Wednesday, March 29, 2023

City on Fire (Alvin Rakoff, 1979)


Alvin Rakoff’s City on Fire is a particularly grim addition to the 70’s run of disaster films, a relic of a time when audiences were assumed capable, by some producers anyway, of being entertained by almost any old thing: it lacks the resources to convey the titular burning city (unnamed here, but played by Montreal) with any kind of plausibility, but also, more damagingly, doesn't have the creative energy and sense of adventure that might have compensated for such a lack (or even made a virtue of it). Taking the thing on its own wearily literal terms, weaknesses pile up: it fails in every area of special effects, wastes time on trivial narrative devices while seeming weirdly disengaged from what presumably ought to be interesting about the whole thing (what would actually happen, if a city had 180 separate fires going, as stated here at one point?), lacks much internal consistency (almost as soon as the fire breaks out, we get a shot of an entire high-rise building collapsing in flames, which doesn’t correlate at all with what follows) and allowing no scope either for good acting or (again, perhaps more regrettably) for the enjoyably bad kind. The plot, such as it is, has a disgruntled employee sabotaging (with remarkable ease) an oil refinery located too close to the centre of town; he subsequently hangs around the hospital which dominates the “action,” as does the mayor (Leslie Nielsen), who seems weirdly unconcerned about keeping tabs on the big picture, a stalwart nurse (stalwart Shelley Winters), irascible surgeon Barry Newman (what, you expected Paul?), and sundry others. Henry Fonda as the fire chief barely leaves the situation room; even more limitingly, Ava Gardner as an alcoholic local TV personality anchors the coverage while never apparently talking to any other reporter, her broadcasts seeming desolately stark and isolated. Nevertheless, we’re informed they were a spectacular success, by some unclear measure.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Left-Handed Woman (Peter Handke, 1977)


Haven’t you noticed, asks the closing epigram of Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman, that there is space only for the one who brings space himself…? Acknowledging that the precision of the subtitles may only extend so far, it’s an apt closure; the conversational tone emphasizing the film’s investigative qualities, its questioning of the interplay between inner and outer lives. The choice of “himself” could be puzzling in this context, and yet the credits that follow identify Edith Clever’s protagonist only as “die Frau,” even though the film itself does give her a name, Marianne; her husband on the other hand is identified as “Bruno,” the same name as the actor playing him, Bruno Ganz, seemingly setting out its own little puzzle regarding the relative identifiability and tangibility of the two character/actor presences. The film revolves around a German couple living in Paris (summing up the pervasive sense of dislocation) – he returns from a business trip to Finland professing his renewed joy in their relationship, to which she soon responds by instigating a split; he moves out and she goes on living in their house with their young son, gradually constructing a revised personal and social equilibrium. Marianne talks very little (her first words come so far into the film that one might have assumed her to be mute) and explains herself less, demanding that we take her on her own terms, an act of feminist sympathy which however does carry the offsetting effect of rendering her something of an abstraction (her relationship with her main female friend Franziska is also one of few words, although provides a key moment of validation when, after earlier flailing to understand Marianne’s choices, Franziska finally allows that “now even I want to be alone”). But it’s a satisfying film overall, with numerous secondary mysteries including the brief presence of Gerard Depardieu, billed as “Mann mit dem T-shirt,” which indeed sums up his contribution exactly.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Who's Who (Mike Leigh, 1979)


Mike Leigh’s Who’s Who isn’t the best of his works for the BBC, often seeming rather ungainly and strained both in its individual devices and in its contrasts and juxtapositions; still, Leigh being Leigh, it still hits a generous number of targets. The film's central character is Alan, an administrative worker at a London stockbroking firm, weirdly obsessed with the world of nobility and titles from which he’s inherently excluded, but of which he receives ample glimpses via the more highly-bred and better-connected professionals at the workplace; these in turn divide between the practiced if distant courtesy of the old school, and the crasser younger generation who cross into sexually harassing the female staff and holding loud obnoxious conversations in the office hallways. Unstable and pitiful as this all is, the film sometimes seems to be carrying multiple regrets for a bygone age in which these distinctions were better defined and more rigidly observed: Alan’s delusional notion of self-elevation through osmosis (he bores everyone with his knowledge of Royal family trivia; his other main hobby is writing requests for signed photographs of celebrities) is somewhat pathetic, although, in a way, indicative of the desire for greater affinity and transparency that’s contributed to transforming the notion of Royalty in subsequent decades. It’s all laid on a little thick at times though, and the film’s main set-pieces (including a misfiring dinner party attended by two of the young stockbrokers, at which for example the host chef ends up serving canned celery soup because the guest who was supposed to bring the avocados didn’t show up) don’t entirely cohere. At the end, although no doubt only temporarily, Alan succumbs to more accessible pleasures, joining his colleague in watching through the window a rather creepy ongoing flirtation in a nearby building; in the circumstances, this might actually constitute a healthier form of voyeurism?

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Anna and the Wolves (Carlos Saura, 1973)


The title of Carlos Saura’s Anna and the Wolves likely evokes a children’s story, a suggestion supported by the opening shots of Anna (Geraldine Chaplin) arriving at the isolated mansion where she’s to take care of three young girls, and the notion of playacting and invention that runs throughout the film. Any sense of innocence though is rapidly squashed out: all three of the brothers who occupy the house have their eye (and often hands) on Anna as soon as she arrives, and the roleplaying (including, over time, that of Anna herself) becomes increasingly malevolent and perverse. Juan, the only married brother, bombards her with lewd anonymous letters, raiding the family stamp collection to make it appear that they come from around the world; Jose maintains a private museum of military uniforms, guns and other memorabilia; Fernando becomes increasingly mystic (he’s even seen levitating in one impressionistic moment), retreating into a hermit’s cave and hardly eating, for a while impressing Anna with his apparent lack of designs on her, until his underlying perversion comes to light. The twistedness of course has deep roots: the family matriarch, prone to sudden fits of collapsing which seem to be largely strategic, maintains boxes of childhood mementos for each son, although the labeling system is chaotic, and the contents include such items as a spiked thimble that was used to stop one of them from sucking his thumb (we’re told it lacerated his mouth for some five months).  Nevertheless, the film’s shocking ending clarifies that for all the bourgeoisie’s dysfunction and internal dissention, it ultimately sticks together in perpetuation of its interests, with outsiders paying a brutal price (Anna’s fate, and an earlier sequence involving a buried doll, bring to mind the masses of the Franco-era disappeared). Overall, the film belongs with The Hunt and The Garden of Delights among the incisive peaks of Saura’s major, generally under-screened period.