will.

Finally, Charles agrees to seek enlightenment from a psychiatrist but all he understands is the money exchanging hands, his counsel written on blank checks. He steals a gun and convinces a drug-addled acquaintance to shoot him, because Charles lacks the nerve to kill himself. The murder’s rapport cracks the night open and another young man palpitates with a heart of darkness. And what is the cause of this spiritual malaise, a parallel concerning creation’s fall from grace into the gutter of chaos? Just a cynical mantra…the Devil, probably. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Robert Bresson, 1951, France)

A nameless unassuming priest tries vainly to understand the contempt of the local parishioners, courteously bearing his physical and emotional cross. Director Robert Bresson’s subjective narrative is like gentle penmanship upon the blank pages of the soul, giving concrete relevance to abstract ideals and misunderstandings as if salvation is self-evident in the cryptic Book of Life.

The priest’s young visage is tormented by a painful stomach condition that allows him to only digest bread and wine, a virulent Eucharist that slowly consumes him. Bresson begins the film with the priest framed through the iron bars of the small church, a prisoner in a strange land, as a man and woman gaze with disgust at this intruder, like a judge who just witnessed their mystic tryst. He often seeks advice of his mentor, an older and more pugilistic priest from Torcy who admonishes him for wanting to be liked: he should be more concerned with punishing his flock to gain respect.

He soon discovers that a local woman is wasting away in grief and he confronts her, strong in his belief and convictions: to give her comfort he must burn away the hardened veneer that separates her from the Word, and he succeeds though she dies happily the following day. But the family and townsfolk blame him for her death, believing he was too harsh for her weakened condition…and he never shares her letter that would set him free of their judgment. The knowledge is between him and his god. He questions his faith when a local doctor commits suicide, and seeks guidance, which is cruelly denied him.

Actor Claude Laydu is wonderfully subdued as the passive priest, conveying little emotion except the gentle repose of his piercing eyes, dark prisms of his soul. Bresson often films him through windows and framed in doorways, a rigid and inflexible character contrasted by right angles, a victim captured in a static portrait. He suffers greatly for his god and it’s ambiguous if his condition is bad luck…brought upon himself purposely or unconsciously because of his unhealthy diet, as if being closer to death will bring him closer to divinity. Like Job, he suffers the torment of the righteous: If god is not a torturer, it’s a least a sadist. Bresson dictates a bitter journal of hope and despair, an elemental liturgy of malignant salvation.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, 1959, France)

Michel deludes himself with Nietzschean philosophy, unable to sustain human connections and addicted to the adrenaline of the thief’s creed. Director Robert Bresson drains all emotion and vitality from Michel’s self-inflicted suffering: he becomes Tabula Rosa for the audience to project upon, the silver screen that reflects the dim light of apathy and dishonesty. 

Michel remains elusive and disconnected, his shock of dark hair and vapid features a template, a man who seems to care very little for others except in a way that is beneficial to him. He must be urged to visit his dying mother and it is revealed later that he stole from her too, and he is without remorse. He is truly happy when he joins in a conspiracy, finally able to share a common interest. Bresson films a fantastically choreographed fête of thievery upon a train where Michel’s elation is an orgasm of dishonest delight. Bresson’s use of a tight close-up of fingers massaging buttons, gently caressing jackets and deftly slipping inside for the payoff: an incantation of sexual energy. 

Michel’s audaciousness is contrasted with the Police Inspector who toys with him, unable to bring a probable cause affidavit but fueling Michel’s troublesome spirit with the specter of guilt and loneliness. Fearing arrest, Michel leaves the country and Bresson utilizes a vertiginous jump cut in time that makes the narrative seem disorganized and chaotic, much like the paranoid allusions of the protagonist. Bresson makes suffering the fire that burns away the sophisticated veneer of self-delusion, and it’s through grief and sorrow that his characters discover their true natures. Michel eventually returns and plays the odds…but the (Jail)House always wins. His salvation is found through a lovely kiss separated by cold iron bars. 

Final Grade: (A)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Peter Weir, 1975, Australia)

British colonialism fades into obscurity like three schoolgirls, their flesh and blood evaporating like the scintillation of a daydream. Peter Weir’s oblique narrative becomes transcendental and dangerous in its mystic rhythms, a magnetic force of frenetic urgency that subsumes all living creatures.

Appleyard College is an English boarding school on the boundary of the Australian Outback, a bastion of civilization taming the primitive wild, where the future meets the rock of ageless past. Apropos for a country whose empire spread like an infection, destroying and converting that which it didn’t understand into tempestuous Victorian principles. But Hanging Rock’s basalt pillars are guardians of time, sentinels that have withstood a million storms and will outlast the invaders…and the human race. On Valentine’s Day, a picnic at this monolith turns seemingly to tragedy when three students and a teacher disappear and only one is found alive, her elusive memory a figment of trauma where truth and imagination become inseparable. Though the film invokes police procedural, the story is not about the facts concerning the disappearances but in the aftermath, the effects upon Mrs. Applegate and her students, the police, the witnesses, and the community at large.

The mystery is never explained so Weir is able to focus upon the people: Mrs. Appleyard and her inability to cope with change, Sara and her infatuation with Miranda (one of the girls who never returns), and Michael an innocent witness who becomes obsessed with visions of the beautiful Miranda. This event has profoundly altered their lives while it’s just another sensationalist exercise in journalistic fashion for the rest of the world, human lives reproduced with ink and cheap paper. The story could be a masquerade of the young woman’s role in Victorian society, their sexuality repressed beneath binding corsets, behavior redacted to exclude natural impulses. Weir shows the girls shedding shoes and clothing, possibly morphing into or merging with the world around them, leaving behind a static life of disregard. It is also a tragedy of class distinction leading to self destruction, as Sara jumps to her death because her benefactor fails to pay the required fee for the school, already suffering the loss of her best friend.

Mrs. Appleyard’s biological clock stops ticking at Hanging Rock, not from some strange magnetic pulse but from blunt force trauma.

Final Grade: (A)

Monday, May 4, 2020

MAZES AND MONSTERS (Steven Hilliard Stern, 1982, USA)

Robbie’s fractured mind finally shatters, becoming lost in the dark reflection of reality, his quest to attain enlightenment atop the Two Towers…I guess he failed his saving throw. This made-for-television movie feels cheap, rushed, poorly shot, layered with cheesy muzak and stock sound effects, and is dully acted. Rona Jaffe wants us to believe that imagination leads to self-destruction, that we should conform and become successful in order to assimilate into the world: I wish this film had some imagination because the premise is intriguing.

The movie begins with standard exposition of our four characters and lays the foundation of their familial conflicts. Then it proceeds to gravely warn us that a role playing game is subversive and mind-altering, loosening the creaking hinges upon our doors of perception, our labyrinthine emotional turmoil a result of needless fantasy escapism. I suppose none of the blame falls on the family, their cruel tyranny alluded to and briefly witnessed, their offspring exiled from their fascist commune. Obviously, the writers know very little of Dungeons and Dragons because no one speaks in these gothic incantations: the Dungeon Master and players are too busy arguing over the rules, eating nachos, and trying to find their favorite twenty-sided die.

Tom Hanks as Pardue the Holy Man is the lone bright spot, dim though it shines through the murk of the maze; in retrospect, we can see the makings of a fine actor as he delivers his lines with the utmost sincerity and conviction. The rest of the movie is humdrum and boilerplate, standard inane television fare, food for the thoughtless.


SÁTÁNTANGÓ (Béla Tarr, 1994, Hungary)

A ghostly bell tolls away idle lives amid a community isolated in a purgatory of mud and rain; lost lives condemned to dance with their own devils. Irimias seemingly rises from the dead as Lazarus, plodding through collective broken dreams and speaking with a forked tongue, his arrival transcending their Earthly bondage. But this small collection of dreary people must decide if Irimias is their redeemer…or destroyer.

Director Béla Tarr’s 7-½ hour Magnum Opus peers patiently into the abyss of human nature, examining in minute detail avarice, gluttony, and selfishness. His use of long static takes bring us into the monotony of these character's lives as he paints a lonely portrait in black and white, a stark contrast to an interior monologue of hopelessness. His circular narrative structure is like a snake eating its own tail, and we enter this solitary world and live our own brief existence in this Autumnal world of bleak existential suffering. Tarr sees the beauty in filth, in the liter-strewn gutters of the human soul, and seeks the faint spark of life amid the everlasting darkness to come. He often films characters walking, his camera soldiering behind, which brings the viewer closer to the drama while distancing us from empathetic contact. His characters often diminish in the frame, walking into the distance swallowed by the fog, a subliminal metaphorical device that echoes with sadness.

The center of the narrative concerns the suicide of a young girl after she tortures her cat: a scene of almost unbearable grief. And here we see the true face of the demon Irimias, using this death to burden the community with guilt, a religious axiom that makes pawns out of people, a damning indictment of free thinking as they give over their money…and themselves. Soon we discover Irimias as a puppet himself, subservient to some higher political power, a tool of flesh and blood that tills the soil of despair.

Final Grade: (A)

Friday, May 1, 2020

OVER THE EDGE (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979, USA)

Strange creatures haunt the wide streets and narrow minds of a perfect community, their shadows as thick as smoke with flammable intentions that sting like fire. Jonathan Kaplan pushes adolescent ennui and the emotional violence of puberty like a drug that fuels an epic meltdown between those who protect…and those who are served.
OVER THE EDGE is a powerful film because it’s a powerful story that doesn’t rely on trite characterizations and maudlin generalizations. Kaplan focuses his camera upon these young boys and girls and is compassionate to their cause, allowing natural dialogue and body language to communicate their problems and desires. He composes mostly in medium shot with long takes, allowing tracking shots as these teenagers move and speak in a relaxed and realistic manner. When projected onto a large screen, the cinematic elements coalesce into a feature narrative as opposed to feeling like it was made-for-TV which often plagues wordy “message” movies. The child actors are especially wonderful though it’s the adults who veer towards stereotype.
The film begins with Cheap Trick’s low-slung guitar riffs pulsing through the suburban imagery as we’re introduced to the prefabricated community of New Grenada. This dichotomy sets the tone for the entire film as one of placid waters concealing a violent riptide beneath. The credits end with a teenager shooting a BB gun at a police car and again Rick Nielsen’s blistering guitar accentuates Robin Zander’s growling scream of introduction: “…are you ready or not!?” For teenagers we fist pump with the adrenaline rush of complicity but as adults we feel the sudden stabbing pain of anxiety and fear. No wonder this was a film that scared the studio into a limited release which quickly buried the film from national attention. It would find life a few years later on pay channels and become recognized as a classic worthy of rediscovery.
The narrative is mostly filtered through the life of our young protagonist Carl and his friend Richie (a young Matt Dillon). Carl comes from a middle class home with successful parents and Richie lives in suburban housing with a single mother who hides her stash in her Ford Bronco. It’s clear that Kaplan is blurring the lines between the two social hierarchies and depicting the kids as one general group: classless but bonded by their communal dissatisfaction with adults and authority. The kids hang together in the local Rec Center where they can shoot pool, smoke, drink and socialize without their parents around. This is their hideaway. Julia is the Director of the Rec Center and the only adult who is shown respect by the kids because she respects them! The story stumbles through Carl’s school daze and adventures outside of school like getting high, going to parties, looking for the cute redhead he has a crush on, all with Richie by his side. We see the clash of parents mostly through Carl’s family as his mother pleads for understanding while his father rants about the downturn in his Cadillac business. Carl’s home life is lost in his earphones where Cheap Trick, The Cars and the Ramones make everything bearable. Fuck, who can’t relate to those feelings! There is little driving force throughout the story just infractions that lead to the final confrontation and conflagration.
OVER THE EDGE is both dark and humorous at times, showing these kids interacting in realistic ways. In the film’s most famous lines Richie states “Any kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid”. Carl doesn’t squeal but gets assaulted by the shooter (in the opening credits sequence) anyway. Later in the film Carl gets his revenge and the adolescent scales of justice are balanced once again and the two become accomplices. These kids see the adults who are more concerned with property values and secreting their children away from the wealthy investors as the true enemy. It is a battle of generations that was fought by Dean, Hoffman, and now Dillon: a battle that will always rage between the dying of the light and the rising of the sun. Finally, New Grenada explodes like a grenade, its shrapnel wounding all in this teenage wasteland.

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

THE PASSENGER (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975, USA)

The Girl becomes witness to a middle-aged man’s crisis as he virtually disappears into the stark desert air; she becomes the passenger unable to un-Locke his identity and purpose. Michelangelo Antonioni structures the film with an emotional complexity and stunningly languid visuals; a self-reflexive narrative that exists within David Locke’s intuitive and hastily extemporized perceptions.

The plot is rather mundane as Locke assumes the identity of a dead acquaintance named Robertson and leaves his entire life behind him, his only goal forward momentum on a road to nowhere. He begins to live Robertson’s life through the deceased’s diary, picking up papers from a Munich locker and keeping scheduled meetings. He is soon pursued by gunrunners, foreign assassins, and his own past while racing towards an inevitable nexus of these disparate elements. He is accompanied by a nameless companion, a beautiful girl met serendipitously, who attempts o understand his malaise, to guide him towards salvation, but she is ultimately powerless; Locke steers his Mercury towards his own cruel destination.

Antonioni films in long breathtaking vignettes, each shot embracing the characters and peering into the abyss of Locke’s soul, revealing the stark banality of human nature: sometimes we don’t understand ourselves, we can’t explain our own actions, we just act without premeditation. The fatal climax is a seven minute tracking shot: it begins with Locke meditatively resting on a bed awaiting his final meeting as the camera slowly tracks through the window’s iron bars to the dusty courtyard, then slowly back again as we follow The Girl, Locke’s wife and police back into the room where he has been murdered. This is one of the greatest shots in cinematic history and should be studied for its technical achievement and sublime mise-en-scene. Locke’s wife, who has finally discovered the deception, speaks the truth: she doesn’t recognize this dead man.

Final Grade: (A+)