film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Persona (1966)

There’s a disclaimer you should bear in mind when reading any of my reviews on this site; however, for this movie I’d like to really spell it out…and that is when it comes to film criticism, I am completely and totally untrained. I have never taken any course in filmmaking, film history, cinema studies, or any kind of media critique. My educational background was in theater as opposed to film, and save for a handful of years working as a jack-of-all-trades office girl in the production office for a sport fishing television show, my entertainment work history has always been in theater. My “film education” has consisted solely of watching films and asking friends in film school some questions, and my “review-writing” experience before this was as a volunteer reviewer for a now-defunct local theater review blog, one in which all the reviewers were members of New York’s indie theater scene.

I say all that because several articles I’ve since read state that this Bergman film is one of the most difficult works for film critics and historians to analyze. So if professionals have a hard go at this, then there is absolutely no hope whatsoever for someone like me.

Not that it’s completely opaque. On the contrary – most of the film is an intriguing psychodrama about Elizabet (Liv Ullman), an actress who’s gone selectively mute, and Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse assigned to care for her. Initially Alma looks after Elizabet in the hospital where she’s been staying for three months now; but then Elizabet’s doctor suspects a change of scene might help, and sends the pair to her own seaside cottage for an extended stay. Alma and Elizabet enjoy a cozy visit for a while – Elizabet comes out of her shell a bit, enjoying beach strolls and cooking with Alma, but still doesn’t talk. And the girlish Alma appreciates that at first; after years of being the listening ear for others, she finally has someone to listen to her, and starts confessing her deepest secrets to Elizabet. In time, though, Elizabet’s continued silence starts to get on her nerves, leading Alma to go to greater and more dangerous lengths to compel Elizabet to just say something already.

That’s all simple enough. But the subtext and symbolism run really bloody deep here, and I haven’t a clue about anything except the most hit-you-over-the-head-obvious stuff.

For instance – the opening sequence. The movie kicks off with rapid-fire shots of a disconnected bunch of stuff – a couple seconds of a projector mechanism, a shot of the slaughter of a sheep, a spider, a clip from a very old silent film about ghosts, and an extremely brief shot of something I thought was a penis. This gives way to a series of shots of an old man, an old woman, and a boy all each lying on gurneys with sheets drawn up to their chests. And just as we’re assuming they’re in a morgue, the boy sits up, fusses with his sheet a while, then gives up and pulls out a picture book and reads a moment before being distracted a huge projection of both Alma and Elizabet’s faces, superimposed on each other. He reaches towards it in fascination – and that’s where the sequence ends, and we’re launched into the film proper. In time, we get hints as to who the boy might be, but as for the sheep, the old couple, and the spider? No clue. Not even when we revisit those clips about midway through the film, where they come back after the moment we know Alma has started to sour on Elizabet.

That double-image, though, is definitely something we’re supposed to think about. Bergman started working on the film shortly after meeting Liv Ullman for the first time; Ullman was hanging out with Andersson when they both ran into Bergman, one of Andersson’s old colleagues. Bergman was struck by how much he thought the pair looked alike, and started working on this script for them both shortly after the encounter. And identity is played up a lot in this film; in one scene, Elizabet’s husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) pays the cottage a surprise visit, and mistakes Alma for Elizabet when he walks in. Alma repeatedly tries to correct him, growing more frantic as he starts speaking more intimately; but he doesn’t seem to notice, not even when Elizabet comes in. And what’s more – Elizabet seems to want Alma to take over for her.

…Unless Elizabet and Alma are the same person already. There are definitely moments that suggest that’s the case; there’s also moments that suggest that the whole thing is a film-within-a-film.

If none of the really surreal stuff were there, I’d have had no problem getting drawn into the psychodrama of Alma trying to crack Elizabet’s armor and slowly breaking down herself with the effort. But I’m left with the idea I’m supposed to Find Meaning in it – and, well, I’m simply not equipped.

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Seconds (1966)

Shortly after watching this, I seriously intrigued several of my Facebook friends with the observation that I’d just watched a film that was a combination of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and John Woo’s action film Face Off. Although my immediate reaction as soon as it ended was a spoken-aloud “what. The f*ck.”

The comparison to Face Off was tenuous at best – it refers only to the plastic-surgery element. The film is more a cautionary tale; it’s the story of Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph at first), a middle-aged New York banker bored and dissatisfied with his life. Not that it’s a bad life – he’s modestly wealthy, enjoys a comfortable (yet sexless) marriage with an amicable wife, and has one grown child happily married and now living across the country. But the ennui is getting to him – so when he suddenly gets a call from an old college friend offering him a new lease on life, he’s intrigued (especially since that friend was supposed to have died recently). After following a secretive set of instructions involving code names and visits to nondescript businesses, Arthur is brought to the office complex of a business known only as “The Company”, and finally learns the plan – for a hefty sum, The Company will fake Arthur’s death, give him extensive plastic surgery, and set him up with a new home and a chance at a new life. The Company will take care of a generous bequest to Arthur’s wife and daughter, and will even give him a caretaker for the first year or so to ensure he can transition into his new life smoothly. …They also show him that they’ve staged a blackmail video of him as insurance in case he balks, so Arthur finally acquieses.

In short order, Arthur undergoes the operation to transform him into “Tony Wilson” (Rock Hudson) – complete with an altered voice, new fingerprints, and a totally different face. The Company spares no expense in the physical aftercare, subjecting him to physical therapy as well as wound care; and within a month or so, Tony is set up in a California beachfront house, catered to by a Company-employed butler to assist Tony with his transition and stocked with canvas and easels so he can pursue his new life as “Tony Wilson the painter”. And Tony does make a go of it for a time – he even meets a potential new lover, Nora (Salome Jens), a free-spirited neighbor. But Tony’s new life is still not quite what it’s cracked up to be, and he flies back to New York to check on his wife first; and then to ask The Company for a do-over. But The Company’s policy on returns and exchanges is quite high indeed…

Two aspects of this film jumped out at me. The first is the downright surreal nature of the film – a lot of the shots are in tight closeups with weird fisheye lenses to amp up the body horror, particularly when Arthur is considering his fate or “Tony” is studying his new self. Everything about The Company also has the kind of overly-polite and decorous vibe that paradoxically comes across as being incredibly creepy; everyone in the company is endlessly nice and polite to him, bowing and scraping and smiling, offering him food and a comfy pillow and a nice chair. But the lunch might be drugged, and the friendly pat on the head is a secret signal to the security guards who then take you through a secret door and God knows what’s going to happen to you.

There’s also a flat-out bonkers sequence in the middle of the film where Nora is trying to loosen Tony up a bit and invites him to a “party with some friends” in Santa Barbara. But the “party” is actually a quasi-hippie Bacchanal – literally. Someone in the group invokes the god Pan, everyone is bedecked with grape-leaf crowns, wine flows freely, pipers are jamming in the corner and there’s a huge vat of grapes in need of stomping, with all the revelers stripping down to jump in and do the honors. There’s no sex, but there’s plenty of boobs and butts and winkies and kissing, so it reads enough like an orgy that Tony is (understandably) freaked out.

But then, buried in the middle of the sci-fi premise and the surrealist shots, there are some subtle but thought-provoking existentialist statements. There are a couple points at which both Tony and Arthur discuss how they’re frustrated with having spent their lives doing what they were told they were supposed to do, and not what they chose to do. The reason “Tony” became a painter was because of a long-buried interest of Arthur’s – but when The Company sets Tony up with all the tools and resources he could need, he finds he’s still got to paint, and…that’s still not satisfying. The people Tony meets at a cocktail party at his new home are just as vapid and dull as the guests he would have met back in New York as Arthur. And towards the end of the film, as Tony is making his pitch to The Company about giving him a chance to start over, Tony/Arthur sadly admits that maybe the reason that this second chance to Fulfill His Dream didn’t pan out because life had never really given him much of a chance to dream in the first place.

Some film scholars call this the third film in director John Frankenheimer’s “Paranoia triology”, along with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May. I’m not quite as convinced that’s the right word; all three are great examples of Frankenheimer’s film techniques, but I’m not sure “paranoia” is the right word for what prompted Arthur to seek out The Company in the first place. Instead, it’s a thought-provoking look at the internal pressures of a society that was on the cusp of boiling over on several different fronts; just one month after its release, 20,000 people would converge on a San Francisco park for the first “Human Be-In“, a broad-sweeping counterculture convention that probably looked like this film’s grape scene to many more buttoned-down observers. Elsewhere in the country, the Black Panthers were having their first meeting. A budding women’s movement would soon make waves, protests against the Vietnam War would soon take off, and the Stonewall Riots were just three years in the future – all joining voices in a chorus of discontent and protest against the buttoned-down way of life Arthur had tried to escape.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

For years I’ve said I dislike Westerns. To be fair, my only exposure to them was the hoary, tropey stuff that would run on syndicated TV in the afternoons during the 1970s and 80s; the lower-budget stuff that was more cliché than script. That plus some consciousness-raising about The Damage Done To Native Americans in college left me with a bit of a prejudice about the genre. ….But – while I’ve still seen some stinkers on this list – I’ve now been exposed to too many other good Westerns and I can’t say I dislike the genre any more.

This film is even from a sub-genre – the “spaghetti Western”, a nickname for the flurry of Westerns made in Spain, Italy, and other parts of Europe in the mid-1960s. Budget-conscious American and British directors started things off, filming in studios in England but then going to Spain or Italy for the outdoor shots instead of packing up and heading to Utah or Texas or the like. Spanish and Italian directors took note – particularly budding Italian director Sergio Leone – and started making their own films there, luring over up-and-coming American actors for the leading roles and casting locals for the smaller parts. The non-American perspective they brought to the genre turned things on its head – instead of a square-jawed hero bravely and nobly facing off against a wicked mob, the morality in the spaghetti Westerns is a lot murkier, with an anti-hero instead of a hero or a pair of main characters who double-cross each other at every opportunity.

Like with “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), the nickname bestowed on The Man With No Name who’d already appeared in two of Leone’s other films. He’s teamed up with a bandit named Tuco (Eli Wallach) for the first part of the film; “Blondie” poses as a bounty hunter turning the fugitive Tuco in for the money, but then he lingers in town until the day of Tuco’s inevitable execution. Then at just the right moment, “Blondie” rescues him and both make their escape, splitting the money when they’ve gotten to safety.

At one such execution, the mercenary “Angel Eyes” (Lee Van Cleef) sees “Blondie” in the act, and figures out their con. But he doesn’t do anything – “Angel Eyes” has bigger fish to fry. He’s heard about a Confederate deserter who stole a cache of gold before escaping, and is hunting for the deserter – or, even better, just the gold. As luck would have it, Tuco and “Blondie” each meet the fugitive shortly after a quarrel; he tells Tuco half of what he needs to know to find the gold, and “Blondie” learns the other half. “Angel Eyes” learns that they know the secret, and now starts chasing them both through deserts, Civil War prison camps and meeting up with them both in a cemetery for a three-way standoff.

Roommate Russ passed through the room while I was watching and remarked it’s one of his favorite films. And I can see why – it’s nearly three hours long, but the twists and turns definitely held my attention. I was especially taken with a sequence set at a Civil War battle; Tuco and Blondie stumble into the Union side during a standoff fight for control of a bridge. And far from being the noble leader one would expect a Civil War Union lieutenant to be, the lieutenant they meet is perpetually drunk (and makes sure his men are as well) and confides to Blondie that he secretly wishes someone would just blow the damn bridge up so everyone could go home. There’s a reason we learn about the bridge, but meeting the lieutenant gives some fun “local color” that I hadn’t seen in other Westerns. Heck, other Westerns rarely even acknowledge the Civil War even though the western frontier was the site of some major battles.

So I think it’s more that I dislike bad Westerns. And while the spaghetti Western would soon spawn cliches of its own, I think I appreciate the clearer-eyed look at the West they brought us for a while.

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Come Drink With Me (1966)

I cracked Roommate Russ up when I was about to watch this and announced: “And thus, in May of 2023, Kim discovered wuxia.”

To be fair, I’d actually discovered wuxia in 2000 with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But that film was more of a multi-national take on the genre; Come Drink With Me is solely a Hong Kong production, and one of the best examples of this Chinese action genre. It’s also a good example of the films that were very soon going to take the Western world by storm; less than a decade after Come Drink With Me was released, the United States and China would tentatively renew diplomatic relations, leading curious Americans to seek out examples of current Chinese culture. The Taiwan and Hong Kong film industries were eager to introduce Westerners to this heady mix of martial arts and historical fantasy, touching off a craze that made its way onto American television, American radios, and children’s cartoons.

One might argue that since I watched the cartoon Hong Kong Phooey as a child, I “discovered” wuxia in the 1970’s – but that show was set in the contemporary United States as opposed to medieval China, so it doesn’t count. Come Drink With Me definitely qualifies, on the other hand – it’s practically a textbook example. Set in a non-specific “historic” time in rural China, this is largely about the struggles between Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), the daughter of the local governor, and Jade-Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit), the bandit who holds her brother Zheng (Wong Chung) hostage. Tiger is in turn hoping for a prisoner exchange – Zheng will be released if the governor releases his own master – but Golden Swallow, an exemplary fighter, has come to the bandit’s territory disguised as a man, determined to fight for her brother’s release instead. She sets up camp at a local inn and ably fights off Tiger’s men during an early ambush, and then gets to work trying to figure out where Zheng might be held captive. Annoyingly, she’s also earned the admiration of a local beggar named Drunken Cat (Yueh Ha) who keeps hanging around trying to make conversation and also steals some things out of her room one night. But when Golden Swallow starts listening more closely to Drunken Cat’s ramblings, she suspects he may know more about Zheng than she thought – and that the “Drunken” Cat may not be so drunk after all.

Not only do we eventually learn the Drunken Cat’s backstory – he has an entire subplot, concerning a struggle for control of a Kung Fu school. His own story is woven into hers, with both eventually teaming up to help each others’ cause in turns. But the plot is mainly just an excuse for the fight scenes. And there are plenty of them – Tiger’s men kidnapping Zheng at the top of the film, Golden Swallow singlehandedly fighting off Tiger’s men, Drunken Cat going one-on-one with his own adversary. And a lot of the fighting verges on the fantastical – Golden Swallow pursues Drunken Cat across rooftops at one point, and in another scene she literally runs straight up a wall. Drunken Cat can shoot an explosive gas from his palms. Tiger’s favorite weapon is a poison dart he flings at his targets with the flick of a fan.

Even though I tried not to, I still found myself comparing this to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a whole lot. That later film also has several scenes with a woman posing as a man; in fact, there’s even a fight scene in an inn. Golden Sparrow’s chase across the rooftops reminded me of Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi’s similar chase, as did the film’s frequent use of poison darts. And much like Michelle Yeoh, Cheng Pei-pei also got her start as a dancer; director King Fu thought Cheng’s dance background suited his style of martial arts well, just as Jackie Chan and his team thought of Michelle Yeoh.

I also admit that the plot felt somehow thin and complicated both, somehow; the subplot about Drunken Cat and his rival lost my interest. But the fighting was still great fun to watch. I also appreciated how it was no big deal that one of the best fighters in the film was a woman – there were a couple people surprised that Golden Sparrow was actually a woman in disguise, but seconds later she was swinging a huge sword at them and they realized that that was more important. In fact, in one scene it came across more like a “code-switching” on Golden Sparrow’s part – when she learns Tiger’s hideout is in a nearby temple, Golden Sparrow turns up in more traditional womens’ dress, posing as a worshipper to sneak her way inside for a look around and quickly bowing before the altar and mumbling pious prayers if anyone saw her – only for her to then whip a dagger at them and pin their sleeve to a wall or something. Whatever you think of the plot, that’s just cool.

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Blow-Up (1966)

I’d mentioned back when I covered A Night At The Opera that a college friend, Jeff, dragged me to see it after hearing I hadn’t. This was the other film he dragged me to see – but in that case, he was furthering my musical education; the band The Yardbirds make a brief appearance in the last 20 minutes of the film. I’m pretty sure, though, that most of the rest of the film went straight over my head, and I must have been pelting him with questions during the walk home. There’s an entire sequence at an antique shop that I had absolutely no memory about on this rewatch.

It’s not surprising I didn’t remember it, though. The first half of the film takes a pretty desultory approach – fitting, as it’s about a desultory man. Thomas (David Hemmings) is a London photographer – he’s successful doing work in fashion, but it bores him, sometimes to the point that he walks out on his own shoots and heads off to do the more artistic work he really wants. On one such day he heads to a London park, strolling and capturing whatever catches his eye – including some photos of a couple embracing under a tree. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) spots him and confronts him, demanding the film; he refuses, then escapes when she starts running after him. But the woman is persistent and manages to find his studio, turning up later that afternoon and persuading him to give her the film. At one point she even tries seducing him for it. That just makes Thomas even more curious – and after sending the woman off with a bait-and-switch trick, he develops it, studying his photos of the couple, blowing them up bigger and bigger so he can see even more detail – including what looks like the woman glancing nervously into the trees. Thomas blows up just that section of his photos even further, and has another look – and sees what looks an awful lot like a man with a pistol. Now he really wants to know what’s going on.

I think part of why I didn’t “get” the film in college is that I was focusing on sorting out the mystery. What had Thomas seen? How did the woman find his studio? Who was she? Who was her lover? What was happening? ….But the mystery itself isn’t the point – it’s how the pursuit of the mystery is the only time we see Thomas or anyone around him look excited about anything. The models in his studio look utterly bored. Thomas is bored with them (even the cute ones he tries to make out with). His agent is bored with him. The antique shop owner is bored. The guests at a party he crashes are all either bored, or stoned. Even the audience at that Yardbirds appearance looks bored until Jeff Beck smashes his guitar onstage. This is a Michaelangelo Antonioni comment on ennui again, with privileged people briefly getting startled by something unusual – but then their friends and fellows don’t get what the big deal is, so they go back to their boring familiar lives and leave the mystery unsolved.

At least with this, there’s something of a solution to the mystery. At the very end of the film, Thomas runs into a carload of mimes; they’ve turned up once or twice before in the film, all piled into a car and careening through London causing low-level mischief. At the end, they spot Thomas walking past a tennis court and all pile out to give him a private performance of a mimed tennis match. His reaction to their performance suggests that he’s rethinking everything that’s just happened, leading us to do the same.

….That’s what Jeff said, anyway, but years later I’m inclined to agree.

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Subarnarekha (1965)

Here in the west, especially today, we don’t know much about the 1947 Partition of India – the rapid and chaotic creation of Pakistan as a breakaway nation following (and as a condition of) India’s independence. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus lead to a panicked flight of Muslim Indians to Pakistan, seeking a safe haven where they wouldn’t be a religious minority, with an equally large number of Hindu Indians fleeing from Pakistani territory to India for exactly the same reason. Both brand-new countries thus found themselves with huge refugee crises to handle on top of setting up new governments and starting to plot their own courses. Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak made the aftermath of the Partition a repeated topic of his work; this film is actually the third in his “Partition trilogy” (the first in his trilogy, The Cloud-Capped Star, is one we’ve seen already). However – I’m not so sure that the Partition is really the issue here.

Iswar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is a Bengali refugee, now living in a camp near Calcutta with his much younger sister Sita (Indrani Chakraborty plays Sita as a girl, Madhabi Mukhopadhyay is an older Sita). His friend Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya, no relation) has drafted him into helping set up a schoolin the camp, but Iswar is always on the lookout for a better situation so he can get himself and Sita out of the camp. But Iswar is also kindhearted enough to take in the abandoned boy Abhiram (Mater Tarun as a child, Satindra Bhattacharya as an adult – also no relation), even though he’s of a lower caste. Soon after Abhiram joins his little family, Iswar runs into an old college friend who offers him a job as a clerk in his factory, complete with lodging. Iswar jumps at the chance, appeasing Haraprasad with the news that he’ll take Abhiram along too.

Things are peaceful for a while; Iswar is rapidly moving up the ranks in the factory, while Sita and Abhiram get a proper education. Sita soon distinguishes herself as a musical talent, while Abhiram gets high marks at a boarding school. The proud Iswar decides to do right by both kids – he secures a spot in a prestigious German college for Abhiram to study engineering, and arranges for Sita to be married off to a wealthy man. He announces his plans to both on the very day he’s made manager of the factory, assuming they’ll all celebrate their collective fortune. But there’s just two problems – firstly, Abhiram wants to be a journalist, not an engineer. And secondly – even though Sita and Abhiram were raised as brother and sister, they know that they’re really not….and they have fallen in love. A panicked Iswar forces Sita and Abhiram to go ahead with his plans – but they are just as determined as he, and run away the day of Sita’s wedding. Iswar lives another decade without knowing how Sita and Abhiram are doing, until a chance encounter in Calcutta shows him just how bad off Sita’s life has become.

Ghatak may have had a thing about the Partition, but it’s the caste system that really comes out of this worst. Throughout Abhiram’s life, everyone assumes he’s in the same class as Iswar and Sita – but when news spreads through the factory that a now-grown Abhiram had come upon a dying lower-caste woman in the center of town and recognized her as his long-lost mother, everyone suddenly turns on this formerly well-regarded and promising young man, to the point that Iswar’s own job is now at risk (his boss is all-in on the caste system). It’s caste that drives his refusal when Abhiram asks to marry Sita, and it’s caste that drives him to send Abhiram away – not knowing that Sita will be following along. Caste also gave Iswar a leg up out of the refugee camp – had he been lower-caste, his college friend would never have offered him the job – hell, he probably wouldn’t have even befriended Iswar in college (assuming Iswar had even able to go).

So I’m not as clear that this is about the Partition, even though it figures heavily in the very beginning. And actually, Cloud Capped Star wasn’t “about” the Partition either. Fine films both, but….maybe misnamed?

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Pierrot le Fou (1965)

When Pierrot le Fou was first released, Roger Ebert had an interesting observation in his original review. He noticed that a lot of people would write in and complain when he gave a thumbs-up to other Jean-Luc Goddard films, complaining that they were terrible or they’d made no sense or were boring. But he guessed that many of these people were likely only seeing and reacting to that single film; and for Goddard, he argued, you kind of have to take him as a complete package. The more of his films you see, the more you get how his brain works and the more you kind of get his vibe – which, in turn, is the key to understanding his films overall. ….I’m not quite as convinced, but I notice I’ve gone through a very similar journey – I disliked Breathless when I first saw it and I was confused by the surreality of Alphaville, but I warmed up to Contempt, and now with this film, it feels like even though Goddard was using some of the same tricks I disliked in other films, in this case things just sort of….fit.

The “Pierrot” of the title is actually Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a former TV executive with a humdrum marriage living in Paris. His social-climber wife is dragging him to a party along with another couple; she says that the other couple has a niece visiting who can babysit their kids. Ferdinand is momentary puzzled by this – he knows them, and didn’t know about their niece – but then leaves for the party anyway, once the “niece” arrives. ….And then he sneaks home early – because Ferdinand has recognized the “niece” as Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), an old girlfriend from five years prior. The party was dull anyway, but Ferdinand has seen his chance to spark things up with Marianne again, and as he is “driving her home” after watching the kids, he proposes they just run off and keep going. Some early ill fortune turns the pair into fugitives – conning tourists for cash and stealing cars and clothes. But it’s much more of a vibrantly “real” life than Ferdinand was living in Paris, so he’s loving it, even when they end up squatting in an abandoned shack in the French Riviera where he devotes most of his time to filling diaries with Grand Philosophical Statements. But Marianne is after a bit more fun and flash, and keeps nagging Ferdinand that they need to track down her brother Fred (Dirk Sanders), who can give them much-needed money. ….Except Fred has money because he’s a gun-runner – and he may not actually be Marianne’s brother.

The reason I think Ebert was on to something is that Goddard uses a lot of the same surrealistic tricks he used in Alphaville – repeated catchphrases, rambling philosophical non sequiturs, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience – but where that confused me with Alphaville, here it just….worked. In the sequence at the party Ferdinand leaves early, nearly everyone else’s dialogue is nothing more than lengthy quotes from TV ads; two men recite quotes from car commercials at each other, with a woman interjecting to add comment from an ad for girdles. Another woman tries to seduce a man by giving him a sales pitch for her hair spray. Also, sometimes the women are topless; why? Dunno. Ferdinand is stuck just wandering past all these inane conversations, listening in with disbelief; it’s no wonder he decided to leave early. In the Riviera, one of Ferdinand’s rambling writing sessions is punctured by Marianne wandering around and loudly (and repetitiously) complaining, “I don’t know what to do! What should I do?” They use blatantly silly tactics for their cons; Marianne fights off one would-be captor with some schtick from a Laurel and Hardy film, and they wheedle money from some American tourists by staging a “re-enactment” of some early battles in Vietnam, which consist of Marianne in bright yellow makeup speaking in gibberish while Ferdinand brandishes a gun and says nothing but “yeah, see?” in an Edgar G. Robinson accent. And both tactics work.

There’s plenty of stuff I still didn’t get – I sincerely didn’t know what was happening with Fred until after the film, and I actually thought Fred was a different character entirely. I also drifted a bit during some of Ferdinand’s more ponderous philosophizing. But that’s kind of the point for those bits anyway, and there was plenty else going on that I somehow did get, even though I couldn’t tell you why.

…Actually, “getting it” might not even be the right word. It’s more like, I’ve been exposed to enough Goddard now that I’ve built up a tolerance, and I’m better able to just roll with what he’s giving me – be that people speaking entirely in ad slogans, or lovers serenading each other while a corpse lies in the next room, or long introspective voiceovers or guys spontaneously painting their faces blue. What’s that about? Who cares, it’s Goddard, just go with it.

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The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

It took a bit of doing to find this one – I kept getting suggestions that I could find it on various Eastern European film streaming archives, but all the versions I found were only in the original Polish without any subtitles. Then Roommate Russ told me about how a cultural outreach program in Poland had just put a whole lot of classic Polish films online for streaming, and they did have English subtitles – and The Saragossa Manuscript was one of them. Yay!

So when I learned that this Polish film from director Wojciech Jerzy Has was based on a French book and that most of the action took place in Spain, that was a bit of a surprise. …But it ended up being pretty fun!

The manuscript in question is a lovely hardbound book a soldier discovers in an abandoned inn, where he’s come to take shelter during a battle in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. He curiously starts flipping through the pages, becoming captivated by the illustrations – to the point that when an enemy officer comes in to capture him, he waves his captor off – “I’ll come quietly, just let me have another look at these pictures first.” His captor has a look himself – and recognizes the author as his own grandfather, and starts reading his captive the story therein.

And that’s when we jump to the story proper – or, rather, the beginning of the first of the stories, because our main tale has a lot of other smaller stories branching off it like filigree. Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a captain in the Walloon Guard of Belgium, is traveling in Spain’s Sierra Morena Mountains, trying to find his way to Madrid. His two hired hands try to dissuade him from taking a certain passage, claiming it’s haunted; but Van Worden scoffs, traveling alone when his assistants flee. Van Worden comes upon an abandoned inn and prepares to strike camp for the night – but is surprised by an exotically dressed woman who leads him through a passage in the wall into a cave, where he is further surprised by a pair of two even more exotically dressed women, the Princesses Emina (Iga Cembrzyńska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jędryka). The sisters try to seduce him, getting as far as enticing him to drink from a goblet made of a skull….which knocks Van Wolden out until morning, when he wakes up on a hillside underneath a gallows, surrounded by piles of skulls.

Understandably spooked, Van Wolden finds his horse again and flees, taking overnight refuge in the home of a mysterious hermit. Then he’s captured by the Spanish Inquisition, but rescued by a mysterious group of bandits – who turn out to be Emina, Zibelda, and the hermit. The group celebrate their success, and Van Wolden once again is made to drink from the skull goblet, and once again finds himself back under the gallows. This time he’s joined by a man who claims to be a student of the Kabballah, and then by a mathematician, following them back to a castle where he meets an even weirder cast of characters – and discovers a strange book in the library…

As the film goes on, Van Wolden’s own tale actually takes a back seat to all the other characters, as they each add their own backstories and asides; the second half of the movie even sees a series of nested stories, with one man telling Van Wolden a tale about a man who told him a story about a man who told him a story. But not only was I able to follow everything (although I did wonder how far the nesting was going to go after a while), the stories all link up in surprising ways. And they’re all just plan fun – there are con men, travelers, aristocrats, nuns, scientists, priests, shiekhs, witches, hanged men, and ghosts all flitting in and out of each others’ stories as well as the main narrative, serving to confuse Van Wolden even further and distract him further and further away from his ultimate errand in Madrid (which I don’t think he ever completes). It kind of feels like what would happen if you gave a commedia dell’arte troupe hallucinogens and read them some ghost stories.

The convoluted story made it difficult for Has’ film to find a mainstream audience – but it got a fervent following among the “art film” crowd, as well as other members of 60’s counterculture; both parties appreciated Has’ meandering narrative, as well as the eerie music and surrealist imagery he used. One fan was Jerry Garcia – yes, the lead guitarist from The Grateful Dead, that Jerry Garcia. Jerry was actually trying to track down a copy of the film during the last months of his life, in an effort to restore and re-release it, and was even waiting on a print to arrive the day he died. Garcia’s team learned that the print was incomplete; but by this time Martin Scorcese had also joined the hunt, and finally tracked down a copy of Has’ personal print, paying nearly $40,000 out of his own pocket to copy, subtitle, restore, and rerelease it.