Saturday, August 31, 2019

Black Jack (Ken Loach, 1979)

Black Jack has the trappings of a classic kids’ adventure yarn – a boy falls in with an escaped convict and embarks on an eventful odyssey including a spell with a traveling fair, a girl who escapes an intended fate in the madhouse, multiple blackmails and a mysterious death. It’s certainly something of an oddity in Ken Loach’s oeuvre, and the director apparently views it as a disappointment, hampered by budgetary and other production constraints. But the film’s sparseness, the sense of not being quite fully formed and articulated, actually constitutes its main appeal – there’s something perversely enjoyable about how the basic exposition has to fight against thick accents and mushy articulation (it feels just about perfectly cast, exactly because of the imperfections of its people). The film avoids scenic overkill while sustaining a grubbily painterly quality, and the attention to detail is impressive: I don’t recall ever seeing a period film where the clothes are so authentically frayed and worn. By Loach’s standards, the film isn’t particularly explicit perhaps in diagnosing the surrounding society, but that makes a point in itself: for example, about the looseness of governing structures that allow a girl’s liberty to be signed away on the whim of her parents (on the other hand, it does establish that a strong-willed teenage boy can accomplish a lot, for good or for bad). This leads to an unusual climax in which the truth about that mysterious death is discovered, but without any apparent thought that the perpetrator might be brought to justice. The film delivers a traditional flourish at the end, with boy and girl escaping off to sea (by that point, the eponymous Black Jack has long ceased to be at the heart of the narrative), but overall its stubborn integrity places it with Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper among the stranger supposedly child-friendly creations.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Docteur Popaul (Claude Chabrol, 1972)

Claude Chabrol’s oeuvre teems with, what’s the right word…diversions, relaxations? At their most palatable, they evidence, if nothing else, a form of love for the game, a jovial conviction that it’s more fun to be behind the camera than not, whatever the quality of might be in front of it. Docteur Popaul is one of the less palatable efforts, in that the narrative and thematic territory it occupies isn’t so far removed from that of Chabrol’s greatest works, but the sour carelessness of the execution only causes you to wonder if Chabrol was ever fully invested in anything (it’s one of those movies for which the plethora of English-language titles – Scoundrel in White, High Heels, Play Now Pay Later – seems to speak to its lack of much identity or integrity). Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the doctor – he calculatingly marries a mousy heiress (Mia Farrow, bizarrely lending herself to a mostly demeaning role) while eventually falling into a nightly habit of slipping her a sleeping pill so he can spend the night with her much sexier sister (Laura Antonelli): when the arrangement threatens to run out of steam, he switches the sister’s birth control pills so that she’ll get pregnant (and thus more likely rooted in place). It’s obvious then that female agency doesn’t count for much here in the narrative scheme of things – even when the tables are predictably turned in the closing stretches, it still turns mainly on Farrow throwing in her fortunes with the most obvious alternative man, and even this is ultimately supplanted by a blithe final assertion that it was all just in the family. The film initially affects a jovially exaggerated tone, playing up Popaul’s leering self-confidence for the sake of more thoroughly puncturing it later on, and it does have the occasional darkly comedic flourish, but if one didn’t know otherwise, it would surely be taken as the work of a forgettable journeyman.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Claudine (John Berry, 1974)

For a mainstream (ish) romantic comedy, John Berry’s Claudine is remarkably short on sustained exuberance or joy; it’s suffused with the weight of getting by, the near-impossibility of making all the pieces add up. The movie’s early stages tease us with the prospect of a black story conducted in the margins of a white society, with Claudine’s employer looking on as she flirts with the ebullient garbage collector Roop. But welfare workers and cops aside, that’s as prominent as whiteness ever gets in the mix: from then on we’re embedded in black rhythms and attitudes and concerns, to an extent that still feels fresh and daring. She’s a single mother of six kids, getting by only by juggling those government handouts with off-the-books domestic work, living in a state of constant look-out for the unannounced visits that may bring the edifice crashing down. The movie presents it as a virtual social inevitability that a woman like Claudine will often be in the situation she’s in, and that a man like Roop will often be responsible for leaving women and kids elsewhere in parallel situations, but also understands why they’d still jump in again (it carries a discreet but unmissably raw sexual charge): the characters understand the cycle and pay a price for it, but can’t countenance the amazing radicalism of Claudine’s oldest son, who goes out and gets a preemptive vasectomy (an act that Claudine perceives as yielding power to the white man). The movie adheres to its genre to the extent that it culminates in a marriage, but the vows are barely spoken when turmoil and violence bursts in, leading to a very unusual end-credits image of familial unity. Diahnne Carroll wonderfully comveys both bone-tiredness and the spark that keeps her going, and James Earl Jones as Roop has seldom displayed such contrasting relish and vulnerability.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Car Cemetery (Fernando Arrabal, 1983)

Fernando Arrabal’s Car Cemetery makes for naggingly unsatisfying viewing, sounding in theory like the most crazily unbound of all the director’s films, but in practice considerably constrained by its claustrophobic setting and by the tightness of its Biblical analogy. The setting is a post-apocalyptic landscape in which – as far as we can see anyway – the main surviving institutions are junkyards, populated mostly by what looks like the overflow from a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert, although it appears authoritarian structures remain in place elsewhere. The ethos of the place is driven in part by devotion to the Jesus-like Emanou, and partly by heedless sex and nudity and sado-masochism (although, again, Arrabal’s handling of these elements feels a bit hemmed in – well, apparently it was a TV production). Most key elements of the Christ story are there, with a twist, from the virgin birth (in which, for instance, three hot women substitute for the wise men) through the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes (in this case a McDonald’s burger) and the resurrection of a Lazarus-like figure to the betrayal (in this instance during a concert) and the crucifixion. It would be easy to lazily dismiss all this as blasphemous, but the almost slavish nature of the correspondences seems equally indicative of grudging fascination: in the circumstances though it hardly matters either way (there’s nothing here to equal the dense, doctrine-heavy exchanges in Bunuel’s The Milky Way). The film’s final image, an animated representation of the ascension, seems strangely pinched and abbreviated, rather as if Arrabal’s artistic eyes had adjusted to the film’s murkiness and he couldn’t imagine unleashing the light, or else as if he didn’t believe that anything in this hermetic universe warranted a resurrection. I doubt that anyone would exactly be bored by the film, but it’s in no way the best entry point into Arrabal’s work.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Craig's Wife (Dorothy Arzner, 1936)

Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife is a potent, expertly (albeit melodramatically) condensed account of a woman’s unraveling, full of finely observed detail and broader social implication. John Boles’ Walter Craig lives almost solely for his wife Harriet, blind (to a perhaps somewhat improbable extent) to what everyone else sees as her calculating materialism and alienating coldness: when an elderly aunt finally lets fly with the truth, he initially can’t see it, but subsequent events involving a police investigation and a vague threat of scandal drive the point home, and thus bring everything down. Rosalind Russell doesn’t hold back on establishing Harriet’s unpleasantness, smugly setting out her philosophy of manipulation and dominance in an early scene, dismissing her younger niece’s arguments for romantic love: the film captures her obsessive observation and calculation, her eyes perpetually prowling over every inch of her domain, computing the implications of every small intrusion. But the film also acknowledges that the threat is real, that women (including Harriet’s own mother) are abandoned all the time when the men move on from them (the police-related subplot establishes that a woman who attempts to exercise the same self-determination as a man may pay with her life) and that for all her excesses, Harriet’s behaviour represents a rational (even if in this case misplayed) response to a stacked deck of a society. Harriet’s miscalculations cost her dearly, abandoned by everyone around her, even down to the servants, fulfilling the film’s closing maxim that those who live to themselves are generally left to themselves. Arzner’s magnificent handling of the final scene renders the previously showcase-like home suddenly overwhelming and unnatural, and Russell’s final close-up carries a sense of searching for divine intervention as she starts to realize her isolation, and therefore, perhaps (and depending on the viewer’s own social critique), a possibility of renewal.