Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Films of Santiago Alvarez

Article first published as DVD Review: He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez on Blogcritics.

The most exciting filmmaker I’ve come across during my wanderings through the cinematic wilderness is Cuban agitprop documentarian Santiago Alvarez. A member of the Cuban Communist Party and working for the Cuban Film Institute where he cranked out weekly installments of "Latin American Newsreel," he was the model of energetic resourcefulness.

Alvarez declared, “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola and I’ll give you a movie.” And that’s a fitting self-description of his work. Three out of four films described below are constructed largely of images re-photographed from newspapers and tattered copies of "Life" magazine, creatively edited and set to bouncy pop music.

His most famous film is "Now" (1965). It is a desperate call to arms; a riotous film seemingly intended to incite riots everywhere. And boy does it work. I’m a mellow guy and it makes me want to go out and march arm-in-arm right up into the face of “The Man.” Alvarez’s camera cuts and bounces and pans across one still photograph after another and seldom smoothly. This isn’t Ken Burns stuff here. This is crude, sometimes handheld. The film lasts as long as it takes Lena Horne to sing the title song and concludes with “NOW!” bullet riddled into the screen.

Another justly famous film is "LBJ" (1968). Structured into three sections, it focuses on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (“L”), Bobby Kennedy (“B”), and John Kennedy (“J”) and implicates Lyndon Johnson in all three. The movie expands upon the materials of "Now" to include images from "Playboy" and found footage ranging from television commercials to old ‘B’ westerns. Its conspiracy theory conceits may seem factually suspicious today, but the film’s spirits are still intoxicating.

My favorite films are "Hanoi, Tuesday 13th" (1967) and "79 Springtimes" (1969), both focusing on the Vietnam War in ways that Hollywood wouldn’t dare.

The first is one of the rare films actually shot by Alvarez. He was given a hand-cranked 16mm camera and enough film and money to shoot for one day in Vietnam. He was sent to collect day-in-the-life footage (it was entirely shot on a single Tuesday in December, 1967), but what he caught was “lightning in a bottle.” The movie reminds me of the village attack in "Apocalypse Now" only with the emphasis shifted from the attack to the pastoral calm before the carnage.

"79 Springtimes" is an affectionate romp through the life and times of Ho Chi Minh – through all of his 79 years. It’s a reverent and loving depiction focusing on his accomplishments and triumphs. And his death is movingly mourned by hundreds of tear-stained children’s faces. (Yes, it is pure propaganda, but propaganda at its most poetic.) The film’s highlight is its frantic war montage cobbled together from all sorts of still and moving images and printed and edited to make the film itself appear blown to pieces as if caught in the crossfire.

Many of Alvarez’s most famous films are available on YouTube. But, if you really want to see them at their best, get your hands on the terrific DVD package "He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez." Disc one has a rich assortment of his films and disc two contains one of the better documentaries if seen about a single filmmaker.

The DVD liner notes read, "Most work that [Alvarez] was doing was for immediate consumption. He wasn't thinking, 'Is this going to look great in two years?' He was thinking 'Is this going to look great in two hours?'" That nicely sums up his raw urgency that I find so timelessly appealing.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

2010 Winter/Spring Survey Results

Anvil: the Story of Anvil97151873.13
Treeless Mountain281321173.70
This Film Is Not Yet Rated53627223.92
Encounters at the End of the World261024243.94
Hobson's Choice201011404.38
The Night of the Hunter441418193.75
Monty Python's Life of Brian59189153.36
Boys Don't Cry12622294.27
Dear Zachary02715374.43
The Class391819253.73

  • Too many documentaries.
  • More like Hobson's Choice. Rare old classics.
  • We just started coming and intend to join next Fall.
  • I don't much care for documentaries.
  • Love Cinema 100! It's so decadent to go to a movie @ 3:00 when everyone else is stuck in their offices. It's a way to say "I'm worth it." Thanks.
  • No subtitles please.
  • I'm most interested in foreign films.
  • Lots of kung fu classics.
  • Adaptations of interesting and eclectic books.
  • I am a documentary lover, so any & all docs.
  • More foreign films with adult content.
  • Do a series of films based on Shakespeare.
  • I wish you showed more films like Story of the Weeping Camel.
  • Some old comedies like Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and Abbott and Costello.
  • First time I did this and enjoyed it.

2009 October Survey Results

The Kite Runner041042143.94
Waltz with Bashir4242216183.24
The Willow Tree2242814143.17

  • Too much bloodshed.
  • So violent.
  • I liked all of them equally well.
  • South American/Latin American series.
  • Some were very good but also disturbing.
  • Bring more happy films!
  • More classics.
  • Do a classic kung fu series.

2009 Winter/Spring Survey Results

Well, I got behind on posting survey results so I went on a number crunching binge last night. This is the first of three postings of results. To make things prettier than in the past, I'm posting a picture from the highest rated movie from each series. In the case of The Snow Walker, it is one of the most popular movies we've ever shown. A whopping 100 people gave it a top rating of 5.

An American in Paris271130374.07
Trouble the Water11171728103.11
My Winnipeg3411112082.49
The Sea Hawk241931213.84
The Counterfeiters01718614.60
Taxi to the Dark Side25523304.14
Man on Wire12620594.52
Frozen River12524634.54
The Red Shoes481923343.85
The Snow Walker003101004.86

  • Excellent series as always.
  • Too many documentaries. More vintage movies.
  • More anime!
  • I love foreign films. Less classics - I can see those on TV.
  • One film should push the edge and be unrated/NC-17.
  • Elvis movies. More classic vintage movies.
  • Do a series with the same director, maybe Hitchcock.
  • A good Bollywood! Monsoon Wedding - please!:)
  • '50s monster movies.
  • Don't be afraid to bring more non-English language. How about Fellini?
  • I liked the variety.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dillinger is Dead

“Stay close to your inner self. You will benefit in many ways.”

I spend a lot of time at the Hong Kong restaurant, usually after watching the latest Cinema 100 offering. One of my hobbies is collecting fortunes and pinning them up by my desk at work. I like to keep my favorites especially close. They can be oddly comforting. They can also prove inspirational in unexpected ways.

That fortune about staying true to my inner self has long been my favorite and I thought about it while watching Dillinger is Dead, one of the latest buried treasures unearthed by the Criterion Collection which specializes in releasing great and often overlooked marvels of world cinema. “Dillinger” hasn’t been available on home video, ever, until now.

It’s a peculiar film. It begins with Glauco (Michel Piccoli) at work. He’s a gas mask designer and he’s observing a test subject sealed in a chamber filled with deadly gas. An onlooker ponders the parallels between the test subject and modern man who must wear a mask in order to survive the modern world. He must live outwardly in ways that society demands so thoroughly and so constantly that he becomes defined solely by this mask. He loses sight of his inner self and becomes a “one-dimensional man.”

It’s a quick and succinct setup. Then Glauco drives home and enters his flat where he will remain for most of the film, a flat that he shares with his doped up trophy wife (Anita Pallenberg) and their maid.

What happens over the course of the ensuing night can be written on a cocktail napkin. He feeds his wife some sleeping pills at her beckoning. He looks at the dinner left for him on the table and stashes it away in the fridge disgustedly. He pulls out a cookbook, throws on an apron, and sets to work preparing something tastier.

Rummaging in the pantry, he finds a gun wrapped in newspaper clippings about John Dillinger. He carefully disassembles the gun, meticulously cleans each part, reassembles it, paints it bright red with white polka dots, loads it, fantasizes blowing his brains out, and then, without a hint of emotion, shoots his sleeping wife in the head through a carefully arranged stack of pillows.

This is existential black comedy at its most absurdly detached. Piccoli reminded me of Elliott Gould’s mumbling Philip Marlowe, ambling about in search of food for his finicky cat, in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Only Piccoli sustains this for the entire film as if wandering through a fog toward a distant moment of clarity, finally lowering his mask and re-discovering his true self by pulling a trigger.

He takes a break in his cooking and gun cleaning to seduce the maid and settles in to enjoy his meal while watching home movies projected on the living room wall. It’s a movie that is defiantly not about what happens. It is rather about how what happens happens. The seduction scene is odd and emotionless and, yet, strangely sensual as Glauco drizzles honey down the maid’s back and licks it from his finger.

And the home movie sequence is a candidate for my favorite such scene ever, topping even the home movie interlude in Paris, Texas. Glauco projects footage of a bullfight with him and his wife looking on from the stands followed by footage of them on vacation at a beach and at an amusement park. In each case, he approaches the wall and tries to touch the images, tries to become one with them. It’s cinema at it most beautiful and most enigmatic.