Why Does Herr K. Run Amok? (Fassbinder, 1970)

Influencing the likes of Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, to lots of Haneke, to the recent The Tribe, to a whole mess more, Why Does Herr K. Run Amokis an early Fassbinder that promises the greatness to come.

Kurt Raab (played by Kurt Raab) is an obedient worker. He’s got a wife and a son, parents that are still alive, casual friends from the job, and basic ambitions to climb the corporate ladder. His days are punctuated (or maybe unpunctuated) by boring interactions. And eventually the stiffness of middle-class life gets to him.

Fassbinder shoots the film in a series of handheld long takes, one per scene. The beautiful blocking of his later films isn’t fully there, neither are the fluid camera movements, the mannered acting, the unique soft lighting that seems to reference that in Hollywood-actress-closeups.

All of Herr K. is shot in mundane locations. That’s part of the point of Herr K’s mundane existence. This early sequence is so low-budget-feeling that you can even hear the crew’s creaking footsteps as the camera moves to and from the table:

One of the highlights of the film is a drunken scene where Herr K. gives a speech to his boss in the hopes of finally getting the promotion he’s been after. It’s long and requires of us the same patience that it requires of his boss and his boss’ companions:

It’s also nerve-wracking. We really want him to stop talking, or someone to interrupt him. I think that’s one of the great things about this film. That there’s little-to-no intervention or true care on the part of anyone in the film. Colleagues joke and have a beer together but don’t know each other; Herr K’s wife and mother do the same but don’t really like each other; even Herr K. and his brother-

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-talk and hang out, but it’s suffused with boredom. It’s not unimportant that so much of Why Does Herr K. Run Amok? features the main character sitting (that’s one of the reasons for the less foregrounded blocking). There’s a deep malaise over the entire film.

The end of the film is tough and rewards patience. It also has a sequence that seems to at once fulfill Fassbinder’s love for American detective films (his next film, in the same year, is The American Soldier, which really fulfills that love), and continue in the line of tedious, middle-class professions.

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A few sentences on a lot of films

Lots of films that I haven’t written about. Some in this post I even loved, just haven’t had the time to dedicate to writing about them in-depth.

La Menace (Corneau, 1977).

I really wanted to like this film. Yves Montand in a thriller directed by Alain Corneau! But it’s so illogical and heavy-handed. Montand’s planning is unnecessarily complicated and kind of laughable when you think, well, if everyone had just said what they should’ve this all could’ve been avoided. Although I’m pretty sure that Montand’s character watches A Touch of Zen (or is that Dragon Inn) on the airplane, which is awesome.

Christine (Campos, 2016)

I loved Christine. Great Rebecca Hall performance – also from the supporting cast – and some superb, tight-space blocking. My favorite of Antonio Campos’ films thus far.

Little Sister (Clark, 2016)

A nice meditation on the end of the Bush era and the beginning of the Obama era; as this dysfunctional family goes, so go the off-screen politics. Some of the character “types” (and they’re just that) are a bit too cute for my tastes, but as middle-America metaphor I really like what’s going on here.

In Order of Disappearance (Moland, 2014)

Really fun Stellan Skarsgård revenge flick that takes advantage of a chilly setting, nicely timed dark comedy, and a nicely staged climax.

Jackie (Larrain, 2016)

Consider how much I like all of Pablo Larrain’s films I was really excited for Jackie…and I just didn’t love it. Portman’s performance is spot-on, but it feels hollow and sort of farcical. You get caught up in the interview moments, which are the best part of the film, but the flashback scenes add little insight beyond the (and I suppose this is the ultimate intention) clash/contradiction of public and private life we see.

Lucy (Besson, 2014)

Caught this one on a plane. It’s basically what you’d expect. Sort of ridiculous philosophizing combined with some good Luc Besson action sequences, and a plot that is short on much else besides the above.

99 Homes (Bahrani, 2014)

If you think Michael Shannon only plays weirdos watch this. He’s amazing. One of the huge strengths of this film is how much time and effort is given to show those evicted in the montages. Most films would just mail that in. But here there’s such diversity (ethnicity, language, age, gender, body types, etc) and such varied reactions. It’s more than one shot per person. The interactions can be heard, so it’s not just music-dominated. And the interactions feel real with body language and facial expressions. This is a really good script. Birdman won best original script in 2014. This is a better script.

Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen (Hu, 1967 and 1971)

I was so excited to see a King Hu film referenced in La Menace because I just watched these last year. Great films! Such amazing choreography, fantastic composition, and sophisticated camerawork. No wonder the trailers compared him to John Ford. Things are just logical and work in these films, and they’re really, really fun.

Zero Focus (Nomura, 1961)

Not a lot of camera movement, but when it does move it’s meaningful the (dolly at the wedding, dolly back when Hisako accidentally poisons herself in the car). Is the Noto Cliff the same as in The Demon from 1978 (also directed by Nomura)? An oddly talky film: almost nothing is achieved visually aside from the photo she finds at the beginning and the poisoned whiskey.

Creative Control (Dickinson, 2015)

Gah, what a great concept…but I’m not always on-board for the execution. I think the hipster-ness is meant to be takedown, but when it’s omnipresent even for the characters who aren’t clearly being satirized then it becomes a crutch.

The Trap (Golubovic, 2007)

Really taught thriller that might feel cliche if not for the political (apolitical, perhaps) background. No more Serbian war, but there are still plenty of people struggling in its wake.

Wiener Dog (Solondz, 2016)

A great Solondz film that has his fingerprints all over it: cynical scenes, punctuated with some hope that is almost immediately extinguished. The Danny DeVito sequence is funny, and I wonder if Solondz lived through that film school experience. It feels like it.

Sworn Virgin (Bispuri, 2015)

A film that didn’t get to me right away, but has stuck with me. I really liked Sworn Virgin and need to watch it again. The introduction to the rituals on-screen (of “eternal virginity”) is really unsettling.

 

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Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)

Margaret is a movie full of ideas. Very much post-9/11, harboring a rich and terrifying history of legal troubles, it’s a movie about parents and children (surrogate mothers, absent fathers), and growing up in a new America, or maybe more specifically, a new New York.

One thing that’s startling about Margaret is how much it makes one aware of the speed at which the world changes. The film was to be released in 2007. A long, often told story later, and it’s released in 2011. The film looks, sounds, and feels like 2007 and very much not like 2011. It feels a far cry from 2017.

Kenneth Lonergan takes his time in this film (that despite some scenes that were obviously cut down, and others that feel like they might be missing entirely). He packs it with slow-motion moments in the streets of NY, like this one, where Lisa (Anna Paquin) starts in the foreground and walks into a wide shot as the camera zooms out.

We lose her in the crowd and then there’s a dramatic, vertiginous tilt up to the skyscrapers overhead:

Couple that with other slow-motion shots like these-

-and you get not only a slice of life, but crowded frames, teeming with people. That first sequence is notable for its tilt for obvious reasons. But its not just a reflection back on a terrorist attack. It’s also the anonymity of the city and the vast, unreachable distance up above.

That last photo above shows Lisa being catcalled by a few young men who never appear in the film again. It’s not Lonergan (who also wrote the script) making a racial commentary (though there are several racially charged conversations in here), or saying anything direct about Lisa. Instead, as with everything in the film, there’s a clash of culture and backgrounds. There’s violence to that slow-motion image. Lisa has to really bend and twist to get around and past these guys and that type of collision is everywhere in Margaret.

Like Manchester by the Sea, Margaret is also funny. The funniest scene, I think, concerns one of Lisa’s teachers, John (Matthew Broderick). He gets in an argument with a student about Shakespeare and is so rattled by the student’s insistent on an existential point that he has to sip his orange juice (from a cardboard box and with a straw) and take a frustrated bite from a sandwich:

He looks like such a little kid. It’s hilarious. But it’s also a good scene. The aggression that comes out in the classroom – sometimes directly related to events at the time, other times not – feels new.

Much of the film revolves around Lisa’s witnessing of a bus accident. The scene where she goes to confront the driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, starts in the medium wide below and then cuts across the street to the wide:

The second shot is one of the rare exterior wides that feels empty, maybe simply because of the changed neighborhood, perhaps to echo the settled emotion before the confrontation. Both have that prominent American flag, which is often seen in the movie.

I’m pretty sure this is the best performance I’ve ever seen Matt Damon give.

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His Mr. Aaron is subtle and conflicted (as in the really amazing scene above). There’s another fantastic scene with him at the end of the film where he’s clearly struggling with how to handle a delicate conversation. That struggle is visible.

Lonergan’s observance of very human dialogue is the strongest part of Margaret.  I love the scene where Lisa’s mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) meets the Emily (Jeannie Berlin), with whom Lisa has been working on a lawsuit. Lisa uncharacteristically flatters her mom. It’s such a human tendency – not wanting to talk about the person’s achievements 1-on-1, but in the company of another person it’s entirely different.

 

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The Tribe (Slaboshpytskyi , 2014)

The Tribe is an experience. All sign language and no subtitles. A few, very mobile long takes. It’s formally an awesome experience – all the more amazing as the director’s first film. The wide lens, the textured locations, and shocks of violence are effective.

Small SPOILERS here

The anarchy of the boarding school immediately calls to mind …If or Zero for Conduct. But there’s a disturbing lack of consequences in The Tribe. This is a movie about gangs and the conformity to a structure, sure, but there’s also, at least towards the beginning, some idea of school norms: we’re in a classroom where a teacher lectures an unruly student. We roam the halls. We see the cafeteria.

And then that just all disappears. The rest of the film is in the dorms, and various other dangerous  locations. Someone gets run over by a truck, female students are prostituted, there’s more than one brutal robbery, and then some extremely intense violence towards the end. Sure, the school itself might overlook these (the headmaster/wood-working teacher (Oleksandr Panivan) seems to be in on much of it), but without any outside influence (a glance at cops, maybe, while they wait for passports is all we see) the film feels overly fictional and too closed off.

So is this supposed to be microcosm or allegory? Maybe. But then when we visit the outside world, and the students all act the same way, it loses power. The absence of any authority is glaring – the film becomes less about anarchy (because to have anarchy you need to have something to rebel against), and more about the inner workings and levels of a gang. That’s all well and good – and really, really compelling at times – but there seem to be no repercussions; so the violence is disturbing and shocking, but with little tension.

I’m also reminded of Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom. I’m pretty rarely reminded of that film. Pasolini’s film has a lot in common with Slaboshpytskyi’s. Both are contained, but have little consequences, both show unrestrained hedonism (sort of…Slaboshpytskyi’s is less about hedonism and more about structure…but it’s close), both urge an allegorical reading.

Pasolini’s film has the overt title and historical hindsight. Slaboshpytskyi’s doesn’t really have either. Pasolini’s film also has a built-in excuse for the lack of ramifications: the Fascists are on the run. People are coming for them. They know this. So they cram in as much horror as they can in the little time they have left. The point is that there are repercussions coming and we and they know it…we just don’t really see it in the film. For me that’s the biggest difference between Salò and The Tribe.

Still, The Tribe is memorial. It features one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever watched in a film – a “back-alley” abortion that is so realistically played and detailed. It’s also hard to shake the ending, partially because it feels like such an overreaction (and that, I believe, is the point).

And then there’s that camera, which is so confident. The blocking is precise and never stale.

Here’s at look at one of the simpler takes. The camera moves along with four characters as they make their way across the snowy landscape. It stays in medium to full, until they meet their friends and the frame stops short, covering them wide:

Slaboshpytskyi’s camera motivation is traditional – we rarely don’t follow a character or characters. As in here – part of the group moves frame right. The camera follows, revealing a new character. Eventually the frame pushes in on only him as he opens a garage:

The camera pulls back as the car leaves the garage and parks, finding the initial characters in the background. It then pushes forward again as the garage is closed:

Seems simple enough, but the movement is quick, each stop of the frame is well-composed and dynamic, and the shift from character to character are so fluid. In later sequences, like when characters move in and through a truck yard, the tight spaces make for some really kinetic turns and tracks.

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Toni Erdmann (Ade, 2016)

Toni Erdmann is the first great film I’ve seen in 2017 and will assuredly be on my end-of-year list. I think this is a film that seems easy to write. I mean, it’s just people talking and going to business meetings, right? The movie is so carefully observed, so funny at times (without spoilers, yet, the scene in the Romanian woman’s apartment, and then shortly thereafter, in Ines’ (Sandra Hüller) own apartment are unbelievable), and so risky.

Small SPOILERS below

On the surface Toni Erdmann looks simple. It’s high-key with a good amount of handheld. The locations are largely unremarkable (I’d be curious if director Maren Ade originally wrote this as taking place in Bucharest, or if tax credits had anything to do with that decision) and there aren’t any of the hallmarks of current cinematic trends like showy long takes or wide static frames (I watched The Tribe recently; in so many ways that film is the polar opposite of this one).

The script also might feel really simple. Father jokes, daughter works. Father jokes to daughter. Father and daughter reunite. But the complexity and richness of not only their relationship, but those of side characters’ (Ines’ assistant, and a Romanian woman at whose apartment they unexpectedly show up immediately come to mind) as well.

There’s plenty of nuance in the visual approach. An awkward moment between Ines and her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) as they wait for an elevator to come up after having already said goodbye isn’t filled with punchlines, but rather with sadness in the slow pace.

As Ines paces in her office later her POV shows the street far below where, right next to the building, is a small dirt plot and a family whose colorful, non-tailored clothes certainly signal a different economic status. That the office building is so close also certainly signals the encroachment of this modernism on small communities (something that is directly echoed later when Winfried makes a friend while on an impromptu tour of an oil field).

Structurally screenwriters are always taught to establish things to use them later. We know at the very beginning of the script that Winfried is/was a musician. He teaches piano lessons (and has to get his former student to help him with a Google search – a nice way to show his refusal or inability to join a quickly changing society. Definitely a theme in the film, mirrored at the end when he rushes to get his camera instead of just snapping the photo from his phone), and leads a high school band in a farewell song.

So later, when Winfried and Ines sing a song for a surprised family of Romanians and her stolid demeanor is broken up by the emotion of the music and lyrics it’s funny for the unexpectedness, but also incredibly poignant and dramatic. Behind that song is a history of father-daughter music practices and recitals that we never see but quickly understand. That’s subtle establishing.

I loved Ade’s film Everyone Else. Like she does in that movie she takes risks here. The big climactic nude scene at the end could be only a ludicrous joke, but it’s totally deserved. Without the multiplying pressures of business life, without the sexist, offhand jokes that Ines endures, or without the view of life outside of her business existence, Ines’ inability to wriggle out of a tight dress while her doorbell buzzes would have little function. Instead it works as such a frustrated boiling point that her solution – nudity – feels less like an opportunity to get a bunch of naked people in a room and more like what it is: last resort and acceptance. It’s also absolutely hilarious.

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Police (Pialat, 1985)

I really liked this Maurice Pialat (written by Catherine Breillat!) film from 1985. It’s got that very French vibe of ’80s realistic cop dramas. I’ve never quite connected this kind of film to the late ’60s – ’70s American gritty thrillers. They have similar mise-en-scenes and similar slightly existentialist protagonists. They’re sort of just the “cop genre”: part procedural, part drama. Sometimes vaguely noir. I feel like Corneau’s Serie noire, which I haven’t seen in far too long, is related to Police this way.

Police moves fast. For being fairly talky, the first 40 minutes or so fly. There’s a lot of rapid dialogue – though not really verbal sparring; it’s more that Pialat really rapidly goes from scene to scene and takes “late-in, early-out,” to heart.

There’s a big part of the cast of Police that is Tunisian and this Parisian vs. Muslim dynamic plays out frequently. Gérard Depardieu plays Mangin, a sometimes-violent, often-mysoginistic, surprisingly sensitive police inspector. He falls for Noria (Sophie Marceau in an early role). They have a conversation, while making love, at the police station. Speaking of her former lover, Mangin comments “He’s a Muslim,” matter-of-factly (but with his own point):

Noria’s response in the second image below takes Police to a new level, finally holding Mangin at least partially accountable for some of his actions (and inactions) throughout the film:

It’s a nice scene for the immigrant politics lurking all around the film (not to mention the tight blocking, which I’ll talk more about below).

One of my favorite parts of Police is Pialat’s blocking in really tight frames. Like this sequence just a short while later, again between Mangin and Noria. Pialat keeps things in 2-shot, and basically simply dollies back and forth. He starts by following Mangin and Noria into the room. Mangin moves behind her:

As they talk, Mangin sort of paces from behind her to her side and back:

He’s not sure how to read her. We’re not sure if she’s a femme fatale, the opposite, or something totally in between. His nervous energy is matched by Pialat’s close framing and movement, continuing and ending here, as the camera gets really tight for her confession to him:

There are a bunch of moments like this. Long takes, lots of movement, tight 2-shots. It’s not a technique I see that often anymore, at least not not handheld. I like it here. It’s at once composed and elegant and frenetic.

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La La Land (Chazelle, 2016)

First off, I liked La La Land. It wasn’t among my favorites of 2016, but it’s entertaining, sweet, and actually really funny. Ryan Gosling has a good knack for dry, tough guy one-liners.

As many, many people have pointed out, La La Land is an ode to classic Hollywood and musicals. I think that this homage comes with the good and the bad. There’s an adorable meet-cute during a screening of Rebel Without a Cause and a heartbreaking crosscut (that’s also quite funny at times) during Emma Stone’s Mia’s one-woman show. There’s plenty of imaginative approaches to the world of the musical (overlays, miniatures on a globe, silhouetted fantasies), while the film simultaneously adheres to the myth of spontaneity and utopia. Because Mia and Gosling’s Sebastian sing and dance they often achieve things. It’s at once back-stage musical and out-in-the open, integrated musical. It kind of reminds me of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that way (but only that way).

The bad might be the good for some people. There’s plenty of excess and spectacle in La La Land. And, while there is an attempt to put Mia and Sebastian on an even playing field, the narrative slips back into well-worn (not exactly of the past) Hollywood gender tropes (she cries at a table, passively, to get him to pursue his dream; he shows up in his cool car, knight in shining armor style, actively, to get her to pursue hers).

There’s an overlong fantasy sequence at the end that could use some trimming, but that notwithstanding, the editing in this film is fantastic. I’m really, really curious to know how much of Mia’s one-woman show editor Tom Cross cut out. This sequence, mentioned earlier, is so great in part because of how little is shown. Without giving too much away, it’s a critical moment in Mia’s arc. She’s poured a lot into the production. I think that a lot of editors would want to hold longer on the before and after the show, and would certainly give more of the show itself, not really to see the content of it (which is immaterial) but to extend the suspense and crosscut, and to push for further empathy with Mia’s plight.

Cross and Damien Chazelle do the opposite to tremendous effect. It’s one of the strongest sequences in the film, in part because of how little is shown, and because what is shown is so particularly selected as to portray a huge range of emotions in a very little bit of time.

As a completely random bit of minute curiosity: there’s a very short scene where Mia and Sebastian exit a jazz club together for the first time. Chazelle and Cross cut to an extreme wide, and both go in opposite directions, he to the left, she to the right. The point of the shot: they both, unbeknownst to the other, stop and look back over their shoulder.

I’d love to know what the direction was here. Were the actors given marks to look? Off-screen verbal cues? Was it totally spontaneous?

This is partially just nerdy inquisitiveness, but for such a simple, one-off moment it also felt really true and fresh.

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