Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Chinese Boxes (Christopher Petit, 1984)

 

In a way, the title of Christopher Petit’s Chinese Boxes sums up the odd feeling of lost-in-time absence that permeates the movie, not just through the structural clue it contains (that one layer of apparent explanation will be forcibly removed to reveal another, and so on) but also through the evocation of China as abstract exoticism, not then seeming relevant to any immediate economic conversation. Marsh (Will Patton), an American in a still-partitioned Berlin, is the main inadvertent box-opener: a dead business associate leading to a teenage girl overdosing in his apartment, leading to a mysterious American called Harwood who says he’s a customs agent (Robbie Coltrane) but doesn’t act like it, to mysterious assignments apparently connected to drug trafficking, and to further killings and revelations.  The film treats genre expectations with enjoyable minimalism, depicting a car crash simply by cutting to the stunned passengers inside the upside-down car, dispensing with scenes of gun- and fist-play so glancingly that they hardly register at all, and allowing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” (maybe a too-obvious choice) to make some meaningful-seeming dialogue largely unintelligible; much the same goes for the film’s depiction of Berlin, predominantly consisting of anonymous locations that might be anywhere. It’s still a resonant choice though, with Harwood’s primary concern turning out not to be drugs at all but rather the prospects for increased commerce between East and West; he even presciently anticipates the possibility of reunification (as a matter of economic if not political logic). The choice of aspect ratio reinforces the sense of “boxiness” and confinement, of things perpetually on the verge of inwardly collapsing. A key character’s final rejection of a free ticket out, finding the prospect of leaving Berlin unimaginable, underlines all that the movie leaves untapped, a sense of further boxes (or of entire sets of boxes) not yet opened, or even dreamed of.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)

 

Carl Dreyer’s Ordet occupies a unique, unnervingly singular cinematic space, acknowledged in a sense by the absence of any credits; if taken at face value, the film dramatizes the transformative power of Christian faith, and doctrinal religious matters occupy a large portion of the screen time, and yet Dreyer seems to reach beyond even that, to an untapped capacity innate in humanity (and, by extension, in the art of cinema). The film focuses on the prosperous Borgen family, a patriarch and three sons – the oldest, Mikkel, not a religious believer; the second, Johannes, mentally unbalanced to the extent of pronouncing himself to be the second coming of Jesus; the third, Anders, in love with a girl he can’t have, because she belongs to a different, more rigid sect. When Mikkel’s beloved wife dies in childbirth, the family is shaken to its core, but then Johannes, citing the power of faith, brings about a miracle; or if not that, then an event lying far beyond any rational available explanation. Dreyer ends the film on an intense observance of this event, showing enough of the reaction to suggest that local religious differences and their consequences may now be swept away, but withholding those of the priest (who has earlier discounted the possibility of nature’s laws being broken in the modern age), the rational doctor whose efforts failed, or even of Johannes himself, as if nothing that follows could ever be of comparable significance or interest; as if in contemplating faith (as perhaps with love, and again, the act of cinematic witnessing) the anticipation of what follows can only undermine our joyous immersion in the divine moment. The film is always vividly present, its characters very particularly conceived and observed, set in a specific time and place (a 1925 on the edge of modernity, with telephones, but with horses not yet fully displaced by cars), but almost feeling like a science-fiction-type portal to a paradigm beyond the grasp of 1925, or 1955, or of any year since.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Mass Appeal (Glenn Jordan, 1984)

 

Glenn Jordan’s Mass Appeal depicts American Catholicism as being a largely complacent, flaccid and hypocritical institution that strangles the few pockets of passionate and commitment that may dwell within it, but fatally undermines its ability to drive home those points by evidencing much the same faults, cinematically speaking. Jack Lemmon plays Father Farley, all too comfortably established in his Connecticut province, mostly wise-cracking his way through the sermons, dispensing shallow homilies and comforts and strategic white lies and evasions to paper over his low-level alcoholism and essential hollowness; he crosses paths with Mark Dolson, a volatile young seminarian (Zeljko Ivanek) to whom he becomes an involuntary supervisor, and, of course, his faltering attempts to shape the younger man’s path cause him to reevaluate his own. The film suggests that homosexuality is common in the church, while rendering it a distanced abstraction: two seminarians are expelled for suspected sexual contact (but we never even get to see them); Dolson admits that he’s had sex with men (but also with women, and it’s all in the past); there’s a passing suggestion (but no more than that) that Farley may also be gay. The film’s debates on these and other hot issues, such as the ordination of women, are hopelessly glib and packaged, undercutting any real sense of personal suffering or deprivation; likewise, Farley’s evolution from seeing Dolson mainly as an exasperating threat to ultimately proclaiming him as something close to the future savior of the Church, whatever the cost to his own job security, is set out in arbitrarily lurching terms. Compared to some directors of that period (see Tribute’s Bob Clark), Jordan holds Lemmon’s mannerisms in relative check, drawing out some moderately moving moments of self-awareness and breakdown, but the film’s imperfectly underlined ending doesn’t provide much to subsequently reflect on.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Witches (Pier Paolo Pasolini Mauro Bolognini Vittorio De Sica Franco Rossi Luchino Visconti, 1967)

 

One of the stronger entries from the 60’s spate of European anthology films, The Witches is a five-part showcase for Silvana Mangano (which might admittedly seem, across this time and distance, to be a peculiar undertaking). Two of the segments barely register – Mauro Bolognini’s is a one-joke thing (albeit a well-handled one), and Franco Rossi’s barely even that. Luchino Visconti’s opener, a frostily languid look at a celebrity’s spiritual malaise hits mostly familiar beautiful-people-in-crisis notes. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s is the most formally and thematically intriguing – a zany, sometimes Chaplinesque comedy in which a bereaved man and his son search (mostly through urban wasteland) for a new wife/mother, striking out with the likes of whores and shop dummies before settling on a lovely deaf girl (Mangano at her loveliest), who utterly suffices until she dies from slipping on a banana peel while standing on one of the upper levels of the Colisseum (yep), which isn’t a problem because she returns from the beyond and things go on as before, yielding the motto that being dead and being alive are the same thing (some other Pasolini films might not lead one to interpret this premise as positively). It’s at once the most frivolous chapter and yet the most socially-anchored and spiritually questioning. The film ends with a Vittorio De Sica piece in which the star plays a bored, frumpy-looking wife, her marriage drained of passion, trying to buck up her low-energy husband while living a much more exciting inner life, all of which is considerably lifted by the fact of the husband being played by a (dubbed) Clint Eastwood in one of his all-time loosest, most game performances: it’s one segment that you might wish had been longer. With the added bonus of its strenuously nutty opening credits, it’s a diverting if inherently odd package, generally boosting one’s appreciation of Mangano’s range.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

 

Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind contains some of the most deliriously striking pictorial compositions, within one of the most jaggedly disturbed psychological structures, in all of classic Hollywood cinema; every moment (from the astoundingly dynamic opening credits) is a submission to a startling spectacle, to a degree that feels personally destabilizing. On a trip to New York, dissolute oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) rapidly falls for one of his company’s executive secretaries, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall); he marries her, cleans up his act, and brings her to the family’s Texan home base, a setting dominated by his unhappily promiscuous sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), whose behaviour is at least partially driven by her unrequited love for Kyle’s best friend and fixer Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who can only look on her as a sister, and who in turn is in love with Lucy (Sirk weaves in a rich number of Freudian threads, including Kyle wishing that Mitch’s father had been his own). Stack and Malone both give heightened, physically unrestrained, often almost gargoyle-like performances, their great wealth and potential power only accentuating their personal inadequacies – when, in Kyle’s case, the symbolic inadequacy appears to become a primal medical one, such that he believes himself to be sterile, there’s no recourse except inwards, into drunkenness and madness and beyond. At times, the film feels like Gothic horror, the vast family home seeming almost demonically possessed (for example, in the cross-cutting of Marylee feverishly dancing in her bedroom and her despairing father taking a fatal fall down the stairs). It follows then that Mitch and Lucy, the representatives of relative normality (to the extent that anything about the fifties seems normal in retrospect) can only find closure by fleeing the site of trauma, leaving Marylee as the inheritor of familial power, the final shot laden with unresolved sexual threat.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

 

Shiro Toyoda’s Shozo, a Cat and Two Women often feels rather trifling and (at two and a quarter hours) protracted, but ultimately achieves a bleakly stubborn persuasiveness. As the film starts, Shozo’s wife Shinaka is more or less hounded into leaving him by his dominating mother, who wants him remarried to his younger mistress Fukuko, mainly because of the accompanying financial benefits (Fukuko’s father also holds the mortgage on their house). Shozo’s erotic attraction to Fukuko (especially, it seems, to her legs) is made clear enough – the film is quite ribald at times (and striking in its portrayal of Fukuko’s proud sexual self-determination, for which we’re told she’s even made the newspapers in the past) – but his only real emotional affinity is for his aging cat Lily, disliked by Fukuko, and only of interest to Shinaka as part of her plot to get Shozo back (her options otherwise looking grim). All of this entails a fair amount of repetitive histrionics, but one driven by real anxieties about basic survival – Shozo’s immaturity and general inability to engage with reality (left to his own devices, it’s clear that the little store from which he makes a meagre living would hardly function at all) seem like a defense against a hard-edged post-war landscape he otherwise finds impossible to engage with. Lily being a cat, it’s a recurring mystery over whether Shozo’s elevated view of her is at all reciprocated, not least at the end, when he basically leaves the two women (by then seemingly headed for a domestic version of mutually assured destruction) behind and bets everything on her, leading to a strikingly desolate ending. The film’s philosophical strands are clunkily underlined by Shinaka’s brother-in-law, supposedly obsessed by philosophy, which as manifested here basically just consists of dropping words like “existential” into everyday sentences (to his wife’s understandable bemusement).

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

How Green was My Valley? (John Ford, 1941)

 

Like Citizen Kane, which it famously beat as the best picture Oscar winner of 1941, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley? is heavy with remembrance and regret, for a time of vanished coherence and beauty. Ford’s film is far more conventional than Welles’s, and looms far less large in the collective cinematic memory, but much about it is beautiful and moving, even if there’s little that doesn’t seem simplified and/or idealized (it’s in black and white, but still, one feels that the valley was never that green, that life was never in such perfect equilibrium). The film constitutes the childhood memories of Hugh (played as a boy, very sweetly, by Roddy McDowall), the youngest of six brother and a sister (Maureen O’Hara) growing up in a Welsh mining village. At first, all seems idyllic (the film rings with choral renditions of many Welsh-language classics), but many of the opening precepts are shown to be false or fragile: the economic relationship between the mine and the workers deteriorates more with each passing year, causing an inevitable outward migration and erosion of community; the centrality of religion is exposed as a ritualistic sham (Walter Pidgeon plays the local minister, ultimately all but driven out by cowardly hypocrisy); the inherent danger of the work floods the valley with loss, and slowly poisons those lush vistas. Saddest of all is the decision of academically gifted Hugh to follow his family into the mine rather than continue with his studies, speaking sad volumes about the imposed smallness of his world, his inability to grasp broader possibilities. The film may be at its weakest when Ford indulges his liking for boozy camaraderie, but impresses with the confidence of its storytelling, not least with how much its ending leaves unresolved, both for the individuals and for the world they inhabit.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Lili Marleen (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)

 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen isn’t typically ranked among his best films, but if it seems at times to play a little flatly, that’s not necessarily unsuited to its structuring ambiguities. Willie, a German singer, is barred from escaping into Switzerland at the start of WW2 because of machinations by the father of her Swiss boyfriend Robert (who actively works to help Jews evade the Nazis); needing to make ends meet, she keeps on pursuing her career, and chances onto the title song, the popularity of which lifts her to iconic status, bringing both rewards and dangers. The soundtrack is suffused in the song, while leaving it unclear whether it serves as a morbid sapping of positive will (as we’re told is Goebbels’ view) or as a unifying evocation of the heartland (Hitler’s view); the song is played to raptly listening soldiers in the trenches and to vast formal crowds, but there’s never any sense of the war as other than a losing venture, and near the end when a group of soldiers hear the song on the battlefield and head in its direction for refuge, it’s a Russian trap. The ambiguity extends to Willie herself (summed up in the character’s very name, and in the way her identity later becomes entirely intertwined with the song) – the film withholds any confirmation of whether she sleeps with Nazis as is rumoured, and while she assumes personal danger in some of her anti-regime activities, her motivation, and the depth of her convictions (if any) are entirely unclear (even her basic competence as a singer is the subject of debate). As such, the film continually returns to the unstable nature of cultural symbols and to the ideological regimes they may seem to support. Hanna Schygulla ably embodies Willie’s recessive qualities; the film also stars Giancarlo Giannini and Mel Ferrer, splashy casting befitting the film’s classically melodramatic ambitions.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977)

 

Alain Resnais’ Providence makes it clear early on that the apparent initial narrative (a strange affair involving the mercy killing of an injured old man with a werewolf-like affliction, leading to a court trial, and then to a relationship between the accused and the prosecuting lawyer’s wife) is at least in part a representation of the work in progress that tumbles through the head of elderly author Clive Langham during a night of drunken pain, while leaving the possibility that elements might be rooted in external reality (Langham’s own son, daughter-in-law and even his deceased wife take on prominent roles in the narrative). To that degree, the film represents a  puzzle of sorts, although it never feels likely that a clear “solution” to these oddities and discontinuities is likely, or even desirable; it often plays like broad, destabilizing comedy, as Langham’s inner voice floods the soundtrack with scabrous vulgarities (delivered with relish by John Gielgud), often disappointed by his own imaginings, sometimes losing control over them (most charmingly involving a tangential football player character who keeps jogging into scenes where he doesn’t belong). The ultimate arrival point, once reality does assert itself (or so we might assume), is surprisingly bucolic, with Langham’s children coming to his country house for a birthday lunch, identities and realities clarified and softened from what was previously mooted. Langham drinks as excessively in daylight as after dark, and there are references to past transgressions, but the pervasive sense of present attack is gone, and one might even wonder whether such heavy tranquility more fully embodies the death of creative faculties. Despite the productive affinities with Resnais’ other work, the tightness of the conception, and the extreme Englishness of the setting, periodically generates a sense of a director being somewhat hemmed in; Gielgud aside, the actors only intermittently flourish. And yet, it does all linger quite deliciously in the memory…

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Fedora (Billy Wilder, 1978)

 


Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, is usually regarded (if at all) as a sign of waning powers, and it’s certainly what you might call an “old man’s film,” but then the strangely haunting material hardly lends itself to a young man’s one. William Holden (at his most resonant, accentuated by one’s hindsight knowledge of how his own time was running out) plays Barry Detweiler, a seen-better-times independent producer who comes to Corfu in search of Fedora, a retired Garbo-like actress whom he hopes to lure back to the screen. He finds her beauty undiminished, but his attempts to get to her are blocked by an old Countess in whose villa she’s living, and the Countess’s surrounding retinue; then that narrative comes to a sudden end about halfway through, and the second half largely provides a different perspective on what we’ve previously seen. Much about the film feels dislodged from time – it suggests for example that Fedora somehow sustained her stardom into the 70’s while making strictly old-school movies (Detweiler’s passion project is cringingly titled The Snows of Yesteryear) – and there’s a hole at the heart of the movie in breezing far too easily over various self-serving acts of cruelty by the Countess and those around her, keeping us at a distance from a key character’s inner anguish. But that’s only to say that the film is an artifice, no less than the illusions depicted within it, suffused in a sense of regret and loss. It’s an artifice though that flirts deliciously with reality at times, no less than in its use of Michael York, playing himself (Holden’s reaction when Fedora names York as her ideal co-star, rejecting Detweiler’s suggestions of Nicholson, Beatty and McQueen, is an absolute highlight). Henry Fonda also briefly appears as himself, presenting Fedora with a life achievement Oscar, looking serenely happy to be there. And truly, why would he not be?

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)

 

Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion is one of his most gorgeously twisted art objects, a work of stunning craft and visual sumptuousness which, even as it ravishes us, persistently prompts us to find such beauty lacking, both on its own terms and as an expression of the hermetic industrial and financial infrastructure which allows its creation. While it’s seldom been worthwhile to try summarizing a Godardian narrative, Passion revolves around a stalled film project taking place in proximity to a factory riddled with industrial unrest and to a nearby motel, the proprietors and workers of which interact in various ways; the director is from Poland, at that moment in time a focus of political engagement, the very evocation of which tends to condemn the decadent irrelevance of the film within the film and all that it drives. The project appears to consist primarily of (again, gorgeous) recreations of iconic paintings and historical snapshots, with no apparent protagonists; the director spends much time worrying about the quality of the lighting, while his producer continually hustles for money; as such it’s in an intriguing dynamic with Godard’s own film, which has an emblematically art-house cast (Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli), all of course subservient to the governing scheme (Huppert’s character stutters: Piccoli’s perpetually coughs; Godard seems most interested in Schygulla for her face, including one wondrous searching close-up that recalls Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc). In the end, the director sets off for his home country with some of the film’s women tagging along; to one who balks at getting in because she doesn’t like cars, he explains that it’s not a car but a magic carpet - a silly line, but one which works on her, and which perhaps points to the possibility of escaping a cinematic dead end, for a creative renewal more rooted in the real world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Family Way (1966, John Boulting & Roy Boulting)

 

One’s memories of the Boulting Brothers’ The Family Way are likely to be dominated by the highly sellable central situation of a young couple (Hayley Mills’ Jenny and Hywel Bennett’s Arthur) unable to consummate their marriage after moving in with his parents, and gradually subject to a barrage of local speculation, gossip and worse. Viewed now though, this is just one element in a virtual catalogue of sexual dysfunction, much of it carrying homosexual implications: most prominently the fixation of Arthur’s father (John Mills) with his lost boyhood friend, whom he even brought along on his honeymoon (he seems entirely oblivious to any subtext, although his wife plainly isn’t). It’s hinted that Jenny’s mother was perversely suspicious of her husband’s affection for his daughter, and even the movie’s most outspokenly ribald character, Joe Thompson, played by Barry Foster, is, based on his wife’s climactic outburst, a sexual strike-out whose “job” has been filled for years by the milkman. The movie roots all this in a highly judgmental, privacy-challenged, booze-sodden community, with little sense of space (the house lacks a bathroom) or economic opportunity; it’s not exactly a societal hatchet job, but certainly allows ample understanding of how one’s insecurities might only be amplified in such a milieu. The movie is an easy pleasure, although it’s a shame that the resolution basically consists of Arthur battering his way to redemption, beating up Thompson and preparing to leave Jenny, his anger and resentment finally enabling him to conquer the central problem; the final scene then bundles the couple out of the way on a delayed honeymoon. But even then, as embodied by Bennett, Arthur seems too inherently out of place for the marriage ever to work, his thoughts and ambitions seldom seeming to align with those of the sweet but more basically content and locally-rooted Jenny, providing little prospect of avoiding further troubles ahead.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

 

Just as everyone says, there’s an inexhaustible quality to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a rare balancing of unnerving narrative mechanics and a searchingly poetic sensibility that seems constantly to be looking beyond. Its 90 minutes contain a remarkable variety and breadth of characterization and incident, the focus several times moving outside the established narrative onto a new character who then gets drawn into the central scheme; even at its most potentially lurid (and it is, after all, about a monstrously self-justifying doctor, located in a big creepy house, whose plan to restore his daughter’s mutilated face entails, with the help of a manically devoted assistant, kidnapping, surgically abusing and killing a series of young women), the film is rooted in personal agony and helpless compulsion, dotted with touching, psychologically revealing moments. The film’s ending represents an astonishing inversion, the relative ease with which the two villains are dispatched speaking to the inward-looking irrelevance of their scheming, obsessing with restoring the damaged girl’s face when her true redemption lay in embracing its absence, and entering her own ethereal space, depicted in a climatic dove-shrouded glide into the woods. The scenes of the investigating cops could from one perspective be eliminated – we last see them getting the wool pulled over their eyes, departing with no idea of their proximity to past and pending crimes - and yet, the intrusion of such ineffective authority reminds us (because we might easily forget), that the film’s threats and perversions of causality, for all their fantastic aspects, are products of our own world (the final scene of Franju’s Judex appends a note to a similar end), of familial love and scientific ambition and perceived social entitlement; the vibrant Paris captured earlier in the movie lying just a twenty-minute train away ride, we’re told. Overall, amazing viewing every time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950, Fritz Lang)

 


Drawing on his own experiences of flight and exile, Fritz Lang’s American Guerilla in the Philippines is a sweaty, sun-baked variation on his foreboding urban narratives, its protagonist as hopelessly trapped as in any of them, in this case fighting an all-but-endless war while devoid of almost any personal agency or any sense of the passage of time. Tyrone Power’s Chuck Palmer is one of a small group of Americans trapped in the islands after the US withdraws in the face of the 1942 Japanese invasion (General MacArthur’s parting declaration, printed on matchboxes, that “I shall return” comes to seem like as much an existential taunt as an inspiring promise) – he treks for weeks in search of others, has an idea of sailing to Australia which goes nowhere, and from there is gradually drawn into the prolonged, lonely, constantly threatened guerilla existence. Micheline Presle (billed here, in a wondrous example of dumbing-down, as “Micheline Prelle”) plays a Frenchwoman married to a local businessman who channels money and support to the guerillas; once he’s identified and killed by the Japanese, she and Palmer rapidly become a couple, a transition depicted with notable lack of sentiment (she’s depicted as being unerringly pragmatic, and gets to wield a gun in the final showdown in a church, as does one of the altar boys). The movie has a huge amount of action and incident, with Palmer required to do everything from building a radio with whatever’s on hand (which he succeeds at) to operating on a horribly injured man (he fails), but the flag-waving is offset by its protagonist’s essential loneliness, with only one other American, played by Tom Ewell, depicted in any depth; when the troops triumphantly roll in at the end, they watch from the perspective of liberated locals rather than as part of the team.


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

La faute de l’abbe Mouret (Georges Franju, 1970)

 

Georges Franju’s La faute de l’abbe Mouret contains major elements of both hell-and-damnation Catholic severity and flower child-inflected dreaminess; one’s assessment of the film’s success (mine differed across separate viewings) may depend on the extent to which the two cohere. Young Abbott Mouret, bearing a Bressonian pallor and sense of self-denial, serves in a rural village of little apparent piety (the film opens on two locals having sex in a field), and after a sudden collapse which largely wipes out his memory, he’s taken by unknown means to a nearby house occupied by a fiery atheist, whose daughter Albine nurses him back to health. The two walk daily in the adjacent walled-off garden (visualized in extravagantly lovely terms, its centerpiece an overpowering abundance of flowering roses), where they eventually make love, like two innocents discovering something that was previously beyond imagining. But a prolonged shot of a snake on a tree makes all too clear the fragile nature of this paradise, and when a storm brings down the wall, Mouret’s memory returns, along with an even more austere sense of vocation. The film contains some punishing moments, such as Mouret’s unrelenting colleague terrorizing children with his pitch-black vision of their future, but the proffered alternative is no less ungrounded; Albine claims that the garden supposedly contains a magic tree that distorts one’s sense of time, and tells him an origin story that sounds like a fairy tale. Mouret’s actions end in tragedy, triggering one of cinema’s more unusual suicides, and a shocking act of violence; the final scene, a fusion of inner and outer worlds, could be read to suggest that Mouret’s external fealty shrouds a transgressive inner life, even a surrender to the devil. Given the considerably lighter nature of Franju’s subsequent film, Shadowman, it may constitute the last great enigma of a fascinatingly shifting body of work.