Monday 25 November 2019

Z (1969)

A central element in most conspiracy theories is that “The Government” is on to something sinister, keeping it secret for the public and going out of its way to cover up for itself. Most conspiracy theories are laughable but then there are those countries where these things are very much reality and sometimes so blatantly that, at least for an outsider, those in power seem act with impunity.

Apparently, Greece was such a place in the sixties and the movie “Z” is about some of the shenanigans of the “deep state” in Greece.

In 1963, the leader of a left leaning pacifist party in Greese, Grigoris Lambrakis, got murdered during a rally in Thessaloniki by an extreme right-wing group acting under the instruction of the army and the police. In the following procedure led by the investigator Christos Sartzetakis, it was revealed how far this conspiracy went into the high ranks of power where a conservative elite wanted to cling to power at all costs. Yet, although exposed, they managed to forgive themselves and hit back at the prosecutors for embarrassing them.

“Z” is in French and appears to be taking place in France, but that is a very thin disguise. In every other aspect it is referring to this case in Greece to the extent that the opening titles state that any resemblance to real characters and events is intentional.

Yves Montand is “The Deputy” (meaning Grigoris Lambrakis) who is visiting “a northern town” for a rally. His team is having difficulty finding a proper venue, clearly the proprietors have been “discouraged” by somebody, but finally they are assigned a lousy locale. The team has been warned that The Deputy may be targeted but the police is treating it indifferently. At the rally the police are present in force and so are a number civilian anti-communist protesters (despite the pacifists are not communists). Already arriving at the venue, The Deputy is his in the head without the police doing anything and when he leaves the venue they finish the job, exactly as the real hit.

When the Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant as the Christos Sartzetakis character) arrives, the case is presented as an accident where a three-wheeled mini-lorry swerved into The Deputy, causing him to fall and hurt his head. The second half of the movie is now the investigation where gradually the official story proposed by the police and army brass falls apart and their, sometimes clumsy, attempts at silencing witnesses are exposed. The Magistrate is not political, he is just doing his job a little too well, but he soon finds himself the target of the deep state who accuses him of being a communist. Yet he prevails. Sort of. As a news report shows at the end, the top brass may have been charged, but they generally went free while the witnesses and indeed all the leading members of the pacifist party either died in unfortunate accidents or disappeared.

“Z” presents itself as a political movie, but I think today we would call it a criminal thriller. What political position condones criminal behavior or blatant suppression of the population? Oh, I am sorry, my mistake, plenty of political systems believe this sort of behavior is defensible and convenient, even today. Then let me rephrase myself: “Z” makes the fighting of a corrupt political system a criminal investigation, treating the brass as what they really are, criminals. The movie does have sympathy for the left, but it is not a leftist movie any more than “All the President’s Men” was. It is simply indignant at what a corrupt regime managed to get away with.

Technically it is a well-made movie. It does not go too far in what could easily have become shrill accusations, but instead when things become grotesque resort to ridicule. In this way the generals and colonels become involuntarily comical in their insistence on protecting the realm.

The Book writes that the suspense is unbearable, but I would not go that far. It is interesting though, and manages well to keep my interest. Definitely a movie to recommend but one you should probably be careful watching in a number of countries even today.   

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Satyricon (Fellini Satyricon) (1969)


It is Fellini time again.

<deep sigh>

Even in his better moments I am a bit apprehensive about his movies. “Satyricon” is in my opinion not one of those better moments and whatever it is, it is not easy.

I am having some trouble describing what I have just been watching. It is something about a young man called Encolpius (Martin Potter), who travel through a number of scenes in an LSD version of ancient Rome. The various scenes do not have a lot connecting them. We never know how one scene turns into the next and most seem to serve as a story on their own. Only Encolpius appears in almost all of them and a common theme is sex. Not love, but an indulgent, self-gratifying obsession with sex. Sex with young boys, prostitutes, orgies, rape, impotence, sex as divinity, sex as depravity, you name it.

Encolpius wants a very young boy called Gitón (Max Born) for some sexy time. His friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) has taken him and sold him to a theater, where they chop a hand off a man to give him a golden hand instead. Encolpius extracts Gitón and takes him home through a brothel, but Gitón prefers to be with Ascyltus. An earthquake ruins the building where Encolpius lives. He attends an orgy with lots of food and half naked women and he is enslaved on a ship. Here he is forced to marry an older man. Then there is a guy who is rehearsing his funeral and another man and wife who free their slaves, send their children away before they kill themselves. Encolpius and Ascyltus movies into their vacated house, finds a slave left in the building and have sexy time in the pool. There is also a battle with a fake minotaur and a goddess who literally creates fire between her legs. 

For me it is a problem that the storyline is as chopped up as it is. The lack of a progressing story reduces the movie to a series of vignettes and very random ones at that. At some point I was not confused any more, just resigned, realizing that I did not care very much. I have no idea what Encolpius wanted except for sex and potency. Boys, girls, young, old, thin, fat, he gets to try it all and so what? There is a feeling that all this sex is not important at all, just a lot of emptiness, and violence, random and casual, is just around the corner.

I also found this weird Roman setting very disconcerting. It did not feel like antiquity or reality of any kind but a depraved dream or a fevered fantasy. It may have been the intention, but it was very unpleasant to watch as if on the verge of vomiting. 

A movie this random and disjointed is obviously aiming at something else than telling a coherent story. The trouble is just that I have not figured out what that is. A psychological theme? A political theme maybe? A search for the meaning of life, looking the wrong places? A Christian denunciation of the heathen hedonism outside Christian moral? Without that key it all feels too random.

The theme of the depravity of ancient Rome as a counterpoint to Christianity is an old and very well-known story. Gibbons work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire rested on the assumption that it was this depravity that ruined the empire and gave rise to Christianity. I have no doubt the early church was busy assigning all sorts of depravity on the foul heathens that prosecuted the early Christians and indeed some of the books surviving to this day are surprisingly raunchy. Maybe Fellini just thought all that was pretty cool.

I think “Satyricon” is mostly for Fellini fans. Not one I would actually recommend to anybody else.


Thursday 14 November 2019

Tænk på et tal (1969)

Off-List: Tænk på et tal

The second off-List movie for 1969 is a Danish movie. For each year I look through the list of releases (yeah, that list is not that long..) to see if there is anything I either know to be good or that I am curious to see. The movie that caught my eye for 1969 was “Tænk på et tal”. It loosely translates to “Think of a number” though I have no idea if it has an international release under a different name than its Danish title.

I do not recall watching it before, but I read the book by Danish author Anders Bodelsen in high school and thought back then that it was a solid crime thriller, good enough that I would like to watch the movie. Fortunately, it was not a miss.

Flemming Borck (Henning Moritzen) is a bank clerk in a small suburban branch. He is a quiet man, lives a lone and is a bit on the boring side. One day he finds a scrapped piece of paper in a bin with a text asking to hand over a lot of money. Flemming is disturbed, but also fascinated that somebody had aborted a robbery of the bank. Convinced that the guy will soon show up again Flemming takes a for him very unusual step. He stashes away a large sum (10.000 Danish kroner) in his lunchbox. When the bandit finally does rob the bank he gets a way with 170.000 kroner, but the bank is missing 180.000 kroner, the difference is in Flemming’s lunch box. Flemming has just managed to steal 10.000 kr, a sum roughly equivalent to 15-20.000 $ today.

Now something unexpected happens. The bandit (Paul Hüttel) has worked out that there was supposed to be 10.000 kr more and that the clerk must have the rest. He starts blackmailing Flemming as he has, correctly, deduced that Flemming is not the most assertive type. Flemming’s attempts to avoid and escape the bandit make up the rest of the story and the conclusion is open ended and chilling.

Forty years before “Breaking Bad” here is a story with many parallels. The ordinary and highly inexperienced guy who turns criminal and end up way over his head. This is also a story with many twists and turns and few people are who they are supposed to be. At the same time the setting is so ordinary that you could see yourself there. The bank and the people there are very recognizable with the usual banter and small intrigues and because of this the extraordinary, when it happens feels so much stronger. 

The story is not without problems though. It is never explained why Flemming steals the money. Is it boredom? Facination? A need to escape? By all appearances Flemming Borck as a type seems to be perfectly suited for his quiet, boring life. Secondly, I do not understand why the bandit returns to extract the last 10.000 kroner. He just got 170.000 kroner, vastly more than the clerk got. By comparison the 10.000 kroner are peanuts. Why risk everything to get them. On top of this he persists even after he gets arrested. He sends his girlfriend, Jane Merrild (Bibi Andersson) after him and later when he gets released, he flies to Tunesia to look for him. Seriously?

As usual when watching old Danish movies, this one boast many of the classic Danish actors, both starring and in smaller parts. Most noteworthy though is it that Swedish Bibi Andersson, whom we normally know as one of Ingmar Bergman’s regulars has one of the leading parts. That was a surprise, but it works fine.

“Tænk på et tal” is a quiet but chilling crime thriller and prospective fans of Nordic noir can begin here. It is worth a watch.


Monday 11 November 2019

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy
The Best Picture 1969 according to the Academy was “Midnight Cowboy”, the first, and probably only, X-rated movie to ever win that coveted award. I think it is safe to say that this movie is a bit outside the usual fare.

“Midnight Cowboy” is a movie by John Schlesinger about a young, and very naïve, Texan man who leaves his job as a dishwasher in Texas to become a hustler in New York. By this is meant male prostitute and Joe Buck (John Voight) is convinced that with his good looks and skills at lovin’, the New York ladies will be queuing up for him. However, with his cowboy attire and hopeless naivety, he is more a joke than anything else and he is soon broke. Helpful in relieving him of his money is a local small-time hustler named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), soon though the two of them strike up a friendship at the bottom of the slums of New York.

It sounds terrible in synopsis, but what makes this story not just bearable but actually interesting and charming is the bittersweet humor pervading it. Joe Buck makes a ridiculous figure in New York, but he is also sweet and gullible and therefore likeable. His attempt at working is so miserable that he ends up paying the lady rather than getting money from her. Ratso is a creep, but he is not without feelings and his desperate need of a friend is gripping. Ratso and Joe are lonely and out of their luck, but they find part of what they are lacking in each other and that is heartwarming and not a little comical given how different an appearance they make.

Hoffman and Voight were both are the very start of their careers here. Hoffman had just come off “The Graduate” and Voight had his breakthrough with “Midnight Cowboy” and there is an energy here belonging to a new generation in Hollywood. It is super interesting to see these actors who later became big stars in these, their early roles. Along same vein, the portrait of New York is a very contemporary 1969 picture with the energy and vitality, but also the trash and slums that was New York of the era. Near the end Buck and Ratso even visit a party that was arranged to appear exactly like Warhol’s Factory. This is no coincidence as Warhol and his group was in fact involved with this scene and many of the characters are Warhol regulars.

Harry Nilsson singing “Everybody’s Talkin’” may be the famous song out of the movie, but John Barry’s theme, discreet as it is, is one of those scores everybody knows even if they cannot put a finger on where it is from. It has been copied a thousand times in small variations, but this one is the real deal. I have been humming it constantly over the weekend and it is not only catchy, but also sets exactly the right tone to this melancholic drama of floundering lives.

This would definitely be one of the better movies of 1969 and I think a bold and surprising but also correct pick of the Academy. It managed to catch a lot of the zeitgeist and seem like the right movie at the right time, yet, surprisingly, it holds up perfectly today.

Oh, about the X-rated thing… an average episode of “Sex and the City” is way more raunchy than this movie ever got.


Tuesday 5 November 2019

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Compared to 1968, the year 1969 looks fairly light weight in terms of great movies. Leafing through the List the one movie that stood out for me in 1969 was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Of course, I am hoping that some of the other titles will be awesome and prove me wrong, but I will be surprised if, at the end of this year I will not pronounce “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” the best movie of 1969.

There are a number of reasons for this of which the premier must be the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I believe this was the first time they were put together and that was one inspired move. There is a chemistry between these two wonderful actors that makes the total far larger than the sum of the parts. The best parts of this movie are those where we just watch these two guys together doing whatever it is they do.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” apparently started a fad for buddy movies, trying to tap into that magic that the constellation of Newman and Redford gave this movie, but not many were as successful at it.

The story of the movie, for, yes, unnecessary as it may seem, there is actually a story here, is of a legendary pair of outlaws in the West who harassed the railroads to the extent that a super posse was formed, eventually pressing the gang to emigrate to South America. Paul Newman is Butch Cassidy, a witty and smart fellow and the brains in the outfit, while Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid, the brooding gunslinger. The have a gang, The Hole in the Wall gang, whom we see plundering trains, but mainly it is just Butch and the Kid and the girl they both loved, Katharine Ross as Etta Place, we follow.

Although these are clearly on the wrong side of the law, there is something incredibly affable about them that it is difficult t be upset with that fact. The train robberies are fun and who feels sorry for a railroad baron? When a sheriff wants to form a posse, nobody is interested and it is hilarious to watch Butch and the Kid sitting upstairs on a porch relaxing while they are listening to the sheriff begging the townspeople to join him.

The super posse changes all that and for a substantial part of the movie they are being chased by the relentless posse. Suddenly it is not as fun being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and they leave for Bolivia. They do try going straight there, but the only thing the know how to do is robbing banks and so it ends the way it must, side by side with guns blazing.

There is an odd intermezzo with domestic bliss before leaving for South America where the three of them are enjoying a quite moment. The oddness is largely due to the choice of scoring. Burt Bacharachs’s  "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is not exactly what you would expect to hear in a western. It is certainly very far from a Morricone scoring, but this is nevertheless the origin of that song. The effect of using this music is to remove the movie from the classical western genre and into something else and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” has more in common with “Thelma and Louise” than John Wayne or Sergio Leone. The western environment is just setting for a movie that is really about freedom and friendship.

And then I have not even commented on the fantastic production value that sets this apart from most other movies of the era.

I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” ages ago, and while I remember liking it, I doubt I was able to fully appreciate it. I am now. Highly recommended.