Fitting that an examination of witchcraft takes on qualities of both fiction and non-fiction. Haxan begins as a mere pictorial representation of its subtitle and then segues into sequences that dramatize its macabre subject, always with startling images and a slippery tone, at once playfully tongue-in cheek and creepily startling.
The movie presents the use and origins of witchcraft as mostly made-up nonsense used by religious organizations to validate their own existence, a fascinating self-fulfilling prophecy in a sense —- by fabricating evil you create evil. The images presented here have not only been found in myth and culture for thousands of years but they’ve been referenced in cinema since Haxan was released. The movie is looking backward through the ages and forward into the future at the same time, indebted to the fascinating history that helps make it so compulsively watchable while bringing a chillingly playful liveliness to that history so that it takes on a life of its own (and has been reflected in countless movies since).
Watching Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece, the thought that kept running through my head over and over again is “you don’t see this anymore.” I hate to be cliche and say “they don’t make them like the used to,” but, well, they don’t! Neither documentary nor narrative, The Man With A Movie Camera presents a natural world in an experimental way —- but not experimental in a surrealist way, far from it. This is an inventive, playful, creative movie that finds meaning in the mundane and power in the work and play of the common man.
It reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Nicholson Bakers’ The Mezzanine, where Baker writes joyfully detailed descriptions of activities like sweeping or doing inane office work. The camerawork is so fresh and playful you can feel the enthusiasm that went into each set-up, even though most of what gets shot is deceptively simple. Vertov invents a futuristic city using realistic ones, depending on clever editing (thanks to his wife), extreme close-ups and other inventive shots to take Soviet cities and cast them in mystery.
The whole time, I kept thinking that Antonioni must have been a fan.This seems right up his alley.
Safety Last: (2 out of 100). The image above is how Harold Lloyd pulled off that incredible clock stunt. (Source).
This does not disappoint, to say the least.
What impresses me most is how tight it is —- both as a story and thematically. From the first shot we get faked out and that playful sense of cinematic trickery continues throughout the film, both with the characters and the audience. The film telegraphs danger, death, prison, execution in its opening moment only to reverse it almost instantly —- the prison bars are actually part of an iron fence in front of the train station, the guards are actually train conductors, the noose is actually part of the rail system, death, the end, is actually the beginning, both of the film and the adventure “the Boy” is about to go on.
That sense of trickery continues throughout and seems to be key to Lloyd’s aesthetic. Even clothes can’t be trusted. There are multiple examples of Lloyd using coats to hide or to confuse patrons (when he hides with his roommate in their coats is a prime example, and also hysterical). As incredible as the last sequence was, I was prepared for it —- the stuff in Lloyd’s textile shop was what I enjoyed the most, especially the angry, hungry mob of women demanding samples and sizes. When Lloyd escapes from two of them who are pulling his coat in an instant, I guffawed. When he swashbuckles with a demanding customer who keeps poking him while he’s dealing with another one, I got tears in my eyes.
But that last sequence is the best because the entire movie Lloyd is fooling others; his girl back home, Stubbs his manager, the general manager, the cops —- and then finally the joke is on him. He’s promised a spectacle in the form of his construction worker buddy who can scale tall buildings, but now Lloyd has to deliver. The time for fooling is over (or, it’s just beginning).
The story is tight for a silent film, too —- less episodic than some of Chaplin’s or Keaton’s features. Everything happens for a reason, everything comes together in the end, it’s not just a series of stunts (although there ARE a series of stunts). The characters we meet, (like, say the cop, for example) all come back in surprising ways that add to the story. Everyone who gets tricked comes back at the end looking for what they were promised (the girl: Lloyd, the Cop: his buddy, the manager: his crowd, the crowd: their high-rise climbing spectacle).
The last sequence is breath taking, even though I know it’s not real (I’ve seen a documentary on the stunts) it’s still stunning how real it seems, and that’s all part of the trickery and the mastery that is this movie. It’s a celebration of the imagination and magic of cinema itself and a real examination of just what cinema is capable of.
Inspired by a friend, I’m picking 100 movies to watch in 2014, movies I “shoulda seen” by now. I’m trying to choose at least two from each year possible to get a nice spread, but the emphasis will be on classics (old and modern alike) that I’m long overdue on. This is different than my movie-a-day project I did in 2011 in that I’m only doing 100 (we’re having a baby next year, cut me some slack) and that I’m choosing them ahead of time (although I can watch them out of order). Would love some suggestions as I fillâ¦
When I started this blog in 2011, my goal was to watch a movie a day for that year. I did it. It was fun. Then I got more than a little sick of movies.
But it’s important to me to keep up with my passions, so this year I’m doing something similar, if a little less ambitious.
I plan to watch 100 movies, mostly classics or movies I “shoulda seen” by now. Click the link to check out the list, and check back throughout the year to see me review these.
12 Years A Slave begins with a sexual exchange as two slaves attempt to find fleeting comfort in each others bodies. The protagonist, Solomon Northup, a free northern black tricked into slavery, sold from one slave owner to the next, is awoken by a woman desperate for any kind of human connection possible. There is little affection between them and their movements are stiff and deliberate. The scene soon ends in tears. A brief flashback to a very different bedroom scene immediately follows; Solomon lying in bed with his wife, both of them looking at each other with affection.
Director and artist Steve McQueen has always been interested in the relationship between human struggle and human bodies, and from the start of his new movie, we are presented with two conflicting identities (slave, free man) and two very different but related physical human interactions (desperate sex, genuine love). The dichotomy between freedom and slavery in the pre civil-war south is everywhere in this film. In order to survive, Solomon is forced to have his identity as a free man rewritten to the point where he himself occasionally accepts his new name, his new horrible status, the seemingly endless cruelty of his new slave life, the constant physical reminders of the pains of disobedience written into his flesh. But this is just corporal survival. During the episodic twelve years of Solomon’s slave narrative odyssey, there is another constant fight for survival, one for his hope of returning to freedom, to his family, the return of his very soul. McQueen has crafted a film that can be overwhelmingly powerful, moving, terrifying and yet distant and cold. In order for the dichotomy to be truly effective, we’d have to know these two men wrapped up inside one body, but McQueen tells us next to nothing about Solomon other than that he was free man with a family in Saratoga, he was a fiddler, he worked on the Erie Canal and that through most of the film he is a slave.
McQueen’s artistic background has given him tremendous insight into visual storytelling and there are sequences of breathtaking power in 12 Years A Slave; Solomon strung to a tree and about to be lynched by an angry overseer (Paul Dano), his feet barely grazing the mud beneath him, left there until he can be rescued by his master (Benedict Cumberbatch). McQueen wisely lets the camera linger on the serene background; slaves around Solomon tending to their work, business as usual, children playing in the field behind him, his master’s wife staring at him from the porch as if she’s observing a deer. The oppressive mechanical score by Hans Zimmer represents the machinery of slavery as industry, clinks and clanks suggesting these human beings are nothing but cogs in a vicious, violent wheel. This is a portrait of a man stretched thin, barely tethered to the foundation of his former life. To see Solomon struggling to remain connected to the ground is a metaphor for the entire movie; he’s struggling to remain tethered to who he was, or is.
Later, after he’s traded to a far harsher slaver (Michael Fassbender) Solomon meets a drunken former overseer who promises to mail a letter to northern accomplishes that could provide his freedom papers. The drunk sells him out instead and when Solomon burns the letter, McQueen films it like the disintegration of his soul, fiery embers in the dark looking like an entire universe collapsing into a black hole.
The movie is a huge step up from McQueen’s chilly Shame, a film so distant that neither McQueen’s visual poetry or his characters make much of an impression. The entire ensemble here turns in earnest, grounded performances with the exception of Brad Pitt, who plays a Canadian abolitionist with the same voice he used in Inglorious Basterds. It doesn’t help that the character is written as a preachy caricature, but he also appears at the point in the film where you wish McQueen would reach for more.
Thankfully, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a good match for McQueen because he has the quiet ability to sell a lot of the director’s intentions with his face alone. He’s given two standout scenes; one after Fassbender wakes him in the middle of the night and takes him for a midnight stroll by knifepoint, accusing him of trying to send word up North. Solomon immediately launches into a fabrication to save his own skin and as the two actors measure up eye to eye you get the impression that Solomon has committed to his own lie fully. He needs to in order to survive. “It’s all a lie,” he insists to Fassbender, but of course he’s talking about his own life. Ejiofor is so good in this scene you start to think that even he believes it.
Later, an older slave drops dead in the fields and after they bury him, the slaves sing a hymn. McQueen shoots a long, static take of Ejiofor’s face as the horrible realization that this is where he’s going to end up settles over him. He starts singing, but his performance is both a symbol of slavery assimilation and a determined cry of freedom, resolved not to end up dead on the plantation. In one sequence, McQueen summaries the amazing spirit of perseverance and survival of the African-American slave experience.
Unfortunately, Ejiofor is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting. McQueen has never been one for character, favoring his strong, poetic visuals instead. Shots of Solomon in his comfortable, free former life juxtaposed starkly with life as a slave are powerful to a point, but once we realize we’re going to know far more about Solomon as a slave than we do as a free man, the full scope of the tragedy of this horrible dichotomy seems to slip from McQueen’s grasp. The film never ceases to be powerful to a point in its blunt depiction of the reality of slavery and the slave industry, but in the end, once Solomon is finally free, what are we left with? The tearful last scene is a needed release, but the cliched end titles that summarize the rest of Solomon’s life as an abolitionist deny us the reality of his ordeal and the lingering aftermath of our history. Slavery is still with us, the scars might not be fresh but they are still visible, and although African-Americans have long been free, their freedom has always come with the sickening asterisk of segregation and racism. For a film depicting such horrible violence; of soul, psyche and flesh, the ending feels far too neat like too much of the rest of the film.