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.

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)


Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of the most joyously perfect of all musicals, one of the fullest realizations of the genre’s capacity to transform the world and the people within it. The film’s Rochefort is pure colour and light, a city where a spontaneous expression of joy naturally transforms the environment around it into a choreographed dance, where love at first sight is part of the daily conversation. It’s a gorgeously expansive experience, but with an offsetting tension: three separate stories of a man pining for an absent lover, in two of those cases not even aware he and she are in the same city. Of course, such complications are the basic currency of genre plotting, but in this case they carry an exquisite existential charge, of a longing that becomes its own form of being, almost its own fulfilment. Demy already hints here at the darkness that becomes more prominent in his later films, working in a subplot about a brutal killer (although it’s not one of the film’s most integrated elements) and hinting at a possibility of displaced incest; for all his romanticism, he has no illusions about the transactional nature of so-called love (note the opportunism with which two guys on the make tell two sisters they’re in love with them, without even specifying which of the guys supposedly loves which of the women), and although all three strands reach the inevitable happy ending, two of them are barely emphasized, and the other, in one of Demy’s deftest moves, takes place just after the end of the film. But overall, these undertones serve only to accentuate the prevailing delight, communicated through Michel Legrand’s peerless music, and by exquisite casting touched by its own poignant mystery (Catherine Deneuve at the start of one of the greatest careers in cinema; her sister Francoise Dorleac already near the sudden end of her career, and of everything).

Friday, May 29, 2020

Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)


Even as a major Blake Edwards enthusiast, I’d always been a bit cool on Victor Victoria, held back in large part by Julie Andrews’ inadequacy in the main role (of course her implausibility is part of the artifice, but even so, the lack of any real charged sexual ambiguity remains a drawback). On a most recent viewing though, I found myself becoming rather blissfully entangled in the film’s counterpointing of performance and projection, reflecting that it may be about looking more than being seen. Take most obviously the final scene, in which Victoria (having discarded her Victor persona) reclaims and validates her relationship with James Garner’s King Marchand simply by sitting passively beside him in the audience, to watch Toddy (the priceless Robert Preston) ham his way through one of Victor’s signature routines. Most of the scenes between Andrews and Garner consist of one watching the other, or trying to figure out the other, or else of the two discussing the ambiguities of their relationship: the movie hardly conveys what that relationship might look like in fully achieved form (of course, that’s a staple of the mismatched relationship genre, but here it’s not so much - as the phrase goes - a bug as a feature). The filming of Victor’s musical numbers tends to emphasize their unknowable otherness: consider in contrast the much more easily titillating number performed by Lesley Ann Warren’s more straightforwardly defined character, with its very different depiction of the audience. The emphasis on observation isn’t confined to the stage: the film is a near-network of spying and surveillance (including the late introduction of a Clouseau-type character), all rooted in definitional confusion (at a key point of confusion, Marchand finds clarity by going to a dive bar and picking a fight so he can get beaten up). Even now, much of the film seems to me to play more flatly than it might ideally have done, but the intricacy of Edwards’ thematic and visual schemes only becomes more impressive.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)


Tati’s Mon oncle is the most serene of viewing experiences, constantly and uninsistently funny, almost mystically precise in its framing and design and effects. In a different film, the portrayal of a modern bourgeois France stifling its sense of joy and spontaneity through its materalism and pretensions might seem oppressive and hectoring, and the contrast with the traditional community and its sense of messy togetherness might seem largely sentimental: Tati holds them in a beautifully contrasting equilibrium (his Hulot bridges the two worlds, the unemployed if not unemployable uncle to the son of a wealthy factory manager). Some of the film’s most sublime ideas are its smallest, such as Hulot’s routine of adjusting the angle of his open windows to direct the sunlight onto the caged bird below and therefore to maximize its singing: it’s through such tiny rituals and pleasures, you sense, that a worthwhile life is built (although the nature of Hulot’s inner life can only be guessed at). In this sense, there’s a commonality between the two worlds, except that at the other end of the spectrum, the routines have become oppressive and self-defeating – supposed technological breakthroughs that cause more problems than the simpler methods they’re replacing, or absurd affectations like the fish-shaped garden fountain that the lady of the house obsessively switches on whenever a visitor arrives (unless it’s Hulot, or a delivery person, or someone else of insufficient status) and then off again as soon as they leave. The movie ultimately suggests that the battle is effectively lost, banishing Hulot to the provinces, and subtly suggesting – through a subsequent moment of rare bonding between father and son – that maybe it’s time to cut the sentiment and commit to new normals (and onward to Tati’s next film, the imposing Play Time), leaving all the rest to the dogs. And by the way, you’ll seldom see such well-cast and -directed dogs either…

Friday, May 15, 2020

La Luna (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1979)



Bernardo Bertolucci has said that the genesis of La Luna lay in a childhood memory of the moon rising behind his mother’s face as she looked at him, a moment at once intimate and unbound, perhaps capable of shaping one’s perceptions for a lifetime, but also sealed off, providing no suggestion of a resulting narrative. Bertolucci’s remarkable extrapolation holds closeness and fracture in grand equilibrium, setting out a mother-teenage son relationship capable of swinging in seconds between transgressive physical closeness (certainly meeting some kind of definition of incest) and melodramatically expressed antipathy, leading to a climax in which a long-broken family is finally made whole again, but in which the physical distance between them is emphasized, and the opera singer mother’s inherent Otherness is symbolized by placing her in the midst of rehearsal, a diva surrounded by dozens of extras. There’s certainly then a pervasive sense of life as display, embodied in Jill Clayburgh’s extravagant performance as Caterina (at once too large a presence, blocking out the light, and yet its only reliable source); but also of corresponding emptiness and loss, trailed early on when her husband worries about a dream he hasn’t had a chance to tell her about, and soon afterwards suddenly dies, and embodied further through various episodes in which Caterina revisits past people or locations of significance. The film is a series of gorgeously imagined physical and thematic spaces, its depiction of warped privilege carrying at least some social charge; it encompasses the painfully stark (the cold details of the son’s drug addiction and its implicit call for self-obliteration) and the happily absurd (near the end, Caterina tells the boy that she broke up with his biological father because he loved his mother too much, her half-laughter suggesting how what was once fraught loses its potency with distance and time).

Friday, May 8, 2020

Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956)


I couldn't say whether the portrayal of the “gypsy” community in Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood is even remotely accurate, but it seems now like a near-fever dream of otherness: a community living within our own, but following its own rules, with its own “king” and economy, mainly interacting with the outside world only to keep the law at bay. The king (Luther Adler) is dying, and determined to bring his brother Stephen (Cornel Wilde) deeper into the fold, primarily by dictating his marriage to Annie (Jane Russell) (organized marriage is a mainstay of the culture). Stephen resists, but the marriage happens anyway, triggering a behavioural dance between the two that resonates against the actual dancing that recurs throughout, swinging between connection and repulsion (Russell, as always, communicates a piercing, self-assured strength, even as her motives are in most respects passive). The film is a series of remarkable widescreen compositions, often teeming with people in every corner of the frame, and you may struggle to recall a film (blood-letting epics aside) that makes such vivid use of primally bright red. Most of it is plainly and exultantly artificial, but there’s a remarkable exterior shot outside a trailer dealer, with the road extending to a vanishing point, evoking the suppressed desire for escape. The suppression wins out however: in the last scene, Stephen proposes to Annie for real, winning her immediate acceptance; he carries her off and they’re gone from the movie, the individualism of this second coming-together indivisible from their sublimation into the community, and their separation from the world as we know it. The film is too abstract and self-contained to lie among Ray’s greatest works – there’s little real sense of discovery or exposure to it - but on its own bizarre terms it immerses you in crudely passionate expressiveness.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Leon Morin, pretre (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961)


Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, pretre has a tightly-wound and somewhat claustrophobic-sounding core: Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a woman in a small French town, displaced from Paris during wartime, enters the confessional with the aim of mocking the priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo), but ends up relying on him as a spiritual adviser, and perhaps more. Melville’s filming of the initial confession flags his intention: he uses a multitude of angles, dissolving the physical divide between them, creating a figurative filmic space that suggests the transformative significance of what we’re witnessing; thereafter he works predominantly through short scenes separated by blackness, often presenting fragments of narrative for which a full context is missing, creating a sense of a world in which coherence is inherently evasive, perhaps best understood through pointed incursions. The source of the destabilization is the war, pushing people into actions they might not otherwise have countenanced; it’s almost as if the conflict were conceived by God to provide a fertile ground for moral testing (at various times the film addresses collaboration with the enemy, resistance, adultery; it shows one child innocently calling one of the German soldiers her friend, another turning his back on an officer who approaches him). Barny and Morin’s interactions often feel like a kind of game, enjoyed equally (if in different ways) by both sides (Belmondo’s perpetual sense of suppressed amusement is most effective in this regard), but the stakes are deeply serious, and the religious inquiry is as gripping as the exposition of a thriller. When Morin speaks against the ornateness and excessive ceremony of the church, and rails against the congregation from the pulpit for habitually leaving the service early and other slack practices, one almost hears Melville expressing his own evolving film-making aesthetic, underlined by the revelation in the last few minutes of how few possessions Morin owns in the world, followed by a final shot which suggests resultingly elevated capacities.

Friday, April 24, 2020

White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)


Watching Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye, your mind oscillates between wanting to dismiss it as essentially dismal I-married-a-serial-killer stuff, and constant wonderment at how Cammell ventilates and expands every aspect of it, generating a movie that feels at once frostily deadened and almost Messianically possessed. David Keith plays Paul White, a hilariously bland label for a character depicted as hypernaturally connected, carrying out his work as an installer of high-end audio equipment as much through heightened senses as technical expertise, a proficient hunter (until his wife Joan made him give it up, sort of) coded through various Native American appropriations. He met Joan (Cathy Moriarty) when she was passing through his hometown of Glory, Arizona with Mike, a boyfriend, on the way to Malibu – she never made it out of Glory, and a decade or so later, she finds that Mike is also back there, mentally diminished after an accident while serving time in New York. Paul comes under suspicion in a string of killings, and for a while it seems like a classic wrong-man set-up, until Joan finds something, and he turns on a dime, rapidly shedding every element of established personality and morality, becoming something close to sheer abstract threat (the corresponding swerve in Keith’s performance is no less startling). The endgame has Mike improbably showing up in the middle of nowhere at the right time – a tired narrative device converted here into something expansively formative (with a homoerotic undertone), as if we’ve been watching the culmination of God’s own plan. Almost every scene makes a mark of some sort, whether through oddity of character, flamboyance of design, or sheer penetrating strangeness, and if one often feels that Cammell should have managed bigger and better films, the film almost seems to be embracing displaced self-destructiveness at its heart, and daring people to find it lacking.