Thursday, January 16, 2020

letterboxd backup (3)

Große Freiheit Nr. 7, Helmut Käutner, 1944

A man's passion done in by automaton love. But he himself is part of the automaton world, he just doesn't want to admit it (to himself, first and foremost). Hans Albers as Hannes Kröger still thinks of himself as king of the high seas, although he's been stranded in St. Pauli's red-light version of the cultural industry for quite a while. Right at the beginning the mighty four-master is exchanged with a ship in a bottle. When in the end he reenters the world of seafaring, this doesn't feel like liberation, but rather like his giving in to an imaginary solution.

The melodrama in between never settles down on a constant tone; for all its musical and cinematographical brilliance (lightning and make-up turning Albers' face into a mask, transforming him into the most uncanny of the film's many automatons) it's first and foremost driven by gestures. Hilde Hildebrand leaning over the counter with the beer tap pressing into her chest; the automaton lover Hans Söhnker absentmindedly stroking the handrail while waiting for Ilse Werner, his automaton girlfriend; Werner squeezing the automaton egg between her hands, while holding it up over her head, creating a personal world of her own in just one single, simple shot.

Lac aux dames, Marc Allegret, 1935

A Ritrovato moment to stay with me for a long time, probably: Simone Simon and Jean-Pierre Aumont rolling around in a barn, bedded on a pile of grain, joined in a flowing movement of not-quite-lovemaking, which somehow is even more erotic than actual sex. All scenes with Simon's Puck and Aumont's Eric in the barn (a magic fairytale wonderland which might also be a fishing lodge) are absolutely marvellous, elevating an already freewheeling, joyfully frivolous youth melodrama into pure cine-ecstasy.

LAC AUX DAMES is a film of unpretentious, un-selfconscious, but at the same time completely unhinged extravagance. Aumont - who's a swimming teacher working at a strange, almost sci-fi-like public bath - isn't caught between, but both blessed and marked by three women: Or maybe it's one woman split in three, into the imaginary (Simon), the symbolic (Rosin Derean), and the real (Illa Meery). But that's just one among several possible layers, and Aumont himself is more spirit than human most of the time in this.

Les amours de minuit, Augusto Genina, Marc Allegret, 1931

Two escaped men meet on a train. One - young, nervous, curious - escaped from his boring day job, the other - lean, lanky, sleazy - from a penal colony. The train would bring the young guy directly to the harbour and to his ship bound for South America. The other one persuades him to dismount one stop earlier by promising him a night in town with lots of erotic attractions. For the young man, the train is transformed from a mere means of transportation into a machine that grants worlds, options, adventures. A sense of anarchic, but also modernist freedom which for me is strongly associated with early sound cinema, right now my favorite period in film history - by far.

The storyline might be rather straightforward, but the film isn't really interested in plot mechanics. Every scene is self-sufficent, every place a whole world in itself. Especially the nightclub: Several dance routines are filmed in their entirety, the buzz of the place is, for the most part, much more important than the conspiracy the young man might be caught in. A beautiful tracking shot floating alongside the bar counter: in the first row, men and a few women eating sanwiches, drinking beer; but there's a second row, comprised almost exclusively by women trying to snatch a quick bite or a drink for free.

Another great moment: the other guy, the bad, lanky one, and his mistress meeting in a revolving door. Her slight hesitation in joining him in the inside - her realizing that instead of meeting him she could just succumb to the dynamics of the door, rotate with it and get thrown out into the world.

By Candlelight, James Whale, 1933

At the same time true to its stage play source and completely cinematic, especially in its use of doors as sluices controlling both visual spectacle and erotic energy. The master / servant dynamic is very funny, especially because of Paul Lukas's natural air of superiority towards his boss, but like the magnificent THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, this is ultimately all about learning / unlearning the automatisms of romance. Although this time around it's set in a much lighter mood.

The key to the film (and to Whale's authorship) might be the only scene not set in enclosed space, though: a short sequence at a country fair. While I still don't really know what to make of these strange images, one thing is clear: no one could mistake them for "good honest people having fun". Instead (and completely unrelated to the plot) they have a ritualistic feel about them. The most important element of Whale's fair are clearly the masks. And the reason for the strangeness of the scene might be that the usual links between mask and identity do not apply. The people neither wear masks to hide their (real) identity, nor to reveale their (true) self. Rather, masking is a state of being in its own right, a sign of pure difference, free from all (bodily, social, sexual) restraints.

Jet Pilot, Josef von Sternberg, 1957

so it turns out technicolor has the power to turn sternberg into tex avery.

Phenomena, Dario Argento, 1985

ontogeny vs phylogeny. phylogeny wins.

The Comedy of Terrors, Jacques Tourneur, 1963

only peter lorre's and the cat's dignity aren't completely shattered to pieces in the end.

Exectutioners from Shaolin, Lau Kar-Leung, 1976

I don't know why I never watched a Liu kung-fu film except for 36 CHAMBERS. Maybe I unconciously held back until I was ready. EXECUTIONERS immediately won me over, not only because its Bazinian approach to action (coupled with a magnificent use of the zoom lens), but also because of its organic feel. A world, in which every thought, every impuls is immediatly translated into choreographed physical movement. Also a world which is thoroughly sexualized, but somehow never in an obscene way. In the end, everything comes down to the (dialectically mediated) opposition of clenching one's own thighs vs kicking someone else's balls.

Hiroshima 28, Patrick Lung Kong, 1974

A Hongkong film set exclusively in Japan, and telling an almost exclusively Japanese story with only one chinese character: a reporter interested in learning about the legacy of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945. Patrick Lung plays this soft-spoken reporter himself, signaling his personal commitment to the humanist venture the film is clearly ment to be. The main part of HIROSHIMA 28, however, consists of a dense family melodrama centered around two young women brought up as sisters which starts of somber and quiet but grows a lot more hysterical over time. (Spurred on by the dynamics of the interplay between the two main actresses - my favorite moment is energetic Maggie Li's long, slender fingers elegantly grabbing somnambul Josephine Siao's lunch).

On the macro level, the diverging ambitions of the film aren't all that well integrated on first sight with didactic sequences set at memorial sites repetedly interrupting the flow of melodrama. But in the end, the film manages to extract an essence of pure (and in the final analysis amoral) negativity from both strands of its story, with the furious conclusion of the melodrama somehow mirroring the harrowing flashback sequence at the beginning of the film - two outbursts of cinematic excess bracketing a story about fragile normalcy haunted by death.

Face, Tsai Ming Liang, 2009

A film that realizes that the statement "everyone's an artist" doesn't constitute a promise but a threat, or rather a curse, because it means that in the end everyone's hidden in the echo-chamber of his or her own artmaking. (Which explains why the scenes with Leaud are the film's strongest parts: he has both the biggest echochamber and the least restraint in making use of it.) It also means that in the end, sex is just another performance piece.

Also: A film that insists that art is completely outside of communication - fine with me in theory, but in this case I didn't understand the necessity to point out this incompatibility again and again. FACE is probably a logical endpoint for Tsai's cinema, and yet for me it's clearly his worst film. The visuals are imaginative as always but they just don't resonate as much as in the rest of his work. (I have similar problems with Hou's FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON; weird that the worst film of both directors was produced by Parisian museums).

Heaven and Hell, Chang Cheh, 1980

Not really a surprise that Chang Cheh would come up with only the flimsiest, cheesiest version of heaven, but with an eclectic, awesome, ornamental vision of hell. Still, I guess what I like best about this are the moments of irreverent pop art craziness barging in at odd moments, as if from a completely different film.

Il bacio di Tosca, Daniel Schmid, 1985

A film not about love, but of love, filming love as if it's a visible object.

The Flying Guillotine, Ho Meng-Hua, 1975

Even the birth of the hero's son is crosscut with not one but two flying guillotine beheadings. My kind of high concept film.

Circle of Danger, Jacques Tourneur, 1951

It's not surprising that CIRCLE OF DANGER is generally regarded as minor Tourneur because, at first glance, it's hardly more than an elongated, but not very elaborate, and finally rather pointless practical joke about a dull guy failing to avenge his brother despite trying terribly hard; and at the same time winning over a woman despite basically not even really trying.

Still, I'm completely in love with this strange little film. Ray Milland's dullness undermines the mystery plot from the start, yes, but this works for the film's advantage, because it allows for a not really disinterested, but in a way touristy gaze on all the odd details Tourneur assembles. Every character Milland meets carries his own little world around with him/herself, and although the stubborn protagonist doesn't notice this, remaining stuck in the past instead, Tourneur's camera is always attentive, in a quiet, controlled way. And when Milland finally gets together with Patricia Roc in the last scene (after the mystery plot, and with it the last gasps of the agency of the hero, vanishes in pure geometry), it's made clear that this isn't about him conquering her, but about her choosing him.

Les sept déserteurs ou La guerre en vrac, Paul Vecchiali, 2017

There's not a single soldier in sight in LES SEPT DESERTEURS AU LA GUERRE EN VRAC, and still it makes sense that Paul Vecchiali dedicates his film to, among others, Fuller and Wellman, the masters of the combat film. Because his film, like theirs, also uses war primarily as a mechanism of self-revelation through isolation. In Vecchiali's case, the war remains unnamed, and it takes place, in a very strict sense, outside the frame, and also (almost constantly) on the soundtrack, but never in the image itself. War can be told and heard, but never seen. Stray bullets may penetrate the frame and even kill the characters, but they never leave a visible trace on the actors, thereby delimiting another threshhold important for the film: between actor and character.

In a way, Vecchiali is even more serious about this seperation than Brechtian filmmakers like Straub / Huillet who always insist on the firstness of the performance and the profilmic. Because with Vecchiali it's not about priviledging the one (the actor / signifier) over the other (the character / signified), but about the co-existence of two realms: LES SEPT DESERTEURS is at the same time a gathering of seven actors, who meet on a single outdoor set supplemented by a handful of cleverly designed props, and are called up, first one by one, than in small, shifiting groups, to perform small acts, most of them very loosely structured around sex and death and all of them performed in a decidedly joyful, irreverent way, highlighting with proud stubbornness personal idiosyncrasies, especially in artfully stylized manners of speaking; and a film about a group of deserters and outcasts trying to escape from an omnipresents war. At least until the strange, magnificent last twist, there isn't a single rift between these two realms, as they are at the same time connected and seperated by the act of playing, which always involves a literal, materialist and a symbolic aspect.

The Crazies, George A. Romero, 1973

There are just two possible outcomes to the infection: death or eternal craziness. The only problem is that among all the people dying in the film, almost no one dies from the disease. And literally everyone is acting crazy, one way or another. But of course, the harder it becomes to demarcate, the bigger the need for demarcation grows. Both the ad hoc police state and the quickly thrown together rebel group are completely compromised from the start, and each new in-group friction feeds into the systematically escalating conflict.

As much as I enjoy Romero's zombie imagery in the DEAD films, its very absence, in combination with the vagueness and almost invisibility of the menace, makes THE CRAZIES into Romero's most radical film.

Even more than usual in early Romero, the barebones production budget works towards the films advantage: from the beginning the film renounces convernional world building in favor of a series of claustophobic, highly effective chamber dramas.

THE CRAZIES feels like something quickly assembled from hand-drawn sketches and cardboard boxes. At the same time it is a masterpiece, maybe Romero's best and almost certainly his purest film.

Pilgrimage, John Ford, 1933

There might be some earlier Ford films (JUST PALS and THREE GODFATHERS, especially), which are stronger works on their own terms, but for me, this is where it finally all flows together. The crushing force of public opinion and, necessarily opposed to it, the proud insistence on individual sorrow. The rejection of moralist stances of any kind. The elevation of myth over truth not as a function of ideology, but of psychology.

And, above all, the visual textures: The pictorialism no longer feels derivative, but is thoroughly bound to Ford's eternal, unresolvable investigations into ambiguities and paradoxes - the idyllic nature scenes at the start already being shot through with premonitions of decay and death. And the solid narrative flow almost constantly being offset by the gestural precision of the actors: Hannah Jessop's way of vehemently, almost aggressively feeding her chicken tells you all you need to know about her.

Charles, mort ou vif, Alain Tanner, 1969

Simon's nuanced and quietly excentric performance saves this from being completely dull, but in the end this is a perfect example of the kind of counterculture-infused drifter cinema I can't relate to. There's no sense of hedonism, of joy, of sex, of freemdom, of fashion... Charles Dé rejects his bourgeois existence solely because of a vague sense of ennui, his rebellion is a theoretical / philosophical stance, not a way of engaging with the world and with his own pleasure. Like in some similarly misguided Wenders films, the exploration of the outside world is rejected almost from the start, in favor of a suffocating sense of all-encompassing interiority, and an escape into hollow patterns of language - which also aren't allowed to become attractions in their own rights by evolving into pure wordplay, but are always bound to the strict psychological self-sameness of everyone involved. Watch Klopfenstein instead. (And Lemke instead of Wenders!)

Viva, Anna Biller, 2007

you know a film has its heart at the right place when one character hands another one an antique wooden duck as a souvenir.

Marjorie Prime, Michael Almereyda, 2017

What a wonderful film... The moment which stuck with me the most was the flashback in the middle. The dark, warm, post-coital glow of the images, the gaze gradually shifting towards the red flags on the television screen... I guess part of why this is a special scene is that these are impossible images, if one takes the film at face value. Because, when memory is always tainted by the present, how can there even be something like a flashback? And yet, here is Marjorie, young again, in love again. For me, the only possible way to react to these images of joyous, sensual, youthful love is to treat them as a present Almereyda himself gives to his character, to Marjorie, thereby declaring cinema's singular power to transcend space and time.

Kung Fu Angels, Herman Yau, 2014

The whole film and especially Karena Ng's performance display a lanky awkwardness which made me somewhat enjoy this, at least during the non-fight scenes. Still, this feels as phoned in as it gets. The relationships between the students are a little bit more nuanced than strictly necessary, but otherwise there's no indication Yau cared one bit about making this. What saddened me about this is the representation of school life, the complete absence of even the possibility of unruliness. In this regard, Hong Kong cinema really has come a long way since 1997.


-Why did you bring me cow dung?
-That's me. You're the flower. It's beneath you to be with someone like me. But if you're willing to give this cow dung a chance, i'll provide unlimited nutritients.

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