Monday, 25 October 2021

Stjerner og vandbærere (1974)

 


Stjerner og vandbærere

For my third off-List movie for 1974 I had chosen the legendary Danish sports movie “Stjerner og vandbærere” (which apparently go by the English title of “The Stars and the Water Carriers”…), but it turned out it was not legendary enough to be available in any format. You cannot buy this movie and the YouTube version is with English speak, which completely misses the point. This movie is all about Jørgen Leth’s narration in Danish. The only way, seriously, to watch this movie is to venture into Copenhagen to the Cinematek of the Danish Film Institute and ask to watch a copy on the spot. That I finally got around to do last Wednesday along with another movie I had picked for 1975. More on that one in a few weeks.

This was actually a very nice experience. They are very helpful at the Cinematek and you get a nice room to watch the movie in, with headphones and soft seats. A great afternoon, really, for both my movies were all I hoped they would be.

“Stjerner og vandbærere” is a film epos, a poem, really, on the 1973 edition of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race. It is a feature length movie by Jørgen Leth who until recently was an integral part of the commentator team of any large bicycle race on Danish television such as Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. His style is poetic with short, clipped sentences, painting an epos out of the duels and endurance of the riders in these races. In his story they become heroes battling for the highest glory, knights with superhuman capabilities.

Giro d’Italia takes place over a few weeks and for those not into bicycling the winner is the one who finishes in the combined shortest time. Each rider is part of a professional bicycling team where some are stars, and some are there to help the stars. It is a grueling race over a very long distance and with many, very tall mountains.

It is telling about the style that we almost never get any results in this movie or times or positions. These, normally so essential, elements are completely uninteresting to Jørgen Leth. For him it is the dynamics, how the assistant riders, the water carriers, are helping the stars, the support teams with the doctors and mechanics, the concentration before the race, the excitement of the towns the race is passing through, and, perhaps more than anything else, the duels, the battles, the king and the challengers.

Eddy Merckx was the ruling king and famous for grinding the opposition with his constant, powerful speed. Gimondi his rival and Fuente, the Spanish climbing specialist who may or may not be able to challenge the king in the mountains. In Leth’s narration this is so much more than bicycle duels. These are big tactical games and demonstrations of superhuman strength, desperate attacks and honorable defeats.

A second main character is Ole Ritter, the single Danish participants, who officially is a support rider for Gimondi on the Bianchi team, but because he is doing so well, gets a chance to race his own chance.

This was exactly the movie I had expected it to be, exactly the Jørgen Leth I know from watching bicycling 10-20 years ago and exactly the larger than life epos I hoped it would be. Technically it is not up to today’s standard and also the race has evolved since then. Thankfully the riders are now wearing helmets and the roads on the mountains are now paved, but there is also an innocence here. Riders picking up cola and beer en-route to drink and interviewing each other for television. It is charming, no doubt about that.

If you can get your hands on this movie it is definitely one I recommend, I just wonder if the narration will come through in the subtitles. Stay away from the English version on YouTube.

    


Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) (1974)

 


Angst æder sjæle op

The next installment from the hands of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (“Angst essen Seele auf”). This time Fassbinder takes on the theme of racism.

One rainy night, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a 60 or so year old widow, enters a bar to seek shelter. This is a bar frequented by guestworkers and she is clearly a rare sight in the bar. The patrons want to have fun with her and suggest Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) to dance with her. Ali, however, is a gentleman and he helps her home and as it rains, Emmi asks him inside until the rain clears. Emmi and Ali fall for each other.

This is controversial. Ali is 20 years younger than Emmi, but, a lot worse, he is also Moroccan, one of the many guestworkers that had started to arrive in Germany. Emmi and Ali do not seem to care but everybody else does. A large chunk of the movie is the reaction of their surroundings. The gossiping Hausfrau in her apartment block, her narrowminded colleagues at work, the deeply racist grocery storekeeper across the street, even the staff at Ali’s bar. The most hurtful reactions come from Emmi’s grown children who essentially cut her off for marrying Ali. Not that they cared much about her to begin with.

Eventually Emmi starts to adopt her surrounding’s view on Ali. She starts acting as his superior as if she is barely tolerating him and their relationship falls apart. Is their relationship now beyond repair?

“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is filmed in a strange, stilted manner. The actors are frequently just standing still, looking with the camera just lingering. The dialogue is often short and clipped and delivered as if the actor is just reading from a script. It is an odd impression, somewhere between theatrical and amateurish. Eventually I realized it is a stylistic choice. It removes it a little bit from reality and perhaps allows it to caricature some of the characters and reactions.

It is a very focused story, on the racism met by this mixed couple. We learn very little about them. The only reason for them falling for each other seems to be that they are both lonely and colorblind (as well as age-blind). The stylism allows this singular focus. This also means it is a very easy movie to read: It is simply an exposé of all the racism and prejudice people who are different are faced with. Make them gay or in other ways different from mainstream and it would be the same story.

I think Fassbinder had a good time making this movie. It is an open provocation of mainstream Germany, exposing both smaller and large scale racism and also the often ridiculous opinions and reactions. All these people get to look incredibly small and stupid. The best scene is when Emmi is presenting Ali to her grown children. The look, drawn out, of their stunned disbelief, shock and embarrassment is so hilariously funny that I just could not stop laughing. Fassbinder made these children 10 years again.

The movie takes place in Munich. Fassbinder had some relation to Munich, and the movie allegedly takes place some month after the Munich Olympic Games tragedy, helping to explain some of the animosity towards foreigners, but it also feels like an apt choice. My wife has some relation to Munich and used to live there so I have visited Munich frequently. Let us just say that it is not surprising that Hitler started his career in Munich.

I would not go so far as to say “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is a great film, but it is interesting enough and of course just as relevant today as it was in 74. If you are in a Fassbinder mood, this would be a good pick.  

Anyway, I am off to Germany tomorrow, not Munich this time, but Berlin (much nicer place) for a little vacation. If weather holds, we are going to visit the Babelsberg studios in Potsdam. Cannot wait…


Friday, 15 October 2021

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

 


The Godfather II

The big winner at the Academy awards in 1974 was “The Godfather Part II”. It was the first sequel to win Best Picture and is, as I understand it, by many ranked even higher than the first Godfather movie.

It is a great movie, I am just not certain I would swing myself that high.

“The Godfather Part II” continues where “The Godfather” left off. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is in full control of the family and all its activities. It is big business and big money and despite his promises to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) it is still mostly on the wrong side of the law. As in the first movie, this one starts with a big family party, eating, dancing, family and friends while inside presides Michael, giving audience to applicants. There is no doubt Vito’s role is now Michael’s.

Something in the line of a big business venture is in progress involving a competitor or business partner, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). The game in underhanded and involves treason and violence and soon Michael sees enemies everywhere. He finds himself very much alone, up there on his throne.

Intermixed we follow the story of the young Vito (Robert De Niro), how his family was killed by the mafia in Sicily and how he came to America and eked out a living. Eventually, Vito gets involved with the underworld and it turns out he has a real talent. Soon he is the king of the Italian community in New York.

“The Godfather Part II” is an interesting film that tries to dig into the nature of the mafia phenomenon. It is examining how it works, what makes people do what they do and the price they pay morally and as well as physically. It is fascination and abhorrence at the same time. Respect and disgust. The problem is just that as a driver of a movie, especially a very long one as this is, it is not enough. Where Part I had an evolving plot that kept the movie interesting, Part II is more about disintegration than actual plot and it makes the story feel long. I never worked out the details of the plot with Hyman Roth, which is frustrating, but also not really important. Michael probably did not work it out either, he just lashed out left and right, wielding his significant power.

The mixing in of the Vito story did a lot to lift the movie and I found it potentially more accessible, but just as it was getting interesting, it is left floating. When Vito has become a mafioso, he is home, and the story is left there.

On the technical side this is a true dazzle movie. The new year party in Cuba, the Little Italy setting, and the court hearings are such time capsules, full of interesting details. There are so many great acting performances here by such a stellar cast like Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and so many more. This is a big movie by any standard and maybe that was what dazzled the Academy.

Gangster movies was never really my thing and I do not share that fascination with thugs, so this is a bit uphill for me. Having now watched “The Godfather Part II” I am convinced “Chinatown” was robbed. That was the best movie back in 1974.

I do give my recommendation for “The Godfather Part II”, although I may be the last person above 40 to have watched it. It is a big and important and very impressive movie. It just did not keep me that engaged.

  


Friday, 8 October 2021

Blazing Saddles (1974)

 


Sheriffen skyder på det hele

“Blazing Saddles” is the second Mel Brooks film for 1974. Considering how happy I was with “Young Frankenstein”, I had high hopes for “Blazing Saddles”, but alas, this is in my humble opinion a far inferior movie.

“Blazing Saddles” is a spoof on every Western ever made, trying as it is to cramp every trope and cliché of the genre into a single movie and turning them upside down. This is the lonely sheriff (Cleavon Little) against ungrateful townspeople, a drunkard of a gunslinger as the sheriff’s sidekick (Gene Wilder), an evil railroad baron (Harvey Korman as Hedley, not Hedy, Lamarr), a corrupt governor, uncivilized cowboys, exotic saloon performers and so on. On top of that Brooks throws in racism and bigotry as a major theme.

The story is… well, I am not too certain what the story really is, because it is very clear from the get go that the objective here is to fire off as many jokes as possible far more than drive a story forward. I imagine there was an outline of a story somewhere, but in some frenzied brainstorming among the scriptwriters it sort of got lost. It is something about a railroad baron who needs to drive his railroad through a town and so he needs people to move. To that end he gets them a black sheriff, expecting that will drive them out of town. Then he wants to get rid of the sheriff and then get rid of the townspeople again… well, I am not too sure.

In any case, the jokes here have totally taken over the movie. They fail more often than fly, and that is not necessarily because they are bad, but mainly because they flood the movie. It all becomes terribly silly and infantile and it seems as if Brooks forgot the principle that worked so well in “Young Frankenstein” that every joke needs a straight partner. There are no straight partners here. What would have been a funny scene in any other context or as a stand-alone scene becomes a wish-wash of silliness.

A wonderful scene like Gene Wilder telling Cleavon Little that these people are “just simple villagers, the clay of the West, you know, morons” is super funny when I watch that snippet, but in the movie, I hardly smiled at it and it is such a shame. Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp sings the wonderfully terrible “I am Tired”, but in the context it is almost boring. There is simply an overload of jokes, and this is unfortunately Mel Brooks as I know him.

The anarchy of it all goes all in towards the end with a complete breakdown of the fourth wall, with actors of this movie breaking into the set of another movie and trashing it and sheriff and sidekick wondering off to find a cinema to watch the end of their own movie while talking to the audience…

With “Young Frankenstein” Brooks could restrain himself enough to maintain a balance and it worked. With “Blazing Saddles” that balance is completely gone. I am sure it works for some people, I am almost convinced my son will like it, but it did not work for me. When I start glancing at my watch it is a bad sign.

When I think about it, I could say almost the same things about “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, but with a completely different outcome. There it all works. Curious…

 


Sunday, 3 October 2021

Celine and Julie go Boating (Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau) (1974)

 


Céline og Julie ta'r sig en tur

The Book writes that if you do not master French, you will not fully appreciate this movie. This is likely true, and I suspect this can be extended to not even understand this movie. I know, I know, I have been here before and yes, I seem to be one those plebeian viewers who need the movie to make sense on the immediate level to appreciate it. It is clearly a failing in me, so my views are strictly for myself and not a general verdict on the movie.

I was rather lost watching “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (“Céline et Julie vont en bateau”).

Or, to be more precise, every time I thought I understood what it is going on, something happened to convince me that I do not understand it after all.

Julie (Dominique Labourier) sits in a park reading a book on magic spells. She sees another woman, Celine (Juliet Berto) rush by and drop something. Julie picks it up and runs after Celine to return it, but she keeps running away, dropping more things. After a long run through Paris, they meet up in a café and soon after they are best friends (?). They start sharing each other’s life, literally, and they start visiting a strange house. Coming out from the house they are confused and do not remember anything, but there is a candy in their mouth and using this candy they can relive what appears to happen in the house as if it is a movie.

The story in the house is a loop around a triangle drama where a child ends up dead, but they only see bits and pieces, so they have to return to get more candy. Julie also finds out this is a house she visited a lot when she was younger, maybe even as a child.

Eventually, Julie and Celine cook up a magic brew so they can enter the story and save the girl.

There are elements that are naturalistic, like the Paris setting and the bohemian lives of the women and then there is the fantastic, Alice in Wonderland, element of entering a magic fantasy world. The problem for me is that neither are very consistent. In both, the things they say or do or events they are subjected to make very little sense, as if it all take place on a planet where cause and effect are messed up. When I started to settle on the idea that they have found an entrance to a fantasy world where they can change events I actually did get invested in the story, almost understanding it, only to get thrown off again when clearly something else was going on.

So, what is actually happening here? Forget about the apparent story. The real story is something about fantasy worlds, about loops, inner-lives and some meta-themes around being a viewer and active participant at the same time. From what perspective are we watching a story? Can we take on the role of somebody else? Who is the viewer anyway? Is all this actually the imagination of a cat?

Heady stuff, and I am not at all certain any of this is even remotely correct.

What I do know is that “Celine and Julie Go Boating” clocks in at over 3 hours and that I had to stop it several time because I was zoning out. You have to be really into this stuff to stay focused throughout its running time and I cannot say that I was. Half the time I had no idea what was going on. My mastery of French is clearly insufficient.

 


Friday, 24 September 2021

Chinatown (1974)

 


Chinatown

I am a big fan of film-noir. Those 1940’ies noir are just awesome, even if some of the private-eye themes are bordering cliché. The neo-noir genre tries to reanimate the look and feel of the original noirs, usually with a twist, and few does it better than “Chinatown”.

“Chinatown” is a Roman Polanski movie, the last he made in Hollywood. It recreates a 1930’ies private eye scenario in Los Angeles where the former cop, now private investigator, specializing in extramarital affairs, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to look into her husband’s infidelities. Gittes and his team tails him and shoots some nice pictures of Hollis Mulwray with a girl. The pictures get publicized and Mulwray is publicly crucified.

Immediately after, Gittes is approached by another woman (Faye Dunawaye) who claims she is the real Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes realizes he has been duped, but before he can find Mr. Mulwray, he has been murdered. Something very fishy is going on.

Hollis Mulwray was the Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and clearly this goes a lot deeper than infidelities. Gittes is a character straight out of a Hammett or Chandler novel and insist on digging into it only to find out that nothing is what it looks like, and nobody are straight.

Polanski took special pains to make this look like the 30’ies and with the saturated colors and almost stylized sets there is almost a cartoonish texture to the cinematography. This is underscored by an almost perfect moody jazz score. The layered and convoluted plot where we are always caught off-balance and not entirely certain what is going on, also harks back to the noir originals.

Where Chinatown deviates from this formula are in two particular elements.

Gittes may look as if he is in control and he certainly wants to make that impression, but he is not. Everything he learns tells him how wrong he was before and though he has the audacity to get into places and obtain information others would not get, it is often too late or too little because he is missing information. He may be two steps ahead of us, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is also two steps behind the events unfolding. He is not an antihero, but an insufficient hero.

Secondly, the catastrophic ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say we get a spectacular ending, but not in the way you would expect. This ties in with the first exception. Gittes is insufficient and the case is bigger than him. The bad guys are overwhelmingly strong and there really is no stopping them. This moves “Chinatown” very much from the 40’ies to the 70’ies. It is a breaking of illusions and a political statement, really. Chinatown here is a metaphor for lawless corruption. Gittes tried to get out of Chinatown, but Chinatown caught up with him.

The combination of the 30-40’ies pastiche and the political implications of the conclusion makes for a strong and unique combo. I was totally sucked in, experiencing that combination of love and horror and I have to say this is one of the best neo-noirs ever. This is powerful stuff and extremely well crafted. Polanski has made a lot of great movies, and this is among his best, seriously.

Chinatown won one Academy Award (Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated in another 10 categories, including all the big ones. In a year without “The Godfather II”, it could have swept the table.

Strongly recommended.

 


Monday, 20 September 2021

Young Frankenstein (1974)

 


Frankenstein Junior

I was certain I had seen “Young Frankenstein” before, it is a title I am very familiar with, but I quickly realized that I must have mixed it up with something else and instead this became an unexpected first view for me. I cannot complain, this was a lot better than I thought it would be.

“Young Frankenstein” is a Mel Brooks comedy and for better or worse, his trademark is silly jokes. Especially in his later movies there is an infantile streak that, well, makes it a Mel Brooks movie. “Young Frankenstein” is funny and silly, but it is also something more. There is a heart in it. A love for the old Frankenstein movies by James Whale and a restraint from going totally overboard. An explanation was offered when I discovered that the original idea was Gene Wilder’s and that he co-authored the screenplay. This movie is, simply put, more than a Mel Brooks comedy.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is teaching medicine in America. Sober and scientific medicine, not the mumbo-jumbo of his infamous grandfather. When he inherits the old family castle, he travels to Transylvania (inexplicably misplaced in Germany…) to check it out. He is met by Igor (Marty Feldman), an assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman) and together they set out to create their own monster (Peter Boyle).

Everything in this movie is made with an eye to “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”, whether it is the black and white cinematography, the gothic laboratory (the original set from the thirties!) or the various scenes. We get the brain mix-up, the life-by-electrocution scene, the little girl with the flowers and the blind hermit. Even Elsa Lancaster’s hairdo is recreated with the white stripes. But where the original was having religious elements such as a human as the Creator, “Young Frankenstein” largely replaces that, rather serious, element with a lighter father-son theme, about acceptance of the father role.

Most of all though, it is a comedy. Igor has fantastic bug-eyes and frequently breaks the fourth wall with Monty Pythonic comedy. Garr as Inga is a revelation in comedic timing, often stealing the scenes and Wilder himself does the Gene Wilder thing, but more controlled than how he usually appear. It would have been easy to take him totally overboard, but he actually stays believable throughout. Amazingly enough.

In the extra material it was explained that every comedic stunt in the movie has a straight guy, though the role of straight guy may change mid-scene, and that is why the jokes usually work. If Feldman is funny, Wilder is straight. If Wilder is funny then Garr is straight, but suddenly they reverse and so on. Sounds simple, but I believe that is the successful recipe.

The only time they cross the line and take the silliness too far is when Wilder and Boyle, as Frankenstein and Monster, stage a musical piece, “Putting on the Ritz” in front of a dignified audience. Curiously, not a Brooks stunt, but Wilder’s idea. Luckily though, the movie quickly returns to form from this intermezzo.

I had a great time watching “Young Frankenstein”. It is funny and quotably. Silly and witty but with a heart and a respect for the original story that make you feel like you watched a complete and coherent movie and not just a string of theme jokes. Warmly recommended.

As a bonus, see if you can spot Gene Hackman.