Netflix may be all the rage, especially with all the movie houses and multiplexes closed in the time of pandemic, but sometimes you just have to rely on a good old special cable channel for your regular fix when the internet is shaky. For several months the FilmBox ArtHouse on channel 83 was special on Skycable — just had to add a paltry P20 on top of the regular monthly subscription, through which we were able to watch many of the classics and obligatory avant-garde, mostly European, films as expected, but with corresponding subtitles on a good reception day for the non-polyglots among us.But the channel only ran until mid-September, 2020, perhaps a casualty of the non-renewal of franchise of ABS-CBN.
Was good, though, while it lasted, as they say, and for the price of a daily broadsheet you got a full month’s spread of Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Hitchcock, the early obscure works of Kubrick and Coppola, among other sundry experiments from the left field of cinema.
It began as a test broadcast a year or two ago, and even without the initial subtitles it became clear that a special treat was coming soon. How many times do we have to be reminded that film begins and ends with the visual sign and symbol? All we have to say or glimpse is “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and the silent movie is born, the dialogue board used only for emphasis. Mostly, however, we are content with the figures and images moving across the flat screen.
Among the first offerings of Channel 83 were Fellini’s La Dolce Vita with the irrepressible Marcello Mastroianni and the siren Anouk Aimee, and Pele the Conqueror with Max Von Sydow, both Cannes Palm d’Or winners.
It was also through FilmBox that we were introduced to Lettrism and the works of Isidore Isou, where visuals don’t match the audio, and vice versa
Then it just got better, with staples that included the so-called “Noriko Trilogy” of Yasujiro Ozu: Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story, with the pleasantness and grace of the lead actress Setsuko Hara reminiscent of the late Gilda Cordero. (Where is Noriko now? She was quite a presence in postwar Japan amid the reconstruction, her smile a balm on 24-hour TV.)
Also regularly screened were documentaries of Quino Pinero on Ethiopian roots music, the brace of Roaring Abyss and New Voices in an Old Flower, where we get to hear many indigenous African instruments, the percussion-driven phrasing of the country’s singers and other vocal stylists. Anyone even remotely interested in bebop or reggae should at least try to access these two documentaries, whose narratives are both informative and delightful and always told with clear eyes and ears.
Pick of the crop however turned out to be the Tarkovsky films, the middle five of his seven-film oeuvre, between his debut Ivan’s Childhood and the last work, The Sacrifice: Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Mirror, Stalker and Nostalghia.
Andrei Rublev is likely one of the director’s more ambitious works, episodic and dealing with a painter of Catholic frescoes, set in Russia’s tumultuous times, but whatever is tumultuous in that country is easily made into art. There are breast exposures that are deliberately blurred if censors are on their toes, lots of bloody violence, and generally a dizzying tour de force in black and white. The opening scene with an animal strapped to a parachute seems to have been plagiarized by a local avant-garde filmmaker who’s clearly seen this movie, too.
Solaris represents the first stirrings of science fiction in East European cinema, or at least what we know of the genre, with long panning scenes of freeways, a cabin in the woods, the claustrophobic space ship, and a dead wife brought back to life again, or what seems to be her likeness, in the controlled environment of an enclosed vessel on the edge of a galaxy. It would make a worthy companion piece to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and they were made roughly within years of each other.
Mirror is the most difficult of the director’s works, set dead center in the filmography, and arguably his most visually compelling. It’s a bit cagey and elusive, can’t quite put a finger on it, but what does shine through can be something akin to poetry. There are images and sounds that can stay with you forever: the slaughtering of the chicken, the lead actress running through the rain to get to her basement office, the blurred breasts in a shower stall, two boys walking out to the forest with their grandma as the setting sun burns a fire in the distance and a yodeling is heard at fadeout.
Stalker (from 1979) is quite dark and rightly so, set in a post-environmental disaster that prefigures Chernobyl. Three men — a writer, a science professor and their guide, the “stalker” — try to reach a controlled area in the far reaches of a wasteland where anything is possible. It could be a morality tale on the search for the holy grail by three metaphorically blind men, compounded by the stalker’s own creepy daughter waiting back home with the power of telekinesis. Production design is post-apocalyptic, and could have served as a template for the likes of Blade Runner.
Nostalghia shows Tarkovsky at his lyric best, and his first film shot outside Russia, following a poet as stranger in a strange land and the various personalities in his orbit, including a sexy blonde tour guide/ translator and madman who in the end self-immolates but not without a final performance art. Mysterious footage of dogs of childhood posed as countryside enigma, as well as found reels for juxtaposition for good measure. Could be the aesthetic twin of Mirror, in that both are throwbacks to a past now barely graspable except for the fleeting, flickering screen before us. We finally understand Lav Diaz’s declaration that “We will remember the world because of cinema.”
It was also through FilmBox that we were introduced to Lettrism and the works of Isidore Isou, where visuals don’t match the audio, and vice versa, such that we began to wonder whether or not to pull the plug; then again, even weirdness and discrepancy have their own school of thought, if not philosophy, in a world of wonders.