EXPLORING THE ALCOVES OF CULT CINEMA …

Archive for March, 2010

Bo Widerberg’s The Ballad Of Joe Hill (1971)

Sweden/USA, 1971  Dir: Bo Widerberg

Starring: Thommy Berggren, Anja Schmidt, Kelvin Malave, Evert Anderson, Cathy Smith, Hasse Persson, David Moritz, Richard Weber, Joel Miller

Bo Widerberg seems destined to remain an obscure filmmaker, which is a crying shame if The Ballad Of Joe Hill is anything to go by. Carving out something of a niche in beautiful impressionistic dramas depicting earnest subject matters, Widerberg sealed his artistic reputation on the festival circuit with Elvira Madigan (1967), about two lovers in a suicide pact, and Adalen 31 (1969), about a 1931 industrial strike that ends in tragedy, both films based on real-life events. Whilst Ingmar Bergman was leading the way with Swedish dramas geared upwards towards man’s relationship with life, death and religion, Widerberg preferred to direct his issues sideways at man’s place within society and his perpetual social conflicts. As Widerberg stated in his book A Vision Of Swedish Cinema, “Nor me or my friends saw very much in [Bergman] … We didn’t find the issues of god’s existence that damn important”. There’s no better example of Widerberg’s more socially conscious approach than his 1971 retelling of the life of legendary Swedish political activist and songwriter Joe Hill.

The film opens with Joe Hill’s arrival in New York as an emigrant in 1902, details his move to the west coast and his involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World movement, and ends with his controversial trial for murder and subsequent execution (I wouldn’t say these are spoilers in any way since the life and death of Joe Hill is well documented). The delicate recreation of the period is meticulous and absorbing, with the slightly muddied Eastmancolor adding an almost sepia hue to the photography, but also a harsher realism befitting the story’s bleak conditions. Presenting a distanced outsider’s view of a transitional period in American history, Widerberg unashamedly romanticizes (some would say rightly extols) the important role played by defiant immigrant workers in shaping a modern democratic USA.

Widerberg’s detailed poetic touch notwithstanding, Thommy Berggren’s wonderfully commanding performance as Joe Hill is crucial to the film’s dramatic success. Berggren imbues the role with impassioned joy and fearless tenacity, roaming the land as a prophetic figure determined to alter the social landscape, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic. In early scenes, Hill becomes enamoured with the muffled sound of opera heard with his ear up against the back wall of the Metropolitan Opera House. Listening with him is the equally penniless Lucia (Anja Schmidt), whose fate is to end up as mistress to the lead Tenor after being discovered at the back door and invited inside, thereby immediately rising to the top social echelon. Hill meanwhile has no such luck (or maybe it was Lucia who really missed out?), making his way across America hidden on the underside of trains and swinging from one hazardous and underpaid job to another. In one memorable scene, Hill stands alone singing his self-penned ‘Pie in The Sky’ (a phrase originated by Hill) against the sound of a Salvation Army hymn, gradually commanding a large appreciative audience. The film is peppered with well-rounded and engaging supporting characters, notably a plucky young street urchin and a kindly nomadic old-timer, both of whom are vital in setting Hill off on his mission to galvanize the working class through speeches and songs.

The closing sequences of Hill’s imprisonment and ultimate execution have a lingering dramatic potency. A thorough and unflinching portrayal of capital punishment, Hill’s struggle to remove his blind fold only to discover his assassins hiding behind a dark canvas, their rifles peeking through small cut-out holes, perfectly conveys the state’s own guilt and hypocrisy in their treatment of political activists. Joe Hill’s death is even shown to be doubly sacrificial, strengthening the labourer’s cause with infamous martyrdom as well as protecting the reputation of a married woman who could have provided his alibi. Widerberg marks the scenes with several striking visual moments, such as Hill’s beautiful pastel drawing of California on his cell floor being scrubbed away with a mop. The whole  sequence is the most powerful and emotive depiction of state murder until Krsysztof Kieslowski’s far grimmer A Short Film About Killing (1988). After his death, as folklore has it, Hill’s ashes were sent in envelopes to every IWW local, in the hope that they would be scattered and encourage his influence to grow. The film concludes with the envelopes being sent and a reading of the singer’s final written words: “Perhaps some fading flower then/Would come to life and bloom again/This is my Last and final Will/Good Luck to All of you, Joe Hill“.

The Ballad Of Joe Hill is strong fictionalised romanticism from a clearly masterful filmmaker. Just as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley (1975), a similarly powerful tale of historical social turbulence, received a trumpeted re-release in 2008, one can only hope that the work of Bo Widerberg and The Ballad Of Joe Hill in particular can benefit from a much-needed reappraisal. But until then it remains a buried gem.

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Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981)

France/West Germany, 1981  Dir: Andrzej Żuławski

Starring Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Rüthlein

Well, where does one start with Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession? Pretentious and confused metaphorical drama masquerading as horror; exploitative gross-out nonsense; or miraculous and unequalled arthouse/genre movie crossover? Well Possession is all these things – and a great deal more. Few single films have effectively straddled so many contrasting areas of cinema, one reason for the polarizing effect it has on audiences. After all, how many movies can claim to be an underground cult horror banned under the 1984 ‘Video Nasties’ Act as well as being a prize winner at both the Cannes  Film Festival and the César Awards. Only Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), surely influenced by Żuławski’s film, comes to mind as appeasing (and equally offending) horror aficionados and arthouse respectability, but even that didn’t win at Cannes. Clearly Possession is something pointedly dangerous and extraordinary.

The plot and themes of Possession could be endlessly interpreted and allegorized regardless of whether there may or may not be any actual intended meaning (and believe me there’s plenty of baffling ambiguity involving pink socks and dopplegangers) but Żuławski has naturally (and playfully) kept tight-lipped about it all. But the basic concept is clear enough when described in a single sentence: After the collapse of a marriage, the man looks after the child whilst the woman gives birth to a hideous tentacled creature. There, that’s all you really need to know. And from that the obvious implication is that dissolution of the family unit can spawn a monster. Since the film makes great play of its bleak and unforgiving West Germany setting, we could just as easily say that federal state control can spawn a monster. Also, an individual’s own selfishness and obsessive desires can spawn a monster. Maybe even religion can spawn a monster. Anything and everything could spawn a monster in this film.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill are Anna and Mark, the disintegrating couple in question. Sam Neill, who has since proven himself to be a consummate actor, here pitches his performance somewhere between wooden and maladjusted. But nowhere near as unhinged as Isabelle Adjani, whose performance must rank as one of the most committed depictions of raving hysteria in all of cinema, and by committed I could just as easily be referring to an asylum. Adjani won the Best Actress award at Cannes and the Césars for a role which requires her to self-abuse with a knife, have an apparent epileptic seizure in a subway and spew odious white fluid from every part of her body. For sheer committment to the part she deserved every award she got. But Adjani and Neill both deliver their characters at just the right level of warped lunacy appropriate for the film, because in the end Possession is all about being compulsively trapped in the experience of watching it for the entire 2 hours. Regardless of its muddled thinking, as a purely cinematic experience Possession is the greatest ordeal imaginable. It’s a masterclass in sustained frenzy, as excessive as it is exacting.

Considering the film’s overlapping cult horror/arthouse credentials it’s not surprising that, depending which camp you’re in, Possession has been criticized as compromising and not fully exploiting either field. But for my money, this is horror filmmaking in its purest sense. Scenes of startling horrific content punctuate an overall tone of unremitting fever pitch. When they strike, the horror elements are unquestionably brilliant, the best the genre has to offer. The taut atmosphere and surrealist slant recalls Polanki’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – further examples of  mental angst in rundown bed sits – or Skolimowski’s Deep End (1971) and The Shout (1978) (there’s clearly something special about Polish-directed English language psychological horror!). The disgusting tentacled creature itself is a wonderful achievement, designed by Carlo Rambaldi a year before winning plaudits as the creator of E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. A gruesomely tactile creation, dripping with repulsive detail – only David Cronenberg has achieved the same level of graphic monstrosity. It’s no surprise that, for a film which gradually escalates the level of horror throughout, Possession concludes with levels of stylish and extravagant violence to make any Giallo proud.

Possession is an exhausting, perplexing and revolting experience. Every self-respecting horror fan simply has to put themselves through it. A Masterpiece.