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: 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.

Review: American Honey (2016)

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a sprawling, often earthily gorgeous coming of age tale that isn’t afraid to get blunt in the name of beauty. It is also a shaggy, inconsistent one, in which indulgence is both its subject and primary flaw.

18-year old Star finds herself in the company of youth just like her – aimless, wandering, poor and lost – and they journey through this small part of their lives as a temporary family. One of the ways that American Honey is so insightful is that it understands the ways these kind of families work – not as a harmonious, understanding whole, but a warring, energetic mosh pit of familiar faces. And so Arnold fills the film with a distinct sense of tribalism. Again and again, these kids gather around a fire and sing the same songs, dance the same dance, and physically fight the same fights. This is repetition, this is ritual, this is a collective memory that will blur and create a sense of gradual growth in person, rather than small steps.

Arnold uses this backdrop as the foundation for a well observed coming of age story. As Star grows as a person (with the help of a tortured relationship with a fantastic Shia Labeouf) she grows into a greater sense of transience, already looking back on her adolescence as a piece of her that was never permanent. A damaged aspect that she can exist beyond.

And on the macro level of that milieu and basic story, Arnold’s film soars. Where I found significant issues, and ones that pulled me out of the work, were in her formal shagginess and inconsistent characterisation.

Talking too much about the characterisation would require me to spoil a few scenes, so all I’ll say there is that Star’s behaviour seemingly requires a ton of contradictory psychology, especially towards the end of the middle 3rd. I recognise that the reasons Star does everything she does are not even necessarily clear to her, but the way she goes about any given stressful situation seems to change from second to second.

But a greater issue than that is Arnold’s indulgence. I’m not saying the film is too long, exactly. I think basically every scene works and justifies itself. but I found the editing to be so goddamn hesitant, holding moments so much longer than necessary, perhaps hoping for a certain lingering essence to seep out of the frame but instead simply diluting the power of any given beat. Early on, this creates a sense of, and excuse the phrase, but poverty porn, as Arnold rubs the audience’s faces in the economic situation of her protagonist, seemingly getting a kick out of showing us the misery. It feels disingenuous, not because it’s blunt (I actually found the bluntness of the film rather powerful and pure) but because it feels exploitative and condescending. Later, Arnold’s lingering is less insidious, but it still feels like a pull to every punch (especially in the last scene).

Finally, the use of nearly wall-to-wall music, often diegetic, I found completely alienating. I can’t exactly say it was the wrong decision, because I am sure there is a purpose behind it, but, for the life of me, I cannot figure it out. Having one popular song end and then starting up another a few seconds later completely threw me out of the film. I’m searching for a reason for this, and no doubt I’ll find one eventually, but right now I’m baffled.

There is an amazing, beautiful film buried in American Honey, but it needs a couple of shaves before I’ll be able to see it.

Review: On the Silver Globe (1988)

“Who ever will get to know the world will find a corpse.”

Three astronauts – two men and one woman – escape Earth for un-specified reasons. They arrive at an Earth-like planet, and they begin breeding. Their children grow at unnatural speeds. Soon, only one of the astronauts is left. He is now called “Old Man,” and he is worshipped and loathed by the primitive civilisation birthed from the astronauts’ loins. This society is enslaved by a bird-like race from across the sea. Another astronaut arrives, tempted by the Old Man’s video messages. The religious society reaches a breaking point of cultish devotion and insanity, and everything verges on collapse.

This is the basic story of Andrzej Zulawski’s science fiction epic ‘On the Silver Globe’, which started production in the 70s before being shutdown by the Polish government when the film was approximately 80% completed. Zulawski was able to gather the remaining footage 10 years later, piecing together what was left with new footage and voiceover narration (by the director himself) that explains what was supposed to have been filmed.

Needless to say, watching ‘On the Silver Globe’ is a confusing experience. In addition to the production issues, the narrative is sprawling and complex, featuring multiple generations and races, baffling rituals, and heady philosophical themes. It’s also 157 minutes long.

With ‘On the Silver Globe,’ Zulawski seems to posit that religion is created simply to justify the inevitable violence of man, or that religion is a futile and ultimately destructive attempt to explain the unknowable universe. Many interpretations are valid, the only thing I could really pin down definitively was the negative connotation of religiosity. The film matches these themes with manic, fevered imagery that rivals ‘The Devils’ (which shares many themes with this film) in intensity. A beach covered in impaled men. An army of swirling bird men. A pre-war orgy. A graphic crucifixion. All of this presented in a nightmarish cerulean hue and disrupted by constant jump-cuts. Again, like ‘The Devils,’ it is exhausting.

However, where ‘The Devils’ was able to mar its anger and passion with real, human characters, ‘On the Silver Globe’ has basically none of the sort. Everyone acts with the typical Zulawski fire and screams, but none of them say anything revealing of a person. Everyone goes on and on about the nature of humanity, but not the nature of a human. The last hour and half has numerous monologues that get to the heart of Zulawski’s thematic concerns without illuminating anything else. There’s a passion here that is entirely laudable, and I guarantee that I will be haunted by some of the scenes. I want to say that I was so swept up in the visuals and emotion that I was able to overlook my complaints. I imagine that this is perhaps the reaction of someone more attuned to Zulawski’s sensibilities (I am not, and am mostly indifferent what his apparently his most accessible film, ‘Possession.’)

Ultimately, for me, all of the manic and inspired imagery truly cannot compensate for the nearly continuous philosophical diatribes that make up the latter half of the film. I applaud Zulawski’s ambition and ideas more than I enjoy what he’s done with them. Even without the cuts created by the shutdown, I doubt ‘On the Silver Globe’ would be easy to follow. It’s a 3000 page philosophical treatise stuffed into a film.