I was enamored of Ennio Morricone before I heard a note of his music. My father, like many others, loved westerns, and perhaps even more loved passing their stories down to his son, filling the boy’s head with adventures and derring-do that, in those days before home video, might luckily be stumbled upon someday, surrounding such ads as a local TV station could garner on a weekend afternoon. And when it came time for the tale of the Man with No Name (many names, as it turned out: Joe, Manco, Blondie), my father, like many others then and since, would punctuate his telling. Raising his hands to his lips—one curled to an open-fisted trumpet, the other waving to indicate (more visually than audibly) the odd tremolo of the original—and displaying the glint that comes to the eye of a good man recounting wickedness, my father would intone three times, in a hypnotic rise and fall: Wah-WAH-waaahh.Read More “Ennio Morricone, Musico… Hah-Ha-Hah-Ha-Ha-Ha-Hah!”
[Written for The Stranger]
Beauty is a dangerous thing. Not because, as we are often told, it is superficial or deceptive or skin deep; nor for any of the other tepid half-truths we admire because they flatter our own awareness of how far from beautiful most of us are. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to surrender to, because devotion to beauty can so easily become an obsession. Which is to say, beauty is harmful not in itself, but for what it spawns in others. Claire Denis understands this fact. In Beau Travail, Denis has made her greatest examination of beauty yet — at least of the films we’ve been able to catch Stateside. It is also, of course, her most beautiful.Read More “2000 Eyes: Beau Travail”
“Though the international fame of In the Realm of the Senses—now widely regarded as one of the most important films of the Japanese New Wave—has engendered a flurry of reviews, articles, and interviews in the decades since its scandalous premier, there is a dearth of both media and scholarly attention towards Matsuda, any interest in charting her life or hearing her experience. Matsuda’s death from a brain tumor in 2011 went unnoticed by the press; by contrast, a flood of obituaries from around the world greeted the news of Oshima’s passing just two years later, many of which prominently featured iconic stills of Matsuda as Abe. In the minds of arthouse theatergoers, her unforgettable performance in In the Realm of the Senses had become an instantly recognizable metonym for the height of Oshima’s directing powers but left no room for a consideration of the performer herself.” The erasure of Matsuda Eiko is one Erica X. Eisen aims to rectify, recounting the prejudices that led In the Realm of the Senses’s lead to suffer condemnation and even praise within a narrow, sexualized band that never constricted her director or co-star, and had her leaving the film business in less than a decade.
“Not only the hero but also the film itself is built as a conglomerate: a collage of impulses, templates, and allusions, coming from different artistic practices and fields. The credits of Woton’s Wake appear over a series of illustrations imitating the pages of a medieval book. Abundant in comic strip and cartoon-like effects, the film has traces of both avant-garde theater and puppet shows. It combines a vignette narrative with two folk songs that orally convey the hero’s story. Across the film, De Palma uses many types of experimental music (musique concrète, ritualistic chants, a tape played backwards, atonal composition). The underground spirit of Bruce Conner’s early assemblages and the junk-décors of Jack Smith are mixed with the legacy of German Expressionist cinema.” De Palma’s early short Woton’s Wake, in Cristina Álvarez López’s reading, is a heady collage of cinema history, arts high and low, and the director’s career-long affinity for society’s monsters, its protagonist the “first demiurge-artist” in De Palma’s career, one whose outré self-fulfillment, like De Palma’s itself, gleefully resists easy consumption by an audience.
“Five years later, Lang’s obsession with the tribunal made its appearance, and he was able to launch a frontal assault upon the real world, by opposing to the idea of transcendent justice the actuality of the man-made laws determining our daily lives. For the first time Lang openly attacked the official representation of authority, and in particular, those officials who dispense justice—a justice, moreover, regimented by laws—and the laws themselves resting upon privilege, mindless tradition, and stupidity. For the courts, in Lang’s vision, are intrinsically human, and the right to judge others is shot through with private interests. Decrees, codes, and rules are revised to suit the moment and the result is often chaos, contention, and error. When this happens, those forces existing upon the margins of society—the pariahs, the cripples, the thieves—inherit the problem of constructing a new justice. Lang’s sympathies always lie with the little man, the man of low condition, who, by whatever means at his disposal, is willing to combat the dogmas of a stultified society.” Kino Slang makes available a translation of an article first written in 1937, then revised for a 1959 reprint in Cahiers du cinema, in which Georges Franju adduces the techniques of editing, mise-en-scène, and employment of actors that Fritz Lang used to make his “almost obsessional” films so precise and personal. Via Mubi.
“I was twenty when I ingested most of Cassavetes’s work. (It was a real heavy trip.) Like many young men first encountering his films, I felt like I was being exposed to the raw truth. There was no evidence of staging or phoniness, ingredients that until then I had assumed were necessary to narrative. It seemed that the camera lens had been caked with bullshit all along, and Cassavetes was the only filmmaker capable of scraping it clean. Maybe so. But his truth is no vérité. It’s taken me until middle age (wherein most of his films take place) to appreciate that he was, among other things, a top-notch surrealist. I don’t doubt that every artistic decision he made was deeply felt in his gut, but that gut frequently led him to dissociative fugues and dream logic that could make David Lynch blush.” Keeping with what turns out to be this week’s theme of directors functioning as critics, Andrew Bujalski breaks down the climax of Opening Night to expose how disassociated from reality John Cassavetes’s “realism” was.
“Oh yes, [The Blue Bird] is actually totally crazy if you ask me. In that regard it is Maurice’s most radical film. He even painted the intertitles himself and managed almost every stage of the production. I think this was the closest he came to his idea of creating a complete artwork. Which is also the reason we showed it together with I Walked with a Zombie. In many ways the latter is the most accomplished expression of Jacques’ total art, although I am sure ever-modest Jacques would have abhorred a term like this. In it Jacques goes furthest in liberating himself from narrative shackles. Both films could be seen as showcases on how to create poetry within the Hollywood system.” The Austrian Film Museum’s Christoph Huber has a fascinating conversation with Patrick Holzapfel about a program he curated that paired films of Maurice and Jacques Tourneur, and the commonalities and radical differences it exposed in the father and son auteurs. Via Film Comment.
“It was precisely this history of problematic representation that [producer] Esparza sought to upend with his films, and he and a few fellow filmmakers succeeded.In the early eighties, Mexican Americans were just beginning to fulfill their dream of making their own cinema, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was one of the films that inaugurated the Chicano film movement, along with Young’s ¡Alambrista! and Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1981). The next ten or so years saw the full flowering of Chicano cinema with the release of La Bamba (1987), Born in East L.A. (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988),and The Milagro Beanfield War(1988), and culminating with Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi in 1992.” Charles Ramírez Berg traces the history of Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, from real-life incident to folk song, academic study, and finally a film at the forefront of not only the Latin American wave but the entire independent film movement. Elsewhere, at Filmmaker, star and producer Edward James Olmos talks with Jim Hemphill about the film. (“I gave Bob [Young] the script up at Sundance, and that same year Robert Duvall was there – he gave Bob Tender Mercies to read at the same time. Bob called me up and said, ‘Eddie, I just finished reading your script, and it’s the most horrific and unprofessional script I’ve ever read in my life.’ He couldn’t find one good thing to say about it. And then he said, ‘Tender Mercies is an extraordinary script. Just incredible.’ In my mind I’m thinking, well, he’s gonna do Tender Mercies. I mean, at this point in time I am no Robert Duvall, okay? […] And Bob asks me, ‘Do you have the money for your story?’ I said, ‘I have a million dollars.’ He goes, ‘Oh, that’s more than enough. I want to do your story. Duvall’s script is brilliant, but yours is the story I want to tell.’”)
In 2013 Taschen commissioned Jonathan Rosenbaum to write an original essay on each of Jacques Tati’s features for a planned book on the director. Five years later and the book is nowhere in sight, so Rosenbaum has posted his typically thorough, insightful comments on his website: Delving into the color restoration of Jour de fete (“How adding colored elements and a new character could compensate for the absence of a full-color image is an intriguing puzzle. But Tati’s compositional strategy was an intrinsic part of his genius, making him a worthy grandson of van Gogh’s framer; he was an instinctive artist with an uncanny sense of how seemingly unconnected aspects of a film could connect with one another in aesthetic terms.”); noticing the experiments careening beneath Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’s seemingly slick, entertaining surface (“Hulot, in short, could just as well be anyone else for this gag to transpire—and the notion that everyone could be funny, and not just a talented mime who dominated every shot and sequence, was central to Tati’s comic philosophy.”); exploring the satire of Mon Oncle (“Because Mon Oncle is more explicitly a satire than any of Tati’s other films, one could argue that is correspondingly somewhat less poetic and more prosaic. But one kind of poetic vision that is threaded beautifully through the entire film might be described as the poetry of disorder, and this is represented above all by the roaming paths of dogs in both neighborhoods, which are explicitly contrasted with the strict, orderly procession of cars on the highway.”); offering his latest paean to the endlessly rewarding PlayTime (“In the case of PlayTime, this might say that this became a philosophical as well as a physical vision, practical as well as metaphysical, which essentially sprang from a conviction that everyone in the world was funny coupled with a regret that not everyone had discovered it yet. Becoming a man with a mission, he saw his job as showing some people how they might better appreciate the world they were living in.”); saluting art triumphing over economically mandated compromises in Trafic (“The film’s uncommon achievement, in other words, at least on many occasions, is to blend together fictional and non-fictional elements into a seamless whole, demonstrating the Tati’s genius in organizing his materials could be every bit as adroit as his genius for either finding or inventing them. All three processes are intricately interwoven in the film as a whole.”); and arguing there’s much more going on in Parade than the documentary recording of some circus acts (“And in fact, it could be argued that Parade does have a story, even if, like PlayTime, it doesn’t exactly have a hero — or, rather, its “hero”, as in PlayTime, consists of all the people in the movie and all the people watching the movie. And to accept that as a premise means rethinking a lot of things, including what we mean by a movie, what we mean by a circus, what we mean by a show, and what we mean by spectacle in general. And in its unpretentious way, Parade gets us to reconsider all of these things.”).
“The pioneers who made these movies did so despite the industry’s early male domination and, for a time, they flourished. The scholar Shelley Stamp, who curated the Kino Lorber set, believes that at least two questions are worth considering when we talk about what happened to these women: “Why did they disappear?” and “Why have we forgotten them?” Speaking by phone recently, Ms. Stamp said that the disappearance happened fairly rapidly. By the early 1920s, a group of studios were consolidating power by buying up theater chains. This in turn shut out independent filmmakers, including women and people of color.” Manohla Dargis surveys the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers series playing in New York and draws our attention to some remarkable directors who contributed so much to early film before being fired from their jobs and written out of the history books for their gender.
“Wanda never falls prey to self-pity, or the chic despair of some of the woman-adrift films of the period. There’s a kind of raw energy in the journey’s very futility. And in the fact that she remains mysterious and unknowable, reminding us afresh of the inadequacy of the categories by which we find meaning—and an illusion of mastery—in experience.” One more recent master who flirted with obscurity has since been rediscovered and hailed, and Criterion celebrates the restoration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda by asking a clutch of woman essayists and artists (including Molly Haskell, quoted above) how powerfully they were shook by the film’s unsparing portrait of a woman so silenced and hollowed out by patriarchy there’s nothing left to her but drift.
When one site offers two articles of note, I usually try to yoke them with a shared theme. Sometimes they make it easy (see the next entry), and sometimes Criterion has Amy Taubin on the prescience of sex, lies, and videotape on our current mediated intimacy and the future outline of Steven Soderbergh’s career (“In fact, there is barely any nudity, and the sex scenes are so elliptically edited that they are more exciting for what we don’t see than for what we do. And yet sex, lies, and videotape is something of a skin flick. Soderbergh often frames the two central characters, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and Graham (James Spader), in extremely tight close-ups, held long enough for the skin of their faces to become naked indexes of their inner lives. They blush, they sweat. We know what their cheeks would feel like if we were to touch them with our fingers as we do with our eyes. I’ve never seen—before or since—skin that alive in a movie.”); and Nick Pinkerton on the pleasures of seeing Giuliano Montaldo and his cast (Cassavetes, Falk, Rowland, Britt Ekland) rub against the grain of genre conventions in Machine Gun McCain. (“The movie’s locations, like its cast, are an ungainly mix. The exteriors testify to the fact that the Italian crew shot quite extensively in the States: The movie opens in rather uninspired fashion looking south down Park Avenue, and contains views of the streets and back alleys of New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—particularly the strip joints on Telegraph Hill. […] Interiors, on the other hand, were largely shot in Rome’s Incir-De Paolis and Dear Studios, and with these the documentary impulse is abandoned for theatrical gel-splashed impressionism—see the lemony yellow light of the Vegas hotel where Adamo goes to lean on a casino boss, or the red of the go-go bar where McCain picks up his new ladyfriend after dropping another would-be Romeo with a flat of the palm to the dome.”) In which case all I can offer is, here you go.
Movie culture dies twice over at Mubi: lugubriously and with a willful lack of kick to its perversity in Greg Cwik’s take on Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (“These are parasitic creatures, entitled and idiotic, so narcissistic even their sex feels cold. (Ellis has called the film “cold and dead,” because it is about cold and dead characters.) The Canyons is salacious but unsexy, an erotic film that turns you off. Characters are demarcated by who they fuck, by who they want to fuck, by who they fuck over; they are devoid of any semblance of morals or psychology, and this interior vacuity is, again, part of the film’s epochal allure.”); in frenzied, disjointed, typically essayistic fashion in Godard’s The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company, as seen by Jeremy Carr. (“But Grandeur et décadence is exceptional in that the incessant variety of pictorial means (the discordant cutting, the obstinate camera placement, the layered dissolves, etc.) seems to reflect the high-strung sensibilities of the film’s primary characters, as they likewise struggle to balance compound details in a way that is somber and frantic, constantly theatrical, and ultimately laughable. It’s a haggling strain for all involved, and Godard renders that exertion in the film’s own hysterical constitution.”).
“Clocking in at almost twenty minutes, this sequence unfolds within the confines of the inn, showcasing what the director can accomplish in such a stage-bound setting. Without sacrificing precision, Hu switches up his approach, alternating between stretches of languor and frantic motion, between long shots that map out zones of brewing tension and close-ups that relay the information being exchanged in the characters’ gazes. But it is Shih, with his spooky saucer eyes, who gives the section its steady pulse. His inner stillness is a blank slate onto which any mood can be projected, allowing a scene to pivot nimbly between levity and dread. Playing a character on whom nothing is lost, he’s the on-screen embodiment of what Hu sets out to create with the nuts and bolts of his film grammar: a heightened watchfulness operating underneath a tightly controlled surface.” Andrew Chan offers an introduction to the rigorous, restrained King Hu masterpiece Dragon Inn.
At Cinema Scope, a pair of looks back to interesting oddities and the times that made them. Kelly Dong recounts the bizarre intertwining of sex and death—and the incessant censorship troubles that followed—in the ‘70s collaborations of director Kim Ki-young and actress Lee Hwa-si. (“Like the women in the Housemaid trilogy, Lee’s characters are consumed by the contradictory urges to destroy men and to attain security by becoming their wives or lovers. But while those earlier films (each of which concludes with the housemaid’s murder-suicide) suggest that women’s inability to reconcile these paradoxical impulses accelerates their self-destruction as a social class, Lee’s characters constitute a rebuttal: here, opacity becomes a tool for women’s survival.”) And Adam Nayman remembers the marvelous thriller The Silent Partner—along with the Canadian tax laws that both enabled its making and seem to be mocked by the skim-from-the-robber scheme of the film’s protagonist. (“The Silent Partner makes less of an overt fuss about its setting [than contemporary Toronto thriller The Kidnapping of the President], but nevertheless gets at something truer and more ominous about Toronto circa the late ’70s— specifically, the covetous late-capitalist mentality building up in the skyscraping shadow of the CN Tower. “Money, money, money…stacks of bills…handfuls of coins.” So reads the first line of Hanson’s screenplay, which craftily adapts Anders Bodelsen’s novel about a bank robbery that ends up resulting in two simultaneous heists, one deftly obscured by the other.”)
“Film is a collaborative medium, or so people say, unless by “people” we mean Josef von Sternberg. To become a director is, more often than not, to reveal yourself as a control freak, but von Sternberg was the original micromanager, and his arrogance was legendary. Even long after his career was over, he was reluctant to discuss colleagues. Screenwriter Jules Furthman was responsible for much of the script of Shanghai Express, but von Sternberg always maintained that the entire treatment was one page written by story creator Harry Hervey. Von Sternberg biographer John Baxter cites the gifted Paramount art director Hans Dreier as a major stylistic influence, taking the director from a realistic approach to the “veiled sensuality” he would develop over the course of his career—and adds drily, “It goes without saying that [Dreier] receives no mention in Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” von Sternberg’s notoriously cranky memoir.” Farran Smith Nehme rectifies some of the oversights that von Sternberg’s own ego helped fuel, citing crucial contributions to the director’s Paramount masterpieces by studio mainstays, reminding you that for a director with such a monstrously exacting and domineering vision, von Sternberg could sometimes glance over found objects and imperiously claim them as his own.
“In La première nuit, shadows, rather than obscuring or blocking our vision, often allow us to see further. The metro becomes a site of enhanced visibility, prone to projections, hallucinations, lyrical associations. In a remarkable series of shots, the hero’s highly contrasted shadow is casted over a map of the Parisian metro; the black shape raises its head, following the blinking lights that signal the different stations, as if trying to decipher a treasure map. Under the boy’s enchanted gaze, the successively flashing paths traced by the various metro lines remind us of wondrous constellations of stars flickering in the firmament.” Cristina Álvarez López explores Franju’s short film La première nuit, finding a marvelous confection of documentary and oneiric fantasy, and one of the cinema’s finest portraits of first love.