Wednesday, July 23, 2014

#702: The Great Beauty

(Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

It would be easy to describe The Great Beauty as Fellini with Facebook, a contemporary retelling of the grotesque modernism of Fellini's core work, most notably and obviously La Dolce Vita (finally announced as a Criterion title earlier this month). To do so, however, would marginalize the film's own merits as a commentary on modern life just as much as it would reduce modern life itself to the tools we use to navigate through it.

Certainly, there is a strange anachronistic feeling to the modern components characters wield in The Great Beauty - the music they dance to, the cars they drive, the nude photos they offer up. The film feels so much like La Dolce Vita that these details serve as an odd reminder that we are not watching something that was, but something that is. Sorrentino has made a film about a man surrounded by history: his own, his city's, his film's. It's a quintessentially Italian endeavor - perhaps even uniquely Roman - but the lessons he dwells on are universal and eternal, an idea easily reinforced by everything that has changed in the last fifty years in Rome and everything that has stayed the same.

As in La Dolce Vita (and fellow modernist masterpieces L'Avventura and Through a Glass Darkly), the best moments in The Great Beauty are in the morning after, the sleepy but clear realizations that the cycle goes on. The film is also stunningly beautiful, almost to a default, and Sorrentino says as much with his camera as he does with his script. His protagonist is an empty shell stuck at the long party, but it's a beautiful party, and the way Sorrentino seduces the viewer allows Jep's momentum to seem less pitiable, more understandable. We wait for the next rush of adrenaline, desiring our own power to ruin the party - not to use it, but to know that we have it.

The Great Beauty's success is so frequently technical and theoretical that it can be hard to interact with the text's intentions. Jep is searching for the titular prize, but isn't everyone? We believe his desires but we don't recognize anything new - in a way, this is the point of the movie, that we're all living a cycle, that modernity and society's progress is a lie to cover up the fact that we are all in tatters. They say caged animals are the only ones who have time to be depressed, and we have yet to devise a better cage for humans than that of eternal comfort. The Great Beauty might be trudging over worn territory, but there's no more terrifying prospect in modern life than getting everything you want and still feeling empty.

Friday, February 7, 2014

#694: The Long Day Closes

(Terence Davies, 1992)

Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of my favorite movies made during my lifetime, and a top request for Criterion treatment. So when The Long Day Closes was announced, I had somewhat mixed emotions: it's nice to see Davies in the collection, but I wish it was a different title above his name.

After watching The Long Day Closes, I don't feel that different. In fact, I hope people who have come to Davies because of Criterion's seal of approval would seek out Distant Voices first before seeing this movie - it's not just a better movie, but a better introduction to the artist's style and singular execution, which involves gentle camera movements, dimly lit but meticulously composed visuals, and a loose narrative held together with stark dialogue and nearly constant, mostly diagetic traditional music.

That said, this is still a beautiful movie and a worthy addition to Criterion's ranks. Rather than deal in memory and the passage of time, as much of his work does, The Long Day Closes relishes the moment, depicting a crucial point in childhood as a peaceful but stirring moment in life. It's certainly still from the point of view of the present, but Davies seems more engaged with his setting than in Distant Voices, which floats along through brutal fog and unshakable trauma. It makes the movie feel less experimental even as it expands upon the narrative theory put forth by his earlier features. This is a complex and skilled narrative that is intricately and masterfully composed.

Perhaps this is what makes it feel less alive than Distant Voices. Davies's style is at its best unhinged and dangerous, like a bloody revolution set to cleanse the country of its sins but succumbing to the ever ready truth that past is present. The Long Day Closes is at peace with itself, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that it's all a charade.

Monday, December 16, 2013

#688: Dry Summer

(Metin Erksan, 1964)

Dry Summer is my favorite film in the World Cinema boxset so far. The film features one of the great villains in Criterion - Osman is a true piece of shit, the kind of character that makes your skin crawl and wish you could climb into the movie so you could smack the shit out of him. At times I hated him so much (and he seemed so over-the-top despicable) that I felt uncomfortable watching the film. But the incredible direction and suspense of the final sequence won me over.

One of the most interesting things about the film is how Erksan is able to take a socialist premise not dissimilar to that of Redes and create a timeless morality tale laced with Hitchcockian suspense. The movie's themes are reminiscent of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, though Bogart and friends are arguably more admirable than Osman prior to the discovery of the gold, and the way in which greed and hubris overtake the respective protagonists seems guided by an invisible hand - just not the one such craven capitalists pray to. Dry Summer might not be the towering parable Huston's film is, but it is a grand statement from an under-explored corner of the cinematic globe.

Monday, November 18, 2013

#682: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

(Elio Petri, 1970)

Note: There's a chance that if you've seen a movie I'll reference I am about to ruin the ending of this movie, so if you care about that sort of thing, stop reading.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a direct precursor to American Psycho, to the degree that I'm shocked at how little this connection is discussed. Basically, the movie is to fascism what that movie was to capitalism, and it's just as biting, hilarious, and challenging intellectually. Of course, this movie came out thirty years before that one and nearly two decades before the book upon which that was based, so there's a pretty good case for the film as a cutting-edge satire ahead of its time.

Of course, the film fits perfectly into its era of Italian filmmaking, and makes a nice double feature with Marco Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead from the previous year. Both films are major send-ups of Italian masculinity, and derive much of their pleasure from the unexpected actions of their main character and how they subvert expectations of their characters. Petri's film is more immediately engaging, no doubt, because the narrative is structured in such an engaging way. I guess it's a bit like Absolute Power, where a murder is shown in great detail but we don't know who the perpetrator is until the big reveal afterwards (is that too obscure of a reference now?). Either way, it starts the film off right and sets the tone for what is one of the most entertaining recent Criterion releases - and one of the best.

Friday, November 15, 2013

#681: Frances Ha

(Noah Baumbach, 2013)

The rumblings below Criterion posts about Frances Ha on social media are reminiscent of the outright avalanche of anger unleashed with the Tiny Furniture release. In one way, this is not surprising, and even makes sense; like Tiny Furniture, Frances Ha is a contemporary film (nearly always controversial for inclusion in the Collection) about a self-absorbed New Yorker (certainly not a broad crowd pleaser of a genre).

But in a much more sinister way, the backlash is indicative of a serious strain of sexism that is very present in the film nerd community. I have little doubt that Frances Ha would receive none of the complaints that have been voiced if the film was about a male character. Likewise, the comparisons to Tiny Furniture would not seem as obvious, simply because there are tons of movies about neurotic men in New York - in fact, one of the greatest directors in our lifetimes built an entire career on them. This portion of the Criterion audience makes me very uncomfortable, especially because women filmmakers are so underrepresented in Criterion and in film in general.

I would defend Frances Ha from these attacks regardless of how I felt about the movie itself. But this is actually one of Baumbach's best movie, certainly my favorite since Squid and the Whale. Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the movie, gives the kind of performance we don't get to see anymore in Hollywood films. While I somewhat agree with the criticism that she has yet to stretch out beyond her lone persona as an actress, her work here is extremely impressive. She's in virtually every scene, and she carries the film on her back.

Although Tiny Furniture is a fair comparison, it's that other neurotic I mentioned that comes to mind first here. It's impossible to film New York in black and white and not have people immediately compare what you are trying to do to Manhattan, and the film shares many overlapping themes with that one. But ultimately Frances Ha is less of an exploration of self-absorbed lives against the backdrop of a tragicomic opera of a city and more about adulthood and letting go of what is safe to find your landing place. It doesn't always succeed, but Gerwig's performance and the brilliant dialog from her and Baumbach's sparkling script means it's constantly enjoyable and over before you want it to be.

Two notes here: great fucking cover that is perfectly evocative of what's great about the movie but also what is true to its themes and story. Really, it's perfect. Second: this movie has one of my new all-time favorite lines in "He's the kind of guy who would like buy a black leather couch and be like 'I love it.'"

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

#690: The Housemaid

(Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

The Housemaid is a strange convergence of cultures. The film is vaguely erotic but structured like a morality tale. It's got plenty of the outrageous melodrama that Korean films have come to be known for in the modern era but it also has subtle moments of psychological intrigue and complex emotion. The movie's jazz soundtrack is reminiscent of Western films of the era (Criterion movies like Elevator to the Gallows and Anatomy of a Murder spring to mind) but the aesthetic and technique of the film is notably more Asian.

All these battling elements might make for a total mess of a film, but The Housemaid is a pretty tight ship. In fact, what makes the film so good - and, I would guess, so highly regarded - isn't that it is an especially remarkable story or tells such an impressive story (really, it does neither) but simply that it's executed so well. The way the story is told is rather cunning, and I was left guessing even who the housemaid would be early in the film, and then how the husband would extricate himself from the situation as the climax approached.

One thing that is especially interesting about The Housemaid, particularly in the context of this boxset, is that the film was so clearly a product of a studio system that mirrored Hollywood. Obviously there are elements here that wouldn't work in the US (the ending standing out as a clear example), but the way the film is presented and structured is obviously professional and somewhat workmanlike, a clear style that separates studio work from something like Touki Bouki, which was so obviously the work of an artist, or Redes, which clearly developed outside of an assembly-line mentality. It's a reminder that even if the US has the towering center of commercial film, there are plenty of studios spread out across the globe that are producing film with the same balancing act between art and commerce. Often one can learn just as much about a culture from what they produce when money is on the line than from what they do for the love of it. The Housemaid is an excellent example of this, and it makes a fine addition to the Collection and this box.

Friday, November 8, 2013

#685: Touki Bouki

(Djibril Diop Mamb├ęty, 1973)

The second of two African films in the Martin Scorsese World Cinema collection, Touki Bouki is also the more innovative and foreign in the truest sense of the word. Mambety's style is both elemental and post-modern, indebted to Soviet cinema of the 50s as much as Goddard movies of the 60s. It's also a bit of a slog at home, where it was never meant to be seen.

The story revolves around two Senegalese youngsters who dream of a new life in Paris but seem stuck repeating silly mistakes in their home country. The details of the story are of little concern, and what sticks out in Touki Bouki are the surreal fantasy sequences and the grounded portrayal of Senegal. Both are given equal weight and yet never forced on the viewer - this is a movie only a native could make, the difference between Charles Burnett - a virtual native of Los Angeles - producing Killer of Sheep and Billy Wilder making Double Indemnity. It's not just the subject matters and social intentions that separate those two approaches to a place, and Touki Bouki follows the in-the-know pattern. This is one major place where it separates from its obvious spiritual cousin, Breathless, which is not especially tied to Paris (though this seems quite intentional by Goddard). It's these casual portrayals of Senegal that are most appealing about the film, but the use of sound and visual cues in rhythmic editing from Mabety run a close second, and make the case for the film as one of the more innovative of the 70s.

The problem with the movie, however, is that it's dreadfully slow. There are long stretches without dialogue, the plot is minimal, and you never really get involved with any of the characters beyond a surface level. Considering the talent on display here, my guess is that the experience of seeing the film on the big screen would be notably more enjoyable, and I'd be less likely to drift in and out of the film's current.