Surreal and Hyper-real

The Exterminating Angel (El angel exterminador): written and directed by Luis Bunuel; starring Silvia Pinal (Leticia), Enrique Rambal (Edmundo), Cladio Brook (Julio), Jose Baviera (Leandro), Lucy Gallardo (Lucia), Cesar del Campo (The Colonel), and Augusto Benedico (The Doctor) (1962 – Spanish/Mexican): Luis Bunuel’s surreal horror film may be a commentary on fascist Spain, phrased in ways that work both viscerally and metaphorically. It works more generally as a surreal and increasingly nightmarish piece of social commentary.

A dinner party of rich socialites gathers at a mansion. All but one of the servants flee. And then for reasons no one can understand, no one can leave the living room. For weeks or perhaps months. And no one can enter the house, though no one really knows why.

The film follows the events in the living room, with a few scenes outside as crowds wax and wane outside the house. There are lambs in the house, and a bear. It’s that kind of party. Food runs out. The prisoners search for water-pipes to tap. People start dying. People start looking for scapegoats. The enigmatic paintings on the closet doors look on. A disembodied hand scuttles around the floor. Or does it?

Bunuel would later note that he wished he could have gone farther into violence and grue, adding at least cannibalism to the mix. The movie feels like a nightmare possessed of a nonetheless meticulous logic, a logic expanded upon as the film draws to a close, and expanded again at the very end. Highly recommended.

Throne of Blood: adapted from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa; directed by Akira Kurosawa; starring Toshiro Mifune (Taketoki Washizu) and Isuzu Yamada (Lady Washizu) (1957): Kurosawa pretty much built an entire castle on the slopes of Mt. Fuji for his homage to Macbeth. And it’s quite a castle. Spider’s Web Castle, named for the labyrinthine paths of the forest surrounding it, is impregnable. 

Two of an emperor’s most trusted lords put down a rebellion. But on the way through the forest, they encounter a spirit whose prophecies lead Toshiro Mifune’s Lord Washizu to murder his emperor and seize the throne for himself, albeit only after being argued into doing so by his increasingly loopy wife. Hey, this is based on Macbeth.

Kurosawa’s film revels in smoke and fog and horror suggested for the most part rather than seen. Indeed, it’s probably the adaptation of Macbeth that most plays the play as a horror piece. The spirit is creepy and freaky and a lot worse than any three witches I’ve ever seen. 

Mifune is, as always, spectacular, as is Isuzu Yamada in the Lady Macbeth role. Yamada’s chill calculation fractures at the end. Mifune, though, fractures upon meeting the spirit and never stops falling apart until the end of the film — unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lord Washizu has no moment of clarity at the end. He doesn’t even get hand-to-hand combat.

Kurosawa saves his creepiest spectacle for the end, as the trees of Spider’s Web Woods march on the castle in the fulfilment of Lord Washizu’s destiny. Smoke billows everywhere. Soldiers flee. The trees advance through the smoke. It’s beautiful film-making. One sometimes wonders how Kurosawa got certain shots, given the technology of the time — in certain cases, forced perspective and clever matte-work  do astonishing things. Highly recommended.

The Hustler: adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen; directed by Robert Rossen; starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats) (1961): Paul Newman was 36 when The Hustler came out. It didn’t necessarily make him a star, but it certainly announced him as being a great American actor. His pool hustler, Eddie Felson, is a nuanced portrayal of desperation and loss and rootlessness. 

Robert Rossen directed the film in an almost neo-Realist manner, at least for American cinema at the time. The dingy pool halls and bus stations and bars look lived-in (for the most part, they are — there are a few sets, but much of the filming was location filming); the acting is, for the most part, unmelodramatic and recognizably ‘modern.’ You can see why Martin Scorsese wanted to direct the 1985 sequel, The Colour of Money: Rossen’s streets are certainly mean, and George C. Scott’s persuasive, treacherous mobster wouldn’t be out of place in Goodfellas.

Newman announces his maturity as an actor by playing pool hustler ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson without accents or histrionics. He’s a damaged soul with one great ability, but that ability puts him in situations where he can only be damaged more. He’s trapped on the fringes of the underworld if he wants to ply his trade: there is no professional pool player’s tour in 1961.

The Hustler doesn’t supply the plot beats and schematicism one expects of modern Hollywood dramas. After a rare-for-the-time pre-credits sequence showing us how Felson and his partner hustle people in small-time pool scams, we basically open with an almost endless series of pool games between Felson and New York City’s greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats. In the immortal words of somebody, character is revealed by a character’s actions.

The bulk of the rest of the film brings Piper Laurie’s wounded, enigmatic Sarah into play as a love interest for a devastated Felson. Good things happen. Bad things happen. And eventually the film will have to force Eddie to evaluate whether financial success is, as George C. Scott’s mobster tells him, the only thing that defines winners and losers. 

Piper Laurie is terrific as Sarah, who’s a lot deeper than she first appears, though perhaps less mysterious than she says. Scott is also terrific, already working that sweaty shoutiness. Gleason underplays Fats throughout — indeed, he barely speaks at all, but he nonetheless got a Supporting Oscar nomination for this film. Highly recommended.

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