Wednesday 28 February 2024

Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) (1982)

 


Fanny og Alexander

It has been about a month since my last post and, yes, I did spend a week on a winter escape, but mostly the wait is due to the length and pace of this, the next movie on the List. “Fanny och Alexander” comes in a cinematic version of 188 minutes, but of course I happened to buy the miniseries version clocking in at a whooping 312 minutes. It was a tough one to get through and it did not help that work has been very busy. Anyway, finally done.

It is Christmas time 1907 in the home of the Ekdahls in Uppsala, Sweden. The Ekdahls are wealthy, so the party takes place in their palatial home stuffed with domestics and expensive furniture. We get the entire Christmas party in close to real-time, I do believe it is longer than the wedding in “Deerhunter”, and the amount of detail is incredible. I noticed that they have the almond present and the dance through the halls to the song “Nu er det jul igen!”, both Danish traditions, though I would not be surprised if they actually originate from this movie. Danish television has had a long tradition of airing “Fanny och Alexander” during Christmas and this Christmas scene is the only thing I remember having watched before. In any case, the Christmas party serves to introduce us to the numerous members of the Ekdahl family and show us how happy they are.

Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) are the grandchildren of family matron Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wålgren) and children of theater director Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall) and actress Emilie Ekdahl (Ewa Fröling). In this environment Alexander’s imagination is sincerely encouraged. Then, shortly after Christmas, Oscar suffers a stroke and dies. Emilie tries to carry on running the theater, but eventually she abandons it and marry the town bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö). The bishop is a hard and religious man who believes in austerity and discipline, a combination that goes down very poorly with the children. His regime of punishment and degradation makes Emilie regret, but there is no way the bishop will let go of her and the children.

“Fanny och Alexander”, I understand, is supposed to be, to some extent, autobiographical, which actually makes a lot of sense when you watch it. I can see Bergman as Alexander being born into a creative theater world and I can see how an encounter with the bishop would mark you for life. In fact, if half of this is autobiographical, this movie would offer a Freudian explanation for most of his movies.

It would also explain some of the more illogical elements of the movie, first and foremost why Emilie would want to marry Edvard. It does not take more than a glimpse of the man to see this is a bad match and any lingering doubt evaporates when he opens his mouth. Her explanation makes very little sense unless she is a complete idiot and incredibly selfish. The only explanation that works is… that it actually happened, which I am inclined to think.

Alexander experiences a number of magical or spiritual moments, such as seeing ghosts or his encounters at the home of Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson). It is easy to see a lot into this magic, but I prefer the simpler explanation of Bergman’s representation of creative imagination, the vent of his inspiration, At eleven years of age anything can become magic.

While the Ekdahls are clearly the good people (and privileged), the Vergerus are the bad guys. You need go no further than the interior décor, clothing and lighting to be convinced of that. There are no grey zones here. Christian ascetism as the source of problems is a recuring Bergman theme. The Jewish Jacobi household has a curios role here. As friends of the Ekdahls, they are clear members of the good side, but as a free agent, they can operate in spaces the Ekdahls cannot, both practically and spiritually.

In summary, “Fanny and Alexander” is not a bad movie, but it suffers from wanting to tell too much. The long version I watched is easily two hours too long. Isolated, the many details may be interesting, but they also serve to distract for the core of the story. As narratives, the many detours are simply not interesting enough and I get impatient and distracted. The Ekdahl brothers Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) are the comic relief as the movie’s Thomson twins, but sadly not funny enough for that (a classic Swedish problem).

For me, personally, suffering children are deeply problematic to watch and here their suffering is drawn out for hours. In the end we see much less than we sense, but it was still hard for me to endure.

“Fanny och Alexander” won four Academy Awards, but not for editing. That one was a big fail. Cut out about three hours and we are down to something that would work. The miniseries version I simply cannot recommend.


Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Night of the Shooting Stars (La Notte di San Lorenzo) (1982)

 


San Lorenzo natten

War is a terrible thing, there are not two ways about it. For an adult it is often difficult to comprehend. For a child, war is downright bizarre. “The Night of the Shooting Stars” (“La Notte di San Lorenzo”) tells the story of a war seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl.

The movie takes the form of a mother telling her child of a war taking place a long time ago as she experienced it when she was a child herself. The war is the Second World War in 1944 when the front was somewhere in Tuscany and the retreating German army was wrecking as much destruction as they could get away with. In the town of San Martino, the German have selected a number of houses for demolition and told the inhabitants to seek shelter in the church. Some of the townspeople decide to disobey the order and leave the town at night to find the American. Those who go to the church gets blown up by the Germans.

Cecilia (Micol Guidelli) is a six-year-old girl who has joined the exodus with her mother (and the father, I think). We follow the group at large and meet a host of people and what they are experiencing is both strange and traumatic. The fighting, when it occurs, is barbaric and, in the eyes of Cecilia, often surrealist. Friends meet, but being on different sides in the war they shoot each other after their greetings. A bus drawn by horse are led by opera singing German soldiers, a fascist who kills Cecilia’s grandfather is killed by Achilles spear and so on. The Americans are never quite there, and disaster is always close if not present. Yet, in this nightmare there are also small wonders, such as a field of watermelons, American soldiers giving chocolate and balloon (?!) and the elderly Concetta (Margarita Lozano) and Galvano (Omero Antonutti) find each when they have lost everything else. It is a world that makes little sense on any level, but especially for Cecilia.

The special angle of the movie makes it a strange war movie. It is surreal, scattered and illogical, but in the way war is all that. It is full of people, real people, who talk (a lot, this is Italy), have feelings, dear ones, flaws and then suddenly die. There is no point to who dies and who lives, nothing is really fair, it just happens, as in the strange shoot-out in the wheat field. As we see all this from the little girl’s viewpoint, there is a certain innocence about it, as if people are just playing at war with each other and not really dead, yet we also see it as adults, the cruelty and tragedy of it.

“The Night of the Shooting Stars” is a beautiful movie to watch. The Tuscan landscape is sundrenched, and all colors are sharp and crisp, especially the matching dresses of Cecilia and her mother. Most of the people are smiling, sometimes even when they kill each other, and the wonder of things are in every image. This may be a nightmare, but it is also a great adventure at that eye-height.

As a viewer those feelings are conveyed to me. I sit back with equal amount of horror and wonder. A lot of it happens in glimpses, a lot makes little sense, not because of surrealism, but because from the child perspective we perceive certain highlights that the child see as important and so I often lack the context or the knowledge of the relations between each character. The position of both being a third person viewer and share the second person view of the girl is sometime confusing, but it also juxtaposes elements that are wildly differently perceived by the child and an adult.

War is really not for children, or for anybody, really, and what the movie seems to tell us is that children need to create this alternate reality to cope with it. That is both a wonder and a tragedy in its own right and while the movie does not go all in depressive, it is easy to perceive that beneath the surface of wonder, there is depth of mourning.

I am still undecided if I truly liked “The Night of Shooting Stars”. I am still a bit dizzy from watching it and trying to take it in, split, again, between wonder and sorrow. Then again, its success at conveying those feelings very much speaks for the movie.

 

Friday 26 January 2024

Gandhi (1982)

 


Gandhi

The movie “Gandhi” is one of those gargantuan projects that either stands as a landmark or falls pitifully under its own weight. Fortunately, “Gandhi” manages to be of the first kind.

“Gandhi” is, not surprisingly, a biopic on Mahatma Gandhi and rather than, as has in later year become popular, being  focused on a single event, it tries to take in a broad sweep, covering five decades, from Gandhi’s time in South Africa in the 1890’ies to his assassination in 1948. It is also, which is more astonishing, not preoccupied with Gandhi’s personal life but focusses on what he did as a public person. It stands as proof that the remarkable things people did are interesting enough in itself and does not need support from trivial personal details. Watch and learn, producers of “Maestro”. This does not mean that we do not get close to Gandhi, we do, but in small details, integrated into the larger picture.

In South Africa, Gandhi was shocked to find racism being flaunted as blatantly as it was. As an Indian he was a second-rate person to the white overlords. He got the Indian community involved in a non-violent campaign for emancipation that came to include other ethnic groups as well. He was thrown in prison repeatedly and his supporters were physically assaulted and yet he prevailed and got a number of demeaning laws withdrawn. In South Africa he developed the doctrine of non-violent protest as well as his pastoral and ascetic outlook on life.

Based on his success in South Africa he was invited to return to India to assist in the independence movement there. Already on arrival he was seen as a hero, but his preference for going out to see for himself and walk among people rather than work party politics endeared him to the public, and the independence movement leaders first learned to respect him and then to love him. Indeed, in the course of his activities in India it is not wrong to call him the father of India, or, maybe better, the guru of India.

All this sounds like the story of the real person Gandhi and, indeed, I do not know the difference. The movie’s very clear objective is to tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi and gives the impression of telling the objective truth. One should always be suspicious of that, but I am not in a position to tell the real and the fictious Gandhi apart. I suppose it speaks to the credit of the movie that it feels real.

It truly is an amazing story and even covering the highlights of it requires a long movie, but, surprisingly, “Gandhi” never overstays its welcome. It stays long enough on each episode to round it off and never falls into the trap of repetition, even if Gandhi with remarkable consistency follows the same policy that he developed in South Africa. It is difficult not to feel anger at the wanton cruelty of the British in both South Africa and in India, the massacre of Amritsar was particularly difficult to watch, but even the British are not portrayed with utter contempt. Rather, they seem bemused or even confused at what they are facing in Gandhi. So am I, actually, as a viewer. My cynical common sense tells me that Gandhi’s nonviolence and non-corporation and especially his inclusiveness should be all too easy to trample and pick apart, yet it works against the British.

So much more sad is it that it did not work against the religious tension among the Indians themselves. Against that sort of madness even Gandhi fights in vain.

“Gandhi” features a remarkable roster of actors and actresses. Foremost Ben Kingsley in the role of his life. I think for my generation, Mahatma Gandhi simply looks like Ben Kingsley. In supporting roles, we have everything British and Indian cinema could field at the time plus a few Hollywood A-listers. I even saw Daniel Day-Lewis far down on the list. The Indian top leaders were really remarkably portrayed. Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Alyque Padamsee really look like the real Nehru, Patel and Jinnah.

“Gandi” cleaned the table at the Academy Awards, taking eight statues, including three of the big ones. Gandhi is an extremely ambitious movie, like Gandhi’s politics by all rights it should not work, but it does, it flies. Highly recommended.

 

Sunday 14 January 2024

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

 


Fitzcarraldo

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to roll a stone up a mountain. Every time he reached the top, the stone would roll down and he could start all over. “Fitzcarraldo” is a slightly more modern take on that story.

Fitzcarraldo is a corruption of Brian Fitzgerald, an Irish adventurer in the early twentieth century, played by Klaus Kinski, who has big ideas, but less good luck on carrying them out. His project of a trans-Andean railway went bust and his idea of bringing opera to the frontier town of Iquitos is not going too well either. His latest idea is to buy a lease to a plot for rubber plantations that nobody else wants. The problem with this plot is that it is inaccessible. The rapids on the river means that it is impossible to sail upstream to the plot. Fitzgerald, however, has a plan. It turns out that another, accessible, river is very close to the inaccessible one a bit upstream from the plot, so Fitzgerald wants to sail a steamer up this river, then drag it over the isthmus and sail down to the plot. The steamer will traffic this river, rubber will be sent back across the isthmus and shipped down to Iquitos. Fitzgerald, who is broke himself, gets his girlfriend, the brothel manager Molly (Claudio Caridinale), to put down money for the plot and the steamer, and he now has a short time to prove that the lease is feasible. Major drawback: The accessible river is controlled by a hostile indigenous tribe.   

As the boat approaches the Indians, the crew flee the boat, leaving Fitzgerald, the captain Resenbrink (Paul Hittscher), the machinist and the cook alone on the boat. When the Indians surround the ship, they are trapped. This is where Fitzgerald decide to gamble everything on a myth of the tribe about a white god who is supposed to bring the tribe salvation. It seems to work and through an enormous (and rather dangerous) effort by the Indian, the boat is dragged over a hill onto the other river.

----SPOILER----

Sleeping off the celebration hangover Fitzgerald wakes up as the boat is speeding down the rapids, getting beaten up in the process. Turns out the Indians totally bought into the myth, but slightly differently from Fitzgerald’s intention. The white boat had to be carried across and sent down into the rapids. Only then will the gods be appeased. The operation was a huge success for the Indians, but Fitzgerald is back exactly where he started, like Sisyphus.

---END OF SPOILER---

From the point of view that the ingenious people win out against the white man, I suppose this is an interesting and successful movie. The problem is just that we, the audience, are so invested in Fitzgerald and his huge undertaking that his failure feels devastating. He may just be back at square zero, but that is also a pitiful result given the effort. The strange opera ending, which I did not entirely understand, feels like a patched on happy end. There really is nothing to celebrate for Fitzgerald. That in itself makes this a painful watch.

I also must say I did not entirely understand his plan. It would be a lot easier to use small boats on the inaccessible river and the steamer on the good river. Then there would be no reason to drag the boat across. That of course removes the entire premise of the movie, but I just find the reasoning too week.

Then there is the character of Fitzgerald himself. He is hyperactive to the extent that today he would get a diagnose. It is a difficult character to love, and Kinski is not making that easier. This is a manic character played by a manic actor. Something that apparently caused a few problems on the set. According to Herzog, the Indians used as extras offered to kill Kinski for Herzog. He politely declined.

Technically, however, this movie is a monumental feat. The pictures from the Amazon are stunning and the project of moving the ship is both as a document and an actual effort without comparison. You must see it to believe it. Unfortunately, the sound side cannot match the pictures. My disc has no subtitles, so it was a choice between German and English spoken language. That means that everybody except the indigenous people speak that language, dubbed in the studio. The English version sounds incredibly fake.

“Fitzcarraldo” is in my personal opinion more interesting and impressive than actually good. I found it difficult to keep my interest and attention on the movie until the last act, and while that act is absolutely spectacular, I am not certain it can carry the entire movie. For this reason, I am hesitant to recommend “Fitzcarraldo”.


Wednesday 3 January 2024

Diner (1982)

 


Diner

It is entirely fitting that the first movie I review in 2024 is taking place during the last week of the year (of 1959), culminating on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, I had better things to do New Year’s Eve than watching movies (it was a good party!), but watching this on New Year's day is not so bad either.

“Diner” is about a group of young men in their early twenties who struggle with growing up. They are clearly childhood friends and use the local diner as their hangout and this is indeed where a large part of the movie takes place. The movie is famous for the banter between these young men and true enough, their talk about, well, anything and nothing, takes up a substantial amount of screen time.

Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is going to get married (to Elyse, a woman we never see the face of). He is an American football fan and has devised a quiz on football that Elyse must pass, otherwise the wedding is off. Eddie is clearly nervous about the wedding and reveals late in the movie that he is a virgin. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) is already married, but is clinging on to his interests, music and his friends, alienating his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) in the process. Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a hairdresser by day and study law at night, mostly as a pick-up for girls. He also has a gambling problem, trying to get easy money and easy girls. Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is the rich kid who has no idea what he wants with his life and is busy blowing it away with alcohol and irresponsible stunts. Billy (Tim Daly) is back from New York to serve as best man. The love of his life, Barbara (Kathryn Dowling), works at the local TV station. She is pregnant but not really interested in a relationship with Billy. And Modell (Paul Reiser) is just tagging on.

All of the young men claim a careless existence, but they all carry a concern or issue related to growing up. Their irresponsible pranks and their banter all seem like them desperately trying to avoid becoming adults and entering that next phase of their lives. This is symbolized by the change of decade and all the other changes happening at the time, from music over women’s rights to different expectations to them as adults.

Coming of age movies are common and whether as group or individuals, in comedies it is usually about sex. This one is slightly more mature in that these people have to assume a responsibility that is honestly long overdue. They do not realize it themselves, but they are scared of the future and use each other’s company to cling on to an adolescence they have already passed. They are under pressure from society conventions to move on and while that is also about to change, they are just a bit ahead of the curve for that. A decade or two later, adolescence could easily stretch a decade or two longer, but not in 1959.

In this sense, it is a bittersweet comedy. The banter and the pranks are fun at face value, but the desperate irresponsibility is also sad and painful, and I could not help wanting to kick them in the right direction. Not necessarily to get married and have children, but to assume responsibility for their own life. All of them really. It does not matter if it is Shrevie, insisting his records are more important than his wife or Fenwick drinking himself senseless. Shrevie is a nice guy really, he does love his wife, and Fenwick is actually smart, a lot smarter than he lets on. Why waste all this for a careless life?

I found the movie hard to get into. The thing these guys have together seemed like a very closed thing. Their banter is along lines only they really get and as an outsider I am not invited. Only gradually are we invited inside when the movie moves beyond the banter, and they become real people. Still, even to the end I had some difficulty telling Shrevie, Billy and Modell from each other. It does not help that irresponsible stunts work very poorly with me. Fenwick faking a car accident is just not funny to me. However, as their careless surface breaks up and we see their vulnerability, the comedy also gets funnier. Perhaps the characters simply become more likable, and the movie won me over in the end.

“Diner” is also interesting in having so many actors in the early part or what became illustrious careers. Practically all these guys went on to become A-listers.

“Diner” is a rare intelligent comedy. It works because it is not stupid and does not sacrifice itself to silly gags. It may not be as funny as it is made up to be, but it works and that counts.

 


Sunday 31 December 2023

Happy New Year 2024

 


Happy New Year 2024

It is New Year’s Eve again. I would have loved to have been able to say that the past was a great year, but, alas, it was not. Personally, I am doing alright, life carries on as it usually does, but the world looks bleaker than it has done for quite some time. It is no secret that my six years living in Israel make me take special interest in what happens there, but although it is hard not to, I try to keep politics out of the blog. Cannot say I am always successful at that, after all, my blog is my window to say what I want, but I want this to be about movies and books and not about politics.

This year was also the craziest weather I ever experienced, and I think most of us know what that means for the future. Let me just say that I have never felt this good about working in renewables. To actually be able to make a difference on something this important is special.

I could list up a lot of terrible things going on, but today is supposed to be a celebration, a good riddance to the old year and the best of hopes for the coming year. I do sincerely hope there will be good things in store for us all. If there is one particular wish for the new year from me, it is responsibility. That people, high and low, governments and organizations, take on responsibility themselves instead of blaming everybody else. Half the problems in the world could be solved if everybody took a hard look at themselves rather than blaming somebody else for their misery.

Anyway, during 2023 I watched and reviewed 62 movies, which is more than I have done in a while. 12 of these were off-List movies, leaving 50 movies on the List. I went from 1978 to 1982 and I am now well into what I consider the golden era of cinema: the eighties. The past two months I have been through a streak of classics that would please me any day and although I am looking into a series of more mundane movies, there are lost of highlights to look forward to.

On my book blog I have done 9 titles this year, which I consider an acceptable achievement, considering my target is just five books per year. I have gone through the period 1811 to 1822, a period known for romanticism and the post Napoleonic years. Jane Austen was a wonderful acquaintance and I really liked E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book about his cat.

I wish everybody a happy new year and all the best for the time ahead. May 2024 finally be a good year.


Thursday 28 December 2023

Yol (1982)

 


Yol

When I popped in the “Yol” DVD, I learned that my copy had only French subtitles. I also quickly learned that my French is not really that good and even though it is better than my non-existent Turkish, it had a massive detrimental effect on my experience watching this movie. It is likely a lot better than what I got out of it and the fault is on me, so my apologies up front. Luckily there is a decent summary of the plot on Wikipedia without which I would have been entirely lost.

“Yol” takes place in contemporary Turkey. A group of prisoners get a much longed for leave to return to their families and we follow a handful of them. I am not entirely certain of the names so I will try to leave that out. One does not get far. At a checkpoint, he cannot find his papers, so back he goes. Another one travels through the snow to get home, only to find that his wife is held prisoner because she has dishonored the family (prostitution?). The guy is supposed to kill her and seems intend on leaving her to die in the freezing cold, but changes his mind when it is already too late and so she dies. A third is really bad friends with the in-laws but gets away with his wife. Just as they seem safe, they are hit by a double whopper: an angry mob want to lynch them for having sex on the train toilet (presumably this is a crime against morality, though I would rather say it is a crime against hygiene. That toilet is really disgusting) and they get shot by one of the in-laws. Yeah, very bad friends. A fourth returns to his Kurdish village only to drop down into a civil war affair. The village is under siege by government forces and his brother is killed. Tradition dictates that he then marries the widow and leave this girlfriend with a long nose. Presumably there is a fifth guy, but I somehow missed that. Or got him mixed up with the others.

Obviously, this is a political movie, raging against the political system in Turkey at the time. I sense it to be just as much a cultural critique as most of these men are in trouble, not so much because of the regime but because of cultural dictates of honor and tradition. For anybody with even peripheral experience with the Middle East, such problems should not be a surprise, although from a western perspective they feel medieval and heartless. Such a critique is a lot more difficult to swallow for those being criticized so I guess calling it a regime critique makes it more palatable. Then it is not the fault of the people but the fault of the elite, and who does not despise the elite?

Reading about the movie, I learned that the actual making of the movie was quite an adventure in its own right as the director was imprisoned during filming and escaped and fled to Switzerland and edited it from there. All direction was done through written instruction. That is a story I would like to watch!

There is no doubt the filming and acting is of high quality. It looks very naturalistic. As I could not get much out of the dialogue I instead focused on the images, and they were stunning. Stunning and very depressive. The sense of dirt and smell and poverty is all around. Poor houses, insufficient cloth, noisy and dangerous traffic, it is hard to imagine this is a country on the doorstep of Europe forty years ago. There were only two uplifting elements: The smiles on children’s faces, always a blessing, and the pictures of wonderful food. No matter how poor these people seem to be, the dinners, even casual snacks, look like feasts. I am familiar with Middle Eastern food and what these people were eating is everything I love about it.

It is obviously a clear miss that I got very little out of the narrative and that the script was largely wasted on me. Obviously, I ought to find a copy with subtitles I can actually understand and for that reason I would have to wait with my recommendation until then.