Saturday, October 26, 2019

Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda, 1973)

Peter Fonda’s Idaho Transfer is a super-high-concept time travel drama that generally doesn’t feel like it: for much of the time, we could be watching Woodstock types dawdling on their way to the next concert (indeed, the movie early on throws in two secondary characters doing exactly that). The premise is a project to save mankind by setting up a colony in the future, on the other side of a looming apocalyptic event; the time travel technology (located in a secretive desert facility) necessitates sitting on a low metal platform, taking off one’s pants and pushing a few buttons, and doesn’t work for people over thirty (even for them, it eventually transpires that it causes sterility, making the whole project largely pointless). If that explanation seems absurdly high-level, it’s about as much as the movie ever provides: the screenplay is refreshingly free of ringing certainties, and the prevailing mood is that of watching figures in a barren landscape, trying to roll with the punches (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point may come fleetingly to mind, but everything here is far less charged, including erotically speaking [notwithstanding the frequently absent pants]). Much of the “action” – such as the discovery of a mutated post-disaster civilization - occurs offscreen, and Fonda takes some big narrative leaps, but the sense of emptiness feels well-judged given the rather despairing premise, conveying a pervasive sense of dissipating youthful promise. The movie saves its boldest stroke for the very last scene, reconfiguring our sense of the world we’re watching (possibly too much for comfort, but at least it’s striking) and throwing in some grisly implications. It’s hardly a high-impact piece of work, not so much acted as just embodied, and one almost wishes Fonda had pushed even further in that direction, toward pure abstracted reverie. As it is though, it’s still mostly satisfying, in a stubbornly self-absorbed kind of way.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Something Different (Vera Chytilova, 1963)

Vera Chytilova’s Something Different delivers exactly that, most literally by switching back and forth between two contrasting narratives: one observing Eva, a gymnast in training for upcoming championships; the other following Vera, a housewife overwhelmed by her hyperactive young son and by domesticity in general. The two strands only occasionally explicit echo each other (Vera’s husband and Eva both criticized for reading the paper, him at the dinner table and her on the beam) but provide parallel studies in the difficulty of maintaining balance (in Eva’s case, literally as well as figuratively) and resisting subjugation. Eva’s position seems more privileged by virtue of her relative fame, and yet her coaches rail at her laziness, grab at her limbs and pull her into desired poses, scornfully dismiss her ideas and instincts, and at one point slap her across the face: her final performance liberates her from such direct control, while withholding any real sense of exultation. By comparison, the sequences with Vera are a frenetic pile-up of life problems, underlined by frequent arguments about money. She starts an affair with a man who pursues her in the street, but in large part it seems like another source of life clutter, another submission to an agenda primarily set by someone else; when a crisis hits at the end, she has no option but to cling onto what she has, however unsatisfying. The film’s last sequence, with Eva now coaching a young female athlete, suggests the possibility of calmer and more nurturing structures ahead, but the final note is questioning and reflective rather than in any way triumphant. Eva’s distinct place in society relative to Vera's correlates with a greater openness to cinematic invention as measured by camera angles, freeze frames and suchlike, but these also speak to her distance from the more typical life experience.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet, 1981)

A viewer could be forgiven for finding much of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City rather flat – it’s stylistically restrained and businesslike, with few conventional dramatic highpoints: the casting of Treat Williams (who, in truth, doesn’t seem entirely equal to the role) might have been designed to thwart easy gratification. It eventually becomes clear though that this is a strategy, and a rather subtly executed one, channeling the growing realization of its protagonist, Danny Ciello, that in his play for heroism and expiation, he’s lost all autonomy and self-determination. The movie initially emphasizes his princeliness, at the centre of a smoothly functioning drug squad unit, racking up collars while regularly bending the rules and skimming off the spoils: he’s drawn to cooperate with a probe into police corruption, seeing it in part as another stage to strut upon, naively certain he controls his exposure and that of his partners. But the film ultimately comes down to a decision on whether to prosecute Ciello himself, staged by Lumet as a debate into the interplay of relative morality, idealism and pragmatism, the final determination on which may be little more than a coin flip; it’s intercut with a court proceeding where Ciello is raked over the coals, culminating in a question about whether his wife (Lindsay Crouse) was aware of his interactions with prostitutes. It’s notable that by then, she and his children have largely faded from the film, casting it as a study in escalating loneliness – an impression sealed by the very last moment, freezing on his face in the aftermath of yet another small humiliation. Again, you might feel that final blow should land a little harder, but maybe such criticism would undervalue Lumet’s finesse – why should we expect conventionally satisfying closure, when that’s so plainly denied to the character, if not to anyone who participates in the torturous justice system?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Weekend at Dunkirk (Henri Verneuil, 1964)

Henri Verneuil’s 1964 Weekend at Dunkirk has (to a surprising extent) pictorial qualities to match Christopher Nolan’s more recent treatment of the evacuation, with a more personal and haunting overall narrative. It was much remarked how Nolan withheld some basic information about surrounding events for instance by omitting any glimpses of Churchill, but Verneuil does something very similar, dropping his protagonist Julien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) into the middle of the action, leaving no doubt about its momentous nature, but emphasizing Julien's confusion about what’s going on (the most salient point about the British operation is that they don’t want to take the French with them) and his indecision about how best to survive without succumbing to desertion or cowardice. Beneath all the terrific spectacle and impactful incident, there’s something close to lurking black comedy in how Julien keeps finding himself back at the same point on the beach, even as others leave in one way or another (to the point that he’s ultimately the last one left): his conversations with a priest add to the sense of moral inquiry. Julien embodies all the ambiguity of war, intuitively working to strike up a mutually respectful rapport (even, eventually, with an obstructive British officer), but reacting with as much skepticism to an individual who thinks too calculatingly of his own survival as to another who too aggressively brandishes his giant gun: the only soldiers he directly kills are French ones, to save a woman from being raped, but then her subsequent actions have him wondering almost immediately whether he did the right thing. The fact that Catherine Spaak would have second billing in a film about Dunkirk perhaps sums up the commercial friendliness that influences one’s view of Verneuil, but in the end her presence adds more than it detracts, speaking to his consistent ability to create unified, textured works.