Monday, April 4, 2011

SHADOWS AUTUMN Part 2: Asunderlands

The shadows lengthen as autumn creeps on. Come in from the chill and enjoy these six tales of breakdown and renewal by the fire. Stay to voice your thoughts with a glass of cheer and some nibbles.

Season trailer


April 15th 8pm

(Alejandro Jodorowsky Mexico 1989)
Fenix perches naked on a tree stump in his room at the local asylum and won't come down. When he is gently persuaded to eat some food by the doctor, and then dressed, he recalls what brought him there. The child of two circus performers, he grew up with a mix of wonder and worldliness, developing his own skills as a magician. One night ... Well the tattooed lady has a crush on his father which is seen at just the wrong time by his mother (leader of a cult of an armless local saint) who pursues immediate and certain revenge. As she reaps ... Fenix sees it all. Next stop a tree stump in a cell. And then more vengeance.

When Claudio Argento wanted his own slasher film, still popular in the 80s and long set in generic concrete by various franchises, he wanted it based on the hard reality of a true crime story from Mexico.  So he asked the director of two of the strangest films in history if he'd like a job.Well, if he'd really wanted it done more trad he'd have asked his brother Dario, wouldn't he?

Jodorowsky brings the same punchy mix of surrealism, melodrama and time honoured theatrical chops to the project and makes it pretty unmistakably his own. Even his DNA is on screen as his sons play Fenix as a boy and young man (powerful genes those, both look like younger clones of him). Santa Sangre is both his most operatic and narratively disciplined feature, allowing him, through more conventional methods than he'd used till then, to examine some of the deeper themes in the material. Sounds lofty but it actually just adds up to fun. Strange thing to say about what is after all a tragedy but if this filmmaker had pursued convention only boring things would be said of it.

April 29th 8pm
(Robert Downey Snr USA 1969)
A Brother takes over the ad agency. This happens at the start but I don't want to spoil how.

Madison Avenue, late 60s: Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy have both fallen to assassins and Vietnam looks like it's never going to end. I'd add Nixon's in the Whitehouse but he isn't. Instead there's a dwarf into bondage (so maybe Nixon is in the Whitehouse). Enter Putney Swope, token African American on the board of a big advertising firm.

First order of business, rename the agency to Truth and Soul. Second, fire the board of directors, keeping one token white guy. Third, make ads so out of whack with convention that they slaughter the competition. But Putney's astuteness and force have bigger troubles than business rivals as everyone from the Panthers to the President wants a piece of him.

Robert Downey Sr's broadside against the advertising industry is as angry and funny as Network is against television and rightly ought to be recalled in the same thought. With the kind of pace and constant invention that would render so much American satire of the coming 70s classic, Downey pumps it full of prickly one liners and shoots in a cool verite black and white. The ads themselves are in rich technicolor and while hilarious in context, reach beyond their era to today.

This is how Mad Men should finish when it gets to the end of the 60s. If George Romero hadn't succeeded in his advertising career he might have made something very like this.

Screens with The Deal.

 May 6th 8pm 
(Lilliana Cavani Italy 1974)
Max's nights at the Vienna hotel where he works are quiet and easy. One night a woman he recognises appears in the crowd in the foyer. He tries to avoid her but their eyes inevitably meet. She recognises him as well and her smile falls from her face.

The flashbacks dress Max in the black uniform of the S.S. and the woman, Lucia, in the stripes of a prisoner. The closer we get to both the harder it is to tell victor from victim. When Lucia's initial panic and anger bring a confrontation centre stage more than expected gets dredged from the nightmare of the past and aspects of the weird bond emerge as powerful as they had been. The gang of shadowy ex war criminals Max is reluctantly part of are going to have their own ideas about this.

Liliana Cavani's Night Porter is about an abuse of power and its troubling reception by the victim. It is in no way an attempt to explain the holocaust or exploit it (Lucia is pointedly not identified as Jewish, for example). It's far more like Stockholm Syndrome. The swastika here stands more as an instantly recognisable power that is seemingly absolute and invincible. Here is the power exchange in any relationship taken to an extreme. 

But none of this might have been apparent were it not for Cavani's steady vision of the costs in such a story, nor the power of the two leading performances by Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. This story can be disturbing but is never a trail to watch. If you emerge from the experience troubled and thoughtful then you really have seen it. If this seems forbidding it shouldn't: The Night Porter is a transcendental film.

May 13th 8pm
(Tetsuya Nakashima Japan 2010)
Yuko quits her teaching job. She tells this to her cheering class and explains that after the death of her small child she cannot continue in the profession. She tells them that she knows it was a murder rather than an accident and that the murderers are in the room. When she then tells them that her revenge has already begun she is not being figurative. Chaos ensues.

Well it would except that, after the intial shock there is a knid of erosion to the bullish social order of the class. Who are the killers and who was the stoolie who told? The group is revealed to have always been a collection of vulnerablities and threats.

If you are thinking Heathers meets Battle Royale keep thinking it but go further. If you are lucky enough to have seen the breathtaking poetic epic of bullying All About Lily Chou Chou you could stir that in there, as well. This vengeance tale tells of a retribution by pervasion, attacking the weeds from the roots which is where we are invited to witness it. Through the confessions of key players we learn a lot about the ambitions of the kids but also the barriers that prevent them. Competition and failure reign supreme.And never has nascent criminality looked so seductively beautiful as here.

Radiohead and The XX provide a score that goes with the glassy rain and grey skies and opera blares with the sunshine.

May 20th 8pm
(Gregory Nava USA 1982)
Brother and sister Enrique and Rosa are getting through their youth in their small farming village. Enrique knows only the life he has and Rosa is looking forward to what might come of her admirer's admiration. Around the dinner table they feast as well as they are able and talk of the wonders of the north, gringo land with its cars and money and real flushing toilets in every house.

You work the crop and come home to a happy family, dream a little and get up to do it all again. Simple. Well, no. This is Guatemala and they are Mayan descended natives. The U.S. backed dictatorship installed decades before is still in place and still muscling in on the land and freedom. Ricki and Rosita's father is about to do something about this when the meeting he goes to turns into a massacre.

After the would be insurgents the militia turn their attention to all the natives and cart them away somewhere other than good. Rosa and Enrique barely escape and now must flee. Where though? No one likes an indian here. El Norte, of course, where everyone can be rich and happy. Oh boy......

El Norte was called the first independent epic and seldom has a two word combination so aptly described a film from conception to reception. There might be a few clunkers in the dialogue and sourced soundtrack music but the scope of the vision with its clear, underlying themes of the trickle-down misery bestowed by the land of the free, allow this story both the simple lines of folk art and the breadth of a saga. Moments of Latin magical realism appear almost in ambush, adding to the riches. And the two leads, playing their own ethnicity, evoke an easy empathy. David Villalpando (Enrique) said of the film "El Norte became a powerful fighting element, grew an audience, searched audiences, and left the theatres to tell its truth."

He was right.

May 27th 8pm
CATCH 22   
(Mike Nichols USA 1970)
Yossarian flies in bombers. Bomber command keeps raising the bar on the number of missions he has to fly. He thinks of staging insanity to get sent home. But only a sane man would want to get out of extra duty. Catch 22.

And it's not just the war. Well, maybe it is as the business interests of the staff officers begin pervading all corners of life on the base and then beyond it, increasingly demanding loyalty above flag and nation. The war, borne of national and economic interest has created further interest. There is no such place as outside the system. Or is there?

Mike Nichols' punchy and funny interpretation of Joseph Heller's savage satire of warfare and duty keep the absurdity controlled to see it clearly enough to know it in the dark  before letting it out of the gate to run free. Alan Arkin veers between hysteria and grounded sanity as Yossarian who must keep his wits against the increasingly wayward reality around him picks off its victims one by one. Speaking of actors, you want a cast? Try this: Tony Perkins and Martin Balsam together again for the first time since Psycho, a creepily suave Richard Benjamin, contemporary comics Bob Newhart and Charles Grodin, the mighty Orson Welles, and Angelina Jolie's dad (some guy called Jon Voight).

The dialogue is kept tough but open to changes in texture. Glimpses of surrealism blend seamlessly with the kind of hard and important look that American cinema of the 1970s would command. And for each moment of whimsy there is a counterbalanced horror: there's cute Nately but sobering Snowden.


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