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.)