Sunday, 2 October 2022

Suspiria (1977)

 


Suspiria

The (in)famous Dario Argento, master of the giallo genre is back, as gory and flamboyant as ever.

“Suspiria” takes place on a private ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. It is a gothic looking place in a gothic looking town, but an otherwise harmless looking place. As Susan Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student of ballet, arrives at night, in torrential rain, a girl is running away from the school, mumbling incoherently. Susan is refused entry to the school. Shortly after we see the escaped girl getting horribly killed by a demonic looking creature in one of the goriest openings to a movie I ever saw.

That sets the stage pretty well.

When Susan arrives at the school the next morning, everything looks neat and quiet and completely harmless. The teachers are a bit old school, but that is to be expected. Susan is befriended by one of the girls, Sarah (Stefania Casini) who is convinced something sinister is going on at the school. True enough, strange events start happening: Maggots raining down from the roof, the blind pianist getting killed and eaten by his dog and Susan getting so sleepy in the evenings…

When Sarah also goes missing, Susan is truly alarmed and discovers that the ballet school has a past involving witchcraft. From there it gets pretty wild.

The most powerful element of “Suspiria” is not even the wildly gory parts, but the very strong, saturated colors and backlighting though blankets and windows. The otherworldly and psychedelic effect of this sets a stage for an environment where literally anything is possible. The soundscape goes along well enough, but probably better in the day. The visuals however were clearly adopted by David Lynch and for long parts I felt I was watching Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. To begin with it feels exaggerated, as if to create a cartoonish or expressionist environment, like “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, but the further we get into the movie, the more I bought into this scenery.

Unfortunately, “Suspiria” was never able to entirely shed the cartoonish, or amateurish, feel, at least to me. Part of that was the over-the-top goriness, but more than anything the ridiculous dubbing. The tenor of the voices was so disconnected from the actual scenes that I had the impression of voice actors sitting in a cozy room reading up from a script while drinking coffee. It had the not-intended effect of making me giggle over the misfortunes of the characters rather than being horrified.

It is not as if the movie does not try, though. So many scenes are set up to be almost intolerable to watch so you want to cry “STOP!”, and with proper dubbing it may have worked. Instead, it often became comical, and it made me wonder if I should have watched it in Italian language instead.

I am not a fan of gory movies and I do not feel thrilled about people getting chopped to pieces, but I will grant that “Suspiria” is very inventive at building up a mysterious parallel universe and I will give it points for that. And some extra points for the laughs the ridiculousness of it generated.

    


Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje) (1977)

 


Hemmelig mission

Paul Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer is back and this time in a very different movie from “Turkish Fruit”. “Soldier of Orange” (“Soldaat van Oranje”) is a war epic, the kind of movie that celebrates heroic and patriotic feats, where men are real mean and women pretty and… not so much more. Really far away from “Turkish Fruit”. Yet, it would not be a Verhoeven movie if it did not have a subversive element or two.

In 1938 a group of young men are starting university in Leiden. They become friends and we see them together in a number of settings, including a photo session. Each of these young men will have a different fate during the war. Erik (Rutger Hauer) is the one we follow the most. He is not, like Robby (Eddy Habbema), drifting towards the resistance, nor is he like Alex (Derek de Lint) joining the Germans. Circumstances, such as when Jan (Huib Rooymans) gets in trouble for being a Jew, forces him to commit and soon he is wanted by the Gestapo. Erik and Guus (Jeroen Krabbé) are spirited away to England, where they meet the Dutch Queen and are soon engaged on a secret mission to smuggle out some high-profile leaders for Queen Wilhelmina’s exile government. A mission that does not exactly go according to plan.

Erik Lanshof was a real character, and the movie is based on his own story. Tying a story to real events has the distinct advantage, especially when filmmakers are true to the story, that the plot does not follow a standard storyline. There are twists and turns here that a classic Hollywood screenwriter would not have liked, and few of the characters are as black and white as the almost cartoonish format will have us think. This is also the Verhoeven trick, to lead us into a cliché world of exaggerated color and characters that are easy to classify (think “Starship Troopers” and “Robocop”) and then undermine it by throwing in some gray or just some ugly reality.

The young men think they are invincible. A little war will just be fun. Teasing the Germans is just next level of pranking and suddenly it is deadly serious and death is really ugly. Guus, the overconfident womanizer, gets a very bad wake up call and his demise is like the ugliest of all. What is a hero really out there in the real world? How many terrible mistakes by the heroes do we not hear about?

Speaking of Guus, I had this strong feeling that I knew his face from the moment we see Jeroen Krabbé in the first scenes, and then it struck me, its Dr. Nichols from “The Fugitive”! It is such a distinct face.

“Soldier of Orange” is a big production, the biggest in The Netherlands at the time, and it shows. There are no half measures on the production value and it feels impressive as a grand film and maybe that is its problem. At least until halfway in. It feels like flag-waving, as The Netherlands wants to celebrate its heroes. Maybe they needed that as a counterpoint to the Anna Frank story which is the one most people know. But when I caught the Verhoeven undercurrent, when imperfections and gray zones sneak in, when humans become small, then I started to appreciate the movie. It is random circumstance that set people up as friend or foe, as hero or coward. Even the worst traitor is fighting for something. Even the biggest hero fails. That is total Verhoeven and that is, I believe, why this movie is on the List.

 I certainly liked it better than “Turkish Fruit”.

 


Monday, 19 September 2022

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) (1977)

 


Den amerikanske ven

The seventies was a fertile period for many young directors and I am enjoying watching the early movies of directors who would grow into famous and influential filmmakers. Wim Wenders is another one of those and though “The American Friend” was by no means his first movie, it was his international breakthrough.

“The American Friend” is a neo-noir, which is already a plus for me. We never learn exactly what is going on, just bits and pieces. Lighting is faded, it is always either sunrise or sunset as if the characters are living in that half-light. Everyone is doomed in some way or another but retain some level of coolness. In the case of “The American Friend” there is the additional element of naturalism that just makes it scarier. This is not a cartoonish world but a very familiar one.

We follow the story through two viewpoints rather than one. Tom Ripley, American, (Dennis Hopper) deals in art forgery from a base in Hamburg and Jonathan Zimmerman, German, (Bruno Ganz) is an art expert who due to a blood disease now just do picture framing. They get in contact at an art auction where Jonathan recognizes Tom as a fraud and refuses to shake his hand. In return, when Tom is contacted by a gangster, Minot (Gerard Blain) looking for a hitman, he recommends Jonathan and exaggerates his poor health.

Minot contacts Jonathan and suggests that he take the contract to secure funds for his wife and son. Jonathan first refuses, but Minot tempts him with an expensive second opinion on his condition in Paris. One Minot of course falsifies. So, Jonathan becomes a hitman and through a very intense pursuit actually succeeds. Minot wants to follow up with a second hit, but Tom has come to like Jonathan and intervenes and eventually they have to fight together against a bunch of gangsters.

I never understood what the gangster war is about. Who are the people they are killing? And why? And why are they suddenly after Tom and Jonathan? But neither do Jonathan. Or Tom for that matter, though at least he understands how dangerous they are. And it is that uncertainty, that unseen, unexplained presence that makes them terrifying. Jonathan is in far deeper than he can even understand and suddenly finds himself living a double life apart from his wife and child. Who are both as adorable and innocent as it is possible to be.

This half-life, half-light and inability to control your own life is at the heart of this movie and it works surprisingly well. It is not quite a suspense movie, and it is not quite a European art movie but it is somewhere in between and succeeds at that.

I love the language element. Characters are using “natural” language, which means an odd mix of German, English and even a bit of French. Accents are sometimes heavy, but natural, and it helps me believe in the story. The Book mentions an American-European conflict, but I do not see that at all. There are no misunderstandings here, just the haziness of reality using people from different places to give it an international and even more mysterious flair.

Noir, or neo-noir for that matter, never have happy endings and it is no spoiler to say that this movie is true to form, but there is a sense of closure that provides some satisfaction and that is another plus in my book. It is an ending I will probably contemplate for a while.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more plusses this movie accumulates, so I guess this ends up with a recommendation from me. And hopefully a lot more from Wim Wenders on the List.

 

Saturday, 10 September 2022

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

 


Slagterbanden

I am wondering why I never watched “The Hills Have Eyes” before. This falls well within the sort of movies we liked to watch on campus back in the nineties and a lot of the storyline was familiar to me, but alas, this was a first viewing for me.

“The Hills Have Eyes” is an early movie by horror/slasher legend Wes Craven. This is from the part of his career where his movies were more driven by enthusiasm than budget, but that is often how the best movies, or at least most watchable movies, are made.

A middle-class family enroute to California is making a detour through the desert to look up some obscure silver mine. When they make a brief stop at a derelict tank station they are warned to stay on the main route and make no stop in the desert, but this sort of people never listens to good advice. Soon they find themselves lost on a dirt road with a broken car. To be stuck in the desert, underequipped and with a broken car is bad in itself, but this particular desert is home to a family of feral cannibals… How will that work out for the stranded Carters?

“The Hills Have Eyes” is a movie in the same vein as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in that a group of unsuspecting outsiders venture off the main roads and civilization to enter a depraved and barbaric world. A theme that has been used far outside the horror genre, but has been particularly embraced by that one. We know something is wrong out there, but the characters do not, and they usually find out too late that this is a very dangerous place.

Another trope is that the outsiders are particularly obnoxious, with problems or complaints that are utterly insignificant to the much more serious situation they are about to find themselves in. You feel like shouting to them to pay attention and NOT do stupid, silly things, but that is the point, no? Bobby (Robert Houston) is the first to realize something menacing is out there when he finds one of his dogs gutted, but nobody is listening to his worries. When Lynne and Doug (Dee Wallace and Martin Speed) insist on sleeping in the car rather than a trailer to have a cozy time, Bobby and we know this is a very bad idea, but there is no getting through to them. The father (and grandfather to the baby) Bob (Russ Grieve) learns the truth when he hikes back to the gas station for help but too late. His death is a gruesome one.

The feral family is a counterpoint to the victim family. In many ways a parallel, even. Except they are the hunters and have shed civilization. Jupiter (James Whitworth) as the family head is particularly gruesome with his broken face, but it is Michael Berryman as Pluto with his particular physical appearance and sinister acting that steals the picture. I learned later that he is a really nice guy and very intelligent, but his acting skills are excellent, and he is very convincing as a monster. Berryman had and still has an amazing career.

Had a movie like this been made today (and they are!) I feel certain that everybody would die a gruesome death, maybe leaving a testimony as found footage or something, but the direction of “The Hills Have Eyes” is a little different. The point here is that only by becoming murderous and feral themselves, like emulating the desert family, will the Carter family or what is left of it, make it through. The victims have to become the hunters themselves and shed their civilization. That is not so unusual a plotline either. It is probably more in line with the age in which it was made. The “Aliens” movies went is the same direction.

“The Hills Have Eyes” was made on a low budget and sometimes it shows, but it is actually not a bad thing. Intentionally or unintentionally, it allows for a dark humor to sneak in and gives it a cartoonish element that makes this more enjoyable to watch than the gruesome story would allow. This has probably contributed to its popularity and its cult standing. Personally, I am too easily startled for horror movies and does not really have the stomach for slasher movies, but these qualities make “The Hills Have Eyes” endurable for me and even entertaining. Dare I say enjoyable?

“The Hills Have Eyes” is one of the important and defining movies of its genre and it is a recommendation from me.


Sunday, 4 September 2022

Ceddo (1977)

 


Ceddo

It is not every day I get to watch a Senegalese movie. In fact, I cannot remember having watched any before, like in ever at all. Had it not been for the List, a movie like “Ceddo”, like so many other movies on the List, would likely have flown under the radar for me. So, yeah, “Ceddo” is a first for me.

As usual when watching a movie from a culturally very different environment, there is a lot to take in here. Director Ousmane Sembene has made a beautiful film, colors are bright and sharp, sound is clear and the sets are stunning. Yet, to actually grasp what is going on is a challenge and without reading the summary in the Book and Wikipedia, I am not at all certain I would have understood what is going on. Even then, I probably missed a lot of essential elements. That is on me.

“Ceddo” takes place in some undefined past in Senegal. It depicts a microcosmos of Africa in the form of a (large?) village, ruled by a king. The traditional life is under threat. Europeans have set up shop selling guns and alcohol for slaves and a church, which remain in the background throughout the movie. An Imam has moved in and actively converts the locals to Islam, including the king. The warrior cast, the Ceddo with their amazing headgear, rebel against giving up their traditions. They see their influence and position under threat and so kidnap the king’s daughter, Princess Dior Yacine.

During a lengthy public and formalized council, we see how the king has completely set aside traditional rules and allegiances to the laws of Islam and in all things abide by the council of the Imam. The heir apparent is cast aside because he cannot inherent according to Muslim law (a claim on maternal side) and loyal favorites are sent out to bring back the princess. They fail. The Imam then stages a coup, kills the king and the Europeans and forcibly converts the village. What is a princess to do between her kidnappers and the usurping Imam?

This is a curious mix of hyper-naturalistic images of village life and scenery and stylized representation of African history. The latter feels formal and stiff while the former is easy and natural. The dialogue is the most challenging to follow with formal talk being done through intermediaries in third person and with cultural references that are at best alien to me. Since these give the reasoning and explanations for the actual story, and to a large extent is the actual story, missing part of this caused me some confusion. Although it is very much to the point, the form made these scenes feel lengthy.

It is clear to me though that the story represents the struggle in Africa against all these outside influences to preserve a cultural identity, be it against the western or the eastern pressure. It also shows how rich and yet how fragile and defenseless the indigenous culture is against both the sneaking undermining from the west and the aggressive top-down oppression from the east. Which could just as well have been the other way round. The story is placed in that undefined past in a village setting, but as a universal story it applies everywhere in Africa and just as much in 1977 or even today. It is this universal relevance that makes “Ceddo” a movie worth watching far outside its cultural context today. That it is also technically adept and beautiful is just a bonus.

I probably got less out of “Ceddo” than most and had moments where I was losing patience with the movie, and yet it comes out on the plus-side with a recommendation from me. This is not a movie you get to see every day.

 


Sunday, 28 August 2022

Killer of Sheep (1977)


 

Killer of Sheep

The are big movies on the List and there are narrow movies on the List. “Killer of Sheep” is definitely in the latter category.

Summarizing the movie is difficult for me, partly because I had a hard time working out what is happening and partly because I had a hard time focusing on the movie. I felt my attention drift elsewhere and though that may be my problem more than that of the movie, it does not change that now, having watched the movie, I cannot describe a coherent plot through the movie. The fact that “Killer of Sheep” was shot on gritty stock with poor sound and my copy did not have subtitles does not help either and to my excuse, even the Wikipedia synopsis calls it “a series of confusing episodic events”. The result is that to me, this movie is a series of poorly connected vignettes.

What does tie these vignettes together is that they are slices of life for a black family in a poor neighborhood of Los Angeles. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works at a slaughterhouse butchering sheep, his wife (Kaycee Moore) does not seem to have more of a life than going around at home being bored and depressed. The children play in the dirt with the other children in the neighborhood. Money is scarce, stuff are pilfered from anywhere, cars are put together from old parts and crime gangs are hiring among the locals.

Does not sound like a great place to raise children and none of the characters seem particularly happy. They just grind on to survive because they must. The complaints are the day-to-day complaints and not anything like a larger social injustice cry-out. This is life as it is, accept it.

I cannot say I was particularly excited about this movie. When my attention span is reduced to 5-10 minutes, it is not a good sign. Yet, this is supposed to be a super important movie. The Book gives it a double spread, an honor reserved for only the best or most important movies and the text gushes about how special and unique and important it is. Well, they could have fooled me. No doubt this is a movie that talks to a demography that is either ignored or caricatured, but rarely presented honestly and all respect for that. As I probably do not belong to this demography (being white, male, middle-aged, middle-class and Danish) I find it a little harder to connect and seeing these lives play out just makes me sad.

Sad that with a decent and honest job, these people are stuck in an environment that will eventually grind them down, that life holds no more for them than this, unless they embrace the shadier careers crime would offer.

Just last night my wife and I were talking about some recent stories in the media on how it is very hard in these post-corona times to get qualified staff in the hospitality sector, both in Denmark and Israel, that young people simple go elsewhere and refuse to take these jobs. That you cannot anymore offer a shit job and expect people to take it and be happy, instead companies need to offer something more. This is presented as a problem as if our way of life is dependent on having a group of working poor. Watching a movie like “Killer of Sheep” convinces me that this should not be a problem but an opportunity. Sounds awfully left-wing, I know, but that is what a movie like “Killer of Sheep” does to me.

I find it hard to whip up the enthusiasm this movie apparently deserves and on that basis I cannot honestly recommend it. That does not make it unimportant, just that my life goes on more or less the same with or without “Killer of Sheep”. The seventies are full of social-consciousness movies that work better for me.

 


Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

 


Saturday Night Fever

“Saturday Night Fever” is a mediocre movie with perhaps the best soundtrack in movie history.

It is sometimes said that a single great actor is so good that he or she alone can carry a movie and make it worth watching. In the case of “Saturday Night Fever” the same can be said about the soundtrack. I can almost like this movie simply by thinking of the soundtrack.

Tony Manero (John Travolta) is a young man in Brooklyn who hangs out with his fellow Italian-American friends and spends all his money earned as an assistant in a hardware store on going out to dance on the weekends. His little gang is oh so tough and cool, picking fights with other ethnic gangs in Brooklyn and they really have very little going for them outside the dancehall. Inside the 2001 Odyssey discotheque however they are lording it and Tony is the king. His awesome dance skills combined with his macho arrogance makes him a real ladies man, at least in his own head.

There is a dance competition on the horizon and Tony want to win it. Annette (Donna Pescow) is gushing over Tony and offers herself as a dance partner for the competition, but Tony is not interested in the sort of relationship she is fishing for and she is not that good a dancer. That is when he spots Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) who is an excellent dancer. She agrees to dance with him as an equal, but on all other accounts she is way out of his and his friends league.

This is not really a Cinderella story. Tony is not an unpolished gem waiting to be discovered. At “2001” he is very much discovered, and we never see him making some sort of phenomenal breakthrough. It is more of a coming-of-age story with Tony needing to realize that he must leave that juvenile dead-end life he is living and grow up. Something that would require a serious attitude adjustment for Tony.

I do not really like Tony and his friends. Their indulgent macho arrogance does nothing for me, and I do not even find them charming, which is why it is so hard for me to root for Tony. Maybe I am just of the wrong gender. Frankly there is something a bit ridiculous about them. How can you respect a guy who complains about being hit on the head because it ruins his hair?

But then the music plays, disco lights are blinking and the dancing start. I have never been fond of watching dance, but this is pretty awesome, even iconic. And the music…

This summer I was on holiday with my family at a resort in Mauritius where there would be music every evening (a bit cliché…). Not really great music and not something to lift people out of their lazy seats. But one evening they changed pace and went disco. “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees could still, 45 years later, start a party and get everybody dancing, young and old. And that is how it is with the entire soundtrack. “Night Fever”, “More Than a Woman”, “How Deep is Your Love”, “You Should Be Dancing (Yeah!)” and these are just the Bee Gees songs. This is music that makes me happy and feel like moving. “Staying Alive” makes me want to walk down the street with a swagger feeling really cool. “You Should Be Dancing” makes me yell “YEAH!” and I want to dance. And trust me, that is not a pretty sight.

“Saturday Night Fever” is one of those movies I really do not need to see more than once, but I want to hear the soundtrack again and again and for that I will forgive the movie and watch it a few extra times. Apparently, I am not alone. The “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack is the second-best selling soundtrack of all time.


Friday, 19 August 2022

Man of Marble (Czlowiek z Marmuru) (1977)

 


Marmormanden

The List is not exactly swarmed with Polish movies, but those there have a remarkably high quality, if not in production value, then in idea. “Man of Marble” (“Człowiek z marmuru”) lands well and safely in this category.

It is a story-within-a-story movie about a young modern filmmaker (Krystyna Janda as Agnieszka) who is trying to tell the story of one Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), a socialist hero from the early fifties who since vanished. As she dives into the story she realize there are hidden layers and a lot of false layers to uncover. As in “Citizen Kane” Agnieszka and her little film crew search out the various characters who had contact with Birkut and each tell a slightly different story. Not as much radically different narratives as in Kurusawa’s “Rashomon”, but enough to reveal facets of a character who refused to be placed in the boxes people around him wanted him to fit in.

Birkut was a bricklayer on a Stalinist monstrosity project whom the local authorities selected as a poster-boy for the regime. Birkut and his team would be filmed while they would lay 30.000 bricks on a shift and thereby become a hero of socialism. The problem was that Birkut actually took his role serious and tried to use it to improve things around him and if there is something authoritarian systems do not like, it is challengers from below. Birkut had to be silenced, but rather than bend, Birkut insisted on being the hero with integrity, a fatal flaw in socialist Poland.

As Krystyna herself unravels the real story of Birkut, she becomes a nuisance as well and she gets shut down. The question is if you really can shut down people with integrity?

“Man of Marble” is an interesting movie in its own right. It feels original even though it is borrowing from both Welles and Kurusawa, but there is more novelty here than just the setting. The juxtaposition of the presented images, represented by old, black and white newsreels, and the stories from those who actually knew the man, presented in modern color photography, are striking, making a lesson out of questioning the official stories and the narrative of authority. The amazing thing about “Man of Marble” though is that it was possible to make this movie in the first place. This is not a revisionist movie made after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but a movie from the depth of the regime. In 1976 Poland might not have been Stalinist anymore, but it is still an era of strict censure and a monopoly on the narrative.

How on Earth did Wajda get away with making this movie?

One answer is that the criticism of the current (1977) system is masked as a criticism of the Stalinist era, a criticism already Khrushchev opened up for. The implication that the same censure of the truth still takes place is masked as censure against quality. Agnieszka cannot finish her movie because there is not enough material, because Birkut himself is missing, because the quality of her material is not good enough, but it is a paper-thin excuse. It is obvious that the material is good enough. It is too good. Shutting down the movie also effectively stops her from finding the actual Birkut. The ending is also just ambiguous enough to pass through the vigilant eyes of censure, but it takes very little imagination to perceive the challenge in it. The wonder is that censorship was too thick to get this. But then, maybe they intentionally let it pass.

A process had already begun in Poland that broke through the surface on the shipyard in Gdansk a few years later, which in turn led to, well it is known history. The interesting thought is that censorship in Poland covertly may have been on the side of this movement…

“Man of Marble” is a long movie and at times a challenging movie to watch. Answers are not easily provided and a lot has to be read between the lines, but given the effort, it is a rewarding and interesting movie and warmly recommended by me.


Thursday, 11 August 2022

Piger til søs (1977)

 


Off-List: Piger til søs

The third off-List movie for 1977 and the specific Danish contribution is called “Piger til søs” (which may be called “Girls at Sea” in English, though I am not quite certain there is an English title for it…). This movie belongs to a category folksy comedy that were immensely popular in Denmark in the sixties and seventies. They are usually not particularly great and my reason for including one of those here is partly because this was a thin year (it was one of these comedies or a brutal social realistic movie on alcoholism) and partly because I grew up on this stuff and therefore suppose I have a soft spot for them.

“Piger til søs” is the third installment of a spin-off series to a popular series in the sixties (puh…) about dudes in the army (Soldaterkammerater). The sort of movie that makes you fervently hope these are not the guys who are supposed to protect you from an invading army (think “Stripes”). In the seventies the series was continued with three girls joining the force and in this third movie ot theirs, you guessed right, the three girls are on a naval ship.

The three constables, Vibeke “Vibsen” (Helle Merete Sørensen), Magda (Ulla Jessen) and Irmgard (Marianne Tønsberg) are taking a signaling course at a naval base and get invited by some sailors to visit them on their ship, the “Falster”. They are not really supposed to be there and suddenly the ship departs for a surprise exercise. The sailors will get in trouble if the girls are found and the girls are effectively deserting their post, so, yeah, they are all in trouble. Half the movie is the desperate attempt by the sailors to hide the girls from the officers.

Of course, there are some romantic entanglements. Magda is hitting on all the boys and half of them are hitting on her. Vibsen finds out that her boyfriend, Harry (Finn Nielsen), is actually a lieutenant on “Falster”, while he does not even know she is in the army, and Irmgard is freaking out over leaving her toddler at home with her husband.

As it is getting increasingly obvious that something is up, the firebrand captain of the ship (Karl Stegger with awesome sideburns) is about to explode.

Everything in these movies plays out for comedic effect so we do not expect a lot of realism here and we know up front that everything will end well, so the level of suspense here is moderate at best. It is also a family movie, so the naughty jokes of the sailors are rather toothless and certainly less juicy than their posters by the bunks. Still, they do manage to conjure up a merry party and a silly cat and mouse game to hide the stowaways. Of course, there are a few songs, some dancing and wisecracking to get in the mood. I do remember it as being funnier, but I was very young when I watched this back in the day and my level of reference was a tad less jaded than today.

The one actor I always love to watch in these old movies is Karl Stegger. It actually does not matter which movie he appears in, he makes it worth watching just for being there and in “Piger til søs” he is allowed to go all out as a grumpy old bully. Think of him as a Guy Kibbee sort of character.

To pick the last of a series rather than the first or the best is probably a bit odd, but at least I have included an installment to represent the series. In a decade where the military, whether army or navy, was somewhat frowned upon, I think that this one make both look quite palatable and that is worth something. You may want to start this series somewhere else, but you could also pick a worse place to sample this franchise.

 


Sunday, 7 August 2022

Stroszek (1977)

 


Stroszek

Well, that was a sad one.

Wener Herzog’s “Stroszek” belongs to that particular sub-genre that deals with odd existences drawing the short straw in life, combined with the failed American dream topic. That combo does not exactly make for a joyful time in front of the screen, but something about the bizarre quality of this movie saves if from being a complete misery feast.

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno Schleinstein) is being released from prison in Germany (Berlin?). He is a street musician, but when he gets drunk, he is apparently prone to do stupid things. Nevertheless, the first place he seeks out upon release is his local watering hole. He is quite familiar, if not liked by the clientele there, including the prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes) and her pimps. They treat her badly, so Bruno offers that she can stay with him. The elderly and eccentric Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) has been looking after Bruno’s apartment and his musical instruments so there is a place waiting for him. Crossing the pimps was probably a mistake as Bruno and Eva are now being terrorized by them to the extent that when Mr. Scheitz leaves for America, Eva and Bruno join him.

Scheitz has a nephew in Wisconsin, and that is as prepared as they are. Otherwise, they are completely ill-equipped for life in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. Only Eva speaks English and only she has a minimum of skill level to get by. Bruno went on the idea that in America everybody gets rich by default and Scheitz, heaven knows what Scheitz was thinking. Everything tanks for them. On the winter-locked prairie, life is immensely bleak. Eva runs away with two truck drivers and Bruno and Scheitz revert to armed robbery.

Objectively this is a movie about people in the gutter who are looking for an escape, only to find themselves even deeper in a, now unfamiliar, gutter. Bruno is a quirky character, but not unsympathetic. For his special kind the niche is rather narrow and precarious, and he has no defense against predators like the pimps. For Eva, the situation is much the same. On the fringe, they cannot rely on the protection we take for granted. How tempting is it not to then simply leave and start over in another place, a place where everybody lives a wonderful life (think of a goatherder in Somalia or Afghanistan dreaming of Sweden)?

If Bruno’s niche was narrow in Germany, it is non-existent in America. He is not even attempting to be a street musician in Wisconsin. Not speaking the language, knowing the culture or even having any relevant skills, reality is crushing when it hits.

It is really sad and heartbreaking and I am not certain if that feeling is enhanced or relieved by the wry humor mixed in. It is a bitter, black sort of humor that sends the movie into left field but also enhance the alienation. An example of this is the dark moment when their mobile home has been repossessed by the bank, Eva has left and Bruno and Scheitz, who think all this is a plot against them by unknown enemies, decide to rob a bank. The bank is closed so instead they rob the hairdresser next door for 32$. Instead of escaping though, they throw the gun into the car and walk into the grocery next door to do some calm supermarket shopping with their new-found wealth. Presently, the police arrives and arrests Scheitz for armed robbery.

This scene is so… unbelievable that I could not help laughing out loud. From a scene that is the deepest darkness. Amazing.

The end-scene with the animals doing humiliating tricks for coins while trapped in a cage is summing up the movie pretty well. There is no escape for Bruno.

Recommended? Not certain. You really have to be in the mood for this.


Sunday, 31 July 2022

Annie Hall (1977)

 


Mig og Annie

“Annie Hall” is the highly celebrated breakthrough movie of Woody Allen that earned four Academy Awards and setup Woody Allen as the king of neurotic New Yorker comedy.

By all rights, this should be a movie to look forward to and as far as I can see, it still has a large fanbase among bloggers.

Unfortunately for me, I have never really been into this kind of comedy and my impression of Woody Allen has long been that I like his movies better when he is not in them. That is not a great starting point.

“Annie Hall” is all about Woody Allen’s neurotic New Yorker persona. More specifically it is about the relationship between himself (as Alvy Singer) and Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, though mostly from his point of view. It is a non-linear story that showcases a number of episodes from their relationship in what may be an attempt at explaining what went wrong between them. Both are socially disastrous personas, Alvy is hyper neurotic and egomaniac while Annie is ditzy and unfocused. Whereas Annie to some extend gets herself under control and grow up, Alvy does not.

The comedy here stems from that both, though particularly Alvy, wear their feelings on the sleeves and are very vocal about them, mixing in jokes and sarcasm. His frequent reference to the Marx Brothers joke about not wanting to be a member of a club that would accept himself, is a pretty good description of him. Alvy is afraid of everything, obsessed about death and see antisemitism everywhere. Hiding behind jokes really does not make him any more tolerable.

Some of those jokes are fun though, I have to admit. The talk on the roof-top where they are having an inane discussion, but through the subtitles are having a very different talk, is a very nice tough. Some of his observations are also good, when the self-pity and self-loathing has been cut away.

I do have a lot of sympathy for awkward types with low self-esteem, but actively destructive types like Alvy Singer feels more like poison and the sympathy drowns in the bottomless sea of egotism. He never really sees anybody but himself or anybody else as more than a reflection of himself. The narcissism level is sky-high, and it does not really help that he does not like what he sees.

Maybe Alvy Singer is just a more honest person, maybe this is what people are mostly, beneath the veneer of politeness, but that is a very very sad thought and I prefer not to believe that.

There is a lot of modernity in “Annie Hall”, so much that I suppose the seventies or at least New York City in the seventies is practically identified with this movie. The concerns of the period, relationship analysis, sexual liberation and the costs of it, the sense of floating in uncharted seas. There is a lot to sink teeth into here, small elements and features, that may have felt like novelties at the time, but now are culturally embedded in the following generations.

Another element that makes this movie noteworthy is the number of future stars who have small parts or even screen debuts in “Annie Hall”. Christopher Walken, John Glover, Beverly D’Angelo, Jeff Goldblum and Sigourney Weaver are all there if you can spot them. That is quite remarkable.

“Annie Hall” is an interesting and different movie. It is a movie that in many ways are looking forward, but it is also a movie that, in my opinion is suffering from the classic, insufferable Woody Allen characters.

I know why Annie left him. She got tired of holding up the mirror in front of Alvy, realizing there is more to life than that. I do not need to hold a mirror for Woody Allen and can move on.


Tuesday, 26 July 2022

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

 


Off-List: A Bridge Too Far

As my second Off-List movie for 1977 I chose “A Bridge too Far”. An epic scale war movie, it belongs to a category the List editors generally ignores. Sometimes with some right, they do tend to be rather trivial, but “A Bridge Too Far” is a noteworthy movie on several accounts and I think it deserves a slot.

“A Bridge Too Far” tries to tell the story of an operation towards the end of World War 2 codenamed Operation Market Garden. In September 1944 the Allied forces drove hard to end the war before Christmas, but struggled with the problem that the Germans had prepared a defense line on the Rhine. A daring plan was conceived to take three bridges in The Netherlands with airborne troops and thereby secure an easy way into Germany. As history will tell us the plan was a trifle optimistic and left thousands of allied soldiers to die far behind enemy lines.

A story with this sort of scope was attempted before with “The Longest Day” (based on another book by the author who wrote the one “A Bridge Too Far” is based on) and this is not where the similarities end. To cover an event of this magnitude, the story has to be broken down into many smaller stories, each of which include a separate set of characters, but combined they have to merge into a larger, coherent whole. And that is super tricky. Each element has its own stellar cast (the roster of A-listers is truly impressive!) and we have to see enough of them to get engaged, but even with a three-hour running time, these are often only vignettes. Only the soldiers of the besieged 1st Airborne Division in Arnhem (led by Sean Connery as Major General Roy Urquhart) we get back to again and again as their situation degrades from bad to truly terrible.

This combination of ultra-zoom and big picture at the same time is truly difficult. It was the Achilles heel of “The Longest Day” and it is precariously close to break “A Bridge Too Far” as well. As a viewer I wish for a map and a roster of characters and how they each interlink. For the most part, I can only recognize the difference between American, British and German soldiers by the color of their uniform and their language and this is where there is some value to have famous actors like Robert Redford, Michael Caine, James Caan and Elliott Gould take up minor roles, because I can then identify the characters by the actor. Still, who exactly we were following at any given time was tricky and I was mistaken more than once.

What does work is the sense of scale and authenticity. This was the most expensive production ever made at the time and the production team had gone to painstaking length to get everything right, equipment, timeline, characters and locations. Most of the locations are the actual locations in The Netherlands and that gives it that documentary feel that makes me believe what is happening. Another thing that works for me here is how the initial cockiness gets replaced by frustration and desperation. We do not need to know all the technical details to sense that this is a disaster. This is probably the most significant departure from “The Longest Day” and what places the movie in the seventies. When people go to war, they are invincible, trusting that management has it under control and that this will be another day at the office. Then reality happens. No plan survives meeting the enemy, especially if management are on cloud 9 and removed from reality. The losers are all those soldiers sent out doing the job for management and die as a result. In the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era this will have struck a chord.

This may start out as a movie about heroism, but it is really about who pays for political and military expediency. One of those war movies that leaves you with a really bad taste in your mouth.

For this reason, I think “A Bridge Too Far” is better than its reputation and superior to hero worshipping movies like “The Longest Day.


Thursday, 21 July 2022

The Last Wave (1977)

 


Den sidste bølge

It is quite apparent that director Peter Weir liked to tell half stories back in his early days. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was only half the story told and this, “The Last Wave” is another such half-finished tale. I understand the desire to keep some mystery and that is fine with me, but with “The Last Wave” that move is brutal.

Tax lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is living his ordinary, quiet upper middle class life when he is asked to take on a criminal case under the Australian Legal Aid program. A small group of Aboriginal men stand accused of murder of a fellow Aboriginie. This is unusual for David, both because he normally deals with corporate tax and because he has had absolutely no contact before with the Aboriginal community. Soon, however, it is clear to David that there is a lot more than a simple murder story here. Whatever happened is connected to a number of weird and intense weather phenomena hitting Australia and taps into Aboriginal cosmology.

It is very difficult to describe what is going on when the movie turns mystical. I suppose that is the nature of mystery, but like David we only get hints and leads and even though David presses hard for answers he only ever gets half answers. What we do learn, and this may be a spoiler, though maybe not really, is that David does have a spiritual connection to the Aboriginal world, that he has the skill of premonition, at least in his dreams and that the Aboriginals recognize this connection in him.

To David this is very frightening, and he does not know what to do with it. He understands it is fundamental for his murder case, but there is no interface between Australian law and tribal law and so it does not help him. What David senses is an oncoming cataclysmic event (maybe a giant tsunami?) but there is nothing he can do about it. He is like a climatologist 10 or 20 years ago predicting the weather we have now, but nobody could or wanted to listen because it did not fit with their world.

What I like in “The Last Wave” is the active participation and role of the Aboriginals. Especially David Gulpilil as Chris Lee and Nandjiwarra Amagula as the sorcerer Charlie. There is a window here into their world that is more detailed and poignant for strengths and weaknesses than we usually see. There is a darkness too that is not a little frightening. The idea of Dreamtime juxtaposed to our reality.

“The Last Wave” also bears some resemblance to the last movie I wached, “Close Encounters”. David, like Roy, is getting obsessed with these images and feelings and they are compelling him to depart from his own life, scarring the rest of his family. The Aboriginies may not be little green men from outer space, but they carry the same significance of something important happening. The main difference is the pessimism and the impotence at doing anything about it and this is where I feel this is half a story. A man learns of impending doom and… and then what? Maybe the message is impotence, but I do feel robbed of half the story. It is also rather weird what is happening in the sacred cave, and I was trying to make sense of it. Was it a prophecy? Or is it a depiction of a cyclic event that is now happening again? And what is David’s role, except for having the premonition and knowing the Aboriginals are connected to it?

Finally, I should mention that this is the first appearance on the List of Richard Chamberlain. He did mostly television, but what television! His shows were a staple in my childhood home, and it is nice to have caught up with him on the List.

“The Dark Wave” is oddly unsatisfying, but it is not a bad movie. It promises a lot, even greatness, but does not quite make it there. Still, worth a watch. It is magic time…


Saturday, 16 July 2022

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

 


Nærkontakt af tredie grad

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is another movie with a deep history with me. Not in my childhood though, back then the UFOs scared me and the homewrecking obsession of Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary felt boring and uncomfortable, but later, in my teenage years, this became something of a cult movie for me. As I am certain it has been for a lot of people. I have held back from watching it for the past ten years or so in anticipation of watching it for the List and that pause has made it possible to watch it with new eyes. I see other and different things in it now than I did years ago.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is the love child Steven Spielberg was finally able to make with all the credits he earned from the blockbuster success that was “Jaws”. It is his vision of First Contact with aliens combined with the conspiratorial wake of Watergate. Ordinary people are receiving strange visitations from aliens, in particular Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey), the latter of which gets abducted by the aliens in a memorable scene, and Ron Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrician, who gets a very close encounter in his service car during a power outage. These people start obsessing about their experience, painting or sculpting a particular image, which turns out to be the Devils Tower in Wyoming. For Ron, this obsession costs him his job, friends and eventually his family. His wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), refuses of acknowledge his vision and eventually leaves him with their children.

Meanwhile, weird things are happening all over the world, leading E.T. expert Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) to believe something is imminent. When the aliens send a set of coordinates (for Devils Tower!) a reception committee is set up by the US government.  Super top secret, but Ron and Jillian are not so easy to keep out.

The version I watched was Spielberg’s Special Edition, made 3 years later. The original version was a bit of a rush job with a number of flaws that he got a chance to fix in the special edition. I prefer this version, not for the extended finale, awesome as it is, but because it is a much tighter cut. There is quite a lot of Roy’s obsession that was ditched in this version and that was exactly what made the theatrical version drag. We still get the idea, but now we are not getting sidetracked.

Maybe because of this I took more notice of Teri Garr as Roy’s miserable wife and that was a big plus. Garr is always great, but it is rare to watch her in non-comedic roles. Maybe it was her comedic skill that made the madness of her home even crazier. She was phenomenal.

But then I could say that about everybody here. Guffey as little Barry is adorable and the abduction scene is iconic. When he opens the door with the yellow light flooding in, he is in wonder while his mother (and likely the rest of us) are horrified. That image has been used and referenced so often to exactly that effect that it is probably the most recognized scene from the movie.

What I like particularly about “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is its optimistic tone. The majority of movies involving aliens treat them as a threat and science fiction is more often dystopic than hopeful. Maybe it is the overruling dramatic need for a crisis and something fear inducing to spark interest, but there is something fantastic and beautiful about the wonder on the faces of everybody in that final meeting. This is revelation and optimism, the strange and alien as something benign and not dangerous. It is a challenge to our xenophobia and skepticism, a maybe childlike wonder, but for adults to experience.

A particular key to the movie I think is when the expert government team of military types lined up to meet the aliens is refused and instead the childlike aliens pick out Roy and lead him on board. Is it not a comforting thought that he is our ambassador and not cold, faceless government agents? Something about the preference of the best in humankind rather than the worst.

Highly recommended to anybody who still believe the unknown should be embraced with childlike wonder.

 

Saturday, 2 July 2022

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

 


Off-List: Smokey and the Bandit

One of my favorite movie genres as a child was that of crazy car races. I suppose I had that in common with most small boys. The first movie I watched in the cinema without parents was “The Cannonball Run”, probably the second one, memories are a bit blurred there. But anything with cars and trucks were great. “Smokey and the Bandit” was an early favorite and it tapped right into that infatuation. It went so far that we boys adopted a lot of the slang and would use “10-4” and “backdoor” and the like in our own speech.

Obviously, with that sort of impact, “Smokey and the Bandit” would be a perfect pick as an Off-List movie for 1977.

The Bandit, a.k.a. Bo Darville (Burt Reynolds) is a trucking legend and so the disgustingly rich Enos, father and son, turn to him on a bet that he can bootleg a truckload of beer from Texas to Georgia where other truckers have failed. It is illegal and there is a deadline, a tight one at that, but the price money is big. The Bandit bites and partners up with Snowman, a.k.a. Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed). Snow will ride the truck with his dog at ridiculous speed (95 miles an hour is a scary speed for a truck!), while the Bandit will run interference on the road police, the smokies, and thus clear the way.

Soon Bandit picks up a bride on the run (Sally Field as Carrie) and is shortly after pursued by the groom and more importantly, the father-in-law, Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). The Sheriff is VERY persistent, and the Bandit is pretty good at staying a step or two ahead of him. Hijinx ensue.

It has been a very long time since I watched this movie last time and I do find it a bit difficult to get myself into the mode of old. It is a fun watch, but it is also a remarkably silly watch, and it did not click as well with me as it used to do. It may be that it has not aged that well, but, more likely, I have simply outgrown it.

“Smokey and the Bandit” taps into the idea of ultimate freedom. That happiness is to do exactly what you want to do and to hell with the rules. Or more precisely, to shove it in the face of authority, meaning the police, who dares set restrictions. The Bandit is a hero because he does not care a flying fart about the rules and actually sees it as a personal challenge to break them. The police are the laughingstock here, exemplified by the ludicrous character of Sheriff Buford T. Justice. He is the blown-up zealot who chases for personal reasons rather than the common good and cares as little for the damage done as the Bandit does. The rest of the troopers may be less personally invested but not more competent and Bandit and Smokey finds plenty of support along the road from likeminded in this rebellion against authority.

And what gives the Bandit the right for his transgressions? His immense charm. And I suppose the idea of common cause against authority.

This is in fact the common theme of all these road movies, from “Two-lane Blacktop” to “The Cannonball Run”. From a childish point of view, this is what fundamentally makes them fun and engaging. The cheek and the boldness of the protagonists against the zealous bureaucracy, telling us what to do. Yet, I cannot help feeling that the older I get, the more I find myself on the side of the law here. Not Buford T. Justice’ law, but all those patrol officers along the road who keeps getting the short end of the stick.

So, yeah, I am getting old and boring and Burt Reynold’s charm is wearing a bit thin on me, but somewhere, deep down, there is still a young boy who thinks trucker slang is cool and enjoys the cat and mouse game on the highway.

Recommended mostly to young boys and girls, rednecks and for its considerable cultural significance.

 

Monday, 27 June 2022

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

 


Stjernekrigen

There is something immensely silly about writing a review of the original Star Wars movie, the one commonly known as Episode IV - A New Hope. I bet there are hundreds, if not thousands of such reviews around. Everybody and their mother have watched it and if you have not, I wonder what you are doing on a movie blog in the first place. So, I will do it a bit differently and talk about my personal experience with Star Wars.

I was too young to watch Star Wars in the cinema. In 1977 I was barely 4 years old, and it would be another few years before I would start going to watch children’s movies in the cinema. I did see a picture recently of people queuing for Star Wars in 1977 on Facebook and I found it oddly fascinating. Back then in my early childhood people really looked different, yet Star Wars feels, in my humble opinion, fresh and modern even today.

My first experience with the franchise was the toys. It was all the rage, but ridiculously expensive. It was that or Lego, but awesome as those spaceships were, you could not actually build anything. They could blow up though and they did that very well. The coolest friends were those with a lot of Star Wars toys. Many years later, when I got a son myself, he got an awesome Y-Wing bomber in Lego. He was of course way too young for that, but for his father, building it was pure bliss.

Only after the release of episode VI did I start watching the actual movies, but then I could not stop. I have no idea at all how many times I watched them, especially episode IV. Not in the cinema though, that train had passed, but we had some very worn VHS tapes copied from television.

I guess I am one of the purists when it comes to the Star Wars universe. As much as I adore the early three movies, I have never come to terms with the prequels or the countless Disney installations for that matter. There is of course the commercial exploitation element souring things, but if I really should be honest, it is a matter of design. I love the angular and brutalistic design of the early movies. The have knobs and wires and bolts and feel like they were built of iron plates on a shipyard. There is a texture and substance to them that probably also have something to do with the model work rather than the CGI used in a later age. The pace is also slower and there is a buildup that has all but gone. Rewatching Episode IV for the first time in some years I am struck with how slow the action actually is until Falcon lands on the Death Star. Sure, there are light saber fight and blasters being fired and an awesome fighter attack on the Death Star, but it is not a start to finish adrenaline rush. Maybe I am just getting old, but it feels like my pace.

Talking about that attack run, our cinema had a small arcade of video games and the greatest one was a game on that fighter attack. I spent a fortune on that…

Star Wars is the first movie on the List where I do not feel like I am watching an old movie. To me, it is my generation of movies, a modern movie if you will, and I think that marks some sort of turning point on this project. The beginning of a different era. Perhaps also in a real sense. At least in the science fiction genre there is a before and after Star Wars. The clunky, clumsy and cheap science fictions were now a thing of the past and the genre would now receive the big budgets it takes to make truly impressive movies. Most of modern science fiction and probably blockbuster movies in general owe a debt to Star Wars. Not to mention Harrison Ford.

For my rewatch I picked the original theatrical version rather than the modernized one from the nineties and it worked just as well as always.


Friday, 24 June 2022

Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977)

 


Last Chants for a Slow Dance

I am struggling to find anything positive to say about “Last Chants for a Slow Dance”. Everything that comes to mind is negative. Usually, I can then consult the Book. The poorer the movie, the more the editors will gush over its qualities, but I am in Korea this week and the book is thousands of kilometers away. Even Wikipedia is rather laconic on its entry. Well, I guess it is just going to be one of those reviews.

Tom (Tom Blair) drives around in his car. He has picked up a hitchhiker and is busy telling him how awesome he is, especially with the girls, and how his wife has conned him into having two children. As the hitchhiker refuses to be impressed, he is eventually kicked out. Tom returns home and have a row with his wife, Darlene. She is complaining how he is never there and never provides any money. Tom replies by being an asshole. Tom leaves and picks up a girl on a bar. After sleeping with her he calls home and has another row with Darlene. In the bedroom of the girl he just slept with. Then he gushes at pictures of wanted criminals, finds a man stuck in the forest with a broken car and shoots him dead. The end.

The entire thing, and I mean this is really all, lasts an hour and twenty minutes.

First off, I did not get this story. Why is it interesting to follow a loser of a guy who is being an asshole to everybody? He wants to be awesome, but he is just pathetic. I am kind of thinking that he thinks those criminals are super awesome and he wants to be super awesome like them. Or maybe he is just bored.

Not getting the story is probably part of the reason why I was super bored watching it. The long takes and the lack of anything interesting happening was another, but hey, I actually dug Jeanne Dielmann. It also did not help that I do not find idiotic assholes interesting. Why his wife did not simply give him the boot is a mystery. Maybe she is trash too.

Clearly this movie was made on a shoestring budget, it certainly has this home video feel to it. The lack of budget makes it gritty, but not in a good way. It just looks cheap. If somebody told me it was made over a weekend, I would believe them.

If all this was not bad enough, the movie is sprinkled with a soundtrack of country music. I have a very hard time with country music.

I can only wonder how this ludicrously bad movie made it to the List. What secret quality made the List editors chose to include this movie in preference to some of the other movies that was released this year? It actually makes me angry that it takes up a slot on the List.

And thus I enter the year 1977…

  


Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

 


Manden som kom ned på jorden

After a series of movies that I found less than great I was positively inclined going into Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. I mean, it could not be as bad as watching “1900”. Also, this is a movie with David Bowie, yeah!

It was an early disappointment though that this movie does not feature even a single song by Bowie. I think more than anything, this was what I had been looking forward to. The back story to this assumption is that earlier this year I watched the Bowie musical “Lazarus” live on stage in Skuespilshuset, Copenhagen. This is a show that uses the characters and story elements from the movie, combined with a lot of great David Bowie music. More specifically the part where Newton lives in a drunken stupor in a confined hotel room, reflecting on his life and the people in it.

Anyway, I am getting sidetracked, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is the story about a humanoid alien (Bowie) from a drought-stricken planet who is visiting Earth in order to get water to his planet. He comes with a host of technological advances and uses them to get immensely rich with the help of a lawyer, Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whom he makes a manager of his company. Newton, being an odd fish, strikes up a friendship (and considerably more) with a hotel housekeeper, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) and a womanizing scientist, Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn). He is just about to succeed in his mission when some entity, the government or a competing company, it is never entirely clear, steps in and shuts the entire operation down. Farnsworth is murdered and Newton is confined to the aforementioned hotel room.

Being an alien, Newton of course has some really weird abilities. One of them is that he not only sees but can project himself in time. This has a counterpart in the extremely jagged and jumpy structure of the movie. A lot of it consists of small, unexplained vignettes, which serves to throw the viewer off balance (and become a tad annoyed at times…), but this is also an imperfect view into the perception of Newton. Only gradually do we understand the story and its background and until then it is just odd scenes.

Newton is an alien to human life and through him we are exposed to the fallacies of humanity. This is a common trope, but it is a lot more subtle here than usual. The message, though, is familiar. Humans are egoistic, xenophobic and governed by lower instincts. It is not that Newton does not understand these things, his reaction to them is just very un-human. It is easy to see him as a sacrificed Christ character, but he is no saint himself. He is just different.

“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is not a feel-good movie. It is not even tragically funny. It is sad and misanthropic, but there are flowers in the desert, these small elements of hope and benevolence that saves the movie from being a complete misery-fest. They are few and far between, though, and it is difficult not to feel sorry for Newton and the prospects of humankind.

Nicolas Roeg is one of those directors you come to expect a lot from. His movies are challenging and difficult, but also rewarding to watch and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is no exception. I was weirded out several times, but I always found my way back to the story and I understand the decisions he made. This is not cinematography for the masses but how an art cinematographer makes a science fiction that is really about the human condition.

David Bowie did not sing, but he was still phenomenal. He was a true spaceman.

   


Thursday, 9 June 2022

1900 (Novocento) (1976)

 


1900

Welcome to Bertolucci’s massive socialist manifest.

It is truly amazing what you can get away with when you are a famous director, known for making controversial but highly successful movies. After his success with “Last Tango in Paris”, Bertolucci got away with making what can only be described as a suicidal project.

On the face of it “1900” (“Novecento”) is a sympathetic enough idea. Two children are born on the same day in 1901 on the Berlinghieri farm in Italy. Alfredo is the grandson of the owner of the farm, the Padrone, Alfredo the Elder (Burt Lancaster), and Olmo is the illegitimate son of one of the Berlinghieri peasants. We follow them as children, young men (as Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu) and as adults. When Alfredo’s son Giovanni takes over, times get tough for the peasants and while Alfredo, the younger lives an idle life, Olmo becomes a glowing communist.

With the rise of fascism in Italy, the new foreman on the farm, Attila (Donald Sutherland) introduces fascist methods on the farm as well. He is an enthusiastic fascist and a complete psychopath. Olmo and the peasants have a hard time and Alfredo is too weak to dismiss Atilla when he takes over as Padrone. When the war ends, the farm becomes a communist commune with a lot of singing and dancing and incomprehensible speeches.

Sounds decent enough, except that this relatively simple story takes five hours and 15 minutes to complete! I am not kidding, I basically watched three movies worth of Italian social realism. Long movies are not necessarily a problem if the time is well spent, but this was an ordeal.

Behind the appearance of realism this is an almost cartoonishly stylized story. The landowners are evil fascists, the peasants are the innocent heroes fighting for liberation under a communist banner. Attila and his blackshirts are evil bastards. Olmo is the hero with integrity who always does the right thing, while Alfredo is a weak man protected by his wealth who has the power but not the will to do the right thing. This story is so black and white that it is almost comical. Meanwhile we are supposed to believe that despite all this Olmo and Alfredo are best friends. Yeah…

Bertolucci also felt a need to give us some shock effects. The sex and the nudity is tasteless, but mostly harmless. Just unnecessary, really. The cruelty of Attila on the other hand is so extreme that I seriously considered simply cutting the movie after he kills the boy, Patrizio, in one of the worst scenes I ever watched. I felt sick to the bone, and this is part of the reason it took me two weeks to get through this mess.

Because Bertolucci felt the need to drive home his points this aggressively, it feels like heavy-handed propaganda to make Moscow blush. It loses the credibility it so much wants to have, sacrificed for a political agenda and the corners it needs to cut renders large parts of the movie rather incomprehensible. The bigger sacrifice though, is that as a viewer I lose interest in the story and the characters and remember, this is a five hour long movie!

The usual problem on Italian movies with strange dubbing that disconnect the actor from his or her voice seems almost a minor issue. I chose Italian language because it is an Italian movie in Italy, but how weird is it to see Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu and Donald Sutherland speak Italian?

Unless you are looking for an inspiring movie for your next (very long) meeting at the local socialist revolution club, I would not recommend this movie on anybody. Find some other three movies. At least one of them will be time better spent.