Monday, 18 February 2019

The Graduate (1967)


 
Fagre voksne verden
I have been looking forward to “The Graduate” for a long time. It is one of those iconic movies most people know of, though probably not as many have actually watched. Well, I had not until now. Its reputation is massive, and its Academy awards and nominations seem to confirm that.

It does do a lot of things right.

Right from the outset there is a modernity to the style. The first-person camera, the rambling dialogue and the norm-defying attitudes all points toward the seventies and beyond and is so different from the classical Hollywood style. Maybe a bit of French New Wave there…

The music as well with a soundtrack based on actual songs that would have been known to the audience and certainly is today. Using Simon and Garfunkel for this movie was a stroke of genius, and I would dare say that this would have been a very different movie with any other scoring.

Yet, it is probably the story itself and how it unfolds that has made this movie as famous as it is.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is a 21-year-old Graduate who has returned to his Californian home after college. He is aimless and confused, only knowing that the road laid out before him is not the one he wishes to follow. His parents however do not seem to sense this confusion and urges him forward, causing some alienation. Into this pictures steps Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the saucy wife of Ben’s fathers partner. She is a cougar on the prowl and she wants Benjamin.

At first Ben is scared and resists, but after having fended her off once he is intrigued enough that he offers himself to her and they start a purely sexual relationship. When Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) appears, the families urge Ben to take her out, but privately Mrs. Robinson forbids it. When Ben takes her out anyway, he falls in love with her and we have a very spicy triangle.

It was super awesome to see a young Dustin Hoffman. He is one of those actors I always associate with more mature roles, so seeing him as a young man was a revelation. Anne Bancroft, whom I am familiar with from her roles in the fifties was stunning as the icy cold temptress and this is a pretty cool story.

Yet, there was something about this movie that made it hard for me to watch. I have some difficulty putting my finger on it, but I figure it has something to do with the rambling style of the movie. It seems to creep forward at glacial speed only to pick up pace in the end. I found it difficult to actually keep focus on the movie. Another reason may be that I did not actually like any of the characters. We are supposed to root for Benjamin Braddock and in his confused and shy frame of mind that is not too hard, but when he becomes obsessive, he is much harder to follow. At Berkeley be becomes effectively a creepy stalker and that makes it rather unbelievable that Elaine forgives him and give in to him.

Well, in the end it works because he rescues her from her wedding so they can leave be behind their bourgeoise lives and ride off into the sunset, but it did not sit entirely well with me.

“The Graduate” fits well into the late sixties with its themes of sexual freedom, but more pronounced, the youth rebellion of their parent’s lifestyle. I can imagine it being a rallying point for that transformation that took place in those years.

Personally, I am a bit on the fence with this movie, which surprises no-one more than myself. I should love this, but I do not. Yet, it does have so many qualities that I must recommend it anyway.     

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 Choses Que je Sais D'Elle) (1967)



Jeg ved 2-3 ting om hende
Godard again, Hurrah….

I am really on a streak of obscure films here.

Ah, well.

“Two or Three Things I Know About Her…” (“Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d'elle”) is a movie without an actual story. Instead we see some people in Paris and some pictures of Paris itself. I learned from the synopsis in the Book and on Wikipedia that this is a portrayal of Paris and the consumer society, using housewife prostitution as a metaphor of consumerism. Well, I suppose that may well be the case. I could even think this could be an interesting idea, but true to form Godard ruins it and I rapidly loose interest in the movie and what I see is a stylistic exercise, disconnected from the viewer.

A description of the movie (Wikipedia for once gave up on the subtitle “Plot” and replaced it with “Description”) would have to be about the form, because nothing actually happens in the scenes. There is a narrator who whispers a very political commentary to the pictures we see. Apparently, the entire world and certainly Paris is a capitalistic plot to serve the rich against the poor. The narrator is not really certain of what he is narrating and often it seems he is getting confused. The characters, who appear and disappears, sometimes speaks to the camera, sometimes we hear their thoughts and sometimes they have an actual dialogue, often at the same time and with zero connection between them.

There is a contrast between hyper-realism and surrealism that often clashes and either seems to sabotage the other. I do understand isolated parts, like the woman Juliette (Marina Vlady) who walks around in town, drops off her child at a pimp (I presume), goes shopping and then takes some casual prostitution clients. The idea, presumably, is that to live the consumer life she wants she has to prostitute herself and does that with cold casualness.

At every opportunity possible Godard has to comment on America as the big devil and the Vietnam war. How that ties into the rest is unclear to me. Consumerism is an American, capitalistic plot against the poor French?

In the entire movie there was one scene which, in its silliness, stood out for me. For one of the prostitution jobs Juliette and her friend had to walk naked with airline bags over their heads while being filmed by an American client. That was actually funny, though I have a feeling it was not intended as being amusing.

Whatever Godard had on his mind with this movie is drowned out by stylistic artifice, and it seems to me more like artistic masturbation than a movie intended for an audience. As a viewer I am not invited into this movie and feel therefore rather indifferent towards it. Trust Godard to take something that could be a good idea and sabotage it.

I am certain there is an audience for Godard’s movies, but please, please why do we who follow the List have to watch so many of them? Not recommended.

 

Monday, 4 February 2019

Balthazar (Au Hasard Balthazar) (1966)


Hvad med Balthazar?

The last movie of 1966 is “Au Hasard Balthazar”, a movie by Robert Bresson.

This is, at surface value, another one of those movies that does not seem to be about anything.

A girl, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and a donkey, Balthazar, go through life suffering evilness from people, life, family and random events. Marie and Jacques are childhood friends, then Jacques has to leave. Marie and her father live on a farm but he is in some unspecified trouble because he is too proud (??). Marie is terrorized by the local bad boy Gérard, but then she submits to him and becomes his girlfriend. Gérard does a lot of stupid and mean things and Marie defends him. One of these things involves an older drunkard Arnold who eventually dies. 

In the end Marie is stripped naked and dies. 

Balthazar is always there in the background with changing owners who usually treat it badly. The only one who seems to care about it is Marie, but eventually it also dies, in the mountains surrounded by sheep after it has been made a saint.

In this perspective this is an immensely boring movie made even worse by the artificial acting, the nonsensical actions and a stilted, sparse dialogue.

The clue here is of course that all this is just symbols for the real story. Without being able to claim that I fully understand it, it has something to do with innocence and goodness in the face of evil. Something about sainthood. Marie and the donkey are good, and Gérard and his ilk is the devil and nobody cares about her and the donkey while they take the pain of the world upon themselves. Something like that.

The problem for me here is that Bresson is so eager to tell the symbolic story that he does not really care about the apparent story. I am all for that there is a deeper meaning, but in this case the emphasis on the symbolism makes what we see obscure and sometimes outright stupid. Marie in particular makes very little sense and is thoroughly artificial. It is a shame, because I can actually see where this could go if Bresson had gone for a more naturalistic expression. We saw something similar in “Diary of a Country Priest” so it is a Bresson feature, but he also made “A Man Escaped” which works great.

According to Wikipedia there are people who absolutely love this movie, while others like Ingmar Bergman apparently did not. He said "this Balthazar, I didn't understand a word of it, it was so completely boring... A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting." I tend to agree.

This is a difficult movie to recommend. It is very polarizing, and I am not a fan, though I am certain others will be of a different opinion.

And thus ends 1966. On to 1967…

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Masculine-Feminine (Masculin-Feminin) (1966)


Masculin Féminin
Jean-Luc Godard again again…

If you have been following my posts you probably know what is coming and, yeah, we are going down that lane again.

“Masculin Féminin” is not plot driven (no surprise there), instead we a following a young man called Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as he encounters people in Paris. Paul meets his friend Robert (Michel Debord) who is politically active on the extreme left, which seems to match Paul’s political leaning. He then proceeds to meet Madeleine (Chantal Goya), an aspiring singer, and her friends Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) and Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert). He moves in with them and they go out together. Meanwhile Paul interviews a number of women about all sorts of things.

That sound harmless enough, if a bit boring. What is special here is 1) that Paul is a jerk and 2) that all dialogue is terribly artificial in the shape of proclamations or interviews.

The second item was apparently a deliberate decision by Godard, though I do not understand why, except to create an alienation between the characters, but the sad result is that they mostly sound like idiots.

The former is even more mystifying. Paul shouts at people and picks up arguments where none is needed. He seems restless and takes action and offense of anything. I would suggest that he reduce his caffeine intake, but it is probably not as simple as that. Considering how he is treating Madeleine and her friends it is surprising that she does not kick him out. Seriously he is behaving like an asshole.

So, what we have here is on the one hand a very real looking movie in documentary style following trivial lives, but also a high degree of surreal artifice where people behave and speak weirdly and not just Paul but random people he meets will put themselves on fire or stab themselves and all Paul think of is the revolution against the establishment he seems to be planning.

It is an idea that could be interesting but in the hands of Godard, good ideas are wasted. Nothing new here. I never felt that this movie was trying to tell me something, at least something I would be marginally interested in, yet it seemed so intend on telling that story that the rest was unimportant.

What I did like was all the pictures of life in Paris in the mid-sixties. Peel away the surreal elements and there is a lot to look at.

Conclusively I probably liked this movie a little better than the typical Godard movie, but there is a long way from there and up to actually liking a movie. And there are more Godards to come. Somebody should send a letter to the List editors…

   

Friday, 25 January 2019

Persona (1966)



Persona
Well, that was a weird experience.

I am not entirely sure what I have been watching, but I am fairly certain there was a lot more to this movie than what I perceived. Mostly, however, it was gibberish.

There is some sort of story. A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is tasked to take care of a patient called Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) at a hospital. Elisabet was a famous actress, but suddenly she stopped talking. Alma is not having much luck at the hospital and the doctor sends the two women out to a summerhouse on an island. Here they first befriend each other and Alma confesses her innermost secrets to the mute Elisabet. Then Alma gets very furious with Elisabet and finally the two seem to merge into one person. When they finally separate in the end, Alma is a broken woman.

This story is bookended and occasionally interrupted by series of very disturbing images. In fact, on my List expedition so far I have never witnessed such a collection of disturbing footage and I still have no idea what it means.

There is definitely a motherhood theme. Alma had an abortion and Elisabet had a child she did not want and hated even as it loved her. Elisabet is broken and has shut herself up, while Alma is in control, but then cracks and falls completely to pieces.

This is about as much as I got.

Ingmar Bergman made movies that required you to think and mostly they have been good or decent experiences because I was able to tackle them. This one goes a lot further and it is very open for interpretation. On Wikipedia there is an entire catalogue of interpretations available and it kind of annoys me, though, at least I do not feel so stupid.

Beside the opaqueness, the most notable element is that it steps very far outside the borders of what was acceptable in movies in 1966. The story of Alma’s sexual encounter is seriously juicy and makes “Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” children stuff by comparison. The footage mentioned earlier include such images as the Vietnamese monks setting themselves on fire, the famous picture of a Jewish boy getting rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto, an ugly, hairy spider and the killing of animals. Cozy stuff. The point however eludes me. Maybe to show what an ugly world it is. Who knows.

I frankly do not have that much to say about this movie. Not my favorite Bergman movie and not one I would recommend to a normal audience, though psychologists would probably have a blast with this one.

 

Monday, 21 January 2019

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)


 
Hvem er bange for Virginia Woolf?
“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is one of those plays that are frequently staged, at least it is a show that keeps popping up here and there, so obviously it has some reputation, but I have never known exactly what it is about. Now I have cheated and watched the movie version instead, simply because it is the next one on the List, so now I know. Or do I?

It is obvious from the get-go that this is filmed theater. It is all about dialogue with very few characters and hardly any changed in location. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton) is a not-so-young-anymore married couple. He works as associate professor at an unnamed college, and she is the principal’s daughter. It is late at night and they are hosting a little get-together for a younger, newly arrived couple at the campus, Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis).

The entire movie is what happens at this party, and what a strange party it is. Martha and George do nothing but bicker, insult, tease, taunt and mock each other and their guest. This is accompanied by a substantial amount of alcohol resulting in a somewhat hazy performance of the participants. Nick and Honey are uncomfortable to say the least, but somehow they get to stay and everything goes from bad to worse.

I cannot even remember the many insults being thrown around but they include such things as Martha mocking George for having no spine an amounting to nothing. George mocks Martha for her alcohol intake and when Nick tells George in confidence that he married Honey because he thought she was pregnant, George goes right ahead and breaks that confidence. And on and on it goes.

A weird topic being brought up is Martha and George son who is supposed to have a birthday the day after. It is a topic they keep returning to, but it upsets them both and while we suspect there is something fishy about it, it is only towards the end we get some clarity on the why.

---SPOILER----

See, Martha and George were never able to have any children and so they have invented a child, and the bitterness that this infertility has caused they take out on each other. Or so seems to be the official explanation.

I must say I was surprised to learn that this is supposed to be the core of the story. The venom and viciousness on display here is of a caliber that made me think the issue was a lot bigger than this. Frankly, I felt a bit deflated, but then I suppose it causes a lot of grief not being able to get children.

The constant battle raging is entertaining to watch if you wear cynical glasses and being numbed by the constant onslaught it did give me a few laughs, to the extent that I suspected this was a very very black comedy. Or, more realistically a warning against alcohol and an endorsement for concept of a divorce. A life like this must be a life in hell. Of course, it is a clever movie, with the venom taken to these heights, and so I did suspect that there was more to the movie than what we were watching. I still think there must be more, that the games have more layers to explain why these two seem so bent on destroying each other instead of just getting a divorce. However, the above does seem to be the official explanation.   

Acting-wise this is one helluva movie. It won five Academy Awards including two for acting, and eight additional nominations and certainly the acting nominations were deserved. All four of them are in the red zone for most of the movie.

Did I like the movie? Hmmm… I am still on the fence on that question. I generally do not like movies were hysteric arguments take center stage, but in this case the inventiveness and sheer amount of venom makes it quite a spectacle, so I am more positive than I thought I would be.

But like it or not, you cannot get around this play, it is a must-see.

 

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In the Heat of the Night (1967)



I nattens hede
I always feel a bit odd when it comes to racism in America. I am not American and do not have that first-hand experience to understand the subject and, really, the best course for me would be to abstain from such a, likely sensitive, subject for which I have insufficient understanding. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to discuss a movie like “In the Heat of the Night” without getting into racism. It is very much at the center of that film.

This thing about racism against black people has always baffled me. From a European perspective black people and black culture is an integral part of America and to think of it as something separate and of lesser worth is just… weird, yet, in the mid-sixties, twenty years after the wake-up call that was Nazi Germany, comes along “In the Heat of the Night” and throws a spotlight on rampant racism.

In a small Mississippi town, a man gets killed in the night and the police does not hesitate to arrest a stranger on the train station and pin the murder on him. It is understood that the fact that the man is black makes him without question guilty. In a truly amazing scene the black guy (Sidney Poitier) turns out to be a Philadelphia police officer in town to visit his mother and the astonished Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) learns, when he contacts Virgil Tibbs’ boss, that Tibbs is a homicide expert and the best he got. In your face!

Gillespie and indeed most of the town are eager to get rid of this black guy who carries himself with a pride they are not used to and do not like. Obviously, a black guy who does not grovel before them needs to learn his place and get out of town. Tibbs is more than happy to leave, but Gillespie finds out that he needs Tibbs and Tibbs himself finds that he needs to find the murderer.

Keen to solve the case Gillespie keeps finding new targets to pin this murder on, but Tibbs is not free of his own prejudices and is ready to pin it on the rich planter of the town, old white aristocracy. Their relationship, Gillespie and Tibbs, is turbulent, they need each other but despise what the other stand for, yet in the process the gain a mutual respect. Grudging at first, but it grows, and that relationship is the heart and soul of the movie. Sure, there is a murder case, but it takes second stage and when it is finally resolved it seems almost unimportant.

“In the Heat of the Night” is an awesome movie. It takes you places, and it is committed to the story it wants to tell and that story feels important. It is also a movie where everything works. The acting of course is stellar. The cinematography is spot on, you feel the heat and you feel the discomfort and the oppression. The plot movies forward fast enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but the stand out item must be the scoring by Quincy Jones. This would not have been half the movie without it, and it points the way to how movies were scored in the seventies.

The thing that makes “In the Heat of the Night” so exceptional however is the spotlight it throws on racism. Undiluted bigotry on an unimaginable scale. The timing is perfect, smack in the middle of the whole civil rights process and this movie must have made a splash in its time. To me, as an outsider, this is just unbelievable, what is wrong with these people, and I wonder how it must have been for an American watching it back in its day.  

And yes, this is a 1967 movie and I am not done with 1966, but my (ancient) edition of the Book places it as a 1966 movie and this was simply the next movie to watch. But what a break from 66! I can only recommend this movie and so did the Academy: Five awards including Best Picture.