sátántangó (béla tarr, 1994)

Definitely a case of Eat Your Vegetables. I never found myself involved in Sátántangó ... OK, I laughed a couple of times, which I suppose is something, although two laughs in 7 hours and 19 minutes doesn't qualify as a laff riot. Yes, I know Sátántangó isn't meant to be a laff riot. I'm just looking for something to say about a movie I'd heard so much about, that I finally got around to watching, and as I expected, it's in the Terrence Malick Genre of Movies That Accomplish What the Film Makers Set Out to Do but That Aren't Meant for Me. (Factoid I didn't know: Malick is 12 years old than Béla Tarr.)

Seriously, this movie was never meant for me, and I can't dismiss it just because I didn't like it. So if you think you'd like to see a 439-minute example of Slow cinema, or if like me you are a wannabe completist who absolutely needs to see the 109th-best movie of all time according to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website, then by all means, go for it. Here's a tentative place to start, a Letterboxd list I just created filled with Slow cinema movies:

Slow cinema

Or, if you want to start with Slow movies I loved, check out L'Avventura or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (some would argue these two movies are not Slow cinema), or Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (which most definitely is Slow cinema).

There was one segment in Sátántangó that I found objectionable far beyond the "Tarr is accomplishing what he set out to do" angle. I knew from reading about the film that there would be a scene where a girl tortures and kills a cat. I wasn't prepared for the actuality, though. As I wrote on Facebook, "The cat scenes were far worse than I expected after reading about them and also reading an interview with Tarr. What a bunch of shit ... oh, we didn't hurt the cat, we had a vet there, blah blah blah. When she put the cat in a mesh net, the cat didn't look like it wanted to be a movie star as it struggled to escape. When she forced the cat's face into the milk, the cat wasn't having any fun. But it's all OK, because it's Art."

In honor of Phil Dellio, I have to post this highlight from the film, since he has used it many times as a way to convince me ... well, not sure what, but it worked, I did finally watch the movie.


film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"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." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


l'argent (robert bresson, 1983)

There is a famous tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The official name is Sather Tower, but no one calls it that. We call it The Campanile. It is a landmark that helps as a reference point for new students who don't quite know their way around yet. But for most of us, it is known for its carillon, which can be heard over much of Berkeley (we live a mile from campus, and we can hear it just fine).

A pair of falcons live on the tower, and they recently had triplets. A few webcams are set up so people can watch the lives of the young ones. I've taken a peek ... doesn't do much for me ... but my wife has it running constantly on her laptop so she can watch whenever she gets a notion. She loves it, and tells me tales about what the birds are doing.

Robert Bresson's films, minimalist and contemplative, demand our attention. (My favorite is A Man Escaped.) I often appreciate his movies more than like them, but among other things he is the ultimate "I'll do it my way" film maker, and while I tend to complain about those directors, I always respect them. And with Bresson, I have at times felt more than mere respect. L'Argent is one of those I like.

At first, L'Argent ("Money") seems to be a movie that follows a counterfeit bill through various hands, but eventually, it becomes a story about the people who come into contact with the money. You wouldn't say that "nothing happens" ... in fact, quite a bit happens. But it is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Check out this clip, properly named "Car Chase":

A bank is being robbed. We see the getaway driver. We see a man walking down the street reading a newspaper ... he seems important, yet this is his only scene and he's largely irrelevant. We see cops with guns, we see the robber with a hostage. Back to the driver, who hears a shootout that we don't see. Eventually, a cop car pulls up alongside him, and he tries to escape (this begins the "car chase"). Bresson switches between shots of the driver's foot on the gas pedal and views from his rear view mirror. He quickly crashes into another car. It's hard to think of another cinematic car chase with so few fireworks. Something happens, all right, but it's as if Bresson doesn't want to us to see that something.

Bresson is also known for using non-professional actors. He doesn't want "acting" in his movies ... the blankness of the non-actor leaves the audience with nothing except the action (often as simple as a close-up of a face that moves slightly) and the dialogue (which is sparse at times). We don't, we can't be distracted. Action scenes without action, acting scenes without acting. It's easy to understand why my wife, who has no problem looking at a webcam of baby birds, would go stir crazy if she had to watch L'Argent.

Look at this scene, with the perfect YouTube title "Bresson eliminates acting". The driver is in prison. He gets a letter telling him his daughter has died. We see the letter, read by an anonymous mail checker whose face we don't see. In his cell, the letter is read by his cellmates. For a brief moment, we see him with his face buried in his pillow. He raises it for a moment, lowers it again. We never see him reading the letter. Bresson has "eliminated" any possibility of "acting" by shooting and editing it this way.

This is fascinating stuff if you want to delve in. Otherwise, it's not much better than the web cam of the baby birds. #164 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


what i watched last week

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.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973).


what i watched last week

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.

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974).

The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009).