Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941)


Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture may lack the hypnotic unity of his earlier great work with Marlene Dietrich, but it lingers no less fully (if probably more bizarrely) in one’s mind. Apart from a few presumably stock snippets of Shanghai exteriors (which one imagines Sternberg might have included only with reluctance), the film is an utter artificiality, the central meeting point of “Mother Gin Sling’s” multi-tiered casino teeming with excited extras: they receive a rare mention in the opening credits as a group “who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best,” as if encouraging us to peer more deeply than usual into the movie’s folds and crevices, an exertion which would certainly be repaid. Those opening captions establish Shanghai as the ultimate melting pot, “neither Chinese, European, British nor American,” specifying that “its destiny at present is in the lap of the gods (but) our story has nothing to do with the present.” And implicitly then, nothing to do with the gods either, but rather with human machinations at their most slippery and uncategorizable, including lead characters that all use (or have used) names other than their own, and an absurd notion of Chinese-ness (supplemented by Victor Mature’s self-described “mongrel,” “Dr. Omar”). The movie’s notional plot driver is the attempt to evict Gin Sling and appropriate the casino site for redevelopment, but events carry an escalating sense of implosion: disparate characters including Gene Tierney (absolutely smoldering) Poppy/Victoria, Walter Huston’s “Sir Guy Charteris” and Ona Munson’s indelibly styled Gin Sling ultimately revealed as sharing closely (well, absurdly) intertwined pasts, the feeling of terminal claustrophobia resonating oddly against images of young women being hoisted up in cages to be auctioned off to the crowd of men below (supposedly an event that’s being staged as part of a New Year celebration, although a character observes that the mob looks real enough).

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)


Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman may cause a viewer to reflect on the intertwined wonders and banalities of existence: on how the smallest and most repetitive elements of our life can be recurring sources of structure and stability and even of contentment and joy, while also imprisoning and belittling us. As laid out by Akerman in the film’s opening section, Jeanne’s life is geographically small and economically constrained, but not devoid of activity or stimulation; one detects that the predictability and patterning is soothing, even fascinating, but that this depends on maintaining a precise perspective which is all too easily disrupted or shattered, opening the door to profound existential crisis. But the film is dotted with sudden outbursts which speak to a desire for greater intimacy or self-revelation, such as a neighbour erupting into a monologue about her family’s eating habits, or Jeanne’s mostly wordless son oddly choosing to end the day by musing out loud on sexuality (sex is, as in many things, the source of greatest strain - fundamental, economically significant, vital and mundane and worse). These moments contribute to a slippage containing elements of both liberation and terror (perhaps I’m not the only one who thinks of HAL in 2001, given the film’s now transcendent status in the cinematic rankings). The film’s ending is of course wondrously debatable, its long closing observance of Jeanne carrying elements of despair and doom and hopelessness, both personally and as a broader representation of the toll of patriarchal society, but also of transcendence and possibility (how significant is it that we watch the terrible climactic event reflected in a mirror?). Delphine Seyrig is one of the great screen presences, unselfconsciously ordinary and submerged, but subtly enabling us to tap into the performative resonances of Jeanne’s life, elevating this smallest of films to stand among the largest.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Sweet Substitute (Larry Kent, 1964)


Much about Larry Kent’s 1964 Sweet Substitute now seems plain or cursory, but it remains memorable if only for its breathtakingly cold-hearted closing moments, giving the bland-sounding title a startling spin (the alternative title Caressed is far less apposite). To summarize, student Tom finds out that his closest female friend Kathy is pregnant (as far as we know they only had sex once, entirely impulsively, although the film is coy on such matters) and reacts despairingly: his male friends gang together to protect him, cruelly dispatching her from the movie, then in the last shot he’s with his regular date Elaine, a new engagement date prominent on her finger. It’s been well-established though that Elaine’s view of their relationship is entirely calculating, that she’s strategically withholding sex until the marriage she’s been manipulating him into, that she dumped (if indeed she fully did) her preferred mechanic boyfriend only because Tom has better financial prospects (he plans to be a high school teacher!) and she won’t need to work; the conversations between them are trivial and desultory, where those between Tom and the much more independent-minded Kathy are vibrant and multi-faceted. The film roots Tom’s astounding wrong turn in an amusingly bored depiction of car-less life in Vancouver  (at one point he and a friend rhapsodize about the cross-country trip they could take, if only), providing enjoyable time capsule glimpses of downtown (movie theaters showing A Hard Day’s Night, that kind of thing) and the beach; Tom’s academic struggles, it seems from what’s presented, are based partly in sexual frustration, and otherwise in his push to finish reading From Here to Eternity. The film seems incurious at best in its approach to some of the other female characters, and is shaky in various other respects, but this generally adds to the historical interest, with Tom’s chronic lack of constructive introspection seeming to tap a broader societal, if not national precariousness.


Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Looping the Loop (Arthur Robison, 1928)


Arthur Robison’s 1928 silent film Looping the Loop is never less than sturdy, and often captivating, rooted in a well-lived-in sense of circus life (it’s a sometimes disquietingly good source of footage of now-taboo sights such as performing bears and elephants). The film is capped by its protagonist Botto the clown, his white face and bald head and baggy clothes making an indelible visual impact, at once hilarious and poignant and somewhat unnerving, especially as his act involves a dummy that’s his exact double, and that in the film’s most nightmarish sequences appears to be the more alive of the two. Botto is consumed with the idea that a woman could never fall for a man she knew to be a clown, and therefore tells his younger love Blanche that he’s an engineer who has to work at night; despite all his efforts, she falls for a colleague of his, the acrobat Andre (Warwick Ward), enthusiastically depicted as one of the most single-minded and shameless horndogs in the history of film. The title refers to an ambitious set-piece into which Andre pulls the untrained Blanche as an assistant – one of the film’s most striking reveries (which would seem like a deliberate echo of King Kong if this movie hadn’t been there first) has a giant Botto towering over the apparatus, his fist clenching around the tiny Andre, before dropping him to the ground and crushing him underfoot. The film flags at times, but has a good feel for the limited choices available to women - Blanche’s parents all but push her into the arms of the blandly well-to-do engineer, her ultimate return to him appearing as much a fatigued strategic retreat as a heartfelt realization of where her heart lies - and a very enthusiastic performing dog, who unsurprisingly lands the closing shot.

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.