Wednesday 24 February 2021

Superfly (1972)



The last 1972 movie is “Superfly” and that is a worthy capstone to this year.

“Superfly” is a blaxploitation movie in the vein of “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback…”, but better. Many of the ingredients are the same: A black dude on the edge of the law who is incredibly cool and smart and knows how to stick it back to the white man. It also has super hot music and a grimy look at an urban jungle that is raw and poor, but teeming with life. What “Superfly” has compared to its predecessors is production value. It was made on a shoestring budget, but you cannot see that. This is solid stuff.

The cool and smart hero here is Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal). He has made good money on dealing drugs and likes to spend it on bling. Fancy hair, fancy cloth and the most pimped up car I have seen in a long time. Priest however wants to go clean and make a break from the drug business. It is understood that drug dealing is the only opening for a black man so the way to break out is to make a score so big that you do not have to pursue a career. The plan is to by 30 K of coke from Scatter (Julius W. Harris) with the combined funds of Priest and partner Eddie (Carl Lee), sell it and leave.

Scatter’s supplier however is a gang of corrupt, white policemen who does not what to see their distribution network split. Scatter tries to quit and fail. Eddie is happy working for The Man. What is Priest to do?

This is not the most elaborate plot ever. Reputedly, the script for the movie was only 45 pages, but it is enough. This is all about diving into the world of the black ghetto and this portrait gets a lot of attention. Not to the extend of taking over the movie, though. Priest navigates through this world, meeting his clients, his mistresses (I had some trouble keeping track of them), visiting bars, gambling halls and in one of the highlights of the movie, Scatter’s restaurant where Curtis Mayfield is playing (“Pusherman”). In typical blaxploitation style it combines the poverty and deprivation with the energy and cultural strength of the community. Sure, these people are drug dealers, but this is not a movie about drugs, but about the black struggle to break free of chains imposed by The Man (the white dominated society). The function of the drugs is as an allegory on the black community cooperating with the white to keep it imprisoned.

To me this was all about the music and the style. By a curious coincidence I had just been revisiting “Superbad” and “Superfly” felt like a straight continuation. So much so that Apatow must have been inspired by “Superfly” (I suppose the title is a give-away…). Seriously, I was totally chilling with the music.

I have no way of knowing if this movie provides in any way a truthful portrait of the black community, but it felt a lot more honest and straight than “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback” and thin as the story was, it did interest me enough to draw me in. Apparently, I was not alone. “Superfly” was a box office hit, so much so that on the night of the premiere, people broke into the cinema to watch the movie. It seems to have tapped into a need and it lifted movies about the black community into the mainstream.

This is the blaxploitation movie I would recommend, and it is the perfect goodbye to 1972.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Frenzy (1972)



I mistakenly called “Marnie” the last Hitchcock movie on the List. Apologies. The last Hitch on the List is “Frenzy”.

To me, “Frenzy” is a bit of an after-thought. An old man’s pastime, trying to relive his old successes. It is not a bad movie per se, but merely an unnecessary movie. I feel like we have seen it all before from Hitchcock, and usually better, and, well, it is not outright sloppy, but it lacks some soul and depth as if it was done on the cheap as sort of a left hand job.

Hitchcock is back in London where it all began and has made a murder mystery with all the usually Hitchcock ingredients. A Jack the Ripper style murderer is killing off women through strangulation and a man called Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is inadvertently placing himself in a position where he is the prime suspect. Partly by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and partly by being bitter and aggressive to everybody and their mother. Being considered unpleasant is never a good starting point.

When Blaney’s ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is killed, Blaney was spotted on the scene and when his current girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) is found dead, Blaney had just spent the night with her. Of course, nobody believes Blaney to be innocent, least of all the police who can close the case very neatly.

We learn very early that it is Blaney’s friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) who is the murderer. This is not really a spoiler. The element of tension here is that only we know this, while Rusk successfully divert everybody’s attention elsewhere.

So, we have some “The Wrong Man” here, some “Psycho” and a few other Hitch classics thrown together. All in a wrapping that harks back to the very early British productions. It is more graphic than usual for Hitchcock but also a lot less subtle. It is as if he on his old days have decided to speak in capitals and the result is that we as an audience can pretty much guess the next few steps. The murders are gruesome and the predicament of Blaney is tight and people around the scenes are very prejudiced. That may be very helpful to the audience and including a few laughs is usually a good spice, but the end result is that “Frenzy” becomes a bit of a caricature, almost a parody on a murder mystery. The characters become very one-dimensional and flat, types more than people. Rusk is a psychopathic sadist, but mostly because other people describe him as such. There is no backstory. Blaney losses both ex-wife and lover, but instead of a grief-stricken man, he is mostly concerned with avoiding the police. When he turns on Rusk it is because of his treason, not for killing his loved ones.

Even the ending is a bit… off. The police inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) starts musing over Blaney’s accusation that Rusk is the killer and with just few questions to the right people the whole story unravels. Seriously, a man asking dating agencies for women who likes pain, which then turn up dead, such a guy would deserve some investigation one should think.

Add to this a score that sounds like something from a western or “Dynasty” and the picture is complete.

I cannot help thinking that Hitch should have stopped after “The Birds”. This slow deroute is a tarnish to his catalogue and I prefer to remember him for his peak period in the fifties.

The audience liked “Frenzy” though, it was a box office hit. Maybe it is just me expecting too much from Hitchcock.       

Tuesday 9 February 2021

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die Bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant) (1972)


Petra von Kants bitre tårer

In high school we once went to the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. That is a big thing when you live in a small town in Jylland. I do not recall the name of the show, but it was something by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the only thing I remember here thirty years later is that I was bored senseless.

Maybe that is the reason I have stubbornly avoided Fassbinder through all those years. No more so, Fassbinder is behind this next entry on the list and there is no way around it.

I have no idea if “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (“Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant”) is representative of Fassbinder, but it was pretty much what I expected a Fassbinder movie would be like. Very static, very talkative, very much filmed theater, and quite intellectual.

If the reader now think that I did not like the movie and was bored yet again, then I am sorry to disappoint. Maybe all those very symbolic and stylized movies this era is so full of has inured me, but I found “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” far easier to deal with than most of the movies over the past few years. It is fairly straight forward and not without humor.

Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is a fashion designer and probably a reasonably celebrated one. We find her in her bedroom/atelier/living room, well, the only room we ever see in this movie. There is a second character in the room, Marlene (Irm Hermann). She does Petra’s every bidding and never say a word. She functions as a maid, but it is more than that. Petra gets a kick out of domineering Marlene and Marlene seems to enjoy the degradation of being treated no better than furniture.

Petra gets a visitor, her friend Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), which gives Petra the opportunity to talk a lot about herself. It is quite clear that Petra is very impressed with herself and takes a position superior to everybody else. She does what she wants and if people cannot follow her, she discards them. Sidonie introduces Petra to Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), a girl half Petra’s age and just returned after five years in Australia. Petra smells young meat and sets out to seduce the girl. Right in front of Marlene.

So far, this has been fairly dull, mainly a demonstration of how dominant and arrogant Petra von Kant is. Six months pass and we now find Karin in Petra’s bed but deeply uninterested in Petra, and this is where the story is turned upside down. Petra has lost her power over Karin and in return Karin knows exactly how to cut Petra to pieces and coldly wields that power. Watching Petra taking the verbal beating was actually funny, which is not really nice of me, but the free fall of Petra into humiliation was not… undeserved. Karin simply walks out on Petra and there is nothing Petra can do except lash out on Marlene. That Marlene should see her degradation is the ultimate humiliation.

Losing the position of power is everything to Petra so when she gets visitors for her birthday, she is a sorry sight, lashing out against everybody, including her own daughter and mother. Only when Karin calls her does she get some of her position back and now she does not need her family anymore, they can please go away. Maybe Petra has now become a masochist and gotten her fix from her young master.

The final scene when Marlene leaves is a bit mysterious. On Wikipedia the analysis is that Marlene will not get her masochism satisfied anymore. My interpretation is that Marlene exacts the perfect revenge: by simply leaving.

It is so cliché German with a story about power games, but I have to say it works, in a slightly sickening way. Defining yourself in terms of power and position is primal but also so primitive, as if it is something you really should grow out of as an adult. Yet, there are people who needs this to give value and meaning to their lives. I am certain there is a lot of material for a psychologist right there.

“The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” was better than I thought but it is an extremely static and talkative movie and me as a high school student would still have been bored senseless.


Monday 1 February 2021

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie) (1972)


Borgerskabets diskrete charme

It is time for another movie by Luis Bunuel and this time I am quite charmed…literally.

“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise” (“Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie”) is a strange movie, full of Bunuel’s surreal ideas. It is also a comedy where the surreal become farcical, resulting in one of the most enjoyable Bunuel movies so far on the List.

Relating the plot is virtually impossible. Six characters, Rafael Acosta, ambassador to the invented country of Miranda (Fernando Rey), Mr. and Mrs. Thevenot (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig), Thevenot’s sister Florence (Bulle Ogier) and Mr. and Mrs. Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran) try to meet to have dinner, but are every time interrupted, usually by something surreal. People show up on the wrong evening, the hosts have sneaked out to have some alone time in the garden, the owner of the restaurant has died and a wake is in progress and so one. The interruptions get weirder and weirder and play out with that straight face that make them hilariously funny.

There are a lot of dreams in the movie, which seem to have multiple purposes. The most obvious being as a reset button. Whenever the story has moved far enough out of a surreal tangent, somebody wakes up and we learn that it was just a dream. That helps a lot to ground the movie because the most surreal elements are then explained, but we never know when the story turned into a dream, which is yet another surreal element. Of course, as in all of Bunuel’s movies there are deeper meanings where I am certain the dreams play a role, though those are not entirely clear to me. Something Freudian about repressed thoughts seems to fit. These members of the bourgeoisie appear to live a carefree life where their only concern is their own company and to get something good to eat and drink. The dreams are then their guilt, all the things they should have been concerned with. There is even a dream within a dream and, as a bizarre element, random people who come up to the characters to tell them about a dream as, of course, these things happen all the time to people.

The characters are not really evil or bad, they just want to meet and eat some food. Sure, the men are smuggling drugs and the ambassador is having an affair and under constant attack for things happening in his country, but that is all very trivial. What matters is how to serve a dry martini or to cut up a lamb roast.

Bunuel was always political so of course “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise” is political. He draws a parallel between the modern bourgeoisie and the eighteenth-century court at Versailles, where the nobles lived their insular lives of pleasantries, immune to whatever ailed the world. Here Bunuel lets that world constantly distract the bourgeoisie, but not in any dramatic way, mostly, but enough to break up the activity they really wanted to be engaged in. And, because this is Bunuel, there is even a priest.

I cannot say that much of the movie made a lot of sense and normally that would bother me, but not this time. Instead I was constantly chucking at all the absurdities Bunuel is coming up with. Not unlike my experience with L’Age D’Or. This is fun crazy stuff. Not outright slapstick, but the tangents just constantly slide into the bizarre with such ease.

Although there are obviously deeper motives, the great thing is that it is not necessary at all to read politics and Freudian themes into the movie because it is so amusing even at face value. It is crazy and insane and absolutely enjoyable.

Highly recommended for those (like me) with a penchant for absurd comedy.