The Outsider and His Art

The image of the starving artist, living in poverty and misunderstood by everyone during his own lifetime, is an age-old cliché but is often based on true accounts. One of the more famous examples is Niko Pirosmanashvili, a self-taught artist from Mirzaani, Georgia, who was not motivated by money or fame but often used his paintings as barter for bed and board. He was born in 1862 and died in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1918 of alcoholism and starvation but his work is now considered part of the Russian avant-garde movement which flourished between 1890 and 1930. Pirosmani, the 1969 film biography by Russian director Giorgi Shengelaia, is an attempt to capture the spirit of the artist’s work without resorting to the usual biopic structure of dramatizing key events or providing any psychological insight into the subject. Instead, Shengelaia presents Pirosmani’s life as a string of episodes that are closer in style to an ethnographic documentary while duplicating some of the artist’s most famous paintings as part of the narrative landscape.

Continue reading

Homeward Bound

The original film poster for Children of Nature (1991), an Oscar nominee from Iceland.

Films about aging and the elderly are not that prevalent in Hollywood’s yearly production schedule of new films for obvious reasons. It is not a subject that most moviegoers seeking escapism, especially younger viewers, want to contemplate. It is also a risky commercial proposition unless the film is a heartwarming drama with broad appeal (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989) or a feel-good comedy like Harold and Maude (1970), which was a box office flop on its initial release before it went on to become a profitable cult hit. Of course, some of the undisputed masterpieces of 20th century cinema have focused on senior citizens like Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) but these are not mass appeal attractions but the favorites of a niche art house audience. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Paradise aka Born Natturunnar (1991) is certainly a film that belongs in this latter grouping but is distinctly different in tone, combining social realism with deadpan humor and a touch of magical realism.

Continue reading

Aboriginal Prophecies from Down Under

The rational versus the irrational always creates compelling conflicts in the best kind of fantasy/horror films where scientists and/or investigators are faced with trying to understand or explain supernatural events or mysteries of the occult. A denial of the paranormal fueled the chilling storyline of Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957, released in the U.K. as Night of the Demon). A similar tone of skepticism is under attack in The Last Wave (1977), one of the rare Australian films to delve into Aboriginal mythology and superstitions but also one that addresses the environment on an apocalyptic level.

Continue reading

Through the Eyes of a Child

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) is generally acknowledged as the film that ushered in the neorealism movement and set the tone and style for the postwar Italian films that followed. But the roots of neorealism can be traced back to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (1944, I bambini ci guardano), both of which were filmed in 1942 but encountered distribution problems upon their release in the fall of 1942 when the war finally came to Italy and the bombings began. Ossessione was also the victim of Fascist censorship which reduced the film to less than half of its original running time and for years it was denied distribution in the U.S. due to an infringement of copyright (it was an uncredited adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice). The Children Are Watching Us didn’t fare any better during its limited release and for years it was a difficult film to see in its original form, even in its own country. 



Continue reading

Identity Disintegration

A wealthy chemist who was disfigured in an explosion undergoes plastic surgery in the 1966 Japanese film, The Face of Another.

What would happen if you lost the face you recognize as your own and had to replace it with a new one? Would you have an identity crisis or simply become a different person? Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara ponders this unusual dilemma in The Face of Another (1966, Japanese title: Tanin no kao). Continue reading

Elvis is Leaving the Building

During his lifetime, Elvis Presley made 31 feature films, two theatrical documentaries and numerous TV specials. What is rather surprising is the fact that Hollywood never showcased Elvis as a live performer or in a concert film until the end of his career. How much of that was due to his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is debatable but Elvis on Tour (1972) is regarded as the last official Elvis movie that was distributed to theaters.

Continue reading

Oedipus Rex in Drag

Next to William Shakespeare, Sophocles is probably the most enduring and internationally renowned dramatist in terms of his work still being adapted for the stage, television and cinema and I doubt you will find a more bizarre or outre version of his Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex than Funeral Parade of Roses. Directed by Japanese avant-garde filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto, this revelatory 1969 movie – it was his first feature film after several experimental shorts – is just as fresh and startling today as it was when it first appeared over fifty years ago.    Continue reading

Pandemonium in the Dark

In Japanese cinema, the samurai film can be many things. It can be a ghost story (Ugetsu, 1953), a rousing adventure (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), a tragic romance (Gate of Hell, 1953), a sweeping historical epic (Tales of the Taira Clan, 1955), a Shakespeare adaptation (Throne of Blood, 1957) or even a revenge saga (Chushingura, 1962). The latter is my favorite sub-genre in the category and the best samurai revenge films are usually driven by the avenger’s sense of honor being defamed and/or moral outrage at personal injustice. This is certainly the motivation behind the heroine of Lady Snowblood (1973), played by Meiko Kaji, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). It is also the central premise of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (aka Seppuku, 1962), which is more doom-laden and brooding than the kinetic action of the Lady Snowblood films but nevertheless explodes in a bloody, sword-wielding finale. But if you want to go deeper, darker and crueler, it is hard to top Toshio Matsumoto’s Demons (aka Shura aka Pandemonium, 1971) for pure malice.   Continue reading

Kill or Cure?

Most filmgoers who were born before 1965 know Paddy Chayefsky as the playwright who penned the teleplay Marty and later won an Oscar for the 1955 screenplay adaptation. Contemporary movie fans, however, remember him as the creator behind the 1976 media satire Network, which was nominated for 10 Oscars and won four including Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight) and a posthumous Best Actor Academy Award for Peter Finch as unhinged news anchor Howard Beale. (Bryan Cranston is currently playing Beale in a Broadway stage production based on Chayefsky’s film). What tends to get overlooked in Chayefsky’s filmography is The Hospital (1971), an equally audacious movie that prefigured Network’s outrageous blend of black comedy and social commentary and appeared five years earlier.  Continue reading

The Sound That Kills

Movies about people who murder with weapons or their bare hands are nothing out of the ordinary but what about a film where a man can kill with his voice? It might seem preposterous but The Shout (1978), directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, takes this concept and turns it into something that is both plausible and unsettling.   Continue reading