Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Film Reviews! The Best of Youth (2003) & Atanarjuat, or The Fast Runner (2002)

I hadn't seen any movies for a while, due to a combination of factors: summer, the completion of my previous list, the simultaneous breakdown of all my movie playing machines, and the necessity, when I got a new one, of getting a new television in order that the new machines might work properly (my old television, now moved to the bedroom, dates from 1997). This being finally all amended, I began putting together a new list, which it is my habit to generally watch the films of in reverse chronological order; I am not sure why this is, but the sensation of going backwards in time slowly and ultimately not very far appeals to me. This is another reason by the way why I haven't been watching much at the moment--more recent movies don't tend to excite me all that much even though many of them turn out to be pretty good, so I am usually in no great hurry to set about seeing them.

The Best of Youth, which originally appeared on Italian television as a six hour miniseries, is to me a good illustration of the thesis that the cinema may be dying just as much as the novel and rock and roll are, or are said to be. It is not a bad movie, in fact it is a pretty good movie, but as it appeared on many people's top ten lists for the entire decade of the 2000s, my intuition would be to say that if this was one of the top ten films of the 2000s (very few films from which I have seen, by the way, none of which I thought were great--Oldboy was very good) then the 2000s was not a good decade for the cinema. To begin with, its whole presentation is highly conventional and bourgeois--I have seen its structure compared in several places to that of a 19th century novel--and owes a lot more to modern Hollywood and television (which it was originally made for, to be fair) than to what one thinks of as the classic strain of Italian cinema. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, though it has the effect that nothing especially interesting or surprising ever really happens in the course of movie. I am surprised that so many serious critics seem to think highly of it, as it seems like more or less the same kind of thing they must have seen a million times before. The movie is a baby boomer saga set from 1966 to the present (2003). The main characters are two brothers, one of whom goes the leftist/communist route and the other who joins the army and becomes a policemen. A lot of famous/infamous episodes in recent Italian history pop up (though curiously the Berlusconi era, which one assumes the militant leftist characters of the 60s and 70s must despise at some level no matter mellowed they have become, is glossed over under the comfortable security of houses in Tuscany, pretty clothes, that edgeless, prosperous, self-satisfied style of yuppie wine-drinking that is so annoying to look at). Politics are ostensibly highly important in the movie but I did not think they were handled in a satisfactory manner, since I still don't have a good sense for what motivated, for example, the fury behind the student revolts of '68 and the riots and Red Brigade bombings of the 1970s, nor why this fury abated or is not re-emerging to the same degree today, when there are seemingly just as many good reasons to be violently angry as there were in the 70s. It sounds as if I don't like this movie, which actually I do. Some of the characters were interesting, especially the right-wing brother (above). There was a photographer played an actress named Maya Sensa who I thought was very good-looking (the second picture on this page is not of her, btw). It was filmed all over Italy, which is always beautiful and poignant. One oddity is that they didn't do much to alter the actors' appearances over the course of years, so the mostly 30-35ish cast looks way too old when they're supposed to be in college, and after about the mid-80s when they settle on a consistent hairstyle they don't really change at all, so that at the end of the movie when they should be in their 50s or pushing it they all look presposterously good.

There is a bit split in Italian movies around 1980 or so when the older, classic generation--Fellini, De Sica,Visconti, etc--finally passed on, and the postwar generation began to take their place. This was already becoming evident in some movies that were popular around the time I was in college, like Cinema Paradiso and The Postman (I enjoyed both of these movies, but I remember when seeing the latter in the theater one of the most esteemed faculty members at my college, who had probably been friends with Neruda for all I know, stood up about an hour into the showing and walked out with an expression of disgust. At the time I figured the banality of the movie's psychology had caused this reaction, but now I wonder if she had really been intending to see the post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner movie of the same name which happened to be out around the same time). One of the to me more interesting characteristics of those movies, as well as The Best of Youth and other lesser recent Italian films, is the sentiment of discomfort with one's own prosperity, which is in its apparent pervasiveness through a wide swathe the culture seems to be a peculiarly Italian phenomenom. This discomfort has two facets. One of which is the sense of 'we were hopelessly poor and we were starving half the time and our lives were run by priests and so on, but we were also somehow more alive and we have lost that vitality'. The second is the sense not merely of being undeserving of the degree of comfort and wealth which the modern economy has bestowed on one but of finding it at some level absurd and vulgar as well. I think it is curious that Italian filmmakers have such a strong sense of this, since plenty of ancient and relatively poor countries have undergone single generation transitions to affluent modern technolife in recent years, but the impression of something profound having been lost--not that it is exactly made clear what that something is either--is not as pervasive in movies and artworks and such that I have seen from these other nations.

The Fast Runner is a movie from Canada, made entirely in the Inuktuit language. As you may have gathered, it is about eskimos. The critics, who must be deathly starved for anything novel, on the whole loved it. It won an audience prize at Cannes and was voted one of the top ten Canadian movies of all time by a Toronto film festival panel, which I take to have been a distinguished bunch. Personally I didn't think it was particularly compelling. It was shot in videotape, first of all, which I don't think I will ever like. It was nearly three hours, with limited plot development and action, which was may too much. It should have been 80 minutes at most. The arctic landscape, while objectively beautiful in its special way, also rather quickly becomes bleak and oppressive, and the lives of eskimos in general, to be honest, can be described in similar terms. If you then imagine nothing but these images and activities repeated without any break for over a thousand years, these impressions only get worse. I had no idea while I was watching it whether the story was supposed to be taking place now, or a hundred or a thousand years ago, and I found that that dislocation from time also bothered and oppressed me. (though I thought that most of the eskimos had been moved into government housing and were now television-addicted alcoholics, a part of me was not sure of this). The story is a legend of revenge in the name of tribal cleansing and purification. It is the sort of thing that ought to be powerful but I confess was not able to experience it at that high level of conscious being, let alone the higher one of unconsciousness.
The people in this see and communicate with spirits a lot, which phenomenon I do believe to have some kind of interesting basis in truth, though my own consciousness is way too overdeveloped to be able to accept or make contact with any of those intelligences.

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