Pulp Fiction [1994)

I was wrong.

This film is a miracle.

Next thing you know I’ll be praising Schindler’s List.

But don’t get me wrong.

I’m being honest.

Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece.

I’ve taken a lot of potshots at Quentin Tarantino.

In reality (of course) I was only shooting at myself.

Because once something becomes too big and too popular…

it can be hard to relate to it.

[Like another masterpiece…The Big Lebowski]

Because I had a massive panic attack when I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater.

In 1994.

The needle.

No, the big one.

Adrenaline.

Shot to the heart.

I thought Tarantino gave America a bad name…gave cinema an empty way.

I was wrong.

I hope someday I will be testifying about my conviction in the veracity of the 9/11 commission report.

Snowball day in hell.

My Schindler’s List paean will have long been on this newsstand by then.

Which is to say, not bloody likely.

But there was something I always liked about Tarantino.

Less Miller, more Burroughs.

Hubert Selby meets Comic Book Guy.

Which is to say, me…basically.

Ok, not exactly…but close enough to be a band apart.

 

-PD

Čovek nije ptica [1965)

It makes sense that Man Is Not a Bird was Dušan Makavejev’s first film.  It has that first-film “breadth” to it.

Where Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. (Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator) struck with absolute precision, Čovek nije ptica meanders about a bit in search of the appropriate film language. 

[N.B.  Wikipedia spells “bird” in Serbo-Croat for this film as “tica”.  I’m not sure why that is as “tica” seems to mean nothing (whereas “ptica” means “bird”).]

Though our film is set in a strange, backwards town, the narrative is considerably sprawled.

Eva Ras (the star of Love Affair…) is here as a more minor character.  However, she is the one who most lives out the message of the title.

This film has a strange obsession with hypnosis.  There is a hypnotist, but the film starts off with a scientific denunciation of superstition.  Through hypnosis (we are told), a distressed person can be made to abandon the grip of superstition.

Back to our hypnotist in the middle of the film…he is more of an entertainer than anything.  I am not entirely sure, but I believe the initial “legitimate” hypnotist (psychologist) and the later “entertainer” hypnotist are played by the same actor.

If that is the case, then Makavejev’s later metaphor (the circus) makes more sense.  But what is really complex about this film is the layering of metaphors upon one another.  It makes finding meaning very difficult.

One “reading” would be that life is a circus.  Another reading would be that “cinema” is a circus which purports to present a more truthful version of life than what we know.

But what does that mean?

Every day we experience life is some respect.  What could be “more truthful” than our daily experience?  Is Makavejev implying that we lie to ourselves?  Quite possibly.

As film viewers (spectators), we may become immersed in a particular movie and identify with characters and stories.  In a way, WE are the fourth wall.  The fourth wall is our temporary reality.  We enter into the false reality of film.

But, film gives us a chance to observe “ourselves”.  When we heavily identify with a particular character, we are having a sort of “out of body experience”.

And this brings us back to hypnosis.

Man Is Not a Bird is a very beautiful film (in a grimy, socialist, factory soot kind of way), but it is (perhaps not surprisingly) a dark film as well.

Shot, like Love Affair…, in black and white there is something more sinister about this film than the more gentle and humorous Love Affair…  But who are we kidding?  Love Affair… is inextricably wound up with death.  What could be darker than that?

Answer:  life without life.

It is what Eva Ras experiences as she is emotionally abused and disrespected by her husband.  Her husband, as it turns out, is working a job which is so hazardous to his health that the position is being eliminated ASAP.  And that’s in communist Yugoslavia!  All through this film we see a sort of poverty which separates East from West.  The poor Eastern Europeans.  What the West would come to realize (like New York Times film critic Vincent Canby) was that the East had something of immense wealth.  If pressed, I would call it soul.

Man is not a bird (even if, under hypnosis, he believes this to be the case).  Man is also no angel.  Janez Vrhovec plays a sort of martyr in this film.  Another more light-hearted character prods him as to whether he can feel the tingling of his burgeoning angel wings (the prodding is actually quite sardonic).

Man is not a machine.  But Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), the deft Slovenian machinist/engineer, has become a slave to his job.  From Pakistan to Dar es Salaam:  Rudinski makes his comrades proud with his exceptional efficiency.

But let us return to Eva Ras.

To turn Godard on his head, A Woman Is Not A Woman.

Why do I say that?

Because the French word for wife (femme) is the same as the French word for woman (femme).

And so a whole new world of wordplay opens up for us concerning TWO Godard films (namely):

Une Femme est une femme

and

Une Femme mariée.

In the first, we could potentially have the proto-syllogisms:

A woman is a wife.

Or, conversely:

A wife is a woman.

Furthermore, we could have:

A woman is a woman (the accepted translation in the English-speaking world).

Or, on the contrary:

A wife is a wife.

It gets to be such that we assume there is some sort of “boys will be boys” idiomatic phrase in operation.  Not being a native French speaker, I cannot confirm or deny that.  But I do know that Godard loves word play.  And therefore, the simple answer may not be the intended answer.

To illustrate further we have,

Une Femme mariée.

The accepted English translation is A Married Woman, but could it not be the more perverse and thought-provoking A Married Wife?

One thing is certain:

Man Is Not a Bird will have you under its spell whether you understand it or not.  At least, that’s the experience I had.

I would add one final bit of exegesis (extra Jesus).

It may very well be that Makavejev was making a disparaging statement about the communist Yugoslavian state with his first film.  It would be like the secret messages which Shostakovich managed to work into his music (particularly the string quartets) while living in Soviet Russia.

In the hands of communist governments, art (and particularly film…after Lenin’s admiration of the medium for its uniqueness) had to represent the people.  On one side (with communist eyes) this is admirable.  From the other (with capitalist eyes) this is seen as propaganda.

Any astute capitalist would have realized that (particularly in times of war) there was not much difference from communist and capitalist propaganda.  Both economic systems availed themselves of the practice of propagandizing.

But my guess, regarding the film in question, is that Makavejev recognized his own role as a propagandist (he had no choice in the matter…either please the censors or leave the profession) and likewise saw film as a double-edged sword of hypnosis.

And so his first film is really a realization…of that power in film…that power that can drive the masses to love…or to kill.

 

-PD

 

 

 

M [1931)

Perhaps we pay too much attention to the story.

We all love a good story.

But the mark of the genius filmmaker may be found in their method of narrative.  The art of how they tell their stories.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t thrilled to return to this Fritz Lang masterpiece, but I’m glad I did.

It is very much how I feel about Hitchcock’s Psycho.  It is a wonderful film, but it’s not something I want to throw on once a week during the course of kicking back.

M, like Psycho, is a supremely tense film.  Nowadays, when we think of Hitchcock, we might reflect on his tastefulness.  Think about it (says Jerry Lee).  In Hitchcock’s day (a long, productive “day”), things which are now shown with impunity were positively disallowed for a Hollywood filmmaker.  Blood and guts…no.  Hitchcock was forced to artfully suggest.

The strictures guiding Fritz Lang (29 years earlier) were even more conservative.  But even so, M is a genuinely terrifying movie.

Terrifying films are rarely relaxing.  They are not meant to be.

But as I had seen this one before, I was able to focus more on the method employed by Lang.  The truth is, M is a masterpiece.  It really is the treatment of a brute subject (murder) with incredible subtlety.

What is most radical about M is its counterintuitive take on crime.

Within this film, crime is divided into capital and noncapital offenses.

In M, a band of criminals exists which seeks to put a serial killer out of business.  It may seem a strange turn of phrase, but this killer is bad for the business of other criminals (mainly thieves and such).

A town in terrorized.  The police regularly raid establishments.  You must have your “papers” with you at all times.

And so those who survive on crime are so desperate as to adopt (temporarily) the same goal as the police:  catch the killer.

It is not giving much away to tell you that Peter Lorre is the killer.  This is not a whodunit.  It’s a “what’s gonna happen”.  That I will leave to your viewing pleasure.

While I am on the subject of Lorre, let me just say that this is one of the finest, weirdest performances in cinema history.  The final scene is one of absolutely raw nerves.  Lorre is not the cute, vaguely-foreign character he would become in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.  Lorre is stark-raving mad.

His attacks of psychosis are chilling to observe.  But really, it is his final outburst which tops any bit of lunacy I’ve ever seen filmed.

Today there would likely be plenty of actors ready to play such a macabre role, but in 1931 this was a potential death wish.

That Lorre put his soul into it tells us something important about him.  First, he was capable of being more than a “sidekick” (as he was in the previously-mentioned Bogart films).  Second, he was dedicated to the art of acting.  Lorre was not “mailing it in”.  Playing such a role can’t be particularly healthy for one’s mental state.

But there’s a further thing.  His final monologue is filled with such angst.  Let us consider the year:  1931.  In the midst of the Great Depression.

But also we must consider the country:  Germany.  These were the waning years of the Weimar Republic.  Three important dates would end this democratic republic:  Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Jan. 30, 1933), 9/11 the Reichstag fire (Feb. 27, 1933), and the Enabling Act (Mar. 23, 1933).

The era of M (1931) was the era of Heinrich Brüning’s “deflationary” monetary policy as German Chancellor.  I put deflationary in quotation marks because Wikipedia’s current description might better be termed contractionary monetary policy.

As Wikipedia would tell it, Brüning was essentially instating fiscal austerity (that hot-button term of recent times) concomitantly with the aforementioned monetary approach.  This was, of course, the failure which paved the way for Adolf Hitler to take control of Germany.

And so we find that the historian Webster Tarpley is right when he refers to certain modern-day policy makers as austerity “ghouls”.  Either conservative/fascist leaders across the globe have no grasp of history, or they are looking forward with anticipation to the next Hitler or Mussolini.

It should be noted that Tarpley is coming from a socialist perspective rooted in the Democratic Party of FDR.  His opposition, therefore, would likely brand him as liberal/communist and through slippery-slope logic see the policies he espouses as paving the way for the next Stalin or Mao.

And so goes the political circus…ad nauseam.

Returning to film, we must at least consider this situation in Germany.  The country was still paying war reparations from WWI (though this was becoming impossible because of the internal economic woes).

What is perhaps most astonishing is how much Peter Lorre’s character prefigures the Hitler caricature which has come down to us from history.

War-based societies have a compulsion to kill.  Germany found out the hard way that this is not a healthy default.  Sadly, today’s Germany has not checked the most warmongering modern country on Earth (the United States) enough to make any difference.

The United States has, for a long time now, been breathing…seething for a war.  The “masters of war” are all wearing suits.  Only suits want to go to war.  A true warrior does not want war.  Only those who will go unscathed actively invite war.

But there is an insanity in suits.  A compulsion.  Don’t let the suit fool you.  A suit is, for us grown-ups, the equivalent of a piece of candy…or an apple…or a balloon for a child.  A suit advocating war is saying, “Keep your eyes on my suit.  I know best.  Trust in me.  Look at my impressive degree.”

The suits like places such as Raven Rock Mountain.  The suits won’t be on the battlefield.  And don’t let the 10% who actually fought in a war fool you:  they were in non-combat operations.  Their daddies made sure of it.

So keep your eyes open for the M of American cinema.  Who is the next fascist to take the stage?  Hitler had a Charlie Chaplin moustache.  How dangerous could he be?  Trump has a ginger comb-over.  Surely he’s harmless, right?

 

-PD