Weekly Round-Up: February 07-13, 2016

Last week was a little slower movies-wise – I was pretty busy for the long weekend and it took me several rounds to get through The Two Towers (not the movie’s fault – I was just tired!).

I saw:

  • The Danish Girl (2015) – Frustrating true story about a transgender painter undergoing through her transition in the early 20th century. Its story is mostly by-the-books but occasionally delves into camp, whether or not the movie knows it. NOT RECOMMENDED. [Though I did get to see this movie as part of a great Q&A event with co-star Alicia Vikander.]
  • Black Orpheus (1959) – Wonderfully vibrant and kinetic adaptation of the Orpheus myth into modern-day Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The memorable music provides an exciting pulse all throughout this beautiful and romantic tragedy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. [I also wrote an accompanying piece, Criterion Goes to Carnaval looking at how the holiday functions in the narrative of this film and Gilda.]
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – Very strong “middle” film of the trilogy, with less concrete action taking place and more character development and laying the groundwork for the final film The Return of the King. This was my first time watching with audio commentary by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) – Sweet animated film about sheep who travel into the city to bring their farmer home. The visual gags come a mile a minute, and you barely even notice that there’s no dialogue. RECOMMENDED.
  • Lady and the Tramp (1955) – Iconic Disney classic between two dogs from opposite sides of the tracks. The “Siamese Cat Song” and “Bella Notte” sequences are two highlights from this rich, complicated love story. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Criterion Goes to Carnaval

You’ll end up going [to Carnaval]. No one can resist the madness.

In Catholic tradition, the pre-Lenten season is a time of gaiety and celebration. It is right before a period of fasting and penance, all culminating into one final wild night of the season: Carnaval. In classic film, however, Carnaval is less a celebration and more an ominous warning. Black Orpheus and Gilda both depict Carnaval not a festivity but a means of fate, bringing upon an inevitable doom.

Eurydice, the young heroine of Black Orpheus, fears for the worst the entire film. She is chased out of her home by a man she believes is out to kill her, and escapes to live with her cousin Serafina in Rio de Janeiro. She is oblivious to Carnaval, and the world she’s entering, but Serafina assures her she is safe from her pursuer.

blackorpheus383She is anything but, however, as Death appears to her her first night in Rio, follows her all throughout Carnaval, and eventually completes his chilling mission.

Death, and his pursuit of Eurydice, is so unsettling for two reasons. First, the sheer inevitability of the tragedy he brings. Eurydice takes a boat away from home, and immerses herself in the kinetic chaos of Carnaval, and yet this same man manages to single her out in the crowd. Second, for how he hides in plain sight. Sure, he comes after her late at night, in her cousin’s home, but he watches alongside the Carnaval-goers and blends right in the crowd, as another dark figure in the spooky masquerade. Evil is not only an unstoppable force, but an omnipresent one who walks among us.

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These same fears plague Gilda, the deeply troubled tour de force of Gilda. Tragedy strikes for her the night of Carnaval as well – in the midst of a gay affair in Buenos Aires, a body killed by her husband Mundson is discovered. Mundson escapes from the police, apparently committing suicide, allowing her to marry her ex-lover Johnny Farrell. Death comes to Gilda less explicitly; her social and private life is cut off, and she finds herself in the control of Johnny and his henchmen at all times. She is widowed out of one oppressive marriage, only to wed into another.

Like Eurydice, Gilda is destructively paranoid, though perhaps less justifiably so. Early in the film, she is tossing and turning over toasting “Disaster to the wench” in reference to Johnny’s former lover – herself. This spirit carries on as Carnaval approaches. She watches below, trapped in her prison of a bedroom, and asks her servant Maria what it means. Maria replies that Carnaval is “feasting and merry-making. Then comes the fasting and the penance.” Gilda chuckles and says, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m awfully superstitious. […] I have the funniest feeling that [….] for me, too, it’s Carnaval.” Even before the aforementioned murder takes place in the casino, Gilda’s instinctive reaction is that tragedy will strike, and her own end is drawing near.

It’s not an accident that both stories build up to the drama heightened by Carnaval. In Black Orpheus, Orpheus has all but shunned his overbearing fiance Mira for the sweet Eurydice, spending the night and later dancing through the streets of Rio together. The narrative pivot, and tragedy that befalls on Carnaval, parallels the end of this happy splendor, a dream world that is too good to be true. Such is the case in Gilda, where the fractured romance between Gilda and Johnny seems to repair as they dance together in the night, and she offers him to “get in practice” again – to rekindle their love. The events of that night, and Gilda’s new prison, are the harsh reality that crush false hope.

Pairing Carnaval, a festive time, with such tragic events is an interesting tonal dichotomy as well. The joyful Carnaval celebrations of Black Orpheus and Gilda mismatch the darker drama unfolding before us, brushing aside a major cultural and religious event before more intimate, personal conflict. Setting the dramatic events of Black Orpheus and Gilda within the context of Carnaval make the narrative elements even more powerful when framed within a supposedly happy time.

Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a thematically complex, though ultimately slow (and somewhat unsatisfying) existentialist look at the life and ideology of a petty thief.

The character Michel, played with an unsettling portrayal by Martin LaSalle, navigates his world with a haunting sense of loneliness and meaninglessness. In many ways, he seems to embody the film noir antihero by developing his own moral code, with a thought-out theory distinguishing pickpocketing from larger-scale thievery, and arguing with officers of the law on when it is ethically justifiable to steal. His only real friends are more of comrades, fellow pickpocketers, and his relationships with them never extend beyond further developing their unique craft.

The story development feels very organic, moving episodically from one-off instants of thievery to dizzyingly coordinated orchestrations of pickpocketting. Some of the most captivating moments of the film have us witnessing the flow of wallets and cash bills from pocket to hand to pocket, through trains and race tracks betting offices.

In some ways it reminded me of the pulp novel In a Lonely Place, also concerning a criminal who plays dangerously close to the edge. There is almost a casual, exhibitionist eroticism in watching the pickpocketting transpire, the intimacy of two strangers close together, one slowly reaching into a jacket pocket or a purse, then turning the other way. These criminals seem to get an excitement, a high, out of committing these acts in plain public view.

Bresson creates a wholly developed and frankly believable subculture of pickpockets and their sense of order; yet his film somehow loses steam. The antihero Michel experiences a sort of revelation towards the end, but the circumstances he faces nor his stagnant emotions are not enough to convey a convincing change of heart; perhaps that’s the “point,” that his drive for redemption is largely ungrounded, but the arbitrary nature of this newfound wisdom is not very consistent with the Michel or the action we had seen prior.

Pickpocket is rich with thought-provoking themes and Godard-esque suave coolness, yet does not provide a satisfying, or very logical, conclusion.

Black Orpheus (1959)

Many arthouse films, particularly older, foreign ones, take a while to enjoy – extensive thinking, or are simply slow-cooking to develop greater understanding or appreciation for them. This is not at all the case for the dazzling Black Orpheus, an exciting, imaginative, vibrant work that truly made my jaw drop upon learning its release date.

This stunning retelling of the classic Orpheus in the Underworld myth is translated to modern-day Brazil during the Carnaval festivities. Within this context, Black Orpheus could very well work as a documentary, illustrating in vibrant detail the planning, execution, and aftermath of this major annual event within Brazilian culture. All the major characters play different roles in the festivities, and it’s fascinating to see how these roles play out throughout the tragedy.

Even from this contemporary context, the story is given the weight of mythology through negative association to the setting of Carnaval Brazil. Eurydice, a geographic outsider, does not anticipate Carnaval like her cousin and the rest of the women do. She is subdued and (understandably) is mostly fearful of men, while the other women chase men in aggressive, active pursuit.

Her star-crossed lover Orpheus also holds a unique place within this world; his music makes the sun rise each morning, and his gentle guitar melodies are a distinct contrast from the hypnotic, pounding sounds of the Carnaval samba.

These separations from their context elevate Orpheus and Eurydice to more than just Carnaval partygoers; their very being is not unique to that time and place, but is malleable to a broader, more universal context – the very stuff of mythology.

The first two thirds of Black Orpheus are a nonstop adrenaline rush, seducing us into the Carnaval excitement, making the tragic final act that much more startling. The tense moments of Death’s pursuit of Eurydice and Orpheus’s fall carry more impact because of their silence, relative to the carefree noise we’d become accustomed to.

Magical realism is not easy to do, but when a film like Black Orpheusdefines its own discourse (much like Pasolini, whose similarly pageant-ridden films were undoubtedly influenced by this one) and elevates its story material to something greater than its face value, it supersedes mere fantasy and becomes an enduring masterpiece.