Welcome back, readers. Christian’s Cinematic Syntax is back for the fall semester, and I am excited to share my thoughts on a new batch of films that really caught my attention. Unlike last semester, I will be less strict on what I review, but I will continue selecting based on my world film preference. My “Modern Cinema From Around the World” series was last semester, and now I intend to just publish reviews as their own, without a series attached. Without further ado, I will begin with the 1957 Palme d’Or winning drama, The Cranes Are Flying.
An anti-war film that battled censorship at its release, The Cranes Are Flying focuses on a young couple facing tragedy. Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a factory worker, and Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova), a nurse, are thrust into a harsh reality of life during wartime. Boris volunteers for service, leaving Veronika with a toy squirrel, a birthday gift, and her only memento of him. The couple, now separated, fight their own battles. Veronika resists the romantic advances of Boris’ cousin at home while Boris fights the enemy on the front lines. As the film progresses, these characters change, and tragedy strikes. Veronika and Boris lose the most so the Soviet Union and allied forces can continue on.
La Haine follows three friends, Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd through their wanderings in and around Paris. The film begins in the aftermath of a riot, where police arrest and injure their friend, Abdel Ichacha. News stations begin to plaster Ichacha’s image all over the headline news, highlighting his importance immediately. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is a Jewish man who is more aggressive than his friends and who openly, and actively, participates in the riots. Vinz is a character who has a vendetta against police and promises to murder a police officer if Abdel Ichacha dies. He is the wild-card of his friends and preoccupies himself with street culture. He says he was raised on the street, even quoting the famous, “You talking to me,” scene of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in a mirror with an imaginary pistol. Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is probably the most “on the level” of the three, he is an Afro-French man who gets his gym burned down during the riots. Hubert’s goal is to leave the projects to live a better life, away from violence. Hubert is more level-headed towards his family than the others; Hubert gives his family money for utilities. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a North African Muslim who portrays himself as the ringleader. He is a big-talker, who is not afraid to voice an opinion between the other two friends.These characters live in the banlieues, or the projects outside Paris, where there is a large police presence after a riot turned violent.
The 2014 drama film Leviathan, directed and written by Andrey Zvyagintsev, brings a Russian landscape to life in a bureaucratic battle between a fisherman and the corrupt mayor of his town. The film’s wide-open scenic landscape seems to play a central role—from the cliffs near the Barents Sea, to the bones of a washed-up whale, to Kolya’s family home, and finally to the run-down church used as a hangout by local boys including Kolya’s son, Roma. All of these locations outwardly demonstrate the isolation and distance felt by our family, as they are far away from the town with not many neighbors and almost swept under the rug by the town’s mayor. The whale bones could be an additional sign of decay and gradual loss felt by Kolya, or the bones could be a symbol of helplessness, particularly with his alcoholism and imprisonment later on in the film. The story revolves around Nikolay ‘Kolya’ (Aleksey Serebryakov) who lives in his ancestral home, with his wife and son. He can be found occasionally doing car repair for acquaintances, and moderately drinking early in the film. We are introduced to Kolya as the subject of an arduous legal battle to keep his property— a property he helped construct and where he is passionately rooted. The film portrays Kolya as the common man who is wrapped up in the bureaucracy of his country. To demonstrate this common man idea even further, Zvyaginstev has Kolya arrested for simply questioning a crooked police officer’s motives, which shows a definite power imbalance between authority and people. The film seems to criticize the current state of Russia’s bureaucracy and the country’s political corruption by using Kolya as an example.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) is a docu-fiction film that is a rendering of real life events depicted by the actual people who went through these events. The film follows Hossain Sabzian, a lower-income paper clerk, as he impersonates the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and tricks a family into giving him their time and money. Sabzian tells the family that they will be given lead roles in his upcoming film, and he even makes them practice their lines. During the main portion of the film—Sabzian’s real-life court procedure—Kiarostami recreates everything that happened in real life leading up to Sabzian’s arrest, such as Sabzian’s first encounter with Mahrokh Ahankhah (the mother of the family) on public transport– where he signs a copy of “his” screenplay for The Cyclist. During the court proceedings, Sabzian is framed in a close-up shot the entire time (hence the title) and must defend and explain his actions in front of the judge. In addition to being a courtroom procedure film, the audience is witness to moments of the filmmaking process through scenes with Kiarostami and his team. For example, there is a stretch of scene dedicated to Kiarostami asking a judge to secure a permit to film during the trial, which they do receive.
Michael Haneke’s Austrian psychological thriller Funny Games (1997) begins with a family driving towards their vacation home. When they draw nearer to their destination, they stop by the neighbor Fred’s house to greet him before their apparent golf game scheduled for the next day with him. The family, after their talk with the neighbor, are unaware of the gravity of the situation, but still question some of the odd details of the scene in passing— the neighbor’s daughter is not there, and the two strange men accompany Fred. When they make it to the lake house, the father and son begin working on the boat while the mother prepares a meal in the kitchen. Peter, one of the two men who were previously with Fred, comes to the kitchen and asks Anna (the mother) for some eggs. Slowly the family becomes trapped in some not-so-funny games, which almost implicates the audience while we witness torture and torment. These ‘games’ are brought about by the sick and twisted humor of two young men, one of which (Paul) has total control of the situation. Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)— or, as they like to say, “Beavis and Butthead” (which could be a comment on the desensitization of violence in media because Beavis and Butthead was a controversial cartoon)— slowly take advantage of the family’s kindness, first on account of Peter’s “clumsiness,” which is mildly annoying and is the primary excuse for his being there (Peter needs some eggs for the neighbor’s wife). Peter’s clumsiness also submerges the house phone in the sink, ruining it and cutting off the family’s communication with the outside world.
Although this is considered my modern cinema series, I am still inclined to include a film from 26 years ago. The reason for Naked’s inclusion is simple: I enjoy the film very much and constitute a modern film as one from the 1990s onward. Even though I am not purposely hunting for the similarities between my previous entries, Naked also embodies a certain segment of society through its main character, which my previous entries of the films Brother [Brat] (1997) and The Debt [Dług] (1999) dealt with. The previous films deal with economic crimes fueled by incentives, whereas Naked harps on chaos, dark comedy, and violence against women. Naked also seems to have more complex dialogue that the other films had only in smaller doses. Johnny, portrayed by David Thewlis, is a character with many idiosyncrasies. His style seems almost stream-of-consciousness as he is not as much of a main character, but rather acts as a shadow that navigates us through the streets of London.
Similar to my last entry on Brother [Brat], the 1999 Polish film Dług examines characters in an Eastern European setting in the early 1990s. Both pieces of modern cinema are crime thrillers from Eastern Europe, and have characters who are forced to deal in criminal behavior. The main characters turn out morally questionable throughout both films, such as how I labelled Danila Bagrov as an anti-hero in my previous blog entry. These two films both bring attention to the gritty and harsh realities of the 1990s in Eastern Europe, in a culture affected by their countries’ turn to a capitalist system. Krauze’s characters, Adam and Stefan, are similar to Balabnov’s Danila Bagrov, as each of them are in a situation where they are forced to commit crimes to secure or retain a livelihood. What is so important about Adam and Stefan’s characters is that they were legitimate businessmen who were taken advantage of by an Russian extortionist, while Bagrov claims himself as an ex-army clerk who came into crime through family ties. At their core, these films are pathways to the psyche of some Eastern European citizens in the early 1990s.
Danila: You said the city is a force, and yet everybody is feeble here. German: The city is an evil force. The strong come and become feeble. The city takes the strength away. And now you’ve fallen.
Directed by Aleksey Balabanov, Brother [Браt] is a gritty cult-film from 1997 that exemplifies Russian gangster life in the 1990s. The film is filled with catchy Russian rock music, both diegetic and not, with a central focus on our calculating main character who is a traditional anti-hero, Danila Bagrov (Sergey Bodrov). What makes Brother [Браt] a special experience is the main character, and the unique take on city life and criminality. Our character is consumed into a criminal lifestyle, but also searches for his own happiness in a pursuit that seems futile at the end of his stay in St. Petersburg. Danil’s savior mentality ends in the realization that his money does not bring the people he tries to save closer to him in his own version of happiness.
Note: Throughout this analysis I received guidance from Lewis University’s chair of the film studies department, Dr. Christopher Wielgos, and Creative Writing/Film Studies Professor, Dr. Simone Muench.
Hello Film Enthusiasts,
My “redone” cinematic syntax continues to be a place for learning, as well as giving my interpretations. I will do film analysis, film reviews, director spotlights, and anything else that comes to mind as I continue as a Jet Fuel Review blog editor. If you or anyone want me to do anything in particular, or find something I say wrong in context with Tarkovsky’s writings, please comment what you find. If no one comments it will always be from what I want and how I present things. This redone cinematic syntax calls for a celebration and that will be through an analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris.
In 2017, I was lucky enough to see both Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) at the Music-Box Theater in Chicago. In my time watching films, I always have come back to Tarkovsky and felt something more than anything I have seen from any other director. I found Tarkovsky’s mise en scene, long takes, and unique images to be a particular draw to him as a director. In my current film class we have been specifically focusing on his color choice and I never looked so closely at Tarkovsky’s color before and have always respected Tarkovsky’s beautiful colors, but I never looked at it further than just appreciation.
Blow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Palme d’Or recipient, subverts one’s desires and expectations while undermining typical narrative conventions. In Blow-up, Antonioni presents a murder that is “caught” by the protagonist’s camera, one which never actually receives its expected resolution. This subversion is well-executed as the audience sees their anticipation wither and torment them as a group of mimes engage in imaginary tennis.
Similarly, in Antonioni’s 1960 film, L’Avventura, it begins with a person’s disappearance — one whose subsequent search is void of resolution. Instead, Antonioni chooses to focus on a character who is weak and trying to cope in extravagant society. Antonioni subverts expectation and tests the audience’s patience, as well as narrative standards, in both films.
But is this subversion just Antonioni teasing his audience, or does it carry a deeper and more complex significance? In fact, yes, it very much does. Antonioni describes his intention of narration in L’Avventura as him wanting to “achieve the suppression of outward physical action” in the interest of a “greater interior realism.” Meaning, he wants to show the world in a manner that is true to life and realism.