Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse) (1962)



Ukendte Nætter
L’Eclisse is the third movie in a series by Michelangelo Antonioni that started with L’Avventura and La Notte. It is not immediately apparent that this is a trilogy, there is no continuing story or overlap in characters, but thematically they are quite similar. They all deal with emotional emptiness.

When you read a synopsis describing a movie as inaccessible and without a logical plot it is usually time to get worried and I was, going into this one. This is not what I normally look for in a movie. Fortunately I had already watched the other two movies so I was acclimatized to Antonioni’s particular style and with that synopsis I feared the worst and that is actually a good place to be. It can only get better than expected.

I actually found it more coherent than the previous two movies. It did not feel as if the movie was searching, but missing, a storyline, because it did not pretend to have much. Instead it was full of impressions, pictures expressing that particular emotion the movie seeks to convey. That is much less stressful for me as I do not have to try to make sense of what I am watching.

Monica Vitti is back as a woman, Vittoria, who is breaking up with her boyfriend, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). We have no idea why, but apparently they have been talking or arguing all night. Vittoria is determined to end this, but Riccardo is more reluctant. Leaving Riccardo, Vittoria is entering a vacuum. Her apartment is empty. Her modern neighborhood is cold and sterile. For a while she fills up the space with two friends, dreaming they are in Africa, but it is just that, an escape.

Vittoria’s mother is playing with money on Rome’s stock exchange and as Vittoria go there to seek out her mother (Lilla Brignone) we are introduced to that crazy place. This is a hectic and surreal place where money is made or lost in minutes and everybody are leaning on a heart attack. It is here Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon) and somehow they start hanging out together.

Piero completely embraces consumerism. He lives in the present, concerned with work, buying things and doing what he wants, when he wants it. Not an unpleasant guy at all, but very different from the hesitant and thoughtful Vittoria who has no idea what she wants and who seems to second guess herself in anything she does. It feels like archetypical man and woman profiles and that may be intended. She soon gets frustrated with him because he seems shallow and he gets frustrated with her because he cannot figure out what she wants. It is a wonder they are still together at the end of the movie.

Speaking of which, the movie is famous for an ending entirely without the two protagonists. That was not as special as the hype made it, but did serve effectively to underline the empty waiting that Vittoria experiences.

I think limbo or emotional vacuum is the overriding theme of the movie, even more than in the previous movies. You can fill up your life with money, work or consumption, but is that enough? Can you love someone, or force yourself to love someone and have that fill your life? All these people are clearly lacking something.

Maybe it is just me who is a bit naïve, but looking at these three movies there is something missing in all of them: children. To name procreation as the meaning of life is a little too biological even for me, but from personal experience I can definitely say that getting children of your own gives plenty of purpose, one way or the other. That may be what these very modern Italians are missing.

L’Eclisse is a beautifully made movie with every picture thought out and full of details. Technically the stock exchange scenes are brilliant and they capture the primal energy perfectly. As does the soundtrack that must have inspired countless later movies. A detail I liked very much was the juxtaposition of very new and very old, but then again, that is Rome.

This is not a movie I would recommend to everybody, but if you know what you are going into, you will not be let down by this one.

 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sanjuro (1962)



Off-List: Sanjuro
As I will be doing a few times in 1962 I am moving off-list to review movies that should have been included. This, the first one, is Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro”.

“Sanjuro” is the sequel to “Yojimbo”, which I reviewed off-list for 1961. It is again a strong movie, but to put it bluntly, not up there with “Yojimbo”. It does all the right things and on its own I love it, but the problem here is that is it a sequel and as such suffers from some of the usual problems with sequels. First and foremost that Yojimbo is a damn good movie and very difficult to match. It simply pales in comparison. Secondly, it is a bit too obvious that with Toshiro Mifune’s character, the ronin Sanjuro, Kurosawa had found a winning formula that had to be explored/milked for what it was worth. That always leaves me with a bitter taste.

Having said that, there is no doubt that “Sanjuro” is a great movie. I did have a great time watching it, even if I expected more.

While the ronin character is the same, the plotline is a bit different from “Yojimbo”. This time Sanjuro walks into a feud between a decent chamberlain and a corrupt superintendent. Not two groups of warring gangsters, but a good side and a bad side. The chamberlain’s supporters have been complaining about corruption and in the process brought the chamberlain’s life in danger. Sanjuro now joins the supporters in their effort to free the chamberlain and get back at the corrupt superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu).

Trouble is, these supporters are complete clowns. They may be samurai with top-knots and swords and everything, but they act like confused geese.  Without Sanjuro they would have been completely lost. When they act on their own advice they get in trouble, but when they follow Sanjuro’s advice they accomplish remarkable things.

Sanjuro is the same lonely ronin from “Yojimbo”. Crude, impolite, but with his heart in the right place. Oh, and a totally awesome swordsman.  The main difference from “Yojimbo” is that Sanjuro is now more concerned with preventing death rather than causing death, even among the bad guys. Not that it really stops him when it is necessary, he still kills with lightning speed, but with a regret that he did not have in “Yojimbo”.

It is also clear that “Sanjuro” is a lighter movie than the dark “Yojimbo”. A movie between good and bad guys have one side pegged as the winners from the beginning. It is never really brought in doubt. When Sanjuro gets in trouble it is never serious trouble and there are a number of places where we are encouraged to laugh, especially of the nine clowns Sanjuro is helping.

The movie works, it is funny when it wants to be and dramatic when it aims in that direction, but I guess I miss that darkness and gritty ambience that “Yojimbo” had. You could still laugh at “Yojimbo”, but it was a more cynical laugh, a bitter laugh. In “Sanjuro” there is no bitterness left, instead you laugh at them clowning around. However I have to give it that the ending is the most awesome one I have seen in year. If you have not seen it I will not ruin it, only say that it is spectacular.

I hope I have not given the impression that “Sanjuro” was a poor movie, because it is not. It just had some pretty big shoes to fill and I would happily watch it again. After revisiting “Yojimbo, that is.

 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no Aji) (1962)

 
 
En eftermiddag i efteråret
It has been a few days since my last review through no fault of this movie. My wife and I went on a small trip to Warsaw, Poland to escape the oppressive heat and I decided not to bring along any movies. Probably a smart choice. Yasujiro Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon” (“Sanma no aji”) is not a movie you want to rush through in a plane, but something to enjoy quietly and slowly at home. Doing that is a very rewarding experience.

Let me say right from the start that this is the best Ozu movie I have watched. There are no big dramas, no shouting, no action whatsoever and only the thinnest of plots. Instead this is a beautiful portrait of an older man who realizes that his children are growing up and he is getting old. It is sympathetic to its characters and entirely free of melodrama, but with precise insight into the feelings the characters go through and it is just so beautifully made, like a Japanese flower arrangement: Aesthetic, restrained and insightful.

The older man is Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu). He is a widower with three grown children of which the oldest Koichi (Keiji Sada) is married and live in another apartment with his wife. Hirayama attends a class reunion together with his old friends, one of which is Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura). They have invited one of their old teachers Sakuma who is having a grand time and gets a bit tipsy. When they drive him home they realize that he is actually a sad old man making noodles with his old and bitter daughter. For Hirayama this is a wake-up call. He can see himself ending like Sakuma, old and destitute and clinging on to his daughter. Kawai is urging him to marry off his daughter, but Hirayama has not been busy and Michiko (Shima Iwashita), his daughter, has not been busy either, but content to run the house for her brother and father. As Hirayama has seen what the future has in store for him he is set in motion and so is Michiko.

This feeble summary does not sound at all inspired, but in the movie it works perfectly. Hiroyama is a jovial fellow and this group of middle aged man is very sweet. They are a bunch of pranksters like overgrown boys, but obviously also men of some importance, managers and that sort of people. It is hard for them to accept that they have grown old, but face it they must.

Hirayama’s children are balancing between tradition and modernity and it is very interesting to watch them handling this balance. Traditional family values versus modern independence. Conspicuous consumption against traditional prudence. And as becomes the key event of the movie, the mechanisms of marriage. They are caught between the modern way of falling in love with someone they meet themselves and arranged marriage set up by their parents. This theme has been explored before and after and is usually a very loud affair, but not here. Here we can see that both father and daughter are very uncertain about the whole thing. Michiko has fallen in love with someone, but has not dared to ask him, and Hiroyama has not dared to ask her what she wants. All this hesitation means that opportunities slip away and that is the real risk with Sakuma’s fate lurking on the horizon.

Ozu is brilliant at catching these underplayed emotions and really show what a high context culture the Japanese is. Sometimes it is just a glance, sometimes a shy laughter, the misery in a cup of sake or the longing look at some golf clubs.

The calmness is supported by Ozu’s unique style of filming. He was the master of the static camera, placed on the floor and usually with some sort of framing. It is absolutely beautiful in color and somehow drags the rush out of the movie so we as viewers give ourselves time to take in the story. As a composition Ozu was never better and when we get to the last scene with Hirayama, drunk in his wedding suit singing old wartime songs, we absolutely understand him.

I can only recommend this movie. This was the last one Ozu ever did, but it makes me want to seek out some of his earlier movies not on the list. Watch this, but do yourself a favor and make sure all is quiet around you when you watch it.

 

Monday, 24 July 2017

400 Movies!!!



400 Movie Anniversary
Another milestone has been reached by yours truly. 400 movies down the list as I count it.

It feels like I am actually getting somewhere, 400 is a sizeable chunk of the, huh, approaching 1200 movies on the List.

The past one hundred movies has taken me from 1955 to 1962, which amounts to seven years and it has taken me a year and nine months. It is five years since I started the blog and seven and a half years since I started watching the movies. Slow but steady.

The List keeps throwing curveballs at me, mixing the solid hits with the obscure and this is a trend that seems to intensify here in the sixties. Sometimes it is fun, sometimes annoying, but I am still in a period where I have seen very few of the movies before, so they are always new and surprising to me.

And now for the traditional award.

Last time I mentioned that the style was moving from noir to westerns and that has truly been a theme of the past hundred or two hundred movies. It is therefore tempting to give the award to:

Best Western (not a hotel)

Nominees are:

1.       The Searchers

2.       Seven Samurai

3.       Yojimbo

4.       The Stagecoach

5.       High Noon

Considering Westerns are not my favorite genre, this is a very strong field of movies, all of which I enjoyed heaps. Any of them could run away with the award, but I will, without blinking, name the winner as:

Seven Samurai

This is simply one of the best westerns ever made and it is not even taking place in the American West.

Somehow I have a feeling that the category for my next award at 500 would be Most Obscure movie. I was tempted to do it already, but I know some seriously weird stuff will be coming my way over the next hundred movies so I will push it a little.  

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dog Star Man (1962)



Dog Star Man
I like video art, I really do, but Stan Brakhage’s ”Dog Star Man” did absolutely nothing for me.

I have a hard time explaining what I saw, partly because it made no sense at all and partly because I had serious trouble maintaining attention on the film. Instead my attention strayed everywhere else and whenever it returned to the screen it was just more of the same.

There were some solar flares, some close-ups of body parts, sometimes internal body parts. There was a man walking up a hill in snow with a dog and an axe over his shoulder. Those pictures were very confused, but I got the impression it was not going so well for him. There was a baby and some faces, maybe religious, and the whole thing was mixed with scratches, quick cuts and false colors.

There is no sound to this thing. At first I thought it was a mistake so I found another version on YouTube, but that was the same. Even silent movies come with a sound track.

Video art is hit or miss and this is definitely a miss for me. I feel annoyed, not just for wasting an hour and fifteen minutes on this thing, but because this film takes a slot on the List in a year where there are several movies that should have been there. That is not a fault of the movie, but of the editors of the List. I will sort of pretend that they got the spot instead and will be including at least three extra movies for 1962.

There is not really a lot more I can say about “Dog Star Man”. I understand that this is widely acclaimed so obviously somebody get something out of it.

On another not, this is my 400th movie on the List, so there will be an anniversary post coming up soon.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7) (1962)



Cleo fra 5 til 7
Here is another movie I did not expect much from. French new wave cinema has had a lot of trouble impressing me and the description of “Cleo from 5 to 7” sounded… uninspiring to say the least. Following a girl around for 2 hours almost real time while she waits for the result of a medical examination. Not exactly my kind of movie.

It starts that way two. There is no plot, not in the classical sense at least and as not much is happening I found myself drifting for the first 15 minutes. Then something happens. I am not sure exactly what it is, but I assume that in the disappointment of any plot to latch onto the brain starts to look for something else, and that is what this movie has plenty of. There is a lot of something else.

In fact this movie is so smack full of impressions from Paris in 1962 that you could watch this movie, get nothing else out of it and still leave happy. The taxi drive through Paris while listening to the radio news was a real eyeopener. It felt very real and with so many details that it got me quite excited. While this sounds like a distraction it also served as the key to the movie for me.

The woman we follow is Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a singer of some fame who is now waiting for the results of what sounds like stomach cancer. Cleo is surface and appearance. Everybody looks at her, even herself, but all anybody see is a baby-doll-like bimbo with the depth of a cartoon character. She is frankly rather annoying. Her relationship with her boyfriend is super shallow, like that of an admirer and I get the impression that they only care for each other in as much as they feel flattered. Then half way through the movie Cleo takes off that awful wig and change from the flamboyant fur coat and polka dot dress and into a more anonymous black dress and she is completely changed. It is as if she is changed from the image she wants the world to see and into herself as a person who actually watches the world. I was only able to put it into words when I watched the extra material, but the effect was very clear and striking in the movie. She changed from a non-entity I did not care about and into a real and interesting person.

The curious thing is that she was a lot prettier as herself, she could in fact go around like that today and she would not look out of place, but that is beside the point. As Cleo observes the world so do we. People in the café, on the street and the people she meet. All because of a change in view point becomes a lot more interesting. Her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) is a mirror on this experience. As a nude model, the artists see her but they do not see her as anything but an idea. Away from the studio she is alive and joyful and nothing like the empty shell the artists are looking at.

It is in this state Cleo meets a soldier in a park, Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller). At first he seems rather annoying in the way he is coming on to her, but his interest is genuine and so she finds herself genuinely interested in him, something very different from her relationship with her boyfriend, and she opens up and find relieve in that sharing.

When Cleo finally gets the results of the test it seems almost inconsequential. In a way she has through her transformation healed herself.

This is a quite unusual film and as I wrote in the introduction I would not have expected to like it, but I found that I actually did. First for the treasure throve of details it gives, but then as it opens up, for the existential depth of it.

The whole real-time thing seems like a gimmick, like Hitchcock’s (almost) one-shot “Rope” movie, and it sometimes threatens to sabotage the movie. Life is simply not interesting enough for two hours that we need to see it all, but it does add to the realism and makes all the details so interesting. Fragments of dialogue, news in the radio, random people on the street and all the strange things that happens in real life and not in a typical edited film version.

Of the French new wave movies, I have watched, this is probably the one I have liked the most, one that actually captures the idea of this new wave. Recommended.

 

Friday, 14 July 2017

A Dog's Life (Mondo Cane) (1962)



Mondo Cane
Ahh, 1962. A new year, new movies, a great leap into modernity or more of the same?

“Mondo Cane”, the first movie of 1962 is a great leap all right, but I am not entirely sure where to. Off the planet maybe and into the world of tabloid headlines and half-baked truths. Certainly an… interesting way to start a new year.

“Mondo Cane’s” raison d’etre is to shock and upset and not much more than that. In this manner, it has more in common with a modern tabloid or maybe a Michael Moore movie than anything else. Sometimes it works, I was upset a few times, and sometimes this 21st century viewer is just to jaded to take offence and then it seems merely quaint, but back in its day this was a great hit at the box office and apparently sparked a whole genre of “Mondo” films.

It was an Italian team (Cavara, Prosperi and Jacopetti) who combined footage from around the world in a montage that barely hangs together. The vignettes cover items such as pets, men as sex objects, environmental pollution and religious practices plus a ton of other issues that generally has very little to do with each other. When it works best the footage is combined so a topic is considered from very different angles that makes us question what is normal. My favorite is the jump from a pet cemetery in America where people say goodbye to their beloved pets as if they were members of the family to a Malaysian restaurant where you can get your favorite puppy for dinner. What is normal, to treat an animal as family or to eat it?

Unfortunately these juxtapositions fail more often than not, aiming more for the shock effect as when Gurka soldiers in Nepal decapitate living cattle. Even I had to look away. Or old people shoved aside to die in Singapore.

“Mondo Cane” is very liberal in its definition of truth and at times its manipulation is definitely in the way. I am sure the Bikini atoll was devastated by the nuclear bomb testing, but somehow the turtle confusion sounds like they are bullshitting us and the life guard demonstration in Sydney Australia is just too silly. On the other hand the sequence about nightlife in Hamburg is probably authentic. I have seen places and people like that and the saying is true that says that there is nothing as stupid as drunk people when you are not drunk yourself. Maybe with the exception of the idiots in the bull-run sequences from Portugal. Or the people who will pay a fortune for a smashed car or a painting made by nude women smeared in blue paint…

It is a surprisingly easy movie to get through. The confusion of these vignettes should have made it pointless, but in themselves they are usually beautifully shot and with enough surprise that I sit curiously waiting for the next vignette. Tribes on pacific island or Papua New Guinea are expected to be odd, but it is when we see our own culture portrayed as odd that it starts getting interesting.

I would not say I was sold by “Mondo Cane”, its objective is simply too narrow, and I do not feel informed at all, merely weirded out, but it was still a lot better than I thought it would be. I would be hesitant about taking too much away from the movie except this, that when your angle of view changes, things you thought where normal may suddenly become very strange indeed.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Exiles (1961)



De rodløse
In my old hometown of Aalborg in Denmark there is a perpetual party. I fair weather it will be outside on the square in front of the train station while in poor weather it moves inside into one of the bars on the square, but it will always be on. When I lived there we called it Grønlænderfesten, which translates to The Greenlandic Party, since majority of the participants would the Greenlanders who had moved to Denmark. They were always happy and they did not bother anyone, but it was difficult not to think that in their alcoholic haze they lived a shadow life of what they should have been.

“The Exiles” seems to be the American equivalent. This is about American Indians, or whatever it is politically correct to call them, who has left the reservation and now live a shadow life in Los Angeles on the fringe of society. They may be partying hard, but it does not seem like a happy life, not for any of them and there is constantly a feeling that this is wrong, that they should be doing something else.

How real this movie is I am unable to tell, but it feels like a portrait of the lives of real people, who narrate over filmed events of one evening and night in their lives. It might be called a documentary, but it is not a film that offers any explanations or opinions other than the characters themselves. As a mirror on reality it would be a good double feature with “Chronicle d’un été”, here succeeding where “Chronicle…” according to itself failed.

We follow Yvonne and Homer who live together in the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles. They both left the reservation to strike out for themselves in Los Angeles, where they met each other. Yvonne is a sad, soft spoken character who does all she can to make Homer appreciate her. She cooks for him, fix his cloth and let him do whatever he wants in the hope that he will be a good husband and father to the child she is expecting and maybe even get a job. In return Homer is just being an asshole.

Homer does not do anything but watch television at day and hang out with his friends at night. They hit the bars, pick up girls, gamble their money away, drink some more and get into fights. In that process Homer does not offer Yvonne a single thought, but seems to be perfectly okay about what he is doing as if it is his right. But Homer is not happy, even though he has a ton of excuses for what he does. We rarely see him smile and there is a quiet desperation about him, which becomes most expressed when he going to a midnight pow-wow with the other Indians on a hill on the outskirts of town.

Both Yvonne and Homer seems to be wasting their lives waiting for something else, something they can only vaguely define and which they seem completely unable to reach for.

I did not like Yvonne and Homer very much, they were too much fool and asshole to be likeable, but it was remarkable how honest they were and how exposed they got in the course of this movie. This cannot have been an easy movie for them to watch afterwards and I wonder how the director got so close to them. Part of me thinks he was abusing that confidence by the not very flattering way they are portrayed, but another part is quite convinced that they we nod and agree that this is pretty much what their lives are about. These are not resourceful people. Yvonne is not strong enough to leave or stand up to Homer and Homer is not strong enough to look himself in the eye and take responsibility for his life. Instead they just flow with it.

It is fascinating and not a little sad, a bit like the Greenlandic party in Aalborg. These are just two people and their friends, but something here speaks for a larger group of people with similar background. And then of course we get a good look at the not so glamorous life in Los Angeles in the late fifties, far away for Hollywood’s glitz.    

This was the last 1961 movie for me. Next comes 1962…

Thursday, 6 July 2017

West Side Story (1961)



West Side Story
This…is…so…gay…

I am sorry for this somewhat offensive introduction, but this was all I could think of for the first twenty minutes of “West Side Story”. This is super, super gay.

Starting off with a gang of young men intended to look tough ballet dancing down the back streets of New York sets the tone for the rest of the rest of the movie and I knew we had gone into bad musical territory.

Musicals have their own tropes or rules, if you will, that allows them to bend reality. This makes it possible for characters to spontaneously break into singing with full orchestral backing or twist stories into sappy-land because who cares about the story anyway. “West Side Story” takes these liberties into the extreme. I thought I had reached the limit with dancing cowboys, but, oh no, I had seen nothing yet. Dancing street gangs makes dancing cowboys seem like a sensible idea.

Replacing acting with dancing is a terrible idea and maybe the producers thought that as there was no way to save this anyway, they might as well add a few more absurdities. Caricature characters with no depth at all is easy enough to shrug off, but complete stupidity is more difficult to bear. Okay, street gangs will never win any prizes for being smart otherwise they would not be in a gang in the first place, but these are absurdly stupid. Let’s take the scene where Tony visits Maria on the fire escape. Although she asks him repeatedly to keep it quiet he insists on shouting (super nice fellow), then he exclaims that he is not afraid. Of course not, it is not him who will get into trouble, but her. Yet she loves him for it although it is an asshole thing of him to do and then they start to sing, loudly. Groan.

It took me a huge effort to look beyond these frustrations and find something of value behind, and there are things. Plenty, even.

First of all the music, which incidentally is what anybody judges a musical on anyway. I have never watched “West Side Story” before in any of its permutations, but I knew, and knew well, every single song on the movie. I had no idea they came from this movie, so that was quite a find.

Secondly, the movie touches on a number of itchy subjects that has not lost its relevance since. One is the idiocy of gang wars, a persistent problem that kills a shocking number of people and terrorizes neighborhoods. The movie seems to explain this with idleness and coolness and that is certainly part of it. I just cannot help thinking that the two gangs in “West Side Story”, the Jets and the Sharks would not need to form a gang. They do not strike me as gang material. They could dance together instead.

A second topic is that of new immigrant communities and how the existing community feels the the new ones are encroaching on their territory. Again an issues that is as relevant as ever. In 61 a cinema audience in Denmark would have no clue what they are talking about, but now we all know. I heard of some recent research in immigration that presented two historical types of immigrant. The one that embraces the new country and have economically a high success rate, but suffers the rootlessness of cutting the cultural bonds and the second that brings his own culture along and surrounds himself with his own kind. This is the easier and more tempting solution, but only postpones the integration to the next generation and have a much lower economical success rate. The Puerto Ricans in “West Side Story” are definitely of the second type and their example shows both the strength and the weakness of that model. Culturally they are, frankly, superior to those lame Jets. They look and dance far cooler and have a very strong network. On the downside they are hopelessly unequipped to deal with a life in The States and are subjected to bigotry stemming from their insularity. The Puerto Ricans can with some right claim that they are treated poorly, but their inability to let go is a large part of the reason.

This is a very interesting topic and beside the music the best part of “West Side Story”.

What actually happens in the movie I do not really care to explain. The movie won a ton of awards, everybody have watched it in one form or another and frankly, I did not care much for the Romeo and Juliet theme.

I sort of understand why fans of the genre loves “West Side Story”, but unless you are only in it for the music this is not the place to start. I found that this was not for me, but converted to a “real” movie it could have been interesting. Just by getting rid of 90% of the dancing it I could have bought it.    

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Hustler (1961)



Hajen
I was looking forward to watch ”The Hustler”. Probably because I was confusing it with something else, but even then, the first movie of the list with Paul Newman and a whole bunch of Oscar nominations. This cannot go wrong.

And it doesn’t. “The Hustler” is a great movie by any standard, but it is also a very different movie from what I thought it would be. This is not an easy action comedy about hustling (which was what I thought it would be), quite the contrary, actually. There is a lot of pool playing going on and according to the extra material a lot of fans of the game thinks that this is what the movie is about. I disagree. The pool playing is just the framework of the actual story. Shortly into the movie I was thinking this could be another Whiplash story about a coach and a talent working towards perfection at the exclusion of everything else. That is not entirely wrong, there are certainly similarities, but I do not believe this is the heart of the story either.

To me this is a story about egoism. It is a story about people who have nothing but themselves and their own gratification at interest. That is never a nice and comfy theme and in this installment it is chillingly cold and repelling. None of the characters are particularly likeable, not even the smooth Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), but that is not the same as uninteresting.

Fast Eddie Felson and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) are travelling pool hustlers who hustle small time players of small money by pretending to be poor players and then thrashing them when money is on the table. Eddie has a talent for pool and he knows this so he seeks out the legendary pool master Fats Minnesota (Jackie Gleason) to best him. In an epic 25 hour battle Eddie is up 18.000$, but loses it all in the end. From now on Eddie can think of nothing else than beating Fats Minnesota. Eddie leave Charlie and strikes out on his own and soon after meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). Sarah is a miserable, alcoholized girl with a lot of self-loathing. Somehow the monomanic Eddie and the dazed Sarah become an item.

Eddie also meets the professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who proposes to be his manager with a 75-25 split in Bert’s favor. After an intermezzo involving broken thumbs Eddie accepts and together with Sarah they go to the Kentucky Derby where the story culminates with (SPOILER!) Sarah killing herself.

Eddie’s sole consideration is himself and measuring himself against the best. Sarah is more a convenience. She needs him to love her, but he cannot spell it out. She will always be second to him and in a crisis he will only go with himself. Charlie represents Eddie’s humanity, his surrogate father, if you will, and in a poignant scene Eddie is pushing him and a life that does not only involve himself, aside. Only when it is too late does Eddie realize what this ego trip has done to him and he is powerless to anything about it but being bitter.

Bert is another character with nothing but his own interest at heart. To him people are business to be exploited and he is the master with entitlement to do the exploitation. He may not be as much of a monster as Sarah makes him, Eddie is a willing target after all, but it is pretty clear that his interest in other people is not humanitarian.

Even Sarah is essentially on an ego trip. She is so lost in her own misery that all she sees are confirmations of her bleak world view and fuel on her self-loathing. She is in desperate need of other people, but she merely plays theater with them. When she finally lets down her guard Eddie is unable or unwilling to fill that hole in her. Admittedly this is a very deep and all-consuming hole and I am not sure any sane person would try to fill it. Her suicide in the end is the greatest ego trip of them all as any suicide is. To get to that points means that there is not a single thought for anybody else left.

With three characters who care for nobody but themselves thrown together it is clear that this is going to explode, one way or another. When it does it is strangely anticlimactic as if it is an implosion rather than an explosion and it is a chilling thing to watch.

This is an extremely well-made movie that manages to convey the story perfectly. Especially the cinematographic and the lighting in those pool halls is spectacular.  Newman was perfectly cast for this, charming on the surface but hollow inside and I am not sure Sinatra, the original first choice, could have nailed this as well. George C. Scott is just awesome and I expect nothing less from him.

And the pool stuff? Well, they play a lot better than I do but that does not take a whole lot.

 

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)


Natten


”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.