Thursday, 25 May 2017

Viridiana (1961)



Viridiana
The editors of the Book just love Bunuel. They seem to find something in his movies that I either miss or fail to appreciate. When his movies are best they are either far out and very tight. “Viridiana” is neither and fall into that general category where I think I see the point, but I fail to appreciate it.

It is obvious there is a point to “Viridiana”. As usual this is a critical, even mocking, movie against the church and those holier than thou. Bunuel really did not like those people and the institution and while I can sort of appreciate that sentiment, even to some extend agree with it, I cannot help thinking that without that criticism there is just very little left in this movie. It is fairly dull, depressing and one dimensional.

The central figure is Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), a novice at a monastery who has devoted her life to the faith. Viridiana is actually a beautiful woman, but she bases her life around tormenting herself. She sleeps on a hard bed and when she travels her luggage mainly consists of religious tools for self-conflagration. One day she is asked, commanded really, to go visit her uncle, a rich, older man who lives on a large, neglected estate. The uncle may first seem like a nice old man, but his motives for seeing Viridiana are… creepy. He lost his wife on their wedding day and as Viridiana looks a lot like her he wants to marry her instead.

Naturally Viridiana is creeped out and it does not help that the old dude drugs her and pretends to have had sex with her while unconscious. Something that would make it impossible for her to go back to her life as a nun. The uncle is so ashamed that he hangs himself and Viridiana is shocked even further. Presumably to make amends she gives up on being a nun and instead takes in all the scum of the neighborhood to care for them at the manor. This is how the son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal) finds them when he shows up to take possession of his inheritance.

There is a reason why these people are scum, though, and they manage to completely violate her trust as they trash and trample anything of value on the manor, defiling it all in the process. This is the final straw for Viridiana, who seems to go catatonic.

The key here is of course that anything Viridiana does, in her effort to follow her religious zeal, backfires and makes her seem guilty. She indulges her uncle in his request and finds that he lusts for her. She refuses him and he hangs himself. She sacrifices herself for the poor and they do not care shit and violate her trust. All her religious motives are mocked and look wrong, dangerous and stupid.

The cynical side of me enjoys that. There is nothing better than having religious people look stupid in their self-righteousness. But there is also something incredibly sad in the destruction of Viridiana. She had invested everything in her religion and it is taken away from her. What is she without it? An empty hulk. A vessel of nothing. She means well, and so it is painful to watch. The party of the scum in the manor is funny and filmed with a wry humor, but the smile stiffens when you think of what they are doing to Viridiana. No, as much as I do not care much for religious people she did not deserve that. This is really harsh.

Take the religious mockery away and this is just the story of a nice girl falling apart in slow motion. It is not particular exciting, except for her scum-party and that is bitter sweet at that. The jury in Cannes liked it enough to give it the Palme d’Or. They must dislike those religious a lot. The church and the Franco regime did not like it much though.

And me? I think I liked “La Joven” better. This one is a little too bitter.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim) (1961)



Jules og Jim
In his third attempt (on this List at least) Francois Truffaut finally seems to have found the formula, which is basically to tone down his own awesomeness and tell an interesting story.

This is very much an alternative love story, which is interesting in the sense that the sixties was the decade of the sexual revolution. In fact it is difficult to imagine this story told in any  earlier decade although the actual story takes place in the beginning of the century. While the movie presents some rather sophisticated forms of relationships they are not borne out of a desire to experiment, but out of necessity. This is to my mind more a story of how far people are willing to go to help and stay with loved ones with mental issues.

Jules and Jim are best mates in Paris around the turn of the century. Jules (Oskar Werner) is Austrian (with hardly an accent) and introvert while Jim (Henri Serre) is native French and rather extrovert. In each other they find what they are lacking and together they have an entire universe. Into their world steps Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a quite unusual woman with a dynamite character.

Catherine is at first accepted as a third member of their group, one of the boys, but she is undeniably a woman and at first Jules and later Jim fall in love with her. That would be trouble enough in itself, but Catherine I suspect is suffering from a bipolar disorder. She swings from manic joy to manic depression, she is incredibly impulsive and she chafe at any sort of restrictions to her life. While that may sound like a few women I could point out, Catherine is rather extreme. On hers and Jules wedding night she takes revenge for a perceived slight that Jules does not even recognize by having sex with another man.  

Jules is clearly out of his league with this woman. The life he has created for them in Schwartzwald with a beautiful wooden chalet and a lovely daughter sounds like paradise to me, but to Catherine it is a prison. Jules takes an awful lot of crap from her in the hope that she does not leave and when Jim after the war comes to visit and starts an affair with Catherine Jules gives them his blessing.

Jim soon realizes that he is not enough either and returns to Paris to his on/off girlfriend. Catherine however is more than ever at the mercy of her own emotions and does not take no for an answer. That of course sets the stage for tragedy, one way or the other.

It is remarkable how open everybody in the movie are about their feelings and intensions. Throughout the whole thing, Jules and Jim remain friends and completely honest with each other and Catherine simply says what is one her mind with no filter at all. Despite this honesty and openness and despite all the creativity they apply to their relationships it is just not enough. Although we are several years prior to Summer of Love we see sexual freedom embraced, but even when not generating hard feelings, which usually is the backlash, it is still unable and not flexible enough to fit these people and avert crisis.

You could make a case for Catherine simply being incompatible with Jules and Jim and to some extend I would agree. Jules adores her, but he could never offer her the life she wants. But nobody could. Catherine has appetites and needs, demands and complaints that only a man as patient as Jules would put up with, but nobody could meet. A century later Catherine would, I think, be diagnosed and receive medical help and that might make things easier. Without that sort of assistance, she is a ticking bomb.

This story is quite spectacular and this is why this movie works for me. The narrating style has gotten some attention, but this style was already in use in France back in the thirties with several examples on the List. The only cinematographical element I would consider a novelty is the openness with which their relationships are discussed, the brutal honesty. It is refreshing and helps making this an interesting movie. Otherwise it seems as if Truffaut is stepping back and letting the story unfold. And that works.

I was surprised that a movie with these themes could hold my attention, but it did. It sucked me in. Perhaps because I can relate to Jules, but more likely because we get so deeply under skin of these people through their honesty. An honesty, I should note, with very little screaming, even from Catherine. Modern filmmakers trying to make the brutally honest love drama could learn something from that. I hate screaming.

 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)


 
Pigen Holly
With ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s” I have reached a particular milestone. This is the first movie on the list that my wife agreed to watch with me. As you may have guessed she is not a fan of very old movies so the fact that she likes this one is actually telling of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. This is a movie that feels far more modern than its actual age would indicate.

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is, I believe, generally much loved, but also frequently torn to pieces. While I understand the second position I find myself solidly in the first group. The reason is fairly simply: Audrey Hepburn. Few actors or actresses can singlehandedly carry a movie, but Hepburn is one of them (actually both Hepburns, but that is another story). To my mind she cannot and has never set a foot wrong and in “BaT” she nails the role. You might even call it career defining, but that would dismiss movies like “Roman Holiday” and “Sabrina”.

Hepburn is a society girl called Holly Golightly, who happen to live in the same building as Paul Varjak (George Peppard) and a choleric Japanese photographer upstairs (Mickey Rooney). Holly is an extremely impulsive girl who does whatever she wants and to hell with the consequences. She lives off the graces of her many admires and seems to have as goal in her life to find a rich guy to marry. In fact, Holly Golightly is completely infuriating, but seems to get away with it through her impressive female charm. I mean, she is Audrey Hepburn, who can honestly stay upset with her?

When Paul moves into the building they become fast friends. Paul may be a writer, but gets along by being a paid lover to a rich woman (Patricia Neal). As both live off the hands of others, essentially prostituting themselves, they do not have anything on the other. Holly is in constant need of help though and Paul finds himself drawn further and further into her life. It gives him purpose enough to reevaluate his own life and move one, but Holly seems to be completely without direction.

Yes, she is funny, and her life seems to be one, long party, but what we discover is that it is all an escape. Holly cannot face life, so she closes her eyes and pretends it does not matter. Instead of facing consequences or even consider them she ignores them. We learn that she ran away from her family in Texas and changed her name, we learn that she brings messages for the mafia, but refuses to consider the implications and she seems constantly on the lookout for a way out. Behind the happy-go-easy exterior there is a restless desperation. Holly’s refuge is to build a pink, peaceful haven where nothing can touch her, symbolized by Tiffany’s jewelry store in New York. This is where she turns when reality gets too close and that refuge is also the title of the movie.

I think this angle is important. Without understanding the desperation Holly becomes a beautiful, charming pain in the ass. She is frankly obnoxious and it is infuriating that she can glide off all trouble with a smile and a kiss, but in those last scenes in the rain we finally see the real girl and you know, she is a far more attractive woman than the Givenchy-clad glamour girl.

The theme song “Moon River” is heavily used in the movie, but I am okay with that. It is a wonderful tune and fits the movie beautifully.

What I cannot forgive the movie however is the disgrace which is Mickey Rooney’s Japanese photographer. I know he is played for laughs, but it is both racist and toe-cringing and not funny at all. Whenever he appears the illusion break and we are reminded that this is “just a movie”. Awkward.

Audrey Hepburn may steal the picture, but my second favorite character is Cat. Yes, a big ginger cat by the name Cat that manages to charm me completely. Not difficult I admit, I love cats, but this one has a lot of character and in the last scenes in the rain he becomes a symbol of the real Holly Golightly.

 

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Lola (1961)



Lola
The French new wave has not impressed me much so far. Only a few of them have so far gotten under my skin, but with “Lola” I can finally add a movie to that fairly short list. “Lola” was a far better movie than I had expected, but then again, I did not really expect much to begin with.

“Lola” is a very quiet movie, not in term loudness, it has its moments of shouting, but it is oddly subdued as if this is a regular story about regular people. The curious thing is that these characters are not that regular, they are just acted as if they are. Perfectly natural and understandable, struggling with issues we all recognize as both very basic and high brow existential. And that is the magic, that it actually works.

The story centers on Lola (Anouk Aimée), a dancer at an entertainment parlor (or nightclub?) and a single mother to a seven-year-old boy. Lola is gorgeous. In her dancing outfit and full make-up she is the image that men desires and she has enough suitors who think they love her. For Lola being a flirt is a job, but it also makes her very lonely. Because of her stunning appearance few people get further than that and she longs for that first love of hers, the father of her son. Michel, as he is called disappeared back before he was born and she has never heard from him since, yet he is the symbol of her salvation and the reason she cannot commit to anybody else.

Frankie (Alan Scott) is an American sailor in town who courts Lola. It is clear that he thinks himself in love with Lola, but he is probably just an image that reminds her of Michel. A relationship that is reversed when Frankie meets Cécile (Annie Duperoux), a 14 year old girl who believe Frankie is her great love. Cécile is clearly a young version of Lola, repeating her story.

And then there is Roland (Marc Michel), a restless dreamer who is going through life searching for something, but cannot put his finger on it. He knew Lola as a teenager and when he meets her again he thinks she is his purpose, that she is that first love he can never shake. It is also he who tells Cécile about life’s first love and he in turn is the hope of Cécile’s mother, a lonely widower.

Everybody are looking for somebody else. Everybody have their hopes pinned on that elusive dream, but if it is just a dream, what are the chances they will find it. The movie creates these circles, telling us that the story repeats itself and that the dream is fairly hopeless. There is a great sadness and even desperation to that, but just as we are about to lose up it just might happen as when Michel’s mother suddenly sees the son she has been longing to see for so many years.

I like this interconnectedness, it is such a common theme, but something that usually works. Here it is perfect to illustrate the repetition of fate and it enables us to see the story from more sides. It is good direction that allows us to feel sympathy and understanding all the way round.

This is also a movie with a lot of dialogue and I like that. Mostly the talk is not very important and yet it is because it is a perfect window into the lives of these characters and I felt myself drawn in to the dialogue.

Then again it is also a movie borne by excellent actors. Anouk Aimée is a perfect cast as Lola. Her appearance is exactly that distraction, that image, she is supposed to be, but with her son she suddenly become three-dimensional. It is quite incredible. Marc Michel I liked in Le Trou and he projects the dreamer perfectly. He is quiet and sincere and desperately passionate underneath.

It is difficult to say anything negative about “Lola”, except maybe that it is a movie that takes some time and focus to get into. It takes a while before you realize what this is actually about and until then it feels random. But when clarity emerge it is a beautiful story.  And if you have been away from your son for a while the ending will go straight to your heart.

 
 

Friday, 5 May 2017

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)



Når mænd hader
How do you rate a movie with equal amounts of wows and groans?

“One-Eyed Jacks” falls squarely into that category and I suppose that calls for a mixed review.

Also I should mention that I have been to a noise conference all day and is completely burned out.

“One-Eyed Jacks” is a western by Marlon Brando, literally. He is both director and lead actor and apparently had a lot to do with screenplay and production as well. Brando’s character Rio and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are bandits in Mexico where they rob banks, conquer women and have frequent shoot-outs with the law. When the law finally catches up with them Rio is backstabbed by Dad who rides away with a lot of gold leaving Rio to rot in a penal camp.

Years later Rio escapes and wants revenge. He hooks up with some other bandits who claim to know where Dad is. Together they descend on Monterey to rob the bank and wreck havoc. Dad Longworth has in the meantime become a respectable man with a wife and a step daughter. In fact he is now the sheriff of the town. Guess who is not happy to see Rio?

“One-Eyed Jacks” has a lot working for it. The production value is very high with crisp colors, grand vistas and great sets. With actors like Marlon Brando and Karl Malden this is a movie that means business. A remarkable thing about this movie is that it is surprisingly rough. In that sense it has a lot more in common with later Sergio Leone westerns than for example Mann’s westerns of the fifties. I am not a fan of senseless violence in movies, but the grit and the brutality adds realism to the movie and it makes it look modern.

On the flip side this is an incredibly predictable movie and a very long one at that at some 140 minutes. It is not good when you can easily predict the next ten minutes and when your prediction of the ending made halfway through turns out to be quite precise with no surprises it is quite disappointing. The clichés stack up to the point where I started laughing, such as when Louisa (Pina Pellicer) announces she is pregnant (oh dear).

What in my opinion is even worse is that it is obvious that we are supposed to root for Rio. This is Marlon Brando, of course he is our hero. Problem is Rio is a dimwitted and brutal asshole without a single redeeming feature. Just because he is surrounded by even worse assholes does not make him a saint or even likeable. He is supposed to be hot with the ladies, I mean, this is Brando, but it is difficult to say what they see in him and his affair with Louisa is both predictable and completely unlikely. I spent the movie waiting for him to get his ass kicked, but fearing that I will end up watching him ride off into the sunset.

I found the character of Dad Longworth far more interesting. This is a criminal turned respectable who sees his past catching up with him. That is a character with a lot of potential and it was very interesting to watch him spin out of control as the film progressed. I cannot help feeling that this would have been a better movie had he been the center of the story rather than the bland Rio. Still, it was the scenes with Dad Longworth that made me sit up in my seat.

“One-Eyed Jacks” is a step on the way towards the awesome westerns by Leone and Peckinpah and not a step without quality. Personally I do not feel the need to dwell on this step and would much rather proceed directly to some good spaghetti westerns.  

 

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Pier (La Jetee) (1961)



La Jetée
Older movies often have a problem with pacing. Often they move slowly, too slow for our modern tastes, and drag out a story unnecessarily. “La Jetée” has the opposite problem. It is way too short.

“La Jatée” is a bit of an oddity as it consists exclusively of still and I cannot help thinking that I am looking at a storyboard of a half-finished movie. Fleshed out this would be an excellent movie, but as it is it is way too short and merely a skeleton of what it should be.

A ma has a memory from his childhood of a woman on the pier of Orly airport in Paris. A man rushes towards her and is killed. The world is ruined in an apocalyptic world war and Paris is a radioactive desert. Survivors live underground divided in a master and a slave segment. The masters are making experiments on the slaves in order to send them forward or backward in time to get help. The man with the memory is a successful test subject and manages to get back in time and meet the woman. He befriends her and spends a considerable time with her. Confident in their success the masters now send him to the future where humanity grant him an energy source. Mission accomplished the masters prepare to terminate their test subject, but he is saved by future humanity. He can join them, but asks instead to be sent back to the woman. He finds her on the pier and rushes towards her. As he is killed by an agent of his masters he realizes that this is exactly the scene he remembers watching in his childhood.

This sounds familiar, no?

Years later Terry Gilliam actually fleshed out the story in his “12 Monkeys”. Technically I suppose it was a remake, but can you remake a sketch? Anyway, the similarities are so striking that it feels like the movie “La Jetée” should have been and it is also acknowledged by Terry Gilliam.

Even in its half-finished look “La Jetée” is an interesting little piece of work. The pictures are striking and the apocalyptic feel is exquisite. This mix of slum and high-tech, misery and hope is so well developed that Gilliam in his quirky mind hardly had to improve on it. The black and white photography is reminiscent of concentration camps and with the Nazi doctors and the German mumblings I do not think that is coincidental.

I also like the story a lot. Time travel, as silly as it is, is a favorite theme of mine because of its paradoxes and this is an early example of those paradoxes in play. The position of the “movie” is that ultimately time has a single stream and you cannot really change it, only create loops. No multi-verse or alternative time lines here and philosophically it is also more satisfying. Time travel is such an interruption on reality that it really should be limited.

The biggest problem of “La Jetée” is the short running time. Only 27 minutes! Of those Chris Marker, the director, decided to spend a considerable part idling around on a museum. I could see time running out and they were just looking at animals! I feared that the ending would be rushed and it was. Almost anti-climactically so.

In a sense I do not mind the still image format. It serves its purpose, but maybe for a longer movie it would have been too much. Even then, had the movie spend 15 minutes more on key points this would have felt like a complete movie. The potential for greatness is so big that missing that last step feels almost criminal. Still, I enjoyed it a lot, as I had a feeling I would, and I would definitely recommend it. As introduction in a double feature with “12 Moneys” it would be perfect.

     

Friday, 21 April 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad) (1961)



Ifjor i Marienbad
In 2004 I was in Marienbad and it looked nothing like this…

“Last Year in Marienbad” is a movie I have heard rumors of for a while. It is often mentioned as one of the worst or most challenging or even pointless movies on the List. Certainly not as one of those I should look forward to watch. Going in to this I felt quite a bit of trepidation and my expectations were not high.

Having come through to the other side I can certainly see why this would not be to everybody’s taste. To call it polarizing is probably to give it too much credit, but actually I am not as negatively inclined as I thought I would be.

“Last Year in Marienbad” is an art movie, no doubt about that. It is in fact so arty that at surface value it makes absolutely no sense. A synopsis is virtually impossible and I cannot really go any further than saying that this is a about a man trying to convince a woman that they had an affair the year before, something the woman denies.

So what does the movie actually do for 90 minutes?

There is a lot of narration of the poetic, sort of stilted, kind, about memory and corridors and emotional imprisonment, although much of the narration is lost as it does not seem to make a lot of sense and often does not even match the pictures. All the scenes are inside or outside a baroque castle, sumptuous but cold with a lot of straight lines. The castle is populated by what appears to be guests (a hotel?), but they are immobile or on auto pilot and do not seem to be alive. The only actual characters are two men and a woman. The first man is the one who keeps imploring the woman to remember their affair, while the second, a scary skull like dude, looks like he could be her husband. He is always looming on the side.

The picture is constantly jumping, even when narration or dialogue is continuing. The chronology is random and there is no start nor finish. Well, there is sort of a finish, but I am not sure that is the last we see. Cloths change, especially hers between white and black dresses and we often watch people playing some sort of game with cards, dominos or sticks.

As I said nothing here makes any sense at surface value and trying to perceive some sort of story is a frustrating experience. Art films however is all about what is happening beneath the surface, what it is all supposed to mean and “Last Year in Marienbad” is only different in the sense that it has entirely given up on the surface narrative.

What does it mean then?

I can only guess. According to the extra material there is no official or even majority interpretation of the movie. Instead various people have offered their interpretations and who is to tell which is right?

The crazy thing is that this is what I like about art films. The weirder and opaque the better and this is certainly one of the most mystifying art films I have ever watched. Going through the process of watching it I am helped by stunning photography to get me through to the point where I can start to make my own guesses.

While my interpretation is in no way completely thought through I believe that the woman is the only real character. The first man is a memory lurking just outside conscience, something she may have blocked or repressed and the castle with all its corridors and repetitions is her mental prison. In the extra material they talk about that she could have been a victim of a sexual crime and that sounds plausible to me. The second man certainly looks menacing and capable of terrible things. She seems to have to make a choice between something that may liberate her or staying in her mental prison and her escape depends on remembering.

If I have the patience to watch it again I might completely discard this rough skeleton or be able to flesh it out, but for now it will have to do.

I am certain David Lynch watched “Last Year in Marienbad” before he made “Mulholland Drive”. Those two movies are like siblings, equally frustrating and open to interpretation, but also fascinating to watch.

In a harsher state of mind I would call “Last Year in Marienbad” a very pretentious movie and there is certainly something exclusive and snobbish about it. I know several French teachers from my high school days who would just love it. Yet, I cannot help thinking that this is a very interesting watch and definitely something you are not going to see every day. Recommended? Not to everybody.