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- Luis Buñuel | Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones)
- Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky | Шахматн...
- Aleksandr Dovzhenko | Земля (Russian, Zemlya) (Ear...
- Luis Buñuel | Simon del Desierto (Simon of the Des...
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- Luis Buñuel | La Joven (The Young One)
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Thursday, February 27, 2014
by Douglas Messerli
Luis Alcoriz and Luis Buñuel (writers, with dialogue by Max Aub, Juan Larrea and Pedro de Urdimalas), Luis Buñuel (director) Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones / The Young and the Damned) / 1950, USA 1952
Luis Buñuel’s powerful 1950 Mexican film, Los olviadados, is a study of betrayals—betrayals by family members, street friends, neighbors and, most importantly, of society itself. The young boys at the center of Buñuel’s work have hardly any chance to survive, being prisoners of their economic and sociological conditions. The marvel of this film, however, is not simply its political and sociological statements, but the way in which it helps us to comprehend each of these often unsympathetic characters’ behavior. Each act seemingly out of selfish necessity, but we come to recognize those behavioral needs, and comprehend how their obsessions arise from their simple attempts to survive in a society that seemingly does not want them to.
Los Angeles, February 27, 2014
Sunday, February 23, 2014
a danger to family life
by Douglas Messerli
Nikolai Shpikovsky (writer), Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky (director) Шахматная горячка (Shakhmatnaya goryachka) (Chess Fever) / 1925
Playing a kind of Soviet Harold Lloyd-like character, Vladimir Fogel is a chess-obsessed man about to get married. Even the morning when he is to meet his future wife at the “registry” finds him busy playing chess with himself, comically rushing from one side of the table to the other. A note tied to his arm reminds him that he must leave for the marriage license, but he simply cannot resist moving the chess figures a few more times and reading from one of the numerous books on chess that his pockets contain—along with his many kittens.
Once on the streets he passes a chess shop and, like a piece of metal to a magnet, is lured back in space and time. Every checkerboard pattern in the world draws him into another game.
Each of these fall of the hands unsuspecting passers-by who are equally taken up with the game, as obsessed, apparently, as our hero! It is as if everyone except the girl is a chess addict. So isolated from the world around her, the woman determines to poison herself, while the hero declares he will drown himself.
Meanwhile, the sullen hero also fails in his attempt to commit suicide, and returning to the streets encounters a poster announcing a new chess event in which anyone who registers may participate. He runs to the venue to list his name, where he encounters his former lover, now utterly enchanted with the complexity and beauty of the “game,” as she watches with fascination Capablanca facing off with a foe. The two—our hero and his girl—reunite, she now perfectly ready to share his passion.
Shot in the middle of Pudovkin’s filming of his Mechanics of the Brain, Chess Fever was born out the 1925 Moscow chess tournament. Receiving permission to make a documentary of the event, Pudovkin and Shpikovsky filmed footage of the tournament, pretending to make the documentary, but later reinserting it into their comic tale, a kind of dissident act which Pudovkin would seldom take again in his long involvement with Stalinist film-making. And one is saddened seeing this and others of his early films for his later more overtly propagandist works, making us realize what a potentially innovative and original filmmaker we lost.
Los Angeles, February 23, 2014
Saturday, February 22, 2014
abstraction and individuation
by Douglas Messerli
Aleksandr Dovzhenko (writer and director) Земля (Russian, Zemlya) (Earth) / 1930
Dovzhenko’s great film of 1930 was intended to be a kind of Russian propagandist film encouraging Ukranian kulak (individual and often rich farmers) to join with one another in establishing state collectives, and the kernel of the tale of kulak unrest and the murder of a young member of the komsomol, Vasyl (Basil) (the beautiful Semyon Svashenko) remains at the core of Dovzhenko’s movie. And the film, in outline, presents its political “plot.”
Despite the opposition of Vasyl’s father, Semyon (Nikolai Nademsky) and his uncle Opanas (Stepan Shkurat) are opposed to it, as are their neighbors, Arkhip Bilokin (Ivan Franko) and his son Khoma (Thomas) (Pyotr Masokha), preferring to work the rich land and its harvests in the old manner of oxen and plow.
To prove them wrong, Vasyl and his compatriots arrange to have a tractor sent, and proudly drive it through their small village, with crowds arriving to gape at the new wonder. When suddenly the tractor stops, the driver discovers that the radiator is dry. With no water in sight, the komsomol members are stymied until the driver suggests that the men piss into the radiator, and the tractor moves forward again.
The following montage shows Vasyl busily harvesting the wheat, demonstrating the entire process of gathering the grain to the production of bread. But in the process he also destroys the fences belong to the Bilokins. That night, as Vasyl joyfully dances home, he is killed by Khoma.
Distraught by the death of his son, Semyon orders the priest off his land, and asks Vasyl’s friends to bury him instead, in a new manner with contemporary songs, since his son believed so strongly in the future. They agree to do so, and the entire village joins them in a joyous celebration of Vasyl, Khoma going mad in the process and admitting his guilt.
Vasyl’s glory will fly around the world, argues one friend, just as does the new Soviet airplane. So ends the “propagandist” aspects of Dovzhenko’s tale.
Had the director simply presented this in simple terms, the authorities might have been pleased, but history would never have bothered about this masterwork, often rated today as one of the most important works of film history. It is almost as if, mesmerized by his homeland’s landscape, families, products, and cultural perspectives, Dovzhenko could not resist celebrating them in a manner that renders his film’s political intentions nearly mute. Soviet critics of the day certainly seemed to miss the basic story, describing the film as “ideologically vicious.”
The film begins with vast waving fields of grains, lingering camera shots of apples and pears, and the death of a family elder, who just before dying, sits up to eat his last pear. Family individuals are shot separately as in 19th century portraits, usually with camera looking up and directly into their worn and drawn faces, or, in the case of the handsome Vasyl, portraying him in silhouette, looking off into the distance, obviously symbolic of the direction he would take his family and friends. *
In the long scene in which we see Vasyl harvesting the wheat, Dovzhenko turns his basically realist tale into a series of abstract images, as the wheat and its chaff go hurtling endlessly through space, with Ukrainian maidens gathering the bundles by tying them together in braids of grain. Huge mixing containers beat up the dough before it is molded into the form of loaves and placed into gigantic ovens. We see thousands of loaves of bread being spewed out of the ovens into space. In short, the individuation of the first scenes is utterly transformed into collective abstraction, reiterating the theme, but also transforming this film from a simple realist tale into a wondrous cinematic spectacle of the abstract akin to the paintings of Russian artists such as Kasimir Malevich.
Once more the earth is stirred up into dust, while Vasyl’s mother bears another baby.
In the final scene the rains gather, pouring down upon the rich landscape, dripping seemingly endlessly across the surfaces of pears, apples, melons and other fruits, which in the director’s hands become another kind of abstract representation of nature. And, in the end, Dovzhenko’s film seems more concerned with the cycles of nature and human life and death than the political fable at its core. Daily life matters in Earth far more than the political fissures and bonds of social structures. The individual and their eccentricities seem of far greater worth than the abstractions of a collective living. If nothing else, Dovzhenko gives them equal value in his idyllic testament to the Ukrainian way of life.
By coincidence (my old friend) Network sent me this film on the very days when the modern Ukraine was rebelling against their President’s attempt to realign their country with the Russia. You certainly do perceive in The Earth the importance of the Ukraine to the former Soviet Union. It seems almost eerie to realize that most of the work was filmed in and near Kiev, where just yesterday fires were blazing in protest of the alignment which Dovzhenko’s kulaks also fought.
*In Earth’s continual series of friezes, we can perceive the film’s later influence on other Soviet filmmakers, including the Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov.
Los Angeles, February 21, 2014
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (February 2014).
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
by Douglas Messerli
Gustavo Alatriste (screenplay, based on a novel by Luis Buñuel), Luis Buñuel (director) Símon del Desierto (Simon of the Desert) / 1965
The first action of Buñuel’s short fable Simon of the Desert is a decent, as Símon (Claudio Brook)—like the Syrian saint, Símon Stylites before him—comes down from a desert pillar where, feeling in need of spiritual purification, he has stood for six years, six months, and six days. Greeted by nearby townspeople and monks, they gather round the saintly martyr to grab fragments of his filthy garment and beg him to bless them. The local head of the monastery attempts to anoint Símon into the priesthood, but the hirsute saint refuses it, arguing that he is not yet worthy.
A wealthy landowner has built another, taller pillar nearby, to the top of which Símon now climbs in search of further purification. When he has returned to the top, a man whose two hands have been amputated, begs him to perform a miracle. Símon prays, and the man’s hands are restored, but his first action is to push his child from him. So the director notes the irony of Símon’s gifts. While he may be a kind of saint, he is also shunned by most of the locals as, one by one the monk rails against them for their human sins. A dwarf goat-herder is attacked by Símon for loving his goat; a handsome young monk who brings Símon food, is attacked by the elderly martyr for being too vain, and orders him to not return to the monastery until he grows a beard. Símon rejects even the pleas of his own mother to be able to live near to him.
In short, if Símon is perceived as a saintly sufferer, he also rejected as a proud bigot, a man who himself recognizes his vanity in wishing to bless the people below. The man in the ridiculous position atop the pillar has become a kind of monument, a testament, perhaps, to his own sense of superiority and holiness.
Under the sign of the devil (666) is it any wonder, accordingly, that Satan soon arrives in the form, first, of a lovely girl (Silvia Pinal), flirtatiously trying to lure Símon to come down and play with her. Símon, however, recognizes her as Satan. Satan returns, this time with a ridiculous beard and curled hair, pretending to be Christ, but again the saint, after a few minutes, recognizes the tempter to be Satan.
Possessing one of the priests who come to visit him—a priest who has secretly filled Símon’s food bag with cheese and other delicacies—Satan again makes an attempt to denounce Símon. Recognizing his deceit, Símon prays, exorcising the priest of the devil on the spot.
Finally, in a third appearance as a coffin trails across the desert sand to stop by the pillar, opening to reveal Satan once more, this time in a toga. Climbing to the top, Satan promises to end Símon’s vigil, as suddenly the couple vanish.