Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fragments of Cinephilia, Pt. II



Short thoughts on: The deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni • The Wild OneThe Virgin SpringThe Departed and Infernal AffairsBus 174 Pan's Labyrinth and The Spirit of the Beehive • John Cassevetes and Noah Baumbach • The Stranger • Benito Mussolini's weenie

A year and a half ago, I transferred ten of my old comments from the Internet Movie Database to The Dancing Image, in a post called "Fragments of Cinephilia". This here is the follow-up: ten further memoirs of my pre-blogging days, in this case recycled from the summer of 2007 and including some great quotations from others. The topics range from heady to trivial: we start on a silent Olympus and end with a castrated dictator. Feel free to leave your own musings below - one of the pleasures of my old hunting ground (the IMDb) was the give-and-take, and I'd love to see it continue here. Enjoy.



On the death of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, within 24 hours of one another:

"Olympus almost empty"

For Godard, it must be lonely at the top. Two giants of filmmaking (THE two giants, in terms of influence and longevity) no longer walk among us...for some reason I'm reminded of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying the same day, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 4 for those non-Yanks). I'm not sure what significance July 30 has for cinema history (other than the one it just acquired) but how strange that it happened like this...

As far as "greatest" who can really say? But if there's a cinematic Olympus on Earth, I'd argue that Godard ... may be its only remaining inhabitant. Not to knock great directors of their generation, like Resnais, Rohmer, and Rivette, or younger filmmakers either, but those two are the only ones whose influence, reputations, and bodies of work compare to Bergman's.

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Collecting some of the most cogent observations I encountered following the Bergman/Antonioni deaths:

The more astute eulogies for these two deceased legends have been hinting at the troubling distance between their films and the current pop culture ethos, which I'd describe as "apathetic conformism disguised as subversive irony".

"...the time has come to seek once more the earnestness we're making fun of. When everything had to be tone-in-tone, when a tight-fitting suit and teased hair were the ne plus ultra of the feminine aesthetic, it was good to throw a little dirt on the cream-coloured costumes. But nowadays when trash rules, we feel a longing for the clear, full-screen beauty of the young Monica Vitti." [http://www.signandsight.com/features/1469.html]

"'I mean, the silence, God's silence... OK, OK... I mean, I loved it at Radcliffe, but alright, you outgrow it!' Surely Allen means us to reject the self-loathing, brittle Wilke, who churns out novelizations of popular movies instead of trying to create serious art. But her comments nail the Bergman/Antonioni pretensions and the mindset that would most appreciate them. She also sees Bergman's 'fashionable pessimism' as 'adolescent.' This hits even closer to the bone. Wilke has a point. Several points, actually. She is also evil. Her pop mindset rules today, and we have to do everything we can to topple it. Paying attention to the virtues of Bergman and Antonioni is definitely a step in the right direction." [http://mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/2007/08/eclipse-losing-bergman-and-antonioni.html]

And last but not least, A.O. Scott, hitting the nail on the head, particularly with the last line: "There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value - that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure - enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness." [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/01/movies/05scot.html?_r=1&ref=movies&oref=slogin]

(Anyone looking for links to these & other articles should check here, where I discovered them myself: http://daily.greencine.com/archives/004148.html)

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On why The Wild One (1954) is underrated:

I finally saw The Wild One last night after years of being a film buff and Brando fan. I was expecting a campy, dated film but I was actually very impressed. Yes, the behavior of the bikers is often too silly to be threatening. Yes, Brando and many of the other bikers are too old for their parts. Yes, the language sometimes makes one cringe. But I found the story and the images fascinating (particularly the scene where Brando and Murphy race through those white trees in the night) and felt that, despite its flaws, the film tapped into something almost primal. It has an allegorical quality, almost as if sometime stepped into a time machine circa 1969 and went back to the early 50's to make this film as a prediction of what was to come.

Indeed, the movie represents the radical view of what happened in the late 60's quite well. The counterculture rides into the heart of straight, middle America, exciting the otherwise obedient youth, bemusing the good citizens (who try to humor them) at first, and eventually arousing the ire and wrath of the forces of reaction, while the liberals sit by and wring their hands ineffectively.

If Douglas Sirk's sentimental melodramas and numerous cheesy sci-fi/horror B flicks can earn rereadings focusing on the effectiveness of their pulp and the evocative nature of their images and themes, why can't this film? I think, in the long run, its prestige and iconic nature have hurt its reputation rather than helped it. I disagree with the poster who said that without Brando's performance it would be dismissed. Had it been a second-run drive-in feature which gathered a cult status, it might be more revered today. Instead, its "official" status builds up expectations and causes people to notice the missteps rather than the achievements.

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On the formal triumph of Bergman's The Virgin Spring

I've always been partial to The Seventh Seal, but upon watching The Virgin Spring for the second time (after watching all of his early work I could get my hands on in order) it struck me that this is in fact his most "cinematic" film, the one that is most assured, that tells its story primarily through visuals and has an unerring sense of timing, pacing, and intensity. I think it's also his first real collaboration with DP Sven Nykvist (save some interiors in Sawdust & Tinsel) and while the cinematography in the Gunnar Fischer films is often fantastic, there's a lumnosity and depth to the work here which lends it a transcendent quality new to Bergman's work.

In some ways, Seventh Seal remains my favorite pre-Trilogy Bergman (I'm a sucker for overambitious pictures that bite off more than they can chew) but unlike that film and Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring's simpler, almost elemental, story allows it more room to breathe, ruminate, and gives it a power undiluted by multiple storylines and intellectual games. So for all these reasons, I'm inclined to say it's Bergman's finest work up to 1960.

(And yes, I know Bergman himself didn't care for it and that his heart probably wasn't in the ending and the general ethos of the film. He didn't even write it, a rarity for him at this point. But just as the great Hollywood auteurs poured the exquisite craftsmanship into projects that on the surface did not seem personal, the film hardly exists outside of Bergman's filmmaking, which is exquisite).


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On how The Departed compares to to its Hong Kong inspiration, Infernal Affairs (spoilers)

I enjoyed The Departed but I certainly don't consider it one of Scorsese's masterpieces. Because I took it as sophisticated and well-made entertainment rather than as serious drama, I could accept the ending. When I finally saw Infernal Affairs (of which Departed, by the way, is NOT a shot-by-shot remake...some sequences are close to what's in the original film, but much of it is very, very different) I realized that in that film, we're meant to take the ending seriously, perhaps too seriously, given the sentimental music. But there's a kind of brute pop poetry to it. The Departed quite flippantly dispatches with the characters we're supposed to be attached to, and luckily we're really not, or at least I wasn't, but I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Certainly not Best Picture-material (though, hell, it was probably their best Best Picture in close to a decade).

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On Bus 174, a documentary about a 2000 bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro

This must be a different film for people from Brazil (or people who were already familiar with the hijacking story) and people from other countries (I don't remember this being an international news story at the time, and I certainly didn't know the details till I watched the film).

For Brazilians, as you say, the film offers the flip-side of a coin they're already very familiar with. They'd seen the hijacker as pure evil for years and now this film shows the complexity of the situation.

For people like me, this was our first exposure to Sandro and the hijacking, so it may have seemed that the hostages didn't get enough of a voice, and (though this hasn't been mentioned on this thread) that the film was maybe too voyeuristic, slowing down the action, repeating the deaths over and over, relying on the vicarious thrill and fear that the live footage provides (and this movie had more an visceral emotional impact that almost any other documentary I've seen, at least since childhood). Of course, if you're Brazilian this footage must already be extremely familiar, and thus the film appears not as voyeuristic but as unpacking and re-examining footage that has already been digested voyeuristically.

So it seems the film will make a different impression based on where the viewer is coming from (obviously true of any film but I would say more so for one like this).

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On history and fantasy in Pan's Labyrinth and Spirit of the Beehive

Another (semi)similar film is Spirit of the Beehive. I'm surprised no one here mentioned it, given that I'd heard of it before Cria cuervos. It also stars Ana Torrent, and both its themes and timeline are very similar to Pan's Labyrinth.

Actually, I was a somewhat disappointed with Pan...I saw a sneak preview before it hit wide release and became such a cause celebre (although it was already unanimously acclaimed by critics). I thought the fantasy aspect was great (the creature with the eyeballs in his hands was especially memorable) but the depiction of Fascism and the aftermath of the civil war struck me as disappointingly shallow, and the style too slick with all its Star Wars-esque wipes & Lord of the Rings camera movements.

I would recommend both Cria cuervos & Spirit of the Beehive if you are looking for more subtle and penetrating films about this fascinating period in history (and its intersection with a child's fantasy life).

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On the John Cassavetes influence in Noah Baumbach's work:

I have to agree with the other poster who said Cassavetes' work is more raw than Baumbach's. I would hardly call Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie "cerebral indie drama about middle-class wankers sitting around analyzing themselves." But I haven't seen Faces or a number of his other films, so maybe I'm missing something. Nonetheless, the movies I've seen are more emotional than cerebral, independent in the best sense which is definitely distinct from "indie" as I know it, about working-class rather than middle-class people, and with characters who are defined by behavior far more than any self-analysis.

I think Margot at the Wedding channeled Cassavetes more than Squid & the Whale or Kicking & Screaming, especially stylistically. That said, I didn't like it.

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On my disappointment in Orson Welles' The Stranger and surprise at the fact that it was shot on a studio set.

Funny, I thought it was shot on location (the realistic quality of the small town was one of the things I liked most about it). I think it was the quality of the light mostly. At any rate, I didn't like the film very much. It had its moments - particularly early and late in the film but the plot was contrived, the pacing off, and Welles' directorial flair only shot up in spurts. Too bad because it had quite a few things going for it: Welles as director, of course, but also the aforementioned flavor of the small town (I have to give Welles credit for achieving that atmosphere on a Hollywood backlot), and the confluence of world events and provincialism, but somehow the Nazi in Americana theme felt underutilized for much of the film. Mostly, I just don't think the screenplay was very effective.

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On the roots of the "Whistle While You Work" parody with the verse, "...Hitler is a jerk/Mussolini bit his weenie now it doesn't work/he took it to repair/they filled it up with air/Mussolini popped his weenie now it isn't there". Posted on the "Benito Mussolini" message board, where it got no responses.

I was wondering if anyone knows the genesis of this song...I remember kids singing it when I was in elementary school, which was in the early 90's. Has this song really been a schoolyard tradition for 60+ years?

For the record, I'm still wondering...

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