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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Working through some classics… Costa-Gavras’ “Z” I have actually seen before. About 30 years ago, to be “precise”, some night on tv. Since then, I keep thinking about it occasionally, and I remember having liked it a lot. Watching it again now, I realise that I remembered a concept rather than an actual film, a concept of intrigue and injustice, but with very few details about the actual film. The one scene I did remember was actually not in the film, it was (as I figured out after some research) from “I Comme Icare”, the Yves Montand film of 1979 which ends with a shot – and that shot I associated with “Z”. Strange how memory works. But then again, if memory does not fail me again, those two films do have quite a bit in common… Good that I started working my way through some of the films in Roger Ebert’s “Awake in the Dark” collection. I was already rewarded with the fabulous “Battle of Algier”, and now with the weird (and very good) “Z”. 

Which is a comedy. That’s what surprised me the most: this film has a very light tone most of the time, it has goofy, clumsy characters, it has intentional slapstick moments (highly decorated military officers rattling a locked door, all 5 or 6 of them, after their interrogation), a key witness is a dork who only testifies because he is annoyed that his neighbour got his picture in the paper and he didn’t… But at the heart of the film’s second half is the incredibly calm, non-acting Jean-Louis Trintignant, who is just doing his job trying to collect information about a politician’s death, and is very patient about dealing with all the lunatics around him. Without agenda, without pathos, with an (again) laugh-out-loud ignorance towards drama and politics. I need to see this film in a cinema with an audience – I bet that when he says “nom, prenom, occupation” for the fourth time, the audience is rolling on the floor laughing. He does not laugh, he is the nightmare of the system in that he has no agenda, and wreaks havok among the ranks (key dialogue bit: “What are you hinting at?” – “Nothing Sir, I am only stating facts.”).

There’s many more great things about the film, but what is truly memorable is the role of the assassinated politician’s wife, played by Irene Papas. She does not really have a lot to do, but in these few scenes she gives everything from just being very beautiful, through being outraged, to being wise and sad and without illusion at the end.

The film’s final scenes, the epilogue, appear odd and artificial. They can, I suppose, only be appreciated in the light of what actually happened during and after the Greek events on which the script is based. As a piece of fiction the epilogue appears outrageously out of touch with reality. However… sometimes life tells more grueling stories than fiction can swallow.

This film has experienced some form of renaissance when notoriously or famously it was screened at the Pentagon or White House or some other counter-insurgency decision-making place like that to demonstrate the failure of a strategy that is based on escalating violence. And never mind that this film is about a specific case of a specific oppression of a specific group of people in a specific country and city – it is as universal a story as you will ever get. The French occupying forces in Algeria experience the rising of a counter movement, and the leaders of this movement – a bunch of intellectuals, street crooks, housewifes and kids – start actions to get rid of the unbeloved French. A spiral of violence ensues, attacks against policemen, then civilians sipping their café au lait in the posh coffee shops or their Martinis in the fancy bars of Algiers. Both sides are without much scruples when it comes to hurting their perceived enemy, and the city erupts in death and chaos. There are not many main characters (or even “heroes”) – we get to see a bit more about the commanding officer of the French paratroopers (apparently the only main character played by a professional and experienced actor, Jean Martin), and of the illiterate street crook in the Algier’s casbah.  

Apart from being a thriller of sorts (with the permanent tension of bomb plots working out or not, or the peril of moving into a street fight in the twisted casbah alleys), and of course an allegory on how violence breeds violence, and the arrogance of leaders and occupiers, the inhumanity of all war, the questionable logic of torture … apart from all that this is a beautiful piece of film art: shot in black and white, with an eerie score highlighting scenes of danger or preparatory tension, a mix of local instruments, wailing voices and cracking gunshots. It is one of those films that dares to entertain you while it educates you, and that stunned me with its very deliberate absence of position in a conflict that only consisted of extreme positions. Why did it take me so long to see it??

Update Nov 2013: really strange that after a couple of years of not having seen it, I had lost almost all memory of the film… did somebody inject me with a new memory and forgot to mix in the “Dark City” fluid? But that’s great, I love to discover new films, even if I have seen them already. What struck me at second watching is the great composed performance by William Hurt (always a favourite of mine since “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and the dangerous but well-played balance Kiefer Sutherland finds between playing goofy mad scientist and dreamy visionary. And Ms Connelly is even more pretty than she was, or maybe I just appreciate this more these days…

Original notes of 2008:

Whew, and dark it is, this piece by Alex “The Crow” / “I, Robot” Proyas. He can do dark, and he can do stylish. The film is a mixture in production design of Sin City or The Matrix, but also of other comics such as Dick Tracy and his relatives. It was a style-setter for those first two, no doubt, and looks fantastic. Even the cgi is surprisingly smooth when you consider that the film has been done at a time when the T2-Morphing was considered to be state of the art.

The characters are pleasantly creepy, Jack Baur in particular who plays Kiefer Sutherland, er… no: Kiefer S. plays the mad scientist, who is not so mad, but has a bit of a monkey on his back. That monkey is alien, pale and has a BMI of around 12. When cut open, transparent blubber erupts and the hostile creatures from beyond show their true faces.

Time-stopping, memory-imprinting, telekinesis, mass delusion, on and on and on go the motifs of atmospheric dark SciFi, set in the 1930s, I would judge from the hats.

William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly, and … oh yes! Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien?! Very nice, indeed.

It has to be asked: why would those citizens who did not get a good shot of new memory into their frontal lobes not question the new look and feel with which the city presents itself to them every midnight after they wake up from undetected naps? Why do the cars not crash when everybody falls asleep, why do people not smash their brains on the concrete when they black out at midnight? Ah what the hell … if you are willing not to question the logic of the plot too thoroughly, the film is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of nonsense that helps you forget revising vocabulary or preparing for conferences, if desired.

When everything comes together – or apart, rather – at the end, some stunning bits of correctness reveal themselves, and elements taken easily for granted in similar genre films (why is it always dark? Why does the film’s city look like a mixture between an Al Capone movie and a Star Wars settlement?) receive easy and on-the-mark explanations (without explaining, of course, that would be boring, and boring it ain’t).

A “glorious marriage of existential dread and slam-bang action.”, well said, Mr Ebert, in your rave review.

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