Tuesday, April 28, 2020

REWIND: A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)

TSPDT Rank #80

This is the first in a series of posts focusing on some of the 1,000 Greatest Films that I've seen but haven't been covered on my blog before. In the near future, I hope to start collecting these posts and the ones already on my blog into a comprehensive collections of 1,000 Greatest Films reviews. Stay tuned...

Initial viewing: c. 2007

For viewers who come to A Clockwork Orange without much knowledge of film history, seeing a masked hoodlum beating a man and raping his wife while tap dancing and gleefully singing “Singin’ in the Rain” might not feel quite as shocking as it does for someone who grew up watching Gene Kelly musicals on TV. For audiences in 1971, this was enough to send many running for the lobby and vomiting at the horror of what they had just seen. Seen by today’s standards, it’s clear that there is a lot of dark humor woven into this tale of a dystopian society overrun by amoral young thugs and unable to prevent its own moral deterioration. But even so, that infamous scene retains its sickening power.

Of course, this Stanley Kubrick masterpiece is more than just one scene. From its opening shot of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) staring into the camera with a chilling leer, slowly zooming out to reveal him and his mates sitting in a decadent futuristic bar decked out with naked porcelain women for tables and drinking milk laced with psychedelics, A Clockwork Orange casts a spell unlike any other. The dystopian world it depicts is both familiar and surreal, with bright colors and stylistized decor barely disguising the squalid, crime-ridden reality underneath. The film’s dazzling visuals draw the viewer helplessly into Alex’s world and often serve to make its sequences of violence as beautiful as they are disturbing.

I first saw A Clockwork Orange when I was in middle school. It was an illicit viewing - something that I wasn't supposed to be watching. But I was drawn to it as a fan of Stanley Kubrick's other films, like many young fans who talked their parents into taking them to the theater to see it back in 1971. Even though it was initially rated X, coming on heels of the huge commercial and critical success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's name gave it a prestige that set it above other "adult" films of the time. As for myself, what initially interested me about it was not the adult content, but the central psychological problem, and what it still has to say about our world today.

Alex’s psychopathic amorality is one of the film’s most fascinating points, owing to the magnetic performance of Malcolm McDowell. In Lindsay Anderson’s if…, McDowell brought a dangerous edge to his performance as a young rebel enamored with the idea of violence as a means for revolution. Here, McDowell uses that same edge to portray a character enamored with “ultraviolence” as a source of pleasure and dominance. Kubrick amplifies his performance with close-ups and low-angle shots, such as one key shot in which Alex wields a giant dildo sculpture as a weapon while standing over a cowering victim. At the same time, he subversively dares the audience to choose between Alex the charismatic psychotic or Alex the helpless test subject stripped of his freedom of choice.

Watching A Clockwork Orange today, it’s impossible not to wonder what it would have felt like to see it upon its original release in 1971. It’s as dangerous and deranged as its main character, with over-the-top performances, pompous dialogue filled with imagined futuristic slang, colors as lurid as its scenes of sex and violence, and a bombastic narrative style which marries perfectly with the music of Alex’s beloved Ludwig van Beethoven. It embraces Alex’s amoral worldview with disturbing faithfulness--eschewing moral commentary of any kind and casting all of its characters as ridiculous caricatures. Nevertheless, there are many universal truths to be found here about hypocrisy and the slippery nature of morality. It’s a disturbing, hilarious, bizarre and unforgettable satirical masterpiece.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

DIRECTORS SERIES: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Day of Wrath (1943)

Quest Status #696 / 1000

You Have to See… Day of Wrath (dir. Carl Th. Dreyer, 1943) | 4:3

TSPDT Rank #277

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most famous film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, follows an innocent woman through a harrowing witchcraft trial. It elevates Joan to messianic status, a saintlike figure determined to fight against hypocrisy and injustice right up until she meets her fiery end. Made 15 years later, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Day of Wrath presents a much more disturbing view of the era of witchcraft trials in medieval Europe. But it's not disturbing for the reasons you might expect. Sure, the preacher who sends old women to the stake and married a much younger woman against her will is not without fault. But neither is his young wife portrayed as an innocent. Her sly gazes at her lover, her husband's son, are bone-chilling. It's hard not to wonder whether or not she might really be under the Devil's influence after all. And the high-contrast lighting style keeps the characters' faces either partially or fully shrouded in shadows, until the startling final scene, which gives us a perfect example of the "decisive action" that Paul Schrader described in his 1972 study of Dreyer (along with Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu), Transcendental Style In Film. In this final scene, a Holy light intrudes into the film, bringing all that came before to an abrupt and unforeseen conclusion. This deeply spiritual moment is not only shown, but felt, echoing in the viewer's mind long after the screen fades to black.

Ordet (1955)

Quest Status #697 / 1000

Carl Theodor Dreyer: Ordet - The Culturium -

TSPDT Rank #32

Do you believe in miracles? Neither do most of the characters in Carl Theodor Dreyer's singular religious masterpiece. In Ordet, we see a formerly religious patriarch whose faith has been weakened by personal failures, an atheist, a young man more interested in love than religion, a man who might be the second coming of Jesus Christ, a housewife whose faith is pure and unwavering, a tailor who leads an unwelcoming and judgemental band of Christian evangelists, a parson who deals in easily digestible platitudes, and a doctor who insists that science negates all notions of religion or faith. Within this group of conflicting ideas, we see all kinds of confrontations - one set of beliefs against another, speculations about sin and the afterlife and miracles. But what happens when each of these beliefs is put to a real test of faith? Which will emerge as the true light from out of the darkness?

Ordet (1955) – The Movie Screen Scene

Film is the perfect medium to examine themes like this - discussions of theology and moments of true faith in motion can be brought to life on film like they can't on a page or in a church. But no matter how effective, serious religious films will never be popular at the box office. Which makes it all the more significant that Dreyer was able to make such a bold and uncompromising film about religion, one which comes from such an obvious place of personal conviction, and one which has withstood the test of time to claim a place within the top 50 most critically-acclaimed films of all time. Like all of Dreyer's films, it will transcend your expectations about what a film should be. Indoor scenes seem to take place in perpetual night, a claustrophobic darkness which matches the characters' struggles with themselves and each other, with long shots that move through the indoor settings slowly and deliberately, sometimes invoking the feeling that time standing still. Then there are the outdoor scenes, which break through the darkness with blinding brightness and radiant beauty. The doctor's statement in the climactic final sequence, that "even in pain there is beauty", are his most heartfelt words in the film and also seem to define what Dreyer was trying to say here. Not only is there aesthetic beauty in the film's otherworldly cinematography, but real, unsentimental, religious beauty, despite the pain that must be endured along the way.

Gertrud (1964)

Quest Status #698 / 1000

Gertrud (1964)

TSPDT Rank #32

Carl Theodor Dreyer's final film, Gertrud, has a strange ghostly quality to it. As all of his major films, it stands alone as a completely unique film, stylistically and thematically separate from the films that came before it. But while it's not obviously similar to any of Dreyer's other films, there are echoes from his entire filmography scattered throughout. Atypically for Dreyer, religion is almost completely absent here, although the contrast of drab or abstract interiors with sublime natural settings seen in Day of Wrath and Ordet can be seen again here. The theatrical style of Ordet is carried over here, with very long takes and lots of dialogue, but the theatrical elements take a backseat to the visuals - which rely almost as heavily on visual illusions and experimentation as Vampyr did some 32 years prior.

Gertrud (1964): 30 Worst Film Festival Bombs - AskMen

Then there's the central theme of female agency and free will - which harks back to Dreyer's silent films, not least of all The Passion of Joan of Arc. While she's not perfect, the titular Gertrud is often portrayed as a timeless vision of beauty, surrounded by an angelic white light. Henning Bendtsen's cinematography is a masterful balance of high-contrast lighting and compositions which play with the power balances between the characters. There are also occasional flashbacks in which the screen is flooded with bright light that seems aimed to overpower the viewer with an intense vision of time lost and possibilities squandered. For a film which has every reason to be theatrical and dull, Gertrud moves and pulses with life, provoking unexpected thoughts and conjuring hypnotic moods. After many years waiting for the right moment to encounter Dreyer's final films, I've finally found it, with the realization that Dreyer's filmography is a singular treasure trove in the vast sea of cinematic history.

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Previously seen by Carl Theodor Dreyer:

-Vampyr (1932)

September 2010

-The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) review

Friday, April 10, 2020

Voyage to Italy (1953, Roberto Rossellini)

Quest Status #695 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #75

As Voyage to Italy opens, the first thing we see is a shaky handheld view of the open road in the Italian countryside. A train charging through the empty landscape. Then an English married couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) sitting together in the car, looking uncomfortable to be with each other. There's no musical cues here, no real plot progression, just a little exposition. The couple is going to Naples to sell a house that belonged to the man's uncle, then head home as soon as possible. Then we see their faces, and listen to the sounds of the car driving down the road.

Classic Movie Legend Tribute: Ingrid Bergman | Classic Movie Hub Blog

If you've seen a certain number of Hollywood movies from the 1950s, then maybe that moment will feel as shocking to you as it did to me. In the context of the time in which it was made, Journey to Italy did something truly unusual. It's not neorealism, it's a travel film about what travel is really like sometimes. It's about what happens a married couple goes on vacation in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, then find out that they never really got to know each other. From a contemporary standpoint, this exploration of a marriage on the rocks feels tame and dated, but it still has a few timeless moments that go for the gut.

Death and a Miracle: Lessons from a Classic Movie

What's more, Voyage to Italy isn't just about a failing marriage. For much of the film, Bergman and Sanders are actually apart, contemplating whether or not anything can still be salvaged from the ruins. In a stroke of allegorical brilliance, Rossellini devotes a lot of time to Bergman's sightseeing "pilgrimages" in and around Naples, as she drives through the city streets and takes guided tours through various museum, ruins and tombs. We also see Sanders take his own solo trip in an attempt to sow some wild oats before its too late - even contemplating spending the night with a prostitute! As a whole, Voyage to Italy is a flawed and uneven film, but at the same time it's a daring, emotionally-charged travelogue unlike any other. It's a movie that eluded me for a long time, so I'm glad that I was finally able to see it!

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Sunday, April 5, 2020

DOUBLE FEATURE: If... / O Lucky Man!

If... (1968, Lindsay Anderson)

Quest Status #693 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #370

If... is an uneven film, with a loose episodic structure that builds towards its almost apocalyptic conclusion with very little regard for narrative logic or character development. However, it makes up for this with a true rebel's spirit. If... has a lot in common with the "angry young man" films made in Britain during the early 1960s, but it feels more dangerous than those films. As the central character among a rag-tag ensemble of junior and senior schoolboys, the sadistic "whips" at the top of the heap, and an assortment of professors and would-be authority figures in the film's generically-named "College", Malcolm McDowell's Mick Travis is the main source of this feeling of danger. In fact, the edge which McDowell displays in If... isn't far removed from the amoral source of terror that he portrayed a few years later in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Richard Warwick

But whereas A Clockwork Orange is about a young man for whom "ultraviolence" is a source of pleasure, Travis is a young man who just sees violence as the only means of response to an oppressive society. In this sense, If... is more of a political film, as opposed to A Clockwork Orange, which examines morality and free will. Those topics are less of a concern here. Instead, If... is a dreamlike vision of how the revolutionary awakening of young people could lead them to turn against the oppressive societal institutions meant to train them for the cruel hierarchy of adult life. There's a touch of absurdity here, but more than a little reality. Especially viewed today, in the wake of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and so many other school shootings, the apocalyptic final sequence of If... has a chilling resonance, despite its surrealist flair. Lindsay Anderson was more ahead of his time than he ever could have known.

O Lucky Man! (1973, Lindsay Anderson)

Quest Status #694 / 1000

O Lucky Man! (1973) – MUBI

TSPDT Rank #943

It's safe to say that O Lucky Man! is much less well-known than its predecessor, If..., but I'm tempted to call it the better film. Here, we again have a character named Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and many of the same actors from If... appear here in (multiple) different roles, but otherwise the two films couldn't be more different. It's debatable whether this Mick Travis is even the same character as the one seen in If.., despite the obvious similarities. But as Mick effectively laid waste to the oppressive world of his childhood in If..., it only takes a slight stretch of the imagination to see O Lucky Man! as Mick's fever dream of what the straight world might be like, as imagined in the aftermath of his own anarchic revolt against society. After all, the Mick Travis we see here is nothing like his angry schoolboy counterpart. He's a vision of conformity, repeatedly tormented by circumstance but hellbent on his own materialistic vision of success.

Film - O Lucky Man! - Into Film

Starting out as an apparent critique of modern industry and big business, in the vein of Modern Times, O Lucky Man! ends up shifting gears so many times that it becomes almost impossible to classify. Where If... was episodic and non-linear, O Lucky Man! seems to flow effortlessly in a straight line. Despite its numerous inexplicable plot digressions, it moves with a schizophrenic dream logic that is bewildering as it is easy to follow - strange as that might seem. Holding all of this madness together are the songs of Alan Price (of The Animals) and his band playing in a nondescript studio rehearsal. They have a passing connection to the plot, but their main purpose is to punctuate the action and hold everything together. It's a stroke of genius that works so well, I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen something like this before.

Lindsay Anderson • Great Director • Senses of Cinema

What Lindsay Anderson was actually trying to say with O Lucky Man! is ultimately difficult to parse out. Is this a critique of modern society, idealism, and those who try to follow the straight and narrow despite the madness that surrounds us all? Or an absurdist statement that the straight and narrow isn't all that it's cracked up to be? Or maybe there's no statement at all. Regardless of what you make of it, O Lucky Man! is an exhilarating journey of a film that deserves to be more well known. However, as its low ranking on the list suggests that it might not be on the 1,000 Greatest Films for much longer, I'm glad that I got a chance to review it here for posterity.

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