Monday, June 29, 2015

Chafed Elbows (1967) - ES 33

I'm just like an art film. I never fade, and I got a lot of special effects.

I have to admit that I wasn't all that enthusiastic about writing this post when I saw that Chafed Elbows was next in my queue. It wasn't all that long ago that I had rewatched all the films in the Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. volume of the Eclipse Series in preparation for the April 2015 episode of my Eclipse Viewer podcast. And I had already reviewed the set back when it was first released in 2012. In my recollection before watching it yet again just this afternoon, Chafed Elbows was the slightest of the five titles in that box, even more ephemeral than the practically incoherent Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, which I admired nonetheless due to the tribute that Downey (a prince) appeared to be paying to his by-then ex-wife. Indeed, even when I was discussing it on that podcast just a couple months ago, I didn't have all that much to say about it. Nothing especially positive anyway, though I could at least express some appreciation for Downey's feisty attitude and fearless bravado in cobbling together a series of sketches that busted up numerous taboos in ways that provoked fits of nervous laughter, at least in viewers who weren't offended to the point of walking out before the hour long underground flick had run its course.

But after taking it just now, on its own terms and in isolation from its competition in the set, I derived more satisfaction from watching Chafed Elbows this time around than ever before. Maybe there's some benefit to be found in spacing these movies out a little, since my previous viewings have all been as part of processing the entire set for the sake of a project that I'd committed to. And since I know that the story is for the most part little more than a thin pretext to pack in as many naughty riffs of insubordination as the brief run time will allow, I'm happily free from the burden of tracking anything resembling character development or real-life application of Downey Sr's "message." This is the kind of humor that for me at least works better in more concentrated, distilled dosages, and I reach saturation point fairly quickly with such stuff nowadays. But I did find myself chuckling out loud more than I was expecting.

The funny thing is, I just watched Chafed Elbows on my phone using my Hulu subscription, taking in the first twenty minutes or so as I drove home from work, the soundtrack playing through my car stereo system via Bluetooth technology. I finished up the rest right away, watching it in my dining room after I pulled safely into my driveway. Since I'd seen the movie a few times already, I didn't need to focus so much on the visual elements, creating an old but familiar sense of listening to some raunchy old comedy album of the sort that I enjoyed as a teenager back when George Carlin and Cheech and Chong were in the prime of their careers. I already knew that with the exception of a few scenes, most of the film consists of still photographs lined up in sequence, with voices dubbed over the images of the characters and occasional narration. I think that unusual perspective, of just listening to the constant barrage of crude one-liners, smutty wordplay and relentless satirical mockery that Downey and his collaborators whipped together, impressed me more than when I saw the whole thing on the screen in the comfort of my living room. Or maybe I was just more in the mood for a blast of impudent vulgar humor today for reasons I really can't fathom.

As the poster at the top indicates, in its original theatrical run Chafed Elbows was paired up with a 1963 short film titled Scorpio Rising. The latter, an ahead-of-its-time celebration of black leather, motorcycles, early 60s, pre-Beatles pop music and homoerotic glamour, was directed by Kenneth Anger, a name that I primarily know mainly through his associations with Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. Anger has a dedicated cult following of his own, but I'm hardly equipped to discuss him or his films here. I'll just note it in passing. So without a whole lot of extra commentary, I'll embed the battered, worn out prints of both films so that, should you so choose to remain on this page for the next 90 minutes or so, you can enjoy your own low fidelity art house double feature experience.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967) - #679

You know, Boss, I'm not the only blind man here. There's not a man in this room that can see.

After a couple weeks of focusing on podcasting for, I'm super happy to finally begin my coverage of 1967 Criterion films here on my blog. This is perhaps my very favorite year in the entire history of the history of human civilization, if I would ever find myself forced to make such a declaration. I was only five/six years old at that particular juncture in time, and even though my specific memories from that period of my life are limited and indistinct, my subsequent enjoyment of the music and other cultural artifacts of that year have elevated my esteem of 1967 as a golden age of sorts... the Summer of Love, the full eruption of flower power and psychedelia into mainstream consciousness, an exciting sense of opportunity and possibility to fundamentally reorient society in directions that were less violent, less exploitative, more focused on peace, love and understanding... so goes the mythology that was even being actively and intentionally developed at the time in some circles. Despite the fact that 1968 and 1969 both saw the utopian dreams and fantasies of '67 come crashing down in multiple crises of chaotic destruction and disillusionment, there's a part of me that still clings to the dream, or at least enjoys the occasional momentary excursion back to those halcyon days of incense, peppermints and flowers everywhere...

But lest I digress any further, let's talk some Zatoichi.

Zatoichi's Cane Sword is the 15th  (out of 25) installment of the series, and as I've come to expect, it fits snugly into the well-established formula (our hero wanders into town, engages in some humorous gambling antics, pulls off a few spectacularly impossible stunts, reluctantly dispatches villains and rescues humble villagers with even more implausible swordplay.) The most distinctive element to this episode is that we're given a small glimpse into Zatoichi's back story as we meet the man who years ago had crafted the remarkable blade hidden in the blind man's walking stick. The swordmaker informs Zatoichi that his weapon has become fragile from all the use it's been put to, and a replacement is needed. That's about as far as the detail goes, so we don't learn a whole lot more about Z's origins, but the plot device is used to good effect toward the end of the film.

There are several memorable moments: Ichi sucking up one last noodle as he delivers the death stroke to his would-be assassin, twirling a large knife with his brass pipe and dropping it from the ceiling to expose a pair of loaded dice, his ridiculously charming "duck dance" (see the clip above) and a final nighttime showdown in the snow that is one of the most compelling and atmospherically effective that I've seen so far. No big surprises or risks being taken here, but I have no problem with that. Zatoichi's Cane Sword is an altogether satisfying and well-crafted example of a great franchise operating at peak efficiency by sticking closely to doing what it knows it does best.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Frampton '66 (1966) - #607


Two short experimental avant garde works by Hollis Frampton are the focus of my final entry here on the Criterion Collection films of 1966. In wrapping up my recent coverage of earlier years, I've turned to the works of Stan Brakhage, whose films generally don't get assigned a specific release date by IMDb, presumably because nobody is really all that sure when such low-budget, hand-edited reels were first threaded through a projector and put up on a screen for the entertainment/amusement/bewilderment of the artist and his circle of peers who gathered together in assorted lofts, galleries and warehouses to view these curiosities. But since Criterion didn't include any Brakhage offerings from this particular year in either of the two anthology volumes dedicated to him, I'll turn to the next obvious choice, the aforementioned Hollis Frampton.

Given my relative lack of exposure and familiarity with the artistic scene from which these films emerged, I can honestly admit that if Manual of Arms and Process Red, the two films up for discussion here, had been mistakenly attributed to Stan Brakhage, I would have gullibly fallen for it, since there's not all that much difference that I can discern in what Frampton was doing at this stage of his career and what Brakhage did back at a roughly similar phase of his artistic development back in the mid-1950s: rapidly edited closeups of assorted bohemian types in anonymous, enigmatic settings, often fixing the camera on portions of body parts, in and out of focus, with odd angular camera movements, garish lighting, and no traditional sense of narrative purpose as far as story-telling was concerned - all interspersed with lots of blurry smears of light, darkness and color, the result of rapid pans, random inserted bits of leader and other film stock that most directors wouldn't think twice of disposing of but would be aghast at including in their final product.

Of course, Brakhage went on to create some visually dynamic loops in a very distinctive style, following his penchant for handcrafting the actual film itself with paint, plant and insect bits and other experiments in creative damage. From what I've seen, Frampton didn't follow Brakhage's lead in severely manipulating the individual film cells, but he did go on to carve out his own recognizable niche in the mysterious realm of high concept experimental filmmaking. My main hang-up with these two examples of his early work is that he hadn't quite established that individual voice that produced memorable results.

The 17-minute long Manual of Arms is the lengthier of the two pieces, described by Frampton himself as a "snapshot album" that included 14 friends of his at the time, the only name of whom I recognize is that of dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. We see each of them introduced in alphabetical order (though I only learned that by reading the typical extravagantly loquacious liner notes found in such collections; there are no credits shown on screen other than the HF logo that Frampton used to signify that the film was done.) Their faces are all lit from the left side and I suppose that with close enough scrutiny, one can read various character attributes into their gaze, their hair style, their poise in front of the camera. After we run through that sequence, each model takes another turn before the lens, sitting on a stool, doing mundane things like drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, trimming fingernails, caressing a can of beer, nodding, smiling, gesticulating, glancing and sometimes even talking, though we don't hear anything they say. Occasionally, the lighting effects and compositions have a striking, evocative quality, but just as quickly, we're shuttled away into random technical explorations before any kind of prolonged contemplation can settle in. I suppose that if I were personally part of this artistic clique, or had close acquaintances in that milieu, this film would be a precious, priceless artifact, but for the most part, this feels more like flipping through an artist's sketchbook, Frampton's training manual, as it were, rather than the catalog of militant weaponry he would wield in subsequent attacks on aesthetic complacency that the film's provocative title suggests. Here's an excerpt:

More successful, perhaps simply because it's shorter (at 3 1/2 minutes), though it's also definitely more visually interesting, is Process Red. Here we don't see any faces - it's all hands, objects (saltshakers, cigarettes, ashtrays and chairs, hardboiled eggs, lighters, nuts and bolts and coffee mugs), overlaid with bright fuschia tints and intercut with light smears, black leader and geometric textures. I don't think it amounts to all that much, though for the sake of a few minutes of hot pink instigation, I can put up with a fair measure of artistic self indulgence, and even admire the audacity of the effort. Still, I'm glad to know from previous viewings that there's a lot more interesting stuff to be found in A Hollis Frampton Odyssey. But dig this anyway:

OK 1966, I'm done with you! It's been a great year but I'm ready to embark on a new adventure that will take me (and my dear readers) through the legendary Summer of Love - and beyond...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Report on the Party and Guests (1966) - ES 32

We can't all be ruled by the same opinion.

According to IMDb, Jan Nemec's A Report on the Party and Guests was released on the same date as Vera Chytilova's Daisies: December 30, 1966. I'm not exactly sure if they were part of an intentional double feature or not, but I could easily see them both fitting on the same bill. There's enough contrast (Report's low-key, realistic monochrome vs. Daisies' wild eye-popping colors and visual flamboyance) to make them distinctive, but also an underlying connective thread in their respective bold and ingenious critiques of a status quo imposed by the dominant centralized authority of the Soviet-back Czechoslovakian government regime. That sly and subliminally rebellious questioning of authority turned out to be too much for the censors to allow a clear passage to be seen by members of the general public, so both films were immediately shut down from any further distribution for a period of time.

The "Prague Spring" uprising of early 1968 provided a brief reprieve from the ban for A Report on the Party and Guests, but that window of opportunity turned out to be very short-lived once tanks and troops backed by the USSR rolled in to suppress the masses and assert their control over the populace. It's pretty remarkable to reflect on all this from the distance of nearly 50 years after the fact, that such an elliptical and universal depiction of modern social conformity could stir up such a harsh response from ruling powers who must have felt quite vulnerable and insecure in their positions, to react as they did. By the standards of barbed political satire, this film is not exceptionally pointed or specific in its accusations, and I think a case can be made that Nemec is not even aiming his lampoon at the bosses calling the shots as he is at the too-readily compliant citizens who placidly submit to their orders, failing to realize the potential strength of their own resistance if they would choose to organize, resist and push back even just a little.

For a more detailed (but mostly spoiler-free) commentary on the film itself, I'll direct you to my review of A Report on the Party and Guests from 2012 so you can read my impressions upon first viewing at the time. And here's an officially-approved snippet, courtesy of our authoritative and arbitrary curators over at The Criterion Collection:

Since I have no personal connection at all to the temperature of the times when A Report on the Party and Guests was released, any surmise I can offer on why the film met with such stern condemnation is only conjecture, based on second, third or fourth hand accounts. But the ruckus it managed to stir up certainly wins my respect, even if the second half of the film (which is actually quite short, a mere 70 minutes) seems to bog down a bit in slightly tedious expounding of its central point. When an artist chooses to embark upon a path of deliberate absurdity and self-conscious allegory, substantial discipline must be exercised or else the project risks a descent into overly precious, self-indulgent wankery. I don't think that this movie ever crosses that line, but the prolonged expounding on that theme may not immediately click with some viewers. Even if that's your reaction upon first viewing, I think this is one that's easy enough to revisit to say "give it a second chance" if necessary. The film speaks truth across cultures and generations, and has a lot to say about how and why we choose to go along to get along instead of rising up to fight the power. I'll have more to say about this film later this summer when Trevor Berrett and I discuss Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Daisies (1966) - ES 32

We can try anything once.

Tonight I rewatched Daisies, a flamboyant, reckless, anarchic whirlwind of a film that was released in Czechoslovakia right at the end of 1966, won a festival award or two, amazed audiences fortunate enough to see it, and quickly (also predictably) ran into trouble with the Communist authorities, who objected to the sheer wasteful indulgence and wildness of what they saw. That friction led to prolonged periods of censorship that made the film mostly unavailable for many years, and also made life a bit more difficult for its fearless director Vera Chytilova. The notoriety of its reputation and the curiosity to see what all the fuss was about has helped Daisies develop a fervent cult following over the years, and my hunch is that it has rarely disappointed those who at least had some idea of what they were getting into and liked what they'd heard: a gaudy loop of chaos, aggressively sexy and quasi-psychedelic, with a feminist bohemian sensibility that utilizes cut-ups, collage, montage, absurd humor and sly political satire to confront viewers and take them out of their cinematic comfort zone. Though Daisies probably doesn't deliver quite the jolt that it must have in 1966, I think it's still capable of provoking us out of our "seen it all" complacency when we pause to consider what Chytilova expressed, beyond the rampant lunacy of the girls' bratty and unhinged behavior pretty much from start to finish in the film.

I first saw the film back in 2012, shortly after Criterion had released it as part of their Pearls of the Czech New Wave Eclipse Series set, and I reviewed it right around the time that Daisies was making the rounds in a national release sponsored by Janus Films. Here's the link to my first take on the film, and other than a minor tweak of the text and embedding a fresh video clip (not the one I originally included, which has apparently been pulled from YouTube), I don't see the need to change anything, or embellish too much on what I said there. The lingering thought that sits with me now, that I'm still processing and will continue to mull over until Trevor Berrett and I get around to recording a new episode of our Eclipse Viewer podcast on this set later this summer, is how Chytilova weaves together the themes of food and sex and war, all connected as different manifestations of this urge to satisfy basic impulses through raw consumption, regardless of the destructive effect it has on others.

The two young women that the film focuses on are persuaded (by lots of tangible evidence) that the world they live in is irrevocably spoiled, and they decide to likewise do their worst in response to a situation they don't feel they had any responsibility for creating. Recognizing their own desirability in the eyes of older (and married) men, who primarily view them as adornments and erotic playthings, they return the exploitative favor and engage in a series of comical pranks that debase, frustrate and humiliate the gents who pursue them. The stunts leave the girls laughing as they revel in their own cleverness, but the thrill quickly wears off and they find themselves depressed and depleted soon afterward. All they can do is repeat the cycle and continue to look for new variations on the art of the tease. Eventually, after noticing that nobody is noticing them, they abandon the sexual political games and opt for all-out gluttony, gorging themselves on a splendid meal without taking a moment to appreciate the goodness of the experience or the flavors, almost as if they're racing against time to gobble up as much as they can before their orgy is interrupted or they lose the capacity to feel any more. Soon enough, the roof caves in on them and they meet the fate that they've been courting all along. Images of violent explosions that opened the film now return, with cataclysmic rumbles of doom continuing to reverberate even after the screen fades to black.

This is a wildly subversive, visually dazzling, often amusing, highly entertaining and occasionally hilarious film, but also quite angry, sad and hurting beneath the surface. Much more to grapple with here than just a crazy uninhibited romp.

Anyway, here's a music video fan edit mash-up of highlights from the film, with a soundtrack by the 1980s pop band Bow Wow Wow:

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Modern Coed (1966) - HP/#346

The primary role of women at one time was to conserve the values of the past. Today, they are increasingly involved in building the world of tomorrow.

If the names of director Eric Rohmer and cinematographer Nestor Almendros weren't attached to A Modern Coed, there's no way that this short documentary (a scant 12 minutes) would have caught the attention of the Criterion Collection, and even less likelihood that I would take a few minutes to log an entry about it here. But since Rohmer did shoot this film right in the midst of putting together his series of Six Moral Tales, released between 1963 and 1972, the film does have a rightful place among the supplements to that impressive box set, at one time probably the most beautiful specimen that Criterion had released on DVD up to that point (and the first of their products to feature that distinctive "C" logo.) And since I'm now committed to blogging about every film in the collection that gets individual attention through streaming media, I'm just following through on my obligations. The truth is, this is a negligible piece of work, a rather dry and straightforward artifact that notes the increased attendance of young French women at institutes of higher learning as the postwar generation reached adulthood in the mid-1960s. My goal here is to compose a concise summary in less time than it takes to actually watch the movie for yourself.

In visual terms, there's enough here to appreciate - lots of candid shots of the female students walking the streets of the Latin quarter on their way to classes, sitting at tables reading books, listening to lectures, working in the laboratories where they conduct mildly interesting looking, scientifically crude experiments on beating hearts and cats with electrodes attached to their exposed brains. There's clearly a well-practiced hand guiding the creation of the images, but everything is presented with a bland, matter-of-fact neutrality that fails to convey any element of surprise or intrigue at the shifting cultural dynamics at work behind this new trend in women's education. Whether its due to time limitations or just a lack of interest in warming us up to a "story" in this presentation, Rohmer doesn't bother to humanize the clip by letting us get to know a typical student, or even a particularly unusual one. The narrative remains at a discreet observational distance, drawing broad, generalized conclusions about how les etudiantes of today aren't as interested in just "landing a husband" or engaging in some kind of rebellious acting out phase as their predecessors were in previous generations. The women actually seem intelligent, self-determined and well-adjusted, which is great. It just seems like something slightly more opinionated or provocative would have helped this brief documentary register more distinctly; as it stands, the film is all too forgettable and doesn't seem to serve any clear purpose.

I suppose that this stance of factual objectivity and dispassionate flatness fits pretty well with Rohmer's level-eyed observations of the drifting sexual mores that he depicts in his Six Moral Tales, but those films work a lot better because we're given the time to settle into the situations his characters inhabit, whereas here, we drop in abruptly on the scene and get yanked right out again without any warning, exiting before we even have enough time to care. But the film just ended on my Hulu Plus stream so I guess I ought to just wrap this up now.

Next: Daisies

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Law of the Border (1966) - HP

The hardest thing to do is to turn away from your beliefs.

Law of the Border is a film shot and produced in Turkey, primarily for domestic consumption, rather than for the international art house scene, since it doesn't seem too preoccupied with establishing a historic context for non-Turks. From what I've been able to read on the internet, the film reportedly ushered in a New Wave of sorts in that country's cinema when it premiered in 1966. Without any familiarity whatsoever with Turkish movies, or really much of anything that I could consider the authentic culture of that society, much less the underlying political intrigues that inform this 70 minute drama, I have no basis to make before and after comparisons, but it was a fascinating discovery simply on its own terms. The summary that came to my mind to help introduce and recommend it to anyone curious is to envision the basic repressive government vs. disgruntled populace set-up that made The Battle of Algiers so compelling (and filmed in a similar gritty, pseudo-documentary style), with a bit of Bicycle Thieves' Neorealist father-son pathos thrown into the mix, and a dash of Red River's emphasis on the hazards of moving a herd across the land, only substituting sheep for cattle in this case.

To build especially on the similarities with Pontecorvo's masterpiece, released right around same time as Law of the Border: the direction by Lutfi Akad and the strong presence of lead actor and screenwriter Yilmaz Guney achieve remarkable results in winning sympathy for the central character of Hidir, a tribal man pushed by circumstances to head up a smuggling operation that puts his life and freedom in great danger. In this, he's opposed by a newly appointed military lieutenant charged with keeping the frontier borderlands secure. Adding to the tension is the government's effort to establish an elementary school in the rustic village, led by a woman teacher who also happens to be quite beautiful. The modern innovation doesn't sit well with the tribal elders, who are suspicious of how education will affect their children's willingness to carry on in time-honored traditions.

A fair amount of the early part of the film is spent chronicling interactions between Hidir and his various allies and adversaries, each of whom have their own rivalries and self-interests to pit against each other. At times, it got a bit confusing to track the different linkages and feuds, and that challenge (especially to novices to this society like me) is only exacerbated by the film's degraded condition. Quite a few scenes appear to be missing significant portions, others are spliced together quite abruptly, and it's hard to know if the jumps and rough transitions are entirely accidental, or sometimes deliberate as part of Akad's cinematic vocabulary. But even if the particular details don't fall neatly into place for the average Western viewer, there's no mistaking the high stakes at play in this conflict, especially since the outcome remains so highly unpredictable throughout the final act, which mostly consists of a frantic and brutal gunfight followed by an attempted escape through a minefield.

And speaking of Westerns, if the basic plot of livestock rustlers vs. lawmen, a pretty schoolmarm and a pistols-a-blazin' shootout at the end gets you thinking that Law of the Border is some kind of a Turkish cowboy movie, I guess that works as well as any other point of entry. But don't come in expecting a wry or playful homage. Far from that, the twist here is that most likely you'll find yourself sympathizing with the smugglers and thieves more than you will with the forces of law and order. Even more remarkable is the degree that I found myself empathizing with the plight of the villagers, who intuitively understand that every degree of cooperation that they extend to the government forces pushing in upon them will erode their autonomy, and that no degree of assimilation is likely to ever win them a fully equal footing in the new modernized society. It's a fundamental conflict that endures to this day in the Middle East, and this film offers a rare opportunity to view it from an insider's perspective that probably stands in stark contrast to that of most readers.

I watched Law of the Border on Hulu Plus, the only format in which Criterion has made it available, even though it's part of Martin Scorcese's World Cinema Project, subject of an ambitious six-title dual-format box that was issued late in 2013. This film wasn't included in that set, perhaps because the condition of the sole surviving print of this film is so rough and choppy that it didn't quite warrant a full-fledged Blu-ray edition. The film fell victim to orchestrated government suppression following a coup in 1980. All known prints and negatives of the film were confiscated and destroyed, except for this one that was stashed away by the director's daughter, and restored as much as possible in 2011. I'm sure the work was heroic, but the final product is still pretty ragged in spots. I can imagine that if space and price were at all considerations, some tough choices had to be made, and Law of the Border's less than optimal presentation probably weighed against it. 

But what a shame that would be if the film's current lack of availability on disc media somehow dissuaded viewers from checking it out. Certainly anyone who's found intrigue and enjoyment from any of the other films included in the WCP volume should make it a priority to check this one out as well. Law of the Border is a revealing eye-opener of a movie, a journey into some new territory sufficiently exotic to feel fresh and easily digestible in its brevity.