Thursday 25 June 2020

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Off-List: The Andromeda Strain
It is time for my second off-List movie of 1971 and I dare say I could not have found a more fitting movie. A strange new disease, doctors working frantically to understand it and find a way to treat it and politicians who fail to grasp the gravity of the situation. Hmmm… sounds so familiar, but this is not about the Corona virus but the 1971 movie “The Andromeda Strain”.

Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (whom we all know from “Jurassic Park”) this is about a satellite bringing back something mysterious from space that kills of an entire village literally in their tracks except for an old drunk and an infant. Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill) has established a secret underground government laboratory called Wildfire to work as an ultra-high security laboratory and now it is coming into use for the investigation of this mysterious passenger on the satellite. Experts Dr. Hall (James Olson), Dr. Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Leavitt (Kate Reid) are called in, initiated to the lab and set to work on the project. Meanwhile on the outside the politicians a stalling on what to do and the military are failing to take it seriously.

The core of this movie is the investigation of the organism from space, the Andromeda Strain. To some this may sound boring, but to an old scientist (sort of) like me this is heaven. There are tons of police procedure movies around but precious few scientific procedure movies. Usually the scientific process is handled in a montage and voila, problem solved, or it is dealt with so ridiculously it is an insult to call it science. In this case however the producers took it very seriously and involved the scientific community and actually listened. Everything they do in “The Andromeda Strain makes sense. Even the high security facility is logical and my guess is it is not so far off modern top security laboratories.

In fact, the art direction is outstanding. The computer graphics are very impressive for 1971 and the set design is very futuristic. Apparently, they got the people from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to work on this movie and it shows. “The Andromeda Strain” was nominated for Best Art Direction.

The only thing that worked less realistically was the time frame involved. I should think such investigations would take just a bit longer. Also the dramatic plot itself suffers. In the frenzy of getting the science right the screenplay writers seemed to have forgotten that this is a movie and as such need a dramatic climax. What they did come up with comes very late and feels almost pasted on and the resolution is something that happened literally while the hero slept. That part was a bit underwhelming and I cannot say if the movie managed to justify all the precautions made or ridiculed them. For all the scientific and security rigor it was mundane errors and human interaction which both caused the problems and solved them

The current Corona crisis makes a movie like “The Andromeda Strain” both interesting and relevant. When we do not know what we are facing we have to be careful and we only get the right answers by considering it scientifically. COVID-19 may not be as deadly as the Andromeda Strain, but it is loose out there and it has changed everybody’s life.

For all its flaws “The Andromeda Strain” is my kind of movie and for nerds like me highly recommended.

Friday 19 June 2020

The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie) (1971)

The Sorrow and the Pity (La Chagrin et la Pitié) is a documentary by Marcel Ophüls about the Second  World War in France. It is a massive, two-part, four hour long story about people in France, particularly in and around the city of Clermont-Ferrand and their experiences during the war.

There is very little historical context in this documentary, if you are not fairly familiar with the larger historical picture it is very easy to get lost in the movie. Instead Ophüls mixes authentic clips from the forties with present (early seventies) interviews with people who were there.

These people range from politicians to farmers, resistance fighters and former fascists, even former German soldiers and British politicians and airmen.

This is not about specific event during the war, but more about what people thought at the time, why they did what they did and their explanations for why they did it. Lots of excuses, incriminations, explanations, lies and common sense in the mix.

In 1940 France was attacked by Germany and whereas WWI led to a four-year long stalemate, France was defeated in a swift campaign. Why? How? And what did that defeat do to the French and their self-understanding? Turns out a large part of the higher echelon in the military actually welcomed the German regime, preferring it to the leftist bickering in France. Or is that just an excuse? Germany went on to occupy the northern part of France, including Paris, while the southern part was run by a French puppet government led by Laval and the hero of WWI Marshal Pétain, now an old man. Was this treason? How did supporters of this excuse this?

In this environment a partisan resistance slowly grew up fighting the Germans and the collaborators and eventually Germany took over the entire country. Who were these people, fighting the Germans and what about the Germans fighting the Resistance?

Finally, there was the liberation and the mayhem that led to, revenge on all the traitors, or simply an excuse to settle scores?

The strength of this documentary is that it is simply about people. There is a face to everybody, it is very personal, and it is mostly about the narratives that these people have constructed for themselves. It is difficult to say that these people are delusional, it is merely human nature to place yourself in a context where you can live with yourself and it is in that light this documentary becomes very interesting. It is simply fascinating to get all these first-hand accounts on a period that was so traumatic and because of this personal element it also becomes interesting for non-French viewers.

Marcel Ophüls himself has an interesting story, being actually a German Jew who fled to France in the thirties with his family and then, after the French defeat, fled again through Spain to America. Later in the fifties Ophüls went back to France and became a highly skilled documentarist. If the name sounds familiar then it is probably because of his father, Max Ophüls, a famous movie director who did several films on the List, such as “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “Madame de…”.

In its day “The Sorrow and the Pity” became a great success, largely because it was considered controversial. Apparently, it was questioning the official, heroic narrative. But I think its lasting power is not due to controversy but because of all these personal contributions. This is simply interesting to watch and listen to.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange
Like so many other people I grew up knowing about the reputation of “A Clockwork Orange” as a deeply subversive and somewhat illegal movie. One that you should be careful watching. Then in the mid-nineties I got the opportunity to attend a screening of it… and was sort of disappointed.

Few movies can live up to a special reputation and in my mind I had expected something far more revolutionary.

I do not recall watching it since so it felt like a new movie to me now that I had to re-watch it. I only really remembered the rape scene and as it turned out not very well. Frankly, I dreaded watching it again, mostly because I feared it would be boring, but either my expectation level has been properly adjusted or I have simply matured. This time round was a far more interesting experience.

“A Clockwork Orange” is still a dystopic and pessimistic movie and certainly not one to leave you happy. In fact, it is difficult not to sit back with a bad taste in the mouth, but there is also something fascinating about watching a topic as ruthlessly explored as Stanley Kubrick did with this movie.

One of the interesting things about Stanley Kubrick is that he never makes the same movie twice. In that sense he is the antithesis of Hitchcock. A second thing is that he always dives 100% into his movies, making each of them have layers of depth. In “A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick has created an at once very familiar but also very alien environment and let his theme of nihilistic violence run amok in it.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of his gang of four, his droogs. The gang spends its time seeking thrills by stealing cars and beating people up. They are dressed up in white pajamas and bowler hat and speak an odd mix of Cockney English and Russian. The remarkable thing about them is how casually they exact violence on other people. They are completely lacking empathy when they break in, beat up and rape innocent people and this lack of empathy is more shocking than the actual acts of violence. Alex is clearly intelligent, more intelligent than his droogs and his parents, but this complete lack of empathy makes him look… handicapped enough to seem vulnerable.

When Alex is caught for murder and imprisoned the movie shifts. Up to this point it is Alex who had been casual about violence. Now it is everybody else. We learn that violence is everywhere. In the police, from politicians, even his parents lack empathy not to mention his former victims. A major act of violence is when Alex is subjected to a treatment to take violence out of him. While it may sound like a good idea, he is effectively lobotomized and the procedure is extremely invasive, taking away his free will and creating the eponymous clockwork orange.

While the first part builds up the sentiment that Alex need to be stopped and punished, I certainly felt some righteous anger, if anybody deserved what was coming to him it was Alex, the second part invalidates this punishment because how does a violent society have any right to punish violence?  If lack of empathy is met with lack of empathy, how can we condemn the first?

There is enough to think of in “A Clockwork Orange”, if is fascinating stuff that messes with your brain, but it is also ugly to watch. The acts of violence are terrible, and the black humor thrown in just makes it feel even worse. When Alex sings Singin’ in the Rain while raping a woman, it shows how much he is enjoying it and how little he feels with his victims. That is tough to watch.

I have yet to meet a Kubrick movie that did not impress me, but at least here I have one I did not like. It is impressive as hell, though.


Monday 1 June 2020

Vanishing Point (1971)

Off-List: Vanishing Point
After a lackluster start on 1971 it is time for the first of my three off-List movies.

When I did some research on the year, I found that all the movies I really wanted to watch were already on the List. That opens the door for movies that merely sounds interesting with the risk of course that it is utter junk. “Vanishing Point” was such an obscure movie with an interesting premise that caught my attention. Fortunately, as it turned out, it did deliver.

Road racing movies were popular in the seventies and into the early eighties. In these movies people were driving very fast on the highways and the highway patrols were the enemies. Exactly where this started, I do not know but I would not be surprised if “Vanishing Point” was one of the first movies in this genre. It certainly sticks to many of the themes of this genre.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) must deliver a car from Denver to San Francisco. For reasons not elaborated on Kowalski wants to deliver the car much earlier than required, forcing him to drive very fast and practically non-stop. The police soon want to pull him over and when he refuses the hunt starts. Soon Kowalski is the freedom loving cowboy insisting on his right to drive fast, promoted by a radio host Super Soul (Cleavon Little) who is very well informed (tapping into the police radio frequency).

Early in the movie I was wondering if this was really the story and frankly “Vanishing Point” lost a few points right there. It is to me a weird idea that driving very fast on the highway is a right or an applaudable expression of freedom. There are enough assholes risking other peoples lives by their insane driving.

As the movie progressed however, I realized that there were layers beneath this superficial story. From the talk of the police people it will appear that Kowalski actually has not broken any laws, not even that of speeding. I had no idea there was no speeding limit on these roads back then, but there your go. Kowalski’s offense is that he refuses to respect the authority of the highway patrols and that pisses them off. Now it is no longer the right to drive fast, but a rebellion against the authorities, and that fits a lot better to the hero picture painted by Super Soul, himself a minority in what appears to be a very white and conservative Western setting. Kowalski also meets a number of anti-authoritarian people on his way, hermits, religious groups, other racers, who are sympathetic to him.

But it goes deeper still. En route we get a number of flashbacks that help tell the backstory of Kowalski, though none of them are conclusive. We learn that he came back from the Vietnam War with distinction and was a police officer. From there he was dishonorably discharged, though we learn that as a police officer he was opposed to other police officers abusing their power. Something that resonates with the world of today. Kowalski’s girlfriend or wife died in a surfing accident and in the years since Kowalski has been a racecar driver. Not the best but completely fearless.

This is not spelled out, and that I love about those flashbacks, but it seems to me since losing wife and job Kowalski has not cared about his life but rather challenged death, pushing the envelope in the hope of some redemption. This fits with the ending, which otherwise may be quite shocking. Kowalski is not a cowboy fighting the authorities, he is a man with a death-wish looking for that vanishing point where it all ends.

I did not see it coming, but this is a far more interesting and complex movie than it appears to be and one I am happy to have picked. It is also a far more worthy entry to the List than what I have watched so far.