Discombobulated: FAMILY NEST

Béla Tarr’s 1979 black-and-white drama, Family Nest is an impressively poignant film about a scarcely, close-knit, verbally, venomous family of six living in a tiny apartment in the Communist land of Hungary. Being that this was one of Tarr’s first films, it reeks of bleak insight of the everyday life of a family struggling to live together. It’s similar to 1987’s Moonstruck except it’s not in a big New York Apartment with an Italian family yelling over Loreta’s love life during an early morning breakfast. Tarr gives us an uncomfortable, let’s-get-cozy, spiteful Hungarian family quarreling in a tiny apartment at a tiny dinner table. It’s as if one is dying of asphyxiation without even realizing it. For long moments at a time, it’s as if you were trapped in an elevator surrounded by a ceaseless shouting match of animosity while plunging down into hell. The story involves a married couple, Iren and Laci along with their daughter living in Laci (the husband’s) parents house, along with his brother Gabor. Iren is insistent on finding a flat to live in, but with the housing crisis there are waitlists and limited options which ultimately lead to the demise of her marriage. It also doesn’t help that Laci’s father is a patriarchal nightmare to be reckoned with because he has zero respect for Iren’s capability of being a mother and a wife.

There’s a lack of sympathy for women in this film, enforced by the redundant monologues about getting out of a problematic living situation. It doesn’t get any better, when Iren brings a friend, Roma over for family dinner after a day of work at a factory. The parent’s disgust for Roma is nauseating because they have no problem voicing their horrendous emotions blatantly as she gracefully thanks them for their phony hospitality as she leaves for the evening. Of course, there’s the vile soul-crushing scene of the two brothers Gabor and Laci raping Roma in a dark alley as if it was a casual walk in the park, which ends with the three of them having a beer at the local pub. Tarr’s focus on humanity’s darkest hour is teeth grindingly grueling which invokes the need to curse at the ceiling while releasing a deep frustrating sigh into the atmosphere.

However, despite the brutality, there lays a subtle yet highly effective metaphor in a scene with Iren and her father-in-law as both work together to clue a glassed photograph. They clue the crack that’s split the middle of the portrait. The crack obviously points out the serious ideological divide the two must come to terms with in order to restore their damaged, antagonizing relationship. Nonetheless, Tarr draws out a beautiful moment between the two hostile souls by emphasizing his frame on the work at hand instead of cutting to a relished reaction shot. It’s bare bones, folks! And, not just by the jarring close ups and static push in shots, but there’s not resolution to this maddening monstrosity of humanity trapped in it’s most dire moment of enduring the hard times.

One of my favorite shots that encapsulates the essence of this film is Iren and her daughter riding a swing at an amusement park, while Laci sits drinking at a nearby table. The camera follows and nearly foreshadows the spiraling demise of an unstable relationship brought on by a wobbly world of patriarchal power (Laci’s father) dominating the household. You can’t help but feel the jarring sensation of claustrophobia running rampant while they enjoy a simple pleasure of excitement as it parallels they’re world spinning out of control.

It’s a difficult story to watch because there’s no moment of inspiration, no hope, nor miracle lurking around a spectacular cloud of magic, it’s just the cold, harsh, reality of life being unfair and cruel. Tarr neglects the superficial and embraces a pessimistic regard for humanity, making you want to weep gently into a soggy pillow of tears.

Advertisements

Epic Ramblings: LEVIATHAN

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan permeates of allegorical, and biblical vibes so much that it underscores an essential point about bureaucratic big wigs versus your average Joe kind of a guy. Big fish always eats the little fish. It’s about man fighting the power with copious amounts of vodka, a flared temper, who coincidentally likes to shoot his classy guns at prominent pictures of Russian leaders from yester-year. The story resides in a Northern seaside village of Russia where Koyla, a rough-neck, car mechanic is threatened by the big fish scum bag of a mayor, Vadim, who steals Koyla’s home and land, through the power of imminent domain, so he can tear it to shreds and replace it with a piece of cheap, crappy, development. Sound familiar? It’s the common backward fairy-tale, of the small town with a mom-and-pop shop getting their throats slashed in honor of cheaper prices by none other than the corporate hellhounds known as Wal-Mart. It might sound a tad bit dramatic BUT, the resonance of truth still rings the same, allegorically speaking.

Of course biblically, Zvyagintsev nails it on the head, in terms of the actual Leviathan, who is totally portrayed by the soulless, fat, mean, whale of a mayor, Vadim, consequently also being the monolithic, soul-sucking sea-serpent that cannot be stopped nor even die. He’s referenced quite extensively in book of Job specifically in verses 41:10-11 which states,

“No-one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?

Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.”

This film exudes mental deepness that’s incredibly fun to fathom just as dazzling as the compositions of Zvyagintsev’s shot selection of majestically blue waves crashing against a cliff, or a bonfire illuminating remains of a dilapidated church with fragments of religious paintings left behind. With so much beautiful imagery of cold, windy, vast, Russian landscapes interestingly, contrasts with the gritty, selfish, disloyal, gluttonizing, nature of human beings. Oh, that’s right we’re all flawed! We’re so flawed, that Zvyagintsev refrains from showing acts of violence, sex, and whatever blackmail Dimitri is dangling before Vadim. He turns the camera away from moments of corruption to highlight the notion we are to never know the truth, which epically makes the theme of this film intricately profound. Even with recycled immoral behaviors the narrative throws upon us, the betrayal, the hate, the violence, the greed, the anguish, we’re left with a reminder that this is kind of what makes the world go round in an eerie, jarring, image at the very end of the film. Koyla’s land what was once a simple family home for generations is now a frozen fortress of religion. All of these immoral human beings, Koyla, Liyla, and Dimitri are all essentially eliminated from their original quest in fighting the powers at be for their land, which begs an even bigger question: why? Was it for a greater good conjured by some unexplainable religious force with a sidekick known as the Leviathan? Or can we simply nod our heads and agree to never really having an explanation since as humans we lack the competence of having the absolute-all-knowing-everything power.

My Bleeding Eyes: ANTICHRIST

Lars Von Trier’s grisly film, Antichrist has a plethora of abysmal attributes for a horror, erotic, and somewhat meditative art film. The common recycled plot line about characters enduring a trauma that triggers their psyche to do insane things to rectify their innermost turmoil which consequently, mimics similar films (with less trauma) such as the Machinist, Bellflower, and even the mini-series the Leftovers all of which bathe in the same grief-guilt-ridden tub. So, what makes Antichrist stand out other than the fact that Lar Van Trier tributes his entire film to Andrei Tarkovsky which, makes me raise a questionable eyebrow? Visually, it has a spellbinding lure that hypnotizes the audience with the use of slow motion and black and white imagery, just enough to keep their attention span from waning until suddenly they want to claw their eyeballs out as all hell breaks loose. It’s disturbing and the images will burn blatantly into your mind for days while all the kitten videos in the world cannot save your sorry soul. The fox was correct in that “Chaos Reigns” especially when grief stricken souls run rampant in an isolated cabin called Eden. How appropriate and yet spiritually symbolic. It’s as if we’re rehashing the biblical story of creation except in reverse with now a story of destruction where a satanic force is now playing god with these two damaged souls.

And yet, misogyny (which is common in most horror films) seems to be Von Trier’s forte in that he’s subjugating his audience to the idea that women are bad in nature because they have no control over their bodies, therefore are going to unleash havoc on those who threaten them. Which, okay its understandable women defending themselves in self-defense, but not so much in a sadistic manner to themselves let alone people they love. Okay, maybe there are a few bad apples but, not all women. If Sherry Ortner’s ideas on “women are closest to nature as men are closest to culture” rings true, then it makes sense women have no control over their bodies as no one really has control over nature.

Von Trier exceedingly creates a catastrophic, lip biting, heart stopping, tantalizing, gruesomely, terrifying spectacle of a film where you don’t know whether to scream, or have a lobotomy. Despite its cataclysmic conflict of a married couple coping with the death of their child, who falls out of a window during their excruciatingly graphic love making scene, there lays the thematic thread of grief that ties the narrative together in a very disturbing nature. The mere reaction of the wife climaxing as her son falls to his death sends chills down one’s spine. And from that jumping off point (no pun intended) grief in fact makes people (in this case) do outlandish things. For instance, Willem Dafoe’s character takes it upon himself to “cure” his wife from her depression when in fact he should have just left her in the hospital and let depression take it’s course without interfering. But, the couple ultimately decimates one another by inflicting emotional and sexual abuse such as self mutilation, manipulation, aggressive sex and other sadistic behaviors that play out in a nerve racking bloodbath.

Now how does this film tie into Tarkovsky land? Well, there’s the mournful, melancholy tone, the nature shots of the wife blending into the green grass as instructed by her therapist husband, the deer, the fox, the crow and of course there’s the cabin where all memories, truths, and dreams are all projected. It does have a slight reflective Mirror-esque quality in that Dafoe’s character is searching for the truth in his despondent wife’s fear. We then learn that that fear is herself. Makes sense given her guilt of witnessing her son’s departure as she blissfully orgasms. But, then again anyone suffering the death of a child is a hell of it’s own in which case Lars Von Trier disgustingly and skillfully achieves in his vividly gory nightmare. Oddly, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist makes Italian director, Dario Argento’s sinister, expressionistic film Suspiria feel like a place of refuge.

A Pretty Movie: TREE OF LIFE

Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is challenging, complex, and captivating which are all great ingredients for a mind-boggling experience. It exhibits a dynamic and evolving metamorphosis on a contemplative question of whether one should live the way of nature or live the way of grace. Two contrasting ideologies that complement and conflict with each other. As it’s narrated in the opening of the film: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself and Nature only wants to please itself.” And yet, the Tree of Life feels like it’s a super-hyper-active version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s the Mirror which idiosyncratically stands alone from a mainstream cinematic feel good movie. One of the primary thematic elements is sadness and mourning which is emphasized in the beginning of the film. Jack’s brother has been killed, to which the audience will never understand how, it’s just accepted while each character attempts to process their own grief that’s visually captured in numerous ways. For instance, Mr. O’Brien (the father) learns of his son’s death through a phone call and as he’s trying to listen, the use of non-diegetic roaring of the airplane’s engine and propellers revving up and then slowly fading out creates a cerebral affect of how one might experience shock. It’s a genius strategy that conjures up elaborate emotions that aren’t expressed in dialogue but simply in an actor’s expression and other external elements.

Malick had an extensive, ambitious vision for his film in terms of what the meaning of life really means and it’s as if there is always this creepy omniscient presence watching every detail which is brilliantly captured in the fluidity of the camera movement. The camera’s long tracking shots of the characters walking outside, or inside the house, rolling around in the grass, or capturing the sweet innocence of a newborn’s gaze on the world around him all intimately shot, conveying a looming presence that there’s an attentive eye observing everything. The eye of an all loving, all knowing creator?

Thematically, the film embodies a powerful presence of compassion, love, and nature. The tree itself could be perceived as a metaphor for love, in that it continuously grows if nurtured and cared for properly. Perhaps, love fills the universe and all the living creatures that inhabit the planet. This could be visually evident in the transgression between the two dinosaurs takes places where the moment of consciousness begins which similarly parallels the gun sequence between the two brothers. The moment where Jack convinces his younger brother to place his finger over the barrel of a gun. The younger brother is skeptical but also lovingly trusts his older brother. So, Jack pulls the trigger which hurts his brother and he later feels guilty and attempts to console him.

The swift editing, fluid camera movements, and grand musical compositions cultivate a decadent nearly meticulous cinematic dance. Both Malick and Tarkovsky’s vision have the same objective story wise: to emulate a stream of consciousness using one’s memories almost in a montage fashion. Both filmmakers craft an introspection on what it means to be human based on the choices we make, the lessons we learn and the influences that shape our lives. Both emphasize the use of nature, levitation, and a sense of fleeting moments that make for a cinematic feast for the eyes. Yet, the dichotomy of reality and dreams highlights that the Tree of Life is centered on the character’s inner thoughts and emotions which is sometimes tricky to fathom in the nature shots. Perhaps, the vivid cinematography is suppose to reflect a person’s abstract inexplicable thoughts and emotions that words cannot express.

Emotional Hysteria: SACRIFICE

It’s difficult to fathom that Sacrifice would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, because there’s a significant grace in his artistic conviction for delivering a very humane story about coming to terms with one’s own demise. The story is about Alexander, who’s celebrating his birthday with his estranged family in a house that feels somewhat like it’s on the desolate outskirts of a misplaced world known as purgatory. Most of the dialogue between Alexander and his family all seem to reminisce about the past, which is something that’s often examined when someone is close to death’s doors. However, in the midst of Alexander’s birthday celebration a declaration of nuclear war has begun with the eerie, screeching sounds of the overhead airplanes summoning up a looming apocalyptic threat that essentially induces a chaotic fever of anxiety and panic among the characters in the film. Adelaide, Alexander’s wife goes bonkers screaming that something must be done while Victor, the doctor injects a sedative to calm her nerves. Her emotional hysteria rattles Otto and Alexander’s nerves as both decide to have a drink. Typical male behavior, when most sane, emotional women sink into momentary insanity.

As the ordinary world, runs into full disarray, Tarkovsky uses desaturated colors, nearly black and white to convey a world of doomsday despair in Alexander’s dream sequence where in one frame he runs down a hallway as the water drips in a non-diegetic fashion. While in the next frame, Alexander is sitting next to a window looking out into the bare snowy land, then suddenly in another frame, he’s outside seeping his hands into earthy sludge while uncovering a piece of cloth. The ground shakes again with the lovely tracking shot of the ground, with leaves being blown and fragments of snow flake away. The dream sequence is a metaphor for Alexander’s weariness about life in terms of depression, technology and modern science changing the world, while his need for refinement of peace, solitude, and hope is a need for precedence. As Alexander ranted his unraveling about humanity to Little Man, while sitting under a tree, he says, “We have acquired a dreadful disharmony between our material and our spiritual development.” He’s losing control over his life, and what generally occurs next is the mixture of denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and eventually acceptance and at the core of it all, he turns to spirituality. Alexander prays and turns to God begging for everything to be restored back to normal and he’ll give up everything that binds him to life, his ultimate sacrifice. Tarkovsky skillfully and masterfully conveys God’s power in granting Alexander to live and as the film begins to conclude, he slowly severs himself from his family and life by basically being mute, hiding himself away, and lighting his house on fire. Consequently, life embodies this pattern of creation and destruction very similar to how artists express themselves in their work. The beauty of this cinematic marvel is Tarkovsky’s poetic knowledge that when something ends, something almost always accordingly new begins. An ending always has a start and vice versa. The cycle is never ending, with the destruction of the burning house and in the final frames of the film, Little Man is sitting at the base of the tree he helped plant with Alexander, signifying that something new will eventually grow.

As Alexander awesomely says, “We wait for something. We hope, we lose hope, we move closer to death. Finally, we die.” There’s a continuation of yearning for something and through the course of the story, Alexander reiterates that he’s been waiting around for something and that is whole life has been one long wait. Obviously, life is about living and finding meaning, and seemingly how we project are own perceptions of the here and now, while lingering for the inevitable occurrence event known as death, but it’s also about finding sacrifice. Perhaps, this is what Alexander was waiting for. His own peace within accepting sacrifice for his loved ones. Humans do, do crazy things in the foundation of love. Alas, there are varying thematic elements Tarkovsky has woven in his final splendor of a film all ranging from living, waiting, dying, questioning, loathing, creating, and destroying. He’s ultimately sculpted a universe demonstrating humanity’s ongoing battle and perhaps charade of existential behaviors, prompting the question about what it truly means to sacrifice.

Embrace the Memories: NOSTALGHIA

According to Andrei Tarkovsky from his book, Sculpting in Time he says, “I am interested in man, for he contains a universe within himself; and in order to find expression for the idea, for the meaning of human life, there is no need to spread behind it, as it were a canvas crowded with happenings.” Tarkovsky examines life by portraying it as is, lingering in on moments that may or may not have material to them that progresses the story forward. It’s not your typical Hollywood format where a story is edited, polished, and reproduced with a happy ending that produces an enormous amount of money for mass audiences. Nostalghia is a story about the protagonist Gorchakov’s state of mind as he’s unable to find tranquility within himself and his reality around him, while yearning for his is old life of his homeland and family.

The story has a moody resonance with profound sadness which is basically what nostalgia is and Tarkovsky translates his own personal awareness of this into the story. There’s a sense of emptiness and longing weaved into the story’s timeline, where we see short black and white flashbacks that appear to be of Gorchakov’s family. Another notion that goes along with Nostalghia is the intrinsic feeling of spirituality, where Gorchakov endures the formidable task of pacing back and forth in an empty pool with a lit candle. He tries to keep the flame alive, which very much represents a metaphor for life.

There’s also an interesting contrast between the Gorchakov character, who is a poet, and the mad man, Domenico, whom he befriends while in Italy. The beauty to both of these characters, is how the mad man and the poet are very much the same person, because in a way to be an artist is to be kind of maddening. There is also a clever line from Domenico that enforces the very idea of the two being one, when he’s pouring a bottle olive oil he says, “One drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two.”

The final scene of the film also has a metaphorical element, where Gorchakov is in an abandoned cathedral and his nostalgia of his loved ones are among him, which shows how is state of mind is converging his reality with his long last past that of which he yearns to be part of again. It’s cinematically breath taking scene that also leaves an open-ended philosophical interpretation which is refreshing to contemplate how it makes a person feel and again question what it means to be human.

In the Zone: STALKER

Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker is an elusive, beautifully cryptic story that smells as if it foretold the disaster of Chernobyl that occurred in 1986. Which was several years after the film was completed. Creepy? Yes. There’s an eerie resonance that echoes throughout the narrative of the film, where a man known as the stalker acts as a tour guide taking a writer and professor on a carefully, nearly calculated journey into the place that is known as the Zone.

The Zone is an abandoned land of corroded buildings, farms, trees, fields, and seemingly feels like it’s an alternative reality that provides curiosity seekers a chance to find some form of salvation. There’s a zealotry effect at play given that this mysterious room located in the zone has some magical wish-granting power for those who seek it, but its also heavily patrolled by armed guards.

As eerie as the story unfolds, the mise en scène provides an even creepier exposition of obscure dunes, damp tunnels, a lurking black dog, a gorgeous tracking shot that roams through a stream of scattered junk, toxic chemicals spewing through the air, and a decrepit room that looks like its going to cave in on itself. The opening scene has a dank, rustic sepia texture making it feel like a dismal world which ironically is of a room, where the stalker awakens for his morning ritual before he makes his long trek through the zone, to end up in another room. Tarkovsky uses color to distinguish worlds, between the sepia tone for the dismal reality and color for the world of the zone.

Along with the strange moments of Stalker, there are also humorous scenes, where stalker is chauffeuring his travel mates in a jeep, peeping around corner walls, and in a way dilly-dallying they’re way from the armed guards, hoping they don’t get caught while trying to enter the zone. The movement of the actors, and positioning of the camera makes for a comical sequence. There’s also a notable scene, where the three finally reach the room and after a dramatic monologue of each of their intentions and conclusions about the room, a phone randomly rings in the midst of a somber conversation. This breaks the tension but also makes the audience question the purpose behind such an interruption.

Whatever the case it works. Much of the journey has a fascinating essence because the audience doesn’t quite know what’s going to happen, and in a way they’re along the voyage with the stalker. Tarkovsky does an incredible job knowing what to focus on as the camera lingers along the noiseless, meadow landscapes making you wonder what trap is going to land the crew into trouble. There’s an air of mystery about the Zone, making you wonder what is it about this hallowed land that makes these characters yearn for a deeper sense of knowledge or their personal curiosities into the unknown. Perhaps, it was the excess fumes of the toxic chemicals from the supposed meteorite that created the Zone. Perhaps, it’s the voyage is purely about hope and combating the worn down surrounding of their actual livelihoods.