Criterion Collection Project

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

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1990 – Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

I’m generally a huge Almodóvar fan, but I’ve long avoided this one because of hearing it was one of weaker efforts. However, after seeing a bunch of really dark and complex movies, I wanted to see something at least really dark and a little bit silly.

I was actually having a hard time figuring out if it was meant to be dramatic or funny or satirical or outrageous or sensual: it didn’t really hit any of these with great satisfaction, though there is one scene that managed to pull off some fairly decent soft core action. As an historical note, this apparently was the movie that inspired the ushering in of the NC-17 rating, though not the first to receive one. That distinction goes to the tedious Henry and June.

Overall it’s a bit too brisk and playful for anyone to believe that the Victoria Abril character has really succumbed to Stockholm syndrome, and as fine an actor as Antonio Banderas is (pre fame, very young though playing even younger), he come across as an injured puppy, which is still creepy but somehow diffuses any intensity there might be.

It ultimately comes across as a breezy bit of distraction: bondage for housewives. Not too different, I suppose, from buying 50 Shades of Grey accessories at Target. (Yes, that is a thing).

This would have been the Wednesday movie. Postings will be more regular from here on out.

Next up:
Hoop Dreams, 1994, Directed by Steve James

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Solaris

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1972 – Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

I have learned from having Eastern European roommates that weekends at the country house is a central part of Eastern European family lives. This held true through the Soviet era, and I imagine it may still hold true even today.

Thus is how this surprising-for-the-Soviet era film begins.

There is much to cover in this movie, about projection, reflection, tangibility versus the abstract, the mutability of memory, the incomprehensibility of love in the light of “reason” and our impulse to pathologize it, the simultaneous desire to return and to escape, and our inability to reach outside of ourselves and actually make a human connection, regardless of the technologies available to us.

To cover it all is too much for my usual 3-5 paragraphs. Instead, I’ll touch a little on the production design.

Solaris is a science-fiction movie that is not at all enamored with science. After about 45 minutes on earth, one that contrasts this remote country living with a strange driver-less journey into a Datsun-filled city -actually Japan (a scene much maligned by critics, but which I found exhilarating) we are taken to a space station on remote planet, but one that is decrepit and beat-up, like a trashed appliance. The heart of the ship, rather than looking high-tech or futuristic looks like an old hunting lodge, and interestingly it is where most of the characters explore their deeper thoughts. We encounter what appears to be the dead wife of the psychoanalyst who is sent to investigate the status of things on this station, who spends the entirety of the movie in earth-toned suedes and crochets.

Color scheme of the movie especially intrigued me. Upon doing a little more research, I found a blog which I found truly fascinating:

The recurring theme of Peter Bruegel the Elder was also fascinating to me. This is one of my favorite painters (again earthtones, the implication of nature, the implication of tangibility on contrast with the notion of zero gravity and the unreliability of direct experience). I don’t have an easy answer yet for the larger meaning, and I think it would be a mistake to find a quick and easy summary.

Another note about color design was the switch between sepia tone black-and-white in full color. And I need to mull over more to try to discern the reasoning behind each shot. One of the most striking effects was in the scene driving into Japan, or rather, the city of the future, we see the color gradually leeching its way back in until it is a full color scene, as night falls.

Unlike some of the other movies I’ve been watching, this is definitely something that I will be re-watching, possibly a few times.

I need something funny next, however. Or at least soon, if not next.

Next up: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990 – Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Foreign Correspondent

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1940 – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I grew up on movies from the 30s and 40s. Main reason for that was that my parents were both huge movie buffs, and, this was the period of time that they were children. In those days, obviously, movies were not as strictly made either for children or adults, though certainly some movies had more mature themes. At any rate, my take is that children often went to see movies that did have these more mature themes, when nothing else was playing. My parents made a fair effort to give me a sense of the cultural context in watching these older movies.

There certainly is something curious about the pacing and interactions of characters of movies from this era. Whether it was typical behaviors or Hollywood censorship or stylistic preferences of individual directors, one can’t help but be struck by the degree of trust characters have with each other. The era immediately before World War II seems to have been a kind of pre-paranoia era, at least as movies generally portray it. This movie is probably in early venture into the age of paranoia: who can you trust? Who is a profiteer? Who was trying to push us into war? Why would some reporter climb into a tower with a thug who admittedly just tried to push him in front of a lorry?

Hitchcock, as usual, brilliantly fuses the political state of the world with Freudian analysis: of course, daddy’s to blame.

The action sequences are, also as usual, bracing, and, typically, the main characters react to incidents like a violent plane crash rather like they ran out of sandwiches at the picnic.

The movie was made in the tiny window of time after Europe entered into the war, but before the United States entered into it. Probably is worth a little more analysis to recognize an Englishman’s take on the war at that point, and what position the United States should take regarding it, especially considering that the so called “peace” group turn out to be the enemies. Certainly, in the case of World War II, peace at all costs turned out to not be the position to take, yet we may not have fully known it then.

Weird observation: I SWEAR I see Adolf Hitler in that overhead shot of the interior of the windmill. Must just be projection. Or is it?

Next up:
Solaris, 1972 – Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

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1975 – Directed by Chantal Akerman

This is hypnotically tedious, which is not to say boring….

Okay this was very painful. I found myself in the course of watching this movie becoming self-aware of every little action if my own: Making breakfast. Stirring a cup of coffee. The exact gestures that I make when I’m pulling out dishes and laying them down.

I don’t know if it’s therapeutically smart for middle-age single mom to even watch this movie.

Much too real.

I know that Chantal Akerman dislikes labels being applied to this movie, and I would agree. I think that it’s better to not view it is “feminist” or as making any particular kind of commentary on the “role of Woman” or anything like that.

I do find brilliance in the way the housewife’s world begins to slowly unravel. Potatoes overcook. She can’t find the buttons she needs. Someone is sitting in her booth at the coffee shop. She can’t even decide how she wants to drink her coffee.

The ending is obviously distressing. However, it is not my main take away from the movie.

With that said, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to make meatloaf again without feeling a little crazy.

Stray thought: Jeanne could learn a little about use of sofa beds on the disposal of a stabbed body from the characters in the last movie…

Next up: Foreign Correspondent, 1940 – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Sisters

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1973 – Directed by Brian De Palma

One thing I miss from 70s film is the everyday activism present in so many mainstream works. After the regressive 80s, most characters acting in a strong, anti-authoritarian manner would be ridiculed or martyred. You get what is coming to you if you don’t trust the cops. Here, Jennifer Salt’s grumpy, fiercely single and decidedly left-wing reporter, Grace Collier, has no excuses, and no excuses are made for her. These character traits are a given, presented as “here I am, deal with it.” By the same token, the game show that opens the film, Peeping Tom (referencing the cult horror film by the same name) acts as sly commentary on the creepy lasciviousness of the entertainment industry’s response to the sexual revolution: to package it up as a crude joke on the war between the sexes. (The show, honestly, while outrageous for the time, looks like a concept that could legitimately fly as a contemporary reality show). The show introduces what we think will be the central characters of the film, Danielle (Margot Kidder) and Phillip (Lisle Wilson), then takes a turn.

De Palma manages this in a way that seems both naturalistic and stylized, as well as both disturbing and hilarious. (He developed this dichotomy further with 1976’s Carrie.)

The idea of splitting or dichotomies is achieved on multiple levels (thematically, plot wise, visually and psychologically) in this imperfect yet effective work. Obviously borrowing from Hitchcock, De Palma puts his own (typically) nihilist spin on it.

Oh, and William Finley (as Emil, Danielle’s stalker-ish ex-husband) was an entirely underrated actor. It is weird that the only director who ever really utilized him was De Palma. RIP.

Next up:
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975 – Directed by Chantal Akerman

Stray Dog

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1949 – Directed by Akira Kurosawa

One of my obsessions has been the anti-wiki wiki, TV Tropes. I have been a heavy reader, and sometimes contributor. One of my attempts at adding to the dialog, and no claim I was entirely successful, was an attempt to define associational montage, and how focus on items in the middle ground and background have often defined an approach that tries to defy the conventional, plot-driven approach to film. It does tie in with some theories about how Japanese comic book art often uses this type of associative approach in the layout of panels, in contrast to the western approach of showing action after action after action.

In Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, we see a film that seems to mimic western film noir in its moody, yet action-oriented approach.

Despite this, I realized I was approaching it all wrong. I started off wanting to watch it as a regular old film noir/episode of NCIS. It is on some level. It is also about identity on both an individual and cultural level.

Of course, film noir has always about identity, and the internal world of the protagonist. However it is impossible not to view this as a commentary on the encroaching American influence on Japanese culture in post World War II: cheesy nightclubs, women with blowzy perms, crisp white linen suits, and, of course, the unseen but ever present Colt revolver.

The plot is basic film noir: the rookie cop (Toshiro Mifune as Detective Murakami) has his revolver pickpocketed from them on the tram. Filled with shame and guilt over this, he’s determined to find the gun and make an arrest. He is assisted by the seasoned veteran (Takashi Shimura as Detective Satō) on the police force, with whom he begins a journey involving plenty of boozy dames and low level criminals.

Sweat turns to rain. Determination turns to desperation. We keep hitting dead ends. Everyone wants a bit of the good life they feel was taken from them, and, in turn, seem entirely ready to abandon all traces of tradition. The cop increasingly distressed as he realizes that his gun has been at the center of a string of crimes, including at least one murder. He also begins to realize he is not so different from the criminal: yet another veteran striving in a white linen suit.

At risk of spoilers, at the very end when the protagonist finally does finally find and catch the man with the gun, we finally see a shot that is more associational than plot-driven: a shot of flowers and grasses floating above the head of the antagonist. Screaming in agony for all that happened, it’s almost as if this reveal of the associative view is causing him pain, as it does the cop. They have lost, then regained, a cultural perspective. For a split-second, they are not driven by plot, but by reflection.

Perhaps a stretch.

Side note: much like Fassbinder, I’m actually shocked to realize how little of Kurosawa I have seen. I also realize this is a atypical Kurosawa, as most people associate him with his samurai films and later efforts. Another to go into the mix.

Next up:
Sisters, 1973 – Directed by Brian De Palma

Beware of a Holy Whore

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1971 – Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

This turned out to be a tough first entry. There are so many angles to approach this apparently last in the experimental phase of Fassbinder’s early films. I am not anywhere near as familiar with the director’s work that I should or could be, but I do understand that this was semi-autobiographical: an apparent near-reenactment of the experience of cast and crew on an earlier film, Whity.

With Fassbinder himself playing a manic production manager, Sascha, and Lou Castel sweeping in later as Jeff, the director of the film-within-a-film, the dynamic of who is whoring themselves to whom kinda sorta unfolds. While a lot has been written about the interpersonal dynamics of the film, I was uniquely struck by the geometry of the film.

The first half of production especially is heavily influenced by the static and detached aesthetic of Warhol, all odd geometry and dreary flat walls. This is literally bisected halfway through the film by an unexpected winding spin through the Spanish countryside. When we return from this meander into organic space and movement to pure angular chaos: jarringly set scenes have little continuity beyond the fact that, based on Jeff wearing the same blue shirt throughout, indicates it is all the same day.

The only other scene that flows rather than jags is shot of the austere yet irritating Irm on a boat out to sea, Irm being played amazingly by Magdelena Montezuma, an actress I used to be obsessed with from a single image in a book I used to have on subversive film.

As a side note, was interesting for me to realize how much I understood without subtitles. I used to know German: maybe it is time to do a little immersion again. I will certainly try to include Fassbinder into the mix in weeks coming up.

Next up:
Stray Dog, 1949 – Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Criterion Collection Project

So my New Year’s resolution is to watch three movies from the Criterion Collection (free with Hulu Plus subscription!) every week, and write at least three paragraphs about each one.

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I’m actually going to make it public in order to force myself to actually do the writing, and not just pretend to do the writing.

I decided to pick them semi randomly. First up is Beware of a Holy Whore, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In the interest of “random”, I went to a random letter generator, asked letter generator to pick two letters, it picked WH, so I just picked the first movie that had “WH” in it. I’m actually embarrassed to admit that the only Fassbinder film that I’ve actually seen all the way through is Lilli Marlene, which I saw back in high school and thought was terrible. (I saw a little bit of it yesterday, and, no, I wasn’t just some unappreciative little fool: it still looks terrible.)

I am about halfway through: it took me a while to settle into the languid, early 70s pacing. Will be back later with thoughts.