Tag Archives: Social Commentary

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE AERIAL (2007)

La antena

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DIRECTED BY: Esteban Sapir

FEATURING: Rafael Ferro, Sol Moreno, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Jonathan Sandor, Julieta Cardinali

PLOT: Mr. TV’s grip on the city is nearly complete, since he controls the only citizen known to be able to speak; however, not only does he want to control the people’s only voice, he wants to rob them of their words as well.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: A scattered analogy is the easiest way to argue this: The Aerial is Guy Maddin directs Alex ProyasDark City with a comic-book noir-Expressionist flair in a silent city whose populace communicates in colliding sub-, super-, and fore-titles.

COMMENTS: I generally don’t like my sociopolitical allegories to slap me so hard across the face, but The Aerial can feel free to slap me all it wants to. As you might infer from that mental image, Esteban Sapir’s movie is incredibly heavy-handed. It drops symbols like hot rocks (rocks so hot that, at one point, there’s a blistering contrast between some broadcasting baddies and their swastika-shaped device and the broadcasting goodies with their Star of David-shaped device). It’s overt in its rhetoric: “They have taken our voices, but we still have our words.” And even if the evil “Dr. Y” had a bigger mouth-enlarger-screen attached to him, it couldn’t have screamed “NAZI SCIENTIST!” any louder. But at this point I am hopeful that you’re wondering, “Just what is going on?”

What’s going on: Mr. TV lords over a voiceless city. The only person who can speak—“The Voice”—is controlled by Mr. TV and his ubiquitous media concern (TV billboards cover the metropolis, and the populace is fed with “TV Food”). The protagonist (credited only as “The Inventor”) loses his job with the TV monopoly after losing another balloon-man advertising sign (which is just what it sounds like). When a parcel containing “eyes” is delivered to the wrong address (and is conveniently received by the Inventor’s daughter), we learn that The Voice’s eyeless son can also speak. Meanwhile, Mr. TV conspires with crazy, creepy scientist Dr. Y to use The Voice to extract everyone’s words.

By now you probably see why I am feeling forgiving. Plus, the movie has a constant visual *pop*. Going into it, I wondered at the “very little dialogue” remark in its description. That is a bald-faced lie. There’s plenty of dialogue, and it is All Over The Screen. Not being a Spanish-speaker, I read the subtitles, but these were subtitles for everywhere-titles. They moved like hands on a watch, they were completed with “o”s from a smoke ring, and they were hidden behind fingers before a reveal. This town, though voiceless, is full of communication: the citizens read these words that are “spoken”. Even the blind boy “reads lips” by feeling the text. This gimmick was astounding to behold, and marvelously executed.

The rest of the movie’s aesthetic is just as lively, feeling at times like something from Dziga Vertov after he slammed back a samovar of strong tea. The visual mash-up (piano hands playing a typewriter while a ballerina in a snow globe desperately maneuvers what looked like a DDR challenge, for example) is consistent throughout, and although patently artificial, feels natural. Nothing looks cheap, and the film is helped in no small part by the actors as they deftly walk the perilous tightrope of Expressionism and film noir styles. I still feel The Aerial‘s energy, and so must stop myself. Suffice it to say, I wish more moralistic beatings were this pleasurable to suffer through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has a deeply weird story that appears to have a number of interpretations, or variations on a theme: the iniquities of media mind-control… Try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with La Antena, despite its distinctiveness and self-possession. There was something whimsical and indulgent about it, and its convoluted, flimsy narrative – oddly forgettable – seemed to have no traction.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ESCAPE FROM THE ‘LIBERTY’ CINEMA (1990)

Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolnosc’

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DIRECTED BY: Wojciech Marczewski

FEATURING: Janusz Gajos, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Teresa Marczewska, Piotr Fronczewski, Wladyslaw Kowalski

PLOT: There’s a problem at the Liberty Cinema screening of a new movie, and it isn’t projector or sound issues: the film’s cast has decided to boycott their performance on screen, leaving the head censor nonplussed, particularly as there’s a concurrent outbreak of spontaneous opera singing afflicting the city’s populace.

COMMENTS: The world’s weariest apparatchik is having a bad day. His head is pounding, his hand is cut from a broken drinking glass, his stomach is wrenching after consuming contaminated tap water, his assistant eats cotton candy at a staggering rate despite admonitions otherwise, and his secretary informs him that actors in the film being screened at a local cinema have gotten stroppy and refuse to perform. What is our hero to do? True to his background, he forbids it, categorically: he forbids the theater manager’s sudden singing, he forbids the actors’ boycott, and most emphatically of all, he forbids the eating of cotton candy.

But it’s in vain.

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema was made and released shortly after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Poland, but is set during the bureaucratic death throes of that regime. When news of the screen actors’ rebellion reaches him, the local Communist party boss insists that the film play on—to sold-out shows, no less—but without attendees. “There will be cinema, but no viewers,” because if the Party likes anything, it’s being a bastion of (legitimate) art. If it likes two things, it’s hitting quotas, and so the money for the sold-out shows is extracted from a welfare fund manager who wants a spot on the local Party council. Deterioration—of the buildings, of the social fabric, of the soul—permeates the setting. The city’s denizens are so worn down they can’t even bother to rebel any more, leaving Art to don the mantle of subversion: either through the film’s recalcitrant performers, or the citizen’s spontaneous outbursts of opera, against their will.

Despite its full-throated cynicism, Escape is, somehow, a comedy. Our censor-hero is an eminently relatable character. As he witnesses the district’s descent into art-house subversion, his ailments alleviate, and he even gets in some laughs chatting with the performers on display at the ‘Liberty’. The projectionist practices poor English, seemingly responding to job (or consulate?) interview questions running through his mind as he prepares the reels, again and again, three times a day, to screen for an empty house. The cotton-candy chomping assistant receives elocution lessons from the in-movie movie’s leading lady, eventually wrapping his mouth around the correct pronunciation of, “Give me back the coat!”

Writer/director Marczewski mercilessly skewers authorities—even raising the specter of Poland’s complicity with the Nazis’ genocide—but simultaneously loves each of his film’s characters. I can imagine he may even have written himself in as the wunderkind critic sent from Warsaw. Seated in the front row, this impish boy of a man beams with pride when he shows off “true” cinema (appropriately, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) to the Communist functionaries. Beyond even his successful social commentary, Marczewski somehow manages to meld utmost cynicism with tender pathos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A very clever absurdist comedy that can be enjoyed either with or without its sharp social and political commentary…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PIGSTY (1969)

Porcile

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DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Jean-Pierre Léaud, Alberto Lionello, ,

PLOT: In contemporary Germany, a son of an industrialist discusses abstract social principles with his fiancée as his father plans a merger with an old, pre-war associate; in medieval Europe, a young cannibal forms a gang of bandits before eventually being trapped by the local militia.

Still from Pigsty (porcile) 1969

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Pigsty qualifies not only for efficiency’s sake: as two narratives, it would be like getting two Apocrypha titles for the price of one. But each of the narrative strains is an oddity in its own right: one, an ambiguous morality tale stuffed with art-house flourishes; the other, an obvious morality tale stuffed with macabre social commentary.

COMMENTS: There is only one moment of near-tenderness in Pigsty, during an encounter between a young, unnamed scavenger and a young, unnamed militiaman on a blasted hillside in Medieval Europe. The militiaman has been straggling behind the main procession of armed soldiers, whistling as he idles. The two men awkwardly encounter each other, exchange glances, and for the briefest moment one might believe that something romantic might ensue—but almost immediately they fire their weapons, fight with their swords, and one kills, and eats, the other. Pigsty‘s true tenor is shown, not least when the cannibal throws the decapitated head of the guardsman into an steaming thermal vent on the mountainside that overlooks the lifeless clearing. Sacrifice.

Two parallel narratives intertwine as counterpoints, but each reinforces the other’s message. Modern life, with all its trappings (as emphasized by the fiancée character when she opens the contemporary story with the line, “We’re two, rich bourgeois, Julian”), turns out to be no less violent—and no less focused on survival—than life in the Dark Ages. While Pasolini uses wholly visual storytelling for the historical half, he dissects 1960s society via endless conversations between allegorical stereotypes. Julian, the scion of a major industrial concern, finds himself caught between two worlds: his fiancée’s conformist radicalism, and his father’s conformist classism; he retreats from what he sees as a mindless game of consumerist conquest by frequenting the pigsty on the family’s estate. What of love? His fiancée challenges him early on, “You kissed me!” He responds, “I also scratch myself.”

The focus quickly moves from the young man  to the father. Though wheelchair-bound, he derives plenty of joie de vivre from his business, his harp, and many, many conversations about the nature of class and society—finding the hilarity of it all from the side opposite his son. The patriarch is an ex-Nazi in the prosperous half of a divided Germany; his recollections of his political past consist exclusively of “humorous” anecdotes and memories. To illustrate this point—overtly, to the point of heavy-handedness—Pasolini presents this smirking cripple in a bedtime scene where he wishes he had been able to have his caricature drawn by George Grosz, with a Brechtian tune to back it up.

These characters without principle—or, at best, woefully misguided principles—are a direct contrast to the filmmaker. Pasolini was a complex man, but he was filled with disdain for the establishment (specifically, any of them). His views can be distilled as “anti-authoritarian”. There are countless references to parse: the allure of the pigsty, the undercurrent of homoeroticism in the historical narrative, and the nebulous confession of the scavenger (“I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy”), with its religious overtones. But Pasolini isn’t a subtle filmmaker; even if any given piece of the story he’s telling is veiled in arcane symbolism, his message is always crystal clear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exquisitely revolting satire…”–Time Out

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAGGIE (2018)

메기

DIRECTED BY: Yi Ok-seop

FEATURING: Lee Ju-young, Koo Kyo-hwan, Moon So-ri, Koo Gyo-hwan

PLOT: Maggie the catfish acts as a piscine confessor for Yoon-yong, who’s going through some problems with her work and home life; the fish predicts the appearance of some troubling sink-holes springing up (er, down) around the greater Seoul area.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A psychic fish narrator, social commentary via sinkholes, and the appearance of a “manic pixie dream boy” all fuel this strange hybrid of dark Wes Anderson and light Quentin Tarantino.

COMMENTS: Many years ago, I was forced to take a seminar class for my degree and ended up enduring a semester-long trial entitled “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience.” It’s not that I don’t want awareness raised about society’s ills, but I had the suspicion before-hand that most of the movies would be heavyhanded and tediously paced. My fears proved correct at the time, but now, having seen Yi Ok-seop’s directorial debut, Maggie, I now must admit that lightning can strike even the smallest targets. And it strikes well, with humor, quirkiness, and pathos (a “p” word that seems to be cropping up a bit this festival).

A pre-penetration x-ray circulates among the staff of a small hospital in the outskirts of Seoul. Rumors fly about whose body parts were caught in the act of lovemaking, with nary a thought as to the who or why behind the snapshot’s existence. The following day, every staff member calls in sick except for the young nurse who’s “in” the photo and an osteopath who’s just about lost her trust in her fellow man. Subsequent events involving sinkholes, unemployment, and relationship dynamics proceed apace, all narrated by the omniscient titular character, Maggie the catfish.

There is a vibrancy throughout Maggie that weds the two dominant themes of whimsy and social commentary. There is brightness everywhere: the outdoor scenes, the well-lit hospital, and even the night-time streets illuminated by the colorful, flashing glow of warning lights surrounding the big holes in the ground that keep appearing. Chapter designations like “Everyone Likes the X-Ray Room” and “The Stairs of Death” act as synopses along the way while also providing wry counterpoint to the events. And though it has a cheerful, meandering nature throughout, everything gets wrapped up nicely—through the convenience of a key character who’s swallowed up by the ground at an important juncture.

Maggie‘s weirdness isn’t “in your face”, but more of a gentle squeezing of the shoulders from start to finish. There are definitely overtly odd things (the catfish, the eccentric hospital, and the ballad to “Maxine” around the midpoint), but it’s all very low key. What swayed me toward inclusion was the fact that all of this is being done for a purpose (and, I learned in a subsequent interview with the filmmakers 1, was funded not only sight-unseen, but script-unseen). My one criticism would be that when the story focuses on the slacker boyfriend, the movie rambles a little pointlessly—but even that’s apt, considering the character we’re following. And though I didn’t quite agree with another choice, I was impressed by the director’s decision to eliminate a character without allowing for an explanation. Director Yi Ok-seop and writer/producer/actor Koo Kyo-hwan strongly feel that violence has no excuse, and they make that point in a memorable way that really lets it… sink in.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“The director is riffing on the idea of how misunderstandings snowball, but, without a solid central idea to anchor the wackiness, the exuberantly nonsensical chaos of this movie is likely to have only niche appeal.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Rant (festival screening)