Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Looker (Michael Crichton, 1981)

Michael Crichton’s Looker is one of those technology-savvy films that, when viewed with 35 years of hindsight, seems impressively prescient on a lot of points, except that you have to keep overlooking all the ways in which it remains stuck in its own moment. When James Coburn’s manipulative corporate titan observes how much time people spend voluntarily staring at their televisions, and muses on the power that would flow from better control over the insinuating power of commercials, it would take only minimal updating to apply the thought and the dehumanizing implications to smartphones and pop-up ads and so forth. Similarly, the film’s obsession with scientifically-determined physical perfection, and the recourse to what we’d now call CGI when this falls short, leads directly to our age of digitally-reincarnated or –enhanced or –age-relieved actors. It’s bizarre though that Crichton’s concept stops short of assuming that the sets and environments in which virtual actors move around wouldn’t be virtually imagined as well, as opposed to being slavishly created in a studio. Anyway, it’s hard to engage consistently with such points of interest and semi-foresight when the film keeps losing you with its staggeringly unsophisticated A-leading-to-B narrative, relying on improbably reckless behaviour by heroes and villains alike; and with its overwhelming lack of interesting character and interaction, leaving Coburn and Albert Finney stuck in the extreme shallow end of their potential registers. Crichton’s stylistic superficiality isn’t entirely unsuited to the image-obsessed California milieu, but entails that the movie always seems to be dabbling in its various devices rather than interrogating them (by comparison, think about what Cronenberg achieved during the same decade with broadly similar material). One passingly haunting moment has Susan Dey’s besieged character visiting her parents for a respite from the mayhem, finding them stuck in their armchairs staring at some dumb comedy, barely capable of acknowledging her presence, hinting at a creeping malaise much greater than the movie acknowledges elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Fado majeur et mineur (Raoul Ruiz, 1994)

To all but a handful of cinematic voyagers, Raoul Ruiz will always represent an impossible dream of sorts: the work is too copious, too obscure, too hard to track down (even the spelling of his first name varies constantly). The filmography comprises well over a hundred works, and some of them might for all practical purposes be unseen (I may have seen around twenty, which must already place me in rare company). Fado majeur et mineur should have some advantages in relative visibility – it has some well-known cast members and appears to have been filmed and financed in relatively straightforward circumstances – and yet an Internet search provides only a single English-language commentary of any kind, and that just a bewildered, dismissive Variety review from its film festival premiere. One must enter the film then without guardrails or signposts, which as it happens aligns the viewer with its bewildered, amnesiac protagonist as he tries to make sense of a series of strange encounters. The narrative has elements of a jigsaw, vaguely circling around culpability for a death, or maybe several, but it’s a Ruiz-style jigsaw in multiple dimensions, in which the completed picture will appear fragmentary to all but, perhaps, God (and a priest does play a key role in the home stretch). Ruiz’s is a gorgeous cinema of layers – he’s drawn to compositions which capture people and objects in different planes, often foregrounding inanimate objects (or objects that should be inanimate, such as a self-propelling hat); to relationships that mutate and twist; to language that compulsively pivots and bounces and digresses. The title resonates not so much for the direct musical reference as for the mournfulness that traditionally marks the Fado genre; yet in the end Ruiz’s film feels found, not lost. At once deeply dislocated and yet culturally and temporally specific, almost austere in its singularity and yet possessing a classic vein of “art-movie” eroticism, the film is a gorgeous frustration, of a kind that makes much of even the best cinema seem under-engaged and conventional.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Eureka (Nicolas Roeg, 1983)

Viewed scene by scene and shot by shot, Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka unfolds in a relatively linear manner, at least compared to his most famous works, but it’s ultimately as productively strange and challenging as any of them. The first section depicts its protagonist, prospector Jack McCann, achieving his dreams of striking it rich in the Yukon, to the extent of becoming maybe the world’s richest man: twenty years or so later he’s occupying his own Caribbean island (isolated from the war raging elsewhere) with an alcoholic wife and a daughter who frustrates him with her choice of relationship; resisting the pressure from a business associate, in turn under the thumb of gangsters, to sell off a portion of his land for development. Roeg dramatizes the finding of the gold in extravagantly cosmic manner, as if McCann had pierced the mind of God; much of what follows might seem deliberately flat and protracted, underlining the contrast between the fulfilment of finding the gold and the relative emptiness of having it (Robert Service’s famous lines to this effect provide the film’s final words). The film’s last half hour pushes even further, to and beyond complete erasure: McCann is murdered (his body gleefully burned, as if to ward off supernatural residue) and Roeg immerses us in the subsequent trial, in all its stodgy formality and underlying hollowness, eventually boiling matters down to pure melodrama. That contrast between finding and having seems resonant as a reflection on creativity, leading to a final note of simultaneous renewal and demise, tinged with a sense of transmigration, as if the restlessness in McCann had become embodied in another (there’s also a suggestion that McCann never survived his great find, which would render everything that follows a sort of distended fantasy). Despite the joyous promise of discovery in its title then, the film resists easy closure and coherence - how could it not, when that would only guarantee that we share McCann’s sense of reductive loss…?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Max et les ferrailleurs (Claude Sautet, 1971)

When I first saw Claude Sautet’s Max et les ferrailleurs, Max’s climactic act of self-destruction seemed to me successful as a shocking narrative coup, but not entirely convincing as character development. On subsequent reflection, I’m still not sure, but one wouldn’t bother to ponder the matter as much if not for the surprising richness of what leads up to it. Max (Michel Piccoli) is a policeman who runs briefly into Abel, an old army friend, a man laboring on the margins of the scrap metal business (a pretty marginal business in the first place, no doubt), subsisting mostly on petty theft. Frustrated with a recent spate of unsolved bank robbers, Max discerns that Abel and his cohorts might be ready to move up in the crime leagues, and then surreptitiously sets out to help them get there, working through Abel’s prostitute girlfriend (Romy Schneider). The scheme works, and Max is credited with an easy score, but then the wheels of the law move on more heavily and efficiently than he wants them to, prompting that final outburst. Sautet certainly seems here like an under-appreciated genre master, pacing events perfectly, and sustaining an intriguing contrast between Max’s cold, isolated machinations and the rambunctious camaraderie of the scrap merchants. Of course, cops who exercise blurred ethics in the name of ultimate order are a genre staple, but Max et les ferrailleurs finds a particularly compelling, class-conscious way of interrogating that murky territory. The ferrailluers, it suggests, are really no more lawless than they need to be to sustain a workable existence, and perhaps no richer (several characters cast suspicion on Max’s private wealth as a distorting factor); if they have to be destroyed, it’s primarily in the interest of warped governing interests. Looked at in that ominous, politically-charged way, it’s perhaps fitting after all that the ending goes beyond mere irony, into utter breakdown.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Lulu on the Bridge (Paul Auster, 1997)

For all its preoccupation with art and creativity, Paul Auster’s Lulu on the Bridge doesn’t constitute a great example of either: it feels more arbitrary than instinctive, more clunkily calculated than deeply felt, and barely relevant to anything beyond its own peculiar boundaries. Auster (whose solo directorial debut this was) doesn’t seem like a director of any particular finesse, whether in matters of framing and blocking or in coaxing his actors into interesting territory (not that the likes of Keitel, Dafoe and Redgrave can’t mostly take care of themselves). Even so, I find the movie tends to resurface in my mind from time to time – if nothing else, for its pleasure with the idea of filmmaking both in itself (drawing prominently on Pandora’s Box and Singin’ in the Rain and engaging in brief pastiches of various genres, in one of which Lou Reed pops up to play - as the credits put it - Not Lou Reed), and as a means of unlocking something formative and fundamental. The sense of discovery encompasses language (the repeated use of binary questions – is one an ocean or a river; an owl or a hummingbird, etc.); dredging up of childhood memories and traumas; unexplained magic (a stone which emits a mysterious blue light and levitates, conveying a deep feeling of possibility and connection to those who come into its orbit); and even the formative relationship between man and turd (evoked in one of the weirder blocks of dialogue ever given to Mandy Patinkin). The evocation of the Berlin Wall and a few scenes set in Ireland provide the faintest of political seasonings. It’s disappointing at the end when all of this is revealed as an apparent deathbed fantasy and/or transmigration of souls, pushing the movie’s resonances inward when they needed (in the way of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating, a vastly superior film that nevertheless may provide a sporadic reference point here) to push outward. Still, if only all cinematic failures were as intriguing…  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pravda (Dziga Vertov Group, 1970)

It's easy now to regard the Dziga Vertov Group’s Pravda as a mere relic, a compendium of somewhat randomly unglamorous images set under a somewhat scattershot and didactic commentary, in which such terminology as “bourgeois imperialism” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” hardly resonates now. The film focuses on denouncing and dissecting the “revisionist” forces which slammed down on Czechoslovakian democracy in 1968, identifying them as concerned with preserving essentially exploitative governing interests rather than with the good of the working class, and often carries a rather stubbornly humorless air. It evidences some of Godard’s recurring preoccupation with images and their placement – for example citing ones that can’t be shown because they’ve been sold for corporate use, and decrying “popular” cinema that’s imposed on the people rather than arising from them – but overall appears less interested in this project than in asserting the dignity of labour and in musing on its powerlessness. As such, watching it now at a time of brutally ascendant capitalism and inequality, it takes on new energy. “Flunky” intellectuals play a large part in this analysis, for their role in buffeting the stifling bourgeois wisdom – in contrast, the film focuses on a worker who can’t even identify the purpose or utility of the industrial component he spends his days manufacturing, an obvious pawn for malevolently manipulative interests. The movie’s prescriptions are certainly limited to their (racially heterogeneous, among other things) time and place – illustrations based on wooden versus iron ploughs are hard to relate to our current technological circumstances (in advocating for continual scientific experimentation, the movie could hardly have foreseen the complex legacy of the advancements we’ve reaped) - but the broad concern with the systematic suppression of working class interest and power only becomes more urgent. As such, the movie’s raggedness – for example the occasional stumbling on the commentary – feels now like a guarantee of authenticity, allowing it a renewed plaintive urgency.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Mascara (Patrick Conrad, 1987)

Patrick Conrad’s Mascara surely warrants some consideration for its contribution to queer cinema, although the value of that contribution may be rather hard to assess. If measured just by a simple metric of how many of its characters demonstrate some kind of fluid sexuality, it scores highly, and it must have rightly irked Conrad to watch The Crying Game get so much attention in 1992 for its famous “reveal,” when he’d staged something extremely similar (and possibly even more effective) five years earlier. The film may score further progressive points for its fascination with transgender performance; and for its strangifying of its setting (as far as one can figure out, it’s set in an unprepossessing Belgian coastal town which nevertheless houses an opera house and an extensive high-end underground scene). But at the same time, its narrative is essentially that of a lurid mad killer film, even though there’s some mythological resonance to the way it turns around three ceremonial-like visits to the underworld. Most disappointingly, the guilty man (Michael Sarrazin) initially seems like an accomplished instance of someone holding conflicting lives and desires in balance, but ultimately undergoes a complete unraveling. Still, the points of interest are real. Along the way, it also draws in notes of voyeurism and incest, and has Charlotte Rampling at the transitional point of her career, still embodying an allure that makes men lose their heads, but starting to look distinctly weary from the effort. All in all, the film can hardly be considered a serious investigation or illumination of the lives it depicts, much less a celebration of them, and it’s not hard to see how it’s often categorized (to the extent anyone thinks about it at all) as period Eurotrash. But even if that’s fair (which I doubt), there’s a lot of alluring detritus staring out from the garbage.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Du cote d'Orouet (Jacques Rozier, 1971)

In outline, Jacques Rozier’s Du cote d’Orouet might sound very much like a Rohmer movie – three young women on summer vacation on the French coast, passing time doing nothing in particular (they’re in a rather desolate, under-populated spot), with a couple of guys eventually blended into the mix. But these aren’t Rohmer-type women – no one ever makes a literary reference (or barely reads a book) or engages in verbal philosophizing or self-examination. They’re there to have fun, captured delightfully in sequences where they crack themselves up by finding goofy ways to say “Orouet” or engage in other private jokes, or stuff their faces with eclairs. But the equation of vacation time at the beach/coast with ensuing fun doesn’t take care of itself, and waves of melancholy or emptiness might flow as easily as spiritual refreshment. At two and a half hours, the movie takes its time, sometimes just wryly observing, pretending to be a more straightforward project than it is, leaving much unsaid and unshown (there’s very little overt sexuality in the film, for one thing). But it becomes gradually clear that Rozier is musing on the annual vacation as an institution, and by extension on the nature of work and our relationship to it – by implication, the movie is more about the toll of the eleven months spent at work than about the month spent away from it. It implicitly asks: when one’s economic viability depends on subjugation to mind-numbing repetition and triviality, how can we expect to overcome that conditioning by following preconceived, mechanized notions of having a break from it? It’s only at the end though that we can sense this percolating in the mind of one of the women, and sense the existential crisis that could flow from that, if the machine of her life were to yield to it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)

Lois Weber’s silent The Blot remains a thrilling landmark of cinema, shimmering with empathy and immersed observation. The blot in question is that on a society which chronically underpays its teachers, in this case a kindly aging professor who seems to have no agenda beyond the transmission of knowledge. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter strain to keep up appearances and health and to make ends meet, the wife reduced to raiding the neighbours’ garbage to feed her cat. Those neighbours, in contrast, are depicted in rolling in money from high-end shoemaking ($100 a week, we’re told!), although their affluence pales in comparison to the true moneyed set. The narrative is driven by the professor’s daughter, pursued by the neighbours’ son, by a rich heir, and by an equally impoverished young minister, although the pursuit ultimately becomes as much collaboration as competition. The film explores the fine line between materialistic desire (even the minister covets rare books beyond his means) and genuine need; like much silent cinema, it’s most riveting when placing us within structures of identification and emotion, for example as we repeatedly observe the wife’s anguish and shame, and it has a consistent generosity of spirit, nudging us to favourably revise our impressions of several secondary characters. In the end, of course, things get somewhat better for the family, but one object of desire can’t be divided into three, and Weber closes on a final look back at the house, by one of the unsuccessful suitors (and the way this plays out suggests that while different classes can at least relatively come together, some societal advantages will remain absolute). The film may not carry the cinematic innovation or intensity of the greatest silent masters, but it feels intimate and true and committed, still capable of moving viewers (this one anyway) to the verge of tears.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Girl with a Pistol (Mario Monicelli, 1968)

A couple of years after Michelangelo Antonioni made his legendary trip to “swinging” London to shoot Blow-Up, his partner in his great early 60’s quartet, Monica Vitti, made her own voyage to Blighty, in Mario Monicelli’s The Girl with a Pistol, a film with not an iota of Blow-Up’s stature (despite a foreign film Oscar nomination at the time), and yet as fascinating a time capsule in its own way. In broad outline, it’s an odyssey of a woman’s awakening and self-discovery: Vitti’s Assunta travels from Sicily to England to find and kill the man who “dishonored” her, and gradually evolves past her archaic social conditioning (in which every woman who smiles at a man is a “whore”) and tempestuous nature to become a confident manipulator of sexuality, professionally and personally. The film’s major appeal lies in the glorious culture-clash oddity of seeing Monica Vitti play scenes in industrial Sheffield (with Till Death Us Do Part’s Anthony Booth, no less!), or in windy Brighton; or attending a rugby match, or dropping into a northern England gay bar, to name but a few. Monicelli doesn’t always exert the tightest control over the concept, populating Britain with characters who improbably speak fluent Italian (one of them played by an ineffectual Stanley Baker); he encourages Vitti into borderline-tedious histrionics. But considering the film in retrospect, one feels surprised at the range of its interests: it nails a Britain where class-oriented grimness (at her English-language class, we see Assunta learn the words “potato” and “marmalade”) is starting to give way to greater self-determination and cosmopolitanism, where lives are transformed through entrepreneurship, where straight white men are no longer the sole determinators of sexual destiny; it even makes time to drop Assunta into a peace demonstration (as if flashing briefly ahead to imagine Vitti returning to Antonioni for his next film, Zabriskie Point).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Tuned in

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

For three weeks I told my publisher, David Mackin, that the next article would be about The Truman Show, then instead I wrote about something else (Wild; The Last Days of Disco; Passion in the Desert). Well, those other movies were more in need of the attention. You’d have to be living in an artificially created world, housed inside the planet’s biggest manmade structure, not to be aware of The Truman Show by now. And yet, I guess I can’t let such an acclaimed movie get away without comment.

I’ve already recommended the film: a mighty 8 out of 10 points. So with that stipulated, and since it’d take Columbo to track down any seriously negative commentary on the picture, I’ll concentrate on where the other two points went.

A polite indictment

Part of the reason I found the film hard to write about is that although it seemed meaningful and resonant as I watched it, in retrospect it didn’t seem to have had much of a subtext. You can’t really muse over what it means – that’s kind of obvious – but only over how it says what it means. And on that level it’s tremendously pleasing: it exudes care and attention to detail, and it’s brilliantly sustained. But of a course a lot of the detail is deliberately fake, and what’s being sustained is an illusion. The medium is really the message here in that the film’s intelligence and allusiveness are probably more likely to pull us into the fictional world of the show within the film than to give us analytical distance from it, which cleverly exposes our supposed complicity in this monstrous creation.

Like all satires or fairy stories, we must accept some anachronisms and oddities in what’s provided. In an age of declining attention spans and splintering audience shares, a 30-year reverie on a severely limited, unvarying life wouldn’t seem like an obvious focus of mass appeal. I wonder how many people would really tune in for all those hours of Truman at his desk in the insurance office doing all that insurance paper work. Even as The Truman Show nails us for succumbing to the TV drug, it softens the blow by flattering our patience and civility.

Tweaked nostalgia

In other senses too, the film’s gentle exaggeration allows us to feel good about ourselves. The parodies of product placement – the two aging twins who push Truman against a different billboard every morning, his wife’s cheery blurbs into the camera – are the most unsubtle part of the film; modern-day product placement is much sharper than this. We can appreciate the reference, but would it make us any more likely to avoid being manipulated in the future? I doubt it. The TV show in The Truman Show is soothing and clear, whereas real TV is busy and insidious.

When I first saw the film’s title I assumed it must be something to do with former US president Harry S. Truman. Which it isn’t, and yet…a few years ago Harry Truman came briefly back into vogue as the exemplar of an unassuming, decent competence. Although the film’s sterile vision of suburbia may be more stereotypically linked with Eisenhower than Truman, it’s more or less the right time period.

The movie easily starts to seem like an avalanche of tweaked nostalgia. The notion of a child growing up before the eyes of the world evokes the Dionne sisters and their theme park childhood. And when the townspeople form a night-time search party for the missing Truman, depicted in some strikingly lit images of an eerily coordinated group sweeping the streets, like a meticulous swarm of mutant insects, I instantly thought of Cold War paranoia classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which everyone is revealed to be secretly united against the hero’s (and America’s) interests.

Time is money

The subtext back then was creeping conformity, whether in the form of Commie infiltration or Eisenhower middle-class suffocation. It’s a fascinating echo, because in many senses we’re now more diverse, more multi-cultural, more colourfully fragmented than we could ever have predicted in the 50’s. But of course, the motivation that bounds the search party together in The Truman Show isn’t ideology but money – they’re all employees of the huge corporation, presumably soon to be washed up if the show can’t continue.

It's only when I thought of this that I was able to put the movie to rest in my mind. The Truman Show, of course, is itself an expensive commercial venture, financed by business people rather than philanthropists. Its makers are too smart to throw stones from inside a glass house. The film’s a wonderful satire of a public conformity that doesn’t really exist. So maybe it’s more illuminating (and it usually is) to follow the money. Isn’t the film really about a community that’s held together solely by rampant capitalism? And isn’t it significant that Truman, the only innocent, is also the only guy who never directly made a dime from any of it? But that’s a meaningless message – we can’t opt out of the world we’re born into.

World of voyeurs

Anyway, The Truman Show depends, just as much as television, on our deep-rooted passivity. We like to watch. But so what? Is an artificial activity like watching TV so qualitatively different from a natural one like watching birds? It depends on your system of values. When we watch TV though, our time – as a statistic in the demographic that swells the viewing figures – is money: not for us, but for the cable operator, and the network and so on down the supply chain. We’re worth more doing someone else’s thing than we could ever be worth doing our own. But maybe that’s my naivete in supposing that anything retains its purity. Truth is, the birds are probably carrying ads too.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

HealtH (Robert Altman, 1980)

The minor reputation of HealtH among Robert Altman’s films isn’t really undeserved – it’s immediately recognizable (stylistically and tonally) as his, but in this case that often seems largely as a function of self-absorbed affectations, seldom revealing anything very meaningful about the situation under examination, or about anything beyond it. The setting is a resort hotel, and the national convention of a health association, focusing on a race for its presidency between two unsuitable individuals (Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson); the mix includes a White House representative (Carol Burnett) and her ex-husband (James Garner) who now works on the Bacall character’s campaign. That last detail, with its intimations of privileged connections and influences, is just part of a broad political allegory that includes various Watergate-inflected dirty tricks, a third candidate fighting hopelessly for attention, and (rather peculiarly) repeated comparisons between Jackson’s character and Adlai Stevenson. But again, this amounts to correspondences (for example, the entirely generic, or else incoherent, promises of the two candidates) and references rather than to resonant illumination or commentary, and in the end events mostly just peter out. Even Altman’s more notable movies – California Split – for instance, run the risk of being consumed by the underlying emptiness that they examine: in the case of HealtH, Altman’s interest in the edges and the backgrounds and the asides ends up looking like a reluctance to look too directly at anything at all (hucksterism and fake science don’t come under as concerted an attack as they might, for instance). But there are plenty of minor compensations, including the presence of all those name actors (albeit that they mostly seem to be moving in their own barely connecting worlds) and of Dick Cavett, very convincingly playing himself, trying in vain to squeeze some meaningful television out of all this, before settling down alone each night to watch Johnny Carson.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ma nuit chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969)

Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud is one of my favourite films, one I return to every few years, the experience at once always warmly familiar and subtly evolving. I think much of my pleasure is based in nostalgic idealism, in the idea of a culture where a conversation even with someone new is more likely to leap to philosophy and self-analysis than to the usual establishing banalities – I always think of the film as a kind of tribute to the examined life. This doesn’t mean that the examination is entirely rational or consistent – as in many Rohmer films, there’s a recurring sense that much of what people say about themselves is experimental, put out there to see how it flies, to find out what alchemy may result from the response. This resonates fascinatingly against the film’s preoccupation with a Pascalian wager, with the concept of present sacrifice for the sake of infinite ultimate gain. The limitations of that concept can be laid out almost endlessly, but without staining its metaphysical allure, or its (albeit crude) applicability to romantic commitment – a Pascalian approach to love might almost demand making the “wrong” choice of partner, for the sake of alignment with one’s normative philosophical or cultural benchmarks. The film brilliantly facilitates and interrogates such thoughts, at once providing a detailed immediate canvas (indelibly capturing its time and place, the Christmas season in provincial France) and suggesting a broader one (the protagonist has spent the last fourteen years working in Canada and Chile, a combination spanning the, how to put it, mundane and exotic?). The film ultimately draws on a coincidence of the kind that in a less elegant film would only prompt eye-rolling, but which here serves to confirm the mysteries of the romantic navigation, while also providing a closure of gorgeously conceived irony and great humanity, even as it allows its male protagonist one last opportunity for self-mythologizing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Comes a Horseman (Alan Pakula, 1978)

A viewer who nowadays seeks out Alan Pakula’s Comes a Horseman will probably already be familiar with the director’s core achievement, his 70’s “paranoia trilogy.” For much of the way, Comes a Horseman may seem like an archetypally conscious “change of pace” – a slowly-paced Western, defined by big skies and vanishing plains, with a conniving cattle baron facing off against a hard-headed up-against-it woman who refuses to give up her land, eventually joined by a like-minded cowboy. The film’s enjoyable enough in that mode, but its primary interest lies in the home stretch, as its thematic links with Pakula’s other works come into focus. It takes place toward the end of WW2, and local interests are already looking ahead to a new economic era, where the imperative of fueling and feeding the troops will yield to domestic development, and the energy that powers it will reign supreme. For all his displays of power (his man-cave of a ranch is the film’s sole imposing interior), the baron (Jason Robards) is in the pocket of the bank, and ultimately impotent to stop the exploratory drilling on his property; rather than capitulate and compromise his sense of himself, he chooses nihilistic, ultimately crazed, resistance. Although the two protagonists (Jane Fonda and James Caan, both at their most quiet and recessive) have a climactic moment of heroism, and a symbolic rebirth in flames, it’s clear they’re only participating in one atypical strand of a revolution that will transform America. Gordon Willis’ cinematography eloquently embodies the duality, painting vistas of a scale and handsomeness that demand respectful submission, while darkly insinuating the looming threat from beyond the frame. A few years later, Pakula would cast Fonda at the centre of a worldwide financial meltdown in Rollover, a film more predictively and analytically ambitious than Comes a Horseman, and yet, for all its underappreciated near-greatness, more dated as a result.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Maine Ocean (Jacques Rozier, 1986)

Jacques Rozier’s Maine Ocean often has a rowdy, expansive feel to it, with outsized characterizations and confrontations (in this sense it’s far removed from his earlier Du cote d’Orouet) – the narrative expands from an initial fracas on a train between two women (one of them an errant Brazilian samba dancer) and the fare inspectors, moving on from some of the characters but later returning to them: it feels like the movie wants to scoop up everyone it touches and to forge an all-accommodating unity. This leads to its joyous peak on the island of Yeu, off the Vendee coast, where the characters eventually dissolve their differences and devote themselves to music making and performance, a creative process we observe evolving note by note. The movie then flirts for a while with a bizarre resulting notion, that one of the fare inspectors might be discovered by an American promoter as the “next Chevalier,” before swerving dramatically and leaving him abandoned by all the others, devoting its last twenty minutes or so simply to charting his journey back to the mainland, involving several changes of boats and much agonizing about the low tide: the stuffy imposer of rules and order finds himself stripped of almost all context, literally and figuratively searching for a way back to the shore. By then we may almost have forgotten an odd digression earlier on, where the other woman, a lawyer, chooses to defend a client by launching into a disquisition on different modes of language and their social baggage, which links to how Rozier initially emphasizes the theme of miscommunication – in the end, the fragmentation reasserts itself in a different, elemental form. The film’s shifting modes of transport – from land to air to sea – reflect its remarkable, wildly unpredictable encompassing of everything from communal goofiness to last-man-in-the-world-tinged solitude.