Wednesday, August 31, 2011

#356: Sweetie

(Jane Campion, 1989)

Sweetie is one of those movies about unlikeable people doing irrational things for unbearable amounts of time. I didn't care for it.

The film is centered around a young woman and the unwelcome arrival of her troubled sister, thrust into her life in the middle of a dead patch in her bizarrely conceived relationship with a man she thinks she is fated to be with forever. The early sections of the film focus on this relationship's origins, and Campion makes clear from the beginning that she is looking for a skewed reality - her work here in her debut is oddly reminiscent of Tim Burton's 80s output, most notably Edward Scissorhands minus the fantasy elements.

Despite the appeal of Campion's eye, however, the movie is intolerable because it relies entirely on its unlikeable characters. There's no one to grab onto as basically everyone in the film is difficult to watch. But Sweetie herself is the ultimate challenge in patience. As an annoying and hatable - but ultimately deeply troubled - antagonist, Sweetie is the film's emotional core. A lot of how you react to Sweetie will depend on how you react to Sweetie, and I found her absolutely unwatchable, particularly because I didn't care about any of the other characters in the film. It makes it difficult to appreciate the technique and budding voice that Campion would bring to fruition in her later films.

#354: Clean, Shaven

(Lodge Kerrigan, 1994)

Clean, Shaven is a mood piece about much more than a mood. It's about schizophrenia. Rather than take the conventional path of seeing what it is like to be around a person with the (somewhat vaguely defined) disease, Kerrigan attempts to put us inside the mind of Peter Winter, a man suffering from it. While it's of course impossible to know if he succeeded, Clean, Shaven is a unique film, one that manages to combine terror and empathy in equal measures.

The film alternates between a straight-forward story of a man chasing a child killer who suspects Peter and the inner-workings of its protagonist's brain. The flashy salient moments in the film center around these journeys into Peter's mind as it slowly unravels. They range from radio-heavy sound collages to graphic self-destruction, including the most memorable moment in the film, when Peter tears off one of his fingernails to get at the imagined transmitter below it.

But the real joy (if I can call it that for a moment) of Clean, Shaven is Peter Greene's performance at the center of the film. Greene is a classic journeyman character actor probably best known for his performance as Zed in Pulp Fiction. Like most great character actors, he has an immediately memorable and fantastic face and he knows when he's playing a person and when he's playing a caricature. Because his look makes him a good fit for the villain or small-time crook, he often plays the latter, but here - when it's so clearly the former - Greene manages to immediately evoke sympathy for his condition even as we suspect (though never truly believe) that he may in fact be the killer they are looking for. It's the kind of gem of a performance that hides among almost every great character actor's list of roles, and it's extremely rewarding to see.

The film is meant as an opening up of sympathy for the misunderstood and lonely. We begin afraid of Greene - just as we are of similar mentally unstable people we encounter in real life - but ultimately come to feel sorry for the way he is treated by society. Yet his fate seems inevitable, and the answers don't lie behind a good woman or a steady job like they might in more conventional films. Clean, Shaven contains empathy, but it doesn't demand it from its viewers because Kerrigan recognizes that there are no easy answers. The film asks the viewer to sit with Peter for a time - anything beyond that is out of its control.

Monday, August 22, 2011

#570: Zazie dans le métro

(Louis Malle, 1960)

If all you've seen from Louis Malle is Au Revoir Les Enfants and My Dinner With Andre - fuck, what am I saying?

If all you've seen are other movies, Zazis dans le métro is going to blow your mind. Vaguely focused on a girl's misadventures in Paris during a madcap afternoon, Malle takes this opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at the viewer - bending, jumping, and speeding up time while tossing every possible in-camera effect you can think of at every scenario. The film's anarchic spirit is reminiscent of much better films (Last Year at Marienbad, made a year later) and almost infinitely worse ones (Crank 2: High Voltage) in that it takes its genre to its respective endgame extreme. I spent the running times of all three of these films with my mouth opened, unsure of what exactly I was witnessing.

Perhaps the most technically shocking (and iconic before it was iconic) is Zazie's sped up chase. I couldn't find 100% confirmation of this on the internet, but I don't think I need it to say with near certainty that Richard Lester was paying close attention to this scene when making A Hard Day's Night - it's one of those invigorating referential finds that pop up every now and then in the collection. But even without this influence, the sequence is just so... INSANE that it is difficult to reach a solid conclusion as to what you are watching. And then: this is the same man who made Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, the latter of which was just two years before. It's an early career move reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's more recent foray into comedy, but even Punch-Drunk Love has strong thematic and technical connections to his previous work. Perhaps the better comparison here would be to Godard's A Woman Is a Woman (also made the following year), another comedy that flirts with cinematic destruction due to its creator's early-career whims. Both filmmakers were relatively young and coming off international sensations in The Lovers and a little movie called Breathless, and both were still flailing around for direction towards their mid-career peaks. Indicative of their respective voices, however, Godard's work is more focused on the act of creating cinema - the nuts and bolts that go into the finished product - while Malle has created a film that is meant to be seamless. It wouldn't surprise me to find out Zazie dans le métro was created so Malle could go to a theater and watch his audience's reaction - something tells me it would have been endlessly entertaining for him.

#192: Coup de grâce

(Volker Schlöndorff, 1976)

Let's just quickly move over this one without much fanfare. I never felt invested in Coup de grâce, so the film never really hit me. I was impressed with the visual aspects of the film, particularly the sense of time and place evoked by the art direction, costuming, and cinematography. However, the story was so dour and hard to follow that it was difficult to become connected to the characters or sympathize with their plight.

I really enjoyed The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, so I hope this is just an anomaly in Schlöndorff's catalog and I can go back to enjoying his work in Young Torless and The Tin Drum. Feel free to tell me I'm crazy about this one and explain why I need to give it another try.

#467: Empire of Passion

(Nagisa Oshima, 1978)

Empire of Passion was titled in its original Japanese In the Realm of Passion, a strong indication of how much Oshima grouped this film in with its controversial predecessor, the deeply affecting and sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses. It's wholly unnecessary: Empire of Passion stands on its own, every bit as beautifully haunting as its predecessor - it might even be the superior film.

Oshima's twin masterpieces were bankrolled partially by French backers almost certainly because they were erotic thrillers, with an assumed emphasis on erotic. If Oshima had made Empire of Passion first, there's little doubt his bankers would not have let him make In the Realm of the Senses. Where the latter film flirted dangerously with twisted erotica for pornography's sake, Empire of Passion cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is - a horror film (with a touch of noir) in the Japanese ghost tradition that delivers themes of morality, guilt, and, yes, passion. If you looked up macabre in the dictionary, it wouldn't be too surprising to see a little mpeg of this film waiting for you.

Despite the film's gripping story, Oshima's visuals are the dominating force. This movie is fucking gorgeous. Shot by Yoshio Miyajima (who worked on much of Masaki Kobayashi's best work, including Harakiri), there is an eerie glow to everything here. Oshima uses backlighting and twilight impeccably - seriously, I want to rewatch the movie right now just thinking about it. It's a shame Criterion has only released In the Realm of the Senses on Blu-ray, as this is an equally worthy candidate for the higher-resolution format.

The big question (assuming you like silly artistic comparisons as much I do) would be which of the two films is better? I'm not surprised In the Realm of the Senses is the most famous Oshima film. It's clearly the more shocking and rebellious one. Likewise, Empire of Passion is more easily accessible. I don't know that I can think of more than a handful of people I'd feel comfortable recommending the earlier film to, while Empire of Passion would be well-received by a broader audience. Of course, I enjoyed the latter more, while I think In the Realm of the Senses is of more consequence. Ultimately, I'll just say I am happy to have seen both films and leave it at that. Oshima is one of the more iconoclastic filmmakers in the collection, and his twin masterpieces represent some of the most interesting viewing the collection has to offer.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

#323: The Children Are Watching Us

(Vittorio De Sica, 1944)

De Sica - and possibly all of Italian cinema - is best known for Bicycle Thieves, his neo-realist masterpiece that for the casual film lover is the pinnacle of the movement. But the actor had actually directed a fair number of films before that, and The Children Are Watching Us was perhaps the most notable of them; it marked the first time De Sica collaborated with Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Cesare Zavatinni.

Aside from the children's perspective from which the film's plot unfolds, however, there are only brief flashes of the director's later work in The Children Are Watching Us. The film is fundamentally a melodrama, focusing on a woman who has begun an illicit affair and must choose between her husband and child and her new love. But the film's use of the child as the main protagonist is more than just a clever take on this common (at least outside of fascist WWII Italy) story. It allows the viewer a new perspective that examines the victims of love conquering all. The film's position is a fundamentally conservative one, and it's an authentic one, even if it's somewhat obvious. I don't think anyone who will watch this movie has never heard "Think of the children!" before, but De Sica manages to cover this territory in a moving and genuine way. I was especially happy that he chose not to demonize the mother, but instead depict just how difficult her decisions were for her. I was able to avoid hating her at the end while understanding completely - and even being happy about - what her son does to her.

One interesting thing I learned from the Criterion Reflections post on this film is that this is the first Italian film in the collection (not counting Eclipse, perhaps). This is extremely interesting for a number of reasons. Italy is part of the Big Five: US, England, Japan, France and Italy make up something like 90% of the films in the collection. So the first film by such a significant player in cinema is very relevant. But this specific film so clearly has vital connections to Italy's past and future equally - the very fact that it was directed by De Sica, who was still mostly known as an actor but would go on to be considered one of the country's greatest directors, is a testament to this point. The film's technique and themes straddle the line between the melodrama that was Italy's meat and potatoes even during Mussolini's reign and the post-WWII everyman neo-realist movement of Rosselini and De Sica himself. The Children Are Watching Us is not a movie that can be fully understood out of context. The fact that it's still a worthy addition to the collection speaks to De Sica's skill.

Friday, August 19, 2011

#294: The Browning Version

(Anthony Asquith, 1951)

Directed a year before his flawless adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, Anthony Asquith's The Browning Version is a very different kind of British theater adaptation. Yet both films (and plays) are almost stereotypically British, representing the respective essences of the culture's dry wit and high-class drama. (Asquith also directed Pygmalion years before, in my opinion his masterpiece and by far the best adaptation of that play - music or no.) The Browning Version is one of the more well-regarded members of that niche subgenre that encompasses everything from Goodbye Mr. Chips to Mr. Holland's Opus: the aging-teacher drama. Like the opposite (but much more frequent) coming-of-age drama, the aging-teacher drama can be deeply moving or soaked in sentimentality and manipulation. Often, the line seems razor thin between the two, but the best of each manages to hit the notes in a natural and seemingly effortless way.

The Browning Version is extremely satisfying in this regard. But it's also the opposite of stodgy - something British dramas can suffer from. The film has stylistic moments that flirt with noir techniques, and the story alternates between tragedy and quiet optimism in the classiest manner. Asquith is also one of the most talented directors ever at translating plays into film - a deceptively difficult task that often hamstrings lesser directors who are either too focused on hiding the material's stage-bound settings or too comfortable simply capturing the play on film. Asquith is confident enough to know when to let the script breathe and when to have his cinematic technique take over.

Then there is Michael Redgrave at the center of the film, giving a superb performance. Despite his preference for the theater, his work here is not theatrical - it's a justifiably understated performance where nothing else would do. I wouldn't go so far as to say The Browning Version is a classic or a must-see. But it's the kind of movie that is rarely made anymore - particularly within the studio system in the US, if at all. That's not depressing because a film like The Browning Version gives us an especially searing or unique look at the human condition, but because it is genuinely entertaining and moving - something of which people often seem to forget dramas are very much capable.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

#584: Kuroneko

(Kaneto Shindo, 1968)

For the average Criterion nerd, Kuroneko will forever be associated with House, the other Japanese cult horror film that served as the other half of a double feature that played throughout the country before both films were released on DVD. This is an extremely misleading connection, however, and it makes for very misguided expectations when going into Kuroneko. Beyond these superficial connections, the films share very little in common. This is not a wild psychedelic journey tapped into Japanese pop culture overload.

In fact, the film which is most obviously akin to this much more somber, infinitely more haunting mood piece is Shindo's earlier horror film Onibaba. Both films deal with a mother and daughter who murder samurai during wartime. Each has their astounding moments, though Onibaba has one foot in the erotic thriller camp, while Kuroneko is very much a ghost story.

Regardless of its place in Japanese film, Kuroneko is a worthy revival for the collection, a unique take on the samurai movie that incorporates issues of morality and revenge into a tragic whole. Unlike Onibaba - which relied on sparse music to enhance impact - this later film avoids music in its most intense and supernatural moments. It makes the presence of death weigh over the film's story, which begins and ends with its main characters meeting their fate. Kuroneko is ultimately more sad than it is scary, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of the film. Thankfully, Kuroneko isn't meant to live up to House by its association (what movie could?) but instead demonstrates the wide range of Japanese horror - both are strong reminders that the genre had roots in the East far before Ringu kicked off a revival.

Monday, August 15, 2011

#583: The Four Feathers

(Zoltán Korda, 1939)

When you think of modern-day Britain - content in its declining empire status, watching the sun set ever more frequently over its dominions - it can be easy to forget that they were at one point a ruthless colonial tyrant, as jingoistic as they come. (At one point, I've been informed, they even ruled over the colonies that would become the USA - imagine that!) The Four Feathers - made just as England was entering its last great war, the one which basically ended its global reach - is a solid reminder of this shady history, a glossed-over war epic of the rah rah variety.

I don't entirely disapprove of pro-war films, but I am often surprised to encounter them, particularly those like The Four Feathers which are so cavalierly unaware of their political message. I don't think for a moment it occurred to anyone involved in the film that the viewer might initially agree with the protagonist's decision to resign from the army. Plot-wise, it seems no different than if he had committed a crime or insulted the pope. Korda's film - made the same year that Gone with the Wind bravely depicted the plight of the wealthy Southern land owner in the Civil War - operates from the basic idea that abandoning your responsibilities in war makes you a coward and denying the British Empire her rightful place as ruler over the world is the worst kind of treason.

It's not that Korda's film advocates for these positions to any large degree. The film is primarily concerned with entertaining the viewer, so it isn't especially difficult to get past its worldview (unlike, say, Blackhawk Down, which masquerades as historical journalism but only manages to set the stage for Battle: Los Angeles). The story is all rip-roaring adventure, and I do appreciate the appeal of a protagonist attempting to save the friends he wronged, delivering to them the feathers they had given him when he betrayed them. It's the kind of story Nicolas Cage could get behind, no? Still, The Four Feathers feels like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - a big budget British spectacle that's too busy being classy to say or do anything especially interesting.

#195: I Fidanzati

(Ermanno Olmi, 1962)

Il Posto was excellent but I Fidanzati truly moved me. It's a unique love story in the way that the previous film was a unique story of work. The couple at the center of the film is so average, so unremarkable, that they take on a universal quality. And yet, the grand statement of the film (however modestly it is presented) seems to be that every life is remarkable and every love story is the stuff of epics. The final moments of the film are so authentic and heartbreaking that the film has continued to stay with me weeks after I watched it.

The basic premise of the movie is - like that of Il Posto - simple enough. A man is offered a better job in Sicily, forcing him to leave his girlfriend behind in Milan. Their relationship - strained initially by their mundane lives and the monotony of routine - ends up growing stronger by his absence, leading to some of the most romantic moments of any movie I can remember.

Olmi's work is so simple and contained in scope that I'm not surprised I wasn't exposed to his work earlier. It's a real shame, though, because these are two of the best Italian films I have ever seen, particularly I Fidanzati, which manages to capture a moment in Italian history from an average citizen's perspective with a sure hand, devoid of overreaching ambition and imbued with a love for the country and its people.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#420: Le Bonheur

(Agnés Varda, 1965)

I think I love Agnés Varda and Le Bonheur is a great example of why. Despite the sad scarcity of female directors relative to the general population (is there any other art that is so one-sided gender-wise?) there is an enormous range of sensibilities within their ranks, from Mimi Leder and Kathryn Bigelow to Catherine Breillat and Jane Campion. While it should hardly be the responsibility of a female director - or any Western director who deviates from the typical white male identity - to "carry the torch" for their kind, the women who most remind me of what film is missing by tilting too far towards men are those that bring a specific female perspective to their work. I can't think of a single director who personifies the potential this perspective can provide better than Agnés Varda.

What is so remarkable about Le Bonheur is that the film does not present the feminine perspective in the traditional sense - by presenting a female protagonist in a uniquely female world - but instead provides a new take on a conventional male protagonist in a premise that is hardly new territory for male-dominated cinema. How many movies have been made about infidelity, specifically (though not exclusively) male infidelity? Ironically, many of those films took a moral stance that ultimately sunk the protagonist, while Varda's supposedly "feminine" take on the story is in some ways the masculine ideal - sharply satirized, of course, and sporting one "speed bump" along the way, minor or major depending on whom you ask. The final sequence (spoiler, of course) of Francois's replacement for his wife caring for his children while she remains almost entirely off camera, devoid of individuality - or even being - is one of the most savagely funny takes on gender dynamics I can think of in film.

I recognize that other people see a second side to Le Bonheur, one that isn't satirical and might even condone Francois's actions. I simply don't see it within the film, and tend to think this uncertainty is because Varda chooses to avoid confrontation, even placing Therese's death offscreen - Fat Girl, this is not. Without that big moment where Francois gets his comeuppance - and particularly because Varda scrubs her film clean of any dirt - Le Bonheur seems like a commercial for sunflowers more than it does a biting look at domestic gender dynamics. We're looking at Francois through his fantasy lens where all of his rationalities make sense, all of his needs are satisfied, and every day is 70 degrees and sunny. Welcome to paradise, Francois, pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.

#397: Ivan's Childhood

(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)

The debut feature of a cinematic icon can sometimes be jarring, particularly if their oeuvre is relatively small. After watching Tarkovsky's debut, the beautiful, moving Ivan's Childhood, I can think of no better example of this phenomenon. Solaris has such a fully formed, wholly unique voice - such a sure hand at its controls - that the development of that voice seem inconceivable. Surely Tarkovsky's vision sprung from his subconscious fully formed.

Yet here is Ivan's Childhood: a brilliant and moving debut - possibly equal to Solaris in terms of pure beauty - but one where the director seems much more reliant upon influences than his own perspective. Tarkovsky - like Bresson, whose similarly singular voice was not completely realized until his third feature, Diary of a Country Priest - seems so stylistically distinct within film history that its hard to remember that (and I know this sounds strange) he was a person, at one point a young man trying to become a filmmaker. Tarkovsky himself said he made Ivan's Childhood as an experiment to see if he could cut it as a film director. It's a good thing he agreed with everyone else who has seen the film.

But beyond this observation, Ivan's Childhood is an effective war film regardless of who directed it. The story is a much more literal look at the effect of war on children than Forbidden Games. Ivan's journey is moving and immediate - of the three major Soviet works in the collection from this era that deal with WWII (The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier being the other two), this is certainly the most realistic and intense with regards to showing the true horrors of war. This includes documentary footage Tarkovsky incorporates into the movie. Plus, as I mentioned above, it's incredibly beautiful - this might be some of my favorite black and white cinematography that I've seen under the Criterion banner.

I still have a handful of Tarkovsky films to watch outside of the collection (I'm not sure why all of his films aren't on Criterion, since most of his later work is either unreleased in the US or available only in poor transfers). I've been putting them off until I can see them in theaters, since his work is so much more rewarding in this format. I'm sure Ivan's Childhood would also be even more effective on the big screen, but the degree to which I enjoyed this viewing (not to mention how much I love Solaris, which I just purchased on blu-ray and resides in my all-time top 10 list) makes me think I can't afford to wait to take in the rest of his work. If you haven't seen his Criterion selections (his first three features), I highly recommend you do so, beginning with this early, budding masterpiece.

Monday, August 8, 2011

#363: Mouchette

(Robert Bresson, 1967)

Here are some of the other films in the Criterion Collection that were made in 1967: Branded to Kill, Playtime, Monterey Pop, I Am Curious - Yellow, Samurai Rebellion, Le Samourai, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. In France, Buñuel made Belle du Jour that year, too (which is coming soon to the collection), while in America, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were released, beginning a new era in Hollywood.

I say all this to give a sense of what 1967 was like in film, and how out of place Mouchette must have seemed. Yet within the context of Bresson's work, there is nothing out of place here; while arguably not as great as his best work, Mouchette is just as simple and heartfelt (in, of course, a complex and technical way) as the films which defined his career. The only other filmmaker I can think of who remained so out of context was Stanley Kubrick, whose Eyes Wide Shut was released in another great year for film, 1999, but shares almost nothing in common with Election, Fight ClubMagnolia, The Straight Story, or The Matrix. Eliminate Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman from that movie, and you would have a hard time deciding if it was made in 1988 or 2006.

Similarly, Mouchette seems both behind its time and outside of it. Like other Bresson films - and other Bresson protagonists - the story here seems almost allegorical, despite the very three-dimensional characters which inhabit the tale. Yet there is also something elemental about this girl and her environment which calls to mind the neo-realists at their peak. Watching this so close to Les dames du Bois de Boulogne was a disorienting experience - rarely can you go from such early career hired gun material to late career auteur work that is so different, so devoid of any similarities except the raw talent.

Mouchette is a sad movie about a little girl who has yet to find her way. But the film's very existence is a testament to her struggle. The fact that it seems like such an unlikely artifact from its time only enhances the pariah status of its protagonist. Bresson managed to create an impressive number of quietly beautiful films like this over his career. They are films that stay with you, regardless of the time or place in which you see them - provided you can step into Bresson's unique rhythms. It's no surprise he is regarded so highly by true film enthusiasts: despite the comparisons to Ozu or Terrence Malick, there's really no other director like him.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

#180: I Am Curious - Yellow

(Vilgot Sjöman, 1967)

This is probably the worst movie I've seen that has the Criterion seal of approval (and yes, I'm including Armageddon). I don't mean the movie I hate the most, or even the movie that seems least deserving of its place in the collection (yes, I mean Armageddon this time), but instead the movie that is in reality a bad movie. As in poorly conceived, poorly acted, and poorly executed. It makes And God Created Woman look like the Citizen Kane of sexual odysseys.

The film gained fame for the pornography charges it received when it arrived in America. Like any other time in history that accusations of an overabundance of sex and/or violence have been leveled at a movie, television show, album, or video game, the film became an overnight sensation as people flocked to the forbidden. Expecting to get a sexual buffet of Swedish delight and ending up with a meaningless look at an unattractive woman's head-first plunge into the 60s wilderness of sexual and political awakenings - made duller by a meta-exploration of the filmmaker's role in the film he is making - must have been one of the great disappointments of the decade for horny young men, lustily begging for a sexual lifeline in the pre-internet, pre-porno-theater era.

Sjöman was clearly attempting with his film to wrap his arms around much of the political upheaval of the era. Instead, he comes across as a forty-something mediocre filmmaker failing to fit in at the party. In the process he rips off Godard in ways that make it seem like he has less idea what Godard was talking about than I do, and attempts to channel Bergman (whom he interviewed for a documentary) in scenes that feel less like humanity revealed than they do like humanity scratching their collective nails on a chalkboard. The sex scenes were clearly meant to be devoid of sexuality, but were they also meant to be devoid of interest?

I Am Curious - Yellow apparently serves one purpose in film history: to reveal how sexual repressed we used to be that a film like this could have had any kind of notable impact on the culture. The fact that it had been largely forgotten and never released on video (and was unlikely to be otherwise released on DVD - trust me, this is one Criterion film that is never going out of print because someone else wants the rights) was probably what made it so attractive to the people at Janus. Anyway, this seems to be the only meaningful reason I'm reviewing this as a Criterion film. I can't wait to sit through another hour and a half of this garbage!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

#416: Miss Julie

(Alf Sjöberg, 1951)

It's nice to know Bergman doesn't have a monopoly on depressing Swedish films about the overbearing presence of God. Of course, for most viewers it's nice to know Swedish films that weren't directed by Bergman exist at all, so dominant is the filmmaker in the world cinema psyche. This might come as a surprise to people in 1951, when Miss Julie won the top prize at Cannes and Sjöberg was still in the prime of his career, towering above Bergman whom he had collaborated with in the 40s and who had yet to have a breakthrough international hit.

Adapted from the play by August Strindberg, Miss Julie is one of the most rewarding examples of the art of transferring stage to screen. Sjöberg's camera is highly stylized and ambitious - the director uses extreme close-ups, action on multiple planes, and various in-camera tricks to bring Strindberg's immobile play to cinematic life. It still wouldn't be difficult to see that the film was adapted from a play, but Sjöberg's choices illustrate many of the most interesting dilemmas - many of which come down to the essential question to expand or not to expand.

Despite these interesting intellectual elements - not to mention the film's appealingly melodramatic plot - Miss Julie falters in its misogynistic backbone, made far too blatant by the final shot of Julie's mother's picture hovering over the tragedy (her character weirdly reminded me of the vaguely homophobic character Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca). Miss Julie is a better film than its younger cousin, Bergman's infinitely lighter Smiles of a Summer Night, but it's no surprise why the later film has retained its profile, while the intense, impeccably made, but very dated Miss Julie has taken its place next to similarly forgotten Swedish tragedies.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

#390: Sweet Movie

 (Dusan Makavejev, 1974)

Is it weird that the filmmaker I was reminded of most while watching Sweet Movie was Tati? I guess nothing seems that weird after you've seen Sweet Movie, one of the most controversial movies in the collection.

Makavejev is best known for another Criterion entry - one I have yet to watch - WR: Mysteries of the Organism, but Sweet Movie is much more polarizing. Certainly I could see many people making a case that it is the worst movie in the collection, or at least the least deserving. I wouldn't be one of those people, not because I enjoyed seeing someone piss in someone else's mouth or always wanted to know what a penis dipped in gold looked like, but because I think all this madness has a purpose.

That purpose - so tied to the politics of the time, which were very real for Makavejev, who was forced from his own country after WR - may have less of an impact in the post-Cold War environment. But fascism and capitalism certainly still manage to reign supreme, so Sweet Movie rages on, even if its targets have moved to a different field. And despite this undeniably angry political message, that sense of Tati lingers on. It's not just in the sketch-style structure of the film, which features brief vignettes tied together with a handful of characters, but in the light touch of its humor. Despite being almost entirely sexual in nature, the jokes here tend towards visual cues and offbeat choreography with a heavy reliance on music and the modern world - two of Tati's favorite themes.

On top of the intense and worthwhile message wrapped in a weirdly light and meandering package there are some great moments in the film. The sex scene with the germaphobic American billionaire spraying down his virginal-beauty-pageant-winning bride is pretty hilarious. And if you haven't seen two people doing it in a pile of sugar before the woman stabs the man - causing him to laugh to death - you, um, haven't really lived? If you've read this far and you still want to see this movie, you will enjoy it. If not, well, maybe you should watch something a little less strangely explicit, like Antichrist. Isn't this all we ask of a movie, to be all that it can be? Sweet Movie delivers.

And by delivers, I mean has a scene where people shit on stage.

#269: Fighting Elegy

(Seijan Suzuki, 1966)

I love Suzuki's work for the most part, but Fighting Elegy left me cold. The basic satirical premise - that sexual frustration begets fascist violence - is neither especially convincing nor funny to me. So instead of viewing the film as an amusing and insightful look at the pre-WWII environment in Japan, I was annoyed by the main character and dissatisfied with the film's take on his actions.

One surprising aspect of my reaction to this film was how highly I regarded Crazed Fruit, the similarly sexually charged (but less politically focused) Japanese offering from a decade before. I tend to feel this is an issue of cultural recognition. Crazed Fruit is totally recognizable, easily comparable to similar films from American cinema (A Place in the Sun and Rebel Without a Cause come to mind immediately). It clearly displays a sense of the new, a major breakthrough in taboos that Fighting Elegy isn't afforded. The  protagonists in the film have similar concerns and exhibit similar social deficiencies, but Fighting Elegy doesn't allow for sympathy towards or an ability to relate with its main character because of the satirical bent. It's difficult to find a way in because of this when you are less familiar with a situation, where a movie might speak volumes to a similar person already invested in the culture.