Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Anarchy in Czechoslovakia

Anarchy in Czechoslovakia

Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the Charleston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).

The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.

The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.

I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.

 

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I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba, Cuba-Soviet Union, 1964)

Extraordinary

Extraordinary

A few posts back I wrote about the extraordinary cinematography of Ivan’s Childhood (Soviet Union, 1962) and how Tarkovsky wanted it to look as if it had been shot by Sergey Urusevskiy. This one is and I’m sure this is the most sensational cinematography I have ever seen. Teamed with director Mikhail Kalatozov, with whom he made The Cranes Are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957), Urusevskiy shot this propaganda film celebrating the Cuban Revolution of a few years earlier. Many critics bemoan the narrative, with its focus on types rather than individuals, and suggest the politics are naive, but are united in their praise of Urusevskiy. For me the narrative, about American imperialism, is entirely satisfactory and reminds us, 50 years on, that the US penchant for interference in other countries, in the interests of US corporations, remains undiminished. Four stories, focusing on a prostitute, a student, and two farmers, show how the people were exploited under the US-backed dictator, Batista; while these are effective it is the cinematography that makes it one of the  greatest movies ever made.

In the 21st century we are spoiled by the effects that can be created by CGI. I mean spoiled in the sense that cinema can never be the same again because the fact that anything can be shown means that nothing is special. Okay, that may be an overstatement, I did find the streets of Paris folding over in Inception (US-UK, 2010) impressive, but that experience is increasingly rare. In watching the long elaborate takes that fill I Am Cuba I find myself constantly assuming that CGI must have been used to cover the ‘joins’ except, of course, there was no CGI in 1964. There wasn’t even the steadicam. And Urusevskiy somehow manages to, despite often extremely rapid movement, beautifully compose the shots! His penchant for Dutch (canted) angles give the Social Realist narrative an Expressionist sensibility that intensely portrays the characters’ anguish caused by their exploitation. To give an idea of the complexity of some of the shots I’ve pinched this from Wikipedia:

 the camera follows a flag over a body, held high on a stetcher, along a crowded street. Then it stops and slowly moves upwards for at least four storeys until it is filming the flagged body from above a building. Without stopping it then starts tracking sideways and enters through a window into a cigar factory, then goes straight towards a rear window where the cigar workers are watching the procession. The camera finally passes through the window and appears to float along over the middle of the street between the buildings.

Sample the opening five minutes:

Now get hold of the film.

The Trip to Italy (UK, 2014)

Perfect doubt act

Perfect doubt act

This sequel to The Trip (UK. 2010) is the same as before as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riff against one another as, usually, friendly, comedian rivals. The improvisation is stunningly high in quality and often difficult to keep up with as the depth of reference, both cultural and to the ennui of middle age, is delivered with such rapidity that laughter has to be stifled or the next hilarious observation might be missed.

Despite the humour, the series is melancholy in nature as one of the themes is male middle age angst, emphasised in the regular use of the autumnal music of Mahler, I Am Lost to the World, and Strauss, At Twilght. At one point Coogan muses that he is now invisible to young woman that surround them on a restaurant balcony. To solve the problem, he suggests that he and Brydon look the other way.

California Dreamin’ (Endless) (Romania, 2007)

Cultures and generations clash

Cultures and generations clash

The debut director, Cristian Nemescu, along with his sound editor Andrei Toncu, died in a car crash before this film was completed; hence the ‘endless’ (i.e. ‘unfinished’).  The film world lost great talent because California Dreamin’ is a striking debut. It pits small town Romania against Americans, or specifically, NATO troops who are trying to get radar equipment, via train, to the Serbian border during the Civil War. However, the local station master, superbly played by Razvan Vasilescu) has a grudge against the US as they failed to liberate him, and his family, at the end of  World War II. He keeps the train ‘grounded’ for five days while the laborious government bureaucracy tries to catch up with him. Even when the Minister for Transport arrives, he remains implacable.

He’s also bleeding the village dry through his corruption. It’s something then, that we can have a grudging admiration for this character, Doiaru, as he fights a losing battle with his 17 year-old daughter, seductively played by Maria Dinulescu, who falls for one of the Americans.

Nemescu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tudor Voican, is equally scathing, and sympathetic to, both his native Romanians and the Americans, embodied particularly by the ‘no nonsense’ Captain Jones (Armand Assante). He never fails to exploit the humour of the situation; the Elvis impersonator at the village’s 100th anniversary celebrations (which is a repeat of one they had a few months earlier) is a particular highlight. Monica’s (Dinelescu) whirlwind ‘romance’ with the soldier is well portrayed; she’s convincingly far more knowing than her 17 years.

Its two and a half hour running town could, and may have been, cut but it was right that the producer put the film out in the state it was at Nemescu’s demise. If Nemescu’s eye for the absurd is sharp I was less impressed by the Dogma style handheld camera, occasionally using telephoto lens which created a great deal of shake.

 

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.

Knife in the Water (Nóz w wodzie, 1962, Poland)

Tension to cut with a knife

Tension to cut with a knife

Polanski’s debut, and his only fully Polish production, combines brilliant cinematography, by  Jerzy Lipman, with a claustrophobic narrative of a threesome on the, mostly, open lake. Polanski made a virtue of the cramped conditions, on a yacht, of the shoot by using deep focus compositions such as the one below. You get the impression of being close to the action at the same time as  seeing the open spaces that surround the yacht.

The unusual composition was a result of the cramped shooting conditions

The unusual composition was a result of the cramped shooting conditions

The opening sequence renders two, of the three, protagonists literally faceless as their visages are obscured behind the car windscreen. The moment Polanski’s name, as director, leaves the screen they appear. But even then we can’t hear what they are saying; they may be bickering. The ‘young man’, a hitchhiker, is picked up and it becomes clear that Andrzej wishes to show off; probably to impress his wife, Krystyna. Despite their, putatively, communist milieu, Andrzej and Krystyna appear to be the quintessential bourgeois couple; he’s a journalist, and they have their own yacht. They aren’t simply at loggerheads, however, as they obviously enjoy the teamwork required in sailing. There’s also no simplistic opposition that favours the young man (Polanksi was in his late 20s when the film was released) who’s shown to be both immaturely petulant as well as having an affecting naiveté.

Wife and husband unified

Wife and husband unified

I’ve no problem in labelling Polanski an auteur and it’s no surprise that the tension between the ‘young man’ (that’s all he’s known as) and the older man should surface. However, the ‘twisted’ element often associated with Polanski is relatively subdued in this film.

It’s a striking debut and allowed Polanski a calling card to make films in Britain as he Khrushchev inspired ‘thaw’ had refrozen, and the Cold War got chillier; the Polish Establishment weren’t impressed by Knife on the Water, western critics were.

Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962, Soviet Union)

Poetic masterpiece

Poetic masterpiece

Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and he started his film career running; unquestionably he is a ‘poet’ of cinema. He went on to make a number of masterpieces, such as Andrei Roublev (1967) and Solaris (1972), and his elliptical visual style is evident in his debut. But what does it mean to be a ‘poet of cinema’?

Unlike some of his later films, Ivan’s Childhood has a straightforward narrative. The titular boy acts as a scout for the Red Army toward the end of the war. Although there is very little action, and there’s a tender middle section, without Ivan, where the young medic Masha is courted by Captain Kholin, the story is straightforward. There are, though, four heavily symbolic dream sequences; however, because these are dreams the poetry of the sections are motivated by the narrative. The reason, I believe, ‘poetry’ is an appropriate metaphor for his films is because the mise en scene isn’t simply at the service of the narrative. Takes will extend longer than necessary revelling in the extreme beauty of the image. These images do contribute to the narrative but break out of Hollywood’s hegemonic idea of ‘narrative economy’. This is aided by the extraordinary cinematography of Vadim Yusov, who was mimicking Sergey Urusevskiy’s work in the seminal film of the ‘Russian Thaw’, The Cranes are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957). In the second dream sequence Ivan suddenly finds himself in a well, his mother is standing next to the opening when she falls suddenly and water splashes over her. Proof that Tarkovsky uses the techniques of cinema brilliantly is the astonishing impact of the sequence that sounds bizarre in words.

Tarkovsky’s films are full of such moments and it is possible that Ivan’s Childhood benefits from its brevity (around 90 minutes); he later went for three-hour long epics that have their longuers (which, I hasten to add, are worth it). As it stands the compactness of this film makes it a devastating experience. If the stunning beauty, of often devastated landscapes, isn’t enough, the film ends with documentary footage concerning Goebbel’s suicide and poisoning of his children. Afterwards I needed to put my head in a bucket of ice.

Love from a 'grave'

Love from a ‘grave’

A note on the ‘tender middle section’. I’ve seen it suggested that the Captain is on the verge of sexually harassing Masha. He asks how many boyfriends she has had called ‘Lennie’. She says ‘none’; in reply he says you have one now. On the face of it he is being over-bearing but the performances bely that simplistic reading. They are soldiers ‘on the edge of death’ and so sex was, no doubt, something that was urgent (it may be the last time). Masha isn’t simply a victim of the Captain’s forwardness; she is interested. The scene ends, in a shot that last about 10 seconds, in the clinch (see above) that is shot from a ditch, almost as if it is a grave. Once again, I felt my breathe exhaling at the beauty and dramatic impact of the shot and narrative.