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.