- The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi)
- Night and Fog (Alain Resnais)
- Olivia (Jacqueline Audry)
- Mishima : A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Shrader)
- Where is the Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami)
- And Life Goes On (Abbas Kiarostami)
- Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
- Without Lying Down : Frances Marion…. (Bridget Terry)
- Homework (Abbas Kiarostami)
- Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami)
1- I couldn’t really tell what The White Balloon was about just looking at the posters and ads. It seemed to be a heart-warming story of a little girl in Iran. Then I read that she is trying to buy a goldfish for the length of the film. OK, I thought. A Farsi version of the heart-warming Red Balloon? It was even recommended on several sites as the perfect ‘family’ film. No. No No NO! This is an engaging but finally deeply upsetting film that causes one to examine notions of ‘cute’, ‘kindness’, ‘strangers’. etc. Panahi uses the camera to evoke character, often in a misleading way. The way he photographs the main character, a six or seven year old who has lost the money she needs to buy a goldfish for the New Year Celebration (look it up), makes us think that she is a charming waif a la Shirley Temple. The soldier who befriends her is shot as a little too friendly perhaps. The creepy snake show players seem predatory. But are they? By the end of the movie, one’s perceptions are all inverted. By the time you get to this last shot of the film, you are devastated:
2- Night and Fog was made in 1955 and was one of the first films to deal head on with the topic of the Holocaust. Being French and being ‘directed’ by the brainy French nouvelle vague director Alain Resnais, its ruminations on the horror take on a cerebral cast. There is a coolness to the whole proceeding, which might come from the inter-cutting of archival footage and footage of the deserted camps ‘today’ in 1955. It made me think of Blood of the Beasts more than anything. As my dear friend Lil says, ‘The French are very Cartesian.’
3- Olivia is being touted as a forgotten, rediscovered gem of Lesbian cinema. I am not so sure about the gem status. The expressions of Sapphic affection don’t have the same power as its depiction in Maedchen in Uniform. I am violating my number one rule of criticism, which is criticizing something for what it is not. It is hard not in this case. Both films were ‘lost’ and then rediscovered during the blossoming of Queer Criticism. Olivia fails not only in comparison to the older German film, but also when considered on its own. The plot is weak. The acting is either too subdued or two overwrought. It is also not much more than an adolescent love story, where the German film uses the love story as a jumping-off point to larger sociopolitical considerations. It is fun to see what Simone Simon was up to a decade after here most famous film role in Cat People. She is a glorious neurotic and none of the scenery is safe from her chewing
4- As much as I admire his intellectual prowess and talent, I am loath to spend too much time in the ghastly world of Paul Schrader. I concede the greatness of Taxi Driver but please don’t make me watch it again. Schrader’s worldview seems to have been shaped by his childhood in Western Michigan and the Calvinist religious tradition that is so strong there. Sin, sin and more sin. Maybe redemption, but probably not. I wondered why he would have chosen the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima as a topic for a film. It seems that Mishima’s worldview, as far as I can tell from the depiction of his works in the Schrader film, is equally as ghastly. It seems that where most philosophies look to beauty as something to be sought, Mishima finds that it is something to be destroyed in order to attain personal freedom. But – I really liked this movie a lot. The main reason is because it satisfies my pleasure of watching a movie that could only be a movie. Schrader’s brilliant script tells the story of Mishima’s fatal last day. Into this overarching story, he places flashbacks of the childhood and early manhood that got him to that day. These flashbacks are in the sepia tones we are used to when a filmmaker is trying to invoke memory. In contrast to these black and white sections there are three gorgeously Technicolor portrayals of three of Mishima’s works. These scenes are shot on abstract, perhaps Kabuki-like, sets . The flashbacks, the scenes from the novels and the depiction of November 25, 1970 are masterfully alternated. By the end we are left with a portrait of the troubling Mishima that we could not have gotten in any other medium but film, mostly because of their visual juxtapositions. The Philip Glass score is perfectly suited for the world we are watching
5- The magnificent Koker Trilogy by Abbas Kiarostami is made up of Where is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees. Please see my post here.
6- Frances Marion was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood during the Silent and early Sound Eras. Best known as a screenwriter, she also directed. Without Lying Down : Frances Marion is a very serviceable documentary that tells Marion’s story. It is sad to see the modern screenwriters interviewed here lamenting the fact that the first days of Hollywood were more diverse than the present day.
7- Homework is a documentary by Abbas Kiarostami which tacitly critiques the Iranian education system. Boy after boy is interviewed about his homework habits. The pressure on these kids is palpable. Corporal punishment is accepted and expected by the boys, and approval and reward are unknown. One poor kid is obviously suffering from PTSD to the point that he cannot be alone with Kiarostami interviewing him without dissolving into a quivering, crying mess. When Kiarostami asks why he is crying, the boy can only fall deeper into fear. A short but very powerful film. It is interesting to make the connection between the trauma of ‘homework’ here and the quest of the little boy in Where is the Friend’s House.
8- Close-up is a film that I need to watch again very soon because it is deceptively simple but so rich and dense under the surface. The premise is unlike anything I know. A poor Iranian man who is smitten with art and film falls into pretending to be an acclaimed director and works his way into the confidence of an upscale family. This might sound like Six Degrees Of Separation but there is nothing glib about this film. Metafiction is used to an astounding degree: all the people of the true story play themselves in what looks like a documentary, but is in actuality a reenactment of the hoax and the subsequent trial. The levels of irony are complemented by levels of compassion. The resolution is simply gorgeous. Kiarostami! Where have you been all my life?