Friday, July 20, 2018

Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)

It's rather hard to get a fix on Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz, and all too easy to reflexively brush it aside as an illustration of the director’s supposed late-career artistic exhaustion. As with many spy films of the period, exhaustion is actually central to its theme, of men (it’s usually men) in suits sublimating their personal lives to the grand geopolitical struggle, even though the specific contribution of their life-threatening exploits to that struggle is often unclear, especially on the many occasions when one’s masters prove untrustworthy (the treacherous scheme behind the film’s title seems like such an example of privileged access and power collapsing in on itself). Topaz has a lot of rather flatly played conversation between such men, interspersed with set-pieces which intermittently exhibit  Hitchcock’s legendary compositional genius and visual intensity. It makes you reflect though how often those fraught set-pieces drew on explicitly voyeuristic or neurotic underpinnings – Topaz by comparison is drained of much in the way of desire or obsession, or even recognizable human demonstrativeness. The film’s abstraction – its lack of interest in any kind of cultural specificity (the two main Cuban characters are played by a Canadian and a German) – becomes its own kind of statement on the milieu’s moral confusion, bolstered by an unusually sprawling narrative that keeps shifting focus between locations and protagonists, reflecting the underlying sense of ambiguous ethics and boundaries. While it feels like an old man’s film in many ways, the cast contains a startling number of actors from the French New Wave (it’s a rich resource for any Bacon-type degrees-of-separation exercise), providing its own sense of renewal; Michel Piccoli’s cheery wave in the final moments, and the final shot of a newspaper being blown away, suggest that whatever the momentousness of the world events in the background, the director is mostly interested in moving on from them.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Toronto film festival report, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1999)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto international film festival.

Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Errol Morris)
Leuchter is an expert in execution technology (designer of electric chairs, gas chambers, etc.), whose career was wiped out by his involvement in the Holocaust revisionism movement (he testified, as an expert witness in a defamation suit, that the Auschwitz crematoria could not and did not serve as gas chambers). In this vivid documentary, Morris lets Leuchter speak for himself (which reveals him to be a man of limited horizons with a – let’s say – quirky moral code, likely undone by hubris rather than evil [although Morris deliberately makes that, as far as possible, an eye-of-the-beholder-issue]), while providing a blizzard of visual accompaniments that emphasize – the lurid raw material of Leuchter’s life (a strategy indicated by the B-movie undertone of the title), and flirt with his obvious sense of his own heroism. Leuchter has more than enough rope here to hang himself, and pretty much gets the job done. Morris doesn’t try to explore the issue of Holocaust revisionism generally, pretty much taking our revulsion on faith, if anything, from my limited previous reading on the subject, that’s doing Leuchter a favour. Anyway, revulsion or not, it’s hard not to be fascinated by a man who can calmly chatter about his value-pricing approach to selling death machines (although custom-made, he tells us, they’re sold at “off the shelf” prices).

8 ½ Women (Peter Greenaway)
When a wealthy businessman’s wife dies, he emerges from his grief into a process of sexual rediscovery; inspired by Fellini’s Otto e mezzo, he and his son construct their own Swiss mansion harem of 8 ½ women, but their achievement soon starts to crumble. Greenaway’s films are getting no more accessible as time goes on, but they make for provocative visual and intellectual smorgasbords which, if you’re so inclined, can be consumed like grand banquets; they’re quite funny too at times. To illustrate what’s entailed here: the film starts with a full screen of text, which is then snatched away before you can possibly read it: at first you may blame your own slowness, then you realize the device – it shakes you out of the expectation of an easy narrative, primes you to think about the design of cinematic meaning…for some, it may also be a self-conscious arrogant annoyance. The entire film works much in that vein, but with countless stunning compositions, and what I found a strangely touching conception of its sexual odyssey, figuratively and literally stripping male desire down to its essentials, and encompassing allusions to just about the entire cultural history of female archetypes and myths (with an interesting sideline in Western versus Japanese culture); the ending satisfies both as sexual politics and as deadpan comedy. 8 ½ Women isn’t as seductive as Greenaway’s last film The Pillow Book, but Greenaway is a bull-headed artist in an almost parodically classic vein, and I find myself valuing him that more highly as time goes on.

Romance (Catherine Breillat)
A depiction of a young woman whose frustration at her male-model lover’s sexual disinterest sends her on a raunchy sexual odyssey. The film is already notorious for its explicit content, but ends up surprisingly tedious, churning through familiar notions of confused negotiation between self-respect and physical gratification; of the status of love when unaccompanied by sex; of how to reconcile exploration of one’s intimacy with the specter of obscenity and sluttishness. The film tosses off so many potentially misogynistic statements and attitudes that – given it was made by a woman – it starts to seem like a sustained test of both the filmmaker’s and the audience’s faith (it has a pseudo-devout, ritualistic kind of quality): it’s probably more verbally shocking than it is visually. It does ultimately put together a moderately moving portrayal, aided by a nuanced actress, but doesn’t go much beyond the cinematic territory mapped out in the 1970s by Godard, Last Tango and others, female director notwithstanding.

Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema)
This version of Jane Austen’s novel crams so much contemporary politicking into its portrayal of its central character that it almost fragments altogether. A young girl from poor circumstances, initially a charitable afterthought of the rich relatives with whom she’s sent to live, grows into the primary redemption of that family’s moral character (the family lives mainly on the profits of Antiguan slave labor, and the landscape is strewn with lurking temptations of the flesh). This strange film, which over-exerts itself in some ways and is largely inert in others, sometimes seems to be merely guessing at what it wants to make of itself. “This is 1806 for heaven’s sake,” says a character at one point, but it’s rather hard to tell: the film is oddly claustrophobic, not showing us much of its time or place beyond the girl’s two homes; the characters lurch from one thing to another, so that it ultimately feels more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent whole. The banality of the well-to-do milieu is well-caught, but Rozema’s cinematic “enhancements” promote a largely pointless, intellectually arid disengagement. Whether viewed through the prism of past or present, it’s markedly less persuasive than other recent Austen adaptations.

Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen)
Allen’s latest is a sweet but minor compendium of fictionalized showbiz chestnuts, with Sean Penn playing a jazz guitarist who – despite drinking and womanizing and general unreliability – enjoys a brief 20s and 30s heyday before fading out of sight. The film keeps a brisk pace, and although Penn’s artfully stylized performance could have supported a more probing portrayal, that’s not on the agenda: the expressions of his neurosis are largely played for comedy (of the wistful smile rather than the laugh-out-loud kind). In its zippiness and general inconsequentiality and fake documentary trappings the film sometimes reaches all the way back to Allen’s debut, Take the Money and Run. The movie keeps emphasizing the unreliability of its own portrayal, stressing how the legend may have overtaken the facts, but it doesn’t really matter – the film aspires little to art or satire, and achieves its goal of mellow raconteurship.

Friday, July 13, 2018

La naissance du jour (Jacques Demy, 1980)

Jacques Demy’s 1980 TV movie La naissance du jour is perhaps the least visible of his full-length works, seeming like a work of deliberate retrenchment after a professionally and personally bumpy decade. The film depicts the writer Colette in her summer home, moving within highly-ordered daily rituals and reflecting on her past – there are only two other major characters, and only a handful of scenes in other settings. The plot concerns a love triangle of sorts, but it’s barely evident as that, in large part described rather than shown; the film is tasteful and scenic, but hardly lends itself to the kind of delighted compositional beauty for which we cherish Demy. As such, it’s tempting to see it as a conscious repression, most intriguing for its glimpses of greater complexities below the surface. Take for instance the primary male character played by Jean Sorel, and how the camera’s focus on his naked torso seems to go beyond what’s required to express Colette’s own musings on the topic, or the later moment in a bar where we watch two men dancing together (a character asks them why, receiving the explanation that the girls don’t dance well). Given what we now know of Demy’s bisexuality, it’s hardly gratuitous to see here an accepting expression of more complex interests and desires than are expressed in Colette’s tidier (although thematically not uninteresting) formulations. This messaging would continue through the raw desires depicted in Demy’s next film, Une chambre en ville, to his underappreciated final works; Parking also contains a distinct strand of bisexuality, and his last film Trois places pour le 26 contains an accidental incestuous encounter, happily shrugged off on its way to a happy ending. In this light, just as La naissance du jour intermittently depicts Colette’s memories as vividly as it does her present, its absences seem as meaningful as its bucolic actualities.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)

Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo is a terrifying, thematically labyrinthine portrait of slave-owning America’s moral and psychological wretchedness, positing a corruption so deep that generations won’t succeed in washing the stain away (and haven’t). Reduced to a plot summary or recounting of “high points”, the film sounds lurid and exploitative, and has often been dismissed or mocked as such. But in its embrace of melodrama and what’s sometimes labeled “scenery-chewing” acting, it digs painfully deep into the sick underpinnings of the culture – one in which the economic model demands that the humanity of the slaves be denied, and yet in which their presence makes that impossible, generating hypocrisy upon perversity. Physicality and sexuality lies at the centre of the madness of course – the absence of imprisoning formal structures makes their relationships with black women more satisfying to the white men than those with their wives, to a degree that’s all but formally admitted and embedded in the culture, with the consequent flow of children being regarded as so much by-product; in contrast of course, the prospect of male black sexuality crossing the colour line is the ultimate horror (and a white woman who invited this would merely be sacrificing her right to go on living). But at the same time, the film takes us deep into how the white males project their own physical inadequacies onto their prize “inventory” – a prizefighting scene goes on virtually in agonizing real time, forcing us to confront the depth of the investment in blood and brutality and enforced submission. Indeed, the whole film is unnervingly direct and visceral, seeped in its time and place, even as the viewer inevitably looks for broader parallels or redemptions. But the only organized revolt depicted here is rapidly extinguished, and the ending suggests no immediate prospect of sustained resistance or relief, only of continuing madness in shifting configurations.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Cesar and Rosalie (Claude Sautet, 1972)

The title of Sautet’s film is a bit of a tease – the fairer title might seem to be “Cesar and Rosalie and David,” or even some other subgroup of the three. The chosen title prompts us to regard the relationship of Cesar and Rosalie as a normative benchmark and David as a threat, as such taking the viewpoint of Cesar – a self-made man overawed to have Rosalie as a partner, but not knowing how to express it except by aggressively filling every silence with his own voice and by relentlessly reciting how much money he spent on this and that (Yves Montand is just sensational in the role). David (Sami Frey) returns after five years in America, still pining for his old love, and through his youth and handsomeness and (as Cesar puts it) greater cool seeming to stand a chance of getting her back. Cesar rapidly succumbs to obsessiveness, and then to outright violence, but even as his actions threaten to push Rosalie away rather than secure her, his fraught interactions with David are actually becoming more meaningful to him, perhaps to both men. For a while, the film seems rather offputtingly dominated by Cesar and David, even to the point of underlying misogyny, but by the end Sautet has repositioned that impression to a degree that seems quietly radical (the movie stops short of any sexual implications between the two men, but then it’s mostly discreet about sexuality throughout). In the end, Rosalie is nothing more than pure image, observed from a distance, captured in a final freeze frame, making the point that perhaps that’s all she ever was, and that the apparent lack of attention to her inner life in the earlier stages wasn’t an oversight, but a quiet rebuke of our expectations of women in cinema, and beyond it. The fact that Rosalie is embodied by Romy Schneider, in all her mesmerizing reticence, dares us to see beyond the image, while simultaneously acknowledging we may not think to.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Fighting back

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 1999)

My place in the hierarchy of Toronto film critics doesn’t amount to much of anything, but even so I feel like resigning it in disgust after looking at what’s been written locally about the current film Fight Club. An excessive response on my part? Of course, but folly on this scale demands no less. It’s the edge-obsessed passivity of the reactions that’s so annoying. Malene Arpe in Eye: “A demented, funny and brutal exploration of manhood, Fight Club posits that irony, clever post-modern references and style for the sake of style suck – all the while employing those very devices liberally and to great effect.” Sounds to me like that ought to be setting up a condemnation of the film’s cynicism and hypocrisy, but instead it’s the start of a rave, five-star review. Cameron Bailey treads almost identical territory in Now: “The way (the film) tries to resolve (its) contradictions is so obviously weak that I have to imagine it means Fincher agrees to let them stand.” He cuts the movie another five stars worth of slack. Even the semi-mighty Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail goes along for the ride, noting that the film “inevitably degenerates into the very thing it derides – a saleable commodity” but deeming it an important work nonetheless.

Man’s fate

Fight Club is an ugly, incoherent piece of work that pushes its incoherence right up tight against your face until the thing virtually splatters into pieces, and then goes on pushing. The attention given to the film focuses mainly on the concept in the title: the notion of an underground club where men go at each other with bare fists, rediscovering their stifled identity through violence. Edward Norton plays a pathetic, directionless middle-manager who hooks up with Brad Pitt, a charismatic, self-driven, perpetually self-renewing rebel. Pitt’s reinvigoration of Norton, initially fairly benign, takes off when they discover the liberating impact of a tussle in a parking lot; as other men gather around them, the official fight club soon springs into life.

For some reason, most of the reviews of Fight Club seem to be written as though the film more or less ended there; had it done so, it would have been merely a shallow, forgettable, efficiently handled piece of glossy exploitation – certainly capable of prompting a discussion about the place of manhood in society, even if the film’s tangible contribution to that discussion is negligible. But there’s much more to come, as Pitt parlays his leadership of the fight club into the assembly of a fanatical fighting force: a dark-suited fascistic crack squad that worships him as a Messiah, and meticulously prepares for a revolution of sorts. And the plot turns out to have a Sixth-Sense-like “twist,” although one which leaves the movie looking like a partial retread of Fincher’s last work The Game, and which makes a mockery of most of what’s gone before (rather than, as in Sixth Sense, enhancing it). Long before the end, Fight Club has become tedious in that particularly barren, monotonous way that only a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza can manage.

Coddled in stuff

But what about this central thesis that (per Arpe’s synopsis) “contemporary man is emasculated by a society that offers him no outlet for aggression and no real purpose and instead coddles him in stuff?” Well, I doubt the notion has any merit. Who does this emasculating “society” consist of? Contemporary woman? (Fight Club has no insight on this side of the equation, having virtually no female roles other than a freakish, inaccessible Helena Bonham-Carter, and a briefly glimpsed dying cancer sufferer longing to get laid one last time). What is the “real purpose” that contemporary man lacks – and that, presumably, some pre-contemporary generation of man possessed? The honest trade of a dirt-poor farmer? Cannon fodder in the army of a feudal leader? Of course one can meaningfully talk about the emasculation that accompanies – for example – economic deprivation or systematic racism? But to suggest that a well-paid corporate up-and-comer like Norton has an even faintly legitimate interest in surrendering to violence is a careless, complacent brand of armchair anarchism. (Similarly, Bailey adopts a goofily pugilistic approach to writing his review: “What do you hate about your life? Who do you want to kill? What’s stopping you?”)

Along the way the film has some good lines, some imaginative individual scenes and ideas, and – whether intentionally or not – some intriguing echoes of other, better movies. But Norton gives his least interesting performance to date, and Pitt’s work merely confirms that he’s only at all worth watching when playing ghosts or weirdos. Obviously  the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. It would be pointless (and hypocritical on my own part) to insist that filmmakers must practice what they preach, but I find something particularly galling about the way Fight Club relentlessly lectures the audience. Ikea, for instance, is constantly attacked as a symbol of the pernicious consumerism in question, but I see no significant way in which a multi-million dollar, intensively-marketed, string-pulling Hollywood movie has a moral upper hand over such products.

It’s all crap

As I write that, I can already hear the film’s defenders protesting: well, that’s one of the points, that’s part of the self-reflective irony. Which is the sort of application of irony that makes you want to jump on the Jedediah Purdy wagon. If any criticism of Fight Club can be absorbed by positing that the film anticipates and provides for them, then that seems to me like the ultimate proof of its self-regarding vacuousness. What kind of achievement would that be, anyway, once you get past Philosophy for Dummies – to have grandiosely undermined everything we think we know (or everything, that is, except the manipulability of the audience, in which the film most assuredly does believe)? Shouldn’t a five-star movie have a better message than (approximately): it’s all crap?

Is the film, as some have charged, irresponsible? Arpe considers it “sure to inspire dimwits to copy what’s going on onscreen” (the rest of contemporary man – you know, the portion that aren’t dimwits but nevertheless are emasculated with no real purpose – will presumably have to go on suffering). But I suggest that the film, for all its insistent immediacy, is stifled by its hysterical virtuosity – that even dimwits will be repelled by the weight of the calculation. Having been pummeled to the limits of endurance by the movie itself, few will be inclined to experiment further. “It’s an open text,” raves Bailey. “An open wound. It’s bleeding.” And so, for the lack of a Band-Aid, two hours were lost.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Domino Principle (Stanley Kramer, 1977)

In its two unsubtle references to Franz Kafka, Stanley Kramer’s The Domino Principle seemingly means to impress on us the immensity of what its protagonist finds himself within – a network of such reach and influence and connection that any attempt at defiance or assertion of free will is doomed to failure. But the effect, if anything, would be instead to point out the relative artistic blandness of Kramer’s film; how the character’s dilemma largely fails to illuminate anything meaningful about power and connection, or about our own natures, at least not in the way it intends to. Gene Hackman plays Tucker, languishing in prison with at least fifteen years left on his murder sentence; the unnamed organization, fronted by Richard Widmark’s Tagge, offers him freedom, a well-funded new identity, and a resurrected relationship with his wife (Candice Bergen), all in return for unspecified services to be performed later (given that the movie starts off by flashing the term “Assassination” on the screen in several languages, the services will be obvious to the viewer at least). It might seem like a simple narrative weakness that of all the available stooges in all the country’s prisons, the organization chose in Tucker just about the most contrary, uncooperative subject imaginable. On the other hand, that points to the most intriguing sub-textual question – if these guys (they’re mostly although not exclusively guys) are so powerful, shouldn’t their control on things be tighter, removing the need for such expensive, drawn-out convolutions? In this sense the movie resonates against incomprehensible contemporary theories of the “deep state” and the like, which mainly serve as rather plaintive assertions of (if not disguised wishes for) dark underlying order, even as all the evidence only suggests we’re being dragged into increasing global chaos and erosion. Kramer’s direction is perhaps a little more fluid than his sticky reputation suggests, leaving aside the thumping quasi-sermon at the start, but given such fanciful underpinnings it’s all doomed from the first narrative domino.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Pnantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel, 1974)

Luis Bunuel’s late run of films is one of my favourite streaks by any filmmaker – I don't know that anyone else ever achieved such sustained, unmediated self-expression, marked by such unfussy cinematic elegance. The Phantom of Liberty is a consistent astonishment, fundamentally a loosely-linked collection of sketches, all of which challenge some aspect of convention or perception – in its most famous bit, the guests at a dinner party sit on lavatories around the table and discreetly absent themselves to eat in private. Its sequences subtly vary in their relationship to reality: in some cases providing a relatively simple reversal of expectations (the “dirty pictures” revealed as mere tourist postcards); in others savagely firing at religious sanctimony (monks who embrace booze, smokes and poker but recoil from sexual display); in others suggesting a mass breakdown in perception (a little girl who everyone counts as disappeared, even as they acknowledge her continuing presence); an episode involving a call from a dead sister gives the dislocation a psychic dimension. The film belongs securely to the living rooms and fancy offices of the bourgeoisie, except that suddenly Bunuel shows us a mass shooter gunning down random victims, and we’re dropped into real streets and markets and cafes, into real disruption (of a kind of course that doesn’t seem dated at all), and it’s clear how the film isn’t just a semi-affectionate ribbing, but rather a suggestion of a malaise spreading out from the establishment, a toxic discharge from so much self-absorption and self-congratulation and under-examined reliance on hypocritical moral precepts, of a kind that brings us down whether we know it or not (the film’s most pointed political dialogue actually addresses the environmental consequences of increasing population). Phantom doesn’t feel revolutionary or anarchic – it’s too comfortable with its settings and people for that – but it’s never complacent, wondrously ventilated by Bunuel’s timeless assurance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Grasping at ashes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2000)

If any movie ever pushes me into giving up on cinema, it might well be something like Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes. While watching it, I was so miserable that I seriously considered walking out – which, if you knew how stubborn I am in these matters, is like Preston Manning saying he’s thinking about switching to the Liberals. I didn’t even walk out of Parker’s last film Evita, even though I swear the thing took five years off my life.

Parker has made some of the most vacuously overblown films of the age, as well as a few moderately intelligent works which were filmed so as to appear vacuous and overblown. My favourite of the bunch is probably Shoot the Moon, a story of a failing marriage where – if memory serves – the ranting and raving somehow coalesces into a raw, chilling picture of emotions on the edge. Parker himself seems, from studying all the evidence, like a bull-headed loudmouth. One of the joys of cinema comes in fancying that you can feel your way through the screen into the soul of the director; avuncular Robert Altman beaming his way through Cookie’s Fortune; Paul Thomas Anderson hurling Magnolia into an inspired frenzy. Try that kind of thing with a Parker film and your head feels like burnt pizza.

Stopping the shouting

But Angela’s Ashes marks a change – according to a recent Globe and Mail profile, it’s conceived as a quieter film. “I think maybe I felt before that no one would listen,” says Parker, “if I said something in an understated way. Now I have the courage to know that sometimes the more understated a scene is, the more powerful it can be. You don’t have to shout all the time to be effective.”

But here’s the crazy equation – Alan Parker minus shouting all the time equals a big empty space. The new film is entirely inert – dramatically and thematically and artistically negligible. It has no ideas. One thing follows another. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. People get older. Three Hail Mary’s here, a pint of Guinness there. Whatever. It’s as boring as hell. Which could be a compliment if it meant the film were stoically and faithfully transcribing the painful barrenness of a disadvantaged childhood. But that’s not how I meant it.

It’s based, of course, on the best-selling memoir by Frank McCourt, who grew up in abject poverty in Ireland, then emigrated to the States and worked as a teacher until achieving literary fame late in life. I haven’t read the book, but I’m told the film is a faithful adaptation, at least in the sense that it preserves the structure and key incidents. The father can’t hold a job; drinks away the family’s meager income; eventually abandons them altogether. The mother struggles to feed and clothe her children. The kids do the best they can.

Well, here’s the thing – so what? That personal history, in itself, is utterly unexceptional, and the telling of it might amount to no more than a Greatest Hits of Misery and Suffering (with, of course, occasional light relief indicative of the possibilities of the indomitable human spirit). But the book had McCourt’s narrative voice, which struck people as being warm and moving and artistically vibrant. Even though the Toronto Star recently had a story about how he’s been boring people with this stuff for years. “Stop whining,” said his wife allegedly, “I’ve heard enough about you and your miserable childhood.”

Designer poverty

The book presumably rose above that, but it’s exactly the kind of review the film deserves. Scene after scene passes, lit with uniform steely grayness, each as carefully composed as the last. The Globe and Mail reports that “Parker knew there was a danger of falling into presenting what he calls ‘designer poverty.’” It’s a trap the writer of the article implicitly seems to view as having been avoided, regardless that he praises the film as “beautifully photographed.” Am I missing something in thinking that a film about poverty and suffering ought not to be beautifully photographed? Did Parker even seriously try not to fall into the “designer poverty” trap?

When my wife was reading the book, she was especially moved by the vivid evocations of hunger. The key passages are in the movie, but not in a way that will cause you a moment’s disquietude as you munch on your popcorn. Through his inability to abandon middle-brow notions of quality filmmaking or to get in close and dirty, Parker lets everything get away from him. Regardless that it may be based on truth, the film seems more and more like fiction as it crawls on – especially in the final scenes, where Frank almost miraculously comes by the money he needs to finance his passage to America.

Of all recent films, this is the one that least needed to be made. If the book’s that good, who needs the movie? How could it not have failed? And it certainly doesn’t fill any detectable hole in cinema history. Elia Kazan’s America America was a far more evocative account of the immigrant dream and its price. Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy is but one of dozens of movies that deal with Irish childhoods, or Catholicism, or childhoods in poverty, or absent fathers, or all four.

The idiot’s game

All in all, it’s a deadly boring experience. And I suppose it’s just the mood I was in, but it seemed close to a back-breaking straw. You go and see what’s alleged to be literate Hollywood cinema – Snow falling on Cedars, The Hurricane. Angela’s Ashes – and just get hit with turgid, self-important crap time and time again. Man, it’s depressing. I don’t want to end up a mainstream-spurning elitist who watches nothing but Iranian movies at the Cinematheque because, well, for one thing this column would suck. And beyond that, I want to enjoy the thrill of new openings, to succumb occasionally to the hype and the marketing and even to the star-gazing and the Oscar buzz. But it’s really an idiot’s game.

You need to clear your head afterwards. The film I watched after Angela’s Ashes was the 70’s exploitation flick Foxy Brown, starring Pam Grier, which I taped from Moviepix for what I would claim were historical reasons. And it’s awful – cheesy, poorly written and acted, clumsy, whatever you want to say about it – but I would argue vehemently that it’s a better film than Angela’s Ashes by any measure that counts. At least it lives and breathes and captures something of its time. And in terms of entertainment value, of course, it’s a complete no-contest. So watch Foxy Brown, or rent a porno video.

Or – and I admit this seems a bit radical to me – you could read the book.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)

Blue Collar, Paul Schrader’s first film, might not be easily identifiable as a Schrader film if you didn't know: for long stretches of time it almost feels like something arising organically from the factories and the surrounding community, particularly from the male workers who navigate between profane self-assertion and constant losing-battle economic anxiety. This doesn’t mean it feels like documentary – it increasingly submits to the mechanics of the plot and to the journey toward its final cinema-fist freeze-frame – but much of the movie carries an enormous feeling of ease and almost unmediated expression, with all three lead actors as fine as they’ve ever been. The film explores the complex equilibrium of the worker – at once proud of the union and what it represents but mostly contemptuous of the specific individuals who embody it; adhering to a traditional role as head of household while constantly on the lookout to subvert it with drugs and available women; sensitive to criticism and accusations of fallibility while constantly aware of their circumscribed place in the system. It’s a gripping film from beginning to end, but inevitably now it’s the sociological aspect that holds sway, given the subsequent decline of such labour-heavy production methods, and its consequences for the kind of worldview and social infrastructure Schrader explores. The film’s treatment of race is also notable: the film’s protagonists - two black and one white – are joined by what they have in common without being suspicious of what they don’t, until their unity poses a threat to the system, and so must be not just broken, but converted into active hatred. That ending freeze-frame isn’t subtle, but watching the movie now, it’s like a portal to the toxic present, in which such communities are plundered for easy votes, with never a shred of economic concession or compassion given in return.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Arrival of Joachim Stiller (Harry Kumel, 1976)

It's only in its final moments that Harry Kumel’s The Arrival of Joachim Stiller resembles an explicit parallel of Christianity, and it’s a measure of the film’s scope that this represents one of the more modest potential destinations. The film’s protagonist, Freek Groenevelt, starts to observe strange events, many of them linked in some way by that name “Joachim Stiller” – the unseen Stiller starts to assert himself as an explicit presence in the life of Freek and others, for example in letters arriving correctly addressed despite having been mailed decades earlier. Over the course of its two and a half hours, the film sometimes seems to be building the kind of myth that in contemporary Hollywood hands would yield a portal to hell surrounded by swirling CGI demons; at other times though “Stiller” seems more like an abstract expression of all that’s unresolved in our personal or collective pasts, or else like mere mischief-making, some kind of local in-joke. The film’s closely-observed Antwerp setting is certainly a major part of its appeal – we spend so much time observing the city’s trams and streets and cathedral that you wonder if Stiller doesn’t work for the local tourist bureau. But equally as important are the copious narrative strands and throwaway scenes that in terms of their strict contribution to the resolution seem to be neither here nor there, in particular a bawdy extended subplot about a near-feral local graffiti artist and the unprincipled entrepreneur who sets out to profit from his work: as in the Hitchcockian opposition between suspense and surprise, you get the sense that the film’s scheme depends as much on what doesn’t happen, or on what can’t be rationalized or justified, as on what does and can. For all its considerable eccentricity then, the film stands as a more intriguing and rewarding exploration of personal and spiritual striving than a more devout or linear work would likely be.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Klansman (Terence Young, 1974)

If nothing else, Terence Young’s The Klansman has you feeling persistently outraged and repulsed, which seems like the broadly right reaction to a drama about modern-day Southern racism. It’s generally a bit unclear to what extent this reflects conscious sociological engagement and illumination, versus tasteless pot-boiling, but the ambiguity isn’t uninteresting in itself. It’s tempting to credit co-writer Samuel Fuller for what’s most interesting in the film – usually when it looks beyond the rather ploddingly ugly foreground drama to explore the wretchedly symbiotic coexistence between white fear of blackness and its economic dependence on it. There’s an acknowledgement for instance of how the black population in the county actually outnumbers the white, thus providing constant fuel for voter intimidation mechanisms, and the film is pretty good on how the Klan bastardizes language and religious precepts (in these regards as in numerous others, the film’s substance feels less dated than its surface). The plot turns around sheriff Bascomb’s attempts to maintain equilibrium in the community when various events, including a white woman’s rape and a voting rights demonstration, stir up the perpetually stir-ready Klansmen (that is, basically, the entire local male population) – his concessions are monstrously favourable to the racists who occupy the driver’s seat, but of course it’s never enough. The film surely spends too much time wallowing in swaggering interactions, and it’s hard to look kindly at its relative treatment of white and black female sexuality and its violation – it lacks anything as cinematically or thematically powerful as the central concept of Fuller’s later White Dog. Unless that is you react a certain way to the presence of O. J. Simpson as a one-man avenger, essentially occupying his own space within the movie, just as he does in the movie of our lives. Young's film fails particularly in its ending, delivering us merely to inevitable mass violence and destruction, and to a predictably bitter closure lacking in any broader meaning or implication.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Eating Shakespeare

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2000)

Sometimes the shape of the room depends on where you came in. I started making a serious habit of sneaking into 18-rated movies (or X-rated, as they were at the time) in the early 80s. This was before video really came in, and you’d seldom see a mature film on British television that wasn’t cut in one way or another (I remember that Chinatown, for instance, was broadcast without the scene in which Jack Nicholson gets his nose knifed, entailing that he suddenly just turned up wearing an unexplained bandage), so this was major new territory for me. I remember every one of them as a distinct exotic exploration. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was the first (even then, obviously, I didn’t follow the crowd), and it only added fuel to my enthusiasm despite its disastrous reputation. Ken Russell’s Altered States was the second. I’ve watched that movie four or five times again since then, and it seems sillier every time, but to me nowadays it’s like visiting a declining mentor in his hospital bed; you sit and smile and remember the better days.

Paul Bartel

Another of my earliest expeditions into the X-rated movie was Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, a 1982 black comedy who take up murder and cannibalism. The film was well received at the time, and seemed likely to be Bartel’s stepping-stone out of B-movies into broader acceptance. But he never really followed through. His last movie of any note (and then not much) was Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, made in 1989. More lately, he was seen here and there in tiny acting parts. He died the other week, and I doubt the obituary meant much to most readers. But reading it, I experienced the same heavy-hearted thud that accompanies the loss of a thriving career – no more Paul Bartel films, I thought to myself, as though we’d lost Robert Altman or Mike Leigh. Because his brief moment of relative glory coincided with my own awakening, I guess Bartel was always a prominent filmmaker to me. And this despite the fact that I haven’t bothered to see Eating Raoul again in the intervening eighteen years. It’s disconcerting, when the inner child suddenly kicks like that.

The death I should have mentioned, I suppose, was that of Sir John Gielgud – obviously a much more estimable figure than Paul Bartel overall (although, in a reversal of the way obituaries usually work, I don’t think I ever read as much criticism of Gielgud as I did after his death – all ringing tones and no passion, was the common rap). A few commentators noted (to no particular end) that Shakespearean stalwart Gielgud died in the same week that Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet opened here. But the odder echo for me came from Bartel’s appearance in the climactic scene. Looking embalmed and distant, he had but one line – “A hit – a palpable hit.” Taken out of context, that might not seem like such a bad exit line for a film director.

Michael Almereyda

If I’d thought about it, Almereyda might have seemed until this year to carry every likelihood of dwindling away in Bartel-style. Some of his films, like the vampire movie Nadja, had points of interest, but not enough to sustain even the flimsiest of legends. In fact, Almereyda was best known for his odd enthusiasm for Pixelvision – a plastic video camera produced by Fisher-Price – a technology he’s deployed in several movies.

At the Toronto film festival two years ago, they showed a movie of his which was then called Trance (subsequently released on video as The Eternal). It starts off promisingly, depicting a New York woman’s slow alcoholic suicide in fairly raw and striking terms. But after ten minutes or so, the action shifts to Ireland, where she visits her ancestral home, occupied by a wacky (naturally) Christopher Walken and an ailing aunt or granny – I forget which. I recall watching through escalating layers of dense exposition and strained mythology and being utterly baffled as to the nature of the artistic merit that got the film through the festival selection process. It’s too idiosyncratic to be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill potboiler, but that’s not synonymous with having much merit. Anyway, the film was barely heard of after that, which seems about right.

But Almereyda really turns things around with Hamlet I think. The film reinvents the Denmark of Shakespeare’s play as a “Denmark Corporation” based in New York, and translates its brooding characters into an environment of modern-day corporate skullduggery; it locates “to be or not to be” in a milieu of brand names and modern architecture. Almereyda’s almost ideal cast includes Ethan Hawke, San Shepard, Julia Stiles and Bill Murray. He brings the film in at under two hours. This all sounds pretty smart, if you assess it as you would at a pitch meeting.


I enjoyed some scenes of Hamlet as much as any Shakespeare I’ve ever seen on film. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, so I can’t comment with much authority on where Almereyda’s transcription stands in the pantheon. It never seemed to me that his approach yielded any specific insight into its contemporary setting. And one doesn’t need to be a purist, I suppose, to take the view that “To be or not to be” would be better presented “straight” than (as it is here) on a video screen, by a Hamlet holding a gun to his own head. And yet, for the uninitiated (or to put it another way, for those who were brought up on Paul Bartel rather than on Gielgud), the presentation, even if it’s a little overwrought, does illuminate the subtext.

But that approach runs the risk of Hamlet for dummies. The real miracle of the movie for me is how enthralling it is even when it’s played relatively straight. Bill Murray, for example, doesn’t have much support during his scenes, but he’s quite terrific, rendering his speeches entirely clear and enthralling and naturalistic. True, there were also major stretches which rather went past me (I’ve never had the courage, incidentally, to tackle Kenneth Branagh’s four hour version from a few years ago). But if nothing else, Almereyda’s film is surely a serviceable introduction to the play. I actually thought about seeking out the original text. Especially perhaps during those few seconds when Bartel was on screen, as somber as though foreseeing his own demise; as though numbed by the knowledge that his few aficionados would shortly move on to something more substantial.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Manon 70 (Jean Aurel, 1968)

Across such an intervening distance, it’s hard to know how much Jean Aurel’s Manon 70 is channeling the specific morality of its era, versus merely engaging in pretty, titillating fantasies. Journalist Des Grieux (Sami Frey) sees Manon (Catherine Deneuve) in a Japanese airport, and his first transgression follows almost immediately – blowing expense account money on upgrading to first class to boost his chances with her. The gamble works, but the die is already cast – not too much later (whether in narrative or in screen time) he’s out of a job, and tolerating behaviour from Manon of the kind for which he earlier said he’d kill her. But then, everybody’s doing it – Manon’s brother (Jean-Claude Brialy) appears to live primarily on the earnings of pimping her out, even getting a nightclub out of it when an American millionaire Ravaggi (Robert Webber) enters the scene (Ravaggi is the one character who seems turned on primarily by tuning into his own rapaciousness, which may be intended as a shot at the under-sensualized US) . The film crams a lot into its 100 minutes, too much to impress as a serious sociological and psychological investigation, especially when everyone and everywhere looks so ravishing (except for Stockholm which is made to look like the back end of Siberia). Aurel takes Deneuve mostly at face value, which indeed is worth a lot, until one compares to her greatest  works of this era. It’s hard not to think of the film in relation to her recent cautionary comments on the “Me too” movement – it exemplifies a notion of messy, self-gratifying act-now-work-out-the-details-later hedonism. Perhaps that’s not really much of a view of human interaction, but as the film is at least notionally based on an 18th century work of literature, you might conclude it’s drawing on some weary notion of the long view.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Movie notebook #3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2000)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to do an article on my ten favourite films, but it always comes up against a practical problem – I can’t decide what they are. And even if I could, I should really check out the contenders again before committing myself in print. I think Bonnie and Clyde and That Obscure Object of Desire are on the list, but I haven’t watched either of them for a few years, and I never seem to get round to it. A sign perhaps, that they don’t belong on the list.

I think John Cassavetes’ Love Streams must be a major contender, for I watched it only last week, and would happily start all over again. Note that I was only talking above about my ten favourite films – a wantonly subjective criterion. Cassavetes’ two-and-a-half hour film is obsessive, obscure, self-indulgent; it often seems to be talking only to itself. But I adore it.

Love Streams

The film revolves around two characters. The first is a writer, played by Cassavetes, who lives in a vaguely explained harem-like situation, through which he wanders in a tuxedo and a cloud of cigarette smoke. He represents a highly narcissistic, defensive, formalized view of love and relationships, never yielding the truth about himself, regardless that he insists that a beautiful woman must give up her secrets.

This contrasts with his sister, played by Gena Rowlands, whose marriage has crashed under the strain of her highly fluid notion of love as a stream that never stops flowing, whatever the ups and downs of relationships; she almost cracks in her attempt to implement this vague philosophy. Even if I didn’t find the film artistically scintillating, I think I’d still love it just for the ambition. Love Streams has a story, with a resolution, but it feels more like a feverishly molded sculpture than a narrative. Cassavetes, as an actor, had a uniquely aggressive stylized quality about him, yet as a director he was devoted to a notion of discovery and exposure. I think the balance shifted over the years toward the actor in him, for whereas his early work (Shadows) was naturalistic, Love Streams is essentially a spacy, distended fantasy, swooping across moods and tones. A passage where Rowlands buys him a mini menagerie and brings it home in a cab is one of the most delightful deadpan scenes of the last twenty years; at other times the film is so raw that it bleeds.

Well, Cassavetes has been dead for some fifteen years now, and I still miss him. Of course, one occasionally sees films that evoke elements of his style – the Dogme 95 group for example – but they don’t have his showmanship or his blazing vision. I remember Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 a few years ago as being unusually satisfying in that kind of vein – but I’d need to watch it again to know for sure (I must get around to that).

Miss Julie

I was thinking about this again recently as I watched Mike Figgis’ latest film Miss Julie. Figgis is the director of Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs – a likely candidate for the Hollywood A-list if he were interested. But he’s taken to blasting big-budget money as being inconsistent with good work, and says he’s tired of conventional filmmaking. His last, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, was a freeform scrap book of images, widely regarded as ludicrous (I liked it more than not). His next is apparently a thriller shot in a single ninety-minute take, or something like that.

Miss Julie is an adaptation of a Strindberg play, confined almost entirely to a single set, dealing with the fleeting but disastrous relationship between an aristocratic young woman (Saffron Burrows) and her father’s footman (Peter Mullan). It’s powerful, savage material – fiercely laying bare the hypocritical, self-deluding niceties of relationships across class and sexual lines. Figgis’ film is appropriately corrosive and disquieting; he gets a fine performance from Burrows (his girlfriend and apparent muse).

For the most part Figgis plays things fairly straight, but a couple of times near the start of the film, he engages in shot selections that seem ludicrously artificial and jarring (the footman viewed from the point-of-view of the wine glass he holds in his hand; a disorienting one-take shift of focus from one character to another, then again to another), and at one point he uses a split screen. I took these devices as deliberate attempts to force us beyond mere identification with the characters, to make us think about the events depicted within the broader context in which we watch the film (text book kind of stuff), but whatever the intention, they’re very strained, not particularly interesting.

Being unconventional

I was more intrigued by a sequence when the rest of the servants briefly take over the kitchen; drunk and giddy from a Midsummer celebration, they dance and chant and spew vulgarities about their masters, while Burrows listens from a corner. There’s an odd disembodied feeling to this sequence; the servants don’t register as characters, merely as a shambling yet vaguely menacing mass, ritualistically venting its scorn – the sequence seems like a momentarily much more imaginative evocation of the intractability of the class system, and its placement forms a significant meridian in the central relationship.

But since that’s only one sequence, I’m really only saying that Figgis isn’t actually offering up an awful lot, relative to all the fuss he’s making about steering clear of the mainstream for the sake of a higher calling. Miss Julie is certainly very different from The Loss of Sexual Innocence, but you almost wonder if that isn’t the whole point. With both films, you might be up on one piece of it and down on another, but it’s a pretty fragmented kind of response either way. And of course, the films aren’t massively different from the mainstream – they still have actors, recognizable plot strands; they don’t run upside down or backward. Looking at Figgis’ attempts so far at “unconventional” filmmaking, you just feel like you’re missing the frame of reference. Mike, what did you say was broken? And just tell me again, how exactly are you fixing it?

Personally, I thought Figgis’ most distinctive film was his 1997 commercial flop One Night Stand, but that’s a minority view. It’s certainly ironic that almost as soon as he embarked on his mission, a number of fine unconventional movies emerged from within the wretched Hollywood system. But whether Figgis chooses to work within or outside the system, I hope he manages to forge a persuasive case for our continued interest in his work. He seems to have the ambition of a Cassavetes. But Cassavetes was a visionary whereas Figgis, at present, merely reacts.

(2018 footnote – here’s an article I wrote subsequently on my top ten films)