If a film has a plot, but it never articulates it with any clarity, does it have a plot at all? Well, yes and no. On first viewing Russian filmmaker Aleksei German's bewildering dark ages sci-fi epic, Hard to Be a God, I was swept up in the visceral experience of the thing. The smell and taste of unfettered squalor. The meticulous hyperrealism. The ambiguous visual poetry of filth and desolation. But below this putrid skin there lurks a neat allegorical narrative, which it took a watch of Daniel Bird's fascinating interview (packaged in the special features) to even begin to comprehend. Is this the film's failure? Or to its credit that it prompts a search to unravel German's vision?
As the office block adjacent to my flat is being gradually gutted, I saw Hard to Be a God with the accompaniment of drilling, hammering and much indecipherable shouting in Polish. Strangely the perfect background to the general chaos and oppression of the viewing experience. This is a film almost to be felt more than watched. On a distant planet, not dissimilar to our own, civilisation has become stuck in pre-renaissance times, with artists and intellectuals – or smart-asses, as they are dubbed – hunted down and butchered. In a grey world without beauty or hope, the population is consumed by lethargy and apathy, staggering around muttering incoherently, obsessed with the smell and taste of bodily fluids. The physicality of the camera movements and lensing amplify this to visceral effect. It is a character, a POV voyeur that looms close on the action, bumping through the environment and jostling against props in long absorbing takes. As in a hazy dream the peasants and gentry will often glance curiously at us, and on occasion address us directly. It is a disarming technical construction that pulls us through the three hour running time, immersing us in the uncompromising director's vision.
In the centre of this world is an Earth scientist, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), sent to Arkanar to monitor the squalid civilisation through a small camera mounted on his head; subtly influencing the culturally desolate planet with progressive ideas. Don is the God of the title, mistaken by some for a celestial being through his otherworldly grace and intellect. His mission is not to interfere, so he must impotently stand by as the intelligentsia are slain, and he is cast adrift in a world of selfish gurning fools. Don is not a god, but what keeps a God going when all around there is chaos? Who does he turn to for answers, where should he place his faith? It is these intricacies of the plot that are lost in the foggy grey milieu, but allowed my second appreciation of Hard to Be a God beyond the passing of the joys of the grotesque visual poetry.
We are seldom permitted a glimpse outside cramped castle walls, forcing us to suffocate amongst the sweat and sickness of medieval life. When art is oppressed, there is nothing but shit, piss and spilled rotting guts, German seems to be saying. Take that, fascism. The colour palette echoes this absence of contrast, painting the claustrophobic Bruegel visions in tones of grey. There is rarely a pure white or black: everything is a murky dirge that somehow brings us into the misery. The stunning vision of the film is enhanced by its sound design which – aside from a hauntingly sombre jazz melody played by Don – shuns music for a cacophony of speech and noise that is unlike movie sound and more like the overheard conversations and passing interruptions of real life. As this is in Russian, to my ears, it has the added otherworldly guttural, rhythmic quality of a strange new land existing in both the past and present.
Hard sell doesn't begin to cover this lengthy Russian slog through abstract concepts and unrelenting monstrosity, but it is an experience with a wealth to offer. Not only in the powerful sensation of being dragged from your seat through this disgusting hyperreal world, but in its cautionary tale of where to place our priorities and affections. To chase out and humiliate everything we fear or don't understand will leave us no better than these hapless fools. Likewise to stand idle as all of value is destroyed is almost a greater crime.
[ 2013 — Dir: Aleksey German — 177 mins — IMDb ]
The spaghetti western A Cemetery Without Crosses owes such a debt to the work of Sergio Leone that it is even dedicated to him, not only for establishing the genre, but also for directing the film’s strongest scene. Predominantly helmed by (and starring) Frenchman Robert Hossein (allegedly with a little help from Dario Argento) it’s a touch more gallic than the genre would imply – but the haggard, weather-beaten faces, bloody revenge and ropey dubbing are all present and correct. Hossein is never quite able to capture the sweeping scale and electric relationships that marked out Leone’s westerns – but this tale of a vengeful widow and a laconic gunslinger benefits from an unexpectedly hard edge.
Maria (Michèle Mercier) is widowed in the heat of a running family feud, and seeks vengeance on her husband’s killers from old friend – and old flame – Manuel (Hossein). Striking fear into the heart of his enemies by ritualistically donning his black leather shooting glove, Hossein looks the part of the stern, stubbled, conflicted hero, but despite the alluded-to amorous past with Maria and tremendous sharp shooting he never has the effortless, cool swagger of a Wayne or Eastwood. Still, he is unquestionably a hard bastard. As the man in black draws closer to his target, it is Maria who spurs the vengeance into ever darker, personal territory, ensuring that there will be few survivors, and even they will forever be stained by their actions.
As with the best spaghetti westerns, a strong emphasis is placed on soundtrack. Leone had Morricone. Hossein has a soulful Scott Walker, whose ‘The Rope and the Colt’ continually reappears in all its twanging melancholic glory. Between these bursts of pop, many scenes are played out under a heavy oppressive silence – we presume to cut down on the amount of dubbing – but this brooding lends the multinational western an aura of solemnity and gravitas that would perhaps otherwise be absent in the raw material. The three key scenes are played out all but wordlessly – the monochromatic thundering of hooves and dust that comprises our introduction to the world, Maria’s silent orchestration of the rape of her rival’s daughter, and the suffocatingly tense dinner directed by Sergio Leone himself.
Manuel sits down to dinner with the family of those who killed his friend, calmly attempting to integrate himself into their fold – before reaching for the mustard pot and receiving the fright of his life from the grotesque springed witch puppet inside. All three moments are broken with sharp cacophonies of noise. The jaunty rhythms of pop music, fierce strumming of a Spanish guitar and, in this case, the cackling rolling laughter of a family all in on the joke.
It is a dynamic that is hardwired into the western genre. For years there is calm. The livestock are herded, the pasture is tended…… before ‘they’ roll into town with a world-shattering abruptness. The ‘they’ changes but the equilibrium is always irrevocably shifted by conflict and bloody-minded revenge. The moment hits in this film when the galloping pursuit grinds to a dusty halt, and Maria’s husband is strung up before her eyes.
“You believe in revenge, but I don’t... it never ends,” Manuel warns an understandably bloodthirsty Maria. But the outback status quo has already been shattered, the noose cannot be untied, the hideous witch has been freed. And thus, yet more lives are cut short by the grief burnt into the leathery skin of the old west. A solid addition to the genre, deserving of rediscovery in this immaculate new restoration.
[ 1969 — Dir: Robert Hossein — 90 mins — IMDb ]
Opening with skin-crawling, atonal flute music – first hovering over intricate New Age murals of firm grecian torsos and bizarrely contorted faces, before abruptly cutting to sagging geriatric flesh doddering around a Californian spa – Robert Altman’s 1977 trip, 3 Women, is immediately a film that lays out its dreamlike world of opposites and counter-points.
From this abstract beginning it subtly transfixes as it slowly introduces character and context with a voyeuristic reportage eye. In the bone dry, dusty Californian small town the young, freckled, pig-tailed, wide-eyed Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is shown around her new job tending to elderly customers at a day spa, guided by her superior, the glamorous Millie (Shelley Duvall). We mainly follow in Pinky’s journey, but it is Duvall who most easily draws the eye, producing a remarkably strange performance that continually borders on caricature, but always retains a deep sadness below her pristine surface. She is a consumer goddess, desperate for a connection with those around her. Her apartment is decorated to magazine perfection, her meals come direct from the pages of cookery books, even her bubbly chatty persona feels like the reincarnation of a TV commercial. Despite all this effort she is adrift in a lonely bubble, rambling to herself on the fringes of others' conversations – a bodysnatcher unable to fully recreate human nature.
To Pinky, though, she is perfection, possessing all the confidence and beauty she dreams of. We never gather any real backstory, but both women have abandoned their past lives in Texas for the promise of reinvention in California – and so, despite stark differences in their personalities, they form a dependent relationship, becoming roommates and something resembling friends. We assume that bathing the elderly and drinking at a Wild West theme bar are not the bright lights and glitz they envisaged – but smiles must be forced, and appearances must be kept.
As the women journey through their lives in episodic twists they brush up against both the seemingly well-adjusted citizens – who coolly ignore, or flat-out dismiss them – and a range of other idiosyncratic oddballs, including Willie (Janice Rule), the heavily pregnant mural artist. “Do you think they know which one they are?” Pinky absurdly questions Millie about their young, twin co-workers. It’s a question that is at the crux of the film. The spa is separated into pairs of women, each completing the other. And while the two Texan belles seem to need this kinship, there is a tension and awkwardness that flickers between them. Missing parts of the same whole that jar and rub to the last, right up till the introduction of the eponymous third woman – the balance in a bizarre familial triptych.
Famously inspired by a dream Altman had, 3 Women is a bewildering, atmospheric experience that refuses to announce its intentions – instead choosing to shape an evocative world of mysterious characters and almost surreal imagery for our own thoughts to be projected on. For a while we flirt with the thought that the women are figments of imagination, or there is some eerie higher power at work in the dead-end town; but the hazy rumination on identity and consumerism (amongst much else) is far richer than expected cinematic tropes.
[ 1977 — Dir: Robert Altman — 124 mins — IMDb ]
Drawn by human hands in crumbling charcoal lines and exquisite watercolour brushstrokes, there is that rare presence of soul in Isao Takahata’s farewell to cinema, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. The world is etched with the fluidity – and sparsity – of the impressionists, evoking time, and place, and emotion with the subtlest change in colour or texture. We witness an elderly bamboo cutter discover a pocket-size princess sprouting from a bamboo stalk. He can only assume she is a gift from the heavens – and to do right by his God he must raise her in a manner befitting such royalty. ‘Princess’, or ‘Little Bamboo’ as a gang of local children dub her, swiftly grows daily – learning to crawl, then stand, then walk in a matter of minutes – reaching adolescence in the blink of an eye.
The edges of the illustration often fade into nothing, with landscapes and valleys represented by the slightest of flourishes. As Princess makes friends while frolicking and exploring this boundless nature, we are able to fill in the detail ourselves through the evocative atmosphere the film creates. It is a world part conjured by the talented artists of Studio Ghibli, and part conjured by our own imagination.
While her adoptive father adores her, and relishes seeing her happy, he feels duty bound to move her to the city where she might live the life of a princess, constructing her a fine mansion – with help from gifts from the Gods. Princess is wrenched away from her leafy idyll to be schooled and offered up for acceptance to the nation’s true nobility. The stifling formality of adulthood is first rebelled against, and then resigned to.
It is easy to become immersed in the beautifully crafted vision of historic Japan, but the importance of its sound cannot be overstated. Joe Hisaishi’s heartbreaking koto melodies bewitch both us and the noblemen who hear them: the wind rustles evocatively through branches and the chirruping of the natural world casts us back to childhood days with our fingers in the dirt. Every hand-shaped element of this masterpiece comes from a spiritual place of adoration for its subject.
The themes of isolation and growing up too fast are the most familiar in this fairytale context, but like most Studio Ghibli productions Kaguya has a powerful message of ecology struck through it. The blossoming flowers and leaping insects are often represented with richer detail than the diverse cast of human players – for me it resonated most deeply as a cautionary tale of urban living.
While the Princess is wrapped in the finest cloth and enshrined behind an intricate bamboo screen, she is only truly happy when imagining her carefree childhood days amongst nature. Birthed from the soil, fed on bamboo shoots, she has been torn from her roots and thrust into a stuffy palatial existence – disconnected from all that made her. Those of us who dwell in cities where pigeons and flies pass for wildlife should take heed of her ultimate fate. We are also the birds, bugs and beasts Kaguya and her friends sing about while frolicking in the endless forest – our respect for our inherited planet shouldn’t be so quickly diminished.
As you may expect from the director of Grave of the Fireflies, there is a line in devastating sorrow to counter-point its sparkling joy – Princess Kaguya is a film of farewells. To youth, to innocence and to our planet’s rich greenery, but perhaps most sadly it is goodbye to Takahata who has now stepped back from directing. “Lifetimes come and go in turn,” Princess sings in the mournful repeated refrain, that has somehow been born into her. Never truer words spoken.
[ 2013 — Dir: Isao Takahata — 137 mins — IMDb ]