Friday, November 02, 2007

Hitchcock, kids, umbrellas and trains, oh my!

Consider, if you will, a modest alternative to the usual flavorless multiplex fare, where morphing robots are so bereft of imaginative programming that all they can think of turning into are sports cars and ten wheelers, and effeminate pirates are so enamored of boxoffice profits they can't even recognize when they've been drained dry of creative juices and just lay down and die. Shake things up a bit, plug into something a liddle different, and sample fare at these two modest film festivals: the Fright Fest at Ayala Cinema's Glorietta 4, and Cine Europa at its traditional venue for the past ten years, the Shangri-La Plaza.

The Fright Fest features (what else) fright flicks from Wes Craven (not a big fan) to John Carpenter (who isn't, in my opinion, represented here by his best work), and four from this funny fat Englishman named Alfred Hitchcock. Who's he, you may ask? Only one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and, as all his own promotional material use to put it, a "Master of Suspense."

Probably best to take his pictures chronologically (more or less). Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is about a young girl (Teresa Wright, beautifully innocent, here), living in a quiet little community who starts suspecting that her "Uncle Charlie" (Joseph Cotten, at his most graciously menacing), fresh from the big city and a glamorous, mysterious figure, is actually a serial killer. Hitchcock considers this his favorite among all his films; I don't quite agree--I think the very best Hitchcock also needs above and beyond finely tuned thrills a strong element of sensual romance, even guilt over the consequences of said romance (something one can't quite find between the girl and Uncle Charlie (and anyone who suggests otherwise is a cad)). I do think it's a perfect melding of playwright Wilder (Our Town) and filmmaker Hitchcock, one feeding off of the other in an unholy, vampiric dance.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a romp, from exotic Morocco to England's Albert Hall; what makes it more than that is Hitchcock's incomparable skill in sketching unsettling details into the margins of his narratives. The way, for example, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart, in an underrated performance) seems a tad too eager to drug his celebrity wife Jo (Doris Day, also underrated here) before telling her that their son had been kidnapped by international terrorists. The rest of the film is, as mentioned, a romp, but you're never ever sure from then on if the doctor's motives for anything is pure. Excellent--did I mention it's underrated?--Hitchcock thriller.

Rear Window (1954) is Hitchcock on top of his game. You can take the film on two levels: first, as a mystery where a man with a broken leg begins to suspect (Hitchcock's best works often start with someone in a familiar situation suddenly acquiring the notion that things aren't as they should be) that his neighbor across the way has just killed his wife; second, as a meditation on the consequences when a man is granted access into the lives of all the people around him--possibly the very first multi-screen, multi-channel entertainment system ever invented, in incomparably sharp detail and stunning color, churning out the '50s equivalent of reality TV. Hitchcock poses and pulls the stings of his little marionettes for Jeffries (again, Stewart, again amazing), and you share the fascination, the rush of power Jeffries feels. Should he--and we, by extension--feel disturbed? Should we, in fact, feel ashamed? Hitchcock may have been called the master of suspense to sell tickets, of course; no one points out how much Hitchcock is also a master of guilt and lasting remorse.

The Birds (1963) was Hitchcock's much-anticipated follow-up to his boxoffice hit Psycho (1960); in my opinion, the former exceeds all such anticipations. That's not a popular verdict; seen today, people consider The Birds a tad too ambitious, its bluescreen effects (despite contribution by animation legend U.B. Iwerks) too clunky and obvious ("think," some say, "of what Hitchcock would have done with digital effects!"). Seen on the big screen, however, The Birds is an entirely different creature; it's essentially an aural film, with Oskar Salas' collection of bird cries orchestrated by Bernard Herman's unique electronic keyboard into a cacophonic, apocalyptic attack on man's presumptuous position on the evolutionary ladder. Standing on top rung, Hitchcock seems to ask, are we as we often assume master of all beneath us, or are we just that much more exposed to takeover attempts from creatures below?

Hitchcock's films often ended with rational explanations and comforting reunions, presumably to make up for the unpleasantness he inflicts on his audiences. The Birds offers no such comfort: the animals attack, one by one we offer up theories that one by one are knocked down; the animals continue to attack without apparent end. As Hitchcock's most sweeping statement about the ultimate condition of our species and its relatively precarious grip on the planet Earth, The Birds stands alone; beyond any picture's ability to use giant apes or flamethrowing lizards or ants or spiders or sharks or worms or dinosaurs or whatever to rattle our environmental sense of smug entitlement, the film stands alone.

At the Shangri-la Cinema--Jan Sverak's Kolja (Kolya, 1996) was his most internationally successful work (it won one of those gold doorstops for Best Foreign-Language Film), and possibly most likeable, his variation on Eliot's Silas Marner where a man (Sverak's father Zdenek) acquires temporary custodianship of a young boy, learns to care for him, and along the way learns compassion and some measure of humanity. Sverak doesn't entirely transcend the sentiment, but his trademark low-key humor and effortlessly bittersweet melancholy (seen in fine form in previous works like Jizda (The Ride, 1994)) helps pull him through.

Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander, 1982), Ingmar Bergman's penultimate film, isn't so much a singular and intense work of art as it is an encyclopedia of singular and intense works of art--if anything, it seems to be a summation of Bergman's career at that time, not a bad thing to be at all. One wants to hold it like a treasury of great stories and images, and opens the book (or reviews the film in one's mind) directly at favorite passages--the spectacular Christmas Eve dinner early in the picture; Alexander's severe flogging; the terrifying moment in the Jew's workshop where God informs Alexander that He is stepping out and revealing himself. Not, perhaps, my favorite Bergman but easily his most accessible, a big, warm, fuzzy introduction (with a good dose of severe Lutheranism to balance it all out) to the filmmaker's works.

Jiri Menzel's Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) is an amazing debut feature; ostensibly about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, its hidden theme (and real subject) is the Soviet Union's stranglehold on the country since the Second World War. It comes off initially as a lighthearted romantic comedy about Milos (Vaclav Neckar) and his determination to lose his cherry, if you will. There are plenty of comically erotic opportunities, not to mention young nubile Czechs to lose it with, but the picture is no mere teenage giggle fest; Menzel carefully relates Milos' sexual repression with the Nazi repression of the country as a whole (and, by extension, the Communist repression of the country at the time), and never lets us forget the grim background against which the hilarity is playing out--the corpses glimpsed at in one train, Milos' attempted suicide, the film's own grim ending. One has to marvel at the way Menzel managed to say what he wanted to say and yet still toe the line, censorshipwise; thanks, ironically, to Soviet oppression, Menzel managed to create a subtly, cheerfully subversive film.

If Menzel's film is bittersweet, Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) is bittersweet set to music. Michel Legrand's swooning romantic score and Demy's shocking color palette are an exhilirating match; add the incomparable Catherine Denueve and only a man with a heart of stone (and groin of boiled pasta) can resist the potent mix. Walk in with a will, walk out with bright reds, brilliant yellows and profound purples throbbing away against the back of your eyelids, with Legrand's indelible score warbling in your ears, and with the film's melancholy conclusion slowly, exquisitely breaking your heart.

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