Category Archives: National Cinemas

National Cinemas: Black Sunday

If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.

But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
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National Cinemas: L’Avventura

Edited June 2016

With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.

Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
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National Cinemas: The Battle of Algiers

algiers2_bigUpdate 2018:

With Italian cinema, one tends to think of Antonioni as the extension of neo-realism’s elusive, analytical, slippery, and intangible qualities, its modernism and post-modernism, and Pontecorvo as expanding the style’s more incendiary, ground-level spontaneity, its immediate “realism”. But although The Battle of Algiers is a punchy, vicious shiv of a movie, it isn’t merely surface-bound. Or rather, it sometimes uses its surfaces as cryptically and mysteriously as Antonioni, not simply exposing a conflict to us with an incendiary call for action but teasing out the various intangibles and uncertainties in its ability to call for this action, to participate in this conflict, to even see it without mediation. As swift and instant as the film confronts us, it also confounds any so direct a reading by intimating the limits of its ability to “experience” the reality that its verite aesthetic purports to glimpse first-hand.

Which is to say, Pontecorvo’s work reveals mysteries of its own as well, and it exhibits a vision of existence as brutally existential as L’Avventura and as protective of its secrets as Blow-up. And although it’s certainly a white-hot cinematic firebrand, open-hearted and unafraid of its convictions, it also exposes more subterranean depths the more I see it. For instance, the distinctly modernist (even post-modern) composition of the infamous scene where the veiled women expose the bombs hidden within their outfits. The three veiled women are viewed through a mediating, veiling mirror in the film’s most famous shot, the mirror projecting a cinematic self-consciousness about the mediating cinematic process. It suggests that what we experience in cinema is a mirror of ourselves, not a reflection but a warped and thus incomplete refraction, or a reflection which hovers between a direct reality and a displaced representation of that reality. Or, as Homi Bhabha says in the intro to Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks on images more generally: the “image—as point of identification—marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split—it makes present something that is absent—and temporally deferred—it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. The image is only ever an appurtenance to authority and identity; it must never be read mimetically as the “appearance” of a “reality.”  (XXX). The women veil themselves, cinema veils them, and post-modern cinema thrives on its skillful manipulation of its own self-awareness about the way it veils reality.

Pontecorvo’s film plays with this gap, this veil between past and present, this sense in which we can witness a mediated past through film, where film is a ghost which touches the past but is not the past. Particularly set against the historical containment of black and African bodies within film scenes, their objectification and imprisonment within frames which tend to view them head-on as curated objects lacking any curiosity or internality or resistance to being viewed, the veiling gestures in Algiers – the characters registering an opacity of their own, not fully acquiescing to our desire to “understand” them – are provocative.  In other words, the film comments on its own veiled language, questioning its and our ability to truly know them via its and our gaze, to look at them head-on as the Westerner in Fanon’s frame might want. As gritty and “realistic” as the film appears on the surface, it also veils and unveils itself in various ways, debating truth and fiction in its faux-verite aesthetic rather than merely reminding us of a reality we didn’t know beforehand.

Original Review:

A stark, harrowing portrayal of the Algerian war, The Battle of Algiers is a message movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s brutal, unflinchingly human, and confrontational to the core. It depicts people engaging in horrible acts and forces us to try to make sense of it as best we can, for it knows it cannot. This film never lets up, using a gritty, clear eye-on-the-wall camera to depict the harsh day-to-day realities of colonial and revolutionary violence to force us to confront that which we’re afraid to.  Rather than emphasizing philosophy or discussion, it focuses on action and reaction, conveying how this environment, in its perpetual dehumanization, allowed no room for anything else. Colonialism, as depicted here, was a violent regime that dehumanized its victims and gave them no recourse for action excepting the very violence perpetuated onto them. And the film doesn’t suggest it – it burrows it into our soul. It emphasizes gritty, hard-earned hyper-realism and puts us in the trenches of an urban jungle marred by guerrilla warfare. It allows us no comfort.  Unlike many Italian masterworks of the 1960s, it is not rooted in impressionist professionalism, carefully modulated for impact and respectability; instead it unleashes itself upon the audience as a primal, implacable fact that doesn’t end when the frames cut it off. It cries out, refusing to be left unheard.
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National Cinemas: Suspiria

suspiria

Update late 2018: Watching Argento’s film again in light of the remake, I’m struck by how thoroughly anti-psychological Suspiria is, and how seriously it suggests a more mid-to-late-century continental, European perspective of wider social-structural reality rather than, say, American horror cinema’s (or earlier European cinema’s) frequent equation of maturity with internal, individual psychology. Which is to say, while many viewers legitimize horror through a frame of psychological modernism – the ability to peer beneath a layer of reality to expose the psychological warp and weave of experience in the mind of one figure who doesn’t see the world as we do, or as according to some ultimate and inescapable “truth” – Suspiria almost never imagines horror as something from within.

Unlike, say, Rosemary’s Baby, it only seldom plays on the often enlightening but sometimes rote, automatic, manufactured “ambiguity” which validates horror from without by reminding us how it might be horror from within, a perspective which thereby resolves the terror of the knowable world by ensconcing the film in the mind of one person who is implicitly figured as delusory, an unreliable perspective on what would be an objective reality outside their mind. This perspective, wonderful though it can be, is often timid when it comes to more fundamental interrogations of social reality; it allows a film to preserve a “real” truth that one character simply may not be able to see, couching itself in a kind of medicinal American individualism which sees reality as either objectively true at a macro level or completely manipulable at the level of individual mind; the world effuses from within, and conflict is ultimately a question about how to reconcile individual creativity and perspective with the structural violence of society, often figured as limiting to individual consciousness rather than constitutive to it.

Suspiria, frankly, seems to resist any such ideological safeguards; it seems to be ontologically and epistemologically decomposing regardless of who is on-screen or whose “perspective” we are being granted. It oblique maneuvers intimate not a glimpse into one character’s warped mind but a flickering vision of a more fundamentally unstable reality, a world where occult speculations dance with modern materialism and problematize any resources – including the “it’s all in her head” frame I allude to above – we might dress the film up in so as to contain it. Argento, in this sense, is a more singular creature, and Suspiria a truly untamed beast in the annals of modern horror cinema.

Original Review:

Edited March 2016

It only seemed appropriate to open the post-Halloween month with a review of one of my absolute favorite horror films.

When I initially chose the four films to cover for my exploration of Italian cinema (as I choose to call my attempt to really just put up more reviews in the early stages of my writing loosely wrapped around some semblance of a theme), I concentrated primarily on the esteemed classics. And indeed, the Italian neo-realist movement in the late ’40s and the new wave in the late ’50s and ’60s (populated by the likes of Fellini and Antonioni) are two of the most densely-packed periods of filmic invention ever.  But then I realized something … the cinema of a nation isn’t defined by its most traditional paragons of greatness, but by all the films it produced, including its genre films. And few nations have produced more genre films than Italy, especially during the ’60s (Spaghetti Westerns) and the ’70s (giallo horror). Having already published a review of my absolute favorite Italian Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, I decided to return to my bread-and-butter, horror, to kick-start the month with some blood-red pizzaz. And if I was going to do Italian, it needed to be giallo. No, it needed to be THE giallo, a B-picture that not only defies conceptions of artistic veracity but recreates them to its own liking. Ladies and gentlemen,  Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
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National Cinemas: My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi).  It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.

My Neighbor Totoro

Jake and DefneMy Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Gojira (1954)

Update late 2018:

With all the claims about the 2014 American update inaugurating the “post-human” blockbuster, I was reminded on a re-watch of the original how salient Ishiro Honda’s crisis-ridden cinematic creature is. Charged with atomic energy, Honda conjures not only a hundred-foot paleolithic behemoth but a reckoning with a past come to haunt us, a vision of pre-modernity wreaking havoc with our pretensions toward teleological progress into the future.  In its vastly more noirish, pugnacious way, Gojira plays like the B-side to the prior year’s Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s take on the crisis of modernity and the dialectics of the private-public divide. Although punchier and not as meditative, Gojira, perhaps no less than Ozu’s film itself, is fully aware of its own paradoxes, and, especially in its final anti-cathartic gesture – science immolating itself to correct its own mistakes – fully aware of the paradoxes which construct modernity itself.

Original review:

Watching the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira (or Godzilla, its American title) brings haunting, caustic visual poetry to the collective suffering of a post-war nation still reeling from World War II and the H-Bomb Drop. The film is an exposed wound, a lesion on a collective consciousness. It has the big man, of course, in the titular character, but it has much more: humans fending for their lives, running around in total chaos not only from an attack but the impression of an attack leftover from a previous life. Godzilla bestows its titular figure with a looming presence – he towers over the film even when he’s not on screen that often, going beyond the physical object and into the doom lying down on the hearts and souls of Japan. He is an idea more than a physical presence. The film is draped in a malaise of human inactivity on the eve of assured destruction, and a realization, after all, that there is little to be done against a force so impenetrably inhuman. And yet so penetratingly human he is.  Continue reading

National Cinemas: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa came to Seven Samurai at a flux, but the ripples of his magnificent cultural clash are still felt today. Birthed on a long line of films seeking a sort of safety in cultural traditionalism, he’d by 1950 established a certain formal rigidity in his films to befit this traditionalism that he extended into the stratosphere and elevated to high art. But Seven Samurai was him flexing his muscles, and his attitude toward the world, in a bid to implicitly challenge the culture he’d grown with, even as he naturally upheld that culture all the same. In its own way, Seven Samurai saw him growing, bending, and testing the limits of the Japanese samurai film. It also saw him feeling the ensuing pain and cognitive dissonance of his actions, not unlike Western films like The Searchers and High Noon for American cinema around this time. But while those films saw America grappling with its fundamental lie, that of individual freedom and fluid class boundaries, Seven Samurai saw Kurosawa tackle the mid-century Japanese focus on static class boundaries by adding a dose of new-found fluidity and freedom to his formally composed camerawork, and to his strong, silent characters. Like those films, Seven Samurai is caught in its own dissonance, radicalizing even as it remains resolutely traditional to the point of fable– but here it’s a fable of a nation coming to terms with itself.

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National Cinemas: 13 Assassins

Edited because sometimes I can be a lame white critic who doesn’t know as much about Japanese culture as I should. 

With 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike, long-renowned for his excessively violent explorations into grisly, highly presentational Jackson Pollock blood splattering by way of horror, approximates growing up. But he isn’t above a little gleeful violence while he’s at it. To this extent, he absolutely has his cake and devours it too, combining two filmmaking styles into one, sometimes uneasily, but knowingly so: the stately, moody, quiet feeling of mid-century Japanese samurai-Shakespeare and the modern stylistic kitsch of kinetic energy-above-logic action pictures. That we will not expect the two together, Miike bets his top dollar. In fact, he intentionally distances the two styles, all-but formally announcing the film as a work of two parts, one subdued and one that hits with the force of a tornado. It’s an exercise in formal style and genre more than it is a narrative, but when a film is this well made sometimes a pesky narrative getting in the way is just one more obstacle to be avoided. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas

A note: Technically, Wings of Desire is the only one of these two films in the German language and the only which takes place in Germany, but both are thematically very similar and so interconnected it seemed inappropriate to reflect on one without the other. Plus,  Paris, Texas is a West German/ English co-production. So, despite taking place in the US (and, pointedly, in the most god-damn US state of all, Texas) and being filmed completely in English, it still technically qualifies. Allow me my questionable logic. Things will go easier from here if you do. 
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National Cinemas: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

This being the first review for the month of September during the “National Cinemas” project, and thus the first review in a month-long exploration of German cinema. It seemed only appropriate to go with the best film by Germany’s greatest living filmmaker.  

Edited early 2016

When someone coined the term “Location, location, location”, I don’t think they had Herzog’s films in mind. Yet it’s an apt description for his filmmaking sensibility.  As depicted by Herzog, location is a mindscape of pure emotional resonance. He spoke vividly, and still does, about the “ecstatic truth” of the movies, the idea that reality or logic matter not when a film speaks to the rawest emotions of human-kind. And in the Amazon, a place of wonder and desperation where civilization ends and the essences of humanity and the world play out with little mercy, Herzog found his ultimate test-case. Fascinated by it, he decided to do what any great madman would: make a film about it. Continue reading