Wednesday, December 29, 2021

May Morning (Ugo Liberatore, 1970)

For much of its length, Ugo Liberatore’s May Morning seems largely anthropological in intent, closely observing the architecture, social texture and embalmed oddities of Oxford University, apparently boundlessly fascinated with the rowing and the punting and the dining halls, with the contrasts between the very proper dons (that’s what they call the teachers) and fashion-channeling students, with such rituals as the “sconce,” in which a social wrongdoer is punished by being made to drink a large amount of ale. The film’s outsider perspective, embodied in an Italian protagonist, Valerio, who struggles to fit in, is illuminating up to a point, although the fact of many of the actors being dubbed into English introduces a counter-productive sense of distancing. It’s not just the central presence of Jane Birkin (playing Flora Finlake, a student who happens also to be the daughter of Valerio’s tutor) that suggests Antonioni’s lurking influence (although given that Zabriskie Point was released a little later, the occasional similarities in that regard must be coincidental); the “swinging” elements become more prominent as the film goes on, with actions dictated by alcohol and anger and horniness, ultimately feeling like a rather disembodied, twisted reverie. Liberatore certainly takes pains to emphasize the institution’s repressed aspects, having a character observe that dons were traditionally prevented from marrying, and throwing plenty of baggage into the Finlake household; Valerio is presented as being rather supercilious and academically lazy, but his main transgression is simply his exotic otherness and its threat to cozy continuity, attributes which ultimately mark him as a suitable “sacrificial victim” (as the film’s poster put it). In that respect, May Morning’s unexpectedly wide scope also encompasses links to the later Wicker Man and other localized, ceremonial horrors (interesting that the University's term for expulsion is “rustication”); other aspects though, such as the prominence of the Tremeloes on the soundtrack, seem now to maroon it back in time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)

 


The final note of Georges Franju’s Judex, following an elegantly romantic happy ending on a beach, is a reminder of the “unhappy time” of 1914 that gave rise to Louis Feuillade’s original silent film serial, reminding us of the severe global turmoil and threat that originally underlay such inventions, and that if we should feel inclined to dismiss them as pure genre fancifulness, they’re rooted in humankind’s darkest capacities. The point could perhaps be missed, because although Franju’s version has no shortage of venality – such as a rich man coldly running over his car over an old peasant who’s antagonized him – it doesn’t consistently evoke the pervasively disquieting societal threat that marks the original (and the most comparable works of Fritz Lang), being set instead in a rather charmingly disembodied world defined entirely by the narrative’s demands. At times Franju emphasizes pure whimsicality, perhaps best summed up by the scene in which a detective is standing in the street, at a loss over how to reach the upper floor of a building to carry out an urgent intervention, and a circus troop happens to wander by, including a star female acrobat who’s an old friend of his (problem solved!). Likewise, for a master operator, the titular Judex is quite charmingly fallible at times, letting his grand antagonist escape from custody and easily getting overpowered and knocked out at one key point (again, a good thing that acrobat came along). Other parts of the film – the eagle-headed magician that captivates the crowd at a grand ball; skin-tight costumed figures climbing walls or clambering across rooftops – are pure cinematic iconography, only notionally rooted in the surrounding narrative, and perhaps all the more striking for that. It all adds to a quite singular creation, nostalgia and retrospection inherent in its conception, without in any way diluting its vivid sense of presence.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Haut bas fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995)

 

Haut bas fragile is one of Jacques Rivette’s most beautiful assertions of the world as a playground, so easily and constantly enjoyable that its radical strangeness is rapidly absorbed or overlooked. Just as a small example, the film would generally be labeled as a musical, but the first such number doesn’t arise until well over an hour into the film, and one of the three main characters (all followed through separate, occasionally intertwining narratives) is excluded from any singing or dancing…except that she’s haunted by a song she’s had in her head since childhood, that she believes might lead her to her birth mother, thus in a sense making her story the most purely musical of all. The film teems with elements of quasi-mythology or fairy-tale - a woman waking up after years in a coma, finding herself the owner of a mystery-filled house left to her by a deceased aunt; a mysterious underground society where the members engage in a form of Russian roulette (it turns out to be a fake, but still…); peculiar encounters with men, or with cats – but never feels like a work of frivolity or denial, with none of the three strands providing perfect closure. On the contrary, all three women in a sense choose to defer discovery and accountability, all the better to keep moving unpredictably through life (nevertheless, one comes away with the general sense of a happy ending, as one would wish). The highly theatrical dance choreography forms its own interrogation of life and cinema: one character moves as if openly trying to possess the entire floor, another oscillates between minimal moves and sudden extreme, jagged poses, as if to preserve an element of surprise; all of which (in combination with the quirkily beguiling songs) render the musical sequences not so much an adornment or expressive addition, but a counterpointing source of mystery and reverie. The cast (including Marianne Denicourt and Anna Karina) is almost pure delight.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Walking a Tightrope (Nikos Papatakis, 1991)

 

Nikos Papatakis’ Walking a Tightrope in fact figuratively walks (or runs, or leaps) across a series of them, stretched across a strange, highly iconoclastic variety of narrative and thematic divides and contrasts. The film does feature a fair amount of literal tightrope walking: famous author Marcel Spardice (Michel Piccoli) fixates on and later seduces Franz-Ali, a young man who catches his eye while picking up elephant dung at the circus, and then invests much time and resources in helping Franz-Ali work toward his high-wire dream. But with Franz-Ali failing to fulfil Marcel’s vision for him, and another young lover appearing on the horizon, Marcel’s attention moves on, and Franz-Ali eventually ends up back where he started, except that it’s unbearable now, and only obliteration awaits. There’s much genuine longing and loveliness in the film - not least in the character of Helene (Polly Walker), initially little more than a procurer for Marcel (it’s clear how those with power and connections manipulate the system to their advantage), but later overcome by a doomed love for Franz-Ali – and much personal and societal pain. The film counterpoints Marcel’s initial pursuit with a damning portrait of engrained racism – Franz-Ali’s mixed ethnicity causes him to be randomly rounded up and thrown into jail, after which a policeman volunteers to his German-born mother that as bad as the Nazis were, her dilution of racial purity by marrying an Arab is a worse sin. But this aspect of the film rather recedes as it goes on, while certainly remaining implicit in Franz-Ali’s decline – for instance, even at the height of her love for him, a large part of Helene’s plan is to have him work as a uniformed manservant either for her or her sister. That’s just one aspect of Papatakis’ consistent confounding of expectations, of his highly singular, energized sense of cinematic and emotional form and balance.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Little Night Music (Harold Prince, 1977)

 

Stephen Sondheim’s sublime A Little Night Music surely had (and retains) the capacity to spawn a beautiful film version, but in the hands of original stage director Harold Prince it’s a mostly glum affair. If nothing else, the film might have taken something from Ingmar Bergman’s spawning Smiles of a Summer Night, the theatrical styling of which almost seems to anticipate the likelihood of the later musical; more broadly, Bergman’s film carries an acute sense of moral investigation, of sex as an object of the most elevated seriousness, but one inherently reliant on a degree of evasion and stylization. That’s all there in the musical’s underlying text, but Prince’s blocking and filming are largely static; the film feels starved of breath, let alone of joy. The casting hardly helps, particularly (and there’s no pleasure in piling on in this regard) that of Elizabeth Taylor as the famous actress and object of desire Desiree Armfeldt – Taylor seems here like an inert actress and entirely indifferent singer, a miscasting exacerbated by preserving the stage version’s Len Cariou as her fated lover Ferderick Egerman (Cariou is evidently too young for the role, among much else, seven years younger than Taylor and only fifteen older than Lesley-Anne Down, also ineffectively cast as Egerman’s inappropriately young and virginal wife, which doesn’t help that aspect of the film either). Of course, some of the songs can take care of myself, and Prince lands the occasional scene, but it’s much less than should have been expected. It’s no doubt inevitable that some of the original’s songs had to be sacrificed, but still, the omission of The Miller’s Song and Remember seems most regrettable, and the cutting of Hermione Gingold’s Liaisons leaves the character of Desiree’s mother entirely gutted (it’s tempting to read several peculiar close-ups of a disengaged-looking Gingold as a sad acknowledgement of this).  

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Tale of Springtime (Eric Rohmer, 1990)

 

Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime may bring to mind the maxim driving his earlier Full Moon In Paris –“He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind.” Jeanne, a young philosophy teacher, can’t stay in her own place because she lent it to a cousin, and doesn’t want to sleep at her messy boyfriend’s place while he’s away, so she accepts a sleepover invitation from Natasha, a music student she meets at a party, and then remains for a week, getting drawn into the complications between Natasha and her father and his younger girlfriend Eve, whom Natasha detests, suspecting her in particular of stealing a family heirloom necklace. Despite the promise of the title, the film is among the more withholding of Rohmer’s late works, partly reflecting the relative severity of its protagonist – when philosophy is discussed here, it’s as much for display as anything else, with Eve flaunting how her knowledge is greater than Natasha’s. The film develops a sense of escalating pressure – the larger the canvas of possibility that Natasha presents for Jeanne (including the notion that Jeanne might replace Eve as her father’s partner), the more restricting it starts to seem; release only arrives through a freak event that absolves everyone of guilt, emphasizing the prominence of chance and caprice in our lives, and the traps inherent in human intellect and perception. Still, when in the end the film realizes its title by having Jeanne return to familiar territory, replacing a vase of withered old flowers with some bright new ones, it’s a less satisfactory arrival point than Rohmer customarily provides, with the nature of Jeanne’s inner renewal rather hard to glean (other than that, in some general sense, she’s found a way to modestly evade the inner confinement that arises from a life hemmed in by logistics and infrastructure).

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)

 

Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town might seem overly self-referential in numerous respects: it’s a risk inherent in movies about movie-making, amplified here by the use of Minnelli’s own The Bad and the Beautiful to denote former and perhaps no longer attainable glories. The film transcends that trap partly because its love of the cinematic process is so palpable, immersing us in the atmosphere around the set and such things as the mechanics of dubbing; more broadly in the way that even a once-great filmmaker might lose his way with actors, with the cinematic apparatus itself. Minnelli himself of course evidences no such decline here, generating one amazingly expressive widescreen composition after another, culminating in a wildly self-purging nighttime car ride staged as a deliriously abstracted, swirling spectacle. It’s a work built on multiple personal fragilities, Kirk Douglas’ Jack Andrus leaving a high-end clinic (shades of Minnelli’s earlier The Cobweb) and coming to Rome (depicted here as a site of churn and displacement and shifting relationships) in the hope of resurrecting his Oscar-winning but now devastated acting career under the guidance of Edward G. Robinson’s legendary director Maurice Kruger. Virtually from arrival, Andrus is taunted by actual or metaphoric reminders of past traumas; the elements aligning, as if guided by a therapeutic universe, to allow him a chance of comprehensive personal and professional renewal, before further setbacks point the way to a final equilibrium. The Andrus-Kruger interactions provide a memorably toxic central plank, the two men loving and resenting each other in roughly equal measure, Kruger’s outreach at once redeeming and destructive – he’s last seen in bed staring off into space after delivering his final blow, like a man imploding from the force of his own impossibility (and left under the thumb of his wife, with whom he has – if it’s possible – an even more spectacularly passive-aggressive relationship).

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Conte d'hiver (Eric Rohmer, 1992)


Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’hiver starts with some of the most carnal moments in all his work, of a young couple plainly in love and lust, naked in and out of bed, seemingly at utter physical and emotional ease with one another; we rapidly discover it’s a vacation romance, with only the address Felicie gives Charles at the end to ensure its continuity (he doesn’t have a fixed address, and she can’t even accurately recall his surname). Five years later, we learn she mistakenly gave him the wrong information, and they haven’t found each other since, even as his picture dwells in her daughter’s room, so that the girl will always know who her father was. Even as she juggles two other men (dumping one in order to impulsively move out of Paris with the other, and then changing her mind and returning after two days), Charles and the possibility of reuniting with him remain preeminent in her mind – Rohmer’s gracefully involved dialogues explore whether this is mere romantic folly, or a mark of faith that might even be rooted in the immortality of the human soul. Felicie regards herself as relatively stupid, especially compared to her bookish friend Loic, but through her commitment to her own instincts and ideals ultimately evidences a greater capacity to shape her world – he’s professedly religious and she isn’t, but she’s the one who prays in the course of the film, and urges him to go to Mass on Sunday (Pascal’s wager, much discussed in Ma nuit chez Maud, also comes back under the microscope). Against this backdrop, the statistically improbable ending hardly needs to be emphasized as a happy one, with an immediate sense of life moving on. In the end, the narrative distance traveled perhaps isn’t much greater than a carelessly calculated romantic comedy might traverse, but it’s a far greater journey in all other respects.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986)

 

Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls might be one of the finest-ever studies of a workplace, regardless that the work in question is prostitution, sold out of a discreetly upscale apartment; in just an hour and a half, it encompasses an astounding range of incident and interaction and attitude, facilitating an improbably complete sense of the establishment as a multi-faceted meeting place and as economic matrix. It convincingly captures the mundane rhythms and rituals of the place: the different practices that kick in when the boss isn’t around, lunch orders, runs to the pharmacy, breaking in of new recruits, requests to stay late; all as naturalistically textured as if Borden had been observing it all her life. The women are convincingly diverse in their race, motivations, attitudes toward the job (some hide it from their significant others, some don’t; some use their real names, some don’t), where they draw the line with the clients; the clients in turn range from needy (there are frequent requests to meet the women outside, based in a belief that these are real connections, held back by the artificiality of the setting) to entitled to entirely businesslike. The film is explicit about the job’s physical requirements, meticulous in tracking the money (the central character Molly enters everything in a little book, depositing her takings on the way home); it’s often funny in the way that workplaces usually are, and of course deadly serious. While Borden’s style is generally intimately naturalistic, the scenes between the women and clients are sometimes consciously posed, coaxing us to view those encounters as structural constructs, and to interrogate our own gaze on them. Her amazing film ends as it began, in the midst of domestic intimacy, establishing all that we’ve seen as a common extension of that state, and uncomfortably sharing many of its attributes.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Maso et Miso vont en bateau (Delphine Seyrig Nadja Ringart Carole Roussopoulos Ioana Wieder, 1975)

 

The irresistible Maso et Miso vont en bateau takes off from a jaw-dropping 1975 French TV show marking the end of the UN’s “Year of the Woman”, introduced by Bernard Pivot, pitting the Secrétaire d'État à la Condition féminineFrancoise Giroud, against various misogynistic provocations. Perhaps in part out of a desire to appear convivial, Giroud provides accommodating and passive responses to even the worst excesses, such that even Pivot seems taken aback and tries to prompt her otherwise, with little success. Maso et Miso preserves the event in what seems like reasonably complete form, while replaying various cringe-inducing moments for maximum effect, and disrupting the flow with written and aural counterpoints; the overall effect is funny, outraged, sarcastic, disgusted, and deadly serious. The fact of the movie being the product of four woman directors, all identified only by their first names (Delphine Seyrig is the best known of the four) makes its own statement, placing it firmly outside traditional modes of industrial production (the closing scrawl throws Giroud a conciliatory bone, suggesting that no woman could have succeeded in representing a feminine viewpoint under such circumstances); that’s in common to the female director of Pivot’s show, whom he conspicuously praises for her professionalism, before in the next breath commenting on her beauty, apparently on the basis that if this weren’t explicitly stated, then everyone would necessarily assume that a competent woman must be unattractive. The film is crammed with moments – such as the chef who argues that a woman can’t be a great cook because she’s perpetually distracted by questions such as what stockings to wear (a premise absorbed by Giroud with barely a peep) – that would be hilarious if they didn’t speak to such a wasteland of lived experience; when Giroud pronounces at the end that “the fight continues,” it’s impossible to know what she has in mind, but at least Maso et Miso vont en bateau breathes life into the statement.


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Getting Straight (Richard Rush, 1970)


Richard Rush’s 1970 Getting Straight is a key document of its era, capturing despite all its flaws a feverish drive for self-expression, drawing on the momentum of the civil rights and other social movements, and the existential threat of the Vietnam draft. In the film’s protagonist Harry (Elliott Gould), a Vietnam veteran now back in college, the movement finds a chaotic focal point, with Harry to some extent suppressing his own sympathies for the sake of getting through the process and becoming a teacher (even if he can barely explain why he's bothering), even as his personal insecurities and challenges manifest themselves in almost constant abrasiveness. Much of this display now looks misogynistic and homophobic, with Harry for example throwing off the low incidence of homosexuality in Arizona as one of the state’s great virtues, and ultimately suffering a dramatic meltdown when pressured to buy into a particular interpretation of The Great Gatsby; even less palatable is his constant belittlement of his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) (for which, despite all his remaining challenges, the movie ultimately lets him off the hook). Likewise, we’re apparently encouraged to share Harry’s view that the creation of a Black Studies department, on which a group of students are focused, wouldn’t amount to much of anything – his tossed-off remark that he was at Selma seems like a flippant way of throwing him some moral authority in this respect. The film’s view of social possibilities seems rather amusingly limited now, with a standardized life in the suburbs held up as a kind of default state to be consciously resisted. Still, the film has lots of probingly intelligent writing, and its rambunctious energy persists, with compelling scenes of confrontation between police and protestors; it may be an emblematic time capsule movie, but one conveying a transferable sense of the “fierce urgency of now,” of the hunger to rise against complacency.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sois belle et tais-toi (Delphine Seyrig, 1976)

 

The title of Delphine Seyrig’s Sois belle et tais-toi! establishes its core purpose – to present a cross-section of the experiences of female actors and thereby to bring out the industry’s male-dominated complacency. The whimsical selection of interviewees (22 in all) places Oscar-winning giants (Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Shirley MacLaine – although MacLaine’s footage appears to have been obtained from another source, and sits rather uncomfortably in this context) with others who had few film credits at the time, or since, a diversity in security and opportunity that arguably outweighs the points of commonality. With an average overall time allocation of just over 5 minutes each (some get more, some much less), it’s inevitable too that the emphasis is mostly on the anecdotal and impressionistic, which (along with the extremely unadorned photography and title design) is the source of much of the film’s eccentric charm, and its objective limitations. For example, several speakers cite the likes of Newman and Redford and McQueen as examples of careers and opportunities generally denied to women, but then it’s also true that the vast majority of male actors were no less excluded from such rarified heights. Still, it remains rather poignant to see several of them racking their brains when trying to remember if they ever spent any meaningful non-adversarial screen time with another woman. There’s plenty more there too for in-the-know viewers, such as Fonda’s sadly hilarious account of Fred Zinnemann’s neurotic approach to making Julia, or Juliet Berto critiquing Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating (the notion of female directors is cited only briefly). The last word goes to Burstyn, widening the scope somewhat by positing that the momentum belongs to women and that the future of the planet depends on it, on its own terms a harmlessly overreaching piece of rhetoric which comes across here as a final touch of whimsicality.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960)

 

Comanche Station was the last of the seven films that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together, and represents the collaboration at its most breathtakingly minimal and at times moving. Once again, Scott’s hero (in this case labeled Jefferson Cody) rides alone, for reasons rooted in tragic loss; once again there’s a woman in peril (in this case rescued from her Comanche captors, the object being to return her to her husband); once again paths are crossed with more venal antagonists focused on collecting the reward for themselves (which entails, once again, a transactional aspect to the placement of the woman, both in terms of the bounty attached to her, and in how the men use their interactions with her as a reference point for assessing masculinity). This might all be slighted as limited variations on a narrow theme, but in Boetticher’s hands the repetition takes on a mythic grandeur, as if obsessively shuffling and sifting through the pieces in search of an elusive perfection (in this sense, if in no other, they may bring to mind Raffaello Matarazzo’s series of pictures with Yvonne Sanson). Comanche Station draws set-ups and exchanges from its predecessors (including the final showdown with the primary villain, played by Claude Akins) with little variation, but with only five main characters, the process of honing down feels almost complete, and the woman’s ultimate return to her family is transcendent. The film has a particularly stark existential charge, mulling on the meagre tangible rewards of living a lawful life rather than a criminal one, embodied in the young Dobie (a quietly heartrending Richard Rust), who yearns to be righteous and justified, but finds himself stranded in a world that hardly allows it. That’s just one aspect of the otherness that defines the Scott-Boetticher cycle; there’s little attempt here to engage with the motivations of the Comanche, and the perspective on women is severely limiting, however quaintly noble.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

La femme infidele (Claude Chabrol, 1969)

 

Claude Chabrol's La femme infidele is one of the director's most exactingly sparse and ambiguous works, such that the ending may seem rather startlingly premature - it's no surprise that Hollywood was drawn to expand on the structure (in the 2002 Unfaithful). Helene and Charles (Stephane Audran and Michel Bouquet), living in a big house in Versailles with their young son, have a perfect marriage by most conventional measures, but Charles' first doubt about his wife's fidelity is triggered just moments into the film, rapidly supplemented by others, and then by the findings of a private detective. He makes contact with her lover Victor (Maurice Ronet), convivially introducing himself and dropping hints of an open arrangement within which everything's fine; the sense is that Charles possibly wishes this to be true, that he knows himself to be a kind of beneficiary from the time Helene spends with Victor, but things go wrong, Victor ends up dead, and events follow their doomed course. The film's eerie final image suggests an iconic image of wife and family both preserved and imperiled, unchanging and yet on the verge of being lost, summing up how Charles' drastic act of preservation has become the opposite, shattering a functional closed system, letting in an all-consuming destabilization. In a sense his action fits the label (and no doubt would be defended in court as) a crime of passion, but passion is one quality the film conspicuously lacks; even the aspects of spontaneity in the relationship appear calculated and measured out (but then, for that matter, Helene and Victor's affair seems almost as regimented). Chabrol provides a strange counterpoint in the form of Charles' office assistant Brigit, grotesquely caricatured as an airhead in short skirts, sexually tested and found wanting by a colleague, perhaps representing sexuality at its most conventionally available and free of mystery, and therefore almost inevitably meaningless.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Guess who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967)


It’s hard to know now how to react to Stanley Kramer’s Guess who’s Coming to Dinner, in which a couple of wealthy white liberals (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) are informed by their daughter that she plans to marry a Black man (Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice), and must rapidly decide whether or not to give their blessing. Regardless of what one thinks of this basic premise, the film is a ridiculously stacked deck, contriving a situation where they’re hit with the news out of nowhere and have only a few hours to process it before the young couple fly off to a new life together, such that even the most trustingly open-minded parent might feel a little anxiety at the speed of things. Given the film’s almost complete isolation from the real world, it’s hard to assess the veracity of the recurring claims about the problems that would confront an inter-racial marriage; it’s clear enough though that the couple under examination here would move within circles far more elevated and monied and connected than those of the average love-struck transgressors. Perhaps it’s telling that the element that now feels most biting and provocative is the secondary character of the housekeeper, Tillie, referred to in rote manner as a “member of the family” but plainly not that in any real sense; she has the most viscerally negative reaction to Prentice’s arrival (she’s the only one who uses the N-word), her enmity apparently rooted in a subjugation so engrained that any sign of progress elsewhere feels like a personal attack. But she’s hardly at the centre of the film, her ultimate function being to sit quietly through Tracy’s climactic “glory of love” speech, and then to get the dinner served. It’s all interesting enough on some level, even if for every aspect of relative awareness and enlightenment, the film provides another one of timidity or cluelessness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Inspecteur Lavardin (Claude Chabrol, 1986)

 


In Claude Chabrol’s first go-round with Jean Poiret’s Inspecteur Lavardin, Poulet au vinaigre, the character flagrantly roughs up suspects and tramples over the rule book, ultimately solving the big case but letting one of the guilty parties off the hook altogether, based on his own notion of morality (or, just as likely, his assessment that some people are just too idiotic to be marked as criminals). At the start of the second film, there’s a brief reference to how those previous excesses earned him a transfer, but no sign that he’s in any way reformed, his ultimate solution to the crime this time being to frame an innocent man to whom he’s taken a dislike. Perhaps the film’s most intriguing aspect is the apparent utter lack of self-examination surrounding this denouement, and the absence of any sense that Chabrol means us to reflect on its wider implications; not for the first time with the director, it’s hard to know where manipulation shades into indifference. Certainly the presence of Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont, both of whom worked with the director at the dawn of his career, suggests a broader and more personal context, but the latter in particular is kept at a strange distance. The film plays enjoyably enough with the genre’s inherent affinity with voyeurism, through its use of mirrors and hidden cameras and the Brialy character’s strange hobby of crafting eyeballs – Lavardin’s major breakthrough comes simply from rewinding a video tape and sitting down (alone, in darkness) to see what’s on it. But the revelation of guilt hardly seems to matter, given its lack of correlation with punishment and justice, in the context of a town where well-known moralists turn out to be kingpins of the sex and drug scene, where people long presumed dead secretly live on, and so forth.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Prizzi's Honor (John Huston, 1985)

 

Prizzi’s Honor was largely acclaimed at the time as a late career peak for director John Huston, and one can certainly admire the sense of unflustered control that he brings to it; however, it’s awfully hard now to determine whether the expertise yields much more than a sustained impenetrable blankness. Essentially it’s a single premise film (and not a premise of great inherent interest or wider applicability) - a cold-blooded amorality (under the guise of family unity and honor) that permeates and subsumes all else, from the exercise of business to that of love and marriage. High-ranking mobster Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) falls for Irene (Kathleen Turner), a glamorous stranger he glimpses at a family wedding, and soon determines he can’t live without her, even as it comes to light that she’s herself a professional assassin, and responsible for embezzling money from the all-powerful Prizzi family for which he works, so that he would typically be knocking her off rather than wanting to marry her. Huston carries the inscrutability to a surely counter-productive extent, such that the final, potentially tragedy-tinged machinations between Charley and Irene become almost entirely abstract and meaningless (especially as Nicholson’s initially amusing performance rapidly becomes monotonous, and Turner doesn’t get much opportunity to flesh out her character); it’s rendered somewhat more interesting though by the sense that Huston might know exactly that, and is almost daring the audience to find him wanting. The script’s steady flow of deadpan incongruities (“I didn’t get married so my wife could go on working,” protests Charley, as Irene plans out a role for herself in an upcoming atrocity) marks it as a comedy of sorts, but one devoid of any relief, stifling laughter as thoroughly as it does moral accountability. Anjelica Huston’s supporting actress Oscar now seems as peculiar as much else about the film.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Property is No Longer a Theft (Elio Petri, 1973)

 

Elio Petri’s Property is No Longer a Theft may at times seem overly didactic and single-minded, but then it’s dealing with a subject that properly continues to inspire such obsessive frustration – the all-pervading, all-defining influence of capitalism, such that it’s unclear whether “I am” and “I have” can be meaningfully distinguished as forms of identification. It’s embodied here by Ugo Tognazzi’s Macellaio, who continues to work a day job in his butcher shop (a bit improbably perhaps, but the recurring association with raw meat makes its own point) while amassing a huge portfolio of property and material assets, much of it in some way shady, so that when Total, a former bank clerk, keeps on targeting him as a subject of (relatively petty) theft, Macellaio's main concern is about the police getting too close. Macellaio embodies the self-righteousness that’s only become more prominent since then, certain that his defining role in the structure absolves him of all other sins (of course, his self-justification of himself in Biblical terms omits any consideration of the passage about a camel going through the eye of a needle) – his sexuality is as much a matter of distorted commodification as everything else, with his mistress explicitly viewing herself as a worker who clocks in and out. At the same time, it’s persuasively suggested that society relies almost as much on petty criminals, not least because they provide a constant stream of easy distraction from what the real crooks are getting away with. Total, meanwhile, obtains little gratification or lasting benefit from his actions – he’s even afflicted with an allergy to money itself, its proximity sending him into chronic itching. At various times Petri disrupts the reality to have the main characters address the audience directly from a disembodied space, although you might argue the film hardly needs such accusatory Brechtian underlining. Still, the cumulative effect is suitably, drainingly powerful.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Into the Night (John Landis, 1985)

 


Into the Night certainly isn’t among John Landis’ more prominent movies, but it’s one of the more tonally interesting ones, even if it would have taken more directorial bite and finesse to raise it to anywhere near greatness. Jeff Goldblum’s Ed is a sleep-deprived aerospace engineer, his fatigue causing him to make mistakes at work, and rendering him almost incapable of reacting when he finds out his wife is having an affair; one night he drives to the airport, vaguely inspired by a friend’s suggestion that he should just randomly get on a plane, and suddenly has a stranger (Michelle Pfeiffer) jump into his car, on the run from a quartet of Iranian assassins, which is just the entry point into an entire parallel world of super-wealth and murderous intrigue. The film works well enough on a narrative level, but often feels as if it’s reaching beyond that for something elementally creative, for a sense that Ed’s only hope for rising from stagnation lies in leaving all familiar reference points behind and embracing whatever chaotic possibility emerges from the darkness; by setting part of the movie on a film-within-the-film movie set, and in particular by casting dozens of movie directors in small roles, Landis seems to suggest a professional self-examination that aligns with the personal one. Even if such ambition isn’t entirely realized, the movie maintains an appealing air of thoughtfulness, embodied in Goldblum’s air of absent preoccupation, seemingly not sure whether he’s dreaming or awake, inhabiting fiction or reality. Such uncertainty might be abetted by the film’s odd tonal shifts, depicting the assassins in quasi-buffoonish manner, and yet rather chillingly callous in its violence at other times. On top of all that, one would have to appreciate any movie that cast David Bowie as another killer called “Colin Morris”, last seen in a fight to the death with a bodyguard played by Carl Perkins, setting off a whole other chain of associations.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Jeanne La Pucelle: Les Batailles (Jacques Rivette, 1994)

 

As superbly realized by Jacques Rivette, Jeanne d’Arc is both a figure of immense psychological and historical specificity, and a forerunner of the kind of behavioural mystery that populates much of his great contemporary-set work. The mystery of how an illiterate young woman could have acquired such vision and purpose is integral to her longevity as a cinematic icon, and Rivette allows room for a range of readings and responses; for example, she convinces the “Dauphin”, whom she aspires to restore to the throne, of her legitimacy by privately revealing something to him that (in his words) only God would know, but the film withholds the details of what that actually consists of. Sandrine Bonnaire perfectly embodies Jeanne’s stubborn fortitude, while also conveying her fragility and immaturity, her feelings easily hurt by enemy insults, entirely believable when she says she would rather have been at home sewing; the physical immediacy of her presence channels that of the film around her - the climactic battle scene captures as few others ever have the sheer smallness and intimacy of war at that time, the primitiveness of the weapons and tools at hand, the physical closeness between adversaries, the overwhelming fatigue. This vividness meshes with Rivette’s recurring interest in theatre and performance, with Jeanne clearly aware of herself as a projection, styled and dressed to fit the desired image, keenly aware of the power of symbolism in forging reality (such as her insistence in using that term “Dauphin” until the circumstances justify its replacement by “King.”) For all its seriousness though, the film isn’t without a streak of deadpan socially-based comedy, particularly in the varied reactions of the male soldiers to the impassioned female in their midst (she instructs one of them in toning down what she sees as his overly colourful use of expletives).

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

 

A film like Martin Ritt’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold takes on an additionally bleak resonance in the post-Trump presidency period, where every day provides added evidence of how easily principle is abandoned, corruption is embraced, and black is proclaimed as white: one major difference is that whereas Ritt’s film describes a world of grubby little men mostly operating in shabby circumstances, our modern day schemers and traitors stand proudly under the coldly facilitating lights of social media. Without such present-day reference points, such cold war films might increasingly seem to retreat into pure dated abstraction, endless games of positioning in which the assessment of political (let alone moral) ground won versus lost becomes impossibly rarified and subjective. Spy who Came in from the Cold – revolving around a field officer now (apparently) out of the game, his personal weaknesses perhaps driving him to flirt with treachery -  remains one of the more compelling examples of the genre, not least for the wondrously drab depiction of working-class Britain, with several references to the low wages for which people toil away, and an almost total absence of any sense of pleasure and fulfilment beyond what alcohol provides, all of which squashes any sense of ideological idealism; indeed, the most biting enmity in the film is between an ex-Nazi and a Jew who now find themselves (officially at least) on the same side, old prejudices and resentments at best only temporarily suspended. For all the film’s condensed and stylized aspects, it conveys a compelling sense of pervasive societal unease and insecurity, capable of pushing people toward extreme action, even if they could hardly explain the specific logic of those actions. Richard Burton, seldom an ideal film actor, is at his most effective here, his stiffness befitting a character consumed by self-loathing and cynicism.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Un jeu brutal (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983)

 

The title of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Un jeu brutal might refer both to the specific contrivance that’s ultimately revealed to drive the plot, and to the all-embracing, terrible wonder of creation – it’s a measure of Brisseau’s conviction, his odd brand of depraved poetry, that the duality doesn’t seem merely pretentious. Christian Tessier (Bruno Cremer) is a brilliant scientist who quits his role in cancer research (sacrificing potential saviour-status when his former colleagues shortly afterwards announce a breakthrough) and returns to live with his teenaged daughter Isabelle (a memorable Emmanuelle Debever), in whom he’s shown no interest for years; she’s paralyzed in both legs, her behaviour almost feral, and he imposes a new regime of order and education on her life, the faltering progress of which accelerates after she becomes more sexually aware (by virtue of secretly observing her young female teacher lounging naked in her room, and later through her partially reciprocated attraction to the teacher’s visiting brother). Meanwhile, on his frequent trips away, Tessier is carrying out a parallel project of slaughtering children, in what he ultimately reveals as a plan ordained (in improbable coded message form) by God. The film frequently pushes us to reflect on the cruelty of the natural order, and while Tessier clamps down on Isabelle’s nastiness to animals and lack of empathy, the object appears to be to harness and direct the darkness of one’s nature rather than to suppress it, for the purpose of more fully emerging into the light – Brisseau frequently bathes in the varied beauty of the landscapes around the house, from field to river to mountain, with individual scenes evoking concepts of baptism, or pilgrimage, or rebirth. It would be a stretch to call the film entirely admirable or credible, but it may linger in the mind longer than many more straightforwardly consideration-worthy works.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Brave (Johnny Depp, 1997)

 

Seen in retrospect, Johnny Depp’s The Brave (made when the actor was just about at his peak of coolness, preceding the commercial highs to come and the subsequent reputational collapse) seems suffused by a desire to withdraw – into silence (there’s little dialogue, and none at all for the first ten minutes or so), into myth and beyond. The film is set around a hand-to-mouth melting-pot community, the landscape dominated by mounds of garbage and shimmering heatscapes, which suddenly yield to something quasi-Lynchian as Depp’s unemployed and luckless Raphael, following on a tip he received in a bar, enters a strange building to ask about a job, descending into a symbolic hell in which he’s eventually offered $50,000 to extinguish himself in a snuff film in a week's time. Taking the offer and a cash advance on the basis of stunningly little negotiation, Raphael conspicuously spreads the money around, attracting various kinds of suspicion; at the end of the week, he’s strengthened his core spiritual bonds, while putting himself beyond redemption in other ways. The film resists the audience’s most likely expectations, whether for some kind of last-minute escape or for any depiction of what Raphael must finally endure; with his business with the world as we know it concluded, it leaves his final hell to him and his acquirers. Depp has an intriguing if patchy feeling for eccentricity, although it’s a rather distant viewing experience, even allowing that this is inherent to what’s intended. The film has at least one major see-it-if-you-can aspect, the casting of a long-haired Marlon Brando in one of his last roles, extending the fateful offer from a wheelchair, in between musing on pain as a virtuous end to life and blowing on a harmonica, a performance no doubt “phoned in” by some measures, and yet embodying Brando’s unmatched capacity to transform whatever cinematic space he (however peculiarly) chose to occupy.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Plaisir d'amour (Nelly Kaplan, 1991)

 

Nelly Kaplan’s last feature film, Plaisir d’amour, works an enjoyable if not ultimately too surprising variation on a self-gratifying male fantasy. Guillaume (Pierre Arditi), a practiced seducer (1,003 past conquests, we’re informed), chances into a position as tutor to a teenage girl on a tropical island; the girl is absent when he arrives, but while waiting for her arrival he separately beds, with little difficulty, her grandmother, mother and sister, all of whom share an elegantly dilapidated colonial mansion, with no male authority figure in sight. He figures he’ll step into the driver’s seat, but his attempts to impose greater order and efficiency get nowhere, and he becomes obsessed with the perpetually delayed girl (whose letters home and readily accessible diary indicates a psyche of a sexual rapaciousness that outdoes his own). The film suggests greater moral stakes through glimpses of fighting between the island’s army and its rebel faction, and through its late 1930’s setting, with WW2 percolating in the distance; and steadily muddies the sexual waters (both the women’s eccentric servant (Heinz Bennent) and their talking parrot appear to regard Guillaume as an object of desire); frequent references to Albert Einstein and a fanciful opening sequence throw in some scientific and mystical resonances as well. In the closing stretch, it becomes clear how little power and agency Guillaume has had throughout – he tips over into quasi-madness, and becomes a simple nuisance, his utility spent. It’s in no way a major film (not the equal of Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate, which is much more zestily provocative on its own terms, and more broadly resonant as a social critique), but it’s an elegant one, even if a lot of it plays very conventionally and decoratively (there’s seldom a moment when any of the women seem to be behaving entirely naturally, albeit that this fits in with the artificially heightened nature of things).

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Solid Gold Cadillac (Richard Quine, 1956)


For all its contrivances and simplifications, Richard Quine’s The Solid Gold Cadillac is notable as one of the few movies about shareholder democracy, its uplifting finale revolving around the collection of sufficient small-stake proxy voting forms to overturn the complacent status quo. Laura Partridge (Judy Holliday), on the basis of her meagre holding of ten shares, regularly attends the meetings of the mighty corporation International Projects, irritating the complacent board members with her probing questions about their compensation packages and the like; they eventually give her a job, on the theory that it’s the best way to stifle her, but her threat to the established order only grows, especially when she starts a relationship with the company’s ousted founder McKeever (Paul Douglas), now in a high-ranking but unsatisfying Washington position. The film unnecessarily blunts its attack by, among other things, portraying the directors as such inept, disengaged boobs that they couldn’t possibly have attained such power (their sole plan to increase profitability is to get more government contracts, for which their strategy seems to consist solely of endlessly begging McKeever for them). The titular automobile only appears in the very last scene, as a symbol of Partridge’s ultimate professional and romantic triumph - the film switches from black and white to colour to better showcase the vehicle’s stunningness, although it’s rather a shame that a film that holds up corporate integrity and ethics would end on such a grandiose symbol of conspicuous consumption. For all the dismal personal behaviour on display, the movie is likely to be watched now with a significant amount of nostalgia, for a time when bloated dreams of self-enrichment capped out at annual salaries of a few hundred thousand dollars, or when an insignificant stakeholder like Partridge could even grab as much of the executive suite’s attention as she does here.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Rendezvous in Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995)

 

Eric Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris could almost evoke a rather plaintive response – the work of a man in his mid-70’s, immersing himself in protagonists four or five decades younger, obsessively examining and reexamining the mechanics of love and attraction, as if in search of something that tragically got away. The film’s sparseness – it was made under extremely minimal conditions, with just a handful of closing technical credits – gives it the sense of a modern pilgrimage of sorts, albeit that the site of the pilgrimage is on the doorstep, the city of Love, inexhaustible fount of pleasure, frustration and complexity. The film’s three segments are all, in the broadest sense, triangles: Esther suspects that her boyfriend Horace is seeing someone else, and then by chance meets the someone else in question; an unnamed woman, her relationship with her long-time partner on the rocks, meets an unnamed man in a series of locations, unwilling to take things beyond a certain level; a painter is set up with a Swedish visitor and takes her to the Picasso museum, but then finds his attention drawn to someone else, ending up without either woman. Rohmer’s genius with such material lies in his extreme attention to detail and awareness of contingency, for example of how the slightest change in the existing dynamic or equilibrium might disrupt something that might otherwise have tenuously held together; the film’s final scene points to how one never knows what may live in the memory, or may count as a compensation. Regardless that the characters are mostly living fairly basic lives, financially speaking, it’s hard not to view the film as a kind of aspirational fantasy, in which disappointments and compromises are as intoxicatingly necessary as the moments of fulfilment, all of it a reason to keep walking and talking and flirting, and ending things and beginning others.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)

 

The title of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle subtly points to the film's structuring displacement –  it identifies Eddie as its central point, played by its biggest star by far (Robert Mitchum), but concerns itself as much with the chains of connection around him, to the point that Eddie ultimately becomes more notable as absence than presence. He’s a habitual criminal, looking to avoid pending prison time, even at the cost of giving people up to the police – first the ones he doesn’t care about, and then even those he does - but his view of the big picture, and of his own place within it, is fatally limited. The film is populated with risk-aware characters trying to shore up their positions, posturing and pushing others around, but often still misjudging the real threats – it’s full of subtly tragic ironies and inter-dependencies. But if the constant transacting of guns and information almost verges at times on self-contained abstraction, the film provides sufficient evidence of the brutal tangibility with which this activity intersects with the real world, depicting a series of bank robberies (carried out with guns channeled through Eddie) in forensic detail. The film’s audaciously desolate climactic stretch has Eddie failing in his final play, and gradually fading from the movie and from life itself, becoming drunk and incoherent and lost in a hockey game crowd, his subsequent death shown with chilling offhandedness, treated largely just as a training exercise between experienced and novice killers; in the final low-key scene between two of those “friends,” his death is barely even worth dwelling on. Mitchum is ideally cast, allowed a rare opportunity to evoke a life and a history that don't run out at the edges of the frame, his wife and kids briefly but astutely depicted, marooned outside the community of “friends” that wearily propels his fate.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

 

It’s hopeless at this point to try saying anything new about Godard’s Breathless, and yet of all films it still feels like the one that might most be written about, or rather responded to, whether in words or celluloid or gestures or dreams, still in possession of a space all its own, where established orders of classical cinema and post-war American exceptionalism and gender relations and social correctness are in their different ways teetering or fraying or morphing, to be abandoned or appropriated depending on their adaptability. One could rhapsodize over every moment, but the dying run of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel is as worth singling out as any – a defiantly absurd cinematic flourish, but with real life (or “real life”) all too obviously continuing on each side of the street, people going about their business apparently oblivious to, or unmoved by, the gorgeous history-making charade taking place within feet of them, and yet preserved for posterity whether they know it or not, a moment of their life rendered transcendent even as they looked the other way. One could speak of so much of the movie in similar terms – it shimmers with a constant sense of delighted experimentation, of trying poses and attitudes on for size, of relishing the sound of new words and the look of new faces, of creating and immediately fully occupying fresh cinematic space, of happy accidents (the resonances attaching to Jean Seberg prime among them). One almost feels protective of her and the movie, knowing that Godard would so quickly move on – for all Michel’s immense charisma (and Belmondo here is one of the all-time great alluring screen presences, and he and Seberg one of cinema’s all-time fascinating couples), he expresses himself worn out by the film’s end, ready to yield if circumstances would have allowed (if a friend hadn’t thrown him a gun), a capitulation that seems like Godard’s own acknowledgement of territory already defined and conquered.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

 

John Huston’s The Unforgiven provides some early images of pure relish, the three frontier-dwelling Zachary brothers high on the imminent prospect of material wealth, with several references to the sexual gratification that might follow, dynastically plotting to cement through several possible variations of inter-marriage their ties with the neighboring Rawlins clan. The fourth Zachary sibling, adopted daughter Rachel, seems in her impulsiveness and vibrancy both more modern and more primal than the others, a duality that becomes suspicious to the surrounding settler community when a mysterious old man claims that her ancestry is Native American (in the film’s terminology, Kiowa Indian); once the word is out, the Kiowa steps up its hostility and the community starts to fracture from fear, suspicion and prejudice. In the end, the four siblings are left standing among the ruins of their home and business, the family’s coherence apparently having survived the ordeal, but the movie provides little scope for optimism about its prospects of recovering its external bonds and standing, or about those of the country being built around them. Huston’s delighted engagement with actors reaches a kind of zenith here, pushing Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster to the point of frenzied excess at times, and surely enjoying the contrast with Lillian Gish as the mother, a portrait in severe perseverance; it’s Gish who’s at the centre of some of the film’s most haunting (and we’re encouraged at times to read events in almost supernatural terms, as if the layers of myths and past traumas standing in the way of progress were ever lurking in spectral form) moments, playing on a grand piano out in the open to counter the ominous music coming from their adversaries, or unilaterally ending an in-progress “trial” by shoving the horse away, ensuring that the defendant will end up hanging from the noose, uttering no more truth nor lies.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

 

Watched shortly after the welcome ending of the Trump years, the most prominent topical reference point for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain might be Qanon, a swirling, ever-renewing theory of everything, in which its adherents claim (however sad their disillusionment) to transcend the lying confines of conventional understanding (the main narrative follows a group of powerful individuals, each associated with one of the planets, that comes together to acquire ultimate power). Of course, the comparison is unfair to the ecstatic and (in their way) deeply-sourced aspects of Jodorowsky’s work, but the film is, by some measures at least, so (as they say) out there that it’s hard for the uneducated viewer to separate meaning from opportunism. It certainly impresses as an exercise in physically committed movie-making – pressing tigers and hippos into action for the sake of one or two shots, marshaling a series of staggering crowd scenes, a parade of amazing sets and other design elements and any number of logistically impressive shots (it’s staggering that the budget was apparently under $1 million); it also has a constant parade of nudity, mostly of an impersonally ceremonial kind of nature, summing up the absence of much that feels authentically human, or relevantly rooted in contemporary experience (leaving aside its various satirical aspects, for example its parodies of the excesses of the military-industrial complex, which although overdone at least further demonstrate the scope of Jodorowsky’s imagination). The surprisingly offhand nature of the ending seems on the one hand unequal to the involved quest that led up to it, but on the other hand asserts the film’s most direct connection with its audience, an implicit invitation to take from it what we wish and discard the rest. Still, even though one could list the movie’s points of interest almost indefinitely, it all ultimately feels less illuminating or potentially transformative than any number of far more modest, earthbound works.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Airport (George Seaton, 1970)

 

George Seaton’s Airport is a pretty damn irresistible entertainment machine, a portrait of society strewn with personal failure and dissatisfaction, the trajectory of which is nevertheless toward exceptionalism. It anticipates the present-day decline of American infrastructure in how its Lincoln Airport is governed by low-vision local politicians more worried about local interests and short-term cost considerations than looking ahead to the future; the more far-sighted general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the emblematic figurehead whom everyone both relies upon and second-guesses. Bakersfeld specifically refers to himself as a kind of bigamist, the first and official family all but broken and the second consisting of his work; other main characters manifest similar tensions, home life coming second to lovers, or blocked runways, or unattainable goals, reaching its apex in Van Heflin’s Guerrero, overwhelmed by psychological and economical problems, evolving the desperate plan to blow himself up on an aircraft so his wife might at least reap an insurance windfall; the final scene of his wife (Maureen Stapleton), consumed by unprocessable shame, may provide the film’s most raw, uncontainable emotion. At the end of the day, the narrative resolves the most immediate problems with a relative lack of grandstanding, and while the film is hardly a character study, it has a somewhat greater interest in its people, even at their most briefly-glimpsed, than the genre typically demonstrates. The dialogue frequently emphasizes airplane durability and capacity (Boeing even receives a specific grateful shout-out), radiating little doubt that even the most lurid rupture will be purged (perhaps literally by being sucked out into space) and that equilibrium will be restored, even if that may entail some reshuffling of domestic arrangements. Among the relish-inducing cast, Oscar-winning Helen Hayes is less the draw now than Jean Seberg, in her most prominent late movie, embodying a model of supportive professionalism, her complex personal resonances in no way drawn upon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Jacques Becker, 1954)

 

Looked at through modern eyes, Jacques Becker’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is something of a moral atrocity – a plot driven substantially by slavery and exploitation, set in a world where the ruling class appear to admit no challenge to their hegemony, and in which women have no rights other than what relatively benevolent men might gift to them. Ali Baba is sent by his master Cassim to buy a suitable woman to add to the harem, but instead buys Morgiane, a woman more to his own taste, later drugging his master to preserve her virtue; he later crosses paths with the thieves, discovering the location of the great treasure they’ve accumulated and of the secret to access it (Open Sesame!) enabling him to buy Morgiane’s freedom and return her to her father – who promptly tries to sell her again – as well as his own freedom. Ali ultimately simultaneously triumphs over the thieves, and over Cassim’s efforts to take the bounty for himself; the treasure gets distributed to the masses (presumably to no lasting benefit) and he’s left with Morgiane, who happily walks home through the desert as he rides alongside her on horseback (an image of subjugation so blatant that it’s surely a joke). The charitable explanation would be that Becker’s unexamined presentation of so much venal materiality serves as its own quiet indictment (the director's preceding film, the infinitely more highly regarded Touchez pas au grisbi, surveys another milieu of calculating older men and their self-entitled relationships with woman who earn their living on display), but that’s not particularly apparent in a film that relies so much on Fernandel’s foregrounded mugging and on easy colour and spectacle. One salvages whatever compensations one can – the final advance on the cave is impressive by virtue of sheer human numbers, and the movie throws gold coins around with happy abandon.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981)

 

Ivan Reitman’s Stripes delivers a familiar kind of ideological reassurance, of an American exceptionalism that shines through when required, while being able to ignore all the lame strictures and requirements that bog down gratification and self-expression. As depicted, the army promotes absolute idiots into command positions and allows recruits to stumble ineffectually through basic training, none of which stands in the way of attaining personal and institutional greatness; it’s weird to be reminded of the genuine stakes in the background (the proximity of the Eastern bloc and its associated threat), however superficial the film’s depiction of that. It’s a bit strange that the movie carries as much status as it does – Bill Murray’s Bill Murray-ness is much more productively showcased in other films, and the presumed comic highlights (like the scene in which John Candy’s character mud-wrestles with various women) are more bizarre than funny. But even this much inspiration seems absent from the final stretch, in which the Murray and Harold Ramis characters use a top-secret military vehicle to rescue a bunch of their trapped comrades; for whatever reason, things veer into James Bond territory as the bland-looking RV reveals a plethora of destructive special features, causing all manner of explosive mayhem without (as far as we’re shown anyway) leaving a single enemy combatant dead. It’s a flatly-staged denial of reality that lines up against the treatment of female soldiers - depicted as capable of stepping it up when required, but secondarily to their main function of giving it up for the guys (which is itself a more elevated function than the alternative, of being ogled through telescopes while in the shower). The movie pokes a couple of times at racial division, but always pulls back immediately; it acknowledges homosexuality only in the form of a jokey throwaway exchange early on. In the end, despite everything, Stripes doesn’t even remotely question the traditional virtues of military service, leaving a pallid aftertaste.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Huis-clos (Jacqueline Audry, 1954)

 

Jacqueline Audry’s filming of Sartre’s Huis-clos is an emblematic example of “opening out” a piece of theatre, taking a four-character, one-room play, and visually depicting much of what was merely discussed in the original text, expanding the reach of the material in ways that are explicitly cinematic. The film’s opening sequence evokes Powell and Pressburger, as the newly departed arrive by elevator in a hotel lobby which marks the entrance to hell, then soon narrows down to the setting of Sartre’s original, a single room in which three unrelated adults, two women and a man, are set down, initially somewhat diverted by images from the lives they left behind, which eventually run out once they’re effectively forgotten by the world, leaving them only with each other, for all of eternity, with the facts of their stained lives (marked among other things by cowardice, murder and predatory desire) out in the open, and with the classic realization that “hell is other people.” The film within a film devices are mostly effective, but inevitably serve to rather dilute the existential horror of the central situation: it depicts the three staking out the games they’ll likely play for all eternity, alliances and enmities spontaneously forming and as rapidly dissolving, the ugliness and neediness that condemned them on earth emerging and retreating, but the film rather races through it all (it only lasts a little more than an hour and a half) so that one feels at the end mildly diverted rather than existentially drained (the contemporary impact may be diluted also by so many meta-movie concepts subsequently cycled through by Hollywood). But the film is entirely worth seeing on many levels, including its presentation of same-sex desire and relationships (providing a natural bridge to Audry’s best-known film, Olivia), and a final shot equal to the evocation of a sealed-off eternity.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

 

The most (perhaps only) conventionally readable portion of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is indeed the title sequence, in which protagonist Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), under extreme pressure from gangsters after running up a gambling debt he can’t pay, gains entrance to a well-guarded enclave, commits a high-profile murder, shoots several other people in the course of the resulting mayhem, and makes it out of there alive: Vitelli’s improbable proficiency and success suggest a form of clarity, perhaps of self-liberation, more generally denied him, but one defined more by conventional cinematic archetype than character. It stands in intriguing contrast to the strangely preoccupied sense of searching that defines the rest of the film – Vitelli is the owner-manager of a supremely idiosyncratic night spot which bears the exterior of a strip club, but actually seems to titillate audience only through the highly mediated form of musical numbers fronted by the peculiar “Mr. Sophistication.” We see nothing of Vitelli’s private life, beyond interactions with some of the employees and their families, mostly taking an artificially courtly kind of form: Gazzara’s one-of-a-kind mixture of off-putting smugness and compelling connectivity reaches a fascinatingly unreadable apotheosis here. In classic film noir fashion, Cosmo’s success at pulling off the job fails to put the gangsters out of the picture, leaving him in a final position that appears desperate and hopeless, and yet also, as manifested in his demenour when he gets up on stage, defiantly triumphant, a duality which perhaps echoes the strange status of the film itself, a barely-released “flop” far more prominent now than most of its widely-seen contemporaries. The end credits roll over a “Mr. Sophistication” rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the tone and phrasing strangified to the point of rendering it fittingly unclear whether or not that’s a condition to be lamented.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Trois places pour le 26 (Jacques Demy, 1988)

 

Jacques Demy’s last and mostly overlooked film is a perfect ending to his career, as beautiful and joyous and yet quietly transgressive as all his best work. Yves Montand (himself only two films from the end, as it turned out) plays (some version of) himself, returning to his childhood home town of Marseille for a stage show based on his own life (Demy visualizes the show with just the right amount of warmly cheesy intricacy), while also hoping to find his old love (Francoise Fabian); she’s living in genteel poverty after her once-rich husband got sent to jail, with a headstrong daughter (Mathilda May) who adores Montand and gets a part in the show, falling for him and then sleeping with him, after which she rapidly learns that she just committed incest with her biological father. Needless to say, few musicals have taken the inwardly winding nature of genre plotting to such a point, although the speed and equanimity with which those involved shake it off and move on is equally notable. The film has great fun with the Montand persona, acknowledging the cornerstones of his biography, including his legendary love affairs (Piaf, Signoret, Monroe) and apparently ongoing virility, while suggesting suppressed shadows and secrets; it’s as flexible with the musical form itself, at first giving us a world where characters break into song and dance in classic style; then in its latter stages confining the performance to the stage. And just as it channels Montand, there’s the sense of a shadow portrait of Demy himself – another kind of return, heavy with allusions to and parallels with earlier works, and with something always beyond reach, summed up in the film’s final, almost offhand moments, reminiscent of how The Young Girls of Rochefort placed the long-awaited meeting of its star-crossed lovers just beyond the final scene.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

That's Life (Blake Edwards, 1986)

 

Given the considerably underexamined scenic affluence of its environment, it’s not clear that Blake Edwards’ That’s Life is appropriately titled in any very generally applicable sense – the label of “first world problems” hardly starts to describe it, and between that and the over-indulgence of Jack Lemmon’s familiar mannerisms, I’ve always considered the film a disappointment. On a recent reviewing, those reservations still seem generally applicable, but maybe with age I’ve become more attuned to the genuine anxiety that drives it all, to the expression of a raw insecurity that material comforts can’t suppress and may in some ways (such as by reducing the capacity for genuine spontaneity) even exacerbate. Lemmon plays Harvey Fairchild, a successful architect (but, as he makes clear, no Frank Lloyd Wright) approaching his 60th birthday, weighed down by hypochondria, blind to the fact that his wife Gillian (Julie Andrews) is quietly dealing with a much more urgent health problem; their adult children and partners arrive, all with their own issues; an old friend of Harvey’s reappears, now a Catholic priest (displaying an intriguing mixture of hard-line doctrine and pragmatic personal behaviour); casual sexual possibilities drift by. The casting of actual family members doesn’t add as much nuanced realism as it might, given the regimented nature of things, and a form of happy equilibrium is ultimately restored all too easily. But there’s much that may linger uncomfortably in the mind – notwithstanding the comment above, Lemmon sometimes (as in a scene where he may actually be trying to induce a heart attack on an exercise cycle) seems agonizingly possessed, and the final professing of need and devotion doesn’t sweep away Harvey’s easy recourse to adultery on two occasions within as many days (albeit that he fails to perform the first time, and that the second time is just plain weird).

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Nude Princess (Cesare Canavari, 1976)

 

The title character in Cesare Canavari’s The Nude Princess, Miriam, is a lawyer and former nude model (a duality which well sums up the film’s dominant mindset) who comes to Milan to negotiate construction contracts on behalf of her emerging African nation, and Canavari does affect some critical interest in the condescending and exploitative mindset of former colonial powers, portrayed here as certain they can negotiate rings around her (to the extent their thoughts are anything other than lewd ones). For all her impact on those around her, Miriam regards herself as “dead inside,” which she attributes mainly to a sexually traumatic past incident negotiated by the nation’s dictator, who regards her as his slave. Over the course of the film, various forces intervene to push her toward reawakening, which we can take in some general way to stand in for the broader evolution of African consciousness. However, such concerns sit strangely in a film of such lascivious instincts, one which seems primarily occupied by ensuring a regular supply of female nudity, a project executed with varying degrees of finesse: the film feels almost afraid of its own privileging of a powerful black woman (one played by a transsexual yet) and constantly drawn to self-sabotage, by insisting that she’s just another prisoner of quivering biology, her problems ultimately nothing that couldn’t be cured by the right man. Likewise, the appropriation of African culture oscillates between seeming admiring and engaged and just being reductively offensive. Despite everything though, it’s hard not to have some affection toward a film which thinks to cast the alluring and very European Tina Aumont as an American industrial espionage expert called “Gladys Fogget,” or in which we’re led to understand that wild, mind-altering tribal dances around a fire can apparently take place on an upper floor of a downtown Milanese building.