A sad day, and the passing of an absolute, unimpeachable icon. Alas I don’t have the time to do the great man justice this evening, and will craft something more substantial at the weekend. Until then lets pay brief tribute with a lesser known appearance in one of the great Hammer films, where he was uncharacteristically cast as one of the good guys;
The journey down our long and winding road with our strange companions continues, but before we get into Herzog’s first American feature you must read this, as great a snapshot illustration of the man’s perspective on life, the primacy of your individual conduct and the elemental forces which shape all our mortal spans as you are likely to see. Technically the next film in the oeuvre is the literally mesmerizing Heart Of Glass but we’ll come back to that, as I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into Stroszek, an infamous film for many reasons that we will get into shortly. Decanted from his European roots Herzog’s unique perspective erred immediately away from the well-trodden clusters of America’s East and West coast, those cultural centres so often seen in the movies, as the movies mostly clustered around tales set in the urban metropolis of L.A. or New York, San Francisco or Miami. Instead we plunge into the rural Midwest for an alternative glimpse of the fraying dream which sits collegially with the movie-brat generation, those indigenous upstarts whom were similarly storming the studio citadels in the 1970’s with their character driven, melancholic narratives. Stroszek was Herzog’s second collaboration with the remarkable Bruno S., last seen as the lead in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, the lead in a oblique inspection of the body politic, a stranger in a strange land seduced by the trappings of the capitalist cradle. The film opens with the unkempt and unruly Bruno freshly released from a lifetime of incarceration, always a pungent start to a film as we immediately know this creature is another member of the Herzog peripheral who etches out his living in the margins of society. After accepting a warning from the local constabulary not to drink and get into trouble he exits his incarceration and heads to the nearest bar.
Clearly Bruno is not a mortal afflicted with an affection with social norms, with scant attention lavished on the nominal traditions of social conduct or common 20th century aspirations – marriage, employment, child-rearing, hygiene. Through his transgressions and refusal to confirm he is doomed as a victim of bureaucracy, of continual oppression from the state and from his working class peers, facing a litany of harassment and degradation from the delinquent local bar patrons and the similarly oppressive authorities. Sharing a climate of judgement Bruno hooks up with local prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes, a known entity from a number of Fassbinder features), similarly battered and bruised by life, terrorized by the local pimp who beat and abuse her on a daily basis. Their chance relationship dovetails with the plans of their eccentric neighbour Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz, so clearly Herzog wasn’t too fond of confusing actors and characters names) and his extravagant ambitions. He’s moving across the pond to Wisconsin to live with his brother, so this unconventional trio seek their fortunes anew in America, the rumoured land of opportunity and freedom. Even within the purlieus of Herzog’s lunatic imagination this is one strange and idiosyncratic film, as the dreams of freedom and happiness curdles and sours, with some bizarre incidents and episodes culminating in a climax that has driven troubled souls to suicide*.
Having not seen the film for decades the Blu-Ray restores the films modest visual strengths, lacquered with a tensile, crisp image, moving from the dulled pastoral plains of Wisconsin to the dingy domestic interiors of identikit mobile homes and Cherokee county tourist traps. For my money Herzog was never more skilled with character, with impact and effect than he is in Stroszek. His immortal thieves and jesters gaze straight into the abyss, beguiled by the stifling boredom of normal society and the horrors of bourgeois belonging, wracked with madness and isolation which makes the whole tangled theatre of modern life remotely possible to endure. After the initial seduction has waxed and waned Bruno just moves through a choreographed space, a spectre destined to keep traveling, to consume, to exist and experience, with no escape or exorcism of his European demons. Once ensconced in America the film becomes a mild satire as the surrogate family – mother, father and child – become subsumed by the host culture, racking up debts as they eagerly pursue the consumerist culture, the ‘father’ even flirting with crackpot ideas and theories which are now the staple assertions of talk radio – the moon landing was faked, magnetism affects crop and animal behaviour, that sort of paranoia.
Having slowly digested the film over the past week or so it has somehow reminded me of a Bukowski novel, sparse and direct in its grammar and efficiency, yet somehow excavating a deeper, more delinquent truth from its ostracised oddballs. Their failures and foibles sprout from a collision of nature and nurture, the decks stacked against you in teetering condition, survival and success dependant on simple indiscriminate acts of fate not faith. As Bruno’s fortunes decline the film finally shifts gear into road movie territory, and a curious symmetry emerges with the decrepit and rather exhausted Berlin of the first half of the film – Europe and America are interchangeable, the cultural and social ambitions dwarfed by the physical and psychic constraints of environment and ecology. Herzog finds these moments in images, in reflections and indeed the film in the production process. During this period he wrote his scripts very fast – 4 days for this one according to the commentary – and sculpts the ideas through the shooting, the discovery within locations and inspirations of the performances, press-ganging locals and non-professionals into supporting roles to layer a veneer of authenticity and vérité to the deeper, darker truths. The commentary also reveals some amusing anecdotes from the guerrilla shooting methods, frequently arrested for lensing without permits in New York and the American heartland, released by bemused authorities who didn’t know what to make of this lunatic kraut and his carnival of bedraggled technicians. Personally speaking there is one brief but simply extraordinary scene where a doctor shows Bruno a severely premature baby, a fragment which is among the most mysterious and affecting in the entire Herzog canon, the perfect encapsulation of the precarious grip we all hold on this mysterious mosaic of existence.
Wiser souls than I could position this within the wider Teutonic context of the period given the orbit of Fassbinder, Wenders and Schlöndorff, all key signatories to the emergence of the New German Cinema. The chasm of the Berlin Wall and lengthy shadows of the war still bred dissatisfaction and guilt for the children and grandchildren of the deceased Third Reich regime, and you can sense it in the films of the movement which are disquieting, decadent and deal in anxiety and disruption, particularly in the sexual, social and political arenas. Wim Wenders was fascinated with the concept of the road movie, that mechanism through which you can take disaffected, displaced souls and run them through a culture of transient locations and incidents along a rambling narrative path. Stroszek could be seen as Herzog traversing a similar route, a cypher of the immigrant experience seduced then destroyed by the capitalist chorus. Many films across all genres utilize a journey narrative which align the characters internal evolution, but Herzog seizes on this mechanism more than most with the physical mirrored with the psychic, arriving with Bruno’s abandoned spirit at a figurative and literal end of the road. If there isn’t a book out there on that thesis then I guess I’ve stumbled across a possible Film Studies Ph.D subject – Identity & Immigration – The German New Wave in America or something. You could pair up Paris Texas, Querelle, Stroszek and the studio backed films of Gunther Schlöndorff with the edgy existentialism of Taxi Driver, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces or Peckinpah’s narcotic fuelled laments. At least some of Sam’s tortured outsiders escaped to his Eden of Mexico, made it across the border and into presumably happier times by the skin of their snarling teeth. Stroszek is not so optimistic, as although Bruno’s fate remains ambiguous with an off-camera gunshot we hang on a startling visual metaphor, of cogs in the machine performing a pathetic, demanding dance like marionettes manipulated within the systems of indoctrination and control, a spastic twitch of consumption and compulsion that dwells until we die;
*Brilliant factoid I have discovered while researching this piece. David Lynch was in London, shooting The Elephant Man in 1980 and recalls seeing the film on television, which must have been the same BBC transmission that Ian Curtis also endured. Somehow he found the film exhilarating and progressive, Curtis obviously had quite a different reaction – although of course he was a deeply troubled young man and his unfortunate decision was already on the cards. Just thought I’d share….
Heh, I wonder how many on-line denizens are going to make some ‘hilarious’ mash-up’s of this and a certain recent high-profile SF film, and inadvertently ’cause a ruckus with the spoiler brigade?
Ridley Scott really hasn’t made anything above mediocre or distinctly average level status for decades has he? Christ, the last film of his I actively enjoyed was 2003’s Matchstick Men but then I’m a sucker for con-artist flicks. I re-watched Prometheus (so help me god) a couple of weeks ago and it remains, to coin a scholarly term ‘fucking rubbish’, so I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up for this, even with Drew Daredevil, Alias, Buffy, Angel & Cabin In The Woods Goddard at mission scribe control….
Well, after being a little dismissive I have to say that ‘proper’ trailer has perked my interest, Gravity meets All Is Lost by the looks of things, although they didn’t have to give us all the bloody story beats through to the third act climax in three bloody minutes. It also looked pretty, whatever his failings Ridders always knows how to shoot an atmosphere (if you’ll excuse the unintended pun), so for pure visual ‘spectacular’ I guess I’m in…….
What’s more terrifying than The Shining or Blue Velvet? Well, both, at the same time of course;
Words escape me. This is troubling….
One of the lower key films of the year amplitude speaking, but a new Spielberg is always exciting, and his working off a Coen Brothers script should generate some interesting interference;
This looks a little degraded and exhausted photography wise, which doesn’t immediately gel with that rather weak editing effort to make this a little ‘action’ orientated. Hmmm. I hope this is Steven running assets on a more on a musing, uncertain front. Opens in the Winter I think….
By the pricking of my thumbs, a Fassbender and Cotillard this way comes – yeah I know another MI5 preview dropped today, but I’m trying to ween myself off posting multiple trailers of the same damn film. Instead its heartening to see some of the well lauded Cannes crowd starting to fire up their marketing engines, and this looks suitably devilish;
Like I said I do like the Scottish play the most out of my somewhat limited knowledge of the shaker of spears, but that’s quite a volatile mixture of leads which deserves a big-screen visit – it’s bound to be among this years LFF squadron…
Bit of a specialist place holder today my learned friends. I’m guessing that all you Kubrickophiles have seen Day Of The Fight and The Seafearers by now, and that you’re the proud owner of his first, deleted feature Fear & Desire which of course finally got a Blu-Ray release. Well, that leaves the holy grail being the one-off TV programme he was involved in 1952 doesn’t it? And someone, somehow, somewhere, has sourced a tantalizing glance;
He was only on second unit so doesn’t count among the traditional oeuvre, but as some obsessive colleagues have observed this is pretty much the final footage we will ever see, unless any of those outtakes or alternate reels that Leon Vitali destroyed in the early noughties somehow evaded his instructions. Kinda related but this is doing the rounds despite initially doing the rounds a few weeks ago if that makes sense. The cycle of the internets is weird sometimes….
Here is a tres bien little primer on that second French revolution of the 1950’s, and how we are still benefiting from the formalist fractures to this day;
Presented without commentary, as there is nothing that a puny mortal such as I could ever add to the mind-blowing awesomeness that is……..Kung Fury;
Let’s start with a little story shall we, not a fairy story as the title of the film suggests, but a hard-nosed business story from the associated brutal corridors of local government. So, as some of you will be aware I commenced a new assignment recently, and as is the way of these things I also acquired a new ‘handler’ from the interim consultancy I’m working through (they’re based opposite Claridges in Mayfair so quite swanky I have to say). In this interpersonal world these consultancies do like to maintain the veneer of a human touch, so I met up with my new colleague (let’s codename him Q for ease of reference) for a chat and discussion of the current mission. Once the work stuff had evaporated I and Q got to debating other matters, the subject of hobbies and imminent weekend activities arose so inevitably the conversation turned toward the movies. ‘Oh I absolutely love gangster movies’ Q remarked, ‘Goodfellas and Casino are my absolute favorites’. ‘Well’, I respond, a devilish glint in my eye ‘then you’ll be excited to hear that I’m going to see the UK premiere of the newly restored 4K edition of Once Upon A Time In America this weekend?’ I beam. A slightly bemused Q offers a confused look. ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that one’ is the muted response. ‘Really?’ I respond, with growing incredulity. ‘De Niro, Pesci? and Jimmy Woods teamed up in Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece of the Jewish mob a decade before Casino’s triumvirate reunion?’ I counter. ‘Nope, doesn’t ring a bell’ is the humble reply. A self-proclaimed gangster movie fan whom has never heard of yet alone seen OUATIA? It’s inconceivable of course, and with my double agent antenna definitely being disturbed severe action is immediately required. The conversation stumbled on but clearly all was lost at this stage, thus I quietly tendered his wet-work retirement to our clandestine superiors before retiring to my club for cigars and a brandy nightcap.
The Badlands collective have done themselves proud again with another wonderful film event following the Harris Savides double bill from last year, and first up I’ve no real desire or inclination to expand much beyond my BFI screening review from a harrowing six years back which can pursue at your leisure. There is really only three, or perhaps four (if you’re being a mathematical purist) essential texts when it comes to the great post war American gangster film. First of all there is Goodfellas of course, then the first two Godfathers (which some count as one entity), and Once Upon A Time In America jostling for superiority in the pantheon. Sure there are other highly regarded films in the canon – The Departed, King Of New York, Scarface and the aforementioned Casino all leap to mind as potentially ambitious capos, but none of them quite achieve the same metaphorical plateaus of the American Dream forged as financial hoarding fulcrum, unimpeded by such trivial impediments as legality or morality, capitalism writ large as the defining social and political institution of the 20th century. From its fairy tale title Once Upon A Time In America holds this water but its killer punch are its deeper levels of sophistication and symmetry, it uses the genre trappings of the Warner Brothers crime pictures and the wider movement of film noir as the iconographic stand on which to hang its real hat, a haunting treatise on time, loss and betrayal within the lifespan of one shattered soul. It’s subjective stuff as I love all these films but with a .38 pressed to my head I’d probably opt for Goodfellas as my favorite for its pure relentless energy. But when you’re in a certain mood, on a lazy Sunday bank holiday say, well then immersing yourself in an epic four-hour and a half hour cinematic odyssey can bless you with criminally diverse dividends, especially with twenty minutes of resurrected material which elaborates certain sequences and broadens crucial relationships.
As you would imagine the 4K restoration was glorious, it still retains an element of grain to critically preserve that aura of a film recalled through a woozy gauze of a half remembered dream, as it tilts and sways through the childhood of early 20th century New York to the twin tower milestones of 1933 and 1968. Morricone’s haunting, simple melodic score brings tears to the eyes, that simple refrain echoing throughout Noodle’s wasted life and abandoned love, a aural character moment to equal the harmonica refrain in the sister film Once Upon A Time In The West. It’s an odd film as with the exception of Deborah there are no characters to empathize with or emotionally connect, as naturally over four hours and sixty years of one man’s life you’re destined to establish some sense of connection. In that sense Leone snaps you back to reality from the melancholic nostalgia with some shocking violence, particularly one of cinemas most harrowing rapes – and I mean ‘harrowing’ in the sense of emotional destruction not visual exploitation – which obliterates any ‘feelings’ we could possibly have for these selfish, violent, criminal bastards. It’s these designs that elevate America up to an operatic & metaphoric plateau, illustrated with those trademark Leone push zooms and extreme close-ups on those monolithic embittered faces, when his camera isn’t prowling through the architectural space to wallow in the lavish historical production design of the rasping Manhattan streets and speakeasys.
So to the matter at hand, the extra material, and to cut straight to the chase there is a full dissection here. There are a few standalone scenes alongside additions to existing sequences, primarily involving a Louise Fletcher appearance when Noodles visits the mausoleum of his betrayed comrades in 1968. Then there is more back-story to his meeting and relationship with Eve, the poor call-girl who is brutally executed in the opening scene of the picture, and perhaps most crucially in the final coda Wood’s futile final position is intensified with a scene featuring Treat Williams corrupt Union shill. Deborah is finally seen on stage in Anthony & Cleopatra, majestic in her life forged away from Noodles controlling interference, in a scene prefiguring the subsequent emotional reunion. Finally and perhaps most amusingly the great producer Arnon Milchan can be seen in a rare speaking role here – that’s quite another meta manipulation given his mysterious history, and the fact that this restored sequence directly references the grevious situation in Germany for the Jewish people during this 1933 set sequence of the film. All these scenes are glaring additions in terms of visual quality, they are imprinted within a degraded, translucent film-stock which add an odd pallor to proceedings, yet still cat-nip to us celluloid completests.
The jewel in the crown of one of the years core cinephile events was the appearance of Elizabeth McGovern for an all too brief Q&A, as I understand it she lives in London and is wrapping up her contribution to the final season of Downton Abby. Naturally the debate was framed around that legendarily ambiguous ending, of whether Leone ever intimated that any of the more modern portions of the film are occurring in Noodles opium addled head, rendering all the 1968 material as an internal, cinematic fever dream. McGovern patiently explaining that these sorts of discussion simply don’t orbit how films are actually made, as on a day-to-day process you are working on and solving scene after scene on an individual progressive basis – hitting the marks, experimenting with lines, formulating figure movement, turns of the head and flashes of the eyes – rather than deliberating on the holistic scope of the film as a wider engine of its technical, component parts. She also beautifully remarked on just how moving it was to see the restored film at Cannes in 2012, nearly thirty years to the day from when it was released, sitting with De Niro, Jimmy Woods and Jennifer Connelly. When it arrived at the scene where Deborah meets Noodles again after three decades of film time (the best scene in the film incidentally) she turned to see De Niro sat next to her nearly three decades on from the 1984 premiere, some weird meta-film world ouroboros which digests back on Leone’s lamenting hymn to time lost. I love the movie, although I don’t think these additions are essential, its more like the Apocalypse Now redux – fascinating and interesting to peruse, but the original cut still works best in balance of storytelling pace and pathos. I’m pretty sure that America would be in my all-time top thirty if I ever deem to construct such a list, that ambiguous finale immortally transcendent on the screen, the scene even playfully starting on an image of shadow-play and artifice. Wiser souls than I have noted the ingestion of the narcotic can be seen as sacrament, a purging of the soul for the treachery he has just unleashed on his childhood friends, before that turn to the camera frosted with a sepia soaked veil, before that Mona Lisa, indeterminate smile. Sheer poetry, the final scene frozen in amber from one of the all time great filmmakers;