Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Question of Silence (Marleen Gorris, 1982)


Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence remains a classic of political feminist cinema, endlessly stimulating and debatable for all its inevitably dated trappings: three women, strangers to each other and with little in common, spontaneously join together in brutally killing the male owner of a clothing store; another woman, a psychiatrist, is assigned to prepare a report for the court, and is unable to provide the expected conclusion, that the women were insane (at least by some measure). This isn’t a vigilante movie based in a whipped-up sense of righteous revenge (the women aren’t violently abused by their partners for instance); the injustices and imbalances underlying their actions are more subtle and systemic, rooted in the basic structures and assumptions of work and family, sometimes seeming to verge on the supernatural, particularly in the depiction of four other women who witness the murder, and thereafter seem to be joined in some silent form of communion (the sense of other-worldly possession bolstered by the highly of-the-moment synthesizer score). Such devices may seem a bit overly emphatic at times, but they’re a vital element of the prevailing sense of otherness, of a text which can’t be contained by prevailing patriarchal norms and expectations. It follows that the question of motive is never resolved (and indeed is rendered almost comically inadequate, an attempt to impose an easy narrative on an action which inherently resists that); a suggestion by the prosecutor that the crime should be assessed no differently from, say, a murder of a female shop assistant by three men strikes the women as so clueless that only laughter can follow, rendering the proceedings morally void, if not legally so. Inevitably, Gorris doesn’t arrive at a tidy conclusion, her film’s ending suggesting further new alliances ahead, an ongoing need for breakage and disruption.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Joe Hill (Bo Widerberg, 1971)


Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill follows the history of the real-life early 20th-century activist from his arrival in America as a Swedish immigrant, through early struggles in New York, through years of itinerant labour and increasing involvement in the workers’ rights movement, to his shocking death by firing squad after a murder conviction. The film has some wonderful, light-footed passages, at its strongest when channeling formative, unstructured experiences and realizations, such as his stumbling into song as a way of getting his message across (Hill is apparently reliably credited as the source of the phrase “pie in the sky’). It skimps though on setting out the arc and substance of his political journey, allowing a few isolated sequences to represent a complex whole, and spending relatively disproportionate time on the trial and its aftermath (although the contrast between the state’s painstaking management of execution protocols and its indifference to matters of infinitely greater social importance is well-made). Like Widerberg’s Adalen 31, the film feels less radical than its subject might demand; potential anger and righteousness somewhat defused by a sensitivity to the unpredictable nature of experience and influence, to the unreliability of memory and history in prioritizing events. Joe Hill acknowledges the possibility that a martyred Hill might be worth more to the movement than a live one, but doesn’t attempt to provide any broader perspective on the validity of that judgment; the final scenes show the organization making strategic use of his ashes, but also hints at how quickly hearts and minds move on. Widerberg’s curiosity and openness are among his most appealing qualities, even if they might suggest a lack of rigour and focus; in this case, at the very least, his approach results in a very personal engagement with history and myth, leaving ample space for competing versions of Hill’s story and significance (an implied invitation not yet taken up by other filmmakers though).

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976)


The closing moments of Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon suggest that the film was intended all along as a romantic valorization of the "dream factory" aspect of Hollywood lore: its doomed 30’s studio head protagonist Monroe Stahr seeming on the verge of being eased out, for the first time addressing the camera directly to reprise a story he improvised earlier in the movie as inspiration for a bogged-down writer, except that now we understand it as an expression of lost love, followed by a final walk into the literal and figurative darkness. It’s an ending that extends the film’s two main strands – Stahr’s bullheaded approach to running things, perpetually making expensive creative decisions which no one else in the more money-minded executive suite sees the need for, and his longing for a woman who can ultimately never be his – but it carries far too little charge, given the strangely still and displaced quality of much that precedes it, the sense of a film joylessly located outside both history and myth. In theory at least, Kazan must have been better placed than most to probingly recreate the studio system’s uniquely epoch-defining mixture of glory and corruption, but his work here is dutiful and passionless, neither pleasurably nostalgic nor gleefully eviscerating. Similarly, Robert De Niro is at his most quietly withholding as Stahr – as with Kazan’s direction, it’s often hard to determine what he had in mind – but the film at least provides a good source of trivia questions and degrees-of-Bacon type connections: yes, it’s true, De Niro did indeed once act with Dana Andrews and Ray Milland. Jack Nicholson shows up late in the film as a union organizer, but he’s yet another oddly ineffectual presence, a theoretically crackerjack meeting of two of the decade’s defining actors coming across as a chore that they both just had to plod through.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Perceval le Gallois (Eric Rohmer, 1978)


In itself, it would be mainly of academic interest that the apparent peculiarities of Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois can be explained by his emphasis on fidelity to the tone and content of Chretien de Troyes’ 12th-century source material, but Rohmer’s choices here also resonate fascinatingly against the main body of his work. For example, the film’s second half contains a startling narrative switch, abruptly putting aside the story we’ve followed to that point (the young Perceval leaves his home to become a knight, gradually accumulating in knowledge and understanding) to follow that of another knight, Gawain, who’s been only a secondary character to that point; later on, at what might seem to be just as arbitrary a point, it switches back. In this context, the device promotes a heightened reflection on the artificial and conditioned nature of all narrative coherence; when the film then culminates with an enactment of Christ’s crucifixion, there’s a feeling of all narrative, of all creation, deriving from Western civilization’s core origin story, underlining the sense of humility and fidelity that marks the entire enterprise. The film is in part a heightened version of the behavioral and ethical puzzles that mark Rohmer’s contemporary work: Perceval is initially a near-blank slate, who at the start of the film sees a knight for the first time and peppers him with basic questions; later on when a wise man advises him not to talk too much, he takes the advice too far, missing out on opportunities, and even unknowingly committing grave sins. Rohmer’s chosen style beautifully supports the project, emphasizing artifice and immediacy, the act of storytelling (with the characters, for example, often describing their own actions) as prominent as the story being told. And it’s delightful how his reversion to an ancient text carries the sense of a personal rebirth, with the cast containing several young performers (Pascale Ogier, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere) who he would use more prominently in later, modern-day works.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

El cochecito (Marco Ferreri, 1960)


Marco Ferreri’s El cochecito lives up to its reputation, its perspective on the community of the differently-abled still seeming radically matter-of-fact and quasi-aspirational. A retired bureaucrat, Don Anselmo, visits an old friend who now gets around in a motorized wheelchair, and who gives him a ride on it when Anselmo can’t find a taxi; it leads to other get-togethers and contacts and diversions (presented in enjoyably garrulous, lived-in manner) and to Anselmo desiring such an item for himself, regardless that it’s beyond his means, and that he doesn’t actually need it. The desire becomes a near-fixation, and yet appears more rational than his family’s strident opposition to it (this aspect of the film aligns well with modern Uber-aligned notions of choice and autonomy), in particular as he actually wants to get out and experience people and places, an ambition seemingly beyond the scope of his relatives’ closeted thinking. Threatened with being committed to an asylum, Anselmo takes a desperate step to get what he wants, his awareness of his transgression made clear in a startling, long-held close-up, in which Ferreri temporarily seems to yield to the evocative powers of his lead actor, Jose Isbert. The final scene (in the full original version that is; the film was reportedly available for years only in bowdlerized form) allows him a final taste of freedom, and although it’s clear that a severe reckoning lies ahead, Anselmo’s final remark has a resigned lightness to it, suggesting that from his hemmed-in point of view, his liberation, however brief, was worth it at almost any logistical and moral price. The film allows occasional glimpses of the later more expansive Ferreri (for example, Anselmo enjoys an indulgent lunch that presages La Grande Bouffe), but on the whole occupies its own stylistic and tonal space within his oeuvre, no less enjoyably for that.