Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#579: The Phantom Carriage

(Victor Sjöström, 1921)

Taken at face value, the villain in The Phantom Carriage is the drink. This was exploited when the film came to America (during Prohibition no less!) but it does not especially seem to be the intention of the film - alcohol is a means to an end both for the drunkard at the center of the story and the story itself, which seems to owe a great deal to A Christmas Carol.

The myth at the center of the film - the last person to die on New Year's Eve must take over as Death for the following year, with each day feeling like 100 years - has timeless appeal and could easily feature as the center of a modern horror film. But the film is actually more about a man being shown the light and changing his wicked ways. As a result, there wasn't much here I could become invested in on a narrative level.

Technically, however, The Phantom Carriage is an immensely impressive silent film. Sjöström uses multiple exposures to get his ghosts just right, and he pops back and forth in time in an impressive fashion. The horror-style scenes - of which there are few - are shot well, and if it hadn't been ruined for me, the clear influence the film had on The Shining would have been a pleasant surprise. While it's not one of my favorite silent films I've ever seen, The Phantom Carriage makes a solid case for early cinema as a major treasure trove of ideas and techniques that is essential to understanding not just early talkies but the modern film landscape. For this reason, it's a worthy successor to Nanook of the North as the oldest film in the Criterion Collection.

#190: Throne of Blood

(Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Throne of Blood is not Kurosawa's best movie - or even his best samurai movie - but it is a superb adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, Macbeth. In fact, even with the vast number of times filmmakers have taken the Bard's plays and morphed them into different times and settings for the big screen it's hard to think of a better one.

So much of this comes from the core performances in the film that it's easy to overlook Kurosawa's craft. Toshiro Mifune verges on (and often achieves) iconic status in every role he played for Kurosawa, but his performance as Washizu aka Macbeth is an obvious stand out, both for its complexity and the fact that the film almost entirely revolves around him. But he is matched by Isuzu Yamada as his wife. Lady Macbeth is one of the juiciest roles in all of Shakespeare (and arguably all of English theater), and Yamada shows why here. Her machinations are so coldly logical and yet diabolical that it's hard to tell if she truly believes what she is saying or she is propelling her husband toward death through her own thirst for power. The combination of the conventional feudal Japanese female demeanor and the Lady Macbeth persona is an especially chilling one, bringing something intellectually unique to a role that has been endlessly explored as a representation of femininity (or at least the male perception of it).

Kurosawa's hand still manages to impress, though. He is at his flashiest when he needs to be, like in the moody scene in which Mifune encounters the spirit or the flat and striking compositions that enclose Mifune at his celebration as he begins to lose his mind. Throne of Blood was made at the height of Kurosawa's career, with Criterion entries Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru behind him and Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and The Bad Sleep Well still to come. This confidence shows in the straightforward way he presents the material here, but he can also sometimes be too acquiescent to the source material. This is where the film fails to transcend its stage roots (something which would prove to be a crucial flaw in Kurosawa's next film, The Lower Depths). The final death scene, too, is so over the top (and vaguely reminded me of the absurdly long horse scene in his later masterpiece Kagemusha) that it nearly turns to parody - saved only by Mifune's complete disappearance into his role.

I think it says something remarkable about Kurosawa as a filmmaker that this movie ranks somewhere in the upper-middle of the pack for his films. Taken on its own, Throne of Blood is a superb film, better than 95% of the movies released this year (even that is probably a conservative estimate). Within Kurosawa's (and Mifune's) catalog it's just another classic, even if it's essential viewing as Shakespeare on film.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

#240: Early Summer

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1951)

One of the most satisfying results of this Criterion journey has been my budding appreciation for and even love of Ozu movies. I don't think any director deserves to be enjoyed by everyone as a prerequisite to appreciating cinema. But I do think that there are a handful of directors in history that deserve a close evaluation of their work regardless of the initial impression one has of them. Kubrick, Lubitsch, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Godard, Bergman come to mind. These filmmakers are so (rightfully) praised and so integral to the understanding of cinema history that giving their work a second (or third, or fourth...) try is not something of which any movie nerd needs to be convinced. There are other directors as great as these, of course, but most of them (e.g. Kurosawa or Hitchcock) work with generally accessible pacing, genre, and theme as to make their work much less of an acquired taste - it's the equivalent of comparing bacon to sea urchin.

Of the most essential filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu was the last to move me. Maybe it was my own hardwired perceptions of how a film should be properly paced, shot, and edited. Certainly, too, Ozu's films are not just unusual in their technique but in the simplicity of their stories (their plots, on the other hand, are actually rather complex, and can sometimes take reflection to piece together - maybe never more the case than here in Early Summer). But I ultimately think it was the shock of the new - even within the relatively non-rigid world of iconic cinema. When people think of the revolutionary filmmakers, names like Lang, Godard, and Lynch spring to mind, but Ozu's style and grammar are so deceptively unique that an evaluation of his work requires a very open mind and time to devote to transition to his rhythms. It took time, but my confusion has blossomed into genuine pleasure.

Early Summer is a confirmation of this metamorphosis. Made just after Last Spring and just before his most well-regarded film, Tokyo Story, Early Summer tells the story of an average family and their desire to find a husband for an unmarried daughter. There are other plots woven into the family tapestry - a visit from an Uncle, a plot involving the children and their desire for a train set clearly presaging Good Morning - but these are meant to give the core plot of the daughter finding a husband (and inadvertently breaking up the family) more heft. We are meant to care about this family and recognize our own lives in their daily existence. As an outsider - with time, culture, and geography between me and the characters - I am exposed to a world rarely seen both in what takes place on the screen and in how it is presented. Once the rhythms of Ozu seem comprehendible if still unfamiliar, the viewer can appreciate his films for their unique insight into the human condition, both within the Japanese culture and universally.

From a technical standpoint, the most compelling thing about Ozu's films for me is without a doubt his trademark camera angle, which is on full display here in Early Summer. Ozu films his actors from a floor-level angle - often filming their entire bodies from afar - yet it does not appear as if we are looking up at them. The effect is one of Japanese domesticity and elemental cinema. The director manages to pack the maximum amount of information into each shot; his editing might be seen as choppy and crude if it didn't have such a logical flow to it. He writes poetry with his camera, the kind that rivals the barest of all personal verse. Stripped-down prose is so rare in cinema today - and in American film in general - that this work seems over-simplistic to the unaccustomed eye. Ozu is often defended against charges of boredom, but it's not the glacial pace of his stories that troubled me, I think, but the lack of pomp surrounding his cinematic grammar. His worlds simply exist and exist simply.

The common refrain about Ozu is that he is the most Japanese of Japanese directors. This is often used as a reason why Western viewers aren't able to fully appreciate his work. Certainly his stories center around the intricacies of a culture that is substantially different than American culture. Not only can it be difficult to adjust to the pacing, there's also a host of subtle plot points that are undoubtedly lost in translation. But simply chalking it up to a cultural misunderstanding gives Ozu short shrift. Japanese filmmaking, from Kurosawa and Suzuki to Oshima and Miyazaki, is hardly known for its austere productions and absence of style, so it's not really fair to classify their cinema as less Japanese than Ozu films. Ozu, in fact, is the most Ozu-like of any director. That's the real challenge to overcome - one well worth the reward waiting for you at the end of the tunnel.

Friday, November 25, 2011

#352: Jigoku

(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

I just wish more of the characters in this movie died.

So Jigoku is a dark movie, a fable divided into two halves. The first is set in the real world, though the characters seem like they are walking through a dream (and the production design is oddly minimalist - in a good way). The second half is in the titular Hell, and it's here where the movie makes its reputation. This Hell is an abstract nightmare-scape. Its inhabitants move zombified through a swirling infinity that weirdly reminded me of Solaris - though that film's visuals owe much more to the divine than the damned. Jigoku is a fairly terrifying movie, full of gore and ghosts, even if the moral lesson of the first half has already been beaten over your head before the protagonist's real punishment is doled out in the second.

Despite the visual appeal of the movie, I was left somewhat cold by the philosophy behind it. Perhaps I would have preferred a more realistic in-depth look at the self-guilt that surrounded the first half, or a more expansive look at the nature of spiritual punishment from the second; maybe I just didn't want both in the same movie. After The Flowers of St. Francis, a gentle look at religion made a decade earlier half a world away which I watched right before this film, Jigoku seems almost silly, a naïve case for scaring people into the righteous path. Personally, I don't get it - why would acting like a good person because you don't want to burn in Hell for all eternity make you a good person? Doesn't that just make you a prisoner?

Anyway, some cool gore in this one and it did make me have a nightmare, which is pretty impressive.

#293: The Flowers of St. Francis

(Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

Just as Job is the athiest's Bible book of choice, Francis of Assisi is their saint. Of course, this isn't because the fictional character of Job or the real Italian monk shared a disbelief in God. St. Francis was very much a devout Catholic, going so far as to allegedly receive stigmata. But the form his beliefs took in his daily practice shared a great deal with humanism - care for the poor, love of nature, a dedication to poverty that would later be co-opted by anti-capitalist movements. Like most Catholic historical figures (and saints in particular) his real-life zeal mainly focused on conversion and preaching the gospel (I don't mean this in a negative way - if I believed in a god I'd probably want everyone on board, too). But as is so often the case this has fallen by the wayside in retrospect, and what is left is the grand side of Christianity - quite simply the teachings of Jesus, particularly on the social issues.

This is where The Flowers of St. Francis resides. Roberto Rossellini's film is more a meditation than a narrative, a series of vignettes that have no specific destination and are only connected by the recurring characters, particularly Francis himself and a young disciple named Ginepro. As a result, your reaction to the finished product will largely be a result of how you choose to interact with the teachings of Francis and how that compares to Rossellini's understated and gentle presentation. Personally, I don't entirely feel qualified to review the film - Christianity is kind of like opera for me - so I'll just say I think The Flowers of St. Francis gives you a pretty good idea of where the saint was coming from, or at least where Rossellini thought he was. For a heathen like me, that makes it more of a picture of Italy post-WWII and the humanist aesthetics of neo-realism married to the Catholicism that remains infused in Italian culture today - making it a nice companion piece to Rossellini's war trilogy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#298: Gate of Flesh

(Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

With all progress comes inadvertent negative effects. In film, the move towards auteurism has been rightly hailed as a major development with almost universally positive results for artists and filmgoers alike. However, the ability of talented directors to work outside of the contract system has rendered films like Gate of Flesh archaic, nearly impossible to recreate.

Seijun Suzuki's notorious run with Nikkatsu meant he was forced to make films regardless of his opinion of the material. Like many contract Hollywood directors before him, Suzuki chose to make the most of his situation and undermine the simplistic intentions of his employer at every turn. What the script for Gate of Flesh provided for him was notably less than the finished product.

In fact, the studio merely wanted a soft-core sexploitation flick, the kind of film that would have been set in a women's prison in America. Here, it's bombed-out Tokyo after World War II as a defeated and occupied Japan barely scrapes by, struggling through the hard times before the boom of the 50s and 60s. The story - about a gang of prostitutes trying to maintain their sanity - is a minor one, infused with melodramatic character backgrounds and ordinary arcs that seem overly familiar for 1964 let alone today.

But there's nothing ordinary about Suzuki's work. There's no doubt in my mind that Suzuki's films had a huge influence on Nobuhiko Obayashi when he made House, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gate of Flesh specifically was in regular rotation in the crew's screening room. There's so much here that is bursting with ideas, from the color-coordinated girls to the various superimposed profiles that appear to be in the same frame but slowly fade from view. Then there are the sets - gorgeous, colorful, surreal sets (created under a tight budget with discarded wood on the Nikkatsu lot) - that are unmistakably theatrical, but somehow make the film's characters seem all the more vivid. It creates a film that is constantly at war with itself - struggling to burst out of its typicality - which oddly makes the story much more powerful because the characters themselves are trying to achieve the same thing.

This battle is probably also true of Suzuki's later Nikkatsu masterpieces, Youth of the Beast and Tokyo Drifter, but the gangster genre lends itself so much to the studio system (and on a personal level, I just happen to enjoy it so much more) that I don't notice the dichotomy as much. That makes Gate of Flesh a sort of intellectual exercise in pre-auteur film history class - one that highlights the law of unintended consequences.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

#350: Seduced and Abandoned

(Pietro Germi, 1964)

Seduced and Abandoned is Germi's follow-up to his big hit Divorce, Italian Style. That film's sly satire has been quadrupled here, and is now boiling over into a rage - it's hard to think of many comedies that have this much contempt for their characters and the universe they inhabit. Maybe that's why I enjoyed the movie so much.

The film revolves around a sexual encounter between a man and the underage sister of his fiancee, whom he impregnates. When the father finds out what happened, rather than turn the man in to the police for statutory rape, he expends all of his energy struggling to get them married and keep his family's honor intact. Despite being only 16, the sister is seen as a "slut" or "whore" - at one point, someone explains that "It is a man's right to ask, a woman's duty to refuse." In fact, even the man who seduced her refuses to marry her because she is not a virgin.

The story would be tragic if the film didn't take this archaic and barbaric mindset to its logical extreme, turning the situation into high farce that takes a dark path through statutory rape, suicide, kidnapping, and attempted murder. I've always felt satire is more effective at exposing hypocrisy than drama - which can get preachy very, very fast - and this film is a perfect example of why. The final shot of the gravestone in a drama would have been deemed too far over the top, but here it's a cherry on top of an arsenic sundae.

Like Mafioso, another early 60s film that lampooned Sicilian living as out of step with modern society, Seduced and Abandoned plays unspoken codes of conduct for laughs. Yet Mafioso had an enormous amount of sympathy for its main character - the film could easily be regarded as one of the core humanist comedies of Italian cinema - while Seduced and Abandoned depicts its protagonists (or maybe antagonists) as willing participants in their society's unjust, misogynistic system. Ironically, despite the somewhat upbeat hope for humanity to triumph in Mafioso and the dark cycle of Seduced and Abandoned, it's the latter film that comes off lighter, though both are equally entertaining.

I've done a lot of thinking about comedy, and one really difficult thing about making a compelling and relevant comedy in modern America is that most of the taboos that can be depicted in a light-hearted fashion have been torn down. Movies like The Miracle of Morgan Creek or even The Graduate don't have the same bite they once did (though both are still great movies), and today all we're left with are decidedly unfunny taboos like rape and incest and overplayed semi-taboos like homosexuality and blasphemy and holdovers from our childhoods like saying bad words and farting. It makes broad comedies of this nature much more difficult to pull off, and it's one reason why satire is somewhat marginalized in our culture. Germi's work here is a prime example of the pleasure that can be drawn from the style.

#241: Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir

(Jean Renoir, 1953-56)

Stage and Spectacle is both a somewhat random box set and a respectably logical one, straddling the line somewhere between the 3 Films by Louis Malle set, which is linked through vague themes of childhood, and clearer "sets" like The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, which features one character in continuing sequels. Renoir's technicolor hues and light touch run through all three of these films. The multi-pronged romances in each film center around legendary stars, too, leading to the films evoking similar emotions. And each film could easily be perceived as slight, entertaining distraction from daily life.

Yet all three films are much more substantial than surface viewings might imply. The Golden Coach and French Cancan explore the life of the performer, while Elena and Her Men has a darker edge to its depiction of Bergman's muse - the question lurks behind all three as to what is reality and what is fantasy and who holds power in the performer/audience dynamic.

Of the three, I enjoyed French Cancan the most by far. The film has the most straightforward heftier themes, but it is also the most entertaining and evocative. All three films hinge on a certain level of cinematic magic, but French Cancan does the best job of matching this theme with a fantastical tone which recalls the best of Hollywood's spectacles. Conversely, The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men tilt towards farce a little too often for my tastes. Stage and Spectacle in general is not my favorite Criterion box - and it's probably one of the least essential - but I admire the presentation of this lesser-known section of Renoir's career. The presence of French Cancan alone (not to mention its added appeal when seen in the context of the other two films) makes me happy to see the set in the Collection.

Individual reviews:
The Golden Coach
French Cancan
Elena and Her Men

#244: Elena and Her Men

(Jean Renoir, 1956)

Elena and Her Men completes an informal trilogy in the Criterion Collection of Renoir's light, worldly, colorful musical comedies during the mid-1950s. However, this film eschews the most obvious connection between the two earlier films - the stage and an exploration of theatrical performance - in favor of a more elemental one (fanciful love carried on by dazzling women who assert their power through their traditional feminine guile) and a more cerebral one (the notion that "all the world's a stage" - or at least Paris is). Despite the presence of Anna Magnani and Jean Gabin in the other two films, it is Elena and Her Men that features the most legendary star front and center, the incomparable Ingrid Bergman. I could be wrong, but I think this is her first film in French (one of five languages she spoke), and the first film she made after separating from Roberto Rossellini.

Renoir's work here revolves almost completely around Bergman, and her character's development relies almost entirely on the fact that it is Bergman playing the role - we believe that her flower can bring any man luck simply because it was given to them by Ingrid Bergman. In this regard the film is not so far off from And God Created Woman, made the very same year. Of course, Bardot is not Bergman, just as - no, I can't even say it. Renoir. Vadim. They don't belong in the same sentence. So Elena and Her Men is far superior to that other film, even if it is somewhat underwhelming following the superb French Cancan. The various political machinations at work are often secondary to the sexual farce, making the film perhaps more akin to Rules of the Game than the other films in the trilogy, though no one would argue that it reaches that film's profound heights.

Ultimately, Elena and Her Men seems more relevant to Bergman's career than Renoir's, which makes it somewhat unusual in the Criterion catalog. The actress is certainly better represented elsewhere in the Collection with the perfect Notorious and the heart-wrenching Autumn Sonata. But Elena and Her Men is a celebration of her shine - a somewhat stereotypical investigation into the allure of her sexual presence, yes, but a breezy and notable one nevertheless, particularly for fans of the actress (like me).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#243: French Cancan

(Jean Renoir, 1955)

French Cancan was a pleasant surprise after the relatively unmemorable The Golden Coach. It's the middle film in Renoir's spectacle trilogy, often categorized as his films about the relationship between art and life. For me, French Cancan isn't about life so much as it is about art, specifically art for art's sake. It's also an extremely entertaining film - maybe one of the most entertaining in the Collection - making it a kind of counterbalance to the intense and tragic artist's dilemma of The Red Shoes, a film which is only French Cancan's superior if you believe that drama is inherently "Greater" than comedy. Both films revel in the question of sacrificing for your art, specifically as a woman, though The Red Shoes is certainly a more feminist interpretation of the theme (or at the very least can be easily perceived in that way).  

French Cancan, on the other hand, chooses to celebrate the choice of the artist rather than wallow in its sacrifices. Jean Gabin (who is at the top of his game here) provides the message of the film quite clearly in the final moments as his budding star is on the verge of leaving before her big debut, threatening to quit if she can't have him exclusively. Rather than say anything to make the show go on, Gabin clearly explains that no one can have him, because he belongs to his art. Rather than degrade or demean Nini, his honesty has freed her to make her own decision about what matters in her life. Her decision, coming after such a speech (and such a film, in which Renoir lays out the best case for entertainment at face value since Sullivan's Travels), is not surprising but it is validating and invigorating. What makes it especially appealing is the lack of pretentiousness which can so often sink a film about the "importance" of art. French Cancan does not argue that art is a valuable pursuit because of the impact it has on the outside world (though certainly this can be a persuasive argument). It focuses on the urge within the artist to create - at the expense of everything else in their life and regardless of the impact of their work on the outside world.

Despite this powerful and elegant statement, Renoir's French Cancan is not a weighty film, but a profound pastry, that light and effortless end product which belies its skill and labor. The love affairs at the center are archetypal but insightful and thoroughly entertaining, and Renoir's hand is almost imperceptible but purposeful. The spectacle of the final sequence when the Moulin Rouge is finally opened is especially impressive but the whole film crackles with 50s cinema energy reminiscent of another technicolor masterpiece set in Paris from that decade, Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris. It's a joy to watch, and for me ranks high among Renoir's films despite its relatively gentle touch.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#282: Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films

(Andrzej Wajda, 1955-58)

Three War Films was one of the most unexpected surprises in the Collection for me. I had heard of Wajda before (and remember when he received his special Oscar), but had not seen any of his films. I expected this set to be much more Soviet influenced, laced with dark symbolism and allegorical characterizations that would seem creaky today (I should probably note here that I actually love a lot of Soviet films). Instead, the films were alive with energy and rebellion, clear-eyed reflections on the tragedies that had befallen Poland just a decade before the films were made.

A Generation undoubtedly moved me the most. Not just because it came first and so I was least likely to see it coming, but because I had a strong, almost physical response to the depiction of young adults being thrown into a situation that was way over their heads. I can't think of many films that were able to so clearly depict the plight of the able-bodied non-soldier male in wartime, and many of the images and characters have stayed with me weeks after seeing the film. Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds were also moving, but the former was for me a much less ambitious film and the latter was clouded in the complexity of the essential social context.

Still, I'd probably pick Ashes and Diamonds as the essential viewing here, even if I enjoyed the first two much more on my initial viewings. The film combines the historical vibrancy of the earlier two films with a more assured (some might argue heavy) hand behind the camera, resulting in a complex and powerful story. But really, all three of these films should be added to any film fan's list of must-sees, whether their focus is World War II, eastern Europe, 50s foreign cinema, or, um, humanity.

Individual reviews:
A Generation
Ashes and Diamonds

#285: Ashes and Diamonds

(Andrzej Wajda, 1958)

Ashes and Diamonds is the most accomplished (and consequently beautiful) of Wajda's mid-50s war films, but it's also his most obtuse for the viewer far separated from the political realities which inform it onscreen and off. Even though Americans have not been widely exposed to the experience of Poland during the second World War, it's easy enough to identify the struggle - Nazis bad, non-Germans good. Even the experiences of the soldiers in Kanal are clearly laid out within the framework of the film, so the average person with a casual knowledge of world history has an easy way into the film's universe.

Ashes and Diamonds, on the other hand, is set after the Germans have surrendered, when the Polish faced a new, far more complex struggle between the pro-Soviet Communist regime that was being installed and the freedom fighters who were looking to bring true democracy to the decimated country. To make things more complicated, the film was shot while that regime (albeit a thawed post-Stalin one) was still in power, meaning the filmmaker's true sentiments (and presumably those of most of the film's audience) - which unquestionably lay with the Polish Home Army resistance fighters - needed to be obscured. This paved the way for a film that is flawed propaganda in the most invigorating way. Wadja's depiction of the resistance fighters and their enemies is incredibly complex. We are clearly meant to root for Maciek; he's struggling for what he believes is right and we see much of the film from his perspective. But we are introduced to him as he kills innocent people. We see the damage he has caused, yet we are given a portrait of the Communists as useless bureaucrats and compromised patriots, concerned with appearances and their own survival (and advancement) more than their fellow Poles. This is emphasized by the juxtaposition of Maciek and Szczuka dying alone as the party in the hotel reaches its apex.

The tightwire act muddies the film's message for the modern American viewer (i.e. me), but it must have been clear as day to the Polish and surrounding Europeans when the film was released. This begs the question of how successful a film can be when its context must be understood for it to be appreciated. In my opinion, very, since technically every great movie needs the context of one culture or another. Add onto this political significance the sheer beauty of the film in moments both expected (Maciek's walk through the burned church, the lit vodka glasses) and not (the reflection of the fireworks as Szczuka lays in the streets), and Ashes and Diamonds becomes Wadja's essential film, even if I initially enjoyed it less than the other two films in the "trilogy."

Friday, November 4, 2011

#284: Kanal

(Andrzej Wajda, 1957)

Kanal - a film made in remembrance of a grand tragedy in the middle of the grandest tragedy of the 20th century - is ironically about forgotten people. Within the first few minutes of the film we are told to pay attention to the characters because they are about to die. Within 90 minutes, we see most of these deaths.

Unlike the vast majority of films about the Holocaust, there is no one fighting against the massacre depicted in Kanal. We rarely see the enemy and they speak few if any words, certainly nothing to indicate there was anything but a cold calculated strategy to what they were doing. We are not asked to save the soldiers in the film, but merely to be witnesses to their destruction. We know they will all die - they know it, too - but we watch their struggle for survival anyway, not because we see a way forward for us to combat against indifference to human suffering but because hundreds of thousands of Polish people were killed within a few months and it shouldn't be forgotten.

This does not make for easy viewing, but after reading a horribly offensive and ignorant article in the New York Times today, I feel a strong urge to defend films like this. The most simple way to defend Kanal is to point out that the film is extremely entertaining, filled with passionate characters and suspenseful moments (like the one depicted on the cover) that recall the tense sequences of Wages of Fear or Notorious (two supremely entertaining films that would also be rejected by the sensibilities of modern audiences). But today I am unwilling to meet halfway people who believe art is only art if it is there to entertain and amuse them. Maybe it's just the fact that the writer happened to use Solaris - one of my ten favorite movies of all time - to prove the point that people only like to say they like "important" movies, they don't actually like them. Actually, maybe YOU only like movies to say that you like them. Maybe other people - gasp! - actually like them. Maybe everything isn't supposed to seem the same as every movie before it, maybe movies aren't made so the audience can pass the time, or feel good about themselves, but rather because they speak to the human condition.

If I have been guilty of saying in the past that a movie in the Criterion Collection is enjoyed only by people who like to think it is important and it makes them superior consumers (and at 300 posts and over 100,000 words, I probably have somewhere on this website), then I suppose I am as guilty of this as that writer is. The truth is, movies are hard to make. They take time, money, energy, and an incredible number of people to produce. There are movies that are made simply to make money and movies made just to win awards. But every single movie in the Criterion Collection (except two - you know who you are) and 99% of all movies ever made were made because someone was passionate about the work they were doing. Claiming that people who enjoy that work are pretentiously lying to themselves or other people about their opinions is not only disrespectful to those people, but disrespectful to art, period. Like what you like, for sure - and I would never begrudge someone for enjoying mainstream Hollywood and/or whatever is the most conventional storytelling format in their culture - but when you decide that your taste somehow determines the nature of the things you are categorizing, when you decide that foreign films or art films or dramas or slowly paced films are "vegetables" you have to eat, you are going too far.

Remember when I was reviewing Kanal? Anyway, that just annoyed me today, and I had to write a review of this incredibly moving, deeply unsettling piece of historical fiction so it seemed like as good a time as ever to go off. If you are reading this far (or really if you are reading this blog at all) you probably agree with me, so I'll take my soapbox and go home. Just remember next time someone tells you they don't like foreign films that judging them will only create more animosity towards the unknown, like that seen in that article (written in the goddamned New York Times of all places! Harrumph). Hopefully, things like the Criterion Collection make accessible the work that anti-intellectuals tell you is all pretentious nonsense, and viewers who have an open mind can give films like Kanal an honest shot. Who knows, they might get wrapped up in it just like I was - not because it is entertaining or nerve-wracking or crackling with energy (though it is all of these things) but because it makes you witness to a history that can only be conveyed in this way through cinema. It might be dismissed as boring by some filmgoers, but to me, film can do nothing more exciting - more invigorating - than that.