Friday, August 31, 2007

Janus Films Retrospective

Vengeance Is Mine (1979, Shohei Imamura)- What makes this work is the way it so resolutely resists psychoanalysis. A lesser film would fixate on Iwao's shame at his father for being the wellspring of his insanity, but here it's at most the incident that sets him off. Many people experience disillusionment when they're young, but they don't all go on murderous rampages- clearly there was something amiss with Iwao, and a simple Freudian reading of the story seems woefully inadequate. But I also was taken with the way the film portrays all of its principal characters as highly flawed- Iwao's father and wife have a quasi-incestuous fixation with each other, Iwao's inkeeper mistress is basically kept woman to her landlord, and so on. Perhaps what separates Iwao from the rest isn't simply his acts, but that he doesn't feel guilty about them? Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

WR: Mysteries of the Orga[ni]sm (1971, Dusan Makavejev)- In many ways, this feels like a "you had to be there" sort of experience- distant as we've grown from the world of the Iron Curtain and Vietnam, there's something vaguely alien about a movie that takes on both of these targets, and more besides, but doesn't so much take them down as tickle them for 80-odd minutes. One gets the impression that Makavejev put just enough controversial stuff in his movies to get the censors steamed, without actually compelling them to cut him down, which is no small feat considering the environment he was working in. Plus it's really goddamn funny, which shouldn't be ignored. But even more than with most movies, your mileage may vary. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Cria Cuervos... (1976, Carlos Saura) This is one of the most bracingly unsentimental portraits of a young girl dealing with the presence of death in her life I've ever seen. Little Ana has been present for the deaths of her mother and father, but she doesn't know how to process it in a mature way, and as such the concept of death becomes almost trivial to her (for example, how casual she is about trying to poison those she dislikes). I also liked the ambiguousness of the scene with her father's handgun. I doubt she actually intends to use it, and I'm not even sure she knows it's loaded, but what would an 8-year-old want with a gun? To be honest though, I don't think this would have been nearly so effective if not for the perfect pairing of Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin- there's one scene in particular in which Torrent is photographed from below and her facial structure matches Chaplin's so well that it's almost eerie. Also, there's a guinea pig, which was fun, although I have to admit that mine are cuter. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Death of a Cyclist (1955, Juan Antonio Bardem)- Alternately compelling and hamfisted exploration of upper-class morality in Franco's Spain works better now as a cultural artifact than as straight drama. Unfortunately, Bardem's use of a reluctant member of the ruling class strikes me as misguided, since he's too obviously meant to be a surrogate for the director's own feelings about social stratification in his native land. Technical issues aside (it appears than Spanish dramas of the period were roughly equivalent to mid-30s Hollywood from a tech standpoint) the film would have been helped most with a greater emphasis on its female protagonist over the more wishy-washy male lead, not least because of Lucia Bosé, who had screen presence to burn. Rating: **1/2 out of ****.

Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman) This, folks, is what you might call "minor Bergman"- not a disaster like The Serpent's Egg, but more of a regurgitation of pet Bergman themes and tropes than a fully-realized vision. The film works mostly because of the onscreen pairing of Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman as daughter and mother, and the clash of styles that results. Ingrid always feels a little out of place in Ingmar's world, which creates an interesting tension that might not have resulted had the director cast one of his regulars in the role. Ingrid feels too composed for Bergman-land, but that's the point- she's so unwilling to feel the world around her, so prone to keeping them at a distance with lots of talk and easy laughter, that she's become alienated from everyone, especially those who love her most. If the long and impassioned two-hander that dominates the film's second hour works at all, it's because of her and Ullmann. Rating: **1/2 out of ****.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda)- I love how much Cléo grows during the course of this film. At the beginning, she seems to fear death mostly because it'll wreak havoc on her looks and her youth, but she has very little stake in anything else. But it's as though when she whips off that wig and storms out of her flat alone, she willfully pursues her own betterment. Could make an interesting double feature with INSIGNIFICANCE, another movie about a famous blonde who refuses to play the vapid sex object so many others would have her be. Rating: ***1/2.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov)- Still gorgeous. It's actually more emotionally overwhelming on the big screen, and not just because of Kalatozov and ace cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky's use of closeups. Amid all the bravura direction, the emotional timbre of this feels almost like Jacques Demy, trading in the same kind of sad irony as a film like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Rating: ***1/2.

Summer With Monika (1953, Ingmar Bergman)- First time seeing the original cut [as compared to the STORY OF A BAD GIRL cut]. While I admit that this one works better, I still have my reservations about it. From a storytelling standpoint, the deck feels a little too stacked to me. Aside from his drunk and largely-absent dad, practically every adult in Harry's life at the beginning of the film is an asshole, and so when Monika comes along the choice to steal away with her is remarkably easy. And then after she gets pregnant and has the kid, her character turns on a dime into a bitch (I almost said irresponsible as well, but she was always that). As a result, the film comes off as baldly moralistic- if you turn your back on responsibilty to spend your youth frivolously, you'll end up paying for it the rest of your life. What mostly makes the film work in spite of the message is the magical middle section, in which Harry and Monika enjoy their titular summer together. In keeping with the film's message, Bergman's style in this segment of the film is strictly in-the-moment, as heedless of what is to come as his protagonists. Once the fun stops, it gets more boilerplate, although two extended closeups- one of Monika, one of Harry- are justifiably acclaimed. Rating: ***.

Lola (1981, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)- Sweet Jesus is this movie gorgeous. For my money, Fassbinder's talent as a visual stylist doesn't get nearly enough press- most of the stuff I see about his work tends to focus on his pet themes (sexual power dymanics, recent German history, etc.) and how the film relates to Fassbinder's own life. But any filmmaker who does work that's even remotely "personal"- even visually-impaired dudes like Kevin Smith who might as well be directing for radio- has his own bunch of pet themes and obsessions. But Fassbinder is visually gifted, and versatile to boot, which may have been why his talent as a stylist are overlooked (stylistically speaking, The Merchant of the Four Seasons is not Effi Briest, which in turn is not The Marriage of Maria Braun). Of the Fassbinders I've seen, Lola has to be the most visually ravishing. Fassbinder's use of color and lighting is stunning, especially in scenes where he washes different actors in different hues, even within the same shot. It's also sort of amazing how quickly he was able to get his cast, many of whom were Fassbinder newcomers, on his wavelength so quickly, a testament not only to the strength of his material but also to his sure-handed direction. I'm so glad I saw this for the first time on the big screen, since the directorial niceties wouldn't have hit me nearly as hard on DVD. Rating: ***1/2.

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini)
- I'm woefully underversed in Rossellini, since Italian New Wave has never been my favorite period in film history. Like many Italian works of the period, I respected this but didn't quite manage to love it, although admittedly if I was one of the faithful I might feel differently about it. I'm just waiting for some Final Cut Pro-savvy movie nerd to post The Wacky Adventures of Brother Ginepro on YouTube. Rating: ***.

No comments: