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)



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)



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.