Saturday, December 7, 2019

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)


Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers provides one of cinema’s great, ever-renewing metaphors, seeming as topically resonant in Trump’s America as it did in Eisenhower’s, although for different, almost inverted reasons. Memories of how Trump’s initial joke candidacy rapidly became a monolithic red state takeover line up nicely against the ease of the alien takeover here, a brief spate of panic rapidly replaced by mass compliance, with just a few dwindling holdouts (seen nowadays, the “pods from space” origin of the threat seems like the least important aspect of the myth). You might reflect how Trump’s humourlessness and lack of reflection, his lack of pleasure in art or conviviality, appear to be foretold in the emotionless nature of the pod people: there’s no suggestion that they plan to remake Earth in the image of their home planet, or to craft new institutions or structures - they seemingly intend just to keep going as they are, except in joylessly hollowed-out fashion (a key sign of trouble is the drop-off in business at the local restaurant). It need hardly be underlined that the afflicted town is about as aspirationally white-bread as they come, with not a hint of problematic diversity. Anyway, whether or not you choose to apply it that way, it’s a great, propulsive eighty minutes (you might certainly wish it were longer), rapidly picking up speed and panic, with Kevin McCarthy’s doctor a memorably fraught protagonist; Siegel nails both the intimate chills, such as the first discovery of an evolving pod person, and the broader spectacle of the climactic pursuit. If the doctor’s pre-invasion pursuit of an old flame who's arrived back in town seems to border on cheerful sexual harassment, well, maybe then that’s one respect at least in which the body snatchers render things a little less Trumpian than they already were.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Dolls (1965, Dino Risi, Franco Rossi, Mauro Bolognini, Luigi Comencini)


The Dolls (Bambole) is one of the many lesser-known anthology movies from 60’s Europe, this one with four directors but a mostly uniform tone (some of the best such anthologies benefit from a radically different contribution by Godard, but not this one). The common link in each case is frustrated sexuality, either prompted or suffered by one of the decade’s Euro-babes. In Dino Risi’s opener, Virni Lisi plays a wife who won’t get off the phone with her mother, eventually driving her ready-to-go husband into a more receptive set of arms in the adjacent apartment building. Luigi Comencini ogles Elke Sommer as she’s driven around in search of the genetically perfect Italian male to father her child, to the chagrin of the willing but rejected driver. Franco Rossi’s piece has Monica Vitti improbably married to a pathetic older drunkard, trying in vain to get someone to polish him off: the segment’s darker premise and Vitti’s recent association with Antonioni marks this as a somewhat more serious interlude, albeit still played as farce. Finally, Mauro Bolognini (in a story adapted from Boccaccio, as if that mattered) places Gina Lollobrigida as the unappreciated wife of a hotel manager; the hotel is full of priests attending an ecumenical conference, one of whom brings along his hot but oblivious nephew as his secretary, and so, well, obviously… This last segment may be the only one of the four in which the main players are all left fulfilled, without lasting consequences. The project may be scored as feminist-positive in that female desire is a stronger narrative driver here than the male; but on the other hand, the males just as often get what they want, not least of all those in the audience: the brassily fetishistic animation of the opening credits, and of course that title, say it all.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)


It may not be plausible to argue that Near Dark is Kathryn Bigelow’s best film, but if you could only keep one of them, it might sneak in (at the last charred minute before the arrival of the dawn, just as the last remaining print is on the verge of bursting into flames). The movie has a great, confident genre swagger, leaving out huge gobs of explanation and connective material: it takes what it wants from vampire mythology and discards the rest. Basically, that means no mumbo jumbo about crosses or waiting to be invited in or suchlike, and lots of hungry, malevolent glee – these certainly rank among the most zesty, committed vampires in the canon. That said, there’s not much actual bloodsucking, and the main instance of it – Adrian Pasdar’s newly-turned member drinking from the arm of the pretty girl who turned him (Jenny Wright) – is as intimate as it is malevolent. The film doesn’t exploit or objectify its female characters though: the troop seems to function in boisterously Hawksian manner, tolerant of quirks and difference as long as everyone pays his or her way. The narrative zips around the South, depicted here mostly as an underpopulated, dusty landscape of dingy motels, bus terminals, and nothing towns – it draws on the iconography of cowboys and family-centered homesteads, of heroic showdowns against the odds. As I indicated, the rising sun might constitute a major character in itself, at several points taking the rampaging vampires (who it seems don’t hit their stride until around 5.30 am) by surprise, sending them racing in search of shelter; no doubt the relish of one’s immortality coexists with a compunction to push its limits. Pasdar and Wright convey a quietly lovely, lonely connection that places them among the most appealing couples in a Bigelow movie (not that the competition there is too intense).

Saturday, November 16, 2019

La menace (Alain Corneau, 1977)


Alain Corneau’s La menace plays out a cleverly-conceived scheme – a protagonist (Yves Montand’s Henri Savin) implicated in two non-existent crimes: the first a suicide in which his lover is implicated through coincidence; the second an elaborate ruse he devises as a route to freedom, but which works all too well, bringing him down through vigilante justice. Given all the complications, the film has relatively little dialogue, focusing primarily on action, from large-scale stunts on mountain highways to endless small manipulations: the typing of a faked letter, self-inflicting incriminating scratches, manipulating the hands of a clock and so on, the irony being that the underlying motive usually differs from the kind of malign set-up we’re used to in genre movies. In truth, it’s hard to figure out why Savin goes down this road in the first place, but perhaps the premise is that of an ill-considered initial reaction that then inexorably leads to others. The film’s climax plays out in British Columbia, where Corneau appears to have a great time marshalling heavy vehicles (this at the height of CB radio culture) on wide-open roads, although it doesn’t say much for the morals and ethics of Canadian truckers. The use of Montand in such a context presumably evokes The Wages of Fear, a movie that of course is infinitely better-remembered than La menace: for all of Corneau’s skill, the film feels rather uninvolving, partly because it’s hard to believe in the relationship between Savin and the beautiful, much younger cipher played by Carole Laure. The film hints that the investigating detective may contain his own more complex depths, but that just peters out, as does an initial subplot relating to human trafficking. Overall, it feels like Corneau’s precision and the climactic investment in spectacle should have resulted in a better-known film, but on the other hand the fate of excessive calculation leading to oblivion is an apt mirroring of its central narrative.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)


Blow Out may be Brian de Palma’s most artful indulgence of his affinity for disreputable material: it opens on an overly prolonged, loving evocation of the slasher genre which might have been designed to make your heart sink, but ultimately finds in such material a terrible kind of commemoration, a recorded truth which for all its grisly artifice holds greater integrity than the machinations of political power. The film has a classic set-up: while capturing night noises from a bridge, Jack (John Travolta), a movie sound guy, witnesses a presidential candidate’s car leave the road and fatally enter the water, but no one subsequently wants to hear about the gunshot recorded on the tape, nor about the woman (Nancy Allen) he pulled from the sinking vehicle. A large part of the pleasure comes from the immersion in old-fashioned tangibility, in physically handling film, marking frames with an X and so on; this and the title provide an obvious echo of Antonioni’s Blow Up, but there’s not much of the aspirationally sensuous about De Palma’s film, not much feeling of a time and place that will one day be looked back at with mysterious fondness. Still, the situation allows plenty of pleasing ambiguities: for instance in how Jack becomes the only repository of and fighter for the truth, even though he only got into the whole thing while gathering raw material for cinematic lies. The movie has some of De Palma’s most striking uses of split screen, and a bravura climactic chase sequence; the narrative is well-crafted, winding to a most bitter and incomplete kind of closure. One might wish that Allen’s character could have been conceived in slightly more mature terms, or that the political cover-up didn’t have to involve a gloatingly sleazy assassin and a series of sex killings, but at least the movie’s colourful misogyny is in step with its overall cynicism.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Old and New (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigoriy Aleksandrov, 1929)


Eisenstein’s and Aleksandrov’s The Old and the New (or The General Line) makes now for astonishing if somewhat strange viewing, both enveloping and alienating. Following the evolution of a collective farm and the peasant woman who keeps pushing it forward, the film may stick in the mind largely as a series of set-piece milestones, such as the acquisition of the first milk separator, the first bull, the first tractor – the film establishes the specific economic significance of each step, while also positioning them as a form of dream-like release, so that the first spurting of cream becomes a fountain, one tractor becomes a formation of dozens, and the bull’s potency becomes (through a staged marriage to a flower-bedecked cow) that of the community as a whole (a visit to a modern state farm is positioned almost as a science-fiction trip to a smoothly facilitating future). But the scheme also encompasses cautionary near-nightmare: the initial application for the tractor drowns in gleefully-depicted bureaucracy, and there’s a stark evocation of witchcraft. The production history spanned a shift in governing ideology, and this results now in a film that always feels to be pushing to escape its propagandistic shackles, without denying their existence (or, to some extent at least, their validity). Few films contain as many vivid close-ups of care-worn faces, and in that respect it’s deeply humanly connected, but at other times it barely feels human at all (the villains and obstructionists often register more fully than the agents of progress). If viewed as history, then it’s a monument to a time when industrialization could be regarded as a tribute to the capacity of the land rather than as a pillaging of it; when physical labour could be alleviated without heralding a descent into narcissism; but at the same time it feels unshackled from any time and place at all, excepting that created through pure cinema.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda, 1973)

Peter Fonda’s Idaho Transfer is a super-high-concept time travel drama that generally doesn’t feel like it: for much of the time, we could be watching Woodstock types dawdling on their way to the next concert (indeed, the movie early on throws in two secondary characters doing exactly that). The premise is a project to save mankind by setting up a colony in the future, on the other side of a looming apocalyptic event; the time travel technology (located in a secretive desert facility) necessitates sitting on a low metal platform, taking off one’s pants and pushing a few buttons, and doesn’t work for people over thirty (even for them, it eventually transpires that it causes sterility, making the whole project largely pointless). If that explanation seems absurdly high-level, it’s about as much as the movie ever provides: the screenplay is refreshingly free of ringing certainties, and the prevailing mood is that of watching figures in a barren landscape, trying to roll with the punches (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point may come fleetingly to mind, but everything here is far less charged, including erotically speaking [notwithstanding the frequently absent pants]). Much of the “action” – such as the discovery of a mutated post-disaster civilization - occurs offscreen, and Fonda takes some big narrative leaps, but the sense of emptiness feels well-judged given the rather despairing premise, conveying a pervasive sense of dissipating youthful promise. The movie saves its boldest stroke for the very last scene, reconfiguring our sense of the world we’re watching (possibly too much for comfort, but at least it’s striking) and throwing in some grisly implications. It’s hardly a high-impact piece of work, not so much acted as just embodied, and one almost wishes Fonda had pushed even further in that direction, toward pure abstracted reverie. As it is though, it’s still mostly satisfying, in a stubbornly self-absorbed kind of way.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Something Different (Vera Chytilova, 1963)


Vera Chytilova’s Something Different delivers exactly that, most literally by switching back and forth between two contrasting narratives: one observing Eva, a gymnast in training for upcoming championships; the other following Vera, a housewife overwhelmed by her hyperactive young son and by domesticity in general. The two strands only occasionally explicit echo each other (Vera’s husband and Eva both criticized for reading the paper, him at the dinner table and her on the beam) but provide parallel studies in the difficulty of maintaining balance (in Eva’s case, literally as well as figuratively) and resisting subjugation. Eva’s position seems more privileged by virtue of her relative fame, and yet her coaches rail at her laziness, grab at her limbs and pull her into desired poses, scornfully dismiss her ideas and instincts, and at one point slap her across the face: her final performance liberates her from such direct control, while withholding any real sense of exultation. By comparison, the sequences with Vera are a frenetic pile-up of life problems, underlined by frequent arguments about money. She starts an affair with a man who pursues her in the street, but in large part it seems like another source of life clutter, another submission to an agenda primarily set by someone else; when a crisis hits at the end, she has no option but to cling onto what she has, however unsatisfying. The film’s last sequence, with Eva now coaching a young female athlete, suggests the possibility of calmer and more nurturing structures ahead, but the final note is questioning and reflective rather than in any way triumphant. Eva’s distinct place in society relative to Vera's correlates with a greater openness to cinematic invention as measured by camera angles, freeze frames and suchlike, but these also speak to her distance from the more typical life experience.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet, 1981)


A viewer could be forgiven for finding much of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City rather flat – it’s stylistically restrained and businesslike, with few conventional dramatic highpoints: the casting of Treat Williams (who, in truth, doesn’t seem entirely equal to the role) might have been designed to thwart easy gratification. It eventually becomes clear though that this is a strategy, and a rather subtly executed one, channeling the growing realization of its protagonist, Danny Ciello, that in his play for heroism and expiation, he’s lost all autonomy and self-determination. The movie initially emphasizes his princeliness, at the centre of a smoothly functioning drug squad unit, racking up collars while regularly bending the rules and skimming off the spoils: he’s drawn to cooperate with a probe into police corruption, seeing it in part as another stage to strut upon, naively certain he controls his exposure and that of his partners. But the film ultimately comes down to a decision on whether to prosecute Ciello himself, staged by Lumet as a debate into the interplay of relative morality, idealism and pragmatism, the final determination on which may be little more than a coin flip; it’s intercut with a court proceeding where Ciello is raked over the coals, culminating in a question about whether his wife (Lindsay Crouse) was aware of his interactions with prostitutes. It’s notable that by then, she and his children have largely faded from the film, casting it as a study in escalating loneliness – an impression sealed by the very last moment, freezing on his face in the aftermath of yet another small humiliation. Again, you might feel that final blow should land a little harder, but maybe such criticism would undervalue Lumet’s finesse – why should we expect conventionally satisfying closure, when that’s so plainly denied to the character, if not to anyone who participates in the torturous justice system?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Weekend at Dunkirk (Henri Verneuil, 1964)


Henri Verneuil’s 1964 Weekend at Dunkirk has (to a surprising extent) pictorial qualities to match Christopher Nolan’s more recent treatment of the evacuation, with a more personal and haunting overall narrative. It was much remarked how Nolan withheld some basic information about surrounding events for instance by omitting any glimpses of Churchill, but Verneuil does something very similar, dropping his protagonist Julien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) into the middle of the action, leaving no doubt about its momentous nature, but emphasizing Julien's confusion about what’s going on (the most salient point about the British operation is that they don’t want to take the French with them) and his indecision about how best to survive without succumbing to desertion or cowardice. Beneath all the terrific spectacle and impactful incident, there’s something close to lurking black comedy in how Julien keeps finding himself back at the same point on the beach, even as others leave in one way or another (to the point that he’s ultimately the last one left): his conversations with a priest add to the sense of moral inquiry. Julien embodies all the ambiguity of war, intuitively working to strike up a mutually respectful rapport (even, eventually, with an obstructive British officer), but reacting with as much skepticism to an individual who thinks too calculatingly of his own survival as to another who too aggressively brandishes his giant gun: the only soldiers he directly kills are French ones, to save a woman from being raped, but then her subsequent actions have him wondering almost immediately whether he did the right thing. The fact that Catherine Spaak would have second billing in a film about Dunkirk perhaps sums up the commercial friendliness that influences one’s view of Verneuil, but in the end her presence adds more than it detracts, speaking to his consistent ability to create unified, textured works.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950)



In a lesser film, the emphasis on writing in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest might seem over-emphatic, almost as a negation of cinema: for a significant portion of screen time we see the words on the pages of the priest’s journal and simultaneously hear them in his voice over. In Bresson’s hands however, the repetition deepens our compassion for the meticulous thoroughness of the protagonist’s struggle, while surely suggesting a linkage between the man of God and the artist: each consecrated to his interpretative process, to relentless self-examination, to a journey of uncertain destination. The film’s ultimate tragedy is embodied by the priest’s incapacity to craft the final entry, by the intrusion (however respectful) of the voice of another, by the yielding of all imagery to that of the cross. The film depicts the priest’s life as small and strained, doomed almost from the start (there are hints of what we might now call fetal alcohol syndrome), but with the capacity to acquire a kind of majesty (or grace, in the film’s terms) if it were allowed to approach God expansively and openly, to rely as much on intuition as on dogma and ritual. But the rural society to which he’s assigned is parched and grudging and set in its ways, tolerant of the church as long as it maintains its boundaries as an abstract pillar of continuity and order and discipline, unable to countenance true questing or suffering. The film feels so unerringly composed that later Bresson works may almost seem strained by comparison (this is a purely relative assessment, I should emphasize). It also encompasses one of the purest expressions of bliss in his work – a brief ride on the back of a motorcycle ride that leaves the priest momentarily exhilarated, certain he feels God’s hand in the experience (it’s a moment of surrender that may bring to mind the older Bresson’s delight in For Your Eyes Only, for its “cinematic writing”). Diary of a Country Priest is at once resolutely tangible and specific and wondrously transcendent, an inexhaustible filmic pilgrimage.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Un singe en hiver (Henri Verneuil, 1962)



Henri Verneuil certainly doesn’t rank among the front rank of French filmmakers, but his films are never dull, and are often surprisingly ambitious on multiple levels. Un singe en hiver starts out as a mixed bag, an impressive recreation of WW2 occupation and attack undermined by a cringe-inducingly scene-chewing Jean Gabin drunk act. But then we’re fifteen years in the future, and Gabin’s character, Albert Quentin, is in his fifteenth year of sobriety, and almost perishing from the boredom of it all, running an inn in a small town where few people visit: no wonder then, that his resolve might crack when a guest like Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Gabriel Fouquet shows up, another soul preoccupied with past losses and glories who in the present finds full expression only at the bottom of a glass. The film is dotted with odd character sketches – a boarding school principal who pretends she can only speak English; an eccentric store owner with a story to accompany every item of inventory – which we eventually understand as part of a philosophy of tolerance, of an understanding of what it takes to get through an uneventful existence: some of us bake the fantasy release into our very beings, for others it accumulates into a grand pyrotechnic release (the film may be implying that war itself can be partially understood in these terms) after which we may more readily settle into our long emotional winter. The grandly bombastic dialogue, by Michel Audiard, may not be generally naturalistic or persuasive, but it’s seldom ignorable either. As so often, the existential plight of the male counts for much more than that of the female – Quentin’s wife is allowed only the briefest moments of self-indulgence before returning to her designated role of quietly unquestioning support, and the film’s other main female character only exists to facilitate his outbursts, a role into which she slots back with barely a hitch after the fifteen year break.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)


Any attempt to briefly describe the plot of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance would have to say something about changing places, or mutually appropriated identities, or the transmigration of souls - about vice and versa as the poster put it. And yet, if measured by screen time this is a relatively minor part of the movie, and one that hardly seems to arise organically from what precedes it: it seems more likely that James Fox’s gangster Chas and Mick Jagger’s rock star might spend a few days avoiding each other before going their separate ways. It’s a tribute to the film’s druggy, ornate, discursive texture that it always feels it might slot into place (sort of anyway) with just one more consciousness-shifted try. But in practice, further viewings just yield further points of reflection and oddity. To cite just one, I always forget how far the movie goes down the path of genre, sinking with real relish into the brutally swaggering gangland world and its pretensions to external respectability – sometimes it feels as if Turner and his milieu might just be a projection, excavated from the secret heart of the violence (the intertwining of the worlds, especially in the “Memo from Turner” performance, support this view). And yet Turner’s house is so brilliantly and specifically visualized, and the languid behavioural rhythms so compelling (Chas’s probing pillow talk with the boyish Frenchwoman Lucy feels particularly authentic) that this explanation clearly won’t do: Turner embodies new propositions and realities (however undefined and faltering, as indicated by his un-Jagger-like withdrawal from stardom) that in one way or another will undermine the old certainties. The film teems with oddities of emphasis or pacing, or expression or framing, and sometimes makes you wince (that’s how the close-up of Borges makes me react anyway) and yet you might fantasize about living entirely within it.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Le pont des arts (Eugene Green, 2004)


Eugene Green’s Le pont des arts is indeed a film of bridges: of the real-life Parisian location of its title as a site of loss and redemption, of art as a means of spanning people and worlds, of the connective raw materal of cinema itself. The film contrasts a semi-established classical singer and a disaffected philosophy student: they never formally meet, but the beauty of the singer’s art creates a bond which outlasts her personal tragedy and provides to the student a new direction and purpose (this is, no question, a misleadingly tidy synopsis). Green favours a restrained performance style and head-on, interrogative close-ups, a style which tends to emphasize the distance between people and the created nature of the narrative – when the two protagonists finally touch, the event is depicted only in shadow – but the joy in ideas, the belief in high culture as a source of transcendent beauty, are absolute (a sequence studying the audience’s reaction at a Japanese No production, and a brief encounter with a Kurdish singer, make the point that such effects aren’t confined to canonical Western glories, although the film seems more iffy about rock and roll). At the same time though, Green skewers the earthly pretensions which constantly get in the way: in particular, the singer’s milieu is depicted as overrun by grotesquely self-regarding monsters who take pleasure in making tools out of people (the film, it should be said, is often very funny in this regard). In the end, it’s both a seductive immersion in a certain type of cinematic tradition (one in which it seems meaningful that the student somewhat evokes Jean-Pierre Leaud) and an assertion of art – in that magical space where actors and acted-upon find communion – as an abiding zone of difference, one which Green’s other, equally strange and scintillating, films confirm and extend.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Black Jack (Ken Loach, 1979)


Black Jack has the trappings of a classic kids’ adventure yarn – a boy falls in with an escaped convict and embarks on an eventful odyssey including a spell with a traveling fair, a girl who escapes an intended fate in the madhouse, multiple blackmails and a mysterious death. It’s certainly something of an oddity in Ken Loach’s oeuvre, and the director apparently views it as a disappointment, hampered by budgetary and other production constraints. But the film’s sparseness, the sense of not being quite fully formed and articulated, actually constitutes its main appeal – there’s something perversely enjoyable about how the basic exposition has to fight against thick accents and mushy articulation (it feels just about perfectly cast, exactly because of the imperfections of its people). The film avoids scenic overkill while sustaining a grubbily painterly quality, and the attention to detail is impressive: I don’t recall ever seeing a period film where the clothes are so authentically frayed and worn. By Loach’s standards, the film isn’t particularly explicit perhaps in diagnosing the surrounding society, but that makes a point in itself: for example, about the looseness of governing structures that allow a girl’s liberty to be signed away on the whim of her parents (on the other hand, it does establish that a strong-willed teenage boy can accomplish a lot, for good or for bad). This leads to an unusual climax in which the truth about that mysterious death is discovered, but without any apparent thought that the perpetrator might be brought to justice. The film delivers a traditional flourish at the end, with boy and girl escaping off to sea (by that point, the eponymous Black Jack has long ceased to be at the heart of the narrative), but overall its stubborn integrity places it with Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper among the stranger supposedly child-friendly creations.