Wednesday, February 3, 2016

#809: Phoenix

(Christian Petzold, 2014)

Phoenix is Vertigo in the Holocaust, where obsession is replaced with devastating loss of self. The protagonist, disfigured beyond recognition in the final moments of the concentration camps, struggles to restore her previous identity, finally finding her voice in the destruction of her former life. Like its vaunted ancestor, the plot is contrived, the metaphors obvious, but the film is executed with such taut skill and precision that it's impossible to avoid being sucked into its world. This is one of the great films of the 2010s.

It would be difficult and ill-advised to discuss Phoenix and not mention The Best Movie Ever Made. The scene where Nelly tries on her dress (which her husband does not know is her dress), desperate for him to recognize the truth and accept her as she truly is instead of searching for a ghost, has an odd funhouse quality to it because we as viewers are watching a film behaving like another film. We see echoes of the past in this present viewing, and Nelly's longing (and the shadow of death) is deepened by the connection.

Post-war Berlin is of course not 50s San Francisco, and Johnny does not have the conflicted psychosis of Scottie (though note the similarities between the two names). But there are more significant differences between the two films than the setting and reverse quality of the secrets being kept. For one, if Phoenix mirrors Vertigo then we only get one side of the first film's mirror - we never see Nelly and Johnny married and happy before Nelly is taken (even in flashback, which would have been an extremely easy and expected device for a less mature filmmaker to use here). If the second half of Vertigo is an extension of the fever dream Scottie has before being committed, then Phoenix is all fever dream, a theory extended onto Criterion's beautiful cover where Nelly emerges from what is either train smoke or the wreckage of Berlin, haunted by (or haunting) the nightclub where she encounters her husband.

Just as the structure diverges, so too does the central mystery. Nelly does not hesitate to unload her identity because of a crime committed, but because she is afraid her husband will not accept her (because she does not accept herself). In both films, it is a secret being kept by the woman that keeps the couple apart, but in Phoenix the betrayal is being kept by the man. These comparisons could continue long after they have outlived their usefulness, and Phoenix ultimately needs to be taken on its own. In this regard, the film's central connection to the Holocaust is most notable.

Obviously the Holocaust is well-worn territory for film in general and specifically within the Collection. Just as American music as both an artform and a cultural signifier is fundamentally tied to slavery and its aftereffects, I don't think it's unreasonable to link European film after World War II to the Holocaust as the towering and defining historical event that the artform is forced to grapple with. Phoenix manages to deliver a story unlike most (though The Night Porter came to mind) but the various details seemed overly plotted. The idea that her husband would betray her, she would survive but in unrecognizable form, though close enough to lead her husband to think it was conceivable that their friends would think it was her after she tracks him down and calls out his name and he doesn't put two and two together seems almost ludicrous. Yet this convoluted logic hardly matters when Nelly is standing across from her husband who has no idea that she is the woman he is teaching her to become. The beautiful rubble of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the war gives the film a post-apocalyptic vibe. In fact, the movie has an odd science fiction feel to it, as if the world has been fabricated around it. When Nelly returns to a bench she used to linger on with her husband, he quickly pulls her out of the fantasy back into this fabricated fever dream of a world. She must never stray back into reality, at least while he has her under his spell.

Phoenix works on its own as both a literal story of survival and a metaphor for the larger guilt both survivor and perpetrator felt in the aftermath of the war. It's noteworthy that the film never shows any actual Nazis, it even makes a point of mentioning that the landlady where Nelly finds an apartment never liked them. This isn't a movie about the enemy of World War II, but about the collateral damage inflicted on Germany. It's also a way of exploring a deeper and more universal sense of self, however, and this is where the film becomes most intense and overwhelming to watch.

The final scene is the one that everyone talks about - it's even mentioned in the brief description of the film on Criterion's listing. It's a scene deep with symbolism and unspoken emotion. It comes as unexpectedly as it goes and hits you hard in the gut. It absolutely wrecked me for about 24 hours. Yet it's also cathartic, a final release from the intensity and heartbreak of the previous ninety minutes. This one scene makes the film worthy of its praise, but the moment would not be nearly as effective if the rest of the movie wasn't so hypnotic and haunting. Phoenix and its central figure appear in the night, still cloaked in the smoke of the greatest crime of the 20th century, and before you are able to wrap your mind around them they are gone.

Monday, February 1, 2016

#728: Sundays and Cybèle

(Serge Bourguignon, 1962)

How you feel about Sundays and Cybele is going to depend largely on how you feel about the central relationship. Is the love expressed between Pierre and Cybele innocent and harmless, or is it exploitative and dangerous? Even if it is innocent, does this whitewashed portrayal of a platonic love affair between a 30-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl represent a disingenuous case for allaying suspicion in real-life cases that may include actual abuse? Bourguignon's adaptation of the novel makes this even more complex - in the book, Pierre's history is a violent criminal past that pops up frequently in the present, while the film gives Pierre a guilty-but-not-guilty memory of an accident where he killed a young girl in the heat of battle. Though his violence comes up here, too, it's portrayed as an after-effect of his trauma, and sadly the moment in which he hits his girlfriend was not the immediate character condemnation it would be today when the film was released in 1962. This leaves the viewer with a less complicated Pierre, one whose sole purpose seems to be to protect Cybele, whereas the book's Cybele seems like more of a metaphor for Pierre's innocence, which he is constantly at risk of destroying. It doesn't seem too different from adapting Lolita and making Humbert a savior who rescues Lolita from an empty and lost existence.

The politics of the film make it difficult to love, but within its own universe, this is a wonderful movie. The cinematography by the legendary Henri Decae is absolutely gorgeous and Criterion's transfer makes it look like it was shot last year. The performances are great, too, especially the young Patricia Gozzi, who delivers her precocious dialogue with maximum believability. The success of the movie rests on this fact, because the more you accept that she is a willing and aware participant in the relationship, the easier it is to take the film as what it wants to be. Pierre's depression and abandonment demands a motherly touch, not a girlfriend's, and Cybele provides this to him. Nowhere in the film does Bourguignon sexualize Cybele - even when Bernard learns of the relationship, he is more concerned with Pierre killing her to alleviate his guilt about the woman he killed than he is with rape or sexual abuse. When Cybele talks of marriage, it is of cooking and cleaning, not the consummation that comes with it, and in fact it is Madeleine who is sexualized, as we meet her in bed and watch her bare back as she dresses. This is not to forgive the film's portrayal of the relationship, but to acknowledge that the movie believes in its innocence and advocates for the purity of its lead characters.

From a plotting perspective, the most deliberate choices here come at the beginning and the end. The way Pierre's accident and fate are presented leave plenty to the viewer's imagination. Each is certainly an unconventional way to deliver the information, and using Madeleine to deliver the crucial final information is decidedly anti-climactic. But there's a certain inevitability to Pierre's death that comes with occurring off-screen, as if he was dead all along or at the very least was destined to die. If we had seen the shootout, the suspense of the film would have easily overwhelmed the tragedy. Perhaps more interestingly, the viewer will never know if the police were actually right to kill Pierre - perhaps Bernard was right after all and this Christmas recreation was merely his final gift to the doomed little girl who had wandered unsuspectingly into his catharsis.

Sundays and Cybele was Bourguignon's first feature, and it's always interesting to watch a successful debut (this movie won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars) from a director that didn't end up amounting to much. There are plenty of flashes of style here, but the care with which Bourguignon treats his characters and his camera's gentle movement are the most noteworthy marks of his skill. Though most filmmakers who make their best movie first end up amassing a reasonable career filmography that can range from terrible to often pretty good, few flame out as gloriously as Bourguignon, whose film directing career didn't make it out of the 60s. It's great to have this in the Collection, then, looking gorgeous and preserved for future film buffs. Although the morals/politics of the film make it a difficult one to recommend to everyone, it's a haunting and complex work that should be seen, and a nice New Wave-parallel entry from a time when France's cinematic potential seemed limitless.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

#735: Ride in the Whirlwind

(Monte Hellman, 1966)

Where The Shooting used simplicity to deliver an existential Western unlike any other in its genre, Ride in the Whirlwind uses simplicity to deliver... a really simple Western. This doesn't automatically render the film ineffective - in fact, this is actually a pretty good movie with a stripped down concept that might be even more entertaining than its companion piece. But it does make this a merely solid low budget genre pic where The Shooting was a unique and borderline classic Western that's unlike anything else.

It should be noted that The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, who would go on to write Five Easy Pieces (and wrote the English dialogue for Model Shop, Demy's American sequel to Lola - Unexpected Criterion Crossover Alert!) while Ride in the Whirlwind was written by Jack Nicholson, famed writer of Drive, He Said (OK, he also wrote Head, which is great, but hardly deep). So it's not necessarily surprising that The Shooting would be more impressive, though it's kind of amazing when you consider the fact that almost everything else about the two films is identical, from location and cast to director and time of production. Hellman certainly does a great job on both, but the significance of his moody style varies with subject and structure.

While The Shooting is significantly more worthy of inclusion in the Criterion Collection, it makes total sense that the two films would be grouped together - really there's no way to separate them, and it's arguable that The Shooting is less valuable without being attached to the second film Hellman and company made in the desert. That said, Ride in the Whirlwind is a movie to be watched and filed away, whereas The Shooting is one for the ages.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

#721: Love Streams

(John Cassavetes, 1984)

One of the hardest things I had to get over in my initial burst of activity in this journey was making assumptions about a film based on prior films by directors I was less than enthusiastic about. Staring at 10 Ozu or Fassbinder films and assuming they would all be boring or distasteful (respectively) was not going to allow me to open my mind to an individual piece of art and experience it with a fresh perspective. This would inevitably take me down the path to viewing my watching habits as a chore to be completed. Avoiding this pitfall has paid dividends, particularly when looking at the two directors mentioned above - Ozu is now one of my most loved directors, and while I may have a more, ahem, complicated relationship with Fassbinder, a few of his films have been spectacular cinematic experiences I will treasure.

Still, this isn't always easy, and it gets progressively harder the deeper into a filmmaker's Criterion catalog you get. After having a fairly mixed response to the Cassavetes box, when Love Streams popped up as a Criterion release I couldn't help but think "dammit." This is especially true because of the nature of the film. As I mentioned in my post on Une chambre en ville, many Criterion films from the 80s are late-era works by the established masters of 50s and 60s cinema, and many of them are not particularly good when viewed outside the context of their respective director's oeuvre. So knowing that I didn't like Cassavetes too much and seeing that Love Streams was a lesser-known later work from the director made me quite wary. It immediately seemed like a token release only for the fans, a movie that wouldn't belong in the Collection without the name above the title. I sat down to endure it and file it away on the blog.

I was totally wrong. Not only do I think Love Streams is deserving of its place in the Collection, I think it's one of the best Cassavetes films, and it's the one that I loved the most. What's most interesting about my reaction is that this is most definitively A Cassavetes Film, with verite-style camera work, craft-heavy performances, and deliberate pacing. It's also got all the raw drama and broken characters of his more high-profile work from the 60s and 70s. Yet the movie never seems like an exercise in character craft the way even his strongest early films like Faces do. This is a fully formed world Cassavetes reveals, and the fact that the movie is based on a play would be difficult to pull out of what we see (apparently it was heavily rewritten by Cassavetes). Rowlands in particular, one of the great underrated actresses of her generation, inhabits her role so seemingly effortlessly that you hardly remember you are watching a performance. The way Cassavetes shoots her only underscores this impressive feat - look at the shot they used for the cover, the way he frames her in between the composed background and the harsh imposing foreground, squeezed into a folding chair. Her brother is reaching out to her but we can only see his hand - the camera doesn't move to reveal him, but instead lingers in this middle-ground emptiness for the length of the shot. Nothing about the way Cassavetes does this is overbearing or even necessarily prominent, yet it is deliberately present. This is filmmaking of the highest order.

Although it doesn't get to the core of what I loved about the film, the most striking thing about watching the first half hour of the movie was how much it reminded me of Boogie Nights. Despite the fact that this film wasn't available for large stretches of its afterlife, I have little doubt that PTA saw the movie and examined it for style and rhythm. The most obvious comparison is the custody scene, which PTA seems to have lifted almost directly from this movie, but Rowlands in general must have had an impact on Amber, Julianne Moore's character in Boogie Nights, and Cassavetes also seems like a direct influence on the Burt Reynolds character. Similarly, the way Cassavetes pities his characters while following them unflinchingly into their emotional depths and living with them there is the most impressive achievement of Boogie Nights (and PTA's early career in general). The characters that Cassavetes and Rowlands portray here are not good people, but they are people, real and breathing and fighting for life.

Boogie Nights, of course, is packed with flashy cinematic flourishes and modern ideas about editing, music use, and dialog. Love Streams is a much quieter and more confident picture. Part of this contrast is that one film was made at the beginning of a career, the other at the end. But most of it is the way in which the two directors work. I am a big fan of PTA, and I think the last three movies he's made will eventually have a stronger reputation than any of the first four. But he's a director that is constantly crafting a movie. He wants you to know it's a movie, partially because he wants you to see all the things he's doing, but mostly because he really likes movies. Why not make your movie a movie?

Cassavetes doesn't particularly care for movies. He's a filmmaker almost incidentally, because it's the pen he uses to craft his work. Just as he carried on his acting career to support his filmmaking, his filmmaking is there to support his worlds. What's most important to him is his characters and their inner-journeys, and finally how this reflects back onto our own inner-lives. I think this is a big part of why I didn't immediately identify with his films (I'm a movies guy, fyi) but here with his craft so refined and spare it doesn't keep me at so much of a distance. There is plenty of heartbreak in Love Streams, but the way Cassavetes lets his characters breathe assures us that they will live to fight again.

There's always a lot of consternation on the internet about projects like mine. "Gosh darnit, movies shouldn't be a mission to complete!" etc. There's probably something to that, and it certainly isn't for everybody. But with an infinite number of films available (especially these days with streaming), picking a curated set of movies and forcing yourself to take in each and every one means you will inevitably watch a large number of movies you would never otherwise watch. Many of these movies will end up being ones you never should have watched after all (Salo and The Magic Flute come to mind in my own journey, for entirely separate reasons). But a handful will change the way you look at movies, and over the course of a journey it will change the way you look at watching movies. Love Streams reveals for me personally that even after nearly 800 of these films I still have things to discover and learn in the most unexpected places. I'm eternally grateful to Criterion for that, and whether you are doing what I'm doing or pick whatever you're in the mood for tonight, I hope you make an effort somewhere in your artistic consumption to force yourself out of your comfort zone.

Monday, January 25, 2016

#734: The Shooting

(Monte Hellman, 1966)

The Shooting is about the Kennedy assassination, which seems to me to be like saying the fish is about the '88 Olympics. Don't let this mystical analogy bother you, though, because this is a fine, unique Western that fits nicely into the Collection. Monte Hellman (who also made the cult-classic Two-Lane Blacktop) made the two Westerns in this collection back-to-back (they received individual spine numbers, and so will get individual posts) in 1966. Interestingly, neither received a wide theatrical release - they were bought out of festivals by a company that put them on television, which was the only place to see them until home video.

I haven't watched Ride in the Whirlwind yet, but I found The Shooting to be incredibly engrossing. The mystery at the center of it starts slowly and the simplicity of the plot is deceiving (there are only really four characters in the film, and they all maintain more or less the same purpose throughout the film with minimal evolution). But once it gets going it's quite suspenseful and tightly constructed.

The cast is also surprisingly strong for such a small production. Jack Nicholson, who had been working for ten years by then but was still three years away from his breakthrough role in Easy Rider, is the most famous actor in the small cast, and he plays his menacing but removed hitman with a mythic quality. Millie Perkins doesn't get much to do, but she delivers a sort of spoiled obstinance that in retrospect becomes determined obsession. But the film rests on Warren Oates's performance. Though he found reasonable success as a character actor before his early death, Oates had the charisma and screen persona of a Western star. If he had been born a few decades earlier I think he would have been huge, but it's nice to have this film to preserve his potential.

Although I'm ultimately at a loss to make the connection between the film and the Kennedy assassination, I find the surreal existential qualities of the ending (and what it means for the rest of the film) to be appealing in a Waiting for Godot sort of way. The film's deliberate march toward the final showdown turns it into a minimalist Western that transcends the cliches of the genre by consciously avoiding anything resembling a conventional story. It's not the masterpiece that similar deconstructionist Westerns were around the same era like The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it is a nice complement to those films and deserves its place in the Collection as a crucial facet of the original film genre.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

#767: My Beautiful Laundrette

(Stephen Frears, 1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette has been on my "to-watch" list since I was 14 or so and first fell in love with The Grifters, still my favorite Stephen Frears film. I'm not sure why I never got around to it, although it may have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge Daniel Day Lewis fan (I know) and the idea of a movie about a laundrette in Thatcher's England doesn't exactly scream "Party!" Regardless, I was pleased to see it pop up on the Criterion release schedule, as I was once again compelled to finally get around to one of those movies you never seem to get around to.

Frears is a craftsman director, someone at his best when the underlying quality - script, performances, source material - is there. He does a great job of not screwing up what shouldn't be screwed up - The Grifters comes from a great book with perfect casting and a tight script, for example. The Queen gets by entirely on the backs of Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen, who are both impeccable in a largely forgettable film. Dangerous Liasons belongs to John Malkovich. But his worst films are bad because he is unable to transcend the mediocre qualities that are already present at conception: Mary Reilly puts Julia Roberts in a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde alternate telling. The Program takes a true story with Shakespearean potential and turns it into an HBO docudrama. Everything about Lay the Favorite.

My Beautiful Laundrette is one of the good ones because the script puts us in a world that is so fascinating and little seen. 80s London is a setting rich in potential for drama (or comedy for that matter), and the film weaves together a broad range of people to play in that world. The story touches on class, sexuality, crime, politics, family, immigration, and coming of age - there are probably five separate movies in here that have been mashed into one. It holds together, though, because it paints the world so vividly that none of the notes seem false or forced where they don't belong. Frears is the perfect kind of director for this material because he only brings as much style and interpretation to his films as the work demands, and here he mostly lets the two leads grab on and steer us through the storm.

Of course, Daniel Day Lewis is the most notable cast member here, and arguably the most notable thing about the movie. He does well, though the movie is really Omar's, and it's mostly an impressive performance because we know both how he is in real life and how he comes across in other roles. I wish there was less smugness to the way he plays Johnny here, but I appreciate his dedication to the accent.

This is a movie that belongs in the Collection, even if it's not a classic or near classic, because it's unique in both setting and subject and helped trigger a whole host of similar films in the next fifteen years (interestingly, this is the first Working Title film). As a quirky character study, it sits nicely next to the Mike Leigh and Aki Kaurismäki films in the Collection, though both are significantly more of an artist than Frears. But the added political and social context makes it stand alone.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

#713: Essential Jacques Demy

(Jacques Demy, 1961-1982)

Halfway through watching the films from The Essential Jacques Demy this fall, and despite the fact that all six main films in the box are available on Hulu, I bought the set. I did this partially because I got a great deal (40 bucks through a B&N eBay malfunction) but mostly because I wanted to see the rest of the movies in HD, particularly The Young Girls of Roquefort, and I was interested in the Varda extras. As much as I like Demy, I like Varda significantly more, so getting the chance to see a few documentaries by the filmmaker was an added bonus to owning Umbrellas on blu.

After watching the whole set, I'm very glad I made the purchase. I'm looking forward to making my way through the extras on each disc, but most importantly I know I'll revisit at least three of these movies: Lola is an early New Wave masterpiece that balances many of the great forward-thinking concepts at the heart of the movement with an entirely different kind of tone and life philosophy. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which I've seen a handful of times years ago - including once on the big screen!) is one of the great French films of the 1960s and perhaps one of the best musicals of all time. And finally, The Young Girls of Roquefort is a visual and musical delight, a great movie to watch with the subtitles off.

All Criterion boxsets belong to one of three categories: a complete filmography of a director, a trilogy or series of films tied together with one story, style, or theme, or a random assortment of films by one filmmaker. This Demy set belongs to the latter group, but unlike 3 Films by Malle or 4 By Varda, this is the only set to be titled The Essential. Considering the fact that the set contains a little less than half of the director's feature output, it's worth noting this title and wondering about the process by which they decided on these specific films. Obviously, the only glaring omission here is Model Shop, which is a somewhat sequel to Lola. Although the film is likely tied up in rights (it's out of print on DVD at the moment) it's also difficult to see that film's English-language, Los Angeles-set, Hollywood hippie vibe meshing well with the rest of this box, sequel or no. The rest of Demy's catalog lacks a film that would merit any serious objection to the labeling of this box as "essential" - if anything, there are a number of film nerds out there who would argue there are too many movies in this set.

It's very possible that Model Shop or perhaps one of Demy's 70s films could make their way to the Collection someday, but for now this set does seem like truth in advertising and it's nice to have gotten all of the films in one fell swoop instead of parceled out like Chaplin or Lloyd (though there are other obvious reasons - legal or not - for them to be more judicious with those releases). Because Demy's films were light and even in tragedy or melodrama lacked the thematic heft of his fellow Frenchmen (or even his French wife), they were often forgotten. This set feels like it rights that wrong with admirable style and efficiency.

Links to individual reviews:

714. Lola
715. Bay of Angels
716. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
717. The Young Girls of Rochefort
718. Donkey Skin
719. Une chambre en ville