Marketa Lazarová [1967)

The epic of Czech film.

Its reputation precedes it.

And I have much to say about this gargantuan length of film.

For when last I delved into the canon, I was greeted with a short watch.

It was pleasant.  It was complete.  Everything which needed to be said was said.

This film is in some ways the opposite.

Two hours and 42 minutes.

I have not had such trouble viewing a film since Jeanne Dielman…

And I want to say this is the equal of that Belgian gem.

Marketa Lazarová is played by the stunningly-beautiful Magda Vášáryová.

Magdaléna if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

A Slovak actress.  Who lives!

But sadly Ms. Vášáryová is in this film far too little.

When she appears, she usurps the screen with her loveliness.

She is as fleeting as a lamb…

Visions fugitives…[…]

She is our lamb we try to save.

To no avail.

My beard is invisible.  I am twice my age.

Mostly from sitting through this film.

This is the Czech Gone with the Wind.

Overlong.  Underdone.

But there is a reward in its totality.

It’s as if Buñuel greets us upon the start of Part II.

Yes, there’s an intermission of sorts.

Good God…

The internal monologue of the Almighty.

When He’s least enamored with us.

Appreciates our simplicity.  And breaks the fourth wall with a critique of our oratory skills.

So director František Vláčil did have some truly genius tricks up his sleeve.

But most of this film is bleak.  Bare.  Plodding. More ennui than boredom.

Which is to say that misery sounds more artful in French.

The misery of a convoluted story told by a mediocre bard.

And so someone didn’t do somebody justice.

František Vláčil had real facility.

Then do we find fault with novelist Vladislav Vančura?

Perhaps it was just a bad match.

But it’s not a bad film.

It’s just not the greatness which so often accrues to length.

Long doesn’t necessarily mean important.

Did Kissinger really need 912 pages to relate Diplomacy?

I’m not even a fan of Tolstoy.

There are, in fact, few behemoths behind which I can get.

The Brothers Karamazov is one.

And I would argue that Marketa Lazarová has some of that pithy, earthy grit to it.

A little witchcraft.

Some battle-axes.

Missing limbs.

But Vláčil manages to add very faint, subtle hints of psychedelia to this story.

It was, after all, 1967.

But it’s more ergot than LSD.

Ennui/boredom.

A slight différance.

 

-PD

El ángel exterminador [1962)

Dear friends…it has been awhile.  And I have been stuck inside a nightmare.

A party, but a nightmare all the same.

On this New Year’s Eve when so many rush to their engagements…I have thanks to give…yet it all seems so surreal.

For many of us we battle mental demons.  Usually, we don’t mean demons literally.  And I certainly don’t.

Yet, the world is so strange that we can’t help wondering whether there is something beyond science which is driving certain events.

These sentiments…these questions, are the stuff of El ángel exterminador.  This is not a relaxing film, but it is absolutely essential.

It is a work of art which is irreplaceable in the global canon of creative thought and philosophy.

Luis Buñuel had immense courage to make this film.  And yet, he was an old hand by this point.

His first film (made in collaboration with fellow-Spaniard Salvador Dalí) was 16 minutes which shook the world:  Un Chien Andalou.  That was 1929.  The slicing of the donkey’s eyeball.  Before the stock market crash.  And verily, the cinematic parallel of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.

Outrageous surrealism.  Think of his collaborator’s La persistència de la memòria.  The same fount of Freudian cess.  From the pool of the taxed mind comes melting clocks…(and in the case of Un Chien Andalou those familiar ants).  We will always see Dalí as ants…as ants on James Joyce’s egg-yolk universe…Humpty Dumpty having represented the fall of man (“…sat on the wall/…had a great fall”).  [Or as Joyce so singularly put it:  bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!]

Luis Buñuel had the mad genius of Joyce.  In 1930, he followed upon his famous 16 minutes with 60 minutes in L’Âge d’Or.

I had the privilege of knowing Buñuel by way of his first two films and (in bookend fashion) two of his last three films:  Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972) and Cet obscur objet du désir (1977) [his final creation].

But none of this could have prepared me for the devastating, scathing critique of Western civilization that is El ángel exterminador.

The genre known as “comedy of manners” becomes a grotesque apocalypse the hands of Buñuel.  In that sense, El ángel exterminador is closest in spirit (or subject matter) to Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie.

But it is very important to note that El ángel exterminador is operating on multiple levels.

Is it a damnation of the rich?  Sure.

Is it a mockery of polite culture?  Of course.

But the lethargy and incapacitation we see in El ángel exterminador are the result of very mannerly people being reduced to complete inaction because routine convention has been circumvented.  We see the short-circuiting of well-meaning people who do not know how to cope with change.

And on that level, this film is universal.  It just so happens that the overly-precious manners of the bourgeoisie serve best the filmmaker’s purpose.

Not to disappoint the more visually-stimulated among you, but there is no swooping angel of death in this film.  There is, however, a tense, suffocating masterpiece which makes Hitchcock gems like Lifeboat and even Rope look like the products of lazy philosophy in comparison.

One last thought…  For those who think that the wonderfully-bizarre Alejandro Jodorowsky appeared out of nowhere, El ángel exterminador sets the record straight.  Buñuel was taking aim at the impotence of religion before Jodorowsky was in short pants.  In this film we see the kernel of imagery (lambs, a smashed cello, bits of debris…) which would make La montaña sagrada the beautifully freakish creation it is.  Both were, incidentally, shot in Mexico.

Though Buñuel (a Spaniard) and Jodorowsky (a Chilean) came from different corners of the Spanish-speaking world, their lives would both include important time spent in Mexico and France.  Jodorowsky is, in some ways, still the future.  But to know the future, we must first know the past.

 

-PD

 

Gummo [1997)

When the rain comes down…in the swimming pool…and rabbit ears has his pink life…kissed by movie stars.

Rabbit ears isn’t so lonely anymore.  Literally hovering over the highway.  Chain-link crosswalk.  Loitering.

Rabbit ears had it bad in the dump.  Got beat up by stereotypes.  Shot with cap guns.  But the words real hurtful.

I wanna add my own appendix to this here masterpiece.  And so’s I goes on the Google and finds pictures.

They say a boy can’t be beautiful.  Just handsome.  And a taxi…a cab.  Can only be hansom.

We’ll get to your favorite scene in due time.  Just tape that bacon to the tile.  We’ll be returning.

I wanna add my own art to art already made.  Found footage.  Found emotions.  On the junk heap.  Andre Breton.

All those cool French guys recording their dreams.  Dali.  With a little slanted dot over the eye.

Yeah, Dali and Bunuel.  With a little wave over the inn.

And the donkey or whatever.  Gets his eye cut reel bad.  And this was near the beginning of cinema.

And Bunuel went on to Mexico.  And Aleister Crowley went to Mexico.  And Antonin Artaud.

And then Bunuel made French movies.  Maybe they were all French.  But not the Mexican ones.

And Eisenstein made a Mexican movie.  Reel good that.

And why is I talking funny and sayings nothing?

Because I been steeped like a tea bag in pure genius.

Ain’t my genius.  I’m just the reader.  The watcher.  The observer.

And then somebody gets Schrödinger‘s cat.  And they hurt it real bad.

Nobody ever asks what Schrody’s cat was named.  And it so happens Foot Foot.

Like the song by The Shaggs?  I think so, my pal.

So lemme tell you.

If I go on many more tangents like a line glancing off a sphere I will lose something important.

No no…I keep going.

Because my glasses fogged up with tears from crying.  When I had to get up to pee.

Later.  The retarded girl.  In the Krokus shirt.  But when she’s jogging back and forth.

That’s my family.

Yeah, for a minute I saw the whole totality of my lineage.

And it really made me cry.  Prematurely.

But mostly it’s when the rain falls.

It looks like the most heavenly scene.

I’m Mr. Rabbit.  I took a lot of risks.

A pink life.  That’s being vulnerable.  Listening to Tchaikovsky.

I skated down the hill on a banana like Jesus Christ.

One little pebble and my face is fucked for weeks.

One passing car and I’m Jello.  J E LL O.

But take a deep breath because you’ve shivered shirtless.

God damn.  You’ve got pink rabbit ears and knuckle tats.

You weren’t meant for this world.

And when the perfect storm comes—-

a lifetime of pain melts away.

For a second.

You’re not the freak.

For a second somebody wants you.

And you want them too.

And, really, it’s just fun.

That life has dealt you this miracle.

It makes your Xenia, Ohio bearable.  Just.

Life is transitory.  Crackling like a wet transistor.

Here today be here not tomorrow.

-PD

Sauve qui peut /la vie/ [1980)

12 seconds.  5 minutes.  2 fortnights.  a jiffy.

Really, I shouldn’t have to comment on the commodification of time.  Is that not the essence of capitalism?

Into your busy lives cram another blog post.  Another sloppy film review.  A film.

A more professional critic would start by alluding to the copious literature which points to this film as Godard’s return to form.

A strange phrase.  Which form?

Because really, for me, Godard begins here.  The known Godard is Parisian Godard…la nouvelle vague.

The unknown Godard is everything else.  As an American consumer it is rather inconvenient to obtain all but the classic films from our auteur.  After Week-end (1967), the DVDs become exponentially harder to come by.

But, as a rule, I digress.  Liberally.  Often.  Without fail.

This, then, would seem to be Godard emerging from the black forest of political filmmaking and ethical soul-searching to find the inklings of his mature style.

It is not an original thought.  The English-language biographies cover this thoroughly.  The device in question is (for lack of a more exact term) slow-motion.

It is the playful wonder of a man who still has the curiosity of a boy.

Technology changing.  New idiosyncrasies to each bit of gear on the market.

It is the same now.  Stash your camera on the top shelf and soon you will not know how to make films.

Your equipment will be obsolete and your knowledge outdated.

But that is all tertiary (tertiary?) in importance.

To our film.

We have characters; plot.  A walk in the wilderness and Godard (with the indispensable Anne-Marie Miéville) returned to a somewhat recognizable form.  As always, however, the form is highly subverted.  One might even say perverted in this particular instance.  It is a strange beauty.  Incomparable.  A triumph.  A mere glimpse of things to come.

Always playing on archetypes, Godard casts singer Jacques Dutronc as Paul Godard.  There can be little doubt that this character is meant to represent the filmmaker himself.  Every marker is there:  the ubiquitous cigar, the glasses, the mannerisms, the disheveled college professor sartorial ensembles…

The stunning Nathalie Baye plays Denise Rimbaud.  Here is where the ark types.  Arc-en-ciel.  A panorama of wispy clouds.  Yes, Arthur is never far…nor Baudelaire…nor Sartre and Duras.  And Marguerite?  Faust.  Your soul for a job.

Yes, prostitution returns.  The grand Godardian theme.  Isabelle Huppert plays the role of the sex worker Isabelle Rivière.

The setting?  Switzerland.  We see the signs at the station.  Nyon.  Not Lyon, Nyon.  It brings us back to that area we visited in Godard’s second film (though it was banned and thus delayed in release) Le Petit Soldat.

The famous scenes are of Baye on a bicycle–of Dutronc in a classroom before a chalkboard reading “Cain et Abel” and “Film et video.”

Yes, the sexual aspects of this film are heavy.  This perhaps proves that Godard’s return to mainstream filmmaking was not the end of his rebellious period.

Though there is a plot and there are discernible characters, it is not always clear what is going on.  What cannot be disputed is the sadness which Godard brings to light with yet another exposé of whoring.  Likewise, it might be gathered that the filmmaker is commenting on the perception of rural Switzerland as pristine and bucolic.  The perverse element of our film echoes previous erotic episodes of Pasolini and Buñuel.

Finally, one can’t help wondering whether the film in question had a formative effect on the Iranian director Kiarostami.  As in the later Taste of Cherry, Godard has one last trick up his sleeve to end out Sauve qui peut (la vie).

Indeed, Jean-Luc Godard was starting to find his magic touch again with this film…and its traces attested to a talent which was richer and better than ever before.

-PD

Une femme est une femme [1961)

I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.  So says Jean-Claude Brialy near the end of this film.  This is, indeed, a complex turning point in Godard’s filmography.  It is important to note that Godard made a film in between Breathless and A Woman is a Woman (Le Petit soldat), but it was banned by the French government because it focused on torture (as part of the ongoing Algerian War).  What is obvious is the dramatic shift from the stark noir of Breathless to the candied colors of A Woman is a Woman.

But there are many things strange about this relatively “normal” film (relative as regards Godard).  There is a sexual, existential tension between Anna Karina and Godard the director which is played out in a complex quasi-real paradox of a love triangle.  Bear with me…  Brialy and Belmondo are both symbols, but at times it seems that Belmondo is a symbol for himself.  Brialy is more obviously the “Godard” character.  Knowing the history of Karina and Godard, it might seem rather premature for them to be having relationship problems, but that’s why it is essential to note that her first film as Godard’s muse was Le Petit soldat.  [It would eventually be released after Vivre sa vie as his fourth film (and, importantly, after the Algerian War had ended).]

I would go so far as to say that Godard is weirder in this film (last I checked, the only of his films available on Netflix=his most lasting contribution to the mainstream) than Jodorowsky is in The Holy Mountain.  That might seem to be a stretch, but again:  bear with me.  Jodorowsky, while brilliant, is over-the-top in such a way which harkens back to the earliest of avant-gardes…the films of Dali and Bunuel.  Godard, on the other hand, while seeming to “play the game” to a certain extent was in actuality creating a new language.  Just the first few moments of A Woman is a Woman alone are enough to indicate as much.  The role of sound and music in this film is paramount.  While perhaps little noticed, Godard (together with the music of Michel Legrand) had developed a sort of audio jump cut.  He would use this device to greatest effect in the opening credits of Vivre sa vie.  The inexplicable stops and starts in both the soundtrack and the ostensibly synchronized sound (dialogue and such) serve to once again make the viewer subtly ill-at-ease (just as Breathless had done visually).

James Monaco had it right when he talked about the Nouvelle Vague exploding genres from the inside out.  Godard here chooses the American musical.  I could go on at length, but I will keep it short.  No one has dug deeper into themselves time after time to give the viewer a truly novel and thought-provoking experience than Jean-Luc Godard.  Understood on a strictly intellectual level, it is fascinating.  Viewed over the course of a long, persistent career, it is truly touching.

-PD