Thursday, July 26, 2018

Un borghese piccolo piccolo (Mario Monicelli, 1977)

For its first hour or so, Mario Monicelli’s Un borghese piccolo piccolo seems like a pleasant, moderately incisive comedy of modern life, focusing on Vivaldi (Alberto Sordi), a ministry bureaucrat whose ambitions begin and end with getting his accountant son Mario a job for life in the same department, which requires overcoming major competition in the entrance exam. After exhausting the potential of personal charm and cajoling, and then submitting to the supposedly influence-boosting step of joining the Freemasons, Vivaldi at least gets his hands on an advance copy of the essay question, and then on the way to the exam…Mario is shot dead by a fleeing bank robber. The grief and shock is mainly embodied in the stroke suffered by Vivaldi’s wife (Shelley Winters, for whatever reason), rendering her immobile; Vivaldi retains his external dignity and composure, while single-handedly focusing on finding the perpetrator and making him suffer, and the film is quite persuasive in depicting his success at this. The midpoint swerve is quite startling, in effect serving as a rebuke of whatever pleasure we took from the first half’s images of workers buried behind piles of paper, groveling before their self-absorbed bosses, devoting their lives to jobs that allow them homes little better than hovels, seeking redemption in superstitions they can’t even be bothered to enact with any passion. Toward the end, a priest expresses the view that mankind deserves no better than a deluge to wash it all away; it seems pretty much like an implicit invitation to descend deeper into sin, and the final scene suggests that Vivaldi will do just that, becoming a self-justifying monster. In retrospect, you might reflect on how Mario’s death immediately follows his ogling of an attractive woman walking before them, something that seems excessively emphasized at the time – the film seems to imply that the average man can barely be allowed his dreams, and a later remarkable scene makes it clear he can’t be allowed a respectful space for his coffin either. The film’s insinuating impact though lies largely in its elusiveness, the difficulty of knowing to what degree Monicelli is actually seeking to remake the complacent viewer, versus toying with him.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)

It's rather hard to get a fix on Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz, and all too easy to reflexively brush it aside as an illustration of the director’s supposed late-career artistic exhaustion. As with many spy films of the period, exhaustion is actually central to its theme, of men (it’s usually men) in suits sublimating their personal lives to the grand geopolitical struggle, even though the specific contribution of their life-threatening exploits to that struggle is often unclear, especially on the many occasions when one’s masters prove untrustworthy (the treacherous scheme behind the film’s title seems like such an example of privileged access and power collapsing in on itself). Topaz has a lot of rather flatly played conversation between such men, interspersed with set-pieces which intermittently exhibit  Hitchcock’s legendary compositional genius and visual intensity. It makes you reflect though how often those fraught set-pieces drew on explicitly voyeuristic or neurotic underpinnings – Topaz by comparison is drained of much in the way of desire or obsession, or even recognizable human demonstrativeness. The film’s abstraction – its lack of interest in any kind of cultural specificity (the two main Cuban characters are played by a Canadian and a German) – becomes its own kind of statement on the milieu’s moral confusion, bolstered by an unusually sprawling narrative that keeps shifting focus between locations and protagonists, reflecting the underlying sense of ambiguous ethics and boundaries. While it feels like an old man’s film in many ways, the cast contains a startling number of actors from the French New Wave (it’s a rich resource for any Bacon-type degrees-of-separation exercise), providing its own sense of renewal; Michel Piccoli’s cheery wave in the final moments, and the final shot of a newspaper being blown away, suggest that whatever the momentousness of the world events in the background, the director is mostly interested in moving on from them.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Toronto film festival report, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1999)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto international film festival.

Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Errol Morris)
Leuchter is an expert in execution technology (designer of electric chairs, gas chambers, etc.), whose career was wiped out by his involvement in the Holocaust revisionism movement (he testified, as an expert witness in a defamation suit, that the Auschwitz crematoria could not and did not serve as gas chambers). In this vivid documentary, Morris lets Leuchter speak for himself (which reveals him to be a man of limited horizons with a – let’s say – quirky moral code, likely undone by hubris rather than evil [although Morris deliberately makes that, as far as possible, an eye-of-the-beholder-issue]), while providing a blizzard of visual accompaniments that emphasize – the lurid raw material of Leuchter’s life (a strategy indicated by the B-movie undertone of the title), and flirt with his obvious sense of his own heroism. Leuchter has more than enough rope here to hang himself, and pretty much gets the job done. Morris doesn’t try to explore the issue of Holocaust revisionism generally, pretty much taking our revulsion on faith, if anything, from my limited previous reading on the subject, that’s doing Leuchter a favour. Anyway, revulsion or not, it’s hard not to be fascinated by a man who can calmly chatter about his value-pricing approach to selling death machines (although custom-made, he tells us, they’re sold at “off the shelf” prices).

8 ½ Women (Peter Greenaway)
When a wealthy businessman’s wife dies, he emerges from his grief into a process of sexual rediscovery; inspired by Fellini’s Otto e mezzo, he and his son construct their own Swiss mansion harem of 8 ½ women, but their achievement soon starts to crumble. Greenaway’s films are getting no more accessible as time goes on, but they make for provocative visual and intellectual smorgasbords which, if you’re so inclined, can be consumed like grand banquets; they’re quite funny too at times. To illustrate what’s entailed here: the film starts with a full screen of text, which is then snatched away before you can possibly read it: at first you may blame your own slowness, then you realize the device – it shakes you out of the expectation of an easy narrative, primes you to think about the design of cinematic meaning…for some, it may also be a self-conscious arrogant annoyance. The entire film works much in that vein, but with countless stunning compositions, and what I found a strangely touching conception of its sexual odyssey, figuratively and literally stripping male desire down to its essentials, and encompassing allusions to just about the entire cultural history of female archetypes and myths (with an interesting sideline in Western versus Japanese culture); the ending satisfies both as sexual politics and as deadpan comedy. 8 ½ Women isn’t as seductive as Greenaway’s last film The Pillow Book, but Greenaway is a bull-headed artist in an almost parodically classic vein, and I find myself valuing him that more highly as time goes on.

Romance (Catherine Breillat)
A depiction of a young woman whose frustration at her male-model lover’s sexual disinterest sends her on a raunchy sexual odyssey. The film is already notorious for its explicit content, but ends up surprisingly tedious, churning through familiar notions of confused negotiation between self-respect and physical gratification; of the status of love when unaccompanied by sex; of how to reconcile exploration of one’s intimacy with the specter of obscenity and sluttishness. The film tosses off so many potentially misogynistic statements and attitudes that – given it was made by a woman – it starts to seem like a sustained test of both the filmmaker’s and the audience’s faith (it has a pseudo-devout, ritualistic kind of quality): it’s probably more verbally shocking than it is visually. It does ultimately put together a moderately moving portrayal, aided by a nuanced actress, but doesn’t go much beyond the cinematic territory mapped out in the 1970s by Godard, Last Tango and others, female director notwithstanding.

Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema)
This version of Jane Austen’s novel crams so much contemporary politicking into its portrayal of its central character that it almost fragments altogether. A young girl from poor circumstances, initially a charitable afterthought of the rich relatives with whom she’s sent to live, grows into the primary redemption of that family’s moral character (the family lives mainly on the profits of Antiguan slave labor, and the landscape is strewn with lurking temptations of the flesh). This strange film, which over-exerts itself in some ways and is largely inert in others, sometimes seems to be merely guessing at what it wants to make of itself. “This is 1806 for heaven’s sake,” says a character at one point, but it’s rather hard to tell: the film is oddly claustrophobic, not showing us much of its time or place beyond the girl’s two homes; the characters lurch from one thing to another, so that it ultimately feels more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent whole. The banality of the well-to-do milieu is well-caught, but Rozema’s cinematic “enhancements” promote a largely pointless, intellectually arid disengagement. Whether viewed through the prism of past or present, it’s markedly less persuasive than other recent Austen adaptations.

Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen)
Allen’s latest is a sweet but minor compendium of fictionalized showbiz chestnuts, with Sean Penn playing a jazz guitarist who – despite drinking and womanizing and general unreliability – enjoys a brief 20s and 30s heyday before fading out of sight. The film keeps a brisk pace, and although Penn’s artfully stylized performance could have supported a more probing portrayal, that’s not on the agenda: the expressions of his neurosis are largely played for comedy (of the wistful smile rather than the laugh-out-loud kind). In its zippiness and general inconsequentiality and fake documentary trappings the film sometimes reaches all the way back to Allen’s debut, Take the Money and Run. The movie keeps emphasizing the unreliability of its own portrayal, stressing how the legend may have overtaken the facts, but it doesn’t really matter – the film aspires little to art or satire, and achieves its goal of mellow raconteurship.

Friday, July 13, 2018

La naissance du jour (Jacques Demy, 1980)

Jacques Demy’s 1980 TV movie La naissance du jour is perhaps the least visible of his full-length works, seeming like a work of deliberate retrenchment after a professionally and personally bumpy decade. The film depicts the writer Colette in her summer home, moving within highly-ordered daily rituals and reflecting on her past – there are only two other major characters, and only a handful of scenes in other settings. The plot concerns a love triangle of sorts, but it’s barely evident as that, in large part described rather than shown; the film is tasteful and scenic, but hardly lends itself to the kind of delighted compositional beauty for which we cherish Demy. As such, it’s tempting to see it as a conscious repression, most intriguing for its glimpses of greater complexities below the surface. Take for instance the primary male character played by Jean Sorel, and how the camera’s focus on his naked torso seems to go beyond what’s required to express Colette’s own musings on the topic, or the later moment in a bar where we watch two men dancing together (a character asks them why, receiving the explanation that the girls don’t dance well). Given what we now know of Demy’s bisexuality, it’s hardly gratuitous to see here an accepting expression of more complex interests and desires than are expressed in Colette’s tidier (although thematically not uninteresting) formulations. This messaging would continue through the raw desires depicted in Demy’s next film, Une chambre en ville, to his underappreciated final works; Parking also contains a distinct strand of bisexuality, and his last film Trois places pour le 26 contains an accidental incestuous encounter, happily shrugged off on its way to a happy ending. In this light, just as La naissance du jour intermittently depicts Colette’s memories as vividly as it does her present, its absences seem as meaningful as its bucolic actualities.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)

Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo is a terrifying, thematically labyrinthine portrait of slave-owning America’s moral and psychological wretchedness, positing a corruption so deep that generations won’t succeed in washing the stain away (and haven’t). Reduced to a plot summary or recounting of “high points”, the film sounds lurid and exploitative, and has often been dismissed or mocked as such. But in its embrace of melodrama and what’s sometimes labeled “scenery-chewing” acting, it digs painfully deep into the sick underpinnings of the culture – one in which the economic model demands that the humanity of the slaves be denied, and yet in which their presence makes that impossible, generating hypocrisy upon perversity. Physicality and sexuality lies at the centre of the madness of course – the absence of imprisoning formal structures makes their relationships with black women more satisfying to the white men than those with their wives, to a degree that’s all but formally admitted and embedded in the culture, with the consequent flow of children being regarded as so much by-product; in contrast of course, the prospect of male black sexuality crossing the colour line is the ultimate horror (and a white woman who invited this would merely be sacrificing her right to go on living). But at the same time, the film takes us deep into how the white males project their own physical inadequacies onto their prize “inventory” – a prizefighting scene goes on virtually in agonizing real time, forcing us to confront the depth of the investment in blood and brutality and enforced submission. Indeed, the whole film is unnervingly direct and visceral, seeped in its time and place, even as the viewer inevitably looks for broader parallels or redemptions. But the only organized revolt depicted here is rapidly extinguished, and the ending suggests no immediate prospect of sustained resistance or relief, only of continuing madness in shifting configurations.