The Painted Bird

Joska asleep on a cart while a woman hoes

A screen adaptation of Polish-born Jerzy Kosiński’s novel The Painted Bird probably should have been made before 2019. “Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird,” wrote Jonathan Yardley in The Miami Herald in a typical rave when the book first appeared in 1965. When it turned out that the book wasn’t based on Kosiński’s own personal experiences, as he had claimed, and that he’d pulled off a remarkable literary hoax, sentiment reversed sharply.

Decades later there were claims that other books by Kosiński – like Being There (which was turned into a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers) – were largely works of plagiarism lifted from Polish novels unknown in the English-speaking world. And there were suggestions that Kosiński’s assistants did all the writing while Kosiński himself dined out on his literary reputation.

Does any of that matter? Ultimately, no, and writer/director Václav Marhoul in any case meets the troubling “plagiarism/fabrication” aspect of Kosiński’s work head-on by deliberately doing something similar and styling his adaptation of The Painted Bird on another film, Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war magnum opus Come and See. There’s even a role for the boy-star of Come and See, Aleksei Kravchenko.

Both films have the same picaresque structure and follow a young lad as he stumbles around Eastern Europe from one grim situation to another. This is an almost unrelentingly brutal film, introducing us to its hero, Joska (Petr Kotlár) in an opening scene in which his pet (a weasel? stoat?) is burned before his eyes. Within minutes Joska’s grandmother is also dead, and her house is roaring in flames. Homeless, Joska is off on his tour of hell.

The “painted bird”, we learn, is the one that stands out from the other birds and for its affrontery is pecked to death by its fellows. Joska, we’re told a couple of times, though it’s unclear how anyone can know this, is Jewish, and since vicious anti-semitism is a fact of life he keeps this part of his identity tightly under wraps.

Because it was shot chronologically over two years, we actually see Joska grow up as he moves from one “refuge” to another – a travelling wise woman/doctor (Alla Sokolova), a miller (Udo Kier), a peasant couple (Lech Dyblik and Jitka Cvankarová), a German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård), a priest (Harvey Keitel), one of the priest’s parishioners (Julian Sands), a peasant woman (Julia Valentova) and eventually an American soldier (Barry Pepper). Along the way he is buried up to his neck and almost has his eyes pecked out by crows, is raped by a man, then by a woman, beaten, thrown in a cesspit, while around him one character has been eaten alive in a grain store boiling with hungry rats, and another has had a bottle inserted into her vagina, which the local women have kicked at till it shatters.

Come and See's Aleksei Kravchenko
Come and See’s Aleksei Kravchenko



The more famous names, Keitel for example, slot right in with the less well known, all of a piece in this unfolding tableau of awfulness. It’s The Good Soldier Schwejk without the jokes, perhaps, all shot in an arresting black and white by much-garlanded Czech cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, and one of the ancillary cultural points it makes is just how medieval Eastern Europe was in the run-up to the Second World War. Until a German bi-plane buzzed over Joska as if from nowhere, I’d got little idea which century we were in, never mind which decade of the 20th century.

In spite of the “one damn thing after another” plotlessness of the picaresque,The Painted Bird remains gripping until minutes before the end. It gets round the tendency of the picaresque to flop into formlessness by driving forward at a real lick, yet also finds enough space to luxuriate in moments of unexpected beauty.

It’s only the third film that Marhoul has directed, and he was almost 60 when this was released. I don’t know his other films, 2003’s Smart Philip or 2008’s Tobruk, but the first is apparently an adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, while the second shifts Stephen Crane’s Civil War drama The Red Badge of Courage (a version of which became a film starring Audie Murphy) into North Africa. This excellent adaptation of Kosiński’s problematical book is no one-off then. Marhoul clearly likes a challenge.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









About Endlessness

The hovering couple inspired by Chagall's Over the Town

 

In one of the first scenes in About Endlessness, a waiter brings a diner a bottle of wine, opens it, sniffs the cork to check the wine is OK, then walks over to the right hand side of the diner to fill his glass. Holding the bottle near the bottom, the way a practised waiter does, he pours the wine precisely into the glass, then keeps pouring, pouring, pouring, until the wine overflows and starts pooling over the table. The diner, who’s been stuck behind his newspaper, suddenly notices.

If you’re not familiar with the work of Swedish director Roy Andersson, this is a typical entry into his world. About Endlessness doesn’t mark much of a departure from his last films, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence and You, the Living. If anything Andersson has doubled down and pared his minimalist style back even further. Like the earlier films, what we get is a series of vignettes, shot with a locked camera, featuring characters who barely move, barely speak, all situated on sets that are drained of colour, lit incredibly flatly, as if every touch of gloss has been removed.

Other scenes: a woman breaks the heel of her shoe in a railway station, picks it from the floor and moves on. A man who doesn’t trust banks hides some money under his mattress. Another man says hello to someone he recognises and is rebuffed. And then, in among these scenes from the humdrum everyday – Hitler in his bunker, a man in a market slapping a woman, a crying man cradling a young woman he has clearly stabbed to death.

Three girls, a propos nothing at all, start dancing outside a bar. A young couple discuss eternity in terms of the mutability of energy.

The everyday sits next to the tragic, next to the disastrous, next to the comic, and even, in the case of the dancing young women, the joyous. Snapshot moments, which is how Andersson shows them, but not decisive moments – those have happened off camera and earlier.

If you’re looking for a story, you’ve come to the wrong place, though there is one character Andersson returns to again and again – the priest who has lost his faith and who has nightmares about being crucified like Jesus Christ.

 

The priest dreams of crucifixion
The priest’s dream of crucifixion

 

Existential is how Andersson’s films are often described, but there’s also a strong note of nihilism, though he himself has described About Endlessness as being in some ways an attempt at a 1001 Nights of separate stories. His Scheherezade, though, is experienced only in voiceover, a monotone female introducing each vignette with the same formula – “I saw a man who…” or “I saw a woman who…”.

“My agenda is having the audience, just like the king in the story, wishing the film would never end,” Andersson said in an interview. Whether you will never want the film to end or are wondering whether it’s ever going to end  probably depends on your appreciation of Andersson’s deadpan style. What makes About Endlessness a slightly tougher sell than his previous films is that there’s far less humour on display this time round.

Mark Chagall’s painting Over the Town pops up twice, first in the opening scene, where we see Chagall’s sublime couple floating up in the clouds. They return later in another aerial shot, this time hovering over the city of Cologne bombed to bits at the end of the Second World War.

As a viewer it might be best to think of yourself as one of those two floating people – high up, blithely disconnected from the details that would turn the abstract into the concrete and as a consequence piecing together stories from the fragments being offered by Andersson. I wish you the very best in your endeavours.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Bacurau

Procession at the funeral of Teresa's grandmother

 

Two opinions of Bacurau from Amazon’s Top Reviews of this film. “One of the worst movies we have ever seen,” said Scout in a one star thumbs-down. “We were both regretful that we paid to give away time that we cannot get back watching a movie that was this painfully stupid.” On the other hand Cameron Brady, giving Bacurau five stars, said, “This movie is simply fantastic. It touches on subjects of socioeconomic disparity, racism, colorism, etc. but keeps a certain humor and charming weirdness as well.” I can sympathise with both points of view. If what you want is a good strong story told in an efficient way, Bacurau is a load of crap. If you’re after something that’s really a movie about movies – with genre teases and in-jokes scattered throughout – your bus to referential heaven has arrived.

“We have taken a powerful psychotropic drug and you are going to die,” says kindly magisterial teacher Plinio towards the end of Bacurau at about the point where the plot has finally declared itself. He works at the dusty, dry Brazilian town’s local school, the Escola João Carpinteiro – translated out of Portuguese that’s the John Carpenter School – and says this about the point that it’s become more obvious that we’ve been watching a psychedelic version of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, except the Precinct is now a remote Brazilian village and the assaulters are a gang of out-and-out weirdos armed to the teeth.

The Carpenter influence was obvious all along, in retrospect. That was even one of his bouncy synth tunes on the soundtrack a bit earler. But there’s a mountain of spaghetti western in here too, the trippy sort that you find in Jodorowsky’s El Topo. And is it fanciful to suggest that the structure – snapshots of different people and events just kind of loosely montaged together – owes something to Altman’s Nashville? I came and went on that thought.

A herd of wild horses stampedes through the town. Two randoms are having sex in a side room. A pair of bikers show up in lurid one-piece outfits. A mad guitarist serenades anyone who’ll listen to his impromptu songs. A butt-naked old dude mists his hothouse succulents and air plants.

And then a flying saucer arrives. By this point it doesn’t seem out of place. But there is a nominal focus for the action – Teresa (Bárbara Colen), daughter of teacher Plinio (Wilson Rabelo). She has arrived back in town for her grandmother’s funeral, to find that it’s got no water. Eventually a truck carrying water turns up, but it’s been shot full of holes. After that the two oddly attired bikers arrive. And not long after that onto the screen climbs Udo Kier, patron saint of the bonkers movie, as the leader of a gang of psychopaths who are going to menace the village for reasons that never really become clear. It doesn’t matter. The plot is not the point.

 

Sonia Braga (centre) in bloody coat
Sonia Braga (centre) as Dr Domingas

 

Those looking for an allegory could zoom in on the fact that the village seems to pivot around teacher Plinio and fierce doctor Domingas (Sonia Braga), rationalist forces confronting the psychos, all from more developed countries, by unleashing a secret weapon of their own – Lunga (Silvero Pereira), a nutjob who lives a safe distance away but is there to be called in on occasions just like these.

At one point the psychos have a weird conversation about race, in which light-skinned “dark” people are compared unfavourably to dark-skinned “white” people. It’s obviously a scene designed to point out how irrational alt-right demagogues like Bolsonaro can be (because they’re the target, surely). Popping a bizarro cherry on all this is the fact that the psychos seem to be on some sort of vacation break – they appear to have booked this blood-frenzy weekend as part of a tourist package deal. More allegory.

At a stylistic level it’s a brilliantly made film, full of old fashioned stylistic quirks like wipes to change scenes. Technically, it’s modern through and through, a pin-sharp bright and clean-looking film delivered in the way only digital can do (on this budget).

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles have worked together several times, with Dornelles usually on production design. Here he gets a co-director credit. Quite who did exactly what isn’t clear but something’s changed since their last film together, 2016’s Aquarius, which tackled social issues (and also featured Sonia Braga) in a much soberer, more straightahead fashion. Perhaps that’s the film one-star Scout should watch.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Keyhole

 

 

“That penis is getting dusty” – a line of dialogue in wonky auteur Guy Maddin’s latest film, another arthouse exploration of arthouse themes delivered in high contrast monochrome, from a camera on a bungee and via an editor with attention deficit disorder.

There are a couple of famous names too, just to lure in the unwary, or more likely to open the wallets of the various art foundations that funded this mad collision of references. Isabella Rossellini, longtime Maddin collaborator and utterer of the great line in his film The Saddest Music in the World – “If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady” – she’s here. So too, as you can see from the above picture, is Udo Kier, a guarantor of oddness and, usually, of awfulness too.

Plot? Well, it hasn’t got much of one. Jason Patric – I don’t think I’ve seen him in a film since Speed 2 and age has improved him, wiped some of the shit-eating smugness off his face – plays a kind of Humphrey Bogart Mr Big, pinned down inside a house with his gang and expecting an attack by the police any minute. Until that comes he wanders about a bit, discovering stuff’s all a bit weird in there. There’s a naked old guy on chain tied to Rossellini’s bed. It’s meant to be her dad. We can see his penis, in fact Maddin shows it to us a couple of times quite gratuitously, as if this were one of the proofs that what we’re watching is arthouse. So, a bit Key Largo with nudity, then. That Patric’s name is Ulysses is significant; Maddin is adding a layer of Homer’s Odyssey for extra artistic kudos to a film that’s already thick with allusion – Universal monster movies of the 1930s, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Citizen Kane, James Whale.

The effect of this opaque plotting, old-time set-dressing, bizarre characterisation – I didn’t mention the soundtrack that seems to have been put through a wonkalizer but it’s there too – the effect of all this is to produce a film not unlike David Lynch’s Eraserhead in look and tone. And I bet you that isn’t what Maddin was after. But being born in 1956 means Maddin has taken a full hit of Lynchian radioactivity and the filmic genes have mutated. The Guy can’t help it.

So by the time we get to “that penis is getting dusty” – it’s an erect wooden one sticking randomly out of a wall in a corridor – uttered by Patric in passing, we really don’t care any more. The next cut is to a woman licking the stump of an arm-amputee and I have to admit that at this point I rolled my eyes and quietly groaned “for god’s sake”. You’d think a guy nudging 60 might have got that kind of artschool nonsense out of his system.

On the upside. Thinking long and hard here. I’m going to digress a bit. Maddin does understand how gorgeous black and white can be and he does make interesting films – somehow managing to be frenzied and languid at the same time. The Saddest Music in the World is even odder than Keyhole but it does at least have a plot (a competition to find the saddest music in the world, with Rossellini playing a brewery heiress, hence her hilarious line), and it’s got a sense of humour. Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a very odd portrait of his home town, is a poetic meditation on the power of native towns on the psyche and has the same nightmare (and yes, Lynchian) texture as Keyhole. But it too is about something and once Maddin’s dreamy, oblique modus operandi has been absorbed, it’s a really powerful film.

This has all the hallmarks of Maddin’s unique (if we ignore David Lynch, or possibly even Terence Davies, at a push) style of working (see Davies’s Of Time and the City for a lovely, dreamy and ranting portrait of a home town, Liverpool in his case). In Keyhole Maddin is working the “other” avenue of film-making, the one that lost out to the Hollywood style when silent movies were still king, the one that proceeds by layering impressions, atmospheres, sounds and edits together to produce something less linear, more poetic, often more disturbing.

On this basis alone Keyhole is a film worth watching, that it represents the other way of doing it in a world that doesn’t seem to have much time for it. The various foundations that funded Keyhole will certainly be very happy – all those arthouse tickboxes filled in. Or maybe I’ve read it all wrong and Maddin was actually having a laugh at the institutions’ expense – delivering arthouse by numbers. I wouldn’t put it past him.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Keyhole – at Amazon