Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)


One can’t think of nothing, states the maxim at the start of Eric Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife, and the movie encourages one to view the assertion with some regret, to muse that if one could transcend one’s daily clutter of interactions and obligations and desires, and all the stresses and anxieties that accompany them, one might attain something fuller and purer, in which thinking of nothing would constitute the ultimate fulfilment. As it is though (and in contrast to a pivotal earlier work like My Night at Maud’s) the characters in The Aviator’s Wife never approach such thoughts, being consumed entirely by that daily bric-a-brac, by the false narratives built upon it and their vast consumption of time and internal space (the title artfully sums up this state, referring to a person who’s not in the film and whom a couple of key characters fail to correctly identify). Almost as hard as thinking of nothing, perhaps, is looking while seeing nothing, and the film is driven by several incidents of one character observing another (a young man seeing his sort-of-girlfriend emerge from her building after apparently spending the night with her supposed ex, then later observing that same man with another woman) and then becoming wrapped up the implications of what was witnessed – this can be a liberation of sorts, as illustrated by the film’s lightest section, an extended interaction in the park between two people who’ve just met, but (as the film also illustrates in its final moments) not likely a lasting one. As always in Rohmer’s films, the film is marked by great emotional delicacy and versatility, the tone and dynamic of conversations often turning on a dime: there’s an aspirational quality to it, in how even the frustrations and disappointments are more eloquently embodied, and by more beautiful people, than normal life generally allows, but never to an extent that constitutes mere fantasy or denial of possibility.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Adoption (Marta Meszaros, 1975)


Marta Meszaros’ Adoption is a tale of improbably connecting female lives, distinguished from splashier instances of that structure (take Desperately Seeking Susan) by its intense attention to the intersection of society and biology, and by its ambiguous arrival points. Kata, a factory worker in her early 40’s, wants to have a baby, but her married lover doesn’t want to help, despite her intention to bring up the child alone. She meets a teenager, Anna, from the local “boarding school” (which in mid-70’s Hungary seems to carry major elements of a state prison), lending Anna a room in her house to get-together with her boyfriend Sanyi – viewed from different angles, Kata’s relationship to Anna may appear like that of a hard-edged mother, an obliging sister, or even a giggling lover, even while the real-world possibilities for change and growth remain limited. Ultimately Kata is instrumental in allowing Anna to realize her dream of marrying Sanyi, but under terms which amount to a bill of sale, and our last view of Anna is far from optimistic; the relationship allows Kata to see past her own ticking clock and to embrace adoption, but here too the process carries mercantilist elements, and the final shot emphasizes her isolation and dependence. That may make the film sound like a study of weakness, but on the contrary, both women are marked by their strength and spirit; they’re in a time and place though that imposes severe parameters on how far those qualities can take you. It’s telling then that when Kata meets her lover’s wife for the first time and provides an invented version of herself, it’s an account (husband, two kids) that sounds much like the other woman’s clearly unfulfilled life – even fantasy here tends to reinforce and diminish, rather than to facilitate even momentary escape.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)


Death Watch is one of the stranger entries in Bertrand Tavernier’s somewhat underappreciated oeuvre – a work of speculative fiction set in a world where death has been all but removed from public view, inflation and poverty are running riot, and various population controls are in place, but which looks and feels just like then-present day Glasgow. Romy Schneider plays Katherine, a woman dying of an unidentified disease, a rare enough event that a TV producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) seeks to build a nightly show around her (the film is prescient about the pending ascendancy of the intrusive reality genre, although the show depicted here is more dour than anything likely to occupy network prime time); to facilitate the production, his cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has a camera embedded in his eyes, which will render him blind if he’s ever exposed to darkness for more than a few minutes. The film is hard to place, dispensing much of its information just in passing, although there are some extended depictions of marginal people living in makeshift camps or sleeping in charitable shelters: the main focus is on the growing relationship between Katharine and Roddy as she flees from attention, not realizing that her traveling companion is broadcasting her suffering to the world, a moral transgression for which he eventually pays a predictable but still strikingly depicted price. The final stretch reflects on the allure of withdrawal, of immersion into culture and into the past, providing Katherine a small moral victory over the cynical Vincent that nevertheless seems unlikely to have a lasting impact. It’s hardly a satisfying arrival point in conventional narrative terms, but in its mixture of absence and displacement and blindness and hopelessness, supports the film’s central self-reflective ambiguity - that of whether we’re primarily watching Katherine’s death, or our own.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Deadly Sweet (Tinto Brass, 1967)


The most obvious reference point for Tinto Brass’ Deadly Sweet (or I Am What I Am) is Antonioni’s Blow-Up, made a year earlier (the poster is visible in one scene) – it’s another mysterious odyssey through “swinging London,” prominently featuring another fashion photographer, and with a heavy emphasis on style. Brass might be able to match Antonioni for incidental documentary interest – there’s a sense that he or his cohorts went out and amassed a large stockpile of random documentary footage (people reacting in the street or on public transport, old women looking out of windows and so forth) and then cut it in here and there to evoke incident and authenticity. Otherwise though, this is a scattershot exercise by comparison, replacing Antonioni’s spatial precision with a rapacious appetite for stimulation and diversion – the film alternates between black and white, breaks into split screens, flashes compulsively on items such as Underground signs or light bulbs, and drenches almost every available wall in movie posters or pop art prints; the staging of chases and fights and other action is notably imprecise and unconvincing. But the greatest lag on the movie is the plot – a wan and unproductively confusing affair that kicks off when Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant) discovers a nightclub owner murdered in his office, along with Jane (Ewa Aulin) who claims she doesn’t do it: pursued by various heavies, the two take off to solve the mystery, while occasionally pausing to indulge their erotic attraction. But the two never register as more than stock figures in a dubbed landscape, the Godardian device of having Trintignant spout quotes from the likes of Mao or (yes) Antonioni counting for absolutely nothing. Still, it has a kind of “let’s make a movie” glee that you seldom see now – a sense of the city and the culture as resources to be pilfered as one chooses, of a joy in movement and titillation and connection.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

La bande des quatres (Jacques Rivette, 1989)


La bande des quatres is a pure Rivettian pleasure, encompassing many of his recurring elements: the theatre as a space of intertwined challenge and refuge; an old house laden with mysteries; a sense of conspiracy and threat lurking at the edges of the film, but also an often playful sensibility. The four are all young women, sharing the house while attending the same theatre group, their lives tightly intertwined – at times there’s a sense of life and vocation in perfect equilibrium, but of course it’s unstable, threatened most explicitly by the shady connections of a fellow student and previous occupant of the house, but also by their essential immaturity and desire to retreat (one of the women came to France to escape an arranged marriage in her home country; another has a boyfriend she almost never sees, and so on). Both spaces are ultimately severely disrupted – their acting teacher gets dragged into the mess and taken away by the police, and their home space is essentially invaded and violated – leaving them to fend for themselves; the last scene, where they attempt to forge ahead, is both vulnerable and ominous. But the heart of the film is the rehearsal process, taking up a large portion of the running time, with viewing and participating carrying equal weight, sinking deep into the mysterious fulfilment of creation and interpretation, of melding the personal and the projected. There’s a sense of theatre and acting as a genuine source of empathetic unity, as the best protection against disturbance and breakdown (for example it’s revealed very late on, almost in passing, that one of the women goes by the name of a sister who went missing) – a breakdown which might even extend to the film’s own boundaries (one character talks about an artist called Frenhofer and a long-missing painting called La Belle Noiseuse, in effect creating a portal to Rivette’s next film). As with all his films, it’s a graceful, inexhaustible, fulfilling delight.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Black Jesus (Valerio Zurlini, 1968)


The original Italian title of Valerio Zurlini’s dramatization of the death of Lalubi, a charismatic anti-colonial rebel leader, translates as “Seated to his right,” a title that somewhat subtly evokes the religious charge that runs through the film, while also pointing to the film’s major misstep, that for all its strong desire to positively and respectfully portray Lalubi, it tends to diminish him through misdirection and misemphasis. To enumerate, there’s the casting of Woody Strode (who embodies the role in an effective, beatific manner, but at no time seems to belong to the culture being portrayed); the significant over-reliance on white perspectives (in particular those of the Dutch commander who agonizes in Pilate-style about his role in delivering Lalubi to his fate, and a fellow cellmate who trades his secret stash of pornographic photos to a guard to obtain some oil to apply to Lalubi’s wounds); and the fact that the religious analogy, no matter how occasionally effective on its own terms, blurs local political realities rather than clarifying our understanding of them. Still, Zurlini does invest the film with a potent, spare, power. His most effective device may come at the very end, following the film’s enactment of Lalubi’s “crucifixion,” evoking his resurrection through a little boy, clad all in white, who stands bearing silent witness, and in the end escapes from the soldier’s guns into the distance, embodying a distinctness and freedom capable of surviving the machinations of colonial occupiers and their cynical collaborators. The film is best known as Black Jesus, and an American release poster featured the tagline “He who ain’t with me – is against me,” suggesting a (perhaps not unreasonable) wish for a far more confrontational film than Zurlini actually delivered (the alternative release title “Super Brother” further pushed that angle). Still, the film’s limitations are interesting enough in their own right, in embodying the difficulty of exposing colonial injustice from the outside (the film’s missteps are far less egregious than those of Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, to take a better-known example).

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Perfect (James Bridges, 1985)


James Bridges’ 1985 film Perfect has some weighty ambitions: to explore confused journalistic ethics by contrasting a reporter’s principled behaviour in one weighty situation (involving a high-profile businessman under indictment) with his carelessness on another story (a lifestyle piece about California health clubs) that’s objectively less important, but in which lives and reputations might nevertheless be damaged; at the same time, the film is in part itself an investigation of that health club milieu, seemingly fascinated by its embodiment of how the casual sexuality of the 60’s and 70’s is becoming a mechanized commodity, summed up by so many shots of hot young bodies all moving in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, the film undermines its journalistic strand through endless over-simplification, and while the health club strand could have been anthropologically interesting, Bridges doesn’t maintain any critical distance from the period’s drab musical and aesthetic norms (put another way, the movie too often seems like a wildly extended video for Olivia Newton-John’s Physical). The reporter in question, Adam (John Travolta), works for Rolling Stone, here prominently playing itself (the cooperation provided to the movie seems a little surprising now, given how badly the magazine comes off in some respects, but perhaps that testifies to its sense of impregnability at the time) and in a way the film serves itself best simply by the relative amount of time it devotes to staring at words on Adam’s computer screen – it takes the craft seriously enough to immerse us in what seem like real extracts from real Rolling Stone articles, even if the movie around them scarcely conveys where they could possibly have come from. However, it does less well by its main female character, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, her initial strong physical presence and emphasized sexual self-determination ultimately devolving into an almost wordless ornamentation, admiringly waiting for her man.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986)


Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties is a committed deliverance of classic musical-genre pleasures: an appealingly artificial setting (in this case an indoor shopping mall) within which multiple intertwining romance narratives play out, never more than ten minutes or so from the next immediately alluring yet hardly posterity-embracing song. Akerman inhabits and appropriates the form so fully that one might almost overlook how insecurity and fracture infiltrates the movie. That’s partly political and sociological in nature, with numerous references to property taxes and exchange rates and general economic uncertainty; emphasizing the existential unpredictability, the mall is at times desolately empty, and at others so packed that characters can’t stand and talk without being helplessly carried away from each other. Something similar goes for the relationships that drive the plot: they’re all either compromised or doomed, and the film contains various moments of unusual emotional directness and rawness (interestingly, its superficially “toughest” character, a money man with rumoured mob connections, is shown as its most brittle). In the end, two separated characters are reunited, but the ultimate focus is elsewhere, moving into the open air for the first time, observing exclusion and regret rather than fulfilment (in which the movie suggests little lasting confidence) and ending on an expression of inevitability, that love and connection will go on as surely as commerce - and perhaps, it’s implied, with as little inherent joy (another main character pines for her lover who writes to her from Canada, but by the end is no longer sure whether she even wants him to come back). The film’s least compromised pleasure is found in groups – four guys who are perpetually together, commenting on the action in the manner of an updated barbershop quartet; the troop of young women at the hair salon, barely observed as individuals but filling the screen in joyfully coordinated manner when joined together in performance…perhaps this is the film’s most subtle comment on the not-so-golden ideology of its era.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992)


Gregg Araki’s The Living End announces itself as an “irresponsible film,” and it’s certainly a defiant one, insisting that being given a “death sentence” diagnosis needn’t preclude living in the meantime, without limits, without apology, without even more than grudging adherence to law and convention. Luke lives on the edge of danger, a state that seems to ramp up after he’s diagnosed as HIV-positive, through some combination of his own nihilism and perhaps of the world attuning itself to him; while running from a confrontation he meets Jon, a more inward-looking, quasi-domesticated writer, also HIV-positive. The two get together, break apart, then get together again after Luke’s latest plunge over the edge, getting into a car and just driving, with steadily decreasing sense of purpose. The movie’s fault line is that they’re never entirely equal partners in the project, that Luke’s pushing of Jon, in large part liberating and freeing, ultimately becomes a different form of oppression and terror, albeit one that we, like Jon in the final moments, can understand as being based in fear, and that may point forward toward an alternative kind of coherence, a liberating new dawn. The movie is indelibly of its specific time and place, but like so many others takes on a different subtext when viewed in the time of Covid (to which the reference in the closing credits to the Republicans in the White House provides at least one glum connection) – an amazing moment when Luke cuts himself and studies his own blood, musing in twisted wonderment on how it can look so normal and yet be so deadly, might need only a small leap to become ideologically-driven denial. The Living End though is a movie free of masks and imposed distancing, vividly insisting on the glory of connection, of bodily contours, of kinetic interaction, all the more desperately glorious for being informed by truth.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)


The Conformist belongs to the period when Bernardo Bertolucci almost seemed to derive from cinema itself, his films made up of one indelible scene after another, and yet feeling entirely unified, their structures and textures intuitively complex. A typical synopis of the film, as prompted by the title, emphasizes the protagonist Clerici’s project of attaining his concept of normality, embodied here by his marriage to a mundane woman and by his willing participation in the activities of the ascendant Fascist party, but while that’s not exactly inaccurate, it’s hardly true to the visceral experience of watching the film. On the contrary, the film teems with moments in which Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Clerici asserts and differentiates himself, whether physically (such as his exaggerated posing with a gun he’s just been handled) or behaviourally (his immediate aggressive attraction to the character played by Dominique Sanda): the memory that overshadows his life, of having killed a predatory chauffeur as a young boy, appears as much a source of perverse transgressive pride as a source of guilt. This perhaps well-equips him to participate in the performative aspects of Fascism, but not to be as effectively a cold-blooded executor of orders; near the end we see him damned as a coward, as repulsive to the Fascist order as their more usual victims. Bertolucci observes this progress through a dazzling series of compositions and incidents, both sweeping and intimate, creating a sense of a heightened, fragmented state that mysteriously channels that of Clerici. In the end, the fall of Fascism and rise of a new social order coincides with his discovery that his origin story was wrong all along, and he loses his bearings, becoming stridently accusatory before sinking into a final ambiguous silence. The grotesque theatre that enabled him, it seems, has come to a close; it’s just one of the film’s satiating ironies that the new world, however more worthy and just, may lack the dangerous, amoral panache of the old one.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Witch who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber, 1976)


Matt Cimber’s The Witch who Came from the Sea has the feeling of an elusively personal testament, both by the director and its lead actress Millie Perkins, and of a fragmented investigation into masculinity – the film has its lumpy aspects, while delivering some effective horror-genre body-violation shocks, but also succeeds in elevating the protagonist’s underlying trauma into more than just a hollow motivation for plot mechanics. The film starts with Perkins’ Molly and her two nephews on a largely deserted beach, revisiting an old, disputed family myth of her seafaring father who (perhaps) went lost at sea – she notices some muscle-bound guys exercising nearby, and the film follows her into erotic reverie, hungrily lapping up their physicality. Not long after that, in a sequence placed as fantasy but immediately seeming too behaviorally specific and physically vivid to be only that, she’s with the two guys in a bondage-heavy threesome that soon turns nasty (it’s intriguing how matter-of-factly the camera observes her own partial nudity compared with that of the men), and from there the film navigates between other fraught, can-come-to-no-good encounters with other predatory men, her genuine (almost desperate-seeming) love for her nephews, and an eccentric but seemingly well-balanced live-in relationship with her older employer. The film’s title is metaphoric – Molly isn’t conceived as a supernatural being – but it’s true to the protagonist’s disturbing lack of naturalism: Perkins cleverly moves through a range of different registers - seductiveness, anger, affection – while suggesting they’re all guises of sorts, based in destabilizing past experiences, and Cimber accordingly keeps the viewer nicely off balance regarding the reliability or sequencing of what we’re witnessing. Some aspects – such as the seafaring mythology and Molly’s preoccupation with men seen on television – count for less than may have been intended, and the film is hardly polished, but the rather plaintive ending pulls together its intriguing dynamics, allowing Molly a tenderly forgiving final note, facilitated by the transgressive behaviour of those closest to her.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Noroit (Jacques Rivette, 1976)


In Jacques Rivette’s original conception, Noroit would have been one of a four-film series of linked Scenes de la vie parallele. In the event, only two of the films were made (Duelle was the other) and the film is most likely to be viewed now in the shadow of Rivette’s towering achievement of a few years earlier, Celine and Julie Go Boating. Noroit shares many characteristics of that film – a focus on two women, a situation that clearly can’t be taken “realistically,” unexplained incursions of pure fantasy, to name just a few. But it’s also explicitly an “adventure film,” one of Rivette’s most physical works, with much gunplay and fighting (although of an abstract, stylized variety), scenes of heavy lifting, and Bernadette Lafont strutting around in some outrageous costumes, and unlike Celine and Julie, the two central women here are adversaries, with Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) working as a bodyguard for pirate queen Giulia (Lafont) while plotting to kill her for revenge. If the film often feels like heavier going than Celine and Julie, that might be seen in part as an appropriate reflection of the subject matter and the stakes (it also reflects the explicit citations of a 17th century text, The Revengers’ Tragedy, giving the film a foothold in classically disciplined theatricality). But it does mean that it becomes most satisfying in its final stretch, as it takes on the sense of trying to escape its bonds – dialogue yields to dance, the image flashes to black and white or to red as if the cinematic apparatus itself were becoming unstable, and one character demonstrates both previously unsuspected magical powers and the capacity to replicate herself. It’s hard to imagine that Noroit is anyone’s favourite Rivette film, but it’s as absorbingly singular as any of them, in no way denying the validity of traditional pleasures, but incapable of presenting them passively or unquestioningly (even something as usually inherently “backgrounded” as soundtrack music is elevated here, several scenes showing us that the musicians are right there with the actors).

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)


In the opening scene of Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire, a woman walking alone at night is assaulted by a man who rushes her from behind - within seconds, he’s dead, and (with the notion of gender power shifts thus already established) the woman, Diane, walks on to an engagement at an art gallery where she’s rapidly flirting with a married man, Lee, under the nose of his immediately hostile wife Susan. Diane invites the couple to her house in the desert, clearly with seduction somewhere in mind, but once they’re there the dynamics gradually shift, summed up in a central scene where Diane and Lee make love in the living room, while Diane locks eyes with Susan watching from the stairs. Diane, evidently, is the vampire of the title, equipped with the bottomless resources that facilitate eternal life (big house, faithful servant attuned to her needs) but also a sense of fragile neediness which rapidly unravels over the few days of the film’s narrative – her final pursuit of Susan is as much desperate as it is malevolent. Despite one’s enthusiasm for the film’s underlying ideology and concepts (their scope enhanced by several symbolic dream sequences), it’s hard not to regret the often flat dialogue and acting and staging, or the way that key scenes seem unnecessarily rushed: not least the ending, when Susan spontaneously enlists a group of passers-by to join her in crushing Diane’s life force. Of course, this may only be to say that the film works within commercial and genre constraints - its more artless aspects can be defended besides as a way of deliberately limiting our unthinking capitulation to such fanciful mechanics, of holding the spectator at a degree of analytical distance. Likewise, while it’s superficially very much a product of its time, with a general laid-back early 70’s vibe, it’s one that always feels precarious, and rife for fragmentation and reinterpretation.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nobody's Children (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1952)

At least as illustrated through his most readily available films, Raffaello Matarazzo’s work appears strangely obsessive, with a feeling of perpetually readjusting and reexamining a set of recurring elements, as if in search of something canonical. To expand, within the few years from 1949 to 1952, he made four films with Yvonne Sanson and Amedeo Nazzari, all of which cast them as lovers separated by cruel misunderstandings, aided by the machinations of others (in two cases, essentially the same primary other, a self-interested countess played by Francoise Rosay); in two cases there’s a child that one or both of them doesn’t know is alive (also played by the same actor), and so on. The films are all seeped in tragic, all-consuming suffering, often manipulated by the inherent power of the wealthy and connected, albeit that the rich schemers ultimately fail to find inner peace; but they also reach for grand turnarounds and redemptions. The films aren’t too stylistically striking, but they are in their way inspired, and even inspiring. Nobody’s Children highlights something that’s also present, but less prominently so, in the other Sanson/Nazzari films of that period, the exploitation of the worker, depicted here as marooned within a back-breaking, manifestly unsafe and underpaid mining environment, with heavy use of child labour. Nazzari plays the owner (in He Who is Without Sin he was just one of the labourers), whose reformist ways are undermined by his controlling mother and the vicious mine overseer; when he falls in love with the daughter of one of the workers, the two plot to separate them, with far-reaching effects. The ending fuses joy and calamitous loss in explicitly religious manner, while leaving an unusual volume of unresolved matters; Matarazzo would pick up the characters a few years later in astounding manner in The White Angel, casting Sanson as a lookalike over whom Nazzari obsesses in Vertigo-like manner (and that’s only getting started).

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus & D. A. Pennebaker, 1979)


In some ways, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s fascinating record of a 1971 debate on woman’s liberation issues, Town Bloody Hall, is a museum piece from a more pugnacious, unfiltered age, overflowing with larger than life public intellectuals, with not an apparent thought given to the all-whiteness of the proceedings. Perhaps it’s a bit depressing then that much of it still seems so relevant, or maybe it’s to be strangely celebrated that we’ve yet to reach the state of stifling boredom that Norman Mailer (the evening’s moderator!) predicts would attach to a fully-achieved feminist agenda. That agenda is set out early in the movie by the National Organization for Women’s Jacqueline Ceballos: it’s sobering that many of her points – equal pay, paid maternity leave – seem both as sensible and as incompletely unachieved now as they did then. But the debate (at least as the movie presents it, editing down a three and half hour event to less than half that time) spends little further time on such matters, mostly wrestling with more primal matters of self-definition and connection. And it’s Mailer who provides some of the more direct points of lasting connection: for instance, his remark about the potential violence done to a man who suppresses his desire to hit a woman doesn’t sit too well on its own terms, and yet feels now like a harbinger of the cultural backlash so often evoked in explaining the appeal of Trump to white men, and to the white women who define themselves in relation to them. That’s just one example of how one watches the film with a sense of steps taken and others back – to pick some random examples, it’s unlikely that someone like Diana Trilling would ever be introduced now as a “lady critic,” but then there’s barely any mainstream space now for the breed of critic/thinker/theorist on show here, whatever their gender.