Kuleshov edited a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine's face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was "looking at" the bowl of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief, or desire, respectively. The footage of Mosjoukine was actually the same shot each time.
I thought about Kuloshov while watching EO, a rather picaresque film about the life of a donkey named Eo.
In Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote that EO "inarguably qualifies as an animal’s-eye view of all that’s warm and cruel, comical and arbitrary about human nature." He says that "The movie is always subjective," adding "the expressive, open, alert face that we encounter throughout the film feels singular. We get to know this animal, or feel like we do. We start to feel that we understand its emotions". I'd argue that the key phrase here is "feel like we do", for Jerzy Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska artfully convince us that we understand Eo's point of view. It's a slight of hand worthy of a superhero movie, except where those films use CGI to make marvelous things happen, Skolimowski uses Eo like Kuleshov used Mosjoukine. Full of close ups of Eo's eyes, deep and (as presented) meaningful, the film is edited (Agnieszka Glińska is the editor) to maximum effect to make us believe that, just as Superman can fly, Eo communicates to us in some fantastic, nearly indescribable way.
But, of course, EO is not seen through the eyes of the donkey, it's seen through the eyes of the film makers. Soulful as Eo's eyes are, his expression is unchanging. Skolimowski convinces us otherwise, and that is key to what makes his movie so affecting to so many people.
There is more to EO than those donkey eyes. The soundtrack is unique ... at times, aided by unusual work by cinematographer Michal Dymek, EO turns almost avant-garde in its presentation. And even if I am skeptical of the way we are supposed to read Eo's thoughts, the events that happen around the donkey are varied, at times funny, at times tragic, and always interesting. I think it's a better movie than its clear inspiration, Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar.
The Polish Film School was an informal group rather than anything specific, that arose in 1956 after changes in Polish politics. Andrzej Wajda was one of the first directors in this group to release films, with Kanal being the second in a trilogy (I have only seen one other, and can't remember it). I don't think it's crucial to know about the trilogy, or even the School, but some context about the period Kanal depicts (September 1944, at the end of the Warsaw Uprising) and the period in which it was made are helpful.
But Kanal stands on its own, in any event. It's vision of heroism might carry special weight for the Polish people, but it resonates for all of us. There are plenty of people in Kanal who try to be heroes. But none of the them succeed, or rather, heroic or not, they fail. Wajda offers a pitiless view of the limits of heroism. As a narrator tells us at the beginning, "These are the tragic heroes: watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives."
Visually, what is most noteworthy about Kanal comes in the second half of the picture, when the rebels go down into the sewers to escape the Nazis. This isn't the clean sewers through which Harry Lime runs in The Third Man. No, these sewers are full of excrement ... the heroes get progressively filthier. And the claustrophobia is almost unbearable. No one seems to really know exactly where they are going, and if they do emerge from the sewers, Germans are waiting for them.
We care about these tragic heroes; their characters are well-drawn. I found Teresa Izewska particularly noteworthy, perhaps because her blonde hair made the filth more noticeable. For me, though, Kanal is a film without much in the way of hope.
I had seen Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White ,and Red), which came right after Double Life, and I didn't connect with them. I suppose I appreciated them, in that Not for Steven way, but I always felt like I was missing important context. I fear the same thing happened for me with The Double Life of Véronique, which was visually impressive but which I found confusing. Put the blame on me ... this isn't the first time I've been confused at the movies. The title refers to two women, Weronika and Véronique, both played by Irène Jacob, whose connection is never made explicit. I'm sure this is appealing for some viewers, but I wanted something more concrete. Jacob makes it all work, nonetheless (she was also good in Three Colors: Red). While I wanted more narrative clarity, Jacob is powerful in part because of a certain vague quality. Playing two characters is often an easy way to get awards attention, but if anything, Jacob underplays, never explicitly drawing attention to her acting, which is better for that underplaying. Not that you don't notice her ... she is impossibly beautiful (she was 25 when the film was made, and remains beautiful at 55). The best I can say for the Kieślowski films I have seen is that I can see why others like them so much. #403 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
"In the 1990s, younger Greek filmmakers began experimenting with iconographic motifs. In spite of, or because of, funding issues created by the financial crisis in the late 2000s, unique Greek films such as Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth (2009), Panos H. Koutras' Strella (2009) and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg (2010) received international acclaim, constituting what has been called the "Greek Weird Wave".
Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps are part of what some film critics, including Steve Rose of The Guardian, have termed the "Greek Weird Wave," which involves movies with haunting cinematography, alienated protagonists and absurdist dialogue. Other films mentioned as part of this "wave" include Panos H. Koutras's Strella (2009) and Yannis Economides's Knifer (2010)."
I'd only seen two films from the Greek Weird Wave, both directed by Vorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster and The Favourite), and I wasn't overly impressed. Pity had some interesting moments, mostly grounded in the performance by Giannis Drakopoulos as a lawyer with a young son and a wife in a coma. At first, Drakopoulos barely seems to be acting. He seems to be dealing with his grief by shutting down. When his wife remarkably recovers, instead of feeling better, the lawyer begins to miss the pity he received when she was in the hospital. He's at a loss, more so than when he was without his wife. At first, he lies to others, telling them she is still in a coma, and when that quits working, he resorts to extremes as he realizes he is addicted to grief and pity and sadness.
Pity is often quietly amusing, at least until things get extreme. The latter part of the movie feels a bit disconnected from what has set it up, and the lawyer's actions are unsettling in a way that is uncomfortable for the audience. Which may be the point, but it's not exactly a barrel of laughs watching it. I feel a bit awkward wishing that Pity was something different than intended, but in the end, my reaction to the film is a bit like the lawyer in the first part of the movie.
So you take sci-fi, a genre known for its contemplation of human nature through the use of futurism, and shove it through the filter of thoughtful, less than accessible cinema, and what do you get?
A headscratcher, probably. But a good one.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Arthouse Sci-Fi film from Rob's list.
I didn't look forward to this challenge category, but looking at the Arthouse Sci-Fi list above, I found several movies I liked, including La Jetée, Children of Men, and Melancholia. And I've liked the few Claire Denis films I've seen.
My favorite bit of trivia about this film: "Claire Denis's first English language film after 13 feature films in French. She stated the reason she made it in English was that she simply couldn't imagine people speaking French in space, only either English or Russian."
The first time I read Faulkner's classic The Sound and the Fury, I was completely confused. The novel is written in parts, each of which has a different narrator. The first narrator is mentally disabled. When I began reading, I found that narrative hard to follow, and at first I didn't know about the narrator's disability, nor did I know there would be other narrators as the book progressed. The non-linear stream of consciousness left me befuddled. Once I had finished the book, once I understood the structure and had an idea of what Faulkner was up to, the novel became, if not completely clear, at least more understandable.
In High Life, Denis uses a non-linear structure, but she doesn't tell us she is doing this. We don't get the usual markers of "THREE YEARS EARLIER" or whatever that are so common today. And so I was confused at the beginning, much as I was in The Sound and the Fury. Eventually the structure becomes more clear, and if I watched the movie again, I wouldn't be thrown off by the opening. But it was unsettling, and while there is nothing wrong with that approach, it threw me off and made me wonder how I would get through the entire movie.
Denis takes her time, but once I connected with the flow of the film, I liked what I saw. The almost hallucinatory feel matched what I imagine life would be like on an endless exploration into space. The interactions of the various people on the ship are intriguing, and the open-ended conclusion is satisfactory. High Life isn't quite up to my favorite Denis movies (Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum), but it adds to the 100% list of Claire Denis movies I have seen and liked. Bonus points for casting André 3000. #379 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Sometimes an actor commands the screen with such remarkable presence that you can't keep your eyes off of them. If it's a new actor, then you know this will be the performance that makes them a star. Such is the work of Joanna Kulig in Cold War, and indeed she won several awards at festivals for this film. But Kulig had made more than 20 movies before Cold War, including two with Pavel Pawlikowski, one of which, Ida, I had seen (she had a supporting role in that film). She had worked on stage for many years, as well as several television series. She was already in her mid-30s when Cold War was filmed. In other words, her performance here did not come out of nowhere, and it didn't make her name ... she was already known, if not to me.
Still, imagine how great she is to elicit such a response. She plays a singer, Zula, in the film, and right from the start, people are commenting on Zula's unique appeal. Ten minutes in, one character remarks that "she has something", and he's right. Tomasz Kot is very good as well as Wiktor, a pianist who loves Zula. But when both are on the screen, it's Kulig who has our attention.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white, in the Academy ratio of 4:3. It takes place in post-war Europe, when the Cold War emerged, and the look of the film seems right for the time.
Pawlikowski makes good use of music, including one scene that makes Bill Haley seem like the most liberating of rock and rollers:
This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 8 is called Women Directed Horror Week:
When people think horror creators, a lot of the big names tend to be men. Carpenter, Hooper, Romero, Craven, Argento, etc. And sure, these men have created some fantastic works, but it often leaves horror films directed by women underappreciated. In an effort to combat this, let's round out October by observing the greatness that female-driven horror has to offer.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film directed by a woman.
Well, this is an odd one. In the end, it's delightful, in a gory sort of way, but I admit for much of the film, I thought it was just plain loony. After seeing it, I felt positive, and thinking about it made my impression even more so.
I assumed it was a horror film ... that's the challenge, after all. The front of the Blu-ray box gives little hint of what is coming, although I see now that the mysterious, vague character is a mermaid. Reading the back of the box only prepared me for what seemed impossible:
This genre-defying horror-musical mash-up ... follows a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters drawn ashore to explore life on land in an alternate 1980s Poland. Their tantalizing siren songs and otherworldly auras make them overnight sensations as nightclub singers ... [a] darkly feminist twist on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid".
It might be that last part that got me ... how could Disney fit into this? The answer is that he can't, because Agnieszka Smocznska, in her debut feature, is up to things that would never enter the Disney world.
Horror-musical ... I wasn't encouraged. But in fact, it works. Part of it is that while the mermaid sisters do cast a bit of a spell on people, no one treats them as anything other than beings with a special talent. There is no hatred of the other ... once it is learned they can sing, they get a job in a nightclub, and if their legs sometimes transform into a tail, well, all the more interesting.
In its fantastic way, The Lure tells a simpler tale than the above would suggest. One of the mermaids wants to become human, and both of the sisters are regularly confronted with the restrictions placed on young women who want to decide their lives for themselves. Yes, as mermaids they are accepted, but a mermaid who wants to be human is not.
Often a movie will be described as "Like X, only Y", so a movie like Midnight Special is "Like Close Encounters, only dark". I don't know how to make that work with The Lure. It's like Near Dark, only the story takes off from The Little Mermaid, and there's sex like in The Hunger, and oh yeah, its audaciousness is kinda funny at times. I often complain about movies that require multiple viewings to "get them". In the case of The Lure, I look forward to another viewing, just to take in its wonderful oddness.
Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994). And so I finish the Three Colors Trilogy. I suppose I liked this one the best, but “liked” is the operative word here. I didn’t love it. The two leads (Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are good, and while the various plots are confusing at the beginning, it’s rather charming the way they come together in the end (and also charming the way Kieślowski brings together the main characters from all the films in the trilogy at the end). I said after the first film, Blue, that I reserved the right to raise my grade if I ever saw it again … I definitely feel like I’m missing something. #471 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). The movie is so entrenched in the film canon that it’s become difficult over time to remember any differences between it and the equally-praised Steinbeck novel. John Ford’s reputation is probably better than Steinbeck’s at the moment, but that kind of thing is always subject to change. Tom Joad is one of the great characters of American culture, and Henry Fonda does a perfect job with the part, even if, like his daughter Jane, you can sometimes see him figuring out how to best play the character … he’s not a method actor. John Carradine is the surprise here; his hammy acting usually draws attention to itself in bad ways, but he’s much more subtle and moving as Preacher Casy. (Carradine has always fascinated me, due mostly to his claim that he was in more movies than any other actor. Early in his career, he was in A-pictures like this one and Ford’s Stagecoach, but by the 1960s, he appeared in one crappy horror movie after another. While he was still a favorite of Ford’s, turning up in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and Cheyenne Autumn, other titles from the 60s include Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Las Vampiras, The Astro-Zombies, and Blood of Dracula’s Castle.) Jane Darwell won the acting Oscar as Ma Joad, and she’s not nearly as awful as Pauline Kael claimed (“impossibly fraudulent” was her phrase), but Judith Anderson in Rebecca should have won that award. There is so much to like about The Grapes of Wrath (Gregg Toland needs to be mentioned), and I can’t argue with those who would call it one of the greats, but I’m hesitant to go that far. #124 on the TSPDT list.
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The stylized look of the film is striking, and the atmosphere of repressed eroticism is extremely intense. It’s all in the service of a story about trying to remake the world by separating yourself from it. The separation doesn’t work, and the contrasting acting styles of Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron show how different people react to their failures. Byron gets the more showy role, and she makes the most of it, but, as with the film as a whole, the lighting, camerawork, and directing do a lot to make the actors’ performances so good (Byron said that Powell “gave me half of my performance with the lighting”). Not everything works; Jean Simmons as a dark-skinned native looks weird, and her subplot isn’t much, either. But once you’ve seen Byron applying lipstick in close-up, you’ll forgive everything else. #145 on the TSPDT list.
Three Colors: White (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994). The second film in Kieślowski’s trilogy, and I’m still wondering what all the fuss is about. I felt over my head when watching the first film, Three Colors: Blue, and wondered if the film required a particular frame of mind. Still, Juliette Binoche was good, and I had a generally good reaction to the movie. White left me much colder, though. It’s something of a comedy, which I didn’t figure out until the movie was well underway, besides which it is supposed to be “anti-comedy”, whatever that is, so you can see why I was confused. I laughed out loud once (for those who have seen it: “Home at last!”), but it’s not meant to be ha-ha funny, so that’s not the problem. Julie Delpy’s character is such a bitch that I could barely stand it when she was on the screen (and that’s something, since I love Julie Delpy). The “hero’s” transformation from sad sack bum to moneyed capitalist to the King of Revenge struck me as just about as creepy as Delpy’s role as his ex-wife. Reading about the film, I can see the connection between what is happening to the hero, and Kieślowski’s own experiences as a Pole in France, which makes the movie more interesting … it’s a good film to think about after the fact. But when I have to go to Wikipedia to understand a film’s finer points, something is wrong, either with the film, or with me. #909 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993). The first film in a trilogy, and the first I’ve seen directed by Kieślowski. I felt as I watched that I was in a bit over my head, but the film washes over you in a way that makes emotional sense by the conclusion. Juliette Binoche is in virtually every scene, so it’s a good thing she’s such a good actress. Early on, when she presents a stoic front to the world, she manages to suggest the emotions bubbling underneath. Kieślowski offers a variety of methods to show her re-emergence, but it’s Binoche who subtly makes us believe the gradual transformation back to something resembling her whole self. Kieślowski takes his time telling his story (not in length … it’s only 98 minutes, but there is no rushed feeling), and while some highly praise this film, I think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it to work on you. #501 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.