Was there ever another actor like Gene Wilder? He was unrelentingly funny. But unlike most unrelentingly funny actors, he never settled into a single familiar persona. He could play soft and gentle. He could play manic and furious. He could play a completely original, weird concoction of his own making and make it work.
As is the ritual when a beloved celebrity dies, I discovered Gene Wilder’s passing today with a Twitter feed full of people reminiscing on their favorite moments, films, and performances. It’s easy to be jaded by the familiarity of this ritual. I’d urge everyone not to become so. There’s a reason some people resonate with so many.
I’m out of anything to say. Gene Wilder was a man whose art mattered to so many, myself included. That’s one of the most remarkable things a person can accomplish. I’ll miss him.
In July two of my favorite movie bloggers- Anna at Film Grimoire and Rob at Movierob– ran a blogathon centered around movies that are 90 or fewer minutes long. I contributed a review of Millennium Actress. You can find all the essays here.
“What does the key open?”
“The most important thing there is.”
Memories are all we have, really. The present is fleeting. The future hasn’t happened. Everything else is memory. Memories define how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Love of all forms is built upon and sustained by memories. There are two love stories at the center of Millennium Actress. One is based almost entirely on one memory; the other is built on the accumulation of decades of memories.
Milliennium Actress jumps right into its story. Genya, a documentary director, drags his cameraman, Kyoji, to the home of the long-retired, long reclusive film star, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Genya is making a documentary about her. Upon meeting her, he gives her a present: a key. The key is a memento of hers long lost. What it opens materially is irrelevant. When he gives her the key, her memories begin to flow.
Millennium Actress was the second film by the brilliant animator Satoshi Kon. From 1997 through 2006, Kon had an astonishing run of quality, directing four films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent. He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 while working on a fifth film (the still unfinished Dreaming Machine). Most of his films- Tokyo Godfathers excepted- dance in and out of reality, deliberately challenging the viewer to a point where we have to abandon our usual expectations of narrative flow.
Millennium Actress might be Kon’s most ambitious work in this regard. It plunges into and out of Chiyoko’s memories, those memories blending with scenes from her movies. Genya seems in on the game, popping up regularly in memories and scenes he has no business being in. Kyoji is the audience conduit, offering bewildered meta-commentary on the constant scene-changes.
If it sounds like Millennium Actress is hard to follow, it’s not. This is an enchanting film. Kon knows well how memories are as much about feelings and sensations as the actual events. It makes sense at a level beyond linear narrative. It bursts with energy and heart. Kon’s animation was never lovelier than it is here. His signature lush foregrounds and simple, static backgrounds give it a dreamlike quality.
If I haven’t begun to describe the plot of Millennium Actress, that’s because the plot is fairly spare. We discover early on that the primary catalyst in Chiyoko’s journey is her search for a political prisoner she helped escape from the police. The man was an artist. We see their one conversation, gazing up at the moon that night. He leaves in the morning. That’s as much as I will reveal. The plot is minimal, which makes room for what Millennium Actress is really about. It’s about how a moment so innocent and innocuous can take on a cosmic significance. How a moment of kindness, a conversation under the stars, or a gift that unlocks long-lost memories, can become impassable mountains in the path of the narrative of one’s life. My favorite scene in the film involves Chiyoko discovering a memento left behind for her years before. In a typical film, with a linear narrative, it would be a sweet, sentimental moment. In this film, it’s a moment of equally towering joy and sadness.
With remarkable empathy, Millennium Actress explores how deeply we really are tied to our memories. Memories shape us. We can spend lifetimes dissecting a moment from our past, trying to explore it from every angle. It’s a frenetic tale, yes, but then so is life. Millennium Actress is attuned to life in its full spectrum.
*for any Hawaiian or Alaskan readers I might have
At several times during the 2 hour and 57 minute runtime of Hard to Be a God, I considered putting the rest of the film off until tomorrow. It’s one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen. It is gross in that word’s most primal sense. It swims beneath layers of mud, feces, piss, spit, and mucus. It is an endurance test of vile imagery.
Yet every time I paused it, I realized that I had to finish it, in one sitting. Beneath the scum and shit is one of the most astonishing nightmare visions I’ve ever seen in a film. If you could get a glimpse of a horrifying, totally alien civilization and do so from the safety of your home, behind a screen… well, wouldn’t you?
Maybe not. Perhaps if the world is so dire, so grotesque, so utterly without redemption, that might not be something you want to see. And that is completely understandable. But one of the joys of watching movies for me is when a director gives us a completely unfettered vision of a world that can only exist in film. Hard to Be a God is one of the most complete, astonishing visions that you’ll see in any movie.
Hard to Be a God was the final film by Russian filmmaker Aleksei German. It took him six years to film and he died before it was was finally released. The plot is both straightforward and beside the point. It takes place on an alien world called Arkanar. It resembles Earth, and is populated by a very human-like species. The main difference? They are about 800 years behind Earth, still in their own Medieval period. A group of scientists journeyed there to observe the unfolding of what they hoped would be Arkanar’s renaissance. They blended in with the populace and pledged to not interfere with any of the planet’s sociopolitical developments.
The renaissance never came. The population of Arkanar turned on its intellectuals and artists, executing them en masse. Now stuck on a planet that is stuck, willingly, in its own Dark Ages, we meet our protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik). He goes by the title Don Rumata. He rules a small fiefdom, aided by the tall tale that he is the descendant of a god. The film is essentially a day in his life. It is an aimless day. He ostensibly has a goal: to find a doctor who has been kidnapped by a rival baron. But Rumata wanders from place to place in a haze of disillusioned stupor. The wandering becomes the point of the film. Plot points do emerge, but they do so with little warning or sense of an arc. Only near the end, when an act of violence becomes a personal matter for Rumata, does he become energized.
Yarmolnik’s performance is one of remarkable endurance; not only does he lead us on a tour of this hellscape, but he so convincingly plays a man worn to total indifference from having been trapped here. The fetid squalor is unrelenting. Everything drips. Everything. Everyone is filthy. The sound effects consist heavily of the sort of human noises that sound editors normally try to edit out. We hear every grunt, sniffle, cough, and squelch. The worst squelches are the mysterious ones.
My description of this film might seem like an attempt to make people not see it. That is not the case. I’m trying to be clear: Hard to Be a God is a profoundly difficult film to watch. It made me nauseous. It might simply bore some to tears. But it is not simply a self-indulgent film. The disconnect from any plot made sense to me early on. It helps us more quickly feel submerged in German’s world, and what a world he has created here. It contains horrors that would make Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel proud. Nothing here is vile for the sake of it. German grosses us out to immerse us in his creation, not to repel us. Some might still be repelled. I almost was. But there is something so fascinating about this film. If I could take a tour of the world within Bosch painting with the assurance that I would face no danger, I would do so in a heartbeat. Hard to be a God is as close as I’ll get to that.