The End of a Priest (Schorm, 1969)

A really amazing Evald Schorm film that was released after the Prague Spring, and as far as I can tell, one of the last Czech films that really fits the true “New Wave” moniker (alongside other late period films Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and The Cremator), The End of a Priest reminds me a bit of Capricious Summer, and its sidelong glance at religion reminds of, who else, Luis Buñuel. I think everything reminds me of Buñuel lately for some reason. But this is a film that would pair so well with Death in the Garden.

A sexton at a small church (Vlastimil Brodský) arrives in a village badly in need of a priest. He pretends to be one, much to the chagrin of the local teacher and theater director (Jan Libícek). These central performances are amazing, as are those of the other villagers. Jana Brejchová (once married to Miloš Forman) gives a really great turn as Majka, a Mary Magdalene figure but with more comedy and less tragedy.

That sidelong glance I mentioned earlier: there are so many religious metaphors in The End of a Priest, but it’s not like Christianity is only seen in a ridiculous, mocking light. People are comforted; the sexton isn’t necessarily a bad person, he’s just wayward and lacking something in life. The real finger wagging here is reserved for a representation of the state: three men in black trench coats and fedoras who charge in comically towards the end to arrest the wrong man in front of a congregation (great reaction shot here)-

-leading to something like a crucifixion scene with “Jesus” in the middle and two other criminals, one repentant, one not, on either side of him:

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These trench coat men (I suppose State Security) are in the film multiple times. They’re suspicious of religion and quick to arrest anyone. They’re at once comic relief and terrifying.

But there’s plenty of comedy in The End of a Priest. There’s the swearing grandmother, a near-resurrection (Schorm and co-writer Josef Skvorecký are really smart to make a lot of “almosts” so as to avoid being on-the-nose: there’s almost a resurrection…but then it’s quickly determined that that’s not what happened; there’s almost a bishop arrested…but then that’s quickly sorted out), and an amazing scene with a new fire truck.

This last sequence feels straight out of Buster Keaton (to whom I think this film is also indebted). We start with a lot of pomp and circumstance as the fire truck drives into the square and the teacher gives an arrogant speech on its importance:

Of course, immediately there’s a chance to prove its usefulness-

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-but the village drunk falls on the hose, stopping the flow of water:

What else is there to do but pray?

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Prayers notwithstanding, the drunk stands, the water returns, and instead of the teacher and his truck receiving praise, it’s the priest who is lauded:

It’s a really clever sequence that brings everyone together, that pits logic directly versus religion, and that has an outcome that isn’t really a victory for either (though there is the appearance of victory for one). The shot selection here is so good. Schorm builds up how much effort has gone into the event, which makes the failure of the hose even more embarrassing. Crosscutting the drunk, the hose, and the priest directly puts them all in competition. It’s not just that it’s logic against religion, it’s that the third factor that “controls” both of those, is totally incoherent and abides by no rules (I wonder if there’s a thesis here).

There’s plenty more religious imagery throughout the film. There’s a wedding party where, instead of turning the water into wine, the “priest” drinks too much of it; there’s an apostle figure; a sequence where the “devil” tempts “Jesus” in the desert; etc. But while all of these make the metaphor real and obvious, they all totally function in the story and never take The End of a Priest away from its narrative pursuits.

 

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Twin Peaks: The Return

It’s pretty amazing to think that Twin Peaks was so unlikely in its original run and that it’s still so unlikely in 2017. I mean this feels, more than 25 years later, that this still shouldn’t be on television. I don’t mean that in a bad way. This is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time, but that has to say something about Lynch, the state of TV, and really just how ahead of its time the original was.

Very slight SPOILERS here.

I don’t/didn’t watch Twin Peaks for story. I like and get many individual narrative elements. I make some connections as I go, but I’m not creating any fan theories and I leave pretty confused. Lynch gives me enough things that I can put together in my head to make me understand that it’s not random and that there is someone behind it all (he’s the real dreamer here, right?), but while watching I just want emotion and experience and chills, and an unraveling story feels totally secondary or tertiary.

In the last episode, when Cooper and Laura Palmer are driving I was struck by how much the sequence felt like a Lynch film. There are the obvious things: the characters themselves, and of course the POV shot of a road at night illuminated only by headlights. But it was also the pacing. That’s one of my favorite parts of this series. Sometimes that pacing is those really long beats between lines. They can be painfully long (and sometimes really funny), but I think it’s also about going into coverage at times that feel counter to narrative development. Like in this car. We basically have five shots – 2-shot of Cooper and Laura; the road; shot-reverse on them; and then a low angle from the back seat on Cooper. We really only go to that last shot once, I think, but Lynch keeps cutting into the other coverage and it feels like something is going to happen within those frames, or because of the cut (like, because we cut to Cooper we miss what happens behind Laura). But that doesn’t really happen. It’s just a lot of looks, America passing by, and – the point – a slow sense that we’re building towards something important. You could build build towards that sense in so many other ways that don’t feel as deliberate or like we should be in the midst of a dialogue sequence but just aren’t.

I love seeing all of the other Lynch trademarks come into play throughout the series: digital slo-mo; handmade special effects that recall his short films; unnerving sound design; backwards walking and talking played in reverse; starting a scene on a character frozen and looking and then silently, slowly revealing what they’re looking at…and many more.

The series also feels like such a recall to all past films, but for me, more than any, it’s The Lost Highway and that film’s slow, creeping dread. One of the reasons is because Lynch is the absolute master at capturing the fear and/or helplessness as people recall something – a dream or a memory. He’s one of the only directors I can think of that so often (with exceptions obviously, including the great Monica Bellucci cameo scene) doesn’t cut to that dream or memory, but derives real, true terror from just staying in pretty tight on the person doing the recalling. I remember that from The Lost Highway and it happens so much here. I get such a visceral feeling in these moments.

The so-called “quirkiness” is really disarming. To be fair, I actually found it annoying for the first 4-5 episodes, but patience really pays off with this show. But in the end it’s such a strategy: it makes everything that isn’t just light and fluffy so much more disturbing. I mean we go from Jim Belushi absolutely mugging for the camera, to an episode that feels like Eraserhead meets The Twilight Zone taking place in New Mexico, to the scariest shot in the film – Laura’s overhead extreme handheld shaky scream in the lodge. And sometimes we make changes like this from episode to episode, or within one episode. That contrast, especially for me in the last two episodes, leads to some real stress. I like Lynch also because when he gets relentless, he’s just entirely relentless.

Like Buñuel or other directors who work on a symbolic level, there are some clear themes – electricity, for example. But I don’t know what to make of them all. Then there are just repeat motifs. Like the child in the car slowly vomiting (one of the best scenes in the film and a great example of weird horror in a Lynch film – and I’m talking more about the screaming woman in the driver’s seat) and the prisoner slowly bleeding. But I don’t know what to make of them, either. It reminds me a bit of the twins in Jarmusch’s recent Paterson. The fact that those connections exist across episodes is enough for me.

Other random things that I thought as I watched: I like how Lynch seems just really into the procedural. What happened to Audrey (I’m sure a whole lot of people have a whole lot of answers for this)? The box towards the beginning is kind of like the eyeball slit in half in Un Chien Andalou. Both in some way seem to warn that you’re about to watch something different, both introduce violence in a way that feels really sudden and personal, and both use that violence as semi-narrative, at best. Laura’s scream is terrifying. Ben Rosenfield gives such a great, Lynchian performance.

This is one of my favorite shots from the show. I really love the highlight on the door in the center of the frame, the hazy quality of the light on the dirty window, and how much emphasis is given to what’s behind Laura:

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Sleeping Car Murders (Costa-Gavras, 1965) and Dante 01 (Caro, 2008)

I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen The Sleeping Car Murders before. Maybe at the Dryden years ago. Regardless, it’s a really fun thriller that predates Costa-Gavras’ superior, political films. It has a bit of the Elevator to the Gallows feel in that it’s noirish, jazzy, and modern, but it’s more procedural and less existential than the Malle film.

There are some SPOILERS below.

Costa-Gavras really assembles a hell of a cast for his feature: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Simone Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Yves Montand… I wonder if this is because of his AD work with Jacques Demy, René Clément, and René Clair, among others.

The two things I remembered from the film are the last shot and an elevator sequence. Apologies for the low quality, but here’s that last shot. A police investigation ends with a long dolly away under a bridge alone the Seine (I think; I know nothing about French geography):

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But it’s the elevator sequence that’s more memorable. It feels like the gallios that the film is concurrent with.

Simone Signoret, great as Eliane Darrès, gets in an elevator to descend. Costa-Gavras’ cuts are rapid fire. We start in this medium establishing the approaching killer and Darrès’ position. He then cuts to a direct overhead that zooms dramatically down. It’s not quite a POV – it’s too overhead. Instead it’s sort of a combination of an accelerated elevator descent and Darrès’ doom reaching her:

Then to these three cuts, nearly on-axis, cutting to the barrel of the gun until it’s pointing at us:

Back to Darrès for her reaction:

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And then to these ECUs:

I love those eyes back and forth. They sort of make no sense. The killer is above her. Why is she looking left and right? It’s one of the longer shots (probably less than 2 seconds) in this montage and it seems, if anything, to again talk to us. It’s like a pink panther moment, mocking a stereotypical image of investigation films.

We cut tighter on her eye (this sequence is also, probably obviously because Bava was, too, indebted to Hitchcock). Then to two quick shots of the gun, this time cutting a little further away sequentially, rather than the reverse, above:

Back to a tight reaction, and then wider, on action, as she reacts and falls:

There’s so much coverage for one moment. It’s the only sequence in the film really like it. It feels like a young filmmaker (successfully) experimenting, and also like a moment for Signoret. But it’s also dramatic and a nice use of Psycho’s implied montage (an elevator instead of a shadow, a gun instead of a knife).

Dante 01

I know the Jeunet-Caro collaborations, but I had never seen Marc Caro’s solo sci-fi effort from 2008.

On its surface it looks a lot like those films…well, at least its color scheme looks a lot like Jeunet’s second solo feature, Amelie. It’s rather green and yellow, there are a lot of inflected animals, and the characters are peculiar.

The mood in the film is nice, and there’s some somewhat interesting philosophizing but the film ultimately feels like it was cut short or altered drastically in post (I wonder if it was). Things feel rushed; the voiceover doesn’t really help things; so much is reliant on Christ-figure symbolism.

For some reason all of the characters are bald:

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There are some interesting connections to be made. Like the nanotechnology that is shot into the spaceship-prisoner’s blood-

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-looks a lot like the actual spaceship which the entire crew is traveling on:

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It’s as though within is the same as without. That’s fun and all, but it doesn’t really advance beyond this visual similarity. There’s an overlong VFX-heavy ending that feels dated and eventually brings us here:

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Where we seem to now be at earth. I wonder if there are theories about this ending. I’m sure there are. I didn’t really feel the urge to investigate. Something transcendent happened and we’re transported to a more human, survivable environment. It’s not that it doesn’t track, it’s that it feels a little exhausting to track it.

 

 

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Good Time (Sadie, 2017) and Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017)

Good Time is up there for my favorite film of the year. I love how much the Safdie’s shoot in close-up. The first scene – one of the best in the film – is so tight that you can feel the compression. There are so many moments in here where the concern is far away from establishing spatially and much more so with the frenetic tension of their tight frames. It’s pretty consistent throughout the film, though it opens up a bit in a great sequence at an amusement park.

Good Time was shot by Sean Price Williams and it looks amazing. So much neon! And I was really into how the filmmakers were pretty comfortable letting the image go to near underexposure at times. You can feel the film grain in those moments. This is a film that I think needed to be shot on 35.

Robert Pattinson is turning into a hell of an actor. He’s so good in this, as he has been in much of what I’ve seen him in recently (Maps to the Stars, The Childhood of a Leader, The Rover). Benny Safdie’s performance as Nick, Pattinson’s Connie’s brother, is also pretty brilliant. There’s an awesome moment when, at the beginning of the film, the two are robbing a bank. Nick wants to take his mask off and Connie won’t let him. It feels so kind. The same is true of the immediate aftermath when they’re in a back alley beginning their getaway. Connie’s lines – “I couldn’t have done this without you!” – are so obviously untrue and true at once. Another of my favorite parts of the film.

Is this film all handheld? I only started looking for it about 20 minutes in. Sometimes it’s so obviously so. But there are other times (the hospital sequence) where I couldn’t always tell if we were in really controlled handheld, or on a steadicam. Either way, that motion, and that motion that sometimes rides a line between fluid and unsteady, really works in here. It’s a frenetic film narratively, but there are long moments of calm in the midst of all the energy (I’m thinking in particular of a sequence at Crystal’s (Taliah Webster) house, where things just settle a bit) – I think that the camera does a nice job of not always just being one or the other.

Another thing that really struck me in here: in most films Connie would be really dumb. Like he would literally be written as an unintelligent character. But he’s pretty smart in this film. He makes quick, informed decisions, all for the sake of his brother. It makes me like him a lot. I see his brain work as he manipulates people and, while he’s not always pleasant, I like how hard he’s working for Nick. I wonder how much writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie struggled with the character, or at least how much he evolved. It’s a tightrope – there’s a moment at the end that pushes an extra amount of guilt onto his shoulders that’s a real gut punch.

Then there’s the score. I’m not the biggest fan of Oneohtrix Point Never, and it’s a hell of a risk in here (it’s so present) but it really pushes the film into something beyond just heist/road film. That’s sort of what it is, but this is a great example of form (including performance) transcending what is an already good script.

Dunkirk

This is one of my favorite Christopher Nolan films. I’d imagine I have some of the same issues with it that other people have. For me, it’s mainly two: the score is too much, and there’s too much on-the-nose sentimentality at the end. But otherwise, this is a really good film. The IMAX is breathtaking. The first time the image comes up in that format is really wonderful.

The first scene in Dunkirk is the best. It’s mostly silent storytelling, it drops us right into a beautifully dangerous situation, and the blocking (as the characters are first running down the street, in particular) is so good. It’s my favorite part of the film; I’ve sometimes wished that Nolan would rely less on dialogue, and when he does here, which is most of the film, it really soars.

What’s the difference between the score in Good Time and here in Dunkirk? I mean, both are really present, pretty loud, and unmistakable. I like the music in Dunkirk but it seems to lead the emotion too much, or Mickey Mouse too much. An example of the latter: just at the beginning of the stretcher sequence the music changes. It’s pluckiness feels like mimicry and it totally pulled me out of the beginning of the scene. Luckily I got past it, because this scene is also pretty awesome.

That’s another thing that I like about Dunkirk. I bet these are some of Nolan’s longest scenes. He stays with his characters for extended periods. He still cross-cuts, as he always does, but this time it’s across time, which is fun. Regardless, there are long scenes where we don’t change temporally or spatially and we just stay with one person. It works so well, particularly for me, on the land.

Another issue I’ve had with some past Nolan films is the performance of side characters. Here they’re great. There’s no weak link in Dunkirk. I really liked Mark Rylance, perhaps the most. His face is so expressive. He switches so easily from full-steam-ahead confidence, to crestfallen terror.

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Invasion (Santiago, 1969)

Hugo Santiago’s Invasion from 1969 reminds me of so many things, but it’s all its own. I watched this mostly because it was written by Borges. As I was watching I started thinking how much it reminded me of The Spider Strategem (the title of which is listed in the possessive on IMDb, but I always heard and read it the other way). I looked that film up, which I probably haven’t seen since about 2004, and lo and behold, that was also written by Borges!

Then I thought how much Raul Ruiz reminded me of Hugo Santiago. Well, after some quick internet research, lo and behold, Santiago and Ruiz worked together. These frames are some of the reasons why I see that resemblance:

Like Ruiz, Santiago isn’t afraid of a looming foreground (shot 3), anonymous shots (shot 2), and wides that feel frozen and almost stagey (shot 1).

Much of the same is true here. I love how dramatic the framing is, but also how intentional it is. Great cinematography from Ricardo Aronovich, too:

Is there a Santiago/Godard connection? Because this film also reminds me of Alphaville. Maybe that’s just because Herrera (Lautaro Murúa) looks a little like Eddie Constantine.

Is there a Santiago/Suzuki connection? Because this film also reminds me of Branded to Kill. Maybe that’s because of the production design (i.e. checkered floors) and the men in white versus the men in black, all dressed in suits.

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I wonder if Thomas Pynchon is influenced by Invasion. Because there seems to be a lot of that swirling conspiracy that Pynchon likes (or maybe, and more likely, Pynchon is just influenced by Borges).

Anyway, this film is amazing. If Miller’s Crossing is about men with hats, this is about footsteps. Footsteps just echo everywhere, on every surface, and coming from every type of footwear. They clatter around and add to this beautiful feeling of confusion.

There’s much great camerawork in Invasion. I particularly like this short sequence:

As Irene (Olga Zubarry) enters we pull back with her. The first man that crosses frame brings the camera with him, which continues its dolly back and now also pans left. He brings us to another man (at 0:17), whose crisp movement continues the frame. It’s so well-timed. Then we come back to Irene’s over-the-shoulder at 0:20. Like the footsteps we’re surrounded here. There’s confusion everywhere. Anyone and everyone is a suspect. The motivated blocking emphasizes this. Those characters are minor but we don’t know that.

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Melvin and Howard and Something Wild (Demme, 1980 and 1986)

The National Film Archive in Prague showed these two Jonathan Demme films on pretty scratched 35mm prints. Regardless of the quality, it was great to see Demme and Tak Fujimoto’s work on the big screen. My first time seeing both films! Some SPOILERS here.

It’s a good idea to go into Melvin and Howard knowing nothing about the film. I suppose I think that’s the case for nearly all films, but this one is particularly good with no background. So when Jason Robards shows up in the first scene and then has a long car ride with Paul Le Mat I was pretty sure, given the title and all, that he’d be in this thing front to back. I think that’s one of the great things about both of these Demme films (and I bet it’s one of the reasons why he wanted to make both of them): the structure is pretty unpredictable. It’s not just like flashback-unpredictable, or big-reveal-unpredictable, it’s more classically unpredictable: the scene-by-scene plotting doesn’t go the way that maybe the first few scenes predict they might.

I was really struck in Melvin and Howard by how long we spend in the car with the two title characters. Sure, in hindsight it’s obvious why, but in the moment it just feels like good chemistry and dialogue. I love Fujimoto’s photography in this film. The dusk shots feel so dusty and cool. There’s a real relaxedness to that opening atmosphere in the car.

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The opening of the film actually reminds me of Scarecrow. A wide expanse, a character coming out of nowhere. Of course it also feels, appropriately, like a scene from The Master.

I was also pretty floored with Mary Steenburgen’s performance. I’ve seen her in Time After Time from the year prior, but she didn’t make a huge impression on me. I wonder if her character (the gameshow, of course, makes me think of this; but it’s also the fact that she’s smarter than we might stereotype her as upon first introduction) was an influence on Rosie Perez’s in White Men Can’t Jump.

Demme just feels like such a natural behind the camera. A scene between Steenburgen’s Lynda Dummar and her daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire) at a bus depot is such good comic blocking. He just seems to have such a feel for pace, both of character and dialogue.

Something Wild

That last line definitely holds true in Something Wild, which is ridiculously fun, showcases a lot of great performances, and feels like a screwball comedy of the 1980s. I could see Howard Hawks loving this script.

Great cameos from John Sayles and John Waters, and who can resist Ray Liotta’s tough guy, especially the wide open mouth laugh that feels like he’s holding something really evil in. He’s great in this.

The movie is also a good example of a film that’s musical, like, really musical, but never feels overpowered by score or soundtrack. I’m usually pretty aware of where music is placed and how it comes in and out of a scene, but in Something Wild I’d find myself surprised that music was or wasn’t playing frequently. I think that’s a testament to how well controlled the narrative is otherwise. I’m with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith the whole way; every time it seems like the film is just going to go one way, it goes another: it’s going to be melancholy at Audrey’s (Griffith) mother’s house? Cut to a neon, hilarious school reunion. It’s going to be a sorrowful look at drinking ala The Lost Weekend or Barfly? Cut to a road movie. It’s going to be a light-hearted comedy? Cut to Ray Liotta.

I read an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson where he points out this film as the origin of Demme’s straight-to-camera close-ups. I can’t think of any in Melvin and Howard or Last Embrace, and I haven’t seen his others prior to this film. But the time it’s used here is so effective. That scene – Daniels’ Charles Driggs chained to a sink, Liotta’s Ray Sinclair dragging Audrey away – has such atmospheric camerawork.

Two that stick out: the camera pushing, low, after Ray and Audrey’s feet as she moves desperately away from his down the hallway, and the overhead track, from right to left, as Charles struggles under the sink. Both feel different than other moments in the film, and have an eerie sensibility.

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Krakatit (Vávra, 1948), Joseph Kilian (Jurácek, 1963), Case for a Rookie Hangman (Jurácek, 1970)

Krakatit is one of a few Otakar Vávra films I’ve seen of late. It immediately reminds of a far less hard-boiled Kiss Me Deadly. It’s 7 years prior to Aldrich’s film, and it doesn’t have the mean streak that makes Kiss Me Deadly so amazing, but Krakatit mixes film noir with “fear of the bomb” into something really atmospheric.

Karel Höger plays Prokop, a man who may or may not be hallucinating about some world’s end event. One of the great things about Krakatit is for how long it’s unclear whether Prokop is totally insane or not. He’s treated with kid gloves by a lot of people: the raving madman. When the full extent of the shady cabal behind him is revealed he seems like the only sane one on the planet.

But what’s probably best about the film is Prokop’s guilt. Very much unlike Kiss Me DeadlyKrakatit plays things less as a thriller and more as internal struggle. Prokop’s repressed memories stem from a dark place and for much of the film he tries to shut them out.

Here’s a clip from the film. It’s one of the best scenes and has slight SPOILERS. Very Metropolis. Sorry about the lack of subtitles.

That’s Florence Marly opposite Höger. It’s a great example of Prokop’s remorse that turns nearly violent (something played on throughout the film: is this man dangerous?). But I also love the contrast in their movements. She glides. He walks. The moment where they face off at 0:42 – she appears to have wings, he has antlers growing out of his head – just makes her so much more superior.

And the ending to that clip. It’s chilling. Not only in what actually happens, but the camera move is so sweeping. It feels like the ending to a film how it pulls away. The final image, just before the fade is totally black, is like his final image of her, burned onto his memory.

Joseph Kilian

As much as I loved KrakatitJoseph Kilian is far and away the best Czech film I’ve seen since moving to Prague. Like so many of the great New Wave entries it’s hilarious, scary, and absurdist at once. There’s some of the The Trial in here – even Welles’ version, perhaps – but this feels like a landmark film.

The plot revolves around a man searching for someone named Joseph Kilian, his “comrade,” who he wants to notify about a vague death. In the process the protagonist rents a cat and, upon attempting to return it, finds the cat shop is gone and no one knows what he’s talking about.

The film is so moody, and its opening frames – a shot that any filmmaker should study and aspire to – sets a standard. We peer down a long street and basically watch the cycles of life parade by in the distance, children, adults, eventually a funeral:

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Finally, Harold emerges and walks towards us.

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What a tone-setter. Harold leaves the oppressive march that moves only in wide shot and left to right or right to left and walks right towards the lens, meaningfully. Here’s a man who’s different from the rest of society. But in the end he gets caught up in it like everyone else.

The film is filled with set pieces both bureaucratic and eerie-

-and it goes a long way to play, like, I think films such as Report on the Party and the Guests will later, on the man vs. “mannered society” (i.e. Communist regime) theme.

Case For a Rookie Hangman

Pavel Jurácek made Case For a Rookie Hangman (the title of which reminds me, of course, of Death by Hanging, though the films are really different) 7 years after Joseph Kilian. The themes are largely the same, but the film feels so much more bloated. Based on “Gulliver’s Travels,” it uses much of the same tactic, but to lesser ultimate effect than his 1963 short.

The problem with Rookie Hangman is part of the strategy: Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) is caught in between three strange worlds and doesn’t know how to escape. His entrance into the first world – by car – is probably the best part of the film. The rest of it begins to feel a bit redundant. I realize that redundancy is part of the tactic, but it loses steam in its 100 minute runtime.

Still, like Joseph Kilian, the film is so imaginative. The frames are often absurd (first and third below), but all are beautifully composed:

 

 

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