Perşembe, Aralık 21, 2006


Wonderwall (U.K., 1968) * *
D: Joe Massot

I had wanted to see Wonderwall pretty much since becoming a Beatles fan (in high school), since the soundtrack counts as one of the very first George Harrison solo albums, only preceded by an Apple release of experimental mellotron noodlings. Since those days of fandom, my obsession with the shortly-lived psychedelic heydey of 1966-1968 had placed the film even higher on my must-see list, but a certain wary reservation let me turn down the offer, from Rhino's exclusive Handmade line of limited-edition releases, to purchase the film on DVD with assorted collectibles. After all, this had every likelihood to be a head film of the pretentious variety (is there any other kind?).

There are unintentional head films (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey), and then films in which the filmmakers actually desired the audience to drop acid to enhance the viewing experience (i.e. El Topo). The best head film, aside from Kubrick's, is George Dunning's Yellow Submarine. The Beatles distanced themselves from the animated film, not even supplying their own voices, because they assumed it would be on par with the Beatles cartoon show--aimed squarely at children--and only agreed to the project because it would help complete their contract to make a certain number of films. But the finished result is at least on par with A Hard Day's Night, and far more artistically successful than the film directed by the Beatles (or at least Paul McCartney), Magical Mystery Tour, and Let it Be, which completed their film contract with a depressing fizzle. Yellow Submarine was a kaleidoscopic fantasy inspired by Beatles lyrics but calling to mind Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, and perfectly in tune with the childlike surrealism of John Lennon. Plus, since the filmmakers were able to hand-pick Beatles tunes (apart from the handful of "new" throwaways handed them by the band), the soundtrack, finally released in its entirety in the late 90's, is stunning, highlighted by a rendering of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" that represents the height of artfully used rotoscoped animation--after the sequence there was applause in the theater, at a revival showing in Seattle. I would imagine that if you were going to drop acid while watching a film, Yellow Submarine would provide a very pleasant trip.

McCartney and Lennon both had interests in avant-garde film. McCartney, while a Beatle, also provided a score for a now-obscure British film; but it must have been unexpected when Harrison put a film score under his belt. In retrospect, for a Beatle who would later score eclectic projects such as the Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise and the IMAX film Everest, and co-found Handmade Films for the benefit of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, his first choice doesn’t seem so unusual after all.

Wonderwall is of the “head film” genre, but at the same time it’s very, very British in its sensibility; it’s one of the strangest head films you’ll see. It stars not a hippie hero but the aged Jack MacGowran, hired because of his role as Professor Abronsius in Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (so IMDB tells me now, but while I was watching Wonderwall I was constantly reminded of the doddering vampire-hunting professor). Playing Professor Collins, he spends his day peering through a microscope, and by night peering through the hole in the wall of his apartment, spying upon the neighbor girl, a hippie model. The discovery of the hole is given great import. The professor, living amidst piles of papers and shelves of books, tosses something angrily at the wall because of the racket—Harrison’s sitar music—playing loudly next door. His butterfly collection drops to the floor, shattering glass, and in the dark he can see a cross of light beaming from the tiny hole (a lovely use of lens filter). Through it, he sees the beautiful young woman reclining in red light while listening to the sitar play. As he looks back at his butterfly collection, the butterflies, now animated (in every sense of the term), flutter before his eyes and fly into the ether. The next time he spies through the hole, the girl and her friends are presumably in a fashion shoot; she’s skiing in falling snow, bizarre poses are struck, all to Harrison’s mixture of traditional Indian music and rock ‘n’ roll. And they are in a fashion shoot. After the animated-butterflies sequence, all scenes in the film have a rational explanation. No surprise a scientist is the main character—this is scientific, mathematic surrealism, which only lets the butterfly scene slip by because someone forgot to carry the one. Nevertheless, there is a long, somewhat irritating dream sequence midway through the film, which features backwards-playing notes as the professor envisions himself battling the girl’s rakish boyfriend, who’s wearing a superhero suit with “LSD” on the chest. One of the film’s most striking images, and its best stab at surrealism tempered by reality, depicts the professor madly digging peepholes between the bricks of the wall, so the multicolored lights of the psychedelic room on the other side shine through like a Christmas tree. Less satisfyingly, the following scene has our voyeur using every one of the holes to spy on his neighbor making love, the camera undercranked.

That scene, like the rest of the film, has a thin line to walk. It has to be charming, funny, and fascinating and not, well, creepy and disturbing. It almost works—but, unsurprisingly, does not. This is a film about a sheltered, lonely elderly man who becomes aroused—I’m sorry, “turned on”—to the carefree world of the younger generation, primarily through the act of obsessively spying. How could that work? And could this film have been made in any other year than 1968? I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, the Peter Sellers comedy, attempted something similar, and the results were either more or less successful, depending on whether you’d rather be watching this story unfold as a broad comedy (as Toklas did) or as a semi-serious fable (as Wonderwall is). Either way, it’s hard to take it too seriously in the twenty-first century. Sure, there’s some ostensible human interest when the girl’s boyfriend occasionally visits the professor (they almost become friends), or when the professor rescues the girl from a suicide attempt. These moments seem out of place in a “head film.” In fact, the film seems to be well on its way to a quaint, minor-key ending with the professor returning to his lab and his microscope, but as he looks through his favorite peephole, he sees a fantastic vision of his neighbor drifting away from him and becoming one with the cosmos. Frankly, the film could have used more of that sort of naïveté, but as it stands, Wonderwall tries to please both the trippers and the middle-brows.

The film would have fallen completely into irrelevance if not for the producers’ smart decision to hire George Harrison for the score, and his soundtrack album, which stayed in print when the film did not, is a feast of mind-expanding explorations anchored by the dreamy sitar. So much of what should be intolerable in this film is elevated by his accompaniment. The opening title sequence is a particularly remarkable blend of Harrison music with otherworldly visuals (the professor’s microscope slides). If any of this film sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend seeking it out, despite its flaws. But this is for psychedelic historians only.

Perşembe, Aralık 14, 2006

Saturday Night Live: The First 3 Episodes

Thoughts on watching the first 3 episodes of Saturday Night Live (1975)...

Episode 1

I tell my wife that this is when (host) George Carlin was edgy, meaning "coked up." You can't really tell, except his delivery is a little too rehearsed and "energetic." And I regret saying he's edgy, because most of his jokes are really mundane. For example, my favorite joke is: "I wonder what dogs do on their day off? They can't lay around, because they do that all the time." Edgy. Later on he redeems himself (sort of) with an oddly hostile rant about the stupidity of religion. Maybe NBC forced him to use that material later in the evening, but not as an opener.

Billy Preston, singing that "Nothing From Nothing" song...the first ever SNL musical performance, and a good song. I always associate Billy Preston with the Beatles, because he played on Let it Be. In fact, that was the first time someone other than a Beatle was credited on a recording: The Beatles with Billy Preston. He cheered the Beatles up, and he cheers you up, watching him here. Although it's easy to laugh at his outfit: purple silk scarf, weird giant blossoms arranged level with each other on his lapels. I like his gap-toothed grin. His other keyboardist looks like an audio-animatronic mannequin from Disneyland, rocking back and forth mechanically.

The sketches seem to start and end with no rhyme or reason. Very Monty Python-influenced, much more so than later years. Sometimes there isn't even really a joke, such as in the notorious "bees" sketch, which somehow I find hysterical anyway, because the actors commit to it so much. "Congratulations, it's a worker." "Oh...a worker." I never thought I'd say this, but Larraine Newman is hot (she was so young then).

George Carlin isn't appearing in any of the sketches. Instead, to remind you of his presence they cut back to him onstage doing more stand-up.

Andy Kaufman does the Mighty Mouse routine, recreated in the "Man on the Moon" biopic (where Carlin played himself). The real deal is so much more funny than Jim Carrey's impersonation. Something to do with the ambiguity of Kaufman's performance. Is the Kaufman character waiting awkwardly for his next line, or is he confident in his performance? It's like the Mona Lisa's smile! You're nervous, you're uncertain, and you laugh--that razor-thin line for which he always aimed.

Weekend Update: jokes about Gerald Ford being clumsy. Chevy Chase doesn't know which camera to look at (either that, or the camera-queuing is mistimed), and at one point it seems like he's going to make a joke about it (a little physical comedy as he looks from one camera to the other quickly, blinking), but then he withdraws nervously. Great live TV awkwardness.

Janis Ian sings. I have never heard of her before, although I recognize the song ("At Seventeen"). A beautiful woman and a beautiful voice. I'm in love. I'm going to buy some old Janis Ian albums now. She sings about being ugly and not getting picked for a team during gym class. Yes! Very 70's singer-songwriter, right down to the way they film: I love when she goes out of focus so the camera can focus in on the candles in the foreground...which aren't even fancy enough to look at. I love her. She only reluctantly smiles after the audience has been clapping for a few seconds.

Jim Henson's muppets--not recognizable ones, but SNL ones, acting out a kind of Honeymooners concept but in a fantasy world of smoking craters and ancient ruins. A critic, reviewing this DVD, compared these scenes to Fraggle Rock, but they remind me of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, a little Wizards, a little Heavy Traffic.

A really wretched stand-up, Valri Bromfield, is one of the names that draws a blank here. You want to give her credit for being a female stand-up in a time when it was very male-dominated, but her bit is more like an actor's overcalculated, overwritten audition.

Lots doesn't work, but it's so much better than modern SNL. Because the series doesn't have a structured format yet, you never know what you're going to get next. The Albert Brooks film is unfunny - just a collection of jokes that don't work, disappointingly - but at least it's something different. On the whole, it's much more interesting than the formula settled upon in later years. I like the messiness. Paul Simon comes on at the very end and says he'll be reuniting with Art Garfunkel on next week's episode, and you remember Lorne Michaels wanted the Beatles to reunite on his show too.

Episode 2

Paul Simon is hosting. This episode is almost entirely devoid of the Not Ready for Primetime Players. They cameo in a very funny gag, hoping to reprise last week's failed bee skit, but Simon refuses. I appreciate self-depracating humor.

A quick summary of this episode: Paul Simon sings...Paul Simon sings....Paul Simon does a filmed skit...Simon and Garfunkel reunite and sing...and do another, and another...Art Garfunkel sings solo...Paul Simon sings...Randy Newman sings...Phoebe Snow sings...Paul Simon sings with Phoebe Snow...etc, etc. They should just sell this episode separately to Paul Simon fans. At least he's at the height of his solo career, and the songs are all outstanding. Oddly, Simon seems excited to reunite with Garfunkel, but the feelings don't seem mutual. Simon says something like "Done acting yet?" and gets no laughter in response. Garfunkel is still five years from Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing.

Another great 70's TV technique: Paul Simon singing in long-shot, while a second camera, zooming in for a close-up, blows up the image and places it right next to his head. So it looks like he's singing to a deity, and the deity is Paul Simon.

The filmed sketch with Paul Simon taking Connie Hawkins one-on-one (set to "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard") is really charming, although Simon's comic timing with Marv Albert is awkward (long pauses while he seems to think of what to say). Enjoy it, you're not getting much more in the way of comedy in this one.

The Albert Brooks film is a winner this time. Brooks introduces himself (after asking an armed security guard to forcibly remove his young, whining daughter from the room), then shows some home movies shot by his father, and some outtakes from Brooks' failed attempt to make a Candid Camera-style film for SNL. It's all Brooks' typical meta-comedy: high-concept jokes attempting to pass themselves off as documentary.

The Muppets sketch contains a valuable lesson for political leaders: if you sacrifice your people by dumping them down a pit, you will have less mouths to feed, and your economy will improve.

Episode 3

Rob Reiner hosting, he begins with a sort-of-funny bit where he impersonates a lounge singer. Maybe this felt more fresh in 1975. Later, he introduces his wife Penny Marshall, who looks astonishingly young.

The Not Ready for Primetime Players return with a vengeance, and they have some funny sketches here. The Bees invade a Reiner/Marshall sketch, and Reiner refuses to perform with them: Belushi, in bee regalia, makes an impassioned speech. Later Belushi becomes an instant star with his impression of Joe Cocker singing "With a Little Help from My Friends" (pouring beer over himself and staggering around the stage). This is the first episode where you really become conscious of Belushi. Strange that Chevy Chase was the first breakout star of the show, as so far he seems awkward, sweaty, and nervous in all his appearances, although he probably is the most dashingly handsome. Chase, like Ackroyd and Belushi, looks like a college kid, and their humor is expectedly smirky and self-satisfied--still, the writing is good, the enthusiasm is big, and you laugh in spite of its shortcomings.

A group called the Lockers perform. This is black funk looking for some new form of expression--waiting anxiously for rap (or breakdancing, I guess). The performers flip around the stage like members of Cirque du Soleil, and they dress like early 20th century French clowns. The music is typical 70's funk. At one point one of them shouts, "Turn off the music! We don't need music!" In fact, they do. Of note: my wife thinks this is straight out of Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Also of note: when one of the Lockers emerges with lit light bulbs attached to his uniform, the audience goes, "Ooh!"

Andy Kaufman does another record routine, this to "Pop Goes the Weasel." Not as funny. Still somehow hysterical.

Comedy team "Dillon & Hampton" perform. That's Denny Dillon from HBO's "Dream On." She's funny here, but the material really isn't.

The Albert Brooks film is the best yet, paving the way for his first real films, in particular "Real Life." He announces that he's going to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, simply by putting out an ad requesting anyone who is willing to submit themselves to open-heart surgery; victim in tow, he hires an international crew of doctors to assist him (they're not legally allowed to operate in the United States). Some of the best Albert Brooks material I've ever seen, and a reminder that I should go back and watch "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" again, a very underrated comedy.

The Jim Henson sketch features a pot-smoking Muppet. Now we're deep into Ralph Bakshi territory. The message seems to be that smoking pot makes you stupid, but you should do it anyway because everybody else is.

In sum: glorious. If SNL were still like this, I would watch it religiously. I eagerly await the next disc from Netflix.

Cuma, Aralık 08, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 4

Masculin Feminin (France, 1966) * * * *
La Chinoise (France, 1967) * * 1/2
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France, 1967) * * *
Week-End (France, 1967) * * *
D: Jean-Luc Godard

If the final stage of the Cinematheque's Godard retrospective represents a shift toward the political, it isn't yet a complete abandonment of narrative. (Although one film included here which is not part of the Cinematheque's retrospective, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, achieves just that.) I keep smacking at that point because I'm a big rah-rah fan of narrative and all its conventions. In these films, possibly excepting Two or Three Things, Godard is not yet forsaking cinema for essay or screed.

Though it's been described as a political film, Masculin Feminin struck me as apolitical. The politics are an ornament the central character wears; Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) seems less passionately involved in defining his politics (as his friend is) than pursuing a deeper meaning to the world around him. He looks for that deeper meaning in his tumultuous relationship with Madeleine (Chantal Goya). Their relationship is open to question throughout the film: he pursues her, she is indifferent; he wins her, she is indifferent. She holds him at bay for much of the film, and their tender scenes are limited to one, as they make spare physical contact under the sheets while a third member (ah, the 60's) tells them to shut up so she can get some sleep. Does she ever love him, and does she need him? The final shot, the last in a series of interrogations that form the central motif of the film, is as ambiguous as the Mona Lisa's smile.

Masculin Feminin continues Godard's interest in abstract surrealism (for lack of a better term), which came to the foreground in Pierrot le Fou. As with that film's early party scene and non sequitur musical numbers, moments of pure fantasy intrude upon the action as the film hints at other films, other stories that this one could have been. In one scene, a conversation between the two central characters is interrupted by the quarrel of two lovers sitting at another table, which takes a turn toward sudden violence. But it doesn't intrude upon our plot. Paul is, at one point, accosted by a man who turns a knife upon himself, and later sees (off-screen) a man setting himself on fire; these don't intrude upon our plot. These scenes are like watching random events from the television news in the late 60's (and anticipate 1968)--Vietnam, assassinations, riots--but Paul and his urban, privileged friends are allowed to carry on unaffected, with only a slight stress upon their conscience. Well, that would be upon Paul's conscience: he's the only one who seems to notice it happening. As with previous Godard films, this is novelistically divided into chapters, with witty titles, the most famous, about being the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, being one of the more flippant. Call it Godard's Warhol moment. Still, Masculin-Feminine is mesmerizing. It has a deeply flawed central character who is nonetheless likable because he is recognizably human: an intelligent, sensitive student who likes pretty girls and is self-consciously pretentious when socializing. All of the characters, even peripheral, are recognizable; Godard is not (yet) a misanthrope. The realistic dialogue and dashes of misplaced passion elevate what could be another stylistic exercise into brilliant and involving filmmaking.

It makes for an interesting double feature with La Chinoise, a film about genuinely misguided, devoutly passionate youths in a tiny Communist club. Sequestered in a room filled with little red books, they recite Marx to each other while pacing in front of portraits of Chairman Mao, and when they listen to pop music, it's a song called "Mao Mao." They are, in effect, like children playing revolutionary dress-up, a point driven home in the final scene, but when the question arises as to whether or not they should take violent terrorist action, one of their members leaves. This leads to the film's centerpiece scene, as, while riding a train from stop to stop, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky of Au Hasard Balthazar), the most devoted member of the cause, argues about the value of political violence with her old professor, who can't believe she would be going down such a path. The most impressive aspect of the film is its cinematography, saturated with reds, reds, reds; the ancient print we watched turned most of them to pink, which might be just as appropriate. Basically, this would all make a smart, snappy short film, but at almost 90 minutes it's far too long for its simple premise and cardboard characters.

I was disappointed that Two or Three Things I Know About Her was excluded from the retrospective, so I sought it out on my own time. It's a noble effort by Godard to break free of all conventions that had previously been restraining him. This film is an essay, sometimes spoken by Godard, sometimes spoken by his characters, but a contemplative, complicated theorem which he must slowly build over the course of the film--like Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, except with a less enlightening revelation at the end. The high point of this talky film is when he simply focuses the camera on some bubbles stirring in the middle of a cup of coffee while discussing the cosmos and the birth of consciousness. It's an extraordinary example of making the very small seem transcendent.

While the ostensible protagonist is a career woman who, like Deneuve in Bunuel's Belle de Jour, takes an unnecessary day job as a prostitute. But that bit of plot doesn't seem so interesting to Godard as the extras who stand behind her while she goes about errands, and so we are treated to the philosophies and feelings of tertiary characters, who look directly into the camera and speak candidly, often with breathtaking poetry (just as often with mediocre witticisms). Godard reportedly achieved these long monologues from unprofessional performers by giving them an earpiece and dictating their lines from behind the camera. The results can be remarkably dislocating, such as when a child starts talking politics. It's an indulgent device--and all this film hangs upon apart from the tired tirades against consumerism--but it feels so fresh that it makes the film pleasurable to watch. Naturally, Godard would soon revolt against the idea of "pleasurable" films, and so it's appropriate that 1967's notorious Week-End is a violent revolutionary riot against the viewer.

The first time I made an attempt to watch Week-End was six years ago or so, when I was living in Seattle. It was on cable, and while I missed the first couple of minutes, I came in on the traffic accident tracking shot which is now considered one of the watermarks of cinema in the '60's. Since I have some stupid policy of refusing to watch a movie unless starting it from the beginning, I changed the channel, but not until I saw that long, several-minute-long sequence to its end. Godard begins the shot with his bourgeoise couple, having just set out upon their weekend trip (to possibly commit a murder or two), arriving at a traffic jam on a country road. Those cars which are not pressed up against each other are smashed into trees. As the couple attempts to circumvent the traffic by driving in the opposite lane, the other drivers lay on their horns or race ahead to ensure no one cuts in front of them. If you've ever driven in Seattle, this sounds like a documentary. But it's pushed to surrealistic lengths: the traffic jam contains lions, llamas, chess players, picnic outings, singing children, tea breaks, upside-down cars, cars pointing in the wrong direction (and insistently honking), and grisly violence. Indisputably, it's one of Godard's tour de force moments. I caught up with the entire film about a year ago on DVD. After years of having that shot fixed to my memory, the rest of the film was a disappointment. I'd seen more Godard by then, and this just seemed like more of the same: experimentation for its own sake, abrasiveness, arrogant lectures, cruel violence. I was a little bored by it, and on the small screen, with Godard's distant framing, I couldn't see the character's expressions, or tell them apart. I felt like I was watching a manipulated diorama.

Now, on the big screen and on a second viewing, I have a deeper appreciation for the film--similar to my second approach to Breathless--but I haven't fallen in love, for the flaws are still on display. First the good news: the first half of Week-End is brilliant and designed with the grace of a (grand guignol) ballet. After a lengthy, descriptive, sexually frank monologue between husband and wife that seems intent on topping the one Bergman staged in Persona, Godard gets to the central motif of the film: car crashes. In this mesmerizing vision of the end of the world, Godard convincingly postulates that the apocalypse will come by just a little bit more unfettered rage between the classes. Just a touch more road rage, that's all it takes, and after seeing Week-End, you'll believe it. Fender-benders lead to awkward (and comic) combat, first with tennis rackets and paint guns, then with real weapons, until the roads are strewn with fiery wrecks, posed bodies, and pools of blood. Our unlikable, murder-plotting heroes abandon their flaming car in one of those wrecks and take to the road as hitchhikers; in fact, this could have screened with the Cinematheque's summer road movie series. The further they travel, the more they seem to leave the fabric of reality. They meet Emily Bronte, who delivers a rather moving monologue about a pebble. (She gets burned to a crisp by our callous protagonists.) They admit they're characters in a film. They listen to Mozart played in a pit stop, while the camera tracks in a neverending circle from right to left, as though travelling backward in time. (The intertitles indicate that this film either was found on a trash heap, or is drifting aimlessly through the cosmos.)

All of this works pretty well. The free-form satirical fantasy, as well as the absurd random acts of violence, were born in sequences in Masculin Feminin, Pierrot le fou, and even earlier films; it seems natural that they should suddenly take over and get their own movie. But just when you give Godard enough rope, he hangs himself with it, in one interminable sequence where two garbagemen, eating sandwiches and glaring at the camera, discuss turmoil in Africa and the Middle East, then lecturing about the devolution of so-called "civilized" European societies. Sure, it's critical to get across the notion that societies become more barbaric as they "progress," but isn't the illustration everything we've seen leading up to this point? If you were to scream "Show, not tell!", Godard would probably just deviously drag the scene out for twice the length. He enjoys this kind of torture. You've had your candy, now take your vegetables. This is a new kind of cinema, and cinema can be talking, too. Unfortunately, Godard's ideas here are not all that profound; they're overly familiar. Perhaps that's why Godard is so popular with college students: these are the kind of conversations they hold late night in a dorm room, thinking they've finally gotten to the bottom of CNN. Godard's also popular with the young for his use of shock--not just the jarring jump-cuts and sudden flashes of commentary intertitles, but the use of taboo subject matter and imagery to deliver harsh truths to a presumably middle-to-upper-class audience. (Yeah. You grow out of that.) Here his coup de grace would seem immeasurably more shocking in 1967 than it does now: the revelation that the young hippies will not form a utopia upon the graves of the dead bourgeoisie, but instead will degenerate into cannibalism (and endless drum solos). The final scenes of the film, particularly those involving the slaughter of animals, can be very difficult to watch--and it was interesting to note that all laughter in the theater died when a real pig's throat was really cut, real blood pouring out, the stumpy legs shaking spastically while the "actor" flips the animal over to gut it. Here, finally, was a taboo that was still potent. Godard killed animals on screen? Oh, shit, not him. Finally, as the film drags itself to a close, you get the final, nauseating shot that you actually want to see, because it ties everything into a grisly little bow. I actually felt a little ill after the movie. On the small screen, the impact isn't quite so...impacty.

Still, the movie hasn't aged well, and it wears on and on, so that by the end I was growing really tired of the staginess of Godard's tableaux: here is a man playing drums in the foliage, here is the cannibal cook surrounded by his meat, here is the girl with the gun...he practically puts a spotlight on each as he isolates them. It's all so abrasive and so artificial. Just a week ago we were watching Bela Tarr's Damnation in the same theater, and while Tarr himself would mature into better films, I find myself preferring his rhythm, his careful, contemplative eye, his obsession with capturing the feeling of reality even when indulging in fantasy. What I'm saying is, when you're young, you can start with Godard. Eventually you come around and you appreciate the stillness found in a Tarr film, or a Tarkovsky, or a Bresson, and all the flash, and "commentary," and savage editing and sound that Week-End throws at you seems like the spittle-covered invectives of a third-year philosophy student.

Yet the contradiction here is that only a year before, Godard made Masculin Feminin. Before that, he made Band of Outsiders, A Woman is a Woman, My Life to Live. Those films spoke less, but they said more. By dealing with real characters and real relationships, even when their lives touched upon fantasy or satire, the themes gained greater resonance. I walk away from Week-End devastated and, yes, a little nauseated, which is exactly the effect he intends. But I don't feel enlightened, and devastating work can achieve that too. So I don't think it's a "Great Film." I would hold up his earlier work, when he was a little less cynical, his delivery less pretentious, his ideas more interesting, his techniques more fresh. Next year the Cinematheque is planning a continuation of its Godard survey, moving into his video works as well as his more recent works. Judging by Notre Musique, Godard did mature into something quite different, so it should be interesting to track a new evolution in this artist.

Pazar, Kasım 26, 2006

Capsule Reviews

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Larry Charles

Have you read enough about Borat yet? A disclaimer: this film is not the groundbreaking political satire so many reviews (say, Film Comment's) would have you believe. It started something when Michael Moore, upon seeing the film at the Toronto film festival, called it the funniest film he had ever seen. Yes, some of the funniest moments in the film have a political dimension you can't avoid, notably when Borat, the "Kazakh" TV journalist played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, announces to the spectators of a rodeo that President Bush should drink the blood of every Iraqi man, woman, and child. (Confused applause greets him.) There are lots of stunts like this, some of the best skewering anti-Semitism: Borat and his producer are terrified to learn that the owners of their B&B are Jewish, and when they're convinced that the cockroaches that slip under their bedroom door at night are the owners transformed by Jewish magic, they throw money at the roaches, then flee screaming into the night. You may feel a little dirty laughing at some of the jokes, as goes with any "stunt" film that plays practical jokes on real people, but Cohen tries to diffuse that by making so many of his victims unlikeable, such as the antiques-store owner who sells confederate flag bumper stickers advocating secession. The bottom line, really, is that the movie is just constantly funny, and my face was in physical pain from laughing for 84 minutes. (Nobody notes that it's a comeback for director Larry Charles, whose last film was the pretentious, Bob Dylan-worshipping flop Masked and Anonymous.)

Casino Royale (U.K., 2006) * * *
D: Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell revived the James Bond series big-time with 1995's GoldenEye, reviving the best elements of the series in a thrilling way, with a suave, charming, and capable 007 in Pierce Brosnan. Eleven years later, he's been asked back to help the franchise out, not that it was on life support (I particularly enjoyed the last Bond film, Die Another Day, which was also a major box-office hit). Wisely, they've gone back to source novelist Ian Fleming by adapting his first Bond novel, Casino Royale; it's the first Fleming adaptation since 1987's The Living Daylights, and the news here is that it's very faithful, for its long middle stretch set in the titular club. To fulfill the requirements of the series, more ambitious action setpieces occur in the beginning, end, and (to keep things lively) smack in the middle, when Bond leaves the casino to stop a bomber from blowing up an airplane on a runway. But everything else is pleasingly subtle, building to its action slowly, and emphasizing plot and relationships, particularly the one between Bond (Daniel Craig, of Layer Cake) and MI6 contact Vesper Lynd (suitably gorgeous Eva Green). The story intends to tell Bond's origins: how he became a double-O (the pre-title sequence shows his first assassinations), how he developed a relationship with boss M (Judi Dench), how he came to like Aston-Martins (he wins one in a game), and, most importantly, how he came to be so cold-hearted. Daniel Craig brings to mind Timothy Dalton's chilly performance as 007, but Craig seems even more cold, and he seems determined to freeze his features into a statue's countenance, his lower lip slightly jutted out; he'll need to loosen up a little more to make his Bond really stand out, although the critics are already won over, and this film has received glowing reviews. This longtime Bond fan remains skeptical of Craig, but I'm impressed by the approach--this is the first Bond film in a long time to actually feel like a real spy story.

For Your Consideration (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Christopher Guest

Guest, having completed a mockumentary trilogy with Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, reunites the same ensemble in a film that doesn't pretend to be a documentary, but is just as loose-limbed, and chock full of ad libbing. The target of the satire is Hollywood, in particular Oscar lobbying: the cast of the Jewish-themed film "Home for Purim" learn they might be considered for Academy Award recognition, and soon all artistic integrity (which was pretty nonexistent in the first place) is thrown to the wayside as they clear their mantles for Oscars. Catherine O'Hara steals the show in the final act, with a great gag I won't reveal; but Harry Shearer, Jennifer Coolidge, and Fred Willard all get big laughs (co-writer Eugene Levy, by comparison, has a much smaller role this time around, playing Shearer's agent). What makes this film a step down from the previous Guest films is that the target has a been-there, done-that feel, and, more significantly, you don't really care about any of the characters. Still, the pitch-perfect comic timing ensures that not a scene goes by without a major laugh, and that's really what matters.

The Fountain (U.S., 2006) * * * *
D: Darren Aronofsky

Most critics are slamming this bold fantasy film by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), but it's only the difference between finding certain elements absurd, or enganging the ideas they represent and being thrilled at seeing them visualized. Maybe you have to read a lot of European comic books to appreciate The Fountain. Anyone who's read the graphic novels of Alejandro Jodorowsky--the former cult filmmaker behind El Topo and Santa Sangre--will recognize imagery seemingly lifted from his books such as The Incal, The Metabarons, and The White Lama. After watching star Hugh Jackman get into the Buddha lotus position and levitate in the air--while suspended in a bubble containing a massive tree and drifting through outer space toward a sparkling nebula--I was convinced that Jodorowsky had finally made it back to the big screen with the necessary budget to fulfill his ambitious ideas. But if that idea just sounds silly, well, you could stay away from The Fountain, or you could give it a chance and pay attention to what the film is really about: a scientist (Jackman) struggles in vain to find a cure for cancer while his wife (Rachel Weisz), writing a novel about a Spanish conquistador searching for the Fountain of Youth, slowly slips away to the disease. That's all it's about. What makes the film unique is that Aronofsky plunges you into the imaginary world of Weisz's novel (we see Jackman as the conquistador, Weisz as Queen Isabella) as well as the inner psyche of Jackman, which is where you get the bubble hurtling through space. It's an epic fantasy and an intimate drama all at once: a neat feat, and almost as rare, an intelligent work of imaginative fiction for the screen. Those who despise it need to broaden their sense of what genre can do: this film, as well as last year's 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai, represent the future of imaginative storytelling, where genre boundaries are deliberately indistinct.

Keeping Mum (U.K., 2005) * *
D: Niall Johnson

Richard Russo adapts his own short story into this strangely flat comedy about a sweet-natured killer freshly released from prison (Maggie Smith) who is released into the home of the unwitting Goodfellows, a household led by oblivious reverend Walter (Rowan Atkinson) and his sex-starved wife, Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas). Gloria is having an affair with her golf instructor (Patrick Swayze), and her daughter is sleeping with every guy in town. Walter notices none of this, so obsessed is he with church duties and getting his sermons written. When the homicidal Grace Hawkins boards with them, she decides, for reasons she keeps secret, to fix their problems with a few murders. A sound premise for a black comedy, but the laughs come way too late, and don't last very long. Atkinson and Thomas do a spectacular job of creating fully-realized characters--Atkinson in particular is lovable--but their efforts are not repaid by Johnson's slack direction and a script not worth filming.

Çarşamba, Kasım 22, 2006

Look at Me

Look at Me (Comme une image) (France, 2004) * * * 1/2
D: Agnes Jaoui

The whole point in naming this blog Kill the Snark was to underline that my chief interest is in films that move me, films that penetrate the kind of snarkiness and cynicism that taints so much of film criticism. I want to celebrate films that require study and punish impatience. Films that understand stillness. Yes, I want to celebrate Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, and Bela Tarr, but even in more mainstream films you can find these qualities; in that genre, Look at Me is the kind of film I'm after.

Written and directed by Agnes Jaoui, who plays singing instructor Sylvia in the film, it's an ensemble character portrait, although the title most obviously relates to Lolita (Marilou Berry), the overweight, overambitious daughter of renowned author Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri, not playing a character entirely different than his in The Housekeeper). Lolita is a promising singer in a choral group taught by Sylvia, with whom she eagerly seeks private lessons. Sylvia is annoyed by the overtures, but changes her mind dramatically when she learns that she's Etienne Cassard's daughter. She's an admirer of Cassard, and her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), is a struggling writer who could use the contact to draw attention to his new novel. Lolita, the product of Etienne's first marriage, has a troubled relationship with her father: he seldom has time for her, constantly refers to her with would-be affection as his "big" girl, and seems to have more interest in his young wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), and their child. Nevertheless, being the daughter of a famous personality has its priveleges. She fools herself into thinking that her "boyfriend" Mathieu has a further interest than merely making an important professional contact in Etienne, neglecting the one who's truly interested, in a bit of the callous selfishness that's on display from nearly every character in the film.

So Lolita is not blameless, and this is not an afterschool special. It is, I think, a study of self-interest to the point of cruel disregard. At one end of the spectrum is Etienne Cassard, whose unlikely introduction--the last to pile into a cab with Karine and Lolita, and disproportionately older to those two who could be sisters, his bald spot for a second dipping toward the camera--he puts the obnoxious cabbie in line so quickly that the man soon addresses him as "sir." Some of this has, naturally, rubbed off on Lolita; as much as she dislikes her arrogant father ("I don't hate him," she says, "I just want to kill him."), she also admires his power. The constantly interrupting ring of cell phones forms an audio motif, and hers rings as often as her father's; both use it as an excuse to ignore whoever is actually in front of them. And that is an effective technique--note Etienne's assistant, who claims that Etienne saved his life (he may have become a terrorist), but nevertheless looks withered from the constant casual insults. There's a price to pay in becoming a professional sycophant, hoping to leech some of the fame.

Sylvia's husband Pierre is delighted at his fortune, but watch that delight slowly dwindle over the course of the film--you can see him studying Etienne in the same way Lolita studies Sylvia. Etienne Cassard is Pierre's instructor, but not in the art of writing. Pierre begins to appraise women with the subtle lechery of Etienne's, and begins to avoid friends who can no longer help him climb to the top. Still, when he becomes stranded on an outrageous Graham Norton-styled talk show, he seems helpless, if not terrified, among the scantily-clad dancers. But it's impossible to feel sorry for him in the film's conclusion, when loyalties are tested and Pierre chooses poorly.

But even though no one is faultless, some come through when it counts. Sebastien, Lolita's crush, wants to impress Karine (Mrs. Cassard), but he has a deeper affection and loyalty for Lolita. Sylvia is subtly aware of her own hypocrisy when she agrees to private tutoring for the student she's always disliked, just to get closer to her famous father; on the other hand, over a weekend in the country she forms a bond with the girl, and in the final scenes, potentially sacrifices everything for her. But Karine may be the conscience of the film. She briefly leaves her husband because she sees him for who he is: a selfish monster. Karine, most unexpectedly, is the least selfish character in the film, and even when she returns to the household, it's for Etienne and the children, not for her own sake. Sebastien sees this. Lolita still resents her.

All of these motivations and stories are worth drawing into the open because, despite what other reviews for the film might suggest, this is not just a story about an overweight girl and the people around her who won't "look at" her. Lolita is the most sympathetic character in the film, but she is not free from selfishness. The key is that when she hurts others, we understand what motivates her, and we empathize even more. She has deep wounds, and they drive her to some awful actions.

Rare does the film contain a moment that doesn't feel completely convincing; and while it is not so rigorously formalized, it did remind me of the films of the Dardennes brothers (L'Enfant). Ultimately, how refreshing to see it isn't a cynical film. And while the film ends on a positive resolution, there are no false redemptions. Lolita's father will always be a bastard. Pierre may come around, but he may not. That a few manage to escape this plague is inspiring enough.

Cumartesi, Kasım 18, 2006

The Unguarded Eye of Shortbus

Shortbus (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: John Cameron Mitchell

I always thought it would be nice to make a film with an unguarded eye. After all, this is how writers write: if a writer is depicting a love scene, there doesn't need to be a fade-out when the couple starts moving toward the bed, and no fade-in with clothes scattered along the same path; and the author doesn't cut post-sex to a shot of the lovers, covered in sweat and breathless, with the bedsheet pulled up to their necks. In a film, when a famous actress strips, there's always a strategic arm, or a shadow, or Goldilocks-length cords of hair covering her breasts. The audience is always consciously aware that they are not permitted that intimacy, and this, after all, is a movie. When nudity is permitted, it's of a certain length, of a certain kind, with an eye toward the MPAA's limits. And sex is always slow-motion, soft-focus, set to music, and either just perfect or some kind of dark moral betrayal. It never seems honest. It never seems unguarded. In a way, it's positively Puritan: all these decades past the abandonment of the Hollywood Production Code and all the married couples are still sleeping in separate beds.

Shortbus, the latest film from John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), is part of a new filmmaking movement to venture into the final frontier: actors having hardcore onscreen sex within the context of a non-pornographic narrative and in a mainstream film. (Well, as mainstream as any film not passed for approval by the MPAA, and limited to arthouse release, can be.) His story features an ensemble cast, and the news here is that he's found actors who can perform sex onscreen and be engaging, convincing, and charismatic--you know, like movie stars. It isn't 101 minutes of explicit sex. No, most of it comes right after the opening credits, as we zoom through an idealized, (literally) cardboard Manhattan and visit our main characters, who are each engaged in activity that has never before been captured in mainstream film, and certainly not in a montage set to "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" You expect it to be explicit and shocking, and maybe it's still a little more than you were expecting. As Mitchell said in an interview, he wants to "break the audience's hymen." From here on out, the explicit scenes are less common, but when they happen, you're not only prepared, you can actually focus on the characters and not the bodies. The story isn't remarkable, and perhaps one of them is overly familiar: the quest of Sofia (Soon-Yik Lee), a couples advice counsellor and not a sex therapist (as she'll remind every character in the film), to have an orgasm for the first time. Her husband (Raphael Barker) is disinterested--he has secret fantasies he won't share. But when Sofia is invited by two of her patients, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P.J. DeBoy), to the Shortbus salon, a sort of town hall for the underground, where guests engage in public or group sex, listen to bands, chat, what have you. It seems to Mitchell's vision of a utopia.

But, as host Julian Bond says, "It's just like the 60's. Only without hope." This is a post-9/11 NYC, and each character seems to be emotionally blocked. Sofia has been acting the part of sexually-fulfilled Manhattan professional for so long that she's on the verge of falling apart. Dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) admits to Sofia that she longs for a real relationship, but instead, self-defensively and possibly out of professional habit, she continues to hurt others--most devastatingly James, who has been slowly composing a video diary that doubles as a suicide note. His relationship with former child actor Jamie is outwardly healthy, but he won't allow himself to be penetrated (much is made of "impermeable" people). A former hustler who picked up his first John outside a screening of My Own Private Idaho, he's always felt that he's known how much he's worth--and it isn't much. Intriguingly, the characters reach fulfillment along unexpected paths. In a sense, the gay couple reaches a traditional resolution, the straight couple does not, but both end happily. It's one of the many subversive elements in this film. (Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not point out that this movie is as consistently funny as Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

The sex is essential to the plot, and while you can argue whether or not it needed to be so explicit, it's never unwatchable or repellant. (This is a film, thank God, in which the characters actually take joy in sex and aren't punished for it; an experimental menage-a-trois, for example, leads not to tragedy, but to awkward and human comedy.) Of course, the sex is the plot, and to be admitted to the most intimate moments of these characters is--here's a revelation--to completely empathize with them. It's a film that's achieved a more accurate simulation of real life (despite some thrilling fantasy sequences), and that only helps the storyteller achieve his goals.

In terms of on-screen sex, Mitchell isn't the first to get here, although I'm sure he wanted to be (his film was in production for years as he tried to secure nervous financiers). Of course, underground films have danced this tango, notably Andy Warhol's Blow Job (1963) and Blue Movie (1969), but most of these are divorced of narrative. At the height of the X-rated film, many European films began to stick hardcore "inserts" into their otherwise mainstream exploitation films, often with body doubles, just to gain the notorious rating--an example is 99 Women (1969). European films continued to push the envelope in mainstream cinema, and films such as Andres Techine's interesting Rendez-vous (1985) and the films of Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) pushed the limits of what could be depicted in highbrow entertainment. The 2000 release Baise-moi, about two women on a crime-and-sex spree, featured unsimulated sex (along with graphic violence and rape) and received much controversy in Europe and Canada, although in America it was granted only a small release, and passed without attention or impact. In 2004, Breillat's deliberately provoking symbolist film Anatomy of Hell and Michael Winterbottom's relationship drama 9 Songs featured real sex, but both were heavily criticized for their narratives (the former as absurd, the latter as uninteresting). Prior to these, Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) made a film with hardcore moments, Ken Park (2002), but he struggled to get it released, and even now it's unavailable in the U.S. (Famously, an Australian film festival attempted to show an imported DVD of the film in 2003, but an old-fashioned police raid shut the screening down.) The real breakthrough might have been Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny (2003), which ends with a scene of explicit oral sex between Gallo and mainstream actress Chloe Svigny. The film may have come and gone with a whisper, but that Roger Ebert's reports on a disastrous Cannes screening of an early cut of the film prompted a venomous, over-the-top personal retort from the filmmaker. The subsequent public argument between Ebert and Gallo was an entertaining media spectacle, culminating in a couple of odd resolutions: The Brown Bunny received a fairly wide arthouse release to satisfy the curious, and Ebert gave a three-star review to this completed and fine-tuned version. Granted, the theatrical distributor, Wellspring, went bankrupt shortly thereafter, but at least Svigny has not been blacklisted (she's currently appearing the HBO series Big Love). Clark recently contributed a segment to the hardcore-as-art anthology Destricted (2006), which also featured contributions from confrontational artists such as Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) and Matthew Barney (Cremaster). The idea of this film was to explore the line between pornography and art. It may be enough that this debate is no longer held in the realm of the theoretical.

The doors might now be wide open to hardcore mainstream entertainment, for the first time since porn briefly became a highbrow fad in the 70's. The documentary Inside Deep Throat, on the making of the notorious X-rated film, supposedly features brief hardcore shots from that watershed porno; this is only worth mentioning because it received a pretty wide theatrical release and no controversy arose. Could it be that theatrical distributors now realize adult audiences are willing to be treated like adults? Or is it just that these films aren't quite mainstream enough, and all it will take is recognition from a fundamentalist group of protesters before the distributors shrink away, the curtain falls? It only matters from the point of view of getting more risk-taking films funded. (It's not like we've seen a trail blazed by The Last Temptation of Christ; even though that film was misunderstood by those who protested it, the road was never trod again.)

It's difficult not to see Mitchell's film as a cry for a Shortbus-like utopia in filmmaking: not just for a more honest depiction of sex, but for a greater acceptance of different kinds of sexuality. (When a transgendered character is treated by all the characters as just another human being, you can almost hear a wall off-screen crumbling into rubble.) This, really, is an extension of the unguarded eye. It's an eye that sees without a Hollywood lens. In Shortbus, a moment is reached when the viewer becomes accustomed to this new eye, and becomes submerged in the story being told with a new level of emotional involvement. This, I think, is the holy grail.

Shortbus isn't perfect, but it's the first film to justify its technique by actually being really good. It takes someone of Mitchell's talent and vision to pull it off. I hope he commits to his intentions of making a children's film next. Because, you know, there's more to life than sex.

Çarşamba, Kasım 01, 2006

Don't Look Away from the TV: Horror Marathon October 2006

Sure, Christmas is great because of the presents and all, but my favorite holiday is Halloween, my favorite month October, my favorite season the fall. Each October I try to cram as many horror movies as I can into the month, and while this month I failed to fulfill the impossibly ambitious list I set for myself (watch one movie from Australia, one from Eastern Europe, one from Africa, etc.), I did watch a much higher percentage of films that I had never seen before, and at least it's fodder for this blog to give a run-down with some capsule reviews. I'm including the 3 episodes of the Showtime TV series "Masters of Horror" because they are essentially short (1 hour) films; I'm excluding the terrific new horror series "Dexter" on the same channel.

- 1 -
Psycho (U.S., 1960) * * * *
D: Alfred Hitchcock

Well, of course I'd seen Psycho before. Too many times, in fact. Each time I watch it, I'm certain it's one of my favorite films, although as time passes I'm sure to shove more snobby choices above it. In truth, though, each time I see this film I'm studiously attentive, aware of each camera movement, squinting to catch the details in Norman Bates' bedroom or basement, gasping not at the shocks but at the head-slapping brilliance of Anthony Perkins' casting, though it pretty much ruined his career, typecasting him for the rest of his life. The film's single flaw--the final psychoanalysis scene--has been isolated countless times by others, but obviously, in a film so radically stark and unsparing to 1960's viewers, it was necessary. To my mind, the whole thing is perfect cinema. I don't know if it's Hitchcock's best film: he has about ten of those, and this usually gets short shrift by scholars who would rather put forward Vertigo or Shadow of a Doubt (Hitch's favorite) or Notorious. Horror--or, specifically, the slasher film, which this birthed--is still considered a gutter genre, nothing but "entertainment" with minimal intellectual value. But Psycho is a highly intellectual film, engaging with the viewer's expectations, questioning them, and savagely turning on them. When Norman Bates moves the innocuous painting to glimpse through a crudely-carved peephole, not only was the genre raised to a new level, but so was the game of the auteur. (This is the only DVD in the Alfred Hitchcock boxset to not feature a documentary on its making; a shame.) I watched this on the 1st of October almost as ceremony.

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Stuart Gordon

This Showtime series was born out of the semi-annual meetings of a society almost self-mocking calling itself the "masters of horror," and consisting of the likes of John Carpenter, John Landis, Joe Dante, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Mick Garris, and others. They would gather to drink and talk about whatever they felt like talking about; the Showtime series pays tribute to them by giving (some of) them one-hour films to express their imagination. The personal indulgence of master of horror Stuart Gordon (who recently directed the David Mamet adaptation Edmund, starring William H. Macy) is to adapt the work of H.P. Lovecraft; to date, Gordon is about the only director to get Lovecraft right, from the morbidly funny Re-Animator to the fantastically grotesque Dagon. (The other director I'd nominate, Guillermo del Toro, has yet to actually direct a Lovecraft adaptation, though Hellboy seems to be an audition for the job.) So to see Gordon adapting my favorite Lovecraft story, "Dreams in the Witch-House," is a dream. And he gets it pretty much right, again. The premise is the same: a young man rents a room in the top floor of an ancient house, and becomes mathematically obsessed with the peculiar and unique angle that the walls and the ceiling meet; turns out, it's a portal to another dimension, from which comes a baby-sacrificing witch and her rodent familiar, who has a human face. It manages to be bleak, weird (in the pulp-fiction sense), and gleefully mischievous pretty much at once and throughout--a tough note to strike without going over the edge. One of the best episodes of this series' first season.

The Unknown (U.S., 1927) * * * *
London After Midnight (Restoration; U.S., 1927)
D: Tod Browning

For a while--in college, I think--Tod Browning was my hero, my past life, a visionary who could compel otherwise respectable members of the audience to pay strict attention to--and even sympathize with--outcasts and monsters. Freaks, of course, is his manifesto: a one-of-a-kind film in which were are initiated into the secretive world of circus sideshow performers, and in which the delineation between outcasts and outright monsters is made clear (the villain of the piece is actually a sadistic, hateful woman who just happens to be physically perfect). Before working in sound pictures, before Freaks and Dracula, Browning made films with Lon Chaney, and each pushed the other to the pinnacle of his craft. The Unknown might be that pinnacle: Chaney plays a strangler impersonating an armless man (his hands are tied down by a girdle beneath his shirt) to elude the authorities; while working in a circus, he falls for a beautiful woman who cannot stand the touch of a man's hands, and who feels safe near him. Despite his machinations, she falls in love with the team's new strongman, and (I spoil) adjusts to human contact just as Chaney cuts off his own arms to complete his new identity and to be with her. Chaney's performance is astonishing; in many scenes, his legs act as arms and are every bit as emotionally expressive. London After Midnight is one of the lost films of the silent era, and one of the most eagerly sought-after, as it's one of Chaney's "make-up" films (he plays a vampire). The reconstruction produced by Turner Classic Movies lasts about an hour and exhaustively pores over archived production stills while running through the script, effectively proving what those who have seen the actual film have claimed: that's it's standard "old dark house" fare and pretty dull. (For more on that genre, see the film of the same name, below.)

Nosferatu (Germany, 1922) * * * *
D: F.W. Murnau

Each October the Alloy Orchestra performs a live musical score at the Times Cinema in Milwaukee; although the Times has become less of a repertory theater and more of a first-run arthouse since it was taken over by new management this year, they brought the Alloy back again for a double feature of this and Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (which I'm not including as "horror," but which a spectacular moviegoing experience nonetheless). The Alloy not only tour across the country throughout the year, they also compose original soundtracks to accompany the DVDs and television screenings of various silent films, and are regarded as the best folks out there doing so (in fact, the print of The Unknown which I watched featured an Alloy score). Last year's performance of The Phantom of the Opera was a hit with the Times crowd; this year, they seemed strangely bored and distracted, unless my subjective reading was incorrect. But it was still a great time. You can read my thoughts on Nosferatu here.

Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell (Japan, 1968) * *
D: Hajime Sato

This one has a fervent cult following that includes Quentin Tarantino, but the only thing it really has going for it is a frenzied approach to narrative that results in lots of humor both intentional and (predominantly?) unintentional. Consider the pre-credits sequence. A plane is flying against a strangely ruby-red sky. The pilots have lost course. A bomb threat is received. Birds begin to commit suicide by smashing against the plane. A psychotic political assassin fights with the pilot. A glowing UFO streaks past, and the plane careens into the ground. Granted, the pace slows a bit after this, but only a bit. And there's a real triumph in that all of that actually begins to connect into a cohesive plot...well, sort of (it involves aliens that crawl into your skull through your forehead and turn you into a vampire). My wife and I got most of our entertainment from the American female passenger, who shouts in English "My husband died in Vietnam!" again and again while the Japanese characters look confused. I guess you can expect this from Criterion in the future, since the Janus logo was attached to the TCM print.

The Black Cat (U.S., 1934) * * 1/2
D: Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar G. Ulmer is considered one of the kings of B-movies, and the apex of his output was the 30's and 40's, when he turned out one zero-budget film after another, the most notable being the accidental film noir masterpiece Detour. The Black Cat is notable too, chiefly because it brought together horror icons and rivals Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Right from the opening credits you can see whose career was taking off: Karloff is listed just by his last name, but Bela must suffer both names. They play two bitter enemies--Karloff is a Satanist priest, Lugosi an ex-pupil who blames him for the death of his wife--and it's impossible not to think of them just playing comic book versions of their Hollywood personas, two ghouls fighting for the crown of King of Horror. It's entertaining enough, but the story is so absent that the events happen almost as nonsensically as those in Goke: the characters wander into the frame, bicker, scream, encounter preserved corpses or black-robed worshippers, and wander out. It has nothing to do with the Edgar Allen Poe story that supposedly inspired it, although Lugosi's character shrieks at the appearance of a black cat. (Actually, Stuart Gordon is taking on the Poe story in his installment of the second season of Masters of Horror.)

Jigoku (Japan, 1960) * * 1/2
D: Nobuo Nakagawa

Criterion has just released this truly bizarre (okay, not Goke bizarre, but bizarre nonetheless) Japanese horror film from the same year that brought Psycho and Peeping Tom. It begins with a brief vision and description of the Buddhist Hell, but then retreats for a full hour to tell the story of a young man, the girl he loves, and his bullyish friend who seems intent on bringing his dreams to ruin. Things get delirious, and a bloated ensemble cast begins to quickly die off, before the main event: forty minutes or so of our protagonist wandering through Hell, trying to find his beloved, battling off demons and witnessing a phantasmagoric vision of the various levels of Hell, each radically different from the other, but involving some mesmerizing, nightmarish vision. The special effects are quite good, and the sights are certainly memorable, but I'll be damned if I can tell you what this movie is about.

-8 & 9-
Plan 9 from Outer Space (U.S, 1959) *
Bride of the Monster (U.S., 1955) *
D: Edward D. Wood, Jr.

This month Turner Classic Movies debuted TCM Underground: a cult film (or double feature) hosted by Rob Zombie and airing Friday nights at midnight PST. His first picks were two by Ed Wood, and having not seen these in many years, I can say that I agree with Zombie's statement that Ed Wood may have been a bad director, but he had a vision, and his films are more worthwhile than much of what comes out of Hollywood these days. But his films are worthwhile because they're enormously entertaining in unintended ways. Plan 9, for example, is a comedy masterpiece; it just so happens that we're supposed to take it seriously. It's the way Wood draws out his "special effects" sequence of paper plate UFOs flying over Hollywood: he really thinks he's Ray Harryhausen. Or the way the actors deliver lines like: "You humans are so stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Or the way Tor Johnson fails to deliver any line successfully, but sounds instead like Frankenstein's monster (he's actually playing a police chief!). The dialogue is so ambitiously bad that there really isn't a good way to deliver it, but you must admit, it's delivered in the most entertaining way imaginable. Bride of the Monster isn't quite as enjoyable, but worth it for the octopus-wrestling sequences, or Lugosi's "race of atomic supermen" speech. On the commentary track of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, the screenwriters note that after watching Burton's film, you view Wood's work more sympathetically, and that's true. But it's still astoundingly terrible stuff.

The Woods (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Lucky McKee

McKee is my favorite of the new generation of horror directors, primarily because he doesn't set out to ape anyone else (most new horror directors, including Rob Zombie, are intent on remaking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left); instead, he's establishing his own voice: sardonic, modern, colorfully cinematic, and keenly interested in the female psyche. His film May followed a young introvert (Angela Bettis) at an animal hospital whose obsession with dead things frightens away her would-be boyfriend, leading to drastic measures to repair the relationship; wit infuses the film not just through its observant dialogue but through its soundtrack and even the movement of the camera (horror has finally found its Scorsese). The finale, with one simple movement of an arm, was horrifying, whimsical, and touching--not a mixture you get from most modern horror films. McKee's segment for Masters of Horror, "Sick Girl" (also featuring Bettis) wasn't a let-down but a hilarious satire involving lesbians and insects; my wife found it to be one of the best things she saw all year. Unfairly, McKee's follow-up to May, The Woods, was released directly to DVD in October. While it's deliberately lacking in the broad satirical strokes of his earlier films, the McKee touchstones are still there: a prominent soundtrack (notably featuring "You Don't Own Me"), female leads (the cast is almost entirely female, with the exception of Bruce Campbell as the character's father), and one wise touch after another. Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is brought to a school for gifted girls in a secluded forest in the mountains; the year is 1965. As with Dario Argento's classic horror film Suspiria, she begins to suspect that the teachers are really witches; meanwhile, the girls begin to disappear from their beds, replaced by an assortment of fall leaves. Heather bonds with a friend, stands up to a bully, and suspiciously scrutinizes the head of the school, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson). The plot isn't surprising, but it's not meant to be: McKee is a revolutionary in this genre because he actually wants you to care about the characters and where they end up. I can only imagine that it was dumped on DVD because it wasn't a horror film in the mold of Saw, Hostel, or The Hills Have Eyes remake. The gore is kept at bay until the grand guignol finale, which is still as abstract and impressionistic as something out of Jigoku or another Japanese ghost story of the 60's.

The Old Dark House (U.S., 1932) * * * 1/2
D: James Whale

Now here's a horror film that's short on sense and thoroughly charming. Some tourists travelling through Wales become trapped by a landslide on the proverbial dark and stormy night, and are forced to take shelter in a home where they're not welcome: a family tormented by the psychotic Morgan (Boris Karloff), and unspoken personal demons. James Whale (Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), ever the artist, combines elegant camera shots that evoke German expressionism with wry, Thin Man-style comedy. It's a wisp of a film but it glows.

The Tenant (France, 1976) * * * 1/2
D: Roman Polanski

The highlight of last year's horror marathon was a Times Cinema screening of Rosemary's Baby on Halloween; this year I showed my wife The Tenant, which seems to be a reimagining of that film with Polanski playing the Mia Farrow role, and with a twist to the premise: that nothing supernatural is happening at all, and that our protagonist is simply unravelling. Of course, toying with that theory is one of the things that makes Rosemary's Baby so enjoyable; but The Tenant reminds you that Polanski is, after all, an adamant atheist and skeptic, and paints a picture that is harsher, riskier, but just as darkly satirical. Polanski himself plays Trelkovsky, an introverted Polish immigrant who moves into an apartment previously rented by a woman who threw herself out the window. Bossed by his "friends," lectured and threatened by his fellow tenants (who cannot tolerate the slightest noise), he eventually begins to unravel and lose his sense of identity--and begins to think that he's becoming the former tenant. And this was Polanski's follow-up to Chinatown! He's coming off the height of his craft, and will shortly be trapped by a scandal that will haunt the rest of his career, but The Tenant is a polished little indulgence, a whim by a director who seems incapable of making a bad film (although I haven't watched Pirates in many years).

The Hills Have Eyes (U.S., 1977) * * *
D: Wes Craven

This is one I caught on the Independent Film Channel a few years ago when they were running a streak of horror films of the "independent" persuasion such as Martin, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and even Argento's Deep Red. This one stuck out as a film made on a very low budget but using its limitations as its strengths. It takes its time setting the stage and gets you to invest emotionally in the characters, whether you realize you're doing it or not; you may cringe at the racism and bullheadedness of this vacationing family's patriarch, but it only builds your sympathy for those who have to put up with him. As the family's camper breaks down in a dead-end road in the middle of the Nevada desert, and becomes the target of some radiation-affected cannibals hiding in the hills, you agonize over their deaths, which don't come in quite the expected order. (There's also genuine tension because a helpless infant is involved.) After watching this film a second time, I was struck by how much grief the film contained: when a member of the family dies, the others react very realistically--they don't just pick up and move on. But this isn't torture to sit through. It's a smart thriller that's not short on social comment--and unlike Wes Craven's earlier hit, The Last House on the Left, this is fairly unpretentious commentary, worked naturally into the narrative, that I can swallow. It's also answers the question of what a horror film directed by Sam Peckinpah might look like (watch this and Straw Dogs back to back, if you can stomach it).

Hostel (U.S., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Eli Roth

Roth directed Cabin Fever, an empty, if diverting, funhouse; this follow-up was much more financially successful (Roth is filming a sequel), and it has a little more substance, but it sacrifices logic along the way. The premise, at least, nicely locks into the current cultural and political climate, as some of the best horror films do: two college kids, accompanied by an Israeli tourist, look for sex and drugs in Amsterdam, then take a tip to Eastern Europe to visit a secluded town and a hostel supposedly occupied by hot, easy women. At first it seems that their dreams will be realized, but the hostel is actually a venus flytrap in which those with enough money can pay to torture the captured tourists. (It costs the most to torture an American, which is why these kids are so highly prized; but the most sadistic torturer in the film is, significantly, an American businessman out to get some thrills.) Ultimately, Roth is talented but immature. That adolescent immaturity serves him well in the opening half, but the final scenes are illogical and over-the-top, if not just stupid. The best scenes exist right in the middle, as the two protagonists begin to sense that there's something sinister just below the surface, and try to find their missing Israeli friend, and I will say that this is the one film of the marathon whose disturbing images wouldn't leave my head after I watched it, whatever that's worth.

The Return of the Vampire (U.S., 1944) * * *
D: Lew Landers

Noticeably misguided by the monster mashups of the 40's (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and so on), this knockoff of the Universal horror pictures is still far more interesting and entertaining than it has any right to be. It's most notable for being a Bela Lugosi vampire movie: Lugosi actually seldom played vampires after Dracula, being afraid of typecasting (career-wise, he should have embraced it instead). Here, he is Armand Tesla, an occult historian who plots vampiric domination from his headquarters in a foggy cemetery, and served by a werewolf (the makeup rips off the Jack Pierce work on Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man). The whole thing takes place in England during the war, and the Nazi blitzkrieg of London is actually worked into the plot. You forgive its weaknesses because of its fast pace and interesting digressions; it has more atmosphere than many of the Universal cash-ins from this period, and, despite its setting and Lugosi's advancing age, has some of the quality of a 30's horror film like Dracula's Daughter.

Masters of Horror: Imprint (U.S., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Takashi Miike

I might raise this rating in another month, since with each passing day I become convinced its a better film than it seemed while I was watching it. Miike is the Japanese auteur so prolific that the IMDB currently credits him with 70 films made since his debut in 1991. He is not strictly a horror director, although his imagery and subject matter in his horror, gangster, and action films are so extreme and shocking that he has quickly become the crowned king of "Asia Extreme," the Americanized term for those Hong Kong and Japanese directors who seem to try to top each other in tackling the taboo. The best film of Miike's I've seen is Audition, which I would readily recommend to the adventurous. He's also made Visitor Q, a film that made me want to scrub my eyes and brain with heavy-duty soap. Showtime elected not to air his episode of Masters of Horror in the United States (it went on in the U.K.), but that's a shame, because his contribution to the palette of the series' "horror" is invaluable. Anyway, the only thing that keeps my opinion harsh on this installment is the performance of American star Billy Drago (the rest of the cast is Japanese, speaking English, sometimes brokenly)--it's simply one of the worst performances ever put on film. But this twisting ghost story is beautiful to look at, even in its many grotesque scenes, as it recounts the horrible history of two prostitutes in a netherworldly brothel.

The Devil's Backbone (Spain, 2001) * * * 1/2
D: Guillermo del Toro

Del Toro is a true "master of horror," though he hasn't contributed to the Showtime series. He began making films in Mexico, with the vampire film Chronos, and made his American debut with the monster movie Mimic. Before making his excellent comic book adaptation of Hellboy, he released this film under the radar. Set at the end of the Spanish Civil War, it begins as a young boy, Carlos, is abandoned at an orphanage/private school in the middle of the desert; an unexploded bomb sits upright in the center of the courtyard, menacingly. As Carlos attempts to fit in with the other children, he quickly becomes aware of another presence in the ancient building--the ghost of a child, who seems to be seeking Carlos out. The film is co-produced by Pedro Almodovar, and one can almost feel his hand on the film: it's a film of warmth and humanity, with richly developed characters and a nostalgic sense of childhood tempered by tragic violence. But Del Toro deserves all the credit, and the vivid cinematography and the ghoulish sensibility are entirely his. Like the best ghost stories, it really has a gripping story to tell about histories, tragedy, and greed.

Masters of Horror: The Damned Thing (U.S., 2006) * *
D: Tobe Hooper

Hooper is a long way from his best work--The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Poltergeist (1982)--and his episode from the first season's Masters of Horror was pretty mediocre. "The Damned Thing," the premiere episode of the second season, is much better, but still a distance from anything worthwhile. The story--reportedly based on an Ambrose Bierce story, though I have no idea how faithful it is--begins well, as a family shares warm laughter around a dinner table, and then, a minute later, some black matter drips on the father's hand, he panics, swears that "the damned thing" is back, and shoots his wife with a shotgun. After pursuing his son into the yard, he is ripped apart by an invisible creature. But from there, the story and characters become sketchy: the boy has grown into Sean Patrick Flannery (from "Young Indiana Jones"), and his wife has left him because he's never fully recovered from his childhood tragedy. His paranoia becomes justified as strange, sudden bursts of violence and erratic behavior begin to afflict the townspeople, eventually leading to riots and murder. Pretty quickly. Perhaps if another half hour were added to the middle of the film, it might feel more like a complete story: we need to know these people in order for their mental breakdowns to affect us. Still, while I might shrug off the climax, the very final shot takes Hooper's latest pet technique--blurring and distorting the image while the camera shakes, to emulate chaos--into the realm of the pure abstract. As a family is attacked in their car, shattered glass flies about the frame and almost seems to hover, while we hear feral growls and terrified screams. Nothing much else to find interesting here.

Night Watch (Russia, 2004) * * *
D: Timur Bekmambetov

The first of a planned trilogy (the second installment has already been released in Russia), this adaptation of a Russian fantasy novel begins with visions of an epic war between the people of the "light" and the people of the "dark," and it really looks like a lower-budgeted Lord of the Rings. But it's not that kind of a fantasy. After the dense narration drops us off in the present day, we begin to follow the story of Anton Gorodetsky, a reluctant agent of the "Night Watch"--supernatural creatures, living among humans, who keep a close eye on those creatures whose sinister activities take place at night. You know, vampires and such. With its bitter humor and sensational camera work, this actually reminded me of the Hungarian film from last year, Kontroll (about subway ticket-takers who work third shift). The supernatural elements are fascinating at first, particularly in the elliptical, unexpected way that they're introduced--my favorite is the girl who has been trapped in the form of an owl--but eventually it all adds up to a silly clash on a rooftop that's straight out of a Highlander film. Here's hoping the sequels foster the imaginative side, instead; so far, it's a great introduction, and now we just need to see these characters take a journey.

Session 9 (U.S., 2001) * * *
D: Brad Anderson

I have a soft spot for haunted house films, and one of my best Halloweens was spent watching The Legend of Hell House, The Haunting, and The House on Haunted Hill almost back-to-back. Session 9 is a haunted house film with some significant differences: the haunted house is an abandoned mental institution that dates back to the 19th century; it's a real place, and was really shot there; and the characters are not psychics or detectives, but working-class asbestos removers. I've always wished more horror directors would pick up where Stanley Kubrick left off with The Shining, and it's a pleasure to see that Brad Anderson's doing it. Granted, sometimes he copies a little too closely (title cards announcing the day of the week, for example), but the important thing is that he captures the stillness of a haunted house, and gives the audience time to wonder what might be lurking around the corner or at the end of a dark hallway. For much of the film, nothing happens at all. They bicker. They eat lunch. They complain about each other's music. They remove asbestos. But one of their number begins to investigate the recording archives in his spare time, working his way through each of the nine interview sessions with a young woman with multiple personalities. Another of their team seems to be mentally unravelling. They only work during the day, but when one of them decides to visit at night...well, this movie scared the hell out of me, and for that I recommend it.

The Crazies (U.S., 1973) * * *
D: George A. Romero

Sort of a sequel to Night of the Living Dead a few years before he made its real sequel, this has no zombies, but follows the same theme of the disintegration of a society in the face of a viral threat. The specific point is made that the military and government structure that is meant to contain and eliminate a plague outburst actually just exacerbates the chaos; the problem, you see, is that there's no way to tell who's been infected and who hasn't. One day, as in "The Damned Thing", someone simply has a breakdown and begins killing. But unlike Hooper's film, Romero doesn't spend a lot of time on dramatic mental breakdowns. He's more concerned with how functioning societies fall apart. You see this in microcosm, as we follow a group of townspeople attempting to escape from the quarantined area by travelling across the countryside, and in macrocosm, as government officials and scientists talk past each other and get caught up in the panicking mob. An effective and intelligent low-budget thriller, proving Romero was way ahead of his B-movie peers.

Vampire Circus (U.K., 1972) * * *
D: Robert Young

Halloween began with a late-period Hammer studios horror film. The plot begins with a lengthy prologue in which a vampiric count is slain by a mob (he has been seducing the wives of the villagers), his mistress/victim brutally beaten. She vows revenge and keeps his body preserved in a cave. Over a decade later, the revenge is enacted upon the children of the mob, and the retribution comes in the form of the titular circus, which offers disconcerting magic tricks such as animals turning into people right before the eyes of the audience. (There's a lot of nudity and body paint, bringing to mind Cirque de Soleil--another circus of vampires.) I wanted to watch something light, cheesy, entertaining, and Halloweenish while dealing with trick or treaters, and this sufficed nicely, though it's considerably more sexy and gory, by turns, than I'd remembered.

Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria [from Fantasia] (U.S., 1940)
D: Wilfred Jackson

Iconic Halloween entertainment, this: I vividly remember it playing during the Halloween specials on either the Magical World of Disney ABC network show or on the Disney Channel, squeezed between similarly holiday-themed shorts from the Disney studios circa the 1940's. We watched this segment between films to enhance the mood. I maintain that Fantasia is the greatest animated film ever made.

House of Usher (U.S., 1960) * * 1/2
D: Roger Corman

TCM was showing Vincent Price movies all night; we passed on The Masque of the Red Death, which we actually saw theatrically about two years ago, for the second feature, another Poe/Corman film, House of Usher. This has a really impressive pedigree: not just the presence of Corman and Price, but a faithful script by Richard Matheson and a score by Les Baxter. The only problem is that the script is too faithful (a mistake Corman wouldn't repeat, certainly). It just doesn't have enough plot to sustain feature length. Another problem is that the pivotal character of Madeline is treated like a typical 50's glamour queen; she should look empty of life, decimated. But the finale is handled well, and there's something very pleasing and comforting about watching an old dark house film with Vincent Price--and shot in Scope, with bright colors. You've also got to dig those paintings of all of Roderick Usher's relatives...straight out of Disney's Haunted Mansion ride!

Çarşamba, Ekim 25, 2006

Witches' Hammer

Witches' Hammer (Czech Republic, 1969) * * * 1/2
D: Otakar Vavra

At one point in Otakar Vavra's document of a 17th Century witch hunt in the Czech Republic, an accused witch, tied to a stake, screams through rising smoke, "I was made to acknowledge my guilt! I was tortured for nine days." The Inquisitor, watching the proceedings with the esteemed lady of the estate, assures her, "That's a lie. She was interrogated with the usual application of thumb-screws and boot. Of course, that's quite common."

In October 2006 it's difficult to watch this scene without thinking immediately of the Bush administration's queasy attempt to redefine the word "torture" as well as the Geneva Conventions, with the intent of interrogating accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons abroad. A common argument levelled by critics of the administration is one that forms the central obsession of Vavra's powerful film: when someone is tortured, they will say anything. The information should not be acted upon. Furthermore, it is more likely to be inaccurate and spoken only to cease the torture.

What does torture really mean? The Inquisitor, one Boblig of Edelstadt, believes that thumb-screws are not torture, but in his own secret court he applies even crueller punishments, so perhaps he only parses the word out of diplomatic respect in the presence of fine persons. Say what you want in the light of day, as long as you can do what you wish at night. The lady certainly doesn't want to hear any of it. The Bishop, who appointed him, remains aloof and deliberately separate from Boblig's witch-hunt, only expressing alarm when his friends attempt to defend those who have been accused of witchcraft. Forming an argument about the method of torture is meaningless when the one person in the position to stop it will end the conversation at the mention of the word "witch." Everyone outside of Boblig's immediate court clears a path out of fear. Those within, like Boblig himself, indulge in every hypocrisy because they gain the spoils of the hunt.

It's a matter of social climbing, and Vavra might overstate his case, for he has made Boblig the central character of his story, and follows the man from a filth-covered innkeeper (retired from a position as director of Inquisitions) to the most powerful man in the community, wallowing in his greed, throwing feasts for his close friends; meanwhile, they plot to see whose estate they can claim next by accusing the owner of sodomy with Satan at nearby "Peter's Rock." Inquisitions are expensive, Boblig carefully explains when he is first interviewed for the job, but Inquisitions pay for themselves, as the witches' belongings and homes are claimed for the court. When a skeptic scoffs, "A fat lot we'd get out of those beggars," he makes clear that he has no idea how quickly the flames of a witch-hunt can spread, and how lucrative it can really be. Soon Boblig is deliberately targeting enemies and anyone for whose power or privelege he's become jealous. Those who express a privately-whispered protest are reassured that Boblig has "forty years' experience." And anyone who speaks up to defend an accused is immediately put under suspicion: why would you defend someone in league with Satan, who already has a flock of bloody-thumbed witnesses?

"Witch" is the sensitive word. "Witch" is the word to seize power. It might be "terrorist," or, if that doesn't grant you what you need, "enemy combatant." Every law has loopholes. In fact, in one scene the Deacon, the man with the firmest moral integrity in the narrative, and the rare religious man with a deep and studious regard for law and science, pulls one of Boblig's books from the shelf to directly point out the very loopholes that allow Boblig to torture his accused, promise them cessation and peace if they name names, and burn them at the stake anyway.

The Deacon is the subject of intense, if unspoken, jealousy by Boblig and others in Velke Losiny because of his ravishing young cook. He's single, and much is read into their relationship; in fact, much of it is true, but he is still one of the most respected men in the community. He has actually ended their affair to devote himself to his duties as a clergyman, but, as he says late in the film, he will not discuss his relationship with God to the lowly ones who deal with the Inquisitor. He is brought down. First his friends, then the young cook are taken before the court and tortured into confessions. When he is arrested, he asks to see his accusers, assured that they will not lie to his face. In the most compelling scene in the film, each is brought before him, accusing him, then begging for forgiveness. He studies their bloodied limbs, forgives them, and refuses to admit anything to Boblig. Finally, the cook begins repeating the testimony that has been scripted for her by the wardens, but can't bring herself to address the Deacon directly with the lies; when she sees him, she breaks down. Then the Deacon is taken away.

Vavra is clearly influenced by Carl Theodor Dreyer (which is like saying that a novelist is influenced by The Odyssey--who isn't?), but the parallels to The Passion of Joan of Arc extend from the loving (and economically necessary) use of black-and-white, to the close-ups of anguished faces, and to the fact that much of the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from transcripts. Still, the license of the Czech New Wave allows him to illustrate more explicitly the motivations of the cruel men. He begins with our narrator--a fevered man sitting in a dark cell, describing in sordid and too-fantastic detail the methods of Satan's disciples--whispering, "Sin reached the world through woman. Woman is sin." We are quickly shown a woman's fully nude form slipping out of a bath, and Vavra cuts across this giddy utopia of nude or semi-nude women bathing, gossiping, nursing, laughing. In the early scene in the church, there's a throwaway shot of a female at worship, her hands folded in prayer squeezing against her chest, while the parishioner standing next to her steals a furtive glance of the moving breasts. Later these passions will be freed for all the priveleged who sit on Boblig's court, as they leeringly inspect the pretty young cook for the Devil's mark. While Vavra might initiate you into the sin game in the opening scene, he's not in the exploitation business; the opening scene is poetic, lively--the later scenes acting as a righteous call for outrage.

Mercilessly, this play happens as it happened, and travels along to its necessary, despairing and cynical end-point. Boblig, rising drunkenly from his banquet table, the others passed out from the orgy, almost addresses the camera when he declares that now no man is above him. Was it all just a matter of wounded ego? In fact, the witch-hunt began in the smallest imaginable manner: an old woman steals away her sacrament in a folded cloth; when questioned by the furious clergymen, she says a witch instructed her to give it to her cow, so that it would give milk again. Although the Deacon tries to assure everyone that local superstitions are common and harmless, he isn't heeded, and the wheel is set rolling.

It can be a bit heavy-handed, as any screed can be, but Vavra's approach is, for the most part, measured. The film clips along, and he finds ways of sharply defining even minor characters--everyone has a moral crisis, for in the days of a witch-hunt, everyone must choose a side. When Vavra calls for outrage in the film's final scenes of torture, you're ready to take your marching orders. There are no witches. The Devil, as the Deacon tries vainly to explain, is only in the hand that harms.

The existing, 2003 U.S. DVD from Facets is badly in need of an upgrade. The titles are lazy and fail to keep up with the action, not to mention riddled with grammatical errors; the packaging is absurdly exploitative, rewriting this stunning film as Euro-sleaze for the grindhouse theaters. It's still worth hunting down.