Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Parking (Jacques Demy, 1985)


Jacques Demy’s poorly-received Parking, his modern-day musical version of Orpheus (decades before the wonderful and obviously much better known Hadestown), barely rates a mention in many accounts of the director, as if pushed into its own underworld. Indeed, much about the film is dated (man oh man, those hairstyles) or jarring, and on its own terms it often seems shakily plotted and superficial; Michel Legrand’s music is too often thudding and grating in comparison to his other work for Demy (which actually might speak to the composer's skill in channeling coarser cultural norms). The film works best if taken as a more despairing and desperate expression of Demy's bittersweet, often ambiguous romanticism: despite Orpheus’ great love for his wife Eurydice, it’s suggested that he’s bisexual, and another character (albeit not one of the human ones) refers to having married her uncle (not the only instance of incest in Demy’s work); there are also references to pimping and drug use and intimations of kinky sex. The film takes an intriguingly tangible, low-tech approach to evoking the beyond, as an environment of greys and whites and splashes of red, its administrative structure evocative of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death but with a more industrially grungy vibe – the title refers to an unprepossessing parking garage that contains an entry portal (a particular spot on the wall becoming visceous and permeable, allowing the intermediary’s black Porsche to travel through). That’s just one respect in which Demy's take on the myth evokes Cocteau’s; another is the casting of Jean Marais as Hades, but for every instance in which such references are meticulous and pleasing, there’s another in which they’re rushed and cursory. Still, the film certainly channels Demy’s wondrously singular sensibility, and is utterly cherishable for all its weaknesses and peculiarities.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Ugly American (George Englund, 1963)


George Englund’s The Ugly American might have turned out to be a memorable instance of an inexperienced director biting off more than he could reasonably hope to have chewed: a complex political-charged South East Asian narrative with major logistical demands, built around Marlon Brando in one of his most waywardly uncooperative periods. Given the challenges, the result remains at least respectable, albeit limited by any amount of over-compression and simplification. Brando is MacWhite, the newly-appointed ambassador to “Sarkan” (largely shot in Thailand), his qualifications based in part on a long friendship with anti-government activist Deong: at his confirmation hearing he defends Deong against charges of being a Communist (and in turn of leading a potential military uprising) but later changes his mind and accordingly adjusts his policy positions in a pro-Government direction, before dramatic events and realizations change his perspective yet again. Brando is laconic and amused at times, steely and resolute at others; he’s inherently fascinating at every turn, while failing to make MacWhite particularly credible or comprehensible as a human being, let alone one who might plausibly be nominated as an ambassador. The character goes through whiplash-inducing changes of perspective, making up major US policy seemingly on the fly, which does of course succeed in conveying the arbitrary nature of international realpolitik, the malleability of the concepts of allies and adversaries; MacWhite’s final address pointedly underlines that the US’s choices in this regard don’t consistently reflect its founding values (and the movie’s final shot succinctly indicates that plenty of people just don’t care). The film handles the chaotic spectacle ably enough, and if nothing else is an intriguing historical reference point: for instance, MacWhite’s proposal to reroute a so-called Freedom Road through the largely unspoiled north of the country and open up “economic development” doesn’t arouse an iota of environmentally-minded objection.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Madame Freedom (Hyeong-mo Han, 1956)


Hyeong-mo Han’s ironically-titled 1956 film Madame Freedom isn’t as potently accomplished as some of the similarly-themed Japanese films of its period, but it’s an absorbing portrait of thwarted material and sexual ambition. The unfulfilled Madame Oh, married to a self-absorbed academic, mostly stuck at home with her young son, takes a job in a store selling high-end imported goods, rapidly getting drawn then into liaisons with other men and involvement in shady financial schemes, such that she’s almost never home; the husband meanwhile has his own, much more restrained quasi-flirtation with a young woman who attends a nighttime grammar class he teaches for a group of typists. The film focuses mainly on a narrow, relatively privileged echelon of Korean society, defined in part by the perceived superiority of Western products and culture (standards like Someone to Watch Over Me and Autumn Leaves dominate the soundtrack) and material striving, a reference point which allows its female characters a new-found confidence and sense of achievement, but at significant personal risk. The film gains much from the withholding quality of lead actress Jeong-rim Kim, her almost mask-like appearance contributing to a productive ambiguity: even as she blatantly flirts with and makes arrangements to meet with other men, it’s unclear how far her desire truly stretches (some of the quietly saddest moments involve the little boy, perpetually sitting alone at his little desk). The ending however leaves no doubt that if her husband, now aware of her conduct, allows her to remain in the home, it will only be as a properly dutiful and compliant mother and wife, in this context a fate at least preferable to that of some of her business associates. The film slows down along the way for several musical numbers, often again Hollywood-influenced, including a charming if drastically out of place “mambo” number.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)


Kubrick’s filming of Nabokov’s Lolita is perhaps his first great filmic maze, subsuming eroticism (or even any real engagement with transgressive sexuality) to a recurring sense of entrapment, of obstacles and traps and distances needing to be traversed: in retrospect it may feel like much of the movie consists of watching cars in motion. James Mason’s Humbert Humbert says early on that every game has its rules, referring to his initial calculation of marrying a woman he detests, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), in order to be close to her teenage daughter Lolia (Sue Lyon); they are rules though that he perpetually fails to navigate adequately, learning only near the end of the movie that the object of his obsession was always more focused on another, playwright Clare Quilty. After Charlotte’s death, Humbert sets out to establish a new life with Lolita, behind the cover of being a respectably urbane professor and single father, but his strategy, while arousing the suspicion of neighbours and observers, pales in effectiveness against Quilty’s wild iconoclasm and bizarreness, brilliantly embodied by Peter Sellers as a man operating almost outside normal time and space (the film’s opening and closing scenes, sealing the intertwined fates of Humbert and Quilty, might almost accordingly be taking place in a different dimension, as if jumping two Kubrick movies ahead). Kubrick’s sly casting underlines the ridiculousness of Humbert’s desire, Mason’s full and searching presence often hilariously contrasted with Lyon’s deadpan superficiality (as in the scene where he tries to impress her by reading from “the divine Edgar”), the effect aided by the film’s frequent sense of dislocation (arising in part from filming such a deeply American story in the UK); his ridiculousness sealed by the deliberately strenuous ordinariness of Lolita’s ultimate arrival point, pregnant and married to a decent man of only modest prospects, Mason’s Humbert crumbling like one who’s truly reached several kinds of end.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

I...for Icarus (Henri Verneuil, 1979)


The opening moments of Henri Verneuil’s I…for Icarus could hardly be more explicit about the film’s desire to tap into the facts and myths of the JFK assassination: would-be assassin Daslow (check out that anagram!) raises his rifle to take aim at the presidential motorcade below, finding that his gun cartridge is empty; the president is shot dead by an unseen other and then so is Daslow, in what’s staged as a suicide. A year or so later an investigative commission names him as the sole killer, over the dissent of a single member, Yves Montand’s Attorney General Volney, who then launches his own much more energetic inquiry. The film undermines itself with leaden writing and plotting: characters speak at rather than to each other (even the great Montand, to most viewers likely the only recognizable person in the cast, seldom surpasses the strictly functional) and the Volney inquiry proceeds so easily and quickly that it’s impossible to imagine how the original commission filled its time (even allowing that it was a put-up job), often progressing through hokey devices such as a key witness revealed as a liar because a photograph indicates he wasn’t wearing his glasses and so couldn’t have seen what he claimed to see, or a tape which for some unfathomable reason contains a helpful montage of commands issued in connection with the assassination and other misdeeds. The would-be shock ending is telegraphed so far in advance that one merely grows impatient at the film’s failure to pull the trigger (uh, so to speak) and get it done. For all of that, it’s never dull of course, well in line with latter-day conspiratorial attitudes, suggesting a “deep state” of almost limitless reach and awareness, and taking an extended detour into a psychological experiment about submission to authority which almost constitutes a self-contained film within the film.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Circle of Two (Jules Dassin, 1981)


No one emerges with credit from Jules Dassin’s last film Circle of Two, a thoroughly artificial and disengaged concoction that almost makes one wish the director had found a way to work in his wife, the reliably unwatchable but at least lively Melina Mercouri. Fifteen-year-old Sarah (Tatum O’Neal) sneaks into a porno theatre, where artist Ashley St. Clair (Richard Burton) is asleep in the row in front of her: they briefly register each other when the film ends, and then meet again in a cafĂ©, but it’s typical of the film’s superficiality that his seemingly out-of-character presence in such a location is never even casually probed. She visits him at his studio, and then again, and they rapidly gravitate to being physically affectionate while out and about together; he never makes a sexual move on her though, and indeed explodes in anger when she takes off her clothes for him (although that’s to offer herself as a subject for a painting, not a conquest). Even so, the relationship becomes all-consuming (a reedited version of the film was released under the title Obsession), with Sarah refusing to eat when her parents prevent her from seeing Ashley; it’s all psychologically and behaviourally incoherent though, with Burton at his most offputtingly stiff throughout, and O’Neal generally seeming to be reciting lines she barely comprehends. The film hints at unhealthy family dynamics (Sarah recoils from her mother trying to dress like her, and is justly surprised one morning to find that the overly controlling boyfriend she dumped has been invited over for breakfast) but even these frail points of interest come to nothing, and things ultimately end as abruptly and incomprehensibly as they began. The script’s poverty of imagination includes a dopey fixation on Gone with the Wind, cited twice as a reference point for Ashley’s name, and elsewhere in speculating on the length of the porn flick.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Love's Confusion (Slatan Dudow, 1959)


The basic plot of Love’s Confusion, the last film completed by Slatan Dudow, sounds as frothy as that of any Hollywood romcom: art student Sonja is dating medical student Dieter, who gets distracted by the less complex Siegi, whose boxer boyfriend Edy then sets his sights on Sonja, the two reconfigured couples eventually heading toward marriage despite the obvious intellectual and temperamental incompatibilities. Dudow oversees these events with a sustained lack of sentimentality or romantic exuberance; Sonja is particularly self-contained and enigmatic, seeming to regard her boyfriend’s interest in another woman as something of a social experiment (even as she acknowledges that the distraction is eroding the quality of her art). For an East German film of its period, there’s little ideological or moral content (only a few brief scenes of industrial production!): the characters seem largely self-defined (and not overly subject to economic constraints), and the film has a rather startling vein of titillation including a few bare backsides and, in an extended “carnival” sequence, intimations of widespread sexually liberated goings-on. That sequence is a modest tour de force, with Dieter wandering through areas labeled for purgatory and hell and love and so forth, among hundreds of thronging costumed extras, and a sense of burgeoning possibility which recurs throughout the movie – even in the recurring scenes of Dieter’s class attendance, the lecturers often seem less to be imparting hard knowledge than to be drifting into philosophy. This culminates in a finale when matters correct themselves on the way to the altar, not an unfamiliar genre device, but one again executed here in remarkably low-key, matter-of-fact manner. Overall, the film is hardly as radical and memorable as Dudow’s Kuhle Wampe, but then not many are; on its own terms it’s often quietly surprising, with a palpable sense of pushing against imposed standards and boundaries.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

In God We Trust (Marty Feldman, 1980)


Marty Feldman’s In God We Trust has no shortage of ideas, albeit that the commercialized, grotesquely monetized brand of modern religion makes them easy to come across: unfortunately, Feldman isn’t much of a stylist, and struggles to wrestle the material into any kind of shape. He’s a rather diffident leading man also, playing Brother Ambrose, venturing into an unfamiliar and mostly sleazy world in search of money to save the remote monastery in which he grew up: the film’s humour runs from Ambrose heading for refuge to a place advertising “All Night Mass” and having to go running when realizing that the signage’s last three letters had been temporarily covered up, to his constant resort to cold showers to dampen carnal urges toward the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who takes him in, to a temporary job nailing plastic Jesus figurines onto miniature crosses. The film lacks any sense of real engagement or relish, but it does luck its way into seeming mildly prophetic via Andy Kaufman’s televangelist character Armageddon T. Thunderbird, who preaches self-righteously absurd sermons (God is in the E.R. and you’re the ones that put him there) to an adoring and pliable crowd, easily whipped up into giving something eerily close to a Nazi salute, working every angle for his own financial advantage and planning to unveil a third political party which will carry him to supreme power – more than a few pre-echoes there of our own false prophet, including the hair (although from the neck down the styling is more evocative of Liberace). With more subtlety, Feldman’s film might also have seemed to carry a warning about submission to technology, given that the closest thing to an active God in the film is a sentient but misinformed supercomputer (bearing the likeness of Richard Pryor), all too easily here reprogrammed onto the path of righteousness.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)


2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s unquenchable glories, a film of electrically vivid presences, suffused with a sense of absence and longing. Filmed in 1966, it finds the world bewildering, all but submerged in consumerism and its attendant messages and forced choices; between the surfeit of surrounding signs and meanings and a hellish global outlook (most prominently represented by Vietnam, frequently referenced here), it’s barely possible just to live in and experience the world, as one compulsively questions the most basic elements of identity, language and experience. And yet, compared to our own mostly drab world of blacks and greys, the environment is gloriously colourful and stimulating; even a mundane shot of a gas station ravishes the eye with the perfection of the composition, the reinforcing blocks and splashes of red linking the flowers in the foreground to a car standing at a pump to the trims on the fixtures. Similarly, as Godard’s voice over muses over the acceleration of science and progress, commenting how the future may now be more present than the present, the vivid observance of something as mundane as coffee swirling in a cup tells us otherwise, that the present for all its travails remains inexhaustibly fascinating and seductive. The film’s most identifiable plotline has its housewife protagonist (Marina Vlady) working as a prostitute, another expression of economic pressure, but on this occasion played mostly for absurdity, including an episode in which an American war correspondent (for the Arkansas Daily!), taking a Parisian break from Vietnam, has Vlady’s character and a colleague parade around with airline bags over their heads, the image both gleefully absurd and yet rather poignantly sad (not least because both the airlines in question, Pan Am and TWA, are now long gone, like much else of the film’s vivid consumerist reference points).

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Possession of Joel Delaney (Waris Hussein, 1972)


The basic premise of Waris Hussein’s The Possession of Joel Delaney – a sadistic killer’s spirit occupying another man’s body – seems pretty old-hat now, but the film is unexpectedly distinctive in a variety of ways. Well-to-do Manhattan divorcee Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine in an intriguingly uncharacteristic role) struggles to deal with her younger brother Joel Delaney’s erratic behaviour, from randomly attacking a man in his building and subsequently remembering nothing of it, to weird outbursts of childlike exuberance; she discovers that Joel’s now-dead closest friend was a serial killer, the dead man’s mother claiming that her son's malign spirit now occupies Joel’s body (the theme of unstable psychic boundaries extends to initially teasing us to read Norah and Joel as lovers rather than siblings, with several subsequent intimations of excessive closeness). The film’s depiction of an attempted exorcism is quite unnerving in its sheer assault on the senses, although that’s in part at the questionable cost of depicting New York’s Puerto Rican community as entirely and scarily other, an impression bolstered by subsequent scenes in which Norah finds the unfamiliar streets of Spanish Harlem too much to bear, all but throwing money at an off-duty cab driver to get her out of there. On the other hand, the initial portrayal of her entitled life (for example, lounging in bed as she deluges her put-upon housekeeper with instructions and demands) suggests an under-examined decadence complacently making itself vulnerable to malign infiltration. The film’s ending – while showing some signs of truncation, with Michael Hordern’s prominently billed analyst character amounting to nothing, and a few key events taking place off-screen – is again more raw and transgressive and palpably threatening than one might have anticipated; the final twist isn’t so shocking in genre terms, but certainly gains something from, well, from being built around Shirley MacLaine.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

L'amour a mort (Alain Resnais, 1984)


Alain Resnais’ L’amour a mort is a uniquely unsettling film, stark and stripped down and unerringly focused, seeming by its nature to demand a deeply personal response but forging a rigorous cinematic space that precludes any easy identification or sentimentality. The film starts in the midst of trauma as Simon (Pierre Arditi) suffers an attack and is pronounced dead by the doctor; he comes back to life though, the whole event initially seeming like an amusing embarrassment, and one sparking a sense of liberation as Simon feels free to cut ties with people he doesn’t like and to plan trips around the world. But he becomes increasingly preoccupied with the idea that he did actually die, studying the Bible and talking about how he glimpsed the afterlife, and then he’s gone, with his partner Elisabeth (Sabine Azema) immediately becoming obsessed by thoughts of joining him. The couple’s best friends are married clerics, allowing a certain amount of theological debate, and the film’s closing words assert a belief in resurrection, but the prevailing sense is of a love and accompanying rationalization that lacks any ready explanation or reference points. Resnais closes off all easy points of explication: Simon and Elisabeth have been together for only a few weeks, undercutting any sense of a long-established love; one of the married friends reveals to Elisabeth that she and Simon had an affair years earlier and even entered into an unsuccessful suicide pact (the film daringly suggests that suicide might not be antithetical to religious belief, but rather central to it); despite the film’s preoccupation with endings, Elisabeth works as a biologist developing new plant species and Simon is an archaeologist, both in their different way focusing on origins (which, however, are also inherently forms of closure). Resnais punctuates the film’s mysteries with shots of swirling snow against a black background, or similar evocations of an unknown elsewhere, as if the film itself were aspiring to transcend conventional form and existence, to merge with the unknown.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Passion of Remembrance (Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, 1986)


Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien’s The Passion of Remembrance is a film of sharp contrasts: between documentary and fiction, celebration and criticism, hope and despair, traditionalism and progressivism, heteronormativity and queerness, between submitting to chance and fatalism and aspiring to control, all fascinatingly, often thrillingly interwoven.  The film’s title speaks to the commemoration of the struggle for social and racial justice, and it’s particularly concerned with how the telling of that history, however passionate, has been a predominantly male function, dominated by easily assimilated “iconic” images such as the American athletes giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics (a clip included here). It’s particularly biting on under-examined male attitudes toward homosexuality, with the mother and sister defending a gay friend against complacent barbs, and (in one of its most straightforward dramatizations) depicting a couple of policemen going easy on a group of violence-minded youths. At the same time, the film takes time to assert the joyfulness of family and friendship, even in such minor rituals as collectively watching and squabbling over a TV gameshow; it has extended sequences of stirring music and uninhibited dancing (there’s an occasional music-video-like playfulness in its approach to the documentary montages also). And further, Blackwood and Julien’s framing device, with a man and woman conversing and arguing in a desolate landscape (seemingly a representation of a parched history which undervalues the contributions of women to activism and discourse), has the quality of myth, of post-apocalyptic science fiction in which, after all else has been stripped away, the core issues of social and gender equity may be all that remain. The film can feel somewhat stilted and overly formal at times, but the lack of polish feeds the broader sense of direct engagement and authenticity, of a film urgently concerned with immediate needs and crises.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973)


Claude Faraldo’s Themroc is likely to strike you more as a connected series of assorted provocations than as a meaningfully sustained vision, with an occasional sense of throwing stuff out to see how much sticks: happily, it works better than might have been expected. Broadly summarized, the film follows a blue-collar painter (Michel Piccoli) who one day snaps and starts trashing his apartment, inspiring a few others in adjacent buildings to follow suit, with the authorities largely powerless to intervene; he also has sex with his sister, among others, perhaps engages in cannibalism, and in general arrives at, at least for the short term, an alternative, seemingly satisfying mode of living. The film is set in a version of then present-day France, providing ample footage of drab-looking, bottled-up people stuck in dull and repetitive lives, much that could be either documentary or a Candid Camera-style bending of it, but strangified by the absence of any intelligible dialogue: on the few occasions that people speak at all, they do so in grunts or shrieks or streams of gobbledygook. The casting of Piccoli with his impeccable art-film resonance certainly adds to the intrigue of the film’s implied puzzle, especially when supplemented with that of Beatrice Romand (from Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee!) as the almost perpetually half-naked sister: the two ensure that there’s a strange delicacy at the heart of the chaos. It finds its final flourish in the film’s sweetest sequence, in which they gently seduce a bricklayer (Patrick Dewaere) who’s working on repairing a wall, luring him into joining them in kicking down his own handiwork and in the subsequent sexual ecstasy. Ultimately, the film doesn’t have too much to offer as analysis or diagnosis or social prescription, but the weirdly deliberate specificity of the whole thing easily keeps boredom at bay.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Shy People (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1987)


Andrei Konchalovsky’s Shy People is a lumpy concoction, not really satisfying in any respect at all, but generally strange or eventful enough to maintain one’s interest. Diana (a not very effective Jill Clayburgh), a New York-based writer for Cosmopolitan, travels to the Louisiana bayous to seek out some distant relatives, thinking she can get an article of it, with her teenage daughter Grace (Martha Plimpton) tagging along. The family lives up-river, way away from it all (at times evoking a scuzzier version of the French plantation in the extended version of Apocalypse Now) under the stiflingly tight control of matriarch Ruth (Barbara Hershey), who for example keeps one of her kids locked up like an animal; Diana’s arrival coincides with an increase in tensions between the family and local poachers, with events at times approaching Deliverance-level feral, at others edge-of-horror grotesquerie. For all that, it often seems that the movie’s main point is simply to wallow in the contrast between the two women, big hair and clunky jewelry versus never-seen-a-comb and rotting teeth, but the closing stretch seems to be hinting at a form of spiritual exchange or transmigration, with Diana drawing her errant child closer even as Ruth loosens her grasp over her brood; adding to the sense of the quasi-supernatural, Ruth’s husband, who she treats as merely missing even while all the evidence suggests he's long-dead, makes an at least symbolic return, in mysteriously transplanted form. But the co-crediting of the screenplay to Roman Polanski’s frequent collaborator Gerard Brach perhaps leads one to detect something more darkly twisted than Konchalovsky actually delivers, and the closing citation of Revelations (because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth) is more likely to prompt eye-rolling than sage nodding. The film’s more striking moments include the sight of a group of locals sitting at the dock gathered around a battery-operated TV, mesmerized by, of all people, Liberace.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Girl on the Train (Andre Techine, 2009)


Yet another underrated film by the almost brutally undervalued Andre Techine, La fille du RER has been typically summed up in sensationalistic terms: a young woman, Jeanne, falsely claims she was attacked on a train by an anti-Semitic gang, causing a brief national sensation. The opening titles with their marching-to-battle vibe seem to lay the groundwork for something correspondingly confrontational, but from then on, Techine in typical fashion confounds expectations, sowing much mystery as to the film’s basic nature and purpose. Among other things, the incident in question doesn’t even arise until the film’s second half, and hardly seems rooted in what came before it; almost or literally no one who knows Jeanne believes her story and it fairly rapidly falls apart; and Jeanne isn’t even Jewish. Her ex-boyfriend brands her as a compulsive liar, but really only has one example to support that; he blames her for his taking a shady job that lands him in jail, but the film shows how he aggressively pursues her into being with him, her role in the relationship a relatively passive one, almost a blank canvas on which men might project their desires; at the end of the film she’s become a fantasy love object for a much younger boy, a teenager. Despite the title, the defining recurring image isn’t of Jeanne on the train but rather on roller blades, defined by pure movement, shimmering with undefined possibility; it resonates against Techine’s fascination with the mysteries of relationships, ranging here from unrealized hints of a romance between Jeanne’s mother (Catherine Deneuve) and an old beau who’s now a prominent lawyer, to the lawyer’s son and his estranged wife, veering within seconds from hostility to passionate reconciliation. The film carries an additional charge in the wake of the 2023 Hamas attacks and the subsequent spike in protest and debate, particularly in its implied caution against under-analyzed position-taking and tribalism.