Lessons of Darkness (1992, Werner Herzog)

“The oil is trying to disguise itself”

Impressionistic doc shot in aftermath of Kuwait war.

Divided into sections:
– A Capital City (pre-war helicopter shot)
– The War (bombing footage)
– After the Battle (post-war helicopter shot, big horns on soundtrack)
– Torture Chambers (implements and stories)
– Satan’s National Park (oil-drenched landscape)
– Childhood (traumatized survivors)
– And a smoke arose, like the smoke from a furnace (burning oil wells)
– A Pilgrimage (firefighting)
– A Dinosaur’s Feast (vehicles, opera music)
– Protuberances (boiling oil)
– The Drying Up of the Wells (capping wells with new hardware)
– Life Without Fire (some of the fires are re-lit, great narration here)
– I am so weary of sighing, oh lord, grant that the night cometh (finale)

Minimal narration, lots of slow motion. Great music selections from Mahler, Arvo Part, Prokofiev, Wagner, others. I know little about the Kuwait war apparently – why were the Iraqis torturing people to death? But these details are beyond the scope of the film.

Great point by Noel Murray:

Herzog was booed at the Berlin film festival after a screening of Lessons Of Darkness, and accused by the audience of being more interested in pretty pictures and philosophizing than in the human toll of the Gulf War. That’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Throughout his career, Herzog has shown less engagement with any one particular political conflict or social issue than with the bigger picture of how humans continue to fight with each other and with their environment. But then that’s why Lessons Of Darkness is still so beguiling, decades after the war that inspired it.

Herzog:

The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better… With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

First time I’ve seen this in a while, watched in lovely HD.

I think Ben Chaplin (Bell) was the only major Thin Red Line actor to return in The New World, but I never recognize him when I watch it. He’s the thick-browed guy with traitorous wife Miranda Otto (later Tom Cruise’s wife in War of the Worlds).

Blu-ray outtakes: Witt gets berated by John C. Reilly. “Made a mistake getting in this discussion.” Don Harvey gets berated by Paul Gleeson. After Danny Hoch gripes about Lt. Gleeson, Pvt. Larry Romano drunkenly confronts his superior. Private Nick Stahl freaks out after bayoneting an enemy. Bizarre conversation between Witt and sniper Mickey Rourke. Taking Japanese prisoners, one can’t walk. Bell brings his divorce letter to Clooney, who makes good on his earlier comment that he’ll always be available for questions. And a doctor sends Adrian Brody home for his leg injury after Witt dies.

The on-disc interviews are fascinating. It feels strange, though – the actors speak of the movie as Malick’s personal vision, so it’s all Terry this and Terry that, and the absence of his own perspective in the extras makes it seem like reminiscences of a dead artist. Of course it’s understandable that he doesn’t want to participate, that’s just the impression I got. After actors there’s editing, source novel/author, and music (Hans Zimmer says Terry wanted the music to ask questions, not answer them).

The Sensualist (1991, Yukio Abe)

Goofball Juzo bets his penis that he can sleep with high-class courtesan Komurasaki. There is no way this will happen, but fortunately Yonosuke, the most sexually experienced man alive, overhears his troubles and helps him out.

The same 17th century novel was adapted by Yasuzo Masumura as A Lustful Man.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick)

Thinking about this movie again thanks to Room 237. It’s nice to sit down with a “proper film” like Wolf of Wall Street, an austere classic like Winter Light, an idiosyncratic puzzle like Upstream Color, but in some ways, Kubrick knocks them all on their asses. From the start it has a commanding power and grace that seems unreal. It’s a motherfucker of a movie.

At a party, Dr. Bill meets his med school friend (Pianist Nick) and two hot babes, but he escapes upstairs to help save host Sydney Pollack’s prostitute from an overdose, while Bill’s wife Alice (for once, seemingly not a Lewis Carroll reference) dances drunkenly all night with a suave Hungarian.

That night, Alice accuses Bill of infidelity, mocks his total confidence in her by confessing an infatuation with a naval officer last year.

Called away because friend Marion’s father has just died, she confesses her love for Dr. Bill just before her boyfriend arrives.

After being pushed aside by rowdy homophobes, Bill allows himself to be taken inside with prostitute Domino (Vinessa Shaw of The Hill Have Eyes Remake), who has masks on her walls, foreshadowing many masks to come, but after a call from his wife he leaves.

Bill comes across the bar where his pianist friend (Todd Field of The Haunting Remake) plays, and wrestles the details of Nick’s next engagement out of him.

Fully flowing wherever this weird evening will take him, Bill goes to a costume shop to get a mask and cloak, awakens the proprietor (Rade Serbedzija, Boris the Blade in Snatch) who discovers his young daughter fooling around with a pair of Japanese men in wigs.

To the masked ball, where it turns out Bill is immediately suspected for having arrived via taxi. Much nudity, an actually-pretty-tame orgy, and taunting masks everywhere as Bill gets caught and kicked out.

The next morning things aren’t going too well for people Bill met last night. Nick has disappeared (according to hotel clerk Alan Cumming), the costume shop man has reached an “arrangement” with the wig men and offers to rent out his daughter to Bill, Domino got news that she’s HIV positive, and Pollack’s prostitute (who Bill suspects was his rescuer at the masked ball) has turned up dead.

Pollack has Bill over to talk him down, and Bill arrives home to see his wife has found the mask, so he tells Alice everything.

The next day they go toy shopping with their daughter. Alice: “Maybe I think we should be grateful – grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.”

Cruise plays so overconfident that his character seems on the verge of being a huge asshole, flashing his doctor’s license all over town like a cop, but he also plays unhappiness and remorse so well that it’s hard to judge. Kidman spends too much of her screen time drunk or stoned, moving and speaking very slowly, but nails the last few scenes.

I enjoyed Rosenbaum’s article, and a detailed analysis of symbols on Vigilant Citizen. I knew I’d easily find such a thing, based on the level of Kubrick analysis/lunacy displayed in Room 237.

From an amazing article by Tim Kreider in Film Comment (although note that he buys into the Room 237 theory of The Shining being about the massacre of the Native Americans):

The real pornography in this film is in its lingering, overlit depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of end-of-the-millennium Manhattan, and of the obscene effect of that wealth on the human soul, and on society. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element in the film – the trappings of stupendous wealth, the references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, the Christmastime setting, or even the sum spent by Dr. Harford on a single illicit night out – suggests more about the blindness of the elites to their own surroundings than it does about Stanley Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer. … Kubrick’s films are never only about individuals. (Sometimes, as in the case of 2001, they hardly even contain any.) They are always about civilization, about human history.

D’est (1993, Chantal Akerman)

A slideshow of filmed images from Russia and Eastern Europe, decontextualized, no voice-over or dialogue (though people notice the camera and speak to it). Generally quite long shots cut together, though the sound is mixed and faded nicely, not always simply cut with the picture. Camera is often moving, slowly gliding through a scene, and the photography is top-notch.

It’s probably my favorite Akerman film so far, at least the most lively and eventful (from what I remember of From The Other Side). Much of the joy comes from watching people stare back at the camera and crew. Chris Marker would approve. Mostly shot in public places, she also films some women at home, posing for a motion portrait or going about their day. Mostly it gave me a happy sense of peace, with vague anthropological and historical interest – not an intensely moving film, but much more enjoyable than any description of it could sound.

The montage has no discernable purpose, and I saw some complaints about how she almost ends with a long cello performance followed by the musician collecting roses from audience members, but then cuts to one more street scene, perversely denying the movie its obvious finale.

E. Henderson in Slant:

[Russia] was at a précis between history and future, and many of the individual frames in Akerman’s motion picture slideshow rumble with the juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. What Akerman does not do is offer exposition, commentary, or argument. Essentially, she eschews the tenets of documentary in order to avoid clouding her presentation up with, as she suggests in her explicatory notes, agenda.

As observed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, From the East is one of Akerman’s—and maybe cinema’—most fully realized attempts at existing as place, not setting. Rosenbaum notes that almost each and every human being caught by Akerman’s camera (some candidly, others in deliberately staged tableaux) appears to be waiting interminably for God knows what, standing and looking and breathing as Akerman pans to the right, pans to the left.

Rosenbaum also says (and I, too, was reminded of the Straub-Huillet):

The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves–the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.

Grunes calls it “a film populated by ghosts whose substantial reality provides an index of the depth of humanity that, metaphorically, has been lost,” and finds tons of deeper meaning in the shots.

Jon Jost liked it somewhat less (though it’s impossible to like it more than Grunes did):

Again and again the camera passes grim townscapes, and their equally grim occupants… Akerman in a sense gives very little, though what she gives provides enough suggestive power for the viewer’s mind to swarm with thoughts. . . Critics naturally scurry in to fill in the blanks with innumerable speculations, most of which show more about themselves than what is on screen. For those for whom guidance is a requirement a film such as this is doubtless quickly boring and pointless.

Genealogies of a Crime (1997, Raoul Ruiz)

I was about to start reading my Ruiz book, so I watched this first to feel more current. But it’s near-impossible to feel current with the prolific Ruiz, especially when the book opens in Chile two decades before the earliest of his features I’ve seen (Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting).

There’s much mirroring and many strange relationships in this one. Catherine Deneuve is a lawyer defending a boy her just-deceased son’s age for killing his aunt (her own age). Two bizarre and conflicting psychoanalytic societies are interested in the case – one run by mustachey Christian (Andrzej Seweryn, house butler in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet), an associate of the dead aunt, and the other by his erratic-acting “official enemy” Georges (Michel Piccoli, a couple years after Simon Cinema).

Defendant Rene is Melvil Poupaud, a Ruiz regular who got his start as the murderous little boy in City of Pirates. Catherine’s first strategy is to interview him, but she doesn’t get straight answers. Rene plays a game with Catherine that he played with his aunt, where they switch places, speaking as each other, interrupting with a “beep” if the other person gets them wrong. Rene’s aunt kept a diary about him with shades of Through a Glass Darkly – “I’ll follow his development, his descent into hell.” So Catherine reads the diary at the aunt’s house (under supervision of Bernadette Lafont, pirate leader of Noroit and Sarah in Out 1), imagining the scenes described within with herself as the aunt.

All this leads to a tableau reenactment of historic crimes, posing members of the society according to a painting (callback to The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting), but Rene’s “girlfriend” (actually a hired actress) says it’s an excuse for orgies. Anyway, Catherine wins the case, Rene is free, and Piccoli’s entire society poisons themselves.

But it doesn’t end there. Catherine’s mother died earlier in the film, now her friend the judge dies – she spends lots of time nearly alone at the funeral home. Mustache guy Christian returns, takes her to his archives with Mathieu Amalric (one of Rene’s criminal friends from earlier), explains his theory (referenced in the film’s title) about crime being inherited through generations. “People assume stories happen to them. Actually, they are possessed by stories.”

“We thought you’d end up a murderess,” said Catherine’s mom early in the film. Free but possibly guilty, Rene stays at her house, becomes more and more demanding, takes over her life, until finally she stabs him (and all his friends) to death, ending up on trial herself.

Bizarre Ruizian touches along the way: at key moments, we’ll hear the sound of child laughter or distant applause. While someone is talking, sitting still, instead of a slow camera move, the person’s chair or the decor behind him will be slowly gliding. Piccoli’s character has major dandruff, a distracting detail in all his scenes. And a whole mother/daughter conversation in mom’s curio-filled house is shot from various spooky angles with the knick-knacks in the foreground and the people in the distance.

M. Le Cain:

Solange’s adventure essentially consists of her moving through the various perspectives on a murder case, assimilating and reliving the stories of the different characters as they die, like a giant snowball accumulating more and more snow as it rolls down a hill. Having become both victim and murderer – who were themselves both engaged in a dangerous game of identity swapping – she pronounces herself the ‘universal inheritor’ of all the film’s narratives.

Gershwin (1992, Alain Resnais)

Since I’ve watched nearly all of Alain Resnais’s movies, and loved nearly all the ones I’ve watched, I had the completist urge to watch his hour-long entry in a series of TV episodes about creative types: Kafka, Vivaldi, Einstein among others in an optimistically-titled, short-lived series called The Audio-Visual Encyclopedia. Didn’t expect much, but it’s pretty remarkable.

Bertrand Tavernier digs through the archives:

Opens with a player piano, seen but not heard, then people talking about Gershwin in different languages, unsubbed. The film’s writer Edward Jablonski is on screen talking about Gershwin when a narrator starts talking over him. Photos fade in and out, people vanish like in Not on the Lips. Resnais makes much of Gershwin’s erratic behavior shortly before dying of a brain tumor, uses this to justify interruptions and strangeness in the movie. And Resnais’s recent interest in graphics – see (or preferably don’t see) his comic-book movie I Want To Go Home – comes alive with illustrations.

One speaker is put on hold in a corner of the frame while the movie lets another person talk:

Muriel’s Wedding (1994, PJ Hogan)

So this is where Toni Collette came from. She plays a loser from a hopeless family in a nowhere town trying to impress her nobody friends, who moves to the city and finally (and convincingly, not all-at-once in a cheap montage) finds herself (alongside dark-haired friend Rachel Griffiths). Writer/director Hogan later made My Best Friend’s Wedding and a version of Peter Pan.

The Cloud Door (1994, Mani Kaul)

Lovely, colorful 30-minute movie. Main character is a ringneck parakeet who escapes from a lonely princess, flies away to be captured by Irfan Khan (he’s asleep and has no lines). The bird, who speaks as fakely in Hindi as Hollywood parrots do in English, convinces a pretty goth boy to release it and leads him to the princess. Sensual-looking movie, with more bare breasts than I’ve seen in an Indian movie before, and a longer-held close-up on a navel than I’ve seen in any movie. Katy didn’t get it, and NY Times agreed, calling the movie: “a succession of brightly colored images that almost tell a story.” Somehow this is based on three different literary sources, despite its short length and basic story. I’ve read that Mani Kaul was a great artist, never checked him out before.

From Upperstall’s bio: “undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who along with Kumar Shahani has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal.”