Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Ten Days Wonder (Claude Chabrol, 1972)


Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder jettisons the detective character, repurposing the material as a fabulous meeting of cinematic universes: the opening scene, with Anthony Perkins’ character Charles waking up covered in blood in a mysterious hotel room clearly evokes Psycho, and the casting of Orson Welles as his enormously wealthy father Theo deepens the sense of a work drawing on Hollywood myth and shadow; in contrast, the other two principals, Marlene Jobert and Michel Piccoli, are firmly rooted in then-current French cinema. For once cast in something more than a cameo, Welles has a field day as Theo, a man whose desire for control is so great that life inside his enormous mansion (to which Piccoli’s character Paul accompanies Charles, hoping to aid his healing) exists as if stuck in his favourite year of 1925, with his family and staff dressing accordingly, living by the commensurate technological limitations and so on; his much younger wife (Jobert at her most fragile) originally came to live with him as a child, adding an element of murky sexuality. The denouement pushes the premise yet further, first to posit that Charles has essentially viewed Theo as being God, and then suggesting rather that the identification was Theo’s own; Welles’ theatrical gravitas (his fake nose often prominent) continually blurs the line between the scene-shaping will of the actor and that of the character. The film is most alluring and satisfying when at its most happily inventive, unveiling lurid secrets, unseen threats and inexplicable actions; the final explanation and accounting lands in rather hollow fashion. Not uncommonly, the fact of half the principals being dubbed (although it's a different half, depending on whether you watch the English- or the French-language version) introduces a sense of distance and artificiality; in this case though, that often seems to work for the better, emphasizing the conscious other-worldliness of events.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Saludos Amigos (Walt Disney Studios, 1942)


Any present-day viewing of Disney’s Saludos Amigos is likely to be preceded by a formal citing of the film’s “negative depictions and or mistreatment of people or cultures”, and accompanying acknowledgement of its harmful impact and of Disney’s commitment to learning from that. Indeed, the movie is not quite Song of the South (it’s still readily available for viewing after all), but carries a pervasive feeling of complacency and missed opportunity: the framing device has a group of studio artists heading off to South America for research and inspiration, but on the basis of what’s shown their interest is amply satiated by mere exotica and surfaces, and it’s a bit sad that one’s reaction to seeing (say) a strikingly colourful parrot would be to busy oneself with using it as the basis for a cigar-smoking caricature called Jose Carioca. The movie at least throws a load of local terminology at the viewer (albeit not of a kind that would have helped much in everyday life), especially in the sequence where Goofy is dropped into the role of a gaucho (bolas!). That’s probably the most straightforwardly enjoyable sequence; the least so is the tale of the little plane that could, which even allowing for anthropomorphic latitude is just too dumb to relate too (Poppa Plane and Mamma Plane?) Before that, Donald Duck visits Lake Titicaca, getting into trouble while traversing a rope bridge with his llama (admittedly, over-familiarity and repetition makes it easy to overstate the skill involved in such sequences). The film gives a big build-up to the final chapter, a for-a-while beguilingly lilting samba portrait of Brazil, even allocating the voice of the parrot a special voice credit, but it ultimately descends into more Donald-infused silliness. And after that the film abruptly ends, with no pretense of wrapping things up or of extracting some kind of overall message, without even an Adios. Oh well, maybe that was for the best…

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Shamisen and Motorcycle (Masahiro Shinoda, 1961)


Masahiro Shinoda’s early feature is known in English both as Love New and Old and as Shamisen and Motorcycle – as it happens, a mash-up of both those titles might encompass the film’s meeting of romantic, generational and stylistic conflicts. The opening stretch holds every promise of a brash youth movie, defined by bright colours and lively exchanges and impulsive motorcycle adventures – an accident brings this to a halt, landing its teenage protagonist Hatsuko in hospital. She develops an affectionately spiky rapport with her genial doctor, Kuroyanagi; he in turn is an old flame of her widowed mother Toyoeda, a teacher of traditional “kouta” singing, with whom he soon starts a new relationship. An unusually strong-willed and pesky protagonist, Hatsuko is at best passive-aggressive in her reaction to this, and often downright hostile, ultimately forcing Kuroyanagi to withdraw from seeing her mother, a capitulation that ultimately serves no one’s interests. For all the movie’s evidence of a newly modernizing Japan, the legacy of the war (a key factor in keeping her mother and Kuroyanagi apart back then) remains prominent, and traditional class- and gender-based expectations shape actions and attitudes as much as they ever did, even if in different ways (for example, despite the culpability of Hatsuko’s boyfriend Fusao for her injuries, his wealthy parents look down on her and her mother, shunning them both in the hospital). It’s nicely summed up in the ending, in which Hatsuko gains a greater awareness of the complexity of things, then rapidly pivots into receiving a proposal from Fusao which is as much a directive as it is romantic, with a final shot as heavy with peril and the memory of past errors as with excited anticipation. The film certainly demonstrates, in somewhat embryonic form, Shinoda’s appealing stylistic and thematic range and curiosity, which would yield career peaks as diverse as Pale Flower and Silence.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Squeeze (Michael Apted, 1977)


Despite its beefy action credentials, Michael Apted’s The Squeeze frequently reminds you of the director’s roots as a documentarian (it belongs to the same year as his 21 Up), capturing lots of unpretentious social observation around the edges (I particularly enjoyed the café seen near the end, the menu offering up such items as a 45-pence steak salad). Much credit belongs to Stacy Keach’s playing of the lead in such an intriguingly low-key, preoccupied manner, his character Jim Nabboth often seeming on the verge of drifting away altogether (more social observation - at one such point, it takes a masseuse's “special relief” to snap him back into shape, the charge for that being six pounds). Nabboth is a former cop now in bad financial and personal shape (he claims to be thinking of “chimney restoration” as an appealing next career step), his wife Jill (Carol White) remarried to rich businessman Foreman (Edward Fox); Jill and the daughter she has with Foreman are kidnapped in the park (along with their dog, who doesn’t last long thereafter), the price of their release being for Foreman to cooperate in a million-pound robbery from his own company. The once in a lifetime cast includes David Hemmings (trailing no Blow-Up resonances whatsoever), Stephen Boyd having fun going full-on Irish in one of his last roles, and TV comedian Freddie Starr, a decade or so before tabloid allegations of eating a hamster. The movie makes for grubby-feeling viewing, devising a way to strip Nabboth naked and drop him in the street, and to force Jill into performing a strip tease for her kidnappers (a scene in which it seems painfully hard to separate the actress’ mixed feelings from those of the character); Nabboth’s ultimate foiling of the plan involves as cold-hearted a move as anything the villains have pulled. Still, Apted is pretty effective at observing all the nastiness without seeming merely manipulative about it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Secret defense (Jacques Rivette, 1998)


Near the start of Jacques Rivette’s Secret defense, Paul Rousseau (Gregoire Colin) tries to steal a gun from his sister Sylvie Rousseau (Sandrine Bonnaire); his target is the successful industrialist Walser, newly suspected by Paul of killing their father, at that time Walser’s boss, five years previously. It’s a classic Hitchcockian-type set-up, and Rivette often plays it straight enough that the packaging of my old DVD copy gamely tried to sell the film as a conventional thriller (“A father’s death…A daughter’s obsession…Revenge was the only answer”). But of course, the director also continually subverts any such genre expectations and norms: a train journey which might easily have been condensed into a few seconds or less of screen time extends over fifteen or twenty minutes; a key revelation about the dead father is delivered almost casually, during another train journey; and so on. The film has a sense of magnetic contraction, with all the characters being drawn toward Walser’s country estate, a location with which the Rousseau family has a long connection (and one of many such labyrinthine, figuratively haunted locations in Rivette’s work); there’s often a sense of narrative echo, with the father’s death recalling an earlier family tragedy along similar lines, and with one key character who departs from the narrative rapidly replaced for most purposes by a look-alike sister. Bonnaire’s often flinty, brittle performance speaks to the strain of things not confronted within or without (an amusing subplot involves a persistent suitor who she perpetually keeps at arm’s length, without ever actually extinguishing all hope); the “top secret” of the title refers as much to unexplored inner or cinematic possibilities as to the specific folds of the plot. But overall, without buying into those marketing excesses I cited, the film would indeed be a relatively accommodating entry point into Rivette’s stunning cinematic world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 1986)


Peter Weir’s version of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast certainly supports a lively dialogue on its merits as literary adaptation, and on the wisdom of even having tried, while almost entirely failing on its own ambitious terms. Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, a sporadically brilliant, quasi-tyrannical under-achiever whose disgust with the condition of America leads him to take off with his wife and four children to a remote part of South America, where he sets out to transform a broken-down jungle outpost into a high-functioning community reflecting his own principles. Taken at face value, the narrative presents us with a series of absurdities (all the less palatable for their white-saviorism); for example, arriving at their wretched destination with almost no initial resources on hand, the family systematically imposes the desired order, dominated by a massive, technologically adventurous ice-making machine, during all of which the four young kids don’t appear to age a single day. The film lacks the sense of obsession or immersion that might have allowed it to blast through such reservations (Werner Herzog is impossible to ignore as a reference point; Apocalypse Now comes to mind several times as well), and Ford, in theory an inspired piece of imaginative casting, seldom provides an appropriately charismatic (or even very engaged-seeming) focal point (the mostly unquestioning compliance of Fox’s wife also seems to require greater investigation than the book provides, when embodied in the form of Helen Mirren). Some aspects of the film do benefit a bit from hindsight; for instance, our greater attunement to climate change and sustainability now adds an extra charge to the dark irony of Allie’s icemaker ultimately becoming a source of environmental chaos. But overall, there’s very little the film does adequately, even failing to make much of the rich surrounding landscape in all its possibility and threat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Passion of Anna (Ingmar Bergman, 1969)


One of Ingmar Bergman’s most hypnotically inexhaustible works, The Passion of Anna is a film of sustained and unnerving presence and precision, in which however even the most basic aspect of interpretation is in some way open to doubt. The sense of misdirection flows from the very title – the main character, insofar he opens and closes the film and occupies the majority of screen time, isn’t Liv Ullmann’s Anna but Max von Sydow’s Andreas, living in substantial withdrawal from the world on a barren-looking island after doing time in prison; while he and Anna enter a relationship, it’s presented in mostly functionally pragmatic terms, the real object of her passion being a husband (also called Andreas) who died in a car accident some years previously (she speaks of that relationship in heightened terms, but evidence exists that it was less than she claims, despite her insistence on truth as a preeminent value). The film often strikes a measured, analytical tone, including brief interviews with the four lead actors (the other two are Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson) on how they view their characters; Josephson’s character, an architect who maintains an extensive archive of photos, embodies a vaguely sinister sense of control. But he also disparages the prospects of his flagship project, a cultural centre being constructed in Milan, and the island is plagued by instances of animal cruelty, for which one disliked loner falsely comes under suspicion, and is sadistically persecuted. A brief scene of TV news, even fighting through poor reception, links these fragmentations to broader global conflicts; it’s a moment of spectatorship echoed at the end of the film, when the camera slowly moves in on Andreas after the relationship’s apparent break-up, caught in a form of both physical and spiritual limbo, the image quality correspondingly degrading, his very name no longer capable of being asserted with certainty.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A Closed Book (Raul Ruiz, 2009)


One of Raul Ruiz’s most accessible works if measured by the ease of dissecting what’s on screen (which didn’t however mean it was any more effectively distributed and marketed than most of the others), A Closed Book (alternatively and less gracefully titled Blind Revenge) takes place almost entirely within a large country house occupied by Sir Paul (Tom Conti), a former art critic blinded a few years earlier in a car accident, who engages Jane (Daryl Hannah) to help him write his autobiography. For a while the movie plays like a robustly peculiar character study as the two work out a mutual equilibrium and routine, telling each other what they dislike about the other’s style and so on, then out of nowhere it swerves into the grotesque as Jane starts to mess with Paul, walking about in the nude, fueling the fire with his valuable book collection rather than with logs, and then (once the housekeeper is conveniently out of the way) turning paintings upside down, moving furniture around, and ramping things up still further. Assessed as conventional narrative, it’s a weakness that the ultimate revelation of Jane’s motives, and Paul’s subsequent reactions to them, seem (to say the least) inadequately connected to what’s gone before (the movie might as well have posited say that she’s an obsessive animal lover harboring a grudge at Paul for having once kicked her dog), although looked at more generally, it’s a swerve that reflects Ruiz’s playful sense of narrative contingency. Conti is in robust form, and as if to satisfy some producer's quirky contractual demand, the movie includes single-scene appearances by Elaine Paige and Simon MacCorkindale, so, there you go. A delectably lasting moment has Jane making up a bunch of fake news to tantalize Paul (who conveniently never listens to the radio or TV) including that Donald Trump has become a Muslim (hey, if only…).

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Victory of Women (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)


Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1946 film The Victory of Women isn’t among his cinematically or emotionally richest works: drawing on then-current waves of post-war legal reform, it often feels overly didactic, its characters generally registering less as people than as contrasting ideological mouthpieces. But despite (and to some extent because of) that, it makes for fascinating and urgent viewing, finding sadly easy parallel in the debates of our own age. Hiroko Hawakawa (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a recently qualified lawyer taking on the case of a poor widow who, overwhelmed with grief after losing her husband, accidentally crushed her baby to death; where the prosecution charges simple parental neglect, Hawakawa sees her client as a victim of an insensitive patriarchal and militaristic society (in which, for instance, the husband received health care for his workplace-incurred injuries for as long as the war continued, but afterwards had it abruptly withdrawn). The somewhat overly-compressed narrative scheme includes a zealous prosecutor, Kono, who happens to be Harakawa’s brother in law, with a wife/sister caught in the middle; some five years earlier, Kono participated in prosecuting political activists including Hawakawa’s fiancée, who’s released at the start of the film, his health ruined as a result of his ordeal. The film sets the notion of an independent and objective legal system against one informed by societal needs and changes, while of course making it evident that any claim to the former will always be as ideologically driven as the latter (in this regard in particular, viewed at a time of a supposedly Constitution-respecting yet pathologically activist US Supreme Court, the film carries renewed topical resonance). Mizoguchi withholds the ultimate outcome of the widow’s case, tacitly suggesting that legal victory in this particular battle may be unattainable. But he leaves no doubt regarding the disposition of the moral victory.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Carbon Copy (Michael Schultz, 1981)


Denzel Washington’s film debut is a sporadically fascinating object of study, at times a biting satire of complacent white attitudes toward race and at others an underwhelming, dubiously conceived studio product; it’s perhaps most interesting when making it hard to separate one from the other. George Segal plays Walter Whitney, trapped in a stagnant marriage, occupying a lucrative but unrewarding executive position for his wife’s father, Nelson Longhurst; his life is suddenly shaken up by the arrival of Washington’s character Roger, the son he never knew he had from the fondly remembered relationship he sacrificed to get ahead. Rapidly assuming at least some sense of responsibility, he tries to bring Roger – seemingly a barely literate high-school drop-out - into his life, succeeding only in rapidly finding himself a penniless pariah, living with Roger in a wretched apartment and getting by on manual day jobs. The intention seems to have been to make a madcap scorched earth comedy (for instance, Dick Martin plays Walter’s lawyer as a dope-smoking screwball) but notwithstanding a few sharp lines, it’s generally paced too slowly and blandly, with Segal seeming disappointingly disengaged. The film explicitly analyzes Walter’s downfall as a symptom of pure bigotry (in an environment which has plenty of it to go around – we learn that “Whitney” was a replacement for his original Jewish surname); Longhurst’s insistence that privileged white people constitute the true embattled minority looks ahead to our current era of narcissistically self-justifying ruling class privilege. The film’s ending fairly deftly repositions our sense of Roger, allowing the audience as well as Walter a passable sense of growth. But even if you award the film a passing grade on racial matters, the sexual politics are hard to redeem, with the wife (played by Susan Saint James) an unredeemable mishmash of ugly characteristics (albeit that we can read her as another victim of Longhurst’s stifling worldview and desire for control).

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Mill on the Po (Alberto Lattuada, 1949)


Alberto Lattuada’s The Mill on the Po remains of immense social and pictorial interest, its title and the opening scenes seeming to promise a fairly narrow familial focus, but broadening out significantly to place the mill and the people who depend on it in wider and tumultuous economic and social context, and in its final moments almost seeming to despair of such earthly machinations altogether, ending in stark, lonely ceremony (those moments may have one thinking ahead to Bergman; the film more generally reaches out across the decades to Bertolucci’s 1900). The titular mill is run in rambunctious familial style, placed under strain by onerous new taxes and the accompanying collection regime; during a stormy night, the family ends up setting their livelihood on fire rather than submitting further. Berta, one of the daughters, is engaged to the son of local tenant farmers, but out of necessity now goes to work for the family as a servant instead; her fiancée tries to place himself as a conduit between the landowner, interested in deploying new technology to increase productivity and profit, and the skeptical workers, but the conflicting forces are beyond anyone’s control, and a general strike breaks out. The strike triggers some scenes of potent sadness and others of Eisenstein-evoking mass resistance (which provide, of course, only a fleeting sense of victory); the final moments, rooted in personal tragedy and its aftermath, suggest a community drained of whatever coherence and spirit it once possessed. Lattuada nails the recurring tragedy of the commons, its susceptibility to being turned against itself, ultimately further strengthening the position of the landowning capitalists (at times the film may bring to mind the present-day roots of red-state populism). The plot mechanics and characterizations may sometimes be rather too heavily conceived, but overall it’s a memorable and rewarding, under-celebrated work.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Lovin' Molly (Sidney Lumet, 1974)


One of Sidney Lumet’s least-remembered movies (made between Serpico and Murder on the Orient Express), Lovin’ Molly might be among his most gently likeable and delight-infused, entirely rooted in small-scale lives and expectations but quietly radical in its premise. The opening minutes of the first section, set in 1925, disorient us as to whether Blythe Danner’s Molly is in love with Beau Bridges’ Johnny or Anthony Perkins’ Gideon, and about what the two men, who are also best friends, might think of the competition; over subsequent decades, Molly has a child (neither of which survives the war) with each of them, while marrying a third man (a decision she can’t explain even to herself). By the time of the second section, set in 1945, Gideon has become a rich landowner, aridly married to Sarah (Susan Sarandon), who pointedly is mostly absent from the film, even as we hear of how she works to ruin Molly’s reputation; the third section, in 1964, visits them near the end of their lives. The film always leaves open the possibility (nudged ahead in hindsight by the subsequent resonances surrounding Perkins, and by the involvement of Brokeback Mountain’s Larry McMurtry) that the most significant love is that between the two men, an impression formed early on by the very physical nature of their competitiveness (intertwined with a certain sexual naivete) and reasserted near the end, when they’re still playing silly jokes on one another, still hanging out together while musing about moving in with Molly. Certain aspects of the film, such as the device of allocating the voice over and primary perspective of each section to a different character, count for less than might be expected, given the largely unvarying tone; it’s certainly a small film in all respects. But along with works like The Appointment and Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, it also testifies to Lumet’s under-appreciated eccentric streak.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Le navire Night (Marguerite Duras, 1979)


One of Marguerite Duras’ most ravishing and beguiling works, Le navire Night is at once a sumptuous embrace of cinema and an eloquent denial of it, at least as normally constituted by mainstream conventions: it credits three recognizable stars (Dominique Sanda, Bulle Ogier, Mathieu Carriere) who receive just a handful of lines between them and do little more than sit and stare (although extended sequences of each of them being made up confirms that classic scopophilic pleasures aren’t entirely jettisoned). The film’s narrative is told instead through the voice overs of Duras herself and of assistant director Benoit Jacquot (the film provides glimpses of the script they’re reading from, in handwritten chalk), starting with a meditation on Athens and eventually coming to chart the story of a man who on randomly dialing some numbers “from the telephonic abyss” connects with a woman who becomes a displaced, mysterious love object, known to him only as “F,” the descriptions of her appearance and life details unreliably shifting. Other characters are evoked, complexities and possibilities are set out, and we’re told of various points when they might have met, or when he might have come to know more about her, but the possibilities never crystallize, and in the end the story fades away, perhaps through her death (she says she’s suffering from leukemia), or through her marriage to another man, the surgeon who was treating her, or perhaps simply through the impossibility of its continuing forever, or perhaps extinguished by “general doubt”; the actors leave (to the extent they were ever there) and the film likewise slips away, Duras continuously thereby emphasizes the unreliability and contingency of the filmic space created, while yet creating a sense of rapturous, closely-observed presence, of (in the film’s own words) a blazing sun at its zenith that simultaneously evokes (or, actually simultaneously is) the silence of night.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

if....(Lindsay Anderson, 1968)


Lindsay Anderson’s if…. feels as freshly daring and unprecedented now, and as bitingly relevant, as it must have done in 1968; no doubt the details of Britain’s lack of fitness for purpose have changed, but their essential corrosive porousness continues. The boundaries of Anderson’s film (set entirely within and around a boys-only private school) are often unclear: some scenes (such as the caning of Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis and his two partners in rebellion) are presented in excruciating real time, but other moments (such as all of those involving the most prominent female character, identified only as “the Girl,”) are infused with reverie and fantasy, with the shifting between colour and black and white embodying the underlying instability. Anderson’s portrayal of the institution isn’t entirely without grudging affection: one occasionally feels the strange allure of succumbing to this self-contained world’s insular rituals. But it’s a place where regressiveness and hypocrisy run rampant, powered by often petty and sadistic rituals rooted in notions of tradition and discipline (any nods to modernity consisting of mere platitudes), with little tolerance of dissent, the teachers seeming mainly like hollowed-out drones; the film contrasts the beauty of same-sex attraction in its natural intuitive state with the warped, predatory version of it that prevails in the structure of the younger boys being at the beck and call of (and, as we see in one scene, “traded” between) the older ones. The film’s famously nihilistic ending, a memorable spectacle on its own terms, resonates all the more for its embodiment of a society sowing its own destruction; the WW2-era weapons used by Travis and the others to shoot up the school all lying forgotten in its recesses, falling into their hands as part of an imposed punishment (which, in handing it out, the headmaster spins as an opportunity to do good). But for all its pessimism, there’s not a scene in the film that isn’t ventilated and lifted by observational and behavioral finesse and razor-sharp creative finesse.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961)


Jacques Demy’s beautiful cinema dissolves one’s usual sense of directorial continuity and evolution – watching Lola, his debut, it feels as if his other great works must have already existed and be in conversation with it, that the Lola who leaves with her reclaimed love at the end is in some sense already the Lola lost in Model Shop’s America, that the music score is nodding backwards to Umbrellas of Cherbourg rather than anticipating it, that some of the recurring Nantes locations are already haunted by the tragic events of the much later Une chambre en ville, that one story of separation and regret might on some celestial plane be intertwined with another. In Lola’s extremely concentrated narrative, the distinction between hours and years dissolves – in just a couple of days, long-lost love objects are rediscovered (even by multiple searchers) and perhaps then lost again, life yields moments and encounters that one knows are destined to remain in the memory after much else has been erased. The film’s intense sense of place exists in equilibrium with the pull of elsewhere: one character is headed for Johannesburg; another has returned from making his fortune on an island in the Pacific; another, a sailor, is from Chicago (although one character questions this, pointing out that only gangsters come from there); it’s mentioned twice that to go and work as a dancer in Marseilles might cause one to end up in Argentina. But any exoticism attached to these prospects is heavy with resignation, a sense that the contours of one’s world will still be defined predominantly by the unattainable heart’s desire. Anouk Aimee’s Lola, if perhaps not quite one of cinema’s greatest beauties, is certainly one of its most singularly wondrous presences: extraordinarily vivid and present, yet with a sense of distracted fragility that, at least in a Demy film, renders future heartbreak and displacement all but inevitable.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

From Noon till Three (Frank D. Gilroy, 1976)

Charles Bronson’s body of work (at least the name above the title portion of it) hasn’t worn too well as a whole, but contains a few highlights, including Richard Fleischer’s Mr. Majestyk (amid all the threat and carnage, it’s oddly touching how all the guy really wants to do is harvest his melons) and Frank D. Gilroy’s From Noon Till Three, perhaps the most lightly subversive of his starring roles, and a nice riff on mythmaking and printing the truth versus the legend (a kind of Woman who Loved Liberty Valance). Bronson plays Graham, a low-grade outlaw forced to sit out the gang’s latest bank robbery, instead meeting and falling in love with Amanda, a wealthy widow (Jill Ireland, of course). The gang is wiped out, and in trying to evade the fate of his colleagues, Graham ends up in jail under a different name, assumed dead by Amanda. When he gets out, he finds that a romanticized book version of the Graham and Amanda story has become a best-selling global sensation, with the town now largely devoted to related tourism; the myth of a tragically deceased, supernaturally handsome Graham is so strong that the man himself can’t persuade anyone, not even the love of his life, of his real identity. The film is fairly irresistible in its conception and execution, although nothing about it cuts very deep – the two main characters are thinly conceived, and no one else registers more than fleetingly. One winces at the device of having Graham, within about an hour of their meeting, get Amanda into bed by feigning impotence and eliciting her sympathy. Still, the depiction of a community crassly denying the objective facts of the present, for the sake of perpetual surrender to an emotionally soothing past, is eternally relevant; no less the final note, of a society that can no longer distinguish (and doesn’t even care to try) between truth and madness.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Arrebato (Ivan Zulueta, 1979)


Ivan Zulueta's Arrebato is a wildly singular film, its inspiration so boundless and multi-faceted that one could imagine a lifetime of energy and blood being poured into it (Zulueta's otherwise sparse filmography sadly supports that general impression), possessed by a startling unifying conviction. Although to attempt a plot summary is even more hopeless here than it usually is, the film contrasts the personal and artistic efforts of Jose, a professional filmmaker stuck in the horror genre, and Pedro (the indelible Will More, a stand-out among a uniformly relishable cast), a way-outside-the-system visionary in search of his notion of cinematic rapture (which he often expresses in terms of finding the right "rhythm"). Through mechanisms carrying elements of mysticism, hypnotism, vampirism and whatever other -ism you might want to nominate, Jose becomes consumed by Pedro's personal journey, his own life (largely made up of drug-taking and sparring with his girlfriend, vivaciously played by Cecilia Roth) dwindling away. The film teems with movie-love, from the physical tangibility of cameras and projectors and film stock to the related culture of posters and memorabilia (there are some nice shots of marquees displaying then-current attractions such as Superman and Phantasm), and has passages of giddy playfulness, but it's all tinged with a delirious hopelessness, a sense of a cinema that demands complete submission whatever that might entail, or else that one go crazy in the attempt (Pedro's mother, insisting among other things that a black and white film on TV used to be in colour, further adds to the sense of a medium mutating beyond human control). Zulueta's brilliant last shot, with the sound of gunfire suddenly erupting on the soundtrack, somewhat reorients everything that's gone before, suggesting that the film's silence on political matters was perhaps, all along, a deeply despairing form of engagement.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)


Perhaps John Cassavetes’ strangest and most inexhaustible film, Love Streams confounds any notion of the director as being primarily an excavator of everyday emotional truths, embracing the heightened artificiality evident in all his work and pushing it to the point of near psychosis, such that by the end, characters are motivated by dreams (and further, dreams taking the form of operas) as much as by realities, and a character that appeared to be a dog temporarily reveals itself as a man. The title refers to the preoccupation of Gena Rowlands’ character, Sarah, with love as a “continuous stream” that doesn’t stop, a philosophy that as she enacts it consumes her in excessive behaviour and impulsiveness and recurring breakdown; Cassavetes plays her brother, Robert, whose relationship with love, or with humanity more generally, might better be represented as one of endless pivoting and zig-zaging, losing himself in shallow or short-lived connections, his self-absorption (albeit shrouded by a general air of formality and courtliness) often tumbling into cruelty (on being tasked with looking after his eight-year-old son for the first time ever, he flies the kid to Vegas and leaves him alone in a hotel room all night). The film’s final act represents a series of high-stakes substitutions: Robert now forcibly alone, constrained by a somewhat absurd bunch of animal care obligations, symbolically further isolated by darkness and storm; Sarah heading off to spend the night with a guy she just met, with some supposed new understanding with her divorced husband lying beyond; the fabric of the film seemingly heaving and splitting. Much of the film was shot in Cassavetes/Rowlands’ own house, evidencing a lived-in solidity that couldn’t likely have come from Robert, but for everything that feels strangely personal, the film provides an offsetting cavernous abstraction (confining its glimpses of Sarah’s European trips to concrete hellholes); it sometimes feels like the entire human condition flows (or snarls) through the film at one point or another.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Death Laid an Egg (Giulio Questi, 1968)


Whatever its other claims to fame, Giuilio Questi’s Death Laid an Egg can safely be categorized as one of cinema’s most chicken-centric works (it was also released under the title Plucked!), a large part of it taking place in a poultry plant with thousands of good-looking, cooped-up two-footed extras, punctuated with ample shots of eggs in various states of motion or breakage, samples of chicken-themed art, and (most indelibly) brief glimpses of a laboratory-bred mutant chicken which lacks a head or wings and develops exceptionally quickly (a concept perhaps ahead of its time, for better or worse). Against all of this, in less than ninety minutes, Questi puts together a story of intersecting murderous designs, corporate intrigue, and weird erotic fetishes, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant at his most furtively inscrutable, playing Marco, a poultry association executive married to the owner of a massive breeding plant (Gina Lollobrigida, used far less interestingly), with an apparent sideline in murdering whores at a roadside motel, and a desire for his wife’s cousin (Ewa Aulin), who however has something going on with a publicity man hired by the association. Questi confidently breezes past all holes and improbabilities, with a torrent of eye-catching framing and cutting and a sporadically plausible feeling of scientific seriousness; at the end (which, following a series of extremely rapid twists, consists of a guy eating an egg) one may judge the experience to have been oddly meaningful (although in a way beyond articulating). Passing concepts include a “room of truth” stripped of all furniture and distraction, in which the occupants may unlock emotions otherwise denied them – it doesn’t really relate to much else in the film, but illustrates its odd, quasi-experimental streak (as it happens, nothing unlocked in the room of truth appears to relate directly to the chickens though).

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Chinese Boxes (Christopher Petit, 1984)


In a way, the title of Christopher Petit’s Chinese Boxes sums up the odd feeling of lost-in-time absence that permeates the movie, not just through the structural clue it contains (that one layer of apparent explanation will be forcibly removed to reveal another, and so on) but also through the evocation of China as abstract exoticism, not then seeming relevant to any immediate economic conversation. Marsh (Will Patton), an American in a still-partitioned Berlin, is the main inadvertent box-opener: a dead business associate leading to a teenage girl overdosing in his apartment, leading to a mysterious American called Harwood who says he’s a customs agent (Robbie Coltrane) but doesn’t act like it, to mysterious assignments apparently connected to drug trafficking, and to further killings and revelations.  The film treats genre expectations with enjoyable minimalism, depicting a car crash simply by cutting to the stunned passengers inside the upside-down car, dispensing with scenes of gun- and fist-play so glancingly that they hardly register at all, and allowing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” (maybe a too-obvious choice) to make some meaningful-seeming dialogue largely unintelligible; much the same goes for the film’s depiction of Berlin, predominantly consisting of anonymous locations that might be anywhere. It’s still a resonant choice though, with Harwood’s primary concern turning out not to be drugs at all but rather the prospects for increased commerce between East and West; he even presciently anticipates the possibility of reunification (as a matter of economic if not political logic). The choice of aspect ratio reinforces the sense of “boxiness” and confinement, of things perpetually on the verge of inwardly collapsing. A key character’s final rejection of a free ticket out, finding the prospect of leaving Berlin unimaginable, underlines all that the movie leaves untapped, a sense of further boxes (or of entire sets of boxes) not yet opened, or even dreamed of.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)


Carl Dreyer’s Ordet occupies a unique, unnervingly singular cinematic space, acknowledged in a sense by the absence of any credits; if taken at face value, the film dramatizes the transformative power of Christian faith, and doctrinal religious matters occupy a large portion of the screen time, and yet Dreyer seems to reach beyond even that, to an untapped capacity innate in humanity (and, by extension, in the art of cinema). The film focuses on the prosperous Borgen family, a patriarch and three sons – the oldest, Mikkel, not a religious believer; the second, Johannes, mentally unbalanced to the extent of pronouncing himself to be the second coming of Jesus; the third, Anders, in love with a girl he can’t have, because she belongs to a different, more rigid sect. When Mikkel’s beloved wife dies in childbirth, the family is shaken to its core, but then Johannes, citing the power of faith, brings about a miracle; or if not that, then an event lying far beyond any rational available explanation. Dreyer ends the film on an intense observance of this event, showing enough of the reaction to suggest that local religious differences and their consequences may now be swept away, but withholding those of the priest (who has earlier discounted the possibility of nature’s laws being broken in the modern age), the rational doctor whose efforts failed, or even of Johannes himself, as if nothing that follows could ever be of comparable significance or interest; as if in contemplating faith (as perhaps with love, and again, the act of cinematic witnessing) the anticipation of what follows can only undermine our joyous immersion in the divine moment. The film is always vividly present, its characters very particularly conceived and observed, set in a specific time and place (a 1925 on the edge of modernity, with telephones, but with horses not yet fully displaced by cars), but almost feeling like a science-fiction-type portal to a paradigm beyond the grasp of 1925, or 1955, or of any year since.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Mass Appeal (Glenn Jordan, 1984)


Glenn Jordan’s Mass Appeal depicts American Catholicism as being a largely complacent, flaccid and hypocritical institution that strangles the few pockets of passionate and commitment that may dwell within it, but fatally undermines its ability to drive home those points by evidencing much the same faults, cinematically speaking. Jack Lemmon plays Father Farley, all too comfortably established in his Connecticut province, mostly wise-cracking his way through the sermons, dispensing shallow homilies and comforts and strategic white lies and evasions to paper over his low-level alcoholism and essential hollowness; he crosses paths with Mark Dolson, a volatile young seminarian (Zeljko Ivanek) to whom he becomes an involuntary supervisor, and, of course, his faltering attempts to shape the younger man’s path cause him to reevaluate his own. The film suggests that homosexuality is common in the church, while rendering it a distanced abstraction: two seminarians are expelled for suspected sexual contact (but we never even get to see them); Dolson admits that he’s had sex with men (but also with women, and it’s all in the past); there’s a passing suggestion (but no more than that) that Farley may also be gay. The film’s debates on these and other hot issues, such as the ordination of women, are hopelessly glib and packaged, undercutting any real sense of personal suffering or deprivation; likewise, Farley’s evolution from seeing Dolson mainly as an exasperating threat to ultimately proclaiming him as something close to the future savior of the Church, whatever the cost to his own job security, is set out in arbitrarily lurching terms. Compared to some directors of that period (see Tribute’s Bob Clark), Jordan holds Lemmon’s mannerisms in relative check, drawing out some moderately moving moments of self-awareness and breakdown, but the film’s imperfectly underlined ending doesn’t provide much to subsequently reflect on.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Witches (Pier Paolo Pasolini Mauro Bolognini Vittorio De Sica Franco Rossi Luchino Visconti, 1967)


One of the stronger entries from the 60’s spate of European anthology films, The Witches is a five-part showcase for Silvana Mangano (which might admittedly seem, across this time and distance, to be a peculiar undertaking). Two of the segments barely register – Mauro Bolognini’s is a one-joke thing (albeit a well-handled one), and Franco Rossi’s barely even that. Luchino Visconti’s opener, a frostily languid look at a celebrity’s spiritual malaise hits mostly familiar beautiful-people-in-crisis notes. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s is the most formally and thematically intriguing – a zany, sometimes Chaplinesque comedy in which a bereaved man and his son search (mostly through urban wasteland) for a new wife/mother, striking out with the likes of whores and shop dummies before settling on a lovely deaf girl (Mangano at her loveliest), who utterly suffices until she dies from slipping on a banana peel while standing on one of the upper levels of the Colisseum (yep), which isn’t a problem because she returns from the beyond and things go on as before, yielding the motto that being dead and being alive are the same thing (some other Pasolini films might not lead one to interpret this premise as positively). It’s at once the most frivolous chapter and yet the most socially-anchored and spiritually questioning. The film ends with a Vittorio De Sica piece in which the star plays a bored, frumpy-looking wife, her marriage drained of passion, trying to buck up her low-energy husband while living a much more exciting inner life, all of which is considerably lifted by the fact of the husband being played by a (dubbed) Clint Eastwood in one of his all-time loosest, most game performances: it’s one segment that you might wish had been longer. With the added bonus of its strenuously nutty opening credits, it’s a diverting if inherently odd package, generally boosting one’s appreciation of Mangano’s range.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)


Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind contains some of the most deliriously striking pictorial compositions, within one of the most jaggedly disturbed psychological structures, in all of classic Hollywood cinema; every moment (from the astoundingly dynamic opening credits) is a submission to a startling spectacle, to a degree that feels personally destabilizing. On a trip to New York, dissolute oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) rapidly falls for one of his company’s executive secretaries, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall); he marries her, cleans up his act, and brings her to the family’s Texan home base, a setting dominated by his unhappily promiscuous sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), whose behaviour is at least partially driven by her unrequited love for Kyle’s best friend and fixer Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who can only look on her as a sister, and who in turn is in love with Lucy (Sirk weaves in a rich number of Freudian threads, including Kyle wishing that Mitch’s father had been his own). Stack and Malone both give heightened, physically unrestrained, often almost gargoyle-like performances, their great wealth and potential power only accentuating their personal inadequacies – when, in Kyle’s case, the symbolic inadequacy appears to become a primal medical one, such that he believes himself to be sterile, there’s no recourse except inwards, into drunkenness and madness and beyond. At times, the film feels like Gothic horror, the vast family home seeming almost demonically possessed (for example, in the cross-cutting of Marylee feverishly dancing in her bedroom and her despairing father taking a fatal fall down the stairs). It follows then that Mitch and Lucy, the representatives of relative normality (to the extent that anything about the fifties seems normal in retrospect) can only find closure by fleeing the site of trauma, leaving Marylee as the inheritor of familial power, the final shot laden with unresolved sexual threat.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (Shiro Toyoda, 1956)


Shiro Toyoda’s Shozo, a Cat and Two Women often feels rather trifling and (at two and a quarter hours) protracted, but ultimately achieves a bleakly stubborn persuasiveness. As the film starts, Shozo’s wife Shinaka is more or less hounded into leaving him by his dominating mother, who wants him remarried to his younger mistress Fukuko, mainly because of the accompanying financial benefits (Fukuko’s father also holds the mortgage on their house). Shozo’s erotic attraction to Fukuko (especially, it seems, to her legs) is made clear enough – the film is quite ribald at times (and striking in its portrayal of Fukuko’s proud sexual self-determination, for which we’re told she’s even made the newspapers in the past) – but his only real emotional affinity is for his aging cat Lily, disliked by Fukuko, and only of interest to Shinaka as part of her plot to get Shozo back (her options otherwise looking grim). All of this entails a fair amount of repetitive histrionics, but one driven by real anxieties about basic survival – Shozo’s immaturity and general inability to engage with reality (left to his own devices, it’s clear that the little store from which he makes a meagre living would hardly function at all) seem like a defense against a hard-edged post-war landscape he otherwise finds impossible to engage with. Lily being a cat, it’s a recurring mystery over whether Shozo’s elevated view of her is at all reciprocated, not least at the end, when he basically leaves the two women (by then seemingly headed for a domestic version of mutually assured destruction) behind and bets everything on her, leading to a strikingly desolate ending. The film’s philosophical strands are clunkily underlined by Shinaka’s brother-in-law, supposedly obsessed by philosophy, which as manifested here basically just consists of dropping words like “existential” into everyday sentences (to his wife’s understandable bemusement).

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

How Green was My Valley? (John Ford, 1941)


Like Citizen Kane, which it famously beat as the best picture Oscar winner of 1941, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley? is heavy with remembrance and regret, for a time of vanished coherence and beauty. Ford’s film is far more conventional than Welles’s, and looms far less large in the collective cinematic memory, but much about it is beautiful and moving, even if there’s little that doesn’t seem simplified and/or idealized (it’s in black and white, but still, one feels that the valley was never that green, that life was never in such perfect equilibrium). The film constitutes the childhood memories of Hugh (played as a boy, very sweetly, by Roddy McDowall), the youngest of six brother and a sister (Maureen O’Hara) growing up in a Welsh mining village. At first, all seems idyllic (the film rings with choral renditions of many Welsh-language classics), but many of the opening precepts are shown to be false or fragile: the economic relationship between the mine and the workers deteriorates more with each passing year, causing an inevitable outward migration and erosion of community; the centrality of religion is exposed as a ritualistic sham (Walter Pidgeon plays the local minister, ultimately all but driven out by cowardly hypocrisy); the inherent danger of the work floods the valley with loss, and slowly poisons those lush vistas. Saddest of all is the decision of academically gifted Hugh to follow his family into the mine rather than continue with his studies, speaking sad volumes about the imposed smallness of his world, his inability to grasp broader possibilities. The film may be at its weakest when Ford indulges his liking for boozy camaraderie, but impresses with the confidence of its storytelling, not least with how much its ending leaves unresolved, both for the individuals and for the world they inhabit.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Lili Marleen (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)


Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen isn’t typically ranked among his best films, but if it seems at times to play a little flatly, that’s not necessarily unsuited to its structuring ambiguities. Willie, a German singer, is barred from escaping into Switzerland at the start of WW2 because of machinations by the father of her Swiss boyfriend Robert (who actively works to help Jews evade the Nazis); needing to make ends meet, she keeps on pursuing her career, and chances onto the title song, the popularity of which lifts her to iconic status, bringing both rewards and dangers. The soundtrack is suffused in the song, while leaving it unclear whether it serves as a morbid sapping of positive will (as we’re told is Goebbels’ view) or as a unifying evocation of the heartland (Hitler’s view); the song is played to raptly listening soldiers in the trenches and to vast formal crowds, but there’s never any sense of the war as other than a losing venture, and near the end when a group of soldiers hear the song on the battlefield and head in its direction for refuge, it’s a Russian trap. The ambiguity extends to Willie herself (summed up in the character’s very name, and in the way her identity later becomes entirely intertwined with the song) – the film withholds any confirmation of whether she sleeps with Nazis as is rumoured, and while she assumes personal danger in some of her anti-regime activities, her motivation, and the depth of her convictions (if any) are entirely unclear (even her basic competence as a singer is the subject of debate). As such, the film continually returns to the unstable nature of cultural symbols and to the ideological regimes they may seem to support. Hanna Schygulla ably embodies Willie’s recessive qualities; the film also stars Giancarlo Giannini and Mel Ferrer, splashy casting befitting the film’s classically melodramatic ambitions.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977)


Alain Resnais’ Providence makes it clear early on that the apparent initial narrative (a strange affair involving the mercy killing of an injured old man with a werewolf-like affliction, leading to a court trial, and then to a relationship between the accused and the prosecuting lawyer’s wife) is at least in part a representation of the work in progress that tumbles through the head of elderly author Clive Langham during a night of drunken pain, while leaving the possibility that elements might be rooted in external reality (Langham’s own son, daughter-in-law and even his deceased wife take on prominent roles in the narrative). To that degree, the film represents a  puzzle of sorts, although it never feels likely that a clear “solution” to these oddities and discontinuities is likely, or even desirable; it often plays like broad, destabilizing comedy, as Langham’s inner voice floods the soundtrack with scabrous vulgarities (delivered with relish by John Gielgud), often disappointed by his own imaginings, sometimes losing control over them (most charmingly involving a tangential football player character who keeps jogging into scenes where he doesn’t belong). The ultimate arrival point, once reality does assert itself (or so we might assume), is surprisingly bucolic, with Langham’s children coming to his country house for a birthday lunch, identities and realities clarified and softened from what was previously mooted. Langham drinks as excessively in daylight as after dark, and there are references to past transgressions, but the pervasive sense of present attack is gone, and one might even wonder whether such heavy tranquility more fully embodies the death of creative faculties. Despite the productive affinities with Resnais’ other work, the tightness of the conception, and the extreme Englishness of the setting, periodically generates a sense of a director being somewhat hemmed in; Gielgud aside, the actors only intermittently flourish. And yet, it does all linger quite deliciously in the memory…

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Fedora (Billy Wilder, 1978)


Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, is usually regarded (if at all) as a sign of waning powers, and it’s certainly what you might call an “old man’s film,” but then the strangely haunting material hardly lends itself to a young man’s one. William Holden (at his most resonant, accentuated by one’s hindsight knowledge of how his own time was running out) plays Barry Detweiler, a seen-better-times independent producer who comes to Corfu in search of Fedora, a retired Garbo-like actress whom he hopes to lure back to the screen. He finds her beauty undiminished, but his attempts to get to her are blocked by an old Countess in whose villa she’s living, and the Countess’s surrounding retinue; then that narrative comes to a sudden end about halfway through, and the second half largely provides a different perspective on what we’ve previously seen. Much about the film feels dislodged from time – it suggests for example that Fedora somehow sustained her stardom into the 70’s while making strictly old-school movies (Detweiler’s passion project is cringingly titled The Snows of Yesteryear) – and there’s a hole at the heart of the movie in breezing far too easily over various self-serving acts of cruelty by the Countess and those around her, keeping us at a distance from a key character’s inner anguish. But that’s only to say that the film is an artifice, no less than the illusions depicted within it, suffused in a sense of regret and loss. It’s an artifice though that flirts deliciously with reality at times, no less than in its use of Michael York, playing himself (Holden’s reaction when Fedora names York as her ideal co-star, rejecting Detweiler’s suggestions of Nicholson, Beatty and McQueen, is an absolute highlight). Henry Fonda also briefly appears as himself, presenting Fedora with a life achievement Oscar, looking serenely happy to be there. And truly, why would he not be?

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)


Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion is one of his most gorgeously twisted art objects, a work of stunning craft and visual sumptuousness which, even as it ravishes us, persistently prompts us to find such beauty lacking, both on its own terms and as an expression of the hermetic industrial and financial infrastructure which allows its creation. While it’s seldom been worthwhile to try summarizing a Godardian narrative, Passion revolves around a stalled film project taking place in proximity to a factory riddled with industrial unrest and to a nearby motel, the proprietors and workers of which interact in various ways; the director is from Poland, at that moment in time a focus of political engagement, the very evocation of which tends to condemn the decadent irrelevance of the film within the film and all that it drives. The project appears to consist primarily of (again, gorgeous) recreations of iconic paintings and historical snapshots, with no apparent protagonists; the director spends much time worrying about the quality of the lighting, while his producer continually hustles for money; as such it’s in an intriguing dynamic with Godard’s own film, which has an emblematically art-house cast (Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli), all of course subservient to the governing scheme (Huppert’s character stutters: Piccoli’s perpetually coughs; Godard seems most interested in Schygulla for her face, including one wondrous searching close-up that recalls Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc). In the end, the director sets off for his home country with some of the film’s women tagging along; to one who balks at getting in because she doesn’t like cars, he explains that it’s not a car but a magic carpet - a silly line, but one which works on her, and which perhaps points to the possibility of escaping a cinematic dead end, for a creative renewal more rooted in the real world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Family Way (1966, John Boulting & Roy Boulting)


One’s memories of the Boulting Brothers’ The Family Way are likely to be dominated by the highly sellable central situation of a young couple (Hayley Mills’ Jenny and Hywel Bennett’s Arthur) unable to consummate their marriage after moving in with his parents, and gradually subject to a barrage of local speculation, gossip and worse. Viewed now though, this is just one element in a virtual catalogue of sexual dysfunction, much of it carrying homosexual implications: most prominently the fixation of Arthur’s father (John Mills) with his lost boyhood friend, whom he even brought along on his honeymoon (he seems entirely oblivious to any subtext, although his wife plainly isn’t). It’s hinted that Jenny’s mother was perversely suspicious of her husband’s affection for his daughter, and even the movie’s most outspokenly ribald character, Joe Thompson, played by Barry Foster, is, based on his wife’s climactic outburst, a sexual strike-out whose “job” has been filled for years by the milkman. The movie roots all this in a highly judgmental, privacy-challenged, booze-sodden community, with little sense of space (the house lacks a bathroom) or economic opportunity; it’s not exactly a societal hatchet job, but certainly allows ample understanding of how one’s insecurities might only be amplified in such a milieu. The movie is an easy pleasure, although it’s a shame that the resolution basically consists of Arthur battering his way to redemption, beating up Thompson and preparing to leave Jenny, his anger and resentment finally enabling him to conquer the central problem; the final scene then bundles the couple out of the way on a delayed honeymoon. But even then, as embodied by Bennett, Arthur seems too inherently out of place for the marriage ever to work, his thoughts and ambitions seldom seeming to align with those of the sweet but more basically content and locally-rooted Jenny, providing little prospect of avoiding further troubles ahead.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)


Just as everyone says, there’s an inexhaustible quality to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a rare balancing of unnerving narrative mechanics and a searchingly poetic sensibility that seems constantly to be looking beyond. Its 90 minutes contain a remarkable variety and breadth of characterization and incident, the focus several times moving outside the established narrative onto a new character who then gets drawn into the central scheme; even at its most potentially lurid (and it is, after all, about a monstrously self-justifying doctor, located in a big creepy house, whose plan to restore his daughter’s mutilated face entails, with the help of a manically devoted assistant, kidnapping, surgically abusing and killing a series of young women), the film is rooted in personal agony and helpless compulsion, dotted with touching, psychologically revealing moments. The film’s ending represents an astonishing inversion, the relative ease with which the two villains are dispatched speaking to the inward-looking irrelevance of their scheming, obsessing with restoring the damaged girl’s face when her true redemption lay in embracing its absence, and entering her own ethereal space, depicted in a climatic dove-shrouded glide into the woods. The scenes of the investigating cops could from one perspective be eliminated – we last see them getting the wool pulled over their eyes, departing with no idea of their proximity to past and pending crimes - and yet, the intrusion of such ineffective authority reminds us (because we might easily forget), that the film’s threats and perversions of causality, for all their fantastic aspects, are products of our own world (the final scene of Franju’s Judex appends a note to a similar end), of familial love and scientific ambition and perceived social entitlement; the vibrant Paris captured earlier in the movie lying just a twenty-minute train away ride, we’re told. Overall, amazing viewing every time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950, Fritz Lang)


Drawing on his own experiences of flight and exile, Fritz Lang’s American Guerilla in the Philippines is a sweaty, sun-baked variation on his foreboding urban narratives, its protagonist as hopelessly trapped as in any of them, in this case fighting an all-but-endless war while devoid of almost any personal agency or any sense of the passage of time. Tyrone Power’s Chuck Palmer is one of a small group of Americans trapped in the islands after the US withdraws in the face of the 1942 Japanese invasion (General MacArthur’s parting declaration, printed on matchboxes, that “I shall return” comes to seem like as much an existential taunt as an inspiring promise) – he treks for weeks in search of others, has an idea of sailing to Australia which goes nowhere, and from there is gradually drawn into the prolonged, lonely, constantly threatened guerilla existence. Micheline Presle (billed here, in a wondrous example of dumbing-down, as “Micheline Prelle”) plays a Frenchwoman married to a local businessman who channels money and support to the guerillas; once he’s identified and killed by the Japanese, she and Palmer rapidly become a couple, a transition depicted with notable lack of sentiment (she’s depicted as being unerringly pragmatic, and gets to wield a gun in the final showdown in a church, as does one of the altar boys). The movie has a huge amount of action and incident, with Palmer required to do everything from building a radio with whatever’s on hand (which he succeeds at) to operating on a horribly injured man (he fails), but the flag-waving is offset by its protagonist’s essential loneliness, with only one other American, played by Tom Ewell, depicted in any depth; when the troops triumphantly roll in at the end, they watch from the perspective of liberated locals rather than as part of the team.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

La faute de l’abbe Mouret (Georges Franju, 1970)


Georges Franju’s La faute de l’abbe Mouret contains major elements of both hell-and-damnation Catholic severity and flower child-inflected dreaminess; one’s assessment of the film’s success (mine differed across separate viewings) may depend on the extent to which the two cohere. Young Abbott Mouret, bearing a Bressonian pallor and sense of self-denial, serves in a rural village of little apparent piety (the film opens on two locals having sex in a field), and after a sudden collapse which largely wipes out his memory, he’s taken by unknown means to a nearby house occupied by a fiery atheist, whose daughter Albine nurses him back to health. The two walk daily in the adjacent walled-off garden (visualized in extravagantly lovely terms, its centerpiece an overpowering abundance of flowering roses), where they eventually make love, like two innocents discovering something that was previously beyond imagining. But a prolonged shot of a snake on a tree makes all too clear the fragile nature of this paradise, and when a storm brings down the wall, Mouret’s memory returns, along with an even more austere sense of vocation. The film contains some punishing moments, such as Mouret’s unrelenting colleague terrorizing children with his pitch-black vision of their future, but the proffered alternative is no less ungrounded; Albine claims that the garden supposedly contains a magic tree that distorts one’s sense of time, and tells him an origin story that sounds like a fairy tale. Mouret’s actions end in tragedy, triggering one of cinema’s more unusual suicides, and a shocking act of violence; the final scene, a fusion of inner and outer worlds, could be read to suggest that Mouret’s external fealty shrouds a transgressive inner life, even a surrender to the devil. Given the considerably lighter nature of Franju’s subsequent film, Shadowman, it may constitute the last great enigma of a fascinatingly shifting body of work.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Absolution (Anthony Page, 1978)


Richard Burton’s Catholic priest in Anthony Page’s Absolution might be viewed as an amalgam of many of his then-most recent roles: Exorcist II (in which he also played a priest), Equus (written by Peter Shaffer, whose brother Anthony wrote Absolution), and The Medusa Touch (where his character’s rage against society is so powerful that it can overcome the laws of nature): all roles which in one way or another tried to make a strength out of the actor’s customary stiffness (whereas the one not listed above, The Wild Geese, tried in futility to ignore it). His character in Absolution, Father Goddard, is a teacher at a boys’ school who comes to believe that his star pupil Benjie (Dominic Guard) has in effect fallen under the influence of Satan (Billy Connolly plays the serpent who leads him astray, a drifter called Blakey who hangs around the school grounds); Benjie starts using the confessional to taunt Goddard first with made-up sins, and then apparently with real and horrific ones, including the murder of Blakey, knowing that Goddard can’t repeat any of it to anyone. The movie’s interest in its cloistered world is unfortunately limited, with only one other boy (played by Kes’s David Bradley) portrayed in any depth (not that the adults register either, beyond Goddard and Blakey), and the briefest possible glimpses of such standard transgressions as girlie magazines and cigarette smoking. Although Catholic teachings and rituals are inherent to the plot, the film seems mainly interested in them as devices; it’s interesting to imagine what a more cerebral or intense director could have done with it. Such a director might have gotten something very powerful out of Burton; even so, the actor is at his latter-day best here, conveying sheer inner torture at a situation that rapidly surpasses both his analytical capacities and his faith.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Girl at the Window (Luciano Emmer, 1961)


The first half an hour or so of Luciano Emmer’s undersung Girl at the Window provides no hint of what the title might refer to, following a group of Italian immigrants as they enter Holland to work in a coal mine, negotiating the mechanics of arrival and integration – on the very first day, a sudden collapse seals off one of them, Vincenzo (Bernard Fresson) with the supervisor Federico (Lino Ventura), triggering a remarkable series of scenes in which their air supply gives out, sounds of approaching rescue recede, and even the ebullient Federico has little specific hope to offer. But suddenly, after several days, they’re freed after all, and with little further reflection, the two men set off for Amsterdam, with the object of buying some female company. Emmer provides a rich portrait of the red-light district, emphasizing the language difficulties that many movies gloss over, and including a matter of fact depiction of a gay bar; Federico in particular is depicted as ravenous for booze and for women, spending his hard-earned money with an abandon which seems like its own kind of airless confinement. The film’s structural freshness continues as the two men part ways (the film then focuses mainly on Vincenzo, who forges a sort of connection with Else, played by Marina Vlady, despite the two being barely able to communicate the simplest thing to each other), their paths meeting up again later, and again diverging. But these expansive aspects coexist with a feeling of fate closing in, symbolized by a recurring shot of the world receding into a tiny square of light as the miners descend into the depths. Overall, the film conveys a strongly tragic sense of economic and existential inevitability, but its final note is a resigned, jocular one, a small tribute to the spirit that allows such men to keep pressing on (albeit that this may only leave them more open to exploitation).

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A Different Image (Alile Sharon Larkin, 1982)


Alile Sharon Larkin’s beautiful A Different Image is an extraordinarily full 51 minutes of cinema, lightly but meaningfully expressed at every turn. Its focus is on a young woman, Alana, who predominantly wants time and space to work on her art, to enjoy her friends and to explore whatever means of self-expression occur to her. This may not sound like a radical project, but it’s subject to skepticism and/or attack from all directions: from her mother who doesn’t understand her resistance to getting married and generating grandchildren; from her female co-worker who can’t believe she could have a platonic male friend, Vincent; and then most sadly from Vincent himself, who (albeit partly driven by peer pressure from his Playboy-reading friend) ultimately can’t resist the urge to sexualize their relationship (at one point he reads to her a famous passage from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, without any apparent awareness that Black women might experience their own different form of invisibility, or all-too-visibility). The placement of “image” in the title reflects the film’s reflection on representation for worse and better: Larkin’s camera on the one hand taking in  soft porn and sexualized advertising billboards, and on the other offering a lovingly curated selection of photographs of Black women, existing not to be mimicked or subjected to hollow praise, but as cherished reference points in achieving growth and self-awareness (the film’s final photograph, of Larkin herself, adds a wonderfully personal perspective on this). The film has a warm and delicate approach to its characters: while it leaves no doubt that Vincent crosses a line (Alana explicitly accuses him of rape) it also allows us to see her from his perspective, to convey the heightened sense of presence and connection that contributes to his misreading of the moment, leading to a final note of partial reconciliation, in which Vincent seems to be at least starting out on better understanding her perspective.