Wednesday, March 30, 2022

I Want to Go Home (Alain Resnais, 1989)


The main character of Alain Resnais’ I Want to Go Home, Joey Wellman, is a veteran American cartoonist (but not one of the top-tier ones, his work barely celebrated now) in Paris for a convention; his almost estranged daughter is already there, studying at the Sorbonne and trying to shed her roots, fixated on getting her thesis on Flaubert to the attention of a public intellectual (Gerard Depardieu) who however is more interested in the old man. The cartoonist is played by Adolph Green, much better known as a songwriter than an actor (I Want to Go Home isn’t a musical, but sometimes seems on the verge of becoming that); others involved in the project include Jules Feiffer, John Kander, Linda Lavin, Geraldine Chaplin and John Ashton (at the time widely recognizable from Beverly Hills Cop and other mainstream movies), with references ranging from Victor Hugo to Krazy Kat – it’s surely a unique mixture of cultural coordinates, carrying the sense of a cultural puzzle to be unlocked. This manifests itself for much of the way as sometimes grating and repetitive conflict (Joey’s complaining about even the smallest aspect of French culture might profitably have been pared back at least a little), although ultimately leading to a rather mysterious transference in which some of the central characters reorient their affiliations and arrive at reconciliation; the final shot in which Joey’s temporary new home in the country sprouts into a Disneyland-like castle is the final assertion of possibility. Ultimately, for all its annoyances, the film insists that one might find delight even in the most unlikely locations and interactions, if one is only open to it. And of course, if that’s not so easy, you can draw on the common ground of cultural touchstones– those small-town French people may not recognize the most basic words of English, but they know “Clint Eastwood”!

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

March or Die (Dick Richards, 1977)


Dick Richards’ March or Die is something of an oddity – a British-financed French foreign legion picture made in the late seventies, its cast encompassing Hollywood respectability (Gene Hackman), the European mainstream (Terence Hill) and arthouse class (Catherine Deneuve, Max von Sydow). The film reflects these competing resonances, with Hackman’s character often lost in dark brooding built on brutally hard-won life lessons and a keen sense of political realities, while Hill’s provides doses of exuberant anti-authoritarianism, and Deneuve (whose character is an object of fascination to all the male principals) embodies the tangled romantic perspectives that have always accompanied tales of the legion (in a nice touch, an old woman who spends the day wordlessly lost in her thoughts might be, on the basis of what we’re told of her back story, Marlene Dietrich’s character from von Sternberg’s Morocco). The core plot engages critically with the imperatives of colonialism, with Hackman’s Major Foster unenthusiastically drafted to protect an archaeological dig led by von Sydow’s Professor Marneau, knowing that the Arabs view the project (the proceeds of which will be shipped back to France) as mere plunder and that if things go bad, his men will be hopelessly outnumbered: when this proves correct, it makes for some truly eye-filling scenes of conflict, with the Arab leader El Krim unleashing wave after wave of fresh attacks on the wretched soldiers. The fact that El Krim is played by Ian Holm (with a crime-boss-like veneer of philosophical brutality) sums up some the film’s limitations; it’s also evident that those separate strands I mentioned don’t always easily coalesce (Hill’s breeziness belongs in a different filmic universe from Hackman’s tightly-wound, implication-heavy self-reflection). Nevertheless, the overall impact is more satisfyingly bracing than you might expect, notwithstanding a final scene packed with tired notions of ambiguously evocative closure.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

L'inhumaine (Marcel L'Herbier, 1924)


Marcel L’Herbier’s L’inhumaine is a feast of eye-popping design (the only film able to boast Fernand Leger as art director), audacious (albeit, by later standards, not entirely smoothly executed) narrative, and instinctive cinematic know-how. The film’s opening section immerses us in the world of singer Claire Lescot, an impervious goddess (she claims no interest in humanity, only in those exceptional individuals who transcend it) surrounded and fawned over by a diverse circle of would-be suitors. When she rejects one of them, the inventor Einar, he apparently drives his car over a cliff; her decision the next day to go ahead with a scheduled concert bolsters her reputation as an “inhuman woman” (in one of many witty digressions, a butcher is seen opining she has no innards, as he lays out those of his inventory for sale). However, Einar turns out to be alive, leading into a second half in which he leads a more passive Claire through a new world of technology, culminating in a life-changing finale which causes her to transcend her earlier philosophy (one of Einar’s inventions, observed almost in passing, is a world-spanning device that allows a performer to survey all those who are wirelessly listening to her, its rather mystically intoxicating impact clearly anticipating the lure, almost a century later, of virtual events and interactions and godlike access). L’Herbier’s sense of style and play even extends to the intertitles, executed in varying layouts and typefaces; the film has fire-eaters, a poisonous snake, intimations of the supernatural, and all manner of modernist interiors, furniture, devices, and figurative bells and whistles. The film’s home stretch in particular feels incompletely realized in some respects though, the sense of Claire’s character rather dissipating, and the train of events not rendered entirely clearly, all of which does partially add to its cherishable singularity.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954)


Kicking off with the sudden death of a furniture company President, Robert Wise’s Executive Suite then follows the machinations to secure a majority of the seven board votes that will decide his successor. Five of the seven voters have a declared or potential interest in the position, with the main dynamic pitting an overriding focus on maintaining the bottom line against a more organic, forward-looking approach based on innovation and investment. No doubt a remake would feel compelled to focus on a more glamorous sector than the furniture industry (but then, Wise’s film derives from the heart of the materialist Eisenhower-era boom); such a remake would surely spend more time too on environmental sustainability, which no one thought they needed to worry about back in those fortunate days (for an interesting modern-day reference point, Danone kicked out its CEO in 2021 for allegedly focusing too much on an “activist agenda” versus the bottom line). Some aspects of the film remain interesting from a technical perspective: the one unscrupulous director (Louis Calhern) who sold the stock short to capitalize on an expected decline, and sees it going against him; the machinations of the vote itself. But it’s disappointing that in the end it comes down to typical movie speechifying by the youngest and most visionary of the group (William Holden), the opposition crumbling with improbable speed, and that other than a clunky initial sequence shot from the perspective of the doomed President, Wise never achieves anything very cinematically interesting. The cast also includes Fredric March as the very epitome of the blinkered numbers man (another character bitingly snipes at his "night school CPA") and Barbara Stanwyck, the only woman on the board, but only as a result of family inheritance rather than business acumen (a gender bias of its time, not yet fully rectified in our own).

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

In Search of Famine (Mrinal Sen, 1981)


Mrinal Sen’s In Search of Famine initially immerses us in the exuberance of movie-making, with a crew arriving from the city to film a drama about a 1943 famine, settling into the dilapidated mansion they’re to use as a base; early on, the fascinated locals crowd around to observe the filming of every scene, marveling at the magic being created (a nice throwaway scene has a someone riding through town advertising a screening of The Guns of Navarone, described as a unique masterpiece starring the world’s greatest actress, “Anthony Queen”). But the filmmakers’ moral compass is rapidly shown to be confused, the plot seeming to be tangled in melodramatics, and with inadequate thinking about the representation of such suffering (in one scene, they use historical photos of famine victims as a guessing game to while away the time); when they hit on the idea of casting a local as a woman forced into prostitution to feed her family, it triggers an outrage, exacerbated by the film crew’s destabilization of the shaky local economy, and the crew quietly packs up and leaves, probably headed for the greater comfort of the studio. The final moments focus on the sad subsequent fate of one of the women with whom they cross paths, her face receding into darkness, a piercing cinematic moment emphasizing all that the film within the film fails to grasp or engage with. Sen’s treatment of the crew, a strenuously urbane, quote-spewing bunch, often verges on satire, but of a kind tinged with melancholy; more broadly, the film is deliberately hard to read in its desired equilibrium of sorrow and anger, in the degree of culpability we should assign for various events depicted. If it doesn’t ultimately feel completely satisfying, that may be as it should be; developments of subsequent decades (such as the proliferation of the reality genre) increase the film’s ambiguous richness.