Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, Jaromil Jires)

Not gonna write much because this needs to be seen again. Sort of a surrealist fairy tale, reminding of The Color of Pomegranates and Raul Ruiz. Valerie is stalked by a vampire called Weasel, who may be hitting on Valerie or her girlfriend, and may also be Valerie’s father. She is protected by a boy called Eagle, who may be her brother. The grandmother is in love with priest Gracian, who is also hitting on Valerie. There’s more, involving a just-married neighbor, magic jewelry, self-flagellation and lots of birds.

Learned from the extras: It’s based on the novel by a 1930’s Czech surrealist poet. Director’s name is pronounced YEER-a-mel YEER-esh. Heavily influenced the movie The Company of Wolves, and I am guessing Moonrise Kingdom and maybe Eagleheart.

E. Howard:

Despite this unsettling feeling [that the movie tends to leer at Valerie], the film is a sensual phantasmagoria, exploring the strange netherworld opened up at the junction point between childhood and adulthood. Jireš marries his dazzling imagery to a continually shifting score (written by Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák) that encompasses tinkling music box circularity, jaunty folk melodies, and haunting religious choral hymns. This mix of disparate musical moods and sources mirrors the film’s uneasy blend of fantasy with a child’s eye view on reality.

D. Cairns:

Some book or other on the Czech New Wave compared the storytelling to Rivette’s fantastical films: you can tell there are RULES to the magic in these films, but you DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE.

Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977, Jon Jost)

This is the second obscure 1977 film on Rosenbaum’s top-1000 list that I thought I might not get to ever see until it showed up at a theater in my town with the director in attendance. The Ross sprang a whole Jon Jost retrospective on us with less than a week’s notice, and this was opening night. But after watching Last Chants, a whole week’s worth of similar movies didn’t sound like a party. Maybe if they played one per month I could summon the energy, or maybe if someone promised the others would be less bleak. It was an experience, though, and Jost was full of stories and game to tell them to the too-few attendees.

First surprise: the movie is shot in a series of very long takes, all of which Jost says were first/only takes except the finale (and only because the battery ran out). Second surprise: it’s a musical! Nobody bills it as a musical, but it’s full of original country songs (which comment on the story/themes) co-performed by Jost himself, and the narrative stops or slows down to let each song play in full. That’s pretty much my definition of a musical.

Light Industry summarizes: “Bates journeys with a young hitchhiker, then tosses him out of his pickup, argues with his wife, visits a local diner, hits a bar, has a one-night stand, and then finally encounters a roadside stranger,” whom he robs and kills. Rosenbaum calls it a “chilling portrait of an embittered, misogynistic lumpen proletarian (Tom Blair) driving through western Montana.” There’s a weird tension, because you buy lead actor Blair as Bates, but you don’t like or trust Bates, and the movie patiently follows him without really getting into his head. Definite highlight was a scene in a bar, Bates picking up some girl, another county song playing as the camera spins drunkenly around the room.

Metamorphosis (1975, Jan Nemec)

A very good hour-long movie of the Kafka story, with Gregor Samsa played by a first-person camera and off-screen voice, so there’s no creature effect to ruin the weird mystery.

First movie I’ve seen by Czech new wave director Nemec whose early features were released by Criterion alongside Daisies. An eccentric movie with long roving takes. I’d forgotten the three initially-silent tenants who move into the family’s apparently spacious apartment to help pay the bills after Gregor stops being able to work. Gregor’s disappointed father is played by Heinz Bennent (Heinrich in Possession).

I’ve also seen Caroline Leaf’s 1977 animated version, a 2008 short where post-death Samsa returns as a flock of CG butterflies to torment his family and coworkers, and the meta-version where Richard E. Grant plays Kafka. Apparently Tim Roth starred as Gregor in 1987, and there’s a well-reviewed Russian feature from 2002.

The Tenant (1976, Roman Polanski)

Happy SHOCKtober!

It’s hard to tell what I watched in SHOCKtober 2013, since I was running months behind and posting movies out of order, but I think it was six movies, from Mr. Vampire through The Black Cat, plus a Last Ten Minutes full of ridiculous horror sequels. SHOCKtober 2012 consisted of a single movie, The Hole. So 2011 was the last big SHOCKtober, and 2010 even got its own horror top-ten list. Time to bring back the shocks – got a bunch of movies lined up for this month.

Polanski himself plays Trelkovsky, who snags a Paris apartment (with an awfully steep deposit) thanks to the suicide of the former tenant Simone, and is made to feel unwelcome by almost everybody. He visits Simone during her final days in hospital agony and meets her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani of Possession, also Lucy in Herzog’s Nosferatu). Then Trelkovsky attempts to settle in at home (he works as some kind of clerk, shades of Kafka), but everyone is suspicious of him, even the local police, accusing him of rule violations, and Trelkovsky starts to suspect these hostile neighbors drove Simone to jump from her window.

One man and a wardrobe:

French neighbors scheming against Polish Jew, was starting to look like a persecution story, but then Polanski starts believing the neighbors are trying to turn him into Simone when he wakes up with women’s makeup on his face, and another day he’s lost the same tooth she had lost.

At the end, when he has found shelter at Stella’s place then trashes her apartment because he thinks she’s in on the conspiracy, it becomes clearer than Trelkovsky is just nuts. Inevitably, he jumps from the apartment window in front of an imagined audience of mocking neighbors, but the fall doesn’t kill him, and as the police arrive, he lurches back up the stairs and jumps a second time, ending up in a time-loop as he takes Simone’s place in the hospital bed and sees himself and Stella visiting.

Polanski and Adjani pause to watch Enter The Dragon:

Great cast: Melvyn Douglas (40-some years after The Old Dark House) is Mr. Z the landlord. Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) brings a petition (which Trelkovsky refuses to sign) to evict another neighbor. Jeunet regular Rufus (Amelie‘s dad) comes by looking for Simone. Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter) plays the angry building concierge. Unfortunately some actors have been euro-dubbed, and even the cinematography by Sven Nykvist (between Black Moon and Autumn Sonata) looked just-decent on my video copy.

Jo:

Melvyn:

Ebert called it an embarrassment, also explains there was an apartment shortage in Paris at the time. I guess people were bound to be disappointed in any follow-up to Chinatown, but Canby called it “the most successful and most consistently authentic Polanski film in years,” dismissing Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby as “more or less tailored to popular tastes.” Critics mention Trelkovsky’s meek and malleable nature and the film’s pessimism, but I’m still not sure what to make of the Egyptian references. And am I misinterpreting the image, or at one point is his nightstand replaced with a two-dimensional copy?

Nominated at Cannes the same yeas as Taxi Driver, The Marquise of O, Kings of the Road and Mr. Klein. Based on the novel by Roland Topor, who cowrote Fantastic Planet and played Renfield in Herzog’s Nosferatu.

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

A singing, dancing musical fantasy taking place in the mind of a lead character confined to a hospital bed, who doubles the filmmaker’s own hospital illness/fantasies. But enough about The Singing Detective

Bob Fosse ended up in hospital trying to obsessively re-edit his film Lenny while launching his musical Chicago, and Fosse’s stand-in Roy Scheider (the guy in Jaws whom I disliked less than Richard Dreyfuss) is in a similar fix, plus he’s juggling too many drugs and women, including ex-wife Leland Palmer (that’s the actress’s real name, also of Ken Russell’s Valentino) and dream-girl Jessica Lange. Inspired by 8 1/2, Scheider always surrounded by women in his profession and home life.

Lost the big oscars to Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now, but still won a bunch, including editing, which it deserved. Most impressive part of the movie is the dance scenes, which include the camera and editing as part of the dance.

N. Murray:

Joe’s great curse is that he knows everything can be improved with more time and effort — himself included. More than once in the movie, he shows his work to someone who’s exasperated with him for all the time he’s taking and all the money he’s spending, and in each case, they shake their heads, annoyed to have to admit that all his fussing has made the finished product more brilliant. A skeptic might say this is Fosse congratulating himself, but it’s really more of an explanation. It’s impossible to create something as lasting as All That Jazz without doing a lot of personal and collateral damage.

Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)

Final theatrical film of the two Bergmans (since Fanny & Alexander was shot for television), and each Bergman got an oscar nomination (as did two unrelated songwriters named Bergman that year), but were no match for Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Began shooting three days after I was born. First Bergman film I’ve seen shot in color, except for Saraband which I barely remember.

Opens with Liv Ullmann’s pastor husband narrating to us about her. Later Ingrid will speak aloud as in a play. There are flashbacks (either remembered or imagined) and a nightmare scene, all more theatrical and artificial than the other Bergmans I’ve been watching. It makes sense to watch this right after The Silence, which is also about two family members revealing their hatred for each other over the course of a night and day. However, I’d heard The Silence was one of Bergman’s top masterpieces, and I liked this one better – thought the conflict had a better and more explicable build-up.

So Ingrid plays the famed concert pianist mother of Liv, who has a more modest life in the country with her husband. Unbeknown to Ingrid, Liv is also housing her disabled younger sister Helena (Lena Nyman of I Am Curious), whose presence shakes Ingrid, reminding her of her failures as a mother, which Liv reminds her more and more about until Ingrid is driven from the house for what seems like the final time, riding home on a train alongside Winter Light‘s Gunnar Bjornstrand. It’s all very intense and poisonous and makes you wonder about Ingmar’s obsession with family members’ simmering hatred for each other. Looks absolutely splendid, though.

Watched some of the extras – played through the commentary but didn’t have the stamina for the full 3.5-hour making-of, right after watching the similar full-length doc about Winter Light.

A New Leaf (1971, Elaine May)

Very funny, watched a low-quality VHS during a trip to Lincoln and didn’t take notes. Much has happened since then, so rather than try to scrape my memory for details, here’s a capsule summary by J. Rosenbaum:

Walter Matthau, cast wildly against type, plays a spoiled playboy suddenly deprived of his wealth who plots to marry and murder a wealthy, klutzy, and dysfunctional botanist (May, playing sort of a female Jerry Lewis). May’s savage take on her characters irresistibly recalls Stroheim; she’s at once tender and corrosive (as well as narcissistic and self-hating). This is painful comedy, to be sure, but there’s a lot of soul and spirit behind it.

and more, from Essential Cinema. Sorry to overquote.

The movie – adapted from Jack Ritchie’s story “The Green Heart” — ends with a last-minute turnaround in which the husband saves his wife from drowning on a camping trip and decides with a certain resignation that he’s actually growing fond of her. But May’s script showed Matthau’s character committing at least two other murders prior to this showdown, poisoning both a blackmailer and his bride’s crooked lawyer (Jack Weston). These scenes were cut by the studio, and May attempted to sue Paramount to block the release of their re-edited version.

Out 1: Spectre (1972, Jacques Rivette)

Finally out on video, I got to watch this seven years after seeing Out 1 in theaters.

Rosenbaum calls the two films “radically different,” but to me, it often felt simply like a shorter version of Out 1. Of course, having seen the longer version, I can’t help noticing major differences. The two theater groups’ rehearsal footage is almost entirely gone. Renaud’s disappearance with Quentin’s money is obliquely shown, and the ensuing city-wide hunt for him is even more obliquely included, in the form of black-and-white stills from those scenes inserted between regular scenes, accompanied by a low buzzing noise. There are other appearances of stills, some from deleted scenes from the longer version, sometimes callbacks or flash-forwards to scenes within Spectre.

Admittedly the 13 group felt like a much bigger deal in Spectre, more of a central conspiracy to the film, and I was able to follow the relationships and stories of offscreen characters Pierre and Igor much better, but I can’t tell if they’re really more sharply in focus in Spectre than Out 1, or if during Out 1 itself I was too busy trying to keep the many onscreen characters straight to follow much Igor drama. But looking through articles I quoted in my original Out 1 writeup, Rosenbaum said Out 1 was shaped by “the successive building and shattering of utopian dreams” and Lim says it “devotes its second half to fracture and dissolution,” and that theme and structure didn’t feel as true of Spectre.

The buzzing stills interrupt and fragment primary scenes, and there appears to be more cross-cutting between scenes than in the long version. Conversations sometimes cut off in the middle and never return. The stills appear in greater frequency at times, and disappear for long stretches at others – for instance, when Thomas first visits Sarah at the beach house and convinces her to return to Paris, the whole scene with its long shots plays out without interruption. Sometimes the editing is telling different stories than the dialogue – when Rohmer’s Balzac scholar says “secret societies,” it cuts to the Prometheus group, not returning to Rohmer for a long while.

Obade is far, an 8-hour drive southeast from Paris

Rivette:

They aren’t single frames, but simply production stills. When we tried a shorter version, our first montage ran five and a half hours. Then to make a commercially feasible length, we used the stills to tighten the editing, much the way that Jean-Luc uses titles more and more in his films, as in La Chinoise. Every time there was an editing problem he had recourse to a title. But finally we spent more time on these photos than on anything else, because there were a priori so many possibilities. We wanted the relation between the film and the stills to be neither too close nor too distant, so it was very difficult to find just the right solution. Then we added the sound to the stills. They didn’t work without sound, because the silences interrupted either noises that were very loud or others that were just murmurs. Silence didn’t produce the effect we wanted. I wanted something purely artificial: what we have is just a meaningless frequency, as if produced by a machine, which interrupts the fiction — sometimes sending messages to it, sometimes in relation to what we’ve already seen or are going to see, and sometimes with no relation at all. Because there are stills from scenes, especially toward the end, which don’t appear in the body of the film and are frankly quite incomprehensible.

Hand-off:

At the halfway point, after Colin, Frederique and Emilie/Pauline just appeared in the same scene, it lets loose with a whole montage of the buzzy stills. When Rivette says “there is a moment, one single shot even, in which almost all the fictions intersect, as if all these lines had to pass through a ring. This shot we put squarely in the middle: it comes just before the intermission,” is this the scene he means? There was no intermission in the DVD version, but it seems likely.

Ten of the 13: Thomas, Lili, Sarah, Pauline, Lucie (legal advisor), Warok, Etienne (chess player), The Ethnologist, Igor (never seen), Pierre (never seen). Four more whom I suspect: Elaine (because she discusses Lili’s disappearance with Lucie), Marie (because she gives Colin the letters), Iris (because Pauline speaks freely about Igor and her blackmail plot in front of her) and Georges (unseen character I mentioned in my Out 1 writeup, though I can’t recall who he is).

But let’s not read too much into the conspiracy. Rivette again:

In Out, I was already more careful, because the idea of the “thirteen” came rather late. For a long time we thought that the characters might never meet; perhaps there would be five or six completely different stories. We just didn’t know. Still, I had the idea that something should bring them together, and so it was Histoire des treize. But it was just a mechanism. In Paris and, even more, in Out, I don’t take the whole idea of the search for meaning seriously. It was a convenience to bring about the meetings, but it didn’t work with either film, because they were taken to be films about a search. I tried and failed to make people understand, as the film progressed, that this search led to nothing: at the end of Paris, we discover that the Organization doesn’t exist; and the more Out progresses, the more evident it becomes that this new organization of the thirteen which appeared to have been formed never really existed. There had only been a few vague conversations between completely idealistic characters without any real social or political roots. In each case there was a first part where we assembled a story of a search, and a second part where little by little we wiped it out… When I decided to use Histoire des treize, it was as a critique of Paris, which tried to show more clearly the vanity of this kind of utopian group, hoping to dominate society. It begins by being fascinating and tempting, but in the course of the film comes to be seen as futile.

equipage equipage equipage equipage equipage equipage equipage:

“Listen baby, I’m not Marlon. Marlon is on the waterfront.”

Lili and Pauline are somehow connected in running the shop (which advertises Bob Dylan bootlegs for sale in the window), and Sarah sneaks in and out. I thought Sarah was hanging out in the basement, but when they knock out Lorenzo’s man and drag him downstairs, it doesn’t look like much of a place to spend time. Lili is later said to have stolen a million francs and disappeared – but from Lorenzo or from the cases full of important-looking papers beneath the shop, I’m not positive.

Both theater groups begin with “rehearsals” that seem more like acting warm-up activities, then into vague explorations of theme and character. Each group gets a shot in the arm from the entry of a new member – Sarah to Prometheus and Renaud to Thebes. But Renaud’s ideas don’t work for Lili, and she begins to retreat from the group. In the end, both groups have dissolved because their most recent members have left, followed soon by leaders Lili and Thomas to Obade.

More important differences in the ending: Thomas doesn’t have his beachside breakdown, and Frederique doesn’t die (not sure that she even meets Renaud).

Shortly before Pauline’s lover Igor reappears (in the form of a phone call to the beach house), this maybe-strangely-translated conversation – Lili: “Why do you imagine Igor’s in a room here?” Pauline: “Imagine someone is a half, or a full year trapped in a house. No one notices. In the basement, on the floor, in a room.” Lili: “But this is a dream.” Then they agree to search the house for him, but there’s one section to which nobody has the key, and later when the key mysteriously appears, Pauline searches the unoccupied rooms beyond, staring into the infinite mirror. I find this piece of the film interesting since Bulle Ogier (Pauline) would appear in Rivette’s next film as a ghost trapped within a dream house.

Rosenbaum: “The coded messages Leaud intercepts are significantly different in the two films.” Different how? Also: “Much as Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow bears witness to mid-century paranoia by turning imaginary plots into real ones and vice versa, Rivette has a chilling way of both suggesting explanations and dispersing them in this monumental, maddening epic.”

Rivette:

There are some sequences which I think are failures, but after a certain number of hours, the whole idea of success and failure ceases to have any significance. Some things that I couldn’t use in Spectre are all right in the longer version. The whole actor-spectator relationship is totally different in Out, because there the actors are much more actors than characters. There are many more scenes where the sense of improvisation is much stronger, even to the point of admitting lapses, hesitations, and repetitions. There are some of these in Spectre, but relatively few, because we treated it much more as a fiction about certain characters. In the longer version, the dramatic events are a lot more distant from each other, and between them are long undramatic stretches… contrary to what most people believe, one doesn’t learn any more in the long version than in the short one.

On the meaning of the opening title “Paris and its double”:

I wanted the two titles to indicate that the film was shot in April and May 1970 – that, for me, is the important thing, since there are many allusions in the dialogue to that period. It should be evident that the group of thirteen individuals had probably met and talked for some time until May 1968, when everything changed and they probably disbanded.

David Thomson:

Out 1: Spectre begins as nothing more than scenes from Parisian life; only as time goes by do we realize that there is a plot — perhaps playful, perhaps sinister — that implicates not just the thirteen characters (including Léaud, as the mystery’s self-styled detective), but maybe everyone, everywhere. Real life may be nothing but an enormous yarn someone somewhere is spinning.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir)

Set at a girls’ boarding school in 1900, shot with dreamy sunlit photography, scored with Zamfir panpipes, and run through with an inexplicable tension. Great mood movie, providing no answers at the end, made fifteen years after unsolved disappearance drama L’Avventura.

The girls go on a field trip to the base of a mountain, are “forbidden any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration,” except for mute Sarah who is forced to stay behind at the school, which seems to be a place where rich girls wear all white and learn poetry. During naptime, four girls get up and walk up the mountain, led by Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert of The Draughtsman’s Contract) and separately I think, a teacher also wanders off. One girl, complainy Edith, runs back screaming. The rest awaken, search until dark then return to the school.

After a days-long search party, rich Michael (Dominic Guard, the lead boy in The Go-Between five years earlier) and servant Albert (John Jarratt, baddie of Wolf Creek), young men who witnessed the girls at one point, begin their own search and come across one of the missing girls, who requires medical treatment and finally leaves the school, never speaking to anyone about what happened or where the others might be.

Albert wearing Michael’s hat:

Principal Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts of O Lucky Man) tells mute Sarah, whose best friend is still missing, that her bills haven’t been paid and she’ll be sent to an orphanage. Sarah commits suicide, which is the last straw in the school’s quickly failing reputation. Weird detail: Albert is revealed as Sarah’s long-lost brother, though I don’t think they ever meet. In postscript, the school closes and Mrs. Appleyard dies attempting to climb the mountain.

Sarah with Principal Appleyard:

Also in the movie: Jacki Weaver (who I just saw as a murdered aunt in Stoker) as a sexy maid.

V. Canby:

Horror need not always be a long-fanged gentleman in evening clothes or a dismembered corpse or a doctor who keeps a brain in his gold fish bowl. It may be a warm sunny day, the innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death. Such horror is unspeakable not because it is gruesome but because it remains outside the realm of things that can be easily defined or explained in conventional ways.

E. Roginski for Film Quarterly:

The use of Gheorghe Zamphier’s Pan Pipes is insidious and mesmerizing. The notes from the pipes, echoing an ageless music of the hills begins early in the film to indicate the powerful presence of something primeval. It is played in counter-point to the sophisticated music of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the music of the civilized world. These two strains of music, then, struggle for attention and dominance throughout the film.