Wednesday 27 May 2020

W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (W.R. Misterje Organizmus) (1971)

Organismens mysterier
I am not entirely certain what it is I have just been watching.

I recognize what I saw in the individual scenes but connecting the dots is not easy.

The movie is “W.R. Mysteries of the Organism”, supposedly a Yugoslavian movie from back when that was a county. It was directed by one Dusan Makavejev and that is as much as I can say with certainty.

A synopsis is practically impossible. What we have here is a montage of clips of sources that does not seem to have terribly much to do with each other, except that they seem to revolve around free love, orgasms and communism. The different elements are cross clipped together seemingly at random which makes the result look rather messy.

The major elements are:

1.       A documentary on a weird German therapist who set up treatment in America involving a lot of screaming and orgasms as well as reading stories for children in phone booth sized rooms. The dude, Wilhelm Reich, was eventually arrested and spent the last years of his life in prison.

2.       A strange Yugoslav movie about a very political woman who preaches free love, refuses a drunken worker, and woos a Russian ice-skater who is as political as she is. Eventually he chops off her head and starts singing.

3.       A man walking around in New York in a ragged orange coverall, helmet and gun.

4.       A woman making a gypsum cast of an erect penis

5.       Stalin speaking to the people

6.       More screaming people

7.       A man getting electroshock.

8.       More naked people

Obviously, there is a lot of sex here, but it seems to be a worship of sex as some magic force to heal people and fix politics. Given that this is a 1971 movie that would make some sense, but that is also as far as I got deciphering this movie.

I understand that this was supposed to be provoking in its day and I would admit that this is not something I would watch on a Sunday afternoon with children, but the troubling thing for me was not to watch the sex part, that was sweet enough, but the therapy elements. The screaming men and women, the group orgasms, the weird “orgon” theory and how children were involved. This was very uncomfortable to watch, though, somehow, I doubt that was the intention. Rather, I suppose we were meant to think that these people were awesome and liberated.

The Yugoslav story made absolutely no sense. Free sex as an essential part of revolutionary communism? Is this a critique of Russia for suppressing this part of communism?

Well, let us just say that I am confused.



Saturday 23 May 2020

Wanda (1971)

When I grew up in the eighties, I hated movies from the seventies. Really hated them with a vengeance. I saw them as depressive social-realistic bores that would make me physically sick and I much preferred the lightweight escapism of the eighties. That was a child’s sentiments of course and believe my taste in movies has matured a bit since then.

Yet, “Wanda”, this my first movie of 1971, took me straight back to my childhood’s idea of a depressive seventies’ movie. On a very primal level it triggered some of those reactions I thought I had put behind me a lot time ago.

Wanda (Barbara Loden) is a very unfortunate woman. Mostly because she is, frankly, rather dim. At the opening of the movie she simply walks out of her family, leaving husband and children behind. To all appearance she just did not feel like being there anymore. She quickly runs out of money and cannot get a job at the local factory. Clearly the manager knows here and does not want her back. Instead she gets picked up by a travelling salesman for sex. He quickly dumps her, and she gets nothing out of it but an ice cream.

Later she bumps into a guy, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who is in the process of robbing a bar. Wanda has no clue what is going on and hooks up with him. He treats her badly (what would you expect of a guy who robs bars?), but Wanda has no place else to go so she hangs out with him. Eventually I suppose it dawns on her that they are basically a sort of Bonnie and Clyde team now, but she does not seem too concerned. It is only when Mr. Dennis wants Wanda to play a role in a bank robbery that that she realizes that this is not a good thing.

The bank robbery is a screw-up and Mr. Dennis get himself killed by the police and Wanda, she is back to square one.

It is so clear from the very beginning that Wanda has absolutely nothing good going for her. Everything about her is terrible and she is hopelessly unsuited to deal with… anything. We know therefore that this can only go one way and in the best seventies social realistic tradition it heads straight for the trash bin. Realizing that, I knew I had to keep the movie at an arm’s length because this was going to get touch, but I needed not to worry too much. At no point did I get to feel real sympathy for Wanda and it even got to the point where her misery got almost funny. Seriously, choosing to hang out with a brutal bank-robber is so poor a choice that she practically asks to be abused. Also her obliviousness to her dismal situation is almost funny if it was not so very tragical.

The crime, one could say, here is that a woman so incapable to take care of herself is left to wander around and that a social system should have been able to pick her up, but the Wandas of the real world will always go around and throw their life away even in the best of systems. She is not stupid enough to be institutionalized but also not smart enough to take care of herself. She falls in between and there she will only be exploited and abused till there is nothing left.

Happy days.

“Wanda” is touted as a feminist movie, but I have difficulty seeing that. Man or woman, it does not really matter. The Wandas of the world live terrible lives and that is a social issue, not a feminist issue.

I cannot really recommend “Wanda” as I do not wish this misery-fest on anybody. Depressive seventies social realism, hurrah, I have truly arrived at the seventies…

Sunday 17 May 2020

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini) (1970)

Den forbudte have
My last movie for 1970 is “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (“Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini”). This is a movie by Vittirio De Sica, who was a frequent character on the List in the 1950’ies, but largely disappeared in the 1960’ies.

In this movie we meet a group of young people playing tennis in the walled off garden of the wealthy and sophisticated Finzi-Contini family. We learn that the Finzi-Contini are Jewish and gathering people in their garden is their means to continue to socialize with the outside world. Inside the garden bubble people are neither Jewish nor gentiles but just young people frolicking.

There is particular focus on the son and daughter of the Finzi-Contini, Alberto (Helmut Berger) and Micòl (Dominique Sanda). Alberto is weak with a poor heart and Micòl is the happy one, admired by many. One of her admirers is her childhood friend Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio). Giorgio is from a middle-class Jewish family who does not have the luxury of isolating in their little bubble and therefore are more affected by the race laws of Fascist Italy.

 Most of the movie is about their relationship, Giorgio worshipping Micòl and Micòl holding off Giorgio. Obviously Micòl wants something more juicy than the humble Giorgio and Giorgio cannot get into his head that Micòl is just not into him. Sounds fairly plain. What is special here is the environment in which this little drama plays out. The much bigger drama of the Holocaust is a faint thing in the beginning, especially in the garden, and is largely ignored by the youngsters, but slowly it is growing until it becomes overwhelming and even then the instinct of the young people is to keep it at distance. Only in the end it becomes the great equalizer where name and rank mean nothing in the face of horror.

It is this melancholy sense of paradise lost pervading this movie that makes watching it a special and rare experience. Their small problems and squabbles mean so little and take up all their concern as for most young people and this insistence on their personal and mundane affairs becomes defiance against the greater evil. The photography here is simply brilliant.

My sole problem with the movie was that it was very difficult to keep track on the various characters. Most of them seemed to blend for me and only in retrospect reading the plot summary on Wikipedia did the pieces fall into place. That is a major frustration watching something you do not quite understand. Even now I am wondering who the guy is the Nazis are picking up near the end. Is it Giorgio? Or somebody else? I did not think it looked like Giorgio, but who else then? The problem is that it changes the interpretation of the final scenes. If anybody knows, please help me out here.

“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” won the Academy award for Best Foreign Language film and the Golden Bear in Berlin. For the ambience alone this seems like a good pick. I left this movie with exactly the feeling of sadness and loss that is intended with this kind of movie and the picture of the family split up, walking into separate class rooms held as much poignancy as watching them enter the gas chambers.

Definitely recommended.


Monday 11 May 2020

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo) (1970)

Fuglen med krystalfjerpragten
Italian movies seem to be particularly popular here around 1970. I believe the last three movies I have scheduled for this year are all Italian or at least Italian directed. This is not a complaint, Italian movies are/were very versatile, but it is just… curious.

This one, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (“L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo”), is an Italian take on a Hitchcock’ian thriller. A bystander accidentally gets involved in a mystery that drags him further in than is healthy for him.

Sam (Tony Musante) is an American writer in Rome who has been spending time working and vacationing in Italy and is preparing to return home to America with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), an English girl. One night he witnesses an attempted murder, but stuck between glass doors he can only watch as the assailant gets away. The police, represented by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) believes Sam saw more than he is volunteering and confiscate his passport, forcing him to stay around. The effect on the curious writer is to make him start exploring the case of what turns out to be a very violent serial killer. In the process both Sam and his girlfriend risk their lives.

My first impression of this movie was negative. There was something cheap and off-putting about it and it did not take me long to realize that it was the Italian dubbing. Italian movies are always made with dubbing of all sounds in the postproduction and the dubbing is invariably in a single language, in this case Italian. Never mind the weirdness of having Sam and Julia speaking to each other in fluent Italian, what really bothered me was the artificial feeling of poor dubbing. It reminded me of watching German television when we first got cables in the eighties where all the American and English shows were vandalized by cheap German dubbing. Few things set my teeth grinding as poor and obvious dubbing.

Fortunately for this movie the plot itself is so strong that eventually I could almost ignore the dubbing. That is the big asset of “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. There is a fast progression to the movie with surprising turns and twists and lots of suspense. Some of it comes a bit cheap, but most of it is very well done and worthy of Hitchcock. I did not buy the urge of the writer to invest so much in solving the case, especially after his girlfriend got threatened, this was a bit too much Tintin pluck, and Inspector Morosini is surprisingly eager to let Sam take part in the investigation. The naivety here belongs in the drawer of cheap crime novels. Looking past that though, this movie really takes you on a tour.

Normally I am not a fan of gory movies, but “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” uses gore to great effect. The ghastly murders, especially the stalking in dark places, are terrifying. There is also something about the unexplained loose ends that lends a layer of mystery to the affair. Combined with a point-of-view camera we get that very limited field of vision that leaves us mystified. Who was that boxer? Why was the friend of Sam in the apartment with the captive Julia? Did Sam eat a cat?

“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is not the greatest movie ever. It is a cheap movie, but it is also an effective movie and it totally delivers. Definitely recommended.



Tuesday 5 May 2020

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Zabrieskie Point
Michelangelo Antonioni is a familiar director with a number of entries on the List. To begin with I did not comprehend his movies and found them obscure and bleak, but gradually I got to appreciate them for the underlying message and the artfulness with which it was communicated. The peak was the British movie “Blowup” where both the aesthetics and the point to the movie were distilled to a high intensity.

After this achievement Antonioni set out to repeat his success in Hollywood… and tanked.

“Zabrieskie Point”, his only American movie”, was rejected by both audience and critics and failed to earn back even a fraction of its $7 million expenses.

I watched “Zabrieskie Point” with some apprehension, knowing this was a movie that failed, and I can see why it failed. “Zabrieskie Point” breaks with a number of tropes, stylistically it is confusing and an unprepared audience would be left very confused. This was touted as a movie for the young generation, but taking your date to the cinema, expecting a popcorn flick, you would have been left very disappointed.

Fortunately, I have already watched a few of Antonioni’s movies.

We follow two characters, Mark (Mark Frechette) and Daria (Daria Halprin). Mark is (maybe) in university campus among, but not really taking part in, the protests going on there. He does not seem to care about their political agenda, but he likes the people well enough. He is there, with a gun, on the day a policeman is shot to death, though it was not Mark that shot him. The police and the media however are quick to pin him on the murder and so he flees, first on a bus and then he steals a plane and flies into the desert.

Daria is loosely attached to a real estate developing company as a part time secretary. Her boss seems to want to get into her pants, but when we meet her, she is driving through the desert in an old car looking for… something while driving in the general direction of Phoenix and her boss’ mansion.

Mark and Daria meet in the desert, have hot sex, paint the plane in funny colors and then part ways. Mark is taking the plane back to the airport to hand it back and is shot by trigger happy policemen while Daria, shocked to hear of Mark’s death in the radio decide to abandon the mansion and dream of blowing up the place.

The whole thing lasts about 2 hours.

This is not a movie that explains anything. We do not know much about the characters. We do not know why Mark decides to take a plane or why Daria is cruising around in the desert and those are just the highlights of things we do not know. The clue here is found in the older Antonioni movies. The reason things are not explained is that there is no explanation. Mark does not need a reason to fly into the desert, he just does it. Daria has no specific target. They live, they are, there is no grand plan and objective. They are however fenced in by society, consumerism, politics, authorities. All of these need reasons, plans, objectives, guilt and punishment, and there is no room to simply be. What Mark and Daria are doing is simply taking a vacation from all this before it catches up with them. A vacation filled with the surrealism that a trip away from reality entails (sex among hundreds of other young people in the desert, returning from this without a spec of dust in the hair).

This should hit home in the counterculture movement and appeal to the sense of revolution in 1970, but instead it missed the mark. Like Eisenstein before him Antonioni overestimated the capacity of the audience to see the points in his art and instead he bored them to death.

I do get this movie (I think) and it is a beautiful movie, but I also agree, it is really, really boring.

Zabriskie Point looks like an interesting site. As a geologist I admit I was getting quite distracted by the gypsum formations there. Definitely a place I should visit.