Saturday 29 June 2024

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)



“Koyaanisqatsi” is a non-narrative film and should as such be considered as an art film. I knew that going in, so I skipped reading up on the movie before watching, in order to make my own experience with the movie. By leaving out a narrative, the sensation of watching the movie becomes the message and in a sense the narrative. It is a movie to be felt.

The imagery of the movie is either in time lapse or in slow motion with the speed of either varying. We start out with natural landscapes of deserts. Empty land devoid of anything. Then we switch to human made deserts. Sad, ruined land, empty housing areas, nuclear bomb explosions and superhighways. The impression here is that these human wastelands is as devoid of life as the natural wastelands.

Scenes now switch between pictures of human life and machinery, both in time lapse so it appears extra hectic and with stressing music. The scenes with people and the scenes with machinery look uncannily similar as if we are all cogs and wheels in a big machine. It is stressing to look at. Factory workers at high speed, thousands of cars criss-crossing city streets, people coming off an escalator very much like the sausages at the factory. Only when we then switch to the individual human do we switch to slow motion as if juxtapositioning the person with the machine that is our modern life.

The speed of the time lapse keeps increasing until at the climax everything is a blur. Even daily, harmless routines like eating and watching television looks hectic and inhuman. Then, finally we see the grid of the city and the grid of an electronic circuit board, and they look very much the same. We are all small electrons buzzing around in the big machine.

After this we see pictures of individual characters seemingly left outside, stepping away from the paths of everybody else and a rocket exploding in mid air along with a number of other scenes of destruction. The message I get is that we need to step off this race or it will end badly.

The execution of all this is of high quality, the pictures are sharp, the editing skilful and the music is haunting. It is a bit long for what it is trying to do, an hour and half was too much for a single sitting for me, but it is fascinating if rather stressful to look at.

It is also difficult not to be convinced by the movie. Our daily life at high speed is very much like a machine. Something about the time lapse takes away our humanity and when that is combined with the sheer number of people, it all looks like a frantic anthill. I used to go frequently to Beijing and Seoul and there I got that same feeling.

Does this mean that we all need to step off the hamster wheel and break with conformity? I do believe this is the message here, but maybe less can do it. Maybe this is a warning to not let go of our individuality and to find a balance between being a member of the big machine and being ourselves in our own little world.

The end credit tells us that “Koyaanisqatsi” means “life out of balance” (among a number of similar translations) in the Hopi language, so I suppose we need to find that balance and avoid getting eaten up by the machine. Maybe watch “Mordern Times” again...

“Koyaanisqatsi” is an interesting art film. In comparison with “Sans Soleil” which I reviewed a few weeks ago, it is a lot easier to interpret, though the individual picture were far more interesting in that other movie. Or maybe it is just because I am going to Japan in a few days. Still, I do recommend it as one of the better non-narrative movies I have watched.

Sunday 23 June 2024

The King of Comedy (1983)


The King of Comedy

“The King of Comedy” is Martin Scorsese’s take on infatuation with fame and the famous. It is also Scorsese’s attempt at making a comedy... sort of.

One night after the filming of his talk show, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, being sort of himself) is accosted by a horde of fans as he tries to get to his car. When he finally gets to his car, there is a screaming woman inside. One of the fans steps in to help get the woman out of the car and Jerry into it, only to join a surprised Jerry in the car. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), as the fan is called, wants to introduce himself to Jerry Langford as a way into the business and only by promising to set something up does Jerry get away.

We then learn that Rupert lives in his own version of reality. In this world he is already bestie with Jerry, he is a star comedian and universally adored. We also learn that he and the woman in the car, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) are acquaintances and work together to get close to Jerry. Rupert because he wants to be like Jerry and Masha because she sees herself in love with Jerry. The sad truth is that both are in desperate need of help.

Rupert shows up frequently at Jerry’s office where he is politely rebuffed. Rupert, being the fool he is, does not take a hint, even when he is eventually kicked out by security. As his second option, Rupert is convinced that he would be welcome if he shows up at Jerry’s country home. Rupert wants to impress the waitress Rita (Diahnne Abbott) so he brings her along. While she is quick enough to catch that they are not welcome, Rupert has a very hard time accepting it.

Third option is the hard way. Masha and Jerry kidnap Jerry to force a show appearance of Rupert and give Masha a date with the helpless Jerry. While this goes about as stupid as you can imagine, Rupert actually gets his 15 minutes of fame.

This was a very hard movie for me to get through. I think it took me two weeks of pausing and procrastinating to get to the end. I am not good at movies about people ruining their own lives with their stupidity or poor decisions, especially when it is due to mental illness. Rupert has so convinced himself that he is God’s gift to comedy and that Jerry is his best friend that he completely disconnects from reality. We see these delusions in scenes taking place in his mind and it is really really sad and disturbing. He is not just some clown but a victim in its own right. I felt so sorry for Rita, being dragged along to a famous person’s home only to find out she has been duped and is unwanted. I would simply have left, on my own, on foot if need be. The embarrassment is unbearable.

The focus of the movie of course is the infatuation with fame and the famous and that it messes up people. That unfamous, ordinary people think that the grass on the other side is so green and that these famous people are so special. It is a winner and loser game and if you see yourself as a winner, you are one. Except, Masha and Rupert are not ordinary people but mental patients, diagnosed or not, and so the comedy is so bitter that it is not funny at all.

The end of the movie tells us that any sort of fame makes you famous, even idiocy, because the public is stupid too. Acerbic? Sure, but probably not far from reality.

I have had a hard time with Scorsese’s movies in the past and I know this is a trend that will continue. Getting us to like and take interest in unlikable and stupid people is an uphill battle and for me is often a lost one. It is interesting to see a superstar like Robert De Niro cast as someone who delusionally wants to be a superstar, but this is also as far as I follow “The King of Comedy”. As a comedy, it is too bitter to be fun (for me at least) and as a human-interest story it is way too hard on its leads. Pointing to a disturbing relationship between the idea of fame and actual fame may be its main credit, but that does not cut it for me.

While reviewers love this movie (7.8 on IMDB) it totally tanked at the box office. I see why on both parts.

Saturday 15 June 2024

The Right Stuff (1983)


Mænd af rette støbning

“The Right Stuff” is the best movie about test pilots and the early space program that I know of. Hand down.

At Edwards Air Force Base in the high Californian desert, the USAF are testing experimental planes and at the local bar the wall is covered with pictures of dead test pilots. In 1947 the object is to break the sound barrier and one of the, still alive, pilots, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is making the attempt, and succeeds where others have failed, in the X-1 plane.

In 1953 Gordo Cooper, Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton (Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward and Scott Paulin) are new pilots at Edwards, a place where pilots like Chuck Yeager are still dangerously pushing the envelope of what fighter planes can do while their wives are powerless and nervous bystanders.

The Russian Sputnik scare ignites a frantic quest to send Americans into space and we follow how pilots, like the three above, are gathered from different branches, but also the scramble itself to place humans into space. Rockets that explode, arguments on whether a space capsule is a remote-controlled container, or a spaceship controlled by an astronaut as well as the political jockeying around the space program. The focus, however, remains with the seven astronauts who now include John Glenn (Ed Harris who 15 years later would return to the space program in his amazing portrayal of Gene Kranz), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank).

I am a bit of a space nerd and I love documentaries, book, exhibitions, you name it, about space and spaceflight. I have visited the Kennedy Space Centre and watched the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket. My science project in high school was on rockets and includes material on ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket. Behind me, as I write this, I have a Sky-Watcher telescope capable of watching the rings of Saturn and the stripes of Jupiter. For me, watching an undoubtably heroic epic like “The Right Stuff” is much less about macho-men with jet fuel for blood, but all about how many details it gets right and “The Right Stuff” is usually very close though sometimes disappointingly far off the mark.

The feel of the movie is that of a dramatized documentary. There is some real footage, authentic characters and anecdotes. It feels very real and for a space buff like me, this is awesome. Gus Grissom gets some poor treatment by the screenwriters, especially in the affair of the hatch opening prematurely on his flight, though the biggest clash with reality is when the movie’s need to created heroism converts, albeit dangerous, routine into spur of the moment reckless heroism. The Chuck Yeager substory suffers substantially from that and this is a bit surprising since he was in fact consultant on the movie and even gets a cameo in the bar scenes.

Jarring as these details are, it does not take away the sense of adventure here, of something big. There is a very basic appeal here in that this is fundamentally a very good story, delivered very well. I watched the Disney tv-series on “The Right Stuff” and despite being much longer and likely more correct, it never manages to inspire as the original movie did.

I have seen the Mercury capsule, one of those fished out after splashdown, and in the rocket garden of Kennedy there are copies of both the Redstone and the Atlas rockets. To think that people climbed into this and sat on top of that is just mindboggling.

But then, if these seven astronauts were only half of what they were presented as in the movie, it goes a long way to explain why they did it. I suppose they had the right stuff. Or were completely mad.

Either way, this will likely be my suggestion for Best Movie of 1983.



Saturday 8 June 2024

The Fourth Man (De Vierde Man) (1983)


Den fjerde mand

If I could give this movie a subtitle, it would be “Hitchcock in Dutch”. Hitchcock on acid with plenty of nudity, gory violence, some gay sex and plenty of religious symbolism, bordering on the blasphemous. Is it good? I do not know, but it is very much Verhoeven.

Jeroen Krabbé (who for me will always be the villain in “The Fugitive”) is Gerard Reve, a fiction writer of renown, but also a man with quite a few... issues. In short order these are: alcoholism, visions, obsession with catholic symbols, with death and his bisexuality. The first half hour of the movie is essentially a rundown of all the things that trouble this fellow.

Gerard is going from Amsterdam to the port town of Vlissingen to give a speech to the local book club. As it gets a bit late, he is offered to stay overnight with the treasurer of the club, the cosmetologist Christine Halsslag (Renée Soutendijk). She is a very delicious woman and a widow, so the night is well spent together, and we get see all of the pretty Ms. Soutendijk, literally. Gerard is also easily talked into spending a few extra days.

In the course of his stay, Gerard wants to write a story abut Christine. He finds out that she is also seeing a handsome young man called Herman. Gerard instantly falls in love with Herman and talks Christine into fetching him from Germany. While she is away, Gerard gets ridiculously drunk and learns, from Christine’s home movies, that she was married not once, but thrice and that they all died horrible deaths.

Christine returns with Herman, plenty of sex ensues and Gerard gets convinced he will be the fourth man.

“The Fourth Man” (“De vierde man”) references Hitchcock extensively. “Vertigo” and “Rear Window” is easy to recognize, but there are elements from quite a few more. The platin blonde girl, the witness to murder, the confusing signs, the even more confused potential victim and so on. The references queue up and I can imagine a sport of spotting them. This is not a spoof of Hitchcock, but more like fanfiction with a lot of oomph. All the elements get an extra notch or two in volume.

This is particularly the case with the Verhoeven staples. Our lead, Gerard is a very flawed character. We may understand him, but with his extreme qualities, it is difficult to sympathize with him. The religious symbols stack up, but also seem to be a red herring. They lead our attention, but apparently to nowhere and at the end may only be a product of Gerard’s delirium.  There is a lot of sex, hints of sex, sex motives and full-frontal nudity of both genders. Very Dutch. The function of the nudity is a bit obscure though, and besides the shock value, I think it is mostly used to intensify Gerard’s delirium.

From a murder mystery point of view, we are presented with the very Hitchcockian question of whether or not murders were committed or if it is only in the head of the potential fourth victim. Yet, I get the feeling that Verhoeven is less interested in this question and a lot more focussed on following, with some glee, the deroute of his protagonist. This is all about a guy going crazy.  

I do like a murder mystery, and I do love some Hitchcock, but I do not share the excitement of watching a guy go crazy. Gerard needed help to begin with and by the end he is a raving lunatic. Is that fun? Or exciting? He is playing with fire and losing, but he was losing from the very beginning and that makes this just a very sad movie with some sex and violence.

After this movie Verhoeven went on to Hollywood and among his later movies was the remake of “The Fourth Man”: “Basic Instinct”. All everybody talked about was how we saw a little too much of Sharon Stone, but frankly, it is peanuts compared to the original.

A little too Dutch for me I suppose.