Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ingmar Bergman | För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor (All These Women)

the same but different
by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman and Erland Josephson (screenplay), Ingmar Bergman (director) För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor (All These Women) / 1964

Film critics, for the most part, did not take to Ingmar Bergman’s first color film and one of his few outright comedies, All These Women from 1964. The New York Times critic, A. H. Weiler wrote:

            The director, who also collaborated on the script, is labyrinthine
            in his approach to his story and his initial use of color. A
            tongue-in-cheek subtitle states that "any resemblance between this
            film and reality must be a mistake." But it is abundantly clear that
            it is Mr. Bergman's intention to be serious about the occasionally
            elusive points he is making. At the outset, his bizarre tale, unfolded
            in black-and-white footage, reveals the body of a top cellist attended
            not only by his widow but also by the varied but happy harem who
            surrounded him in life.

Roger Ebert described it as Bergman’s worst film. And, I might add, that the first time I saw this film, decades ago, I also did not at all comprehend why he would want to make it. But then I was a prude in those decades, loving Bergman’s black-and-white films of angst and despair only. I do still love most of those films, but I now absolutely enjoyed the satiric slashes against high-minded art mixed with Feydeau-like back-room shenanigans.
     After a brief funeral scene, where each member of celloist, Felix’s seraglio, repeats the phrase “He looks the same, but so different”—flat on his back, one presumes, but not, in death, quite so lively.
     The film actually begins with the arrival at Villa Tremolo of a pompous music critic, Cornelius (Jarl Kulle), come to write the definitive biography of the musician. Fortunately, this self-centered young man—whose hidden goal is the get the master to play a song which he himself has written—never gets the opportunity to meet Felix (and neither we do), as Bergman’s film, in Tom Jones-style keeps taking us back to “two days earlier,” all the while accompanying the zany activities of these oversexed women with the 1920s ditty “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” They’re clearly hungry.
     The foolish Cornelius begins by mistaking the chauffeur, Tristan (Georg Funkquist) for the maestro, and is soon, quite pleasantly overwhelmed the harem of Felix’s lovers, all of whom have been given nicknames such as “Bumblebee” (Bibi Andersson), “Isolde” (Harriet Andersson), “Madame Tussaud” (Karin Kavli), “Traviata” (Gertrude Fridh), “Cecilia,” “Beatrica,” etc. Only Felix’s somewhat suffering real wife, retains her name, Adelaide (Eva Dahlbeck).
      Some of “all these women” try to bed even the unattractive Cornelius, while another enters his chamber to shoot at him, presumably because she thinks Cornelius is having sex, as Felix, out of turn. In short, the very entry into their world by the would-be biographer causes a flurry of sexual chaos.
     Some critics have stated that Bergman’s satiric target was Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ wherein the much-beleaguered film director at the center of this tale is haunted by women present and past. But, since Bergman had also bedded his share of women, some of them even in this film, so I’d suggest it’s also a kind self-satire as well. Actually, it sounds very close to the goings-on in the Maud Cunard—wife of the great shipping tycoon—mansion with writer George Moore and conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who daily sang songs through the windows, after their nightly affairs, from Wagner and other opera favorites.

    In a sense, it doesn’t matter, we all know that such wild activities did go on with numerous “great figures” in both the musical and cinema worlds…and dance, and literary, and art. You “look the same, but so different.”
      True, this is not Bergman’s greatest film. Even in its satiric gestures, it’s a somewhat moribund and morose version of the comedy he is clearly trying to create. Bergman was, at times, highly comedic, but even the young son of his most brilliant comedic work, Smiles of a Summer Night was a celloist who played several sad songs before running away, delightfully, with his father’s virgin wife.
     Yet, I did laugh, quite openly, this time around. And I wished the dark director of those many tortured souls might have had far more opportunities to explore his comedic self. Yet, in a sense, all of those other angst-ridden figures were clownish exaggerations. You need only visit films such as The Magician, Fanny and Alexander, and strangely even Through a Glass Darkly to perceive this. If Bergman often glowered over his characters, he also forgave them, even laughed at them. This film now seems to me to be almost a glowing tribute to the farces of the French theater and of the early 1920s. I’m happy I revisited it.

Los Angeles, October 30, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Robert Eggers | The Lighthouse

freudian studies 101
by Douglas Messerli

Robert Eggers and Max Eggers (screenplay), Robert Eggers (director) The Lighthouse / 2019

Film critics, get over it! Robert Eggers’ new film The Lighthouse is not at all a psychological-terror drama of two men going mad in a gloomy lighthouse. It’s, instead, a rather remarkable statement of the late 19th century views that made up Freud’s notions of male passion, rejection of the father, and pyschosis. All of which, given our now 21th century views seem rather ridiculous.
     Yes, all young boys, at one time or another, want to kill their fathers or go to bed with them. Mothers are often not to be seen, except in the notions of mermaids and slitheringly obscure figures. They are always kept at a far distance from their young sons. That is the subject of this odd and somewhat perverse film.
    The lighthouse is itself a phallic statue that, which with it’s milky, high-tower warmth of mother-like white light, creates great problems for the very troubled youth of this work, Ephriam (Robert Pattinson), who later admits to having the same name, Tommy, of his tormenter, the father figure who will not ever give him credit for his hard labors, the salty Thomas (William Dafoe), who makes up stories and myths faster that you can ever even assimilate them—or in some cases even hear them.
      He is in control of the mother-figure in this male-dominated film, the light itself. He alone is in charge of the mother-lode, and the son/young youth he has hired has absolutely no access to, and is understandably frustrated. The father, in this case, the elder Thomas, will never allow his symbolic son even entry to his bed, the center of the lighthouse, and the source of its power.
      Welcome to Freudian Pyschology 101.
      This film, if you look at it from a somewhat academic view, is a hilarious black comedy about all of young male’s fears and doubts. Trapped in an impossible relationship with his paternal figure, the young Tommy, Jr. is forced to do all of the labor without not only appreciation from the father figure of Egger’s film, but with an absolute rebuttal, as he later discovers in a journal saved from the flood of their hatred, of anything he might have truly accomplished. Isn’t that what many fathers have done through the centuries?
      Like all youth, young Tommy (Ephriam) masturbates himself into mad sensation, while the elder acts as a distant voyeur, even while encouraging him into drunken madness of his own life. How can the young Tommy resist the almost pedophlic demands of a father in this dance of utterly male kinship? Their somewhat healthy clogging quickly turns into a slow-dance of intense involvement, forcing the younger man to admit to acts he might or might not have ever committed.
     That is the dilemma for all young boys, admitting to what they may (in this case a passive murder of a fellow logger) or may not have accomplished.
      Yes, there are certainly homoerotic aspects to any father/son relationship. How can there not be, when the son is forced to love a father who controls his life? And the S&M aspects of that relationship are certainly played out in Eggers’ highly smybolic film.
       The son must destroy the father to get even near to the mother—in this case the light at the top of the penis in which the two are entrapped. Even the vision of the mother-lode, the light at the top of the tunnel, is enough to send the young Tommy into a spin back into the spiral of the lighthouse staircase into death, his entrails eaten by the sea-birds which his Melvillian father has called up in his frenzied hatred.
       If you treat this film at all as a sort of naturalistic treatist about lonely men in an isolated world, you won’t be able to appreciate the director’s dark vision or even begin to comprehend the deep mumble-jumple of Dafoe’s brilliant acting, nor the prickly reactions of Pattinson, along with the brilliant cinematograpy of Jarin Blaschke. Eggers’ square box of filming, which confines the entire action to claustrophobic statement of content will make utterly no sense.
       This is not the world; this is a vision of what our nightmares are all about—at least according to Freud, who came out of these very times. The dominant father, the missing mother, the terrified son, are here the creatures we explore. Death is not death in the traditional manner, but symbolically a statement of what families do to one another, the lighthouse representing a kind a family structure. The phallus, in our lives, is unfortunately, everything in Freudian life. Both the young Tommy and the elder Thomas need to serve it assiduously. The perversity of this film reveals how much we need to alter our ways.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).

Josef von Sternberg | Blonde Venus

an american ring
by Douglas Messerli

Jules Furthman, S. K. Lauren and Josef von Sternberg (screenplay, adapted from a story by Furthman and von Sternberg, based on a story by Marlene Dietrich), Josef von Sternberg (director) Blonde Venus / 1932

Directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932, in the pre-code days of Hollywood, Blonde Venus contains several elements that might not be suitable for film even today.

    It begins, for example, with a group of young male tourists hiking through Germany who suddenly encounter a group of six beautiful women all swimming in a river naked. Five of these Rhein maidens quickly retreat when they discover the existence of the unintentional voyeurs, while the sixth, Helen (Marlene Dietrich) swims toward the intruders, telling one of them, Edward “Ned” Faraday (Herbert Marshall) to go away and mind his own business. While the other men also retreat, he stands his ground, refusing to leave.
     Attending the theater later that evening, Faraday discovers the beautiful blonde he has encountered in the river now on stage, singing. A walk through the park after begins a romance, and the couple are soon after married, perhaps with the bride already being pregnant.
      Marshall, who later played rather uptight husbands and villains, appears an odd choice to pair with this obviously more “experienced” singer. But I suppose van Sternberg wanted to convey the idea that Helen loved him precisely because of his loyalty and devotion to their young son Johnny (Dickie Moore), whom in the second scene, we now see his mother bathing.
      Faraday, we soon discover is now a chemist who has suffered—in a sort of ridiculous twist of the plot—radiation poisoning, now willing to sell his body to science. Perhaps like Alberich, also of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, Faraday (whose name, after-all, calls up the British scientist Michael Faraday, who, experimenting on how to transform magnetism into electricity, created in 1831 the “ring-coil” apparatus, the first electric transformer) has been doing a little forging of gold on the side.
     Told by a doctor that a German physician has had success in treating radiation poisoning, Ned is now faced with having to raise $1500 for the travel and stay in Germany.
     To help raise the money, Helen is determined to return to work, and quickly finds herself a job where she dances with a chorus of pretty acolytes, posing as a gorilla in “Hot Voodoo,” at a dramatic moment pealing the head of the gorilla suit away to reveal her blonde hair and lovely face before singing the finale.

     Certainly, this clearly racist dance would be highly damned today, but in 1932 it excited the millionaire playboy/politician Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) enough that he almost storms off to backstage to encounter the “blonde venus.” Moreover, as another performer, Taxi Belle Hooper (Rita La Roy), has already revealed to Helen, he is willing to award rings and jewels of a far more lustrous kind to those who are willing do “favors.”
      Helen, evidently, is willing—for her irradiated husband’s sake—and soon, through Townsend’s checks raises enough money to lovingly send her husband off for his recuperation.
      Although the small family, Helen, Johnny, and Faraday seem seriously sad to temporarily break-up, we all know what will happen. Helen falls in love with her “god,” Townsend, and a few weeks before her emotionally “dwarfed” husband returns, takes one last delicious two-week outing with the Cary Grant figure. Who wouldn’t, given the alternative of the all-too-proper Faraday?
      Returning from his recuperation a few days early, Faraday discovers that his wife has been long unemployed and has been basically living with Townsend. Their son Johnny is in the care of a nanny. Again, as in Wagner, vengeance has no end, as Faraday banishes his wife from his life and threatens to take away her son (again, and I don’t want to make much of this, but it is in the plot, reminding us of Wotan’s banishment of Brunhilde and his relationship with his son Siegfried). She, in turn, escapes with the boy, playing increasingly cheap nightclubs across the country, with the police one step behind.
      When she is finally tracked down by a detective who lures her into sex to discover where she and the child live, she realizes she must give up Johnny, freeing her, finally, to create herself a new career, from New Orleans (with the wonderful Hattie McDaniel playing her maid Cora) and leading eventually to Paris—where she sings “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed”— and meets up again with Townsend, who asks her to marry him. Realizing, nonetheless, that she is still vitally attached to her son, he arranges a return to the US and a reunification, if even temporary, with Johnny.
      The last scenes of the film are tragic in several senses. The child, unaware that she may soon be completely out of his life, asks her to retell what he describes as the “German” story, that tale she and Faraday have often told him throughout his childhood about how they met and fell in love. When both parents refuse, he tells it, in front of them, to himself, a myth he has created out of their own myths.
      Only von Sternberg could end a movie with a wind-up carousel to which Helen sings a song by Henrich Heine to put the child  to sleep, suggesting that the best thing for the now symbolically “dead” boy would be the couple’s return to marriage—another kind of death surely to both of them as well. All we really need is “Siegfried's Death and Funeral March.” Toy trumpets and drums (symbolic of the early tympani of the orchestral work) seem to be lurking behind the child’s beloved carousel.
     Blonde Venus is, thank heaven, not Wagner. It’s a story about a singer her gives up her family in order to enjoy her life, a simple melodrama. But von Sternberg, along with US screenwriters Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren, clearly knew how to interweave their cultural backgrounds into this Hollywood flick.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Bong Joon-ho | 기생충 (Gisaengchung) (Parasite)

The Ghost Comes Out of the Closet
by Douglas Messerli

Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won (screenplay, based on a story by Bong Joon-ho), Bong Joon-ho (director) Parasite / 2019

The first winner for South Korea of the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or, director Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite has a great many things on its mind.
     On one level, perhaps its most charming, it is a satire of the economic differences (and sometimes surprising similarities) of the vast population of (10 million and with its outlying suburbs 25 million) of Seoul. From one perspective, Seoul is one of the most sophisticated and highly developed cities in Asia, but beneath the towering skyscrapers and symbols of newly-developed wealth are people living in near poverty, their lives at the edge, despite their best attempts to scavenge for enough so they simply might eat.
      The Kim family, the unemployed driver Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) are all rather talented and certainly capable individuals, and quite brilliant as con-men-and-women. Yet the society has given them little opportunity to demonstrate their talents. And they have been forced to live in a semi-basement with open windows that view the local drunk pissing against their building and fumigating trucks filling their small space with poisonous fumes.
      They get Wi-fi illegally (when they can) from local cafés. Their only income is from folding pizza boxes for a local pizzeria, but even the small amount of money they make from that is threatened when some of their work proves to be shoddy in their attempt to outdo another local assembler. They hardly have a decent place to bathe, let alone a good kitchen; but then they hardly can afford food to cook. The best place to tune the Wi-fi is squatting upon their toilet.
      In short, the Kims have found themselves at the near bottom of a society sprung up beautifully during the last few decades into a 21st century model of riches and wealth. And in that sense Bong begins is dark comedy as a kind of naturalist-like treatise, not unlike Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths.
     Fortunately, Bong quickly shifts gears with a magical appearance of Ki-woo's educated friend Min-hyuk, who in moving on to a higher education, asks his young friend to take over his position as English tutor for a wealthy family, the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye. When Ki-woo finds himself somewhat abashed by the offer, his friend points out to him that Ki-woo has passed the exams several times (obviously it’s simply money that has prevented the boy to move on a higher education), suggesting that Min-hyuk is in love with Da-hye and feels Ki-woo will protect her until she graduates, when his friend plans to marry her.
      The Kim daughter, an artist and master forger, quickly whips a phony college certificate, and the handsome Kim son is quickly hired, mostly on the basis of Min-hyuk’s recommendations (something Mrs. Park relies on more than documents), for the job, finding himself in Da-hye’s bedroom to tutor the lovely young girl in the modernist architectural masterwork in which the Park’s live.
      Suddenly Bong’s film switches to the more comic mode of a film more akin to Harold Prince’s 1970 American black comedy, Something for Everyone, wherein the handsome Michael York entering a Bavarian castle as a servant, sexually ingratiates himself with son, mother, and, later, daughter.
      Except here, the young tutor does not necessarily use sex as a tool—although Da-hye quickly does romantically fall for him—but social and political politesse—suggesting that the somewhat artistic son of the Park family—who comically is completely absorbed in all things native American Indian, but seems also quite hyper-active and even mentally disturbed, having witnessed a ghost on one of his young birthdays—might be helped by art therapy.
     Before you can even blink, Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) has hired Ki-woo’s talented sister Ki-jung (after she has Googled “art therapy”) who appears to successfully quiet down the Park’s son through her teachings, while hinting that the child may have schizophrenic tendencies.
     A ride home with the family’s chauffeur, who insinuates that he wants to know more about her, results in her taking revenge by leaving her panties planted near the back seat, where Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) discovers them the next morning on his way to work. Forced to fire his handsome chauffeur, fearing he has had sex with a woman in the car and perhaps even killed her, the two Kims suggest they might know of a man who might reputably replace him—obviously their own father.
     In no time at all, the pater familias of the Kims has insinuated that their current housekeeper, the loyal Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) has tuberculosis, and she too is fired, replaced by, you guessed it, Kim’s wife, a woman he describes as “Jessica.”
     Perhaps not so strangely, the talented Kims return a household in disorder, even while its current tenants live in luxury, to order—teaching, driving, and cooking quite effortlessly, even if each night they return to the squalor in which they are forced to exist. It is quite apparent that they are better equipped to live in this mansion than are the Parks. In a sense, they are in control of this architectural wonder, while the Parks, although providing its finances, are truly the squatters.
     The slow-learning daughter, their small would-be Indian son, the half-drugged-out wife, and the haughty businessman only inhabit it at night, and even then, their son prefers the Indian teepee in their overly green back yard. And when the Parks determine to go on a camping excursion, the Kims sleep over, bathe in their golden bathrooms, and drink themselves into a kind of brooding frenzy.
     This half of the film, in itself, would constitute a wonderful satiric movie, but Bong has deeper motives still, as his work turns another corner to become a kind of revenge tragedy. For living in a hidden bunker in the mansion, perhaps even more stark than the Kims’ basement habitation, is the bankrupt husband of Moon-gwang, hiding for years from bill-collectors in a kind of safe-house created by the original architect-owner for protection if ever needed.
      The housekeeper comes to feed and, perhaps “collect” her husband, only to find the Kims in midst of their celebration. Charging forward, she films the illegal celebrants and threatens to report their existence to the Parks, as they attempt to steal her cellphone and to destroy both her and her husband.
      Suddenly what was a seemingly righteous inversion of cultural injustices turns sour, particularly when the Park family calls to announce they are soon returning home because of heavy rain, and Chung-sook instruced to cook up ramen while the other members of her family hide throughout the house, must clean up the mess. In Moon-gwang’s attempt to return to the kitchen Kim’s wife slams the door back, sending the former housekeeper down the stairs to her eventual death.
      As Bo Seo wrote in a very intelligent essay in The Atlantic, we can no longer feel either sad or happy for the Kims.

       Though Parasite is mainly about interclass conflict, its most brutal
       scenes depict fights between members of the working poor. Here,
       as in the rest of Bong’s films, violence is not a path to liberation;
       it instead offers a fleeting catharsis that upholds more of the status
       quo than it destroys. For families like the Kims, advancement
       under capitalism involves beating out their peers for limited
      opportunities, to the extent that parity with others in the working
      class begins to feel like failure.
           In their attempts to get ahead, the Kims end up replicating
      the abuses of the wealthy—fraud, conspiracy, blackmail, and
      assault—against the poor, whose ranks they desperately wish to
      leave. When Ki-taek wonders about the fate of the driver his family
      schemed to get fired, Ki-jung snaps: “We’re the ones who need help.
      Worry about us, okay?” But unlike the rich, the Kims cannot hide
      their transgressions behind masks of respectability and institutional
      legitimacy. When the basis for their employment by the Parks is
      revealed to be nepotism, a mainstay of elite consolidation, the news
      media and their audiences are scandalized.

    While I generally do not attempt to keep the plot away from readers, about the final feverish scenes of violence which end in several deaths, as if right out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, I will remain mum. Although almost mortally wounded, three of the Kim family survive, although no one knows to where Mr. Kim himself has disappeared.
     The film’s ending might almost seem uplifting, as Ki-woo, back in his semi-basement hovel, finally determines to finish his schooling, make a lot of money, and free his semi-imprisoned father by buying the Park mansion, now owned by a German family.
     In that determination, however, Bong asks his society and us if, in any society with such class divides, is this simply a pipe dream or might it be possible to heal the past? The answer, of course, does not lie in the film, but in the determination of the society to change conditions. I do not feel positive. But dreams are necessary to make anything happen. If his father, after the family has suffered a flooding of their own decrepit apartment, suggests that one should never make “plans,” since they always fail, this young boy is making plans, is imagining a world outside of that in which he has lived. And any caring person in the world knows that such “plans” are the only way out.          

Los Angeles, October 23, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Jacques Tati | Mon Oncle (My Uncle)

the click of heels

 Jacques Lagrange, Jean L'Hôte, and Jacques Tati (writers), Jacques Tati (director) Mon Oncle / 1958

 Although filmed in muted Technicolor, Jacques Tati’s wonderful Mon Oncle might as well be a silent film in black-and-white. Well, not really, its satire about modernism, the upper-class pretensions, and consumerism in general needs the lusciousness of its 1958 color treatment. After all the lovely presentation of the modernist, gadget-ridden Villa Arpel requires all the color it involves, with its highly uncomfortably forbidding chairs, constantly-shifting tables, umbrellas, and endlessly unable to follow stone and shrubbery-ridden paths, along with its spitting fish fountain all demand the lens of Technicolor, with a capitol T, surely.

     If it is a bit difficult to imagine Mr. Hulot (Tati), the uncle of this tech-savy family, being a hero, particularly to his nephew Gérard Arpel (the likeable Alain Bécourt), we might simply chalk it up to Hulot’s passivity or his simple inability to behave like the bourgeois adult world which keeps attempting to embrace him. He too is a child, in his own way as disruptive as the schoolboys in the Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct. These kids cause adults to blame one another for implausible car accidents and force street lovers into streetlights—all perhaps innocent mischievous actions, yet sometimes dangerous nonetheless. 

    If Hulot may somehow encourage the behavior of the young Arpel, he seems totally innocent of his involvement, or even the permission he allows his beloved nephew.

    In fact, he is more destructive than the child, clipping the carefully designed hedging’s outside the Arpel gate, automatically designed to allow entry, puncturing the water system so that the participants in a grand lunch which his sister and brother-law hope to introduce him to their native-American dressed neighbor, whom they first perceive as a rug-merchant, are continually drenched in the water system’s sudden surges.

     In his sister’s entirely automated kitchen, he causes near chaos simply attempting to boil a pot of water. 

     The naughty boy Gérard, rightfully, loves all of this; yet Hulot himself, bumbling through his life, has no idea of what he has accomplished.

     The incredible thing about Tati’s direction is the movement of his figures through space, moving the camera to watch them carefully through a series of windows in the scenes at Hulot’s Paris apartment, where he lives on the top of a series of interconnected rooms, the workplace scenes of his brother-in-law’s equally modernistic, almost Chaplinesque-like factory Plastac. Throughout this work the women’s heels clack over the landscape with a sad insistence of gender-defining roles. They clatter through the territory created by their male counterparts, desperately attempting to catch up to the acclaimed “accomplishments” of their male companions, but in their click attempting to define, perhaps unsuccessfully, their own territory. They, and their husbands, are equally ineffectual in a world that does not allow anyone to sit down in a comfortable chair and truly communicate.

     Tati, correctly, makes their endless chatter almost incommunicable. They are not truly saying anything worth hearing, we quickly realize. Hulot says hardly a word, but he delivers up his nephew into a world of action and childhood speech. The more the metallic fish-fountain pours its mechanized waters into the air, the more Hulot’s silences speak to the mountains of echoing protest. 

     Hulot even turns the plastic products of his brother-in-law in a simulacrum of sausages. He is about living: a young girl who receives his tender finger kiss, awards him with sweet candies every day, something which the Arpels might never have imagined sitting on their metallic-structured chairs as they attempt to stare into a sunset they cannot even perceive.

     Like Vigo, Tati suggests it’s only the “bad boys” who will allow society to regenerate itself.

 Los Angeles, October 20, 2109

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019). 



Friday, October 18, 2019

Pedro Almodóvar | Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory)

ghosts of the past
by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory) / 2019

Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film, Dolor y Gloria or, in English Pain and Glory, is just what its title proclaims, a work of great pain and great enjoyment. The usually rather private director in this case has suddenly and rather subtly “come out,” so to speak about his past: his own illnesses, which include terrible back pain, headaches, and a continual problem in his tracheal passages which lead him to constantly choke; in the early scenes in this film it is almost like a conference between old people who cannot help but share their medical problems with one another: I’ve been there. In this case it’s somewhat comically (or not so comically, given your perspective) animated.

    When the director, the central character of this film Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) hooks up again with an actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia)—whom he previously broke with because of his drug habits and his inability to properly perform because of them—on account of a new showing of Crespo’s major acting gig in Mallo’s  Sabor, the fictional director, and we can presume the actual director Almodóvar, quickly picks up the habit of smoking heroin, which just as suddenly becomes a regular habit for him as well.

     As the two hook up again, Mallo, in a somewhat sanguine mood, allows Crespo to take the role in a small memory piece he has written for stage. Quite by accident, Mallo’s former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) now a married man with children (perhaps a portrait of Banderas himself; the actor admited that when he read the script for this film he was somewhat taken aback to realize that he, in fact, was one of the characters in the very movie in which he would star), returned from Argentina (a metaphor, one can imagine, for Banderas’ own move to the US, where he played in the Argentina-based Evita) to Spain.

     Touched by the autobiographical details recounted in the Crespo performance and recognizing himself in the one-man play, he also makes contact again with Mallo, the two of them spending a lovely flirtatious evening, with the director finally refusing to have yet one more fling with his former lover.

     In fact, this work, with its quick and unpredictable shifts between the director’s past and present, represents an unlocking of all the ghosts who haunt his present who have helped to make it impossible to create and who maybe are also behind many of his current illnesses. At one point, his mother, now an old woman (Julieta Serrano), not at all like the youthful version played by Almodóvar regular, Penelope Cruz, confronts him as not having been a very good son. He has, after all, abandoned her for a gay life in the city. Now her only wish is to return to the village to which they moved to follow her husband into a cave-like dwelling where she wants to die. Mallo promises her that he will make that possible, but his mother dies in a Madrid hospital before he can accomplish it.

     Some of the film’s most beautiful scenes, indeed, depict Mallo’s childhood, particularly concerning water. The women around him, including his mother, gather at the river to wash their sheets and clothing, drying them over the nearby shrubbery. It is the gentle streams, Almodóvar seems to suggest, that cleanses all the evils and imaginary fears of life.

    A local artist and day-laborer, whom the young intelligent boy has taught to read and write, working in the house, decides to strip down and bathe in the kitchen, causing Mallo the child to faint in a near-rapturous reaction to the man’s naked body. The adult is also clearly aware of the beautiful child, painting his picture on a cardboard scrap, which by the end of the film has mysteriously found its way to a local gallery, and which Mallo quickly purchases.  

     It is apparent that all of Mallo’s old loves have returned, like ghosts come out of the closet, to help him reclaim his life and lead him on, perhaps through the very past which he now shuns, to a new film about the mirrors of his past.

    The final scene of the film appears to again return to the past, with Cruz as the mother as she and the young Mallo prepare to enter their new lives together. But this time the camera moves back to reveal a sound-man, a photographer, and the director himself filming it as the movie it has now become. The specters of his youth have become larger-than-life figures of his now older and more nuanced old age projected to screen.

     Banderas reports that the rooms of Mallo’s cinematic house were very much like Almodóvar’s own home, and that some of the clothing he wore was actually shirts and pants from the director’s own closet. There is something both touching and haunting about this: a kind of open honesty and a somewhat frightening retreat to repetition in these facts. But then this is just what this completely revelatory piece of cinema is all about. Like his greatest films, All About My Mother and The Skin I Live In, this new film presents an all-too painful representation of desire and love, often a series of messy problems in real life. I believe this may be the great Spanish director’s best film to date.

Los Angeles, October 17, 2019

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Luis Buñuel | Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty)

sick of symmetry
by Douglas Messerli

Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (screenplay), Luis Buñuel (director) Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty) / 1974

 Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, his penultimate film, is both horrific and hilarious at the same time. This non-narrative narrative (and it is after all a series of interconnected stories), clearly sums up Buñuel’s dismissal of normative values and his deep embracement of human interactions. His characters in this highly surrealistic but also basically humanist tale are not so much studies of complex human beings but represent the perversity of life, the nonsensical aspects of it, and the ridiculousness of our societal demands to correct it or, worse yet, simply to normalize it.

      As a character comments to himself as he moves about objects on his mantel: “I am sick of symmetry.” So too are the director and his long-time collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière. But yet this film has a kind natural symmetry from scene to scene that as, Buñuel himself described it, “opens a door,” or, as I would argue, presents us with numerous opening doors, many of them quite perverse, but in this film’s imagination telling are all also very funny.

      A young high school boy enters a small rural hotel to have an incestuous sexual liaison with his aunt. At the last moment she becomes wary, and will not allow him to touch her even though she clearly is in love with him and is willing to show him her quite youngish nude body. The eager boy near suffocates her with a pillow in an attempt to make love to her before regaining his senses.

      The moment he leaves the room, however, he is lured in by another guest in the hotel for a late-night drink in his room. There the boy discovers another good-looking woman, while the same man insists that several monks, also staying in the hotel, join him. They have been previously playing poker with holy relics in lieu of money. While they sip their port, the woman slips into the bathroom to redress herself in a leather skirt and whip in order to perform the role of a dominatrix, the man soon following her to dress in a pair of pants open at the back to show his ass, the couple soon after begin performing their act, while the monks and the young man flee the room.

     Yet we perceive that they are all interconnected, the boy hiding his own incestuous desires—which he soon consummates upon returning to his aunt’s room—and the monk’s gambling away the church treasures and who knows what else as they shuffle back and forth into each other’s rooms.

       In another scene, two young girls are approached on a playground by a man we perceive to be a pedophile, handing the children several postcards which we can only imagine contain pornographic images. When the children tell their mother what has happened and show her the postcards she is shocked by what she sees, yet allows her daughters to keep the cards, which are later revealed by the camera to contain nothing more than tourist-like scenes of French villages.

      As critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster observed:


                    This is hilarious, yes, but it also should be noted that it

                    carefully challenges the definition of what is considered

                    prurient and immoral and who upholds those rules.

                    We are directly implicated because of our knee-jerk

                    reactionary response to the man and his supposedly

                    immoral postcards.

      In yet another sequence, a young poet suddenly takes out a gun and shoots several individuals on a street. Tried for murder, he quickly becomes a hero from whom everyone demands a photograph, as he is permitted to leave by the judge with any imprisonment.

     One of the most disgusting scenes is perhaps the funniest and family and friends gather around a beautifully-set dinner while sitting upon toilet stools. Not very different, indeed, from Petronius’ feasts, where the guests come and go throughout the meal to the vomitoriums.  

     In fact, I might suggest that Buñuel’s film, in its structure, is very much like the Menippean Satire—sans the autodidact—of which Petronius’ Satyricon is a major example. Here perhaps the director and co-writer are themselves the pedants telling us what we can’t ourselves otherwise see.

     Although some critics have argued that The Phantom of Liberty was a departure from Buñuel’s previous films, I’d argue, along with Foster, that The Exterminating Angel and films that followed share a great deal with this work, presenting people who cannot see their own prejudices and social stupidities due to their moral blindness.

     My favorite sequence, in fact, concerns just this issue. A seemingly happily married couple suddenly realize that their young daughter has gone missing, quickly reporting it to the police. Yet the daughter is there, in the flesh, with them all along their wailing travails. The chief detective even interviews her about her own disappearance. The child speaks but her parents and other authorities simply cannot hear her. The young girl patiently, time and again, attempts to explain that she hasn’t gone anywhere. But her pleas remain unheard. Isn’t that precisely how often treat children, never bothering to listen to their own voices and complaints? Given the chaotic world that this director presents about adults, mightn’t it be to our advantage to listen to the young. The recent horrific treatment of the 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg reiterates these very concerns. If as, Stephen Sondheim argues in Into the Woods we should be careful what we say because children “will listen,” perhaps it might be even more important that we listen to them.

     For Buñuel, himself, this film was a working out of his belief that “Chance governs all things; necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later.”

     Given my constant observations of how much coincidence and chance have played a role in my own life, how could I not love this film.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2019

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).