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.