REVIEW – Pigsty (1969)

FilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s uncanny masterpiece Pigsty.

Comprising two narrative strands, the film explores the way in which cultural elites undermine dissenting opinions by subsuming traditional vocabularies of dissent. In one strand, a young man wanders wordlessly around a volcanic landscape until he comes across a dead body which he promptly consumes. This act of consumption classifies the young man as an outcast and this outcast status allows him to acquire a following that eventually forces the local authorities to intervene. When the young man is finally given the opportunity to express himself in words, all he has to say for himself is:

I killed my father, I have eaten human flesh, and I quiver with joy.

The film’s second strand is set in the 1960s where another young man finds himself crushed between the capitalistic radicalism of his father and the logorrheic gibberrish of his leftist fiancee.  Denied the means with which to express himself as an individual, the boy retreats into a comatose state before finding some form of fulfillment in the act of fucking a pig.

Pigsty is an attempt to address the relationship between the generations and how difficult it can be for the young to express themselves when they are not the ones in control of society. Particularly striking is the way that Pasolini presents post-War German prosperity as little more than a repackaged version of the pre-War economic boom engineered by the Nazi government of the 1930s. With all of culture safely commoditised and filed away, what are today’s rebels to do but seek sanctuary in the most heinous acts imaginable? Windy, difficult and decidedly ‘of its time’ Pigsty remains a ceaseless beautiful and thought-provoking film by one of the great provocateurs and stylists of the European art house tradition.

The idea that cultural elites pull the ladder up behind them to ensure that nobody can rebel against them in the same way that they rebelled against previous generations will be familiar to those of you who have read Thomas Frank’s wonderful essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent”.

REVIEW – Le Silence de la Mer (1949)

FilmJuice have my review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film Le Silence de la Mer.

Given that Melville is best known for such noir crime thrillers as Bob Le Flambeur (1955) and Le Samurai (1967), it is surprising to discover that his first film is neither a thriller nor an homage to the noir classics of Hollywood’s golden age. In fact, Le Silence de la Mer is an adaptation of a novel written by a member of the French resistance. Densely atmospheric and pointedly stripped of all extraneous dialogue, the film tells the story of the relationship between a pair of French people and the Nazi officer they are ordered to provide with lodgings. Every evening, the Nazi officer comes home and trots out a few pleasantries that the French people pointedly ignore. As the months go by, the officer’s love of France and desire to talk bubbles over into a series of impassioned speeches about his hope for the future of Franco-German relations. Aside from being beautifully composed and wonderfully still, Le Silence de la Mer is also wonderfully ‘of its time’ thematically speaking:

Aside from its technical brilliance, Le Silence de la Mer also offers a fascinating snapshot of a French intellectual class that was still trying to come to terms with the implications of widespread collaboration. Indeed, between the officer’s status as a ‘Good German’ and his lengthy speeches on the greatness of French culture, it is easy to read this film as an ode to the majesty of France (the film is based on a novel written by a member of the resistance) but look beyond the foreground and you find a morally ambiguous world full of silently complicity French people, bars closed to Jews and a Nazi delivering what was effectively the Petainist line that France would become greater through collaboration. While Le Silence de la Mer may lack the slow-burning outrage of Melville’s more famous indictment of French collaboration L’Armee des Ombres (1969) this is still a heroically ambiguous film from a time when France was desperate to escape all suggestion of moral ambiguity.

As someone who owns the Mieville DVD box set, I was somewhat taken aback by how different this film feels to many of his better-known works. Indeed, contained in this still and ambiguous early film are the blueprints for an entirely different cinematic career… what if Melville had not become a maker of thrillers but a more traditionally art house experimentalist? This is a film that captures the attractions of just such a possibility.

REVIEW – Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

FilmJuice have my review of Monte Hellman’s powerfully existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two Lane Blacktop is a film about a pair of twenty-somethings who support themselves by moving from town to town and participating in drag races. This pair are so complete adrift in the world that they possess neither home nor name, all they have is their car and the open road. In fact, the pair are so emotionally detached that it barely registers when an attractive young woman decides to join them on their aimless journey. One day, the pair run into a middle-aged fantasist and challenge him to a long distance race. Sensing some element of menace from the youngsters, the fantasist agrees but is puzzled to discover that the young people have no interest in actually winning the race:

At one point the middle-aged man is driving along and spots the youngsters having breakfast in a diner. Annoyed that they seem to be taking his challenge so lightly, the old man pulls over and confronts them, angrily asking “Are we still racing?” but no answer is forthcoming. Increasingly ill at ease with this strange relationship, the older man convinces the young girl to travel with him and he takes off while the other two are racing a local. With steel in their eyes, the pair take off after the older man but rather than confront him about cheating or stealing their girl, their annoyance seems to come from the fact that he moved the relationship from one of mutual cooperation to one of competition. As the older man drives off alone, he begins to weave lies about how he won the car from the younger men using his customised muscle car.

The middle-aged man spends the entire film telling lies because he cannot cope with the hollowness of the existence he experiences on the road. Too old and too set in his ways to come to terms with life’s lack of meaning, he spins lies to make sense of his life and that of the youngsters while the youngsters just keep on moving from town to town without ever asking for or receiving any answers.

Released by Masters of Cinema with a bevy of essays and documentaries designed to bolster its status as an overlooked classic of 1960s counterculture, Two-Lane Blacktop captures the beauty and alienation of a life lived outside of traditional culture in a way that Easy Rider never quite managed.

REVIEW – Punishment Park (1971)

FilmJuice have my review of Peter Watkins’ cruelly overlooked mock documentary Punishment Park.

Punishment Park is set in what was the near future back in 1971.  In this near future, America has descended into chaos and the American government has responded to this chaos by setting up a series of tribunals who give political prisoners the choice between a long jail term and taking part in a training exercise involving members of the police and the armed forces. These training exercises involve the prisoners being chased across a desert.  If they make it to a particular point by a particular time without being captured then they are free to go. Needless to say, nobody ever manages to escape:

On one level, Punishment Park functions as a near-future work of dystopian science fiction. If looked at in these terms, the exaggeration of the establishment’s reaction to political dissent is only a matter of degree and the exaggeration serves to highlight real problems in American political culture. Similarly, the dissidents’ futile march through a desert towards an American flag stands as a poignant metaphorical commentary on Humanity’s quest for freedom and how the value of freedom can be all too easily undermined by the very people entrusted with securing our attempts to achieve it. On another level, Punishment Park is a furious attack not only upon the politically intransigent elites that run America but also upon the biased nature of so-called reporting and the intellectually incoherent and simple-minded nature of responses to those elites.

Released in typically wonderful style by Masters of Cinema, this is a great opportunity to discover a lost classic of American cinema.

A post-DVD Future for DVD Labels?

There is no mistaking the air of panic surrounding DVD retail in the UK at the moment. Second hand DVD prices are dropping at both Amazon and CeX while the time between a DVD retailing at full RRP and it appearing on the bargain shelves is shrinking month by month. We may not be quite there yet but DVD and Blu-ray are clearly on their way to the great dead media bonfire in the sky.

The death of DVD is being driven by a series of cultural shifts that are combining to put pressure on traditional ways of selling and consuming media:

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REVIEW – Colossal Youth (2006)

Videovista have my review of Pedro Costa’s Juventude em Marcha, which has been released by the always excellent boutique DVD and Blu-ray label Masters of Cinema.

While Colossal Youth is not the first Pedro Costa I have seen, my familiarity with the filmmaker’s work in no way made it either an easier or a more appealing watch.  The film is beautiful, intelligent and is inspired by the same singular vision that pervades all of Costa’s work but it is also cataclysmically boring and inaccessible. This is art house film making without compromise or concession, either you accept the film on its own terms or you don’t bother:

While Costa’s films are almost completely unwatchable, there is clearly a coherent vision behind the impenetrable boredom that dominates his films. Because this coherent vision exists, Costa has found an audience for his decidedly singular and experimental approach to filmmaking. Indeed, while I suspect that Costa has few followers outside of academic film studies and film schools, the substance that exists in his work means that his films contribute to the evolution of the cinematic form. While the films that Costa makes may be boring and unwatchable, they will be influential and it would not surprise me if Costa’s devotees can find echoes of his work in that of the filmmakers who have come after him. As boring as his work may be to me, I cannot deny that Costa is an important figure and that his films constitute a boon to the on-going evolution of the cinematic form.

Going by the recent output of Colin Marshall’s excellent podcast Marketplace of Ideas, I get the impression that certain elements of the lit-blogosphere are attempting to re-claim boredom as a position of spiritual strength and a reaction against the media-saturation and sensationalism of much of Western culture. It seems to me that Costa’s work would probably make a good case-study for people sympathetic to that position.

REVIEW – Pigs & Battleships (1961)

Videovista have my review of Shohei Imamura’s fifth film Pigs & Battleships.

Released as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, Pigs & Battleships comes with Imamura’s first film Stolden Desire as an added extra.  As I said in my review of the earlier film, despite the fact that Pigs & Battleships is the ‘main feature’ on the disc, Stolen Desire is probably a better film to start with at it serves as a lovely introduction to some of Imamura’s concerns and techniques.  In particular, both films share a similarly frantic and grubby atmosphere of desperate people who are trapped between idealism and realism and are forever making the wrong decisions:

Pigs & Battleships is a film of moments and atmospheres rather than plots and characters. Its characters, although complex and beautifully acted, are seldom allowed much room to breathe in a film that is positively teeming with plot. In fact, this film has so much plot that it can, at times, be difficult to follow. Better then to take a step back from faces and events and focus instead on Imamura’s depiction of Japanese society as a vast ocean that teems with life but whose ceaseless churn can kill in a second. Aside from its beautifully frenzied atmosphere, Pigs & Battleships is littered with lovely cinematic moments and camera movements so beautiful that they’ll melt your face.

On a side note: it has come to my attention that Eureka have got into something of a barney with the book publisher Phaidon over Phaidon’s series of books about directors entitled ‘The Masters of Cinema’. As Eureka point out on their website, their DVD and Blu-ray label pre-dates Phaidon’s book series by a number of years and given how well-known and well-respected Eureka’s MOC label is among European cinephiles, Phaidon’s decision to use the same name for their series of books can only cause confusion.  Eureka have said that they’d be willing to license the name but Phaidon are insisting that the names do not cause confusion. Which is bollocks obviously. If I walked into a bookshop and saw a series of books about famous directors entitled ‘The Criterion Collection’ I would naturally think that it was affiliated with the American DVD label.

What makes this sordid story even more bizarre is the fact that Phaidon are currently the owners of the venerable French film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema and their Masters of Cinema books come with Cahiers branding on them.  While Cahiers has not been a decent magazine for a number of years now, the name Cahiers du Cinema still means something.  In fact, it means quite a bit more to European cinephilia than Masters of Cinema so why are Phaidon trading on someone else’s brand when they have an even more valuable brand of their own that they could trade on? A series of books released under the Cahiers du Cinema brand would be a great idea but instead, Phaidon have decided to borrow someone else’s name.  Unfortunate.

REVIEW – The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924)

Videovista has my review of Die Finanzen Des Grossherzogs.  A silent black and white comedy made during the years of the Weimar Republic and directed by F. W. Murnau, the director who brought us such classics as Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926).

It’s being sold as part of a Masters of Cinema set along with his proto-psychological thriller Phantom (1922) and while the film itself is something of a lightweight romp, I nonetheless found it quite an enjoyable one.

Police (1985) – Two Faces, Neither of Them Real

Can art ever articulate the truth?  The films of Maurice Pialat display a grave ambivalence towards that question.  With his first film, L’Enfance Nue (1968) Pialat showed a real animosity towards not only traditional forms of cinematic story-telling, but the very conceit and artificiality of fiction itself.  Pialat is a director who wants to put the real world on the screen without the traditional intermediaries of editorial or narrative.  However, despite this hostility to the artificiality of artistic representation, Pialat never returned to his roots as a documentary film-maker.  Instead, he produced films such as Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972) and La Gueule Ouverte (1974).  Films that presented themselves as traditional dramas, but which were in fact elaborately dramatised autobiographical meditations upon his own life.

Police is a film that continues Pialat’s tradition of ontological uncertainty.  It is a work of genre by a film-maker who loathed fiction and a character study by a man who seemed to believe that there was no such thing as the self.  Unsurprisingly, Police is a film that exists under a permanent ontological fog.

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La Gueule Ouverte (1974) – Part of the Furniture

One of the things that is most fascinating about Pialat as a director is that though completely devoid of sentimentality, his work also shows a perpetual awareness of the temptations that it offers.  This lack of sentimentality applies abstractly to broad topics such as childhood but also, more concretely, to his own life.  It is said that The Mouth Agape is one of Pialat’s most ‘autobiographical’ works but this is not a particularly useful distinction to make with regards to Pialat’s work as so many of his films – including Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972) and Loulou (1980) – are effectively just dramatisations of real events from his own life.  A better way of thinking about La Gueule Ouverte is that it is one of his more intrusive works.  It shines a light into places where we would rather not look.  An unflattering and unsentimental light right onto the death of Pialat’s mother and the lives of both himself and his womanising father.  It is a film about death without being about loss and a film about grief without being about sadness.  It is, in a word, pitiless.

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