Sunday, 8 July 2018

Vinyl (1965)

1964 is now officially over for me and my movie calendar says 1965. It is also about a week until I am moving back to Denmark with my family. Busy days!

First movie of 1965 is Andy Warhol’s “Vinyl”.

If you are into sadomasochistic gay sex this is likely something for you. Sadly, sadomasochistic gay sex is not my thing and that leaves… very little.

“Vinyl” is supposed to be a pre-Kubrick take on “A Clockwork Orange”, but you could have fooled me. I did not perceive any story at all. What we do get is a one-hour movie consisting of two camera positions. The first, lasting about 80% of the movie has a sadomasochistic séance in the background (not so much sex though, they a mostly just torturing the poor fellow) while in the foreground a dude called JD is first making an obscure speech, then is being the subject of another sadomasochistic séance led by a dude called The Doctor. Again not so much sex, mostly torture, humiliation and sexual undertones. All the while a girl is sitting on the right side of the picture doing… nothing. To call her an observer is too gracious. She is just there, looking as if she is wondering why she is there at all.

There is dialogue, but it is a declamatory dialogue that makes little sense and I tuned it out completely. I do not remember a single line.

At some point the camera zoom in on JD, but nothing else changes.

There is music and it is actually good music. The only redeeming feature of the movie, but exactly what the role of this music is I do not know. It is just there.

In art exhibitions Warhol is a big name and his paintings and installations are both interesting and influential, but if “Vinyl” is typical for his movie production then I would say that they miss the mark. I could do without.

Thankfully there are no free-flying dicks in “Vinyl”, but that seems merely a coincidence. Otherwise this movie follows pretty well the path setup by the List editors for underground gay movies. I get that there must be something for the LGBT community and that Warhol is a pretty big name, but for crying out loud, there must be something better than this.


Monday, 2 July 2018

The Demon (Onibaba) (1964)

The final movie of 1964 is the Japanese movie “Onibaba” and again Japanese cinema is bent on impressing me. “Onibaba” is one of the best movies in 1964.

I cannot say I entirely understand the movie, there are layers here that are inaccessible for me, but even at face value this movie is awesome.

In a distant Japanese past the country is engulfed in a lengthy civil war. That happened a few times in Japanese history, but the circumstances are not so important. In this war an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter in law, the younger woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are hiding out in a large field of tall and dense susuki grass. Their livelihood is to trap and kill soldiers who seek refuge or get lost in the field. They strip the dead soldiers of armor and weapons and sell then to a shady dealer for basic foodstuff. The two women are never named, but they are crafty women, bent on survival and doing a good job at that in a difficult time.

One day their neighbor Hachi (Kei Satō) returns. He left some time ago with the son and husband of the two women and were drafted into the war. Eventually they were assaulted by farmers who had the audacity to defend their possessions from plundering soldiers and the younger woman’s husband was killed. Hachi made it home alone.

Hachi is not a great guy. Not objectively. Pretty disgusting actually. The older woman hates his guts for coming home without her son, but the younger woman is attracted to him because he is… well… a man.  Soon they are forming a very sexual relationship behind the back of the fuming older woman.

One fateful night the older woman finds a way to scare her daughter in law into compliance when she finds a demonic mask. Only, this is not just a mask. It is a truly demonic mask…

There is a lot to love about this movie. Kaneto Shindo, the director, had his own production company, so he could ignore all the usual strictures on Japanese movies and film the story in a raw, brutal and direct style that gives the film an impact outside the usual scale for the period. The war is brutal, killing is easy and lives are cheap. The callousness with which human lives are dispensed with for simply livelihood is shocking, but also very convincing. In a very cold place we can understand the simple logic behind the actions of these two women.

This also goes for the raw sexuality between Hachi and the younger woman. There is not so much to explain: there is a woman and man, they have a sexual craving and they act on it. Is it good or bad? The older woman is against it, but not so much from a moral point of view, but because she hates his guts and wants to keep the girl for herself. To her, Hachi is a rival. We see everything, not because we are Peeping Toms, but because the style is raw and blunt.

Then there is the horror element. Life in the susuki grass field is pretty horrific, but the demonic mask adds another element. It gets stuck to face of the wearer and transforms the face to the horrific deformities suffered by nuclear attack victims. I am not entirely sure of the meaning of this. Could it be that the demonic mask unveils the monster beneath? Or that beneath demonic behavior and faces are vulnerable and scarred human beings? Not sure, but regardless the effect of the mask is terrifying.

Nobuko Otowa is awesome as the older woman and she would have been my suggestion for a Best Actress in 1964. If for no other reason, watch this movie for her.

Absolutely recommended, one of the best movies of 1964, and that concludes 1964 for me.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins
After a number of… difficult movies… it now time to get all the way back into comfort land. Mary Poppins is Disney with capital D and so we know that this will be as cushy and mushy as it is at all possible. This is certainly in stark contrast to the route the List has been leading me lately.

“Mary Poppins” is a fairy tale musical for the entire family, which translates to children with the adults sitting in on the view. It follows the Hollywood template formulae for musicals, meaning anything is possible, with songs and a loosely written story to take you from song to song. Because this is fairy tale on top of musical the logic and causality of things has also been dismissed and aiming it at children means that it all takes a silly slant. This could go horribly wrong, but it stops right at the edge and remains sweet rather than stupid and thank you for that.

In the Banks family the father, Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) is a stiff upper lip British banker while his wife, Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) is busy campaigning for women’s right to vote. That leaves their two children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) in the hands of a sting of nannies, whom they torment into quitting. Then the wonderful Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) arrives and takes charge of the children.

Mary Poppins is a magic nanny. She can fly and do all sort of magic things and around her everything is fun and nice. She takes the children on adventures, including a trip into a painting together with her friend Bert (Dick van Dyke), and soon the children are in love with her.

The point is of course to make their parents realize they have two lovely children whom they should take care of and spend time with themselves and in the usual convoluted way this is exactly what happens.

As I watched the movie I was thinking that “Mary Poppins” is adults idea of what children should watch rather than what children actually want to watch. That this would certainly be the case today, though maybe children were different in 1964. All that singing and dancing and stories of nannies, is this really what children want to see?

However, as I was watching the last half hour of the movie I was joined by my 8-year-old son, who was very interested in the movie (though it could be a trick to avoid going to bed) and today coming back from school he requested to watch the movie from beginning and he loved it. So, I was wrong, this actually does hit a note with children and the movie serves its purpose.

I think it is merely me who is too far outside the target group (musical AND children’s movie) to fully buy into the movie, but I must admit that it is charming and sweet and of good production value. Technology has made the merging of live action and animation trivial, but for 1964 it works remarkably well, so points for that.

There are a few interesting appearances in the movie: Elsa Lancaster, Bride of Frankenstein, as a nanny and Jane Darwell of Grapes of Wrath in her last role as the Bird Woman.

Normally I am not sure I would recommend this type of movie, but it felt like the right movie at the right time and it does the trick for children, so it ends up with a recommendation from me.


Monday, 11 June 2018

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) (1964)


When it comes to movie versions of religious texts a lot of the usual criteria for evaluating a movie become invalid. A religious topic, especially if it is THE religious texts that are being used cannot really be rated as a good or a bad story. If you are religious, you would rate it according to how well it matches your religious believes. If you are not religious such a story would be so far outside your version of reality that you are not in a position to rate it. 

This is how I feel about “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (“Il vangelo secondo Matteo”) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I very much belong to the second group and whether this is a good rendition of the gospels I will leave to religious people. 

What I can say is that Pasolini here went, as far as I can see, for a very literal presentation of the life and death of Jesus. There are hardly any surprises, it is all taken from the text. Even the lines seem to be direct biblical quotes. Something that at times sounds very odd as those lines do not work particular well in a normal dialogue. Many scenes are set up particularly so specific lines can be spoken rather than to serve any progressive story. This means that the slavic adherence to the text makes the movie lumber along rather erratically. 

I have not watched many religious movies, but of the few I have seen those that work the best are usually those that take their own spin on the story, have a certain angle or dramatize events. Pasolini however seems content to just visualize the story and so there are absolutely no surprises or originality here.

Where this version is supposed to stand out is in Pasolini’s application of Italian neorealism to the telling of the story with his use amateur actors and natural locations. At least this is how Wikipedia describes it. I have a hard time seeing that. There is very little that seem natural here. Indeed there is a staged feel to the production that is anything but natural. Characters are not fleshed out and there is absolutely no spontaneity in the dialogue. If this is realism then something has happened since Rossellini.

Then again, if you are really into the religious text you would probably appreciate this strict adherence to the scriptures. It is a particular quality for this type of movie.

I doubt that I have to recount the story itself. It starts with the impregnation of the Virgin Maria and ends with the Resurrection of Christ. Everything in between is well known.

The film was filmed in Calabria in Italy and as I actually live in Israel right now I can see where these look like the real locations and where they decidedly do not. I suppose for the average viewer the match is good enough, but I find it a bit comical at times.

Pier Paolo Pasolini has a reputation of being an avantgarde director with many inaccessible or outright disgusting movies under his belt. My own experience with his movies is very limited, but I find odd that the director of “120 days of Sodom” should also have made this very conventional movie about the life of Jesus. I must say that I expected something else.

On an entirely different note, it is now official that my family and I are moving back to Denmark in July after six years in Israel. We are going to live in Copenhagen and the next month and a half is going to be pretty chaotic. My posting frequency will likely reach an all-time low in this period, but once established in our new apartment I hope to get back to normal speed.


Monday, 4 June 2018

Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diablo Na Terra del Sol) (1964)

Gud og djævelen i solens land
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Carl Th. Dreyer made a Western?

Well, “Black God, White Devil” (“Deus E O Diablo Na Terra Do Sol”) is what I imagine it would be like.

We got a very emotionally loaded movie that touches on a lot of big questions with characters that will stand still facing different directions and proclaim their existential pain with robot voices. Then they will shoot and kill a lot of people in a sun-dried land for no particular reason.

That does not sound very appetizing and it also reflects my general disappointment with the movie.

It starts out pretty good though. Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) is a cattle herder (cowboy) in a very dry part of Northern Brazil. He is poor and lives in a shack with his wife Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) and their infant child. Things start going bad when Manuel gets screwed over by the owner of the cattle and Manuel kills him in return. This part is pretty good and very Western-like. Tough and gritty.

Rosa and Manuel escape and joins a religious group following a preacher called Sebastian (Lidio Silva). Sebastian is an asshole. He is filling his followers with lots of religious bullshit and is essentially creating a religious militant group whose only allegiance is to him. Manuel is eating it raw and becomes a faithful follower. This culminates when Sebastian commands him to kill his child as a sacrifice and that is pretty much when I mentally left the movie. The memory of that scene still makes me want to vomit.

Rosa kills Sebastian in return and immediately became my hero, for a while at least. A hitman, sent out by the church (Mauricio do Valle as Antonio das Mortes) kills the whole bunch except for Rosa, Manuel and a blind folk singer.

On the move again, Rosa and Manuel join a bandit who is killing every landowner he can get his hands on. At this point I was getting very confused. I have no idea what was really going on in these scenes, except for the massive amount of killing. It is a very surreal phase of the movie, maybe reflecting the bewilderment Manuel and Rosa are going through. Alas, Antonio das Mortes shows up again and do some more killing.

It is possible that I might have gotten more out of the movie had I not checked out after the baby killing scene. Then again, maybe not. It was getting very existential, very surreal and we are left with nobody to hang on to and a story that is not really going anywhere but towards death. We are very far from a Hollywood happy ending, but I could live with that if this did not feel more like a fizzle than a conclusion. In the end there is nothing but death. True, but also terribly depressing.

The production level is higher than the older Brazilian movies I have seen with the exception of “Black Orpheus”, but not anything approaching what Sergio Leone did in this period. We get the heat and the callousness from the cinematography, but beyond that there is a cheapness to the movie that speaks of a very limited budget.

Not a favorite of mine. How can any movie be that murders children in the name of religion?


Saturday, 26 May 2018

I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1964)

I Am Cuba
The third off-list movie of 1964 is “I Am Cuba” (“Soy Cuba”). This movie was recommended to me (thanks Bea!) particularly for the camera work and that is also the main draw of the movie.

“I am Cuba” is a propaganda movie in support of the Cuban revolution. This had taken place just a few years before and I suppose the Cuban revolutionary leadership felt a need to justify and celebrate their take over. At this time, having kicked out American interests, Cuba was isolated and had turned toward the Soviet Union for support, and this included a Russian film crew with very good credentials.

The team, led by Mikhail Kalatozov, were already famous for their filming techniques and their tracking shot, super-wide angle close ups and super sharp infrared shots were perfected on Cuba. This makes “I Am Cuba” very interesting from a technical point of view. It also lifts what would otherwise be ham-fisted propaganda into something more easily digestible.

That is of course the problem with any propaganda movie. There is a very clear intent and that intent must be perceived by even the densest and illiterate viewer. This tends to make propaganda movies very one-dimensional to the extent of oversimplifying the issues and they easily appear stupid. “I Am Cuba” tries to walk that balance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it plumbs into the propaganda traps, but even in the worst moments the cinematography saves it.

There is no over-all story, but rather four vignettes with that in common that they all relate to the revolution.

The first is about rich Americans flouting their money and corrupting the local population. Obviously, the intent is to make the Americans look like assholes and it is difficult not to be upset at the difference between the upscale tourist sites and the slums.

The second features a poor farmer who works his sugarcane plot with his children. His hard, but rewarding, labor is interrupted when the landowner shows up to tell him he sold the land to United Fruit so he can piss off. The farmer sees his livelihood stripped away in an eyeblink and in desperation sets everything to the torch.

Then, back in Havana, we follow Enrique, a student presumably, who first saves a lady in distress from brutish American navy-men, then joins a demonstration against the corrupt government only to be shot down as a martyr.

Finally a farmer family in a remote, rebel controlled area gets bombed, killing one of the children in what I consider a huge cinematic faux-pas (you do not kill children in movies!). As a result, the husband joins the revolution, marching towards a glorious victory over the evil capitalists with a lot of flag-waving.

It is a movie with no grey zones, no room for doubt, there are the good guys, the revolutionary, and the bad guys, the corrupt elite backed by America. It is a simple choice between joining the revolution or being screwed over. As a viewer suffering hardships it is an effective movie that serves its propagandistic purpose and even as a neutral viewer I sit back thinking that if I lived in such a divisive and corrupt country I would not find it hard to place my sympathies, even if I cannot approve of the means to the end.

The Danish model is a little different. In 1849 a group of civilians representing the population (male and bourgeois, admittedly) got an audience with the king and demanded constitutional monarchy and parliamentary rule to which the king answered “okay” (in 1849 wording) and on June 5th we celebrate the founding law (Grundloven) of 1849. Not a single shot fired.

Content-wise “I am Cuba” can be a hard swallow and the killing of a child in the end was awful, but the photography alone makes this a remarkable movie and it deserves interest for this reason alone. I could see it replace a few movies in 1964.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Gertrud (1964)

This next movie on the List, Gertrud, is a Danish movie and it is not a special entry on the Danish version, but a real bona fide official List entry. I should be excited.

Well, the reason this movie is on the list is not because is absolutely awesome, but because it was made by Carl Th. Dreyer, one of those directors the List editors are nuts about. He did make both “Jeanne d’Arc” and “Ordet”, but sadly “Gertrud” is not in the same league.

The titular character Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is married to the successful lawyer Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe) around the turn of the century. Gertrud is unhappy in her marriage and wants to leave her husband. This comes as a surprise to him, just before he is to be named a member of the prime minister’s government. He, correctly, suspects there is another man in Gertrud’s life.

Gertrud wants to leave her husband because she requires 100% commitment in love. Love for her cannot be shared with love for work and as her husband cares about his work Gertrud is disappointed. She has found a young lover, a composer (Baard Owe) with whom she imagines she has found love. Except Erland, as is his name, does not take it anywhere as serious as she does and is taken aback when she declares she has left her husband for him. Needless to say this is not good enough for Gertrud.

Then Gertrud meets up with an old flame Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode, Nina Pens real life husband), a famous poet, who wants to mend things and get back with her, but Gertrud is refusing. Back when they where together she had found a frustrated note from him that seemed to prove that he could not commit 100% to her, so, too bad, that train has gone. Instead Gertrud grows old alone.

There are a number of issues with this movie. The most immediate one is the style of acting (and filming for that matter). In a typical scene you would have two people talking to each other but looking away in opposite directions. The speak would be slow, cold and artificial as if they were robots. It is actually funny, at least in the beginning, because the topics and the words are very honest and intimate and so at odds with the delivery. I found myself laughing a number of times, especially in a priceless scene in the beginning where Gertrud and Gustav are having one of these cold and stilted conversation only to be broken by a doorbell and Gustav breaking the style by exclaiming “Årh for pokker, det er mamy!” (“Dammit, that’s my mother!). I was in tears.

No, as the movie wears on, this style gets very old. Gertrud is the carrier of the style, whenever she speaks she turns into a robot and being the main character, she is in almost every scene.

A second issue is the theme. I believe we are supposed to sympathize with Gertrud in her search for 100% commitment to love, but I cannot help being annoyed. Who does she think she is to monopolize the attention of her men. If it was only that they should not have other women I could well understand that, but Gertrud do not want to share her men’s passion with anything, work, hobbies anything. She demands complete attention and commitment. To me that sounds like a prison, an impossible romantic dream far removed from reality.

Add to this that Gertrud is about as unattractive as possible. Her cold demeanor, her rejective attitude and ghost like appearance, but most of all her complete lack of understanding of her men and it becomes almost comical that they should desire her so much.

Alas, despite, or maybe because, of all this I smiled and laughed a lot more than I had anticipated. When Axel Strøbye appears as Axel Nygren I am all smiles. He is (together with Ole Thestrup) my favorite Danish Actor and not even Dreyer can curb this wonderful actor.

I cannot honestly say I liked this movie. I understand what it is trying to do, but I do not sympathize with the idea. I could not care less about Gertrud, the woman, but this is also a case of art going so far in being arty that it becomes comedy. At least for a fellow Dane.