Spring Break!

April 25, 2011

No, this is not the title of an Eighties movie, although it well could be. What a Feeling! pauses for a few days, but will return, faster than you can hum “Don’t you/Forget about me.” In the meantime, there are many reviews here you haven’t read yet.


April 22, 2011

Veronika Voss is as appropriate a final film as one could hope for from the late R.W. Fassbinder. It carries a sense of decisiveness about it, a summing-up quality just right for a last statement; it also contains spooky connections to Fassbinder’s real-life demise, since Veronika Voss is a cinematic illusionist who becomes dependent on drugs, as did, tragically, the director. Everything seems elegiac: the exquisite black-and-white photography, the somber tone of the performances, the bleak absence of hope. The clarity, the restraint, the sadness with which Fassbinder presents the story contribute to the sense of desperate finality; and his own brief physical presence in an early scene (peering over the heroine’s shoulder in a moviehouse) certainly seems, in retrospect, like a calculated farewell to the cinema, and to life.

Leave it to Fassbinder—he would go and make one more movie before he ran out of breath last year, and make it as inappropriate a final statement as Veronika Voss is a fitting one. Querelle is a gaudy adaptation of Genet, with a flaming yellow-orange color scheme and determinedly artificial sets; it has the physical appearance of one of the Arthur Freed-Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave musicals as directed by Vincente Minnelli on hallucinogens.

It’s anchors aweigh as Fassbinder brings the psychosexual tensions of the seaside town into seething life, and puts his odd international cast through close encounters of every kind. Brad Davis’s Querelle (and this problematic actor is much better than his on-set interviews in Wizard of Babylon lead one to expect) is the object of lust from every angle; Jeanne Moreau sings in the bar central to the action; Franco Nero smolders as the ship’s captain who must have Querelle. Much of this remains on a fairly enigmatic level, as least on one viewing, even with the guiding intertitles that flash up every so often. Most of it is rapturously heightened, with Fassbinder stubbornly caring about the goings-on in the tacky costumes and loud lighting. Some of it is superb. Maybe Querelle is the appropriate parting shot from Fassbinder after all: Fassbinder seemed to want nothing so much as to disturb us; in his films, when people start feeling comfortable, they start to fade away. Querelle may make you feel many things, but comfortable isn’t one of them. Querelle rocks the boat.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A zany movie. Can’t imagine watching it again, but I said that about Satan’s Brew too, and darned if it didn’t look better on a second viewing. Maybe Querelle was a new direction for Fassbinder, maybe it was just one of those throwaways he would undertake in the midst of his three-or-four-movies-per-year pace and signifies nothing beyond that. (Except: Each man kills the thing he loves, la-di-da.) In any case, it was rendered with absolute confidence, like every other movie he made.

After the Rehearsal

April 21, 2011

Olin and Josephson

A faded actress in Ingmar Bergman’s new film After the Rehearsal explains both her acting method and her painful life by saying to her director, “I only ever want the truth—no matter how repulsive.” That line could be a description of Bergman’s career in films: It’s been a relentless, uncompromising search for truth, no matter how painful or horrible.

Bergman’s films have been intensely private, and sometimes that has led to a frustrating obscurity. Now that he’s at the end of his career, we can appreciate the majesty of his canon; from The Seventh Seal to Persona to Cries and Whispers, he has charted his own path; even the more enigmatic films can now be seen as part of the fabric of the work as a whole.

Last year’s Oscar-winning Fanny and Alexander was announced as Bergman’s last film. Thank heaven he didn’t take that announcement seriously. Actually, Bergman is now distinguishing his new works by referring to them as “TV-films,” since he shoots them for Swedish television, and After the Rehearsal is the first of these.

It’s 70 minutes long, and the action takes place on a single set, as an aging stage director (Erland Josephson), who has fallen asleep after a rehearsal of Strindberg’s A Dream Play, wakes up and has dialogues with two actresses.

One is an up-and-coming actress (Lena Olin) who flirts with the director and demands to know why he cast her.

The other, who enters halfway through, is an older, alcoholic actress (Ingrid Thulin), who has been given a tiny part in the new production. She is the ex-leading lady and the ex-mistress of the director, and she looks for assurances that she is not hopelessly over the hill.

We never know whether either actress is real, or whether they might be phantoms within the director’s mind. Certainly the film is about his self-appraisal, and the fact that he’s staging A Dream Play cues us that he may be dreaming this examination of his hypocrisies and doubts.

The film is clearly very close to Bergman, and he has kept his family of collaborators near. Sven Nykvist photographed, as usual. Josephson and Thulin, both superb here, have had long associations with Bergman. Olin had small roles in prior Bergman films, and she essays her first big role for him with the kind of frank commitment that seems normal for Bergman actors. Her performance is eloquent evidence that the master has not lost the touch.

First published in the Herald, June 27, 1984

I like Bergman’s work more now than I did then, being more of an enthusiastic Hitchcoko-Hawksian at the time; re-seeing a number of his films in preparation for a lecture a few years ago (and finally seeing the five-hour Fanny and Alexander) left me in no doubt of his colossal, easily Nobel Prize-worthy status. Even at the time, After the Rehearsal was a strikingly good picture, especially from a man who’d retired two years earlier (right!). I have not watched it again, but would like to see this and some of Bergman’s subsequent TV movies someday—Lena Olin, for one thing, would have a new context seen from the vantage point of her later international career.

Ways in the Night

April 20, 2011

The Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi is almost unknown in these parts. He’s been making movies—and very good ones—for more than a decade, but outside of specialized circumstances, such as a film series or film festival, his films just haven’t had the chance to be seen.

This is almost criminal, because Zanussi’s films are among the most precisely realized movies being made anywhere today. Zanussi was schooled as, of all things, a physicist, and his films have the kind of cool, controlled exterior that lead you to believe they could have been made by a scientist.

What’s interesting about Zanussi is that his exteriors are misleading. In Zanussi’s characters, a stubborn, troubled spirit simmers behind a pallid façade, and a restless mind can’t ignore the longings of an all-too-human heart.

Ways in the Night is a good case in point. It’s set in a small town in occupied Poland during the Second World War. Friedrich (Matthieu Carriere), a young German lieutenant, discusses philosophy with his superior officer (Horst Frank), who is also his cousin. They have airy intellectual arguments about life and death, but Friedrich does not seem much more excited than he would be if they were discussing a game of cards.

But when he sees Elzbieta (Maja Komorowska), he becomes tormented. He desires her, and she sees this. When he tries to make polite small talk, she treats him with civilized contempt, and she turns his longing for her against him, as she flagrantly disobeys the rules of the Occupation.

Their battle lines are not as clearly drawn as it might seem, for soon you wind up feeling sympathy for Friedrich during his crisis. As his dormant human feelings surface, his military career becomes a shambles. Pulled in different directions, and paralyzed by the hesitation he feels as a newly thoughtful person, he is racked by doubt—and by the feelings he still has for Elzbieta.

Zanussi creates an exquisitely delicate atmosphere in this film, which makes it all the more startling when passions break the surface. And the framing device at the beginning and ending gives a sense of history circling around itself. The film’s final, eerie moments go beyond poetic justice; it’s as though the final chord of a concerto were being played, after a 30-year delay since the previous note.

Apparently Zanussi has left Poland; this film is a German production. But no matter where he makes movies, he’s always a compelling director. Let’s hope that distribution of his work becomes a bit more commonplace; based on the evidence so far, he’s going to come out of this decade as one of the very best filmmakers we have.

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1984

The film was released in the U.S. about five years after Zanussi made it. The late Seventies-early Eighties were a good period for his films actually being seen here, but he’s made about thirty films since 1984’s beautiful Year of the Quiet Sun, and very few of them have seen the light in the U.S. beyond the occasional festival. So my hopeful suggestion at the last paragraph came to a zilch by that yardstick. Really curious about a film he made in 2009, Revisited, which appears to be an inquiry into his former actors, including his plain-faced goddess, Maja Komorowska.

And the Ship Sails On

April 19, 2011

And the Ship Sails On is Federico Fellini’s best movie in the decade since the Oscar-winning Amarcord in 1973. Unfortunately, that’s not saying too much, because Fellini’s output in those years has been limited to two underwhelming features (Casanova and City of Women) and one longish featurette (Orchestra Rehearsal).

It must have been an odd time for the filmmaker who, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was considered a giant of international cinema. Fellini’s interest in grotesques and eccentrics made his movies increasingly obscure to even the arthouse audience that had supported him in the days of 8 ½ and Nights of Cabiria.

And the Ship Sails On finds Fellini in a mellow mood, displaying a crowd-pleasing form that has been absent since Amarcord. When a great opera star (played by Janet Suzman, in a silent film flashback) dies, her last wishes call for her ashes to be strewn out over the sea near an island in the Adriatic.

Not only that, but a hand-picked group of acquaintances and colleagues must cruise to the island for the ceremony. This voyage becomes the film, as the odd group (composed of theater people and royalty) socialize in variously bizarre ways, on what we come to assume is the ship of life.

Fellini has provided a host for the journey, who introduces us to all the main characters; he’s a journalist who is supposedly reporting on the film and who often speaks directly to the audience. English actor Freddie Jones plays this character, Orlando, with a kind of Chaplinesque warmth, which is often a contrast to the stiff-necked opera people on board.

The film takes place in 1914 for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the beginning of World War I, an event that would start the breakdown of the kind of strict social order in evidence in the film. Fellini emphasizes this when he has the ship’s captain pick up a load of Serbian peasants; an act which scandalizes the upper crust.

But before long, the two groups find themselves drawn together by a common passion—music. The gentry and the peasantry dance together one memorable night in a scene which reminds us that, for all his weirdnesses, Fellini has an optimistic—even, sometimes, sentimental—view of mankind.

And the film is set in 1914 because that’s the dawn of movies, and Fellini wants us to be aware of this film as a piece of cinema, not as an approximation of reality. The sets—which are stunning—are completely false and unrealistic, and elements of the absurd are constantly brought to our attention (people often break out into song, for example).

Perhaps Fellini wants to remind us that the worlds of theater and royalty exist only as superficial artifice—and that includes his own work in the movies. But he can’t bring himself to condemn these people. Rather, he treats them with an ironic, amused affection. That attitude rubs off on his film, which is wry and funny.

First published in the Herald, February 1984

Despite the greatness of Night of Cabiria and 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, I’m not a huge Fellini enthusiast. At the time this seemed like a solid return to an articulate form (although I actually remember liking Orchestra Rehearsalquite a bit), which was a welcome achievement, especially after City of Women. Still, the great period was definitely over.

Alpine Fire

April 18, 2011

Alpine Fire is as heady and intoxicating as the thin mountain air of the Alps in which it takes place. The entire film is set far above the rest of the world, and the isolated location influences both the characters and the film style.

The exact location is a lonely home pitched on the side of a mountain. Communication with neighbors is done with signs and binoculars; other people may be miles away, on the slope of the next Alp. The time is the present, but the home has no television or telephone, and it seems remote in many ways.

In this house live the elderly parents (Rolf Illig, Dorothea Moritz) and their two children: a daughter, Belli (Johanna Lier) and a son (Thomas Nock) called simply the boy.

The boy is deaf, temperamental and stunted in his learning. The early part of the film details his struggle with the world, and his fascination with ways of seeing; he uses mirrors, binoculars and various looking glasses to examine the silence around him. He becomes enraged when he spots his sister moving to the sounds of a transistor radio, which he immediately finds and destroys.

The girl is more conventional, but as winter approaches and the boy passes through stages of puberty, they both feel stirrings of sexual feeling, intensified by the cabin-fever situation.

Swiss filmmaker Fredi Murer draws the film into the realm of tragedy with muted, careful strokes. Murer’s style has some of the starkness of Swedish cinema, but without any stumbling symbolism.

Murer is remarkably good with the young actors, who hit no wrong notes. Lier is deeply attractive as the girl, Nock is so convincing that you can’t imagine him in any other role; I actually checked the press notes to find out whether he was really a deaf actor. (He’s not.)

Murer’s transparent images remain filled with the strange, persuasive light of the mountains, even as he leads his film into incestuous and murderous territory. But the final light is reserved for the ending, as quiet as snow, which surely qualifies as the eeriest fade-out in recent movie memory.

First published in the Herald, December 28, 1986

This is indeed an amazing movie, a haunting mountain film and more or less a one-off. Fredi Murer has made four features since Alpine Fire, but only the most recent, 2006’s Vitus, got anything like U.S. distribution, and it was a well-made if entirely conventional story (with a pleasant role for Bruno Ganz). The two young actors had four or five credits apiece, and then nothing. I realize my description of Johanna Lier as “deeply attractive”‘ does not sound like the most rigorous critical stance, but see the movie, and you’ll realize I’m not only right but also speaking to the point of the film.

Another Country

April 15, 2011

The other country referred to in the title of Another Country is both a real and an imagined place. The story is a fictionalized version of the school days of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who spilled British secrets to the Soviet Union into the 1950s, and who relocated to Moscow when the scandal broke. So in one way, the title nods to their eventual displacement.

But in a more important way, the other country that Burgess and Maclean (they’re called Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd in the movie) inhabit is the land of outsiders. Both are already living in another country during their school days, because they each have a passion that forces their isolation.

Bennett (Rupert Everett) is homosexual, which in itself is not uncommon at this school. Many of the boys are engaging in clandestine sexual activity, but with the attitude that they’re going to shut up about it, and pass through the phase eventually. Bennett, however, doesn’t see it as a phase; and he has a tendency to sit in windowsills, strike soulful poses, and declare his love for the boy who lives across the courtyard (Cary Elwes)—to anyone who will listen.

His hurtful flamboyance—well played by Everett—gets him into inevitable trouble. But he has the bemused sympathy of Judd (Colin Firth), who is an outsider himself because of his devotion to Marxism, and his oft-stated contempt for the bourgeois system. And he and Bennett share the habit of talking when they should probably keep quiet.

The movie is all about these formative school years, so don’t expect a spy yarn. The setting becomes a wee bit static (the movie was adapted by Julian Mitchell from his stage pay), but not annoyingly so.

The only real problem is that the movie’s main idea—that Bennett is politicized by the failure of the system to accommodate his social crisis—is a bit obviously stated. There’s not too much under the surface, and you get the impression that the author had his single theme to communicate, which he does single-mindedly.

But the film saves itself through the grace of the production design, the fine form of the actors (among other things, it’s a funny movie), and the crucial flashback structure that Mitchell has given the story.

Another Country is framed by brief sequences of an aging Bennett being interviewed in Moscow in the present. This device, as we see Bennett looking rather lost among the cold surroundings of Soviet life, and wistfully missing his beloved cricket matches, adds a layer of ruefulness that the film would not otherwise have.

We learn that Judd died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, which means he was spared the spectacle of his high hopes coming to naught in the Soviet Union. Poor Bennett is left to face the bittersweet legacy of their school years in the manner to which he is accustomed—alone.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1984

Bennett is closer to Burgess than the film’s Judd is to any literal model; I think Judd is more of a composite of the Cambridge spies-to-be, rather than a straight take on Maclean. I mighty also note, pace my final paragraph, that the fictional Judd could easily have become disillusioned in the great Soviet experiment by the time of the Spanish Civil War. In any case, the story of the Cambridge spies is inexhaustible; for a companion piece, the Alan Bennett-scripted, John Schlesinger-directed An Englishman Abroad is a real gem, with a splendid performance by Alan Bates as Burgess. Another Country was much beloved in Seattle at the time, being the kind of movie that is much loved in Seattle.