Tuesday 26 January 2021

Fat City (1972)


Fat City

It seems to me I am getting more and more negative in these reviews. I really do not mean to be, I go into them with an open mind and hope to be wowed, but too often I sit back afterwards, struggling to find something nice to say. This was no exception, but I will try to make this a bit more positive.

“Fat City” is essentially about stupid people throwing their lives away, a bit like “Wanda”. It is also about boxing and I happen to be one of those few people who think boxing is a barbaric sport. Watching two men beat the crap out of each other for sport is just… awful.

So, we start at a low here.

Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is a former boxer who dreams of coming back to the sport and make it big. Unfortunately, he is also a weak person with limited self-control and discipline, not terribly bright and busy blaming everybody else for his life of failure. He is pretty much white trash. In the course of the movie, he tries to get back into boxing, then give it up and goes back to random field jobs. He hooks up with an alcoholic woman, Oma (Susan Tyrell), whose life is even more messed up than Billy’s. Predictably, that does not last long. Billy gets back to boxing again, this time with more luck, and he actually gets to box a game (against an opponent with a stomach disease) but then he gets upset with his coach and drops out again.

Meanwhile we meet Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a very young man with a talent for boxing. Sparring with Billy, he is encouraged to join a club and fight a few games, but then his girlfriend gets pregnant and she coerces him into marrying her so he quits boxing and now he is out doing random jobs in the fields.

However, this is a movie by John Huston, THE John Huston. That means that despite this is a movie on Cheapside, there is nothing random or poorly crafted about the movie. It is exactly as intended, on the set, the acting and the characters. This is high quality meant to look cheap and that makes it rather different from uneven movies such as “Wanda”. Huston is also able to get amazing performances out of his cast. They may look like scum, but that is just first class acting. Susan Tyrell as Oma is particularly amazing. I could have sworn Huston had simply found her in a bar somewhere, but Tyrell had quite an acting career and was nominated for an Oscar for Oma.

It is a bleak story, but it is also a relevant story. Poverty and out-of-luck themes of course always have their particular relevance, but the central theme here is the illusion of the chance to make it big. These are people who cannot really deal with the idea of making it to Fat City. They want to so bad, seeing that it will somehow save them, but they crumple under the pressure and it is simply not realistic that they will get there, but without it they have nothing. Billy and Oma and to some extend also Ernie expect that it will happen, that it will come to them, that, somehow, they are entitled, but they give up and see it slip out of their hands. When Billy and Oma are done beating up themselves it is time to blame the rest of the world.

There is a very nice scene at the end of the film where Billy and Ernie are sitting at the counter watching the old man pouring them coffee. Billy scuffs at the thought of ending up like that man, but then he smiles, and it turns out he is happy, and it is as if Billy and Ernie realize that that is the objective, that this old man has made it.

See, that was not so negative. Still, this is not the movie I would recommend to someone about to go lockdown-nuts. At least, check first there are no tall places to jump out from or sharp knives in the room.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Cries and Whispers (Viskingar och Rop) (1972)


Hvisken og råb

Once again, I am in that annoying place where a movie is making me feel stupid.

“Cries and Whispers” (“Viskningar och rop”) is yet another movie by Ingmar Bergman and this time he has made an effort to make it really opaque. Normally his movies are about the absence of God, but not this time (I think). This time I have found no simple key to understand it.

In a Swedish manor, sometime in the late 19th century, a woman is sick. Her name is Agnes (Harriet Anderson) and she is confined to her bed. Around her are three women looking out for her these last few days. The movie takes turns focusing on each of them.

Agnes was envious on Maria (Liv Ullmann), her sister, who always got their mother’s attention while Agnes was the outside child.

Maria is the pretty one. She is having an affair with the doctor, which makes her husband stab himself. She also really likes to touch people.

Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is the repressed sister. She lives in a loveless marriage and tries herself to be tight and cold, but her bitterness and frustrations spill over and she seems to get some release from cutting her own genitals and smearing the blood in her face.

Anna (Kari Sylwan), the maid, actually cares about Agnes, maybe the only one who does. She will on two occasions sit with Agnes head on her naked breast like a mother with a child. She also has a macabre vision of Agnes talking from the dead. Anna is quickly dismissed by the sisters after the funeral.

Everything is red, very red, except some of the dresses which are white or black. But otherwise, everything is saturated in red, even the fadeouts. Something about that Bergman thought that was the color of the soul. Speaking of which, this is all some vision Bergman had, about some women in red rooms, and as far as I can tell that is the deeper idea of this.

I tried to read up on “Cries and Whispers”, Wikipedia has a lengthy article about it, but I did not get much smarter, which bothers me. I can usually work out what Bergman wanted to say with his movies, but in his later films this point is getting deeper and deeper buried. It is something about female psyche, maybe an Orpheus (?) story, the women are different aspects of Bergman’s mother, things like that. My own analysis is that they are all flawed women who are caught in their own misery and have to live with that (or die). That is pretty weak, and I am not very happy with that analysis.

I would like to say that it is a pretty movie and clever and all, but without a key to watch it, it very easily becomes a series of random pictures. Also, I found it distracting to look at Liv Ullmann. To me she is Kristina in the “The Emigrants”, a character who is infinitely different from Maria, but, obviously, with the same face. Also, Henning Moritzen was an odd and distracting casting for Maria’s husband.

The critics were ecstatic about “Cries and Whispers” and the term masterpiece gets thrown around quite a bit. I think they got more out of it than I did. So, I think this is mostly recommended for Bergman afficionados and critics. And those who really like red.


Friday 15 January 2021

The Godfather (1972)


The Godfather

Okay, here is an embarrassing confession: I never watched “The Godfather” before now. Given the reputation of this movie I understand this is a shocking confession, but there you go. The reason is that the subject matter, the Mafia, never interested me much and so, whenever the movie was brought up, I skipped.

Now I have remedied that fault. Plus, I got something that most people have not had in year: The chance to experience “The Godfather” for the first time and with very little prior knowledge. That is a nice bonus.

“The Godfather” has a huge reputation. It won Best Picture for the year and was the highest grossing movie ever, at the time. Characters and quotes from it have entered not just pop-culture but regular vocabulary. The “We will make him an offer he cannot refuse” quote has that sinister ring because of this movie. Some are likely to call this the best movie ever made. I would not go anywhere that far, but I freely admit that this is a captivating story and a movie with a very high production value.

The Corleone family is headed by Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), also known as Don Corleone. The Corleone is a regular mafia family who in 1945 do old school mafia stuff such as gambling, booze, prostitution and general manipulation of politicians, judges and media for friends and family. As the “Don”, Vito Corleone is father, CEO and king in one person. There is no distinction between family and business affairs, it is all tied together, and being an employee is essentially to be part of the family. Very Sicilian.

At the start of the movie Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has returned from the war as a war hero. He has a girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton) from outside the mafia world and is considered outside the family business, both by the family and by himself. This changes when Vito is attempted murdered for refusing to go into drugs. It drags Michael into the mafia and it is soon clear that he is the only one of Vito’s sons who has the talent to inherit the family business.

The movie charts Michaels passage from outsider to become “Don” himself and the kind of personal changes that leads him there. This is “The Giant” in New York, the evolution of a family empire, but also, and much more so, the personal evolution of Michael. He is formed by the killing of his first wife and his brother and the siege mentality of having the entire world ganging up against the family. He goes into this with ideals and principles that belong to the outside world, but gradually these are replaced by the values of the family. It is tragic, but fascinating to watch and it made Al Pacino a star.

“The Godfather” is a long movie and clocks in at 3 hours, but it has to be so to cover the ground needed. It must have an epic format and there has to be a slow melancholy to the movie, a sense of innocence lost, magnificently underscored by Nino Rota’s haunting tune made famous by the movie. The camera dwells for a while, the pace is low, and then it explodes. It is a perfect balance between giving the right ambience and driving the plot forward in a way that 3 hours does not seem like a long time.

I also have to commend the producers for the authenticity of the fabric of the movie. Actors with Italian background were picked, even down to minor roles and they occasionally switch to Italian. Cars, cloths, hairstyles all reflect the periods and the settings perfectly. It feels so real through and through. The only one not Italian was Marlon Brando, but he compensated by giving the performance of his career. This is what a mafia Don looks and sounds like today.

I can of course only recommend “The Godfather”. It is a much better movie than I thought in all my years of avoiding it. I have not suddenly turned into a mafia movie afficionado, it is just that this movie is so much more.

Fun fact: Corleone is a real place on Sicily. A colleague of mine did a wind farm there a few years ago.

Tuesday 5 January 2021

Silent Running (1972)


Off-List: Verdens sidste Have

The third (or fourth) off-List movie for 1972 is “Silent Running”, a movie that in many respects have been flying under the radar, but which has a premise which is just too interesting to miss.

Some time in the future nature has apparently become so scarce that the various biomes of Earth are preserved under dome on spaceships out around Saturn. Yup, that sounds pretty bad. One of these is the Valley-Forge, crewed by four humans and three drones. The humans are Lowell (Bruce Dern), an avid gardener who is thriving in the biomes, and Keenan (Cliff Potts), Barker (Ron Rifkin) and Wolf (Jesse Vint) for whom taking care of the ship is just another boring job. When, finally, the call come in to terminate the mission it is not in order to bring nature back to Earth, but literally to terminate the biomes, separate them from the ships and blow them up.

Barker, Keenan and Wolf are delighted and start blowing up the domes with gusto, while Lowell is despairing. He kills one of the guys, fighting over a shovel, and sends the other two out with one of the exploding domes. Alone with the drones he escapes with the Valley-Forge and drifts around in deep space.

I watched some of this years ago, enough to recall the drones, charming little fellows and likely the model for the drones in Star Wars, but nothing of the actual plot. In that sense, this was a new movie to me. At first impression this seems to be an environmentalist movie about saving and protecting nature as something precious and something which cannot be restored once lost. The thought that you have to preserve it, not just in space, but as far out as around Saturn would make the situation on Earth very bad indeed and with this effort to preserve it, the order to destroy the domes that much more incredulous. I honestly thought that this criminal order would be the centerpiece of the movie, that it would have been exposed as false or an evil act the protagonists are up against, but therein I was disappointed. We never learn why this order was given and there is no remorse. It is just something that happens, like a budget cut and that is it. That, of course may be a point in itself. An uncaring human race will just throw this away with the same neglect as it ruined the Earth.

Throwing me a bit, it helped me focus on what seems to be the real story here, which is the personal story of Lowell. In order to save what he loved he committed the crime of killing people and now have to live with the consequences. He is alone with his consciousness, with the drones as his only company, but sweet as they are, they are not people and projecting human characters onto them does not change that. In the end Lowell must cave in and face the music.

Maybe it is an expression of how much bigger the ecological agenda has become in an age of global warning or maybe it is just me who like the science fiction element better, but I feel this was a case of giving up the interesting story to a trivial story. Or maybe it is just not interesting enough having Lowell float around in space, taking care of his garden and the audience had to have the personal story. Anyway, I cannot shake the sense of lost opportunity here,

Having said that, there is still a lot to enjoy about “Silent Running”. The spaceship design is pretty cool with that clunky seventies technology and the domed gardens was a very nice touch. The drones too are very charming. From an age before CGI there are real midget actors inside, helping for give them an anthropomorphic touch and solidity that CGI robots lack. You also get a lot of that claustrophobic loneliness that only a spaceship can provide.

I would love to call this an environmentalist science fiction movie, but it only goes part way there and is mostly a moral tale that man cannot make it alone and has to face up to his crimes even when committed for something he loves. That may be enough, but I wanted more.

Friday 1 January 2021

Solaris (Solyaris) (1972)



“Solaris” is one of those movies that make me feel incredibly stupid. Watching it, I found it hard to understand what was going on and even harder to understand what it all means. The extra material includes some analysis, but this I found even harder to comprehend and left me feeling dumber than ever. I tried reading up on it from various sources, but to no avail. It is very clear that “Solaris” is concerned with some fundamental aspects of the human condition and also that these mean more than the actual narrative, but I am struggling here.

This is what I got out of it.

We meet Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) at a countryside house belonging to his parents. He is about to leave for a space station above a planet called Solaris. Solaris may be an intelligent planet (?), but years of research have failed to make contact and the mission controllers are considering shutting the project down. It is my understanding that Kris has to evaluate the project on the spot in order to make that decision.

Kris is visited by a former astronaut, Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) on the station who was dismissed in disgrace when, after an accident on the station, he claimed to have met with a four-meter-tall boy. On Earth he has a normal version of this boy. Berton wants something from Kris, but I could not work out what it was. Kris is indifferent and Berton leaves in disgust.

For five minutes Berton drives around on highways in China…

Kris arrives on the space station, but there is nobody there to greet him. Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) asks him to take it easy, Dr. Satorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is outright dismissive and Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has killed himself, but left a largely incomprehensible video message for Kris. The station is in disrepair, it is literally falling apart and there is a feeling of lethargy. Kris wanders around and starts to see people who are not supposed to be there. It does not seem to concern him too much.

This changes when Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears. This is Kris’ former wife who died 10 years earlier after he had left her. Kris sends her away in a rocket, but a second copy is soon back. Dr. Sartorius explains that they are constructs the planet creates from their minds, that they are physical enough but artificial constructs and that they all have these guests. Hari tries to cope with the fact that she is not the real Hari and is distressed about it while Kris response is to try to protect her. He is still in love with her and it does not matter that she is a construct.

Dr. Snaut wants to send a brain image of Kris to Solaris before they finally kill it (?) and this has the effect that the guests disappear. Kris is then back at the country house with his father, only this also just a construct, an island on the ocean of Solaris.


Solaris is apparently compared to Kubrick’s “2001: Space Odyssey” and I can see why. Both are considered incomprehensible science fiction movies, but where the Space Odyssey is very sparse in dialogue, the characters in “Solaris” just cannot stop talking. What they are saying is not outright obscure, just not very helpful in understanding what is really going on here. I have often complained about those, often French, movies who sacrifice the narrative in order to emphasize a symbolic message, and Solaris is flirting with this problem. There is a point to it all that director Tarkovsky is trying to bring across, but whatever it is, it is so amorphous and diffuse that it remains outside my perception and renders the rest, not entirely pointless but incomprehensible. Long passages looking at old pictures, driving in China, wandering the space station…

Kris prefers his dream to reality. Humankind needs other humans. It also fears the unknown and will rather destroy it than try to comprehend it. The guests are Solaris’ way of communicating by picking the scientists brains and showing them what they care for the most, but why? To teach them about themselves? To try to understand the humans? Is this something about that reality is only a construct in the first place and that you chose yourself which reality you want to live in?

Perhaps. As mentioned I am still wondering what this is actually about and suspect I am just not mentally equipped to understand “Solaris” and Tarkovsky. I wish I was though.

Some people did get it. “Solaris” won the Palme D’Or in Cannes and has fans around the world. So, I guess it is just me.