Friday, 27 May 2022

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida) (1976)


I sansernes vold

I am not really into cursing on this blog, but I have to say, this was pretty fucked up, literally.

The Book describes “In the Realm of the Senses” (“Ai no Korida”) as being rather explicit, but I think that is an understatement. In an interview, director Nagisa Oshima called the movie hardcore pornographic and that, I think, is more precise. A Japanese pornographic movie, well, the List is supposed to cover all movies of significance and I suppose that genre was underrepresented.

There really is no hiding it, the movie goes all out right from the start, and the first thing I thought, just a few minutes in, was that they are not holding back here. It is Tokyo in 1936 and Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is a prostitute at a brothel. She has a… very healthy appetite and when the owner of the brothel, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) takes an interest in her, she is so ready. Sexual harassment is just what she has been waiting for and he meets his match in carnal appetite. For the majority of the movie, we watch the two of them have very real, unsimulated intercourse and we see everything.

Eventually it becomes clear that their appetite is not so healthy after all. Their sex becomes wilder, usually they seek spectators, group sex, violent sex and at some point, I believe they killed an old lady Sada wanted Kichizo to have sex with. It becomes obsessive, they are not eating, hardly getting out of bet, just constant sex and Sada becomes jealous that Kichizo may have sex with his wife. They start playing strangulation games and this ends in something I hope I will never see again. Seriously messed up.

The point of the movie is to portrait a couple getting so obsessed about their sexual relationship that they drift off into a tangent to reality and create their own reality. It literally drives them insane. The art, and I suppose the reason this movie is considered special, is that this drift is made into something beautiful, into something we can almost follow. Almost I would say, because it is also batshit crazy.

The look and feel of the movie is gorgeous. The colors are knife sharp and the period sets are just amazing. So are the bodies shown, not just because pretty and clean bodies look better in porn, but because the movie is seeking a certain very clean and smooth aesthetic. It wants to make the sexual would of these two people a desirable place to be, although objectively it should repulse us. Maybe that is the objective of porn objectively, but this movie just takes it so much further. It feels less about gratifying the viewer and more about dragging us along with the couple into their weird tangent.

Sada Abe was a real character who back in 1936 killed her lover and cut off his genitals, but so charmed and fascinated the public that she got away with relatively light punishment. She is, as I understand it, quite a legendary character in Japan and there have been some attempts to tell this juicy story, but I doubt anybody have tried this hard to get into her head. And her body too.

I found it a very disturbing movie. It is very aesthetic, but it is a shocking aesthetic that makes me very uneasy watching it. I feel too close to them and I become one more they have sex in front of. What starts fairly harmless becomes more and more disturbing and by the time we got to the strangulation scenes I had difficulty watching it and the final scene… ugh… as I wrote above, I never want to see that again.

If watching erect penises, semen dripping out of the mouth, food in the vagina and strangulation games is your thing, well, there is a lot for you here, but I cannot honestly call this a pleasant movie. It will take some time to get past this one.  

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie) (1976)



Few countries are as vilified right now as Russia and though it is stupid and counterproductive to generalize, it cannot help but influencing my view on this movie, “The Ascent” (“Voskhozhdeniye”). This is probably the wrong time to objectively review an old Soviet movie, but it is next on my List so, no way around it.

This is a movie which, despite its significant length, is rather short on story. It is the second world war and a group of Russian partisans are being chased through the forest by the German army. Short on food, two soldiers, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) are sent to a village to procure supplies. It is deep (and very snowy) winter and Sotnikov is ill. There is a brief encounter with a German patrol and Sotnikov is shot in the leg. The two soldiers seek refuge in a farmhouse belonging to a woman and her small children, but are discovered and taken by another German patrol.

Now follows an interrogation by a collaborator, Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn) where Sotnikov refuse to corporate despite torture while Rybak quickly breaks. The rest of the movie, until the execution of Sotnikov, the farm woman, a headman and a young Jewish girl is about establishing that Sotnikov is a saint and Rybak hardly deserves to be called human.

And that seems to be the message of the movie. Those who stand firm and take a bullet for their country are admirable saints, while those who just wants to survive are dogs who do not deserve it.

As simple as that.

It is practically the opposite message from most of the Vietnam movies from this period and forward and appears tailored to follow the party line of complying at all costs. Something that really has not changed in that country. The message also seems to apply today, though I wonder how many of those Russians fighting in Ukraine are Sotnikovs or Rybaks…

This is a very bleak looking movie. The black and white cinematography is almost whitened out by the snow, all characters are worn, damaged and shabby looking and even the soundtrack (cannot really call it a score) is disturbing. You feel you are in an environment on the brink of death. Those alive are only so because they are not dead yet and the value of life is pathetic. The Germans are non-persons, monsters in uniforms, and the Russians are all into their futile heroism. There is no more depth to them than that. The only question that matters is how to die.

This was not a movie I enjoyed. The intended intensity was to my mind way over the top, the message questionable and the delivery unpleasant. It is a Christ analogy where Sotnikov dies to take our sins from us, and we should praise and worship him for that. We even get a halo around his head, it is that thick.

For a suffering population asked to make sacrifices for a greater good, I suppose it serves a purpose, but as a viewer I could think of a thousand movies I would rather watch.


Saturday, 7 May 2022

Network (1976)



Imagine if television networks only cared about ratings, about the price they could charge for the commercial blocks and went as low as possible in the attempt to appeal to our lowest instincts, so that we, despite ourselves would watch their junk instead of something else. This crazy, far-fetched and completely unrealistic scenario is the premise for Sidney Lumet’s movie “Network”.

When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a longtime news-anchor at the UBS network, learns he is getting sacked for poor ratings, he suffers a sort of breakdown. During one of his last shows he announces on live television that he has been fired and will commit suicide on the next show. While his friend, the news division manager Max Schumacher (William Holden) is stunned and tries to protect Beale, the programming chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), spurred by the attention Howard got, wants to exploit it. She sells the idea to management and suddenly Howard Beale has a show where he can rant and scream. Never idle Diana develops the show and in parallel tries to setup a show called “Mao Tse Tung hour” with a terrorist organization where they can film and broadcast their terror attacks.

UBS is a recent acquisition of the larger corporation CCA, who are not too pleased with the deficits made by UBS. Especially the news division is not making enough money and so gets the axe. Diane’s new shows however are making UBS profitable again and so she is a hero, along with her manager Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). CCA is itself being bought by Saudis and when Howard learns this, he starts ranting on that in his show and he is no longer amusing to the board. Top-dog Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) convinces Howard that the world is a depressing place run by big business so learn to live with it. Howard picks up on that, it becomes his point on his shows and so, with such a depressive message, his ratings plummet. Management sees no other choice than to let the terrorists assassinate Howard Beale. On live television.

This is a super-sharp satire on the television industry and as grotesque as it is presented, nothing here really feels surprising. Sadly, I am confident this is fairly close to reality. This is of course also why it is funny. We recognize it. Television is stupid in order to appeal to the lowest denominator; the shows know no boundary and we are the cattle to milk. We are there for the network, not the other way round.

What works tremendously well in this movie is that it never goes for slapstick. It keeps it real all the way through, there are no hidden smiles or ironic distance, but characters that take themselves serious. Faye Dunaway in particular as Diane is completely outrageous, but perfectly serious about it. She is real enough to avoid being a caricature, and yet she has given up her humanity to dedicate herself to ratings. She has no filter at all.

Maybe the funniest scene of the entire movie is where the network with their lawyers and the terrorists with their lawyers are negotiating the contract for their shows. Badass terrorists discussing clauses in legal documents. Isn’t this sort of capitalism exactly what they are fighting against? It was hilarious.

Howard Beale, the crazy man on screen, is only half as outrageous as what is happening behind the shows. The cynicism, greed and power games are way crazier than a man screaming that he cannot take it anymore.

“Network” is of course just as relevant today as it was in 1976. Streaming probably has not helped. If television gets too stupid, we have alternatives (I gave up on cable years ago), but the networks seem convinced that lowering the bar enough will bring people back to flow-TV. This means that Network hits home 100% and I can highly recommend it.


Saturday, 30 April 2022

Julefrokosten (1976)



Every single company in Denmark, most associations and indeed any other group of people outside family, have an annual Christmas lunch (julefrokost). I do not think this is uniquely Danish. The format of it however seems to be outside the ordinary. Most of my international friends see it as a bit of a culture chock and feel a bit… uncomfortable about how rowdy a thing it is. Somewhere between the pickled herring and snaps and watching your boss play air-guitar this is something you remember. Unless you passed out with hazy ideas about what happened. If you do not know what snaps is, google it. The best is called Rød Aalborg and must be drunk at sub-zero temperature…

“Julefrokosten” is a legendary movie about such a Christmas lunch that when completely off the rails.

At Simonsen’s Bijuteriefabrik it is time for the annual Christmas lunch. This is a small company of the old school with a hierarchical structure, a place where people are called by surname. But at the Christmas lunch all such titles and forms are relaxed, and everybody are intent on having a good time. This means copious amount of alcohol. And snaps, well, you really do not need a lot of those. Soon the foreman Karlsen (Jesper Langballe) is hitting on Henny (Lisbeth Dahl), Merete (Kirsten Norholt) hits on anything that moves, Peter Petit (Jørgen Ryg) speaks fake Chinese and sits in the food, Borgunde (Judy Gringer) gets the party in gear and Hans (Preben Kaas) is everybody’s best friend as he supplies drink. By the time the manager, Simonsen (Bjørn Puggaard-Müller), shows up everybody are in high spirits and he gets busy catching up.

This goes from bad to worse when the party crashes Simonsen’s office where the stuffy bookkeeper, Asta Asmussen (Birgitte Federspiel), thinks she will be hosting coffee and cake, but instead gets into a fist fight with Borgunde. When they order a late evening snack, the delivery guy gets sucked into the party and as drunk as the rest. Even worse when a passing elderly lady sees Petit and Borgunde on the roof and thinks he is about to get killed. Eventually half the party ends in the detention to sleep it out.

Okay, I have never experienced a julefrokost get to those extremes and generally drunk people are only funny if you are drunk yourself, but this is one of the few examples where they actually are funny, especially when you have experienced Christmas lunches and know how wild they can get. There is something funny about how stupid and embarrassing people can get when inhibitions are lost and, frankly, a relief to see a movie where people turn funny instead of mean from drinking. Not that these people do not have a LOT to think about afterwards and bitterly wished they had held back a bit.

This is also fun to watch because the cast is the absolute best Danish film could offer by the mid-seventies. Every single role is filled by an actor who would be a star on his or her own in any other movie, and yet nobody is drowning (well, in snaps, but you know what I mean). This is truly an ensemble comedy. Sure, some of the jokes are dated, but this is still way better than the remake from 2009, mostly because it does not feel the need to moralize. We can all see that objectively this is terrible, but it is also hilariously fun.

Our Christmas lunch was postponed due to Covid and is due is three weeks. The food and the snaps are ready and there are places on site to crash. Only question is if we are getting too old for this stuff.

Monday, 25 April 2022

Taxi Driver (1976)


Taxi Driver

The picaresque novel has a long history, going back centuries. My book blog counts a number of these, but also the picaresque movie has something of a history. The typical format is that of a traveler, who in each location meets new people and new situations and in the process of these encounters the traveler while being an observer, is formed and may form his world. One of the finest, and most classic, of these is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”.

The idea of a taxi driver as the traveler is brilliant and has been used frequently since. The taxi driver picks up different characters and go different places with each client and in the process experiences and observes the locales and the people. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is such a traveler. He is our observer and commentator as he drives taxi at night in New York. As a character Travis is an empty vessel. He is alone and with a minimal of baggage. Cut off from his family and with a background as a soldier, he possesses nothing but what the city gives him. That is unfortunately mostly negative experiences. As a night driver, Travis experience the underworld, prostitution, violence, drugs and scum of all sorts and it gives him a cynical and disgusted outlook, but it also forms him as to how he should be. He becomes as crude and degraded as the city around him.

One of his stops is to observe Betsy (Cybil Shepherd). She works in a campaign office for a presidential campaign and is his goddess. When he finally gathers the courage to approach her, it is so awkward that it is both painful and hilarious to watch. She is in a completely different league from Travis and he simply has no interface to her. His idea of taking her to a movie is to go watch a porn movie in a seedy joint! Guess how that turns out. To Travis, this failure feeds into his general disgust and people like Betsy become representatives of a world he despises.

Another character he meets is Iris (Jodie Foster). She is a very young (12, if we are to believe her) prostitute. Again, Travis simply observes her and decides she needs help. Iris is incredulous and has no idea what he is talking about. Again, Travis attempt at breaking out of his internal world and connect with the outside world is awkward and he fails to connect.

Travis’ response to all this is to go ultra-right. He wants to clean the town, he wants to do something and in his world that means to go kill the bad guys. At first he settles for the politician Betsy is working for and when that fails, he turns his vengeance on Iris’ perceived tormentors.

This is a movie that is scarily relevant today. Travis’ character can be recognized from countless assassination and shooting cases and his voice is echoed by militant right-wing people the world over. I have had taxi drivers echoing Travis. The alienation, the loneliness, the impression of moral decay is all too common and today such people can confirm themselves on social media. “Taxi Driver” was blamed for inspiring this sentiment, but it was just an early mirror on a sentiment that has only grown since.

Travis is the picaresque traveler who gets formed by the world he travels through, but fails to connect with it. He morally degrades along with this world and thus he shares fate with the city.

This is not a feel-good movie, but it packs a hell of a punch. It is crowded with rising stars, has a haunting soundtrack by Bernhard Hermann and is brilliantly shot and directed. It may be the best move in 1976. Also, it gave De Niro his famous line “Are you looking at me?”.


Saturday, 16 April 2022

Rocky (1976)



I am not certain “Rocky” introduced the sports montage, but I cannot imagine a sports montage without the “Gonna Fly Now” soundtrack. In fact, any preparation for doing something big must be accompanied by this track, just as the actual performance in slow motion must be Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” and the eventual success, Queen’s “We are the Champions”. Then add iconic scenes like the victory jump at the top of the staircase of the Philadelphia Art Museum or the persistent cry of “ADRIAN!”, which you will always feel like shouting if you get beaten up badly. Three Academy Awards including Best Picture and countless sequels and spin-offs of which the latest is due this year. To think this all came from a low-cost production in 1976 with non-union crew, an extra as the lead, no actor pampering and a persistent diet of pizza…

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a working-class boxer and part-time collector for a loan shark. His career never took off and he has let himself slide so the games he fights are cheap and brutal and with no future. He cares about boxing because he is good for nothing else and his only other interest is Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy woman who works in a pet shop. They are both off-beat characters and that is, I suppose, their attraction to each other. To see them make out is so awkward and poignant that I felt the camera really should not be there.

Rocky’s break happens as one of those once in a lifetime events, when the opponent of World Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) cancels due to an injured hand. The game is highly advertised, too much money is at stake, but there are no other ranked opponents available. Creed comes up with the idea to find some unknown, local boxer and make it an “American Dream” chance and he likes the sound of the name “The Italian Stallion”, Rocky’s call name.

From completely unknown, Rocky is now thrown into the limelight and must get his act in gear for this game. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have never been a sports guy and boxing is a game I never cared for. I just never watch it. This may be the reason I was never into the Rocky series, but even I have been massively exposed to that franchise. It is one of those, like “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” that you just cannot avoid. As I mentioned in the opening, the tropes founded by this movie are big ones and the world would have been a slightly different place without this movie. To me, though, this movie is less about boxing than a rags-to-riches tale and one that springs out of a truly sad place.

The environment of Philadelphia in the mid-seventies presented is just depressing and the no-future life of those living there is heartbreaking. The movie spends a lot of time and focus on this world. The dirt, the hardships and the sorry existences living there. The love story of Rocky and Adrian works because they are two “losers” who find that together they are not losers and that is the heart and soul of the movie. Rocky knows he is going to lose the fight, but this is not about winning a game but winning over himself, to show that he can pull himself up. In this sense there is a clear parallel to “Bad News Bears”, reviewed earlier on this page.

Then of course the production of this movie is a parallel to the story it tells. Before this movie Stallone was an extra or performing in soft-core porn, but he wrote the script for Rocky and insisted on playing the lead with the result that is was rejected as a big production and only got very minor funding. It became, however, a huge success and a true rags-to-riches story on its own.

Even without the acclaim and massive influence on pop-culture “Rocky” does stand its ground. It is a solid movie, even if the basic story has been repeated ad-infinitum. It just works.


Friday, 8 April 2022

Marathon Man (1976)



In the mid-seventies, Dustin Hoffman was here, there and everywhere. He is almost omni-present. Usually, though not always, movies benefitted from his presence. My second off-List movie for 1976, “Marathon Man” is another Dustin Hoffman film.

In this movie we follow two tracks that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Track 1 is a cloak and dagger track with spies and agents, bombs and shady dealings. It is very difficult to work out what happens here, but the scenes focus on Henry “Doc” Levy (Roy Scheider, yup, the guy from “Jaws”!) and people with a heavy German accent. Doc is clearly some sort of agent and things are not going great for him. His contacts are dying around him and someone is trying to kill or at least warn him too.

Track 2 features Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a Ph.D history student working on a project that should clear his father who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. A topic that is a bit of an obsession for Babe. He is also really into running and is practicing for a marathon with a similar obsessive zeal. The combo makes for a shabby and likely sweat-smelling living. Babe meets a nice girl at the library, Elsa (Marthe Keller) and starts dating her.

The sharp reader may already have noticed that these two characters share a surname, but that took me quite a while to work out and it was only half-way into the movie when Doc pays Babe a visit that I realized they were brothers. It is also only when Doc gets stabbed by the bad guys and stumbles back to Babe’s apartment to die in his arms that the storylines merge. As it turns out there are old Nazi’es involved, including a Nazi-dentist from Auschwitz (no shit, I thought that was only my dentist), played by legendary Laurence Olivier, lots of diamonds and renegade government agents. Babe is in this way over head and his teeth will never be the same again.

A good thriller balances what it tells and does not tell its audience. Little enough that the whole thing is mysterious, but enough that we do not get completely lost. A part of me was thinking that I was left a bit too much in the dark here, but the effect is that we share the same confusion as Babe feels and that is okay. The problem is that Babe is a terrible listener. He asks by shouting and keep shouting instead of listening for the answer and that is partly the reason he is left in the dark. I cannot tell if this is part of Babe’s character or if it is Dustin Hoffman’s particular way of acting, but it was grinding on me.

Roy Scheider, on the other hand, grows on me. At first, I only thought of him as the chief of Amity Island, but he is very versatile and this role was very different, as were his roles in “Klute” and “French Connection”. Juxtaposed with his brother Babe, Doc could not be more different.

I have long suspected that dentists were actually Nazi sadists and now I feel confirmed. I just knew they took special pleasure out of tormenting my mouth and extorting my money. I visited my dentist yesterday morning and just waited for her to ask: “Is it safe?”. I would have talked, there and then.

“Marathon Man” is a decent thriller. Sure, there are loose ends, but that is okay, we need the mystique. As these are mostly, the middle part is the best, the slow finding out what this is about, whereas the conclusion dives into classic Hollywood tropes. I am okay adding it as an off-List movie, but I can also see why it might not earn a spot on the List. On the other hand, the list is definitely lacking some Nazi dentists.


Friday, 1 April 2022

All the President's Men (1976)


Alle præsidentens mænd

One of the most common conspiracy theories is that there is a cabal in the government trying to manipulate things through illicit means. Well, it is, I suppose, an entire family of conspiracy theories. Unlike most of those far-fetched ideas, this one actually happened and curiously enough operated by the very same kind of people who believes in these theories. Thieves believe everybody steals, I suppose.

It is a commonly known story that it was two journalists at the Washington Post who traced the infamous Watergate burglary to the top-echelon at the White House and brought down the Nixon administration. Robert Redford was so fascinated by the story of these two journalists, probably more than by the case itself, that he approached them and got their help to make a movie about them. The result is “All the President’s Men”.

Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are two, young and low-rung journalists who get assigned to cover the burglary case. They soon learn that the burglars have ties to the White House, but the waters are very murky. Woodward has an anonymous contact at Justice, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) who tries to nudge them along with riddle as in some treasure hunt for adults and then it is out knocking doors, to piece together the puzzle.

Jason Robards as the Post editor is both encouraging their investigation and holding back the story, insisting on more meat on it, which forces Woodward and Bernstein to dig deeper until they find out how deep this conspiracy runs.

This is, I understand, a fairly faithful representation of their story. The newsroom at the Post was recreated so exactly that authentic Washington Post garbage was flown in so even the bins were like the real office. This also means that the investigation of the movie follows the same steps as the real investigation and those were, frankly, very confusing. I had to concentrate hard to follow it. There are so many names thrown around, hints and references than mean nothing to me and seemingly the same exercise repeated again and again. What I did work out was that it was the payments to the burglars that led to CREEP (the Committee to RE-Elect the President) and further up to the closest associates of the President, but also into the FBI, which was supposed to investigate the burglary.

It is an opaque case, but it is also presented in a broken form. Certainly not through easy to read flow diagrams, which leads to authenticity but at the expense of understanding exactly where you are in the movie.

Eventually, there is a backlash. Woodward, Bernstein and indeed the Post feel the wrath of the White House and they start getting paranoid. Are they being followed and bugged?

Then just as things look most dangerous and uncertain, the case is closed and the president falls…


The idea is, that at this point the story has caught up with what is publicly know, so the rest is history, as they say. Except that I am a foreigner living more than forty years after the fact. This is not known history to me and I simply missed the clues to how they pulled it off.

This is an interesting story, even an important story and I love the authenticity and the refusal to do a Hollywood spin on the story, but the cost was that it lost me on the way. I will have to read up on it though, it is too interesting to miss. I want those ten minutes the movie cut away.

Saturday, 26 March 2022

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)


Øje for øje

It is hard to think of a movie more quintessentially Clint Eastwood than “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. It is as if he condensed his most iconic roles to this date, from his days with Sergio Leone and as Dirty Harry, into a single character. Mannerism, attitude, politics, you name it. Josey Wales is, or would appear to be, the sum of Eastwood.

Josey Wales was a farmer in Missouri, when early in the civil war his homestead is raided and wife and son murdered by a plundering gang of unionist, known as Redlegs. As a result, Wales joins a band of Confederates chasing the Redlegs. When the war ends Wales has become a lean, mean, fighting machine and he refuses to yield. Good for him because the amnesty extended to Confederates was a scam and almost all of his band got massacred, adding more villainy to those Redlegs. Soon Wales is chased across the country and ever so often has to stop to take care of some bounty hunters.

Along the way, Wales pick up a motley band, including an old Native (Chief Dan George, a woman kept as a slave at a trading post (Geraldine Keams) and the leftover of a raided pioneer train (Paula Trueman and Sondra Locke). Not out of design, Wales is a loner, but he has not the heart to turn them away.

Finally, after making peace with the local Comanche tribe, Wales seems to be able to catch a break and be allowed to settle down, but, alas, fate is catching up with him…

Clint Eastwood is the quiet man, efficient, economic and extremely capable. Skills that come in very handy considering the large number of bounty hunters, soldiers and scum who are out to get him. This constant cat and mouse game results in an awful lot of dead cats and make up the majority of the movie. The rest is also classic Eastwood, human integrity among those considered least worthy. The old Indian who sold his soul, the fallen woman and the self-righteous pilgrims who learn who the good guys are. When Wales makes peace with the Comanche it is in opposition to the Indians as the murderous barbarians stereotype and show them as having more moral integrity than the representatives of the government, exemplified by the Redlegs.

This is all very Dirty Harry, very Eastwood and it is kind of fun and gratifying, until you, or at least I did, start to get an unpleasant feeling that this is Eastwood presenting himself as a saint. This was very much his movie, he directed and partly funded the movie and it functions very much as a vehicle for him. Josey Wales is just a tad too sharp with the guns, a little too good to those in need and a little too self-sacrificing. When we get to the final show-down things start to fly off the rails when Wales’ band take down a small army with Josey Wales himself lying on the ground shooting left and right, hitting someone with every shot. Yeah…

If I close my eyes to that stuff, this is really an entertaining movie and as I generally like Clint Eastwood’s movies, I enjoyed watching it. It is mostly afterwards, when I start thinking about it that it starts to taste foul and even then, I cannot rule it out. Who does not like a Robin Hood story?

Personally, I thought Clint was cooler in Sergio Leone’s rendition.


Sunday, 20 March 2022

The Bad News Bears (1976)


Off-List: The Bad News Bears

The first off-List movie of 1976 comes highly recommended. “The Bad News Bears” is indeed the kind of movie that can make you forget for a moment the crappy things going on in the world.

Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a bum and former baseball almost-star, is hired to coach a team of 11-12 year old children. These are children nobody else wanted on their teams, outcasts for various reasons. Buttemaker is a drunk cynic as only Matthau could do it, he likes the money but makes no real effort. In their first game they are wiped out.

Buttermaker, who is coming to like the children, wakes up and starts making an effort, getting two talented children to play for his team, former girlfriend’s daughter Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and bad boy Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley), and actually teach the children some baseball. Suddenly they start winning games.

The crisis of the movie happens when Buttermaker and his rival Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), coach of the rival Yankees team, get to think that winning is more important than the children. It has to almost fall apart before he realizes their intrinsic value as children rather than as ball players.

How can I not like a movie with Walter Matthau? I love everything he did, and his sheer presence is enough to lift otherwise mediocre films. This is also the case here and this is not a mediocre film to begin with, if for no other reason than there are a lot of children here acting, mostly like children would, unfiltered and un-idealized. Also, I will always love a story of misfits lifting themselves out of misery. Always have. Nobody is useless and winning is in itself pointless.

There are many such stories around and where this one is distinctly different is that <SPOILER!!!> they do not win the big trophy in the end. What matters is what they won as children. Confidence and a sense of belonging. For a child that is immensely more valuable than a silly trophy <END SPOILER>.

My main problem with the movie is that this sport itself is a complete mystery for me. I do not know the rules for baseball, never played it, never watched a game. In Denmark it is non-existent. I had no idea what the children were doing on the field, if it was good or bad, what was at stake or any of the tactical dispositions. I could only read from the expressions of players and coach if something was good or bad and was otherwise nonplussed by the whole thing. It gave me a feeling that the movie was speaking past me, expecting me to know a lot of things, which it therefore took for granted. Well, I suppose it is my own fault, but it does explain why I have generally avoided sports movies about sports I do not understand.

The second problem, which actually turned out to be the entire point of the movie, was that I was getting increasingly upset and frustrated with the attitudes of the adults and indeed the format of this tournament. It was all about winning. Weaker players had to be sidelined, success was “bought” by getting external star players and the teams are run as a professional entity with no room for the second best. In my own childhood I was crap at sports, but I did play along and being part of a team, win or lose, is fun, but it is not fun being humiliated. Leave that to the adults.

So much more gratifying was it when I realized that this was, at least mostly, the agenda of the movie. It was the adults, the winning-is-everything and kick-the-weak-when-they-are-lying-down attitude that was exposed as ridiculous. Seeing Lupus and Rudi being valued and included was extremely heartwarming.

Happy to say that you can watch “The Bad News Bears” despite knowing nothing of baseball. It says a lot about what matters to children and that is the important part. And that it features Walter Matthau.



Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Carrie (1976)



This weekend my wife joined me to watch “Carrie”. This was only the second time she watched a List movie with me, but she is a lot more into horror movies than me and likes the remake. Neither of us had ever seen the 76 version by Brian De Palma and we were curious to see how that was holding up against the later version.

“Carrie” is one of the famous horror stories and one of the earliest from Stephen King. It is about a high school girl, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), who is an outcast at school. Her life and sanity has been pretty much ruined by her zealously religious mother (Piper Laurie) and in school she is the shy weirdo everybody picks on. This we see a good example of right in the opening where Carrie is getting her first (but late) period in the gym shower. She panics as nothing had prepared her for this and is in return mocked and ridiculed by her peers. Only her gym teacher can see this is wrong and stands up for her.

It is prom time and one of the girls, Sue (Amy Irving), wants to make amends and asks her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask Carrie to the prom. Reluctantly she goes. Chris (Nancy Allen) is an entitled bimbo who did not take well to the penalty for harassing Carrie. Her vengeance includes arranging Carrie to be crowned Prom Queen and then get doused in pig’s blood. To this end she enrolls her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta). Unfortunately for everybody Carrie has mysterious superpowers and faced with ultimate humiliation she rains vengeance on everybody.

The core of the story of course is a victim pushed too far. I am thinking that 20-30 years later this could well have been a school shooting rather than witchcraft. In that case very few would have sympathized with the mass murder and destruction, but the interesting thing with “Carrie” is that we do, or at least I do, sympathized with her and cheer her on in her rampage. She becomes a monster but a righteous monster.

There is the religious motif, which ruins her, but also prepares the ground for her. It makes her see the world in that strange light of intense religious indoctrination. This is then closely linked to the sex and blood theme, the unclean woman with her period and the special powers ancient beliefs gave menstruating women. Sex, blood, religion and school harassment. Somewhere in that mix it is not difficult to understand why Carrie blows a fuse.

No doubt this is a great horror movie, but if I should dare to criticize it, then I do not really see the need for her magic powers. They seem unnecessary for the story, and it would not have been that difficult to have found a mundane way to wreak havoc on her tormenters. I do not think it would have been less juicy, but I guess there needed to be a link between sex, blood and witchcraft.

My wife’s verdict was that the remake is better. It is certainly clearer in its message. Only the bad guys die there, whereas the original Carrie makes no distinction. Everybody goes down with her, friend and foe. I am not certain which version I prefer. Sissy Spacek was pretty awesome in her bloody dress and with bulging eyes.

A solid recommendation from me.


Saturday, 12 March 2022

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)


Mordet på en kinesisk bookmaker

I have to admit that if feels odd to write reviews of forty+ year old movies at a time when it seems like the world has gone crazy, sort of like fiddling while Rome is burning, but I guess there is something comforting about dreaming yourself away to a simpler time. Or was it, really?

My first 76 movie is “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”, a John Cassavetes movie. There are two things you know when you are going to watch a Cassavetes movie: It is going to feel like you have been invited inside somebody’s real life and two, that whatever is the theme the take on it will be different from what you are used to. That sounds great, really, but in the case of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” this is a sad and depressive life in a dismal world.

Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) is a nightclub owner. Not one of those glitzy places, but the seediest kind imaginable. I cannot say I have much experience with nightclubs, but “Crazy Horse West” is the epitome of poor taste and low appeal. It may have aspirations at art, but what it produces is pathetic and boils down to tits. It is one of those places that make you feel dirty and immensely sad. Yet Cosmo is proud of his place, and he genuinely likes his girls. It makes him feel like a hotshot and in his head, it is a lot more than what we see.

Unfortunately, Cosmo has a bad gambling habit and when he loses 23.000$ to a bunch of gangsters he is forced to take the shitty deal to kill a competing Chinese gangster to get out of his debt. Against all odds Cosmo pulls it off and survives which was not according to plan, so now the gangsters are after him.

The slice of life style is so typical of Cassavetes and in this case it gives us a lot of insight into the life of Cosmo Vittelli and his world. It is gritty, people are not that smart, conversation is often dumb and people think they are a lot cooler than they actually are. As if they kid themselves by pretending to have a better life than they really have. This depression overlays everything like a duvet, making their only chance at staying sane and afloat to believe in the lies they tell themselves. Which is essentially Cosmo’s speech at the end of the movie.

Yeah, I know, this is supposed to be a crime story about an assassination and a bunch of gangsters, but if found the plot quite irrelevant. This is not really about murders and violence, but about a life where you have to take shitty deals. You are an imperfect being and that is the kind of balls life throws at you. This is all about Cosmo and his desperate struggle to stay afloat and pretend all is great.

A lot has been made out of this really being about Cassavetes himself and his film crew trying stay afloat, making the actors a parallel to Cosmo’s strippers, exposing themselves for peanuts and getting disrespected for it. Maybe that is so, I do not know. I understand the story well enough without that level of narcissism.

“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” is not a bad film, but it is a film where not much happens and what happens is rather unimportant and it therefore feels empty to watch. When it ends, it feels abrupt, in the middle of the story, but that is because the real story of Cosmo has gone on for long enough. Those who watch it as a crime story are going to get disappointed and those who do not, will just get super depressed. And those watch it for the tits will just end up feeling dirty.

I know I should appreciate the movie, but it just made me more depressed than I already am.


Saturday, 5 March 2022

Jaws (1975)


Dødens gab

This is my last movie of 1975 and with “Jaws”, the year ends on a high.

Shockingly, I never watched this movie before and yes, I may be the last person on the planet to see it. In my youth the reputation of “Jaws” was so that I thought this was way too scary for me to watch and for the past decade I knew it would be coming up, so I wanted to save it for now, to fully enjoy it as a first viewing. Whether that makes sense or not, I do not know, but I did feel the full impact on this viewing, so the wait has been worth something.

I totally loved “Jaws”. I have heard it said that it is dated and that the shark looks fake and all, but that was not my impression. I sensed the terror of that shark, I did urge those children to get out of the water and I did jump in my seat when the shark suddenly appears behind Roy Scheider on the boat. In short, it worked. The “du-dum du-dum du-dum” that heralds the shark is legendary stuff, every child, including my son, knows what that means and hearing it makes me move to the edge of my seat, looking all over for the shark.  Sure, jumps scares is a staple by now and there are bigger and bad’er monsters around whether they are called Godzilla or Putin, but this is the original.

For the very few un-initiated, this story takes place on an east coast island, Amity Island, modelled on something like Martha’s Vineyard, where the summer holiday season is about to begin. We see a young woman taking a night swim when something unseen is taking her, dragging her around and finally pulling her under. Scary stuff. When she is found in pieces, Chief Brody is alarmed by what appears to be a shark attack, but the mayor and the business owners are strongly opposed to closing the beaches. More people will have to die before personal financial interests yield to common sense. Some things never change.

Eventually big game hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) is tasked with hunting down the shark, and he ventures out with shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody. They are in for some interesting fishing.

What happens out there is a magnificent chase, but who is chasing who? Quint is modelled on Captain Ahab of Moby Dick and the shark is his great white whale. It is personal with him, and it almost feels as if it is personal to the shark as well. The shark is his personal menace as it is a symbol natures revenge on humanity in general. Brody and Hooper are just as much fighting the shark as fighting their own demons.

Yet, forget about themes and analyses, this is primal hunting and primal fears, and it is expertly orchestrated.

It is easy to forget that Steven Spielberg was young once and had to start somewhere. This was only his fourth directional effort, the previous three being mainly small productions, but the direction in Jaws is that of a pro (with my feeble insight) and as good as anything he did since.

Also great to see Richard Dreyfuss again. His is one of my top tier actors, though mostly as a comedian. Roy Scheider has one of the best lines in movie history (“We are going to need a bigger boat”), but to my mind Robert Shaw is totally stealing this picture. His mad captain Ahab persona is the most interesting character by far and he does it absolutely perfectly.

Swimming in the ocean was never the same after this movie.

Du-dum du-dum du-dum DU-DUM DU-DUM...


Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Travelling Players (O Thiassos) (1975)


Skuespillernes rejse

Recently there has been quite a lot of movies that have been… different. Sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a less good way. “The Travelling Players” (“O Thiasos”) is definitely different and I am leaning towards it being that in a less good way.

“The Travelling Players” may have a plot, but I was not able to discern it. Being rather confused, I checked the Wikipedia page and there I found a plot summery that I did not recognize at all. What I saw was a story that was jumping forward and backward in time, sometimes mid-scene and usually without explaning that we were now in a different time. The earliest scenes seem to be 1939 and the latest scenes 1952. They are all in Greece and they all feature a group of travelling actors. To me, it looked as if the troupe is fairly consistent throughout, which is a little bit odd since members of the troupe are frequently shot to death and I should suppose the children would grow up over the span of 13 years. I never got much of a relation to any of the characters and I knew as little about each of them by the end as in the beginning. What they are basically doing are moving around, trying to set up the same show and usually getting interrupted (violently).

There is a part of me believing that the reason I cannot discern a plot is because I am lacking an understanding of the background for what I see. There is clearly a lot of references to Greek history in those years and while I do recognize German or British soldiers, everything else is just a blur of names and various people fighting.

Another part of me hopes that I am not supposed to recognize a plot (and therefore not entirely imbecile), that this is not a progressive story but a series of tableaux of a rape on repeat. The raped victim is the Greek population represented by the players. They cannot settle, they cannot get on with what they are doing (setting up a show) and they are subjected to violence, degradation and internal strife as everybody and their mother is fighting over them. According to this interpretation we see an endless fighting with external and internal enemies. Nobody is right, nobody is wrong, but everybody terrorize the civil population in the process and the result is a broken populace in poverty and misery.

I have no idea if this interpretation is correct, but that it should be a depressive one is a given, considering the hopelessly gray and winterly cinematography. This is very far from the sun-soaked Greek vacation image I have of Greece from my visits there. Not even Athens in the wake of the debt-crisis looks this sad.

“The Travelling Players” is also an example of what happens when the director is allowed all the running time he wants and therefore skip the trimming part of the editing. Angelopoulos takes all the time in the world to tell this story (three hours and forty minutes). A story, which is essentially a scene on repeat. In this sense it reminded me a lot about “Jeanne Dielman”, with the difference that I was a lot less confused there. Maybe the extensive running time is an image on how long the people had to suffer?

Confusion is indeed the prevalent feeling throughout, together with depression. Mostly I would be watching, hoping for something to anchor my understanding until that point where I gave up hoping and just resigned to accept that is about the Greeks getting raped again and again by everybody including themselves.

If this sounds like something for you, go crazy. The movie is available in full length on YouTube. The poster for the movie on Wikipedia is not in doubt. It sports the headline: “One of the Best Films in the History of World Cinema”. No less. Edited down to half the size it might have half a chance at that. As it is I cannot honestly wish this movie on anybody.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Nashville (1975)



I do not like country music. Like in, I really do not like country music. That is a pretty important detail when you watch a 2½-hour long movie about Nashville, Tennessee, of which at least an hour consists of country music performances. It is bound to color my view on the movie.

This is a rambling movie with an enormous cast and uncounted storylines that may or may not interact. I have not recognized an over-all plot and that somehow does not feel important. In this sense it reminds me of Robert Altman’s earlier movie, “MASH”, where the buzz of the place is the objective rather than a traditional story arc.

Everything centers on the place, Nashville, and the music. In Nashville, that means country music. All the characters have an angle on the music. They are performers, wannabe performers, fans, promoters, exploiters, groupies or just hanging around because this is the place to be. You get a very clear feeling that in this place, everything revolves around the music industry and that all these people interact in strange connection with the sole purpose of promoting themselves to get a slice of the cake. Whether it is Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) pretending to be  from the BBC to get close to the action, Winifred (Barbara Harris) who has run away from her husband to pursue a career as a singer and tries to squeeze herself in where she can or Haven (Henry Gibson) who is working hard to maintain his star status to gain influence, and on and on. There is a singularly personal, if not selfish, angle to all the characters as if only they really matter.

I cannot tell if this is a celebration of Nashville or a ridicule of same. There is an element of satire, even mockery at times, of these people, but everybody acts in earnest and are dead serious about all this. This is what makes it funny, but also uncomfortable as when people do not understand why we are laughing at them. I also get this feeling that where I see a satirical exposé, others will see a love letter to everything that is great about this place.

My lack of understanding may stem from the fact that I am very much an outsider. As a foreigner, both to the country and the culture, and to the music, I am not qualified to judge this movie. I can enjoy it as a crazy spectacle and I can cringe over the music, but that can only be my personal view. I have a feeling Robert Altman was torn between love and disgust making this movie and that does make it oddly schizophrenic.

I am quite convinced fans of the music hail this movie as a masterpiece for getting into the soul of it and just as convinced that opponents to the culture that digs country music hail this as a masterpiece for exposing the hypocrisy, egoism and idiocy of it. Either way, everybody is happy.

This may also be the first movie on the List with the great Jeff Goldblum in an, albeit small, role. Those goggles are absolutely awesome and so is his bike.

I still dislike country music with a vengeance and while it did make it hard to get through the movie at times, there is no denying that on the whole I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.  

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Cria! (Cria Cuervos) (1975)


Den Spanske Ravn

I am not a fan of dubbing. I am convinced that the audio elements are as important as the visual elements in a movie and dubbing robs the audience of that vital dimension to replace it with an unoriginal foreign element. I prefer subtitles any day to dubbing.

My copy of “Cria Cuervos” is a beautiful blue-ray disc, but without subtitles. Instead dubbed versions in four different languages has been added. As I do not understand Spanish I am therefore forced to listen to the English dubbing. From time to time, I switched back to the Spanish version simply to enjoy the sound, the background effects and the beautiful voices of the actors. I even understand that there are accents in their voices that have importance to understanding some of the motivations of the characters, but totally lost in the dubbing. Man, I hate dubbing.

Anyway, even without original sound “Cria Cuervos” is a beautiful movie, featuring the darling Ana Torrent as one of three orphaned children. Unfortunately, a lot of the finer points of the movie was lost on me and I did not really understand what the movie wanted and that made it a somewhat empty experience. By comparison I found “The Spirit of the Beehive” a far stronger movie, although they are supposed to touch on similar issues.

In the opening scenes, Ana’s (Ana Torrent) father, Anselmo is found dead in bed by Ana. She thinks she killed him by mixing poison (baking soda) into his milk, but she is quite calm about it. We see Ana’s mother in flashbacks and Ana as an adult talking about her childhood, both played by Geraldine Chaplin. In Ana’s eyes, her mother died of an illness caused by her father’s philandering. Now Ana is left with her two sisters, Irene and Maite, the maid, Rosa and hear aunt, Paulina who has assumed guardianship. Ana’s thoughts seem to center on death and her being the one who inflict it. Her guinea pig dies, she offers to kill her mute and sad grandmother and she attempts to kill her aunt with her baking soda. It never appears to be from malice, more like she has the ability and duty to inflict it.

There is supposed to be a lot of allusions to the end of the Franco regime in Spain, but I cannot work out how that ties in with the little angel of death. The closest thing is that young Spain should shed the oppression of the parent generation, but this interpretation does not feel satisfying and without that, the story of Ana lacks some direction.

Beside that, these are three darling children, and it is difficult not to fall in love with them and their childish view on things. There is a recurrent theme, the song “Porque te vas” by Jeanette, which matches these girls very well. It is catchy, infectious, but also melancholic and I have been humming it ever since (there is a good rendition on Youtube).

I wish I had gotten more out of the movie. It won a number of prizes and was one of the most popular Spanish movies outside of Spain in the seventies, and you do not get that sort of success through a quiet movie about three children, so I am clearly missing a lot here. I blame dubbing, but likely I am just not smart enough.

Still, if only for Ana Torrent, it is a recommendation from me.


Thursday, 3 February 2022

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salo, o le Centoventi Gio di Sodoma) (1975)


Salo eller de 120 dage i Sodoma

I have feared this moment. Ask any List follower of their worst experience and somewhere “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (“Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma”) is bound to pop up. Not exactly the greatest recommendation to get. Last year I read the book, similarly titled “The 120 Days of Sodom” by Marquis de Sade and that was so horrible I could not finish it. First time on the List that has happened. Surely, a movie made by the famed Pier Paolo Pasolini cannot be as bad as that.

It is a damn close thing.

What Pasolini did was move the story from an 18th century French (or German), gothic castle, to an Italian villa during the later part of Second World War. The four libertines are now high-ranking fascists, but with the same titles, representing aristocracy, church, wealth and the judicial system. That is about it. In every other matter of consequence Pasolini follow the book.

Oh, I wish he had not.

I am really not up to giving a summary of the story. For that, refer to my review of the book. Even thinking of it makes me gag.

On an intellectual level I understand what Pasolini wanted to do, comparing fascism to torture and murder for the sickening sexual satisfaction of those with the power to wield it. The accomplices are willing followers as long as it keeps them from being the victims and the precious innocents, the general population, is powerless against the systematic rape they are repeatedly subjected to.

Fine. Problem is, this in no way excuse making a movie like this. These are basically children and the cruelty they are subjected to is simply staggering and that long before the final sequence of actual torture and murder. For once I agree with the censors, trying to protect the public from this travesty.

There was only a single element that I found interesting enough to mention. For the storytelling and orgies, a pianist is installed to provide music. Throughout she seems to close her eyes, do her music and just focus on that. The few times she looks around it seems as if she does not want to take in what she is witnessing. Then finally towards the end, looking out the window at the horrors taking place in the yard, she simply throws herself out the window, killing herself in the fall. I take it, from shame at having witnessed all this and done nothing.

The least I can do is to warn other people.


Sunday, 30 January 2022

Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) (1975)


Maynila: sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag

I do not think I have ever watched a Filipino movie before but based in “Manila in the Claws of Light” (“Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag”), maybe I should track down some more of those. “Manila in the Claws of Light” is an impressive and powerful movie, but also a desperately depressive one.

We follow Julio (Rafael Roco), a young fisherman who has recently arrived in Manilla, looking for his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). Slowly, we learn that Ligaya left the fishing village with an older woman Mrs. Cruz, who where there to find young (pretty) girls to “work in a factory”. Since then, nobody heard from her, so Julio went to the city to find her.

He got mugged upon arrival and earns a pitiful salary as a construction worker. Here he befriends the other workers, but also witness the callousness of their employers and the dangers of the work. In his search for Ligaya he learns of his friend’s (Atong) random death due to police injustice, how that same friend’s family was displaced from their farmland by criminal developers and how his widowed wife now has to prostitute herself. Julio encounters (and has a brief career as) male prostitution. He, himself, gets mugged by the police, and when he finally finds Ligaya, she has been forced into prostitution and is now kept as a prisoner sex slave by a Chinese. It is no surprise that this ends poorly for everyone involved.

More than being the story of Julio, this is an indictment of the city of Manila itself. Julio is merely a random victim and witness to the corruption infesting the city at every level. His fishing village is the happy Eden, always in bright light, next to the grimy and dark squalor of Manila. There is an apathy and quiet acceptance that everybody cheats, that you put up with injustice because you must live and a little is better than nothing. The authorities offer no protection but is indeed part of the problem. Life at the bottom is pretty shit in Manila. The slum is disgusting, prostitution is rampant, and it is the jungle law at every level.

Even the innocent has to learn and become corrupt to survive, there is no other way. Julio tries to hold it off, tries to believe the best in people, but his naivety, endearing as it is, is constantly punished, until he himself snaps. It is heartbreaking and painful, but completely without melodrama.

A major difference with other social realistic or socially indignant movies I have been subjected to lately, is that there are no stupid hillbillies here. This is not about people too idiotic or miserable to understand their own predicament. These are normal people who understand what is going on around them but is powerless to do anything about it because the corruption is so rooted into everything around them. It makes it so much easier to root for them and the message is so much clearer and poignant to the viewer.

It is a movie from 1975, supposedly taking please in 1970, but there is nothing here that could not belong to a 21st century setting. I am not at all familiar with the Philippines and Manila, I have only been there a single time and that in a very protected environment, but I would be very surprised if this story is not repeated on a daily basis in many of the world’s megacities.

In addition to this powerful, if depressive, story, there is a surprising quality of the movie itself. Again, I have no basis for judging Filipino cinema, but compared to much of the other world cinema the List throws at me, this is very high production value. The acting is very good, but the cinematography is just amazing. There is literally no filter on how the darkness of the city is portrayed. There is a lot of nerve to these images. Only minus is a slightly oppressive soundtrack. It gets a bit tacky at times, as if the producer has watched a few too many soft-porn movies.

This is a big recommendation from me but brace yourself for a rough ride.

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)



Peter Weir is one of the great directors and “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was not his first movie, but his breakthrough movie, in Australia, as well as internationally and deservedly so.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is a very special movie. Based on a novel, it is a mystery without a solution, a “true story” that may be fiction and a movie with a lot of more or less hidden themes. It also reminded me quite a bit of an Aussie-Victorian (in both senses) version of Twin Peaks.

In the year of 1900 in the area of Mount Macedon, Victoria, there was a private school for girls, called the Appleyard College. It was run by headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Robert), a transplant from England who is now teaching daughters of wealthy Australians how to be refined, Victorian ladies. On an outing to nearby Hanging Rock, a volcanic outcrop, four girls venture up onto the rock and only one returns. The circumstances are mysterious (all clocks stop at 12 noon and people fall asleep only to act weirdly when they wake up) and the entire community is in an uproar about this strange disappearance, suspecting foul play.

On of these is Michael (Dominic Guard), a (very) young Englishman, who was out there at Hanging Rock and was the last to see them. Especially one of them, a beauty called Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), caught his attention and now he cannot let got. He ventures back to the Rock, has his own mystery experience and together with his friend, the coachman Albert (John Jarratt) he does find one of the girls, Irma (Karen Robson).

The apparent story is the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, but the real story may be something else. It may well be about escaping childhood, or more literally, escaping the Victorian constraints into freedom, an otherworldly freedom, from which only Irma decides to return. It is also about Mrs. Applegate desperately trying to keep the situation under control, asserting her dominance and failing.  I am certain many more themes have been found as this movie is very open to interpretation.

It is an amazingly beautiful movie. Especially the light and the general cinematography is stunning. Hanging Rock has become a very mysterious and forbidding place and the acting all round is surprisingly good, considering most of the young actors were amateurs. Add to this a soundtrack that fits exactly to the moods the movie is trying to create, including an evocative panpipe score by Gheorghe Zamfir (who since became synonymous with that instrument).

In 2005 I was on Mount Macedon, staying there overnight, but missed the chance of visiting Hanging Rock, although it is practically next door. A terrible miss, really. Still, this is a very pleasant area, and those outcrops are a bit freaky.

I understand that many people have a problem with this being an unresolved mystery and if you are of the type that insists on having the pieces tied together, this would be a frustrating thing to watch. Apparently, this was a real issue when the movie was released in the States. I actually found that the mystery is merely a cover for all the other things going on and also a very effective metaphor for what is happening to these young people. Without spoiling too much I did find the ending more shocking and surprising than the disappearances on the Rock and that ending took me a while to process.

In any case, even if you object to unresolved mysteries, the sheer beauty of this movie makes it worth the watch.