Review: The Iron Rose (19730

I think I just found my new favourite movie.

In The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin takes a Bunuelian story of psychological entrapment and applies the rawest, most personal form of his aesthetic to create a heartbreaking masterpiece of youth and mortality.

Two unnamed young lovers – a sensitive tough guy and a winsome naïf – have a date in a cemetery. After making love in a crypt, they find themselves unable to leave the graveyard, and spend the night gradually coming apart.

Watching The Iron Rose feels voyeuristic. Something about this – the sincerity and the pain and the strangeness – feels so personal to Rollin, like he’s just placing his withering heart on the table for all to see. There’s no vampires here, no zombies, nothing overtly supernatural. It’s just two young idealists struggling to understand their place in a universe that existed long before them and will exist long after.

As they grow more and more frightened, the lovers begin to transform into their true selves. He exhibits cowardice, insecurity, a fear of death that shows itself in a flippant destruction of his surrounds. She becomes weary, accepting and welcoming of entrapment and darkness, wiser and scarier than her years should allow; her disappointment in him drives her to the dead. Is this what Rollin thinks of humanity? Is this what he thinks of life – simply a spiteful response to the inevitability of mortality?

In Rollin’s world, everyone is simply circling the grave, every action inextricably tied to their future sleep. Early on, we are shown a clown in full makeup attending to a grave. Rollin intercuts between a scene of sex and this clown, gradually showing his whole process. Beyond the initial confusion of his presence, the clown is never treated as a joke. He’s simply another force of ostensible joy being affected by the grave. The lovers may fuck in the cemetery in direct opposition to what lays below them, but they’re simply staving off time – no matter what, it’s all coming down.

Rollin’s contemplative approach reaches its peak here. Even at his most macabre – such as a make-out session on top of a pile of bones – he finds only regret and melancholy. When the male paramour reaches his nadir, Rollin shoots his pathetic destruction from afar, any sense of dread eclipsed by a gentle acceptance.

And yet, despite this fatalism, The Iron Rose is not a film without joy. Rollin’s obsession with the female form comes to a head in a fantasy, as the female lover walks naked upon a rocky stretch of beach (a stretch that Rollin seems to use often). She smiles, she laughs, she finds happiness in her peace. At the graveyard, too, there are times of surrealist comedy. Save for one, every other inhabitant we see is some kind of cartoonish creature – the clown, a caped man, a medieval hunchback – and the inherent strangeness of the lovers’ venue choice is played for dark comedy early on.

Jean Rollin seems obsessed with death, or at the very least, the mystery that comes right after. But he doesn’t seem scared. He just seems … done.

“They say that stars are the Gods sending us signals.”

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Review: Wild Side (1995)

“I take offence to that, the rape of my protégé. You know what you get for rape? 10 years in a cell with a gorilla! A psycho gorilla!”

The film that killed Donald Cammell.

A seedy neo-noir with the usual things to say about the relationship between sex and power, Wild Side is elevated by director Donald Cammell’s sensuously offbeat vision and the most Christopher Walken performance I’ve ever seen Walken do. He wears a jet-black wig in this movie and screams about having to go to meetings. He’s simultaneously distancing and entrancing.

Anne Heche stars as a banking exec who moonlights as a high-end escort. She gets tangled up in a sting operation set up by an undercover rapist cop (a hyper-macho Steven Bauer) to take down Walken’s corrupt financier. Unfortinately, Heche can’t help but fall in love with Walken’s girlfriend, played with effortless magnetism (but little actual character) by Joan Chen. Things quickly spiral out of control, as they are wont to do.

This is essentially soft-core Hitchcock, a rote erotic noir narrative that’s enlivened by the intensely strange script. Every scene goes on a little too long, every exchange a purple whatsit of psychosexual tangents, every line just a little off. Cammell shoots everything with his customary flat bloom lighting that pushes everything into a dream-like realm that is always suggesting someone is about to have photo-ready sex, even when no one is fucking. Cammell compounds the discomfort by vacillating between rapid fire cuts and languid long takes, constantly pushing the viewer off balance and almost, almost making them forget that what they’re watching is trite BS.

Tragically, this would be Cammell’s last film. Originally made for an exploitation production company with the promise of classing the place up, Wild Side was eventually taken away from Cammell and edited against his wishes. He killed himself. A couple of years later, friends and collaborators put together Cammell’s original vision.

I watched that cut.

Review: Kinski Paganini (1989)

Klaus Kinski was a crazy person. Sure, his Wikipedia page opens by stating that he was German actor known for his work with acclaimed director Werner Herzog, but, mostly, he was a maniac. Find any video of him on Youtube, and you will find this old bastard screaming his head off, at anyone, for anything. He believed in his prowess as an actor so greatly it entailed a degree of danger; any challenge to his skill or himself was met with anything from a fistfight to a gunshot. He was a bad man.

He was also a genius.

Kinski’s directorial debut (and last film before his death) is an indulgent, disgusting, and maddening autobiography under the guise of a biography. It is also, despite its many frustrations, masterful – cinema at its most unhinged and visual. Against the odds, it becomes a poignant statement on the life of its main actor, who may have been an evil lunatic, but who was also one of the greats.

Kinski Paganini is a mess. Kinski initially offered Herzog his script, but Herzog declined, calling it “un-filmable.” So Kinski decided to direct it himself. When his producers saw the final cut, they panicked and cut it to shreds. Kinski’s director’s cut was eventually released to the public on this DVD, but it looks terrible. The theatrical version – though an impossible and failed attempt to bring sanity to Kinski’s madness – looks gorgeous. Kinski’s version, however, was never restored, making much of the naturally lit film near-unwatchable. Despite its hellish transfer, tracking down this versione originale is worth it, if only to understand the full majesty of Kinski’s ambition.

And Kinski is nothing if not ambitious here. Ostensibly a biography of famed violinist Niccolo Paganini – a notoriously lecherous violinist who was so musically talented that he was accused of possession – Kinski Paganini instead acts as a prismatic dive into the writer/director/star’s broken mind. The film consists primarily of montages, intercutting Paganini playing his instrument with him having occasionally un-simulated sex with scores of women. In voiceover, “Paganini” acknowledges his ugliness before confessing that his virtuosic playing still sends women into orgiastic desire for him. Eventually, our “hero” begins to die, and his son becomes his only companion; but those things don’t occur until very late in the film, essentially acting as a sad epilogue. Most of the film plays out thusly: Paganini plays, women masturbate; Paganini plays, women fuck Paganini; Paganini walks ominously through a town square, his son cries; Paganini plays, women beg for his member; Paganini grows sick, he plays to grow well again; and so on.

There is only the hint of a story here, barely any arcs. Kinski is attempting to mirror the swirling memories of a dying man, and that non-narrative approach produces a fractured, impressionistic work that never lets up. Despite its pretentions, it finds a way to sneak staggering emotion into its heart. The climactic sequence, in particular, found me tearing up despite my rational annoyance at it. Kinski forced me to feel sadness for him (and his character), almost against my wishes.

Which leads me to a perhaps unsettling thought, which I will preface by saying that I do not condone any of Kinski’s behaviour, on or off film sets. Now, having said that …

Maybe Kinski was onto something.

Klaus Kinski clearly believed himself to be an artistic messiah. He believed himself worthy of all the pain he took and inflicted. In his mind, he was a great, and his belief in himself lead to persecution and glory in equal measure. It’s easy to see how Kinski saw himself in Paganini, and it’s surprising how much power he finds in the comparison.

That previous paragraph was hard to write. It makes me a little sick to give into the ego of a man who thinks it necessary to show himself engage in un-simulated sex in a film about his greatness – and that’s to say nothing of his personal life, and the alleged sexual abuse he engaged in with his children.

Again, I do not think that Klaus Kinski was a good man. I do not want to celebrate this film.

And yet, my rational protestations of praising Kinski’s cinematic id were unable to fight the waves of poignancy that arose from watching it. I wanted to dislike this, I wanted to hate it – but instead I found it strangely beautiful.

It’s tough be apolitical when consuming art. When everything is rife with systemic abuse, it’s hard to see Casey Affleck’s Oscar win as indicative of anything but a sexist system. It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen can say what he said at Cannes a couple years ago about his wife and still get actors to work with him. It’s hard to accept that Roman Polanski is still making films despite the fact that he is literally a runaway statutory rapist.

It’s a struggle, which itself seems strange. Morally, shouldn’t these men be put away, left to die away from the arts? Why, beyond the aforementioned systemic rot, is the separation between art and artist even a conversation?

I ask these questions, and I don’t have anything better to say than this: art is powerful. Art can transcend its origins and work magic on an audience, for better or worse. Sometimes horror creates beauty, and sometimes that beauty can be stronger than the horror ever was. In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn’t allow any of the awful stuff to happen in the first place. But it’s not a perfect world, it’s a broken one, and, if we fail to stop the horror, it makes sense to embrace any wonder that comes out of it.

Kinski Paganini is an ethically dubious proposition to endorse, but it understands the relationship between art and life in a way that I think is important to spread. I think promoting that message is a damn fine way to find something good in Kinski’s legacy, rather than just wallowing in the misery of the rest of him.

Remember hell, but look to heaven.

Review: Police Beat (2005)

“Your tree is dead, and if it’s not chopped down, it will continue to disturb and harm the living.”

Robinson Devor continues to convince me that the commercial failure of his sublime The Woman Chaser essentially robbed cinema of one of its great impressionists, pushing Devor deep into the underground where few can find him. His three features – this, the aforementioned Willeford adaptation, and his gorgeous zoophilia documentary Zoo – show an incredible ability to find the resolutely human in the absurd, something that brings depth to even his most esoteric outings.

Police Beat tells the story of Z, a West-African immigrant and rookie bicycle cop in Seattle, struggles to focus on the increasingly bizarre crimes he encounters due to his worry of his girlfriend’s infidelity.

This foundation allows Devor to craft an expressionistic tone poem that encapsulates the confusion of life. Police Beat is intimate and alien, it’s political and personal, violent and gentle. Z’s mind is fractured, and his world reflects that. His story, which takes place over seven days, spans across life and time, a fractured series of episodes of varying horror and hilarity, all belonging to a sense of otherness. The film pointedly takes place in the midst of the Bush presidency, and Z’s discomfort with his place in that United States – grateful for the chance to prosper but angry at policies that allow for such potential – manifests itself in his tenuous romantic relationship – loving but distant. Z is a moralistic, black and white force in a confusing world, and that friction seemingly affects his immediate reality. Men drown in piles of lilypads. A BDSM sexual encounter ends with a woman running naked through the park. A man walks into a house with the owner’s permission, walks upstairs and masturbates to birds, then leaves. There is no reason to this life, no consistency. But still, Z simply moves forward, unable or unwilling to confront his present for fear of his uncertain future. How do you comprehend the external when your internal is so confused?

All of this turmoil is captured in a gorgeous, stripped-back cerulean palette, reminiscent of Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe, though guided by Devor’s gentle, roaming camera. He shows us a raging monsoon but shoots it like a gentle rain.

A beautiful, profound, endlessly rewarding work.

“We’re going to learn the lindy dance.”

Review: Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

For 90% of Merry We Go To Hell‘s running time, it is a stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of self-loathing and love. Opening on Fredric March’s alcoholic, cripplingly self-hating Jerry meeting Sylvia Sidney’s bubbling, intelligent Joan in a delightful meet-cute, Merrily moves along as a comedy for its first act, with only the occasional feint towards something darker. It is only after their marriage that nearly all of the comedy drains out and we are forced to watch the disintegration of a love that could and should never be.

Jerry fears that he is unworthy of love, and so he lowers himself to that state. He takes up drinking again, and he has an affair with the woman whose rejection created that fear in the first place. He is a sad, angry, selfish bastard – but he is charming, too, and sympathetic.

And Joan loves him. Despite his many, many faults, Joan sees the man that could be hiding inside Jerry’s tattered shell. Through it all, she loves him. So when Jerry betrays her, when he turns away from the only woman to love him unconditionally, she is broken. She makes a decision, one that would be a happy ending in a modern world, the power of a woman taking control over her life – she takes her own lover, allowing their marriage to go on as a frame for their occasionally intersecting lives. But it’s not happy, it’s not good, because she was forced to do this. She never stopped loving Jerry, even though he did not deserve it, and that love gave her life. She had to sacrifice her love to reclaim her agency. By the time Jerry realises his folly and cruelty, it is too late for him to fix anything. Joan realises that she can’t go on living adjacent to her heartbreaker, and she leaves him.

It was at this point in the film that I cried. Terrible tears, my body seizing up in shakes and starts, two loves lost in an instant because of fear.

That is where the film should have ended, with Jerry losing his love because he inadvertently tried to take her life.

But it doesn’t. The film goes on for another 15 minutes, and it lets Jerry win Joan back. It makes no sense and it takes away the power Joan had had so recently. The ending feels tacked on and fake, so utterly ridiculous compared to what had come before. Though Dorothy Arzner still directs the hell out of these last moments, almost selling them completely, they don’t work.

So I will forget them. Author be damned, I’m sticking with the parts that made sense and made me cry and had strong female characters.

Review: Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971)

Arguably more noble in its intentions than Jacopetti and Prosperi’s previous exercise in questionable ethics, Africa Addio, but so unbelievably, bafflingly misguided that, at the time of its release, both sane people and David Duke hated it. Somehow, Goodbye, Uncle Tom can’t even commit to being a vile, racist piece of trash, instead existing as a strangely broken example of Satan wanting to be God and failing.

The film opens with a helicopter descending upon a plantation filled with slaves, and we are quickly introduced to the premise: two documentarians travel back in time to document the horrors of slavery. This requires the character of the filmmakers to sit back and watch said horrors without doing anything, which is already a questionable idea. From this auspicious start, we become witness to an enormous production that subjects hundreds of actors of colour to the degradation and torture that was put upon the slaves of the time. Goodbye, Uncle Tom sits in the horror, relishes it, uses it as the very foundation of its being. If one believes that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s intentions were pure, one could argue that these sections are intended to break the viewer, make them understand the despicable terrors of slavery. Whatever they meant to say, it’s all for nought because not a single character of colour is given any characterisation beyond an inarticulate, de-individuated mass. Every white character, regardless of how negatively they are portrayed, are shown as articulate persons with actual personality. On top of everything, every goddamn thing, the brief stabs at narrative exploitation the filmmakers inject into the picture primarily involve sexual assault, such as the scene wherein one of the documentarians takes advantage of a virginal 13 year old slave who offers herself to him – FUCK.

JESUS.

And yet.

And yet,

There is undeniable artistic craft pumping through the veins of this racist trash. As I wrote in my review of Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi have an innate understanding of how to match image and sound to make a sort of magic, utilising Riz Ortolani’s gorgeous (if at most times disturbingly upbeat) score to mold this destitution into something resembling art. If these men were saints instead of monsters, they could have made a film to change the world.

But they’re monsters.

What this mess adds up to is a film that condemns the brutalisation and exploitation of a people while doing the very same thing. It is impossibly fascinating as a historical object, endlessly rewarding a thing to explore; but it’s also sickening, disturbing, and morally reprehensible.

I don’t know.

Review: Silence (2016)

Scorsese comes really close to the restraint necessary for this, but he just can’t help himself.

Silence is 2.5 hours, but it needed to have been longer. It needed to have felt longer. This is, above many things, a film about suffering – for faith, for arrogance, for no reason at all – and about the justification of such a thing. Martin Scorsese is seemingly the man most suited to explore this topic, perhaps more than any other filmmaker alive today – almost every one of his films comes back to a struggle with his faith and the contradictions therein. But he was not the man for this job.

Scorsese is a master of compressing time, a master of rhythm, but he is not a filmmaker suited to making the audience endure – and this is a film that needed someone who could. For every long stretch of restrained, contemplative filmmaking, there was another Scorsese whip pan – POW – that pulled me out of the mood, pushed the film forward, too fast too fast. There is no tedium here, no attempt to force an empathy with the tortured and the seeking upon the audience. A filmmaker like Bela Tarr or Gus Van Sant could have achieved this, pulled the audience into a state of elongated time, but Scorsese seems unable to help himself, unable to stop moving forward. I’m not asking for more graphic scenes, just ones with more feeling.

Outside of that, though, there’s a ton of poignancy and beauty throughout this. It’s an extremely powerful film, and maybe of the great explorations of religion as a need to some people, as close to a necessity as food or water – all of which makes the confusion it often creates that much more unbearable.

I just think that Scorsese’s inherent vice stops it from ever truly being great.

Some notes on the acting:

Andrew Garfield is wildly miscast. I didn’t buy him in the role, save for a few scenes in the second third where only has to act naively sure of himself. Outside of that, he didn’t possess the arrogance or self-denial I thought the part required. He was static and calculated when he needed to be a king on the verge of breakdown. I actually think Adam Driver would have been much better for this part, though that may be less due to his potential and more due to me being pissed that he’s essentially wasted in a small role that never rises above didactic foil and quickly disappears. My two favourite performances were that of Liam Neeson, who brings a tinge of the pathetic to his character that is both heart-breaking and nicely subversive of his current acting persona, and that of cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, nearly unrecognisable as a strong willed but vulnerable peasant from the first section.

Also, quick shout out to Javier Bardem as the voice of God, genius casting there.