First a quick note for those Metro Classics fans in the audience. We are going to have a fall edition of the series starting sometime in October. We’re shooting for the 10th, but that may not be feasible. We’ve got some great stuff in mind, so stay tuned and I’ll announce the full schedule here as soon as everything’s finalized.
I mentioned Edward Copeland‘s non-English language film poll a couple weeks ago. Of the 122 nominees for that poll, there were quite a few I hadn’t seen. Before submitting my ballot, due Sept. 16, I wanted to watch as many of those as I could. Here’s what I’ve seen thus far, with a few brief comments about them. And yes, most of these had been saved on my tivo for months, if not years.
Cranes Are Flying – This Russian film from 1957, directed by Mikheil Kalatozishvili follows a girl who’s boyfriend leaves her to fight Nazis at the start of World War 2. She ends up marrying his cousin and hating herself, but things more or less work out in the end. It’s fairly conventional, plot wise, but wonderfully executed. From the opening sequence, with an eponymous bird’s eye view of the young lovers, the film is beautiful. Quite impressive are a series of long tracking shots following the leads through massive crowds and a sequence where the girl finds the smoking remains of her bombed-out home. The #8 film of 1957.
Viridiana – Seems to me like Luis Buñuel’s response to Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (#8, 1952). That film is about an upper class woman who’s son dies and to cope, she devotes her life to helping the poor, only to be declared insane by her family and society at large. Buñuel’s film is about a nun-in-training who’s uncle dies after trying and failing to seduce her. She leaves the nunnery and devotes her life (and inheritance) to helping the poor. Except the poor turn out to be not much worth helping. Well-made, but essentially a one joke movie. The #9 film of 1961.
The Exterminating Angel – This Buñuel I liked a lot, and it’s a real contender to make my final ballot. A bunch of swells have a dinner party and find they can’t leave. For days (weeks?) they’re stuck in a single room, and no one can even enter the house they’re trapped in. You can fill in your own meanings from their, but the real achievement of the film is that it’s more than a clever metaphor, it never fails to be an entertaining film. Sure, it’s weird and profound, but it’s also hilarious. The #5 film of 1962.
Ashes And Diamonds – Andrzej Wajda’s influential film follows an assassin in the Polish Resistance on the last day of WW2. He’s ordered to kill a communist leader, but accidentally kills the wrong man and finds himself staying at the same hotel as his intended target. Some stunning imagery (a man’s jacket catching fire as he’s shot in the back, the shadow of an inverted crucifix in a bombed-out church, among others), excellent performances and an overwhelmingly apocalyptic mood and sense of place make it an unforgettable, if horribly depressing film. The #9 film of 1958.
Lola Montès – The DVD Netflix sent me of this was pretty lousy, but it’s still easy to tell that this is a great film. Director Max Ophuls last film (he’s uncredited on a later one at imdb), it’s the story of a famous 19th Century woman who traveled around Europe and had a series of romances with a few famous people, including Franz Liszt and the King Of Bavaria. She’s reduced to telling her life story at a circus, while the various acts act out or interpret the events under the direction of Peter Ustinov as the ringmaster. Ophuls’s famously fluid camera (long, mobile takes that seemingly dance through the film space) and the lushness of the melodrama make this a highly enjoyable film. But after one viewing on a lame DVD, I’m not ready to call it the greatest film ever made (as Andrew Sarris has done). Actually, I think I liked Madame de. . . (#3, 1955) better, but I’m not sure about that. Frankly, only one showing each of only two Ophuls films is not enough evidence for me to raw any conclusions about anything. The #6 film of 1955.
To Live – One of two Zhang Yimou films to be nominated, and I don’t really know why it did. It isn’t a bad film by any stretch. Like any of Zhang’s films, it’s stunningly beautiful, with vibrant colors, terrific period detail and Gong Li. But the story’s a conventional “follow a family through several decades of historical events” plot, with boatloads of coincidence and tragic contrivance piled on top. There’s some really cool shadow puppetry imagery I’d never seen before, and Zhang deserves some credit for making a film critical of Mao and the Cultural Revolution (the movie’s still banned in China, as far as I know), but it’s merely a very good historical melodrama, not a truly great film. The #16 movie of 1994.
Every Man For Himself And God Against All – I like that title of Werner Herzog’s film oh so much better than the title under which it was nominated, “The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser”, which is far too literal and totally lacking in poetry. Anyway, the film is pretty good, a Herzogian companion piece to François Truffaut’s The Wild Child (#4, 1970). Both films are about people who don’t join civilization until late in life, adolescence in the case of Truffaut, well into adulthood for Herzog. Truffaut’s film plays with film technique to create a sense of turn of the century film and science (black and white photography, lots of irises and other antique techniques), reflecting Truffaut’s own obsessive cinephilia and the way he viewed everything in terms of film. Herzog’s film is much more subdued technically, fitting his own more minimalist style as a director, it’s in color, there’s some quite beautiful landscapes and images of nature contrasting with the horrors of civilization (a freak show, an upperclass party) and the takes are relatively long and stationary. Bruno S. is quite remarkable as Kaspar, a character who never fails to be fascinating both as an idea and as a person. It might be the most depressing Herzog film I’ve seen, however. The #7 film of 1974.
The Decalogue – Director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10 hour miniseries made for Polish television is a fascinating and serious inquiry into ethics and meditation of the ten commandments and their relevance to modern life. All ten stories are centered on a housing complex in Warsaw (the nicest one, according to Kieslowski, which is a political commentary all its own) where most of the people in the films live. The films aren’t divided into separate commandments each, but instead explore the decalogue as a whole, the interrelations and contradictions between and within the commandments (“Thou shall not kill” seen through a psychotic murderer and his defense attorney arguing against capital punishment, for example). The films would be a fantastic syllabus for an ethics class, with each story raising more questions than it answers. But as a film, I can;t say it was a particularly enjoyable viewing experience. The cinematography is uniformly drab, reflecting the low-budget of the series, the mediocre DVD transfer and the colorlessness of life in communist Poland, which only adds to the oppressive melancholy of the whole experience. Kieslowki’s later films are a lot more fun, both in terms of color and style, and thematically, as romantic (borderline mystical) explorations of modern life. The Decalogue is a serious and quite worthy film, but it’s weighed down by a depressing lack of whimsy. The #7 film of 1989.
Dersu Uzala – The only Akira Kurosawa film among the nominees I’d not yet seen, made in the Soviet Union a few years after he tried to kill himself. It’s a simple and sentimental story of a turn of the century Russian explorer and the remarkable Goldi tribesman he meets and employs as a guide. It’s very much in line with Kurosawa’s later pessimism about humanity and it’s impact on the world, which crops up even more explicitly in the worst sequences of Dreams (#3, 1990). It’s essentially a magical native story, with the civilized white man being shown the true way to live in harmony with the universe by an uneducated yet quite wise Asian (typically in films this role is played by a Native American, for example, Dances With Wolves). It’s a step up in the western genre from portraying natives as murderous savages, but it’s condescending nonetheless. See Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (#1, 1995) for a more fully human native character. Despite all this, Kurosawa’s film is quite good, one of his more pictorially beautiful films (easy to tell, despite the terrible Kino DVD Netflix sent me) with some remarkable landscapes dwarfing the puny humans. There’s a remarkable sequence where Dersu and the Russian are lost on a flat plain with night and a blizzard on the way, as well as some of Kurosawa’s best ever sunsets. A fine film, but probably not among Kurosawa’s 10 best. The #4 film of 1975.
I plan to watch Come And See, the only nominated film I’d never heard of tonight, then get my ballot done, with comments by the deadline on Sunday.