So I haven’t updated this in ages, but at last, a house-cleaning: every film watched since July, with whatever thoughts I was able to jot down at the time. Relentlessly incomplete and unedited, but perhaps useful to someone.
Posts tagged "Media Log"
Not precisely in order:
The Stone Door [Leonora Carrington, 1940s / pub. 1977]
Bartholemew Fair [Eric Basso, 1982 / pub.1999]
The Book of Monelle [Marcel Schwob, 1894]
The Stain [Rikki Ducornet, 1984]
Variations on the Sun [M. Kitchell, 2012]
The Boat in the Evening [Tarjei Vesaas, 1968]
Tranquility [Attila Bartis, 2001]
Blueprints for the Afterlife [Ryan Boudinot, 2012]
The Blind Owl [Sadeq Hedayat, 1937]
Babel-17 [Samuel Delany, 1966]
Albert Angelo [B.S. Johnson, 1964]
The Devil is Dead [R.A. Lafferty, 1971]
The Lathe of Heaven [Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971]
Voyage in the Dark [Jean Rhys, 1934]
Concrete Island [J.G. Ballard, 1974]
The Egghead Republic [Arno Schmidt. 1958]
Blood and Guts in High School [Kathy Acker, 1978]
The Polish Complex [Tadeusz Konwicki, 1977]
The Age of Sinatra [David Ohle, 2004]
Woodcutters [Thomas Bernhard, 1984]
Yesterday [Agota Krystof, 1995]
Two Serious Ladies [Jane Bowles, 1943]
Nightwood [Djuana Barnes, 1936]
The Other Side [Alfred Kubin, 1909]
The Man of Jasmine [Unica Zurn, 1970]
Oh what the hell, here are 15 more:
Lives of the Gods [Alberto Savinio, 1910s - 1940s, pub.1992]
Werther Nieland [Gerard Reve, 1949]
The Inverted World [Christopher Priest, 1974]
The Magic Toyshop [Angela Carter, 1968]
The Flame Alphabet [Ben Marcus, 2012]
The Sluts [Dennis Cooper, 2004]
My Soul in China [Anna Kavan, 1975]
Chasm [Dorothea Tanning, 2004]
Too Much Flesh and Jabez [Coleman Dowell, 1976]
A High Wind in Jamaica [Richard Hughes, 1929]
This Is Not a Novel [David Marskon, 2001]
The Complete Works [Urmuz, 1922ish]
Nothing: a Portrait of Insomnia [Blake Butler, 2011]
Islanders and the Fisher of Men [Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1917]
The Poetics of Cinema [Raul Ruiz, 1996]
Once again, notes on too many recently-viewed films after the jump.
The top 25 books I read for the first time last year (one per author):
Once again: brief notes on everything my eyes touched over a select period. Some images to tantalize, words after the break.
three months of excessive movie viewing so I’ll spare you by putting it after a jump:
Lava / Lawa [Tadeusz Konwicki, 1989, 129m]
Konwicki’s last film, a more elliptical, fractured take on many of his usual themes: resistance, the pastoral past of Polish Lithuania, the haunting resonance of memory and history. Here, the plot concerns the abuses of an occupying Russian governor (naturally an emissary of the czar, not to be confused with the governing Soviets of the era, who somehow let this get made), with lava — unquenchable flames hidden beneath the cool, hardened crust — representing the across-ages revolutionary spirit of Poland. But the most memorable bits are the spooky sequences of a Forefather’s Eve ceremony held in a darkened cemetery, the meaning of which remains veiled for most of the film. As with a lot of Konwicki, there’re a lot of Poland-specific references here (not the least the source material, Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem “Forefather’s Eve”, which can cloud things a bit for an only partially informed foreign viewer. Hence, I’m probably miossing a lot of the resonance here.
Bewitching Eyes / Oczy uroczne [Piotr Szulkin, 1977, 41m]
Pre-sci-fi Piotr Szulkin, made for Polish TV. Folkloric and stylized in something of a Paradjanov sort of way, though the plot gets lost a little, leaving only eerie imagery and sensations of dread. There’s no dialogue to clarify things, but I’m guessing the sung words in the soundtrack would have provided narration to a Polish audience. As such, here’s an english synopsis, which makes this far easier to appreciate (and it should be appreciated, it’s full of fantastic images): “A gloomy castle is inhabited only by one person, its owner, who is known to have an unusual and terrible power in his eyes: just by looking by someone he can cause illness and death. One day an old nobleman and his daughter, who have lost their way, arrive to the castle. The young lady is married to the owner of the castle soon after that meeting. When his wife is about to give birth to their child, the man gouges out his eyes in order to prevent any misfortunes that might be caused by his bewitchment.”
Salome [Carmelo Bene, 1972, 80m]
Sometime after the church and/or italian government shut down Bene’s stage play “Christ 63”, Pier Paolo Pasolini declared him the only interesting thing in Italian experimental theater and cast him as Creon in his own Oedipus Rex. Soon after that, Bene began flirting with film and a couple works later this happened. I consider the subject (looking at you, Gustave Moreau) and source (Oscar Wilde’s theater adaptation of the legend) pretty good evidence for my pet theory that the 70s were highly in touch with the fin-de-siecle symbolist/decadent movement. And what’s more decadent than the 70s-raver melange we get here: neon, blacklight, epileptic camera moves and editing, general hysteria. This is barely coherent, but totally amazing anyway, partly for that reason.
Oh Lucky Man [Lindsay Anderson, 1973, 183m]
Supposedly “A 70s surrealist musical that’s an avant-garde allegory for the evils of capitalism.” Hence my needing to see it. However, really, I would only say that it is from the 70s and pointedly concerned with the evils of capitalism. The songs are mostly just spacers between scenes without any staging (but for a single moment in which they impede on the action, which is great) and mostly a pretty unthrilling 70s pop-rock (but for the rousing final refrain of the theme). And it’s not all that surreal (weird and random, isn’t necessarily surreal), not all that avant-garde (at all), and it’s probably far too blatant to be a proper allegory, or even a particularly nuanced treatment of its subject. However, individual scenes are often amazing, and Malcolm McDowell is amazing, and Malcolm McDowell supposedly wrote the treatment for this (at Anderson’s urging) from his own experiences, so take from that what you will. It’s clumsy, but I’m ultimately alright having it around.
Siberia, Mon Amour [Slava Ross, 2011, 102m]
If this is intended to be a realistic account of the perils of contemporary Siberia, it falls sort of short of being convincing, and the dramatics aren’t really all that exciting or cohesive as constructed story. So we get lots of vaguely connected bits, and a bunch of characters of, I suppose, ambiguous morality, though the good sides that are designed to make the bad sides ambiguous are kind out of nowhere or contradictory, it often seemed to me. I’m mostly talking about the military officer. His big moment just does not work here. On the other hand, this movie totally has marauding siberian wild dogs. On the other other hand, one of them tries to have a Lassie moment. But anyway, lots of good footage of snow and desolation on the Russian taiga, which is always nice. And some of the tracking shots of the dogs through the woods are pretty excellent.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup [Shuji Terayama, 1970, 76m]
So apparently the classic Stereolab album was in reference to this experimental dystopia, a world were sexually-liberated fascist children rule by condemning any adult interference and via arbitrary decrees like “ARTICLE 8: The Emperor wears a hat, and removes it for no reason”. It’s a bracing film experience, harsh with the echoes of all-too-real fascist atrocities still freshly recalled and rendered in an organized chaos of disconnected experimental image and sound. Yet the shameless innocent glee of the child-executioners constantly unbalances the film — is this the unthinking grin of madness, or the joy of youth over all else, or what exactly? This gets remembered as a kind of shock cinema, I think, though maybe more for the highlight-reel type shorter edit, in which I’m sure something is lost. And it is shocking but also much more. There’s a heart here, well-arranged concept and sincerity. Terayama went on to direct such other phantasmagoric, beautiful strangeness as Pastoral: to Die in the Country.
Pentimento [Frans Zwartjes, 1979, 61m]
Spare Bedroom [Frans Zwartjes, 1970, 14m]
Visual Training [Frans Zwartjes, 1969, 8m]
I’ve been trying to watch more Frans Zwartjes, since much of his most noted output is conveniently kicking around ubuweb and elsewere (though not necessarily in the best quality, seeing as there’s now a good box set DVD of all of these). Pentimento, as far as I know the Dutch experimentalist’s sole feature is a strange one, giving up the concentrated force of his shorts for a series of vignettes, abused power and eerie violence in an inscrutable medical facility that can only really evoke WWII atrocities. There’s almost no speech in the film, I think nothing but some voices over a loudspeaker near the beginning, so you’ve really got to cast about for a context here, or perhaps supply your own. The bit that prevents me from filing this as sheer narrativeless affective cinema is the title — as ubuweb notes, it’s an art history term for a painted-over early layout of a work, subtly or perhaps highly different. And what lies underneath these clinical images of domination? Strange watching this around the same time as Emperor Tomato Ketchup, too.
The Legend of Suram Fortress [Sergei Parajanov, 1986, 88m]
It’s strange — such a simple folk story, of a mother who inadvertently consigns her surrogate son to be walled up in a fortress wall to preserve it against destruction, conveyed in such lavish images that the story gets lost somewhat. Which doesn’t entirely matter given the strength of images, and the simplicity of the story, I suppose. What comes across strongest, as with much of Parajanov’s work, is his obsession with capturing folk culture and ritual in all its aspects, and just this is reason enough to watch. Not that the storytelling is totally obscure, either, though. I may also have been falling asleep a bit, out of lateness, not boredom.
The Boxer’s Omen / Mo [Chih-Hung Kuei,1983, 105m]
Nearly Hausu-level in its unfiltered visual insanity, largely focused on nonsensical Buddhist magic spells and rituals. Shake the chicken blood onto those croc skulls and unleash the adorable evil bat puppets, but watch out for exploding light shields, you might be forced to detach your head tentacles! Totally nuts, but a bit too incoherent and choppy to be as brilliantlyengaging and actually totally good as Hausu somehow is. But it’s totally a high point of something. Actually, the choppiness can be a totally hilarious b-movie asset when they throw characters into other countries without transition to keep the plot rushing blindly on and such. Also, I kept imagining Parajanov reshooting these rituals with his own impeccable eye.
How Far Away, How Near [Tadeusz Konwicki, 1973, rewatch]
Tadeusz Konwicki deserves a resurrection. Even though he’s still alive. I suppose he is somewhat remembered, though very sporadically, for his literature, but his filmmaking seems basically nonexistent in the English language record, even despite recent subtitled DVD release of his last three films. Perhaps these films are just too formally fragmented and jammed with Polish cultural-historical references to grant access to most English speakers (myself included). Too dense and philosophical and ambiguous to easily justify themselves, or the work they require, at first glance. But they seem to be very worth it. I’ve still got plenty more work to do in digesting his elegiac, surreal masterpiece How Far Away, How Near, but the second viewing has certainly helped. I’m confident in my earlier assessment that the film is primarily concerned with the weight of memory, both personal and historical (and their intersection). It also deals with forgiveness, and the little bit of Polish scholarship I attempted to read using google translate suggests that it may draw its amorphous structure from Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of forgiveness. There’s an marked thread of guilt over WWII and Polish antisemitism, as the film opens with and repeats bizarrely beautiful color-treated footage of rabbi falling through the clouds above the Polish landscape, the protagonist Konwicki-stand-in’s haunted recollection of the father of a childhood friend who hung himself before the war. The friend later rejects the protagonist’s attempt at sympathy for what was to come — sympathy is useless and impotent at this point. Especially in the face, at the time of the film’s production, of resurgent State-encouraged antisemitism (in the guise of anti-zionism, following the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors) that forced 20,000 Polish Jews out of their jobs and 13,000 to emigrate between 1968 and 1971 (presumably the reason behind the train departure of friends in one scene). That Konwicki was able to make this film at all in that context is remarkable, but this also probably explains why it received only extremely limited release and was withdrawn from showing at Cannes. Of course, this weight of historical and current regret is only one thread of a story which traces much more personal lines through the protagonist’s recollections and relationships — lost lovers, family, and, centrally, a friend’s inexplicable suicide, perhaps for reasons of his own tortured memories and guilt, suggested with ambiguous gestures. All of which says nothing about the extremely broken dream-structures connecting these threads and unified by a couple amazing narrative devices. I’m glad I’m writing about this now, because it’s forcing me to try to form actual solid ideas about a film that is inherently resistant to such. But damn damn damn is it good. I wonder how auto-biographical this all is — I know that the protagonist’s partisan days are Konwicki’s own, but not much else. I suppose I should watch the documentary featurette included in the box set, huh.
The Brood [David Cronenberg, 1979, rewatch]
Fine, focused low-budget horror-filmmaking. Not too flashy, but it works so well. Good script, classic Cronenberg effects where needed.
Fire Walk With Me [David Lynch, 1992, 135m]
Somehow, this was the last David Lynch feature I’d never seen. I guess I was saving it. And it was worth the wait. Feverish and funny and strange and then totally effectively horrifying, the bridge between the subverted realism of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and the full-on experimental flicker-nightmare affect of Lost Highway and on. Which I so need to rewatch as well. Of course, I should have far more to say about the last unseen film of one of my favorite director’s but there’s just not time at the moment.
Apaches [John Mackenzie, 1978, 24m]
Apparently an entire generation of Brits are still traumatized by being forced to watch this in school in the late 70s. Totally a PSA, specifically on the dangers of farm equipment, but somewhat like Threads, its weirdly horrifying and snidely socially observant. And totally entertaining “real” horror.
Kin-Dza-Dza [Georgi Daneliya,1989, 135m]
Totally absurd late-soviet sci-fi about a desert planet locked into a harsh class system and complicated monetary exchange involving incredibly desirable matchsticks. And since telepathy reigns, the spoken language is about six words. Most descriptions of this film note it as being a capitalist dystopia, which the ridiculous cast system and bartering seem to support, but as Maya (who actually saw this as a kid in Russia) notes, scurrying in search of basic household items and waiting years to be able to afford some much-needed object are just as easily derived from late-soviet life. Along the way, fantastic Mad Max design and lots of totally stupid, totally hilarious set pieces and details. And the best barely-bothered-with setup: the protagonists are two random people on the street that meet trying to get a seemingly crazed hobo over to the police. Attempting to demonstrate that he’s not really from space, they push the wrong button on the gizmo he’s brandishing and are instantaneously whisked away.
Shiver of the Vampires / Le frisson des vampire [Jean Rollin, 1971, 95m]
There’s something weirdly soothing about these sonambulant, sort of naively sleazy Jean Rollin vampire films. The absurd and barely-bothered-with plotting, the mechanical performances and awkward dialogue, the long drifting takes and tone, the design at once minimal and completely excessive (respective results of lack of budget and overzealous gothic art direction), the unshocking shocks and unhorrifying horror and comically unnecessary nudity and lesbianism — it all ends up becoming somehow charming. I think it’s just the unaffected love that Rollin clearly has for all this nonsense. Enjoyable.
Serene Velocity [Ernie Gehr, 1970, 14m (23m?)]
So simple, so weirdly amazing. At first, this appears to be nothing but a hypnotic flicker between two shots of hallway at slightly different distances: dim, institutional, striated by fluorescent lights, weirdly green-hued like the blurred out hallway at the beginning and end of Messiah of Evil. But if we don’t give into boredom and distraction, we start to realize that these two shots, from the same camera position at different focal lengths, are just barely creeping further and further apart, too slow to notice until suddenly the frame has entirely shifted and we realize we’re seeing into new doorways, or getting more detail of the reflections in the floor at the end of the hall. It’s totally mesmerizing after a while, and somehow, even without any narrative content or sound, strangely eerie. What is this place? What might we see in a doorway? What if someone came into the hall? What strange congruences will appear in the overlapping images? It’s perfect, somehow, and abstract horror story about light and space. And crazily, this seems to have been edited entirely in-camera, by shooting split seconds with mechanical precision over the course of an entire night, until morning light, red and unearthly, starts to come through the rectangles of window previously invisible in the door at the hall’s end. (I should give credit for seeing this where it’s due: M. Kitchell’s very singular, very excellent top 50 films list.)
Studies for Serene Velocity [Ernie Gehr, 1970?, 6m]
These test versions of Serene Velocity are mostly more cluttered microcosms of the full version, but they’re distinguished by the occassional movements lurking in frame. What, for instance, is the entirely unsettling shadow just beginning to creep into frame at the end of test shot 12? It’s tantalizing, terrifying.
Shift [Ernie Gehr, 1974, 8m]
Interesting take on abstracted traffic, but decidedly lesser in mood and focus.
Trans-Europ-Express [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1967, 105m]
Robbe-Grillet may have his niche, but it’s an excellently constructed niche that he’s made it thoroughly his own. So this is another completely entertaining post-modern noir story, equally clever and playful. This is a film about artifice — that of the initiatory traps and tests set before a man hoping to run drugs for an Antwerp gang in the primary narrative, but also that of the screenwriters directing (and revising, and discussing) the action from the titular train, and of the protagonist’s fantasies, and of film and narrative in general. The fourth wall barely exists at all, and different levels of possible reality are all equally true and untrue, nested mobiuses not made to be unraveled. But for all this formal complexity, it’s actually very easy to follow, and plays out in an effortless, paradoxically exciting manner. The cinematography and editing are also excellently executed, shuffling suspicious faces across the screen bewteen scenes in heightening paranoia, and displaying scenes in series of different possible arrangements (the screenwriters, testing their options perhaps?). Anyway, it’s great.
Mr. Vampire / Geung si sin sang [Ricky Lau, 1985, 96m]
This is definitely totally goofy, a kind of Three-Stooges-With-Monsters-and-Kung-Fu. But I have surprisingly little problem with that. Since this was made in Hong Kong in the 80s, the stunts are way better than needed for a comedy, and the sets and design are bright and lavish, and the plotting is ludicrous. And everything is pretty completely imaginative and engaging. And I really love that they cast someone obviously in his early thirties as the gray-haired master. Apparently this was an enormous success in China, spawning several sequels.
Cleo from 5 to 7 [Agnes Varda, 1962, 90m]
Part of what makes this work so well is how Varda manages to fill sequences of basically mundane activities with all kinds of relevant detail and content, through intercuts or framing or voiceover from the radio or a whole catalog of other techniques. But all the technical prowess points sorts something elaborately human. As Maya observes, it’s also pretty great how Cleo progressively sheds her disguises over the course of the film. Watching this in bed at 3am was probably unwise so I should probably rewatch later when fully awake and I’m sure I’d catch more, as well.
Shock Corridor [Sam Fuller, 1963]
What is it that makes 1960s American movies largely seem far more dated and embarrassing to me than their european counterparts. I mean, Cleo from 5 to 7 elegantly came out in 1962, and here, a year later, this actually totally earnest interrogation of contemporary America via its psychiatric wards is totally couched in histrionic style and grandiose theatrical gestures that make it strangely hard to swallow. It’s totally unfair to compare the two — french art film and American social-commentary-as-pulp — but the successive viewings really underlined how different the filmmaking tools are here. It’s really the story that makes Shock Corridor seem silly, I suppose. I mean, really — our protagonist’s big plan is to fake a sister-obsession that will somehow go unscrutinized (he has no sister, so his dancer girlfriend takes the role) AND YET land him in the same psychiatric ward that an unsolved murder took place on, shooting for pulitzer journalism? Of course this really much less important than the patients he’ll speak to and the facets of America they stand for… but something in the presentation made me unresponsive anyway. Even the visual flourishes — overlays and color cuts to dream images — seemed a little clunky. I may have been expecting something different from what I got.
Izo [Takashi Miike, 2004, 128m]
And then this, also arguably full of grandiose theatrical gestures, but so strangely assembled it stands on its own: a weirdly poetic contemplation of world as endless cycle of violence, incomprehensible tragedy, and unsatisfiable vengeance, told through endless samurai duels, stock footage montages, and the musical interludes of “Japanese underground troubador” Kazuki Tomokawa (who is so fantastic, and I kind of love that he soundtracks exclusively from within scene here — far better use of musicians than in O Lucky Man). Despite being largely action, Miike manages to make this oddly sad and surreal, its logic and ahistorical scene sequencing more that of dream, more Gozu than Ichi. Izo was a real-life late-Edo samurai assassin sent unsuccessfully against the new Meiji emperor and killed. Here, Miike envisions him drawn back and forth across time as a universal spirit of vengeance and destruction. We sem to see his subjective experience of only existing as a series of battles he does not understand, real or otherworldy. Very odd.
So I meant these to be monthly, but then got horribly behind. Then I spent much of the spring watching some 500+ shorts for the Brooklyn International Film Festival the fruits of which are screening as we speak. Then I went on a road trip for a month. I wanted to do this properly, but I don’t have time to properly sort these films, or provide stills, or even actually re-read all the old entries. Instead, provided as-is, whatever notes I had on everything I’ve watched in the first 5 months of the year, film fest screeners aside. A couple of these were post elsewhere already, and a couple more were probably intended as such, hence the excessive verbosity.
March 2011 (9 features, 5 shorts)
La Belle Captive [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1983, 90m]
Gorgeously convoluted broken noir, where we’re never quite sure how deeply into the layers of reality or unreality we’ve penetrated. Robbe Grillet plays a hand of familiar (for him) elements: an agent on mysterious mission gets distracted by an obsession with a women who may not exist. Sinister sex clubs, murdering nobility, mysterious neck-bites, semi-abandoned mansions, human-experimenting doctors, and Magritte paintings — all of these spin wildly to map out a flexible and ultimately unresolvable shadow-narrative in pulp trappings. The combination of flash-forwards and flashbacks with constant movement through various ambiguously delinated layers of dream and fantasy mean that many readings are equally feasible and equally improbable. This is why the ending, which would otherwise be totally irritating, is winkingly amusing and actually appropriate.
The Noose / Petla [Wojciech Has, 1958, 96m]
Has’s debut, a dark, largely realist portrait of alcoholism. The last sequences in the appartment, in particular, reveal an early excellent eye for detail and composition, as well as many of kinds of design and ambiance decisions that would inform his later mis-en-scene.
Living Russia, or Man with a Movie Camera [Dziga Vertov, 1929, 68m]
Brilliant, poetic, and oddly engaging given its being just a collage of disjointed images of Russia. The juxtapositions feel totally natural, though, and the film-on-film unifying conceit is a very good one. Reminds me a great deal of Arrebato, actually, which I know is a backwards association. Michael Nyman’s score is really perfect (see also: A Zed and Two Noughts).
Ikarie XB 1 / Journey to the end of the universe [Jindrich Polak, 1963, 83m]
Fantastic spaceship interior design in bold, luminous black and white, in an ensemble story that definitely feels like a Star Trek space exploarion fore-runner. Zdenek Liska’s soundtrack is pretty fantastic too, and they make fun of a robot for being too antiquated, which is great. Still, the plotting and lack of central character made this oddly less compelling than expected. In fact as far as Polak and Czech sci-fi go, I quite prefer the personnalness of Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea 14 years later.
Uncle Boonmee, who can recall his past lives [Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010, 114m]
Slow, elegaic, and quietly, modestly very strange. The cave sequence is an essentially perfect rendering of the majesty and un-anticipate-ability of existence, even in its ending. The slowness feels like slowness at times, but at times it’s just a sense of stillness, of graceful observation.
Diary of a pregnant women / L’opéra-mouffe [Agnes Varda, 1958, 16m]
Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald [Agnes Varda, 1961, 5m]
Le chant du Styrène [Alain Resnais, 1959, 19m]
Vive la rive gauche! Now if only I could remember the name of the experimental documentary about post-Corbusier housing blocs and dystopian modernity. (Also seen: early (like, age 15) Jacques Demy and Marker/Borowczyk’s “the Astronauts” yet again)
Mieso / Meat [Piotr Szulkin, 1994, 26m]Polish history as explained through meat availability. And it’s a musical. A nun does a handspring.
Kobiety pracujace / Working women [Piotr Szulkin, 1978, 6m] A brief survey of options.
The War of the Worlds: The Next Century / Wojna światów - Następne stulecie [Piotr Szulkin, 1981, 92m]
Brilliant — War of the Worlds reimagined as a beaurocratic police state invasion. “When there’s fear, there’s a way.” In a clever nod to the Orson Welles broadcast, broadcast television is a significant means of indoctrination and control. I can’t imagine how, with its almost completely direct references to the tools of Communist power (being bullied and tormented into joining the party “by choice”, for instance, is well represented here) this was ever allowed to be made.
The Shining [Kubrick, 1980, rewatch]
At a weird Spectacle screening where the movie was run backwards and forwards on top of itself. A few interesting correspondences, but really not beyond the Dark Side of the Moon / wishful thinking variety. Huh.
Deadly Prey [David Prior, 1987, 88m]
1980s paramilitary paranoia / one-man-versus-a-whole-army nonsense. Paired against similar content in Commando, Commando looks extremely produced, and comparatively cheery.
Objectified [Gary Huswit, 2009, 75m]
Drab paean to commercial design.
On the Comet / Na Komete [Karel Zeman, 1970, 74m]
Certainly my favorite Zeman of all I’ve seen so far. Brisk, engaging satire of colonialism and cold war rivalries, in a ridiculous adventure film about a city that gets magnetically pulled onto a passing comet. Typical for Zeman, plenty of amazing sets, animated impositions, and awesomely garish color treatments. As M observes, somewhat less “naive” than his earlier works (the disenchantment of the post-Prague-Spring?).
Seytan [Metin Erksan, 1974, 101m]
Turkish Exorcist — quite literally, as it closely follows the original. And it is mostly pretty silly, as expected in this particular part of cult Turkish cinema.
A Page of Madness [Kurutta ippêji, 1926, 59m]
Lost for decades, this early experiment in subjective filmmaking is a good representation of the doors open to early film which were later closed as mid-century conventions took over. Beautiful and perfectly soundtracked, albeit only in the 70s for the latter.
February 2011 (20 features)
Szamanka [Andrzej Zulawski, 1996, 110m]
As others observe, this is may be Zulawski’s attempt to address sexual desire on some pure level, Borowczyk and Last Tango in Paris, animal instinct and brusque movements, Iwona Petry’s title(?) role an expression of sheer impulse. Of course, it’s Zulawksi, so it’s also 1. gorgeous 2. frenetic 3. hysteric 4. densely tangled with philosophy, mysticism, religion, sociology, etc. Post-communist Poland seems ruled by resurgent Catholicism (which swiftly denounced the film, of course) and stumbling proto-capitalism, its characters groping for meaning and a way out of freshly-acquired debt. Temporary solutions are offered by a 3000-year-old shaman dug from an industrial site, purveyor of muscarine and sexual-mythomania; and by the mafia who seem to have rushed into the political-economic void in turn. Through all of this, every shading of sexual contact, binding the ideological churning to the physical, somehow or another. So, yes: Zulawksi’s own special blend of intensely complex crazy. Not really the best (because the direct investigation of desire can become repetitive here, and its industrial-ish mechanical backing music becomes vaguely laughable as sex scene music) but I’m certainly thrilled to see this remastered and in its original Polish with English subs, at last.
Damnation [Bela Tarr, 1987, 116m]
Apparently this was where Tarr’s slow, dark elegance really took form. A despair-drenched minimal-existential noir in long gliding takes and Mihály Vig’s haunting score. The narrative is terribly simple (even banal, Tarr says), but dissolved into a vague abstraction through which emotional weight takes prevalence over usual storytelling twists and turns. And Tarr’s Hungary (of course in stark black and white) becomes a kind of dystopian waste out of time and history.
Human Highway [Neil Young and Dean Stockwell, 1982, 88m]
Definitely one of those total messes that is entirely worth it as bizarre artifact of its time, if not actually any kind of great cinema.
True Stories [David Byrne, 1986, 90m]
On the other hand, this is just fantastic. I get the impression that this was David Byrne’s attempt to capture America whole, or some kind of America as he saw it. Despite the absurdity, it’s a loving absurdity. I don’t think he was making fun of anyone; instead he seems to genuinely like these people, and through him, of course we do as well. John Goodman is pretty great. The gang of children is pretty great. The women made faint by cuteness is pretty great. And Byrne himself, dapper deadpan ringleader and alien observer, is utterly perfect. If only he had made more films. Hey, he still can. Hey David, make another film!
Allures [Jordan Belson, 1961, 8m]
Samahdi [Jordan Belson, 1967, 6m]
The height of visualization plugin science, circa 1967. (actually, quite beautiful, and impressively animated for its time — a shame that it inevitably suggests computer sound-image syncing circa 1997…)
Escape from New York [John Carpenter, 1981, 99m/25m]
Edited down to about 25 minutes and rescored live with uncannily noise-synthetic guitar tones and pulses and murmurs by Ben Greenberg, on his 26th birthday as a present to the rest of us. Thank you Ben.
Venom and Eternity [Isodore Isou, 1951, 121m]
“I’d rather give you a migraine than nothing at all! …I should rather ruin your eyes than leave them indifferent!” Isou’s is a cinema of pure cynicism and aggression. Almost from his arrival in Paris from Romania just after World War II, he was an anarchic force in the avant-garde, quickly forging together a motley collection of young dissidents into what became Lettrism. As I understand it, Isou’s driving purpose (and by extension, the purpose of all Lettrist endeavors) was the acceleration all of art into its demise in pure avant-garde conceptual meaninglessness (ie poems consisting of a single letter) so that it could be built anew from scratch. The very concept seems simultaneously to ally him directly with dada anti-art impulses and yet to make him the opponent of any other meaningful avant-garde development, a real rebel’s rebel. Carrying this disruptive impulse into the medium of film in 1951, Venom and Eternity — annoying and intended to annoy, provocative to the point of starting a riot at Cannes that required a fire brigade’s hoses before it was broken up — Venom and Eternity remains a startling statement. And (ironically?) does offer new avenues of film development. Isou’s “discrepant” film, with often complete disjunction between sound and image is no longer an uncommon technique, and his experiments in scratching or bleaching directly onto film inspired Stan Brakhage and others. The film’s manifesto in favor of progress of the form against all prior successes still resonates in the face of the general stagnation of popular cinema. Most of this ideological content is presented in the first part as an outcry in a theater (accompanied by other voices shouting it down, anticipating actual reactions to the film), over shots of Isou himself wandering about Paris. In the second part (following a reapperance of the credits and title card, though this is 40 minutes in, another somewhat spurious but still amusing rejection of convention), we get an example of Isou’s bold new cinema, a cynically self-aware story of disaffected modern love narrated over only glancingly related shots of young party-goers and cityscapes, many scratched out and bleached over in direct-manipulation of film techniques somewhere between Man Ray and Stan Brakhage (who was a fan). First, though, a title card signed “the author” tells us that he is ignoring our dissatisfaction with the film so far. “At the premier of The Age of Gold the angry audience broke the theater seats. What worse can happen to me and how can that affect me? The seats do not belong to me.” The boldest gesture is saved for the end of the section, when the same narrator reveals that the writer was entirely dissatisfied with this “sentimental” story, a dismissal of traditional narrative right within the narrative that was still totally jarring when Kathy Acker did it 20 years later (and, you know 60 years later, when that first novel was finally published).
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors [Sergei Parajanov, 1965, 97m]
I feel like I should be backing the certainly more vividly experimental Color of Pomegranates, but in fact, until I can make any real sense of that film’s austerely bizarre tableaux, I’m infinitely more engaged by the simple folkloric leanings of this earlier masterpiece, which turns all of Parajanov’s burgeoning avant-garde aesthetics (long sequence shots, extremely mobile cameras, stark colors and treatments, startling intercuts, poetic visual representation, etc etc etc) into a gorgeous, meticulous period symphony like Jansco’s Red Psalm remade as a much more approachable fairy tale. He only managed to get one other project greenlighted before his non-socialist-realist aesthetics and bisexuality got him shut away in prison, hard-labor, and studio blacklisting for 15 years, the tragedy of which cannot be overstated. Even Tarkovsky, friend and mutual inspiration, wrote ignored letters to the authorities on his behalf.
Footprints on the Moon [Luigi Bazzoni, 1975, 96m]
All I knew: only outweirded, as far as giallos go, by the incredible Death Laid an Egg; involves the moon; involves Klaus Kinski. Since it was put out by a UK label called Shameless, I was expecting weird 70s art-trash. In fact, what I got is something far more ephemeral, a moody, quiet, stylish treatment of that favorite subject of 70s cinema, the alienation of modern life (here equated, perhaps, to being abandoned by a moon-mission). All this framed as an understated but gripping mystery story of memory, persecution, and perplexing/fascinating interpolations of disturbing scientific experimentation. In short, something with more ties to Criterion than grindhouse. Or at least something blending the two impulses very nicely for my tastes (in no small part thanks to the elegantly weird cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, perfecting his balancing act for his contributions to Apocalypse Now four years later; he’s especially good here with architecture and the portrayal of isolation). Which is to say that it’s both pulpy enough to be fairly overlooked now, and yet gets branded boring and pretentious by segments of the giallo audience. But about perfect for my tastes.
Dark Star [John Carpenter, 1974, 83m]
Reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s debut, Bad Taste, this is clever, ridiculous cinema on the microbudget. All the inventively terrible effects really couldn’t be bettered had there been more money to throw at them, though. I want no other monster than the glorified beach ball we get here.
Possession [Andrezej Zulawski, 1981, rewatch]
So much to say that I can barely even manage to get any of it down here. I love how this creates a sense of very real interpersonal breakdown then intensifies by wildly escalating stages: hysterical performative excess, harsh metaphors of loss and isolation and mutual destruction, the brutality and madness of giallo (prefigured in the soundtrack), the phantasmagoric, the religious, and finally, neatly wrapping up all of these, the apocalyptic. Damn damn damn this is brilliant.
La Vie Nouvelle [Philippe Grandrieux, 2002, rewatch]
Fierce and entirely uncompromising, La Vie Nouvelle is a vision of power and powerlessness in a compromised humanity. Its sheer force of image makes it hard to watch and perhaps harder to recommend, but even harder for me not to acknowledge as an extraordinarily effective statement of art and social dissection. As a post-Balkan war Orpheus retelling, its realist nightclub-Hades is as harrowing as any put to film. And in its gradual movement from concrete images of the despair of the utterly trapped — dogs snarling and wheeling in cages in barbaric parody of the humans that keep them, an excruciatingly drawn out forced haircut to which words cannot do justice — to increasingly abstracted and phantasmagoric visions, the film manages to ground even its most utterly bizarre moments in a sense of the bitterly real. This is what gives them their devastating power. The entire continuum of concrete to abstract image is unified by Grandrieux’s great strength as a director, his ability to evoke sheer affect, to make his viewers feel everything exactly. It’s hard to explain the film’s visceral force without understanding how trapped even the viewer becomes here, trapped into total identification with the sensations of the characters on screen. The performances, especially that of Anna Mouglalis’ captive nightclub performer Eurydice, are deadly convincing, but it’s ultimately Grandrieux’s visual language that cuts off any escape. The obscurity of night and lack of focus, extreme visual dislocation and deformation, images at the very threshold of the capabilities of eye and camera to resolve meaning from them, even the very sequencing which eschews narrative cues in favor of the affective and thematic — this is Grandrieux’s entirely consistent and highly potent remaking of cinematic language, extremely experimental yet terribly evocative. And it works. It works all too well.
Contempt [Jean-Luc Godard, 1963]
This seems to be one of of those cases where story is somewhat superceded by formal concerns. I do like the story in its meticulous rendering of the inexplicability of (loss of) love, but while the writing seems to wind in endless circles without progress or outlet, it is the circular pans and interruptions of the camera and the odd interpolations of the mis-en-abime filmmaking that seem to dart considerably further. Also, as has been noted, Jack Palance is amazing here. Jack Palance’s chin is amazing. Jack Palance’s reaction to the dailies is amazing. And I’m reminded that I actually need to watch more Fritz Lang.
La Marge [Walerian Borowczyk, 1976]
At some point in his late career, someone asked Borowczyk if he’d always focus his films on sex and his answer was something like “all films are about sex, mine are just open about it”. Which is both a fair point, and also pretty evasive in his case. Was there really not enough discussion of sex in 70s cinema? Really? And are real-time sequences of bodies in motion really the way to improve the discourse?I’d argue, no. This is a movie composed of many intriguing moments and sound design decisions, undermined by the story they lie in service of — the unmaking of a man and of his family through adultery — which comes off too stripped of nuance and elaboration to really engage or convey much feeling. Borowczyk’s dubious decision seems to have been to convey whatever nuance there is, and nearly all of his character interaction, through sex itself and through bodies, isolated and together. Assuming this is really an area of philosophic interest for him beyond the erotic (or beyond the simple softcore market to which his fixations have mostly been relegated), I’m just not so sure that he was successful here in conveying whatever it was he wanted to convey. It’s just too simple, the situation too morally uninteresting, the characters too stripped of depth, Joe Dallessandro’s face too silly (granted, for me he cannot escape the Warhol/Morrissey ridiculousness I’ve seen him in previously), the soundtracking (Elton John! Pink Floyd) too bloated and distracting and ultimately funny, not to squander its pleasures almost completely.
Shadow of the Fern [Frantisek Vlacil, 1984]
Like a lot of later Vlacil, somewhat uneven but still effective in capturing its protagonists’ claustrophobic lack of options. Here, I especially like the extreme subjectivity and weird intercutting of scenes for a disjointed and achronological telling of what could otherwise be a pretty ordinary on-the-run-from-bad-decisions picture.
Shadows of a Hot Summer [Frantisek Vlacil, 1978, 100m]
Sort of like a really understated action movie with plenty tension but not much action. Remnants of the German army in 1947 (one of them is Death from Deserters and Nomads) hold a family hostage in their hill farmstead, waiting for one of their number to recover — but will they leave if their demands are met, or must the family take action? Decent. Some pretty good wailing Zdenek Liska horn arrangements and clanking bells to heighten the atmosphere as well.
Bells of Atlantis [Ian Hugo, 1952, 9m]
Basically all I know of Anais Nin is that she tried to befriend Anna Kavan and was (of course) ignored, but this is certainly another intriguing detail — Nin narrates these rippling abstractions from here House of Incest, heightening their otherworldliness even as they ground it in some sort of vague narrative. Good early electronic music from Louis and Bebe Barron, too.
Satan Bouche un Coin [Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, 1968, 10m]
A nightmare circus (cirque des cauchemares?) of sex and death, hypnotic and disturbing and capering to a score straight out of some darkened carnival.
Jak daleko stąd, jak blisko [“How Far Away, How Near”, Tadeusz Konwicki, 1972]
“In 83 minutes, I will kill a man.” Films like this are my explanation and justification. I spend these hours digging through cinema history precisely that I may find items like this, this early 70s Polish surrealism, eerie and mythic and inventively shot, sad and nostalgic and mournful of both past and future, post-modern and narratively intricate and wholly engaging. Made in the year between Zulawski’s Third Part of the Night and and Has’ Hourglass Sanatorium, Konwicki’s film winds an only slightly less feverish path through the subjective spaces of personal and cultural history. And from near-total inscrutability at the start, it actually manages to weave an intelligible and affecting story. I’m becoming somewhat convinced that the 70s were to Poland what the 60s were to Czechoslovakia.
Sex and Fury [Norifumi Suzuki, 1973, 88m]
So this is Pinky cinema. I’m sure all of Japanese exploitation is not nearly as gorgeous and intricately (albeit absurdly) plotted and designed as this, but it’s certainly an excellent entry into the genre. Set against Meji-era westernizing influences that give this a lavish victorian feel (steampunk, practically), the color, costumes, graceful motions and composition, and dense political intrigues all collect to elevate what is essentially a revenge melodrama into something rather more memorable. Not that the action here wouldn’t make for a totally serviceable revenge melodrama ion its own right, but this is better.
Girl Boss Guerrilla [Norifumi Suzuki, 1972, 84m]
With thinner plotting and less design sense, this is the more predictable Pinky counterpart to Sex and Fury. Girl gangs! Seashore brawling! Yakuza! Scantily-clad whippings! It’s still undeniably awesome in many places, but given our focus on a super-tough (though adorable) girl gang, I’m sort of pissed off with how powerless and man-reliant they were when dealing with the Yakuza for most of the movie.
Adelheid [Frantisek Vlacil, 1970, 98m]
How does anyone make movies about world war two and its fallout? Often, they’re either they’re blandly unambiguous to the point of having really nothing to say (for we all know who the agressors and victims there were, don’t we?) or they dare court moral ambiguity and controversy and stumble out into increasingly precarious terrain. Which I suppose is one of the ways in which one makes a meaningful film about world war two, dicey as some of these accounts may be. Adelheid is among these latter cases. The film is set immediately post-war in formerly German-speaking Sudentenland, a district of Czechoslovakia whose German-race Czech citizens backed Germany in the war and are being displaced by new Czech settlers. We don’t see much of this disgraced (obviously disgraceful?) population. We hear that those who remained are living in “camps”, and meet exactly one of them: Adelheid, the daughter of a prominent Nazi on his way to the gallows, reduced to a forced servitude in her former family home, which has just been handed over to a new resident, Czech ex-RAF Viktor, recently returned home, desperately alone and in ill-health. The specter that hangs over both of these characters is that the house is neither of theirs, but once that of a Jewish family whose fate can be supposed but is never discussed or elaborated on. Of course, our sympathies lie with the Czechs — why shouldn’t they reclaim these properties from the aggressors? — yet, through a complicated abandonment by first western europe and then Slovakia, the Czech government had been forced to cede control to Nazi Germany largely without military resistance. Are they blameless victims then? Well, that’s a far more complicated question than I feel prepared to come up with an opinion on. They capitulated, yes, but under extreme duress and not without an underground resistance throughout the war that came at a heavy price in German retaliation. This sort of unresolvable ambiguity of duty and compromise in the face of horrendous world events is the minefield that Vlacil, and Viktor, must tread. The Czech military are hardly sympathetic here, first seen beating Viktor on the train just prior to his arrival after mistaking him for a German, later stopping by the house to over-indulge in pilfered liqueur, fire pot shots at the frescoes, and humiliate Adelheid. Adelheid herself is something of a cypher, largely voiceless due to the language gap, represented only by her modest actions and swastika-echoes of her upbringing glimpsed in an old journal. The key moment may be her sole instance of release late in the film, a half-crazed pleasure creeping across her face as she beats back at family history and Czech dominance alike. A dark, subtle, troubling portrait of a difficult and nuanced situation. It is Vlacil’s empathetic eye to these nuances that presumably made Adelheid his last feature film until 1977. Visually, the film unfolds in confident eye-motions that serve well to explore the details of the scenery, intercut with experiments in film stock and color that mostly feel slightly at odds with the rest, but whose boldness I can’t help but appreciate. Zdenek Liska’s score is a relatively straight-forward matter of arrangement from Bach and Beethoven that is somehow both bold and unobtrusive, though not especially memorable in itself.
The Glass Harmonica [Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, 1968, 19m]
So this is what Khrzhanovskiy made his name on way back before his recent live-action feature A Room and a Half. Some totally worthwhile design and machinery animation, but buried in blatant art cut-outs and references (Magritte, Bosch, practically all of surrealism), in service of an even more blatant story on the evils of capitalism and, yes, the Jewishness that apparently goes hand-in-hand with it. There is no inferred anti-semitism here, it’s all laid out right on the surface. Must be viewed as a product of its time, but still clumsy and reprehensible.
The Story of One Crime [Fyodor Khitruk, 1962, 20m]
Lame all-society-is-culpable parable about a man kept awake by inconsiderate neighbors, rendered in total Mr. Magoo-style, which apparently was huge at the time. I got bored real quick.
Passions of Spies [Efin Gamburg, 1967, 21m]
Though not as bored as I was going to get while watching this goofy spy-movie parody. Features some of the best actual animation of this bunch but the jokes quickly overstayed any/all welcome.
Tale of Tales [Yuri Norstein, 1979, 29m]
And after the opening three selections, I can appreciate Yuri Norstein all the more for the grace, invention, ambiguity, and sheer aesthetics on display here. And as M observes, it’s not hard to see why he works on his films alone. Abstracted, surreal, seemingly highly personal, this seems to wander through semi-inscrutable areas of Norstein’s memory — its strength and success is that it’s totally engaging and somehow affecting even without being able to identify most of the reference points (besides the wider ones that extend outside the personal — the departing soldiers, for instance). Engorssing.
Ruka [Jiri Trnka, 1965, 18m, rewatch]
Even more blatant on second viewing, but some of the most blatant concepts are still totally great (when the puppet receives its strings). I guess that Trnka had some guilt about his career.
Darkness, Light, Darkness [Jan Svankmajer, 1988, 8m, rewatch]
I can always watch this one, I think. Quick, hilarious, very very dark.
January 2011 (20 features):
Simple Men [Hal Hartley, 1992, rewatch]
“There’s only trouble and desire. There’s only trouble and desire.” Hal Hartley’s writing and dialogue always have something slightly artificial and ridiculous, about then, but this the one where he really dives in head first. Half awkward community theater, half semi-serious(?) philosophic melodrama, all sort of brilliant. Best Sonic Youth dance choreography ever.
Trash [Paul Morrissey, 1970, 110m]
A total train wreck in almost every way, like Liquid Sky shorn of all of its ambition. But still, there’s a pricelessness, and even a charm, to getting to watch these sorts of characters stumble around their broken lives.
Santa Sangre [Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989]
Actually probably the most human film I’ve seen from Jodorowsky. More conventional, yes, but hardly conventional by anyone else’s standards. The visuals are still often completely bizarre and brilliant, but much more involving, storywise, than his past work due to the cosmic to the personal. Specifically the need to let go of the traumas of the past in favor of the hope offered by the future, conveyed in the poetic grotesque of a sort of surrealist slasher film. Circuses, mexican wrestling, vivid ghost-visions, and a very creepy heretic cult. M prefers this one and while I’m inclined to go with the Holy Mountain on sheer lunacy and grandiosity of design and vision, but this is definitely the more engaging, and perhaps even moving.
El Topo [Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970, rewatch]
Allegorical! It’s just insane now much feverish invention Jodorowsky is able to pack into each of his films. It’s incredible that any of these were completed at all, really. I think I’m unable to say much in a quick reaction like this because, basically, where to even start?
The Holy Mountain [Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973, rewatch]
It almost made sense this time!
Godzilla vs. Gigan [Jun Fukuda, 1972]
Did anyone else noticed how much Gigan resembles a roasted thanksgiving turkey, but with the head still on and at the wrong end? But why does godzilla flail his arms so much? And what was that other bugs-disguised as people movie. The one where they were posing as a suburban family? Oh yeah, this.
Fehérlófia [Marcell Jankovics, 1981, 81m]
It’s amazing that this isn’t better known, as Jankovics’ folkloric epic is one of the best animated features I’ve ever seen. Actually, right now I can’t think of any better. The design, the color, the crazy strobing, the fantastic visually linked scene transitions, all the hidden detail and patterning and innuendo, and all rendered in actually really solid animation, even. Storywise, it’s a little simplified due to its folkloric nature, but I love its cyclicness, and there seems to be a lot of cryptic background information poking through the main story arc. And have I mentioned the sound design and the fantastic voice acting? There’s never been a DVD release with English subs, but it’s been fan-subbed and uploaded to Youtube in full, fortunately.
Sisyphus [Marcell Jankovics, 1974, 2m]
Most notable for the striking way that the figural style is in constant flux, which lends the short a highly gestural kinetic feeling. It also makes it a sort of survey of early-modern minimalism, in a way. Somehow this got bought and used in a car ad during the 2008 Superbowl, evidently. Who knew 70s Hungarian art animation was so markettable.
Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea [Jindrich Polak, 1977, 93m]
Ikarie X-B 1 director Polak returns to sci-fi with this absurd and enjoyably convoluted time travel tale of twins, Nazis on anti-aging pills, and overzealous dish soap set in the 1990s. A little hammy at times, but mostly quite funny and quite clever. Also features annoying American time-tourists and a totally original solution to its time-loop problem.
Klaabu [Avo Paistik, 1978, 10m]
An adorable anthropomorphic baby-voiced egg from Estonia goes on an advenutre far too psychedelic for actual children, probably. Or maybe too psychedelic for anyone other than real babies. Not too sure. Also, when his antennae shorten, he’s invisible! Of course. Sven Grunberg, who did the awesome prog/synth scoring for Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel also did the music and sound design for this!
Klaabu Nipi Tige Kala [Avo Paistik, 1979, 10m]
Maybe it’s the Gilliap-style non-synth swing band soundtrack, but this one in place of Grunberg’s synthesizers, but this sailing-themed sequel is oddly lacking. However:
Klaabu in Space [“Klaabu Kosmoses”, Avo Paistik, 1981, 15m]
Actually way less trippy than the first film (though more trippy than the second), which I know is a pretty bold statement to make about a short in which a space-traveling egg attempts to save a planet of giant strawberries from baggy ravenous mushroom-trumpets. But Grunberg is back and totally at home in space-theme-mode. Note that Grunberg and Paistik would collaborate again on the longer Naksitrallid (which appears to be about a plague of cats) and its sequel.
Josef Killian [Pavel Juracek, 1963, 38m]
A routine(?) cat rental becomes a perplexing problem when the rental agency suddenly disappears before out protagonist can return his charge. Without directly adapting any Kafka in particular, this gets the Kafkaesque feeling just right: inexplicable bureaucratic motions, strangely distanced interpersonal interactions, an often subtle but pervasive unreality without all that much that is actually impossible. Notable bits include the repository of out-of-date-propaganda during the opening, the amazing office-waiting-room sequence, the montage of miscommunication on the street, the shower ascending the stairs. Juracek only directed a few hopelessly obscure films of his own, but screenwrote memorable Czech sci-fis Late August at the Ozone Hotel and Ikarie X-B 1, and even parts of Daisies.
July Rain [Marlen Khutsiev, 1966, 107m]
It’s hard to say exactly how radical this modest New Wave-inflected story would have been in 60s Russia, but it was enough to get its director shut down (warned about the plotlessness and Socialist Realism-irrelevant nature of his prior feature, I Am 20, he did nothing to ammend that position here). As such, it is a notable crystallization of its time and of the lives of educated Russian urbanites, and perhaps an irreplaceable vision, in long gliding street scenes, of the entire quotidian Muscovite world. What plot there is concerns a young women caught in the rain and lent a coat with by a man she never sees again. Their phantom relationship, anticipated on scattered phone conversation but never realized, is cleverly projected beyond the film, leaving the young women’s gradual drift away from her fiance not so much a turning to a new lover but a rejection of the social expectation of marriage altogether. (Again, hard to say how radical this may have been at the time.) Refreshing.
Death Laid An Egg [Giulio Questi, 1968, 86m]
This comes form one of my favorite filmmaking angles: an avant-garde minded talent bristling with ideas and working in ostensibly total genre formats. Here, a sort of giallo, if you buy the basic premise: a murderous love triangle at an industrial poultry facility. But it’s much more. As with Questi’s even weirder later Arcana, the pulp set-up is just a framework for various blatant-yet-vague social satire (jump from godawful ad-copy of chickens in smoking jackets to real dinner party), ideas about business, power, and morality, sexual deviation (genre-trapping or part of the point?) and gorgeously shizophrenic intercutting. Dang, this was so good. Must rewatch and do a real write-up sometime soon.
notes for later:
-mutant chickens that appear to be human brains. (smashing up the brain — things about to get really crazy, yes?)
-idyllic character introduction in the chicken run
-bad art! everywhere!
RoboGeisha [Noboru Iguchi, 2009, 104m]
This epic of utterly ridiculous of b-film violence, melodrama, and tastelessness is the follow-up to Iguchi’s slightly less absurd Machine Girl, from the year before. Calling that story of a minigun-armed (literally her arm) schoolgirl less absurd than anything should give you something of an idea as to how out of control this movie is. On the one hand, this is a terrible movie. Tacky CGI (tank legs!), ludicrous writing, the works. On the other hand, the terribleness is often of an intentional, highly inspired cult-homage variety. When the giant man-in-suit robot karate chops the tiny building in half, it’s just classic b-garbage fun. When the building spurts a geyser of blood from its wound, we’re seeing something incredible. Similarly, the subtitles tend to just be explanations of what just happened on screen (“shrimp in eyes! I can’t see!”) which is either hysterical writing, or hysterical fake bad subtitling. It doesn’t really matter. I think the subtitles were my favorite part for this reason. And often, the dreadful competing sisters melodrama at the core of the plot actually takes on an operatic grandiosity that is pretty hard to hate, as well. Iguchi’s natural sophmoricness (butt swords! spurting acid breast milk!), on the other hand, is both his curse and gift. I dunno. I usual get irked by movies that seem to be so self-consciously cult-seeking, but Iguchi’s manic glee for his material is pretty hard not to get caught up in, as well. I think I can appreciate that he isn’t remaking classic b-film effects so much as using modern effects with an awareness that they will look ridiculous 20 years from now, which actually makes this less homage and more true b-film inspiration.
Robo Vampire [Godfrey Ho, 1988, 90m]
Cardboard-armored knock-off robocop must face off against a sinister drug cartel, Chinese hopping vampires (oh the untold menace of… hopping like a bunny), scantily clad ghost women, gorilla-masked vampire beasts that shoot sparklers from their hands. Unlike RoboGeisha, however, this seems pretty much entirely straight-faced. I think it might have been an intended blockbuster back in ‘88 Hong Kong. (Maybe it was a blockbuster, who knows). I think the story here is that the notorious Ed Wood-like Ho would shoot low-budget actio movies, than cobble his footage with stock and bits of other films he’d acquired the rights to in order to make new, utterly incoherent movies tied together by new terrible overdubs. This may explain why there seem to be several unrealted movies going on here. (In particular, there’s an extraneous extra action movie going on that probably insn’t related to our robo/vampires dramatic core.) All that taken into account, this is still a pretty thoroughly inspiring bit of z-grade cinema. Though admittedly only partly attentive to it (drawing at the same time), I was never bored by anything that I happened to be looking at. SHUDDER as undead monks hop in the air, very slowly, arms out-stretch. THRILL as a pie-tin-armored narcotics agent shoots sparks. MOURN the doomed love between a sexy ghost and her gorilla-faced vampire beast husband. DAZZLE at the extremely low speed chase sequence.
L’Eden et Apres [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1970, 93m]
So singularly Robbe-Grillet: a post-modern pulp story of murder, torture, and stolen paintings draped in noir, erotica, textual confusion, and pristine aesthetics: austere all-white interiors, gritty industrial mazes, mirrors, hard lines, the human (primarily female) body as form. It’s certainly (intentionally) confusing, but I don’t mind that exactly. More interesting just to mull and to consider: what is “real” and what does that even mean in the context of this story, what sort of innocence is lost upon leaving Eden (if Eden has been left?), what exactly does the stranger bring to Eden’s world, etc. Or even more interesting to just soak in the film as film, film as image, film as story where story need not imply reality of any kind. I’d like to say much much more of this film that struck me so strongly and compellingly, but really words aren’t going to suffice to explain what makes this work so well. From its dreamed, woodenly unreal opening through the harsh psychosexual collaging of the later stages, Eden and After really just needs to be seen to be appreciated or explained.
Savior of the Earth [Su-yong Jeong, 1983, 69m]
Iffy south korean animated Tron rip-off, rendered even more iffy and hilarious by the clumsy fan-dubbing, with all the male voices apparently the work of a single impressively committed teen. Actually, yjr dubbing is entirely appropriate to the some of the truly baffling animation and scene decisions. Then again, this was made just a year after the actual tron, which is pretty impressive turn-around.
Dementia 13 [Francis Ford Coppola, 1963]
Early F.F. Coppola effort is a fairly predictable (though perhaps less so for its time) slasher story of an inheritance and axe-weilding psycho in a creepy old Irish manor, elevated slightly by stark lighting of a kind that would appear to greater effect in the Godfather a decade later, psychological trauma flashbacks, and one weird broken-toy-shop set piece. Probably more of interest as early Coppola than as horror filmmaking, but it’s also probably preferable to plenty of its contemporaries anyway.
Liquid Sky [Slava Tsukerman, 1982]
I don’t think it’s possible to get more 1982 than this. The awful/fantastic music, the make-up, the clothes, the psychedelic video interludes, the script. Totally absurd but actually pretty inspiring in its way. Also seems mercifully self-aware of it’s utter absurdity and weirdo cultural artifact status.
The Illusionist [Sylvain Chomet, 2010, 90m]
What I actually liked a lot, contrary to seemingly most reactions, was the slow pacing. Or rather the tone, the mood, that the slow pacing allows. At no point did I wonder how much longer the film would go on: I was totally drawn into the muted art and gorgeous location design. And it made me want to travel. And the animation, the character mannerisms, the lighting, the visual style, even (but for a couple overuses) the CGI compositing — all very good. The story, however, failed me. As a Tati hommage, it’s lovely, and the one scene that blatantly acknowledges that we’ve been watching M. Hulot the whole time is totally fantastic. But honestly, I don’t actually love Jacques Tati that much. And this was hardly up to his standards of storytelling even. The character motivations were thin, in particular Alice was irritatingly shallow and mercenary in her aims (sympathetically, I’d put down her actions to naivete, but she still needs to be roughly woken up). What should we take away from the central relationship? I hate to say it, but the only conclusion is that our illusionist should never have bought his surrogate daughter the shoes — luxury corrupts and at a glimpse of kindness and charity Alice becomes essentially awful, insatiable in her desires. I hate to take this message away, but if she was meant to be sympathetic, surely she could have at least kept the original shoes out of some kind of sentiment and not cast them off immediately for a more expensive pair. Or not busted into the dressing room and unthankingly swiped the new pair. ARRRRRGH. Why was it written like this? I think we’re supposed to assume she believes in magic, not money, but this isn’t really clear from the film, and is pretty hard to swallow regardless. The end-of-an-age finish is nicely melancholic enough, but not really properly prepared by the film that preceded it, sadly. If only Chomet had spent more time developing that angle rather than vampiric fake-children.
The Drummer for the Red Cross / Bubeník Cerveného kríza [Juraj Jakubisko, 1977, 13m]
Striking 70s avant-psych short about the plight of children in wartime, from the extremely talented director of Birds, Orphans, Fools, made in the Normalization gap between Jakubisko’s forced stop of work on See You in Hell, Gentlemen in 1970 and his return with Build a House, Plant a Tree in 1980. Unable to work on features for his past subversions, Jakubisko made a series of shorts and television pieces, among them this work by request of the International Red Cross. I’ve heard that Jakubisko returned to feature film-making chastened and forever less thrilling than his 1960s origins, and if that is the case, this one, with its gorgeously strange color treatments and haunting images, seems clearly to belong with the earlier work rather than the later. Some of his finest image-making, and I’m quite partial to the 70s synth soundtrack as well.
Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator [Dusan Makajevev, 1967]
Makavejev’s conflicting cynicism and whimsy collide again in his second feature, an intercutting of a fictional love story with a murder investigation and what appears to be real interview footage on criminology, sex, and eggs. Weird, inventive, equally cute and oppressive. Viva la Black Wave!
Threads [Mick Jackson, 1984]
This must have been utterly terrifying in 1984. Nuclear apocalypse, explained with a clear plausible documentary realism, to a BBC-viewing public to whom a violent end to the Cold War would have seemed all to real as it was. Even now there’s a gut-sucking matter-of-factness to these haunting images that makes them difficult to watch in places. Even without the specter of nuclear cataclysm (or at least a much lessened one) Threads is entirely effective. Especially for a 1984 tv production. There’s nothing campy here — the acting is chillingly convincing and there’s a certain subdued observational detail that makes even the the most apocalyptic sequences seem measured and reasonable and quite possible true. At the same time, this is a far from humorless portrayal. Dryly academic as it often seems, there’s also has a certain extremely dry irony to its juxtapositions and observations that can be terribly funny at times. (Post-attack children in a ruined community hall watching creepy archival footage of animal skeletons on an old program with jaunty music — “And can you guess what skeleton this is? That’s right, a CAT”. It’s perfect.) In these sequences and elsewhere, the editing of various stock and acted footage is extremely effective and actually pretty inventively experimental. Certainly much more so than I can imagine any contemporary account being. And did I mention that the “human story” that frames this is one of the most bitterly unsentimental anywhere? Did I mention that I pretty much loved this despite its being totally horrifying? Good work BBC. Now if only Mick Jackson’s move from television productions like this into real films hadn’t been directly into Hollywood nonsense like The Bodyguard and Volcano.
Lest this be unreadably long on the page (43 films + various shorts in two months, yikes) I’ll throw it under a jump, but first, to tantalize you:
All these, and MORE, below:
The Notebook, the Proof, the Third Lie [Agota Kristof, 1993]
The eeriest of recollections of world war II and its aftermath, at first a war story recounted in clipped sociopathic objectivity, later becoming a study in subjectivity and deep, prolonged sadness. Full of images I will not forget.
The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories [Bruno Schulz, 1933]
Halucinatory poetic nostalgia, haunting and fanciful and vivid to extremes of fountaining sunscattered prose. Schulz somehow became known as the “Polish Kafka” but this is an entirely different beast, less cynical and much more lavishly described, however concurrently bizarre.
Sleep Has His House [Anna Kavan, 1973]
Though darker and more overtly dreamworld-dwelling (netherworld dwelling?) than Street of Crocodiles, this is Anna Kavan’s equivalent: a ghostly story (memoir?) of a systematic retreat from reality, conveyed near entirely in nocturnal inner visions.
Recollections of the Golden Triangle [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1978]
Robbe-Grillet spent the 70s writing what seems like one ravingly weird avant-garde noir, equal parts scalpel-sharp aesthetics, postmodern-brilliance, and prurient pulp trashiness. This might be the most condensed single “novel” to float up to the top of the meta-work in book form.
Nevermore [Marie Redonnet, 1996]
Hotel Splendid [Marie Redonnet, 1994]
Austere, darkly funny post-Beckett accounts of human disappointment, near-affectless yet affecting.
The Melancholy of Resistance [László Krasznahorkai, 1989]
A finely-worked parable unrest, authority, and the abuse of power condesning 20th century Hungary into a span of a few days. Masterful but somehow less immediate than Kristof’s alternate version of Hungarian experience.
Diary of the War of the Pig [Adolfo Bioy-Casares, 1969]
The Lime Works [Thomas Bernhard, 1971]
The Baron in the Trees [Italo Calvino, 1957]
Animal Inside [László Krasznahorkai, 2010]
Auricle / Icebreaker [Alisha Piercy, 2010]
Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine [Stanley Crawford, 1971]
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass [Bruno Schulz, 1937]
Journey to the End of Night, Louis-Fernand Celine, 1932]
Fantomas [Marcel Allain, 1911]
Lint (Acme Novelty Library #20) [Chris Ware, 2010]
Gaylord Phoenix [Edie Fake, 2003ish-2010]
Travel [Yuichi Yokoyama, 2008]
X’ed Out [Charles Burns, 2010]
Une Semaine De Bonté [Max Ernst, 1934]
Monster Parade [Ben Catmull, 2006]
Uptight #3 [Jordan Crane, 2008]
Kuš! Comics Anthology #7 [compilation, 2010]
Finding Joy [Luke Ramsey, 2008]
I was going to try to summarize the entire year, but it’ll take too long to transcribe all the books I read so, in brief:
-Best books read this year: Jorge Louis Borges - Collected Fictions (finished this year, mostly read last), Anna Kavan - Ice, Alain Robbe-Grillet - La Belle Captive, Agota Kristof - The Notebook, the Proof, the Third Lie, and Bruno Schulz - the Street of Crocodiles.
-Total novels/collections read this year: 83
-Total comic books read this year: 22
-Total non-fiction read this year: 1 (oops)