Wednesday 22 July 2020

Walkabout (1971)

Whatever it was I expected from “Walkabout”, it turned out to be different. Though the Book’s use of terms like “Mysterious” and “Deep” should warned me, I guess I expected something more like a Robinson Crusoe tale.

Nicolas Roeg, who did the “Performance” movie, has this time gone to Australia. We see a businessman (John Meillon) who look tired. He is well dressed and live in a sea-side apartment with wife, children and pool. Cut. The man is driving in the outback with his two children, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and a 6, presumably, year old boy (Luc Roeg, the director’s own son). He stops the car, the children set up for a picnic and the man start shooting at the children, sets fire to the car and shoots himself. Just like that.

The children are now left on their own in the arid outback very, very far from home. From what I can tell this is South Australia, some distance north of Adelaide, an area which is, well, pretty barren. As the children have absolutely no survival skills and very few supplies it is quite lucky they meet an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout and that this boy is nice and wants to help them.

This becomes a remarkable walkabout for all three of them. The white boy and the girl have no idea what the black boy is blabbering on about and he in turn just smile in incomprehension at the girl’s words in English. After a while the white boy comes to some very crude and basic understanding of the black boy, not through some superior skill, but because lacking the conditioning from western civilization he listens and observe the black boy with less cultural filter. Still much of this walk is about the failure of two cultures to understand each other, something that goes far beyond the spoken word.

Where the girl and the white boy see a desolate waste, the black boy sees a land full of resource. The black boy sees and registers what he wants to see and the girl fails to recognize things obvious to the black boy. This comes to a head near the conclusion where the black boy’s sustenance hunting, involving a level of respect for the animals is held up against the wanton and pointless slaughter by a group of white hunters as well as the black boys mating dance to the girl which is misunderstood as a fearsome and savage show, something that seems to deflate the black boy completely. It is as if he has been trying through the walk to show her the beauty of her world, to make her understand it and in the end she is refusing to understand and refusing to embrace her world and instead return to her own, a world exemplified  by the wasteland of an almost deserted mining settlement and a local caretaker obsessing about property rights. The black boy is stunned into oblivion as if his world has been discarded.

The black boy may be wanting the white girl, but it goes the other way too. We see her glance constantly go to his crotch and she seems very attentive to how she may appear to him. As sexual beings we are all the same. Something which is emphasized by a research camp on the salt flats where sex is foremost on everybody’s mind, men and women.

Throughout it all there is this dreamy quality to the movie. There are strange cross-clips through association and many things are unexplained, seemingly happening for no reason at all. My interpretation of this is partly the dream world the Aboriginals believe in and partly that all this could be a dream or a hazy memory of the girl. When we see her in the end she either dreams or recall an event from the walkabout and in this interpretation the walkabout is something that is lacking or lost in her life, an alternative reality that could have been or that she wished would have been because she is missing it.

Anyway, this is a much deeper and interesting movie than it appears to be and certainly one that leaves a lot to think about. Not to mention full of wonderful pictures from the Australian outback.

It is a recommendation from me.

Friday 17 July 2020

Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (1971)

Off-List: Den forsvundne fuldmægtig
The third off-List movie of 1971 is as usual a Danish movie and the, in my opinion, most interesting movie to come out of Denmark in 1971 was “Den forsvundne fuldmægtig” (“The Missing Clerk”).

The book by Hans Scherfig is very highly regarded in Denmark and most high school student will eventually get to read it, myself included. Oddly enough I never watched the movie version and that is a shame. It is a very good adaption.

When Theodor Amsted (Ove Sprogøe), highly placed clerk in the Ministry of Defense, fails to show up at home, his wife Mrs. Amsted (Bodil Kjer) gets worries. Mr. Amsted is always very precise and never does anything unexpected. Soon after, an exploded body is found just outside town (half a mile from where I live!) and the police concludes it is Theodor Amsted who has blown himself up. For Mrs. Amsted this is a blow, but in her home Mr. Amsted has never been more present and highly respected now that he is dead.

But Mr. Amsted is not dead. Instead he has taken the bus to a little village on the north coast where he rents a room. Mr. Amsted has finally escaped the prison of expectations, respectability and conformity he has lived in all his life. Now he is free at last, but at a loss what to do with this freedom.

Confused, it is almost a relief for him when he is eventually found by the police and imprisoned. In prison he can live the ordered and boring life he has trained for all his life and without being questioned by a nagging wife. He is finally happy.

It is an interesting story with a point, as relevant today as back then. Always doing what you are told, obeying the rules, living inside the box kills something in people and make them automatons. Mr. Amsted wants to be free, desperately enough to fake his death, but he has no clue what to do with it and freedom is scary when you never had any. It is bittersweet to watch Mr. Amsted trying to find the child he lost and being so miserable at it.

The village he ends up in is also full of characters, people of small minds who are terribly busy with everybody else. In particular Karl Stegger as Martin Hageholm, a pensioned postman, is hilarious, zealously looking out for strangers violating… anything. In fact, I could watch this movie just for him. Although as a character he has very little importance for the story, he completely steals the scenes he a appear in and the gentle Theodor Amsted looks very small next to this larger than life busybody.

Another noteworthy character is Bodil Kjer’s Mrs. Amsted. Her life is so entirely defined by her status as wife of the highly respected clerk that nothing is allowed to disturb the order of things. Having her husband return from the grave is most irregular. Already she is busy forming her son Leif in the same image as her father. Throughout the movie she speaks nonstop in all her scenes, while I do not recall Leif saying a word. His little rebellion is to hide the food he does not like under the table. She is a perfect nightmare.

It is also a lot of fun to see places I have grown familiar with the two years I have lived here. Amager Fælled where the body exploded is very close and much nearer the city today than back then and those villages on the north coast are now busy resort towns.  

“Den forsvundne fuldmægtig” is hilarious and tragic, human and diabolic. It is also highly recommended, also for an international audience.

Sunday 12 July 2020

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Vestens syndige par
The second movie on the List by Robert Altman is “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”. Altman was the guy who made “M.A.S.H.” and I could definitely see a connection between these two movies. To me it looked as if he wanted to redo that special way of filming where actors each go around doing whatever their role is and the cameras move around filming whatever it is that is going on. Not, mind you, as anarchistic as in “M.A.S.H.”, but it definitely delivers that particular feeling that there is a lot going on outside the camera, an entire world, of which we only get to see bits and pieces. An elegant method, actually, that brings a lot of realism to a movie, but also, well, difficult to follow. In any case, Altman has here applied this technique on an entirely different setting, the American frontier around the turn of the century. That is, the turn into the 20th century, of course.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is an opportunistic gambler who sets up shop in the small and very new mining hamlet Presbyterian Church in the northwest (filmed in British Colombia, though it is supposed to take place in Washington State). McCabe becomes a bit of an entertainment king with a saloon and a brothel, but his toughness seems to be something he gets from the conspicuous amount of alcohol he is consuming.

Eventually McCabe is joined by the hard and direct Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a very professional prostitute who takes over the brothel department. Together they are king and queen of the village until big capital move in to take over the town, something neither McCabe nor Miller are able to cope with.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is sort of a Western but a very different kind of Western. The setting is a bit too late for the Western setting, the frontier has moved all the way out into very inhospitable areas, and civilization is both too close for comfort and too far away to help when hell breaks loose.

It is also different in the sense that there is no heroism here. Or rather, not the heroism we are used to. McCabe is more a parasite than a contributing member of the community. He makes money on other people’s weaknesses and he is more loud than talented or courageous. Same with Miller, she is all tough as nails, but it is a mask that she hides behind together with her opium addiction. Combined they are actually sorry beings. The real heroes are the people of the village who are carving out a meager existence in the wilderness despite all the hardships.

The classic free spirit versus encroaching civilization is here anarchy versus lawless capitalism where big money takes by force what they cannot buy and the “little man” is not much better, just smaller.

All in all, a fairly pessimistic tale with not very likable characters. And maybe that is the attraction of the movie. Because the characters are flawed, because the setting is flawed, because there is no happy ending, this is far more interesting than the average western. There is depth to the characters and we can deal with them even if we do not like them.

The genius of the movie however is neither the sepia filming nor the tale itself, but the soundtrack. It was a brilliant move to include a number of Leonard Cohen songs on it. Although they belong to a different age, there is something in the mood that fits the movie perfectly.

Speaking of Cohen, I recently went to a Leonard Cohen exhibition here is Copenhagen and was very impressed with it. Cohen has real depth in his catalogue and the song in this movie only adds to that.

While “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” started slow for me, it eventually won me over and it ends with a recommendation.


Tuesday 7 July 2020

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Charlie og chokoladefabrikken
For the past week I have been away on vacation. Not exactly the vacation I had imagined but considering the times it was fine and it was good to get a bit away. Just before I left, I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” but did not manage to do the review. So, slightly delayed…

I know “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, or the story at least, from my childhood. Back then it was a Swedish or Norwegian cartoon with voice-over and was called “Charlie and the Chocolate factory”. I remember it as being an unsettling serial to watch, partly because it was one of these strange cartoons that are really just stills with the camera panning across them, but also because the Willy Wonka character was scary. The 1971 musical I never saw before now and that goes for the Johnny Depp version too. Those childhood memories were holding me back.

This 1971 version is substantially different from the story I remember. First of all the Willy Wonka name is already in the title, presumably because the sponsor of the movie had a chocolate bar called the Wonka bar they wanted to market with the movie (money money money…) but more importantly, Willy Wonka is lovable. Still strange and sort of mean, but in Gene Wilder’s version he is difficult not to like.

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a moral tale about a poor boy, Charlie, who through odd jobs helps his mother take care of his four bed-ridden grandparents. There is room for no luxuries in that home, but Charlie is a good boy.  In the outside world the mysterious chocolate factory run by Willy Wonka launces a competition: Anyone who finds a golden ticket in a chocolate bar wins a tour of the factory and a lifelong supply of chocolate. The world goes mad looking for these tickets and also Charlie starts dreaming, only he cannot afford to buy the chocolate.

Eventually the winners are found and one of them is Charlie who found a coin and bought a bar. The other four children are horrible though. One is eating all the time, another is a spoiled brat used to get what she wants, a third is self-obsessed and the fourth only cares for watching television. On the day of the tour all children show up with a family member (who is not so different from the child) and Willy Wonka gives them the tour.

The chocolate factory is a magical place inhabited by the midget workers, the orange faced Oompa-Loompas, and is more of a garden of temptation than an actual factory. Now Wonka starts weeding out the bad children…

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a musical and a fairy tale so realism is not where this is heading, but instead it allows for wondrously weird scenarios that baffles the mind. The point is that only a child’s wondering imagination can cope with this, whereas an adult’s rational mind balk at all the illogical and silly concepts at the factory. So, to pass the tests you need a child’s imagination and readiness to accept things at face value and be a “good” child. Will Charlie make it?

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” worked a lot better than I had expected. Both as a story and on the technical level. The factory is a magical place come to life and the musical elements do not feel overtly disturbing, but most importantly, the acting all round is good. I had my doubts thinking of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but in hindsight I can think of nobody else, and for once the child actors were good. Or rather, as intolerable as they are supposed to be.

This is however a family movie, so the real test is how it works with children. For the second half of the movie I was joined by my 10-year old son who got so much into it that he wanted to watch it from the beginning. Turns out there are a number of memes out there referring this movie.

This is a movie that still works today and a recommendation from me to children of all ages.