Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Flight to Berlin (Christopher Petit, 1984)


Christopher Petit’s Flight to Berlin sustains the brittle surface of a modern-day Euro-noir, starting with a visitor to the city, Susannah, taken from her hotel for police interrogation, the questions apparently based in suspicion of illicit smuggling and connections with murky local figures, then going back in classic style to review the events that lead her there. That’s almost as much as one can say with any certainty about Petit’s film, all that follows being almost endlessly slippery, ambiguous, mutable and playful, drawing (but not too strenuously) on Berlin’s then-unique status as a divided, liminal space. To note just a few points: Susannah, we find out, is indeed fleeing a crime scene, but not the one she’s questioned about; she frequently calls herself by a different name, Marianne (and although English, is played by the Swedish Tusse Silberg); she has a German sister, Julie, with whom she’s seldom ever spent time, and she rapidly sleeps with a man who’s also slept with Julie, and who works for a shady character who turns out to be Julie’s husband (a Frenchman who claims he only married her for a German passport, seeming more interested in being with Susannah). The film at various times evokes almost every major European director of its time in one way or another (the casting alone provides connections with Rivette, Fassbinder, Wenders, Godard and onwards), as well as the looming shadow of classic Hollywood, with Eddie Constantine showing up as himself, oozing presence and charisma and opining along the way that by going into politics Ronald Reagan ruined a perfectly good career in B-Westerns. Ultimately, the film offers no resolution, perhaps ending where it might have begun, indeed defined largely by a sense of flight, of storytelling and reinvention, both of its protagonist and of the unstable city around her.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Passe ton bac d’abord (Maurice Pialat, 1977)


Maurice Pialat’s Passe ton bac d’abord looks at a loosely-constituted group of young people in the dead-end French town of Lens, adults in some ways (they drink and smoke and are sexually active) but not yet in others (some are still in school, few if any are economically self-sufficient). The film starts and ends in philosophy class, the teacher instructing the students on the necessity to free one’s mind from preconceptions, an admonition hopelessly at odds with a reality defined by lack of economic and cultural opportunity, by deadening repetition, by a peer group that makes major life decisions such as marriage or pregnancy on the basis of entirely short-term calculations. Of course, many films have covered such territory, but as always, Pialat’s powers of vision and empathy give his work an almost unnerving connective power. The film certainly feels naturalistic and drawn from life, but is also muscularly shaped and balanced, the mundane central realities offset with a sense of possibilities around the edges. The most striking of these is perhaps the late arrival of a Rolls-Royce, its passage through the streets given quite a build-up, turning out to contain two model agency representatives who want to offer one of the girls a contract; whether or not the opportunity is worth pursuing, the broader point is that the parents dismiss the two out of hand without even a minimum amount of due diligence regarding what’s being offered and where it might lead. As a different kind of example of the film’s acuity: during a trip to the coast, one of the group meets a girl from Paris who in her unforced way embodies the greater inner and outer resources that they lack; he has sex with her (at her initiation) and later shows off to the others the exotic undergarment that he took from her, but the scene is more poignant than triumphant, an embodiment of distances that can only momentarily be traversed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)


Hal Ashby’s Being There remains famous for its central conceit, that a developmentally-challenged middle-aged gardener who knows almost nothing of the real world might fall into the orbit of rich and powerful people who take his simplicity as a sign of serene analytical intelligence, such that he may even be destined for the Oval Office. The notion no doubt carries a certain dreamy appeal, but even allowing for the inevitable concisions and conventions of movie narrative, the film can only work at all by engaging in rampant fakery, for example by boiling down conversations and events which would spread over hours into a minute or two, or by having Chance start off in one improbably rarified high-end environment and then, once he’s expelled from there, luck out within a day into one that’s even more so. The film has its prophetic aspects in that a rampant idiot did indeed ascend to the Presidency in recent years, except that the angry, bitter, wrecking-ball reality of what we’re still living through makes Ashby’s benign conception seem even more irrelevant than it did at the time. Even Chance’s accidental wisdom, his supposed message of sticking it out through economic fall and winter in anticipation of the inevitable upturn of spring and summer, amounts to no more than counseled complacency (no doubt the burden of the fallow seasons wouldn’t fall too heavily on the plush lives depicted here). The film sustains a thin veneer of tastefulness, and Peter Sellers does as well with the unplayable character as can be imagined, but any assessment of this as an important or meaningful film must be rooted in Chance-level misapprehension. The film’s losers include Shirley MacLaine’s character Eve, defined as having almost no attributes other than that of being a rich man’s younger wife, distastefully falling for and offering herself to Chance within a few days of meeting him.

Friday, January 12, 2024

In the Dust of the Stars (Gottfried Kolditz, 1976)


The plot of Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars could have been plucked straight from episodic television: a spaceship of six crew members (four of them women, including the commander) touches down on an unknown planet in response to a distress call, only for their hosts to claim it was sent by accident; the crew laps up the local hospitality while preparing to depart, but then discovers that the call came from the planet’s native inhabitants, now oppressed and forced underground to mine a rare mineral. Viewed in the present day, the film’s allegorical aspects benefit hugely from the clear physical resemblance of the oppressors’ leader to Vladimir Putin (although they have less in common behaviorally); that aside, it’s rather hard to gauge how seriously to take the film. It often lacks even basic plausibility (for example, the crew members put themselves immediately in the hands of the planet-dwellers, including ingesting whatever’s offered to them, without taking even minimal precautions) but the prevailing earnestness doesn’t suggest (despite various mostly labored comedic touches) a parody or jape, and the overall thrust of the narrative is fairly politicized. But then it provides an array of peculiar visual flourishes, including the penchant of the local women for dancing in skimpily diaphanous outings (the movie seems well-resourced in some respects, but some of the special effects and other trappings are distinctly rickety), and the Putin character’s mixing-board-like toy at which he sits and makes music (again with accompanying dancers always on call) while his giant pet snake slithers around. The film’s ideological footprint is somewhat confused, broadly aligning itself with the resistance to the colonial occupiers, but seeming far more intrigued by the latter; it crafts its villains far more colourfully than its heroes, with the six cosmonauts having largely interchangeably non-descript personalities (one of them standing out only by virtue of an extended shower scene).  

Friday, January 5, 2024

The Disappearance (Stuart Cooper, 1977)


At the time of writing, there are two versions of Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance easily available online, one of them a shorter, linear cut with almost unwatchably dark image quality, the other longer and more impressionistic, but with opening and closing credits missing; I only watched a few minutes of the former for comparison, enough to reveal intriguing small differences such as an assassination victim who cries out “Don’t do it” before he’s killed, but is silent in the second version. The multiplicity of versions and details enhances the evasively prickly nature of Cooper’s film, one built around basically familiar narrative ingredients, but with most points of certainty removed: although the title seems to refer specifically to the sudden disappearance of the protagonist’s wife, the film is full of sudden absences and strangely brief appearances (the movie has a starry sounding cast including John Hurt and Christopher Plummer, but most only show up for one or two scenes). Donald Sutherland’s Montreal-based assassin Jay Mallory is a perfect focal point, unreadably spiky and short-tempered at times, completely charming when the situation demands it: he takes a job in Britain that he doesn’t want, apparently because it allows an opportunity to follow a lead on his wife’s location, and it’s no surprise of course when he finds a link between the disappearance he’s investigating and the one he’s being paid to effect. If that’s all broadly predictable, the treatment is consistently intriguing and expansive, always suggesting greater mysteries and ambiguities, all the way to the final seconds which introduce yet another unexplained disappearance of sorts. A peculiar sequence has Sutherland and Hurt encountering a couple of roadside bandits, seemingly unrelated to anything else in the film; one of the two criminals is apparently played by Norman Eshley, the sailor in Welles’ The Immortal Story, although he doesn’t receive a single identifying close-up here, perhaps the saddest of all the film’s erasures.