Saturday, 12 August 2017

My favourite films from the 1950s

(Note that this is a list of favourites, so some great films may be absent, such as Rashomon or Tokyo Story). 

(A photo of Fellini and Bergman, with Liv Ullmann- source

All about Eve (1950) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder 
In a Lonely Place (1950) by Nicholas Ray 
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) by Elia Kazan 
The Big Carnival aka Ace in the Hole (1951) by Billy Wilder
The Life of Oharu (1952) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
A Geisha aka Gion bayashi (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Summer with Monika (1953) by Ingmar Bergman 
Roman Holiday (1953) by William Wyler 
La Strada (1954) by Federico Fellini
On the Waterfront (1954) by Elia Kazan 
Rear Window (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Dial M for Murder (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) by Ingmar Bergman 
The Killing (1956) by Stanley Kubrick 
The Trouble with Harry (1956) by Alfred Hitchcock
Street of Shame (1956) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Nights of Cabiria (1957) by Federico Fellini 
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) by Billy Wilder
12 Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet
Wild Strawberries (1957) by Ingmar Bergman 
The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman 
An Affair to Remember (1957) by Leo McCarey 
Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock 
North by Northwest (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Some Like It Hot (1959) by Billy Wilder 
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) by Otto Preminger 

So many great films in the 50s. Wonderful period.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Roger Ebert's writings about Fellini

My favourite film critic, whom I always turn to after watching a film, is Roger Ebert. Even though I don’t always agree with him, I share with him an enthusiasm, a passion for cinema, and admire his sensitivity and openness and his elegant prose. Among his best writings are the brilliant reviews of Fellini, which greatly help me appreciate the Italian maestro. 
Here are some of my favourite excerpts: 
Review of La Strada
“In almost all of Fellini's films, you will find the figure of a man caught between earth and sky. ("La Dolce Vita" opens with a statue of Jesus suspended from a helicopter; Marcello Mastroianni opens "8 1/2" floating in the sky, tethered to earth.) They are torn between the carnal and the spiritual. You will also find the waifs and virgins and good wives, contrasted with prostitutes and temptresses (Fellini in his childhood encountered a vast, buxom woman who lived in a shack at the beach, and made her a character again and again). You will find journeys, processions, parades, clowns, freaks, and the shabby melancholy of an empty field at dawn, after the circus has left...” 
Review of Nights of Cabiria
“By the nature of their work prostitutes can find themselves almost anywhere in a city, in almost any circle, on a given night. She's admitted to the nightclub, for example, under the sponsorship of the movie star (Alberto Lazzari). He picks her up after a fight with his fiancee, takes her to his palatial villa, and then hides her in the bathroom when the fiancee turns up unexpectedly (Cabiria spends the night with his dog). Later, seeking some kind of redemption, she joins another girl and a pimp on a visit to a reputed appearance by the Virgin Mary. And in the scene cut from the movie, she accompanies a good samaritan as he visits the homeless with food and gifts (she is shocked to see a once-beautiful hooker crawl from a hole in the ground).
All of these scenes are echoed in one way or another in “La Dolce Vita,” which sees some of the same terrain through the eyes of a gossip columnist (Marcello Mastroianni) instead of a prostitute. In both films, a hooker peeps through a door as a would-be client makes love with his mistress. Both have nightclub scenes opening with exotic ethnic dancers. Both have a bogus appearance by the Virgin. Both have a musical sequence set in an outdoor nightclub. And both have, as almost all Fellini movies have, a buxom slattern, a stone house by the sea, a procession and a scaffold seen outlined against the dawn. These must be personal touchstones of his imagination.” 
Review of La Dolce Vita
“The famous opening scene, as a statue of Christ is carried above Rome by a helicopter, is matched with the close, in which fisherman on the beach find a sea monster in their nets. Two Christ symbols: the statue "beautiful" but false, the fish "ugly" but real. During both scenes there are failures of communication. The helicopter circles as Marcello tries to get the phone numbers of three sunbathing beauties. At the end, across a beach, he sees the shy girl he met one day when he went to the country in search of peace to write his novel. She makes typing motions to remind him, but he does not remember, shrugs, and turns away.” 
“Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita" in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life" represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.” 
Review of 8 ½
“The critic Alan Stone, writing in the Boston Review, deplores Fellini's "stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas." I celebrate it. A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.” 
“Fellini's camera is endlessly delighting. His actors often seem to be dancing rather than simply walking. I visited the set of his "Fellini Satyricon," and was interested to see that he played music during every scene (like most Italian directors of his generation, he didn't record sound on the set but post-synched the dialogue). The music brought a lift and subtle rhythm to their movements. Of course many scenes have music built into them: In "8 1/2," orchestras, dance bands and strolling musicians are seen, and the actors move in a subtly choreographed way, as if they're synchronized. Fellini's scores, by Nino Rota, combine snatches of pop tunes with dance music, propelling the action.
Few directors make better use of space. One of his favorite techniques is to focus on a moving group in the background and track with them past foreground faces that slide in and out of frame. He also likes to establish a scene with a master shot, which then becomes a closeup when a character stands up into frame to greet us. Another technique is to follow his characters as they walk, photographing them in three-quarter profile, as they turn back toward the camera. And he likes to begin dance sequences with one partner smiling invitingly toward the camera before the other partner joins in the dance.”  
Review of Amarcord:
“Sometimes from this tumult an image of perfect beauty will emerge, as when in the midst of a rare snowfall, the count’s peacock escapes and spreads its dazzling tail feathers in the blizzard. Such an image is so inexplicable and irreproducible that all the heart can do is ache with gratitude, and all the young man can know is that he will live forever, love all the women, drink all the wine, make all the movies and become Fellini.” 
“Fellini was more in love with breasts than Russ Meyer, more wracked with guilt than Ingmar Bergman, more of a flamboyant showman than Busby Berkeley. He danced so instinctively to his inner rhythms that he didn’t even realize he was a stylistic original; did he ever devote a moment’s organized thought to the style that became known as “Felliniesque,” or was he simply following the melody that always played when he was working?” 
“It’s also absolutely breathtaking filmmaking. Fellini has ranked for a long time among the five or six greatest directors in the world, and of them all, he’s the natural. Ingmar Bergman achieves his greatness through thought and soul-searching, Alfred Hitchcock built his films with meticulous craftsmanship, and Luis Buñuel used his fetishes and fantasies to construct barbed jokes about humanity. But Fellini .. well, moviemaking for him seems almost effortless, like breathing, and he can orchestrate the most complicated scenes with purity and ease. He’s the Willie Mays of movies.” 
This is just wonderful.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

On Federico Fellini and his detractors

Having just watched again La Dolce Vita and Amarcord, I’m thinking about Fellini’s detractors. He’s overrated, they say, as though it meant anything and could negate his tremendous influence on cinema and other filmmakers. He’s self-indulgent, they say, and we who love his films are seen as pretentious, the 2 words so commonly (mis)used in criticisms, in literature as well as cinema, that I’m not even sure what they mean now. Fellini’s an enormous force, and like Ingmar Bergman, one of the few true auteurs with a specific vision and worldview that is expressed over and over again in their films—his is a world of weak, philandering men and buxom women; of dreams and fantasies and people seeking miracles; of dwarves, clowns and grotesque characters; of magic, circus, hypnosis and carnivals; of parties, affairs and decadence; of drifting people wracked with guilt but unable to escape from themselves. He’s seen as narcissistic because he makes films about himself, creates art out of his own fears, dreams and longings. His films are personal, like Bergman’s, they’re his means of self-expression. That to me is not a drawback—Fellini and Bergman are both so large, so original and visionary; and, genius aside, they don’t have the self-pity that makes someone like Woody Allen so limited in comparison. 
Another argument against Fellini is that his films don’t have a narrative. What they mean is a conventional plot. His earlier films like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, and perhaps I Vitelloni (which I don’t remember very well), have a 3-act structure; his later masterpieces such as La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and Amarcord don’t. They don’t even have what is known as the inciting incident. But why must a film have a conventional structure to work? 

The structure of La Dolce Vita is 7 days and 7 nights, with the same formula—night of pleasure, and morning of disillusion and guilt. That is the point of the film, that his life is forever the same and Marcello is stuck in a cycle that he can’t get out, that he both despises his job as a gossip reporter and the life of hedonism but at the same time loves “the sweet life” (la dolce vita) and can’t leave it, that he keeps searching for love and meaning, in the wrong places, and never finds it. The only kind of break from the structure of 7 nights 7 days is his visits to Steiner, the model, the embodiment of success and happiness that Marcello admires and aims towards, until an event shatters all the illusion, breaks him, and makes him sink deeper in his life of hedonism. 
Similarly, 8 ½ doesn’t have an inciting incident, and doesn’t really have a journey. Guido is stuck. 8 ½ is a film about being unable to make a film, about the equivalent of writer’s block in cinema. Mixing reality with fantasy and dream, it is not a director’s search for ideas for a film, but an examination of his creative problems and personal troubles, his childhood, his relations with women, and his own selfishness and inability to love. Guido has to accept and reconcile with them all, to get out of creative block, but he is the same person in the end. 

Different from La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Amarcord is a series of vignettes and not about a character being stuck. A film made out of nostalgia and pure joy, it’s a film that encapsulates Fellini’s memories of a village and its people, and the experience of growing up. It’s watched not for a story, but for the place, for the characters and Fellini’s warmth and love for people, for Nino Rota’s music, for many memorable moments and the sense of the wonder. As Roger Ebert put it, Amarcord is “like a long dance number, interrupted by dialogue, public events and meals”. It’s a beautiful film about adolescence. 
Why do some people think a film must have a conventional narrative to work?

Monday, 7 August 2017

The close-up: Ingmar Bergman vs Kenji Mizoguchi

These days, as I started to like Mizoguchi, I’ve been thinking about how different he was from Ingmar Bergman—Ingmar Bergman was fascinated by the human face, which he saw as the most important subject of the cinema, and constantly used close-ups, whereas Mizoguchi almost never did, and generally kept the camera a bit distanced from the subject.
I’ve just seen Sisters of the Gion, showing Mizoguchi at his worst. I don’t mean the film is bad: the story is moving, the characters are well-developed and complex, and the themes are the main concerns he kept dealing with in his films—life struggles vs dignity and honour; Japan’s patriarchal culture and its misogynistic, exploitative geisha system; fallen women/ outcasts; weak, cowardly and selfish men, etc. The problem is that Mizoguchi was yet to be Mizoguchi at this point—he hadn’t develop his style.

(here the characters are completely hidden) 

Why keep the camera so far away? I don’t mean he should use close-ups, and definitely don’t mean that the better option would be shot—reverse shot. In fact, when there is conflict, it’s better to see actors reacting to each other instead of seeing each one isolated in a close-up. It’s fine too, to see some body language. But the camera could still be closer. It’s too far away most of the time. Why not move it? Why not have another camera set-up closer to the subjects? The characters argue, or get upset, or come to a realisation, etc. but I can’t see their faces. Avoiding the close-up and keeping the camera far away, Mizoguchi’s ignoring one of the advantages cinema has over theatre.
But that was then, in 1936. His most renowned films were from the 1950s, such as Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu. He had developed his style, and became the master of mise-en-scène. He still avoided the close-up, but his camera now constantly moved and was no longer static, he brilliantly orchestrated the movement of his actors and his camera, and his films had a rather distant, dispassionate style.
Here are 2 excellent articles about his style:
The Life of Oharu is the saddest film I’ve ever seen about a woman’s life (more depressing than Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria)—a story of a noblewoman in 17th century Japan, banished because in love and involved with a man of a lower class, then sold into a clan as a concubine, then forced to become a courtesan, then accepted as a kind of servant, and then after a brief time of happiness, she falls even lower as she’s forced into street prostitution, and so on. Except for a scene somewhere at the beginning of the film, when Oharu wants to kill herself after the man she loves is killed, in the film there is no melodrama, no excess sentimentality, no camera lingering on Oharu’s face in grief. Oharu is stoic—she accepts it all with dignity, and tries to behave as morally as she can. Mizoguchi’s dispassionate style therefore fits the film perfectly. The Life of Oharu is a haunting masterpiece.
However, to go back to the comparison at the beginning of the post, I think the key difference between Ingmar Bergman and Mizoguchi, even though they both focused on women, is that Bergman explored the inner world and human consciousness—emotions, the soul and inner demons (when his films deal with relationships, the subjects of study are actually selfishness and the inability to love, and a misanthropy that is borne out of self-loathing), whereas Mizoguchi was interested in the outer world—society and culture, feudalism, the patriarchy (especially the geisha system), and the struggle between economic need or survival and dignity. Therefore, Bergman got as close as possible to the individual and wanted the audience to watch what happens on a human face, whereas Mizoguchi wanted the audience to see his protagonists in their settings and in relation to other people. Different focus, different approach and style.
And they both are masters.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

100 film conventions; and a few cool things recently noted

Here are my notes from Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Films Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll: 
1/ Space: 
- X-axis (horizontal): 
Left to right: good 
Right to left: bad 
- Y-axis (vertical): 
Straight line: good 
Detouring or being sidetracked: bad 
- XY-axes (diagonals): 
Descending: aided by gravity; once the motion starts, it’s hard to stop 
Ascending: against gravity 
- Z-axis (depth-of-field): 
Character’s height and power 
- Z-axis (planes of action): 
Staging in-depth: actions in foreground, middleground and background 
- Z-axis (rack focus/ pull focus): 
Shifting focus from 1 object to another 
2/ Frame: 
- Directing the eye: light and dark function as visual signposts—directing the audience to focus on what’s intended
- Balance/ symmetry 
- Imbalance
- Orientation 
- Size: character’s relative strength and weakness may be established by the use of size 
3/ Shape within the frame: 
- Circular (circular imagery can inherently suggest confusion, repetition and time) 
- Linear 
- Triangular: created by lighting, furnishings, exterior graphics, character positioning, or movement; harmony or disharmony (e.g. love triangle) 
- Rectangular: may represent logic, civilisation, control, or the aesthetics of modernity; can represent death (coffin) 
- Organic vs geometric 
4/ Editing: 
- Montage: created through an assembly of quick cuts, disconnected in time or place, that combine to form a larger idea
- Assembly editing 
- Mise-en-Scène: new compositions are created through blocking, lens zooms and camera movement instead of cutting; uninterrupted take 
- Intercutting/ cross-cutting: cutting back and forth between 2 actions occurring simultaneously in 2 different locations 
- Split screen 
- Dissolves: blending 1 shot to another
- Smash cut: to jar the audience with a sudden and unexpected change in image or sound (e.g. cutting a wide shot against a huge close-up or vice versa)
5/ Time: 
- Expanding time through pacing 
- Contrast of time (pacing and intercutting): slow vs fast (suspense) 
- Expanding time—overlapping action 
- Slow-motion 
- Fast-motion
- Flashback
- Flashforward: cut to the future, real or imagined; typically assisted with a slow dissolve
- Freeze-frame
- Visual foreshadowing 
6/ Sound effects: 
- Realistic sound (diegetic): character, emotional response and outer world 
- Surreal sound (meta-diegetic): inner world 
7/ Music: 
- Lyrics as narrator: character’s inner thoughts 
- Symbolic use of music 
- Music as a moveable prop: e.g. used to express an idea linked to a character 
8/ Scene transitions: 
- Matching audio segue 
- Audio bridge: dialogue or sound effects 
- Visual match-cut: 
Graphic similarity
Pattern and colour
- Extended match dissolve (time transition) 
- Disrupted match-cut: 2 matched images separated by a single shot 
9/ Camera lenses: 
- Wide-angle 
3 grounds 
Establishing shots 
- Telephoto: brings distant objects closer to the viewer, compresses space, making objects appear to be on the same horizontal plane; its shallow depth-of-field throws objects, both in front of and behind the focal point, out of focus 
- Fish-eye: distortion 
- Prop lenses within the scene 
- Objects: stained glass, water or plastic (distortion) 
10/ Camera position: 
- Close-up 
- Extreme close-up
- 2-shot 
- Over-the-shoulder shot 
- Point-of-view 
- High-angle: makes subject small and vulnerable 
- Low-angle: makes subject large and dominant 
- High-low combine
11/ Camera motion: 
- Static shot
- Pan
- Tilt
- Rotation 
- Tracking shot
- Circular: hand-held camera, Steadicam, or tracks 
- Push-in 
- Pull-out 
- Crane 
- Handheld 
- Steadicam 
- Aerial 
12/ Lighting: 
- Rembrandt lighting: light vs dark 
- TV lighting: conventionally bright, flat and shadowless 
- Candlelight: flatters the face, smoothens the skin and adds a warm tone 
- Motivated lighting: any light that would naturally exist in the world depicted in the frame, e.g. a lamp
- Unmotivated light: e.g. the bath of light symbolising goodness
- Motion: e.g. swinging light bulb, flash lights, etc.
13/ Colour: 
- Coding character 
14/ Props: 
- Externalising character: 
Dramatic way to express a character’s inner world 
Gives a scene an added layer of meaning
- Repurposing props: the meaning of a prop changes over the course of the film
- Contrast 
15/ Wardrobe: 
- Wardrobe 
- Repurposing wardrobe 
- Contrast of wardrobe
16/ Locations: 
- Defining character 
- Location as unifying element: e.g. similar locations 
- Location as theme 
- Moving locations: e.g. train 
17/ Natural environment: 
- Climate 
- Seasons and the passage of time 
- Physical phenomena: can be foreshadowing, can have symbolic meaning, etc. 


Here are a few cool things I’ve just noted lately watching films: 
- The fade-out in the middle of the scene in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue 
- The fade-to/from-red in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers
- The wipe in Kurosawa (scene transition)
- Ingmar Bergman’s juxtaposed faces: close-up of 2 faces, in the same shot, not looking at each other
- Kurosawa’s axial cut
- The geometry of the scene in Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well
- Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scène: move characters around, and then move the camera accordingly; long take
- The dream sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona of Elisabet entering Alma’s room—the use of smoke and the resulting ghost/dream image  
- The metaphorical/ symbolic images in Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality 
- The repetition of the exact same scene, from 2 different angles, in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona 
- The face-merging in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona: the morph at the beginning of the film, and the combination of the 2 halves 
- The superimposed image in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Random thoughts on A Geisha: Mizoguchi vs Kurosawa; A Geisha vs Memoirs of a Geisha

Last night, I watched Kenji Mizoguchi's A Geisha, aka Gion Bayashi
It is a great and heartbreaking film, sad without being sentimental. 
I’ve started to like Mizoguchi. So far I’ve seen 3 films: this one and Ugetsu Monogatari are great; Miss Oyu is also very good, and deeply sad (I just don’t really like the ending and the face of the actress playing Oyu). 
Over time, I might even prefer Mizoguchi to Kurosawa. In the West, Kurosawa has always been more renowned and popular, with an enormous influence; his greatness is undeniable; Ran and The Bad Sleep Well will always remain my personal favourites (The Bad Sleep Well is simply perfect). However, Kurosawa can sometimes be rather didactic and sentimental. One of his worst films is Dreams, which, visually dazzling as it is, feels contrived, falsely coherent, and intolerably preachy—going against the nature of dreams. Not only so, I’m one of the few people who love Kurosawa but don’t like the acclaimed Ikiru: it’s great until the death of the protagonist; the sequence at the funeral is too lengthy and repetitive to be effective and moving, after a while, it all becomes false.  
When I watched Ugetsu, Miss Oyu and then A Geisha, there was not a false note. A Geisha touched the depths of my soul—the story of the 2 geisha is haunting. 


I’ve noticed a few things about Mizoguchi: 
1/ He likes long takes, and a moving camera. 
2/ He rarely uses close-ups, though it could be a Japanese thing—I hardly see close-ups in Kurosawa and Ozu either, I’m not sure about other directors in that period like Hiroshi Teshigahara or Shohei Imamura.
3/ It looks like he moves the actors around in a scene, and then moves the camera accordingly. 


Mizoguchi’s A Geisha reminds me of how much I hated Memoirs of a Geisha
1/ Think about it: Memoirs of a Geisha is a Hollywood film about geisha, in which the 3 leading geisha roles go to 2 Chinese actresses (Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li) and a Chinese Malaysian actress (Michelle Yeoh), and all dialogue is in English. Generally speaking, to Westerners, Asians look all the same, but it really bugs me because as an Asian, I can tell that Chinese and Japanese people have different facial expressions, gestures and mannerisms. I’m also too familiar with Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi to convince myself to accept them as geisha. 
In addition, for a film that does a lot of explaining about the whole geisha tradition, they get lots of things wrong regarding hairstyles and makeups, which is better explained here:
When some people get offended about white people wearing dreadlocks or cornrows, or wearing kimono, and call it cultural appropriation, I see it as a trifle, a non-problem, because it doesn’t affect anyone—the concept of cultural appropriation is nonsensical, in my opinion. But it’s different in the case of Memoirs of a Geisha. I don’t care that the director’s a white American; I despise it because of the inaccuracies, the wrong facial expressions and mannerisms, the misrepresentation, and the apparent carelessness and lack of respect. Nobody said a word about the America in Brokeback Mountain, nor the England in Sense and Sensibility, even though the director is Ang Lee, a Taiwanese. 
On my course, a guy made a short documentary called Kungfu Postman. The guy in the film does karate; when it’s pointed out that kung fu and karate were different things, the director said the guy did lots of things: karate, judo, etc. With all due respect, and I think the director’s a nice guy, I hate that thoughtless attitude—karate and judo are Japanese, kung fu is Chinese, you can’t casually lump them together as “well, Asian… same thing”. 
2/ Memoirs of a Geisha obsessively follows the character’s training, her dance lessons, her getting dressed and wearing make-ups, the seductive charm of geisha—living works of art… 
A Geisha has none of that glamour. I was initially surprised to see that Mizoguchi didn’t really bother about a maiko’s training (maiko is an apprentice geisha). There’s no need. He’s interested in the soul of his characters, in the restrictions imposed on “the symbol of femininity in Japan”, in the difficulties of geisha and their struggle to maintain dignity and personal rights. It is very Japanese, but at the same time, also universal. 
Memoirs of a Geisha, at the core, is a conventional, formulaic love story. The problems of its characters are surface-level, there can be some very visually satisfying scenes such as the dance scenes but all the stuff about geisha seem to be there like a fetish—something foreign, something exotic. The conflicts are Hollywood (after all, it’s based on a novel written by another white man). Why some people like it, I don’t understand—it’s empty, and banal.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Dance of Reality

The Dance of Reality is a very weird film. By that, you must understand that it’s very strange, bizarre and extreme, because I think I have a high tolerance for weirdness. It’s a stew of a film—a quasi-biographical film, reminiscent of Fellini’s Amarcord, mixed with surrealism and metaphor. With a tremendous imagination and a talent for crazy allegories, Jodorowsky creates a film full of striking images, bold colours and grotesque scenes: a boy throws a rock into the ocean that causes a wave dumping thousands of sardines all around him; a woman urinates over her husband to cure him of a fatal infection; a man decides to die, walks down to his grave and draws his last breath; a woman ties a stone to some balloons to carry her message; a man, with fear, becomes paralysed in the literal sense, etc. It’s no wonder that Jodorowsky said “I did not want LSD to be taken. I wanted to fabricate the drug's effects.”
However, it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. Even though the film has its longueurs, partly because the mother sings every single line like an operatic aria, and it’s not something I’d like to watch over and over again, it’s a very poignant film. Jaime the father, a Stalin-obsessed Jewish man, goes on quest to assassinate the Chilean dictator Ibáñez, only to realise later that Ibáñez and his hero Stalin are the same, and that Jaime himself is a tyrant. It’s not Ibáñez, but the tyrant in himself, that he has to destroy—that gives the film extraordinary emotional power. The Dance of Reality is, in a sense, a fantastical coming-of-age tale where it’s not the child but the father that learns and grows. The film is grotesque, but fascinating, and wonderfully human.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Robert Altman's 3 Women


Brief summary: Pinky Rose (real name Mildred) is enamoured of her colleague and roommate Millie (another Mildred), who is perfect in the childlike eyes of Pinky Rose and in the eyes of Millie’s clueless self. Everything becomes bizarre as Pinky Rose, after an incident, starts to “steal” Millie’s identity. In the background there’s a mysterious pregnant woman named Willie who rarely speaks and paints unsettling and haunting murals. Which is reality? Or is it all a dream? Are the 3 women separate, or part of the same person? 
3 Women is an avant-garde film that came from Robert Altman’s dream and got some inspiration from Persona. If you haven’t watched it, you should read Roger Ebert’s review. If you have watched it, read it too—it is one of his most insightful articles. 
Having watched it only once, I can’t write about its many hidden meanings, so I will only write about Mildred “Millie” Lammoreaux, which is probably Shelley Duvall’s best performance (even though people usually think of The Shining). Millie seems to be in a constant state of preparing for dates and dinners that never happen; she imagines that everyone enjoys her company and men are crazy about her, and babbles on about anything without noticing that people ignore or even laugh at her among themselves. Never have I seen in films any woman so desperate and deluded. The awkward silences, the ramblings, the cheerful greetings that are always ignored, the unnoticed laughs, the ridiculous one-piece suit, the sheer inability of the character to see herself and to perceive other people’s reactions, etc.—many moments are so cringy that I feel uncomfortable. This is certainly one of the most interesting and memorable female characters on screen. 
Interestingly, when Pinky starts to steal her identity and take over her world, the persona she adopts is not the real Millie, but the person Millie sees herself as—fun, confident and popular with the men. As Millie, Pinky’s better than the real Millie. 
This film is a must-watch.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

On Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, and the genius of Ingmar Bergman

Sometimes it’s sad to think about the reputation of some great artists. Ingmar Bergman has always been seen as the gloomy Swede, forever dealing with God’s silence, people’s inner demons, and hateful relationships; his films have a reputation for being difficult and challenging, and in the eyes of detractors, are seen as pretentious and self-indulgent or boring and depressing or both; at the same time, his films, Persona especially, are much analysed and written about, and they deal with religion, psychology and philosophy. All these things combined make it seem like his works are inaccessible and uninteresting—tedious, heavy in ideas, misanthropic and depressing in tone, dry, devoid of life, perhaps even dated and visually boring. At least that was the misconception I had before I watched Bergman, and the impression I got when I first approached his works without having the right mindset.
Now that I’ve got into the world of Bergman, everything has changed. Before being a psychologist and a thinker, Bergman’s a master technician, a great visual storyteller, and a true artist who saw cinema as a serious art form, who tested and expanded the possibilities of cinema, and who constantly reinvented himself even while dealing with the same themes throughout his career.
Speaking of visuals alone, his black-and-white films are magnificent, especially his collaborations with Sven Nykvist such as Persona, Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly. I don’t understand people who refuse to watch black-and-white films—colour can be a distraction, the absence of colour draws the viewer’s attention to the composition of the frame and the lighting, and helps notice the contrast and all the shades.

Then when he makes colour films, he makes the best use of colours. Cries and Whispers is the best example. The film is dominated by 3 colours, red, white and black. The main colour red conveys passion, hatred, blood, violence, death and extreme emotions, effectively used not only in production design and costumes but also in fade-outs (instead of black or white fades), a daring choice, and the few (2, I think) scenes with green grass in the film, by contrast, create a strong sense of claustrophobia in the indoor scenes, which heightens the intensity and at the same time makes the viewer feel that the sisters are somehow imprisoned by the way they are.

Lately, I’ve just watched Fanny and Alexander, the 5-hour version. As in Cries and Whispers, the cinematographer is the wonderful Sven Nykvist. It is 1 of the most visually beautifully films I have ever seen. Every single frame is like a painting (there’s only another film that makes me feel that way, Barry Lyndon, but the film as a whole is hollow). The colours and lighting are perfect, Fanny and Alexander looks magical in all the scenes at the Ekdahls’ house, and there’s a kind of balance and harmony in every frame that I can’t quite explain—I can only say it’s very pleasing and even exhilarating.
More importantly, Ingmar Bergman experiments and reinvents himself. Persona, written when he was in the hospital, was unlike anything he had previously made; and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s new and interesting on many levels, but 1 of the most discussed things is the film reel at the beginning and ending of the film, and how the film cracks and burns in the middle—Persona is a film that reminds the audience that it is a film. However, it doesn’t make me feel the way I feel about Godard sometimes—breaking rules for the sake of being irreverent and experimental. The reminder of the artifice of film goes with the mental breakdown of the actress played by Liv Ullmann, and her silence because of her feeling about the crudeness of art, the artificiality and insincerity of her profession as an actress, and all the masks she wears in real life. The crack in the middle of the film denotes the breakdown, the dissociation of the nurse—when she on the 1 hand betrays the principle of her profession, and on the other hand, loses her sense of identity.
Together with Persona, Cries and Whispers is another film where Ingmar Bergman felt he went as far as he could go. A film about dying, and death, and people who are alive but inside already dead, and about a person who has died but is stuck halfway, Cries and Whispers is his most painful and intense film. As Roger Ebert has put it, “to see it is to touch the extremes of human feeling”. His use of the colour red is not merely symbolic—it creates strong emotional and dramatic impact, heightens the intensity, and makes us feel confined and claustrophobic. Nevertheless, it’s not as negative as it sounds—the selfless love and devotion of Anna, the servant, negates the selfishness and heartlessness of the sisters, and in the end, Cries and Whispers, despite everything, is life-affirming.
Then, after about a dozen films, when I thought I knew Ingmar Bergman, I watched Fanny and Alexander. The themes are the same, but the film is different, not only because the film has children and many things are seen through the eyes of an imaginative 10-year-old boy, but also because it’s warm, exuberant and magical, like a fairytale, and Dickensian in many ways (with children, a cruel stepfather that is a bishop, a Jewish art-dealer and money-lender…). It’s a wonderful farewell to cinema. It is full of life, and magic. 

Ingmar Bergman is the greatest of filmmakers.
14/7 was his 99th birthday, and 30/7 is the 10th anniversary of his death.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

18/7/1817- 18/7/2017

Jane Austen died 200 years ago today.
Why do you like Jane Austen? Which of her works are the best in your opinion, and which are your favourites?

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive, which I’ve just watched the 2nd time, is for me the kind of film that is much better afterwards, when I think about it, than when I was watching it.
Do I agree with BBC’s choice of Mulholland Drive as the greatest film of the 21st century? Probably not. But it’s an unusual film, a daring film—David Lynch plays with the form and experiments with narrative. The key moment of the film is at Club Silencio: a man says “No hay banda. There is no band.”, which is followed by a beautiful and mesmerising performance in Spanish—we are captivated, we are swept up by it, then the singer drops dead onstage whilst the song continues playing, shattering the illusion. We are thrown into reality. The film reminds me of the Ingmar Bergman quote “When film is not a document, it is dream”. There can be other ways to interpret Mulholland Drive, such as alternate realities, but I go with the interpretation that the 1st 2/3 of the film is a dream—Diane’s dream, the rest is reality. As Diane is a failing actress, depressed and destructive after abandoned by the glamorous but selfish and opportunistic Camilla, Betty is the person she dreams to be, an aspiring actress welcomed and praised by everyone in fairytale Hollywood, and Rita is the person she wishes Camilla to be, a distressed person who follows her, has to depend on her, and loves her.
This is an important film.

Monday, 17 July 2017

A review of Woody Allen’s films

Love and Death? Watch Bergman’s The Seventh Seal instead. 
Stardust Memories? Watch Fellini’s 8 ½ instead. 
A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy? Watch Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night instead. 
The Purple Rose of Cairo? Watch Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria instead. 
Radio Days? Watch Fellini’s Amarcord instead. 
Alice? Watch Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits instead. 
Husbands and Wives? Or Scenes from a Mall? Watch Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage instead. 
Shadows and Fog? Watch Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, The Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel instead. 
Deconstructing Harry? Watch Bergman’s Wild Strawberries instead. 
Crimes and Misdemeanors? And Match Point? Read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment instead. 
To Rome with Love? Watch Fellini’s The White Sheik instead. 
Blue Jasmine? Watch Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire instead. 
Interiors? Just watch any Ingmar Bergman chamber drama instead. 

Disclaimer: I do like Woody Allen, especially Annie Hall, Love and Death, Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Ingmar Bergman's note on Cries and Whispers

I’ve just watched Cries and Whispers again. It’s 1 of Ingmar Bergman’s most accomplished films; not sure why I can’t write about it.
But I’ve just found this in Irving Singer’s book Ingmar Bergman’s Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity: in his notebooks, Bergman calls Cries and Whispers a “poem: a human being dies, but as in a nightmare, gets stuck half way through and pleads for tenderness, mercy, deliverance, something. 2 other human beings are there, and their actions, their thoughts are in relation to the dead, not-dead, dead. The 3rd person saves her by gently rocking, so she can find peace, by going with her part of the way.”
That is beautiful. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Not a review. This is a post for people already familiar with the film. 

1/ At the beginning of the film, there are some long nature shots. The scenery is to “reappear” at the end, in a different setting. They are long, but you must take it all in, you must really feel it, in order to see the difference between Earth and Solaris, and to understand the feeling of emptiness and nostalgia of the astronauts. Kris Kelvin appears detached and cold, and doesn’t seem to particularly care for nature, but even he attaches strips of paper to air vents to create the sound of rustling leaves.
2/ Speaking of which, dead silence is intolerable when ears are used to noise. There must always be some sound, in the background, hardly noticeable because taken for granted—absolute silence would be noticeable, and awful. There is no life on Solaris, only a roaring, formless sea. 
3/ The detail about the sound of rustling leaves also makes me think about things in life I take for granted. 

4/ Most interesting in Solaris is the character of Hari—a person that isn’t a real human being, an alien that doesn’t look alien, a being that is no more than a materialisation of Kelvin’s conception of her.
5/ She is Hari but she isn’t Hari. She is a materialisation of the Hari in Kelvin’s head—she has no secrets because he didn’t know her secrets, she is suicidal because the real Hari committed suicide and that’s how Kelvin always thought about her.
6/ Gibarian (the astronaut who commits suicide) mentions the word conscience. That seems to apply for Hari—kill her, she appears again; she destroys herself, then revives minutes later; she’s like an old guilt, never forgotten. 
7/ Roger Ebert wrote, in his review of the other Solaris (2002)
“In other words, Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. […] The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them.” 
Of course it’s not exactly the same. Because Hari is a materialisation of Kelvin’s conception of her, she’s incapable of shocking him, or even changing. Her self-destructiveness is part of the conception. 
But it’s an interesting thought. People can never know each other fully, completely. (Sometimes) we love not the actual person, but our conception of them. 

8/ At the same time, Hari is so interesting because she’s becoming real—she becomes so real that she knows she isn’t real. She has self-consciousness. 
9/ Solaris is sci-fi so that the genre provides with the planet, but it’s really about psychology and philosophy. 
10/ In the end, the scenery we have seen earlier appears again, but it’s not the same place—it’s on Solaris. The entire place is formed by Kelvin’s consciousness alone. What do I think about that? I don’t know. I don’t think I got much out of Solaris after 1 viewing.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

On rewatching Persona; some other remarks on cinema

1/ After the 2nd viewing of Persona, I’m more inclined to go with the literal interpretation—a story between 2 women, as what we see on the screen, instead of the interpretation that they’re 2 sides of the same woman.
2/ Of course, not everything that appears on the screen does happen. Persona is a blend of reality and fantasy. This time, it becomes clearer which sequences are real and which not.
3/ The women are alike. The repetition of the exact same scene, from another angle, creates an effect, makes us feel something different—the 1st time, Alma is trying to speak for Elisabet, analysing her; the 2nd time, she seems to be speaking about herself.
4/ The women are alike; both have been hiding behind a mask (persona) and now cast it away—Elisabet as a loving wife and mother, Alma as a good nurse and happy engaged woman.
5/ A good nurse she is not. Alma lacks the necessary detachment, she lacks the stability and mental strength for the job. She lets bitterness and resentment get the better of her, and betrays the principle of her profession.
6/ Between the 2, Alma is weak, Elisabet is stronger. The nurse herself knows it requires some mental strength to remain silent, refuse to speak.
7/ Ingmar Bergman says, in an interview by Charles Thomas Samuels, “The monk scares her because his conviction is so enormous he is willing to die for it”. That is a much greater mental strength.
6/ Perhaps she realises that that is real suffering, as is the tragedy of the Holocaust. What does she think of? The smallness and insignificance of her own suffering? The catastrophes and injustices of the world? The unfairness of life in general? The falsehoods of all things, which make her fall silent so as not to say a lie?
7/ Of course, the words of the doctor should not be seen as the key to understanding the film.

8/ I shall not attempt to decode the opening sequence of Persona and reduce them to a series of symbols: sexual desire, horror, sacrifice, etc. Film is a visual medium—it’s about image, and how we intuitively respond to it, how we feel about it. 
Ingmar Bergman remarks in his essay “Each Film Is My Last”: 
“Film is not the same thing as literature. As often as not the character and substance of the 2 art forms are in conflict. What it really depends on is hard to define, but it probably has to do with the self-responsive process. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act and in connection with the intellect, and little by little it plays on the imagination or feelings. It is completely different with the motion picture. When we see a film in a cinema we are conscious that an illusion has been prepared for us and we relax and accept it with our will and intellect. We prepare the way into our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings without touching the mind.” 
He says again in the introduction to Four Screenplays
“When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings. Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.” 
Andrei Tarkovsky expresses the same idea in Sculpting in Time:
“A literary work can only be received through symbols, through concepts — for that is what words are; but cinema, like music, allows for utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work.” 
Many literature lovers speak of films with disdain because, they argue, reading requires you to use your own imagination whereas a film already gives you images which you take passively. That is the mistaken view of people who neither know truly great films nor understand the nature of cinema and what it’s capable of. The 2 media have different strengths and powers (and different limitations). The 1st films I think of as a response to people who think film is an inferior art, or not a serious art form, would be: 8 ½, Persona, Three Colours: Blue and 2001: A Space Odyssey
9/ I also found, on the internet, this quote by Ingmar Bergman: 
“When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. Only a few times have I managed to creep inside. Most of my conscious efforts have ended in embarrassing failure – The Serpent’s Egg, The Touch, Face to Face and so on.
Fellini, Kurosawa and Bunuel move in the same fields as Tarkovsky. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness. Melies was always there without having to think about it. He was a magician by profession.
Film as dream, film as music.” 
Not commenting on Antonioni (who, when I watched a few years ago, didn’t quite get), I agree about Fellini, and a bit more tentatively (because I haven’t seen much) about Tarkovsky and Bunuel. It also applies for Ingmar Bergman. But I’m not quite sure about Kurosawa—that doesn’t sound right to me. 
10/ After Ingmar Bergman, I intend to check out Tarkovsky. I’ve seen Solaris.

Friday, 30 June 2017

My new 10 favourite films

Persona by Ingmar Bergman 
The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman 
Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder 
Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini 
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring by Kim Ki-duk 
Ran by Akira Kurosawa 
Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese
The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola
Casablanca by Michael Curtis 
The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme 

(replaced 1 film on the list on 17/6/2017) 

Some remarks on cinema; and 2 video essays on Akira Kurosawa

For quite some time, I’ve been intending to write about many self-proclaimed cinephiles and film students’ ignorance of many masters such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa…*, and their contemptuous disregard for the legacy of cinema. Related to it would be, on the 1 hand, the fallacious argument that art is subjective and it all comes down to taste (as I said “Ingmar Bergman’s 1 of the masters of cinema”, a friend and classmate of mine said “So is Joss Whedon”), and on the other hand, the charges of elitism or pretentiousness against anyone who takes cinema seriously and likes classic films and/or arthouse films.
Ignorance is fine (I, for example, have no knowledge of silent films apart from Charlie Chaplin). It’s a lack of desire to know that is problematic. Most harmful is philistinism and anti-intellectualism—there is no cure.
However, I’m not going to bother. It’s their problem if they stay in their comfort zone and limit themselves (watch only new films, colour films or English-language films, etc.) and don’t know what they’re missing out on. As in literature, it’s not worth an effort. I’m just going to continue what I’m doing, and explore more great directors.

Here are 2 brilliant video essays I found on the art of Akira Kurosawa (I’ve seen Ran, Rashomon, Dreams, Ikiru and The Bad Sleep Well; am watching Stray Dog).

Akira Kurosawa - Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) - The Geometry of a Scene from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Note to self, after watching The Bad Sleep Well (a perfect film): try the axial cut.

*: Some film students not only haven’t watched them, but haven’t even heard of them.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Wild Strawberries and Ingmar Bergman's concern with love (or the inability to love)

In a discussion a short while ago, my friend Himadri called Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman’s Christmas Carol.
Look at this passage from Harvey R. Greenberg’s essay “The Rags of Time” (Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky with Joseph F. Hill):
“… A lesser artist would have cast Borg in the likeness of Scrooge, waking from troubled dreams to spread good cheer until the end of his days. But Borg is an ancient man with an extremely rigid character. Miss Agda and Evald, though they have been hurt by him, believe nothing else possible at his hands; they are actually as inflexible after their own fashion as he. Brilliantly, Bergman portrays the rejection of Borg’s tentative efforts to soften his behavior towards the old housekeeper and the stinging rebuff he receives from Evald, so much his father’s son. People such as these do not give up their defenses with such facility. And Borg’s self-description in the opening scene is written after this memorable day has passed; the mask he turns to the world would not seem to have altered that significantly.”
Whilst seeing some similarities between Wild Strawberries and A Christmas Carol, I agree with this view—the spiritual journey in Ingmar Bergman’s film (as opposed to the physical journey) doesn’t quite lead to any real transformation; it’s about self-understanding and understanding of people close to him, resulting in a slightly changed outlook but no significant change in person. The film is no parable, nor fairy tale. At that age, people don’t change; Isak Borg can’t be like the protagonist in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. For years, he has been living like a dead man, all of a sudden he’s shocked by Marianne’s admission of her dislike of him, into re-examining his whole life, and through memories and dreams, comes to see his own egotism, rigidity and coldness, and to realise that whilst he has been successful in his career, he has failed in his private life. What makes Wild Strawberries a life-affirming film rather than a cold dissection of a man’s personal failures and his loneliness, is Marianne—the life of the film. She has feeling, she has love, she chooses life—she has seen coldness from Borg’s old mother going down to Borg and then her husband Evald, but somewhere it must end, and she will end it. 
Now, after many films, I’ve concluded that Ingmar Bergman’s main concern, even in the films that thematically deal with the question of God, is sympathy and love, or rather, selfishness and the inability to love and see beyond oneself. Through a Glass Darkly isn’t about God and the vision of God as a giant spider, as much as it’s about a woman’s struggle with schizophrenia, her inability to respond to the love of her husband, and her cold, distant father’s use of her mental disorder as material for his novel. Winter Light deals with faith, but placed at the centre of the film is a cold pastor who can even be unnecessarily harsh and cruel. As Roger Ebert put it:
“There is more silence here than the silence of God. Tomas' late wife is wrapped in the silence of the grave. Tomas is silent to the need of the fisherman. He cannot respond to Marta's love except by stern silence and rejection. Fredrik, the church organist, is silent in the way he pays no attention to the service and wishes for it to be over. Those who are not silent, such as the fisherman and his wife, ask for help and receive none.
But then there is Algot, the crooked sexton. He alone of all these people seems to have given more thought to the suffering of Christ than to his own suffering. His insights into Christ's passion are convincing and empathetic, but the pastor cannot hear him, is wrapped in his own cold indifference.” 
Even The Seventh Seal is not really about the existence of a God. 1 of the 1st images we associate with the film may be the knight playing chess with Death, but Antonius Block isn’t the centre or the only important character of the film. The Seventh Seal must be understood by placing him next to his squire Jons and Jof the actor, both of whom live instead of wasting time searching for answers. Ingmar Bergman’s view is most manifest in the character of Jons, who appears realistic and sceptical, even mocking and cynical, and doesn’t bother himself with metaphysical questions, but throughout the story, we see him act and help others. His actions make Antonius Block’s questions meaningless. The knight’s too wrapped up in himself, till the end. 
I think Ingmar Bergman’s the greatest of filmmakers, because of his mastery of techniques and understanding of human beings, and more importantly, because of his vision and humanity. 

I forgot to mention that I am now back in Oslo for the summer :D