Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

 

The most (perhaps only) conventionally readable portion of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is indeed the title sequence, in which protagonist Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), under extreme pressure from gangsters after running up a gambling debt he can’t pay, gains entrance to a well-guarded enclave, commits a high-profile murder, shoots several other people in the course of the resulting mayhem, and makes it out of there alive: Vitelli’s improbable proficiency and success suggest a form of clarity, perhaps of self-liberation, more generally denied him, but one defined more by conventional cinematic archetype than character. It stands in intriguing contrast to the strangely preoccupied sense of searching that defines the rest of the film – Vitelli is the owner-manager of a supremely idiosyncratic night spot which bears the exterior of a strip club, but actually seems to titillate audience only through the highly mediated form of musical numbers fronted by the peculiar “Mr. Sophistication.” We see nothing of Vitelli’s private life, beyond interactions with some of the employees and their families, mostly taking an artificially courtly kind of form: Gazzara’s one-of-a-kind mixture of off-putting smugness and compelling connectivity reaches a fascinatingly unreadable apotheosis here. In classic film noir fashion, Cosmo’s success at pulling off the job fails to put the gangsters out of the picture, leaving him in a final position that appears desperate and hopeless, and yet also, as manifested in his demenour when he gets up on stage, defiantly triumphant, a duality which perhaps echoes the strange status of the film itself, a barely-released “flop” far more prominent now than most of its widely-seen contemporaries. The end credits roll over a “Mr. Sophistication” rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the tone and phrasing strangified to the point of rendering it fittingly unclear whether or not that’s a condition to be lamented.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Trois places pour le 26 (Jacques Demy, 1988)

 

Jacques Demy’s last and mostly overlooked film is a perfect ending to his career, as beautiful and joyous and yet quietly transgressive as all his best work. Yves Montand (himself only two films from the end, as it turned out) plays (some version of) himself, returning to his childhood home town of Marseille for a stage show based on his own life (Demy visualizes the show with just the right amount of warmly cheesy intricacy), while also hoping to find his old love (Francoise Fabian); she’s living in genteel poverty after her once-rich husband got sent to jail, with a headstrong daughter (Mathilda May) who adores Montand and gets a part in the show, falling for him and then sleeping with him, after which she rapidly learns that she just committed incest with her biological father. Needless to say, few musicals have taken the inwardly winding nature of genre plotting to such a point, although the speed and equanimity with which those involved shake it off and move on is equally notable. The film has great fun with the Montand persona, acknowledging the cornerstones of his biography, including his legendary love affairs (Piaf, Signoret, Monroe) and apparently ongoing virility, while suggesting suppressed shadows and secrets; it’s as flexible with the musical form itself, at first giving us a world where characters break into song and dance in classic style; then in its latter stages confining the performance to the stage. And just as it channels Montand, there’s the sense of a shadow portrait of Demy himself – another kind of return, heavy with allusions to and parallels with earlier works, and with something always beyond reach, summed up in the film’s final, almost offhand moments, reminiscent of how The Young Girls of Rochefort placed the long-awaited meeting of its star-crossed lovers just beyond the final scene.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

That's Life (Blake Edwards, 1986)

 

Given the considerably underexamined scenic affluence of its environment, it’s not clear that Blake Edwards’ That’s Life is appropriately titled in any very generally applicable sense – the label of “first world problems” hardly starts to describe it, and between that and the over-indulgence of Jack Lemmon’s familiar mannerisms, I’ve always considered the film a disappointment. On a recent reviewing, those reservations still seem generally applicable, but maybe with age I’ve become more attuned to the genuine anxiety that drives it all, to the expression of a raw insecurity that material comforts can’t suppress and may in some ways (such as by reducing the capacity for genuine spontaneity) even exacerbate. Lemmon plays Harvey Fairchild, a successful architect (but, as he makes clear, no Frank Lloyd Wright) approaching his 60th birthday, weighed down by hypochondria, blind to the fact that his wife Gillian (Julie Andrews) is quietly dealing with a much more urgent health problem; their adult children and partners arrive, all with their own issues; an old friend of Harvey’s reappears, now a Catholic priest (displaying an intriguing mixture of hard-line doctrine and pragmatic personal behaviour); casual sexual possibilities drift by. The casting of actual family members doesn’t add as much nuanced realism as it might, given the regimented nature of things, and a form of happy equilibrium is ultimately restored all too easily. But there’s much that may linger uncomfortably in the mind – notwithstanding the comment above, Lemmon sometimes (as in a scene where he may actually be trying to induce a heart attack on an exercise cycle) seems agonizingly possessed, and the final professing of need and devotion doesn’t sweep away Harvey’s easy recourse to adultery on two occasions within as many days (albeit that he fails to perform the first time, and that the second time is just plain weird).

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Nude Princess (Cesare Canavari, 1976)

 

The title character in Cesare Canavari’s The Nude Princess, Miriam, is a lawyer and former nude model (a duality which well sums up the film’s dominant mindset) who comes to Milan to negotiate construction contracts on behalf of her emerging African nation, and Canavari does affect some critical interest in the condescending and exploitative mindset of former colonial powers, portrayed here as certain they can negotiate rings around her (to the extent their thoughts are anything other than lewd ones). For all her impact on those around her, Miriam regards herself as “dead inside,” which she attributes mainly to a sexually traumatic past incident negotiated by the nation’s dictator, who regards her as his slave. Over the course of the film, various forces intervene to push her toward reawakening, which we can take in some general way to stand in for the broader evolution of African consciousness. However, such concerns sit strangely in a film of such lascivious instincts, one which seems primarily occupied by ensuring a regular supply of female nudity, a project executed with varying degrees of finesse: the film feels almost afraid of its own privileging of a powerful black woman (one played by a transsexual yet) and constantly drawn to self-sabotage, by insisting that she’s just another prisoner of quivering biology, her problems ultimately nothing that couldn’t be cured by the right man. Likewise, the appropriation of African culture oscillates between seeming admiring and engaged and just being reductively offensive. Despite everything though, it’s hard not to have some affection toward a film which thinks to cast the alluring and very European Tina Aumont as an American industrial espionage expert called “Gladys Fogget,” or in which we’re led to understand that wild, mind-altering tribal dances around a fire can apparently take place on an upper floor of a downtown Milanese building.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)

 

Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed makes for strange viewing, often feeling as if taking place on the sidelines of a more substantive movie that’s screening somewhere else – an inordinate amount of the viewing time consists of people getting in and out of cabs or buildings, or following other people on the street, or signaling to others who they should follow, with the human stories at the centre of all this busy intrigue ultimately revealed as being so slight that they hardly register at all. Aspects of Bogdanovich’s vision are rather sweet – his people make immediate connections, whether as friends or more than that, spontaneously applying nicknames and developing lines of patter with others they just met; the flip side though is a feeling of utter arbitrariness and disposability, in which it’s hard to take any expression of real feeling or emotion seriously, or to know whether that’s even intended. The notional plot has Ben Gazzara, John Ritter (whose relentless tripping and bumping and general klutziness is the main source of physical comedy) and Blaine Novak as three detective agency employees working on two surveillance cases on behalf of suspicious husbands; Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratten are the targets. Stratten is merely blank, regardless of what tragic resonance her presence might in theory have carried, and Hepburn is strangely and frustratingly underused, barely conceived as a character, and seemingly held by Bogdanovich at arm’s length. The film isn’t without a certain panache, but it barely contains, much less evokes, even isolated and scattered laughter, let alone the sustained collective enthusiasm of the title. Talking of which, the fact that the title song is among several Frank Sinatra songs heard just fleetingly in the background (seemingly in evocation of bygone classiness), in contrast to the foregrounded prominence of some grindingly undistinguished country numbers, is just another peculiarity.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Wayward Girl (Edith Karlmar, 1959)

 

Edith Karlmar’s The Wayward Girl is at its finest in observing the protagonist of the title, Gerd, marvelously embodied by an uninhibited Liv Ullmann in one of her earliest roles – she’s not yet eighteen but already in possession of a “bad” reputation, and the director and actress are completely attuned to the tumbling mixture of boredom and glee that drives her actions, her fascination with her own sexuality, and with the legacy of her bumpy personal history (she never knew her father; her mother is often away and equally poorly regarded). A boy from a more stable background, Anders, falls for her and steals his father’s car to take her to a remote tumbledown farm, with some undefined plan of shaking off the bad element she runs with and of opening up something lasting; the parents soon discover their location, but let it ride for a while, and then the situation becomes more complex with the arrival of Bendik, a vagrant with a much more openly lascivious response to Gerd’s provocations. One of the film’s most startling scenes has Bendik pausing from cooking a game bird he’s killed, and imitating its mating behaviour for the amusement and provocation of Gerd and her mother – their shared reaction provides the film’s most marked moment of commonality between the two, brought together in mutual transgressive delight. The final scenes aren’t among the film’s strongest though, the imperative of wrapping up the plot coming at the cost of pushing Gerd relatively to the side of the narrative, emphasizing instead the conflict between the younger and older man. But, of course, that makes its own kind of point too, that the window for Gerd’s “waywardness” to evade lasting social and biological consequences was always a narrow one, and that any sense of positive closure was always likely to be fragile, if not completely hollow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Only Two Can Play (Sidney Gilliat, 1962)

 

Sidney Gilliat’s Only Two Can Play presents 1960’s Wales as a smutty cauldron of repressed desire, the lid barely on at the best of times, and often threatening to extravagantly explode. Peter Sellers plays John Lewis, a married librarian with two children, squeezed into a barely tolerable living space (we’re told early on that an extra £150 a year would make all the difference), his workday punctuated by knowing looks from women on the bus and subtext-heavy book requests (it’s plain that any item with “sex” in the title just flies off the shelves). Liz (Mai Zetterling), doubly glamorous by virtue of being an immigrant married to a wealthy town councilor (the movie presents the class system at its most unctuously all-defining) takes a shine to him and dangles the prospect of using her influence with her husband to get him a promotion (and that dreamy £150 raise) – this goes better than their would-be affair, perpetually set back by accidents and interruptions. Sellers’ performance walks a fine line between being subtly low-key and completely blank (over time, the balance would tend to shift more toward the latter), with a few rather ill-fitting moments of escalating mishap in which one can almost glimpse Clouseau just around the corner; more affecting is Virginia Maskell as his wife, rapidly tuning in to what’s going on but lacking the resources to do much more than ask that he leave her out of it, as long as he hands over the housekeeping money. Despite a cautiously happy ending, interesting for its tentatively compromising nature, the film leaves a prevailingly sad impression, and Zetterling seems generally out of place (especially if you know that she was just a few years away from directing some absolute masterpieces), but then that’s largely the point. As a bonus, the combination of Welsh names, accents and the odd bit of language or local insight allows the film a modest cultural distinctiveness.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Doctor Glas (Mai Zetterling, 1968)

 


Mai Zetterling’s little-known Doctor Glas is a remarkable attempt to convey a protagonist’s inner life, all the more so for the aggressively complex nature of the psyche under examination. In the present day, Glas moves as an old man through the city, seen only in shadows, his lack of engagement emphasized by out-of-focus imagery, his mostly self-loathing thoughts heard in voice-over. In almost blinding contrasting clarity, the film shows him as a young man, focusing on his interactions with a prominent clergyman whom he loathes, and the man’s much younger wife who asks Glas to help her escape her husband’s exercise of his “marital rights.” Pushed by a mixture of animus, fixation, and a preoccupation with his own power, he tries to do so first by falsely diagnosing the wife’s physical state; later by playing on the clergyman’s anxieties about his own health. Glas ultimately takes his intervention to a transgressive high point, but the resulting benefits are more ambiguous than he foresaw, apparently sparking a lifelong reexamination of his action. Per Oscarsson is amazing as Glas, at times cold or impervious, at others uncertain and inadequate, feeling himself distant from his contemporaries (for instant lacking the usual male capacity for easy sexual banter) but quietly eaten away by a failure to chart an alternatively satisfying path. Zetterling visualizes his inner life through stark, sometimes shockingly direct images, dominated by the clergyman in various contorted poses, by a recurring image of the barely-clothed wife, carnally advancing. The film is almost bookended by two scenes in which Glas, using the same unyielding language, refuses to help in terminating a pregnancy, the difference being that the first request comes from a woman and the second from a man; one of many small but potent examples of how Zetterling in this film expands her predominantly feminist perspective.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Ploughman's Lunch (Richard Eyre, 1984)

 

Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch, written by Ian McEwan, is a much under-appreciated temperature-taking of Britain at a very specific time – the early years of Thatcherism marking an end to some long-established certainties, but the shape of their replacements not yet clear, national self-examination temporarily largely suspended under the patriotic boost of the Falklands war. Jonathan Pryce’s James Penfield, a BBC radio news producer, should perhaps in theory be perfectly placed to analyze and draw on the national evolution, but is strangely stunted, unable to see his job as much more than a matter of making the hourly bulletins smoothly fill the allotted time; he fixes on an idea of building his reputation by writing a book on the 1956 Suez crisis, his views on which appear much more superficial than those of the historians he interviews. The challenges of navigating class structures run throughout the film – Penfield has absorbed an elitist mindset to the extent that he can laugh out loud at the pointless questions raised by the audience at a poetry reading, but then finds himself on the other end when trying to keep up at a privilege-soaked (albeit that some of the attendees profess themselves  to be fervent socialists) dinner party. His evolution is such that he’s effectively no longer capable of communicating with his unpretentious working-class parents, but he lacks the unquestioning facility of those who were born into it (his treatment at the hands of the woman he imagines he’s in love with is often excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch). The title refers to the contention that the term “ploughman’s lunch,” supposedly a reference to a traditionally rustic meal built around bread and cheese, was actually a marketing construct from the 1960’s, and as such evokes the uncertain nature of our understanding of social and cultural change and its impact on the present, as well as the way in which capitalist interests are often pulling the strings. The film’s primary virtues may be literary and intellectual rather than visceral and cinematic, but it’s endlessly and subtly fascinating as such.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Loving Couples (Mai Zetterling, 1964)

 


The last shot of Mai Zetterling’s amazing Loving Couples places all that precedes it in a kind of stark biological perspective – an extended, highly clinical shot of a newly born baby, the edges of the screen closing in on it, emphasizing its potential domination of its mother’s immediately shrunken world. It’s not quite that straightforward though, because just a few moments earlier we’ve witnessed a birth in which the mother’s free spirit seems less likely to be vanquished as a result, and a few moments before that a still-startling shot of the disposal of a stillborn delivery. That is, contrary to the sense of oppressive uniformity that opens the movie, placing the three expectant women (whose lives will all be seen to be intertwined) in the same stark hospital, Zetterling establishes motherhood as a premise that need not constitute destiny, while being realistic about the odds that it may. Her film is enormously rich and expansive, charting a bourgeois society rife with adultery and unfulfilled desire, at various points encompassing both male and female homosexuality, alluding to masturbation as a response to a dull marriage, and near the end staging a stunningly cynical wedding ceremony, in which the pregnant bride spends the wedding night with her lover rather than with her husband, a gay man basically paid to provide the pending child an official father. But it’s also alert to momentary pleasures (and, in the case of one of the women, the corrosive feeling of being excluded from them) and to the complexity of motives and reactions, radiating awareness of and respect for the multiplicity of reasonings that drive women’s decisions. Men aren’t exactly dumped on here, but they certainly seem like relative fixed points, their political and social dominance amounting to a kind of embalming (to be periodically disrupted by a war of the kind that percolates in the background).

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Carey Treatment (Blake Edwards, 1972)

 

The Carey Treatment was far from Blake Edwards’ favourite among his own films – it was mired in production problems and he tried unsuccessfully to have his name taken off it. I’ve always liked the movie a lot though – even if not entirely by the director’s design, it’s so honed down and clipped in some key respects that it verges on stubborn abstraction. This quality is evident from the start, as pathologist Peter Carey arrives at a Boston hospital for a new gig – within minutes he’s tangling with a security guard, taking the first steps toward a relationship with a female colleague (Jennifer O’Neill), and overriding the police in their handling of a suspected drug thief, and when a colleague is accused of killing a young girl through a botched abortion, Carey takes it upon himself to get to the truth (the police don’t seem interested in probing further, and there’s no sign of a defense lawyer), which reveals itself through four or five deductive steps and a lucky chance sighting of the perpetrator. Carey might be regarded as a kind of inverse Inspector Clouseau, each moving through a world in which resistance bends to the protagonist’s blind certainty: for all his provocative attributes though, Carey doesn’t share Clouseau’s defiance of the laws of science, taking a serious beating which leaves him on the verge of collapse for the climactic scenes. The prominence of illegal abortion in the plot (this being a pre-Roe vs. Wade world) certainly deepens the moral and ethical fabric, although it’s probably unintentional how the notion of women lacking control over their own bodies finds echoes in the near-absence from the film of any woman with more than sex on her mind (even by the standards of under-utilized female leads, O’Neill’s role is fairly pitiful). Overall, for all its flaws, the film feels personal and preoccupied, navigating between amusement and disgust.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

 


Ozu’s I Was Born, But… is a silent film that hardly feels like it, its characters and interactions and subtexts established as fully as in any of his sound films. It focuses primarily on two boys who move to a new neighborhood and establish themselves among the other local kids, a process depicted here as largely a grabbing of raw symbolic power, such that you can direct other kids to lie on the ground and they’ll go along with it. It’s inherent in this game that one should also lay claim to having the best father, but a home movie night at the boss’s house damages their reflexive belief in this assertion, by showing him clowning around to win favour, insulting their intuitive sense of how power and stature should manifest itself. At home later on, they rail at him and even go on hunger strike, and after the initial anger, he concedes to his wife that he essentially agrees with them, and even takes a form of pride in their rebuke, and a resulting optimism for their future (later works, of course, will chart in detail the many compromises and disappointments likely to await them). The film is unmistakably Ozu’s, but with a neo-realist-before-the-fact feeling to the observation of the boys and their stark-looking environment. Among other secondary pleasures, it’s one of train-loving Ozu’s most train-heavy scenes, the house’s location next to the tracks allowing them to pass by at what seems like very frequent intervals, and one of those in which he seems most in love with movies themselves – the home movie viewing providing much easy pleasures (lions and zebras photographed at the zoo) and traps (the boss’s embarrassment as his wife gets confronted with evidence of her husband walking in the street with two women, neither of which is her – that’s the only faint appearance that sex makes in the movie though).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

End of the Game (Maximilian Schell, 1975)

 

The credits of Maximilian Schell’s End of the Game suggest a kind of puzzle: director Schell is best known as an actor; the film’s biggest part goes to a director, Martin Ritt, who at that point had barely acted since the 1950’s; top-billing goes to Jon Voight, except that the movie identifies him as “John"; and Donald Sutherland plays a corpse. Such playfulness might suit a film that explicitly labels matters of life and death as elements of a long-running game, and the movie does have some notes of productively evasive strangeness. In other respects though, it all hangs rather heavily, and some of its key central notions don’t really come off. The primary gameplayers are Ritt’s police commissioner Barlach and Robert Shaw’s prominent local businessman Gastmann, a man who believes his money and connections place him beyond the law – the two are bound by an incident some decades earlier in which their shared callousness caused a woman’s death. In his pre-corpse days, Sutherland’s character Schmeid was spying on Gastmann at Barlach’s behest, but apparently in a flagrantly transparent manner (posing as a professor of a topic on which he knew nothing) – likewise, much of what follows is knowingly transparent, belonging to a chess game not worth being played in silence (although the movie’s chess player character just perpetually plays himself). God is evoked numerous times, not always in the most theologically learned way (it's pointed out that Gastmann begins with G and so does God so, hey, that must mean something). Voight’s character is another cop who gets caught up in the mechanism, to the extent of sleeping with Schmeid’s girlfriend on the day of his funeral, but it’s hard to separate the character’s uncertainties from those of the actor (it's fancifully appealing now to attribute that to the moral confusion that would later consume the man). Overall, the film too often suggests a private joke not fully communicated to the viewer, but that’s at least better than not sensing any joke at all.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Les espions (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1957)

 


It may seem strange that the actor with by far the biggest role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les espions, Gerard Sety, appears way down the cast list, whereas top-billed Curd Jurgens doesn’t appear until almost halfway through, and is gone long before the end. But it’s an oddity that rather suits the up-is-down nature of the movie, one in which an initial feeling of clutter and peculiarity eventually coalesces into a sharp vision of pervasive threat and anxiety. In a set-up as seemingly loosely sprawling as Clouzot’s preceding fiction feature, Diabolique, was tightly-wound, Sety’s Dr. Malic, owner of a failing psychiatric clinic, accepts a large sum of money from an American agent to take in a mysterious patient, a decision that soon has the clinic overwhelmed by suspicious characters forcing their way onto the staff, or purporting to be patients, or crowding into the bar across the street, or watching from trees and rooftops; Peter Ustinov and Sam Jaffe play senior operatives of the Eastern and Western blocs respectively. The scheme turns out to involve a missing scientist who’s discovered a breakthrough in atomic energy that threatens to destabilize the Cold War equilibrium, so that the quasi-comic portrayal of the spy game, one in which players may not even try to keep track of what side they’re on, yields to real existential stakes. The ruthless ending finds both sides collaborating to preserve the status quo, leaving Malic feverishly trying to tell a truth that no one will ever hear; no one, that is, except the people on the other side of the surveillance embedded in his house, making themselves known through a coldly ringing telephone. The only sign of hope is in how a long-mute patient finds her voice in the film’s closing moments, but even that’s undermined by her fear of the consequences, if she should try to make it heard.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

 

In Jacques Rivette’s original conception, Duelle would have been the second of a four-film series of linked Scenes de la vie parallele, and it’s hard not to regret that the project was never finished (only one other, Noroit, was made) and to speculate on how the films might have informed and complemented each other. Like Noroit, Duelle shares many characteristics of Rivette’s towering achievement of a few years earlier, Celine and Julie Go Boating– a focus on two women (played by Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier, who were both part of the earlier film) and a situation that clearly can’t be taken “realistically,” to name just a few. Also like Noroit, it’s heavier going for the most part, its sense of Paris defined more by night-time interiors than by Celine and Julie’s light-infused playground. That’s somewhat inherent to the film’s intrigue though, its enactment of an outlandish situation (a meeting of two supernatural beings, one representing the sun and the other the moon) filtered through the gravity of real places and settings (summed up by the final confrontation, taking place under an apparently mystically-charged tree, but filmed in what appears to be a public park with trains and cars and pedestrians clearly visible in the background) with only the simplest and most transparent of cinematic trickery. The film is perhaps less elevating than Celine and Julie as an expression of female possibility (the scope for autonomy and expression is limited by the imposed narrative and stylistic rules), but it’s still a film almost entirely driven by feminine intention and action, defined by women who, if looked at, look back with piercing strength, often dressed and moving androgynously (much of the action revolves around a hostess dance hall, depicted here as utterly devoid of eroticism). The film doesn’t deny human frailty though, most poignantly through a sad secondary character played by Nicole Garcia, whose momentary joy at fulfilling her dreams is snuffed out almost as soon as it began; perhaps there’s a link there to Rivette’s own documented frailty around this time, and to the way both Noroit and Duelle now appear as transitional works, almost as a form of ritual purging before recharging and moving on.