A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

May 7, 2010

Postwar Germany in Cinema

It seems like I only have interests to point out random or even spurious connections between certain films, from different areas or regions. At least that’s what’s visible when one lands on a page discussing the Japanese ghosts and the Jacques Rivette film (see the earlier post here). The thing is, I never know if it’s something more than that, and if it seems so, then why not approach the idea?

Failing once more to harness my attention, it has come into the path of a recurring theme for German filmmakers, and possibly for German artists too. Namely, the memory of two films I have seen before came back into my mind while watching a third. All these three films dealt one way or another, with life in postwar Germany. Actually, there are some more dealing with this subject, but for one reason or another, they do not fit into my pattern, or they pursue other goals.

Let’s start with Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun”. The first part of this film depicts the state of indigence the Germans after the end of the Second World War were going through. Just rubble everywhere and people can’t make ends meet. Maria’s husband is in prison for years to come, so she has to provide for herself. Well, she ends up selling herself, and while she’s at it she starts climbing the social ladder of the nascent postwar Germany.

Werner Herzog’s Dieter has another fate. He was just a kid during the war, and the fact that during an air raid he saw a plane so close to his house that he actually was able to distinguish clearly the pilot, made him want to become an airplane pilot himself. But this wasn’t exactly possible a few years down the road, being a citizen of a defeated country, where getting enough food for survival was an acute problem (he even remembers the first time when he saw in a shop window the first sausage; no, nobody could afford it). So the best thing to do was to go where the airplanes were. Hence he immigrated to the US. Successfully trained as US Army pilot, he has the misfortune to fall prisoner in Vietnam, after his plane was downed. He then spent several years there, reliving the war famine until at last he was released. Now, living in his California house, he cannot forget what he went through and made sure he will never miss food. Stuffed in his basement, in a secret place, we can see impressive amounts of food staples, like flour, rice, sugar, canned meat etc. If only he could turn back time to leave some of them to himself from the past, during those two episodes he survived.

For some reason, Istvan Szabo’s “Taking Sides/Furtwangler” and Lars von Trier’s “Europa”, although dealing with the same issues, do no resonate with me here. They do elsewhere, on other topics, just not here.

I recently discovered an Eastern German take on this postwar German landscape, owed to Frank Beyer, the same director who gave us “Jakob the Liar” (but not the version wit Robin Williams!), a sad story about the attempts of a Jew during WWII to lift the spirits of his community. Well, this time, in “Carbide and Sorrel”, we have a romanticized story of that dark age of 1945. The story sounds implausible: a single, nonsmoking worker in a cigarette factory from Dresden is asked by his coworkers to cross half of the Germany to Wittenberge (obviously, both cities belong to what would become the Eastern communist Germany, i.e. DDR) in order to bring some carbide from his brother-in-law’s factory, so that they can weld their equipment needed to start manufacturing cigarettes anew. It may sound implausible, but it turns out it is based on a real story. That endeavor existed, and at the time of shooting this film, the original protagonist. No, he wasn’t chased that bad by both the American and the Soviet troops like the one in the film, nor was he so successful romantically along the road.

Well, even if he were real or not, it wouldn’t make a big difference. The worker’s exploits are funny, but it’s not that kind of funny. Instead, let’s remember that this film was made in 1963. In this context, we can understand (and practice a little bit the long time practiced habit of “reading between the lines”) that if the man was almost always hungry during his travel, this was a picture of those years of hunger. That the widow factory owner sold her jewelry to buy him food in expectation of a hot night, even the funny consequence of him being a vegan (in my opinion, the only thing that is structurally foreign to the script) and thus disappointing the host and raising her doubts about his virility, none of these are able to erase the fact that during that time Germans did sell their gold in exchange for the scarce food.

In a comical key, we see serious themes being approached: the endless numbers of wandering refugees on the roads, the mined lands (in the amazing scene of him looking for mushrooms after not heeding a placard warning passers-by about the forest being mined), the loneliness of war survivors, the black market, even the deplorable state of housing and factory buildings in a country where almost everything turned to ruin. But above all, the sometimes confusing power structure and the fear of being randomly caught by the American or the Soviet army forces along the way. Yes, different zones in Germany were controlled by either the Americans or the Soviet troops. But there wasn’t a clear-cut division (even if it were one, it likely only added to the bureaucracy involved), so we totally forgive the unlikely scene where the guy captures the American boat, because we then see that he has to send salutes to both sides of the river, one belonging to the Russians, the other to the Americans, in a re-enactment of the famous final scene in Chaplin’s “The Pilgrim”.

Well, not even the occupation troops are omnipotent. As in the old “Ten Little Indians” story, the seven barrels of carbide are lost, and then regained, but have to be traded for, since the troops need welding too. Carbide is also an asset, troops are interested in it too, or it can be traded for cigarettes, or even for means of transportation. Or… it can be used for fishing! There must be some historical account hidden here, I suspect it was a popular way to get fish back then. Also, even the mushrooms he collected had market value: they provided transportation for his barrels. Adding into the mix the need for love, we can easily see how people vied for essentials: a job providing food, the food itself, love (even of the fast variety was better than nothing), some clothes and maybe honor. That’s about it. The rest was pure survival.

I must also mention the issue of the protagonist’s succession of encounters with the authorities. While he first met the Soviets a couple of times (and then dupes the helpful American once), he is then chased by the Russians and arrested while trying to sell one carbide barrel in order to be able to transport the last one to the Dresden factory. There is something I’m missing here, but it appears that after he escapes and recaptured, it is the local German authorities that set him free once again, apparently because they believe he pulled a nice trick to the Russians (it must be because of the barrel which was filled with instead of carbide to begin with, from the factory). This gives us the idea of conflicting authorities, even competing ones, reminiscent of the Yugoslav man from Emir Kusturica’s “Father is Away on Business” who is deported during Tito years for commenting positively on the Russian Communism. Yes, there were different brands of communism out there, but in our case, here, it most likely was only an expression of “local autonomy” of the German authorities (although I can’t completely rule out a communist local dissent, since obviously the Red Army promoted their local fidels in key positions).

The two remaining barrels arrived at their destination, but Germany is far from winning the soccer World Cup (it happened in 1954, year also marking the end of this chaotic postwar transition period for Germany; alas, this is only true for West Germany). Our man, having accomplished his mission, knows what comes next: after duty, comes pleasure. So he heads back to his sweetheart. Well, not so fast. A bike would be good, but nothing works as planned, including the unexpected flat tire. Yes, economy is still way down the drain.

A final word here: this seems to also be the final word of a relative thaw in East German cinematography. While the social comments were kept low, it was still too close to home, and a sequel or another film in the same vein would have been too much for the German Communist Party, closely guided from Moscow. This historical development makes this film perhaps an invaluable document about those days.
But, again, if you know to “read between the lines”.

September 28, 2009

Cowtippers Anyone? How About Cow-Gender-Balance-Tipping?

A few comments on the ramifications of this article:

More Cows and More Milk Mean More Headaches – NYTimes.com.

Here’s the cowtipping with a new technological twist: no matter what offspring the bull wants, the centrifugal machine will help the farmers have almost only “girls”. Too bad the effect on our table is more of the low-grade milk you can find in grocery stores. Or about the same amount, but cheaper (which would be normal).

A watchful eye will find here a source of concern: if the same technology can be safely applied to humans, then a few decades from now, the world will look quite different from the one we know.

So far, I have a local solution to the yucky milk: the Happy Cow dairy in Pelzer, SC: http://www.happycowcreamery.com/
Cows roaming free on pastures, under the sun, provide 100% natural (and with vitamins A and D) milk, sour cream and delicious butter ($8 for a 2 pound bar) made locally.And, most of all, it does not contain the bovine growth hormone partially responsible for the high incidence of obesity in America.

I’m just dreaming of a day when our “farm owners” will start considering that we could deliver a better quality “milk” (which can be anything: work, discoveries, offspring, books, cultural achievements etc.) if we are let to roam free, instead of having to sit in cubicles or, in general, in our designated social niches.

August 7, 2009

How do I post on blogs via e-mail

Filed under: Uncategorized — floreign @ 5:56 am

So there’s a ‘secret’ e-mail address to which I am sending a message.
What I don’t know, but I suspect will happen: the message gets posted on the personal blog, maybe with some mentions wrt the method of posting.

Let’s give it a try!

August 1, 2009

Pop music? Michael Jackson. Pop Art? A Michael Jackson Portrait Signed By Andy Warhol

The BBC article lets us know that an 1984 Warhol painting , a portrait of Michael Jackson, will soon go to auction:

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Warhol’s Jackson goes to auction.

I guess it’s a tough luck that given the economic circumstances, the auction will not yield a record price. Well, I was not interested in art as a money-making sports, anyway.

But this can entice someone to do well during the next economic cycle, so that as soon as the manufacturer of Campbell soup cans will go belly up, they will be able to snatch the famous Warhol paintings of them.

As for me, I saw them two years ago at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Let’s just say I saw there many other works of art that deserve much more attention.

July 11, 2009

What’s In The Mind Of An Iranian Fundamentalist Militia Man

Filed under: Doom & Gloom — Tags: , , , , , , — floreign @ 5:33 pm

Inside the Iranian Crackdown – WSJ.com.

The early Hitler had the Brown Shirts volunteers. Ceausescu relied heavily on the Securitate and its network of informers. Had his network been as developed as the Basij militia, he wouldn’t have been executed by his own army who eventually sided with the people. Still, the former rank-and-file members of that network flourished even after the collapse of communism in the Eastern European Bloc. I’m sure other totalitarian regimes have had their share of such friendly thugs.

Now we see the religiously conservative Iranians in the Basij Militia having the same perks, which will definitely build a ruling caste in time.  They have all it takes: do what they are told, beat and kill before asking questions, and, most of all, believe uncritically that they are right in what they do and have the right to do so, even at the expense of other people’s lives.

The only optimistic part is in the end of the article: the underdog female gender could be able to call for a reality check (and overall improvement of our species). It’s beyond my understanding how a repressed female population could have voted for the denial of  their most basic rights during last month’s elections.

July 10, 2009

Bruno At A Glance: The True Distorted Mirror

(A funny thing that happened before the actual feature presentation was the US Air Forces advertisement. Besides the fact that a military camp shows up in the movie, it makes you feel the lack of the slogan “don’t ask, don’t tell”.)

Once you get over the first reactions of disgust during the first minutes of this movie (see the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes here and a trailer above), the rest of the exaggerated stuff becomes bearable. Kind of like an immunization that makes you dig further and get the message. Because there are some reasons why at least some of the film’s skits were put in place.

A character from the Austrian TV fashion world, looking significantly different from Borat, is revealed to us after the first moments when we get to hear a Scooter song. He has a “suicidal” take on the fashion (I won’t reveal what caused what), and he is subsequently fired. While Borat was driven by the wish to “make sexy time” with Pamela Anderson, this time we have a very non-standard Austrian gay guy driven by the need to get famous.

His trajectory may seem a bit haphazard and the plot may seem minimal, and I’m not going to deny it too much. But I want to make a point here that there actually is a certain structure/plot, albeit different from the Hollywood typical recipe.

The careful watcher can identify a number of cultural themes that Sacha Baron Cohen is making fun of. Actually I think that the main purpose of the whole thing is to make people acknowledge them. The main pupose of this post is to discuss these succinctly.

So, beyond the satire aimed at the fashion world, we get to laugh at:

– the desperate will of Hollywood parents for their children’s accomplishment in the world of movies. The list of conditions made by the TV host -to-be Bruno to the parents of the would-be stars is at least breathtaking.

– the shallowness of the humanitarian approaches of the stars: they only want to embrace fashionable causes, so that people will worship them more and more;

– the inferior status of the Latinos, which were told to pose as chairs and tables when Paula Abdul came in the house having no furniture;

– the political correctness tendency related to African Americans shown during the show at which Bruno was invited as a single parent. Frankly, even I have difficulties in finding a term for European Americans, or for African Africans;

– the very little margin for alterity people allow: the hotel personnel was completely shut off mentally at the sight of two men entangled in bed with erotic paraphernalia. Another memorable scene was the one with the psychic.

– the selectivity of fame’s gatekeepers: they only promote straight people, so the gay Bruno decides he wants to become straight. A pretext for lots of other commentaries.

– the empty pretenses of certain Christian pastors aimed at converting “sinners”, they only want conversions to their religion, showing a clear lack of understanding toward the personality and needs of other people. There was a much milder joke than I feared with the first preacher about proselytizing, but this one was not well received by the people in my little Southern town (although they laughed quite loud at other jokes);

– the attitude toward women within the church, explained by use of the second preacher’s words, who was explaining Bruno that although women are boring and meaningless, they would be better for him;

– But all these pale in comparison with the great finale when Bruno finally landed a wrestling gala’s moderator job as “Straight Dave”. Let me get this straight (pun partially intended): wrestling is a male preferred fun thing to watch, which is very close to NASCAR, and additionally the wrestlers actually move and fight in a fashion that is considered by many (but not by its fans) as “gay”. Well, the crowd was cheering in the beginning, but when the fight turned into a gay body contact, although it still seemed similar, people became disgusted and angry. Oh, the Celine Dion track from “Titanic” fits magnificently in this scene.

I believe the bottom line is he started from the straight scene and he replaced it with gay behaviors, heavily exaggerated. in this fashion he managed to make a distorting mirror like the one Hans Christian Andersen created in his “Snow Queen” tale. Only this mirror of Bruno allows us to see right, while Andersen’s mirror makes people see nice things as being ugly.

Who knows, maybe Bruno can be credited with handing us the mirror of truth. Thumbs up from me for this demential comedy.

May 6, 2009

Close-Up on Joan of Arc: from Jacques Rivette’s “Jeanne de Pucelle” to Carl Dreyer’s “La passion de Jeanne d’Arc”

I am still under the effect of a rather random arrow of time when it comes to watching films. Mainly, this means that, since I am making up on new releases over time (when they are no longer new releases), I am at the mercy of certain momentous interests and fortuitous coincidences as to the time the films I am watching in a particular period were made. Well, sometimes it works for me, and other times not.

I remember many years ago, when I finally got to see the entire “Nixon” directed by Oliver Stone. There’s nothing particularly bad about this film, except that it’s almost a dry historical account of the most important events of his political career, obviously culminating with the famous Watergate scandal. In retrospect, it has a lot of good background information, and very little, if any, fictional element. But this richness in details makes this film good scaffolding if one wants to watch the amazing “Secret Honor” directed by Robert Altman. There is one heck of a close-up on a political character which will be difficult to be ever surpassed.

The two parts Jacques Rivette film “Joan the Maid” / “Jeanne la Pucelle” have this historical quality. We see the re-creation of the fifteenth century of a France at its lowest point during the 100 hundred year war. There’s little humor involved, the director limits himself to watch Joan (Sandrine Bonnaire) going through her adventure of freeing Orleans from the British troops and coronation of her king, then through her prison ordeals culminating with her being executing by burning on a stake for heresy. This is not quite a “period drama”, though. At least, if we are to compare this film to the late Eric Rohmer’s “Astrea and Celadon” , with which it has some similarities in style, we are focusing more on the legend, and in this case the legend is the character Joan, including her frequent contacts with the saints who inspire her in her deeds.

We do not see epic battles. Instead, we get to see a few people fighting here and there, winning some and losing some. Needless to say we don’t get to see any special effects. Everything is so concrete that you begin to wonder where God and the other saints in all that soup are. So yeah, we are mainly seeing the humans. Normal people, including the Dauphin and the haunted Joan, evolve or devolve throughout the film.

We get to see a less known side of Paris (the non French one, back then it belonged to Burgundy, a British ally) and the king’s humiliation, when he admits to have made a pact with Bourgogne. We also get to visit a castle where Joan is detained for a while and we even get a glimpse of the motivation that drives the castle’s seigneur to deliver her to England. Further, we get to witness the trial proceedings, which to me look like a rigged trial against a political dissident carried out in a communist country. We finally see what makes her abjure and then recant her abjuration, which leads her straight to the burning stake, with barely a communion granted at the last minute. Joan is sent to Heaven while the Holy Cross is shown to her from the sides.

Yes, lots of good material here. Well, the natural question comes then: where’s the close-up? The answer regarding the close-up to a film made in the mid 90’s is in a film made in the late 20’s. Or it can be one of the answers, if you like this better. At least, this was what I saw in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” .

Passion, that is, like the narratives of the lives of saints, containing the accounts of the ordeals they have gone through. It is worth mentioning that Joan of Arc, despite being excommunicated for heresy, was eventually beatified in the twentieth century, not long before this film was made. Starting from the records made by hand in the fifteenth century, Dreyer’s film focuses on her trial in Rouen, which is condensed to one day.

If one wonders what the charm of the old and perhaps silent films is, watching “The passion of Joan of Arc” can release much of the mystery, for it is a beautiful example of how emotion was expressed in film in a time when the talkie was nonexistent yet (there are a few late recreations of this fashion for communicating expressions, two titles come to mind: Mel Brooks’ “Silent movie” and Aki Kaurismaki’s “Juha” , both are “technically” silent films). We are given the chance to observe first-hand the emotional expressions of Joan, here played by Marie/Renee Falconetti. No, this time we do not have a pretty girl to watch. Instead, Joan’s face is everyone’s face, when dealing with accusations, schemes and betrayals, verbal abuses and she has little in control over what will happen to her. This is when we see her dressed like a man, with a male haircut, wide wondering eyes, freckles, tears and so on. She knows what she had seen, and remains undeterred by suggestions that she has in fact communicated with Satan. Even at the sight of the instruments of torture, she cannot understand why the heretic is her, and her torturers are in fact people of God. The only shed of light comes from the prison’s window, cross-shaped, which leaves on the floor a distinct shadow of the cross (yes, we can definitely recognize here what Lars von Trier had done with it in his “Epidemic”). But this cross is fading whenever the judges are stepping on it.

The illiterate girl falls into the trap of believing one priest as being the messenger of her king, but on the other hand she does not fall into other theological traps (“are you in a state of grace?”). But instead, she irritates her judges by telling that regardless of God liking or not the English, their fate is to leave France, except the ones who will die. Another sensitive aspect is her male outfit. She is even made to choose between remaining in this outfit (which by now we identify with her personal integrity and pride) and participating to the Catholic mass. A trick into a trick built into another trick.

Long story short, she can’t win. This actually means the fight is too uneven and the outcome has already been decided for her: the English want to make from her an example, so that the French will fear fighting against the English, due to the punishment associated with this. What she can do is choose between her death and her soul’s death. In other words, she can either sign a statement in which she abjures her stated heresies, or she will be excommunicated and executed. She takes the advice of some people in her court and she signs, but also marks a cross on the document, this meaning “I actually didn’t mean that”. Well, formally she has complied with the request, and instead of death, she gets the smaller sentence: life imprisonment and humiliation.

In Rivette’s version, her changing of mind is caused by the harsh treatments in prison, the French filmmaker is even staging a rape attempt. Here, Dreyer hints to an access of remorse when she gets the prisoners’ haircut: she is also stripped of her dignity. Realizing what she has done, she “abjures the previous abjuration” and ends up on the stake which was prepared for her long before that.

In the execution scene, carried out in Rouen, we get to know another character; the crowd. They are definitely aware of Joan’s ordeals, but they simply do not have the power to stop it. They are witnessing her death (beautifully shot), and realize she remained one of them, and the judged killed a saint. A public revolt ensues, but once again the city is ready for this, so the soldiers reply wielding chain maces against them and eventually kick them outside of the city walls.
This is where Joan’s legend will live on, and from where it will return with a vengeance. Now, Joan’s spirit is inseparable from the French popular spirit, and this is what (as we are suggested in the film) will ultimately change the war’s outcome.

This was my second incursion into Dreyer’s films, after viewing Ordet, and from this perspective I am not very competent to lead to the fine details. All can I see is that his films are growing into you, and will leave an indelible mark. Yes, Dreyer’s spirit is living into us, even without us knowing anything about it. This encounter is so rewarding…

April 28, 2009

Nagisa Oshima’s “Realm of the Senses”: An Engrossing, But Also a Grossing-Out Film

This is a piece of cinema that I long suspected it was censored in the US. “I Am Curious” comes to mind, but also the fact that it’s next to impossible to find a copy of another “art-house porn”, Lars von Trier’s “Idioterne”. Well, lately the less-important Caligula was released on DVD, as well as Pierpaolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, re-released by the Criterion Collection. Still, I managed to get a copy of “Realm of the Senses” from Amazon UK. Well, little did I know at that time that the Criterion Collection was planning to launch its own US version.

If the question is “was it worth it?”, the answer might depend. It was worth for me to see it. On the other hand, although the price is not terribly high, I can see why this film can constitute a big no-no to a lot of people. Even judging by the above list of “questionable” films, one can foresee what its problem is. Yes, it has sex galore. And, most importantly, not that kind you see in porn productions. Hence we can gradually reach the conclusion that it’s actually a film on its own, the fact that a lot of sex happens in it does not make it at all a member of the porn genre.

What do I mean by this? Merely the fact that the main point of the film is not to titillate the viewer, although, with such a subject, such side effect (as well as the opposite effect, when it comes to certain sex acts) is inevitable. The film has a coherent plot with all necessary parts, which seems to have a (relative) psychological sense, not because such “sexual infatuation stories” happen often, but because this one seems to be based on a well-documented real fact. It happened, but this does not mean we’re watching a documentary. Perhaps the event was famous in its time just because of its nature.
Well, I want this review to remain online, so I’m not trying to scare people here, or to use incensed wording. (and maybe I am still learning the skill of expressing difficult words in fashions that are “easy to swallow”). I remember that even filmmakers have such difficulties sometimes (in the same vein, there is a particularly sensitive scene in Almodovar’s “Talk to Her”, I won’t name it, for which the director has taken additional precautionary measures).

We are dealing with a prostitute, which we get to know that she is actually the wife of a teacher, who got into debt and then sent his wife to work in a brothel, to recoup the debt amount. This woman seems to have a specific tactile sensitivity, I am even amazed at how many times can she have a climax each day. We are also dealing with the brothel’s owner, who became attracted by her and thus begin an illicit sexual affair with her. I am saying illicit, because, although we are in a brothel, but because he has a devoted wife. These two start by meeting secretly, by hiding themselves from the wife, but eventually nothing else really matters, they keep doing it without control. It’s the image of this obsession spiraling out of control that I believe has a lot of power, and which warrants the fact that you’re witnessing a plausible psycho-erotic event. You can call it erotic folie a deux or otherwise.
The first things we do not quite like to watch are some variations on their sex making (some even including other, not so gracious, people), most of them seeming to come from the woman’s attachment to the man. She also has a strange obsession with knives; she is having jealousy accesses when she threatens him with it and so on. Great, so we have the gunpowder keg, we even have the fuse, all we need is a lighter.

It comes, via a visit the woman makes to her husband. Filled with guilt for the pleasures she is living with her current partner, she feels like dying, so she asks the husband to strangle her. Well, not to death, and the effect of this experience is that the temporary lack of oxygen is emphasizing her orgasmic feel. It something similar to what has been mentioned in the first season of the TV show “Murder One” (I even wonder whether the script writers have found inspiration for that from this Oshima film). Long story short, when she returns, she shares her discovery with her boss, and he enjoys it.
Actually this is when everything gets a dark turn, because the guy stops being able to enjoy the normal intercourse, and he keeps asking her to strangle him. And she keeps doing it. The guy becomes less and less interested in anything except his strange state of suffocation during sex. Actually, his potency suffers.
The final act is now easy to understand. She promises that she will proceed with her strangling even beyond the “safe zone” (now that’s beyond anything that I am comfortable with), and surely she does.

This act was so obvious to me that it will happen, that, also due to some schedule while watching it, I left out the last five minutes of it. Frankly, I wasn’t feeling very comfortable with going back to watch it, anyway. But I’ll do it sometime…

All in all, I hope I was helpful to some people regarding the decision whether to invest in the Criterion version of this film. Actually, some people might even prefer the Blu-Ray clarity (I’m outta here, folks!). But I still claim that this is a good, albeit not very important (except for the moral debate it caused), film, and the cinephiles should watch it. Minors, not so much. Nor is it recommended for the people preferring family movies. I can even see the porn genre fans being somehow disappointed by this. But am not sure.


April 27, 2009

Waiting for the release of “Antichrist”: Film Director Lars von Trier’s Tinkering With Our Brains

I have recently heard that a Lars von Trier film is about to be released. It bears a sensitive name, especially for places in the US not particularly open to cultural diversity, i.e. places where films called “The Last Temptation of Christ” or “The Life of Brian” were unwelcome. This time it’s about a film called “Antichrist”. Since this is raising some serious potential issues, I am trying to make a case here for the one who possibly is the most important world filmmaker of the last twenty years.

I came of age as cinephile around the time when the French-German channel Arte TV aired Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” . At that time I considered it huge, a pinnacle of filmmaking. Even though I’ve seen some other important films since (in about 12 years), I still consider it a very good film. What I added to this picture was only on the part of getting to know this film director better.
Still, this guy is not a very approachable one, from a certain angle. His films are not serene, just like an “easy watching” movie. Instead, it is a cinematographic realization of the old expression “per aspera ad astra”. He has something to say, but you have to be patient to see and hear what, and he’s taking the time to give details, but, you’re forewarned, it won’t be very easy. His explanations are carrying you through the abyss of the human spirit, before, hopefully, taking you into the elevated land of illuminations. That way, you might even appreciate more what he has to say. During this bumpy ride, you might be tempted to go astray or stop for a while, or for good.
His cinematographic achievements are not at all a mixed bag; I came to realization not too long ago. Until then, I only knew things related to his most famous finished pieces. Breaking the Waves, Europa, Dancer in the Dark and the more recent exercises “The Boss of It All” (blasphemy; a Trier comedy?) and the charming “The Five Obstructions” . I must admit I was on my way into watching his current trilogy about America (Dogville , Manderlay and the upcoming Washington ) for a few years, but I failed.

Well, a while after I kind of considered it a lost battle, somehow I managed to get closer to his earlier films. This is how I found out that he actually made a remarkable TV film called “Riget” , and Riget II , falling under the horror genre, which later Stephen King, suffering from the late Jack London syndrome – or was he in just for the money? – (lacking inspiration for having to full a life, he bought plots from Sinclair Lewis), took and transformed into the “Kingdom Hospital” TV series, thus placed in the US. I simply love the grainy image and the playfulness of the script, which could have simply accommodated much lengthier cinematic endeavors than an eight-episode TV series. Well, unfortunately the series had to stop because the main actor passed away. If I’ll ever become interested in the plot, I’ll dive myself into the Stephen King’s world and watch the US Riget series. I’ve done it before, when I wanted to follow up on the fabulous Cracker UK TV series featuring the unforgettable Robbie Coltrane (yes, the same friendly Hagrid from the Harry Potter series), there a brilliant (and deeply flawed) forensic psychologist. The US series is nothing to write home about, though.

Somehow, this reopened my appetite for the films of Lars von Trier. Strangely, not for his late films that were likely compliant to the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” , so far away from the American blockbusters’ abuses of fast sounds and images. Well, some 10 years ago I was so confused, that, sadly, I confused this to some film (the film “Dogma”, which I have never seen, helped the confusion). So I went to complete the watching of the first Lars von Trier’s trilogy, the one about Europe.

Many years ago I watched the last part of this trilogy, “Europa” . A black-and-white film about postwar Germany, where all morals are corrupted (surprisingly similar to the morals in a Communist country), Germans are still protecting former Nazis and even have “Resistance”-like acts of sabotage. A German American who refused to go to war for the Us Army went to help the postwar effort to rebuild Germany. We’re introduced in this through a hypnosis session, and the whole experience is truly surreal. The hypnosis will end in some sort of ethereal feeling of floating death of the main character, drowned in the train he sabotaged, having been blackmailed by the brigands through his love for a German woman. Exquisite cadaver, I could say.

Fast forward to another aquatic experience: “The Element of Crime” , von Trier’s first feature film, is a kaleidoscope of shadows and lights above and into the all-Tarkovskian water (there’s also a horse in there!). A weird post-apocalyptic Europe, where a criminal investigator is trying to catch a murderer, using an original method developed by his mentor: ne needs to copy the murderer’s acts, and his mind will catch up with them, thus allowing him to eventually catch the murderer. We are witnessing all this by following his psychotherapy sessions once he got out of this filthy European realm. The catch is that our guy was caught in the web of the murderer’s past, so he himself gets into the same despicable state of mind he was trying to stop. Now we already see that von Trier is making use of some psychological tools that can possibly scare us deeply. Really, I can see here the future material for Riget. It’s all the same, basically, in nuce.

Things get even *better* in “Epidemic” , a pre-pandemic Europe. We are following a team of film script writers (Lars is right there!), who have taken the endeavor of describing a contemporary pandemic, based on medieval writings of the great plagues. In parallel, we are delving into the imaginary world of the pandemic, even in drowning waters, blocked caves and closed coffins! No wonder why, upon our returning back to the reality surface, for the occasion of the informal presentation of the script for the representant of the financing institution, a hypnotist-medium couple would look eerie to us. No surprise here: as “expected”, the signs are right, the hypnosis is invoking from the script’s imaginary world the PLAGUE, real people are getting infected, and here we are thrown into despair for the fate of the humanity.
Yes, there are some aspects here not fully approached in the American cinema. Actually, it’s not completely true. I would note Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” , where an actor is coming from the screen into the real world. Actually there’s also our friend Arnold Schwarzenegger depicting such a character, in “Last Action Hero” . So it’s safe to assume that the American audience has at least sporadically exposed to such an idea, of the reality being influenced by fiction. From the cultural standpoint, however, this makes a lot of sense. Famous books, like the Bible, or the Communist Manifesto, or, say, The Origin of Species, have completely changed the face of humanity. It’s just Lars von Trier has done it using a film. Or at least he hoped.

What I do not know is how original this approach of Lars von Trier is. I have also watched an earlier TV production, Medea , which seems to be an original work, but is also based on the script made by another Scandinavian cinema master, Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have yet to see his most important films, and I suspect it will be worth the effort. On the side, though, coming back to Medea, I must say that it is a piece of cinema that does not try to spare the viewer. We are witnessing a dark side of the antique Golden Fleece story, where Jason has dumped the intelligent Medea who helped him get the Fleece, and he is now marrying a king’s daughter. Medea’s revenge may be sweet, but it raises to unimaginable levels. She poisons the bride and kills hers and Jason’s sons. The end is for us to agonize together with Jason, the lost (and unfaithful) father. Medea may be the murderer, but in some sense he ahs also murdered the beloved ones.
Now, after this long dark ride along Lars von Trier, I could see his mellower (yet cruel) takes, in his late 90’s films, but also the incisive beginnings of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Besides trying to move on to Dogville and Manderlay, I could see some reason into going back to Riget. I’m not really expecting to see threads of the later plots, as it happened with Pedro Almodovar’s “Flower of my Secret” , where several plots of his earlier and later films meet, but there’s such an abundance of ideas in Riget that it’s impossible not to find any trace of what is to follow. Not to mention that the prospect of seeing in the upcoming “Antichrist” a revisit of von Trier’s earlier motifs dressed, maybe, in Dogme’95 ‘s clothes, is appealing.
What we can expect to get is, in light of this ride, an uncompromising travel through dark corners of humanity, and, perhaps, a mild consolation or some sort of bigger picture, able to encompass the lights and the shadows that we would have seen. No, I don’t expect a re-occurrence of Bess’s bells (in the end of “Breaking the Waves”, since there was nothing like this for the comfort of Selma in “Dancer in the Dark”). Any outcome is likely. We can witness a public outrage for his film, or it could be a flop. I can even see people becoming disenchanted by Lars von Trier’s machinations and messing up with their minds, “for make benefit glorious nation of Skandistan”, to paraphrase a well-known mockumentary’s subtitle. Based on the acquired certainty that as theatrical drama playwright, LvT’s sense is solid, I do not fear any of these.
Still, there are a few reasons to follow the upcoming festival of Cannes, where it is very likely for his new film to have its premiere. First, there’s also a psychiatrist involved, and this is “ominous” enough. Also, an earlier viewer tells us that it is scheduled to premiere in the US on 9/11. Ouch. Here’s the link of the preview.
Need I say more? Well, it was my turn to take you on this ride, and it’s up to you to give such a film a chance. Or not. Since I am not contemporary with films (I tend to watch them in an order which makes little resemblance to the arrow of time, and I am obviously not invited to film festivals, to be up-to-date with the recent releases.)
But, sooner or later, I will join the watchers I would have caused with this article. Whether it would be for the horror or the “artsy” content, there’s no difference for me. We are all brothers.

Let the visual feast begin!

April 25, 2009

The Misfits Love Stories in Film (p1): Fatih Akin’s “Gegen Die Wand” / “Head-On”

This film is not only for the Depeche Mode fans. Nor is it only for punk rock fans, although Cahit, the main male character, is a big fan. I couldn’t exactly tell if this film has a specific target, although it comes from a very specific intercultural “metissage”. Namely, the director Fatih Akin is a member of the Turkish German minority he is trying to describe in this film (it’s an interesting phenomenon, there are millions of them, brought in as guest workers after WWII, and lately they are affecting even the mainstream German culture). We are introduced into the interference fringes between the traditional Turkish civilization and the offers and temptations of the host culture, the German one, a classic example of Western civilization. Maybe the best way to put this is in such a film, when something goes on, and from time to time, when the film becomes too tense, we chill out watching traditional Turkish singers on a boat on the Bosphorus strait.
Feelings and emotions of people will be charged with this ambiguous cultural load. As an example, Cahit, still grieving the loss of his wife, runs head-on with his car into a building. Saved from death, at the clinic he meets Sibel, who wants to launch herself head-on in the Western world. Her way of trying to convince her parents to let her do what she wants is to cut her wrists from time to time. Because it’s not working too well, she offers a deal to Cahit: to marry together. She’ll cook and clean for him and still will have her life of her own.
Then we’re stepping into the realm of things that are never what they look like. Cahit is not the prosperous businessman he pretends to be, the marriage isn’t what it is supposed to be, and we realize that in a painful shot of Sibel still wearing her wedding gown in the bar being picked up by a guy and leaving with him to his apartment. The only real thing is the ethnic food made by Sibel (and it really looks tasty, only if it wouldn’t go down the drain), very little else to keep these people hooked in the not so tight net of reality.
But it grows. So we understand how, in spite of both spouses’ trysts with other people (Cahit also has a hairstylist girlfriend), they are getting closer. To the extent of a tragic event. In the eve of the marriage being actually consummated (at least), they get to a bar where a guy, knowing Sibel’s ways, wants to pick her up; Cahit defends her and hits him with a heavy object, causing his death.
Now everything becomes real, but grim and extremely personal. Cahit will spend the next years in prison for murder. Sibel, in love, promises to wait for him. And in the meantime she goes to explore her Turkish heritage. Now the past gets back to her, and she falls rather deep. In a way, she is trying to level with Cahit, but it might also be more complex than that.
Not only on the societal level, but also in reality, they do meet. Some years later. Well, let’s just say that what was deemed to happen happens, but let’s also remember that we are in a film which doesn’t cater to Hollywood happy-end addicts. Each will have their own ways, and what they tried to escape, the Turkish culture, will actually become their environment of choice.
One can even wonder; is this some sort of protective cloth, as to not be tempted to make such sudden leaps into the unknown? Are these people “immunized” by now? Or are they just trying to avoid being hurt, after “coming of age”?
I definitely don’t have a definitive answer, but listen to the Oriental music, it’s beautiful. Perhaps that music tries to tell us something.
And maybe you will fall in love with this music and look for Fatih Akin’s great documentary about the Istanbul music, made right after this film.

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