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).

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

 

A film like Martin Ritt’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold takes on an additionally bleak resonance in the post-Trump presidency period, where every day provides added evidence of how easily principle is abandoned, corruption is embraced, and black is proclaimed as white: one major difference is that whereas Ritt’s film describes a world of grubby little men mostly operating in shabby circumstances, our modern day schemers and traitors stand proudly under the coldly facilitating lights of social media. Without such present-day reference points, such cold war films might increasingly seem to retreat into pure dated abstraction, endless games of positioning in which the assessment of political (let alone moral) ground won versus lost becomes impossibly rarified and subjective. Spy who Came in from the Cold – revolving around a field officer now (apparently) out of the game, his personal weaknesses perhaps driving him to flirt with treachery -  remains one of the more compelling examples of the genre, not least for the wondrously drab depiction of working-class Britain, with several references to the low wages for which people toil away, and an almost total absence of any sense of pleasure and fulfilment beyond what alcohol provides, all of which squashes any sense of ideological idealism; indeed, the most biting enmity in the film is between an ex-Nazi and a Jew who now find themselves (officially at least) on the same side, old prejudices and resentments at best only temporarily suspended. For all the film’s condensed and stylized aspects, it conveys a compelling sense of pervasive societal unease and insecurity, capable of pushing people toward extreme action, even if they could hardly explain the specific logic of those actions. Richard Burton, seldom an ideal film actor, is at his most effective here, his stiffness befitting a character consumed by self-loathing and cynicism.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Un jeu brutal (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983)

 

The title of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Un jeu brutal might refer both to the specific contrivance that’s ultimately revealed to drive the plot, and to the all-embracing, terrible wonder of creation – it’s a measure of Brisseau’s conviction, his odd brand of depraved poetry, that the duality doesn’t seem merely pretentious. Christian Tessier (Bruno Cremer) is a brilliant scientist who quits his role in cancer research (sacrificing potential saviour-status when his former colleagues shortly afterwards announce a breakthrough) and returns to live with his teenaged daughter Isabelle (a memorable Emmanuelle Debever), in whom he’s shown no interest for years; she’s paralyzed in both legs, her behaviour almost feral, and he imposes a new regime of order and education on her life, the faltering progress of which accelerates after she becomes more sexually aware (by virtue of secretly observing her young female teacher lounging naked in her room, and later through her partially reciprocated attraction to the teacher’s visiting brother). Meanwhile, on his frequent trips away, Tessier is carrying out a parallel project of slaughtering children, in what he ultimately reveals as a plan ordained (in improbable coded message form) by God. The film frequently pushes us to reflect on the cruelty of the natural order, and while Tessier clamps down on Isabelle’s nastiness to animals and lack of empathy, the object appears to be to harness and direct the darkness of one’s nature rather than to suppress it, for the purpose of more fully emerging into the light – Brisseau frequently bathes in the varied beauty of the landscapes around the house, from field to river to mountain, with individual scenes evoking concepts of baptism, or pilgrimage, or rebirth. It would be a stretch to call the film entirely admirable or credible, but it may linger in the mind longer than many more straightforwardly consideration-worthy works.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Brave (Johnny Depp, 1997)

 

Seen in retrospect, Johnny Depp’s The Brave (made when the actor was just about at his peak of coolness, preceding the commercial highs to come and the subsequent reputational collapse) seems suffused by a desire to withdraw – into silence (there’s little dialogue, and none at all for the first ten minutes or so), into myth and beyond. The film is set around a hand-to-mouth melting-pot community, the landscape dominated by mounds of garbage and shimmering heatscapes, which suddenly yield to something quasi-Lynchian as Depp’s unemployed and luckless Raphael, following on a tip he received in a bar, enters a strange building to ask about a job, descending into a symbolic hell in which he’s eventually offered $50,000 to extinguish himself in a snuff film in a week's time. Taking the offer and a cash advance on the basis of stunningly little negotiation, Raphael conspicuously spreads the money around, attracting various kinds of suspicion; at the end of the week, he’s strengthened his core spiritual bonds, while putting himself beyond redemption in other ways. The film resists the audience’s most likely expectations, whether for some kind of last-minute escape or for any depiction of what Raphael must finally endure; with his business with the world as we know it concluded, it leaves his final hell to him and his acquirers. Depp has an intriguing if patchy feeling for eccentricity, although it’s a rather distant viewing experience, even allowing that this is inherent to what’s intended. The film has at least one major see-it-if-you-can aspect, the casting of a long-haired Marlon Brando in one of his last roles, extending the fateful offer from a wheelchair, in between musing on pain as a virtuous end to life and blowing on a harmonica, a performance no doubt “phoned in” by some measures, and yet embodying Brando’s unmatched capacity to transform whatever cinematic space he (however peculiarly) chose to occupy.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Plaisir d'amour (Nelly Kaplan, 1991)

 

Nelly Kaplan’s last feature film, Plaisir d’amour, works an enjoyable if not ultimately too surprising variation on a self-gratifying male fantasy. Guillaume (Pierre Arditi), a practiced seducer (1,003 past conquests, we’re informed), chances into a position as tutor to a teenage girl on a tropical island; the girl is absent when he arrives, but while waiting for her arrival he separately beds, with little difficulty, her grandmother, mother and sister, all of whom share an elegantly dilapidated colonial mansion, with no male authority figure in sight. He figures he’ll step into the driver’s seat, but his attempts to impose greater order and efficiency get nowhere, and he becomes obsessed with the perpetually delayed girl (whose letters home and readily accessible diary indicates a psyche of a sexual rapaciousness that outdoes his own). The film suggests greater moral stakes through glimpses of fighting between the island’s army and its rebel faction, and through its late 1930’s setting, with WW2 percolating in the distance; and steadily muddies the sexual waters (both the women’s eccentric servant (Heinz Bennent) and their talking parrot appear to regard Guillaume as an object of desire); frequent references to Albert Einstein and a fanciful opening sequence throw in some scientific and mystical resonances as well. In the closing stretch, it becomes clear how little power and agency Guillaume has had throughout – he tips over into quasi-madness, and becomes a simple nuisance, his utility spent. It’s in no way a major film (not the equal of Kaplan’s La fiancĂ©e du pirate, which is much more zestily provocative on its own terms, and more broadly resonant as a social critique), but it’s an elegant one, even if a lot of it plays very conventionally and decoratively (there’s seldom a moment when any of the women seem to be behaving entirely naturally, albeit that this fits in with the artificially heightened nature of things).

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Solid Gold Cadillac (Richard Quine, 1956)


For all its contrivances and simplifications, Richard Quine’s The Solid Gold Cadillac is notable as one of the few movies about shareholder democracy, its uplifting finale revolving around the collection of sufficient small-stake proxy voting forms to overturn the complacent status quo. Laura Partridge (Judy Holliday), on the basis of her meagre holding of ten shares, regularly attends the meetings of the mighty corporation International Projects, irritating the complacent board members with her probing questions about their compensation packages and the like; they eventually give her a job, on the theory that it’s the best way to stifle her, but her threat to the established order only grows, especially when she starts a relationship with the company’s ousted founder McKeever (Paul Douglas), now in a high-ranking but unsatisfying Washington position. The film unnecessarily blunts its attack by, among other things, portraying the directors as such inept, disengaged boobs that they couldn’t possibly have attained such power (their sole plan to increase profitability is to get more government contracts, for which their strategy seems to consist solely of endlessly begging McKeever for them). The titular automobile only appears in the very last scene, as a symbol of Partridge’s ultimate professional and romantic triumph - the film switches from black and white to colour to better showcase the vehicle’s stunningness, although it’s rather a shame that a film that holds up corporate integrity and ethics would end on such a grandiose symbol of conspicuous consumption. For all the dismal personal behaviour on display, the movie is likely to be watched now with a significant amount of nostalgia, for a time when bloated dreams of self-enrichment capped out at annual salaries of a few hundred thousand dollars, or when an insignificant stakeholder like Partridge could even grab as much of the executive suite’s attention as she does here.