Sunday, 25 June 2017

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d'un Ete) (1961)

Fortællingen om en sommer
You know those classic photos of friends and family where everybody smiles and poses for the camera. I always found them less than satisfying. They represent an edited version of reality, not how the situation really is, but how the subject of the photos wants to appear. Instead I prefer to make my photos without people being aware of it to get a much more natural and real picture. My subjects usually complain that they do not look right, but to me they do. They also complain what I sabotage group photos. If the situation is not real anyway, why not take into a fun direction. There is no way I am going to look pretty anyway.

It turns out I am not the only one who like to photograph the real world. Today’s movie “Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer)” is so obsessed with that subject that that is all it really is: an almost desperate, yet futile, attempt at capturing reality, or more precisely truth, on film.

Given my own preference for photography of reality I should be excited, but “Chronicle of a Summer” does not manage to get me there. The problem in short is that it is too intellectualized and too impressed with itself and certainly way to meta for my taste. Still, I admire the attempt.

“Chronicle of a Summer” is a project by documentarist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. The articulated purpose is to make a portrait of reality of one summer, but beyond that it is a bit diffuse. The question of what is reality and truth is a philosophical one and this is a discussion the movie struggles with throughout. How to make a cinéma vérité, film of reality, becomes a topic of its own. In that sense this also becomes a movie about making a movie to the extent that we actually see Rouch and Morin discuss how to make the movie and what they want to achieve with it. Very meta.

Okay, so what they do is that they send two girls out in town to ask random people if they are happy. This, of course, triggers some amusing reactions. How would you feel if somebody on the street put a microphone in your face and asked you if you are happy? In any case as far as I could see nothing really came out of that.

Then they setup discussion groups where young people discuss politics, work and relationships. The intention is to make it authentic, but it sounds anything but. Unless of course these people are highly intellectualized and philosophical. It is the kind of pretentious discussions I could not imagine anybody have unless they were filmed or coached. Then, really, what happened to reality?

The movie has a meandering style, weaving in and out of topics seemingly at random. This means that it always feels out of focus. There are interesting points like Marceline talking about being with her father in a concentration camp or realizing in St. Tropez that the bikini has arrived (goodbye fifties…), but often the small stories are so out of context that I cannot fully get into them. The only thing that ties it all together is this declared aim of finding the truth of being in France in the summer of 1960.

I admit that it is interesting to get a peek behind the camera and it is when we truly get that peek that extra material gets valuable, but “Chronicle of a Summer” has already anticipated it and invites us into the film making process. Probably the aim is honesty, to take away every reason for us to think that this is merely acting, but it is disturbing and it actually does highlight that this cannot all be truth.  In fact all these people are very much aware of being filmed and to some extent they are instructed. This is not a hidden camera telling us what is really happening.

And then of course after all this discussion of truth and reality, what truth is it then it shows us? I have no idea. The substance all drowned in form.

I would love to like this more than I did. The idea seems good. It just got way too meta for me.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Yojimbo (1961)

Off-List: Yojimbo
I am a big Kurosawa fan. Or turning into one. Apparently Kurosawa churned out so many great movies that even with the extensive selection showing up on the List, there are a lot more that should have been there. “Yojimbo” from 1961 is one of those, hence it gets an off-list entry here on my blog.

“Yojimbo” is one of Kurosawa’s westerns and like “Seven Samurai” it was later remade as a “real” western by Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars”). Instead of cowboys and Monument Valley Kurosawa used samurai and period Japanese settings, yet beneath this façade this is at heart a western. And what a western! If westerns were normally as awesome as this I would be a big fan of the genre.

A stranger walks into a dusty town. Without saying much he is quietly assessing the situation and decides that he needs to take action. This could have been Clint Eastwood, but it is Toshiro Mifune as the ronin Sanjuro. The town is in the grip of two rivaling gangs headed by Ushitora and Seibei. Each gangster boss has hired a small army of scum including a few super-scum, among them the gun-wielding Unosoke. Sanjuro, awesome samurai though he is, knows that he cannot singlehandedly take on the two clans. Instead his plan is to pit them against each other in the hope that they will kill each other off.

Sanjuro lets himself be hired by first one side then the other and keep changing allegiance all the while provoking the parties. Of course their greed and hatred for each other helps and his plan is almost succeeding when the fighting is called to a halt because of a visiting inspector (read: marshall). When he is finally gone Seibei and Ushitora have started peace talks and Sanjuro has his work cut out for him to start the fight again.

The civilians see him as another addition to their troubles until he saves a villager’s wife kept as prostitute by Ushitori and sends her away with husband and child and his money. Now Sanjuro’s soft heart is revealed and he is celebrated as a hero, which come in handy when his meddling finally gets him in serious trouble.

One man against two armies of bad guys. Showdown at high noon. This just does not get more American, yet everything here is also totally Japanese. Samurai are cool and composed, think before they act and morally superior. Peasants are stupid cattle, hunched and bowlegged and cowards at heart. Gangsters may have been samurai, but without moral integrity they are nothing. Turning to guns instead of the honorable sword is a certain sign of the fallen samurai. And merchants… well they are only interested in money. In this environment, the samurai is a super hero with just authority.     

While the setting here is awesome I was struck by how great the pacing is. At 110 minutes this movie never turns boring. After 30 minutes I actually though the movie was coming to a conclusion, but it was only just beginning. In the act where Sanjuro is caught and beaten to pieces the story is turned on itself as Sanjuro is turned from the superior samurai to a sorry piece of junk and must rely on help from the villagers. The story evolves and never stands still. Of course all its themes are now commonplace, especially in westerns, but also in any sort of action drama, whether it is Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Vin Diesel. Kurosawa was there first.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching Yojimbo. There is no big message here, it is simply entertainment and maybe that is why it did not meet the approval of the List editors. But that seems too silly. I think they just thought there was enough Kurosawa as it is. I do not agree. There is always room for more Kurosawa.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel) (1961)

Som i et spejl
Time for another Bergman movie. As anyone doing the List will know, there are these directors that the editors just love and Ingmar Bergman is one of those. Not that I entirely disagree with them, his movies have so far proven far more watchable than I had thought, and “Såsom i en spegel” (Through a Glass Darkly) is no exception, though it is one of those movies you have to be in the right mood for.

Bergman has here narrowed in on a style which, as I understand it, made him famous: The existential drama involving very few people, very limited space and spanning a short period of time. A film version of Strindberg. It is a style that allows for examining the themes of the story with as little distraction as possible and is all down to the few actors involved.

In this case there are four characters. Central of these is Karin (Harriet Andersson), a young woman married to the doctor Martin (Max von Sydow). She has a younger brother with the awesome, though negatively loaded, name Minus (Lars Passgård) while the fourth character is her father David (Gunnar Björnstrand). The four of them have met up at their summerhouse on an island and seem to have a swell time. Though as we will soon find out all is not well.

Karin is suffering from a mental illness. It is not specified what this illness is but it makes her disappear into a dream world that is tormenting her and she has difficulty keeping the two apart. This is actually dramatic enough as it is, but surprisingly the story is more about how this affects the three men.

Martin is both a doctor and a caring husband. He wants to help and throws everything into helping her, but is frustrated by how futile it is. Her illness cannot be cured, merely held in check, and his caring only makes her push him away. Yet he forms a protective shell around her.

Minus is a teenage boy with all the confusion and frustration that implies. His sister is a sexual being to him, but also a sister with troubles he does not understand and both things fascinates and frightens him.

Yet it is the father, David, who is the saddest character. David is all about himself. Everybody else are relevant only in how they impinge on his life. Clearly, he ran away years ago instead of taking care of Karin, but his entire defense is about himself. When he finally talks to Minus in a way that actually involves Minus he is stunned and surprised. That makes David an unsympathetic character, but also a very lonely and sad one. He really has only himself. Karin is a reminder of his guilt, but his response is not to help, but to escape.

Movies on mental illness are scary, far more than a gory monster movie, and this feels very real. I cannot help feeling the shivers when thinking of the prison Karin finds herself in. This is just not funny, and that is exactly how the three men around her feels and probably we, the audience, would feel something similar, a combination maybe, of how Martin, Minus and David are experiencing it.

So, it is not an uplifting movie, quite the contrary, but it also avoids going into sappy, handkerchief mode and that is a strength of the movie. I read somewhere that “Såsom i en spegel” was accused of being too cold, but that is not the case at all. It is very Scandinavian, this is exactly how we react. It is very intense in its quiet way.    

Despite the uneasiness of the topic and the intense despair conveyed I did enjoy the style of the movie. The limited room allows the characters to stand out and do their thing. We get very close to them for better or worse.

I am curious where Bergman is going next, but also worried. I cannot take this sort of movie every day.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Night (La Notte) (1961)


”La Notte” is the second installment in Michelangelo Antonioni trilogy, the first being L'Avventura, which I reviewed a few months ago. 

Antonioni here continues in a similar vein with a movie with very little in terms of apparent plot. Like in L’Avventura we are simply following some people over a very short time span who are doing… something. That sounds frustrating and that was how I felt with the first movie. However I think I am slowly getting tuned in to the kind of movies Antonioni makes and this time I found it much easier to cope with movie. I would even go so far as to say that I liked it.

I think the clue is to see the movie as a tableau or simply a portrait, in this case of two adult people and their marriage. In the span of the two hours the movie lasts or the approximately 24 hours covered by the movie we get a very close, yet incredibly subtle, peek at Lidia Pontano (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni). I would estimate their age to around 40 and it is clear that both of them has reached the panic age, where they are reconsidering their lives. Giovanni is an intellectual author who is successful with a book and apparently a social A-lister. He cares for and admires his wife, but there is no spark of passion and he feels an emptiness in his life. Lidia was born into money and she does… nothing really. They have no children and her life assignment seems to be to trail along with her husband. She feels the emptiness even more that Giovanni, both in terms of her function in life and in terms of the lack of apparent love in their relationship.  

It is this search for content and meaning that is at the heart of “La Notte”. 

In the opening scenes Lidia and Giovanni are visiting a friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) at the hospital. Tommaso is a close friend of Giovanni and an even closer friend of Lidia as we learn in the end. Tommaso is dying and it seems to trigger something in both of them. Giovanni is letting himself get seduced by another patient and Lidia leaves the hospital entirely and later wanders off in an old neighborhood they used to live in, clearly looking for something she lost.

There is something very aimless and confused about both of them, as if they have lost direction. What they really have lost seems to be something from each other. This becomes very clear at the big and sumptuous party at the rich Gherardini villa. Among all these happy revelers Lidia and Giovanni look entirely out of place, both literally and metaphorically. None of them are content with a superficial life, but they are trapped in it and cannot get out.

Reading this synopsis, it sounds like a dull and depressing movie, but it is surprisingly interesting and it only really becomes depressing when we realize how lonely these two people are. 

The movie seems to hint that their lack of direction has something to do with the superficial life with the rich and famous, but to me it is as if they are sharing too little. A few children would change everything, but that never enters their lives. Instead they are full of their own needs with little concern for those of the other one.

Monica Vitti is back as Gherardini’s daughter, an apparently younger version of Lidia.

This is not exactly a Sunday afternoon flick, but a surprisingly interesting movie full of insight. I wonder if I should take another look at L'Avventura.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Ladies Man (1961)

Jerry som pigernes ven
When it comes to modern comedians I have serious issues with Jim Carrey. His style of extreme over-acting is for me not funny at all. However Mr. Carrey is easily topped by Jerry Lewis. Lewis and Carrey does the same sort of comedy. They are totally over the top on everything: acting, expressions, dialogue and insincerity. The main difference is that Jerry Lewis is worse.

Then image 90 minutes of Jerry Lewis goofing around.

If you are think “okay, that sounds pretty bad” you are spot on.

There is no real point to the story. Lewis is Herbert H. Herbert who got burned by his girlfriend and now abhors women, which is why he takes a job as janitor in a boarding house for young women and that is pretty much it. This could be the setup for a lot of fun, Imagine Jason Biggs as Herbert and I am already smiling, but with Lewis everything, and I really mean everything, is second to his so-called gags. He trashes everything he lays his hands on, screams “Maaaa!!” every time the girls wink at him and babbles away. Each “gag” disconnected from the previous or the next one.

By the end of the movie I realized I had laughed twice during the entire movie. The first time was the hat scene where a tough gangster type looks absolutely miserable with his hat a sorry mess on his head. It is funny, but not because of Jerry Lewis. The second time was when Lewis got stuck in the landlady’s wrist-flower during a tv interview. Again it was not Lewis that was funny, but Helen Traubel, trying to keep a straight face.

I imagine that back in 1961 this house of girls was a naughty place full of temptation, but I suppose time has not been kind on it. They are sweet enough, but they are all too prude and, yeah, sweet, to be interesting or funny. The closest thing is the vamp behind the door Herbert is not supposed to open. There was a scene with potential, but it is not played to half its potential and the girl ends up looking… silly.

Comedy must fit into the context or it is not funny. Even a crazy movie like “Airplane!” keeps that rule. It also works best when it is held up against something serious or real. If fumbling has no consequences and dialogue is inconsequential the comedy loses its edge. “The Ladies Man” break practically all those rules.

I would not go so far as to say I hated the movie, it is not a movie that generated much anger. Only resentment that I had to waste 90 minutes of my life with this miserable excuse for a comedy. I know there is more Jerry Lewis on the way for me and I cannot say I am looking forward.

Okay, that is not a very long review, but honestly, I have no more to say about it.



Thursday, 25 May 2017

Viridiana (1961)

The editors of the Book just love Bunuel. They seem to find something in his movies that I either miss or fail to appreciate. When his movies are best they are either far out and very tight. “Viridiana” is neither and fall into that general category where I think I see the point, but I fail to appreciate it.

It is obvious there is a point to “Viridiana”. As usual this is a critical, even mocking, movie against the church and those holier than thou. Bunuel really did not like those people and the institution and while I can sort of appreciate that sentiment, even to some extend agree with it, I cannot help thinking that without that criticism there is just very little left in this movie. It is fairly dull, depressing and one dimensional.

The central figure is Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), a novice at a monastery who has devoted her life to the faith. Viridiana is actually a beautiful woman, but she bases her life around tormenting herself. She sleeps on a hard bed and when she travels her luggage mainly consists of religious tools for self-conflagration. One day she is asked, commanded really, to go visit her uncle, a rich, older man who lives on a large, neglected estate. The uncle may first seem like a nice old man, but his motives for seeing Viridiana are… creepy. He lost his wife on their wedding day and as Viridiana looks a lot like her he wants to marry her instead.

Naturally Viridiana is creeped out and it does not help that the old dude drugs her and pretends to have had sex with her while unconscious. Something that would make it impossible for her to go back to her life as a nun. The uncle is so ashamed that he hangs himself and Viridiana is shocked even further. Presumably to make amends she gives up on being a nun and instead takes in all the scum of the neighborhood to care for them at the manor. This is how the son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal) finds them when he shows up to take possession of his inheritance.

There is a reason why these people are scum, though, and they manage to completely violate her trust as they trash and trample anything of value on the manor, defiling it all in the process. This is the final straw for Viridiana, who seems to go catatonic.

The key here is of course that anything Viridiana does, in her effort to follow her religious zeal, backfires and makes her seem guilty. She indulges her uncle in his request and finds that he lusts for her. She refuses him and he hangs himself. She sacrifices herself for the poor and they do not care shit and violate her trust. All her religious motives are mocked and look wrong, dangerous and stupid.

The cynical side of me enjoys that. There is nothing better than having religious people look stupid in their self-righteousness. But there is also something incredibly sad in the destruction of Viridiana. She had invested everything in her religion and it is taken away from her. What is she without it? An empty hulk. A vessel of nothing. She means well, and so it is painful to watch. The party of the scum in the manor is funny and filmed with a wry humor, but the smile stiffens when you think of what they are doing to Viridiana. No, as much as I do not care much for religious people she did not deserve that. This is really harsh.

Take the religious mockery away and this is just the story of a nice girl falling apart in slow motion. It is not particular exciting, except for her scum-party and that is bitter sweet at that. The jury in Cannes liked it enough to give it the Palme d’Or. They must dislike those religious a lot. The church and the Franco regime did not like it much though.

And me? I think I liked “La Joven” better. This one is a little too bitter.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim) (1961)

Jules og Jim
In his third attempt (on this List at least) Francois Truffaut finally seems to have found the formula, which is basically to tone down his own awesomeness and tell an interesting story.

This is very much an alternative love story, which is interesting in the sense that the sixties was the decade of the sexual revolution. In fact it is difficult to imagine this story told in any  earlier decade although the actual story takes place in the beginning of the century. While the movie presents some rather sophisticated forms of relationships they are not borne out of a desire to experiment, but out of necessity. This is to my mind more a story of how far people are willing to go to help and stay with loved ones with mental issues.

Jules and Jim are best mates in Paris around the turn of the century. Jules (Oskar Werner) is Austrian (with hardly an accent) and introvert while Jim (Henri Serre) is native French and rather extrovert. In each other they find what they are lacking and together they have an entire universe. Into their world steps Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a quite unusual woman with a dynamite character.

Catherine is at first accepted as a third member of their group, one of the boys, but she is undeniably a woman and at first Jules and later Jim fall in love with her. That would be trouble enough in itself, but Catherine I suspect is suffering from a bipolar disorder. She swings from manic joy to manic depression, she is incredibly impulsive and she chafe at any sort of restrictions to her life. While that may sound like a few women I could point out, Catherine is rather extreme. On hers and Jules wedding night she takes revenge for a perceived slight that Jules does not even recognize by having sex with another man.  

Jules is clearly out of his league with this woman. The life he has created for them in Schwartzwald with a beautiful wooden chalet and a lovely daughter sounds like paradise to me, but to Catherine it is a prison. Jules takes an awful lot of crap from her in the hope that she does not leave and when Jim after the war comes to visit and starts an affair with Catherine Jules gives them his blessing.

Jim soon realizes that he is not enough either and returns to Paris to his on/off girlfriend. Catherine however is more than ever at the mercy of her own emotions and does not take no for an answer. That of course sets the stage for tragedy, one way or the other.

It is remarkable how open everybody in the movie are about their feelings and intensions. Throughout the whole thing, Jules and Jim remain friends and completely honest with each other and Catherine simply says what is one her mind with no filter at all. Despite this honesty and openness and despite all the creativity they apply to their relationships it is just not enough. Although we are several years prior to Summer of Love we see sexual freedom embraced, but even when not generating hard feelings, which usually is the backlash, it is still unable and not flexible enough to fit these people and avert crisis.

You could make a case for Catherine simply being incompatible with Jules and Jim and to some extend I would agree. Jules adores her, but he could never offer her the life she wants. But nobody could. Catherine has appetites and needs, demands and complaints that only a man as patient as Jules would put up with, but nobody could meet. A century later Catherine would, I think, be diagnosed and receive medical help and that might make things easier. Without that sort of assistance, she is a ticking bomb.

This story is quite spectacular and this is why this movie works for me. The narrating style has gotten some attention, but this style was already in use in France back in the thirties with several examples on the List. The only cinematographical element I would consider a novelty is the openness with which their relationships are discussed, the brutal honesty. It is refreshing and helps making this an interesting movie. Otherwise it seems as if Truffaut is stepping back and letting the story unfold. And that works.

I was surprised that a movie with these themes could hold my attention, but it did. It sucked me in. Perhaps because I can relate to Jules, but more likely because we get so deeply under skin of these people through their honesty. An honesty, I should note, with very little screaming, even from Catherine. Modern filmmakers trying to make the brutally honest love drama could learn something from that. I hate screaming.