Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold og Maude

I cannot say I was looking forward to watch “Harold and Maude”. A story about a teenage boy and an old woman having an intimate relationship sounded… very social realistic. Something about the elder person helping the young one getting through puberty or something like that. Anyway, a long-groaner. But that was not what this movie was at all. Instead it was one of funniest and most endearing movies I have watched in a long time. A truly positive surprise.

Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man, my guess around 16 or 17 years old, who is not happy. He lives with his rich mother in her huge mansion and she is clearly busy running his life but without actually listening to him. His hobbies are to stage pretend suicides and to go to funerals. It sounds crazy, but those suicides are both spectacular and hilarious. Clearly Harold has a thing with death and although a lot of it has to do with getting some real attention from his mother, it is also a longing to escape the stranglehold of his existence.

At the funerals Harold attend another guest keeps popping up. This is an elderly lady, Maude (Ruth Gordon), who is fascinated with death, but for a different reason than Harold. Maude is an anarchist who lives life to the fullest and does exactly what she pleases. Her interest in funerals is part of her big wheel philosophy and because she is planning her own end, to go when she is still able to live her life as she pleases. Harold and Maude hook up and become best friends. 

Did I mention that this movie is hilariously funny? Maude as an anarchist is completely out of control. Taking cars if she needs them, creating strange art, gate crashing and doing everything a sweet old lady is not supposed to do. For Harold this is freedom and for me it was a hoot. The scene where Maude steals a tree and a car to drive it into the forest and on the way evades a highway trooper only to end up stealing his motorbike is just priceless.

Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles) is convinced that what Harold needs is a wife and so she looks for candidates, of course without consulting Harold. The prospects are all ideal women in her eyes, meaning boring and respectable, and Harold is very good at scaring them away with a gory display. Then she decides that the army is the thing so she sends Harold to his officer of an uncle. This is trickier to get out of but with the help of Maude they put up a very effective show for the uncle.

Throughout there is this perfect blend of lightness and depth that makes it both interesting and very easy to watch. The heart of the movie is of course the relationship between Harold and Maude and how each of them is exactly what the other one needs and that is sweet. We learn that beneath the reckless surface there is a serious backdrop, a dedication to life born out of her past as a holocaust survivor and it is from this dedication that Harold finds that energy and that direction he has so desperately been missing. 

A lot has been made of this being a sexual relationship with a huge age gap, but maybe I have become inured from watching weird British documentaries because this did not trouble me at all. Instead I saw it simply as two people becoming as close as it is possible to get. In fact, listening to the priest raving on about the grossness of such a relationship was a hoot in itself.

No, this was a beautiful movie and a hilariously funny one and a big recommendation from me.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Klute (1971)

On of my favorite genres is that of the noir. Classic noir, neo-noir, sci-fi noir, that does not matter. Hell, I am watching Jessica Jones on Netflix and that is a Marvel noir. Something about the mood and pacing of noir movies make them awesome, at least to me, and in “Klute” I found a wonderful example of noir.

Tom Gruneman from somewhere in Pennsylvania has disappeared and as regular policework has proven fruitless, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), his partner or manager, hires a local detective, John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to find him. Apparently, Tom has been writing obscene letters to a high-end prostitute in New York. Klute looks her up and finds more than he bargained for.

Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) is in many ways the complete opposite of the small town detective Klute. She is adapted to the big city with cynicism and rough edges. She is edgy and street-wise, but also lonely. The deadpan honesty of Klute clashes completely with the layers of pretense which is Daniels world. Yet each of them finds in the other something they are missing in themselves.

From this point the movie follows two tracks. One is the lost person case which takes both of them deeper and deeper into unsavory territory of drugs, abuse and murders. The other is a development story, particularly on Daniels’ side. We get a window into her thoughts through her conversations with her psychiatrist and these monologues function like the voice-over narrator in a typical noir. From these we see her gradually break out of her shell and become vulnerable. A state she does not like and seek to escape.

I do not know which of the two are the most interesting. I suppose the movie is depending on both parts, but they also create a bit of a disconnect. There is a period in the middle of the movie where the crime story moves so much into the background it is almost forgotten. The case however is the nerve of the movie so luckily it does return and with a vengeance.

For me there are two things to this movie I really love. One is the mood. There are a lot of night scenes with an amazing score. There were parts where I saw a kinship to “Bladerunner” and it gave me the shivers. This goes with the slow pace and the phycological elements of loneliness and estrangement.

The second is this classic noir feature that there is so much we do not know and will never know. There is a world outside the camera and outside the characters knowledge, loose ends that creates mystery and danger. Sometimes this is frustrating, but when it works, like here, it adds layers of depth to the story.

Jane Fonda won the Academy award for Best Actress and that was well deserved. She is very convincing in a role that could have gone very extreme, but was very human.

I think my only complaint is that my copy was ridiculously poor. It was some Spanish import without subtitles and very poor picture quality. It would be worthwhile to seek out a better version. That is the penalty for buying these things cheap.

Definitely a recommendation, especially for noir fans.


Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Walkabout (1971)

Whatever it was I expected from “Walkabout”, it turned out to be different. Though the Book’s use of terms like “Mysterious” and “Deep” should warned me, I guess I expected something more like a Robinson Crusoe tale.

Nicolas Roeg, who did the “Performance” movie, has this time gone to Australia. We see a businessman (John Meillon) who look tired. He is well dressed and live in a sea-side apartment with wife, children and pool. Cut. The man is driving in the outback with his two children, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and a 6, presumably, year old boy (Luc Roeg, the director’s own son). He stops the car, the children set up for a picnic and the man start shooting at the children, sets fire to the car and shoots himself. Just like that.

The children are now left on their own in the arid outback very, very far from home. From what I can tell this is South Australia, some distance north of Adelaide, an area which is, well, pretty barren. As the children have absolutely no survival skills and very few supplies it is quite lucky they meet an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout and that this boy is nice and wants to help them.

This becomes a remarkable walkabout for all three of them. The white boy and the girl have no idea what the black boy is blabbering on about and he in turn just smile in incomprehension at the girl’s words in English. After a while the white boy comes to some very crude and basic understanding of the black boy, not through some superior skill, but because lacking the conditioning from western civilization he listens and observe the black boy with less cultural filter. Still much of this walk is about the failure of two cultures to understand each other, something that goes far beyond the spoken word.

Where the girl and the white boy see a desolate waste, the black boy sees a land full of resource. The black boy sees and registers what he wants to see and the girl fails to recognize things obvious to the black boy. This comes to a head near the conclusion where the black boy’s sustenance hunting, involving a level of respect for the animals is held up against the wanton and pointless slaughter by a group of white hunters as well as the black boys mating dance to the girl which is misunderstood as a fearsome and savage show, something that seems to deflate the black boy completely. It is as if he has been trying through the walk to show her the beauty of her world, to make her understand it and in the end she is refusing to understand and refusing to embrace her world and instead return to her own, a world exemplified  by the wasteland of an almost deserted mining settlement and a local caretaker obsessing about property rights. The black boy is stunned into oblivion as if his world has been discarded.

The black boy may be wanting the white girl, but it goes the other way too. We see her glance constantly go to his crotch and she seems very attentive to how she may appear to him. As sexual beings we are all the same. Something which is emphasized by a research camp on the salt flats where sex is foremost on everybody’s mind, men and women.

Throughout it all there is this dreamy quality to the movie. There are strange cross-clips through association and many things are unexplained, seemingly happening for no reason at all. My interpretation of this is partly the dream world the Aboriginals believe in and partly that all this could be a dream or a hazy memory of the girl. When we see her in the end she either dreams or recall an event from the walkabout and in this interpretation the walkabout is something that is lacking or lost in her life, an alternative reality that could have been or that she wished would have been because she is missing it.

Anyway, this is a much deeper and interesting movie than it appears to be and certainly one that leaves a lot to think about. Not to mention full of wonderful pictures from the Australian outback.

It is a recommendation from me.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (1971)

Off-List: Den forsvundne fuldmægtig
The third off-List movie of 1971 is as usual a Danish movie and the, in my opinion, most interesting movie to come out of Denmark in 1971 was “Den forsvundne fuldmægtig” (“The Missing Clerk”).

The book by Hans Scherfig is very highly regarded in Denmark and most high school student will eventually get to read it, myself included. Oddly enough I never watched the movie version and that is a shame. It is a very good adaption.

When Theodor Amsted (Ove Sprogøe), highly placed clerk in the Ministry of Defense, fails to show up at home, his wife Mrs. Amsted (Bodil Kjer) gets worries. Mr. Amsted is always very precise and never does anything unexpected. Soon after, an exploded body is found just outside town (half a mile from where I live!) and the police concludes it is Theodor Amsted who has blown himself up. For Mrs. Amsted this is a blow, but in her home Mr. Amsted has never been more present and highly respected now that he is dead.

But Mr. Amsted is not dead. Instead he has taken the bus to a little village on the north coast where he rents a room. Mr. Amsted has finally escaped the prison of expectations, respectability and conformity he has lived in all his life. Now he is free at last, but at a loss what to do with this freedom.

Confused, it is almost a relief for him when he is eventually found by the police and imprisoned. In prison he can live the ordered and boring life he has trained for all his life and without being questioned by a nagging wife. He is finally happy.

It is an interesting story with a point, as relevant today as back then. Always doing what you are told, obeying the rules, living inside the box kills something in people and make them automatons. Mr. Amsted wants to be free, desperately enough to fake his death, but he has no clue what to do with it and freedom is scary when you never had any. It is bittersweet to watch Mr. Amsted trying to find the child he lost and being so miserable at it.

The village he ends up in is also full of characters, people of small minds who are terribly busy with everybody else. In particular Karl Stegger as Martin Hageholm, a pensioned postman, is hilarious, zealously looking out for strangers violating… anything. In fact, I could watch this movie just for him. Although as a character he has very little importance for the story, he completely steals the scenes he a appear in and the gentle Theodor Amsted looks very small next to this larger than life busybody.

Another noteworthy character is Bodil Kjer’s Mrs. Amsted. Her life is so entirely defined by her status as wife of the highly respected clerk that nothing is allowed to disturb the order of things. Having her husband return from the grave is most irregular. Already she is busy forming her son Leif in the same image as her father. Throughout the movie she speaks nonstop in all her scenes, while I do not recall Leif saying a word. His little rebellion is to hide the food he does not like under the table. She is a perfect nightmare.

It is also a lot of fun to see places I have grown familiar with the two years I have lived here. Amager Fælled where the body exploded is very close and much nearer the city today than back then and those villages on the north coast are now busy resort towns.  

“Den forsvundne fuldmægtig” is hilarious and tragic, human and diabolic. It is also highly recommended, also for an international audience.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Vestens syndige par
The second movie on the List by Robert Altman is “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”. Altman was the guy who made “M.A.S.H.” and I could definitely see a connection between these two movies. To me it looked as if he wanted to redo that special way of filming where actors each go around doing whatever their role is and the cameras move around filming whatever it is that is going on. Not, mind you, as anarchistic as in “M.A.S.H.”, but it definitely delivers that particular feeling that there is a lot going on outside the camera, an entire world, of which we only get to see bits and pieces. An elegant method, actually, that brings a lot of realism to a movie, but also, well, difficult to follow. In any case, Altman has here applied this technique on an entirely different setting, the American frontier around the turn of the century. That is, the turn into the 20th century, of course.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is an opportunistic gambler who sets up shop in the small and very new mining hamlet Presbyterian Church in the northwest (filmed in British Colombia, though it is supposed to take place in Washington State). McCabe becomes a bit of an entertainment king with a saloon and a brothel, but his toughness seems to be something he gets from the conspicuous amount of alcohol he is consuming.

Eventually McCabe is joined by the hard and direct Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a very professional prostitute who takes over the brothel department. Together they are king and queen of the village until big capital move in to take over the town, something neither McCabe nor Miller are able to cope with.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is sort of a Western but a very different kind of Western. The setting is a bit too late for the Western setting, the frontier has moved all the way out into very inhospitable areas, and civilization is both too close for comfort and too far away to help when hell breaks loose.

It is also different in the sense that there is no heroism here. Or rather, not the heroism we are used to. McCabe is more a parasite than a contributing member of the community. He makes money on other people’s weaknesses and he is more loud than talented or courageous. Same with Miller, she is all tough as nails, but it is a mask that she hides behind together with her opium addiction. Combined they are actually sorry beings. The real heroes are the people of the village who are carving out a meager existence in the wilderness despite all the hardships.

The classic free spirit versus encroaching civilization is here anarchy versus lawless capitalism where big money takes by force what they cannot buy and the “little man” is not much better, just smaller.

All in all, a fairly pessimistic tale with not very likable characters. And maybe that is the attraction of the movie. Because the characters are flawed, because the setting is flawed, because there is no happy ending, this is far more interesting than the average western. There is depth to the characters and we can deal with them even if we do not like them.

The genius of the movie however is neither the sepia filming nor the tale itself, but the soundtrack. It was a brilliant move to include a number of Leonard Cohen songs on it. Although they belong to a different age, there is something in the mood that fits the movie perfectly.

Speaking of Cohen, I recently went to a Leonard Cohen exhibition here is Copenhagen and was very impressed with it. Cohen has real depth in his catalogue and the song in this movie only adds to that.

While “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” started slow for me, it eventually won me over and it ends with a recommendation.


Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Charlie og chokoladefabrikken
For the past week I have been away on vacation. Not exactly the vacation I had imagined but considering the times it was fine and it was good to get a bit away. Just before I left, I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” but did not manage to do the review. So, slightly delayed…

I know “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, or the story at least, from my childhood. Back then it was a Swedish or Norwegian cartoon with voice-over and was called “Charlie and the Chocolate factory”. I remember it as being an unsettling serial to watch, partly because it was one of these strange cartoons that are really just stills with the camera panning across them, but also because the Willy Wonka character was scary. The 1971 musical I never saw before now and that goes for the Johnny Depp version too. Those childhood memories were holding me back.

This 1971 version is substantially different from the story I remember. First of all the Willy Wonka name is already in the title, presumably because the sponsor of the movie had a chocolate bar called the Wonka bar they wanted to market with the movie (money money money…) but more importantly, Willy Wonka is lovable. Still strange and sort of mean, but in Gene Wilder’s version he is difficult not to like.

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a moral tale about a poor boy, Charlie, who through odd jobs helps his mother take care of his four bed-ridden grandparents. There is room for no luxuries in that home, but Charlie is a good boy.  In the outside world the mysterious chocolate factory run by Willy Wonka launces a competition: Anyone who finds a golden ticket in a chocolate bar wins a tour of the factory and a lifelong supply of chocolate. The world goes mad looking for these tickets and also Charlie starts dreaming, only he cannot afford to buy the chocolate.

Eventually the winners are found and one of them is Charlie who found a coin and bought a bar. The other four children are horrible though. One is eating all the time, another is a spoiled brat used to get what she wants, a third is self-obsessed and the fourth only cares for watching television. On the day of the tour all children show up with a family member (who is not so different from the child) and Willy Wonka gives them the tour.

The chocolate factory is a magical place inhabited by the midget workers, the orange faced Oompa-Loompas, and is more of a garden of temptation than an actual factory. Now Wonka starts weeding out the bad children…

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a musical and a fairy tale so realism is not where this is heading, but instead it allows for wondrously weird scenarios that baffles the mind. The point is that only a child’s wondering imagination can cope with this, whereas an adult’s rational mind balk at all the illogical and silly concepts at the factory. So, to pass the tests you need a child’s imagination and readiness to accept things at face value and be a “good” child. Will Charlie make it?

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” worked a lot better than I had expected. Both as a story and on the technical level. The factory is a magical place come to life and the musical elements do not feel overtly disturbing, but most importantly, the acting all round is good. I had my doubts thinking of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but in hindsight I can think of nobody else, and for once the child actors were good. Or rather, as intolerable as they are supposed to be.

This is however a family movie, so the real test is how it works with children. For the second half of the movie I was joined by my 10-year old son who got so much into it that he wanted to watch it from the beginning. Turns out there are a number of memes out there referring this movie.

This is a movie that still works today and a recommendation from me to children of all ages.


Thursday, 25 June 2020

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Off-List: The Andromeda Strain
It is time for my second off-List movie of 1971 and I dare say I could not have found a more fitting movie. A strange new disease, doctors working frantically to understand it and find a way to treat it and politicians who fail to grasp the gravity of the situation. Hmmm… sounds so familiar, but this is not about the Corona virus but the 1971 movie “The Andromeda Strain”.

Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (whom we all know from “Jurassic Park”) this is about a satellite bringing back something mysterious from space that kills of an entire village literally in their tracks except for an old drunk and an infant. Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill) has established a secret underground government laboratory called Wildfire to work as an ultra-high security laboratory and now it is coming into use for the investigation of this mysterious passenger on the satellite. Experts Dr. Hall (James Olson), Dr. Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Leavitt (Kate Reid) are called in, initiated to the lab and set to work on the project. Meanwhile on the outside the politicians a stalling on what to do and the military are failing to take it seriously.

The core of this movie is the investigation of the organism from space, the Andromeda Strain. To some this may sound boring, but to an old scientist (sort of) like me this is heaven. There are tons of police procedure movies around but precious few scientific procedure movies. Usually the scientific process is handled in a montage and voila, problem solved, or it is dealt with so ridiculously it is an insult to call it science. In this case however the producers took it very seriously and involved the scientific community and actually listened. Everything they do in “The Andromeda Strain makes sense. Even the high security facility is logical and my guess is it is not so far off modern top security laboratories.

In fact, the art direction is outstanding. The computer graphics are very impressive for 1971 and the set design is very futuristic. Apparently, they got the people from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to work on this movie and it shows. “The Andromeda Strain” was nominated for Best Art Direction.

The only thing that worked less realistically was the time frame involved. I should think such investigations would take just a bit longer. Also the dramatic plot itself suffers. In the frenzy of getting the science right the screenplay writers seemed to have forgotten that this is a movie and as such need a dramatic climax. What they did come up with comes very late and feels almost pasted on and the resolution is something that happened literally while the hero slept. That part was a bit underwhelming and I cannot say if the movie managed to justify all the precautions made or ridiculed them. For all the scientific and security rigor it was mundane errors and human interaction which both caused the problems and solved them

The current Corona crisis makes a movie like “The Andromeda Strain” both interesting and relevant. When we do not know what we are facing we have to be careful and we only get the right answers by considering it scientifically. COVID-19 may not be as deadly as the Andromeda Strain, but it is loose out there and it has changed everybody’s life.

For all its flaws “The Andromeda Strain” is my kind of movie and for nerds like me highly recommended.