Monday, May 16, 2016

My Life to Live (Godard. 1962)

"The more one talks, the less the words mean..."

Jean-Luc Godard's My Life to Live is a funny, doleful, voyeur-esque look into the life of a Parisian woman in her early twenties. In the classically Godard opening moments, we hear the yet unnamed character of Nana leaving her husband and baby to pursue her vague dreams of being in the movies. The scene is shot completely from behind the speaking characters - their hairstyles glimmer from the effect of back lighting. Nana's hair is short and bobbed - perhaps an allusion to another independent vixen of European decent, Lulu from 1929's Pandora's Box. Besides her desire to be in the movies, her goals are ill-explained, shallow, maybe even selfish. Does she not care about her child? Husband? Anything?

Godard was in the midst of the most radical era of his career, both politically and in his filmmaking. A devout reader of Marxist philosophy, Godard believed (and may still believe) that Paris had become a city imprisoned by her own "freedom". Everything had been commercialized and nothing was any longer sacred. This tepid philosophy spilled over, as it often did, in Godard's writing of the Nana character - she smokes, drinks, eats, and entertains herself in order to constantly hide her real emotions.

In one of Godard's best scenes, Nana sits in the cinema with tears swelling in her eyes while watching the groundbreaking performance of Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Both Dreyer in Passion and Godard in My Life to Live use extreme closeup to convey emotions, and both films are primarily about the judgement of a female in a male-dominated world. It has always been easy to see why the great director was obsessed with Anna Karina (his wife at the time of filming) - she is able to bring to life a woman so detached even in her tears that her intentions are never clear to anybody - but herself?

While Karina's performance is astounding, it is once again the revolutionary style of Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard that makes My Life to Live something special. Godard famously said that the film was "made by sort of a second presence", the camera moves swiftly from side to side in a way reminiscent to the cinema verite documentary style of Robert Flaherty. The camera makes itself known early on as a tool that observes the action rather than capture it. Scenes are inspected - as if the camera has a set of eyes, itself interested in the atmosphere of a record store, cafe, or small apartment. My Life to Live is filmed as if it is being watched with anticipation by the powers behind the camera .

And it kinda was. Godard shot this film - in sequence - in a series of 12 individual scenes. He used as many of the first takes as he possibly could, and considered any second take to be less desirable. This created the seemingly curious nature of the camera. This is most obvious during a short scene in which Nana dances, showing only a glimpse of her genuine emotional depth, in a cafe. As she dances, the camera glides around her. She could not remain the focal point, because the crew did not know exactly what Karina would be doing. It all plays so naturally.

Digressing back to the plot, Nana is unable to break into the movies and eventually sells herself to the first pimp that she meets on the street. From here the feeling of the film switches to something more akin to a crime drama. Her slow decent into "the life" as prostitution is called in France, has defeated the once freedom-obsessed Nana. This dread has been bubbling under the surface since her very first encounter with a gentlemen caller when she refused to kiss him on the mouth. There is shame underneath Nana's porcelain exterior.

My Life to Live is a deliberate picture that brings to life the exemplary style of Jean-Luc Godard, showcases the ability and natural beauty of Anna Karina, and never reduces itself to melodrama. My favorite Godard that I have seen since Breathless - the freshness of the film astounds me - while the outcome of the film is appropriately macabre. The phrase "making plans is the fastest way to make God laugh" comes to mind....

My Life to Live: A


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Simon of the Desert (Buñuel. 1965)

"I'm beginning to realize I don't realize what I'm saying..."

It was obvious before watching Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert that the greatest director of the surrealist movement loathed the Catholic church. I have yet to see a film by Buñuel that does not use iconoclastic visuals and unorthodox dialogue against the church. In that respect, Simon is no different. What is particularly interesting about this 45 minute masterpiece is the sharp contrast between the followers of religion and the religion itself - almost as if  Buñuel was using this work as a type of pamphlet on what he viewed as dangerous in religion.

Simon is played stoically by Claudio Brook and is very loosely based on the Syrian 5th-century saint Simeon Stylites. He has stood for an astounding 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days atop a giant pillar in an attempt to show his loyalty to the Lord. This is the type of self-punishment that Buñuel believed belittled the loving message of Christ.

In an early scene - the ascetic Simon finally descends from his pillar - only to climb his ladder to the top of a higher pillar that has been gifted to him by local priests. Is Simon now standing closer to the heavens? Looking down on those less committed to the Lord? Or is this extreme isolation from the people on the ground an allusion to how Christians view the love message in comparison to the suffering of Jesus? 

Buñuel was not necessarily anti-God, but rather anti-hypocrite. He detested the masses of people who identified as Christians, yet focused on all of the wrong aspects of the Message. Today - we call them social conservatives. These are people who have inflated the suffering of Christ to an almost masturbatory level of importance. They follow Christ by not only stifling themselves, but also by stifling the rest of the world. Would Jesus want His followers to painstakingly estrange themselves from society to prove their loyalty, or would He rather His people fill the world with love?

Simon performs a miracle in which he reattaches hands to a man who had had them severed for stealing. Inherently, this is an act of forgiveness and mercy over cruel justice. Almost immediately, the begging man uses his reattached hands to slap his child. This is a perfect example of Buñuel's wry sense of humor. Followers have become complacent in the message of Christ, while still doing what they can to reap the benefits of their religious fraternity. They have become detached from Christ's teachings while simultaneously perpetuating His pain.

But the followers are not the only ones who have lost the Message. Simon himself begins to doubt his own loyalties when the Devil (played by Buñuel-regular Silvia Pinal) comes to tempt him to the ground. She first appears as an innocent, perhaps unknowingly libidinous young girl, and is denied by Simon. In what might be the most surreal scene in the film, her second visit has her disguised as Jesus. The final visit sees the Devil gliding through the desert in a coffin - wearing nothing but a toga - with her naked left-breast cupped in hand.

Each of these visits from the Devil evoke a sense that the church has always been obsessed with the female body. In modern times this has not changed. The church longs to own the female form; they want to control it to endorse their message. It is very easy to keep holy men from having sex when their teachings imply that the female body is sin. Buñuel knows about this fixation, and playfully uses it as a way to tempt the titular character.

I will not spoil how it all ends, but I will say it is not the ending you might expect. Though the film is technically the third of an anti-religious trilogy - Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel - that was sparked after Buñuel's second exile from Spain to Mexico - Simon of the Desert is just as good when watched individually.

Simon of the Desert: A

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Vanishing/Spoorloos (Sluizer. 1988)

"The best plans can be wiped out at any moment by what we call fate. I confess, that saddens me."

Some films only work as thrillers because they keep the viewer on the edge of their seat until the very end. Some thrillers use dramatic music and tunnel the camera through spiraling hallways or crowded spaces to create a feeling of discomfort. While George Sluizer's The Vanishing is guilty of these tropes, it uses them with a surprisingly [still] fresh style. This reconstruction of the thriller (which as a genre dates all the way back to the silent film era) is what makes this film so special. Oh, that and the ending.*

The Vanishing is based on a novel called "The Golden Egg" that was written by the same man who crafted the screenplay for the film, Tim Krabbe. It tells the story of two Dutch lovers who are in the midst of a cycling holiday in France. The couple (played by Gene Bervoets and Johanna Ter Steege) stop at a perfectly innocent gas station to stretch their legs, play Frisbee, and wax romantic. The wife goes into the station to buy some drinks for the duo....and is never seen again.

The husband waits for an amount of time, comforted by the image of his wife's red hair in the background of an otherwise bootless photo that he took while waiting for her to return. She must be coming back, right? She was just here....

A few years later, this disappearance has become an obsession for the husband. He has given up the hope of finding her alive, but he also cannot shake the guilt, fear, and feeling of responsibility that came with the tragedy. He is not going to let this go - even after taking a girlfriend who does her best to sympathize with his unique situation. He simply must know what happened. Wouldn't you?

The audience has an idea of what happened throughout the entire film. I write that with an intense desire to not spoil anything - which that detail does not do in any way. The antagonist is met early in the film. He is a man that struggles with the idea of free will. So much so that as a child he once forced himself to jump from a high balcony, severely injuring himself in the process, just to prove to himself that he could do it. It is known by the audience that this man did something with the wife. But what?*

The ending of the film unfolds in a chilling and inescapable fashion. Sluizer's direction assists the plot by properly building fear and suspicion in the audience. While the ending is bottomless and unsettling on its own*, the tension that builds throughout The Vanishing is the real highlight. The audience, much like the husband, want answers. Both get what they want*.

The Vanishing: A


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Heavenly Creatures (Jackson.1994)

"We have decided how sad it is for other people that they cannot appreciate our genius."

Pauline Rieper and Juliet Hulme became overnight celebrities in their homeland of New Zealand in the Summer of 1954 after the brutal murder of Honorah Rieper (Pauline's mother). The two teenage girls, 16 and 15 years old respectively, were in the midst of a passionate and obsessive friendship that involved an elaborate fantasy world, mutually romanticized illnesses, and a lot of prancing and giggling. Their parent's were worried that their relationship might have evolved into lesbianism (which was considered a severe mental illness at the time), so they decided that the girls must be separated. Juliet's health was in decline, and her parent's decided to use this as a guise to send their daughter to South Africa "for the benefit of her health". Pauline wanted to go with her best friend. Mom, obviously, said no. The terror in the thought of being separated caused the girls to get themselves a brick that they shoved into a sock. The rest is bloody history. 

This real life crime, and the events leading up to the murder, is the basis of 1994's Heavenly Creatures.  The film is directed by Academy Award Winning director Peter Jackson long before we knew him as the King of Middle Earth. Jackson's greatest achievement in this film was his casting. Heavenly Creatures was the introductory film for two actresses that we have come to know throughout the years. Pauline is played by Melanie Lynskey and Juliet by one of acting's greatest treasures, Kate Winslett.

Lynskey portrays Pauline as troubled and completely malevolent toward her own family. She utilizes a signature look of absolutely convincing, churning disgust in every scene between herself and her mother. She writes in her journal daily about how she wishes she could escape the mundane word in which she lives. 

When she meets Winslett's Juliet for the fist time during French class, a certain immediate attraction between the two is felt by the audience. It is not a sexual attraction, but a strong one nonetheless. Juliet is sophisticated, but lonely. She unwillingly spent 5 years in the Bahamas away from her parents as a child due to her contracting tuberculosis. Juliet undoubtedly sees life as fleeting, and is constantly desperate for human interaction. Where Pauline's aura is more of a scary sort, Juliet seems to be that specific type of teenage female who knows that she is in over her head, but relishes in every moment of her own mental chaos. 

The two girls bond instantly. They believe that their friendship has opened a "Fourth World" that only they can see. The film features several scenes where the girls do nothing other than hold hands, run, and giggle as they navigate this world. They worship movie stars and opera singers, or "Saints" as they call them in their self-made religion. Adults and peers are out of the loop. Juliet and Pauline certainly want it that way. Jackson builds this fantasy world with special effects that allow the audience to experience each inhabitant and landscape as vividly as the young girl's who are making it up as they go along.  The girls have found their happiness. As intense as it may seem to the outside observer - it is their happiness. 

Once the parents in Heavenly Creatures become more involved, they realize there may be something unnatural about their daughters' friendship. They believe their daughters may be practicing lesbianism, and formulate a plan to keep them separated. Were the girls lesbians? I don't think so. But Jackson did include a giddy montage of the two girls kissing, bathing together, and expressing deep resentment toward anything that may threaten the security of their relationship. Jackson leaves this aspect of the film to interpretation. Lesbianism was not very well understood by anyone in 1954 New Zealand - which is hinted at greatly in the film. 

All of this fierce character development feels like that butterfly-inducing part of any roller coaster where you slowly, tic by tic, climb your way to the edge of a steep drop. The third act of Heavenly Creatures is definitely that drop. The mental state of Pauline dramatically erodes when the plan to send Juliet to South Africa is introduced. She writes the plans for the murder in her journal (which is ultimately what got them both caught in real life), going as far as referring to the murder in her journal as "the happy event". Juliet is not just a spectator, but also an accomplice. 

Juliet and Pauline are extremely flawed as characters. The two of them succumb to a gang-of-two mentality that takes them over the edge of madness. While the final scene plays out, the wait for one of the girls to realize the atrociousness of what they are doing is overwhelming. This is Jackson's most perfectly crafted cinematic moment - simultaneously more real and imaginary than anything in Middle Earth. As the credits begin to roll, we see that the two were tried and sent to prison for the murder. Too young for the death penalty, they were sentenced at "Her Majesty's request", and both released 5 years later under the condition that they never meet again.

It is worth pointing out that the real Juliet Hulme moved to the United Kingdom after her release, changed her name to Anne Perry, and became a best-selling author. When asked about her relationship with Pauline - she admitted that the friendship was intense, but they were not lesbians. She also claims to have only taken part in the murder because she believed it would keep Pauline from killing herself. 

Pauline is also still alive (now known as Hilary Nathan) and is believed to be living in the UK village of Hoo in Kent. Her whereabouts have been disputed since her last known sighting. 

Heavenly Creatures: A- 


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Daisies/Sedmikrásky (Chytilová. 1966)

"Nobody understands us...."

The hardest part of writing about this Czechoslovakian New Wave masterpiece is deciding where on Earth to start. Daises is a comedy-drama, surrealist, feminist, and ultimately absurd 74 minute experience unlike anything else in the Czech New Wave genre. This could be because it was directed by one of the rare female voices in the movement, Vera Chytilová. 

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Chytilová was raised in a strict Catholic household. Her tightly structured early life has been credited as the reason behind her propensity to ask tough questions regarding touchy subjects such as religion, establishment, sexuality, and politics. All of these subjects are at least mocked in Daises - along with many others. Released in 1966, it was ultimately banned in Chytilová's home nation because the film "supported the wanton". In reality it held a mirror to the absurdity of war (something very apparent in Eastern Europe during the time period) and hedonism, featured strong female leads acting in unbecoming ways, and subtly critiqued communism. 

The overall plot seems surreal due to how radically it changed the perception of women in Czech filmmaking. Two teen ladies, both named Marie, decide that if the rest of the world can be spoiled, they should be afforded the same right. From there they decide that they want to be "bad". This includes dating "sugar daddies", ignoring social standards, and copious amounts of eating. This unladylike behavior made Czech viewers uneasy (which kept Chytilová from working in her native land until 1975), though the overall meaning of the film easily differs from person to person. 

There is something interesting and brave about Chytilová's willingness to make a film about badly behaved women. The opening scene sets the tone as both Marie's sit, bikini-clad, only able to muster up necessary, robotic movements. There was no role for women in Eastern Europe at that time; Marie 1 and Marie 2 are interchangeable, they do not have their own identities and as soon as things escalate to madness their distinction becomes even more difficult. Their spree of destructive pranks culminates as they devour an entire feast meant for Communist Party leaders - which does not end well for them. A humorous tragedy ends the story as soon as both Marie's decide to return to their robotic lives.  

Daisies intentions as a film have seemingly evolved with the world. Upon release it was considered a sharp, witty, yet subtle satire of a woman's role in communist society - a female perspective of oppressive Stalinism. But today it is known less for the political subject matter and more as a fierce feminist romp. From a technical standpoint it is credited for its frantic, 1960s European editing style. This is a film that challenges conventional norms for women and government in a time where women were not accepted into conversations about the government. Daises was considered controversial, irreverent, yet also important upon initial release. This reputation remains in tact almost 50 years later. 

Sedmikrásk: A- 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Election (Payne. 1999)

"Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things, but now I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn't, as you well know...Amen..."

Alexander Payne’s Oscar nominated Election is without contest one of the greatest high school films ever made. Hyperbole aside, the film is an unconventional mix of satirical, goofball, and sophisticated comedy that hits sharply in almost every single moment. Payne does not play favorites in the film, and nobody is presented in a light that would make them the audience’s chosen hero. The whole thing successfully twists the narrative of a conventional movie about high school by showing the action through the eyes of a teacher rather than the students.

The teacher (who also serves as the sponsor for student government) is named Jim McAllister. Played by Matthew Broderick, Mr. McAllister shines the light on one of the biggest myths of teaching. The student archetype that is most likely to drive a teacher batty has never been the troublemaker, but rather the serial overachiever. I believe we all had at least one kid who would raise his/her hand for every question no matter how many times they were passed over in favor of a lesser heard from (and often times less prepared) classmate. If you immediately remembered a name from the past that fits this mold – then you know Tracy Flick – the bane of Mr. McAllister’s existence.

Tracy, played to near perfection by Reese Witherspoon, is a neatly groomed and impossibly cheerful high school girl who sees the impending student government election as a forgone conclusion. She will be elected president because she is the only one with presidential aspirations. In one of the early scenes, she walks up to Mr. McAllister informing him that she is looking forward to the two of them having a “harmonious” working relationship once she wins the aforementioned election. Seems normal – if not cordial, right? 

It would be normal if this very same student had not seduced a teacher just one year prior – getting him fired in the process. Mr. McAllister is well aware that Tracy is a dangerous overachiever and will walk on the back of anyone who gets in her way. In an attempt to keep Tracy from becoming president (or perhaps to distract himself from his own lustful urges towards her) Mr. McAllister enlists a friendly, but simple jock named Paul (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy.
Aside from truly great performances, Election is on a different level than other high school films due to Payne’s ability to adapt the source material in a way that comes off as much unbiased. Mr. McAllister is a likeable narrator, but his hyper-anxiety combined with his inappropriate feelings for/against Tracy (going as far as having a vision of his student during hate-sex) makes him something far from a hero. Tracy knows that she is cut from a superior clothe and will do whatever it takes to make it to the top. This includes bringing the people around her down – which she does at times with a girlish merriment. The only character with decent intentions is Paul the jock – which is a bit ironic considering he was dragged into this by less than decent outside forces. 

All of this craziness plays out in a sardonic game of “who wants it more” between Tracy and her scornful teacher. By this time the audience has decided who they are rooting for, and in many cases it is not a unanimous choice. I believe that Alexander Payne wanted the film’s characters to be this polarizing. What better way to satirize the election process than by forcing the audience to choose between the lesser of two evils?

At the conclusion of the film we see that everyone has survived and moved on from their volatile election experience. Some good and bad things have happened to these exclusively bad people. Isn’t that life? Sometimes you have to do bad things to make good things happen. Just remember when you are voting in whatever the next election may be – that at least one of those names on the ballot is Tracy Flick.

Election: A

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) (Cocteau. 1946)

"Belle, you mustn't look into my eyes. You needn't fear..."

Sometimes movies can be so magical that they stand the test of time no matter how "unwatchable" they may seem to current audiences. Here we have a black-and-white, French film from the 1940s. But nothing about the poet Jean Cocteau's cinematic masterwork is dated. Noting about Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) is cheesy. In fact, it is more like a dream. It inhabits a part of your mind that never evaporates with age. It could be the first film chronologically after Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon to truly capture all the things that make film an exciting medium. Many people have many opinions on what film should be, but I say the best films are the ones that can get you to escape to another place. Cocteau takes us to places unseen before in Beauty and the Beast. The magic of movie-making is nakedly on display with every camera angle, line of dialogue, and special effect. 

This film has an interesting ability to make me feel like an excited little kid. Watching it is just a really satisfying experience. I recently had the pleasure of watching the film for just the second time in my life - and nothing about my reactions had changed since the first viewing many years earlier. Cocteau must have known that his adaption of the traditional fairy tale of the same name, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, would have this impact on full grown adults, as he actually broke the fourth wall at the very start of the adventure. After the opening credits, the audience is warned about what they are about to see:

"Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.

I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame": Once upon a time..."

Belle's father is caught picking a simple red rose from a garden. That garden is on the land inhabited by the Beast. This is where we see the Beast for the very first time. The costume itself is a treasure in film history.  After catching the father with rose in hand, the Beast demands that the father either die for his crime, or send one of his daughters to the castle where she will live forever. Belle, having asked her father to bring her a red rose, feels that this is all her fault, and decides on her own to leave home and move into the Beast's castle.

Anybody familiar with the 1991 Disney adaption should be at least somewhat familiar with the plot of the this film. Though the overall feel will remain unfamiliar to any viewer expecting to see singing teapots or dancing napkins. Instead, the audience is transported into a world of fantasy and horror. The Beast's castle hallways are lined with human arms serving as light fixtures, and the statues in the castle have eyes that follow the happenings of the inhabitants. Even the doors are able to open and close on their own. The castle is, for lack of a better word, alive in this film. It reminds me of an extreme cross between Eraserhead and Salvador Dali. 

Something understated, but definitely present, is the sexual tension between Belle (Josette Day) and the Beast (Jean Marais). As soon as Belle enters her new home for the first time - she can be seen gliding through the hallways like a ghost. Magical forces may be at play, but it seems as though she is drawn to her captor in more ways than one. There is an early dinner scene where Belle is toying with a knife, but not in the way a young woman would normally toy with a knife. Even when the Beast is freed from his curse, Belle is not immediately thrilled with her prince charming. She misses the Beast. So does the audience. Their chemistry is every bit as magical as the rest of the film. Like with many of these writings, I am intentionally being brief with the points of the plot. I do not want to spoil any of the elements that differentiates this surreal classic from Disney. 

Cocteau made several films in his life, but was never considered to be a filmmaker. He was an artist, a poet, who made poetic and artistic films. Images, sounds, and facial expressions tell more of this story than any spoken word. We feel what the characters feel because we understand the concepts of want, desire, and self-consciousness. Interestingly enough, the filming of Beauty and the Beast was made hellish for Cocteau due to a near crippling skin disease that required a dose of penicillin every three hours. The fact that the artist prevailed through pain and made one of the most magically childlike films in history is absolutely astounding. The movie is perfect. That's right. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect movie. 

La belle et la bête: A+ 

Jake's 10 Perfect Movies

1. Pulp Fiction
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Suspiria
4. WR: Mysteries of the Organism
5. La belle et la bête