Thursday 26 July 2018

The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na Korze) (1965)

Butikken på hovedgaden
It has been a long while since my last post. Over the past month I have been busy relocating back to Denmark after six years in Israel. My family and I have now moved into a not so big, but very nice apartment in Copenhagen and although it is largely empty, most of our possessions are taking a pleasant cruise on the Atlantic in a container, I am slowly starting to watch movies again.

The first movie in my new home is the Czechoslovakian movie “The Shop on Main Street” (Obchod na korze). A movie I knew absolutely nothing about, but which appears to be incredibly famous. It won “Best Foreign Language movie” in 1965 and is mentioned as being the most famous movie to come out of Czechoslovakia. Or certainly out of Slovakia.

It is a low-key movie about a humble carpenter, Tono (Jozef Kroner), in a small Slovakian town in 1942. Tono lives a quiet life, happy making furniture or going around with his dog. The main problem in his life is that he is being pestered by his wife Evelina (Hana Slivková), who wants more in life, particularly money, status and the lifestyle of her sister Ruzena (Elena Pappová-Zvaríková), the wife of the town commandant Markus (František Zvarík). Markus’ position in the SS equivalent Hlinka guard makes him a powerful and wealthy man and Tono hates him with a vengeance.

As part of the prosecution of the Jews in town, all their businesses are assigned an “Aryan controller” and Markus is assigning Tono as Aryan controller of a button shop belonging to the elderly Mrs. Lautman (Ida Kamińska). While Evelina considers this a gold mine, Tono is more reluctant and he soon finds that Mrs. Lautman is a sweet old lady, half deaf and somewhat senile, who has little idea about what is going on. The shop is a scam to keep her happy while in reality she is supported by the Jewish community. Tono finds that he likes her and his role of taking care of her so instead of plundering her shop he helps her and fixes her furniture.

All that comes to a sudden end when the Jews are rounded up and sent to the extermination camps and Tono finds himself in a pinch: Help the old lady and be hunted as a Jew-lover or send her to her death.

This is a holocaust movie, but a different kind than the usual ones. There are no big numbers here, instead we meet regular folks caught in the horrors of the genocide. Tono is an every-guy, who wants to stay out of politics, but are forced to take a stand. An impossible stand as it turns out. He can be an accomplice to the genocide or he can try to follow his conscience at the cost of his own life. For a hero this may sound like an easy choice, but for a regular dude this is not easy at all. He just wants to go away, be somewhere else, but he cannot. As such he represents the typical central European population during the war.

This personal touch also makes the movie more moving and heartbreaking than the typical holocaust movie. I understand the people, they are real people, even the bad ones, and the monumental disaster becomes personal. Mrs. Lautman does not deserve to die. The boy Danko does not deserve to die and as Mr. Katz, the barber, says, “When the authorities prosecute the innocent then it is the end of it”. The rounding up of the Jews is in very real terms the Armageddon, the collapse of the normal world.

It is this particular angle that makes “The Shop on Main Street” stand out. The normal, cozy world of real people that collides with the lowest of human evilness. Everything in the cinematography supports this: The town setting, the low-key home of Tono, the casual life they lead and the adorable Mrs. Lautman. The music has folk elements that are replaced by an alarming violin. The lighting changes from sun-bathed pleasantness to stark black and white desolation.

I was very pleased with this movie, it is a great and moving film to watch, but also heartbreaking as an effective Holocaust movie is supposed to be. This is not my favorite genre and less so as I get older, but this is definitely one to see and not just for its message. Highly recommended.


Sunday 8 July 2018

Vinyl (1965)

1964 is now officially over for me and my movie calendar says 1965. It is also about a week until I am moving back to Denmark with my family. Busy days!

First movie of 1965 is Andy Warhol’s “Vinyl”.

If you are into sadomasochistic gay sex this is likely something for you. Sadly, sadomasochistic gay sex is not my thing and that leaves… very little.

“Vinyl” is supposed to be a pre-Kubrick take on “A Clockwork Orange”, but you could have fooled me. I did not perceive any story at all. What we do get is a one-hour movie consisting of two camera positions. The first, lasting about 80% of the movie has a sadomasochistic séance in the background (not so much sex though, they a mostly just torturing the poor fellow) while in the foreground a dude called JD is first making an obscure speech, then is being the subject of another sadomasochistic séance led by a dude called The Doctor. Again not so much sex, mostly torture, humiliation and sexual undertones. All the while a girl is sitting on the right side of the picture doing… nothing. To call her an observer is too gracious. She is just there, looking as if she is wondering why she is there at all.

There is dialogue, but it is a declamatory dialogue that makes little sense and I tuned it out completely. I do not remember a single line.

At some point the camera zoom in on JD, but nothing else changes.

There is music and it is actually good music. The only redeeming feature of the movie, but exactly what the role of this music is I do not know. It is just there.

In art exhibitions Warhol is a big name and his paintings and installations are both interesting and influential, but if “Vinyl” is typical for his movie production then I would say that they miss the mark. I could do without.

Thankfully there are no free-flying dicks in “Vinyl”, but that seems merely a coincidence. Otherwise this movie follows pretty well the path setup by the List editors for underground gay movies. I get that there must be something for the LGBT community and that Warhol is a pretty big name, but for crying out loud, there must be something better than this.


Monday 2 July 2018

The Demon (Onibaba) (1964)

The final movie of 1964 is the Japanese movie “Onibaba” and again Japanese cinema is bent on impressing me. “Onibaba” is one of the best movies in 1964.

I cannot say I entirely understand the movie, there are layers here that are inaccessible for me, but even at face value this movie is awesome.

In a distant Japanese past the country is engulfed in a lengthy civil war. That happened a few times in Japanese history, but the circumstances are not so important. In this war an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter in law, the younger woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are hiding out in a large field of tall and dense susuki grass. Their livelihood is to trap and kill soldiers who seek refuge or get lost in the field. They strip the dead soldiers of armor and weapons and sell then to a shady dealer for basic foodstuff. The two women are never named, but they are crafty women, bent on survival and doing a good job at that in a difficult time.

One day their neighbor Hachi (Kei Satō) returns. He left some time ago with the son and husband of the two women and were drafted into the war. Eventually they were assaulted by farmers who had the audacity to defend their possessions from plundering soldiers and the younger woman’s husband was killed. Hachi made it home alone.

Hachi is not a great guy. Not objectively. Pretty disgusting actually. The older woman hates his guts for coming home without her son, but the younger woman is attracted to him because he is… well… a man.  Soon they are forming a very sexual relationship behind the back of the fuming older woman.

One fateful night the older woman finds a way to scare her daughter in law into compliance when she finds a demonic mask. Only, this is not just a mask. It is a truly demonic mask…

There is a lot to love about this movie. Kaneto Shindo, the director, had his own production company, so he could ignore all the usual strictures on Japanese movies and film the story in a raw, brutal and direct style that gives the film an impact outside the usual scale for the period. The war is brutal, killing is easy and lives are cheap. The callousness with which human lives are dispensed with for simply livelihood is shocking, but also very convincing. In a very cold place we can understand the simple logic behind the actions of these two women.

This also goes for the raw sexuality between Hachi and the younger woman. There is not so much to explain: there is a woman and man, they have a sexual craving and they act on it. Is it good or bad? The older woman is against it, but not so much from a moral point of view, but because she hates his guts and wants to keep the girl for herself. To her, Hachi is a rival. We see everything, not because we are Peeping Toms, but because the style is raw and blunt.

Then there is the horror element. Life in the susuki grass field is pretty horrific, but the demonic mask adds another element. It gets stuck to face of the wearer and transforms the face to the horrific deformities suffered by nuclear attack victims. I am not entirely sure of the meaning of this. Could it be that the demonic mask unveils the monster beneath? Or that beneath demonic behavior and faces are vulnerable and scarred human beings? Not sure, but regardless the effect of the mask is terrifying.

Nobuko Otowa is awesome as the older woman and she would have been my suggestion for a Best Actress in 1964. If for no other reason, watch this movie for her.

Absolutely recommended, one of the best movies of 1964, and that concludes 1964 for me.