Wednesday, November 28, 2012

#629: Sunday Bloody Sunday

(John Schlesinger, 1971)

John Schlesinger is undoubtedly best-known for his Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, a moderately enjoyable, severely dated film. That's a shame because Billy Liar is one of the best coming of age movies I've watched in the Collection (and there are a lot of them), while this film, which caused a minor stir when it was released for featuring a kiss between two men, is a moving and extremely mature (i.e. grown-up, not porn) look at relationships and compromise.

There are three great performances at the center of the film, and that's what is most important about it. The best comes from Peter Finch, who is better here than even his much flashier Oscar-winning role in Network, which was his last movie. Finch chooses to approach his character, stuck in the closet with his Jewish family, reserved in his medical practice, finally unable to accept the notion that he could be fully happy in his romantic and personal life because of it, without piling on psychological hang ups that are unnecessary. His character has been forced into his position exclusively by society - he is desperate for happiness but aware of his limitations, resigned to them. Glenda Jackson's character, meanwhile, is desperate for happiness but certain she deserves it. She's worried life is passing her by - Finch knows the train left long ago. They are two memorable and realistic characters intended as two sides of a coin flipped by Murray Head's character, who flies through the film without the slightest awareness he's in it. All three roles are written and executed with such mature and thoughtful care that it's almost infuriating to think how impossible it would be for the film to be made today.

The kiss is worth discussing, because it's rather innocuous. Though shocking in its time, it is perhaps most surprising now because 1971 feels early, not because of anything on screen. I don't know if I should be asd that this simple gesture between a couple would ever have been controversial, or if I should be angry that quiet character-focused scenes like this just aren't made in mainstream film anymore, regardless of whether or not it's between two men. The sex in the film might have made it an anomaly in 1971. Today, its quality does.

#639: The Qatsi Trilogy

(Godfrey Reggio, 1983-2002)

When it comes out in two weeks, The Qatsi Trilogy will be the second "trilogy of life" that Criterion releases in as many months. The two trilogies are of course totally different, but represent the impressive scope of the Collection - a provocative sex series sits just a handful of films away from a wordless and often human-less documentary set with roughly the same title.

They are hardly worth comparing, but in case anyone was wondering this is certainly the more essential set. In fact, despite its weaker third film and the need to see all three on as big of a screen as possible, this just might be the most essential thing Criterion has released this year - only Godard's Weekend really comes close in terms of pure significance and accomplishment.

Of course, Koyaanisqatsi is the stand-out here, and, while I realize I'm getting all proclaimy up in here, I think it deserves to be considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It certainly joins Hoop Dreams, Harlan County U.S.A., and Night and Fog as exemplary offerings from the genre in the Collection. But unlike some other sets where it's a shame that one of the movies is not available on its own, this is a great series to have together. Even if Naqoyqatsi is less effective, it's still an interesting experience, and Powaqqatsi is maybe the most breathtakingly beautiful of the three.

Bottom line if you're considering this set, if you have a great system at home and don't mind sensory experiences outside the conventional narrative framework, this is a no-brainer. Within the larger context of Criterion, this should be a stand-out release in their collection for years to come.

Links to individual reviews:


#642: Naqoyqatsi

(Godfrey Reggio, 2002)

Naqoyqatsi is not worthy of its predecessors, but it's still a beautifully shot and hypnotic film that, like the first two films in the series, couldn't really be more obvious with the point it is making. Created just as Hollywood was shifting into the current CGI-dominated blockbuster age, the film takes a virtual approach to what had previously been a hyper-realistic portrait of our world. This makes the film's subjects quite literally less organic, but also makes the journey less so figuratively. The connection between the three parts feels looser, while the evolution towards the escalation of war in our modern age - and human competition in general - makes the film feel significantly smaller than Reggio's first two films.

Seeing the film now and knowing when it was released, it's impossible not to assume the film was a direct response to 9/11 and the war America waged in its wake (just one at that point, though everyone knew Iraq was coming). However, Reggio had been in production on Naqoyqatsi for some time when the attacks occurred, and their offices were coincidentally located in Manhattan. These events didn't impact the film in any significant ways beyond making it that much more relevant (though there are brief shots of some of the players in American politics), and I don't think the film should be too tightly entwined with the attacks. Like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, the film is clearly intended to be a broad critique of civilization and our view of our place in the world.

What really hurts Naqoyqatsi isn't the potentially stale topicality of the film, but the certainly stale technology. No one would be surprised that Koyaanisqatsi was made in the 1980s, but Noaqoyqatsi could have only been made in 2002, at the midway moment when CGI seemed like it was realistic but had not actually reached an acceptable level yet. The movie feels passable during most sequences, but becomes a tech-heavy drag at others where moments in previous installments were left to gaze at the wonder of creation (it doesn't help that Philip Glass's score here is undoubtedly his least invigorating in the series). The most beautiful shots here are not of the Earth - and they certainly aren't of animation - but of humans, Olympic athletes leaping through the air and performing feats of strength. These are impressively filmed, but not what I expect or hope for from a Qatsi film.

I ultimately still enjoyed Naqoyqatsi, but it prevents the trilogy as a whole from being perfect. It might not be as bad as, say, The Godfather III, but that might just be because it doesn't have Sofia Coppola in it, and it has the generally same effect on the series.

Monday, November 26, 2012

#515: The Fugitive Kind

(Sidney Lumet, 1960)

Sidney Lumet made a lot of great movies, including one of my favorite movies ever, written by another great American playwright, The Verdict. This movie, made four decades earlier and starring the greatest movie star actor of all time, isn't one of them. Unlike Lumet's debut, the classic 12 Angry Men (also now a Criterion film), this movie fails to transcend its theatrical roots - the dialog is over dramatized and the camera feels oddly static even when Lumet puts it somewhere interesting. The movie often feels like a teleplay rather than a film.

There is one reason to see The Fugitive Kind: Marlon Brando, who gives one of his many spectacular performances. Though it's not as great and obviously not as iconic as his performance in Tennessee Williams's better and better-known A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando's work here is subtle and stirring. It's another reminder of just how great he was, how easy it was for him to transcend his material without removing himself from it. As we move farther away from Brando's late-era physical collapse and poor film selection in the last two decades of his career (save The Freshman, which looks prescient now that DeNiro has turned himself into a parody), the actor's true place in history will be restored more and more. Quite simply, we wouldn't have film acting as we know it without Marlon Brando. Seeing him in a movie that is so obviously unable to avoid the pitfalls of theatrical adaptation makes the gap between him and everyone else even more clear.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

#641: Powaqqatsi

(Godfrey Reggio, 1988)

Powaqqatsi is not as much of a cinematic event as its predecessor, but it's every bit as visually stunning and hypnotic. Some of the cinematography is so impressive that it's a wonder how they were able to capture these images so effectively. I watched the film in a fairly strong transfer and one thing is clear: this is going to look INSANE in a Criterion blu-ray release.

Thematically, Powaqqatsi is just as obvious as Koyaanisqatsi, only here the film addresses technology's imposition on traditional cultures in the southern hemisphere. Without Koyaanisqatsi, the film could easily be criticized as exoticizing the native cultures and peoples it depicts. In fact, some of the ideas explored here and the ways in which kids and performers are presented can arguably cross this line anyway. But the care with which Americans were presented in the first film helps inoculate Reggio from many of the criticisms that might make viewing the film more uncomfortable - or at least less innocent.

Ironically, though, just as the comparison exonerates Powaqqatsi, it condemns it as well. The basic shift from a battle between nature and society to one between culture and technology implies a subtle but dangerous equivalency between nature and natives. I think a pretty good case could be made that the film is not able to overcome this fundamental assumption, but I tend to give Reggio credit as a broad thinker who doesn't intend to imply a connection between the two films' explorations of change. I'm also biased because the film is so beautiful and lovingly conveyed that it would seem counterintuitive to come away with anything but the impression that Reggio has the utmost respect for the cultures he depicts here. Perhaps the better case can be made against Reggio's characterization of the chasm between these cultures and "Western" or "Modern" culture than against the dichotomy of nature and man's impact on the world. But that doesn't make the film itself any less impressive - and it might just make it even more thought-provoking.

#609: ¡Alambrista!

(Robert M. Young, 1977)

The most obvious comparison to make within the Criterion Collection to ¡Alambrista! is of course El Norte, a film that, according to the essay that accompanies this release, was influenced by this film. The basic premise of people crossing the border illegally to live in the United States is similar, but almost everything else about the two films is different. Most obviously, the protagonist here, Roberto, is from Mexico, and leaves simply to make enough money to send home that he can support his new family for a brief period, while the brother and sister of El Norte are from Guatemala and flee the country to save their lives, without hope of ever returning. This is one of the most notable ways - but surely not the only one - in which ¡Alambrista! intends to be a broad and universal portrait of the undocumented immigrant experience, while El Norte isolates a particularly compelling case to make the argument that much stronger.

This means El Norte is certainly the more conventional of the two films, which goes a long way towards explaining why that film got so much more attention than this one (including an Oscar nomination and a wide theatrical release, two things this film did not get - it was originally aired on PBS). But I also think El Norte is the better of the two films - not necessarily because it tells the more compelling story, but because it is more impressively made and notably more affecting. Still, ¡Alambrista! might be the more interesting film, both as a political and sociological exploration of the major American immigrant issue of the last fifty years and as a work of cinema that walks the line between documentary and fictional narrative.

Of the many thoughts the film provoked within me, two have lingered most powerfully. The first is the unconventional way in which Roberto's journey is treated when compared with El Norte and most recent films about undocumented immigrants. Roberto's choice at the beginning - though made quickly in the course of the film - is not without controversy within his family and is far from preordained. When he arrives in America, he is far from a saint - while not as stupid as his friend that meets a gruesome fate, he does end up having an affair and flirting with the life he eventually discovers his father had chosen for himself. Perhaps more importantly, unlike those later films, Roberto eventually rejects his fate as an American farmworker and returns to Mexico. (Self-deportation in action!) This conclusion made the film all the more interesting for me because it meant ¡Alambrista! was not about the man who has no choice but to leave his homeland to find work and make a life for himself, law be damned. It's a film about a just as real phenomenon of economics 101 in action - workers going where the money is and facing a real opportunity cost scenario which asks them to choose between money and a life without social acceptance or any real physical comfort and a life with economic struggle in a home they know and already have accepted. This is the true reality of most undocumented immigrants in this country, and it's one that will be impossible to overcome with laws, walls, or denied benefits.

The second thing which came to mind was the balance between documentary filmmaking and narrative work. While any socially conscious movie takes at least some steps towards making the film feel especially realistic, movies like ¡Alambrista! go the extra mile, usually by using non-actors in crucial roles, using typically documentary-style techniques, or letting the narrative hang loose a little bit to encompass various other stories that might provide some insight into the overall world the film is presenting. Young does all three of these things here, and it makes the film feel much more "authentic" than a commercial film like El Norte. Yet it also makes the film feel smaller and, counterintuitively, more difficult to buy into. Sometimes breaking down the conventions of narrative cinema does little more than highlight the gap between film and reality - which makes sense when you consider that most of those conventions were created to make you forget you are watching a film.

¡Alambrista! is a great addition to the Collection, and just because the movie might not be as strong as movies like El Norte or John Sayles's great Lone Star, as one of the first American films to address Mexican and Central American immigration it is a vital document for understanding the work that came after it. It's also a well-made conscious film that explores the line between the urgency of documentary filmmaking and the far-reaching effectiveness of the narrative, one of film's great battles as a medium. It might not be perfect, but it's recommended for anyone interested in these issues.

Friday, November 23, 2012

#640: Koyaanisqatsi

(Godfrey Reggio, 1983)

Koyaanisqatsi is not a subtle film. Anyone who watches it with just a passing interest will get what Reggio is trying to say. But assuming that Koyaanisqatsi is intended to deliver some sort of complex case for a more harmonious relationship with the planet seems to me to miss the greatest accomplishments of the film, which has to be one of the most beautiful, innovative, and awe-inspiring documentaries ever made.

The irony of explaining in words a film that has none is self-apparent - dancing and architecture come to mind. But the film as a cinematic experience can be discussed without much attention paid to its intended political message. Its success in this regard is pretty simple. First, the cinematography is stunning, particularly the time-lapse photography. Try to watch this film casually and not be mesmerized by what's happening on scene. This is inevitably aided by the music, which is perfect and certainly Philip Glass's greatest accomplishment in film. Finally, what Reggio has done with the footage in the editing room is the true work of art that holds the film together. It's pretty much astonishing that this film was created by three people who had never made a feature film before, as this is a master class in shot selection, pacing, editing rhythm, and visual impact.

The only downside of Koyaanisqatsi being released on Criterion is that this film would no doubt be that much more impressive on the big screen. Still, in the age of blu-ray and 46-inch TVs, having this film reach a wider audience will be worth sacrificing a bit of the cinematic impact. This is now one of the essential films in the Collection.

#566: Insignificance

(Nicholas Roeg, 1985)

Roeg's only(?) adaptation of a play is most interesting for the things he does to move away from the original text to create a true cinematic experience. This is most obvious in the final moments - as Einstein's imagination turns his hotel room into a nuclear holocaust with Marilyn Monroe at the center of it - but Roeg does a lot to tweak the film's source material in interesting ways. Unfortunately, the movie remains stubbornly static in the majority of its running time, making it the least essential Roeg film in the Collection.

The play's premise is very intriguing: take four iconic figures from mid-century America and shake them all together in a fictional bottle and see what bubbles up. The best scenes, unsurprisingly, are the ones with Monroe and Einstein (they aren't actually identified as these figures, but instead the actress and the professor). But Teresa Russell's Monroe impersonation can be distracting (the role was played on stage by Judy Davis, which must have been pretty special), and Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio generally just sulks around, I assume because he was so miscast.

Then there's the 80s problem, which makes this 1950s-set think piece feel almost surreal in its aesthetic. Roeg's films always feel out of history, but here the impression feels unintentional, making it more awkward. Insignificance is far from a bad movie - and the final sequence in particular is downright masterful - but the combination of all of these flaws makes the movie less interesting than its script might have been, and probably was in its original incarnation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

#451: Fanfan la Tulipe

(Christian-Jaque, 1952)

Fellow French New Wave fans, I have seen the enemy. I have looked it in the eyes and I have seen its tired soul. It's name is Fanfan la Tulipe and, well, it's really not that bad.

Fanfan la Tulipe is a rip-roaring swashbuckler with plenty of romantic intrigue and physical wackiness - only its wry narration satirizing war sets it apart from similar bloated entertainments coming out of Hollywood at the time. It's cheesy and pretty routine, but the structure and tone are cliché for a reason: they work pretty well to give you a good time.

What's mainstream and popular in one era probably doesn't entirely work in another, and, much like Gone with the Wind, this movie isn't going to work for the modern equivalent of the people who made this a commercial success sixty years ago. The plot drags, the action is sped up Benny Hill-style, and the ending is preposterously happy.

Films like Fanfan la Tulipe are crafts rather than art, and while the skill is just as impressive, it lacks any long-lasting relevance. Like The Rock fifty years from now, it's still objectively well-done, but basically an historical document of what put asses in the seats when it was released.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

#569: People on Sunday

(Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930)

There's something hovering over People on Sunday that was entirely unintentional: the coming storm in Germany that would send a generation into darkness and forever transform the country. When the film was made in 1930, Germany had already been on the losing end of a major war, but a decade later Berlin had mostly moved on. This is not the Germany we were taught in school, the between-wars desperation of a populace that led to a weakening of moral strength that allowed Hitler to come to power. This is a middle-class Germany, a world of young working people (yuppies?) who steal away moments of leisure and do what young people do - flirt, lounge, consume popular culture. Upon release, it was a confection designed to reinforce the appeal of its audience's lifestyle - threatened by the market crash and looming Great Depression. With hindsight, it's a bit terrifying - like seeing movies set at the World Trade Center in New York.

The movie itself is perhaps more interesting as a social document than a piece of entertainment. The story couldn't be simpler, and it's augmented by documentary footage of people going about their business in Berlin, 1930, which is just as if not more interesting than the tale of four youngsters out in the country. Probably most famous for the talent associated with it (along with the two directors, the film was co-written by Billy Wilder with camerawork by future director Fred Zinnemann), the movie is a unique look at a moment in history with a few clever plot threads. But it doesn't amount to much more than a snapshot of a very unique moment in history.

Friday, November 16, 2012

#223: Maitresse

(Barbet Schroeder, 1976)

The fact that Maîtresse is a love story will be cold comfort to viewers watching a woman nail a man's penis to a 2x4. But it's true: Maîtresse at its heart is about two people falling in love and their desperate attempts to merge their worlds and come to terms with their differences - which it turns out in the end might not be all that great. Like In the Realm of the Senses, made just a few years later, Maîtresse focuses on two people almost exclusively as they become obsessed with one another. But where that film's couple took their obsession down a dangerous path, the two lovers here lead a very conventional life both in bed and out. You know, other than the pull-away coffee table in her living room that leads into the S&M dungeon where she abuses high-end clients by whipping them, keeping them in cages, and, yes, nailing their penises to boards.

Other than that one truly excruciating scene, the sadomasochism in Maîtresse is actually pretty mesmerizing and entertaining (though fair warning: there is also a very gruesome scene of a horse being shot and then bled out). This is perhaps most true when the couple arrives at a chateau in the countryside where a butler - who is clearly in reality the owner of the chateau - greets them and proceeds to take an enormous amount of shit from the woman, including having a cigarette put out in his hand. The scene shows how unique Maîtresse is, and how willing and even excited Schroeder is to open his viewer up to a seedy underworld all around us. The fact that the film doesn't feel the least bit exploitative about its subject speaks to the care with which he made the film.

I enjoyed Maîtresse a great deal despite its quite difficult-to-watch moments. But I'm not sure the movie says much of anything beyond presenting the novelty of its subject, one that is rarely approached in a serious way in popular culture. Gerard Depardieu, in a very early role for him, is also excellent here, another thing that makes the movie worth watching. Even though Criterion maintains their level of quality in releases like this, though, there does seem to be a weird undercurrent of films about sex that merit more consideration from them than they might otherwise get. I'm not saying Maîtresse doesn't deserve its release - this is probably a near-classic movie. I just wonder if there's something more to it - perhaps they see films like this, their recent Trilogy of Life boxset, and In the Realm of the Senses as works that might not otherwise get the serious consideration they deserve because they are overshadowed by their reputations as sex films.

By the way - what gives on the date here? Criterion has it pegged as 1973 on its website but their own essay says the film was shot in 1976, the year it was distributed internationally, while IMDB has it as 1975. Anyone have any idea when it was actually made?


#573: The Music Room

(Satyajit Ray, 1958)

India is famous for being one of the most prolific filmmaking countries in the world, often making over 1000 feature length films in a year. It's also home to over a billion people, and is increasingly developing into an economic powerhouse. Yet Criterion features just two Indian movies in their 600+ spine numbers: Monsoon Wedding (made by Mira Nair, who lives in the US) and this one, the recently released The Music Room. (China, just as relevant as an economic power if not as a cinematic one, technically has just one, In the Mood for Love, since The Last Emperor was an international production and, of the other four Chinese films in the Collection, three were made in Hong Kong before it reverted back to Chinese hands and one was made on the disputed island of Taiwan.)

Part of the reason for the lack of Indian films in the collection (along with all the licensing issues associated with any difficult-to-reach corner of the film world) is that most of the films made in India are not very good. Like music, film in India has an entirely different grammar and set of building blocks to construct a movie out of - only unlike music, these elements were borne out of populist success and cultural limitations. This makes the majority of film from the country bogged down in meaningless dance sequences (nevertheless set to awesome music) and love stories that lack even kissing. This goes a long way towards explaining why Satyajit Ray - unquestionably the most highly regarded Indian filmmaker in the world - never got a particularly strong reception in his home country, unlike Kurosawa who was frequently criticized as having a Western slant but remained justifiably revered in Japan until his late-career skid.

But Ray's film isn't in the Criterion Collection because they needed more Indian films, and it wasn't selected because it felt more Western. In many ways, The Music Room is a response to the culture of Indian film at the time; it may have even been intended as a way forward for an industry that had yet to gain respect on a grand stage. It's also not, as some have argued, a consolation prize for the assumed impending Apu Trilogy Criterion release. The Music Room stands on its own as a powerful depiction of a dying class and one man within it. It's also beautiful and haunting, a great film that deserves this release on quality alone.

I think what I liked most about The Music Room was the house Ray used and the way he used it. His protagonist floats through it like a ghost, already resigned to his fate as a disappeared creature, the last of his kind. No one wants to be the one to close up shop, and the slowly decaying house around him is constant reminder of these final days. Small touches like the spider on the portrait, the cobwebs and dwindling candles in the chandelier, and the slowly cracking walls are just perfect for the film's elegiacal tone. The technical work of The Music Room is perhaps not as sophisticated as what was coming out of Europe at the time (nor is it as overblown as what was coming out of Hollywood), but Ray is obviously a powerful force behind the camera, and I'm looking forward to the Apu trilogy, whether or not we get that dream Criterion set that would help make amends for their sins of omission to this point when it comes to virtually every country from the Asian mainland, but India in particular.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

#130: The Shop on Main Street

(Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Along with Closely Watched TrainsThe Shop on Main Street is one of two Czech films Criterion released in tandem early in Criterion's DVD run that primarily revolved around the country's role in World War II two decades earlier. The two films were made a year apart and, along with a number of other 60s films, signaled the emergence of the Czech New Wave, a movement which has since been represented in a well-regarded Eclipse box set.

Beyond these similarities - which are by no means superficial - the films share little in common. Closely Watched Trains had a light and wry tone, and even in dark moments the film never felt heavy or especially serious. Conversely, The Shop on Main Street is one of the most intense films you are likely to see - about the Holocaust or anything. It doesn't necessarily start out that way, but as the film descends into conflict and the protagonist takes his stand, there are few more disturbing and emotional climaxes in the Collection.

This isn't what makes The Shop on Main Street a masterpiece, though. That's a combination of the beautiful and skillful direction, mainly by Kadar, and the lead performance by Jozef Kroner. Kroner's work, in fact, threatens to overtake everything else about the film - he's that good in this role, which requires a wide range of emotion and physical and mental states. This alone would guarantee the movie a place in history, but the direction is so intricate without being overbearing that this is a masterclass in filmmaking from a lesser-known director. When compared to the simplistic work in Closely Watched Trains, it's a good reminder that just because Czechoslovakia was blooming as an international cinematic voice doesn't mean they weren't already a diverse and talented group with very different aesthetic takes and levels of sophistication.

The Shop on Main Street, I should also point out, is the best indication yet that I am not "scraping the bottom of the barrel" as I near the end of the Criterion Collection. I put this film off for so long mainly because it is not available on Hulu or Netflix, meaning I would have to rent it in order to watch it, unlike most of the other Czech films in the Collection. While the film isn't as high profile as even some of those films, and certainly not as well-known as, say, Breathless or Seven Samurai, this is one of the best films Criterion has released, and, I think, essential viewing for anyone interested in film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#508: Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa

(Pedro Costa, 1997-2006)

Letters from Fontainhas is the kind of set only Criterion would release. Without a company like this, these three films would be issued in bare-bones, poorly designed separate discs - if they were released Stateside at all. To the market's credit, there's a pretty good case for this fate - there aren't many people who would want this box set, and even those people probably wouldn't argue that they watch it on a regular basis (it's only found in 200 or so collections on the Criterion site right now - 500+ is more typical).

So why is this informal trilogy worth releasing? On quality, these are vital films that say something desperately unique about the nature of cinema at the turn of the century. They demand attention from film historians and makers alike, and even if they are difficult - and they are certainly that - there is something invigorating about their grammar. As a product, Criterion is not in the business of releasing (only) films that will sell well or are guaranteed to generate a huge response from cinephiles. It's in Criterion's best interest as a company to release films that reinforce their brand as a continued arbiter of significant film. Letters from Fontainhas easily satisfies this motivation - it's a stunning collection from a lesser-known but extremely well-respected director from an under-exposed film industry.

But as a contribution to the home-viewing film audience, this release's worth is self-explanatory. Costa has received so little attention that even Manohla Darghis, in her NYT review of Colossal Youth, admitted that she had not seen any of Costa's previous films. This is exactly the kind of unsexy release that Criterion almost seems to have an obligation to produce - a beautifully rendered, impeccably packaged collection of movies that never would otherwise receive the kind of loving high-profile release they deserve, put out simply because it is good and worthy of that release.

Watching the films in order is even more rewarding than the individual films. As a triptych, they represent the evolution of an artist's approach to an otherworldly setting. All three have similar difficult pacing and deliberate camera work, but each film is clearly distinct. Ossos is certainly the most conventional. In Vanda's Room is a conscious rejection of this conventionality, exploding into a messy but intoxicatingly ambitious statement. Colossal Youth is the culmination of this journey and the most fully realized of the three, the moment when Costa emerged from his experimentation with a fully formed and wholly original cinematic grammar.

I want to see all three of these movies again, but I think I will wait until I can see them on the big screen. Despite the digital nature of the last two, these are big films meant to be shared in the darkness, and demand attention to deliver their rewards. In Vanda's Room in particular is a difficult viewing at home (and probably would be in theaters), but so are Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Thin Red Line. What's so impressive about Costa is that he manages to project the same epic potential with seemingly intimate and quietly ambitious subjects.

Ultimately, this box set sells itself - either you are the kind of person likely to pick this up and fall in love with Costa's voice, or you are part of the large majority of even Criterion loyalists who will pass over it for something a little more willing to give up its secrets. Both groups are right, which is what makes Criterion's release so welcome and impressive.

Links to individual reviews:

In Vanda's Room
Colossal Youth

#511: Colossal Youth

(Pedro Costa, 2006)

Colossal Youth is a breakthrough in Costa's loosely defined Fontainhas trilogy: the first movie that feels intimately bonded to its characters and pulls the viewer in instead of keeping them at arm's length. Despite this new relationship with its subjects, however, the film remains nearly as challenging as the previous films - certainly more than Ossos, though nothing can match In Vanda's Room for a pure cinematic viewing gauntlet.

The film's story also falls between the two films in both the tightness of its narrative and its conventionality. Set after the projects have been demolished and many of the displaced residents are moving into new towers, the film follows one man as he bounces back and forth between the two worlds, one bright and gleaming mirage and one dank and dark forgotten hallucination. Unlike In Vanda's Room, most of the scenes here actually consist of people doing things, playing cards, moving through spaces, primarily telling stories. This makes the film feel less intrusive, but it doesn't provide any real throughline for the dialog - the stories here make Slacker look like a conventional romantic comedy.

It's easy to joke about Colossal Youth and Costa's work, simply because it's so unconventional - calling this movie cliche is like calling a David Lynch film predictable. But this is a deeply serious movie, made with the kind of humanistic care often ignored or taken for granted in even the most socially conscious cinema. Costa was working towards Colossal Youth for a decade. It took him this long to understand these characters and this world, thereby allowing us to feel like we've been in their shoes. It's not the best film in the trilogy - that label would belong to In Vanda's Room if I had my say - but it's the most successful at bringing you into the world it inhabits, something equally impressive.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#182: Straw Dogs

(Sam Peckinpah, 1971)

Straw Dogs is a hateful, despicable movie. It's often cited by its detractors as a prime example of exploitative schlock masquerading as challenging high-art, designed to get away with the very outrageous violence and misogyny it claims to be shining a light on in order to unsettle our unsuspecting but complicit sensibilities. In reality, it's much less effective than that. It's a sincere attempt at the latter, honorable intention - but one that fails on virtually every level. It might deserve the hate and vitriol thrown at it if it wasn't such a ham-fisted, cliche, almost lazy attempt to attack an extremely difficult subject.

The film focuses on a couple on the verge of collapsing, making a last ditch attempt to maintain their marriage by returning to the wife's hometown/country so the husband can finish his studies and they can have a nice quiet life. Of course, the backwards fucked up townies will have something to say about that, as they promptly begin to hang their cat, rape the woman (who of course decides she kind of enjoys it) and then lay siege to the house, willing to lay down their lives just to ruin Dustin Hoffman's day because he doesn't know how to do work around the house.

The film's intention is to make us all accomplices in this crime against humanity, which is to say Peckinpah sees only shittiness in humanity and sees it as his mission to make us realize our own shittiness. Art is not successful if its pure intention is to make you feel good about yourself, but the reverse is true as well. There is no complexity in Straw Dogs, and Susan George's character would come across as misogynistic if you aren't paying close enough attention to Dustin Hoffman, who is equally weak-willed and deplorable. It shouldn't be surprising that the film was remade during the recent torture porn revival - these are the empty bodies ready to receive violence and hate upon them and give back only blood and tears that have been so decried and fetishized through modern horror. Compare Straw Dogs to the far superior Wes Craven film The Hills Have Eyes (loosely based on Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and it's clear whose sensibility has taken over - Peckinpah's nihilism reigns supreme.

Many reviewers have defended the film against these many complaints. It should be noted that Hoffman justifiably receives praise - he does all he can with the role and it's one of his strongest performances. And like always, Peckinpah's direction and skill at manipulation is expert, if a bit dated. But the movie falls apart in the simplest of ways, and its worst elements are the ones designed to be ignored by the larger questions raised by the shocking moments that receive most of the attention in glowing reviews. These critics have forgiven the film its basic structural flaws in order to exalt its excesses. This is why people thrill over Peckinpah's elaborate use of jump cuts during the rape while ignoring the clumsy machinations necessary to set up the final showdown. They pass over the poorly defined villains, who come across just as ludicrous and Three Stooges-like as the Pesci/Stern duo they inspired in Home Alone, in order to dissect Peckinpah's depiction of George as a sexual creature first and foremost. Because Peckinpah's previous films are so brilliant (particularly The Wild Bunch, surely one of the most iconoclastic films in history), we are expected to forgive Hoffman's illogical character arc, which takes him from being run off the road by the thugs to hunting with them to taking a stand without much motivation. Straw Dogs is forced to become an "intellectually challenging exploration of human psychology" because, well, as a movie, it's pretty dreadful.

It all might be forgiven if the movie felt like it was making an original point, as ugly as that point might be. I could argue that Irreversible or Fat Girl or Requiem for a Dream was something we hadn't seen before, and maybe if I lived in 1971 I would feel differently about Straw Dogs. But all Straw Dogs feels like to me is an empty case against logical pacifism designed to terrorize rather than educate. It's the equivalent of the ticking time bomb argument for torture, and the plot here is just as convoluted and contrived as that scenario would demand. There is a case for violence, but this movie's argument is a poorly made house of cards caught up in a distracting and destructive hurricane. Don't let it get you caught up in its fury.

Monday, November 12, 2012

#631: The Trilogy of Life

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971-1974)

The Trilogy of Life is the first of two big box sets Criterion will be releasing for the Holiday season, and it's arguably the higher-profile one. This would no doubt be endlessly amusing to Pasolini, as he imagines Americans all over the country exchanging his most sexual works in plastic-wrapped high-end packaging under the Christmas tree. This is not the most typical gift for the season that I can think of, but it is certainly one of the most awkward.

Of the three films, I certainly liked Arabian Nights the most, although The Decameron is probably the most entertaining and accessible film in the bunch. Those two films are head-and-shoulders above The Canterbury Tales, which is so disappointing that I'm sure it would not have received a Criterion release had it not been tied to the other two, Pasolini or not.

I am beginning to appreciate Pasolini as an iconoclast, but I have yet to be truly impressed with any of his movies. I doubt I will start with Salo, but I'll try as best I can to keep an open mind...

Links to individual reviews:

The Decameron
The Canterbury Tales
Arabian Nights

#634: Arabian Nights

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974)

At one point in Arabian Nights, a story is told within a story which is being told within a story within the film. This is indicative of Pasolini's third film in his Trilogy of Life, by far the best and most innovative of the three.

Like The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights is based on an iconic literary pillar of its respective culture, with an emphasis on the sexual tales. However, Arabian Nights is a much more cohesive narrative - though this is a bit misleading. After all, the story winds its way through numerous protagonists and settings, with stories told in so many layers that the movie takes on its own narrative framing, where the overarching story of the film informs the stories within it. There is just as much sexuality in Arabian Nights as the previous two films - in some ways more. And it's just as ludicrous at times, like when one character aims a penis-tipped arrow at a woman's nether regions. But Arabian Nights never feels cheesy and borderline soft-core where the others practically exalted this tone as the pinnacle of their artistic striving.

Arabian Nights isn't a great movie. It's too long, with too many side stories that aren't interesting, and it lacks compelling character development up front that would have made the core story more enjoyable and engaging. I liked watching Arabian Nights, just as I liked watching The Decameron. But I don't know how much I'll really think about this movie, despite its unique structure and enjoyable scope.

#633: The Canterbury Tales

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)

I did not like The Canterbury Tales. It came off like a mediocre version of The Decameron, with fewer jokes and more people farting in each other's faces. The scene in Hell, which has been much-touted and highly praised, is more impressive for the fact that it was actually made than for any quality. Maybe I'm just not a bathroom humor guy.

It's not surprising that the film would be grouped together with The Decameron as two thirds of a trilogy. Their similarities are legion: classic text adapted with an eye towards the more sexual and controversial themes and elements, a series of loosely connected stories rather than one overarching narrative, and again an unusual aesthetic and tone that walk the line between high art and low art.

But The Canterbury Tales lacks the novelty of its predecessor. Part of this is inevitable since it came second, but in reverse I suspect this movie would be seen as the failed experiment that produced the enjoyable and successful follow-up. This is because The Canterbury Tales lacks the affection and playfulness of The Decameron. It seems overly concerned with its own controversial nature, and stuck in a rut of iconoclasm without purpose.

Maybe I just don't like fart jokes, though.

Monday, November 5, 2012

#632: The Decameron

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971)

The Decameron veers tantalizingly close to the steamy series and old features that dominated Cinemax and Showtime late at night in the 1990s. The combination of bad dubbing, almost old-man levels of sexuality, and a tie in to classic literature that walks the line between homage and excuse for "high brow" soft-core skin is all familiar to the insomniac of the pre-internet era. There was often a great deal of humor in these films to go with the nudity, making The Decameron even closer to the genre.

So what sets this film apart from those unmemorable dirty hours of content? For one, The Decameron is rather well shot - unsurprising coming from Pasolini, but strange to watch when this type of content would so typically be the realm of mediocre directors who don't know how to use their low budgets. More importantly, The Decameron is genuinely funny, with some of the stories making me laugh out loud (most notably the one in which a father feigns surprise that he has discovered his daughter in bed with a boy so that he can force the boy - who he feels comes from a good family and is a good match for his daughter - to marry her). Having lived my whole life in an era when this kind of nudity and explicit sexuality was accepted in film, I have a hard time getting behind this movie as a significant commentary on anything - though I'm sure Pasolini's decision to make a film like this seemed quite controversial at the time. But it is a fun watch for people who aren't going to be offended by things like penises, poop jokes, and nuns getting down and dirty.

#414: Two-Lane Blacktop

(Monte Hellman, 1971)

This movie was made by a Hollywood studio. Like, a real one! That gave them money and everything! I just want that to sink in for people as they watch Two-Lane Blacktop, a decidedly anti-Hollywood car movie that followed in the wake of Easy Rider's surprise box office success at the end of the 1960s.

Still, Two-Lane Blacktop makes Easy Rider look like Oliver!, and it's almost impossible to make a comparison between this film and a single other movie that has been released by a major studio in the last ten years in terms of tone and pacing (maaaaybe the Solaris remake, but even that is sci-fi - and needed Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, and George Clooney to get made). There's little dialog from the two leads, the plot moves at a glacial pace, and the movie in general is much more about the feel of the film than anything it is saying.

This might be taken by a large number of people as an indication that the film is expecting you to fill in the gaps where they didn't bother to put any real meaning (a recent example of this that was moderately successful was Drive, which is better than its reception but not nearly as impressive as its reappraisal might imply). I think there's a lot to be said for the film being somewhat of a trend piece masquerading as a deep meditation on life, but I think this argument falls apart simply when you look at what kind of impact this film has had on people. Now, I'm not here to say that any movie's popularity inherently confirms its philosophical significance. But I think the way in which Two-Lane Blacktop is presented, the way it has been received, and the basic criticisms that might be leveled against it - not that it's shallow, but that it's too removed, too obtuse, and too of its time - fall apart when faced with its timeless appeal and meaningful place in the lives of both youngsters of the era and car nerds of any era.

On a personal level, however, Two-Lane Blacktop represents little more for me than an example of just how impressive the auteur infiltration of Hollywood was post-Easy Rider and The Graduate. As someone who has almost no interest in cars as anything other than something that can get me from place to place, hopefully without costing me too much money, the film would need to have done one of two things: introduce me to a world I know nothing about or deliver compelling characters that I would care about on a universal level. The film's zen-like approach to these two elements make these goals impossible.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

#628: The Forgiveness of Blood

(Joshua Marston, 2011)

The Forgiveness of Blood is a very good movie. It's engaging, well-acted, and directed with a soft touch that leaves judgments up to the viewer. But as a film standing on its own merits, I don't necessarily know that it rises to Criterion level. When the movie was released earlier this year, it received good reviews, but garnered little attention. Like Marston's last movie, Maria, Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood is a solid film in search of something to push it over into greatness. But that earlier film found an audience thanks to the much sexier (and more relevant to American audiences) subject of a drug mule smuggling heroin into the US and a remarkable lead performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno. None of the performances here shine like that one did, but these are all charismatic actors with striking faces who pull off the emotional range of their characters with a natural ease; Marston certainly has a way with actors. It's just that the subject matter of the film - and its Albanian setting - is so foreign to audiences that the stakes rarely seem real enough to get wrapped up in the interactions, something which probably doomed its theatrical run.

If the best case for the film's inclusion isn't its quality or its social significance, I would argue the movie merits another look from American audiences because of Marston's unique filmmaking choices - specifically, his choice to make two American films about non-Americans, including this one which has no connection to America at all. His background in journalism seems especially relevant in this regard, and when approached as narrative journalism pieces instead of typical fictional movies, the films become more interesting.

What would The Forgiveness of Blood had looked like had it been made by an Albanian director for Albanian audiences? Is the film in its current carnation more relevant as an introduction to a crucial aspect of modern Albanian society, or does it advance beyond this introduction and become a commentary on this aspect? Perhaps the most elementary question is whether Marston's intention with the film was to shine a light on Albania for Americans, or  to speak to a parallel but more subtle cultural conflict he sees within our own society.

Obviously Marston intends to project a global universality with his films that is not purposefully present in foreign films made for their native audiences. He must assume that his viewers will relate to his characters despite the gulf between their cultures and social norms, otherwise there is no purpose to his movies. The biggest risk he takes with his films is the potential for being viewed as a cultural tourist, surveying a society and attempting to capture it without intimate knowledge. Of course, many other filmmakers do this - think of John Sayles, who almost invariably has an eye on American stories but rarely uses the same setting or types of characters twice. But Marston, who, like me, grew up in the Los Angeles area and most likely had little contact with Albanians, takes this separation to the extreme with The Forgiveness of Blood.

There is a real push and pull at work when a filmmaker is removed from his subject, a conflict that is ever-present in modern-day American-style objective journalism. Because it is impossible to be truly objective, a work relies on viewers and readers to sort out the truth in what's on the screen. This is of course true of any movie - certainly viewers look at Triumph of the Will and For All Mankind with a different lens, though both claim to be documentaries. But when there is a clear separation between the filmmaker and his subject, particularly when a film is about something as little-known in America as Albanian common law, it can be difficult to sort out the director's skew from your own. It might be unfair, but I approach The Forgiveness of Blood with much more skepticism towards its depiction of modern day Albania than I might have had it been directed by an Albanian (it was co-written by an Albanian, by the way). In some respects, this is silly: Albanians can have just as skewed of a perspective as outsiders. But The Forgiveness of Blood speaks to the ways in which we use film (and by conduit other people) to teach us things about the world. Not only should this process be constantly questioned and reevaluated by the viewer, it should be examined by every filmmaker - or even artist - when pairing a subject with their own unique but limited perspective.