Thursday 26 November 2020

The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) (1971)



The second off-List movie of 1972 is actually a double feature. I know I am supposed to be done with 1971, but since I want to watch “The New Land” for 1972, I have to start with “The Emigrants” (“Utvandrarna”) from 1971. No harms done, though. This is a great movie.

I spent a lot of time in the eighties reading through my father’s library. It was a fairly random collection of books, but I was not particularly critical and ended up reading most of it. This included a vast epic by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg about a group of Swedish peasants in the mid-nineteenth century who, driven by poverty and misfortune, left their ancestral Småland to cross the ocean to begin a new life in Minnesota. It made a big impression on me back then, especially the first volumes, but somehow I completely missed the 71-72 miniseries.

The first installment, “Utvandrarna” covers the first two books. We meet Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) and his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann), trying to make their farm work. But this is Småland, the soil is poor and rocky and the outcome uncertain. When things are good they can barely make ends meet and when misfortune strike… well, their hole is getting deeper and deeper and finally even Kristina sees no other way than leaving. We also meet Karl Oskars brother Robert (Eddie Axberg). Robert is a dreamer, wishing for a different life than that of being a farm hand, a job he is completely unsuited for. His desire to move away is also strongly motivated by the sadistic farmer he is indentured to. Finally, we meet Danjel (Allan Edwall), Kristina’s uncle, a puritan preacher whose religious activities makes him an enemy of the local clergy. Danjel brings his flock with him to America, certain that their faith will protect them from all danger.

For these peasants everything about this journey is new and terrifying. The boat ride is like a purgatory with illness and death in the crammed and unhealthy quarters below deck. Danjel is losing his wife and later his infant daughter and their faith is not enough to protect the flock from seasickness. It is an exercise in humility for that once confident and proud man.

Arriving in Minnesota there may not be much there but potential, and it is with this promise this first half of the story ends.

This is epic, Swedish style. That means very slow and very moody, but this is also a story that begs to be told in this manner. The camera likes to dwell on the scenes, and we get very close to the characters. This makes us feel their misfortunes so much the harder, but it is also at times difficult not to be a bit impatient with the movie. I could easily see many modern viewers get bored by it. It is also a very impressive recreation of the 1840’ies. Everything, cloth, food, houses, mannerisms are very faithful to the era and it always pleases me when even the small details are right. Therefore it was also a bit disappointing to learn that it was all filmed in Sweden, which of course explains why Minnesota looks this much like a Swedish forest… Then again, maybe it does, never been there.

A thought that kept coming back to me through the three hour running time was how much this story resembles that of the migrants today, leaving miserable lives in Africa or the Middle East to find a new life in Europe. The boat ride could be the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in an excuse for a boat, and the mismatch between the dream of the destination and the harsh reality that meet them on arrival is also comparable. The major difference I suppose is that America was considered an open land that had use for the new arrivals. Not quite so for a goatherder from Somalia.

About a million Swedes left for America and even though “only” 300.000 Danes went that way everybody has some distant relative in America. My grandfather’s brother left in the beginning of the last century for Canada and I remember meeting his grand children back in my youth, thinking it was magic I had family so far away.

“Utvandrarna” brought back the memories of reading the books. This is a very faithful adaption, and it is just as fascinating as I remember the story. It is quiet drama, but life and death drama nonetheless. A big recommendation from me. Soon I will watch the second part…


Friday 20 November 2020

Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo Tango a Parigi) (1972)


Sidste tango i Paris

I recall watching “Last Tango in Paris” many years ago and that at the time I thought it sucked. Over the years the details have faded to the point where I mostly remembered something about Marlon Brando being an ass and a lot of sex. Obviously, I was not really looking forward to go through this again.

When you start this low it is difficult not to be positively surprised. “Last Tango in Paris” is not as bad as that, but I cannot say I was impressed either.

Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) happen to visit the same vacant apartment at the same time and somehow start a sexual relationship. I am still a bit baffled how that actually happened, but the point is that Paul insists they know nothing about each other. There is only sex between them. Pure, objectified sex. She is a (very) pretty young girl and he is a brutish middle aged man who takes her when he wants her.

This apparently was a sexual fantasy of director Bertolucci, and it tastes like such a fantasy. Maria Schneider is delicious, but I wonder who would think the same about the abusive Paul character, even played by Marlon Brando? Obviously, I am lacking some insight here, but my failure to understand this attraction is a real problem when trying to get into the story. The idea is that as long as Jeanne and Paul’s relationship is pure objectification and sexual gratification, it is great and gives them something, but when that illusion breaks and they get to know the person underneath, the relationship is less attractive.

And that is essentially the story.

There are two substories. Jeanne is engaged to Jean-Pierre, an aspiring movie director, and that is also a strange relationship. He is obsessed with making a cinema verité movie with Jeanne and is constantly followed by a film crew. Yet it is his own film he is interested in, not really her. Another objectification.

The other story is about Paul. His wife has committed suicide for unknown reasons. They were running a hotel together and she was having an affair with one of the guests and was apparently open about it. Paul and the other guy even wear the same bathrobe. This story may explain why Paul is a bit unhinged, but little else. I even cannot work out if it is a parallel story or watched in flashback.

I did not remember those subplots and they made me hope that I had underestimated the movie, that there were some deeper layers worth exploring, but tying them up it did not lead much further than that Paul was a miserable character and not that attractive. Not the deepest analysis, I know, but all I really saw was that a sexual fantasy only works as long as it is a sexual fantasy. Reality is far too bland and depressing and ruins the fun. And apparently sexual fantasy includes being raped in the butt by a middle-aged man.

Maybe the premier claim to fame is the explicit sex element. There is a lot of skin at display and it is also obvious that the sexual element is central to the story. I cannot complain of what we see of Maria Schneider, she is a very pretty girl, but if this was supposed to be exciting (and I got a feeling this was the intension) it is failing badly. Maybe I have just grown too old, to me it just looked sad and pathetic. Also, rape is not really my thing.

Maybe “Last Tango is Paris” is not as bad as I expected, but it did by no means win me over. Its mix of sex and existential crisis is often a winning formula or a poor excuse to make pornography, but I was really hoping for something more. Sorry, not a recommendation from me.

Friday 13 November 2020

Cabaret (1972)



Back in high school our school was once visited by a theater ensemble, doing songs from “Cabaret”. That particular day our class was sitting on the front row and when the painted host sings the famous “Wilkommen” song he picks my lap to sit on. I do not think I will ever forget that song.

“Cabaret” was one of the big movies in 1972. It won eight Oscars including Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minelli) and best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey). In a decade with very few musicals, the Academy certainly embraced this one.

“Cabaret” certainly does a lot of things right. Rather than the typical filmed theater with dancing cowboys or people spontaneously breaking into song, the music is focused on shows at the decadent Kit Kat Club and these intermezzos are neither filler nor focus but a counterpoint to the action off the stage. This is, at least nominally, my kind of musical.

This is Berlin in the very early thirties. It is before the Nazis took power, but there is an evil foreboding that something bad is going to happen. Partly from the omnipresent Nazi hoodlums and partly from the abandon with which the clientele at the Kit Kat Club embrace the decadence. The Master of Ceremonies at the club (the demonically painted Joel Grey) is the devil, preparing hell while serving bliss.

On this dramatic backdrop we a served an almost boring story of Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) and Brian Robert (Michael York), two foreigners trying to get along in this Berlin before the storm. American Sally is this manic pixie character with a dream of being a famous actor (think Louise Brooks, famous at that time in Germany for Pandora’s Box), yet stuck with a job as singer at the Kit Kat Club. Brian is the new arrival, a British aspiring writer who teaches English and is (almost openly) gay. Their story is mostly of them being friends, both of them falling in love with a rich baron and Sally getting pregnant. If this sound a bit on the dull side then I got it right. I had a hard time working out what the point with their story was. It is more of a portrait of two odd characters than anything else. Liza Minelli may have inherited her singing voice from her mother, but her manic character in this story is one I quickly got tired of. There is a desperation to her mania, which makes her a sad character despite her energy, but it does prevent me from wanting to slap some sense into her.

The gay Brian is the more interesting character, but his role is more to support Liza Minnelli than to develop a character of his own. His voice though evokes that of Roger Livesey and that is a voice I can listen to for hours without tiring.

The most interesting element to the Sally and Brian story is their encounters with the world of Berlin in 31. The political violence, the poverty, the decadence and the growing antisemitism. The feeling that it is five minutes to twelve is one of the strongest assets of the movie.

A musical however should be measured by the music and that part of it is outstanding. Whenever we return to the Kit Kat Club I would wake up from my dose and enjoy the demonic spectacle there. This is excellent music and a fascinating show. An ugly one, but one that I could feel deep inside, especially when the Master of Ceremonies would smile at the camera.

A high-tension setting, a great show, but a dull story, “Cabaret” is not perfect and it ended up feeling long, but the spectacle is remarkable and it remains a must-see.

Sunday 8 November 2020

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)


SOS Poseidon kalder

The first off-List movie of 1972 is “The Poseidon Adventure”. The List editors, like the Academy, have their preferences. Some genres (dramas and art films particularly) are well represented while others are not. Disaster movies definitely belong is the later category with only some token representatives. I suppose they are considered pulp, and while I tend to agree, they are often very entertaining pulp.

“The Poseidon Adventure” is most likely not the first disaster movie ever (“Airport” is often mentioned as an earlier exponent of the genre), but it is widely considered the mother of the big-budget disaster spectacles of the kind Hollywood inanely continue to crunch out to this day. It has all the classic ingredients except one: the complete absence of CGI.

The SS Poseidon is an almost derelict ocean liner (think Titanic) on its last voyage from the US to Greece. Shortly before reaching Greece, on New Years night it is toppled by a tsunami wave, leaving it floating around bottoms up.

In classic disaster movie style, we are introduced to a seemingly random host of characters who only have this in common that eventually they will meet up and try to get out together. The premier of these is Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) whose mantra seems to be “If you want to get thing done, do it yourself”. Sort of an action priest. When the ship capsizes, he tries to gather people around to go the stern, hoping to get out that way. Most people however decide to be sheep and wait around to die. The team he does assemble is a very uneven affair. An elderly Jewish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) on their way to Israel to visit their grandson. Two children, brother and sister (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin). Mr. Lonely and singer, James and Nonnie (Red Buttons and Carol Lynley). A purser, Acres (Roddy McDowall) and newlywed, former prostitute Linda Rogo (Stella Stevens) and policeman Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine).

Through the bulk of the movie we have essentially an escape room scenario where each room holds their own challenges, each character get a chance to shine and ever so often one of the characters will succumb to the challenges as the ship breaks apart.

On the positive, this is a grand spectacle. The setting, the upside-down ship, is simply astounding. Every single detail is reversed and there is no cheating here. We are talking real fire, water and toilets upside down. Without CGI all the special effects are analogue, and it shows in realism. It is even so that many of the stunts where done by the actors themselves (Shelley Winters gained a lot of weight and learned to dive to do her own underwater stunt without artificial padding!). Technically this movie is top notch.

Where it falls apart is the usual place for disaster movies. An all-star cast could not prevent that all these characters become incredibly cliché. They are almost archetypical of the type of person they are supposed to represent, to the extent that there is absolutely no individuality in any of them. It is all surface, no depth. It is no wonder when you have this many characters and the focus is on the disaster itself, but it makes the movie feel very dated and almost involuntarily funny. There were periods where I was thinking that the movie tried hard to be a family movie with comical relief and all (the mis-matched Rogo couple), but then, the tragedy of all the death around them makes this a fairly poor choice for children to watch.

I probably have more tolerance for this kind of pulp than most people. Give me an interesting setting and I can put up with a lot of crap. Had the child been less annoying, the Rogo’s less comical, Nonnie less scared of everything and the preacher less gung-ho this could have been a great movie. Now I will settle for it being a good representative of a disaster movie and a must see for fans of the genre.

Incidentally, the public loved it. Following its release in 72, it became the highest grossing movie of 73 at the box office.

I think the editors should have carved out a space for this one. It would add a bit of adrenaline to the List.


Tuesday 3 November 2020

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)



After the success with “A New Leaf” I was looking forward to “The Heartbreak Kid”, this being another Elaine May movie. Unfortunately for me it belongs to that particularly category of comedies where everything goes from bad to worse and we as supposed to love it. This works for many people, but not so well for me. I mentioned this in my review of “The Out of Towners” and, yeah, it is still an issue.

Lenny (Charles Grodin) is a New York salesman who is getting married to Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter). It is one of those marriages where the couple hardly know each other going in (some cultures like it like that) and true enough, soon they realize, or at least Lenny realizes, that the other person is not exactly what was expected. Lila is annoying and borderline stupid, and Lenny is grumpy and mean. Their honeymoon is getting worse and worse and by the time they reach Florida, Lenny is not that much in love with Lila anymore.

At this point Kelly (Cybil Shepherd) shows up, a tall, blond and provocative girl who nudges Lenny enough to catch his attention and then he is sold. From now on he keeps Lila at a distance with all sorts of crazy stories while paying court to Kelly and her less than enthusiastic father (Eddie Albert).

It is impossible to root for neither Lenny nor Lila. Lila is too annoying and Lenny is a total dick. That does not mean it is not funny though. Lenny’s pursuit of Kelly is death defying for lack of a better word, juggling Lila and Kelly and trying to convince Kelly’s father of his honorable intentions. In the best scene of the entire movie Lenny is explaining in very sincere terms to Mr. Corcoran that he is newly married and on his honeymoon but made a mistake and now wants his daughter. This is of course completely outrageous and Mr. Corcoran is struggling not to explode. It is as if Lenny does not even understand how far out he is.

Similarly, when he takes Lila out to eat and to explain to her that he wants a divorce and actually think that this could have a good outcome, which of course it does not. Again, the sincerity explaining something completely outrageous.

Lenny is a madman, a stalker and lacking any sense of propriety. That is funny, but it is also completely impossible to watch. I am a bit strange when it comes to that. The deeper Lenny sank in his schemes, the less I was able to watch it. It is just not easy watching somebody dig their own grave, especially when they hurt people in the process.

Lenny actually gets all he wanted, despite all odds, only to find out maybe this was not what he wanted after all. A suitably bittersweet conclusion.

I really do not like watching people get themselves in trouble. I have to disentangle myself from the characters, tell myself Lenny is an ass and hoping he will get caught in his own schemes. That sort of works, but it is not easy. I cannot say I fully enjoyed “The Heartbreak Kid”, but I am also certain I am in the minority. It was popular enough that a remake was made in 2007 and that is probably the version most people will recognize.