Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

“It is a movie about loneliness, and the attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at the same time – an impossible task, an elusive dream.”
                                                           – Kent Jones, “Slow Ride”

That just about sums it up.  Or to put it another way, “Two-Lane Blacktop” is Food, Sex and Cars, the Movie.  On one hand, its depiction of life on the road for a pair of car junkies, a young hitchhiker and a roadster wannabe is slow, deliberate, and brutally honest, and at the same time, almost purely allegorical of what makes such a nomadic lifestyle so mythic: almost pure metaphor (the characters are never referred to as more than The Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl, and GTO, after all).  It’s a portrait, both realistic and metaphorical, of machismo, feigned machismo, and finding purpose in the seemingly purposeless existence that includes drag racing for money, and an America that includes only asphalt, painted lines, gas stations, and shitty roadside diners and motels.  Is it the same caliber of deep, superb gender study as, say, “Rebel Without a Cause?”  No, “Two-Lane Blacktop” could never dream of depicting gender roles and conflicting norms like that, but it’s still a hell of a character study, and when the characters being studied are (other than the insanely complex GTO) this un-emotive and silent, so dead-set in their ways that they don’t even need words to get their point across to each other, and that study works, you’ve got a hell of a movie.

The so-called story, or at least the device that you’d think moves the plot forward, pits the team of the Driver (James Taylor – yes, that James Taylor), the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson – yes, that Beach Boys Dennis Wilson) and The Girl (Laurie Bird) against GTO (Warren Oates) in a cross-country race to Washington, D.C., winner taking the pink slip of the other’s car – the Driver and Mechanic’s souped-up ’55 Chevy and GTO’s, well, GTO.  But the movie isn’t about the race, or some arbitrary destination, because the way these people lead their lives, there is no arbitrary destination.  They go wherever the painted lines on the road point, where the wind blows, where they can score an easy $300 in a quarter-mile drag race.  Sure, the prospect of a race gives them something to think about, but in the end all that matters is the lifestyle, the day-by-day grind in the small little suburb of America known as the road, and the part-rivalry, part-camaraderie between those who share that road.  That’s where what Kent Jones said comes in, how these so-called rivals in a cross-country race are so different from one another, and allegedly want to out-do the other, to embrace solitude, and yet at the same time “connect with one another” and even help each other out.  That’s why the Mechanic helpfully points out to GTO that his car’s gonna break down sooner rather than later and even escorts him to a station, or how the four meet up and stop to enjoy a drink from GTO’s trunk minibar or sit down to lunch and plan out where to challenge others to drag races to boost their funds, going so far as agreeing when and where to meet up and start up their race again.  For so-called fierce competitors whose cars, their very livelihoods, are on the line, they seem awfully helpful to one another.  It’s that unspoken bond between the roadsters on that long road (just one of many things in the movie that’s unspoken), where all that matters is maintaining your car like it’s your baby.  So what if they’re in a so-called race?  There’s still the grind of money-making drag races and meals and repairs.  Same shit, different day.

The most fascinating thing about “Two-Lane Blacktop” is the balancing act between realism and metaphor.  From beginning to end the pace is slow and quiet and the dialogue even slower and even quieter, but it wouldn’t be fair to call that more “realistic” than a more genre-based road movie, or more existential, metaphorical, and symbolic.  It just…is what it is.  This movie is a time capsule, the very definition of a hyper-masculine mindset and culture, to the point that the Driver and the Mechanic need not say a word to each other – they just know what to do, what they’re supposed to do.  When they meet up with the Girl, for instance, she simply gets into their beloved car while they eat in the diner.  They get in, cooly regard her, and simply drive…no questions are asked, no confused glances, it just is what it is – a scruffy-looking young girl is hitchhiking and the two men oblige her, have no time to bother with the details as they make forward progress to nowhere in particular.  They accept the situation, and in turn, so do we.  Instantaneously, we know that one or both of the men are going to sleep with The Girl.  We don’t need to be told this, we just know, because society’s gender roles, and the hyper-masculinized car culture of “Two-Lane Blacktop”, have clued us in on this from the dawn of time, which is why it comes as no surprise whatsoever when The Driver returns to the hotel room one night after some barhopping and we simply hear the Girl’s moans from the other side of the door.  Not long after, there’s no awkward conversations, no plot-driving dialogue, no hint of a developing clichéd love triangle, just the Driver and the Girl sitting on a fence, muttering a few words about the mating cycle of cicadas.  And lather, rinse, and repeat.  Really, the lack of dialogue throughout the movie is startling, and fascinating.  So many times, we just watch as the Driver and the Mechanic stare ahead at the infinite road before them, and the Girl lays in back, bored (and later beside GTO, bored).  The Driver and Mechanic don’t say a word to each other, but one glance will tell the other that something needs doing…the engine doesn’t feel right, they need to gas up, one of them is hungry, whatever.  Nothing about this lifestyle is overtly pointed out to us through dialogue…quite simply, it’s the purest portrayal of this kind of uber-masculine way of life as you could hope for – all behavior and running through the motions, and words only when absolutely necessary.  You’d think that such a thing would completely dehumanize these three characters, but somehow such a cold and rock-solid devotion to road life makes them into something utterly unique – an everyman and an mythic archetype, all at once.  Showy, attention-grabbing acting jobs wouldn’t do here, which is why casting a singer, a drummer, and an unknown who wowed in the screen test was an inspired call by Monte Hellman.  Unfortunately, James Taylor ain’t exactly a natural when it comes to acting, which is probably why he never acted again.  His dialogue delivery, for one, is hesitant and awkward (although his speaking voice does sound remarkably similar to his singing voice 😛 )…but this isn’t a movie about dialogue, is it?  No, it’s not, which is why James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are most unexpectedly perfect for their roles.  This movie has some of the most repetitive use of shots you’ll ever see, as so many times you’ll simply see Driver and Mechanic sitting side-by-side in the Chevy, driving along…but boy, their long hair and grungy clothes, James Taylor’s scowl and angular, oddly-shaped face, say everything that some scant lines of dialogue don’t.  No words are needed, they’re just going through the motions with the two objects they care most about maintaining – the Chevy and the Girl (quite a shame that the Girl doesn’t exactly have a say in the matter, but she knows the score just as well as they do).  They’re kings of the road.

And then we come to GTO.  Of the four leads, Warren Oates was the only professional actor, and that makes sense considering how much more convoluted and complex and just plain out-there his character is than the more stone-faced Driver, Mechanic and Girl.  GTO is just as difficult to get a read on as the other characters, but for completely different reasons.  This strange, strange man’s quirks, neuroses and eccentricities just have to be seen to be believed, right down to how he’s wearing a different-colored sweater in practically every scene.  The movie’s running “gag”, if you can call it that, is how GTO picks up a wide, wide range of hitchhikers during his journey, from the gay cowboy (played by Harry Dean Stanton back when he was just H.D. Stanton) to the uptight suit-wearer to the senile grandma to the army boys – all different types of people, all from different walks of life.  It’s as if GTO’s car and the passengers it takes on is a window into the immense, wild world outside the safe ‘n predictable world of the road, the only world that the Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl, and GTO know (or at least GTO thinks he knows…).  There is a world beyond the endless highway, but that’s not what “Two-Lane Blacktop” is interested in, which is why we only get hints of that world in the form of GTO’s passengers.  And why does GTO always tell differing stories about his own history to each hitchhiker he picks up (and you wonder whether Christopher Nolan could possibly have been influenced by GTO when his Joker had that same habit in “The Dark Knight”)?  GTO is just as hard to read as his competitors in the race, but the difference is that the Driver and Mechanic are comfortable in their own quasi-dehumanized skin, while GTO doesn’t know who the hell he’s trying to be.  He tries acting all tough, leaning against the gas station sipping his coke or sweet-talking the cops or gruffly ordering a hamburger and Alka-Seltzer at the diner, but behind that is a deeply vulnerable man.  Just as his wide array of cashmere sweaters stands in stark contrast to the sleek car and tough words, his outward image of a battle-hardened roadster is trumped by his loneliness – his need to connect, even with his competitors who oblige him as if it were some rule of the road.  His final, wistful description to the Girl of their ideal life in Florida gives him away just as much as his ever-changing origin stories do.  He’s not a roadster, he’s a dreamer, still caught up in the romantic idealization of the road that the Driver and the Mechanic undoubtedly moved past a long time ago.  Just as he did in “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” Warren Oates perfects the image of an outward tough guy with the intimidating voice and even more intimidating smirk/smile, who deep down just wants to love and be loved – quite simply, GTO’s one of the most vulnerable characters you can imagine.  But in choosing America’s highway to drift and try to find that acceptance, he chose an arena where that’s out of the question.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” has good cinematography, but nothing really eye-grabbing.  There’s little by way of non-diegetic music, and the most attention-grabbing sound you’ll hear is the lion-like roar of the cars.  In the world of “Two-Lane Blacktop”, the possibilities only stretch as far as the interstate, career opportunities end at how much you can get out of some poor sucker hoping to win a drag race, and aspirations of a mansion and lobsters boil down to a hotel room with a bed and that hamburger and Alka-Seltzer.  The sign of one’s manhood comes down to how fast your car will go and how adept you are at supplementing its engine.  Sure, the Girl can choose who to go with on her own free will (and over the course of the journey she’ll be passed around like a sorority girl at a frat party, mostly on her own accord), but in this world she’ll aspire to nothing more than a fuck and a ride in the back seat – just as much a part of this male-oriented system as anything, the most disturbing part being just how apathetic she is to everything around her.  Just like the Driver and Mechanic’s stripped-down but unfathomably fast Chevy, this movie is a no-frills, bare-bones, no-nonsense look at a culture and a mindset.  If the hopelessly romantic dreamer GTO seems awkward in trying to be the epitome of cool, it’s because he’s the surrogate for we the audience – we see and interpret things through his eyes.  He’s a fraud, but deep down he, like any man at some point in his life, just wants to have a little bit of that effortless, no-nonsense machismo embodied by the Driver and the Mechanic.  But in the end, the most elaborate and detailed characters in the whole show are a ’55 Chevy 150 and a’70 Pontiac GTO, their elaborate engines and custom paint jobs and removable trunk and awe-inspiring vroom of the engine giving these cars more individuality and uniqueness, than anybody in this movie who’s made of flesh and blood.  Forgive my way-too-deep reading, that’s the English major in me, but is it not obvious that these cars, these inanimate objects and means of transport, are, like, the ultimate signifiers of phallus-like gender, of material objects running you rather than the other way around, a physical manifestation of what gives these peoples’ life purpose?  On this road, the cars are what live and breathe.  The people are just along for the ride.

8.5/10

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

As far as I remember, other than a scant moment or two, every outdoor scene in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” occurs at best under dreary cloud cover and at worst in pouring rain or stifling snowfall.  It’s a testament to just how dreary this movie is, how despite the enormous success of gambler and hustler McCabe and professional madame Constance Miller’s business venture in the wilderness town of Presbyterian Church, they’re doomed to unhappiness, or worse.  Sure, outside forces inevitably contribute to McCabe’s potential doom in the form of three hit men hired by the mining company McCabe refuses to sell his holdings to (that’s where the traditional Western comes in), but even more so from within, and from just the dreariness and purposelessness of that shitty little town.  As the rain falls the night the hit men come to town, and the snow falls when McCabe becomes desperate, the world is falling apart around the cowardly but assured McCabe and the outwardly-confident but opium-addicted Constance.  Talk about a far-cry from traditional Westerns with a glaring sun, brutal heat, blowing sand, rowdy saloons, and good guys vs. bad guys meeting on Main Street.  And indeed, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is precisely the anti-Western that Robert Altman was going for, but for more reasons than just the weather.  As in many of Altman’s movies, a traditional event-driven plot doesn’t exist here – no proper introductions to the characters, no plot-driven back-and-forth dialogue, no rhyme or reason or logical chain of events chronicling McCabe’s transition from successful saloon (and town) owner to wanted man.  All Altman is interested in is establishing mood, and above all, place.  Presbyterian Church is a wet, dank, gloomy place, both the origin and product of McCabe and Constance’s demons, and the star of the show – the people are just living in it.  Forget trying to get a read on the other characters, from the intimidating bear of a hit man to the sleazy lawyer to the stupid but well-meaning kid who rides into town looking for the best whores in the West, that’d be impossible…and forget trying to read McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Constance has her demons, a forlorn opium addict hiding behind the image of an assured businesswoman who can get away with pushing around her wet noodle of a partner McCabe, and McCabe is a nervous coward hiding behind nice clothes and a might-be true legend of killing a man at the poker table a while back.  Everything’s about false facades concealing characters’ true selves – true selves that we can’t get to or begin to comprehend.  In almost any other movie that’d mean nothing more than shallow, one-dimensional characters, but in this movie, and in the town of Presbyterian Church, it’s a perfect fit.

From the very first scene, where McCabe arrives in town and organizes a card game in the run-down but busy inn, what we see is vintage Altman.  In so many of his films, including this film’s predecessor “MASH,” Altman the filmmaker is intent on capturing everything that shouldn’t be seen in a typical movie.  As McCabe makes his way towards the table, we’re bombarded with barely-distinguishable dialogue from all sides – nonchalant conversations amongst all the degenerates in that room that have nothing to do with the “main” character and “main” plot, but just add to place.  They’re periphery conversations from characters that are periphery to the forefront, but in an Altman movie the periphery is the forefront.  Real life doesn’t come to a halt so that two important people can face each other and have a flawless, distinct, uninterrupted conversation.  People interrupt each other and have conversations on the side about dinner last night or that whore someone screwed or a hand they were cheated out of.  An almost obsessive concentration on those peripheral characters and the seemingly trivial conversations they hold has been Altman’s shtick from movie to movie .  A lot of the time (even in “McCabe”) it’s irritating and a sound editor’s nightmare, but if anything it’s the stuff that verisimilitude is made of – the stuff that gives this dank place and its inhabitants life and realism.  Many places in many films, from the futuristic Los Angeles of “Blade Runner” to the border town of “Touch of Evil” to the Venice of “Don’t Look Now” establish mood to the point of becoming characters in and of themselves, but Presbyterian Church, with its frozen pond, snow-covered drifts, run-down shanties, and shady characters, towers above them all.  In no Western I’ve seen before this, not even the alleged king of all anti-Westerns “Unforgiven,” have I been so convinced that what I was seeing wasn’t some fantasy land inhabited by heroic and villainous archetypes, but a real place with real people, whose actions have real consequences.

If you asked me right now for the name of any character in this movie besides McCabe or Mrs. Miller, I couldn’t do it.  In a way that’s a shame, but in another way, isn’t that usually the case day-to-day, when the easiest way to identify a person isn’t by name, but by face and behavior?  That’s the vibe that Altman nails in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”: impenetrable but real characters.  It’s a slippery slope to attempt, one that Altman himself hasn’t been as successful traversing in other films, but here the benefits outweigh the detriments.  But side-characters ain’t the only ones who’re hard to read.  McCabe and Constance themselves, depending on your point of view, are either incredibly complex or incredibly one-dimensional.  Either way, they’re tough to get a read on.  McCabe’s mostly that mumbling, awkward buffoon trying to pass himself off as an authority figure, and Constance is mostly the no-nonsense business woman who gives McCabe one hell of a pitch to partner up in the whoring industry and looks after her girls like they’re family.  These are stock character types, rather shallow, but then there’s these little behavioral abnormalities in these two most interesting characters, little things that are never explained but make you raise an eyebrow.  Like, for instance, how McCabe stares as Constance takes a customer upstairs while he’s discussing business.  Has he fallen for her?  If so, why does he so readily pay her for her services (yes, they have sex, a fact that’s never directly alluded to but just assumed, like so many other things in the film)?  And what’s with that goofy, opium-induced grin that Constance gives McCabe from under the covers?  Everything about these two people is about facade and trying to work together as business partners, and the little quirks that’re never explained, but only seen in passing.  Sometimes, the less that’s clear about a character, the more interesting they are.  Warren Beatty is magnificent as McCabe, one moment cynical and shrewd as a leading citizen of Presbyterian Church, the next drunkenly bold as a businessman, the next a stuttering wreck when trying to strike up a conversation with Constance or trying to negotiate with the incredibly amused hit men.  Julie Christie is less successful as Constance Miller, her Cockney accent more grating than anything, but some wonderful moments of quiet introspection (many of those while under the influence of opium) make up for it.  They couldn’t possibly be more mismatched as potential lovers, or even partners for that matter – Constance diligently business-oriented and McCabe unable to add and subtract numbers in his head – but through events that are both their doing and uncontrollable, they’re entwined by fate, even if that fate is to be separated by both distance and mindset once the credits roll.

The best, and most heartbreaking, scene in the entire film is one that doesn’t even involve the two people in the title.  That goofy and dim, but nice, kid who came to town for the whores comes face-to-face with one of the cocky, cruel, trigger-happy hit men on a shoddy bridge on the way to the store to buy, of all things, a pair of socks.  On that cold, dreary day like so many others in this town, on a rickety bridge above a frozen pond, this suspenseful and ultimately tragic encounter between the ignorant and the evil, is a summation of the entire film around it: how through no fault of their own, bad things can just happen to…well, not good people, but just people minding their own business.  Those bad things, like in more traditional westerns, are as sudden as a shot from a gun, but this movie in particular focuses on the sense of dread before the plunge.  The rain and snow-covered town (photographed magnificently by Vilmos Zsigmond – rarely has a near-barren wasteland and stifling dreariness looked so beautiful), the lamentful songs by Leonard Cohen that act as the only music in the film, the cold silence from the townspeople when the kid meets the gunslinger on the bridge, the so-called “showdown” between McCabe and the hit men that spans the entire town in a fascinating twist on the High Noon-esque climactic shootout -everything about the atmosphere of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is about impending dread and stifling unhappiness, and all that dread is compacted into an awkward meeting on that bridge.  In a movie where the characters and their motivations are as complex as they are unreadable, where the result of McCabe’s foolish gamble is both incredibly surprising and practically pre-ordained, it makes sense that that image of McCabe in the final moments is as indistinguishable as it is.  On a good day, the hopes and dreams of John McCabe and Constance Miller are just put on the back burner by an air of dread.  On a bad day, that dread manifests itself.  A wickedly cynical outlook, sure, but hey, that’s just another one of Robert Altman’s trademarks.  Only in Presbyterian Church.

9/10

Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)

 Real people don’t talk like that!  Real women don’t jam jagged shards of glass into their uglies to get back at a cold bastard of a husband!  Real houses, no matter how decadent, aren’t that fucking red!    

Man, you’ve gotta love these miserable, godless fantasy worlds that Ingmar Bergman created in his movies.  They’re the most gorgeous fantasy worlds you’ll ever see photographed, thanks to always-magnificent art direction and set design and the magic of his cinematographer Sven Nykvist, but there’s a hell of a contrast between the gorgeous look of those worlds and the miserable wretches who inhabit them – miserable wretches who have way too much time on their hands to muse on things that’re way beyond them and pray to a god that either won’t listen or doesn’t exist.  Sometimes this air of persistent misery, this hopeless reliance on a higher power, is brilliant – “Fanny and Alexander,” “The Virgin Spring,” “The Seventh Seal,” to name a few.  But here, though, in “Cries and Whispers?”  My god, a story as simple as a dying woman being cared for by her loyal servant and her two far from perfect sisters is grabbed up by Bergman and thrown into the blender of dense, quasi-philosophical, stifling randomness.  Brilliance is peeking through here and there, but surrounding it was Bergman overdrive – the man just went over the top with his signature look and signature dialogue – everything that’s maddening about his style, from where I see things.

Oddly enough, the parts of “Cries and Whispers” I liked most were the most miserable, and awkward, and truly painful to watch.  Those involve Agnes (Harriet Andersson, in a role as pronounced and agonizing as her role in Bergman’s brilliant “Through a Glass Darkly”) as she slowly succumbs to her painful illness.  Her physical agony, and the emotional agony that brings upon her loving servant Anna and her two sisters, are devastating and difficult to watch.  Bergman goes out of his way to focus on the stuff you wouldn’t want to see – every wince of pain from Agnes, every forced swallow of saliva, every agonizing gasp for air, every gag as her sisters hold the bowl to her face anticipating vomit, every sponge bath.  Forget all the overly-lofty dialogue about human nature or stylish facial close-ups, this is the perfect depiction of the cruel, depressing world that Bergman saw around him.  The decadence of Alma’s lavish home serves as a cruel contradiction to the decay of her body and the decay of her sisters’ morality, the dark red walls (the same red as the transitional markers when flashbacks fade in and out) absolutely stifling.  The decline of Alma and its effect on those around her is probably one of the most painful things I’ve watched in any film, mainly for its stark, unabashed realism, and it’s impossible not to feel for this poor woman.

Did I mention stark, unabashed realism?  ‘Cuz that’s thrown out of the window as soon as any given character starts speaking Bergman-ese.  The kicker is when Alma’s two sisters, the flirtatious Maria and the cold Karin, finally confront each other and their own demons after being brought together by Alma’s illness…and it dissolves into that typical Bergman-speak that belongs more in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater than in a film from the 1970s.  “I know of what you’re made – with your empty caresses and your false laughter. Can you conceive how anyone can live with so much hate as has been my burden? There’s no relief, no charity, no help! There is nothing. Do you understand? Nothing can escape me for I see all!”  I said it at the open, I’ll say it again – REAL PEOPLE DON’T FUCKING TALK LIKE THIS!   I’m not sure you can attach the word “flowery” to dialogue that’s so depressing and hopeless, but the dialogue in this movie is as flowery and fancy as any depressing dialogue you’ll ever hear, and it drove me nuts 😆 .  It took me out of any emotional involvement I had in these two imperfect women, the innocent servant who loves Alma but who’s treated like crap by Alma’s family, and the situation as a whole.  It was too grandiose, too verbose, too lofty, and I couldn’t bring myself to believe that two women caring for their dying sister could drop everything and start talking like fucking Aristotle or…Yoda  .  And the set design, and use of colors?  Sure it’s pretty, but it also grabbed a lot of attention.  The Ekdahl house and Isak Jacobi’s antique store in “Fanny and Alexander” were similarly colorful and filled with knick-knacks, but those perfectly complemented the situations at hand and were indicative of what that movie’s characters were feeling – the finest art design that a movie could have to offer.  “Cries and Whispers”‘s decadent house, with red walls and red drapes and red…everything, just distracted.  Did it assist in making things awfully stifling and Alma’s deteriorating condition all the more uncomfortable to watch?  Sure, but there’s a fine line between sets that genuinely contribute to an air of foreboding and eye candy, and this movie’s sets tiptoe that line dangerously.  The blank red screen marking the fade-out transitions between scenes was obnoxious, and after a while those red walls and exaggeratedly pretty interiors get exhausting.  Nykvist’s cinematography is stunning, as always, so that’s a real saving grace.  “Cries and Whispers” is undoubtedly a beautiful movie to look at with decidedly un-beautiful subject matter, but overkill’s overkill.

Don’t take this as if I didn’t like “Cries and Whispers”, ‘cuz I did like it.  A sub-par Bergman movie is the equivalent of a really good movie by almost any other filmmaker.  Actually, ‘like’ might be the wrong word, because of all the Bergman films I’ve seen, this might be the most unpleasant, and devastating.  Alma’s physical deterioration is difficult to watch, as is the emotional deterioration between her sisters.  Even the loving relationship between Alma and her innocent, unconditionally loyal servant Anna, while acting as a ray of hope amongst all the despair, gets kinda awkward (Anna offering her naked breast for Alma to lean on…  ).  And yes, even a surreal Bergman can be an effective Bergman, especially in a late dream sequence (or a collective hallucination between the three women?  or real?) where a dead Alma has one final say…it’s creepy, and you feel as much dread as Karin and Maria on that dark and moody night.  It all adds up to a devastating portrait of an estranged, alienated family that must be seen to be appreciated…until all the fade-ins, fade-outs, too-philosophical Bergman-isms, and Liv Ullmann looking into the camera against a black background all comtemplative-like, rear their ugly heads.  Bergman’s a stylist, no doubt about it, and often one of the best, but here, style saturates everything else 😦 .  The collective theme of many of Bergman’s movies is the silence of God in an all-too human world – an ambitious theme to cover – but am I really supposed to believe that people like Maria and Karin are all-too human when they talk like that?

7.5/10

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)

A surreal, virtually plotless series of dreams centered around six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.”

So says IMDB in their woefully lean plot description of Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” but in a way, it’s the perfect description one would need going in.  The movie is pretty much plotless, is a series of dreams, and involves six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.  That’s…pretty much it in a nutshell, and yet that one little sentence fragment doesn’t really begin to describe what this surreal, extremely challenging film is all about.

So yes, it’s about six middle-class people who for some strange reason or another can’t actually get into the dirty business of eating dinner.  On the surface, then, you’d think this movie would complete something of an “unable to do something at a social gathering” duology by Buñuel, to go along with the unable-to-leave-a-party-for-unknown-reasons movie “The Exterminating Angel.”  In that movie, the gimmick of snooty, middle-class party guests being reduced to instinctual animals because of some invisible wall was at the absolute forefront.  Buñuel took his time introducing the inability to leave so that you characters’ actions merely hinted that something was off-kilter, and even when that inability to leave was obvious, Buñuel exaggerated it so much that the movie became wickedly satirical and pretty damn funny: almost a parody of the “trapped in a confined space” B-type movie.  It was a gimmick, no doubt, but a gimmick that Buñuel took to the absolute extreme, and the result was wonderfully funny, almost cruel, satire criticizing the lifestyle of the middle class.

I did not associate “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” with that same gimmick-reliant style and premise that Buñuel used in the earlier “The Exterminating Angel.”  Though both films clearly criticize the middle class and their hypocritically empty lifestyles, I thought “Discreet Charm” was a much more complex and more challenging film, because the gimmick wasn’t as obvious.  In fact, I pretty much disregarded the “gimmick” of being unable to sit down and eat because I didn’t think it was much of a gimmick at all.  Yes, it’s a catalyzing plot device, but the movie doesn’t rely on it, unlike “The Exterminating Angel.”  It’s the increasingly bizarre stuff going on around those potential meals that matters, so that a completely disjointed “narrative” (if it can even be called that…) exposes the empty lifestyle of the middle class.

When I saw Buñuel’s early and famous short film “Un chien andalou,” I was taken aback at how this filmmaker pretty much nailed the essential nature of dreams: just enough of recognizable real-life people and places combined with the absolutely bizarre so that the truly surreal can seem real, and the real seems impossible.  And that’s the approach I took for “Discreet Charm,” because once again Buñuel nailed that essence of dreams and their ever-circuitous nature.  When you dream, you don’t know it, because you see those people and places that you take for granted in the waking world, and therefore your subconscious accepts it as reality when those common sights undergo far from common occurrences.  Quite simply, reality and the subconscious become indistinguishable from each other, and that’s the exact illusion Buñuel accomplishes in “Discreet Charm.”  We find it bizarre when our six main characters find the body of a restaurant’s owner being mourned in the back room, or when Fernando Rey’s ambassador goes all suave, James Bond villain style, on a would-be assassin in his apartment, or when a dinner party is suddenly interrupted by a platoon’s nearby barrage.  All bizarre, but all acceptable, as if what we’re seeing is actually happening.  And why shouldn’t we take it all for truth?  Buñuel, at least at the outset, gives us no reason to think otherwise.  It all makes for completely random events that are funny, but not overly so.  Buñuel leaves it to us to find the subtle humor in all the drug deals gone wrong, the priest disguising himself as a gardener, and shooting a mechanical dog from a long distance (or if not humor, at least extreme irony): such random occurrences, yet also completely void of overall purpose.  Trust me, it’s cynically funny if you see it for yourself.

In fact, you really don’t even consider the dream angle until things get so bizarre that you see characters awaken from dreams when things get out of hand.  Even then, dream and reality become more impossibly indistinguishable.  We see, for instance, our six as guests at a dinner, being given plastic chickens, only to have the curtain go up behind them and an audience getting inpatient for them to deliver their lines.  Our six aren’t horrified at the sudden realization they’re actors on a stage, they’re horrified because, yes, they’ve forgotten their lines.  It’s an interesting breaking of the fourth wall by Buñuel, and it comes off as a cloying and obvious dig at the middle class that Buñuel targeted in so many of his films…until one of the characters wakes up from this nightmare of…drumrole…forgetting one’s place as a semi-prestigious bourgeois, and all is right with the world again.

Or is it?

It’s absolutely fascinating that Buñuel gladly gives you the safety net quite often late in the film of a character waking up, effectively negating the strange, near-impossible situation we’ve just witnessed, and yet we still can’t tell what’s real and what’s in the subconscious.  A priest’s very un-priestly revenge on an old farmer for a long-ago crime might be real (it’s certainly shown to us as realistically and bluntly as possible), or it might be imagined, a fantasy of this man of God.  Or, in an extreme example, consider when the ambassador, his two colleagues, and their wives (all six of our main characters) are arrested on drug charges.  What we see in the scenes afterward involve the six cooling their heels in a cell, denied their right to a lawyer, while in the next room we see a new character tortured in some kind of electrified piano, followed by the man who arrested the six, pale like a ghost and bloody, freeing all of the prisoners.  We even see one of the characters awaken from this nightmare, but we still can’t tell where reality ends and where the subconscious begins (or if they’re even two distinct planes of reality at all).  If it was a dream, why are they still imprisoned post-wakeup?  Weren’t they arrested in the dream, or did I miss something?  Questions like that are never answered, and the movie’s more ambiguous and puzzle-like, and wonderfully challenging and thought-provoking as a result.

Sometimes Buñuel goes overboard with the straight-up surrealism factor, where you’re supposed to know you’re in a dream, and this doesn’t fit.  This involves the description of a traumatic childhood experience and a dream by a soldier who’s only there to inexplicably tell us these things and then disappear.  They involve a Hamlet-like revenge where the ghost of a parent implores the child to murder the other parent, and a reunion with that ghost and others in a bombed-out town.  As far as I knew these had nothing to do with, well, anything.  Clearly Buñuel’s trying to tell us something here, but damned if I know what it is.  The bizarre exploits of our six Bourgeois are thought-provoking enough, why get us even more sidetracked?  It was a nice little piece of moody, surreal filmmaking, but in the end doesn’t fit in the otherwise cynical mixture of surrealism and reality that is the rest of the film.

But, when Buñuel doesn’t get sidetracked from his plotless plot, his storyless story (ironic, no?), what a jigsaw puzzle, what a Rubik’s cube, this movie is!  When things get their most bizarre, involving stuff like that impromptu stage play and that electrocution via piano that we’re pretty sure is dreamed up, we’re reminded of stuff we saw earlier that we took for granted as real, and suddenly we must question reality itself.  Late in the film we see a flurry of gunfire, and we’re reminded of earlier scenes where Fernando Rey pulls a gun on a man who insulted him, or holds his would-be assassin at gunpoint, or shoots a cute little dog toy sniper-style.  The earlier in the film you go, the more realistic and seemingly benign these events become (although the entire film has that cynically detached, blunt style that you could only associate with Buñuel), but you begin to question where to draw the line of what Fernando Rey is actually capable of and what he and the others’ subconscious only imagines him capable of.  Sometimes it gets too labyrinthine in the combination of the utterly bizarre and the completely benign (or boring, really), so that we don’t know whether we want these uniformly dull characters to live or die.  I suppose they’re supposed to be dull to accentuate the futility of their lifestyle, but does that necessarily make for good watchin’?  Maybe, maybe not, but what is interesting is how Buñuel lets actions speak louder than words, whether they’re real or imagined, and how our perception can paint an occurrence as either “normal” or “surreal.”  Either way, those blank slate occurrences involving our characters give a hell of an indictment of the middle class…I think 😆 .

I suppose the characters’ inability to sit down to a meal could mean a number of things.  Perhaps eating is the one activity that any person in any social class can do expertly, and God forbid the snooty bourgeoisie dare to leave the safe confines of their social class, right?  That’s what Buñuel was going for in “The Exterminating Angel” when the partygoers were unable to leave their haven of mild decadence (and frankly in that movie compared to “Discreet Charm,” the characters were a little more compelling and charicature-ish, and the satire a little more biting, but that’s picking hairs 😛 ).  Or, perhaps the constant distraction from eating is itself a criticism of the banal distractions of the middle-class culture that to the outside observer can seem bizarre.  Either way, Buñuel’s saying something bad about the mid-to-upper class here, but frankly I didn’t really care.  I was more into psychoanalyzing these people who frankly are probably too vapid to be psychoanalyzed anyway, so that that task is pretty much impossible.  In that same vein, “Discreet Charm” is an impossible puzzle to solve, but boy will you have fun trying and failing to solve the banal intricacies of these peoples’ lives.  Forget about the recurring image/situation of being unable to eat for a minute, and consider the films’ recurring image involving our six and an open road.  Damned if I can figure out what it means.  Are they walking towards absolutely no destination, just like their everyday lives ultimately lead to nowhere?  Are they futilely trying to escape that lifestyle, just as other supposed dream sequences show their deepest desires and flaws as an ironic juxtaposition to their outwardly genteel demeanor?  Either way, it’s an interesting little image sticking out of the rest of this sub-two hour supposed mélange of the real and the imagined.  Even more interesting, though, is how this is one of the few outright bizarre images in the film that isn’t followed up by the obligatory character-waking-up moment.  Chew on that one.

8.5/10

Remake Double-Feature: The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960) and Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

When considering films and their remakes, Ingmar Bergman and Wes Craven aren’t exactly two filmmakers you’d expect to tackle the same material.  Then again, you wouldn’t exactly expect Bergman, that master of the slow, introspective, and God-fearing-oriented film, to take on the story of a brutal rape and murder and a parent’s subsequent bloody revenge to begin with (and you wouldn’t expect horror / splatterfest master Wes Craven to have taken on the tacky, heartwarming Meryl Streep vehicle “Music of the Heart” either, but that’s another story entirely 😛 ).  But take it on is exactly what Bergman does in “The Virgin Spring,” and of course such a dark story (based on a 13th century Swedish ballad) will clash with Bergman’s iconic slow, deliberate style of storytelling here and there.   However, I was quite surprised (and nearly shocked) at how masterful a film it ended up being: at times slow, at times contemplative, at times truly and deeply disturbing, but always enthralling.

The concept of a perfect, spoiled, virginal young girl being raped and murdered by a couple of degenerates, and then the tables being turned on the degenerates by the girl’s parents, is a tricky one.  It’s a concept you’d expect in a thriller or an exploitative horror film, and indeed Wes Craven would do just that in “Last House on the Left,” which storywise is essentially a direct remake of “The Virgin Spring.”  Twelve years before Craven’s film, however, Ingmar Bergman had a hell of a task on his hands.  How to make such a heavy plot, rife with disturbing scenes and concepts, something more than exploitation, or some throwaway thriller?  Turns out, the solution was to not change a single thing about his signature filmmaking style: no bells and whistles that try to make the scenes of violence more disturbing than they already are, and for that matter, making the violence itself short and intermittent.  The key to “The Virgin Spring” is not these two acts of violence themselves, but rather the perpetrators’ reactions to the acts they’ve just committed, as well as the reasons why any given person could commit such atrocities.

It’s for that reason that it was so important for Bergman (and his writer Ulla Isaksson) to establish this family as a “normal” one in 14th century Sweden.  The film’s beginning section is quiet and rather uneventful (to the point, in fact, that I got a little bored), as we’re introduced to this family and all their seemingly mundane foibles.  There’s the god-fearing father Töre (Max von Sydow), his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), Torë’s pagan and pregnant daughter Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), and of course, the spoiled, virginal daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), whom both parents dote on to no end and Ingeri is wildly jealous of.  We see this family pray, eat, do chores, and prepare Karin to deliver candles to the church.  This certainly doesn’t make for an “exciting” filmwatching experience, but it’s vitally important for Bergman to establish these characters the way he does: as a typical family of “good” people trying to get by in the middle of nowhere.  We can identify with them, and that in turn makes Torë’s later act of revenge so disturbing.  The act itself is just a plot element.  The real question Bergman is asking is why.  Why would such a good man, who we’ve been introduced to and know is a good man, go over the edge as he does, and perhaps most importantly, is he justified in doing so?

As important as Torë’s presentation is, young Karin’s is just as important.  Bergman makes this girl the innocent victim to end all innocent victims (especially when considering the outwardly slimy degenerates that are her attackers): blond hair, pale skin, a lovely smile, insisting on wearing the beautiful (and attention-grabbing) yellow dress hand-made by her mother during her trek through the woods, and way too trusting of those strange men with rancid clothes, hair, and teeth who she meets in the woods.  Oh, and that part about her being a virgin doesn’t hurt that status as pure, innocent victim either.  Quite simply, she’s just begging for her terrible fate at the hands of the goat herders.  Is it the easy way out for Bergman to portray young Karin as simplistically as he does, wearing a target on her back that says “I’m the very picture of virginal innocence, please defile me”?  Yeah, probably, but I must admit that such a simple technique works in making Karin’s fate that much more disturbing. 

Karin is a fish out of water as she sits and eats with these two dirty men and their younger brother – you simply know that no good will come of this, and indeed soon enough this living doll will lose her innocence, her virginity, and her life.  The scene of this act of violence is quick (but not too quick) and explicit (but not too explicit), neither glorifying nor overtly condemning the goat herders’ actions.  I was surprised, actually, at how bluntly Bergman portrayed the rape and murder, especially given the previously-established stereotypical innocence of Karin and dirty guilt of the goat herders.  Karin and the goat herders may have been introduced as simple archetypes at opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but they end up coming together in a scene that is so shocking because it is what it is: an act of violence, with no added shock inducers like music or quick cuts by Bergman: just the dirty deed, straight-up.  When such an archetypal symbol like Karin is brought into an all-too real moment of demise, the result is a hell of a lot more disturbing than an onslaught of blood and guts in a typical slasher movie.

Bergman’s direction is clearly the reason why any problems with characterization are more than made up for in a scene as iconic as it is disturbing.  But I think the key to why “The Virgin Spring” is just so damn good boils down to what I’d like to think of as a Swedish triumverate: director Bergman, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and lead actor Max von Sydow.  This was the first collaboration of a long and fruitful partnership between Bergman and Nykvist, and the way direction and cinematography come together in this film, you’d think the two were working together for years beforehand.  Consider, for instance, Nykvist’s framing of Karin and Ingeri as they leave the safety of their farm on horseback.  Karin rides ahead of Ingeri, trees blocking our view of the girls, who themselves are framed in front of a wide lake at sunrise.  There’s just a bit more light on Karin, but both girls are small in the background and enveloped in shadow.  It’s a magnificent shot, and it accentuates both Karin’s innocence and the girls’ vulnerability against the cruel indifference of nature.  Later, following the murder, the goat herders unwittingly find shelter in the home of the parents of the girl that they have murdered.  As family and guests eat at the table (beginning with a wide shot suggesting the Last Supper, by the way), all focus is on the young boy.  Shocked and confused by what his brothers did to that girl, we see what he sees, as Nykvist’s camera cycles through the face of each person at the table in low-angle shots.  We see what the boy sees, and in turn we feel the guilt that he feels, as this wall of faces, made to simply appear suspicious through subjective point-of-view, closes in on us.  All of a sudden, we are in the place of the guilty party, and despite witnessing these grimy men of the wilderness commit such an unspeakable crime, we suddenly identify with, and even sympathize, with them.

It takes a hell of a lot of directorial talent (and a lot of courage) to make an audience sympathize with characters that only minutes prior committed the worst atrocity one person could commit upon another, but Bergman pulls it off.  Not bad for characters who were introduced as literally slobbering upon seeing the virginal Karin, and one of them even missing a tongue and having to communicate in a disturbing kind of gibberish.  And never is this sympathy more obvious than during Töre and Märeta’s vengeance upon learning of their beloved daughter’s fate.  I said before that Max von Sydow is the third reason why the film is as great as it is, and look no further than the agonizingly long “revenge scene” to see how director, cinematographer, and actor can collaborate to create something truly special.  As the goat herders sleep, Torë ever-so-slowly goes through their bags to determine the truth, and even more slowly prepares his blade to commit vengeance.  The set-up is interminably long, and you know what?  It was damned suspenseful!  Max von Sydow is incredible here, with his baritone voice and angular face barely suppressing absolute rage, but quite clearly seething as he prepares himself to commit an act he (and we) would never have suspected him capable of.  We watch endlessly as he goes through the men’s possessions, standing over them like a judge would stand over guilty defendants.  If you think it’s an agonizingly long process for Torë, just try putting yourself in the shoes of the unsuspecting men at his feet.  We want justice to be done against these men, but at the same time we don’t want Töre to become such a symbol of violence himself.  I’ve never seen von Sydow do finer work than as this grieving father torn between religious duty and a personal need for vengeance, and Bergman’s ability to drag out this agonizing decision makes the simple act of watching a movie scene as agonizing as the decision that Töre must make.

Anybody even remotely familiar with Bergman and his work will know that the man’s obsession in life was the silence of God and the place of religion and God in our world.  It’s a concept that he’s included in just about all of his films, and it’s actually my big gripe with “The Virgin Spring.”  Granted, 14th century Sweden was a place of religious upheaval as Paganism was fazing out in favor of Christianity, and this is certainly an important element of Torë’s character arc, but Bergman’s over-emphasis on the religious angle was just too much.  This family’s character types and religious views were established early on, so why not let actions dictate this idea of religious guilt and let the audience figure that out, rather than having monologue after monologue explaining this guilt?  We see the jealous Ingeri place a pagan curse on Karin immediately prior to her death, so why have Ingeri later go on an absolute religious breakdown to her father and suddenly find God?  We know Torë struggles to be a devout Christian from the moment we meet him, and that’s precisely why the long lead-up to his act of vengeance is so agonizing: no Christian should seek such a violent revenge as Torë seeks, and yet the terrible fate of his daughter calls for action.  This dilemma is inherent in the story, and yet we get monologue after monologue as Torë speaks to God, all leading up to a final “miracle” in the closing moments of the film that’s absolutely ludicrous.  I mean, not even Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” hit you over the head with the religious undertones (or should I say overtones) as much as “The Virgin Spring” did, and that movie dealt with a Crusader playing chess with the Grim Reaper!  That little complaint aside, though, what we get out of “The Virgin Spring” is a remarkable achievement, as Bergman’s iconic slow and reflective style combines almost perfectly with such a dark premise, and we get a tragedy, a thriller, and an fascinating ideological think-piece, all rolled into one.  Despite its flaws (namely the simplistic Pagan vs. Christian, innocence vs. guilt contrasts), this is unexpectedly one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen come from Mr. Bergman.

Now, if the main point of a story like this is the reasons for and results of the violent acts themselves, don’t tell that to Wes Craven 😛 .  “Last House on the Left” has nearly the exact same premise as “The Virgin Spring” transposed into then-modern day New York, as two girls looking to score some weed on the way to a rock concert have a fatal run-in with psychotic runaway convicts.  The movie’s commonly seen as an iconic piece of shock horror filmmaking, and the proof is in the pudding.  Long before “Saw,” the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes,” and the rest of today’s torture porn trying to pass itself off as horror, “Last House on the Left,” Craven’s directorial debut, looks to shock you into submission with pretty much an endless stream of violence, blood, and sadism directed against these two girls (and later against their attackers).  In “The Virgin Spring,” the lead-up to acts of violence was drawn out endlessly, making for an incredible use of suspense.  Now, “Last House on the Left” draws out the violence itself endlessly.  Clearly, Craven’s film is supposed to disgust and shock rather than leave one in suspense, and for that reason “Last House on the Left” is the far more exhausting film to watch (and one I’d never like to watch again).  But, in a way, Craven’s way of using violence to affect the audience works, too.  Now let’s be straight here: “Last House on the Left” as a film is not even a patch on “The Virgin Spring’s” fanny.  But it’s also not quite the absolute disaster and piece of trash I thought it would be, either.

I think one reason “Last House on the Left” is effective is because Craven, whether intentionally or not, made it feel “real.”  The shitty, haphazard camerawork and the production value seem cheaper than the meatball sub I buy at Subway every week while I’m at work.  The phrase “documentary-like” is incredibly cliché by now, but I really don’t know how else to describe this movie, other than maybe “shitty for a reason.”  We get right in there as Krug and his fellow degenerates breathe down these poor girls’ necks, as the quick cuts and tight shots show every stabbing and gunshot and blood stain and naked body in all their non-glory.  Craven absolutely goes for broke in bombarding you with sickening images.  Is it exhausting and nausea-inducing?  Sure it is…but unlike the absolutely vile “Saw” and other pieces of torture porn, Craven here doesn’t glorify the violence.  It’s actually meant to disgust, not titillate.  Because there’s such a heavy emphasis on the violence, there’s almost no “suspense” to speak of, just outright horrific images.  For that reason “Last House on the Left” probably set the precedent for today’s sorry excuses of overblown blood and guts that are supposed to be “horror”, but hell, “Last House on the Left” is an onslaught of sordid images and acts steeped in the real, so for that reason it’s “scary.”

I say it’s steeped in the real, but that’s not to say that “Last House on the Left” doesn’t tread the fine line between “realism” and utterly cheesy absurdity, all because Wes Craven happens to use a cheap camera.  You look at the two girls and their stilted dialogue about budding breasts and going to see Bloodlust ( 😆 ) live in concert, or the two inept cops who’s zany antics belong in another movie entirely, or Mari’s parents and their status as stock un-hip movie mom and dad (at least until they catch wind of who their houseguests are 😛 ), and you have a hell of a lot of eye-rollingly cheesy story elements.  Not to mention much of it is incredibly dated, from the hippie music to the culture in general (would the news talk about a criminal convicted of “Peeping Tom-ism” today? 😆 ).  You really have to wonder, for example, whether Craven used that music in both scenes of tranquility and scenes of terror as a clever irony or just in incredibly poor taste.  “Realistically cheap” camera be damned, this is a movie that’s wildly uneven with some ill-advised side-plots (namely the two cops who wouldn’t be able to tie their shoes without supervision) and some horrifically bad acting from the characters we’re supposed to care about.  It all leads to some wild inconsistencies.  If you ask me, the parents get over their daughter’s death pretty damn quickly before they delve right into setting booby traps for their guests a la Kevin McCallister for the Wet Bandits in “Home Alone” 😛 .  All this combined with the onslaught of violence would make for an absolutely dreadful and outright offensive film, if not for the one redeeming quality that makes this movie very interesting: the group of psychopaths.

If the dialogue and delivery of the protagonists are stilted, then by comparison that of the four psychos might as well be the final frontier of realism.  There’s a scene early on where we find our group of whackos hanging out in a grungy apartment: Krug, the collected yet scraggly leader of the pack and fellow prison escapee, the well-dressed but soothingly terrifying Weasel are in one room, while Krug’s drug-addicted son Junior does frog impressions for Krug’s woman Sadie in the bathroom.  As these four hang out, have sex, chit-chat about this and that, take a sick amusement out of torturing the two girls, do their thing to twangy music not unlike the sound of the goat herder’s mouth harp in “The Virgin Spring,” and try and fail to act sophisticated for their hosts (the victim’s parents), you see a very strange kind of realism in these characters.  As I was watching, I thought to myself, “my god, I’m watching a John Cassavetes movie!”  You can tell that these psychopaths have known each other for a long time, and the things they say to each other and the common enjoyment (and subsequent ever-so-slight hints of guilt) that they share while torturing their victims are so random and bizarre (and so in contrast with the stilted performances by the other actors) that they achieve a kind of über-realism.  I can’t say that you sympathize with this movie’s killers like you do with the killers in “The Virgin Spring.”  The crime committed in Bergman’s film felt like a truly desperate and unexpected act by men who really didn’t know they had it in them to do it, so for that reason their perceived semi-guilt afterwards seems more genuine.  In “Last House on the Left,” the crime itself, and the perpetrators’ glee from it, is given so much attention that we can’t possibly sympathize with these psychos as we do those Swedish goat herders.  Well, at least the criminals in “Last House on the Left” are really interesting to watch, at least compared to the inconsistent robots that are first the girls, then the parents 😕 .   It’s a shame, really, that much of the movie as a whole around these four degenerates is so wildly uneven.  I’m not saying Torë’s revenge in “The Virgin Spring” is earned and justifiable, but for god’s sake, in the case of the parents’ revenge in “Last House on the Left,” you don’t even get the opportunity to consider that possibility.

I’ve said some good and a lot of bad about “Last House on the Left.”  Comparing it to the near-masterpiece that is “The Virgin Spring,” despite plot similarities, is terribly unfair, so putting that aside, is “Last House on the Left” a bad movie?  I say…yes, it’s a bad movie, but certainly one of the more interesting bad movies I’ve seen.  For every scene of police ineptitude meant as comic relief that makes you shake your head and for the absolute bewilderment that you feel as these wholesome parents suddenly become vigilante extraordinaires, there’s also the violence: so terrible to watch but so effective as an exercise in heart-pumping terror, as well as the fascinating characters who commit that violence.  They don’t have anywhere near the depth of the goat herders, and for that matter Craven’s film doesn’t have a shred of the depth of Bergman’s film in general.  But, it works to a degree because it’s meant to repulse, and repulsed I was.  Craven’s film was based on Bergman’s film, and Bergman’s film was based on an ancient ballad.  Either way, the story and concept of man’s instinctual drive towards violent lusts, and the moral justification or lack thereof for vengeance, is as old as humanity itself.  Just as myths and folk tales go through changes in details to reflect the times, two filmmakers, in a time when moral boundaries become less and less distinct, tell the same story, tweaking it to reflect those times.  So, is it merely irony or a telling sign of our increasingly desensitized society that it’s the later, lesser-quality movie that has no simple, moral conclusion all wrapped up for you?

The Virgin Spring: 9/10

Last House on the Left: 6.5/10 

Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)

Well, “French Connection” it ain’t (hell, if “The French Connection” is the ultimate in compelling, realistic police procedural, then “Dirty Harry” is about as real as Indiana Jones), but damned if “Dirty Harry” didn’t at least entertain me.  And I’d say a good, oh…100 % of it was because of Clint 😛 .  Here’s a movie that set just about every precedent and cliché that you and I take for granted in shitty police procedurals made since 1971 (not to mention Kurt Russell as Snake in “Escape from New York” 😉 ).  First you’ve got Andrew Robinson, giggling and babbling and limping along as San Francisco’s Zodi…excuse me, Gemini Killer 😆 , a prototypical “villain” in every sense of the word: not a shred of depth, as maniacal as a mad renegade sniper can get, and really there for no reason other than to be your typical action movie bad guy that the badass hero has to stop at all costs.  You’ve got your usual curmudgeon police chief who’s sole purpose in life is to disagree with the badass hero detective, like so:

Ornery, asshole chief: “Have you been following that man?”
Dirty Harry: “Yeah, I’ve been following him on my own time.  And anybody can tell I didn’t do that to him.”
Ornery, asshole chief: “How?”
Dirty Harry: “‘Cause he looks too damn good, that’s how!”

Now, of course there’s spectacularly cheesy one-liners like that, delivered as only Clint can (yet another precedent set by “Dirty Harry”), but for god’s sake, is the disagreeable police chief not the most overused and clichéd stock character type, like, ever?  And good lord, there’s that weird production value.  I’m not sure if I should call it raw from an innovative and compelling standpoint, or raw from a just plain cheap standpoint.  The occasional quick camera movement as Dirty Harry and a maimed Scorpio become specks in the distance, or the huge “Jesus Saves” neon sign looming over a rooftop gunfight, or the low-angle shot of an immensely imposing Clint, cannon in hand, delivering his iconic line…it’s all like a cheapened “Taxi Driver.”  Or actually, it’s like the gritty hyper-realism of “Taxi Driver” meets the exaggerated, cheap absurdity of “Dawn of the Dead” 😕 .  Gave the movie an interesting spin, at least, so it wasn’t completely generic.

You’d expect an actioner like this with so many clichés to be pure crap, but then again, “Dirty Harry” does pretty much invent all the clichés, so can so many clichés in one place be done…effectively?  I guess so, especially since back in ’71 they were, dare I say, innovative.  And of course the clichés begin and end with Clint’s performance, imitated and downright plagiarized for years and decades to come.  It’s the performance that launched a new era of movie anti-hero, and you really have to consider it an immensely important one for shaping the film industry as we know it…if possibly for all the wrong reasons.  And you know what?  I got a damn kick out of Harry Callahan pretty much from beginning to end.  Clint certainly chewed the scenery in the Leone westerns, but he saved his scene-chewingly best for “Dirty” Harry Callahan: smugly defying superiors, waxing poetic about his beloved .44 Magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world”) as he delivers one of the most famous lines in all of cinema with that über-masculine semi-whisper, stopping a burglary with not a shred of concern for bystanders while calmly chewing his hot dog, and of course taking matters into his own hands to nab the dreaded Scorpio killer.  They’re the traits of just about every single main character cop in movies and TV for the past 30+ years, and most of those performances are terrible.  But screw it, Clint did it first, when it was a fresh, new kind of no-nonsense anti-hero bursting on the action movie scene, so he makes it work.  Is it absurd?  Of course…it’s an absurdly over-the-top performance in an absurdly over-the-top movie.  So maybe I enjoy it to just roll my eyes at how cheesy it is by today’s standards, but it really is just pulpy, action goodness.

There’s not a shred of depth in Dirty Harry (don’t let the subtly-mentioned death of his wife fool you, that’s pretty much filler and nothing more), and certainly nothing even resembling depth in Scorpio, so you don’t have to worry about a deep message about the duality of man.  Hell, the only philosophy the movie does have seems to be “screw the Bill of Rights, vigilante justice is the only way to get things done.”  Okaaaaay…… But anyway, you don’t come into “Dirty Harry” looking for fucking depth, you want to see criminals getting shot, innocents getting shot, and Clint Eastwood being Clint Eastwood before he became all wishy-washy behind the camera.  This movie set some awful precedents for later action/police movies (starting with its own sequels that progressively got panned more and more), but “Dirty” Harry Callahan is eye-roll worthy, over-the-top…and iconic.  Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood must’ve felt lucky after all (I am SO sorry for that terrible and cheesy last sentence, but I had to get the line in somehow 😕 ).

7/10

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

 

There was a shot in the opening scenes of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” that fascinated me, and the direction this hypnotic, surreal little movie took later on confirmed my fascination for this shot.  As the girls of this hoity-toity Australian boarding school circa 1900 awaken and ready themselves for an outing to the beautiful Hanging Rock, we see the lovely Miranda, sitting at her desk, as fellow student Sara greets her.  We see and hear Sara speak to Miranda, but all we see of Miranda is her face…in a small desk mirror.  As far as I remember, we never see Miranda’s face directly in this early scene, only an indirect reflection: in other words, a conception of the girl, rather than the real thing.  And since this is the story of the inexplicable disappearance of Miranda, two other girls, and a teacher at Hanging Rock and the effect that has on everybody else, this would make sense.  The overriding presence of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” isn’t Miranda herself (although she’s featured prominently in the first portion of the film), but the mere idea of her, and her missing companions.  And in turn, that idea will affect people like the aforementioned Sara, the cruel yet oddly sympathetic headmistress Mrs. Appleyard, two young men who were the last people to see the girls, and others in exotic ways you wouldn’t expect for these near-puritanical people in a decidedly non-puritanical setting.  Overall it’s a hypnotic and mysterious, albeit flawed, experience.

You know in the awful “Alien3” how the big climax is nothing but Sigourney Weaver running around some dark hallways with a bunch of identical bald Englishmen?  Well replace dark hallways with beautiful natural rock formation and identical bald Englishmen with identical well-dressed schoolgirls and “Alien3” becomes “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”  So much of the first portion of the film was simply what I just described, as these hoity-toity schoolgirls wearing fancy white outfits that have no business being in such a forest setting explore the increasingly eerie rock.  Shots of various facets of nature from insects to lizards to frogs, as well as the sheer ominous magnitude of the rock itself, are interspersed throughout, not unlike something Terrence Malick or even Werner Herzog would throw at you.  There are moments where the girls, led by Miranda, simply move forward, higher and higher up the rock for seemingly no reason, and in fact they don’t even walk, but glide, like ghosts in their starkly white dresses.  They stand out like a sore thumb in this setting of jagged rocks, trees and bushes, and pure nature, like how the black slab stood out in the monkeys’ rocky haven in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Without emotion, without speaking, they simply move forward, going into that dreaded crevasse, pushed by some unknown purpose and force, simply to…vanish.  All of this certainly heightens the sense of dread and mystery, but I wonder if Weir didn’t go overboard with it.  Certainly the ethereal air about these girls and the eerie aura they give off in an even eerier setting makes for one hell of cinematic experience, and an unnerving one, but it was all so eerie and one-note that I actually got bored after a while.  It was fascinating to look at and take in, sure, but you can only take so much of it non-stop for, what, 40 minutes, before it does indeed become boring.  It definitely unnerved me and disturbed me, which is the point I guess, but still, Peter Weir drove home the point of all-powerful nature having an incalculable effect on these puny, socially deprived humans like there was no tomorrow, and no lie, I wanted to move on.

And move on it did, as the focus transitions to the effect of the girls’ disappearance on those directly and indirectly involved with them.  Some of it is fascinating, some of it mindboggling.  One of the aspects of this portion of the film that fascinated me the most was the bizarre relationship between the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard and the ostracized schoolgirl Sara.  Sara, who’s clearly in love with Miranda but of course can’t express it in such an austere turn-of-the-century setting, is quiet, a loner, and for some reason endures the constant manipulation and subtle cruelty from Mrs. Appleyard.  And the headmistress herself, well, I don’t know what to make of her issues.  What a strange character.  Distraught over the girls’ disappearance, even more distraught over the subsequent tuition withdrawals from worried parents, driven to the drink, always taking out her misery on poor Sara.  In this environment of lovely, sexually concealed young women, here stands this woman who’s about as sexually repressed as Nurse Ratched, and her emotional pokes and prods directed towards Sara take on a subtle and very uncomfortable sexual undertone.  Much like the unusual image of victorian-esque girls wandering through the chaotic wild of Hanging Rock, the sexual tension is throbbing in the school setting as well, desperate to bust out in this repressed mini-society.  Only when these austere, near-robotic girls representing Order are enveloped by the Chaos of nature can the long-repressed free-spirited nature of humanity start to rear its head, and ruin the likes of Mrs. Appleyard.  And Weir depicts this expertly, in scenes nearly as hypnotic as those at Hanging Rock itself, so that the change in Mrs. Appleyard and the girls of her school takes a long time and is very, very subtle, allowed to develop naturally rather than catalyzed by this arbitrary plot development or that.  Hell, the newly-learned fact, as described by the one girl who made it back down the mountain, that the teacher was running towards the girls wearing nothing but her underwear, is practically glossed over and disregarded.  You know, then, that something weird is going on, and it’s subtly disturbing moments like this that add to the movie’s surreal quality.

I liked this element of the story because it involved people examining the deep aspects of their psyches as an indirect result of the disappearance of the girls.  That event happens, and the evolution of characters like Sara and Mrs. Appleyard is allowed to commence.  That simple.  Little mention of the disappearance is made – it only remains faintly in our minds as it indirectly affects where the story goes.  That’s what Michelangelo Antonioni was going for with a similar premise in “L’Avventura”: a young woman disappears on an island, and the lives of her loved ones is indirectly affected until the disappearance becomes irrelevant, as the dull futility of their lives becomes obvious.  I didn’t love “L’Avventura,” but I at least recognized what Antonioni, the master of dreariness, was going for, and there are aspects of “Picnic” that have that same strategy of allowing the catalyzing incident to fade into the background so that the real focus of the film can make itself known.  I liked that aspect of “Picnic,” but not others.  Specifically (and this might be incredibly unfair nitpicking on my part 😕 ), I didn’t like the undue obsession that just about everyone initially had with the vanished girls.  Clearly there would be considerable worry in such a situation, but here, and to this extent, I found myself asking: why?  Why do those two young men who were at Hanging Rock that day obsess over the missing girls the way they do, finding themselves drawn to that crevasse the way the girls themselves were?  Is it because society tells them to worry/obsess over it?  Is it a sense of guilt?  Is it a truly supernatural effect given off by the rock and by nature itself?  I could never tell, and again I suppose that’s the point of it all, but I know when a movie frustrates me, and this frustrated me, so I don’t know what to say 😕 .

This movie is 115 minutes long, and there’s not a moment of that that you wouldn’t call “slowly paced.”  You can certainly read “slowly paced” as hypnotic and surreal, and indeed much of “Picnic” is just that.  There’s a fine line, though, between “slowly paced” from a surreal standpoint and mind-numbingly dull and drawn out, and “Picnic” finds itself situated on each side of that line throughout.  I loved much of the scenes at Hanging Rock for their supernatural / mysterious feel, I loved the scenes of quiet tension back at the school.  What I didn’t love, though, was scene after scene of students, police, witnesses, etc. all looking and talking in depressing monotone: lifeless, unmemorable, and boring (and yet again that’s probably the point, but one I couldn’t bring myself to buy into if I tried).  I think my main problem was just that there were few characters that were actually fleshed out into honest-to-god people you could give a fuck about (hell, that snake of a headmistress came closest, go figure 😕 ).  The lustful-turned-worried pals at Hanging Rock that day did nothing for me, and Miranda and the seemingly-possessed girls practically cease to be human when they ascend the rock.  They’re pure symbols of suppressed femininity against the backdrop of full-on nature, and after they disappear from our vision they remain as symbols all the same, as catalysts for change in the other characters.  But they’re just that: depthless symbols, and nothing more.  Sure, Weir depicts the utter banality of this lifestyle perfectly, using symbolic rather than emotionally deep characters, but just how far can that go as a deep viewing experience?  A bit disappointing, then, that we never get a closer look at the likes of Miranda than a mere mirror image.

7.5/10

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

Oh, what a breath of fresh air this was after “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”!  And that’s really saying something, considering there was barely a moment in “A Woman Under the Influence” where I wasn’t uncomfortable watching this crazy, crazy woman played by Gena Rowlands, and in fact I was pretty much squirming in my seat throughout much of it.  But, it’s a breath of fresh air because I made the very ill-advised decision to make “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” my first John Cassavetes film, and it was simply awful.  All I saw in that movie was Ben Gazarra mumbling his way through situations that I suppose involved sleazy strip club life and murderous gangsters, WAY too much screentime for Mr. Sophistication and his lousy act and just…nonsense.  Nonsense that I’d prefer never to think about again, and nonsense that has no business taking up the bulk of a feature film.

But here, though, is “A Woman Under the Influence,” made two years before “Bookie,” and yes it has a lot of the same elements of that ill-advised movie: the herky-jerky camera that makes it feel like a home movie, the unglamorous, life-like performances, keeping the camera going and stretching seemingly irrelevant scenes for far longer than any other movie would.  That was all a failure in “Bookie,” but a rousing success in “A Woman Under the Influence,” and I think that’s because “Woman” establishes characters early on that we can care about, that we can identify with.  I mean, why would I want to spend about 10 minutes in a 2+ hour movie watching a sleazy strip club act from beginning to end?  That serves no purpose.  Here, though, a constant 10+ minute focus on a mentally unstable wife and her husband at the end of his rope becomes compelling, uncomfortable, and tragic.  I’ve never been so happy to be so uncomfortable watching a movie, because discomfort became a devastating portrait of a disintegrating household with only the slightest hint of redemption, and overall a powerful experience.

Clearly everything in “A Woman Under the Influence” revolves around Gena Rowlands’ Mabel, whether she’s on-screen and off, and that’s exactly what I was focusing on when watching: not necessarily Rowland’s performance itself (which was absolutely wonderful, by the way), but how Mabel affected those around her, especially her husband Nick (Peter Falk).  A word on Rowland first, though, because of course she’s front and center.  Cassavetes introduces Mabel perfectly, in her first scene where she’s manically shoving off the kids for a night with their grandmother, hopping around the yard worrying about this meaningless thing and that.  I would say that something’s very wrong with this woman because of how manic she is over something so trivial as putting her kids in a car, but I’ve seen a certain parent of mine act awfully similar more than once 😛 .  Already, then, the film establishes this character who clearly has issues, but who’s also rooted in reality.  That’s why I care when she causes nothing but anguish for her family and friends, that’s why I feel uncomfortable when she makes strangers and acquaintances around her uncomfortable, and that’s why I feel devastated when she has her inevitable breakdown.

Even before that breakdown, there’s little ticks and little nuances in Rowland’s performance that’ll make you squirm and make you marvel at this performance of a woman on the edge, and god help me if I could actually describe them 😛  There’s that early scene after her husband’s had to cancel their night together and she goes to the bar and drinks up a storm: humming, singing, drumming her hands against the bar, getting a little too close to the guy picking up her tab.  Or the next morning, when she hosts Nick and his construction co-workers: the first thing she asks each and every one of them, naturally: “would you like some spaghetti?”  And when they’re all eating said spaghetti, and just the little ways in which she squirms or looks at everyone that I couldn’t do justice by describing, leading up to her imploring the men to dance and again getting a little too close to one of them.  Nick’s had enough and yells her off, making clear the discomfort that he, his friends, and the audience is feeling.  There’s absolutely nothing normal about Gena Rowlands in this movie, but she doesn’t go over-the-top, Oscar-bait style, either.  She’s crazy, yes, and she’s so eager to please everyone around her and to be what her husband wants her to be, but she’s also convincing and, at least for the first half of the film, stays just enough within the realm of normalcy so that you, like Nick, want to believe that she’s salvageable and can get past this (despite dancing to an imaginary Swan Lake with a horrified neighbor looking on and practically undressing that neighbor’s children so that they can like her).  It’s bizarrely over-the-top, but also with an incredibly unique kind of subtlety that Rowlands seems to have invented on the fly.  This isn’t your typical Holllywood performance of a mentally unstable/deficient person a la Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” or Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump.  There’s not a thing about Rowlands’ performance that’s predictable or, at least at the outset, overly-showy.  It’s a woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown who’s weak barriers keeping her wildest emotions at bay are on the verge of disintigrating.

And that all leads, of course, to the loooong and drawn-out scene of her breakdown, with her distraught husband, mother-in-law, and doctor looking on.  Actually, this centerpiece-like scene didn’t do it for me as much as scenes before, where she’s actually trying to act “normal” and be accepted, before she involuntarily lets all her inhibitions go down the tubes.  In fact, this scene was almost a relief to me, and almost a tension-breaker.  Before this, when Mabel would be just a little too touch-feely or say things just a little off-kilter and inappropriate, I felt as uncomfortable as those who came in contact with her, and I almost felt embarrassed for this woman as if I were there (really says something about the magnitude of this performance).  It was so subtly strange that it was really a brilliant use of tension on Cassavetes’ part, because you know that this woman is a ticking time bomb, but you don’t know when, or if, she’ll go off the deep end, and how much further she’ll go before she does.  Finally, when she does break down, that tension’s released, and you finally know the full extent of how stark-raving mad Mabel can get.  So for that reason, it was a release for my discomfort and a pay-off for Rowlands’ performance.  And what a pay-off it was!  Yes, I was more affected by the more subtly mad Mabel, but even I have to admit how special this 10+ minute scene of her breakdown is (with, as far as I remember, very few camera cuts).  Lest I ruin the utter shock and surprise of the extent of Mabel’s protracted moment of utter madness, I won’t describe exactly what goes on (actually, I couldn’t describe it if I tried 😛 ), but it’s the entire movie’s worth of this woman’s slow descent into complete madness condensed into one long scene.  Responding to her husband and mother-in-law’s pleas to calm down for the sake of the children becomes incomprehensible babble, and that becomes a chicken with its head cut off, basically warding off her mother-in-law with a cross.  Gena Rowlands takes complete center-stage here, non-stop, and it must’ve taken so much energy to pull it off.  It’s insanely over-the-top, but believe it or not, it’s still grounded in the real as it was before, and it shows the complete deep end of where an actor will go to deliver a powerful performance.  She clearly poured her heart out for this performance, and for that reason it’s awkward, unsettling, powerful, and great.

As I said, my chief focus in “A Woman Under the Influence” wasn’t necessarily Mabel, but those around her and how she affects their behavior.  This woman is quite simply a swirling vortex: everything revolves around her, and her descent into the deepest depths of madness sucks everyone in and alters them accordingly.  Mabel’s father, for instance, shows a slight hint or two of having a screw loose at Mabel’s coming home party when he angrily refuses spaghetti.  Her mother fears her and follows her every order as if a child obeying an abusive parent.  Her children, during one of her episodes, worryingly fawn over her and protect her from their angry father as if they were her tiny bodyguards.

And then there’s Peter Falk as Nick.  Boy, this ain’t your parents’ Columbo.  Smooth and likable one minute, flying off the handle and physically abusive the next.  He makes some terrible decisions throughout, like slapping Mabel senseless when she flies off the deep end, pulls the kids out of school to force them to “have fun” at the beach, and feeds his kids beer in the back of a truck.  And yet, I saw him as a sympathetic character.  Why?  Because he didn’t strike me as a naturally abusive person.  He’s a good person and a good father and a loving husband who’s simply been brought to the breaking point by the madness of his wife.  Hell, I’m not sure if I would act so differently than this desperate man in a desperate situation.  Even feeding his kids beer as he sits with them in the back of the truck was horrible parenting, yes, but almost a kind of intimate bonding between father and children, and one of the few quiet moments they’ve had together in the midst of committing a wife and mother.  It’s just one moment that shows a possible madness of his own, and a madness a hell of a lot more subtle and hard to see than Mabel’s.  He feeds his kids beer, abuses his wife in moments of extreme stress, and tells her over and over and over again during her breakdown that he loves her, as if it’s his mantra and he’s trying to convince himself rather than her.  Hell, he even implores the poor woman to be her usual excited, near-manic self when she acts morose at her coming-home party.  Just what the hell does this man want?  I don’t know, and I’m sure he doesn’t know.  He’s been driven to the breaking point just as she has, and for that reason they’re perfect for each other, making the movie’s final seemingly simple image so poignant.

To quote Norman Bates of “Psycho” (and I realize quoting a Hitchcock movie is wildly inappropriate in conjunction with the original independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes 😛 ), “we all go a little mad sometimes.”  And could that be any truer for the Longhetti family?  Mabel is mad, Nick is mad (though it takes a lot of careful observation on the audience’s part to see that), and everyone else is pulled into that vortex.  I identified with this orgy of madness for a number of reasons.  Cassavetes’ simple, home movie-style of shooting and filmmaking gave the movie an air of realism, for one (that’s realism, mind you, not the awful and unwatchable hyper-realism of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”).  Nick’s, and even Mabel’s, madness are steeped in reality and are exacerbated by issues that could annoy any one of us in real life.  Most of all, though, the madness that’s brought out in Nick and others as a result of (or perhaps in conjunction with) Mabel’s shows the capacity for varying degrees of madness in all of us, and how love, hate, and any everyday occurrence in-between really can drive us all a little mad sometimes.  Perhaps as Mabel and Nick finally bring themselves together and find companionship in their madness, it’s that madness that’s the common factor that bring each of us closer together.  So maybe that’s why I so easily sympathized with Mabel from her first scene onward.

9.5/10

The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”
                                 -Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), “Frankenstein”

Clearly ol’ Dr. Frankenstein wanted to discover those secrets of life, in essence play god, and as a result he created a dangerous monster and is clearly portrayed as crazy.  So goes the relatively clear-cut message of the classic 1931 film, that man has no business playing god, but then again, who asked the monster what he thought about it all?  As crazy as the movie makes Henry Frankenstein seem, there are points where the creature, as dangerous as he is, represents the purest of child-like innocence: essentially himself a lonely child whose violence comes from simple confusion.  Consider one of my favorite movie scenes of all-time, the famous one where the monster finds the friendly little girl in the countryside and the two toss lilies into the water.  The monster’s look of sheer joy and enjoyment as he tosses the lilies is incredibly touching in his child-like innocence that he’s finally found a friend, to the point that we can almost forgive him for next drowning the little girl…he was just confused, after all, and took the next logical step once he ran out of lilies.  From my point of view, the monster, even despite the body count he piles up, is one of the main victims in the film: a child not responsible for his own action, created through unnatural means through which he had no say.

Now consider Ana and to a lesser extent her sister Isabel, the two children in the 1940s Spain of “The Spirit of the Beehive” who see “Frankenstein” and that one touching scene between the monster and little Maria, and Ana is enraptured: perhaps by the monster’s child-like humanity, perhaps by little Maria’s kindness where all others have shown the monster nothing but fear and scorn.  For one thing, Ana is just as much an innocent child as the creature, though after seeing that scene and wanting to hunt down the creature wishes to discover the meaning of existence and why life is the way it is, just like Frankenstein himself did.  Ana and Isabel live in a rather large mansion, surrounded by grand landscapes on the countryside, and yet they are stifled by the banality of everyday life, their distant parents, and monotony.  They attempt to escape this monotony through imagination as Frankenstein attempted to transcend through science…I only wish that Victor Erice didn’t make that monotony of these childrens’ lives so apparent for so much of this movie.  He certainly gets the point across that the lives of Ana and Isabel and her parents are empty and need to be expanded, but with the entire movie pointing out that monotony to you like crazy, I wonder just how successful that could be as a film-going experience.

I’d say it’s a pretty big problem when I find a 90 minute movie to feel at least 20-30 minutes too long, which is why my biggest problem with “The Spirit of the Beehive” by far was its pacing.  All throughout, there are scenes and little moments that simply linger too long…the wife simply laying forlorn while we hear her distant husband’s footsteps, for example, seemed to stretch on for eternity.  Sure, of course it gets the point across that this marriage is essentially empty and these two have nothing to do with each other, but for god’s sake, at least 1-2 minutes of seeing and hearing that same exact thing just doesn’t translate to the screen, I’m sorry, especially for someone as dead-tired as I was 😛 .  Scenes with the two sisters were much the same way: playing and exploring in such a quiet and monotonous way that it really gets to the crux of how empty their lives are, to the point that their pretty big house or a grand landscape like in the screenshot I posted doesn’t seem huge, but imprisoning.  Again, I completely understand what Erice is going for in portraying the monotony of such a life and Ana doing anything to break from that, and he succeeds with that, but I can’t bring myself to get drawn into something like that.  My life is monotonous enough, I don’t need to see something just like it in a piece of fiction on-screen 😛 .  It isn’t until Ana meets a certain outlaw at the shack where she believes the Frankenstein monster to live where we finally get the feeling that she’s learning to transcend her existence and actually take an initiative, but sad to say by that point I lost most interest, and this movie’s welcome turn into the surreal and Ana’s inward odyssey was too little, too late.

The comparison I’ve heard a few times in regards to “The Spirit of the Beehive” is to Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” but I don’t buy it.  “Days of Heaven” is a masterpiece because we see relatively commonplace goings-on (if you call love triangles, stabbings and scheming for money commonplace) from the point of view of a child, so that the landscape is appropriately huge and grand and the feeling of distance from the adult characters is appropriate.  I think “The Spirit of the Beehive” is different because I didn’t get the feeling of grandeur placed on every locales and situations from a child’s point of view.  Whether we were seeing scenes from the points of view of the distant parents or the children, everything we were seeing seemed imposing and emotionally empty no matter what.  Because of that, I’d more easily compare this to a movie like “L’Avventura”: another movie portraying the monotony of adult life, and another movie I didn’t like.  Even in that case, I completely understood the intention of making the movie as monotonous as those peoples’ lives to prove a point, and to that effect it was a very well-made film…just not one I could identify with in any way.  “The Spirit of the Beehive” is just like that, except even more uneven I think.  Are we supposed to see things completely from the kids’ point of view, or should we identify at least a little with the parents when we see them drifting through their empty lives, unwilling or unable to comfort one another?  I had no idea, so I thought the narrative (or what little narrative there was with so may stretches of no dialogue and pretty much nothing happening for that matter) was a bit of a mess.  Obviously the theme of the beehive works: Ana, Isabel, and their parents all exist in their own little worlds, their own little cells within the Beehive and therefore can’t understand one another unless they work to understand one another, and the way Erice goes about portraying that works to suggest the monotony of existing in separate cells like that, and for that reason “The Spirit of the Beehive” is indeed well-made.  But for me at least, constant monotony does not a great and absorbing movie make.  Frankenstein’s monster was a pitch-perfect portrayal of child-like innocence transposed to a hideous creature, trying to find friendship and meaning in a world that has rejected him.  Ana, I think, is supposed to be similar in having an innocent worldview and trying to rise above it, but I thought she seemed too world-weary and introspective for her years: a figure too distant in a world I felt was portrayed on film excellently, but I felt just as distant from.

7/10

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), Nosferatu (Werner Herzog, 1979), Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)

So my remake special a couple months back didn’t go so well (watching both Invasion of the Body Snatchers back-to-back)…liked one, hated the other, so naturally I’m doing it again, with a remake and a half…so this edition of remake special is….

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

vs.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)

with a touch of

Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)

I’ve always been of the thought that less is more in horror movies, that your imagination is a hell of a lot scarier than some visual creature the filmmaker can throw at you, making film like Alien so successful…well, leave it to one of the first films, and definitely one of the best, to show me that the opposite can be just as true.  What Murnau’s film presents us with is almost no coherent “plot”, overacting, and really a mess of a general film structure, and yet plot is replaced by mood, and more importantly Max Schreck, to create one of cinema’s most important horror experiences.  Count Orlok as portrayed by Shreck shreds any semblance of an actor performing a role, or even a “character”, and simply becomes an instinctual creature, fully realized and more than fully believable.  His appearance and mannerisms, unnatural rise from the coffin, and even the simple act of emerging from the shadows and creeping through doorways as unnatural as he is make him one of the most terrifying and unforgettable images the cinema could possibly throw at you.  And it’s what Murnau does around Count Orlok that make that character and the film as a whole the moody, expressionistic piece of horror that it is.  There’s a scene where Count Orlok moves in on hutter, only to retreat at the distant cries of Ellen.  It’s a scene that would be brilliant in its execution even today, let alone in 1922, with one of the first instances of this type of cross-cutting that Murnau revolutionized.  This film is pretty much purely visual, moody, and while not necessarily terrifying, the word i’d use is foreboding.  Brilliant.

If Klaus Kinski’s Count isn’t quite as cringe-worthy or eerie as Max Schreck’s, it’s no doubt a result of making this story into a modern film narrative.  Clearly the strength of Herzog’s version over Murnau’s is the ability to tell a story more logically, but in the end that might actually be a weakness.  Both films tell the exact same story, with the exact same things happening, which in Herzog’s version loses some of its aura and that foreboding and mystery…the overacting that was perfectly suited for the original becomes cliched dialogue in the remake.  The Count’s castle isn’t nearly as memorable or eerie as the original (and looks like it was lifted straight out of the bishop’s house in Fanny and Alexander, which with Herzog’s history of cheap productions wouldn’t at all surprise me).  Even the stock-type organ music of the original suited it, especially at the climax, while Popol Vuh’s music here, while perfectly suited for Aguirre and even Fitzcarraldo, felt like a step above elevator music.  Most importantly, Max Schreck fully immersed himself as an otherworldly presence, while much of Klaus Kinski’s performance just feels like him acting like Klaus Kinski in a shitload of makeup, which, granted, was inevitable given both Kinski’s track record and in general the move from silent cinema to a talkie… except for his big send-off at the end, where I felt pity and dare I say empathy for the guy (or creature).  What this remake does have going for it, though, is that typical Herzog touch of giving the unreal a touch of mega-realism, if you follow me…like the documentary feel of Aguirre or the hyper-realistic feel of the otherwise bizarre Stroszek, what I’m think of here is Harker’s bizarre yet realistic dinner with the Count, the wonderfully macabre and bizarre fate of Harker at the end which was absent in the original, and the town post-plague, with that sense of both death and joy at the feast in a way only Herzog could portray.  Obviously it’s impossible for this film to live up to or be as revolutionary as the original, but Herzog’s touch makes it just about as great and unique a vampire movie as you can find post-1922.

And what can I say about the quasi making-of movie Shadow of the Vampire?  It’s just not much to run home about (though granted, the two predecessor movies I watched right before it were made by two of the greatest filmmakers who have ever lived).  Very silly, almost to the point where you can’t take it seriously (even though that’s probably the point), a screenplay that’s just not good, and an ending that’s frankly insulting to both the audience and the legacy of F.W. Murnau, but Willem Dafoe is just adorable as Schreck, which makes up for just about all of that.  And it shows just how much of a crock the Oscars have become when this brilliantly frightening, deep, and damn funny performance doesn’t get the win it so definitely deserved.

Nosferatu (1922): 9.5/10
Nosferatu (1979): 8.5/10
Shadow of the Vampire: 7.5/10