Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Tale of Springtime (Eric Rohmer, 1990)

 

Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime may bring to mind the maxim driving his earlier Full Moon In Paris –“He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind.” Jeanne, a young philosophy teacher, can’t stay in her own place because she lent it to a cousin, and doesn’t want to sleep at her messy boyfriend’s place while he’s away, so she accepts a sleepover invitation from Natasha, a music student she meets at a party, and then remains for a week, getting drawn into the complications between Natasha and her father and his younger girlfriend Eve, whom Natasha detests, suspecting her in particular of stealing a family heirloom necklace. Despite the promise of the title, the film is among the more withholding of Rohmer’s late works, partly reflecting the relative severity of its protagonist – when philosophy is discussed here, it’s as much for display as anything else, with Eve flaunting how her knowledge is greater than Natasha’s. The film develops a sense of escalating pressure – the larger the canvas of possibility that Natasha presents for Jeanne (including the notion that Jeanne might replace Eve as her father’s partner), the more restricting it starts to seem; release only arrives through a freak event that absolves everyone of guilt, emphasizing the prominence of chance and caprice in our lives, and the traps inherent in human intellect and perception. Still, when in the end the film realizes its title by having Jeanne return to familiar territory, replacing a vase of withered old flowers with some bright new ones, it’s a less satisfactory arrival point than Rohmer customarily provides, with the nature of Jeanne’s inner renewal rather hard to glean (other than that, in some general sense, she’s found a way to modestly evade the inner confinement that arises from a life hemmed in by logistics and infrastructure).

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)

 

Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town might seem overly self-referential in numerous respects: it’s a risk inherent in movies about movie-making, amplified here by the use of Minnelli’s own The Bad and the Beautiful to denote former and perhaps no longer attainable glories. The film transcends that trap partly because its love of the cinematic process is so palpable, immersing us in the atmosphere around the set and such things as the mechanics of dubbing; more broadly in the way that even a once-great filmmaker might lose his way with actors, with the cinematic apparatus itself. Minnelli himself of course evidences no such decline here, generating one amazingly expressive widescreen composition after another, culminating in a wildly self-purging nighttime car ride staged as a deliriously abstracted, swirling spectacle. It’s a work built on multiple personal fragilities, Kirk Douglas’ Jack Andrus leaving a high-end clinic (shades of Minnelli’s earlier The Cobweb) and coming to Rome (depicted here as a site of churn and displacement and shifting relationships) in the hope of resurrecting his Oscar-winning but now devastated acting career under the guidance of Edward G. Robinson’s legendary director Maurice Kruger. Virtually from arrival, Andrus is taunted by actual or metaphoric reminders of past traumas; the elements aligning, as if guided by a therapeutic universe, to allow him a chance of comprehensive personal and professional renewal, before further setbacks point the way to a final equilibrium. The Andrus-Kruger interactions provide a memorably toxic central plank, the two men loving and resenting each other in roughly equal measure, Kruger’s outreach at once redeeming and destructive – he’s last seen in bed staring off into space after delivering his final blow, like a man imploding from the force of his own impossibility (and left under the thumb of his wife, with whom he has – if it’s possible – an even more spectacularly passive-aggressive relationship).

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Conte d'hiver (Eric Rohmer, 1992)


Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’hiver starts with some of the most carnal moments in all his work, of a young couple plainly in love and lust, naked in and out of bed, seemingly at utter physical and emotional ease with one another; we rapidly discover it’s a vacation romance, with only the address Felicie gives Charles at the end to ensure its continuity (he doesn’t have a fixed address, and she can’t even accurately recall his surname). Five years later, we learn she mistakenly gave him the wrong information, and they haven’t found each other since, even as his picture dwells in her daughter’s room, so that the girl will always know who her father was. Even as she juggles two other men (dumping one in order to impulsively move out of Paris with the other, and then changing her mind and returning after two days), Charles and the possibility of reuniting with him remain preeminent in her mind – Rohmer’s gracefully involved dialogues explore whether this is mere romantic folly, or a mark of faith that might even be rooted in the immortality of the human soul. Felicie regards herself as relatively stupid, especially compared to her bookish friend Loic, but through her commitment to her own instincts and ideals ultimately evidences a greater capacity to shape her world – he’s professedly religious and she isn’t, but she’s the one who prays in the course of the film, and urges him to go to Mass on Sunday (Pascal’s wager, much discussed in Ma nuit chez Maud, also comes back under the microscope). Against this backdrop, the statistically improbable ending hardly needs to be emphasized as a happy one, with an immediate sense of life moving on. In the end, the narrative distance traveled perhaps isn’t much greater than a carelessly calculated romantic comedy might traverse, but it’s a far greater journey in all other respects.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986)

 

Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls might be one of the finest-ever studies of a workplace, regardless that the work in question is prostitution, sold out of a discreetly upscale apartment; in just an hour and a half, it encompasses an astounding range of incident and interaction and attitude, facilitating an improbably complete sense of the establishment as a multi-faceted meeting place and as economic matrix. It convincingly captures the mundane rhythms and rituals of the place: the different practices that kick in when the boss isn’t around, lunch orders, runs to the pharmacy, breaking in of new recruits, requests to stay late; all as naturalistically textured as if Borden had been observing it all her life. The women are convincingly diverse in their race, motivations, attitudes toward the job (some hide it from their significant others, some don’t; some use their real names, some don’t), where they draw the line with the clients; the clients in turn range from needy (there are frequent requests to meet the women outside, based in a belief that these are real connections, held back by the artificiality of the setting) to entitled to entirely businesslike. The film is explicit about the job’s physical requirements, meticulous in tracking the money (the central character Molly enters everything in a little book, depositing her takings on the way home); it’s often funny in the way that workplaces usually are, and of course deadly serious. While Borden’s style is generally intimately naturalistic, the scenes between the women and clients are sometimes consciously posed, coaxing us to view those encounters as structural constructs, and to interrogate our own gaze on them. Her amazing film ends as it began, in the midst of domestic intimacy, establishing all that we’ve seen as a common extension of that state, and uncomfortably sharing many of its attributes.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Maso et Miso vont en bateau (Delphine Seyrig Nadja Ringart Carole Roussopoulos Ioana Wieder, 1975)

 

The irresistible Maso et Miso vont en bateau takes off from a jaw-dropping 1975 French TV show marking the end of the UN’s “Year of the Woman”, introduced by Bernard Pivot, pitting the Secrétaire d'État à la Condition féminineFrancoise Giroud, against various misogynistic provocations. Perhaps in part out of a desire to appear convivial, Giroud provides accommodating and passive responses to even the worst excesses, such that even Pivot seems taken aback and tries to prompt her otherwise, with little success. Maso et Miso preserves the event in what seems like reasonably complete form, while replaying various cringe-inducing moments for maximum effect, and disrupting the flow with written and aural counterpoints; the overall effect is funny, outraged, sarcastic, disgusted, and deadly serious. The fact of the movie being the product of four woman directors, all identified only by their first names (Delphine Seyrig is the best known of the four) makes its own statement, placing it firmly outside traditional modes of industrial production (the closing scrawl throws Giroud a conciliatory bone, suggesting that no woman could have succeeded in representing a feminine viewpoint under such circumstances); that’s in common to the female director of Pivot’s show, whom he conspicuously praises for her professionalism, before in the next breath commenting on her beauty, apparently on the basis that if this weren’t explicitly stated, then everyone would necessarily assume that a competent woman must be unattractive. The film is crammed with moments – such as the chef who argues that a woman can’t be a great cook because she’s perpetually distracted by questions such as what stockings to wear (a premise absorbed by Giroud with barely a peep) – that would be hilarious if they didn’t speak to such a wasteland of lived experience; when Giroud pronounces at the end that “the fight continues,” it’s impossible to know what she has in mind, but at least Maso et Miso vont en bateau breathes life into the statement.


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Getting Straight (Richard Rush, 1970)


Richard Rush’s 1970 Getting Straight is a key document of its era, capturing despite all its flaws a feverish drive for self-expression, drawing on the momentum of the civil rights and other social movements, and the existential threat of the Vietnam draft. In the film’s protagonist Harry (Elliott Gould), a Vietnam veteran now back in college, the movement finds a chaotic focal point, with Harry to some extent suppressing his own sympathies for the sake of getting through the process and becoming a teacher (even if he can barely explain why he's bothering), even as his personal insecurities and challenges manifest themselves in almost constant abrasiveness. Much of this display now looks misogynistic and homophobic, with Harry for example throwing off the low incidence of homosexuality in Arizona as one of the state’s great virtues, and ultimately suffering a dramatic meltdown when pressured to buy into a particular interpretation of The Great Gatsby; even less palatable is his constant belittlement of his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) (for which, despite all his remaining challenges, the movie ultimately lets him off the hook). Likewise, we’re apparently encouraged to share Harry’s view that the creation of a Black Studies department, on which a group of students are focused, wouldn’t amount to much of anything – his tossed-off remark that he was at Selma seems like a flippant way of throwing him some moral authority in this respect. The film’s view of social possibilities seems rather amusingly limited now, with a standardized life in the suburbs held up as a kind of default state to be consciously resisted. Still, the film has lots of probingly intelligent writing, and its rambunctious energy persists, with compelling scenes of confrontation between police and protestors; it may be an emblematic time capsule movie, but one conveying a transferable sense of the “fierce urgency of now,” of the hunger to rise against complacency.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sois belle et tais-toi (Delphine Seyrig, 1976)

 

The title of Delphine Seyrig’s Sois belle et tais-toi! establishes its core purpose – to present a cross-section of the experiences of female actors and thereby to bring out the industry’s male-dominated complacency. The whimsical selection of interviewees (22 in all) places Oscar-winning giants (Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Shirley MacLaine – although MacLaine’s footage appears to have been obtained from another source, and sits rather uncomfortably in this context) with others who had few film credits at the time, or since, a diversity in security and opportunity that arguably outweighs the points of commonality. With an average overall time allocation of just over 5 minutes each (some get more, some much less), it’s inevitable too that the emphasis is mostly on the anecdotal and impressionistic, which (along with the extremely unadorned photography and title design) is the source of much of the film’s eccentric charm, and its objective limitations. For example, several speakers cite the likes of Newman and Redford and McQueen as examples of careers and opportunities generally denied to women, but then it’s also true that the vast majority of male actors were no less excluded from such rarified heights. Still, it remains rather poignant to see several of them racking their brains when trying to remember if they ever spent any meaningful non-adversarial screen time with another woman. There’s plenty more there too for in-the-know viewers, such as Fonda’s sadly hilarious account of Fred Zinnemann’s neurotic approach to making Julia, or Juliet Berto critiquing Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating (the notion of female directors is cited only briefly). The last word goes to Burstyn, widening the scope somewhat by positing that the momentum belongs to women and that the future of the planet depends on it, on its own terms a harmlessly overreaching piece of rhetoric which comes across here as a final touch of whimsicality.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960)

 

Comanche Station was the last of the seven films that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together, and represents the collaboration at its most breathtakingly minimal and at times moving. Once again, Scott’s hero (in this case labeled Jefferson Cody) rides alone, for reasons rooted in tragic loss; once again there’s a woman in peril (in this case rescued from her Comanche captors, the object being to return her to her husband); once again paths are crossed with more venal antagonists focused on collecting the reward for themselves (which entails, once again, a transactional aspect to the placement of the woman, both in terms of the bounty attached to her, and in how the men use their interactions with her as a reference point for assessing masculinity). This might all be slighted as limited variations on a narrow theme, but in Boetticher’s hands the repetition takes on a mythic grandeur, as if obsessively shuffling and sifting through the pieces in search of an elusive perfection (in this sense, if in no other, they may bring to mind Raffaello Matarazzo’s series of pictures with Yvonne Sanson). Comanche Station draws set-ups and exchanges from its predecessors (including the final showdown with the primary villain, played by Claude Akins) with little variation, but with only five main characters, the process of honing down feels almost complete, and the woman’s ultimate return to her family is transcendent. The film has a particularly stark existential charge, mulling on the meagre tangible rewards of living a lawful life rather than a criminal one, embodied in the young Dobie (a quietly heartrending Richard Rust), who yearns to be righteous and justified, but finds himself stranded in a world that hardly allows it. That’s just one aspect of the otherness that defines the Scott-Boetticher cycle; there’s little attempt here to engage with the motivations of the Comanche, and the perspective on women is severely limiting, however quaintly noble.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

La femme infidele (Claude Chabrol, 1969)

 

Claude Chabrol's La femme infidele is one of the director's most exactingly sparse and ambiguous works, such that the ending may seem rather startlingly premature - it's no surprise that Hollywood was drawn to expand on the structure (in the 2002 Unfaithful). Helene and Charles (Stephane Audran and Michel Bouquet), living in a big house in Versailles with their young son, have a perfect marriage by most conventional measures, but Charles' first doubt about his wife's fidelity is triggered just moments into the film, rapidly supplemented by others, and then by the findings of a private detective. He makes contact with her lover Victor (Maurice Ronet), convivially introducing himself and dropping hints of an open arrangement within which everything's fine; the sense is that Charles possibly wishes this to be true, that he knows himself to be a kind of beneficiary from the time Helene spends with Victor, but things go wrong, Victor ends up dead, and events follow their doomed course. The film's eerie final image suggests an iconic image of wife and family both preserved and imperiled, unchanging and yet on the verge of being lost, summing up how Charles' drastic act of preservation has become the opposite, shattering a functional closed system, letting in an all-consuming destabilization. In a sense his action fits the label (and no doubt would be defended in court as) a crime of passion, but passion is one quality the film conspicuously lacks; even the aspects of spontaneity in the relationship appear calculated and measured out (but then, for that matter, Helene and Victor's affair seems almost as regimented). Chabrol provides a strange counterpoint in the form of Charles' office assistant Brigit, grotesquely caricatured as an airhead in short skirts, sexually tested and found wanting by a colleague, perhaps representing sexuality at its most conventionally available and free of mystery, and therefore almost inevitably meaningless.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Guess who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967)


It’s hard to know now how to react to Stanley Kramer’s Guess who’s Coming to Dinner, in which a couple of wealthy white liberals (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) are informed by their daughter that she plans to marry a Black man (Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice), and must rapidly decide whether or not to give their blessing. Regardless of what one thinks of this basic premise, the film is a ridiculously stacked deck, contriving a situation where they’re hit with the news out of nowhere and have only a few hours to process it before the young couple fly off to a new life together, such that even the most trustingly open-minded parent might feel a little anxiety at the speed of things. Given the film’s almost complete isolation from the real world, it’s hard to assess the veracity of the recurring claims about the problems that would confront an inter-racial marriage; it’s clear enough though that the couple under examination here would move within circles far more elevated and monied and connected than those of the average love-struck transgressors. Perhaps it’s telling that the element that now feels most biting and provocative is the secondary character of the housekeeper, Tillie, referred to in rote manner as a “member of the family” but plainly not that in any real sense; she has the most viscerally negative reaction to Prentice’s arrival (she’s the only one who uses the N-word), her enmity apparently rooted in a subjugation so engrained that any sign of progress elsewhere feels like a personal attack. But she’s hardly at the centre of the film, her ultimate function being to sit quietly through Tracy’s climactic “glory of love” speech, and then to get the dinner served. It’s all interesting enough on some level, even if for every aspect of relative awareness and enlightenment, the film provides another one of timidity or cluelessness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Inspecteur Lavardin (Claude Chabrol, 1986)

 


In Claude Chabrol’s first go-round with Jean Poiret’s Inspecteur Lavardin, Poulet au vinaigre, the character flagrantly roughs up suspects and tramples over the rule book, ultimately solving the big case but letting one of the guilty parties off the hook altogether, based on his own notion of morality (or, just as likely, his assessment that some people are just too idiotic to be marked as criminals). At the start of the second film, there’s a brief reference to how those previous excesses earned him a transfer, but no sign that he’s in any way reformed, his ultimate solution to the crime this time being to frame an innocent man to whom he’s taken a dislike. Perhaps the film’s most intriguing aspect is the apparent utter lack of self-examination surrounding this denouement, and the absence of any sense that Chabrol means us to reflect on its wider implications; not for the first time with the director, it’s hard to know where manipulation shades into indifference. Certainly the presence of Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont, both of whom worked with the director at the dawn of his career, suggests a broader and more personal context, but the latter in particular is kept at a strange distance. The film plays enjoyably enough with the genre’s inherent affinity with voyeurism, through its use of mirrors and hidden cameras and the Brialy character’s strange hobby of crafting eyeballs – Lavardin’s major breakthrough comes simply from rewinding a video tape and sitting down (alone, in darkness) to see what’s on it. But the revelation of guilt hardly seems to matter, given its lack of correlation with punishment and justice, in the context of a town where well-known moralists turn out to be kingpins of the sex and drug scene, where people long presumed dead secretly live on, and so forth.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Prizzi's Honor (John Huston, 1985)

 

Prizzi’s Honor was largely acclaimed at the time as a late career peak for director John Huston, and one can certainly admire the sense of unflustered control that he brings to it; however, it’s awfully hard now to determine whether the expertise yields much more than a sustained impenetrable blankness. Essentially it’s a single premise film (and not a premise of great inherent interest or wider applicability) - a cold-blooded amorality (under the guise of family unity and honor) that permeates and subsumes all else, from the exercise of business to that of love and marriage. High-ranking mobster Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) falls for Irene (Kathleen Turner), a glamorous stranger he glimpses at a family wedding, and soon determines he can’t live without her, even as it comes to light that she’s herself a professional assassin, and responsible for embezzling money from the all-powerful Prizzi family for which he works, so that he would typically be knocking her off rather than wanting to marry her. Huston carries the inscrutability to a surely counter-productive extent, such that the final, potentially tragedy-tinged machinations between Charley and Irene become almost entirely abstract and meaningless (especially as Nicholson’s initially amusing performance rapidly becomes monotonous, and Turner doesn’t get much opportunity to flesh out her character); it’s rendered somewhat more interesting though by the sense that Huston might know exactly that, and is almost daring the audience to find him wanting. The script’s steady flow of deadpan incongruities (“I didn’t get married so my wife could go on working,” protests Charley, as Irene plans out a role for herself in an upcoming atrocity) marks it as a comedy of sorts, but one devoid of any relief, stifling laughter as thoroughly as it does moral accountability. Anjelica Huston’s supporting actress Oscar now seems as peculiar as much else about the film.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Property is No Longer a Theft (Elio Petri, 1973)

 

Elio Petri’s Property is No Longer a Theft may at times seem overly didactic and single-minded, but then it’s dealing with a subject that properly continues to inspire such obsessive frustration – the all-pervading, all-defining influence of capitalism, such that it’s unclear whether “I am” and “I have” can be meaningfully distinguished as forms of identification. It’s embodied here by Ugo Tognazzi’s Macellaio, who continues to work a day job in his butcher shop (a bit improbably perhaps, but the recurring association with raw meat makes its own point) while amassing a huge portfolio of property and material assets, much of it in some way shady, so that when Total, a former bank clerk, keeps on targeting him as a subject of (relatively petty) theft, Macellaio's main concern is about the police getting too close. Macellaio embodies the self-righteousness that’s only become more prominent since then, certain that his defining role in the structure absolves him of all other sins (of course, his self-justification of himself in Biblical terms omits any consideration of the passage about a camel going through the eye of a needle) – his sexuality is as much a matter of distorted commodification as everything else, with his mistress explicitly viewing herself as a worker who clocks in and out. At the same time, it’s persuasively suggested that society relies almost as much on petty criminals, not least because they provide a constant stream of easy distraction from what the real crooks are getting away with. Total, meanwhile, obtains little gratification or lasting benefit from his actions – he’s even afflicted with an allergy to money itself, its proximity sending him into chronic itching. At various times Petri disrupts the reality to have the main characters address the audience directly from a disembodied space, although you might argue the film hardly needs such accusatory Brechtian underlining. Still, the cumulative effect is suitably, drainingly powerful.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Into the Night (John Landis, 1985)

 


Into the Night certainly isn’t among John Landis’ more prominent movies, but it’s one of the more tonally interesting ones, even if it would have taken more directorial bite and finesse to raise it to anywhere near greatness. Jeff Goldblum’s Ed is a sleep-deprived aerospace engineer, his fatigue causing him to make mistakes at work, and rendering him almost incapable of reacting when he finds out his wife is having an affair; one night he drives to the airport, vaguely inspired by a friend’s suggestion that he should just randomly get on a plane, and suddenly has a stranger (Michelle Pfeiffer) jump into his car, on the run from a quartet of Iranian assassins, which is just the entry point into an entire parallel world of super-wealth and murderous intrigue. The film works well enough on a narrative level, but often feels as if it’s reaching beyond that for something elementally creative, for a sense that Ed’s only hope for rising from stagnation lies in leaving all familiar reference points behind and embracing whatever chaotic possibility emerges from the darkness; by setting part of the movie on a film-within-the-film movie set, and in particular by casting dozens of movie directors in small roles, Landis seems to suggest a professional self-examination that aligns with the personal one. Even if such ambition isn’t entirely realized, the movie maintains an appealing air of thoughtfulness, embodied in Goldblum’s air of absent preoccupation, seemingly not sure whether he’s dreaming or awake, inhabiting fiction or reality. Such uncertainty might be abetted by the film’s odd tonal shifts, depicting the assassins in quasi-buffoonish manner, and yet rather chillingly callous in its violence at other times. On top of all that, one would have to appreciate any movie that cast David Bowie as another killer called “Colin Morris”, last seen in a fight to the death with a bodyguard played by Carl Perkins, setting off a whole other chain of associations.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Jeanne La Pucelle: Les Batailles (Jacques Rivette, 1994)

 

As superbly realized by Jacques Rivette, Jeanne d’Arc is both a figure of immense psychological and historical specificity, and a forerunner of the kind of behavioural mystery that populates much of his great contemporary-set work. The mystery of how an illiterate young woman could have acquired such vision and purpose is integral to her longevity as a cinematic icon, and Rivette allows room for a range of readings and responses; for example, she convinces the “Dauphin”, whom she aspires to restore to the throne, of her legitimacy by privately revealing something to him that (in his words) only God would know, but the film withholds the details of what that actually consists of. Sandrine Bonnaire perfectly embodies Jeanne’s stubborn fortitude, while also conveying her fragility and immaturity, her feelings easily hurt by enemy insults, entirely believable when she says she would rather have been at home sewing; the physical immediacy of her presence channels that of the film around her - the climactic battle scene captures as few others ever have the sheer smallness and intimacy of war at that time, the primitiveness of the weapons and tools at hand, the physical closeness between adversaries, the overwhelming fatigue. This vividness meshes with Rivette’s recurring interest in theatre and performance, with Jeanne clearly aware of herself as a projection, styled and dressed to fit the desired image, keenly aware of the power of symbolism in forging reality (such as her insistence in using that term “Dauphin” until the circumstances justify its replacement by “King.”) For all its seriousness though, the film isn’t without a streak of deadpan socially-based comedy, particularly in the varied reactions of the male soldiers to the impassioned female in their midst (she instructs one of them in toning down what she sees as his overly colourful use of expletives).