Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 May 2013

Viewing Habits of Late

The movies I've been watching lately have been a little nuts, I freely admit. One of the reasons I've slowed down my rate of posting on the blog is because for the most part I am watching older movies, films I assume none of the people who read my blog really wants to know about.

The reason for this weird new set of viewing habits is the Dartmouth library. I'm leaving Hanover in less than a month, so while I have access to the extraordinary library at Dartmouth, I thought I would watch as many of the rare films that they have as I can. I have chosen alternatively classic Hollywood fare and foreign pictures from the second half of the twentieth century. Many of these have been very interesting movies, at least to me, and so I thought I'd share some of them in a miniature report.

Nils Gaup's Ofelaš (which was released in the U.S. in 1989) is a bit of a Norwegian anthropological study. Evil villains hunting down peaceful families who are just trying to make their way in the wild snows of Norway. There were a series of these sorts of movies around this time if I recall correctly: movies that aren't documentaries but aim to record more primitive or traditional ways of life through narrative cinema rather than historical information. The filmmaking for Ofelaš is rather awful – so many closeups! – but the impulse is a sweet one, and this same impulse would give us Nikita Mikhalkov's superb Close to Eden in 1991, so I can't fault the impulse too much. If you want to watch something like this: the way of life of a people far removed from your own urban or suburban existence, rent Close to Eden.

And I finally got to see Kinugasa Teinosuke's Gate of Hell, which I've wanted to see for ages. I watched it on an old VHS copy from the library, and then the next day I got an email from the Criterion Collection saying they've released it on Blu-ray. Watch it on Blu-ray if you can. Gate of Hell is all about color. It is a superb film about stubbornness and foolishness that is recorded in blazing technicolor from the early 1950s: an intriguing antidote to all of the samurai movies from this period. Not that I dislike samurai movies; I love them, actually, but this is a samurai movie about honor and affection that moves in a slightly different circle – by turns comic and tragic. Just excellent.

Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay's Revolt of Job is a Hungarian film from 1983 about a Jewish man and wife who know that they are going to be sent off to camps by the Germans during the genocide of European Jews in the late 1930s. They live in this little village in Hungary and are childless and so they adopt a little Gentile boy so that they will have someone to whom they can leave a legacy. This movie is very funny for most of its running time – the boy is unruly and violent and very, very silly, and the parents are patient and loving but blustery and gruff in their own way. But running through the entirety of Revolt of Job is the knowledge that the parents and their child will soon be separated and in a violent and horrible way and so tragedy looms over the movie and its inevitability colors all of the comedy of the first three quarters of its running time. I found this film deeply moving.

And this last week I rented two Soviet films from the early 1980s. War-time Romance, from director Pyotr Todorovsky is the story of a man who begins to have an affair with a woman whom he loved during the second World War. They are both much older now, but neither of them is very smart about what he or she is doing, and they even spend a good deal of time with the man's wife, who understands everything that is happening from the very beginning. War-time Romance is on DVD from a Russian company, and the film is subtitled in English. I don't speak Russian, and even though the English translation is so bad that it is almost unreadable, War-time Romance shines. It is a beautiful film about loss and loyalty and love. Todorovsky's affection for his characters is coupled with a cold view of their situations. You watch the lives of these characters unravel toward awkwardness and comedy but Todorovsky manages to keep a respectful tone to the movie so that one can't help but feel sorry for them even if they've made their own troubles. Lovely.

My other Soviet movie was even better: Yuli Raizman's Private Life, which Wikipedia calls a "little-seen" film. If this is true, it is the fault of distributors and not of filmmaking. Private Life is an excellent film. An older businessman gets fired from his (apparently very important) job as a higher-up in some government ministry. What he does for work is unimportant, because the film is about what happens when he doesn't have a job to go to. He wanders around his home, speaking to fully grown children he doesn't understand at all and a wife who neither loves him any longer nor is interested in anything he might have to say. He has dedicated his life to work, but has not spent any time investing in his private life. Now without work, he is totally at sea trying to navigate his life at home. This is not a comedy, though it has a couple of charmingly funny sequences. Instead, Raizman treats his characters with the utmost respect. Private Life is a kind of serious drama of the banal, where small decisions have large consequences and one is reminded to pay attention to life as it passes by. Raizman does not include any of our standard USAmerican platitudes about "living in the moment" or "carpe-ing the diem" or "finding the beauty in plastic bags" and such. Rather, this is a character study of a man whom we might think silly or whom we might dismiss as a blowhard, and Private Life watches this man deal with the loneliness and terror of life without work. It's excellent. And the film's ending is absolutely perfect.

I have another three weeks in Hanover, so we'll see what other strange little gems I can collect...