Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 masterpiece, Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), was the director’s color film debut, and he chose an evocative setting and subject for the occasion: the coastal city of Ravenna and the industrialists that soiled its landscape with toxic runoff from the giant power plants that popped up near the shore not long after World War II.
Monica Vitta plays Giuliana, the delicate wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), a distant man in charge of a power plant that seems to lay waste to everything around it. We meet Guiliana shortly after her discharge from a hospital, where she was receiving treatment for shock following a car crash. Vulnerable and on edge, she needs more than her cold, indifferent husband can muster, and she tries to get it from Corrado (Richard Harris), her husband’s business partner. But the affair only serves to further fray Guiliana’s raw nerves.
In his performance as an extraterrestrial in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, opening at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday night, David Bowie is a special effect unto himself, an otherworldly force among the film’s other ’70s icons: Rip Torn, Buck Henry, and Candy Clark. But with his fey manner, fragile frame, pale skin, and shock of orange hair, Bowie is more than a human prop, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, his first feature film, is more than merely an opportunity for Bowie fans to ogle their favorite glam rocker. (See trailer below. Review continues after the jump.)
A groundbreaking surrealist short, Un Chien Andalou was an eye-opener for later experimental filmmakers.
Before one screening of Un Chien Andalou (1929), a collaboration between filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí, Surrealist pioneers and Spaniards the both of them, Buñuel told the audience, “I do not want the film to please you, but to offend you.”
The famous declaration could be the subtitle to Buñuel’s early career, during which the brash filmmaker repeatedly aimed to disturb the smug comfort of the bourgeoisie. Un Chien Andalou, for example, opens with the slicing of a woman’s eye, a shot that dissolves into the passing of a razor-thin cloud over the full moon and ushers in 15-minutes of then-unprecedented strangeness. (Watch the film in full after the jump.)
The film will screen along with L’Age D’or (1930), also a Buñuel-Dalí collaboration, on Wednesday night at the Miami Beach Cinematheque to kick off the theater’s month-long retrospective, “The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel”. The MBC has invited electronica artist Gabriel Pulido to augment the silent films’ soundtracks with his brand of self-described “ambient sound art”.
Though Un Chien Andalou opens with a cautionary title card — “Music as indicated by Luis Buñuel” — Pulido says his live, one-off performance Wednesday night will complement the films.
“I am processing his soundtrack, adding my sounds that go along with that soundtrack,” says the Venezuelan-born composer, who studied music synthesis and film scoring in university.
Un Chien Andalou alternates between tango music and a section from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner also shows up on the soundtrack for L’Age D’or, a 63-minute film of surrealist vignettes generally interpreted as an attack on bourgeoisie prudishness and the Roman Catholic Church. (In one notorious scene, the female lead sucks the toe of a religious statue.) Pulido will accompany the films’ original music with sounds produced on a laptop and two small MIDI recorders, a juxtaposition that Buñuel may have appreciated.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark -- still scary after all these years.
With Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, starring Kate Holmes and Guy Pierce, opening in major theaters this weekend, I can’t help but recall seeing the original version, made in 1973, on television when I was eight years old.
It was a Saturday afternoon, sometime during the late ‘70s, and it was one of the first times I was allowed to stay home alone. We had a house in Coral Gables, nothing sprawling, just a one-story home with three bedrooms and … a chimney. My brother and I had been invited to a birthday party, but I really wanted to stay home to watch this movie. I was big on “Creature Features”, a movie show that ran on WCIX (Channel 6) after the morning cartoons. After some begging, my mom let me stay behind.
I settled in to watch the movie from behind the armrest of a sofa arranged perpendicular to our color Zenith. Written by Nigel McKeand, an unknown TV writer for “the Waltons”, and directed by John Newland, another TV regular who wrote for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark combined two elements I loved most in horror movies: mansions and monsters. In this case, the monsters emerge from the mansion’s chimney after the woman who has just moved in, heedless of the warnings of the home’s groundskeeper (there’s always a groundskeeper), unseals the ash bin in the basement.
I was so creeped out by the tiny figures scuttling in the shadows of the big old house that I began hearing noises coming from my own kitchen, which was behind the living room wherein I was watching the big color TV which faced … our chimney. Still, I stayed with the movie until the (traumatic) ending, and then I did what the heroine living in that haunted mansion should have done all along: I ran outside. When my mom got home, she found me sitting under the only tree we had in our front lawn. I seem to remember her laughing when I explained why I was there.
Lucky to be alive, Carl Ferrari leads flamenco group Gypsy Cat with a style rooted in prog-rock. -- photo from gypsycatband.com
Not many musicians can say they died for their art and lived to tell about it.
On Aug. 28, 2010, the flamenco-jazz-fusion band Gypsy Cat, led by guitarist Carl Ferrari, had a show at the Jakmel Art Gallery, in Wynwood, to raise money for its first album. While setting up on stage, Ferrari grabbed a microphone stand, got electrocuted, and suffered a heart attack. Ferrari’s friend and fellow musician, Alex Logan, remembers that he was about to join Gypsy Cat on stage for a jam session when he heard “a humming in the speaker.”
“Carl goes to grab the microphone, and he started shaking, and he dropped,” Logan told me in a recent phone conversation.
Ferrari remembers the moment up until he lost consciousness.
“When I reached down and grabbed the mic, it fused to my hand, and I couldn’t let go of it,” he says. “I had no pulse and no breathing. I had a heart attack.”
Lucky for Ferrari, Logan, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer who, at the time, had recently earned his paramedic certification, came to his friend’s rescue. After making sure Ferrari wasn’t a live wire, Logan began giving him CPR, a technique he had learned only months earlier.
“It felt like forever, but it took at least seven to 10 minutes,” Logan says. “When the ambulance gets there, they had to attach a defibrillator, so for sure he was in cardiac. You can only shock flat line.”
The defibrillator did the trick: Ferrari came back to life. This coming Saturday marks the first anniversary of his re-birth.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder fans of Miami, rejoice! His rarely seen 1973 science fiction television mini series, World on a Wire, will hit the big screen this weekend during an exclusive engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Fair warning: World on a Wire is a lengthy dozy that makes The Matrix look like its running in fast-forward (even more so).
Rarely screened since its debut, World on a Wire originally aired on West German TV as a two-part mini-series and then languished as an odd, sci-fi detour for Fassbinder, a prolific New Wave German auteur who directed more than 40 films in 16 years before overdosing on sleeping pills and cocaine at the age of 36. Last year the Fassbinder Foundation and MoMA pooled their resources to restore the series to an epic three-and-a half-hour cinematic experience.
The film’s protagonist is Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a buff computer engineer who heads the Simulacron project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology after his predecessor dies following an apparent nervous breakdown. The Simulacron is a super computer that simulates the real world by populating an artificial world within it with “identity units”. These “identity units” are given all the characteristics of humans except the knowledge that they live within a computer, so the world above exists as an observing and unknowable God to the identity units below.
Inevitably, corporations want in on the government project to simulate future scenarios so as to cash in on them down the line. In the face of strange goings-on, such as the disappearance of a colleague, Stiller resists. He soon begins to wonder whether he is in control of a simulated world or part of one.
At the core of this confusion is whether reality and existence itself are re-defined when humanity becomes reliant on technology. By investing in a computer-centric world, are we mortgaging our free will? What impact do Facebook and today’s other “social” platforms have on society and the individual’s sense of self? In 1973, World on a Wire was an ominous exploration of a possible future of alternate realities, a future whose time has arrived.
Speaking of time, World on a Wire is Fassbinder at his most sluggish, and those hoping for a fast-paced, futuristic action flick will be disappointed (and possibly lulled to sleep). Indeed, the long pauses the actors take between sentences, a Fassbinder stylization that can grow weary over a few hours, may serve as silent lullabies if you don’t have enough caffeine coursing through your veins.
But even though it often meanders, drags, and overindulges itself, World on a Wire is a daring film by a daring director. In his only foray into science fiction, Fassbinder embraces the genre, shooting with confidence and a palpably giddy pleasure. He defies rules of casual film narrative, abusing the zoom lens and layering oddly placed stings of “music” — burbles, squawks, hums, and shrieks of period synth noise by Gottfried Hüngsberg — that stretch the definition of the word itself. With its diagetic classical music, World’s soundscape also nods to Kubrick, who threw down the gauntlet for man-and-machine movies in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The acting in Fassbinder’s film varies in quality (Löwitsch was reportedly drunk throughout the shoot). But the overall effect augments the eerie sense that the characters are not human but avatars obeying the commands of an unseen user. Nearly 40 years after World on a Wire came out, it is a feeling many of us full-time internet users know all too well.
James Marsh won the academy award in 2009 for Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who, in 1974, illegally walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York. Marsh’s theatrical debut, it was a transcendent film about a man who could find fulfillment in life only in living on the edge of death.
Marsh’s follow-up documentary, Project Nim, which premiered at this year’s Miami International Film Festival and opens it first run on Friday at the Regal Delray and Coral Gables Art Cinema, looks at another celebrity of the mid-seventies: Nim Chimpsky. Nim was a chimpanzee and the proverbial guinea pig in an experiment carried out by Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herb Terrace to determine whether a chimp could achieve a higher consciousness if raised as a human child.
Nim meets his first human “mother” as a newborn after his birth mother is shot with a tranquilizer gun at a primate research center in Oklahoma, where she has already been robbed of six babies. The incident casts an early and ominous fog over Marsh’s film that never dissipates.
With his ability to communicate via sign language and stylish (human) wardrobe, Nim enthralled the post-hippie culture. The news media, in their perpetual quest for human-interest pieces starring cute animals, lapped it up like a pack of Pavlovian dogs. But Nim’s life as a would-be Homosapien was far from idyllic, and he ultimately passed through an array of halfway houses, including cages, over the course of a turbulent life.
Project Nim stars no heroes. The people in Nim’s life — his “family” — come off self-righteous in their presumption to know the soul of a chimpanzee, and Terrace himself comes off hypocritical. “You don’t keep a chimp more than five years because they can cause harm to people,” he says, after Nim has attacked more than one of his female caretakers, in one case ripping a gaping hole through the woman’s face.
Using melodramatic orchestral music throughout the narrative, which features archival images and interviews with the people in Nim’s life, Marsh splices together a moving film that hooks you early and never lets go. Project Nim’s richness comes from a cast of characters who express their love for Nim in corrupting ways, for example, by smoking pot with the chimp and even breastfeeding him. Such acts add to the dynamism of a film that shows how good intentions and human folly can wreak havoc on a living creature.
Once you get past the allure of being able to transfer humanity to animals, Project Nim’s denunciation of Terrace’s misguided experiment is clear and compelling. In his own way, Marsh reiterates what Werner Herzog said in his own brilliant man-and-nature documentary, Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell and his foolhardy “friendship” with grizzly bears, one of which ended up eating him alive:
“I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder,” Herzog says, “and what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Though it is not the transcendent experience of Man on Wire, Project Nim offers its own potency and revelations. Yes, Nim may have a consciousness, but his mind is not human, an immutable fact that dooms Terrace’s experiment from the beginning. Laura-Ann Petitto, Nim’s second surrogate mother, says as much at one point in the film: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.”
Malick's first film, Badlands, was Martin Sheen's big-screen debut.
When heading into a Terrence Malick film, expect to leave with more questions than answers. I know several popped into my mind when I recently caught the veteran director’s latest movie, The Tree of Life, at the Regal in South Beach: What were those 10 people thinking when they walked out of the movie? What had they expected when they came in? How much does the presence of Brad Pitt affect expectations of a film like The Tree of Life?
I won’t get the answers to those questions. As to another — Is Malick one of most creative, dynamic, and original directors to have worked for Hollywood? — that questions gets a clear answer in The Tree of Life: Yes, he is.
Only a philosopher-turned-filmmaker could leave a viewer with the feeling that humanity is nothing, merely a bubble bursting on the surface of mud, while also implying that each one of us is as grand as the universe itself. With imagery comparable in abstraction to the stargate sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life melds images of mundane life in 1950s suburbia with glimpses of a prehistoric earth, as a mother tries to express her loss of a young son during a hushed voiceover. Cycling through images of the evolution of the world, Malick gives equal measure to a beached dinosaur as to the brewing of soap in the kitchen sink. It’s a cinematic symphony of sound and vision rarely experienced in today’s multiplexes.
As Malick has grown more abstract in his later years, it might be a good time to catch up with the director’s early work at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in the next edition of MBC’s Great Directors Series, starting on Thursday.
One of the most visually luscious road trip films of the ‘70s, Badlands was Malick’s first feature film, and probably his most accessible, as well as Martin Sheen’s big-screen debut. Opening the film with shots of the suburbs, pregnant with possibility, Malick immediately impresses with a unique cinematic vision. The film establishes the director’s eye for incredible skyline shots and a world in nearly constant twilight. Composer George Tipton augments the story — based on true accounts of a 25-year-old psychopath (Sheen) on the run with his 15-year-old lover (Sissy Spacek) — with a quirky soundtrack of choral voices, bells, and marimbas. Defying the longtime Hollywood code that every evildoer should get his comeuppance by the end titles, Badlands ends on a note of disturbing nihilism.
— Badlands is screening one time only at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, July 14, at 8 p.m.
Days of Heaven (1978)
In this film, Malick’s follow-up to Badlands, murder again drenches the plot. Sketchy steelworker Bill (Richard Gere) flees Chicago at the start of the Great Depression with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and a tagalong kid (Linda Manz), who narrates the story in an odd and naïve way. While working the wheat fields of a sprawling Texas farm, Bill and Abby’s relationship collides with a young, wealthy landowner (Sam Shepard), who has his eyes on Abby and is allegedly near death.
A visionary who dared to shoot in low light, Malick one-ups the breathtaking landscape shots of Badlands in Days of Heaven, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. At the same time, Malick’s storytelling through editing also shows him to be more skilled and confident in his second picture, a director who is more existentialist storyteller than mere camera operator.
— Days of Heaven is screening one time only at the Miami Beach Cinematheque from Thursday, July 21, to Saturday, July 23.
After Days of Heaven, it would be another 20 years before the World War II film The Thin Red Line would remind cinephiles that the reclusive Malick was still alive. Then, in 2005, Malick released The New World, which explored the tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. Next came The Tree of Life.
Malick’s later films did not become hits for the big name studios that released them, and Tree of Life probably won’t change the trend. But a filmmaker like Malick, who explores the possibility of message beyond language, should expect as much for his refusal to compromise.
Hans Morgenstern maintains a blog on independent film and music called The Independent Ethos. He’s freelanced for several music publications for 20 years and worked in programming at local film festivals.