Thursday, October 15, 2020

Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus & D. A. Pennebaker, 1979)

 


In some ways, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s fascinating record of a 1971 debate on woman’s liberation issues, Town Bloody Hall, is a museum piece from a more pugnacious, unfiltered age, overflowing with larger than life public intellectuals, with not an apparent thought given to the all-whiteness of the proceedings. Perhaps it’s a bit depressing then that much of it still seems so relevant, or maybe it’s to be strangely celebrated that we’ve yet to reach the state of stifling boredom that Norman Mailer (the evening’s moderator!) predicts would attach to a fully-achieved feminist agenda. That agenda is set out early in the movie by the National Organization for Women’s Jacqueline Ceballos: it’s sobering that many of her points – equal pay, paid maternity leave – seem both as sensible and as incompletely unachieved now as they did then. But the debate (at least as the movie presents it, editing down a three and half hour event to less than half that time) spends little further time on such matters, mostly wrestling with more primal matters of self-definition and connection. And it’s Mailer who provides some of the more direct points of lasting connection: for instance, his remark about the potential violence done to a man who suppresses his desire to hit a woman doesn’t sit too well on its own terms, and yet feels now like a harbinger of the cultural backlash so often evoked in explaining the appeal of Trump to white men, and to the white women who define themselves in relation to them. That’s just one example of how one watches the film with a sense of steps taken and others back – to pick some random examples, it’s unlikely that someone like Diana Trilling would ever be introduced now as a “lady critic,” but then there’s barely any mainstream space now for the breed of critic/thinker/theorist on show here, whatever their gender.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Numero Deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975)

The title of Godard’s Numero Deux contains numerous allusions: to the film itself as a potential new beginning (a sort of “remake” of Breathless); to the second-person “you” with whom “I” may spend a fraught lifetime trying to forge a workable connection; to the scatological context in which a child may be asked whether he or she has to do number one or number two. It’s not meant as a cheap shot to say that the latter meaning often most conditions the experience of watching the film – it references the concept several times, for example in musing on giving birth as a form of defecation, and lamenting about constipation, and as watching experiences go, it pushes heavily toward alienation and disgust. The distancing is multi-faceted – for much of the time the film strenuously refuses cinematic capacity, filling more than 50% of the frame with blackness, the rest with one or two TV screens within the frame - the sense is of cinema in retreat, the concept of the “dream factory” having let the dreams get away, leaving mostly joyless process and output (Godard appears onscreen in an opening sequence, largely addressed to the process of raising financing). The desolation consumes all human interactions – the main recognizable “action” on the screens within the screen consists of scenes from a three-generation family: a mother and father consumed with loathing and sexual dysfunction, a condition that will certainly affect the young boy and girl (the concept of the primal scene is evoked several times); grandparents lost in analysis or reminiscence. If this had been Godard’s last film, his equivalent to Pasolini’s Salo of the same year, it would make much sense as such – it even ends on a heavily emphatic note of machinery being shut down – but as we know that was far from the case, it seems now like an act of purging, even of expiation.


Thursday, October 1, 2020

Crime and Passion (Ivan Passer, 1976)

 

Ivan Passer’s Crime and Passion shares some distinct similarities with his following film Silver Bears -they're both set in the world of European finance, with a risk-taking protagonist facing off against better equipped forces, sharing a pragmatic view of sexual relations. It would be tempting to say that Silver Bears, a far more conventionally unified and easy-to-take entertainment, represents “getting it right,” casting Crime and Passion as something of a failed dry run. But the film’s failure is rather sadder than that, for its hints of a darker, more transgressive vision that just got away. It’s evident at the start, depicting how Omar Sharif’s financier protagonist, Andre Ferren, is sexually excited (to the point of utter recklessness) at the prospect of financial disgrace, shortly afterwards conniving with his girlfriend and co-worker (Karen Black) to have her marry their richest client, for which they fatten her up on pastries to make her more to the client’s liking. But from the outset, the premise never bites as it should, not helped by the casting, or by the constant sense of being marooned in unproductively pretty settings. Actually, large parts of the film – such as Ferren narrowly escaping from improbable assassins including a man on skis and an overweight masseuse, or the later goings on in a supposedly haunted castle – bring to mind the second-wave Pink Panther films of the same period, although its interest in obsessive surveillance and voyeurism connects more deeply, and the ending – in which the characters nihilistically submit to desire but then are saved through a chilling twist of fate – evokes what might have been. Passer presumably intended his film to be more fully defined by a sense of risk and freedom, of psychologically and narratively living on the edge, and as such its failure at least somewhat reflects Ferren’s likely nightmare, the bankrupting results of cravenly hedging one’s bets.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, 1977)

I don’t know whether the title of Marguerite Duras’ Baxter, Vera Baxter is consciously intended to evoke “Bond, James Bond,” but it’s an instructive point of comparison either way: as spoken by Bond, it’s a construction emblematic of certainty, of an identity and affect so firmly established that a periodic change of actors is not just tolerated but actually part of the fun. Duras’ film has as much tangible presence as any Bond film, every expression and exchange seeming weighted with significance, but the accumulation of “facts” about Vera’s life can no more yield her truth than a biographical summary can explain a painting, and it comes to feel that the film isn’t investigating the woman Vera Baxter as much as it’s investigating the entire notion of cinematic investigations of women. The film’s startling and disorienting opening shots, of a classically-posed, semi-nude Vera, suggest at once an objectification and also (because there’s something immediately defiant about it) a challenge, a sense encouraged by the opening scenes in which Vera is absent, but actively evoked and discussed. Thereafter, the majority of the film takes place in a villa she’s thinking of renting, but which in fact has already been rented by her (heard on the phone, but never seen) husband, who is elsewhere with his lover: her story (or fragments of it) emerges in conversation with a stranger (Delphine Seyrig) who turns up on a pretext – the stranger’s real reason for being there, it seems, is simply the allure of that name, Vera Baxter, a name in which she detects historical resonances which, of course, can reveal little now. The musical backdrop (identified by one online commenter as the most annoying he’s ever heard) is a strenuously upbeat creation of strings and woodwinds that although attributed to coming from a nearby party, clearly can’t really be explained as such in its nature and repetition, and thereby represents much in the movie as a whole, evading and surpassing the explanations offered.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976)


It’s common to think of Arthur Penn as flourishing in the sixties and relatively losing his creative direction afterwards, but his 1976 The Missouri Breaks suggests a filmmaker no less in tune with changing times and currents – if most viewers found that harder to see, it may be a kind of commentary in itself. The film, not much admired at the time, is perhaps his most playfully ambiguous work (inherent in the very title - is “breaks” a noun or a verb?), starting by establishing a Western landscape of dubious morality - a local land baron catches a rustler and hangs him without a trial (a subsequent mock trial scene for the entertainment of saloon patrons seems to deny the very possibility of justice) -and ending in near-madness. Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) is a fellow member of the rustler gang who buys a ranch adjacent to the baron’s land and is soon romancing his daughter, while trying to evade the scrutiny of the feared “regulator” (Marlon Brando). Night Moves may be the stronger overall candidate as Penn’s post-Watergate film, but it’s evoked here in the notion of troubled, ethically-teetering governance and in the recurring point-of-view surveillance shots through Lee’s binoculars. If for nothing else, the movie would be memorable for Brando’s wondrously escalating eccentricity, encompassing a drag scene and a final scene where he flirts with one of his horses while extravagantly chiding the other. But beyond their specific interest as pure performance, these scenes add complexity to a final stretch that emphasizes breakdown both of the narrative mechanics (Brando tracks down and kills the other gang members with what seems like omnipotent ease) and of individual certainties, the land baron suffering a stroke or something like it and becoming dependent on his old servant, and the final scene between Logan and the daughter suggesting a future alliance across lines of law and money. Here too, perhaps, we sense the weight of the stagnant post-Nixonian era, the old structures feeling spent, their replacements yet to be fully established.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Une femme mariee (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

Godard’s extraordinary Une femme mariee is a film of identities drained of certainties, in which the then-present, for all its new attainments in technology and sophistication, can barely support the most basic point of meaning. The plot (as always a relative term in engaging with Godard) concerns Charlotte, a young woman married to one man and having affair with another; toward the end of the film she finds out she’s pregnant and doesn’t know by which one. The film has some of Godard’s most beautiful in-the-moment compositions – legs against legs, hands on hands – but marked by stillness and formality rather than erotic urgency; Charlotte appears to inhabit a kind of eternal now which might be seen as a kind of benign drift or as something more ominous. Her intellectual drift is such that she can’t remember what Auschwitz refers to, but she easily absorbs lightweight articles about assessing the perfection of one’s bust, and when the doctor confirms her pregnancy, she can hardly engage with the implications beyond the purely immediate: wondering how painful will childbirth be, and whether she should be able to identify the father based on the relative pleasure the two men gave her. But then, that only mirrors the desire of both men to father a child by her, apparently as a means of clarifying and limiting her identity: one is an actor and the other a pilot, both often away and thus hampered in their control over her (in the past her husband even hired a private detective to follow her), despite their copious criticisms and instructions. The film’s subtitle announces itself as fragments from a film made in 1964, as if apologizing in advance to the future audiences for whom it appears incomplete and dated; of course to some degree it’s both those things, but it continues to speak quite mesmerizingly to our incapacity to locate and assert ourselves in the face of increasing complexity and commodification.


Friday, September 4, 2020

Silver Bears (Ivan Passer, 1977)

 

Ivan Passer opens Silver Bears with a scene of fleshy New York crime bosses getting naked in a hot tub, suggesting an exercise in intimate exposure ahead; funnily enough though, the movie that follows mainly regards people as chess pieces in the game of international finance, with only cursory characterization, albeit of quirky historical interest (it may not be widely realized that Jay Leno, Tom Smothers, Stephane Audran, Louis Jourdan and Cybill Shepherd were ever in the same movie). The quite clever plot has one of those bosses buying a Swiss bank and dispatching his financial wizard Doc Fletcher (Michael Caine) to run it: the bank turns out to be a wreck, but Fletcher turns things round through a lucrative investment in an Iranian silver mine, which makes the bank a potential acquisition target both for American financiers and for British metal traders, complicated by the fact that Caine wants the bank for himself, and that, oh, the mine doesn’t actually exist, except as a fictional cover for a smuggling operation. In its lighthearted and mostly non-judgmental way the movie is fairly thought-provoking about such matters as the abstract complexity of deal making and the ethics of financial reporting, and although there’s sometimes a sense of Passer rushing to hold the whole thing together, his pleasure is infectious (in some ways, such as the Shepherd character’s uncomplicated approach to adultery, it might represent an extension of the Czech spring’s preoccupation with creative and personal freedom). It would be intriguing to view the film in a double bill with Passer’s next film, Cutter’s Way, in which images of privilege clash with outbursts of paranoia, dark fantasy and instability, and the sense of entitlement that Silver Bears leaves largely unexamined is diagnosed (even more clearly in retrospect) as an element of American division and fracture.

Friday, August 28, 2020

De l'autre cote (Chantal Akerman, 2002)


For the first hour or so, Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre cote observes the Mexican side of the border with the US, the camera either trained on or tracking along desolate landscapes, sometimes with the border wall plainly in sight, or else fixedly recording the often fragmented testimony of a series of witnesses. This portion of the film feels like a search for something that can’t be fully articulated, perhaps because it’s so fully defined by absence – of those who left and never came back, of a clear sense of what the promise of America will really amount to, but also of an ability to escape its pull. The film then switches to the American side, taking on a relatively more conventional and diagnostic feel, its interviewees more self-righteously certain of themselves (inevitably though, watched in an era of covid-19, the couple who worry about disease coming in over the border and about who should get the vaccine first in the event of limited supplies resonate a bit differently now). With great efficiency (because the political story is essentially simpler than the human one) it sets out the policy decisions that focused greater resources on certain established crossing points, with the (possibly unintended but surely at least foreseeable) effect of increasing the suffering and death in the desert; all of this perpetrated by an economy that in large part depends on the very people it so demonizes. The film ends by contrasting the ultimate abstraction of migrants reduced by heat-tracking technology to blobs of white on a screen, with a final extended story of perseverance and ultimate loss. Measured by geographic distance covered, it’s not such a “large” film, and yet the hindsight of subsequent years confirms the fraughtly elevated nature of its subjects, their lives narrowly defined by immediate life experiences, and yet charged with a symbolic and political significance that challenges us across time and distance.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961)


The title of Samuel Fuller’s Underworld, U.S.A. points to its major irony: this is an America where organized crime has reached its highest calling, operating out of a fancy office building with a rooftop swimming pool, hiding in all but plain sight behind legitimate tax-paying businesses and charitable endeavours and organized into reporting units, with a CEO who chides his lieutenants for under-performing numbers (unforgivable, when so many of the country’s 13 million children have yet to be converted into dope fiends). The organization’s single-mindedness swamps the resources of law enforcement (itself depicted here as either corrupt or else pathetically susceptible to manipulation), but it remains vulnerable to a dose of its own poison, delivered here in the form of Cliff Robertson’s Tolly Devlin, who as a teenager watched from the shadows as four men ganged up to kill his father, and now seeks to get revenge on the three survivors (all now high-ranking, if hardly impregnable, executives), by feigning loyalty and working his way up inside. The idea of family runs through the film in various perverse ways, from his hard-bitten quasi-mother figure whose doll collection is, it’s suggested, a compensation for her inability to have children; to Tolly’s contemptuous reaction when the forlorn “Cuddles” suggests he and she might get married; to a daughter calmly bearing witness to the unmasking of her police chief father’s corruption; to the astoundingly pitiless killing of a little girl as a means of putting pressure on her informant father. The movie mostly lacks the more grandly-conceived moments that so elevate Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss, but its controlled relentlessness serves all the better to establish the challenge to societal optimism. It serves up a fantastic closing set-up though, of Tolly’s demise under a blood donor poster, and the final ultra-Fuller-ish close-up of his dead clenched fist.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Vivre ensemble (Anna Karina, 1973)


Anna Karina made her directorial debut Vivre ensemble in the wake of her main period of international stardom, during which she was usually cast as a pretty enigma, seldom explored as a human being (although she does play the least artificial character in The Magus, for what that’s worth). Vivre ensemble, in which she also stars, might have been conceived as an explicit rebuke to such categorization, emphasizing in every scene her character’s individualism and impulsiveness. At the start, it teases us with the promise of a straightforward love story, emphasizing the bolt-of-lightning attraction between Julie and Alain, set against peppily soft music, and soon afterwards establishing the intoxicating nature of their sexual connection. But Karina takes her film in unpredictable directions – literally so in the case of an interlude in New York, providing a fascinating outsider’s perspective on Vietnam protests, drifting lifestyles and pre-gentrification neighborhoods. On returning to France they have a child, prompting her to a greater sense of purpose and direction, but by then he’s stuck moving in the opposite direction (Days of Wine and Roses may come to mind as a general reference point) – they break up, and the film ends on a note of well-judged, hurting uncertainty. The film is well attuned to the limits of its titular state of being together, its point-of-view close-ups suggesting they see each other rather as movie characters, most alive when directly confronted, but otherwise largely unknowable (Karina deglamorizes herself in some respects, while often suggesting that her wide eyes and easy smile are as much a disguise as a window). This may link to a vein of otherwise unacknowledged movie love which evokes Karina’s formative period with Godard – posters of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers prominently displayed in the apartment, an argument over whether the baby’s name is Jules or Jim. Overall, the film should be seen as far more than a quirky footnote in Karina’s filmography; perhaps it can be understood as a weary conversation with much of what preceded it.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The United States of America (James Benning & Bette Gordon, 1975)



Lasting just 27 minutes, James Benning and Bette Gordon’s The United States of America is nevertheless a film as big as its title, following a spring 1975 road trip from New York to the West Coast, the two of them in the front seats, the camera observing from the same unchanging fixed position behind them. The approach quickly establishes itself, holding a shot for ten seconds or so before replacing it with another one from further along in the journey, passing through small towns and large ones, through mountain ranges and plains; with each transition, the sound of one radio station merges into another, providing a snatch of yet another staple of the period (Minnie Riperton’s Loving You comes up several times) or of the latest news update on Patty Hearst or Vietnam. There’s no conversation between the two, and we never get a good look at their faces – as such this might seem like a bizarrely reductive approach to the subject. But it’s a film where the smallest variation - such as the couple of times when she takes the wheel - becomes almost thrilling, and the editing is superb, establishing the time and distance elapsed while evoking a kind of transcendental, above-it-all state of being. The last thing we hear on the radio is a dumb quip about the President’s golf game, after which there’s emptiness, an abandoned vehicle and the vast ocean stretching ahead, a moment of arrival that can’t help but be anti-climactic, even banal, for how much can one ever understand as a spectator, whether the seat is in a car or before a screen? Seen as such in the present day, the film seems to be foreseeing the subsequent fracturing of American unity and resolve, positing it as a structural construct imposed on a near-infinity of unresolved diversity and difference.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, 1965)


It’s impossible to watch Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (or any of the Czech films of its era) now without a major application of hindsight, as a key film in the run-up to the 1968 Prague Spring and to the subsequent August invasion and crack-down (during which Forman would leave the country). The film shimmers with the desire for freedom – not so much politically (although that can be inferred) but certainly personally and artistically. This desire is inherent in the structure, starting with a young woman who’s tangential to what follows belting out a boisterous love song direct to the camera, then pivoting to the protagonist Andula snuggling in bed with a girlfriend, talking about the man she loves, just as she’ll be doing at the end, except by then she'll be talking about a different person, and we’ll be better aware of how much wistful fantasy colours her account. She works in a small-town factory and lives in the hostel attached to it: there’s a military base nearby and the women are at least tacitly encouraged to be available for the relief of the soldiers posted there; it’s an eternal irony that the easiest way to dodge those unwanted advances is to submit to those of someone else, in her case those of a visiting piano player. The bedroom scenes that follow are daringly lovely, but when she follows him to Prague, it’s to end up spending time with his bickering parents, in an extended deadpan comedy set-up that at the same time is meaningfully poignant. But the movie’s quiet magic lies simply in the sense of delight and exercised liberty that underlies its choices: to observe one thing at such length while skipping over another; to rest on thisface or on that one, just because; to start and end as it chooses, with little implied capacity to foretell, much less shape, the future.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)


Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is one of Hollywood’s most deeply beautiful creations, because its beauty draws on that of cinema itself: the eternally addictive mystery of a projection that entirely captivates and shapes us while it’s playing, but then starts immediately to fade, inevitably becoming lost. In this case, the spectator is Louis Jourdan’s Stefan Brand, a gifted concert pianist and hopeless skirt-chaser, who bewitches Joan Fontaine’s Lisa Berndle through her entire adult life, and at one point spends a magical day and night with her during which he pronounces himself captivated and impregnates her, but then forgets, remembering only when it’s too late. Summarized that way, the film is a study of perpetual presence, but the narrative voice and primary focus is that of Lisa, from which it’s a tale of recurring absence and longing: Ophuls holds the two sides in perfect harmony. Fontaine is a study here in delicate but principled yearning; Lisa’s initial fascination with Stefan may be helpless, but at a certain point it becomes her defining characteristic, such that she perhaps comes to value the fantasy over the reality; the scene where they “travel” by train from one country to the next courtesy of simple fairground illusions sweetly embodies such preferences. The film starts with Stefan about to flee from a duel, and ends with him submitting to it: in a sense, we ultimately understand, his adversary is his own guilt, in the final flourish of the film’s structural magnificence. Writing this in mid-2020, it can almost seem that every movie is a kind of premonition of the current pandemic – it certainly lends an additional chill here to the moment where Lisa and her son get into an empty train carriage, followed by a guard reminding another that it’s quarantined and off-limits, the sweet escapism of that earlier artificial train journey replaced by a deathly reality.

Friday, July 17, 2020

La signora senza camelie (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953)


Michelangelo Antonioni’s La signora senza camelie immerses us immediately into modern-day myth – a young woman (Lucia Bose), discovered while working in a fabric store, becomes a star with her first movie, long before she has any sense of herself as an actress, or even as a woman. She allows the momentum to sweep her into marrying one of the film's producers, mainly because that's what he decides, and then into his unsuitable remake of Joan of Arc, a flop which immediately kills any sense of her (among industry and public alike) as much more than a pretty face. Summarized that way, the film may not sound much like Antonioni, and indeed the depiction of the filmmaking milieu (including some delicious looks at the filming of a cheesy sand and sandals flick) provides less exacting pleasures than we expect of him. But the film’s ultimate narrative and thematic architecture, built on bitterly ironic personal defeat, is entirely his. After a period of withdrawal and attempted growth, she suddenly realizes (while wandering among a desolate-seeming group of extras in Cinecitta Studio) that it’s all hopeless, and impulsively decides to embrace in all its superficiality the identity that the world seems to desire for her, accepting a superficial role that she’d previously turned down and even deciding to accept the ongoing advances of a man she'd also rejected, knowing the limits of his interest in her. In the final shot she poses for a celebratory group photograph – the photographer asks for a smile and she smiles, perfectly and chillingly, at once a star and a cadavre. The later Antonioni would no doubt have extended the sense of ambiguity and alienation in more complexly intuitive directions, but the sense of a director finding his fullest self is entirely apposite to the film’s theme; by the same token, it’s not necessarily a weakness that Bose doesn’t convey the emotional grandeur of Monica Vitti in the great works to come.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Privilege (Yvonne Rainer, 1990)


Yvonne Rainer’s amazing Privilege seems at first like a relatively conventional documentary on menopause, made up in large part of filmed testimonies: given society’s (as the film establishes) general unease with the topic, it would hold interest if it were no more than this. But things rapidly start to morph and pivot: a title card announces a new film within the film, also called Privilege, but now driven by a different Yvonne (played by an actress) interviewing a middle-aged woman called Jenny on the topic, which in turn opens up a dramatization of an anecdote from Jenny’s earlier days in New York, extending the canvas from biological determination to include issues of class and race (and, well, pretty much everything). The challenge of traversing the change of life becomes just one bridge in a dizzyingly complex landscape, in which awareness of one’s privilege in one area may only increase one’s blindness to in others: the film maintains its narrative and formal unpredictability to the end, shifting its focus and its technique, even to the point of sometimes hardly bothering to be a film (often we’re just staring at substantial blocks of text on a computer screen). The film’s challenge extends to the smallest matters of filmic convention, announcing itself as a film “by Yvonne Rainer and many others”, and starting to run the closing credits some fifteen minutes before the end, taking up much of that time observing a gathering of cast and crew, emphasizing the collective and essentially celebratory nature of the project. It’s a celebration, that is, insofar as attitudes have traveled some distance – a woman talks near the end about the relief of being able to talk openly now about not wanting children – but one carried out in full acknowledgment of remaining fractures, prejudices, blind spots and injustices.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Humain, trop humain (Louis Malle & Rene Vautier, 1974)


The act of observing industrial production is inherently political, inherently provocative, susceptible to radically different readings based on context. Watching Humain, trop humain’s images of workers engaged in menially repetitive tasks constituting tiny incremental steps in the production-line process, notions of exploitation of dehumanization run rampant, especially as the film barely shows any interaction between the workers, any expressions of pleasure or satisfaction. And yet, watched at almost fifty years’ remove, these may strike us as the “solid” blue collar jobs for which there’s so much (no doubt distorted) nostalgia. Actually, any such nostalgia is probably less for the jobs as such than for the communities built around them and the life structures they facilitated, an aspect of the “big picture” absent from Malle’s film. He does however include a long section in a trade show, including the only dialogue in the film (and a lot of it) as potential customers come out with their questions and criticisms and past grievances, all of it of course directed by individual desire, disconnected from any consideration of what might be involved in satisfying it. Obviously the film’s omissions are greater than its presences (which perhaps is only to say it’s not as big as the world), and it’s well-established that filming such structures constitutes its own intersection of chillingly abstracted beauty and fundamental ugliness. The final freeze frame of a woman’s blank face seems like a final testimony on the spiritual emptiness of her lot in life, but we might also recall Kuleshov’s experiment, and reflect how little we know about her, and how ill-equipped we are to make any judgment on the basis of such minimal exposure and investigation. All of which leaves us with a film which most of us would reflexively describe as (say) “valuable” or “interesting”, and yet which may obscure or even distort far more than it reveals.


Friday, June 26, 2020

Stormy Weather (Andrew Stone, 1943)


Andrew Stone’s Stormy Weather is more than familiar in many respects: a plot driven by male and female protagonists (Bill Robinson and Lena Horne) finding and losing and re-finding each other, while making their way through a varied selection of showbiz settings, drawing on familiar kinds of artifice (exemplified during Horne’s performance of the title song, when a window at the very back of the theatrical stage on which she’s performing yields to an entirely separate, more cinematically elaborate dance number). But it has a truth lacking in many other musicals of its era – that of the African-American performers who possess the spotlight here as they seldom did in other films, and that of the constraints placed upon them. The film’s most brilliant stretch is at the very end – after wrapping up the notional plot, it immerses itself in pure thrilling performance, Cab Calloway’s indelible “Jumpin’ Jive” yielding to a still-breathtaking dance routine by the Nicholas Brothers, and then a final curtain call: it almost feels as if the joy and artistry of black art might be breaking through and forming its own reality. There’s a lot to be broken through though: some of the film’s earlier numbers are certainly uncomfortable viewing now, whether for the astoundingly offensive headgear worn by the female dancers in one number, or the poundingly underlined jungle motifs in another. Fortunately, this aspect of things fades as the film continues, adding to that sense of coalescing. Whatever its weaknesses, the movie feels free on its own terms, its all-black world completely viable and unremarkable, a vision which rather enchants however much it denies painful reality. Robinson is a statement in himself – already in his sixties and almost forty years older than Horne (although not looking it, especially not when his feet are doing their thing) and yet at the end of his career, with this to be his last film, promise and loss eternally intertwined.

Friday, June 19, 2020

La gueule ouverte (Maurice Pialat, 1974)


La gueule ouverte is in some senses one of Maurice Pialat’s smaller scale films – following the final weeks of Monique, spent at home in a small town after discharged by a Paris hospital, watched over by her shopkeeper husband, occasionally visited by her son Philippe and less often by his wife Nathalie – but as large as any of them in the extraordinary, frank honesty of its observation and its evocative capacity. Both father and son are established as fairly active adulterers, and yet in Philippe’s case at least this coexists with an apparently highly active sex life with Nathalie – the film presents such compulsiveness in all its sometimes glorious, sometimes desperate inevitability, understanding that those involved may make their peace with it, or maintain their own stories (the film withholds much information about Nathalie in particular): still, at least through modern eyes, the father’s behaviour toward his customers calls out for some form of “me too” intervention. But at the same time, the film’s use of nudity sums up Pialat’s imposing honesty – his observation of a woman who cleans herself and gets dressed after a brief encounter with Pierre later stunningly echoed by the observation of Monique’s naked body lifted from her deathbed. The moments leading to her death are observed with great gravity and respect, every anguished breath rewriting the air around it: afterwards Pialat succinctly establishes how some things are forever changed, while others continue with their usual banality. The contrast between the film’s second-last shot - looking out from the back of Philippe’s car as he drives away, at first down the town’s poky streets and then onto the highway back toward the city - and the closing view of the father (alone in his shop, turning off the lights) seems to evoke the conversation between the cosmic and the earthbound, confirming that the film was all along far more huge in scope than the everyday sum of its parts.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Cane River (Horace Jenkins, 1982)


Horace Jenkins’ Cane River was essentially unknown until its long-delayed release in 2020, derailed by the director’s sudden death, and it’s hard now not to view the film somewhat sentimentally. That’s not untrue to the prevailing tone – it’s suffused in pleasantly unchallenging R&B music, and Jenkins has a weakness for pretty pictures. But the film also has a strong vein of historically conscious toughness, rejecting any fuzzily unitary view of black identity and affinity. Richard Romain plays Peter, returning home to rural Louisiana after turning his back on a possible pro football career; on his first full day he runs into Tommye Myrick’s Maria, and they strike up an immediate flirtatious connection which goes on from there. Except that he’s a Creole with a relatively privileged background and family name, and she’s a simple descendant of slaves; he by some assessments is “too good” for her, and her mother refuses to believe his interest in her daughter could be anything other than exploitative and opportunistic. The division is real – he can afford to walk away from football money because he doesn’t like the ambiance, pursuing a vague notion of being a poet; he has relatives who live on sprawling family estates, and so on: ironically, his circumstances allow him to withdraw into a sentimental notion of home, where her lack of comparable advantage demands that she look outward, to attend college in New Orleans and establish a distance from family (their religions are also pointedly different). Nothing in the film is really tied up (including a subplot about Peter’s attempt to regain some familial land that he believes was stolen), and it ends on a throwaway romantic note that seems unequal to what came before. But the film’s peculiarities and objective weaknesses are inherent to its appeal, speaking to continuing open wounds of race and class that can’t be smoothed over, to an authenticity that refuses narrative strictures.

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)


Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of the most joyously perfect of all musicals, one of the fullest realizations of the genre’s capacity to transform the world and the people within it. The film’s Rochefort is pure colour and light, a city where a spontaneous expression of joy naturally transforms the environment around it into a choreographed dance, where love at first sight is part of the daily conversation. It’s a gorgeously expansive experience, but with an offsetting tension: three separate stories of a man pining for an absent lover, in two of those cases not even aware he and she are in the same city. Of course, such complications are the basic currency of genre plotting, but in this case they carry an exquisite existential charge, of a longing that becomes its own form of being, almost its own fulfilment. Demy already hints here at the darkness that becomes more prominent in his later films, working in a subplot about a brutal killer (although it’s not one of the film’s most integrated elements) and hinting at a possibility of displaced incest; for all his romanticism, he has no illusions about the transactional nature of so-called love (note the opportunism with which two guys on the make tell two sisters they’re in love with them, without even specifying which of the guys supposedly loves which of the women), and although all three strands reach the inevitable happy ending, two of them are barely emphasized, and the other, in one of Demy’s deftest moves, takes place just after the end of the film. But overall, these undertones serve only to accentuate the prevailing delight, communicated through Michel Legrand’s peerless music, and by exquisite casting touched by its own poignant mystery (Catherine Deneuve at the start of one of the greatest careers in cinema; her sister Francoise Dorleac already near the sudden end of her career, and of everything).

Friday, May 29, 2020

Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)


Even as a major Blake Edwards enthusiast, I’d always been a bit cool on Victor Victoria, held back in large part by Julie Andrews’ inadequacy in the main role (of course her implausibility is part of the artifice, but even so, the lack of any real charged sexual ambiguity remains a drawback). On a most recent viewing though, I found myself becoming rather blissfully entangled in the film’s counterpointing of performance and projection, reflecting that it may be about looking more than being seen. Take most obviously the final scene, in which Victoria (having discarded her Victor persona) reclaims and validates her relationship with James Garner’s King Marchand simply by sitting passively beside him in the audience, to watch Toddy (the priceless Robert Preston) ham his way through one of Victor’s signature routines. Most of the scenes between Andrews and Garner consist of one watching the other, or trying to figure out the other, or else of the two discussing the ambiguities of their relationship: the movie hardly conveys what that relationship might look like in fully achieved form (of course, that’s a staple of the mismatched relationship genre, but here it’s not so much - as the phrase goes - a bug as a feature). The filming of Victor’s musical numbers tends to emphasize their unknowable otherness: consider in contrast the much more easily titillating number performed by Lesley Ann Warren’s more straightforwardly defined character, with its very different depiction of the audience. The emphasis on observation isn’t confined to the stage: the film is a near-network of spying and surveillance (including the late introduction of a Clouseau-type character), all rooted in definitional confusion (at a key point of confusion, Marchand finds clarity by going to a dive bar and picking a fight so he can get beaten up). Even now, much of the film seems to me to play more flatly than it might ideally have done, but the intricacy of Edwards’ thematic and visual schemes only becomes more impressive.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)


Tati’s Mon oncle is the most serene of viewing experiences, constantly and uninsistently funny, almost mystically precise in its framing and design and effects. In a different film, the portrayal of a modern bourgeois France stifling its sense of joy and spontaneity through its materalism and pretensions might seem oppressive and hectoring, and the contrast with the traditional community and its sense of messy togetherness might seem largely sentimental: Tati holds them in a beautifully contrasting equilibrium (his Hulot bridges the two worlds, the unemployed if not unemployable uncle to the son of a wealthy factory manager). Some of the film’s most sublime ideas are its smallest, such as Hulot’s routine of adjusting the angle of his open windows to direct the sunlight onto the caged bird below and therefore to maximize its singing: it’s through such tiny rituals and pleasures, you sense, that a worthwhile life is built (although the nature of Hulot’s inner life can only be guessed at). In this sense, there’s a commonality between the two worlds, except that at the other end of the spectrum, the routines have become oppressive and self-defeating – supposed technological breakthroughs that cause more problems than the simpler methods they’re replacing, or absurd affectations like the fish-shaped garden fountain that the lady of the house obsessively switches on whenever a visitor arrives (unless it’s Hulot, or a delivery person, or someone else of insufficient status) and then off again as soon as they leave. The movie ultimately suggests that the battle is effectively lost, banishing Hulot to the provinces, and subtly suggesting – through a subsequent moment of rare bonding between father and son – that maybe it’s time to cut the sentiment and commit to new normals (and onward to Tati’s next film, the imposing Play Time), leaving all the rest to the dogs. And by the way, you’ll seldom see such well-cast and -directed dogs either…

Friday, May 15, 2020

La Luna (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1979)



Bernardo Bertolucci has said that the genesis of La Luna lay in a childhood memory of the moon rising behind his mother’s face as she looked at him, a moment at once intimate and unbound, perhaps capable of shaping one’s perceptions for a lifetime, but also sealed off, providing no suggestion of a resulting narrative. Bertolucci’s remarkable extrapolation holds closeness and fracture in grand equilibrium, setting out a mother-teenage son relationship capable of swinging in seconds between transgressive physical closeness (certainly meeting some kind of definition of incest) and melodramatically expressed antipathy, leading to a climax in which a long-broken family is finally made whole again, but in which the physical distance between them is emphasized, and the opera singer mother’s inherent Otherness is symbolized by placing her in the midst of rehearsal, a diva surrounded by dozens of extras. There’s certainly then a pervasive sense of life as display, embodied in Jill Clayburgh’s extravagant performance as Caterina (at once too large a presence, blocking out the light, and yet its only reliable source); but also of corresponding emptiness and loss, trailed early on when her husband worries about a dream he hasn’t had a chance to tell her about, and soon afterwards suddenly dies, and embodied further through various episodes in which Caterina revisits past people or locations of significance. The film is a series of gorgeously imagined physical and thematic spaces, its depiction of warped privilege carrying at least some social charge; it encompasses the painfully stark (the cold details of the son’s drug addiction and its implicit call for self-obliteration) and the happily absurd (near the end, Caterina tells the boy that she broke up with his biological father because he loved his mother too much, her half-laughter suggesting how what was once fraught loses its potency with distance and time).

Friday, May 8, 2020

Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956)


I couldn't say whether the portrayal of the “gypsy” community in Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood is even remotely accurate, but it seems now like a near-fever dream of otherness: a community living within our own, but following its own rules, with its own “king” and economy, mainly interacting with the outside world only to keep the law at bay. The king (Luther Adler) is dying, and determined to bring his brother Stephen (Cornel Wilde) deeper into the fold, primarily by dictating his marriage to Annie (Jane Russell) (organized marriage is a mainstay of the culture). Stephen resists, but the marriage happens anyway, triggering a behavioural dance between the two that resonates against the actual dancing that recurs throughout, swinging between connection and repulsion (Russell, as always, communicates a piercing, self-assured strength, even as her motives are in most respects passive). The film is a series of remarkable widescreen compositions, often teeming with people in every corner of the frame, and you may struggle to recall a film (blood-letting epics aside) that makes such vivid use of primally bright red. Most of it is plainly and exultantly artificial, but there’s a remarkable exterior shot outside a trailer dealer, with the road extending to a vanishing point, evoking the suppressed desire for escape. The suppression wins out however: in the last scene, Stephen proposes to Annie for real, winning her immediate acceptance; he carries her off and they’re gone from the movie, the individualism of this second coming-together indivisible from their sublimation into the community, and their separation from the world as we know it. The film is too abstract and self-contained to lie among Ray’s greatest works – there’s little real sense of discovery or exposure to it - but on its own bizarre terms it immerses you in crudely passionate expressiveness.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Leon Morin, pretre (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961)


Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, pretre has a tightly-wound and somewhat claustrophobic-sounding core: Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a woman in a small French town, displaced from Paris during wartime, enters the confessional with the aim of mocking the priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo), but ends up relying on him as a spiritual adviser, and perhaps more. Melville’s filming of the initial confession flags his intention: he uses a multitude of angles, dissolving the physical divide between them, creating a figurative filmic space that suggests the transformative significance of what we’re witnessing; thereafter he works predominantly through short scenes separated by blackness, often presenting fragments of narrative for which a full context is missing, creating a sense of a world in which coherence is inherently evasive, perhaps best understood through pointed incursions. The source of the destabilization is the war, pushing people into actions they might not otherwise have countenanced; it’s almost as if the conflict were conceived by God to provide a fertile ground for moral testing (at various times the film addresses collaboration with the enemy, resistance, adultery; it shows one child innocently calling one of the German soldiers her friend, another turning his back on an officer who approaches him). Barny and Morin’s interactions often feel like a kind of game, enjoyed equally (if in different ways) by both sides (Belmondo’s perpetual sense of suppressed amusement is most effective in this regard), but the stakes are deeply serious, and the religious inquiry is as gripping as the exposition of a thriller. When Morin speaks against the ornateness and excessive ceremony of the church, and rails against the congregation from the pulpit for habitually leaving the service early and other slack practices, one almost hears Melville expressing his own evolving film-making aesthetic, underlined by the revelation in the last few minutes of how few possessions Morin owns in the world, followed by a final shot which suggests resultingly elevated capacities.

Friday, April 24, 2020

White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)


Watching Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye, your mind oscillates between wanting to dismiss it as essentially dismal I-married-a-serial-killer stuff, and constant wonderment at how Cammell ventilates and expands every aspect of it, generating a movie that feels at once frostily deadened and almost Messianically possessed. David Keith plays Paul White, a hilariously bland label for a character depicted as hypernaturally connected, carrying out his work as an installer of high-end audio equipment as much through heightened senses as technical expertise, a proficient hunter (until his wife Joan made him give it up, sort of) coded through various Native American appropriations. He met Joan (Cathy Moriarty) when she was passing through his hometown of Glory, Arizona with Mike, a boyfriend, on the way to Malibu – she never made it out of Glory, and a decade or so later, she finds that Mike is also back there, mentally diminished after an accident while serving time in New York. Paul comes under suspicion in a string of killings, and for a while it seems like a classic wrong-man set-up, until Joan finds something, and he turns on a dime, rapidly shedding every element of established personality and morality, becoming something close to sheer abstract threat (the corresponding swerve in Keith’s performance is no less startling). The endgame has Mike improbably showing up in the middle of nowhere at the right time – a tired narrative device converted here into something expansively formative (with a homoerotic undertone), as if we’ve been watching the culmination of God’s own plan. Almost every scene makes a mark of some sort, whether through oddity of character, flamboyance of design, or sheer penetrating strangeness, and if one often feels that Cammell should have managed bigger and better films, the film almost seems to be embracing displaced self-destructiveness at its heart, and daring people to find it lacking.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966)


Although Jacques Rivette’s La religieuse focuses on a young nun fighting for her freedom, the film never seems to discount the possibility of devotion and God’s grace: the outrage lies in using religious institutions as a means of social control. The protagonist, Susanne, is pushed by her family into taking her vows because of financial and social considerations, the France of the time (around 1750) apparently allowing no practical alternative that they can perceive or tolerate: the bulk of the narrative follows her mistreatment at the hands of one vengeful superior, and her attempts to avoid the desirous advances of another. The film is most audacious in its final stretch, after she escapes with the assistance of an equally unhappy priest: it skips through subsequent events (perpetually in fear of being recaptured; reduced either to begging or else working in a series of menial or demeaning jobs) in fragmented fashion, suggesting that for all her unhappiness, the institution did provide a form of coherence that the outside world lacks. Of course, this only underlines the pervasive lack of alternatives for a woman who falls outside the prevailing structures of control and belief. Anna Karina is a perfect centre for the film, entirely convincing and moving in her essential goodness, driven not by inherent rebelliousness but by a sense of wrongness, that God sees through and is offended by her pretense, even as many of those around her offend against their vows in different ways. It’s hard to know how easily a viewer could attribute the film to Rivette, if he or she didn’t already know it's his, but among other things, the film evidences his affinity for theatre and performance, as for instance in the opening scene where she takes her vows before an audience, separated by a grill, and more broadly in the notion of God as the ultimate perceived spectator and judge of authenticity.

Friday, April 10, 2020

New York, New York (Martin Scorsese, 1977)


Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York is one of his most fascinatingly strange films, a meeting of varied artifices and evasions. Robert De Niro is Jimmy Doyle, a virtuoso saxophone player who resists the confines of the prevailing post-war swing band aesthetic, drawn to more experimental, improvisatory forms; Liza Minnelli is Francine Evans, a singer of more traditional instincts: their incredibly volatile relationship reflects the tensions of diverging desires and ambitions (they meet in the thick of VJ Day celebrations, placing the film in part as a parable of post-war reconstruction). Within the decade or so of the (deceptively conventional sounding) plot, Francine ends up as the bigger star, with a Hollywood and nightclub career that looks much like that of Minnelli’s mother Judy Garland; the film doesn’t emphasize what every viewer knows, that the mainstream will soon leave her behind (Minnelli herself was already at the end of her brief movie-starring heyday). De Niro’s performance is among his most extreme, a barrage of challenges and provocations (Jimmy’s treatment of Francine certainly constitutes some kind of abuse) that doesn’t feel like old Hollywood, but which is too stylized to fit comfortably into the new: coupled with the frequent artificiality of the film’s backdrops, it often feels like pure abstracted challenge. It’s grandly appropriate them that the last stretch of the film consists almost entirely of performances, primarily by Francine (and all absolute Minnelli classics), with her and Jimmy’s personal story coming to be defined by inarticulacy and absence (with echoes of Antonioni’s The Eclipse). Even before that, the movie has several moments that almost seem to pause, to separately observe Francine and Jimmy at moments of silent contemplation, as if insisting that it’s interested in inner lives, even as it represents an America steadily progressing deeper into obsession with image and projection.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Mexican Bus Ride (Luis Bunuel, 1952)


Luis Bunuel was already in his early fifties when he made Mexican Bus Ride, and one can imagine an alternative history in which it would have been a sign of winding down, of easing into dawdling conviviality of the sort that characterizes the titular journey: the bus only gets going when it’s full, adhering to no fixed schedule – progress gets interrupted along the way by a flat tire, by being stuck in mud, by a woman giving birth, by driver fatigue, and finally by a detour to a birthday celebration. A bit of frustration gets expressed at all this, but for the most part the passengers take it in stride, the journey being as important as the destination, and efficiency being a rather suspect commodity (during the mudbound episode, a pair of oxen acquit themselves much more effectively than a modern tractor). The passenger at the centre of our attention is Oliverio, heading to find and bring back a lawyer to document his dying mother’s will, knowing that otherwise his scheming older brothers will manipulate her for their own self-interests – the urgency of the situation pulls him away from his wedding night, and exposes him to the relentless advances of a female passenger (to whom he seems to represent a pure sexual itch that she’s determined to scratch). A few sharp Bunuelian strokes dispel any potential sense of complacency: a vividly imagined dream sequence drawing on Oliverio’s faltering resistance to temptation; a willing no-strings-attached consummation in the midst of a storm; and a final few scenes in which he arrives back too late, but forges his mother’s mark on some documents for the sake of implementing her expressed wishes, before drawing his wife close and uttering a fiery statement of intent. The movie’s positioning of adultery as a galvanizing force and of manipulation of the dead as a morally righteous act still feels defiantly transgressive, a sign of a filmmaker with a startling journey still ahead.

Friday, March 27, 2020

A Guide for the Married Man (Gene Kelly, 1967)


Gene Kelly’s A Guide for the Married Man makes for mostly depressing viewing, if you regard the prospects for heterosexual marriage with even a scrap of romantic idealism. Paul Manning (Walter Matthau) is “happily” but aridly married and his thoughts drift to having an affair (perhaps with a neighbour; failing that just with anyone), egged on by his compulsively cheating neighbour Ed Stander (Robert Morse): the movie illustrates Ed’s advice on getting away with it with a series of sketches populated by “technical advisors” of the likes of Lucille Ball and Jack Benny. Some of the vignettes are moderately funny (although seldom very surprising), and at least the format provides an inherent degree of variety: Kelly’s direction is quite sprightly at times. But the society depicted here is a uniform existential wasteland in which a woman’s highest aspiration is to stay at home looking blandly beautiful and tending to her man and her children, all but extinguishing herself as a viable sexual being: for the husbands, it seems, the specific act of adultery is less significant than the prospective thrill of plotting to do it and the retrospective satisfaction of having gotten away with it (their lives being starved of any other compelling narratives). Everything is calculation and process, heavily aided by female gullibility and low expectations, enacted against a deadening materialistic backdrop: the ending in which Paul predictably “comes to his senses’ plays as fearful surrender more than happy awakening (Matthau in general seems rather depressed in the role, although that might be a form of commentary). It’s funny how many reviewers focus on the beauty of Inger Stevens in her role as Manning’s wife (“you have to wonder why Matthau would even consider adulterous behavior with a wife like Inger at home!”) as if this were a silly oversight of the film, rather than a proof of its toxicity.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Love on the Run (Francois Truffaut, 1979)


Francois Truffaut’s frequent return to the character of Antoine Doinel seems on its face as a sign of commitment and identification, rendering it rather strange then how the Doinel films are generally among the director’s lighter and less substantial works. Perhaps this means they should be seen instead as a reliable means of escape, and yet they’re surely too self-reflective for that, and to a degree too self-revealing: it doesn’t take much research to discover, for instance, that the scene near the end of Love on the Run where two former girlfriends share their experiences of Antoine is cast with two former girlfriends of Truffaut himself (Marie-France Pisier and Claude Jade). Of course, that might suggest the movies are substantially an ego trip, but if so, it’s an exercise carried with a disarming sense of helplessness. Love on the Run, the last in the series, deals with Antoine’s divorce and other problems, and dwells along the way on other tragedies – the death of a mother, that of a child – but may feel overall like the breeziest of them all, which again may seem either like a failure of seriousness or a beguiling ambiguity. Take, for instance, the closing scene, in which Doinel wins back his latest squeeze by telling her, in the record store where she works, how he fell in love with her, on the basis of a photograph, before he physically met her: she yields to the story, of course, but as we the audience have already seen him recite the same story as the basis for an intended novel, it hardly lands as an emotionally committed outpouring. Especially not as the film then presents a pair of customers asking for a particular new release which is, in fact, the title song of the movie we’re watching. So it’s all a game, oscillating between poles, likely to leave the viewer quietly charmed and content, and almost entirely uninformed.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Girl 6 (Spike Lee, 1996)


Watched again at a time when questions of representation and inclusion only swirl more urgently, Spike Lee’s Girl 6 is as intriguing and evasive as ever, a film of finely seductive, sensuous presence (happily aided by a heavy Prince presence on the soundtrack), built on long-established absences. It follows a young actress, Judy (although we only learn that name in the final minutes), who out of economic necessity becomes a phone sex operator, where “Girl 6” is her ID; she starts to relish her popularity and her relationships with some recurring callers, putting her sense of boundaries at risk. Theresa Randle is sensational in the lead role, conveying all the character’s specific insecurities while evoking a more classical, timeless mystique; the movie includes imagined sequences in which she’s dropped into The Jeffersons, Foxy Brown, or Carmen Jones, as Dorothy Dandridge, each of these serving both as celebration and as an underlining of the limited coordinates of female black stardom. Dandridge seems to constitute a particular preoccupation – the kind of pioneering icon to which an actress might aspire, but whose career was hampered by cruel lack of possibilities - and by bookending the film with two auditions at which Judy is treated largely as a piece of flesh, Lee pointedly resists the sense of growth and evolution that often attends such stories. As with the somewhat related Bamboozled, an almost hallucinatory quality intercedes in the closing stretch, and the final shot could be taken as much as a portent of future anonymity than as one of triumph. Halle Berry briefly appears at herself, a few years before building on Dandridge’s status as the first black woman to be nominated for the best actress Oscar by becoming the first black woman to win it (and the only one to date) – it’s a coincidence that fittingly underlines the sense of confinement and restriction (as does Randle’s near-disappearance from movies for the last decade).

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Redes (Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1936)


Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s Redes is a completely absorbing hour or so of cinema – persistently stunning as observation of (at least apparently) real, challenged lives against pictorially transfixing backdrops, emotionally stirring for its depiction of social injustice, while also limited by narrative artifice and the unwarranted promise of its climax. The film focuses on a poor fishing community on the coast of Mexico, where one of the men becomes radicalized after losing a child for lack of money to buy medicine; he focuses on how the profit from their efforts flows overwhelming to the single capital provider at the top of the social pyramid, with the workers perpetually settling for almost nothing. He inspires some of his colleagues while alienating others, but in the end, after further tragedy, they’re all united, and the film suggests they might constitute a figurative revolutionary wave, amassing to wash away an exploitatively complacent society. The portrayal of the fishermen’s plight (interesting to note as an aside that women are barely glimpsed in the film, let alone being allowed to speak) feels as righteously provocative now as it did then, despite the mostly clunky portrayal of the complacent local master and his conniving politician sidekick. Among the multiple fascinating contributors to the film, the involvement of Zinnemann as co-director, long before his mainstream, multiple Oscar-winning peak, stands out: as with much of his later work perhaps, one can point to aspects of Redes which appear brave and ground-breaking, and feel grateful for its overall achievement, while yet feeling willing to sacrifice some of its craft and calculation (even Silvestre Revueltas’ grandly imposed musical score) in return for a more truthful overall testimony. But perhaps it took the test of time, and the repeated triumph of predatory capitalism, for that failure to become as clear as it is now.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Kiss Me Goodbye (Robert Mulligan, 1982)


Robert Mulligan’s Kiss Me Goodbye is a strangely slack and disinterested film, one of those works in which no one and nothing seems to connect with anyone or anything else. Three years after the death of her choreographer husband Jolly (James Caan), Kay (Sally Field) returns to the house they shared together, intending now to occupy it with her fiancĂ©e Rupert (Jeff Bridges). She soon encounters Jolly’s ghost, visible and audible only to her, and adjusts to his presence with remarkable ease; Rupert of course thinks she’s nuts, but sort of plays along, to the extent of taking the ghost on a road trip and ordering for him in a restaurant. The concept of the ghost is thin indeed – Jolly is clearly tuned into some greater force in that he’s able to dredge up undisclosed facts about Rupert’s past, but nothing more is made of that power, and Kay doesn’t evidence a shred of curiosity in how he experiences their interactions, or in where he goes when he’s absent, or in much of anything (none of the actors are anywhere near their best). For a while she toys with the idea of maintaining two husbands, opening up some raunchily twisted possibility, but a scene where she tries to make love to Rupert while Jolly’s in the room plays as unsexily as anything you’ll ever see. The movie limps along through some slumbering set-ups (an attempted exorcism; a wrong notion that Jolly’s spirit may have gone to hide inside Kay's dog) and then ends in as offhanded a way as it started, with the vaguest of explanations for Jolly’s intervention. The movie is of almost no specific interest, but stands as one of many examples of a recurring Hollywod mystery, of how so many presumably somewhat discerning and skillful individuals can devote their energies to such a coldly meaningless, complacent undertaking.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Spoiled Children (Bertrand Tavernier, 1977)


A largely forgotten early work by Bertrand Tavernier, Spoiled Children remains as interesting as any of his films for its artful collisions of themes and tones. The opening credits promise a boisterous culture clash, counterpointing a rollickingly performed song about the glories of old Paris with various scenes of the drab contemporary reality, but this is an immediate misdirection, evoking a zest that the modern world hardly accommodates. The focal point is a movie director, Bernard Rougerie (Michel Piccoli) who rents a second apartment away from his family, to work on his script in peace (the self-referentiality of this notion is underlined by references to Rougerie’s last film Deathwatch, which in reality would be the title of Tavernier’s next one), a notion rapidly challenged as he gets involved with the building’s tenant defense committee, formed to counter excessive rent increases imposed by the landlord (the film is very informative about relevant laws and practices), and in particular with one attractive young neighbor, Anne Torrini (Christine Pascal). Rougerie’s wife works with silent children, coaxing them into talking – this and the title underline the theme of personal and societal immaturity, of stumbling toward a coherent voice and identity: even as Rougerie’s movie starts to take shape, he finds himself critiqued by Anne for a lack of personal commitment, to their relationship, to anything. In summary this might sound a bit schematic, but Tavernier deftly navigates through contrasts and counterpoints, suggesting an ironic auto-critique even as his film amply justifies his chosen course.The final maxim – “If I die one day I want to meet death as I have met love” – may seem better suited to a more classically romantic film, especially when pasted over children playing in a grim-looking urban playground, but as such provides a final assertion of ambiguity and cross-pollination, of a directed voice that may still be heard over all our capitalistic injustices and challenges.

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.