After a very successful January in which I watched many films from director Jean-Pierre Melville, I couldn’t decide on a theme for the month of February. I knew I wanted to go with some kind of topical theme rather than choosing another director or star as I feared choosing another director would mean that each month would be nothing but directors and perhaps actors, and it seems more fun to mix it up. Eventually, I narrowed it down to two choices: movies made by or starring African Americans as it is Black History Month, or foreign language films as Foreign Film February has a nice ring to it. Ultimately, I decided to go with both because it's my life and I get to do what I want.
The Criterion Channel is running a bunch of films featuring Sidney Poitier right now and I was expecting to receive several Spike Lee movies from Kino Lorber this month. Unfortunately, the first Poitier movie I watched, a western called Duel at Diablo, which also stars James Garner and Bibi Andersson, wasn’t very good and the Spike Lee movies seem to have got lost in the mail. So this week’s cool things are light on people of color. Luckily, Criterion still has lots of great foreign films and I watched a few of those.
And away we go.
The Criterion Channel has some of the world’s greatest foreign films. It never ceases to amaze me that we live in an age in which many of the greatest movies ever made are now available to us at the click of your remote button.
That’s great and all, but sometimes you also want a little trashy Euro-sleaze. This late ‘80s giallo from Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son) is ridiculously bad and so much fun. It is about Gioia (Serena Grandi), a former prostitute who now runs a successful Playboy style magazine (allowing for more topless scenes than one of that magazine's own video spreads) whose models keep getting sliced to bits. The killer then photographs the dead girls lying splayed out photogenically in front of a giant poster of Gioia from back in her nude modeling days.
When the killer is on the prowl, he hallucinates so that the models look like crazed monsters (my favorite is the woman whose entire head looks like a giant eyeball). This is never explained in any way and the killer is ultimately revealed to not be some crazed maniac, but whatever, films like this don’t need to make sense. The kills themselves are terrific fun (one lady gets attacked by bees!). For whatever Bava’s faults were (and there were many), you can’t say he doesn’t know how to make his trashy movies look good and this one is given a really beautiful shine.
After watching Duel at Diablo and Delirium, I felt I needed to watch a legitimately good movie and so I turned my eyeballs towards Ingmar Bergman who never lets me down in that department. Winter Light is the middle film in his Silence of God trilogy. It is a trilogy in theme only, not in story. They don’t share characters or anything so presumably, you can watch them out of order. I saw The Silence, the final chapter in the trilogy some years ago, but my memory of it has faded. I’m guessing they may work best watching them in order within close proximity of time, but I wasn’t confused or anything with this film.
In each of the films, the characters are grasping with their understanding (or lack thereof) of God. Few directors deal so intimately, so movingly with that question without being cloying or overly sentimental. Martin Scorsese comes close, but no one ponders the imponderable quite like Ingmar Bergman.
In Winter Light, we follow the pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) of a small, rural village over the course of a couple of days. We watch him at Sunday mass. We hear the tail end of his sermon and see him give the Eucharist to his few parishioners. He speaks to a man filled with doubt. He travels to another even smaller village to give afternoon service there. On the outside, he is just another small-town pastor, but inside he is dying. He is wrecked with doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
A man (played magnificently by Max Von Sydow) comes to him feeling helpless and afraid. He read an article in which the Chinese now have nuclear capabilities and he’s paralyzed by the thought of what they’ll do with it. The pastor says the words he’s supposed to say but they are meaningless and do not help. He reads a letter from a school teacher (Ingrid Thulin) in which she declares his love for him. But he cannot give that love to her in return for he still grieves for his dead wife. In each instance, he doesn't know what to do or to say because his own doubt consumes him.
Bergman fills the screen with small details. We see the organist check his watch and pack his things before he’s done playing the last song. The letter mentioned above is read to us as a monologue with Ingrid Thulin staring directly at the camera. When the pastor attends the scene of a suicide, it is shot from a distance as if the camera is but a mere observer, not directly a part of the moment.
Like so many of Bergman’s films and all of his great ones, Winter Light is a beautiful, sad, poignant look deep inside the heart of the human condition. It provides no answers, but the questions are deeply felt.
Through a Glass Darkly
This is the first film in the Silence of God trilogy so I’ve officially now watched it in reverse order. Honestly, I’m still digesting this one. I’m not sure what I ultimately think of it.
The story is about a family vacation on a remote island (it was filmed on Fårö, the Swedish island where Bergman lived and filmed many of his movies). Karin (Harriet Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital being treated for schizophrenia. Her father, a writer (Gunnar Björnstrand), has been using her illness as inspiration for his latest book, a fact Karin finds out on the trip by reading his diary. Her brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), openly looks at a pornographic magazine around her and eventually makes advances towards her. Martin (Max Von Sydow), her husband, loves her but is lost as to actually help her.
The opening act is deliberately paced. Nothing much happens. Then, she begins seeing visions of God and the cracks in the family dynamics begin to open. They are all wounded but none of them know how to discuss it with each other.
Bergman’s regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist lights the film like a freaking wizard. Every shot is like a painting. Every scene is beautiful. Pause any scene at any time and you can see how meticulously everything - the lights, the sets, the placement of the actors - was set.
When I said I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, I do not mean that this isn’t a great film (I’ve yet to watch a bad Bergman film) but that it is a film I need to spend more time with. I need to think about what it was doing and what it was saying. Like so much great art, it needs to burrow into my brain a little further before I can let it back out.
Adam Driver plays a guy named Paterson who lives in the city Paterson, New Jersey. He drives a bus. He writes poetry. He eats cereal every morning from a cup. He goes to the bar every night and has one glass of beer. He has a simple life with simple routines. He’s married to a woman who likes to vary her routine. She cooks interesting meals. She keeps painting the house different colors. She buys a guitar on a whim and dreams of being a country singer until she finds something else to dream about.
We see their daily lives over the course of one week. Nothing much really happens at all. The most excitement we get is a sad sack at a bar pulling a plastic gun on the girl who broke his heart. But what would be endlessly dull in the hands of nearly anyone else, director Jim Jarmusch turns it into something utterly fascinating and interesting. He’s helped by a fine, subtle performance from Driver and a lovely one from Golshifteh Farahani.
I find that Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy grows better with each watch. The first time I saw each one I didn’t really like it. But with each consecutive viewing, I find more and more to love. I actually watched Hot Fuzz for the first time on my tiny little iPod Classic. We had just moved to Shanghai and we hadn’t bought a television yet and I put it on my device to have something to watch on the plane. I wound up watching the airline in-flight movies but one day while sitting in our apartment I plugged in the iPod and gave it a go. Not surprisingly, I was underwhelmed.
But I’ve watched it several more times since then and have come to adore it. I watched it again the other day when I was feeling a little under the weather. What I love about his films is that they are so well plotted. Over and over, there are little things planted in the first half - small jokes, bits of dialogue, big ideas - that completely pay off in the second half. It is those details that makes these films so rewarding on multiple views.
The Jesus Rolls
John Turtorro has a minor, but hilarious role as Jesus Quintana, a pederast bowler with a penchant for licking his ball and doing fancy dance moves in The Big Lebowski. He's now written and directed this sequel which is also a remake of the French film Going Places. I cannot imagine it will be as funny as The Big Lebowski but it has a great cast including Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Christopher Walken, Jon Hamm, and Susan Sarandon and this trailer makes it look like a lot of fun.