Au Hasard Balthazar [1966)

If life has no meaning, then do not continue to the next sentence.

Thank you.

For those of you still reading.

You must excuse my reliance on 1/3rd of the trivium (to the detriment of the remainder).

It must be rhetoric which I employ.

Like a donkey.

No.

It doesn’t work that way.

But for those of us in poverty and misery.

How do we express our futile existences?

By affirming their meanings.

Their meaningfulness.

You have not worked your whole life for nothing.

You worked to survive.

But you survived for others.

You loved.  You cared.

You were curious.

Too curious to let the human race go.

And so, slow and easy does it goes [sic]…the autumn of your years.

Perhaps.

Another spring.

Hope.  Eternal.

Robert Bresson slips a note under our door.

A key.

At first viewing it is dull.  Ugly.

Like a donkey.

Yes.

But Bresson knew Beethoven.  Concision of expression.

Economy of means.

It is no wonder that we hear Schubert throughout this film.

And no wonder that Schubert is Philip Glass’ favorite composer.

Those ostinati.  Figured bass.

Even simpler than Alberti.

More like a rail fence transposition.

Or a Caesar shift cipher.

Ostinato.  Obstinate.

Like the donkey.

But I have patiently borne the humiliation.

I am still a youthful beast of burden.

And yet I know my hooves.

I am a genius.

A four-legged mathematician.

Give me three digits…and a single digit.

And I multiply.

I fecundate the field with feathery flowers.

Four digits.

Do I hear five?

With a memory like an elephant.

A stare like a tiger.

And a harangue like a polar bear.

But look how he shivers.

The donkey.

So humble as to not say a word.

Perhaps it was the wisdom of salt.

Salt of the earth.

A wise ass.

Yes, forever in trouble.  With my pride.

Getting kicked in the rump.

But these are really nasty assaults.

The other side of James Dean.

François Lafarge as Gérard is a real asshole.

Not enough love at home.

Feels a need to punch donkeys.

[pause]

Quite literally…the world comes to life through Bresson’s filmmaking.

Prostitutes pop up.

Pimps prance and preen.

But here we have “merely” sexual assault.

A first step in losing the ability to feel anything.

Numb.

And we have rape (through allusion, of course).

Gérard toots his horn.

Literally.

The other side of the James Dean coin.

The underside of Jean-Paul Belmondo.

A disproportionate riposte courtesy of the one filmmaker with the balls to be simple.

So simple.

On first glance it is nothing.

A donkey.

But live a few years.

And then revisit.

It is a novel.

It contains everything.

We can’t catch it because it doesn’t pop out at us in color.

One way would be to say that no one has ever looked more sad on screen than Anne Wiazemsky here.

Before Godard.

Perhaps a first conversation.

A nervousness.

It was through Wiazemsky that Bresson told this tale.

To teach the New Wave.

They hadn’t learned all the lessons yet.

He wasn’t done speaking.

The quiet tone of an old man…

I want to tell you more more more.

But this is best secret.

To appreciate the simple things.

Before they are gone.

The patient animals.

So gentle in their existence.

Not presuming.

Not running.  Not hustling.

The pack-animals.

We know this look.

In cats.  In dogs.

This wisdom.

We laugh at their carefree insolence.

But they have shown the way.

Such resilience!

Such love…

And we are taken in.

Our hearts are melted.

Yes.

Few moments in cinema feel more lonely than the end of Au Hasard Balthazar.

It is almost unbearable.

The quiet dignity of humanity being shamed.

How could we ever forget our love.

For even a second.

When we rub two sticks together at such an eyelevel perspective, the meaning of life is very clear.

But unutterable.

 

-PD

Smultronstället [1957)

At some point during the viewing of this film I turned 39 years old.  That is significant because there is a moment in this masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman at which a character is described precisely as 38 years old.

And so a mostly unimportant question arises:  was I 38 or 39 when I heard that line?

To be sure, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Wild Strawberries, but seeing it on the cusp of my birthday as the world spits me back into the cosmic cuspidor makes a poignant movie absolutely devastating.

You must understand, by “devastating”…I don’t necessarily mean bad.  In my film lexicon I reserve the word devastating for films which reduce me to a weeping mess.  This, now, is one such film.

My memory of it was as a sweet film…wild strawberries…youthful love…summertime.  And indeed, all of those things are there.  But this film is more than just naïveté.  This film is about aging.  Old age.

I would never have made the connection, but Smultronstället bridges the gap (somewhat) between its comrades in simpatico:  Umberto D. (1952) and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005).  In the former, Carlo Battisti set the gold standard for this micro-genre.  He was 69 when he portrayed the titular Umberto Domenico Ferrari.  In the latter, Ioan Fiscuteanu brought a razor-sharp accuracy to the likewise titular character Dante Remus Lăzărescu while being, himself, 68 years old.

And that brings us to the famed silent-film director Victor Sjöström.  For Bergman’s Smultronstället, Sjöström was invited aboard as an actor (in the lead role of Isak Borg).  Sjöström was, almost exactly with the two previous actors mentioned, 68 years old when he assumed this immortal role.

But there is something which Ingmar Bergman did (thanks to the magic of Sjöström’s performance) which is unique in this film.  Beyond the surrealism befitting of de Chirico, beyond the hint of road movie panache which predated À Bout de souffle, Bergman keyed in on an absolutely defining characteristic of old age (for many):  loneliness.

I recognize it because it is an absolutely defining characteristic of my own life.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone out there is as lonely as me.  I send out my signal.  I comb through the tags.  “Lonely” is a young person’s emotion.  “Loneliness” is a lifelong complex.  An articulate, stark reality.

And how does it happen?

Well, you will just have to see this film.  Really, there are few movies I could more strongly recommend than Wild Strawberries.  Everyone will see it differently.  For me it brings back memories of Sweden (and even Denmark [though I should probably wait for Dreyer before admitting that]).  Girls named Kaaren and Anna and Saaarah (ok, maybe not that many As).

That is the route of this unlikely road movie.  What could have been…  What might have been~~

Sometimes a dream rights our ship.  But these bad dreams…we are one credit hour short, she doesn’t remember us, we’ve forgotten the first rule of being a doctor…

In our wisdom we will think of the good times.  For me, it is as hard as breathing.  I don’t breathe well.  I think too much.  About it.  Everything.

Wisdom lets us go back to our old neighborhood…our old play friends…some ball in the street.  We must have some good memories somewhere.  Psychology urges this.  A safe place.  A mental image.  A way to calm down.

In the fray of life this often isn’t practical.  Indeed, we forget everything.  Is there or isn’t there a God?  I would say yes, but I’m not going to arm-wrestle you over it.

That is a bit of wisdom.  You can go home again.

 

-PD

 

 

El espíritu de la colmena [1973)

I have wanted to bring my readers this film for some time.

Therefore, it is an honor to review The Spirit of the Beehive for you.

I first saw this film by chance one night on TCM long ago.

I don’t remember the exact chain of events, but it was either right before seeing this or right after seeing this that I found out I was going to Spain (the country of provenance of this film).

The opportunity to visit Spain was a miracle (as have been all my travels).  Never did I think I would see La Sagrada Família.  Never did I dream of seeing the Guggenheim in Bilbao.  These things were too much to dream.  But they happened.

And this film is the quintessence of that miracle experience.

Two little girls.  Ana and Isabel.

The sonic motif throughout this film is the name “Isabel” whispered by her younger sister Ana.

It is an entreaty.  A putting faith in someone.

Please tell me why this, and why that.

Few films have matched the magic of this one.  If you are a fan of Cinema Paradiso, this film will show you where that template originated.

Before the great Giuseppe Tornatore, there was the equally great Víctor Erice (auteur of the film under consideration).

There is a magic here which is akin to Amélie and also Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  It is a naïveté befitting of Erik Satie…a wonderment which is rarely expressed effectively in film.

For more modern viewers, the best parallel might perhaps be Beasts of the Southern Wild (on the soundtrack of which I had the honor to perform with my old band).

And so there you have it.

Bees, bees everywhere.  Like Mercury Rev…”Chasing a Bee Inside a Jar”…and “Syringe Mouth” (‘here you come dripping from the hive’).

The hum.  The drone.  Like a subway screeching through the turns in a New York subway tunnel.  And the honeycomb.  Like DNA.

I should add.  A certain sadness.  Like a tawny port.

It was only fitting that this film was kicked to the curb for me, the poor-man’s Henri Langlois, to find at this particular time.

And so I too whisper the name Isabel.  Isabel with your hair pulled back behind your ears.  Don’t be cruel.

 

-PD

The Grand Budapest Hotel [2014)

There have been two movies in my lifetime which affected me so that I saw them multiple times in the theater:  Life Is Beautiful and Genghis Blues.  Along with those two masterful films I would add three which have a similar effect on me and formed my pantheon of five as a college student and young adult:  Cinema Paradiso, Central Station and the original Willy Wonka.  Few films have ever touched me quite like these.  There have been a few:  Spirit of the Beehive, Wild Strawberries and even Amelie, but I didn’t feel the same level of “ownership” in the stories–the same resonant investment in the storylines and mise-en-scène.  But it has come time to add to the pantheon of five–a reservoir of naïveté which has remained untouched since at least the time of my reading James Monaco’s book on the French New Wave.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an unqualified masterpiece.  It is not often that I even feel drawn to a movie theater whatsoever these days.  It takes a lot to get me out of the house as far as cinema is concerned.  My interest in this particular film owes to a job which I recently secured and ultimately quit (within a week or so) at an old, old hotel in San Antonio, TX.  I had initially intended to see the film ostensibly for “research,” but when I finally saw it (after quitting my brief stint as a hotelier) it took on a different and immensely significant meaning for me.

I don’t want to spoil the plot or ending, so I will refrain from giving away too much info concerning either.  I will, however, say right up front that the secret star of this film is Saoirse Ronan.  She is the Anna Karina of this movie and she enabled Wes Anderson to make a truly transcendent picture.  Ralph Fiennes is magnificent as Monsieur Gustave H., but it is Ronan as Agatha who embodies the film in such a way that I can only compare to Poe’s story The Oval Portrait (which played such a large role in Godard’s Vivre sa vie).  The movie really gets going in earnest when Anderson goes to a magical close-up of Agatha (Ronan) on a merry-go-round.  It is from the POV of her beau Zero (Tony Revolori) and its weightless, gossamer delicacy sets the stage for what will become (throughout the remainder of the movie) Wes Anderson’s best film to date.

Leave it to Anderson to give the beautiful, chaste Agatha a huge birthmark the shape of Mexico on the side of her cheek.  Perhaps it was a nod to Gorbachev, but the effect is such that the beautiful Ronan becomes even more adorable and perfect by way of her imperfections.  Indeed, it is when she is covered in flour at her job baking pastries that she reaches her highest peak of sublime cinematic presence.  Even in her “mug shot” (which figures into the plot), she exudes mystery and imagination in her smile-less stare.

The red-headed, fair-skinned Ronan is part of a color scheme on the part of Anderson which includes powder-blue uniforms and cotton-candy-pink pastry boxes.  Even The Grand Budapest Hotel itself is pink…like a giant pastry or gingerbread house (indeed, it is a model…a miniature…a favorite directorial device of Anderson).

But make no mistake, the royal-purple-clad gents whose acting makes this the coup that it is are Fiennes and Revolori.  To call it a “buddy flick” would be doing the entire creation a grave injustice.  Perhaps it is a comedy of manners?  Or perhaps sui generis.  Anderson’s “tricks” have never been employed to such successful effect until this film.  It is as if all his prior attempts were quite good practice runs at making this film.

Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe are integral to the fabric of this sentimental, yet razor-sharp tapestry.  Anderson manages to draw from so many influences (I seemed to notice Tati) such that the piece as a whole avoids being a puppy dogs and ice cream affair.  Goldblum and Dafoe play out a sub-plot of sorts (in terms of filmic references) which hints very strongly at Hitchcock.  It is just this dash of bitter verismo which holds the confection together and makes it truly delicious.

The story (not to mention the dialogue) would do a writer such as Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest) proud.  Monsieur Gustave is infinitely quotable and his character bears a striking resemblance to Cary Grant in terms of mannerisms.  It is as if Roger Thornhill somehow ended up in the maze that is Tati’s Playtime.  Indeed, Gustave H. is a man on the run (just as Grant’s character in NXNW).  And as per the Hitchcock motif of “the wrong man,” Gustave is, of course, innocent.

But the truly remarkable thing about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the expansive, somewhat metaphorical love story it encapsulates.  Wes Anderson succeeds in channeling not only Truffaut, but Bergman (particularly Ingmar’s bittersweet Wild Strawberries).  The overall narrative device of a recounting (Zero as an old man) and the framing of impressionable literary admiration (the student reading the “fictional novel” at beginning and end afore the canonical author’s statue) allow the film to operate on several levels simultaneously. The viewer is invited to hop on board the elevator at any floor and draw meaning from any of the many strata.  It is like a cake–a fine, layered pastry from the old world.

There is indeed an air of panache which wafts through the illustrious halls represented in this film.  It is, in some ways, a fairy tale and a morality play.  Do the right thing and you might just end up with Snow White.  And you might, with extraordinary integrity and compassion, get to have your cake and eat it too.

 

-PD