Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976)


It’s common to think of Arthur Penn as flourishing in the sixties and relatively losing his creative direction afterwards, but his 1976 The Missouri Breaks suggests a filmmaker no less in tune with changing times and currents – if most viewers found that harder to see, it may be a kind of commentary in itself. The film, not much admired at the time, is perhaps his most playfully ambiguous work (inherent in the very title - is “breaks” a noun or a verb?), starting by establishing a Western landscape of dubious morality - a local land baron catches a rustler and hangs him without a trial (a subsequent mock trial scene for the entertainment of saloon patrons seems to deny the very possibility of justice) -and ending in near-madness. Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) is a fellow member of the rustler gang who buys a ranch adjacent to the baron’s land and is soon romancing his daughter, while trying to evade the scrutiny of the feared “regulator” (Marlon Brando). Night Moves may be the stronger overall candidate as Penn’s post-Watergate film, but it’s evoked here in the notion of troubled, ethically-teetering governance and in the recurring point-of-view surveillance shots through Lee’s binoculars. If for nothing else, the movie would be memorable for Brando’s wondrously escalating eccentricity, encompassing a drag scene and a final scene where he flirts with one of his horses while extravagantly chiding the other. But beyond their specific interest as pure performance, these scenes add complexity to a final stretch that emphasizes breakdown both of the narrative mechanics (Brando tracks down and kills the other gang members with what seems like omnipotent ease) and of individual certainties, the land baron suffering a stroke or something like it and becoming dependent on his old servant, and the final scene between Logan and the daughter suggesting a future alliance across lines of law and money. Here too, perhaps, we sense the weight of the stagnant post-Nixonian era, the old structures feeling spent, their replacements yet to be fully established.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Une femme mariee (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

Godard’s extraordinary Une femme mariee is a film of identities drained of certainties, in which the then-present, for all its new attainments in technology and sophistication, can barely support the most basic point of meaning. The plot (as always a relative term in engaging with Godard) concerns Charlotte, a young woman married to one man and having affair with another; toward the end of the film she finds out she’s pregnant and doesn’t know by which one. The film has some of Godard’s most beautiful in-the-moment compositions – legs against legs, hands on hands – but marked by stillness and formality rather than erotic urgency; Charlotte appears to inhabit a kind of eternal now which might be seen as a kind of benign drift or as something more ominous. Her intellectual drift is such that she can’t remember what Auschwitz refers to, but she easily absorbs lightweight articles about assessing the perfection of one’s bust, and when the doctor confirms her pregnancy, she can hardly engage with the implications beyond the purely immediate: wondering how painful will childbirth be, and whether she should be able to identify the father based on the relative pleasure the two men gave her. But then, that only mirrors the desire of both men to father a child by her, apparently as a means of clarifying and limiting her identity: one is an actor and the other a pilot, both often away and thus hampered in their control over her (in the past her husband even hired a private detective to follow her), despite their copious criticisms and instructions. The film’s subtitle announces itself as fragments from a film made in 1964, as if apologizing in advance to the future audiences for whom it appears incomplete and dated; of course to some degree it’s both those things, but it continues to speak quite mesmerizingly to our incapacity to locate and assert ourselves in the face of increasing complexity and commodification.


Friday, September 4, 2020

Silver Bears (Ivan Passer, 1977)

 

Ivan Passer opens Silver Bears with a scene of fleshy New York crime bosses getting naked in a hot tub, suggesting an exercise in intimate exposure ahead; funnily enough though, the movie that follows mainly regards people as chess pieces in the game of international finance, with only cursory characterization, albeit of quirky historical interest (it may not be widely realized that Jay Leno, Tom Smothers, Stephane Audran, Louis Jourdan and Cybill Shepherd were ever in the same movie). The quite clever plot has one of those bosses buying a Swiss bank and dispatching his financial wizard Doc Fletcher (Michael Caine) to run it: the bank turns out to be a wreck, but Fletcher turns things round through a lucrative investment in an Iranian silver mine, which makes the bank a potential acquisition target both for American financiers and for British metal traders, complicated by the fact that Caine wants the bank for himself, and that, oh, the mine doesn’t actually exist, except as a fictional cover for a smuggling operation. In its lighthearted and mostly non-judgmental way the movie is fairly thought-provoking about such matters as the abstract complexity of deal making and the ethics of financial reporting, and although there’s sometimes a sense of Passer rushing to hold the whole thing together, his pleasure is infectious (in some ways, such as the Shepherd character’s uncomplicated approach to adultery, it might represent an extension of the Czech spring’s preoccupation with creative and personal freedom). It would be intriguing to view the film in a double bill with Passer’s next film, Cutter’s Way, in which images of privilege clash with outbursts of paranoia, dark fantasy and instability, and the sense of entitlement that Silver Bears leaves largely unexamined is diagnosed (even more clearly in retrospect) as an element of American division and fracture.

Friday, August 28, 2020

De l'autre cote (Chantal Akerman, 2002)


For the first hour or so, Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre cote observes the Mexican side of the border with the US, the camera either trained on or tracking along desolate landscapes, sometimes with the border wall plainly in sight, or else fixedly recording the often fragmented testimony of a series of witnesses. This portion of the film feels like a search for something that can’t be fully articulated, perhaps because it’s so fully defined by absence – of those who left and never came back, of a clear sense of what the promise of America will really amount to, but also of an ability to escape its pull. The film then switches to the American side, taking on a relatively more conventional and diagnostic feel, its interviewees more self-righteously certain of themselves (inevitably though, watched in an era of covid-19, the couple who worry about disease coming in over the border and about who should get the vaccine first in the event of limited supplies resonate a bit differently now). With great efficiency (because the political story is essentially simpler than the human one) it sets out the policy decisions that focused greater resources on certain established crossing points, with the (possibly unintended but surely at least foreseeable) effect of increasing the suffering and death in the desert; all of this perpetrated by an economy that in large part depends on the very people it so demonizes. The film ends by contrasting the ultimate abstraction of migrants reduced by heat-tracking technology to blobs of white on a screen, with a final extended story of perseverance and ultimate loss. Measured by geographic distance covered, it’s not such a “large” film, and yet the hindsight of subsequent years confirms the fraughtly elevated nature of its subjects, their lives narrowly defined by immediate life experiences, and yet charged with a symbolic and political significance that challenges us across time and distance.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961)


The title of Samuel Fuller’s Underworld, U.S.A. points to its major irony: this is an America where organized crime has reached its highest calling, operating out of a fancy office building with a rooftop swimming pool, hiding in all but plain sight behind legitimate tax-paying businesses and charitable endeavours and organized into reporting units, with a CEO who chides his lieutenants for under-performing numbers (unforgivable, when so many of the country’s 13 million children have yet to be converted into dope fiends). The organization’s single-mindedness swamps the resources of law enforcement (itself depicted here as either corrupt or else pathetically susceptible to manipulation), but it remains vulnerable to a dose of its own poison, delivered here in the form of Cliff Robertson’s Tolly Devlin, who as a teenager watched from the shadows as four men ganged up to kill his father, and now seeks to get revenge on the three survivors (all now high-ranking, if hardly impregnable, executives), by feigning loyalty and working his way up inside. The idea of family runs through the film in various perverse ways, from his hard-bitten quasi-mother figure whose doll collection is, it’s suggested, a compensation for her inability to have children; to Tolly’s contemptuous reaction when the forlorn “Cuddles” suggests he and she might get married; to a daughter calmly bearing witness to the unmasking of her police chief father’s corruption; to the astoundingly pitiless killing of a little girl as a means of putting pressure on her informant father. The movie mostly lacks the more grandly-conceived moments that so elevate Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss, but its controlled relentlessness serves all the better to establish the challenge to societal optimism. It serves up a fantastic closing set-up though, of Tolly’s demise under a blood donor poster, and the final ultra-Fuller-ish close-up of his dead clenched fist.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Vivre ensemble (Anna Karina, 1973)


Anna Karina made her directorial debut Vivre ensemble in the wake of her main period of international stardom, during which she was usually cast as a pretty enigma, seldom explored as a human being (although she does play the least artificial character in The Magus, for what that’s worth). Vivre ensemble, in which she also stars, might have been conceived as an explicit rebuke to such categorization, emphasizing in every scene her character’s individualism and impulsiveness. At the start, it teases us with the promise of a straightforward love story, emphasizing the bolt-of-lightning attraction between Julie and Alain, set against peppily soft music, and soon afterwards establishing the intoxicating nature of their sexual connection. But Karina takes her film in unpredictable directions – literally so in the case of an interlude in New York, providing a fascinating outsider’s perspective on Vietnam protests, drifting lifestyles and pre-gentrification neighborhoods. On returning to France they have a child, prompting her to a greater sense of purpose and direction, but by then he’s stuck moving in the opposite direction (Days of Wine and Roses may come to mind as a general reference point) – they break up, and the film ends on a note of well-judged, hurting uncertainty. The film is well attuned to the limits of its titular state of being together, its point-of-view close-ups suggesting they see each other rather as movie characters, most alive when directly confronted, but otherwise largely unknowable (Karina deglamorizes herself in some respects, while often suggesting that her wide eyes and easy smile are as much a disguise as a window). This may link to a vein of otherwise unacknowledged movie love which evokes Karina’s formative period with Godard – posters of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers prominently displayed in the apartment, an argument over whether the baby’s name is Jules or Jim. Overall, the film should be seen as far more than a quirky footnote in Karina’s filmography; perhaps it can be understood as a weary conversation with much of what preceded it.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The United States of America (James Benning & Bette Gordon, 1975)



Lasting just 27 minutes, James Benning and Bette Gordon’s The United States of America is nevertheless a film as big as its title, following a spring 1975 road trip from New York to the West Coast, the two of them in the front seats, the camera observing from the same unchanging fixed position behind them. The approach quickly establishes itself, holding a shot for ten seconds or so before replacing it with another one from further along in the journey, passing through small towns and large ones, through mountain ranges and plains; with each transition, the sound of one radio station merges into another, providing a snatch of yet another staple of the period (Minnie Riperton’s Loving You comes up several times) or of the latest news update on Patty Hearst or Vietnam. There’s no conversation between the two, and we never get a good look at their faces – as such this might seem like a bizarrely reductive approach to the subject. But it’s a film where the smallest variation - such as the couple of times when she takes the wheel - becomes almost thrilling, and the editing is superb, establishing the time and distance elapsed while evoking a kind of transcendental, above-it-all state of being. The last thing we hear on the radio is a dumb quip about the President’s golf game, after which there’s emptiness, an abandoned vehicle and the vast ocean stretching ahead, a moment of arrival that can’t help but be anti-climactic, even banal, for how much can one ever understand as a spectator, whether the seat is in a car or before a screen? Seen as such in the present day, the film seems to be foreseeing the subsequent fracturing of American unity and resolve, positing it as a structural construct imposed on a near-infinity of unresolved diversity and difference.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, 1965)


It’s impossible to watch Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (or any of the Czech films of its era) now without a major application of hindsight, as a key film in the run-up to the 1968 Prague Spring and to the subsequent August invasion and crack-down (during which Forman would leave the country). The film shimmers with the desire for freedom – not so much politically (although that can be inferred) but certainly personally and artistically. This desire is inherent in the structure, starting with a young woman who’s tangential to what follows belting out a boisterous love song direct to the camera, then pivoting to the protagonist Andula snuggling in bed with a girlfriend, talking about the man she loves, just as she’ll be doing at the end, except by then she'll be talking about a different person, and we’ll be better aware of how much wistful fantasy colours her account. She works in a small-town factory and lives in the hostel attached to it: there’s a military base nearby and the women are at least tacitly encouraged to be available for the relief of the soldiers posted there; it’s an eternal irony that the easiest way to dodge those unwanted advances is to submit to those of someone else, in her case those of a visiting piano player. The bedroom scenes that follow are daringly lovely, but when she follows him to Prague, it’s to end up spending time with his bickering parents, in an extended deadpan comedy set-up that at the same time is meaningfully poignant. But the movie’s quiet magic lies simply in the sense of delight and exercised liberty that underlies its choices: to observe one thing at such length while skipping over another; to rest on thisface or on that one, just because; to start and end as it chooses, with little implied capacity to foretell, much less shape, the future.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)


Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is one of Hollywood’s most deeply beautiful creations, because its beauty draws on that of cinema itself: the eternally addictive mystery of a projection that entirely captivates and shapes us while it’s playing, but then starts immediately to fade, inevitably becoming lost. In this case, the spectator is Louis Jourdan’s Stefan Brand, a gifted concert pianist and hopeless skirt-chaser, who bewitches Joan Fontaine’s Lisa Berndle through her entire adult life, and at one point spends a magical day and night with her during which he pronounces himself captivated and impregnates her, but then forgets, remembering only when it’s too late. Summarized that way, the film is a study of perpetual presence, but the narrative voice and primary focus is that of Lisa, from which it’s a tale of recurring absence and longing: Ophuls holds the two sides in perfect harmony. Fontaine is a study here in delicate but principled yearning; Lisa’s initial fascination with Stefan may be helpless, but at a certain point it becomes her defining characteristic, such that she perhaps comes to value the fantasy over the reality; the scene where they “travel” by train from one country to the next courtesy of simple fairground illusions sweetly embodies such preferences. The film starts with Stefan about to flee from a duel, and ends with him submitting to it: in a sense, we ultimately understand, his adversary is his own guilt, in the final flourish of the film’s structural magnificence. Writing this in mid-2020, it can almost seem that every movie is a kind of premonition of the current pandemic – it certainly lends an additional chill here to the moment where Lisa and her son get into an empty train carriage, followed by a guard reminding another that it’s quarantined and off-limits, the sweet escapism of that earlier artificial train journey replaced by a deathly reality.

Friday, July 17, 2020

La signora senza camelie (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953)


Michelangelo Antonioni’s La signora senza camelie immerses us immediately into modern-day myth – a young woman (Lucia Bose), discovered while working in a fabric store, becomes a star with her first movie, long before she has any sense of herself as an actress, or even as a woman. She allows the momentum to sweep her into marrying one of the film's producers, mainly because that's what he decides, and then into his unsuitable remake of Joan of Arc, a flop which immediately kills any sense of her (among industry and public alike) as much more than a pretty face. Summarized that way, the film may not sound much like Antonioni, and indeed the depiction of the filmmaking milieu (including some delicious looks at the filming of a cheesy sand and sandals flick) provides less exacting pleasures than we expect of him. But the film’s ultimate narrative and thematic architecture, built on bitterly ironic personal defeat, is entirely his. After a period of withdrawal and attempted growth, she suddenly realizes (while wandering among a desolate-seeming group of extras in Cinecitta Studio) that it’s all hopeless, and impulsively decides to embrace in all its superficiality the identity that the world seems to desire for her, accepting a superficial role that she’d previously turned down and even deciding to accept the ongoing advances of a man she'd also rejected, knowing the limits of his interest in her. In the final shot she poses for a celebratory group photograph – the photographer asks for a smile and she smiles, perfectly and chillingly, at once a star and a cadavre. The later Antonioni would no doubt have extended the sense of ambiguity and alienation in more complexly intuitive directions, but the sense of a director finding his fullest self is entirely apposite to the film’s theme; by the same token, it’s not necessarily a weakness that Bose doesn’t convey the emotional grandeur of Monica Vitti in the great works to come.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Privilege (Yvonne Rainer, 1990)


Yvonne Rainer’s amazing Privilege seems at first like a relatively conventional documentary on menopause, made up in large part of filmed testimonies: given society’s (as the film establishes) general unease with the topic, it would hold interest if it were no more than this. But things rapidly start to morph and pivot: a title card announces a new film within the film, also called Privilege, but now driven by a different Yvonne (played by an actress) interviewing a middle-aged woman called Jenny on the topic, which in turn opens up a dramatization of an anecdote from Jenny’s earlier days in New York, extending the canvas from biological determination to include issues of class and race (and, well, pretty much everything). The challenge of traversing the change of life becomes just one bridge in a dizzyingly complex landscape, in which awareness of one’s privilege in one area may only increase one’s blindness to in others: the film maintains its narrative and formal unpredictability to the end, shifting its focus and its technique, even to the point of sometimes hardly bothering to be a film (often we’re just staring at substantial blocks of text on a computer screen). The film’s challenge extends to the smallest matters of filmic convention, announcing itself as a film “by Yvonne Rainer and many others”, and starting to run the closing credits some fifteen minutes before the end, taking up much of that time observing a gathering of cast and crew, emphasizing the collective and essentially celebratory nature of the project. It’s a celebration, that is, insofar as attitudes have traveled some distance – a woman talks near the end about the relief of being able to talk openly now about not wanting children – but one carried out in full acknowledgment of remaining fractures, prejudices, blind spots and injustices.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Humain, trop humain (Louis Malle & Rene Vautier, 1974)


The act of observing industrial production is inherently political, inherently provocative, susceptible to radically different readings based on context. Watching Humain, trop humain’s images of workers engaged in menially repetitive tasks constituting tiny incremental steps in the production-line process, notions of exploitation of dehumanization run rampant, especially as the film barely shows any interaction between the workers, any expressions of pleasure or satisfaction. And yet, watched at almost fifty years’ remove, these may strike us as the “solid” blue collar jobs for which there’s so much (no doubt distorted) nostalgia. Actually, any such nostalgia is probably less for the jobs as such than for the communities built around them and the life structures they facilitated, an aspect of the “big picture” absent from Malle’s film. He does however include a long section in a trade show, including the only dialogue in the film (and a lot of it) as potential customers come out with their questions and criticisms and past grievances, all of it of course directed by individual desire, disconnected from any consideration of what might be involved in satisfying it. Obviously the film’s omissions are greater than its presences (which perhaps is only to say it’s not as big as the world), and it’s well-established that filming such structures constitutes its own intersection of chillingly abstracted beauty and fundamental ugliness. The final freeze frame of a woman’s blank face seems like a final testimony on the spiritual emptiness of her lot in life, but we might also recall Kuleshov’s experiment, and reflect how little we know about her, and how ill-equipped we are to make any judgment on the basis of such minimal exposure and investigation. All of which leaves us with a film which most of us would reflexively describe as (say) “valuable” or “interesting”, and yet which may obscure or even distort far more than it reveals.


Friday, June 26, 2020

Stormy Weather (Andrew Stone, 1943)


Andrew Stone’s Stormy Weather is more than familiar in many respects: a plot driven by male and female protagonists (Bill Robinson and Lena Horne) finding and losing and re-finding each other, while making their way through a varied selection of showbiz settings, drawing on familiar kinds of artifice (exemplified during Horne’s performance of the title song, when a window at the very back of the theatrical stage on which she’s performing yields to an entirely separate, more cinematically elaborate dance number). But it has a truth lacking in many other musicals of its era – that of the African-American performers who possess the spotlight here as they seldom did in other films, and that of the constraints placed upon them. The film’s most brilliant stretch is at the very end – after wrapping up the notional plot, it immerses itself in pure thrilling performance, Cab Calloway’s indelible “Jumpin’ Jive” yielding to a still-breathtaking dance routine by the Nicholas Brothers, and then a final curtain call: it almost feels as if the joy and artistry of black art might be breaking through and forming its own reality. There’s a lot to be broken through though: some of the film’s earlier numbers are certainly uncomfortable viewing now, whether for the astoundingly offensive headgear worn by the female dancers in one number, or the poundingly underlined jungle motifs in another. Fortunately, this aspect of things fades as the film continues, adding to that sense of coalescing. Whatever its weaknesses, the movie feels free on its own terms, its all-black world completely viable and unremarkable, a vision which rather enchants however much it denies painful reality. Robinson is a statement in himself – already in his sixties and almost forty years older than Horne (although not looking it, especially not when his feet are doing their thing) and yet at the end of his career, with this to be his last film, promise and loss eternally intertwined.

Friday, June 19, 2020

La gueule ouverte (Maurice Pialat, 1974)


La gueule ouverte is in some senses one of Maurice Pialat’s smaller scale films – following the final weeks of Monique, spent at home in a small town after discharged by a Paris hospital, watched over by her shopkeeper husband, occasionally visited by her son Philippe and less often by his wife Nathalie – but as large as any of them in the extraordinary, frank honesty of its observation and its evocative capacity. Both father and son are established as fairly active adulterers, and yet in Philippe’s case at least this coexists with an apparently highly active sex life with Nathalie – the film presents such compulsiveness in all its sometimes glorious, sometimes desperate inevitability, understanding that those involved may make their peace with it, or maintain their own stories (the film withholds much information about Nathalie in particular): still, at least through modern eyes, the father’s behaviour toward his customers calls out for some form of “me too” intervention. But at the same time, the film’s use of nudity sums up Pialat’s imposing honesty – his observation of a woman who cleans herself and gets dressed after a brief encounter with Pierre later stunningly echoed by the observation of Monique’s naked body lifted from her deathbed. The moments leading to her death are observed with great gravity and respect, every anguished breath rewriting the air around it: afterwards Pialat succinctly establishes how some things are forever changed, while others continue with their usual banality. The contrast between the film’s second-last shot - looking out from the back of Philippe’s car as he drives away, at first down the town’s poky streets and then onto the highway back toward the city - and the closing view of the father (alone in his shop, turning off the lights) seems to evoke the conversation between the cosmic and the earthbound, confirming that the film was all along far more huge in scope than the everyday sum of its parts.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Cane River (Horace Jenkins, 1982)


Horace Jenkins’ Cane River was essentially unknown until its long-delayed release in 2020, derailed by the director’s sudden death, and it’s hard now not to view the film somewhat sentimentally. That’s not untrue to the prevailing tone – it’s suffused in pleasantly unchallenging R&B music, and Jenkins has a weakness for pretty pictures. But the film also has a strong vein of historically conscious toughness, rejecting any fuzzily unitary view of black identity and affinity. Richard Romain plays Peter, returning home to rural Louisiana after turning his back on a possible pro football career; on his first full day he runs into Tommye Myrick’s Maria, and they strike up an immediate flirtatious connection which goes on from there. Except that he’s a Creole with a relatively privileged background and family name, and she’s a simple descendant of slaves; he by some assessments is “too good” for her, and her mother refuses to believe his interest in her daughter could be anything other than exploitative and opportunistic. The division is real – he can afford to walk away from football money because he doesn’t like the ambiance, pursuing a vague notion of being a poet; he has relatives who live on sprawling family estates, and so on: ironically, his circumstances allow him to withdraw into a sentimental notion of home, where her lack of comparable advantage demands that she look outward, to attend college in New Orleans and establish a distance from family (their religions are also pointedly different). Nothing in the film is really tied up (including a subplot about Peter’s attempt to regain some familial land that he believes was stolen), and it ends on a throwaway romantic note that seems unequal to what came before. But the film’s peculiarities and objective weaknesses are inherent to its appeal, speaking to continuing open wounds of race and class that can’t be smoothed over, to an authenticity that refuses narrative strictures.