Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Max et les ferrailleurs (Claude Sautet, 1971)

When I first saw Claude Sautet’s Max et les ferrailleurs, Max’s climactic act of self-destruction seemed to me successful as a shocking narrative coup, but not entirely convincing as character development. On subsequent reflection, I’m still not sure, but one wouldn’t bother to ponder the matter as much if not for the surprising richness of what leads up to it. Max (Michel Piccoli) is a policeman who runs briefly into Abel, an old army friend, a man laboring on the margins of the scrap metal business (a pretty marginal business in the first place, no doubt), subsisting mostly on petty theft. Frustrated with a recent spate of unsolved bank robbers, Max discerns that Abel and his cohorts might be ready to move up in the crime leagues, and then surreptitiously sets out to help them get there, working through Abel’s prostitute girlfriend (Romy Schneider). The scheme works, and Max is credited with an easy score, but then the wheels of the law move on more heavily and efficiently than he wants them to, prompting that final outburst. Sautet certainly seems here like an under-appreciated genre master, pacing events perfectly, and sustaining an intriguing contrast between Max’s cold, isolated machinations and the rambunctious camaraderie of the scrap merchants. Of course, cops who exercise blurred ethics in the name of ultimate order are a genre staple, but Max et les ferrailleurs finds a particularly compelling, class-conscious way of interrogating that murky territory. The ferrailluers, it suggests, are really no more lawless than they need to be to sustain a workable existence, and perhaps no richer (several characters cast suspicion on Max’s private wealth as a distorting factor); if they have to be destroyed, it’s primarily in the interest of warped governing interests. Looked at in that ominous, politically-charged way, it’s perhaps fitting after all that the ending goes beyond mere irony, into utter breakdown.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Lulu on the Bridge (Paul Auster, 1997)

For all its preoccupation with art and creativity, Paul Auster’s Lulu on the Bridge doesn’t constitute a great example of either: it feels more arbitrary than instinctive, more clunkily calculated than deeply felt, and barely relevant to anything beyond its own peculiar boundaries. Auster (whose solo directorial debut this was) doesn’t seem like a director of any particular finesse, whether in matters of framing and blocking or in coaxing his actors into interesting territory (not that the likes of Keitel, Dafoe and Redgrave can’t mostly take care of themselves). Even so, I find the movie tends to resurface in my mind from time to time – if nothing else, for its pleasure with the idea of filmmaking both in itself (drawing prominently on Pandora’s Box and Singin’ in the Rain and engaging in brief pastiches of various genres, in one of which Lou Reed pops up to play - as the credits put it - Not Lou Reed), and as a means of unlocking something formative and fundamental. The sense of discovery encompasses language (the repeated use of binary questions – is one an ocean or a river; an owl or a hummingbird, etc.); dredging up of childhood memories and traumas; unexplained magic (a stone which emits a mysterious blue light and levitates, conveying a deep feeling of possibility and connection to those who come into its orbit); and even the formative relationship between man and turd (evoked in one of the weirder blocks of dialogue ever given to Mandy Patinkin). The evocation of the Berlin Wall and a few scenes set in Ireland provide the faintest of political seasonings. It’s disappointing at the end when all of this is revealed as an apparent deathbed fantasy and/or transmigration of souls, pushing the movie’s resonances inward when they needed (in the way of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating, a vastly superior film that nevertheless may provide a sporadic reference point here) to push outward. Still, if only all cinematic failures were as intriguing…  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pravda (Dziga Vertov Group, 1970)

It's easy now to regard the Dziga Vertov Group’s Pravda as a mere relic, a compendium of somewhat randomly unglamorous images set under a somewhat scattershot and didactic commentary, in which such terminology as “bourgeois imperialism” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” hardly resonates now. The film focuses on denouncing and dissecting the “revisionist” forces which slammed down on Czechoslovakian democracy in 1968, identifying them as concerned with preserving essentially exploitative governing interests rather than with the good of the working class, and often carries a rather stubbornly humorless air. It evidences some of Godard’s recurring preoccupation with images and their placement – for example citing ones that can’t be shown because they’ve been sold for corporate use, and decrying “popular” cinema that’s imposed on the people rather than arising from them – but overall appears less interested in this project than in asserting the dignity of labour and in musing on its powerlessness. As such, watching it now at a time of brutally ascendant capitalism and inequality, it takes on new energy. “Flunky” intellectuals play a large part in this analysis, for their role in buffeting the stifling bourgeois wisdom – in contrast, the film focuses on a worker who can’t even identify the purpose or utility of the industrial component he spends his days manufacturing, an obvious pawn for malevolently manipulative interests. The movie’s prescriptions are certainly limited to their (racially heterogeneous, among other things) time and place – illustrations based on wooden versus iron ploughs are hard to relate to our current technological circumstances (in advocating for continual scientific experimentation, the movie could hardly have foreseen the complex legacy of the advancements we’ve reaped) - but the broad concern with the systematic suppression of working class interest and power only becomes more urgent. As such, the movie’s raggedness – for example the occasional stumbling on the commentary – feels now like a guarantee of authenticity, allowing it a renewed plaintive urgency.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Mascara (Patrick Conrad, 1987)

Patrick Conrad’s Mascara surely warrants some consideration for its contribution to queer cinema, although the value of that contribution may be rather hard to assess. If measured just by a simple metric of how many of its characters demonstrate some kind of fluid sexuality, it scores highly, and it must have rightly irked Conrad to watch The Crying Game get so much attention in 1992 for its famous “reveal,” when he’d staged something extremely similar (and possibly even more effective) five years earlier. The film may score further progressive points for its fascination with transgender performance; and for its strangifying of its setting (as far as one can figure out, it’s set in an unprepossessing Belgian coastal town which nevertheless houses an opera house and an extensive high-end underground scene). But at the same time, its narrative is essentially that of a lurid mad killer film, even though there’s some mythological resonance to the way it turns around three ceremonial-like visits to the underworld. Most disappointingly, the guilty man (Michael Sarrazin) initially seems like an accomplished instance of someone holding conflicting lives and desires in balance, but ultimately undergoes a complete unraveling. Still, the points of interest are real. Along the way, it also draws in notes of voyeurism and incest, and has Charlotte Rampling at the transitional point of her career, still embodying an allure that makes men lose their heads, but starting to look distinctly weary from the effort. All in all, the film can hardly be considered a serious investigation or illumination of the lives it depicts, much less a celebration of them, and it’s not hard to see how it’s often categorized (to the extent anyone thinks about it at all) as period Eurotrash. But even if that’s fair (which I doubt), there’s a lot of alluring detritus staring out from the garbage.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Du cote d'Orouet (Jacques Rozier, 1971)

In outline, Jacques Rozier’s Du cote d’Orouet might sound very much like a Rohmer movie – three young women on summer vacation on the French coast, passing time doing nothing in particular (they’re in a rather desolate, under-populated spot), with a couple of guys eventually blended into the mix. But these aren’t Rohmer-type women – no one ever makes a literary reference (or barely reads a book) or engages in verbal philosophizing or self-examination. They’re there to have fun, captured delightfully in sequences where they crack themselves up by finding goofy ways to say “Orouet” or engage in other private jokes, or stuff their faces with eclairs. But the equation of vacation time at the beach/coast with ensuing fun doesn’t take care of itself, and waves of melancholy or emptiness might flow as easily as spiritual refreshment. At two and a half hours, the movie takes its time, sometimes just wryly observing, pretending to be a more straightforward project than it is, leaving much unsaid and unshown (there’s very little overt sexuality in the film, for one thing). But it becomes gradually clear that Rozier is musing on the annual vacation as an institution, and by extension on the nature of work and our relationship to it – by implication, the movie is more about the toll of the eleven months spent at work than about the month spent away from it. It implicitly asks: when one’s economic viability depends on subjugation to mind-numbing repetition and triviality, how can we expect to overcome that conditioning by following preconceived, mechanized notions of having a break from it? It’s only at the end though that we can sense this percolating in the mind of one of the women, and sense the existential crisis that could flow from that, if the machine of her life were to yield to it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)

Lois Weber’s silent The Blot remains a thrilling landmark of cinema, shimmering with empathy and immersed observation. The blot in question is that on a society which chronically underpays its teachers, in this case a kindly aging professor who seems to have no agenda beyond the transmission of knowledge. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter strain to keep up appearances and health and to make ends meet, the wife reduced to raiding the neighbours’ garbage to feed her cat. Those neighbours, in contrast, are depicted in rolling in money from high-end shoemaking ($100 a week, we’re told!), although their affluence pales in comparison to the true moneyed set. The narrative is driven by the professor’s daughter, pursued by the neighbours’ son, by a rich heir, and by an equally impoverished young minister, although the pursuit ultimately becomes as much collaboration as competition. The film explores the fine line between materialistic desire (even the minister covets rare books beyond his means) and genuine need; like much silent cinema, it’s most riveting when placing us within structures of identification and emotion, for example as we repeatedly observe the wife’s anguish and shame, and it has a consistent generosity of spirit, nudging us to favourably revise our impressions of several secondary characters. In the end, of course, things get somewhat better for the family, but one object of desire can’t be divided into three, and Weber closes on a final look back at the house, by one of the unsuccessful suitors (and the way this plays out suggests that while different classes can at least relatively come together, some societal advantages will remain absolute). The film may not carry the cinematic innovation or intensity of the greatest silent masters, but it feels intimate and true and committed, still capable of moving viewers (this one anyway) to the verge of tears.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Girl with a Pistol (Mario Monicelli, 1968)

A couple of years after Michelangelo Antonioni made his legendary trip to “swinging” London to shoot Blow-Up, his partner in his great early 60’s quartet, Monica Vitti, made her own voyage to Blighty, in Mario Monicelli’s The Girl with a Pistol, a film with not an iota of Blow-Up’s stature (despite a foreign film Oscar nomination at the time), and yet as fascinating a time capsule in its own way. In broad outline, it’s an odyssey of a woman’s awakening and self-discovery: Vitti’s Assunta travels from Sicily to England to find and kill the man who “dishonored” her, and gradually evolves past her archaic social conditioning (in which every woman who smiles at a man is a “whore”) and tempestuous nature to become a confident manipulator of sexuality, professionally and personally. The film’s major appeal lies in the glorious culture-clash oddity of seeing Monica Vitti play scenes in industrial Sheffield (with Till Death Us Do Part’s Anthony Booth, no less!), or in windy Brighton; or attending a rugby match, or dropping into a northern England gay bar, to name but a few. Monicelli doesn’t always exert the tightest control over the concept, populating Britain with characters who improbably speak fluent Italian (one of them played by an ineffectual Stanley Baker); he encourages Vitti into borderline-tedious histrionics. But considering the film in retrospect, one feels surprised at the range of its interests: it nails a Britain where class-oriented grimness (at her English-language class, we see Assunta learn the words “potato” and “marmalade”) is starting to give way to greater self-determination and cosmopolitanism, where lives are transformed through entrepreneurship, where straight white men are no longer the sole determinators of sexual destiny; it even makes time to drop Assunta into a peace demonstration (as if flashing briefly ahead to imagine Vitti returning to Antonioni for his next film, Zabriskie Point).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Tuned in

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

For three weeks I told my publisher, David Mackin, that the next article would be about The Truman Show, then instead I wrote about something else (Wild; The Last Days of Disco; Passion in the Desert). Well, those other movies were more in need of the attention. You’d have to be living in an artificially created world, housed inside the planet’s biggest manmade structure, not to be aware of The Truman Show by now. And yet, I guess I can’t let such an acclaimed movie get away without comment.

I’ve already recommended the film: a mighty 8 out of 10 points. So with that stipulated, and since it’d take Columbo to track down any seriously negative commentary on the picture, I’ll concentrate on where the other two points went.

A polite indictment

Part of the reason I found the film hard to write about is that although it seemed meaningful and resonant as I watched it, in retrospect it didn’t seem to have had much of a subtext. You can’t really muse over what it means – that’s kind of obvious – but only over how it says what it means. And on that level it’s tremendously pleasing: it exudes care and attention to detail, and it’s brilliantly sustained. But of a course a lot of the detail is deliberately fake, and what’s being sustained is an illusion. The medium is really the message here in that the film’s intelligence and allusiveness are probably more likely to pull us into the fictional world of the show within the film than to give us analytical distance from it, which cleverly exposes our supposed complicity in this monstrous creation.

Like all satires or fairy stories, we must accept some anachronisms and oddities in what’s provided. In an age of declining attention spans and splintering audience shares, a 30-year reverie on a severely limited, unvarying life wouldn’t seem like an obvious focus of mass appeal. I wonder how many people would really tune in for all those hours of Truman at his desk in the insurance office doing all that insurance paper work. Even as The Truman Show nails us for succumbing to the TV drug, it softens the blow by flattering our patience and civility.

Tweaked nostalgia

In other senses too, the film’s gentle exaggeration allows us to feel good about ourselves. The parodies of product placement – the two aging twins who push Truman against a different billboard every morning, his wife’s cheery blurbs into the camera – are the most unsubtle part of the film; modern-day product placement is much sharper than this. We can appreciate the reference, but would it make us any more likely to avoid being manipulated in the future? I doubt it. The TV show in The Truman Show is soothing and clear, whereas real TV is busy and insidious.

When I first saw the film’s title I assumed it must be something to do with former US president Harry S. Truman. Which it isn’t, and yet…a few years ago Harry Truman came briefly back into vogue as the exemplar of an unassuming, decent competence. Although the film’s sterile vision of suburbia may be more stereotypically linked with Eisenhower than Truman, it’s more or less the right time period.

The movie easily starts to seem like an avalanche of tweaked nostalgia. The notion of a child growing up before the eyes of the world evokes the Dionne sisters and their theme park childhood. And when the townspeople form a night-time search party for the missing Truman, depicted in some strikingly lit images of an eerily coordinated group sweeping the streets, like a meticulous swarm of mutant insects, I instantly thought of Cold War paranoia classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which everyone is revealed to be secretly united against the hero’s (and America’s) interests.

Time is money

The subtext back then was creeping conformity, whether in the form of Commie infiltration or Eisenhower middle-class suffocation. It’s a fascinating echo, because in many senses we’re now more diverse, more multi-cultural, more colourfully fragmented than we could ever have predicted in the 50’s. But of course, the motivation that bounds the search party together in The Truman Show isn’t ideology but money – they’re all employees of the huge corporation, presumably soon to be washed up if the show can’t continue.

It's only when I thought of this that I was able to put the movie to rest in my mind. The Truman Show, of course, is itself an expensive commercial venture, financed by business people rather than philanthropists. Its makers are too smart to throw stones from inside a glass house. The film’s a wonderful satire of a public conformity that doesn’t really exist. So maybe it’s more illuminating (and it usually is) to follow the money. Isn’t the film really about a community that’s held together solely by rampant capitalism? And isn’t it significant that Truman, the only innocent, is also the only guy who never directly made a dime from any of it? But that’s a meaningless message – we can’t opt out of the world we’re born into.

World of voyeurs

Anyway, The Truman Show depends, just as much as television, on our deep-rooted passivity. We like to watch. But so what? Is an artificial activity like watching TV so qualitatively different from a natural one like watching birds? It depends on your system of values. When we watch TV though, our time – as a statistic in the demographic that swells the viewing figures – is money: not for us, but for the cable operator, and the network and so on down the supply chain. We’re worth more doing someone else’s thing than we could ever be worth doing our own. But maybe that’s my naivete in supposing that anything retains its purity. Truth is, the birds are probably carrying ads too.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

HealtH (Robert Altman, 1980)

The minor reputation of HealtH among Robert Altman’s films isn’t really undeserved – it’s immediately recognizable (stylistically and tonally) as his, but in this case that often seems largely as a function of self-absorbed affectations, seldom revealing anything very meaningful about the situation under examination, or about anything beyond it. The setting is a resort hotel, and the national convention of a health association, focusing on a race for its presidency between two unsuitable individuals (Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson); the mix includes a White House representative (Carol Burnett) and her ex-husband (James Garner) who now works on the Bacall character’s campaign. That last detail, with its intimations of privileged connections and influences, is just part of a broad political allegory that includes various Watergate-inflected dirty tricks, a third candidate fighting hopelessly for attention, and (rather peculiarly) repeated comparisons between Jackson’s character and Adlai Stevenson. But again, this amounts to correspondences (for example, the entirely generic, or else incoherent, promises of the two candidates) and references rather than to resonant illumination or commentary, and in the end events mostly just peter out. Even Altman’s more notable movies – California Split – for instance, run the risk of being consumed by the underlying emptiness that they examine: in the case of HealtH, Altman’s interest in the edges and the backgrounds and the asides ends up looking like a reluctance to look too directly at anything at all (hucksterism and fake science don’t come under as concerted an attack as they might, for instance). But there are plenty of minor compensations, including the presence of all those name actors (albeit that they mostly seem to be moving in their own barely connecting worlds) and of Dick Cavett, very convincingly playing himself, trying in vain to squeeze some meaningful television out of all this, before settling down alone each night to watch Johnny Carson.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ma nuit chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969)

Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud is one of my favourite films, one I return to every few years, the experience at once always warmly familiar and subtly evolving. I think much of my pleasure is based in nostalgic idealism, in the idea of a culture where a conversation even with someone new is more likely to leap to philosophy and self-analysis than to the usual establishing banalities – I always think of the film as a kind of tribute to the examined life. This doesn’t mean that the examination is entirely rational or consistent – as in many Rohmer films, there’s a recurring sense that much of what people say about themselves is experimental, put out there to see how it flies, to find out what alchemy may result from the response. This resonates fascinatingly against the film’s preoccupation with a Pascalian wager, with the concept of present sacrifice for the sake of infinite ultimate gain. The limitations of that concept can be laid out almost endlessly, but without staining its metaphysical allure, or its (albeit crude) applicability to romantic commitment – a Pascalian approach to love might almost demand making the “wrong” choice of partner, for the sake of alignment with one’s normative philosophical or cultural benchmarks. The film brilliantly facilitates and interrogates such thoughts, at once providing a detailed immediate canvas (indelibly capturing its time and place, the Christmas season in provincial France) and suggesting a broader one (the protagonist has spent the last fourteen years working in Canada and Chile, a combination spanning the, how to put it, mundane and exotic?). The film ultimately draws on a coincidence of the kind that in a less elegant film would only prompt eye-rolling, but which here serves to confirm the mysteries of the romantic navigation, while also providing a closure of gorgeously conceived irony and great humanity, even as it allows its male protagonist one last opportunity for self-mythologizing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Comes a Horseman (Alan Pakula, 1978)

A viewer who nowadays seeks out Alan Pakula’s Comes a Horseman will probably already be familiar with the director’s core achievement, his 70’s “paranoia trilogy.” For much of the way, Comes a Horseman may seem like an archetypally conscious “change of pace” – a slowly-paced Western, defined by big skies and vanishing plains, with a conniving cattle baron facing off against a hard-headed up-against-it woman who refuses to give up her land, eventually joined by a like-minded cowboy. The film’s enjoyable enough in that mode, but its primary interest lies in the home stretch, as its thematic links with Pakula’s other works come into focus. It takes place toward the end of WW2, and local interests are already looking ahead to a new economic era, where the imperative of fueling and feeding the troops will yield to domestic development, and the energy that powers it will reign supreme. For all his displays of power (his man-cave of a ranch is the film’s sole imposing interior), the baron (Jason Robards) is in the pocket of the bank, and ultimately impotent to stop the exploratory drilling on his property; rather than capitulate and compromise his sense of himself, he chooses nihilistic, ultimately crazed, resistance. Although the two protagonists (Jane Fonda and James Caan, both at their most quiet and recessive) have a climactic moment of heroism, and a symbolic rebirth in flames, it’s clear they’re only participating in one atypical strand of a revolution that will transform America. Gordon Willis’ cinematography eloquently embodies the duality, painting vistas of a scale and handsomeness that demand respectful submission, while darkly insinuating the looming threat from beyond the frame. A few years later, Pakula would cast Fonda at the centre of a worldwide financial meltdown in Rollover, a film more predictively and analytically ambitious than Comes a Horseman, and yet, for all its underappreciated near-greatness, more dated as a result.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Maine Ocean (Jacques Rozier, 1986)

Jacques Rozier’s Maine Ocean often has a rowdy, expansive feel to it, with outsized characterizations and confrontations (in this sense it’s far removed from his earlier Du cote d’Orouet) – the narrative expands from an initial fracas on a train between two women (one of them an errant Brazilian samba dancer) and the fare inspectors, moving on from some of the characters but later returning to them: it feels like the movie wants to scoop up everyone it touches and to forge an all-accommodating unity. This leads to its joyous peak on the island of Yeu, off the Vendee coast, where the characters eventually dissolve their differences and devote themselves to music making and performance, a creative process we observe evolving note by note. The movie then flirts for a while with a bizarre resulting notion, that one of the fare inspectors might be discovered by an American promoter as the “next Chevalier,” before swerving dramatically and leaving him abandoned by all the others, devoting its last twenty minutes or so simply to charting his journey back to the mainland, involving several changes of boats and much agonizing about the low tide: the stuffy imposer of rules and order finds himself stripped of almost all context, literally and figuratively searching for a way back to the shore. By then we may almost have forgotten an odd digression earlier on, where the other woman, a lawyer, chooses to defend a client by launching into a disquisition on different modes of language and their social baggage, which links to how Rozier initially emphasizes the theme of miscommunication – in the end, the fragmentation reasserts itself in a different, elemental form. The film’s shifting modes of transport – from land to air to sea – reflect its remarkable, wildly unpredictable encompassing of everything from communal goofiness to last-man-in-the-world-tinged solitude.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Hustle (Robert Aldrich, 1975)

Robert Aldrich’s 1975 film Hustle is a melancholy reading of its era’s confusions, of a time when restrictive norms and values are loosening, but it’s not yet clear what they’ll be replaced with. Burt Reynolds’ protagonist, police Phil Gaines, affects the necessarily hard-bitten manner while persistently musing of escape, into old movies and songs and expectations and into his memories of the brief time he spent in Rome; he’s modern enough to sustain a relationship with a high-class prostitute (Catherine Deneuve, inherently shimmering with resonances of multiple elsewheres) but not to avoid agonizing about it. The main plot follows a young woman who turns up dead on a beach: it’s ruled a suicide, but her agonized father (Ben Johnson) obsesses with piercing and punishing the hedonistic society she moved in: an impossible task given its connections and protections and the lack of any direct culpability. The film is heavy with the contradictions of its period: it’s suffused in casual racism and homophobia and sexism (the only major female character who isn’t a sex worker, the dead girl’s quiet, unremarkable mother, is saddled late on with a personal history that the film holds out as the reason for the daughter’s self-destructive life choices), and its aspirations to morose complexity often register just as much as artistic indecision or weariness. Reynolds’ customary reserve inhibits the sense of his character’s morality, and there’s often a sense that Aldrich was too overawed by Deneuve to do more than stare at her. In the end the film swerves into moral tennis: Gaines hits a lob through his duties for the sake of his own calculation of fairness, and receives a return punishment in short order in senselessly random manner. These narrative moves don’t really serve the film’s highest ambitions, but then that’s part of the point, that unless you’re a fine-suited “somebody,” the short-term demands of the hustle will always push those ambitions into compromise or surrender.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy (Chantal Akerman, 1988)

The title of Chantal Akerman’s Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy points at the film’s duality – a promise of conviviality, served up by an outsider. The film isn’t conventionally warm - the camera serves throughout as a fixed, direct spectator – but Akerman’s humanism prevents it from morbidity or oppressiveness. For the most part, the film consists of direct-to-camera English-language testimonies from American Jews: they’re not identified by name or period, but appear to belong at least primarily to the 40s and 50s, to lives recently brutalized by relatives lost in the camps or otherwise separated by exile, and before that by progroms and upheavals: even when the stories are primarily accounts of happiness and success, they always incorporate lurking shadow, the impossibility of ever traveling entirely into the light. Akerman intersperses these with humour of the “the food here is terrible and such small portions” variety – the often-mournful quality of the punchlines all the more plaintive for the surrounding figurative darkness. Not just that: Akerman frames her participants (actors doesn’t seem like the right word somehow) against urban nightscapes, only yielding to hazy daylight in the final scenes, as the film starts to play with its own artifice, bringing its people together and reshuffling their assigned identities. For the most part though, it's suffused in profound loneliness even as it illustrates the power of community – it examines memory both in its glory and its burden. One of the closing testimonies, by a young man preparing to kill himself, is additionally chilling now for the knowledge of how Akerman ended her own life, after a last film – No Home Movie – which while being closely aligned to this one, sheds its elaborations and mannerisms. It gives Histoires d’Amerique an eerie quality of premonition, as if to finally confirm its recurring sense of how events may become hopeless, even if not entirely serious.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Moral edges

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1999)

The new Nicolas Cage thriller 8 MM would be a disappointment, if it wasn’t directed by Joel Schumacher, who always works to this kind of standard. Cage plays a private detective, hired by a wealthy widow to investigate the authenticity of an apparent snuff film found among her late husband’s possessions. The trail leads him deep into the porn subcultures of L.A. and New York, constituting a wrenching lesson in the extent of the human dark side, and eventually putting him in severe physical and psychological danger.

Our lives with porn

I think most of us would have to concede the fascination of this theme. Even though we might lead lives apparently untouched by prostitution, drug-dealing, bondage, or any of the stuff that low-life dreams are made of, the reported magnitude of the industry ($300 million annually in Canada, according to a recent Globe and Mail article) seems to render it impossible that we’re not closer to it than we think. If I am not lying through my teeth about always walking by those stores and avoiding those street corners, then certainly one of the guys in the next few offices has to be. But movies like 8 MM, figuratively erect with melodramatic frenzy, treat pornography like a journey into science-fiction, winking with cynical calculation at the hush-hush hypocrisy. The fact is, the movie has virtually no potential audience except porn enthusiasts (who, given its box office failure, seem to have decided it’s no substitute for the real thing).

Is society’s silence necessary? It’s difficult nowadays to gauge the shape of the moral consensus, but yeah, it probably is. Many commentators in the States were obviously unprepared for the extent of public tolerance for Bill Clinton’s after-hours activities, and Clinton even seems to have come out of it all with a measure of dignity. People just didn’t seem to deem it that relevant to his job. But what if the revelations had been of regular Presidential visits to an underground dungeon, for a cleansing round of chains and whips? The jokes would be even more plentiful, but wouldn’t a hunger for domination and pain be considered far more damning to his leadership capability than his weakness for Lewinsky’s more submissive attentions? It’s a patriarchal society after all.

Dancing with the devil

8 MM clearly means to explore the effect on a relatively normal Everyman of facing our secrets head-on, the thesis being summed up thus: “Dance with the devil and the devil don’t change – the devil changes you.” But the film is so unsubtle, and the story-telling so melodramatic and wedded to easy conflicts, that one almost expects the climax to reveal Satan himself – hooves and fire and brimstone and all – hanging out in some sleazy warehouse organizing threesomes and bondage sessions (which would have been much more fun than the climax actually provided). It does exactly nothing to illuminate the small-scale human transactions that make up the industry’s life blood.

How clearly can one flirt with the devil without giving ground? Do we chip away at our better selves by renting a video from the back room of the local store? 8 MM implicitly asserts so; a premise that logically leads to Cage – overwhelmed by the wretchedness of the flesh peddlers – transforming himself into an avenging angel of destruction, hunting down the evildoers like the vermin that the movie clearly knows them to be. The morality of this behaviour – arguably even more damaging to our social fabric than the odd beaver shot – is not dwelt upon. That’s Hollywood.

Let’s shift moral gears. John Boorman’s The General is a rollicking, larger-than-life caper about Irish master-criminal Martin Cahill, who robbed his way to semi-Robin Hood status. The movie skims through Cahill’s formative years, the better to enjoy him at the peak of his rabble-rousing powers, and basically settles into a series of set-pieces – marked throughout by nimble handling, lip-smacking characterization, and irresistible earthiness.

Beyond redemption

One of the highlights is a multi-million dollar heist on a jewelry wholesaler, which we’re later told pushed the place out of business, and a hundred people into unemployment. And that, says Cahill, with his usual callous flippancy, will merely put them in the same boat with him (however much his business boomed, he was always in line to pick up the weekly dole money). Other than Jon Voight as his weary police inspector nemesis, there’s never anyone to call him on his self-serving trample through an already fractured and impoverished society. Most of the time, the movie takes Cahill’s voice pretty much as its own, and often seems to exist in a moral vacuum, downplaying contexts and consequences (and treating the various political factions as no more than competitors in larceny).

Towards the end, Voight’s character lets the years of frustration get to him and administers Cahill a beating. The subsequent exchange, focusing on Voight’s self-recrimination and Cahill’s goading of him, constitutes a more pointed accusation than anything else in the film. It initially seemed odd to me that an isolated infraction by an officer of the law was treated as gravely as two filmic hours of advanced crime by a confirmed villain. But later I thought Boorman’s apparently neutral treatment of Cahill was actually the ultimate condemnation – an acknowledgment that the man was beyond redemption or persuasion, outside the zone of conscience or rationality in which our ideals and fine-tunings make a difference. It’s possible a second visit to The General would reveal such moral subtleties embedded throughout, and it’s a rare film nowadays that suggests a persuasive case for an early repeat viewing.

Furthermore, it would probably be just as fresh and entertaining the second time around. In the past, Boorman’s work has often been ponderous and stuffy, but not here. The failings of 8 MM would have been much easier to take if the movie wasn’t so damn serious and self-important. It can’t even manage the easy stuff – imagine a movie about porn with not a single shot that you’d like to take a second look at. From a good director, that might have indicated something interesting going on. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

9 to 5 (Colin Higgins, 1980)

It’s strange that as I write this in the late summer of 2018, Colin Higgins’ 9 to 5 remains a relevant enough cultural touchstone that ideas for a sequel are reportedly being kicked around. Of course, there’s a lasting feel-good rush to its depiction of collective female triumph, and it’s a little surprising (not really in a good way) how much of the film’s prescription for a productive office environment – equal pay, flexible work hours, job-sharing, onsite daycare, visually pleasing workspaces and so forth – would still constitute a cutting-edge employer. But the film is unnecessarily and counter-productively rigged, most glaringly by making the oppressive male boss, Hart, not just an adulterer, hypocrite, stealer of ideas etc. but a downright criminal embezzler; when he’s ultimately removed, it’s not through the operation of justice or transparency, but via the eccentric whims of the Board Chair (Sterling Hayden). It’s grating now that we never get to see one of the three women (Judy, the one played by Jane Fonda) contribute more to the office than to screw up the Xerox machine; even more so that the movie should remind us of this in the closing montage. Still, overall it’s pretty well-paced, and seldom actively grating: one appreciates the somewhat perverse streak evidenced in their early fantasies of how they’ll bring Hart down, or the sequence of stealing the wrong dead body, or the abidingly odd sight of the bondage-fantasy circumstances in which they keep Hart captive (for weeks). These amount only to a symbolic undermining though: in the end, the movie can barely chip at the power of corporatization (Fonda would take another, much underrated, shot at it shortly afterwards, in Pakula’s Rollover). Perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that it took over 35 years to gather the energy for a meaningful second attack…

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

La spiaggia (Alberto Lattuada, 1954)

Alberto Lattuada’s La spiaggia undergoes an interesting evolution from a blandly conventional study of a challenged woman to something more structurally unusual and sociologically astute. Anna Maria (Martine Carol) collects her young daughter from the nuns with whom the girl spent the past year, with no immediate plan beyond taking her to the seaside, with the hope of a new start beyond that. She rapidly attracts attention in the small, self-absorbed vacation community of mostly wives and kids: first for being habitually dressed in the black of a widow, then from some quarters as an object of desire, then later again for being a former prostitute. The latter development causes everyone to shun her, until a local billionaire who’s been observing her from the margins of the film intervenes with a simple yet powerful gesture of support that redeems her status and re-establishes her hope of a new beginning. Much of the film is ineffectually pleasant and scenic, although in retrospect Lattuada may appear to have been lulling us into complacency, into regarding the casual adultery (or attempts at such) and entitled venality as being somehow normal or inevitable. But the final stretch lays all this hypocrisy out in the open, damning the men as thieves and the women as chattels, all the more interestingly for its flagrant transparency; the billionaire seems to exult in his ability to reshape reality, to bend not just behaviour but underlying belief to his will (the town’s notional leader, its young mayor, having failed in his own attempt to help Anna Maria, can only look on impotently). Carol’s rather passionless presence seems for much of the film a relative weakness, but ultimately supports the film’s division of even well-heeled society into two essential groups: those who are written upon, and the much, much smaller group that gets to do the writing (a secondary female character gets at least an ambiguous foothold in that second group, recklessly living the life she desires, and then skipping town without paying the bill).

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)

The Seventh Victim isn’t the most satisfying of Val Lewton’s great films - the narrative feels overly condensed in some ways and oddly cluttered in others (injudicious editing may apparently have played a part in this)  – and yet it may leave the most complexly troubled aftertaste of any of them. There’s nothing supernatural in the film, but it’s suffused with a longing to transcend and escape – in its most benign form into the kind of playful poetry that attaches a narrative to a spotlight on the skyline; more darkly, into devil worship, although the adherence to Satan seems less significant than the unity of the group itself, and of the meting out of the death penalty to those who break its rules. Released in 1943, the film doesn’t explicitly reflect on the war, but it feels gripped throughout by threat, by a danger of being undermined from within by collaborators with an external enemy, and by persistent uncertainty about the best form of response. The ending is particularly bleak – Jacqueline, whose unexplained disappearance drives the early part of the narrative (her younger sister comes to New York in search of her, rapidly becoming suffused in Jacqueline’s world to the point of falling in love with her husband), escapes the pressure from the cult to become the “seventh victim” of its fatal doctrines and walks out alive, only to succumb on the same night to her recurring obsession with suicide. This doesn’t quite mark the film as an exercise in mere futility – other characters follow a more positive arc – but the film is much more an exercise in capture than in escape; eeriest of all is the sense that Jacqueline’s action constitutes a sort of triumphant fulfilment of destiny, insofar as she died on her own gloomy terms, not on anyone else’s.   

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Un nomme La Rocca (Jean Becker, 1961)

It’s a bit strange that the title of Jean Becker’s Un nomme La Rocca takes the form of an assertion of identity, because the character barely has any coherence at all, beyond what flows from Jean-Paul Belmondo’s embodiment of him (which is obviously way more than nothing). After an almost Leone-like prologue, the movie takes La Rocca to Paris, where he effortlessly muscles in on the gambling and bar scene, shooting one antagonist and pushing others around like playing cards. That comes to a sudden end after he tangles with some American deserters and gets sent to jail, not inconvenient anyway as he’d been musing on how to spring his incarcerated best friend Xavier from there. The movie spends a while in conventional behind-bars mode, until the two men volunteer for a land mine clearing team in exchange for reduced sentences, and events shift into sweaty, stripped-down, existentially-questioning mode, pushing Xavier in particular to the limits of his tolerance. The final chapter, a couple of years later, has the men free again, maintaining an apparently chaste household with Xavier’s sister (La Rocca’s sexual prowess, emphasized earlier on, is off the film’s agenda by this point) and aiming to buy a farm property; Xavier taps his old shady connections to get the money, leading to a final tragedy, and La Rocca barely has any role in this final act other than to react, lament and ultimately walk away. The movie has a colourful supporting cast, dotted with portrayals that vividly impact before being summarily swept aside; the opening credits inform us it was shot at the Jean-Pierre Melville studios, and Becker’s direction sometimes feels Melvillian, although mostly only to the extent of a style, not a worldview or investigative method. Unless, that is, in the year after A bout de souffle, the title somehow means us to reflect on the emptiness of such filmic labels and narratives even as we succumb to them.

Monday, September 3, 2018

My movie confessions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2000)

I’m very sensitive to people who talk or generally make a nuisance of themselves in movie theaters, although I usually just move to another seat rather than confront them. Earlier this year, I briefly experimented with a tiny flashlight, to illuminate the notebook in which I sometimes write notes for these columns. I took great care to sit in isolation and to use the light as minimally as possible. Even so, someone complained and told me I was being irritating. I was very ashamed at having become the very thing I deplored. Just as well the movie (Angela’s Ashes) was no good, because the shame would have ruined it for me either way. Of course, human nature being what it is, I still wished I’d told the whiny little nerd to go screw himself.

I’ve largely daydreamed through most of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films, despite the very best intentions. The Cinematheque Ontario program stated of his Nouvelle vague: “A nocturnal sequence in which a servant moves through the villa lighting lamps is worth more than the rest of the decade’s commercial cinema put together.” I confess to only having half-registered that sequence.

(I don’t doubt the writer’s sincerity, but if he were being exiled to a desert island for a few years, I truly suspect he’d rather be accompanied by the thousands of hours of commercial cinema than the two minutes of lamp-lighting).

I went to see the lamentable Dog Park, solely because I have a little Labrador puppy and often go to the dog park myself (I’ve confessed to this before, but I don’t deserve to get off that easily). Judging by the film’s box-office performance, no other dog owners made this mistake.

He’s a great dog though. He’s named Pasolini, after Pier Paolo. Sometimes Pasolini and I lie in front of the TV together and eat peanuts. I watch the movie and he watches the peanut jar. On average it’s a ratio of three peanuts for me and one for Paso (which might by the way have been a reasonable value ratio to apply to the lamp-lighting sequence versus the commercial cinema). Sometimes, when we’re done with the peanuts, Pasolini brings over his soft-toy cow and shoves it in my face. It makes a rather loud moo-ing noise. Usually I have to rewind the movie.

Talking of the Cinematheque Ontario, they recently showed the consensus choice for best film of the 90s: Dream of Light, by Victor Erice. I’d never seen it, and still haven’t, because it played on a Friday evening and I thought it would be more fun to spend that time of the week drinking with my wife. I know some people may view this as a sign of hope, if not redemption, but I know in my moviegoer’s heart that I failed some kind of test. But sometimes I don’t use that particular heart.

I once reviewed a film for this newspaper and referred in passing to the occupation of one of the characters as a building contractor. My wife, who also saw the film, read over the article before I sent it in and pointed out to me that he was actually a drug dealer. I haven’t lived a lot.

I have a standard list of the films I’ve never seen and would most like to, and  - happily – it slowly dwindles down over time. Right now the top ten would probably include Jacques Rivette’s Out One, Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev – assuming they’re not playing on a Friday evening that is. I also thought the list included Josef von Sternberg’s Saga of Anatahan, until I looked back recently at the record of movie viewings I’ve kept since 1982, and discovered that I’ve in fact seen it – not once, but twice! Admittedly that was fifteen years ago, but still…how could I have completely forgotten about it? This is but one of the problems of having a passion with so little tangible residue – sometimes I really envy stamp collectors. Anyway, I’m eagerly looking forward to my third viewing of Anatahan.

I found the love scenes between Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin in the remake of The Getaway oddly arousing. And I think it must have had something to do with knowing they were really married, which must have kicked of some little voyeuristic trigger in my head. So you see, sometimes it pays to know your celebrity trivia. Imagine the thrill if Jack Nicholson and Lara Flynn Boyle ever make a movie together.

Not long ago, I saw a film by one of the most acclaimed current directors (on this issue, I’m too deeply embarrassed to specify further). I found the main character remarkably inconsistent in his behaviour, and couldn’t really make much sense of it. Only toward the very end of the film did I realize that there were actually two main characters, who looked somewhat alike, and that the film consisted of two intertwined stories. I decided it was best to exempt myself from ever attempting to comment on that director’s work, and I’ve stuck to it.

I usually take my used movie tickets and put them in a box, and on a couple of occasions I’ve made huge poster-sized collages out of them. They’re up in the house. I think they look terrific, and I even think I could make some kind of aesthetic case for them. Alternatively, they may be just sad. Maybe that’s why I do what I can to hang on to my wife.

I can’t believe in my heart (either of them) that films like The Godfather and The French Connection are approaching their thirtieth anniversaries. To me those still look and feel like contemporary films. I can’t fathom that there’s a generation for which those films are ancient history. And then I realize that for, say, a sixteen-year old, Five Easy Pieces would be- mathematically – as far away in time as was Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth from my own birthday. In other words, ancient history. I think I’m really beginning to see how the years can catch up with someone. Will The Godfather still seem contemporary to me in my eighties, and how much of a relic will I be then? (I think it will, and I won’t care).

I love movies. I love Welles and Hawks and Bresson and Antonioni and (for most of the way) Godard. But that doesn’t mean I have to love Fellini.

(2018 update – very little of this holds true now in the same way. Most obviously, I’ve seen all of the then-unseen films I wanted to see, mostly multiple times. Pasolini has long since been replaced by Ozu (another yellow Labrador). Fellini has grown on me over the years. 70’s films still feel pretty contemporary to me though, so maybe that one will never change.)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

Any modern-day remake of Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch would probably skew much younger in its casting and energy-level, its plot fleshed out by race-against-time set-pieces. If Gold’s version works significantly better than seems likely, it’s largely because of its world-weariness and sense of crusty experience, allowing its melodramatic contrivances to seem like expressions of shared frustration and common anticipation of doom. Richard Burton is among the stiffest and intemperate of leading men, so it works pretty well to cast him as a man driven by those very qualities, allowed several vituperative rants about societal hypocrisy and the general mediocrity of people individually and collectively: the premise is that he has the capacity to destroy at will, from individuals who cross him, to planes that he pulls from the sky for the hell of it (the retrospective echo of 9/11 is impossible to shut out), or even beyond that, to tamper with the workings of manned space probes. Lino Ventura (his presence on the British police force amusingly attributed to an exchange program with the French) comes in to investigate after Burton’s Morlar is attacked in his home and left for dead – the film dramatizes the fruits of his investigation in flashback, interspersed with the growing anxiety as Morlar clings to life against all odds, his malicious capacities and intents possibly intact. The extensive use of other establishment actors in small parts, the alertness to time and place, and the breadth of Morlar’s fury (encompassing the family, the education system, the law, the church, etc.) gives the film an unlikely symbolic force, allowing the character to embody whatever undiagnosed or unaddressed ills are slowly poisoning us. At the risk of auteur-seeking excess, it’s thus tempting to see the film as a companion piece to Gold’s sensational The Reckoning, which dramatizes a very different form of rage-filled triumph over the English establishment.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Nea (Nelly Kaplan, 1976)

Nelly Kaplan’s Nea embodies some of the classic ambiguities of female-desire-centric cinema, as seen (at least insofar as the director comes first among competing inputs and influences) from a female perspective. The film (also known as A Young Emmanuelle and variations thereon) conforms to many aspects of the manipulative template: it undresses its women much more than its men, at intervals that seem (without having checked) pretty evenly spaced out so as to avoid fidgeting, focusing on particular on the sexuality of a precocious (and also frequently naked, in a way that encourages near-clinical examination) 16-year-old protagonist, Sybille. But it generally feels like an authentic attempt to excavate the girl’s perspective, frequently placing her in the position of observer (putting on her big glasses for emphasis) – the other main perspective is that of her cat, which seems broadly complementary. The plot itself emphasizes her as principal actor – she works up her fantasies into an anonymously-published book which becomes a best seller, but when her publisher Axel (Sami Frey, cool as ever) resists taking their relationship further, she decides to deploy the perception of her innocence as a weapon against him. The rape fantasy that ends up becoming true is another often-questionable device which here gets somewhat repurposed; ultimately, the (rather abrupt) ending certainly reflects Sybille’s desires and actions more than those of Axel (with the side benefit along the way of facilitating her mother’s sexual awakening also). None of this compares with Kaplan’s La fiancĂ©e du pirate, which is much more zestily provocative on its own terms, and more broadly resonant as a social critique (its knockabout rustic setting seems more productive than Nea’s standard-issue country mansion, notwithstanding at times that the interiors, especially Nea’s lair, carry an alluring fairy-tale-like quality), but the scepter of the earlier film is useful in focusing on Nea’s real, if inherently debatable strengths.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Blue Black Permanent (Margaret Tait, 1992)

Blue Black Permanent is the only full-length feature made by Margaret Tait, when she was already in her 70’s – it’s a work of consistent beautifully idiosyncratic wisdom, of someone deeply immersed in her environment and mode of engaging with the world, while in no way resisting the inevitability of moving on. In some ways, one might see some strenuousness in its periodic insistence on modernity, a visit to a night club for instance; certainly it feels like Tait was rather beguiled by recording the present in a way that would guarantee it becoming dated. This chimes with the film’s unusual structuring absences – it emphasizes its characters’ identities as poets or artists or photographers, but is reticent on actually allowing us into their work, especially to the extent it’s escaped from them to be exhibited or posthumously consumed. Tait spends as much time on moments that may seem inconsequential in themselves – a day at the beach, a visit to the shoe store – but only to assert the arbitrariness of memory, how it privileges strange shards of experience even as it erases major chunks of biographical data. In this sense, things that are painfully unknowable – preeminently here, even after decades of self-interrogation, the reasons why one’s mother would suddenly have drowned – may ultimately find rest, in the contemplation that even apparently objective truths become reshaped and eroded by the flow of time and memory (the sea is a major thematic force here, both as glory and threat). But this isn’t to deny the pleasure of looking back: some of the film’s loveliest sequences are flashbacks to the mother’s life, not least a trip to the island where her ailing father now lives alone, temporarily immersing us in the rituals of making tea and laughing with friends over old stories, and the delight of receiving a modest but personal gift (homemade honey, its impact as transcendent here as that of the more traditional arts).

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)

Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore is an astonishing, grueling chronicle of formative experience, allowing few points of easy clarity (certainly not regarding the straightforward sexual opposition that one might think to detect in the title) beyond the prospect of future disappointment and deflation. Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Alexandre lives an emblematic Parisian life of the period, free of most conventional obligations, exercising his whimsical conversational prowess, easily making intellectual and sexual connections, even while being put up by his tolerant lover Marie (Bernadette Lafont). For much of its three-and-a-half-hour length, the film has the quality of pure performance, like watching a tightrope walker; it follows that a fall of some kind is inevitable. He meets Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), marked as the relative “whore” by the volume of her past sexual partners and her straightforwardness in talking about them, but possessed by a certain severe, almost Gothic quality (chiming against her remark about liking old vampire movies) that gradually shifts the relationship’s centre of gravity, draining Alexandre of his glib assumptions, or the ability to fake them, whichever one it was. The film frequently evokes the events of 1968, and reaches further back to music and cultural touchpoints before that; Alexandre reflects on people who used to be in his orbit and dropped out along the way; he probes the world for rituals and signs and rhythms; but for all his externalized energy, his life is fatally unexamined in the ways that will ultimately matter. When Veronika evokes the importance of children near the end, to the extent of positing procreation as the only measure of love and meaningful sex, she’s defining territory he hardly knows how to enter, and his failure resonates as that of a generation lacking a clear path forward, and thus constituting easy pickings for the waves of capitalistic and technological upheaval to come. Eustache’s film is one of the greatest of its period – at once thrilling and draining, revelatory and tragic.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Altman pretender

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2001)

Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Claim, a Western set in the snow of the 1870’s Sierra Nevadas, is regarded by some as one of the best films of the year – a premise that’s often been articulated by reference to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The two films certainly have a similar setting and general look, and there’s a broad parallel in some of the characters and themes, but I think this comparison represents an even greater misappropriation of Altman’s name than the recent comparisons between Traffic and Nashville.

Robert Altman

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was completely convincing as an evocation of time and place, full of fascinating characters and incidents, and dense in meaning and allusion, The notes I made when I last saw it are barely coherent to me now (the movie rather overwhelms your faculties), but they’re certainly gushing – Altman contrasts romantic idealism with entrepreneurial excesses, the stuff of legend and fable with pragmatism and calculation, the brutally clear with the mistily mystic. And just as in Nashville, he engineers a staggering finale, contrasting the death of McCabe with the effort to save a burning church, suggesting that community and symbolism – however embryonic – might provide a better basis for endurance than capitalism. Not that anything about the film is that straightforward.

As Altman films go, The Claim reminded me not of McCabe as much as of Quintet, his weird 1979 science-fiction thriller in which an icy city of the future is obsessed by a murderous game. Quintet stars Paul Newman, but resolutely resists the actor’s charisma: the notional dramatic highlights are wantonly understaged, and the film as a whole is distinctly off-putting, although not without a modestly persuasive, depressed vision of humanity. In the end, Newman heads off into the frozen waste, despite being told he’ll freeze there, and the camera watches him for a long long time as he recedes into the whiteness, balancing the similarly extended beginning (except that at the outset he was accompanied by a pregnant lover who’s killed during the course of the film) and suggesting that the film is primarily about emptiness and negation.

Victory over the elements

Accurately or not, Quintet looks like one of Altman’s rush jobs, as though he needed the money, but it seems to me that even this minor work provides greater satisfaction than Winterbottom’s film (which I take to be a conscious attempt to make a masterpiece). As The Claim begins, the wagon train brings into the remote town of Kingdom Come a party of railway surveyors. If they choose to bring the railroad through town, riches will follow. The town is run as the feudal property of its Scottish founder, a man who’s already made a fortune from gold, and dreams of more to come. Years earlier, as a struggling young immigrant, he sold his young wife and baby to a prospector in exchange for the land claim that would provide the root of his riches. Now the woman is dying and the child is a young adult, and they’ve arrived on the same wagon train in search of him.

Based on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, the story provides an odd, unpredictable group of character dynamics in a volatile setting. America is in its infancy here, still discovering itself day by day, possessed by energy and ambition; Kingdom Come, however, is perpetually covered in snow, as if in premature hibernation, and every human contact is like a small victory over the elements. Winterbottom emphasizes the uncertain and evolving nature of the community here: for example, Milla Jovovich’s character is both a brothel keeper and as respectable a figure as there is in town.

I can’t decide whether or not Jovovich is an interesting actress. She seemed so in Million Dollar Hotel, and her conviction in the derided Joan of Arc epic The Messenger was largely persuasive. For now at least, she’s finding parts which render her stylistic flatness mysterious, even challenging. At best though, she seems to me to represent a limited avenue of investigation (to admit a predisposition that may color my opinion here, she doesn’t strike me as a great beauty either, contrary to reputation). Nastassja Kinski, on the other hand, has fascinated me for her entire career (and it’s astonishing to realize we’re talking about more than two decades there). The Claim essentially casts Kinski as the woman of the past and Jovovich as that of the future, which I think is quite a problem in itself.

Personal tragedy

Neither of these actresses is a particularly robust personality, and not really is anyone else in the cast. The characterizations are muted and largely distant – a far cry from the presence of Beatty and Christie in McCabe. In Mullan’s case, this seriously undercuts the personal tragedy that’s supposed to grip the film’s final passages. The intention seems to be to evoke a Lear-like madness, but instead it’s just one man’s folly.

When The Claim depicts the construction of a new town, overseen by Jovovich, one remembers Claudia Cardinale’s similar evolution into a frontier matriarch in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which merely provides another perspective on the limitations of Winterbottom’s film. I sometimes find Leone’s desire for grandeur to be more than individual scenes can bear, but his film’s scope and confidence are unmistakable, and the long final camera pan across the diverse activity of an embryonic new American community is both as striking as documentary and as thrilling as giddy fantasy. The Claim never makes such an impact. It’s not about anything, except what it’s about. It tries to construct structures that might generate classic meanings and allusions, like McCabe, but seems to end up aimlessly shuffling the cards, like Quintet.

Michael Winterbottom is a remarkably versatile film director, apparently adopting a different style and outlook for just about every movie he makes, and that usually works fine for small-scale British movies. Personally I thought Welcome to Sarajevo was overrated, and I Want You underrated, but these are not issues that are likely to get too many people’s blood boiling. Even if The Claim were one of the year’s best films, at best I think the case would come down to a happy accident. Whereas Robert Altman, for all his love of chaos and sprawling canvases, has never been anything other than deliberate.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952)

The title of Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and its placement in his filmography might lead you to expect a film noir, and a couple of its characters (played by Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan) express themselves almost entirely through noir-soaked barbs and aphorisms, reflecting the tortured worldviews beneath. But they’re heavily displaced from noir territory (Ryan’s character works as a projectionist, a neat evocation of such displacement), set down in a fishing village, both reeling from recent bumpy emotional rides. The film starts by immersing us in the ships, the unloading of the catch, the processing, the surrounding culture, and never loses its sense of that setting; at other times, in its growing sense of domesticity as prison and in the expressiveness of its interiors, it feels like Douglas Sirk as much as Lang. Despite her better judgment, Stanwyck’s May gives in to the pursuit of fishing captain Jerry (Paul Douglas), a man too decently straightforward to arouse her interest, and tries to make it as a wife and mother; it’s inevitable that his self-loathing friend Earl (Ryan) will eventually constitute a more interesting proposition. The movie teems with portrayals of flawed masculinity – old drunks, younger men with overly fixed ideas about what they expect of their women; it also has Marilyn Monroe as Stanwyck’s main female confidant, astute enough to see her point of view, but not to avoid similar traps. Whether one categorizes it as noir or domestic melodrama or an amalgam of both, it’s a compellingly articulated study, with a “happy” ending (at least in the sense that it tends to the imperatives of domesticity and continuity over those of uncertain desire) so compromised and understated that it allows no clear winners. In this sense, as in Lang’s greatest films, the implications run wide and deep, to a clash and a night that may never end.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Grand openings

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2000)

What an audacious film Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy is. An almost three-hour epic set in 1884, revolving around Gilbert and Sullivan’s creation of The Mikado, it appeared late last year and shocked some observers by stealing two of the major critics’ awards out from under American Beauty and The Insider and the rest. I must admit to some skepticism before I saw the film, but now I too am a believer. The film is 100% entertainment and 100% art – a happy total of 200%!

A look back at Leigh

Leigh is best known for Naked and Secrets and Lies, and for a working method that involves intensely close collaboration with actors; a rigorous approach to the discovery of what he regards as the material’s inner coherence and truth. As with the late John Cassavetes, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether this approach leads to a cinema of astonishingly raw psychological revelation, or merely to some bravura, shameless audience-duping hamming (I’d say maybe David Thewlis in Naked was closer to the former, and Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies was closer to the latter, but both won acting awards at Cannes and in the US). In reviewing his last film Career Girls in these pages in October 1997 (yeah, I’ve been hanging around here at least that long) I said that Leigh’s technique was “somewhere between traditional notions of theme and organization and character development, on the one hand, and an idiosyncrasy taking in everything from idealism to savagery, on the other.”

Topsy-Turvy might seem like an odd departure – a relatively big-budgeted period piece, about a couple of old Victorian stiffs (Leigh’s very English, so maybe he just likes Gilbert and Sullivan – why not?) In any event, it’s a triumph for auteurship, because the film is entirely Leigh’s own. And that’s despite what seems, at least to this inexpert observer, like a rigorous, potentially embalming solicitude to period detail, mannerisms and verisimilitude. Indeed, the film’s ripely proper dialogue, and painstaking portrayal of such curios as the cumbersome ritual involved in using the telephone, provide some of its greatest pleasures.

The plot is this – after a string of enormous commercial successes, W. S Gilbert (who wrote the words) and Arthur Sullivan (the music) come to an artistic crisis when Sullivan describes he can no longer waste his talent on Gilbert’s formulaic crowd-pleasing plotlines (which involve an excess reliance on magic potions and elixirs and the like). The partnership seems to be at an end, until Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese culture and gets the inspiration for The Mikado. Sullivan is equally enchanted, and they achieve perhaps their most enduring work.

Two Halves

The first half of the film is a careful character study, contrasting the more workmanlike, regimented Gilbert with Sullivan’s loftier aspirations and libertine-oriented tendencies. Leigh employs a digressive approach, constructing an astonishingly comprehensive portrait of the rather insular community that revolves around them (the film barely sets foot outside – the brightness of the stage lights substitutes for daylight). But for all its exuberance, there’s genuine fear in this world of topsy-turvydom. In one remarkable scene, Gilbert is visited by his crusty aging father, who’s suddenly visited in turn by his inner demons in an agonizing waking nightmare, which Gilbert observes in silent horror.

Maybe Gilbert needs the theatre in some way as a corrective to his somewhat repressed conformity; much unlike Sullivan (who, the film suggests, doesn’t ultimately need much convincing to end his short retirement), whose aspirations are more recognizably artistic. But then the film also shows Sullivan getting his kicks in a Paris brothel by having the hookers put on a show. Somehow, these two opposites (each in his own way recognizably contemporary in his concerns) achieved synthesis. The film seems to respect the inherent mystery of their collaboration. At times it has a sense of quiet profundity that verges on the meditative.

The second half consists almost entirely of long extracts from the rehearsals for The Mikado – consisting primarily of perhaps six or seven set pieces, each lasting at least five minutes – blended in with scenes from the finished work. We observe Gilbert coaching a trio of actors, Sullivan remonstrating with the orchestra, contretemps over costumes and over choreography. Leigh’s patience and focus achieve extraordinary dividends here. Topsy-Turvy has perhaps as detailed a focus on the substance of theatre as any narrative film has ever had. The scene with the actors – perhaps ten minutes of fluffed lines and misconstrued intonations and so forth – is a mini tour de force: vastly entertaining in itself and intensely respectful and revealing about the creative process. Leigh also pulls off a perfectly realized mini-melodrama, about an actor whose heart is quietly broken when his big number is cut by Gilbert the day before opening night, only to be reinstated when the company rallies on its behalf.

Happy endings

Rather like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (with which it seems to me this film might be intriguingly if, I suppose, not ultimately very usefully compared), the film culminates in an orgy of pure performance, within which the characters might easily have seemed lost or sublimated. But whereas Scorsese tacked on only a relatively modest bittersweet aftermath, Leigh comes up with a staggering, psychologically acute trio of final scenes that severely limit our ability to float off on a false cushion of air. I also thought of Tim Robbins’ recent Cradle will Rock – another film that ended with an extended recreation of a theatrical performance, this one in the 1930s. This was indeed the best part of Cradle, but seemed to me to close the film on a note of buoyancy that seemed – at best – a superficial resolution to the material as a whole (and Robbins’ smart-ass final image of modern-day Broadway didn’t help one bit).

In its coherence, in its depth and judgment, Topsy-Turvy towers over Cradle will Rock, and indeed over nearly all recent films. It has a sage-like serenity and wisdom that at times almost evoke Abbas Kiarostami. It’s completely true to its period, and – because of its sure understanding of humanity and complexity and artifice – completely true to our own. It’s both as easy-to-take and as subtly disorientating as its title. It’s Mike Leigh’s best film and surely one of the best films ever made about the theater.