Tuesday, 27 March 2007

I Am Cuba (Soviet Union/Cuba, 1964, Mikheil Kalatozishvili)

“The most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen” (Columbus upon discovering Cuba)

Censored in the United States until 1992, ‘I Am Cuba’ is a joint Soviet-Cuban co-production, a love letter to the revolution, that features four vignettes of life under the Batista regime which made revolution necessary. The first considers the effect American money and tourism has on Cuba; the human element being Maria, a Catholic girl from a poor family who is prostituted to American businessmen. This sequence starts with one of the most dazzling pieces of camerawork ever seen in the history of cinema. It begins on a hotel rooftop, observing a beauty contest, and then snakes down all the way to the swimming pool, and actually continues underwater. It’s a very elaborate piece of work, reputedly achieved by the camera being moved by hand from crewmember to crewmember. Three arrogant married American businessmen with an attitude of “you can buy anything with money” pick up Cuban women for a good time, and draw lots for which woman they will sleep with. When Betty reluctantly leaves with the businessman who successfully drew for her, she returns to her village, a place of extreme poverty, which shows us the other side of Cuba, a world away from the high life enjoyed in the hotels and casinos. American investment in Cuba was reserved for a small class of people, and allowed American Mafiosi to set up in Cuba using legitimate enterprises such as hotels as a front for more illegal activities (Batista’s regime received bribes in exchange for their tacit approval), whilst the rest of the Cuban population remain in the direst surroundings whilst their country and its people were being systematically exploited. The morning after Betty awakes distraught and ashamed of what she has done.

The second episode considers the effects of American corporations undermining Cuban agriculture. A farmer’s monologue reveals fear of the future, for himself and his children, his debts, and the unprofitable nature of growing sugar. His farm has been sold to United Fruit, an American company. One of Castro’s aims had been to redress the grievances of the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who lived in miserable shacks and worked tirelessly on land that was not theirs. The entire rural population was exploited by the Cuban elite who used brutal methods to repress them. At the episode’s climax, the farmer collapses in his field and dies, exhausted and devastated by the position he finds himself in.

The third episode begins with a firebomb at a drive-in. One of the participants, Enrique then rescues a local girl from being harassed by a group of drunk and rowdy American sailors. Newspaper reports, which we take to be pro-Batista propaganda report of the death of Castro, though his supporters know this isn’t true. Enrique is part of a group of pro-revolutionary students, who is instructed to assassinate a police chief, though he is unable to go through with this mission when he sees the man with his children. When the police raid the students’ headquarters, they find revolutionary literature, which one student throws out of the window, dispensing it to the students below. He is shot as he does this, and falls out of the window. This causes the students to mobilise and rebel against the police. Holding a dove (to symbolise peace, thus placing the blame squarely on the police), he leads the students who follow and sing songs of freedom. Though he is shot by the police chief he failed to assassinate, Enrique becomes a martyr and rallying point, and is afforded an elaborate parade and funeral.

The final segment focuses on Castro himself, hiding out in the hills and chased by Batista’s soldiers. He is one of numerous guerrillas on the run from the authorities. He is given refuge by a farmer who does not sympathise with Castro, and certainly refuses to fight alongside him. Castro then reinforces to the farmer how the current regime has let ordinary Cubans down and how things might improve. Castro mentions that the land the farmer works on is not his, that there are no schools or healthcare, and that there is widespread poverty. After Castro leaves, the village is bombed. The farmer and his wife are separated, as are their children; one of which dies during an explosion. The farmer then agrees to join the rebels and prepares for armed combat. ‘I Am Cuba’ then concludes with the rebels presumably marching to victory whilst stirring music accompanies their advance.

Whilst it’s partial treatment of life under the Batista regime and it’s looking forward to life for all improving under Castro (let’s remember that it was made just a few years after the Castro regime was established), one’s ideological preferences might indicate the extent to which one might appreciate ‘I Am Cuba’, but regardless of ideology, there is plenty to consider from a technical viewpoint. Not only is there the elaborate single take shot from the hotel to the pool in the first segment, but the camera always moves intricately as it documents events, giving it a documentary feel. There is also the stunning monochrome cinematography, with the Cuban streets during the Enrique segment being filmed in brilliant white. Although some of the promises the film suggests that Castro will deliver on were wide of the mark, the corruption of the previous regime and the impact of US economic exploitation of the region was something that was justifiably redressed. Propaganda films are usually treated with caution by critics and viewers, and whilst ‘I Am Cuba’ falls into category, it does not diminish its impact upon watching it.

Wings of Desire (West Germany/France, 1987, Wim Wenders)

Set in Berlin just a couple of years before the fall of the Wall, Wenders’ classic paints a portrait of a divided city, still showing scars (physical and mental) from World War Two, and a populace disconnected from one another. Sympathetic angels watch over these people and making notes, whilst listening in on their thoughts and showing concern. The first appearance of Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is shown sitting atop the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, an iconic building on the Kurfurstendamm, still damaged by Allied bombing. Damiel’s sympathies are so strong that he yearns to feel what it would be like to be human, rather than just hovering above, observing. His desire increases upon seeing Marion, a French trapeze artist who is part of a travelling circus. She is lonely, sensitive, prone to self-doubt, and yearns to be loved. Interestingly, as part of her act she wears angels wings, which sets her up as something of a kindred spirit of Damiel’s, as if she was an angel on earth herself.

The other main character which the angels follow is a concentration camp survivor, who remembers pre-war Berlin, and the war itself, which acts as a counterpoint to the modern Berlin, which even by the late 1980s was still ravaged by the effects of war, even though it is evidently undergoing extensive development. The man is equally lost and disorientated as Marion, a reminder of Berlin’s past. He exists here and there within the film, as does the actor Peter Falk, playing himself who has a part in a film about World War Two. His appearances are for comic effect; passers by wonder whether it is indeed Colombo, but he also feels the presence of angels, on two occasions when Damiel observes him, at which he says “I can’t see you – but I know you’re there”. On the second occasion, when Falk is standing by Anhalter Bahnhof station, once the biggest railway station in Europe, but now disused after bombing, and then speaks to Damiel about the pleasures of being mortal; simple things, such as drawing or rubbing hands together in the cold.

When Damiel wakes as a human, he sets out to find Marion. En route, he meets Peter Falk, who intuitively knows that Damiel was an angel. Falk tells him he was once an angel who became mortal, and that he must learn to become human. The circus that Marion was part of has now left Berlin after the season finished for the year, but Damiel finds Marion at a Nick Cave concert. Whilst she is watching, she senses Damiels’ presence – he is in the bar, so she looks for him. She knows it is him that she has been looking for all this time, and it is perhaps at this point, when he falls in love, that he truly crosses over into the human world.

‘Wings of Desire’ is an existentialist fable crafted with great technical virtuosity. One of the opening scenes is set in a library, showing all the visitors going about their business, but with angels watching over them. The scale of this set piece is truly magnificent. Wenders alternates between using black and white and colour photography, depending on whose point of view we see. The angels perceive the world in black and white, whilst humans view the world in colour. The angels are unable to feel the richness and textures of life, the simple pleasures, and the use of colour demonstrates the differences between the two worlds (monochrome represents drabness, colour represents vibrancy). The use of iconic Berlin landmarks add extra resonance to the film; the Berlin Wall, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and the Berlin Victory Column are significant symbols of Berlin’s past. The presence of the Berlin Wall in particular represents division; the division between East and West Berlin, but also the division between people, the metaphorical wall which prevents us from connecting. Aspects of the film, as well as its quasi-sequel ‘Faraway So Close’ were paid homage to in the U2 song ‘Stay (Faraway So Close) with Bono taking the Bruno Ganz role, with Wenders directing the accompanying music video. Whilst Wenders’ critical stock has been steadily declining, and his output remains hit and miss since, there is so much to admire about ‘Wings of Desire’, and whilst it’s meandering nature and loose plots may infuriate as many as are in awe of it, I believe it’s an outstanding film about a city and a people with an unknown future.

Pitfall (Japan, 1962, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

The first in the fruitful partnership of four films between director Teshigahara and novelist Kobo Abe (which also their masterpiece ‘The Woman of the Dunes’, ‘The Face of Another’ and ‘The Ruined Map’), ‘Pitfall’ is a dreamlike and eerie mystery, typical of the novelist’s output, and directed with great imagination by Teshigahara. Whilst Abe has a reputation as an avant-garde writer, influenced by Kafka and Beckett, Teshigahara was able to translate these works into significant films without compromising Abe’s ideas and visions.

‘Pitfall’ focuses on a mine worker and his son who work at an exhausted mine, yet inform the owner that it will strike coal imminently. Knowing the futility of their work, they seek work elsewhere and notice a sign at a roadside asking for labourers. The town they visit however is a ghost town (literally, in fact). The only inhabitant is a slightly unhinged woman, who eats ants and assumes that the father is the mailman. It appears that the town’s inhabitants have been picked off, one by one, by a mysterious figure dressed in a white suit and sunglasses. The father is soon pursued by this figure, and murdered by the sea.

The dead return to life. Teshigahara uses a neat technical trick of showing the dead father ‘rising’ (whilst his body simultaneously lies on the ground, his spirit rises), who then, like the other inhabitants, asks whether he is dead, and then tries to seek the meaning of his death (and life). He tries to seek explanations of why the man in the white suit killed him. As he didn’t know the man and had only just arrived in the town, it is reasonable for him to consider it a fairly random and motiveless killing, though as we later discover, the victims are all tainted by a level of corruption, associated with union politics.

Many of the lost souls return to their routines and lives of drudgery, but they are able to see each other and interact. Interestingly, the lost souls remain as they were at the point of death, so the man who died when the mine caved in remains horrifically disfigured. Another lost soul recommends to the father that he tries not to seek the meaning of his death, which suggests that he might know more than he is letting on.

‘Pitfall’ then changes tack somewhat, emphasising the corruption element that appeared to be the downfall of the lost souls. Reporters investigating the case find a man (Otsuka) working in an adjoining mining town what is the exact double of the dead father, who was meant to go to the ‘New Pit’, which is located where the ghost town is. Abe’s novels have a recurring preoccupation with identity (the protagonist of ‘The Box Man’ sheds his identity to become a hermit living in a box, and ‘The Face of Another’ focuses on a disfigured man who wears a life-like mask which eliminates traces of his former identity), and confusion arises between the dead father and his double, who are mistaken for each other.

The woman who was the sole living inhabitant of the ghost town had been an unwitting witness to the father’s murder, and is threatened by the man in the white suit to keep her silence, though he insists she tell the police that the murderer was a man who fits the description he gives, which is of Toyama, the first union secretary. His arrest would break up the union, ‘as planned’. Toyama and Otsuka are on different sides of the dispute, but resolve to ask the woman why she has accused Toyama of murder. Before they can do so, she has been murdered by the man in the white suit, and like the others before her, her ghost wanders, asking questions about why she was killed, as she did as she was instructed. Since Otsuka arrives before Toyama, he assumes that Otsuka killed the woman in order to frame him. Thus ensues a struggle between the two. Otsuka kills Toyama, but dies soon after, whilst a banner with the single word ‘Unite’ can be seen, used no doubt as an ironic motif. The man in the white suit appears at this very moment – his work is done. He is followed by the lost souls, who try to seek answers from him, but there are no answers and no explanations. Abe typically avoids standard resolutions. We don’t know the exact intentions or motives of the man in the white suit. All we can assume is that his role was intensify the dispute between the two pits, but we never know why. But what of the mine worker? Was he killed because of mistaken identity? Did the man in the white suit mistake him for Otsuka, and thus was his death an unfortunate accident?

‘Pitfall’ is an incredibly successful meeting of minds between a gifted director and an enigmatic novelist, which would go on the better things with their next collaboration, ‘The Woman of the Dunes’, which is if anything even more imaginative and puzzling than ‘Pitfall’. ‘The Face of Another’, the other collaboration between the pair that I have seen reminded me of John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’, a personal favourite film of mine, with dashes perhaps of Alejando Amenabar’s ‘Abre Los Ojos’. All three films are existentialist allegories and fascinating riffs on themes of identity and futility, usually with ‘heroes’ unwittingly thrown into events by fate, and all are recommended.

Monday, 19 March 2007

La Strada (Italy, 1954, Federico Fellini)

‘La Strada’ was the first Fellini film to achieve international distribution and recognition, and won the first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, so it’s a perfect starting point for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in the works of the Italian master. It’s a simple and heartbreaking tale. Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) is a naïve and innocent, yet slightly slow witted girl from a poor family, who is ‘sold’ to Zampagno (Anthony Quinn), a strong-man who travels from town to town displaying his strength in exchange for food and a little money. Gelsomina is his assistant, yet he treats her quite cruelly; he whips her with a stick if she gets her lines wrong, and leaves her behind if he’s picked up a woman for the night. He takes advantage of the loyalty and fondness she has shown him, whilst offering nothing in return.

This relationship becomes under threat when Gelsomina meets The Fool (Richard Basehart), a tightrope artist who is kind and considerate, the complete opposite to how Zampagno treats her. Zampagno and Gelsomina join the circus troupe that The Fool belongs to, and the rivalry between the two men intensifies immediately. The Fool taunts Zampagno during his act, and tries to distract him, which incurs the wrath of Zampagno, who tries to attack The Fool after his performance. Although we have already developed notions of Zampagno as a headstrong brute and The Fool as a wise practical joker, I think there’s more to it than that. Zampagno is obviously jealous of the attention Gelsomina gives to The Fool, and I think The Fool knows this, and engineers trouble between the pair to encourage Gelsomina to favour him. After Zampagno’s attempts to attack The Fool with a knife (which gets all three of them thrown out of the circus), The Fool asks Gelsomina to run away with him, but she remains loyal to Zampagno. She waits for his release from prison, and tells Zampagno that before she would rather have died than stayed with him before, but now she would even marry him. Despite his dreadful treatment of her, she has a rather misguided affection for him. Whilst we are never sure at this point how he feels, she has a love for him that cannot easily be shaken.

A chance meeting between Zampagno and The Fool comprises La Strada’s shocking denouément, which ends in tragedy when Zampagno somewhat accidentally kills The Fool. Although Zampagno hides The Fool’s body, silencing Gelsomina is another prospect entirely. Witnessing this tragic act sends her into a state of madness – like a wounded animal she cries and whimpers in mourning. Unsure of whether he can trust her to keep her silence, Zampagno acts as he did previously – he leaves her, although this time it is permanent. Years later Zampagno hears a woman singing a tune that Gelsomina used to play on her trumpet. From her he discovers what became of Gelsomina, and that she is now dead. Grief-stricken and finally able to realise just what she meant to him, Zampagno retreats to a state of self-pity. In a final scene that almost mirrors the start, Zampagno walks down to the sea. He looks to the sky and then cries on the beach, a broken man. This is the first time we have seen him this vulnerable and open, and able to show signs of humanity and compassion. Yet it is too late.

Whilst La Strada might sound unremittingly grim from this description, let’s not forget that it’s as comic as it is sombre, and much of this rests in Giuletta Masina’s wonderful performance. A character of few words, she is almost a throwback to the days of silent film, expressing herself with looks and actions instead of dialogue. Reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin with her walks and hats, she is the emotional core the film, a self-sacrificing heroine who remains loyal to a careless and cruel man who only realises her loves her when it’s too late. Several themes that recur in Fellini films have their origins in La Strada; the figure suspended between earth and sky (The Fool on his tightrope) and the sea figure most prominently. It’s the first film of his that has been described as a masterpiece and is surely one of the most enduring.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Manderlay (Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany/UK, 2005, Lars von Trier)

The second part in von Trier’s trilogy of films about America, loosely titled ‘USA – Land of Opportunities’, ‘Manderlay’ is arguably less an exposé about racism and its history in the United States, but more a satiric attack upon white liberal guilt. Whatever von Trier’s intentions, and it’s unlikely that you’d get definitive answers from him regardless, this trilogy has already caused much controversy, which von Trier would probably enjoy no end. Both instalments to date have received largely poor reviews in the United States; critics focus on von Trier’s known dislike of America and his refusal to visit there, but I see these attacks as fairly churlish. By shooting films on mostly bare sets with houses and props drawn on, it’s clear that von Trier is hardly trying to aim for realistic cinema, thus there’s little possibility of the films being that politically dangerous. Many home-grown film makers use American morals and values as satiric targets, so maybe it is because von Trier is a foreigner, an outsider looking in, and seeing something rotten in the state of America. There’s always the possibility that von Trier considers American audiences and critics as more sensitive than others and just enjoys pissing people off. Who knows?

‘Manderlay’ follows on pretty much directly from ‘Dogville’. Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe) have left the town they unleashed a terrible vengeance upon, and are stopped by a black woman as they pass the town of Manderlay. Upon being told that a black man is being whipped, Grace then discovers that Manderlay still enforces slavery, under the command of Mam (Lauren Bacall) despite it being some seventy years since the abolition of slavery. Supported by her father’s henchmen, Grace then calls for a cease to slavery and the introduction of democracy and equality in the town, the very foundations on which the United States is built. Overseeing this formation of a new, free community, we are reminded of current events in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a ‘well meaning’ American government liberated its peoples with the use of force, despite there being no history of democratic or participatory democracy in these regions. Wilhelm, an elder slave does not believe that the slaves are ready to be free, and remains uncertain about Grace’s plans, which might well comprise of good intentions, but they naturally cause more problems than they sought to redress.

The former slaves begin to play cards rather then work, don’t tend to their homes, and the former white landowners perform the manual labour. There is also one unsavoury scene in which Grace orders the whites to serve the blacks dinner whilst in blackface, presumably so that they can sense what it feels like to be demeaned, though I think this was somewhat ill-advised on von Trier’s part. Despite being taught to make decisions by using majority ballots, the community uses this basic human right in order to agree upon the execution of one of the group – old Wilma, who stole the food left for Claire, an ill child who later died. Clearly Grace did not intend for these rights to be exploited in such a way, and remonstrates with the community, explaining that democracy should not be used to exact vengeance. Grace shoots Wilma to spare her more suffering.

All this time Grace has been in possession of ‘Mam’s Book’, a detailed manual of the psychology of slaves, which causes one of the film’s later shocks when it emerges that Wilhelm was it’s co-author with Mam. In despair at how poorly the community has taken to democratic self-government, she hands them this manual before she decides to leave the town. Each slave in the village is assigned a number which notes particular psychological aspects to their character. Grace’s lust for Timothy, one of the slaves, blinds her to the fact that he is ‘diabolically clever’, a master manipulator, who can make the beholder see him in whichever way they wish to. Timothy is in many ways the architect of the downfall of the community, as he instigates some of their worse habits; gambling and drinking, for instance. Wilhelm explains his complicity in the continuation of slavery in Manderlay in the same way in which he had reservations about Grace’s plans earlier – that he did not think slaves were ready for freedom. He considered slavery the lesser of two evils, and that it was for the good of everyone; for both the oppressed and the oppressors. Slaves had food, shelter, and they were able to complain about their oppression (and masters) for the fact they had no hope. Despite Grace’s myopic and naïve guidance, the community of Manderlay could not make much substantial from their liberation. In a remarkable twist of fate and irony, the blacks agree to vote to reimpose slavery and Mam’s law, and also vote for Grace to replace Mam as their master. Appalled at this suggestion and at how her plans for the community had failed so spectacularly, she flees Manderlay, though she misses her father who arrived at the designated time, but she was a few minutes later. As the film closes, we are completely uncertain about how she will fare in the third instalment, Wasington, which appears to be on the backburner currently.

Perhaps more provocative than ‘Dogville’ (indeed most of the slaves in the film are played by British actors, as African-American actors steered away from the film due to its content – Danny Glover excepted), it’s fair to say however than ‘Manderlay’ doesn’t quite have the same impact. Undoubtedly this is because it reuses many of the gimmicks and technical aspects that ‘Dogville’ used, and they seem less of a novelty second time around. Still, the themes explored are perhaps even more relevant than those of ‘Dogville’. Von Trier’s targets are white liberal guilt and the naivety of those wishing to impose democracy and freedom upon societies with no history of them, so whilst they are definitely American targets, its arguable there is no distinct bias along left/right lines – both sides of the spectrum are equally mocked. Where ‘Wasington’ takes the trilogy from here, who can tell, but currently von Trier is 2/3 of the way through completing an interesting, if sometimes flawed series of films that covers contemporary America in an unflattering light.