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.