~ Movie Diary ~
Celia (Ann Turner - 1989)
Tonight I saw the 1989 Australian film Celia. I commend the new Beacon Cinema in Seattle for playing it, otherwise I might not have known about it. Far from being a horror movie as it was mistakenly packaged (Senses of Cinema has an essay outlining how that happened), the layers of this film unfold novelistically, the conflicts of the adults rippling across the psychology of the children. The setting is 1950's suburban Melbourne, where middle-class yards abut less-tended territory to which the kids escape at every opportunity. But rather than running to some idyllic forest, the kids wage war with each other in an abandoned quarry, a stage for acting out their traumas on each other. It's rare to see the fierce and separate world of children portrayed in so much detail without trying to be cute, and in the character of Celia we see a constant struggle with the adult world. Her passion and honesty get her into trouble, and the losses she undergoes only further confuse her sense of reality, with tragic consequences.
There's a comic theme of rabbits in this movie. The government considers them vermin to be controlled, most obviously a parallel with the Red Scare playing out in the time of the story, but I also think of the children themselves, multiplying much like the rabbits and running from parents who continually fail in their efforts to control both their children and each other, let alone themselves. Celia's own rabbit Murgatroid ends up suffering as a result of Celia wanting to keep it, especially when it gets dragged into war. The movie ends in the world of the children, but in a heavily symbolic way that suggests that the insanity of the adult world has made its mark. If it seems that I have spoiled too much of the story, not so. You should seek out this movie. It goes straight onto my list of movies about children and childhood.
Laila (George Schnéevoigt - 1929)
Tonight was one of the most fun movie experiences I've ever had. As part of the Silent Movie Mondays series put on by Seattle's Paramount Theater, the 1929 Norwegian film Laila was shown with live accompaniment on the Wurlitzer organ, played by Tedde Gibson. The movie is epic: a story spanning years, beautifully shot across expansive snow-covered landscapes, told in 145 minutes during which I could not take my eyes off the screen. Tedde Gibson did an incredible job playing through it all, with colorful imagination and a sense of suspense, and the audience stood to cheer loudly for him when it ended.
There's much that's remarkable about this movie, not least the cinematography, which captures the whites and grays of a snowbound world in so many gorgeously-composed shots, and that also moves with the action: in one thrilling scene on river rapids, the camera flies along sideways with a man running down the shore chasing a boat, and for a few moments the camera is actually in the boat looking back at Laila standing in it as she rushes downstream.
The story concerns a Norwegian baby girl who ends up being raised by the native Sami people (called the "Lapps" in the movie). There's definitely some of the 'noble savage' stereotype going on here, but it struck me that the 'Lapps' were not portrayed as evil and truly loved Laila. I certainly did — I'm still crushing on Laila. A sassy dark-haired girl wearing intricately-embroidered furs being pulled on skis across the snow by a reindeer? Hey, that's my type! I looked up the actress Mona Mårtenson, who turned out to have been Swedish and only lived to 54 years old. She was good in this movie, a personality that popped off the screen. You can find this film on disc, restored in 2006 with a jangly piano score taken from Grieg tunes, but for me nothing will ever compare to seeing it with a friend in a crowd with a live organ.
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)
2018 was, among other things, the year I waited for movies to show up in Seattle's movie semi-wasteland. "Shoplifters" was one of those movies, but it was worth the wait. As of today I've seen every (fictional) movie by Koreeda, and this is definitely one of his best. What it most obviously shares with previous films is actors (more than one) and a focus on the family unit. And if you have seen his earlier movies you will recognize the face-on documentary style of the interview scenes, and the suggestion of the name "Hana" for the little girl has to be a reference to Koreeda's early movie of the same name. More than that, though, this movie shares a patient build-up of emotion that sneaks up on you as the dimensions of each character come to light. The children are central, but they are part of a bigger, sadder puzzle created by the adults: it's an ensemble story, perfectly told. It could easily be a stage play. I'm not going to spoil it for you by saying any more — just go see it right away.
Summer 1993 (Carla Simón, 2017)
On this day I saw Summer 1993, a 2017 film from Spain, and now over a month later it's still circling in my head. Good movies about children are rare, and this is the rarest of them all: a film in which the entire story revolves around a child's inner life. And it does so in a real way. Much like animals are anthropomorphized in the movies, children are often shown as innocents or are seen acting with adult-like motivations, but not in this film. Instead, and with a steady gaze, the camera follows the outwardly-inexplicable behavior six-year-old Frida, who has lost her mother — behavior which can only be understood through what she's slowly processing inside. Only somebody who truly remembers being a kid, and only somebody who has also experienced how grief actually plays out, could make such a film as this, and in fact the story was inspired by the director's own experience. I watched Summer 1993 with a friend at the SIFF cinema in Seattle Center where we sat all alone in the theater, but still, when the lights went up we were not ready for it — I know I could have used more time for my tears to subside. They were good tears, though. See this beautiful movie.
The Day After (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)
The Day After is a recent film by Hong Sang-soo that showed at the Northwest Film Forum. Filmed in spare black and white, little of what actually happens in the film couldn't be found in a second-rate soap, but that's intentional. Pieces of the story are assembled into a puzzling and absorbing whole, and while the film does make use of the same kind of scene-scrambling as in a number of other Hong Sang-soo films which play with alternate timelines, in this film there is only one reality — it's just that the characters themselves can't quite keep hold of it. An essay called Hong Sang-soo’s Dream Time by Xueli Wang in the Los Angeles Review Of Books describes it in much more depth than I can (thanks to my friend Jane for the link).
Thelma has been listed by some as one of the better films of 2017, but I found it only intermittently convincing. A few striking scenes have stuck with me to be sure, not least because of the film's measured pace, but despite often wishing movies would take more time I felt like this one was stretched too much. Still, not a bad movie.
The Spirit Of The Beehive
Here's another childhood-related movie I've been wanting to see: The Spirit Of The Beehive from 1973. I finally rented it it from Reckless, and I don't think I'll ever forget it. Though the film does ultimately follow the imaginative world of children, it also concerns the adults: the girls' parents, whose stories are introduced first. While the parents' storylines are less developed (intentionally, I suspect, limited to a sort of symbolism), in fact the theme of the imagination being stirred by trauma is mirrored in the case of each of the characters (which may have been obliquely political). One of many things that struck me is how the film's intensity and persistently mysterious, allegorical atmoshere are achieved through simple means: music sometimes, but often silence, and moments of sun-baked (or wind-swept) absorbtion. The cinematography is arresting, and time is given to observe, lending meaning to the sparse landscape. As for the music itself, it is simple and childlike (though in 7/8 it seems), giving the wonder-filled effect of a Paul Klee minature, in keeping with the wide-eyed expression of the little girl Ana. It's a kind of filmmaking I can't imagine being done today.
The Night I Swam
The wonderful movie I watched tonight — The Night I Swam — goes right on my list of Movies About Chilhood. It follows a little boy as he wanders off, staying at his level for the most part, watching him with a steady gaze until we begin to sense what he's feeling, along the way capturing many of the little moments that we've all experienced as kids (if we hold onto the memory that is). Absorbingly shot, it takes place in a snow-covered town in northern Japan, and rather than ever resorting to cutesiness the humor comes out through the cinematography. Many thanks to my friend Jane for the tip.
Yes I did swear never to return to the local multiplex, but now it has reserved seating for all screens, and after a trying week I felt like going out to sit in the dark with the public and see something ridiculous. Annihilation was just the ticket: slow to develop, growing more freaky. Despite being about something alien its subtext was human, like a relationship anxiety dream transmogrified... or a soap opera episide on mushrooms. It wasn't quite as good a movie as it pretended, and it seemed like they had spliced out parts of the story, but at least it took risks.
On the Beach at Night Alone
This evening I watched On the Beach at Night Alone on blu-ray with my good friend and Hong Sang-soo fan Jane. It's hard to come up with words to describe a tissue of a film such as this. Is it even a movie? Well obviously it's a movie, but why does it work? It's like a series of teases, surfaces with hints of things underneath that come popping out unexpectedly — from people's misunderstanding of each other and also of themselves, subjects that Hong Sang-soo has explored before. There are autobiographical elements of this movie regarding the director's affair, apparently, but no matter. It's compelling all on its own, and oddly funny.