Monday, 16 April 2012

Weekly Films

This Week’s Films:

- Closely Watched Trains
- A Better Life
- Last Tango in Paris

Opening Dialogue: ‘’My name is Milos Hrma. They often laughed at my name. But otherwise, we were a happy family. Our great-grandfather Lukas, as a tambour, fought on the Charles Bridge of Prague
and when the students threw cobblestones at the soldiers they hit great-grandfather with such aim
that he’s received a pension ever since: One gulden per day. He didn't do anything after that, except buy a bottle of rum and a pack of tobacco every single day… My grandfather William was a hypnotist
and the whole town believed his hypnotism was prompted by a desire to go through life without any effort…My father, an engine driver, has been retired since the age of forty eight and people are mad with envy since dad is healthy and will draw his pension for twenty, maybe thirty years without doing a thing.’’

Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledované Vlaky) (1966)
Jirí Menzel
Oscar winner for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ in ‘68

Looking over a list of all the previous Oscar winners for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, I stumbled upon an unusual title: ‘Closely Watched Trains’, a film from a nation that is no longer with us, (Czechoslovakia) puzzled me from the start. Made in 1966 but in black and white and with a plot that seemed too thin to spread over 90 minutes without boring the spectator, I wondered how good it could actually be. The story goes a little like this: Milos Hrma comes from a family of mediocre and lazy male role-models; his father and grand-father both went through life attempting to do as little as possible. Milos, continuing this ‘noble’ tradition of near uselessness, lands himself a job at the local train station, as an apprentice train watcher- hence the title - a profession he feels will be all too easy. The motion-picture deals with the simple life of Milos and the problems of a small-town boy nearing manhood. Great emphasis is placed on portraying the erosion of sexual innocence and the difficulties Milos has in overcoming an introspective personality. ‘Closely Watched Trains’ is, above all, a human film- the characters have their flaws on display throughout the entire film, each one with a particular flaw. One is a coward, the other a traitor, and another a hypocrite; caricatures of people coming into conflict with who they wish to be and who they are. The highlight of the film is the oftentimes comical dialogue, the best part of which is narrated by Milos in first-person. Jirí Menzel directs a, touching, detailed, and brilliant film about the emotional problems which young men live through during their ‘awkward years’. The embarrassing and exciting moments all young men go through to reach maturity are intimately played out on screen as Milos Hrma surfaces as a young adult. The film faithfully recreates the ‘rituals’ which shy, confused boys stumble through during adolescence, most of which are kept as secrets for the rest of their lives. This is why this film is so fascinating, it reminded me of what I was like as a boy dealing with the onslaught of time, the need for maturity and the slow transformation of youth to man. ‘Closely Watched Trains’ is an ageless film dealing with a nostalgic part of our lives - sexual innocence- with a teenage anti-hero as a protagonist representing the humanity and emotional vulnerability of youth.

A Better Life (2011) – Chris Weitz
Starring Demian Bichir – Nominated for an Oscar in 2011 for Best Actor in a Leading Role which used to be the pearl of instant film websites for around two years - featured this movie as one of their ‘new releases’ in mid-2011. Seeing as I had nothing better to do than ignore promises of a better life myself, I decided to embrace the opportunity to watch a film I had heard nothing about, with actors I did not know and a director whose name evoked no title. Shrugging my shoulders as if to say, ‘why not?’, I gave it a chance.

Starring a member of one of Mexico’s most renown families, Demián Bichir, (both of his parents and two brothers are actors) as an illegal Mexican immigrant trying to make ends meet, ‘A Better Life’ is a story about the ‘invisible’ fractions of American society; illegal aliens. Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, a hard-working Mexican immigrant residing in East L.A. who earns his living as a gardener struggling between family troubles and financial worries. Bichir’s character barely has enough money for basic amenities and decides to invest a loan into starting his own gardening business; a risk which he knows is his only chance to change the routine he’s been living for the past years. Conscious that his son, played by Eddie Soleto, has close ties with gang-members Galindo is afraid that his child might try and take the ‘easy way out’: joining the criminal underworld, a popular decision for those without a bright professional future as the on-going drug-wars in Mexico evidently shows. Throughout the film, one witnesses the prejudice, the difficulty and the quirks which individuals living without legal rights face during their day-to-day on American soil. When Galindo has a problem, he cannot inform the authorities as would a normal American citizen, he has to take matters into his own hands; it’s a dog eat dog way of life. This casts a limelight on what hundreds of thousands of families go through every year in America and brings up the sensitive issue of immigration in a new perspective. Interestingly, the film ignores racial tensions between Latinos and ‘white America’- most probably as the film is set in Los Angeles, one of the most ethnically diverse cities on earth, where Latinos make up 48.5% of the population. However, I’d like to draw on some personal experiences whilst living in Houston, Texas. During the four years I lived in Houston, on two different occasions, I witnessed scenes of racial abuse that could comfortably be edited into American History X. For example, at an under-13 football practice, a Latino youth rode by the pitch on his bicycle only for one of our players to loudly shout ‘If you ride by here again, I’ll get my shotgun’ followed by typical racial slur, such as, ‘you goddamn wetback’. A number of problems, some addressed and others left untouched, trouble the Latino community in the United States, but for illegal immigrants there’s no way to fight back if not with their own hands. Any mistake and it’s straight back across the wire, the concrete walls and the border which separates Mexicans from the all too distant American Dream. Carlos Galindo’s struggle for dignity, as human being and as a Mexican alien, is a touching portrayal of a man attempting to turn his life around in the urban chaos of Los Angeles. Caught between the fate of his son, the danger of forced repatriation and losing everything he has fought for so far, ‘A Better Life’ is an emotional film on an important topic. Demián Bichir’s Oscar-nominated performance is worth it alone; as a father, a Mexican, a man and a fighter, he excels superbly in giving a moving spiritual dimension to all of them.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)- Bernardo Bertolucci
Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci were nominated for Best Director of a Motion-Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Jeanne: You know, he and l, we make love.

Paul: Oh, really? That’s wonderful. Is he a good fucker?

Jeanne: Magnificent.

Paul: You know, you’re a jerk. Cos’ the best fucking you’re gonna get is right here in this apartment. Stand up.

Jeanne: He is full of mysteries.

Paul: Listen, you dumb dodo. All the mysteries that you’re ever gonna know in life are right here.

Jeanne: He is like everybody but… at the same time he’s different.

Paul: You mean, like everybody.

Jeanne: Yeah, but… even he fright (sic) me. Even he frightens me.

Paul: What is he, your local pimp?

Jeanne: He could be. He looks it. You know why I’m in love with him?

Paul: I can’t wait.

Jeanne: Because he know. He know how to make me fall in love with him.

Paul: You want this man you love to protect and take care of you.

Jeanne: Yeah.

Paul: You want this golden, shining, powerful warrior to build a fortress where you can hide in. So you don’t have to ever… have… You don’t ever have to be afraid. You don’t have to feel lonely or empty. That’s what you want, isn’t it?

Jeanne: Yes.

Paul: Well, you’ll never find it.

Jeanne: But I find this man.

Paul: Then it won’t be long until he’ll want you to build a fortress for him out of your tits and your cunt and your hair and your smile and the way you smell. And… and some place where he can feel comfortable and secure enough so that he can worship in front of the altar of his own prick.

Jeanne: But I find this man!

Paul: No, you’re alone. You’re all alone. You won’t be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean, that sounds like bullshit, some romantic crap, until you go right up into the ass of death. Right up in his ass… till you find the womb of fear. And then,… maybe… Maybe then, you’ll be able to find him.

— Last Tango in Paris


Controversial, explicit, disgusting; Bertolucci’s 1972 romantic drama, ‘Last Tango in Paris’ caused a massive stir upon its release and those were some of the labels used to describe the motion-picture by public and critics alike. Banned in Spain and Italy- where Bertolucci would later be tried and convicted on charges of ‘obscenity’-, and the first mainstream film in the United Kingdom to be awarded the now infamous ‘X’ rating, ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was as successful as it was shocking. Movie-goers were curious. Although reviews spoke of ‘pornography disguised as art’ the urge to see the face of the ‘beast’ with their own eyes was beyond most humans’ self-control; compare it to when there is a road-side accident. As the motor-vehicle slowly creeps by the location of the crash, many of us look, consciously aware it might not be a pretty sight. Curiosity prevails. In some cases, people were curiously disgusted by Bertolucci’s magnum opus, like much of the American middle-class. ‘’The Village Voice reported walkouts by board members and "vomiting by well-dressed wives." Others, notably the French general public, were curiously pleased. ‘’In France, moviegoers stood in two-hour lines for the first month of its run at the seven theatres where Tango played spurred by unanimous positive reviews in every major French publication. In order to circumvent state censorship, thousands of Spaniards travelled hundreds of miles to reach French theatres in Biarritz and Perpignan where Tango was playing.’’. If anything, ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was a divisive film.

All gasps, applause and past reviews aside, ‘Last Tango in Paris’ is an erotic masterpiece. Bertolucci directs a film in which Brando (‘Paul’), playing a forty-something American expatriate, becomes an ambulant portrait of an afflicted spirit going through an existential crisis. Paul, owner of a rackety hotel, attempts to repress the pain of loss by spending days with ‘Jeanne’, played by the brilliant Maria Schneider, a beautiful young Parisian woman who is going through a crisis of her own. After a brief but passionate encounter, ‘Paul’ and ‘Jeanne’ agree that their relationship must be anonymous (no names, no details, no personal information) as ‘Jeanne’ is to be engaged and ‘Paul’ has no interest in explaining his tragic history. They agree to regularly meet at the hotel where they talk of love, sex and engage in surreal conversations. As the relationship progresses the climax is slowly reached with the dialogue providing hints of escalating tension between ‘Paul’s’ visible emotional instability and ‘Jeanne’s’ growing doubt of her relationship with a stranger who is at times passionate but at other times, an animal and a sociopath. Jeanne does not seem to know whom to choose; her nice, respectable husband to be or the seemingly wise, intense, lust-filled ‘Paul’? It’s a picture on deciding between emotion and logic.

‘Last Tango in Paris’ is a film in which Marlon Brando expertly depicts the image of a broken man lost within himself, depressed and who can no longer act rationally. Maria Schneider delivers a ground-breaking performance as the submissive ‘Jeanne’, an innocent girl searching for the answers of life, faced with two options; one safe and rational, the other, wild and emotional. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the film is the absurd, unromantic, in-the-gutter speeches which ‘Paul’ proclaims as if in a trance, and the raw imagery evoked in the dialogue between him and ‘Jeanne’. This is an unconventional film which ignored all the rules of making a publicly-acclaimed work, making its own recipe for success instead of following the demands of a Hollywood style flavour. Especially because of this, it captivates the viewer, not only because of the awe-inspiring performances of Brando and Schneider, but because of the ‘balls’ required to make such a film in the 70’s. Is this film pornography disguised as art? No. It’s an intimate close-up of a decadent relationship between two human beings searching within each other for something they once had.