Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014: Part One (Shorts)

This is the same idea as “Favorite Older Films First Viewed in” which I did since 2011. The idea was one I first saw on Rupert Pupkin Speaks. I have usually done the list in parts. This time I will find ways to group the films. I noticed I had four short films that are available to view online so I figured I’d start with them.

Les Oeufs de Pâques (1907)

I only recently discovered the works of Segundo de Chomon. He seems a worthy Spanish counterpart to Georges Méliès. This is a presentational, magic style of silent film implementing many invisible cuts, but it is very enjoyable.

His Wooden Wedding (1925)

Many thanks to Fritzi over at Movies, Silently for suggesting this film when I wanted a wedding-themed silent. I was unfamiliar with Charley Case before viewing this film, and look forward to seeing more. It’s quite funny. Enjoy!

Mickey’s Race (1933)

This is a selection that is fitting not only in light of Mickey Rooney‘s recent passing, but it also plays into my Poverty Row April theme.

This is purportedly the last of the series of Mickey McGuire shorts (back when Rooney was credited as such) that he starred in while not signed with a major studio. The story is simple escapist fare and fairly humorous. It’s more noteworthy because I had not yet seen one of these shorts. Enjoy!

Please follow the link to view the film:

https://archive.org/embed/MickeysRace1933ShortFilm

The Fly (1981)

I when watching this film preferred to take a textual approach rather than a subtextual one. Regardless, it’s one of the most impressive pieces of first-“person” perspectives I’ve seen. For more of a read and more of a background on this film check the post on The Dissolve that drew this piece to my attention.

Thankful for World Cinema – The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

After seeing The Notebook, I went and reread my post on The Witman Boys in part because it was the other Janos Szas I had seen to date. I started on that task merely to remind myself of it a bit more (as writing can help fill in the blanks that memory decides to leave). However, what I found as I looked it over was a film more similar to The Notebook than I’d remembered.

The parallels do go beyond merely a shot of two brothers with their face in close proximity to one another. And this is also not to be implied as a slight on either film; quite the contrary, it makes for a very fascinating look at the auterism behind both and also the refinement and the increased power that the newer film has.

The films both have inciting incidents wherein the boys are changed by something beyond their control. In The Witman Boys its the loss of their father. In The Notebook the second World War is raging on and the boys’ parents worry for them and want them protected. The Witman Boys has similar brothers each with a designated name whereas The Notebook is about twins whom are never referred to by name and are credited as “One” and “The Other.” This is an important fact because the idea is to make the twins inextricable from one another and also to make them symbolic.

For as One and The Other move away from a metropolitan area (presumably Budapest) to the Hungarian countryside, they come closer to the horrors of the war and have to learn to cope with life during wartime in their own unique way.

This is where the tonality of the film comes into play. Children coping with the ravages of war is not a new topic. It’s how the topic is dealt with that dictates the tonality of the film, and in certain regards the success of it. Much liked Szas’ prior film this is not going to be an uplifting tale.

Prior to the boys being taken to live with their estranged grandmother their father gives them a notebook to write down “everything” in. Twins have a tendency to stick close together regardless, but when placed in such isolation the tendency to stick by one another, at least to start, is redoubled; and gives them even more incentive to live a microcosmic existence wherein they seek to define morality, strength and learn how they can best cope in the tumult about them with no outside assistance.

That then lays the groundwork for the film which is told through entries the notebook. Voice-over allows episodes of the story to be tied together . While the wondrous visuals created by Christian Berger, this time exploiting color in a parable. The images are usually gorgeous regardless, but stark when they have to be and edited together precisely to render the progression (or degeneration if you prefer) of the boys from wide-eyed innocents to hardened survivors, who frighteningly at times still have a childlike understanding of things, and at others have a cold and calculated, all-too adult outlook.

Not that those things ever seem wrong for they work in a proper progressive order and lead to a gutting finale whose impact is hammered home when you fully realize how and why things occur the way they do.

One of the fascinating things about this film is not only does it find a way, for the most part, to remove the narrative from the frontline but it still keeps the war close by. It tells a dark, haunting tale in one of the 20th Centuries worst moments that goes above and beyond simplistic moralizing about a specific conflict but makes a more sweeping point. A point uttered through visuals and actions and not directly through dialogue, such that you’re still engaged in watching a story, a disturbing one, but a story nonetheless.

Tying this back into the auteurist aspect, so as not to leave it abandoned as an introductory ploy: many directors have told tales that parallel one another. Hitchcock himself said that “self-plagiarism is style.” With regards to World War II, Steven Spielberg has been there quite a few times in very different ways (1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). It’s not the fact that a director returns to a common ground that matters, but rather what he does when he gets there. What Janos Szas does here is amplify and refine the sensibilities employed in The Witman Boys to this adaptation, sharpening the impact of the story and making it one that can resonate universally. Whereas the prior film was one that could bring one to Hungarian cinema, here he pushes Hungarian cinema out to the world.

9/10

Bela Tarr Retrospective: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Introduction

As has become customary for winners of the Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award at the BAM Awards, I have begun a Bela Tarr retrospective. The introduction and initial short film post can be found here and here.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

So it’s been a little longer than I wanted it to be before I returned to this series and gave my first closer look at a title but here it is.

With Werckmeister Harmonies not only do you have Tarr fully embracing his new aesthetic but you also have him creating the trajectory of his remaining films. What can be found here is the opening salvo in the ongoing dialogue of his cinema. Some of the themes both visual and otherwise start here and you can feel them echoed in later works.

For example, the film begins with a shot of a piece of wood being added to the fire on an oven. Now, as it turns out here this is just the opening frame of a lengthy tracking shot, but the motif of wood-burning ovens, flames through the grate and things of the like reappear, most notably in the Turin Horse.

The opening shot is an intricate and quite a famous one. It is perhaps the most we will hear out of our protagonist. However, interestingly this protagonist is one whom for the most part is just a vessel with through which we can be shown the story, such that it is.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

There are two significant and long speeches in the film and much like the only dialogue of consequence in The Turin Horse, the temptation to disregard it rather than trying to ferret out some semblance of meaning is compelling but erroneous. The first such extended piece of dialogue is right there in this opening tracking shot wherein Janos describes to bar full of inebriates the workings of the solar system. I read of a God Complex in one essay but the way Janos walks around observing the whale, being transfixed by it and assigning it no special significance, save for the wondrous work of God that it is, doesn’t quite mesh. I think the intent is likely to define Janos here for we will see little else throughout that does. He listens and does what he is told most of the time. Whether or not he does that to a fault is debatable, but what this is establishing is that he thinks on a simple matter and sees the wonder of it, much like a child would, and seeks to share his wonder. The barkeep lets him go on only so long before kicking him and everyone else out.

The second dialogue passage of significance is when the title the Werckmeister Harmonies is disseminated. It is a rant on musical theory on how the tuning of instruments and the regimentation of notes and octaves created something far more mechanical and less artful and organic than existed prior. On the surface it has nothing to do with anything else, save for the fact that it is this old man’s, Gyuri Eszter’s, obsession. However, it’s not the explanation that matters, but how he feels about it. He likens it to man tinkering with the work of God and here, yet again, we have a theological reference. Now, God here is being invoked in a more existential and cosmic way, rather than in a dogmatic way. It’s seemingly invoked as a larger ideal rather than a denominational claim, much like the the whale and the so-called prince, a dwarfish shadow-figure whose face is not shown threatens the natural order in the minds of many in the town, are.

As in much of Tarr’s work when he stayed shooting in black-and-white, moved the camera more and created a course the film is about decay. It’s about how we as human beings are always teetering on the edge of devolution and anarchy.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

The sound of church bells in this film, much like in Satantango are ascribed and ominous connotation; similarly to that film a broken clock in a church starts working anew rather mysteriously. Much in the way many of the people, except Janos, interpret the whale in their own way. The allegory of the whale is perhaps the most powerful in Tarr’s filmography because for as large and imposing as it is, as much of a spectacle as it is, it can’t do anything. It does not do anything and neither does the feared Prince who evokes passion and creates followers. However, the people believe they can and do and that’s what causes them to react the way they do. The people want no change, in spite of its constancy, and when something threatens that they lash out.

The order the enraged mob seeks to be restoring is an illusion. It’s as much an illusion as film is, which could be why Tarr in this instance brought in two German actors, the wide-eyed, childlike Lars Rudolph as Janos and the formerly omnipresent Fassbinder vamp Hannah Schygulla; and had them speak their lines in German and then had them dubbed, and not necessarily in a way that syncs perfectly, because something it always off.

Uncle Gyuri Eszter, in his diatribe about the Werckemeister harmonies, states that what the struggle is as follows “the octave versus the note; the natural tune versus the manmade construct; the heavenly versus mundane; human hubris versus divine gifts.” And that’s much of what the struggle in this film is.

There are still mysteries to be unraveled. Many can assume, since we did not see him through much of the assault on the hospital, that Janos was not there. However, that long and significant tracking shot ends on him looking terrified after the violence stops upon the site of the frail old man who no one wants to harm. So one can wonder did he just witness it all, unable to stop it; or was he a party to it. Similarly is the account he reads in the church one he found or one he wrote himself. The film leaves them purposely vague. However, I think it correlates more with both his passivity and his folly that he was merely a witness. What is left unsaid the end that he was inactive in the assault and not the author of what he read.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

When all is said and done he’s the perfect scapegoat. The society back to its so-called sense and must now restore order and the most logical scapegoat is Janos. They, meaning all the citizens, recognize neither God nor Man, so he must leave. The end of the film is uncle Gyuri Eszter going to see the whale. It is left out in the square on display where the madness began passive and immobile as it always has been.

It’s a film that’s really not about what happens, but why it happens and that answer is not nearly so nebulous people have willed it to be. They’ve assigned meanings based on their fears and ignorance and punished the guilty. In almost an eschewing of genre toward the end there is a helicopter, maybe verifying early rumors of military involvement, hovering in the sky behind Janos. It circles him quite bit, but it’s not going to try and barrel him over like the cropduster in North by Nothwest. It’ll just watch him and let him know that he’s targeted. He’s the odd man out because he embraced the whale and got the finger pointed at him and now he must go down the train tracks and out of town.

All that remains is delusion and lies, he’s told once and that’s the way it stays. It’s merely an illustration of that statement is what the film is. The people fear, they know nothing. They do not move on. The Prince is gone, the circus is burnt, the whale lies alone; an abandoned blasphemy and things go on unchanged.

Bela Tarr Retrospective: Introduction

In my recent Short Film Saturday post I talked of a perfect introduction to Bela Tarr. As I will discuss in these and other pieces that form the retrospective on his works, in light of my bestowing upon him the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award, such assimilation can prove to be rather difficult. My baptism in his works was one by fire. Therefore, it’s always hard to try and think outside of your frame of reference to try and ease someone else in.

I at first toyed with the notion of going through his works, which are not as numerous as last year’s winner (Spielberg), chronologically. However, if I were to start at the very beginning, and I likely will head there at some point, we would discuss films that pre-date the metamorphosis of his aesthetic.

Bela Tarr is fascinating for myriad reasons, but one of the most apparent is that rarely has a filmography featured so strong a departure in style. Tarr’s early works in the 1970s were in the zeitgeist, which was stark documentarianism. Cinéma vérité was the vogue amidst a wave of talented Hungarian filmmakers. Starting in 1982 he became increasingly more stylized.

Satantango (1994, Facets)

Tarr was my doorway into the world of Hungarian cinema. It’s a culture I do like to explore periodically and have learned more about since being introduced to it through his eyes. What the chronological approach would seemingly negate is the veritable reason he won this award. It’s not that his earlier works aren’t good, there is in the scripting his essence. In fact, a title like Family Nest translated his insistence that all his films are comedy better than any others. However, his early films featured his voice speaking a seemingly foreign tongue. His real cinematic voice was not truly heard, did not differentiate itself, or make itself unique until his style broke off from its initial sensibility.

Some have referred to his hour-and-change rendition of MacBeth for Hungarian television, that was shot in two takes, and Almanac of the Fall as more transitional titles than ones that show the true power of his later style. However, if one watches The Prefab People and then MacBeth back-to-back it’s fairly staggering. You may not even realize it’s the same director. Whereas if you sample the Prologue from Visions of Europe you very soon know Tarr and if you see a famous tracking shot from Satantango, The Turin Horse or Werckmeister Harmonies you know it’s the same person.

So next week when I do return and write about a specific film, I will begin after the break and then if I feel so compelled I will backtrack to the beginning and deal with his earlier works before he revolutionized his own style.

The Turin Horse (2011, Cinema Guild))

While in each post I will focus on the specific film at hand when you have a writer/director who insists on challenging an audience, on letting us “use our eyes,” a man who also is disinterested in stories in the traditional sense, you will have running themes. Throughout his career, especially after he broke the mold, his films were creating thematic dialogues. The culmination of which was his masterful dissertation in The Turin Horse. When you have running themes there will be parallels between films to be drawn. I will try to keep those to a minimum and focus on the title at hand.

While Tarr got me into chasing down Hungarian cinema, I knew pretty quickly he had a unique voice. However, I soon also found out that his voice could have only been developed in the Hungary’s film culture, on the arthouse end of the spectrum, of course.

Like any filmmaker, Tarr’s work as auteurist as it is, is a collaboration. As he worked towards his reportedly last film the pieces started to come into place to solidify his style. The editing of Agnes Hranitzky since The Outsider in 1981; Fred Kelemen as DP for some of his later projects starting with Journey on the Plain; novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai had writing or co-writing credit on all of Tarr’s features starting with Damnation in 1988; composer Mihaly Vig has been on board since Almanac of the Fall in 1984. Together these people shared a commonality that helped to accentuate Tarr’s vision and bring it to the world such that it could not only be admired, but challenge the way it was intended to.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

In the end, I got in my first revisit just in time to start this series on time. However, so as not to under-serve the challenge I’ve set for myself I decided on a true introduction piece to be followed by film-specific pieces. Tarr’s cinema is not one that is suited for “hit-me entertainment,” it insists you prod back and in deference to that fact, and out of respect, I will ruminate on Werckmeister Harmonies‘ mesmerizing and brilliant brutality a bit more.

To get a bit more of a glimpse into this creative mind, to see where he’s coming from. Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote called Why I Make Films, which he wrote during preproduction of Damnation:

Because I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. Because today there are only states of being – all stories have become obsolete and clichéd, and have resolved themselves. All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that is still genuine – time itself: the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. And film time has also ceased to exist, since the film itself has ceased to exist. Luckily there is no authentic form or current fashion. Some kind of massive introversion, a searching of our own souls can help ease the situation.

Or kill us.

We could die of not being able to make films, or we could die from making films.

But there’s no escape.

Because films are our only means of authenticating our lives. Eventually nothing remains of us except our films – strips of celluloid on which our shadows wander in search of truth and humanity until the end of time.
I really don’t know why I make films.

Perhaps to survive, because I’d still like to live, at least just a little longer…

March to Disney: The Rescuers in More Ways Than One

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

One of my more recent revisits in the Disney library were the two Rescuers films. There are a few interesting things to note about this series, especially when one considers the seemingly unusual fact (due to how overlooked the films seem to be) that this was the first Disney animated property to spawn a sequel, and a theatrically released one nonetheless.

Now, the soft spot I have for these titles it does turn out is for more reasons than just the fact that in some territories these films are referred to as Bernardo and Bianca.

The first thing that both these titles share in common is that they truly embrace the “It’s a Small World” ethos that Disney incorporated in its parks, but didn’t truly exemplify in its films until later on. The Rescuers Down Under is the first non-package film that takes place outside a fictitious kingdom that’s vaguely European or in Europe itself. As much as I love Saludos Amigos and the Three Caballeros, there’s a very “Hey, let’s all go to South America” feel to it, rather than just naturally incorporating the location into the tale. Also, Bianca, voiced by Eva Gabor, in the first film serves in a mouse version of the United Nations and does represent Hungary.

The first film’s adventure, saving a girl named Penny from jewel thieves, is US-based, but is a trip down to the bayou that’s wonderfully exploited by Disney’s artists who in the 70s were vastly underrated. Many people find the movies that came out of this decade a bit subpar, but to me there was a flair and artistry, a painterly finesse to the backgrounds and a still-present fluidity that leant itself wonderfully to the stories they were putting out.

The sequel, as the title would indicate, takes the narrative to Australia. While the films succeed in complementing one another, they do have shortcomings individually. Taking the best from both would make one truly masterful work. In the sequel, there’s a more developed victim in need of rescuing whose story needs a cap. The villain is more motivated in the second film and less cartoonish.

Whereas the first film’s title is very apropos it really is about The Rescuers above all other characters, here in the second film its more split.

What The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under both did aesthetically was set the table for the decade to come. More so than any sequel footnote, each film seemed to encapsulate the aesthetic and sensibility of the decade prior and push towards the future. The Rescuers in certain scenes is the apex of the ’70s style, but pushing the boundary toward the more polished, less sketchbook ’80s feel and then The Rescuers Down Under with its aerial animation and action sequences was a precursor of the more dynamic swooping crane-simualtions and action shots in things like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The Rescuers, it would seem, was a fitting title in more ways than one.

The Problems of Limiting Foreign Film Submissions (Part 1 of 2)

In my previous post, I wrote about how I would propose to alter the Foreign Language Film submission process. I am working backwards as now, in this post, I will address, with a little more support to back up my own hypotheses the issues that would be addressed if you were to allow select countries multiple submissions.

Essentially, the goal is as follows:

If you are a nation like France or Italy with a long and rich cinematic tradition, the selection process can prove volatile and complex. France, for example, submitted Of Gods and Men a few years ago. Its being snubbed, while an Algerian film with a similar subject, Outside the Law, making the shortlist caused quite a furor. Now, this is not to say that France being given more submissions would’ve gotten it to the shortlist, but being limited to one film invariably creates questions and doubts. Both nations made films about the colonial era, one was chosen and one wasn’t. Aside from the complaints about which nation a production really pertains to, it’s messy. Just search debates about selections and you will find trades reporting on them annually.

Now, I will grant that a multiple submission policy is altruism, and being realistic these things would likely still have happened but if France were afforded a handful of submissions, these incidents would likely have been lessened.

Erika Bók in The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild)

Taking any political extremism out of the equation, multiple nominees for some countries would also make some nations more inclined to take a chance. When Hungary submitted The Turin Horse last year, it was speculated in trades to have a slim chance due to the composition of the viewership and the nature of the film, and sure enough it wasn’t shortlisted. Not that Hungary has been especially prolific lately, and their last nomination was in 1988, but it’s a good example of a country that could’ve used an extra spot to pick what it thought was the best artistic choice and then gamble on a popular pick and/or one likely to find favor with American viewers.

Greece’s selection of Dogtooth a few years ago was seen as some as being silly, almost frivolous. Just it being described as gutsy made me want to see it. They were lucky in actually earning a nomination. I enjoyed it, but was equally surprised by its selection once I saw it.

With just one film allotted per country, as fair as that may seem, too many ulterior factors come into play besides is this really the best film, and some of the factors I suspected were echoed by others I asked. Other factors I hadn’t considered, that can be found mirrored in American films jockeying for Oscar nominations, also came to the fore.

The questions I typically asked were as follows:

At times, does the reputation, or lack thereof, of a director influence the selection?

At times, does politics, whether real or film, play a part?

At times, do films more likely to impress Oscar voters get selected over more artistic films?

Did you see (Title of film submitted by your country)?

If you saw it, did you like it?

Why do you think (Name of country) selected (Title of Film) Deserved it? Oscar-Friendliness? Both? Neither?

Here are some of the findings from Brazilians I asked, more nations will follow in the next part.

Brazil

With regards to Brazil, this is the nation where I will have the widest range of opinions. Aside from being a dual citizen, a majority of my family lives in Brazil so I was able to receive the highest number of responses here also.

When The Hollywood Reporter wrote-up the announcement they correctly cited O Palhaço (The Clown) as a domestic box-office success. Over 1.4 million tickets sold. That’s accurate, as ticket sales are the measure (especially for domestic films) and in Brazil that’s a fairly high total. I take no issue at face value with sending the domestic box office champion as your nominee. There are stories like wins for domestic films in Spain and Norway that are most definitely positives. Hollywood proliferates globally and for indigenous cinemas to be successful at home is very important.

The complications of selecting the box-office champion of the year arise when you have mixed reactions to the film in general. First, I will recuse myself from weighing in on the film itself (O Palhaço) as I have yet to see it. However, I admit I was a bit surprised by this choice as I had yet to hear of it. I saw one Brazilian title this year, which I thought was great, and heard of another one. Both made a decent splash either on the festival circuit or in the international market. With regards to the plot when I read of it, it seemed like a less actually political selection, but did entertainment politics factor? What besides the box office could’ve influenced this selection?

So what did my family and friends say in response to my inquiries regarding O Palhaço? They start off about as negative as a film receiving such an honor can get: “My husband saw it and thought it was horrible! According to him the movie must’ve been picked for a lack of options!” The lack of options isn’t something that’s necessarily supportable by empirical evidence. In 2012 two films either solely produced or co-produced by Brazil appeared in Berlin, 5 films either solely produced or co-produced appeared in the Cannes programs and 2 either solely or co-produced appeared at Sundance, so there were other Brazilian films with festival pedigree. Not to mention the fact, that having eligible films doesn’t always lead to a submission, as was evidenced by Luxembourg passing.

As I got more and more comments, the initial reaction that people were “Sharply divided” proved true. However, in Brazil’s case one of my suppositions seems to have played out, and that’s the reputation of the director. With O Palhaço the director is lead actor Selton Melo. It’s a passion project, those with negative views of the film argue it’s a “commercial for him.” So box office appeal and the fact that a respected actor took on a project does buoy the Oscar hopes of this film, and even those who like Melo fell on the side of those less than enthused by the film, and some even underwhelmed by this particular turn. However, Melo’s status only seems to be growing in Brazil, as he is also taking on a Brazilian-produced HBO series.

The clout, or lack thereof, of some distributors within Brazil was also reported to me as a factor that could keep more deserving films from being considered. This seems not too foreign when anyone who pays attention to Oscar races here knows how much money is involved in campaigning, and how certain directors, producers, and studio heads become favorites. It was also indicated to me that candidacy for the Brazilian submission may not be a cheap thing to make yourself eligible for, which wouldn’t surprise me either, but that is an issue that filters down to the national level and is beyond the purview of the Academy or any foreign body. However, the fact remains that many would attribute most submissions as being decisions that disregard aesthetics and if the film also happens to be good it’s a bonus, but it’s a powerplay. One response pronounced all that quite explicitly and even concluded in English stating “It’s all about business!”

Perhaps the most intriguing response I got was the one that indicated it’d be impossible to remove politics entirely since you’re asking countries to submit films, and I will grant that. It’s practically impossible to expunge when other productions and/or world events will cause protests. The nation submitting likely consciously or unconsciously affects voters, even if its just that a certain viewer has more of an affinity with one national cinema or another. What the ultimate goal of this plan, that I admit will likely never, ever occur, is to encourage more risk from national film governing bodies. Perhaps that encouragement would lead to more aesthetically forward choices that will get rewarded by the votership, or better yet bring the film to new audiences.

Now, according to my idealistic designs, Brazil as a prior multiple-nominee would receive three submissions. If that were the case, perhaps they’d be so inspired to take a chance on one of the remaining selections on something a little more free of influence. To paraphrase John Lennon, I may be dreaming but I know I’m not alone in hoping something like that would occur.

Thankful for World Cinema: The Witman Boys

The Witman Boys is an example of subtlety and nuance building slowly to a crescendo through the entirety of a film. It is a film which doesn’t need sensationalism to convey delinquency or to make it seem palpable, and, in fact, possible. The film begins almost immediately with the boys losing their father. This is an inciting incident if I ever saw one. From thereon out the boys start to question everything and their mother becomes even more distant than it seems she was before.

Erno starts to question his older brother, Janos, about death and their bond becomes solidified. Erno shows a need to follow regardless of where Janos leads him. Incidents build themselves up slowl, and things connect to one another in this film as you watch it. Immediately following their father’s death the boys don’t eat, then they leave the dinner table, and soon they are not home at all. They cruelly interact with animals – first they hear of dissection, witness it, and then perform the act. And so on. Everything is in stages most things following the rule of three at least.

What is most effective about the film is that what is most disturbing is usually never seen, but merely implied. An action is begun but not completed, or done off-screen. This is a film, and a rare one, which realizes that the audience participates and can use its imagination to fill in the blanks. Director Janos Szasz saves his visuals for things that are absolutely necessary and that will shock the audience.

The boys, Szabolcs Gergerly and Alpár Fogarasi, are both quite good but what makes the movie work is a compelling and strong actress as the distant mother, which this film has in Maia Morgenstern. Best known for playing Mary in The Passion of the Christ, she is fantastic in this role and really elevates the films level.

Visually the film is compelling from the beginning. Its simple establishing shots, both day and night of the outside of their house, are enhanced by haze and fog. When they are in the cemetery talking to the owl the scenes are quasi-expressionistic in the wide shots and the scenes in the attic are always luminescent and rich.

The only area where the film really suffers is after Janos meets Irén his obsession with her and his recruitment of Erno to join in the obsession dominated the entire film, to its detriment. The obsession is natural but the pace becomes slowed and things get a little bogged down. The climax seems a little delayed.

Still, overall, it is a very good film that you should see should you have a chance. It is a decent primer for Hungarian cinema – a pretty accessible title that still gives some insight on the culture, philosophy and filmmaking aesthetic of the nation.

8/10

A Reading and Review of The Turin Horse

Erika Bók in The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild)

NOTE: A film like this warrants discussion beyond a typical review. While some relevant plot details are discussed they are not what I’d deem spoilers.

Béla Tarr. Perhaps one of the most daunting things to contend with when writing about him or his films is trying to encapsulate him and/or his work for the uninitiated. For to write this review solely as the fan and devotee that I am would not do for all who may come across this article. The read of the film that rang true to me became apparent very quickly. However, the prior question nagged me. So how do I go about it? Carefully and with explication but not what I’d classify as a spoiler. Recently, upon viewing Fata Morgana I tweeted that I was glad it wasn’t my introduction to Herzog and that it likely should’ve been the last film of his I saw. With Tarr there really only is baptism by fire I feel and I’ll attempt, aside from reacting, to give a bit of a primer for his work. My baptism by fire occurred by acquiring and watching his seven-hour epic Satantango while in college and I’ve been hooked ever since.

This is as good a place as any to discuss the pace and a few other trademarks of Tarr’s work. Tarr has shot only black and white for the past 30 years. He moves the camera beautifully and intricately at times while using very long takes. I counted shots in this film and came up with a similar number to reports I read: 30. The running time is approximately 146 minutes meaning the average length of a take of about five minutes when Hollywood has us conditioned to expect cuts every five seconds, depending on genre. All the cuts are good, some are wonderful and the pace works for the tale but is worth noting for those who are unfamiliar with his work. Gird your attention span!

With regards to this film, as I started to watch it what struck me is that it seemed like his own version of Jeanne Dielman. This allusion to Chantal Akerman is not completely my own Scott Foundas in a Facets symposium on Tarr made the comparison that made me want to see Jeanne Dielman in the first place. However, while he’s talking stylistically in terms of camera movement, mise-en-scene and blocking; here the narrative in many ways resembles in that in Jeanne Dielman in as much as the film most reveals its characters and their story in the slow but steady deterioration of daily routines.

The setup is fascinating in two ways: First, the name of the film refers to the incident wherein Nietzsche supposedly lost his mind, he so felt for a horse being beaten by his owner that he broke down in tears, intervened and embraced the horse and was never the same. The story then is really about the owner of said horse and his daughter, however, I’d caution you not to forget about the horse and the title and watch him and his arc and the relationship the family has with him. Second, in a structural consideration the inciting incident occurs in a voice over wherein a detached, unidentified narrator tells us what happened and that propelled an unseen Nietzsche into madness and affected the horse and the family in the long run.

The film is above all indirect, even when seemingly being direct, which is part of its brilliance. The film is about the inevitability of death but it’s not spoken about in certain terms. The bare minimum these people need to do to survive starts to deteriorate as does their ability and willingness to live, mostly due to said uncommented upon inevitability.

Perhaps what works best is that it really creeps up on you. These routines play out repeatedly, shot and cut a little differently each time such that the slight changes at the start might not be picked up but then you start to see them.

With regards to moments that are direct there are a few ways to interpret them. Perhaps the pivotal scene where there can be some debate is one wherein their neighbor comes over because he’s run out of Palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy). It’s human nature to want to hang your hat on something when watching a story that’s not traditional, therefore when watching a father and daughter just doing what they do in a desolate countryside in the middle of an unnatural windstorm you listen to the neighbor’s wild theory. Ohlsdorfer, the father, dismisses it as bull and some reviews as a red herring, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

You don’t have to know Tarr’s cinema to start to sense that there’s a metaphysical nature being applied to a mundane setting, a sort of allegory free of dogmatic restraints. The neighbor’s theory on what’s wrong with the world and life in general may be only his mad formulation but his view, like anyone else, is all he has and everyone’s seeking an answer, we may change it, we may not have one but anyone’s guess is as valid as the next to questions like “What’s the point of all this? What’s going on? Why am I here?” The neighbor’s theory may be vague and labyrinthine but part of what tips it towards truth for me is that he made it a specific revelation to each individual and not an externalized event. I know I’ve have been aloof in the theory’s description because I think it’s open to individual interpretation. My inference that it’s closer to fact or fiction falls in line with my final interpretation, which deals directly with how the film ends, which I will not reveal.

Similarly oblique is the passage read from a book left as a gift by a band of Gypsies passing through for some water. However, in that it speaks of defiling of the Holy Land and damnation, in short inevitability, so it works. It connects to a theme rather than offering and epiphany, yet I did have one. Only as I was just walking out of the theatre after the very short closing credits did I realize the last domino that needed to fall for me and it did and it made the whole thing that much more amazing.

The film keeps its cast of characters small and the location virtually unchanging. It’s probably too claustrophobic to be called a chamber drama. That sense heightened by the sound editing and mixing which plays the persistent sound of the wind at just the right level to unnerve you and will then drop entirely to bring in Mihály Vig’s dichotomic score, half-mellifluous and half-discordant.

Another thing that bears mentioning that there’s next to no dialogue. Yes, there is the neighbor’s extended monologue which gets a few replies, curses thrown at the gypsies and occasional exchanges between father and daughter but no scene I would call a conversation scene and it’s all the better for it. The lack of the spoken word invites you to participate in the film more freely, draw your own conclusions.

The actors János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos are all brilliant. The main tandem do so much physically and with their eyes they scarcely need dialogue to convey their emotions and turmoil.

The only other plot point that really bears any discussion is the attempt the Father and Daughter make to leave their house. You are not told or shown why they don’t make it to some safer locale. You are left to speculate on it. I drew my own conclusion, you may draw a different one. It’s just one of the other great touches this film has. Again it’s something that fits in my reading for the story, in a film about the inevitability of death what escape can there be, really?

It’s a bit sad to have to say that not all directors are what you can call visionaries but Tarr is definitely one. What you see on display in The Turin Horse is the mark of an artist. There is a style and language all his own, which he has cultivated through the years. I love Hungarian cinema from what I’ve been able to see but at the start of his career you wouldn’t know just by watching one of Tarr’s films it was his, now his style is unmistakable and inimitable, unique in all the world. If this is truly to be his last feature what a glorious way to go.

The Turin Horse is a flat-out masterpiece. That’s not a word I use lightly. There are films I consider masterpieces but I did not proclaim them as such upon first seeing them. However, when trying to encapsulate my reaction that’s the first word that came to mind. It truly is, it’s sheer brilliance and believe me when I say that my stating several facts in the course of this piece does not detract from the experience of the film, it’s just a guide. Watching and immersing yourself in it is a lot more valuable and harder to describe than a few instances in the story. If you have decided this is the kind of film you’d like to see (it’s certainly not for everyone) it’s worth seeking out on the big screen.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- The Annunciation

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Annunciation

Péter Bocsor and Júlia Mérö in The Annunciation (Hungarofilm)

If you’re ready for a mind-bending account that is likely to be one of the most bizarre film-watching experiences you’ve ever had then The Annunciation is for you. One thing that shows you almost off the bat that this is a challenging film is that as the story changes location the subtitles include location cards, which are not dictated by the film itself.

However, owing that the shift in locations and time period are due to the fact that it is a dream should make it an easier watch. This existential tale of Adam and Eve is still ripe with multiple meanings and answers that can be gleaned from the text of it.

Another thing that should be noted that all the characters, save for circus performers near the end, are played by children. If you have a problem with child actors I feel sorry for you but I also then do not recommend this film to you because they are dealing with very real material, extraordinarily challenging material that they dive headlong into and perform spectacularly.

The things that can be observed as Lucifer sends Adam and Eve through time in similarly dystopian plots are truly fascinating. However, though the film may seem like it’s hellbent on nihilism it ends on a wondrous of hope and sardonic comedy.

It’s a classic of absurdism and dreamlike cinema, cinema in general, which deserves a wider audience.

10/10