Romeo, Juliet and Darkness (Romeo, Julia a tma) (Jiri Weiss, 1960) & The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) (Jan Nemec, 1966)
Jiri Weiss’ Holocaust drama,Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, appeared the year after the premiere of George Stevens’ film adaptation of the play The Diary of Anne Frank, but the Czech film owes nothing to the Academy Award-winning Hollywood production. Weiss’ film takes place in the Prague of 1942 when the Nazis had already occupied Czechoslovakia for three years, and his story, unlike that of Anne Frank, is as much about those who tried to save Jews as about those who were hidden, not to mention those citizens — the overwhelming majority — who quietly slipped into denial after watching their Jewish neighbors disappear.
Framing his movie as a youth’s sentimental education via an involvement with a lovely, but doomed, Jewish girl, Weiss takes a risky vantage. The young woman, Hanka (Daniela Smutná), having defied the Nazis’ edict that all Jews of Prague gather for “transport,” appears like magic before the schoolboy, suitcase in hand, whereupon Pavel (Ivan Mistrik) gathers her up like a wounded bird and installs her in a tiny attic storeroom that has doubled as his darkroom.
We know from the title of the film and its opening scene that boy and girl will fall in love and that boy will lose girl. There are pitfalls aplenty here for uncomfortable heroics on Pavel’s part, and the conceit of an adolescent having his own sweet fugitive — Smutná is a stunning, raven-haired beauty — trapped in a dark closet and dependent on him for her every need, well, that’s a teenage boy’s fantasy if I ever heard one.
But Weiss has all of this under control. The clandestine romance does resonate with teenaged sexual angst, but it’s Pavel’s life outside the storeroom that lends the lovers’ plight its unsentimental poignancy. Living with his mother and grandfather in a large apartment building, Pavel witnesses a wide spectrum of human response to Nazi occupation — everything from collaboration to acquiescence to defiance. Shortly after the city is cleared of Jewish citizens, the resistance assassinates the local “Reichs-protector,” and the occupiers are mad as hornets. Anyone sheltering Jewish fugitives faces execution, and searches are conducted aggressively; Pavel risks exposure at any moment. The film draws out the particularities of the boy’s terror in harrowing detail.
Czechoslovakia/1960/B&W/Fullscreen/92 min./Second Run, 2007. Available now.
Jan Nemec’s 1966 film The Party and the Guests appears to be a satire about the Czechs living under their next occupation, by the Soviets. Yet, according to the appreciation by Peter Hames included on Second Run’s DVD, Nemec always rejected that interpretation, suggesting the film’s target was broader.
Well, maybe, but it’s hard to resist Soviet bureaucratic analogies when a group of proletariat picnickers, twittering banalities at each other en plein air, are rounded up by a small squad of thugs who wear the same ill-fitting suits and skinny ties as the two goons kidnapping Cary Grant at the outset of North by Northwest. Gathered in an invisible holding pen, the vacation-seekers suffer indignities and mind games until a genteel, goateed man, looking in his ice-cream suit like an escapee from a Chekhov short story, arrives and orders the shenanigans to stop. “It’s my birthday,” he says expansively, “and you’re all invited to the celebrations.” The rest of the picture features a banquet, held alongside a lake, in which all the guests must elaborately pander to the rather childish needs of the host, who becomes whiny and upset when it’s discovered that a guest has bolted from the party. By never saying a word during the first quarter of the show, this mysterious, long-faced dissident has made it clear that he wasn’t buying any of this nonsense.
None of this Bunuelian satire is played for belly laughs, but it’s often funny. Astringent, sardonic, and with bizarre, off-kilter dialog, the film must’ve appeared rather avant-garde, as well as subversive, when it premiered in Czechoslovakia in ’68: it was promptly banned “forever.” Since then it has earned a mythic status, but apparently few have seen it, and that’s too bad.
Second Run, a small British company that’s only been around since 2005, seems to have made it their mission to rescue obscure, trenchant films like these, which are often from former Soviet-bloc countries. Of the two here, The Party and the Guests Had the best transfer, showcasing the artful black-and-white cinematography that lends a subtle irony to the film’s bitter content. Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness is reasonably sharp and always watchable, but the print is compromised in its darker scenes where the blacks tend to fade toward a middle value. Both films demand to be seen.
Czechoslovakia/1966/B&W/Fullscreen/68 min./Second Run, 2007. Available now.
Woman Is the Future of Man(Hong Sangsoo, 2004)
Here we have two young Korean men behaving badly, but as neither has an ounce of self-awareness, the boys seek comfort and release in sex only to plummet deeper into unhappiness. The title, as we read in Michael Atkinson’s notes for New Yorker’s DVD, is an ironic steal from poet Louis Aragon. In this show, the women offer the men no redemption from their sexual morass save, toward the end, a couple of conciliatory blowjobs.
The writer/director’s setup is a reunion of two old school chums who meet at a café and swiftly find they have little to talk about. Undercurrents of resentment and bad feelings swim amongst the accumulating bottles of rice liqueur until, finally, Hunjoon (Kim Taewoo) asks erstwhile buddy Munho (Yoo Jitae) of the whereabouts of his old girlfriend, Sunhwa (Sung Hyunah), whom he rather casually dumped years ago before departing for a stint in a U.S. film school. Munho, a married teacher at the local university, gives oblique answers and stares poker-faced at Hunjoon, who squirms uncomfortably along with the audience.
Each of the men leaves the table exactly once to take a leak, whereupon the other hits on the pretty waitress and the director takes the opportunity to deftly unfold two flashback sequences. Detailing the men’s relationships to Sunhwa, the revelations aren’t pretty, especially in two rather explicit sex scenes, which, as they coolly observe the coital and post-coital, remind me of images from photographer Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency series.
In his sequence, Hunjoon, upon hearing Sunhwa’s admission that she’s just been abducted and raped by an old boyfriend, takes the girl naked into a shower and soaps up her pubic region a little too fervently. Afterwards, while they’re having sex, Hunjoon assures Sunhwa that the quick fuck is “to cleanse her,” to which she murmurs, “Will I be clean? I want to be clean!” Just as high in squirm factor, Munho’s flashback is of his shy, clumsy (virginal?) courting of Sunhwa in the wake of her grief over Hunjoon’s departure. Without much resistance, Sunhwa lands in the sack with Munho, who, after ejaculating too quickly (Sunhwa: “Are you always like that?”), voices surprise that women can have hairy legs.
Back in the wintry present, both dunderheads, already a couple sheets to a snow squall, agree to hop in a cab to visit Sunhwa, now operating a bar in a seedy section of town full of sex clubs and hot-pillow joints. Off-duty, a tougher-skinned Sunhwa has both boys back to her place for a drunken catching-up session that climaxes in a tearful self-recriminating catharsis for Hunjoon, but nobody comes through the wiser, except that, well, one guy gets a blowjob.
Woman Is the Future is often slyly funny, but the laughs die in your throat because everyone’s so miserable. Director Sangsoo uses very long takes in which his camera never seems to move or get in any tighter than a medium shot, but his method is sophisticated and disciplined. You long for a close-up, but Sangsoo never gives in; this is a savage but deadpan Punch and Judy show to be watched from a distance. And pay close attention: with script and action, Sangsoo accumulates an astonishing mass of intertwined detailed nuance that may take multiple viewings to fully digest. The film also plunges an unprepared viewer (like me) headlong into contemporary South Korean youth culture, a key element of which, I’m guessing, is binge drinking.
New Yorker’s DVD carries a short making-of and interviews of the three young principles, who don’t have much to say, although Sung Hyunah reveals that the director encouraged them to down plenty of alcohol in preparation for any scene involving besotted behavior. “We were really drunk,” she says grinning.
Korean/2004/Color/Widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 TVs/In Korean with optional English subtitles/88 minutes. Issued by New Yorker Video, 2007. Available now.
Sansho the Bailiff(Mizoguchi, 1954)
Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff opens like a darkling fairy tale, with a title establishing a once-upon-a-time in the medieval Heian period, “before mankind had awakened as human beings.” A mother with two children set off on foot to re-unite with her exiled husband, a former provincial governor with perilous democratic leanings. En route, abducted by slavers, the children — Zushio and his younger sister Anju — find themselves sold to Sansho the Bailiff’s labor camp. Separated abruptly from her children, the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka, above) is forced into a life of prostitution on the island of Sado.
Sansho is a moral tale, I suppose, but it’s not to be confused with an ethics lesson — despite the one delivered, early on, from father to son. Instead Mizoguchi powerfully evokes the consequences of living morally within an immoral universe. And if there’s any joy in the film’s unforgettable final scene, it is mixed with an inexpressible mournfulness.
As in most of Mizoguchi’s films, women are key. Anju, played as an adult by a serenely beautiful Kyoko Kagawa (in a recent interview seen on the Sansho disc), never yields her inner strength to her captors and, through a self-sacrificial act, allows the morally anguished Zushio to find the path to his redemption. Her catalyst to act is a simple song that their mother, now known as the courtesan Nakagimi, has forged from her overwhelming grief.
It’s a lament so powerful that it’s become a popular ballad, which a newly captured girl exports to Sansho’s slave camp. When Anju, busy at a loom, hears the girl sing the song — a keening plea of “Anju! Zushio! . . . how I long for you . . . isn’t life torture?” — Anju understands her mother has arched the distance of sea and land between them. For the duration of the film, the song never goes away. Interpolated within Fumio Hayasaka’s magical score, it’s just one of the elements that lift this film into a realm of purest feeling.
In one scene, Nakagimi, crippled and nearly demented, sings the song to an empty expanse of sea. As in other settings of tragic events — a suicide, the violent abduction scene — the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa captures the quality of light with such precision that the sight of Nakagimi wailing in the late-afternoon sunlight takes on a kind of pictorial ecstasy, and Nakagimi’s grief becomes this universal emotion’s supra-natural essence.
Much of the photography, especially in the first half’s formally composed landscape mise en scène, consists of a remarkable palette of middle-value grays that Criterion’s transfer registers with great subtlety. The DVD is in fact one the most gorgeous — and film-like — discs that this company has yet produced.
Commentators feel that Mizoguchi’s film purposely reflects Japan’s grappling with democratic ideals in the wake of WWII, and it may be that the filmmaker had these ideals in mind as part of mankind’s waking up as human beings. But he seems awfully gloomy over the possibility of such ideals ever taking root.
Near the end of Sansho, an angry Zushio enacts revenge on the bailiff while imagining, by setting the slaves free, he’s correcting a social wrong. It’s only later, when he spots the Bailff’s compound going up in smoke, that Zushio realizes his failure as a democratizer, and yet he just shrugs, drops his title (and with it his responsibility for the liberated peasants), and continues his quest as an individual who can do nothing in the face of mankind’s hard-wired idiocy. Mizoguchi’s brief scene of Sansho’s slaves rioting and destroying the compound reminds me of the scene in Kubrick’s Spartacus when, having been set free, the slaves begin to run amok, the difference being that, in Sansho the Bailiff, the slaves don’t have Kirk Douglas (or George Bush) telling them to behave themselves.
Mizoguchi’s film has its origins in a Japanese short story written by Ogai Mori, published in 1915, that Criterion has included in a booklet along with Mori’s source, the original centuries-old Sansho Dayu legend. In addition there’s a fine essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu, but in a short video appreciation, the Japanese critic Tadao Sato holds a truly joyous celebration of Sansho and its many wonders. Free of other commentators’ academic encumbrances, Sado speaks of the film as if he’s lived it. Watch it only after a first viewing of Sansho.
Japanese/1954/B&W/Fullscreen/124 minutes. Issued by The Criterion Collection, 2007. Available now.
Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)
Will Oldham, who in real life is self-styled renegade pop musician Bonnie “Prince” Billy, inhabits the role of Kurt in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.
Kurt is something of a recalcitrant, inward type of head-tripping loner, of which I knew at least a baker’s dozen in art school back in the late sixties. Not a joyous, day-glo hippie by any means, and Reichardt sets her minimalist tale quite vividly in a present-day Oregon where talk radio babbles on endlessly in SUVs and Bush-inspired anxiety hangs heavy like a persistent mist over Portland.
When citizen Mark (Daniel London) receives a surprise phone call from his old buddy, who pitches the idea of a two-day camping trip into the mountains, Mark enthusiastically takes him up on it, but must first get clearance from his pregnant girlfriend (Tanya Smith). It’s a tough sell — why is this camping thing so important, she says — and you’re reminded, as you will be more than once, of the tremulous exigencies of Brokeback Mountain. Sympathetic, if not parodic, vibrations with Ang Lee’s celebrated film are fully intended, I think.
At a scant 76 minutes, Old Joy plays like a protracted setup for a drama that never begins — a lot like life itself, I guess, but possibly hard on expectations at the local cineplex, for which the film was never intended anyway. The initial tedium and obvious gap between the characters — they’ve lost their context as friends — never go away, the muted tension building, if you can believe it, to a backrub.
Kurt’s destination is a hot springs hidden deep in the forest. On their drive up into the mountains, Mark seems uneasy and looks askance at Kurt, who, unlike his friend, has remained outside the strictures of getting and spending, hearth and home. And he smokes a lot of dope.
Maybe too much dope. Back there in Kurt’s brain, synapses are firing — probably — but it’s unclear how many find their mark. Under heavy brows, his impassive demeanor could hide either whimsy or malevolence. Combined with a full curly beard, the large head, and an advanced case of male-pattern baldness conspire to make Kurt’s appearance uncomfortably gnomic. Put a funny hat on him and you’d have an outsized lawn ornament with ambiguous intentions.
Arriving at the springs on the second day, the two guys wordlessly get naked and lower themselves in adjacent tubs filled with spring water. Mark sinks into the experience and closes his eyes, but after a time Kurt emerges from his tub, puts his shorts back on, and goes over and lays his hands on Mark’s bare shoulders. As to what happens next, there’ll be no spoilers from this reviewer.
Perhaps Kurt, back in the heady days of untrammeled youth, had been a mentor to the rather uptight Mark, who now needs the structure provided by his job, girlfriend, and talk radio. Somewhere on their way to the springs, Kurt, who senses his friend’s discomfiture and disappointment, explains, Buddha-like, that “sorrow is just used-up joy.” Well, I guess they couldn’t call the movie Used-up Joy.
Reichardt doesn’t hard-sell any feelings you mi
ght take from the ending of her film, but mine landed heavily in the area of used-up joy. I felt sad.
Kino, who also theatrically distributed the film to mostly high acclaim, presents Old Joy on disc with a beautiful, nuanced transfer. Especially lovely here are the brief vignettes — of bird, tree, and rush of water — to which Reichardt cuts while the boys soak in their tubs. Composed with the outcroppings of the rather Japanese-looking bath house, these views remind me of the “pillow shots” of Ozu. Kino also provides a commentary track by the director.
USA/2006/Color/1.85:1, enhanced/76 min. Issued by Kino Video, 2007. Available now.
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg(Jerry Aronson, 1994)
Jerry Aronson’s affecting 1994 documentary brings home how much we needed Allen Ginsberg and how much, since his death in 1997, we’ve missed him. More than a poet, Ginsberg was a luminous being — an example of essential humanness.
“The weight of the world is love,” says Ginsberg. As this film shows, it was Allen’s ecstatic response to life — mystic, joyful, vulnerable — that made him a mentor to those who knew him and to those that didn’t. Aronson, who knew him quite well, gives us Allen Ginsberg as a hub of love — and not your nonspecific, Aquarian-age love either, but the fleshly, hurting, resilient kind between mother and son, father and son, lover and lover.
Mother Naomi’s mental illness blasted and shaped Allen’s soul just as he was entering puberty. As his stepmother Edith relates, “He saw too much.” Anyone remembering various harrowing details from the poem Kaddish would tend to agree with her, but, as the older Allen ruminates, he himself had a certain ability to survive personal cataclysms and “get on with it.” So, too, could admirable Louis Ginsberg, who in spite of the aesthetic and political differences between them, was inordinately proud of his son. The sight of the two survivors, growing old and sometimes reading poesy together, gives the last quarter of the film a poignant stance on death and endings.
In between eras of family tragedy/reunion enters his self-proclaimed supplementary family, the Beats — Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, William Burroughs — all “trembling, lonely individuals.” They took him in, fostered his gay sexuality, gave an ear to his burgeoning poetry of “mystic paranoia,” and helped him escape Brooks Brothers suited servitude in the workaday world. “You were a conformist,” says the elder Burroughs to old lion Ginsberg.
With the sixties came political activism and experiments with LSD, all of which Allen combined into a “politics of ecstasy.” While some of his Beat compatriots sank into depression and used drugs and alcohol as escape hatches, Ginsberg praised LSD as a tool to break down fear in order to enter into a state of Blakean spirituality and finally recognize the unity of all being. Not an unusual sort of epiphany for an acidhead, to be sure, but in the hands of an artist like Ginsberg a gateway to the numinous lyrics of the poem Wales Visitation. The documentary gives us a clip of Allen reading a shortened version of the poem to William F. Buckley on his Firing Line show in ’68. In response to the poem’s exalted imagery and Allen’s powerful delivery, Buckley’s patented shit-eating grin becomes a frozen rictus, and the host is forced to admit his admiration.
New Yorker’s two-disc set includes not only what it claims is an updated version of the feature, but a massive amount of extras. Some of these — vintage interviews and newer readings — are material excerpted for the film but in more complete form. There’s also a making-of, a short film by Jonas Mekas, and a delightful MTV music video of Ballad of the Skeletons. The second disc hosts numerous isolated interviews, from the ’80s to 2004, with greats like William Burroughs and Ferlinghetti along with actors like Johnny Depp and musicians like Beck.
It’s all a wondrous celebration of Ginsberg. Years ago, I heard someone call Allen Ginsberg a “transitional poet.” Now I would ask: transitional to what and to whom?
USA/1994/B&W and color/Fullscreen/84 minutes. Issued by New Yorker Video, 2007. Available now.
20 Fingers(Mania Akbari, 2004)
After watching this disc with no foreknowledge of it whatsoever, I was ready to declare the film an Iranian answer to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. But then, educated by Facets’ accompanying booklet, I was surprised to learn that the film’s seven scenes are intended as vignettes of seven marriages, with the two actors — director Mania Akbari and Bijan Daneshmand — each playing seven different roles in a starkly non-narrative scenario.
A tough concept for the unprepared. Akbari shot the film — her first — entirely on video and most often at extremely close range, cinéma vérité style, with jagged pans from face to face, and how exactly do we distinguish each couple? Perhaps my quick insistence on them being one couple was my desire to see a narrative build within these isolated segments, but title cards identifying the couples — e.g. Mania and Bijan— could’ve relieved this Westerner’s confusion.
The first segment actually features just Akbari, and it’s meant perhaps to represent the filmmaker herself remembering her childhood. “You’re a big girl now,” her mother tells her. (The voiceover uses Akbari’s real first name, Mania). Focused on Akbari’s full frontal face — young and soberly beautiful with elder wisdom seated on its brow — it’s an appropriate set-up for a film about big girls, that is, mature modern Iranian women who must confront age-old traditional gender biases that weight marriages down with boulder-sized double standards.
Akbari reminisces as she’s filmed, head shot only, moving up and down in an outdoor space as if on a child’s seesaw. All of the sequences, save one, feature male and female in various transportation modes — car, motorcycle, ski lift, train, boat — and make for a visually troubling movie experience as landscapes and people hurtle along in back of the binary discussions.
In the 2004 interview conducted by Dorna Khazeni (and first published in Bright Lights in February 2005.), Akbari says, “Everything outside has moved on at high speed, and on the inside many people are clinging to the old beliefs and patterns.” Having the stationary dialog play against constant movement seems a deliberate (and effective) visual metaphor for the current sexual politic in Iran, but beware, viewers, of motion sickness.
Akbari allows her film one bravura sequence where a couple, their infant child squeezed between them, argues furiously as the man pilots a motorcycle through congested Tehran streets. The cycle ride seems as perilous as the argument itself, which is about the woman’s desire to abort her second pregnancy. Neither side will give an inch, and the heat of the conflict builds steadily, with narrow misses between buses and cars, to a screaming, but unresolved, climax.
Throughout, Akbari’s female characters never yield to the possessive and rather phobic males. Behind all the terse words are glimpses of the various social strictures of theocratic Iran. When a wife tells her husband of a girlfriend’s extramarital affair, the tale’s crux is the adulterous couples’ arrest by the “Disciplinary Force” for kissing in public.
Akbari’s film is caustic, probing, and not very pleasant, but it’s also mesmerizing. Both actors are superb at modulating the contentious dialog so as to hold our interest and sympathy. Akbari, in particular, phrases with aplomb, from near whispers to full-throttle screaming.
Facets’ disc appears to ably represent Akbari’s skilled video conception. The aforementioned booklet contains film scholar Dorna Khazeni’s notes along with her crunchy, informative interview with the director.
Iran/2004/Color/Widescreen/72 min./In Farsi with English subtitles. Issue by Facets, 2007.
Electric Edwardians(Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon/British Film Institute, 2005)
These people are all dead now. Yet no one would dub this disc Edwardian Death Trip.
The BFI’s collection of Mitchell and Kenyon short silent films from the Great Britain of 1900 to 1906 proves just as provocative as the morbid 1973 picture book — the social ills of turn-of-the-century industrialized Britain are fully on display here — yet, instead of distancing us from the people of the past like Wisconsin Death Trip, these films have the effect of joining us to them.
Early British filmmakers, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were hard-working journeymen trying to make a buck, not precocious cinema artists. At the turn of the 20th century, they seemed to have created a raging fad, mostly among the working class, by introducing the idea of “local films for local people.” With a running time of a minute or so, their films were consistently — with some exceptions — of ordinary people going about their lives, but, most importantly, doing so in front of a highly visible hand cranked camera. Thus we have workers leaving factories, schoolchildren doing calisthenics, women shucking clams, and many parades. All events are shot as intimately as possible, so that you often have children and some grownups mugging and performing for the camera, much as they still do behind a news broadcaster brought to your TV live from a city street.
But for Mitchell and Kenyon, the byplay with the crowd was all part of the show. As various small-town entrepreneurs licensed the stitched-together films for long screenings (up to 4 hours) at venues like fairs, town halls, and variety theaters, the simple come-on was: “See yourself on film!” In contrast with the kind of distance maintained by the Lumière Brothers in their short films, Mitchell and Kenyon inserted themselves in the middle of the madding crowd, having no quarrels whatsoever with streetcars and bowler-hatted men as they crossed and blotted the frame for a few seconds, seemingly inches from the lens. The filmmakers’ commercial concerns made them realists with no need to compose discreetly as if the frame were a proscenium and the street a stage; in this way, they were modernists like photographers Lee Friedlander or Garry Winogrand.
Timed to be seen within days, sometimes hours, of being photographed, none of these films were intended to last beyond these showings. Yet around 800 of them miraculously survived in canisters rusting forgotten in a basement. Painstakingly restored and printed by BFI’s National Film and Television Archive, the films are preternaturally detailed and full of tumbling life, as if seen through glass now wiped clean of the dust of jaded presumptions. Debunking the nostalgic notion of a sepia-toned, stillborn past, Mitchell and Kenyon offer visions of violent motion and excitement — or merely the solemn weight of bodies moving in space.
The working-class kids are the most poignant subjects. Leaving the factories, the boys — unlike the grim-faced adults — still have the energy to jeer and goof at the camera, while the girls, wrapped in large shawls like Muslim women in burkas, smile shyly. The boys, we realize now, will grow up to be cannon fodder for the upcoming Great War, after which grief and disillusionment seem to have ended the lower classes’ taste for these flickering mirrors of themselves.
Special features include more films and a restoration featurette that’s especially riveting. Commentary by and an interview of Dr. Vanessa Toulman of The National Fairground Archive are both excellent in backgrounding the films, but I would advise taking in the films first without the commentary so as to savor their mystery without distraction. The musical accompaniment, by something called The Nursery, is well done, but like virtually all synthesized scores, eventually wearies the ear.
Great Britain/Early 1900s/B&W/Silent with musical accompaniment/Fullscreen/85 minutes. Issued by BFI in 2005. Released on DVD in the US by Milestone Film & Video, 2006, distributed by New Yorker Video. Available now.