Wednesday 27 September 2017

Keeper of Promises (O Pagador de Promessas) (1962)

O Pagador de Promessas
Religious movies, or movies with strong religious themes, are often problematic for me to watch. Not because I dislike them, though I sometimes do, but because I feel they are talking past me. Like watching a movie referencing a culture I am not familiar with. Oh, I know about religion of course, but there are numerous concepts that only a true believer or one deeply embedded in the culture will truly understand.

And so a movie like “O Pagador de Promessas” or “Keeper of Promises” is aimed at somebody else than me and I am a bit sidelined with only a partial understanding of what is going on.

A man, Ze (Leonardo Villar) arrives in Salvador, Brazil, with a huge cross on his shoulder and his wife in tow. It is the middle of the night and the church, which is their destination is not yet open. Ze and his wife, Rosa (Gloria Menezes) have walked all the way from their village to keep a promise to Santa Barbara. When Ze’s donkey fell ill only prayer to Santa Barbara worked and to give thanks Ze has promised to bring this huge cross to Santa Barbara’s church in Salvador.

Fairly simple, right? Or so you should think.

It turns out to be way more complicated. When the priest (Dionisio Azevedo) arrives, he will have none of it. The primary reason being that Ze actually made the promise to someone called Inanza, or something like that, in a witchcraft ceremony. In that particular sect Inanza is an incarnation of Santa Barbara and the witchcraft and catholic church are there meshed together. Not so in Salvador and the priest will not allow any connection to witchcraft in the church. Ze however is stubborn. He made a promise and he intends to keep it so he stays. This is where the situation turns crazy.

A pimp manages to seduce Rosa and turns the police onto Ze to get him out of the picture. A journalist sees a story in the making and makes a big thing out of it. Locals see Ze as a rebel against establishment and rally around him and desperate people converge on him, seeing him as a saint with holy powers. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Ze is constantly being used, abused, misunderstood and ridiculed and he just wants to keep his promise.

This all sounds very familiar. I am sure I have seen very similar movies before. “Ace in the Hole” comes to mind, but also “Life of Brian”. Obviously the movie is aiming at the exploitation of the naïve and of real faith versus institutionalized faith, but for me it actually seems to be about the absurdity of religion. Everything spins so horribly out of control because people get carried away by their convictions. This is why I write that I do not feel properly dressed for watching this movie. I do not understand what drives these people. A little flexibility all round would go a long way to defuse this situation, but instead the characters come out as caricatures, extreme and one-dimensional characters who serve the purpose to prove a point.

Because of this artificial sense I cannot say that I truly like the movie, but I suspect it is more a matter of me not understanding it well enough. It was nominated for an Academy award and won the Palme d’Or in Cannes so somebody obviously got more out of it than I did. What I did get is what I usually appreciate in movies from “exotic” (read: different from the usual) places, the window it provides into a very different world. Brazil is to me a very exotic place. I have been there twice and what strikes me is how extremely diverse a place it is. From north to south, from rich to poor, countryside to the city. This is something you also see in this movie and maybe it is actually the fundamental theme of the movie.


Tuesday 19 September 2017

Harakiri (1962)

Off-List: Harakiri
For the second time in 1962 I am leaving the List and adding an entry of my own. Again it is a Japanese movie, “Harakiri” by Masaki Kobayashi, and again the theme is the samurai of feudal Japan. Thank you to Bea for recommending this one. There were times during the viewing where I was doubting your judgement but it did win me over. This is a tough movie to watch, but also an intelligent and beautiful movie.

“Harakiri” takes place in 1630 at a time following the civil war period where the shogunate is so firmly established that the need for warriors has all but disappeared. Where the samurai warrior caste had their glory days during the civil war, they are now practically useless. A practice has started where unemployed samurai, ronin, will approach the compounds of leading clans and ask to be permitted to commit ritual suicide, seppuku, in their attendance in the hope to be turned away with some money or be employed through their show of commitment to Bushido, the warrior code.

When Tsugumu Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) shows up at the Iyi clan and ask to do seppuku in their forecourt, the master of the compound, Saito Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni) is exasperated by yet another one and decides to tell him the story of the previous applicant in the hope of deterring him. The story is about a young samurai called Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama) who came asking doing seppuku. Instead of turning him away with money they decided to take him on the word. This will generate respect for the Iyi clan and deter other beggars. It is soon clear that Chijiwa has no intention of committing seppuku, that he was merely a beggar. Even his swords are just for show, they are made of bamboo. Still Saito is showing no mercy and forces Chijiwa to commit seppuku on his bamboo swords, a gruesome sight.

This does not deter Tsugumu, but as they prepare for the ritual Tsugumu is holding off the procedure by telling the assembled retainers a terrible story. One that will turn the story upside down and tear the bushido code and samurai pride to pieces.

Chijiwa’s seppuku is a very graphic and truly horrible affair. Not pleasant at all. Yet the true horror is the fate of Tsugumu’s little family, especially the sickness and death of his grandchild, the toddler Kingo. This is heartbreaking in the extreme, but not played for sentimentality. At this point I was wondering if I really wanted to watch this.

Still, the message is so clever and subtle in the way it is introduced as well as brutal in its finale. The samurai pride that all samurai are trained to value and the Iyi clan is representing is just bullshit compared to the raw necessities of life. Providing for your family, treating sick children, being able to get work, that is what is important, this is what creates value. Who cares a flying fart about a samurai’s stoic pride in the face or hardship? The Iyi are exposed as the hypocrites they are and shown that they live on a lie. Something I suppose was sinking in in postwar Japan. Certainly it is easy to find parallels in contemporary Japan with jobseekers facing the big zaibatsu conglomerates with their ideals and work codes.

The impression that lingers though, is the beauty of the pictures, many of which are so serene that they are almost stylized. When an entire group of samurai are sitting entirely still in an immaculate courtyard surrounded clean-lined Japanese architecture it feels like a representation of Zen, of perfect balance and order. Yet outside samurai reality the real world is a chaotic place and when the two crash the visual impact is astounding. Often I felt that I could just stare at the images and enjoy them and be happy with that.

Thank you again, Bea, for introducing me to this movie. It is really a movie like no other and one that I am very happy to have seen.  

Thursday 14 September 2017

Lolita (1962)

Lolita is one of those very loaded names that bring up very strong connotations. Almost anybody will think of an underage girl having a sexual relationship with a much older man and nobody would use that name except to bring up that specific association. I never saw “Lolita”, the movie, before, but I knew exactly what a Lolita is.

I have mentioned before that to me true horror is abuse of children and pedophilia is one of the worst kinds of abuse. Knowing that “Lolita” would very much be about pedophilia I was not exactly looking forward to this movie. However, Stanley Kubrick is usually good and if anybody can get away with it, he is the man.

He almost did get away with it.

Kubrick turned the focus away from the pedophilic elements and instead made a movie about fools. That makes the story more palatable and even fun, but it is also a very bittersweet movie.

A man with the unlikely name Humbert Humbert (James Mason) rents a room in a house in New Hampshire. Humbert is a professor in literature, British and very well mannered. Next to him the locals, living up to every stereotype Europeans have of Americans, look foolish and simple. A case in particular is the landlady, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). She is loud, crude, entirely tasteless and desperate for another man in her life. Professor Humbert quickly becomes her target. Humbert most of all looks like a guy desperate to get out of her clutches until he sees Charlotte’s underage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). It is love at first sight for Humbert and if he has to work through the mother so be it.

This soon becomes a very unhealthy infatuation and when the pedophile screenwriter and local celebrity, Peter Quilty (Peter Sellers) also notices and desires Lolita, things spin entirely out of control.

I mentioned that this is mainly a movie about fools. For a large part the Haze mother and daughter and indeed the entire community play the roles as fools. Humbert does not go so far as to mock them, but he does not have to. Next to him they all look primitive and foolish. That Humbert plays Charlotte to get to Lolita just emphasizes this. Peter Sellers with his trademark impersonations steps up the fooling element, both because he fools Humbert and because he simply is that far out. Image Dr. Strangelove appearing in a romantic drama and you got the picture. It is almost too much.

However the biggest fool is Humbert himself. He is fooling himself to think that he can have a relationship to an underage girl. Even as it becomes painfully apparent that they have absolutely no common ground and she can only see him as a father and barely that, does he persist. He simply refuses to accept the idiocy of it, it not the appropriateness. Only at the very end does reality catch up with him and as it does, it destroys him.

I admit that it is fun to watch idiots exposed. There is wry humor to that, but here it is strangely juxtaposed to the horror of pedophilia. Humbert is a sad character and Quilty, behind the crazy stunts, is quite a monster. I am not sure these are things to be made fun of and I feel quite guilty for liking the movie. It certainly walks a tightrope and I am not sure it always keeps the balance. Kubrick would later return to this awkward balance between the inappropriate and the entertaining, so I supposed it fascinated him. It certainly makes for interesting and different movies.

It is too soon for me to pass judgement on “Lolita”. The fun and the bad taste in my mouth are still struggling for supremacy. Time will tell where it tips. Still there is no doubt that Kubrick gave himself an almost impossible task and got away with it better that almost any other director would.


Monday 4 September 2017

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Kandidaten fra Manchuriet
I did not expect to be blown away by ”The Manchurian Candidate”. I really did not, but I was. I had no idea they produced something like this in 1962. Wow.

Tight pacing, brutal violence and twisted plots are stables today, but not back then, not to this extent, and that was only the beginning. I am not sure how to describe “The Manchurian Candidate”, but something like a modern action thriller that happens to be 55 years old and in black and white would probably be a good approximation.

To explain the plot is to give away the surprises, so I will try to be gentle. In fact I did not understand what went on to begin with and that, I think, is intentional. During the Korean war an American patrol is betrayed by its Korean guide and taken away in Russian helicopters. A war hero, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), returns to a grand reception, which is usurped by his mother (Angela Lansbury) and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) for political promotion. Raymond hates his mother and immediately leaves for a newspaper job in New York rather than being her trophy. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has recurring nightmares of attending a New Jersey gardening lecture only to have the guests turn into Russian and Chinese top brass and featuring Raymond Shaw coldly killing two of his men, with Marco unable to interfere.

Where does this all lead to? I can say as much as this includes communist moles, ugly politics, insane McCarthy’ism and people who are not what they seem. Sometimes they do not even know themselves what they are.

The theme of McCarthyism is particularly interesting. In 1962 America was slowly recovering after the onslaught of McCarthyism. Blacklisted writers were slowly coming back and while the Communist scare was by no means over a somewhat more realistic outlook was taking hold and it was possible to look back on this era with a critical eye. Senator Iselin is clearly a McCarthy caricature. Ignorant and boisterous he was able to cash in on the Communist scare by claiming that the US government was infested by Communist agents. While presenting Iselin as a clown and his accusations as foolish and damaging, the center of the story is exactly Communist infiltration with dangerous agents. A very interesting contraction, but quite logical when you think about it. Would infiltrating agents really go around as party card holders, publicly announcing their stand?

Another interesting element is the sheer violence displayed. Here is a movie, fifty years before Game of Thrones, that is not afraid of killing principal characters. You sit there thinking, he is not going to kill him/her/them, no way, but he does and callously so. It is quite shocking because it is so unexpected. And that is where the gravity sinks in. This is not for children.

You cannot discuss “The Manchurian Candidate” without mentioning the excellent casting and performance of the lead actors. Sinatra is always good, nothing new there, but Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury are phenomenal. Harvey turns cold as a fish and can be both determined and dazed with conviction and Lansbury is one of the all-time meanest mother figures and pulls it off. It is a crowded field of bad mothers in Hollywood productions, but she is up there.

Still the winners are the tight pacing and the script that combine to keep the suspense level high and give the movie a uniquely sinister feel. This is a movie that managed to keep me on the edge of my seat, literally.

It is not perfect, though. As often happens some of the steam comes off towards the end as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It is as if without the mystery element the movie is reduced. Mrs. Iselin is best when we suspect, rather than when we know. The movie is rushing toward a resolution that seems too cheap considering what we were promised. There are larger mysteries here, at least potentially, that I feel cheated from. It is not enough to ruin the movie and I could throw the same accusation at half the productions coming out of Hollywood today. Still it is such a shame, this is so close.

“The Manchurian Candidate” was remade in 2004 and no surprise there. This is an exciting story begging to be reused by a Hollywood down on ideas. I have not seen that one and frankly I do not need to. The original is easily good enough. Even today.