Monday 24 April 2017

The Pier (La Jetee) (1961)

La Jetée
Older movies often have a problem with pacing. Often they move slowly, too slow for our modern tastes, and drag out a story unnecessarily. “La Jetée” has the opposite problem. It is way too short.

“La Jatée” is a bit of an oddity as it consists exclusively of still and I cannot help thinking that I am looking at a storyboard of a half-finished movie. Fleshed out this would be an excellent movie, but as it is it is way too short and merely a skeleton of what it should be.

A ma has a memory from his childhood of a woman on the pier of Orly airport in Paris. A man rushes towards her and is killed. The world is ruined in an apocalyptic world war and Paris is a radioactive desert. Survivors live underground divided in a master and a slave segment. The masters are making experiments on the slaves in order to send them forward or backward in time to get help. The man with the memory is a successful test subject and manages to get back in time and meet the woman. He befriends her and spends a considerable time with her. Confident in their success the masters now send him to the future where humanity grant him an energy source. Mission accomplished the masters prepare to terminate their test subject, but he is saved by future humanity. He can join them, but asks instead to be sent back to the woman. He finds her on the pier and rushes towards her. As he is killed by an agent of his masters he realizes that this is exactly the scene he remembers watching in his childhood.

This sounds familiar, no?

Years later Terry Gilliam actually fleshed out the story in his “12 Monkeys”. Technically I suppose it was a remake, but can you remake a sketch? Anyway, the similarities are so striking that it feels like the movie “La Jetée” should have been and it is also acknowledged by Terry Gilliam.

Even in its half-finished look “La Jetée” is an interesting little piece of work. The pictures are striking and the apocalyptic feel is exquisite. This mix of slum and high-tech, misery and hope is so well developed that Gilliam in his quirky mind hardly had to improve on it. The black and white photography is reminiscent of concentration camps and with the Nazi doctors and the German mumblings I do not think that is coincidental.

I also like the story a lot. Time travel, as silly as it is, is a favorite theme of mine because of its paradoxes and this is an early example of those paradoxes in play. The position of the “movie” is that ultimately time has a single stream and you cannot really change it, only create loops. No multi-verse or alternative time lines here and philosophically it is also more satisfying. Time travel is such an interruption on reality that it really should be limited.

The biggest problem of “La Jetée” is the short running time. Only 27 minutes! Of those Chris Marker, the director, decided to spend a considerable part idling around on a museum. I could see time running out and they were just looking at animals! I feared that the ending would be rushed and it was. Almost anti-climactically so.

In a sense I do not mind the still image format. It serves its purpose, but maybe for a longer movie it would have been too much. Even then, had the movie spend 15 minutes more on key points this would have felt like a complete movie. The potential for greatness is so big that missing that last step feels almost criminal. Still, I enjoyed it a lot, as I had a feeling I would, and I would definitely recommend it. As introduction in a double feature with “12 Moneys” it would be perfect.


Friday 21 April 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad) (1961)

Ifjor i Marienbad
In 2004 I was in Marienbad and it looked nothing like this…

“Last Year in Marienbad” is a movie I have heard rumors of for a while. It is often mentioned as one of the worst or most challenging or even pointless movies on the List. Certainly not as one of those I should look forward to watch. Going in to this I felt quite a bit of trepidation and my expectations were not high.

Having come through to the other side I can certainly see why this would not be to everybody’s taste. To call it polarizing is probably to give it too much credit, but actually I am not as negatively inclined as I thought I would be.

“Last Year in Marienbad” is an art movie, no doubt about that. It is in fact so arty that at surface value it makes absolutely no sense. A synopsis is virtually impossible and I cannot really go any further than saying that this is a about a man trying to convince a woman that they had an affair the year before, something the woman denies.

So what does the movie actually do for 90 minutes?

There is a lot of narration of the poetic, sort of stilted, kind, about memory and corridors and emotional imprisonment, although much of the narration is lost as it does not seem to make a lot of sense and often does not even match the pictures. All the scenes are inside or outside a baroque castle, sumptuous but cold with a lot of straight lines. The castle is populated by what appears to be guests (a hotel?), but they are immobile or on auto pilot and do not seem to be alive. The only actual characters are two men and a woman. The first man is the one who keeps imploring the woman to remember their affair, while the second, a scary skull like dude, looks like he could be her husband. He is always looming on the side.

The picture is constantly jumping, even when narration or dialogue is continuing. The chronology is random and there is no start nor finish. Well, there is sort of a finish, but I am not sure that is the last we see. Cloths change, especially hers between white and black dresses and we often watch people playing some sort of game with cards, dominos or sticks.

As I said nothing here makes any sense at surface value and trying to perceive some sort of story is a frustrating experience. Art films however is all about what is happening beneath the surface, what it is all supposed to mean and “Last Year in Marienbad” is only different in the sense that it has entirely given up on the surface narrative.

What does it mean then?

I can only guess. According to the extra material there is no official or even majority interpretation of the movie. Instead various people have offered their interpretations and who is to tell which is right?

The crazy thing is that this is what I like about art films. The weirder and opaque the better and this is certainly one of the most mystifying art films I have ever watched. Going through the process of watching it I am helped by stunning photography to get me through to the point where I can start to make my own guesses.

While my interpretation is in no way completely thought through I believe that the woman is the only real character. The first man is a memory lurking just outside conscience, something she may have blocked or repressed and the castle with all its corridors and repetitions is her mental prison. In the extra material they talk about that she could have been a victim of a sexual crime and that sounds plausible to me. The second man certainly looks menacing and capable of terrible things. She seems to have to make a choice between something that may liberate her or staying in her mental prison and her escape depends on remembering.

If I have the patience to watch it again I might completely discard this rough skeleton or be able to flesh it out, but for now it will have to do.

I am certain David Lynch watched “Last Year in Marienbad” before he made “Mulholland Drive”. Those two movies are like siblings, equally frustrating and open to interpretation, but also fascinating to watch.

In a harsher state of mind I would call “Last Year in Marienbad” a very pretentious movie and there is certainly something exclusive and snobbish about it. I know several French teachers from my high school days who would just love it. Yet, I cannot help thinking that this is a very interesting watch and definitely something you are not going to see every day. Recommended? Not to everybody.


Sunday 16 April 2017

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Feber i blodet
The first movie of 1961 is Elia Kazan’s ”Splendor in the Grass”. The movies I watch are now “only” 56 years old, technically, so I am approaching modern times and accordingly expect more modern movies. “Splendor in the Grass” seems to fit the brief being as it is a movie concerned with youth culture, filmed in high quality Technicolor and employing the latest in Method Acting. I should be in for a treat.

There is no arguing the qualities of Splendor in the Grass. The production quality is just about as good as it gets and with all the… not so technically accomplished movies I watched from 1960, this feels like a great leap forward. The colors are super crisp, the settings are nice and detailed and the acting is wonderful. Of course it helps that we get actors like Nathalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his first movie and yes, he is the very same man who presented the wrong Best Picture winner at the latest Oscar show, though not by any fault of his). Youth culture movies was a new phenomenon at this time and Hollywood was still feeling its way into a genre that would eventually become a staple.

In 1961 (or 1962, if you lived far away from Hollywood) this would have been the movie teenagers went to the cinema to watch and I get the impression that its influence was significant.

In fact that there is a lot to love about this movie. Then why is it that I am not completely sold by it?

The problem with “Splendor in the Grass” is that you have to accept the premise that teenage love is the end-all and be-all of everything and being prevented to get the one you love is devastating on all accounts. This is a very romantic notion that Hollywood has endorsed unrestrained for half a century or more and convinced several generations of teenagers is true. Call me terribly unromantic, but I do not buy that premise and stories that depends on this premise tends to leave me cold. Instead I tend to get a bad case of eye-rolling, which means that I would not be your favorite pick to accompany you for a classic tear-jerker.

In the case of this movie it helps that there is a second theme in the form of sexual repression. The young couple are denied not just each other, but also the sexual release. In fact it is hammered through to them that sex is a bad thing, something bad people do, so stay off it. It is far more believable that this denial of human nature would lead to aggression, rebellion and mental collapse. In 61 we were just embarking on the sexual revolution and by setting the clock back some 30 years the movie sets up an environment with enough repression to engender the drama and the crisis, not unlike what Ophüls did by displacing his stories to the 19th century. I doubt this trick was really necessary though, sexual repression exists in many environments to this day, but it may have made the story easier to digest.

Deanie (Natalie Wood) is told that sex is what bad girls do and she can see that the boys want sex so she wants to be a bad girl, but both Bud (Warren Beatty) and her parents want her to be a nice girl, so she gets confused. Bud is coached into distinguish between sex and love and it does not really help him much.

Sexual repression is a powerful agent and had the movie dared go all out on it I am sure I would have liked the movie a lot better than I did. Instead it only goes halfway in that direction and never leaves the crushing teenage love theme. Both Deanie and Bud eventually find their release, but we constantly have to struggle with the ghost of all-encompassing teenage love and it sabotages the movie for me.

That annoys me a great deal because of the potential there is in this movie. The scenes with Deanie and her parents, the best in the entire movie, are so promising. They are so entrenched in their world view that, especially the mother, is constantly misreading her daughter. She means well, but is poison to Deanie. This, far more than the relationship between Bud and Deanie, is the heart of the movie.

“Splendour in the Grass” is not what I would call my kind of movie. It does a lot of things right and has seeds for something great. In the end however it choses another kind of audience than me and for them I have no doubt that it works.


Monday 10 April 2017

Spartacus (1960)

”Spartacus” is one of those movie I am quite familiar with. I watched it back in high school when we had a Roman theme and I remember it as being an exciting movie to watch for a teenage boy with a penchant for antique history, though also that I was disappointed by the ending. I mean, they killed our hero!

It has been many years since then and revisiting “Spartacus” is a mixed pleasure. On some accounts it is better than I remember, but on others I cannot help being disappointed and that surprised me. I did expect it to confirm all my happy memories.

“Spartacus” belongs to a category of sandal and sword monster productions in vogue in the late fifties and early sixties. It was, I suspect, the recognized recipe for a blockbuster and as such it is firing on all cylinders to provide a magnificent spectacle, keeping in mind that all those invested dollars have to be earned back again. It is a long movie, around three hours, in splendid colors and hosting thousands of extras in truly impressive battle scenes. The sets are spectacular with elegant Roman villas, a gladiator school and grand battlefields. Costumes and equipment all look authentic and not least, the cast is first class.

Kirk Douglas is of course the central figure as Spartacus. No wonder, as that is the title character and Douglas was the man behind the movie. He was executive producer and it was his own production company, Bryna that made the movie. However, the actor that steals the picture is Laurence Olivier as Crassus, the Roman senator. Olivier was known as one of the best actors of the era, but I have often been underwhelmed by his appearance and felt his pretentiousness to be in the way of the roles he was playing. Not so in “Spartacus”. Laurence Olivier IS Crassus. I saw a statue of the man and he even looks like Olivier. The Roman arrogance is dripping from him, but not in the sycophantic and effeminate fashion normally associated with arrogance, but from sheer power. This is a man who knows he is better, stronger, richer and more deserving than anybody else. He is Patrician with capital P. Not a small feat, but for Olivier is perfect.

Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and Charles Laughton are all excellent and had it not been for Olivier I would have devoted more space to their praise. Tony Curtis and John Dall seem miscast, Curtis is not believable as a very young effeminate singer and Dall just resembles a country bumpkin from the Midwest, not a Roman general.

Anyway, this is all good, so what is my problem?

The problem is that “Spartacus” is far more interested in promoting a cause than telling an actual story. Never mind all the gimmicks included to please the perceived interests of an audience, that goes with the territory in a big production. I am pleased that for once this is a sword and sandal movie without biblical aspirations. The cause here is the struggle for freedom from an oppressive power. This was the crusade of the western world during the cold war and in 1960 we are right smack in at the height of that conflict. It is not difficult at all to see Spartacus’ slaves as oppressed people in the east block rebelling against the tyrannical and inhuman power of the Soviet. The slaves are freedom loving every-men and women of valor but low birth with a just cause and the Romans are evil, arrogant powermongers with no regard at all for subhuman slaves. This sort of black and white painting is typical Hollywood and ensures that the message gets received, but the actual story suffers greatly because of it.

Romans always gets to be the bad guys in movies. I suppose the Bible and Christian traditions have given the Romans so much bad publicity that they are forever stained in the eyes of the modern public, but when you get down to the core of things the Romans were not worse than anybody else. In fact much of what we admire and strive for are of Roman origin. Trustworthiness, legal justice, peaceful trade, religious freedom and civil comfort are all Roman virtues. Every society in antiquity held slaves. Everybody waged wars and blood-sport was not a Roman invention, tasteless as it is. Frankly, bull fighting is not that far removed from gladiator games.

I found the political battle between Crassus and Gracchus far more interesting this time round and while this is presented as callous political plotting with the slaves as pawns, this is also a window into the Roman conflict between patricians and plebeians and, even more interesting, the struggle between the pluralistic rule of the Senate and the dictatorial rule that eventually would become the empire. This is a super interesting era in Roman history and I gobble up every bit of it and find that the taste of what “Spartacus” serves us is often foul.   

But then again that is not the mission of “Spartacus”. This is about the struggle for freedom and to that end sentiments and aspirations are given to the slaves that I seriously doubt they had. In reality the slave army was not betrayed by Cilician pirates, but chose to stay in Italy to plunder. How is that for noble, freedom seeking every-men?

“Spartacus” is a spectacle and that is what we get. It is entertaining, but it is also hamfisted. I do not see Stanley Kubrick here at all. This is so different from anything he did. But I see a lot of Kirk Douglas and that is also okay. And for the performance of Laurence Olivier I can forgive “Spartacus” anything.