Monday, February 28, 2011

#290: The Phantom of Liberty

(Luis Buñuel, 1974)

Knowing his penchant for playfulness and absurdity, it's no surprise Buñuel followed up his international hit The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie with this film, his most anarchic. Conceived from the initial seed idea of leaving a story just as it is getting interesting, The Phantom of Liberty is essentially a sketch comedy film, closer in spirit to Monty Python than Viridiana.

Like any episodic movie, some segments are more effective than others, and the comparison is inevitable. But there are far more hits than misses here, starting with the rebels being executed for not wanting to be liberated and peaking with two sequences: the little girl who goes missing but is actually standing right next to her parents and the much-discussed scene in which dinner guests go to the bathroom at the table but eat in a private dining room.

The Phantom of Liberty was made only because Buñuel himself had the most liberty he had ever had after the success of Bourgeoisie. He chose to use it to explore the entire concept of freedom, and the end result is something no other director could have made, both because no one could have thought of sequences like the man being whipped by a dominatrix in front of monks, but also because no one would have had the creative capital to spend in order to make that dream a reality. This is what makes films like The Phantom of Liberty so satisfying, and it makes me appreciate Buñuel's earlier films more, because without them, we wouldn't have a dirty old man giving little girls at the playground pictures of famous monuments.


On a personal note, this is the 200th film I've watched for this project. Over the past 15 months, I have seen more great movies than I could have imagined. I am pleased both by the number of spectacular entries in the collection and by my own ability to stick to this and see it through (which was inevitably helped by the former). Excepting future announced releases for the moment, I am at about the halfway point, since I had already seen about 150 of the films in the collection (give or take). I don't know how long it will take me to finish the rest (the recent Hulu deal should help me immensely) but I feel very confident that I will actually be able to pull this off. I hope anyone reading this has been encouraged to seek out some of these films, and I would love to hear your thoughts on whichever film strikes your fancy. This blog is by no means meant to be the last word on any of these movies, but is instead meant as a jumping off point for my thoughts and, hopefully, for you own, so I welcome any and all comments to open up a dialog about a film, whether I loved it or (even better) didn't get it. Hopefully together we can see this thing through!

#563: Something Wild

(Jonathan Demme, 1986)

Something Wild belongs to the quirky 80s of Peggy Sue Got Married and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, a decade that ran ironically parallel to the overblown, overcoked 80s of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. A unique combination of a romantic comedy and a suspense thriller, Demme's film was made in the only decade it could have been, where genres could intermingle and screenwriters and directors could shift tones without alienating the audience. Quite frankly, Something Wild does not get made today.

The film begins with Jeff Daniels quietly sneaking out on a check, a move which is picked up on by Melanie Grffith, playing a somewhat generic "wild lady." She quickly and casually kidnaps him, taking him on a whirlwind journey that includes a motel room sex sequence, robbing a liquor store, and, naturally, meeting her mother and attending her high school reunion. Once they leave the high school reunion, however, things become notably darker when Ray Liotta shows up, unwilling to let Griffith, to whom he is still technically married, get away.

There are all kinds of issues in the film that would be drafted away by the modern studio executive, many of them rightfully so. Both characters are extremely unlikable initially, and many people wouldn't have the patience to sit through the film to find out the revelations about the characters which make them more sympathetic and real. It's largely unclear why Griffith would be attracted to Daniels, and totally unclear why she wants to go to her high school reunion with him (especially since she knows Liotta might be there). Finally, the climactic scene in Daniels's house is so out of place in what is essentially marketed as an offbeat romantic comedy that, were it included today, theatergoers would revolt.

Yet the movie works. It's not at all a great film, and all of the issues above are very real and legitimate, but Daniels has a puppy dog innocence that is charming and makes you root for him, and Demme uses his considerable skills to make the film brisk when it needs to be and to build the tension as it careens towards its finale. While Something Wild will certainly not be for everyone, it's a reminder that cinematic rules have cycles, that not everyone wants to see movies that play by these rules, and most certainly that the 80s were the last time when such films were able to successfully thrive in Hollywood.

Ironically, many of the executives now running Hollywood grew up on 80s films, and are constantly looking for projects that recall their favorite movies of their youth. The pull between these honest desires and the dishonest necessities of making multi-million dollar movies in an era when fewer and fewer people are going to the movies is undoubtedly a constant struggle, but one which financial considerations will (understandably) win every time. Films like Something Wild are the casualty of this victory, one which most people won't give a second thought. But for viewers who appreciate films that challenge genre perceptions and introduce something offbeat, even personal, into the conventional Hollywood structure, the golden days are over.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

#228: Salvatore Giuliano

(Francesco Rosi, 1961)

Salvatore Giuliano would have been amazing if I was Italian. I think even watching the commentary would dramatically change my perception of the film. Unfortunately, I didn't watch the commentary, and most people who watch or have watched this film don't get the opportunity to watch commentary, and so I was largely lost in this film.

Watching the movie, I was reminded of two things. The first was Gomorrah, which was a much more accessible but ultimately not nearly as well made (and not nearly as important) as this earlier film which set the way for a specific kind of docudrama. The second was, of course, The Wire, which I am reminded of every time I encounter a multi-layered, complex, and reality-based film or TV show about crime and politics and the ways in which they interlap.

Finally though, I just didn't feel like I came away from the film with the kind of proper perspective on what happens in Sicily and how it relates to Italy as a whole. The film felt foreign to me in more than the literal sense, it felt distant - more importantly, it felt like I was only getting a few pieces of a puzzle that was out there for me to discover, but had not been provided in the film.

Because of these things, I think Salvatore Giuliano is the perfect example of a specific kind of movie that Criterion releases: the film that doesn't just benefit from supplements, but requires them. The surrounding supplements in this 2-disc set would inevitably enrich the experience of the film (I rented this movie, and therefore didn't have the second disc in the set). However, for me, the movie didn't interest me enough to seek out these supplements yet. Perhaps after watching Rosi's other film in the collection, Hands Over the City, I'll feel the urge to go back.

#561: Kes

(Ken Loach, 1970)

First of all, this.

OK, now that I've gotten that out of the way, I can move on to the 25-30% of this movie I understood. Kes is, as far as I know, the first film in a uniquely British film genre: inhabitant of a small working class, one industry town is able to get away from the drudgery and negativity of their surroundings through an unusual hobby/event/friendship. In most of these movies, including Kes, the inhabitant is a child. One of the first films I watched for this project was a tangential entry in this genre, but most are much more conventional, with arthouse sensations like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty leading the way.

Partially because it's the original, Kes is much more groundbreaking than its descendants. But the movie has a lot more to offer, including a superb performance by the lead actor, one of the most natural from any child performer in the series - and there are a lot of them. (Criterion loves coming of age stories, to the point where I have considered making it a genre label. I probably should, actually. There. I did it.) There are some really beautiful, heart-breaking scenes, like the one where the young boy presents to the class about falconry and take charge of his situation for the first time in his life, or where he talks about working to one of his teachers who is trying to reach out to him.

Along with the difficulty I had understanding the actors (I watched the film on Netflix, so no subtitles), I didn't really understand why the soccer sequence had to be so long, to the point where they even put the score of the game on the bottom of the screen as if it was on television. I also had a hard time dealing with the ending, which is extremely depressing in the way few of the film's descendants are. Kes was recently named one of the ten best British movies ever made in a big poll by the Guardian, and consistently appears on similar lists. While I can see its importance in British film history (and I haven't even mentioned that it is the breakthrough film by heralded director Ken Loach), the film doesn't reach classic level for me, and I think the build up may have been too much for such a small, intimate movie.

One last note: as with countless other films in the collection, it's a real gift to film lovers that Criterion has chosen Kes for inclusion. The version I watched on Netflix is in terrible shape, and cleaned up the movie will bring this unique era of British history to life.

Friday, February 25, 2011

#311: Sword of the Beast

(Hideo Gosha, 1965)

Sword of the Beast is part of Criterion's Rebel Samurai boxset, which also features Kobayashi's masterful Samurai Rebellion. While this movie isn't as impressive as that film, Hideo Gosha nevertheless manages to successfully incorporate anti-establishment themes that dwell on power and personal integrity into an otherwise conventional Western-influenced tale of the lone ranger. Gennosuke is a lowly swordsman in clan, intent on reforming its ways, when he is tricked into killing a minister by his superior. Refusing to sacrifice himself, he sets off to escape, not yet even able to grasp the fact that he no longer has a home. His journey of redemption takes a typical path for the era, but the film has enough appealing twists and entertaining showdowns that the plot becomes just as enjoyable as the themes explored in the film. Like Samurai Rebellion, Sword of the Beast is more samurai film than counter-culture expose. It uses anti-establishment themes because they were the dominant themes of the time, but ultimately its purpose is the same as a film like The Hidden Fortress, whereas a film such as Harakiri is less a samurai picture than a deep exploration of very contemporary issues.

The funny thing about the reformation of the Western/Samurai film - this most traditional of traditional genres, the home of John Wayne and the American dream on one side, Toshiro Mifune and the Japanese honor code on the other - was that the genre fit so easily into its new role, depicting tortured protagonists, splashed with shades of gray. The very same tools used to build up the mirror-image genres - individual achievement in the service of heroic glory, naturalism as a vehicle for mythmaking, archetypal characters that provided relatability - were just as quickly used to tear down the tenets those genres held dear. Now individuals were bucking the system to retain their own integrity, nature was being plundered at the expense of an all-too-real violence that threatened its very existence (think the gold digging here, cutting into the Earth, or most apparently the opening of The Wild Bunch, where a scorpion is carelessly tortured by children), and those same archetypes were being tossed on their head. Hookers don't have a heart of gold in Sword of the Beast, they strangle men to death. The (all but) death of the Western in the 1960s was perhaps the most significant development in American cinema that decade, and the samurai film - though not as permanently killed - suffered a similar fate at the hands of a generation intent on tearing down the system that came before them.

Sword of the Beast represents a worthy installment in this deconstruction because of the protagonist's inability to succumb to his lowly fate. The title inevitably offers up the question of whether Gennosuke was a beast even before he left his clan as an outlaw, and the movie seems to be his attempt to struggle with this dilemma. Regardless of the answer, Sword of the Beast is another highly entertaining samurai entry in the collection.

Monday, February 21, 2011

#102: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

(Luis Buñuel, 1972)

Finally! After a fairly uninspired journey through Buñuel's catalog, I've at long last arrived at a masterpiece. I always hate to agree with the Academy Awards, but The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a great film, and worthy of its win for Best Foreign Film of 1972 (although technically I don't agree with the statement, as Solaris was also released that year, but not submitted by the USSR). The film doesn't do anything significantly different from Buñuel's previous work, it just all comes together in a supremely entertaining fashion.

The basic concept of the movie is easily compared to The Exterminating Angel. Both films are about "respectable" members of society who attend a dinner party, but the earlier film prevents the attendees from leaving said party, while the hapless inhabitants of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie can never even get started. Every plan for dinner, every moment before taking a bite, even most moments involving sexual release, is interrupted for increasingly ridiculous and surreal reasons.

Despite this obvious comparison, the film of which I was most reminded was A Woman Is a Woman, which I watched (and loved) early in this project. Both films are completely unconcerned with the illusions of filmmaking, and would much prefer to dialogue with the viewer. At one point in Buñuel's film, a man named Sénéchal wakes up from a dream which we had previously thought was reality. Later on in the film, another moment turns out to be a dream from which someone else wakes up. "I was dreaming," the man says, "No, wait, I was dreaming that Sénéchal was dreaming and woke up, and then I was dreaming." Elsewhere, at keys moments where a character reveals something crucial, a plane conveniently flies overhead and we are kept in the dark.

Buñuel unsurprisingly tosses in some digs at the Catholic church, with a bishop who gets off on tending to a wealthy couple's garden, but these moments seem much more light-hearted than preachy. This is probably because everything here is so over the top that even as he depicts these horrible people in their horrible bourgeois lives you can't help but be sucked in by the sheer glee he is taking in skewering it all. There's simply no time to be weighed down by Buñuel's hang ups and heavy-handed politics. Which is most likely why such a politically aware film and relevant social commentary can be so easily tied to what is probably Godard's slightest work of the 60s and 70s, instead of to a film like Pierrot Le Fou, which is more relevant thematically.

Interestingly, the comparison between Godard and Buñuel can be extended beyond these two films fairly easily. According to some people (I haven't seen a direct quote), Buñuel was heavily influenced by Godard's political films while making The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and its surrounding films. Like Godard, Buñuel never made a film carelessly, and always had his overall thematic concerns in mind. This was primarily because both directors were so self-obsessed as to be constantly reflecting their own psychological wounds and personal dreams on the big screen (which is probably what made them both great artists). But they were also highly political filmmakers, in both their thematic and structural concerns. Most of the time, this dates their movies and hurts the long-term broad impact of movies like Viridiana and Tout Va Bien. But when they hit upon a specific and timeless theme (like in Contempt) or go broad enough (like in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) the results can be more illuminating than just about any other director could produce.

Friday, February 18, 2011

#402: The Milky Way

(Luis Buñuel, 1969)

Another meandering exploration of religion that wanders through absurdity, satire, and various moments of heresy, Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way had basically the same impact his previous films dealing with similar issues had on me. Not much.

Yeah, it's funny when a reflective and seemingly intelligent priest turns out to be an escaped mental patient. And I honestly lol'd when Mary told Jesus not to shave his beard. But I actually had a hard time even finishing The Milky Way. The whole film felt like a weird amalgamation of Buñuel's typical thematic and psychological concerns and a weird facsimile of the counterculture movement which surrounded its release. It also struck me as unfocused, the kind of film only a great director can make because anyone else would have been told "no." Reading the essays on the film didn't get me much further, and while I wouldn't say I've loved any Buñuel film I've watched so far, this if the first one I fail to see a real case for being included in the Collection. It's not that I hated it, it just felt slight, and I've yet to see a good case made for why I am wrong.

Monday, February 7, 2011

#460: Simon of the Desert

(Luis Buñuel, 1965)

There's something about atheists making movies about religion that annoys me. I think it's the simplicity which they often take to the approach. "God doesn't exist, so let's talk about that." Yet you kind of get it in the first minute of the movie, and then it's time to sit around for an hour and a half while they preach to the converted (irony intended). I get that making a movie ridiculing God in 1965 in Mexico was very different than doing the same thing now. And I know I'm not the audience for Simon of the Desert any more than a fundamentalist is. I just think it's a big waste of time to make art about certainty.

I am, therefore, thankful that Buñuel's funding ran out halfway through filming on Simon of the Desert and he was only able to make half a film. Instead of more adventures in the desert, the film ends with a contemporary dance off, all writhing limbs and sin. Simon looks the perfect beatnik, taking the devil out on the town in their droll ways. It's a horribly meaningless ending, but I kind of like it that way, and felt by the end that maybe every movie would be better served with a denouement just like it.

Simon of the Desert happens to feature one of my favorite Buñuel moments anyway. A man has had his hands chopped off for stealing and has now made the pilgrimage to Simon in order to have his hands restored in a miracle of forgiveness. Simon gives him new hands, in front of a large group of people. And yet... no one seems to mind. Not even the man himself, who simply says "Let's go home," and then uses his new hands to hit his child in the head. Two men walk away and one says, "You see that?" The other man says, "What?" He replies, "The thing with the hands." Good stuff. Simon of the Desert is basically like that.

#377: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

(Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Like Nights of Cabiria, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is about a woman who entertains men for a living and struggles to carve out her own happiness in life. Cabiria, of course, was a prostitute, while Keiko is merely a bar girl, the professional flirters (and potential mistresses) of Japanese executives in post-war Tokyo. Though "Mama," as she is called, takes a much more innocent approach to her task, the main purpose is the same: sublimate your own desires and preferences in order to satisfy the customer. Cabiria, too, was famously low-class, while Keiko must, in appearance anyway, be the image of luxury, the perfect mix of sexuality and capitalism. The comparison becomes especially apparent in both films' turning points, when (and this is quite the spoiler) a man each was depending on to lift her out of her situation is revealed as a false hope - in Cabiria's case a con-artist and thief, in Keiko's case a pathetic, married liar.

Despite two great performances from Hideko Takamine (who just passed away at the end of 2010) and the great Tatsuya Nakadai, the star of the film is director Mikio Naruse. The tone and pacing are simultaneously lyrical and hard-boiled, like Taxi Driver minus the crazy. The editing and shot selection is almost superhuman in its ability to deliver striking and meaningful moments in key pockets of the film without resorting to needlessly flashy moments elsewhere. This delivers what might be thought of as a traditionally Japanese aesthetic, but this is not a Ozu film. Instead, it's a full poem where a haiku would have been, fully aware of the noir, melodrama, and social message films that came before it, but not especially interested in belonging to any of them.

This is not to say that the film only works on a technical level. The emotional content here is very strong, and some parts will be especially sad for some people. Keiko's relationships are extremely broken - yet are they any more broken than the average relationships? The final scene in which Keiko returns to her job at the bar, finally resigned to her fate as a cog in the machine that will one day be discarded and replaced gives the film an ending that raises its aspirations to modern-day tragedy. Yet the irony of the moment is that what Keiko has endured isn't nearly as soul-crushing as what Cabiria has been through, and in fact Keiko has a much stronger potential to still come out on top at the end. After all, she is still relatively young and beautiful, and her moment to find a husband or make enough money to open her own bar isn't entirely out of reach. But because Fellini chooses to end his film on one of the great optimistic moments in film history, somehow we see the positive side of Cabiria's experience.With Keiko, it took me a few hours before I said, "Hey, she's not that much worse off than she was at the beginning of this thing."

This is probably due to the different approaches of the two filmmakers to their content, and the different contexts and intentions of the material. Nights of Cabiria is really just about one character, not about Rome or prostitutes or women (though because it's done so well, it's sort of about all of these things). When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is steeped in its time and place, almost totally eclipsed by gender dynamics, and often focused on its character's unique position in society. Keiko doesn't have hope at the end not because she isn't getting out of the system, but because the system continues. That's why the film cuts away so frequently to documentary-style shots of the normal geisha day and mindset, narrated by Takamine. These segments aren't to understand Keiko more thoroughly, but to understand this world completely. When Cabiria turns to the camera and smiles, it is the resiliency of humanity, its undying hope we see in her eyes. In this way, the two films are the reverse of their narrative focuses. Nights of Cabiria is universal, while When a Woman Ascends the Stairs remains singular, precise, and eternally in the present tense.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

#117: Diary of a Chambermaid

(Luis Buñuel, 1964)

Diary of a Chambermaid is easily the most overtly angry Buñuel film I have seen so far, not because it is any more cynical or subversive than his other films, but because his consistent worldview is not covered up with the usual satire or outright humor of his other films. I don't mean to say that there aren't stabs at comedy here - most notably the old man's foot fetish which supposedly mirrored Buñuel's own fascination - but even many of the ironic or satiric moments seem so dark as to lose their pleasant zing.

Jeanne Moreau plays the chambermaid who arrives in a small French town, only to be thrown into the various rivalries and scandals of her employers, coworkers, and surrounding neighbors. The movie is saved from total depression - among other things - by Moreau, one of the great actresses of her era. Her guarded charm and the immediately believable way in which every character relates to her is entirely due to her screen presence (she performs similar magic in her greatest role, Catherine in Jules and Jim). She remains likable even when her character is most confusing and certainly not the pious angel some may have expected.

I didn't really understand Moreau's character entirely. Was she the stuck-up city girl everyone seemed to think she was? The truffle scene would seem to imply that was the case. But why would she be interested in marrying the general? More importantly, is she just interested in marrying Joseph so she can reveal him as the murderer of Claire? Her performance is so guarded that it was difficult for me to connect with her. Then again, you may be noticing a pattern in which it is difficult for me to connect with anyone in a Buñuel film.