Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This Month's Movies: Pixote (1981); Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931)

Pixote is a highly acclaimed movie about the hard lives of street kids in Brazil's two megacities which used actual slum children as actors a la The Bicycle Thief and Slumdog Millionaire. It may be the most depressing film I have ever seen. It is so sordid it makes the likes of Taxi Driver look like a picaresque romp. Child rape, sodomy, prostitution, a relentless stream of repulsive, thoroughly evil adults with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, callous, sloppy murders, ugly people, ugly rooms, hideous scenarios, everything coarse and hopeless. I get that that is the point, that the viewer is supposed to emerge angry and indignant at the conditions in which children are allowed to exist, as well as confronted with the appalling depth of his own neglect and ignorance and what these have wrought. It is no surprise that Pauline Kael and her fellow champions of the provocative, get-up-in-your-bourgeois-grill style of filmmaking thought this movie was excellent and had a lot of important things to say, which I guess it did, but this style doesn't seem for whatever reasons to work much on me. I mean, look, I think the bureaus of local leadership, the national government, the international community, interested third parties with good ideas, whoever, should devote much greater degrees of effort and brainpower to alleviate the horrible circumstances in which these people live (how to do this sort of thing on a large scale is not my--or apparently anyone else's--area of expertise; I would be inclined to impose fairly extreme socialist measures, I suspect), but the movie did not do anything to make me strongly identify with the humanity with these people in any way. It was like watching a freak/horror show.

The only other movie that comes to mind as possibly challenging this one for disturbing scenes and a bleak vision of human nature is the 1966 Soviet masterpiece Andrei Rublev, which however has several advantages over Pixote, being beautifully, stunningly filmed as well as written at a noticeably higher level of both skill and general cultural literacy. I am sure it must rank among the 20 greatest movies ever made. That said, it has some of the most truly gruesome and horrifying sequences ever put on film. It is set in 15th century Russia, and just imagining how cold one must have been for pretty much the whole of one's life is unsettling enough. Then there is your lord to deal with. Then bandits come. Then the Mongol army rolls into town. None of which situations are resolved in what we would consider an enlightened manner. Andrei Rublev however balances its depictions of brutal, awful humanity somewhat by juxtaposing against them the ennobling, insistent presences of real art, and by association, religion. Being Russian, there is no claim being put forth, I don't think, that art and other impulses towards beauty will ever be triumphant in human life; if there is a message, it is simply to witness that they are there, that they exert a powerful if not conquering pull, and that they are rather inexplicable. That this sense is what the filmmaker is getting at I find to be conveyed very convincingly. At any rate, it is a must-see film.

I've Lost the Picture of Miriam Hopkins and Mr Hyde Already?

There have been a lot of versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it seems to be pretty widely agreed upon that the 1931 version starring a young and quite handsome Frederic March is the best one. This is a very good movie, in many ways surprisingly so. It has some edge to it that I was not anticipating. Like Andrei Rublev, it tempers its descents into depravity by appealing to some of mankind's noble, or at least nobly-intentioned pursuits, in this case science and music. Also like Andrei Rublev, these disciplines prove no match among men against the frenzy induced by lust. This film was made a couple of years before the infamous code which regulated film content until the late 60s was put into effect, so it is much more explicit with regard to sex than one is accustomed to find in old films. The way Dr Jekyll (the 'e' is long in this movie) is scarcely able to conceal or contain his lusts and the fervency of his desire even before he transforms into Hyde is absolutely striking in its bald directness, as is the irrepressible violence of the Hyde character when he comes in. I was impressed with this.

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