Thursday, December 31, 2020

Deadly Sweet (Tinto Brass, 1967)


The most obvious reference point for Tinto Brass’ Deadly Sweet (or I Am What I Am) is Antonioni’s Blow-Up, made a year earlier (the poster is visible in one scene) – it’s another mysterious odyssey through “swinging London,” prominently featuring another fashion photographer, and with a heavy emphasis on style. Brass might be able to match Antonioni for incidental documentary interest – there’s a sense that he or his cohorts went out and amassed a large stockpile of random documentary footage (people reacting in the street or on public transport, old women looking out of windows and so forth) and then cut it in here and there to evoke incident and authenticity. Otherwise though, this is a scattershot exercise by comparison, replacing Antonioni’s spatial precision with a rapacious appetite for stimulation and diversion – the film alternates between black and white, breaks into split screens, flashes compulsively on items such as Underground signs or light bulbs, and drenches almost every available wall in movie posters or pop art prints; the staging of chases and fights and other action is notably imprecise and unconvincing. But the greatest lag on the movie is the plot – a wan and unproductively confusing affair that kicks off when Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant) discovers a nightclub owner murdered in his office, along with Jane (Ewa Aulin) who claims she doesn’t do it: pursued by various heavies, the two take off to solve the mystery, while occasionally pausing to indulge their erotic attraction. But the two never register as more than stock figures in a dubbed landscape, the Godardian device of having Trintignant spout quotes from the likes of Mao or (yes) Antonioni counting for absolutely nothing. Still, it has a kind of “let’s make a movie” glee that you seldom see now – a sense of the city and the culture as resources to be pilfered as one chooses, of a joy in movement and titillation and connection.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

La bande des quatres (Jacques Rivette, 1989)


La bande des quatres is a pure Rivettian pleasure, encompassing many of his recurring elements: the theatre as a space of intertwined challenge and refuge; an old house laden with mysteries; a sense of conspiracy and threat lurking at the edges of the film, but also an often playful sensibility. The four are all young women, sharing the house while attending the same theatre group, their lives tightly intertwined – at times there’s a sense of life and vocation in perfect equilibrium, but of course it’s unstable, threatened most explicitly by the shady connections of a fellow student and previous occupant of the house, but also by their essential immaturity and desire to retreat (one of the women came to France to escape an arranged marriage in her home country; another has a boyfriend she almost never sees, and so on). Both spaces are ultimately severely disrupted – their acting teacher gets dragged into the mess and taken away by the police, and their home space is essentially invaded and violated – leaving them to fend for themselves; the last scene, where they attempt to forge ahead, is both vulnerable and ominous. But the heart of the film is the rehearsal process, taking up a large portion of the running time, with viewing and participating carrying equal weight, sinking deep into the mysterious fulfilment of creation and interpretation, of melding the personal and the projected. There’s a sense of theatre and acting as a genuine source of empathetic unity, as the best protection against disturbance and breakdown (for example it’s revealed very late on, almost in passing, that one of the women goes by the name of a sister who went missing) – a breakdown which might even extend to the film’s own boundaries (one character talks about an artist called Frenhofer and a long-missing painting called La Belle Noiseuse, in effect creating a portal to Rivette’s next film). As with all his films, it’s a graceful, inexhaustible, fulfilling delight.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Black Jesus (Valerio Zurlini, 1968)


The original Italian title of Valerio Zurlini’s dramatization of the death of Lalubi, a charismatic anti-colonial rebel leader, translates as “Seated to his right,” a title that somewhat subtly evokes the religious charge that runs through the film, while also pointing to the film’s major misstep, that for all its strong desire to positively and respectfully portray Lalubi, it tends to diminish him through misdirection and misemphasis. To enumerate, there’s the casting of Woody Strode (who embodies the role in an effective, beatific manner, but at no time seems to belong to the culture being portrayed); the significant over-reliance on white perspectives (in particular those of the Dutch commander who agonizes in Pilate-style about his role in delivering Lalubi to his fate, and a fellow cellmate who trades his secret stash of pornographic photos to a guard to obtain some oil to apply to Lalubi’s wounds); and the fact that the religious analogy, no matter how occasionally effective on its own terms, blurs local political realities rather than clarifying our understanding of them. Still, Zurlini does invest the film with a potent, spare, power. His most effective device may come at the very end, following the film’s enactment of Lalubi’s “crucifixion,” evoking his resurrection through a little boy, clad all in white, who stands bearing silent witness, and in the end escapes from the soldier’s guns into the distance, embodying a distinctness and freedom capable of surviving the machinations of colonial occupiers and their cynical collaborators. The film is best known as Black Jesus, and an American release poster featured the tagline “He who ain’t with me – is against me,” suggesting a (perhaps not unreasonable) wish for a far more confrontational film than Zurlini actually delivered (the alternative release title “Super Brother” further pushed that angle). Still, the film’s limitations are interesting enough in their own right, in embodying the difficulty of exposing colonial injustice from the outside (the film’s missteps are far less egregious than those of Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, to take a better-known example).

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Perfect (James Bridges, 1985)


James Bridges’ 1985 film Perfect has some weighty ambitions: to explore confused journalistic ethics by contrasting a reporter’s principled behaviour in one weighty situation (involving a high-profile businessman under indictment) with his carelessness on another story (a lifestyle piece about California health clubs) that’s objectively less important, but in which lives and reputations might nevertheless be damaged; at the same time, the film is in part itself an investigation of that health club milieu, seemingly fascinated by its embodiment of how the casual sexuality of the 60’s and 70’s is becoming a mechanized commodity, summed up by so many shots of hot young bodies all moving in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, the film undermines its journalistic strand through endless over-simplification, and while the health club strand could have been anthropologically interesting, Bridges doesn’t maintain any critical distance from the period’s drab musical and aesthetic norms (put another way, the movie too often seems like a wildly extended video for Olivia Newton-John’s Physical). The reporter in question, Adam (John Travolta), works for Rolling Stone, here prominently playing itself (the cooperation provided to the movie seems a little surprising now, given how badly the magazine comes off in some respects, but perhaps that testifies to its sense of impregnability at the time) and in a way the film serves itself best simply by the relative amount of time it devotes to staring at words on Adam’s computer screen – it takes the craft seriously enough to immerse us in what seem like real extracts from real Rolling Stone articles, even if the movie around them scarcely conveys where they could possibly have come from. However, it does less well by its main female character, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, her initial strong physical presence and emphasized sexual self-determination ultimately devolving into an almost wordless ornamentation, admiringly waiting for her man.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986)


Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties is a committed deliverance of classic musical-genre pleasures: an appealingly artificial setting (in this case an indoor shopping mall) within which multiple intertwining romance narratives play out, never more than ten minutes or so from the next immediately alluring yet hardly posterity-embracing song. Akerman inhabits and appropriates the form so fully that one might almost overlook how insecurity and fracture infiltrates the movie. That’s partly political and sociological in nature, with numerous references to property taxes and exchange rates and general economic uncertainty; emphasizing the existential unpredictability, the mall is at times desolately empty, and at others so packed that characters can’t stand and talk without being helplessly carried away from each other. Something similar goes for the relationships that drive the plot: they’re all either compromised or doomed, and the film contains various moments of unusual emotional directness and rawness (interestingly, its superficially “toughest” character, a money man with rumoured mob connections, is shown as its most brittle). In the end, two separated characters are reunited, but the ultimate focus is elsewhere, moving into the open air for the first time, observing exclusion and regret rather than fulfilment (in which the movie suggests little lasting confidence) and ending on an expression of inevitability, that love and connection will go on as surely as commerce - and perhaps, it’s implied, with as little inherent joy (another main character pines for her lover who writes to her from Canada, but by the end is no longer sure whether she even wants him to come back). The film’s least compromised pleasure is found in groups – four guys who are perpetually together, commenting on the action in the manner of an updated barbershop quartet; the troop of young women at the hair salon, barely observed as individuals but filling the screen in joyfully coordinated manner when joined together in performance…perhaps this is the film’s most subtle comment on the not-so-golden ideology of its era.