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.