Strange (but Interesting!) Lands:
Days of Eclipse
Watching the opening/credit sequence of a film can tell you a lot about what may follow. In America, the shots of a car (or motorcycle, bus, SUV) speeding down a highway are legion, but often disguise the story to come. It’s like an iconic camouflage that the director uses to pull us into what happens next. But what happens next can be a disappointment. So imagine the reaction to what hits you as Days of Eclipse takes off (literally) somewhere in Turkmenistan. You hear children laughing, then fly, faster and faster into a bleached-out forsaken settlement in the desert filled with camels and leprous old people like inmates of a penal colony. This is, perhaps, real life, but more like a living hell. Music is provided by a sour accordian, and what sounds like a chorus of souls in torment.
Based roughly on a novel (Definitely Maybe: A Billion Years to the End of the World) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse is Aexander Sokurov’s rebellious, wildly imaginative and erratic personal creation dreamed up as a response to the novel, but certainly more to the waning days of the USSR. It shifts from color to black and white frequently, making delerious jumps from quasi-realistic scenes into indecipherable fugue states whose meaning for the filmmaker we can only guess at. Symbols, visual and aural, are everywhere, challenges to be decoded. There is a doctor/hero (Alexei Ananishnov)—a kind of Parsifal who fends off hostility, erotic advances, mysterious forces, corpses, angels, and disease. But nothing is what it seems in the desert. If you prefer a neat synopsis of the plot, try Wikipedia. However, I guarantee you it’s much more interesting to release the brakes and let yourself fly next to the pilot, wherever he decides to take you.
In the Dust of the Stars
Words almost failed me in response to this glorious (and totally unexpected) treat from East Germany—a mashup of every old serial and/or Sci-Fi futuristic feature, from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, as seen by a culture trying desperately to imitate the genre while having as good a time as possible doing it. The result? A total hoot! There are dancing alien maidens in filmy threads, visiting heroes and heroines in tights and boots, and hordes of suffering minions in rags, endlessly digging for minerals like their predecessors in Das Rheingold. Plus the surprise appearance of the Devil in a Cape—Ekkehard Schall himself—then Director and star of the Berliner Ensemble, and son-in-law of Bertolt Brecht. While Schall excelled at Brecht’s iconic canon, and at his lesser-known but notable poetry, even at playing Liszt in Tony Palmer’s Wagner (alongside Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave), never has he enjoyed himself more (watch him swirl that scarlet schmata)! The story and the special effects may be a little clunky, but the energy and struggle with humor peeking through the Prussian earnestness are to be applauded.
Strange Lands is one of the most interesting series ever mounteed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, spotlighting not only a period that deserves another look, but offering examples of films (mostly from the Eastern Bloc, from 1958 – 1988) that have seldom, if ever, been seen here. They also deserve repeat screenings, and the establishment of an annual festival. For more information and remaining films: http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/strange-lands-international-sci-fi.
opens August 29 in NYC (Quad Cinema) and LA (Laemmle Royal)
The Notebook is remarkable for many reasons—for one, in its ability to shed light on the darkest corners of human nature and what it is capable of—while remaining objective, rather in the same way that The White Ribbon kept you enthralled without a discernible hero or heroine. In The Notebook, there are brief moments of kindness, almost always turned inside out before they emerge as gnarled offerings in a cruel world. Yet it’s hard to look away from its chilly shorthand.
At the center of the film are identical twins (László and András Gyémant, called simply One and Other). When their parents send them to their grandmother’s in the country (thinking they will be out of harm’s way) in the waning days of World War II, they are told to keep a notebook of everything they see, everything they think. It anchors them through what follows. Their grandmother is called a witch by the villagers, a woman who probably poisoned her husband and has not seen her daughter in twenty years; she is a cruel taskmaster. The twins are worked hard, disciplined for every infraction, given no affection and fed little. Their lessons are learned slowly but forever: the world is a hard place, and they cannot expect to live as they did.
Instead, they punish each other and deny themselves sleep and even the meagerest scraps in order to become strong enough to feel nothing. Every day they study their Bible and write and draw the life around them in their notebook. Brief animations of the drawings are subtle and effective in showing what cannot always be told. And always, in the corner of the all-seeing twins’ eyes, the town’s secrets—a construction project (a concentration camp), the murder of its rebels, and the deportation of its Jews are noted and recorded. The way in which these events are deftly integrated into the foreground of wretched human interaction is another remarkable facet of director János Szász’ skill at translating this dark novel, by Agota Kristof, to the screen.
Yet the twins make occasional awkward attempts to help others, usually with disastrous results, which only serve to harden their almost-frozen hearts. And every action has a reaction that complicates the plot. But One and Other prevail, finally, and will survive. Szász and his cinematographer, Christian Berger (of White Ribbon fame), have remained faithful to Kristof’s novel, whose script (by Szász, Kristof, and Andras Szekér) is a marvel of substance and refinement, with the power of a rapier.
(The Notebook is the winner of the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary.)