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.

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Japón (2002)

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First time with Carlos Reygadas.

Artificial Eye said inspired by Tarkovsky and it is somewhat of a roll-call. Solaris traffic at the beginning; Sacrifice tree with the boy, as well as the central “proposal”; Nostalghia pessimistic isolation; Stalker view from the wagon and concluding train tracks. W/ the first and penultimate of these I’m not convinced the score isn’t lifted directly from the sources. However, CR manages to make something for himself.

(A pretty unlikeable deadbeat man from Mexico City makes a pilgrimage to a remote village in what looks variously like a valley or a canyon. His intention is to end his own life. He lodges with an elderly indigenous widow, whose purity and generosity compel him to reevaluate his mission as he gets drawn into a local dispute that threatens the widow’s stability)

First section reminded me of Ceylan’s Climates in that we are really shackled to this guy. For whatever reason [All Reasons] his humanity has been eroded away to the extent that he has become a stubbly, impolite and self-absorbed leech who treats the locals dismissively (they in turn treat him with a mixture of generosity and caution). He resembles a contemporary Al Pacino character, with all of the world-weariness but none of the passion. It is quite taxing plodding around with him. J is shot in a striking letterbox aspect ratio, adding weight to the sunbaked Mexican slopes,  but he remains resolutely central and in focus. The effect compounds the intentionally low-fi resolution which often gives the landscapes a flat and toneless quality as we try frustratedly to pick out detail. The plotting carries this first section, as the reticent script (succinct: “the devil loads guns and idiots fire them”) helps create an enticingly mysterious tone, like Gidean silently unfolding tragedy.

evolves quietly and engagingly, though. There are some memorable tableaux: the widow at her lavish altar kissing a picture of Christ; a filing rank of rubbernecking schoolchildren which puts our man in the position of either an icon or a casualty; juxtaposition of scenes of washing and horses mating, introducing a theme of rebirth and regeneration that tees up the hopeful but futile “proposal”. The widow’s house is the focus of a stark and sometimes bleak general view of rural Mexican life that was quite eye-opening when behaviouristic. Our man takes on a sort of inverse High Plains Drifter role in his slow awakening. The drunkard screeching the wedding ring song after helping the act of familial vandalism is quite a disquieting sight.

But I had other reservations, besides the unsympathetic first stretch. The amount of animal cruelty here is unacceptable (of course a matter of controversy that Tarkovsky himself stoked). The point seems to be that men are bad and our man himself is emerging out of that smoggy world, but the gasping severed pigeon’s head and the stomach-churning screams of the slaughtered pig (offscreen) are especially egregious, a jarring opening theme if nothing else. Always strange to find demerits with a film that consist in aspects that actually contribute to the power of the artistic statement.

is also unable to outrun the slight scent of pretension that tracks it from the moment the mystery begins to settle in. On reflection the final shot – while elegantly choreographed and initially disturbing – does seem an only superficially satisfying conclusion. CR is going up against one of the greats, though.

Interesting, despite these setbacks. Certainly distinctive, which is of elevated significance when the influences are foregrounded so regularly and obviously.

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