Saturday, February 15, 2020

Lady Oscar (Jacques Demy, 1979)


Lady Oscar is certainly one of Jacques Demy’s less prominent films, with a persistently displaced feeling about it: set in France during the decade or so leading up to the Revolution, but made in English with mostly Japanese money. It may sound in summary like a gender-bending swashbuckler - Oscar is born a woman but raised as a boy to satisfy her father’s desire for a male heir, becoming a personal guard to Marie Antoinette -  but doesn’t feel particularly queered: except for one scene in which she dances with and kisses another woman (entirely to demonstrate her resistance to an unwanted suitor), there’s no suggestion that Oscar is anything other than a slow-to-awaken heterosexual woman, whose awakening as a woman coincides with that as a socially aware citizen, coinciding further with the radicalization of the populace as a whole. Compared to the striking grubbiness of Demy’s Pied Piper, the film often feels overly antiseptic, consisting largely of stiff exchanges in fancy rooms, with a central character that’s as much observer as meaningful participant. At times, certainly, the distancing can be rather stimulating - to that point I couldn’t quite decide on the merits of Catriona MacColl’s well-spoken but largely blank lead performance – and Demy often seems as interested in secondary narratives of female deception and adaptation, including the Queen’s self-serving materialism and infidelity, and another character who lies her way from poverty into money, each instance adding fuel to the popular anger that sparks the Revolution. It’s certainly interesting how Oscar’s ultimate arrival at a sense of self is immediately followed by a kind of obliteration, as she suffers her greatest personal loss, while submerged in the jubilant crowd: as such Lady Oscar looks ahead to Demy’s often quietly tortured-seeming, much underrated late run of work, in which a musical number might be as likely to accompany suicide or incest as to articulate more conventional sentiments.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Law of the Border (Lutfi Akad, 1966)


The restored print of Lutfi Akad’s The Law of the Border starts by emphasizing the remaining flaws and shortcomings, noting that “the poor state of preservation of the only source available for restoration has irreversibly hindered the quality of the final outcome.” While no one should argue this benefits the film, the ragged quality of the viewing experience does rather accord with the scrappy nature of the underlying narrative, adding to a sense of authentic sociological engagement channeled through energetically genre-hugging set-ups (as has been pointed out, one might choose to engage with it as a displaced western, although that could be more limiting than helpful). The movie’s basic opposition is between a group of poor villagers who make their living by smuggling across the Syrian border, and the firm but sympathetic law enforcer who tries to shut them down without putting them in jail, brokering a deal for them to become sharecroppers (the term used in the subtitles) on a rich man’s land, and helping to persuade them to accommodate a school. Further conflicts erupt between outlaws, the details of which weren’t always entirely clear to me at least, but this generally functions as daring, almost poetic fragmentation (the movie has enough raw narrative material to fuel something of epic length, but dispenses with it all in barely more than 75 minutes). Much of what’s depicted seems almost divorced from any recognizable time and place, but the very clearly contemporary affect of the teacher in particular emphasizes that this isn’t some kind of romantic primitivism, but rather a simple function of poverty and deprivation: seen today, the film’s social charge is heavily retrospectively enhanced by the subsequent extraordinary life history of its star Yilmaz Guney. Overall, the film can’t be classed as a masterpiece, but it elicits a deep sense of respect.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)


Robert Altman’s Popeye plays more like a self-absorbed, semi-penetrable mystery than a family entertainment (especially by today’s standards) – a lonely sailor turns up in a strange town, his conversation barely penetrable, finding little welcome among the eccentrically downtrodden inhabitants, who are over-taxed, often physically maligned by the local strongman, and apparently stuck in narrowly repetitive lives and behaviour patterns (although the community does include a gambling den and even an apparent brothel). His purpose is to find his long-lost father, and he eventually succeeds, although it barely seems to matter by then to either of them, his affections diverted onto a cruelly abandoned baby which he immediately takes on as his own, and via whom he rapidly acquires a sort of surrogate wife (that would be Olive Oyl), although there’s not a hint of what you’d call “chemistry” between them. They’re all put in peril by the evil Bluto, with Popeye discovering at the last minute the transformative powers of canned spinach, but little of this registers as a meaningful narrative. The movie’s great strengths are its tangibility, both in evoking the rickety all-in-it-togetherness of Sweethaven (which lives on as a tourist attraction in Malta) and in the physicality of the clowning, and of course its abundance of the texture we always prize in Altman – the sense of lives in motion, of a world that doesn’t stop at the edge of the frame. It just all seems rather strange, when what’s actually in the middle of the frame is so weird and unapproachable. Robin Williams’ performance seems largely directed at himself, no doubt as instructed; Harry Nilsson’s songs, somehow managing to be simultaneously negligible and memorable, perfectly suit the rest of the film. There was no sequel, but if there had been, I like to imagine they would have offered the job to Raul Ruiz…

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)


The most exultant moments of Pasolini’s inexhaustible Theorem are its opening ones, plunging us into a news footage-type presentation of a rich man who’s given away his factory to the workers – an act of apparent progressive altruism that’s immediately analyzed as suspect, as stripping the workers of the possibility of a future revolution (the ultimate example, one may think, of a glass half empty). The film that follows confirms the skepticism though, leaving a heavy impression of the stickiness of the bourgeoisie: they may lose their bearings, their sanity, their morality, or even consciousness itself, but they persist at the centre of their stories, tarnishing the figurative and actual landscape they inhabit. It’s a sly joke, perhaps, that the medium of this unwinding should be the mysterious visitor played by Terence Stamp, and the popular summation of the film, highlighting his seduction of each member of that rich man’s family, makes the film sound much racier than it actually is (while it draws our attention repeatedly to the visitor’s crotch, it’s almost strenuously chaste in how it visualizes other sexual happenings, particularly by comparison with the unbound nudity of Pasolini’s later films). In comparison to the family’s solipsistic responses, the maid apparently perceives Stamp’s visitor as a medium of holy transformation, and retreats to her rural home where she demonstrates healing and levitational powers before willingly embracing death: the contrast may speak to the relative purity of the working class, but also to its passivity in the face of transformational possibilities. Although Stamp’s character may sound schematically conceived, he also has the film’s most playful, spontaneous-seeming moments, pointing to how the bourgeoisie’s failure is as much one of intimate self-understanding as societal stewardship. Ultimately, the rich man is reduced to wandering naked in a barren desert, stopping to emit a crazed, accusatory cry, perhaps speaking for his own plight, perhaps for that of us all.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Return of the Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1975)


Blake Edwards’ fascination with the Pink Panther universe (five films with Peter Sellers, three more after his death) almost carries the air of a stubborn, doomed quest toward revelation. Return of the Pink Panther, the third and arguably the best of them (and I realize many might question what that could possibly mean in this context) exemplifies the core narrative momentum: Jacques Clouseau is a fool of such magnitude that he causes physical laws to break down around him and induces madness in his superior, and yet he keeps rising in rank and popular esteem, regardless that (unlike Sellers’ late triumph in Being There) almost everyone seems to see him for the idiot he is (at several points in Return, the co-star Catherine Schell is seen barely suppressing laughter, as if we were watching outtakes). When at his best, Sellers almost makes the character coherent in his dignity: his absurd over-deliberation in some matters (his propensity for disguise and false names) combined with total blindness in others; his perpetually odd pronunciation suggesting some unspecified secret origin. The title animation suggests a bending of reality which also recurs around Clouseau (affecting, as the moment may dictate, other individuals, light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, the force of gravity etc.), while also possessing a jazzy hipness that he lacks, but often seems to aspire to. Edwards makes a game out of shifting the coordinates (casting Graham Stark, who played Clouseau’s colleague in an earlier installment, as a petty criminal here) while indulging his penchant for plush living on the one hand (Christopher Plummer, as the object of suspicion, mostly inhabits a different, more efficient universe than that of the rest of the film) and his affinity for something more merciless on the other. The series already feels a bit tired here (a trait that would rapidly escalate) but that only adds to the sense of strange, displaced destiny. Oh, and in case it’s not clear from all that, it does actually make me laugh.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Rendez-vous (Andre Techine, 1985)


Andre Techine’s Rendez-Vous leaves us to chew over a citation from John’s Gospel: ““Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” The most obvious application is to Lambert Wilson’s Quentin, who throws himself under a car midway through the movie after staging a contest of sort for Nina’s (Juliette Binoche’s) affections – his death sets the stage for Nina to meet a respectable theatre director (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and to gravitate to serious acting work, playing Juliet, while also freeing herself of unhealthy attachments. In the end, she’s almost strenuously self-defined – the director leaves before the opening night curtain goes up, the other man who loved her seems to have cleared his head, and we never even see who is playing Romeo. It’s a strange and lurching journey to get to that point though, one marked by regular swerves in behaviour and focus, by return visits by Quentin from beyond the grave, and by a problematic objectification of Nina: a woman who initially uses her sexuality freely, but thereafter struggles to have her voice heard and her will respected (Binoche, as always, inhabits the role with complete commitment). The film often feels borderline nutty in its flirting with extremity, as if setting itself a challenge - the depiction of a public sex club, where the self-loathing Quentin exercises his notion of his art (this time with a different take on Romeo and Juliet), certainly contributes to this sense, even as it broadens the film’s notion of sexuality as display. Overall, it’s rather impressive that Techine makes it feel as coherent and unified as it does. Still, his later work would almost always be more accomplished, whether measured by the depth of its human investigations or by the allure of its structural mysteries.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Appointment (Sidney Lumet, 1969)


For every Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Sidney Lumet’s filmography contains something more obscure or uncharacteristic – as often as not belonging in the “interesting failure” category, but at least evidencing an appealing curiosity and openness to disparate influences. The Appointment is a prime example – made at a time when Europe’s art film giants were at their zenith, set in Rome without a single American actor (although with English dialogue), it feels as if Lumet was almost willing himself to become an Antonioni, although with a more common touch. Omar Sharif plays a lawyer, falling for a beautiful woman and then marrying her despite allegations that she occasionally works as a high-class whore (shades of the then-recent Belle de Jour) – his suspicions start to consume him, and when he tries and fails to catch her in the act, the circumstances of his failure appear as incriminating as success would have been. In terms of Antonioni references, the use of enigma and absence-as-presence evokes several of the Monica Vitti movies, and there’s a fashion show sequence that seems pointlessly extended unless to bring Blow-Up to mind (it’s presumably not coincidental that Lumet was working here with that film’s cinematographer, Carlo di Palma). Anouk Aimee (of course triggering further resonances) is well-cast as the woman, embodying helpless evasiveness; Sharif is a blander presence, but workable as a comparative lightweight overwhelmed by events. Lumet anchors the story effectively in its environment, whether in chillily spacious well-to-do living spaces, or the cluttered antique shop that runs a mini-brothel in the back, or (in one striking if perhaps rather pointless flourish) in a God’s eye view aerial shot, emphasizing the lovers’ relative insignificance. The film never attains the sublimity of its reference points, but it’s a solid enough narrative on its own terms, and overall no less watchable now than some of Lumet’s more widely-recognized works.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)


After multiple viewings of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, I still get confused by some of the details of the gang activity, but there’s little doubt that it’s an artful disorientation, mirroring the directionless, unproductive stasis of the posturing and skirmishes. The young people at the centre of the movie feel the possibility of a new paradigm – they listen to Elvis and lap up local cover bands (at least some of whom have to learn their lyrics phonetically); they play pool and hang out – but Taiwan of the early 60’s doesn’t have the open horizons (however illusionary those may ultimately have been) of the America of the same period: school is a more regimented affair, symbolized by the wearing of numbered military-style uniforms, and the economy is sputtering, with the age of supercharged growth still ahead. The troubled protagonist, Si’r, embodies the fractures and limitations: in a different environment, his rebellion would no doubt be transient and containable, but here he’s drawn back toward transgression, through violence and lashing out but also more subtly by an overly romantic view of women, a concept of purity that when denied, leads him into extreme tragedy. His parents live through their own more restrained sadness – his father passing through McCarthy-like interrogation and with the loss of a familiar role within government, poised at the end to enter the uncertain world of private enterprise. The film’s scheme also includes a movie studio situated next door to the school, an easy lure for cutting class, and adding a further layer to its theme of searching for truth and authenticity – Si’r at one point gets to lash out at the in-house director for his lack of perceptiveness. The film’s almost four-hour length reflects an underlying sense of heaviness, of a society in which true distinctive momentum is going to be hard to come by, and yet the film itself is hardly a heavy viewing experience, ventilated by Yang’s deep curiosity and engagement.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, 1971)


It's only by John Cassavetes’ amazing standards that a film as prickly as Minnie and Moskowitz could feel relatively conventional. It fits recognizably within the romantic comedy genre: two emotionally unsettled people meet under offbeat circumstances (he’s a parking lot attendant at the restaurant where she’s fleeing from a terrible failed date) and rapidly enter a relationship defined as much by conflict and anger as by recognizable connection. Before they meet, they’re both seen separately attending an old Bogart movie, and Minnie (Gena Rowlands) explicitly cites the gulf between silver screen illusions and turgid realities: the movie often seems to be frantically underlining the point, as Minnie’s former lover (played by Cassavetes himself) slaps her several times across the face, and the man she meets on that bad first date blurts out information about a mistake he made on his wedding night, and about his unnaturally hairless legs. Of course, such emotional rawness and behavioral extremity, the sense of people hoping to discover themselves by throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks, is typical of Cassavetes, but in this particular case (and I emphasize again, this is relatively speaking) the effects seem a bit more studied and less deeply felt, the eventual route to each other somewhat arbitrary. But then, that’s probably part of the point, given how the film ultimately places coupledom as a form of suppression – as soon as they decide to get married, they call their respective mothers, and then sit mostly quietly through an excruciating dinner in which Seymour’s mother lays out all his faults, and then through a wedding ceremony in which the priest forgets Minnie’s name (with Cassavetes allowing himself, for once, an easy laugh). The final scene is of a teeming, happily chaotic family get-together, but who knows how much of the real Minnie and Seymour remain intact within it?

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)


It’s not hard to see how Luca Guadagnino might have become occupied by the notion of building on Dario Argento’s original Suspiria – in hindsight the film may seem composed largely of lacks waiting to be filled. Among other things, the narrator’s specificity about Suzy Bannion’s (Jessica Harper) initial arrival in Germany at 10.40 pm seems at once circumspect (where in Germany? – either way, we see no more of it subsequently than a bland modern conference centre) and strangely temporally precise (almost Kubrickian?); for a film set in a dance academy it’s odd that there’s only one brief scene of actual dancing; Madame Blanc’s (Joan Bennett) early reference to having known Suzy’s aunt is an intimation of broader purpose and connection which never comes up again; the manifestation of the threat is haphazard (why does the dog initially, from what we’re told, attack the child and then, as depicted, kill its blind owner, who doesn’t appear to be a new source of threat); the ending is overly abbreviated – a brief showdown and then Suzy’s emergence from the burning academy, leaving all kinds of visual possibilities unexplored and narrative threads untied. Guadagnino’s (rather fine) film is generally more unified in such respects, while adding a fascinating politicized element, but of course such mythologies can only ever spawn unanswered questions and challenges to one’s indulgence. The particular spell of Argento’s film may lie largely in the structuring effect of these very absences; in conjunction with the director’s often extraordinary compositions of light and framing, they create a film seeped in predestination, with Harper’s air of engaged fragility providing a perfect focal point. The film has no shortage of moments of giallo-like brutality, but its categorization as such has been debated – to me its heart seems located somewhere beyond giallo or horror, in some dreamily beautiful, semi-articulated zone of terrible destiny.

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.