~ Movie Diary ~
Laila (George Schnéevoigt - 1929)
Tonight was one of the most fun movie experiences I've ever had. As part of the Silent Movie Mondays series put on by Seattle's Paramount Theater, the 1929 Norwegian film Laila was shown with live accompaniment on the Wurlitzer organ, played by Tedde Gibson. The movie is epic: a story spanning years, beautifully shot across expansive snow-covered landscapes, told in 145 minutes during which I could not take my eyes off the screen. Tedde Gibson did an incredible job playing through it all, with colorful imagination and a sense of suspense, and the audience stood to cheer loudly for him when it ended.
There's much that's remarkable about this movie, not least the cinematography, which captures the whites and grays of a snowbound world in so many gorgeously-composed shots, and that also moves with the action: in one thrilling scene on river rapids, the camera flies along sideways with a man running down the shore chasing a boat, and for a few moments the camera is actually in the boat looking back at Laila standing in it as she rushes downstream.
The story concerns a Norwegian baby girl who ends up being raised by the native Sami people (called the "Lapps" in the movie). There's definitely some of the 'noble savage' stereotype going on here, but it struck me that the 'Lapps' were not portrayed as evil and truly loved Laila. I certainly did — I'm still crushing on Laila. A sassy dark-haired girl wearing intricately-embroidered furs being pulled on skis across the snow by a reindeer? Hey, that's my type! I looked up the actress Mona Mårtenson, who turned out to have been Swedish and only lived to 54 years old. She was good in this movie, a personality that popped off the screen. You can find this film on disc, restored in 2006 with a jangly piano score taken from Grieg tunes, but for me nothing will ever compare to seeing it with a friend in a crowd with a live organ.
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)
2018 was, among other things, the year I waited for movies to show up in Seattle's movie semi-wasteland. "Shoplifters" was one of those movies, but it was worth the wait. As of today I've seen every (fictional) movie by Koreeda, and this is definitely one of his best. What it most obviously shares with previous films is actors (more than one) and a focus on the family unit. And if you have seen his earlier movies you will recognize the face-on documentary style of the interview scenes, and the suggestion of the name "Hana" for the little girl has to be a reference to Koreeda's early movie of the same name. More than that, though, this movie shares a patient build-up of emotion that sneaks up on you as the dimensions of each character come to light. The children are central, but they are part of a bigger, sadder puzzle created by the adults: it's an ensemble story, perfectly told. It could easily be a stage play. I'm not going to spoil it for you by saying any more — just go see it right away.
Summer 1993 (Carla Simón, 2017)
On this day I saw Summer 1993, a 2017 film from Spain, and now over a month later it's still circling in my head. Good movies about children are rare, and this is the rarest of them all: a film in which the entire story revolves around a child's inner life. And it does so in a real way. Much like animals are anthropomorphized in the movies, children are often shown as innocents or are seen acting with adult-like motivations, but not in this film. Instead, and with a steady gaze, the camera follows the outwardly-inexplicable behavior six-year-old Frida, who has lost her mother — behavior which can only be understood through what she's slowly processing inside. Only somebody who truly remembers being a kid, and only somebody who has also experienced how grief actually plays out, could make such a film as this, and in fact the story was inspired by the director's own experience. I watched Summer 1993 with a friend at the SIFF cinema in Seattle Center where we sat all alone in the theater, but still, when the lights went up we were not ready for it — I know I could have used more time for my tears to subside. They were good tears, though. See this beautiful movie.
The Day After (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)
The Day After is a recent film by Hong Sang-soo that showed at the Northwest Film Forum. Filmed in spare black and white, little of what actually happens in the film couldn't be found in a second-rate soap, but that's intentional. Pieces of the story are assembled into a puzzling and absorbing whole, and while the film does make use of the same kind of scene-scrambling as in a number of other Hong Sang-soo films which play with alternate timelines, in this film there is only one reality — it's just that the characters themselves can't quite keep hold of it. An essay called Hong Sang-soo’s Dream Time by Xueli Wang in the Los Angeles Review Of Books describes it in much more depth than I can (thanks to my friend Jane for the link).
Thelma has been listed by some as one of the better films of 2017, but I found it only intermittently convincing. A few striking scenes have stuck with me to be sure, not least because of the film's measured pace, but despite often wishing movies would take more time I felt like this one was stretched too much. Still, not a bad movie.
The Spirit Of The Beehive
Here's another childhood-related movie I've been wanting to see: The Spirit Of The Beehive from 1973. I finally rented it it from Reckless, and I don't think I'll ever forget it. Though the film does ultimately follow the imaginative world of children, it also concerns the adults: the girls' parents, whose stories are introduced first. While the parents' storylines are less developed (intentionally, I suspect, limited to a sort of symbolism), in fact the theme of the imagination being stirred by trauma is mirrored in the case of each of the characters (which may have been obliquely political). One of many things that struck me is how the film's intensity and persistently mysterious, allegorical atmoshere are achieved through simple means: music sometimes, but often silence, and moments of sun-baked (or wind-swept) absorbtion. The cinematography is arresting, and time is given to observe, lending meaning to the sparse landscape. As for the music itself, it is simple and childlike (though in 7/8 it seems), giving the wonder-filled effect of a Paul Klee minature, in keeping with the wide-eyed expression of the little girl Ana. It's a kind of filmmaking I can't imagine being done today.
The Night I Swam
The wonderful movie I watched tonight — The Night I Swam — goes right on my list of Movies About Chilhood. It follows a little boy as he wanders off, staying at his level for the most part, watching him with a steady gaze until we begin to sense what he's feeling, along the way capturing many of the little moments that we've all experienced as kids (if we hold onto the memory that is). Absorbingly shot, it takes place in a snow-covered town in northern Japan, and rather than ever resorting to cutsiness the humor comes out through the cinematography. Many thanks to my friend Jane for the tip.
Yes I did swear never to return to the local multiplex, but now it has reserved seating for all screens, and after a trying week I felt like going out to sit in the dark with the public and see something ridiculous. Annihilation was just the ticket: slow to develop, growing more freaky. Despite being about something alien its subtext was human, like a relationship anxiety dream transmogrified... or a soap opera episide on mushrooms. It wasn't quite as good a movie as it pretended, and it seemed like they had spliced out parts of the story, but at least it took risks.
On the Beach at Night Alone
This evening I watched On the Beach at Night Alone on blu-ray with my good friend and Hong Sang-soo fan Jane. It's hard to come up with words to describe a tissue of a film such as this. Is it even a movie? Well obviously it's a movie, but why does it work? It's like a series of teases, surfaces with hints of things underneath that come popping out unexpectedly — from people's misunderstanding of each other and also of themselves, subjects that Hong Sang-soo has explored before. There are autobiographical elements of this movie regarding the director's affair, apparently, but no matter. It's compelling all on its own, and oddly funny.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
These movies keep talking about "hope", and yes, I too keep hoping, only to have my hopes dashed. Not as much this time, however. Just somewhat dashed — like a concussion, instead of my brains all over the street. The Last Jedi is a good movie and a bad movie meshed into one: the good side of the storytelling force plus the dark side of commercial intent and pandering. There are many parts that are good and truly cinematic in The Last Jedi, and I still think the lead actors were inspired choices. But at the same time it suffers from a serious case of blockbuster-itis, never letting up like a hyperactive child. It has no rhythm.
Or think of it this way: say you have a glass vase, and you fill it with rocks — big rocks, small rocks, medium rocks... lots of variation, with eye-catching spaces in between where they lean on each other. Now let's also fill the vase to the top with sand: that's what they did with The Last Jedi. The movie is stuffed with extra nonsense to the point that the core story is buried and in some cases given short shrift, robbing the movie of an overall emotional arc.
An example: the scenes on the island with Luke and Rey — wonderful but short and interrupted too often. Let it breathe! The super-busyness prevents a sense of scale or build-up, so that the truly important scenes (like the incredible light-sabre fight) lose stature. The same is true in terms of character: the evil emperor, for example, is like another bit player, a silly CGI cartoon; we never get a chance to be really afraid of him, story-wise (aside from him being little more than unappetizing visually), because there are too many other battles going on, one after another. It makes no sense that The Last Jedi dared to reframe the Force in a more subtle way, but then piled on so many tons of other garbage.
David Roberts of Vox recently wrote a great article that echoes a lot of things I felt: https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/1/12/16834684/the-last-jedi-lost-its-nerve