(To see more on the Blind Spot series, please visit The Matinee.)
I recently came to the realization that movie blind spots never entirely go away. The more films you see, the more films you realize you haven’t seen, especially those lesser-known or harder-to-find films you hear about, films that you make it your life’s quest to track down and see. All it takes is to listen to a movie podcast or two, read a book or two, and the quest begins again. If you continue down this treacherous road (as I frequently do), you find a few (or a few hundred, as the case may be) titles that you hear referenced over and over, films you really must see. I recently saw three such films, two from my unfinished 2016 list and one from my 2017 (which is nearly completed).
Fitzcarraldo (1982) Werner Herzog
DVD – library (2:37)
Fitzcarraldo is one of the boldest, foolhardiest, and most fascinating films in the history of cinema. The stories behind it are the stuff of legend. I’ll have more to say about this film after a second viewing, but for now, I’ll say that this was one of the films from last year’s Blind Spot series that I didn’t get around to watching until now. I clearly remember Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel discussing and praising the film on Siskel & Ebert (or whatever the show was called at that time). I was 20 years old when the film was released and it sounded like an art film I didn’t really want to see. Well, that’s not entirely true. I wanted to see it but I also wanted to see many other films that I thought were more approachable. I wish I had experienced it upon its first release 35 years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated it.
The insanity of the plot is as follows: Klaus Kinski plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (whom the Peruvian locals call Fitzcarraldo), a would-be rubber baron who has an all-consuming desire to build a world-class opera house in the Perivian Amazon. (He also wants to have the world’s most famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, to perform at its opening.) To finance this, Fitzcarraldo must exploit the the only unclaimed area of rubber trees, an area unreachable by any ship, especially the old steamship Fitzcarraldo has purchased for this venture. To avoid dangerous rapids, the 320-ton steamship must be carried over a 40° hillside to the other side of the river. This was done without special effects.
Read those last two sentences again. Yes, they actually did this.
The stories from the film are legion and the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), which I have not yet seen, chronicles the entire adventure. Again, I will write more about this amazing film at a later date. Don’t wait 35 years to see it like I did.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) (1946) Jean Cocteau
Right now, in May 2017, you can go to your local movie theater and see a movie called Beauty and the Beast. This is not the movie I saw. Neither is the much-loved 1991 Disney animated movie or the eleven other film versions (which you can find here.) You can have them all. Give me the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, a film so magical and otherworldly that when it’s over, you have to touch the furniture and check all the mirrors just to make sure you’re in the real world. (And sadly, you are.)
Cocteau was a master of visual style. (He was also a writer, playwright, designer and artist.) We know this world is not real, but we believe that it is. It’s special effects are over 70 years old, but we believe them more than if they were CGI effects. Fairy tales contain a certain unspoken power and it’s a rare instance when filmmakers can use that power, transforming a verbal tale into one of such visual richness.
The story is familiar so I won’t go into it. Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t; it doesn’t matter. The guys on the Pure Cinema Podcast recently mentioned the film (in their Episode 12, “Peary’s Cult Movies 1”) noting that the French language adds another level of otherworldliness to the film, making it both foreign and intriguing. I was amazed. I thought Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) was amazing (and it is), but Beauty and the Beast is on a whole other level. There’s no doubt it’s a masterpiece.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov
Narrative feature? Documentary? Experiment? Just how do you describe Man with a Movie Camera? The film contains no professional actors and there probably wasn’t a real “script” in the way we normally think of scripts. The film instead captures various images from urban life in the Soviet cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. We see people working, playing, and most interestingly, confronting various types of machinery, both simple and industrial. Yet this is no quaint look back at a simpler time. Vertov uses a variety of (then) avant-garde styles and techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, double exposure, jump cuts, Dutch angles, split screen, and more. (The version I saw on FilmStruck features original music composed and performed by The Alloy Orchestra. If you get a chance, see this version.)
The film is important for showing audiences then (and reminding us now) of where film can go, a reminder that limits are made to be broken, even shattered. All of the techniques in the film have become rather commonplace and seeing the film with 21st century eyes dilutes the film’s power somewhat, but seeing it for the first time in 1929 (or even 1939, 1949, etc.) must have been a mind-blower. Even now, close to 90 years later, it’s still a mind-blower.
Photos: Deep Into Movies, DVD Beaver