Wednesday 30 June 2021

Fantastic Planet (Le Planete Sauvage) (1973)


Fantastic Planet

Well, that was an… ahem… weird experience.

Once upon a time in a galaxy very far away from Disneyland, reigned the Traags. They were a race of blue giants with red eyes who considered themselves very highly evolved and spent much of their time meditating so their spirits could go to the planet’s moon to merge with some statues and propagate the species.

Beneath the giant Traag lived the tiny, humanlike Om. They were treated like vermin by the Traag. Sometimes they kept them as pets, sometimes they sent out the pest control units to keep the nuisance down, but mostly they did not care. Meanwhile the Oms lived a precarious, hunter-gatherer life beset on all sides by dangers.

We follow an Om, whose mother is killed by playing Traag children. He is taken as a pet by the Traag child Tiwa and named Terr. Terr is never considered more than a hamster by Tiwa and is subjected to all sorts of humiliations as he grows up. Unknown to Tiwa, Terr has gained access to a Traag learning device and one day Terr runs away with the device.

The wild Oms are not less barbaric than the Traag, but with access to knowledge, times may change…

This may be a classic story about oppression, rebellion and freedom but the wrapping is anything but classic. As a cartoon this is highly experimental on every level. The animation and the dialogue, but particularly in the design. This is supposed to take place on an alien planet and by Jupiter, this planet is alien! Plants, animals, concepts, technology. The propagation cycle of the Traag is downright bizarre. The only thing recognizable is the Om, who are described and drawn very much as humans, so familiar that you have to wonder how we ended up on that planet.

The very alien design of course has as purpose to camouflage the underlying story. “Fantastic Planet” came out of Czechoslovakia (with some French help) at a time when the communist party was busy ensuring there would not be a repeat of the Spring in Prague, so a story about big, bad guys treating people like vermin had to be well camouflaged.

In fact, “Fantastic Planet” has been touted as allegorical on every level, connecting it with racism, animal rights and any struggle for freedom or independence imaginable (Wikipedia).   

The end result, when a movie is busy being allegorical, is that the story is at times forced, but that is a minor thing. The lasting impression is how completely trippy the design is and as a consequence how incomprehensible much of the action and dialogue is at surface value. This is definitely not a movie to show your children, it will scare them first and then bore them to death.

For myself, I did enjoy watching “Fantastic Planet”, mostly because of the weird experience it was. You just never saw anything like this before and probably never will.

Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it the 36th greatest animated movie ever. Yay!

Saturday 26 June 2021

The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espirito de la Colmena) (1973)


Ånden i bistaden

“The Spirit of the Beehive” (“El Espiritu de la colmena) is a Spanish movie from the last years of the Franco era. For those not so well acquainted with Spanish history (which includes me), the Fascists, led by Franco, won the Spanish civil war in the late thirties and remained in power until around 1975, being at that time an odd leftover in Europe, but accepted because of their strong anti-communist stance. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, sort of thing.

And what has all this to do with this movie? Well, apparently nothing at all (or everything). This is a very (very!) slow movie about a family in a small village on the Castilian plain in 1940. They live in a manor house, hinting at former wealth, the father raises bees, the, much younger, mother spends her time writing letters to an old lover and the two young girls, Ana (Ana Torrent) and her slightly older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria) spends their time as children do, go to school, play and tease each other, mostly Isabel fooling the gullible Ana.

The family life is very quiet. The do not talk much and spend most of their time alone, making the big house feel empty. Ana is our focal point. It is through her we see the world. Her youth makes her very impressionable and a showing of “Frankenstein” by a travelling cinema makes a big impact on her. Why did the monster throw the girl into the water and why did they kill the monster? Isabel tells her that Frankenstein is a spirit and that he lives in an old animal shed on the barren fields. Ana is spellbound by this story and checks out the shed regularly until one day she finds a wounded Republican soldier there. She sees him as the Frankenstein spirit and brings him food and cloth. Shortly after the soldier is caught and shot and when Ana finds out she is devastated and runs away. The experience seems to drive a wedge between her and her family.

This is a seriously slow movie, but also a movie with an ambience that drew me in, as if it does not matter that not much is happening, you feel the movie. Mostly it is that persisting loneliness, a quiet that lays like a duvet across the family, the village and the empty, desolate land around the village. It is a world cut off from the rest of the world with a mourning lethargy to it.

The apparent story of the little girl looking for and finding her Frankenstein spirit is dreamy and sweet and because of its execution actually enough despite being so thin.

Like many movies made under the watchful eyes of authoritarian censors, it is also full of symbols referring to Spain in the early years of the Franco rule. I have only spotted a few of these, like the most obvious ones. 1940 is the first year after the end of the war and Spain is in complete isolation. The mourning is of the violation of the country, something has been torn out from it. The beehive is the totalitarian state where everybody has a fixed role. The spirit is a soul of the country, killed by the Facists and so one. Readers of symbols can get a lot out of this movie.

Compared to Bunuel, the critique of Victor Erice, the director, is more quiet and subtle. It is one of sadness rather than flippant and touches something deep. You get the feeling even if you do not get the reason and it feels clever without being smart.

Apparently, the Franco regime allowed this movie partly because of the international acclaim, at this point they were eager for international recognition and acceptance, and partly because they figured nobody would care about a very slow movie that would be difficult to understand and so it found its way to the public. Whether the public actually embraced it I do not know. I guess the Franco regime figured that a small group of intellectuals was no threat to them.

I liked this movie a lot more than I expected. I even embraced its slowness and just enjoyed being sucked in. It also left me feeling incredibly sad, but that is the purpose of art, no? To move you. Highly recommended.


Monday 21 June 2021

Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit) (1973)


Tyrkisk frugt

“Turkish Delight” (“Turks fruit”) is a Dutch movie by Paul Verhoeven of later Hollywood fame, starring Rutger Hauer, also of later Hollywood fame, as the artist Eric Vonk. This was the most successful movie in Dutch history and according to the Book, this was by a Dutch festival in 1999 celebrated as the best Dutch movie of the century. This would explain why there are so few Dutch movies on the List. I believe this is the first one, almost 600 movies down the List, and I am not certain there are any others coming up. I disliked this movie. With a vengeance.

Erik Vonk lies half naked on his bed, dreaming of killing people. Then he masturbates to a nude photo on the wall. His apartment is a dump. In the following montage he picks up random girls who are all mysteriously impressed with him, screws them and dumps them. He is rude, nihilistic and thinks with his genitals. What a nice guy.

Then we jump back in time. Erik Vonk is part of a team doing art for a church and manages to stir up a lot of trouble. Leaving the site he hitch hike with a woman, Olga (Monique van de Ven), whom he hits on. They have sex in the car and he causes a crash that sends her off to the hospital half dead. So, they are in love.

Olga’s mother is not excited about this and tries to keep him away, but Erik will not be denied and forces his way and fortunately for Erik both Olga and her father are more positive. They get married and Erik hates Olga’s relatives and their gifts. He just wants to have sex with her and use her as a model for his art. Eventually that life is too boring for Olga who finds another guy and leaves him and this is where we find him at the beginning of the movie

If this had not been a List movie, I would have quit it after half an hour. It is obvious that Erik Vonk is a great rebel, hurrah. But he is also a complete asshole who cares nothing for other people and all his anti-conventional theatrics is simply his singular quest for self-gratification. Even his way of making up is to rape a girl in his sleep, because who can deny him? I did not feel like spending my time with this guy.

Alas, I am nothing if not a completist, so I did not quit after half an hour and what I did learn as the movie progressed was that there is a point to the movie. All Vonk’s (and Olga’s for that matter) unconventionalism has as purpose to expose the hypocrisy of the conventional lives of their surroundings, whether it is an official ceremony attended by the queen or Olga’s mother’s bourgeois aspirations. Sort of saying that what we consider as normal is just as bad as Vonk. And of course there is a lot of hypocrisy and Olga’s mother is a character just as awful as Erik, but that does not make me sympathize with him any more. He is still a complete jackass. The complete liberation from conventions means in Vonk’s personification that only self-gratification is left, carnal preferably.

Then, after the divorce, in the final act, we see a calmed down Erik Vonk and an Olga still hyped, but suddenly hit by a brain tumor and we go through the painful stages of her death struggle. In the face of something bigger their anti-conventionalism does not matter zip.

That part was more difficult to understand the meaning of, mostly because Vonk is completely changed, but also because it does not seem to follow the key message of the rest of the movie. Almost as if we are to learn than Erik Vonk is actually a good guy. That he learnt to care for something else than himself. Ah, well…

“Turkish Delight” caused a stir with its very explicit sex scenes. There is a lot of nudity going on and none of it is particularly arousing. It is my guess that it functions to emphasize how unconventional it is, along with Vonk, to show how all the people who takes offense by it are a bunch of hypocrites. Personally, I do not care one way or the other, I just think Vonk is a pig, end.

If you like bad boys and think narcissistic and nihilistic artists are the coolest thing ever, this is the movie for you. I do not understand how anyone else can like this movie.

The Academy did though. That may say something interesting about them…


Sunday 13 June 2021

The Exorcist (1973)



Horror movies are not really my thing, mostly because I scare so easily. My wife loves horror movies and she usually have to work hard to convince me to watch them with her. I have known for a while that “The Exorcist” would be coming up and dreaded it. “The Exorcist” has quite a reputation and it is one I have known of since childhood and consistently avoided watching since. I remember reading stories about it (and “Poltergeist”) that completely freaked me out, so, well, this would be one of the hard ones to get under the belt.

To my surprise and great relief “The Exorcist” was a far better movie and much less scary than anticipated. This may be a function of three things, the aging (we have become a lot more jaded), the familiarity with the story (even I knew what was going to happen and the Book text on “The Exorcist” is essentially one big spoiler) and it is thin on jump-scares, which is what usually sends me up under the roof. It also spends a lot more time on telling the story and building up the characters than I expect from a horror movie and that adds layers of depth I did not expect to find here.

The opening of “The Exorcist” makes very little sense until near the end of the movie. We see an elderly archeologist (Max von Sydow) on a dig in Iraq finding a small figurine of a demon. This tells us very little except that Max von Sydow also looked old nearly fifty years ago.

Cut to Washington DC where Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actor on a set. She lives for the time being near Georgetown University, which is run by Jesuits, together with her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) and some domestics. Chris is evidently a quite successful actress. Almost imperceptibly Regan is showing signs that something wrong happening to her. She starts cursing and claims her bed is shaking and when consulted, the doctors put it off as pre-teen nerves. As her condition worsen, the medical examinations get increasingly invasive and the doctors’ theories thinner.

Meanwhile we are introduced to Father Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit trained as psychiatrist. He is undergoing doubts concerning his faith and the pressure he is under, and this gets particularly bad when his elderly mother dies. I did not exactly understand how he is Greek, but belongs to the Catholic faith, but, whatever. He is not in a good place when Chris, running out of options, turns to him. At first, he is in line with the row of doctors already consulted, but Regan is at this time so utterly transformed that this cannot be rejected as mental illness.

Karras allies with Merrin, our archeologist from the beginning, who apparently is an expert on demons, and so embark on an exorcism.

There is so much build up here that I almost forgot this was supposed to be a horror movie and the filming is done in this very seventies, naturalistic style that seem, to tell us that of course supernatural things do not happen in this world. This also mean we are eased into Regan’s condition. Sure, it is freaky and horrendous, but somehow more interesting than actually scary. I found myself drawn into the story rather than repelled. I felt the anguish of the mother and pity for the little girl and that is to me a lot more valuable than jump scares.

Without the build up we would not understand Karras choices in the climactic scenes and I doubt we would understand the demonic transformation of Regan’s character nearly as well. Also, the story throws in a number of minor characters like the policeman Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), the film director Burke Dennings or the Swiss chauffeur and butler, Karl. They all have some story arcs, which may not be critical to the larger story and in a tighter cut they might have been lost, but they add depth to the story and makes it more than just a horror movie.

Oh, and I should not forget to mention the super impressive special effect work on the demonic battles. There you easily forget this is 1973.

I did not expect to say this, but I do recommend “The Exorcist”. Maybe not for children, but certainly for horror sceptics like myself.

For true horror I can refer to the game yesterday between Denmark and Finland when Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest on the field. That was terrifying.  


Tuesday 8 June 2021

Serpico (1973)



Watching “Serpico” made me think about all these movies based on real events. Where is the line between a documentary and a fictionalized version of a story? How close must fiction be to reality to claim semblance with real event, or rather, how much freedom is allowed for dramatic effect?

It is an old story and I believe I had the same discussion back with “Nanook” and it is still relevant. Hollywood loves to add “Based on real events” on the titles if it can get away with it and ever so often it annoys me that interesting events apparently are not interesting enough and so requires a boost. It bothers my purist soul, yet those movies never claimed to be documentaries, so why not? Most fiction is exactly that, made up stories.

“Serpico” is one of those “based on real events” movies that took a historic core story and boosted it for dramatic effect, causing everybody and their mother who had anything to do with the real events to disown it, yet became a big hit, both at the box office and with the critics. The real Frank Serpico apparently walked out of the screening and only watched the movie in its entirety decades later. Not to mention the reaction from the NYPD.

In the movie we follow the career of Serpico (Al Pacino) from graduation as police officer and through the various departments through which he passed. We know it will end badly because the first thing we see, is him being brough in with a gunshot to his face, so every step seems like one step closer to doom. When he becomes a plain cloth cop, he finds himself among policemen who pick up money for looking the other way and Serpico gets confused and upset and uncertain what to do. Asking upstairs does not seem to make a difference, these things apparently happen with approval from the superiors. Instead Serpico is left hanging with few friends and in increasingly dangerous straits as the corruption seems to take on larger form around him, indicative of systemic rot.

Serpico’s private life falls to pieces and when he ends up going to the press instead, he is placed in the most dangerous unit where he soon becomes a victim of the “accidents” that happen. The gunshot wound we see in the opening.

There is no doubt this is a dramatic story being told and it is being expertly told, both through direction and acting. Pacino literally adopted the character of Frank Serpico and it earned him a deserved Academy nomination. This is a good movie.

Yet, and this is my point, the link to real events comes with obligations and responsibilities that are too easily sacrificed. I have of course no idea what really happened to Serpico, so I can only assume that the story is as told in the movie and I believe I share that with the large majority of viewers, so, although we intellectually know this is fictionalized, on a more primal level we believe this is the true story. Among the victims in that process are all the honest cops there may have been when this movie clearly implies that the entire force was rotten to the core. Add to that that these events, resulting in the Knapp commission, were historical events that are now by the public understood as presented by the movie. Then historians can scream and shout all they want, the public story will not change.

Okay, I know I may be going overboard on this and Serpico is not the worst, not by a long shot, when it comes to a relaxed attitude toward the real events, but it triggered this uneasiness in me and I had to let it out.

So, what is a good fictionalization? I would say the golden standard for me is the Chernobyl mini-series. It is not a documentary, shortcuts were made, the dialogue is largely invented and an entire team of scientists was cooked down to a single person, but in everything that matters, this is how it took place. Reality is plenty dramatic on its own.

I am sorry I did not say that much of “Serpico” itself. I did like the movie, and it is a recommendation from me. Even Frank Serpico himself eventually came to terms with it.  Or that is what I hear.