Thursday 26 January 2023

The China Syndrome (1979)


Off-List: The China Syndrome

The first off-List movie for 1979 is “The China Syndrome”. I picked this one because I thought I remembered watching it years ago. Turns out that was a different movie, and I only knew of this movie by reputation. So, yes, a movie with a large reputation and a first view for me.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a news reporter on a Los Angeles TV station, doing puff pieces on singing birthday cards and zoo events. One such assignment is on the Ventana nuclear power plant where the local manager explains about nuclear energy. While filming there is a tremor, and they witness what looks like a near fatal accident. Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), the floor manager looks very distressed by the event and unknown to the plant manager the cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas), has filmed the event.

Kimberly’s managers do not want to use the material so a very upset Richard steals the tape and shows it to a nuclear energy expert who is testifying in a public hearing on another of the power company’s plants. Meanwhile, Jack Godell, while trusting that the system and the failsafes work, is worrying about something not sounding right during the event and starts looking into the structural details. When he finds that the welding inspections are faked he gets really worried and soon Kimberly, Michael and Jack are up against some very powerful interests.

“The China Syndrome’s” claim to fame is that it was released just 12 days before the accident on the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, making it a warning against the dangers of nuclear energy. This is of course a coincident and maybe a bit unfair because as I see it, it is more about the public against big money who in the interest of their business take incredible risks with health and safety, kills, steals and lies. The public’s watchdog is supposed to be the media, but media itself may be compromised. So, basically, this is a conspiracy story where threat of a nuclear accident simply demonstrates the high stakes of the game.

If we are to focus on the nuclear accident aspect, I think the Chernobyl case is probably a better parallel. There it was personal ambition and political interest (the communist equivalent of big business) that set aside public safety and caused a major accident. If the threat of a nuclear accident really was the main theme of this movie, it would and should have gone much further down that road.

It is obvious that Kimberly, Richard and Jack represent honesty and public interest, the need to do the right thing and therefore they have our sympathy. It is equally clear that they have no idea what they are up against and only in the final minutes realize how small potatoes they really are. That realization is probably more chilling in this movie than the threat of a nuclear accident and I think “The China Syndrome” is one of the better conspiracy movies at that.

The cast speaks for itself. Fonda is always good and it was fun watching a young (and rebellious) Michael Douglas, but it is Jack Lemmon that steals the picture. His portrait of a troubled engineer, challenged on his integrity is phenomenal, though career best would maybe be a step too far in such a glorious career. Both Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon were nominated for Academy Awards and Lemmon won it in Cannes.

I quickly overcame my disappointment that this was not the movie I expected it to be and enjoyed what I got instead. This is a well composed movie and not as stereotype as conspiracy movies tend to be. And of course, points of pointing out that some things are just too dangerous to play games with. Recommended.


Saturday 21 January 2023

My Brilliant Career (1979)


Min brillante karriere

It is entirely fitting that I review “My Brilliant Career” the day after my book review of “Sense and Sensibility”. Despite taking place a century and half the globe apart, they are concerned with exactly the same issues. That of gender politics from women’s point of view.

Around the turn of the century (1900), Sybylla (Judy Davis) is a daughter of a struggling farmer family in the Australian outback (or at least rural Australia). Sybylla is different. She dreams of becoming something, pianist, painter, writer, something different than farmhand or somebody’s wife. Her parents consider her vastly egoistic and conceited and in frustration send her off to her grandmother.

Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton) is the Aussie version of nobility and hers is a vastly different world from what Sybylla is used to. This is as Victorian as anything to be found in Britain and Sybylla feels like a fish on land. Besides learning good manners, Sybylla is supposed to find a husband. Only that way she can retain respectability and secure means of living. The idea that Sybylla could make something of herself on her own is considered outlandish and a fad to grow out of. The first suitor is a British guest at the manor, Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb), a man who considers himself quite a catch and who does not take no for an answer. The second is Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a local landowner of the same social strata as Grandma Bossier. Harry is different and a relation between Harry and Sybylla blossoms, seriously challenging Sybylla’s ambition of avoiding marriage.

The core of the story is, again, the narrow scope of prospects allowed for women. As in Jane Austen’s world, the sole purpose of women is to be married off to a man. That is her intrinsic value. She can marry into prestige and wealth, but even marriage in itself, as poorly as the match may be, is necessary in order to be anything. The alternative is to be a spinster, dependent on family, or utter poverty and disgrace. The century between Austen and “My Brilliant Career” makes no difference at all.

Sybylla dares challenge this system and while we may understand her today (“may” as in, sadly, not the entire world thinks like that), her contemporaries are nonplussed and rather confused how to deal with her. Not just the ruling class, but even the dirt farmers in their squalor subscribe to that attitude.

As a viewer we are challenged to join that opinion. Do we also consider her conceited and selfish and unable to compromise? Or do we support her choices? It is not as easy and simple as it sounds. Sure, there is no way she should marry Frank, and it is also easy to challenge Bossier’s Victorian views, but would it be too much to ask for her to assist her struggling family? And why not give in and marry Harry? It is obvious they love each other.

“My Brilliant Career” is a beautifully made movie with a wonderful restauration of rural Australia 120 years ago. Production value is top notch. It is also a movie with excellent actors performances, especially from Judy Davis, but also the two matriarchs Bossier and Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy) are wonderful. It entirely baffling that the only Academy nomination this movie garnered was for Best costume design. But then, 79 looks to have been a strong year.

I liked “My Brilliant Career” a lot better than I expected and it does what few movies succeed to do, challenge its audience. Recommended.


Monday 16 January 2023

Real Life (1979)


Real Life

Over the past 30 years we have seen the rise and fall of reality TV. From Big Brother over Survivor to, well, anything really. I say fall, because I sense the genre has gotten tired and the shows I used to watch are either cancelled or degraded beyond what I care to watch. But there was a time where reality TV was something of the future and the idea trying to film real life was novel and even futuristic. Early attempts was made with Cinema Verité, but the first reality shows as we would recognize it appeared in the seventies and the movie “Real Life” is very much a response to this novel idea.

The question “Real Life” asks is how real is reality TV really when you consider how intrusive it is to be filmed and how conscious the subjects are of being filmed. Then there is the obvious agenda of those producing the show. They need good TV, something the average viewer will want to watch and is reality interesting enough in itself or does it need a bit of… encouragement.

“Real Life” is a comedy so of course it gets pretty extreme. The director of this project to film a family throughout a year is comedian Albert Brooks as himself. I was not familiar with him, but apparently he was a name on Saturday Night Live. His agenda is to make a fun show, but he has very little understanding of anything else including the alleged scientific angle on this “experiment”. This they make a lot out of: involving a famous research institute and assigning psychologists to follow the family is supposed to lend credibility to the experiment, but because this is a spoof movie, we see a straight faced selection process that is entirely ludicrous. The researchers are not much better than the director.

The Yeager family appears like a standard family of four, but it is soon clear that each of them has their own idea of why they are in this project and this is not at all coordinated.   

So, with a director out of sync with his own project, a consulting partner disconnected from reality and a family that is highly conscious of being filmed, this can only go one way and it does so… fast.

Knowing what we do today about reality TV it is difficult not to see this movie as prescient. When we laugh at it today, it is because it gets so much right, 20-30 years ahead of its time, not unlike “Network”. These are all the things that are wrong with reality TV and also why people see it anyway. The total meltdown, conflicts on set and setups that just have to have been artificially introduced. I think most of us are convinced by now that there is not much reality left.

If we take away this hindsight and try to watch this with 1979 glasses on, I am not so certain it is working as well. Sure it is hilariously funny that the director sends his crew with the father for a horse operation rather than film the daughters communion because it has more drama, and to watch Brooks displaying his complete lack of understanding for the researchers work, but the tone gets a bit shrill at times and there may be a little too much slapstick here for the basic idea to truly work. Certainly, the illusion that this is seriously meant is quickly lost when Brooks ends his introduction speech to the local community with a song and a big band. Or to say this in other words, I love the idea here but I was not laughing as much as I think I was supposed to.

Perhaps its value today is mostly that the real world caught up with what was intended as a spoof and maybe that is enough.

In any case, I love that there is room for comedies on the List.

Thursday 12 January 2023

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun) (1979)


Maria Brauns ægteskab

This review of “The Marriage of Maria Braun” is placed under a big ---SPOILER--- tag. I cannot discuss this movie without revealing the end. This is largely because I am struggling with understanding it and the ending serves as my point.

During the war Maria (Hanna Schygulla) gets married to Herman Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) in 43 and Herman immediately returns to the front. In the aftermath of the war, Maria is waiting in vain for Herman to return. When she learns he has died, she takes a job in a nightclub as (perhaps) a prostitute. She starts a relationship with an American soldier, Bill (George Byrd), but a day while they are entertaining each other, Herman shows up and a fight erupts between Herman and Bill. Maria hits Bill in the head with a bottle and accidentally kills him. In the ensuing trial, Herman takes responsibility and is given a long prison sentence.

Maria meets industrialist Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), with whom she starts a complex relationship. She seduces him to give her a high position job in return for being his mistress but keeps him emotionally at arm’s length as her heart belongs to Herman. In this position Maria gets rich and powerful. When Herman is released from prison, Maria goes to pick him up but learns that he has already left for Canada or some place.

Eventually Karl dies and Herman returns to Maria. The will is read in Maria’s house. Karl left half the company to Maria and the other half to Herman as thank you for staying in Canada until Karl has died. Maria is upset. When she goes to the kitchen to light a cigarette, she and Herman dies in a gas explosion.

As I already mentioned, I am struggling to figure out this movie. The only help the Book offers, is that Maria’s fate is a mirror of post-war Germany’s fate, but that does not help me that much, except that women needed to be strong to rebuild a country without the men. Also, the Book gets a number of facts wrong, so I question its reliability concerning this movie.

Maybe a key lies in Fassbinder’s typical portrait of women. They are usually taking on positions or roles normally associated with men, making them appear strong or in command or faced with a different set of challenges. Maria takes charge of her own life and manipulates her surroundings ruthlessly in a power performance perhaps more associated with men, while the men in her life, Herman and Karl, are reduced to spectators or followers. She takes and gives according to her head and is unwilling ever to be the passive part. If this is the clue, then maybe realizing that she needs and is dependent on a second half is what destroys her? Her independency coming to an end?

If this is the case, then what does that has to do with the fate of post-war Germany. Was post-war Germany missing its second half? East-Germany? Its soul? Something it lost in the war?

All that aside, I found it super interesting to watch a German take on life in the post-war ruins. Film and literature is full of war stories, but remarkably few post-war stories, as if all of a sudden, Germany is back and rich again. There are dramatic stories there and I enjoyed that part a lot.

This is also a technically impressive movie. It has a much nicer finish that earlier Fassbinder films and the art-project feel that usually has plagued his movies is gone entirely.

If only I could understand it. Suggestions are very welcome.

A tentative recommendation.

In my version of the Book, this was the last 1978 movie.

Friday 6 January 2023

Halloween (1978)


Maskernes nat

I am not a fan of the slasher genre, so while I am aware that Halloween is an entire franchise with new movies still coming out today, it is something I have never sought out or watched. That may have been a mistake because, as I have just found out, the original Halloween from 1978 is a masterpiece.

Six -year-old Michael Myers stabs his sister to death in cold blood and is locked away for 15 years, until he escapes. His doctor, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) fears he has gone back to Haddonsfield to kill some more. That is exactly what Michael (Nick Castle and Tony Moran) has in mind, in as far as anything is going on in that mind of his.

Near his old house he spots Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) whom he starts to follow. Laurie meets her two friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles), which makes for three targets. It is Halloween evening and Annie and Laurie are both babysitting in houses just across from each other. Michael, wearing his scary mask, is the boogeyman become reality, and starts at Annie’s house…

The story is really not complicated and that is as it should be. This is all about how it is done.

The setting is as normal and familiar as can be, small town /suburban, quite roads with middle class homes. The girls are ordinary teenagers who do what teenagers do, nothing special there. Into this comes the Boogeyman and on Halloween of all nights. He is like a shadow, something you see out of the corner of the eye, immobile and unfaced and gone the next time you look. He is the reflection of your fear, and you are powerless against it.

We are observers, very literally. Sometimes from the viewpoint of the boogeyman, sometimes from the victims and sometimes we are that third entity who is there but unable to interact, standing on the stairs or behind the bushes, but you always, at least in the scenes with tension, have the feeling of being THERE.

As the Book also says, this is very much like Hitchcock. Probably a bit gorier, but the tension is not in the actual killing but the threatening presence, the looming danger of something only half-seen. Like the pool scene in Tourneur’s “Cat People”. It is this element that Carpenter here condenses to excellent effect.

It helps that it is accompanied by an excellent score, which again is simple but very effective. To my surprise I learned that the score is also Carpenter’s work. A talented man.

I believe this was Jamie Lee Curtis debut film, but she does not come about as an amateur. On the contrary, she was very convincing and very curious to see this very young Curtis with longer hair. Then again, she is out of an acting family and her mother got stabbed pretty badly in “Psycho”, a movie not that different from “Halloween”.

On Wikipedia, there is an entire section devoted to an analysis of “Halloween”. I did not read it, but I do understand the temptation to read some deeper motives into the movie. This happening on Halloween, the apparent immortality of Michael, the Boogeyman and the fact that Laurie as sole survivor is a virgin. This layer seems unnecessary, but maybe it does help tickling our subconscious.

A small, but amusing, detail: The movie the children are watching is “The Thing”, the movie Carpenter would go ahead and make a remake of a few years later.

Halloween is brilliant because it takes a simple idea and perfects it. Very little extra, just this, the ultimate subliminal tension. Highly recommended.