Among the new Criterion releases, a pair of films that engage history and/or national myth with radical, indelibly modern style. David Bordwell outlines many of the innovations that make King Hu’s A Touch of Zen so different from its supposedly less “classical” contemporaries. (“This long opening not only builds up curiosity but also asks us to enjoy the visual values of Hu’s sumptuous costuming, chiaroscuro sets, and widescreen compositions full of graceful character movement. In one shot, the mysterious stranger dodges out of sight. Why? The monks’ saffron robes ease into the frame as a subdued burst of color in the pale street landscape, setting up a motif that reaches fruition, ninety minutes later, when golden blood streaks down a sash.”) While James Quandt finds Muriel the culmination of Resnais’s denied but obvious fascination with time and memory. (“Like the man who asks where the center of the city is only to be told that he is already in it, Muriel’s viewer may be left grasping for narrative and temporal coordinates. The film’s anxious, shardlike editing—Resnais claimed that the cuts numbered close to a thousand, though others have subtracted a hundred or two from that total—detailed in Cayrol’s script and ostentatiously announced by that initial cubist fusillade, further confounds the sense of duration and chronology, despite the scenario’s linear, symmetrical five-act structure. With its disorienting ellipses, compressions, attenuations, and its obsessive repetitions, Muriel anticipates the “shattered time” of that other Resnais masterpiece 1968’s Je t’aime, je t’aime but, without the latter’s memory machine and use of flashbacks, can be all the more confounding.”)
If any question remained of Leo McCarey’s place in the pantheon, MoMA’s retrospective of the director should finally put paid to any respectful but ultimately dismissive appreciations of him as an impeccable craftsman. The series has Nick Pinkerton considering the contradictions of McCarey’s career, and the beautiful music he could coax, both out of his onset piano, played during down time, and his actors on the screen. (“McCarey was parochial and universal. His approach was, as the saying goes, “revolutionary,” though like more than a few revolutionary artists he found the prospect of actual revolution abhorrent. He was both devout Catholic and a right-winger—and a sharp satirist of the institutions which he held dear.”) For Aaron Cutler, the humanism he showed for all his characters is paramount. (“McCarey was fundamentally a comic filmmaker, and he used comedy to help create sympathy and compassion for basic human efforts. Humor often arises through the beautiful personal recognitions that take place for the characters in his films—the small, wordless instances of revelations in which peoples’ faces show realizations that their entire lives have changed.”) While a 2012 essay on Ruggles of Red Gap has Dan Sallitt tracing McCarey’s character-based, observational humor back to his silent days. (“It’s fascinating that McCarey sweats over a scene like this as if he were still building laughs for Laurel & Hardy, even as he fully exploits the benefits of dialogue to craft detailed and unusual characterisations. One doesn’t feel a clash between particularised observation and the universal language of gags and comic effects – perhaps because McCarey finds ways of placing even individualised traits in a universal context.”)
“Yet even in this gaudy company, The Incredible Shrinking Man stands out as one of the more ingenious, unsettling, and durable movies of its kind. At once elaborately designed and structurally austere, the movie, as with the greatest in its genre (whether you use Vampyr or Night of the Living Dead as a touchstone), feels like an improbable dream that oozes into your waking consciousness and seems somehow more “real” than any number of grittier, down-to-Earth melodramas.” Gene Seymour praises Jack Arnold’s masterpiece, and the William Matheson novel (and script) it honored by playing straight.
“Rohmer first conceived of The Green Ray after seeing the following classified ad: “I am beautiful. I am from Biarritz. I should please, and men pay no attention to me, why?” He combined this with his childhood memories of reading Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, a romance of the Scottish highlands in which a young girl avoids romance until she can see the titular ray, a flash of light that occurs after the sun sets…. The film takes the lonely yearning of the classified ad and the mystical romance of the Verne novel and combines it into the character of Delphine, created together by Rohmer and actress Marie Rivière.” R. Emmet Sweeney’s summer with Rohmer reaches the triumph of The Green Ray, with an interesting recounting of its unique shooting circumstances.
The Atlantic offers unironic appreciation for one facet of bad movies, and wholesale condemnation of the entertainment industry-government collaboration that girds some supposedly good ones. For Lenika Cruz, the amateurish, foreign-born creators of The Room, Birdemic, and Samurai Cop all have a better understanding of the importance of American small talk, even its non sequiturs, than more “talented” domestic writers. (“The appeal of these particular B-movies, rather, lies in the filmmakers’ strenuous efforts to overcome not just a linguistic barrier, but also a fundamentally cultural one. In daily American life, small talk is at best a mindless, learned habit; at worst, it’s evidence of a vapid society. But filtered through an outsider perspective, this social nicety—intended to be, well, nice and unobtrusive—becomes something horrible, conspicuous, and often hilarious.”) While Nicholas Schou (who unfortunately is another critic willfully missing the point of Zero Dark Thirty) recounts the history of the CIA focusing on its brand, with Hollywood insiders more than willing to compromise their portraits of the agency in exchange for access. (“[CIA officer John Kiriakou] would regularly bump into a parade of Hollywood types, including Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. He often wondered why these actors were allowed to walk around a top-secret facility. ‘Because he’s going to be playing a CIA guy in a movie? That’s the criteria now? You just have to be a friend of the agency and you can come in and walk around? In the meantime, people who are undercover are having to walk through the halls with their hands over their faces because these people aren’t cleared. It’s insane.’”)
“As a fifteen-year-old Pop Art aficionado wandering through the Whitney Museum’s 1964 Sculpture Annual, I discovered Conner’s work in the form of the assemblage Couch. There was no warning. It was like rounding a corner and bumping into Death or seeing the title Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! on a 42nd Street marquee. I couldn’t believe my eyes.” J. Hoberman visits MoMA’s Bruce Conner retrospective and reencounters a prolific, multifaceted artist who virtually invented the collage film—as well as the modern music video—and captured as well as any artist the fear and anxiety of living under the age of The Bomb.
“Before the clampdown, Milos and I got together to discuss how in this godforsaken country we could make good movies. We took a piece of paper and we wrote down several points like ‘it should be a comedy,’ because the Communist Party and the censorship were more tolerant with comedies. ‘It should be shot outside of the studio, in the streets,’ because they would not look over our shoulder that much. ‘We will use non actors’ and ‘We will use natural light.’” Ivan Passer talks with Ronald Bergan about the filming of his sole Czech feature, Intimate Lighting, and how the experience prepared him for working with the “little Stalins” of America.
“I thought a campaign was like drifting downriver on a raft, where everything is beautiful: then you begin to hear the roar of the falls up ahead, but it’s too late. You go over the falls, you lose yourself, you become eternally confused by the difference between yourself and who your public thinks you are. And it’s a disarming, dissociative experience. And Redford played that very well: the better McKay gets at campaigning, the more he loses himself.” Steve Macfarlane talks with Jeremy Larner, Oscar-winning scriptwriter for The Candidate, about translating his real life experiences on the McCarthy campaign into fiction, collaborating with Ritchie and Redford, his lack of a subsequent career (he couldn’t play the game as well as his pal Robert Towne, basically), and our current, dismal election season.
Garry Marshall was a major force in American comedy for over half a century. He began by writing for the sitcoms Make Room for Daddy, The Lucy Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, developed the TV version of The Odd Couple, and created the hit TV shows Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy. He made his big screen directorial debut with the Airplane-esque Young Doctors in Love (1982) and went on to direct 18 films in all, including Overboard (1987), Beaches (1988), Pretty Woman (1990), Frankie and Johnny (1991), and The Princess Diaries (2001). And he even made a few appearances as an actor, notably a casino owner in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America (1985). He passed away this week at the age of 81. Bruce Weber at The New York Times and Hector Elizondo, who appeared in every one of Marshall’s feature films, remembers his best friend.
Hector Babenco was born in Argentina and made his home in Brazil, where he directed documentaries and features, including Lucio Flavio (1977), a hit in Brazil, and Pixote (1981), which brought him international attention and awards from the New York, Los Angeles, and Boston film critics. He earned an Oscar nomination and directed William Hurt to an Academy Award for his English-language debut Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), an independent American production based on a novel by Argentinian author Manuel Puig, and directed Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed (1987). After At Play in the Field of the Lord (1991), he took time off to fight lymphatic cancer, then returned to Argentina for Foolish Heart (1998) and Brazil for Caradiru (2003). His final film My Hindu Friend (2015) stars Willem Dafoe as a film director dying of cancer. Babenco died of a heart attack at the age of 70. Ronald Bergan for The Guardian.
V.F. Perkins was an influential film scholar and the author of Film as Film (1972), one of the great books of cinema studies, passed away at the age of 80 last week. Reported by Catherine Grant, who created this tribute at Film Studies for Free.
The weekly links page is compiled and curated by Bruce Reid, with obituaries and Seattle Screens curated by Sean Axmaker