Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category
A surprisingly deep and poignant, and even more surprisingly brisk-feeling, 2-film, 4-hour epic about…carnation-farming and water displacement. Two farmers, Cesar (Yves Montand) and his ne’er-do-well nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) (names borrowed for similar characters in the Simpsons episode “The Crepes of Wrath”), fresh off of Ugolin’s idea to grow and sell carnations and in need of fertile land to do so, conspire to block off the water supply to the neighboring land belonging to a newcomer, the hunchback Jean (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to drive away the formerly city-dwelling tax collector in despair and acquire the land on the cheap. What follows in the first film is Jean’s charmingly stubborn and hopelessly oblivious attempt to grow crops and breed rabbits relying on water from miles away while the two conspirators next door play friendly, while in the second film, Jean’s now-grown daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her unknowingly victimized father. As the plot progresses and soon other people in the town become aware of it but do nothing to tip off Jean, it’s clear the main motive for the plot, especially for the townspeople but even for Cesar and Ugolin, in addition to their precious carnations, is an inherent disdain towards the outsider, any stranger who would dare invade their carefully-insulated world (although for the older Cesar, the motive is revealed late to be decades in the making and personal). This alienation of the outsider and a critique of isolationism seem to be one of the film’s main focuses. True, it may be a bit too on-the-nose to make the outsider in question a hunchback, so physically separate from everyone else that his status as an “other” couldn’t be more symbolically obvious, and indeed their constantly referring to him as “the hunchback” gets old after a while, but this isn’t exactly the pinnacle of realism, as both films are peppered with moments of melodrama and humor that humanizes both victim and victimizer. As hopeless as his plight is and as obstinate as he may be, you can’t help but admire Jean’s persistence, often carrying gallons of water miles on his (hunch)back to keep his fledgling farm going (an image that reminded me of, of all things, Setsuko Hara in Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth”). His persistence and innocent optimism serves as a refreshing contrast to the slimy corruption of his two scheming neighbors. Which isn’t to say, though, that he’s a flawless hero, as his steadfastness is basically, in the end, not worth it, and indeed rather stupid, to the point where that persistence even makes you roll your eyes…as surely it must make Cesar and Ugolin’s. Many scenes focus on Jean and his supportive wife and daughter, true, but the film does a brave thing by putting as much, if not more, of the point of view on Cesar and Ugolin, the supposed villains. As Cesar is seemingly obsessed with continuing the lineage and wealth of his precious Soubeyran name and Ugolin feigns helpful friendship with Jean, even their vile scheme to drive out / ruin an honest man becomes shaded with humanity, with Ugolin arguably developing a genuine affection for the man while ruining him and the viewer is challenged to split his or her allegiance between two shameless crooks and a well-meaning but ignorant newcomer – not exactly easy, storybook choices.
The wildcard amongst this cast of characters is Jean’s daughter, Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna in the first film, Béart in the second). To call her precocious would probably be an understatement, as she silently observes her father’s mostly fruitless toiling with sad curiosity, and the suspiciously doting Ugolin with clear distrust and disdain. Her quiet observations and expressive eyes say more about her than much of the film’s actual dialogue says about its other characters. It’s as if she’s not only wise beyond her years, but downright prescient, plotting justice for her wronged father before the extent of his being wronged even becomes clear. In the second film, that penchant for quiet hyper-observation and even quieter plotting remains in the now-teenage Manon, with an added degree of willful isolation. She almost seems autistic in her persistent lack of communication with anyone, her obsessive tending of her goats, and her joyfully dancing naked out in broad daylight. She’s incredibly enigmatic, perhaps too much so, but that enigma provides one of the more fascinating aspects of the second film, as Ugolin falls hopelessly in love with her. True, any heterosexual male with eyes could easily fall in love with a young woman as beautiful as Emmanuele Béart, but you get the sense that Ugolin’s obsessive, tragic infatuation arises chiefly from his guilt over what he did to the girl’s father years before. You can’t help but pity the poor man as he falls all over himself trying to woo the silent woman who is planning his destruction, precisely because we’ve spent a full film and a half seeing things through his seedy, tragically flawed perspective, unlike with the town’s young, handsome (and bland) schoolteacher in his own wooing of Manon, in one major subplot that falls majorly flat.
While Ugolin is clearly a tragic figure, he’s cartoonish and buffoonish in bringing about his own downfall. His uncle, Cesar, experiences a much more subtle downfall that will stick with me for some time. Not once does he interact with Jean the hunchback, in trying to wash his hands of guilt. His goal, of continuing the Soubeyran line and supposed fortune, is admirable, and indeed his attempts to coax his pitiful nephew and heir into child-bearing marriage is even endearing, as his curmudgeonly interactions with the stunningly immature Ugolin are among the more charming and likable scenes across both films. It’s just his way of going about it that is reprehensible, and ultimately unforgivable. That this story is wrapped up neater than a soap opera, complete with a last moment plot twist, cannot be ignored and is quite disappointing for a 4-hour epic that otherwise unfolds at an otherwise wonderfully leisurly pace, the excellent cinematography of the farmlands and sounds of cicadas and footsteps on arid dirt putting you right in the midst of an agriculturally devastating heat wave. But if that conclusion is abrupt and unsubtle, the wordless facial acting of the great Yves Montand in the town cemetery is anything but. In the end, Cesar gets exactly what he wants. And it destroys him.
Even though I knew all about this film’s famous ending well, well ahead of time, the 100 or so minute lead-up to it was no less powerful and engaging. The bliss between the couple Rex and Saskia is so seemingly flawless and imperturbable that you think it HAS to end in tragedy, which of course it does, but that doesn’t make it any less believable, as their chemistry is high, making the sense of panic as Saskia goes missing in a crowded rest stop and Rex becomes more and more worried that much more palpable and tense. As the film soon cuts to three years later and Rex is no less obsessed not with finding Saskia, but simply what happened to Saskia, this would have been a decent-enough thriller examining one man’s obsession with finding the truth behind a tragedy…but then it defies all expectations of a traditional thriller. Soon we meet the outwardly charming and affable chemistry teacher Raymond – the man who’s responsible for Saskia’s disappearance, and no, that isn’t a spoiler – and suddenly this thriller is anything but a whodunnit. Raymond’s story is even more engaging than Rex’s, as he never delves into full-on eats-his-own-feces madness, but the vague signs of sociopathy are clearly there, and his subtle weirdness absolutely gets under your skin, from his quiet obsession with his resting heartrate to his just-as-obsessive fixation on getting his kidnapping procedure just right, to the point that he does a test-run on his unknowing daughter. “The Vanishing’s” form of comic relief, depicting Raymond’s increasingly humorous, failed attempts at kidnappings, is both morbid and bold. And the disjointed chronological structure, going from the time of the kidnapping to three years later to Raymond’s preparations well before the deed to Raymond’s childhood at drops of a pin, leave little doubt as to who the perpetrator is, but keeps you on your toes and force you to pay attention (even if a late flashback shows just how poor Saskia’s judgment is, to the point where I was taken out of the otherwise natural unfurling of events). Finally, when the inevitable Rex-Raymond showdown occurs, it’s far from the thriller-esque taking-revenge showdown we’ve been programmed to expect. Despite a good amount of philosophical, wordy mumbo-jumbo out of Raymond’s mouth that you’d unfortunately expect from a typically deranged villain, this little game between the two men show that Raymond, the sociopathically fascinated ringmaster, and Rex, the wronged rat in the maze, aren’t so far apart in their obsessions. Two sides of the coin of derangement, the only difference being that one of them gets more of our sympathy – and the gap isn’t as wide as you’d think.
Is it possible that the simplest of tricks, an odd color hue, was enough for this film to wow me in terms of production value? Apparently. You’d think that the constant barrage of dark sepia tones would get old after a while, but I never got tired of it – this nightmarish wasteland in which the burned-out detective Fisher investigates the serial killings of little girls is truly nightmarish, from that color scheme to the constant night to the nearly-as-constant rainfall. Obviously, with the nightmarish, being-a-character-in-and-of-itself quality of the setting, as well as the premise of Fisher obsessively searching for a supposed dead man, von Trier borrows heavily from “The Third Man,” and obviously “The Third Man” is the far-superior film, but you can’t fault von Trier for trying to go above and beyond in bringing a place to horrific life. The story makes little sense, and that despite the supposed plot twist being more than obvious, but for me it was all about the setting, the sense of macabre dread that pervades every second of this film. Everything about this place is simply unnatural, and of course a lot of that has to do with the fact that the whole story is told by Fisher after a psychiatrist puts him under hypnosis. Is it an easy-way-out storytelling shortcut on von Trier’s part to possibly attribute the otherworldly qualities of this apocalyptic nightmare to Fisher’s mindset more than an actual depiction of a particular world? Sure, but it’s a cool way to do it, nonetheless. As the rain comes down in buckets, the archive room of police headquarters is completely flooded so that Fisher practically wades through a lake to get to some information (water is a heavy, heavy motif in this film), the faces of just about everybody comes out red and ominous, and houses, brothels, and just about every other place seem more like abandoned hovels and caves than man-made edifices, it becomes so arguably obvious that much, if not all, of the unnatural qualities of this world are a projection of Fisher’s tortured, mutilated mindset as he looks back on this story in hindsight. I would’ve been tempted to call von Trier’s barrage of gloomy imagery overkill, but that simple flashback, noir-ish narration gimmick turns that into a somewhat fascinating, if not utterly incomprehensible, look at how a time and place can affect a man’s mindset, as well as the opposite: how a man’s mindset can affect a time and place as he sees it.
I guess it took me as long as it did to get around to this, probably Scorsese’s most personal film, because as a Jew I guess I felt I wasn’t prepared for, or didn’t have a right to, watch a film about Jesus? And after watching it, I feel like a lot of it went over my head simply because of my lack of knowledge of the story of Jesus – I still don’t really know who John the Baptist or Saul/Paul are, know Judas only as ‘the guy who betrayed Jesus’ (which is why I was so surprised to see Harvey Keitel’s Judas portrayed in such an arguably sympathetic light), don’t really know exactly who Mary Magdalene was or what exactly she had to do with Jesus according to scriptures, and pretty much just know that Jesus was a Jewish carpenter who allegedly performed miracles, thought he was and/or was thought to be the messiah, and was executed for sedition. With all the controversy that Scorsese’s film garnered upon its release due to its alleged departures from scripture, I’m pretty sure my knowledge of the subject in its most widely-accepted form wasn’t helped much, but despite that lack of knowledge, this was still a powerful, deep study of a man who just happened to be handed the role of messiah and son of God. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus clearly struggles to understand, and even tries to reject, his destiny, as he assists in the crucifixion of a fellow Jew seemingly to draw the ire of God so that he doesn’t have to be the messiah, and his miracles of resurrection and stigmata seemingly come out of nowhere, and are presented by Scorsese as sudden, jarring events that seem to frighten and startle Jesus, the performer of the miracles, more than anything. Even when not performing the miraculous, as he becomes more and more aware of his destiny as the son of God and that he must suffer and die, Jesus tries to use logic and common sense to make sense of and come to terms with his unusual situation, made apparent and helped along by the theologically/philosophically thought-provoking dialogue by Paul Schrader and the performance by Willem Dafoe, forceful and exuberant at times as he preaches to the leery masses, but that forceful exuberance seeming to barely conceal that self-doubt and vulnerability that wracks the man when he is alone, facing the temptations of Satan in the desert (in a scene that begs to be unintentionally funny and over-the-top but ends up being incredibly strange and absorbing), or confiding in his tough-talking friend, confidant and eventual betrayer Judas. True, there are times where Dafoe’s Jesus seems to relish his role as messiah as he riles crowds and literally makes a mess of the capitalism-infested Temple, but that vulnerability bleeds through nonetheless. As he engages in monologues or quiet dialogues trying to talk out his predicament and make sense of and begrudgingly accept this miraculous role that’s been hoisted upon him, and as he finds himself tempted by a quiet family life that you and I would take for granted at his most vulnerable and frightening moment, we see a man who quite simply finds himself inexplicably able to perform feats impossible for other humans to perform, knows of his eventual fate, which other humans are unable to know, does what any other human would try to do by using logic to make sense of it all, and as his mind (or supernatural intervention) give him a temporary escape from the cross, he’s just a man who does not want to die. Quite simply, he is afraid. Fear being arguably the most recognizable and understanding of human emotions, this iteration of Jesus, the supposed son of God and a God himself within the body of man, despite performing godly miracles, is more of a frightened, self-doubting man than the martyred superhero scripture makes him out to be. That, combined with an overall believable period piece with Peter Gabriel’s music giving it an undeniably modern edge, makes this unreligious Jew watching Scorsese’s film more easily identify with a man who can perform miracles, but is still a man through and through.
It’s one of the most preposterous plots – or rather, amalgamation of many plots – like, ever…almost as preposterous as what Beneix believed French gangsters and Taiwanese bootleggers would consider to be fashionable looks and outfits back in 1981 . A chief of police running a sex-slave ring, his goons after a prostitute and her tape that incriminates him, the bootleggers after another tape of a famed, and stubborn, opera diva whose voice has never been recorded before, the cops after the goons, the rich non-conformist after both tapes and wads of money and god knows what else…oh, and the geeky little mail courier, obsessed with the diva, whose illegally recording her concert and then stealing her luminous gown and having that prostitute’s tape unknowingly dropped into his mail bag sets off a chain reaction of all that nonsense I just spewed. More than once I got completely lost and had to pause the movie and skim the plot description on wikipedia to get my bearings before pressing play again, and some of the twists and turns that this labyrinthine story takes are so unlikely, so ridiculous, that I learned fairly quickly to avoid falling into my usual trap of judging a movie on how “real” it is, how much verisimilitude it has, and just take this for what it is: a hyper-stylized thriller, not pretending to be anything other than overly-stylish with the outlandish sets (that young courier lives in an immense ‘loft’ filled with wrecked cars. It looks cool, so I’ll go with it…) and costumes (Dominique Pinon as the skinheaded, headphone-wearing, huge sunglasses-sporting thug known only as “Le curé” takes the cake…), twists and coincidences that make suspension of disbelief an outright requirement to getting anything out of this movie, and characters and relationships that are…incredibly satisfying. Yes, as ridiculous as “Diva” can get, its twisting, meandering story is presented in such an intelligent and unpredictable way that its world feels completely alive, so fully realized, even if it is, however based on circa-1981 Paris, different from the real-real world in an aesthetic sense.
Even though I had no idea who these Taiwanese music bootleggers were for the duration of the film – all I saw were ridiculously-dressed Asians regarding our courier hero from afar in their cars until wikipedia made me see the light – and I was trying to make heads and tails with who wanted which tape and who wanted who dead, when it was all over, I spent the rest of that night and practically all of next day putting the pieces together in my head. The story’s ridiculous and convoluted, but rich in detail, both visually and otherwise (notice how the camera glides majestically in the first concert scene, regarding the opera diva with the same obsessive devotion as the courier), to the point that it’s just as much fun to think about the film post-viewing than during the viewing itself. It’s just a fun thriller, convoluted and complex yet all fitting together by the time the closing credits roll in subtle and rather ingenious ways, and highlighted by one of the best and most exciting chases I’ve seen in any movie (“Diva” perfected the motorcyclist (moped-ist to be exact…) being chased through the metro and indoor shopping areas years before “The Dark Knight.” Think the iconic subway chase from “Le Samourai,” but with a moped thrown in). And when things got too convoluted, I always had the startlingly simple story of the courier Jules and his muse, the angelically-voiced Cynthia Hawkins, to fall back on. Their relationship is a fascinating one that starts out predictably in a star-basically-patting-the-adoring-fan-on-the-head kind of way, and then grows into something deeper in unexpected yet natural-feeling and even sweet ways, namely thanks to, ironically, the inexperience of the two actors, Frédéric Andréi and the professional opera singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez. It’s romantic, sure, but somehow not in that hokey movie kind of way – the montage of the two of them walking through a rainy Paris, culminating in the boy daring to put his hand on the star singer’s shoulder, is wonderful. Even as bootleggers and gangsters are, unbeknownst to Jules, after his tapes and his blood, the simple relationship between the two is endearing and real (by comparison to the outlandishness of everything around it, at least…). There’s no way that a mere mailman with a love for opera can be able to get a woman as beautiful and melodiously-voiced as Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez to fall for him, but for some reason, it just works, and you want it to work. You care for these characters, and there’s actually something more at stake than some silly tapes or some big bad secret, so that this is much more than just ‘”Enemy of the State” but good.’ Between goons throwing knives into the backs of prostitutes and degenerates, car chases, good guys and bad guys falling down elevator shafts and good ol’ police procedural material, a moped-riding boy and his tape recorder wins the affections of a superstar – perhaps the unlikeliest in two hours’ worth of unlikely developments, but surely the one that’s the most satisfying.
…But wait, I haven’t even mentioned Gorodish and Alba! In a film chock-full of fascinating, if not downright cartoonish, characters, the uber-Bohemian Gorodish and his Vietnamese lackey Alba are by far the most fascinating. Hell, they might be two of the most enigmatic and downright interesting film characters I’ve ever seen, not because of depth, of which they have little, but because of the downright mysteriousness of how they’re presented. I mean for god’s sake, just look at where they live! An immense, dark loft seemingly furnished only with a couch, a bizarre lava lamp, and a stereo, where Gorodish lounges around all day in Calvin Klein poses while Alba does her nymphette thing…who lives like that?!?! What the hell does this Gorodish guy do, at least when he isn’t manipulating both gangsters and bootleggers against each other for his own monetary benefit Yojimbo-style (and for that matter, how does he suddenly have the amazing cunning and smarts to pull all that off, when we’re introduced to him as a hyper-stylish couch potato?) Do he and Alba sleep together? What’s with that portfolio of naked pictures that Alba carries around? Does Gorodish ever leave that dungeon of his in his everyday life? Does she (does he let her?)? ”Diva” is based on one of a series of books in which Gorodish and Alba are the main characters, so it’d make sense that despite how captivating the story of Jules and Cynthia, the film’s so-called ‘main characters’, may be, it’s this enigmatic recluse and his exotic girl-pet who are the film’s ambiguous, and alluring, center. They’re the posterchildren of this film’s almost exclusive reliance on striking, edgy imagery rather than deep, or even logical, characters or dialogue or plot. On any other day in any other movie Gorodish and Alba should be laughable caricatures, cartoon characters in that cartoonish loft. But just as a chase scene with cheesy music and a thug wearing an unfathomably cheesy outfit just feels cool for some reason, Gorodish and Alba aren’t laughable caricatures, they’re mysterious enigmas, right at home in “Diva”‘s world, a world not too different from our own, and not exactly the same…just subtly odd enough where an independently wealthy hermit and his beautiful Salacious Crumb, and a shy courier and the opera star whose budding relationship feels unexpectedly natural, and all the cops and robbers in-between, can co-exist. This movie, while quite clearly an orgy of visual awesomeness, was a mess, but one I was all too happy to try to piece together.
The overriding themes I picked up on in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” were loneliness and decay…physical decay, and the decay of past values, sensibilities, and eras. In its first scenes, we watch Burt Lancaster’s elderly number-runner Lou as he watches his pretty young neighbor Sally rub lemons on her skin from the confines of his dark, musty apartment. You don’t see any actual grime or cobwebs or such, but his apartment just feels old and stale, its archaic furniture and trinkets and white-haired inhabitant plucked from another time and place. Lou tries to convince others, but maybe himself most of all, that he was once in the big time, one of Bugsy Siegel’s cellmates, in fact, but all that’s in the past now, (and maybe not even that, when you consider how his behavior as the film progresses seems to contradict everything we thought we knew about who this man was), and Lou’s now just an old man reduced to watching his neighbor bathe herself in lemon oil and acting as dog walker / errand boy / gigolo for Grace, the slightly demented hoarder across the hall, and the widow of a no-goodnik not unlike Lou himself. And Sally, who works at an oyster bar and has pipe dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer in Monte Carlo, spends her nights listening to her precious opera tapes and unknowingly putting on a show for her just-as lonely neighbor. They live in their own worlds – Lou in the makeshift graveyard of circa-1940s culture that is his apartment and Grace’s down the hall, and Sally in an impenetrable bubble of unfulfilled desires, and the fantasies that it seems that even she herself knows are farfetched. They’re so discontented, so similar in their loneliness that their eventual meeting, and unlikeliest of courtships, by a twist of fate involving a stolen stash of drugs and Sally’s loser ex-husband Dave, is like an incredible breath of fresh air – their paths towards each other are nearly as set in stone as their destiny to end up far, far apart.
Once we leave that run-down apartment complex and start strolling the famous boardwalk with Lou as he imparts his old-time wisdom on his wayward, makeshift protégé Dave, the feel isn’t that different from before, and yet drastically different at the same time. My oh my Atlantic City is a dump when you’re not standing in the middle of one of Donald Trump’s casino floors, and you realize this as Lou makes his rounds through the slums collecting his tiny little bets. Just as Lou’s apartment, as well as his own wrinkled body and outdated yet stylish suits, are the decayed evocations of a bygone era, so too are the crumbling, soon-to-be-demolished apartment buildings that line the boardwalk, making it all the more powerful when Lou, older and dressed much more differently than everyone around him, laments the decay of his once-beautiful building to the younger Dave – one symbol of the past remembering another. I might be mistaken, but I think that nearly every outdoor scene in “Atlantic City” might be set to cloudy skies, further compounding that air of despair as what was once Lou’s world of glitz and glorious depravity crumbles before his and our eyes.
And yet, at the same time I was surprised, and damn near startled, when we first left Lou’s time capsule-like apartment, only to see a thoroughly then-modern day Philadelphia and Atlantic City, inhabited by the likes of the grungily-dressed Dave, the piggish and foul-mouthed gangsters out to get Dave and their stolen dope, and all the pimps, hoes, addicts, dealers, and degenerates in-between that you’d never see in the old-school gangland that a man like Lou seems to have come from. Hell, the first time we see the insulated Lou and Grace meet Dave and Chrissie, Sally’s pregnant kid sister who Dave ran away with, it’s contrast defined, as the penniless, shabbily-dressed and Zen and reincarnation-obsessed Chrissie and the off-kilter and shrill yet thoroughly old-fashioned Grace form the unlikeliest of bonds, as we often see them just lounging together in Grace’s bed as Lou and Sally, the main players, do their own thing. It comes off as a kind of weird, unsuccessful attempt at comic relief as Lou and Sally deal with those gangsters in the main plot, but it’s actually oddly touching to see this bizarre, nearly wordless and never-explained bond between old widow and young flower-child, the strange collision of the representatives of two cultures/eras, and almost a Shakespearan parallel to the more obvious bonding of the elderly Lou, whose time to shine has long past, and Sally, decades his junior and still seemingly with something to live for. It’s all a little too allegorical and sacrifices some sense of realism in the characters, especially in the minor characters like Grace and Chrissie, and overall too much of this movie involved people talking about Atlantic City like it’s the most literarily metaphorical place in the universe, and old-timey songs in dance halls about Atlantic City itself. As great as the ongoing image of ruined buildings is, a lot of this film overdid the whole depiction of place thing to the point of saturating its effectiveness (a billboard taunting the physically displaced Dave and Chrissie and the emotionally displaced Sally with the phrase ‘Atlantic City, you’re back on the map. Again.’ is the posterchild of too-obvious symbolism that the film occasionally reverts to).
Ultimately, though, it’s all quite evocative and complex, especially when it comes to the more fully-realized characters like Sally and Lou. When you consider one of my favorite scenes, which is nothing more than Lou in a bathroom reminiscing about the old days with the washroom attendant, an old friend of his, and then all the disgusting and crumbling buildings that tower above the old man as he tells Dave about his glory days in Vegas, you realize that this movie is actually quite apocalyptic, as if this iteration of Atlantic City is a waste land, the physically and emotionally ruined leftovers of a more glorious time and place. If the subplots leave something to be desired, despite some nice images, and the timing of the plot’s twist and turns – the gangsters showing up at the perfect moment, Lou and Sally seeing a crucial (and contrived…) news report just at the right time, etc. – are a little too convenient and manufactured, then at least the motivations of Lou and Sally are really, really difficult to pinpoint. Susan Sarandon can overdo it now and then, going nuts when she’s thrown out of a casino, for instance, but there’s a certain maturity and sadness to her portrayal of Sally that actually makes it believable that she’d become enamored and sensually take off her blouse in front of Lou as he tells her all the little details of the lemon ritual he’s watched her do nightly. And Burt Lancaster…my goodness, what a performance. Just when you think you’ve figured Lou out, when it looks like he’s after Sally because his aging libido’s found one last ounce of strength, or because his sudden stumbling onto thousands of dollars in drug money has reinvigorated his zeal for the fast life, something about Burt Lancaster’s understated performance, a kind of combination between yearning for the past and all-out despair, that suddenly casts doubt on why Lou’s doing what he’s doing. I’m probably giving Sally the short-shrift, which is testament to how “Atlantic City” is so seemingly simple in its story and so deceptively complex in its character’s motivations, so you can’t be sure why Lou breaks free from the confines of his shitty apartment to risk life and limb for some drug money and a beautiful neighbor, or why Sally lets this outwardly-lecherous old man be her sugardaddy and act so apathetic when her husband meets his own sad and pathetic fate. I’m still not sure what the ending means, what becomes of Sally and that car, and what it means to see Grace of all people in a situation you’d never expect to see her in, but I’m pretty sure a rewatch of this movie, flawed around the edges yet filled to the brim with unspoken backstories and feelings, might shed some more light on the intertwining of two people separated by age, brought together by fate and their mutual need for…something.
I mean, just look at Lou, and how fleshed out he is, precisely because Burt Lancaster is so subtle and soft-spoken, and so much of Lou’s backstory is gleaned in tiny bits and pieces as he reminisces in that bathroom or tells Dave maybe-memories, maybe-tall tales. You can learn so much from this man simply by looking at his face as he watches Sally bathe in lemons – studying her as a scientist quantitatively conducts an experiment, with a hint of forlornness. Hell, the look on his face of anguish and ‘what have I done’ when the gangsters accost Sally because of the drugs that Dave stole, unaware that it’s Lou who’s reaped the benefits, defines great acting better than any Oscar-bait word jumbles could. The whole time, you’re under the impression that Lou was once a well-to-do gangster and number-runner and tough guy, based on the stories he so eloquently tells, because of his cool and suave demeanor when he tells his drug customer ‘hands off the suit’ and brushes him aside, because of his angry dismay at being unable to go all chivalrous on those thugs in aid of his new dame Sally, and that he goes on this one final adventure of drugs and riches and lust and passion because he misses the good ol’ days, because he wants one last taste of being a somebody, a real important tough guy instead of a pitiful peeping tom. But then, when you see his incredibly comical and overly-enthusiastic reaction after dispatching a couple of bad guys (Lou Pascal really, really, really did not read the Dr. Richard Kimble Handbook on Being a Fugitive), when you see how he foolishly brings attention to himself by immediately spending ill-gotten drug money on flashy clothes and what-not, all behavior incredibly unbecoming of a professional and calculated hoodlum, you start to get that feeling in the back of your mind that, as the villainous Mr. Butler said in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” ‘that man’s never killed anyone,’ and that this isn’t Lou’s attempt at evoking his past, but rather fantasy fulfillment. And suddenly, he and Sally have one more thing in common.
Late in this film, we see Warren Beatty running from a burning train car in the desert, with gunfire all around him. It’s an image that’s quite literally right out of “Lawrence of Arabia” and one that suggests that “Reds” is just as much an ‘epic’ as “Lawrence” is. Indeed, there’s plenty of the requisite great Vittorio Storaro cinematography and vistas and locales and a cast of thousands that all outwardly signify epic, as well as the larger-than-life ambitions and ideals of its subject, John Reed. Reed’s life was an extraordinary one, spanning limitless miles both physically and intellectually as he and his wife Louise Bryant covered the Russian Revolution first-hand and then tried to bring its communist ideals to America, and such a life is rife for adapting for the screen. This project was Warren Beatty’s baby, as he produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in it, but it’s far from a propaganda piece or a treatise defending leftist politics. It’s merely a point in time, a chronicle of two people caught up in an amazing moment in the history of the world (encapsulated perfectly in a wonderful montage that closes out the film’s first half), that’s at its best not when focusing on John Reed’s politics or oft-foolish attempt to coax a worker’s revolution in America, but on the relationship between he and Louise Bryant, and their common zeal for a particular cause.
Within the backdrop of political unrest in America and outright revolt in Russia, their romance is a compelling one, mainly because of Warren Beatty’s lively performance as the dashing and exuberant, yet foolhardy and vulnerable Reed, and Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, initially starstruck and out of her league in following Reed to the free love-driven Greenwich Village, but then becoming strong-willed and surprisingly independent (in regard to her sexual habits and otherwise…). All the basement communist meetings and Reed barging into political conventions and making the harrowing journey to Russia to gain recognition for the American communist party did nearly nothing for me – in fact, these scenes of petty, secretive backroom arguments convinced me that Reed’s ilk had little if any relevance in America at the time. So why should I care about any of this? Because I bought most into Reed and Bryant themselves, the people rather than the political motivations. Sure, there are a good number of stock domestic argument scenes that are quite frankly overly-written (indeed, this film’s great fault is in all likelihood its slight over-reliance on unrealistically intellectual dialogue in general), but I still bought into and was riveted by the ups and downs of their relationship, with all the rocky points and complications that you’d expect (hey, when a romance is set before a revolution, there’d better be complications). The best part of this film may have been the least ‘epic’ in scope, chronicling the affair between Louise and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson in perhaps the best performance he’s ever given – understated, soulful, exuding deep intelligence, and that trademark Nicholson smarminess barely concealing a deep and impassioned sadness and jealousy towards the love that Louise so obviously has for John Reed. You’re never quite able to grasp just how much of a passion Louise has for the politics that John has dedicated his life to, if any. All you see is that, despite leaving him once every few seconds, his knack for being an overly-zealous prick, and being separated by thousands of miles, they’re made for each other (this despite a rather shamelessly melodramatic stretch of the film where she treks through the Russian woods to find her lost beloved). Love conquers all, it seems, and for once that didn’t feel like a hopelessly clichéd and artificial backbone of a major screenplay.
Both elements of this film, the romance and the socio-political epic, have their flaws – the romantic story often falls into the realm of dialogue-driven cliché, and scenes of John Reed breaking into political rallies and arguing with other socialists get old rather quickly. But regardless, the scope of the romance that this film depicts is compelling to no end. What’s certain is that “Reds” neither completely defends nor completely demonizes communism – John Reed’s zeal for the worker’s revolution is infinite at first, until he becomes disillusioned with the whole thing when he experiences the less-than-savory conditions of Russia and its emotionally-crippled leaders first-hand, as well as being taken under the wing of the equally-disillusioned Emma Goldman, played by the wonderful, wonderful Maureen Stapleton, so the idealistic benefits and ugly detriments of communism are both on full display here. “Reds” is at its greatest when communism itself isn’t at the forefront, but rather the man and the woman who became swept up in its tidal wave in one country, and their doomed attempt to create a similar tidal wave in a country at a much lower tide. Much of this film consists of present-day interviews with the ‘witnesses’ – old men and women who either knew Reed and Bryant or were active participants in the era, and it’s only fitting that much of what they reminisce about isn’t what the history books tell you about the communist revolution or the fledgling socialist party in America in general, but rather vague reminiscences about John Reed and Louise Bryant, in terms of personal character rather than ideals. “Were they socialists?”, one witness tries to remember as Reed and Bryant are now mere enigmas in the cloudy recesses of this old person’s memory. When this film casts doubt on their motivations and makes questions like that difficult to answer, when we’re tasked with speculating why John Reed and Louise Bryant became inseparable rather than whether communism is good or evil, when it’s a romantic epic rather than an epic of sweeping panoramas and explosions and great physical journeys, it’s at its best.
Robert Altman had certainly directed adaptations of previously published works before “Secret Honor.” Nevertheless, his style is one that wouldn’t seem to suggest any kind of strict adherence to a set script or adaptation of another person’s written work, what with lots of people mumbling and talking over each other, making for lots and lots of nearly incoherent dialogue that you’d swear has to be improvised – and I’m sure a lot of the dialogue in films like “MASH” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” are as improvised as the day is long, and those films, “McCabe” especially, are that much better and feel that much more authentic for it. Apparently, “Secret Honor” is a rather faithful adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s play (they wrote the adaptation as well), but by god I was having a tough time believing that, unless every little muttered curse or bout of gibberish or stuttering “um, um, um” or just about every other line of completely nonsensical ravings that comes out of Philip Baker Hall’s mouth was actually written into a play/screenplay as we see it on the screen. Whether it’s actually written that way (against all odds) or Philip Baker Hall improvised much of his 90-minute monologue/confessional as the disgraced 37th President of the United States, this is an energetic, emotional, sympathetic, manic, insane, sad, funny, draining, and without a doubt tiring as hell performance. It’s also amazing. Frank Langella may’ve looked and sounded more like the real Richard Milhous Nixon in last year’s “Frost/Nixon”, and Anthony Hopkins may’ve had more of an opportunity to expand upon the man in the sprawling epic “Nixon,” but Hall, who can barely be passed off as even a distant cousin of Nixon, and who you could argue dives right into the overacting pool at points in his 90 minute discourse for his tape recorder, nonetheless brings a pathos and a level of humanity to the man who’s become a reviled, infamous legend long after Watergate like no performer ever has. This was an amazing performance, which alone elevated “Secret Honor” to pretty much an amazing film.
This movie had a real opportunity to fall into the dreaded realm of being no more than a stage play that’s merely performed while a camera happens to be filming it. Indeed, the entire film is comprised of a single set of Nixon’s well-furnished, portrait-laden study; enter Nixon, looking into the fireplace before uttering a line in true over embellished play-like entrance fashion, and since he’s the one and only character in this piece of tinkered-with non-fiction (actually, by the end it really is just fiction…I hope), he really goes over the deep end with his histrionics, as if making up for the lack of other cast members – he has to dominate the stage, after all. But there’s something about Altman’s attention to detail that does in fact make this a significantly cinematic experience; obviously Hall’s performance is front and center and is pretty much the only reason you need to see this film, but just as Sidney Lumet used the camera to make that jury room in “12 Angry Men” seem more and more constrictive and suffocating as that film went along, Altman’s eye for all the details of this small but important setting really puts us in the paranoid, tortured mind of Hall’s Richard Nixon. If Hall is the star, then his co-stars are the portraits. As Nixon goes deeper and deeper into the recesses of his mind, talking a mile a minute about god knows what, the emotionless, never-changing faces of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon’s own mother quietly regard him as he regards them with anything but quiet. You and I would look at these paintings and see indifference in their eyes – but when we see a deranged Nixon lament how Kissinger, the man who we learn supplied the Shah of Iran with young boys, won the Nobel Peace Prize while Nixon was accused of stealing silverware from the White House, the camera cuts to a close-up of Kissinger’s painted face, and all of a sudden that look on Kissinger’s face is not of cold indifference, but of cruel apathy and sarcastic pity for the insanely jealous and enraged man literally kneeling before him. On the surface, these cuts to paintings, and to the line of four television screens that Nixon’s using to watch his own performance, may seem like surface style on Altman’s part, but when Nixon’s having the ultimate identity crisis, I’m sure he doesn’t know who he really is either, so those images of his faint form against a fuzzy blue backdrop is perfectly appropriate. Who is this man?
At least as portrayed by Hall, what a pitiful, self-loathing troll Nixon became after his public disgrace. Never mind the details of the ninety-minute rant, because I hardly remember any of those with just how zany this performance gets (rest assured, it does delve into both confirmed fact and utter fiction for quite an interesting combo – a cool what-if of Nixon’s life that you know cannot be fact, but you’re too enthralled by to dismiss as fiction), but just look at what a mess he is, and how Hall portrays that mess so compellingly. Immediately, you get the feeling that his mind is running much, much too fast and his voice simply cannot keep up with his cacophony of thoughts: instead of natural denouements to sentences, his ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ and ‘cocksuckers’ and ‘heh-hehs’ and ‘um-um-ums’ act as periods and question marks and exclamation marks. What’s supposed to be kind of a mock trial in which he acts as his own defense attorney before an imaginary judge weaves in and out of any semblance of coherence as he sips his whisky and gets more and more drunk (and Hall makes that increasing drunkenness impressively palpable), in which he addresses himself in either the first or third person at any time, sings, dances, shifts the subject from Watergate, to his youth and the death of his siblings to TB ,to losing to Kennedy, to the mysterious ‘committee of 100’, all in the matter of a few seconds, all before collecting himself and imploring the offscreen Roberto to erase all that nonsense up to, err, you know, err… Some would call it overacting, but I call it the closest thing I’ve ever seen in a fictional performance to a bodily representation of stream-of-consciousness. The mind is a scary, infinitely expansive place, and none scarier than a tortured soul like this. It’s a wonder Nixon is as composed as he is when he first walks into the study, glass in hand, quietly regarding the fireplace – it’s pretty damn obvious he was itching at the seams to let all of his demons out, and boy does he.
Nixon’s hatred of men like Kissinger and Eisenhower is so palpable that those faces on the paintings take on a new light even in our eyes, which is essentially the theme of the whole affair – we feel his hatred of others so fully that we, like him, are blind to the one he hates above all others: himself. I hesitate to call this film Richard Nixon’s 90-minute confessional, because what is there to confess when he still blames most if not all of his misfortune on others? He blames his general uneasiness on his mother (his reading of his ‘your faithful dog, Richard’ letter is chilling), his early political inadequacy on Eisenhower and Kennedy, and blames Kissinger for…well, just about everything. And when the equivalent of the film’s climax arrives, and Nixon reveals the so-called true nature of Watergate, that true nature allows him to, in a way, consider Watergate his finest hour, his secret honor – again shifting blame away from himself, but in a way, his argument is intoxicatingly appealing and convincing. We start to believe, and he definitely believes. We’re just sinking deeper and deeper into his psyche, which is why this simple format – one man speaking in one space for 90 minutes – couldn’t be more intimate and enlightening about the mind. He’s so maniacally enthusiastic about pouring every little secret out of his mouth (with no particular pattern) and getting the 8 kajillion pound monkey off his back, all while blaming others for his own inadequacies while merely pitying himself and his station in life, that it’s both his catharsis and his sinking deeper into his own misery, all at once.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this iteration of Richard Nixon, compared to what other performances or what the history books tell you – he’s still a loathsome creature, but a tortured one, and maybe he did just stumble onto a demonized Scarlet Letter persona through lots and lots of bad luck. His penchant for blaming everyone but himself, painting or otherwise, for his sad fate is pathetic, but behind his drunken ravings and yelling at paintings is a man who quite obviously hates himself and is truly tormented, and in such a pathetic state, we automatically take pity, not of the famed Richard Nixon, but of any given broken shell of a man who’s been reduced to talking to himself and to paintings and pacing around a locked room in a ratty smoking jacket. We coldly regard him like the unwavering faces of those paintings. The final line that Philip Baker Hall’s Richard Nixon grandly shouts and then repeats over and over again before the credits role perfectly encapsulates his mindset and his worldview and his paranoid view of others, perhaps more so than the 90 minutes of rambling that came before. But boy are those 90 minutes necessary to come to that conclusion.
When I finished this movie last night and went to sleep, I was perturbed, confused and damn near disgusted with “Santa sangre” and its unsettling imagery that appears to be weird for the sake of being weird, featuring some stuff that shocked and appalled me like few films ever have, and not in the way that would grab me and challenge me to accept the previously disturbing as something much more thought-out. I was supremely disappointed and pretty much sickened by what I saw.
After eight hours of sleep, it’s # 74 on my list of 100 Favorite Films.
Why such a dramatic turnaround in opinion so quickly, maybe the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever had in so short a time span? First, a theory on why much of “Santa sangre” put me off as I watched it, this even after I ate up every moment Jodorowsky’s cult classic “El topo” just days before and loved that film, arguably even more bizarre than “Santa Sangre”: “El topo” was just so surreal, defying all natural conventions of narrative and storytelling in being truly dreamlike and symbol-driven that it was abandon-all-logic-ye-who-enter-here. There were no rules, so I just accepted anything and everything that Jodorowsky threw at me in this weird dream-desert that exists completely outside of our conception of time and space, all at face value, and it all equated to the closest film equivalent I can think of to eliot’s “The Waste Land” in basically being purely metaphor-driven and like visual poetry.
“Santa sangre” doesn’t have that rule-less crutch that “El topo” has in that it does follow something at least resembling a coherent, straightforward narrative (at least by Jodorowski’s standards. Otherwise, I’m not sure if you could call the story of a domineering, arm-less, sexually jealous mother forcing her submissive son to use his arms as her own to go on a murderous rampage “coherent” exactly…), so all of a sudden, the weird, upsetting images that were okay in the netherworld of “El topo” become the bad version of weird and upsetting in the world of “Santa sangre,” a world that at least somewhat seems to encompass the rules of logic and order that guide our own world, along with the usual Jodorowskian macabre flourishes, of course.
So all of a sudden where I might’ve accepted the sight of a well-dressed man removing his own ear and rubbing it all over a deaf/mute girl’s face in a film like “El topo”, here I initially thought it was tasteless. Where in the chaotic realm of “El topo” the sight of corpse after corpse of female murder victims rising from their graves to haunt their killer might’ve been commonplace, when that happens to the protagonist Fenix in “Santa sangre”, it seems more silly than anything. An overabundance of physically-handicapped people seemed all well and good in the symbolic desert of “El topo,” whereas “Santa sangre’s” abundance of similarly physically handicapped people, at least outside of the circus scenes, such as Fenix’s dwarf friend and the profusion of young men with Down’s Syndrome who with Fenix are tricked into taking a detour during a field trip into the red light district, just seems plain insensitive on Jodorowsky’s part. When young Fenix’s father Orgo, the brutish knife thrower of the circus in which Fenix is the world’s youngest magician and his mother, the cult leader Concha, is the trapeze artist, brands his young son’s chest with a large bird tattoo in order to make him into a man and the child cries in pain, I seriously considered turning the film off right then and there, the way I was wincing, and that doesn’t happen to me that often. Tasteless, classless, I thought.
So how does eight hours of sleep turn tastelessness and classlessness into genius? I’m not sure I can answer that in precise terms. It just…works. In a movie that supposedly has much more narrative coherence than the likes of “El topo”, there are still plenty of oddities that have nothing to do with a plot involving Fenix’s submissiveness and Concha’s jealous madness, but merely contribute to the unsettling and odd Freudian/Fellini-esque/ Buñuelian atmosphere, to the point where you should just forget the terms Freudian and Fellini-esque and Buñuelian and just say it’s Jodorowskian with how completely original it is. Early on we’re perfectly aware that this story, at least within the realm of the flashback of an institutionalized Fenix, concerns young Fenix, his crush on the deaf and mute Alma, his father Orgo’s affair with Alma’s mother the Tattooed Woman, and the bulldozing of Concha’s church, which worships a girl whose arms were chopped off by rapists and whose blood allegedly fills a pool in the church’s center (blood that’s simply red paint according to the horrified local monsignor). And yet, while Concha and her fellow church patrons sing while facing the oncoming police and bulldozers and Orgo seductively throws knives at the Tattooed Woman as a surrogate for sex, we watch as Fenix cries for a dying elephant, blood pouring out of its trunk – arguably superfluous to the rest of the story, but damn tragic to see all that blood combined with Fenix’s tears. We see the bizarre sight of a large funeral procession for an even larger coffin, as Orgo leads black-clad clowns and other circus-folk and the coffin containing the elephant, which in a scene that could be right out of Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” is then thrown into an alley for starving villagers to scavenge: bizarre, inexplicable, disturbing, but in its own way, very, very funny. All of this – the elephant, the Church of Santa Sangre, the funeral procession, father’s cruel tattooing of son (which shows just how awful a man Orgo is, when he truly, seriously thinks that what he’s doing is for the well-being of his son), and later the genital-maiming and arm-slicing that would morph Fenix from sweet child into primitive, unhinged man, just barely qualify as a plot progression from point A to point B, but more importantly just set up the kind of strange, sometimes-wondrous, sometimes-horrifying world that Fenix resides in. What could possibly be a more awesome, dynamic image than the bulldozing of a church featuring a pool of blood (or paint) and the statue of an armless schoolgirl, while a red-robed Concha sobs arm-in-arm with Fenix, while a dwarf and a couple of clowns cry and console each other and the mother and son? Silly-looking clowns combined with shredded wood and plaster and tears – Jodorowskian, I can’t describe it any other way.
The first half of this film contains curious oddities and a kind of day-in-the-life structure within that strange circus, concluding with a jarring bout of violence, but the second half, featuring an adult Fenix and his lending his arms to his mother and their murderous rampage, is probably where “Santa sangre” gets its reputation as a so-called horror film. The violence is shocking and gratuitously bloody and tiptoes the fine line between chilling beauty and nauseating exploitation, but I think it’s so attractive precisely because it tiptoes that line, and you’re not sure which one Jodorowsky’s going for, so you’re repulsed, no doubt, but also titillated by the combination of blood, quick cuts, and jazzy music – some of the more creative death scenes and depiction of violence I’ve seen in some time. And maybe, for a purpose. That inexplicable image I mentioned before of the well-dressed man ripping off his (hopefully) artificial ear and smearing it across Alma’s face, for instance – seemingly superfluous, but really one of many moments of the inexplicable, the bizarre, trusting one who should not be trusted. Imagine the terror of Alma, escaping from a near-rape at the hands of a drunk giant (I don’t lie), running through a red-light district without the aid of hearing or a voice, coming across a professional-looking man who might be able to help her, and having THAT happen? A series of bizarre images within the dream-like realm of “El topo” is already unsettling enough, but just imagine being deaf and mute and having the same type of bizarre, nightmarish thing that belongs within the realm of dreams happen to you in the real world. I’m sure it symbolizes something, just as every single thing in “El topo” symbolized something, but I’m not gonna bother speculating on some Freud or Christian shit. It was weird and nightmarish, so I just put myself in Alma’s position and took it at its horrifying, unsettling face value. Just like I’m sure everything symbolizes something, like maybe the armless saint worshipped by Concha’s church is Jodorowsky’s criticism of the Catholic church, or how Fenix and Concha’s bizarre relationship might represent bizarre Freudian sexual frustrations between mother and son in a way that puts Norman and Mother Bates to shame. But this is all speculation, as again, I’d much rather just take it at face value and immerse myself in this disturbing but wildly imaginative world.
Of course the most enduring image of “Santa sangre” is that of Fenix situating himself behind his mother and slipping his arms into the sleeves of her outfits and utilizing those arms as if they were hers. And what an image that is! You wonder how much rehearsal must’ve gone into those kinds of scenes, because as Concha performs on stage with Fenix nearly invisible behind her, or Concha ‘plays’ the piano with Fenix’s nail polished hands, you will believe that these are Concha’s hands. It’s almost as if there’s a psychic connection between mother and son that allows son’s arms to become mother’s so seamlessly (which will be explained in a late and unexpected plot development), to the point that a scene in which Fenix and Concha play the theme of the Santa Sangre church on the piano, complete with a full camera pan around the pair, takes on an eerie beauty with how close these two are, despite how unhealthy that closeness is in Freudian/psychological terms. Do things get really silly and borderline-exploitative? Sure – the sight of Fenix fighting an Amazon-esque strong woman while his mother, dressed as Cleopatra, spurs on her son to kill the woman, is hysterical, as is Fenix literally struggling to control his murderous arms as they’re practically magnetized towards a potential victim – they really do become his mother’s. Silly, but incredibly unique in how cheap production value and odd acting and overly-dramatic music can combine into a wonderfully peculiar whole. The dual performance of Fenix – Adan Jodorowsky as the young Fenix and his brother Axel as the adult Fenix (Alejandro Jodorowski’s nepotism once again knows no bounds) – is surprisingly effective, and not just because they look incredibly similar, which can only help the seamless transition from flashback to present day. Adan comes off as a sweet kid whose tears for the dying elephant might bring you to tears, and Axel, while looking similar, comes off as much more introverted, desperate to reach out to others and find love but hopelessly withdrawn and obsessed with the Invisible Man (one of a number of questionable and overly-obvious pieces of symbolism, along with the so-called saint with no arms, I admit), furthering the sheer emotional trauma of that night involving his parents. Some of Axel’s scenes are very, very silly, as Fenix begs his mother to have mercy on this victim or that while he himself is committing the deed, and overacts to the point where you just have to laugh, but in a way, that just makes things even more odd, more interesting, and despite that overacting, he comes off as a broken shell of a man that you have to feel for and wish the best for. A late scene, in fact, involves a reunion between Fenix and Alma – the way they hold each other, and the camera moves around them, all set to a particularly lovely guitar theme that I considered the centerpiece of a surprisingly great score, is absolutely beautiful. Of course there’s more mother-centric and cult film-esque silliness to follow, but a poignant reprieve like this, that shows that Jodorowsky is a much more tender and compassionate artist than all the violence and blood and maiming would outwardly suggest, was just one thing that elevated this movie into something special.
“Santa sangre” works fine as a horror film, with plenty of jump-outta-your-seat moments and killings and expressionistic settings like Fenix and Concha’s dank mansion and what-not, and sure it’s weird and exploitative and conducive to being considered a cult classic in only a way Jodorowsky can come up with, but there’s just something about it – it’s a horror film, a black comedy, a cult film, and at the same time, none of these things in how different it is from anything I’d seen before. Axel Jodorowsky may not be to acting what his enormously talented father is to directing, but I felt like I was able to get into Fenix’s head (and his mother’s by default, for that matter) like few other flawed protagonists I’ve seen in quite a while, to the point that he’s extraordinarily worthy of our sympathy, despite everything. Modern-day Mexico may be nothing new on a film screen, but as seen through Fenix’s eyes, it’s a world that has to be seen to be believed.
What could I possibly write?
…other than that the final Hitler montage was almost as self-indulgent and ill-advised as Chaplin’s big anti-fascism speech at the end of The Great Dictator. But even then, while Chaplin’s speech was totally inappropriate in terms of that film’s comedic tone and the sheer impossibility of a meek Jewish barber being able to deliver a speech like that completely off the cuff, this Hitler montage somehow, at least somewhat fit in its own strange way, just because of how visceral and angry both it and the film as a whole are. Still, it just doesn’t belong, especially given that it’s seemingly from the point of view of our hero, a young Belarussian boy experiencing the atrocities of the war in his own backyard and who’s thousands of miles away from Hitler himself.
That, and the absolute orgy of Jonathan Demme-esque facial closeups that dominates the first half of the film are essentially the only reasons why I’m not giving this a perfect 10/10. This was a painful, disturbing, intense, and draining experience like few others, and through its use of sound and imagery and often first-person perspective puts other so-called ‘realistic’ anti-war films a la “Saving Private Ryan” to shame. And the key is that it’s pretty much divided into two parts, the first of which is almost like a surrealist fairy tale, with the abundance of people looking wide-eyed into the camera (which I still take exception to) and talking a little flower-and-poetic-like, and our young hero Florya and his new friend Glasha wading through the depths of hell, complete with bodies, mud, and the sounds of bombs and deafness (tip: do not watch this film on a laptop, wearing earbuds). There’s brutal realism here, sure, but that realism takes on an eerie, nightmarish tone when it’s almost exclusively from Florya’s point of view. This first half of the film is almost exclusively about the after-effects of armed conflict, as we see bodies and people in shock, and the closest we come to actually facing the Nazi menace is through bombardments, the Nazis themselves thousands of feet in the air.
Initially, I did not like the abundance of earsplitting sound effects or surreal dialogue or long tracking shots of, say, Florya and Glasha, hysterical, wading their way through a swamp, and dismissed these as stylistic excesses. That is, until the second half of the film, which I found to be different in style from the first half, yet exactly the same in despair-ridden tone. While the first half was surreal and dreamlike, despite that realism, the second half is pure, bitter realism all the way, as Florya journeys to find food and supplies for the starving survivors of his home town and encounters one terrible situation after another, eventually finding himself in a small town being ravaged by the Nazis. Suddenly, the up-‘til-now faceless Nazi menace gains a face, many parts of this segment in the town, almost a quarter of the film, are not from Florya’s point of view, allowing for more of that cruel realism, and what transpires has to be some of the most disturbing and painful stuff I’ve ever seen in a film, and whose raw power would only be spoiled if I tried to describe it here, so I won’t. And suddenly, when it was all over, I gained a new appreciation for those stiff characters and their even stiffer dialogue, and that over-reliance on unsettling sound effects and odd images and fast-motion effects, in the first half that I had had a problem with. Suddenly, the quasi-realism infused with the subjective fears and mindset of a young boy, and later the near-opposite, the objective realism of what the Nazis would do to a small town (just one of 628 Belarussian towns that received such treatment during the war, we’re told in an intertitle at the close of the film), combine into a singular whole, as both are equally proficient in presenting man’s inhumanity towards man (yes, the Belarussian freedom fighters don’t completely come off as the good to the Nazis’ evil here) and tying a knot of both anger and sadness in the viewer’s stomach.
Actually, I probably shouldn’t say ‘objective’ in describing the second half, as other than a late moment involving both the Nazis and the Belarussian fighters that’s as stomach-churning as any other, the Nazis really are portrayed as nothing more than inhuman monsters (hey, I don’t deny it…) and Belarussians the virtuous victims and freedom fighters (I don’t exactly deny that either…), which, along with that Hitler montage, is all about Klimov’s hatred of Hitler and, you could argue, is anything but objective (there’s a very good chance that after this movie is over, you’ll hate Germans more than you ever thought possible ). Yeah, Klimov overplays his hand in transferring his own sentiments toward both Florya and the depiction of the world and people around him (tone it down, Klimov, no need to overdo it THAT much to convince the world that Hitler was bad. It’s OK to hate Hitler, dude, the last thing we’ll ever do is hold it against you ), but it’s done with such power and conviction that you can’t not be affected. Hell, Klimov’s use of Mozart’s Requiem to close the movie is probably heavy-handed and manipulative, but fuck it, it got to me, and I was practically in tears by the time the screen went black. That ending, complete with the Mozart, is arguably just as bleak as what came before it, and yet somehow, that image is also hopeful, or at least as hopeful as you can get in a film like this. Or maybe it was just me trying desperately to grasp for some kind of hope after hope had proven completely evasive for two and a half hours. So turns out I was able to write a lot. This movie gave me severe dry mouth.