Saturday, July 27, 2019

Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976)

Lino Brocka’s Insiang is a sensational tale of oppression leading to unleashed self-determination, drawing on classic melodrama structures of identification and sympathy while entirely rooted in its challenged time and place (the mid-70s Manila slums, and apparently filmed in just eleven miraculous days). Setting the tone with stomach-churning opening images from inside a slaughterhouse, it then plunges us deep into a vividly sweaty setting of claustrophobic, gossipy community and wretchedly strained economics, with the title character (beautifully played by Hilda Koronel) gradually emerging as a focal point from within a large, chaotic extended family. Insiang’s mother kicks out the relatives so that her much younger lover can move in, but his real desire is for Insiang; he rapes her, and when Insiang tells her mother, she gets slapped for it, blamed as a scheming temptress. After her one escape plan – to get married to a boy who says he loves her – ends in yet more mistreatment, Insiang gradually hones a capacity to control her sexuality, while planning revenge over all those who’ve wronged her, all the way to inciting murder. Brocka’s filming of the climactic event is memorable, intercutting Psycho-like knife strokes with Insiang’s possessed expression as she watches what she’s wrought, evoking (a couple of years in advance) Amy Irving in The Fury as she conjures up her destructive supernatural powers. But there’s no pretense here that this solves anything: in the final scene she’s entirely alone, her prospects in the community and sense of herself unspecified and unclear. A quieter, sadder film takes place around the edges of the narrative, of young people with dreams of something better but no ready way of realizing them, either struggling along in menial jobs or else just hanging around getting drunk; even the mean-spirited, shrewish mother and her thuggish boyfriend are shown to be motivated by real vulnerabilities.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Water (Dick Clement, 1985)

Perhaps on its release in 1985, Dick Clement’s Water was able to draw some wan resonance from then-recent memories of Falklands-bound battleships and US support for Nicaraguan contras: if the colonial worldview it presents is outdated and teetering, it’s clear the film’s movers and shakers haven’t entirely realized that yet. The movie posits a Caribbean island of no strategic or economic interest, such that Britain has all but forgotten it’s part of the empire – Michael Caine plays the governor, long gone to seed (the movie’s soft touch is embodied in how the island appears colourful and easygoing, embodied by Jimmie Walker as the local radio host and by the prevalence of ganja, although the dialogue suggests we ought to be looking at utter squalor). Picking up rumours of possible insurgency and lacking the will to go through another Falklands-type conflict, Margaret Thatcher directs that the island’s population simply be moved elsewhere (to locations with hotels in need of cheap labour), but things ramp up when a group of Americans discovers that a long tapped-out oil well is now gushing a super-high-quality mineral water (which, in turn, attracts the interest of the French as well, detecting a threat to their own interests; there are also Cubans in the mix, but they eventually run off to Miami to become drug dealers). No doubt there’s some satirical point to how the debate about the island’s future never involves the islanders themselves – even the rebel leader is white (Billy Connolly, with an undisguised accent) – but the movie embodies the disregard as much as it parodies it. Compensations are few – certainly not the disengaged Caine or the barely-registering Valerie Perrine or the way-over-registering Brenda Vaccaro. Maybe the funniest joke is that the decision-making of the UN General Assembly should or would have been swayed by a George Harrison and Ringo Starr guest appearance…

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Two People (Carl Dreyer, 1945)

Even allowing that Dreyer disowned Two People, it’s strange it receives quite so little attention in discussions of the director; it’s fascinating in its failure, feeling tonally and thematically linked to the two features he made subsequently. The film focuses on a young married couple under extreme strain: they’re the only faces we see, although there are other voices, and it’s set entirely in their apartment, although it evokes other spaces in various ways. Arne is an up and coming scientist who’s been publicly accused of plagiarizing an older professor (stealing his cure for schizophrenia, no less); in the midst of the (improbably headline-grabbing) scandal, the news comes that the professor has been murdered, with numerous clues pointing toward Arne as the perpetrator. Marianne tries to lend her support, but eventually reveals her own tangled involvement with the dead man. The narrative lurches around, cramming far too many reveals and reversals into its 70 minutes: it makes no sense that signposts of guilt keep flooding in from the outside world (for example, they learn from the radio that the police found a glove with Arne’s initials on it) while no one in authority comes to interview the couple, and yet this contributes to the sense of an intimately sealed-off world, bending external reality to its own precepts (tbe professor is heard only in a single flashback, and then seen only in shadow, as if harking back to Vampyr, and the lead actor’s occasional resemblance to Bela Lugosi inadvertently – presumably it was inadvertent - contributes to a sense of creepiness). In its ultimate capitulation to a transcendent love that justifies almost all, Two People looks ahead to Dreyer’s final film Gertrud, but the journey is inadequately articulated here, with the ending feeling more like an arbitrary twist than anything else. Stylistically though, the film often does feel close to Gertrud, carrying an air of devout, stark observance, and for all its manifesr weakness, it casts a strange if broken spell.