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.

---263 films remaining---

Saturday, March 27, 2021

REWIND: Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)

TSPDT Rank #674

Initial viewing: c. 2008

"Only pain and suffering will make you realize who you are. Only when you're in extreme pain, do you realize your own mind."

Takashi Miike is widely known for his outrageous shock tactics and lack of subtlety, but his most famous film, Audition, is notable for its surprising serenity. Make no mistake, Audition is definitely worthy of its classification as a horror film. There are moments that may send the viewer flying out of their seats - many involving a large bag positioned conspicuously in the middle of a tiny, sparsely-lit apartment. But most of the time, it's a quiet and subdued film - a symphony of loneliness and painful memories laced with a dark undercurrent of creeping dread.

The film’s unassuming first act focuses on lonely widower Aoyama’s attempts to find a woman to marry who can live up to the high standard set by his late wife. Despite some subtly unsettling moments, Audition doesn’t really begin to show its hand until Aoyama is already head-over-heels with the girl of his dreams. But this isn’t to say that the film relies completely on the element of surprise. It begins with the death of Aoyama’s wife, whose memory continues to haunt him right up to the moment when he meets his new love, Asami, a young girl fixated on death.

From the moment Asami first shuffles quietly into the audition room, something sets her apart from the women desperately trying to promote themselves in the awkwardly comic montage that precedes her entrance. Aoyama is blind to her oddness, but his producer friend is the voice of reason: there’s just something about Asami that doesn’t feel right to him. She’s too quiet, too polite, too hard to pin down. For Aoyama, however, these are positive attributes, and he soon starts seeing Asami in private. Surprisingly enough, she doesn’t see anything strange about his sleazy method of seduction. To the contrary, she’s grateful for it, and insistently pleads with him to continue taking her out. Intermittent shots of her staring motionless at the telephone in her apartment are the only signs that something is seriously wrong with this picture.

At this point, Miike steers the story into detective territory, as Aoyama begins looking for assurances that Asami is the normal girl that he desperately hopes she is. She mentions a family in Chiba, a part-time job in a Ginza dive bar, and a record company agent, but Aoyama finds none of these. Instead, he finds a perverted old man in a dilapidated ballet studio and tales about a grisly murder involving Asami’s agent and her supposed employer. But by this point, Aoyama is already deep in the girl’s clutches, having pledged his eternal faithfulness after sleeping with her on an ill-advised weekend trip.

The film’s final act is a sweeping tour de force, beginning with an extended dream sequence in which all of the women in Aoyama’s life combine and merge into one. In an audacious subversion of narrative logic, Miike shows us a second version of Aoyama and Asami’s first dates. The scenery is the same, but the conversation is different. Asami describes brutal abuse in her earlier childhood, revealing the lies beneath her calm facade. Again and again, Miike sows subtle seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind. Exactly how much of what happens is in Aoyama’s head, and which version of the story is the “real” one, is never explicitly drawn out - at least not until the film reaches its horrifying denouement, a proto-torture porn set piece that is both weirder and more concise than anything Eli Roth ever dreamed up. But as infamous as that denouement may be, it’s only one part of the masterfully structured psychological puzzle that is Audition.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988, Terence Davies)

Quest Status: 736 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #271

Usually, a film opens by introducing us to some characters. Then, the characters become part of a story, which envelops them until they emerge at the end, changed by the events that they, and we, have just experienced. Well, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives doesn't adhere to these rules. It does introduce us to some characters, a working class family in postwar Britain, only it eschews the narrative part of the bargain. There is no story, and no conventional beginning, middle and end. There is no exposition, no easily digestible conflict, no clear sense of place and time. We don't even know very much about the characters. They could be anyone from their place and time--which is Britain from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s.

Nevertheless, the film does have a vague structure. It opens with the wedding of the family's oldest child, one of two sisters. The younger sister was brutally abused by the family's late father, as were her mother and brother. However, the older sister misses her father on her wedding night. The father looms like a specter over the entire film, with happy memories sprinkled among the painful ones. It's a tale as old as time. The father is moody and abusive, the mother is quiet and resilient, defending her husband to the very end--even when her body is covered in bruises.

Images like these flow steadily throughout the film's brief running time. There is no chronological order to the scenes that we see, but the film is divided into two halves--with two separate weddings providing a thread on which the other episodes loosely hang. The title is also split between the two halves--the first entitled Distant Voices and the second Still Lives. The first half is more ethereal and deeply entrenched in memories. The second half revisits the characters at a slightly later date, as the family's son prepares to get married. The father is less present in this section, and there is more emphasis on episodes from the characters' daily lives with their spouses.

However, one element remains a constant throughout both sections. This is the communal singing at the celebration following each wedding, which we drift in and out of between episodes. There are similar moments of spontaneous group singing after the father's funeral, and in a bomb shelter during an WWII air raid (the only time that the war is explicitly referenced in the film). Characters might break into song at any moment, with no accompaniment other than the voices of their friends and family. Music is what gets them through the endless flow of time, the sorrows of their lives, and helps them feel the joy that they crave.

Another constant are shots of light shining through windows, or facades of buildings where the characters live. These buildings are the vessels in which memories are stored. The windows are the portals to seeing them, to accessing that lost era which only comes back in small flashes, like drops of water from a faucet. Occasionally, characters sit motionless and stare at the camera, bringing to mind the uncanny magic of old photographs. These are all stylistic elements which seem to be unique to Davies' deeply personal debut film, all of them geared towards the poetic and the transcendent rather than linear narrative storytelling. Davies' collection of memories is vivid and evocative, but also difficult to penetrate, as we are always on the outside looking in--as if through a window to someone else's mind.

---264 films remaining---

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Underground (1995, Emir Kusturica)

Quest Status: 735 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #294

Underground is a film full of history and chaos, combining the two liberally until they become virtually indistinguishable. It begins with a Felliniesque parade in the street, with two drunken gangsters riding on horseback in front of a brass band. The band will be one of the few constants throughout the story, following the characters through good times and bad. They don’t comment on the action, they just keep repeating the same song again and again--right up until the film’s fantastical Felliniesque ending. Much like the circus in Fellini’s films, the brass band here seems to provide a lifeline to a nostalgic idea of old Yugoslavia, a country that existed “once upon a time.”

While the band can always be relied on to get the characters up and dancing, the rest of the film is an ever-changing whirlwind of a ride that often jumps forward decades in time without a warning and never gives the viewer a chance to catch their breath. The two gangsters we see at the start of the film turn out to be early members of the Communist Party, which initially means robbing banks and stealing from rich people in the name of the poor. Later, it means resisting the German occupation, and later, it means being in a position of adulation and political power, but the characters always remain the same at heart. They’re drunkards, criminals, womanizers, liars and schemers. One friend, Marko, uses his brains to get ahead, eventually tricking the other, Blacky, into living in the cellar with a large group of fellow refugees for 20 years.

While the first part of the film is a frenetic World War II adventure with some off-kilter twists, it’s this central part of the film where the weird factor really comes into play. The underground band of refugees believes that the war is still going on, convinced by Marko into producing weapons for the resistance while he lives a lavish life above ground as a high-ranking Communist official and sells the weapons on the black market. His grandfather is in on the scheme too, manipulating time in the cellar so that everyone believes they’ve only been down there for 15 years--not 20. The twisted treachery of this set-up packs a serious allegorical punch (even before a peripheral character muses that “communism is a cellar”), accusing the Communist leaders on top of profiting off of the lowly common folk down below--who even learn to love them for it and never suspect that they’re being taken advantage of.

Of course, things don’t end in the cellar. A monkey behind the controls of a tank is enough to set a new revolution in motion. But to what end? Kusturica makes it clear that there is none. In the film’s apocalyptic final section, the characters reconvene in a hellish vision of the 1992 Yugoslav wars. There’s not a building left standing, no one left alive who’s not wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. A flaming wheelchair revolves endlessly around an upside-down crucifix, suggesting endless chaos and evil. But those who remain still have their memories, giving them a glimmer of hope that what was lost can someday be regained. Despite its nightmarish finale, Underground is never a preachy or depressing film. It blows up the trajectory of modern Yugoslavian history into a surreal fantasy vision that promises a look at the elusive truth lying beneath it all--even if, as Marko suggests, it all turns out to be nothing but lies in the end.


---265 films remaining---

Monday, March 1, 2021

REWIND: The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

TSPDT Rank #43

Initial viewing: c. 2007

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves..."

The Night of the Hunter is one of the strangest and most unclassifiable films ever to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system. On the surface, it’s a film noir thriller about some hidden bank robbery loot and the ominous preacher who searches for it. But while its basic story may be pure film noir, it’s also a throwback to the broad strokes approach of the silent era--with elements of D.W. Griffith epics, German expressionism, and slapstick comedy all thrown into the mix. Together with its blatantly unrealistic set design, Capra-esque sentimentality, and a larger-than-life performance from Robert Mitchum, these elements all combine to create a beguiling and fantastic film that is as difficult to describe as it is to resist.

Adding to the film’s mystique is the fact that it’s the only film ever to be directed by the great Charles Laughton. A hulking British expat who achieved Hollywood success with his towering performances in films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1930s, he was certainly an odd choice to direct a Southern Gothic thriller set on the banks of the Ohio River. But by all accounts, he oversaw the film with a perfectionism and clarity of vision usually only seen from seasoned directors at the peak of their talents. His extensive acting experience also allowed him to develop an usually close bond with his actors, drawing out raw and otherworldly performances that are highly unusual for their era.

Although The Night of the Hunter failed to achieve success upon its initial release, it soon achieved an unusually early cult following--thanks to its regular presence on late night television in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moving with the deliberate logic and uncanny precision of a dream, The Night of the Hunter is perhaps most effective on the young and unsuspecting, like the best horror movies. For those expecting a suspenseful thriller, it will likely seem too strange and tonally inconsistent. At one moment, we see Mitchum’s preacher threaten his two adopted children with a knife--with a casual aura of evil so convincing that we really fear for the children’s lives. But at the next moment, we see him slip on a fruit jar, lumber up the stairs in a parody of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and howl like a wounded animal when the children narrowly escape into the river.

The film’s final act focuses on the children and their attempt to escape from the preacher, with the action taking on the aura of a fairy tale. The children float down the river across a background of twinkling stars and animals twice their size, as lullabies lull them to sleep. When the preacher does appear, he does so only as a silhouette in the distance--a symbol of evil beyond the children’s comprehension. The kindly old woman who comes to their rescue (played by silent era icon Lillian Gish) is just as inconceivably good as the preacher is inconceivably evil. And when the final showdown comes, it remains firmly in the realm of symbolism--with the old woman and the preacher singing competing versions of the same hymn just like they were drawing pistols in the street. Despite its disregard for realism and narrative conventions, The Night of the Hunter always retains its hypnotic pull and childlike urgency. Never before or since has the battle between good and evil felt so elemental.