The new Senses of Cinema features, alongside its other pleasures, a dossier on the giallo and further genre deconstructions of filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. An interview with Anton Bitel captures the pair’s humor, practicality, and intellectual ambitions (“We had a lot of pleasure when we have watched these movies as an audience, we had a very big cinematic pleasure, and we too want to create a kind of little orgasm for the audience, you know, to give pleasure. We like to take that grammar to tell our own stories, and not do, like, a fan film about giallo or western, but to take this oneiric grammar, in fact—because there is a big oneirism in this genre about eros and thanatos – and to talk about desire.”); Kat Ellinger traces their acknowledged debt to Sergio Martino (“Martino wasn’t without his own subversions when it came to giallo. Like Cattet and Forzani, he reintepreteted specific conventions which, through this re-rendering, belonged to him and him alone.”), while Clare Nina Norelli explores some of their creative resettings of famous giallo scores (“Cattet and Forzani’s recontextualisation of Morricone’s Maddalena score has transmogrified the images on screen, elevating their murder mystery narrative into the realm of the spiritual.”). Aside from his interview duties, Bitel also contributes a piece on gender viewed through Cattet and Forzani’s dual gaze (“A couple (like Argento and Nicolodi) in real life as well as joint writers and directors of all their films, they regender the grammar of their adopted genres by articulating them in a creative exchange between the sexes.”); Martyn Contario extends consideration of the genres explored by the couple to the Freudian thrillers of classic Hollywood (“[Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears] share tortured male protagonists searching for the answer to a repressed memory, hinged upon depictions of troubled minds as architectural spaces to wander.”); and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas praises the slippery role memory and association plays in their casting with a tribute to Elina Löwensohn’s starring turn in their latest, Let the Corpses Tan (“A man can be seen behind the gun, but it is a woman’s face in extreme close-up that catches our breath: her eyes, her pores, her lines, the moisture on her tongue, the gaps in her teeth, her mouth in general as she gnaws on a cigarette.”). And just when you might be wondering how Cattet and Forzani’s approach to filmmaking is economically viable, Jeremi Szaniawski chats with their producer Ève Commenge to get a sense of their very pragmatic approach to filming (“The production design of Amer and Let the Corpses Tan was similar: in both cases we were dealing with old places in ruins, threatening to collapse, we had to know exactly which places to redo. The set designer knew she had to do a fake wall in a designated place, and that it had to be 2.5 metres tall, and not an inch more. Pre-production was clear and precise, and there was no improvisation on the set.”)
Criterion offers three looks at collaborations, fruitful but strained, frustrated by external forces, and consummate. Stephen Prince reflects on screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto’s career, which was stimulated by Kurosawa’s unique method of setting his screenwriters off against one another, though Hashimoto ultimately focused his complicated relationship with Japan’s military history on screenplays for other directors. (“Hashimoto had joined the front rank of screenwriters with the flashback structure of Rashomon and had surpassed that design in Harakiri. Though a screenplay furnishes a film with its scaffolding and a completed film necessarily goes beyond the script, it remains true, as Mansaku Itami and Kurosawa knew, that to make a good film one must have a good script. Hashimoto’s passionate writing helped burnish Japanese cinema with the golden luster it enjoyed for two decades after the war. He believed that a good script was self-sufficient, that it was like a musical score in its written form, and he felt when writing as if he was composing a symphony. Although he grew rueful about the possibility that his collaborative training in Kurosawa’s inner circle of writers might have inhibited him from developing a robust and distinctive authorial voice, the wonderful movies that resulted from his writing give us the best measure of his literary talent and its enduring contributions.”) Elvira Lindo’s acknowledgement of how central to Spanish culture Victor Erice’s El Sur has remained can’t help but compare the director’s ambitions for the film to the final product, whose producer pulled the financing, thereby truncating the film before the ending found in its source material (written by Erice’s then-wife Adelaida García Morales). (“Some of the aura of mystery surrounding the film might have been dispelled if the production had lasted the agreed-upon eighty-one days, instead of the forty-eight days of shooting that actually took place. Even knowing how consistently Erice has expressed frustration over the truncation of his project (and in fact, those who have had the opportunity to read the script in its entirety have proclaimed it a jewel of screenwriting), the reality is that the viewer does not experience the film as incomplete, because the South, so different from the North of Spain, is contained in El Sur as though it were a dream, inside the boxes where the girl keeps the postcards she has received from that region, signed by her grandmother and the woman who was her father’s nanny, Milagros.”) And even if you’re convinced there’s nothing new to be said about the von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration, Imogen Sara Smith manages to say it beautifully. (“Over the course of the six films they made together in Hollywood, von Sternberg took Dietrich out of the smoke and sweat of The Blue Angel’s waterfront dive and put her in ever more exotic and lavish settings—his versions of Morocco, China, Russia, Spain, with a single detour to contemporary America (Blonde Venus). Between angel and devil, he cast her as goddess, empress, adventuress. The amoral, blithely destructive Lola Lola made way for romantic martyrs in their first four American films, then fatal temptresses in the last two. But the impassivity and cool insolence remained throughout and beyond the von Sternberg films, from the nonchalant poise with which Dietrich faces a firing squad in her second American film with him, Dishonored (1931), to her seen-it-all, sibylline detachment in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). With these qualities lingers an ambiguity distilled by that dressing-room scene from Morocco: she seems above and beyond caring yet takes infinite care with everything she does.”)
“To see him in his early roles is to know that those demons were at least part of his appeal; his working-class bravado was underpinned by vulnerability. He seemed both masculine and feminine in the mold of most of the great screen idols—Rudolph Valentino, James Dean. Stardom demands actors to be broad enough for the audience’s projections, but also to be startlingly specific in their humanity. Mickey’s combination of the sensitively effeminate and the pointedly macho opened him up to all kinds of readings. Over the years, he has phoned it in and loused it up, and the quality of the films he’s starred in have ebbed and flowed. But when it’s right—as in Rumble Fish, Angel Heart, Diner, Barfly, The Pope of Greenwich Village—it’s very right.” Christina Newland traces Mickey Rourke’s inability to capitalize on the comeback The Wrestler afforded him partly on his self-destructive streak and partly, and more intriguingly, on how feminine the hulked-out actor can read to audiences. Via Mubi.
“Snyder and Gray would fold under questioning, ratting on one another, and subsequently go to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing; Tom Howard, a New York Daily News photographer who’d smuggled a camera into the death chamber strapped to his ankle, captured an image of Snyder’s body dancing in the grip of the fatal current. Their trial had been a phenomenon, bringing journalists and rubberneckers from all over to pack the benches in the Long Island City Courthouse. Among the spectators who passed through over the course of the proceedings were D.W. Griffith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Damon Runyon, and a 34-year-old crime reporter with an insurance background that gave him insight into the ins and outs of the case, James M. Cain.” A sensational trial that inspired Cain to write The Postman Always Rings Twice, the many film adaptations of which Nick Pinkerton traces, from Pierre Chenel’s 1939 French film, through Hollywood’s two big, flawed stabs at the material, to, from Hungary, “the bleakest version,” courtesy of director György Fehér and cowriter Bela Tarr.
“Let’s assume that in the ’70s, Ludwig was a film out of its time—sober yet lavishly appointed, forbiddingly old guard to the point of appearing laboriously academic. Today, it is still an anachronism—one can’t imagine a historical art film even again being made on such a lavish scale—and yet the very fact that it now seems so alien to us seems likely to give the film a new lease of life and attract a new audience more eager for this kind of measured pensiveness.” Of course one of the most successful adaptations of Cain’s novel was Visconti’s debut; one of his later films, Ludwig, receives some rehabilitation from Jonathan Romney, who doesn’t deny the film’s sometimes wearying pomp but finds it a striking portrait of history as a series of self-aware theatrical poses.
“How far can a filmmaker push an awkward premise? What situations and complications can be extracted from it? What surprises and transformations can divert the seemingly stable course of the plot? Despite its humble appearance as a minor work made for television, The Man with the Suitcase is not short on answers to these questions. The film (which Akerman also wrote) turns its premise into a goldmine, cruising the full range of possibilities: from verbal implosion to gestural explosion; from ignoring the man when he’s present, to fixating on him when he’s absent; from controlled order to engulfing chaos.” Though its hour-long length and origin as a TV movie have tended to rank The Man with the Suitcase as one of Chantal Akerman’s minor works, Cristina Álvarez López finds it a thorough exploration of one of the director’s key themes, the value and hazard of routine.
“As the title implies, in its aggressive-casual way, A Very Natural Thing wants its viewers to share in the easygoing mundanity of gay male love. And though that title may make it seem like the film has been geared toward liberal hetero audiences as a kind of teaching moment (see this year’s “I’m just like you” normie-bullying in the narration and trailers for the otherwise sweet Love, Simon), A Very Natural Thing was primarily intended as a sight for sore eyes, a source of identification for gay viewers.” Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing has stayed off straight movie audience’s radar for the same reason it’s fairly central to gay ones, Michael Koresky argues: a casual, nonjudgmental insistence that all aspects of gay life are matter of factly, marvelously normal.
“At the end of each day, the cast and crew convened at the hotel bar. ‘Everyone would sort of be sitting at different parts of the bar, and she’d walk in and it was, like, Shit! Claire’s here!’ [producer Andrew] Lauren recalled. ‘I saw a lot of people wanting to leave many, many times, but they stayed. They stay because they love her—even though they can’t stand her.’ Denis does not deny such behavior. ‘I can be the worst person, the meanest person on a set,’ she said. ‘Shouting, screaming, complaining. I don’t have a lot of respect for myself as a director. People accept me the way I am, because they know I’m not faking. Probably.’” Though it can be a little disorienting to read one of the world’s greatest directors constantly referred to as virtually unknown, Alice Gregory’s profile of Claire Denis captures the director’s mix of intellectual severity and overwhelming sensuousness that makes her telling any story from her life—of caring for her younger brother, self-indulgent frolicking on a South African beach, a terrifying sexual assault—as heady and unforgettable as her films. Vague spoilers for Denis’s upcoming sci-fi film High Life.
“By 1982, historically, transgender people were classified as mentally ill, if acknowledged at all; the term “gender identity disorder” first appeared in the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980—incidentally the same year that Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma’s more clinically curious Psycho riff about a “transsexual” murderer, was released. That satirical thriller’s villainous Bobbi functioned as a figure of shock, but Come Back to the Five and Dime’s Joanne, also disruptive, is perhaps even more cinematically unusual. Her presence is indeed as a catalyst, inciting soul-searching among the women, but, as embodied by a never sturdier Black, Joanne also registers boldly as her own person; she radiates a strength that feels especially earned considering that her younger self, played by Mark Patton, was the image of insecure, fey fragility.” Michael Koresky argues that Altman’s innate compassion for and curiosity about all walks of humanity and his just burgeoning engagement with theatrical formalism makes 1982’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and its unapologetic admiration of a trans character’s self-worth, a key innovator in queer cinema.
“With its flashback structure, intense low-key lighting, and the rich psychological portraiture of even the smallest characters, Crossfire has the look and depth of a signature ’40s noir, but it’s really a social problem picture in drag—like a Stanley Kramer picture with style or one of those instructively anti-fascist genre films of the era such as Brute Force. Because the movie is so direct in its messaging and pleasingly two-fisted in its delivery, it’s easy to sometimes overlook the central oddness of the narrative’s inciting event. If it seems like there’s something unspoken in the circumstances around the murder—i.e., why would an unassuming man invite strange men he just met at a bar up to his apartment in the first place?—that’s because there is.” Michael Koresky’s inclusion of Crossfire in his ongoing survey of queer cinema highlights how the subject of homosexuality was so controversial it was removed in the novel’s film adaptation as the reason for the victim’s murder, yet also so resonant that the movie can’t help a gentle homoeroticism from gleaming through on occasion.
“Travel has long been one of Kaurismäki’s favorite themes. Many of his early films center on Finnish men—often alienated from society—who find a way to escape to romantic or utopian destinations, frequently by ship, as in Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Ariel (1988). But these white men, even if they are outsiders on the bottom rungs of society, still possess freedoms that most of the world lacks. Starting with Le Havre (2011) and continuing with The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki switched course by associating travel not with native Finns but with migrants who are people of color. This has been a timely and apt choice on his part, given that we are in the middle of a global displacement crisis on a scale comparable to that of World War II.” Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope is, for Girish Shambu, both something old and something new, a continuation of the director’s recent concern with race and immigration as well as a fine addition to his career-long portraits of alienation, the hardships and rewards of labor, and dogs.
New at Criterion, two highly individualized takes on genre that twist the formulas to very much their own thing. Amy Taubin sings the praises of Jarmusch’s “visionary” western Dead Man (“There are several ways to read the narrative that evolves from this setup. [….] It’s irrelevant which interpretation you prefer. Each has its own logic. What all of them point to is mortality as the preeminent existential condition of our lives. Nobody is baffled that Blake doesn’t know of his namesake, the English poet, or his work, which encourages us to acknowledge our death so that we can live fully in the present moment. Nobody encourages this in his William Blake, just as Dead Man does in the viewer.”); and Philip Kemp argues for Moonrise as Borzage’s last great testament, an infusion of his mystical optimism into the seemingly incompatible host of noir (“When a director’s basic instincts and the style in which he or she is working are at daggers drawn, the results can be disastrous—or paradoxically fruitful. Few films display this creative tension more effectively than Moonrise, the last—and some would say the best—major film directed by Borzage.”).
“But that, I think, is why I love it—why I keep returning to it. The anger, egotism, and paranoia lend themselves to a movie as rich and various as the country it’s about. The movie combines prison melodrama, domestic soap opera, ESPN-esque hype reels, and the monied aspirationalism of 90s hip-hop videos to bear on a plot that twines the moral redemption of a black American felon—and the reconciliation of a father and son—with a loaded racial critique of the commerce of basketball. It’s a sprawling but enduring snapshot of its era.” K. Austin Collins is aware how over-the-top and stacked-deck Spike Lee’s He Got Game is, but on the film’s 20th anniversary flips those flaws to strengths, a way to tear into the commerce of basketball that more “realistic” portrayals wouldn’t have managed.
The latest issue of cléo is dedicated entirely to the maker of its namesake, Agnès Varda. In addition to Kiva Reardon’s interview with the director (“Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave.”), Sarah-Tai Black rehabilitates Salut les Cubains (“… her distinct ability to explore the curiosities and intimacies of the film image is no less apparent in Salut les Cubains than in her later, more critically attended work.”); Nouran Heshem explores the gendered take on cancer in Cléo from 5 to 7 (“Varda tackles the cancer taboo by illustrating the fraught connection between illness and gender”); So Mayer places Documenteur in a career-long trope of Varda’s reflections and teasing self-portraits (“Perhaps one of Varda’s answers, then, is that she is not alone: there are other women inventing and introducing themselves as well, observing and refracting each other.”); Joseph Pomp explores Varda’s experimental series of television shorts Une minute pour une image (“Surrealist wit consorts with a spirit of wanderlust and creativity in much of Varda’s filmography.”); and Eloise Ross finds Varda reclaiming the practice of flaneur from men in her short Les dites cariatides (“At a distance and in close-up, she films “women” who hold up balconies or the façades of buildings – all who do so without visibly bearing strain in their bodies or expressions”).
“In a tradition ranging from the kitchen-sink realist films of the late ’50s and early ’60s to the contemporary works of Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold, English movies set among the working classes have tended to have fatalistic trajectories and miserabilist aesthetics, underlining their drabness to reflect their characters’ sense of hopelessness and to visually convey a lack of upward mobility. But there’s that rainbow in Beautiful Thing, and it’s unmistakable. Years before the “It Gets Better” movement, Macdonald’s film hinted at a bright future in the most cinematically improbable of places.” Michael Koresky’s survey of Queer cinema gets to 1996, Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing, and the underappreciated subversive power of joy.
“In the middle of this backstage scene, a typically Chytilován, anarchic outbreak takes place: a rebellious girl refuses to go on stage with a tulle hat that she deems horrible. At the last minute, this black hat will be put on Marta, who wears it without complaining, while her colleague is forbidden to parade. But, as we shall see, that Marta obeys here doesn’t mean she’s happy. In Chytilová’s films, each woman is irked or pleased at different things. Each woman has to find her own way to cope, resist, flee, or rebel. Each woman has to craft her own response, strategy, or escape. And there is no right decision for all, just as there is no single revolution that fits everyone.” The protagonist of Vera Chytilová’s student graduation film Ceiling, which chronicles a day in the life of a fashion model, doesn’t share the freewheeling rebelliousness of the director’s celebrated Daisies, but as Christina Álvarez López shows, she’s no less able to reclaim her agency in a world ever ready to control and punish women.
“Even those slapstick two-reelers that seem thrown together on the set by men who would never have called themselves artists were intuitively finding their way to a form. James Agee argues the case when he describes a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler directed by McCarey that was devoted almost entirely to pie-throwing: “The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh.” Replace custard pies with words—words as projectiles, soaring, tumbling, overlapping, collapsing—and you have The Awful Truth, right up to the Sennett-style chase that ushers in the ending of the film with a pileup of chaos and pure motion.” Molly Haskell offers sublime auteurist salute to Leo McCarey, finding a wealth of personal experiences, pet themes, and of course his luminous humanity folded into the effortless brilliance of The Awful Truth.
“Stahl had a style of impressive gravity that could make a melodrama serious even for those disinclined to the genre (this shows especially in the great first version of Back Street, 1932), but the full effect of melodrama as Sirk conceives it derives from a constant contrast of tones: strong effects, vivid and sometimes audacious, alternating with subtler passages that do as much to carry the flow of movie. Though much critical writing on Sirk concentrates on what might be called signature moments, where visual strategies for heightening are most evident and it is easy to readily identify his hand, what really elevates the director is the sophistication with which he conceives of the organic whole.” Concluding his two-part essay on Sirk at Universal-International, Blake Lucas highlights the many collaborators whose other work for the studio clearly showed the same talents they’d bring to Sirk’s films, and the masterly way the director orchestrated their contributions to his vision.
“Landing somewhere near the intersection of Spielberg and National Geographic, Terrence Malick and Sesame Street, Ballard’s work is hugely entertaining but exceedingly probing, sincerely engaged with reaching out to touch the world. These are films of excitement, but also of questions, of family, of environment. They are films of gentleness and intelligence. In fact, Ballard is arguably, along with Malick, one of the handful of cinematic transcendentalists currently roaming our planet, and if there’s ever been a time that needed transcendence, it’s now.” Stephen Cone sings the praises of Carroll Ballard’s films, which despite their constant pairing of man and animal are among the most humane ever made.