Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sapphire (Basil Dearden, 1959)

Basil Dearden’s Sapphire makes for queasy, vividly challenging viewing, at once lost in an ungraspably distant time and place and yet much more presently troublesome than one would wish it to be. The film opens with the discovery of a dead woman on Hampstead Heath and is driven by the subsequent police investigation: one strand follows her fiancĂ©e (provided with possible motive because she was pregnant, possibly imperiling his academic plans) and tight-knit family; the other opens up when Sapphire is revealed to be of mixed race, capable of passing for white, with a much darker-skinned brother, and various entanglements in the city’s “coloured” (this being the film’s prevailing term) community and establishments. This allows the movie to present (in the manner of a sober carnival) a sad catalogue of prejudice and suspicion - the landlady who would never have rented to her if she’d known, the policeman who muses things would be better if that sort were all sent back where they came from, and so forth. Inevitably, one cringes now at elements of it – such as the theory, apparenrtly endorsed by what’s depicted on screen, that one’s underlying blackness will be revealed by involuntary rhythmic reaction to music – and even at its most well-meaning (and it is that), the film always sees blackness as Other, as a state understood in terms of its difference and by the nature of its positioning within a white reality. Still, it does have the wherewithal to acknowledge the existence of another side to the coin: one black interviewee archly remarks that his father would never have allowed him to marry Sapphire…because she was half-white. Although seen only as a corpse and in a photograph, the dead woman’s spirit dominates the film: the dialogue constantly evokes her uncontainable vivacity and energy, in itself a threat to a drably ordered society, made deadly and uncontainable by her racial non-conformity.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Morel's Invention (Emidio Greco, 1974)

If one didn’t know Emidio Greco’s L’invenzione di Morel was based on a novel, it might easily be taken as a response to Tarkovsky’s then-recent Solaris – although not set in space, its isolated island setting amounts to much the same thing, and the plotlines are similar in their blurring of the line between humanity and illusion, and in the related capacity for cinematic metaphor. With tweaking and a much-souped-up visual style, Greco’s film could also feel like the forerunner of a Black Mirror installment. A man is washed up on the island, his boat wrecked beyond repair (there’s little backstory beyond a passing reference to political problems) – the island holds a large structure that’s part museum shell and part industrial complex but initially seems uninhabited, but then he starts to see people, dancing and conversing with little attention paid to their challenged surroundings, and with none at all paid to him (the most striking among them is played by Anna Karina, who even more than in most of her post-Godard work is utilized here as pure image). The film is strikingly composed and edited, often wordless for long stretches, at others dense with exposition and self-interpretation as the title’s Morel, gradually revealed as dominant among these dispossessed individuals, reveals his invention, and the place of the others within it. As noted, the film draws on a classic cinematic proposition, of the screen and the spectator’s submission to it as a rewriting of and usurpation of reality – in this respect, it necessarily belongs to a time of cinema as physical destination, long predating the tyranny of tiny screens. It’s not the most galvanizing of works – there’s no respect really in which Greco is as interesting as Tarkovsky, and the film does skirt turgidity at times – but it has an elemental enigmatic power, and deserves better than its substantially forgotten status (an ironic fate perhaps, given its premise).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Machorka-Muff (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1963)

Straub and Huillet’s Machorka-Muff introduces itself, in an opening title signed just by Straub, as “an abstract visual poem, not a story,” which at once prepares the viewer for the narrative challenges of the following 18 minutes, while perhaps underpreparing him or her for its precision and tangibility. The film certainly has far more story than, say, a Stan Brakhage short: it contains both personal and professional development, it conveys a lot about character, it draws on an identifiable surrounding time and place, it has a beginning and middle and end, in that diegetic order. It even has a certain amount of dry, arch comedy, mostly based in the protagonist’s suffusing self-regard and unrepentant militarism. In all these respects it’s a remarkable feat of condensation, even making time for what may appear like digressions, such as the precious moments devoted to a waiter as he fills a drinks order. It perhaps feels least like a poem in its montage of (apparently genuine) newspaper headlines that advocate for German rearmament, drawing Jesus Christ into the cause and concluding by asking whether Germany will be a hammer or a nail, but at the same time this constitutes the most dramatic expansion of the filmic space. Viewed at a time when class-based expectation and division is only reasserting itself, and when post-war institutions are under escalating economic and political threat, the film feels like a warning, even a stern one, but it never feels confined by advocacy; the hard-edged specificity is always in conversation with the asserted abstraction, allowing the feeling of a film at once oppressive and yet strangely liberating. The final note, an assertion of embedded social power that no one’s ever dared to oppose,  goes unanswered within the film, but sets a challenge for Straub-Huillet's ensuing body of work, with its emphasis on resistance and engagement.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson, 1996)

One’s reaction to Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is inevitably conditioned by the knowledge that it was the only feature completed by Sarah Jacobson, who died a few years later of cancer at the age of just 32. I don’t think it’s only in hindsight that the film carries a sense of looming darkness – actually it’s explicit in the pervasive use of black backgrounds, often giving events a rather disembodied feel. It makes for peculiar viewing, given that in summary the film might sound well within a tradition of brightly raunchy sex comedies – Mary Jane unsatisfactorily loses her virginity (in a cemetery yet), triggering a heightened interest in her own sexuality and that of her circle of colleagues at the movie theatre where she works (the programming for which appears to be carried out in some underwhelming parallel universe), most of whom are older and worldlier than she is (much is made of her origin in the suburbs). The movie has a punk-infused feel, often feeling on the verge of tipping over into something more radically unbound (the acknowledgement in the end credits of “everyone who ever bought me a beer” is a nice touch), but remains primarily in investigative mode, accumulating something of a dossier of mixed-bag “first time” stories and gradually expanding its field of concern and awareness to encompass bisexuality, unplanned pregnancy, sudden tragedy, and more, ending (rather abruptly) on a note of self-determination and moral victory. Those closing credits roll over an extended rant into the camera by a disgruntled theatre patron, basically a verbal assault on just about everything, as if to emphasize the movie as an act of resistance. It’s more persuasive than not: it would be pointless to oversell the film’s impact, but when you reflect on the great careers that followed from comparably (or more) modest beginnings, the sense of loss is severe.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Soft Skin (Francois Truffaut, 1964)

The title of Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin seems to promise a sensuousness that barely exists in the film itself, thus perfectly summing up its examination of the gulf between romantic fantasy and drab, logistical reality. It’s among his gravest and most sober films, to an extent that has sometimes left viewers puzzled or underwhelmed, but might as aptly be judged as one of his most effective fusions of form and content. It’s apt that the protagonist Lachenay, a high-profile public intellectual of a kind that can hardly be conceived of now, falls for a flight attendant, as the movie dates from the period when the romance of air travel was at its highest: Truffaut makes the initial mutual intrigue easy enough to grasp, but after that he hardly attempts to probe the heart of the relationship, focusing instead on complications and obstacles, in particular a bleakly comic ulterior-motivated trip to Reims where everything intervenes to keep the two apart. The affair’s ultimate end, similarly, comes like the brisk cut of a scalpel, and although the film ends on a classic “crime of passion,” it’s hard to tell whether it’s really that, or whether we’re watching the almost unconscious acting out of a socially-determined clichĂ©, as much as the arc of the affair itself. The film pointedly includes moments when we witness Lachenay’s mind momentarily turning at the possibilities of other barely glimpsed women, and others that record how a woman can barely walk alone in the street without being harassed: but then equally as significant is the way that his hosts in Reims load up his schedule with a dinner at which they pepper him with mostly trivial questions, to be followed by a reception (which he skips out on). That is, whether in one’s cultural or intimate pursuits, the movie leaves a deep sense of weary, dissatisfied compulsion taking precedence over truth and self-awareness.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)

Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top feels distinctly overwrought now, with its nakedly ambitious protagonist Joe Lampton barely uttering a word in the early stretch that doesn’t relate to his calculated social-climbing, and then reduced to near-catatonic silence in the end as he achieves a version of his ambitions, at the cost of (at least temporarily) losing his soul. The notoriously problematic actor Laurence Harvey tacks too strongly into both states, eradicating much possibility of subtlety, but at least aiding the film’s harshly elemental impact (one of the film’s most effective elements is his unspoken realization that the wealthy girl of his dreams is, basically, unbearably boring). Despite these excesses, it remains a fascinating social document, depicting a society of painful limitations, consumed by self-defeating power games (one of the more striking scenes is that in which the husband of Lampton’s older lover confronts him, setting out with cold meticulousness why the affair has to end, the relish he takes in his victory far outweighing any remaining feeling for his wife). Certainly it’s not a world devoid of pleasures and camaraderies, but they depend on a benign acceptance of limits, a shutting of one’s mind to all vertical possibilities. Sex, of course, is the most prominent of the horizontal availabilities, fueling a significant hidden infrastructure and a network of behind-back conversations. Simone Signoret won an Oscar as the lover, but even the mild exoticism she brings to the film feels like more than the milieu deserves or can accommodate (albeit this is largely the point). Looked at now, it’s no doubt a museum piece on any levels, not least for the prominence of heavy manufacturing in the economic hierarchy. But while Britain may have given itself several coats of paint since then, the inequalities and abandonments have only become more savage, rendering the film’s moral contortions almost quaintly benign by comparison.