I’m going to have a hard time describing Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I could tell you about the plot, which involves three teenage girls and one woman vanishing at a mysterious volcanic landform on Valentine’s Day, 1900. I could examine the metaphors of man’s attempts to tame Australia’s wilderness, and the Victorian Era’s attempts to tame the budding sexuality of young women. I could also go on about the film’s obvious influence on The Virgin Suicides. But all I really want to talk about is the atmosphere of the film, the mysterious, mystical aura that hangs over a foreboding undercurrent, like a white flowing dress passing through a harsh secluded landscape. It’s rare to find a film that is so successfully held together by mood alone, or a story that leaves me to ponder unanswered questions without wanting to answer them. Beautiful, haunting, and very recommended.
In DON’T LOOK NOW, Nicholas Roeg’s spooky supernatural thriller, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie find themselves in Venice after the death of their daughter. Amidst the narrow maze of canals and bridges—a perfect setting for getting lost and some what’s-around-the-corner anxiety—they encounter blind psychics, strange visions, and ominous warnings. I’ve seen enough Nicholas Roeg at this point to recognize his hallmarks: story told through unexpected editing and the juxtaposition of imagery. Here, that collage style of filmmaking is at its most refined, and ramps up the sense of unease that permeates the film even when nothing bad is happening. It all leads to a jarring conclusion which, very unfortunately, I had already seen a clip of years ago. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. But in this case, I think I missed out on the full impact of the film’s slowly building sense of mystery. So my advice this Halloween is if you haven’t seen this film yet, and you don’t know what happens, consider yourself lucky and see it now! Quick! Before the spoilers get to you, too! Consider yourself warned.
Akira Kurosawa’s first color film is a collection of stories set in a slum. Bookended by a young man who thinks he drives a trolley through the squalor, it’s full of characters who find ways of getting by. The stories range from light and humorous (I adored the two color-coded couples who swap husbands) to the macabre. The most memorable, and certainly most grotesquely theatrical, imagery comes from a homeless father and son who dream of their ideal home while things fall apart. Some of the plots are more engaging than others, but most of it I enjoyed. And though the stylistic combination of realism and fantasy can be disorienting, it mirrors the duality of the characters’ lives. Sometimes they live in grime and decay. Sometimes they live in exuberantly painted backdrops that are like the bright children’s drawings in the “trolley” conductor’s home. Kurosawa’s first use of color may be over the top at times, but you won’t hear me complain.
Years after the war, concentration camp survivor Lucia happens upon the hotel where former Nazi officer Max is now working and hiding. They are launched into memories of their prior sadomasochistic relationship, then rekindle it over themes of repression, passion, shame, and shamelessness. Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER refuses to meet expectation—I spent most of the film trying to understand the characters and being wrong. That’s partially due to the writing, which gives very little background to the two lovers or insight into what they’re feeling at any given moment. But it’s also the innate complexity of sexual power dynamics intersecting with historical power dynamics, and a film that’s more interested in provoking than analyzing. Weeks later, I’m still not sure I’ve formed any definite opinions on it. But the story is absorbing, the performances are electric, and the iconic half-nude-half-SS-uniform cabaret scene is worth it alone.
Halloween really is the perfect holiday for a film blog. Last year I paid tribute with ROSEMARY’S BABY, and this year I sat down with Andy Warhol’s BLOOD FOR DRACULA, a film by Paul Morrissey that has nothing to do with Andy Warhol beyond his name. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen its sister film, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, and I don’t remember much about it other than disliking it. So it’s difficult for me to make comparisons. But either BLOOD FOR DRACULA is the much better film, or my expectations have changed over the years. Possibly the latter. I went into this ready for something painfully bad, and was surprised to discover a cohesive narrative and passable acting, with some beautiful sets and lighting, and of course a lot of delightful gore, nudity, and humor. Udo Kier makes for an otherworldly and oddly sympathetic Dracula, who needs virgin blood to stay alive but can’t seem to find any virgins. His rival, played by Joe Dallesandro, is a working class and sexually liberated upstart, which would make him the protagonist in any other film except that he’s also an asshole (and can’t really act). The result is some convoluted and heavy-handed political themes, but that only adds to the camp, which finds its fullest expression in the never-ending sequences of projectile-vomited blood.
So, what do you think I should watch next year?
LE CERCLE ROUGE is the second Melville film I’ve seen, and like LE SAMOURAÏ, it’s a stylish crime drama with ultra-cool antiheroes and very little dialog. It follows the paths of a recently released thief, an escaped criminal, and a tortured ex-cop who team up to execute a carefully crafted jewelry heist. At their heels is an equally adept and determined detective. The progression of chance events that bring the four characters together slowly unfold with a strong sense of fatalism. And the mood is set with dreary colors, simple and effective camerawork, and understated acting. It all culminates in an extended robbery scene, definitely the highlight of the film, carried out in dead silence and completely absorbing. Oh, and special mention goes to the star of the film, Alain Delon’s mustache.
Okay, I’m totally cheating here. The illustration below is something I created last year, for my own amusement. And while it was definitely inspired by the mod and rocker rivalry captured in QUADROPHENIA, it’s not specific to that film. But no matter—I’ve been eager to post it ever since Criterion announced they were releasing this title. QUADROPHENIA is The Who’s lesser known rock opera-to-film adaptation, although the movie itself isn’t a musical, but a character study with a great soundtrack. It centers around a teenager named Jimmy who defines himself by the clothes, scooters, music, and other trappings of being a mod. He’s eager to impress his friends, pick up girls, and beat up a few rockers in the process. But when real life doesn’t conform to his idealistic worldview, and his chosen subculture lets him down, he starts to fall apart. It’s a fun time-capsule of a film that seems to be both nostalgic and bitter about growing up in 1960s London. I really enjoyed the youthful energy and rising tension, not to mention The Who’s earnest rock weaving through the narrative. And really, you can’t go wrong with a young Sting playing the king of the mods.
What can I say about Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film HOUSE? The trailer calls it the first fantasy horror film, and I suppose that’s as good a description as any. A schoolgirl named Gorgeous and six friends go to visit her aunt in a large, secluded house, and things just get weird from there. The imagery is something out of a fevered dream: hungry pianos, evil cats, and floating body parts among other things. I love the surreal painted backdrops and bits of frenzied animation, not to mention the humor. The overall effect is more campy than scary, and that’s just my cup of tea.
When the movie Frankenstein comes to a small village just after the Spanish Civil War, it alters the lives of young, precocious Ana and her sister Teresa. The two of them create their own mythology around the film, and soon Ana becomes obsessed with finding the spirit of Frankenstein. What first struck me about THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE were its beautiful visuals, particularly the honey-gold colors that saturate the film. With the help of two gifted child actors, the story draws you in immediately to the world of childhood logic, where make-believe and reality are closely entwined. Ana’s experiences are moving, even when it’s difficult to pin down their exact meanings and consequences. The parents are in a number of scenes as well, with their own postwar ruminations on life, but it’s Ana’s mystical view of the world that stays with me.
The premise of WALKABOUT is not all that unfamiliar. A white brother and sister become stranded in the Australian outback, and must rely on the guidance of a young Aborigine to survive and find their way home. It’s a coming of age film full of condemnation against modern living and a healthy measure of noble savage clichés. But that’s only on the surface. For me, what takes the film several steps further is some brilliant editing. The story is full of unlikely juxtapositions, some of them making obvious comparisons between living in nature versus the “civilized” world, while others have meanings far more abstract. For example, some of the most memorable images are closeups of the desert’s bizarre wildlife. At first they struck me as representing the perils of the landscape, but later they become a symbol of survival, of life teeming in unlikely places. Finally, with some graphic hunting scenes, the message becomes a larger one about life, death, and cruelty. WALKABOUT is a film that thoughtfully explores all of these topics, and does it with very little dialog.