Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Tin Drum

German history is a carnival freak show in The Tin Drum, and the geek is as disgusted by the audience as they are by him. I speak, of course, of Oskar, the chief exhibit in this cabinet of horrors and the narrator who will guide the viewer through the rise of the Third Reich and the invasion of Poland. Repulsed by the adult world, he refuses to grow up, preferring to hide from cruel reality in the safe shell of a perpetually prepubescent body. With his wide eyes and angry mouth, David Bennent plays Oskar as a wrathful innocent, equally uncomprehending and unforgiving of the madness around him. This disconcerting performance is only occasionally matched by the film itself, which batters viewers with indiscriminately applied shock effects (grotesque images, filtered lenses, speeded movements) in one of those strained outbursts of Art that occasionally afflict otherwise healthy people. Director Volker Schlondorff’s feeble magical realism is as disconnected from the film as Oskar is from history. Key sequences—the doomed relationship between Oskar and the dwarf somnambulist Roswitha, for example—are dispatched with a hurried clumsiness that belies their significance. Adapted from the first two-thirds of the Gunter Grass novel, the film is both too long and not long enough, crammed with incident yet disjointed and incomplete. Schlondorff reportedly added 20 minutes to the film for its recent re-release; he might as well have added another hour for all the good it does him.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Garlic Is As Good As 10 Mothers

“Long live the living!” Those words, spoken by a dead pig destined for the spit, sum up best the verve of Les Blank’s documentary Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers: in this gourmand’s paradise, even the food can’t wait to be eaten. Blank’s offbeat ode to the stinking rose treats garlic as the nexus of all life’s pleasures, and for proof he turns to a parade of garlic-loving musicians, dancers, cooks, writers and flat-out nutjobs. One man, for instance, argues it is garlic’s flavourful nature that repulses vampires, who drain the energy from life through sheer blandness; his favourite example of a likely blood-sucking agent of the damned is a historical figure who was reputed to eat plain boiled rice seasoned only with dew. Documentaries about colourful obsessives are a genre unto itself at this point, but Blank, whose technique is as eccentric as his subject matter, never looks down at anyone. His gregarious approach to filmmaking even ropes in random schoolyard children and a befuddled Werner Herzog, who patiently discusses the absence of garlic in his version of Nosferatu before staring into the camera and wondering, “Why are you asking me this?” The unspoken answer, and presumably what Blank also said to himself when contemplating whether to include the scene: well, why not? Life’s a feast, and this is hardcore food porn.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wake in Fright

In Wake in Fright’s delinquent version of Australia, everyone’s skin is crispy-cured with sweat and heat and the incessant buzz of flies suggests the land isn’t populated by human beings so much as walking slabs of slowly rotting meat. In other words, Ted Kotcheff’s hellish walkabout is pure Oz-ploitation. Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) gambles his savings away at a high-stakes underground coin-toss—yes, that’s a thing—and finds himself stranded in yobbo paradise. The only crime in this wild frontier town is refusing a pint, and the populace consists primarily of thick-necked thugs guzzling beer by the bucket-full (water’s for washing, you see). Trapped by the town’s sick gravity, John transforms from aloof man of learning to shambling drunk with a two-day beard and torn clothes. His nearest companion is Dr. Thyne—Donald Pleasence, crumpled like a tissue thrown away—who provides an even darker picture of what happens to an educated man gone to seed. Dignified and debauched, Thyne lives off the largesse of the town, granted an endless supply of beer out of respect for his medical abilities. In the land of high-functioning alcoholics, the local rummy is king, apparently.

The pretensions of civilization are washed away by a tidal wave of stout lager, and it’s all as overblown as it sounds. But Kotcheff and his performers are ferociously committed to this perverse vision; the loss of self-control in the characters is mirrored by the film’s increasingly unhinged development. Most shockingly, a gruesome kangaroo hunt spirals into pure bloodlust: animals were most definitely harmed during the making of this film. Afterwards, in a self-disgusted haze, the film offers us its most representative scene: John passed out, two Aussies brawling in the dirt, and Thyne inexplicably howling, “What about Socrates?” (Yes, what about Socrates?) Yet for all the commentary on masculinity run amuck, the film seems more interested in its pitiless depiction of addiction. John awakens each morning in an ever-widening pool of sweat, blood, vomit and other assorted fluids, as if this constricting world was steadily pounding him into pulp. Shackled to his teaching job by a thousand-dollar bond, he’s a slave of civilization seeking escape; set free for a brief time, he turns into a prisoner of his own impulses. The tidy ending of the film masks the impossible choice between these warring forms of servitude. As the camera pans across the empty expanse that surrounds his schoolhouse, the vastness seems as claustrophobic as a concrete cell.