Screened August 2009 on Columbia DVD in Brooklyn, NY
As a card-carrying fan of Mad Men, at times I have to check my enthusiasm against the complaints of its detractors. One consistent criticism is that the series operates too much from the vantage of winking, condescending hindsight. I’ll have to save the full length of my counterargument for another time, but for now, the skinny: this critique is based on a presumption that such a thing as an authentic historical viewpoint is fully possible, much less preferable to one whose subjective filters are made plain. For me, Mad Men is less about achieving verisimilitude than it is about the making and misleading of desire, and not just the desire among the show’s characters, but the desire of its audience for an idealized past. There’s a fascinating dynamic between the show and its audience as they collectively explore the nature of nostalgia. Our longing for a romanticized history runs parallel to the characters’ Pyrrhic pursuits of happiness.
Strangers When We Meet illuminates some of these issues concerning Mad Men. Unlike Mad Men, it’s absent of any mention of historical events or other markers, other than what’s simply on screen: outfits, the make of cars, the products in supermarket aisles. The film boasts a wonderful realism that gives authenticity to its essentially sudsy suburban adultery plot. But that’s not a knock on Mad Men per se – again, the historical references in the show have everything to do with modulating its contemporary audience’s desire for the past as a function with our dissatisfaction with the present. That fundamental discontent with what one has is also at the core of Strangers When We Meet. What I find shocking about the film – and what has me wanting to board a time capsule to check my own take on period sensibilities – is that there’s no moral virtue to the affair between Kirk Douglas’ architect and Kim Novak’s housewife. They’re basically horny and bored. The electricity between them is not based not on mutual understanding but lust and desperation. The feeling of tragedy and loss that cascades over the ending isn’t over the failure of a true romance, but of a life built upon shifting values and ethereal desires, doomed never to be fulfilled.
Who knows how audiences at the time reacted to this (maybe after Picnic and Peyton Place the door to illicit suburbia had already been flung open?). But what elevates this film beyond potboiler status into the realm of cinema is Richard Quine’s attentiveness to these hollow, well-groomed spaces of affluence (it may be too easy to namecheck Antonioni’s L’Avventura, made the same year, and yet there it is… there’s a party sequence in this film that anticipates the one in Antonioni’s La Notte, made one year later). They’re breeding grounds for bad behavior among a class that’s grown accustomed and entitled to getting what they want. They’re also the sites for some remarkable acting, each character treated with sensitivity to a shared plight, even as they become adversaries. Kirk Douglas gets to smash Walter Matthau’s jaw after catching him trying to cheat on his wife (Barbara Rush), but the horny neighbor is really the philosophical standard-bearer of the whole block. The only thing really separating the two are degrees of tact and consent with their targets.
They both come away relatively unscathed compared to the women; both Novak and Rush have devastating onscreen breakdowns inside their domestic prisons. Novak’s performance here is revelatory: whether it’s great acting, or the wear of her off-screen breakup with Quine seeping on screen, there’s a genuine tiredness in her eyes and shoulders that accentuates the tight-mouthed neuroses already familiar to Vertigo fans. One can almost be certain that Quine saw Novak through a Vertigo-shaped frame – he’s constantly boxing her profile in doorways and other suburban outlines like a magazine ad. She’s an image of perfection, searching for substance beneath a world of surfaces, including her own (notice how she scowls in true Betty Draper fashion when her lover’s young son calls her “pretty”).
In the end, the film maintains the same kind of ambivalence towards the objects of desire it holds up for audience consumption as Mad Men. Whether this amounts to perverse have-your-cake-and-eat-it indulgence-cum-social critique is up for argument. But I’ll take self-reflexive consumerism over the blind variety any day.
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Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD
This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it’s a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers’ lifestyle. It’s a world that Altman knows well and it’s what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)
Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed. What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It’s a soundtrack that’s as consuming as a gambler’s weekend casino binge – and that’s exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it’s like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It’s a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.
There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script’s imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They’re matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould’s hooker roommates; Altman’s camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It’s small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.
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The following quotes are found on the They Shoot Pictures Director page for Robert Altman:
“Robert Altman is American cinema’s greatest iconoclast. Prolific, experimental, visionary and ambitious, he is a director whose career spans over five decades and includes over thirty feature films. Known as a maverick director (a label he denies), Altman eschews the market-oriented climate of Hollywood, refusing to bow to studio demands and insisting on total control over his material. The result is an eclectic body of work that moves across several genres, each picture effectively dismantling the generic conventions on which it draws.”- Tanya Horeck (Contemporary North American Film Directors, 2002)
“Altman’s use of multi-track sound is also incredibly complex: sounds are layered upon one another, often emanating from different speakers in such a way that the audience member must also decide what to listen for. Indeed, watching and listening to an Altman film inevitably requires an active participant: events unroll with a Bazinian ambiguity. Altman’s Korean War comedy M*A*S*H was the director’s first public success with this kind of soundtrack.” – Charles Derry (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“Altman is usually happier with large casts than small: while elegantly shot and acted, the intimate theatrical adaptations he was reduced to making in the 80s (he’s always been an outsider in Hollywood) lack the social, historical and philosophical import of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, the made-for-TV Tanner ’88, The Player and Short Cuts – movies which confirm him, however erratic his output, as one of the greatest – and most stylistically innovative – filmmakers of the modern era.” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“The director proffers an elliptical, poignant, often bitingly satirical vision of American sensibilities.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“Maybe there’s a chance to get back to grown-up films. Anything that uses humor and dramatic values to deal with human emotions and gets down to what people are to people.” – Robert Altman
“I want to see something that I’ve never seen before, so how can I tell that actor what that is? I’m not trying to construct a document or situation that is what I want, because what I want is something new to me.” - Robert Altman
Poll of the top 5 Altman films compiled by the Cinematheque
Robert Altman films on They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:
#67 – Nashville
#169 – McCabe & Mrs. Miller
#455 – The Long Goodbye
#576 – M*A*S*H
#627 – Short Cuts
#679 – The Player
#869 – 3 Women
#968 – California Split
What I’ve seen, from top to bottom:
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
A Prairie Home Companion
The Long Goodbye
Dr. T and the Women
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Screened November 14 2009 on DVD rip of Video Yesteryear VHS (dubbed in English), purchased on Amazon
Andre Bazin called it “the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film” in French cinema. Francois Truffaut singled it out as a prime culprit of “le cinema du papa” against which he and other members of the French New Wave would rally. It was both censored and defended in France for sympathetically portraying a adulterous couple, yet reviled by the likes of Truffaut for gussying up the illicit affair with “the cinema of quality” to make it palatable to bourgeois audiences. Devil in the Flesh is a fascinating historical lightning rod, straddling both the moral and aesthetic conflicts of its time. (As of now I’d say there’s more going on in this film on different levels than, say, the tasteful stiff upper lip adultery of Brief Encounter.)
Because of its contradictory significances, its best to consider the film without that largely unhelpful label “cinema of quality” (one that unfortunately is still invoked today) and consider the tensions within the film itself. It starts with French heartthrob Gerard Philipe and his strange blend of adolescent swagger and sulky introversion. Or the way the characters are seen through multiple filters. There’s the extended flashbacks, summoned aurally by a strange grinding sound, as if it were the gears of a machine [a film projector?] being wound back then forth. The prominence of all sorts of frames (windows, doors, mirrors) that continually give the sense of encasement and self-consciousness. And the frequent rain that operates as more than just for typical, sentimental exclamation during emotional climaxes, but underscores the characters’ physical exertion as they move through wet spaces to see each other.
The film isn’t without its questionable flourishes, such as a 180 degree shot of the bed as the couple is about to consummate their affair, that ends with one of their hands turning out the light (if this is the first instance of this romantic movie cliche, then the film has a lot to answer for). It wouldn’t be half as bad if a later climactic scene didn’t reprise this same shot to spell out in boldface that the affair has come full circle. Such impositions speak to the complaints from the likes of Truffaut, that this is filmmaking that looks down on both the characters and the audience. But this shouldn’t discount the moments of light from within, most notably in the intimacy achieved between the leads – whose fragility may actually be enhanced by Autant-Lara’s insistence on boxing them in with his frames and devices.
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Another video for the Focus Features “Rewatch” series. This one took me a while, as I played a bit with the footage (both original as well as from the film) to tie into some of Laura Muley’s theories about sexual identification in film. But when this work involves watching Ludivine Sagnier semi- or fully nude for hours, what’s there to complain about?
Screened November 11, 2009 on Tribanda DVD in Brooklyn NY
What is it about Spanish cinema that just nails how people are possessed by dreams and stories? Of course I’m making an overgeneralization, and yet the three Spanish filmmakers that I know best, Bunuel, Almodovar and (sheepishly, based on watching two films) Berlanga, all share an uncommon fascination with the rapture of storytelling. Whether through a voiceover narration or one person telling a tale to another, these films traffic in the private fantasies and urges of characters and audience alike. It’s true in Bunuel’s earliest sound film L’Age D’Or, with its narrative framework disintegrating into a lucid stream of on-screen impulsive acts, or as recently as Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, where much of the film’s pleasure is in just watching characters being transfixed by each other’s stories.
Within this hypothetical national subgenre, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall stands tall. A sleepy Castillan village tries to transform itself into an Andalusian postcard paradise upon hearing that American postwar funders may pass through. The voiceover sets it up like a fable (“There once was an old spanish Town”); the film is not only an allegory for a nation’s collective submission to the utopian facades of Franco’s Fascist Spain, but to the countermyth of America, which pervades the characters’ dreams as well as fears. Two sequences bear this out vividly. In the first, villagers are ordered to line up and tell the administrators, Santa Claus-style, one thing they would like in return for contributing to the fake village effort. Some of the impoverished villagers can’t even mentally process this offer, having never been in a position to dream big, much less ask for things beyond food, clothing and shelter. The other is a brilliant sequence that relays from one character’s nocturnal fantasies to another, each one informed in their own way by the movies: a priest’s nightmare shot with Expressionist angles of Puritanical oppression; the mayor’s fantasy of gunslinging Western heroism; a farmer’s dream that brilliantly mixes social realist propaganda and Hollywood fantasy, with a plane flown by Santa Claus parachuting tractors to the peasantry.
With its withering observations on human fallacy and self-delusion on both an individual and collective level, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall would be one of the most merciless social satires ever made, if its condescending omniscience towards its subjects didn’t somehow implicate itself. There’s a priceless moment where the voiceover chastises a schoolmistress in bed possibly doing indecent things to herself; in doing so the narrator outs himself as being as much of a control freak as Franco. As such, the film amounts to its own fantasy construct of Spain as an eternally tragic, but laughably charming dystopia. It does as masterful a job of selling its vision as the fascist and capitalist ideologues it eviscerates.
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Screened November 7 2009 on Artificial Eye DVD
Eric Rohmer’s debut feature suggests that there were many Eric Rohmers vying for the man’s artistic identity, informed by the cinephilic breadth of influences one would expect of a Cahiers du Cinema critic having his turn behind the camera. In this film, the approaches threaten to partition the movie like a post-war European city. The first part, where American expat Pierre throws a party celebrating his inheritance, dances around the room with dolly shots, snatching pieces of conversation in the tradition of Renoir/Ophuls. When Pierre’s inheritance proves bogus and he’s turned on the street, the film goes Neo-Realist, tracing his demise first in shades of DeSican social pathos before confronting a Rossellinian existential void. An 11th hour force majeure feels more like Preston Sturges than Robert Bresson, in terms of feeling less emotionally invested in the forces of transcendence and more like a self-reflexive act of writerly intervention that brings attention to mechanism of the plot. This is something Rohmer tries on more than once throughout the film, peppering it with seemingly incongruous digressive moments (a reporter’s trip to Africa, a car wreck in the French countryside), only to tie them back into the main storyline. It’s a film that, in more than one sense, is all over the map.
Perhaps it took the film’s unequivocal flop with critics and audiences for Rohmer to resolve this multivocal struggle over the years that followed, leading to his unmistakable way of looking and listening to people, so compositionally controlled, yet so light and in the moment, that’s been with us for for over four decades. There are traces of that Rohmer throughout The Sign of Leo, like his documentarian’s way of looking at things with an eye for lived-in detail. Or the moral preoccupations of the parable-like plot; in this case it verges on the predictable or the pathetic more than once, but is saved by the ever-shifting perspective (social realist? existentialist? metafictional farce?) Or how characters project their persona through their words; Pierre lives large so long as he talks large. When his assertion of impending wealth is proven false, he retreats into a increasingly wordless state, and the indomitable city, pulsing with life in an August swelter, looms so much over him it threatens to swallow him whole. This antagonism between people and their environments always seemed secondary to the interpersonal tensions that dominate Rohmer’s films, but here it’s so present that you want to rewatch all of his other films to see if it’s been there throughout his career, and more than just a background to human characters.
The city of Paris is the most fascinating character in The Sign of Leo; the metropolitan equivalent of Fred Astaire, it takes a slobbery lout of a main character and makes him tread with divine grace down its streets and canals. The end finds Pierre financially redeemed, though with the sense that he hasn’t learned a thing from his suffering. It’s as if Rohmer posed him as a negative example of what path he as an artist should take, learning from his failure and coming out with a more singular sense of self.
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Screened August 14 2009 on MGM DVD in Brooklyn NY
One: Is it backhanded praise to say that One, Two, Three is a movie you don’t even have to look at to enjoy? For the first half hour I just wanted to close my eyes and let the non-stop flow of dialogue carry me along. While Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond are known for their wit (“You will send papers to East Berlin with blond lady in triplicate.” “You want the papers in triplicate, or the blond in triplicate?” “See what you can do.”) it’s the musicality of the banter that captivates me: the compulsive clicking of a subordinate’s heels, Cagney’s numerical method of dictating agendas to associates, and countless little moments where the words turned against their speakers, batted around like a beach ball.
That’s not to say the film lacks for visual interest. Cagney’s office is an expansive executive space over which looms a global map of Coca Cola conquest; it’s stately and big enough to contain Cagney’s booming voice, and eventually becomes a staging ground for one of the most breathless one-set slapstick routines of post-30s Hollywood.
Two: Somewhere around the half hour mark, the non-stop stridency of Cagney’s delivery starts to wear on the ears; and when it’s doubled by Horst Buchholz’ angry young Communist, it’s like listening to two bugles blasting at each other over the Berlin Wall. Arlene Francis plays it a little too straight as the hapless wife. The whole middle section feels like an extended set-up for the next set piece, a late night negotation between East and West set over heavy cigar smoke, dishes of caviar and a table-dancing barefoot blonde in a form-fitting polka dot dress. The whole bar starts shaking to their gyrations, ideology coming undone under pure sexual lust.
Three: Back to that finale, a bravado sequence that moves at the speed of thought, as Cagney’s McNamara improvises his way to transform Horst Buchholz from a wet-behind-the-ears Communist to a spit-polish Capitalist in under 40 minutes. Well, at least it’s supposed to be improvised, but it doesn’t quite feel that way – it sounds and looks thoroughly written every step of the way. All the same, it’s a jaw-dropper, the way it summons every plot and subplot laid throughout what preceded it and weaves it into a three ring circus with Cagney the ringmaster-standin for Wilder. It’s an awesome, relentless juggernaut of a sequence that, allegorically speaking, combines Soviet unilateralism, American showmanship and German efficiency. Looking at it meta, it also evokes the Hollywood studio system at the peak of its creative and collaborative energies; as such, timed at the demise of that same system, it makes for a fitting swan song.
Below: Poster mural inside the Delphi Filmpalast in the former West Berlin, taken during the 2009 Berlinale
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This year’s NYFF was the tenth that I’ve attended, and it left me feeling more exhausted and less entralled by what I saw than I have in past years. Maybe because I was more in tune to what others were saying about these films (thanks Twitter and Indiewire), to the extent that it was encroaching on the space between me and these films. My burnout got to the point that I had to do a very geeky thing to put it into perspective: conduct a historical evaluation of how many great movies I saw for each of the past 9 years I’ve attended NYFF. Continue Reading »
“A Revolution on Screen” is a two-part video essay coinciding with the 2009 New York Film Festival Masterworks series “(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949–1966.” This series is the first major U.S. retrospective of the films made during the “Seventeen Years” period between the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution.
PART ONE: MOVIES FOR THE MASSES (AND A SMUGGLING OF ART)
PART TWO: THE FLOWERING BEFORE THE FALL