Saturday, July 31, 2021

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)

Quest Status: 745 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #259

Memories of Underdevelopment was released in 1968, but it takes place during the most famous period of modern Cuban history - starting in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion by US-sponsored counter-revolutionaries in 1961 and ending with the looming threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. It starts out with dancing in the streets, followed by scenes of a bourgeois man watching his wife and parents leave for America. He has no political sensibilities, no feelings about the revolution one way or the other. Much stronger are his sexual desires, as he starts prowling around, leering at every attractive young woman in sight.

As a result, the first half of the film is something like a Fellini-esque sex comedy with ambiguous political commentary thrown in around the edges. In the second half, the man's philandering ways come back to haunt him, as the political situation in Cuba becomes increasingly confusing and fraught with tension. For me, the most interesting aspect was that Sergio, the protagonist, chooses to stay behind in Cuba and live the life of an outsider - despite having no connection to or even a coherent understanding of the revolution going on around him. Through Sergio's eyes, Memories of Underdevelopment examines the passive observers within its country with a critical eye, while also asking the viewer what side of the line they would fall on if placed in the same situation.

--- 255 films remaining ---

This review is part of my new Tumblr blog Cinema Cycles, which can be found here.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Touki Bouki (1973, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

Quest Status: 744 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #305

Heavily inspired by French New Wave films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Pierrot le fou on the surface, there’s much more to this densely layered tour de force than initially meets the eye. Rebel without a cause Mory decides to shake off the dregs of Dakar and head north to Paris with his girlfriend Anta, first setting off on a carefree crime spree to raise the funds. But while the core story is straight out of Pierrot le fou, Mambety isn’t just a stylist looking to transplant French cinema into an African setting.

After all, Senegal had only recently gained their independence from France at the time this film was made. There’s a sarcastic edge to much of the self-consciously French New Wave flourishes, like the song on the radio incessantly crooning “Paris, Paris, Paris” and jokes at the expense of those who have sold themselves out to the new neo-colonial order. And when Mory finally has his chance to leave Senegal, Mambety uses allegorical montage to signal his change of heart, a stunning moment of free-flowing visual poetry that leads into an impressionistic dreamlike sequence to end the film. Mambety’s vision is vivid and defiant, integrating French influence into a framework that is proudly African, with logic defying montage and cinematography so vivid and striking that it threatens to explode right off the screen.

--- 256 films remaining ---

This review is part of my new Tumblr blog Cinema Cycles, which can be found here.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Limelight (1952, Charles Chaplin)

Quest Status: 743 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #558

"I thought you hated the theatre?"
"I do. I also hate the sight of blood, but it's in my veins."
In a way, I could say that I owe my love of film to Charlie Chaplin. The Gold Rush was the stepping stone that led me to look beyond Oscar winners to find great films from the silent era and around the world. It's the movie that made me thirsty for as many films as I could get my hands on, leading me to look for lists like this one. In the short term, it also made me an avid Chaplin fan, leading me seek out all of Chaplin's silent features, and later shorts. The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux came later. But something always kept me from venturing on to Limelight. Although he made two films after this, this one always seemed like Chaplin's swan song, and I preferred my memories of his earlier films to be kept intact - without the taint of melancholy and old age.

Of course, Chaplin's best films always tread the line between comedy and pathos. Limelight is no different. It is a self-indulgent passion project, with a fair amount of material that could have been trimmed to make it tighter and more focused. It's about a washed-up old vaudeville star who saves a beautiful young ballet dancer, only to have her fall hopelessly in love with him - an old man's fantasy which was echoed by Chaplin's own obvious weakness for beautiful young women in his own personal life. Thankfully, Chaplin's Calvero takes the high road in his relationship with Claire Wright's emotionally fragile Theresa, with his greatest fault being his penchant for long-winded philosophical monologues - an unfortunate hallmark of Chaplin's sound films.

So although not without its weaknesses, Limelight is still pure Chaplin. It's one of his most personal films, one which finally bridges the gap between his vaudeville beginnings in London and his success as a Hollywood comedy star. The vaudeville scenes are the unexpected highlight of the film - showing not the Tramp, but Chaplin the entertainer, his craft stripped down to its bare essentials. The collaboration with Buster Keaton at the film's finale only lasts for one brief scene, but it features some brilliant physical comedy that proves that these masters of silent comedy had it in their blood. The film denouement is a mix of heroic, tragic, romantic and poetic. There may have been some delusions of grandeur on Chaplin's part, but there's no doubt that he bared his soul here, in the film that could be seen as the great comedian's last true stand in the limelight.

--- 257 films remaining ---

Monday, May 31, 2021

Spring in a Small Town (1948, Mu Fei)

Quest Status: 742 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #161

Spring in a Small Town is a true rarity: a Chinese film made during the short window between World War II and the rise of Mao. What's even more amazing is that a movie made during this brief and turbulent time period just happens to be one of the few Chinese films included on a master list of the 1,000 Greatest Films ever made.
The film might be best described as the Chinese Sunrise. The ailing heir to a family in decline and his long-suffering wife eke out their daily lives in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of a small town. Despite the title, the town is never seen - confining our view completely to the insular world of the family estate and the crumbling wall that overlooks the town. One day, a visitor comes in from Shanghai, turning out to be both the husband's lost lost friend and the wife's long lost lover. Sparks immediately fly between the two reunited lovers, but they agonize over their respective responsibilities to the man of the house, resulting in near constant tension.

Although it was made during the sound era (which was late in coming to China), Spring in a Small Town has surprisingly bare-bones sound design. There is hardly any music in the movie, except for brief bookends at the beginning and end of the film. During non-dialogue scenes, the soundtrack often goes silent - even during one emotionally charged scene of passion. The result is a feeling of stifling suffocation, of almost unbearable tension. For a film about unrequited love, it's the perfect effect.

--- 258 films remaining ---

Saturday, May 1, 2021

DOUBLE FEATURE: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / The Color of Pomegranates

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Sergei Parajanov)

Quest Status: 740 / 1000

Like the tall tree that fatally kills the protagonist's brother in the opening scene, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a towering film. The title is fitting: made in the Soviet Union but set in 19th century rural Ukraine, it's a film which evokes a past which had already been forgotten. Watching more than 50 years later, the world that it depicts could just as well be 1,000 years in the past rather than only a century and a half. The language is a regionally specific Ukrainian dialect which would have been all but unintelligible to contemporary Russians, not to mention the costumes and folk music. Director Sergei Parajanov isn't interested in explaining this world to us - just recreating it as best he can and throwing the viewer unassisted, to find their own way or get dragged under by the tide.

Parajanov employs a wide range of bravado visual techniques to immerse the viewer in this disorienting world - including frequent use of handheld camera that mimics the point of view of some unseen observer, or crane shots that emphasize movement in or around the frame. My favorite shot was one which passes over a giant wooden raft as it soars down the river carrying the heartbroken Ivan, whose childhood love has just died in a tragic drowning accident. In the section that follows, Ivan falls into a deep depression, which is captured in grainy black and white scenes, occasionally interrupted by superimposed montages rendered in vivid color for maximum contrast. In the midst of all this visual cacophony, the story often becomes practically nonexistent - especially in the second half, which consists mostly of brief and indistinct vignettes. Still, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is chock full of visual genius that's worth a watch for all fans of the weird and otherworldly.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969, Sergei Parajanov)

Quest Status: 741 / 1000

With his follow-up to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov managed to do everything that made Shadows controversial with the Soviet censors--and then took it ten steps further. Various actors portray a poet-like figure who can be seen as a mythic representation of the Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova, although the viewer is given no biographical information about him whatsoever, and what actual events are portrayed are filtered through layers of symbolism and visual poetry. A huge flock of sheep flood into a church to attend a deceased dignitary’s funeral. A nun dressed in white is hoisted up and down by a rope, while other nuns walk up the stairs behind her. Men duel on horses while a bearded man holds a peacock’s beak tenderly in his mouth. An angelic baby is often seen spinning in the background, mystic women hold tapestries and gaze into the camera, and when the poet’s death comes, a green and white Angel of Resurrection douses him with wine (or blood) from a blue urn before sending him to his final rest amongst a sea of candles.
Believe it or not, that list doesn’t even begin to cover all of the weird things that happen in this movie. But besides being a supreme example of weird cinema, The Color of Pomegranates also manages to realize the cinema of poetry that Jean Cocteau strived for but was never quite able to reach. With its three-act structure featuring different actors and settings but united by common symbols and themes, Pomegranates is reminiscent of Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, as well as his final film, The Last Testament of Orpheus. But where Cocteau’s films often feel like incomplete sketches, weighed down by theory and the written word, with Pomegranates, Parajanov succeeded in creating an entirely unique visual language that stands alone in the history of film.

--- 259 films remaining ---

Sunday, April 18, 2021

DOUBLE FEATURE: Dancer in the Dark / Dogville

Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier)

Quest Status: 738 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #695

Dancer in the Dark is the third film in Lars von Trier's so called "Golden Heart Trilogy." I haven't seen the second film in the trilogy, The Idiots, but this film is definitely cut from the same cloth as the trilogy's first installment, Breaking the Waves. In Dancer in the Dark, von Trier pays tribute to the pure filmmaking standards laid out by the Dogme 95 manifesto, shooting most of the film himself with low-quality digital cameras, natural lighting and location shooting, but breaks the manifesto's rules on one point - the use of non-diegetic music. Because, in fact, Dancer in the Dark is a musical.

For those coming to this film having seen any of von Trier's other films, he would probably seem like an odd choice to direct a musical. And indeed, the musical elements never really gel with the rest of the film, a depressing melodramatic about an immigrant factory worker whose life spirals into tragedy as she begins to lose her sight. For one thing, the songs (sung by the idiosyncratic Iceland singer and lead actress Björk) are clunky and superfluous - adding little to the film other than giving us a break from the crushing drudgery of the main story. There's also a cruel irony to the musical sequences, which tease us that "nothing dreadful ever happens in a musical" even as von Trier repeatedly reminds us that this is one musical where that rule does not apply.

Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

Quest Status: 739 / 1000


TSPDT Rank #348

After finishing his "Golden Heart Trilogy" with his first English-language film, Lars von Trier embarked on another (as yet unfinished) trilogy set in the USA - despite the fact that he's never been there, due to a fear of flying. Dogville takes place in a Depression-era town in the Rocky Mountains, although it was filmed entirely on a bare, warehouse-like set with streets, houses, and even the town dog existing only as chalk outlines on the floor. The set is theatrical and minimalist to the extreme, while the story is narrated in Dickensian fashion by John Hurt and divided into nine chapters, evoking a fairy tale atmosphere that clashes with subject matter that grows increasingly bleak as the story unfolds.

Whereas previous films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark had featured female lead characters made to endure unfathomably painful dilemmas, in Dogville, the humiliation endured by Nicole Kidman's Grace reaches absurd heights unusual even for the misanthropic von Trier. (It's potentially worth mentioning that Dogville features numerous instances of rape, which are largely written off by both the narrator and the other characters.) Because of this, Dogville is often difficult to watch, but it's a stylistic success if nothing else. Despite the minimalist sets, the film envelops the viewer fully in its punishing fantasy world, leading us through a tangled web of situations which force us to ponder the human capacity for cruelty and forgiveness. Still, much like the pretentious and self-important would-be novelist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the catalyst behind many of the story's twists and turns, von Trier might be guilty of many of the sins he accuses his characters of in this sprawling portrait of the evil lurking behind the innocent facade of a stereotypical American small town.

--- 261 films remaining ---

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Tin Drum (1979, Volker Schlöndorff)

Quest Status: 737 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #774

Based on a towering literary classic by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, The Tin Drum starts from absurdity and builds to insanity, conveying the inexplicability of fascism. It follows a boy named Oskar, the son of an incestuous nymphomaniac conceived from a potato field tryst between a peasant woman and an arsonist. Oskar stops growing at the age of three out of disgust with the adult world, a conscious decision that he disguises by throwing himself down the cellar stairs. Even at birth, he has the body of a six-year-old, which never seems to grow or change, even after his fateful third birthday.

His third birthday is notable, not only for his portentous fall, but for the present that he receives from his mother: a red and white tin drum. He carries it with him everywhere, and whenever some poor soul tries to take it away from him, he screams bloody murder--shattering everything from his teacher’s glasses to cathedral windows across the street. In this way, he soon learns that he can control the adults around him. As he grows older, everyone continues to treat him like a toddler, although he becomes more intelligent and aware of the world around him than he lets on.

At first, we sympathize with Oskar. The world around him is certainly worthy of disgust--even before the Nazis come to the forefront. Director Volker Schlöndorff does his best to make everything seem sick, never shying away from an opportunity to make the viewer uncomfortable. Oskar’s birth is a hellish nightmare vision, and his mother’s incestuous philanderings with her Polish cousin are sweaty and filthy affairs--as far from erotic as possible. Later, during a seaside family outing, Oskar and his parents watch a fisherman haul in a horse head infested with countless squirming eels. His mother vomits, the father takes the eels home and cooks them--only able to convince his wife to eat them after her cousin pleasures her to stop her from crying.

However, as Oskar grows older, we see that his stunted physical growth cannot prevent him from being corrupted by the adult world. After his mother dies from overdosing on raw fish, his grandmother brings in a 16-year-old girl named Maria to help at his father’s grocery store. Being 16 himself, Oskar is filled with lust for the pretty Maria, first feeding her sherbet powder made fizzy with his spit before attempting to seduce her. He’s filled with jealousy when his father also becomes sexually involved with the underage Maria, revealing a monstrous rage that shows that he is capable of just as much cruelty as the adults around him.

But let’s not forget Oskar’s trademark tin drum, often seen as an instrument of protest against the rise of Fascism. Maybe this is the case when Oskar disrupts a Nazi rally by leading the band away from their rigid march into a swinging Blue Danube waltz, to the great distress of the Reich dignataries in attendance. But what about when Oskar joins a troupe of dwarfs in performing for the Nazi occupation forces in France, even looking on as the soldiers gun down a group of nuns collecting shellfish on the beach at Normandy? The film’s central allegory is clearly more complicated and ambiguous than it’s usually made out to be, although its unflinching view of fascism and innocence corrupted gets closer to the soul of Nazism than most films about the era have ever dared.

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