Saturday, August 17, 2019

Claudine (John Berry, 1974)


For a mainstream (ish) romantic comedy, John Berry’s Claudine is remarkably short on sustained exuberance or joy; it’s suffused with the weight of getting by, the near-impossibility of making all the pieces add up. The movie’s early stages tease us with the prospect of a black story conducted in the margins of a white society, with Claudine’s employer looking on as she flirts with the ebullient garbage collector Roop. But welfare workers and cops aside, that’s as prominent as whiteness ever gets in the mix: from then on we’re embedded in black rhythms and attitudes and concerns, to an extent that still feels fresh and daring. She’s a single mother of six kids, getting by only by juggling those government handouts with off-the-books domestic work, living in a state of constant look-out for the unannounced visits that may bring the edifice crashing down. The movie presents it as a virtual social inevitability that a woman like Claudine will often be in the situation she’s in, and that a man like Roop will often be responsible for leaving women and kids elsewhere in parallel situations, but also understands why they’d still jump in again (it carries a discreet but unmissably raw sexual charge): the characters understand the cycle and pay a price for it, but can’t countenance the amazing radicalism of Claudine’s oldest son, who goes out and gets a preemptive vasectomy (an act that Claudine perceives as yielding power to the white man). The movie adheres to its genre to the extent that it culminates in a marriage, but the vows are barely spoken when turmoil and violence bursts in, leading to a very unusual end-credits image of familial unity. Diahnne Carroll wonderfully comveys both bone-tiredness and the spark that keeps her going, and James Earl Jones as Roop has seldom displayed such contrasting relish and vulnerability.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Car Cemetery (Fernando Arrabal, 1983)



Fernando Arrabal’s Car Cemetery makes for naggingly unsatisfying viewing, sounding in theory like the most crazily unbound of all the director’s films, but in practice considerably constrained by its claustrophobic setting and by the tightness of its Biblical analogy. The setting is a post-apocalyptic landscape in which – as far as we can see anyway – the main surviving institutions are junkyards, populated mostly by what looks like the overflow from a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert, although it appears authoritarian structures remain in place elsewhere. The ethos of the place is driven in part by devotion to the Jesus-like Emanou, and partly by heedless sex and nudity and sado-masochism (although, again, Arrabal’s handling of these elements feels a bit hemmed in – well, apparently it was a TV production). Most key elements of the Christ story are there, with a twist, from the virgin birth (in which, for instance, three hot women substitute for the wise men) through the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes (in this case a McDonald’s burger) and the resurrection of a Lazarus-like figure to the betrayal (in this instance during a concert) and the crucifixion. It would be easy to lazily dismiss all this as blasphemous, but the almost slavish nature of the correspondences seems equally indicative of grudging fascination: in the circumstances though it hardly matters either way (there’s nothing here to equal the dense, doctrine-heavy exchanges in Bunuel’s The Milky Way). The film’s final image, an animated representation of the ascension, seems strangely pinched and abbreviated, rather as if Arrabal’s artistic eyes had adjusted to the film’s murkiness and he couldn’t imagine unleashing the light, or else as if he didn’t believe that anything in this hermetic universe warranted a resurrection. I doubt that anyone would exactly be bored by the film, but it’s in no way the best entry point into Arrabal’s work.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Craig's Wife (Dorothy Arzner, 1936)


Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife is a potent, expertly (albeit melodramatically) condensed account of a woman’s unraveling, full of finely observed detail and broader social implication. John Boles’ Walter Craig lives almost solely for his wife Harriet, blind (to a perhaps somewhat improbable extent) to what everyone else sees as her calculating materialism and alienating coldness: when an elderly aunt finally lets fly with the truth, he initially can’t see it, but subsequent events involving a police investigation and a vague threat of scandal drive the point home, and thus bring everything down. Rosalind Russell doesn’t hold back on establishing Harriet’s unpleasantness, smugly setting out her philosophy of manipulation and dominance in an early scene, dismissing her younger niece’s arguments for romantic love: the film captures her obsessive observation and calculation, her eyes perpetually prowling over every inch of her domain, computing the implications of every small intrusion. But the film also acknowledges that the threat is real, that women (including Harriet’s own mother) are abandoned all the time when the men move on from them (the police-related subplot establishes that a woman who attempts to exercise the same self-determination as a man may pay with her life) and that for all her excesses, Harriet’s behaviour represents a rational (even if in this case misplayed) response to a stacked deck of a society. Harriet’s miscalculations cost her dearly, abandoned by everyone around her, even down to the servants, fulfilling the film’s closing maxim that those who live to themselves are generally left to themselves. Arzner’s magnificent handling of the final scene renders the previously showcase-like home suddenly overwhelming and unnatural, and Russell’s final close-up carries a sense of searching for divine intervention as she starts to realize her isolation, and therefore, perhaps (and depending on the viewer’s own social critique), a possibility of renewal.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976)



Lino Brocka’s Insiang is a sensational tale of oppression leading to unleashed self-determination, drawing on classic melodrama structures of identification and sympathy while entirely rooted in its challenged time and place (the mid-70s Manila slums, and apparently filmed in just eleven miraculous days). Setting the tone with stomach-churning opening images from inside a slaughterhouse, it then plunges us deep into a vividly sweaty setting of claustrophobic, gossipy community and wretchedly strained economics, with the title character (beautifully played by Hilda Koronel) gradually emerging as a focal point from within a large, chaotic extended family. Insiang’s mother kicks out the relatives so that her much younger lover can move in, but his real desire is for Insiang; he rapes her, and when Insiang tells her mother, she gets slapped for it, blamed as a scheming temptress. After her one escape plan – to get married to a boy who says he loves her – ends in yet more mistreatment, Insiang gradually hones a capacity to control her sexuality, while planning revenge over all those who’ve wronged her, all the way to inciting murder. Brocka’s filming of the climactic event is memorable, intercutting Psycho-like knife strokes with Insiang’s possessed expression as she watches what she’s wrought, evoking (a couple of years in advance) Amy Irving in The Fury as she conjures up her destructive supernatural powers. But there’s no pretense here that this solves anything: in the final scene she’s entirely alone, her prospects in the community and sense of herself unspecified and unclear. A quieter, sadder film takes place around the edges of the narrative, of young people with dreams of something better but no ready way of realizing them, either struggling along in menial jobs or else just hanging around getting drunk; even the mean-spirited, shrewish mother and her thuggish boyfriend are shown to be motivated by real vulnerabilities.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Water (Dick Clement, 1985)



Perhaps on its release in 1985, Dick Clement’s Water was able to draw some wan resonance from then-recent memories of Falklands-bound battleships and US support for Nicaraguan contras: if the colonial worldview it presents is outdated and teetering, it’s clear the film’s movers and shakers haven’t entirely realized that yet. The movie posits a Caribbean island of no strategic or economic interest, such that Britain has all but forgotten it’s part of the empire – Michael Caine plays the governor, long gone to seed (the movie’s soft touch is embodied in how the island appears colourful and easygoing, embodied by Jimmie Walker as the local radio host and by the prevalence of ganja, although the dialogue suggests we ought to be looking at utter squalor). Picking up rumours of possible insurgency and lacking the will to go through another Falklands-type conflict, Margaret Thatcher directs that the island’s population simply be moved elsewhere (to locations with hotels in need of cheap labour), but things ramp up when a group of Americans discovers that a long tapped-out oil well is now gushing a super-high-quality mineral water (which, in turn, attracts the interest of the French as well, detecting a threat to their own interests; there are also Cubans in the mix, but they eventually run off to Miami to become drug dealers). No doubt there’s some satirical point to how the debate about the island’s future never involves the islanders themselves – even the rebel leader is white (Billy Connolly, with an undisguised accent) – but the movie embodies the disregard as much as it parodies it. Compensations are few – certainly not the disengaged Caine or the barely-registering Valerie Perrine or the way-over-registering Brenda Vaccaro. Maybe the funniest joke is that the decision-making of the UN General Assembly should or would have been swayed by a George Harrison and Ringo Starr guest appearance…

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Two People (Carl Dreyer, 1945)


Even allowing that Dreyer disowned Two People, it’s strange it receives quite so little attention in discussions of the director; it’s fascinating in its failure, feeling tonally and thematically linked to the two features he made subsequently. The film focuses on a young married couple under extreme strain: they’re the only faces we see, although there are other voices, and it’s set entirely in their apartment, although it evokes other spaces in various ways. Arne is an up and coming scientist who’s been publicly accused of plagiarizing an older professor (stealing his cure for schizophrenia, no less); in the midst of the (improbably headline-grabbing) scandal, the news comes that the professor has been murdered, with numerous clues pointing toward Arne as the perpetrator. Marianne tries to lend her support, but eventually reveals her own tangled involvement with the dead man. The narrative lurches around, cramming far too many reveals and reversals into its 70 minutes: it makes no sense that signposts of guilt keep flooding in from the outside world (for example, they learn from the radio that the police found a glove with Arne’s initials on it) while no one in authority comes to interview the couple, and yet this contributes to the sense of an intimately sealed-off world, bending external reality to its own precepts (tbe professor is heard only in a single flashback, and then seen only in shadow, as if harking back to Vampyr, and the lead actor’s occasional resemblance to Bela Lugosi inadvertently – presumably it was inadvertent - contributes to a sense of creepiness). In its ultimate capitulation to a transcendent love that justifies almost all, Two People looks ahead to Dreyer’s final film Gertrud, but the journey is inadequately articulated here, with the ending feeling more like an arbitrary twist than anything else. Stylistically though, the film often does feel close to Gertrud, carrying an air of devout, stark observance, and for all its manifesr weakness, it casts a strange if broken spell.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sapphire (Basil Dearden, 1959)



Basil Dearden’s Sapphire makes for queasy, vividly challenging viewing, at once lost in an ungraspably distant time and place and yet much more presently troublesome than one would wish it to be. The film opens with the discovery of a dead woman on Hampstead Heath and is driven by the subsequent police investigation: one strand follows her fiancĂ©e (provided with possible motive because she was pregnant, possibly imperiling his academic plans) and tight-knit family; the other opens up when Sapphire is revealed to be of mixed race, capable of passing for white, with a much darker-skinned brother, and various entanglements in the city’s “coloured” (this being the film’s prevailing term) community and establishments. This allows the movie to present (in the manner of a sober carnival) a sad catalogue of prejudice and suspicion - the landlady who would never have rented to her if she’d known, the policeman who muses things would be better if that sort were all sent back where they came from, and so forth. Inevitably, one cringes now at elements of it – such as the theory, apparenrtly endorsed by what’s depicted on screen, that one’s underlying blackness will be revealed by involuntary rhythmic reaction to music – and even at its most well-meaning (and it is that), the film always sees blackness as Other, as a state understood in terms of its difference and by the nature of its positioning within a white reality. Still, it does have the wherewithal to acknowledge the existence of another side to the coin: one black interviewee archly remarks that his father would never have allowed him to marry Sapphire…because she was half-white. Although seen only as a corpse and in a photograph, the dead woman’s spirit dominates the film: the dialogue constantly evokes her uncontainable vivacity and energy, in itself a threat to a drably ordered society, made deadly and uncontainable by her racial non-conformity.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Morel's Invention (Emidio Greco, 1974)


If one didn’t know Emidio Greco’s L’invenzione di Morel was based on a novel, it might easily be taken as a response to Tarkovsky’s then-recent Solaris – although not set in space, its isolated island setting amounts to much the same thing, and the plotlines are similar in their blurring of the line between humanity and illusion, and in the related capacity for cinematic metaphor. With tweaking and a much-souped-up visual style, Greco’s film could also feel like the forerunner of a Black Mirror installment. A man is washed up on the island, his boat wrecked beyond repair (there’s little backstory beyond a passing reference to political problems) – the island holds a large structure that’s part museum shell and part industrial complex but initially seems uninhabited, but then he starts to see people, dancing and conversing with little attention paid to their challenged surroundings, and with none at all paid to him (the most striking among them is played by Anna Karina, who even more than in most of her post-Godard work is utilized here as pure image). The film is strikingly composed and edited, often wordless for long stretches, at others dense with exposition and self-interpretation as the title’s Morel, gradually revealed as dominant among these dispossessed individuals, reveals his invention, and the place of the others within it. As noted, the film draws on a classic cinematic proposition, of the screen and the spectator’s submission to it as a rewriting of and usurpation of reality – in this respect, it necessarily belongs to a time of cinema as physical destination, long predating the tyranny of tiny screens. It’s not the most galvanizing of works – there’s no respect really in which Greco is as interesting as Tarkovsky, and the film does skirt turgidity at times – but it has an elemental enigmatic power, and deserves better than its substantially forgotten status (an ironic fate perhaps, given its premise).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Machorka-Muff (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1963)


Straub and Huillet’s Machorka-Muff introduces itself, in an opening title signed just by Straub, as “an abstract visual poem, not a story,” which at once prepares the viewer for the narrative challenges of the following 18 minutes, while perhaps underpreparing him or her for its precision and tangibility. The film certainly has far more story than, say, a Stan Brakhage short: it contains both personal and professional development, it conveys a lot about character, it draws on an identifiable surrounding time and place, it has a beginning and middle and end, in that diegetic order. It even has a certain amount of dry, arch comedy, mostly based in the protagonist’s suffusing self-regard and unrepentant militarism. In all these respects it’s a remarkable feat of condensation, even making time for what may appear like digressions, such as the precious moments devoted to a waiter as he fills a drinks order. It perhaps feels least like a poem in its montage of (apparently genuine) newspaper headlines that advocate for German rearmament, drawing Jesus Christ into the cause and concluding by asking whether Germany will be a hammer or a nail, but at the same time this constitutes the most dramatic expansion of the filmic space. Viewed at a time when class-based expectation and division is only reasserting itself, and when post-war institutions are under escalating economic and political threat, the film feels like a warning, even a stern one, but it never feels confined by advocacy; the hard-edged specificity is always in conversation with the asserted abstraction, allowing the feeling of a film at once oppressive and yet strangely liberating. The final note, an assertion of embedded social power that no one’s ever dared to oppose,  goes unanswered within the film, but sets a challenge for Straub-Huillet's ensuing body of work, with its emphasis on resistance and engagement.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson, 1996)


One’s reaction to Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is inevitably conditioned by the knowledge that it was the only feature completed by Sarah Jacobson, who died a few years later of cancer at the age of just 32. I don’t think it’s only in hindsight that the film carries a sense of looming darkness – actually it’s explicit in the pervasive use of black backgrounds, often giving events a rather disembodied feel. It makes for peculiar viewing, given that in summary the film might sound well within a tradition of brightly raunchy sex comedies – Mary Jane unsatisfactorily loses her virginity (in a cemetery yet), triggering a heightened interest in her own sexuality and that of her circle of colleagues at the movie theatre where she works (the programming for which appears to be carried out in some underwhelming parallel universe), most of whom are older and worldlier than she is (much is made of her origin in the suburbs). The movie has a punk-infused feel, often feeling on the verge of tipping over into something more radically unbound (the acknowledgement in the end credits of “everyone who ever bought me a beer” is a nice touch), but remains primarily in investigative mode, accumulating something of a dossier of mixed-bag “first time” stories and gradually expanding its field of concern and awareness to encompass bisexuality, unplanned pregnancy, sudden tragedy, and more, ending (rather abruptly) on a note of self-determination and moral victory. Those closing credits roll over an extended rant into the camera by a disgruntled theatre patron, basically a verbal assault on just about everything, as if to emphasize the movie as an act of resistance. It’s more persuasive than not: it would be pointless to oversell the film’s impact, but when you reflect on the great careers that followed from comparably (or more) modest beginnings, the sense of loss is severe.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Soft Skin (Francois Truffaut, 1964)



The title of Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin seems to promise a sensuousness that barely exists in the film itself, thus perfectly summing up its examination of the gulf between romantic fantasy and drab, logistical reality. It’s among his gravest and most sober films, to an extent that has sometimes left viewers puzzled or underwhelmed, but might as aptly be judged as one of his most effective fusions of form and content. It’s apt that the protagonist Lachenay, a high-profile public intellectual of a kind that can hardly be conceived of now, falls for a flight attendant, as the movie dates from the period when the romance of air travel was at its highest: Truffaut makes the initial mutual intrigue easy enough to grasp, but after that he hardly attempts to probe the heart of the relationship, focusing instead on complications and obstacles, in particular a bleakly comic ulterior-motivated trip to Reims where everything intervenes to keep the two apart. The affair’s ultimate end, similarly, comes like the brisk cut of a scalpel, and although the film ends on a classic “crime of passion,” it’s hard to tell whether it’s really that, or whether we’re watching the almost unconscious acting out of a socially-determined clichĂ©, as much as the arc of the affair itself. The film pointedly includes moments when we witness Lachenay’s mind momentarily turning at the possibilities of other barely glimpsed women, and others that record how a woman can barely walk alone in the street without being harassed: but then equally as significant is the way that his hosts in Reims load up his schedule with a dinner at which they pepper him with mostly trivial questions, to be followed by a reception (which he skips out on). That is, whether in one’s cultural or intimate pursuits, the movie leaves a deep sense of weary, dissatisfied compulsion taking precedence over truth and self-awareness.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)


Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top feels distinctly overwrought now, with its nakedly ambitious protagonist Joe Lampton barely uttering a word in the early stretch that doesn’t relate to his calculated social-climbing, and then reduced to near-catatonic silence in the end as he achieves a version of his ambitions, at the cost of (at least temporarily) losing his soul. The notoriously problematic actor Laurence Harvey tacks too strongly into both states, eradicating much possibility of subtlety, but at least aiding the film’s harshly elemental impact (one of the film’s most effective elements is his unspoken realization that the wealthy girl of his dreams is, basically, unbearably boring). Despite these excesses, it remains a fascinating social document, depicting a society of painful limitations, consumed by self-defeating power games (one of the more striking scenes is that in which the husband of Lampton’s older lover confronts him, setting out with cold meticulousness why the affair has to end, the relish he takes in his victory far outweighing any remaining feeling for his wife). Certainly it’s not a world devoid of pleasures and camaraderies, but they depend on a benign acceptance of limits, a shutting of one’s mind to all vertical possibilities. Sex, of course, is the most prominent of the horizontal availabilities, fueling a significant hidden infrastructure and a network of behind-back conversations. Simone Signoret won an Oscar as the lover, but even the mild exoticism she brings to the film feels like more than the milieu deserves or can accommodate (albeit this is largely the point). Looked at now, it’s no doubt a museum piece on any levels, not least for the prominence of heavy manufacturing in the economic hierarchy. But while Britain may have given itself several coats of paint since then, the inequalities and abandonments have only become more savage, rendering the film’s moral contortions almost quaintly benign by comparison.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Touch (Ingmar Bergman, 1971)



Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch is a work of contrast and opposition, inevitably (for better and for worse) less unified and imposing than we often expect of his work. The most obvious contrast exists between the Bergman milieu we’re accustomed to (Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson’s long-married couple) and the very different cultural resonances attaching to Elliott Gould, playing David, a visiting archaeologist who has an affair with Andersson’s Karin (the optimal prints are those in which the couple and others use English with Gould, and Swedish otherwise). Bergman presents the marriage as being essentially happy, if stagnant - Sydow’s Andreas is submerged in his work, Karin in domesticity and ritual (the film is sometimes oddly and parodically peppy in portraying this); in contrast, David is unstable and destabilizing, subject to erratic impulses and mood swings (and frequently changing hairstyles). The demands of the present – the lying and evasion required of Karin in maintaining the affair – contrast with the inescapable burdens of the past: the evocation of the Holocaust in David’s family history, and of centuries past in his work. It’s never that simple though, and Bergman keeps challenging our understanding of the relationship and the film: an almost offhand reference to a suicide attempt by David and an even less resolved one to Karin’s pregnancy; the late introduction of David’s sister in London, heavily trailing other unexplored narratives; a long-dormant cluster of larvae that come back to destructive life. The ending, somewhat displaced from the main body of the film, places us in a garden, and a final attempt at paradise that rapidly disintegrates into further disrepair and separation. If the film under-achieves and frustrates, as has often been claimed, then that may be because of its unusual and productive openness and receptivity; either way, it ranks in Bergman’s body of work as more than a mere oddity.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Scrubbers (Mai Zetterling, 1982)


Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers certainly feels sociologically and humanly scrupulous, examining the fraught community within a female borstal while largely avoiding swaggering stereotypes and easy titillation.The recurring use of bawdy folk-type songs is just one suggestion that for all its forced unnaturalness, the world that the inmates craft for themselves may preserve English community and culture more fully than what lies outside – by comparison the portrayal of the staff is mostly clipped and sparing and deliberately disconnected. Zetterling seems most artistically stimulated by the environment’s inherent abstraction, triggering the film’s most unexpected impact, its outbursts of visionary Kubrick-like strangeness. That would be both Kubrick past (a dispossessed mother’s dreams of her kid might almost have slotted into The Shining) and even – relative to the film’s 1982 release date – Kubrick future: the prison might well share a designer and all-seeing cinema-eye with the dorms of Full Metal Jacket. Just as in Jacket, the rituals and tasks (such as assembling cheap plastic dolls) of the institution barely contemplate the chaos of the real world battle to come - the institution seems in no way to provide a meaningful response to the transgressions of its two main protagonists (one can only think of being reunited with her infant daughter; the other was motivated primarily by apparently unrequited love for another inmate), whether as punishment or rehabilitation (a more conventional but still well-handled vignette has one of the tougher inmates released into a world for which she’s entirely unprepared). It follows that the film withholds any kind of closure, leaving the prospects of its key characters uncertain after a final disorientating plunge into the outside world, ending on a recurring exterior nighttime shot that eavesdrops on the inmates as they yell out their goodnights and other parting shots for the day. This device may seem to evoke The Waltons of all things, but it’s certain that nothing else in the movie will.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mille milliards de dollars (Henri Verneuil, 1982)



Henri Verneuil’s Mille milliards de dollars doesn’t rank as a major film: among other things, it’s of limited stylistic interest, and the narrative mostly takes a familiar form of notable actors (Jeanne Moreau, Charles Denner and so forth) popping up for a scene or two to point the way to the next link in the deductive chain. Patrick Dewaere plays a journalist who receives a tip-off of scandal surrounding a notable public figure: the investigation leads him deep into the machinations of an American multi-national, and ultimately into the lingering moral stain of WW2. The film retains interest for several reasons though. Viewed as a time of anxiety about corporate power that transcends national boundaries and evades political or regulatory control, it’s rather darkly instructive to view a 1982 film driven by similar concerns (albeit of course under very different technological conditions): the influence is so invidious for instance that the French subsidiaries are forced to exist on New York time, holding key meetings in the middle of the night.Verneuil devotes a surprising amount of time in the corporate weeds, inviting for us for instance to dive into the mechanics of a particular corporate result that falls far short of the forecast, and having the corporation’s leader (Mel Ferrer) deliver a mini-lecture on international transfer pricing. The film’s tone can’t help but draw on the sad resonances surrounding Dewaere, who would be dead by his own hand within months of the film’s release (a scene in which a would-be assassin writes a fake suicide note on his behalf thus assumes a particular chill). The closing stretch allows us some room for hope that the truth can come out (an independent newspaper plays the role that nowadays would most likely be filled by citizen journalism) while allowing the journalist’s personal concerns rather to push aside the larger story. But maybe that’s a mark of one thing that hasn’t changed over thirty-seven intervening years: that the liberal and anti-corporatist cause must too often content itself with strictly incremental steps forward.