Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Secret defense (Jacques Rivette, 1998)

 

Near the start of Jacques Rivette’s Secret defense, Paul Rousseau (Gregoire Colin) tries to steal a gun from his sister Sylvie Rousseau (Sandrine Bonnaire); his target is the successful industrialist Walser, newly suspected by Paul of killing their father, at that time Walser’s boss, five years previously. It’s a classic Hitchcockian-type set-up, and Rivette often plays it straight enough that the packaging of my old DVD copy gamely tried to sell the film as a conventional thriller (“A father’s death…A daughter’s obsession…Revenge was the only answer”). But of course, the director also continually subverts any such genre expectations and norms: a train journey which might easily have been condensed into a few seconds or less of screen time extends over fifteen or twenty minutes; a key revelation about the dead father is delivered almost casually, during another train journey; and so on. The film has a sense of magnetic contraction, with all the characters being drawn toward Walser’s country estate, a location with which the Rousseau family has a long connection (and one of many such labyrinthine, figuratively haunted locations in Rivette’s work); there’s often a sense of narrative echo, with the father’s death recalling an earlier family tragedy along similar lines, and with one key character who departs from the narrative rapidly replaced for most purposes by a look-alike sister. Bonnaire’s often flinty, brittle performance speaks to the strain of things not confronted within or without (an amusing subplot involves a persistent suitor who she perpetually keeps at arm’s length, without ever actually extinguishing all hope); the “top secret” of the title refers as much to unexplored inner or cinematic possibilities as to the specific folds of the plot. But overall, without buying into those marketing excesses I cited, the film would indeed be a relatively accommodating entry point into Rivette’s stunning cinematic world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 1986)

 

Peter Weir’s version of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast certainly supports a lively dialogue on its merits as literary adaptation, and on the wisdom of even having tried, while almost entirely failing on its own ambitious terms. Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, a sporadically brilliant, quasi-tyrannical under-achiever whose disgust with the condition of America leads him to take off with his wife and four children to a remote part of South America, where he sets out to transform a broken-down jungle outpost into a high-functioning community reflecting his own principles. Taken at face value, the narrative presents us with a series of absurdities (all the less palatable for their white-saviorism); for example, arriving at their wretched destination with almost no initial resources on hand, the family systematically imposes the desired order, dominated by a massive, technologically adventurous ice-making machine, during all of which the four young kids don’t appear to age a single day. The film lacks the sense of obsession or immersion that might have allowed it to blast through such reservations (Werner Herzog is impossible to ignore as a reference point; Apocalypse Now comes to mind several times as well), and Ford, in theory an inspired piece of imaginative casting, seldom provides an appropriately charismatic (or even very engaged-seeming) focal point (the mostly unquestioning compliance of Fox’s wife also seems to require greater investigation than the book provides, when embodied in the form of Helen Mirren). Some aspects of the film do benefit a bit from hindsight; for instance, our greater attunement to climate change and sustainability now adds an extra charge to the dark irony of Allie’s icemaker ultimately becoming a source of environmental chaos. But overall, there’s very little the film does adequately, even failing to make much of the rich surrounding landscape in all its possibility and threat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Passion of Anna (Ingmar Bergman, 1969)

 

One of Ingmar Bergman’s most hypnotically inexhaustible works, The Passion of Anna is a film of sustained and unnerving presence and precision, in which however even the most basic aspect of interpretation is in some way open to doubt. The sense of misdirection flows from the very title – the main character, insofar he opens and closes the film and occupies the majority of screen time, isn’t Liv Ullmann’s Anna but Max von Sydow’s Andreas, living in substantial withdrawal from the world on a barren-looking island after doing time in prison; while he and Anna enter a relationship, it’s presented in mostly functionally pragmatic terms, the real object of her passion being a husband (also called Andreas) who died in a car accident some years previously (she speaks of that relationship in heightened terms, but evidence exists that it was less than she claims, despite her insistence on truth as a preeminent value). The film often strikes a measured, analytical tone, including brief interviews with the four lead actors (the other two are Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson) on how they view their characters; Josephson’s character, an architect who maintains an extensive archive of photos, embodies a vaguely sinister sense of control. But he also disparages the prospects of his flagship project, a cultural centre being constructed in Milan, and the island is plagued by instances of animal cruelty, for which one disliked loner falsely comes under suspicion, and is sadistically persecuted. A brief scene of TV news, even fighting through poor reception, links these fragmentations to broader global conflicts; it’s a moment of spectatorship echoed at the end of the film, when the camera slowly moves in on Andreas after the relationship’s apparent break-up, caught in a form of both physical and spiritual limbo, the image quality correspondingly degrading, his very name no longer capable of being asserted with certainty.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A Closed Book (Raul Ruiz, 2009)

 

One of Raul Ruiz’s most accessible works if measured by the ease of dissecting what’s on screen (which didn’t however mean it was any more effectively distributed and marketed than most of the others), A Closed Book (alternatively and less gracefully titled Blind Revenge) takes place almost entirely within a large country house occupied by Sir Paul (Tom Conti), a former art critic blinded a few years earlier in a car accident, who engages Jane (Daryl Hannah) to help him write his autobiography. For a while the movie plays like a robustly peculiar character study as the two work out a mutual equilibrium and routine, telling each other what they dislike about the other’s style and so on, then out of nowhere it swerves into the grotesque as Jane starts to mess with Paul, walking about in the nude, fueling the fire with his valuable book collection rather than with logs, and then (once the housekeeper is conveniently out of the way) turning paintings upside down, moving furniture around, and ramping things up still further. Assessed as conventional narrative, it’s a weakness that the ultimate revelation of Jane’s motives, and Paul’s subsequent reactions to them, seem (to say the least) inadequately connected to what’s gone before (the movie might as well have posited say that she’s an obsessive animal lover harboring a grudge at Paul for having once kicked her dog), although looked at more generally, it’s a swerve that reflects Ruiz’s playful sense of narrative contingency. Conti is in robust form, and as if to satisfy some producer's quirky contractual demand, the movie includes single-scene appearances by Elaine Paige and Simon MacCorkindale, so, there you go. A delectably lasting moment has Jane making up a bunch of fake news to tantalize Paul (who conveniently never listens to the radio or TV) including that Donald Trump has become a Muslim (hey, if only…).

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Victory of Women (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)

 

Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1946 film The Victory of Women isn’t among his cinematically or emotionally richest works: drawing on then-current waves of post-war legal reform, it often feels overly didactic, its characters generally registering less as people than as contrasting ideological mouthpieces. But despite (and to some extent because of) that, it makes for fascinating and urgent viewing, finding sadly easy parallel in the debates of our own age. Hiroko Hawakawa (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a recently qualified lawyer taking on the case of a poor widow who, overwhelmed with grief after losing her husband, accidentally crushed her baby to death; where the prosecution charges simple parental neglect, Hawakawa sees her client as a victim of an insensitive patriarchal and militaristic society (in which, for instance, the husband received health care for his workplace-incurred injuries for as long as the war continued, but afterwards had it abruptly withdrawn). The somewhat overly-compressed narrative scheme includes a zealous prosecutor, Kono, who happens to be Harakawa’s brother in law, with a wife/sister caught in the middle; some five years earlier, Kono participated in prosecuting political activists including Hawakawa’s fiancée, who’s released at the start of the film, his health ruined as a result of his ordeal. The film sets the notion of an independent and objective legal system against one informed by societal needs and changes, while of course making it evident that any claim to the former will always be as ideologically driven as the latter (in this regard in particular, viewed at a time of a supposedly Constitution-respecting yet pathologically activist US Supreme Court, the film carries renewed topical resonance). Mizoguchi withholds the ultimate outcome of the widow’s case, tacitly suggesting that legal victory in this particular battle may be unattainable. But he leaves no doubt regarding the disposition of the moral victory.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Carbon Copy (Michael Schultz, 1981)

 

Denzel Washington’s film debut is a sporadically fascinating object of study, at times a biting satire of complacent white attitudes toward race and at others an underwhelming, dubiously conceived studio product; it’s perhaps most interesting when making it hard to separate one from the other. George Segal plays Walter Whitney, trapped in a stagnant marriage, occupying a lucrative but unrewarding executive position for his wife’s father, Nelson Longhurst; his life is suddenly shaken up by the arrival of Washington’s character Roger, the son he never knew he had from the fondly remembered relationship he sacrificed to get ahead. Rapidly assuming at least some sense of responsibility, he tries to bring Roger – seemingly a barely literate high-school drop-out - into his life, succeeding only in rapidly finding himself a penniless pariah, living with Roger in a wretched apartment and getting by on manual day jobs. The intention seems to have been to make a madcap scorched earth comedy (for instance, Dick Martin plays Walter’s lawyer as a dope-smoking screwball) but notwithstanding a few sharp lines, it’s generally paced too slowly and blandly, with Segal seeming disappointingly disengaged. The film explicitly analyzes Walter’s downfall as a symptom of pure bigotry (in an environment which has plenty of it to go around – we learn that “Whitney” was a replacement for his original Jewish surname); Longhurst’s insistence that privileged white people constitute the true embattled minority looks ahead to our current era of narcissistically self-justifying ruling class privilege. The film’s ending fairly deftly repositions our sense of Roger, allowing the audience as well as Walter a passable sense of growth. But even if you award the film a passing grade on racial matters, the sexual politics are hard to redeem, with the wife (played by Susan Saint James) an unredeemable mishmash of ugly characteristics (albeit that we can read her as another victim of Longhurst’s stifling worldview and desire for control).

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Mill on the Po (Alberto Lattuada, 1949)

 

Alberto Lattuada’s The Mill on the Po remains of immense social and pictorial interest, its title and the opening scenes seeming to promise a fairly narrow familial focus, but broadening out significantly to place the mill and the people who depend on it in wider and tumultuous economic and social context, and in its final moments almost seeming to despair of such earthly machinations altogether, ending in stark, lonely ceremony (those moments may have one thinking ahead to Bergman; the film more generally reaches out across the decades to Bertolucci’s 1900). The titular mill is run in rambunctious familial style, placed under strain by onerous new taxes and the accompanying collection regime; during a stormy night, the family ends up setting their livelihood on fire rather than submitting further. Berta, one of the daughters, is engaged to the son of local tenant farmers, but out of necessity now goes to work for the family as a servant instead; her fiancée tries to place himself as a conduit between the landowner, interested in deploying new technology to increase productivity and profit, and the skeptical workers, but the conflicting forces are beyond anyone’s control, and a general strike breaks out. The strike triggers some scenes of potent sadness and others of Eisenstein-evoking mass resistance (which provide, of course, only a fleeting sense of victory); the final moments, rooted in personal tragedy and its aftermath, suggest a community drained of whatever coherence and spirit it once possessed. Lattuada nails the recurring tragedy of the commons, its susceptibility to being turned against itself, ultimately further strengthening the position of the landowning capitalists (at times the film may bring to mind the present-day roots of red-state populism). The plot mechanics and characterizations may sometimes be rather too heavily conceived, but overall it’s a memorable and rewarding, under-celebrated work.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Lovin' Molly (Sidney Lumet, 1974)

 

One of Sidney Lumet’s least-remembered movies (made between Serpico and Murder on the Orient Express), Lovin’ Molly might be among his most gently likeable and delight-infused, entirely rooted in small-scale lives and expectations but quietly radical in its premise. The opening minutes of the first section, set in 1925, disorient us as to whether Blythe Danner’s Molly is in love with Beau Bridges’ Johnny or Anthony Perkins’ Gideon, and about what the two men, who are also best friends, might think of the competition; over subsequent decades, Molly has a child (neither of which survives the war) with each of them, while marrying a third man (a decision she can’t explain even to herself). By the time of the second section, set in 1945, Gideon has become a rich landowner, aridly married to Sarah (Susan Sarandon), who pointedly is mostly absent from the film, even as we hear of how she works to ruin Molly’s reputation; the third section, in 1964, visits them near the end of their lives. The film always leaves open the possibility (nudged ahead in hindsight by the subsequent resonances surrounding Perkins, and by the involvement of Brokeback Mountain’s Larry McMurtry) that the most significant love is that between the two men, an impression formed early on by the very physical nature of their competitiveness (intertwined with a certain sexual naivete) and reasserted near the end, when they’re still playing silly jokes on one another, still hanging out together while musing about moving in with Molly. Certain aspects of the film, such as the device of allocating the voice over and primary perspective of each section to a different character, count for less than might be expected, given the largely unvarying tone; it’s certainly a small film in all respects. But along with works like The Appointment and Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, it also testifies to Lumet’s under-appreciated eccentric streak.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Le navire Night (Marguerite Duras, 1979)

 

One of Marguerite Duras’ most ravishing and beguiling works, Le navire Night is at once a sumptuous embrace of cinema and an eloquent denial of it, at least as normally constituted by mainstream conventions: it credits three recognizable stars (Dominique Sanda, Bulle Ogier, Mathieu Carriere) who receive just a handful of lines between them and do little more than sit and stare (although extended sequences of each of them being made up confirms that classic scopophilic pleasures aren’t entirely jettisoned). The film’s narrative is told instead through the voice overs of Duras herself and of assistant director Benoit Jacquot (the film provides glimpses of the script they’re reading from, in handwritten chalk), starting with a meditation on Athens and eventually coming to chart the story of a man who on randomly dialing some numbers “from the telephonic abyss” connects with a woman who becomes a displaced, mysterious love object, known to him only as “F,” the descriptions of her appearance and life details unreliably shifting. Other characters are evoked, complexities and possibilities are set out, and we’re told of various points when they might have met, or when he might have come to know more about her, but the possibilities never crystallize, and in the end the story fades away, perhaps through her death (she says she’s suffering from leukemia), or through her marriage to another man, the surgeon who was treating her, or perhaps simply through the impossibility of its continuing forever, or perhaps extinguished by “general doubt”; the actors leave (to the extent they were ever there) and the film likewise slips away, Duras continuously thereby emphasizes the unreliability and contingency of the filmic space created, while yet creating a sense of rapturous, closely-observed presence, of (in the film’s own words) a blazing sun at its zenith that simultaneously evokes (or, actually simultaneously is) the silence of night.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

if....(Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

 

Lindsay Anderson’s if…. feels as freshly daring and unprecedented now, and as bitingly relevant, as it must have done in 1968; no doubt the details of Britain’s lack of fitness for purpose have changed, but their essential corrosive porousness continues. The boundaries of Anderson’s film (set entirely within and around a boys-only private school) are often unclear: some scenes (such as the caning of Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis and his two partners in rebellion) are presented in excruciating real time, but other moments (such as all of those involving the most prominent female character, identified only as “the Girl,”) are infused with reverie and fantasy, with the shifting between colour and black and white embodying the underlying instability. Anderson’s portrayal of the institution isn’t entirely without grudging affection: one occasionally feels the strange allure of succumbing to this self-contained world’s insular rituals. But it’s a place where regressiveness and hypocrisy run rampant, powered by often petty and sadistic rituals rooted in notions of tradition and discipline (any nods to modernity consisting of mere platitudes), with little tolerance of dissent, the teachers seeming mainly like hollowed-out drones; the film contrasts the beauty of same-sex attraction in its natural intuitive state with the warped, predatory version of it that prevails in the structure of the younger boys being at the beck and call of (and, as we see in one scene, “traded” between) the older ones. The film’s famously nihilistic ending, a memorable spectacle on its own terms, resonates all the more for its embodiment of a society sowing its own destruction; the WW2-era weapons used by Travis and the others to shoot up the school all lying forgotten in its recesses, falling into their hands as part of an imposed punishment (which, in handing it out, the headmaster spins as an opportunity to do good). But for all its pessimism, there’s not a scene in the film that isn’t ventilated and lifted by observational and behavioral finesse and razor-sharp creative finesse.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961)

 

Jacques Demy’s beautiful cinema dissolves one’s usual sense of directorial continuity and evolution – watching Lola, his debut, it feels as if his other great works must have already existed and be in conversation with it, that the Lola who leaves with her reclaimed love at the end is in some sense already the Lola lost in Model Shop’s America, that the music score is nodding backwards to Umbrellas of Cherbourg rather than anticipating it, that some of the recurring Nantes locations are already haunted by the tragic events of the much later Une chambre en ville, that one story of separation and regret might on some celestial plane be intertwined with another. In Lola’s extremely concentrated narrative, the distinction between hours and years dissolves – in just a couple of days, long-lost love objects are rediscovered (even by multiple searchers) and perhaps then lost again, life yields moments and encounters that one knows are destined to remain in the memory after much else has been erased. The film’s intense sense of place exists in equilibrium with the pull of elsewhere: one character is headed for Johannesburg; another has returned from making his fortune on an island in the Pacific; another, a sailor, is from Chicago (although one character questions this, pointing out that only gangsters come from there); it’s mentioned twice that to go and work as a dancer in Marseilles might cause one to end up in Argentina. But any exoticism attached to these prospects is heavy with resignation, a sense that the contours of one’s world will still be defined predominantly by the unattainable heart’s desire. Anouk Aimee’s Lola, if perhaps not quite one of cinema’s greatest beauties, is certainly one of its most singularly wondrous presences: extraordinarily vivid and present, yet with a sense of distracted fragility that, at least in a Demy film, renders future heartbreak and displacement all but inevitable.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

From Noon till Three (Frank D. Gilroy, 1976)


Charles Bronson’s body of work (at least the name above the title portion of it) hasn’t worn too well as a whole, but contains a few highlights, including Richard Fleischer’s Mr. Majestyk (amid all the threat and carnage, it’s oddly touching how all the guy really wants to do is harvest his melons) and Frank D. Gilroy’s From Noon Till Three, perhaps the most lightly subversive of his starring roles, and a nice riff on mythmaking and printing the truth versus the legend (a kind of Woman who Loved Liberty Valance). Bronson plays Graham, a low-grade outlaw forced to sit out the gang’s latest bank robbery, instead meeting and falling in love with Amanda, a wealthy widow (Jill Ireland, of course). The gang is wiped out, and in trying to evade the fate of his colleagues, Graham ends up in jail under a different name, assumed dead by Amanda. When he gets out, he finds that a romanticized book version of the Graham and Amanda story has become a best-selling global sensation, with the town now largely devoted to related tourism; the myth of a tragically deceased, supernaturally handsome Graham is so strong that the man himself can’t persuade anyone, not even the love of his life, of his real identity. The film is fairly irresistible in its conception and execution, although nothing about it cuts very deep – the two main characters are thinly conceived, and no one else registers more than fleetingly. One winces at the device of having Graham, within about an hour of their meeting, get Amanda into bed by feigning impotence and eliciting her sympathy. Still, the depiction of a community crassly denying the objective facts of the present, for the sake of perpetual surrender to an emotionally soothing past, is eternally relevant; no less the final note, of a society that can no longer distinguish (and doesn’t even care to try) between truth and madness.


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Arrebato (Ivan Zulueta, 1979)

 

Ivan Zulueta's Arrebato is a wildly singular film, its inspiration so boundless and multi-faceted that one could imagine a lifetime of energy and blood being poured into it (Zulueta's otherwise sparse filmography sadly supports that general impression), possessed by a startling unifying conviction. Although to attempt a plot summary is even more hopeless here than it usually is, the film contrasts the personal and artistic efforts of Jose, a professional filmmaker stuck in the horror genre, and Pedro (the indelible Will More, a stand-out among a uniformly relishable cast), a way-outside-the-system visionary in search of his notion of cinematic rapture (which he often expresses in terms of finding the right "rhythm"). Through mechanisms carrying elements of mysticism, hypnotism, vampirism and whatever other -ism you might want to nominate, Jose becomes consumed by Pedro's personal journey, his own life (largely made up of drug-taking and sparring with his girlfriend, vivaciously played by Cecilia Roth) dwindling away. The film teems with movie-love, from the physical tangibility of cameras and projectors and film stock to the related culture of posters and memorabilia (there are some nice shots of marquees displaying then-current attractions such as Superman and Phantasm), and has passages of giddy playfulness, but it's all tinged with a delirious hopelessness, a sense of a cinema that demands complete submission whatever that might entail, or else that one go crazy in the attempt (Pedro's mother, insisting among other things that a black and white film on TV used to be in colour, further adds to the sense of a medium mutating beyond human control). Zulueta's brilliant last shot, with the sound of gunfire suddenly erupting on the soundtrack, somewhat reorients everything that's gone before, suggesting that the film's silence on political matters was perhaps, all along, a deeply despairing form of engagement.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)

 

Perhaps John Cassavetes’ strangest and most inexhaustible film, Love Streams confounds any notion of the director as being primarily an excavator of everyday emotional truths, embracing the heightened artificiality evident in all his work and pushing it to the point of near psychosis, such that by the end, characters are motivated by dreams (and further, dreams taking the form of operas) as much as by realities, and a character that appeared to be a dog temporarily reveals itself as a man. The title refers to the preoccupation of Gena Rowlands’ character, Sarah, with love as a “continuous stream” that doesn’t stop, a philosophy that as she enacts it consumes her in excessive behaviour and impulsiveness and recurring breakdown; Cassavetes plays her brother, Robert, whose relationship with love, or with humanity more generally, might better be represented as one of endless pivoting and zig-zaging, losing himself in shallow or short-lived connections, his self-absorption (albeit shrouded by a general air of formality and courtliness) often tumbling into cruelty (on being tasked with looking after his eight-year-old son for the first time ever, he flies the kid to Vegas and leaves him alone in a hotel room all night). The film’s final act represents a series of high-stakes substitutions: Robert now forcibly alone, constrained by a somewhat absurd bunch of animal care obligations, symbolically further isolated by darkness and storm; Sarah heading off to spend the night with a guy she just met, with some supposed new understanding with her divorced husband lying beyond; the fabric of the film seemingly heaving and splitting. Much of the film was shot in Cassavetes/Rowlands’ own house, evidencing a lived-in solidity that couldn’t likely have come from Robert, but for everything that feels strangely personal, the film provides an offsetting cavernous abstraction (confining its glimpses of Sarah’s European trips to concrete hellholes); it sometimes feels like the entire human condition flows (or snarls) through the film at one point or another.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Death Laid an Egg (Giulio Questi, 1968)

 

Whatever its other claims to fame, Giuilio Questi’s Death Laid an Egg can safely be categorized as one of cinema’s most chicken-centric works (it was also released under the title Plucked!), a large part of it taking place in a poultry plant with thousands of good-looking, cooped-up two-footed extras, punctuated with ample shots of eggs in various states of motion or breakage, samples of chicken-themed art, and (most indelibly) brief glimpses of a laboratory-bred mutant chicken which lacks a head or wings and develops exceptionally quickly (a concept perhaps ahead of its time, for better or worse). Against all of this, in less than ninety minutes, Questi puts together a story of intersecting murderous designs, corporate intrigue, and weird erotic fetishes, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant at his most furtively inscrutable, playing Marco, a poultry association executive married to the owner of a massive breeding plant (Gina Lollobrigida, used far less interestingly), with an apparent sideline in murdering whores at a roadside motel, and a desire for his wife’s cousin (Ewa Aulin), who however has something going on with a publicity man hired by the association. Questi confidently breezes past all holes and improbabilities, with a torrent of eye-catching framing and cutting and a sporadically plausible feeling of scientific seriousness; at the end (which, following a series of extremely rapid twists, consists of a guy eating an egg) one may judge the experience to have been oddly meaningful (although in a way beyond articulating). Passing concepts include a “room of truth” stripped of all furniture and distraction, in which the occupants may unlock emotions otherwise denied them – it doesn’t really relate to much else in the film, but illustrates its odd, quasi-experimental streak (as it happens, nothing unlocked in the room of truth appears to relate directly to the chickens though).