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.


Wednesday 19 January 2022

India Song (1975)


India Song

The best way to introduce the movie “India Song”, I suppose, is to try to describe it.

From start to finish there is a narration. This is mostly a dialogue, but with several different voices. Always the tone is as if the voices are reading poetry, slow, deliberate and obscure. In small bites the narration is well understood, but it also evades focus, so you soon loose track of what the dialogue is about. Or at least I did. There are thematic jumps, abrupt sentences, unanswered questions and sentences that seem to require a background story that is not shared with us. Most of all, there is little connection, if any, to the pictures we are watching.

Certain words are repeated. Something about vice-consuls, embassies, Lahore, Calcutta, lepers, tennis courts. All things that lead me to believe this is all about some members of the diplomatic corps in South Asia in the 1930’ies.

The pictures contain slow, often static people who never open their mouths. There is a woman (Delphine Seyrig, who seems to have made a career out of doing obscure movies) who is sometimes do slow dances with different men. Mostly though, these men are just standing or walking slowly around. The setting is a French mansion, and I am guessing we are to believe it is located in India.

Often the dialogue is combined or broken by music, including a recurrent theme that seems to be referred to as India Song.


This is about as pretentious as it gets. Very arty and stylized. So pretentious that it is almost a joke on itself. When somebody started shouting, I had to laugh, it was just so too much. Still, most of the time it is just plain boring because the narration keeps eluding me and I have no idea what is going on.

There is a trance like quality to the images and the voices that certainly makes it a special movie to watch and that does invoke a sense of dreaming and of something lost in the past as if the pictures are merely memories. It is an undeniable quality, but two hours of this is a long time to drive a point.

I did like the score though. It matches the trance-like images very well, especially that recurrent theme and there were periods where I was just listening to that and not worrying too much about the imagery or the narration.

Apparently, this movie is par for the course for director and writer Maguerite Duras and it certainly inherits something from the French art scene of the early sixties. I guess if you dig “Last Year in Marienbad” you will get a kick out of “India Song”.

Seeing “India Song” as a movie is probably wrong. It is an art installation like Jeanne Dielmann, but less successful, I think. It gets a little too impressed with its own artiness and so verges on being a mockery.

Still, not a movie I will soon forget, for better or worse.


Thursday 13 January 2022

Fox and his Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit) (1975)


Frihedens knytnæve

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is back with another hard-hitting drama, and he is not the kind of guy who holds back. “Faustrecht der Freiheit” (“Fox and his Friends”) is as tough to watch as these things get.

Franz Bieberkopf (Fassbinder himself) is a young man working in a carnival sideshow as “Fox, the talking head”. When the head of the show gets arrested, Franz finds himself without job and boyfriend. He has two passions he indulges in: picking up guys and playing the lottery and now he has time for both. At a public toilet he meets the wealthy art dealer, Max (Karlheinz Böhm) who brings him along with him as a plaything.

Jump ahead a month and Franz actually won the lottery and is in possession of the staggering sum of 500.000 mark. Because of this newfound wealth, Franz is now interesting to the sophisticated friends of Franz. One of them, Eugen (Peter Chatel), leaves his current boy friend and seduces Franz. Eugen is upper class with expensive habits, but the family fortune is all about lost and their company desperately needs money. This is where Franz fits in. Eugen needs those money, for himself and… well, for himself. He despises the working class Franz, but is willing to eat it if is helps maintain his lifestyle. Franz is just starstruck and completely blind and naïve to the way he is being milked dry.

Eventually, Eugen has managed to channel all Franz’ prize money into the family company, a swanky apartment and expensive art and furniture. When he dumps him, he simply changes the lock, and the old boyfriend moves back in.

It is interesting that “Faustrecht der Freiheit” is back-to-back with “Barry Lyndon”. Both movies are about a fortune hunter suddenly coming into wealth, thinking this is happiness, but then, unable to cope with it, loses it all again. Neither are particularly sympathetic, and both are blind to their own limitations, but that is more or less where the similarity ends. “Faustrecht der Freiheit” is an attack on a predatory upper class who use their status and a system rigged in their favor to exploit the working class. They need the working class to build their wealth but despise them all the same. All embodied in the arrogant and lecherous Eugen. More than anything Fassbinder delivers a political movie.

That they are all gay, is merely a distraction. Fassbinder probably found himself comfortable with a homosexual setting, but it has no impact on the actual story. Make them straight and it would be exactly the same story. My only problem with the gay angle is that the movie seems to carry on all the less flattering prejudices about gay men.

In the telling of the story, Fassbinder gives us no breaks. There is very little levity along the way, it is just a sad story that keeps getting more painful at every step. First because Frantz is completely blind to how he is being conned. He wants so badly to fit into the upper class. Then, as it dawns on him that he is losing himself, his money and that all the respect and attention he got was fake, he is powerless to do anything about it. Even the respect of his old friends he has lost. He is nothing and simply ceases.

It was not fun watching this movie. I understand where it is going and why, but it is not a movie I enjoyed watching. I did not particularly like Franz to begin with, but nobody deserves to be screwed over like this. It is just really sad.

Fassbinder fans will likely find a lot to love here. It is also the most outspoken LGBT movie so far on the List for fans of the genre. For me, this was a lesser movie than his previous movies on the List.


Friday 7 January 2022

Barry Lyndon (1975)


Barry Lyndon

I am not certain what to think of “Barry Lyndon.

When I found that a Stanley Kubrick was coming up, I was very excited. Kubrick usually does not let me down and no two of his movies are alike. In that was he is literally the opposite of Hitchcock.

Secondly, “Barry Lyndon” is a period film, taking place in the eighteenth century. I do read a lot of books from that period, and it is exciting to get some images to go with the stories, so definitely a plus.

Yet, watching it I am a bit at a loss. I simply do not understand what story it is Kubrick is trying to tell.

What he does spend three hours on is a story about a young man (at least in the beginning), Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), who through odd turns in life ends up a nobleman, only to squander it all away again. Redmond is not a hero or even an anti-hero. He is kind of an asshole, not terribly smart and making bad choices on a regular basis. Such as hitting on his cousin, a know flirt, and sabotaging her marriage to a wealthy army captain. He has loyalty to no-one but himself, which we see several examples of as he joins the army fighting in Germany. In Prussian service he becomes an agent, then a double agent, then, escaping the Prussians he goes around swindling the wealthy with his compatriot. Until he makes his big move and court Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a countess.

Marriage is for Redmond merely a ticket to wealth, style, more women and spending money. Soon he has spent the fortune, alienated his wife and her son and disgraced himself to his new peers and he is left with nothing, not even his leg.

There is definitely a picaresque element to the movie. Redmond drifts from one situation to the next without a larger plan, but merely reacting to the situation at hand. He is an opportunist, but for short term gains, and he rarely seems to think his actions through. This makes his life a pretty random affair with many stops on the way.

I cannot root for Redmond. For Redmond there is only Redmond. That makes it somewhat hard to watch the movie. In the beginning I am sitting with a hope that through his adventures he will mature, but he is a lost cause and by the end I just feel sorry for his victims. Except that all these dandies and coxcombs have it coming.

So, I am left a bit perplexed. Kubrick always had a point, but what was his point with Remond Barry? To showcase an asshole and see him get what he deserves? Hardly, but then what? The randomness of life when you think with your gut rather than your brain?

Nothing, however, can take away the pleasure of watching the settings, the magic light and the authentic costumes. The cinematography is just stunning, maybe the most beautiful I have seen from Kubrick. It is matched by a magical score of classic music. A lot of baroque, but also more contemporary Handel and Mozart and even some Schubert, which is actually a bit ahead of this period of second half of the eighteen century. The Handel score used as the recurrent theme is perfectly moody and magic.

A technical wonder of a movie, but a not very sympathetic story where I feel I am missing the point. I feel I have been here before, but then I am not very smart.

I could definitely listen to that score again, though.