Ten Underrated Classics

April 14, 2008 at 10:03 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

    Carnival of Souls

 

Underrated is the word one could use very easily for the “Carnival of Souls”[1962], the only feature directed by Herk Harvey and his collaborator writer John Clifford. Underrated to the point that both Clifford and Harvey didn’t think much of it since its poor performance on initial release and as a matter of fact preferred the industrial films they did together.

 

Made on a shoestring budget and released in the early 60s as a part of a double bill for a drive-in program, it failed to get much of an audience. However, thanks to a small cult following it has had over the years, its viewer ship has grown, and has also been referred to as the movie that wouldn’t die. It has been described as the film with the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.

 

The film is about a young woman [Candice Hilligloss} who survives an accident when her car falls into a lake during a race in Kansas. She leaves her hometown to take up a job as an organist in Salt Lake City where she is visited by a ghostly apparition [played by the director in a mask made with dough], which compels her to go to an abandoned carnival pavilion.

 

The film, shot in black and white has a lot of wonderful touches and the director uses mood in the treatment of the film and doesn’t go in for effects, which would have looked dated today. There is an almost magical quality about this film and its images continue to haunt you long after you’ve finished viewing the film. 

 

The film also boasts of very good performances particularly by Candice Hilligloss and Sidney Berger [who is outstanding] as a guy who’s trying to pick her up.

 

Over the years the film has been cut down to a shorter length. But thanks to restoration drives there currently exists a fully reconstructed version of 83 minutes.

 

Vive L’Amour

 

He walks into the empty bedroom of the apartment put up for sale he lies on the bed begins to masturbate hears a noise walks to the landing and realizes that the other guy and the girl are coming into the house he rushes back and hides under the bed. The couple that has just come in undress and proceed to have sex on the bed the camera moves to the first guy under the bed while the other two above are at it. He is masturbating. Morning approaches the girl gets up dresses and leaves the man on the bed who is still asleep while the other one is still under the bed observing the girl leave. The girl goes out crosses the street gets into the car and pauses. We get back to the apartment the guy slides out from under the bed appears to be leaving returns to the room and lies down on the bed with the other guy who still sleeps. He looks at him with a great longing he then moves closer to him, the sleeping man rolls over facing the first man who looks at him with great longing he moves towards him and kisses him. He moves away the camera lingers on the sleeping man. The girl is now walking alone the backdrop is the city the camera keeps her in sight as she walks at some point it pans away from her for a while observing other people like a man carrying a hose it catches her again as it completes an arc. She walks up to a place with rows of benches a man is reading a newspaper she sits down behind him. Looks at the camera, and weeps nonstop for a long time. She gets a hold of herself pulls out her cigarette appears to be calm and bursts into tears THE END.

 

The previous paragraph is the last 22 odd minutes of “Vive L’amour”. There is not a word spoken during that period.  It is a film directed by the one of the 3 great Taiwanese directors working today – Tsai Ming-Liang. The other two being Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. These three directors make Taiwan along with Iran the most exciting filmmaking countries in the world.

 

“Vive L’Amour” deals with 3 main characters   Hsaio-Kang played by Lee Kang-Shey a young man selling funeral urns, Mey Lin played by Yang Kuei-Mei a woman who is a real estate broker and Ah-Jung played by Chen Chao-Jung a vendor of street clothes. All three actors are superb. The 3 characters somehow rendezvous in an apartment that’s put up for sale at various times and the film examines their feelings of loneliness and functional existence.

 

Without any frills and very simply, Ming-Liang creates a world populated by his people who just exist and do not seem to have much of a history and who try to make some connection with someone however brief or meaningless it may turn out to be.

 

Very few films could come close to “Vive L’Amour” as a study of loneliness in a modern city.

 

Cape Fear

 

The version directed by Martin Scorsese is one of the most neglected films of his career. It is written off by most people, particularly when compared to the earlier version. Nevertheless, I think it is a film that needs to be seen again and revaluated.

 

 Like the earlier version directed by J. Lee Thompson, it deals with a criminal who feels he has been shortchanged by the lawyer who put him in jail and is out to seek revenge on him and his family. All similarities end here. In the original version we have this really clean family terrorized by Max Cady played fabulously by Robert Mitchum. The remake fractures this family and has them at loggerheads with each other. Scorsese adds psychological layers to this version.

 

“Cape Fear” is a film that deals with a broken family and how vulnerable it makes them. It also deals with Max Cady who is a man warped by the knowledge he gains. In the biblical tale Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the fruit of knowledge, as it would corrupt their innocence. Cady also on another level is like a religious nut gone awry and rabid.

 

DeNiro’s performance is bit tricky to lock on to because he is playing the part not so much as a character but as an image for what Cady represents. He is not flesh and blood but a nightmare.

 

“Cape Fear” has also other fine performances by Nick Nolte as the not so wonderful husband who is having an extra marital affair and Jessica Lange as his bitter wife but the scene-stealer is Juliet Lewis as the young daughter curious about the nature of the dark side.

 

Though the end does tend to get a bit like a slasher with its store of shocks, “Cape Fear” still has a lot going for it.

 

Within Our Gates

 

This is the one of the earliest features made by an African American director. It has been lost to audiences till 1993. Directed by Oscar Micheaux in 1919 it is much more than a curiosity.

 

Micheaux came from a lineage of slaves, was a Pullman porter and wrote novels. The first film he directed was “Homesteader” based on a novel of his, which he managed to finance with small stock sales similar to the way he sold his novels door-to-door.

 

He made 45 features between 1918 and 1945 of which 27 were silent. His silent version of “Body And Soul” with Paul Robeson was the only known film of his for many years.

 

However, thanks to the untiring efforts of film historians and restorers, a lot of his lost films have been found notably “Within our Gates”[1919] and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” [1920].

 

“Within our Gates” is his second feature featuring a cast of both blacks and whites, which was very rare in those days. In most white-financed films, painted whites played blacks.

 

It deals with a teacher – Sylvia Landry – with a scarred past played by Evelyn Preer who is trying to get funding for a school run for black students. She has been educated by her foster parents but loses them in a lynching when her stepfather is falsely accused of killing his landlord.

 

The film, as I mentioned earlier is not just a curiosity, it has an honesty far greater than films made by white filmmakers. It also is not slavishly pro-black and criticizes some black characters who curry favour with whites like the priest [the sort who peddles religion as the opium of the masses] and the landlord’s lackey or the thieving stepbrother who is Sylvia’s cousin.

 

But what is even more interesting is that he must be one of the few filmmakers in that period who used quite a few flashbacks.

 

The print discovered is from the Spanish archives so the English inter titles have been written using references from other films of Micheaux’s like “Body And Soul” and some of which have been translated back from the Spanish. There are also a couple of bits missing so have had to be filled in by a narrative inter title

 

The end of the film however has a rather bizarre speech by the heroine’s lover about forgetting the past and becoming patriots [I believe this was to take the World War I situation into consideration]. This and a couple of other plot contrivances could have been avoided . Otherwise this is really a very important film made by a remarkable man and is deserving of a lager audience.

 

Nang Nak

 

Thai cinema isn’t well known outside its country. I haven’t come across any one who seems to know anything about it either. However I happened to see “Nang Nak” during one of the international film festivals and found it deserving of a wider audience.

 

“Nang Nak” is directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. It is written by Wisit Sasanatieng, whose first film as director – “Tears of the Black Tiger” seems to be getting critical acclaim in the west currently.

 

It is a ghost story set in the mid 19th century similar some of the Japenese films like “Ugetsu” or the first story of “Kwaidan”. I don’t mean stylistically but in its story of a man coming back and finding his wife home without knowing that she had died during his absence.

 

Interestingly though, the director lets you know that it is a well known ghost story right in the beginning with a written title [maybe the Thai audiences already know the tale]. A soldier returns from war to his wife who has borne him a son. However unknown to him she has died in his absence. His friends and priest try to warn him of his error but he refuses to believe them. His wife’s ghost kills anyone who tries to warn him of the truth. Nimibutr has shot the film beautifully. He has used a lot of native elements and beliefs in telling the story effectively. There are some truly wonderful moments like in the beginning of the film when the wife keeps calling out to her husband who is leaving for war. It foreshadows her inability to leave her husband after death.

 

However one wishes he had paced some of his sequences a bit slower as his fast paced editing harm these scenes. The cast is adequate but look a bit too glamorous and seem to have rather trendy/modern haircuts which seems to go against the characters [however I wouldn’t profess a knowledge of Thai hairstyles of that period]!

 

Despite its flaws, this is an interesting film to see and I hope it will have a viewership outside Thailand. It is also serves as a good example to our main stream directors to use the wealth of our own stories/fables. 

 

   

El Dorado

 

Hawks made this western as an interesting variation on his more famous earlier film “Rio Bravo”. It got slammed as some sort of imitation when released though it has always had champions. 

 

Like most of his films “El Dorado” deals with tough men who have a job to do and the fabulous women characters who are strong, independent and make them uneasy though they deeply love them.

 

While it probably cannot be compared to both “Rio Bravo” or “Red River”, Hawk’s finest westerns with John Wayne, it is in its own right an important film and is great fun when playing it against “Rio Bravo”.

 

John Wayne is a hired gun in this film while in the earlier film he is a sheriff. “El Dorado” has Robert Mitchum – Wayne’s friend – as the sheriff who has a drinking problem because a woman has dumped him, while in “Rio Bravo” Dean Martin is the drunk friend of Wayne and a former hired gun. James Caan in an early performance plays a guy who’s great with a knife but can’t shoot straight, his counterpart in the earlier film is Ricky Nelson, a wiz with the gun.  The three men in both films have to guard the jail, there are prisoner exchanges – I can go on endlessly about these variations in plot and characters which really enrich the experience of viewing this film.

 

Like every Hawks film this is done in an almost invisible style but always leaves you wondering how the hell he did it. His cutting during scenes of conversation always shatters me because you get the feeling that there is no other way to edit the scene. He is among the greatest directors and “El Dorado”, made towards the later part of his career, is a film he can be proud to have made. 

 

 

 EXistenZ

 

In this film David Cronenberg continues his obsession with the human body/mind in relation to its environment. A concern that keeps appearing as a signature in all his movies from “Shivers” to “EXistenZ” (even in an unlikely film like “Madam Butterfly”) with the possible exception being the listless “Dead Zone” which most people who can’t stomach Cronenberg like.

 

EXistenZ is about virtual reality and how it shapes your mind and body. Unfortunately it released in the wake of “Matrix”, an enjoyable though more easily accessible film, and nose-dived at the box office.

 

In many ways, it is closely related to his earlier 1983 film “ Videodrome” which deals with rogue TV channels that have programs that control your mind. In the current film, we have a VR game that completely takes over your mind and takes you places you have no control over. What differentiates Cronenberg’s film from other films is the organic quality of his mind-controlling devices. In “Videodrome” the video cassettes pulsated like they were real live things and in ExistenZ the game pod looks like a living organism.

 

He uses effects not so much to dazzle but in the service of what he wants to say. The exotic food within the game is so real that you almost feel queasy watching it.

 

Though the film is about the mind, the body, as in all his films, plays the leading character. Orifices at the base of the spine into which the game pod is ported, a disease that affects the game pod – it almost has a post-AIDS ring to it. Mutant amphibians that are used in creating the pod and also served as exotic food all have a very organic quality about it. Here, like in many of his films, technology fuses with the body to create a kind of mutant.

 

While not in the same league as “Crash” [his master class], “Dead Ringers”, “Brood” or even “Fly”, it is still a film more than worth the price of its ticket.

 

 

Eva

 

Before the films that made him famous like “Servant”, “Accident”, “The Go Between” and my favorite “Mr. Klien”, Joseph Losey directed “Eva” [released in the UK and the US as Eve and shorn of 16 minutes which he disowned].

 

Thanks to efforts by restoration teams, a full length uncut version of the film but with Finnish subtitles has been found and released on DVD.

 

The film based on a James Hadley Chase novel deals with a Welsh writer [Stanley Baker] in Venice who carries a burden of guilt within and is obsessed by a high class prostitute [Jeanne Moreau] on who he keeps spending all his money, but she just taunts and humiliates him. His actions precipitate his wife’s [Virna Lisi] death.

 

The film is a wild romp and sometimes almost over the top but has great power and magic to see you through.

 

Stanley Baker performs well as the writer who has stolen his writing from his dying brother and Jeanne Moreau is just superb. The film is as much about the high life of the Venice of those days as it is about the people in the story. Losey uses the music of Billie Holiday to great effect in creating a feeling of sadness. Venice has rarely been shot so beautifully by two legendary cameramen Henri Dacae and Gianni Di Venanzo. “Eva” is perhaps Losey’s love song to Venice.

 

Ecstasy of Angels

 

 

This is a 1972 film directed by director Koji Wakamatsu who had earlier directed “Violated Angels in White.” He is probably the most important of the marginal Japanese directors who worked in the 60s and 70s on the payrolls of studios like Nikatsu which made films at extremely low budgets. Wakamatsu, like Suzuki Sejuin, Shunya Ito and others worked round constraints and created individual and remarkable works. Unfortunately for us most of these directors are hardly seen outside Japan.

 

“Ecstasy of Angels” deals with a group of young radical extremists, all of who are known by names of days like Monday, Friday etc who are betrayed by some of their group while raiding an US arms base. As the film progresses, the balance between members disintegrates causing distrust and ideals to get mixed up. It also deals with how the ruling powers try to neutralize marginal elements who could destabilize society. 

 

Like most of his films, sex and violence are very much a part of the proceedings but they are never titillating. Wakamatsu has always been a radical and believes in a perpetual state of revolution. He has said that he supports the left but if the left rules Japan he would rebel against them. Rarely has a filmmaker understood the psyche of young militants so well. He loves them but knows that they are doomed to failure, and yet the fight must go on. This film was probably made as a reaction to once witnessing the fragmenting of a group of rebels and realizing that their revolution would not work.

 

The film alternates between extremely poetic to grotesque to almost campy imagery like the free jazz score he uses in the soundtrack to achieve his vision. One can trace influences of the Godard of the 60s in Wakamatsu films of the 60s and early seventies.

 

This is a film no buff can afford to miss. Wakamatsu always brings an unusual perspective to his work, like in “Violated Angels in White” based on a news item about a man killing all the nurses bar one in a hospital. What the film examines is not why he killed the nurses but why he spared one…

 

Batman 2

 

After 2, Batman died. Joel Schumaker killed everything Tim Burton did.

 

2 is my favorite Batman film though many people seem to dislike it.  I like the first one but there are things that worry me, like Jack Nicholson, which I will get back to.

 

In most of his movies Tim Burton is interested in marginal figures with a tragic undercurrent who don’t quite fit into their environment. 2 is the film among all his works where he develops this to its fullest.

 

In the first film Batman and the Joker are both fringe characters and in his Bruce Wayne avatar Micheal Keaton brings a lot to the party. He feels even more of an outsider than his masked alter ego. The problem is with Nicholson’s playing of the Joker. Though a marginal figure, he plays it so over the top that it takes away from what Burton brings in. He probably also had some studio pressure as this was the first film.

 

With the commercial success of “Batman” he probably was given more freedom to make “Batman 2”.

 

In 2 there is always an undercurrent of sorrow. While the Penguin played by Danny DeVito is one of the bad guys, the imagery Burton evokes has this feeling of loneliness and pain, be it the crib of the baby Penguin floating down the canal or the shot of him caught unawares eating raw fish and when he addresses the kamikaze penguins on a mission unto death.

 

More than in his other films Burton examines the split nature of his characters. Both Cat Woman/Selena and Batman/Bruce are aware and pained by their split selves and even when they get to know each other’s identity they know they could never fall in love because of their inherent natures. Yet there is never a moment when he lets these scenes get syrupy.

 

The Gotham city of 2 like the first film has a dark and menacing design which 3 and 4 ruined with a candy-colored sensibility.

 

Unlike his most acclaimed film “Edward Scissorhands” which often gets bogged down with cuteness or “Batman” where the good guy and bad guy are more obviously defined, “Batman 2” is a much tougher film and exists in grayer hues which is probably why most people have a problem connecting to it and feel a bit uncomfortable.

 

– Kiran David

 

( This article was first published in the July 2001 issue of Gentleman magazine.)

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