Thursday, December 3, 2020

Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986)

 

Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties is a committed deliverance of classic musical-genre pleasures: an appealingly artificial setting (in this case an indoor shopping mall) within which multiple intertwining romance narratives play out, never more than ten minutes or so from the next immediately alluring yet hardly posterity-embracing song. Akerman inhabits and appropriates the form so fully that one might almost overlook how insecurity and fracture infiltrates the movie. That’s partly political and sociological in nature, with numerous references to property taxes and exchange rates and general economic uncertainty; emphasizing the existential unpredictability, the mall is at times desolately empty, and at others so packed that characters can’t stand and talk without being helplessly carried away from each other. Something similar goes for the relationships that drive the plot: they’re all either compromised or doomed, and the film contains various moments of unusual emotional directness and rawness (interestingly, its superficially “toughest” character, a money man with rumoured mob connections, is shown as its most brittle). In the end, two separated characters are reunited, but the ultimate focus is elsewhere, moving into the open air for the first time, observing exclusion and regret rather than fulfilment (in which the movie suggests little lasting confidence) and ending on an expression of inevitability, that love and connection will go on as surely as commerce - and perhaps, it’s implied, with as little inherent joy (another main character pines for her lover who writes to her from Canada, but by the end is no longer sure whether she even wants him to come back). The film’s least compromised pleasure is found in groups – four guys who are perpetually together, commenting on the action in the manner of an updated barbershop quartet; the troop of young women at the hair salon, barely observed as individuals but filling the screen in joyfully coordinated manner when joined together in performance…perhaps this is the film’s most subtle comment on the not-so-golden ideology of its era.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992)

 


Gregg Araki’s The Living End announces itself as an “irresponsible film,” and it’s certainly a defiant one, insisting that being given a “death sentence” diagnosis needn’t preclude living in the meantime, without limits, without apology, without even more than grudging adherence to law and convention. Luke lives on the edge of danger, a state that seems to ramp up after he’s diagnosed as HIV-positive, through some combination of his own nihilism and perhaps of the world attuning itself to him; while running from a confrontation he meets Jon, a more inward-looking, quasi-domesticated writer, also HIV-positive. The two get together, break apart, then get together again after Luke’s latest plunge over the edge, getting into a car and just driving, with steadily decreasing sense of purpose. The movie’s fault line is that they’re never entirely equal partners in the project, that Luke’s pushing of Jon, in large part liberating and freeing, ultimately becomes a different form of oppression and terror, albeit one that we, like Jon in the final moments, can understand as being based in fear, and that may point forward toward an alternative kind of coherence, a liberating new dawn. The movie is indelibly of its specific time and place, but like so many others takes on a different subtext when viewed in the time of Covid (to which the reference in the closing credits to the Republicans in the White House provides at least one glum connection) – an amazing moment when Luke cuts himself and studies his own blood, musing in twisted wonderment on how it can look so normal and yet be so deadly, might need only a small leap to become ideologically-driven denial. The Living End though is a movie free of masks and imposed distancing, vividly insisting on the glory of connection, of bodily contours, of kinetic interaction, all the more desperately glorious for being informed by truth.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

 

The Conformist belongs to the period when Bernardo Bertolucci almost seemed to derive from cinema itself, his films made up of one indelible scene after another, and yet feeling entirely unified, their structures and textures intuitively complex. A typical synopis of the film, as prompted by the title, emphasizes the protagonist Clerici’s project of attaining his concept of normality, embodied here by his marriage to a mundane woman and by his willing participation in the activities of the ascendant Fascist party, but while that’s not exactly inaccurate, it’s hardly true to the visceral experience of watching the film. On the contrary, the film teems with moments in which Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Clerici asserts and differentiates himself, whether physically (such as his exaggerated posing with a gun he’s just been handled) or behaviourally (his immediate aggressive attraction to the character played by Dominique Sanda): the memory that overshadows his life, of having killed a predatory chauffeur as a young boy, appears as much a source of perverse transgressive pride as a source of guilt. This perhaps well-equips him to participate in the performative aspects of Fascism, but not to be as effectively a cold-blooded executor of orders; near the end we see him damned as a coward, as repulsive to the Fascist order as their more usual victims. Bertolucci observes this progress through a dazzling series of compositions and incidents, both sweeping and intimate, creating a sense of a heightened, fragmented state that mysteriously channels that of Clerici. In the end, the fall of Fascism and rise of a new social order coincides with his discovery that his origin story was wrong all along, and he loses his bearings, becoming stridently accusatory before sinking into a final ambiguous silence. The grotesque theatre that enabled him, it seems, has come to a close; it’s just one of the film’s satiating ironies that the new world, however more worthy and just, may lack the dangerous, amoral panache of the old one.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Witch who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber, 1976)

 

Matt Cimber’s The Witch who Came from the Sea has the feeling of an elusively personal testament, both by the director and its lead actress Millie Perkins, and of a fragmented investigation into masculinity – the film has its lumpy aspects, while delivering some effective horror-genre body-violation shocks, but also succeeds in elevating the protagonist’s underlying trauma into more than just a hollow motivation for plot mechanics. The film starts with Perkins’ Molly and her two nephews on a largely deserted beach, revisiting an old, disputed family myth of her seafaring father who (perhaps) went lost at sea – she notices some muscle-bound guys exercising nearby, and the film follows her into erotic reverie, hungrily lapping up their physicality. Not long after that, in a sequence placed as fantasy but immediately seeming too behaviorally specific and physically vivid to be only that, she’s with the two guys in a bondage-heavy threesome that soon turns nasty (it’s intriguing how matter-of-factly the camera observes her own partial nudity compared with that of the men), and from there the film navigates between other fraught, can-come-to-no-good encounters with other predatory men, her genuine (almost desperate-seeming) love for her nephews, and an eccentric but seemingly well-balanced live-in relationship with her older employer. The film’s title is metaphoric – Molly isn’t conceived as a supernatural being – but it’s true to the protagonist’s disturbing lack of naturalism: Perkins cleverly moves through a range of different registers - seductiveness, anger, affection – while suggesting they’re all guises of sorts, based in destabilizing past experiences, and Cimber accordingly keeps the viewer nicely off balance regarding the reliability or sequencing of what we’re witnessing. Some aspects – such as the seafaring mythology and Molly’s preoccupation with men seen on television – count for less than may have been intended, and the film is hardly polished, but the rather plaintive ending pulls together its intriguing dynamics, allowing Molly a tenderly forgiving final note, facilitated by the transgressive behaviour of those closest to her.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Noroit (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

 

In Jacques Rivette’s original conception, Noroit would have been one of a four-film series of linked Scenes de la vie parallele. In the event, only two of the films were made (Duelle was the other) and the film is most likely to be viewed now in the shadow of Rivette’s towering achievement of a few years earlier, Celine and Julie Go Boating. Noroit shares many characteristics of that film – a focus on two women, a situation that clearly can’t be taken “realistically,” unexplained incursions of pure fantasy, to name just a few. But it’s also explicitly an “adventure film,” one of Rivette’s most physical works, with much gunplay and fighting (although of an abstract, stylized variety), scenes of heavy lifting, and Bernadette Lafont strutting around in some outrageous costumes, and unlike Celine and Julie, the two central women here are adversaries, with Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) working as a bodyguard for pirate queen Giulia (Lafont) while plotting to kill her for revenge. If the film often feels like heavier going than Celine and Julie, that might be seen in part as an appropriate reflection of the subject matter and the stakes (it also reflects the explicit citations of a 17th century text, The Revengers’ Tragedy, giving the film a foothold in classically disciplined theatricality). But it does mean that it becomes most satisfying in its final stretch, as it takes on the sense of trying to escape its bonds – dialogue yields to dance, the image flashes to black and white or to red as if the cinematic apparatus itself were becoming unstable, and one character demonstrates both previously unsuspected magical powers and the capacity to replicate herself. It’s hard to imagine that Noroit is anyone’s favourite Rivette film, but it’s as absorbingly singular as any of them, in no way denying the validity of traditional pleasures, but incapable of presenting them passively or unquestioningly (even something as usually inherently “backgrounded” as soundtrack music is elevated here, several scenes showing us that the musicians are right there with the actors).

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

 

In the opening scene of Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire, a woman walking alone at night is assaulted by a man who rushes her from behind - within seconds, he’s dead, and (with the notion of gender power shifts thus already established) the woman, Diane, walks on to an engagement at an art gallery where she’s rapidly flirting with a married man, Lee, under the nose of his immediately hostile wife Susan. Diane invites the couple to her house in the desert, clearly with seduction somewhere in mind, but once they’re there the dynamics gradually shift, summed up in a central scene where Diane and Lee make love in the living room, while Diane locks eyes with Susan watching from the stairs. Diane, evidently, is the vampire of the title, equipped with the bottomless resources that facilitate eternal life (big house, faithful servant attuned to her needs) but also a sense of fragile neediness which rapidly unravels over the few days of the film’s narrative – her final pursuit of Susan is as much desperate as it is malevolent. Despite one’s enthusiasm for the film’s underlying ideology and concepts (their scope enhanced by several symbolic dream sequences), it’s hard not to regret the often flat dialogue and acting and staging, or the way that key scenes seem unnecessarily rushed: not least the ending, when Susan spontaneously enlists a group of passers-by to join her in crushing Diane’s life force. Of course, this may only be to say that the film works within commercial and genre constraints - its more artless aspects can be defended besides as a way of deliberately limiting our unthinking capitulation to such fanciful mechanics, of holding the spectator at a degree of analytical distance. Likewise, while it’s superficially very much a product of its time, with a general laid-back early 70’s vibe, it’s one that always feels precarious, and rife for fragmentation and reinterpretation.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nobody's Children (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1952)


At least as illustrated through his most readily available films, Raffaello Matarazzo’s work appears strangely obsessive, with a feeling of perpetually readjusting and reexamining a set of recurring elements, as if in search of something canonical. To expand, within the few years from 1949 to 1952, he made four films with Yvonne Sanson and Amedeo Nazzari, all of which cast them as lovers separated by cruel misunderstandings, aided by the machinations of others (in two cases, essentially the same primary other, a self-interested countess played by Francoise Rosay); in two cases there’s a child that one or both of them doesn’t know is alive (also played by the same actor), and so on. The films are all seeped in tragic, all-consuming suffering, often manipulated by the inherent power of the wealthy and connected, albeit that the rich schemers ultimately fail to find inner peace; but they also reach for grand turnarounds and redemptions. The films aren’t too stylistically striking, but they are in their way inspired, and even inspiring. Nobody’s Children highlights something that’s also present, but less prominently so, in the other Sanson/Nazzari films of that period, the exploitation of the worker, depicted here as marooned within a back-breaking, manifestly unsafe and underpaid mining environment, with heavy use of child labour. Nazzari plays the owner (in He Who is Without Sin he was just one of the labourers), whose reformist ways are undermined by his controlling mother and the vicious mine overseer; when he falls in love with the daughter of one of the workers, the two plot to separate them, with far-reaching effects. The ending fuses joy and calamitous loss in explicitly religious manner, while leaving an unusual volume of unresolved matters; Matarazzo would pick up the characters a few years later in astounding manner in The White Angel, casting Sanson as a lookalike over whom Nazzari obsesses in Vertigo-like manner (and that’s only getting started).


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus & D. A. Pennebaker, 1979)

 


In some ways, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s fascinating record of a 1971 debate on woman’s liberation issues, Town Bloody Hall, is a museum piece from a more pugnacious, unfiltered age, overflowing with larger than life public intellectuals, with not an apparent thought given to the all-whiteness of the proceedings. Perhaps it’s a bit depressing then that much of it still seems so relevant, or maybe it’s to be strangely celebrated that we’ve yet to reach the state of stifling boredom that Norman Mailer (the evening’s moderator!) predicts would attach to a fully-achieved feminist agenda. That agenda is set out early in the movie by the National Organization for Women’s Jacqueline Ceballos: it’s sobering that many of her points – equal pay, paid maternity leave – seem both as sensible and as incompletely unachieved now as they did then. But the debate (at least as the movie presents it, editing down a three and half hour event to less than half that time) spends little further time on such matters, mostly wrestling with more primal matters of self-definition and connection. And it’s Mailer who provides some of the more direct points of lasting connection: for instance, his remark about the potential violence done to a man who suppresses his desire to hit a woman doesn’t sit too well on its own terms, and yet feels now like a harbinger of the cultural backlash so often evoked in explaining the appeal of Trump to white men, and to the white women who define themselves in relation to them. That’s just one example of how one watches the film with a sense of steps taken and others back – to pick some random examples, it’s unlikely that someone like Diana Trilling would ever be introduced now as a “lady critic,” but then there’s barely any mainstream space now for the breed of critic/thinker/theorist on show here, whatever their gender.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Numero Deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975)

The title of Godard’s Numero Deux contains numerous allusions: to the film itself as a potential new beginning (a sort of “remake” of Breathless); to the second-person “you” with whom “I” may spend a fraught lifetime trying to forge a workable connection; to the scatological context in which a child may be asked whether he or she has to do number one or number two. It’s not meant as a cheap shot to say that the latter meaning often most conditions the experience of watching the film – it references the concept several times, for example in musing on giving birth as a form of defecation, and lamenting about constipation, and as watching experiences go, it pushes heavily toward alienation and disgust. The distancing is multi-faceted – for much of the time the film strenuously refuses cinematic capacity, filling more than 50% of the frame with blackness, the rest with one or two TV screens within the frame - the sense is of cinema in retreat, the concept of the “dream factory” having let the dreams get away, leaving mostly joyless process and output (Godard appears onscreen in an opening sequence, largely addressed to the process of raising financing). The desolation consumes all human interactions – the main recognizable “action” on the screens within the screen consists of scenes from a three-generation family: a mother and father consumed with loathing and sexual dysfunction, a condition that will certainly affect the young boy and girl (the concept of the primal scene is evoked several times); grandparents lost in analysis or reminiscence. If this had been Godard’s last film, his equivalent to Pasolini’s Salo of the same year, it would make much sense as such – it even ends on a heavily emphatic note of machinery being shut down – but as we know that was far from the case, it seems now like an act of purging, even of expiation.


Thursday, October 1, 2020

Crime and Passion (Ivan Passer, 1976)

 

Ivan Passer’s Crime and Passion shares some distinct similarities with his following film Silver Bears -they're both set in the world of European finance, with a risk-taking protagonist facing off against better equipped forces, sharing a pragmatic view of sexual relations. It would be tempting to say that Silver Bears, a far more conventionally unified and easy-to-take entertainment, represents “getting it right,” casting Crime and Passion as something of a failed dry run. But the film’s failure is rather sadder than that, for its hints of a darker, more transgressive vision that just got away. It’s evident at the start, depicting how Omar Sharif’s financier protagonist, Andre Ferren, is sexually excited (to the point of utter recklessness) at the prospect of financial disgrace, shortly afterwards conniving with his girlfriend and co-worker (Karen Black) to have her marry their richest client, for which they fatten her up on pastries to make her more to the client’s liking. But from the outset, the premise never bites as it should, not helped by the casting, or by the constant sense of being marooned in unproductively pretty settings. Actually, large parts of the film – such as Ferren narrowly escaping from improbable assassins including a man on skis and an overweight masseuse, or the later goings on in a supposedly haunted castle – bring to mind the second-wave Pink Panther films of the same period, although its interest in obsessive surveillance and voyeurism connects more deeply, and the ending – in which the characters nihilistically submit to desire but then are saved through a chilling twist of fate – evokes what might have been. Passer presumably intended his film to be more fully defined by a sense of risk and freedom, of psychologically and narratively living on the edge, and as such its failure at least somewhat reflects Ferren’s likely nightmare, the bankrupting results of cravenly hedging one’s bets.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, 1977)

I don’t know whether the title of Marguerite Duras’ Baxter, Vera Baxter is consciously intended to evoke “Bond, James Bond,” but it’s an instructive point of comparison either way: as spoken by Bond, it’s a construction emblematic of certainty, of an identity and affect so firmly established that a periodic change of actors is not just tolerated but actually part of the fun. Duras’ film has as much tangible presence as any Bond film, every expression and exchange seeming weighted with significance, but the accumulation of “facts” about Vera’s life can no more yield her truth than a biographical summary can explain a painting, and it comes to feel that the film isn’t investigating the woman Vera Baxter as much as it’s investigating the entire notion of cinematic investigations of women. The film’s startling and disorienting opening shots, of a classically-posed, semi-nude Vera, suggest at once an objectification and also (because there’s something immediately defiant about it) a challenge, a sense encouraged by the opening scenes in which Vera is absent, but actively evoked and discussed. Thereafter, the majority of the film takes place in a villa she’s thinking of renting, but which in fact has already been rented by her (heard on the phone, but never seen) husband, who is elsewhere with his lover: her story (or fragments of it) emerges in conversation with a stranger (Delphine Seyrig) who turns up on a pretext – the stranger’s real reason for being there, it seems, is simply the allure of that name, Vera Baxter, a name in which she detects historical resonances which, of course, can reveal little now. The musical backdrop (identified by one online commenter as the most annoying he’s ever heard) is a strenuously upbeat creation of strings and woodwinds that although attributed to coming from a nearby party, clearly can’t really be explained as such in its nature and repetition, and thereby represents much in the movie as a whole, evading and surpassing the explanations offered.


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.