I wanted to see Ashes & Diamonds, but since Criterion released it as the third title in a loose war trilogy, I figured I’d dutifully start with the first and work my way up to the masterpiece. But damned if this one didn’t feel like a masterpiece itself. It’s an anti-nazi resistance movie, more emotionally deep than Rossellini’s Paisan, younger and less world-weary than Army of Shadows. It also sports my favorite kind of 1950’s photography: artful, almost expressionistic compositions with great depth and lighting

Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki of Blind Chance, a mild-looking Polish Tobey Maguire) and his buddies are introduced stealing coal from trains of the occupying nazi forces, one of them getting killed straight away, but Stach doesn’t join the organized underground resistance until he sees the beautiful Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska of Knights of the Teutonic Order) recruiting. He gradually gets involved with the resistance, seeing a bright future ahead for the two of them, until she is captured – a sure death sentence – in the final minutes, and Stach meets a new group of recruits alone, the struggle carrying on.

Jasio, doomed:

Stach’s loose-cannon friend Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar of Kanal) kills a German and is eventually shot down in a stairwell. Another friend is played by Roman Polanski, just about to jump into short filmmaking.

Polanski:

Background from E. Mazierska:

[This, Wajda’s first feature,] “marks the beginning of the Polish School, the paradigm of Polish cinema that arose from the political and cultural thaw of the mid-1950s.

A so-called political thaw followed the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and the leader of the Polish Communist party, Wladyslaw Bierut, in 1956, and the bloody events of June 1956, when scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government troops during street riots in Poznan. These events paved the way for Wladyslaw Gomulka, who envisaged a more independent, less totalitarian Poland, to become the new party leader in October 1956.

[The Polish School] directors, including Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Has, were all trained after the war, mostly at the Polish National Film School, in Lodz, which opened in 1948. They rejected the simplistic world vision offered by socialist realism and wanted their films to appeal to the viewer through images, rather than the verbal tirades of elevated individuals.

I also watched Wajda’s documentary short on the disc, Ceramics from Ilza, mostly of interest for the way he photographs the ceramic figures in natural environments: against a lake or a hillside, instead of in the studio where they’d normally be displayed.

The opening and closing shots of children conspiring at a great distance from the camera remind me of the final shot of Cache – this could be its comedy sequel. Besides those shots, it’s set in a single apartment. Based on a play (duh) by Yasmina Reza, which won the Tony a couple years ago. Amusing little real-time drama where world-class actors portray friendly, enlightened parents whose behavior soon degrades until they seem worse than the kids. If that piece of minor irony wasn’t the point of the film, then I’m afraid I missed it.

Set in “New York” in the home of Jodie Foster (whom I haven’t seen since Inside Man) and John C. Reilly (haven’t seen since Walk Hard), whose son was nailed in the face by the son of Kate Winslet (last seen in Contagion) and Christoph Waltz (Water for Elephants). Waltz is a terribly important lawyer always on his cell phone, Winslet can’t hold her liquor (there’s a lot more throw-up in this movie than I expected), Foster is insufferably liberal and Reilly the opposite. Or something – there’s not much to it, and the trailer gave away too much, but watching the actors is total fun.

A. Nayman in Cinema Scope:

The only thing more pretentious and transparent than the behaviour of Reza’s straw men and women is the playwright’s own notion that she’s revealing something about human nature. The simplest way to point out what’s wrong with this material is to say that Carnage is exactly the sort of acclaimed easy-bake drama that its own characters would probably hustle to see: a hot ticket for patrons eager to be reduced to social stereotypes and howl like hyenas at the “keen-edged” observations of their own foibles and frailties. … Where a director like Sidney Lumet or, God forbid, Sam Mendes might have felt this high-end horror-show in their bones, Polanski seems triply unimpressed: with the characters’ regressive lunacy, with Reza’s pride in hoisting them on their own petards, and with his own easy grace in crafting a watchable welterweight prestige picture.”

The most brightly-lit and also most pessimistic noir shown in Emory’s series. Nicholson is very good at acting natural, which he does too seldom, and John Huston is haunting as the villain, a human monster in broad daylight. I remember Faye Dunaway as being hysterical in this, but apparently I was only recalling the “she’s my daughter AND my sister” scene. Polanski himself plays a dwarf thug who cuts Jack’s nose open near the beginning of the investigation, forcing Jack to wear facial bandages through most of the movie.

Huston plays Dunaway’s father – he and her husband Mulwray ran the water department for years before selling it to the city, and now Huston is running a water/real estate conspiracy, stealing water from farmers and dumping it into the river. Jack is a nobody detective taking pictures of cheating husbands when he’s used as a pawn in Huston’s schemes to discredit his former partner and recover his grand/daughter – though Jack is plenty smart enough to keep up with the plot. He almost gets ahead, too, but loses his evidence against Huston, and loses Dunaway when the cops shoot her through the head.

Nominated for all the oscars, but really, what chance have you got against the likes of Godfather 2, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and Art Carney?

Roman’s other three-actor feature besides Death and the Maiden, and this one truly has only three actors. There isn’t another soul so much as glimpsed in the background. And it’s an amazing film – don’t know how I didn’t appreciate it the first time I watched, but that maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. Polanski has his actors pulling shapes, as the British say, posing to form geometric patterns across the screen at all times, like a suspense flick made by Maya Deren.

Married couple who seems more bored-and-businesslike than sweetly-in-love picks up a third wheel young hitchhiker and takes him along on their overnight boat cruise. Why would they do such a thing? Because the husband has an overwhelming urge to prove himself over other men and a penchant for playing mind games, and detects similar traits in the young man. Splendid ending: husband thinks the hitcher has drowned, swims to shore while the wife finds the hitcher still alive and has sex with him, nonchalantly confessing later to the husband. The husband drives away with her, reaches an intersection… turn left to go home, believing his wife cheated, or turn right for the police station, believing himself a murderer.

“Polanski was given a proposal to remake the film in English with some known Hollywood actors, but he turned it down as he didn’t want to repeat himself.” Maybe Michael Haneke has heard this bit of trivia, seeing how his own remade family-interrupted psychological drama has similarities to this one.

Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman (of Wajda’s A Generation) wouldn’t work with Polanski again after this film, possibly because he dropped the camera into the lake at one point. Movie failed to win an oscar for coming out the same year as Fellini’s 8 1/2.

Knife in the Water is playing at Emory tomorrow so I prepped with some early shorts.

Murder (1957)
A man is murdered in bed with a pocket knife. That’s all. Damn good effect, too.

Teeth Smile (1957)
A peeper is dissuaded from his pasttime by the man of the house. At a full two minutes including credits, it’s the longer film so far.

Break Up The Dance (1957)
A pleasant outdoor party. Everyone is having a good time until some miscreants hop the fence and trash the place. The first one with sound. All of these so far have been tightly wound, shadowy and threatening.

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958)
Two men carry a mirrored piece of furniture. Later, miscreants (maybe the same ones) kill a kitten, annoy a woman with its corpse, then smash the mirror and beat up our two moving men. Defeated, they go to a barrel graveyard and get pummelled by a cop, then retreat back into the sea. This was probably my favorite of the bunch. One of the moving men later cowrote Knife in the Water, and the composer would work with Polanski through Rosemary’s Baby. Most of these shorts are wordless – probably with international festivals in mind. This was the first award winner of the bunch, so it’s paying off.

The Lamp (1959)
A dollmaker replaces his lantern with an electric lightbulb. The electric box turns into a demon and burns his place to the ground. Dolls missing the tops of their heads always remind me of the Quay brothers.

When Angels Fall (1959)
An elderly black-and-white bathroom attendant has color flashbacks. Second movie with animal killing in it, this time a boy whipping a frog with sticks, and the first Polanski film to depict the horrors of war.

Too many great shots in this one:

The Fat and the Lean (1961)
A flunky is serenading a lazy fat man outside on a hot day. Every day the flunky helps the lazy man hunt and rest and eat and cool off, then tries to escape and gets stopped, until the lazy man ties the flunky to a goat. Times are tough for a while, but one day the flunky is released from the goat, and works twice as hard to please the lazy man, planting flowers all around him instead of trying to escape when the lazy man falls asleep. I was impressed by the acrobatic performance of the slave. IMDB says it’s Polanski himself, but then, IMDB also says Polanski played the old woman in the bathroom.

Mammals (1962)
Two dudes have one sled. Each pretends to be injured so the other will tow him in the sled. My favorite bit is when one wraps himself completely in bandages, turning invisible against the snow. Weird that R.P. would finally make an all-out comedy the same year Knife in the Water came out. I guess even Roman has to unwind once in a while. I don’t know an awful lot about Polish film, but this came after Wajda’s war trilogy, a few years before The Saragossa Manuscript was made, and before Kieslowski’s career had begun.

Second half of shorts listing from Cannes 60th anniv. celebration (first half is here):

It’s A Dream by Tsai Ming-liang
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Occupations by a hatchet-wielding Lars Von Trier
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The Gift, more weirdness by Raoul Ruiz
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The Cinema Around The Corner, happy reminiscing by Claude Lelouch
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First Kiss, pretty but obvious, by Gus Van Sant.
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Cinema Erotique, a funny gag by Roman Polanksi with one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s large-faced actors.
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No Translation Needed, almost too bizarre to be considered self-indulgent, first Michael Cimino movie since 1996.
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At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World by and starring David Cronenberg, one of his funniest and most disturbing movies.
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I Travelled 9,000 km To Give It To You by Wong Kar-Wai.
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Where Is My Romeo? – Abbas Kiarostami films women crying at a movie.
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The Last Dating Show, funny joke on dating and racial tension by Bille August.
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Awkward featuring Elia Suleiman as himself.
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Sole Meeting, another gag, by Manoel de Oliveira and starring Michel Piccoli (left) and MdO fave Duarte de Almeida (right).
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8,944 km From Cannes, a very pleasurable musical gag by Walter Salles.
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War In Peace, either perverse or tragic, I don’t know which, by Wim Wenders.
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Zhanxiou Village, supreme childhood pleasure by Chen Kaige.
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Happy Ending, ironically funny ending by Ken Loach.
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Epilogue is an excerpt from a Rene Clair film.
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Not included in the DVD version was World Cinema by Joel & Ethan Coen and reportedly a second Walter Salles segment.

Not included in the program at all was Absurda by David Lynch (reportedly he submitted too late, so his short was shown separately). I saw a download copy… some digital business with crazed sound effects and giant scissors.