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domenica 27 febbraio 2011

Arrebato. Ivan Zulueta’s cinematic rhythm

Mostly unknown outside his native country, and experimental circles, Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato (Rapture) is one of the most celebrated Spanish cult films.
Zulueta studied conventional movie techniques but was experimenting with different film medias since the 60’s. He directed a feature in 1969 Un, dos, tres al escondite Inglés; in the early 70’s he was shooting short films in different formats like Super 8 and 16mm, trying to reach a new form of editing and rhythm. It was in 1979 that he finally managed to start filming his second, and last feature, Arrebato.
José, a director whose compromised career is leaving him unsatisfied of his own work, has his private life also falling apart due to his drug addiction and the departure of his girlfriend. He receives one night a package from a friend he didn’t hear from since a while: Pedro; the most peculiar filmmaker he has ever met.
Pedro is trying to reach the perfect rhythm in a film, capturing on camera the reality that surrounds him; to fall prey afterword of nervous breakdowns, once he sees that the final results, developed and projected, are never satisfying. He’s the real filmmaker, never showing his work to anybody with the exception of José who gave him as a present a camera able to shoot frame by frame.
Using different speeds, Pedro is experimenting even more, shut up in his country estate first, and secluded in a Madrid’s condo later.
What José gets is Pedro’s final testament and words, his last experiment: to film himself making the greatest of discoveries.
Pedro while filming his sleep, finds out in the developed print a red frame. He is more and more convinced that something is happening to him during the missing frame, in the red 1/24.
Days after days, he realizes that the red frame is expanding in the film, there are many now, the red frames are taking over his own work. In the end Pedro will disappear. In the package there is the key to his apartment in Madrid. José leaves everything, even his girlfriend Ana, that just came back. In Pedro’s flat, José will make the final discovery as well; he’ll become, like Pedro, the ultimate film: the perfect movie is just to become part of the movie himself.
Arrebato is one of the most peculiar movie experience ever. It is not for an accidental viewer, but for an audience ready to deal with more than common storytelling; it’s a film pushing the boundaries of cinema to new extremes in the most singular mix of rhythms, standards and themes. It’s about obsessions and addictions: to sex, drugs, and filmmaking.
These three elements are melted together in a phantasmagoria of life in which we cannot distinct what is real and what is fiction.
As De Palma once said: “Cinema lies 24 times per second”, Zulueta here goes even further: is Cinema lying? Is the reality, real? Maybe we can capture the true essence of reality, only once is printed on film, reality is cinema as Godard would point out. At this point the film itself will become real, like an alternative, parallel, world to ours. The truth can be reproduced only through the film media, as Zulueta is clearly influenced by Jonas Mekas’ Walden Diaries, the work that suggested a new path to a whole generation of filmmakers with its daily diary film style.
We are like Plato’s slaves chained in a cavern, watching at pale shadows on a wall. Throughout ecstatic seizures, captured on a film gauge, we can reach reality and immortality as well: out of the cavern, we’ll find a silver screen.
 It is not cinema that is lying, but the opposite: we are lying to him; we are just those pale figures in the cavern, a reflection of a projected image, a materialized dream that decays in the flesh and in the blood, immortalized  only when fixed forever on polyester.
The most interesting approach in Zulueta’s film, is the use of themes and forms also coming from genre movies. Averse to the presumptuous approach of some alternative features, Arrebato is an homage to genre filmmaking as well, of which Zulueta shows to be very fond. José first film we are told, was a Werewolf movie (like the Paul Naschy’s ones), and the one he just finished is a Vampire one; and when few scenes of the latter, are shown in the editing room in which José is working, we watch at a black and white sequence of a female vampire that reminds us of Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s immortal silent classic Les Vampires. All references that shows Zulueta’s  360° approach to Cinema, being it commercial or alternative, well ahead of his times.
While Pedro is looking for the perfect rhythm, the one Zulueta chose is as hypnotic as the story. Long sequences with few cuts, slow down the pace of the events in contraposition to Pedro’s search for speed, and eagerness to reach the perfect combination of  images. Reflecting his own personal life, the movie is also dealing with the problem of addiction to drugs and their use to reach inspiration and creativity peaks; a theme very common in the whole counterculture movements since the late 50’s.
Previously released in Spain, the movie it’s now available in Germany in a 2 disc set from Bildstorung replicating the Spanish edition with the improvement of English subtitles on the feature and all the extras as well. The film has been re-mastered from the original materials, and looks stunning, framed at 1.85:1 16X9 enhanced. The extras are spread over the second disc, and include Ivan Z a 53 mins. documentary on Zulueta shot in 2004, that it’s funny at times, but fails to have an in depth examination of both the personality and the cinematic skills of the director. It’s much more interesting the 53 mins. making of: Arrebatos shot in 1998, that covers all the aspects of the production of the film, with interviews to the cast of nowadays famous stars like Eusebio Poncela (José), Cecilia Roth (Ana) and Will More (Pedro);  film critics, producers and crew are interviewed as well.
Also available in the package is Zulueta’s short Leo es Pardo (10 mins), and a 24 beautiful booklet although the latter only in German.
After Arrebato, Zulueta worn out by the production, and by heroin use, almost retired from filmmaking. He shot since then, only some episodes of TV series, and dedicated mostly to paint movie posters and to experiment with photography. He then secluded himself in his childhood house, and was just enjoying a new wave of aficionados when he passed away in 2009.
His influence on contemporary Spanish cinema is evident. Specially on the first Almodovar’s films like Entre tieneblas. He was part of the new wave raising from the fall of Franco’s regime, but with his unique distinctive touch, going back to the roots of surrealism and getting inspiration from immortal classic like Bunuel’s El angel exterminador.
He was an artist whose devotion to cinema mostly destroyed his own personal life. But I don’t think he just simply died, I believe that somewhere, being a closet, a drawer or a crate, lies a film gauge, with his face printed into immortality, smiling at us.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

venerdì 18 febbraio 2011

Crno Seme – a political and ethnical Black Seed in Kiril Cenevski’s Macedonian Classic

After World War II, soldiers of the Royal Kingdom of Greece were deported to an island of the Aegean sea. Their loyalty to the King, according to their superiors, had been questioned; most of them were accused to be communist activists. Facing this charge, they were asked to sign a document rejecting their belonging to the communist party and to discard its ideals. In the meantime, these soldiers were tortured, starved, shot to death for no apparent reason that to ask for a more human treatment, and put to work in horrible conditions violating any civil and military rights. Most of these men didn’t even know what the authority was asking them; they were from lower classes, they were workers and peasants, the real issue was not their political convictions, but mostly their heritage: they were born in the Macedonian part of Greece.
Split in three after the war, the Macedonian country, became one of the seven republic forming ex Jugoslavia under Marshall Tito presidency. The other parts of Macedonia territory were kept one by Bulgarians and another  by Greeks, that started up an harassment of the Macedonians; leading most of them to leave the country in a minor exodus that reminds of the Turks’ persecution of Armenians.
A piece of History not well known even nowadays, the problem between the two countries has still to be solved after more than 60 years. Greeks don’t recognize Macedonia as a country, claiming Macedonia is a region of Greece. Of course this claim is as much preposterous as ridiculous, the only thing the two people share is the Orthodox Church (but even this one with different rules, calendars etc.). Different is the language: Macedonian it’s a Slavic one written in Cyrillic; different are behaviours, names and of course: history. They actually do have something else in common: 500 years of Turks’ domination.
This is the Black Seed (Crno Seme); the heritage of Philip II and Alexander the Great. Cenevski’s film, based on the novel by Tasko Georgievski, is the story of some of these soldiers in the prison camp, surrounded by violence, the vast breadth of the Mediterranean sea and the most insurmountable difficulties: human cruelty and intolerance.
There’s no hope for them and their ordeal is doomed from the vey beginning. Some accept it with resignation, some other try to fight it until death.
Cenevski shot the film with an essential style. He concentrated on the men’s fiends mostly with the use of Close Ups, to increase more the claustrophobic sense of being a prisoner. There are no long shots in the movie until the end, where a major sequence of a massacre is the culminating point of the atrocities. This way, the contrast with the long deserted beaches and cliffs of the island, it is more accentuated. There are no postcards here, there’s no room for beauty in this hellish tale of desperation and cruelty; even more interesting, the whole ethnic issue it’s just underlined with few sentences and not declaimed with rhetoric statements. Also the political aspect, presenting the persecution of communists after the war, it’s not typical of a regime propaganda machine: everything is implied here, except graphic violence, and suggested to the audience, leaving him free to come to his own conclusions.
CS is very different from the Jugoslavian war films of the period, that were celebrating victory over Fascists and Nazis with big budgets, Army support, and the use of international stars. This is an intimate tale of destruction, in which the few are a symbol of a whole people and generation.
Kyril Cenevski went on directing few features films more, his career concentrated on documentaries; and the approach to the subject matter here it’s exactly the one of a documentary filmmaker. There are no good characters between the jailers, that are represented as the absolute evil, but it’s very uncommon, in a contrast tale like this one, that the prisoners aren’t shown as the absolute good. They are revealed in all their weakness, frailty and contradictions; the very same that Macedonian people have known for such long time after a glorious, but more than two thousand years old, past.
Avant-Garde and experimental techniques were used as well. No music at all to score the film, to reach a more realistic mood, and an unusual employ of the soundtrack give a sense of suspense and suspension, as the slow motion shots and the freeze frames of objects and faces while the sound of the scene is left audible. These devices  depart from reality to lead the viewer to an abstraction of the events is  experiencing; to an allegory of persecutions suffered from different people in different countries of the world.
Produced by famous Vardar Films, the picture was released to critical acclaim in 1971 and went on to win several prizes at international film festivals like Moscow and Pula. It has been considered for a long time as the best Macedonian film ever made, and it’s a pity the movie didn’t get a wider audience around the world. Released on DVD, few years ago as part of a trilogy of Macedonian classics for video stores; this collection has been re-released later by the popular Macedonian magazine Tea Moderna. Unfortunately both editions are long out of print; but surfing the net it is possible to find copies or used ones from time to time. The DVD, produced by Vardar Films and the Macedonian Cinemateque, featured a re-mastered  film from original materials in good conditions. The image retained the OAR of 1.66:1 but was not 16X9 enhanced, while displaying subtitles in different languages including French and English.
CS it’s not a pleasant show, but it’s fundamental to understand better a political situation still puzzling the European Union  and to explore Macedonian cinema that is little known outside his native country with the only exception of Milcho Manchewski’s films.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

domenica 13 febbraio 2011

The multitalented Bryan Forbes and The Whisperers

“I was a writer who became an actor who became a screenwriter who became a director”.
There’s no better quote to summarize the decades spanning career of Bryan Forbes, than to report his own words. From those, one could wrongly assume the latter was the less interesting of the performing arts in which he excelled or that maybe he thought so at least, but to a deeper examination of his profession as a filmmaker, one could only retrieve the absolute conviction he was a great director.
After a successful occupation as an actor (An inspector calls), screenwriter (The league of gentleman), and producer (The angry silence) funding Beaver Films with Richard Attenborough; Forbes directed in the 60’s a string of big hits including: Whistle down the wind, The L shaped room, Séance on a wet afternoon, The wrong box and King Rat, before to write an adaptation of Robert Nicolson’s novel The Whisperers.
Starring Edith Evans, who was Academy Award nominated and won several prizes for her role in the film, TW is a dramatic exploration of the disintegrating mind of an old lonely woman overwhelmed by circumstances. Abandoned by her husband, constantly cheated by her only son, a cheap criminal who wants to take advantage of her; Margaret lives surrounded by dirt and trash in her flat; listening to voices that whisper around and hide behind the kitchen sink. These voices  tell her to trust anybody, and suggest weird things that reflect on her strange behaviour. Walking alone in the desolated streets of the suburbs, the woman looks for old newspapers of which she’s very fond, keeping them in a closed room, reading them in search of news regarding her illusory fortune and an inheritance as imaginary as improbable. Living out of social service’s support and money, she’s visited one day by her son that, believing to be unnoticed, leaves her a package hidden in a closet. The wrap up contains money from a bank robbery, but the woman once has discovered it, thinks she’s finally got what she deserved from her investments and she starts to go out carrying large sums of cash. She then meets a woman who, with the excuse to bring her for a dinner at her place,  drugs her and steals from her bag all the valuables. With the help of her husband the woman leaves Margaret unconscious and poisoned by the drugs nearby her apartment, where she’s found by a neighbour who calls immediately for assistance. Took over by the social services, her son in prison, Margaret is cured and recovered, even her husband has been found and recovered from alcohol as well. The social services clean the apartment, and bring the two back together for an illusory period of calm and peace in which the whispers seem long time gone, a forgotten memory of the past. But things go smoothly for a short time. The husband goes away, leaving her again, while Margaret plunges soon in her old behaviour, keeping dusty newspapers and listening once more at the voices that are back even louder than before.
Few times the old age has been exploited in movies, being the subject matter considered by the producers nor very profitable neither very pleasant for the audience. With different approach Leo McCarey's  Make way for tomorrow and Marco Ferreri’s La casa del sorriso are some of the best examples. But The Whisperers shines of his own bright light, due to Forbes’ incredible style and approach. A distinctive of his career, Forbes come close to a mix between realism and surrealism; a combination so uncommon and so difficult to achieve that makes his cinema a unique example. An unnatural mood and unknown presences menace the protagonists of his movies, while the themes treated are always dealing with the lives of poor and neglected people. It’s Kitchen Sink style (typical of Brit films of the 60’s)  meeting Gothic one. The ingenuity and innocence of the children in Whistle down the wind (trailer below), believing a thief hidden in a barn being Jesus Christ; the sincere and simple minded Margaret trusting everybody and not listening anymore to her beloved warning voices; the disbelief protagonist of Forbes’ late greatest picture, adaptation of Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, unable to deal with the incredible facts involving changes of personality of his friends’ wives. All these characters are fighting with good faith against the evil and the unknown. They are placed in a context that is both familiar and comfortable for the viewer and for this reason even scarier: social desolation.
Shot in a splendid B/W by Gerry Turpin, the cinematography well captures the industrial landscapes and the devastated environment in which the story takes place, while the interiors and Margaret’s desperation are rendered through a series of close ups of the scant furniture of  her apartment, with sounds of running water and small noises dip in a vast sea of silence; reminding of later Bergman's Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers). Music by John Barry is superb, delivering a score that goes along with us in this journey of disintegration with tenderness and sore notes.
Available for the first time on DVD, in the MGM Limited Edition collection; the disc is a burned in house DVD-R on demand. The quality of the picture is very good, but while the film has been remastered, MGM put no effort to create even a single menu for the DVD and mostly, while the film retains its OAR of 1,66:1 it has not been 16X9 enhanced. No extra material and no trailer as well.
I strongly recommend to watch this film, and Brian Forbes’ mentioned opus as well. Later his career declined, and while he was diagnosed of multiple sclerosis in 1975, he has remained active and celebrated by the British film industry. I really wish his films to be rediscovered by a modern bigger audience and that a major event and retrospective of his excellent career as a complete filmmaker could celebrate him before it’s going to be too late.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

 Whistle down the wind - Original Trailer

domenica 6 febbraio 2011

Richard C. Serafian’s fragments of cinema

While younger audiences know about Richard C. Serafian mostly for the over abused Vanishing Point citations in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof; the elders were deeply saddened by the superficial and annoying aspect of the mentioned lines, reducing VP to a mere cat and mouse chase with cool cars. There’s no doubt VP featured amazing action sequences, but at the same time with Easy Rider and few others was part of a manifesto of the New Hollywood, being an element of  the new wave of counter culture films that were changing the way of how to make a movie forever. In a string of few years, Richard C. Serafian delivered his best with a common theme tightening his opus, all of his films being about a journey.
In the The Man who loved Cat Dancing and Man in the wilderness, the wild West, shown at his most anti heroic peak, is crossed by losers looking for  revenge or for a way out. These pale, unforgettable, figures in a landscape (like Joseph Losey’s film, about a journey as well) are travelling in the wild nature and in their own self at the same time. So does Kowalski in VP. The journey from one place to another (Walter Hill once said it’s the basis of Senofonte’s Anabasi, the mother of all plots) it is both physical and symbolic. It transcends space, with his characters suspended in their own destiny, the time diluted at the speed of 24 fps lies. Their trip leads nowhere, there’s no hope for them, just the surrogated dream to succeed that in the very end will collide with reality, when to survive is not going to be any better. But in 1970 Richard C. Serafian had already explored this topic with the seminal “giallo” Fragment of fear.
David Hemmings is a successful writer, whose ant dies in Pompei while he’s paying her a visit. A former addict still recovering, the young man is not convinced of the strange dynamic of the fact, and while everybody is calling it accident, including the Police, he’s more and more persuaded that someone killed her. Going back to his girlfriend in London, who’ll soon marry him, the author plunges in a spiral of events leading him to believe a whole conspiracy against his investigation has been set up.
Fragment of fear is an exploration of paranoia whose classic “who done it?” plot soon develops in a conspiracy theory device used to explore the perception of reality, of both the main character and us, as viewers. Everything in the movie has been fragmented and regurgitated into something else. From the pretending to be a thriller excellent script by Academy Award winner Paul Dehn (Seven days to noon), to the editing whose jump cuts, back and forth, create an uneasy sense of misplaced reality for the main character, confounding him and bringing him to edge of sanity. It’s an amazing trip into a story that we believe to be true until the very end, when our discernment has been influenced by the many twists, turns and “cinematic lies” well put together by the director with the help of another Academy Award winner legendary director of photography Oswald Morris.
Funny thought the movie really looks like an Italian “giallo” having very much in common with Dario Argento’s 1970 sleeper hit The bird with crystal plumage, in both style and scary situations.
Released just few months later than TBWCP, I believe none of the two have been influenced by the other, but both from Mario Bava’s The girl who knew too much, a mile stone defining the innovative approach of Italian “thrilling” (as they were called then) films. But another source of inspiration (for both Argento and Serafian) it was clearly Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece Blow Up, from which FOF gets both plot and casting ideas, having David Hemmings starred in the main role of a photographer who cannot distinct what he saw from what he shot with his camera, and cannot figure out which of the two is real.
While Argento’s film, even being still great, has not aged so well; Serafian’s one it’s still a terrific experience being much more than a simple scare: an analysis of reality saw trough a cinematic lens, the peephole that distorts and tilts truth, impressing it on celluloid; transforming it into a parallel one, alternative but real at the same time, like its primary source.
The influence of FOF on later films is evident, specially in recent years, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s ladder above all.
The movie is available first time on DVD, in the new Columbia Classics by Request program. The image is clear enough and original materials were used to re-master and restore. Framed at 1.85:1, 16X9 enhanced the film looks fine, even with difficult int./ext. night sequences to render and for typical Morris’ cinematography so hard to be transferred to video. The support, being on demand, it’s a DVD-R burned in house, NTSC region free disc.
Richard C. Serafian went on to direct the mentioned westerns and VP. After those achievements, he lost his touch little by little, his later films are forgettable failures both in commercial and cinematic terms; his career ended up shooting episodes of TV series, going back where he started. But if it was only for those films and FOF, he should be remembered for his innovative contributions to American cinema of the 70’s.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

Original Trailer