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Tag Archives: Milos Forman

SHOCK CORRIDOR at Filmfront / THE FIREMEN’S BALL at Doc Films

I reviewed Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball for Cine-File Chicago. They screen at Filmfront and Doc Films, respectively, this weekend. 
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Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR (American Revival)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St) – Saturday at 7pm
SHOCK CORRIDOR is a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set in a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic “yellow journalism” style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends then interviews the witnesses, Fuller exposes the social ills that drove each of the men insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The closer Barrett gets to the truth, however, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony. SHOCK CORRIDOR is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location including a startling interpolation of 16mm color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black-and-white film, footage that is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. But the most memorable image comes in a climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large hospital set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over to put viewers in the headspace of his mentally disturbed characters. In 1963, SHOCK CORRIDOR may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, more than half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which American movies are always held by contemporary viewers, Fuller’s nightmarish vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.(1963, 101 min, Digital Projection) MGS

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Milos Forman’s THE FIREMEN’S BALL (Czech Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday at 9:30pm
Milos Forman (LOVES OF A BLONDE) was the most important director of the Czech New Wave and THE FIREMEN’S BALL, his last Czech film before departing for a successful career in America, just might be his masterpiece. It’s an amazingly subversive black comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding their annual ball, during which time the members plan on staging their first ever “beauty contest” (whose contestants turn out to be unwilling female ball attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive Prague Spring movie, THE FIREMEN’S BALL clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of Czechoslovakia’s then-Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by incompetent old men whose approach to organizing the ball is to essentially make up everything as they go along. It’s unsurprising then that the film was banned “permanently and forever” by the Czech authorities shortly after its premiere. Seen today, THE FIREMEN’S BALL is still uproariously funny as satire, a vital film that should come as a revelation to those who only know its director as a man who wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.
(1967, 73min, 35mm) MGS

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The 40 Best Films of 1975 (on the Occasion of My 40th Birthday)

100_2797Sipping “Monty Python’s Holy Ale” while watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a DVD box set of the first season of Saturday Night Live on a whim when we found it used for a ridiculously low price at Chicago’s Reckless Records. Aside from the greatness of its contents (the classic comedy sketches, the genius of two-time musical guest Leon Redbone, etc.) I became fascinated with the set simply because I knew the whole thing was filmed and broadcast live in 1975, the year of my birth. A wave of something like nostalgia for a time I can’t quite remember came over me: this is what the world had looked and sounded like when I entered it. I was immediately filled with the desire to watch as many films as I could from that year in order to better understand the culture into which I was born. The result of that years-long quest is this blog post, two days in advance of my 40th birthday, in which I have compiled a list of my 40 favorite movies of 1975 (each accompanied by a still and a two-sentence review). As you can see, it was a staggeringly great year for movies, one of the best ever. In fact, it’s almost comical how many excellent directors, spanning all six filmmaking continents, made landmark films in 1975.

Let’s start with Europe: in Germany, Fassbinder alone made four movies, and there were also important works from the filmmaking teams of Jean-Marie Straub/Danielle Huillet and Margharethe Von Trotta/Volker Schlondorff; in France, Jean-Luc Godard directed his best film of the decade, and he was joined by his New Wave compatriots Claude Chabrol, who made two superior genre movies, and Francois Truffaut (whose neo-“Tradition of Quality” epic The Story of Adele H. is not listed below); also from France, Marguerite Duras helmed her most acclaimed feature, an avant-garde feminist masterpiece that was mirrored by Chantal Akerman working in Belgium (is it a coincidence that both movies feature the same lead actress?); Russia is represented on the list by Andrei Tarkovsky and Eldar Ryazanov, whose efforts can be seen as representing the twin poles of Russian cinema (i.e., austere arthouse and commercial entertainment), respectively, and they’re joined by interloper Akira Kurosawa whose sojourn to the USSR earned him a Best Foreign Film Oscar. In Italy, Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini directed their final films (both amazing) while Antonioni made his last masterpiece as an international co-production; and England is, happily, represented by Monty Python’s supreme comedy creation. Meanwhile, over in Africa, the great Ousmane Sembene directed one of his most lauded works. In Australia, Peter Weir made what many consider to be the best Australian movie of all time. South America is represented by the underrated Argentinian director Leopodo Torre Nilsson, as well as Raul Ruiz, who directed his first post-Chilean effort in France with a group of fellow exiles. Asia is represented by King Hu, Li Han-Hsiang and Kaneto Shindo, all working in different countries (in addition to the aforementioned Kurosawa), as well as a certain “curry western” from India that many would call the pinnacle of Bollywood. And in the U.S., the Maysles brothers made a controversial landmark documentary while the “New Hollywood” saw instant-classics from the likes of Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Milos Forman. And this is to say nothing of important films from Angelopoulos, Bergman, Cukor, Kubrick, Wajda, etc.

I hope you enjoy my tour through the cinematic landscape of 1975, and I highly recommend conducting a similar cinematic excursion through the year of your own birth.

40. Like a Bird on the Wire (Fassbinder, Germany)

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This T.V. movie is essentially a filmed stage play of Fassinbder-favorite Brigitte Mira performing an autobiographical one-woman show. Fassbinder devotees really need to track this down just to see “Emmy” from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul singing a spirited rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

39. Farewell, My Lovely (Richards, USA)

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Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel adapted with greater faithfulness than Edward Dmytryk had done in 1944. While Dick Richards may not be a great director this movie had to happen even if it was decades late: Robert Mitchum and Philip Marlowe were an actor/character match made in tough-guy movie heaven.

38. The Magic Flute (Bergman, Sweden)

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Ingmar Bergman does Mozart for Swedish T.V. My favorite scene is the opening: a montage where close-ups of audience members’ faces, including those of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, are brilliantly intercut to the rhythm of the overture.

37. The Travelling Players (Angelopoulos, Greece)

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An itinerant theatrical troupe travels through Greece, literally, and through 20th-century history, symbolically, in Theo Angelopoulos’ four-hour magnum opus. While Angelopoulos’ epic long takes are extremely impressive as cinema, this is also, I must confess, a bit “white elephant arty” for my taste.

36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, USA)

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Milos Forman was one of the guiding lights of the Czech New Wave before finding even greater fame in the New Hollywood of the ’70s with this celebrated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about the inhabitants of a mental hospital. I don’t think this deserved the bonanza of Oscars it received (the one-dimensional Nurse Ratched has always been problematic) but it’s hard to deny that Jack Nicholson was born to play the charismatic and rebellious R.P. McMurphy.

35. The Promised Land (Wajda, Poland)

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The most important Polish director to never leave Poland, Andrzej Wajda, created one of his most famous works with this anti-capitalist parable about three friends opening a textile mill in late-19th century Lodz. Although the insights into the corrupting power of money afforded by plot and characterization are familiar, this is brimming with fascinating social and historical detail from beginning to end.

34. Innocents with Dirty Hands (Chabrol, France)

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Yet another Claude Chabrol film about a murderous love triangle — this time with Romy Schneider as a beautiful housewife who enlists her young lover to help murder her abusive, drunken lout of a husband (Rod Steiger). Not Chabrol at his sharpest but still a delicious thriller that’s loaded with even more plot twists than usual.

33. Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz, Chile/France)

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Modeled on Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, this wry piece of political cinema was the first film made in exile by the great Chilean director Raul Ruiz following the CIA-backed military coup of Augusto Pinochet. It’s a modest, no-budget comedy consisting almost entirely of interior dialogue scenes of Chilean expatriates attempting to assimilate to their new existence as political refugees but it’s also a crucial document of the Chilean diaspora and essential viewing for Ruiz fans.

32. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, USA)

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A crime drama based on a true story about a first-time robber (Al Pacino) attempting to hold up a bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation, Dog Day Afternoon contains so much of what is great about the American cinema of the 1970s: there’s location shooting in New York City, great performances by Method actors and, thanks to director Sidney Lumet, an emphasis on real human behavior above genre considerations.

31. Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson, Argentina)

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Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s penultimate film is a fascinating quasi-sci-fi parable about growing old. The unsettling premise is that Argentina’s youth have formed marauding gangs who exterminate the country’s elderly after having become fed up with senior citizens who seem to be of no use and are merely living off of social security.

30. Fear of Fear (Fassbinder, Germany)

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Fassbinder heads into John Cassavetes territory with this study of a woman (Margit Carstenson) who, while suffering the pressures of being a housewife and mother, starts to come apart at the seams. This made-for-T.V. melodrama is beautifully written, directed and acted and features a handful of Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack to boot.

29. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, Italy)

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The great Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is this controversial adaptation of a Marquis de Sade novel about hedonistic aristocrats taking a group of children to a castle and sexually abusing, torturing and killing them over a span of several months. Totally disgusting but necessarily so — as Salo arguably shows how fascism works better than any other single movie.

28. Pleasure Party (Chabrol, France)

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A man (screenwriter Paul Gegauff) in a long-term marriage insists to his wife that they be allowed to see other people but is then hypocritically consumed by jealousy when she follows his suggestion. The most disturbing film that Claude Chabrol ever made is also one of the most brutally honest critiques of the male ego ever committed to celluloid.

27. Cooley High (Schultz, USA)

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This terrific high school comedy — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.”

26. Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (Shindo, Japan)

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Kenji Mizoguchi was, in my opinion, the greatest of all Japanese directors and here he gets a fitting tribute from another master, his compatriot Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba). One of the best documentaries about a film director, this is two-and-a-half hours long and chock-full of insightful interviews with many of Mizo’s closest collaborators.

25. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, Germany)

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Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate in Germany in the early-1970s. The titular character is a young woman (the excellent Angela Winkler) whose life becomes a living hell after she unknowingly has a one-night stand with a terrorist.

24. The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, UK/France)

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Michael Caine is a blocked writer who practically throws his wife (Glenda Jackson) into the arms of another man in order to have something to write about. Director Joseph Losey, who gets my vote for the most underrated major filmmaker, keeps the notion of what is real and what is fiction tantalizingly in flux throughout.

23. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, USA/UK)

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Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel about an Irish social climber in 18th-century England is full of wonderful cinematic conceits and almost surely looks more interesting today than when it first came out. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the miscasting of Ryan O’Neal in the lead role.

22. Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa, Russia/Japan)

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The Russian government sends a surveyor on a mission into the wilds of Siberia where his survival ends up depending on his relationship with the title character, a local hunter of Asian descent. I’m not a strong “Kurosawa man” but it’s hard to deny that this film about humanity, friendship and changing times doesn’t touch on things deep and true.

21. Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (Fassbinder, Germany)

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Incisive social critique from Fassbinder about a working-class woman (the great Brigitte Mira) being exploited by both the Communist party and the media in the wake of her husband’s tragic suicide. Part drama, part satire, 100% offbeat Fassbinderian awesomeness.

20. The Man Who Would Be King (Huston, USA/UK)

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John Huston made one of his very best films with this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story about two British Army officers who establish themselves as deities in the Middle Eastern country of “Kafiristan” (where caucasians had previously been unknown). Michael Caine and Sean Connery are perfectly cast as the leads in an action-adventure buddy comedy with an unforgettable final scene that mines unexpectedly deep emotions.

19. The Empress Dowager (Li, Hong Kong)

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The Shaw Brothers are most famous in the West for the hundreds of martial arts films they cranked out between the late 1960s and the early 1980s but they made excellent films across all genres as this drama about intrigue in the imperial court at the end of the Qing Dynasty proves. Li Han-Hsiang directs an all-star cast that includes the brilliant Lisa Lu as the scheming title character, Ti Lung as her nephew to whom she has promised the throne, Ivy Ling Po as his wife and David Chiang as a eunuch.

18. Love Among the Ruins (Cukor, USA)

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Laurence Olivier said that working with Katharine Hepburn in this made-for-T.V. movie, the only time they acted together, was his “happiest professional experience.” Small wonder as both actors excel in a touching story about ex-lovers reunited after 40 years, which is beautifully staged by veteran director George Cukor as if nobody told him it was no longer 1940.

17. Sholay (Sippy, India)

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As a Bollywood agnostic, I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor.

16. Moses and Aaron (Straub/Huillet, Germany)

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Arnold Schoenberg’s notoriously difficult twelve-tone opera finds its ideal cinematic interpreters in Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet. The use of real, sparse desert locations lend a documentary-quality to the proceedings, and the simple but exquisitely calibrated camera pans provide the perfect minimalist visual correlative to Schoenberg’s austere score.

15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, UK)

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The celebrated British comedy troupe Monty Python hit a career high with this ridiculous low-budget comedy about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their pursuit of the Holy Grail. Among the many silly but uproariously funny gags, I am inordinately fond of the killer rabbit.

14. Xala (Sembene, Senegal)

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The father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, adapts his own novel about a Senegalese businessman who is stricken with impotence on the eve of his marriage to his third wife. Sembene is one of the all-time greats and this satirical portrait of chauvinism in corrupt, post-independent Senegal is one of his finest hours.

13. Grey Gardens (Maysles/Maysles, USA)

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David and Albert Maysles directed this landmark documentary portrait of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, an upper-class but eccentric mother/daughter duo (who also happen to be relatives of Jackie Kennedy) living in squalor in a rundown mansion in East Hampton, New York. Some critics accused the Maysles of “exploitation” due to the “grotesque” nature of their subjects but time has been very kind to this beautiful film, which, in the best verite fashion, allows two incredible characters to tell their story in their own words.

12. India Song (Duras, France)

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Novelist Marguerite Duras proved her directing chops with this avant-garde masterpiece about the wife of a French diplomat in India (Delphine Seyrig) drifting through a series of affairs. Featuring a provocative mixture of dialogue in voice-over with tableaux-like compositions, this has been accurately described as “so boring it’s sublime” (I’m also fond of pointing out that the climax is strangely reminiscent of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — minus the singing and dancing).

11. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, Australia)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting, enigmatic film — often erroneously referred to as being based on actual events — about the disappearance of three female college students and a middle-aged teacher during a Valentine’s Day picnic in the year 1900. Like Antonioni in L’avventura, director Peter Weir refuses to provide a concrete explanation for the disappearance while simultaneously hinting at several possible interpretations (including a supernatural one).

10. Nashville (Altman, USA)

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I’m not one of the many who consider Nashville Robert Altman’s best film (it’s not for me at the level of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye) but there’s no denying its incredible filmmaking virtuosity as the great director freely crosscuts between dozens of characters and storylines over a few days in the title city. It’s a grand statement about America and Keith Carradine performs his killer self-penned tune “I’m Easy.”

9. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, Germany)

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The fourth(!) and final Fassbinder film on this list is a cynical, darkly comical tale of a gay working-class man who finds himself victimized by his new “friends” after winning the lottery. Fassbinder plays the lead role himself in this highly personal film, which deftly demonstrates the director’s profound understanding of human nature.

8. The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, Russia)

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This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that a shy doctor, soon to be engaged, goes binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve and ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama.

7. The Messiah (Rossellini, Italy)

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The greatest of all Italian directors, Roberto Rossellini, fittingly ended his late didactic/”historical” phase (and indeed his entire career) with this Jesus biopic, the best such film after only Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This is as de-dramatized as anything in Bresson but Rossellini does go buck wild with the zoom lens (as was his wont at the time) in his final masterpiece.

6. Numero Deux (Godard, France)

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This cinematic essay about a contemporary French family, shot on both video and film, is Jean-Luc Godard’s finest work from his least-accessible period. The title can be seen as referring to shit, the status of women as second-class citizens in France, and the fact that Godard received financing for the film by sneakily telling his producer he was making a sequel to Breathless.

5. Night Moves (Penn, USA)

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Arthur Penn’s neo-noir, one of the best American films of the 1970s, stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, an L.A. detective hired to find a runaway teenage girl (Melanie Griffith) in Florida. Nothing is what it seems in this pessimistic, European art-film influenced tale that positively reeks of its era in the best possible sense and which also gets better with every viewing.

4. The Valiant Ones (Hu, Taiwan/Hong Kong)

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During the Ming Dynasty, the emperor of China appoints a group of soldiers (and even a couple bandits) to defend the coast against invading Japanese pirates. King Hu is, for my money, the best Chinese director who ever lived and The Valiant Ones is the wuxia genre at its finest — as impressive for its brilliant cinematography and editing as for its fight choreography.

3. The Mirror (Tarkovsky, Russia)

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This daringly non-linear film shows Andrei Tarkovsky at his most abstract and autobiographical. Scenes based on his childhood memories are freely intercut with fantasy sequences and newsreels then overlaid with narration written by the director’s father to create a visual tone poem of the highest order.

2. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France)

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Jack Nicholson is a journalist on assignment in war-torn Africa who decides to exchange identities with a dead man. Everything about Michelangelo Antonioni’s globe-hopping movie, the last truly great one he would make, is ambiguous, mysterious and haunting — qualities that reach an apex in the transcendental final tracking shot.

1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium)

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Chantal Akerman created the ultimate feminist film with this intimate epic, a formally exact and deliberately repetitive masterwork, about three days in the life of a single Belgian mother and part-time prostitute. I could watch Delphine Seyrig chop potatoes all day long.


An Eastern-European Cinema Primer

I originally intended this as a companion piece to my Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer, in which I was going to discuss key films from various Eastern-Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that were made only prior to the worldwide collapse of Communism. I eventually reconsidered to include more recent films from Bulgaria and Hungary — but even these post-Communist films are arguably relevant mainly for what they reveal about life before and after the dissolution of the “iron curtain.”

Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958 Poland)

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Andrzej Wajda is probably the greatest Polish director to have worked mainly in Poland (as opposed to, say, Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieslowski, who are mostly known for the films they made outside of their native country) and Ashes and Diamonds is an ideal introduction to his work. Although it is the third part of a loose “war trilogy” (following A Generation and Kanal), each film features different characters and a self-contained plot, with Ashes arguably providing the dramatic high point of the three. The WWII-set story follows Maciek, a disillusioned Polish resistance fighter who becomes involved in a plot to assassinate a Communist leader (after the Soviets had driven off the invading Nazis). In addition to the complex ethical issues it raises, Ashes and Diamonds is also of interest for the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski (the “Polish James Dean” who helped to set a new standard for cinematic cool) as well as some strikingly poetic cinematography — what Wajda and D.P. Jerzy Wójcik do with a fireworks display will etch itself into your brain.

Knife in the Water (Polanski, 1962, Poland)

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After a couple of promising shorts, Roman Polanski burst onto the international stage with Knife in the Water, his first full-length feature that, although it would be the last film he ever made in Poland, introduced most of the motifs for which he would soon become famous: a suspenseful scenario with psycho-sexual underpinnings, a penchant for shooting in claustrophobic settings, and strong, naturalistic performances from a small cast. The story, a three-person show, concerns a married couple who embark on a yachting expedition and decide at the last minute to take a long a young hitch-hiker. Once they’ve set sail, the husband and the drifter engage in a game of shifting power dynamics with the attractive young wife unwittingly caught between them. An auspicious debut.

The Shop On Main Street (Kadar/Klos, 1965, Czechoslovakia)

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This incredible Holocaust movie illustrates, with commendable subtlety and complexity, how insidiously Nazi ideology pervaded Europe during WWII. The main character, Tono (Jozef Kroner), is an out-of-work carpenter who is granted by fascist authorities the opportunity to take ownership of the title location from an elderly Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska) in a small Slovak town. The woman, however, is hard of hearing and oblivious to the process of “Aryanization” — she thinks Tono is merely looking for a job and agrees to hire him. As the two work together, they begin to like one another but soon the Nazis begin deporting all of the Jews from the town . . . Very few fictional movies on this subject are capable of illustrating the kind of impossible moral choices that faced many ordinary European citizens at this time as well as this masterpiece co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos from a screenplay by Ladislaw Grosman. Too bad only a small fraction of the people who have seen Schindler’s List will ever see this.

Closely Watched Trains (Menzel, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

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One of the seminal films of the Nová Vlna (or Czech New Wave) movement is Jiri Menzel’s comedic 1966 account of a young man’s tenure as a train station employee in WWII Czechoslovakia. As the war is nearing its end, partisans are attempting to blow up Nazi supply trains while Milos (Václav Neckár), the protagonist, is mostly interested in trying to get laid. Like Milos Forman’s similarly groundbreaking Loves of a Blonde, Menzel’s depiction of his characters’ earthy desires (including a hilarious subplot about a scandal caused by a train dispatcher’s literal stamping of a woman’s bare ass) was not without ideological import: the Czech New Wave filmmakers took full advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded to them (in terms of form and content) by the brief period of reform known as the Prague Spring. Closely Watched Trains deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968.

Daisies (Chytilova, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

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My favorite Czech movie ever is this astonishing piece of radical feminist pop art from director Vera Chytilova. Almost impossible to accurately describe, Daisies is a plotless examination of two women, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová), who engage in colorful, madcap adventures that involve going on dates with — and ripping off — old men, dancing, wearing outrageous clothes and make-up, and consuming copious amounts of food and alcohol. While the style veers from Godardian bricolage to silent slapstick, with an innovative employment of color filters throughout, the tone of the film is consistently pitched at a level of joyous anarchy. I’m not entirely sure to what extent Chytilova is railing against patriarchy under Communist rule vs. merely having a bit of dada-esque fun (though the fact that Czech authorities banned Chytilova from making another film until 1975 suggests the former) or perhaps she’s doing both, but I do feel certain this looks as fresh and delightful in the 21st century as it must have looked to audiences in 1966.

The Firemen’s Ball (Forman, 1967, Czechoslovakia)

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Milos Forman’s last Czech film before departing for America is an amazingly subversive comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding its annual ball, during which time they plan on staging their first “beauty contest” (whose participants turn out to be unwilling female attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive “Prague Spring” movie, The Firemen’s Ball clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of the Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by old men whose approach to organization is to essentially make everything up as they go along. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and it actually depresses me to think that the man who made it wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.

The Red and the White (Jancso, 1967, Hungary)

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During Russia’s civil war, circa 1919, the “reds” are the Russian bolsheviks and their Hungarian allies, the “whites” are the tsar’s government troops. In many ways, this is like a modern update of Battleship Potemkin: both are propagandistic period pieces that show the brutality of the tsar’s old regime by focusing on teeming masses instead of individuals but, in terms of style, the two films couldn’t be more opposite. While Eisenstein’s movie is virtually one long rapid-fire montage, Miklos Jancso employs a long take/long shot style that features stunningly elaborate camera choreography instead. Indeed, some of the shots in this film are among the most impressive ever captured on celluloid and the complexity of the camera-choreography clearly exerted an influence on the late style of Jancso’s countryman Bela Tarr.

Ward Six (Pintilie, 1978, Yugoslavia/Romania)

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Lucian Pintilie is widely considered the greatest Romanian director of all time and the godfather of the highly regarded “Romanian New Wave” of the 21st century. While his influential films of the 1960s are virtually impossible to find today (at least with English subtitles), this lesser known 1978 masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery. Shot in Yugoslavia with a Serbo-Croatian cast but set in Tsarist Russia, Ward Six is an adaptation of a Chekhov story (Palata No. 6) about a doctor who befriends a patient in a mental hospital. The two engage in lengthy philosophical conversations that precipitate the doctor’s own descent into madness. I loved the lengthy tracking shots used to follow the doctor as he makes his daily walk from home to the hospital, accompanied by industrial noises on the soundtrack as well as internal monologues fraught with moral dilemmas (e.g., if it is natural for humans to get sick and die, why bother trying to help them at all?). I should also note that this uniquely austere work of great cinematic artistry appears to have been appreciated more in Chicago than anywhere else: it won the Chicago International Film Festival’s top prize in 1979 and the only North American video release it has ever received is via Chicago’s Facets Multimedia.

The Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988, Poland)

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My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, 1988, Yugoslavia)

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Though his critical reputation seems to have diminished in recent years, Serbian director Emir Kusturica was considered one of the key directors of the 1980s and 1990s during which time he was a mainstay at prestigious international festivals. My favorite of his films is this gypsy epic set in the former Yugoslavia about Perhan (Davor Dujmovic), a young man who goes to great lengths to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves (after her mother disapproves of his courtship), which includes becoming involved with a local crime kingpin. The gypsy setting allows for Kusturica to provide a feast for the eyes and ears: the non-professional performers, production design, use of color and, especially, Goran Bregovic’s original score (later appropriated by Borat) are all top-notch. Guiding all of it with a sure hand is Kusturica, whose darkly comic approach can be ascertained by the film’s tagline: “When God came down to earth he could not deal with the gypsies . . . and he took the next flight back.”

Canary Season (Mihailov, 1993, Bulgaria)

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Until recently, I had never seen a movie from Bulgaria (a country whose cinematic output has admittedly always been sparse) but tracked down this well-regarded film in the hopes that I might be able to include it on this list. I was not disappointed. Canary Season is a powerfully realistic — and occasionally shockingly brutal — portrayal of life during the country’s recently dismantled Communist regime. It begins in the present as 20-year-old Malin is released from prison following a year’s stretch for assault. After Malin aggressively confronts his mother, Lily, about the true identity of his father, whom Malin has never known, the movie then flashes back to the early 1960s to recount a sad tale rape, forced marriage, and detention at a labor camp and mental hospital — all of which occurs under a cloud of paranioa and fear in a country where the threat of being denounced to a corrupt government is ever-present. High production values and excellent performances make this a formidable addition to the Eastern European cinema canon although this is obviously not for those who shy away from the grimmer realities of life.

Satantango (Tarr, 1994, Hungary)

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Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.


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