Wednesday 28 October 2020

Aguirre: the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) (1972)


Aguirre, den gale erobrer

It is a new year on the List and the movies are now only 48 years old, yay! The first 1972 movie is “Aguirre: the Wrath of God” and I would have loved to say that 1972 is starting strong, but I am not entirely convinced.

“Aguirre” is a movie by Werner Herzog, a prolific director who is still making movies today, but strangely enough I have watched very few of his works. Well, that is what the List is for, to let us see movies we would otherwise have missed.

It is 1560 and Pizarro’s band of conquistadors have successfully taken down the Inca empire and robbed it clean. Now their eyes are set on the next price: El Dorado, where the streets are covered with gold and if there is something a conquistador cannot resist then it is gold.

Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) sets out into the jungle with a small army but is soon bogged down. Instead of continuing he sends out a smaller force to scout ahead and bring back information on the land ahead and any sign of El Dorado. This expedition is led by Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and they immediately build rafts and set out on the river.

It is a motley band, drifting into oblivion. Indian slaves, including a former prince, a black slave used to scare the Indian, two women who does nothing but wear their fine and always clean dresses, and a bunch of soldiers including Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a mercurial officer. What happens through the remainder of the movie is that the members of the expedition are taken out, one by one, by the Indians, through internal strife or the hardship of the travel. Aguirre, obsessed with the price of taking El Dorado, gets crazier and crazier and coup the expedition and they find… absolutely nothing.

The theme here is white man’s greed. The conquistadors are simple thieves, highwaymen possessed by greed. Their senseless pursuit for the elusive price leads to nothing but destruction and oblivion, but with substantial collateral damage. There is a complete insensitivity to the land they are travelling through and the people living there. They are blind to the natural wealth while their eyes are fixed on a price which is just an illusion.

It is interesting to watch this movie in 2020 and notice how nothing has really changed. The themes are still valid and the people on the rafts could as well be us as the world of 72 or the conquistadors in the sixteenth century.

I think those are the eyes to watch this movie with: as an allegory. On its own it is a frustrating movie to watch. Practically everybody of any importance to the story are insufferable and there is nothing but destruction, defeat and madness in the course of the movie. You learn early on to despise the characters and there is some satisfaction in watching them succumb to their greed and ultimately impotence, but it is odd to watch a movie where you cannot wait to see the characters meet their respective ends.

Still it is also a beautiful movie. Made on a shoestring budget there are amazing pictures of the rainforest a plenty and even the demise of the expedition is filmed in glorious color. There is some symbolism in the dirty, ugly look of the soldiers, the tidiness of the Indians and the spotless cleanliness of the women, which is captured very well by the camera.

It is not a movie I enjoyed as much as I found it interesting. It is not an adventure and it is not exciting, but as an allegory it is spot on.


Friday 23 October 2020

Wake in Fright (1971)

 Wake in Fright

I believe I mentioned recently, somewhere, that I like Australian movies. Well, I may have to take that back. Watching “Wake in Fright” was a terrible experience. Not that it is a bad movie as such, but watching people make a string of bad decisions, ruining their lives in the process, is not my idea of fun and this is a story that makes “Lost Weekend” a trip to the zoo.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a teacher forced to teach in the outback as part of a government contract before he can return to Sydney. The place is seriously a two-shack village in the middle of nowhere and for John it is simply something to get over with. For the Christmas break John is returning to Sydney and has to change from train to plane in Bundanyabba, also known as “Yabba”. John intends to stay just for the night, but it turns out to be quite a bit more as his weekend spins into a hellish nightmare.

The local sheriff, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), gets him drunk and introduces him to the local attraction, a rowdy game of two-up. A guy throws two coins and you bet if it will be head or tail. First John wins, but then, first bad decision, he conceives the idea that he could win enough to free him from servitude, and losses every penny he got (of course).

In a series of event John encounters numerous dubious characters and gets involved in drinking, fighting, shooting kangaroos in the night and general loss of dignity. John totally hates this place, the people and what it has reduced him to and just wants to get away, but even that is not possible.

This was seriously difficult to watch. Practically everybody here is horrible. Oh, the Australians are a jolly lot, but here they all had a mean, nihilistic streak that made them noisy, rude and disgusting. Everything John gets involved in is seedy at best and revolting at worst. I just wanted this movie to pass. The worst was the kangaroo hunt at night. A bunch of drunk idiots driving out into the desert, blinding kangaroos with light and shooting them left and right, singing and yelling. Even fighting the kangaroos with hand and knife. I really like roo’es, they are the cutest animals, and this was just brutal slaughter. Absolutely horrible to watch.

I suppose the idea is that civilized and controlled John Grant meets and discover his dark side and has to face it and that Dr. Clarence Tydon (Donald Pleasence) is an example of a version of John that has embraced and learned to live with the dark side. Part of John want to embrace him and another is disgusted by him and wants to kill him, read: himself, because he hates what he sees. Only in the end when he has come to terms with this can he proceed with his life. Clever enough, but it does not help. No matter how I turn it I felt awful watching this movie.

“Wake in Fright” was the third new addition to 1971 in the grand revision and one that I cannot say that I needed. In fact, the editors did not have a lucky hand revising the list for 71. None of the additions are must-sees and two are outright disgusting.

This was also the last movie of 1971 and I am now, finally, ready to proceed to 1972.



Monday 19 October 2020

The Hired Hand (1971)


The Hired Hand

The second new addition to the List in the grand 10th edition revision to 1971 was “The Hired Hand”. This was Peter Fonda’s first project after “Easy Rider” and the first movie he directed and honestly this could hardly be a more different one.

Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) have been riding together for seven years. There is no telling what they have been up to, but that it has been a nomadic life. Harry has gotten sick of this life and long to go home. At the same time their younger partner, Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt) gets shot in some God-forsaken hamlet over a horse, marking the punctuation to the roaming life. Harry and Arch return to Harry’s wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and her homestead. She does not want to recognize him as her husband right away, figuring he will probably leave again and her daughter believes her father is dead. Instead Harry and Arch are staying in the barn as hired hands. Slowly, however, Harry and Hannah are warming up to each other and Arch, rather than being a fifth wheel, rides out. When Harry learns Arch is held captive by the people who killed Dan he has to choose between saving his friend or staying with his wife.

The first thing you notice watching “The Hired Hand” is the pace. This is super slow. So slow in fact that the film occasionally goes slow-motion or even stops and becomes stills. Nobody ever runs, all riding is in a trot and conversation is slow and economic in words. The story itself is of necessity equally short and simple.

This super slow pacing allows the movie to dwell on particular elements in ways other movies cannot. The funeral of Dan, the eternal ride across the land, the emotions on the face of Hannah which speaks more eloquently than any dialogue. It also allows the movie to go very visual. Every frame seems to be there for its visual impact and goes for an almost over the top aesthetic. Combine that with a moody score and there are parts of the movie where the entire purpose of it seems to merely be to build a number of tableaux. Montages with double exposure, silhouettes and slow motion. It is all very pretty, but more than once I got reminded of cheap seventies romances who went for exactly the same aesthetic and when you see it in “The Room” you know this theme has run its course.

But “The Hired Hand” is before all this and should not be judged by later abuse.

Warren Oates is fast becoming one of my favorite actors and his presence her is huge. Fonda himself reminds me of Viggo Mortensen with his gruff looks and soft voice, but the center of the movie belongs to Verna Bloom as Hanna Collings. She is the strong woman who stayed and ran the farm when her husband flaked away. She is the one he has to appease and convince to be accepted again and she could and would take in men to her bed in his absence when she felt the need. Her place is a garden of Eden whereas the world the men roam is a devastated and depraved wasteland. It is, I believe, a very strong feminist statement.

I think I liked “The Hired Hand” or I liked the idea of it. The pacing and the aesthetics verge on the ridiculous, so close to tipping over that it almost becomes a spoof of itself, but I believe it does pull through in the end, not least thanks to the down-beat ending. The beauty and the hardness go hand in hand and maintain a balance, tenuously, but it is there.

Universal had no idea what to do with “The Hired Hand”. Could this be marketed as a Western? Was this a follow up on “Easy Rider” Who should see this movie? The release and marketing of “The Hired Hand” was therefore a disaster and the adapted tv release was no better. Only in 2003 when the original was restored did “The Hired Hand” get a proper reception, but likely too late to really make an impact.


Wednesday 14 October 2020

The Devils (1971)


The Devils

“The Devils” is the first of three movies that were added to the List for 1971 in the big tenth edition revision. A year with many movies just got significantly extended. In the case of “The Devil” I think it was unnecessary to include that one. At least if they wanted to cater to my taste. I did not like that movie.

The story itself is interesting enough. In the early seventeenth century the French king, or rather his puppet-master, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) wanted to affirm his control over the French countryside by removing the town walls protecting provincial towns. This would also make it easier to cleanse France of protestants. Loudon was a holdout eager to keep its wall. The struggle to keep the walls was led by a priest, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). To get to the town walls Richelieu’s henchman Baron de Laubardemont had to get past Grandier. Turns out Grandier had a weak spot. He liked women. A lot. And women were madly in love with Grandier. At the Ursuline monastery the nuns, led by Sister Jeanne of Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) dreamt of Grandier as well and when he turned them down Sister Jeanne went bananas and claimed that Grandier is the devil and had raped the entire monastery. This is something the Baroncan could use and with the help of the inquisitor, Father Barre (Michael Gothard) they were soon ready to burn Grandier on the stake.

So, this is a story about religion as a tool for political gains. It is also a story about the insanity of witch hunt, and it is the story of sexually undernourished nuns and how far they will go when refused.

All this is potentially interesting. Add the period element and I am definitely open to it.

But this is the early seventies where anything can be ruined by making it an artistic expression. Ken Russell did not go for a realistic or even a mystic expression but went stylistic instead. All out. In order to throw in a lot of symbolism he created a dream like (or nightmarish) world, where the town is all white bricks, the monastery is white and entirely empty, the cathedral black and full of straight lines, doctors magicians from the world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and practically everybody except for Grandier madmen and women.

The weird orgy of the nuns is bizarre, the king a clown and Richelieu drives around on a strange twentieth century construct in an equally modern prison-like office.

This is how Godard would make a period piece and somehow I am not surprised to find that in the early seventies other directors were going the same way. The symbolism and stylisism (is that a word?) completely sabotages the movie.

Add to that that the movie is incredibly cruel and barbaric. Oh, I have no doubt the seventieth century was a barbaric era. The barbarism of the thirty-year war is legendary. But Russell is extremely graphic and appears to take a sick pleasure in the pain people are going through. Combine that with the sex and the masturbation and this becomes really sickening.

There were times, many times, where I was wondering if I really wanted to go through with this and the only reason I can think of is that I am a completist.

“The Devils” caused controversy and various churches condemned it and still does. Seriously, perceived blasphemy is the least evil of this movie. It is the destruction of a worthy story by artistic expression.

Not recommended. Just skip it.    

Thursday 8 October 2020

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)


Motorvej USA

There is a certain category of movies I would call nerd-movies. Those are movies that embrace a particular topic, have characters who are really into that topic, and which treat the topic with respect. I find it fascinating when people are going all in on their interest and I like the idea of nerd-movies even if I do not always care for the topic.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” is a nerd-movie about racing cars. Not big industry race shows, but dudes who fix their own cars and go around racing as their big, all consuming interest.

Yet, maybe this is also a substance abuse movie…

Two guys, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drive around in their little wonder of a car. The shell of it is an old 1955 Chevrolet, derelict and worn, while the inside is an overpowered race car. This car is their entire content in life. The money they make by racing other cars are spent of gas, spare parts and some food. The movie does not even give them names, they are just the driver and the mechanic.

On the road they encounter two people, a girl, known as “the Girl” (Laurie Bird), a drifting hippie who tag along to anybody who will take her anywhere else, and a guy known as GTO (because he drives a Ford GTO, Warren Oates).

The girl is trying to break through to the guys and is not getting anywhere, even if the guys genuinely want to get through to her, but the car interest is so all-consuming that there is no room for her. She is just left on the backseat with the tools. Eventually the girl simply gives up.

GTO is more complex. He loves his car too, but his reason for being on the road seem to be a little different. We get the impression he is trying to get away from something. He picks up lots of hitch hikers and each of them he tells a new story. Also the guys get a few stories from him. It is also unclear where he is going, Miami, New York, Washington, Chicago, Mexico, Montreal. The destination does not really seem to matter, but he clearly has a chip on his shoulder and seems eager to prove himself.

The guys and GTO decide to race to Washington, betting their cars (their lifeblood, really), but none of them seem eager to actually finish the race. Instead there are lots of detours on the way.

The most striking thing about the movie is all these cars, the sound and sight of them and the exhilaration of driving them really fast. If you are into cares this would be a go-to movie for that alone. Beneath this there is a story of disconnect between people. None of these people are successful in reaching out for other people. Either they are incapable or just not interested enough. The most telling moment is when GTO starts on a story which for once may actually be the real one, the Driver asks him to shut up, GTO’s problems is not his problems. With that interest in other people, no wonder they are lonely.

There is an undercurrent indicating that despite their deep interest in cars, these people are wasting away their lives in pointless pursuit of something they are never reaching. It is exciting at first, but gets more and more sad as the movie progresses and even moves into David Lynch territory with surreal and abstract elements. The ending, the celluloid of the filmstrip simply burning away is telling.

Somewhere between a nerd film and an art film, “Two-Lane Blacktop manages to combine the two into something that works on both accounts. I am not that much into cars, but it is difficult not to feel the potency of these custom cars. Learning they have on the other side of 300 horsepower engines, makes may own VW Polo feel truly puny, and I can almost sense the intoxicating power these people must feel from their cars like a drug. Yet, like any drug it leaves you an empty husk when the rush has burned out.

I think it is a moderate recommendation from me. Better than I expected, but probably works better for some than others.

Saturday 3 October 2020

Straw Dogs (1971)



I was warned against “Straw Dogs”. The description in the Book made it sound so uncomfortable that I wondered if I really wanted to watch it and Peckinpah’s previous film on the List “The Wild Bunch” did not sit well with me. I also believe I received warnings from elsewhere that this movie was too much. In that light I am almost disappointed to watch it and find out that it was not as bad as that. Not at all, actually. It may be my jaded 21st century position or it may simply be me expecting worse, but “Straw Dogs” did not exceed my boundaries. I even found it quite compelling.

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a quiet mathematician and his pretty and lively wife Amy (Susan George) have just moved into her old family home in a remote and very rural part of the British countryside. The idea is that he gets the quiet he needs for his mathematical research while she… Well, it is not exactly clear what she is supposed to do, except for being back in her old haunt and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a problem. Amy is bored. Clearly her idea was that their life in seclusion would be that of a love nest with permanent attention thrown her way. David does love her, but there is work time and there is attention time and somehow Amy failed to get that brief.

It is not because attention is unavailable. Half the village hillbillies are drawling over her and as they consider David only half a man, not able to stand up for her, they are moving in. Fooling David into a duck hunt where they park him in the wilderness, they go to rape Amy. This is a weird scene. Right away Amy picks up what they are aiming for. Charlie (Del Henney) is her former boyfriend and, clearly, he thinks he can still get some. Amy resist, but as he is insisting, I get some very mixed and confusing signals from Amy. Does she actually want this? Only when the next in line gets to her do I clearly sense her horror.

Afterwards, Amy never tells David about this and I am uncertain what to make of this. I had sort of expected that David would raise to this provocation and hold the culprits accountable. Instead it will be in defense of the retarded but big Henry Niles (David Warner). At a Christmas event Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) hits on Henry, gets him to follow her out and wants to make out with him. She is the daughter of head-hillbilly Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) and learning Henry is with Janice the hillbilly gang sets out to beat him up, armed with a lot of alcohol. David and Amy accidentally hit Henry with their car and take him home, which leads the hillbilly gang there as well. Soon the Sumner house is under siege.

These last 40 minutes are truly intense. David defends his home like a castle, Amy is pissed at David, Henry is panicking and the hillbilly gang is like a horde of mindless zombies. In fact, this part is very similar to “Night of the Living Dead”, so close in fact that I wonder if the stories have the same source. Even a more recent, but far cozier, movie like “Home Alone” picks up on this theme of a home under siege.

Certainly this part is violent and it is terrifying to see the quiet and friendly mathematician having to kill people, but this is a kill or be killed situation and it is not so that David suddenly turns into a trained killing machine, nor does he have some brilliant defense plans. He simply rises to the occasion and hates every bit of it. Amy seems to be crumpling but also manages to pull through, stepping over the line where she also inflicts damage on other people.

This is bad ass and in your face violence, bestial violence, that David is facing and Peckinpah shows us every bit of it, but there is nothing here I have not seen Tarantino do ten times so I am fairly inured. What Peckinpah manages to here is to remove the cartoon effect and make it real and to keep the steam up in a sequence that could easily become tiresome in less capable hands. The Book says there is no catharsis effect, but I am not so certain of that. Their life in the house is forever ruined, but they did fight this off together and it may be the one thing that could save their marriage.   

I am not a fan of Peckinpah, but there was a lot more to this story and much more relevance too than what I saw from him in “The Wild Bunch”. It actually ends up with a recommendation from me.   

Reading the review on "Straw Dogs" on Steve Honeywell's 1001Plus site got me to philosophize on the name of the movie. Maybe it is just me not being entirely familiar with the term, but I read Straw as referring to the rural setting, the hillbillies, and Dogs as bestiality. Hillbillies turned beasts. David is the opposite, decency and civilization, and his construct is under siege by the straw dogs. The same for Amy, except she thinks she want the beast until she realizes her terrible mistake.