Young Torless (1966)

30 06 2008

There is nothing wrong with this film per se, but it is not all that exciting. It is certainly a lot better than Volker Schlöndorff’s woeful Lost Honor of Katharina Blum but as far as I’m concerned nothing really groundbreaking is going here, except for the fact that it was one of the first legimately personal German films in a long time. That’s pretty much the only reason this seems to still be considered relevant. Alexander Kluge made Yesterday Girl only two years later, and that film is about a hundred times more innovative. Still, its hard to write the film off for not being as ahead of its time as its peers. Its nice for what it is worth, but history has exaggerated its accomplishment.

Thomas Torless is sent to a boarding school by his parents. He is the new guy but he manages to fit in rather well. In the mean time, his peer, Basini, does anything but. Its bad enough that his debts begin to pile on, but its worse how he must pay them back. Torless’ friends, Beineberg and Reiting make Basini their slave and violently torture him. Torless wants to help but the peer pressue is too great and he begins to become a helpless observer.

To begin, the main character seems rather boring. Like all of his classmates he worries about how much time he is wasting in such a sterile environment. As this angst festers, Torless begins to fall into every dissatisfied youngster film cliché. His hormones are a-ragin’ but he’s too shy to act them out in quite possibly the film’s brightest moment: Torless and his friend visit the household of a waitress who freely whores herself out. The rest of the film trots along in a rather predictable fashion supported by nothing aesthetically defiant. This not a complete disaster, though. Simply a neat not-so-profound study of teenage angst. The sort of film I may have loved many moons ago, but it feels slightly immature at this point.

Wrong Move (1975)

30 06 2008

Another great effort from Wenders. While it is not quite as fantastic as Kings of the Road, it is certainly in the same ballpark. The nice black and white cinematography is gone and replaced by a rather dull color scheme but it seems, at the very least, that Wenders’ heart is in the right place. Like Kings, this is a wonderful Antonioni-esque road movie. There’s more talking in this case, but its redeemed by a much less eventful narrative. Even though it would come two years later, I can’t help but think of this as something like Stroszek …on the road.

Wilheim, a quiet young man still living with his mother is eager to begin a career as a writer. His mother, always being supportive, buys him a train ticket to Bonn to live life, or perhaps simply provide some writing material. On the train, he meets a nose-bleeding ex-athlete, Laertes, and a teenage mute acrobat, Mignon. Mignon almost immediately takes a liking to Wilheim, but unfortunately, his interest lies with Therese, an actress. Therese and young poet named Bernard eventually join the gang as they confront their feelings on modern alienation, among other topics.

Though it is ultimately not the better film, this does have an even greater focus on loneliness than Kings of the Road. Yes, the characters talk in a flawless manner (not unlike In a Year of 13 Moons, actually) but they at least seem to have trouble completely comprehending their thoughts. In fact, this actually becomes a major topic in some of Wilheim’s conversations. The material is definitely heavy and ponderous, but it comes off naturally. One gets the sense that the characters themselves are coming up with their philosophical prose, as opposed to the filmmakers using them as mouthpieces. Its funny that even though this is not an outright “philosophical” film, it manages to touch upon subjects later expressed more fully in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which oddly enough, has a very similar visual style.

It’s clearly a matter of taste, but alas, I am not particularly fond of that muddy 70s look, especially when it is quite obvious that Muller and Wenders could produce such fantastic results in black and white. The presence of Hanna Schygulla (her only collaboration with Wenders) may negate these problems. Just like in her earliest Fassbinder role, she has a wonderfully cold detached sensibility. Fitting considering the appearance of a Straub / Huillet film on TV later in the film. Nastassja Kinski is even better and seems like someone out of a Leos Carax film. I suppose this can be dismissed on the account that her character is a mute but that only makes her all the more captivating. She is the perfect neutralizing element for a film that is fairly dry and talky but somehow spontaneous.

In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)

30 06 2008

After watching of pair of quickly composed Fassbinder films (Rio Das Mortes and Pioneers) it was quite nice to watch an effort with a more accomplished visual style. I’m no stranger to late era Fassbinder, but visually this is extremely impressive. In fact, it might be the single best-looking film of his entire career. Where the aforementioned films were more interesting in a narrative sense but crudely put together, this is almost the complete opposite. There’s more than a few overly-long sequences of people speaking far too eloquently about their feelings. I suppose this could be Fassbinder’s Life of Oharu as it is his most visually accomplished feature (just like Oharu is Mizoguchi’s) and while it does tone down the usual amount of Fassbinder melodrama, it is ultimately a bit too downbeat to provoke a particularly strong response.

The opening sequence introduces us to the general tone of not only the film, but Elviria’s life in general. She, formerly a he, goes to find herself a male prostitute for companionship but is beaten and mocked in the process. She returns home to find that her lover, Cristoph, is leaving her. She begs for him to stay, but he violently refuses. She begins to wander around town, meeting up with her pal Zora.

It is at this point in the film that characters begin to nonsensically spout exposition. While the narrative remains riveting, it begins to slow down its pace and starts to rely solely on the monologues for which ever character seems to have within themselves. Thankfully, this is one of Fassbinder’s best photographed films. Perhaps it be a little harsh to say the only saving grace is the cinematography, but in all honesty nothing seems more positive. At the very least, I can respect the film for simply presenting a very personal story but even then, its executed in a rather mundane fashion. Then again, there’s some people who love this but think Love is Colder than Death is mundane and that is probably my favorite Fassbinder. As for this, it is a very accomplished film but essentially too talkative for the rest of the film to reflect the greatness of the visuals.

Passing Summer (2001)

29 06 2008

At last, Angela Schanelec has made a film that is truly reflective of her technical capabilities. Her later efforts, Marseille and Afternoon, are all crafted with an obvious understanding of the “nuts and bolts” of cinema but on the other hand, have felt slightly less perspective on the more abstract aspect of cinema: people. This film, however, is a perfect example of capturing the fleeting moments of happiness and enjoyment in life, juxtaposed to the true harshness that makes up most of one’s existence. Within the limited scope of eighty minutes, it fleshes out a plethora of characters, all treated with the highest amount of respect. Calling it an Ozu film for the twenty-first century would only begin to describe Schanelec’s accomplishment.

The film opens to a static shot of two women, Valerie and Sophie, at a coffee shop discussing the lives of people which we are completely unfamiliar with. Their chat is not expository, but rather the first signs of Schanelec’s observational approach. Not unlike Hong Sang-Soo’s most recent films, Schanelec often keeps the camera lingering on superficially unimportant conversations. It is these sequences that help build one’s idea of a certain character. I specifically say one’s idea as every person is handled so truthfully and by result, so abstractly, that one’s own conclusions can only be opinion. Perhaps this is true of most serious character-driven films, but the way in which Schanelec portrays every character is a way that is so full and yet, completely free of any prejudices. Every character really is a portrait, their own living and breathing creature, which leads to the main Ozu parallel.

Ozu’s aesthetic has been essentially dead since the director’s own passing, or perhaps sense Naruse’s but the influence of both has clearly been evident in the film world for as long as I can personally remember. Yoji Yamada and Hou Hsiao-Hsien make very “Ozu-like” films, but neither are slavish imitators. Now, I’m not saying Schanelec is a slavish imitator but rather that her abilities to fully realize every little detail, whether it be an alive one or not, is the true essence of Ozu’s intentions. Lots of directors try to do this, but none are as successful as Schanelec is with this film. The reason being that the balance of humanity is so delicate that the slightest emotionally disagreement can ruin one’s connection to a film. This was certainly true of my first experience with Schanelec’s own Afternoon, which I could relate to on a basic level but resisted due to the character’s ability to reach points where they were so confident in expressing their feelings. More than just suffering a break from realism, such “feelings talk” just breaks my own connection with a cinematic person.

Passing Summer, on the other hand, features none of this. Instead, every character has not only a difficult time expressing themselves, but also a difficult time comprehending the context of their existence. In one of the most breathtakingly poignant sequences of all-time, a character mentions that she “didn’t want things to change” which personally, hits all to close to home. We never want things to change, it seems. We all want to stay in our comfort zones, in our old habits, in our daily routine. Whether or not these ways of living make us happy or not seems irrelevant. Never is one eager to make a commitment or break a habit.

The film points to all these questions and like all great works of art, gives no definite answers. But the way in which Schanelec comes upon them is never artificial or dramatized. Every single thing about her masterpiece rings true but at the same time, it never sinks to the low of personal motivation or even wish fulfillment. It simply ends and in the process, gives the world one of the most perfect example of life in the twenty first century and all the complications that come with it. Simply stated, one of the greatest films of all-time and a perfect example of cinema’s power.

T-Men (1947)

29 06 2008

While this isn’t quite as mature as Mann’s later Westerns, it is also much more daring in a sense. For sure, there is a greater sense of stylistic indulgence. In addition, this was quite obviously made for a lot less money than a film like say, The Tin Star, and thus there is an inherent level of fakeness, a “B-movie sensibility” if you will. But all of that is rather superficial and a way, kind of charming. For all the blue screens and cheap sets, Mann and Alton still manage to craft as much cinematic beauty in each frame, enough so that their visual grace can rival even the artiest of directors.

As usual with Mann’s films, describing the plot would almost imply a very negative reaction, but I’ll attempt to do so anyway. Two treasury agents go undercover to break up a thriving counterfeiting organization. In the process, they become increasingly involved in the city’s “seedy underbelly.” In other words, a pretty textbook noir setup. However, some credit should be do in the efforts to downplay the Hollywood conventions of a cause and effect type of narrative. While this is certainly no nuanced or deep character study, it also isn’t an overly eventful or shrill melodrama.

The “inexperience” on Mann’s part lends the film some of its most inspired moments. There seems to be a complete misunderstanding, or perhaps disinterest, in conventional pacing. In that sense, I’m somewhat reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog which would come out only a couple years later. Like Kurosawa, Mann seems like someone who has heard movies described to him, but never actually seen one himself. This isn’t an criticism, instead its a compliment. For as (seemingly) conventional as the narrative is, it is executed with a disregard for the “right” way to make a movie. A great example is the fact that Mann rarely falls under the spell of the “shot/reverse shot” style and instead, allows Alton’s picture-esque cinematography to linger for prolonged periods of time. Calling this the first “minimalist” film might be exaggerating its strength, but it certainly has an austere sensibility.

On the other hand, the inclusion of voiceover narration does send the film down a few pegs. There’s some many problems with it, alone, that it makes me terribly angry just to think about. First of all, the voice itself is completely sterile and boring, not unlike the voice in NFL Films presentations from the early sixties. I suppose if there had been an attempt to add personality, the results would have been even worse. Then again, I guess that is the problem with a third-person voice of God style of narration. The voiceover seems to annoyingly disappear for fairly long stretches of the film. While its absence is welcomed, its eventual return seems all the more silly. I suppose this isn’t a really big factor in the grand scheme of things but it does stand as a giant wart on the film’s otherwise perfectly smoothed face.

Nagarik (1952)

25 06 2008

A wonderfully crafted family drama in the same vein of Mikio Naruse and Tran Anh Hung, but also one that is ultimately too single-minded in its efforts at being bleak and unsettling. That said, it is a might impressive film, especially considering that it is Ritwik Ghatak’s debut. The attempts at poetry are a bit over the top, but then again, this is 1951. The way in which the more poetic touches blend in with the otherwise very straight-forward / slice of life aesthetic is groundbreaking, if not entirely revolutionary. Of course, Ghatak’s colleague, Satyajit Ray would (sort of) perfect a similar story in his debut Pather Panchali but this is still more than worth while.

The Babu family has recently been demoted to “middle class” status. They all struggle to adjust with fond of memories of their more extravagant life planted deeply within in their minds. The family must now depend on the son, Ramu, to provide financial report. He applies for a job, but a decision isn’t to be made until the end of the month. He remains optimistic, however, and promises to get his family back on track by the end of the month. The other family members see things a bit differently, though. Mother is skeptical and irritated, not only by Ramu’s unrealistic visions but also by the persistence of the land lord. As he attempts to restore the family order, Ramu must also juggle his relationship with Uma. In the mean time, a guest (sent by a family friend) arrives to ease the financial burdens.

Within the course of the first twenty minutes, Ghatak sets up what seems to be a simple family drama. Not unlike Ozu (or Naruse), he carefully establishes all the intricacies found in a typical day of a family. Upon this setup, though, the conflict is dramatically thrown into play. The family is struggling and they have to depend on their eldest son to provide financial support. Now, the focus is on Ramu and we get somewhat of a angsty young adult sensibility. The calendar motif definitely has the same sort of touch that the tea cup has in Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. This is all absolutely fine.

Then, Ghatak has to return back to the general life of the family. The sequences that depict the family confrontations are much more stale in comparison. Never do the conversations seem like anything more than just slightly articulate whining. When characters constantly present a “woe is me” things begin to feel a little dramatized. Its not that the situation that the Babu family is in should be downplayed but its just that the film tries so hard to get across just how terrible a life of poverty is. Instead of having characters constantly repeat lines attempt to beat in the tragedy, it could have been shown visually. Ghatak does have a good eye for visuals, but perhaps it is the rather supar print quality that dilutes this strength.

The Furies (1950)

25 06 2008

More proof here that Anthony Mann really is a fantastic filmmaker. I absolutely loved The Tin Star but still felt more than a little skeptical going in to this one. While there are obviously some inherently bad signs of classic Hollywood filmmaking, this is still a very personal and accomplished work. Its very likely that Mann would have preferred to do something completely removed from the boundaries of a genre, but would never get such financing. Is this film melodramatic? Certainly, but it never bothers taking itself down a serious, dreary, and bleak path that so many modern “serious dramas” tend to do.

To explain the plot of The Furies would be somewhat of an insult to the movie. There’s an unintentionally hilarious “review” from TVGuide which quickly pieces together the main thrust of the narrative. By doing so, however, is to give a very false impression of the film. It is to Mann’s credit that these events all happen rather slowly, and the “plot points” are all patched by “pointless” scenes. Of course, these “pointless” scenes are one of Mann’s strongest points. He is certainly not on the same level of the character portraits by Yasujiro Ozu, or Mikio Naruse but he is fairly close. Plus, it should go without saying that there is the irresistible influence of classic Hollywoodisms.

Even more credit should go to the very strong visual sense, which is more often than not, overlooked in films of this type. Interestingly enough, this was actually shot by Victor Milner and not Mann’s frequent collaborator, John Alton. As this is one of Mann’s very first westerns, it marks the turning point in his career when he went from a steady string of film noirs (most of which were shot by Alton) to his now famous “psychological” westerns. The visual style is reflective of this transition, as, if anything, it still feels grounded in the shadowy cinematography of his earlier films but with a new location. In other words, totally brilliant. Some will be turned off by the melodramatic trapping from the era, but those that sit through it will be greatly rewarded.