The Fall of the House of Usher / The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (dir. Jan Svankmajer): two film shorts of fear, terror and oppression

Jan Svankmajer, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1981), “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983)

Both these live action / stop-motion animation films by Jan Svankmajer are quite faithful adaptations of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short stories of psychological fear and terror. In both stories, told from a first-person viewpoint, the terror exists in the minds of the main characters who attribute to their tormentors greater malevolence than these might deserve. The use of black-and-white film in both shorts focusses viewer attention on shadows and the textures of objects and structures around the protagonists, and conveys an atmosphere of decay and retrogression that may be man-made. The live-action film emphasises close-ups of objects and fragments of large structures such as underground tunnels; fear or alienation seems to fill up the available space behind the screen like invisible swirling smoke.

In “The Fall …”, a narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher’s home and both entomb Usher’s comatose sister Madeleine in the Usher family vault in the basement of the mansion. No actors are seen: the action occurs entirely with any figures and stop-motion animation is used to move Madeleine’s coffin as though it were being pushed by invisible hands. Fantasy imagery of clay and soil moving and forming themselves into rows of frills and ridges, or of mound-like cakes is a major highlight of the film as is also the climax in which chairs fling themselves out of windows (a reference to the famous defenestrations that have occurred in Prague throughout its history since 1419 when the first known major one occurred) and sink into a muddy quicksand moat, and other furniture flee a disintegrating building as the coffin bursts open. The unseen narrator speaks throughout the film in a measured, sober voice but the fact that viewers never see him means that the voice sounds very alienated from the events of the film. Unfortunately the version of the film I saw lacked English-language subtitles but in spite of having no actors and all the furniture and soil having to move themselves about, the film carries a strong sense of physical and psychological isolation and the associated strange and deranged mentality that leads Usher to kill his sister but which also maintains the sister’s life and desire for revenge. There is something of an incestuous relationship implied for Roderick and Madeleine: the two may have had the hots for each other in the past, and if both are mad, that in itself might suggest their parents were also close relatives and had unwittingly passed on a defective gene or two.

“The Pit …” is more conventional in its story-telling approach: a silent, trapped prisoner is condemned to death by being cut in two by an overhanging pendulum suspended from a portrait of a leering God skull on the ceiing above; the pendulum sweeps ever lower to the prisoner, to cut him in two eventually. The man, noticing rats about, grabs meat from bowls with bound hands and smears them over his body’s bonds. The rats grab the food and take the pendulum’s sharp ends, the man is soon able to escape the ropes. Next, moving walls of metal demon puppets that thrust knives and belch fire through eye and mouth apertures menace the prisoner and force him to fall into a pit. He manages to escape and at this point the Poe story ends and another short story “A Torture of Hope” by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam takes over: the man runs through labyrinths of tunnels, panting and panicking as he spies the prison wardens in their hooded cloaks walking from one tunnel to another. He finds a way out of prison but is met by an unpleasant surprise.

Those not familiar with Svankmajer’s way of telling a story might find “The Pit …” easier to follow though no less frightening and filled with dread; if anything, it is highly claustrophobic, panicky and paranoid. The fear is of a dread theocratic regime as suggested by the appearance of the sinister hooded monks who run the prison. The prisoner’s bid for freedom and the fate that awaits him suggest that no matter how far and how long you run, the system will always find you and imprison you again.

The suggestion that machinery and simple household objects, even small items like nails, and natural objects and phenomena like soil and stormy weather might have a life of their own is played for sinister and terrifying effect. There are messages about how people can be manipulated by others through suggestion and religious belief into torturing others or being forced to undergo torture. Svankmajer creates a unique world in which natural or man-made objects can be made supernatural and humans quickly become slaves of their technology and the systems that help produce this technology.

 

Man with a Movie Camera: experimental film documentary with the camera as central character

Dziga Vertov, “Man with a Movie Camera” / “Chelovek s Kino-apparatom” / “Liudyna z Kinoaparatom” (1929)

No plot, no obvious characters or a point of view to identify with, no apparent direction or narrative – how can a film be made without a story structure or something similar to stop it from being a mess? A directionless mess is how “Man with a Movie Camera” may present to most audiences as it must have when first released in 1929. The reality is that director Dziga Vertov made the film as a documentary in three parallel parts: a documentary of one day in the life of people in three cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa), showing them at work and at leisure and emphasising their interactions with technology and machines in particular; a documentary about the process of making a film; and a documentary of people watching the first documentary. The film is continuously self-referential and aware of its being observed and filmed as it observes and films: throughout the film there are references to the camera itself and its association with human eyes and film techniques such as splitting the screen in half, rotating the film, running two scenes in a continuous repeating back-and-forth montage, jiggling the camera and tracking call viewers’ attention to the act and process of observation.

There actually is a “plot” and there are “characters”: the plot is a snapshot of modern life in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, detailing the variety of work people do and what they get up to in their free time and the complexity and pace of the lives they lead. The impression viewers will get from all the jumpy edits and the use of unusual filming methods is that people are swept along by a force originally of their own making and now with a life and energy of its own. Cities wake up in the early morning and already there are people out and about cleaning the streets and preparing to open shops. Drivers and conductors board trams and take them out into the streets to pick up commuters. Gradually people get up from bed, wash themselves and get ready to go to work. Machines whir and wheeze in factories and trams and buses zip along the roads while pedestrians dart in and out among them. Along the way, Vertov chips in images of people attending weddings and funerals and of a woman giving birth, capturing the entire human life cycle in a matter of minutes. Later in the film people exercise, relax at a beach and play sport and games. “Characters” in the plot are the people at work and play as a collective character, the various cameramen who might also be considered one collective character and the cinema audience shown at the beginning and at the end of the film.

Above all, the camera has the starring role and Vertov acknowledges this by including a stop-motion animation scene of the camera, its case and tripod performing an awkward bow to the cinema audience near the end. At critical points in the film, interlays and montages of the camera lens and the human eye emphasise the camera’s role as an active observer and reporter of human activities. The intention on Vertov’s part is innocent enough but in the context of what was to develop in Soviet society later, the camera as an intelligent and perhaps not impartial observer can be a sinister metaphor for a surveillance state. The cameramen become mere hired help who perform dangerous jobs on the camera’s behalf: one man climbs a perilous ladder up a chimney, his equipment slung over his shoulder; another perches on the top of the edge of a door on an open-top car breezily flying down a street; and a third is carried in a basket over the thundering waters of a dam. There’s one heart-stopping scene in which a man, maybe or maybe not a camera operator, appears to be run over by a train. Who or what is the machine taking orders here, the cameraman or the camera?

Numerous filming and editing tricks including filming from different heights and angles, freeze frames, images laid one over another, speeding up or slowing down the film, and montages of repeating images from one to the next and back (so that the images are commenting on each other) relay Vertov’s view of society as progressive and reliant on the interdependence of human labour and technology. The pace is breathless and often dizzying and the camera itself sympathises with viewers by going dizzy itself. There are no class differences – everyone is a partner together in a world of work and leisure – and there are few differences between men and women at work. Women are shown performing labour and doing desk jobs: there is one marvellous montage sequence showing women telephone switchboard operators plugging wires into boards to connect callers and a woman working on a train carriage. Everyone has a role to fulfil and society’s progress and wealth depend on everyone doing his / her fair share of the work and toil. There’s room for humour too: the camera indulges in a playful overlay of a cameraman setting up his tripod and camera in a glass of beer!

Some viewers may find the machine-like portrayal of society and the people a little creepy: the whole society operates too smoothly and efficiently. It’s very easy to get the impression that the people going about their activities are little ants operating on autopilot, never stopping to think about what they’re doing and whether they could be doing something else or the same thing in a different way. There are references to Vladimir Lenin and yes, the film does portray society as serving Communist ideals and goals and building Communist society with combined proletarian effort. Unfortunately it was France not the USSR that had a Jacques Tati doing his bit to interrupt the machine flow of society and introduce some untidy human chaos, and that much later than when Vertov made his documentary.

The joke about “Man with a Movie Camera” (or should that really be “Movie Camera with Hired Help”?) is that the people in the cinema watching the documentary and the cameraman (men?) making a documentary never see what he (they?) captures on film and neither do viewers like you and me. The humour, energy and zest that inform “Man with a Movie Camera” make it fresh more than eighty years after it was made. Clearly Vertov is celebrating Soviet society of 1929 as technological, forward-looking and thinking, prosperous, egalitarian and buoyant: the film is a cheery and exuberant advert for the society it depicts. Considering the terror that was to come with agricultural collectivisation and the resulting famine in Ukraine, Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party and the Soviet armed forces later, and his restrictions on artistic freedom which the film also celebrates, all in the 1930s, viewers might find themselves watching “Man with a Movie Camera” with a skeptical eye and a sad heart.

The Cathedral: search for life’s purpose and oneness with God isn’t fulfilling in this little film

Tomasz Baginski, “The Cathedral” / “Katedra” (2002)

It’s a short film – less than seven minutes – created entirely with 3D computer animation but Baginski’s “The Cathedral” is beautiful and stunning visually while vague and weak on plot and character. A lone pilgrim has come from afar to a huge cathedral structure on a barren planet at the far edge of the universe. What quest brought him here is unknown as the film lacks spoken-word monologue or dialogue. He gazes around him as he walks through the vast edifice of intertwined trunks and branches through which human faces and statues can be seen. As he passes the statues and arrives at the edge of a cliff, at which the cathedral stops repeating its structure and gapes, as if in reverent awe at the abyss below, the focus discreetly shifts to some of the statues’ faces close-up and we see slight twitches, a knowing look, a secret smile, an expression of pain and sorrow, in these portraits.

Those of us who’ve seen numerous science fiction horror films can guess what happens to the pilgrim once the sun rises and casts its rays over the unfinished cathedral and the man himself. This reviewer wasn’t surprised; it was rather like watching that special 4-episode Doctor Who adventure “The Five Doctors” in which a renegade Time Lord seeks immortality and has his wish granted. Very likely the pilgrim’s quest was more about coming closer to God or finding inner peace and purpose to his life. The reply is that of humankind overall searching for its ultimate destiny in the universe with the pilgrim playing just one more part in his people’s outreach to the infinite: the pilgrim’s quest is the same as humanity’s quest and ditto for his purpose in life. As to whether the pilgrim was asking the right question in the first place and got an answer he didn’t expect or want or was led on by his beliefs and upbringing to find God and peace, only to discover too late that he’d been deluded all along or even tricked, viewers will have to decide for themselves. A sly black humour may be at work here and there is a paradox too: to reach God, to know our ultimate destiny as individuals and as members of a collective, must we submit to enslavement to find freedom?

At least the animation is  elegant and beautiful, majestic in parts, and has a slightly sinister Gothic look to it. Colours are dark and gloomy and the atmosphere is creepy. Some viewers who know the English doom metal band Cathedral may find the style of animation reminiscent of that group’s album covers of fantasy art by Dave Patchett. The film cathedral is an organic structure of inter-twined trunks and branches: tall, imposing, commanding respect, yet severe and not at all bulky. Huge spaces within the building emphasise the barrenness of the world around and highlight the pilgrim’s existential enquiry. The film spends little time on its protagonist and doesn’t encourage much viewer sympathy for him: this is the major weakness of “The Cathedral”. Viewers have to guess what he’s come to the cathedral for and work out from his behaviour and actions at the edge of the cliff his inner anguish and turmoil and loss of faith and hope. Perhaps he realises what’s in store for him but doesn’t know what to do. When his purpose is achieved, viewers catch a brief glimpse of his face, frozen in calm, but the moment may pass too quickly for viewers to see whether this is the calm of inner peace or of the resignation that comes with being an immortal vegetable.

The 1970s-styled music soundtrack is a drawback to the film: the melodramatic orchestral music doesn’t gel well with the disco beats and the result doesn’t suit the film’s style. Atmosphere is diluted and the film appears less sinister than it should. This is one occcasion where no music or very minimal, unobtrusive music, perhaps of an ambient nature, is called for.

If it had been a bit longer to allow for greater character development and to immerse the viewer more into its dark atmosphere and strange, half-live / half-dead structure, “The Cathedral” would have been a great little film about the quest for immortality, unity with God, the relationship of the individual to the community of humankind and the nature of faith and religion.

 

Arsenal: as Soviet propaganda, film is surprisingly pacifist and innovative in use of montage

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Arsenal” (1928)

Notable for its skilful use of montages of images to create and build tension, excitement, urgency and other moods, “Arsenal” revolves around an incident during the Russian Civil War: a group of workers at an arsenal factory in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine then as now, rebelled in late January 1918 against the revolutionary parliament of Ukraine that had just declared the country’s independence from the Russian empire. The workers declared a strike and joined a group of invading Bolshevik soldiers to fight the Ukrainian forces. Under the leadership of politician Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians crushed the factory workers’ rebellion, killing many people, and drove out the Bolsheviks on 4 February 1918. A few days later Bolshevik forces returned and captured Kiev.

“Arsenal” isn’t clear on the actual historical details and it ends when the workers’ revolt is suppressed violently and with much bloodshed; leader of the revolt, ex-soldier Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) bravely faces off against three armed men trying to kill him. Whatever plot exists – the story of the factory revolt actually begins 30 minutes into the film – is very sketchy and is carried mainly by Dovzhenko’s montage arrangements into which inter-titles carrying dialogue are inserted. The overwhelming impression I have is that, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the use of violence can’t be justified however necessary it seems t people at the time and there appears to be a pacifist thread throughout the film. Violence and bloodshed lead to too many personal tragedies: families are torn apart, widows and orphans face hardship, starvation and poverty.

The film’s main assets are the editing, montage that combines several parallel strands of plot or sub-plot, and cinematography which often features impressive montages of images, many of which are shot at unusual angles or with characters and objects silhouetted against the sky. Particularly memorable are close-ups of factory machines at work, giving the film a near-abstract / futuristic edge in parts. There are some scenes in which the camera tracks along as though riding a train, taking in scenery through a window. The first 30 minutes of the film feature some very riveting set pieces: one series of montages set in the country, demonstrates with searing intensity the poverty and hardships endured by depressed peasants in a village and the sudden bursts of violence two of the villagers engage in against small children and a horse. A war episode follows in which a soldier inhales laughing gas and laughs uncontrollably; the film flicks back and forth between this man and another soldier, silhouetted against the sky, preparing to shoot him, then throwing away his rifle. For this act, he is punished by his senior officer. A third set piece, using quick editing to flash back and forth among images, close-ups and parallel viewpoints of the same incident, chronicles the last trip of a speeding train packed with soldiers returning from war in central Europe; one of the soldiers entertains his pals by playing his accordion. The passengers realise the train is about to crash and soldiers escape while they can. The crash is very severe and the accordion is flung off the train without its owner.

The acting can be florid and overdone and some scenes, such as the Mexican stand-off between a worker and a faltering capitalist in the last quarter of the film, are milked for what they’re worth for tension and emotion.

First-time viewers should familiarise themselves with some of the history of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when the country enjoyed a very brief independence before being forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union, so they can make sense of the film. They don’t have to know all the details of the Arsenal factory revolt – Timosh and several other characters appear to be fictional – but just enough about when it happened, the groups involved, who put down the rebellion and what consequences it had for the future of Kiev and Ukraine generally. As a native Ukrainian and wanting to appear loyal to Communism, director Dovzhenko must have trodden a fine line indeed between supporting his country’s aspirations for freedom and being in the Stalinist government’s good books so as to continue his directing career without too much political interference. As a story “Arsenal” can be haphazard with different incidents occurring at once and the film ducking from one line of events to another and back again so viewers should just concentrate on the imagery and see how editing and montage can be used to suggest or generate tension and passion. The pro-Communist stand is very strong, so strong that an element of fantasy creeps in when Timosh resists being shot; it’s an awkward and wryly laughable moment coming after numerous scenes of brutality and death but the obvious alternative might have put Dovzhenko in trouble.

 

Fantastic Planet: absorbing animated science fiction film with messages and ideas that are still important

René Laloux, “Fantastic Planet” / “La Planète Sauvage” (1973)

A very absorbing animated science fiction film that superficially looks as if it might have been created for children with a plot that starts out with a human-like baby being adopted by a blue-skinned alien child ten times bigger than the baby in a world that looks like a mix of psychedelic rock album art of the 1970’s and Monty-Python collage-style animation and dark jokes with double entendres. Though as the film progresses, it becomes very clear indeed that several scenes in the film, some of the suggestive animation itself and the plot’s preoccupations are aimed at an older audience, one that, at the time of the film’s release, might have been described as politically and socially liberal and eco-conscious, even counter-cultural or underground. A joint Czech-French production, “Fantastic Planet” lives up to its name in its visual style and creativity if not its story-line or characterisation. Made in 1973, it doesn’t look too dated though the animation is hardly sophisticated by current standards and many scenes are just drawn and coloured-in sketches with the odd moving character going across them.

The plot traces the rise of the human-like Oms from a primitive foraging way of life dominated by ignorance, superstition and near-despotic rule by a few to a progressive society in which the Oms are literate, have mastered science and technological principles sufficiently enough to build and operate spaceships, and can challenge the giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags who regard them as simple and unintelligent. The way in which this turnaround in the Oms’ fortunes occurs is due to one Om called Terr who was adopted as a pet by a young Draag called Tiva. Tiva treats Terr as a plaything and lets him sit with her at lessons which she absorbs through meditation with the help of head-phones but viewers’ overall impression will be that Terr is a household slave / domestic pet completely at the capricious mercy of his mistress. Terr tries to escape often but his collar responds to Tiva’s magnetic bracelet. One day Terr runs away with Tiva’s head-phones and is helped by a wild Om who breaks his collar. The wild Om takes him to her people who eventually adopt him as their own. Terr uses Tiva’s head-phones, which turn out to be a vast repository of Draag knowledge, to educate his new family and in spite of opposition from some of the senior tribal members, the Oms give up those traditions that hampered their progress and kept them inferior to the Draags and embark on a tortuous path that frees them from slavery and repression. They create a new home and force the Draags to respect them so that the two species can co-exist in peace.

The journey towards enlightenment isn’t easy and many Oms are slaughtered along the way when the Draags try to cull their numbers and resort to more desperate and deadly methods, finally deciding to exterminate the little beings. There may be a political allegory here: the Oms might serve as a metaphor for Third World peoples striving for independence and the freedom to determine their own future while the Draags represent those First World elites who prefer the majority of humans to live in corporatised slavery and poverty. Or when we consider the film’s historical and cultural context, the Oms could represent the oppressed Czechs and Slovaks and the Draags their Soviet Russian masters.  There’s also a lesson here about how we humans treat our own pets: Terr is indulged a lot by Tiva but she also forces him to fight other domesticated Oms in battles that are parallels to cock-fighting bouts. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the complex relationship that exists between the Draags and the Oms: the Draags regard the tame Oms as cute as long as they are obedient, the wild Oms are seen as vermin for breeding too fast and multiplying too quickly.

The Draags possess a sophisticated technology and culture that revolve around constant meditation; the film reveals this meditation to be necessary for their continued survival and propagation of their species, and it also powers their technology. A scene in which Tiva’s father participates in a group meditation session and the participant’s bodies change colour becomes very surreal; viewers will feel their minds simply cleaned out several times by this scene that breaks all the laws of physics and conservative morality. Don’t worry, there are more scenes in the film that will clean that scene out of people’s minds! Landscapes filled with exotic plants and animals prove to be very menacing to the Oms: a flying anteater licks up Oms with its penis-shaped tongue and Terr and a friend are nearly stomped on by a five-eyed / four-legged insectoid dragging a cumbersome ovipositor. Another critter with a nose that sprouts feelers spends its time in a cage grabbing and shaking little piggy flies with the antlered proboscis. Most mind-fucking of all is a contoured landscape of tubular worms that arch their backs during periods of rain. Perhaps there are too many unnecessary sexual jokes in the fauna and flora of the Draags’ world: the whole place is teeming with eroticism. It’s as if the animators deliberately set out to bait the conservative political establishment of their day, which in Czechoslovakia would have been the Communists and in France would have included most of the major political parties along the entire political spectrum and the Roman Catholic Church as well, by creating a universe in which everything is a sexual metaphor of some kind. In those days people believed sexual repression went hand-in-hand together with political repression and political freedom would lead to sexual freedom or vice versa. Little did folks at the time realise that sexual freedom mightn’t necessarily lead to political and social freedom, and could encourage the further oppression of women by objectifying and sexualising their bodies and clothes.

Due to the overarching themes, the plot’s complexity and the film’s short running time, character development is weak: viewers get no sense of Terr changing and maturing in personality as he adapts from his sheltered life with Tiva to life with the wild Oms, learning responsibility, independence and leadership along the way. The unnamed wild female Om who rescues him remains a minor character and the romance that develops between her and Terr is unconvincing. Neither the Draags nor the Oms come across as more than one-dimensional archetypes for class struggle and revolt against colonisation: the Draags appear over-refined and have a love-hate relationship with procreation. The Oms struggle against ignorance and superstition in their society and the process itself says something about the role of religion and the enforcement of ignorance in keeping a slave class oppressed.

Unfortunately even after the collapse of Communism across Europe, the ideas and messages of “Fantastic Planet” are still needed in our societies; many former Communist states in eastern Europe are falling under fascist government and economic inequalities are creating new social divisions and discrimination. The film is worth several viewings if only to acclimatise to the distinctive animation style and get over the sexualised look of the exotic wildlife and landscapes. The music is a mix of seventies prog(ressive) guitar rock pop with a lot of wet-sounding wah-wah pedal effects and some jazz.

 

 

 

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest: thoughtful low-budget sci-fi film about how humans and other intelligent beings can co-exist

Marek Pestrak, “Pilot Pirx’s Inquest” / “Test Pilota Pirxa” / “Doznanie Pilota Pirksa” (1979)

A joint Polish-Estonian production, this low-budget movie about a space trip that nearly ends in tragedy examines the theme of how humans and human-like robots might co-exist if the robots, made to serve humans, realised they were superior to their masters in some ways. A corporation that manufactures intelligent androids is keen to begin mass production but meets resistance from the public and governments. It is proposed that a small crew of humans and androids be sent on a mission to place two probes in the rings of Saturn: a simple enough job but the purpose of the mission is to observe the behaviours and interactions between the humans and robots. Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitski) is selected to head the mission. He refuses at first but changes his mind and accepts the role after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. During the mission, some members of the crew including crew physician Tom Novak (Alexander Kaidanovski) confide in him and reveal their identities as either human or robot and insinuate that other members may not be human. Pirx isn’t sure who’s telling the truth and starts feeling a little paranoid about what’s happening around him on the ship Goliath. Still he’s determined to find out who is human and who is not, figuring that knowing who is which is critical to the mission’s success. In the meantime a rogue member of the crew carries out small acts of sabotage on the ship and sends Pirx a recorded warning and threat which Pirx plays. When it’s time to insert the probes, the Goliath goes wildly off course through the ring belt, the ship is forced to accelerate suddenly and the humans on board face death from being turned into schnitzels from the incredible G-forces the Goliath encounters.

The special effects are uneven and often elementary to the extent of appearing cartoonish but they are adequate for the purposes of the film which gives the impression of being “hard science fiction” with its emphasis on scientific realism. There are just enough effects to make the society credible as scientifically and technologically advanced and at the same time a society we can recognise as ours. It’s as if the movie takes place in an alternate 1970s where the spending priorities of governments and corporations were different enough that some areas of robotics and cybernetics developed faster than they did in our 197os, and so the parallel Earth got androids and we didn’t. The world in “Test Pilota Pirxa” otherwise looks no different than what ours looked like over thirty years ago and the film itself now appears as a fictional historical drama.

The acting is low-key and straight with Desnitski dominating the bulk of the movie’s scenes. He underplays his role as do all the other actors in a film heavy with dialogue whose sole purpose is to push the plot and explore the human-versus-robot theme. As Novak who reveals his robot identity early on, Kaidanovski impresses in a minimalist, subdued way as a being who understands little of human nature and its ways yet is keen to help Desnitski. Interestingly his character and another robot voice their hope that Desnitski’s opinion of robots will be negative so that their makers can’t go ahead with mass production, otherwise the robots that already exist will lose their individual identities and won’t be able to exult in their special abilities which help form those identities. No point in being an Übermensch if you have so many millions of clones like you who can do the same things you can do; you would just feel like … well, you would just feel like yet another machine-cog in a vast network of machine-cogs.

The music soundtrack by famous Estonian holy minimalist composer Arvo Part is not impressive: it’s a mix of conventional orchestral formal compositional music, spider-like organ music that almost sounds a little electronic and some near-futuristic percussion rhythms and beats.

The plot’s resolution suggests that co-existence between humans and robots will always be ambivalent. Trying to second-guess what robots might be thinking and why they might do certain things and not others will be a major human preoccupation. As long as human and robot natures are kept separate with humans allowed to be irrational and robots restricted to acting logically and rationally, humans will always be able to control robots. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to reach; how human and robot natures will remain separate is never explained. The relationship between humans and technology already is a dynamic one in which technological advances and breakthroughs force us to change and re-evaluate our reliance and dependence on machines constantly so the same would be expected of human and android interactions.

The film can be slow and doesn’t really start until halfway through once the Goliath blasts off. The early half of “Test Pilota Pirxa” plays a little like a straight spy thriller. Once we’re in space and Desnitski begins questioning the crew, the paranoia and the tension start to increase. The climax isn’t especially dramatic and no, it doesn’t actually come when the rogue member’s identity is revealed and he meets a just punishment – it comes much later after Pirx’s court case, in which he is prosecuted for having endangered his crew during the mission, ends.

As is, “Test Pilota Pirxa” could have done better in its investigation of human-android interaction and whether humans and androids can live together amicably. It takes for granted that robots will always be logical and there will be large-scale human resistance towards them; this attitude wouldn’t necessarily exist in real life. Much depends on what the robots are designed to do and how generalised or specialised we humans want them to be. At least the film treats its audiences as intelligent and able to consider its concepts. The ambiguous conclusion suggests a reluctance on the film-makers’ part to commit to a definite opinion as to whether co-existence is possible and if so, can be successful; what could be implied instead is a plea for tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude.

 

Ikarie XB-1: an early 1960’s space travel movie that boldly went where no space travel movie went before

Jindrích Polák, “Ikarie XB-1” (1963)

A compelling early 1960’s science fiction gem from the old Czechoslovakia is this lavish effort by Polák that details the day-to-day lives of a crew flying a craft at close to the speed of light to Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. A planet has been detected in that star system that holds the promise of supporting Earth-borne life and this is the goal that consumes the crew’s attention and the movie’s running time. For a supposed pro-Soviet propaganda piece this movie has a small amount of capitalist bashing. There’s not much of a definite plot: after the film’s first thirty minutes which consist of introducing various members of the 40-strong crew as they go about their work, the story settles into three set pieces. In the first piece the crew of Ikarie XB-1 discover a derelict spacecraft and despatch two men to investigate; the men report that the abandoned ship is from Earth in 1987. The men discover there are still active nuclear weapons on the ship and try to escape. In the second set piece the Ikarie XB-1 passes near a dark star whose radiation affects the crew badly and causes a kind of sleeping sickness; this piece leads into the third set piece in which a crew member Michael (Otto Lackovic), who had ventured outside the Ikarie XB-1 to fix something while the ship was passing the dark star, becomes deranged from too much dark-star radiation exposure and becomes a threat to the ship’s mission and the crew’s lives as he starts damaging some of the robots and the ship’s technology.

The interior sets of Ikarie XB-1 are the film’s main highlight: the design of the control and flight rooms where crew members sit and pilot the ship is very “modern” for the period with plenty of artistic flair, light and space even in the corridors as well as the main function areas. A canteen, a gym and a swimming pool area Costumes are deliberately utilitarian apart from a ballroom dancing scene where the women wear 1960’s fashions and the men wear uniforms meant to be futuristic tuxedos. Admirably women as well as men have responsibility for piloting the ship, controlling interior air flows, temperatures and pressures, and monitoring people’s health and well-being though when it comes to making final decisions that could spell the difference between life and death, the older men still have the upper hand over everyone else, male and female alike. The crew’s response to Michael’s depression and rampage is sane though their capture of him isn’t necessarily recommended: the people in charge try to keep track of his location and where he is moving to, and send one – yes, one! – unarmed man out to fetch him and take him to the sick bay! Perhaps the brave man knows some form of self-defence like the Vulcan neck nerve pinch that isn’t mentioned in the film.

As if to provide a wry kind of balance, the exterior sets that show the ship flying through space are very cartoony and amateurish in a film that otherwise presents interstellar travel intelligently and treats its audience as educated and cultured. Viewers may wonder why animation wasn’t used instead to show the ship – perhaps the film’s budget didn’t allow for it. The budget did allow for a music soundtrack that includes some unusual and electronically produced sounds and tunes by famed Czech composer Zdenék Liška and this together with various sound effects that simulate noises from outside the ship as well as inside is another major highlight which contributes mightily to the overall serious and sometimes melancholy mood.

The main dangers faced by the crew suggest a questioning or inquiry into the nature of human interaction in and with space: how humans can create a new and isolated society and how they can co-exist in that society especially during emergency situations when they can only rely on themselves for help. Before the major set pieces take place, the film focusses on a love triangle that fizzles out when the two Romeos discover their lady love already has a husband, and on a couple who discover they’re expecting a baby. As everyone knows, when a film features a pregnancy the baby has to appear and “Ikarie XB-1” obliges with a bonny cutey near the end. Happily the movie never falls into sentimentality or soap-opera territory: everyone on board behaves sanely and properly, even during the party scene where couples dance sedately and people sniff little sticks of fragrance that remind them of Earth. The ship’s science officer is allowed eccentric foibles like bringing a useless robot Patrik on board and refusing to take his vitamin drinks which a woman engineer constantly urges on him. Another crew member brings his piano on board. Given the kind of mini-society the film-makers seemed to have in mind when developing the script, viewers shouldn’t be surprised if other crew members brought along enough musical instruments that they could constitute a full orchestra capable of playing all the major 19th and 20th century symphonies and concertos. The implication is that thanks to the triumph and spread of Communist socialism, all humans have become peaceful and reasonable. Of course this means strong characterisation is not the film’s strong point. Even the encounter with the dark star and its insidious radioactive effects isn’t enough to reduce everyone to a state of “capitalistic” greed and self-indulgence leading to competition, violence and murder. The film might have been more interesting and have a richer sub-text if the dark star had affected the crew in that way: the phenomenon would come to represent the crew’s collective unconsciousness – what Freudian psychoanalysis calls the id – that they haven’t come to terms with and which they must do to survive; but then “Ikarie XB-1” wouldn’t have been approved by the Czechoslovak government censors.

Communist propagandistic bluster in the movie appears in the scene in which the two cosmonauts explore the derelict ship and even there the film suggests that it was the dead capitalist crew’s inability to co-operate and settle disputes amicably that indirectly led to its demise. (And having military generals pilot the derelict craft wasn’t such a good idea either.) The society of “Ikarie XB-1” is proof enough of Communism’s success; whenever problems are encountered, whether from outside or inside, its inhabitants try to deal with them intelligently and resourcefully.

As is, the movie isn’t exciting drama for the general public but it’s a bold attempt to portray a futuristic society that deliberately isolates itself from the rest of humanity and Earth in order to fulfill a grand ambition to reach out to the stars and connect with other sentient life. It’s an interesting paradox, that to contact other intelligences, some of us need to separate ourselves (forever perhaps) from the rest of humankind. “Ikarie XB-1” attempts in a limited way to explore some of the ramifications that might arise when a society willingly detaches itself from all other people to pursue a narrow agenda. The full-length feature format is a restricted medium for studying the problems such a society and its individuals might have so it’s no wonder that when American producer and script-writer Gene Roddenberry had a similar idea about a group of pioneers travelling in space and dealing with emergencies, crises, setbacks and humdrum life generally – the Internet is awash with speculation that he was inspired by “Ikarie XB-1” – he chose the format of a TV series to flesh out his vision. Thus was “Star Trek” born.

Penelope: film’s beauty can’t compensate for static plot and characters

Ben Ferris, “Penelopa” aka “Penelope”  (2009)

Lovely to look at but beautiful, almost abstract scenes of nature and long circular panning shots that lovingly savour the object of their focus can’t compensate for a nothing story about a faithful wife moping for a long-lost husband who went off to the wars years ago. “Penelopa” imagines the interior life of Penelope, wife of Odysseus the king of Ithaca, who supported King Menelaus of Sparta in the Trojan wars. The wars last 10 years and for another 10 years Odysseus and his armies wander lost among the lands around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. During this time Penelope puts up with loneliness, worry, bringing up any children she and Odysseus may have had and fending off a horde of suitors – in ancient Greek legend, there were 108 of them – vying for her hand in marriage so they can get theirs on her wealth and properties.

Of course in real life Penelope would’ve been busy enough managing her household and assets, acting as regent for an absent king and beating off the suitors with cunning, guile and a suite of bodyguards but “Penelopa” makes no reference to the life a noble woman might have led in the Age of Homer. Penelope (Natalie Finderle) spends her time lost in memories of the past and dreams about the future as represented by various rooms in her mansion. In one memory, Odysseus (Frano Maskovic) s is about to leave to journey to Troy. In one dream, Penelope finds the suitors have abused and killed all her ladies-in-waiting; in another dream, she strings her husband’s bow and kills off the suitors. The boundary between reality and Penelope’s inner world dissolved, our heroine resumes her patient wait for her husband.

The sense of isolation in the mansion’s gloomy rooms, the feeling of being trapped, memories of happier times, the desolation, longing and unfulfilled desires … all hang heavy throughout the film. A powerful sense of being marginal is conveyed by the costumes: the white draped robes of the women suggest funeral garb as opposed to the men’s colourful peasant costumes. A strict separation of the genders exists here though that might not have been the original intention: the women inhabit the world of home, the interior and seem not of this planet; the men are comfortable in their world of war, physical lusts and activity.

Long left-to-right panning shots that circle various characters, very little editing and a music soundtrack dominated by slow solo piano melodies create a languid pace and maintain a sense of introversion and contemplation. Passing of time is indicated by changes in nature: summer storms that occur early on are replaced by piles of autumn leaves over the forest floor. A dream-like quality is emphasised by characters fading in and out of scenes that might have come straight out of paintings.

In spite of its visual beauty, “Penelopa” leaves this viewer unimpressed: on the assumption that the climax is a dream, the plot cycles about with its characters remaining much the same at the end as at the beginning. Penelope will have her good days full of hope for Odysseus’s return and her bad days when she can barely get out of bed. Odysseus will continue to fade in and out of her dreams. The ladies-in-waiting continue to serve her loyally and the suitors to gorge on her hospitality. If the climax is interpreted as real then viewers may be relieved that Penelope has acted in a decisive way but then this passage becomes the only part of the film that departs from legend and the question may be asked why the rest of the film doesn’t. Penelope could be shown berating her absent spouse for abandoning her to life and holding conversations with the gods to demand why they’ve let Odysseus die and her live. In this way Penelope becomes a more active figure who can decide how she can spend her time without Odysseus: she can wait for him by moping or she can create an independent life for herself. Then we might have a great work of art that engages the mind in an enquiry on fate and the purpose of life, especially for women and children left behind by dead husbands and fathers. In ancient Greek society, such unfortunates suffered loss of status and faced an uncertain future if they didn’t belong to powerful families. Assumptions about the lives of men and women and their separate worlds, their different status and how they deal with their differences could have been challenged.

Additional questions about Penelope’s loyalty, her motivation for remaining faithful to Odysseus and whether viewers can learn something from her about faith, hope and inner resources when you are under siege from patriarchal social, economic and political institutions that allow intolerable situations such as the 108 lovestruck twats eating you out of house and home must remain unanswered.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days: intelligent look at friendships under strain in a brutal mercenary society

Crisitan Mungiu, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” (2007)

A bleak and often heartbreaking offering from young Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, this movie about a young woman who helps her friend arrange an illegal abortion is an intelligent examination of friendships under the strain of an oppressive and inhumane political regime. The film is set in Romania in the waning years of President Nicolae Ceausescu who together with his wife Elena ruled Romania for over 2 decades as though the country was their personal fiefdom: the Ceausescu government forbade imports of nearly everything (which explains the all-pervasive poverty in the film) and pursued a population growth policy which among other things made birth control and abortions illegal.

Two college students, Ottilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are room-mates in a students’ dormitory in Bucharest: for the movie’s first half-hour, the two girls are making arrangements for something the audience is kept in suspense about. Gabita fusses over a plastic sheet and sends Ottilia on various errands to get money or cigarettes. Ottilia drops in on her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) briefly and reluctantly agrees to come to his mother’s birthday party in the evening. She trudges around different hotels to find a room and book it for 2 – 3 days. As the movie progresses and Ottilia meets a mysterious man, Dr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), it becomes apparent that she is organising a secret and possibly dangerous abortion for Gabita who is at least three months pregnant.

The characters of the two girls become clear-cut in the film’s first ten minutes just from their dialogue and the camera’s constant tracking of Ottilia’s movements alone: Gabita presents as shy and retiring but the shyness masks self-centredness and lack of consideration for others; Ottilia is an uncomplaining, obliging work-horse who spends more time than she should looking after Gabita’s interests. Marinca puts in a brave and stoic virtuoso performance as Ottilia who over the course of the film comes to question the nature of her friendship with Gabita and the sacrifices she makes for her. There are many scenes where the camera is still and focusses on Ottilia’s face as she smokes or stares down at the floor, her face a study in conflicting emotions and suppressed anger at Gabita’s constant lies and lack of responsibility; or follows her as she stumbles about in the midnight dark, her breathing audible and close to hyperventilating in fear, as she tries to find a place in the city to dispose of the aborted foetus. One highlight of the film which illustrates the existential trap Ottilia finds herself in is the 10-minute dinner party scene where, surrounded by her boyfriend’s parents and family friends who gossip about the “good old times” and the uselessness of modern Romanian youth, she is forced to sit, say hello and try to eat and drink. Viewers get a real sense from seeing the trapped expression on Ottilia’s face of how stuck she is between her boyfriend and his demands, and her friend Gabita and her demands.

Ivanov as the ironically named Bebe is a suitably creepy abortionist who exacts his pound of flesh when the girls are unable to fulfill his changing and manipulative demands. Vasiliu is good as the thoughtless Gabita who gets herself and Ottilia in strife over the abortion arrangements – and that’s not even considering the consequences both girls face if the hotel staff discover what they and Dr Bebe have done. The sullen staff in the various hotels, all concentrating on the minutiae of their jobs and behaving like petty nit-picking bureaucrats, give the film the air of a spy thriller and help ratchet up the tension that becomes ever more overwhelming as Ottilia passes in and out of the hotel constantly and remains even when the end credits start to roll.

The use of bleached film stock suits the oppressive, grinding nature of Romanian society in the late 1980’s. Camera shots are steady and often very long, apart from the scene where Ottilia looks for somewhere to get rid of the foetus late at night and then the camera movements are jerky to emphasise the girl’s panic and fear at being caught. My understanding is that electricity was severely rationed at the time and all streetlights were out at night; there may have been night curfews as well which would explain Ottilia’s fear. Mungiu artfully sets up tableau-like shots in which Ottilia is trapped (the dinner table scene) or to suggest that Ottilia and Gabita’s friendship has changed for the worse (the restaurant table scene which emphasises the physical space between the two girls). In the latter half of the film there are scenes of long silences in which the actors’ facial expressions become very important and it’s in these scenes that Marinca and Vasiliu do their best if hardest work. The look of the film is naturalistic, the acting is minimal and driven by the plot so the film has the feel of a TV news crew following real people engaged in doing something illegal.

Romania in the late 1980’s is portrayed as a society where social capital has become ground down and exhausted by the state: people no longer care for one another, they live in their own world obsessed with status and material things, and there’s a mercenary “what’s in it for me?” attitude prevalent. Bebe takes advantage of the girls’ naivety and Gabita’s lies to get as much out of them as he wants; what he wants isn’t limited to money. The guests at the dinner table gabble about the past and find Ottilia quaint because her parents are working-class and she is the first person in her family to go on to higher education. Ottilia finds herself wondering whether other people will care for her as much as she has for selfish Gabita should she (Ottilia) fall pregnant. Perhaps this is the most devastating message of the film, that people’s compassion and sense of community can easily be eroded by ideology and relentless enforced poverty by the whims of a few.

Love and Other Crimes: romantic comedy deals with love and change in a society caught between Communism and corporatism

Stefan Arsenijevic, “Love and other Crimes” (2008)

 Source:www.kinokultura.com

For a romantic comedy, this film sure looks bleak with a bleary run-down urban setting of endless grey residential towers in a large city and a cast that includes a suicidal teenager, her dad facing a terminal illness and a couple who’ve known each other for over 10 years yet acknowledge their love very briefly before immediately leaving each other forever. Where in the world would such a film get made? Perhaps it would be made only in Serbia which, in spite of ditching President Milosevic and handing him over to the International Court of Crimes and trying to round up other designated war criminals, still finds itself shunned by other Western and European nations. The large city is New Belgrade, part of Serbia’s capital Belgrade, though it may be hard to believe from seeing the film: the place as pictured has the air of a town fast depopulating, its better days behind it, and all you see are generic concrete tower blocks filled with tiny apartments where people down on their luck or dissatisfied with their lives and not knowing why or how they got that way spend their days staring blankly at TV soap operas, at themselves in the mirror or at the dismal weather through the windows.

Structurally the film reflects a society adrift: it flits from one character to another at first but over the course of a day from sunrise to midnight, the film connects all its characters into a network surrounding Anica (Anica Dobra) and Stanislav (Vuk Kostic). Anica makes a living tutoring in Russian and Stanislav is an enforcer for a protection racket headed by Milutin (Fedya Stojanovic) who uses a solarium as a front to collect money from small shop-owners. Anica is fed up with her life as tutor and Milutin’s mistress, and is preparing to leave Belgrade and Serbia. Milutin has just received bad news from his doctor that he hasn’t long to live; his solarium business has no customers; and his racket will be wiped out when a new shopping mall opens in the city close by. Already the kiosks and other businesses Stanislav and his fellow mobsters prey on have closed up. In the meantime, Milutin’s daughter Ivana (Hanna Schwamborn) goes up to the top of the apartment bloc each day to contemplate taking her last step off the edge. Stanislav, living with his dotty mum (Milena Dravic) who performs the same tired singing routine in a restaurant frequented by equally tired middle-aged customers each evening, has been invited by a friend to work as a magician in Switzerland but isn’t sure he wants to go.

The sense that life is passing by the city and its residents whose knowledge, talents and experience might not be valuable in a new cut-throat capitalist world thrust upon Serbia, is strong. The old world that’s gone had its faults: rival gangs led by Milutin and Radovan (Josef Tatic) bicker over which parts of the city they control, leading to arson and murder; there’s little communication between parents and children which perhaps explains why Ivana feels suicidal and relations between Stanislav and his mother seem strained; and technology, though usually human-scaled, is unreliable or defiant – the sunbeds in Milutin’s solarium work intermittently, someone’s TV is always malfunctioning or has fuzzy pictures, and the airport metal scanner gets stuck after Anica passes through it. Few people are unhappy that the old world of Communist economic mismanagement, buck-passing, under-the-table transactions and political corruption is fading away. But no-one’s looking forward to the new world with its new impersonal and coldly efficient machines and values based on the profit motive and consumerism controlled by corporations.

In such a bleak world, caught in a shadow zone between Communism and corporatism, it’s no wonder that the actors spend most of their time walking around or doing very minimal activity, with only Dobra’s face doing much acting at all, mostly in the gloomy zone of facial expressions. Only false values survive in such a place and love, based on honesty and true sharing of feelings and emotions, is unable to exist here in spite of scenes of slapstick humour and some hilarious dialogue that soften the overall gloom. The film instead offers a merry-go-round of affairs that involve Anica, Milutin and at least one other woman whom Milutin is unable to face so Stanislav must act as a go-between; needless to say, Ivana’s long-deceased mother was not one of the women Milutin “loved”.

The cinematography compensates for the glum looks, blank faces and constant walking around with almost lyrical background shots of the grey buildings, the grey staircases and streets, and the pale pastel colours of the sky and grass. Some scenes are very artfully set up, such as a long take in which Dobra and Kostic takes turns stopping and then passing each other along a street with the camera panning from right to left, to illustrate the hesitant nature of their close friendship.

No easy solutions are offered in the film: Anica leaves Serbia for a new and uncertain life abroad while the other characters, unable or unwilling to make drastic changes or adjust to change around them, must suffer major consequences for not acting. Themes of love and the difficulty of change in a poor city whose inhabitants are unwilling or frightened of change, combined with inter-linked stories spiked with humour and warmth in a tight screenplay, and urban images that can be very poetic and lovely, make “Love and Other Crimes” a worthwhile film to watch.