Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Radu Judu
Aferim! is a period picture directed by Radu Jude. Jude is a director affiliated with the Rumanian New Wave.

Jude was born in Bucharest in 1977. He attended film school, graduating in 2003, and, then, worked on some international films, including Costa Gavras Amen (2004). He was an assistant director on one of the founding films of the Rumanian New Wave, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, made by Cristi Piui in 2005.

Jude has worked extensively in Rumanian television and has directed more than 100 TV commercials. His short (23 minute) film, The Tube with a Hat (2006) has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals. The film concerns a boy who is upset that his television set is broken. With his profane and foul-mouthed father, the boy drags the ailing TV set across a soggy, rural landscape. The objective is for someone to fix the TV so that he boy can watch a Bruce Lee film that is scheduled for broadcast.

Jude has made about five feature films. Prior to Aferim!, his most well-received picture was 2012's Everybody in our Family, a movie about a divorced man struggling to arrange a vacation to the Black Sea with his daughter who lives in the custody of his estranged wife and her boyfriend. (This film is amplification of a short subject called Alexandra made in 2007). The controversial Aferim! was released 2012. It garnered the director an award for Best Direction (second place) in the Berlin Film Festival.

In 2016, Jude released Scarred Hearts, a film based on a well-known Rumanian autobiographical novel. The movie is about a love affair between two patients at a tuberculosis clinic and hospital in the nineteen-thirties and, apparently, addresses obliquely the rise of Fascism in Rumania. The film has received a mixed reaction.


Rumanian New Wave
Some dispute exists as to when the Rumanian New Wave in film making first took hold. Many critics, however, date this film movement to 2005, the year that Cristi Piui made The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboi directed 12:08 East of Bucharest, a scathing and extremely funny post-mortem on the revolution that swept Nicolai Ceausecue from power – this happened in December 1989 (possibly at 12:08 in Bucharest). In 2006, Christian Nemeresu directed Marilena from P7, a 43 minutes picture about a child prostitute. 2007 saw the release of Four months, Three weeks, and Two Days directed by the third member of the triumvirate of leading Rumanian New Wave directors, Cristian Mungiu. (This film is a harrowing account of a young woman’s abortion – it remains a film that I have been unable to watch to its conclusion.) Police, Adjective (2009) is a kind of ultra low-key crime film, directed by Porumboi. Beyond the Hills (2012) is the second film in Cristi Piui’s projected group of films entitled "Six Films from the Outskirts of Bucharest."

Rumanian New Wave films are characterized by a directorial style that seems obsessed with rejecting anything that might hint at Hollywood narrative film making. The movies feature exceptionally long takes that are often punishing to the audience – the camera is usually placed in a position where its view of the action is occluded. The films use almost no close-ups and have minimalist plots, generally a situation with absurdist implications worked out at length. The narratives are documentary in style and generally promote some readily accepted social truism. The inaugural film of the movement, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is based on a real event, the death of so-called Patient 52, a pensioner who was shuffled from one emergency room waiting room or corridor until he died – the point is that medical care should be better in Rumania and that the elderly should be treated with more compassion. Police, Adjective is about corrupt police practices; 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, by implication, suggests that abortion at will should be readily available. Afterim! demonstrates that slavery is brutal and a bad institution – probably a notion with which most of us would agree.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a film movement that is essentially negative in character. Like the Dogme movement in Scandinavia, the Rumanian new wave defines itself as being adamantly anti-Hollywood. But there is a question as to how much squalor an audience should be forced to suffer, particularly when the hyper-realistic desolation is presented in extremely long takes lensed by a fixed camera, often, with a poor perspective on the action presented. And the naive adherents of the Rumanian New Wave should be reminded from time to time that anti-glamor always ends up as its own specious form of glamor – Andy Warhol demonstrated this in the sixties and the Punk Rock movement proved the same point a decade later.

Wallachia is a portion of modern-day Rumania between the lower Danube (flowing into the Black Sea) and the Carpathanian Mountains. For the our purposes, the area can be thought of as the Wild West of Eastern Europe. Certainly, this is how Jude portrays the region in Afterim!.

Wallachia dates to a rebellion by a Vlach (Slavic) voivode (warlord) before 1350. At that time, the area was under the control of the Christian empire of Hungary. Basarab, a Vlach voivode, threw off the yoke of the Hungarians and established a principality. (Basarab has a Turkish name, but seems to have been a Christian Slav). Little Wallachia persisted as collection of loosely allied feudal principalities against repeated Turkish invasions. It’s great national hero is Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler – he successfully repelled the Ottoman incursions in Wallachia in the early 15th century.

Ultimately, Wallachia fell under Turkish suzereinity and was ruled, albeit with a light hand and remotely, from Istanbul. The Turks governed the country through a class of Christians called Phanariots – that is, wealthy Greek merchants who held an enclave in Istanbul and loaned money to the Sultans. Phanariot Christians were dispatched to Wallachia and given feudal estates in exchange for keeping the peace in the region. Nonetheless, Wallachia was a "blood land" – the country was a battlefield where Turks fought the Russians and the Austrians (who were now allied with Hungary). The territory was largely lawless, polyglot, and wretchedly poor. Wealthy Boyars (boyar = landlord) managed enormous feudal estates. The Boyars were generally Greek Phanariots although some were Slavs. As depicted in the film, the Boyars lived like Sultans – they wore enormous kalpaks (or bulbous fez hats) and generally adopted the customs of the Ottomans. Their women wore Turkish harem attire.

Wallachia was devastated by a great plague that decimated Bucharest, the area’s leading city, in 1813 - 1814. (This is called Caragea’s plague and seems to be referenced at the outset of the film; the disease was the bubonic plague). The Greek war for independence triggered a similar uprising in Wallachia in 1821, but this was unsuccessful.

The Russians fought the Turks in 1828 and defeated them. By that conflict the Russians seized control of Wallachia. However, Russia didn’t have much use for the quarrelsome frontier ruled largely by feudal boyars and so Russia returned Wallachia to Turkish control in the 1832. Governance of the region shifted between Ottoman Turk and Russian authorities every few years up to 1848 and the Wallachian revolution. This uprising, part of a series of rebellions that convulsed Europe in that year, was mounted against Turkish rule that was paradoxically enforced by the Russian military. There were more wars and the Treaty of Paris led to a situation in which Wallachia was jointly ruled by Turkey and Russia under the supervision of five other European powers. This proved to be untenable. The Russians fought the Turks again in 1877 and, during this war, a severely weakened Ottoman Empire conceded the sovereignity of Rumania.

For the purposes of Afterim! imagine Wallachia to be something like Arizona territory, vast and mountainous wilderness with desert-like steppes. The Boyars may be imagined as great ranchers. The great landlords or ranchers hold enormous estates on which they rule as a law unto themselves. The police, like Constandin and Ionita, are, in effect, instruments of a remote Empire – the Ottomans in Istanbul – and, instead of John B. Stetson hats they wear kalpaks (or fezes) as a sign of their allegiance to the Turkish power that they despise. Hiding in the forests and mountains are the Hajduks (called Houdieks in the movie) – these are brigands and outlaws, sometimes considered freedom fighters by the oppressed Eastern Orthodox peasants. The Hajduks are fierce, murderous, and unpredictable – they may be imagined like the Apache Indians.

The official hierarchy in the region in 1835 is that the Turks rule from Istanbul using as intermediaries Greek Christian Phanariots. The Phanariots are boyars, although not all boyars are Greek Christians. The boyars occupy immense feudal estates that are taxed by Istanbul. The Russian military makes periodic incursions and is hated by the Boyars and the Turks. The Rumanian people are Eastern Orthodox Christians and largely peasants. The mercantile class and moneylenders in Bucharest are Jews who are despised by the Turks, the Russians, the Boyars, and the Rumanian peasants. At the bottom of the heap are the hapless Roma or Tigin — they are slaves.


In 1835, Rumania (sometimes spelled "Romania) was the place with the largest concentration of Roma people. The Roma are from the Indian subcontinent and speak a language allied to Punjabi and Hindi. They seem to have been transported to Rumania during the Mongol invasions around 1260 – at that time, the Roma were slaves to the Mongols.

At the time of the film about 3 to 3 ½ % of the population of Wallachia, where the Roma were, by and large, concentrated, was Roma. They were an enslaved people with no legal rights. In 1843, the Wallachian State freed all slaves owned by the government. The Orthodox Church, also a major slave-holding institution (the little boy in the film is sold to an Orthodox priest) freed its slaves in February 1848. However, privately owned Roma were not liberated until February 1856. (The State paid compensation to private landowners for the loss of their property). Wallachian Roma are overwhelming Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Another name for the Roma in Rumania is tigentigen is the same word as Zigeuner in Germany and means "gypsy."

The Roma were thought to be soothsayers, fortune-tellers, and claimed to possess unusually powerful healing abilities.


Perspectives on the Film
Aferim! invokes Hollywood Westerns, particularly John Ford’s great The Searchers. In both The Searchers and Jude’s film, an older man and youth traverse deserts and mountain wilderness on a quest. As in many classic Westerns, the quest measures the length of the film – when the quest is complete the movie ends. As in The Searchers, Aferim! poses the question of whether the cynical, bitter older man will infect his youthful sidekick with his hatred. The suspense in both films arises from whether the hero will really carry out his morally ambiguous and, even, evil objective – will John Wayne murder his niece because she has been sexually corrupted (in his eyes) by the Cheyenne warrior who is now her husband? Will the searchers in Aferim! allow the aggrieved Boyar to take his terrible revenge on the slave that they are returning to him?

In a Hollywood Western, we know in advance the answer to the suspenseful question motivating the film: John Wayne will not kill Natalie Wood but, instead, will take her in his arms and carry her back to civilization. Similarly, in a Hollywood Western, the heros of Aferim! would rescue Carfin from slavery. In fact, Jude even hints at a plot denouement of this kind: we know that there are wild Hajduk in the mountains and woods because we have seen the effects of their attack on a stagecoach. If the Rumanian film were directed by John Ford or Bud Boetticher, the Hajduk would attack our little party and, in the ensuing desperate battle, Carfin would prove himself to a be courageous fighter, a true man. Upon being returned to the Boyar’s ranch, Constandin sin Geordh, the old constable, woud get into a titanic fist fight with the Boyar over Carfin’s fate – at the climax, the men would shake hands and Carfin would be freed. Hollywood’s approach to resolving plot issues raised by the Rumanian film would be satisfying to the audience – the climax would be entertaining and morally satisfying. But Jude is not making a Hollywood picture, unfortunately I think – instead he is immured in the Rumanian New Wave, an exponent of its shabby realism, and so he can’t avoid a climax that every viewer can see coming an hour before it occurs. The Hollywood version of this fable would be a better film, more entertaining, and not necessarily less realistic than the dark outcome upon which Jude insists. My key point is that Jude’s cynicism is the easier outcome for the film maker – it requires less talent than configuring the Hollywood ending. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows exactly what will happen when Carfin is returned to his Boyar master. The film’s nasty joke is that Constandin and Ionita have persuaded themselves by wishful thinking that the climactic atrocity will not occur.

Like a Hollywood Western, Aferim! is shot on National Park land – in this case in the Macin Mountain National Park north of the Danube. These are the handsome chaparral and wooded mountains that figure in the bucolic landscapes at the end of the film – the two protagonists ride their horses toward the Macin range. Other parts of the film were shot in the Danube wetlands and marshes in Comana National Park where the great river flows into the Black Sea.

The stylistic differences between Aferim! and a film like The Searchers are decisive. Simply put, Jude creates barriers to the viewer identifying with his protagonists – he literally keeps them remote from the audience. This is a formal strategy that is artistically implemented throughout the film, but must be questioned. Why does Jude keep us away from (isolated from, as it were) his two principal characters?

The technique used to prevent us from identifying with Ionita or Constandin (or anyone in the film for that matter) is simple enough – film everything as a long shot. In the first hour of the movie, I counted only one close-up – this was an insert of a campfire collapsing in on itself, a peculiar image as well in that it is held for disconcertingly long period. We don’t see the two protagonist in an Plan Americain shot ("American shot") – that is, a shot showing both characters from the knees up – until 45 minutes have lapsed. Most of the shots showing our heros riding the range are filmed so that we can’t clearly see the character’s faces. Although we hear their dialogue overdubbed, as if recorded right next to the characters, we don’t see them except as small figures dwarfed by the landscape through which they are riding. The great bulk of shots in the film show Constandin and Ionita as mounted figures remote from the camera. Most of these "figures in a landscape" shot are held for 10 to 15 seconds and show nothing more than men on horseback traversing mountainous or swampy terrain. There are a half-dozen Plan Americain shots during the tavern and inn sequence but the movie, in general, consists of static long shots. The effect is to show the characters dwarfed by their surroundings and, presumably, at the mercy of the environment. The remoteness of the characters from our perspective is incongruous in light of the fact that we can hear them very clearly – the soundtrack, without any non-diegetic music – consists largely of people ranting at one another and Constandin’s wheezy platitudes. There is no analytical cutting in the film – it’s as if the movie were shot in the era of Ingeborg Holm: there are no eyeline matches, no parallel cutting with the exception of the shot of the campfire, an image that punctuates the narrative, there are no close-ups of animals or people or their equipment – with the exception of the Inn scenes and the search of the peasant’s huts, there is no continuity cutting. The film is conspicuously stark and impoverished in its use of film grammar – 70% of the movie consists of long shots of the characters riding their horses.

Similarly, the film is relentlessly ugly, cruel, and harrowing. The dialogue at the outset concerns the bubonic plague and its ravages. Constandin is sick and, probably, dying. Hajduk raid stagecoaches and leave the naked, mutilated corpses next to their wrecked wagon. Everyone beats or whips or abuses everyone else. The realm is beset by outside enemies – the Russians and the Turks threaten to oppress the Rumanians who, themselves, viciously oppress the "crows" – that is the Roma. At the Fair, desperate people try to sell themselves as slaves in exchange for a little food. The Inn is full of whores and verminous lice. Children and adults laugh merrily at a Punch & Judy puppet show in which a male puppet beats his puppet-wife to death before then thrashing a priest into unconsciousness. Constandin believes that he is a just and merciful man and that his enforcement of the law is a pillar on which society rests – but, of course, he is as corrupt as the constable who sells him information about Carfin for four talers. The Wallachian woods are dangerous, but they are also being cut down. An environmental catastrophe is under way – the forests are being burned and slashed. Constandin wonders how people will regard him (and his kind) in 200 years.

Radu Jude’s Aferim! looks eastward, I think, to the films of the great Alexei German, particularly the hellscape in Hard to be a God. German’s film imagines a world in which there was no renaissance, an alien planet trapped in a filthy, excremental dark ages. German was a much greater film maker and his pictures are better because he doesn’t keep his distance from his characters – German insists that we be hurled right into the action and films everything in close-up. By contrast to Jude’s use of estheticizing distance, his long elegiac images of isolated men on horseback, German pitches you right into the filth. But the savage view of human nature is similar to what we are shown in Jude’s movie. Similarly, there are elements of dark humor in Aferim! that are derived from the nightmare films of Kira Muratova, a female filmmaker from Wallachia who lived for some number of years in Bucharest. (Muratova was born in 1934 in Rumania and I feel her influence in the picture, particularly its final line.) Muratova is not well-known in American and her movies are almost impossible to see. One of them, however, 2002's Chekhovian Motifs is on DVD and can be studied. (Her masterpiece, The Asthenic Syndrome is currently unavailable in the West.) In Muratova’s films, every one curses continuously and uses the foulest language imaginable. Her scenes of families around the dinner table are both horrifying and hilarious – father and mother throw things at each other and everyone is constantly vilifying everyone else and people are always beating and being beaten. The scene in the tower in Aferim! is characteristic of Muratova’s sensibility – Constandin interviews the Boyar’s adulterous wife who has been beaten so badly that she can’t stand up. She is an unpleasant character who whines while she plays with the kittens in her bed. The Boyar has confined her in a tower from which she is apparently forbidden to descend – I presume that the ladder that Constandin and Ionita use to reach her is normally not available for her use. Constandin sympathizes with the woman’s plight and feels that her husband has misused her. However, he also feels the need to endorse the husband’s right to punish his wife. "It’s our Christian law," Constandin says to the sulking woman. The woman’s maid, an old crone, decides to endorse Constandin’s "man-explaining" – "Well," the hag says, " Adam kicked Eve in the stomach." "You shut up," Constandin barks at her. For some reason, this is very funny and seems to me to be derived from similar scenes in Murakova’s Chekhovian Motifs.

Further clues that Radu Jure has carefully watched Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs are found at the end of the movie – indeed, in its last line. Ionita is understandable shaken by what he has seen at the Boyar’s ranch. Constandin tries to cheer the boy up. He says of the mutilated Carfin: "Well, he ain’t no fuckin’ brother of yours." The camera follows the two riders and, suddenly, the black and white image bursts into spangles of sunlight reflecting on the lens, an optical effect that renders the protagonists invisible behind bright patterns of glare – this kind of effect occurs often in Muratova’s films. The men ride out of the glare and Constandin says: "Life will be better and we’ll have a chance to rest." As in a classic Western, the two adventurers, now older and wiser, ride toward the distant high sierra.

This last line seems familiar. In fact, it’s paraphrase of the famous ending to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Why Jude refers to Uncle Vanya in this context is completely unclear to me. But Jude draws attention to the reference. In the final title, he says that the dialogue and situations in the film were derived from various sources – one of which is said to be "A. P. Cekov" (that is, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.)

Friday, July 21, 2017


Parallel cutting is a narrative device that reaches its maximum density in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916).  Griffith used the technique to construct four parallel, but thematically, related plot lines that all achieve climax in a single rapid-fire montage.  This editing structure was first developed to create suspense:  we see a hero rushing to rescue a damsel in distress -- the director cuts between the girl's peril and hero's efforts to save her, accelerating the editing rhythm to achieve a visceral sense of frenzied motion driven to a climax.  In Intolerance, Griffith's four parallel plots themselves involve parallel montage within the individual stories -- for instance, one of narratives involves a man about to executed:  we see this as a flurry of shots showing a car in which an officer carries a pardon, a train that the car is racing to an intersection, and the death chamber in the prison where the condemned man is being slowly led to the gallows.  Will the car out-pace the locomotive and deliver the pardon in time to save the condemned man?  This episode, cut to the frenetic rhythm of a surging locomotive, is itself interpolated with other narratives:  Babylon falls, Christ is crucified, and the Huguenots on massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day.  The fundamental paradigm for this kind of cinema is represented by a speeding locomotive roaring down a track to which a girl has been tied a mile or so away.  Parallel cutting simulates a ticking clock, a sort of time bomb, or a locomotive churning forward toward a destination where either doom or a last-minute rescue will occur.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is the most elaborate example of parallel cutting that I seen -- it's cubist complexity is on par with Griffith's Intolerance.  The relentless score by Hans Zimmer is remarkably simple-minded -- the soundtrack either makes a chugging sound like a locomotive or ticks loudly like a watch or the timer-fuse on a bomb.  Toward the end of the film, the soundtrack sounds a bit like the overture to Tristan and Isolde -- the music keeps surging rhythmically forward yearning to reach some kind of resolution but the cross-cut action on screen keeps delaying the score's final orgasmic climax.  Intolerance is a monument in film history but it is rather cold, schematic, and it's elaborate structure holds the audience at a arm's length.  Dunkirk suffers from the same flaws -- notwithstanding many spectacular sequences, the film is chilly, abstract, and, ultimately, so ingeniously complex as to be somewhat alienating.  We don't really sympathize with any of the characters because they seem to be mere cogs in a vast assembly of interlocking gears -- the machine is remarkable and, when all of its gears are turning, even majestic, but  we don't really care about the human components of the system.  This is a valid approach to a war film in which, by definition, the actions of individuals are subsumed within a greater narrative -- but Nolan's complicated narrative strategies distance us from his characters. 

Dunkirk involves three parallel plots that briefly coalesce and, then, come apart again.  Nolan's innovation is to employ different time scales for the separate narratives.  One story involves a civilian boat piloted by Mark Rylance that crosses the English Channel to rescue British soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk -- this story takes place during the time of one day.  The first story that we are shown in the film is called "The Mole", referring to the pier extending out into the Dunkirk harbor; this narrative involves two young men who wordlessly collaborate to try to survive the carnage on the beach -- "The Mole" is narrated across a period defined as "one week."  (Titles inform us as to these time scales.)  The third element of the movie involves three Spitfires and their pilots who engage German planes over the Channel in an attempt to keep the Luftwaffe from strafing the beaches or bombing the vessels surging across the Channel to rescue the besieged soldiers -- the narrative involving the pilots is suitably quick and bloody:  it takes place across one hour.  Nolan sutures these three narratives together to reach a climax in which the sole surviving fighter battles the last of the German planes over the beach while the little yacht piloted by Mark Rylance makes its way through maritime chaos, evades torpedos and bombs, and rescues the two young men who have been cast adrift from not one but, at least, two vessels destroyed seriatim by German fire.  The movie remains unremittingly true to its schematic premise:  we never see any of the action from the German point of view -- rather, everything is shown from the point of view of the trapped British troops, the soldiers flailing about in the water, and the fighter pilots engaged in desperate duels over the battlefield. 

The film is a strange, daunting work of art, continuously compelling visually, and, sometimes, reaching great, torrential climaxes -- in one sequence, for instance, a downed fighter pilot is unable to escape from the cockpit of his plane and is drowning, Mark Rylance's little brown yacht is rushing to the pilot's rescue while German machine guns bore holes in a metal boat filled with desperate British soldiers and swamped in the high tide -- water shooting into the vessel's hold through the innumerable bullet holes.  The soundtrack roars like a surging locomotive and the imagery achieves a certain visceral and savage energy that can't be discounted although the film's cubist design is exceedingly abstract.  (The abstraction extends to the casualties -- the film spares us the gore and severed limbs typically portrayed in recent war films.)  The beach at Dunkirk is visualized as a weirdly lonely and isolated place -- long lines of troops standing in the sand waiting to be strafed or bombed into oblivion, rows of corpses neatly resting in the scummy sea-surge.  The air battles are exciting if a trifle repetitive -- Nolan uses a highly schematic system of images and edits in these scenes:  a close-up of a hand on a throttle, a shot of the planes swooping through the air, a shot of rear of the enemy plane in the crosshairs, a close-up of the pilot's finger on the trigger, squeezing the trigger, and, then, tracer bullets shooting into the German plane and knocking plumes of smoke out of it.  Nolan doesn't seek to vary this pattern and it repeats, at least, six or seven times in the movie -- obviously this is a conscious aesthetic strategy that characterizes the fighter plane narrative, but it's peculiar how rigorously the director cleaves to this image pattern.  The ending of the film is spectacular, but, again, from a highly formal and cinematic standpoint -- the sole surviving Spitfire lands on the Dunkirk beach at sunset; one of the boys who has survived drowning about four times reads Churchill's famous speech about fighting in the fields and beaches and never surrendering (the speech is in a newspaper and the boy is on an evacuation train.)  When the words about never surrendering are spoken, we see the pilot, in fact, captured by shadowy Germans -- the only time we see the enemy in the picture.  The soundtrack suddenly resolves into the famous Nimrod theme from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" -- it's a stunning sound cue and comes out of nowhere -- and, as the music reaches its climax, we see the Spitfire burning on the beach.  This should be the last scene -- but it's not:  Nolan's final image is much more brilliant.  The music stops and there is a single shot, only a couple of seconds long, of the boy-soldier who has survived the battle and come home:  he looks up at the camera with desperately frightened eyes. For once, the soundtrack is silent and the film ends. 

Chagall at MIA: Double Portrait with Wine Glass

I intended to spend a hour or so at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a place that I have enjoyed for 55 years at least and that has a salutary calming affect on me.  But on the way to the museum, the leading edge of some thunderstorms raged over the freeway south of Minneapols and visibility went to zero and so I was delayed.  My plan was to reach the Art Institute before 4:00 and wander the cool galleries in the serene, final hour before closing.  But I didn't reach south Minneapolis until 4:15 and the traffic at that time, as opposed to a half-hour earlier, is capricious, even maddening, particularly when the intersections are flooded and the homeless people at the exit ramps are squatting on the road shoulders with their "God Bless" signs tilted up over their heads as shelters against the pelting rain.  I parked at the MIA and hiked through showers that turned on and off as if someone in the sky were playing with spigot, entering the museum about 4:40.  This meant that I only had time to buy a couple of post cards and look at the painting on display in the alcove on the entrance level, a place where small temporary exhibits are installed.  On July 20, 2017, the show featured a single painting Marc Chagall's "Double Portrait with Wine Glass", a large picture on loan from the Paris Musee National d'Art Moderne (Pompidou Centre).  The painting is beautiful and worthy of a visit in itself.

I'm suspicious of Chagall in general -- in his later paintings, I think, he inclines toward the merely decorative and, of course, he tends to repeat himself.  But the "Double Portrait" is splendid, an image that is beautiful in itself, but also interesting with respect to the thematic material that it conveys.  The picture was reproduced in brochures that I received from the MIA (I am a member) and so I had a general concept of the painting's appearance.  But it bears saying, indeed, repeating, that it's always worth seeing a canvas in person because an illustration can't convey the exact timbre of the colors, nor the texture of the paint, nor (important in this case) the scale of the picture.  The "Double Portrait" is a large painting -- it stands about 7 1/2 feet tall (91 5/8 inches) and is four and a half feet wide (41 1/2 inches).  In reproduction, the picture's colors seem a bit garish, but, in person, the bright colors are distributed as big prismatic planes across the canvas and the effect is more subtle than a small copy might suggest.  The picture, painted in 1918, shows a woman, probably about half life-size floating over a landscape that shows the profile of medieval towers and churches comprising the Belarussian city of Vitebsk. A river flows across the foreground under a bridge. The woman is elongated and boneless.  She bears on her shoulders the artist, his body somewhat twisted with his two legs bowed like parenthesis mark about the levitating bride.  The artist holds a wine glass up to his head.  Chagall wears a red waist-coat.  A winged angel painted in purple stencil hovers over the artist's head and seems to be bestowing a blessing.  The bride wears a wedding gown with a scoop bodice that is incongruously décolleté.  Her dress is open above her long thigh and reveals an undergarment that is the same color as the angel overhead bestowing her blessing on the couple.  (I know from other sources that the angel represents Chagall's daughter, Ida, who was born in 1916; the couple were married on July 25, 1915 -- that is three years before the "Double Portrait" was finished.  There is a previous, more conventional wedding image that shows Chagall and his bride, Bella Rosental, facing one another -- the bride wears a conventional wedding dress buttoned up to her chin and Ida, as an angel, hovers between the happy couple; there is a little fiddler in a tree, a kitsch element that was not kitsch in 1918).

The most curious aspect of this painting is that Chagall's self-portrait, his face, doesn't match his body.  The facial self-portrait seems "cut and pasted" from some other source -- it's as if the head were photo-shopped onto the man's twisted body.  Furthermore, the face is painted with an eerie delicacy -- Chagall is, in fact, too pretty and his features have a sensitive refinement that is very different from the sweet, but cartoonishly simplified and idealized face of his wife, Bella.  (Bella's mother was suspicious of Chagall's good looks -- she reportedly said that Chagall was "too pretty" and suspected him of using rouge to color his cheeks.)  Viewed in actual size, the most remarkable thing about the picture is that Chagall's head seems to press forward -- it's not properly attached to his body and, actually, seems to hover in front of the picture plane.  (This curious effect is not really visible in a small reproduction of the image.)  The disconnect between Chagall's head and body is slightly disturbing.  It seems as if Chagall is suggesting that the glass of wine next to his face has "gone to his head' -- he is painting, I think, an image of intoxication.  The reason that Chagall's head isn't connected to his body is because he is drunk.  Another delicious detail in the painting is the correlation between the bride's undergarments and the hovering angel -- Chagall makes Eros the same color as his wife's underpants.  He correlates her thighs with the angel blessing the couple to suggest the carnal underpinnings of his love -- and this correlation becomes even more prominent when we understand that Ida is the physical product of their love, Chagall's daughter with Bella.  A final element in the painting that seems wonderfully true is Chagall's hand reaching down to cover one of his wife's eyes.  Love isn't wholly blind -- it's just half-blind. 

This is a wonderful picture.  The MIA is free and so, if you are in the neighborhood, stop by and take a look at this beautiful canvas. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Cow (Gaav)

Mysteries abound in Dariush Mehrjui's savagely funny and terrifying 1969 film Gaav (The Cow).  I suppose that there are experts in the anthropology of Iranian villages that can explain some of the film's enigmas; perhaps, students of Iranian politics can decipher parts of the film as allegory or satire.  Maybe, someone has written a learned treatise on Mehrjui's films complete with an explanation of the intent and context animating Gaav.  But these things are unknown to me, as was the name Mehrjui, and it is a one of the great pleasures in cinema to discover a fully realized, exotic masterpiece and wonder at the context from which it arises.

Gaav might be derived from one of Kafka's fables and seems as rich in veiled meaning as one of those stories.  A man named Hassan lives in a tiny, remote village in a featureless desert.  The man owns a cow upon which he lavishes all of his affection.  We see him bathing with his shapely cow in a slimy-looking watering hole, vigorously ladling water onto the beast as he coos and moos to her.  The cow isn't naked -- she wears a garland between her horns and, later, Hassan bring her an amulet to ward off the Evil Eye.  Although regarded as eccentric by the townsfolk, Hassan is a leading man because he owns the village's one and only cow.  He is no less uxorious with his cow in her stable -- there we see him feeding the animal, lovingly sharing some of her fodder, and, then, bedding down with her on the straw.  The town is under constant attack by sinister enemies, the Balouris.  Mehrjiu shows them in small groups brooding over the desert from distant hilltops.  The Balouris are reputedly thieves and when these brigands are raiding, Hassan sleeps in the barn with his cow to protect it against these enemies. 

For some reason, Hassan leaves the village.  He is gone for a couple of days and, during his absence, his cow dies inexplicably.  (The sorcery of the Balouris is suspected).  Everyone in the town agrees that Hassan can not be told that his cow had died and, so, a story is concocted that the cow has run away.  In fact, the villagers are all complicit in the deceit -- in a startling scene, they drag the cow across the village square and drop the dead beast into a dry well.  Hassan comes home and no one dares tell him that his cow is dead.  Even his wife, upon whom the villagers have relied to tell the true story, can't bring herself to advise Hassan as to the bad news.  Hassan goes to his barn and hallucinates that the cow is still in her stall.  Then, he climbs up onto a rooftop, anxiously scanning the completely featureless horizon for signs of Balouris raiders.  When the town's "chief" and other leading men approach Hassan he says that he defending the cow from theft.  A little later, the men talk with Hassan in the stall.  By this point, Hassan is eating grass and hay and speaking in a different voice -- he declares that he is the cow and that his master, Hassan, is sitting on the rooftop defending his stable against the Balouris who want to steal him and "cut off my head."  The town's leaders conclude that the lie has gone too far and they try to tell Hassan the truth, but he has become his cow and he won't listen to them -- instead, he butts his head against the crumbling walls of the stable.  In the night, the Balouris raid the town and, even, enter Hassan's stable -- but instead of the cow, they find the gaunt and insane Hassan sleeping in the hay.  There is a skirmish and Balouris flee.  After a couple days, the village elders decide that Hassan, who is starving to death (he has eaten a whole wagonload of straw), must be committed to a mental hospital in "the City."  They tie him up and lead him from the village in a great thunderstorm.  Hassan, who has now become a cow, balks and one of the leading men beats him with a rope crying out:  "Move, you animal, Move!"  Hassan runs amuck and tumbling down a rocky slope, is knocked unconscious and drowns in the mud.  The Balouris have been watching this spectacle from an adjacent sand dune.  Mehrjiu's camera frames the three men forlornly looking down at Hassan's corpse in a way that emphasizes that they look exactly identical to the three sinister Balouri on the nearby knoll.  The head man goes back to the village to get a donkey cart to transport Hassan's corpse.  Madness now purged from their village, one of the town's girls prepares for her wedding -- this wedding had to be delayed as a result of Hassan's insanity, a taint attaching collectively to all the villages.  In the final shot, we see the bride-to-be standing vigilantly upon a rooftop -- she is arrayed in her bridal finery but, also, it seems acting as a sentinel against the ever-encroaching Balouris, an enemy that we now understand to be identical with the villagers.

This plot may seem unlikely but it is presented with grave assurance.  Mehrjiu films everything in huge close-ups with high contract between the glaring desert light and the deep shadows engendered by that light.  The entire picture is an exercise in unearthly chiaroscuro.  The town has no electricity and when night falls everything is pitch black except for a stark white geometry of stucco roof and walls that Mehrjiu has illumined -- shadowy faces peer from inky niches and tiny windows and people squat in rooftop cavities.  The raiding Balouris are fleeting shadows cast across the pale mud walls, spectral intruders -- the night shots, in particular, featuring the eerie moonscape of the mud-walled village, look like something out of Murnau's Nosferatu; we are forcefully reminded that the world without electric lights was a scary place after dark.  The village's uncanny geometry of low walls and mysterious alcoves contrasts with the warmth of the stable where Mehrjiu rim-lights the big handsome cow as if she were Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo.  The burial of the cow in the disused well is a bravura passage of film making -- it is shot to emphasize the collective activity of the villages and the slow-motion images of the dead cow slowly settling down into the pit are very beautiful.  The film's poetic treatment of the villager's collective responses to their plight derives from Soviet films, particularly Dovhenko's Earth and Arsenal -- indeed, the shape of the film and its treatment of the villagers as well as the design of Mehrjiu's editing all seem to invoke the Russian filmmaker's masterpiece, Earth, although I can also detect some influence of Sergei Paradjanov's films, most particularly Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Mehrjiu's insists that the villagers fate is collective and they appear as a choral presence, delineated to some degree but always acting in concert -- the effect is similar to the treatment of the villagers in Dovhenko's masterpiece, Earth, the figure of the cow serving as the destabilizing narrative engine just as the tractor drives the action in the Russian film. 

Mehrjiu's film doesn't suggest that the villagers inhabit some kind of bucolic paradise.  Indeed, to the contrary, the movie seems to suggest from the outset that there is something terribly wrong with the village -- thus the village's descent into what seems like some form of collective madness feels warranted.  The movie begins with an unsettling sequence:  a sleazy thug wearing an army fatigue cap, Esmayil, tortures the village idiot -- he paints the poor retarded kid's face with some nasty pigment, attaches jugs and bottles to his ankles and, then, leading the village children, pursues the retarded man about the town's central well, a big swimming-pool-shaped body of dirty water.  Everyone seems to enjoy beating the retarded man.  The film's penultimate sequence also involves Esmayil tying a can to the village idiot's ankle and chasing down some steps -- the retarded boy takes a hard fall.  Why does everyone in the village instantly acquiesce in the scheme to mislead Hassan?  The first thing these villagers can agree upon is the need to lie to Hassan -- and this collective decision is made without any dissent, presumably based upon the idea that Hassan's neglected wife will tell the man the truth.  (She doesn't).  By lying, the villagers have falsified their own reality and it's not easy to extricate themselves from the affliction that they have unleashed -- the hamlet seems cursed with barrenness so long as the lie about the cow remains in force:  no one can marry. Indeed, the lie that the villagers tell (and in which they persist) seems to underwrite and warrant Hassan's madness.  If reality no longer exists in the village nothing keeps him from becoming his beloved cow?  Everything is false, lies have canceled ordinary reality, and the truth fades into the shadowy darkness.  But the motivation for lying to Hassan is unclear and, it seems, an element of the village's criminality -- at one point, Mehrjiu suggests that the villagers subsist by thieving from their neighbors and, in effect, are just like the Balouri that they revile.  Furthermore, Mehrjiu also makes the point that the real power in the village doesn't lie with the feckless "chief" and his sidekick Esme who makes all the chief's decisions for him, but rather with a sinister coven of old hags.  From time to time, we see a group of elderly widows, shot as if they were living dead (their eyes are black cavities in their skulls) parading through the town.  The women have some sort of secret society in which the true authority to rule the village is vested.  We see them convening in a subterranean catacomb, a buried church in which they store their bizarre regalia -- these are brocaded pennants on poles ending in silver hands.  The hands look like the effigies used by gypsies for reading palms and suggest that women are, perhaps, prophetic.  In their secret rites, the women open an altar to disclose a painted figure on horseback, something like St. George the Dragon Slayer -- it seems that they are, perhaps, Coptic Christians.  The fact that the women's secret society controls the town is suggested by two very peculiar scenes.  In the first, the indolent town elders sit on a stucco shelf carved into one of the houses and gossip while one of the men plays a kind of lute.  The shelf bench is conveniently equipped with a little window through which a female hand sometimes reaches to give the men their ration of afternoon tea.  But, from time to time, smoke gushes forth through the tiny window and chokes the men seated on the bench -- it is as if the female presence in the house intentionally harasses the useless town council and drives them away from their comfortable perch.  Later, in the film we see that the old women are crawling over gravestones inset in a desolate cemetery while the men recline against a low wall ignoring them -- the women are keening in an unearthly way and, dressed all in black, they look like huge tarantulas.  It is these women who try to break the curse on the village by sprinkling some kind of holy water on the men and, at one point, they lead a march into the darkness of the desert, waving their banners at the black sky.  The film's final image supports the notion that the town is fundamentally one controlled by female powers:  granted the right to marry because Hassan is now dead, the bride stands atop a house, frozen in a stance of vigilance:  she is affirming her power as a married woman but also guarding the town against its enemies. 

The Ayatollah Khomeini was said to greatly admire Gaav and, in fact, he allowed the film industry in Tehran to flourish because of his admiration for this picture.  I'm not sure what this means but I do have a sense that the villagers in the movie are not exactly good Muslims.  Indeed, I think that they may be some kind of heretics or, perhaps, Yazidis (who are worshipers of Satan in his incarnation as a bright, Promethean Lucifer) or, even, Zoroastrians -- as I have earlier noted, the icon suggests some kind of relationship with Coptic Christianity.  In this aspect the film is similar to another excellent picture very obviously influenced by The Cow, Abbas Kiastoami's The Wind will Carry Us.  In that picture, a group of documentary film makers from a Tehran TV station travel to a remote Kurdish village -- so far from the city that their cell-phones don't work.  The plan is to capture on film certain unique mortuary rites.  But this project requires a death and the ancient woman who's sickness promises an opportunity to record her funeral rites obstinately refuses to die.  It's clear that the villagers in Kiastoami's film are not orthodox Muslims and this seems to be the case in The Cow as well. Kiastoami's film is about many things, but one of its themes is the confrontation between Persia's ancient folkways and its modern cities.  There is no such contrast in Mehrjiu's film -- the village in The Cow seems wholly prehistoric; it's like one of those places inhabited from before the Neolithic, an immemorially ancient place.  It's worth noting as well that the spectacular passage in this film in which Hassan is bound and dragged out of town in a dramatic thunderstorm appears in TV in the 2016 Iranian film, The Salesman.  The Walker Art Center showed this picture as part of a festival of films imported from countries on Donald Trump's infamous Muslim travel ban.  Accordingly, the movie was accompanied by a short from the Sudan that was okay, but superfluous.  The Cow is sufficiently impressive, complex, and challenging to give its audience more than enough to digest.  Unfortunately the film was shown in a DVD version probably more or less adequate for home viewing on TV but blurry when blown up to theater (35 millimeter) size.  The subtitles were the old white ones that are often invisible, particularly in a film shot in high contrast black and white.  Most problematic was the fact that the movie was screened with its soundtrack turned up to an intolerable volume -- the picture was more deafening than Michael Bay's Transformers.  In one scene in which a woman sees Balouris running through the dark village and screams, her amplified shriek was more than people could bear -- it just about knocked me out of my seat and caused nearby spectators to moan and grab at their ears.  Notwithstanding these deficits, the majesty of the film's concept and direction remained, more or less, legible and there is no doubt in my mind that The Cow is a masterpiece of world cinema.  My appreciation of the film was not aided by the Trump bashing that proceeded the screening.  The Walker Art Center has revealed itself to be managed by craven hypocrites who favor censorship -- this was the message ineluctably delivered by the museum's decision to knuckle-under to Native American pressure to dismantle and destroy an art work about which the tribes had not been previously consulted and had not given their approval.  (I don't recall the Catholic church being asked to weigh-in as to the imagery in an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's pictures.)  The only time I have any sympathy for the swinish, inept Donald Trump is when he is being attacked by "tough talking" film curators at the WAC.    

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Executioner (Film Group Essay)


The Executioner

"I’m not an artist. I make popular films."
Luis Berlanga

"He’s not a Communist. He’s not an anarchist. He’s worse – he’s a bad Spaniard."
Franco commenting on El Verdugo ("The Executioner") and its director, Luis Berlanga.

Ignorance is as invincible in film studies as in other human endeavors. For instance, books about cinema often suggest that India, with the noted exception of Satjiyat Ray, has produced nothing but bubbly Bollywood musicals and colorfully mindless melodrama. Of course, this is an error – if anything, Indian cinema has a more variegated and complex history than Hollywood: there are Japanese film noir, historical epics, experimental films, and, even, Indian auteurs the equal of Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray – it’s not their fault that you haven’t heard of them. With respect to films made outside of the Hollywood production system (or its satellite the Sundance distribution network), we tend to simplify – each country has a single characteristic director: Italian films are represented by Fellini, German cinema is Fassbinder, India is Ray, Japan Kurosawa. But, in fact, each of these national cinemas involves many directors, some of them important and producing highly consequential films, that are unknown to almost everyone in this country. A noteworthy example involves the cinema made in Spain during the Franco era. Quick! Name one important director working in Spain between 1945 and 1970 – most people, even those with wide knowledge, will draw a blank.

But, in Spain, the director considered most important and representative of the films made under Franco is Luis G. Berlanga. Berlanga is so well-known in Spain that his name has spawned an adjective Berlanguist – that is, "after the manner of Berlanga." Berlanga’s trademarks are use of sequence-shots (an entire sequence is filmed in one shot without cutting) and his so-called "choral style". It is Berlanga’s "choral style" that has rendered him (mostly) inaccessible to non-Spanish-speaking audiences. Berlanga fills his shots with people and moves them across complex interior spaces – people are crowded together in tenements or storefronts and they all speak at the same time. (Berlanga’s intricate overlapping soundtracks are precursors to the mumbled chorus of voices in Robert Altman’s films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville.) Of course, overlapping dialogue poses severe challenges to the translator writing subtitles. For this reason, Berlanga’s films are virtually unknown in the United States. (Berlanga’s instinctive anti-Americanism has also not advanced his cause in this country.)

Berlanga was born in 1921 and regarded himself as a citizen of Valencia first and a Spaniard second. His family was wealthy and owned estates in land – they were, in essence, conservative feudal barons. Berlanga was Jesuit-educated both in Spain and Switzerland – where he was sent with his brother who suffered from consumption. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Berlanga’s father was serving in the Spanish legislature. Ultimately, Berlanga’s family aligned itself with the anti-Franco forces and the young man served as a rifleman in an anti-Franco brigade. When Franco prevailed in the Civil War, Berlanga’s father was arrested as a member of the pro-Communist Popular Front and, after a show trial, condemned to death. Berlanga was told that he could save his father demonstrating patriotic support of the Franco regime. He did this in a peculiar way – he enlisted in the Division Azul ("Blue Division"), a group of Spaniards who fought with the German army on the Russian front. Berlanga saw action at Novgorad in Russia. He returned to Spain in 1942. Notwithstanding his pro-Franco war record with the Wehrmacht, Berlanga’s efforts to help his father were in vain. The senior Berlanga was held by Franco in prison until 1952, and, then, only released as a broken man to die six months after being granted his liberty.

In 1947, Berlanga attended film school in Madrid. He founded a film magazine Objetiv and directed (with Juan Bardem) his first feature-length picture in 1951, The Happy Couple, a satirical comedy. In 1953, Berlanga shot Welcome Mr. Marshall, a sardonic commentary on the Marshall Plan – the film is a musical and a vehicle for a prominent Flamenco dancer of the period, Lolita Seville. The film shows the hysteria that grips a small village when its inhabitants learn that "the Americans are coming." Townspeople hire a famous Flamenco dancer to entertain the Americans and, on the eve of their arrival, several of the townspeople dream of encounters with rich Americans – this gives Berlanga an opportunity to spoof different genres of American films, including the Western. The next day, the American motorcade zooms through the village without stopping. The film was nominated for a Palm d’Or in Cannes. But one of the jury members, Edward G. Robinson expressed contempt for the film’s "anti-American politics" and the movie lost in the competition and was never distributed in the U. S. (For years, the film was cited by American politicians as a basis to persuade United States businesses to not invest in Spain.) With another prominent post-Franco director, Juan Antonio Bardem (the uncle of Javier Bardem), he participated in a famous dialogue about Spanish films, the so-called Conversacionne de Salamanca – Berlanga asserted that the Spanish film industry could prosper under Franco and that there was sufficient liberty to make good movies. Bardem said that Spanish film would always remain "ignorant and provincial" so long as Franco’s censorship board was in power. (This undercut Bardem’s own production, the Communist-inflected Death of a Cyclist, produced in that same year.) Berlanga made a number of films during the fifties including Miracles on Thursday, an anti-clerical film about a small village that fakes a miracle to entice tourists to visit the town – Franco’s regime censored this film and held up its release for two years. Placido (1961) is Berlanga’s next film, made he said "in a state of grace" and, perhaps, his favorite -- a film about the politics of welfare and charity. Berlanga’s film on capital punishment, The Executioner, followed in 1963. The Executioner probably owes its existence to Garcia Escudera. Escudera was a pious Catholic and strong pro-Franco politician who was also a cinephile. Escudera was appointed to the position of the administrator of the Spanish film industry. Before Escudera, censorship exercised by the regime was capricious, arbitrary and corrupt – paradoxically, Spanish directors wanted a code determining what they could and could not show on screen. Escudera directed that such a code be adopted and Berlanga, with his writer, Rafael Azcona, were able to script The Executioner in such a way as to avoid government interference, although the regime did not like the picture.

Berlanga made a film every two years up until his last picture released in 1999 (Paris - Timbuktu). A number of these films are well-regarded and important in the history of the Spanish cinema – for instance, his picture The Heifer (1985) is the first Spanish film to dare a comedic approach to the Spanish Civil War. His trilogy of films The National made between 1977 and 1981 addressed life and politics in the Franco regime. He won a Goya Award, the equivalent of an Oscar, for Todos a la Carcel ("They’re all in Jail") made in 1994 – the film, shot entirely inside a prison, shows a variety of inmates interacting and discussing politics: the picture is regarded as an allegory of the Franco era.

Spanish film makers such as Carlos Saura and Almodovar revere Berlanga and regard him as an equal to Bunuel. Bunuel’s film made upon his return to Spain in 1961, Viridania, was produced with the assistance of Berlanga’s company.


The Garrote

The Garrote is a mechanism for execution that employs ligature strangulation. Curiously, the Spanish word "garrote" names a kind of club that was used to beat condemned prisoners to death. Since this means of execution was untidy and prone to misadventure, Spanish authorities substituted a wiry cord that was wrapped around the victim’s neck and, then, tightened. (This is the primitive, but effective, form of execution used by the death squads in Indonesia as documented by The Act of Killing.) The Peninsular War in Spain (1808 - 1828) required executions on an industrial scale. Accordingly, the garrote was refined into a metal apparatus like a vise screwed onto an upright post. The person to be executed was seated on a stool with his or her back against the post. The vise was mounted around the victim’s neck and, then, the executioner, standing behind the post, turned a handle, closing the vise around the condemned person’s throat. A variant on this technique is the so-called "Catalan garrote", equipped with a spike at the base of the throat that penetrated the flesh and made certain that expected outcome was quickly achieved.

Goya engraved the horrors of the Peninsular War in his series "Desastres de la Guerra" – a number of these images show garroted victims. In "The Garroted Man", a corpse is seated upright on a stool, the iron-work embedded in his throat. The dead man holds a cross and seems to have been executed in his shroud – the shroud is embroidered with crosses as well. Next to the corpse, there is a tall extinguished candle. The dead man’s feet are terribly contorted, demonstrating his death struggle – these twisted, anguished feet appear again in Spanish art in Picasso’ Guernica. Desastres de le Guerra number 34 shows a similar scene. In one engraving in that series, Goya shows eight people, apparently garroted on a scaffold. All of them bear signs inscribed with writing that is illegible to us. Goya has entitled the engraving "No one knows why."

Garroting was the mode of execution used throughout the former Spanish empire. (And, also, in Andorra where the practice was abolished in 1990 – the last execution by garroting had occurred in the 12th century, more than 800 years previous to the legislation abolishing the garrote.) In 1900, the United States army garroted four insurgents in Puerto Rico. The government doctors attending the event wrote: "...execution by the garrote is far less inhumane and revolting than execution by hanging." Note the diction: not "more humane" but "far less inhumane" – you will need to diagram that circumlocution to understand what it means, a characteristic of official discourse about capital punishment.

People were garroted in substantial numbers in Spain, particularly during the Spanish Civil war. Franco passed a law forbidding members of secret societies participation in the military. In 1935, 80 army Freemasons were garroted in Malaga. The last civilian garroted in Spain was the spree killer, Jose Maria Jaraba (July 1959) – Jaraba shot and killed four people, including a pregnant woman, for kicks. Although the penalty remained in the law books, prosecutors didn’t ask for the death sentence for a couple of decades. The military continued to garrote persons who violated their code and were subject to military justice. The last person garroted under military law was the anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, a cop-killer; he died in March 1974. The imposition of this penalty aroused such indignation that the military, thereafter, abolished the practice. In the seventies, a couple of events combined to urge formal legislative abolition of the use of garroting to execute civilians. More aggressive prosecutors, operating under a law and order agenda, began to petition for re-institution of the penalty. Second, a condemned man who didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison demanded that he be garroted. (This is similar to Gary Gilmore tipping the United States back into capital punishment when he quixotically demanded death by a Utah firing squad – a demand that the government ultimately met.) The Spaniards didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history and so the penalty was formally abolished in l978.

The Spanish writer Camilo Jose Cela, famous as the author of The Family of Pascal Duerte, acquired the garrote used to kill the spree-killer, Jose Maria Jaraba, and displayed it in his official museum. After his death, authorities deemed the mere display of the device "barbaric" and ordered that the exhibition be taken down. Thus, Spain traversed the course from public executions by garrote as late as 1890 to suppression of the display of the execution device in about one century.

When The Executioner was shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 1963, the Franco regime had recently garroted two anarchists involved in a conspiracy against the dictator. In Italian, Franco is nicknamed il Boia – that is, "the executioner" – and the film was released under the title "The Ballad of the Executioner". Franco and his supporters were indignant. They were also concerned that Berlanga would come away from the competition with some prestigious international prizes. Accordingly, the Spanish government publicly supported one of Juan Bardem’s films also in competition in Venice. This support was incongruous – Bardem was committed anti-Franco communist whereas Berlanga characterized himself as a "right-wing anarchist" and "libertarian." (Berlanga did win the International Critic’s Prize for The Executioner.)


Some Observations on The Executioner

The Executioner is an Italian-Spanish coproduction. In the early sixties, coproductions of this sort were common. Rafael Azcona, Berlanga’s script writer, worked extensively with excellent Italian director, Marco Ferreri. Before writing The Executioner, Azcona wrote a film for Ferreri (it was ultimately directed by another film maker) called Mafioso. In Mafioso, a big city Roman falls in love with a Sicilian girl and goes to Palermo to marry her. There he discovers that his father-in-law is a mob boss. To show loyalty to the crime family, the Roman bridegroom is forced to execute a "hit" on another mobster. Critics said that Mafioso and The Executioner were fundamentally the same story written by the same scenarist. (The inspiration for The Executioner is a story that Berlanga saw in a Valencia newspaper – a woman was put to death by a brand-new executioner; the article said that both the condemned and the executioner required considerable counseling before fulfilling their appointed roles.

The reluctant executioner is played by Nino Manfredi, an Italian actor known for light comedy. (Films of this kind were always post-synchronized for sound). Things were a little tense sometimes on the set because Jose (Pepe) Isbert, who plays the old Executioner, was a loyal Franco supporter and didn’t like some of the film’s implications. (Jose Isbert’s real daughter, Maria, appears in the film as the Executioner’s daughter.) The film was shot on location in Madrid and Majorca in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean east of Spain – the cave shown in the picture is Drach (Dragon) Cave (and Lake Martel). Franco’s regime was ultimately undercut by tourism. We see this symbolized in the image of the people doing the twist on the yacht in the Majorca harbor.

Spanish critics claim that Berlanga was influenced by Miguel Unumuno’s concept of "Interhistory" – that is, the unknown, but important, history of ordinary people. The notion of Esperpento or systemic distortion is also cited when the film is discussed – Esperpento refers to the practice of accentuating a feature until the image appears as a grotesque caricature.

Berlanga’s stifling rooms, crowded with dogs and children, old people and crying babies, symbolize a sort of communal and self-imposed prison. We can schematically represent the situation as follows:

1. People desire intimacy;
2. Intimacy leads to sex which leads to babies;
3. Babies impose family obligations;
4. Obligations confine and imprison us;
5. Society and the social world is a kind of prison;
6. Executions take place in prisons;
7. We are all complicit in imprisoning one another and enforcing the executions that take place in prisons;
8. The executioner and the victim of the execution are one and the same.

  What is behind that tiny black door on the far end of the big white room?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

A weird, inexplicable reticence attenuates the effectiveness of War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeve, 2017).  For some reason, the film makers hesitate to show apes killing humans.  The movie is designed like Spartacus, as an account of a slave rebellion.  Brutally mistreated, the apes seem poised to take their revenge on the humans that have tortured them.  But, at the last minute, the film draws back from the bloody precipice of an ape rebellion.  An implausible third force, and, then, indeed, a fourth agent is summoned to right the wrongs suffered by the poor apes.  (It's like HBO's Westworld -- the show was poised for 13 episodes to depict the bloody rebellion of the robots against their cruel masters.  But it was all tease.  The robot rebellion was short-circuited and the audience didn't get the pay-off which the entire narrative arc had promised.  In HBO's case, delay of the ultimate robot uprising is necessary to motivate another season.  But the reason for denying the audience the climax for which the entire movie has been designed in War for the Planet of the Apes is unclear, even perverse.)

War for the Planet of the Apes is certainly spectacular enough, indeed, even too splendidiferous, I think.  The special effects are jaw-dropping and many of the scenes are exciting and brilliantly filmed.  But the show succumbs, ultimately, to a well-nigh Biblical splendor that congests its arteries and slows everything down to a crawl.  Reeve isn't sure whether he is making a popcorn blockbuster or something with pretensions to greater glory.  In the end, he opts for glory and the film suffers an excess of seriousness.  Bluntly put, the movie is not exactly as fun as a barrel of monkeys.  Much of the narrative is set in a grim concentration camp where apes are tortured, crucified, starved, flogged, and forced to carry great stones from a quarry in a sort of simian version of the concentration camp at Mauthausen with its granite stairs of death.  No one really wants to see a Planet of Apes version of Schindler's List and the concentration camp references are not only tasteless but disturbing -- the animation and effects in this film are so flawless that the violence is not cartoonish at all; rather, it is highly disturbing and some of the torture scenes are hard to watch.  Not content with looting Spielberg and, for that matter, Bridge over the River Kwai, the film indulges itself in an extended and completely humorless parody of Apocalypse Now.  Woody Harrelson plays Kurtz, haranguing the heroic alpha-ape Caesar like a demented Marlon Brando with some of Dennis Hopper's rants thrown in for a good measure.  Again and again, Harrelson's crazy special ops commander has Caesar at gunpoint, but as is the case in all movies of this kind, he choses to stupefy his victim with long speeches as opposed to simply pulling the trigger, an error, of course, for which he and his men will ultimately pay.  Everyone in the movie is avenging a lost child or spouse and so the stakes are high with an intense quotient of bitterness.  You can't laugh at the movie, because it is too solemn and impressively mounted.  But it's also not too much fun.  And, like almost all special effects-driven pictures, two-thirds of the movie is shot in dark, greenish-blue twilight -- clearly there are effects on the margins of what we can see that the film maker doesn't really want us to look at too closely.  But this adds to the film's general miasmic gloom, it's disheartening and cruel darkness. 

One can admire a picture like this, I'm afraid, without liking it too much.  The film is gripping but relentlessly savage and violent.  There's too much torture and cruelty in what is supposed to be matinee movie for children and people seeking two hours respite from the heat and humidity.  The revenge theme is depressing and it is little bit unnerving to be whipped into a blood-lust against one's own species -- an effect that the film achieves, but, then, doesn't really deliver on.  Ultimately, there's just too much here.  Reeves brings in a subplot about a fatal illness that turns people into grunting apes, but without the furry majesty and strength -- I think this derives from the sensitively handled Alzheimer's narrative in the first movie in the trilogy.  Instead of allowing the humans to be slaughtered by the apes, instead, there's a helicopter attack and full frontal assault by the army on Harrelson's compound that is stolen from Coppola's war movie -- the compound has the psychedelic appearance of the bridge to nowhere in the night-time sequence near the end of Apocalypse Now and there is even a bow to Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack.  And, then, not content with human-on-human carnage, Reeves invokes Exodus and the flooding Red Sea by staging a huge avalanche that wipes out all of the humans -- this is the implausible "fourth agent" that figures in the film's climax.  (Exactly how the apes are saved from the avalanche is unclear to me -- sure, they climb up into big trees, but plenty of huge trees are toppled in the snowy catastrophe that ends the film.  So why were these particular trees spared?)  There are also odd mistakes.  In one scene staged in a rainstorm, the apes' fur is matted and soaking wet.  But the Woody Harrelson's shaved head doesn't have a drop of water on it.  The CGI rain doesn't touch his bald and shining pate.  At the film's end, the apes have escaped to a promised land from which Caesar, their leader will have a Pisgah view of the virgin territory where the simians intend to establish their new Jerusalem.  Somehow, Caesar has crossed a couple hundred miles of desert with an arrow in his side that will finally kill him just as he reaches the ridge overlooking the land of milk and honey.  As he dies in a Michelangelo-style frieze under an ancient bristlecone pine, we see down into the valley -- it's a high altitude lake in the Sierra, probably about 12,000 feet above sea level surrounded by talus slopes and snowy peaks.  Small wretched-looking forests spread upward from the cold-looking lake, maybe one or two acres in extent -- how are the apes going to live in this cold, unforgiving, and high-altitude landscape?  I wanted to like this movie and, in fact, admired much of it -- there is a stunning battle scene in the first couple minutes -- but, ultimately, the movie is too humorless, too violent, and too baroque for its own popcorn-entertainment premises.    

The Great King (Der Grosse Koenig)

Der Grosse Koenig is Veit Harlan's 1942 bio-pic about episodes late in the life of the Prussian king, Frederick the Great.  The film is single-minded, unnerving in its implications, and as cold as ice.  Reportedly, the movie was popular in Nazi Germany, another fact about the picture that is surprising and a bit unsettling -- it's hard to imagine anyone warming to a picture that is, in effect, a carefully directed and spectacularly staged homage to military service as a death cult.  The depth of pathology then prevalent in Germany can be measured, I suppose, by the audience reaction to this film.

Three elements comprise the movie.  First, there is a historical context involving many conferences between men with white wigs and pony tails that seem to braided like horsewhips in leather.  In these scenes, people suggest that the great king surrender or make disadvantageous alliances or otherwise relent from his purpose of expanding the borders of Prussia.  The great king rages against these counselors and makes hair-raising threats including decapitation.  He even tortures his best soldiers for lapses in discipline.  Not surprisingly, Frederick ends up alone, seated in a chair against the backdrop of an immense cathedral, while the organ plays Deutschland Ueber Alles.  The remarkable aspect of this component to the film is that the director doesn't try to make Frederick the Great loveable or, even, sympathetic in any way.  The king remains a remote, inscrutable figure, prone to wild harangues, and, although he is cheered at one point, he seems eerily distant from the people that he rules.  His cruelty is relentless and unforgiving.  A viewer accustomed to Hollywood conventions expects that at some point the portrait of the King will soften and we will be asked to identify with his plight as a lonely ruler.  But Harlan to his credit doesn't attempt this ploy.  Frederick is strange, indifferent to normal human passions, and abstract except for his ferocity in war from the beginning of the film to the end.  The second strand of the movie is the closest thing to a plot that The Grosse Koenig attempts.  A Prussian regiment has fled from the battle at Kunersdorf, a disastrous defeat for the Great King.  The regiment is disgraced, stripped of its regimental colors and regalia, and shamed in front of the entire army.  A commander cries out that "(these men) preferred life to victory", a remark intended to humiliate the troops and their officers.  During this discipline, the leader of the regiment accepts blame for the debacle, shouts "Long Live the King!" and, then, blows out his brains in front of the assembled soldiers.  The Great King later says that the man was inconsequential and coward, implying that he has deserted his post by committing suicide.  Later, the regiment regains its honor by fighting bravely at the battle of Torgau.  For its courage, the disgraced soldiers are restored their banners and other honors.   They respond by saluting "Der alte Fritz" ("Old Fritz") and cheering for him.  The third component to the film is the most vestigial, indeed, scarcely developed.  A miller's daughter flees her home during the battle of Kunersdorf.  We see the mill enveloped in flames.  The rest of the young woman's family is apparently killed in the retreat from the burning town.  The miller's daughter, a robust specimen of Aryan German womanhood named Luise (and effectively played by Kristina Soderbaum, Harlan's wife), tends to the wounded and falls in love with soldier named Paul, one of the lieutenants in the regiment disgraced for cowardice at Kunersdorf.  She marries Paul on the eve of the battle of Torgau.  He is so anxious to reach the fighting at the front that he hastens away from the ceremony without kissing his new bride -- of course, she seizes him in her strong grip and plants a passionate kiss on his lips before he darts off to the battle. Paul helps to win the battle of Torgau, but only by disobeying orders.  Although he has fought with great valor and been instrumental in the successful vernichtungs Schlachte ("battle of annihilation"), the Great King nonetheless has him tortured by being "tied to the wheel" of a cannon.  Later, the war drags on and we learn that Paul has been tied to the cannon two more times for insubordination.  He plans to desert but Luise reports this to his commanding officer and he is tied to the wheel again, this time in a blizzard.  There is another big battle and Paul fights valiantly and is killed.  Near the end of the film, the Great King visits Kunersdorf again and sees that the mill has been rebuilt and is turning majestically in the wind.  Luise appears at the threshold of a cottage carrying her blonde, blue-eyed (no doubt -- the film is in black and white) baby.  "So are you entirely alone?" the Great King asks her.  "No," she says, apparently implying that the Reich supports her. She also kisses her baby, little Paul. The Great King sadly says that he is all alone.  The film, then, ends with a startling and beautiful montage.  We see the King in the cathedral alone with the national hymn played on organ thundering on the soundtrack.  Then, there are shots of the mill, superimposed ultimately into one, two, and three mills, the Great King's eye hanging over the entire montage -- his face is superimposed over the landscapes.  Under the King's eye, glistening like a celestial object, we see a plow drawn by women breaking the earth, men sowing wheat, great stormclouds that billow and tumble forward in fast-motion, an entire sky alive with frothing, foaming clouds and, then, a black eagle banner superimposed on the storm.  It's an extraordinary, if sinister, conclusion to the film.

In recounting the narrative in the movie, it seems that the subplot involving Paul and Luise is the mainstream of the film.  But this is not the way the movie is edited.  The subplot involving the lovers is purely tangential to the main action involving diplomacy and battlefield maneuvers.  Indeed, when the movie was first delivered to Dr. Goebbels for approval in late 1940, he felt that the story of Paul and Luise was too prominent and it survives in the picture only as bits and pieces, fragments that scarcely cohere into a story.  In a startling early scene, Luise expresses hatred for the Great King and says that she despises the war that is borne on the shoulders of the poor farmers.  The Great King is sitting in the corner of the smashed cottage where the colloquy takes place, but she doesn't know who he is.  Later, we see her in the camp, striding through the darkness when Frederick appears mounted on horseback, flashing fire from his eyes and looking every inch a king.  Her eyes flash at him in the torchlight and there's a flicker of recognition on the part of both of them -- but the scene is over in a second, lacking the sort of pay-off that a Hollywood picture would require from this sort of encounter.  Goebbels apparently thought that the war-weariness displayed in the story of Paul and Luise, and Paul's attempt to desert, cut too close to the bone for 1942 and so he had most of that narrative excised. 

Paul Wegener, the great actor from the silent era (known best for his work as the monster in The Golem) appears as a treacherous Russian general.  Originally, the film showed the Prussians in alliance with Russia but the vicissitudes of Hitler's foreign policy rendered these scene inadmissible.  Accordingly, Wegener grins like a jack-o-lantern and smirks, his broad Slavic face showing contempt for the Great King -- we know that he is both a fool and a traitor, one who is contriving to delude the Great King into thinking that Russia is a loyal ally.  But the Great King is not fooled and the  Russians are, apparently, defeated or, at least, the plot involving them peters out without consequence.  There are fine shots of Frederick the Great at Sans Souci, including a reprise of the famous painting by Menzel of the "Flute Concert", but these are presented as shadowy flashbacks.  At times, the Great King morosely reads Sophocles.  The book reminds him of his nephew, Henri, who has died of small pox.  Rather than attend to his beloved nephew at his bedside, the Great King has done his duty by remaining on the battlefield, but this seems to have saddened him, if only slightly.  Later, when the troops parade through Berlin in triumph in 1763, the Great King does not march at their head -- he eschews riding through Berlin in a triumphal gilded coach and, instead, makes his solitary way to the Cathedral where the film ends.  Absenting himself from the parade, his Queen, who is herself scheming and glacially cold, glares down from the reviewing stand -- there is clearly no love lost between them, a situation that I interpreted as due to Frederick's apparent homosexuality:  the only person who seems to inspire any interest in him is poor, pale, and doomed nephew Henri. 

The film is spectacularly mounted -- it features realistic battle scenes with tens of thousands of soldiers.  The sheer magnitude of these scenes far outstrips anything in American movies -- indeed, the only sequences before computer imaging that I know as comparable are the immense battle scenes in Sergei Bondarachuk's adaptation of War and Peace.  (In many ways, the battle sequences in The Great King look similar to Bondarchuk's work -- there are lots of fire, huge numbers of horses, tremendous cannonades (one of them is said by Frederick to be "like Judgement Day, the trombones of death" -- a nice if peculiar-sounding line in English), enormous marching column that stretch to horizons where villages have been picturesquely set to the torch.)  At one point, the action shifts to Vienna.  The Austrians are plotting against Frederick.  One of the courtiers make a derogatory remark about Frederick. A General who knows Frederick's heroic fiber says:  "Wir tanzen und er marschiert." -- that is, "we're dancing and he is marching."  Veit, then, cuts to a landscape in which Old Fritz is riding in a kind of buckboard wagon at the head of a hundred-thousand troops.  Phalanxes of horses and columns of marching men extend for miles to the stormy horizon. 

The Great King is not a successful movie.  It is edited in a strange, sometimes random way -- presumably this reflects Dr. Goebbels influence and, except for the pictorial splendor, an aspect sufficient to keep an audience involved in the film, the picture's extreme coldness, it's cruelty and relentless inhumanity, is repellant.   But the movie is successful with respect to its objective:  it is fearsome evidence of a total commitment to war by people who fully understand what war means -- it is evidence of a Death Cult in control of Germany.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Singing, Ringing Tree

An East German actress, Christel Bodenstein, delivers a great expressionistic performance in the 1957 DEFA film The Singing Ringing Tree (Francesco Stefani). The movie is worth searching out for a number of reasons, but Bodenstein's acting as the imperious princess in this adaptation of a Grimm Brothers' fairy tale is the most noteworthy thing in this picture.  When we first see the princess in her elderly father's quasi-oriental throne room, she looks like some kind of blonde, demented Queen Bee.  Under elaborate costuming, her breasts are pushed up about as high as can be and she wears a crown with pointy spires that look like an insect's antennae.  Her rather lackluster suitor, the prince has brought a jewel box full of pearls to her.  Disdainfully, she dismisses the pearls as inadequate and spills them all over the floor.  (It's hard not to see the spilled pearls as evidence of some kind of sexual dysfunction -- perhaps, premature ejaculation.)  In a high-pitched voice, she chastises the prince and says that he doesn't please her in the slightest.  Crestfallen, the poor fellow asks her what she wants and, after a significant pause, she responds that he must bring her a "singing, klinging tree."  It's obvious that this is just gibberish, that she is petulantly voicing a demand that she knows no one can meet, indeed, probably the first thing that comes to mind.  In fact, she seems slightly surprised herself at the bizarre request that she poses to her dim-witted knight errant.  Dutifully, the prince departs and, after encountering an evil dwarf, snatches from his garden a small, hapless-looking sapling, carrying it like a staff or walking stick, fragile roots and all, back to the princess.  She isn't interested in this pathetic, woody phallus and, so, in accord with the dwarf's curse, the unfortunate suitor is turned into a bear -- his horse has already become a peculiar-shaped rock formation.  The rest of the short film (about 70 minutes long in all) involves the bear's courtship of the princess, her gradual recognition that she loves the bear after an enchantment makes her ugly (she sports green hair), and, then, trials that the girl must endure to restore the prince to his human form.  These trials are like those proposed for the young lovers in Mozart's Magic Flute -- they are more fearsome in prospect than execution:  trial by water, by fire, and, in this case, by a thorny thicket.  The movie is unusual in according very substantial agency to the princess.  For half the movie, she acts in the role of the hero, boldly confronting the nasty dwarf in his stony mountain redoubt and courageously forging a way through thorns, fire, and water.  Since the actress is superbly charismatic, her role is central to the movie and, in fact, puts her pallid prince charming to shame. 

The old Deutsches Demokratisches Republik specialized in ornate adaptations of fairy tales.  (I presume that these films could be lavishly mounted because they coul not be accused of containing an social content subversive to the Communist regime.) These films are vibrantly colored, carefully designed, and replete with "Trick" photography that is crudely effective -- in fact, the special effects are better than those in most Hollywood films because they are very self-consciously presented as Melies-style prestidigitation, a sort of camera magic that is not supposed to persuade us realistically, but, rather, testifies to the ingenuity of the cameraman.  The Singing, Ringing Tree is a studio-bound as Caligari -- there is nothing in the movie that is natural or realistic.  The mountains are big piles of Styrofoam and papier mache, the skies are painted arches of blue with fairy-tale castles decorating the horizon.  Interiors of palaces are Moorish fantasias.  The characteristic camera motion in The Singing, Ringing  Tree is a long tracking shot, first following the hero on his elaborately caparisoned horse, then, skimming over clay hills and valleys studded with toy trees meant to simulate a landscape, then, passing behind boulders (that block the camera and allow for edits) to show the prince on his horse again.  Another boulder interposes itself between the moving camera and the hero and we, then, continue gliding to the right to where the prince meets a group of wayfarers, standing on greenish fabric simulating a meadow under some painted trees.  Fade-outs in the movie are a blurred pinkish flesh-color.  There are curious details that resemble some of the filigree-work in a film by Fritz Lang -- we see the princess dumping a bunch of bright orange gold fish out of a ceramic fountain in which she puts earth and plants the singing, ringing tree.  The imperious princess' ladies in waiting stuff the wriggling goldfish into their aprons to save them.  Later, the princess is blasted by a jet of water unleashed by the dwarf into a kind rock-girt sea.  A great goldfish comes along to rescue her and like Arion singing as he rides the back of the dolphin, the princess is borne across the waters. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

City of the Dead

City of the Dead also known as Horror Hotel is a 1960 British horror film directed by John L. Moxy.  Moxy was from Argentina, the heir to an important and powerful shipping company in that nation.  Moxy worked largely in television and City of the Dead, shot in atmospheric black and white, looks a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone -- it's claustrophobic, entirely confined to the soundstages of Shepperton Studios, and features big close-ups of sinister faces glaring or leering at the camera.  The sets are decorated to within an inch of their lives:  huge masses of cobweb block subterranean passages and the studies of the college professors that the film observes are clogged with scary-looking African masks, weird fetish objects, and unsettling pictures.  The evil professor's library features an engraving from Hogarth's print series Marriage ala Mode prominently displayed (why? I don't know) and the Ravens Inn where much of the action takes place sports a plaque behind the check-in desk noting that the witch Elizabeth Selwyn was burned on this spot in 1692.  The gloomy exteriors, all of which are decidedly interior to a studio, feature swirling white ground fog that comes up to the hips of the characters, a meteorological phenomenon that makes no objective sense at all but that casts a bizarre, even surreal, light on the proceedings. Another curious element in this film is that it is set in Massachusetts although shot with British actors -- periodically, the actors forget where they are supposed to be and lapse into their original accents; this is weirdly disconcerting.

The narrative is structured like Psycho, a film that seems to have exerted a powerful influence on Moxie.  A blonde co-ed is fascinated with witchcraft.  Her sinister professor, played by a very cadaverous, emaciated and young Christopher Lee -- he looks a lot like Max von Sydow -- encourages her to go to a remote New England village, Whitewood, to research her term paper.  Her boyfriend, a typical gee-whiz sort of frat boy, disapproves, but the maiden ignores his advice and sets forth to spend two weeks in this hamlet.  On the way to that village, ground fog inexplicably rises from the earth and the girl encounters a nightmarish hitchhiker, another gaunt and cadaverous man that she blithely picks up.  (He's the boyfriend of the witch burned in 1692, a woman who has now gone into the hospitality business to run the town's inn.)  Whitewood is a ruin where people stand motionlessly, buttock-deep in the mist, posing like figures from Last Year in Marienbad.  There's a half-mad vicar in a ruined church and it's pretty clear that the town, locked in a perpetual temperature inversion ground-fog-inducing weather system is a place that a rational person would immediately flee.  (There's one normal person in this accursed City of the Dead -- another perky blonde who runs an antiques store, seemingly unaware that she is surrounded on all sides by undead zombies, witches, and unrepenitent devil-worshipers; the girl is like the similarly sweet-faced and naïve Munster family daughter in the TV show -- of course, a riddle:  what is she doing among these grotesques?)  The devil-worshipers snag the blonde co-ed about half-way through the picture, slitting her throat and, apparently, drinking her blood.  (It's like a very low-budget version of Janet Leigh's death in Psycho and features a sinister Inn, a bit like the Bates' Motel but more picturesque.)  The dead girl's brother and boyfriend, concerned about the coed's disappearance, then, leave Collegeville and travel through the pesky ground fog to the City of the Dead.  The boyfriend is startled by the apparition of a laughing woman burning at a stake and he crashes his car.  The townspeople are just about to slit the throat of the perky blonde in the antique store when the dead coed's brother, a scientist (we know this because he has a microscope on his table) intervene.  The film's climax, involving the undead in their eerie black capes bursting into flame is quite effective -- the severely wounded brother of the dead girl staggers through the puddles of ground fog toting a big cross on his shoulder.  The "shadow of the cross" makes the zombies burn brightly -- although the very gloomy lighting doesn't cast much of a shadow at all to the point that I assume "shadow of the cross" is metaphoric, meaning something like the "close proximity" of a cross. The film ends with a "reveal" that is a low-rent homage (or steal) from Psycho -- a hooded figure sits in a chair motionlessly; when approached, her hood falls aside and we can see her ravaged face.  In Psycho, the figure turns out to be the mummy of Norman Bate and she's genuinely very scary -- in City of the Dead, the corpse is just the leading witch, a handsome, heavily made-up middle-aged woman, with some soot smeared on her cheeks and brow to suggest that she's been incinerated.  (In fact, it looks like a bad sunburn.)  The effect is definitely underwhelming.  Parts of the movie are reasonably scary -- there is an unsettling dance conducted in the tight quarters of the Ravens Inn in which zombies silently cavort to primitive jazz and rock and roll.  The faces glaring at the heroine out of the mist are creepy.  There's a hilarious sequence when the coed decides to go to the zombie dance.  She removes her nightgown to reveal that's she's been lounging around in a punitively corseted bustier complete with garter-snaps for her stockings -- it's a startling injection of pure exploitation into the film.  There's no budget to this film at all -- in the opening scene when a witch is burned at the stake, we see leering townspeople but the flames never really get anywhere near the woman being executed and she vividly curses the village, turning its inhabitants into the City of the Dead.  A good reaction shot, particularly a blonde girl screaming at the top of her lungs, is always more effective than the following shot that, rather prosaically, shows us what she is screaming at -- it would be better and more bold to just use the reaction shot, the loud, shrill scream, the dilated eyes, the contorted features, than to show the apparition that has induced this scream.