Monday, June 26, 2017

Fata Morgana (1965)

Although the surrealist movement would expand to numerous countries throughout the 1920’s, by and large France remained the epicenter of surrealism, attracting many an artist associated with the movement who would eventually come to be considered masters in the field. Several of the most well known were Spanish or of Hispanic origin and the Spanish/French crossover within the realm of surrealism can’t be overstated, especially in the world of film. Perhaps the most well known example would be Louis Buñuel with several French productions and co-productions to his name, including the highly influential Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Salvador Dalí, another Spaniard, L'Age d'Or (1930), Bell de jour (1967) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Of course there was also the Panic Movement, the surrealist performance art collective founded by the Chilean born  Alejandro Jodorowsky along with Fernando Arrabal, future director of the surrealist classics Viva la muerte (1971) and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973), and Frenchman Roland Topor. In the mid 1960’s, a new film movement began in Spain known as the “Barcelona School of Film” and young filmmaker Vicenta Aranda, who would later hit Euro horror pay dirt with The Blood Splattered Bride (1972), and eventually secure many top honors for the brilliant Amantes (1991), delivered Fata Morgana, a benchmark film from the Barcelona School of Film mindset and one of the finest examples of Spanish surrealism.

In a nearly deserted Barcelona, Gim (Teresa Gimpera), a beautiful model decides to stay in the city despite mass evacuations and constant warnings from officials to leave. Despite claiming she feels “safe”, Gim soon receives an ominous warning from one of the few remaining residents that she will soon be murdered. The same warning is given by a professor during a lecture, the thesis being that murder victims are attracted to their killers. While Gim now fears for her life, a mysterious man is sent to traverse the city in a desperate bid to save Gim from her deadly fate as predicted by the professor.

Given the aforementioned connection between Spain and France when it comes to surrealism, its only fitting that despite being a Spanish film that defines a very Spanish film movement, Fata Morgana, or “Left-Handed Fate”, feels very much like a French film at times. Not so much Nouvelle Vague, more Nouvelle Roman in the vein of Alain Robbe-Grillet. While the film doesn’t contain the explicit fourth wall breaking found in Robbe-Grillet’s playful narrative deconstructions, there is a constant feeling of Aranda winking his eye at the audience, saying everything happening on screen is some sort of absurd game, the rules to which are being made up on the spot and could change in a instant. It can be a thoroughly confusing film at times considering that there’s very little set-up and the action just happens at random as if in a fever-dream yet the film begins to make sense after the fact once the meaning of the title “Left-Handed Fate” beings to sink in. The film also has somewhat of a futuristic sci-fi edge to it. While no explanation is given as to why there is a mass evacuation taking place, some sort of nuclear or chemical weapons disaster wouldn’t be a bad guess as in the films most unusual moment, a woman happens upon a man baring severe monster-esque mutations. This could also have been an anti-General Franco political statement on Aranda’s part. Turning Barcelona into a ghost town was a masterstroke on Aranda’s part with all the sparseness adding to the surreality.

Being a surrealist film there are naturally moments of absurdity and humor. Seeing Gimpera followed by an armored tank/bus type of vehicle while the unseen driver tries to chat her up via megaphone is quite the hilarious sight as is the stranger (a spy perhaps?) sent to save Gimpera meeting with the mysterious prophetic professor covered in gauze resembling the Invisible Man in an empty stadium. The film also contains one of the more unique murder weapons found in European genre cinema, a metallic fish with a retractable blade. What’s also interesting is how certain scenes seem to find Aranda, albeit perhaps not intentionally, predicting some of the imagery that would be found in his next feature, the criminally underrated The Exquisite Cadaver (1969), also starring Gimerpa. Equally fascinating is the origin of the name Fata Morgana, the Italian name of Morgan le Fey, the sister of King Arthur and ruler of Avalon who possess supernatural abilities. In the legends she was believed to have been the cause of mirages Strait of Messina. Fata Morgana is also the name of a 1971 Werner Herzog film depicting mirages in the Sahara desert. Fan’s of The Blood Splattered Bride who are unfamiliar with Aranda’s other work should make an effort to dive deeper into the world of one of Spain’s most fierce and fascinating filmmakers with Fata Morgana being an essential part of that world.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tricked (2012)

Like most maverick auteurs, Paul Verhoeven’s name brings forth a variety of opinions from both fans and critics. Those who dismiss Verhoeven’s work often cite his predilection towards extremities, particularly in the sex and violence departments. While its true that Verhoeven is a master of excess, his films bear all the hallmarks of having their cake and eating it too. To fans, Verhoeven is one of cinema’s greatest satirists with the majority of his films featuring a biting, often sardonic sense of humor and with an anti-authoritarian political edge. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to get Verhoeven’s brand of comedy. Looking back, it seems miraculous that the satire of RoboCop (1987) was widely recognized as it seems to be the only one of Verhoeven’s films where the humor didn’t completely fly over the heads of dense critics. Despite the following that Showgirls (1995) has garnered, there still are those that can’t quite grasp the fierce satirical wit the film possesses and with Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven was amazingly accused of being the very thing the film was lampooning. After returning to Holland to helm Black Book (2006), Verhoven did something fascinating by turning to the public to find the material for his next project. The result of the experiment was the mini-film Tricked, which saw Verhoeven’s blackly comedic side come to the forefront for one of his most side-splitting and fun, albeit brief efforts.

During his 50th birthday party thrown by his wife, Remco, an unfaithful businessman gets quite the shock when his former mistress Nadja shows up at the party eight months pregnant. To make matters worse, Remco soon learns that his two business partners are attempting to buy him out of his shares of his company. Knowing Remco’s situation, Merel, the best friend of Remco’s daughter Lieke and also Remco’s current mistress, senses that something just isn’t right, and along with Remco’s son Tobias begins to investigate to uncover the truth about Remco’s troubles.

The elephant in the room in regards to Tricked (Steekspel) would be the fact that, again, it is technically a mini-film and with a brisk run time of only 55 minutes its inevitable that a feeling of what could have been had the film been an extra 25-30 minutes longer will arise. At the same time, for a 55 minute mini-film, Tricked is absolutely perfect and the most fun 55 minutes anyone can spend in front of a screen. While the film doesn’t feature any of the sociopolitical satire that Verhoeven is famous for, the films humor is nevertheless pure Verhoeven. The film is comparable to Showgirls in that the style of humor on display is incredibly barbed and more often than not is based on the characters behaving not so nicely to each other in the most hilarious of ways. Naturally, Remco is the butt of the majority of the films jokes, however nobody in spared and some of the films most laugh out loud moments are the jabs and insults hurled between the characters of Lieke and Tobias and Verhoeven also throws in a brilliant gross-out gag involving vomit and a floating bloody tampon which harkens back to Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) days. Along with all the laughs, Verhoeven of course makes time for somewhat of a mystery although it gets solved rather quickly which moves the film along quite nicely as part of the fun becomes wondering how certain characters will react to certain situations which leads to more hilarity.

One of the most fascinating things regarding Tricked is the way the film was crafted with the first three professionally written pages of the script posted online and the rest of the film constructed from submissions from the public, a process that Verhoeven admitted became much more complicated than originally anticipated. While speaking to the BBC, Verhoeven stated “There were some great ideas, but their main failing was that they had no idea of narrative structure. They didn’t know how to build to a crescendo, for everything to come to a head, so we could actually have an ending... Before we started this, I just imagined that I would get two or three scripts that would be outstanding, and myself and (co-writer Robert Thijm) would say, ‘okay, these are the best ideas and we’ll take this from script number two, and this from script number three’ – and half a day later we’ll be putting the finished material up online. Absolutely no way.  Not a chance. It took at least ten days each time to look at the material. It was a nightmare.” In the hands of a lesser director, taking such a chance could have ended in disaster but with a master like Verhoeven at the helm, Tricked ultimately became not just a successful experiment but a testament to Verhoeven’s drive to not become stagnant and a must watch for Verhoeven fans.