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.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)

 


One can’t think of nothing, states the maxim at the start of Eric Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife, and the movie encourages one to view the assertion with some regret, to muse that if one could transcend one’s daily clutter of interactions and obligations and desires, and all the stresses and anxieties that accompany them, one might attain something fuller and purer, in which thinking of nothing would constitute the ultimate fulfilment. As it is though (and in contrast to a pivotal earlier work like My Night at Maud’s) the characters in The Aviator’s Wife never approach such thoughts, being consumed entirely by that daily bric-a-brac, by the false narratives built upon it and their vast consumption of time and internal space (the title artfully sums up this state, referring to a person who’s not in the film and whom a couple of key characters fail to correctly identify). Almost as hard as thinking of nothing, perhaps, is looking while seeing nothing, and the film is driven by several incidents of one character observing another (a young man seeing his sort-of-girlfriend emerge from her building after apparently spending the night with her supposed ex, then later observing that same man with another woman) and then becoming wrapped up the implications of what was witnessed – this can be a liberation of sorts, as illustrated by the film’s lightest section, an extended interaction in the park between two people who’ve just met, but (as the film also illustrates in its final moments) not likely a lasting one. As always in Rohmer’s films, the film is marked by great emotional delicacy and versatility, the tone and dynamic of conversations often turning on a dime: there’s an aspirational quality to it, in how even the frustrations and disappointments are more eloquently embodied, and by more beautiful people, than normal life generally allows, but never to an extent that constitutes mere fantasy or denial of possibility.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Adoption (Marta Meszaros, 1975)

 

Marta Meszaros’ Adoption is a tale of improbably connecting female lives, distinguished from splashier instances of that structure (take Desperately Seeking Susan) by its intense attention to the intersection of society and biology, and by its ambiguous arrival points. Kata, a factory worker in her early 40’s, wants to have a baby, but her married lover doesn’t want to help, despite her intention to bring up the child alone. She meets a teenager, Anna, from the local “boarding school” (which in mid-70’s Hungary seems to carry major elements of a state prison), lending Anna a room in her house to get-together with her boyfriend Sanyi – viewed from different angles, Kata’s relationship to Anna may appear like that of a hard-edged mother, an obliging sister, or even a giggling lover, even while the real-world possibilities for change and growth remain limited. Ultimately Kata is instrumental in allowing Anna to realize her dream of marrying Sanyi, but under terms which amount to a bill of sale, and our last view of Anna is far from optimistic; the relationship allows Kata to see past her own ticking clock and to embrace adoption, but here too the process carries mercantilist elements, and the final shot emphasizes her isolation and dependence. That may make the film sound like a study of weakness, but on the contrary, both women are marked by their strength and spirit; they’re in a time and place though that imposes severe parameters on how far those qualities can take you. It’s telling then that when Kata meets her lover’s wife for the first time and provides an invented version of herself, it’s an account (husband, two kids) that sounds much like the other woman’s clearly unfulfilled life – even fantasy here tends to reinforce and diminish, rather than to facilitate even momentary escape.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)

 

Death Watch is one of the stranger entries in Bertrand Tavernier’s somewhat underappreciated oeuvre – a work of speculative fiction set in a world where death has been all but removed from public view, inflation and poverty are running riot, and various population controls are in place, but which looks and feels just like then-present day Glasgow. Romy Schneider plays Katherine, a woman dying of an unidentified disease, a rare enough event that a TV producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) seeks to build a nightly show around her (the film is prescient about the pending ascendancy of the intrusive reality genre, although the show depicted here is more dour than anything likely to occupy network prime time); to facilitate the production, his cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has a camera embedded in his eyes, which will render him blind if he’s ever exposed to darkness for more than a few minutes. The film is hard to place, dispensing much of its information just in passing, although there are some extended depictions of marginal people living in makeshift camps or sleeping in charitable shelters: the main focus is on the growing relationship between Katharine and Roddy as she flees from attention, not realizing that her traveling companion is broadcasting her suffering to the world, a moral transgression for which he eventually pays a predictable but still strikingly depicted price. The final stretch reflects on the allure of withdrawal, of immersion into culture and into the past, providing Katherine a small moral victory over the cynical Vincent that nevertheless seems unlikely to have a lasting impact. It’s hardly a satisfying arrival point in conventional narrative terms, but in its mixture of absence and displacement and blindness and hopelessness, supports the film’s central self-reflective ambiguity - that of whether we’re primarily watching Katherine’s death, or our own.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Deadly Sweet (Tinto Brass, 1967)

 


The most obvious reference point for Tinto Brass’ Deadly Sweet (or I Am What I Am) is Antonioni’s Blow-Up, made a year earlier (the poster is visible in one scene) – it’s another mysterious odyssey through “swinging London,” prominently featuring another fashion photographer, and with a heavy emphasis on style. Brass might be able to match Antonioni for incidental documentary interest – there’s a sense that he or his cohorts went out and amassed a large stockpile of random documentary footage (people reacting in the street or on public transport, old women looking out of windows and so forth) and then cut it in here and there to evoke incident and authenticity. Otherwise though, this is a scattershot exercise by comparison, replacing Antonioni’s spatial precision with a rapacious appetite for stimulation and diversion – the film alternates between black and white, breaks into split screens, flashes compulsively on items such as Underground signs or light bulbs, and drenches almost every available wall in movie posters or pop art prints; the staging of chases and fights and other action is notably imprecise and unconvincing. But the greatest lag on the movie is the plot – a wan and unproductively confusing affair that kicks off when Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant) discovers a nightclub owner murdered in his office, along with Jane (Ewa Aulin) who claims she doesn’t do it: pursued by various heavies, the two take off to solve the mystery, while occasionally pausing to indulge their erotic attraction. But the two never register as more than stock figures in a dubbed landscape, the Godardian device of having Trintignant spout quotes from the likes of Mao or (yes) Antonioni counting for absolutely nothing. Still, it has a kind of “let’s make a movie” glee that you seldom see now – a sense of the city and the culture as resources to be pilfered as one chooses, of a joy in movement and titillation and connection.