Wednesday, February 23, 2022

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)


There’s a desperate quality to the title of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; a miscalculated belief that the strenuous repetition could pound the underlying movie into the desired comic nirvana. Plainly it didn’t work out that way – the film (which is propelled by a dying man’s revelation of buried treasure, heard by five men who subsequently race against each other to get to it first, drawing in other participants along the way) has few actual laughs or notable comic invention, but a vast (or let’s say, a mad, mad, mad, mad) amount of yelling and shrieking and bickering. It’s sometimes fairly handsome at least, with much of the action taking place against imposing scenic backdrops, and of course some ideas land better than others, if only through sheer effort (Jonathan Winters contributes to a fair percentage of those; Ethel Merman to none of them, although of course that’s a matter of taste, if such a term can possibly be applied here). Perhaps the most intriguing, if underdeveloped, element is the withering vision of marriage and male-female relationships in general; among other things, Terry-Thomas’ English interloper character has a strange digression about the emasculation of the American male, and one of the wives comments in apparent seriousness that her dream, if she had most of the money for herself, might be to use it to get into a convent, but it goes no deeper than that. Spencer Tracy (playing a detective who’s been after the loot for years) is given more space than anyone else to build a more complexly motivated character, but he hardly seems fully present (which does at least provide some contrast to the all-too-present central cast). The array of cameos only means that the movie existing on the margins (Buster Keaton turns up for about a minute, the Three Stooges for a single shot) often seems to carry greater potential than the one at the centre.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (Eric Rohmer, 1993)

It might seem ironic that Eric Rohmer’s The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, his most resolutely localized film, also has perhaps the most wide-ranging dialogue of any of his films, the conversations at various points touching on the Amazon forests, the science of global warming, the impact of technology on work patterns, and the merits and characteristics of various ideological and political systems, to name but a few. But this speaks to the richness of Rohmer’s project, of illuminating how local issues become larger ones, with a corresponding difficulty in ever identifying the right thing to do, let alone getting it done. The mayor (Pascal Greggory) plans to build the mediatheque in the centre of the village (it’s amusing that such a project, where we’re told visitors will be able to watch films not available elsewhere, would long since have been rendered largely obsolete by streaming), along with an open-air theatre and swimming pool, creating local jobs and attracting more visitors, but with inevitable impacts on traffic volumes, centuries-old landscapes and so on, including the ancient tree referred to in the title (however, to focus primarily on the tree, as a magazine piece does in covering the dispute, simplifies the complexity). In the end, the plan falls apart for mostly bureaucratic reasons, and the movie ends on a song, straddling sincerity and satire, about taking the right steps for future generations. Romance is a secondary consideration here, and one might superficially dismiss the characters as being largely mouthpieces, but that would overlook Rohmer’s attentiveness to small but illuminating details, and his genuine immersion in the world depicted – we get to see the mayor’s garden in such detail that you might plausibly be able to sketch out the whole thing afterwards. And much as it may seem to end on a celebratory note, the film raises too many urgent issues not to leave a somewhat disquieting aftertaste.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Green Ice (Ernest Day, 1981)


Ernest Day’s Green Ice may be most notable for being the movie playing in a mall theatre in Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties, making a small but cherishable contribution to Akerman's exploration of its era’s not-so-golden ideology. Day's film, in (extreme) contrast, doesn’t provide much to think over, being a blandly shapeless mishmash of elements. Omar Sharif plays Meno Argenti, an expatriate Italian who’s a bigshot in the Colombian emerald racket, while primarily focused on getting back into his first love of the diamond market, from which he was exiled for past transgressions; to that end, he strategically romances the highly-connected Holbrook (Anne Archer), but she’s more interested in aiding the cause of the rebels he exploits (the passages with the rebels, while hardly politically daring, are at least among the film’s more relatively meaningful). An under-achieving electrical engineer, Joseph Wiley (Ryan O’Neal) gets drawn in, as people do, eventually leading to a daring heist on Argenti’s supposedly impenetrable emerald-hoarding fortress, and various subsequent showdowns. As in a movie like The Tamarind Seed (another use of Sharif as all-purpose foreigner, in that instance Russian), Maurice Binder’s title sequence is easily the most visually striking aspect of the experience, while bearing no stylistic or thematic relationship to anything in the movie proper. Day (better known as a cinematographer) shows himself to be a wondrously perfunctory director, with even the supposed visual highlights counting for little or nothing. Other oddities include a (not generally very helpful) score by Bill Wyman, and the casting of Philip Stone (the barman from The Shining) as one of Sharif’s heavies, the Kubrickian resonances wondrously out of place here. O’Neal and Sharif (both at the end of their heydays, and rightly so on this evidence) deliver startlingly dull, disengaged performances. We can safely assume that the mall theatre I mentioned would have had few satisfied customers that week…

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Pola X (Leos Carax, 1999)


Leos Carax’ darkly haunting Pola X might most straightforwardly be seen as a tale of madness and self-obliteration: under the influence of a strange, homeless woman who claims to be his sister, a successful young author abandons his fiancée and elegant surroundings to live in increasing poverty and disrepair, the downward trajectory of his life so darkly compelling that it eventually draws in the fiancée and spreads through what’s left of his family. But at the same time, it may be one of cinema’s most unnerving tales of liberation; those opening scenes are mocking in their opulence, hinting at incipient instability in the way that he seems to have a more complex sexual tension with his sister (Catherine Deneuve) than with his fiancée, the facts of his success coming under a pseudonym and of his inability to make progress on a second novel all pointing to underlying fracture. The sense of looming tragedy is immeasurably boosted by the subsequent personal history of its two leads – the trajectory of Guillaume Depardieu’s Pierre from cutting-edge handsome to an imposing wreck seems to foresee the actor’s pending misfortunes, and Katerina Golubeva’s Isabelle is one of the gravest presences in modern cinema; the scenes of the two walking together in their outdated, oversized clothes evoke a visitation from below, an impression that resonates against the repurposed factory in which they find a home, occupied by a vaguely cult-like alternative community of music-makers and techies and who knows what, as if in some workshop of the soul, gradually eroding any possibility of returning to conventional society. But the film is also extraordinarily physical and immediate, not least in its then-notorious sex scene, at once heart-stoppingly intimate and rather offputting in its directness, further establishing the extreme tangibility and transgressiveness of what we and the protagonists are experiencing.