Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#558: The Hour of the Furnaces

1968, TSPDT Rank #354

The Hour of the Furnaces represents one of the most significant examples of "third cinema", a revolutionary movement intended to be completely separate from and in explicit opposition to conventional cinema, along with all of the systematic ideologies and distribution strategies associated with it. This was a concept that radical film theorists of the time, such as the editors of the overhauled Cahiers du Cinema of the late 1960s, thought to be theoretically ideal but virtually impossible to put into practice. However, this film rose to the task, partially due to its authors' strict adherence to the philosophy that the film was intended solely for those who were participating in the revolution against the military government in Argentina and the instutionalized neo-colonialism which marginalized and oppressed the majority of Argentina's population at the time.

The first part of the film provides a detailed history of neo-colonialism in Argentina, occasionally contrasting the pseudo-European aspirations of the ruling classes and bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires with the rampant poverty and marginilization of the Argentine working class throughout the rest of the country. This section of the film gradually builds to a fever pitch, illustrating the extreme class disparity and "ideological warfare" of the ruling classes with a number of climactic sequences featuring rapid-fire editing and extremely dense sound design. While this first part of the film could function as a standalone work, in this case it only serves to establish the proper context for the second and third parts of the film - which deal specifically with the political history of Argentina in the 20 years before the military occupation and the call for revolution against the oppressive powers that existed at the time the film was being made.

With a running time of over four hours, and the consistent involvement of the viewer against the ruling imperialist powers, this film fully fits the directors' self-imposed requirements for a film "that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs... and explicitly set out to fight the System". While at this time in its history, Argentina was in a period of apparent peace and prosperity, the threat of its military powers were fully mobilized and poised to keep its own people under strict control. A film like The Hour of the Furnaces was able to cause real damage to this facade with ample information about the country's recent history and political unrest, as well as blatant subversion against the prevailing social systems.

The wealth of well-researched facts and information about the recent past which are presented in the film had been suppressed by the government and therefore made the simple act of viewing this film illegal. Or as the directors state in the film's introduction: "here there is no room for spectators or for accomplices of the enemy; here there is room only for the authors and protagonists of the process to which the film attempts to bear witness and to deepen." In their attempt to make a film that was completely disconnected from the system as well as an effective component of a revolution, the directors succeeded by making an impassioned and informed documentary which could not possibly be accepted by the prevailing social order, because it shed light on elements of truth which had the potential to upset the foundations upon which this order was built if they were not suppressed. Despite its length and specific political agenda, The Hour of the Furnaces succeeds in being watchable today largely because of the clear and effective manner in which it presents its information. Especially in view of its clandestine production and non-professional creators, this film represents a staggering achievement, and functions as a fascinating and compelling example of "third cinema" reaching its full potential.

#557: Wavelength

Directed by: MICHAEL SNOW
1967, TSPDT Rank #233

As a devoted fan of experimental (and particularly structural) cinema, I've been meaning to see Wavelength for a long time, but somehow never got around to it until recently. But I finally got the chance to fill this looming gap in my cinematic experience, and I was definitely not disappointed by it - despite high expectations. Watching Wavelength is undoubtedly a singular experience, although it probably wouldn't be pleasurable for most viewers - as it consists of a nearly continuous 45-minute zoom shot of a room with the sound of a sine wave of gradually increasing wavelength (!) blaring incessantly over the soundtrack. So the experience of watching the film gets very tense, with the combined anticipation of the camera eventually closing in on its focal point and the unrelenting nature of the soundtrack. It's also not without some elements of narrative (fellow fans of experimental cinema, watch out for a brief appearance in the frame by Hollis Frampton, in the part of a dying man), but these are just hinted at, and the slight narrative present here is clearly only one part of the film's broader concept. The viewer is forced to examine the room in the shot from the same angle in every way imaginable, and with increasing scrutiny as the film progresses and intensifies. Apart from the brief suggestions of narrative, there are various color filters added to the film, changes in time of day, and tricks of light which can appear to either add or subtract detail from the room - which gets continuously smaller as the camera slowly and deliberately closes in. With all this, what would seem to be a painfully minamalist film at first glance is actually extremely complex and fraught with endless possibilities both within the frame and outside of it. It's not for everyone, but for those who are inclined toward the structural side of experimental cinema, Wavelength is essential - a remarkable and haunting film. But, as with most films of this nature, I would recommend trying to see it in a cinema or dark screening room if you get the chance - I'm sure watching it on a computer or with lights on would complete ruin any possible effect it might have on you.

#556: Tristana

Directed by: LUIS BUNUEL
1970, TSPDT Rank #489

This strange Bunuel film was originally meant to be a return to his native Spain, but ended up being another international co-production intended to follow the enormous success of Belle De Jour with another pairing of Bunuel and Catherine Deneuve. But Bunuel, ever the contrarian, was not out to make another erotic sensation with Tristana. Sex is at the forefront again in this film, but is used primarily to allegorize power dynamics, by telling the story of an innocent young girl who is "adopted" by an aging Spanish aristocrat and subsequently becomes corrupted by his sexual conquest of her. Over the course of the film, we see Viridiana transform from a vibrant youth into a bitter, twisted older woman as she struggles with her relationship with the man who became both her father and her husband. As in Belle De Jour, Bunuel keeps the viewer at a distance from the characters, but in this case, the material is not erotically charged or sensationalized in any way. In many respects, it's actually one of Bunuel's most subdued films, dealing primarily with the fallout of events which occur almost entirely off-screen. So while the viewer does not get any voyeuristic satisfaction from the relationship between the two main characters, Bunuel still treats them objectively, never allowing Tristana to fully gain the viewer's sympathy. Instead, we see the power dynamics between Tristana and the old man slowly shift, so that by the end of the film, Tristana's abuser seems almost as sympathetic as she was at the beginning of the film. This approach makes the experience of watching this film somewhat confusing and uncomfortable, which, knowing Bunuel, may well have been his foremost aspiration in making this film. However, as is also the case with the provocations in Bunuel's films, there's also much more to read into them than merely attempts at shocking or disquieting the audience - although exactly what Bunuel had in mind with Tristana could be argued many different ways. In any case, while probably not one of Bunuel's greatest films, Tristana is still well worth seeing and shouldn't slip through the cracks. It appears that it has finally been released on DVD now, after many years of unavailability, so hopefully that will give more people the chance to see it.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

#555: The King of Comedy

1983, TSPDT Rank #336

After making Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese intended to make The Last Temptation of Christ as a follow-up - with Robert De Niro in the role of Jesus. Instead, De Niro wanted his next collaboration with Scorsese to be a comedy, the result of which was this fantastic satire of celebrity culture, and the lengths to which the fame-obsessed can be driven to, given the circumstances. De Niro's performance as a delusional, obsessive would-be stand-up comedian is a complete turnaround from his intense, brutal performance in Raging Bull, and Jerry Lewis is also impressive as the object of De Niro's obsession, a late-night talk show host suffering under the burden of success and the proliferation of lunatics which it attracts. The film blends comedy, suspense, and social commentary with ease, but its main accomplishment is the way that the first half of the film sets up the action to come - integrating glimpses of De Niro's delusional fantasies into the narrative framework of the film, until the two worlds eventually converge and become one in the film's second half. In this way, The King of Comedy is one of the most unique commentaries on celebrity in America, and certainly one of the most sucessful in showing the insanity that often accompanies it. It also stands as one of the many great Martin Scorsese films that often fly under the radar due to the overwhelming popularity of the crime/gangster films that he is most well known for.