Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Sans Soleil: a pretentious and confusing film that plays a stupid joke on its audience at its end

Chris Marker, “Sans Soleil” (1983)

Picture yourself receiving a letter from a long-time friend who has been living and travelling for many years in Japan, Iceland and Guinea-Bissau (a small country in western Africa). Everything he writes about in the letter – and it’s a very long letter too – revolves around the transience and fragility of memory, the malleability of history, what people across the world yearn for and dream of, and the quest for meaning in life wherever it is. He wants to capture everything he sees and hears, whether in writing or in filming it (he’s a film buff and knows Alfred Hitchcock’s work, especially the classic “Vertigo”) and he’s trying to find a story-line or narrative that can encompass all he experiences of contemporary Japanese culture with all its contradictions and complexities, its startling ultra-modern technology co-existing with ancient temple ceremonies, social rituals and superstitions; and what he knows of Guinea-Bissau’s history and politics. (You know your friend is sympathetic towards leftist politics but is not heavily concerned with socialist ideology.) No matter how he tries, the concept seems to be too overwhelming so he hits you with everything that makes a deep impression on him, all the things that made him cry for joy or weep in despair; but out of all this melange, he hopes to inspire you, to break all barriers of time, space, cultures and all our mental constructs to reach out to you and to connect with you.

In a nutshell, that’s “Sans Soleil”, French director Chris Marker’s attempt to combine in one very long and overwhelming visual work his meditations on the nature of time, space and history, and their circular nature which climax in his overwrought discussion on the treatment of memory in the movie “Vertigo”. While the images presented are often very beautiful, thanks to various special effects and filming techniques that renders some very hallucinatory and abstract, others can be extremely disturbing and still others seem quite pointless.

The film suffers from its own ambition and Marker’s own arrogance: the narration covers far too much ground in such a superficial way that much of the film where it covers Guinea-Bissau and aspects of Japanese culture (that is to say, the bulk of the film) almost seems racist. In particular the film’s broad sweep across Japanese culture and the attention it devotes to social fads that blow away Japanese people from time to time suggest not so much a deep love and understanding of the nature of Japanese people and society, and why they are the way they are, but instead a kind of creepy voyeurism that exoticises and makes fun of its subjects. There is nothing in the film that hints that Marker makes any attempt to know and try to understand the strains that Japanese society might be under, why the country was (even in the 1980s) heading for a demographic crash and to connect with Japanese people themselves, even if that connection is with one or two individuals.

The narration is dull and repetitive and the music soundtrack with its bleached acid-psychedelic sounds and effects is so badly dated that it gives the impression of the film being ten years older than it actually is. Although the version of the film that I saw was digitally remastered, some images are very blurry and substandard in their appearance and the soundtrack desperately needs remastering and cleaning up.

A confused and confusing film that ends up saying the worst about its director, that presents his superficial observations about aspects of foreign cultures (removing them from their proper historical contexts); and moreover contains a cheap twist about the real nature of your friend – so the “narrative” itself includes you as the antagonist, not as a narrator removed from the action, and everything in the film could have been imagined by a political prisoner or an asylum inmate (and now you know why the film is called “Sans Soleil” meaning “without sun” in English)- can only be considered a buffoonish and pretentious fantasy. The notion then that memory is fragile and history is circular becomes a tool that could be used to serve a sinister agenda and exploit people – as Scotty discovers (in “Vertigo”) that he and the woman he thought was Madeleine are used and exploited by the real Madeleine’s husband to cover up the murder of his wife.

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: a parable on the decline and fall of neoliberal British society and culture

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” (1989)

Straight away viewers can tell there’s much more simmering away in this story about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. This is no simple tale of a love triangle, with all its messy and emotional complications and unfortunate consequences, that forms over food and its consumption – especially when Peter Greenaway is the one shaping the narrative and the film’s visual appearance which draws heavily on Renaissance and Baroque art in a very formal and artificial way. This is a film of rage at the decline and fall of Western civilisation and British civilisation in particular, through an allegory that tells of the greed of an elite that ravages society and culture to feed its own spiritual and moral emptiness, that destroys life and imposes its rule on vulnerable people, and which can only end up destroying itself through its own gluttony.

Through means fair and foul (but mostly foul, I suspect), the mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) claims ownership of Le Hollandais, a high-class restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and crudely demonstrates who’s boss by holding court at the main table every night with his retinue of thugs, gorging on food and fighting with customers who dare to criticise the food and with kitchen and waiting staff alike. Forced to accompany Spica is his timid wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who quickly catches the attention of bookish regular customer Michael (Alan Howard) with whom she begins a secretive affair aided and abetted by Boarst. Spica learns of the affair from the girlfriend of one of his myrmidons and Georgina and Michael are forced to hide at his book depository. Spica eventually tracks down the lovers through young kitchen-hand Pup (who is also tortured) and he and his men suffocate and kill Michael while Georgina is away visiting Pup in hospital. Georgina and Boarst plot to avenge Michael’s death in a way that unravels like a 17th-century Jacobean revenge tragedy parable that traps Spica in his own greed, gluttony and violence.

The formal artificiality of the film and its self-referential nature help to smooth over much of its intense brutality and the high emotion and drama. The colours of the film – which also pervade Georgina’s quaint Victorian-styled bondage costumes, changing their hue as she passes from one part of the restaurant to another – reference the close relationships linking life, food, sex, death and rebirth. It is with the death of Michael that Georgina finally discovers her true nature and is reborn – though that new nature itself is not pure. It is with the death of the restaurant that Boarst is able to assist Georgina in paying back Spica for all the abuse and violence he has meted out to her. It is only with the death of Spica that everyone he has belittled can finally heal and become normal human beings entitled to freedom, love and a culture that prizes learning, contemplation and a love of the written word.

While the film is horrific in its extreme and gross violence and the filth and corruption that surrounds the restaurant and follow Spica and his band of murderous men, what saves it is the complexity of the characters: Spica genuinely desires to be and to have what Georgina has (refinement), even if he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it except by bullying his minions, and he weeps for what he and Georgina will never have together (children, a stable family life). Georgina changes drastically from timid put-upon abused wife to secretive and vivacious lover, to cold-blooded and vengeful bitch. Exactly what Michael offers Georgina is not too clear – it’s certainly not freedom as she keeps returning to Spica every evening – and his character more or less remains bland while he is alive (though perhaps to a woman whose husband’s behaviour goes from one violent extreme to another, the lover’s very blandness must be his most attractive quality).

The film is too long with an overly loud and shrieky musical soundtrack to be one of Greenaway’s better films. The end when it comes is abrupt compared to the rest of the movie and one isn’t too sure that Georgina, Richard and all the others wronged by Spica are justified in what they have done to him; but then, that’s the lesson of life: greed and violence corrupt people, culture and society wherever they go.

 

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

Allegro Non Troppo: a suite of animation shorts of breath-taking imagination and originality, and much food for thought

Bruno Bozzetto, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976)

A spoof of and tribute to Walt Disney’s famous “Fantasia” film, “Allegro Non Troppo” is noteworthy mainly for its six animation shorts set to short works of famous composers in Western formal compositional music linked by a live-action narrative of slapstick comedy. The black-and-white live-action sequences are insincere, painful to watch and utterly forgettable; they feature dull and dated comedy skits that mock the elderly female characters in them and viewers can dispense with these interludes. The animation sequences range from surreal and playful to almost realistic and painful, with plenty of room for director Bozzetto to give his views on human evolution, the nature of love and the effects of materialism, conformity, capitalism and industrialisation on human societies and possibly the future of humanity itself.

Of the various animated sketches, the best ones are those attached to Jean Sibelius’ “Val Triste”, in which an aged cat lingering about a ruined mansion remembers the comfortable life he had in the building; to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, in which a snake fails to persuade Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit it offers and as punishment must experience all the ills of capitalist society; and to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”, detailing the evolution of life from primitive one-cell origins to the triumph of humanity. The animation is highly imaginative and inspired, frequently bizarre and mind-blowing, and always colourful. Each sketch has its own style of animation and colouring. The music is not bad though the choice of pieces might leave something to be desired as not all the music is equally good and the animated pieces, taking their cues from the music, are also uneven.

The Sibelius sequence is very moving and tragic: the cat tries to remember the humans who cared for it, and the warmth of the mansion in its former glory – but memory eventually fades and the cat also fades with it. Finally what remains of the mansion is destroyed by a wrecking ball. The Vivaldi piece (featuring “Concerto in C major for 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, Strings and Continuo RV 559”) is light-hearted and bright in colour, yet sympathetic to the tiny bee inconvenienced by the two large humans romping and making love in her garden.

While the animation can be stunning, and some of the messages contained within individual segments invite thoughtful examination, the film as a whole is very uneven and the mockery in the live-action sequences is unnecessarily cruel and may appear alien and strange to contemporary audiences.

 

The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor whom he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The atomised society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he himself can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own ways, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank, fragmented in mind and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.

The Man We Want to Hang: a subjective if not very experimental homage to Aleister Crowley

Kenneth Anger, “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002)

After over 20 years in which he made no films, the American cult underground film director Kenneth Anger released a visual homage to British occultist Aleister Crowley. The homage consists of a tour of drawings and paintings made by Crowley plus other artwork featuring Crowley, all of which were exhibited in The October Gallery in London in April 1998. Several if not most of these works came from British rock musician Jimmy Page’s private collection of art. In common with Anger’s other films, there is no spoken word soundtrack, only more or less continuous orchestral music by Anatol Liadov, and the film is short at just under 14 minutes.

Anger’s camera pans steadily over the paintings and for most of them he zooms in on a particular feature, such as a face, a group of figures, an erupting volcano or a scene within the painting that means something to him and which he wishes to share with the audience. The erupting volcano in one painting ties the whole film to earlier Anger works like “Fireworks” and calls attention to homoerotic themes that often flavour Anger’s films. Of course with the film being soundless, viewers might feel rather put upon having to view the paintings and drawings the way Anger does. There is not much scope for viewers wishing to see and interpret Crowley’s work for themselves. Crowley admittedly was untutored and his style of art is naif; he was rather better at landscape painting with lots of yellow shades than portraiture.

Seeing the paintings in close-up is intended to immerse the viewer in Crowley’s world, to see things the way he might have done (as interpreted by Anger). Though there are objects or figures in the paintings intended to reveal aspects of the Thelema religion that Crowley conceived and elaborated on, there are very few such things (like a group of devils) that appear sinister or malevolent to the adult viewers who see them.

It would have been good if Anger had given viewers some information about the paintings and why he chose to film some works and not others. What was the significance of the paintings for him, did they relate to something that occurred in his life, did they inspire him to do something special … these are questions some viewers may want to know. But it’s not Anger’s style to explain himself or the films he makes: whatever value the audience derives from his films depends very much on what viewers themselves bring to the film-watching experience. That the film is a very subjective one though comes across in one scene in which Crowley’s Law of Thelema, reduced to its first four words, suggests that Thelema is no more than a philosophy of self-interest and self-aggrandisement: the actual Law is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will” and is intended to encourage people to discover their true purpose and will in life, free of manipulation and oppression by external actors such as conventional organised religion, governments and institutions working to maintain conformist societies in thrall to unseen and opaque agendas.

As an experimental film in Anger’s oeuvre, this visual montage makes no major demands on viewers and is the quietest and most accessible of the works of his that I’ve seen. The layering of images associated with Anger is reduced to an absolute minimum. He really does love the colour yellow too.

Oldboy: arthouse film trappings cannot disguise a flimsy plot, flat characters and an empty message

Chanwook Park, “Oldboy” (2003)

When I saw this film the first time over a decade ago, I was impressed with its style and colour and the way it was filmed but now that I’ve become familiar with Chanwook Park’s little bag of tracks, on second viewing  I can see all the surrealism and the artfulness can’t quite disguise the lame Swiss-cheese plot. Adapted from a Japanese manga, “Oldboy” follows the sufferings of one Daesu Oh (Minsik Choi) who one evening has one drink too many and ends up in police custody. He is freed only to be kidnapped by unseen assailants and he ends up imprisoned in a hotel apartment for 15 years. During this lengthy time, he learns from watching TV that his wife has been murdered, their daughter taken into foster care and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s killing. He passes the time learning to shadow box and writes copiously, plotting revenge on his kidnappers.

He is released unexpectedly and spends the rest of the film trying to pinpoint the place where he was imprisoned and who might have jailed him. He meets a young girl Mido (Hyejung Kang) who tries to help him with his investigations. Eventually a wealthy man Woojin Li (Jitae Yu) meets him and admits that he was the kidnapper; he then gives Daesu five days to find out why he, Daesu, was abducted and held for so long against his will. If Daesu succeeds within the 5-day period, Woojin will commit suicide, if not, Mido will be killed.

The second of Chanwook Park’s revenge trilogy – “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” being the other films – “Oldboy” is a sly examination of revenge and how it can consume people so much so that after they’ve achieved their vengeance and forced others to suffer the pain they suffered, they discover there’s not only no purpose left for them in life but vengeance itself doesn’t bring the satisfaction and closure they thought it would provide. This is a theme of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” as well.  Whereas the initial reason for the main character in that film to seek revenge was a school-teacher’s abuse and killing of children in his care, here in “Oldboy” the rationale that sets off the chain of actions seems trivial, at least to Western audiences.  You punish a man for fifteen years because he spied on you and your sister up to no good and he tells the entire class at school about you both, and your sister flings herself off the top of a bridge and drowns? You might at least be a little thankful you weren’t reported to the Department of Community Services. The film seems to say that some family secrets should be kept secret – one might raise an eyebrow at the ethics of covering up certain forbidden or illegal acts.

The climax and the denouement come as a surprise: on learning of his role in the sister’s suicide, Daesu becomes completely craven and suppliant towards Woojin; Woojin for his part finds Daesu’s self-abasement hilarious (as no doubt some viewers will) but the other man’s reaction does not satisfy Woojin’s desire for vengeance on the man who as a teenager did something childish and thoughtless. Woojin then has to cope with the consequences of pursuing an unsatisfying vengeance that still eats at him.

Surveillance is a theme threaded right through the film and its destructive effects on both the spied and their watchers are noted, usually very brutally. Daesu stops at nothing to get the information he needs that will lead him to Woojin while Woojin plays puppet-master and stays one step ahead of Daesu most of the time.

While the film is well-acted and Choi and Yu acquit themselves admirably in quite arduous and intense roles, their characters essentially remain flat, undeveloped and quite bestial in morality. There is something odd about Woojin and how his cosseted life-style seems to have made him asexual. His penthouse is absolutely spotless, antiseptic and sterile, hinting at the emotionless robot beneath the youthful leering face. Choi’s Daesu is a desperate man on the edge: he appears to repent of his earlier indulgent and hot-tempered ways during his incarceration but once free, he goes all-out to punish to the extreme the people he finds who contributed to his torment over the years. No mercy is shown to anyone or his (rarely her) teeth. The fact that very little character development takes place or supposedly takes place off-screen throws the weight of plausibility entirely on the insubstantial and hokey plot.

While Park undoubtedly has great technical ability and attracts good actors and crew to create a stunningly beautiful and artful movie, he is unable to overcome a brutal plot in which cartoonish characters basically compete to see who is the more lacking in insight, grace, understanding of the human condition and maturity. The film ultimately seems to say that humans are bad and brutal through and through, and no redemption or escape is possible. Daesu is forced to live with his punishment and self-abasement for the rest of his life: a chilling and despairing conclusion that reeks not a little of the too-clever manipulation, not on Woojin’s part, done to reach that finale.