Thursday, March 4, 2021

Loving Couples (Mai Zetterling, 1964)


The last shot of Mai Zetterling’s amazing Loving Couples places all that precedes it in a kind of stark biological perspective – an extended, highly clinical shot of a newly born baby, the edges of the screen closing in on it, emphasizing its potential domination of its mother’s immediately shrunken world. It’s not quite that straightforward though, because just a few moments earlier we’ve witnessed a birth in which the mother’s free spirit seems less likely to be vanquished as a result, and a few moments before that a still-startling shot of the disposal of a stillborn delivery. That is, contrary to the sense of oppressive uniformity that opens the movie, placing the three expectant women (whose lives will all be seen to be intertwined) in the same stark hospital, Zetterling establishes motherhood as a premise that need not constitute destiny, while being realistic about the odds that it may. Her film is enormously rich and expansive, charting a bourgeois society rife with adultery and unfulfilled desire, at various points encompassing both male and female homosexuality, alluding to masturbation as a response to a dull marriage, and near the end staging a stunningly cynical wedding ceremony, in which the pregnant bride spends the wedding night with her lover rather than with her husband, a gay man basically paid to provide the pending child an official father. But it’s also alert to momentary pleasures (and, in the case of one of the women, the corrosive feeling of being excluded from them) and to the complexity of motives and reactions, radiating awareness of and respect for the multiplicity of reasonings that drive women’s decisions. Men aren’t exactly dumped on here, but they certainly seem like relative fixed points, their political and social dominance amounting to a kind of embalming (to be periodically disrupted by a war of the kind that percolates in the background).

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Carey Treatment (Blake Edwards, 1972)


The Carey Treatment was far from Blake Edwards’ favourite among his own films – it was mired in production problems and he tried unsuccessfully to have his name taken off it. I’ve always liked the movie a lot though – even if not entirely by the director’s design, it’s so honed down and clipped in some key respects that it verges on stubborn abstraction. This quality is evident from the start, as pathologist Peter Carey arrives at a Boston hospital for a new gig – within minutes he’s tangling with a security guard, taking the first steps toward a relationship with a female colleague (Jennifer O’Neill), and overriding the police in their handling of a suspected drug thief, and when a colleague is accused of killing a young girl through a botched abortion, Carey takes it upon himself to get to the truth (the police don’t seem interested in probing further, and there’s no sign of a defense lawyer), which reveals itself through four or five deductive steps and a lucky chance sighting of the perpetrator. Carey might be regarded as a kind of inverse Inspector Clouseau, each moving through a world in which resistance bends to the protagonist’s blind certainty: for all his provocative attributes though, Carey doesn’t share Clouseau’s defiance of the laws of science, taking a serious beating which leaves him on the verge of collapse for the climactic scenes. The prominence of illegal abortion in the plot (this being a pre-Roe vs. Wade world) certainly deepens the moral and ethical fabric, although it’s probably unintentional how the notion of women lacking control over their own bodies finds echoes in the near-absence from the film of any woman with more than sex on her mind (even by the standards of under-utilized female leads, O’Neill’s role is fairly pitiful). Overall, for all its flaws, the film feels personal and preoccupied, navigating between amusement and disgust.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)


Ozu’s I Was Born, But… is a silent film that hardly feels like it, its characters and interactions and subtexts established as fully as in any of his sound films. It focuses primarily on two boys who move to a new neighborhood and establish themselves among the other local kids, a process depicted here as largely a grabbing of raw symbolic power, such that you can direct other kids to lie on the ground and they’ll go along with it. It’s inherent in this game that one should also lay claim to having the best father, but a home movie night at the boss’s house damages their reflexive belief in this assertion, by showing him clowning around to win favour, insulting their intuitive sense of how power and stature should manifest itself. At home later on, they rail at him and even go on hunger strike, and after the initial anger, he concedes to his wife that he essentially agrees with them, and even takes a form of pride in their rebuke, and a resulting optimism for their future (later works, of course, will chart in detail the many compromises and disappointments likely to await them). The film is unmistakably Ozu’s, but with a neo-realist-before-the-fact feeling to the observation of the boys and their stark-looking environment. Among other secondary pleasures, it’s one of train-loving Ozu’s most train-heavy scenes, the house’s location next to the tracks allowing them to pass by at what seems like very frequent intervals, and one of those in which he seems most in love with movies themselves – the home movie viewing providing much easy pleasures (lions and zebras photographed at the zoo) and traps (the boss’s embarrassment as his wife gets confronted with evidence of her husband walking in the street with two women, neither of which is her – that’s the only faint appearance that sex makes in the movie though).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

End of the Game (Maximilian Schell, 1975)


The credits of Maximilian Schell’s End of the Game suggest a kind of puzzle: director Schell is best known as an actor; the film’s biggest part goes to a director, Martin Ritt, who at that point had barely acted since the 1950’s; top-billing goes to Jon Voight, except that the movie identifies him as “John"; and Donald Sutherland plays a corpse. Such playfulness might suit a film that explicitly labels matters of life and death as elements of a long-running game, and the movie does have some notes of productively evasive strangeness. In other respects though, it all hangs rather heavily, and some of its key central notions don’t really come off. The primary gameplayers are Ritt’s police commissioner Barlach and Robert Shaw’s prominent local businessman Gastmann, a man who believes his money and connections place him beyond the law – the two are bound by an incident some decades earlier in which their shared callousness caused a woman’s death. In his pre-corpse days, Sutherland’s character Schmeid was spying on Gastmann at Barlach’s behest, but apparently in a flagrantly transparent manner (posing as a professor of a topic on which he knew nothing) – likewise, much of what follows is knowingly transparent, belonging to a chess game not worth being played in silence (although the movie’s chess player character just perpetually plays himself). God is evoked numerous times, not always in the most theologically learned way (it's pointed out that Gastmann begins with G and so does God so, hey, that must mean something). Voight’s character is another cop who gets caught up in the mechanism, to the extent of sleeping with Schmeid’s girlfriend on the day of his funeral, but it’s hard to separate the character’s uncertainties from those of the actor (it's fancifully appealing now to attribute that to the moral confusion that would later consume the man). Overall, the film too often suggests a private joke not fully communicated to the viewer, but that’s at least better than not sensing any joke at all.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Les espions (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1957)


It may seem strange that the actor with by far the biggest role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les espions, Gerard Sety, appears way down the cast list, whereas top-billed Curd Jurgens doesn’t appear until almost halfway through, and is gone long before the end. But it’s an oddity that rather suits the up-is-down nature of the movie, one in which an initial feeling of clutter and peculiarity eventually coalesces into a sharp vision of pervasive threat and anxiety. In a set-up as seemingly loosely sprawling as Clouzot’s preceding fiction feature, Diabolique, was tightly-wound, Sety’s Dr. Malic, owner of a failing psychiatric clinic, accepts a large sum of money from an American agent to take in a mysterious patient, a decision that soon has the clinic overwhelmed by suspicious characters forcing their way onto the staff, or purporting to be patients, or crowding into the bar across the street, or watching from trees and rooftops; Peter Ustinov and Sam Jaffe play senior operatives of the Eastern and Western blocs respectively. The scheme turns out to involve a missing scientist who’s discovered a breakthrough in atomic energy that threatens to destabilize the Cold War equilibrium, so that the quasi-comic portrayal of the spy game, one in which players may not even try to keep track of what side they’re on, yields to real existential stakes. The ruthless ending finds both sides collaborating to preserve the status quo, leaving Malic feverishly trying to tell a truth that no one will ever hear; no one, that is, except the people on the other side of the surveillance embedded in his house, making themselves known through a coldly ringing telephone. The only sign of hope is in how a long-mute patient finds her voice in the film’s closing moments, but even that’s undermined by her fear of the consequences, if she should try to make it heard.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)


In Jacques Rivette’s original conception, Duelle would have been the second of a four-film series of linked Scenes de la vie parallele, and it’s hard not to regret that the project was never finished (only one other, Noroit, was made) and to speculate on how the films might have informed and complemented each other. Like Noroit, Duelle shares many characteristics of Rivette’s towering achievement of a few years earlier, Celine and Julie Go Boating– a focus on two women (played by Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier, who were both part of the earlier film) and a situation that clearly can’t be taken “realistically,” to name just a few. Also like Noroit, it’s heavier going for the most part, its sense of Paris defined more by night-time interiors than by Celine and Julie’s light-infused playground. That’s somewhat inherent to the film’s intrigue though, its enactment of an outlandish situation (a meeting of two supernatural beings, one representing the sun and the other the moon) filtered through the gravity of real places and settings (summed up by the final confrontation, taking place under an apparently mystically-charged tree, but filmed in what appears to be a public park with trains and cars and pedestrians clearly visible in the background) with only the simplest and most transparent of cinematic trickery. The film is perhaps less elevating than Celine and Julie as an expression of female possibility (the scope for autonomy and expression is limited by the imposed narrative and stylistic rules), but it’s still a film almost entirely driven by feminine intention and action, defined by women who, if looked at, look back with piercing strength, often dressed and moving androgynously (much of the action revolves around a hostess dance hall, depicted here as utterly devoid of eroticism). The film doesn’t deny human frailty though, most poignantly through a sad secondary character played by Nicole Garcia, whose momentary joy at fulfilling her dreams is snuffed out almost as soon as it began; perhaps there’s a link there to Rivette’s own documented frailty around this time, and to the way both Noroit and Duelle now appear as transitional works, almost as a form of ritual purging before recharging and moving on.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)


One can’t think of nothing, states the maxim at the start of Eric Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife, and the movie encourages one to view the assertion with some regret, to muse that if one could transcend one’s daily clutter of interactions and obligations and desires, and all the stresses and anxieties that accompany them, one might attain something fuller and purer, in which thinking of nothing would constitute the ultimate fulfilment. As it is though (and in contrast to a pivotal earlier work like My Night at Maud’s) the characters in The Aviator’s Wife never approach such thoughts, being consumed entirely by that daily bric-a-brac, by the false narratives built upon it and their vast consumption of time and internal space (the title artfully sums up this state, referring to a person who’s not in the film and whom a couple of key characters fail to correctly identify). Almost as hard as thinking of nothing, perhaps, is looking while seeing nothing, and the film is driven by several incidents of one character observing another (a young man seeing his sort-of-girlfriend emerge from her building after apparently spending the night with her supposed ex, then later observing that same man with another woman) and then becoming wrapped up the implications of what was witnessed – this can be a liberation of sorts, as illustrated by the film’s lightest section, an extended interaction in the park between two people who’ve just met, but (as the film also illustrates in its final moments) not likely a lasting one. As always in Rohmer’s films, the film is marked by great emotional delicacy and versatility, the tone and dynamic of conversations often turning on a dime: there’s an aspirational quality to it, in how even the frustrations and disappointments are more eloquently embodied, and by more beautiful people, than normal life generally allows, but never to an extent that constitutes mere fantasy or denial of possibility.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Adoption (Marta Meszaros, 1975)


Marta Meszaros’ Adoption is a tale of improbably connecting female lives, distinguished from splashier instances of that structure (take Desperately Seeking Susan) by its intense attention to the intersection of society and biology, and by its ambiguous arrival points. Kata, a factory worker in her early 40’s, wants to have a baby, but her married lover doesn’t want to help, despite her intention to bring up the child alone. She meets a teenager, Anna, from the local “boarding school” (which in mid-70’s Hungary seems to carry major elements of a state prison), lending Anna a room in her house to get-together with her boyfriend Sanyi – viewed from different angles, Kata’s relationship to Anna may appear like that of a hard-edged mother, an obliging sister, or even a giggling lover, even while the real-world possibilities for change and growth remain limited. Ultimately Kata is instrumental in allowing Anna to realize her dream of marrying Sanyi, but under terms which amount to a bill of sale, and our last view of Anna is far from optimistic; the relationship allows Kata to see past her own ticking clock and to embrace adoption, but here too the process carries mercantilist elements, and the final shot emphasizes her isolation and dependence. That may make the film sound like a study of weakness, but on the contrary, both women are marked by their strength and spirit; they’re in a time and place though that imposes severe parameters on how far those qualities can take you. It’s telling then that when Kata meets her lover’s wife for the first time and provides an invented version of herself, it’s an account (husband, two kids) that sounds much like the other woman’s clearly unfulfilled life – even fantasy here tends to reinforce and diminish, rather than to facilitate even momentary escape.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)


Death Watch is one of the stranger entries in Bertrand Tavernier’s somewhat underappreciated oeuvre – a work of speculative fiction set in a world where death has been all but removed from public view, inflation and poverty are running riot, and various population controls are in place, but which looks and feels just like then-present day Glasgow. Romy Schneider plays Katherine, a woman dying of an unidentified disease, a rare enough event that a TV producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) seeks to build a nightly show around her (the film is prescient about the pending ascendancy of the intrusive reality genre, although the show depicted here is more dour than anything likely to occupy network prime time); to facilitate the production, his cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has a camera embedded in his eyes, which will render him blind if he’s ever exposed to darkness for more than a few minutes. The film is hard to place, dispensing much of its information just in passing, although there are some extended depictions of marginal people living in makeshift camps or sleeping in charitable shelters: the main focus is on the growing relationship between Katharine and Roddy as she flees from attention, not realizing that her traveling companion is broadcasting her suffering to the world, a moral transgression for which he eventually pays a predictable but still strikingly depicted price. The final stretch reflects on the allure of withdrawal, of immersion into culture and into the past, providing Katherine a small moral victory over the cynical Vincent that nevertheless seems unlikely to have a lasting impact. It’s hardly a satisfying arrival point in conventional narrative terms, but in its mixture of absence and displacement and blindness and hopelessness, supports the film’s central self-reflective ambiguity - that of whether we’re primarily watching Katherine’s death, or our own.

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.