Tag Archives: Drama

321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Kurutta ippêji

“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa

FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa

PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.

Still from A Page of Madness (1926)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
  • Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
  • Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
  • Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
  • Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
  •  Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
  • The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam;  asylum masquerade

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.


Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)

COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more Continue reading 321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE MIRROR (1975)

is a staple at 366 Weird movies, so it’s only apt that we get around to what many believe to be his most personal film: The Mirror (1975). The title alone indicates as much. According to Tarkovsky’s memoir “Sculpting in Time” (an essential read), The Mirror began as a novella, reflecting on the artist’s years during the Second World War. He started the first of many script drafts a decade before filming commences, and with its pointed criticism of the Soviet Union, it’s remarkable that it was even produced, let alone distributed. Tarkovsky predictably found himself embroiled in intensive conflict with the Goskino film committee in pre-production, in production itself, and in post-production. The Mirror was given limited release in Moscow; Tarkovsky’s inevitable exile was a mere few years away. Post-production was reportedly a laborious process, going through approximately twenty extensive edits. Upon its release, both critical and audience assessments were sharply divided, with many finding it incomprehensible. Provoking much heated debate, The Mirror didn’t initially have the impact of Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), or Stalker (1979). Yet, it has since become one of  the most referenced Tarkovsky works among cineastes, and made Sight and Sound’s list of the top fifty films of all time.

Originally titled both ‘Confession” and  “A White, White Day,”  that changed when Tarkovsky brought his (divorced) parents and wife into the project. Arseny Tarkovsky (the father) reads from his own established poetry. Maria Vishnyakova (Tarkovsky’s tenderhearted mother) lends her visual presence to the film.

Although The Mirror vaguely covers bullet points from Tarkovsky’s childhood (the evacuation, Arseny’s abandonment of family, Maria’s influence on her son), it is a motion biography that metaphorically weaves through pasts that are past only compared to the more recent. Heightening the dissonance, actors are perpetually in motion, shifting roles: i.e. Margarita Terekhova plays both Tarkovsky’s mother and his wife Natalya. Her vanity is not blanketed, but it is as a maternal influence, educating her son in the arts and sheltering him from the threat of military service, that her portrayal becomes resplendently Orphic. The terminally ill narrator Alex (Innokenty Smoktunovsky)—never seen—is the film’s protagonist.

Tarkovsky’s childhood is represented as a bucolic pastoral disrupted by his father’s abandonment, symbolized in a building aflame. Tellingly, and with aching honesty, it is this betrayal, more than the war, that shatters and decimates Tarkovsky’s childhood. Abandonment by a loved one is the proverbial expulsion from a spiritual paradise. Yet, an undeniable supplemental element, born from the loss of innocence, is the latent political rage directed at a monstrously inhuman war.

Still from The Mirror (1975)The film imprints startlingly incandescent, fervent images that remain long after: Natalya washing her hair in a basin as a building collapses; the Soviet army crossing Lake Sivash; the juxtaposition of black and white with sepia and color imagery along with newsreel footage; the palm print of child dissipating into a lustrous surface; repeated mirror imagery; the arcane return of the prodigal father; a hot air balloon; the absurd training of cadets in a snowy (emotionally bankrupt) horizon; the loneliness of a dejected wife; an apparently arid day revealed in a window to be a transcendental monsoon. The personal and intimate are juxtaposed with a collective people. Time is indeed pliably sculpted.

The Mirror is possibly the closest cinema has come to evoking modernist poetry.

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

Still from Day of Wrath (1943)In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.

317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)

Sennen joyû; AKA Chiyoko: Millennium Actress

“I find memories and dreams belong to the same category of artifacts. In other words, if we want to make a contrast, we have reality on one side, which is opposed by the dream, the memory or even a fantasy… They are on a different ‘layer’ than our reality and can be superimposed on it.”–Satoshi Kon (translated from the French)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Shôzô Îzuka, Shouko Tsuda, Miyoko Shôji, , Fumiko Orikasa

PLOT: A film producer and a cameraman interview Fujiwara Chiyoko, a famous retired Japanese actress. As she tells the story of her life, they find themselves absorbed into her flashbacks, which seem to mix scenes from movies she acted in with her actual memories. Genya, the interviewer, delivers a key Chiyoko had left behind at the studio, and reveals that he has personal motives for visiting the actress.

Still from Millennium Actress (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • After making Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon intended to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika (which he eventually made in 2003), but financial considerations led him to tackle this less expensive project first.
  • Kon co-wrote the film with Sadayuki Murai, who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue.
  • Tied for the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival (in a deadlock with Spirited Away).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Because they are striking, suggest transcendence, and bookend the movie, it’s the shots of Chiyoko in a spacesuit linger in the mind. Her discovery of a mysterious easel set up on the moon’s “pure white landscape” ends up as one of the strangest sights in Millennium Actress.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Free cameraman with flashback; Godzilla cameo; lunar easel

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An interviewer tries to get to the root of a famous retired actress’ life, including the significance of a mysterious object (a key) from her childhood. A series of decades-spanning flashbacks paint a portrait of a life spent chasing an unobtainable goal; only, the memories get mixed up with scenes from historical epics she starred in. It’s like Citizen Kane, but with ninja battles.

U.S. trailer for Millennium Actress

COMMENTS: Although much of the movie is a retrospective of Japanese cinema from the 1920s on, fictional screen icon Chiyoko Fujiwara’s career spanned less than a century, much less than a millennium. So how does the title Millennium Actress arise? From the fact Continue reading 317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)

CAPSULE: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)

La double vie de Véronique

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter

PLOT: Stories from the lives of two women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who are both musicians, look identical, and share a vague psychic bond that is never explained.

Still from The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It tends too much to the “arthouse drama” side of the “weird arthouse drama” scale.

COMMENTS: Weronika and Veronique are only present together at one moment, when the French music teacher glimpses the Polish singer in a crowd. Yet, their lives are almost mirror images, or alternate histories. They share a metaphysical bond: Weronika burns herself on a stove as a child, and Veronique dimly senses her pain, and carries a fear of hot surfaces for her entire life. In the early going it can be difficult to tell which of them is which, although the plot makes it very clear who is the main character in the end.

There is no meaningful interaction between the two young women; in fact, it proceeds almost like two separate dramas placed alongside each other, concerning stories from the lives of two superficially similar characters. Small individual moments create more impact than the whole: Weronika singing rapturously as raindrops splash her upturned face, a Lenin statue carted away by truck (an earthbound mirror of La Dolce Vita‘s helicoptered Christ), a cathedral inverted in a handheld crystal ball. The first half focuses on the more likable of the pair, while the second half launches into a skewed love story involving a puppeteer. The incidents are related in the straightforward, mostly realistic way typical of Kieslowski and his arthouse cronies, with the bare mystery of the doppelgangers providing an unsettling subtext. The end result is a Rorschach test (inkblots are mirror images, after all).

Although I’m awarding The Double Life of Veronique a “recommended” rating, it’s a qualified one. Veronique‘s  technical qualities are exemplary: Slawomir Idziak’s lush cinematography, Zbigniew Presiner’s beautiful classical score, and Irene Jacob’s ravishing presence merge to create truly sensuous, quietly seductive film. But the enterprise is also overly enigmatic, in a way that’s not completely satisfying. It doesn’t deliver the surreal magic of a Persona, and as an intellectual exercise, even Blow-Up is easy to parse compared to Veronique. Is it a study of Europe’s East contra its West, or of how the author manipulates the personas of his characters? Scant evidence appears for any particular interpretation, but there’s a too much explication, and too few fireworks, to suggest a mindblowing irrational experience. The mix of mundane and off-center elements make for a movie that, while impressive, may not offer quite enough return per unit of attention it demands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Kieslowski] takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations. Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusive—by design.”–Emmanuel Levy, emmanuellevy.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tomash,” who mysteriously said, “this is the BIG movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: PAPERHOUSE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Bernard Rose

FEATURING: Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headley, Ben Cross

PLOT: Bedridden from an illness, young Anna experiences recurring dreams of a house in a field—a house, she soon realizes, that changes corresponding to the drawings she makes.

Still from Paperhouse (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Applying an overlay of stark realism to the classic Wonderlandian formula of a child immersed in their own imagination, Paperhouse brings the essence of ’s classic tale of weirdness into the world of the lower-class, late-20th-century childhood, and makes it all the weirder for its dreariness.

COMMENTS: Four years before rising to international attention (and then abruptly falling out of it again) with the horror classic Candyman, director Bernard Rose would helm this loose adaptation of Catherine Storr’s children’s novel Marianne Dreams. Despite the high praise it received from Roger Ebert, the film flew largely under the international radar, and has yet to receive a DVD release outside Europe.

Drawing, like so many “weird” films before and after it, on a certain Alice in Wonderlandian spirit, the movie builds upon the versatile foundation of a child’s imagination, supplanting Carroll’s prim and privileged young Victorian with a rebellious young lower-classer whose world is London flats, government schools, and dysfunctional families. For all her premature cynicism, she yet clings to her childhood beliefs in fantasy, fairy tales, and happy endings.

As any child, and many adults, would naturally do, Anna attempts to escape her worldly concerns—which include an alcoholic father and a bout of fever—by retreating into her fantasies. But these dreams, we soon realize, are as tainted as the rest of her childhood, a fact communicated by the film’s distinctive set design. The titular paperhouse truly looks—in the most clinical sense—like what a child’s drawing of a house might look like if brought to life. It isn’t a pretty sight. Malformed and misshapen, Anna’s dream house is a hollow shell, empty of color, décor, architectural nuances, all those dull details a child would generally not concern herself with. As the woes of daily life continue to plague her, Anna’s attempts to draw some child-friendly charm into her paperhouse only transform it from dreary to sinister. An ice cream dispenser becomes a roaring, metallic industrial beast; an oversized Coke bottle seems sarcastically Warholian; and her attempts to draw her estranged father into the picture spawn a blind, raging monster.

From a filmmaking perspective, Paperhouse, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its limited budget, offers little to criticize. Rose’s direction is confident and purposeful; the set design is realized in a manner that wonderfully conveys the film’s central themes; Glenne Headley manages a convincing London accent; and Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers, despite their young ages, carry their leading roles with competence (though both of them, thankfully, had the good sense to get out of the film business before the ugly industry of child acting could consume them).

But perhaps the core of what makes Paperhouse so recommendable, and so weird, lies not in its technical execution, nor in its fantastical elements, but in its abnormal honesty. Looking past the “Alice” influences, we might see it as a more grounded prototype of such later films as Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls. Although she appreciates the draw of imagination and the appeal of escape into fantasy as much as the next child protagonist, Anna’s mind is far too preoccupied with, and jaded by, her worldly experiences to have time to conjure up elaborate, intricately detailed backdrops encrusted with CGI and Hollywood budgets. In this sense, the film might seem abnormally dreary for its subject matter; yet for that very reason it will also be, for many, far more relatable than similar works.

One can pick holes in anything, and there’s plenty that might be said about the notion that the romance between the two leads seems to happen for little reason other than that they’re a boy and a girl, or that the idealistic ending might jar with the rest of the movie’s more grounded tone. But as with the beloved tale of Alice, the plot is a secondary consideration to exploring the expanses (or in this case, the limitations) of a child’s imagination. Besides, one of the many things that Paperhouse does well is setting up a protagonist who deserves, at the very least, a happy ending.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream – which is, of course, what it is….  wisely never attempts to provide a rational explanation for its story…”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)