Random Rant: 1995's Heat

Okay, so I’m still taking a break from writing and viewing some Bela Tarr films. I’ve had the most random urge to rewatch some films as of late. So, there’s been a massive heat wave this week and yes it’s the middle of summer, so what better movie to watch that really captures the essence of this blazing hot weather?

DVD cover, 1995

Michael Mann’s 1995 film, Heat is in the top 10 of best heist movies that I’ve come across after scouring the internet. What makes Heat so incredible is the caliber of professionalism between Al Pacino’s character Lieutenant Vincent Hanna chasing after criminal extraordinaire Robert DeNiro’s character Neil McCauly and his crew, Michael (Tom Sizemore), Chris (Val Kilmer), and Trejo (Danny Trejo).

Heat was made about two decades ago and the thing that really captures my eyes and ears is the attention to detail, savvy dialogue, and somewhat stoic realism Michael Mann brings to the screen. The essence is captured in Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro’s performances. I mean their lives are parallel to each other in a very symmetric and dynamic way and Mann weaves it together like a pretty bouquet of tulips. Yeah… that was really cheesy. ANYWAYS…

For example, the iconic diner scene where McCauley and Hanna have coffee talking about their philosophies in life and how if either one of them crosses the path of one then the other is going down. Their passion is what makes the magic on screen ignite like a glorious wildfire spreading rampant and burning everything in it’s path, feeding off air and furiously expanding its ferocious nastiness all over. Okay, it’s dramatic but think about it, both of these character’s passion is ignited by adrenaline. McCauley is in it for the score and the money and does everything meticulously, while seamlessly and professionally having zero attachments which is basically eliminating personal obstacles in order to be successful. Vincent’s adrenaline is the chase of hunting down his prey. Bringing the bad guy to justice by also taking calculated risks and strategically planning his capture while also keeping a barrier on his personal relationships which of course suffers. We’re basically watching a film about two men and their lives during a tense showdown that makes my head spin torn between rooting for both the bad and good guy. Cruel.

There are so many dark cinematic moments in this two hour and 30-minute crime drama such as Vincent finding his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman) in a bathtub full of blood, or Charlene (Ashley Judd’s character) signaling her husband played by Val Kilmer that the cops are onto him. She’s standing on a balcony as he pulls up into a parking lot, looking up at her totally like Romeo and Juliet in the infamous balcony scene except this is despairingly backwards. It’s a cold moment and the look on Val Kilmer’s face will break your heart as he gets back in his car and drives off. It’s violent, dark, but engaging nearly like a Shakespearian tragedy on some level which brings highly charged dialogue ranging from creepy nightmares to the “you live among the remains of dead people” monologue delivered by Justine, Al Pacino’s wife played by Diane Venora.

In regards to the story being based on true events, Heat and I quote, “it is the most elegant heist films ever crafted” according to a Rolling Stones article published in 2015. There was a real Neil McCauley who was a thief that Charlie Adamson killed in Chicago in 1963 and they actually did have coffee prior to that. How crazy is that? I’m in awe which to me makes that scene even more alluring and powerful. And, I believe that’s what makes this story such a successful film the fact that’s based on some authenticity which is pretty bitchin.

Hold on to your Sanity: The Holy Mountain

Alejandro Jodorwosky - The Holy Mountain

Setting aside my marveling of Bela Tarr films, I’m detouring with a film I heard about from a Father John Misty interview. I was curious and well, it led me down an extremely deranged, nearly unfathomable, grotesque art film that’s traumatized my mind for the past couple of weeks. So, it’s going to be highly benefitial for me to therapeutically write about it.

Chilean director, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s, The Holy Mountain was released in 1973, and you can bet your bottom dollar he was on LSD, mushrooms, and was probably sleep deprived to create such masterful insanity. The film was released at Cannes Film Festival that same year but the film never had a wide release and was given a restricted run in New York City where it would be screened at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays for a span of sixteen months. (According to Wikipedia) Eventually, it became a popular underground cult film. Fast forward to over 30 years later, the film would be restored and released on DVD in May of 2007. You can find it on Amazon or even rent it at your unique independent video rental store just take a look in the experimental film section. (Thanks Videotheque!)

The story is about a man who (looks like Jesus), except he’s called the Thief. The Thief awakens covered in flies and his own urine (an intense birth) while a nearby friendly limbless dwarf, who represents “defeatism” helps him. And the two wander around aimlessly in Mexico stumbling across excessive picture taking tourists all clamoring around dead bodies of local Mexicans who were basically shot to death by a vicious firing squad. Then there’s vendors on the street selling whatever religious paraphernalia tourists, while decaying, exposed bodies of dead animals are strung up on crosses being paraded on the street. Then of course Jodorowsky goes as far as meticulously shooting a scene of lizards individually dressed in their own costumes going to battle surrounded by a model size pyramid that blows out blood, glorifying all the violence represented in the world. There’s a scene where birds emerge out of the chests of the piles of dead bodies. I mean these are images nightmares are made of and Jodorowsky elaborately orchestrates the entire freak show with everything he’s got; blood, sweat, tears, other bodily fluids. I’ve never seen imagination go quite like this, at least I can’t compare it to anything. Well, maybe. The closest thing I can compare it to would be David Lynch’s earlier short films but times that by an immeasurable amount of insanity.

At the end of Act I, the Thief’s image is replicated in human size mannequins, all a representation of Jesus nailed to the cross. With an entire warehouse full of mannequins, the Thief awakens, angry and frustrated so much that he destroys all but one. He carries the last mannequin around the city (like a barer of his own cross) he stops and decides to eat the mannequin, ties the remains to a giant balloon and sends it to the sky (perhaps, heaven?). At which point a giant hook attached to rope is lowered from the sky and the Thief hops on, hoping to find gold. It takes him up to this weird tower, which is where the real journey to the holy mountain begins.

The Thief meets the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky, himself) and from here is cleansed, prepping him for a journey along side seven other disciple like figures, who are all associated with a planet. Each planet symbolizes something and consequently each individual is known as a “thief” of that world. For instance: Mars manufactures and sales weapons. Venus represents beauty and cosmetics, Uranus is about money and politics, Saturn is all about war toys, Jupiter is some artsy-fartsy hotshot, Pluto is an architect of sorts, and Neptune is some type of police force. Each has their montage of who they are and what their about which is chalk full of humorous imagery and of course all simultaneously relatable to what planet earth bathes itself in. (excessive materialism, violence, corrupt politics, religious bigotry) Each is a representation of thievery such as the thief of beauty, peace, human expression, and innocence.

It didn’t hit me until I watched the opening credits several times what Jordowsky’s true premise was. In the very, very beginning, the Alchemist is kneeled before two beautiful naked women, who are facing each other and he begins to shave their hair off, strips their clothes off, removes their nail polish, and makeup. On the surface this what we see him doing but symbolically he’s essentially undressing their egos and external elements that society deems sexually, attractive, female icons. Pop culture festers on image, and the objects that transcend that image into mainstream consumerism. It’s almost like a brainwashing mechanism to convert, influence conformity on a massive scale and he’s brilliantly tearing it apart.

Now, the rest of the film is about the journey to the holy mountain, where each individual is faced with a number of tasks in destroying who they are and what they represent. There’s a scene where the Alchemist sits with all his disciples at the mega round table and demands them to burn all their possessions and money. Each individual’s hair is shaved off and they wear matching robes as they sail to Lotus island. Once they arrive on the island, they approach the Pantheon bar, which is where everyone who ever attempted the holy mountain ends up due to their inability to set aside their own personal desires for enlightenment. It’s essentially a dead end. A mental roadblock of sorts. However, the Alchemist warns them they must confront their fears and obsessions in order to ascend the mountain which sets off a montage of repulsive imagery such as a naked man covered in spiders, more blood and more violence, a man eating a horse, and an onslaught of other sexualized distractions that I won’t get into.

I won’t give the ending away, because you must pursue your own journey to enlightenment. I’ll give you a hint at what truly matters. It is life itself. But, the final shot is pretty damn miraculous. You might even chuckle at the end of all this silly madness. I know I did.

The Holy Mountain is an intense satire, that’s challenging to watch at times but the meticulous detail in every scene is admirable because it’s not so much what see on the surface that’s outlandishly bizarre but it’s the reference behind it. Humanity can be horrendously ridiculous at times, but there also several good parts to who we are as a race. And in this film, I could see how so much distraction infiltrates our lives and how at most times we escape into these distractions to defer from our daily lives for whatever reason. And for the 1970s, Jodorowsky could perhaps sense how our world was changing to that degree and assembled a pretty phenomenal, exquisitely-gnarly, very disturbing, yet a genuine film that’s essentially similar to holding a mirror up to the viewer and saying this how I see humanity. Perhaps, Jodorowsky used the lens to capture what he foresaw as truth and used it to simply warns us about what ludicrousness could be bestowed upon our very souls. Just a thought. Or maybe he just enjoys messing with people’s heads, either way, it’s a fairytale, a dream, real life, and a film all bundled together.

Color Me Hell: Almanac of Fall

Bela Tarr’s style emerges quite fiercely in this bleak, confusing story of five misfit characters living under the same roof. Again, emotions are running high and again, you’re going to feel claustrophobic but it has an alluring affect, I promise. It’s practically, hypnotic. I can’t explain it, it just works. Probably due to the quote that’s presented to us in the opening of the film which states, “Even if you kill me I see no trace. This land is unknown. The devil is probably leading. Going round and round in circles.” This is a quote by Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin which meticulously reveals itself throughout the narrative of Bela Tarr’s fourth film, Almanac of Fall (1984). It’s sinister and basically expresses, Tarr’s defeatism attitude towards humanity.

Instead, of Tarr’s focus on realism, he awesomely transitions into the existential dimension. For instance, the opening sequence reminds me of a Tarkovsky film as the camera’s focus is on a piano bathed in pale blue light, as it maneuvers from one object to another. Tarkovsky does that a handful of times in his films, such as Stalker and Sacrifice. It sets the tone for meditative introspection of one’s own dwellings, while exposing lethal emotions of resentment, envy, greed, anger, along with something that’s going to conflict with the character’s deepest obsessions and fears towards each other.

What’s spectacular about this film is Bela Tarr’s style in lighting. He goes bonkers with a color palette that infiltrates a vileness but also emits this creepy factor, almost like watching a noir film except it’s in color. (If that’s even possible).

Despite, the colorful atmosphere, it presents a terrifying aura and unsettling ambiance and ambivalence these characters have for one another. Think about the color scheme translating into emotions such as red transcends into anger, green into envy, blue a calmness, and so forth.

Most if not all the characters seem to want money, which Heidi, the old woman of the house has and each character in one way or another conspires to take it. The cast of characters are, the wealthy elderly woman, Hedi, her moody son, her sex addict nurse, the nurse’s somewhat quiet lover, and a weary traveler are all venomous to one another where most of their conversations begin in a shouting match to ending in a full on fist fight. It’s humanity at it’s best.

There’s a particular shot, where Tarr has the camera positioned beneath the floorboards which is all glass so you can see the action, from the actor’s feet as a looming fight begins to take place. This is one of the most innovative shots that made me drool from the mouth and question how the hell did he do that? It’s brilliant.

Another notable aesthetically pleasing shot is the scene between the mother and son having a lengthy conversation, the camera does a slow pan circling the two very defiantly breaking the 180 rule, but also doing a complete 360. This shot makes me reflect back to the earlier quote: the vicious cycle equates to the characters being each their own devil and the apartment is hell itself. These obscure characters conspire to steal, attempt to kill, manipulate, all influenced by greed or obsession is the vicious cycle and of course doesn’t get them very far. They end up being disappointed, betrayed, and hurt. Every single scene in this film is shot inside. There are no external shots. There is no escape of hell in this film, and that is sickly terrifying which Bela Tarr powerfully gives us this in his dark tale of humanity.

A Wild Epiphany: The Prefab People

Relationships can be a messy thing if not cared for properly and perhaps love is a mysterious thing too. With that in mind, Bela Tarr’s third cinéma-vérité film, The Prefab People (1982) reflects on the spiraling relationship of a working class family where a surge of emotions run high while the demise of the marriage is inevitable. It’s dark, and depressing, nonetheless it’s a chunk of reality that occurs everyday to everyday people in the real world. What’s compelling, is Tarr’s interest in the same subject matter about how harsh life can genuinely be and how everyday people handle it. The struggle, and the despair, all echo the catastrophic event of pain and heartache. Tarr plays with time in a different way too.

The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. The narrative begins with the ending of Ferj and Feleseg’s relationship, where Ferj (the husband) decides he’s had enough and walks out on his family. It’s dramatic; screaming baby, the wife is crying, nearly pleading in a babbling childlike disarray about why he’s leaving. If you watch the film in it’s entirety you can examine their relationship as a pathologist performs an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Same thing. Looking at the timeline of the relationship and the attitudes drawn from it, you can start to hypothesize why the husband left in the first place. Despite loving each other, the two are absolutely miserable together. Their resentment towards one another is the mightiest hurdle in their dysfunctional relationship, as Feleseg (the wife) rages on about Ferj wanting to take a job that would relocate him for years at a time where he’d only be home for holidays. It’s even more troubling and pathetic when they celebrate an anniversary together. Ferj wants to be intimate and have a special evening by buying a bottle of fine beer, but it fails to ignite any spark between them when Feleseg begins complaining. She complains about him, their living situation, time, money, basically everything.

Despite the mess of the relationship, the bigger picture is even more gritty, and relentlessly captivating because it’s one enormous metaphor for Hungarian society in the early 80s. Their economy wasn’t very strong, standard of living declined, housing was very limited and highly sought after just as its revealed in his first film Family Nest. The economy infected stability which percolates into the mentality of the unhappy couple, igniting frustration and resentment. But, the oddball remedy for this oddball couple is in the final scene where they purchase a new washing machine, and together in a lengthy long take are riding in the back of a pickup truck with their new product. They’re quiet, not fighting, just at peace. I guess in some sense, buying an item that eases the chore of doing laundry manually is a gift itself. Because nobody likes to have their dirty laundry sprawled out everywhere. It’s offensive and it smells. Clean laundry equals happy people. That’s a metaphor right?

It’s a strenuous film to get through because at some point, it just feels like you’re the third party awkwardly watching a couple’s problems transcend into some dramatic tragedy performed for the stage. This is the third black and white film, that gave me a headache from the dizzying, monotonous dialogue. It’s the type of filmmaking that’s raw, unforgiving, and poignant, which is kind of unique in today’s modernized, fast paced, digitized, mega blockbuster.

On another note, we’re creating a society of prefab people just as we’ve created prefabricated homes for them. Somehow, someway, along the way somebody decided it was a good idea to prefabricate homes on a massive scale. Supply and demand along with a healthy economy with very little unemployment allowed for people and still allows people to purchase homes. Which is great, but what comes along with that purchase? An attitude? A consumer role? Somehow, someway the mindset of people and perhaps massive waves of consumerism provides a perfect atmosphere for prefab people to grow in massive quantities and qualities.

Okay bare with me here for a moment, as I process this massive thought. What if Bela Tarr was simply in a very metaphoric, but right-in-front-of your-face kind of way proposed that the Prefab People was a result of the massive amounts of consumerism that changed the attitudes of genuine people. Think about it. When you buy something, what do you feel? Does your mood change? Do you get a sense of euphoria from it? Some people place a so much value on the things they buy and sooner or later become hooked and dependent on such things which makes me wonder if it shifts the mentality of good, sensible people into trend watching, spend-o-matic drones. We’re so bombarded with advertisements and social media on a daily basis that it makes sense our thoughts shift towards wanting and spending, etc. etc. Of course I might be reaching for the stars here in trying to dissect Bela Tarr’s, Prefab People. My mind had to go down the deep thought provoking path, it’s what I love so much about films like this. My mind goes left instead of right. It goes deep into a realm of possibilities and ideas beyond the surface because its much more gratifying picking at the meat of the flesh than grazing it marginally.

My Rant: The Outsider

In Bela Tarr’s, The Outsider (1981) there’s a very realistic tone similar to the nature of documentary filmmaking. However, unlike his first feature, Tarr chooses to shoot in color instead of black and white. The premise focuses on Andras, a violinist roaming about from working a job in a mental institution to finding work in a cable factory to eventually becoming a disc jockey. He marries Kata but can’t seem to find any genuine happiness, through mundane everyday problems such as paying the rent and worrying about what to do with one’s life. It’s like watching a nomad making a living from place to place but never settling into his real passion of playing the violin. For some reason, Eddie Vedder’s song “Guaranteed” comes to mind, specifically the lyrics, “I knew all the rules but the rules do not know me.” This notion permeates through the course of the narrative in that a person can go about his life on the basis of the beat of his own drum, or in this case the rhythm of his violin playing neglecting everyone’s else way of life as if bored by other people. It’s perplexing to really like this film because the protagonist has an apathetic nature to which is practically impossible to root for him. He doesn’t care! Why should I? Oh, right! He’s an outsider. I think, I’m beginning to understand now.

The Outsider lingers in increments of time and focuses primarily on the moments of disappointment and harsh reality. For instance, in the opening of the film, Andras is playing his violin for the patients in the mental hospital and then attempts to give a patient his injection which he refuses. Tarr adheres to a familiar theme, of resisting conformity and insanity by refusing to take medicine, by refusing to do what society simply tells us to do. Imagine all of society being indoctrinated under the care and confines of a mental institution where one believes they have freedom to explore artistic pursuits but in actuality such freedom has certain restrictions. Those restrictions of course involve getting a job, raising a family, providing food, having shelter, and sacrificing one’s own needs for another which are all the basic necessities of surviving and being a decent human being. I forget where I was going with this tangent. Life’s tough, deal with it?

Bela Tarr has been quoted in saying, “Filmmaking is not like shooting a movie, but a part of life.” Tarr’s ideology sets him apart from the others because, the realism of his stories made me want to obsess about my own life and problems instead of blissfully getting lost in a film that abandons all reality into something more cinematic and adventurous. But Tarr also mentions most of his protagonists are “loners” and, “outsiders” in a world that could careless about giving them a second look. There’s something intriguing about loner heroes. They’re basically like a rolling stone, rollin their way alone. (I’ve got to stop quoting song lyrics)

Much of his camera movement is handheld and you can begin to see his usage of the long take that will further develop into his signature style throughout his other upcoming films.One of his more compelling shots was during the wedding scene, where the camera movement impressively maneuvers around the actors dancing along and eating while a side dialogue between Kata and a former lover takes place. It had an oddly natural tension and a potential conflict up until one of their wedding guests dropped dead from what I presume was a drug overdose. The next cut was the shot of a headstone which was mildly humorous and from an editing standpoint, the timing was spot on. But, isn’t that how life works? One minute you’re up in the clouds and the next minute, BAM you’re down on your ass, sad.

Of course, there’s the moment, where a coworker of Andras is singing “House of the Raising Sun” which had an eclectic cultural edge and was a gratifyingly entertaining scene. However, I can’t recommend thoroughly enjoying this film, it’s like being sea sick on a boat riding the waves at full speed. It’s jarring and drones on almost like that annoying hum of fluorescent lights except with dialogue that personally gave me a headache. Despite, my restlessness for this particular film, Bela Tarr is definitely a master in the cinema of patience which is oddly hypnotic in it’s own right.