I think it was Einstein who said that creativity is intelligence having fun. I do think the three go hand in hand, whether or not the finished work is ‘fun’. Fun can be all sorts after all, to my my mind it’s less to do with jokes and more with relaxed awareness, fresh mind, a capacity for spontaneous appreciation of what’s going on. In cinematic terms, I have the most fun with Altman. Celine and Julie Go Boating.
In TV, that’s Dennis Potter, though his work is closer to the cinema than anything. I do think this is subpar work compared to Singing Detective, but that’s setting up a tough comparison. It falters with a bit of sloppy writing in the latter episodes, and an absolutely annoying protagonist in the bookish Welsh boy. Overall, it can be said to be a rehash of Detective and Pennies in Heaven.
However, it fits everything just mentioned. It’s creative work, intelligently conceived. Like Altman, it has narrative space enough to wander, to unfold time as it trickles. Like Celine, it is layered fiction about a real world that stifles youthful dreaming.
Youth trapped in menial work, three army guys working in the British War Office and a blonde bombshell, she an usherette in a movie theater, who gets to intimately know all three. Each episode begins with newsreel footage of what’s going on in the world; cinematic light as it creates, out of nothing, the world of responsibility and organized anxiety.
It’s the middle of the 1956 Suez Crisis, which adds to dreary routine a sense of impending catastrophe. There is some getting to understand that this was the end of an Empire, from the adult perspective there’s a lot of worrying and despair.
It really was a volatile time, with Kruschev threatening with (nonexistent) nukes London and Paris if they didn’t pull out of Nasser’s Egypt. The main focus, though, is noting all this distant absurdity against what really makes the heart beat faster.
It is searching for true love. It is finding the girl who is right for you, dreaming about her, staring out the window at night summoning her to you. We have these marvellous shifts from humdrum reality at the Office to marvellous, sometimes plain silly daydreaming.
It is fun not because of the jokes. It is fun, in the sense of an exhilarating spirit, because the mind is not bogged down by drama. This is the the real lost youth, the innocence of gaze not having the mind ‘stop’ at every worry. Isn’t this what happens in the film when we escape via song? There is movement in mind, even to sometimes inane stuff. I saw this spread over a couple of days, oddly enhanced by my reading of a series of essays written by a Zen monk and calligrapher in the 1600’s. He was talking about something like this, letting go of the mind that holds the mind.
For me, that is the the look of exhilaration on Ewan McGregor’s face as he dreams of being Elvis. Well, that is sending out the mind. Even more penetrating films show how that is the same as having the mind return, but that’s another story.
The Yom Kippur War almost caught Israel unawares. Twenty days later, the IDF was across the Suez 100km from Cairo and near as many from Damascus in the Syrian front, in a muddled war that once more proved pretty much disastrous for the Arabs. In a strange turn of events, however, the surprise attack and doom-laden buildup to it, with thousands of graves dug in anticipation, had a devastating effect on the country, in effect signaling a perpetual state of fear and alert.
I am in the middle of exploring through films these bumps in the national mind, which brought me here. For what it’s worth, the filmmaker has decided to capture an experience of war as purely about what it means to be there as he can. He knows, was there.
Sadly, tis’ flat beyond belief. For better or worse I found it to be nothing like Thin Red Line, as others have mentioned in their comments. Whereas Malick spins war to be one of conflicting urges in the soul, this is what we see, two hours of med- evacs carrying the wounded.
There’s one contemplative image in the film, a helo shot of a muddy battlefield with maneuvering tanks drawing meaningless patterns on the mud, contrasted with the early shot of the lush mingling of painted sex evocative of life, color, imagination, spontaneity. It’s a great shot, and perfectly describes both what the film wants to portray, a sort of aimless cosmos, and what it ends up with—aimless doodling.
As a war movie, this is pretty ordinary. However, it’s a neat idea if you think of it in cinematic terms. We are inside the camera (the mind’s eye) looking out at fleeting glimpses of war, moving north to madness. We share the perspective of young Israeli soldiers throughout, though I’d think IDF reservists are more battle-hardened and professional than we see here. We are baffled at what it’s all supposed to be, who is on our side and where’s the rest of the army.
We see as they see through the viewfinder, the experience both framed and as it happens, which mirrors our experience. The outside images are meant to unravel some of the maddening complexity of asymmetric war, guerillas using human shields, a distraught mother looking for her child reaps a moment of affection, but more abstractly this: the inability of seeing to make sense of a story out of incomprehensible reality.
So I don’t mind overmuch the stock characters and situations, the tank commander who loses it, the shooter with a conscience and so on. I do mind, however, that more is not made of the self-referential nature of seeing and story, too bad because the parts are all there. Forget about Saving Ryan or Hurt Locker, this concept has tremendous power, war as mobilized by images in the eye. It’d make for a great study, akin to Blowup. Could DePalma do it?
Imagine. A journey linking transient human reflections in the pools of water on the floor, to harried images of harried reality, to fixed images of images in the photos and advertising posters of the travel agency, unreal in this context. And all of them framed, transient snapshots of story as is war, as we consume war. It’s all in the film, almost, but the focus is on more predictable stuff.
The ending is effective in this regard. What if there is no story out there in the universe? Where is the music coming from? What does it mean that the same godhead can imagine tanks and sunflower fields?
Near the end, the eye is cracked. Alas, a missed chance overall.
I have chosen to bookend the images above with one of an old man looking out at sea, and his younger self looking back.
This is a film heavily about memory, about the filmmaker’s memory of his part as an IDF draftee in the Lebanese War of ‘82, about, perhaps, a nation’s collective memory of having had to escape all that and the hallucinative boundaries of ‘truth’. It’s the third of three consecutive films I saw in as many days, where Israeli filmmakers bring to cinematic life their traumatizing personal experience of war, the other two being Kippur and Lebanon.
In a way, all good film is about memory. It may not be expressly the subject matter, or indeed the filmmaker’s personal memory, as here, but the function of imagining, which is the same function as dreaming and remembering, wouldn’t work unless we had deeply embedded images in ourselves. We do, unimaginably rich stores of images, dynamic, evolving in time as is memory.
And it can be said, without being too fussy about it, that everything we see are reflections of images put before the mind, illusory in nature. This is not the same as being false, but we’ll get to that. The conundrum? Explaining this unreality in words reduces, it’s a clumsy burden. If the mind is like a mirror, it’s like touching the spot on the mirror you want to show, smudged the moment you do.
So great art to my mind, like meditation, is the effort to touch without touching, to draw transparent air between ourselves and images. This touching without touching also applies to viewing a film.
So here we have a filmmaker on a journey of memory, not trying to unearth simply some obscure corner but the whole story of a past self, the story as a single image. It’s a Citizen Kane of sorts, with the filmmaker in the role of ‘reporter’ visiting friends and acquaintances of old as he begins to fill the picture.
It’s flawed, in that what it explains point blank about memory and dissociation is slim stuff, notation instead of music. It obscures truths by intellectual analysis, as much so as Waking Life does with dreams. Thankfully, those moments are few and you can brush them aside with ease.
What’s really worth it here, is puzzling a bit about the nature of this. Oddly pitched as a documentary, but it’s not. How could it be? It’s about a dreaming self who twists images. Malleable reality before our eyes. What it is, wonderfully so, is a narrator ‘re-discovering’ his story.
So it’s fitting to have it be animated, every image constructed, illusory. And how rich the illusion! Some of it obvious hallucination, some of it unreal impression, some of it absurdly real. Some of it from the point-of-view of others. Utterly evocative as a whole, especially the dance.
He tethers all these images into his story, wonderful images. As he does, the mysterious image of boys emerging from sea acquires all these different shades of reality, gradually becoming more ‘real’ as they light up his night sky. It’s a magical scene that recurs several times in the film.
This is the ‘truth’ here, peeling away different layers to discover the original image. This image is the last we see, a shattering moment in the film. The rest of the story as only the vessel to having witnessed the moment, the softening of edges of truth as we swim there.
So a bit of Zen to meditate upon. Who is that self who witnesses the scene of distraught women? I mean as you watch the film, what is he to you? Is he another character being recalled? Is he the narrator causing the story to be remembered years later? Is he the original self ‘found’ again, or not? You must study this.
There’s no question that Franco was inept in many ways, starting with some unbelievably dumb stories. Not what the story is about but how, usually awkward, wooden, unnatural in anything that resembles life. Still, he led a pretty admirable life, shooting films, composing music, traveling around sunny locales, meeting and undressing some pretty women with his camera. I can think of ways much worse to spend my time on earth.
And even more appealing to me, there’s something to be said about his mentality towards films, probably immersed whilst doing it but quickly moving on, unattached. It’s freeing to see.
So when all is said, you have probably decided what use you have for any of these films.
This isn’t one of his best, far from it actually. For me, that’s Eugenie De Sade and Vampyros. I rate it low, because it is bad in all the parts, even the sex which is neither erotic nor dangerous as he probably thought. What he explains about the ‘world of pleasure’ are childish notions.
Still, what it is has its attractive aura. The very loose structure, a woman simply walks around having sex, the languid locations in Madeira, the vapid look on Lina Romay’s face as she glides unattached in the nude, the overall air of casual commitment to dumb (as in inarticulate) passion. Oh, he’s still the dull man from interviews but this improvised void endears.
It’s like we’re on vacation, leisurely pacing around as we do some trivial stuff (shooting a softcore film) in order to be far from home. Just look at the images above and tell me they are not someone’s hazy daydream.
Sharasojyu, by the same filmmaker, wowed me recently. It was, as I wrote the other day, some of the best cinematic Zen I know, which in my book is the highest praise. However, inspiration can be a fickle muse as this other film demonstrates.
The difference between the two films is subtle but vital. It’s not a bad film by any means, it’s in the same vein about coming and going, about being there as you quietly yearn for something else. It has some of the same enveloping nature.
The first half is pretty good, a woman is torn between her reasonable but boring boyfriend, and a bohemian sculptor she knows. This is layered with love stories of their grandparents, compromised marriage and untimely death. An ancient city is being excavated nearby, as meant to point to the same cycles of life through time, memories as they’re dug up.
It’s just that when you set nature and mood a certain way, as the filmmaker has here, unusually sparse and quiet, it helps to take care of what you use as dramatic counterpoint. The filmmaker didn’t, so all the stuff about loving, losing and memory as someone dying in the second half come off as particularly loud and constructed, almost in bad taste.
Which in turn, imbues her lovely sunsets and mountains with a sophomoric sense of importance. Whereas the other film was the quiet rustling of the forest, this is as if someone is trying to pluck each rustling sound from a synthesizer. It’s not a work of selfless insight. A disappointment.
SIE TOTETE IN EKSTASE / SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY (1971)
Dir: Jess Franco
West Germany | Spain, 73m
KNIFE IN THE GARTER BELT
I think on the conscious level, Franco isn’t worth knowing. Why I come to him is for semiconscious blurs wrapped around a love for women. This one is utterly childish on a story level, probably written in two days. Its notion of madness is yelling and voices. It isn’t much of a horror film either. The violence is tame, a bit of red paint here, a grimace of asphyxiation there. Visually it is unremarkable, even sloppy whereas Eugenie De Sade was hazy remembrance.
The sole reason to watch it? Four different scenarios with the beautiful Soledad Miranda as she tracks down four doctors responsible for her man’s suicide. In each one she gets naked, each one a slight variation of seduction. The sunny Mediterranean locales, the loose commitment to sex, it maybe even works as comfortable lounging.
I’d like to think she could be on her way to become another Adjani, the same petite frame and mysterious air. Under Franco’s direction, she’s still trying to act with her mouth. But her glimmering eyes were the true article.
If Franco did a single great thing in his tortuous career, that was discovering Soledad Miranda.
Forget what the plot is supposedly about. If you don’t have the DVD, there’s an accompanying interview with Franco on making the film. His discussion of De Sade and how that informs his work is as boring as De Sade’s own writings, but look how he lights up when he starts talking about Soledad. As an old man, you can tell he is still touched by having known her. It is the same mystique that enthralled Von Sternberg to Dietrich.
Born, according to Franco at least, to gypsy parents, she was a successful flamenco dancer and singer before making the transition to film. I’ve only seen her in this and Vampyros, she’s great in both but in the extraordinary way of dancers. It isn’t about acting, she wasn’t much good in the sense Streep is good. It’s having a presence, enchanting, teasing by simple breath.
As Franco talks of her, that segment is peppered with images of her from the film, the rest of the film was beginning to blur but every single one of those I could instantly remember—crouched before a fireplace holding her knees, grazing a thigh, splayed on a bed, pensive with sunglasses in the car, gypsy tinkle in the eye before murder, playful dancing out of her skimpy skirt, I will probably revisit the film years later and be able to recall every pose. And isn’t this what the film is about?
It’s Franco photographing Soledad.
There’s a surrogate father here who, in essence, takes Soledad on the journey to staged erotic images. Franco is actually in the film as the ‘writer’ looking for a fascinating character.
It’s probably his most pure, because it is most purely about his desire to photograph beauty (and murder). The film begins with a softcore scene that leads to strangulation, ‘looked on’ by Franco as the director. Framed as Soledad’s confessional to Franco, the whole film is gauzy, erotic reminisces on a deathbed. So how poignant when you know that she was already dead when the film was released? That, framed as memory, this is the last we’ll see of her?
And the images? The violence is tame by contemporary standards, which is for the better, fewer distraction. Being so blatantly stagy, it even adds to the effect. And whereas the male-driven story of violence is typically sloppy, the images, Soledad’s images as she remembers, attain a unique quality. Soft around the edges, selfless by contrast to Sade’s juvenile philosophy of selfishness.
Seeing select footage of this at some film festival, you’d call it experimental. Sometimes the camera roams over mundane details, sometimes it floats in air, sometimes it blurs and finds again, faces, textures of weather. It’s as if someone is trying to remember, distorting, fixating, carried along by intruding thoughts—a sort of inverse visual Lolita.
It isn’t self-consciously so, which again is for the better. A filmmaker with a semiconscious talent for images, films a woman (not outright sexy) semiconscious of her allure. It’s great if you can drift in that space between them.
Don’t watch this for the story. As other films by this maker, it starts well enough, twin sisters, one of them wicked, the other is pure, have inherited a fortune from their dead father, but the wicked sister is envious of the other and plots her murder. Slow-burn poison. But she’s uncertain whether it works or not.
It is tantalizing for a while. You have poison-induced hallucinations in the ‘good’ sister, mirrored in paranoid tension in the ‘bad’ sister— testing the poison, she has fed it to her maid’s dog, but her own cat may have eaten some, and her maid’s child. Eaten inside by doubt (both are), all she can do is wait.
So you are prepared to conflate parallel layers, ready for rich overlap. The two sisters are played by the same actress.
But it doesn’t take inside.
It doesn’t abstract. It is, to the end, about what’s going to happen with the story. Which is too bad, because the camera, the way we see, is already abstract. Having seen now a few films by this guy, Herz, I’m convinced he was visually the most ambitious of the Czech filmmakers— there are hallucinative swirls here, distortion of space, dynamic prowling. The Gothic mood may recall Bava, but the camera is on a whole other level, much more cinematic.
There is some pretty amazing stuff here. Not the overt hallucinations, but some of the peripheral blurring, like the swirling shots as the carriage filled with soldiers eager for sex is dashing through the ‘red- light’ district. The whole film, rooted in the delirious sisters, is about such bending of vision.
It’s as simple as this, however. Truly great films, those with the power to change you, aren’t about the story. The story is there, the images with some logic behind them, but that is so we have something ‘real’ to bend as we reach for the more expansive causality of how images and logic come into being, which is not a logical process but structured chaos. Even Jess Franco can work when logic is sufficiently bent.
If you watch this to the end, the last scene features some truly mind-bending causality, it can be taking place in reality, maybe not, it’s puzzling that it happens. Is it feigned insanity? Is it structured chaos as film noir fate? For a moment, you’re airborne, hovering as you try to make sense. And in the next scene we have the clean explication, suddenly deflating you back to what its all about. I read that the filmmaker was working under heavy constraints, this may explain the blunder.
So we have whirls and eddies in the camera, but no whirls in logic to get gravity pull.
Zen, transliterated from Japanese, means ‘to manifest the simple’. Easier said than done, starting with the basic acknowledgment that nothing is really simple in life. In the madcap terms of Zen, however, it means precisely that—nothing, it is simple. Better said, it is riding a horse, and there is no man on the saddle, and no horse under it. So how to convey nothing at all?
Well, look no further. This filmmaker, Kawase, is after my own heart, she nails it. She has a rather flat dramatic sense, but the rest is pretty wonderful.
This is some of the best cinematic Zen I know. It has the ‘free and easy wandering’. It’s visibly imperfect, relaxed but faintly echoes of melancholy. As with L’avventura, a disappearance is the tip of the thread. Nothing really happens, except between loss and new life, there is some life. The camera floats around corners of life, it takes you there. We marvel at different textures, types of light; gardens abound. Next to Sans Soleil, this is one of the best films to transport you to Japan.
It’s simple. The idea, laid out early in a talk between the organizers of a dance street festival, is to convey a sense of joy and participation, it’s to create out of nothing, in the streets, a spontaneous atmosphere. However, the spectator has to participate, that is you. In essence, it’s the same idea that drives both meditation and Japanese tea. It’s sitting down, letting what you think it should be all about flow out, so that, hopefully, you’re left with what it was in the first place.
In our case, it’s the connection between people.
It’s magical when it happens, on the day of the festival. Viewers will be puzzled by what the repetitive dance is supposed to mean, those more perceptive perhaps tying it to the Buddhist mantra chanted earlier in a temple. It means nothing, that’s the beauty. It’s there, like the dance in the film, to take you from humdrum life to joyful appreciation of it being what it is.
It’s magical, because the dance is really nothing, they’re doing (a whole troope) the same thing over and over again. And yet it’s infectious, diffused in the air it shapes the experience. What you see is better than metaphor, it’s transcendent—it actually transforms the weather.
Its spring and I find myself gravitating to films where girls explore themselves, I saw a few of them. Maladolescenza was self-serious and symbolic, lame about confrontation. The Czech film The Virgin and the Monster was childish but layered. Alucarda was delirious and fun. So I thought I would round up this batch with the requisite Jess Franco, with one of his most appreciated.
Now my taste in European sleaze cinema runs to Rollin to Daughters of Darkness, which is a shorter step to the undressing of naked mind in Marienbad. In this one, as in Rollin, I appreciate the sensual simplicity, the transparent gaze of the camera.
My god, though. It’s sensual but utterly worthless.
It has a hamfisted message against religion, I can get past that, it’s a hamfisted religion. There is some noodling with what is in the tormented nun’s head and what not, early on she confesses an erotic dream which informs a scene in reality. You can even roll on this the false fairytale ending, inspired by a letter she sends out. It could be a good film on layered dreams, but Franco simply won’t let you indulge the pleasure. There could be an inner self written in letters, but there is only one here and that is a plot device.
So there is a solid bottom of contrived ‘real’ here, which only makes his visual thoughts seem more and more ponderous. What irks, is that instead of reveling in the flesh he undresses, all the time he has to insist he’s depicting religious wrongs. Lame.
In this crazy exploitation movie, young nuns Alucarda (anagram for Dracula) and Justine strike a blood pact, summon demonic forces of some sort and wreak havoc in a small religious community in Mexico. That’s it in a nutshell.
It isn’t simply a bad film, though it is in conventional terms. It’s so utterly nonsensical, so bizarre and hysteric it becomes much more than it is. And isn’t the whole point with movies that we construct what they mean to us?
It falls somewhere between Jess Franco’s lesbian vampire films, and unconsciously Arrabal’s Panic Theater and the Pythons. The beauty of it is that you can read it any way you feel like, there is no logic which is something I seek in films. Or rather, the logic is so inane compared to the anarchic joy, it breaks. My preferred reading is that the whole cacophonous mess is something between Justine’s fears of motherhood strangling her sexuality (viewed through a Catholic prism), a confessional of scandalous teenage thoughts, and mischief caused by two young nuns in the back benches during Sunday school, perhaps imaginary, perhaps blown up into ‘possession’ by the shrill teacher.
It is all entirely theatric, but unselfconscious which is why its chaos works. Everyone is acting crazy, nuns drop down out of the blue. A book (ostensibly on demonology) simply reads ‘Satan’. It’s all of it disconnected, we visit one place then another. There is a satanic ritual and orgy for no good reason.
There is so much screaming, there is screaming inside the screaming.