Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Fury (Brian De Palma, 1978)

Brian De Palma’s The Fury is thrilling and perplexing: it might have been designed as a test case for separating out a subject's mixed feelings about the director. The plot starts with the snatching of Robin Sandza, a telepathically gifted teenager, from his intelligence agent father (Kirk Douglas), in an operation overseen by the father’s colleague and supposed friend Childress (John Cassavetes). The elder Sandza goes undercover to find the boy: the plot expands to include another gifted teenager (Amy Irving), a benign research project and a nefarious one behind it. The film teems with sensational moments and sequences, showing off De Palma’s sensuous feeling for spatial relationships, his bravura use of slow motion, of silence, of startling camera angles, of lush orchestration. It’s hardly without feeling for actors either: Irving is touchingly troubled, Carrie Snodgress movingly doomed, and Douglas and Cassavetes are both seeped in resonance (even if their two sets of resonances barely seem to mesh). But the film’s point and meaning remain perpetually obscure: put simply, it seems unworthy of De Palma’s care and attention (regardless that it could almost be positioned as a sequel to his previous film Carrie). The opening scene in the “Middle East” carries a promise of political specificity, but it devolves from there into a generalized, uninformative paranoia about unknown government agencies that apparently operate with impunity (perhaps the theme of potentially transformative mental power becoming corrupted and self-destructive is intended to carry some broader resonance about the workings of authority). The film’s most interesting aspect is perhaps its bitter play with concepts of real and allegorical parenthood: the telepathic teenagers both shift from biological to symbolic fathers, with destabilizing results. There’s some bitter comedy in the dark ending to Douglas’ quest, and beyond that in the pyrotechnic fate of Cassavetes’ villain (which certainly looks like a homage to the climax of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, to complement the evocation of Hitchcock at various other points). But the film almost seems designed to confound any clear finding of meaning or significance.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mado (Claude Sautet, 1976)

In some ways, Claude Sautet’s Mado is an inversion of his earlier Max et les ferrailleurs, which followed a protagonist played by Michel Piccoli as his scheming leads him to personal disaster and isolation; Mado starts with a no-less-consumed Piccoli protagonist, Simon, but this time the journey leads to an extended and surprising vision of community. Just as with Sautet’s Cesar and Rosalie, there’s an apparent structural oddity in the title: Mado isn’t the main character (she’s a prostitute with whom Simon has a relationship that causes him as much angst as pleasure), and her fate isn’t the film’s predominant preoccupation. Rather, her role seems more that of catalyst, bringing disparate people together, allowing rebirths and realignments. The fact that the film’s narrative is driven by financial difficulties of a very similar kind to those that drove Yves Montand’s character in Vincent, Francois, Paul…et les autres provides another instance of the rich interconnection of Sautet’s work during this (peak) period in his career. For a while, Mado seems cluttered and lacking in momentum, weighed down by the sprawling plot and the surfeit of characters, but this all peaks about half an hour before the end, when Simon executes a play that turns the table on his economic adversary, putting him in possession of a large expanse of development-ready land. The film then becomes an unexpected mixture of travelogue and celebration: a diverse, loosely-constituted group assembles to drive out and survey the territory, crashing a wedding celebration on the way back and then after an ill-advised detour getting stuck in mud and spending the night in dance, play and reverie (however, cutaways to the much grimmer, and directly-related fate, of another key character reminds us that such renewals are seldom without collateral damage). It’s implied at the end that through these experiences, Simon is finally able to move on from Mado; the last scene hints at a truer relationship with an old acquaintance played by Romy Schneider, another echo of all the other films mentioned...

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Looker (Michael Crichton, 1981)

Michael Crichton’s Looker is one of those technology-savvy films that, when viewed with 35 years of hindsight, seems impressively prescient on a lot of points, except that you have to keep overlooking all the ways in which it remains stuck in its own moment. When James Coburn’s manipulative corporate titan observes how much time people spend voluntarily staring at their televisions, and muses on the power that would flow from better control over the insinuating power of commercials, it would take only minimal updating to apply the thought and the dehumanizing implications to smartphones and pop-up ads and so forth. Similarly, the film’s obsession with scientifically-determined physical perfection, and the recourse to what we’d now call CGI when this falls short, leads directly to our age of digitally-reincarnated or –enhanced or –age-relieved actors. It’s bizarre though that Crichton’s concept stops short of assuming that the sets and environments in which virtual actors move around wouldn’t be virtually imagined as well, as opposed to being slavishly created in a studio. Anyway, it’s hard to engage consistently with such points of interest and semi-foresight when the film keeps losing you with its staggeringly unsophisticated A-leading-to-B narrative, relying on improbably reckless behaviour by heroes and villains alike; and with its overwhelming lack of interesting character and interaction, leaving Coburn and Albert Finney stuck in the extreme shallow end of their potential registers. Crichton’s stylistic superficiality isn’t entirely unsuited to the image-obsessed California milieu, but entails that the movie always seems to be dabbling in its various devices rather than interrogating them (by comparison, think about what Cronenberg achieved during the same decade with broadly similar material). One passingly haunting moment has Susan Dey’s besieged character visiting her parents for a respite from the mayhem, finding them stuck in their armchairs staring at some dumb comedy, barely capable of acknowledging her presence, hinting at a creeping malaise much greater than the movie acknowledges elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Fado majeur et mineur (Raoul Ruiz, 1994)

To all but a handful of cinematic voyagers, Raoul Ruiz will always represent an impossible dream of sorts: the work is too copious, too obscure, too hard to track down (even the spelling of his first name varies constantly). The filmography comprises well over a hundred works, and some of them might for all practical purposes be unseen (I may have seen around twenty, which must already place me in rare company). Fado majeur et mineur should have some advantages in relative visibility – it has some well-known cast members and appears to have been filmed and financed in relatively straightforward circumstances – and yet an Internet search provides only a single English-language commentary of any kind, and that just a bewildered, dismissive Variety review from its film festival premiere. One must enter the film then without guardrails or signposts, which as it happens aligns the viewer with its bewildered, amnesiac protagonist as he tries to make sense of a series of strange encounters. The narrative has elements of a jigsaw, vaguely circling around culpability for a death, or maybe several, but it’s a Ruiz-style jigsaw in multiple dimensions, in which the completed picture will appear fragmentary to all but, perhaps, God (and a priest does play a key role in the home stretch). Ruiz’s is a gorgeous cinema of layers – he’s drawn to compositions which capture people and objects in different planes, often foregrounding inanimate objects (or objects that should be inanimate, such as a self-propelling hat); to relationships that mutate and twist; to language that compulsively pivots and bounces and digresses. The title resonates not so much for the direct musical reference as for the mournfulness that traditionally marks the Fado genre; yet in the end Ruiz’s film feels found, not lost. At once deeply dislocated and yet culturally and temporally specific, almost austere in its singularity and yet possessing a classic vein of “art-movie” eroticism, the film is a gorgeous frustration, of a kind that makes much of even the best cinema seem under-engaged and conventional.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Eureka (Nicolas Roeg, 1983)

Viewed scene by scene and shot by shot, Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka unfolds in a relatively linear manner, at least compared to his most famous works, but it’s ultimately as productively strange and challenging as any of them. The first section depicts its protagonist, prospector Jack McCann, achieving his dreams of striking it rich in the Yukon, to the extent of becoming maybe the world’s richest man: twenty years or so later he’s occupying his own Caribbean island (isolated from the war raging elsewhere) with an alcoholic wife and a daughter who frustrates him with her choice of relationship; resisting the pressure from a business associate, in turn under the thumb of gangsters, to sell off a portion of his land for development. Roeg dramatizes the finding of the gold in extravagantly cosmic manner, as if McCann had pierced the mind of God; much of what follows might seem deliberately flat and protracted, underlining the contrast between the fulfilment of finding the gold and the relative emptiness of having it (Robert Service’s famous lines to this effect provide the film’s final words). The film’s last half hour pushes even further, to and beyond complete erasure: McCann is murdered (his body gleefully burned, as if to ward off supernatural residue) and Roeg immerses us in the subsequent trial, in all its stodgy formality and underlying hollowness, eventually boiling matters down to pure melodrama. That contrast between finding and having seems resonant as a reflection on creativity, leading to a final note of simultaneous renewal and demise, tinged with a sense of transmigration, as if the restlessness in McCann had become embodied in another (there’s also a suggestion that McCann never survived his great find, which would render everything that follows a sort of distended fantasy). Despite the joyous promise of discovery in its title then, the film resists easy closure and coherence - how could it not, when that would only guarantee that we share McCann’s sense of reductive loss…?