Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Capsule Reviews and Whatnot

A couple interesting titles are being released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and while I don't personally believe they are a suitable double-feature pairing, you could actually watch them separately, on different days. That would be fine.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (d. F. W. Murnau) - It's often pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was so devoted to the form of the silent film that even after it became clear that sound was taking over, he stubbornly (for a little while anyway) continued the way he always had with silent-in-the-sound-era films like Modern Times. That came out in 1936, which is pretty impressive. But in 1931, which was the year of Wellman's The Public Enemy and Whale's Frankenstein and Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (and okay yes, Chaplin's silent City Lights, so fine, he wins), another giant of the silent era, F. W. Murnau, defied the future and released Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, a film about romance and superstition and tragedy set on and around the island of Bora Bora. Who knows how far Murnau, one of the true geniuses from the beginnings of cinema, would have pushed this resistance? Tabu was released in August of '31. By that time, Murnau had already died in a car accident at the age of 42.

Which as an opening to a review of Tabu is kind of a bummer, but not inappropriate because...well, never mind, I guess. The film is pretty goddamn absorbing, though. Murnau developed it with Robert J. Flaherty, director and, let's face it, creator of Nanook of the North, who served on Tabu as co-producer with Murnau and David Flaherty, and as co-screenwriter with Murnau. And for I'd say about half of the film Tabu more closely resembles Nanook than it does, let's say, Tartuffe. The plot is very simple: a strapping native boy (Matahi) falls in love with a lovely young girl (Reri). All seems well until the girl is deemed "tabu" when a native chief demands a replacement for the sacred virgin who recently died. Therefore, to appease the gods, the girl must not be touched. To touch her is to die, but the two young people remain in love, and, perhaps, don't think too much of what anybody else deems sacred.

A few things are particularly striking about Tabu. First, the early section, which made me wonder if Flaherty was behind the camera, is a wonderful, and wonderfully pleasant, bit of probably-bullshit anthropology. The islanders effortless navigation of waterfalls, for example, makes it quite easy to buy Matahi and others as true aboriginals, and true non-actors -- Reri, even boasting the real name of Anne Chevalier, only made two other films, and Matahi never made another. The second really striking thing, and I'm not sure I've ever seen this before, is that while in Tabu Murnau does employ intertitles, they're always in the form of something a character has written: a letter, a note, a journal entry, etc. So Tabu is, in fact, an epistolary silent film. How rare is this? I don't know, my knowledge of the silent era is not what I'd like it to be, but I found this a quite effective and, somehow, always organic. Even with this conceit, the vast majority of the storytelling is purely, precisely visual.

Then, finally, there's the ending, which I won't describe, but I have to say that it's one of the most cold-blooded things I've ever seen. Partly because since, these are non-actors, the absence of emotion on the face of one of the people involved is almost like an insult. On top of the rest of it. This is my fifth Murnau film, and it's the fifth one I thought was entirely terrific.

The Kindergarten Teacher (d. Nadav Lapid) - There's this critic -- I'm not going to say who it is because I think I've brought him (or her!) up a few times and I don't want it to seem like I'm in a one-way feud with this guy (or lady!). But so this guy wrote some comments about this film from Israeli director Nadav Lapid, the gist of which were "This film is very weird and therefore bad." Which is not to imply that the critic has never liked strange films, because I know for a fact that he has. What I can't understand is why the strangeness of this film (or the unwillingness of critics who've praised it to mention how strange it is, something else that seems to have bothered him) should be a mark against it.

Perhaps it's because Nadav Lapid never lets the fundamentally bizarre nature of The Kindergarten Teacher to announce itself as such. The premise doesn't even sound that weird, though I do think it sounds almost unignorably intriguing: a teacher of five-year-olds named Nira (Sarit Larry) one day takes particular notice of one of her students. His name is Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), and he's picked up every day not by a parent but by a nanny, named Miri (Ester Rada). Nira learns from Miri, and soon witnesses herself, Yoav's preternatural gift for poetry. Two or three times a week, this little boy will stop and announce "I have a poem, I have a poem," and then pace back and forth, reciting, evidently off the top of his head, poems of astonishing sophistication, abstraction, and, well, genuine poetry (whether or not you like the film's poems or not is, I would argue, thoroughly irrelevant; for myself, they left my head pretty quickly as the action moved past each one, but I wouldn't mind hearing them again, or reading them). Nira is herself an aspiring poet, and she becomes obsessed with Yoav. She attends a poetry class every week or so, and she begins taking Yoav's poems with her and claiming them as her own. However, it doesn't seem that she's doing this to take credit (not everyone in the class likes them), but rather merely to hear other reactions to this poetry that so astounds her, but which only she, of those who know that Yoav is behind them, takes seriously.

But the poetry class is just a subplot. The Kindergarten Teacher is kind of a film comprised of subplots -- among the others is one about Nira's relationship to her husband and son, her relationship with and mistrust of Miri, and her attempt (I suppose this would be the main plot, though it doesn't really feel like that) to become Yoav's guardian (though he has a father, who is present) and, maybe some day, literary agent. Though, again, it's not the money she's after. What is she after?

That this is never specifically answered is to the film's credit. Nira couldn't tell you the answer herself. That Yoav's talent and strange behavior -- that pacing, and "I have a poem!" -- is merely presented gives The Kindergarten Teacher an otherworldly air, but it's presented with more or less straightforward naturalism. The effect achieved, for me anyway, was to make it seem as though I was suddenly witnessing something that I truly could not explain or understand, but which I might conceivably witness. Not a ghost or an angel, but something completely possible within all natural laws, but which, if I saw it before me, would nevertheless set me back a few steps.

That's not such a bad effect for a filmmaker to aim for, though I do think I'm being fairly reductive in my description of Lapid's film. But it sure did strike me. There's other stuff here, too, like this odd approach to the camera, which only pops up a handful of times but which seems to indicate that there might be a camera among the characters, which I'm not entirely sure what to do with. However, I'd argue that there is what I suppose someone less impressed with The Kindergarten Teacher might call a lack of shape, or maybe imaginative discipline. And I'll even say that right near the end, there's a bit of plot that demands that we accept that a common, everyday object works differently than we all know it does. This bugged me a tiny bit. However, I refuse to nitpick to death a film that was good enough to be something I'd never seen before.

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