Friday, August 31, 2007

No End In Sight (2007)

(Directed by Charles Ferguson, 2007, USA)

"No End in Sight" is an amazing documentary about the aftermath of the Iraq War, from the US involvement post-9/11/2001 to the current Iraqi Occupation. There are various interviews with former Washington 'insiders': generals, government officials and a few marines, giving their views and insights on the occupation. While wisely not focusing on the reasons the Bush Administration went to war, the documentary instead gives an indictment of the failure of this current administration's foreign policies in regards to Iraq and the calamity that followed: poor planning and bad decisions that led to the intensification of conflicts between Shi'ite and Sunnis and the ultimately ruinous decision to disband (not disbar) the Iraqi military.

It is difficult to watch this documentary and not feel anger and disgust at the incompetence and sheer stupidity of the Bush Administration in allowing Iraq to completely disintegrate into its current fragmented state. Yet, there are clips of Donald Rumsfeld saying that he "doesn't do quagmires" and using the dictionary for the definition of that word. How disgusting is that? Reports are compiled by administration experts and parsed into one page summaries that an arrogant president not only does not read, yet speaks at a news conference that the report information is 'not factual'. One of the most chilling episodes is home video footage of government approved private contractors shooting at Iraqi civilians on a road while Elvis sings "Mystery Train", just another hunting day for Haliburton or other corporate warmongers.

This documentary was shown at the Film Forum, the evening I went there were six people in the audience; in an ideal world there should have been more. This documentary shows what went wrong and, without pointing blame, it gives you the answers for who is ultimately responsible: our no-accountability administration.
It deserves to be seen and given as wide a release as Michael Moore's Sicko.

Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

(Directed by Louis Malle, 1974, France)

Lacombe, Lucien is a powerful study of life under the Vichy Occupation of France, during the waning years of the Second World War. Lucien (Pierre Blaise) is a country hick who tries to get involved with the Resistance and, failing that, goes to work with the local collaborators. Being a young, naive farmboy hick, he does not realize the implications of his actions: the first being that he informs on his old teacher, the one who advised him not to join the Resistance.

The Nazi collaboraters are holed up in decadent surroundings in a provincial hotel, wherein (in on of the early scenes) the wife of a police head is reading the daily mail, consisting of notes from informers spying on their neighbors: to make things ever more surreal, there is a letter from a man informing on himself. Lucien becomes a mascot to them and, with the connection of the son of a French nobleman, meets the family of Albert Horn, a Jewish tailor in hiding. He falls in love with Horn's daughter France and there the complications ensue. Lucien is a blank slate, someone so young and stupidly naive, that he has no conscience or judgement on his actions, he just tries to fit in, allowing himself to be used for an ideology that he doesn't bother to comprehend. Completely apolitical, he doesn't bother to register that his actions are noticed by the Resistance movement that rejected him at the beginning of the film. In the course of the film, his actions are devastating to those around him.

This was Malle's first film about the French Occupation, the other being Au Revoir les Enfants. . While the latter film is rather tender (being based on a sad childhood memory of the director), this film is rather tough, rather ominous and open to interpretation. The Criterion release is rather fantastic, cleaned up but without any extras. Thirty years plus later, this is still an important French film, skillfully done and engrossing to watch.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Band of Outsiders (1964)

(Original Title: Bande a Part, Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1964, France)

Band of Outsiders is a happy-go-lucky anomaly among Jean-Luc Godard's early 1960's work, made between Le Mepris (Contempt) and Alphaville. The film is a modified gangster story (based on a crime novel) that never quite seems to take itself seriously and contains numerous inside jokes. Two pals Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) persuade a student in their school Odile (Anna Karina) to help them commit a robbery at Odile's aunt's home. Along the way there are a few jokes about film sound (Karina feeds a tiger one hears before seeing); a "moment of silence" in which the film's soundtrack goes literally silent. A few classic moments as well that were shamelessly quoted in later films: a run through the Louvre and the ever fabulous fun sequence of the trio dancing "the Madison" in a Paris bistro, complete with requisite voice-over by Godard himself, explaining each characters interior life.

As an almost frivolous 'stylistic exercise' (think Raymond Queneau), Band of Outsiders is a study of a film, but is enjoyable to watch as the film invents and seems to re-invent itself. Godard would only be this playful again in the later film Masculin/Feminin, and would begin to pursue the (then) fashionable Marxist societal critique of his later 1960's work. At least, Band of Outsiders, (besides giving Quentin Tarantino's production company a name), is a 'transitional' film in the work of one of cinema's true innovators. And Karina dances very well too.

The Criterion DVD release is quite commendable: while not containing the usual 'commentary', special features contain a 'behind-the-scenes' short feature with Godard (which contains the only known footage of the making of "Band of Outsiders"), and interviews with long-time Godard cameraman Raoul Coutard and Anna Karina, as well as a silent movie parodic sequence lifted from Agnes Varda's "Cleo from 9 to 5" starring Godard, Karina and Frey.
Now, if only Rialto Pictures could restore "Une Femme Mariee" life would be ....

Monday, August 20, 2007

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

(Directed by John Waters, 1971, in lovely Baltimore, USA)

I knew I just couldn't stay away from great trash, so "Multiple Maniacs" was watched again recently, during one of those ever more frequent "there's nothing on TV" nights. As a real cinemaphile, I never saw a John Waters movie until "Polyester" came out with the tacky scratch-n-sniff cards in the early 1980's. I knew right away that Divine was fantastic and I had to see everything Waters did (thanks Steve, I still blame you!). In the words of the late, great Divine: "I've enjoyed every fucking last minute of it!"

This is John Waters' second feature and first talkie with Divine and co. previously there was a short campy film called "The Diane Linklater Story" and the non-sync sound "Mondo Trasho". Divine plays Lady Divine, owning a "Cavalcade of Perversions" overseen by her boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochery) serving as a two-timing ringmaster/emcee. Lochary does a good job trying to entice suburban Baltimore audiences (most of whom play major roles later: Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivien Pierce) and the sideshow tent focuses on perverted (at the time) acts: two homosexuals engaged in a kiss, a heroin addict going cold turkey, a woman sniffing and licking a bicycle seat and a puke eater (no explanation needed there). The sideshow is just an excuse for Lady Divine to rob the audience (even resorting to shooting a recalcitrant audience member if necessary). Mr. David is about to have an affair with Bonnie (Mary Vivien Pierce)a self-described "auto-eroticist" trying to join the Cavalcade, and Divine tries to keep him in line by telling him he's involved with the Manson family murders, (unsolved at the time of filming), while crashing at her daughter Cookie's apartment (Cookie Mueller), she threatens to tell all. A bar owner (played by Edith Massey in her first Waters film) phones Divine to inform her that her David is fooling around and it sets in motion another cavalcade of perversions involving Divine and the other characters.

Among the many highlights: religious imagery in the form of a little boy dressed ceremoniously as the "Infant of Prague" seen after Divine is raped by a junkie couple (a woman and man in a dress), leading her to a church where she has a 'rosary job' performed by a self-described "religious whore" Mink Stole (don't ask) as the Stations of the Cross are recited. The low rent blasphemy continues as a dream sequence occurs of both "Sermon of the Loaves and Fishes" complete with Wonder Bread loaves, tuna fish cans and later a visual recounting of Christ's crucifixion (with Edith Massey as the Virgin Mother!).

Multiple atrocities abound: Mink and Divine get hassled and then murder a harassing cop, Bonnie shoots Cookie (mistaking her for Divine), Divine kills David and eats some of his entrails, and nearly everyone dies save for Divine who becomes: "A Maniac!" after being raped by a large noisy wooden lobster ("Oh No! LOBSTORA!") To the strains of Holst's "Mars", Divine goes on a Godzilla-like rampage: stealing a car, terrorizing a couple parked on a date, all the while she is dressed in a mink coat and lingerie in what looks like winter. She is finally brought down and shot by the National Guard to the strains of Kate Smith warbling "God Bless America".

This early Waters film is a bit of a satiric time capsule on late 1960's/early 1970's mores, and occasionally works. A lot of the movie is cheap: cheaply shot, acted in one take (with flubbed lines included) and shakily edited. It's not as smooth as later mainstream Waters movies (Polyester, Hairspray, etc.) But there are many endearing moments amid the semi-surreal and campy, sacriligeous plot. The ending I took to be indicative of its time and place, with echoes of 1968 Chicago riots and Kent State. Divine's 'acting' is rather raw here, but you can see the seeds of Babs Johnson or Dawn Davenport in embryonic stage.

It's a fun watch and a must for John Waters fans. It gives a basic blueprint for his later sardonic style, but here it's rather raw. All that and a lobster that creaks like the Coney Island Cyclone.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

L'Avventura (1960)

(Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960, Italy)

L'Avventura continues to have a polarizing effect on viewers since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 47 years ago: either you like Antonioni's masterpiece or you don't. On the internet movie database page for this film, the plot keywords give it all: unsolved mystery, very little dialogue (a personal favorite), island, missing person, human relationship (perhaps in the plural?) and realization. All of these generalizations just scream out: art house film.

Yes, socialite Anna (Lea Massari) disappears within the first half hour of the film while visiting an island on a cruise with her upper class friends, among them: her fiance Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best girlfriend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Her disappearance is never explained, it just happens. Sandro and Claudia remain on the island in an attempt to find her, searching false leads in town; eventually Sandro makes a play for her, Claudia is guilty, and after rejecting Sandro, she decides to be in a relationship with Sandro, he is caught 'in flagrante delicto' by Claudia, and she forgives him.

This synopsis is comically inept, deliberately so (like the plot keywords quoted above). This film is a journey as the title implies, the viewer is along for the ride, as narrative disappears like Anna and Antonioni's style becomes increasingly prevalent during the course of the film. Shots of the barren coast of Sicily are impeccably and beautifully presented, long shots become ordinary and L'Avventura settles into a 'longeur', an epic mood of Italian upper-class 'l'ennui and randomness, nearly shot in real time. At times, on re-watching this film, I felt that Antonioni was attempting to recreate some of the surreal landscapes of the painter Giorgio De Chirico, paintings empty of people, devoid of normal life but containing a focus on absence, therefore rendering the places mysterious. The cinematography by Aldo Scavarda was extremely effective in realizing the dreamlike pace of this film, especially during the search for Anna on the barren Sicilian island. The exterior shots are like a volcanic wasteland, one of the most striking sequences earlry on is of Claudia shouting Anna's name in the rain, surrounded by the rain and rocks.

Monica Vitti's Claudia is an emotional anchor for the film: it is implied that her friendship with Anna might be more intimate, and she is the first one to notice that Anna has disappeared. Her anxiety and fear is portrayed subtly, as well as her disgust initially with Sandro's advances. This is a nuanced performance and Vitti gives a credible performance throughout. I wish I could say the same for the actor Gabriele Ferzetti playing Sandro, although he does seem to come into his own during the second half of the film, his style is a bit too low-key.

One aspect I noticed during this viewing of "L'Avventura" was the way that Antonioni's script focused almost pointilistically on relationships: at the very start of the film, Anna and her father have a tense, inconclusive dialogue, Sandro with Anna before the cruise saying that words are unimportant for them, the casual intimacy mentioned before between Claudia and Anna, the rather callous way that Patrizia parades her affection for other men under the nose of her husband. The subsidiary characters have their moments too: as Sandro follows a lead to a small Sicilian town, the owners of a pharmacy bicker about their memories, you get the feeling that they've been doing it for years and it seems is their only means of communication. One implication I felt on viewing this film is that Antonioni is forcing the viewer to watch the minutiae of daily lives: as this is something perhaps he feels we are programmed into taking for granted. When something happens to disrupt the social fabric: say Anna's disappearance (or in literary parallel Gregor Samsa's transformation), Antonioni seems to suggest life goes on, even with major disruptions. It is rather an existential, cynical view, which is why I believe that only Claudia and Sandro alone from the boating party search for Anna, the others want to get on with their cruise. The other characters are sketchy and seem too self-centered to care for Anna to even bother searching for her, nor (as at the beginning of the film) does Anna care for her social circle and makes it clear (at the very start of the film) that she is rather dissatisfied with her life. Anna's disappearance besides providing the central mystery of L'Avventura, (and the catalyst for the action), is one of the great disruptions in cinema, equivalent to the murder of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: with the main exception that Hitchcock never conceals anything from the viewer in Psycho, Antonioni presents his concealments as matter of fact.

In summary, Antonioni provides us with a film that is open-ended, unresolved. Like most of life, L'Avventura is continuously open to debate and interpretation, after its premiere 47 years ago. How many current films invite us to do that?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pigs and Battleships (1961)

(AKA Hogs and Warships) (Buta to Gunkan, Directed by Shohei Imamura, 1961, Japan)

The late, great Shohei Imamura was one of the leading directors in 1960's Japanese cinema. In a ten year period he directed films as
Pigs and Battleships
; The Insect Woman,
Intentions of Murder, The Pornographers: An Introduction to Anthropology, A Man Vanishes and The Profound Desire of the Gods. As a director whose work has mainly stayed outside of the mainstream due to his critical views of modern Japanese society, his films are rarely shown outside of film classes amd retrospectives. With DVD releases in recent years on the Criterion label of The Pornographers and the later serial killer crime film Vengeance is Mine, hopefully this situation will change, and more audiences will discover the earlier, great films of Shohei Imamura.

Pigs and Battleships is a good example of an Imamura film: at once a critical view of post-war Japan and creeping Americanization (the U.S. occupation in Japan post-World War II). Pigs and Battleships focuses on the lower class: Haruko, trying to keep her guy Kinta from getting involved with the local yakuza who deal in black-market pigs. Kinta is drawn into the gang's plans and finally dies in a tense, noirish shootout complete with a stampede of pigs through the local nightclub district. Haruko herself is no heroine, but will prostitute herself for enough money, including getting gang-raped by three American sailors (with whom she unsuccessfully tries to rip off).

The movie is rather comical despite the bleakness, with elements of black humor and low comedy surrounded by port town seediness. In the end, Haruko does escape but-given the film's milieu - she won't get far before trying her old tricks. The film is amazing in showing the corruption surrounding the young couple, and the characterizations are brilliant. Just don't expect a typical Hollywood ending here, in the world of this film, it doesn't work.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cries and Whispers (1972)

(Viskningar och rop, Directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972, Sweden)

Agnes (Harriet Anderson) is dying and her two sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) take turns watching over her as well as a servant Anna (Kari Sylwan), in an upper-class manor in turn of the century Sweden. From this premise, Bergman explores relationships between the three sisters and the aftermath on them following Agnes's death.

"Cries and Whispers" is not an easy film to watch. Many viewers would describe it as a typical Ingmar Bergman film, and they would be correct: Bergman deals his usuak obsessions here: dying, psychoanalysis, a hostility of religion and the total absence of god. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the filmic narrative could become cliche, if it were not so focused and geared in raw, emotional pain. The relationships between the sisters is explored through flashbacks and fades to red that seem more like hypnotic Strindbergian dream sequences, and Bergman conveys much complex detail about them very economically, impressionistically. In the course of the film, the sisters reveal themselves, masks are dropped and the intimacy of the film is excrutiating in plumbing the pain upon confronting death. At the center of the film is an intensely emotional performance by Harriet Anderson as Agnes, at one point screaming in agony "Can't anyone help me?" The repressed Karin and immature Maria obviously cannot, Agnes can only find solace in the comfort of servant Anna, (herself having lost a child) who selflessly tends to her mistress and gives her the warmth that her two sisters cannot.

Karin and Maria are problematic characters: Maria is shown as being manipulative and cruel: at one point the family doctor (Erland Josephson) rejects her attempts to restart their affair. Leading her to a mirror, he deconstructs her face; this is one of the most excrutiating close-ups in a Bergman film. Liv Ullmann smiles as the doctor slowly tells her that her smile is one of cruelty, scorn and hatred of others. She won't drop the smile, nor what the accusation signifies. As an actress, Ullmann carries the scene off completely, but it is rather hard to watch. In another flashback it is revealed that Maria's earlier affair with the same doctor has led her husband to commit suicide in her presence: frightened, she runs away after he asks for her help, after stabbing himself.

Karin is shown trapped in a loveless marriage to a diplomat whom she detests; salvaging a piece of broken wineglass after a routine upper class dinner, she repeatedly mutters scornfully "It's all a pack of lies" and proceeds to self-inflict genital mutilation, smearing her blood gleefully on her face as her husband looks on. The piece of glass is shown on a silver tray, in Karin's bedroom, it is shot with all the solemnity of a ritual: in the film this is an act of violence only equal to Michael Haneke's main character's self-mutilation at the climax of The Piano Teacher. The most disturbing aspect is Karin's face, smeared with blood and laughing in triumph at her act. Many viewers are reminded of this scene, and over thirty years later, it is still disturbing.

Maria approaches Karin in an attempt at reconciliation and, while first rejected, the two sisters open up in an attempt to communicate, after Agnes's death.

This softening between them is erased away later towards the end of the film, when Karin reminds Maria about it and Maria cruelly dismisses it as something that just happened, no more no less.

In an extended dream sequence, Anna imagines Agnes calling for someone to warm her: both sisters reject her, Karin disgustedly refuses and Maria as usual, confronted with the horror of death, runs off screaming. Only Anna remains to hold her dead mistress in a shot reminiscent of a pieta.

At the end, Anna, after the funeral is stoic after the remaining family members try to buy her off. Anna is patronized and offered a keepsake of Agnes's, but she refuses. Only when the black-dressed funeral party has left does Anna open the memento she has kept from Agnes: the diary that Agnes was writing at the beginning of the film. She reads aloud, providing the film with a coda: a diary entry where Agnes wrote of a happy time during her illness when, surrounded by her sisters, she felt most alive and happy. Coincidentally, this is the only time the camera shows all four protagonists outside of the house. It is shown to be a beautiful day. The bell that rang at the beginning of the film now sounds again to signal the film's end.

"Cries and Whispers" can be seen as a filmic narrative that is stripped down to essential elements: death, the fear of death and pain - both psychic and physical and also the lack of communication that makes up much of our daily lives. Bergman gives short shrift to any conventional narrative development within his film, but gives his four main actresses equal time, showing just the essential scenes necessary to highlight his themes. In this respect, the film resembles a string quartet in its hypnotic intimacy, a pointilistic one at that. The late great Sven Nykvist won a much deserved Academy Award for his work on this film, and his camerawork flows effortlessly, in all the red dissolves that accompany the dream sequences and the stark, lifeless late Victorian interior settings. The film was rather received with a polar effect: either you loved it or you hated it. Roger Corman (of all people) was instrumental in having the film open in New York before it showed in Sweden, Pauline Kael wrote one of her caustic reviews about the film.
I hadn't seen "Cries and Whispers" in years, and didn't particularly enjoy it the first go round. Seeing it again, in the Criterion DVD release has changed my mind: it is the work of a major filmmaker at the top of his craft, confronting death and life with equal weight. That the film has been open to so many interpretations, especially on the Internet Movie Database, justifies its existence as a work of art.
I may not want to experience the film again for a while but will be interested to see how it holds up probably given more time, perhaps in another five years.

In Memoriam

Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918 -July 30, 2007)
Michelangelo Antonioni (September 29, 1914 - July 30, 2007)

Cinema High and Low is rather depressed to report that two giants of cinema past have passed on to that great screening room in the skies.

The fact that Bergman and Antonioni died rather within hours of each other on the same day is rather ironic. Both explored the human condition and both took different paths in doing so (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona for Bergman; L'Avventura, L'Eclisse and Identification of a Woman for Antonioni)
These films are quite striking examples of their directors' visions, visual styles, and approaches to cinema.

Cinema High and Low wants to celebrate these twin masters of cinema and will report on revisiting some of their classic films.