Fairytale Makeover Theater Presents: Blancanieves y Los Siete Matadors Corto


The 1920s.

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Her father was the best toreador alive. His name was Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and he loved a woman who just might qualify as the hottest actress to give birth in a movie. Ever. Seriously Inma Cuesta is a fox. Don’t get too attached though. She dies. Spoilers. Is it a spoiler if it’s in the prologue?

The child survives, but the wealthy and recently paralyzed (emotionally and physically) Antonio is a widower. In swoops the evil step mother. Naturally. Fairy tales never have positive step mother characters. She will make life a living hell for the cuckolded Antonio and his precocious daughter. What is the child’s name you query? ‘Tis the film’s protagonist and namesake, Blancanieves (2012).

That means Snow White in the Spanish.

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Blancanieves, directed by Pablo Berger, is a Spanish re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, Snow White. In addition to it being Spanish it is also a silent melodrama. And no, they’re not just cashing in on the success of The Artist (2011). In fact, crafty filmmakers have been making silent pictures all along. From the rebellious Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times) to the innovative Pierre Étaix (Yoyo) to the surreal Guy Maddin (Archangel), great filmmakers have been using the unique language and aesthetic of silent cinema to convey wonderful stories all throughout the sound era.

Also most of the characters for this adaptation are bullfighters. Now far be it from me to perpetuate the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. I’m just reporting the facts of the film.

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I hate to use the cliche of, “if you think you know the story [of Snow White]…think again.” But it totally applies here. This is not Disney. (Although the bullfights are somewhat sanitized and cleansed of blood). This is a tasty tragedy of the freshest variety. Blancanieves, or Carmen as she is called (played by Macarena García as an adult and sadly not as hot as Inma Cuesta), runs away from her evil stepmother (played with delicious malevolence by Maribel Verdú from Pan’s Labyrinth). . . but not until about halfway through the movie. There’s a lot of build up and backstory here.

A band of independent circus dwarfs—who are also matadors. I know!—discover Carmen but she has amnesia and remembers nothing. She joins their happy troupe and becomes a great matador herself. Because it’s in the blood. You may think you know the rest of the story, but there’s enough surprise and intrigue to keep you guessing.

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This movie boasts ravishing cinematography and rich imagery of epic bullfights and ornate upper-crust Spanish living spaces cleverly juxtaposed with ramshackle nomadic circus environs. And the erotic flamenco pulse of speedy guitar strings wound with sex-fire coupled with a pair of manic castanets gives Blancanieves added atmosphere you can almost sink your teeth into. I want to bite this movie is what I’m saying.

I really enjoyed Blancanieves. This is exactly what we should be doing with classic stories. Like Ray Tintori’s Death to the Tinman or The Coen Bros. O, Brother Where Art Thou! While the final moments of this film I found to be beautiful and touching they did leave me wanting a bit emotionally. But with the kooky premise, splendid acting, creative turns, and gorgeous style I can forgive it. I love magic, matadors, midgets, and silent movies so this was pretty good for me.

Go see Blancanieves. It’s a special treat. And now I shall return to scouring the internet for more pictures of Inma Cuesta.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on April 16, 2013.

Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—life outta whack

I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.

Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.

I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?

The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.

The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.

Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.

The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.

Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010

More Than a Bowler Hat and Bamboo Cane

Be happy in your work.

Be happy in your work.

If I could pin down the birth of my deep, long-held love for film to one single person it would have to be Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin movies are among the first movies I vividly remember watching and I can remember my initial reaction: I like this fellow.

Starving is comedy!

Starving is comedy!

Born into extreme poverty in 1889 England, without a present father, and a mother who suffered from mental illness, Charlie and his half-brother, Sid, struggled to get by. After some time with traveling theater troupes (specifically the Fred Karno Troupe), Charlie Chaplin made his way to America where he discovered the dawn of commercial cinema. With his anarchic onscreen mannerisms, well-timed pratfalls, and sharp intelligence he bounced from Keystone Studios to Essanay Studios, but finding a lack of total creative control unfavorable he began directing the films himself. Eventually he would partner with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith (the biggest names of the silent era) to create United Artists.

Chaplin is most remembered for his “Tramp” character, easily recognized by the shabby garments, over-sized shoes, dexterously spinning bamboo cane, bowler (or derby) hat, and toothbrush mustache. Between 1914 and 1920, Chaplin starred in nearly 70 comic shorts. Chaplin even starred in the first feature-length comedy, Mack Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) opposite Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand. Instead of the Tramp, he played a sinister conman out to swindle an overweight farmer’s daughter of her inheritance. Tillie is a fun little film, but nowhere near the brilliance that Chaplin would manufacture when he would sit in the director’s chair himself.

He's behind us, isn't he?

He’s behind us, isn’t he?

Many of his early shorts were depictions of manic mayhem within the confines of a clash in social status—the lowly Tramp invariably humiliating everybody above and below. Let’s just say that they were a little gratuitous in the kicking folks in the buttocks and falling down department. His more personal features that he wrote, directed, produced, scored, and starred in had a bit more emotional depth.

The first Chaplin movies I saw (taped from TV) were The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). Since then I made an effort to polish off his Tramp canon with countless shorts and the features, The Kid (1921), The Circus (1928), and City Lights (1931). One of the most fascinating things about Chaplin as an artist is that he was, in fact, just that: an artist, an insufferable perfectionist at his crafts. All of these films feel real and personal. Chaplin never hid his personal feelings about politics, social injustice, class inequality, or the medium of film itself. You’ll notice that only two of these features were made before sound technology (1927′s The Jazz Singer). Chaplin did not enjoy the death knell of pantomime and so continued to make silent movies well into the 1930s (although Modern Times does incorporate sound gags and a song). The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first official talkie, was the last hurrah for the Tramp character. Chaplin’s later films like the dark comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the reflective Limelight (1952), and later, A King In New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) would all feature Chaplin, but never in classic Tramp regalia.

The ballet of global powers.

The ballet of global powers.

Chaplin’s continuous amorousness for younger women and refusal to obtain American citizenship, alongside his staunch outspoken left-wing politics, led to Chaplin being labeled a subversive and a communist and he was essentially “kicked-out” of America by J. Edgar Hoover in 1952. He returned briefly in 1972 with his last wife, Oona O’Neill, to be honored at the Academy Awards for his achievements as an artist, comic, innovator, and sculptor of the film industry. He was knighted in 1975. He died two years later at his home in Switzerland on Christmas Day 1977.

After a lifetime of tragedy, lawsuits, women, success, scandal, laughter, and tears, Chaplin’s legacy lives on. He has influenced countless comic film wizards from Jacques Tati to Jackie Chan.  Among other prominent celebrities of the day, he also rubbed elbows with William Randolph Hearst, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, and more. His autobiography simply titled, “My Autobiography” sheds much insight into his troubled, but undoubtedly brilliant mind. After a lifetime in the movies Charlie Chaplin has made himself one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.

The cinema owes Mr. Charles Chaplin a great deal and I certainly owe him a great deal (and I owe my father a great deal for introducing his films to me at such a young age). This is my humble tribute to a master of his craft.

A smile and a tear.

A smile and a tear.

The following films should be considered essential viewing.

The Kid (1921) – a beautiful movie employing a marvelous balance of humor and heart. Chaplin, a penniless vagabond, takes in a lost child (Jackie Coogan) and becomes a father figure.

The Gold Rush (1925) – Chaplin plays a lone prospector looking for his fortune. He falls in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale) and winds up trapped in a cabin with fellow gold-hunter, Big Jim (Mack Swain). This is my personal favorite.

The Circus (1928) – life at the circus, but behind the scenes. The tattered Tramp falls in love with a beautiful performer (Merna Kennedy), but maybe he’s not right for her.

City Lights (1931) – a street-walking pauper in the big city falls for a poor, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who thinks he is an aristocrat. Chaplin will do whatever it takes to help her out.

Modern Times (1936) – a homeless fugitive during the rise of industry struggles to provide for his girlfriend (Paulette Goddard). Machines replacing men might be more than symbolic for Chaplin’s feelings of talkies replacing silent movies.

The Great Dictator (1940) – Chaplin plays dual roles as a poor Jewish barber and the delusional despot, Adenoid Hynkel, in his commentary on Hitler, fascism, world powers, and what it is that makes us human.

And into the sunset.

And into the sunset.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 3, 2009.