Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)


John Huston’s The Unforgiven provides some early images of pure relish, the three frontier-dwelling Zachary brothers high on the imminent prospect of material wealth, with several references to the sexual gratification that might follow, dynastically plotting to cement through several possible variations of inter-marriage their ties with the neighboring Rawlins clan. The fourth Zachary sibling, adopted daughter Rachel, seems in her impulsiveness and vibrancy both more modern and more primal than the others, a duality that becomes suspicious to the surrounding settler community when a mysterious old man claims that her ancestry is Native American (in the film’s terminology, Kiowa Indian); once the word is out, the Kiowa steps up its hostility and the community starts to fracture from fear, suspicion and prejudice. In the end, the four siblings are left standing among the ruins of their home and business, the family’s coherence apparently having survived the ordeal, but the movie provides little scope for optimism about its prospects of recovering its external bonds and standing, or about those of the country being built around them. Huston’s delighted engagement with actors reaches a kind of zenith here, pushing Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster to the point of frenzied excess at times, and surely enjoying the contrast with Lillian Gish as the mother, a portrait in severe perseverance; it’s Gish who’s at the centre of some of the film’s most haunting (and we’re encouraged at times to read events in almost supernatural terms, as if the layers of myths and past traumas standing in the way of progress were ever lurking in spectral form) moments, playing on a grand piano out in the open to counter the ominous music coming from their adversaries, or unilaterally ending an in-progress “trial” by shoving the horse away, ensuring that the defendant will end up hanging from the noose, uttering no more truth nor lies.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)


Watched shortly after the welcome ending of the Trump years, the most prominent topical reference point for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain might be Qanon, a swirling, ever-renewing theory of everything, in which its adherents claim (however sad their disillusionment) to transcend the lying confines of conventional understanding (the main narrative follows a group of powerful individuals, each associated with one of the planets, that comes together to acquire ultimate power). Of course, the comparison is unfair to the ecstatic and (in their way) deeply-sourced aspects of Jodorowsky’s work, but the film is, by some measures at least, so (as they say) out there that it’s hard for the uneducated viewer to separate meaning from opportunism. It certainly impresses as an exercise in physically committed movie-making – pressing tigers and hippos into action for the sake of one or two shots, marshaling a series of staggering crowd scenes, a parade of amazing sets and other design elements and any number of logistically impressive shots (it’s staggering that the budget was apparently under $1 million); it also has a constant parade of nudity, mostly of an impersonally ceremonial kind of nature, summing up the absence of much that feels authentically human, or relevantly rooted in contemporary experience (leaving aside its various satirical aspects, for example its parodies of the excesses of the military-industrial complex, which although overdone at least further demonstrate the scope of Jodorowsky’s imagination). The surprisingly offhand nature of the ending seems on the one hand unequal to the involved quest that led up to it, but on the other hand asserts the film’s most direct connection with its audience, an implicit invitation to take from it what we wish and discard the rest. Still, even though one could list the movie’s points of interest almost indefinitely, it all ultimately feels less illuminating or potentially transformative than any number of far more modest, earthbound works.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Airport (George Seaton, 1970)


George Seaton’s Airport is a pretty damn irresistible entertainment machine, a portrait of society strewn with personal failure and dissatisfaction, the trajectory of which is nevertheless toward exceptionalism. It anticipates the present-day decline of American infrastructure in how its Lincoln Airport is governed by low-vision local politicians more worried about local interests and short-term cost considerations than looking ahead to the future; the more far-sighted general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the emblematic figurehead whom everyone both relies upon and second-guesses. Bakersfeld specifically refers to himself as a kind of bigamist, the first and official family all but broken and the second consisting of his work; other main characters manifest similar tensions, home life coming second to lovers, or blocked runways, or unattainable goals, reaching its apex in Van Heflin’s Guerrero, overwhelmed by psychological and economical problems, evolving the desperate plan to blow himself up on an aircraft so his wife might at least reap an insurance windfall; the final scene of his wife (Maureen Stapleton), consumed by unprocessable shame, may provide the film’s most raw, uncontainable emotion. At the end of the day, the narrative resolves the most immediate problems with a relative lack of grandstanding, and while the film is hardly a character study, it has a somewhat greater interest in its people, even at their most briefly-glimpsed, than the genre typically demonstrates. The dialogue frequently emphasizes airplane durability and capacity (Boeing even receives a specific grateful shout-out), radiating little doubt that even the most lurid rupture will be purged (perhaps literally by being sucked out into space) and that equilibrium will be restored, even if that may entail some reshuffling of domestic arrangements. Among the relish-inducing cast, Oscar-winning Helen Hayes is less the draw now than Jean Seberg, in her most prominent late movie, embodying a model of supportive professionalism, her complex personal resonances in no way drawn upon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Jacques Becker, 1954)


Looked at through modern eyes, Jacques Becker’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is something of a moral atrocity – a plot driven substantially by slavery and exploitation, set in a world where the ruling class appear to admit no challenge to their hegemony, and in which women have no rights other than what relatively benevolent men might gift to them. Ali Baba is sent by his master Cassim to buy a suitable woman to add to the harem, but instead buys Morgiane, a woman more to his own taste, later drugging his master to preserve her virtue; he later crosses paths with the thieves, discovering the location of the great treasure they’ve accumulated and of the secret to access it (Open Sesame!) enabling him to buy Morgiane’s freedom and return her to her father – who promptly tries to sell her again – as well as his own freedom. Ali ultimately simultaneously triumphs over the thieves, and over Cassim’s efforts to take the bounty for himself; the treasure gets distributed to the masses (presumably to no lasting benefit) and he’s left with Morgiane, who happily walks home through the desert as he rides alongside her on horseback (an image of subjugation so blatant that it’s surely a joke). The charitable explanation would be that Becker’s unexamined presentation of so much venal materiality serves as its own quiet indictment (the director's preceding film, the infinitely more highly regarded Touchez pas au grisbi, surveys another milieu of calculating older men and their self-entitled relationships with woman who earn their living on display), but that’s not particularly apparent in a film that relies so much on Fernandel’s foregrounded mugging and on easy colour and spectacle. One salvages whatever compensations one can – the final advance on the cave is impressive by virtue of sheer human numbers, and the movie throws gold coins around with happy abandon.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981)


Ivan Reitman’s Stripes delivers a familiar kind of ideological reassurance, of an American exceptionalism that shines through when required, while being able to ignore all the lame strictures and requirements that bog down gratification and self-expression. As depicted, the army promotes absolute idiots into command positions and allows recruits to stumble ineffectually through basic training, none of which stands in the way of attaining personal and institutional greatness; it’s weird to be reminded of the genuine stakes in the background (the proximity of the Eastern bloc and its associated threat), however superficial the film’s depiction of that. It’s a bit strange that the movie carries as much status as it does – Bill Murray’s Bill Murray-ness is much more productively showcased in other films, and the presumed comic highlights (like the scene in which John Candy’s character mud-wrestles with various women) are more bizarre than funny. But even this much inspiration seems absent from the final stretch, in which the Murray and Harold Ramis characters use a top-secret military vehicle to rescue a bunch of their trapped comrades; for whatever reason, things veer into James Bond territory as the bland-looking RV reveals a plethora of destructive special features, causing all manner of explosive mayhem without (as far as we’re shown anyway) leaving a single enemy combatant dead. It’s a flatly-staged denial of reality that lines up against the treatment of female soldiers - depicted as capable of stepping it up when required, but secondarily to their main function of giving it up for the guys (which is itself a more elevated function than the alternative, of being ogled through telescopes while in the shower). The movie pokes a couple of times at racial division, but always pulls back immediately; it acknowledges homosexuality only in the form of a jokey throwaway exchange early on. In the end, despite everything, Stripes doesn’t even remotely question the traditional virtues of military service, leaving a pallid aftertaste.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Huis-clos (Jacqueline Audry, 1954)


Jacqueline Audry’s filming of Sartre’s Huis-clos is an emblematic example of “opening out” a piece of theatre, taking a four-character, one-room play, and visually depicting much of what was merely discussed in the original text, expanding the reach of the material in ways that are explicitly cinematic. The film’s opening sequence evokes Powell and Pressburger, as the newly departed arrive by elevator in a hotel lobby which marks the entrance to hell, then soon narrows down to the setting of Sartre’s original, a single room in which three unrelated adults, two women and a man, are set down, initially somewhat diverted by images from the lives they left behind, which eventually run out once they’re effectively forgotten by the world, leaving them only with each other, for all of eternity, with the facts of their stained lives (marked among other things by cowardice, murder and predatory desire) out in the open, and with the classic realization that “hell is other people.” The film within a film devices are mostly effective, but inevitably serve to rather dilute the existential horror of the central situation: it depicts the three staking out the games they’ll likely play for all eternity, alliances and enmities spontaneously forming and as rapidly dissolving, the ugliness and neediness that condemned them on earth emerging and retreating, but the film rather races through it all (it only lasts a little more than an hour and a half) so that one feels at the end mildly diverted rather than existentially drained (the contemporary impact may be diluted also by so many meta-movie concepts subsequently cycled through by Hollywood). But the film is entirely worth seeing on many levels, including its presentation of same-sex desire and relationships (providing a natural bridge to Audry’s best-known film, Olivia), and a final shot equal to the evocation of a sealed-off eternity.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)


The most (perhaps only) conventionally readable portion of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is indeed the title sequence, in which protagonist Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), under extreme pressure from gangsters after running up a gambling debt he can’t pay, gains entrance to a well-guarded enclave, commits a high-profile murder, shoots several other people in the course of the resulting mayhem, and makes it out of there alive: Vitelli’s improbable proficiency and success suggest a form of clarity, perhaps of self-liberation, more generally denied him, but one defined more by conventional cinematic archetype than character. It stands in intriguing contrast to the strangely preoccupied sense of searching that defines the rest of the film – Vitelli is the owner-manager of a supremely idiosyncratic night spot which bears the exterior of a strip club, but actually seems to titillate audience only through the highly mediated form of musical numbers fronted by the peculiar “Mr. Sophistication.” We see nothing of Vitelli’s private life, beyond interactions with some of the employees and their families, mostly taking an artificially courtly kind of form: Gazzara’s one-of-a-kind mixture of off-putting smugness and compelling connectivity reaches a fascinatingly unreadable apotheosis here. In classic film noir fashion, Cosmo’s success at pulling off the job fails to put the gangsters out of the picture, leaving him in a final position that appears desperate and hopeless, and yet also, as manifested in his demenour when he gets up on stage, defiantly triumphant, a duality which perhaps echoes the strange status of the film itself, a barely-released “flop” far more prominent now than most of its widely-seen contemporaries. The end credits roll over a “Mr. Sophistication” rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the tone and phrasing strangified to the point of rendering it fittingly unclear whether or not that’s a condition to be lamented.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Trois places pour le 26 (Jacques Demy, 1988)


Jacques Demy’s last and mostly overlooked film is a perfect ending to his career, as beautiful and joyous and yet quietly transgressive as all his best work. Yves Montand (himself only two films from the end, as it turned out) plays (some version of) himself, returning to his childhood home town of Marseille for a stage show based on his own life (Demy visualizes the show with just the right amount of warmly cheesy intricacy), while also hoping to find his old love (Francoise Fabian); she’s living in genteel poverty after her once-rich husband got sent to jail, with a headstrong daughter (Mathilda May) who adores Montand and gets a part in the show, falling for him and then sleeping with him, after which she rapidly learns that she just committed incest with her biological father. Needless to say, few musicals have taken the inwardly winding nature of genre plotting to such a point, although the speed and equanimity with which those involved shake it off and move on is equally notable. The film has great fun with the Montand persona, acknowledging the cornerstones of his biography, including his legendary love affairs (Piaf, Signoret, Monroe) and apparently ongoing virility, while suggesting suppressed shadows and secrets; it’s as flexible with the musical form itself, at first giving us a world where characters break into song and dance in classic style; then in its latter stages confining the performance to the stage. And just as it channels Montand, there’s the sense of a shadow portrait of Demy himself – another kind of return, heavy with allusions to and parallels with earlier works, and with something always beyond reach, summed up in the film’s final, almost offhand moments, reminiscent of how The Young Girls of Rochefort placed the long-awaited meeting of its star-crossed lovers just beyond the final scene.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

That's Life (Blake Edwards, 1986)


Given the considerably underexamined scenic affluence of its environment, it’s not clear that Blake Edwards’ That’s Life is appropriately titled in any very generally applicable sense – the label of “first world problems” hardly starts to describe it, and between that and the over-indulgence of Jack Lemmon’s familiar mannerisms, I’ve always considered the film a disappointment. On a recent reviewing, those reservations still seem generally applicable, but maybe with age I’ve become more attuned to the genuine anxiety that drives it all, to the expression of a raw insecurity that material comforts can’t suppress and may in some ways (such as by reducing the capacity for genuine spontaneity) even exacerbate. Lemmon plays Harvey Fairchild, a successful architect (but, as he makes clear, no Frank Lloyd Wright) approaching his 60th birthday, weighed down by hypochondria, blind to the fact that his wife Gillian (Julie Andrews) is quietly dealing with a much more urgent health problem; their adult children and partners arrive, all with their own issues; an old friend of Harvey’s reappears, now a Catholic priest (displaying an intriguing mixture of hard-line doctrine and pragmatic personal behaviour); casual sexual possibilities drift by. The casting of actual family members doesn’t add as much nuanced realism as it might, given the regimented nature of things, and a form of happy equilibrium is ultimately restored all too easily. But there’s much that may linger uncomfortably in the mind – notwithstanding the comment above, Lemmon sometimes (as in a scene where he may actually be trying to induce a heart attack on an exercise cycle) seems agonizingly possessed, and the final professing of need and devotion doesn’t sweep away Harvey’s easy recourse to adultery on two occasions within as many days (albeit that he fails to perform the first time, and that the second time is just plain weird).

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Nude Princess (Cesare Canavari, 1976)


The title character in Cesare Canavari’s The Nude Princess, Miriam, is a lawyer and former nude model (a duality which well sums up the film’s dominant mindset) who comes to Milan to negotiate construction contracts on behalf of her emerging African nation, and Canavari does affect some critical interest in the condescending and exploitative mindset of former colonial powers, portrayed here as certain they can negotiate rings around her (to the extent their thoughts are anything other than lewd ones). For all her impact on those around her, Miriam regards herself as “dead inside,” which she attributes mainly to a sexually traumatic past incident negotiated by the nation’s dictator, who regards her as his slave. Over the course of the film, various forces intervene to push her toward reawakening, which we can take in some general way to stand in for the broader evolution of African consciousness. However, such concerns sit strangely in a film of such lascivious instincts, one which seems primarily occupied by ensuring a regular supply of female nudity, a project executed with varying degrees of finesse: the film feels almost afraid of its own privileging of a powerful black woman (one played by a transsexual yet) and constantly drawn to self-sabotage, by insisting that she’s just another prisoner of quivering biology, her problems ultimately nothing that couldn’t be cured by the right man. Likewise, the appropriation of African culture oscillates between seeming admiring and engaged and just being reductively offensive. Despite everything though, it’s hard not to have some affection toward a film which thinks to cast the alluring and very European Tina Aumont as an American industrial espionage expert called “Gladys Fogget,” or in which we’re led to understand that wild, mind-altering tribal dances around a fire can apparently take place on an upper floor of a downtown Milanese building.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)


Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed makes for strange viewing, often feeling as if taking place on the sidelines of a more substantive movie that’s screening somewhere else – an inordinate amount of the viewing time consists of people getting in and out of cabs or buildings, or following other people on the street, or signaling to others who they should follow, with the human stories at the centre of all this busy intrigue ultimately revealed as being so slight that they hardly register at all. Aspects of Bogdanovich’s vision are rather sweet – his people make immediate connections, whether as friends or more than that, spontaneously applying nicknames and developing lines of patter with others they just met; the flip side though is a feeling of utter arbitrariness and disposability, in which it’s hard to take any expression of real feeling or emotion seriously, or to know whether that’s even intended. The notional plot has Ben Gazzara, John Ritter (whose relentless tripping and bumping and general klutziness is the main source of physical comedy) and Blaine Novak as three detective agency employees working on two surveillance cases on behalf of suspicious husbands; Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratten are the targets. Stratten is merely blank, regardless of what tragic resonance her presence might in theory have carried, and Hepburn is strangely and frustratingly underused, barely conceived as a character, and seemingly held by Bogdanovich at arm’s length. The film isn’t without a certain panache, but it barely contains, much less evokes, even isolated and scattered laughter, let alone the sustained collective enthusiasm of the title. Talking of which, the fact that the title song is among several Frank Sinatra songs heard just fleetingly in the background (seemingly in evocation of bygone classiness), in contrast to the foregrounded prominence of some grindingly undistinguished country numbers, is just another peculiarity.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Wayward Girl (Edith Karlmar, 1959)


Edith Karlmar’s The Wayward Girl is at its finest in observing the protagonist of the title, Gerd, marvelously embodied by an uninhibited Liv Ullmann in one of her earliest roles – she’s not yet eighteen but already in possession of a “bad” reputation, and the director and actress are completely attuned to the tumbling mixture of boredom and glee that drives her actions, her fascination with her own sexuality, and with the legacy of her bumpy personal history (she never knew her father; her mother is often away and equally poorly regarded). A boy from a more stable background, Anders, falls for her and steals his father’s car to take her to a remote tumbledown farm, with some undefined plan of shaking off the bad element she runs with and of opening up something lasting; the parents soon discover their location, but let it ride for a while, and then the situation becomes more complex with the arrival of Bendik, a vagrant with a much more openly lascivious response to Gerd’s provocations. One of the film’s most startling scenes has Bendik pausing from cooking a game bird he’s killed, and imitating its mating behaviour for the amusement and provocation of Gerd and her mother – their shared reaction provides the film’s most marked moment of commonality between the two, brought together in mutual transgressive delight. The final scenes aren’t among the film’s strongest though, the imperative of wrapping up the plot coming at the cost of pushing Gerd relatively to the side of the narrative, emphasizing instead the conflict between the younger and older man. But, of course, that makes its own kind of point too, that the window for Gerd’s “waywardness” to evade lasting social and biological consequences was always a narrow one, and that any sense of positive closure was always likely to be fragile, if not completely hollow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Only Two Can Play (Sidney Gilliat, 1962)


Sidney Gilliat’s Only Two Can Play presents 1960’s Wales as a smutty cauldron of repressed desire, the lid barely on at the best of times, and often threatening to extravagantly explode. Peter Sellers plays John Lewis, a married librarian with two children, squeezed into a barely tolerable living space (we’re told early on that an extra £150 a year would make all the difference), his workday punctuated by knowing looks from women on the bus and subtext-heavy book requests (it’s plain that any item with “sex” in the title just flies off the shelves). Liz (Mai Zetterling), doubly glamorous by virtue of being an immigrant married to a wealthy town councilor (the movie presents the class system at its most unctuously all-defining) takes a shine to him and dangles the prospect of using her influence with her husband to get him a promotion (and that dreamy £150 raise) – this goes better than their would-be affair, perpetually set back by accidents and interruptions. Sellers’ performance walks a fine line between being subtly low-key and completely blank (over time, the balance would tend to shift more toward the latter), with a few rather ill-fitting moments of escalating mishap in which one can almost glimpse Clouseau just around the corner; more affecting is Virginia Maskell as his wife, rapidly tuning in to what’s going on but lacking the resources to do much more than ask that he leave her out of it, as long as he hands over the housekeeping money. Despite a cautiously happy ending, interesting for its tentatively compromising nature, the film leaves a prevailingly sad impression, and Zetterling seems generally out of place (especially if you know that she was just a few years away from directing some absolute masterpieces), but then that’s largely the point. As a bonus, the combination of Welsh names, accents and the odd bit of language or local insight allows the film a modest cultural distinctiveness.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Doctor Glas (Mai Zetterling, 1968)


Mai Zetterling’s little-known Doctor Glas is a remarkable attempt to convey a protagonist’s inner life, all the more so for the aggressively complex nature of the psyche under examination. In the present day, Glas moves as an old man through the city, seen only in shadows, his lack of engagement emphasized by out-of-focus imagery, his mostly self-loathing thoughts heard in voice-over. In almost blinding contrasting clarity, the film shows him as a young man, focusing on his interactions with a prominent clergyman whom he loathes, and the man’s much younger wife who asks Glas to help her escape her husband’s exercise of his “marital rights.” Pushed by a mixture of animus, fixation, and a preoccupation with his own power, he tries to do so first by falsely diagnosing the wife’s physical state; later by playing on the clergyman’s anxieties about his own health. Glas ultimately takes his intervention to a transgressive high point, but the resulting benefits are more ambiguous than he foresaw, apparently sparking a lifelong reexamination of his action. Per Oscarsson is amazing as Glas, at times cold or impervious, at others uncertain and inadequate, feeling himself distant from his contemporaries (for instant lacking the usual male capacity for easy sexual banter) but quietly eaten away by a failure to chart an alternatively satisfying path. Zetterling visualizes his inner life through stark, sometimes shockingly direct images, dominated by the clergyman in various contorted poses, by a recurring image of the barely-clothed wife, carnally advancing. The film is almost bookended by two scenes in which Glas, using the same unyielding language, refuses to help in terminating a pregnancy, the difference being that the first request comes from a woman and the second from a man; one of many small but potent examples of how Zetterling in this film expands her predominantly feminist perspective.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Ploughman's Lunch (Richard Eyre, 1984)


Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch, written by Ian McEwan, is a much under-appreciated temperature-taking of Britain at a very specific time – the early years of Thatcherism marking an end to some long-established certainties, but the shape of their replacements not yet clear, national self-examination temporarily largely suspended under the patriotic boost of the Falklands war. Jonathan Pryce’s James Penfield, a BBC radio news producer, should perhaps in theory be perfectly placed to analyze and draw on the national evolution, but is strangely stunted, unable to see his job as much more than a matter of making the hourly bulletins smoothly fill the allotted time; he fixes on an idea of building his reputation by writing a book on the 1956 Suez crisis, his views on which appear much more superficial than those of the historians he interviews. The challenges of navigating class structures run throughout the film – Penfield has absorbed an elitist mindset to the extent that he can laugh out loud at the pointless questions raised by the audience at a poetry reading, but then finds himself on the other end when trying to keep up at a privilege-soaked (albeit that some of the attendees profess themselves  to be fervent socialists) dinner party. His evolution is such that he’s effectively no longer capable of communicating with his unpretentious working-class parents, but he lacks the unquestioning facility of those who were born into it (his treatment at the hands of the woman he imagines he’s in love with is often excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch). The title refers to the contention that the term “ploughman’s lunch,” supposedly a reference to a traditionally rustic meal built around bread and cheese, was actually a marketing construct from the 1960’s, and as such evokes the uncertain nature of our understanding of social and cultural change and its impact on the present, as well as the way in which capitalist interests are often pulling the strings. The film’s primary virtues may be literary and intellectual rather than visceral and cinematic, but it’s endlessly and subtly fascinating as such.