Movies watched, week of February 25-March 3, 2007
The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005
Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, Jeff Feuerzeig, 1993
The subjects of these documentaries are interconnected (The Fair brothers appear in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and, more subtly, Jad plays a
Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen, 1999
This film about a fictional 1930s jazz guitarist, Emmett Ray, culls elements of both documentaries and biopics, with the narrative interrupted continuously by music experts and journalists who offer their perspective on the subject. Ray is extremely egotistical, yet noticeably insecure. He’s obsessed with the guitarist Django Reinhardt (it is mentioned at various points throughout the film that Ray fainted both times he saw him perform, and can’t listen to his music without crying), often uttering the phrase, “I’m the greatest guitar player in the world,” then hanging his head and muttering, “Well, except for this gypsy in France.” A flagrant ladies man, Ray meets Hattie, a mute laundress, on the boardwalk in
The historians often mention the typical “Emmett Ray story,” the type of fable of mythical proportions, of which there are multiple versions, none of which can be confirmed. In one particular story, Ray’s new wife, Blanche, and her lover, Al, arrive at a gas station, while Ray hides under the seat of the car, having followed them. The gas station just happens to have been held up at that moment, and the robbers run out and decide to use Al’s car as a getaway car, while Ray is still hiding under the seat. One of the historians then cuts in, saying, “That’s not what I heard,” and his version of the story is then played out from start to finish, with multiple versions ensuing. This is the type of playing with narrative, of pushing the limits of what a film can do, that I’ve come to expect of a Woody Allen film. Unfortunately, I’ve been pretty disappointed lately.
Three Women, Robert Altman, 1977
The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006
In 1984, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a member of the East German secret police (more commonly known as the Stasi), is assigned to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend, their apartment freshly bugged. Wiesler sits alone in an austere room, empty save for some mechanical equipment, wearing headphones and jotting down a report of their daily activities. His is a lonely life, accentuated by a visit from a prostitute—he implores her to “stay awhile,” but she, of course, has business to attend to elsewhere.
In the beginning, Wiesler is portrayed as a hard-line, unsympathetic interrogator; when one of his students argues that his practice of questioning suspects for lengths of 40 hours or more is inhuman, he brushes off the idea with a blue checkmark next to the student’s name. And yet, he quickly changes his mind once he is assigned to observe Dreyman, his sympathies falling on the playwright and his plight. Even after he comes across some information worthy of reporting to his superiors, he chooses to protect Dreyman and his colleagues, writing that they are preparing a play to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the GDR, as opposed to their actual project, an article about the GDR’s suppression of information concerning the number of suicides occurring in their country, which they smuggle out to the West to be published.
Wiesler’s actions are not without emotional conflict—at one point he calls the border patrol to warn them that one of Dreyman’s colleagues will be sneaking into
The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice, 1973
Comparisons of this film to the recent Pan’s Labyrinth are not without precedent; both take place during the Spanish Civil War, the main character a young girl who pays daily visits to a “spirit.” But that’s where the similarities end. In Spirit of the Beehive, the political elements are much farther from the foreground, perhaps only mentioned when the girl’s mother writes lamenting letters to her lover, who she has not heard from since he went off to fight in the war.
Two sisters, Ana and Isabel, see a Spanish-language dubbed version of James Whale’s Frankenstein at their local town hall. (This part reminded me somewhat of Cinema Paradiso, in the characters’ sheer excitement over a movie, any movie, coming to town; in Beehive, the children crowd around a truck that’s just pulled up, shouting, “The movie is coming!”) Ana is profoundly affected by the screening, particularly the part in which the monster and the little girl throw flowers into a pond. Isabel, the older and somewhat worldlier of the two, tells Ana that Frankenstein’s monster is really a spirit who lives in a nearby abandoned farmhouse; he only comes out at night, but if you are his friend, he will appear to you if you close your eyes and talk to him. At first visit, the farmhouse appears empty, though Ana discovers a large footprint in the dirt, which she gingerly steps into with her own, much smaller foot. Eventually, she discovers a wounded soldier hiding out there, though she understands him to be the spirit.
The film masterfully captures the feeling of childhood innocence. Impressionistic and heavy with symbolism, the beautiful cinematography conveys a striking image; when I think of this film I envision the barren, golden fields surrounding the girls’ home, empty except for Ana’s tiny figure running across them. As characterized by these barren fields, the girls are isolated from their parents, and, it seems, from other children as well. We rarely, if ever, see them all together as a family, and the girls are usually left on their own.
Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, this film, while achieving an intense, dream-like quality, is firmly planted in reality. Thus, the sad inevitability of life comes through in the ending: while Ana’s fate is left somewhat ambiguous, she will most likely grow up and forget about her youthful fantasies of the spirit in the farmhouse.