Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)


Antonioni’s The Red Desert must rank high in the list of colour films that most suffer from being seen in a suboptimal print; not necessarily because the colour provides a clarity that would otherwise be absent, but because of the very opposite, of the nature of the film’s particular mystery. It’s arguably rather short on conventional pleasures (there’s some comparatively racy talk about sex, but no visualization of it), reflecting a reality that has become overwhelmingly confusing and oppressive; its use of colour is sometimes a direct appeal to an alternative reality (as in a story that’s told about a girl on an island) but more often an abstract representation of the meaning and order that evades us. It’s made explicit in the damaged central character’s plan of opening a shop, for which the decision on what she might actually sell comes second to covering the walls with different paint possibilities; at other times, even such muddled human agency is denied, and the film takes on a sense of chronic violation, its brandishing of (or denial of) colour seeming like part of the attack. The ending provides a note of relative hope, as she muses that the birds would have learned to avoid a factory’s emissions of hideous (and yet, if the context and content were different) weirdly beautiful yellow smoke; reflecting a broader sense that communication between people and their environments is at least possible, however confusing the progress toward it. But the hope is indeed at best relative; the search for how to live (essentially the same thing, we’re told, as the search for how to see) not without lightness, but defined as much by absence as by presence. The film’s focus on labour practices, upheavals and shortages suggests that the plight it depicts is at least in part a feature of modern capitalism and industrialization, a critique that remains urgent and relevant (even if in a different form now).

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Someone to Love (Henry Jaglom, 1987)


Henry Jaglom’s Someone to Love casts the director as Danny, a version of himself, prompted by his and his brother’s relationship problems (the brother is played by Jaglom’s real-life brother) to hold a Valentine Day’s event in an old theatre scheduled for demolition, to meet people and connect while also getting a movie out of it. Much of the raw material gathered from this (by Henry and Danny alike) is pretty mundane: lots of not particularly novel or informative perspectives on hopes and dreams, occasional advances by participants on each other, none of it apparently getting anywhere. As in all his films since his debut, A Safe Place, Jaglom emphasizes cinematic artificiality, foregrounding juxtaposition and editing, often creating back-and-forth interactions out of shots that plainly seem to have been obtained at different times. This reaches an apex in the film’s use of Orson Welles (in his last role); his appearances are sprinkled throughout the film, and he has extended conversations with Danny and with a group of women, but is only ever seen alone in the frame, sitting in the same seat, filmed from the same angle; the sense of a created world supports the central tease, regarding the ambiguity where the line between reality and artifice lies. Some characters express reservations to Danny’s project on ethical grounds, or just on grounds of basic taste, but Jaglom seems more occupied by the tangibility of the filmmaking process than by any particular narrative or thematic object, bringing the notional plot strands to only the thinnest of closures; in the end it feels like he’s mainly interested in using up his spare footage of Welles. Still, it’s all more interesting than it might be, not least because it contains the most notable film appearance by the great late Dave Frishberg, also playing a close version of himself and singing his “Listen Here,” in addition to a couple of covers.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Walpurgis Night (Gustaf Edgren, 1935)


Gustaf Edgren’s Walpurgis Night initially impresses for its social consciousness, starting with a newspaper office discussion about Sweden’s declining birthrate, the participants splitting on whether the causes are primarily social (in particular a housing shortage) or whether it’s basically because of there being not enough love to go around. It rapidly becomes clear that the film is staking itself on the latter, less rigorous theory, as it launches into a bizarrely overstuffed and coincidence-strewn plot encompassing a raid on an illegal abortion provider, a wicked blackmailer, a covered-up murder, and much else; it even encompasses a scene in the French Foreign Legion (including the execution of an attempted deserter). By the latter stages, the movie is racing through key point developments (such as an apparent successful subsequent desertion), as if randomly discarding as much weight as necessary to get a rickety plane off the ground; still, this does somewhat contribute to a sense of societal insecurity and anxiety. An interesting secondary aspect is the portrayal of a society beset with people making a living by peddling opportunistic photographs or stray bits of gossip to the newspapers, a practice presented here as being amusingly harmless for the most part, but which speaks to the censoriousness and societal hypocrisy explored in so many other Swedish films (it’s typical of the film that while it makes much of the discovery of the abortion operation, it shows no interest in the plight of and consequences for the women whose privacy was thereby breached). The movie may most often be viewed now for the pre-Hollywood Ingrid Bergman, not that interestingly cast here as a woman of almost cloying virtue. Victor Sjostrom plays her father, with something of the pained gravity that would reach its zenith years later in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, lurching between treating his daughter as a latter-day saint and damning her as a common trollop.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

May Morning (Ugo Liberatore, 1970)

For much of its length, Ugo Liberatore’s May Morning seems largely anthropological in intent, closely observing the architecture, social texture and embalmed oddities of Oxford University, apparently boundlessly fascinated with the rowing and the punting and the dining halls, with the contrasts between the very proper dons (that’s what they call the teachers) and fashion-channeling students, with such rituals as the “sconce,” in which a social wrongdoer is punished by being made to drink a large amount of ale. The film’s outsider perspective, embodied in an Italian protagonist, Valerio, who struggles to fit in, is illuminating up to a point, although the fact of many of the actors being dubbed into English introduces a counter-productive sense of distancing. It’s not just the central presence of Jane Birkin (playing Flora Finlake, a student who happens also to be the daughter of Valerio’s tutor) that suggests Antonioni’s lurking influence (although given that Zabriskie Point was released a little later, the occasional similarities in that regard must be coincidental); the “swinging” elements become more prominent as the film goes on, with actions dictated by alcohol and anger and horniness, ultimately feeling like a rather disembodied, twisted reverie. Liberatore certainly takes pains to emphasize the institution’s repressed aspects, having a character observe that dons were traditionally prevented from marrying, and throwing plenty of baggage into the Finlake household; Valerio is presented as being rather supercilious and academically lazy, but his main transgression is simply his exotic otherness and its threat to cozy continuity, attributes which ultimately mark him as a suitable “sacrificial victim” (as the film’s poster put it). In that respect, May Morning’s unexpectedly wide scope also encompasses links to the later Wicker Man and other localized, ceremonial horrors (interesting that the University's term for expulsion is “rustication”); other aspects though, such as the prominence of the Tremeloes on the soundtrack, seem now to maroon it back in time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)


The final note of Georges Franju’s Judex, following an elegantly romantic happy ending on a beach, is a reminder of the “unhappy time” of 1914 that gave rise to Louis Feuillade’s original silent film serial, reminding us of the severe global turmoil and threat that originally underlay such inventions, and that if we should feel inclined to dismiss them as pure genre fancifulness, they’re rooted in humankind’s darkest capacities. The point could perhaps be missed, because although Franju’s version has no shortage of venality – such as a rich man coldly running over his car over an old peasant who’s antagonized him – it doesn’t consistently evoke the pervasively disquieting societal threat that marks the original (and the most comparable works of Fritz Lang), being set instead in a rather charmingly disembodied world defined entirely by the narrative’s demands. At times Franju emphasizes pure whimsicality, perhaps best summed up by the scene in which a detective is standing in the street, at a loss over how to reach the upper floor of a building to carry out an urgent intervention, and a circus troop happens to wander by, including a star female acrobat who’s an old friend of his (problem solved!). Likewise, for a master operator, the titular Judex is quite charmingly fallible at times, letting his grand antagonist escape from custody and easily getting overpowered and knocked out at one key point (again, a good thing that acrobat came along). Other parts of the film – the eagle-headed magician that captivates the crowd at a grand ball; skin-tight costumed figures climbing walls or clambering across rooftops – are pure cinematic iconography, only notionally rooted in the surrounding narrative, and perhaps all the more striking for that. It all adds to a quite singular creation, nostalgia and retrospection inherent in its conception, without in any way diluting its vivid sense of presence.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Haut bas fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995)


Haut bas fragile is one of Jacques Rivette’s most beautiful assertions of the world as a playground, so easily and constantly enjoyable that its radical strangeness is rapidly absorbed or overlooked. Just as a small example, the film would generally be labeled as a musical, but the first such number doesn’t arise until well over an hour into the film, and one of the three main characters (all followed through separate, occasionally intertwining narratives) is excluded from any singing or dancing…except that she’s haunted by a song she’s had in her head since childhood, that she believes might lead her to her birth mother, thus in a sense making her story the most purely musical of all. The film teems with elements of quasi-mythology or fairy-tale - a woman waking up after years in a coma, finding herself the owner of a mystery-filled house left to her by a deceased aunt; a mysterious underground society where the members engage in a form of Russian roulette (it turns out to be a fake, but still…); peculiar encounters with men, or with cats – but never feels like a work of frivolity or denial, with none of the three strands providing perfect closure. On the contrary, all three women in a sense choose to defer discovery and accountability, all the better to keep moving unpredictably through life (nevertheless, one comes away with the general sense of a happy ending, as one would wish). The highly theatrical dance choreography forms its own interrogation of life and cinema: one character moves as if openly trying to possess the entire floor, another oscillates between minimal moves and sudden extreme, jagged poses, as if to preserve an element of surprise; all of which (in combination with the quirkily beguiling songs) render the musical sequences not so much an adornment or expressive addition, but a counterpointing source of mystery and reverie. The cast (including Marianne Denicourt and Anna Karina) is almost pure delight.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Walking a Tightrope (Nikos Papatakis, 1991)


Nikos Papatakis’ Walking a Tightrope in fact figuratively walks (or runs, or leaps) across a series of them, stretched across a strange, highly iconoclastic variety of narrative and thematic divides and contrasts. The film does feature a fair amount of literal tightrope walking: famous author Marcel Spardice (Michel Piccoli) fixates on and later seduces Franz-Ali, a young man who catches his eye while picking up elephant dung at the circus, and then invests much time and resources in helping Franz-Ali work toward his high-wire dream. But with Franz-Ali failing to fulfil Marcel’s vision for him, and another young lover appearing on the horizon, Marcel’s attention moves on, and Franz-Ali eventually ends up back where he started, except that it’s unbearable now, and only obliteration awaits. There’s much genuine longing and loveliness in the film - not least in the character of Helene (Polly Walker), initially little more than a procurer for Marcel (it’s clear how those with power and connections manipulate the system to their advantage), but later overcome by a doomed love for Franz-Ali – and much personal and societal pain. The film counterpoints Marcel’s initial pursuit with a damning portrait of engrained racism – Franz-Ali’s mixed ethnicity causes him to be randomly rounded up and thrown into jail, after which a policeman volunteers to his German-born mother that as bad as the Nazis were, her dilution of racial purity by marrying an Arab is a worse sin. But this aspect of the film rather recedes as it goes on, while certainly remaining implicit in Franz-Ali’s decline – for instance, even at the height of her love for him, a large part of Helene’s plan is to have him work as a uniformed manservant either for her or her sister. That’s just one aspect of Papatakis’ consistent confounding of expectations, of his highly singular, energized sense of cinematic and emotional form and balance.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Little Night Music (Harold Prince, 1977)


Stephen Sondheim’s sublime A Little Night Music surely had (and retains) the capacity to spawn a beautiful film version, but in the hands of original stage director Harold Prince it’s a mostly glum affair. If nothing else, the film might have taken something from Ingmar Bergman’s spawning Smiles of a Summer Night, the theatrical styling of which almost seems to anticipate the likelihood of the later musical; more broadly, Bergman’s film carries an acute sense of moral investigation, of sex as an object of the most elevated seriousness, but one inherently reliant on a degree of evasion and stylization. That’s all there in the musical’s underlying text, but Prince’s blocking and filming are largely static; the film feels starved of breath, let alone of joy. The casting hardly helps, particularly (and there’s no pleasure in piling on in this regard) that of Elizabeth Taylor as the famous actress and object of desire Desiree Armfeldt – Taylor seems here like an inert actress and entirely indifferent singer, a miscasting exacerbated by preserving the stage version’s Len Cariou as her fated lover Ferderick Egerman (Cariou is evidently too young for the role, among much else, seven years younger than Taylor and only fifteen older than Lesley-Anne Down, also ineffectively cast as Egerman’s inappropriately young and virginal wife, which doesn’t help that aspect of the film either). Of course, some of the songs can take care of myself, and Prince lands the occasional scene, but it’s much less than should have been expected. It’s no doubt inevitable that some of the original’s songs had to be sacrificed, but still, the omission of The Miller’s Song and Remember seems most regrettable, and the cutting of Hermione Gingold’s Liaisons leaves the character of Desiree’s mother entirely gutted (it’s tempting to read several peculiar close-ups of a disengaged-looking Gingold as a sad acknowledgement of this).  

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Tale of Springtime (Eric Rohmer, 1990)


Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime may bring to mind the maxim driving his earlier Full Moon In Paris –“He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind.” Jeanne, a young philosophy teacher, can’t stay in her own place because she lent it to a cousin, and doesn’t want to sleep at her messy boyfriend’s place while he’s away, so she accepts a sleepover invitation from Natasha, a music student she meets at a party, and then remains for a week, getting drawn into the complications between Natasha and her father and his younger girlfriend Eve, whom Natasha detests, suspecting her in particular of stealing a family heirloom necklace. Despite the promise of the title, the film is among the more withholding of Rohmer’s late works, partly reflecting the relative severity of its protagonist – when philosophy is discussed here, it’s as much for display as anything else, with Eve flaunting how her knowledge is greater than Natasha’s. The film develops a sense of escalating pressure – the larger the canvas of possibility that Natasha presents for Jeanne (including the notion that Jeanne might replace Eve as her father’s partner), the more restricting it starts to seem; release only arrives through a freak event that absolves everyone of guilt, emphasizing the prominence of chance and caprice in our lives, and the traps inherent in human intellect and perception. Still, when in the end the film realizes its title by having Jeanne return to familiar territory, replacing a vase of withered old flowers with some bright new ones, it’s a less satisfactory arrival point than Rohmer customarily provides, with the nature of Jeanne’s inner renewal rather hard to glean (other than that, in some general sense, she’s found a way to modestly evade the inner confinement that arises from a life hemmed in by logistics and infrastructure).

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)


Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town might seem overly self-referential in numerous respects: it’s a risk inherent in movies about movie-making, amplified here by the use of Minnelli’s own The Bad and the Beautiful to denote former and perhaps no longer attainable glories. The film transcends that trap partly because its love of the cinematic process is so palpable, immersing us in the atmosphere around the set and such things as the mechanics of dubbing; more broadly in the way that even a once-great filmmaker might lose his way with actors, with the cinematic apparatus itself. Minnelli himself of course evidences no such decline here, generating one amazingly expressive widescreen composition after another, culminating in a wildly self-purging nighttime car ride staged as a deliriously abstracted, swirling spectacle. It’s a work built on multiple personal fragilities, Kirk Douglas’ Jack Andrus leaving a high-end clinic (shades of Minnelli’s earlier The Cobweb) and coming to Rome (depicted here as a site of churn and displacement and shifting relationships) in the hope of resurrecting his Oscar-winning but now devastated acting career under the guidance of Edward G. Robinson’s legendary director Maurice Kruger. Virtually from arrival, Andrus is taunted by actual or metaphoric reminders of past traumas; the elements aligning, as if guided by a therapeutic universe, to allow him a chance of comprehensive personal and professional renewal, before further setbacks point the way to a final equilibrium. The Andrus-Kruger interactions provide a memorably toxic central plank, the two men loving and resenting each other in roughly equal measure, Kruger’s outreach at once redeeming and destructive – he’s last seen in bed staring off into space after delivering his final blow, like a man imploding from the force of his own impossibility (and left under the thumb of his wife, with whom he has – if it’s possible – an even more spectacularly passive-aggressive relationship).

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Conte d'hiver (Eric Rohmer, 1992)

Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’hiver starts with some of the most carnal moments in all his work, of a young couple plainly in love and lust, naked in and out of bed, seemingly at utter physical and emotional ease with one another; we rapidly discover it’s a vacation romance, with only the address Felicie gives Charles at the end to ensure its continuity (he doesn’t have a fixed address, and she can’t even accurately recall his surname). Five years later, we learn she mistakenly gave him the wrong information, and they haven’t found each other since, even as his picture dwells in her daughter’s room, so that the girl will always know who her father was. Even as she juggles two other men (dumping one in order to impulsively move out of Paris with the other, and then changing her mind and returning after two days), Charles and the possibility of reuniting with him remain preeminent in her mind – Rohmer’s gracefully involved dialogues explore whether this is mere romantic folly, or a mark of faith that might even be rooted in the immortality of the human soul. Felicie regards herself as relatively stupid, especially compared to her bookish friend Loic, but through her commitment to her own instincts and ideals ultimately evidences a greater capacity to shape her world – he’s professedly religious and she isn’t, but she’s the one who prays in the course of the film, and urges him to go to Mass on Sunday (Pascal’s wager, much discussed in Ma nuit chez Maud, also comes back under the microscope). Against this backdrop, the statistically improbable ending hardly needs to be emphasized as a happy one, with an immediate sense of life moving on. In the end, the narrative distance traveled perhaps isn’t much greater than a carelessly calculated romantic comedy might traverse, but it’s a far greater journey in all other respects.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986)


Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls might be one of the finest-ever studies of a workplace, regardless that the work in question is prostitution, sold out of a discreetly upscale apartment; in just an hour and a half, it encompasses an astounding range of incident and interaction and attitude, facilitating an improbably complete sense of the establishment as a multi-faceted meeting place and as economic matrix. It convincingly captures the mundane rhythms and rituals of the place: the different practices that kick in when the boss isn’t around, lunch orders, runs to the pharmacy, breaking in of new recruits, requests to stay late; all as naturalistically textured as if Borden had been observing it all her life. The women are convincingly diverse in their race, motivations, attitudes toward the job (some hide it from their significant others, some don’t; some use their real names, some don’t), where they draw the line with the clients; the clients in turn range from needy (there are frequent requests to meet the women outside, based in a belief that these are real connections, held back by the artificiality of the setting) to entitled to entirely businesslike. The film is explicit about the job’s physical requirements, meticulous in tracking the money (the central character Molly enters everything in a little book, depositing her takings on the way home); it’s often funny in the way that workplaces usually are, and of course deadly serious. While Borden’s style is generally intimately naturalistic, the scenes between the women and clients are sometimes consciously posed, coaxing us to view those encounters as structural constructs, and to interrogate our own gaze on them. Her amazing film ends as it began, in the midst of domestic intimacy, establishing all that we’ve seen as a common extension of that state, and uncomfortably sharing many of its attributes.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Maso et Miso vont en bateau (Delphine Seyrig Nadja Ringart Carole Roussopoulos Ioana Wieder, 1975)


The irresistible Maso et Miso vont en bateau takes off from a jaw-dropping 1975 French TV show marking the end of the UN’s “Year of the Woman”, introduced by Bernard Pivot, pitting the Secrétaire d'État à la Condition féminineFrancoise Giroud, against various misogynistic provocations. Perhaps in part out of a desire to appear convivial, Giroud provides accommodating and passive responses to even the worst excesses, such that even Pivot seems taken aback and tries to prompt her otherwise, with little success. Maso et Miso preserves the event in what seems like reasonably complete form, while replaying various cringe-inducing moments for maximum effect, and disrupting the flow with written and aural counterpoints; the overall effect is funny, outraged, sarcastic, disgusted, and deadly serious. The fact of the movie being the product of four woman directors, all identified only by their first names (Delphine Seyrig is the best known of the four) makes its own statement, placing it firmly outside traditional modes of industrial production (the closing scrawl throws Giroud a conciliatory bone, suggesting that no woman could have succeeded in representing a feminine viewpoint under such circumstances); that’s in common to the female director of Pivot’s show, whom he conspicuously praises for her professionalism, before in the next breath commenting on her beauty, apparently on the basis that if this weren’t explicitly stated, then everyone would necessarily assume that a competent woman must be unattractive. The film is crammed with moments – such as the chef who argues that a woman can’t be a great cook because she’s perpetually distracted by questions such as what stockings to wear (a premise absorbed by Giroud with barely a peep) – that would be hilarious if they didn’t speak to such a wasteland of lived experience; when Giroud pronounces at the end that “the fight continues,” it’s impossible to know what she has in mind, but at least Maso et Miso vont en bateau breathes life into the statement.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Getting Straight (Richard Rush, 1970)

Richard Rush’s 1970 Getting Straight is a key document of its era, capturing despite all its flaws a feverish drive for self-expression, drawing on the momentum of the civil rights and other social movements, and the existential threat of the Vietnam draft. In the film’s protagonist Harry (Elliott Gould), a Vietnam veteran now back in college, the movement finds a chaotic focal point, with Harry to some extent suppressing his own sympathies for the sake of getting through the process and becoming a teacher (even if he can barely explain why he's bothering), even as his personal insecurities and challenges manifest themselves in almost constant abrasiveness. Much of this display now looks misogynistic and homophobic, with Harry for example throwing off the low incidence of homosexuality in Arizona as one of the state’s great virtues, and ultimately suffering a dramatic meltdown when pressured to buy into a particular interpretation of The Great Gatsby; even less palatable is his constant belittlement of his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) (for which, despite all his remaining challenges, the movie ultimately lets him off the hook). Likewise, we’re apparently encouraged to share Harry’s view that the creation of a Black Studies department, on which a group of students are focused, wouldn’t amount to much of anything – his tossed-off remark that he was at Selma seems like a flippant way of throwing him some moral authority in this respect. The film’s view of social possibilities seems rather amusingly limited now, with a standardized life in the suburbs held up as a kind of default state to be consciously resisted. Still, the film has lots of probingly intelligent writing, and its rambunctious energy persists, with compelling scenes of confrontation between police and protestors; it may be an emblematic time capsule movie, but one conveying a transferable sense of the “fierce urgency of now,” of the hunger to rise against complacency.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sois belle et tais-toi (Delphine Seyrig, 1976)


The title of Delphine Seyrig’s Sois belle et tais-toi! establishes its core purpose – to present a cross-section of the experiences of female actors and thereby to bring out the industry’s male-dominated complacency. The whimsical selection of interviewees (22 in all) places Oscar-winning giants (Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Shirley MacLaine – although MacLaine’s footage appears to have been obtained from another source, and sits rather uncomfortably in this context) with others who had few film credits at the time, or since, a diversity in security and opportunity that arguably outweighs the points of commonality. With an average overall time allocation of just over 5 minutes each (some get more, some much less), it’s inevitable too that the emphasis is mostly on the anecdotal and impressionistic, which (along with the extremely unadorned photography and title design) is the source of much of the film’s eccentric charm, and its objective limitations. For example, several speakers cite the likes of Newman and Redford and McQueen as examples of careers and opportunities generally denied to women, but then it’s also true that the vast majority of male actors were no less excluded from such rarified heights. Still, it remains rather poignant to see several of them racking their brains when trying to remember if they ever spent any meaningful non-adversarial screen time with another woman. There’s plenty more there too for in-the-know viewers, such as Fonda’s sadly hilarious account of Fred Zinnemann’s neurotic approach to making Julia, or Juliet Berto critiquing Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating (the notion of female directors is cited only briefly). The last word goes to Burstyn, widening the scope somewhat by positing that the momentum belongs to women and that the future of the planet depends on it, on its own terms a harmlessly overreaching piece of rhetoric which comes across here as a final touch of whimsicality.