Tuesday, August 29, 2006

150 SOUL FOOD MOVIES: A List

I guess you could say my Soul Food Movies book started as a list. I began jotting down the films which seemed to have the most to do with my faith. Obviously "spiritual" films, like THE MISSION or CHARIOTS OF FIRE or TENDER MERCIES. Also, movies that might not be explicitly spiritual, which might not deal with God or the life of faith in any direct way, but which had had a strong spiritual effect on me.

I added films I'd seen (or hadn't seen) that had affected other people that way, even if I maybe hadn't cared for the film all that much, or perhaps liked it but didn't personally experience it as being particularly spiritual. Friends, or writers, or whoever. I added films whose descriptions sounded as if they might have some sort of spiritual interest, however obscure.

After a while I decided I had the makings of a pretty nifty book. At least, one that I'd want to read, even if nobody else would. Kept building the list.

I started participating in an online film discussion, kept coming up with new titles. Among those folks, organized the first "Arts & Faith 100" poll, to come up with a hundred "spiritually significant" films. Nominees, winners - all grist for the mill.

I've been writing away on the book for a couple years now, and am hoping to move toward publishing sometime in the not unforseeable future.

But these past couple days, I've gotten the "list bug" again, and decided to mess around with creating my own Hot 100. Looks like it'll take 150 to include the Soul Food movies I'm most excited about.

So here's my first real stab at it. Utterly subjective: lots of peculiar choices, and ranked by how much they matter to me personally, and how much they connect with me spiritually, not by any assertion that these are the finest (or even most spiritual) films ever made, in any objective sense. I'm definitely making no claim that ABOUT A BOY is a better, or even more spiritual film than, say, THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. Only that it connects with me, personally and spiritually, in a particularly powerful way, and, in fact, has become part of my life - as embarassing an admission as that may be! I don't for a minute maintain that MOST will be in the top twenty the next time I take a run at this ranking, or that TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL won't drop to #75 the next time I watch it, or CRASH ascend to the top ten. All subject to change without notice. (Mr Norman will note the strong influence of his own list-making philosophy here.)

Even within the list, I wouldn't want to argue very hard for specific rankings. I'm pretty solid on the first three films, after that it gets progressively more provisional. Do I really want to rank RIVERS & TIDES above ANDREI RUBLEV, and both of them just below VANYA ON 42ND STREET? I could rearrange their order and still be satisfied. But all three (almost) certainly are more essential to me (in a specifically spiritual way) than, say, SOPHIE SCHOLL, which in turn belongs higher on my list than, say, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE. But SOPHIE and DANNY shouldn't take that personally: I've loved a lot of movies, and the past few years have been specifically focusing on "soul food" movies, so to be in the top 150 or so...

Many of the changes to this list over the coming months (years?) will happen when I rewatch a film and rediscover (or more fully appreciate, or lose confidence in) its merits. Many more will come when I view films I haven't seen yet: indeed, there are so many intriguing films in the Strong Contenders (or even Long Shots) I Haven't Seen Yet, I think I'll add a whole bunch of those after my main list.

BUT... To de-emphasize the ranking, which seems unduly idiosyncratic and ultimately a bit "so what," and mostly just because it's kind of fun to tackle it a new way, I'm going to group them into some off-the-top-of-the-head categories.

So here, for what it's worth. As of August 29, 2006...

*

150 MOVIES THAT FEED MY SOUL

CANON FODDER
1 Tender Mercies
2 Magnolia
3 Dogville
13 Chariots Of Fire
14 The Mission
17 Dead Man Walking
39 Crimes and Misdemeanours
57 Fearless
58 Babette's Feast
78 Wings Of Desire
90 Amadeus
96 The Apostle

THE MASTERS
4 Ikiru
6 The Son (aka Le Fils)
11 Andrei Rublev
12 Au Hasard Balthazar
18 L'Enfant (aka The Child)
43 A Man Escaped (aka Un condamne a mort s'est echappe)
66 Diary of a Country Priest
70 Dekalog, aka The Decalogue
73 The Sacrifice (aka Offret)
110 La Promesse
111 Rosetta
142 Three Colors: Red

STRAIGHT-AHEAD SOUL FOOD
28 Les Miserables
29 Les Miserables du vingtieme siecle
42 The Third Miracle
49 After Life
51 Grand Canyon
62 The Sixth Sense
74 Amistad
79 A River Runs Through It
95 Witness
99 The Hiding Place
108 The Elephant Man
118 My Dinner With Andre
137 A Cry In The Dark

NEW
22 Lord Of The Rings
47 Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
76 Millions
122 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
150 Crash (2005)

OVERLOOKED
20 Most (aka The Bridge)
32 Personal Velocity
40 Not Of This World
41 The Novena
46 The Man Without A Past (aka Mies vailla menneisyytta)
55 The Man Who Planted Trees (aka l'Homme qui plantait des arbes)
64 Forgiveness
84 The Dreamlife Of Angels (aka La Vie Revee des Anges)
93 Sounder
129 Eighth Day
134 In Your Hands (aka Forbrydelser)
135 Saving Grace
143 The Gambler (1997)
148 Red Balloon

PEOPLE'S CHOICE
19 O Brother, Where Art Thou?
23 Field Of Dreams
24 The Matrix
35 The Shawshank Redemption
114 Forrest Gump

VINTAGE
86 On The Waterfront
106 It's A Wonderful Life
107 A Christmas Carol
140 Stars In My Crown
145 Lilies Of The Field
149 Whistle Down The Wind

DOCS
10 Rivers & Tides
27 Close-Up
128 Stevie
133 Gates Of Heaven
147 Hell House

BIBLE DRAMA
33 The Passion of the Christ
61 The Last Temptation of Christ
65 Jesus Of Montreal
80 Miracle Maker
88 Jesus of Nazareth
92 The Gospel According to St. Matthew (aka Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo)
124 Hail Mary (aka Je Vous Salue, Marie)

STAGE TO SCREEN
67 Becket
72 Merchant of Venice
81 Shadowlands (1993)
82 Shadowlands (1985)
83 Molokai
98 The Big Kahuna
100 A Man For All Seasons (1966)
117 You Can't Take It With You (1938)

BECAUSE OF THE BIG SCENE
9 Vanya on 42nd Street
30 Smoke
31 Run Lola Run
75 Jacob's Ladder
103 The Princess & The Warrior
104 Places In The Heart
116 Broadway Danny Rose

PERSONAL PICKS
7 The Year of Living Dangerously
8 About A Boy
15 The Trip to Bountiful
50 Dog Nail Clipper
54 Days of Heaven
101 Harold & Maude
113 Around The Bend
115 Clueless

HUMAN SCALE
25 Italian For Beginners
26 Pieces of April
34 You Can Count On Me
48 The Straight Story
59 Barcelona
77 Metropolitan
124 The Station Agent
131 The Last Days of Disco

SPIRITUAL?
91 Schindler's List
94 The Big Country
105 Secrets and Lies
127 Yi-Yi
130 The Quiet American
136 Contact
141 The Truman Show
144 Central Station

SOME WOULD ARGUE
5 American Beauty
21 13 Conversations About One Thing
52 About Schmidt
53 Election
102 Pleasantville
112 Tears of the Sun
119 Chocolat
120 Changing Lanes
121 The Exorcism of Emily Rose
139 What Dreams May Come

YOU'D BE SURPRISED
36 Joe Versus The Volcano
37 Cat People
38 Groundhog Day
44 I Walked With A Zombie
45 Sling Blade
60 Brother Sun, Sister Moon
63 A Walk To Remember
69 Bruce Almighty
71 Waking Ned Devine
125 Charlie Brown Christmas
146 Curse Of The Demon (aka Night of the Demon)

UGLY
16 Bad Lieutenant
56 The Woodsman
68 The Believer
87 The Addiction
89 Hardcore
109 Unforgiven
132 Fight Club
138 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

...AND JUST PLAIN WEIRD
85 Songs From The Second Floor
97 The Rapture
126 The Last Wave

*

And in case you've already seen all those, here's a few more for you, bubbling under the Hot Hundred and Fifty...

THE SEVENTY-FIVE UNSEEN (BY ME) MOVIES MOST LIKELY TO CRASH THE SOUL FOOD PARTY

CANON FODDER
Gandhi

THE MASTERS
Seventh Seal, The ("Det Sjunde Inseglet," 1956, Sweden, Bergman)
Virgin Spring, The ("Jungfraukallan," 1959, Sweden, Bergman)
Wild Strawberries (1957, Sweden, Bergman)
Pickpocket, The (1959, France, Bresson)
Trial of Joan of Arc, The (1962, France, Bresson, w/ Florence Carrez)
Angels of the Streets ("Les Anges du peche," 1943, France, Bresson))
Ordet ("The Word," 1955, Denmark, Dreyer, fr Kaj Munk)
Passion Of Joan of Arc, The ("Le Passion de Jeanne d'Arc," 1928, France, Dreyer))
Nights Of Cabiria (1957, Fellini)
Three Colours: Blue (1993, Poland/France/Switzerland/UK, Kieslowski)
Idiot, The (1951, Japan, Kurosawa, Dostoyevsky novel)
Green Ray, The ("Le rayon vert", AKA "Summer," 1986, France, Eric Rohmer)
My Night At Maud's (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, 1969, France, Eric Rohmer)
Open City, aka Roma, Citta Aperta
Europa 51 ("The Greatest Love," 1952, Italy, Rossellini)
Flowers of St Francis, The (Francesco, 1950, Italy, Rossellini)
Stromboli (1949, Italy, Rossellini)
Voyage to Italy (1953, Italy, Rossellini)
Germany Year Zero (1947, Rossellini)
Solaris (1972, USSR, Tarkovsky)
Solaris (2002, Soderbergh)
Green Room, The ("La Chambre verte," 1978, France, Truffaut)

STRAIGHT-AHEAD SOUL FOOD
Romero
Spitfire Grill, The (1996, USA Lee David Zlotoff)
Black Robe
Au Revoir, Les Enfants
Amen. (2002, France/Germany, Costa-Gavras)
Revolt Of Job, The (Job Lazadasa)
Cry The Beloved Country (1995, Darrell Roodt, wr Ronald Harwood fr Alan Paton)
Matewan
Train of Life
Kolya
Where Is My Friend's Home? (1987, Kiarostami)

NEW
Hawaii, Oslo
Ninth Day, The (2005?, Volker Schlondorff)
Land Of Plenty (2005?, USA, Wenders, Scott Derrickson)

OVERLOOKED
Repentance (Russia)
Wind Will Carry Us, The ("Bad Ma Ra Khahad Bord," 1999, Iran/France, Kiarostami)
Chambon, le
Funeral, The (1996, USA, Ferrara, w St John)
Scarlet And The Black, The (1983, Jerry London, w/ Peck, fr J.P. Gallagher's The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican)
Therese (1986, France, Alain Cavalier)
Pascali's Island
Man Dancin' (2003, UK, Norman Stone)
Homicide (1991, USA, David Mamet)
Tales from the Madhouse
House Is Black, The (1962, Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad - short)
Eureka (2000, Japan)

PEOPLE'S CHOICE
Dogma
Sister Act
Monsoon Wedding

VINTAGE
Inspector Calls, An (1954, England, Guy Hamilton)
Night Of The Hunter (1955, USA, Charles Laughton)
Love Affair (1939, USA, Leo McCarey)
Cry The Beloved Country (1951, Zoltan Korda, wr Alan Paton fro Alan Paton)
Leon Morin, Priest (1961, France, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Awful Truth, The (1937, USA, Leo McCarey)
Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954, Rossellini)
Monsieur Vincent (1947, Maurice Cloche)
Satan Never Sleeps (AKA "Flight From Terror," 1962, UK/USA, Leo McCarey from Bearl S. Buck novel)
Dersu Uzala
Sansho The Bailiff ("Sansho Dayu," Japan, Mizoguchi)
Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)

DOCS
Forgiving Dr. Mengele

BIBLE DRAMA
Ricotta, La (in "RoGoPaG," 1962, Italy/France, Pasolini)
Son Of Man
He Who Must Die (Celui qui doit mourir, 1958)

STAGE TO SCREEN
Man For All Seasons, A (1988, Charlton Heston, fr Robert Bolt)
Wit (2001, USA, Mike Nichols fr Margaret Edson)

BECAUSE OF THE BIG SCENE
Waking Life

YOU'D BE SURPRISED
Francesco (1989, Italy/Germany, Liliana Cavani, fr Hermann Hesse)

UGLY
Breaking The Waves
Exorcist, The

AND JUST PLAIN WEIRD
Koyaanisqatsi
Werckmeister Harmonies, The (Bela Tarr)

THE WICKER MAN (1973)


THE WICKER MAN (1973, UK, Robin Hardy, Anthony Shaffer screenplay)

A puritanical Presbyterian copper goes to the isle of Summerside to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, and begins to suspect some very dark forces may be at work. If Peter Weir's THE LAST WAVE suggests that western materialism may leave us unprepared for confrontations with spiritual realities, and that our churches fail us when they conform themselves to the rationalistic world's nothingbutness, THE WICKER MAN goes further: Christianity is impotent, its morality a joke, and the only true power is to be found in a darkly primitive paganism. It may be nasty, but it's the only game in town – or in this case, on the island. It's possible to see the film as a cautionary tale, something of an expose of the darkness at the heart of certain occult religions, but that kind of reading doesn't account for the nasty aftertaste this one leaves, or the massive cult following it has among a certain strain of New Age folks who celebrate the film's authentic portrayal of their own practices. Which is not to write off the film: if the off-kilter comic tone doesn't undermine things too much, it's genuinely creepy, with a stunner of a pay-off, and it may be telling more truth about real spiritual horror than any other dozen Friday The Thirteenth gore-fests. But I'll warn you: you visit this place entirely at your own risk. Thin line between portraying darkness and conveying it.

Then again, some people find it just plain boring.

Available at Videomatica

Sunday, August 27, 2006

HEAVEN (TYKWER)


HEAVEN (2002, Germany, Tom Tykwer, wr Kieslowski / Pieskowicz)
I've done a lot of damage. And really stupid, supid things. Four people died because of me and I can't live with that. I'll never be able to. I shot a defenseless person, which you know. But what you don't know is, I've ceased to believe. In sense. In justice. In life.

A young woman prepares a bomb, then takes it into an office tower. She places it in a wastebasket, then hurries out of the building. We know, more or less, who she is. The word "terrorist" comes readily to mind, and though we don't know her specific political agenda or who her target might be, it's clear enough what she is.

Except this is a screenplay by Krytofs Kieslowski and Pieskowicz – co-creators of THE DECALOGUE and all three COLORS – and things won't be as simple as they seem. Or things may be exactly as they seem, and it's our judgements that will prove to be too simple; hasty, shallow, under-informed. When Philippa learns of the unintended consequences of her act (in a Cate Blanchett performance of immense power and vulnerability), our assumptions and easy labels begin quickly to erode.

At the time of his early death at 55 years old, Kieslowski was at work developing another trilogy; HEAVEN, HELL and PURGATORY. Whether we'll ever get to see the last two thirds of the project is uncertain, but the pairing of director Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN, THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR) and the first of the series was inspired. He has a tremendous eye, and continues the visual appeal which distinguished Kieslowski's French films from the drearier (though aesthetically strong) images of earlier DECALOGUE: gorgeous geometric fly-over shots of Turin, striking contrasts between city and country, a beautifully filmed and brilliantly edited final sequence, or an especially memorable and tension-filled shot just before the detonation, as Philppa descends an escalator right to left across the screen as a right-frame elevator ascends heavenward (in a film that's all about the sky: yearning and flight and ascension.)

There are other important affinities. Tykwer sums up his fascinations as "love, fate, freewill" – recurring themes for the Krzysztofs – and HEAVEN plays out those themes with a pair of star-matched lovers on the run, defying law and circumstance, just as in his previous two films. Indeed, the twinning of the lovers in PRINCESS ("I had a dream. We were brother/sister, father/mother, husband/wife") is echoed in Philippa and Filippo, both born May 23 (TT's birthday), who grow ever more alike as the film moves toward its conclusion. Nor is the doppel motif foreign to the screenwriters – think DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, for instance. There's the same tension between the law and the messiness of human life that ran through THE DECALOGUE, a fascination with technology, scenes of secular confession, a similar sense of the compromised authority of the state.

For all the Tykwer touches, he stays utterly true to Kieslowski's vision. The anti-LOLA deliberateness of pace goes way beyond even PRINCESS + WARRIOR, and while both of these deeply moral artists are fascinated with situations where received moral ideas are problematic, this film's approach is wisdom not whiz-kid, owing more to the contemplative thoughtfulness of the older Czech than to the dazzling brilliance of the younger German.

Which is to take nothing away from Tykwer, who is not only one of the most inventive directors of our time, but one of the most substantial. This pairing of master screenwriters and wunderkind director is truly a gift – a match made in heaven.

Available at Videomatica

VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Sep 28 - Oct 13

SON OF MAN
Saturday, October 7th 3:30 pm, Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2
Tuesday, October 10th 9:45 pm, Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2
Sundance is the first film fest out of the gate each year, and what I kept hearing from critics this past January was that two runaway favourites were LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (which definitely seems to be this year's Summer Sleeper) and... A Jesus movie! VIFF writes; "Mark Dornford-May's SON OF MAN (South Africa) is the story of one mother and one child, even though that child is Jesus and his mother the Virgin Mary. Set in contemporary Africa, the film is filled with searing images and music so powerful it may stop your heart." And here's the blurb from the CBC Preview Guide: "A gripping journey of love, deception and betrayal, SON OF MAN translates Jesus' life to modern-day South Africa, where a new politics of compassion incites revolution during a military dictatorship. The new collaboration from Dimpho di Kopane, a South African lyric theatre ensemble and director Mark Dornford-May whose U-CARMEN garnered last year's Berlin Golden Bear."

INTO GREAT SILENCE
Sunday, October 1st 12:15 pm, Empire Granville 7 Theatre 6
Monday, October 9th 12:15 pm, Empire Granville 7 Theatre 6
Wednesday, October 11th 8:00 pm, Empire Granville 7 Theatre 6
Also highly praised at this year's Sundance Festival. It won't be for everybody, but will definitely be for me. The Carthusian Order is a highly reclusive monastic order: when the film-maker approached the head of order's mother house asking to make a documentary about life in the monastery, he was given permission - provided not only the film-maker but the film itself followed the order's vow of Holy Silence. Not a word is spoken in this 160 minute immersion in the quotidian realities of monastic life. "Mesmerizing, almost hypnotic" - VIFF Guide

REQUIEM
Sunday, October 1st 4:00 pm, Visa Screening Room @ Empire Granville Th7
Saturday, October 7th 1:00 pm, Ridge Theatre
Sunday, October 8th 9:00 pm, Empire Granville 7 Theatre 4
Based on the same historical events as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, but from what looks like a fundamentally different perspective than that of EMILY director/writer Scott Derrickson, whose Christian faith comes through in his treatment. Olaf Moller in Film Comment, May-June 2006: "Inspired by the last officially sanctioned exorcism performed in the German Federal Republic, Hans-Christian Schmid's REQUIEM presents a similar journey into death. Set in the Seventies, it tells the story of a devoutly Catholic college student (Sandra Huller, winning the Best Actress Silver Bear) who must decide whether she suffers from epilepsy or is possessed by the devil. At the top of his form, Schmid takes a dour, direct approach to his depiction of this martyr-to-be's negotiation between two irreconcilable realities (a dilemma faced by many during that era). Those around her are well intentioned and genuinely concerned - it's just that their arguments happen to be structured differently than hers. It's less a case of 'Everybody has their reasons' than 'My argument is more compatible with your best interests.'

*

Those are my three top Soul Food picks. But there's lots of "world religions" stuff that looks great. Some that catch my eye...

THE JUDGE & THE FANATIC (Germany)
"What does Jihad really mean? Documentary explores the Islamic tradition of using dialogue as a means of rehabilitating radicals through discussions about the Islamic faith."

ENCOUNTER POINT (USA/Israel)
If you lost your family to violence, would you seek revenge or find another means to go on? These are the questions that face a group of Israelis and Palestinians..." Audience Award, Best Doc, San Francisco International Film Festival

BUDDHA'S LOST CHILDREN (Netherlands, Mark Verkerk)
"Phra Khru Bah is the Tiger Monk, a former Thai Boxer turned one-man crusader, hose mission it is to help Thailand's poorest children. In a place beset by methamphetamine addiction, poverty and suffering, The Golden Horse Orphanage offers a different way of life through ancient Buddhist principles. A thoughtful work from director Mark Verkerk."

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (USA)
Documentary illuminates post-war Iraq in three acts, a vivid picture of a country pulled in different directions by religion and ethnicity."

Flicks that may contain traces of soul food include SOUND OF THE SOUL and WHEN THE ROAD BENDS, blurbed thusly - "Musicians come together to create something ephemeral that nonetheless can unite people divided by religion, culture, and ethnicity - Stephen Olsson's SOUND OF THE SOUL: THE FEZ FESTIVAL OF WORLD SACRED MUSIC (USA) brings together people from remarkably disparate cultures to sing and praise together. So too, the gypsy musicians in Jasmine Dellal's WHEN THE ROAD BENDS (USA) share a common need to make a holy noise."
And maybe THE FOUNTAIN, Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, an "eagerly awaited epic metaphysical adventure: over the span of a thousand years, Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz and Ellen Burstyn searc for love, loss and the fountain of youth"; and how about FROM AFAR, "A trilogy of spiritual quests set in contemporary Tehran, a hero in three different incarnations perpetually seeks the ineffable," or HEAVEN'S DOORS, "three interconnected stories of revenge and justice set in contemporary Casablanca, a world in which young men must make many - often lightning fast - moral decisions."

A few others that may not have any particularly spiritual angle, but which have caught my eye; COLOUR ME KUBRICK, kind of CLOSE-UP meets BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, "based n the antics of real-life Brit conman Alan Conway who made his way around London posing as Stanley Kubrick... anchored by John Malkovich's delectable lead performance"; THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA, "an exhilarating thrill ride through cinema's subconscious, guided by star Slovenian psychoanalytic academic: Zizek speaks from within the films themselves" - Norman Bates' cellar, the BLUE VELVET wardrobe, etc.

Tickets on sale at 685-8297 or www.viff.org

Oct 13: Festival closes
Oct 14-16: "VIFF Repeats" showcase of the Festival's most popular films (at VIFC)

KIESLOWSKI RETROSPECTIVE: Sep 1 - 27

BLIND CHANCE: THE CINEMA OF KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI
(& THE POSTHUMOUS KIESLOWSKI)

September 1 - 27, 2006

Pacific Cinematheque and the Vancouver International Film Centre (the year-round venue established by the Vancouver International Film Festival) have joined forces to bring this landmark Kieslowski retrospective to Vancouver audiences. From the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the eighties (and the international release of his ten-film series on the Ten Commandments) until his death in 1996, this Polish director's reputation grew to the point where he was considered by many the world's finest living filmmaker. His fascination with complex moral choices and occasional moments of transcendence mark him as a creator of spiritual films ranking alongside such masters as Bresson and Tarkovsky: DEKALOG and THREE COLOURS: BLUE have figured prominently in all three of the annual Arts & Faith 100 survey of spiritually significant films, and Robert K. Johnston and Catherine Barsotti opened their marvelous Regent Summer School course "Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes Through the Lens of Contemporary Film" with a viewing of the first of the DEKALOG films (and eventually got round to HEAVEN). Soul Food friend Doug Cummings has written extensively about Kieslowski's films at the Masters Of Cinema website (and is quoted in the catalog for the current retrospective!), and Jeffrey Overstreet counts THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE as his personal favourite KK flick.

Most of these films can be rented at Videomatica, where you may also want to check out I'M SO-SO, a one-hour documentary featuring rare interview clips with Kieslowski which was featured at the 1996 VIFF, but the opportunity to see these on the big screen is a rare privilege - particularly the final four films, made in France, which have particular visual appeal.

*

The following notes (in green) are edited from the VIFC and Pacific Cinematheque websites, where you will find further information and where you can purchase advance tickets for all shows.

BLIND CHANCE: THE CINEMA OF KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI

Kieślowski's cinema is known for its social commitment and spiritual questing. His documentaries and early dramas display his desire to address with honesty the social realities behind socialist Poland 's official party line of progress and social unity; official disapproval and censorship were occasionally the result. Like most Polish artists of his time, he was profoundly affected by growing up in a Communist state, and by the rise of the Solidarity opposition movement during the labour unrest of 1980 and the consequent imposition of martial law in 1981. His later works reveal an increasing fascination with the mysterious roles of chance, choice, coincidence and fate, culminating in the moody, strangely metaphysical quartet of films (Véronique and the “Three Colours Trilogy”) that he made in France before his untimely and unexpected death. (Kieślowski underwent heart bypass surgery in Warsaw in March 1996, and suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after the operation. One of his last foreign trips was to Vancouver for a tribute at the 1994 VIFF.)

Kieślowski’s big breakthrough came in the waning days of the Communist era, when his 10-part magnum opus The Decalogue, began astonishing audiences and critics on the international festival circuit. Throughout his career Kieślowski was a humanist with a deeply pessimistic stripe, an artist fascinated with the inner life of human beings, with the spiritual dimensions of existence, with the deeper truths hidden beneath the surface realities, with the ethical and moral dilemmas faced by individuals as actors in a family, in a society, in a state, in life.

This exhibition, the first major co-presentation between Pacific Cinémathèque and the new Vancouver International Film Centre, offers a near-comprehensive retrospective of Kieślowski’s cinema, and includes many short films, documentaries and early features never before seen in Vancouver. The series will be accompanied by an exhibition of Kieślowski’s photographs in the atrium of the Vancouver International Film Centre.

THE SCAR 1976
September 5, 9:30pm VIFC
September 6, 7:15pm at PCP

CAMERA BUFF 1979
Sept 1, 9:30pm VIFC
September 15, 7:30pm at PCP

BLIND CHANCE (1981)
September 3, 7:00pm at VIFC
September 4, 7:15pm at PCP
Chance and fate loom large in Kieślowski’s metaphysical cinema. In the bold Blind Chance, a young medical student named Witek (Boguslaw Linda) rushes to catch a train—and, in the film’s innovative, Sliding Doors-style narrative, faces three possible destinies. One, he catches the train, meets an honest Communist, and becomes a Party activist himself. Two, he bumps into a policeman, gets arrested, and winds up a dedicated anti-Communist dissident. Three, he misses the train, meets a young woman, gets married, and settles down to a happy and avowedly apolitical life. (As Time Out’s Adrian Turner notes, “A fourth story, in which Poland throws out the Communist Party, was presumably unthinkable” at the time.) Witek’s possible futures were obviously meant to represent Poland’s. Blind Chance was completed in 1981, the year martial law was imposed; shelved by the authorities, it was not released until 1987. “Vividly rendered. The film is more aesthetically rich than Kieślowski ’s previous features—[with] virtuoso tracking shots, striking images of violence, careful compositions, and camera movements which blur the line between subjective and objective points of view” (Doug Cummings, Senses of Cinema).

NO END (1984)
September 3, 9:30pm at VIFC
September 16, 7:30pm, at PCP
Kieślowski’s poignant political ghost story is something of a precursor to Three Colours: Blue, and marks the auspicious first pairing of the director with screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a trial lawyer who would co-write all of Kieślowski’s subsequent films. A young lawyer, killed in a car crash while in midst of defending a Solidarity activist on trial under martial law, is a ghostly presence watching helplessly as his widow dissolves in grief and his former client is encouraged to compromise his principles in order to avoid jail. The film’s pessimistic take on matters political and spiritual managed to offend the Church, the Communist state, and the Solidarity opposition—as Kieślowski would note, “I’ve never had such unpleasantness over any film as I had over this one”—but the public loved it, once they got a chance to see it. No End was also Kieślowski’s first film with composer Zbigniew Preisner, and his last feature before his monumental The Decalogue. “A film burning with passionate engagement... And one, moreover, which still has space for tenderness, quiet, and an excursion into the realm of the spirit” —Chris Peachment, Time Out

A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (1988)
September 1, 7:30pm at VIFC
September 16, 9:35pm at PCP
The splendid A Short Film About Love is one of two Krzysztof Kieślowski features that were expanded versions of episodes from his 10-part magnum opus The Decalogue (A Short Film About Killing was the other). Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), a virginal 19-year-old postal worker in Warsaw, spies by telescope on Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), an attractive, sexually active 30-year-old who lives in the apartment block opposite. The surveillance leads to infatuation, and then to inappropriate demonstrations of affection, but the youth gets rather more than he bargained for when formidable Magda starts to return his attentions. Kieślowski’s darkly ironic yet deeply romantic tale of intimacy, obsession and voyeurism recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and features notable performances from its two leads. The film not only expands Decalogue Six (“Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”) but adds an entirely different ending, resulting in a substantially altered work. (A Short Film About Killing is much more faithful to the hour-long original from which it derives.) “Kieślowski turns in an absolutely masterly movie that yields equal parts of humour and wry emotional truth. As an account of love in the late 20th century, it’s in a league of its own” (Tony Rayns)

A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (1987)
September 5, 7:30pm at VIFC
September 2, 7:30pm at PCP
Back in 1990, Pacific Cinémathèque selected Krzysztof Kieślowski’s morally troubling masterpiece as one of the ten best films of the 1980s. English critic Derek Malcolm cites A Short Film About Killing as one of the 100 greatest movies ever made, remarking that “While it is impossible to conceive of Kieślowski making a bad film...in Killing, style and content were perfectly matched.” In a random act of violence, an aimless youth brutally murders a cab driver. He then faces execution by the state, while his young lawyer, fresh out of school, struggles to find any defence for the crime. A feature-length expansion of an episode from Kieślowski’s Decalogue (Decalogue 5: Thou Shalt Not Kill), Killing was co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer who was Kieślowski’s screenwriting partner on every film from 1984’s No End onward (the two met while Kieślowski was researching jail sentences imposed under martial law). The film was a sensation at Cannes in 1988, and helped bring about a moratorium on the death penalty in Poland. “A shattering film...Shot by Slawomir Idziak through a range of filters that give Warsaw the look of a city of pestilence” (Tony Rayns). “Intense, original...If Hitchcock had filmed Dostoevsky, this would be the result” (Variety).

DECALOGUE 1: I AM THE LORD THY GOD
DECALOGUE 2: THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THY LORD IN VAIN
September 8, 7:00pm VIFC
September 11, 7:00pm VIFC
In Decalogue 1 (“I Am the Lord Thy God”), a university professor believes that the world can be understood through rational, mathematical thought. With their new computer as god and witness, he and his young son calculate that it’s safe to skate on a just-frozen pond, but such “false gods” provide little comfort when tragedy strikes. The great actress Krystyna Janda (Man of Iron) stars in Decalogue 2 as a young woman who presents her mortally ill husband’s doctor with a dilemma that forces him towards violating the second commandment.

DECALOGUE 3: HONOUR THE SABBATH DAY
DECALOGUE 4: HONOUR THY MOTHER AND FATHER

September 8, 9:30pm VIFC
September 11, 9:30pm VIFC
“Honour the Sabbath Day” is the loose theme of Decalogue 3, which follows Eve, who appears at the home of her former lover on Christmas Eve and asks him to help find her missing husband. Traipsing through Warsaw’s deserted streets, they look for this phantom man, but are haunted by their former love. In Decalogue 4, Kieślowski’s subtle investigation of what truly makes a parent-child relationship, a young acting student opens a letter not meant for her and discovers a secret that makes it difficult to “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother.”

DECALOGUE 5: THOU SHALT NOT KILL
DECALOGUE 6: THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY

September 9, 7:00pm VIFC
September 12, 7:00pm VIFC
“The most unsettling and riveting of his moral series” — Hollywood Reporter, Decalogue 5 tackles the complexities of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Two killings concern Kieślowski here: the murder of a taxi driver by a frustrated, confused young man, and the execution of the young man by the state. A gripping study of the moral quicksand of the death penalty, the film was later re-edited and presented as A Short Film About Killing. Its polar opposite, Decalogue 6 may be based on the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,” but its true theme is obsession. A young man is in love with the sexually active, much older woman across the way, and even takes a job as a milkman just to hear her voice asking him a question; it was adapted into A Short Film About Love

DECALOGUE 7: THOU SHALT NOT STEAL
DECALOGUE 8: THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS

September 9, 9:30pm VIFC
September 12, 9:30pm VIFC
Two women fight for “ownership” of a six-year-old girl in Decalogue 7, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” A study of family relationships and lies, the film features Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance). A guest gives an ethics professor’s class its most difficult dilemma yet, one based on the teacher’s own past, in Decalogue 8, “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness.” Dealing with the shelter of Jewish refugees during World War II, this section is Kieślowski’s most pointed reference to the effects of the Holocaust

DECALOGUE 9: THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOUR’S WIFE
DECALOGUE 10: THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOUR’S GOODS
September 10, 7:00pm VIFC
September 13, 7:00pm VIFC
Once a philandering Romeo but now an impotent man, devastated Roman agrees to allow his wife to take another lover, a decision with predictably ruinous results, in Decalogue 9, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Wife.” Bringing The Decalogue to a satirical close, the darkly comic Decalogue 10, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Goods,” stars Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr, who would later reunite in Kieślowski’s Three Colours: White. They play estranged brothers who, upon jointly inheriting their father’s valuable stamp collection, immediately become obsessed with keeping it from each other.

STILL ALIVE–A Film About Krzysztof Kieslowski (2006)
September 10, 9:30pm VIFC
September 13, 9:30pm VIFC
Director: Maria Zmarz Koczanowicz
NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
Still Alive— A Film About Krzysztof Kieślowski is a beautifully made and completely engrossing feature-length retrospective portrait of Kieślowski by one of the director’s former students, now one of Poland’s finest documentary filmmakers. Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz uses the late director’s own words, fragments of films, and scraps of memories kept by his friends and colleagues to create an absorbing portrait of a man who continues to live through his cinema. Loved and admired, Kieślowski was a filmmaker’s filmmaker. As he says in the film: “Cinema is about drudgery. It is about getting up early, about not sleeping at night, about fretting, about rain...This is cinema, this is real cinema. And the moments of satisfaction happen seldom.”

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE (1991)
September 14, 7:15pm VIFC
September 22, 7:30pm PCP
Irène Jacob won Best Actress honours at Cannes in 1991 for her double role in The Double Life of Véronique, the haunting, seductive metaphysical fable that was Polish master Krzysztof Kieślowski’s feature follow-up to The Decalogue. “Two physically identical girls, living in Poland and France, are mysteriously linked in numerous respects. Each has a talent for music, each entertains doubts about her current lover, and each has a weak heart. And although they have never met, when Veronika collapses on stage during a recital, Véronique immediately feels that her life has changed in a profound way. Kieślowski may not proffer the lucid moral insights of his earlier Decalogue series, but it’s hard to imagine a more mesmerizing study of spiritual disquiet. If the story is simplicity itself, this is certainly not an easy film, but coherence is assured by Irène Jacob’s luminous performance, by Kieślowski’s effortless control of mood, and by his subtle use of repeated motifs...There’s no denying his compassion or ability to invest places, objects and passing moments with an almost numinous power” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out).

THREE COLOURS: BLUE (1993)
September 14, 9:30pm VIFC
September 23, 7 :30pm at PCP
Blue is the first film in the much-admired Kieślowski trilogy based on the French tricolour flag, and on the French Revolution’s three tenets of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité. An enigmatic, metaphysical study of liberty, it stars Juliette Binoche as a young woman whose world comes crashing down around her when her composer husband and small daughter are killed in a car accident. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she seizes the opportunity to create a new existence for herself, “free” from the past and its relationships, but her old life proves impossible to simply deny. “Blue is a film of mood and atmosphere, shadow and light, music and gesture. Like all great cinema, it offers up revelations, re-arranging the way we see things. Utilizing the pictorial brilliance of Slowomir Idziak, cinematographer for A Short Film About Killing and The Double Life of Véronique, Blue dazzles with its succinct emotional power, insights and technical genius— culminating, in the final moments, in an overwhelming spiritual climax” (Piers Handling, Toronto I.F.F.).

THREE COLOURS: WHITE (1993)
September 17, 7:15pm VIFC
September 23, 9:25pm at PCP
The second film in Kieślowski’s “Three Colours Trilogy,” the entertaining White is a black comedy based on the tricolour tenet of egalité. Polish actor Zbigniew Zamachowski gives a wonderfully Chaplinesque performance as Karol, a bumbling hairdresser left penniless on the streets of Paris after he is divorced by his beautiful French wife (Julie Delpy). Kieślowski’s unpredictable rags-to-riches tale has Karol returning, in rather ignominious fashion, to his native Poland, where an unexpected aptitude for the prevailing cutthroat capitalism leads to a fantastic scheme to get his ex-wife’s attention. “A droll black comedy that takes a scalpel to the impoverished ethics of the new money-obsessed Poland, and to the selfish impulses tied up with our desires for a balanced sexual relationship, White is at times reminiscent of the satire of the last episode of The Decalogue [which also featured actors Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr playing brothers]. It’s often cruel, of course, and cool as an ice-pick, but it’s still endowed with enough unsentimental humanity to end with a touching, lyrical admission of the power of love. Essential viewing” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out).

THREE COLOURS: RED (1994)
September 17, 9:30pm VIFC
September 24, 7:30pm at PCP
Red, the exquisite conclusion of the “Three Colours Trilogy,” proved to be Kieślowski’s final film; the director died unexpectedly in March 1996, at the age of 54, of a heart attack shortly after undergoing bypass surgery. “The last and best film in the trilogy...here all the skills of the director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, are brought into melancholy play. Blind chance or benign fate (according to your point of view) brings Valentine (Irène Jacob), a young model living alone in Geneva, into contact with a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) with a predilection for eavesdropping on telephone conversations. (It’s the most authentic route he can find into the mysteries of human behaviour.) In time Valentine’s repulsion shades into curiosity, and from there into affection. And the movie itself shades from coldness and contrivance into a story as touching and mysterious as anything Kieślowski has ever made. Trintignant’s performance as the misanthropic old man is a portrait of heartbreak, all the more convincing for his character’s last-ditch efforts to mend other hearts. At the end, Kieślowski, too, assumes the mantle of Prospero, magically (and rather absurdly) assembling the trilogy’s main players, and it’s hard to begrudge the master his final flourish” (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker).

HEAVEN (2002)
September 25, 9:00 pm PCP
September 27, 7:30 pm PCP
Director: Tom Tykwer

My review
Although an exhausted Krzysztof Kieślowski had announced his “retirement” from filmmaking after completing the “Three Colours” trilogy of Blue, White and Red, he was, at the time of his death in 1996, working on a new trilogy – Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, inspired by Dante – with screenwriting collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Only their script for the first was close to completion; this final collaboration between one of cinema’s great screenwriting pairs was brought to the screen in 2002 by Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. Part moral thriller and part love story, Heaven stars Cate Blanchett as Philippa, an Englishwoman working as a teacher in Turin, Italy. An unlikely terrorist, she is arrested after planting a bomb that kills four innocent people. Giovanni Ribisi is Filippo, an earnest young policeman who is brought into the case as a translator, and who seeks to understand the reasons for her horrible crime. “At times one can feel the conflict between Tykwer’s caffeinated energy and Kieślowski’s philosophical pace, but overall the movie works as an unlikely but effective moral thriller” (Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail). “Against all odds, it’s faithful to the spirit of Kieślowski, and terrifically good” (Tony Rayns, Time Out).

(HELL was featured in the 2005 VIFF, and I seem to recall news that it would be reaching either arthouse cinemas or video shelves sometime in the next few months. Too, I have a vague recollection that another director had begun work on PURGATORY. I'll let you know when I find out - or remember - more.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

DIVIDED WE FALL

DIVIDED WE FALL ("MUSIME SI POMOHAT," 2000, Czech Republic, Jan Hrbejk, screenplay with Petr Jarchovsky)
Oscar-nominated story of a childless Catholic couple reluctantly hiding a Jew from the Nazis during World War Two. The film aims to mix true-to-the-facts story and psychologically complex characters with comic, even farcical elements, on the apparent premise that that's just how life is, even under the occupation. It seems to lack LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL's potential to gall – perhaps because the film doesn't tackle the holocaust head-on, perhaps because it never feels like the film is trying to negate those horrors with wish-fulfilment or fantasy, only to demonstrate the absurdities found in such desperate times. While certain plot development and character motivations seem muddy or muddled (and the stylized filming of high-stress sequences unnecessary), the film's undeniable accomplishment lies ultimately in blurring the lines between collaborator and hero (a word repeated often). When Nativity themes planted with reference to a Madonna and child painting come into prominence near the end of the film (Josef, Marie, the seed of David, and three not-particularly-wise men, even), there is grace for Jew and Gentile alike, with collaborators and other dogs caught up in a morally complex, convincingly orchestrated deliverance – convincing, that is, if you're inclined to believe in miracles.
THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS, THE REVOLT OF JOB, LES MISERABLES DU VINGTIEME SIECLE, PLACES IN THE HEART

Available at Videomatica

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

UGETSU


UGETSU ("UGETSU MONOGATARI," 1953, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda screenplay, Matsutaro Kawaguchi adaptation of stories by Akinari Ueda and Maupassant)

Coming home a bit baffled after viewing this rather alien (even alienating) film, I was relieved to open my copy of "The New York Times Guide To The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made" and find that, for all their respect for the film evident in its selection for the book, reviewer Bosley Crowther was similarly shall we say "guarded" in his reaction, commenting on its "strangely obscure, inferential, almost studiedly perplexing quality" that he judged would be "hard for even the most attentive patro to grasp as it goes along" – a vexing, "weird, exotic stew."

The performances are for the most part stagey, with the kind of physical and emotional exaggeration seen in traditional Japanese theatre. The moral lessons seem baldly obvious even in the opening scenes, when two men – brothers, apparently – ignore their sensible wives and, cartoonlike, risk everything in the midst of a brutal civil war, one to grow unnecessarily wealthy by selling his pottery, the other desperate to leave behind his miserable life of poverty by becoming an acclaimed samurai. You know instantly that they are fools, that the women are right, and that it's all going to end badly: in this sense it has the blunt straightforwardness of a morality play, a fable, or one of Bertoldt Brecht's preachier scolds. (Again I cling to Mr Crowther for moral support as I expess qualms about what has become, more than fifty years after the fact, a pretty much universally certified Classic Of The Cinema: remarking on the "averageness of the stories," the central characters "stock" and "the lessons proved banal." Whew.)

One of the film's celebrated strengths is its visual beauty, particularly its sustained sequence shots featuring a lithely mobile camera. I'll willingly accept this as a personal aesthetic blind spot, but must admit I didn't respond to the film's purported beauty the way I do to, say, Tarkovsky's similarly lauded sequence shots or Bresson's sense of composition.

But there are unexpected subtleties. When the potter is seduced by an exotic and wealthy woman in the city where he goes to sell his wares, the intoxication has as much to do with her elaborate praise of his pottery (which we have seen him create in almost slapdash haste, driven not by artistry but by a feverish lust for profit) as her otherworldly beauty (which puts him under a sort of spell the moment she appears). Whether or not this bizarre-looking creature was actually appealing to the film's original audience, the lack of appeal a mondern western audience might find to her unappealingly stylized white face certainly underlines the madness, the irrationality of his sudden attraction to this woman who is not his wife. He's "crazy in love," he's "mad about her," he's "bewitched," seized with a similar compulsive desire that drove his scheme to take advantage of the war's chaos to become wealthy off his pottery, and there's something archetypally true about that: true about infatuation, true about desire, true about adultery.

It's also intriguing to see the way both the character's and the audience's perception of the pottery (and the process of its creation) shifts over the course of the film. From the mercenary profit-driven frenzy of the opening act to the contemplative, mindful activity of the closing, there is a real transformation, part of what lends the film its distinctly spiritual impact – quite apart from the more obviously supernatural elements. Or is this transformation apart from those elements at all? While it may be fired in the kiln of his encounter with what we might think of as the second of the film's "ghost women," isn't it cast on the wheel of the first? Give the film time, and there are eventual subtleties and complexities to be found on reflection, confounding its apparently blatant moralizing. (It's not the morality I object to, by the way, it's the moralizing – just as one can embrace sentiment while despising a story that sentimentalizes.)

I attended this film with a friend who has a lifelong fascination with myth and fairy tale: I imagine a dog-eared copy of Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses Of Enchantment" lying by his bed with his Bible, its underlined pages held together with a rubber band. As "End" appeared on the screen and and I breathed a sigh of relief that I had endured the duration, he breathed something that caught me by surprise: "Wow." UGETSU stirred him, it spoke into his life in what seems to me a clearly spiritual, even uncannily supernatural way. The sequence where the central character is drawn aside for a warning we do not hear, the strange black writing that appears on his back and its effect on his condition, the relief we experience at the outcome and then the deft way that that resolution is re-resolved – these are not only some of the film's most sublime artistic and thematic accomplishments, but also (at least for my friend, and I suspect for many others, and increasingly for me) another source of its undeniable – if elusive and confounding – spiritual effect.

Commentators remark that this film is a particularly clear expression of the director's conversion to Buddhism, so it shouldn't surprise us if its spiritual (and aesthetic) qualities arise from the same sort of mystery and tension of opposites that mark a Zen koan. Bosley Crowther closes his review by remarking that Ugetsu means "pale and mysterious moon after the rain – which is just about as revealing as a great deal else in this film." I find it fascinating that the same film that is critiqued for the banality of the lessons it offers is chided for its obscurity – I would say that Mr Crowther was talking out of both sides of his mouth, except that I had exactly the same experience. And I find it remarkable (and significant) that so confounding a film would also offer such clarity and illumination to my friend.

Isn't that just the way, sometimes?

SANSHO THE BAILIFF

Available at Videomatica

Saturday, August 12, 2006

28 UP

28 UP (1985, UK, Michael Apted)
Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.

The task of the novelist once was, though it isn't often anymore, the presentation of the totality of a life. Think of Victor Hugo, think Great Expectations: we follow a child into adulthood, almost we see the person whole, from a vantage outside their circumstances. Outside time. It's a God's-eye view, a perspective real life doesn't afford us: snapshots may remind us that the boy was father to the man, but memory distorts, reinterprets, invents, conflates, over-simplifies. And even the novelist only renders what he perceives, filtered through his own perception and imagination.

Michael Apted's biographical documentary began as a sociological inquiry into English class differences, but grew into something more personal, and much more human. As he intercuts interview footage of individuals at seven, fourteen, twenty-one and twenty-eight years of age, the viewer experiences something like awe. A question is posed to a child, and we see it answered by a teenager and played out in the life of an adult. Mannerisms and expressions, attitudes, values carry through from age to age, or are suddenly lost (masked?), only to reappear seven or fourteen years later. Dreams fail or transform, hopes are lost and sometimes recovered, people settle, people triumph. Some roads are paved by wealth, some travel very dark terrain indeed.

The film rarely delves into matters that are specifically religious, yet for me at least it is suffused with something deeply spiritual. As questions about love, work, family and meaning reverberate through these lives, we are privy to the outworking or overcoming of destinies, the growth of souls.

Apted has followed through with further installments every seven years – we're about to see 49 UP, at the time of this writing – and while the films are all more than worth the watching, overall they lack the power of 28 UP. Perhaps that's purely a subjective response to my first exposure to the series, or something about the vividness of change in our first few decades of life. Or perhaps it relates to a subtle shift in the lives of the participants, whose relative anonymity disappeared in the wake of that first big screen release (the previous docs being lower-profile television fare): the effect of a certain sort of celebrity becomes a theme, and while it's handled with intelligence, it doesn't resonate so deeply for me as the stuff of lives more ordinary.

With one or two exceptions. Keep your eye on Neil, and Bruce. And John for that matter. And then there's...

Okay, forget what I said about the later Ups. I still think you should start with 28, but to call it quits there would be a shame. There's considerable more life to be lived, and what a privilege to be given such an intimate, yet respectful, window on the journeys of these souls. The "Up" documentary series provides us an almost miraculous, quintessentially cinematic opportunity, in the words of Scrooge's nephew, to think of other people "as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." And I say, God bless it!

STEVIE

Available at Videomatica

3 NEEDLES

3 NEEDLES (2005, Canada, Thom Fitzgerald)
We're not here to love them, we're here to save their souls from purgatory.

The best looking Canadian film I've seen, gorgeous cinematography of hilly, picturesque African seacoast and even hillier and more picturesque Chinese agricultural land. Strikingly handsome when it keeps quiet, but as soon as it opens its mouth...

Three AIDS stories about corruption, compromise and grotesque ideas of martyrdom are linked only thematically, not interwoven so much as scrambled. Each of the stories is complicated to the point of muddle-headedness, working so hard to pile tragedy on conundrum that human behaviour and simple story mechanics become baffling – a particular problem when the juggler can never seem to keep all three of these gaudy and unwieldly balls in the air at once, there's always at least one lying neglected on the floor.

That's frustrating, and pushes us out of the picture, but what's galling (and almost pushes us out of the theatre) is the outsider-peculiar appropriation of Catholicism to provide a toxic stock for this distasteful soup. It would be difficult to find contemporary Catholic mission workers with the apalling theology of the Mother Superior who provides the gallingly improbable voice-over –– or the destructive naivete of her medical mission team who have as hazardously precarious a hold on medical procedures as they do on theology. These twisted stereotypes we just don't need to see perpetuated.

Nor do we need to see the disturbing sexual violence and commodification that runs throughout the film, from the serial rape of a pregnant woman and a this-is-probably-relevant-to-the-story-but-I-can't-for-the-life-of-me-see-how sequence about coming-of-age circumcision which open the picture to an alternately matter-of-fact / campy look at the Montreal porn industry, or any number of other rapes, sexual murders and sex-as-commodity scenes: the film may be earnest, but still falls far short of earning the right to show these horrors, and so it begins to feel tawdry and exploitative in spite of its higher aspirations.

By far the strongest of the three stories is the one set in rural China: the relationship between an ambitious farmer and his savvy not-yet-twelve year old daughter is lively and loving, and there's a parabolic quality about his story that might evoke the folk-tragic resonance of the shorter works of Steinbeck or Pearl S. Buck if it wasn't so compromised by the narrative and spiritual clutter packed around it.

Available at Videomatica

AMATEUR (HARTLEY)

AMATEUR (1994, USA, Hal Hartley)
How can you be a nymphomaniac and never have sex?
I'm choosy.


I wanted to like this one a whole lot more than I was able to. For a while in the nineties Hal Hartley looked pretty exciting, a certifiably indie director as fascinated by spiritual things as he was by offbeat characters and unconventional storylines. But what sounded audacious and maybe even spiritually illuminating – a young nun leaves the convent to find her truer calling, fills in time writing pornography and dreaming of truer love – turns out to be kind of pointless and a bit tawdry in this not-quite-thrilling thriller (or is it a not-too-funny comedy?). There's a theme here of rebirth, or at least reinvention, and it works for some Hartley fans: none of these characters are what they appear to be, or what they used to be, they're reaching for new beginnings. The film wants to be transcendent: for me, though, it fails to transcend.

Available at Videomatica

Friday, August 11, 2006

THE BIG COUNTRY


THE BIG COUNTRY (1958, USA, William Wyler, James R. Webb / Sy Bartlett screenplay, Jessamyn West adaptation, Donald Hamilton novel)
I'm not responsible for what people think. Only for what I am.

A quiet-spoken easterner arrives out west to marry his fiancee. His manhood is tested, but he's unwilling to do the things needed to prove his honour and win the respect of those on either side of a feud between two ranching families. No gestures heavenward, not a trace of religion or Christ symbolism. But if you reckon Jesus meant what he said about turning the other cheek, this movie might matter to you. It does to me.

Wyler not only directed but had a hand in the adaptation and screenplay of this important, stirring, entertaining film. Multiple writer credits often signal a compromised screenplay: not so here, where the detailed, psychologically complex (and believable) story perfectly fills every one of its 165 minutes without melodrama. (Well okay, the soundtrack works too hard, but every other element works brilliantly, with every dramatic high point well-earned). The dialogue is intelligent, the plot reversals are startling and satisfying, the characters nuanced, the scenery and the cinematography gorgeous (as are the womenfolk). Potent performances from Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Charles Bickford, with a Burl Ives an absolute powerhouse.

From SHANE to OPEN RANGE, westerns concern themselves with the place where honour, justice and violence meet. Most justify (and some glorify) violence as a necessary means to the end of peace and order, the only way for good people to respond to evil in a lawless place. This exceedingly intelligent, heartfelt motion picture seeks another way.

HIGH NOON, STARS IN MY CROWN, THE MISSION

Available at Videomatica

Monday, August 07, 2006

STRANGE CARGO


STRANGE CARGO (1940, Frank Borzage, Lawrence Hazard / Anita Loos / Lesser Samuels screenplay, Richard Sale novel)
In heaven and on earth, in all the world, there's nobody can save you but me. So when you say your prayers, say 'em to me, Cambreau. I'm the only god you can call on now. Remember? You were right when you said God was in me. God's in everybody. Gambier's God, I'm God, you're— You're— Cambreau!

Strange cargo. Strange movie. Andre Verne is a tougher-than-Bogie penal colony hard case who's armed with two deadly weapons, his head and his heart – "and nobody can take 'em away from me." He makes a play for Julie when he's on a dock-side work crew: they meet nasty, not cute, she's a tougher-than-Bacall high class hooker who services the guards and prison officials in a port hotel. She ends up drawn into a prison break, fighting for survival with Verne and several other escapees as they make their way through a hostile jungle (there's quicksand, even. What ever happened to quicksand? It was in every movie when I was a kid, but do you think it shows up anywhere anymore? Must be global warming…) and across a perilous sea in hopes of a new chance at their old lives of crime.

What's strange is the Bible-toting Cambreau (in the novel his first name is Jean. Of course.), who shows up mysteriously in the prison camp – he's clearly not a criminal – and then joins the jailbreak, guiding them when they're lost, offering his life for others, paying their way to freedom, foretelling the future, protecting hardened criminals from their worst impulses and encouraging them to deathbed confessions. ("Escape from Devil's Island," get it?). The religious dialogue and symbolism of this movie are so heavy-handed I kept thinking it must be a church-funded project of some sort, but no way: not with stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Peter Lorre. Not with so much edge on the lead characters: sure they're only movie-tough, but sparks of real cruelty fuel their atrraction, and (adjusting your set to correct for certain movie-isms of the day) these are some pretty dark characters. There may be more Blble quotes per frame than any Billy Graham movie, but there's no church behind this noir-inflected (noir-infected?) escape picture. Fact is, it received a "condemned" rating from the Legion of Decency for "Irreverent use of Scripture" and lustful complications." MIRACLE OF THE BELLS, IN THE RAIN or ON 34th STREET it ain't.

The clash between hard-boiled and holy is jarring much of the time, enough that it's a struggle to take it all seriously. But if we do, ultimately, it's because of Crawford's committed performance – the character talks tough, and goes for rough trade, but there's real pain and regret underneath it all, and ultimately this portrayal of a soul's journey toward redemption is surprisingly effective. Just watch how that face changes over the course of the film. (It's an easy enough face to watch.)

THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, AN INSPECTOR CALLS
SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, COOL HAND LUKE

Available at Videomatica

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

THE NEON BIBLE

THE NEON BIBLE (1995, UK, Terence Davies, John Kennedy Toole novella)
If you were different from anybody else in town, you had to get out. They used to say in school, "you have to think for yourself," but you couldn't do that in town. You have to think what your father thought and that was what everybody thought.

Consider the rocky literary life of John Kennedy Toole. Born in 1937, he wrote THE NEON BIBLE during last high school year, a moody Flannery O'Connor-inspired piece about growing up in backwoods Baptist country. No one would publish it. A decade later he wrote A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. No one would publish it. In 1969, he committed suicide. Toole's mother took the manuscript to Walker Percy, who championed the book: it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. THE NEON BIBLE was published in 1989, and Terence Davies' film adaptation was booed off the screen at the Cannes Festival in 1995.

The film's only advocate seems to be the formidable Jonathan Rosenbaum, who draws comparisons with referencing A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, DAYS OF HEAVEN and the "troubled Christianity" of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, finding "fleeting poetic moments so ecstatic that you may feel yourself rising off your seat." Knowing nothing of the film but its title, that was precisely my experience.

Watching this film is much like seeing a contemporary dance recital or spending an hour and a half viewing installations in a gallery. An aesthetic experience rather than a narrative one: evocative, indirect. We often witness women in states of extreme emotion – a mother weeping, an aunt giggling – but lacking any direct narrative context, we're left to our own devices to figure out why, and even when, these things are happening. Until it occurs to us that this is just how a sensitive child, or a naïve young man, might experience these moments, denied explanation or an understanding of the adult matters that have brought such things to pass.

Southern religion permeates the film, but it's as hard to figure what it signifies as it is to make out what everything else adds up to in this exquisiitely filmed dream landscape. Theatrically conceived, its deliberate visual images seem composed on a vast soundstage in the manner of, say, DOGVILLE, another outsider's vision America's past – though Davies eschews von Trier's pointed narrative and thematic thrust. It's not that there's no story: by the film's end (if you make it that far) you'll find you can recount all the major events in this troubled family's history, and there enough of them to fill a conventional TV mini-series. But you arrive at the details of the story strictly by innuendo and intuition.

This is a film that's far more interested in the feel of things than it is in the cause-and-effect logic of what brings them to pass. The texture of a white sheet on a clothesline, the litany of voices in a revival meeting, the thought of snow falling or not falling at Christmas – perhaps all are the reflection of a too-finely-tuned sensibility, a troubled young mind that lacks the capacity to order experience in conventional ways.

Some films trace their lineage back to tales told round ancient campfires: the pictures are just story illustrations that get up and move around. Others spring from the drawings on the walls of caves, and then to the images that hang on gallery walls: there may be story there, but it's mostly an excuse to look at pictures. Pictures that move.

THE NEON BIBLE is almost nothing but moving pictures – the essence of cinema, or a crashing bore. But if that sounds like something you might want to see, you might just find something more. You may find yourself quietly and mysteriously moved.

NOSTALGHIA, NORTHFORK

Available at Videomatica