Thursday 23 February 2017

The Adventure (L'Avventura) (1960)

De elskendes eventyr
I frankly have no idea what to write about ”L’Avventura” (The Adventure). It felt like a very long and empty shell and I still have no idea what this was all about.

Let us just start with the story because that is very easy. A group of wealthy Italian people are going on a boat picnic to some volcanic islands off the Sicilian coast. Anna (Lea Massari) is uneasy about her relationship this Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). I still have no idea exactly what was bothering her, but she seems quietly desperate. On the boat ride she lies about seeing a shark and confides that something is wrong to her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Then she disappears. They all go looking for her but to no avail. When the others resign the search and return to their lives Monica and Sandro continue looking for Anna.

They never find her but in the process of looking for her they start an affair with each other. Claudia is suffering guilt, not knowing whether she wants to fall in love with Sandro and that is about it. For 2½ hours.

To say that watching this movie was a frustrating experience is an understatement. Nothing happens. At all. It is a beautifully shot movie and particularly Monica Vitti is a revelation, but considering the critical acclaim of this movie there is clearly more to this movie, but what?

I will venture onto very thin ice and say that this may have something to do with the way Claudia perceives the world. I kept getting this feeling from her that she senses exactly what is going on around her, but lacks the words to express it and the ability to process it. You can see it in her eyes that reveal understanding or are disconcerted when she catches a wrong vibe. When Sandro hits on her she feels both guilt and that there is something not entirely trustworthy about Sandro.

Another possibility, and now I am really guessing, is that Claudia and Sandro are archetypes for men and women and the way the two genders understands and communicates with each other. Claudiu is all erratic and illogical feeling and unspoken needs and Sandro is all about getting into her pants, direct and literal. To me that sounds more like a cliché than archetypes and a tale that has been told a million times before.

Of course there is the possibility that this is not about anything at all, but just a 2½ hours of wasted time, something critics would never admit to not understanding and consequently praise it to the skies. A part of me likes this idea, but I honestly do not think it is that simple. This is Michelangelo Antonioni after all and the prizes it was awarded were quite significant, so I will probably have to resign and admit that it is just me being too stupid to get it.

What did make the movie somewhat bearable was Monica Vitti. Her expressive acting and sense of presence is outstanding and I understand she will feature in several more movies on the list. That is truly something to look forward to.

One of the more or less pointless scenes involves Claudia’s friend obviously having an affair with a young painter. The paintings he was making were quite interesting, sort of a mix of Miro and Picasso. It is kind of sad when this is what I remember from the movie.

Anyway, if anyone can explain to me why this movie is so fantastic please step forward. I am at a loss and very much need some help here.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Under Sandet (Land of Mine) (2015)

Under Sandet
I have just returned from a trip back to Denmark during which I stayed over with a friend of mine who had prepared a few movies for us to watch. We ended up choosing “Under Sandet”, a Danish movie from 2015 which has received an Academy nomination in the Best Foreign Language category. If it sounds unfamiliar it might help to know that it is released abroad as “Land of Mine”. I am not in the habit of reviewing new movies, but both the timing and the quality of this movie is exceptional.

The backstory of the movie is that during second world war the German army fortified the entire Atlantic and North Sea coastline in anticipation of an allied invasion. This included the Danish west coast. The hulking bunkers are in many cases still there as silent, grim reminders of a violent past, but a more immediate problem after the war were the millions of mines buried just under the sand. These had to be removed.

The sentiment was that those who placed them there could please remove them again so some two thousand German soldiers were sent to Denmark to clean the beaches. From an outside perspective that sounds reasonable enough. However the German army in 1945 was a rag-tag collection of children and old men. Hardly the gruesome Nazi’s that people loathed. The movie follows such a group of children dressed up as soldiers who is sent to do mine cleaning service. Remove 45.000 mines in three months and they can go home.

Their supervisor Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) hates the Germans. We see that in the opening where he assaults and beats some German soldiers in a convoy simply for being German. Sgt. Rasmussen receives his troop of German “soldiers” in the same spirit and openly declares that he does not care if they all die clearing mines. The same goes for Karin (Laura Bro), the farmer who is paid to feed the soldier. She takes her revenge by simply not feeding them while Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the pioneer of the engineering corps in charge of the operation, takes a sick pleasure in killing as many as possible.

And a deadly task it is. Even for skilled minesweepers this is tricky business and with an average of six mines per hour it does not take a genius to figure out that from time to time something will go wrong. The movie has this slow pace that almost lulls you into complacency and then, boom, somebody blows up and every time it happens the simple brutality is shocking.

As already mentioned the troop consists of boys, not men. They hardly need to shave, they are shaking with fear of their task and they are completely out of place. The only army training they seem to have gotten is to do what they are told and to reply correctly to shouting. Beside that they are just big school children. There is a quiet despair to them as if they are accepting their lot, but at the same time do not understand why fate has placed them where they are. Soon, very soon, they are transformed from German soldiers to individual, gentle characters. Sebastian, Helmut, Ludwig, Wilhelm and the twins Ernst and Werner (Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann, Leon Seidel, Emil and Oskar Belton) and so on. We, the audience soon find it difficult to hate them and gradually Sgt. Rasmussen must recognize them for what they are. It is that phenomenon that it is easy to hate people as a group but very difficult to hate them as individual human beings that is at the heart of the movie. As the boys are broken down, reduced both in number and spirit they come into focus as human beings even to cold hearted Karin.

This is a deeply humanistic message that goes much further than the movie and the shame that is felt by Sgt. Rasmussen and Karin can easily be transferred to other issues where groups are hated collectively and that is why this movie feels relevant today rather than just poking to our bad conscience of something that happened 70 years ago.

“Under Sandet” is a slow-moving movie, but it is a movie that grabs you around the heart and moves you, especially if like me you cannot accept cruelty to children. In a world of fast paced movies, it is an almost shocking experience to watch a movie that takes its time to let you know the characters. And double shocking when it then blows them away.

As far as I can see the movies in the Best Foreign Language category are all strong and I doubt “Under Sandet” will win it, but it is a worthy candidate and I can only recommend it.     

Friday 10 February 2017

Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)

Skyd på pianisten
”Tirez sur le pianiste” or ”Shoot the Pianist” is the second installment on the List from Francois Truffault. It is quite a departure from “Les Quatre Cents Coups” in several ways. Gone is the social-realistic pathos and oppressive self-importance to be replaced by playfulness and a mischievous sparkle in the eye. ”Tirez sur le pianiste” is a movie by people having fun rather than burning to tell an important story.

I liked “Tirez sur le pianiste” a lot more than I did “Les Quatre Cents Coups”.

It is a strange movie to describe because it is both very conventional and completely unconventional. The plot is something you would recognize from an American B-movie, but processed in a way that is not quite a parody but questions the very format of the film. I imagine that Truffaut and his team sat down and considered every scene of the movie and said: “Hey, wouldn’t it be totally awesome if instead of doing this or that the characters would do or be something entirely different?” In that sense the very format of the otherwise ordinary story becomes a playground.

Take for example the introduction. A man, Chico (Albert Rémy), is on the run from someone. He meets a complete stranger with flowers, chat him up and is told a lengthy story about a marriage grown from dislike to full blown love. He says good bye and continues to run to find his brother and ask for help. There is an obvious clash here that makes you wonder and even smile, but not enough of a clash to break the illusion. In the bar where Chico finds his brother Charlie (Charles Aznavour) people are dancing and having a great time, but when you look at the couples dancing they are outright bizarre. Again you raise your eyebrow and even smile, but not enough to break the illusion. Then Chico disappears out of the story only to reappear in the end and we now follow Charlie, who has a secret worthy of any B-movie, but taken that step further.

The only movie I can really compare “Tirez sur le pianiste” to is “Pulp Fiction”. Tarantino’s toying with the conventions of B-movies is entirely parallel to what Truffault does here. That makes it fun and entertaining and always surprising, but never so much that it brakes the frame of the larger story. Charlie and Chico are being hunted by two gangsters and it does end in a bloody shoot-out, but the road there takes some very peculiar turns. The gangsters are tough and persistent, but they are also talkative clowns who in the heat of things keep up conversations completely unrelated to what they are actually doing. Again not unlike Jackson’s and Travolta’s characters in “Pulp fiction”.

Another similarity are the sudden jumps in the story timeline introducing plotlines seemingly unrelated to the main plot. The jumps are very sudden and at times dizzying and reflect the play with the format. The situations in these often almost unrelated scenes are detailed and elaborate and I get the impression that much more attention was invested in getting these scenes right than in developing the main story and as such they often feel more like tableaux than parts of a progressive story.

Truffault actually manages to keep it all on track and never lets it slide too far and I think this is why it actually works. This could easily have become a spoof movie or a hopelessly arty movie, but it maintains the balance well enough to become neither.

That is until I saw the interview with Truffault in the extra material. His explanations to the movie were so highbrow and pretentious that I wondered if it was me who had completely misunderstood the movie. According to Truffaut “Tirez sur le pianiste” is an art project. In my understanding, it was a group of movie makers having a great time. I much prefer my version.

I would definitely recommend this movie to anybody with an affinity for early Tarantino movies. He must have watched this movie and been inspired. In its time “Tirez sur le pianiste” was not received well so I guess Truffault was about thirty years ahead of his time.

Sunday 5 February 2017

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Lørdag aften søndag morgen
Back in the nineties I watched a number of British comedies that had that in common that they were all based in the British working class. Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Trainspotting to mention a few of them. They were quite enjoyable, at least I thought so, and I would gladly go to the cinema to watch them. These movies all hark back to “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” as the movie that introduced the working class in British cinema.

In its day “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” was quite revolutionary. I get the impression that British film until this point had little interest in what happened outside middle class and upper class circles, which considering the vastness of working class population was a bit of an oversight. “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” changed that practically overnight with provincial characters from the industrial hubs who spoke the local dialect and did not give a flying fart for the concerns of rich people. As such this movie has a lot of significance, but unfortunately it has not aged very well. Compared to its modern equivalents it lacks the comic levity that makes the harsher messages go down and the protagonist is from our modern point of view not likeable enough for us to root for him. The result is a movie that flounders and fail to engage me as much as it is obviously intended.

Central to the movie is Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney). He works at a factory in Nottingham and has only one concern in his life: To enjoy himself as much as possible. In fact his entire existence centers on that objective. The job is the means to it and the girls are the targets that bring him that gratification. He is way to self-centered to be concerned with other people and would mock or harass then without a flinch if it would make him laugh. Much of his escapades takes place over the weekends, hence the name of the move, though are not restricted to it.

Arthur is having an affair with the wife (Rachel Roberts as Brenda) of one of his colleagues at the factory, a nice fellow who Arthur actually likes. Arthur and Brenda does a lot of illicit humping (another first for British cinema!), but that does not stop Arthur for hitting on other girls. One day he meets Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) and he moves straight into action. Doreen is way above his level, not economically, but in terms of integrity and sheer human quality and should by all rights be unattainable for a scumbag like Arthur. Yet Doreen gets charmed and they start a relationship in parallel to his relationship with Brenda.

Then two things happen. Brenda gets pregnant with Arthurs child and Doreen would like to get their relationship more into the open. The seriousness of both hits Arthur like a hammer. To his credit he obliges both, helps Brenda with support to get an abortion (which she eventually does not go through with) and he gets serious with Doreen. The consequence is that he gets caught in his double game. In the dramatic scenes at the fair I am so certain that his entire world will come crashing down spectacularly, but the only thing that really happens is that he gets beaten up by the friends of Brenda’s husband. The rest is handled by some well-placed lies. Doreen seem not to mind, Brenda is out of his life and even her husband is happy to let it pass.

To watch a guy who is essentially an asshole get off so easy is frankly disappointing, not to mention that the climactic scenes actually fizzle. I had expected things to get a lot worse. The real penalty for Arthur seems to be that Doreen has tamed him and let him into a life of home and marriage and some degree of respectability, the antithesis of his previous prerogatives.

If Arthur had been funny or at least his pranks had been fun rather than mean and egoistic this could have been an enjoyable movie in line with its counterparts thirty years later. Instead I get increasingly irritated by Arthur’s irresponsibility and also maybe I also feel it is a bit unfair that he gets a nice girl like Doreen considering that he absolutely does not deserve her. The world is not fair, but it is annoying to be reminded of it.

I admit it is refreshing to see a different population segment than the usual, but that would probably be more appreciated by a local audience, not to mention an audience in 1960, where such things were very unusual. The same goes for youth rebellion. It is a timeless theme, but more of a novelty in 1960.  

All in all this is a movie whose quality is its significance in movie history, for what it set in motion, but not for what it brings an audience today. Everything interesting here really relates to the historic aspect. And then of course Doreen. She is a surprisingly pretty girl.