Criterion Fridays – Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water (1962, dir. Roman Polanksi)
Starring Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz

It’s funny how across the Atlantic and behind the Iron Curtain, things were much the same in both the United States and Eastern Europe in the 1960s. If you are familiar with Mad Men, then you have seen the sort of character Niemcszyk is playing. He has the slicked back hair, the suit, he’s a professional. Yet, he is also a Hemingway-esque macho man, who isn’t going to let some young upstart get away with thinking he matters. Polanksi’s first splash on the international scene is a fable-like story about some archetypal characters and relationships.

Andrezj (Niemczyk) and his wife are taking a drive through the countryside, on their way to their boat for a day of sailing. The tension is palpable in the care, neither speaks, until it is broken by a young hitchhiker standing in the middle of the road. Andrezj can tell that his wife is momentarily attracted to the young man so he offers to give him a ride, and eventually invites him onto their boat. This is all part of a disturbing psychological mind game is playing with his wife, using the hitchhiker to prove a point. As the young man flips between adolescent mood swings and is manipulated with ease by Andrezj, the older gentleman remains calm and poised, right up to the finale where both the characters and the audience are left wondering what happened and how these characters move on.

The rivalry between the two men is incredibly realistic. If you have been around immature adolescents (and sadly grown men even) you have seen the way they can get caught in a playful game of oneupmanship that devolves into a primitive fist fight. Through out the film, Andrezj intentionally puts the hitchhiker in a position of submission, giving him commands and emphasizing important maritime rules, while simultaneously breaking these same rules moments later in a bid to shove it in the young man’s face. Because of the wife’s initial flirtation with the hitchhiker we assume this is all about her, but I found that she recedes into the background till the final moments of the film. Instead, these young men are simply in a battle for alpha male status, not over a woman, but just in terms of their own relationship.

The wife is very enigmatic character, behaving without reaction for most of the film. She’s first presented as a prim and proper type, silent, not in subservience to Andrezj but in defiance of him. Once on the boat, she goes about her work mechanically, bringing about noshes when they are expected, preparing the soup when it  is needed, battening down the hatches at the approach of a thunderstorm. Very subtly, her inner sexuality is revealed until she is completely nude near the end of the picture. In this moment, she defies Andrezj in a very interesting way that further pushes him down, keeping him from attaining the status of alpha.

In such a simple plot, lies an infinitely complex series of ideas and themes. In many ways, this would work as a companion piece to the similarly psychological and deceptively simplistic Funny Games. Both films are exploring weighty ideas using a framework that is easy for any audience to understand.


Jolly Good Thursdays – Girly

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1969, dir. Freddie Francis)

If you never heard of this film, I can’t fault you. It is an obscure little British horror-comedy that has strong genetic ties to The Addams Family, but more macabre. Full of murder, mayhem, and some very unnerving incestous overtones, Girly (for short) is one of the funniest black comedies I have seen in awhile. In the US we tend to put the crazy killers of our films at the bottom rung of the socio-economic class and basically kick the poor while they’re down. The wonderful thing about the UK is the intense dislike of the aristocracy, even by a lot of the aristocracy themselves. Thus, a film as wonderfully insane as Girly can come about and skewer the 1950s nuclear family unit.

Somewhere on a palatial English countryside estate lives Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly. Though Sonny and Girly are obviously in their twenties, they still dress and behave like schoolchildren. Sonny and Girly also have a rather queasy relationship that is hinted at but never made explicit. Also in the mansion live the Friends, homeless men and free love hippies lured to the house and locked up for the sadistic pleasure of the quartet. The introductory friend finds he is unwelcome when he can’t follow the rules Mumsy has set up to run her happy home. As a result he’s decapitated. But into their lives comes New Friend, a gigolo who through a series of gruesome circumstances ends up trapped. Unlike previous Friends, New Friend is a conniver and begins his quest to tear about this happy homicidal home.

Girly was the project of acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Francis, the lens behind such films as Tales of Hoffman, the Gregory Peck Moby Dick, and The Innocents. Francis transitioned into directing in the early 1960s and went on to helm some cult British horror films and established him as filmmaker who brought a lot of visual flair to his pictures. Francis would eventually return to working the camera and was responsible for the cinematography on such films as The Elephant Man, Dune, Glory, and Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Girly was originally a stage play (you can feel the more theatrical moments in the film). The premise of the film is a lampooning of the “traditional” family unit at the hands of the 1960s counter culture.

The film is very fun, dark fare. It’s never truly horrifying, just the kind of violence that gives off a creepy vibe and elicits laughs more than gasps. The middle of the picture meanders a little bit, becoming a bit of a struggle to work through, but the way New Friend begins to tear apart the four members of the family by turning them on each other is enjoyable to watch. Definitely an odd, incredibly obscure picture worth a watch.

DocuMondays – The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground (2002, dir. Sam Green and Bill Siegel)

What is the line you would refuse to cross when it came to your beliefs about justice? Is it taking to the streets in protest? Is it standing up to the thug tactics of a corrupt cop? Is it killing in the name of your beliefs? No matter left or right on the political spectrum we can see multiple instances where once peaceful and calm movements were derailed by individuals desiring to commit acts of violence. There was Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, The Unabomber, and various other extremists who either cling to an ideology or religion as their justification. This film is about one such group that used methods of terrorism against the US government in the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.

Through archival footage and interviews with the players in this story we are told of the rise and fall of a homegrown terrorist organization. It’s common knowledge that the 1960s were a period of cultural upheaval across the globe. In the United States, it was was student protests against the war in Vietnam that fueled the fire, and the government seemed bent on use brutal force to push them back. In 1969 the non-violent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held a convention in Chicago. The war in Vietnam was escalating and the current leadership of the SDS was trying to hold things together, while brasher elements in the group wanted to become violently pro-active. Out of this convention was born The Weathermen, a sub-group who clandestinely planned violent riots in the street and bombings of government buildings. At one point they were even hired to, and successfully did, break Timothy Leary out of a California prison. Their efforts had little effect on the government’s efforts in Vietnam, the ending of which was more influenced by the media’s release of graphic violence wrought on Vietnamese civilians. At the 1970s wound down, the members of the The Weathermen went into hiding, eventually turning themselves in at the onset of the 1980s.

The documentary was surprisingly balanced in how it presented this group. I personally would agree with many of the stances the Weathermen took on domestic and foreign policy up to the point where they brought violence into the mix. And while this is a left wing group, the mistakes made and regret felt year later transcend politics. At the time, this young men and women, including the much spoken about Bill Ayers, felt completely right and certain of their actions. One of the most fascinating interviews is with Brian Flanagan, a man who left the group shortly before Vietnam ended. He is able to sum up how things went from hopeful to cultish very quickly. He emphasizes that the leadership got so caught up in breaking the system completely, they failed to realize that lasting change comes in increments.

Mark Rudd, one of the leaders in the group, presents excerpts from his memoirs which detail a young man unsure of what he was getting into and heartbroken at the chaos he wrought, but not wavering in his political stance. I think this is a key point. While all the Weathermen regret the bombings and the riots, known as “The Days of Rage”, they have never stopped believing that many of the military conflicts the US has are not done with the best intentions. In our current political climate, we have a right wing movement with some members hinting at violence by brandishing weapons. The testimony of these men and women who have been there should be examined closely to understand the cost of violent actions and how they linger in the souls of those who commit them.

Wild Card Tuesday – Eve’s Bayou

Eve’s Bayou (1997, dir. Kasi Lemmons)
Jurnee Smollet, Samuel L. Jackson, Meagan Good, Lynn Whitfield, Debii Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Vondie-Curtis Hall, Branford Marsalis

The thesis statement of Eve’s Bayou is declared early on in the main character’s voice over as an adult, recalling the events that transpired in her 10th year. “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain”. This is a story told through the filter of years gone by and originally seen through the eyes of a child. Adult Eve tells us that when she was 10 she killed her father and the film gives us a couple explanations for this, emphasizing the distortion that occurs as a result of experiencing time passing.

The story begins with young Eve (Smollett), a resident of a Creole parish in Louisiana who lives comfortably on the estate of her doctor father (Jackson). It’s the early 1960s and the patriarch of the family is caught by Eve having sex with one of his patients in the carriage house during a party in the home. He negotiates with the little girl afterwards, trying to convince her she didn’t see what she thought and making promises of lavishing her with more attention than her older sister, Cicely (Good). More and more people in their small town become aware of what is going on within Eve’s family and it becomes apparent that things will end on a dark note.

Eve’s Bayou is full of classic Southern Gothic atmosphere, yet evoked a lot of European slow paced family dramas. Think William Faulkner meets Ingmar Bergman. The film is stylistic rich and uses the Creole religious practices as a framework for foreshadowing and mixing the dreamed up with the real. When Eve is told stories by her family we see them acted out around her, the characters appearing suddenly in mirrors and Eve standing in the middle of them. The film can can delve into the overly melodramatic at times, but because of the setting and general tone it doesn’t seem too out of place.

Eve’s Bayou isn’t a perfect film, but for a first time venture into directing it is incredibly impressive. Director Simmons uses many African-American female crew member (including an amazing cinematographer) and focuses her story around the women of the family. What is so fascinating to me is the otherworldly nature of the place and time Simmons is capturing. The Creole culture has always occupied a different place in the racial history of our nation, and it is interesting to see a pocket of America where the economy and culture were driven by African-Americans. Eve’s Bayou is about these places that seem unreal and about how our minds retain and discard the details of our history.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell)

Starring Karlheinz Bohm, Moira Shearer, Anne Massey

Released the same year as Hitchock’s Psycho, critically panned in Britain, pulled from theaters after an incredibly short run, and reviled by its director, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom sounds like it should have been forgotten. However, the film was years ahead of its time and is a masterful piece of commentary on voyeurism and the film audience. Infamous for containing the first nudity in British cinema (a nude model’s bare breasts are glimpsed for a couple seconds), but is about much more than seedy exploitation.

Mark Lewis is film studio cameraman by day, with side job taking nudie pictures for a corner newsagent. What no one knows is ,that from time to time, Mark takes to the streets with his camera and films the faces of women he murders. This is the result of a psychologist father who experimented on the compulsion people have to gaze, or be a peeping tom, on his own son. He fetishistically films young Mark, waking him up in the middle of the night by tossing a lizard in his bed or making him listen to the sounds of women being murdered. Now, with Mark alone in the world he has been lost in the damaged inflicted on him. He befriends a young boarder in his large mansion and fights his urges to make her gaze into the camera.

Peeping Tom  has some very clever camera play, especially during the murders where we see everything through Mark’s camera. And it does a very effective job of getting across the seediness of the world Mark inhabits. At the photo shoot over the newsagent’s shop, one model complains that Mark needs to hide her bruises from the camera, while another is frightened of people seeing her harelip. Powell creates exterior, physical deformities to emphasize the corruption infesting Mark. Are these women truly this scarred? Or it a manifestation of Mark’s psychosis?

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is, that despite Powell’s dislike of the picture, he weaves himself so personally into it. He plays young Mark’s father in old reel to reel footage, cast his own son as young Mark, and his own wife as the body of Mark’s lifeless mother in a funeral scene. In addition, the most elaborate murder is performed on actress Moira Shearer, famous as the prima ballerina in The Red Shoes. Powell and Shearer reportedly could not stand each other, he viewed her as an “airhead”. The film Mark is working on involves a director struggling with a red-headed flighty actress he is having to do retakes of constantly. In addition, Shearer plays the younger actress’ stand-in and is presented as an aging actress on her way out. A rather cruel, yet clever, way of Powell addressing his own problems in cinema.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Alice in Wonderland (1966, dir. Jonathan Miller)

Starring Anne-Marie Mallik, Peter Sellers, Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Peter Cook, Michael Hough, John Gielgud, Eric Idle
Lewis Caroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted in many ways and forms since the advent of film. The majority are informed by the 1951 Disney animated feature and, because of that constant influence, seem bland. Not so with this BBC television adaptation. Jonathan Miller, a popular director and comedian who worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore extensively, brings us one of the most surreal and abstract versions of Wonderland. Here no one is dressed up like a white rabbit or caterpillar, instead they resemble the British aristocracy Carroll was mocking in his text.
The image above, which is the opening title of the film, evokes a very strong tone. Alice is something primal here, this is not the light-hearted English schoolgirl but a figure with a sinister air about her. Alice doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film, what we get is a whispering stream of consciousness. The most intriguing evolution of this conceit is how the whispering voice becomes the Cheshire Cat later in the film. It ends up highlighting pieces of dialogue from Carroll’s work that portray Alice as deep in contemplative thought about identity. This extends to her experiences eating and drinking items that distort her physical self, and as emphasized int this film, her psychological perception of herself and her environment.
It’s quite jolting to hear the silly dialogue, attributed originally to anthropomorphic figures, coming from the mouths of English nobility. That aesthetic choice emphasizes the absurdity of British aristocracy in Carroll’s time. The Caucus Race, which is Alice’s first major episode in Wonderland, occurs in an Anglican cathedral and involves stodgy nobles running around the pews and performing the sign of the cross. Every thing has an atmosphere of malaise, intensified by the wandering sitar music of Ravi Shankar. Alice sits at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, slumping down in her chair, washed over by the utter boredom and inanity of the dolts surrounding her.
This is by no means a children’s adaptation or one meant for mainstream audiences. This is a very masterful and crafted adult interpretation of classic story that operates on multiple levels of satire and philosophy.

Film 2010 #36 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Loneliness of the Long Distance (1962, dir. Tony Richardson)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave
Film across the world was undergoing a transformation in the early 1960s. It began with the French New Wave movement of directors like Godard and Truffat and spread across Europe. Eventually, it hit England and corresponded with the coming of age of the first group of post-war children. The films produced in this period are referred to as the Angry Young Men, as they focused on teenagers and men in their 20s for whom the drudgery of blue collar life, that their parents so readily accepted, was considered a living death sentence.
This particular film focuses on the life of a Nottingham youth named Colin Smith (Courtenay). The picture opens with Colin being transported with a group of other juvenile delinquents to Ruxton Towers Reformatory. At the same time, the administration of the facility learns a nearby public school (in the States it would be a private school) wants to have their boys compete against Ruxton’s in a track and field event. The governor of the school (Redgrave) eyes Colin with the potential to win the long distance race after a tryout and begins loosening the restraints on the boy to ensure he will feel dedicated to Ruxton when the day of the race arrives.
Throughout the film we’re given glimpses of what led Colin down this path. At Ruxton, he is a humorless and dour young man, but in his life before he possesses a yearning to escape the factory life of Nottingham that kills his father. It becomes apparent that all Colin has been given in life are a series of expectations to live up to. His father’s former employer expects Colin will come work for them. Colin’s mother expects him to get a job once his father dies. The authorities figures in his town expect him to fall into a life of crime. The pressure of these expectations slowly grows inside Colin in both the flashbacks and during his time training for the race.
The most wonderful moments of the film come when the Governor allows Colin to run outside the gates of Ruxton. As soon as Colin is past the gates a soundtrack of period jazz music kicks in and the camera becomes very loose and documentarian in how it captures the runner. These moments of joy when Colin is by himself, simply running till he can’t breathe are played against his confrontations with fellow boys at the reformatory and regular sessions with the nervous and ineffective counselor. The loneliness mentioned in the title ends up playing both a joyous and bittersweet role. The film has two endings in effect, the one where Colin is “victorious” and then a sort of epilogue which causes us to question the cost of that victory.