Movie Countdown: #44 – 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

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Movie Countdown: #45 – 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

Movie Countdown: #46 – 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

Movie Countdown: #47 – Pixote (1981)

PIXOTEBefore City of God there was Pixote, Héctor Babenco’s stark lucid account of Brazilian youths growing up in squalor in the 70s. It chronicles the life of 10-year-old Pixote and his companions, from repression and jail time to pickpocketing in Rio to close encounters with prostitution and death. Babenco makes the audience feel the urgency of the present time the way the characters experience it: with the past being too shameful to speak of and the future non-existent, the present, for all its terror, is all that’s left. As the world crumbles all around them and the kids lose respect not just for the lives of others but for their own, the movie’s vitality risks becoming jarring if not outright cruel. But it quickly becomes apparent that the full immersion in the amoral present they share is the closest thing they’ll ever know to redemption: it’s where their camaraderie, their symbiotic relationship with each other, even their shifting sexual confusion are built. And though the movie is clearly an heir to the great neo-realist films of the 40s and 50s, it goes deeper than them. It touches on forbidden, wordless things. When Pixote meets the volatile prostitute Sueli (Marília Pêra, superb) and discovers she’s had an abortion, he is horrified. She feels judged and lashes out at him in a rage, but he’s horrified not for her but for himself—his entire orphaned existence coming into focus. The relationship that builds between the whore-mother and her adopted children is monstrously, inexplicably rich. The very protagonists can’t figure out the nature of it, so they just go through it blindly, until their roles become so confused that they devour each other. For Pixote, it’s a return to the womb from hell. In the movie’s best scene, he goes to the prostitute’s bed looking for a mother’s embrace. She tentatively takes on this role. But Pixote is no child and never was. Retreat to innocence is impossible, and he is vomited out one final time. Alone, he isn’t just worthless: he’s not even alive. The film goes beyond surface moral and social indignation. This is an artist’s statement. Yet no matter how hard the implications this movie has a pulse like few others, with the natural energy of the places and the actors giving it its incomparable freshness.

Dir. Héctor Babenco / 1981 / Brazil

Movie Countdown: #48 – Hunger (1966)

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Henning Carlsen’s brilliant film about a starving artist, set in 19th century Norway. Per Oscarsson plays Pontus, the homeless writer who holds on to his delusions of control and creativity in the midst of famine. It’s one of the all-time great performances. The town of Christiana (today’s Oslo) is populated by a swarm of strange faces. Pontus spies at these faces from a distance, convincing himself that they are the subjects of his art—that they’re his misshapen muses. As far as he’s concerned, they provide him with inspiration. The genius of this film is the gradual, horrifying revelation that he has it all wrong: the faces are staring at him and his deteriorating body and mind in disgust. The artist is transformed from subject to object, from creator to sewer rat. He becomes the grotesque character in someone else’s narrative: an anonymous narrative in which he is the joke. And so the fictions that he makes up to preserve his sense of self-worth as a human being and his role as an artist become increasingly meaner, more desperate, fueled by paranoia. He gives his last coin to a homeless man, a “true” dispossessed (he won’t allow to think of himself in those terms) to appear charitable and gentlemanly one more time, to set himself apart from the poor fellow. This portrait of the artist as a scavenger—as a cannibal toying with self-destruction because he can’t accept he’s not looking at the world from the heights anymore—has the pull of a nightmare. A true god needs no nourishment, and Pontus dreams about fighting rabid dogs for food. It makes the title take on a dual meaning: the hunger within him is more terrifying than the famine that hits Norway. Yet there is something sublime, even heroic in his determination not to bend. The artist will not be destroyed by anything or anyone but himself. He trudges on, like a cockroach after a holocaust.

Dir. Henning Carlsen / 1966 / Denmark

Movie Countdown: #49 – Baby Doll (1956)

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Baby Doll: Excuse me, Mr. Vacarro, but I wouldn’t dream of eatin’ a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth.

Silva Vacarro: You’ve got many refinements.

Baby Doll: Thank you.

Elia Kazan’s hilarious erotic farce about two men (played by Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) squabbling over cotton in Mississippi. Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), Malden’s virginal 19-year-old wife, is at the center of their fight. She hasn’t agreed to consummate the marriage, so she sleeps by herself in her crib. Wallach’s vengeance involves bringing her under his manly spell. The comedy in Tennessee Williams’ screenplay is that Baby Doll is only dubiously innocent. Baby Doll is no good at long division, but she’s great at fighting off the heat with Coca-Cola and sucking her thumb. She giggles for the entire duration of the movie, stuck in a state of perpetual flirtatiousness: the sexually charged pent-up atmosphere feels like Kazan’s version of hell. But this hell, shot in all its sunny glory by Boris Kaufman, is very inviting. The scenes between Baker and Wallach are among the funniest I’ve seen—they play like some perverse deflowering. (Their courting climaxes with a game of hide and seek.) For the two men, Baby Doll is just a test of their virility, but she’s playing a game of her own. They provide her with entertainment. Carroll Baker is amazing in the title role: radiant, wicked and unaware of the camera. This movie has a quintessentially American sense of irony: the very earth seems to be laughing at the characters, down to the extras who mercilessly (and openly) mock Malden from beginning to end. It’s a riot.

Dir. Elia Kazan / 1956 / United States

Movie Countdown: #50 – Breaking the Waves (1996)

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A religious film to rank with Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. God is far from dead in Lars von Trier’s dank, windswept hell-on-Earth landscape. On the contrary, He is alive and kicking and flaunting a perverse sense of humor, speaking so sternly that He sounds rather like a demon. Wondrous Bess (Emily Watson, resembling an ironic Liv Ullmann) is so full of God that she’s stripped the rest of the world of His presence. She’s swallowed Him up whole, and they have the most incredible conversations in long intruding close-ups. (The grainy, filthy cinematography suggests an otherwise godless world. Even the cliffs seem anguished.)

Bess has been taught to see life on earth as a ruin. Life exists to be fled, not to be clung to. Yet clinging to life is just what she does upon marrying the life-loving foreigner, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), latching on to him gleefully, dangerously. She only ever frees herself from the violence of her affections when communicating with God. Automatically the village becomes distrustful of her and her version of “love.” (The stark, vigilant Calvinist elders seem to have been directly abducted from a Dreyer movie, and von Trier exposes the hilarity of their pretensions without having to force a thing.) When Jan is left physically paralyzed after an accident and can no longer have sex with Bess, he creates a ploy for her to go on living. He demands that she have intercourse with other men. Assuming the role of an unwilling Mary Magdalene, Bess gradually becomes the town’s whore in order to “save her husband,” culminating in her own stoning. (There is, however, no Jesus to stop the mob.) Naturally, she is excommunicated and condemned to hell.

But Bess as presented by von Trier and Watson is no self-sacrificing martyr. She is not Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, purified by the ecstasy of her body and soul’s communion with Christ. Nor is she the witch from Day of Wrath, ravished by an overpowering devotion to the pleasures of life. Bess’ communication with God is rather more pragmatic, more self-serving: God tells her exactly what she wants to hear, feeding her every obsession. As for life, she takes displeasure in a great many things. Her tangible idea of “life” is confined to a single man. It is this “innocence,” this quality of being a little “funny in the head,” that makes her a saint in the eyes of other characters (and part of the audience.) But Bess herself goes through none of the standard religious transcendence. Rather than purity, it is the scope and the single-minded intent of her isolation that render her a mythological character. Her world is closed off to even Jan. Bess’ mind-heaven has real power and we gain entry to it through von Trier’s intuitive use of close-ups (no one since Bergman had extracted more from the human face or shown more interest in it.) And the absurd spark in her eyes is unforgettable, as is her triumph over two thousand years of abstruse theology as she asks the elders, “How can a man love a Word?”

This movie has possibly the worst ending to any great film as church bells ring in heaven, as if von Trier wanted to reassure us that Bess was saved from the fiery pits. But it’s a minor desecration: the movie is a near-masterpiece.

Dir. Lars von Trier / 1996 / Denmark