1. My Bloody Valentine (Mihalka)
2. Twitch of the Death Nerve (Bava)
3. Walkabout (Roeg)
4. Wake in Fright (Kotcheff)
5. My Brilliant Career (Armstrong)
6. Cremaster 2 (Barney)
7. Cremaster 1 (Barney)
8. Kill Baby, Kill (Bava)
9. Blood and Black Lace (Bava)
10. Seeking Asian Female (Lum)
Author Archives: michaelgloversmith
1. My Bloody Valentine (Mihalka)
So I recently finished reading The Leopard (or Il Gattpardo as it’s known in Italian), the great but sadly one-and-only novel written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The book was originally published in 1958, exactly one year after the author’s death, and it is well-known today primarily for serving as the basis for Luchino Visconti’s opulent, Burt Lancaster-starring film version from 1963. To anyone with an interest in the movie — and you should be interested in it (although if you’ve not yet seen it you may want to bone up on reading about Garibaldi, the Risorgimento and 19th century Italian history in general over at Wikipedia first) — I would also recommend checking out the source novel: it will help you to understand the soul of the Sicilian people. Catholic hypocrisy, class differences, aging machismo, an elegy for the dying aristocracy, etc. All of that and more comes to life in Lampedusa’s beautiful and vivid prose.
I must admit, however, that one very curious sentence in the book caught me completely off-guard — a startling cinematic reference that the author casually drops into the middle of a scene taking place in 1860 when most of the novel’s action is set. Lampedusa describes the elation of Angelica (the character played by Claudia Cardinale in the movie) upon being asked to marry Tancredi (the character played by Alain Delon) by his uncle, the Prince of Salina (Lancaster’s character):
After this Angelica blushed, took half a step back: ‘I’m so happy . . .,’ then came close again, stood on tiptoe, and murmured into his ear, ‘Uncle mine!’; a highly successful line, comparable in its perfect timing almost to Eisenstein’s baby carriage, and which, explicit and secret as it was, set the Prince’s simple heart aflutter and yoked him to the lovely girl forever.
While one might expect this kind of surprising anachronistic metaphor from, say, Thomas Pynchon (who deliberately and hilariously peppers his “period” novels with this sort of thing), it is the only such 20th century reference that I’m aware of in Lampedusa’s entire novel — at least until the brief epilogue, which flashes-forward to 1910 (and that’s still 15 years before Eisenstein’s movie was made). As incongruous as it may seem, however, I think Lampedusa does have a point: Sergei Eisenstein’s baby carriage shots are perfectly placed within the Odessa steps massacre montage towards the end of Battleship Potemkin. One might even say that they serve as the climax of the film’s climax. The great Russian director, who edited his movies with almost mathematical precision, certainly knew a thing or two about timing — as did Lampedusa and, for that matter, Visconti.
Both Battleship Potemkin and The Leopard are available in high-quality restored editions on Blu-ray and DVD, the former via Kino and the latter via Criterion (the Blu-ray of which is the greatest shit evah). My copy of The Leopard, the novel, was published by Pantheon Books in 2007 and translated by one Archibald Colquhoun.
For the next few months I’ll be doing a “Spotlight on S. Korea” series, in which I discuss some of the most exciting films to come out of that country in recent years. First up is a look at Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area from 2000.
While recently suffering through a screening of Im Sang-soo’s interminable The Taste of Money, a ham-fisted melodrama whose trite sociological insights (money corrupts!) seem to only serve as a thin pretext for copious amounts of sex and nudity, I had to ask myself, “Is the S. Korean New Wave finally dead?” Is this really the best of the recent Korean movies upon which the likes of the Cannes Film Festival and IFC Films has to draw? Some would say that the death knell first sounded in 2006: that’s when the S. Korean government, as part of a new “free trade” agreement with the U.S., struck down a “screen quota” law that required theaters to show locally produced movies for at least 40% of the year. Yet great S. Korean films continued to be made over the next several years, even if they were less frequent in number than in the halcyon days of 2002-2005. It now seems, however, that the S. Korean cinema might really be going the way of the formerly mighty film industry of Hong Kong: among the top tier of Korean directors, several have recently tried their luck working outside of their native country for the first time (Kim Ji-woon with the poorly received Arnold Schwarzenegger-vehicle The Last Stand, Park Chan-wook with the superb but under-promoted Nicole Kidman-starring Stoker and Bong Joon-ho with the forthcoming international co-production Snowpiercer). Lee Chang-dong, arguably the greatest contemporary S. Korean director, has always worked at a slow pace, directing just three of his uniquely novelistic movies since his breakout success with Peppermint Candy in 1999. That leaves only the prolific Hong Sang-soo to keep the home fires burning with the dependable annual releases of his patented intellectual take on the rom-com. So now seems like a good time to look back at the remarkable burst of creativity that the S. Korean directors showed in the early 21st century.
Whenever I am lucky enough to teach contemporary S. Korean cinema in a class, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area is always the movie I screen first, even if it might not come first chronologically among the films I’ve chosen to show. This is because J.S.A.‘s political-thriller plot lays out the entire history of the conflict between North and South Korea in a way that is succinct, accessible and informative without ever being didactic. It is also ideal because it was directed by Park Chan-wook, who is probably the single most popular and critically acclaimed director, on an international basis, to come out of S. Korea since the 1990s. Park was born in Seoul in 1963. He majored in Philosophy at Sogang University, where he also started a movie club (and many critics have seen a dovetailing of these interests in his highly regarded, philosophically inflected “Vengeance trilogy”). It was while in college that Park first decided to become a film director, after attending a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Upon graduation, he worked as a film critic, then as an assistant director before he made his feature directing debut in 1992 with a movie entitled The Moon is the Sun’s Dream. Both this debut film and Trio, his 1997 follow-up, were met with critical and commercial indifference. J.S.A., his third movie, was released in 2000 and quickly broke all box-office records to become the highest grossing Korean movie of all time.
J.S.A. tells the fictional story of a shooting at the “Joint Security Area” on the border between the two Koreas, an incident allegedly perpetrated by a South Korean soldier, that has left two North Korean soldiers dead and another seriously wounded. Because this event inflames an already highly sensitive diplomatic situation, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission sends in a Swiss Army officer of Korean descent, Major Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae, the future “Lady Vengeance”), to investigate. After interviewing participants on both sides of the incident and hearing conflicting accounts of what happened, Jang quickly realizes that nothing is what it seems. But who is lying and why? This present day story is intercut with lengthy flashbacks concerning the principles involved in the shooting — in particular, North Korean Sergeant Oh (the great Song Kang-ho) and South Korean Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun). Without giving too much of the plot away, Park gradually leads viewers to realize that what both sides are trying to cover up is nothing more harmful than friendship, which pushes the story in directions both ironic and tragic.
One of the things that surprised me the most when I started exploring S. Korean cinema years ago was the degree to which its filmmakers expressed a desire for reunification and reconciliation with the North, a country with which they are still technically at war. J.S.A., a movie without precedent, was widely acclaimed by S. Korean critics as well as audiences upon its first release. In fact, the only sector of S. Korean society that seemed to disapprove of the film was the military (whose members objected to a sympathetic portrayal of the N. Korean “enemy”). The movie’s plea for tolerance and peace was clearly a message that resonated far and wide in a country whose inhabitants have been raised to hate and fear a neighbor they know little about, despite sharing a common language and culture. Yet because film censorship laws had only been relaxed in S. Korea a few years prior to J.S.A. being made, it was a message that would not have been possible any earlier. Fortunately, Park Chan-wook was well-positioned to deliver such a message in making J.S.A. (not only as a young ambitious writer/director eager to bust taboos but also as a member of the Democratic Labor Party, the most progressive political party in his country).
One of the central ideas in J.S.A., posited, as is often the case with Park, in mostly visual terms, is the tragic notion that borders are man-made and therefore arbitrary. The motif of borders, whether physical or psychological (sometimes the division is within a single character), is one that recurs throughout S. Korean cinema and Park’s movies in particular. The notion of “being divided” seems almost ingrained in the Korean consciousness and Park fully explores the concept here, occasionally with a dash of absurd humor, in the film’s many bifurcated frames. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the final shot of J.S.A., a doozy that haunts in its evocative ambiguity: in a flashback to an event that occurred midway through the movie, Park allows his camera to pan across and zoom in and out of — Ken Burns-style — a black-and-white photograph of all four of the film’s main characters in happier times; two soldiers from the North and two from the South, each standing on opposite sides of the border that runs through the Joint Security Area, are united together in the same frame yet separated from each other by a government-enforced line of demarcation — a moment that is frozen in time forever.
J.S.A.: Joint Security Area is available in a serviceable edition on DVD from Palm Pictures. An upgrade to Blu-ray, a format on which all of Park’s subsequent movies are available, would be most welcome.
Last month I had the great pleasure of serving on a film festival jury for the very first time. While the Goudy Elementary School’s first “Media Arts Showcase” — featuring the work of students from grades four through eight — may not be the most prestigious festival in town, it could very well be the most important in terms of the influence it has on the participating filmmakers. Most of Goudy’s students live below the poverty line but they were nonetheless able to create movies at school using high-end equipment because of a grant that the school had applied for and won. The students’ media arts teacher, Ricki Proper, taught them how to use software programs like iMovie and GarageBand on Macbook Pro Laptops and iPads in order to create short narrative and documentary films. The resulting movies, written, directed, shot and edited entirely by the student filmmakers, were extremely impressive. This made my job, as sort of the odd man out on a jury of five local business and community leaders, extremely difficult.
The fourth graders created “Digital Storybooks,” which combined computer generated artwork with text and voice-over narration, the fifth and sixth graders created stop-motion animated shorts (some of which featured real people, some of which featured Legos) and the seventh and eighth graders created live action films, most of which were documentaries (bullying was a popular subject). When the jury convened to discuss awarding prizes, we decided that — because of the astounding creativity on display overall, as well as the broad range of the filmmakers’ ages and styles — we wanted to spread the wealth by awarding only one prize per movie (as the Cannes Film Festival jurors are encouraged to do). We also wanted to award at least one prize per grade. But because all five of our prizes (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Sound) were going to films from grades five through eight, this meant that the fourth grade would be left out. At the last minute, I proposed creating a new award for Best Screenplay so that our favorite film from the fourth grade might also win something. This prize ended up going to a digital storybook with an irresistibly amusing premise: a little boy has trouble falling asleep after watching a horror movie about a ghost named “Bloody Mary” . . . until his parents help him to conquer his fear by renting a parody film about the very same subject. How about that for a clever “meta” conceit!
All in all, serving on a festival jury was more difficult than I had imagined it would be but it also proved to be an immensely rewarding experience. These students, many of whom I would call natural born filmmakers, ended up making me feel good about not just about the future of cinema, but humanity as well.
Special thanks to Lisa Wagner for inviting me to take part in this event. You can learn more about the Goudy School’s innovative Media Arts program here: http://rickiproper.wix.com/goudymediaarts
1. Holy Motors (Carax)
2. Bug (Friedkin)
3. Germany, Pale Mother (Sanders-Brahms)
4. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax)
5. Palermo or Wolfsburg (Schroeter)
6. Sun Don’t Shine (Seimetz)
7. Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg)
8. Grace (Solet)
9. The Devil’s Backbone (Del Toro)
10. Before Sunset (Linklater)
Newly released on Blu-ray from Lionsgate UK — meaning anyone living outside of Europe needs to have a multi-region Blu-ray player to enjoy it — is a newly restored version of Hammer Studios’ original 1958 production of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (also known to ugly Americans as Horror of Dracula). While I am by no means a Hammer expert, I do love a good horror movie as well as a good restoration job; this release happily combines both of those things in a high-quality package that probably deserves to be called the definitive home video presentation of Fisher’s masterpiece. One should not confuse this restoration, however, with the 2007 BFI restoration of the very same film. Hammer’s new version happily restores approximately 20 seconds of sensuality and gore, recently unearthed in Japan, that had been ordered cut by the British Board of Film Censors before its original release 55 years ago (more on that later). Longtime fans should be eager to scoop up this set — not only because of the newly restored footage but also because this release presents Dracula on home video for the very first time in its original theatrical aspect ratio and in the closest approximation of its original color timing. Horror aficionados who haven’t yet seen it should also be curious to find out why it is perhaps the most influential cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s often-filmed novel (barring perhaps only Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unofficial version from 1922).
The first thing one notices about Hammer’s approach to Dracula is how much director Fisher and Hammer contract-writer Jimmy Sangster have streamlined Stoker’s narrative. When Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) travels to Dracula’s castle at the beginning of the movie he is no longer a clueless real estate agent but a vampire hunter and scholar instead. We learn that Harker has accepted a job working in the Count’s library as a mere pretext for gaining access to the title bloodsucker’s home in the hopes of vanquishing him. Dracula (Christopher Lee), however, is on to Harker and ends up subjugating him first. The vampire hunter’s partner, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), soon arrives hot on Harker’s heels to investigate. In addition to this tidier exposition, the Hammer version also dispenses, after its opening scene, with the first-person narration of Stoker’s epistolary novel and even some of the book’s most important supporting characters (e.g., everyone’s favorite bug-eating maniac, Renfield). More importantly, Fisher’s movie, while retaining the novel’s 19th century setting, clearly uses Stoker’s story as a means of commenting on the still-stifling social mores of post-war Britain. The filmmakers certainly knew what they were doing when they cast the sensual and charismatic Lee as Dracula and the stuffier, more reactionary-seeming Cushing as Van Helsing. (For an in-depth account of how Hammer presents the Count as an ambiguous “counter-cultural hero,” largely because of the sexually liberating effect of his attacks on his seemingly willing female “victims,” check out Pete Hoskin’s brilliant essay at Gary Tooze’s invaluable site DVD Beaver).
Now on to the good stuff: the 20 seconds of previously unseen footage is confined to just a few shots in two scenes. And yet what a difference 20 seconds can make! The censored scenes in question are Dracula’s seduction of Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling), the aforementioned “sensuality,” and Dracula’s daylight disintegration, the aforementioned “gore.” The earlier scene makes explicit something viewers had previously only strongly suspected — that Mina, like all of Dracula’s female victims, actually enjoys the Count’s nocturnal visits. While this sensuality is latent in both Stoker’s novel and in Murnau’s Nosferatu (check out the way Greta Schröder’s Ellen flings the window open to offer herself to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok), it really comes to the fore in the Hammer version — and now more than ever in the new restoration. The seduction scene now contains a single new shot of Dracula “kissing” Mina by lightly brushing his lips all over her face before moving in to bite her neck. The angle of this shot favors Mina’s facial expression, which is undeniably one of erotic ecstasy. Even more tantalizing for longtime fans of the movie, however, is the restoration of several shots to Dracula’s death scene. This new footage includes gruesome images of Dracula clawing at his own disintegrating face with his disintegrating left hand as sunlight streams in through a nearby window. A short documentary titled Resurrecting Dracula, one of many welcome extras on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray, shows how British restorers worked a veritable miracle in cleaning up and re-integrating these shots, fairly seamlessly, from the badly damaged Japanese source reels.
About the transfer: in another extra in this set, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn says that the studio’s successful formula was not only combining horror and sex but also “color.” Hammer’s celebrated use of lurid Technicolor, which on American home video releases has always skewed too warm (especially where skin tones are concerned), is finally being presented here in a cooler, more blue-ish color scheme that more closely corresponds to the look of IB Technicolor prints of the late 1950s. This has the effect of making the color red, when it does periodically appear, pop out all the more. (Blood, as seen in the celebrated opening credit sequence that ends with the substance ominously dripping onto a grave, has the same stylized “red paint” quality that Godard would employ in Weekend a decade later.) Another welcome facet of Lionsgate’s release is that Dracula is presented in its correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1, allowing viewers to see more information, especially in Bernard Robinson’s handsome period sets, on either side of the frame. The thickness and depth of the images in this transfer are extremely impressive overall, boasting the kind of healthy black levels and wonderful film grain textures that one has come to expect from good Blu-ray releases. Image quality is also thankfully matched by the audio in a linear PCM mono track that shows off composer James Bernard’s powerful Wagnerian score to great effect. Another classic movie has gotten the Blu-ray presentation it deserves: Dracula has truly been resurrected.
The trailer for the BFI’s 2007 restoration of Dracula can be seen via YouTube below:
This may be the first in a semi-regular series of posts in which I briefly describe how I’ve come to re-evaluate a movie over time.
Out of all the films I used to feel ambivalent about but which I have since positively reappraised due to my immaculate angel of a wife’s having watched them over and over in front of me, none has risen more dramatically in my estimation than Martin Scorsese’s Casino. I first saw it during its original theatrical run in 1995 when I was 20-years-old. I left the theater feeling disappointed — mainly because it failed to live up to Goodfellas, the prior Scorsese movie that it seemed to most closely resemble. They both, after all, featured Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as mobsters, there were shocking bursts of violence, epic tracking shots, copious amounts of voice-over narration, healthy doses of black humor, eclectic soundtracks on which the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” prominently featured, and so on. Comparisons were always going to be unavoidable. But what really rankled was the way Casino seemed to me like a gaudier, more Hollywood-ized version of Goodfellas — as if Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi had taken some of the elements of their successful earlier film and re-shuffled them with the added commercial elements of a Las Vegas setting, a bigger budget and the star power of Sharon Stone (then one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities). While I did admire Casino for its impressive and undeniable cinematic value (it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Scorsese and his now-longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson), I largely felt indifferent about it on the whole.
Almost 20 years later, after revisiting the film many, many times (thanks, Jill!) on television and Blu-ray, all of my previous complaints have been swept aside and I now consider it one of Scorsese’s finest works. When I first saw it, one thing I didn’t quite understand was what Scorsese was up to in regards to the Las Vegas setting. I remember feeling back then that the quintessential “New York filmmaker” seemed out of his element “out west” and that, in spite of a few faux-documentary interludes, he didn’t seem to have much of an affinity for the gambling scene. (This is born out by the fact that, to this day, serious gamblers appear to prefer the 1998 poker film Rounders as their Vegas movie of choice.) I realize now that it was wrong of me to have expected the same kind of lovingly detailed views of Las Vegas as those of New York City that can be seen in Scorsese’s other films. For Scorsese, Las Vegas is primarily a metaphor: it’s a “paradise lost” to his gangster characters from “back East.” The notion that Sam “Ace” Rothstein and Nicky Santoro (the characters played by DeNiro and Pesci, respectively) had it all and then blew it is one of the ways in which the film poignantly shows the influence of one of Scorsese’s favorite movies, Raoul Walsh’s Prohibition-set masterpiece The Roaring Twenties. Both Scorsese and Walsh seem to be saying that no matter how violent, immoral and unconscionable the behavior of their characters might be, they were inextricably part of a colorful and exciting era that has since been replaced by something duller and more sanitized. The tone of each movie is therefore elegiac and bittersweet.
As far as the “gaudiness” is concerned, I now believe this is actually Casino‘s strongest stylistic virtue: there is much more voice-over than in Goodfellas, the music is nearly wall-to-wall and the song choices are wackier (e.g., Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction”!), while the clothes, the decor, and the use of color are all deliriously over-the-top. In 1995, what I somehow missed was the way Scorsese and his production team’s deliberately outrageous sense of style was taking its cues directly from the Vegas setting, and I was more apt to criticize the film then for what it wasn’t (i.e., another Goodfellas) rather than what it was (the tragedy of a man who was given the keys to the kingdom of a modern-day Babylon and then willingly let them slip through his fingers). In contrast to the eternal coolness of the 1950s and 1960s New York-milieu of Goodfellas — with its great cars, clothes and music — nearly everything about Casino, in terms of content and form, is rooted in the tackiness and excess of the Las Vegas fashions of the 1970s and early 1980s. And what I didn’t see at the time but what has since become abundantly clear in hindsight is how much this tackiness also provides the film with some of its most inspired and humorous touches. This is nowhere more evident than in a poster recently created by Boston-based artist Ibraheem Youssef that depicts every suit worn by Ace Rothstein in the movie:
My current top five Scorsese films:
4. Shutter Island
3. Taxi Driver
1. Raging Bull
1. Chungking Express (Wong)
2. Bernie (Linklater)
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
5. The Cannibals (De Oliveira)
6. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Vasyukov/Herzog)
7. Ravenous (Bird)
8. The Big Lebowski (Coens)
9. Deep Cover (Duke)
10. Moolaade (Sembene)
dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013, USA
dir. Christian Petzold, 2012, Germany
The bottom line: a hell of a woman x 2.
Recently finishing first-runs at Chicago’s Landmark Theatre, and now playing around the country elsewhere in limited release, are Stoker, the American debut of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and Barbara, the latest from German auteur Christian Petzold. On the surface, these films might not seem to have much in common: one is a Nicole Kidman-starring gothic horror movie that floats across the screen as episodically as a nightmare, while the other is an “art film” that precisely recreates the socio-political climate of East Germany in 1980. But one might also characterize both as dark, morally inflected psychological thrillers that center, crucially, on female protagonists. And it is worth pointing out that Park and Petzold are of the same generation and have even led somewhat parallel careers: both were born in the early 1960s, were university educated (Park studied philosophy, Petzold majored in film production), served apprenticeships as assistants to other directors before making their debuts in the 1990s, and toiled in relative obscurity in their native film industries for years before making their international breakthroughs in the 2000s (Park with 2003′s Oldboy, Petzold with 2007′s Yella). Barbara and Stoker are also both damn fine movies that are well worth your time.
I have to confess that it took me a while to warm up to Stoker even though I’ve long been an admirer of director Park. Perhaps I was prepared for the worst because of the depressing track record of talented foreign (especially Asian) filmmakers who have come to Hollywood and been incapable of replicating, whether through their fault or not, what made their work exciting to begin with. Or perhaps it was the fact that Stoker seemed to languish in post-production for a suspiciously long time — Park has admitted in interviews that Fox Searchlight, the distributor, forced him to cut the movie by 20 minutes, which will hopefully be restored on the forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release. Whatever the case, as I sat through the first 20-or-so minutes of Stoker, my heart sank due to what I perceived to be its lack of cultural specificity: the events seem to be taking place in the American south (it was shot in Nashville), yet no one sounds remotely southern. All four of the film’s principles (Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Jacki Weaver) are either Aussies or Brits who speak with flat, neutral American accents. Then there is the matter of the schizoid production design. Stoker is set in the present day although the sets, props, and costumes skew heavily, David Lynch-style, towards the style of the 1950s and early 1960s: this is a world where high-school girls still wear saddle shoes, and the boys who court them wear black leather jackets and ride motorcycles. All of which made me draw the hasty conclusion that this was a movie made by someone who knew too little about contemporary American life.
Silly me. I should have known to trust Park and his production team better than that and not to have expected anything as mundane as “realism” from the director of the boldly stylized Lady Vengeance. As the film progresses, the indeterminate yet vividly dream-like setting (America as filtered through the imagination of a Korean obsessed with classic American cinema) starts to become its strongest virtue. Stoker is a coming-of-age story about India (Wasikowska), a troubled, violent and perhaps mentally unstable 17-year-old girl, whose sexual awakening and passage into adulthood are precipitated by the death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), as well as the mysterious arrival of the heretofore unknown-to-her “Uncle Charlie” (Goode). If that latter name sounds familiar, it’s because Stoker is a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotton played a similarly sinister character with the same name. (Park has claimed that he actually pruned Wentworth Miller’s original script of more Hitchcock references, although this is hard to believe: he still manages to visually quote both Strangers on a Train and Psycho.) As both India and her mother Evelyn (Kidman) become irresistibly attracted to Charlie, Park spikes the perverse psycho-sexual stew with a startling array of sights and sounds: the sharpening of a pencil sounds like the grinding of human flesh, a digital spider crawls between India’s legs (a creepy-funny moment proving that the most obvious metaphors are also sometimes the best ones), an impressively unsettling use of the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra duet “Summer Wine” and, best of all, an extreme close-up of Kidman’s strawberry-blonde hair, the individual strands of which digitally morph into blades of tall grass waving in the wind (one of the most astonishing images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in years).
While there is more cinematic vitality and intelligence in any one minute stretch of Stoker than there is in the entirety of Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo, such virtuosity has already brought out objections from the pilgrim-hatted “style-over-substance” brigade. But Park presents nothing if not a coherent and compelling worldview in Stoker as well, albeit one that is likely to make viewers distinctly uncomfortable. Chicago film critic Kevin B. Lee recently praised Silver Linings Playbook for its vision of America as a giant psych ward, persuasively noting that while much was made of Bradley Cooper’s “bi-polarity” (an angle the distributor unfortunately exploited by acting as if the film were some kind of breakthrough in allowing Americans to talk openly about mental illness), all of the characters were suffering from some form of addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think Park Chan-wook offers a similar vision in Stoker, although none of his characters are afflicted by anything so benign as Robert DeNiro’s cuddly version of OCD; instead, they’re all psychotics and sociopaths. While I wanted to mentally rewrite another ending for Stoker immediately after I first saw it, reflecting on it over time has caused me to realize that the ending Park presents is probably the most logical conclusion to his story: shortly after she’s turned 18 and “come of age,” the dark seed within India’s soul fully flowers, which leads me to think that Park may be saying something specific about America after all.
I would be hard-pressed to name a recent movie more worthy of the phrase “culturally specific” than Barbara, which begins with the title character, a young doctor played by the magnificent Nina Hoss, arriving in a provincial East German town in 1980. We soon learn that she has been banished there as a result of merely applying for an exit visa from the German Democratic Republic. Understandably, this leads to her immediately adopting an attitude of aloofness to her new co-workers, including the kindly hospital director, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who seems to have taken more than a professional interest in her. Barbara’s coldness towards her professional colleagues in these early scenes is contrasted with the extreme compassion she shows toward the hospital’s patients, especially Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an adolescent girl suffering from spinal meningitis. We also learn that Barbara is secretly plotting with her lover, the West German businessman Jorg (Mark Waschke), to defect to the west, which she must do while simultaneously staying one step ahead of prying Stasi agents. This plot description, however, probably makes the movie sound like more of a contrived genre piece than it is; written in collaboration with noted avant-garde filmmaker Harun Farocki (the director for whom Petzold started out as an A.D.), Barbara is built on quietness and patience, and is grounded in an impressively real-world sense of what daily life in East Germany must have been like (i.e., an atmosphere of almost-banal mistrust) shortly before the worldwide collapse of Communism.
The most popular German movies to previously address the same subject as Barbara are the lighthearted comedy Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and the Hollywood-style melodrama/thriller The Lives of Others (2006). While I personally enjoyed those earlier films, there’s no question that Barbara blows them both out of the water. The great advantage of Petzold’s movie is the degree to which it more doggedly sticks to the subjective experiences of its fascinating protagonist, giving viewers a glimpse of a specific time and place in recent history as witnessed by a single person. Dr. Barbara may come across as one of the more uniquely bitter lead characters in contemporary cinema but we come to realize that’s only because she has been made that way by living in a cultural climate of widespread fear; she seems suspicious that virtually anyone might be a Stasi agent or an informer, only letting her guard down when meeting Jorg for a tryst. Nina Hoss does an incredible job of internalizing this suspicion through closed-down body language that suggests the actress has tensed nearly all of her muscles for most of her screen time. (Here’s hoping that she got a nice long massage as soon as production wrapped.) In an age when too many actors choose to express themselves merely with their voices and faces, Hoss’ full-bodied performance is an object lesson in what cinema acting should be. The character, unsurprisingly, does undergo a transformation as the plot develops, but one that leads to a pleasantly surprising conclusion that I won’t be giving away here. Let me just say that Barbara’s character arc is utterly believable in its quiet and natural way. Like everything else in this gem of a movie.
Arias with Your Mouth Full: Legendary Lew Interviews Michael Smith on Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals
“Legendary” Lew Ojeda recently interviewed me in advance of the screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals that I’ll be presenting at Facets Multimedia this Saturday at midnight. This interview originally appeared on the website of the Underground Multiplex, the community based arts organization Lew co-founded with Joseph R. Lewis. You can learn more about this useful organization here:
This Saturday night at midnight, indie filmmaker and instructor Michael Smith will present Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s very rarely seen and incredibly strange opera, The Cannibals (Os Canibais), for Facets Night School. Straddling between the two cinematic worlds of art house finesse and grind house excess (think Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe), The Cannibals promises to blow your mind (if you don’t blow your chunks in the process).
LL: The Cannibals has been rarely shown in The United States. Could you tell us a little about the film?
MS: The Cannibals is one of the very best films of Manoel de Oliveira who is one of the world’s greatest living directors. Oliveira is best known in America not for any specific films but rather for having a freakishly long career. He directed his first film in 1931 (in what was still the silent era in his native Portugal) and he is currently in pre-production on a new film at the age of 104. But the movies themselves, which are made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions and have not been widely distributed in America, are great: they tend to be rigorous, deliberately paced literary or theatrical adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. I think The Cannibals is an ideal introduction to Oliveira’s work because it shows off his playful side: it’s funny, surreal and very subversive. It shows the strong influence of Luis Bunuel.
LL: How is The Cannibals a bridge between art house cinema and midnight movies?
MS: I would describe it as a midnight movie disguised as an art film. I think it was brilliant of Oliveira to tell this particular story as an opera. It’s an adaptation of a 19th century novel but he hired a contemporary composer, Joao Paes, to write an original operatic score and libretto. Literally every line of dialogue in the movie is sung and the score is excellent. However, the film becomes weirder and weirder as it goes along until it reaches the climax, which is totally insane. I think Oliveira chose to work with the form of opera because no other artistic medium is so closely identified with the upper class — the true subject of his satire. He’s making fun of his target audience! Without giving anything away, I would say he wanted to cloak his movie in the semblance of respectability and “high art” in order to deliver a kind of devious sucker punch at the end. I almost want to compare The Cannibals to Takashi Miike’s Audition in terms of how it works. (If you’ve seen that film you know that it lulls you into a state of near-boredom before presenting a mind-fuck of an ending that is effective precisely because of what comes before.) I also hasten to add that it’s not necessary to understand anything about opera to appreciate this film. I myself know little about opera.
LL: Were there any other operas commissioned directly to cinema?
MS: I’m not aware of any. It’s very rare to have any kind of musical film in which all of the dialogue is sung. Les Miserables is an obvious example but that’s, of course, an adaptation of a well-known musical play that had a built-in fanbase. The only other film I can think of that comes close to fitting the bill is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Jacques Demy commissioned Michel Legrand to write the original score and Demy himself wrote the dialogue, all of which is sung, but the style of the music is not that of an opera. So I think Oliveira’s achievement is singular and highly innovative.
LL: What do you wish to accomplish by presenting The Cannibals to a crowd accustomed to exploitation, sexploitation and violent trashy films?
MS: I’m glad that you asked. I hope to broaden viewers’ horizons as to what their perceptions of a midnight movie is. The Cannibals is not exploitative or trashy and yet, in a lot of ways, it’s far weirder than many of the movies to which those labels are often attached. This film is so odd, in fact, that I myself don’t even know how to fully process it! This is also a big part of the reason why I want to show it: presenting it to an audience will hopefully inspire everyone present to work together in making sense of it in our discussion afterwards.
My thanks to Michael Smith for the interview. You can read his posts on the blog White City Cinema. It’s definitely worth your time.
Come feast your eyes and ears on The Cannibals at Facets Night School.
Saturday night April 27, 2013 at midnight
1517 W Fullerton
Chicago, IL 60614
Admission: $5, FREE for Facets members! Become one here: