Aaron West is an art film enthusiast, a Criterion obsessive (as evident from his writings at Criterion Blues) and can be found on Twitter @awest505.
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XALA (1975; Ousmane Sembene) – Senegalese Ousmane Sembène is one of the greats when it comes to post-colonial African literature and cinema. He made waves with BLACK GIRL and his final film, MOOLADE was probably his most celebrated. In the middle of his career was XALA, based on his own novel. It is the most abstract and arguably the most scathing portrayal of both colonial interlopers and the subsequent puppet governments that took their place. Early in the film we see a formal meeting with the new government leaders, where they are offered suitcases of money from colonial and corporate interests. Sembène was clearly accusing the new leaders of not acting in the best interests of their own people, but instead selling out for top dollar.
There are repercussions, and they take the form of a mystical impotence called the XALA. The film veers away from the government commentary and focuses more on the upper classes. El Hadji is an upper class businessman who, through his own hubris and thirst for luxury, decides to take a third wife while turning his back on the other two. He is inflicted with the XALA and does everything in his power to rid himself of the affliction. While the second part of the movie is more domestically themed, the government critique is still ever-present, however veiled, because they have allowed such folly and division of upper and lower classes with their hypocrisy and underhanded deals. It culminates in a disturbing yet memorably graphic final scene where Sembène takes down the gentry to the lowest form imaginable.
THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER (1975; George Roy Hill) – In the few lists I’ve written thus far for Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’ve mostly focused on art films and left the popcorn and genre films for the other contributors (of which there are many). Waldo Pepper is an outlier for me as it is unquestionably a light, summer popcorn film starring Robert Redford. I absolutely love this film for a number of reasons.
On the popcorn front, there are these death defying plane stunts. Redford plays Waldo Pepper, a pilot with a chip on his shoulder because he did not get to participate in wartime aerial catfights, and longs to get comparable thrills by as an amateur pilot that takes risks in the air. For 1975, the aerial scenes are a pure thrill even by today’s standards. The stunt flying and the camera work are top notch, and I cannot think of many aerial adventures that compare. This is the type of film that puts you on the edge of your seat anytime the action is in the clouds.
While the film is light compared to others on my list, it isn’t without strong character motivations. Waldo Pepper’s arc is intense, obsessive and reckless. We get to see the longing behind the character and get why he desperately wants to prove himself. This development leads to a dramatic and exhilarating finale that has the best of the aerial scenes. This is again a tough one to discuss without spoiling, but I’ll say that the ending throws you for a loop (no pun intended), and keeps you thinking after the credits roll.
THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (1975; Volker Schlöndorff) – Volker Schlöndorff is a celebrated auteur with a lengthy career both in his homeland in Germany and in the United States. He is best known for THE TIN DRUM, but has been acclaimed for many other films, especially his American TV version of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, which many think is the best adaptation. Katharina Blum is considered an obscure and less celebrated than many of his films. It is also criticized, perhaps deservedly, for being heavy-handed in its approach to the topic. It has a distinct anti-media message.
Even though this is a message film that hammers the point home, reminding us of the less than ethical way the media operates, it was way ahead of its time. Katharina Blum is the victim of a tabloid-driven media smear campaign that ruins her annihilates her privacy. Schlöndorff did little to subdue or veil his criticism, even placing a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that connects the fictitious film to an existing tabloid, something that might get him sued today. He was ahead of his time because now, 40 years later, the world is still dominated by tabloid reporting. It may even be more relevant today than it was in the 1970s with the rise of the internet, the formation of TMZ and all the imitators. There are many Katharina Blum’s out there, and there will be many in the future. Angela Winkler gives a tremendous performance as the title character and thislaunched her career.
FEAR OF FEAR (1975; Rainer Werner Fassbinder) – To say Rainer Werner Fassbinder was prolific in the 1970s would be an understatement. His output was insane, yet he still managed a consistent level of high quality. There are several that stand above the rest and are considered masterpieces, most notably (at least in my opinion) of which is ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL from 1974. He is credited with four releases for the year 1975, and all of them could be considered for an underrated list simply because they get lost given his relentless output. I chose FEAR OF FEAR because it was his TV movie and seems to get the least amount of acclaim compared to his other 1975 releases. In my opinion, it is the most in-depth character study of the bunch, and he uses experimental filmic elements to solidify his theme.
Fassbinder is renowned for having his own demons. They materialize in most of his films, which makes for tough viewing on occasion, but they all contain an element of truth. The affliction that he studies in FEAR OF FEAR is in the title. It is simply anxiety and how to deal with it, the type of fear that is unexplainable, yet entirely real. The lead role is played by Margit Carstensen, one of the stars of Fassbinder’s stable, and perhaps best known for playing the title character in THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT. She continually earned her place as one of his best performers and she again knocks it out of the park. Her performance sells the angst of her character and the desperation to get treated. This leads to unscrupulous actions and addiction to the pharmaceutical remedy, a not-so-subtle nod to Fassbinder’s struggle with drug abuse. On top of that, her anxiety is portrayed with a disorienting film effect that makes the screen ripple in an unsettling way every time one of her spells comes on.
SALO: OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975; Pier Paolo Pasolini) – Of all on my list, this is the most divisive. Some people consider it a masterpiece work of art. Some consider it to a piece of revolting smut that blurs the lines between art film and pornography. Some find it to be so over-the-top that it cannot be taken seriously and works as a shocking comedy.It is among the most controversial films of all time, having been banned in multiple countries, including its own country and of course, the USA. A tragic outcome is that Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great directors of all time, was murdered shortly after production and never saw the final product on screen. There is a lot of debate as to whether his brutal murder was in response to this scandalous film. A great many people are convinced that SALO was the motive for his murder.
Like many, I was disgusted during my first viewing and could not see past the filth. In many ways, watching SALO is a test of endurance, to see if your stomach can handle the atrocities committed onscreen. During the Circle of “Feces” (self-censored), there is a scene where the entire group is served excrement. Some are forced to eat it against their will while others eat it delightfully and enjoy it. You do not have to speak Italian or French to comprehend what they mean when they yell “manger, manger, manger.” This is one example of the nauseating events that take place on screen. Most revolve around torture, which takes form through sexual, violent and psychological methods.
The movie has to be watched at least twice to really understand what Pasolini was going for. Once the shock value is lessened, you can see the pieces of the strong political statement he was making. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that bears similarities in style with the best films of the era. The content, however difficult, is an allegory for the wicked and oppressive nature of political power. Pasolini even gave his own explanation before his tragic murder that it was an indictment of the emerging capitalism that had taken place in the previous decade. His movie makes the human body a commodity that can be used, abused, and discarded as needed. While it was banned in many countries, it was mostly the political message and not the salacious content that caused outrage in Italy, as the evildoers were former Italian Fascists having their last ride as the Second World War was ending.