Monday, January 31, 2011

#459: The Exterminating Angel

(Luis Buñuel, 1962)

Alternately invigorating and frustratingly obtuse, The Exterminating Angel is vintage Buñuel as even I can tell from having seen just a few of his films. After being run out of Spain because of his previous film, Viridiana, Buñuel returned to Mexico to make this surreal satire in which a group of distinguished guests find themselves trapped at a dinner party inexplicably. What follows is nothing less than the breakdown of Western civilization.

The film has high intentions when exploring this concept, most of which are successful. The social dynamic stands in for a crumbling hierarchy which in 1962 was already teetering on the brink of extinction. And the various religious references (the supper, the sheep, the discussion of virgins, etc.) are both expected from Buñuel and unexpectedly coy - you have to love the final moment in which the situation is thrust upon a group of churchgoers and, rather than cause further controversy, Buñuel slyly lets himself out the back door.

But The Exterminating Angel is at its core little more than a joke, a sketch stretched out into feature length which asks the question "What if someone violated the most meaningless and yet seemingly essential rules of social etiquette?" The joke is that the world would simply stop and everyone would be forced to sit in purgatory until they finally got it right and went about their normal ways once more. Buñuel's extension of this joke is satisfying, but no more impressive than any comedy routine that centers around one big idea, no matter how meaningful.

Despite my enjoyment of this core concept - and a large number of highly enjoyable moments in the film - I wasn't entirely invested in The Exterminating Angel because of the rest of the plot, which centered around the lives of the main characters and their interactions as they slowly begin to crumble. I had a difficult time telling anyone in the film apart, which made it hard for me to follow the back-and-forth of who's cheating on whom, which two people were once friends but have since turned on one another, and how these characters were evolving as individuals rather than as a group as the crisis goes on. I would imagine further viewings would illuminate my views on many of these questions, but I'm not sure how eager I am to give the film another go. I could see this movie growing in stature - it's a sort of surreal version of one of my favorite films, The Rules of the Game - but as of this viewing I admire Buñuel's wry touch but remain unmoved by his characters' stories.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

#434: Classe Tous Risques

(Claude Sautet, 1960)

Classe Tous Risques is a very good movie, but it's a lock for inclusion in the Collection because it stars two of the greatest French stars of all time, Lino Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Watching these two together (Belmonde had just made Breathless, and was not yet a star) is a real treat, and it turns a slightly plodding film with no real transcendent moments into an enjoyable exercise in noir.

Ventura plays a crime boss who fled France years before at risk of being arrested. When he attempts to return with his wife and children, he realizes the path isn't going to be as smooth as he had expected. Before long, his old friends have turned on him, and only a rogue thief played by Belmondo is willing to help him out.

Both actors give their trademark performances, with Ventura projecting a complex and quiet strength, while Belmondo effortlessly oozes cool. But the movie itself is only intermittently suspenseful, and while the performances make it compelling and engaging, Sautet (who was essentially debuting as a director) isn't the filmmaker Jules Dassin or Jean-Pierre Melville was. I also found the narration, while informative, to be awkward and abrupt, particularly at the end, which left me somewhat unsatisfied.

Classe Tous Risques ends up being a worthwhile viewing for anyone interested in the 50s and 60s French noirs. But it's definitely not a classic of the era, and remains more notable for its stellar pair of stars.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

#332: Viridiana

(Luis Buñuel, 1961)

There aren't many accomplished directors with lengthy oeuvres who are best known for shorts, and Buñuel is probably the most obvious (others would be Jean Vigo, Maya Deren, and um Chuck Jones of course). Catapulted to fame as a young man with his two collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou and the near-feature L'Age d'Or, Buñuel was forced to leave Spain during the civil war pre-World War II and didn't really rise to international prominence again until Viridiana in 1961. Over the next few decades, Buñuel would make a number of well-regarded features - including Belle de Jour and future Criterion viewings The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire - but it's hard to eclipse the reputation of Un Chien Andalou, arguably the most famous short film in cinema history, and the work every film student sees before they even know what a tracking shot is.

But beginning with Viridiana, Buñuel had a run of films that are highly regarded, nearly all of which I have not seen. So here we go. Viridiana is a satire without comedy, a dark and angry film that retains a lightness by relying on Buñuel's unique absurdity. The film is centered on a young woman about to take her vows as a nun when her uncle she hardly knows compels her to come visit him. There, he goes about trying to convince and then trick the woman into giving up her vows and staying with him.

The movie was banned in Spain until the end of Franco's reign, and really it's no surprise. There are two attempted rapes, one burned crown of thorns, a nun corrupted, and a beggar's banquet turned into the last supper (and then subjected to a woman's flashing). The whole movie is basically about how you can try to do good all you want, but people will shit on you anyway, but Buñuel doesn't particularly seem to care that much. It's like if at the end of Schindler's List, instead of that shitty bookend with the grave site, Spielberg had just showed himself, turned to the camera, and said "Meh, whatevs." (Note: this is an extreme example. Note 2: That would have been amazing.)

Viridiana does end up being entertaining because of this attitude, but I can't say I really connected with any of the characters, and I felt like the plotting was a bit disjointed. I don't think this century will displace the last century in terms of filmmaking - there just isn't as far to go anymore - but I think the one area in which the 20th century canon will start to feel stale is the constant specter of class over movies from the middle of the century. It's not to say that class doesn't still matter, but I think the way in which it was dealt does not feel modern or speak to the intellectual zeitgeist of this generation. Viridiana (and I'm afraid other Buñuel films to come) is one of those movies that just doesn't seem in touch with current artistic or progressive thought. This doesn't make it a bad movie, but it makes it more of an artifact in context than a living breathing work of art.

Monday, January 3, 2011

#554: Still Walking

(Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)

Like two other IFC/Criterion collaborations, Still Walking focuses on a family struggling to relate to each other. But unlike those films, Kore-eda's movie revels in the ordinary, content to focus on the unspoken moments. The Yokoyama family, anchored by an aging retired doctor and meddlesome but loving mother, gathers to commemorate the death of the eldest son, who drowned saving a boy years earlier. The film pivots around Ryo, the younger brother, who has married a widow and mother of a young boy, and is bringing her home to disapproving parents he attempts to avoid every chance he gets.

Anyone with a surface knowledge of Japanese cinema will conjure up the obvious comparison to the films of Ozu hearing this summary. And in fact the comparison is apt. Kore-eda lingers on quiet details, and the film doesn't just avoid the flashy effects that color a film like A Christmas Tale, it seems completely unaware of their existence. It similarly defies easy resolutions or climaxes, instead choosing to depict one day of a family at its most basic level.

But like Ozu's films, Still Walking left me cold. Hirokazu Kore-eda made one of my favorite recent Japanese films, After Life, and I've often wondered if Criterion had their eye on that much better film for a release. Admittedly, the earlier film has a hookier premise that translates into a more overtly ambitious offering. Still Walking is the kind of film that will move a select few, but most people will be left with a nice little movie with fleeting memorable moments.

#480: The Human Condition

(Masaki Kobayashi, 1959)

The Human Condition begins and ends with a snowstorm. In between these two natural events are nine-and-a-half hours that make up one of the great epics in cinema, and easily one of the best war movies I've ever seen. Set during the end of World War II - and based on a similarly epic novel - the film tells the story of a Japanese man named Kaji, who goes from young worker to soldier to POW over the course of a few years. Initially an idealistic socialist and essentially a pacifist, Kaji is broken down into a cynical and vengeful wielder of justice, his only hope for humanity stuck on somehow returning to the wife he was forced to leave when he was drafted.

Spread over six episodes, the movie is really made up of three sections: Kaji at work trying to reform the labor practices of his company and attempting to help Chinese prisoners gain better conditions, Kaji being drafted into the military and facing the even more difficult authoritarian structure of the army, and finally Kaji wandering the countryside desperate to survive at any cost. Despite its lengthy running time, there are no lulls in the action, and each section has its own unique twist that keeps the running themes from feeling too repetitive. Still, the constant moral and social defeats Kaji faces can be draining, and the film is certainly difficult to watch at times.

Kobayashi's other masterpieces, Samurai Rebellion and Harakiri, cover similar themes of corrupt systems destroying the individual, and The Human Condition is at its core anti-authoritarian. Yet those later films couched their criticisms in the cinematic tropes most familiar to audiences. Here, there is no metaphor to shield you from the truth: war isn't hell, it's society at its most obvious and inevitable conclusion. As a true humanist, Kobayashi doesn't set Koji up as a Jesus figure, but he also doesn't shy away from showing the true horrors human beings are willing to stoop to when they are unfettered. Over the course of the film, Koji meets many good people, some of whom grow and evolve as they gain new experiences. But The Human Condition does not fault evil men for doing what they want any more than it faults good men for being unable to stop them. The movie instead condemns a system that doesn't allow good to prevail, and in fact rewards evil. In war and peace alike, rationality and power are divorced, so justice dies. Koji slowly realizes this truth is universal when he is captured by the Soviets, whom he had formerly held up in his mind as the ideal, having bought the bill of goods sold to so many left-sympathizers of his generation. By this time, he is a broken man, uncertain of even his own chance for redemption.

The Human Condition offers no answers, and in fact asks very few questions. Instead, it hopes for the possibility of redemption through personal growth. When faced with such injustice and despair, all anyone can do is look inside themselves. That's what Kobayashi did when he made this film, and any viewer who makes it through its entire running time can hope to come out the other side a little more aware of their own humanity.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

#458: El Norte

(Gregory Nava, 1983)

El Norte is another great rescue from Criterion, as the film had never been released on DVD. Now it's in startlingly beautiful blu-ray, and a modern audience can see how relevant the film still is today. More importantly, they can experience it in its full glory as a masterpiece of early-modern-era independent cinema, a moving and constantly entertaining piece of American drama.

The movie tells the story of Enrique and Rosa, two siblings from Guatemala whose father is murdered by the military he was plotting against. When their mother is taken, they realize their only hope for survival is to flee to the United States ("el norte" - the north). What follows is at first a harrowing tale of perseverance and then a tragic transition from dream realized to reality confronted. Gregory Nava (who would go on to direct Jennifer Lopez's breakthrough role in Selena) presents the film with a delicately crafted tone and pace, and though there are moments of dated stylistic choices (such as Enrique's murder of the soldier) there are also sequences which I'm unlikely to forget, most notably the scene in the tunnel as Enrique and Rosa crawl by countless hungry rats on their way to freedom.

Oddly enough, the first movie that popped into my head as a comparison to El Norte when I sat down to write this post was Broadcast News. Neither film is perfect - here, some of the acting can be melodramatic (though David Villalpundo as Enrique is completely absorbing) and the climax feels a bit contrived. But both movies represent the pinnacle of their genres, and are perhaps even more relevant today than they were when they were released. In my review of Broadcast News, I said it would make my list of five films every American should see before entering society. I would also include El Norte on that list. Unlike so many other movies about the immigrant experience, El Norte never feels preachy. The white Americans do not take up a great deal of space in the film, but they don't feel like caricatures either. It's also a stunningly moving film, and even the most hardened minuteman would begin to identify with the journey of these two innocent human beings.

That's not to say minds would be changed by El Norte. Like any movie, the film has a point of view, and reality is a complex place. But I think El Norte adds to that complexity by offering up a chance for the average American to have a richer appreciation of reality. These are, after all, people who come to this country. They don't do it because they want a bigger house or a nicer car. They do it so they can survive. They don't get on a plane to come here, or drive over the border. They cross deserts, cover mountains, crawl through tunnels or swim rivers. Many of them die, those that don't live in constant fear of being deported, or thrown in prison. Yet they risk it all so they can work countless hours as housekeepers, gardeners, dishwashers, parking attendants, farmers, slaughterhouse workers. They know this is the life they are striving for even before they come here. They come because they are compelled to come, by powers far greater than a fence built to stop them, or the hatred of the color of their skin, or a fear of never feeling like they belong. Even if someone believes 100% that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to come to this country, they must understand this completely, if simply to know what their idealistic concept is up against.

However, the most obvious appreciation the film demands is not political, but simply an acknowledgment of the advantages we have as mostly free and relatively wealthy Americans. The advent of the internet in particular, with sites like Yelp and Amazon asking for the opinions of their users, has made it ever more apparent just how entitled everyone in our culture is, constantly complaining about how they had to wait 30 minutes for a table, or how their coffee machine broke after two months of use and they had to send it back to get a new one, or how they don't like their hotel room and they need to move to a nicer one or they are never spending their money there ever again. I arrived early to a restaurant a few weeks ago and was waiting outside with a few other people for it to open. Someone came up and asked a man who was waiting when the restaurant opened. "Well, according to my watch it was supposed to be about two minutes ago," the man replied in an annoyed tone. That dude should really see El Norte. Better yet, he should crawl through a tunnel for a few miles and have rats crawl all over him. Or he could just shut the fuck up and wait two minutes to get his burger and be happy he lives in the greatest country on the planet, the one that millions of people have risked everything to come to so they could give him everything he ever wanted, only cheaper, faster, and with more efficiency than he deserves.

But now I'm getting preachy where the movie didn't. What's ultimately important about the film is not my reaction, but how impossible it would be for anyone to avoid having some kind of reaction to this story. The fact that a movie made nearly thirty years ago can speak so clearly to the modern life - despite being about two people who couldn't be more different than the average American viewer - is a testament to its enduring humanity and our frustrating unwillingness as a culture to empathize with people who are different from us, something movies have the unique ability to change.