I’ve been posting movie reviews at the rate of about one a week lately in an effort to stretch some long atrophied critical (writing in general, if I’m being honest) muscles. This is a format (and for now, pace) that I intend to keep up, but I feel ready to introduce a new feature. Short form pieces–not reviews, but reactions–on older or more obscure films plundered from the shelves of Movie Madness, a local and impressively-comprehensive independent video store here in Portland. This serves the triple purpose of 1) getting me to seek out movies I’ve been meaning to investigate instead of finding something to watch that’s more easily available–encouraging more a more active viewing habit, if you will; 2) supporting a local business in whose raison d’être I firmly believe; and 3) further stretching the aforementioned muscles by approaching writing about film in a slightly different way.
For the inaugural foray, I chose two films that have been on my watch list for a while: one in the spirit of the season and one by way of a challenge.
Viy (or, Spirit of Evil) is not, even by the standards of 1967, particularly scary, despite being called the first horror movie to be produced under the Soviet state. There is a kind of existential dread about it, but it’s DNA is that of a folk tale–one written down, without much editing if the author is to be believed, by Nikolai Gogol in 1835. The film follows Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), a nogoodnik seminarian who runs afoul of a witch (Natalya Varley) and ends up having to preside over her corpse for three nights, defended against her demonic entourage only by his faith.
It’s the depiction of this entourage on which the movie’s reputation lies and that’s the main reason I sought it out. I was not disappointed. Despite a generally low production value, the expressive sets and inventive practical effects transcend the film’s limitations, slowly building into a weird, psychedelic fantasy nightmare. My understanding is these are largely the touches of one Aleksandr Ptushko, credited here as art director and co-screenwriter but a substantial director and effects wizard in his own right.
It’s hard not to want to read into the dual nature of the church in the story–the seminarians are barely better than criminals, but the power of religious ritual seems to rise beyond them, failing the hero only when he abandons it–but this didn’t strike me as a film overly concerned with a social message. Instead, it’s more experiential. And its a strange and worthwhile experience.
On the other hand, O Thiasos (The Traveling Players) is very much a social message film. It’s also stupidly hard to find in America. A couple unsubtitled versions are on Youtube but there is not, to my knowledge, a region 1 DVD release and even VHS releases are few and far between, so this was a kind of my challenge to see how comprehensive the selection at this place is. It turns out they did have an out of print 2-tape copy, but I had to put down a $150 deposit to rent it (something I was assured wouldn’t have been necessary after a certain number of rentals).
Considered the masterwork of Greek political filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, the 1975 film traces Greek history between 1939 and 1952, from German occupation through civil war and socialist uprising to the election of Papagos. This larger, national drama is interwoven into an allegorical family drama among the members of the eponymous theater troupe who are constantly interrupted in their performances of a romantic period piece, Golfo the Shepherdess (not only a real play, but the basis of the first Greek feature film in 1914, a fact not lost on Angelopoulos I’m sure). The players have mythical names–Agamemnon, Electra, Clytemnestra, Orestes, etc–and the betrayal and revenge among them mirrors the greater struggle of Greece itself through the period.
Fair warning: this is a long and slow movie–it runs nearly four hours and its average shot length is an insane 2:53 (for reference, 0:15 is on the long end of an average Hollywood film)–but Angelopoulos is clearly comfortable taking his time. I was a little concerned this would be a socio-realist political lecture of a film, easier to respect intellectually than to actually enjoy, but it’s rarely dull and surprisingly warm, dreamlike, and emotive. The camera weaves through time and space in unexpected ways and fills even still, empty moments with drama; important events sometimes take place offscreen before the action drifts back into the frame and years can pass (backwards or forwards) within a single tracking movement.
The push and pull between art and life is also an element in the film’s fascinating mixture. The play itself exists as a fragment out of time–performed in a variety of contexts and rarely finished onscreen, functioning as a kind of history inhabited by different generations, interrupted and rewritten in a kind of palimpsestic way. Even more interesting is the use of music. Much of the film is told through song, but grounded in the diegesis of the film, not at all on the heightened register of the musical. Instead, propaganda songs and folk tunes come to embody different ideas and are used almost like weapons by the characters; a memorable scene involves a kind of musical battle for control of a dance hall between socialist rebels and royalist forces.
The most striking moments, and the emotional anchor points of the film, come in three lengthy monologues, where three of the main characters each describe to the camera their personal experience of a moment of historical violence. The staging of these scenes is simple–Agamemnon (Stratos Pahis) sits on a train car with his family in the background, Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) stands on a rocky beach after being attacked by a group of men, Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) smokes nervously in a doorway–but the stories and their quietly intense deliveries are absolutely gripping and nail down the inseparability of the personal and the political that lies at the heart of the work.
On the next round of Movie Madness Raids, I’ll have reactions to Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. Also look for a review of either American Made or Kingsman: The Golden Circle (I haven’t decided yet) in the next few days.