Wednesday, May 18, 2022

American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950, Fritz Lang)


Drawing on his own experiences of flight and exile, Fritz Lang’s American Guerilla in the Philippines is a sweaty, sun-baked variation on his foreboding urban narratives, its protagonist as hopelessly trapped as in any of them, in this case fighting an all-but-endless war while devoid of almost any personal agency or any sense of the passage of time. Tyrone Power’s Chuck Palmer is one of a small group of Americans trapped in the islands after the US withdraws in the face of the 1942 Japanese invasion (General MacArthur’s parting declaration, printed on matchboxes, that “I shall return” comes to seem like as much an existential taunt as an inspiring promise) – he treks for weeks in search of others, has an idea of sailing to Australia which goes nowhere, and from there is gradually drawn into the prolonged, lonely, constantly threatened guerilla existence. Micheline Presle (billed here, in a wondrous example of dumbing-down, as “Micheline Prelle”) plays a Frenchwoman married to a local businessman who channels money and support to the guerillas; once he’s identified and killed by the Japanese, she and Palmer rapidly become a couple, a transition depicted with notable lack of sentiment (she’s depicted as being unerringly pragmatic, and gets to wield a gun in the final showdown in a church, as does one of the altar boys). The movie has a huge amount of action and incident, with Palmer required to do everything from building a radio with whatever’s on hand (which he succeeds at) to operating on a horribly injured man (he fails), but the flag-waving is offset by its protagonist’s essential loneliness, with only one other American, played by Tom Ewell, depicted in any depth; when the troops triumphantly roll in at the end, they watch from the perspective of liberated locals rather than as part of the team.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

La faute de l’abbe Mouret (Georges Franju, 1970)


Georges Franju’s La faute de l’abbe Mouret contains major elements of both hell-and-damnation Catholic severity and flower child-inflected dreaminess; one’s assessment of the film’s success (mine differed across separate viewings) may depend on the extent to which the two cohere. Young Abbott Mouret, bearing a Bressonian pallor and sense of self-denial, serves in a rural village of little apparent piety (the film opens on two locals having sex in a field), and after a sudden collapse which largely wipes out his memory, he’s taken by unknown means to a nearby house occupied by a fiery atheist, whose daughter Albine nurses him back to health. The two walk daily in the adjacent walled-off garden (visualized in extravagantly lovely terms, its centerpiece an overpowering abundance of flowering roses), where they eventually make love, like two innocents discovering something that was previously beyond imagining. But a prolonged shot of a snake on a tree makes all too clear the fragile nature of this paradise, and when a storm brings down the wall, Mouret’s memory returns, along with an even more austere sense of vocation. The film contains some punishing moments, such as Mouret’s unrelenting colleague terrorizing children with his pitch-black vision of their future, but the proffered alternative is no less ungrounded; Albine claims that the garden supposedly contains a magic tree that distorts one’s sense of time, and tells him an origin story that sounds like a fairy tale. Mouret’s actions end in tragedy, triggering one of cinema’s more unusual suicides, and a shocking act of violence; the final scene, a fusion of inner and outer worlds, could be read to suggest that Mouret’s external fealty shrouds a transgressive inner life, even a surrender to the devil. Given the considerably lighter nature of Franju’s subsequent film, Shadowman, it may constitute the last great enigma of a fascinatingly shifting body of work.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Absolution (Anthony Page, 1978)


Richard Burton’s Catholic priest in Anthony Page’s Absolution might be viewed as an amalgam of many of his then-most recent roles: Exorcist II (in which he also played a priest), Equus (written by Peter Shaffer, whose brother Anthony wrote Absolution), and The Medusa Touch (where his character’s rage against society is so powerful that it can overcome the laws of nature): all roles which in one way or another tried to make a strength out of the actor’s customary stiffness (whereas the one not listed above, The Wild Geese, tried in futility to ignore it). His character in Absolution, Father Goddard, is a teacher at a boys’ school who comes to believe that his star pupil Benjie (Dominic Guard) has in effect fallen under the influence of Satan (Billy Connolly plays the serpent who leads him astray, a drifter called Blakey who hangs around the school grounds); Benjie starts using the confessional to taunt Goddard first with made-up sins, and then apparently with real and horrific ones, including the murder of Blakey, knowing that Goddard can’t repeat any of it to anyone. The movie’s interest in its cloistered world is unfortunately limited, with only one other boy (played by Kes’s David Bradley) portrayed in any depth (not that the adults register either, beyond Goddard and Blakey), and the briefest possible glimpses of such standard transgressions as girlie magazines and cigarette smoking. Although Catholic teachings and rituals are inherent to the plot, the film seems mainly interested in them as devices; it’s interesting to imagine what a more cerebral or intense director could have done with it. Such a director might have gotten something very powerful out of Burton; even so, the actor is at his latter-day best here, conveying sheer inner torture at a situation that rapidly surpasses both his analytical capacities and his faith.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Girl at the Window (Luciano Emmer, 1961)


The first half an hour or so of Luciano Emmer’s undersung Girl at the Window provides no hint of what the title might refer to, following a group of Italian immigrants as they enter Holland to work in a coal mine, negotiating the mechanics of arrival and integration – on the very first day, a sudden collapse seals off one of them, Vincenzo (Bernard Fresson) with the supervisor Federico (Lino Ventura), triggering a remarkable series of scenes in which their air supply gives out, sounds of approaching rescue recede, and even the ebullient Federico has little specific hope to offer. But suddenly, after several days, they’re freed after all, and with little further reflection, the two men set off for Amsterdam, with the object of buying some female company. Emmer provides a rich portrait of the red-light district, emphasizing the language difficulties that many movies gloss over, and including a matter of fact depiction of a gay bar; Federico in particular is depicted as ravenous for booze and for women, spending his hard-earned money with an abandon which seems like its own kind of airless confinement. The film’s structural freshness continues as the two men part ways (the film then focuses mainly on Vincenzo, who forges a sort of connection with Else, played by Marina Vlady, despite the two being barely able to communicate the simplest thing to each other), their paths meeting up again later, and again diverging. But these expansive aspects coexist with a feeling of fate closing in, symbolized by a recurring shot of the world receding into a tiny square of light as the miners descend into the depths. Overall, the film conveys a strongly tragic sense of economic and existential inevitability, but its final note is a resigned, jocular one, a small tribute to the spirit that allows such men to keep pressing on (albeit that this may only leave them more open to exploitation).

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A Different Image (Alile Sharon Larkin, 1982)


Alile Sharon Larkin’s beautiful A Different Image is an extraordinarily full 51 minutes of cinema, lightly but meaningfully expressed at every turn. Its focus is on a young woman, Alana, who predominantly wants time and space to work on her art, to enjoy her friends and to explore whatever means of self-expression occur to her. This may not sound like a radical project, but it’s subject to skepticism and/or attack from all directions: from her mother who doesn’t understand her resistance to getting married and generating grandchildren; from her female co-worker who can’t believe she could have a platonic male friend, Vincent; and then most sadly from Vincent himself, who (albeit partly driven by peer pressure from his Playboy-reading friend) ultimately can’t resist the urge to sexualize their relationship (at one point he reads to her a famous passage from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, without any apparent awareness that Black women might experience their own different form of invisibility, or all-too-visibility). The placement of “image” in the title reflects the film’s reflection on representation for worse and better: Larkin’s camera on the one hand taking in  soft porn and sexualized advertising billboards, and on the other offering a lovingly curated selection of photographs of Black women, existing not to be mimicked or subjected to hollow praise, but as cherished reference points in achieving growth and self-awareness (the film’s final photograph, of Larkin herself, adds a wonderfully personal perspective on this). The film has a warm and delicate approach to its characters: while it leaves no doubt that Vincent crosses a line (Alana explicitly accuses him of rape) it also allows us to see her from his perspective, to convey the heightened sense of presence and connection that contributes to his misreading of the moment, leading to a final note of partial reconciliation, in which Vincent seems to be at least starting out on better understanding her perspective.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

La vie est un roman (Alain Resnais, 1983)


In the closing moments of Alain Resnais’ delightfully singular La vie est un roman, one character asserts based on what’s transpired that, as her father always said, life isn’t a fairy tale (probably a more evocative translation of the French “ roman” than “bed of roses,” as used in the most common English version of the title), and another character almost immediately states the opposite, that it is – it’s a measure of the film’s barely graspable scope that both conclusions seem equally plausible (as does a third, that the answer will only become evident when one grows up, whenever that might be). One of the film’s main strands (in his post-WW1 magic-type castle, a rich man plans to have a group of people attain a new level of happiness) plays primarily like a fantasy that ends up tarnished; the other (in the present day, that same location hosts a conference on educational methods) sounds like the most unpromisingly grounded premise, but yields musical interludes, outsized behaviour, and unpredictable romantic entanglements. The gap seems to speak to the hopelessness of any sweeping diagnosis of human motivation and achievement: grand schemes take tragic turns, laying bare their founding naivete; life directions change on a whim; however serious an endeavor the conference may be, for the male attendees it’s still just as much about getting laid.  Both tales are built in part around a gasp-inducing model of the desired world, each an object of delight on its own terms, which nevertheless possibly restricts one’s grasp of reality as much as it provides a basis for engaging with it. In that vein, the film itself feels like a kind of experimental prototype, an early deployment of the theatrically-informed techniques that would dominate Resnais’ subsequent work, and the one that most explicitly invites us to contemplate them exactly as strategies for illumination and stimulation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Cardinal (Otto Preminger, 1963)


Otto Preminger's three-hour The Cardinal may have come as close as was then feasibly possible to examining the church's personal and political morality, taking its protagonist through wrenching personal dilemmas (whether to authorize for his sister an abortion that will save her life but kill that of her child), and rendering him a close-up witness to the cowardice of the Southern US church in the face of racism and to the utter complicity of the Austrian church in the rise of Nazism (the film seems to exonerate the Vatican itself in that regard though). The focal point is Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon), who returns from a Vatican education to a pastoral position in his home town of Boston, first learning the ropes of parish priesthood and expanding his personal sense of sacrifice and humility; later on taking a leave of absence to deal with doubts about his vocation before being posted to Rome and rising within the structure, ending on his being named to the titular position and a pending return to the US (it's hard to buy into Fermoyle's final words, in which he asserts that the American precepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are entirely congruent with the philosophy of the church). Preminger provides a reasonable amount of doctrinal debate (such as whether evolution contradicts creationism or is only the medium of it), while leaving Fermoyle a rather opaque figure - for instance, the film throws little light on how he reaches his decision to recommit to his vocation, after falling in love  with a young woman (Romy Schneider) during his leave of absence. But then, the mystery of faith is one of The Cardinal's core subjects, satisfyingly navigated by Preminger in a film that ambitiously grapples with the church's immensity and complexity, while (very obviously) leaving much unexplored.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

I Want to Go Home (Alain Resnais, 1989)


The main character of Alain Resnais’ I Want to Go Home, Joey Wellman, is a veteran American cartoonist (but not one of the top-tier ones, his work barely celebrated now) in Paris for a convention; his almost estranged daughter is already there, studying at the Sorbonne and trying to shed her roots, fixated on getting her thesis on Flaubert to the attention of a public intellectual (Gerard Depardieu) who however is more interested in the old man. The cartoonist is played by Adolph Green, much better known as a songwriter than an actor (I Want to Go Home isn’t a musical, but sometimes seems on the verge of becoming that); others involved in the project include Jules Feiffer, John Kander, Linda Lavin, Geraldine Chaplin and John Ashton (at the time widely recognizable from Beverly Hills Cop and other mainstream movies), with references ranging from Victor Hugo to Krazy Kat – it’s surely a unique mixture of cultural coordinates, carrying the sense of a cultural puzzle to be unlocked. This manifests itself for much of the way as sometimes grating and repetitive conflict (Joey’s complaining about even the smallest aspect of French culture might profitably have been pared back at least a little), although ultimately leading to a rather mysterious transference in which some of the central characters reorient their affiliations and arrive at reconciliation; the final shot in which Joey’s temporary new home in the country sprouts into a Disneyland-like castle is the final assertion of possibility. Ultimately, for all its annoyances, the film insists that one might find delight even in the most unlikely locations and interactions, if one is only open to it. And of course, if that’s not so easy, you can draw on the common ground of cultural touchstones– those small-town French people may not recognize the most basic words of English, but they know “Clint Eastwood”!

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

March or Die (Dick Richards, 1977)


Dick Richards’ March or Die is something of an oddity – a British-financed French foreign legion picture made in the late seventies, its cast encompassing Hollywood respectability (Gene Hackman), the European mainstream (Terence Hill) and arthouse class (Catherine Deneuve, Max von Sydow). The film reflects these competing resonances, with Hackman’s character often lost in dark brooding built on brutally hard-won life lessons and a keen sense of political realities, while Hill’s provides doses of exuberant anti-authoritarianism, and Deneuve (whose character is an object of fascination to all the male principals) embodies the tangled romantic perspectives that have always accompanied tales of the legion (in a nice touch, an old woman who spends the day wordlessly lost in her thoughts might be, on the basis of what we’re told of her back story, Marlene Dietrich’s character from von Sternberg’s Morocco). The core plot engages critically with the imperatives of colonialism, with Hackman’s Major Foster unenthusiastically drafted to protect an archaeological dig led by von Sydow’s Professor Marneau, knowing that the Arabs view the project (the proceeds of which will be shipped back to France) as mere plunder and that if things go bad, his men will be hopelessly outnumbered: when this proves correct, it makes for some truly eye-filling scenes of conflict, with the Arab leader El Krim unleashing wave after wave of fresh attacks on the wretched soldiers. The fact that El Krim is played by Ian Holm (with a crime-boss-like veneer of philosophical brutality) sums up some the film’s limitations; it’s also evident that those separate strands I mentioned don’t always easily coalesce (Hill’s breeziness belongs in a different filmic universe from Hackman’s tightly-wound, implication-heavy self-reflection). Nevertheless, the overall impact is more satisfyingly bracing than you might expect, notwithstanding a final scene packed with tired notions of ambiguously evocative closure.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

L'inhumaine (Marcel L'Herbier, 1924)


Marcel L’Herbier’s L’inhumaine is a feast of eye-popping design (the only film able to boast Fernand Leger as art director), audacious (albeit, by later standards, not entirely smoothly executed) narrative, and instinctive cinematic know-how. The film’s opening section immerses us in the world of singer Claire Lescot, an impervious goddess (she claims no interest in humanity, only in those exceptional individuals who transcend it) surrounded and fawned over by a diverse circle of would-be suitors. When she rejects one of them, the inventor Einar, he apparently drives his car over a cliff; her decision the next day to go ahead with a scheduled concert bolsters her reputation as an “inhuman woman” (in one of many witty digressions, a butcher is seen opining she has no innards, as he lays out those of his inventory for sale). However, Einar turns out to be alive, leading into a second half in which he leads a more passive Claire through a new world of technology, culminating in a life-changing finale which causes her to transcend her earlier philosophy (one of Einar’s inventions, observed almost in passing, is a world-spanning device that allows a performer to survey all those who are wirelessly listening to her, its rather mystically intoxicating impact clearly anticipating the lure, almost a century later, of virtual events and interactions and godlike access). L’Herbier’s sense of style and play even extends to the intertitles, executed in varying layouts and typefaces; the film has fire-eaters, a poisonous snake, intimations of the supernatural, and all manner of modernist interiors, furniture, devices, and figurative bells and whistles. The film’s home stretch in particular feels incompletely realized in some respects though, the sense of Claire’s character rather dissipating, and the train of events not rendered entirely clearly, all of which does partially add to its cherishable singularity.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954)


Kicking off with the sudden death of a furniture company President, Robert Wise’s Executive Suite then follows the machinations to secure a majority of the seven board votes that will decide his successor. Five of the seven voters have a declared or potential interest in the position, with the main dynamic pitting an overriding focus on maintaining the bottom line against a more organic, forward-looking approach based on innovation and investment. No doubt a remake would feel compelled to focus on a more glamorous sector than the furniture industry (but then, Wise’s film derives from the heart of the materialist Eisenhower-era boom); such a remake would surely spend more time too on environmental sustainability, which no one thought they needed to worry about back in those fortunate days (for an interesting modern-day reference point, Danone kicked out its CEO in 2021 for allegedly focusing too much on an “activist agenda” versus the bottom line). Some aspects of the film remain interesting from a technical perspective: the one unscrupulous director (Louis Calhern) who sold the stock short to capitalize on an expected decline, and sees it going against him; the machinations of the vote itself. But it’s disappointing that in the end it comes down to typical movie speechifying by the youngest and most visionary of the group (William Holden), the opposition crumbling with improbable speed, and that other than a clunky initial sequence shot from the perspective of the doomed President, Wise never achieves anything very cinematically interesting. The cast also includes Fredric March as the very epitome of the blinkered numbers man (another character bitingly snipes at his "night school CPA") and Barbara Stanwyck, the only woman on the board, but only as a result of family inheritance rather than business acumen (a gender bias of its time, not yet fully rectified in our own).

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

In Search of Famine (Mrinal Sen, 1981)


Mrinal Sen’s In Search of Famine initially immerses us in the exuberance of movie-making, with a crew arriving from the city to film a drama about a 1943 famine, settling into the dilapidated mansion they’re to use as a base; early on, the fascinated locals crowd around to observe the filming of every scene, marveling at the magic being created (a nice throwaway scene has a someone riding through town advertising a screening of The Guns of Navarone, described as a unique masterpiece starring the world’s greatest actress, “Anthony Queen”). But the filmmakers’ moral compass is rapidly shown to be confused, the plot seeming to be tangled in melodramatics, and with inadequate thinking about the representation of such suffering (in one scene, they use historical photos of famine victims as a guessing game to while away the time); when they hit on the idea of casting a local as a woman forced into prostitution to feed her family, it triggers an outrage, exacerbated by the film crew’s destabilization of the shaky local economy, and the crew quietly packs up and leaves, probably headed for the greater comfort of the studio. The final moments focus on the sad subsequent fate of one of the women with whom they cross paths, her face receding into darkness, a piercing cinematic moment emphasizing all that the film within the film fails to grasp or engage with. Sen’s treatment of the crew, a strenuously urbane, quote-spewing bunch, often verges on satire, but of a kind tinged with melancholy; more broadly, the film is deliberately hard to read in its desired equilibrium of sorrow and anger, in the degree of culpability we should assign for various events depicted. If it doesn’t ultimately feel completely satisfying, that may be as it should be; developments of subsequent decades (such as the proliferation of the reality genre) increase the film’s ambiguous richness.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)


There’s a desperate quality to the title of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; a miscalculated belief that the strenuous repetition could pound the underlying movie into the desired comic nirvana. Plainly it didn’t work out that way – the film (which is propelled by a dying man’s revelation of buried treasure, heard by five men who subsequently race against each other to get to it first, drawing in other participants along the way) has few actual laughs or notable comic invention, but a vast (or let’s say, a mad, mad, mad, mad) amount of yelling and shrieking and bickering. It’s sometimes fairly handsome at least, with much of the action taking place against imposing scenic backdrops, and of course some ideas land better than others, if only through sheer effort (Jonathan Winters contributes to a fair percentage of those; Ethel Merman to none of them, although of course that’s a matter of taste, if such a term can possibly be applied here). Perhaps the most intriguing, if underdeveloped, element is the withering vision of marriage and male-female relationships in general; among other things, Terry-Thomas’ English interloper character has a strange digression about the emasculation of the American male, and one of the wives comments in apparent seriousness that her dream, if she had most of the money for herself, might be to use it to get into a convent, but it goes no deeper than that. Spencer Tracy (playing a detective who’s been after the loot for years) is given more space than anyone else to build a more complexly motivated character, but he hardly seems fully present (which does at least provide some contrast to the all-too-present central cast). The array of cameos only means that the movie existing on the margins (Buster Keaton turns up for about a minute, the Three Stooges for a single shot) often seems to carry greater potential than the one at the centre.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (Eric Rohmer, 1993)

It might seem ironic that Eric Rohmer’s The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, his most resolutely localized film, also has perhaps the most wide-ranging dialogue of any of his films, the conversations at various points touching on the Amazon forests, the science of global warming, the impact of technology on work patterns, and the merits and characteristics of various ideological and political systems, to name but a few. But this speaks to the richness of Rohmer’s project, of illuminating how local issues become larger ones, with a corresponding difficulty in ever identifying the right thing to do, let alone getting it done. The mayor (Pascal Greggory) plans to build the mediatheque in the centre of the village (it’s amusing that such a project, where we’re told visitors will be able to watch films not available elsewhere, would long since have been rendered largely obsolete by streaming), along with an open-air theatre and swimming pool, creating local jobs and attracting more visitors, but with inevitable impacts on traffic volumes, centuries-old landscapes and so on, including the ancient tree referred to in the title (however, to focus primarily on the tree, as a magazine piece does in covering the dispute, simplifies the complexity). In the end, the plan falls apart for mostly bureaucratic reasons, and the movie ends on a song, straddling sincerity and satire, about taking the right steps for future generations. Romance is a secondary consideration here, and one might superficially dismiss the characters as being largely mouthpieces, but that would overlook Rohmer’s attentiveness to small but illuminating details, and his genuine immersion in the world depicted – we get to see the mayor’s garden in such detail that you might plausibly be able to sketch out the whole thing afterwards. And much as it may seem to end on a celebratory note, the film raises too many urgent issues not to leave a somewhat disquieting aftertaste.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Green Ice (Ernest Day, 1981)


Ernest Day’s Green Ice may be most notable for being the movie playing in a mall theatre in Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties, making a small but cherishable contribution to Akerman's exploration of its era’s not-so-golden ideology. Day's film, in (extreme) contrast, doesn’t provide much to think over, being a blandly shapeless mishmash of elements. Omar Sharif plays Meno Argenti, an expatriate Italian who’s a bigshot in the Colombian emerald racket, while primarily focused on getting back into his first love of the diamond market, from which he was exiled for past transgressions; to that end, he strategically romances the highly-connected Holbrook (Anne Archer), but she’s more interested in aiding the cause of the rebels he exploits (the passages with the rebels, while hardly politically daring, are at least among the film’s more relatively meaningful). An under-achieving electrical engineer, Joseph Wiley (Ryan O’Neal) gets drawn in, as people do, eventually leading to a daring heist on Argenti’s supposedly impenetrable emerald-hoarding fortress, and various subsequent showdowns. As in a movie like The Tamarind Seed (another use of Sharif as all-purpose foreigner, in that instance Russian), Maurice Binder’s title sequence is easily the most visually striking aspect of the experience, while bearing no stylistic or thematic relationship to anything in the movie proper. Day (better known as a cinematographer) shows himself to be a wondrously perfunctory director, with even the supposed visual highlights counting for little or nothing. Other oddities include a (not generally very helpful) score by Bill Wyman, and the casting of Philip Stone (the barman from The Shining) as one of Sharif’s heavies, the Kubrickian resonances wondrously out of place here. O’Neal and Sharif (both at the end of their heydays, and rightly so on this evidence) deliver startlingly dull, disengaged performances. We can safely assume that the mall theatre I mentioned would have had few satisfied customers that week…