Saturday, February 27, 2016

Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND (1995)

I read in the IMDb trivia for Emir Kusturica's Palm D'or winner Underground that Serbian critics denounced the film, and specifically the filmmaker was trying to call for a united Yugoslavia - something that likely wouldn't be able to happen after so many years, decades, of bloodshed with a nation torn apart. There really isn't a Yugoslavia anymore, not in the way that people who were there during World War 2 saw it, and yet I don't know exactly how strongly Kusturica really means to make this message. The film is so many things - a pitch black comedy that is as broad as a Mel Brooks comedy, or the wonkier parts of Inglourious Basterds; a serio-comic would-be romance (maybe a love-triangle, sort of, not really) between a delusional and uber heroic arms-man named Blacky and an 'intellectual' of sorts named Marko and the woman they've plucked right off stage (Nataljia); a carnival-esque atmosphere (chimpanzee included) in satirizing holding on to the past, on a personal level more than anything else - but it's not naive in the way the critics thought.

I should add that I don't have a lot of background knowledge about the fall of Yugoslavia; that may be one of those parts of history I should have learned, or was left out of the WW2 classes in school. But what is before me is kind of like a delirious history lesson - if Fellini's Satyricon is his own comic-book version of what happened in the Roman times, this is like Kustirica doing a grand, epic graphic-novel about people who became part of the fringes in the second world war (and decades later, as the Cold War was upon the country and region in Europe).

And yet were still very much emblematic of what people in the country hoped for or wanted. For one thing, the Germans bombing was a hazard, and you get the tone right off the bat for this movie as bombs fall (this is before the couple dozen or so people of this village all go underground into their bunker), and Blacky reacts to a fallen light fixture in his home by biting into the electrical wire (Ristovski is Blacky in a performance for the ages, fiery, alive, comically volcanic and dramatic when he needs to be).

How broad does this get? More than many Cannes Golden Palm winners, I'd wager. Kusturica is not out to be subtle in the slightest, and when a director goes for broke it behooves one to not do things small. So here camera movements are often roving around or not stopping, and when a character like Blacky is caught and being tortured by the Germans even *that* has humor to it. This is at times surreal in a way that I'm sure would've pleased Bunuel; one of the highlights of the film (for me, among many) is when Blacky and Marko meet the (then) actress Natalja for the first time as she performs on stage for German officers. There's this sense already, following so many scenes of Marko and Blacky getting into shenanigans like something dangerous can happen - and it does, as Blacky takes the stage, "improvises" some acting with the people on stage (which the audience thinks is part of the show), and ends his tying up the actress bit with shooting the main officer in the audience. Uh-oh.

When I say there's an element of danger to the film, I mean that there's such a sense that anything can happen that it's not a surprise that some critics and audiences can't take it. It may be too much. It's abrasive and in your face in a way not unlike if Terry Gilliam had grown up in that part of the world and made a movie about growing up in search of something. What is the 'search'? For freedom, to be sure, at first from German bombardment in the war, of being a tortured subject, of an ideology, and in search of something else like, for Marko (who becomes in the 60's a poet of a sort, by that I mean not very good), love.

A key question might be why Marko, in the outside world when the story jumps ahead 20 years into the 60's, tells those in the underground bunker that the war is still going on and everyone just believes him. Well, if you got someone like Blacky down there, why not? Or even more complicated, up in the "real world" Blacky is decorated as a slain war hero, and a film about his life is put into production. You don't know the term "wackiness ensues" until you see what happens when Blacky emerges to the surface with his grown son to see himself (!) on set along with a Nazi who he must shoot (double!) The answer to that question is... it's a movie, and at times it should be a movie within a movie that folds in on itself. Its self-awareness is part of the point of its political aims of upsetting the established order of cinema as well as life.

Underground is a head-trip, a wild ride, and yet I was laughing through most of it. I clicked into the rhythm that Kusturica is after, which is a sense of total abandon, and yet because the comedy is so dark it becomes funny not due to the conditions they're in but how they react to it; I don't know if there's a funnier world war 2 movie outside of To Be or Not To Be, but then this is only the first third of this almost 3 hour epic (sort of, and apparently the director's cut is *double* the length!)

Some of this is very dark and brutal and savage, the actors have to also reach that pitch, and, thankfully, they all pretty much get to the beat that is set by those guys playing frantic, ska-like horns during parties or just, you know, following people around. While the two male leads are fantastic, I have to also note how strong Jokovic is as Nataljia, who starts off like a frightened mouse of a woman but transforms into a bitter, sexually wild/craven and tempestuous thing, and ends in... despair, actually.

It's a performance she throws herself into much like the director does with the entire production. I find that the passion and forward momentum of the scenes (a wedding sequence makes The Deer Hunter look like kids stuff for example) is mostly what goes past any stodgy nationalist criticisms. This is the kind of art that burns a village down while making you howl with harrowing hysterics at the same time.

PS: If you see the image above of Blacky (holding down the guy with the mustache and big expression)... it's odd to watch since it's the spitting image of my late grandfather Jerome H Christal (he died before I was born, but I saw pictures of him my whole life).

PPS: The soundtrack by Goran Bregovic is fucking phenomenal (this is "inspired by", but trust me, the horns are a close approximation to what you'd get here):

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Papa Mike's Video #14: Max Ophuls' LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)

Once again, Max Ophuls.  Did any other man back so many hearts with so few films?

Sometimes you watch a film dealing with the story of a romance and the filmmaker will be content enough to reside in the realm of melodrama, of heightened emotions serving a tale of doomed romance - or maybe it won't turn 'doomed' per-say, but the stakes are always so monumental, incredible and just downright heightened that some in the audience may need handkerchiefs for their un-dry eyes and noses.  For Max Ophuls, going past melodrama was a key thing. 

The ingredients in Letter from an Unknown Woman certainly make up melodrama, and as I watched the film I thought it would just comfortably rest there.  But it was in the last reel - and especially in the minutes after the end, where I could let my mind catch up with what I was feeling - that this is closer to grand opera, and it's by nature of how determined, how passionate and versatile Ophuls camera is.  He is such an active participant, but by making us the audience as well, that it raises the stakes even higher.  This is a fabulous but painfully sad movie.

It concerns the (mostly) unrequieted romance between Lisa (Fontaine) and Stefan (Jourdan), the latter being a concert pianist who comes to take a room with her family when she's younger.  She sees him play, and see him with his swagger and confidence, and is smitten right away.  Does she know really that much about him?  Who cares?  The piano seems to express how soulful, how achingly beautiful he is - but more than that how he is not quite happy with how far he's gotten (when he stumbles playing at one point, it seems like maybe he breaks something in disgust with himself - and later she comments on this to him, that he hasn't found what he's looking for).  But she leaves with her family and she never gets to tell him who she is or how she feels.  Until...

But no, the letter that Stefan is reading from is not at this point, which he comes across in his room as he is plotting to run away from a duel with a man who is after him for such and such a reason (and suffice to say you'll figure it out after a while, perhaps).  They do meet some time later, when she returns to Vienna and they share one of those perfect romantic evenings that people may have in real life as well as in the movies.  Unlike earlier in the story when she's shy and reserved, here she does open up a little more (though in this first real date she won't say she was there during the time they shared living quarters), and he is about the most charming guy on the planet in that moment.  It's the kind of date where, I suppose this was a thing in the early 20th century, they go for a buggy ride... with the backdrop being changed by operators.

It's interesting to note that at first I didn't really notice that the backdrop was fake until the buggy first stopped.  And for a split moment I wondered, 'hey, come on, can it be that cheap a production to... oh, wait, no, it's supposed to be fake.'  Thinking about it more, this is kind of like a good metaphor for their relationship - it has the veneer of gorgeous scope and splendor, but when you look closer it's not real.  Jourdan has to go away after their very brief whirlwind romance, and she is left with a baby.  She gets married, and the story goes ahead to years later, when the child is older and Lisa is now married to a well-off man. 

Again, you can see many parts of this story I've just described have the air of melodrama: a woman pining for a man she may (or may not) be able to have, and that her passions take on another light when seen through the framing - the framing is the essential thing, what sets it up as being all about the 'hindsight-is-always-20/20' aspect - that you don't know what you got until it's gone.  And of course Fontaine and Jourdan are so terrific in their roles, with the former beaming with young love in the early scenes (I almost didn't recognize her in the slightly 'lower-class' get-up), and on through the middle section with her and Stefan's date, and Jourdan is... well, kind of a matinee idol, almost too good looking, if that makes sense, like deceptively the perfect guy.

A lot of the brilliance of the film comes down to its economy of storytelling - it's a brisk 83 minutes, though it doesn't feel too short while watching it - and that Ophuls is not one to ever keep things static.  Even that buggy scene where they share a magical moment of connection in conversation and perhaps more, because of that backdrop we're not feeling as if this is something stagey or stolid.  And yet I don't feel like the technique is there just to please Ophuls demands for a crane shot here or there or most places; the high style is there for the high emotions, that this is a woman expressing how she felt through much of her adult life, and the fact that this guy seemed to be caring for her but on a totally superficial level, and never for very long. 

When I call this grand opera, I mean that it takes notions we have in everyday life and expands them into another dimension, where heart-ache is meant to be everyone's heart-ache at the 'one that got away', and then some (it's not just Lisa and her affection at stake, of course).  Letter from an Unknown Woman is a tragedy of taking things for granted, of believing love at a certain level will be reciprocated, and the fluidity of style matches the fluidity of intense emotions that, when broken, become all the more gut-wrenching.  That it's also set at the time it's set in adds to the feel of high hopes and dashed dreams, given where women were at in that time and place of late 19th/early 20th century Europe.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bogart & Astor in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

Spoilers, maybe (?) 
This is often cited as the 'beginning' of film noir. I can't say for certain or not if there's another film before it that predates it - and of course there were not one but two adaptations of the Hammett book prior to the 1941 version (I actually didn't know about the 2nd with Bette Davis until tonight) - but I can see why that is, and it's because Mary Astor is such a striking, perfect femme fatale, and Bogart makes the persona we all associate with Bogart.
Who do I mean by that? I feel like it's the guy who's smart, really smart, but not in the way that is bad or cruel, more like intuitive, ahead of the curve, and able to give a good remark when needed. You see that in Casablanca (to a more lost-romance extent), To Have and Have Not (more conventional romance), and even Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where he can still make cutting remarks, but it's more about greed and the dark side as the Force says).  This is Bogart in full bad-ass mode, the first part of the double LP that would continue/conclude with The Big Sleep as Marlowe (kind of the same, though more in deep shit). Seeing him in this again after not seeing 'Falcon' for quite some time, I was reminded how totally in command Bogart was here - and it's good he was as broke the mold of being the criminal/gangster from years of being typecast. He got typecast in another way, but really why carp?

I'm not sure if this is a "film" in the sort of speak of movies vs. films - that is, how much do you take something made in Hollywood in the studio system as full on art vs being a product - but it's simply grand entertainment any way you look at it. I'd actually point to this just as much if not MORE (damn I'll say it, come at me film bros) as THE example of how to make a classic Hollywood movie of the period it was made. It has comic lines, it has romance (and innuendo, of course, and it slips by with such amazement as its from 1941), and a little action and suspense (punches are thrown, but it doesn't have to be too violent). And all the while it's actors - character actors, mostly, even Bogart was up to a point, but here it's the mother-lode - eating up the delicious dialog from Huston via Hammett for all its worth, with Greenstreet getting the meatiest of the monologues (though Lorre gets a line delivery at a crucial revelation that practically created the character of Ren on Ren & Stimpy).
It's tough and hard-boiled, but it's not so dark that it's some sort of chore to watch like if it goes around in too many circles. You have to watch it, and pay attention, but it's never so confusing if you know, as the Ebert axiom goes, *how* it's about it. By that I mean, it's a movie about storytelling, the yarns that are pulled around and how characters try to play one over on one or someone else, or maybe everyone. Indeed with the exception of Elisha Cooke Jr's character (and damn is it great to see him here), everyone is playing someone for a fool at one point or another, and it all depends on style. On the one hand you got the "school-girl" schtick of Astor's Brigid, and on the other you got the sort of sophisticated, maybe-British-but-more-Euro-something drawl of Greenstreet.

And in the center of it you got Spade as a guy who has to stay ahead of everyone, and yet seem like he's in with them the whole time. Of course the story takes twists and turns, and it wouldn't be so memorable if not for the reveals. But what struck me seeing it this time was just how outstanding the ending is. I won't spoil it for... oh screw it, you know what I meant by 'femme fatale', right? 
What makes it stand out is how far Hammett and Huston take the character of Spade in this situation; he could turn Brigid over to the police, tell her that and that'd be enough... but it isn't. really. She's in tears, she's begging and pleading, and he goes through the whole rationale of the *why* he's doing it, both for business (it's bad for it, and for detectives everywhere), but also what it would be psychologically in their relationship. His own logic and sense of intuition is in conflict with his emotions, but ultimately he sees thru what he has to do, or... does he?

Of course it has to work like this, regardless of what the Code would've had to say for the time if, say, Brigid had gotten away with her crime(s). But it makes it kind of tragic in a weird way, or perhaps it's by how Bogart has that sort of mile-long stare that he had perfect here even before his drunken malaise conversation with Ilsa in the bar in the middle of the night a year later. He and Astor as so good it makes me almost mad that actors or endings aren't good like this today, that there isn't this sense that 'yes, it has to be this way... and why?' 
In short, the "first" film-noir bad-ass and femme fatale in a pairing that makes for one of the milestones of the medium.

(PS: If I had seen this in 35mm instead of a Turner Classic Movies projected DCP, or blu-ray or whatever it's called, I wonder if a few of the fuckers in the theater with me would've been quiet instead of acting like it was their living room... one can hope, can't we? A quiet theater is what dreams are made of, after all...)