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 fiancĂ©e 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.