The Classics: Chapter 9 – The Dead (1987)

thedeadForty years after seminal classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston made his masterpiece: this faithful (in the best sense of the word) adaptation of James Joyce’s iconic short story. The movie has the simplicity of a master who has nothing left to prove. Set in Dublin in 1904, it’s about a small gathering of friends and family during one bitter winter night. But inside there is great warmth. The setting is specific (there is talk of conservatism and Irish nationalism; emerging socialist rallies, etc.) but the feel is timeless: this could just as easily have taken place in some remote hut in the Middle Ages. The people gathered conjure the lost pleasures of hospitality and tradition. In Huston’s interpretation, they are not fakes—they’re not the petulant frauds of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouisie, unable to leave their table. Their enjoyment, their love of interaction and conversation, is genuine. But just when nostalgia seems to close in on us, something remarkable happens. You begin to see the human cost behind this ancient ritual, behind the idea of contentment and home. These people, with their broken dreams and hopes, their recollections, their laughter, their songs, with all their merriment: these are the dead. This world—this homely prison—is all they know, and they can’t break through the chains. Anjelica Huston is superb as the beautiful middle-aged woman who still clings to the memory of young love, which is more real to her than the present, more real than anything. Her longing threatens to undo her. Life has passed her by, as it has each and every one of them… and most will go into their graves without even this realization. There is a sense that the burgeoning world outside is no longer compatible with the warmth of the hearth. A movie of infinite compassion, it has equal affection for the young and the old, for the rebellious and the traditional, for the women who wither away in the name of servitude, for the monks who consume themselves in prayer. For the living and the dead… if there is such a distinction. This film is an old master’s passionate plea for life.

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The Classics: Chapter 8 – Apocalypse Now (1979)

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The culmination of the greatest period for American movies that began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. Coppola pushes the medium to its limits, and there are passages where the movie flies too close to the sun, when its genius threatens to self-destruct. In 1959, the Japanese director Kon Ichikawa released Fires on the Plain, his vision of war as hell and the human being as cannibal. Coppola takes these notions further and uses them in the context of the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now begins as a demonstration of Western moral hypocrisy. We watch as hypocrisy turns into crippling physical and spiritual corruption. (The degeneracy is so surreal that it’s comical.) Humanity is reduced to an idea; heroism is impossible; life itself becomes as irrational as death. But this anguished existentialism doesn’t begin to explain what the movie is about. This is a journey to the underworld, to the underbelly of primitive human seediness and horror. As we go deeper into the jungle, Coppola puts us face to face with an “otherness” that turns out to be no stranger at all: he confronts us with our own tribal nature. The condemnation is so complete that it makes our ideas of civilization and even evolution seem like a farce. And the only way to cope with the madness, as Brando’s Colonel Kurtz puts it, is through godless indifference. In Fires on the Plain humanity had devoured itself; in Apocalypse Now it eats itself and claims godly rights for doing so. This, Kurtz seems to be saying, is the natural state. Vittorio Storaro’s feverish cinematography suggests a world that is burning alive. And there are fascinating, unanswered riddles, like the lone tiger in the heart of the jungle, or the Buddha’s disquieting calm. (Has he gone into exile or is he watching us?) This movie has mythological power: it’s a true modern epic. American movies diminished in size after this, almost as if sensing Apocalypse Now had gone too far. It’s a perverse, flawed, uncomfortable masterpiece.

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola / 1979 / US

“Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

call meA near-masterpiece of abandon. Luca Guadagnino, possibly the most exciting Italian director in decades, conjures a period when European movies had yet to become uglified, realist “testaments” to cultural and moral decadence: Call Me By Your Name is as luminous as Renoir’s A Day in the Country; it reconciles Jan Troell’s love of nature with the hedonism of Bertolucci—bodies moving in the ruins. These are not the ruins of L’Avventura, where the half-dead met on a desert island to proclaim the Death of Europe. In Call Me By Your Name the ruins are alive, rife with promise. An ancient statue emerges from the water as if supernaturally summoned to the surface, its beauty catching us off guard. Far from an archaeology lesson, the scene offers the authentic pleasure of discovery and a feeling of rebirth. Guadagnino isn’t interested in crystallizing history; he doesn’t care for sharp contrasts or oppositions (Antiquity vs. Modernity, etc). History for him means living, breathing experience.

The movie takes place in Northern Italy during one fateful 1980s summer. It’s a love letter to the bond—lyrical, sexual, intellectual—between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and an older foreigner, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Chalamet’s performance as the restless, hyper-cultured Elio is one for the ages: half-aristocratic, half-bohemian, deceptively angelic and full of dazzling natural arrogance. (Oliver’s “coarseness” is a sort of aphrodisiac for him.) Elio’s father is an admirer of Praxiteles and his sculpting of the human form, of the human bodies “daring us to desire them.” Guadagnino’s Italian summer has bodies of its own, and they move nimbly in the landscape—a type of premoral Eden. This is the rare film where there is almost no tension, no “drama” of the standard kind, but a steady flow of discovery and, finally, transcendence.

For the movie to invoke the great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus is no small gesture. (Plato is omitted, left to his cave, same as the later Greek and Christian moralists.) Heraclitus’ doctrine of eternal change knows no martyrdom, no morality, no mawkish lamentation: and in one exultant close-up, as Elio looks into the Heraclitean flames, loss and bliss are unified, indistinguishable from each other. It’s a movie rich in feeling and free of tragedy: a love story that elevates the individual and his understanding of the world, one that gives pain and joy their equal due.

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Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the Thai cinematographer (of Uncle Boonmee fame), is essential when it comes to capturing this free-flowing communion between man, man’s feelings and nature. The days and nights impress themselves on us. At one point there is a blackout, and the camera lingers in the shadows, finding a strange sort of familial warmth in it: Mukdeeprom welcomes the dark into his canvas. There is a smell of Greek leisure in the air. (So often is leisure used as a subject of decay in modern movies that it’s shocking to see it treated as a much-needed ground for human growth.)

As a coming-of-age movie, it rivals Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, though Call Me By Your Name is aloof in its timelessness. Guadagnino sees no distinction between emotions and intellect: his ideas are sensual, free of posturing. Elio’s mind-body disconnect is only a temporary source of anguish before Oliver, an Italian girlfriend and a peach come to the rescue. The magic is such that there seem to be no contradictions between the old Hellenic values and 80s pop music. In his devotion to an ever-vital present Guadagnino discovers what may be the most fertile form of remembrance. This movie is purged of all decadence. The ruins are part of the dance.

Return to Twin Peaks: Chilling New Vision, New Mood

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EPISODES 1 & 2 SPOILERS!

Those expecting the bucolic, incongruously funny piece of small-town Americana with a jazzy perversion underneath—that genius mix of soap opera, comedy and horror that revolutionized 90s television—are in for something of a shock.

From the opening scene of the first episode—an unsettling montage of old and new footage centered on the titular town and the faraway echoes of Laura Palmer’s murder—Season 3 brings with it an entirely new vision. (You get the feeling the town is haunted, stuck in a loop.) It’s 2017, and evil, much like BOB, has spread all over the country: there are scenes in Las Vegas, South Dakota and a memorable segment in an alien-looking New York. A guy in his 20s stares soullessly at a glass box, waiting for something to happen, clueless as to why he’s even waiting: when sometimes finally materializes, it eats away at him. The scene is more frightening than almost anything in horror movies. It seems a violation of reality, both within the show and outside of it, and it has a scarring effect. Right from the onset, Lynch questions our ideas of what’s real, and a new paradigm is set: there are no comfort zones in this Twin Peaks. We might fall into NON-EXIS-TENCE at any second.

Peak Scenes in Episodes 1 & 2

Bad Coop terrorizes Darya: Eliciting a revelatory performance from Kyle Maclachlan, this scene is the tangible reminder that this is still Cooper we’re witnessing, not merely good old BOB. It’s Cooper’s hyper-rational side, his superior intellect and intuition stripped of everything else—fixated on coordinates, on tracing crucial information. It’s the Cooper who wants to stay alive at any cost (“I don’t need anything; I want“) without the full Cooper’s characteristic love of life. The antagonizing duality of the two agents sets the stage for the metaphysical epic to come.

Part 2In South Dakota: Potential murderer Bill Hastings and his horrifyingly suburban wife Phyllis face off in an despairingly long take, the camera almost inside their faces: the scene is the deranged offspring of the soap opera undercurrents of the original show, a display of emotional ugliness so heightened that it’s all-out hilarious. As Bad Cooper tells Phyllis, “you’ve followed human nature perfectly.” Lynch turns inevitability and repetition into comedy.

Inside the Red Room: Coop and Laura reunite in the Black Lodge. Sheryl Lee brings a new sadness to Laura’s aging broken soul, but her mischief is ongoing.

In Twin Peaks: A frail-looking Log Lady returns in a poignant scene with a mission for Hank. Andy and Lucy are still adorably lost. Sheriff Truman is missed. And we get a small glimpse of James and Shelly, still visitors of the Bang Bang Bar.

top04Inside Laura Palmer’s house: The defining moment so far. Sarah Palmer (the unparalleled Grace Zabriskie) has a new flat TV that seems bigger than her living room. She’s dropped soap operas for wildlife documentaries, and we watch as the images of animals devouring each other’s faces engulf both her and the house, and the mirrors in the room duplicate the horrors being projected. The scene embodies with masterly simplicity the essence of the new Twin Peaks: a mood of paralyzing stillness and recurring reciprocal violence (Sarah invites the horrors into her house: they don’t come unwanted.) And just as Sarah’s living room is taken over by wild beasts that aren’t there, reality itself is being overrun, no longer recognizable. Rarely has a scene of everyday domesticity felt less homely and more alien.

As the Log Lady warns us, “Something is missing.”

TO BE CONTINUED…

The Classics: Chapter 7 – The Battle of Chile (1979)

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Patricio Guzmán’s 3-part film on the fall of legitimately elected President Allende and the rise of Pinochet’s (partly US-funded) military dictatorship is no standard documentary. The camera is never still; there are no elegantly framed interviews recounting the facts; there is no remembrance. This is filmmaking in the present tense, and Guzmán takes you right into the streets, the factories and the country, everywhere where there is tension and reaction—that is to say, where politics takes place. The stance is Marxist, and the film is explosively alive, like a more grounded Potemkin. Inertia is sinful: it’s for buildings and the bourgeoisie. Though the film could be considered a piece of propaganda, it’s too great to be dismissed as only that. It shows the beginnings of a new form of organized solidarity that feels humanly truthful. It captures the seething discontent of a whole country, a state of anger mixed with euphoria for what’s to come. (Neither conservatives nor socialists are spared.) And in the scenes of the communist rallies, Guzmán’s camera zeroes in on the tension between the individuals and the groups they’re part of. Isolated, these faces express contradictions that exist outside of any manifesto. But gradually, in Parts II and III especially, we watch as these groups develop and strengthen, fueled by the semi-religious conviction that their time is ripe, only they do not sit around and pray for the rapture. This is an amazing document on a 20th century phenomenon that’s rarely explored in fiction: the masses becoming acutely aware of their own power. It’s a tragedy with no pathos: Salvador Allende is shown to be a great man and leader, but his death is interpreted as historically inevitable, a rallying cry for a “true government of the people” that would never materialize.

Dir. Patricio Guzmán / 1979 / Chile

The Classics: Chapter 6 – Poetry (2010)

POETRY.jpgLee Chang-dong’s movie about an elderly woman who takes up poetry lessons just as she begins to lose her memory and her grasp on verbs and nouns. Nobody (least of all herself) understands why she’s taken up the course. She inhabits an unintelligible world, replete with sullen, half-mute teenagers who can barely enunciate a word, let alone sort out their feelings; bodies of girls who wash up ashore for unexplained reasons and an entire system determined to shrug it all off. Mija works as a maid to be able to sustain her grandson and herself. But her professor preaches that there is potential beauty in everything, so Mija starts looking at things—starting with her kitchen’s dirty dishes and an apple—trying to see them for what they really are for the first time. (She ends up just eating the apple.) Whether her search for beauty begins as purely selfish escapism is up to the viewer to decide, and there’s a great comic desperation to her enterprise that is both pitiable and admirable. There is a magnificent scene where the old woman goes to the country to meet the mother of a girl who was raped, and she loses herself in the sensual radiance of the bright summer day. She picks up a fallen peach, sensing its “pain”; she feels it was “yearning” to be eaten. In this scene she is childlike, like a young poet for whom even pain is beautiful. She is so caught up in the purity of the moment that when the memory of the unsavory business that brought her there re-enters her mind, it nearly destroys her: beauty comes crashing down under the weight of reality. No other movie expresses the link between beauty and oblivion with this kind of devastating clarity. And there’s a shift. No longer content with just beauty, she now aims for the truth, too.

Yun Jeong-hie’s performance is a masterpiece of intuitiveness and self-discovery. Hers is the most original movie heroine of the 21st century: a poet in a world that’s done with poetry; a victim of Alzheimer’s who refuses to forget (or to even be a victim); an ignored old woman who finds empathy to be a source of infinite personal pleasure. (She might be to this century what Umberto D. was to the last.) One of the most amazing films to come out from South Korea, it has a love of life that’s almost heroic.

Dir. Lee Chang-dong / 2010 / South Korea

The Classics: Chapter 5 – Queen Christina (1933)

queenchrisIn 1933, right off the heels of Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo had the power to do just about anything she wanted in Hollywood. So she decided to take on the infamous Swedish queen Christina, lover of the arts and lover to her female servants. And though Robert Mamoulian’s MGM retelling isn’t historically faithful (ie. she isn’t an outright lesbian), its spirit isn’t very far off. Its peculiarities help make it one of the most exhilarating entertainments to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Greta Garbo remains the most amazing creature to ever be captured on film: what happens between her face and the camera is inexplicable alchemy. But in Queen Christina one also sees a great artist at work. She plays a utopian philosopher-queen, using her very Swedish thoughts as an escape; an imperial war commander; a lover of literature, an aesthete taking amusement in Molière and Calderón; a Romantic muse and tragic figure; a comedienne unafraid to make a fool of herself; and, most tantalizingly of all, a man (a “bachelor”, as she puts it.) In the famous tavern scenes where Christina disguises herself as a Swedish man and drinks with the boys as if she were one of them, discusses life with them and then proceeds to sleep with “another man” (a Spaniard) in the same bed, the movie is vibrantly, tangibly subversive. (It would have been impossible to make in the years that followed, when censorship became harsher.) Garbo, a physically imposing Swede, carries herself with a masculine swagger in large portions of the film, not just when in disguise: she exudes an authority that defies genre. And whenever she dissolves into a woman again, the effect is deliriously erotic: her femininity is equally in charge. (There is a great post-coital scene where she memorizes the room where she made love, taking in the physicality of every object.) But these distinctions become altogether meaningless: no one has so blurred the lines between “masculine” and “feminine” as Garbo does here, in all her androgynous greatness. She is in a state of flux, like a deity so bored with human trappings that she cannot wait to move on to the next thing. (She won’t weep much for her lover, either.) Garbo’s Christina is escaping the world and herself.

Like Garbo, the movie is many things—a historical picture, a comedy, a romance, a tragedy—and none of them. The charmingly literate screenplay is full of surprises and high spirits; so is Mamoulian’s direction, decidedly inspired. There isn’t a dull moment to be found in this winning film, both ahead of its time and very much a product of it.

Dir. Robert Mamoulian / 1933 / US