The Spirit of the Beehive (Spain, 1973) * * * *
D: Victor Erice
I'm seeing more movies at the Wisconsin Film Festival this year than in any previous year, but it was only today that I realized I'm seeing a curious amount of films from the 1970's. Most people go to film festivals to see new films, but I always end up gravitating toward the revivals. Some of my fondest WIFF memories over the last couple of years involve revivals--A Hard Day's Night with a Roger Ebert-hosted discussion afterward, Au Hasard Balthazar, and even Giant Spider Invasion. The Spirit of the Beehive I've seen before, but only on a battered old VHS tape from Four Star Video; the film had been unavailable for many years until Criterion's recent DVD release. To see it on the big screen--or, at any rate, the Cinematheque's screen--elevated my already high opinion of the film. This film is also one of those that undoubtedly gets richer upon each viewing. Set in a poor Castillian village in 1940, immediately following the Spanish Civil War, the story largely concerns two very young girls--Ana (Ana Torrent) and her slightly older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria)--who live with their parents on the outskirts of town and on the edge of a deep, dark woods, and an expansive, empty field. It's a perfectly allegorical setting for a film that treats the subject of death with both painfully accurate realism, as the girls explore a youthful curiosity toward mortality, and striking beauty. As with the films of Bresson, Erice demonstrates how cinema can be more poetry than prose. At the start of the film, we see the village gather excitedly when a print of James Whale's Frankenstein arrives in town; young and old watch in rapt attention, including Ana, who asks Isabel why the monster killed a girl, and why the monster itself was subsequently killed. Isabel concocts an improvised tall tale, convincing her that neither of them died (movies are fake, she says, echoing the "don't treat it too seriously" reassurances of Frankenstein's opening narrator), and that Frankenstein's monster is really an immortal spirit who lives in an abandoned building by the railroad tracks. This sets Ana on a journey to find the creature, as she looks fearlessly into death and wanders to the very limits of her surroundings. There isn't a frame of this film which isn't preoccupied with its central subject, and despite the film's deliberate pace, not a moment is wasted as it lures you into its world and brings you gradually to its brilliant final scene. It would make a fascinating double feature with Terry Gilliam's Tideland (2006), which evokes similar themes and images and also concerns a young girl, although the two films couldn't be more different in tone.
Radio On (U.K., 1979) * *
D: Christopher Petit
I didn't know what to expect of this fairly obscure British film, written and directed by a film critic for Time Out and photographed by Martin Schaefer, the late cinematographer of Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road. You would expect a Wenders style given the subject matter--a DJ sets off on a trip to Brighton after his brother is found there, dead in a bathtub--but in fact he doesn't spend too much time on the road, and despite some tonal similarities to early Wenders (in particular The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick), it seemed to me that director Christopher Petit was after Antonioni instead. This is trying to be L'Eclisse or The Passenger for the bitter, disenfranchised British youths of the late 70's. For all that, it's not bad, but hardly a lost classic. Lead actor David Beames would seem to have more charisma than this film will allow, as Petit fiercely holds him back, and asks him to spend quite a bit of the running time pacing with his hands in his trenchcoat, kicking at rocks. The effect is not that he's aimless or tormented, but that he's waiting for something to happen. Nothing much ever does. He picks up a strangely violent hitchhiker along the way--then amusingly tries to ditch him; he talks rock and roll with a very young Sting; he tries unsuccessfully to get into a Brighton club; he meets two German girls. It's all understated to the point of being affected. More interesting is the way the landscape seems to be almost post-apocalyptic, like something out of Children of Men. I almost wonder if the film would have been more interesting as a punk science fiction film. As it is, it could use a few more ideas. It feels like a student film, as Petit imitates his idols but fails to find their insights. The soundtrack, which is given prominent billing in the film, features David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and many more.