Sunday 29 March 2020

The Ear (Ucho) (1970)

The Ear
The corona virus status for today, 28/3, is that we are still doing fine. So far, we have gotten through this lightly. Otherwise there is not so much to tell. Our health authorities say that the numbers look promising, that we, in Denmark, will get off easier than Italy and that is something.

Today’s movie is the Czech movie “Ucho” (“The Ear”), a movie that was banned is Czechoslovakia immediately upon completion and was only dug out from oblivion in 88 or 89. I perfectly understand why this was banned. The surprise is that it was made at all.

“Ucho” feels like the love child of “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Das Leben der Andern”.

Married couple Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová) return from a party at Prague Castle with the elite in Czech politics. Ludvik is a senior official and therefore part of the privileged class. However, upon their return they find out that their home has been visited and somebody are lurking outside the front gate… Their conclusion is that this can only be the secret police and so start a night of paranoia. Ludvik panics and starts burning everything that can be construed as criminal and when they discover microphones all over the house and realize everything they have said all night is now known to the secret police, they suffer a break down.

Parallel to this story they are having a domestic row, which mostly consists of Anna screaming and shouting accusations and insults and complaints at Ludvik with Ludvik returning with the occasional sarcastic jab. Even when Ludvik realizes that something more sinister than an angry wife is going on Anne is not letting up. Eventually the seriousness of the situation sinks in for Anna and her rantings are briefly let up with concern and even affection, but alas, only briefly.

Ludvik keeps having flashback to the party and eventually all the innocent revelry takes on new and ominous meaning.

The story that nobody is safe in a totalitarian system is unmistakable and while extremely relevant I do wonder how on Earth director and producer managed to get so far as to actually complete the movie before it was intercepted. The criticism of the system in the East Block is so direct and unveiled that you have to be very naïve to believe that this would slip through. The terror and feeling of violated privacy have only been matched by “Das Leben der Andern” 36 years later and even if the topic had been allowed I doubt the establishment would find it comforting to learn that nobody is above the secret police. But then again, probably they already knew that.

The domestic row is, I understand, supposed to be an allegory for the relations between the people and the system, but I do not entirely understand this connection. Instead I found it rather annoying and unpleasant. Where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s venomous jabs were highly entertaining, Anna’s are shrill and annoying. In that I feel almost sympathetic to Ludvik who seems more interested in calming her down than scoring points. Had he slapped her to shut her up I could almost have forgiven him, but then again it felt as if this was exactly what Anna wanted to provoke as if any sort of passion would be better than his disinterest. As far as I could tell his premier crime was that he had forgotten it was their tenth-year anniversary. Life is so unfair…

“Ucho” is highly condensed in that it takes place over a single night, mostly in that single house and except for the flashbacks, with only the two of them, Anna and Ludvik. This allows the movie to be intense and focused. Yet I could not help thinking that we kept going over the same ground with very little progress, mostly in the form of things becoming more or less ominous. Perhaps it was simply me getting impatient with Anna’s screaming but it felt like a longer movie than its 94 minutes running time and that is a shame because the topic and message is remarkable and incredibly daring.

Ultimately the circumstances around the movie and its topic is more interesting than the movie itself, but that is enough to deserve a viewing.


Tuesday 24 March 2020

Little Big Man (1970)

En god dag at dø
Instead of writing a grim story about the advance of the pandemic I want to be a little more optimistic this time. There are limits to how much bad news and dire prospect anybody can take. I keep looking for something positive and I found two things to lift the spirit a little. These days we are following the number of new hospitalizations here in Denmark closely and the rate does seem to get less steep. That is good news because that means the lockdown is working. It is too early to say for certain, but the curve does seem to be bending the right way. Secondly, the hospitals are testing new medicine that may be working. Again, too early to really know, but on the short term, this is what we need.

The movie today is Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man”. Maybe the 1970 movie I have been looking forward to the most. It has been many years since I watched it last, probably not since the nineties. I remember my parents had it on VHS tape recorded from television and watching it again I realized I had forgotten almost everything about it. Even the wry humor of it.

Dustin Hoffman is Jack Crab who, wearing impressive make up, is an ancient man telling his life story to a journalist. That is a story with many episodes and phases, not unlike the later “Forest Gump”. As a child, Jack’s parents were killed by Pawnee Indians and he was adopted by Cheyenne Indians. He developed a close tie to the chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), whom he calls Grandfather. During a skirmish with the Cavalry he was captured and turned “white” again as he was fostered by the strict reverend Pendrake and his promiscuous wife. Jack became assistant to a  fraudulent medicine salesman, turns gunslinger, shopkeeper, got married, lost his wife in a Indian raid, returned to his tribe, got new wives etc.

The returning feature is that he shifts between a life with the Indians who calls themselves Human Beings and Whites who are generally a bunch of dicks. Jack is repeatedly knocked down and bounce back, but the true blows, the massacres against Indians he is witnessing, are not so easy to recover from. While Jack rarely actually does anything, he usually lacks the courage, he is a witness to everything.

What “Little Big Man” does is telling the sad story of the destruction of a people and culture but combining it with an unreliable and comic witness. The combination is bitter-sweet and you never really know whether to laugh or cry. Dustin Hoffman’s Jack Crabb is naïve but curious, a pacifist yet resolute and through his eyes the world is a weird place. The Indian are noble and civilized of mind, while the Whites are low and cunning and not a little stupid. As such it fits the anti-establishment sentiment of the period, finding a parallel between the atrocities against the Indians in the nineteenth century and “imperialist” America’s doings in 1970.

To me it was not so much the politics of the movie but the sheer adventure of Jack Crabb’s life that was the catch. It is fast paced and imaginative, surprising and quirky. At every turn Jack gets involved in something new and it is never boring. Western legends like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer are presented as fools and western tropes are turned upside down. It is very entertaining indeed and the more than two hours of running time passes very quickly. For a tragedy this is really very amusing.

The only negative is that the fun and the silliness sometimes go too far into the ridiculous. It is difficult to believe that Custer was this much of a moron and it feels wrong to laugh with so many slaughtered women and children.  

Still, in the bigger picture this matters little. I would recommend this movie any day, particularly during lockdown.


Tuesday 17 March 2020

A Swedish Love Story (En kärlekshistoria) (1970) and corona

En Kærlighedshistorie
We are now a week into lockdown and while I am personally doing okay, I am used to working from home, the reality of the epidemic is starting to show. Tonight it was announced that malls restaurants, hairdressers etc. will shut down as well. It is getting very quiet around here and at the hospitals the beds are starting to fill. Huge efforts have been made to increase capacity and buy time. Now we will see if it is enough.

To the film… “En Kärlekshistoria” (“A Swedish Lovestory”) is one of the special additions to the Danish edition of the Book. It replaces “Deep End”, which I have previously deplored as a poor choice by the editors. Not that “En Kärlekshistoria” is a bad movie, but I would much rather have ditched “El Topo”. Also, I wonder why the Danish editors found a need to add so many Swedish movies, but they must have thought that there are not enough quality movies from Denmark.

Anyway, “En Kärlekshistoria” is a movie by Roy Andersson, a director who is still active, though there are long and far between his movies. It is one of those movies that are thin on plot but instead serve as a character study. In this case the character must be the country itself in 1970. It seems to take a broad view and presents life as it looks for a group of people representing two families, tied together by a teenage love affair.

This young couple are the prominent characters here. Pär (Rolf Sohlman) is 15 years old and helps out in his father’s garage while Annika (Ann-Sofie Kylin) is “almost 14”. Their love story is exactly as awkward and insecure as you would expect but also sweet and innocent. Only, they are very young. I mean, really young. I kept seeing them as children dabbling in things they are not entirely ready for yet: smoking, drinking, staying out at night and sex. Maybe I am an old prude and the times were different back then (certainly social distance was not a thing…) but I kept feeling icky about them. Annika has not yet anything resembling adult… shapes and Pär has the maturity of, well, a 15 year old boy.

Still, in many ways, their approach to life is far preferable to their elders. Especially Annika’s family is on the verge on melting down and Pär’s is not much better. Annika’s aunt Eva (Anita Lindblom) is in a violent relationship and fluked her dream job. Pär’s grandfather is openly complaining about how lonely he is and Annika’s father, John (Bertil Norström) is disillusioned and suffers a breakdown near the conclusion on the film.

The climax of the movie is a midsummer party at Pär’s parents cottage where Annika’s family are invited. The gaiety is strangely at odds with the meltdown lurking beneath and when John disappear everybody are ready to believe the worst. Except Annika and Pär who are completely oblivious to anything but themselves.

What I liked about this movie was how contemporary it is. It feels like a snapshot of life in Sweden that particular summer. What they do, talk about, drive, eat and worry about. It is not a documentary, but it feels like something close. It has been called social realistic, but instead of zooming in on a particular issue, it aims far wider and becomes more like a panorama. As such a window into a time that was, it is brilliant.

Probably not a movie for everybody, but with a wry, deadpan humor to live it up, I found it more enjoyable that I expected.


Thursday 12 March 2020

Bedroom Mazurka (1970) and Corona

Off-List: Mazurka på sengekanten and a Corona update
I am writing this review on the evening where Denmark has officially shut down due to the Corona virus epidemic. The numbers of infected are increasing exponentially and there is a real fear we might get Italian or Chinese conditions. We may not personally be in danger, but we are very concerned for our elderly relatives. I will keep you updated here on the blog.

On such a note it seems almost obscene to review a light comedy, but frankly, this is exactly what you need in these situations.

Today’s movie is the second off-List movie for 1970 and the Danish contribution to my three picks.

“Mazurka på sengekanten” (”Bedroom Mazurka”) was chosen, partly because 1970 was not a great year for Danish movies and partly because it marked the beginning of a long string of similar movies in the seventies, making it culturally significant.

The new thing was that a dash of soft-porn was added to the sort of light, silly comedies that had developed through the sixties. Pornography had just been legalized and suddenly everybody thought this was this new awesome thing that everybody wanted. The resulting hybrid, the erotic comedy, would eventually devolve into sleazy and tacky excuses for producing and watching porn, but in 1970 this was still new and there is a remarkable innocence to this, the first movie in the series.

On the boarding school Krabbesøgård the current principal (Axel Strøbye) has been picked as the next minister of culture and so a new principal must be selected. The favorite for the position is the young teacher Max Mikkelsen (Ole Søltoft) who happens to be much liked by the students for his liberal principles. Only problem is that according to traditions a principal must be married or at least engaged and Max is… ahem… a virgin.

The students set out to help Max since the second in line for the job, a pedantic teacher known as “The Doormat” (Poul Hagen), is generally despised. Their task is to find a suitable girl for Max in record time. Also Max is digging into the subject, but being hopelessly ignorant and innocent his is a series of blunders.

It sounds silly and it sounds (and is) mainly as an excuse to get Max sexually involved with a lot of women, but I was surprised how funny it also is. The reputation of the series is pretty bad but in this first installment the comedy worked big time. Partly of course because of a stellar cast, Axel Strøbye, Poul Hagen and Karl Stegger are among the giants in Danish comedy, but also because it is really very innocent. The soft-porn elements are very soft indeed and it surprised my how little you actually see and how light it is. Sure, there are a lot of topless girls going around, but that is mostly for comedic effect and they are not anywhere as hard pumped as we are used to in mainstream movies today. Whenever the movie toned the soft-porn down it worked great, whereas insistence on making it daring resulted in scenes and elements that worked less great. For example I do not understand why most girls in the movie would wear flimsy shirts without a bra in regular, non-erotic scenes, whereas the under-stimulated Erna (Annie Birgit Garde), wife of the principal worked all the sexual references with wonderful comedic timing.

“Mazurka på sengekanten” is not a movie for children, but it is also not a tacky and cheap excuse to show skin. It is far more tasteful than American Pie and funnier too, but not something that could or should be made today. In that sense it belongs to a narrow pocket in time where this was possible and for that it is very special.

I would certainly recommend it. It is a solid laugh.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Deep End (1970)

Deep End
I have arrived at another diversion from the Book I follow (the Danish edition) and the full, official List. Where the Danish List have included the Swedish “En Kärlekshistoria”, it replaces the movie “Deep End”. My personal opinion is that the Danish editors could easily have found a better movie to ditch as “Deep End” is one of the better movies of 1970 so far.

For a period where oddness seems par for the course, “Deep End” is a an odd movie, but unlike most of the other odd movies I have watched it works to the benefit of the movie. This movie stands out because of this oddness.

“Deep End” is a movie written and directed by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, who at the time hardly spoke English. It takes place in England with an English cast in the principal roles, but is filmed by a German crew, mostly in Munich. This strange mix comes through in the tone of the movie that is unlike any other English movie I ever saw.

The 15 year old boy Mike (John Moulder Brown) starts working at the Deptford public bath as a bath attendant and is immediately take by the older, but still very young and pretty Susan (Jane Asher) who is working as his counterpart in the women’s section and instructing him in his job. Part of this job is to “attend” some clients of the opposite sex, providing sexual favors. Mike is an innocent and completely inexperienced boy and is quite taken aback by the advances of these older women. He is also too young to know what to do about his infatuation with Susan.

Susan is a flirt. She has a fiancé whom she is half serious about (despite a lot of bickering), she has an affair with the older swimming teacher, a dirty old man who loves to touch up girls inappropriately, and she willingly offers services to the males clients in the bath. Mike, she leads on with one hand and puts off with the other and Mike is very confused and frustrated.

What starts out as an innocent infatuation soon darkens into obsession and madness as Mike completely looses it and that is the drama of the movie.

What makes this movie work so well is the innocence and likability of Mike. He seems to be such a good boy and therefore it hurts so much when he loses it. He is going places where you scream “DON’T!”, partly from shared embarrassment and partly because his lack of filter makes him do deeply counter productive things, such a follow Susan and her fiancé into a cinema to touch her up or follow her on the Underground with a huge cut-out of an almost naked lady who may or may-not be Susan. Even in his maddest endeavors he remains this sweet and innocent boy that we really want to like.

“Deep End” also doses a large amount of dark humor into the ongoings. Not so much gags as absurdities such as the older woman (Diana Dors) getting off on pulling a desperately fighting Mike into her oversize bosom, or the sausage vendor who sells a lot of hot dogs to Mike with the same ridiculous routine and having so good business of it that he end up offering him hotdogs for free. The humor has the effect of making Mike’s plight even more painful to watch rather than distracting from it and so it serves the movie perfectly.

There is a lot of nudity in “Deep End”, which makes perfect sense because it is a story about sexual frustration and madness, but where an ordinary British movie of this period would likely hesitate on the issue, “Deep End goes all in. My guess is that this is the Skolimowski / German production influence and rather than being put off by it, it is clear that the movie needs this to have the right impact. My favorite example is the porn movie Susan and her fiancé is watching. This is such a ridiculous and funny and actually rather innocent affair and I could not help laughing, but it also demonstrates the pedestal on which the young boy is placing sex and Susan in particular.

The only drawback is that I found the decent into madness too sudden and too desperate to be fully believable. This may be a very young and inexperienced boy, but I believe most young men would have filter enough to stop themselves from going this far.

It is a minor objection though and on the whole, I would recommend this movie.


Sunday 1 March 2020

The Spider's Strategem (La Strategia del Ragno) (1970)

Edderkoppens strategi
“The Spider’s Stratagem” (“Strategia del ragno”) is another one of those movies I cannot work out. This era seems to overflow with this sort of movies and I am getting tired of them, hence my not very enthusiastic review.

Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) arrives in the small, Italian town of Tara. His father died here before he was born and now his father’s old mistress Draifa (Alida Valli) wants to see him. She wants him to find his father’s murderers and although he first refuses, he is convinced to stay and look into it when several of the townspeople seem intent on discouraging him.

This sounds like an interesting thriller plot and I suppose this could have been that. An investigation, mysterious adversaries, hidden agendas and dark secrets.

However, this is a Bernardo Bertolucci movie and he does not seem to be content with making a thriller. Instead he wraps it in weirdness to create an ambience of unreal that makes Twin Peaks look ordinary. Tara is populated with old people, everybody says weird things and a standard conversation can suddenly shift to odd directions. Athos is apparently a clone of his father, the mistress wants him to be his father etcetera etcetera. This makes it entirely clear that there is another agenda than the murder mystery, but what this agenda is, is apparently up to us, the viewers to work out. I have mentioned this before, I dislike it with a vengeance when filmmakers sacrifice causality for symbolism. I do not mind symbolism, but not at the expense of a logical or sensical plot and well, Bertolucci did not receive that brief.

It does not help at all that Bertolucci has a way of making films that seem to repel my attention. Every few minutes my attention will drift away and I have to forcibly redirect it at the movie. I cannot say exactly what it is, the pacing, the weaving, the dialogue or something else. The result is that there are gaps in the narrative as if I had fallen asleep a few times in the course of the movie. Jumps in the story I cannot explain, though I promise, I did not sleep.

There is a resolution to the murder mystery and it is something about preserving a myth, but I cannot say it is very satisfying and how that ties in with Athos being stuck in town I do not understand. The Book writes something about that Athos is becoming his father, but except for Draifa wanting him to be his old man, I do not see that at all. Frankly the idea that he is sucked into the town is not very well developed.

Alida Valli is one of the grand ladies of Italian film and it was fun to see her again, although her role is creepy. But that is just about the only positive thing I can say about this movie.

Not recommended.