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.

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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: The Founder (2016)

Screenwriter and Director clash to the film’s absolute detriment in The Founder, which is stuck between being a cynical condemnation of nationalistic opportunism and a rousing tale of capitalistic courage.

Writer Robert Siegel’s script is a quiet, cynical tragedy that aims to take apart the idea of the so-called “American Dream” that has been the basis of many a film, novel, and, most importantly, political speech of the last 200-odd years. Hard work, persistence, idealism – these are the things that lead to success, the things that led so many people from so many places to flock over to the streets paved in gold. This is what America was founded upon – a desire to be the best, to be a truthful and successful nation untethered to the nominal bad guys across the sea.

But Siegel looks at that idea, and he pulls out the word ‘success’. He turns it around in his hands, and he pulls it apart. Is success contingent upon living up to one’s ideals, or making the most money? Was the US revolution really based off a desire to good by its people, or was it basically a violent act of tax evasion?

Is the ‘American Dream’ about success through nobility, or nobility through success?

The Founder subversively follows a man who truly believes in the latter. Ray Kroc is an opportunist, through and through. In fact, though his behaviour changes, his character remains static. He never stops being a man whose greatest need is upwards mobility, regardless of morality. He’s a salesman, and his biggest product is himself. And, despite his state at the beginning of the film, Kroc is damn good at it, and that’s why he knows how to tap into a grander sense of purpose to his bring the McDonald’s to his side.

“If you won’t franchise for me, do it for America.”

That’s what he says at about the 30 minute mark, after comparing the McDonald’s arches to courthouse flags and church steeples, and Siegel’s script is built around that line. Siegel conflates capitalism with patriotism, and nationalism with only empty gesturing at idealism. Siegel’s script punishes those who cling to a sense of communal heart, but he is absolutely on their side. In this day and age, this time of Trump, the idea that how tall you stand is directly related to the depths of your pockets is horrifyingly believable. And so, on paper, this is a tragedy, the death of idealism disguised as a success story.

Hancock does one thing really right in service of these ideas. The Founder is directly built on a foundation of artifice, and Hancock highlights this at every turn. From the audition-like monologues delivered to the camera to the bright, dead interiors. Half the performances (the salesmen) are performed with utmost theatricality (Keaton excels both here and in the brief instances where he shows his broken soul – only when he’s alone or standing on someone’s throat), while those on the other side of the line are done in a real, grounded fashion (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch play off each other incredibly well as the McDonald’s brothers, giving subtle suggestions of fraternal intimacy).

Where Hancock falters is, essentially, everywhere else. For a a film whose script is so directly analogous between patriotism and capitalism, Hancock rarely highlights the relationship visually. McDonald’s itself, with the exception of the golden arches, is never given any iconic consumerist imagery. Compare this to Larry Cohen’s 1985 consumerist satire The Stuff which, even when its satirical aims missed by a lot, made you believe in the power of its titular product. The evil dessert in that film had branding that popped, that had power and pull. The Founder can’t even muster a level of booming iconography for a real product. The burgers, the shakes, the fries, the doors, the arches – they all needed to swell, swell with the pride that a nationalist pride can inspire – but it all feels flat.

More importantly, Hancock’s tone is completely antithetical to the script’s message. Hancock treats the whole enterprise with a strange, folksy admiration. He seems to think he’s making a film about the inspiring triumph of an American dreamer, a film whose swelling, corny score presents such moments as Kroc offering to buy off the McDonald’s brothers with a rumble of gleeful awe. “Just look at this guy,” the direction seems to say, “look at the way he’ll do whatever it takes to achieve his dream.” Which is, frankly, a bit disturbing.

John Lee Hancock took a tragic condemnation and shot it like an underdog sports film. And so The Founder feels like a picture arguing with itself, never entirely sure who it is. That’s a huge bummer, because Siegel’s script is something to admire, a powerful and timely statement about the decline of a political system. Maybe Hancock accidentally read a different script.

P.S. Somebody make a list of movies that end with the song “Spirit in the Sky”, because I’m tired of it.

Review: Of Freaks and Men (1998)

Aleksei Balabanov has somehow found beauty in what could have easily been an alienating intellectual exercise. Instead, Balabanov created a complex portrait of sexuality, desire, ambition, and family in his exploration of early underground pornography.

Shot almost entirely in sepia-tone and featuring such sparse dialogue that it could almost be mistaken for a film from the era it depicts, were it not for the subject matter, Of Freaks and Men is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Freaks‘s biggest assets are in the opposing forces of its two leads; the sad Buster Keaton mug of Sergei Makovetsky and the broken menace of Viktor Sukhorukov. They basically play opposite emotional tenors of the same general sense of revolutionary exploitation, battling for the wills of their subjects and the medium. These men are just two more in the long line of those advancing the world (technological or otherwise) through the exploitation of others. They are pornographers pushing internet technology.* They are colonialists utilising new natural resources. They are the corporations lobbying against the interests of the people in congress.

The only difference between Makovetsky and Sukhorukov is that the second attacks his task with sadistic glee, a panicked, desperate fear that, without him, the dreams of civilisation may not be realised. The first, however, enacts his business with a resigned melancholy, a seeming acceptance of his ill-nature and the knowledge the time is a cruel beast, moving forward with no regard for man. The future has always been there, and it always will be, regardless of who makes the first move.

*This is a simplified example. I don’t think all pornography is bad. Grey areas. Paid word. Sex-worker positive. Lots of things.

Review: Secret Honor (1984)

“I dream of failure every night of my life, and that is my secret.”

Philip Baker Hall is eruptive, paranoid, and supremely broken in this incredible one man show. A conspirator’s history that paints Nixon as a pawn, and that pawn as a tragedy.

Avoiding the staginess that seems built into the material (it was originally a one man play), director Robert Altman justifies his experiment as a cinematic venture with panache and the ingenious use of a simple device – the closed-circuit television monitors placed in the room, always doubling the man, always watching him watching himself.

The way Altman’s camera glides over everything, in this Bunuel-esque curiosity . . . It gives this hint of this alien presence watching objectively. The monitors then take that idea, push it to the extreme and create this high distinction between the subjectivity of the monologue – the pain and tragedy of it that we get highlighted by the gentle camera – and the objective, terrible paranoia provided by the monitors.

This Nixon is a man desperately holding onto his own delusions as the last vestiges of his sanity. He is the 1% who needs to believe himself the underdog to justify his existence, needs to understand himself as someone worthy of sympathy . . . but he can’t do it, not really, you see it in his eyes that he sees a villain in his heart – and that, in the end, is what makes him truly human. That is what makes him truly tragic and alive and worthy of some form of admiration. He wants to be good, and, in its own way, that is just as admirable as being good itself.

“You know, I really did want to grow up to be Abraham Lincoln.”

Review: Shock Corridor (1963)

“It’s a blessing to love my country, even when it gives me ulcers.”

Samuel Fuller may not be subtle, but he sure is daring. He throws in so many bizarre details and formalistic gambits that, for what’s clearly a small low budget film, this feels BIG. Sudden inserts of colour shots – MENTIONED BY THE CHARACTERS AS BEING IN COLOUR – strange musical motifs, hallucinatory sequences . . . David Lynch must have watched these films, and they must have imprinted on his brain.

This may tell the story of a journalist who goes undercover in a mental hospital to solve a murder case, but it’s really about the way madness spreads, about what happens when you go so deep into a lie that the lie becomes the truth. Combine all this with the racial politics, and I swear this movie could be about Donald Fucking Trump, who John Oliver recently described as “either a racist or pretending to be, and, at some point, there is no difference there.” The world is clusterfuck of lies and violence, and every day it feels like the disease has spread a little bit more.

‘Shock Corridor’ is weird and blunt and wild, but it also feels prescient and truthful in a way few films are. I just bought Samuel Fuller’s 600 page autobiography, and I can’t wait to hear what else he has to say.

“I’ll tell you what, Doc; you level me off, and I’ll share all my dreams with you.”