The View from Parallax is taking a break this week but we’ve got your screening highlights right here.
The documentary series “Art of the Underdog,” playing at NWFF through the month of March, puts unchampioned arts and little-known and forgotten artists in the spotlight. The series opens on Sunday, March 6 with Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015), a portrait of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and film researcher Lillian Michelson, and Love Between the Covers (2015), which investigates the hugely-popular but much maligned literary genre of romance fiction. The complete schedule is at the NWFF website and series tickets are available.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Arabian Nights (1974) screens on Thursday, March 10 at Seattle Art Museum in a 35mm print as part of the “Magnifico! Cinema Italian Style” series. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door on a first come, first served basis. More here.
“In 1985, I’m sitting in the casting office of a major studio. The head of casting said, ‘I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people then.’ He literally said that. I told that casting director: ‘You ever heard of Othello? Shakespeare couldn’t just make up black people. He saw them.’” Melena Ryzik gets quotes from 27 minority and women actors, directors, and producers (including Joan Chen, John Ridley, Justin Lim, and Wendell Pierce, quoted above) about working in a Hollywood where diversity remains mostly lip service. And if you think things aren’t as bad as all that, Lori McCreary relates that even the most obvious casting choice of all time—Morgan Freeman as Deep Impact’s president—got pushback from the white guys in suits (“somebody at the studio said, we’re not making a science-fiction movie; you can’t have Morgan Freeman play the president.”).
Movie Morlocks wins the wide-net award of the week with a pair of fine articles on movies that have just about nothing in common. David Kalat savors the timeless satire that unites period trappings with contemporary concerns in Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-den. (“In just seven syllables, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den efficiently signals (in Japanese) what you’re about to get: a mash-up of the “Sun-Tribe” genre of youth problem films… and the sword-and-topknot cycle of Samurai films (do you really need me to tell you what a samurai film is like?), specifically drawing the connection between the dawning of modernism at the end of the Samurai era and the uneasy postwar world of 1950s Japan. Oh, and did I mention it was a sex comedy?”) While R. Emmet Sweeney takes the buzz aroundThe Witch to look back at Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. (“[Rembrandt’s] The Anatomy Lesson comes through in Dreyer’s shots of the sober bearded men putting kindly old crone Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) on trial, in which they invoke the light of God while threatening to tear Herlofs limb from limb. Dreyer gets closer with his camera than Rembrandt chooses to on his canvas, and every face that Karl Andersson’s camera glides by in these intricately composed sequences is hiding some secret shame.”)
“No Fear, No Die, named after Jocelyn’s prized rooster, replaces the post-war setting of classic noir with a post-colonial one, swapping desperation for dislocation, and money troubles for racial tension. (After all, “noir” means “black.”) Maybe it speaks to the state of this generally screwed-up planet that the movie is just as current today as it was in 1990, when it first hit French theaters.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky revisits Claire Denis’s “first dive into pulp and genre,” finding it as inimitably hers as ever.
“After Noroît, Rivette’s cinema will never again be so experimental, daring or rule-breaking. Did something more than the director’s health crack in that moment of crisis in 1975? Did his artistic resolve also take a battering? And did that particular crack trigger, or come to associate itself, with other cracks in the life and times, even less accessible to us?” In an updating of a 2010 essay, Adrian Martin fruitfully wrestles with auteurism and its consequences to perceive what exactly changed in Rivette’s output after the abandonment of his Les Filles du feu project, and how—even whether—The Story of Marie and Julien can be considered a completion of a trilogy having been picked up nearly three decades after the fact. Via Mubi.
“The ability to figure out a puzzle on the fly is crucial for both gumshoes and directors, certainly one as peripatetic as Huston. By the time he took on The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Huston was ready for the challenge. Under his direction, everyone in front of and behind the camera (in particular, cinematographer Arthur Edeson) performs on en pointe. No word or motion is wasted—even the crawl stating that pirates “seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day” adds a note that reverberates after the climax.” Michael Sragow investigates Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, proving that the first time being faithful to the novel is why in this case the third time was the charm.
“Lang, perhaps tellingly, seemed most interested in the script after Siegfried was out of it: that is, only when the story turns completely toward emotional chaos, toward division, toward the themes that consumed his later work. After he left Germany in 1934, his films inhabited fully the terrain that Harbou had only skated around: paranoia, cults of personality, distrust of authority figures. The genius of his own work, as well as his work with Von Harbou, is its total subjectivity. By creating a new, visual language of paranoia, he’d also hit upon a way to capture abstraction visually: to film ambiguity.” However absolute the eventual separation between Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, Die Nibelungenlied, their remarkable fusing of nationalist epic and intimate portrayal of betrayal and revenge, depended upon both partners for its unique power, as Henry Giardina shows.
After catching de Oliveira’s “tetralogy of frustrated love” at Lincoln Center, Vadim Rizov finds himself completely enraptured by 1978’s Benilde or the Virgin Mother (“Outside [the film’s sole set], there’s howling wind and rain that’s no less convincing for the early exposure of its non-existence; we’re able to better perceive how technical tools create a successfully sustained illusion we might otherwise take for granted.”), rather less taken by its three companions (of 1978’s Doomed Love: “It’s clear that the film can’t end until everyone is dead, which made me eventually root for their sooner-rather-than-later extinction.”)
Nikki Finke’s Hollywood Dementia, which publishes industry-related fiction, let a group of movie critics take a crack this week. None of the stories are any great shakes as literature—pretty flat characters, obvious conflicts, and a curious tendency among all participants to explain their jokes. But as Sam Adams, who spotted the series, notes, there’s a certain fun to be had identifying the à clefs behind these romans. And collectively the stories—Bernard Weinraub’s tale of a disastrous new hire when an older film critic is shuffled offstage; Thelma Adams’s account of searching for a sisterly bond during the “Gotham Film Critics Awards”; Nat Segaloff’s story of a critic picking a bone-headed fight with a film exhibitor; and Daniel M. Kimmel’s story of one critic’s revenge on a vicious internet commentator—capture the unique mix of pride and futility in many critics, born of a job that mixes great responsibility with utter powerlessness. And yes, as just about each story gets around to mentioning, we’re really not morning people at all.
“That´s how it works. I never wanted to be a vampire. In my last film in Antwerp, I was Adolf Hitler riding on dinosaurs. I never wanted to be that but it is what it is—a film. Film is shadow and light and film is fantasy. And I already played Adolf Hitler several times but always in comedies. There you have it. It´s not me who wants to play that.” In an amusingly temperamental interview (he always seems to infer a nastier subtext to Martin Kudlac’s questions than is intended) Udo Kier recalls collaborating with Fassbinder, von Trier, Maddin, Morrisey, and more. Via David Hudson.
Interview Magazine has apparently decided that its latest pairing of famous interlocutor and subject merits two articles, since Saoirse Ronan interviewing Jodie Foster (“I didn’t grow up really wanting to be an actor. I don’t remember ever not being an actor. I don’t really think I have the personality. I am not very external. I don’t want to dance on the table and do impressions. So I think that the way I approach it is really loving story. That’s my first love—the words.”) is followed immediately by Foster interviewing Ronan (“I remember very vividly how it felt to be a child on a film set, and that is actually really important to hold on to for as long as you continue to make films. You need to be childlike, don’t you?”); though of course there’s more give and take than that schematic implies, with the two sharing delight in their professions, anxieties about striking out on their own, and gratitude for a pair of mothers who instilled in them such conviction and confidence.
“You’re disappointed when you can’t raise money for something, even if it’s not especially expensive. Especially when you feel like, “There really is an audience for this.” Most of the films that we’re talking about that are going to be in this retrospective were released by companies that no longer exist. In fact, most of them were out of business by the mid-’90s, and that’s because it got so competitive. The few movies that they thought would be commercial, released by the Weinsteins and a couple other companies, the big studios have classics divisions competing with them. They said, “We’ve gotta put up money up front and make our own movies,” and boy, if they’re not successful two or three movies later, you’re out of business.” John Sayles, who’s picked up paychecks for genre work and struggled to gather funds for self-financed indies, talks the fun and frustrations of both with Eric Kohn.
Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, an Oscar nominee for Travels With My Aunt (1973), Julia (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), began his career shooting war footage during World War II. The versatile London-born photographer went on to shoot the British classics Dead of Night (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a handful of Ealing comedies including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951), John Huston’s Freud (1962), Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), for which he won his first of three BAFTAs, the World War I fighter pilot drama The Blue Max (1966), Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), the original The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974), for which he won another BAFTA, and Rollerball (1975), among his many credits. He shot the first two Indiana Jones sequels and retired after The Last Crusade (1989). He passed away this week at the age of 103. Sheila Whitaker at The Guardian.
Less well known but almost as busy, cinematographer Jean Rabier shot most of Claude Chabrol’s movies from Chabrol’s feature debut Le Beau Serge (1958), where he served as camera operator to Henri Dacaë, through Madame Bovary (1991). Before he graduated to director of photographer, he apprenticed under the great Henri Dacaë as assistant cameraman and camera operate on Elevator to the Gallows (1958), The 400 Blows (1959), and Purple Noon (1960), among others. In addition to shooting over 40 Chabrol features and shorts, he shot Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) for Agnes Varda, Bay of Angels (1963) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) for Jacques Demy, and the English-language TV movie Night of the Fox (1990). He died at age 88. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for A.V. Club.
Actor George Gaynes was a veteran journeyman when he appeared as a lascivious soap opera actor in Tootsie (1982) and was subsequently cast in Police Academy (1984) and its scads of sequels as the lovable buffoon of a commander. He began his stage career on TV in the 1950s, appeared in the films The Group (1966), The Way We Were (1973), and Nickelodeon (1976), and in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II (1976) and Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), among his many credits. After establishing his comedy credentials, he appeared in Mel Brooks’s remake To Be or Not to Be (1983), was cast in the sitcoms Punky Brewster (1984-1988), The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1989-1991), and Hearts Afire (1992-1993), and was memorable in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). He retired from acting after Just Married in 2003 and passed away at age 98. Ryan Gibney for The Guardian.
Umberto Eco, the Italian scholar and semiotician, found popular success when he applied his interest in signs and symbols to seven novels beginning with “The Name of the Rose,” a medieval murder mystery that draws upon religion, history, symbolism and iconography, and a Sherlock Holmes-like monk. It was turned into a movie in 1986 by filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud with Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, and Christian Slater. He died at age 84. Jonathan Kandell for The New York Times.
SIFF Cinema and NWFF unite to co-present “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road,” a retrospective featuring twelve films spanning his career, from The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) to Pina (2012), his 3D celebration of the dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. Highlights include his “Road Trilogy” (Alice in the Cities, 1974, Wrong Move, 1975, Kings of the Road, 1975), his Zen filmmaking thriller The State of Things (1982), and his full 5 ½ hour version of Until the End of the World (1991), which was never shown theatrically in the U.S. (the last time it played in Seattle was twenty years ago at the last Wim Wenders retrospective in 1996). These five films are not yet on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S.
Films at SIFF Film Center:
March 2: The American Friend
March 9: Alice in the Cities
March 16: Wrong Move
March 23: Kings of the Road
March 30: Buena Vista Social Club
At SIFF Film Center:
March 30: Pina Details, showtimes, and ticket information here.
Films at NWFF:
March 3: Paris, Texas
March 10: The State of Things & The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
March 17: Wings of Desire
March 24: Notebook on Cities and Clothes
March 31: Until the End of the World: The Trilogy (Director’s Cut) Details, showtimes, and ticket information here.
The final film in the winter “Silent Movie Monday” series at The Paramount is the original Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ (1925), or rather a version of the original cut down by an hour by percussionist and composer Stewart Copeland. He performs his original score live with the Seattle Rock Orchestra on Monday, February 29 at 7pm. More details and ticket information here.
Actor and storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky comes to Seattle to present his concert film The Primary Instinct, which was shot in front of a live audience at Seattle’s Moore Theater and made its world premiere as SIFF 2015, and the great comedy of rebirth Groundhog Day (1993) in a double feature at the Uptown on Monday, February 29. The event begins at 7pm. Details here.
Only Yesterday, an animated feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli and filmmaker Isao Takahata, makes it American theatrical debut at the Uptown in two versions: one in English featuring the voices of Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel, and the original Japanese language version with English subtitles. Schedule and ticket information here.
Academy Award nominee Mustang from Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven comes back for a return engagement, this time at the Uptown. More here.
Costume design for Sherlock Holmes by Sergei Eisenstein, 1922.
Sergei Eisenstein’s happiest years were probably those as an expatriate. His sojourns in Hollywood and Mexico are well known, but a new exhibit makes the case for his six weeks in London as equivalently liberating and personally transforming. Curator Ian Christie charts the subsequent cultural back-and-forth that led to Alexander Nevsky’s inspiring Olivier’s equally propagandist and spectacular Henry V; while Rob Sharp examines the filmmaker’s links to English culture, particularly for Sherlock Holmes (whom Einsenstein drew in an amalgam with Nick Carter). Both are beautifully illustrated by Eisenstein’s sketches, some dizzyingly geometric, some Thurberesque. Via David Hudson.
“Chaplin was warned by a number of people as he embarked on The Kid that slapstick and sentiment would not mix and that gag comedy could not support the length of a feature film. The success of the movie proved them wrong, even if it remains poised on a knife-edge between a wonderfully original comedy and a perhaps too predictable maternal melodrama. But the old-fashioned plot offered Chaplin the chance to base his comedy not simply in burlesque but in a deeper exploration of the primal emotions of separation and abandonment. His engagement with melodrama no longer relied on Keystone’s parodies of mustachioed villains in top hats pursuing innocent maidens but on the genuine feelings of a family separated and then reinvented, and of a child’s fear of loss and desire for union and security.” Tom Gunning notes the unprecedented risks Chaplin was taking on in making The Kid, and his triumphant leap over them. Criterion also points out a pair of recent posts from silent movie location detective John Bengston, one tracing the locations employed on The Kid, and the other a delightful collection of screenshots where Chaplin’s fans have accidentally been caught spying on their hero from the edges of the frame.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is unrolling a Michael Mann retrospective, which, as such unapologetically visual filmmaking will, has resulted in some good reads. Isaac Butler looks back at Thief and finds Mann’s status as America’s action auteur already in full bloom, even as the director making his feature debut wanted to emphasize his writing. (“Thief introduces us to Mann’s fixation on stopwatches, water, love at first sight, prison, postcards where his protagonists store their dreams, tough guys, big scores, cars gliding at night, beginnings in medias res, and synthesizers. It also introduces the hallmarks of Mann’s writing: a heightened hardscrabble lyricism, often devoid of contractions and rooted equally in classic gangster cinema and real life vernacular; episodic plot structures made out of sequences that feel like the chapters of a novel; and storytelling through implication instead of exposition.”)
Daniel Kasman finds the cyber-denizens of Blackhat as the ultimate statement on the unnerving freedom enjoyed by Mann protagonists and the intimidations it offers the rest of us (“Theirs is a kind of honed hyper-existence, which, unconventionally, does not recognize what it lacks and instead always tries to peer into the horizon to satisfy the longing and unrest. They peer into and desire to go onward toward that horizon.”); while Kenji Fujishima reports on the director’s cut of the film that premiered at the festival, which replaces the tense scene that opened the theatrical version with (less crowd-pleasing, more thematically relevant) a bit of Wall Street trading as originally intended, and otherwise does what you’ve come to expect of Mann’s re-edits: trims some of the dialogue.
And Bilge Ebiri sits down with Mann for another of his intellectually stimulating interviews. (“When people are bombarded with as much content as we are now, audiences come to impute, fill in blanks, extrapolate, and project. So the requirements for plot specificity, for example, reduce. I mean, if you’re living in the late Middle Ages in a peat bog, and you go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in England one time in your life, the religious story told by that piece of architecture, with its towering nave and stained-glass windows, will blow you away. That’s one story in a lifetime. We encounter 20 stories in a day. That’s what I am interested in. How should stories work next?”)
Rivette tributes arrive at a rapider rate (if not a greater length) then the filmmaker’s own masterpieces. Film Comment reprints a classic 1974 interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, and Gilbert Adair on Celine and Julie Go Boating and Out 1. (“We began by elimination: we didn’t want to make a serious film; we didn’t want to make a film about the theater because we’d done that too often; we didn’t want to make a film about current events or politics. But we did have the desire from the very beginning to do something close to comedy, and even frankly commedia dell’arte.”)
The same year and films feature in Sight & Sound’s reprinting of a magnificent interview with Carlos Clarens and Edgardo Cozarinsky that functions as Rivette’s clearest mission statement (“There is a persistent idea of a cinema partitioned off in tiers: first you look for a subject, then you write as detailed a script as possible, on the basis of which you find someone to put up the money, for which purpose you pencil in the names of certain actors opposite fully defined characters. Once you have got all the elements together, often compromising some of your original ideas in the process, comes another stage: the actual shooting. You shoot little bits here and there, as meticulously as possible, and then you stick them together, and you’re pleased if you end up with something that corresponds to what was described more or less in your two hundred typewritten pages. Personally I find all this a dreadful bore.”); and Rosenbaum, again, reviewing the films (rather Out 1: Spectre, all that was available to view at the time). (“And if the scepticism towards fiction in Spectre leads to transparent actions playing over a void, Céline et Julie is like a game of catch played over the same void, with the ball tossed back and forth remaining solid as long as it is kept in motion.”) While Out 1’s continued relevance, and relative monstrosity, is testified to by David Thomson’s account of introducing the film to a dozen Norwegian spectators (making, plus him, an audience of 13) this past January. (“There is something about Out 1 that admits, or permits, the lifelike habit of missing a few things here and there. After all, we can be making love to someone, or even murdering them, and not quite hear what they say or catch the expression on their face. Movies seem to be arrangements of attention, but Rivette was one of those directors who saw that in passing time some things could pass by, precious in the dark, not so much unnoticed as missed.”)
At MUBI Evelyn Emile considersLove on the Ground’s many teasing references to who, ultimately, is the author (or dreamer) of the play-within-the-film we’re watching. (“Is this love or is it empty intimacy, powerful anxiety, fear of death? These are such violent and terrible things, as we know. But Rivette gives us no consolation. Even if one were to ask, ‘Am I dead or not?’ the verdict is spoken simply and with a smile: ‘That’s for you to decide.’”) While Kino Slang reprints two examples of Rivette’s criticism—on Truffaut at the start of his career and Ivan the Terrible as the “culmination” of Eisenstein’s—that in hindsight say less about the two men than they do about the writer whose work arguably surpassed them both. (“The whole film mounts toward this moment, and little by little sloughs off time in order to rejoin duration….”) And if that isn’t enough—for many of us, of course, it isn’t—the 1977 collection Texts and Interviews turns out to be available online, courtesy (but of course) of Rosenbaum. Many of these via David Hudson.
“Mann himself thinks that he has turned his back on Cooper. What he’s really done, perhaps, is to liberate Cooper from himself. Hawkeye’s and Cooper’s admiration for the Mohicans’ way of life—their blend of pragmatism and chivalry, and their genius at warfare, hunting, and navigating their environment—emerges stronger than ever in Mann’s version of the tale.” Michael Sragow praises Michael Mann’s “iconic and iconoclastic” take on The Last of the Mohicans; this inaugurates a series of articles on films related to works published by the Library of America, so more attention than usual is spent on the film’s relationship to its source novel, and Mann’s own disdain for Cooper’s “whitewash of land grabs and cultural imperialism.” Via Matt Fagerholm.
“Gilda is not meant to be clear. It is meant to plunge the audience into an atmosphere so emotionally claustrophobic that even Johnny’s voice-over can’t provide escape or enlightenment. In fact, his voice-over drops away in the final section of the film, so that Johnny’s feelings about Gilda in the last scenes are never revealed. Most noir voice-overs provide backstory and explanation. Not Johnny’s. There are some things that are buried too deep. The only characters in the film who have any perspective are the washroom attendant and the police detective. The leads have none.” Sheila O’Malley revisitsGilda, with particular focus on the understated (thus underappreciated) direction of Charles Vidor and the dazzling entrance of Rita Hayworth—not just in the film, but into legendary stardom.
Steven Mears compares the climaxes in two versions of The Letter, Bette Davis’s famous reluctance to bring cruelty to the moment coming off as “pillow talk” next to Jeanne Eagels’s roaring take on the material. Also at Film Comment, Marc Walkow’s account of how the Lady Snowblood films came to be made makes you regret we’ve never gotten to see Meiko Kaji play the scene, which might have been definitive.
“That an indelible character in a children’s cartoon is a composite of 1980s gay life, bold women with gravelly voices, the AIDS crisis, independent film, Hollywood, Baltimore, and the tragic premature deaths of two exceptionally creative men shouldn’t surprise us. The best characters originate in artists’ complicated lives. And Ursula was surely one of the best.” Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree trace the gay, drag, and distinctly Baltimore influences behind The Little Mermaid’s exhilarating villain, her look inspired by Divine, her personality determined by the lyrics and coaching of actors by writer Howard Ashman. Via Longform.
“The Coens’ comedy is apt to swerve or pivot or shade into increasingly darker perplexities, intimations of the uncanny, or sheer bottomless terror in the face of existence, thus temporarily leaving humor in the rear distance. So the comedy of these scenes is counterpointed by the beautifully austere expanses of landscape out the window and the hypnotic rhythm of wheels hitting the seams in the asphalt at fifty miles per hour—da-dum da-dum da-dum. And again, on the drive back, there’s the dissolution of perspective and reason by the oncoming snow in the headlights, an invitation to nothingness.” Writing on Inside Llewyn Davis, Kent Jones magnificently captures the beauty and dreadful meaningless that battle for the heart of every Coen brothers’ film, and how essential music is to replenishing their faith.
“Ashburn’s calm response to yet another below the belt jab from Mullins is one of the funnier moments in The Heat, a modern riff on the 1970s police procedural that destroys all traces of a plausible plot in favor of controlled chaos. It also represents Feig’s ongoing examination of how women’s bodies are compartmentalized and diminished not only by men, but also by each other.” Glenn Heath Jr. does a good job showing how body language is a key element in Paul Feig’s comedies, and the key indicator of his characters’ struggles and ultimate triumphs. Though reference to The Heat as a “sophomore effort” makes me realize that Feig’s first two features are being tossed to Shyamalanesque obscurity.
“When they first met, Coogler mistakenly assumed Jordan had already played starring roles. ‘I talked to him, and I just knew there was a movie that he had made—that he carried—that I hadn’t heard of,’ says Coogler. ‘And he was like, Nah.’ Jordan buckles over laughing and hits the director on the shoulder. ‘His was the first one!’ says Jordan.” Their winning streak is likely to hit pause unless Ryan Coogler can shoehorn a role into Black Panther—Achebe, maybe?—for Michael B. Jordan; But the camaraderie and respect the pair display for one another in Rembert Browne’s dual profile makes clear the partnership is far from over.
“With each message received, the needle on the speedometer rises; we are cruising at well over 100 miles per hour. I like speed. But not without my own hands on the wheel.” Sean Penn’s interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo is no great shakes, the kind of intelligent but unenlightening questions a smart neophyte would ask, and that an experienced criminal like Chapo has no trouble deflecting. But Penn’s much derided introduction, solipsistic even as it tries to show off its concern (genuine, I’m sure) for the wider world, overlong without ever quite rambling, makes for a hell of a self-portrait of one of our more curious, socially committed actors.
“We may feel that Highsmith’s interest in Jonathan Trevanny is mostly about how the puppeteer Ripley yanks on his strings. But Wenders portrays Ripley’s victim… as a tragic figure, a hero for whom we are actively rooting in his struggle against the forces unleashed by the reprehensible caprice of his American friend. How can we not side with a character played by Bruno Ganz at his most radiantly handsome, an actor who can manage to perform the deceptively simple but in fact challenging feat of making a mild and fundamentally decent family man both interesting and charismatic?” Francine Prose praises Wenders’sThe American Friend as something “deeper than crime, than noir,” and if it’s not quite Highsmith it compensates by being the director’s most complicated take on his love/hate relationship with America.
“Fogelson knows early in development what the sell of a movie is, and he shapes the film accordingly. He’s an optician, swapping out the lenses in his refractor and inquiring, “Clearer now? Or now?,” until the image is crisp. When STX was negotiating with the owners of UglyDoll, a line of mischievous, misshapen plush dolls, for the rights to make an animated movie, Fogelson told his staff that he could already see the tagline over ‘a cute-looking version of that one-eyed character: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ How do you not want to see that? There are so many good and easy ways to make you care about creatures who know they’re not attractive.’” Tad Friend profiles start-up studio STX and its chairman Adam Fogelson, who’s betting on the success of mid-range hits rather than the all-or-nothing blockbusters that dominate the majors’ slate. But whether he’s changing a movie’s elusive villain into the hero to attract a big-name star or bonding with Jackie Chan over the changes necessary to make a film more successful, Fogelson comes off very much as more of the same, if on an admirably smaller scale.
Adam Smith’s history of Flash Gordon glosses over some details—such as Sam Jones’s falling out from the project—that are probably more interesting than they come across. But Mike Hodges talks amusingly about what it’s like to step in at the last minute on a De Laurentiis super-production that had been designed for Nic Roeg, and Brian Blessed turns out to have been cast exactly the way you’d hope he was: by threatening to kill the filmmakers if he wasn’t.
In the course of nearly 30 years living in Japan, Pico Iyer has seen his appreciation of Ikiru go from enthusiasm to dissatisfaction with its Western attitudes back around to an appreciation for how thoroughly Kurosawa portrayed the Japanese soul, which turns out not to be the exclusive bailiwick of Ozu.
I had no time to peruse any of the new Senses of Cinema before passing it along, but with a dossier on Akerman featuring articles by, among others, Nicole Brenez, Yvonne Rainer, and Bérénice Reynaud; another clutch of articles on the Legacy of Pasolini; looks at the early history of Australian animation and the malignant vibrancy of Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography for Suspiria; Quentin Tarantino initiated into the journal’s Great Directors pantheon; and an interview with Weerasthakul, it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t provide some of the best writing on cinema you’ll read going into this holiday season (aka, when all the blogs stop posting anything but 10 Best lists and revisionist/deconstructed/reconstructed takes on every Christmas movie from It’s a Wonderful Life to Eyes Wide Shut).
Speaking of lists, the one most worth reading this time every year is out again—the National Film Registry’s 25 selections for preservation. Yes, as Daniel Eagan reports, the committee is small enough to have considerable individual clout, and there are political and populist mandates they clearly have to juggle in their choices. But at a time when so many of the same films keep popping up as one of the best of the year, any list that includes Preston Sturges, George Pal, Douglas Sirk, Thom Anderson, Su Friedrich, and Tony Scott—not to mention Frankenheimer doing science-fiction, Curtis Hanson doing noir, and William Greaves doing whatever Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One could be classified as—only reminds you that cinema is vaster than you could even dream. Keep Reading
“I sat down and said something sincere and clumsy about how I knew she was going through a hard time and that I was concerned about blundering into things I shouldn’t touch. ‘If you do that, I will stop you,’ she replied. ‘If you ask anything I don’t like, I’ll step around it and go on. I can take care of myself.’” Mary Gaitskill ably defends Charlotte Rampling’s notorious privacy as her right even in a profession synonymous with tell-all confessionals; then rather less convincingly argues that the actor’s unique appeal owes mostly to her skill at portraying “the natural representation of real people.” Possibly NSFW due to a Helmut Newton portrait (hey, it was the ‘70s).
“In conversation with his high-school mentor Roger Hill, he declared that opera directors should be unobtrusive presences, serving the conductor, the performers, and, above all, the composer. The man who helped to originate conceptual staging, with his historically displaced productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar, felt that such radical transpositions had no place in opera. In a sense, he may have been captive to his early operatic memories, to the lingering Gilded Age milieu in which he got to know the art. On his home turf, however, Welles handled music with freewheeling brilliance.” The only strange thing about last week’s excellent Orson Welles piece by Alex Ross is that one of our best music critics had no comments to make about Welles’s use of music or even his films’ inherent musicality. Turns out that discussion had merely been carved out for a separate, equally fine article.
“Still, this judgment [that Harold Lloyd is the most complacently ordinary of the early comedians] needs to be complicated, because only a profoundly and uniquely imaginative artist—by definition, an outsider—can take on his shoulders the burden of synthesizing the entire society around him and fashioning an archetype from it that will play in Peoria.” Phillip Lopate finds the virtues of Speedy precisely in the everyday-man archetype that Lloyd’s detractors find so off-putting—and in the matchless string of terrific gags, of course.
Dan Callahan takes stock of William Dieterle’s career, and finds a talent probably too eager to fall into the boring solemnities of big studio biopics, but one who managed more to achieve more than a few delights along the way; and, in The Last Flight, at least one “triumphant” masterpiece.
The new issue of cléo has arrived, organized around the theme of grace. Which makes a natural fit for Sophie Meyer’s praise of Tilda Swinton’s “unboundaried possibility” (“It’s not that she brooks no contradiction. She embodies contradiction and pushes us to do the same, to be all the clones in one flesh.”) and Colleen Kelsey’s appreciation for Catherine Deneuve’s vampiric turn in The Hunger (“Even when she strikes—well-appointed in jewelry or black leather gloves and without pausing to put out her cigarette—the victim finds herself absorbed not in the killing, but in the shadow show of Miriam’s grace and sexuality.”). Not to mention Julia Pennauer assessing the gender-flipped stoner comedySmiley Face, and Anna Faris’s remarkable performance therein (“She pays tribute to the stoner comedy’s dissident tradition while problematizing its male-homosocial conduct—and she’s really funny.”). Elsewhere Sarah Gadon—academic buzzword alert!—frets over the agency of female characters in Rome: Open City (“Pina proves to be one of the most contradictory female characters in neorealism, as she is the only woman to achieve hero status.”), and Kiva Reardon interviews Geraldine Chaplin about playing love scenes in her latest film Sand Dollars (“[I]n my house in my village in Switzerland we have a picture of me in the garage all dolled up from years ago—the gown, flowers. The kids from the town come and say: “Let’s see the picture of Geraldine when she was a princess!” That was when I was princess and now I’m the old bag! That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”).
The restoration of most (long story short, the three-hour reissue version, not the original six-hour serial) of Otto Rippert’s 1916 Homunculus has Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell joining in on a lengthy post. Thompson offers the background, placing the film in the context (visually and narratively) of the early experiments in fusing expressionism and cinema. (“For Expressionist filmmakers, elements of the supernatural or the legendary could motivate highly stylized mise-en-scene. In contrast, these 1910s films often used relatively realistic mise-en-scene. Location shooting, straightforward period costumes, and skillfully executed trick photography introduced the fantastic elements into the milieu of a concrete, seemingly everyday world.”) While Bordwell looks at the film itself, finding a provocative, wide-ranging film where even the element that seems the most dated—the mannered title performance of Olaf Fønss—is part of a larger, more elegant design. (“It’s now clear that by focusing just on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) we have limited our sense of the wide-ranging visual discoveries of German cinema. Homunculus belongs with the splendid string of films that includes Der Tunnel (1915), Algol (1920), I.N.R.I. (1920), and the outstanding pair of 1919 films by Robert Reinert, Opium and Nerven.”)
“He was a romantic who had a special way of visually enfolding the lovers in his movies that is almost Frank Borzage-like, and he glorifies very different women in what must be the best close-ups of their careers: look at some of the close-ups of the melancholy Sylvia Sidney in Behold My Wife! and then look at the close-ups of the wised-up Joan Bennett in 13 Hours by Air and see how Leisen gives them the same glamorizing treatment without ever losing what makes them so individual.” Dan Callahan joins the small but devoted list of fans who feel Mitchell Leisen’s visual intelligence, humanity, and consistency of vision make him a far greater talent than his seeming perpetual ranking as not one of the best but tops among the rest.
“You could marvel that it took Chabrol so long to get around to making an anti-Vichy film. But you could also note that he had been gunning for the Vichystes all along and just hadn’t been so blunt before. In fact, Story of Women should feel very familiar. He had made this movie at least twice before.” David Kalat traces the almost clockwork evolution—three films each made and set about a decade apart—that led to Chabrol’s indictment of the Vichy regime.
“While Lime’s high ground, as it were, is meant to be ironic (the film hints as much early on when the porter at Martins’s hotel [Paul Hörbiger], with a weak grasp of the English language, gestures towards hell above and heaven below), the manner in which he is brought down to the restricted domain of the camera at eye level, to be trapped and destroyed, doesn’t necessarily suggest a better view.” Martin Zirulnik revisitsThe Third Man, and finds a movie careful to articulate its horizontal and vertical spaces—and to make clear how little even the purportedly clear-eyed Harry Lime perceives the real, desperate Vienna kept to “the margins of the screen.”
“In its very human focus, the “Rocky” series is, oddly, the closest analogue that American cinema has produced to François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle. But, whereas Doinel’s fictional life was defined, as any self-mythologizing Frenchman’s would be, in terms of his relationships with a series of stunning women, Rocky must measure himself always in his workplace: the ring. Across four decades, we’ve witnessed a full-blown, epic saga of a man perpetually considering, but never achieving, retirement.” With Creed soon to arrive as a presumed handing over of the reins, Andrew Bujalski looks back over Sylvester Stallone’s career-making creation Rocky Balboa, six movies charting the writer/director/star’s savvy growth of his character from loveable loser to definitive winner to old, alone, and surrounded by death.
“You know, being famous is obviously not a Devil’s deal. I love the opportunity to work. It’s the thing I do best. I’m a much better person when I’m working. I’m at my absolute best, because it’s the ultimate terror. It’s the ultimate terror that I will not arrive, the ultimate terror that I am not. You know? That I am not.” No point expecting an objective portrait of Bill Murray from Mitch Glazer, who’s written for the man for years, including his recent Rock the Kasbah and his upcoming, much-anticipated Christmas special. But who wants one of those, when Glazer ably demonstrates even one of Murray’s oldest, closest associates can be befuddled and dazzled by the man, being dragged along to spontaneous adventures down the streets of Morocco, Cuba, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: The Man from Another Place is one of the more anticipated film books of the season, and two excerpts do a good job showing why. In the New Yorker Lim discusses the inherent incomprehensibility of Lynch’s narratives as one of his great strengths. (“It is not uncommon for artists to believe that their art should speak for itself. But Lynch’s aphasia is born of a protectiveness that verges on superstition. Words for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic. He says often that his films should leave “room to dream.” To decode a film, to proffer interpretations, to divulge the source of an idea—all these simply mean less room and fewer possible dreams.”) While Criterion samples the book’s take on Mulholland Dr., which Lim finds fitting into as much of a literary tradition as a cinematic one. (“If the film resonates long after these questions have been answered, it is because they are somewhat beside the point. Much more than an enigma to be cracked, Mulholland Dr. takes as its subject the very act of solving: the pleasurable and perilous, essential and absurd process of making narrative sense, of needing and creating meaning.”)
“In 1921, Wanderwell set off for Europe on a tramp steamer. He advertised in London for “A good-looking, brainy young woman who is as clever a journalist as her appearance is attractive,” warning that “she must forswear skirts—and incidentally marriage—for at least two years, and be prepared to ‘rough’ it in Asia and Africa.” Most important, she must “learn to work before and behind a movie camera.” Wanderwell saw motion pictures as a way not only to finance his expedition but also to document it for posterity.” Daniel Eagan recounts the nearly forgotten career of Aloha Wanderwell, neé Idris Hall, who made some of the most popular travelogue silents both in collaboration with her husband and, with even more accomplished cinematic technique, on her own after his mysterious death.