Thursday, January 27, 2022

Love & Money (James Toback, 1982)


It’s regrettable that James Toback’s behavioural excesses may now be more widely known than his films, but given how his best work is seeped in a compulsive-seeming rush of sex and power and appetite, it also makes a certain displaced kind of sense. The enjoyably eccentric Love and Money is one of his more ambitious projects, given that the plot encompasses global commodities markets and potential revolution in a South American country, but hardly has an epic feel about it, the prevailing tone driven much more by personal obsession. Ray Sharkey plays Byron Levin, a dissatisfied bank employee living with his book dealer girlfriend and no-longer-tuned-in grandfather (King Vidor!), approached by Stockheinz, a wealthy businessman (Klaus Kinski!), to help persuade his best friend from years back not to nationalize his country’s silver business (the best friend, naturally, is now the country’s President), all of which occupies Byron less than his instant desire for Stockheinz’s wife (Ornella Muti). For much of the time, there’s a sense that things could veer in one direction as easily as another, with little explanation required (as embodied in Levin’s hilariously inadequate explanations for his extended absences from home); the movie toys with political sentiments, while its depiction of the fictional country “Costa Salva” is flagrantly thin and unconvincing. The use of Vidor and the recurring motif of the piled-up old books suggests an affinity with classicism, but there’s a restlessness to the movie, a sense of searching for new alchemies in complex times: if not fully achieved, it’s a fascinatingly bumpy journey (although one that ends strangely abruptly, as if Toback’s attention were already moving on to his next and best, Exposed). And you can’t overlook the moment when Byron’s failure to get aroused can only be cured by hearing The Star-Spangled Banner (see, at heart it’s all about American values!)

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)


Antonioni’s The Red Desert must rank high in the list of colour films that most suffer from being seen in a suboptimal print; not necessarily because the colour provides a clarity that would otherwise be absent, but because of the very opposite, of the nature of the film’s particular mystery. It’s arguably rather short on conventional pleasures (there’s some comparatively racy talk about sex, but no visualization of it), reflecting a reality that has become overwhelmingly confusing and oppressive; its use of colour is sometimes a direct appeal to an alternative reality (as in a story that’s told about a girl on an island) but more often an abstract representation of the meaning and order that evades us. It’s made explicit in the damaged central character’s plan of opening a shop, for which the decision on what she might actually sell comes second to covering the walls with different paint possibilities; at other times, even such muddled human agency is denied, and the film takes on a sense of chronic violation, its brandishing of (or denial of) colour seeming like part of the attack. The ending provides a note of relative hope, as she muses that the birds would have learned to avoid a factory’s emissions of hideous (and yet, if the context and content were different) weirdly beautiful yellow smoke; reflecting a broader sense that communication between people and their environments is at least possible, however confusing the progress toward it. But the hope is indeed at best relative; the search for how to live (essentially the same thing, we’re told, as the search for how to see) not without lightness, but defined as much by absence as by presence. The film’s focus on labour practices, upheavals and shortages suggests that the plight it depicts is at least in part a feature of modern capitalism and industrialization, a critique that remains urgent and relevant (even if in a different form now).

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Someone to Love (Henry Jaglom, 1987)


Henry Jaglom’s Someone to Love casts the director as Danny, a version of himself, prompted by his and his brother’s relationship problems (the brother is played by Jaglom’s real-life brother) to hold a Valentine Day’s event in an old theatre scheduled for demolition, to meet people and connect while also getting a movie out of it. Much of the raw material gathered from this (by Henry and Danny alike) is pretty mundane: lots of not particularly novel or informative perspectives on hopes and dreams, occasional advances by participants on each other, none of it apparently getting anywhere. As in all his films since his debut, A Safe Place, Jaglom emphasizes cinematic artificiality, foregrounding juxtaposition and editing, often creating back-and-forth interactions out of shots that plainly seem to have been obtained at different times. This reaches an apex in the film’s use of Orson Welles (in his last role); his appearances are sprinkled throughout the film, and he has extended conversations with Danny and with a group of women, but is only ever seen alone in the frame, sitting in the same seat, filmed from the same angle; the sense of a created world supports the central tease, regarding the ambiguity where the line between reality and artifice lies. Some characters express reservations to Danny’s project on ethical grounds, or just on grounds of basic taste, but Jaglom seems more occupied by the tangibility of the filmmaking process than by any particular narrative or thematic object, bringing the notional plot strands to only the thinnest of closures; in the end it feels like he’s mainly interested in using up his spare footage of Welles. Still, it’s all more interesting than it might be, not least because it contains the most notable film appearance by the great late Dave Frishberg, also playing a close version of himself and singing his “Listen Here,” in addition to a couple of covers.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Walpurgis Night (Gustaf Edgren, 1935)


Gustaf Edgren’s Walpurgis Night initially impresses for its social consciousness, starting with a newspaper office discussion about Sweden’s declining birthrate, the participants splitting on whether the causes are primarily social (in particular a housing shortage) or whether it’s basically because of there being not enough love to go around. It rapidly becomes clear that the film is staking itself on the latter, less rigorous theory, as it launches into a bizarrely overstuffed and coincidence-strewn plot encompassing a raid on an illegal abortion provider, a wicked blackmailer, a covered-up murder, and much else; it even encompasses a scene in the French Foreign Legion (including the execution of an attempted deserter). By the latter stages, the movie is racing through key point developments (such as an apparent successful subsequent desertion), as if randomly discarding as much weight as necessary to get a rickety plane off the ground; still, this does somewhat contribute to a sense of societal insecurity and anxiety. An interesting secondary aspect is the portrayal of a society beset with people making a living by peddling opportunistic photographs or stray bits of gossip to the newspapers, a practice presented here as being amusingly harmless for the most part, but which speaks to the censoriousness and societal hypocrisy explored in so many other Swedish films (it’s typical of the film that while it makes much of the discovery of the abortion operation, it shows no interest in the plight of and consequences for the women whose privacy was thereby breached). The movie may most often be viewed now for the pre-Hollywood Ingrid Bergman, not that interestingly cast here as a woman of almost cloying virtue. Victor Sjostrom plays her father, with something of the pained gravity that would reach its zenith years later in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, lurching between treating his daughter as a latter-day saint and damning her as a common trollop.