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.