Tuesday 31 December 2019

Happy New Year 2020

Happy New Year 2020!
Wow, how did that happen? Is it really already New Year again?

The calendar says so, it must be true then, but, man, did that year slip by fast?

Being that time of the year, I would like to wish everybody a very happy New Year and indeed a new decade. I am grateful to all of you who, occasionally, have read my blogs and especially to those who have written comments to my posts. It is always great encouragement with that sort of attention.

I suppose I should be doing a list of sorts of the best movies of the decade we are finishing now, but I am hopelessly out of the loop on current movies. The decades I can comment meaningfully on are up until the sixties, so I will skip that and let smarter people do that.

In 2019 I did 63 movies, of which 52 movies were from the List, 9 movies were Off-List and a single movie was so bad I just had to write a post on it. This took me from 1966 to 1969 with just 4 movies left for that year. It is also a step up from last year and I guess this is the amount I can expect in a typical year. Eventually I will get there. I am very happy to have introduced the 3 off-List movies per year though. As I move on there are more and more movies I would wish to include and already for 1970 I feel I will be limiting myself. Then again, I set the rules myself.

My book blog is getting a lot less attention than my movie blog, probably due to me not being much involved in book list communities, but 2019 was actually a good year on reading. I did 6 books for the List which took me from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Clarissa (1748). Not a great span of years, but now the years are more densely populated with books. Clarissa was apparently one of the longest novels in English literature, so I guess it is downhill from now on. The books I read continue to be good and interesting and that is important when you work on a list you know you will never finish.

So, Happy New Year to all of you and may the next decade be a great one.


Monday 30 December 2019

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Den vilde bande
The last movie of 2019 is Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”. It has taken me a while to get through this movie, partly because of Christmas craziness, but also because I am uncertain about what I think of this movie. The blu-ray copy I got came with a lengthy biography on Sam Peckinpah which goes a long way to explain the elements of the movie and indeed his entire career, but it did not make me feel much better about the movie.

What we get here is a gang of outlaws, Pike’s gang or The Wild Bunch. They have specialized in robbing railroads and are looking for that final strike before they, or rather Pike (William Holden), can retire. This is not a group of charming Robin Hood outlaws, but a bunch of brutal, dirty scum, with no scruples at killing innocent bystanders, or indeed each other and a general behavior so uncivilized that barbarians is a honorific. The Book mentions a code of honor, but with the possible exception of Pike himself I could not see it. They are as low as it gets.

Except that the pose chasing them may be even lower. Deke Thornton is a former member of the bunch who is forced by the railroad company to chase The Wild Bunch. To this end the railroad has assigned him a group of absolute lowlifes, who are not only crude barbarians but also incredibly stupid. This group, supposedly upholding the law, has even less scruples killing innocent bystanders in order to collect the bounties on the Bunch members.

When the “last” hit on the railroad turned out to be a setup, costing them half their number, The Bunch seeks shelter in Mexico with the warlord Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) who’s army is fighting, and losing to, Pancho Villa and brutalizing the local population. This general and his army are even worse scum and makes Pike’s gang look like boy scouts. Mapache has a job for Pike, to get him a load of US arms to fight his little war.

And so, we have a three-way setup with bad guys against bad guys against bad guys.

Who do you root for in the ensuing battle? The movie wants us to root for The Wild Bunch but can only do that by setting them up against people who are even worse. Frankly, I disliked every one in this movie with the possible exception of Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and he is betrayed and tortured to death. Early on I decided that the only good outcome was if they all killed each other. Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. So, was that a happy ending? I just felt disgusted.

For a movie in 1969 this is an incredibly violent movie. Even by today’s standard it reminded me of Tarantino on one of his killing sprees. In fact, I would hazard a guess that this is the movie Tarantino wished that he had made. I assume that this raw violence is a large part of its fame, but it does very little for me. Not that I am a prude, but this kind of mass slaughter and insane brutality only leaves me disgusted. I recently finished watching “Breaking Bad” where the violence worked as an adrenaline kick (and what a kick!). In “The Wild Bunch” it just made me want to puke.

If I look beyond the violence and the fact that I disliked everybody in it, I can see how it is intended as a swan song on the Wild West. The Wild Bunch would then be representing the freedom and anarchy of the West, being squeezed by the cruelty of corporate capitalism (the railroad’s pose) and whatever it is Mapache is representing (the devil?). Live free or die…

Production-wise “The Wild Bunch” is top notch. There is nothing wrong with the colors or the sound. Everything is beautifully shot and dusty like the desert. Only problem here is that no matter how well Peckinpah tried to frame his picture to get that special cinematography, Sergio Leone had already been there and done it better. Killing a hundred people with blood flying everywhere is no improvement.

I came into “The Wild Bunch” wanting to like this movie and felt satisfied with the production quality I met, but ultimately it left me empty and disgusted. If this was The Wild West, I am happy I am not there.

Speaking of “Breaking Bad” there are actually a lot of parallels to “The Wild Bunch”, but I think I will write a separate post on that one of these days.



Thursday 19 December 2019

In the Year of the Pig (1969)

In the Year of the Pig
“In the Year of the Pig” is a documentary on the clusterfuck that was the Vietnam War. Made in 1968-1969 it came out while the war has in high gear and amidst widespread protests against the US engagement in the war. It is not difficult to imagine that this movie would get a lot of attention and be both embraced and controversial at the same time, depending on your political standpoint.

The documentary is made up of archival footage and interviews with a wide range of experts, politicians and generals. We get a brief, but thorough background of the conflict with the Japanese occupation, the French attempt to hang on to Vietnam, the communist victory at Dien Bien Phu and the cease fire that temporarily separated the country. From then on, the various events that led to a deeper and deeper US involvement is discussed with cross clips between those arguing for more involvement and experts painting a rather different picture.

Obviously, the narrative is political, it could never be anything else, and the story unfolding is that of an elephant in a glass shop. In this narrative the hawks look aggressive and foolish, disconnected from reality on the ground and self-serving. The analysis of the experts on the other hand seems more well considered and in touch with reality, but also benefit from hindsight. Still, given that this is taking place while the war is at its highest it is remarkable how far these experts are in line with the much later analysis of the war.

It is an infuriating story and a very tragic one. Human suffering is everywhere and much of it seems utterly unnecessary. The picture of the burning monk is particularly shocking, but so are pictures of refugee children and dead soldiers too. War is an ugly business and when you then learn that much of this was done because a corrupt government had to be propped up to prevent the communists from taking over the country, it is also infuriating.

Yet, it is also clear from the documentary that it was not one single decision, but a succession of choices where one led to the next until the situation became intolerable but also very difficult to back down from. At least not without invalidating all the previous decisions.

It is a clever documentary and a lot more sober than I had expected. It is cool and detached rather than shrill in the analysis, and let the pictures tell the dramatic story. There is no mockumentary here and I think that is why it works so will. I feel I get smarter from watching it. I remember learning about the Vietnam War in high school and that was much the same picture, yet there is some much more detail here and background information. Certainly enough to understand that the best course of action would be get out of there as soon as possible and let the Vietnamese work it out themselves. Later, after this documentary was released, it was leaked that Pentagon had long known this was a lost battle but was simply afraid of admitting it publicly.

There are countless Vietnam War movies out there and many of them are excellent. I think “In the Year of the Pig” is an excellent introduction to the topic and it provides context to all these movies, whether it is Platoon, Apocalypse Now or The Post.

The relevance for a modern viewer is of course to keep it in mind when considering an activistic foreign policy today. How much do you really want to involve yourself in another country and are you certain you understand what is going on there?

Definitely recommended.


Tuesday 17 December 2019

Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider
There are some movies that have had a major cultural impact and some of these far more than quality of the movie itself seems to justify. “Easy Rider” is such a movie.

This is a low budget movie that seems to have been more or less invented as it was made. No one seems to agree who came up with the script, though Dennis Hopper is mostly credited with directing it. The first attempt at shooting in New Orleans appears to have ended in a drug-induced chaos and second attempt, using somewhat more professional technical staff was essentially a roadshow developing as it went. Or at least that was the impression I got from the behind-the-scenes feature.

All this is quite visible when you watch the movie. It has a laid-back style that does not need to explain anything. Two guys, Wyatt “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are two bikers who make their money smuggling cocaine from Mexico. After their latest haul they decide to go to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. This is the road trip that constitutes the majority of the movie. They encounter a variety of communities and people, all representing parts of the America of the period. There is the traditional farmer and his extended family, a hippie commune and rednecks who hate the counterculture of the era.

Along the way they make friends with the lawyer George (Jack Nicholson) who embraces the freedom of the bikers. With him they have some of the central dialogues of the movie, about how many people hate them because they represent a freedom, they are afraid to embrace and this fear makes them dangerous. Spoken shortly before those rednecks cave in his skull with clubs while he is sleeping.

This is also the essence of “Easy Rider”. It presents the counterculture as a challenge to the traditional America and this America lashes out at them in fear and hatred.

No wonder “Easy Rider” became the rallying point of much of the counterculture and the reference for much that happened in the following years.

Add to this a score that totally embraced the progressive music scene of the time, starting with Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and it is difficult not to be caught up in the wave.

I bought in to the movie 100% and I fully understand the impact this must have had 50 years ago, but for me it was also quite an experience to watch three great actors very early in their careers. Dennis Hopper I had already met in “Cool Hand Luke” and “True Grit”, but this is the earliest film with recently deceased Peter Fonda and the great Jack Nicholson. What is really amazing here is how much they are free-wheeling and totally giving it as doped bikers. Awesome.

The ending of the movie is quite shocking, and I was totally unprepared for it since this was my first viewing. I do not want to spoil it, but when you think about it, it is actually the perfect ending in terms of message, especially when you consider that the characters are named Wyatt (Earp?) and Billy (the Kid?)…

Highly recommended. Not a great technical movie but with plenty of nerve to make up for that.



Sunday 8 December 2019

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Off-List: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The third off-List movie of 1969 is “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, recommended by Bea of Flickers in Time.

This is a movie about a flamboyant and unconventional teacher on a conservative school for girls in Scotland in the 1930’ies and immediately I get associations to movies like “Dead Poet Society” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. That is, of movies with a teacher rebelling against a restrictive or even oppressive school system in order to make the children better people.

Imagine my surprise when I take an instant dislike of the titular Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith).

Miss Brodie is an arrogant and vain woman who is convinced she is in her prime. She uses her class as an adoring audience while she tells them essentially about herself and how wonderful she is. She is playing off two of the male teachers against each other without ever committing to either and she takes on favorite pupils for special outings and attention. Not to mention she is a great fan of Fascism and Mussolini and other great romantic conquerors.

Basically, she fails on every single parameter and I was wondering why we are supposed to see this vain woman as the great reformer of the school system. Especially since the grey and stoic headmistress of the school, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson from “Brief Encounter”!) is actually sweet and quite reasonable. Sure, the pensum is mostly regular knowledge like math and science and reading with the occasional “female activities” like sewing and the color scheme of the school is varieties of grey, but in my poor opinion any of these are better than what Brodie is doing.

When we get into the story, the current Brodie set, Brodie’s favorite girls, consists of Sandy (Pamela Franklin), Monica (Shirley Steedman), Jenny (Diane Grayson) and Mary (Jane Carr). These are the special girls Brodie has hand picked to train for something special, to become “crème-de-la-crème”. To no big surprise though, Brodie’s scheme completely fails and rather than adore her, the girls mock and despise her.

This comes to a head when Mary, inspired by Brodie’s fascist supporting talk, goes to Spain to find her brother, but land on the wrong side since her brother is fighting against the Fascists and is killed. Sandy take it upon herself to put a stop to Brodie and even at that moment Jean Brodie fails to understand just how far off the mark she is.

I started out disliking the movie, but when I finally realized that the movie was not endorsing Miss Brodie but rather warning against her special kind of stupidity, the movie grew on me. It was a sweet moment when she learns how completely she has failed, but it was a hollow sweetness because she entirely fails to grasp the reasons why.

Maggie Smith won the Academy Award for her effort and if that award is given for most annoying voice of the year, I would say it was well earned.

Recommended? Well, I will have to think about that. Maybe eventually, but for the moment I disliked that character too much to endorse the film.


Sunday 1 December 2019

The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1969)

From a political thriller (“Z”) I am moving on to a political gangster movie. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Il conformista (The Conformist)” is a story about a hitman working for the secret police in fascist Italy who is in France in 38 to kill a dissident professor. But it is also, and probably more, the story about the moral aspects of following the system when the system is rotten.

The most remarkable element to this movie is the extent to which it is told in a non-linear form. In fact, it takes non-linearity to a whole new level where you have to keep your focus to make sense of what is going on. The first half of the movie is a blur for me and only in hindsight am I starting to make sense of this part. The problem is that the storyline follows several tracks with flashbacks within flashbacks and with cross clipping that made me dizzy at times.

One track is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant, again!) and the “special agent” (gunman) Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) busy chasing a car. Another is Marcello preparing to marry a girl, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) in order to become a “normal person” and applying for work in the fascist secret police. There is a track where Marcello visits his parents and one from his childhood where he thinks he has killed a man who is making sexual advances on him.

Eventually these tracks coalesce into the story of Marcello proving his place in the secret police by going to Paris on pretense of a honeymoon, but actually to kill his old university professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio).

Marcello is a strange and conflicted character. He is driven by an eagerness to conform to the ideal of a good fascist, with the right opinions and a cynicism that at times seems honest, but at other times seems like an uncomfortable mask. The meeting with the professor and even more, his young wife Anna Quadri (Dominique Sandra) reveals him as being unresolved and fumbling. While pretending to move on as planned toward Manganiello, he also looks like a man desperately searching for a way to avoid the confrontation and preferably to be somewhere else entirely. Especially after he starts a seemingly unmotivated sexual relationship with Anna. This is a part I still do not understand. Does he know her from the past? Were they once an item?

Whether or not he actually regrets the murder, he resigns to the job and let it unfold. Thereby proving to be a good fascist. But what then when fascism is no more? What will he tell himself?

This moral conflict and dilemma in a man who caves into the system is the central point to the movie and reveals Marcello as a weak and spineless man, but maybe not so different from many other people.

The cinematography of “The Conformist” is very impressive. It does an excellent job at reconstructing the thirties and the colors and lighting are used masterfully. Even when I was most confused, I could always lean back and enjoy the pictures.

The sound side was much less impressive. The Italians never used sound stages but dubbed the sound in later. I know this is a common practice even today in many parts of the world, but I never got used to it and the particular feel it gives a movie and I do not think this dubbing worked so well in “The Conformist”. This stands out particularly because the quality of the rest of the movie is so high. It is so obvious that it is not the actor actually speaking and the sound collage is sometimes entirely disconnected from the picture. Quite distracting.

Still, it is one of those movies that keep rummaging around in the head for days after watching it and I am certain a second viewing will make a lot more of it fall into place. Which may be a good idea because there are still too many loose ends for me. Non-linearity should be used carefully.