Favorites: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Written and directed by John Cassavetes
Produced by Al Ruban, Phil Burton
Starring Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Kullers, Al Ruban, Azizi Johari, Virginia Carrington, Meade Roberts, Alice Friedland, Donna Gordon, Haji, Carol Warren, Kathalina Veniero, Yvette Morris, Jack Ackerman, David Rowlands, Trisha Pelham, Sonny Aprile, Gene Darcy, Vincent Barbi, Val Avery, Elizabeth Deering, Soto Joe Hugh

“The great function of conflict is that it arouses consciousness.”

–James MacGregor Burns

Synopsis

Almost as soon as he’s liquidated a pricey debt incurred while gambling, the cordial, debonair presenter and proprietor of a burlesque club (Gazzara) stakes a cumulative $23K on losing hands. The mobsters (Woodward, Cassel, Phillips, Kullers) to whom it’s owed expect his arrears paid in full only by the prompt assassination of a bookmaker (Hugh), but they never expected their cool, compassionate debtor to be so tough, canny, or unlucky.

Script

Crime dramas don’t come much more reflective or humane than Cassavetes’s condemnation of ruinous rats, here opposed to a protagonist who’s as magnanimous as formidable. Conundra consequent of vice and ungenerosity are anatomized in toto, untainted by the delusion that nobility absolves. American cinema’s first fully independent auteur here plies Kuosawa’s burden: the moral man straining in an immoral world.

Direction

In intimate close-ups or at immobile, tracking and panning distances, we spy every expressive and gestural shading of Cassavetes’s dramatis personae, captured as graphically as his sparing, impelling violence. Like Altman’s contemporary output, this segues from dispassionate to personal observation without tonal incongruity or bathos.

Cinematography

Grainy gloom, glares of electric and solar sources, and both contrasting are lensed by Mitchell Breit and co-producer/co-star Al Ruban, who beautify bright, often gaudy hues.

Histrionics

Every lusty gust, desperate glance, loving stare, amiable assurance, indignant scowl or snarl, and smile radiant or hateful was felt as much as acted: Gazzara poured his essence into Cosmo Vitelli to vivify his director’s charismatic self-conception. As a stripper in his employ who jealously adores him, Johari exudes as much discontent as nubility. Seething, hissing Carey is no less intense as an intimidating heavy who foists by force the unlikely hitman’s unwanted felony. In a subtler approach, ordinarily avuncular Cassel insinuates more menace with a simple grin than most uttered threats. The club’s flamboyant host (Roberts) and ecdysiasts (Johari, Carrington, Friedland, Gordon, Haji, Warren, Veniero) credibly incorporate seedy, working-class entertainers.

Score

Some melodic themes by Bo Harwood are heard within, and briefly outside Vitelli’s club.

Highlights

Preparation for and execution of the titular hit are realistically riveting. Johari’s jaundiced stripper attacks a waitress (Pelham) during her rehearsal. In the aftermath of his settlement, Vitelli eludes killers, confronts the mother (Carrington) of his favorite employee, then encourages his sulking staff with a deliberative dispensation of wisdom. What a week!

Conclusion

No single chef-d’oeuvre from Cassavetes’s string during the ’70s is readily selected as the best, but this would be a tenable pick.

Recommended for a double feature paired with California Split or Saint Jack.

Sublime: Upstream Color

Upstream Color (2013)

Written and directed by Shane Carruth
Produced by Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair, Meredith Burke, Toby Halbrooks, Scott Douglass, Brent Goodman
Starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Synopsis

From shoat to stream to orchid to larva unto man, an elusive parasite’s life cycle in triplex stages is exploited by punctilious criminals (Sensenig, Martins) to defraud victims whose ingestion of it renders them supremely suggestible by dint of biochemical hypnosis. Two such dupes (Seimetz, Carruth) whose lives were so ruined clairvoyantly explore their traumatic repercussions together as they gradually realize what’s befallen them, and unravel its mystery by tracing cycle to source.

Script

Primer‘s Gordian anachrony confounds comprehension during a first or second viewing, but here writer/producer/director/DP/cameraman/co-editor/composer/co-star Carruth masterfully balances oracularity and lucidity with direct yet disordered disclosure. He also nimbly juggles two balls so often fumbled by other authors of science fiction by inseparably mingling his story’s personal and fantastic aspects.

Direction

For his painterly eye, Carruth’s every slow zoom, brisk pan and still close-up is memorably picturesque. Striking shots from mundane, hydrous and subcutaneous settings graphically illustrate events best left unspoken.

Cinematography

Luminous photography that alternates between beautiful vividity and slight desaturation with a faint, milky haze catches the eye in every carefully framed shot. The organism’s phases are pictured with actual and simulated microphotography. Carruth utilizes digital cameras with an expertise excelling that of many DPs who’ve far more experience with that nearly nascent technology.

Editing

Contemplative shots of this picture linger meaningfully, but during its procedural and ritualistic scenes, editorial rapidity effectively propels pace. To exemplify telegnostic nexus of empathy, action, and location, Carruth and co-editor David Lowery intricately cut hundreds of correspondent shots together with a rhythm that’s as engaging as demonstrative. Much of Seimetz’s and Carruth’s conversational dialogue may initially seem haphazardly sequenced during lengthy montages, but it expresses their mutual fascination and frustration as they struggle to probe one another and determine whose memories are whose.

Histrionics

Carruth’s all but playing himself, and his cast assume his sober, saturnine deportment. After a string of roles as battered and amatory characters in genre fare such as Bitter Feast, A Horrible Way to Die, The Off Hours, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic, You’re Next, et cetera, Seimetz seems to effortlessly underplay her harrowed protagonist. How much of her quietly uneasy intimacy with Carruth was genuine at this early stage isn’t publicly known, but their blossoming chemistry, with its enamored ebullitions, is essential to the cryptaesthetic sympathy that their lovers share.

Score

Sampled strings, piano, gong, and resonating, droning, arpeggiated, beeping, buzzing, warbling, echoed samples and synthesizers harmonize mesmerizingly in Carruth’s music to amplify without ever diverting from his onscreen activity.

Highlights

Every stage of the vermicious organism’s life is engrossingly depicted in speciously imaginative, often gruesome detail. Likewise, routines assigned to distract each hypnotized host, and the habitudes that they subsequently inspire, are ingeniously conceived. Lucid dreams of obverse scenes that transpire in austere offices and bathrooms include a revelational and retributive climax not to be forgotten.

Flaws

At 8:33, Martins faintly uptalks a line. How dismaying it is to hear a masterpiece momentarily marred by millennialism!

Conclusion

Would that more filmmakers understood their medium’s power to convey by ephemeral images rather than graceless exposition, or trusted their audience’s capacity for inference. Carruth’s science fiction is truly sui generis: an elegant tale presenting simple, novel concepts in a complex idiom that’s no less challenging for its accessibility. His retirement and troubles that have worsened in public view represent a great loss to an independent American cinema that needs its few finest talents more than ever. Even if the Texan auteur’s second movie proves to be his last, it’s perhaps the best of the 21st century to so penetratingly straddle convention and experiment.

Palatable: Weekend of a Champion

Weekend of a Champion (1972, 2013)
Directed by Frank Simon, Roman Polanski
Written by Frank Simon
Produced by Roman Polanski, Mark Stewart, Timothy Burrill
Starring Jackie Stewart, Helen Stewart, Roman Polanski, Ken Tyrrell

“There are other things in Monaco, and the other things are not a mere sideshow of the Casino. The Casino itself continues progressively to become the sideshow, a relic of a Golden Age that is irrecoverable. Monte Carlo is the place where the motor rally is held, where international conferences meet in the functional new centres, where Cousteau pursues his oceanographical researches. It is the place where people come to start businesses, unhindered by a crippling tax system that seems, to most of us, to represent a more terrible immorality than could ever be attached to merely spinning a roulette wheel.”

–Anthony Burgess, The Ball is Free to Roll, 1978

On the curving Circuit de Monaco in preparatory reconnaisance, in a garage where he confers with his sponsor Ken Tyrrell, engineers and other members of his pit crew as they tune and adjust his custom-built Tyrrell 003 to his scrupulous satisfaction, fraternizing with fans who won a contest by Monte Carlo’s harbor, speeding through a Formula 3 practice run to maintain his pole position, dining at the spicy birthday party of interwar racing champion Louis Chiron, discussing subtleties of his hazardous craft with Polanski as they share a ritzy breakfast in his hotel suite, and constantly accompanied by his wife Helen, Formula 1’s lovably loquacious and Falstaffian superstar Jackie Stewart basks anxiously in Monaco in May, 1971 during a few days anteceding his second of three blistering wins at the Monaco Grand Prix. Simon’s and Polanski’s immersive direction yields an absolutely absorbing portrait of the famed racer, his friendship with Romek, and a momentous victory concluding the Grand Prix that’s shot and cut with thrilling pizzazz. Other highlights include: over-the-shoulder shots of Stewart’s rainy trial drive along the Monégasque course’s tight hairpins, strategic chicanes, disorienting tunnel and varied elevations; the champ’s exposition of his meticulous methodology and its delicate techniques; fleeting footage of his competing protégé, the dashing and tragic François Cevert; congenial confabulation with Graham Hill, who’s here still a formidable rival, if a couple years past his celebrated prime; a fete hosted by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace also attended by Joan Collins and Ringo Starr, et al. An epilog suffixed to the recut, remixed re-release by Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment finds Stewart and Polanski contemporarily contemplating spectacular (and often spectacularly survived) crashes, miraculous advances in safety for motorsports credited to improved practices, tracks, medical facilities, and automotive engineering that he’s insistently boosted for years (after an outrageous crash at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in 1966), Stewart’s dyslexia that was diagnosed well after his racing career had ended, the development of Monte Carlo’s local industry and enlarged harbor, and its anfractuous track’s gently graded curbs and brighter, longer tunnel — luxuries he and his competitors weren’t afforded forty years before. Much of this may not engage laymen, but for fans of Formula 1, sociable Stewart, or Polanski, it’s one among several indispensable historical records of colorful cynosures prosecuting the twentieth century’s fastest fatal bloodsport.

Sublime: Evolution

Evolution (2015)
Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Written by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Alante Kavaite, Geoff Cox
Produced by Nicolas Villarejo Farkas, Ángeles Hernández, David Matamoros, Julien Naveau, Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Sebastián Álvarez, John Engel, Genevieve Lemal
Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Marta Blanc, Mathieu Goldfeld, Nissim Renard
Distant from lush forests where the little ladies of Innocence were secluded, Hadzihalilovic’s eerily, elegantly elliptic second feature probes the seaboard secrets of an austere, insular village. Similarly severe women domiciled there with young boys in their care feed a vermicious stew and administer an inky medicine to their charges, who are subjected to strange experiments in a dank, nearby hospital where they’re eventually committed. One peculiarly inquisitive tad (Brebant) among them discovers another boy’s corpse in the reef of his island’s bight, then witnesses the surrogate mothers’ bizarre, nightly, coastal congress, realizing too late the danger his keepers pose. For its economy, dialogue is essentially effective from the mouths of the directress’s naturalistically convincing cast, and she wisely paces this quiet nightmare elicited from a juvenile trepidity with exquisite deliberation, introducing her setting’s seascapes and landscapes in panoramas, then focusing on swimming and swaying benthos, tenebrious revelations and subtly suggestive gestures that communicate perhaps more than any conversation. As in her debut, water’s here a literally and metaphorically transitional medium, almost so ubiquitous in the umbratile hospital where our protagonist is befriended by a sympathetic nurse (Duran) as on the strand where weltering breakers underscore with Jesús Díaz’s and Zacarías M. de la Riva’s perturbing, poignant music portent and peril. Hadzihalilovic’s superbly stygian, spartan fantasy proposes a societal and interspecific parasitism, and that mercy may not be exclusive to humanity.

Palatable: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (A.K.A. Every Man for Himself and God Against All) (1974)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog, Jakob Wassermann
Produced by Werner Herzog
Starring Bruno Schleinstein, Walter Ladengast, Michael Kroecher, Brigitte Mira, Enno Patalas, Hans Musäus, Gloria Doer, Volker Prechtel, Volker Elis Pilgrim, Clemens Scheitz, Henry van Lyck, Willy Semmelrogge

“[W]e shall never succeed entirely in extirpating from the heart of man this original credulity which is a principle of his nature, a radical condition of his existence, so much so that we could consider it a characteristic of the human species, and say: credulity is one of the attributes that distinguishes Man from the animals.”

–Dr. Benjamin Verdo, Charlatanry and Charlatans in Medicine: A Psychological Study, 1867

Whoever would now imagine him the princely foundling, victimized naif, tortured wunderkind against crushing odds would’ve surely been as gulled by the mysterious teenager as so many in Nuremberg were for five years in the early 19th century, after he arrived suddenly to fascinate its locals, then deplete the charity of his several benefactors. Picayune, pretentiously paranoid persona, schizoid scammer, querulent, mythomaniac, pampered brat all probably described him accurately, yet this assessment is tangential to his characterization in the dreamily, alternately soothingly and shakingly speculative fairy tale that Herzog educed from the storied oddball’s pseudobiographic lies. Here, Hauser’s lifelong confinement in a cellar is concluded when a gruff stranger (Musäus) frees him, teaches him how to walk, leads him to Nuremberg, and abandons him. The inelegant innocent is housed first by one of his jailers (Prechtel), then by a kindly schoolmaster and philosopher (Ladengast) after a stint in an exploitative circus’s sideshow. Thenceforth he strives to read, write, play music and comprehend the worlds within and beyond him, succored by his caretaker, local clergy (Patalas, Pilgrim), and a milord (Kroecher) whose custody of him is prompted by the intrigue that his charge inspires among townsfolk and high society alike, and which ends when his inscrutably bizarre behavior and provocatively peculiar perspectives embarrass his patron. As genteel characters, the entire supporting cast are fine foils for goggling Schleinstein, whose droll, piteous, exceptional creation of the frustrated aberrant conveys arduous articulation by his haltingly intense delivery. His age was well over twice Hauser’s, but the autodidactic musician and painter proved a strikingly suitable lead, perhaps because the many ordeals that he suffered in his much longer life so often paralleled those that Hauser likely fabricated, fictionalized by Herzog in his discerningly, interchangeably intimate and observational style. Beautifully crafted and replete with allusions and auguries, never does this fiction moot nearly everyone’s first, forever unanswered question: who was he?

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Marquise of O.

Sublime: Destiny

Destiny (1921)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Produced by Erich Pommer
Starring Lil Dagover, Bernhard Goetzke, Walter Janssen, Eduard von Winterstein, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Paul Biensfeldt, Károly Huszár, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Erika Unruh
Upon his visitation in a pastoral town, stern, somber Death (Goetzke) pays handsomely to lease a parcel alongside a cemetery that’s been designated for its graveyard’s expansion, where he erects a sepulchral stronghold inaccessible to all save a doughty, doleful damsel (Dagover) whose young fiancé (Janssen) he’s consigned to the hereafter, and for whose restoration she obtests. So moved is the Grim Reaper by her impassioned impetration that he challenges her for a chance at her wish: incarnated as treble doxies of as many men soon to meet their end, they may be reunited if she can rescue but one of them. In a Persian city of strident muadhdhins, whirling dervishes and veiled beauties, the sister (Dagover) of a cruel caliph (Winterstein) struggles to rescue her secret lover, a Frank (Janssen) pursued by authorities after daring to visit her in a mosque during Ramadan. Lusty, conspirative Venice is the backdrop of a tragedy whereby a corrupt councilman (Klein-Rogge) designs to dispatch during Carnival the sweetheart (Janssen) of a noblewoman (Dagover) to whom he’s hatefully engaged. Finally, Dagover and Janssen are enamored assistants to a preeminent magus (Biensfeldt) who’s commissioned to entertain China’s tyrannical Emperor (Huszár) on the occasion of his birthday in exchange for his life; when the despot claims her and imprisons her man, she may need more than magic to save them both. For its innovatory set design, Orientalist and Italian charms, dated yet vivid special effects and Lang’s captivating composition, his fatalist, fabular fantasy is nearly as impressive as it was a century ago. Moreover, its presentation of morbid theurgy is among the medium’s first and best, serving to influence many posterior. Creating her woebegone, mettlesome maiden in broadly histrionical strokes, Dagover inhabits another of many sacrificial heroines prevailing in Weimar cinema, and Goetzke’s implacably forbidding as a solemn foil to her often hysterical fervor. Exciting, funny, touching, poetic and rich with symbolic auspices, Lang’s centennial classic evokes a bittersweet poignance reliant on the verity of its burden: ever salvational, love may endure a quietus that it can never defeat.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Seventh Seal.

Sublime: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)
Directed by Éric Rohmer
Written by Honoré d’Urfé, Éric Rohmer
Produced by Françoise Etchegaray, Philippe Liégeois, Jean-Michel Rey, Valerio De Paolis, Enrique González Macho, Serge Hayat
Starring Andy Gillet, Stéphanie Crayencour, Cécile Cassel, Serge Renko, Véronique Reymond, Jocelyn Quivrin, Mathilde Mosnier, Rodolphe Pauly, Rosette, Arthur Dupont, Priscilla Galland

“Where love is, no disguise can hide it for long; where it is not, none can simulate it.”

–La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

Love rends, mends and fortifies impassioned, shepherding Foréziens of the 5th century for folly and affection in this charming condensation of d’Urfé’s classic, colossal comedy, L’Astrée. Dupery by one flirt (Dupont) incident to the fierce fancy of another (Galland) stings a jaundiced shepherdess (Crayencour) to jilt her highborn paramour (Gillet), who in rash heartbreak attempts to drown himself in the Lignon. A trio of nymphs discover him ashore downriver, then in their castle quarter and nurse to health the sheepherder with whom their doyenne (Reymond) finds herself unreciprocally enamored. Her fellow noblewoman (Cassel) frees the herdsman from immurement, then with her druidic uncle (Renko) heartens and edifies him before a Mistletoe Festival, where the adoring drovers may be reunited by an eccentrically epicene ruse. Rohmer’s casual, conversational, implicitly Christian manner is perfectly suited to the marquis de Valromey’s novel, from which all save a few of many parabolic excursus are here excised. Those judiciously retained vividly illustrate values of the seventeenth century transposed by its comte de Châteauneuf to the fifth: a dispute between our lovelorn protagonist’s stalwartly monogamous brother (Quivrin) and a ludic, licentious troubadour (Pauly) pits an amative argument for fidelity against hedonistic casuistry in promotion of polyamory; at a sanctified grove, Renko’s delphic druid skews from physiolatry to certify a monotheism for Teutates by relegating lesser gods as mere physitheistic personifications of virtues, and posits a consubstantial divinity that prefigures Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Two of the director’s perpetual performers won’t be overlooked by fans among his lovably lovely leads and their photogenic co-stars: one in three nymphs is Rosette, while Marie Rivière can be glimpsed as the reveling mother of Gillet’s straying swain. Late in life and art, Rohmer couldn’t have abridged a better story to example his final insistence that love’s as much fated as physical, or spiritual as sensual.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Love in the Afternoon or The Marquise of O.

Palatable: Bluebeard

Bluebeard (2009)
Directed by Catherine Breillat
Written by Charles Perrault, Catherine Breillat
Produced by Sylvette Frydman, Jean-François Lepetit
Starring Lola Créton, Dominique Thomas, Daphné Baiwir, Marilou Lopes-Benites, Lola Giovannetti, Farida Khelfa, Isabelle Lapouge, Suzanne Foulquier, Laure Lapeyre

“Adolescence begins when children stop asking questions — because they know all the answers.”

–Evan Esar

Mutual malice differentiates Breillat’s companion to her surpassing, subsequent The Sleeping Beauty from most other portrayals of the gory, Gallic fairy tale. Two little sisters of the Fourth Republic sport with stories while browsing through a cluttered attic, where the bratty junior (Lopes-Benites) frightens her sensitive senior (Giovannetti) with a reading of Perrault’s parable. However, this telling strays significantly from that fabular classic: lovely sororal teens (Créton, Baiwir) boarded as a nunnery’s oblates in the late seventeenth century are dismissed by their abbess (Khelfa) after their father dies by his selfless heroism; his creditors leave they and their mother (Lapouge) in penury as abject as their bereavement, but Créton’s demoiselle leaps at a contiguous opportunity to wed a bloated, barbate count (Thomas) infamous for his suspected uxoricides. Once married, she luxuriates in his opulent castle while becharming her nobleman, until he intrusts to her his castle’s keys ere his leave with a forbiddance not to enter one of its many rooms. Every tableau of this picture and variance from its literary source breathes symbolical significance, and Breillat’s fans will readily recognize her idiomatic emblems in slaughtered fowl and accumbency abed, but the key to its burden resides in the thematic equipollence of its eponymous, crinally converse sisters. For art and awareness, the presumed “porno auteuriste” again succeeds where so many other feminist filmmakers stumble, not least because her acknowledgement of biopsychology negates the fantastic self-aggrandizement and victimization that ruined their movement. Any of Hollywood’s pampered, obese activists would’ve distorted this folktale as an example of thwarted patriarchy, but her barbarous lord and guileful bride instead effectuate gendered modes of rapacity, reflecting an incidental intimacy and attendant regret.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty or those best among numerous adaptations of Bluebeard.

Palatable: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)
Directed by Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
Written by Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner and Rudolph Herzog
Produced by Vladimir Perepelkin, Christoph Fisser, Nick N. Raslan, Charlie Woebcken, Thomas Nickel, Robyn Klein, Werner Herzog, Yanko Damboulev, Timur Bekmambetov, Klaus Badelt
Starring Gennady Soloviev, Anatoly Blume, Anatoly Tarkovsky, Nikolay Nikiforovitch Siniaev, Werner Herzog
Not despite but for their travails do the isolated inhabitants of Siberia’s frigid forests delight in rural survival. Vasyukov’s televised documentary of four seasonal episodes is freshly compressed and concatenated, lushly (if excessively) scored by Klaus Badelt and narrated by Herzog with his usual phlegm as a feature uncovering a challenging, cheerful life of denizens from the village Bakhta in Russia’s Turukhansky district, specifically those of rugged outdoorsmen (Soloviev, Blume, Siniaev, Tarkovsky) therefrom who handily eke out subsistence as trappers, hunters and fishers in the snowy, sylvan sprawl well beyond their little community’s bourne. During this region’s snowed spring, Soloviev cares compassionately for pups, curs, and seasoned hunting dogs alike of his doggery, fells a tree to split wood from it that’ll later be fashioned into skis, contrives by carving and sets from two slender trees a deadfall of cunning design, perorates of his methodology and tools, denounces greedily unethical trappers, and rehearses his first onerous Siberian season forty years antecedent, which he scarcely survived. Blume conterminously shovels towering mounds of snow from the roof of one hut among several outlying a central shack within his designated territory (a configuration typical of all the trappers’ winter dwellings), and collects firewood. While the vast ice floes constituting the surface of the Bakhta River (and Yenisei River of which it’s a tributary) begin to flow north, children of the village skate about on thawing ice before their community first celebrates Maslenitsa by dancing and burning a straw, female effigy of winter, then Victory Day a week later, when wreaths are laid at the headstones of veterans who perished in WWII. One experienced Ket craftsman and an apprentice carve, widen, temper and pay with traditional methods canoes from tree trunks that are then boarded on exordial expeditions to train pups for future hunts, and with submerged toils catch fish, the choicest of which are smoked to be eaten later. Beasts and greenery emerge in profusion come summer, when fishing yields jumbo pike, and hunters collaborate to construct new central and collateral cabins while beset by swarms of mosquitoes, which are repelled by a topical concoction of tar distilled from birch bark and cut by immixture with fish oil. With the aforementioned wood split in the prior season, Soloviev and his son skillfully saw, carve, steep, flex and temper several pairs of skis. Driftwood collected upriver is towed to the shore, where Kets without occupational options chop and load it onto a truck’s bed. Although this Yeniseian minority’s elders struggle to preserve fading traditions, its community is mired in poverty, alcoholism, and resultant mischances. During comparatively warm days spanning twenty hours each, plentiful gardens are cultivated and planted, greenhouses mended, and chipmunks, sables and malleting, grinding, sifting humans all collect pine nuts from cones. Late in the season, an incumbent, regional candidate campaigns by cabotage, arriving at Bakhta’s shore to tempt his largely indifferent constituency with a largesse of wheat and promises of reform before belting out a pop song with a trio of pretty female singers to entertain some congregated children and teenagers. Walls of stacked firewood, a massive harvest of fruits and vegetables planted months afore, and thousands of freshwater fish netted along the shoreline or lured by fire nocturnally to be leistered all portend autumn’s advent. As the great Yenisei River rises for constant rainfall, and before its surface freezes, the hunters load their sleds and snowmobiles, dogs and provisions into canoes to convey them to their shanties; in high water, the rapids’ fluxion often can’t be countered by these boats’ offboard motors, and exact for some such as Soloviev and his son manually arduous navigation. After they part, the elder trapper repairs damage inflicted by bears to one cabana, reposits there comestibles, shoots a woodcock and feeds its neck and feet to his dogs. While the rivers flow, pike are primarily caught to be fed to canines. Forbidding Tarkovsky (a junior cognate of Andrei) hunts and fishes with effectual craft, caches by suspension and elevation bread, grits, sugar and other aliments where neither bears nor mice can reach them, extols the simple pleasures of his lifestyle and sets mechanical slings to catch game. Soloviev expatiates on the ideal lineage, proper rearing, and necessity of dogs to any able hunter before one of his own predates a marten that he expels from a fallen, hollowed trunk. Winter finds the village’s anonymous blacksmith forging a sharp shaft used to pierce the river’s icy surface and enable more subaqueous fishing. During these most trying months of sustained yet stimulating slog, two events showcase the mettle of these woodsmen and their canine companions: fatigued after a day’s labor, Blume retires to an ancillary hut to find its roof marred by a downed tree, which he chops and removes before clearing snow from his roof to repair it with immediate and laborious effort during his dwindling dusk; en route on his snowmobile to Bakhta where he’ll sojourn with his family during its New Year’s and Christmas festivities, he’s chased over 90 miles by his dog to their home — a feat as formidable for the animal’s stamina as poignant for its loyalty. Vasyukov’s subjects represent a rustic society’s admirably hardy traditionalism, ably and objectively pictured here with fine photography and profoundly personal interviews that patefy an independence and integrity too uncommon in the developed world.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Encounters at the End of the World.

Palatable: Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Directed and written by Werner Herzog
Produced by Randall M. Boyd, Henry Kaiser, Tree Wright, Julian P. Hobbs, Andrea Meditch, Erik Nelson, Phil Fairclough, Dave Harding
Starring Werner Herzog, Samuel S. Bowser, David Ainley, Clive Oppenheimer, William McIntosh, Olav T. Oftedal, Regina Eisert, Libor Zicha, Kevin Emery, David R. Pacheco Jr., Jan Pawlowski, Peter Gorham
For mundivagant Herzog, Earth’s final, frigid frontier was an inevitable destination nearly a century after explorers Roald Amundsen, then Robert Falcon Scott planted their respective Norwegian and British flags at that desolate destination. This documentary’s finest sights are transcendent for meditative shots of chaste polar landscapes and watery wonders, but it’s too often derailed when Herzog’s narration or worst subjects digress absurdly. Vintage footage of the terminal impasse that stymied Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and destroyed his ship Endurance, and the subsequent hardship of his crew’s grueling passage to South Georgia Island is cleverly juxtaposed with that of a humongous omnibus driven for the convenience of passengers at McMurdo Sound by one Scott Rowland, who relates one of his adventures in Guatemala. Rowland and McMurdo station’s forklift operator Stefan Pashov are two of numerous roving professionals who seem to constitute a majority of Ross Island’s population; the latter fancifully proposes that zetetics are by commonalities impelled to convergence at their southernmost post. In the austral summer’s five months of constant daylight, the station’s industrial hideosity contrasts with the stark beauty of Ross Island and the Ross Sea. To escape it and its amenities (dully comfortable residential quarters, a bowling alley, an aerobic studio) that repulse him, Herzog departs for several field camps after one Kevin Emery mandatorily trains him and other newcomers in the rudimentary construction of snowy trenches and igloos (wherein trainees are required to sleep overnight) and cooperative navigation via lifeline in conditions where visibility and audibility are null. Nutritional ecologist Olav Oftedal and his crew study the dietary peculiarities of docile, roly-poly Weddell seals, extracting with a forcible yet harmless method from nursing cows a milk of uncommon viscosity and chemical composition noted by physiologist Regina Eisert. An utter silence common to the vicinity of Oftedal’s station is often broken by phocine vocalizations in waters six feet beneath it: resonant whirrs, burbles, blips and howls that could be mistaken for those generated by an analog synthesizer. At the mainland’s coast, cellular biologist Samuel Bowser quietly exudes either anxiety or melancholy on the occasion of his last antarctic dive, during which he observes exotic fauna and flora in gelid immersion. From another dive ensuing toilsome drilling and detonation elsewhere, three captured specimens are genetically determined by zoologist Jan Pawlowski to be of theretofore unknown foraminiferal species. Slow and static shots of Shackleton’s hutch reveal it unchanged over a century, one of a faded empire’s innumerable proto-civilizational relics. Further, a monument erected alongside the numerous flags raised at the south pole commemorates Amundsen’s and Scott’s pioneering attainments…though Herzog can’t help but bemoan this progress and a presumptive loss of its site’s pristine serenity, a value that’s never qualified. Cocks of a waddle wait on eggs for hens to return at Cape Royds, where Herzog interviews eremitic marine biologist David Ainley, who graciously replies to an asinine question regarding homosexual penguins with his observations of polyamory and transactional congress in the colony. A visit to Mt. Erebus finds volcanologist and geochronologist William McIntosh displaying and demonstrating the functionality of a rugged observational camera designed to withstand explosions, emplaced to monitor the volcano’s lava lake. Tasked with examination of the volcano’s gaseous emissions, his subordinate colleague Clive Oppenheimer historically contextualizes the relative severity of known volcanism. Our impressionable filmmaker’s existential despondence, now inspired by climatic pseudoscience repeatedly reworked and consistently unproven over the course of a half-century, spoils what could’ve been a pleasantly amusing scene: in a frozen subterranean passage leading to the precise center of the South Pole, two workers deposit a frozen sturgeon in a niche opposite another garlanded with strung popcorn, containing little floral prints…while Werner the doomsayer verbalizes a stale, silly scenario in which extraterrestrials visit the niche perhaps a millennium following mankind’s extinction. Finally, physicists led by Dr. Peter Gorham launch an enormous balloon to loft instruments constructed to detect neutrinos above any distractions of terrestrial electricity.
Sublimed by the ethereal vocal plangency of Dragostinov’s Planino Stara Planino Mari performed by The Philip Koutev National Folk Ensemble, and Alexander Sedov’s rendition of Bortnyansky’s Retche Gospod Gospodevi Moyemu, among others, this picture’s underwater and underground highlights are extraordinary for deft exhibition of the former’s magnificent aquatic biota, and in both icy formations submersed and caverned — those latter accessed though fumaroles by McIntosh’s spelunking team. If these speechless sequences characterize Herzog at his best, redundant commentary by his interviewees and his pestilentially pessimistic narration represent the worst he has to offer. Some of Pashov’s philosophical musings are mildly interesting, while others are as negligible as the dreams that glaciologist Doug MacAyeal recalls before addressing his far more intriguing surveyal of a calving iceberg (B-15). David Pacheco is McMurdo station’s demonstrably adept plumber, who bloviates about his allegedly Aztec ancestry and more environmental paranoia, but not his duties there. Linguist William Jirsa recounts how he came to keep the station’s greenhouse, and he’s only marginally more occupying than Karen Joyce, whose African and South American extravagations decades before were surely as perilously imprudent as they’re tediously told. Earlier scenes show two seemingly pathetic penguins mysteriously, intractably bound for the mainland’s interior and their likely quietus; one can imagine Herzog’s apposition of these apparently disoriented birds with the errant baizuo vacuously reporting their own misadventures. Those subatomic particles that Dr. Gorham tracks and describes are enthralling, but his own gushing fascination with them is not. One bright exception is Libor Zicha, a machinist still visibly haunted by trauma suffered during the Cold War, who keeps an impressively comprehensive survival kit in a rucksack at his side at all times. An extraneous interview of irritatingly ingenious publicity hound Ashrita Furman comprises a most glaringly inapposite aside.
This might’ve been another of Herzog’s documentary masterworks, but it’s marred by the trendy and sentimental faults that so endear it to Anglophones. His undue familiarity, rambling, risible ruminations and desultory indulgences might be apropos to one of Errol Morris’s features, but for them this 100 minutes is a fifth padded and hardly so graceful than it should be. Unlike the foregoing sacred music, Henry Kaiser’s and David Lindley’s score is almost unbearably grating. So untypically personal, unprofessional and subjective is it that its conclusive dedication to Roger Ebert comes as no surprise.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Into the Inferno or Cave of Forgotten Dreams.