Monday, August 22, 2022

Fear and Loathing in Small Town, Everywhere

Two Eastern European films that compliment each other even though they are separated by two decades:

Big Animal (2000, Poland, Jerzy Stuhr)
Fear (2020, Bulgaria, Ivaylo Hristov)

In Big Animal, a circus departs a Polish town and forgets a camel behind. As the camel wanders around town, Zygmunt (played by the director Jerzy Stuhr) decides to take the camel home.

Zygmunt and his wife Marysia (Anna Dymna) decide to adopt the camel as they have no kids of their own so they are happy to give the camel a home. There is a warmth to the couple’s behaviour and at first, the couple’s kind act is considered favourable by the locals. 

However, gradually the locals prejudice comes out. They distrust the ‘foreign animal’ and consider it a burden to their town. The town blames everything bad on the camel. They shun the couple and even make Zygmunt stand a court trail.

Big Animal, based on a story by Kazimierz Orlos with screenplay co-written by Krzysztof Kieslowski, is a not so subtle allegory about how a close minded town treats a foreigner. In the end, the camel mysteriously disappears. The couple is heart-broken and they travel to visit a zoo in a bigger city, happy to witness a camel there. The couple’s smile and body language observed at the zoo indicates that their perspective has been changed forever and no matter what they do, they will stay open-hearted.

The disappeared camel makes a surprising entry near the end of Ivaylo Hristov’s Fear, which isn’t a subtle film at all. Bamba (Michael Flemming) is an African refugee who arrives on the Bulgarian border. He wants to go to Germany but ends up getting stuck in a small Bulgarian border town where he encounters Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva). 

At first, Svetla is hostile towards Bamba but she reluctantly helps him and then develops an understanding with him. On the other hand, the town locals are openly racist towards Bamba and don’t hide their hatred. When the locals find out that Svetla is helping Bamba, they attack her as well. 

In the end, Svetla and Bamba decide they don’t want to live in Bulgaria and plan to go to Africa. As the couple wander off into the snowy landscape, the black and white film gets a splash of colour when a camel casually walks across the screen.

The presence of the camel in Fear brilliantly ties the film with Big Animal. Of course, this isn’t the only connection. The hatred of the locals and the words they speak in Fear mirror those spoken in Big Animal with regards to the camel. Such hatred towards foreigners isn’t isolated to small European towns but sadly exists everywhere in the world. The last few years has exposed this hatred across small towns in North America.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Films of Miklós Jancsó

I had seen a few films of Jancsó long before I had seen any film by Béla Tarr. Now, having revisited some of Jancsó's films, Tarr’s words make more sense because I can clearly see the influence of Jancsó on Tarr’s films.

The sweeping camera movements, the sideways camera pan, found in Jancsó’s films clearly has an influence on Tarr’s films in terms of shot composition. Although, Tarr’s camera rhythm and pan speed is slighter slower than Jancsó's and that is due to the differing focus and topics the two directors want to cover. 

Jancsó’s films are concerned with the fate of a society or nation in general and as a result, characters in his film are involved in debates between capitalism vs socialism, industrial vs agricultural ways of live. Depiction of these debates are shown via sweeping camera movements as the camera moves across a diverse array of characters, rival groups and fighting armies who are debating these lofty ideals and the fate of society. 

The camera has a lot of ground to cover in Jancsó's films because there are multiple viewpoints that need to be shown and these beautiful measured camera movements engulf an entire universe as individuals slowly blend into a larger mosaic. Jancsó also shows the impact of authoritarian rule which crushes individuals and his films depict the sexual abuse committed by men (soldiers or those in power). On the other hand, Tarr’s camera wants us to focus on 1-2 characters in its movements. Sometimes, Tarr’s camera wants us to focus on objects as the characters are not in the frame. There are crimes committed in Tarr’s films as well but those are mostly individual in nature or undertaken by a few against a small community.

Another difference between the two directors is regarding the mood in the films, which includes the colour palette and background noise. The sound of the landscape, rain and environment, filters through more in Tarr’s films whereas in Jancsó’s films, it is songs, music, spirited debates and gunfire that come through. Tarr’s films feature dark or grayish palettes with rain and gloomy skies. On the other hand, Jancsó’s films are packed with bright lively skies in the four colour films in the above set (
The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm and Electra, My Love). This is true even in Winter Wind where the snow doesn’t appear gloomy at all.

Miklós Jancsó’s films take real life events in Hungarian society and bring them to life. However, the manner in which the films are shot have a universality to them. This is due to the films being shot in open fields which turns the focus more on the words and actions of the characters. The crimes the men commit and their unflinching loyalty to their cause are still applicable in today’s world as the world is more divided than ever with men willing to go to any lengths to justify their cause.

There is plenty of good writing on Jancsó’s films. Here are just a few worthy ones:

1. Richard Brody in New Yorker

"Jancsó crafted a primordial form of slow cinema, but made it full of action. “Winter Wind,” for instance, is famously made of only twelve or thirteen elaborately choreographed shots, with the camera weaving around a host of actors, passing from one to another, and observing groups form and dissolve; these hypnotically abstract patterns of movement depict concrete and often violent events. "

"Jancsó’s films relentlessly stage cruelty, ruthlessness, and sadism—the use of power as spectacle to cow freethinkers into submission. The sexual abuse of women is a constant of tyrannical and repressive forces, and women’s resistance to them takes heroic forms, "

"What’s more, he elevated irony to a matter of cinematic form. The films in the Metrograph series are all trees, leaving it to viewers to draw their own forest. With his pointillistic vision of microhistory, of an overwhelming profusion of details, Jancsó radically decontextualized historical events and turned them into abstract symbols. The heroism of revolutionaries in “The Red and the White” makes Bolshevism look like a suicide pact, a death cult; in “Red Psalm,” soldiers purporting to side with the people are bloody murderers of those they claim to defend. "

"Jancsó also evoked the unique psychological horrors of life under tyranny—in style as well as substance—in his depiction of people enduring brutal and horrifying political events that, owing to mass censorship and individual intimidation, go undenounced and even unnamed. Jancso’s foregrounded vision of turbulent action rendered it both overwhelmingly complex, with its Kafkaesque snares and deceptions, and blankly Beckettian, with the absurd cold opacity of its violence, of the nerve-jangling proximity of life to death.

2.  J. Hoberman in Film Comment

"First manifest in The Round-Up (65), Jancsó’s boldly stylized film language appeared to be a synthesis of Antonioni (elegant widescreen compositions, austere allegorical landscapes), Bresson (impassive performers, exaggerated sound design), and Welles (convoluted tracking shots, intricately choreographed ensembles), even as his free-floating existential attitudes and “empty world” iconography evoked the theater of the absurd, albeit without the laughs. Jancsó’s subject or, rather, his prison, was history. His narratives recalled the literature of extreme situations-pivoting on cryptic betrayals, mapping the seizure of power, dramatizing the exercise of terror- and his politics were ambiguously left, perhaps crypto-Trotskyist."

3. Patrick Dahl in Screenslate:

"Circularity runs through all six films in the series. Circles, mostly made of bodies, collide, surround, break and absorb one another as power shifts between the masses and agents of control. "

"Jancsó’s encircled masses and long takes reached their apex with Red Psalm (1972) and Electra, My Love (1974, pictured at top). Featuring only a few dozen shots each, the films offer a nearly impenetrable array of historical symbols and folklore in which groups of singing, dancing and naked peasants lock arms in solidarity against tyrannical forces.