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The Folkloric Epics of Aleksandr Ptushko

Tom Watches Movies

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Russian cinema isn’t a well that most people in North America have dipped too deeply into, which is a shame given how rich and interesting it can be. Depending on how far back you’re willing to look, you can find stuff like a wonderful Soviet-era horror film called Viy, Timur Bekmambetov’s gritty urban fantasy Night Watch, or Russia’s recent home-grown superhero flick Guardians. Of particular note for those looking to get their feet wet with Russian cinema is the work of Aleksandr Ptushko, a filmmaker who was active from the late 1920s until the 1970s.

Ptushko began his career in film at Moscow’s Mosfilm studio, where he initially worked as a puppet maker on stop-motion animated shorts. He quickly graduated to directing his own shorts, ones which often combined stop-motion puppetry, live-action, and other techniques in new and cunning ways. It was here that he made a name for himself, and after World War II the young filmmaker moved on to live-action films, starting with a cycle of films based on Russian and Eastern European folklore. These movies are perhaps best known in North America thanks to stateside re-releases courtesy of Roger Corman, who re-edited and dubbed a number of them, versions that also later found themselves as featured movies on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The original, un-edited versions can thankfully be found with relative ease these days, and we’ll be looking at three of them: 1953’s Sadko, 1956’s Ilya Muromets, and 1959’s Sampo.

Aleksandr Ptushko

While certainly of their time in terms of production values, Ptushko’s fantasy films are beautiful things to behold. They are all quite strongly influenced by Russian fantasy and Romantic art from the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially the works of painters like Ivan Bilibin, Viktor Vanestov, and especially Alfons Mucha’s The Slav Epic cycle. There is a strong trend of compositions in his work that emphasize perspective and landscape, to such an extent that you could call epic Russian and Finnish vistas the star of Ptushko’s films. Characters will often be set against coastlines receding into the distance, fog-draped mountain peaks, and seemingly endless fields and forests. The Sovcolor process, which was used to in color films in the USSR at the time, also lends the films a color palette distinctly reminiscent of classical artwork, simultaneously washed-out and vibrant.

There are compositions in these films that outstrip many contemporary films in terms of sheer beauty, and when combined with the filmmaker’s flair for special effects, the results are quite dazzling. Aleksandr Ptushko is often cited as a contemporary to Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, and his flair for combining effects certainly matches their western efforts. Ptushko made frequent use of optical effects, such as compositing and rotoscoping with effects like matte painting, which again contributed to the extremely painterly visual style of his work. The sets and costumes were also spared no detail, and were often extremely large and elaborate. Ptushko’s films are visual feasts, alive with light and color, with breathtaking imagery and effects that somehow still dazzle despite their age. There’s imagination on display that’s often hard to find, and an eye for composition that keeps the visuals consistently striking.

Aleksandr Ptushko

But for everything these films have in common, they’re also rather varied in terms of subject matter and tone. Ilya Muromets tells the story of one of the most famous of the Bogatyrs, a recurring character type that North Americans would most readily understand as a kind of knight-errant. A youth cured of paralysis by the stirring song of a minstrel, Muromets is a kind of Herculean figure, a warrior of incredible strength who led the forces of Kiev against the Tugars, a kind of subset of the Mongols. Sadko, meanwhile, features a skilled bard who leads a troupe of adventurers on a quest to find the mythical “bird of happiness.” While Muromets is very much a rough and tumble fighting man, Sadko is more of a romantic figure, one capable of wooing god and man alike with beautiful songs.

Sampo, which is based on one of the Finnish folktales that Tolkein used as inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, almost has no central hero or figure. While Ilya Muromets and Sadko are both anchored by charismatic leads, Sadko feels more decentralized, with action split between a small cast of leads. The focus of the movie is an object rather than a figure, in this case a mystical object that brings prosperity and wealth to its owner. The heroes range from a young warrior, a smith, the warrior’s mother, to an older man, all of whom take part in helping to move the film forward. This variety helps each of the trio of films feel distinctive; Ilya Muromets has the feel of an epic song or poem, Sadko a romantic ballad, and Sampo a fairy-tale.

Aleksandr Ptushko

To someone used to folklore and stories with a fairy tale-like quality, there’s quite a bit of familiar territory being trod. Noble heroes (either of the strong or dashing type), evil witches, and scheming royal advisers – you can see a lot of common threads from well-known fables and folktales, with perhaps a fresh dusting of anti-capitalist sentiment. Thanks to Ptushko’s style and the emphatic acting he coaxed out of his casts, however, these films seem to capture something essential about folklore that few other films manage to invoke: an innocence and enthusiasm that feels refreshing amidst the current trend of mythological revisionism. The heroes, while not especially complex, are boldly archetypal in a way that works with the visuals to help the films feel suitably mythic.

For the moment, there has yet to be a revival of interest in Ptushko’s work. There’s been no no critical re-evaluations or fancy Criterion Collection box sets, no midnight screenings of newly unearthed 35mm prints. Perhaps it’s time that changed. Aleksandr Ptushko was a filmmaker of wonderful vision and flair, an artist with an almost uncanny knack for breathtaking visuals and an earnest, classical fairy-tale sensibility. Rather than going out to the latest drab, grey mythological epic-gracing theater screens, perhaps now is the time for you to see what this lesser-known auteur has on offer.

Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more. You can support his various works on his Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TomWatchesMovies You can also like the Tom Watches Movies Facebook page to see all his work on Goombastomp and elsewhere.

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‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass

Maybe get high for this one

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Greener Grass

Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary. 

Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence. 

Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.

Greener Grass

There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy. 

Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting. 

The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way. 

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‘In Fabric’ is a Mesmerizing Satire of Consumerism

TIFF 2018

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Our obsession with shopping and consumerism is going to be the death of us all — at least, director Peter Strickland seems to think so. The constantly increasing Black Friday crowds and coupon-clipping masses will rue the day they bought that really nice pair of pants at such a great price. Or in the case of Strickland’s latest cocktail of absurdity and horror, a beautiful red dress. In Fabric is a phantasmagoric allegory for our growing obsession with buying into our wants, and losing our souls in the process — and it’s about as weirdly fantastic as it sounds.

Though Strickland may refute that he consciously went for evoking giallo films when making In Fabric (which he did at a Q&A that took place at the midnight screening of the Toronto International Film Festival), it’s difficult not to see the influence. While there isn’t much here in terms of plotting — a red dress makes its way to different owners, affecting their lives in different, negative ways — Strickland focuses more on illuminating the characters’ lives while they have this haunted outfit.

The only real connection between stories is the department store that sells the dress, filled with bald women wearing wigs and saying everything in as complicated and absurd of a way as possible. They move through the interior of the building using dumbwaiters, and are managed by a creepy old man who is a professional at customer service. The same model can be found throughout an in-store catalogue that showcases all the latest fashions; it’s an eerily intricate nightmare of normality. The women all essentially cast spells on their customers to get them to buy something, except the spells are just really flattering comments and exceptional customer service. Strickland strikes right at the heart of consumerism with his weird fixation on the ways we’re lulled into parting with our money.

In-Fabric-Review

Standing out is the way that the rich atmosphere is presented. In Fabric blends a deadly cocktail of sensuality and dread in every frame, from a red dress lighting up an entire room with its bright colors, to images of its smooth texture overlapping over morbid imagery; every moment in Strickland’s fourth feature is a delight. It’s not necessarily style over substance, but one of the many ways In Fabric falters is how indebted to its editing and visuals it becomes, especially by the second half. Berberian Sound Studio also fell into the same trappings, but where that was used for narrative purposes, In Fabric utilizes it solely for a more textured atmosphere. This lends it a strong voice, but one that drags on too long.

The question that many will wonder as the movie progresses: is this is horror or comedy? The truth is, In Fabric falls more on the comedic side of things. It’s not exactly a scary movie, but it evokes a lot of haunting imagery. Strickland has always written from a more humorous point of view, with maybe the exception being his debut film, Katalin Varga, but this marks the first film of his to just lean into the laughs. It’s absurd and preposterous, but grounded in something we can all relate to in some manner — either the customer service side of things, or being swindled into buying something we don’t need.

The appropriately campy performance from Fatma Mohamed as a saleswoman who manages to convince different people to purchase the possessed red dress is one of the greatest delights of In Fabric. On top of that are some of the weirder concepts that the film latches onto and decides to explore — like the semantics of washing machine repair. The monotonous descriptions of washing machines in disarray, and subsequently what parts and procedures are needed to fix them, offers a glimpse at how monotony can be hypnotic.

In-Fabric

There’s an allure to everything here, as even its smallest jokes feel representative of some larger conversation about the items we purchase and the meaning (or lack thereof) that we attach to them. Peter Strickland exists within a very unique form of cinema. Here he’s at his most reverential for the medium, but also posits his most ambitious and relevant statements. There may not be more than just a simple self-awareness to the act of consumerism, but Strickland at least offers an entertaining satire of an industry we all submerge ourselves into for the smallest deal.

Editor’s Note. This article was originally published on September 17, 2018, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Painted Bird’ is An Incredibly Grim Portrait of Anti-Semitism

From 14 Films Around the World Festival: Not for the faint of heart, the latest film from Václav Marhoul, is a deep dive into human misery without much love, hope or grace.

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The Painted Bird

A grueling epic of misery, The Painted Bird (based on the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński) makes Come and See look like a children’s book. Taking place in the Czech Republic during the end of WWII, it finds one young Jewish boy on an odyssey to find his family, suffering indignity after indignity on the way there. Nearly all human deprivation is here — rape, murder, bestiality — which is made all the worse by its grim inevitability. It’s a difficult, brutal watch; the kind of film I’d recommend, but would find difficult to defend if challenged.

The Painted Bird is not like other birds. Due to its strange plumage, the other birds get jealous. They surround the painted bird, and they kill it. This metaphor suggests that due to the savagery of Central Europe during WWII, anything that is different — whether Slavic, gay, gypsy, or Jewish — must be surrounded and bullied and ultimately destroyed. 

Our unnamed young protagonist (Petr Kotlar) is one such painted bird. The film starts with him holding a ferret while running through the woods, being chased by other boys. They beat him up and burn his pet to a crisp. He then comes home to his aunt, who tells him it’s his fault. Things get much, much, much worse from there. 

It turns out that the boy has been sent away to the countryside by his parents, evidently for his own protection. When his aunt dies, he finds himself completely adrift, relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. The big problem is that these strangers aren’t too kind at all. In fact, they are kind of evil, with nearly each one finding a new way to abuse the young lad. Told in a completely unsentimental style, The Painted Bird is an incredibly difficult watch — yet, its disturbing scenes aren’t merely there to exploit or titillate, but to lay witness to the horrors of recent history. 

The Painted Bird

The story is told in an episodic format, with each chapter bookmarked by one or two names. Each one brings a new sense of dread: will this person be kind, or just another monster? The genius of the screenplay is how each episode seems to change the young lad just a little bit more, showing how one’s view on life can be completely altered by experience. 

Credit must go to Kotlar, who turns in all-time great child performance, Bresson-like in the simple and pure way he interprets the role. This is the right choice; if it aimed for histrionics, it would have been unbearable. As it is, it feels inevitable. Like The Irishman, the weighty runtime here really immerses us into the young boy’s life; make it an hour shorter, and his transformation wouldn’t have anything near the same effect. 

The epic-length is matched by the epic 35mm black-and-white-cinematography. Making use of a huge anamorphic widescreen, our protagonist is often situated to the side of the frame while horrific things going on in the background, as if to stress his unwilling participation in a degraded world. Unlike the cinematography, the film’s moral conclusions are a complete grey zone, depicting horrific things that show how terrible the war was — and what the disease of antisemitism led to — without ever editorializing or telling us how to feel. One can only watch and watch and watch, powerless to stop the awful things from happening. 

The Painted Bird makes it absolutely clear that antisemitism was not just limited to the Nazis. Nearly everyone seems to hate the young lad, simply for the unavoidable fact of his birth. Anti-semitism doesn’t end with the Nazi’s demise either; the transition to peacetime does little to placate the locals’ hatred of Jews. Coming at a time when hatred of Jewish people seems on the rise and being weaponized, The Painted Bird devastatingly shows us the inevitable end of such hate. While it definitely courts controversy, there is a method to such relentless misery. This is the story of survival. The kind of story that should never be told again.

‘The Painted Birdplayed as part of 14 Films Around The World Festival at Kino in der KulturBrauerei in Berlin, Germany, a special selection of 14 films from 14 countries from Cannes, Locarno, Berlinale, Venice and more.

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