Saturday 26 May 2018

I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1964)

I Am Cuba
The third off-list movie of 1964 is “I Am Cuba” (“Soy Cuba”). This movie was recommended to me (thanks Bea!) particularly for the camera work and that is also the main draw of the movie.

“I am Cuba” is a propaganda movie in support of the Cuban revolution. This had taken place just a few years before and I suppose the Cuban revolutionary leadership felt a need to justify and celebrate their take over. At this time, having kicked out American interests, Cuba was isolated and had turned toward the Soviet Union for support, and this included a Russian film crew with very good credentials.

The team, led by Mikhail Kalatozov, were already famous for their filming techniques and their tracking shot, super-wide angle close ups and super sharp infrared shots were perfected on Cuba. This makes “I Am Cuba” very interesting from a technical point of view. It also lifts what would otherwise be ham-fisted propaganda into something more easily digestible.

That is of course the problem with any propaganda movie. There is a very clear intent and that intent must be perceived by even the densest and illiterate viewer. This tends to make propaganda movies very one-dimensional to the extent of oversimplifying the issues and they easily appear stupid. “I Am Cuba” tries to walk that balance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it plumbs into the propaganda traps, but even in the worst moments the cinematography saves it.

There is no over-all story, but rather four vignettes with that in common that they all relate to the revolution.

The first is about rich Americans flouting their money and corrupting the local population. Obviously, the intent is to make the Americans look like assholes and it is difficult not to be upset at the difference between the upscale tourist sites and the slums.

The second features a poor farmer who works his sugarcane plot with his children. His hard, but rewarding, labor is interrupted when the landowner shows up to tell him he sold the land to United Fruit so he can piss off. The farmer sees his livelihood stripped away in an eyeblink and in desperation sets everything to the torch.

Then, back in Havana, we follow Enrique, a student presumably, who first saves a lady in distress from brutish American navy-men, then joins a demonstration against the corrupt government only to be shot down as a martyr.

Finally a farmer family in a remote, rebel controlled area gets bombed, killing one of the children in what I consider a huge cinematic faux-pas (you do not kill children in movies!). As a result, the husband joins the revolution, marching towards a glorious victory over the evil capitalists with a lot of flag-waving.

It is a movie with no grey zones, no room for doubt, there are the good guys, the revolutionary, and the bad guys, the corrupt elite backed by America. It is a simple choice between joining the revolution or being screwed over. As a viewer suffering hardships it is an effective movie that serves its propagandistic purpose and even as a neutral viewer I sit back thinking that if I lived in such a divisive and corrupt country I would not find it hard to place my sympathies, even if I cannot approve of the means to the end.

The Danish model is a little different. In 1849 a group of civilians representing the population (male and bourgeois, admittedly) got an audience with the king and demanded constitutional monarchy and parliamentary rule to which the king answered “okay” (in 1849 wording) and on June 5th we celebrate the founding law (Grundloven) of 1849. Not a single shot fired.

Content-wise “I am Cuba” can be a hard swallow and the killing of a child in the end was awful, but the photography alone makes this a remarkable movie and it deserves interest for this reason alone. I could see it replace a few movies in 1964.

Friday 11 May 2018

Gertrud (1964)

This next movie on the List, Gertrud, is a Danish movie and it is not a special entry on the Danish version, but a real bona fide official List entry. I should be excited.

Well, the reason this movie is on the list is not because is absolutely awesome, but because it was made by Carl Th. Dreyer, one of those directors the List editors are nuts about. He did make both “Jeanne d’Arc” and “Ordet”, but sadly “Gertrud” is not in the same league.

The titular character Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is married to the successful lawyer Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe) around the turn of the century. Gertrud is unhappy in her marriage and wants to leave her husband. This comes as a surprise to him, just before he is to be named a member of the prime minister’s government. He, correctly, suspects there is another man in Gertrud’s life.

Gertrud wants to leave her husband because she requires 100% commitment in love. Love for her cannot be shared with love for work and as her husband cares about his work Gertrud is disappointed. She has found a young lover, a composer (Baard Owe) with whom she imagines she has found love. Except Erland, as is his name, does not take it anywhere as serious as she does and is taken aback when she declares she has left her husband for him. Needless to say this is not good enough for Gertrud.

Then Gertrud meets up with an old flame Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode, Nina Pens real life husband), a famous poet, who wants to mend things and get back with her, but Gertrud is refusing. Back when they where together she had found a frustrated note from him that seemed to prove that he could not commit 100% to her, so, too bad, that train has gone. Instead Gertrud grows old alone.

There are a number of issues with this movie. The most immediate one is the style of acting (and filming for that matter). In a typical scene you would have two people talking to each other but looking away in opposite directions. The speak would be slow, cold and artificial as if they were robots. It is actually funny, at least in the beginning, because the topics and the words are very honest and intimate and so at odds with the delivery. I found myself laughing a number of times, especially in a priceless scene in the beginning where Gertrud and Gustav are having one of these cold and stilted conversation only to be broken by a doorbell and Gustav breaking the style by exclaiming “Årh for pokker, det er mamy!” (“Dammit, that’s my mother!). I was in tears.

No, as the movie wears on, this style gets very old. Gertrud is the carrier of the style, whenever she speaks she turns into a robot and being the main character, she is in almost every scene.

A second issue is the theme. I believe we are supposed to sympathize with Gertrud in her search for 100% commitment to love, but I cannot help being annoyed. Who does she think she is to monopolize the attention of her men. If it was only that they should not have other women I could well understand that, but Gertrud do not want to share her men’s passion with anything, work, hobbies anything. She demands complete attention and commitment. To me that sounds like a prison, an impossible romantic dream far removed from reality.

Add to this that Gertrud is about as unattractive as possible. Her cold demeanor, her rejective attitude and ghost like appearance, but most of all her complete lack of understanding of her men and it becomes almost comical that they should desire her so much.

Alas, despite, or maybe because, of all this I smiled and laughed a lot more than I had anticipated. When Axel Strøbye appears as Axel Nygren I am all smiles. He is (together with Ole Thestrup) my favorite Danish Actor and not even Dreyer can curb this wonderful actor.

I cannot honestly say I liked this movie. I understand what it is trying to do, but I do not sympathize with the idea. I could not care less about Gertrud, the woman, but this is also a case of art going so far in being arty that it becomes comedy. At least for a fellow Dane.

Saturday 5 May 2018

Before the Revolution (Prima della Rivoluzione) (1964)

Før revolutionen
This week I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution” (“Prima della rivoluzione”). I finished a few days ago and have spent the intervening period watching the extensive extra material that came along with it. The curious thing is that I remember very little of what actually happened in this movie. Instead what I do recall are fragment of situations that only barely stick together. In desperation I checked on Wikipedia for a synopsis, but it only gives me three lines for the entire story and those three lines pretty much sums up what I do remember. Did I fall asleep? Not sure. Or did my mind simply drift? It is possible. Or maybe this is exactly what this movie is.

That sounds really bad, but I liked it better than that. There was something compelling about this movie, something that did feel refreshing even as I got lost in it. Apparently it adheres to the French New Wave style for better or worse. That does make it interesting technically, but also means that it gives up on a normal narrative. As a casual viewer that can be a frustrating experience.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man, maybe 18 or so years old of the upper middle class in Parma, Italy. He really wants to be a communist and relate to the proletariat, but his commitment has some difficulty getting beyond the academic level. In the beginning he has a conversation with his friend Agostino, who then dies, drowning in the river. Fabrizio takes this pretty badly. Then Fabrizio meets his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), who is ten years older than Fabrizio, but in many ways act as if she was 5 years younger than him. The to of them engage in a stormy sexual relationship, but eventually that ends, and Gina goes back to Milano. Fabrizio gives up on his communist dreams and marry a girl of his own class.

The two main characters are of course Fabrizio and Gina and what they share is a deep confusion of who they are and what to do with their lives. I suppose that is common enough, most teenagers go through a confusion phase. The special thing here is how extreme it plays out. Fabrizio feels shackled by the expectations to him due to his family background and rebels by embracing, trying to embrace, the opposite position, the communists, though eventually he realizes he is actually fighting himself. Gina has similar issues embracing the persona she is supposed to be and shy away from personal responsibility and conventions. Both are very emotional types who are thrown completely off by their confusion and maybe it is this that draws them to each other. A sexual relationship with your 10 year older aunt/ 10 year younger nephew is about as anti-convention as it gets. It is also extremely icky and I had to double check that I had understood it right that Gina is not some remote acquaintance, but really his aunt! Wow.

The title of the movie is a bit mysterious. There is a reference to it, that people like Fabrizio always seems to live the years before the revolution. I am still not entirely sure what that means, but maybe a reference to the last years of depravity of the upper class just before, say, the French or the Russian revolutions, that he feels the push from below that this is wrong. Beyond that I do not know.

The Book makes a lot out of that Bertolucci was very young when he made this movie and I suppose that is remarkable. What that does to the movie is that it makes it feel young and fresh and that I suppose is a quality of its own.

There is a part of me who wants to dislike this movie for its lack of narrative, it incestuous scenes and opaqueness, but mysteriously I found that I actually liked it. Don’t ask me why, I am still trying to process that. Maybe it is the futile rebelliousness of youth it portraits, maybe the refreshing style. Or maybe I just want to like anything Ennio Morricone scores…