Colossal Youth (2006, Pedro Costa)

screened Sunday February 18, 2006 at the Walter Reade Theater, New York NY IMDb

My review can be found on The House Next Door.

I will say that this film has stayed with me since I’ve seen it.   And I can’t help wanting to compare it favorably to Inland Empire (which may be why I referenced it in the title of my review, but I didn’t want the review to be an Armond White-ish good-movie-vs.-bad-movie piece).  There are many points of comparison between the two films — use of DV, fragmented, dream-like narrative, a creeping sense of drift and despair overtaking the characters… but Costa’s film wins out in terms of establishing this mood within a real-life condition involving real-life characters. The mix of documentary realism with the surrealist elements results in a rich cross-pollination where the Lynch film feels merely cross-bred, an endless series of references to his own staid pool of ideas.

Maybe I should have made my review into this axe-grinding, because it sure feels more purposeful than what I offered to HND.  And a good review can’t just cover the bases (as I found myself slipping into as I wrote it), it really has to put a stake in the ground. Next time…

How a micro-indie got invited to the Oscar dance

Very entertaining article charting how Mark Urman at ThinkFilm managed a 12 month campaign to get Half Nelson an Oscar nomination, starting from the moment he watched it at Sundance this time last year.  Combination of professional acumen, well-timed $$$ and no small amount of sheer luck.

But I want to know about Little Miss Sunshine.  Send any articles my way!  (Though I suppose they had a much bigger vehicle driving their campaign, being with Fox and all.)

#909. La historia oficial / The Official Story (1985, Luis Puenzo)

screened Thursday, February 15 2007 on Koch Lorber DVD in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #673 IMDb

A middle-class Argentinean woman (Norma Aleandro) discovers that her beloved adopted daughter may actually be the child of desaparecidos–political activists spirited away by Argentina’s military dictatorship. Luis Puenzo’s 1985 film leaves audiences sobbing, and it does have a few genuinely powerful moments (as when the heroine’s old school friend suddenly breaks into a description of her experiences as a political prisoner). But Puenzo’s methods are so crudely manipulative (Aleandro is dangled as a blatant identity figure for the liberal art-house audience; a political subject is transformed into shameless melodrama via some plot mechanisms that would have brought a blush to the cheeks of Stanley Kramer) that the film quickly uses up the credit of its good intentions.

Dave Kehr for The Chicago Reader

Puenzo himself says, “I think it’s a good film within a traditional mold. But it does exist within a kind of aesthetic corset. And it’s impossible for a truly vital new Argentine cinema to develop within this model. Look, for one thing, at the price. You can’t experiment on budgets like that [half a million dollars]. Furthermore, almost all our films are about a small urban middle class, with a subgenre in the ‘well-made’ historical film. The experiences of Fernando Birri, Fernando Solanas and others are exceptions, examples from aborted movements.

At the time I began the project,” Puenzo told Pat Aufderheide in 1985 in Argentina, “there was enormous resistance to the subject of the disappeared. I was looking for a way to break through the passive resistance. We’d gone too rapidly from a time when everything was prohibited to a time when people heaved a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, it’s all behind us now.'”

From Cross-Cultural Film Guide by Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992

To work my way through my own thoughts on the film, I’ve enlisted the help of this online study aid for the movie.

– How has the film changed or added to your understanding of the recent history of Argentina?

I consider this question not only in terms of Argentinian history but Argentinean cinema history, the latter of course being a function of the former. To quote Aufderheide:

In the 1960s, Argentine filmmakers were in the forefront of a Latin American-wide movement, Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, to make cinema an arm of social awareness and social change. Fernando Birri launched the Documentary School of Santa Fe, producing socially critical documentaries and a feature. A more militant group of filmmakers, led by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, launched the “third cinema” or “cinema as a gun” movement, with the inflammatory Hour of the Furnaces, a denunciatory and delirious documentary on class conflict and imperialism. This movement became more radical as politics polarized in the early 1970s, and as the military gained asendancy, filmmakers became victims of repression. Many, like other artists, went into exile, and some disappeared. Puenzo was not part of this movement, having chosen to work in advertising. With the return of democracy, the Argentine cinema industry was moribund, and recovered briefly with some small government aid (primarily in the form of loans) before falling victim again to economic crisis in the late 1980s.

My understanding of Argentine history is filtered through the films I’ve seen. I’ve only seen four Argentine films, two of which are the recent films of Lucretia Martel. The other two are The Hour of the Furnaces (TSPDT #470) and The Official Story, and taken together these two films attest to a enormous rupture in the historical continuum of Argentine society and cinema. Hour of the Furnaces was made at a precipitous moment in history, the late sixties, fomenting with passion and anticipation for a new society. The sheer intensity and immensity of this four hour long revolutionary tract, with its extensive historical depth, experimental and confrontational filmmmaking techniques, and conscientious exhortations for action against the oppressive ruling classes, is an experience that can’t be forgotten.

In so many ways it’s the antithesis of The Official Story, a film made in the wake of years of government repression that brutally and effectively stifled those inciting forces responsible for Hour of the Furnaces. The privileged milieu who populate Puenzo’s film are the very targets that Hour of the Furnaces blames for being passively complicit in the forces of social inequality in Argentina. And so it is ironic that that same milieu is now commemorating those that once held them guilty of promoting oppression, and with a style that has none of the local vitality of 60s “third cinema”, which, again, Puenzo writes off as “examples from aborted movements.” Putting Hour of the Furnaces and The Official Story side by side, one gets the sense of how devastating the repressive regime’s effect was on Argentinian society, culture and artistic production.

– What is Alicia’s profession? What is the significance of this?

Alicia is a high school history teacher, a profession that couldn’t have more symbolic meaning in a film that’s about the buried history of a nation, especially when Alicia’s guiding principle is “if you don’t have proof in the text of history, then it did not happen.” The film quickly challenges this seemingly sound principle by confronting her with the lapses in the history of her own adopted child, prompting her to dig out the real truth.
– What happened to Ana (Alicia’s friend)? How does her story affect Alicia?

Ana was brutally interrogated and tortured by the authorities before leaving the country – she has only recently returned and reuinted with Alicia. In listening to Ana’s stories of governmental oppression, Alicia first hears about babies taken from those killed or disappeared and given for adoption. This causes Alicia to question the history of her own adopted child.
– Why, do you think, does it take Alicia so many years to question how Gaby was adopted? Does she want to know the truth?

Alicia was not present when her child was first obtained by her husband Roberto and Roberto never offered the details fo the adoption. She clearly trusted her husband enough not to question where the child came from. Her general demeanor is one of trust and compliance with authority, including her husband’s. This sentiment may fall in line with how many Argentine women found their place in society and their families at this point in history. Alicia’s journey of self-awakening from a comfortable bourgeois existence also recalls that of Ingrid Bergman’s character in Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (TSPDT #582), thought that film takes the idea of rejection of bourgeois values to a greater extreme.

– What are Roberto’s underlying concerns throughout the movie? What does he care about?

His is a quintessentially bourgeois approach to life, driven by preservation of self and family and material gain. He is all in all a good father and provider. He has an estranged relationship with his own father and brother and appears to compensate for his lack of family bonds by material gains. Through an entertaining if expository family reunion sequence, we come to learn his contempt for his less affluent father and brother, as well as his jealousy over his brother’s closeness with their father. The film thus ties class contempt in with Cain-and-Abel type anxiety.

– What do you suppose the creators of this film have to say about the role of women in society?

This, I think, is the film’s major achievement, and one that redeems the film’s otherwise problematic application of melodramatic devices to explore its socio-political themes. The film impressively navigates Alicia through a series of vivid interactions from women from many diverse backgrounds. The general trajectory is one away from the catty, judgmental women within her social circle, and towards the women who were directly affected by the brutalities of the dictatorship – first with her friend Ana, and then the maternal-looking women who guide her through her search for her child’s true identity.

A notable parallel movement that runs simultaneously is her moving away from the patriarchal figures in her life to become her own woman. Not only her husband but her priest know the true identity of her child, and when neither of them offer to disclose it to her, she is effectively alienated from them and the institutions of patriarchal organized religion and family order that they represent. There’s a notable visual juxtaposition between her relationship with the priest in one scene and one of the mothers of the disappeared in a later scene:

The film’s final image is that of Gaby sitting alone, a lost child with a future as unknown as her past. Alicia is every bit as much in the same position, though her journey towards self-determination is posited with tones of triumph, if not necessity.

Though I agree to an extent with Dave Kehr’s objections to how the film sentimentalizes its political themes by subjecting to the demands of woman’s melodrama, the film makes interesting use of this union by effectively questioning the historical lack of woman’s voice or agency in the telling of history. It succeeds in locating the search and the need for history within a woman’s domestic circumstances, and brings to the foreground traumas women have experienced in the course of historical tragedies: sexual assault, torture, and separation of families. By the end, the story of the politically marginalized in Argentina and those of women toiling under a patriarchal social order are united as a voice of resistance and change.

– What significance did Gaby’s nursery rhyme play in the film? Can you think of any other times when music played an important role in conveying a certain aspect of the film?

It is first introduced when Gaby is bathing – Alicia, needing to step away, asks Gaby to sing it so that she knows Gaby hasn’t drowned. The lyrics themselves set up the theme of being lost or separated.

There’s also a clever use of a theme that is introduced by Ana, when she plays it on piano during her reunion with Alicia and other classmates. The theme returns in the soundtrack when Ana tells Alicia about her torture at the hands of the military. Curiously, there is a reprise when Alicia sorts through a box of baby clothes and items belonging to Gaby when she was adopted — could this indicate that Alicia is recalling what Ana said about babies taken from desaparecidos and that Gaby may be one of them? Finally, the there is a reprise near the climax, when Roberto physically assaults Alicia in a rage, as if drawing an analogy between the sexual brutality Ana suffered at the hands of her military captors and Roberto’s treatment of Alicia.

– Can you think of an instance when a unique cinematographic feature played a significant role in conveying a certain aspect of the film?

I want to cite the following sequence, where Alicia, en route to visiting her husband’s office, runs into a demonstration of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo).


Note how the film seamlessly splices documentary footage of an actual demonstration with Alicia’s rather uncomprehending reaction shots. It clearly objectifies the demonstration within Alicia’s (and the audience’s) subjectivity, as a remote but vaguely threatening spectacle. The effect is heightened when Alicia watches through the window of her husband’s high rise office building, looking down on the spectacle. The sound from the street is cut off and replaced by mundane office ambience. This sequence underscores the thoroughly middle-class perspective of the film and the limitations of its engagement with the oppressed.

– Did it seem like La historia oficial was more driven by commercial characteristics (that is, the need to make money) or by the creation of art?

I take this question if only as a way to cite a passage from a thoughtful young Argentine film scholar, Hugo Salas, from his critique of the concept of the culture industry:

it must be said that every film, at its premiere, is pop. Art
is, when talking about cinema, an a posteriori and somehow annoying
addition to film that reverses its whole signification. The
attribution of 'artistic' value to a particular film is related more
to the urge to neutralise what every movie has of the corrosive,
outrageous, indecent and rude, than to the effective recognition of
the film's place in the history of filmmaking practice. The most
disgusting ideology is that of those movies that betray their pop
character and, with the narcissistic object of assuring themselves
immortality, pose as art from the first moment of their production.
Accordingly, the worst film criticism is that which believes its
purpose to be discovering works of art.

In other words, viewing a movie between the polarity of art and industrial work is often unhelpful. Especially with a film like this one that is trying to communicate a social condition to as broad an audience as it can and in an impactful way. To do so, it went with a commensurate mode of storytelling and point of view. Rather than dismiss the film for taking a commercial approach towards its subject, it is worth analyzing how successfully the film uses that approach – it is in this way that artistic insights are gained.

At the same time, as part and parcel of the need to appeal to its target audience, the film no doubt announces itself as an “art film” to give itself a certain credibility, with its awards won at Cannes and the Oscars as collateral. But as Salas points out, it’s the pre-designation of a work as “art” that leads us to the marketization of “art” in the first place, a marketization that The Official Story exploits as much as a film like The Queen does today. For that reason the film may be considered guilty of the crime Salas describes in the passage above. (Incidentally, Salas is on record as considering The Official Story a mediocre film.)

– Would you use this movie to teach about the historical period covered? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this movie?

The film does not go very far or deep into the details of what happened in Argentina in the 70s. It is more concerned with depicting a state of awakening in a representative Argentinian woman to the repressive forces around her that encouraged her own unwitting ignorance of the recent past and the compromised moral foundation of her own family. In this regard the film may help whet an appetite for further learning about this history by establishing an emotional motivation to do so.

Even if one has an unfavorable opinion of how this film treats its historical subject, it is still instructive to remark on this film as a historical/cultural event in itself and the reasons for its success and significance at its specific point in history. That it was able to take a local historical trauma and successfully capture the world’s attention with it is no small feat. Understanding how it was able to succeed along those lines may offer valuable insights for what storytelling strategies are available for films dealing with similar topics in all parts of the world.

Most frequently cited highbrow film article of the past week

Adding to the pile:

It is great — Adrian lays it down with authority. Stimulation factor sustained throughout its length, with many hightlights. Girish points out some of the highlights on his blog.

Andy Horbal: “This article plugs right into a lot of what we’ve been talking about here all year about blogging, film criticism, and cinephilia, and it gives me a fine opportunity to look back on and respond to a lot of these conversations as a whole, as opposed to individual comments made during those conversations.”

Many great insights, but the one I am most appreciative of is Adrian invoking Manny Farber in talking about how great art must start from a particular, ineffable detail and work its way outward, instead of beginning with the grandiose. Made me want to put on my Termite Art. Vs. White Elephant Art t-shirt right then and there.

Avanti! (1972, Billy Wilder) [though this is really about Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous”]

screened Tuesday February 13 2007 on DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb

Chicago Reader capsule by Jonathan Rosenbaum

This 1972 release is the most underrated of all Billy Wilder comedies and arguably the one that comes closest to the sweet mastery and lilting grace of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. Jack Lemmon arrives at a small resort in Italy to claim the body of his late father, who’s perished in a car accident; there he meets Juliet Mills, whose mother has died in the same accident and, as it turns out, had been having an affair with the father. The development of Mills and Lemmon’s own romance over various bureaucratic complications is gradual and leisurely paced; at 144 minutes, this is an experience to roll around on your tongue.

Would I if I had the presence of mind, Jonathan. I can see this movie working for someone who is in that Lubitsch state of mind. It plays very breezy and seems like a bagatelle, but there’s much going on under the surface, and sweet but insecurely voluptuous Juliet Mills is a treat. And it has some trenchant jokes made at the expense of US foreign policy — seems that every other movie I watch these days, both old and new, has something to say about this, or maybe I’m more sensitive to such matters lately.

I could see myself enjoying this movie a lot more some other time. These days my mind is on a different wavelength — more into movement, dynamism, not the lilting stuff. I guess this is why Miami Vice appeals to me more, even as a romantic film. And this past week, listening through my mp3s of the Village Voice Poll’s Top Singles of Last Year , I found a musical corollary: Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous“, produced by the ever-amazing Timbaland (this guy’s bleep-and-blip brand of hip hop was brilliant 6 years ago, but now that we’re living in the age of hip hop ringtones, his music truly is the soundtrack of people’s lives).

This song starts off as fairly standard night club cross-talking between boy and girl, and it does evoke that feeling of two people checking each other out, mixing together flirtation, anticipation and rather cruel, non-plussed meat market objectification from both sides (“Roses are red, some diamonds are blue / Chivalry is dead but you’re still kinda cute”). But then the chorus comes and there’s something about it that floors me. Neither Timbaland or Furtado are particularly gifted vocalists but there’s something about how both of them strain their chords in the chorus that is oddly touching, as if we were listening to mediocre people finding each other in a nightclub and just giving away to their needs in a moment, letting go and aspiring to that feeling of sexual elevation.

And then it goes back into the no-nonsense meat market beat — this is the kind of stuff that that Senses of Cinema article about Miami Vice was talking about — how being cool and being locked into “the flux” of life leaves you feeling hollow until it gives way to the need to strive beyond just being on top of everything. That’s what the middle part of Miami Vice is about, that’s what the chorus of this song is about, and I guess this is what’s on my mind lately — not just keeping up, but breaking through.

Greed cannot be made greedless

not by the wealth of all the world.

Though we accomplish a million mental feats

none go with us when we are gone.

How then to be true?

How to break through the screen of lies?

– Guru Nanak, Japji Sahib

The Japji, which I’m reading as research for one of my filmmaking projects, refers to the world as a constantly teaming ocean of illusion. It’s an image that resonates with some in Miami Vice — how boats move through these flat screens of water rendered in translucent HD — I love how HD brings out the image-ness of such imagery — that these are all screens we pass through. This our present condition.

In it’s own way Avanti! is about rupturing the status quo, facilitated through love as well as through time — time spent in a place, adjusting to its rhythms and being changed through it. Which makes it all the weirder to report that I wasn’t changed or even connecting to it on an emotional level — even though I could see through the screen, I couldn’t break through it. Well you can’t have ’em all.
[Not sure if this explains why I wasn’t as focused on Avanti! but maybe this TSPDT project has made me focus so much on the films within the project that I just don’t have much to give to “leisure” viewings. This year has witnessed a dramatic downturn for me in movie watching. In January, I watched 18 films, down from my 2006 monthly range of 25-30. And halfway through February, I’ve seen all of five movies. So I’ve gone from averaging 5 films a week to 1.
No doubt a byproduct of this blog.]

Still retaining Senses – my ‘top ten’ of ’06 and NYFF recap

Senses of Cinema may still not pay anyone for their contributions, but I still owe them gratitude for being the first major film journal to publish my writings. Especially Michelle Carey, who runs the Great Directors database and festival reports.

Here is my annual contribution to their World Poll of contributors. After many years of doing this sort of thing, I’ve grown bored with the top ten listmaking exercise. This year I found it more interesting to talk about trends in digital technology and YouTube, markers of a sweeping revolution in audiovisual culture, including cinema (I mean, look at this blog for crying out loud!) that is taking place now. Judging from the other lists, cinephiles seem either uncognizant or uninterested in figuring out what all this means.

Anyway I’ll get off my soapbox about the myopia of film and festival-based cinephilia and climb atop another one about cinephilic elitism, as observed in last year’s New York Film Festival.

Elsewhere, a great essay to add to the mounting case for the forward-looking greatness that is Michael Mann’s film of Miami Vice

#908. Johnny Got His Gun (1971, Dalton Trumbo)

screened Friday, January 9 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #740 IMDb

Dalton Trumbo is best known as one of the most accomplished members of the Hollywood Ten, the prominent group of screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee trials for suspected Communists. He is the winner of two Academy Awards, both under a pseudonym. After four decades as a screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo produced and directed his one and only feature film, Johnny Got His Gun, an adaptation of his most famous novel, winner of the National Book Award and still taught in classrooms today.

The premise of Johnny Got His Gun is unforgettable in its starkness: an American GI is horrifyingly injured during the vicious trench warfare of World War I, losing his limbs, face, eyes, mouth and hearing. The story depicts his mental state as he comes to recognize his condition and his desperate attempts to communicate with military hospital staff, who are ordered to keep him alive solely for the sake of military biomedical research.

From these online excerpts of Trumbo’s novel, one can discern the unique style Trumbo uses, a narrative voice that slips from third person to first person as it describes the protagonist’s state. This unstable perspective reflects the protagonist’s literally disembodied sense of self, languishing in a state of broken humanity. The narrative has a feverish stream of consciousness flow clearly influenced by Joyce, and achieves an emphatic grandeur in giving voice to the hero’s desperate attempt to articulate its way back into being.

For his film adaptation, Trumbo preserves this voice for the most part, using extended voiceovers that provide the narrative with its momentum. Timothy Bottoms’ young, expressive voice offers a stark counterpoint to the mostly static black-and-white shots of his character’s body lying dormant in his bed, his face shrouded in a mask (one of the most chilling visages – or lack thereof – in cinema, up there with the girl in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face [TSPDT #308]):


The hero’s stream of consciousness routinely veers into flashbacks, which the film enacts so that we can see what the hero looked like before his injuries. We learn that he had a sweetheart that he left behind – though not without one night of fun provided by, of all people, the girl’s father (“She ain’t a whore though” he says as he escorts the hero into her room – I’d embed this clip but YouTube doesn’t allow full frontal nudity). The hero also flashes back to memories of his father (Jason Robards) who exhorts him to live up to his patriotic duty to protect democracy, even as he cannot offer an answer as to what democracy really is (“I believe it has something to do with young men killing each other”). There’s some Freudian bit involving the hero losing his father’s prized fishing pole shortly before enlisting, leading to a strange homoerotic moment where father consoles son with a naked embrace in their tent.

These flashback sequences at times veer into surreal fantasy, such as this one where a group of doughboys play cards with Jesus (played by Donald Sutherland) knowing that they are all going to die:


As can be seen from these clips, the film has a rough low budget quality. At times the flat, conventional enactments of Trumbo’s prose combined with the canned quality of the dubbed soundtrack recalls the low-budget adaptations of short stories produced for classroom screenings I watched as a child. The film is as blunt about its anti-military agenda as one would expect of its premise — the officers who order the hero to be kept alive are as one-dimensionally villainous as one could expect (one of them walks on crutches to symbolize his own spiritual crippledness). The fantasy sequences, as exemplified by the Jesus clip embedded above, don’t feel like they’ve taken their ideas quite far enough, and at times seem to divert too much from the overall momentum of this nearly two hour film, but mostly they are still compelling in their weirdness.

But the film’s most dominant feature is Bottoms’ voiceover, and it is the film’s biggest liability yet the occasional source of its greatest strengths. At times Bottoms’ aw-shucks cornhusk narration can be a little too open-eyed all-American and gets grating after an extended period. Maybe this is Trumbo’s way of keeping his protagonist from being too sympathetic, but it’s still annoying at times. If anything he relies on the voice too much to literalize the hero’s feelings, and it becomes overbearingly excessive where some resourceful cinematography might otherwise be able to establish more emotion through visuals.

But when the voiceover offers a contrapunctal effect, helping to dramatize the gap between the hero’s inner sense of realty and what’s around him, the film is brutally effective. The first embedded clip illustrates this vividly. The following scene, involving an angelic nurse’s act of mercy, pits the film’s overdone literalism head on with the dialectic opposition with word and image. Somehow they combine to present an emotionally overwhelming moment which sends the film to its agonizingly climactic final act:

All in all, it’s a crudely executed film, but for that reason has an essential, primal quality to it, not unlike the best B-movies, which I suppose this really is (despite it winning the Grand Prix at Cannes). If only it were shorter and didn’t have the nude sex scene, I could see this movie being the staple of every left-wing high school teacher in America.

As something that amounts to more than a postscript, I should definitely mention the strange turn of events around the ownership of the film that happened in the late ’80s, involving the metal supergroup Metallica. As I watched Johnny Got His Gun, the image of Bottoms’ box-masked face brought back vague memories of similar images playing on the Jumbotron during a Metallica concert I attended back in 1992, when they performed my all-time favorite Metallica song, “One.” Sure enough, a visit to the Johnny Got His Gun entry on Wikipedia offered this fascinating nugget of info:

The music video for Metallica‘s 1988 song “One” included many clips and dialogue from the movie of Johnny Got His Gun. Instead of enduring a long and arduous negotiation for rights to the film, Metallica decided to buy the movie outright, in order to use it in their video.

I’m not sure if Metallica still owns the movie, but it may explain why the film is still unavailable in the US on Region 1 DVD (a Region 2 Disc was issued in the UK a couple years ago). I promptly retrieved the video on YouTube and watched it. If you intend to watch the original film, beware of spoilers in this video. All the same, I think the song and video make for a very interesting and entertaining interpretation of the film. In fact I think I prefer it to the movie! (And I love how they start headbanging right when Bottoms figures out how to communicate by banging his head in Morse Code)


quick jabs of water and light (more on Quadrophenia)

Happy to report that Quadrophenia holds up well upon a second viewing, esp. with director Frank Roddam’s lively commentary illuminating almost every scene. It’s evident through his commentary how personal his stake was in recreating the era of his youth in both its scope, detail, and most importantly, its turbulence.

Noticing that the Quicktime movie clips from the Quadrophenia site were down, I scanned through the film to see if there was an exemplary scene to focus on. There are many memorable scenes, chief among them the entire Brighton riot sequence, Jimmy’s zonked out train ride, the ending on the cliffs of Dover, and pretty much anything involving motorbikes. Some of these can be found by searching on YouTube, though I am not pleased enough with the quality of those clips to embed them.

Somehow though, none of them really motivated me to capture them myself and present them here. As memorable as they are, they more or less have a straightforward quality to them. They don’t seem to inspire as much indepth analysis as stand-alone sequences, and I’m afraid that any clip viewed in isolation may misrepresent the film as being a tad conventional or simplistic. It’s really through the cumulative effect of the story that each little scene, directed with relish within conventional editing and staging techniques, builds to an undeniably powerful effect. Not unlike listening to the Quadrophenia album.
I also had a difficult time finding still captures that struck me as outstanding (that the PAL-to-NTSC transfer on the Rhino DVD doesn’t hold up to still image scrutiny doesn’t help matters). Even the lengthy Brighton riot sequence didn’t yield any images other than the iconic (1, 2). The film pretty much works in this vein, offering a series of direct, iconic images and moments in quick succession like quick jabs.

Nonetheless, some motifs emerge, most notably that of water. The film begins and ends with the sea — an eternal site with multiple meanings: peace, stillness, escape, death.

Mirrors are also an image that recur in the film, repeatedly reflecting Jimmy’s self-consciousness – this still being the most striking – love how his comb goes through his hair as she appears, like a Pavlovian reaction:

Regarding technique, the following stills attest to an expert use of lighting to create a consistently electric buzzing mood, especially in the night scenes:

The motorcycle shot above and the group shot below attest to Roddam’s tendency to crowd the frame, which he does much of the time. The film is teeming with extras and is almost constantly moving.

Looking at these kids reminds me of some of Roddam’s comments about handling these youths and the trouble that they presented him — some of them were punk rockers from the 70s who had to take on 60s Mod appearances and couldn’t bear it for long before getting restless and unruly. One of Roddam’s most memorable anecdotes involves luring a derelict young cast member back to the set with an authentic Sex Pistols T-shirt decorated with Sid Vicious’ vomit. Stories like that put the fear into me about film directing, and Roddam has many such tales that he rattles off effortlessly 25 years after the fact. I have to wonder what happened following this stunning debut feature, that he became relatively unprolific in film. Hearing him talk about both the technical craft, logistical resourcefulness and the sheer guts to control such an ambitious production was inspiring.
To tie all of this up, I will offer one sequence that, going through the film a third time, struck me as outstanding enough to embed here. Like many of the film’s other set pieces, it’s brilliantly choreographed — maybe it feels a touch familiar to Scorsese afficionados, but you can’t argue with a 2 minute continuous take if it’s executed seamlessly. And there is something really authentic about how this scene plays out that the camera fluorishes embellish rather than distract from. It’s the conviction to rekindle the energy of this period in history that realizes the movie’s best moments and transcends its formal conventions.


#907. Quadrophenia (1979, Frank Roddam)

screened Sunday, February 4 2007 on Rhino DVD in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #469 IMDb

This time I may have been given a reprieve from my ever-lengthening assessments of the films in my project, as I came upon a stunning resource for the film: Featuring an abundance of materials on both the album by the Who and the film, with screen captures and video clips, it seems that the work in showcasing this film is done. What more is there for me to say?

Well, there’s my own opinion on the film. Over the course of the week I will sift through the extras on the Rhino DVD (apparently not as content-rich as the recent Universal 2-disc Region 2 issue). I’ve already had fun playing with one of the extras, the interactive quiz “Are you a Mod or a Rocker?” To offer Ringo Starr’s answer to the same question in A Hard Day’s Night, “I’m a mocker” — but after taking the quiz the DVD deduced that I was a square like Jimmy’s mother in the film. :-(

As for the film itself, I found it to be a bracing, evocative and expressive recreation of mid-60s London youth culture. It managed to offer an abundance of historical detail and mood — who would have expected a movie based on a Who album would be one of the pinnacles of British social realist cinema? But what elevates it above a run-of-the mill British kitchen sink realism, or some of those insufferably sneering Angry Young Man films from the 60s, is its ability to inspire wide-eyed awe for the excitement and emotional turmoil of the protagonist and his times, and sustain that spirit without succumbing to despondency or self-pity. It shares some of the great qualities of another film from ’79, Walter Hill’s The Warriors, in offering a larger-than-life urban youth underworld presented with straight-faced, no-nonsense bravado.

There are not a few tour de force sequences, such as one set in a dance hall and an epic mob scene in Brighton between the Mods, the Rockers and the riot police. I thought Phil Daniels to be perfect in the lead role as young Jimmy, who maintains a sympathetic air even when his insolence gets the better of him and he starts to self-destruct, resembling a psychotic Robert DeNiro towards the end. And one look at a young Sting in his screen debut as an uber-Mod makes his rockstar destiny pretty self-evident. And that ending, wow, talk about vertiginal ecstasy…
More to come as I digest the DVD — perhaps I will yet offer some captures or clips, or at least reference some from the Quadrophenia site.