A Short Film About Love/Killing (1988, Krzysztof Kieślowski)
Further fleshed out into feature lengths from his TV-saga Dekalog: The Ten Commandments (1989), Krzysztof Kieślowski moulded two hauntingly emotional films dealing with adultery and murder. Love deals with a naive 19 year old orphan who spends his time obsessing and spying on the life of a female neighbour. Killing is the story of a young man's death sentence through his killing of a taxi driver, the film charts the soul crushing damage of capital punishment throughout the levels of the justice system. As expected from Kieślowski, both films are masterfully crafted pseudo-realist dramas benefitting from exemplary photography which transcends them beyond the likes of Ken Loach and into a realm that only the Polish auteur obtained. Killing in particularly is striking in its use of cinematography, often darkening areas of the frame with heightened use of muddy colours which gives the film a suitably suffocated and depraved feel. Both tales are tragic in their own way but I found Killing almost unbearably moving, the ripple effect caused by the convict's demise hits at such a gut level. The young lawyer defending the convict has his life devastated by the events, as he breaks down, this 86 minute film has you reeling for the poor man. Love is equally as impressive but on a more subtle level; the positions of control and eventual trading of perception/emotion between the voyeur and his subject is fascinating and superbly handled as the film reaches its anguished, ambiguous finale. As with every film in Kieślowski's career, these two films are nothing short of masterpieces and two of the finest examples of European cinema.
Scenes From A Marriage (1973, Ingmar Bergman)
Again edited from a television series, Scenes From A Marriage remains one of Ingmar Bergman's finest achievements in a career of unprecedented quality. At first shown on Swedish television in six episodes, the original 299minutes version was edited down for a 167minute theatrical-cut, the cut I watched this week. Never has a filmmaker got to the essence of what makes humans tick like Bergman did, his insight into our flaws and grace ran so deep it's no wonder the great man had to change his phone number after the film's release, receiving a barrage of calls seeking marital guidance. His film struck a chord with Sweden before taking on the world, in the year of its release divorce rates doubled! This sounds like the film is a cynical preach about the suffocating nature of marriage but this is not the case at all; despite reaching unbearable tension and ugliness the film in it's depiction of Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan's (Erland Josephson) marriage is life affirming despite its devastating facade. We pick up in their lives ten years into marriage, their reaction to their best friend's divorce, Johan's affair, their separation, then their efforts to rekindle a love though know can never be extinguished. If Bergman is trying to get across his point, that point is that marriage (as well as any repeated social construct) can only destroy a love that is destined between two people. Bergman's career covers the void between two souls time and time again, the distance we have even within ourselves, the art of communication is one which we simply haven't mastered yet. In our connection with others, or simply in our silence, we effect one another in more ways than we can imagine. Though we crave human connection we are but foreign entities that don't meld, the beauty of course is in the trying. As Marianne and Johan remarry to new partners their love remains, the scene between them as they spend an intimate night together as their new spouses are away is so touching and real it's almost incomprehensible how much Bergman knew and loved his characters. He understands them at their best and worst, accepts them as such, and treats them with upmost respect. Never at any time does the film judge either character and with Scenes Of A Marriage, never has acting been displayed quite like this. Ullmann and Josephson's performances are so detailed, natural, and utterly realised that the relationship feels strikingly candid as you feel these two humans have really loved each other for 10years. A draining but revealing masterwork, Scene From A Marriage is as relevant and important today as it ever was; Another 50 years on and the same will still stand.
Diary Of A Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)
My journey into the cinema of Robert Bresson has so far been a divided one, A Man Escaped was for me, a masterpiece, while Pickpocket just failed to live up to its reputation. With Diary Of A Country Priest I'm happy to be impressed once again, so much so that this has been my favourite Bresson so far. The film charts the difficult dealings between a dying young priest and the community he's recently settled down in. The life of a priest is one which most must decide is an easy one without much further thought, I can certainly empathise with the strain put on such a profession mostly due to the sadly cruel behaviour of most small communities and the upstanding the social role requires. A priest must be a model of perfection that cannot afford to appear as human as the rest of a parish, through succeeding or slipping in this performance of perfection society will judge nonetheless. As this young man struggles to fulfil his role and take on various problems while facing his own illness, he is adjudicated at every turn; when scrutinising eyes are on you, can you ever be right? The film is honest and affecting without any of the usual cinematic cushioning that Bresson despised, he refused to evoke emotional responses through the typical use of music and heightened acting. It's a fascinating look into a life largely ignored social position due to conflicting belief systems, people simply don't care about the hardships of a priest. Cinema is the tool in which to experience different perspectives and personal trials, in a bid to understand and widen our world view cinema is a powerful tool indeed. With this film Bresson does his character and story full justice.
Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper)
Among the unfortunately short lived career of producer Bert Schneider is Easy Rider, a loose low-budget, drug fuelled and rather dog-eared film that changed American cinema forever and for the better. Taking after the French new-wave of the previous decade, Easy Rider killed the ways of the old studio system over night and brought in the 1970s American renaissance. This 'New Hollywood' remains the most artistically prosperous in the history of American film, a short time that's never been bettered in terms of game changing influence. The tagline, "A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere", sums up the films' ethos rather well. In a time of great uncertainty, controversy, and rapid social change, the young became lost in their new youthful freedom. Yet this new youth raised on music and drugs were not yet understood or accepted by society, a point drilled home by Easy Rider's tragic end. Now iconic imagery, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda cross America on their motorbikes and meet various characters across the way, discussing their outlooks on life and their country. Jack Nicholson steals the show as an alcoholic businessman who's repoire with the local law enforcement gets them out of jail. The joke (though not a funny one) being that the law respect Nicholson's troubled character for the suite he wears, whereas they have nothing but distain for the other two long-haired hippies. As far as films go you can't do much better than Easy Rider to depict counter culture phenomenon, it acts as a time capsule of thought and imagery that feels true and everlasting in relevance. The famed 'acid sequence' towards the end of the film is just stunning, a haunting meltdown of emotion that feels all too candid and personal in nature. Easy Rider is cinematic catharsis in its rawest form.
Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)
After his show stealing role in Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson was given his own vehicle to show off with by producer Bert Schneider. The story of a drifter from a privileged musical background nomadically traveling from menial job to menial job is a lamentable case of identity, and a man running endlessly from himself. When viewed now, the similarities with Sean Penn's brilliant Into The Wild (2008) are striking. When we're introduced to Nicholson he's an philandering, heavy drinking oil worker; we know nothing at first about his past or much of his character besides flaws, as we follow him as he visits his family home after his father is taken ill, we see the roots of this troubled soul and why he's so alienated and uneasy with himself. Nicholson's performance as Bobby Dupea is a career best, a fairly restrained performances for his standards, one shrouded in mystery and yet completely sympathetic.
It's not worth complaining about the injustice of Five Easy Pieces being too little seen/mentioned next to other greats, given the sheer amount of productivity of the era there was always going to be a few examples of brilliance lost in the wave of creativity that was the 70s renaissance. It's worth remembering just how spectacular Nicholson's work during the 70s was, beginning with Easy Rider and ending with The Shining (1980), the run of films during this time is beyond impressive in quality and influence.
Ivan's Childhood (1962, Andrey Tarkovskiy)
The phrase, "war is no place for a boy", is stated on more than one occasion during Ivan's Childhood. These words often said by the very people manipulating him for their war efforts, simply saying this when his use has run out. These asinine words stand at the height of hypocrisy, on one level through the people who utter them actively involving Ivan in the war, while in a wider view the fact remains that no one escapes the horrors when war breaks out, the war belongs to everyone and yet no one.. At the heart of the film is an incredibly potent performance by 15 year old Nikolay Burlyaev as Ivan, a boy left with nothing due to the casualties of war, the tragedy is Ivan filling his despairing void with the very war that caused it. Burlyaev plays Ivan with a steel conviction, making Ivan a hardened man within a shell of adolescence. Tarkovsky's film has a dream like quality to it, a nightmare rather, as you expect any of the characters to wakeup from the horror at any second. The film does indeed include dream sequences, the opening one in particular is truly affecting, but it's the disorientating and imprinting finale that stays with you here. Along with Kubrick's Paths Of Glory (1957), Ivan's Childhood is perhaps the greatest attack on war by a film yet.
Watch of the week: For it's unparalleled performances and timeless relevance to anyone who's ever been in a relationship, Scenes From A Marriage is my pick of the week. A film which stands tall among the many great works of visionary Ingmar Bergman, a filmmaker who never stopped giving, even after his passing.