Alphaville (1965)

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The opening sequences are excellent; thinking forward to Bladerunner with the noir pastiches, then the tracking shots of sullen Caution in the hotel (terminuses, outposts, a little of Ashes and Diamonds). Then the bedroom scene is absolute gold: brash, wild, hilarious, perfect introduction to the way LC punctures this world of perverted efficiency with his ruthless, provincial, illogical violence. Some incredible camerawork here out, too, particularly in externally tracking a glass lift down a floor.

The grimness and the systemic absurdity put this in a Russian mode for me; maybe Zamyatin or Roadside Picnic. The world is, at times, as intensely refractive as Cléo de 5 a 7‘s Paris; loved watching LC track his own plot through the lobbies and dimly lit streets. At the same time, the whirring and spinning technology on show here is fascinating, humanised in its visual mechanics unlike today’s abstracted and occluded digital computing.

Then the script really bulks up, and A begins to drag its heels. There are interminable hotel scenes where the dynamics of the political setup are simplified (after some opaque narration by the central tracheotomic HAL character Alpha 60) into generic binaries of technology/humanity, rationality/sensation, trans/humanism. Begins to lose its flavour in spite of frenetic accelerations and a pulpy, destructive climax. By the time the inevitable disruptive editing effects kick in they feel like excessive seasoning.

Perhaps because I connect it most closely, as a holistic piece, to Marker’s superior La Jetée, which seems wordless in spite of its narration. Would seriously consider watching again with no sound (despite an excellently menacing score) or at least no subs.

100th note.

7

Late Autumn (1960)

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Fifth time with Yasujiro Ozu after TSLSFW and Brothers And Sisters of the Toda FamilyBeautiful poster there but no idea why it emphasises the guy at the front, who must have about four scenes total; must have been a fan favourite at the time.

Probably Ozu’s fullest picture (of the above, at least) – in the first scene, disparities of gender, class, region, and (of course) generation are introduced very discreetly and succinctly. BFI guide labels this a “remake” of LS, which I think obscures the extent to which YO’s films are individual takes on the same issues – in any case, the balance here is much more level, with various groups and peripheral characters playing off each other in contrast to the centripetal LS (which is far more magnetised around Setsuko Hara). Here nostalgically meddlesome, almost mischievous men are occasionally undercut by their gossiping wives, who nevertheless very notably follow them around picking up discarded workclothes or empty bowls. Perhaps most distinctively, youth culture (or at least mid-20s) gets a fuller portrayal. While comic references to “that Presley” situate LA after the westernised explosion in youth autonomy (with some assumptions here about hemispherically comparable postwar prosperity and liberalisation), YO’s eye for behaviour and mores is most evident in the way the captivating Mariko Okada runs rings around the older group of male friends. There’s an especially poignant moment on a balcony at work (perhaps a reference to the famous TS shot) when MO’s Yuriko and Yoko Tsukasa’s Ayako question the significance of female friendship if it cannot survive marriage in a way that male relationships clearly do.

From the beginning this does feel in step with BaSotTF on account of another late arrival at a memorial service, as well as the initial impetus arising from an absent father-figure (postwar context is elucidated at the end here). The late Miwa’s associates swarm around his widow Akiko and surviving daughter Ay, explicitly taking a possessive tone on account, firstly, of fraternity, but later simply the women’s beauty. Their project is as clownish as the colluding secondary actors in FW, but they never lose this unsettling sense of intrusion; later the two husbands among them profess a wish to be widowers. The initial suggestion of Ay’s marriage is edited to emphasise her discomfort in a way sufficiently deft as to emulate the comic negotiations of LS.

For its understatement, SH’s performance here is probably my favourite of hers. While in LS she is much more reticent about her marital misgivings than YT is here, giving her the same mysterious glow as in TS, here she balances the trademark deferential passivity with reproachful engagements with Ay and more knowing, maturer conversations with the peppy MO (who I think channels the consistent dismissive pragmatism of Haruko Sugimura, of LS particularly). Occupying all the various agent and patient roles in these movements and situations, she trades the magnetically sympathetic seniority of Chishu Ryu for a versatility which reflects and enhances the film’s different social gradients.

The generational divide seems politicised. Successful professors and businessmen each, the men’s houses are as grey and uneventful as their clothing, while their friendships have become moulded around corporate interactions. Chief instigator Mamiya (Shin Saburi of Toda Family) suggests Goto as a suitor for Ay with the caveat that “he doesn’t standout” followed immediately by the recommendation “I thought of him immediately.” Ak accedes to the resultant corporatised vetting process by making symbolic gifts of her late husband’s tobacco pipes (later employed amusingly as props in a bar scene), while Taguchi later celebrates Hirayama’s proposed engagement to Ak by notifying him that “you owe us a big meal.” They seem to fit right into a city design which is YO’s most explicitly consumerist, but the urban energy is in fact provided by the outgoing youth. However, the shot of Ay’s friends hiking in sync through the hills seems like something out of a socialist propaganda film, and there’s something iconoclastic about the way Ay explicitly challenges the morals of her father’s generation (again in contrast to that reticence of SH in LS). Contributing to that fuller depiction of generational confrontation.

Full is apt but the word that came to mind while watching was Rich. However, if the remarkably rhythmic, dynamic and comprehensive LA lacks anything its the breathtaking ambient beauty of the harbour in FW, the bay in TS or the Kyoto trip in LS, or the knockout incongruity of LS‘s ending. This is very domestic, very urban, very soapy; tied-up with a bow, sidestepping the curtailed character arcs of Toda but perhaps sacrificing some degree of risk in the process. I credit it in the same way as Fanny and Alexander though, perhaps, as it seems like a summative piece, being one film which somehow nails that Ozu balance between national cross-section and human condition, the balance otherwise grandly struck by considering his films together.

8

Sandra (1965)

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Second time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema. Shit French poster, I don’t care how appealing CC is – though LV is kind of asking for it with the level of sensationalism here.

It’s hard to suss this guy: a Marxist aristocrat who directed smash operas as well as probably my favourite neorealist film. Anyway, this seems worlds apart from LTT, except for continuity in the maximalist emotionality, as well as a windswept precariousness of modern man. Set largely in a town soaked in universal “provincial desparation,” according to brother Gianni, “the only town I know that’s condemned to die a disease,” the victim of actual landslides and inhumed pasts. This Stromboli connection largely takes a turn toward the latter, more symbolised aspect.

Journey from France (some Summer With Monika urban tour shots over the credits), a neutral space between the Italian S and her American husband Andrew in which they appear sedately alienated together (an opening party like the objectification in L’Eclisse). A Journey To Italy where S becomes seduced by the fossilised walls of her hometown the stale and drifting spaces of childhood home, always shot diagonally and with depth like Kane’s Xanadu. Not long before ghosts are disturbed: the maid’s face at a window like Peter in Turn of the Screw or the character from that Chris Cunningham video for Portishead.

The central ghost, most complicit in this unwanted rediscovery, is G. We meet him a scene of spectacular natural intensity, trees and hair blowing in the gale hiding S’s emotions – definitely provincial Brontë gothic. His introduction of the psychosexual angle is vintage sixties and helps complete the sense of melancholic perversion that made me think of Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone. “You’re jealous of the phantoms of this house,” S tells the increasingly spooked A; yes, he’s “frightened of everything … as though there were something between us.” Again Antonioni in the framing, with this split visually evoked through blocking and gorgeous, wide mid-range shots. S leading A through locked doors of the past, following a paper trail of forgotten childhood communications with her brother – a “morbid game.” Fractured into different wings of the home, each member of the trio is kept awake at night by spectral whistling from the town outside.

G’s input introduces two other angles which work in fascinating contrast, each frequently threatening to overbalance the other. Most divisively, he injects a few thousand kcal worth of melodrama – CC holds her own, to be sure, especially with the operatic, black-gloved reaction to her mother’s haunted piano playing (in a visit definitely parallel with Wild Strawberries). But G’s affectations of doomed romance culminates in some pretty spicy death pangs (I do wonder how much this tone could be blamed on the unfortunate dubbing with which Mubi burdened their screening).

However, this richness is incised by genuine and sypathetic tragedy. Those secret communications were under the nose of an oppressive stepfather and poisoned mother (see Elektra myth), apparently partway responsible for the denunciation and murder of the siblings’ upstanding Jewish father, at Auschwitz. Their plotting of revenge and erstwhile illicit affections are linked as impulsive responses against this embattled isolation. Down in the dripping cellars – definitely DB and Nostalghia – they wrangle with this history: “what does a child know about passion” curses G; but they “have the same memories … hear the same music.” (cf. The God Of Small Things). A, elsewhere a haplessly drowned-out voice of reason, implores S to simply forget the past upon which a future might be built – a worryingly insidious exhortation after his earlier praise of her resilience in dealing with holocaust testimony at work (I forgot what her job was).

Certainly a weird one: no-one comes out clean in the wash, with the doomed siblings both victims and schemers, balanced against the insensitive but compassionate A and the morally ambiguous but rather foul Gilardini, the step-father. The aristocratic world, of which LV himself was a scion, is corrupted and incestuous but beautifully alluring (Buñuel also in a marble hand touched by S) and under invidious threat. I thought S worked on all of its levels.

8

Viridiana (1961)

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Third time with Luis Buñuel after UCA and The Exterminating Angel.

Despite finding small fault with TEA for its only patchy bizarreness, I think I prefer V for burying its surreality inside a measured and economical plot. Images here – like the frequent comparisons of feet (the uncle bashfully toeing a sandy path, later in his wife’s wedding shoes, V’s milkily seductive legs), the inevitable dogs tied to wooden carts, even the knife inside the crucifix – retain the vivid imprint of LB’s imagination but tend to illustrate rather than puncture the tale. I don’t know much about LB’s developing artistic association with Surrealism but we’re certainly a long way from his and Dali’s desire, in UCA, to stage unconnected and uninterpretable images; V weaves a rich but surprisingly understated narrative about the Catholic Church and its morality and the social dynamics of Franco’s Spain.

That said, the film is still strikingly symbolic. The uncle interprets V’s somnambulistic exchange of knitting wool for dustpan ashes as a prophecy of his death and her penitence. It seems, though, that she is repenting on his behalf: he claims to have neglected charitable impulses for fear of ridicule, so V turns his house – after his shocking, even vindictive suicide – into a shelter for the destitute. Her perceived fall from grace (“I have nothing to reproach myself for but I have changed”), after his gothically perverted advances on her innocence, compels her to abandon her convent. Yet her embrace of secularity is itself a kind of fall, as the carnivalesque cavalcade of drunkards, lepers, paupers and miscreants abuses and pollutes her almost Winstanlean utopianism.

Don’t quite know what to make of the juxtaposed crescendos of fervent ave marias and manual labouring, the latter induced by the Uncle’s son to rejuvenate the house with modern technology. There are obviously superficial comparisons of “work”, but in closeup the builders appear almost destructive, while the supplicants harmonise in an unsettlingly rapturous drone. Perhaps a suggestion of kindred reconstructive powers: spiritual and architectural regeneration for house and state.

The little girl’s presence is equally elusive and suggestive. At the beginning she’s a kind of sprite, a meddlesome presence calling both host and guest out on their dishonesty. She’s later given a kind of occult agency or precognition: her testimony to the apparition of a black bull through her closet go unheeded; after the death of the uncle, a servant confiscates her skipping rope, berating her for sacrilegious jollity under the haunted tree and warning that “If something awful happens it will be your fault.” A pauper is later seen wearing the rope as a belt – it appears that she herself has opened the door to a beast.

I liked the bit when the cat was very clearly and inelegantly chucked, from off-camera, onto the rat.

The climax is a minor masterpiece: a gradual devolution, among the guests, from a tentative investigation of the house to a riotous bacchanal. I liked the editing in TEA; here the escalations are stitched together hilariously, like the kind of through-your-fingers omnishambles I associate with Father Ted or Black Books. The Last Supper photograph is triumphant; the blind man smashing the table is heart-stopping. The way this Bakhtinian depravity melts rapidly into a second, icy-cold attempt to rape V is equally shocking – a sobering realisation. The way she is finally hung out to dry, her crown of thorns immolated and her hair let seductively loose in a suggestive concession to her rapaciously masculine cousin, constructs a fittingly brisk, uncompromising and muted conclusion.

Utterly unhackneyed, which says as much about what has come since as it does about what came before.

8

 

Goto, Island of Love (1969)

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First time with Walerian Borowczyk. Nice Klimtian Polish poster.

Looks very artificial: frequent use of stages as a set, performance (musicians, capital punishment, horse lessons). There are some flashes of colour that interrupt the greyscale consistency – imaginative glimpses of a world beyond Goto, the tinpot island dictatorship? (“We may not have light or air,” says the King, “but we have security.”) Also obviously allusive: Hitchcock in the tragedy, the shapes; Buster Keaton in the physical comedy and the square mise-en-scène (silent film is a touchstone more generally); also thought of Stalker‘s opening in the square shots, the austerity, the cart transport, Eadweard Muybridge’s animal studies with the frequent anatomically blank images of horses, dogs, flies.

But if it looks artificial it has a ring of truth. It’s an appealing story: somewhere between Kind Hearts and Coronets and A Brave New World. There’s an earthy and flat physicality to the characters (a bumbling energy – lots of people falling over) which made me think of Hard To Be A God and even Pictures Of The Old World, but the unburnished texture is presented through that cinematic lens and charged with a kind of wonky surrealism that gives it an Arthurian feel: the dialogue is amusingly bald and obtuse, attesting to the broader national stupidity and the pathetic irascibility of our doomed protagonist.

At its brightest it has the indie playfulness of Wes Anderson, but there’s a cracked horror behind the smile (there are two funeral scenes: the first is pretty horrifying and elemental, the second is a complete farce). Guards will nap in the street while their colleagues investigate the scene of a murder, or they will enforce orwellian regularity with total obedience. An unruly classroom is the seat of brainwashing, the incubation chamber for the narrative about the island having been frozen in time after a devastating earthquake in 1887 (HTBAG eh).

Buñuelian fun in a sad grey world poisoned by lust and ignorance, viewed through binoculars the wrong way around.

8

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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Second time with Buñuel after Un Chien Andalou.

[Pompous engagement banquet. After an ominous exodus of the help, the wrinkled affair crumples against a mysterious invisible barrier that blockades the guests in a single room. The night turns into a month of the weirdest slumber party ever.]

Like a bizarro Christie plot. Opening reminded me of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death; here too the stultified self-preservatory instincts of the upper classes are satirised, though without any ghastly intrusions. Horror vacui interiors and unconvincing machismo. The hysteria builds as one guest blindly postulates that the outside world has been destroyed and that they are the only survivors of some apocalypse.

Definitely Sartre’s No Exit, too, in the way this escalation reveals the inhumanity not just behind but inside the masks of decorum (one woman’s self-deceptive “the lower orders are insensible to suffering”). Liked the dead bird in the purse amid masonic allusions and incestuous intrigue. Editing often enhances the caustic tone, as in the cuts between the sequestered silver-screen embrace and the corpse in the cupboard.

After UCA, the most startlingly surrealistic moments are definitely the most satisfying. The more directly assaultive dream sequence is the highlight, a blast of brimstone for each face screwed tight with naïve worry. Also in particular the pursuit of the severed hand, the appearances of the sheep and the bear. Surprisingly, I thought, a lot of the satire is verbal (including some ironic praise of “the spirit of improvisation” from the guests, and a clamour that “we don’t want reason – we want to get out!”), which made images like the butler tipping debris and waste just over the boundary-line stick out. Loved the climactic zoom out from the prostrate sleepover victims to a laughable call for a duel.

Unfortunately the sober tone creates a lot of slack that the script’s skewerings can only take up to a satisfactory extent. It’s considerably less funny than I was expecting, and not very shocking. Quite fun and upbeat but also pretty predictable after premises are established. A lot of the stooges like cabalistic hooey and masonic conspiracy seem quite quaint now. Still, on this count, the frequent references to curing “apathy” among the squabbling elites does still sound a bitter note.

7

L’Eclisse (1962)

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Third time with Antonioni after Blow-Up and La Notte.

Firstly, I’m taking the shot of Vittoria pulling up in a cab, gesticulating at angrily impatient drivers behind to calm down, as a pretty amusing joke on us. It actually helped me settle in.

We begin with V and Riccardo boxed into an apartment. It’s overflowing with furniture and trinkets, introducing the theme of the objectification of people (later, most obviously, V will compare needles, thread, books and men as the often identical). There is a stultifying ennui that foreboded another immured, eventless trudge like the second half of LN, though there is an undercurrent of profounder dissatisfaction – C insists that “there must be a reason”, we try to diagnose where V can’t. Thankfully they quickly take it outside into the pale, empty morning. “I’ve always come with you, why not today?”

Our time is divided between V’s urban perambulations (it felt as if one’s entire world was one, long Sunday afternoon) and the local stock exchange. It’s a bullring of fiery gesticulation and soaring columns like an ancient forum or a temple full of money-lenders. This is the film’s most explicitly political field, but it’s also distinct and strange: we are given equal-length, mid-range shots of people in clear focus, framed by chaotic movement; the effect is less a braying mob in motion than the weird time-dilation of a train station or still photographs of cafes, markets, libraries. It epitomises the MA appeal of spaces that we can sink into and walk around in; the plot threads a quiet route through the movement and the poetically framed images of alienation.

There is a strange scene with V at a neighbour’s: the latter has travelled from her home in Kenya, where she adopts a colonialist perspective (sometimes anthropological, sometimes geographical, sometimes explicitly racist – it’s a nation, in her words, populated by a handful of Oxford elites and a welter of “six million monkeys”. V isn’t happy with this). Africa appears to have been objectified in the same modernist, open-plan world that V is used to (elephant’s feet coffee tables, etc.). V tries (pretty shockingly) to kindle a connection through blacking up and dancing to a record of polyrhythmic drumming. The host isn’t amused and sullenly requests they stop “playing negroes”. I haven’t read much comment on this scene; to me it suggests V’s warped escapism, a singular moment of vitality and animation channeled through a perverted notion of externality – she seems as trapped in her world as Lidia at the bar in LN or Thomas after his epiphany in B-U 

..this is suggested in the next scene, which involves a private flight, a ravishing view of Rome by air; but we’re whisked back to the stock exchange. There are poignant moments throughout L’E: the swoop of a plane coming in to land but ducking out (V watching in the foreground in the classic MA framing); a lonely punter drawing flowers on his receipt outside the SE having lost big; V quietly relating that her mother pins much of her misfortunes on the death of her husband, memories of poverty compelling her forward to her own habit of speculation.

V takes up with a new man, Piero, a flashy and impatient young stockbroker. They start with a great movie kiss – over a pedestrian crossing, quiet morning after P’s stolen car had been dredged up from a river, smashed and dangling a hand of the drunkard who’d commandeered it outside V’s house the night before. Much of the rest of the film is scenes from their haunted courtship, moments of imperfect connection like kissing across a window, discomfort on a sofa. They wander – there is so much room to breathe here, none of the patience-testing rigidity and isolation of LN. There is a culminating scene in a dead house, portraits leering and clothing ripping, cut to outside with V framed as the loneliest girl in the world. I loved the split between P among the ringing telephones, V slipping outside and framed against the trees.

They never meet at the appointed time – instead a slideshow of urban scenes from before, faces from before. The Atomic Age on a newspaper, streets empty like a Sebald novel. The architectural structuring of the film is brought home with images of curved lamps, buildings frozen in construction – sculpture, arrangement, and parallax.

This ending, perhaps MA’s defining formal statement, reasserts L’E‘s granite and gallic academic quality; this is lovely analysis that teases out a lot of the visual themes that slip in unnoticed and bloom after consideration. L’E is political and ponderous but also totally elegant. It’s much more engaging than LN, though probably less than B-U. Definitely helped piece the two together.

8