Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Great Dictator

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #565: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Not Chaplin’s greatest work, but certainly a strong propaganda film. What struck me most is the ignorance with which the prison camps and Jewish ghettos are betrayed. There are some obvious instances early in the film where it seems as if Chaplin hasn’t quite figured out that he’s making a talkie, but once he gets that under control the film ping-pongs back and forth between Chaplin iconography and effeminate Hitler-mocking. Chaplin had great fun with names. Tomania (Ptomaine) for Allemania and Bacteria for Italia. Herrs Herring & Garbage, Phooey Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni.

Chaplin did well to emulate the Riefenstyle of Triumph of the Will when Hynkel/Hitler is onstage and balances it with a more recognizably Chaplin style in the Ghetto scenes, but it remains hard to watch this film and take it seriously knowing what we know now about Nazi atrocity. Chaplin-style comedy is well-suited to making buffoons of the Nazis, and in 1940 it still made sense to treat them as a laughable enemy rather than a vicious one. Despite these difficulties with hindsight, the final speech, where a Jewish barber inverts the message of the Double Cross party, is more triumphantly inspiring than a thousand Riefenstahl films. Yet for all its cleverness, the film seems now most notable for its appalling innocence.

Friday, 17 August 2012


the clouds are whitest at night
as I pretend cricket rasps change 
their shape. My illicit cigar,
a scent of bourbon in my
empty glass, dog's fur
under hand, a filament
for numb fingers
fumbling while
cicadas sing.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


A part of this viewing listCriterion Collection Spine #47:Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia.

Ever need a good night’s sleep so badly that you just stop caring about anything and everything around you? Your morality foggily disintegrates, your goals become disjointed, your ego shrivels, and even your id is only capable of short bursts of primeval action. That’s what life in general is like above the Arctic Circle, apparently. Even worse if you’re a disgraced investigator from below the circle and you show up during the Midnight Sun to solve a seemingly perfect murder and you get so messed up on sleep deprivation that you accidentally kill your partner while the murderer you’re hunting watches.

All of this is wonderfully conveyed through the terrifying, evenly lit atmosphere of Norway, the constant white light, white fog, white sky, white buildings is nearly sickening; the blurriness between reality and hallucination, often conveyed through spinning, disoriented camera movements, puts a viewer in nearly the same emotional state as Detective Engstrom. While we loll about passively in our stupor we watch him push himself to both apprehend the killer and protect his own ass.

While the story is a fairly typical crime drama, the added conceit provided by an environment where the sun just spins around the sky adds another layer of difficulty to the plot, and the additional “what is real” adds a believable element of uncertainty to the film that is akin to something you’d expect from a psychological horror film but that doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief to gain purchase.

I have no interest in watching the Hollywood remake starring Al Pacino in Alaska.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Henry V

A part of this viewing listCriterion Collection Spine #41: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

There’s an awful lot of British “Adieuing” in this play about the Battle of Agincourt. Had to get that out of my system. This is film that is best talked about in terms of its historical context, which Bruce Eder’s Criterion essay does and which you should read. I want to write about a few things that struck me most in this adaptation.

First off, the self-effacing introduction, which begs the viewers indulgence for the inevitable lacks of the stage-performance, rings doubly true and propagandic for the rationed and war torn Britain in which it was filmed and released. The film is the natural choice for rousing the martial spirit of Britain in a time in which it was sorely needed, and though the French are the enemy in the play, the audience could easily be expected to transfer that animosity toward the Germans. The fit of Henry V into the role of propaganda is almost unnatural in its ease.

Secondly, the production itself slowly draws itself away from stage play and into the thick of things, culminating in the exciting Battle of Agincourt itself. Then, just as gently, we’re drawn back into the stage play at the end of things. I thought this was a remarkably honest way of dealing with the issues that can plague an adaptation of a play into a film.

Finally, I wasn’t a fan of all the lovey-dovey with the French scenes. I recognize their importance as propaganda & the context within the play itself, but in terms of all that was excised from the play in order to make it fit into a film canister I think they could have made better choices. The politicking felt tacked on.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Empire of Passion

A part of this viewing listCriterion Collection Spine #467: Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion.

What goes around comes around; and in this tale of lust, murder, guilt, and insanity, a circle motif appears time and again as a reminder. Many Japanese period pieces feature characters with the agency & power to change their world; or failing that, the intelligence to recognize their limitations in that regard. The peasants in Empire of Passion have neither agency or power, nor the intelligence to cope with the dreams they mistakenly think they can make reality. Placed in 1895, solidly within the Meiji era, the plight of Seki & Toyoji, their inability to cope with the changes they’ve wrought in their own lives echo the changes that Japanese society was dealing with in its efforts to modernize.

Toyoji, returned from modern war to the traditional village, is restless at the pace of life and the complacency of the villagers he’s surrounded by. He lights a fire under innocent Seki, 26 years his senior, and married. They have lots of hot sex, but they’re all fraught, the first one is rape, the last, covered in offal after dredging a well for the corpse of Seki’s husband, Seki begs Toyoji to kill her even as she comes.

The ghost of the dead husband just wants to pull his rickshaw, and gradually haunts more than Seki in his restless quest to discover why he can’t go on as he had before. The arrival of the police investigator, the burning of Seki’s hut, sign after sign reiterates the theme that the traditions of the past cannot endure modernization. The mitigation for this is managed by  the narrator opening and closing the tale to comforted us with a feeling that though change is constant and inevitable the life of a community continues in spite of it.