Thursday, December 31, 2020

Deadly Sweet (Tinto Brass, 1967)

 


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

Thursday, December 24, 2020

La bande des quatres (Jacques Rivette, 1989)

 


La bande des quatres is a pure Rivettian pleasure, encompassing many of his recurring elements: the theatre as a space of intertwined challenge and refuge; an old house laden with mysteries; a sense of conspiracy and threat lurking at the edges of the film, but also an often playful sensibility. The four are all young women, sharing the house while attending the same theatre group, their lives tightly intertwined – at times there’s a sense of life and vocation in perfect equilibrium, but of course it’s unstable, threatened most explicitly by the shady connections of a fellow student and previous occupant of the house, but also by their essential immaturity and desire to retreat (one of the women came to France to escape an arranged marriage in her home country; another has a boyfriend she almost never sees, and so on). Both spaces are ultimately severely disrupted – their acting teacher gets dragged into the mess and taken away by the police, and their home space is essentially invaded and violated – leaving them to fend for themselves; the last scene, where they attempt to forge ahead, is both vulnerable and ominous. But the heart of the film is the rehearsal process, taking up a large portion of the running time, with viewing and participating carrying equal weight, sinking deep into the mysterious fulfilment of creation and interpretation, of melding the personal and the projected. There’s a sense of theatre and acting as a genuine source of empathetic unity, as the best protection against disturbance and breakdown (for example it’s revealed very late on, almost in passing, that one of the women goes by the name of a sister who went missing) – a breakdown which might even extend to the film’s own boundaries (one character talks about an artist called Frenhofer and a long-missing painting called La Belle Noiseuse, in effect creating a portal to Rivette’s next film). As with all his films, it’s a graceful, inexhaustible, fulfilling delight.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Black Jesus (Valerio Zurlini, 1968)

 

The original Italian title of Valerio Zurlini’s dramatization of the death of Lalubi, a charismatic anti-colonial rebel leader, translates as “Seated to his right,” a title that somewhat subtly evokes the religious charge that runs through the film, while also pointing to the film’s major misstep, that for all its strong desire to positively and respectfully portray Lalubi, it tends to diminish him through misdirection and misemphasis. To enumerate, there’s the casting of Woody Strode (who embodies the role in an effective, beatific manner, but at no time seems to belong to the culture being portrayed); the significant over-reliance on white perspectives (in particular those of the Dutch commander who agonizes in Pilate-style about his role in delivering Lalubi to his fate, and a fellow cellmate who trades his secret stash of pornographic photos to a guard to obtain some oil to apply to Lalubi’s wounds); and the fact that the religious analogy, no matter how occasionally effective on its own terms, blurs local political realities rather than clarifying our understanding of them. Still, Zurlini does invest the film with a potent, spare, power. His most effective device may come at the very end, following the film’s enactment of Lalubi’s “crucifixion,” evoking his resurrection through a little boy, clad all in white, who stands bearing silent witness, and in the end escapes from the soldier’s guns into the distance, embodying a distinctness and freedom capable of surviving the machinations of colonial occupiers and their cynical collaborators. The film is best known as Black Jesus, and an American release poster featured the tagline “He who ain’t with me – is against me,” suggesting a (perhaps not unreasonable) wish for a far more confrontational film than Zurlini actually delivered (the alternative release title “Super Brother” further pushed that angle). Still, the film’s limitations are interesting enough in their own right, in embodying the difficulty of exposing colonial injustice from the outside (the film’s missteps are far less egregious than those of Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, to take a better-known example).

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Perfect (James Bridges, 1985)

 

James Bridges’ 1985 film Perfect has some weighty ambitions: to explore confused journalistic ethics by contrasting a reporter’s principled behaviour in one weighty situation (involving a high-profile businessman under indictment) with his carelessness on another story (a lifestyle piece about California health clubs) that’s objectively less important, but in which lives and reputations might nevertheless be damaged; at the same time, the film is in part itself an investigation of that health club milieu, seemingly fascinated by its embodiment of how the casual sexuality of the 60’s and 70’s is becoming a mechanized commodity, summed up by so many shots of hot young bodies all moving in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, the film undermines its journalistic strand through endless over-simplification, and while the health club strand could have been anthropologically interesting, Bridges doesn’t maintain any critical distance from the period’s drab musical and aesthetic norms (put another way, the movie too often seems like a wildly extended video for Olivia Newton-John’s Physical). The reporter in question, Adam (John Travolta), works for Rolling Stone, here prominently playing itself (the cooperation provided to the movie seems a little surprising now, given how badly the magazine comes off in some respects, but perhaps that testifies to its sense of impregnability at the time) and in a way the film serves itself best simply by the relative amount of time it devotes to staring at words on Adam’s computer screen – it takes the craft seriously enough to immerse us in what seem like real extracts from real Rolling Stone articles, even if the movie around them scarcely conveys where they could possibly have come from. However, it does less well by its main female character, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, her initial strong physical presence and emphasized sexual self-determination ultimately devolving into an almost wordless ornamentation, admiringly waiting for her man.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986)

 

Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties is a committed deliverance of classic musical-genre pleasures: an appealingly artificial setting (in this case an indoor shopping mall) within which multiple intertwining romance narratives play out, never more than ten minutes or so from the next immediately alluring yet hardly posterity-embracing song. Akerman inhabits and appropriates the form so fully that one might almost overlook how insecurity and fracture infiltrates the movie. That’s partly political and sociological in nature, with numerous references to property taxes and exchange rates and general economic uncertainty; emphasizing the existential unpredictability, the mall is at times desolately empty, and at others so packed that characters can’t stand and talk without being helplessly carried away from each other. Something similar goes for the relationships that drive the plot: they’re all either compromised or doomed, and the film contains various moments of unusual emotional directness and rawness (interestingly, its superficially “toughest” character, a money man with rumoured mob connections, is shown as its most brittle). In the end, two separated characters are reunited, but the ultimate focus is elsewhere, moving into the open air for the first time, observing exclusion and regret rather than fulfilment (in which the movie suggests little lasting confidence) and ending on an expression of inevitability, that love and connection will go on as surely as commerce - and perhaps, it’s implied, with as little inherent joy (another main character pines for her lover who writes to her from Canada, but by the end is no longer sure whether she even wants him to come back). The film’s least compromised pleasure is found in groups – four guys who are perpetually together, commenting on the action in the manner of an updated barbershop quartet; the troop of young women at the hair salon, barely observed as individuals but filling the screen in joyfully coordinated manner when joined together in performance…perhaps this is the film’s most subtle comment on the not-so-golden ideology of its era.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992)

 


Gregg Araki’s The Living End announces itself as an “irresponsible film,” and it’s certainly a defiant one, insisting that being given a “death sentence” diagnosis needn’t preclude living in the meantime, without limits, without apology, without even more than grudging adherence to law and convention. Luke lives on the edge of danger, a state that seems to ramp up after he’s diagnosed as HIV-positive, through some combination of his own nihilism and perhaps of the world attuning itself to him; while running from a confrontation he meets Jon, a more inward-looking, quasi-domesticated writer, also HIV-positive. The two get together, break apart, then get together again after Luke’s latest plunge over the edge, getting into a car and just driving, with steadily decreasing sense of purpose. The movie’s fault line is that they’re never entirely equal partners in the project, that Luke’s pushing of Jon, in large part liberating and freeing, ultimately becomes a different form of oppression and terror, albeit one that we, like Jon in the final moments, can understand as being based in fear, and that may point forward toward an alternative kind of coherence, a liberating new dawn. The movie is indelibly of its specific time and place, but like so many others takes on a different subtext when viewed in the time of Covid (to which the reference in the closing credits to the Republicans in the White House provides at least one glum connection) – an amazing moment when Luke cuts himself and studies his own blood, musing in twisted wonderment on how it can look so normal and yet be so deadly, might need only a small leap to become ideologically-driven denial. The Living End though is a movie free of masks and imposed distancing, vividly insisting on the glory of connection, of bodily contours, of kinetic interaction, all the more desperately glorious for being informed by truth.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

 

The Conformist belongs to the period when Bernardo Bertolucci almost seemed to derive from cinema itself, his films made up of one indelible scene after another, and yet feeling entirely unified, their structures and textures intuitively complex. A typical synopis of the film, as prompted by the title, emphasizes the protagonist Clerici’s project of attaining his concept of normality, embodied here by his marriage to a mundane woman and by his willing participation in the activities of the ascendant Fascist party, but while that’s not exactly inaccurate, it’s hardly true to the visceral experience of watching the film. On the contrary, the film teems with moments in which Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Clerici asserts and differentiates himself, whether physically (such as his exaggerated posing with a gun he’s just been handled) or behaviourally (his immediate aggressive attraction to the character played by Dominique Sanda): the memory that overshadows his life, of having killed a predatory chauffeur as a young boy, appears as much a source of perverse transgressive pride as a source of guilt. This perhaps well-equips him to participate in the performative aspects of Fascism, but not to be as effectively a cold-blooded executor of orders; near the end we see him damned as a coward, as repulsive to the Fascist order as their more usual victims. Bertolucci observes this progress through a dazzling series of compositions and incidents, both sweeping and intimate, creating a sense of a heightened, fragmented state that mysteriously channels that of Clerici. In the end, the fall of Fascism and rise of a new social order coincides with his discovery that his origin story was wrong all along, and he loses his bearings, becoming stridently accusatory before sinking into a final ambiguous silence. The grotesque theatre that enabled him, it seems, has come to a close; it’s just one of the film’s satiating ironies that the new world, however more worthy and just, may lack the dangerous, amoral panache of the old one.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Witch who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber, 1976)

 

Matt Cimber’s The Witch who Came from the Sea has the feeling of an elusively personal testament, both by the director and its lead actress Millie Perkins, and of a fragmented investigation into masculinity – the film has its lumpy aspects, while delivering some effective horror-genre body-violation shocks, but also succeeds in elevating the protagonist’s underlying trauma into more than just a hollow motivation for plot mechanics. The film starts with Perkins’ Molly and her two nephews on a largely deserted beach, revisiting an old, disputed family myth of her seafaring father who (perhaps) went lost at sea – she notices some muscle-bound guys exercising nearby, and the film follows her into erotic reverie, hungrily lapping up their physicality. Not long after that, in a sequence placed as fantasy but immediately seeming too behaviorally specific and physically vivid to be only that, she’s with the two guys in a bondage-heavy threesome that soon turns nasty (it’s intriguing how matter-of-factly the camera observes her own partial nudity compared with that of the men), and from there the film navigates between other fraught, can-come-to-no-good encounters with other predatory men, her genuine (almost desperate-seeming) love for her nephews, and an eccentric but seemingly well-balanced live-in relationship with her older employer. The film’s title is metaphoric – Molly isn’t conceived as a supernatural being – but it’s true to the protagonist’s disturbing lack of naturalism: Perkins cleverly moves through a range of different registers - seductiveness, anger, affection – while suggesting they’re all guises of sorts, based in destabilizing past experiences, and Cimber accordingly keeps the viewer nicely off balance regarding the reliability or sequencing of what we’re witnessing. Some aspects – such as the seafaring mythology and Molly’s preoccupation with men seen on television – count for less than may have been intended, and the film is hardly polished, but the rather plaintive ending pulls together its intriguing dynamics, allowing Molly a tenderly forgiving final note, facilitated by the transgressive behaviour of those closest to her.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Noroit (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

 

In Jacques Rivette’s original conception, Noroit would have been one of a four-film series of linked Scenes de la vie parallele. In the event, only two of the films were made (Duelle was the other) and the film is most likely to be viewed now in the shadow of Rivette’s towering achievement of a few years earlier, Celine and Julie Go Boating. Noroit shares many characteristics of that film – a focus on two women, a situation that clearly can’t be taken “realistically,” unexplained incursions of pure fantasy, to name just a few. But it’s also explicitly an “adventure film,” one of Rivette’s most physical works, with much gunplay and fighting (although of an abstract, stylized variety), scenes of heavy lifting, and Bernadette Lafont strutting around in some outrageous costumes, and unlike Celine and Julie, the two central women here are adversaries, with Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) working as a bodyguard for pirate queen Giulia (Lafont) while plotting to kill her for revenge. If the film often feels like heavier going than Celine and Julie, that might be seen in part as an appropriate reflection of the subject matter and the stakes (it also reflects the explicit citations of a 17th century text, The Revengers’ Tragedy, giving the film a foothold in classically disciplined theatricality). But it does mean that it becomes most satisfying in its final stretch, as it takes on the sense of trying to escape its bonds – dialogue yields to dance, the image flashes to black and white or to red as if the cinematic apparatus itself were becoming unstable, and one character demonstrates both previously unsuspected magical powers and the capacity to replicate herself. It’s hard to imagine that Noroit is anyone’s favourite Rivette film, but it’s as absorbingly singular as any of them, in no way denying the validity of traditional pleasures, but incapable of presenting them passively or unquestioningly (even something as usually inherently “backgrounded” as soundtrack music is elevated here, several scenes showing us that the musicians are right there with the actors).

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

 

In the opening scene of Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire, a woman walking alone at night is assaulted by a man who rushes her from behind - within seconds, he’s dead, and (with the notion of gender power shifts thus already established) the woman, Diane, walks on to an engagement at an art gallery where she’s rapidly flirting with a married man, Lee, under the nose of his immediately hostile wife Susan. Diane invites the couple to her house in the desert, clearly with seduction somewhere in mind, but once they’re there the dynamics gradually shift, summed up in a central scene where Diane and Lee make love in the living room, while Diane locks eyes with Susan watching from the stairs. Diane, evidently, is the vampire of the title, equipped with the bottomless resources that facilitate eternal life (big house, faithful servant attuned to her needs) but also a sense of fragile neediness which rapidly unravels over the few days of the film’s narrative – her final pursuit of Susan is as much desperate as it is malevolent. Despite one’s enthusiasm for the film’s underlying ideology and concepts (their scope enhanced by several symbolic dream sequences), it’s hard not to regret the often flat dialogue and acting and staging, or the way that key scenes seem unnecessarily rushed: not least the ending, when Susan spontaneously enlists a group of passers-by to join her in crushing Diane’s life force. Of course, this may only be to say that the film works within commercial and genre constraints - its more artless aspects can be defended besides as a way of deliberately limiting our unthinking capitulation to such fanciful mechanics, of holding the spectator at a degree of analytical distance. Likewise, while it’s superficially very much a product of its time, with a general laid-back early 70’s vibe, it’s one that always feels precarious, and rife for fragmentation and reinterpretation.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nobody's Children (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1952)


At least as illustrated through his most readily available films, Raffaello Matarazzo’s work appears strangely obsessive, with a feeling of perpetually readjusting and reexamining a set of recurring elements, as if in search of something canonical. To expand, within the few years from 1949 to 1952, he made four films with Yvonne Sanson and Amedeo Nazzari, all of which cast them as lovers separated by cruel misunderstandings, aided by the machinations of others (in two cases, essentially the same primary other, a self-interested countess played by Francoise Rosay); in two cases there’s a child that one or both of them doesn’t know is alive (also played by the same actor), and so on. The films are all seeped in tragic, all-consuming suffering, often manipulated by the inherent power of the wealthy and connected, albeit that the rich schemers ultimately fail to find inner peace; but they also reach for grand turnarounds and redemptions. The films aren’t too stylistically striking, but they are in their way inspired, and even inspiring. Nobody’s Children highlights something that’s also present, but less prominently so, in the other Sanson/Nazzari films of that period, the exploitation of the worker, depicted here as marooned within a back-breaking, manifestly unsafe and underpaid mining environment, with heavy use of child labour. Nazzari plays the owner (in He Who is Without Sin he was just one of the labourers), whose reformist ways are undermined by his controlling mother and the vicious mine overseer; when he falls in love with the daughter of one of the workers, the two plot to separate them, with far-reaching effects. The ending fuses joy and calamitous loss in explicitly religious manner, while leaving an unusual volume of unresolved matters; Matarazzo would pick up the characters a few years later in astounding manner in The White Angel, casting Sanson as a lookalike over whom Nazzari obsesses in Vertigo-like manner (and that’s only getting started).


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.