Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i Diament) (1958)

Aske og diamanter
I know zip about Polish cinema. “Popiol i diamant” or “Ashes and Diamonds” is the first Polish movie I have ever watched. Unless you count Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies, but those are in French and are more of an international kind. No, with “Ashes and Diamonds” I am truly breaking new ground.

That makes me incredibly curious. What would movies look like in a country that has recently been screwed over repeatedly? The answer is: surprisingly interesting and technically adept. Somehow this should not come as a surprise. The golden age of German cinema was those dismal years after the first world war.

The story of “Ashes and Diamonds” takes place on the night Germany finally surrendered. It is a day of celebration, but in Poland the reality is confused and painful and celebrating seems the height of hypocrisy. Poland suffered like no other country in the war. First screwed by the Russians and the Germans combined, then wholesale slaughtered by the Germans, then betrayed by the Russians when the nationalists rose to free the country and finally under the Russian thumb enforced a ruling class not to everybody’s liking. Poland is literally in ruins, physically, mentally and emotionally. People are still struggling and fighting as has been the mode of survival during the war, but who are they fighting now?

This is a tired place, weary but instinctively fighting on. The communists who are currently on top is celebrating the victory. The nationalists are fighting the communists hoping against odds that they can topple a government backed by the Soviet and most people just want to survive or to close the eyes and forget the suffering.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is a young man waking up from the war. Full of nervous energy he is ready to explore life, love, art and all the great things in life. But Maciek is also a veteran soldier of the nationalist army. He fought in the sewers of Warsaw during the ill-fated uprising the year before when Warsaw was finally destroyed by the Germans while the Soviet army was waiting for the Germans to finish the job. Maciek is on an assignment to kill the new communist leader of the region, a job we see botched in the opening. Now Maciek has rented a room in the hotel where the communist leader, Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), is staying and where the victory celebration is taking place and he is under pressure by his commanding officer to kill Szczuka this very night.

That is essentially the movie. The war and the celebration. Life and death. Eager to explore life Maciek wants out, but he cannot. In one night he finds love, hope and beauty, but also death and destruction.

This is not so much a movie with an exciting forward moving story, but instead a snapshot of that existential crisis Maciek is in, which in turn was the crisis of the Poles as a people. Expecting action you would probably be disappointed, but there is a lot of other things happening. The party for example is both hilarious and creepy. It reminded me of the party held by the pigs in “Animal Farm”, lavish amidst the general ruin, with an insistence on having fun. When the party is interrupted by a very drunk secretary and his new best friend it can best be compared to Peter Sellers “The Party” or the embarrassment in “Festen”. It is one of those parties where you do not know whether to laugh or to cry and you probably end up doing both.

 Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek is another highlight. Obviously he was instructed to act like James Dean, but even with that in mind there is something very open and vulnerable about his character. You can read all the pain and all the joy in his face. He is impulsive and act immediately on his feelings (James Dean?) and for a person caught in the conflict of celebration of life and death and destruction this is exactly the right reactions. I read that Cybulski was much used by the director and I might look up his other movies. Well, I know I will because I bought the entire War-trilogy.

The question I ask myself is how this movie was considered in Poland in 1958. It did win awards in the West, but in Poland I can imagine the reception would have been guarded. The communists, well known for their iron grip, cannot have been too happy with the way the communists and their opposition is described here. Yes, the nationalists are painted as misguided fools, but also as heroes who fought the Germans in the uprising and Maciek, the centerpiece of the movie is firm in his allegiance to the opposition.  And Poland as the ruined victim of a gang rape cannot have been a happy memory.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Vertigo (1958)

En kvinde skygges
I watched Vertigo for the first time about 20 years ago or so. Newly restored the movie was rereleased in cinemas and we went some friends from campus to see it on the big screen. In hindsight I was too young to appreciate it at the time. I had no real relationship to Hitchcock and his movies and I think we just wanted to do something different. In any case the movie did not make that much of an impression on me and frankly I had forgotten many of the plot points including the resolution.

Today I am in a different place and although this time round was not a big screen experience, rather the opposite in fact, I was overwhelmed on this second viewing. Part of that was my lowered expectation. This is so much a better movie than I remember, and part of it is the sheer, stand out quality when compared to contemporary movies. Of course the restoration has a lot to do with that, but, come on, will you look at those pictures?!

There is a reason why this period is considered Hitchcock’s golden age. Since “Rope” his movies were just getting better and better and although he circled around the same themes he was still able to cook an entirely different story out of those themes. In “Vertigo” he is again messing with the mind of the protagonist and the psychology involved is far more important than the actual murder mystery. In this sense he is reverting to movies like “Spellbound” and “The Wrong Man”, but “Vertigo” is darker than both of these and certainly a technically far more eloquent movie than “Spellbound”.

“Vertigo” is a descent into madness. The normal, upright guy, with Jimmy Stewart as a perfect cast, is caught in a whirlpool and sucked into it. First he has a traumatic experience that gives him a fear of heights, incapacitating him enough to lose his police job and then as a private investigator he gets sucked into a case that just does not make sense. Our guy, John Ferguson, is asked by an old college friend to keep an eye on his wife. He is worried for her because he is convinced a long time dead ancestor is possessing her and forcing her to commit suicide. That sounds totally bananas and John is of the same opinion, except that really weird things are happening to her. Unable to accept the ghost story John is convinced Madeleine (Kim Novak) is suffering a mental problem and his role changes from a shadow to loving her and actively helping her deal with this illness and more than anything prevent her from killing herself.

Because of John’s fear of heights he fails dismally and the guilt renders him effectively catatonic. Thus ends the first act.

Beware of spoilers below!!! If you have not seen this movie stop reading right now.

As John slowly recovers he is a changed man. All his thoughts revolve around Madeleine, his love for her and his failure to save her. He is now the one who is starting to see ghosts. When he encounters Judy, an ordinary store girl from Kansas he projects Madeleine on to her. He wants her, but as Madeleine, not as Judy. Understandably this freaks out Judy as it would any sane person.

Unfortunately this is where Hitchcock makes his mistake, at least in my poor opinion. In a scene after this freaky encounter he reveals to us that Judy is Madeleine (indeed Kim Novak is playing both roles) and that she was playing a role in order to make the murder of the real Madeleine look like suicide. Knowing this we understand that John is on the right track, but for the wrong reason. Really what he is doing is insane: he wants Madeleine back to undo what has happened rather than simply getting over it and in the process he is getting creepier by the minute. It kind of ruins it for me to know that she is that woman. I would have loved to get that twist in the end. Instead I feel that maybe John is not as crazy as he really is.

When it clicks for John that, dammit, Judy is Madeleine he starts crawling out of the hole he has fallen into. The price however is that the crime that until now was imagined becomes real. Ironic.

There is no happy end here, only a dizzying spiral and I commend Hitchcock on avoided a silly Hollywood ending. It takes a confident director to do that and it is probably part of the reason “Vertigo” was not the box office hit it was hoped to be. “Vertigo” is not a popcorn flick, but a movie to be experienced and that probably has less mass appeal, but it is also what lifts it way above the pack.

“In Vertigo” there is not much of explanation, the doctors are as confused as we are and we only really know that that John is obsessing. Oh, if only Hitch did not have to reveal the hoax we could have been as confused as John. Now we are merely disturbed.

Still I can only recommend “Vertigo”, although if you read this far I hope you already saw it.

It is an awesome movie.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Music Room (Jalsaghar) (1958)

Sometimes acknowledgements are in place. This time it would be to the German co-traveler who helped fix the ridiculously defect power outlet here in the gate in Copenhagen airport enabling me to write this post in the first place. One should think I was not the first traveler who wished to use my computer in the gate…

Anyway, Jalsaghar…

Lately I have not had much luck with movies from exotic places, which is largely down to my general dislike for those places and thus not necessarily the fault of the movies themselves. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man. “Jalsaghar” in another Indian movie from Satyajit Ray and that is not really a good starting point. Add to that the dismal condition of the movie and the fights I had with the subtitles and this review can only really go one way.

To my own surprise it is not.

“Jalsaghar” is more a mental state than a movie. There is a dreamy quality to this movie that never really touch the ground. Part of that is the central role of the music, which take up maybe half or at least a third of the movie. It is Indian, yes, but instead of the painful discordant sounds I normally associate with Bollywood movies this sounds like an endless marijuana induced trance. This music is also perfectly aligned with the sleepwalking mood of the story itself and so becomes an integral part of the experience and not the artificial breaks normally associated with musicals. In other words, for what this movie is trying to do it is perfect.

I am not 100% sure I understand the particulars of the story. They do sort of slip by and with subtitles out of sync the sense of disconnect with reality is reinforced. What I do get is that we follow a landlord of the traditional feudal class, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who lives an aloof life in his old palace. He is of old money, but his penchant for devoting his time to music and dreaming rather than attending to his possessions means that these assets are slowly slipping away. His advisors and his wife are trying to pull him back, but when his wife and son dies at sea in a storm it only makes him retire even further into his lethargic dream state.

Roy’s standard posture is reclining on his couch smoking his nargila (waterpibe). I wonder if his tobacco is entirely legal, because he looks very relaxed even in the midst of disaster. Only the disastrous deaths around him and the flooding of his lands brings him momentarily up to the surface and that is not a pleasant place.

The counterpoint to Roy is Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose). He is a neighbor who starts out as a lowly vassal, but being thrifty and eager to embrace everything new he gains wealth and it is implied that eventually he far surpasses Roy in earthly might. But Ganguly is plebeian and Roy is patrician, in manner and thinking, and to Roy Ganguly represents a general decline. His music and culture around it is what he clings to and what makes him nobility, not his money and he is not shy to reiterate that argument. In fact it is the only thing he has left.

So, in that analyses “Jalsaghar” is the conflict between new money and old money, about culture versus earthly wealth and tradition versus modernity, issues that would resonate with post-colonial India. To me however it is all about the trance, its costs and its pleasure. Music is a pleasant drug, but Roy is using it as a refuge and as such it is as dangerous as any substance abuse.

The amazing thing here is that despite its aging and poor quality of preservation this movie works today as well as when it was made. I never thought I would hear myself saying it by I would love to be invited to Roy’s music sessions and simply embrace the music. That is the power it holds.

Don’t do drugs, kids, and careful with that music.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Defiant Ones (1958)

I believe I have mentioned this before, so apologies for repeating myself, but I cannot stress too much how much I appreciate the wonderful surprises the List provides. Take this movie, “The Defiant Ones” by Stanley Kramer, I had absolutely no expectations going into it, but it has proven a most satisfying movie to watch with plenty of gems and food for plenty of thinking.

It is such a simple story and a trivial one to boot. Two convicts escape from a prisoner transport and are hunted throughout the movie by the police. And that is about it. I have watched my share on prison break movies, good ones and bad one and those really terrible, so you would think there is nothing much to it, but as is often the case with movies that are truly excellent the real story is actually something else altogether.

Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are two convicts who quite unexpected get a ticket to freedom when their prisoner transport crashes and they are able to walk away. Trouble is they are chained together by the wrists with heavy irons and they despise each other. Joker is white and Noah is black and though they both belong to the bottom of society they are filled with bigotry and prejudice against each other. They are hunted by the local sheriff who is convinced that they will not need their heavy artillery (state police and killer dogs) as the two convicts will probably kill each other first.

I am not American and as such is unfamiliar with the finer details of American history, but it is not difficult to guess that this movie is an analogy on the way the different races in America are tied together and will have to work it out. As such Joker and Noah are White and Black in symbolic terms. This becomes clear through the themes of the dialogue which must have resonated with it audience in its time (and judging by media coverage does even today). Joker and Noah are on a journey together, away from their pursuers, but just as much on a journey to discover each other as human beings. Telling their stories goes a long away, but it is more than that. It is the transformation of stereotypes to real persons and to find out that this person is not so terribly different from yourself. Even when the chain is removed they remain connected as is told in one of the most striking scenes of the move where Joker, shot in the shoulder is having trouble keeping up and Noah cries that he is dragging the chain, long after it has been removed.

Noah and Joker may be caught in the end, they had to, this is 1958, but in a real sense they have won their freedom as they have been set free from the shackles of racism and bigotry. Now they are together by choice, not by chains.

I find that incredibly beautiful and poetic.

This movie shines in its dialogues. Most poignantly between Noah and Joker as told above, but two other dialogue are remarkable. Pursuing the convicts is a mixed band of policemen, deputies and the local sheriff. While the deputies are mainly in it for the thrill the sheriff (Theodore Bikel) and the captain (Charles McGraw) has an interesting discussion going. The captain keep insisting on the iron fist. Killer dogs, state police, shooting to kill, whereas the sheriff, whom we learn is a former lawyer, represents a far more humane line. While his line may seem weak and insufficient it is certainly enough for the job at hand and as we learn to see the convicts as people we get to appreciate his approach. I cannot help thinking there is a political message here as well albeit not as poignant as the racial theme.

Racial is definitely the dialogue between Joker and the lonely woman (Cara Williams) they meet. She lives alone with her son in the middle of nowhere and Joker seems to be her ticket out. She completely disregard Noah and it does not even occur to her to consider him a person. It may well be that her overt racism is what is opening Jokers eyes, but I like to think that that happens even before this encounter. The woman seems sweet and charming, but there are a lot of things wrong here. Besides the racism she is willing to abandon her son and soon it is clear that Joker is nothing more than a ticket. What she represents is escape, a fantasy that is ultimately wrong, useless and cruel.

I am reading a lot into this movie and it is possible I am reading too much into it, but then again I get the feeling there is even more to find and that makes me excited. I have not stopped thinking about it since I finished it.

Back on the surface of the movie it is a great joy to see such great actors like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis at their best. I know there will be a lot more of them coming up and that is an exciting thought.

Highly recommended.


Saturday, 6 August 2016

Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid) (1958)

Cairo Station
How much do you really know about Egypt? In my case it is not much and watching this entry on the List, Cairo Station, made me realize how little I actually know. That is sad, really. It is only two hour’s drive from where I live to Egypt, but I know absolutely nothing about what is going on there. “Cairo Station” is from 1958 so that means that this is the Nasser period and some sort of nationalistic post-colonial awakening is going on with the nationalization of the Suez Canal and a war where Israel kicked their butt, but France and Britain got humiliated.  But those are just headlines. What was the realities on the ground?

Frankly Egypt and Egyptian movies never really interested me and “Cairo Station” does little to chance that. The overall impression from this movie is an all-round bad taste in the mouth. This may well be intentional and it does not make it a bad movie, but if you are looking for an optimistic feel good movie you better look somewhere else.

Clearly “Cairo Station” is inspired at least in part by Italian neorealism. The attempt at filming life at the bottom of society is remarkably successful. It is gritty, dirty and crowded. And completely chaotic. In fact the first hour of this movie feels completely unstructured. I had an hour in no idea where this movie was going. That can be a good and modern way to tell a non-story, but in this case it was just plain confusing and messy.

There was something about a retarded man called Qinawa (Youssef Chahine), who has a disturbing obsession with pin-up girls. He sells newspapers on Cairo Station. There are a group of girls who, illegally, sell soft drinks to passengers while dodging the law. The most notable of these women is Hannuma (Hind Rostom). Then there are the porters who are in the middle of a labor conflict with Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) trying to organize the porters into a union to the chagrin of the local boss and his henchmen. There is a story about a girl who is saying goodbye to her lover, but secretly, as his family is not supposed to know.

Throughout this montage of life on Caíro Station there is an undercurrent of youth culture trying to embrace modernity symbolized by Coca Cola. In fact those Coca Cola bottles play so central a role in this first hour of the movie that it feels like one, extended Coca Cola commercial. I do hope the producers got a lot of money from product placement, because this movie must have boosted sales in Egypt and wherever else this movie was shown. The youth culture is a far cry from the typical view of veiled women and bearded religious men and very guarded socialization that we are used to in the west from Middle Eastern countries and goes to show how little I knew about life in Egypt. While this strikes an optimistic note in the movie the Indian class level of crowded poverty is a decidedly pessimistic note. Especially when you consider that population pressure in Egypt in 58 was nothing compared to what it is today. As an advertisement for Egypt this movie does a very poor job.

Then about an hour into the movie a storyline coalesces from the many threads. Hannuma and Abu Siri are supposed to get married and Qinawi develops a crush on Hannuma who may be reminding him of his pinups. When Qinawa proposes to Hannuma and she brushes him off with a laugh he develops a cunning plan to kill her and blame Abu Siri, based on a story in the newspaper about a murdered body found in a crate. This storyline actually gains momentum and so the film moves from a drag to a decent level of tension up to a last minute resolution.

I mentioned the multiple levels of bad taste I get from this movie. Besides the abject poverty and dismal lives of these people there is the very sad story of Qinawa. Yes, he is dangerous, but he is also a mentally ill person left to rot and somehow his retardedness makes okay to betray him multiple times. But then again, everybody deserves a better life than what they a living on Cairo Station and that may well be the message of the movie.

I did not like this movie very much and I do not consider it a particularly good movie. It did show me a world I knew nothing about, but it is not a world that has much attraction for me. Sadly the only feeling the movie got from me was one of general pity for these people and that may be as much a matter of cultural difference as a fault of the movie.