Or more accurately, “Law of Submission.” Pedro Almodovar’s international breakthrough is not so much about the destructive power of love and lust as our willingness to be controlled – and devastated – by such emotions; in other words, not desire but the desire to be desired. Almodovar’s fantastical screenplay is a super-trashy soap centered on a director (Eusebio Poncela) of both lowbrow porn and highbrow theater, whose life, as well as those of his ex-lover (Miguel Molina), his transvestite sister (Carmen Maura) and her daughter (Manuela Velasco) are steamrolled following the director’s initiation of an emotionally disturbed young man (Antonio Banderas) to gay sex. The plot is stretched to the limits of credibility, no doubt with hysterical, gleeful intention by Almodovar, who nonetheless holds things together by investing outrageous incidents with a dignified deadpan, allowing his ensemble to give their loving all to their characters, without a single smirk of camp knowing. (Most impressive is Carmen Maura as the transvestite, whose scenes brim with fierce sense of both selfhood and sacrifice, a central paradox to Almodovar’s characters.)
Almodovar’s steady pacing, playful sense of composition and eye-popping ‘80s color clashes keep the proceedings lively. But his true gift is in making his cartoonishly colorful creations as real as life, endowing even the most destructive or smug among them with a core of aching melancholy and a disarming willingness to be subsumed by the tides of emotion. Practically every other scene involves one figure being drawn in – at times at their own behest – by the narratives or imperatives of another: a profound sense of community as a web spun by stories. Almodovar’s vision of society showcases some of the most flamboyantly self-defined characters of cinema, and yet their independence is belied by a primal impulse that invokes the moment the first homo sapiens uttered its first memory – or first falsehood – to another, casting the spell of another dimension to the human experience.
Filming what many consider his apotheosis, The Leopard (TSPDT #71), Luchino Visconti landed on the theme that would occupy him for the remainder of his career: the imminent obsolescene of his own class, the aristocracy. In his follow-up to The Leopard Visconti revisits the Italian upper class in their crumbling modern environs, following the titular expatriate (Claudia Cardinale) and her American husband on a return trip to the family estate. Ghosts of the past take form in the suspected murder of Sandra’s father by her mother and her lover, the family lawyer, and the incestuous desires of her estranged brother, compelling her to turn her family reunion into a series of ugly confrontations. Cardinale lends furrow-browed intensity to the most challenging role of her career, but her attempts at seriousness are undermined by Visconti’s puzzling insistence to shoot her in as titillating a manner as possible, lingering on her cleavage, legs and bare back, reducing her to an arthouse Brigitte Bardot. Combined with her brother’s anguished caterwauling, the affair risks being undermined by unintentional camp, sogged by the same hysteria that pushes Rocco and His Brothers (TSPDT #185) over the top. Visconti would do more interesting things with this undercurrent of self-parody in his later films; at best this is a puzzling transitional work, with outstanding gothic atmospherics to recommend it, courtesy of an outstanding antique villa for a set that speaks hushed volumes on its own.
Stan Brakhage’s approximation of what it’s like to see as a child, drawn from years of footage of his own children, is nothing as crude as a literal re-enactment of a child’s point of view, but something much more vivid and disturbing. The film opens with a series of red screens, suggesting light filtered through closed infant eyes, before launching into lightning flashes of white: a nascent gaze opening to the world and hardly able to take in its brilliance. This traumatic sensation is the underlying emotion that runs through the film’s four chapters, and it’s a marvel how Brakhage’s panoply of images – progressing from the abstract to the very literal – can be such an emotionally affecting account of how children come to perceive the world. Mostly shot in handheld with the flickers and jumps one expects of Super 8, the film has been described as the greatest home movie ever made, with children playing in a yard bathed in impossibly beautiful tree-dappled light or a close-up the upturned carcass of a dead wasp on a bathtub lip strike the heart of a uncanny left behind by adulthood. There’s little nostalgic about this wonder though, as such images will be interspersed by recurring fades to a haunting, ghostlike formation of undulating crystals, suggesting human cells regenerating feverishly. At times the gaze is simply blank, looking at nothing or noone in particular, focusing more on negative spaces than objects, the indeterminate time of childhood with no purpose but to be. A soup of memory, liquid and light, churning with life. Want to go deeper?Continue reading “935 (76). Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970, Stan Brakhage)”
This lavish farce about a 17th century Belgian town whose women openly welcome Spanish invaders when their cowardly male counterparts go into hiding is a classic model of the ebullient pacing and jaunty eroticism that’s long been associated with French comedic cinema. Feyder orchestrates his ensemble and witty dialogue with a lilting, musical efficiency, a quality that’s also reflected in the camerawork, which moves sinuously across lavish sets inspired by Flemish paintings of the period. Feyder’s fanciful farce envisions a marriage of pacifism and sexual equality yielding an idyllic society, which, despite strong critical support, rendered it anathema to contemporary politics. The Belgians saw it as a mockery of their leaders’ ineffectuality during their occupation by the Germans during World War II; the Nazis eventually banned it when links between them and the film’s invading Spaniards became apparent. It’s utopian vision of international peace brokered by the fairer sex, while amounting to a feminist statement ahead of its time, seems downright naive in the immediate context of Petain and Chamberlain’s appeasement policies to the Nazis (much in the way that the “we should have stayed in Iraq” argument underlying David O. Russell’s Three Kings looks very different in the Bush era). But the film managed to place on many top ten lists in a poll conducted by the Belgian Cinematheque only a few years after the end of World War II, possibly attesting to the triumph of laughter and masterful filmmaking over one of the darkest moments of humankind.
Arguably the first feature filmed by a robot, Michael Snow’s three hour exploration of the possibilities of camera movement over a barren Arctic landscape suggests many things: sci-fi space probe footage more authentic than George Lucas; a rebuff to the romantic frontier landscapes of Hollywood Westerns; an avant-garde equivalent of an amusement park simulator ride. Lensed by a specially designed rotating camera mount pre-programmed to move with stunning variety, the film begins as a slow, soothing meditation on the otherworldly textures of the Canadian wilderness, but gradually morphs into a dizzying, terrifying freakout, a relentlessly spinning gaze that pummels the equilibrium of the human eye. The film pushes the boundaries not only of human sight but of the physical earth, destroying gravity and transforming a lifeless vista into a cosmic force of light and energy. Clinically scientific in its approach yet yielding an organic, even spiritual wonder, La region centrale does not merely vindicate the oft-neglected genre of experimental film, but thrusts itself into the center of cinema at its most vital.
Only 50 minutes long but requiring at least two or three viewings to grasp, the debut feature of cinema’s most dynamic husband and wife directing duo is quite possibly the most daunting and demanding work of the 60s New Wave. Adapting a novel by Nobel laureate and post-war German critic Heinrich Boll, Straub and Huillet radically reinvent conventional expository devices such as voiceover narration and scene transitions, transmogrifying D.W. Griffith’s innovations with cinematic time (cf. Intolerance) to reflect a frightening state of national and political shell-shock. Upon initial viewings, half the time one doesn’t know whether a scene is happening in the contemporary West Germany of the 1960s, the 1930s Third Reich, or the First World War. This disorientation reflects the haunted mental state of a family comprised of three generations of political outsiders, perpetually living under traumas suffered by their nation’s history that those around them are eager to repress. What keeps this film from being dismissed as a pretentious high-brow aesthetic exercise is the sinuous mystery to its rhythms, made clean by a near-merciless precision to the film’s Bresson-inspired cutting and framing schemes, and weighted with the emotional accumulation of oblique expressions of rage and cruelty, Teutonic blue notes played with cool ferocity. This is a puzzle film with jigs as sharp as shark’s teeth, now as much as ever.
Special thanks to Nicole Brenez, author of Abel Ferrara (University of Illinois Press), professor of cinema studies at Université Paris I and programmer at the Cinémathèque Française for her poetic insights into this film. Thanks also to Cindi Rowell for translating and Alice Moscoso for narrating Nicole’s script.
The premise plays like a joke: a Marxist, a capitalist and a common worker stumble through four decades of post-World War II Italy, each pursuing their ideal of what modern society largely at the expense of the others. The joke is on all of them, as Ettore Scola and fellow writers Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli plot a bittersweet march from the exuberant hope following the end of Fascism to a 1970s dystopia of class stratification and red tape, where middle class families huddle overnight just to enroll their kids in schools while the rich idle away in comfortable seclusion. Scola and company trade in rough caricatures, betraying mild contempt for both the ineffectual intellectual (Stefana Satta Flores) who leaves his wife and child to puruse a pipe dream of socialism through cinema education, and the selfish industrialist (Vittorio Gassman) who spends a lifetime accumulating wealth and privilege while turning his back on those who love him. Their fellow war buddy, a hapless hospital orderly (Nino Manfredi) who remains steadfast to his principles as well as to their common love interest (Stefania Sandrelli), is left as the de facto hero of the middlebrow.
There’s about as much – or rather, little – insight into the historical period covered here as there is in Robert Zimeckis’ Forrest Gump (TSPDT rank #577) – both films share the trait of interpreting historical developments in terms of moral shortcomings among individuals caused by their selfishness and ignorance. Fortunately Scola and company infuse their simplistic overview with enough witty, knowing dialogue to keep the proceedings engaging. Perhaps most interesting is the linking of the failure of post-war Italian society to that of neo-realist cinema. The fierce concern for the plight of all humanity of such films as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (TSPDT #15) gives way to the industrial boom and pursuit of individual wealth of the 50s and 60s. In Scola’s sardonic view, the legacy of neo-realism amounts to little more than the million dollar answer of a television game show, which the contestant, a passionate cinephile, isn’t even able to answer correctly.
Many thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum for taking time and thought to contribute towards this two part video essay, in which he compares his favorite John Ford movie, The Sun Shines Bright, with his favorite Carl Dreyer movie, Gertrud.
For much more detailed discussions about these films separately, see Jonathan’s article on The Sun Shines Brightin Rouge andhis essay on Gertrud in his collection Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.