film fatales #55: la ciénaga (lucrecia martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a damp movie. You get sweaty just watching it. It represents Lucrecia Martel's artistic rendition of her childhood. Wikipedia offers this description of the film's background:

Lucrecia Martel's screenplay for the film won the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 1999; this award honors and supports emerging independent filmmakers. The jury suggested she re-write the script to follow a more traditional structure around one or two protagonists, but she chose instead to retain the script's diffuse nature.

Martel has said in media interviews that the story is based on "memories of her own family." She has also said, "I know what kind of film I've made. Not a very easy one! For me, it's not a realistic film. It's something strange, a little weird. It's the kind of film where you can't tell what's going to happen, and I wanted the audience to be very uncomfortable from the beginning."

La Ciénaga is believable in a way that might suggest realism, or at least a form of magic realism (Martel and her film are from Argentina). But it is neither. It's realism with a twist ... the situations are recognizable and seemingly mundane, but Martel presents them in an off-center way. That awards jury knew what they were talking about. They were wrong about what La Ciénaga needed, and Martel didn't fall for their suggestions. But if she wanted to make a more straightforward movie, a traditional structure would have helped. It's just that she wasn't interested in that structure.

You can overstate the oddness of La Ciénaga. I expected something like Un Chien Andalou, but it's not nearly as obscure. You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost.

And the lack of audience comfort mirrors the discomfort of the characters. The adults drink to escape their boredom, the kids run around trying to make something out of their boredom, and the Amerindian servants are looked down on by the grown-ups and loved by the kids. No one is happy, although most of them aren't exactly sad, either.

Martel makes great use of sound. At times, La Ciénaga plays like a horror movie ... sounds, many of them from nature, constantly lead us to expect something ominous is about to happen.

"La Ciénaga" means "The Swamp", and that accurately identifies the milieu in which these characters exist. There is a filthy swimming pool that serves a reminder of this, although the metaphor is perhaps a bit too on target. But overall, Martel's first feature is confident and promising.

La Ciénaga is #107 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


a brighter summer day (edward yang, 1991)

This is more of a placeholder than a review. I watched A Brighter Summer Day under less than ideal circumstances, and don't really feel competent to evaluate it yet. It's just under 4 hours long, and I had figured I'd have to at least invent an intermission. But then the Criterion Channel didn't want to work properly in my browser, and by the time I realized that and switched back to the TV, I'd already lost a day. And I was half asleep for that one. So I ended up watching about 90 minutes the first day, 30 minutes the second day, and the rest of the movie on the third day. Since this is a movie that rewards close attention, I was not giving it the respect it deserved.

I had trouble keeping the characters straight. This might have been a result of my fragmented viewing, I can't say. Also, Paul Dano notes on one of the extras that he thinks it would be useful for viewers to first learn a bit about Taiwanese culture (it takes place in a few years around 1960). I was often confused, and I think Dano is right. I'd just read an essay about how spoilers are actually good for you, and it's possible I'd have had an easier time following the film if I already knew what would be happening. (This makes it a good candidate for a second viewing.)

Finally, I was reminded a bit of the great City of God, one of my favorite movies. Like A Brighter Summer Day, City of God deals with youth gangs. But that movie's characters were a lot like the gangsters I was used to from the U.S., in particular Menace II Society. I lacked a deep understand of life in the favelas, but I felt I knew the characters. The young boys in A Brighter Summer Day are connected to American pop culture as well ... the title comes from the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" But they seem to draw their cues from a different place than what I'm used to as an American. City of God was easier for me to connect to, compared to this film.

In the meantime, I must mention the exquisite visual compositions in the film. I've only seen one other movie by Yang, Yi Yi, which I liked but which I confess I don't remember very much about.

Here is a scene I particularly liked, in part because it makes an American pop culture reference you know I'll love: teens are at the movies, and on the soundtrack, you can hear that they are watching Rio Bravo:

#123 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


syndromes and a century (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2006)

 For the third time, I'm going to take advantage of the fact that that Weerasethakul asks English speakers to call him "Joe". Now, if you had told me at some point I would have seen three of Joe's movies, I'd have thought you were a little nuts. They aren't "my kind of movies". Think Terrence Malick, only Thai. Joe's films move at their own speed, inviting you to meet them on their own terms. He doesn't insist on this process ... he has said more than once that he doesn't mind if people fall asleep during his movies. Oddly, I never feel like dozing off when watching one of his films. It helps that they aren't endless ... the ones I've seen all get in under two hours. Joe doesn't piss me off with his obscurities, the way other filmmakers do. I don't know why.

Syndromes and a Century is split in half, a fact I'm glad I knew in advance (I always try to remain clueless about a movie before I've seen it, and don't how this information snuck in, but it helped). Both halves tell similar stories about similar people. The second half uses some of the same dialogue as the first. And "nothing happens" in either half. (It should be noted that there is no moment marking the switch into the second part.) The movie, like all of his I have seen, is beautiful looking and eccentric. And besides the feeling of giving myself over to Joe's rhythms, I could see that he was playing with the ways memories work (and don't work). If he had told the story a third time, it would be similar yet different once again, the ways memories are.

I'll add that there are some funny things in Syndromes and a Century. A monk who once dreamed of being a DJ. A doctor who keeps liquor in a prosthetic leg. Even the way, during what seems to be a job interview to work as a doctor in a hospital, the prospective employee is asked what "DDT" stands for. ("Destroy Dirty Things?") In one scene, a sick monk tries to con a doctor out of prescriptions for drugs for other family members, making us question not only if these family members exist, or even if the monk himself is actually sick. If you can stick with this movie, you will find rewards. Just don't look for them in the narrative (or lack thereof).

Thai censors demanded that Joe cut several scenes. These included a monk playing guitar, doctors kissing, and monks playing with a toy UFO.

The other Joe movies I have seen are Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Tropical Malady. #55 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 film of the 21st century, #728 on the All-Time list.

Here is a scene (for lack of a better word) that culminates in a remarkable shot of a vent sucking up smoke:


the death of mr. lazarescu (cristi puiu, 2005)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is perfectly named, as we spend two-and-a-half hours watching the title character's health decline. He is shuttled from one hospital emergency room to another, and if we weren't aware that we are watching his death, we might find dark humor in the events. At least one trailer presents the film as if it were a comedy:

Yes, it's easy to make a short trailer that suggests it's a very funny movie, and yes, there are moments when you will laugh. It's not a particularly sad movie. But it is always about the drawn out death of a man, and the ways in which he is constantly ignored (and in which he becomes increasingly incoherent) are less funny as the movie progresses.

Many people have noted the similarities between this film and Frederick Wiseman's documentary work, in particular Hospital. Lazarescu certainly looks like a documentary, but it doesn't hide the reality of its fictional nature. This is a carefully constructed movie with excellent writing and acting ... it's a heightened reality that removes the random feel of cinéma vérité. Because Puiu takes his time with each scene, and because the film takes place in a modified version of real time, you might think it needs an editor. But while it's long, nothing needs to be cut. We need every minute to learn about Mr. Lazarescu, and he deserves our patient attention as we watch him die.

Puiu is sympathetic to his characters, even when we wish they would act differently. No one acts out of malice. But events conspire to make it hard to act decently. It is Mr. Lazarescu's misfortune to discover how sick he is the same night that there is a huge pileup on a local freeway. Wherever he goes, the hospital is already full.

There is a running joke about his drinking. Each person he encounters sniffs his breath and assumes his ailments are based on his alcohol consumption. True or not, at the point in which we enter his life, the drinking is irrelevant. He needs to have tests done, he needs to be operated on, immediately. But people are stuck on his drinking, stuck on trying to explain his situation rather than dealing it with. The various doctors and nurses do what they can for him, but the see him as a lost cause. Which he is, physically, but whatever makes a person a person is also failing, and people are too busy to notice.

There's a catch-22 situation when the doctors decide he needs brain surgery. They can't operate without his consent, and he has reached the stage of babbling. The nurse who takes him to the various hospitals tells the doctors Mr. Lazarescu is incompetent, but the doctors, fearing lawsuits, won't operate. The nurse is told to drive around until he becomes comatose, then come back to the hospital and they will drill into his head. Mr. Lazarescu is all of us when our lives butt up against bureaucracy. And the irony (and, yes, humor) is that he only gets attention when he is unable to speak.

While the movie is specifically Romanian (it is generally considered as the beginning of the Romanian New Wave), we can all recognize the situations. As Puiu said, "This is not a Romanian tale, but a tale from Romania." I have only seen one other movie from that New Wave, but it is one of my very favorite films: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my list of fifty favorite films a few years back. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn't quite that good, but based on these two films, the Romanian New Wave would appear to be rich for discovery. #452 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #20 on the TSPDT 21st century list.

 


tropical malady (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2004)

As I did when writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I'll refer to the director as "Joe", which is what he asks English speakers to call him. Thanks, Joe!

Joe's films have a reputation for being difficult. As I noted in that earlier review, when Uncle Boonmee was shown at Cannes, people started walking out after only six minutes. Tropical Malady suffered a similar fate ... as the ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us, at Cannes, "several audience members left before the film was over and some of those who stayed until the end booed it." Nonetheless, it won the Jury Prize, and its critical reputation has grown (it is currently #251 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #9 for the 21st century).

Tropical Malady is only half-difficult. It is split into two parts, the first of which tells of the budding romance of a soldier and a country boy. If not exactly straightforward in its approach, that first half nonetheless is easy to follow, beautiful to look at, and rather charming as we watch the two men get to know each other. The second half arrives without any real warning, and is open to interpretation. It also involves a soldier, and perhaps the country boy, although who knows? He goes into the jungle looking for a missing villager, and finds a shaman who turns into a tiger. Many odd things happen. The film is still beautiful to look at, and the soldier and tiger man are played by the same actors who played the soldier and country boy in the first half. You decide what it means.

Jeff Pike is onto something when he says Joe "might as well be approached as something of an Asian David Lynch." Lynch usually annoys me, but there is something playful about the way Joe confuses us, which for me, at least, makes him easier to take.




uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2010)

First, I am informed that Weerasethakul asks English speakers to call him "Joe". I'm going to take him up on that here, because I'd rather type three letters.

The IMDB entry for this film from Thailand offers the following anecdote. "Audience members at the Cannes Film Festival are notorious for their visceral reactions to films. Booing is commonplace as are walkouts. People started walking out of this film after the first 6 minutes."

I know some people react quickly to horrible violence on the screen, but there is virtually no violence in Uncle Boonmee. It is admittedly very slow moving. I can imagine some people starting Uncle Boonmee and realizing halfway through that it isn't their kind of movie and turning it off. But six minutes? That's a pretty extreme reaction. I had no problem making it through the movie, and I'm not always a fan of slow cinema, but if you are completely averse to this kind of movie and wonder if Uncle Boonmee is for you, just remember some people gave up after SIX MINUTES.

It's a much better movie than this suggests, but I just can't resist the anecdote.

Uncle Boonmee is structured using "six reels", each of which uses a different style. Honestly, if you fancy yourself a film scholar, you would probably find Uncle Boonmee endlessly fascinating. I tend towards narrative, and there is little traditional narrative here. Uncle Boonmee is dying, and as he reflects on his life, various people (now dead) from his past come to visit. Everyone treats this as ordinary and matter-of-fact. At times, the film is gently amusing ... in fact, "gentle" describes a lot of what we see. For myself, Uncle Boonmee is like entering into a world I know nothing about, which is a good kind of challenging. I never completely understood what I was seeing, but I wasn't quite lost, if that makes sense.

I'm not ready to run out and watch other Joe movies (although Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century are both on my endless list of Movies to Watch). But Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a gentle introduction to Joe's film world. #410 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #18 on the 21st-century list.  7/10.

Here are the first five minutes. If you want to see the "Cannes Sixth Minute", you'll have to watch the film.

 


colossal youth (pedro costa, 2006)

Do I want to talk about “Slow Cinema” (or should I call it “Contemporary Contemplative Cinema”?), or do I want to just talk about Colossal Youth on its own and be done with it?

I feel a bit like I’m getting a crash course on this stuff, given my recent dive into the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. And part of me thinks I’m just warming up for the challenge of Sátántangó (Phil Dellio, who is the person who got me to put Sátántangó on my Request List, said of Colossal Youth, “Only 156 minutes, though--that's like a trailer for Sátántangó.”)

I don’t want to be reductive ... well, of course I want to be reductive, but I’m also trying to combat that tendency in myself ... I resist the very idea of “Slow Cinema”, not as an option for artists, but as something I want to watch. I wonder what my reaction to Colossal Youth would be if I’d known what it was in advance? (For some reason, I thought it was a 100-minute Japanese pop movie.)

Apparently I like these movies more than I realize. The Wikipedia entry for “Slow cinema” lists more than 40 “notable examples” of the style, and among them are movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I placed at #44 on my list of 50 favorite movies of all time; Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which I loved; and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I also loved. In other words, as with all genres, there are going to be ones I like and ones I don’t.

Colossal Youth reminded me of Terrence Malick movies. I rarely like them, but I admire Malick’s ability to make the movies he wants, following his vision without much compromise. Based on Colossal Youth, and on things I’ve read about him, Pedro Costa makes the movies he wants to make. As I once said about Malick, Costa doesn’t care if I thought Colossal Youth was boring. He didn’t make it for me, he made it for himself. I admire him for that.

But I didn’t like watching his movie.

The film looks great. It’s often so dark you can barely see, but that fits with the settings. There are occasional shots that stun:

colossal youth

But honestly, it’s like watching paint dry. I often call movies like this “Coffee Table Movies”. The picture above looks great, but it would look as good in a book you had on your coffee table as it does on the screen, and I don’t have to stare at the book for 156 minutes.

So, call me a philistine. But I don’t let that fact prevent me from watching movies like Colossal Youth. You never know when one of them will end up on my Top 50 list. #548 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #45 on the 21st century list. 6/10.


stalker (andrei tarkovsky, 1979)

I recently took part in a poll asking for our favorite “road movies”, such films being loosely defined. My top five, in order, were Bonnie and Clyde, Breathless, L’Avventura, Y Tu Mamá También, and The Wizard of Oz. Topping the poll was Badlands. My own fave, Bonnie and Clyde, finished third. Second was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which gave me an excuse to add another of his films to my list. I admit I was hesitant ... I haven’t exactly loved the ones I’ve seen, and Stalker is almost three hours long.

To recap: I liked Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, thought less of The Mirror, and have terrible memories of Solaris. For me, Stalker was closer to the first two than the latter two.

There is a plot to Stalker, but I don’t think anyone cared about it too much. It plays a bit like an artier, more philosophical version of Linklater’s “Before” movies. There are essentially three characters, known by their professions ... The Stalker (a guide who takes seekers through The Zone), The Professor, and The Writer (the latter two being the seekers). As they walk through The Zone, they partake in philosophical discussions about not only their own lives, but also the state of all humankind. It’s three hours of existential angst that sinks deep, not only because of the acting and dialogue, but also because of the look of the film, which is at times beautiful but it almost always stark. Add the setting, some kind of post-apocalypse world of blasted landscapes and leftover tanks that look like dinosaurs. It is bleak ... this is a bleak film, with little room for any kind of hope. The vagueness of the narrative, and the lack of explanation for what has happened to the physical world, forces us to narrow our focus to the discussions with the three men.

And it isn’t always easy to remain interested in those discussions. Some are better than others, but eventually you wish the damn thing was about an hour shorter.

As usual, Tarkovsky makes the film he wants, and leaves it to us to come to him ... he’s not coming to us. Take this segment from the film’s Wikipedia page:

Upon its release the film's reception was less than favorable. Officials at Goskino, a government group otherwise known as the State Committee for Cinematography, were critical of the film. On being told that Stalker should be faster and more dynamic, Tarkovsky replied:

“[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”

The Goskino representative then stated that he was trying to give the point of view of the audience. Tarkovsky supposedly retorted:

“I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”

Fine aspirations. But my name is neither Bresson nor Bergman, which leaves me once again in the awkward position of trying to figure out a work by an artist who doesn’t care if I get it figured out or not. And this makes Stalker into one of those films that I admire much more than I actually like it. And my admiration is muted by Tarkovsky’s lack of interest in that admiration. Most critics can get past this ... it’s #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.


mirror (andrei tarkovsky, 1975)

I seem to be catching up on Tarkovsky at last. A couple of months ago I watched Andrei Rublev and liked it. The same with Ivan’s Childhood, which I saw a couple of years ago. I still have bad memories of seeing Solaris when it came out ... it might have been a movie date with my wife-to-be, whatever it was, I was bored stiff.

Well, my reaction to Mirror was closer to how I felt about Solaris. It didn’t bore me as much ... it’s an hour shorter, for one thing. But it feels like a movie that will “improve” with each viewing. Sam Ishii-Gonzales wrote, “[W]hat might appear confused, difficult, or opaque on first viewing becomes something else with repeated screenings. Having seen Mirror a half-dozen times, over a decade or so, in a number of different countries, it now appears to me as simplicity itself.” Your reaction to Mirror might depend on how inviting Ishii-Gonzales’ remarks sound. Most people who know me understand that I generally resist movies that require multiple viewings to reveal their artistry. On occasion, I do return to movies that didn’t impress me the first time around, and once in a while I even change my opinion. But I am not fond of movies that only connect with me if I watch them six times.

This is not a criticism of Tarkovsky, who as an artist had every right to make his movies the way he wanted. And Mirror seems like a film he was happy with. For that, I tip my hat. But I found the movie obscure and insular. It switches between color and black-and-white for no reason I could ascertain. It takes place in three different time periods. The same actress plays different roles in different periods. Tarkovsky mixes documentary footage into the film, and includes poetry readings in the voiceovers. It reminded me of the new television series Legion, which makes even less sense than Mirror (yet I like Legion ... go figure).

The Mirror does have a saving grace: Margarita Terekhova, the one who plays two characters in two time periods. She improves every scene she is in, and she is in a lot of them. I can’t praise her performance enough. But because I was completely lost most of the time, Terekhova’s ability to raise the level of individual scenes is always only at the level of a scene. She didn’t help me understand the movie as a whole.

Mirror ranks at #29 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.


what i watched last week

L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). This movie, like many others, benefits from the intelligent guidance of someone who “gets” the movie. You could say this is always true, but for many/most films, the pleasures are available from the start. It’s not that we wouldn’t benefit from watching, say, Goldfinger alongside an expert on Bond movies, and some films (the best Bonds among them) retain a lot of their pleasures on multiple viewings. But a movie like L’Eclisse has a built-in inscrutable surface, and that surface makes the movie a candidate for further viewings, perhaps especially after reading through some of the best criticism of the film. One of my flaws as a critic is that I resist works that don’t make themselves immediately apparent. When I hear that a movie must be seen more than once, I get cranky, thinking if that is the case, the movie hasn’t done right to begin with. I don’t think an inscrutable surface is evidence of depth. But I can go too far. You will get more out of L’Eclisse, the more you put into it. Antonioni doesn’t do all the work for you. Having said that, I remain puzzled why I find L’Avventura one of the greatest of all movies, yet find the rest of his word admirable at best, and barely watchable at worst. I find Blow-Up fun, if silly, and Red Desert only worth a single viewing, if that. #106 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Revisiting a classic film from a classic director. One problem is that I think Kubrick is overrated, and I think 2001, rather than marking his peak, marks the beginning of his decline. My favorite Kubrick films are Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), with Spartacus (1960) after that. I intended to write about this movie in a separate post, but I think it slides right in to my comments on L’Eclisse. 2001 has a built-in inscrutable surface, which makes it a candidate for multiple viewings. I think the cosmic themes of the movie are perfect if Kubrick wanted to seem deep ... there is no explanation, Kubrick resists explanations, but in a true cult-film pattern, the vagueness only increases the interest of its fans. I don’t like this, but perhaps 2001 is the kind of movie where the absence of explanations is the proper approach.

I was a big fan of 2001 when it came out. We all watched it more than once, usually when high. We didn’t see the “Star Gate” sequence as needing explanation ... we just laid back and let it wash over it. There is something to be said for that kind of response, and it’s true, I never liked 2001 as much as I did when I was young and high.

The special effects hold up remarkably well (not talking about the Star Gate). The enormity of the space vehicles is impressive, and everything moves slow ... I think if they zipped around, we’d see the effects as primitive in comparison to what is possible today. Instead, they are lovely and elegant. The Star Gate stuff is less impressive, but at the time, we were blown away.

I can’t say too much about the importance of the music. Most of us owned the soundtrack album, which we played far more frequently than we did any other music-only soundtrack. (I mean, we played A Hard Day’s Night more, but that was a Beatles album, not a soundtrack.) We’d hear the music, and see the scenes in our heads. Kubrick’s use of music was remarkably on target ... everything fit perfectly with what was on the screen. So when we listened to the soundtrack, we felt fond feelings about the movie, which led us to go watch the movie again.

On the other hand, Kubrick’s disdain for actors is evident. Actors like Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers had such strong screen presences that they couldn’t be held down, and Malcolm McDowell dominated A Clockwork Orange. (One reason for that is that the other actors were awful.) In 2001, the most interesting actors are the guy who does the voice of a computer, and the ones who play apes. I understand that Kubrick is emphasizing the banal ... I suppose Keir Dullea is the perfect actor, in that case. The performances we remember most from later Kubrick are the ones where the director allowed the actor to do whatever he wanted ... McDowell, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. There isn’t a lot of subtle acting in Kubrick movies, which may matter more to me than to others.

If you had asked me in the late-60s, I’d have given 2001 10/10. In more recent years, I’ve decided on 6/10. But, for whatever reason, I felt more kind this time around. #3 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 of all time, above, just to list the next three, Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game, and The Godfather. Honestly, I’m feeling generous to 2001, but it is not in the league of those other three. I wouldn’t place it in the top five of 1968. (Monterey Pop, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead come to mind.) 7/10.