Solaris (1972)

Solaris

“When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.”

It was with great joy that I unwrapped Solaris, a recent pickup from the Criterion summer sale. The only other Tarkovsky I’ve seen is Stalkera film that challenged me cinematically and one that I think about often. I was more prepared this time for Tarkovsky’s slower, creeping scene construction and his varied use of color. I seem to recall a similar feeling while watching Stalker as I did this time with Solaris where the first hour seemed far too slow but the payoff made me eat my words. I feel the need to proselytize everyone to this wonderful director, and particularly to this clever, beautiful work of science fiction.

Kris Kelvin (Donatos Banionis) is a dismal but otherwise fairly normal psychologist when he is tasked with visiting a space station hovering over the mysterious planet of Solaris from which little knowledge has been extracted. He first believes the ship only consists of himself and three scientists. (There were nearly a hundred, but Solaris has proved a challenge, and interest in research has halted.) On arrival, though, he finds that his friend Dr. Gibarian has committed suicide and left him a strange warning about the effects of the planet. When visions of other humans start consuming Kelvin’s mind, he begins to experience what every former Solaris researcher has warned about.

Tarkovsky seems interested in similar themes that he would solidify in Stalker. The movie is a surprising exploration in existentialism, often making reference to writers such as Tolstoy and Camus. (Mild Spoilers Ahead) As Kelvin begins to fall for Solaris’s recreation of his deceased wife Hari (wonderfully performed by (Natalya Bondarchuk), you begin to wonder what sort of approach the movie will take to her presence. Typical sci-fi would somehow condemn Kelvin for falling for the new Hari with an inevitable “she isn’t real” brand of conflict, but Solaris takes a dark, uncertain approach that challenges conventions about love and humanity.

Coated on top of these uncertainties is also a natural beauty rarely captured on film. There’s a wonderful piece of writing by Akira Kurosawa about the first time he met Andrei Tarkovsky and his thoughts on Solaris. (The two ended up getting drunk and singing the Seven Samurai theme song together.) Kurosawa claims that the slow but beautiful opening to the film is necessary to make the audience miss being on Earth. I was transfixed when I read this; it’s such a poignant point about the film. The opening scene shows you the beauty of Earth, while the majority of the film is a gray space station. It sucks you into Kelvin’s fever dream experience. Not only does he miss Earth, but we also miss Earth. We want to see more of Tarkovsky’s Earth, and the closest thing we get is Hari. There’s a wondrous parallel between Natalya Bondarchuk’s performance and the way Tarkovsky films the life and people on Earth, including Kelvin’s parents. The heartbreak at the center of the movie is that the beauty goes away, and we (along with Kelvin) crave it.

I knew better than to expect the expectable when I read the Solaris synopsis for the first time, but I was still surprised at how very Tarkovsky is felt. The film is a tad more accessible than Stalker (more grounded in “reality” of the plot and with a bit more conventional editing), but the themes and the slow beauty are there. I can’t imagine anyone else telling this story (which is why I’ll probably avoid the Soderbergh version for a while). Solaris is a fantastic success from an auteur who filmed the world in a unique, powerful way.

I’d recommend Solaris to cinephiles, sci-fi fans looking for a challenge, and anyone who’s down for an existential crisis of an evening. The film is beautiful, packed with ideas, and still accessible enough that it can resonate with most anyone. Well done, Andrei.


Films Left to Watch: 832

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Night and Fog (1956)

Night and Fog

“Who among us keeps watch over this strange watchtower to warn the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own?”

I first heard about Night and Fog from another film I watched recently, Hotel TerminusIt was described as an important persuasion piece against early Holocaust denial. It’s a short, meditative piece in which Alain Resnais shows footage of concentration camps Auschwitz and Majdanek with reflective narration by Michel Bouquet.

It seems every film about the Holocaust hits you in a different way. The clear theme of Fog and War is that we must not forget the crimes against humanity that have occurred. The footage and the narration invite you to consider the daily activities of the camp. It makes you think about logistics. I was reminded of when I walked through Auschwitz myself. A ground-level tour of these places brings a sadness that hits close to home, as if you’re seeing the atrocities before your eyes. Night and Fog captures this realism, this familiarity with the real world. It’s effective in a way that Hollywood dramatization isn’t.

I can only imagine the impact that this movie had given its recency. I think I can take for granted how easy it is to film important places and events today, but it must have been unreal to collect footage from Auschwitz only a decade after its liberation. Night and Fog reminds you that documentary film is important. It boldly claims, “This happened. Don’t forget about it.” In only a half hour of film, it remains one of the most effective calls for remembrance I’ve seen in a film.

The writing by Jean Cayrol is also worth noting. The poetry couples with the imagery perfectly. It’s a dazing experience to see Night and Fog. The immersion of the visuals is equally matched by the somber narration: a reflection on one of humanity’s greatest tragedies. You could read this writing in a book and be stunned all the same, but the restrained of the now-dormant concentration camp imagery lulls you into a powerful melancholy that good documentary so rarely accomplishes.

It’s the job of storytellers to make the world feel smaller. Facts and figures do little to convey the human weight of some tragedies. Night and Fog does a lot more. I found it compelling and terribly important, and I believe it should continue to be studied for years to come.


Films Left to Watch: 833

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The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Godfather 2

“If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

I think The Godfather II is hailed as the greatest sequel of all time because it doesn’t think like a sequel. I would even say it couldn’t, because the formula for the bad sequel hadn’t really been devised yet. It follows one of the highest praised movies of all time, and instead of repeating plot beats, it only repeats style. Instead of retracing themes, it expands on them and blossoms them to fruition. I also think the story is so much more engaging, and it has so many powerful scenes, that I would say it’s my favorite Godfather movie.

The film cuts between the new Godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the early life of his father Vito (now portrayed by Robert De Niro) who we see rise to power from troubled beginnings. Michael faces threats from new enemies such as the aging Miami crime boss Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and also from within his own family.

I think an “epic” as these movies are often labeled shouldn’t just be long; it should be layered. Not only does Michael face a host of opponents, but he must maintain his allies and use his wit to survive from scene to scene. There’s also his wife bringing a moral dimension to the movie. She’s one of the best parts of the series because she holds no literal power, but she is able to hit Michael harder than anyone else, and it makes for one of the finest scenes in the movie. Then the beautifully constructed (and acted) Vito storyline legitimizes the Corleone family, and it has insightful parallels to the main plot. There’s nothing tiresome about the second Godfather. I think even if you aren’t a fan, it’s an undeniably rich story.

The style is also an important carry-in from the first movie. I think the creeping honesty of the first movie was pivotal to its success, and the second film follows the same pattern. Shots aren’t too surprising or experimental, but they are engaging all the same. There’s this slow suspense to the Godfather films where dialogue is action. Everyone is slick, knowing exactly what to say to whom and when. It’s when this balance is disrupted or someone chooses to act against it that the movie becomes so exciting. Just as a sequel should be, the world and its rules are the same, but everything else seems fresh.

Vito Corleone is an incredible titan of cinema in the first film, but I feel more connected with the second Godfather because Michael isn’t quite the same way. We’ve seen him rise from cowardice to assume cutthroat leadership, but we also see what he’s lost to get there and that maybe those things still matter to him. The Vito storyline also rounds out who was a fascinating but sometimes stagnant character from the first movie as well. You could say that Godfather II has more soul in this way. It takes changed men and contrasts them with who they once were. The first movie definitely touches on this, but this theme really shines in Godfather II, and it’s a driving factor behind why I loved this movie.

With incredible style and clever, substantial action, these two movies are absolute treasures of cinema. They’re among the greatest of their kind, and while I think I still prefer the fast, playful gangster spirit of the 90s, these movies are still so satisfying when you can find time to sink your teeth into them.


Films Left to Watch: 834

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Hôtel Terminus (1988)

Hotel Terminus.jpg

“Why condemn a man who’s set to die any day now? … We’ve got better things to worry about than these old problems.”

I never expected to know so much about Klaus Barbie. Before this movie, I only vaguely knew him as the Butcher of Lyon. If there’s one thing I can say about Hotel Terminus, it’s that the movie is detailed. Comprised mostly of interviews, the film rounds out every contour of this famous Nazi’s life with first-hand accounts from those involved, while also touching on some grander themes in the process.

The film is a mostly sequential rundown of the chapters in the life of Klaus Barbie: the “Butcher of Lyon” who tortured French prisoners of the Gestapo during the reign of the Third Reich. Following the war, Barbie was given special protection by the United States who used him as an intelligence operative before he was finally sent to France to face trial for his crimes during the war. Filmmaker Marcel Ophüls speaks to Barbie’s friends, victims, associates, and just about everyone who was involved in a prominent portion of Barbie’s life. The documentary is a sweeping account on the life and times of an evil man. It touches on subjects including his torture methods, the French resistance movement, anti-Communist intelligence operations, and French judicial procedures.

Ophüls himself is one of the most interesting things about the movie. He works in a pseudo Michael Moore style, knocking on doors and demanding interviews, often finding himself in trouble with angry Nazis who want him off their property. When you hear Ophüls speak, there’s a passion to his voice. While it sometimes bothers me that the movie is four and a half hours of details, it doesn’t bother Ophüls one bit. It’s like there’s a burning conviction to find out about every second of Barbie’s life, and it’s an impressive flair that he has as a documentarian.

I also found the subject of Barbie’s trial interesting. Ophüls interviews Barbie’s lawyer, a greasy figure preying on technicalities and misinformation to try and free a clearly sinister man. There’s also the question of the time that has passed. Barbie spent the majority of his life in Bolivia escaping persecution, and his health has deteriorated by the time of the trial. Many of his victims still wanted justice, but some French people found it unnecessary to try and fight this battle given the passage of time. Barbie seems to stand in for all of the old Nazis or otherwise despicable war criminals that have lived far past the time of their misdeeds.

I did have to split the movie into two chunks while I was watching. There are so many details, specific dates, times, and people that it’s easy to get lost in it all. The section about the French Resistance, especially, was a little murky for me. I thought the CIA interviews surrounding Barbie’s post-war actions were a lot more engaging, and they’d be very relevant for anyone wanting to hear more about US Intelligence operations. The film is very well made, and I appreciate that it’s mostly first-hand accounts, but I did feel a general fatigue of substance after so long.

Overall, though, I can’t help but admire the ambition and dedication of Ophüls in crafting this movie. It’s one of the finest, most “complete” documentaries I’ve ever seen in terms of rounding out a story. It’s not something I’ll revisit again, but for its structure and information as a historical reference, I definitely found it worth watching.


Films Left to Watch: 835

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Silver Lode (1954)

Silver Lode

“We’re not going anywhere.”

“If you don’t, you’re gonna be a real dead cowboy.”

I’ve got four movies on the backlog, and Silver Lode seems to jump out the most now that I sit down to do some writing. It was a blind pick, mostly just to round out my knowledge of westerns since I’ve barely scratched the surface of the genre. I think this is the first one that really clicked with me right away. I’m a sucker for tight, single-day stories in the tradition of The Tempest or Training Day, which I’ll be writing about soon. There’s this precision to the action of Silver Lode. It’s a smart, simple concept that is executed with suspense. It’s not as bloated as The Searchers, and I think that’s why it resonated with me more.

John Payne stars as Dan Ballard, a well-liked man in the town of Silver Lode. It’s Ballard’s wedding day, when he is interrupted by the fiery lawman Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) who has just rode in from another town. McCarty (McCarthy? Hmm…) claims that Ballard is a killer and needs to be brought in for justice. The rest of the film follows the townspeople as they congregate into a mob, slowly turning against Ballard and becoming sucked into the frenzy of, uh, McCartyism.

I like Silver Lode because it isn’t so ambitious. I think a lot of the “great Westerns” have something grand to say about American life. While the allegory of the movie is obvious, it doesn’t overshadow the story. The primary goal with this one seems to be suspense and entertainment. The story is smartly built around the mob itself, slowly turning from one side or another, leaving you feeling just as uncertain at times. There’s not a lot of soul, but the movie keeps its runtime down by packing it with actions and accusations to the beat of a ticking clock. There’s a sense of finality in every scene where you know this can’t last long before somebody loses their life, and the ending delivers appropriately.

I also really enjoy the psychological case study of the movie. It’s such a dominant, isolated part of the film that you’re reminded of 12 Angry Men (which wouldn’t hit the big screen for several more years). McCarty has little evidence against Ballard, but Ballard doesn’t have any evidence himself. Even though he’s a beloved figure in the town, the people start to turn without cause. There’s something primal about the movie, how this violence emerges in the characters without time for pause.

I also feel compelled to praise the formal decisions of the movie, particularly for standards of a 1950 Western. Countless shots are done through windows or other sorts of framing, acclimating the viewer to feel like a spectator in the town instead of an omniscient presence. There are also several interesting long shots and eccentric camera angles that always keep the film visually engaging.

Silver Lode is a clever gem of American cinema. It’s tight, fast, and heaps of fun. Before I even saw one, I’ve always had this idea of how fun a Western would be. I think this idea of the simple, one-conflict Western has been muddied by the classics (mostly for good reason), but it’s so nice to see the genre used for this kind of effect. The Searchers is a sharp film, but for newcomers to the genre, I’d suggest Silver Lode be your first viewing.


Films Left to Watch: 836

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Tongues Untied (1989)

Tongues Untied

“In this great, gay Mecca, I was an invisible man. I had no shadow, no substance, no place, no history, no reflection. I was an alien unseen and seen unwanted.”

There’s a power surging through Tongues Untied. It demands the attention of its viewer, and it is successful through the use of wondrous poetry and compelling images of the gay black experience in America. It’s a concise but important film that addresses a severely underrepresented topic in cinema, and it does so in a beautifully personal way.

The film is mostly comprised of either poetry or anecdotes from gay black men recounting their experiences. These narrations are complemented by video footage, typically recreating or poetically representing the narration itself. It’s another documentary/poetry video similar to my last watch Koyaanisqatsi, although the films are hardly similar beyond that point. While Reggio was seeking a grander, more philosophical experience about the human condition, Tongues Untied director Marlon Riggs is far more “micro”, using the personal as political.

The movie is surprising in a lot of ways. It’s clearly a low-budget, small-team passion project with its low-fi camera quality and its scarce collection of actors, but this only enhances the movie. It feels like something you’d stumble upon on an old VHS tape, as if it were made for the smaller, more intimate viewing experience. There are also several pieces of footage in the film that surprised me, namely an old Eddie Murphy stand-up clip that is very dated and homophobic: highlighting the complicated issue of identifying as both black and gay in America where discrimination seems to come from everywhere.

The poetry is well-written and emphatically spoken. Although the movie can get repetitive in its structure, it never seems boring due to the passion behind every word. There’s touching imagery and a mastery of the English language from every speaker, willing the audience to sympathize with the hardships expressed. The movie is also sexually charged, with an unapologetic display of lust and love in a number of the stories, which was really great to see.

Tongues Untied is short (around 50 minutes) but undeniably significant. It uses hard-hitting cinematic techniques to build a powerful, often sensual plea for love and respect. It’s an excellent example of the power of the cinematic art.


Films Left to Watch: 837

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Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Koyaanisqatsi

“It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” -Godfrey Reggio, director

Scored by Philip Glass and completely without narration, Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental documentary that explores the imbalance of the world: how humans have grown apart from nature and built a separate way of living. While it’s somewhat unorthodox (although still very accessible), I found it to be an insightful work of visual poetry that lands its message clearly and beautifully.

The first portion of the film glorifies the wonders of nature. Director Godgrey Reggio mostly uses landscapes or other wide-shots that he will employ for most of the film, giving it a very “macro” feeling. He’s mostly uninterested in the nuances of a person’s life or the wings of a particularly butterfly. His scope is the world, both natural and unnatural. The second portion of the film moves into the postmodern human condition: the hustle of city living and the machines we’ve built from nature. Towards the very end, we get the implications of this disconnect: a sad series of images documenting the despair that often goes along with our way of living.

I claimed that the movie is accessible because it still feels like a familiar work of poetry. The only thing strange about it as a documentary is that it doesn’t use narration (not completely uncommon) and it has a grander, more philosophical intent. Reggio builds his case using images, and he selects them wonderfully. His landscapes and cityscapes are so impressive that you won’t just ponder the imbalance of man and nature, you’ll be reminded how beautiful the world can be sometimes.

Philip Glass is invaluable to the film’s distinct mood. I found myself audbily laughing at the fun, zippy tunes of quick urban life and “hmm”-ing at the more somber moments of reflection. Reggio clearly worked closely with Glass to match image with music, because the movie seamlessly sways you from one reaction to the next without ever feeling heavy-handed. I imagined the movie would be sadder when I read the synopsis, and it is sad, but there are moments of joy, wonder, and impassioned observance of the world that really make it more dynamic than it seems. The music also has this beautiful symmetry, beginning with a deep, lulling chant of the film’s title and ending with the very same in a different context, suggesting a powerful unity between man and nature despite the disconnect.

It may take five or ten minutes to really get on board, but by the end of the film, you’ll be lulled into a wondrous appreciation for the world around us and Reggio’s measured talent as a documentarian. I felt more like I was reviewing fine literature than work of film, and that’s something I love about films like this: their poetic hold on the cinematic medium. For a thoughtful, meditative experience, I would certainly recommend Koyaanisqatsi.


Films Left to Watch: 838

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