Saturday, August 24, 2019

#687: Fata Morgana

Directed by: WERNER HERZOG
1971, TSPDT Rank #825

Whenever I see an image of a plane landing or ascending in a film, I always expect to see it explode. So when Fata Morgana began with an image of a plane landing, and then another, and then another... each landing giving off more exhaust, I increasingly expected to see something like this. However, these initial images seem to have no connection with the rest of the film, which is divided into three parts: Creation, Paradise, and The Golden Age. The setting is the Sahara Desert and various surrounding villages. We see surreal images of sand, natural landscapes, impoverished villages, and mirages. All the while esoteric music and even more esoteric narration accompanies the seemingly randomly assembled visuals.

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Everything in the film seems calculated to create such esoteric emotions as the ones I experienced with the images of the plane landing, although nothing that follows is as compelling. There's a lot of irony and a detached hallucinatory quality. But overall, Herzog seems to be creating a vision of his personal hell, which translated to a hellish viewing experience for this viewer. At least it's short and features some good Leonard Cohen music in the second half - although it was used to much better effect in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

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#686: Akira Kurosawa's Dreams

1990, TSPDT Rank #973

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams begins with a child's forbidden glimpse of a mythical fox wedding procession and ends with an adult man viewing a funeral procession performed as a celebration of life. What comes between is often much darker - dealing with the loss of innocence, the search for beauty, and the suffering of existence.

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The film consists of eight segments - each representing individual dreams that Kurosawa had over the course of his life. As such it also functions as a non-linear autobiography. The first two segments represent Kurosawa's childhood memories: combining otherworldly visuals with various elements of traditional Japanese culture (such as music, religion, mythology, Noh theater, festivals, and imperial culture). As the dreams move in adulthood, they take on a much more harrowing tone. Two deal with memories of war, two others protest against man's pollution of the earth - again employing Japanese folklore and cultural symbolism in the process.

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In some scenes, Kurosawa's tendency to rely too heavily on dialogue takes over, while in others, the urge to create scenes of mesmerizing beauty takes precedence. These scenes (namely the childhood segments and "Crows", which features Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh) are the film's crown jewels. There are masterful instances of characters being superimposed on imaginary backgrounds, or vice versa, such as in the hallucinatory Mt. Fuji nuclear disaster scene, obviously influenced by Ishiro Honda's equally environmentally-conscious Godzilla films (Honda worked as advisor to Kurosawa on this film).

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Collections of short films tend to be a mixed bag, and Dreams is no exception. Still, it's interesting for Kurosawa fans to see how the master's perspective changed in his later years, while also providing an essential glimpse of traditional Japanese culture for Westerners.