L’Innocente (1976)

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Third time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema and Sandra.

Not too much to latch onto initially: Tullio is a total cad without being particularly seductive, as he waxes lyrical about his new love interest while his wife Giuliana listens with meek resignation. “You talk as if I never existed” is her response to his exaltations of newfound youth. She grows into relative independence while his mistress Teresa remains satisfyingly aloof. Turns out to be something of a false start as its the process of regeneration in G that makes her suddenly attractive once more to T; there’s a nice setpiece in the grounds of a fading and neglected villa, held in waiting by T’s mother for the couple, where they attempt to renovate their relationship (“Let’s imagine being two people who meet for the first time”). The allure of immoral decadence becomes a central theme, with G’s inability to resist T shadowing LV’s own obsession with the poisoned aristocracy of his background and of his later films (the idea of T being the seducer is intriguing, too, given LV’s own open homosexuality. There is plenty of implied tension in the frequent fencing scenes and one particular peak in a moment between T and his wife’s lover in the showers, but the theme isn’t explicitly developed any further).

The screws are slowly tightened. Desperation mounts as each character plays themselves into smaller corners, with G’s piety and questionable devotion to her now-deceased lover tensed against T’s opportunistic bourgeois atheism and pride. T’s degradation seems inevitable from the outset (“I knew Tullio was mad but not to this extent” says his mother, I think) but Giancarlo Giannini’s taut performance allows for some particularly catastrophic moments: his tears on hearing of G’s pregnancy; the violin spasming as he stokes the fire during her muffled labour (although this is one moment among a few, here, when we feel cheated of more thorough consideration of female perspectives. In the end Teresa challenges his erratically romantic chauvinism and receives a predictably unsatisfying bid for affection as an answer). The penultimate catastrophe is a real climax, with G’s nervous devotion at Christmas carols juxtaposed with the tormented T leering over the cot like Herod.

Not quite as fun as S but more feels more personal (perhaps in part because it was LV’s last film, released posthumously even in Italy). Definitely a grower, too, which is impressive given the lack of formal or stylistic bombast to distract from such a resolutely romantic and aristocratic story.

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The Devils (1971)

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First time with Ken Russell.

The design is what stands out the most. Derek Jarman‘s sets are like sweeping edifices; crowds are often stacked vertically in seats or on flights of steps, architecture soars, tall flags flutter in a way that often evokes Kurosawa’s Ran (there’s an apposite sense, also, of Mordor). Especially the contrast between the baroque contraptions and costumes and the austere, alabaster architecture; something about the capacity (or even tendency) of depravity to thrive under structured constraints – this especially when considered alongside the visually consistent convent of St Ursula (this discontinuity also creates an air of atemporality which helps drag the political allegory into the present). There are some particularly standout sets: the swooning transvestite court of Louix XIII; early shots of the public plague pyres with Hard To Be A God squalor where you can almost smell the fear; the baron’s steaming and low-lit lair like something out of Star Wars; Richelieu’s Gilliam library like the vaults of a bank with nuns crawling like ants; the KKK trial; the final public execution, with its hypnotic Wicker Man totemism and Boschian sideshows like the cheering revellers spinning in the mouth of a painted dragon.

“There’s a man well worth going to hell for.” Oliver Reed is awesome as Grandier, completely magnetic and overblown. Pretty early on he delivers a speech on bodily transcendence which is lyrically Shakespearian, and this is definitely a tone which sticks with his performance. Most of his lines come in these powerful soliloquies: a tirade against national authority in the forum of Loudun; a passionate defence of his honour on trial (in which he rather chillingly evokes conflicts between an individual tyrant and national sovereignty); a plea for the people to “look at your city” screamed through a veil of flames at laughing skeletons. I think TD gains a lot from G’s very clear and honest fear of the physical pain promised to him – it tempers the bleeding romantic heroism (“I need to turn them against myself”) in such lines as “Do you love the church?” “…Not today”.

Vanessa Redgrave is perfect opposite him as Jeanne; the way she writhes under his unwitting influence, her conscience pulling her in different tragic directions as she rips the stability of the city apart like Samson – a sympathetic victim and a mad villain in one. Trapped in her half-height cubbyhole, praying and self-flagellating as her hatred and desperation grows, she’s like some creature of the sewers, a C17th Gollum or Pennywise. Obviously the absolute zenith  is the reverie before the crucifix spliced with the set-piece at Golgotha with the screaming wind, but this can overshadow her equally powerful first reverie: G gliding across the lake, J tormented under the gaze of the nuns, exposing her deformity. The bodily transcendence exalted by G is precisely what is denied her. Again, her demonstrations of fear are humanising, particularly at the exorcism, pleading that she speaks with her own voice.

Understated how funny this film can be: G fighting off an assailant with a taxidermied alligator; the fact that the bad guy looks like Warren Zevon; “bye bye blackbird!”; the pure extravagance of the king’s visit to the mass exorcism, the complete abandon by which everyone involved infuses the scene with infectious energy, laughing and screaming at the ferocious absurdity (the maggot-infested skull at the beginning recalled, for me, the sculpture at the wordless centre of Come and See). Down from these hysterical heights to the cold, tellingly sinister political symbols: the nuns almost shot in the forest like captives of the Nazis, the image of bookcases toppling behind the prosecutor as he torments G in his own house.

The single scene which appears to show any obvious restraint is of course one which, I have read, KR trimmed to attain that X rating: the crushing of G’s legs. Other censored scenes manage to suggestively imply the footage that was cut from them, such as when a self-tormenting J is finally presented with G’s charred femur. As a result, TD is, while still remaining satisfyingly intact, a dismembered but breathing testament to the savage dynamics of censorship, by which cinema can be both hurt and enhanced. In its openness and inviting, contoured incompleteness it is therefore absorbingly textual.

It’s also, surprisingly, utterly pop. An urgent plea through madness. Bold, B (look at that poster!), and brassily British. Somehow, rather impossibly, feels totally staged as spectacular enjoyment but also completely immersive as a riotously fun project to indulge in (Gilliam, again, in this sense of participation). I think its for this reason that I kept thinking of Life of Brian, a 1979 film which, considered as a potential double-bill with TD, illustrates the bizarre parallel universe that British cinema was in throughout the 1970s. TD puts a massive grin on your face even after the Dali horror of the raised, spinning gibbets and the winding path recedes behind red credits.

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Immoral Tales (1973)

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Second time with Walerian Borowcyzk. Watched this after Goto, Island of Love as a Mubi double bill with M (her suggestion!).

Shares, with GIoL, a predilection for glimpsed detail, a fascination with facial closeups and human physicality (here again awkwardness but also pure beauty), a minds-eye for the surreal. Tentative connections with Bataille (initiations, eyes, lack of clear connectivity in the anthology structure) and a general Picnic at Hanging Rock vibe throughout, especially in the historical pieces (of which 2 and perhaps ‘5’ also evoke Valerie And Her Week of Wonders and The Duke of Burgundy, while 3 suggests a wacked-out Cries and Whispers).

1 has a stroppily authoritative young man attempt to teach his submissive cousin “the mystery of the tides”. There’s a textural and rhythmic beauty which is more focused than that of GIoL but still distinctively WB’s in its deceptive surreality; liked the bizarrely striking shots from the oncoming waves towards the couple onshore. Also earlier the feeling of estival germination, bikes on the road the boy weaving a predatory path behind the singing girl.  There was a disappointingly unrealised hint later that she was about to pick up a pebble and bash the guy’s brains in, but we’re spoilt for violence later on anyway.

2 contracts the expansive abandon of 1 into a post-gothic (M Lewis especially) sketch of puritanical suppression: a hyperimaginative girl is locked away by her mother superior but finds stimulation in a handbook of erotic tales. The petulant authority of the boy has vanished; here 2’s girl is suffocated by maternal authority, fantasising about christological male benefactors like the stern faces in a political portrait in her room. 2 has an intoxicating, Bressonian tactility: the girl feels her way through the room’s objects, engaging with the world primarily through this intimate but childlike sense. That dreamy Valerian (geddit) atmosphere pairs some gorgeous colours (bronze hair, oak, clerical shawls in red white and gold) with WB’s eye for movement and composed framing. Feels celebratory; there’s a shot of the girl escaping through a meadow that distinctively echoes one of a man escaping the town in GIoL, silent through binoculars (here she doesn’t make it).

3 tells the story of Countess Bathory, progressing from a comically bumpkin-ridden and cabbage-strewn Hungary countryside to a sinister palace of pleasures. There’s again something about authority in the peasant’s blinded eyes drinking in the marauding countess on horseback, the invocations of Jesus at an altar, the master/servant relationship, the surprising reassertion of masculine police rule after the debauched and dire project of the Countess. A whirling climax with atonal clattering in the score whisks away the fixated scenes of the sacrificial girls showering, glimpsed by the assistant in a mirror as if too intoxicating to be viewed directly; these led to a few direct shots suddenly intercut with a familiar eyes-closeup of the Countess – she has conceded to vampiric temptation. Perhaps a warning about the psychological unbalancing that results from the immurement inflicted in 2 (and on CB in real life as a form of execution, I believe).

There’s a uneasy realisation in the pastoral, innocent early sections of 3 that much of the female nudity has been of rather young women (the girl in 1 is explicitly 16, for example, while 2’s is treated like a schoolgirl, and no-one is too young for scrutiny, at least, in 3). 4 takes a reflexive turn by incorporating this into a quite bitter and surprisingly subtle critique of the catholic church. The ostensive focus is Lucrezia Borgia, whose incestuous indulgences backstage after mass are intercut with the soapbox ravings of a dissenting priest elsewhere. She is troubled by the presence of a bust of her mother, hailed as a paragon of beauty by her male relatives; she bristles when they adorn the statue with her lavish hats and call it queen. Her warped ascent to maturity is therefore figured as an attempt to emulate or supplant her maternal idol, leading into depictions of the Church’s fixation with youthful succession through obedient censer-carrying altar-boys and the inquisitive gaze of a newborn child at its christening. The dissenter side-plot plays out with his predictably linear condemnation; I think we’re therefore encouraged to be troubled by his words, and therefore also by the moral corruption onscreen.

Does test the distinction between erotic and pornographic at points – especially the interpolated middle section, ‘5’: this apparently intended for inclusion in IT, with one other lost segment, to make six parts; was instead adapted into La Bête (1975) but for some reason mubi’s screening left the short version in here between 2 and 3. Initially it segues nicely from 2, adapting that meadow-retreat shot into a discovery of immorality (rather than a graduation from it). But the rest of it is completely ridiculous, awkwardly attempting to combine passionate subsumption into nature (the snail on the shoe, the ribboned clothes in the pond and on branches) with a surrender to fantastical bestial pleasure, here in the form of a rampant half-bear-half-boar-thing. It thereby ditches the appealing Weirian/Stricklandian fairytale atmosphere for b-movie (even Chuck Tingle – seriously) titillation (cf. also the attractively ominous harpsichord motif which is run into the ground through untreated repetition). A complete batshit distraction for the rest of the film – 4 is much more successful as a superficially climactic closer with a troubling but understatedly moralistic takeaway.

Had to watch WALL●E after this to clean out my brains.

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I Clowns (1970)

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I wrote in my notes on Baby Driver that “It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.” I Clowns is perhaps the best example of this, being Federico Fellini’s ode to his beloved world of the circus.

The film flows and tumbles like a continuously performed act, but it can be structurally divided into three parts. We open with a seemingly fictional depiction of the impact of the arrival of a circus on a nondescript, provincial Italian town. A little boy scrambles to a windowsill to witness the raising of a bigtop tent, the room behind him tall and drab like the fantasy nightmare in James and the Giant Peach. “If you don’t behave I’ll get those gypsies to take you away” warns his mother – we get the impression that FF’s lifelong experiments with mischief stemmed from a longing that such a parental punishment might have been meted out to him.

The opening circus shots are fantastically edited, with a childish perspective suggested by frequent appeals to the camera (winks) and an occlusive perspectival preoccupation with aspects of the show (particular actors or sounds), like significant memories forming. Was put in mind of the spectacular structure of wrestling (which is born out by IC‘s second section’s exposition of the traditions of clown types and roles).

The revelatory conclusion to this first section is an examination of the relationship between the circus characters and the townsfolk. The little boy claims not to have enjoyed the show because its cruel humour and anarchic actors resemble the intimidating and inscrutable adult world around him: in the town, coachmen bicker and scuffle like violent clowns, a leering old man exudes their complicit leering sexual humour, (most brilliantly) a town drunkard is wheeled away in a rickety barrow by his apoplectic wife. These figures are frequently shot from below against mundane backdrops; they are almost literally upstaged in their performance of everyday behaviour.

Known commonly as an apolitical director, Fellini introduces here a muted critique of stiffly prohibitive and humourless authority: a stationmaster reacts irately to a trainload of taunting children, insisting that a cartoonishly fascistic guard enforce a uniform discipline – the next convoy stare out at us from their carriages beneath arms raised in fascist salutes. Though clownish characters are shown to ape lower-class behaviour, their performances encourage antiauthoritarian lampooning; a world without clowning is a world of dire and dangerous conformity.

IC‘s second section follows FF’s own efforts to document the contemporary world of the circus in Italy and France, in particular. His cinematographic troupe bounce off each other and the world that their filming in often pretty amusing ways (they argue constantly, and often visually reflect the clowns they are filming). I love this idea because it’s FF telling us not just that films are like circuses, but also that making films is like the circus – all the stuff we don’t see behind the scenes is a clownish world of calamitous collaboration. This notion helps contextualise his enduring fascination with the childish world of the circus: as a director, he never really left it.

This stretch is IC at its most documentary – the potted history of European clowning is interesting with its esteemed characters and disputed traditions. Its history seems very much still up for grabs, with scholars and documentarians debating the aetiology of circus tropes and traditions – it is also the past of the circus, not just its future, which is in doubt. Dramatisations of legendary performances are often revealing and poignant: there’s the tale of a revered but terminally ill clown who sneaks out of the convent hospital for one last show (shot in ragtime fast-motion), and accounts of the famed Fratellini family performing in prisons (echoing IC‘s opening shots of incarcerated audiences) and insane asylums (the value of such performances for the disadvantaged stirringly contributes to my [admittedly prejudiced] enthusiasm for conservation of this entertainment tradition – “the whole world needs to laugh again with clowns!” beseeches and old custodian).

There is a distinctly melancholy skein running through this middle section: retired clowns toast their deceased partners; family historians reminisce about lost legends. I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s uncomfortable routine about the ghosts of dead performers haunting him onstage – I heard him say, in a podcast interview with Scroobius Pip of all people, that he drew on actual personal bereavement to make these performances feel more realistic, and that he was accordingly feeling a morally dubious fatigue after the exploitation of his own memories. The world of the circus seems to be consciously crowded with ghosts

…a sensation carried boldly through into IC‘s final section: a dramatised circus performance loosely centred around a funeral for a revered clown. It’s a riot of colour and motion, with the proceedings quickly descending into chaos after the destabilising interventions of various attendant clowns, weeping as they burn their noses and smack each other silly. It’s a Fantasia-esque escalation, shot from perspectives nimbly varying between ringside spectatorship and in mediis rebus involvement. FF’s own show reincorporates some of the striking Jodorowsky-esque imagery that I loved in Juliet of the Spirits (IC having been released six years after FF began experimenting with LSD), with slapstick surreality running amok.

There is a wonderful touch at the end: a journalist appears to be interviewing FF on the sidelines of the manic meta-chaos unfolding in the ring; he quizzes “are you trying to create a parallel–” until two buckets are chucked from the melée onto their heads. Shut up and enjoy the show!

Though IC is essayistic in structure, we’re therefore taken full-circle: the little boy is given the opportunity to put on his own show, not to be intruded upon even by his critical future self. Deserves to be judged more or less by its own standards; I can only compare it to F For Fake – this is just as fun, just as personal, just as idiosyncratic and just as captivating.

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Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970)

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Watched this a fair while back with Mary as part of a Czech film night double bill with Pictures of the Old World.

Pretty ridiculous. The tone is madcap from the beginning but it does retain a Picnic At Hanging Rock vibe until the vampires and the coffins come out for real. Weir definitely a touchstone with the education of young girls and the unlocked occult potential. Can hear all the Broadcast-isms in the soundtrack too which is great in itself.

VahWoW gleefully trashes its own internal logic, which is funny if a little frustrating. Pretty unsettlingly sexualised presentation of the 13-year old lead at points, too. Still, over all lavish and rollicking, and definitely a perfect b movie counterpoint to PotOW.

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Pictures Of The Old World (1972)

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Watched this one a little while back with Mary as part of a Czech night double bill with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. First time with Hanák.

Amazing documentary about old, isolated rural people in Czechoslovakia after the events of 1968. Not an overt political focus besides the Tarr notion that these people have been profoundly left behind (check the Turin Horse connection on the poster too).

Besides Tarr definitely thinking of Koppel’s Sleep Furiously – similarly essayistic, but less chorographic (these people seem isolated even from each other, despite the sense of agreement over values) and more theatrical. (Important feature of PotOW is the foregrounding of sympathy, encouraging people to tell their own stories – this is heralded by the first major speaker, a dramatic man who plays for the camera and expresses a desire to be the subject of a funny film.) Lositzna also – The Settlement – but again the theatricality; DH is not a passive observer here. (interviews are interleaved by appearance behind a microphone in front of many other subjects, each asked what the most important thing in life is.) Was also reminded of Amanda Rose’s Approaching The Elephant.

Modernist editing and cinematography (effective range from topographic closeups to philosophical long shots; especially liked the man complaining about his immobility, camera rotating until he walks past as if up a vertical slope). Hauntological tinge to a lot of the presentation; the honouring of older photographs; the one man’s wonder at astronautics (here the contrast between futurism and those left behind is most strikingly emotive). But a lot of the material, though always beautifully shot, gives the impression of not needing much artifice to appear breathtaking – the clockwork town; the shepherd marching down a hill in the fog with his pipes; the same shepherd soaking himself with drink in his house; the no-legged man shuffling around after his livestock and manoeuvring into a position from which he can chop logs; a stalking view over a lavish graveyard; an old maid shot first hopping over a fence then striding away (“they cannot fence me in”); another amputee, a widower left only with a cat and his cigarettes; the symbolic closing shot. Likewise, what these people have to say is often moving to an extent and in a manner that is impossible to anticipate: “I love people. Where are they?”; “I am always here”; plenty telling us that if they didn’t have work they would have nothing to live for, but also telling us that they have no fear for the next life. (the relationship between despair and optimism here is revelatory)

Haunting absence of youth. Interesting gender dynamics too: lots of dependency from the men, who often tell tales of inferiority (as in the first one who was consigned to a barn or a shed or something while his wife held the house). Summed up in the scene of an old man attempting to sell broken eggs to unflappable female customers; he ends up sitting alone in the corner. Also helps dramatise the romanticism of isolation – one guy confesses he doesn’t know how to talk to women, and relates his confusion when a group reacted to his approach with “oh no.” Much more poignant than it sounds here.

Incredibly striking. (The only thing, for me, that gave it any imperfection was the noticeable disconnection between most of the early interviewees. Clear thematic continuity and also sense of continuation from photo-montage inspiration, but still a bit too episodic)

9

Fox and His Friends (1975)

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At the beginning, real life invades the world of poor artists. But Fox is transplanted out of his “real self” into a world of showy pretence.

Fey, petulant, pining for his mother, sulking in his coattails at tea.

At the bank withdrawing cash cash cash cash; “if you say a word so many times, it loses its meaning” – jamais-vu; loss of referentiality and signification. F is constantly tied up in language he doesn’t understand; legalese, etiquette, French. Fox is a feature-length riff on my favourite moment in Ali: E stumped at the restaurant, the waiter wielding decorum like a net.

F the great observer of behaviour; movement and posture as well as speech: the sugar chucked past the bowl is a great touch, as is the Dad smiling sinisterly at the dinner while F breaks bread into his lobster soup. “We’ll make a human being out of you yet!” Too easy for me to lose track of the value in this social portrait; the sexual politics, economics of relationships, poverty and queerness. F’s aspiration is to a liberal sphere (the film’s obvious moment of explicit, more mainstream homophobia – F’s and E’s eviction from their rented apartment – is instantly ironed out with the lottery money) that chews him up and spits him out,  no less permanently resident than the Arab is in the European hotel in Marrakech. Dynamics of acceptance are perhaps more layered and revealing here than in Ali, which exposes techniques for manipulation along a more linear spectrum of tolerance.

Palette more beautiful even than Merchant of the Four Seasons – the florist’s, the first apartment, the clothes shop. Looks great in square aspect ratio too; F’s framing is elegantly revealing: wandering around above in the empty apartment, filmed from below in the spiral stairwell with the bannisters blocking like cell bars. After the party, F and Eugen parallel gazing down at his sister, his friends.

Flashes, too, of the madcap shock I loved in Merchant – the Grave Of The Fireflies ending especially, also the weird tension of the beginning released in the poignant goodbye onstage – but, like Ali, somewhat formulaic and predictable.

Glücklich – was ist das?

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