There is No Joy in Tarrville

The Hungarian film poster for DAMNATION (1988), directed by Bela Tarr.

What would it be like to live under a totalitarian regime in a godforsaken rural area where society has collapsed under economically depressed circumstances? In a place where there is no work or even a social structure, people turn to alcohol, violence, suicide, madness or a combination of the four. Capturing the psychological state of mind and physical reality of such an existence is a specialty of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who became a filmmaker in Soviet controlled Hungary in 1978. He has since become a world-renowned artist who is best known for Satantango (1994), his seven hour and 19 minute epic about the disintegration of a collective farming community. Many Tarr aficionados believe a more accessible starting point for a beginner is Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), a weird, dreamlike fable about a village that descends into chaos after the arrival of a mysterious carnival attraction. I consider both of those masterworks but a better entry point to his brand of cinema might be Karhozat (English title: Damnation) from 1988. It is shorter (a mere two hours) than his two better known works but also the film that launched his international career and a visually fascinating example of his slow cinema aesthetic which favors long, uninterrupted camera shots that can often last from six to eleven minutes in length. It is also occasionally lumped into that genre known as cinema miserablism by some critics but feels more like a deep dive into a dense but atmospheric novel.

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In Praise of Tarkovsky

When he died in Paris on July 29, 2012, filmmaker Chris Marker left behind more than 60 short films and features, most of which were experimental cinema essays and documentaries. Many were political in nature but he also dabbled in other favorite subjects such as cats (Cat Listening to Music, 1988), Japan (The Koumiko Mystery, 1965) and the contemplation of memory (Immemory, an interactive CD-Rom from 1997). His work rarely found an outlet in commercial cinema venues but was often celebrated at film festivals and archival/repertory mainstays. If his name sounds familiar to you, it is due to his landmark science fiction short, La Jetee (1962), which remains influential today for its innovative approach to visual narrative. What many don’t know, however, is that Marker directed several highly accessible tributes to favorite film figures such as Yves Montand (La Solitude de Chanteur de Fond, 1974), Akira Kurosawa (A.K., 1985) and Simone Signoret (Memoires pour Simone, 1986) and one of his finest achievements is One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1987). 

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Trance State

The Polish film industry is not exactly famous for its contributions to the science fiction genre but there have been a few novel exceptions over the years. Piotr Szulkin’s O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985) and Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe (1988) are among the more renowned titles although they are much closer to art house/avant-garde cinema than accessible commercial entertainments for the movie-going public. Much more audience friendly but even more obscure is Medium, a fascinating blend of science fiction, murder mystery and the occult, which has slowly developed a cult following since its original release in 1985 (It can be streamed on Youtube with English subtitles).

The Polish film poster for Andrzej Zulawski’s ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1988)
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Terence Stamp is Timeless

Time travel has been explored in countless science fiction novels and movies over the years but it is not often treated in such an abstract and ethereal manner on screen as it is in Hu-Man, a 1975 French film from director Jerome Laperrousaz. Except for popping up at a few film festivals in the seventies, Hu-Man went missing for years and was assumed to be lost until clips from it appeared in 1998 on the BBC interview series Scene by Scene, hosted by Mark Cousins. Terence Stamp, the star of the film, was the subject of a career retrospective and Cousins was particularly interested in asking Stamp about some of the more challenging and unusual roles in his filmography such as Hu-Man.

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My Name is Ivan

“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” – Ingmar Bergman

Nikolai Burlyaev gives a stunning performance as a war refugee turned Russian spy in Ivan’s Childhood (1962), the feature film debut of director Andrei Tarkovsky.

A harrowing yet poetic account of war seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy, Ivan’s Childhood aka My Name is Ivan (1962) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and one that had a major impact on Russian cinema and the international film world (It won the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice International Film Festival). Continue reading

To Look or Not to Look

Have you ever had to look away from the screen while watching a movie because you couldn’t bear to see what happened next? Do you have a threshold tolerance level of what you will watch before you become outraged or repulsed and walk out of a film? There have certainly been controversial movies over the years – both art and exploitation features – that have tested the limits of what viewers will watch. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (19776), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) are just a few of the more famous offenders that have provoked heated debates over censorship and creative expression. We now have a new test case – The Painted Bird (2019), Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s big-screen adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s dark masterpiece from 1965.   Continue reading

On The Road to Extinction

The End of August at the Hotel OzoneEver since I first saw a description for The End of August at the Hotel Ozone in the 16mm rental catalog from New Line Films I’ve wanted to see it. But this 1967 post-apocalyptic drama from Czechoslovakia, directed by Jan Schmidt, has remained an elusive feature for many years. New Line, which was started by Robert Shaye as a film distribution company in 1967, catered to art houses and colleges and universities with its eclectic mix of independent work (Eagle Pennell, Mark Rappaport, Jack Hazan), international fare (Werner Herzog, Lina Wertmuller, Claude Chabrol) and midnight movies (The Hills Have Eyes, Pink Flamingos). Eventually the company moved into producing films as well (such as the popular Nightmare on Elm Street franchise) but in 1994 New Line was acquired by the Turner Broadcasting System, which was then acquired by Time Warner in 1996 and later merged into Warner Bros. in 2008. Continue reading