Monday, December 31, 2012

#406: Martha Graham: Dance on Film

(Nathan Kroll, 1957-1961)

Watching Martha Graham's works filmed here, Appalachian Spring and Night Journey, before I watched the documentary made first, A Dancer's Life, might have made me dismiss them as something I wasn't very interested in. Even watching these TV shows in chronological order (though the plays themselves are actually from the 40s), I was most taken by the behind-the-scenes look. But having been introduced to the process these dancers went through, their performances were really something very special. Although - similar to my feelings about other stage work - I'm not much of a dance enthusiast, there is a hypnotic rhythm to watching a dancer perform that is unlike any other artform - even singing. It might be the freest form of expression there is - which makes watching someone perform it at times almost as exhilarating.

What most struck me about these films was the time period they came out of. This was the 1950s, the supposed land of conformism. These are our grandparents now, the ones who led an artist's life when being an artist wasn't just another form of commodification, but an active rebellion against the social norms. Sure, being a modern dancer today requires a certain level of sacrifice - mainly because of how many people want to do it and how difficult it is to succeed. But in the 1950s, there wasn't a stepping stone to mainstream acceptance for these dancers. Yes, Graham danced at the White House and the company toured all over the world. But this was a pioneering accomplishment, one that led to the eventual embracing of modern dance within the mainstream art world. I'm not saying that there aren't artists today that challenge our assumptions or work against the mainstream. Rather, I think the very nature of becoming an artist was once social rebellion, but no longer.

Graham's two pieces here are quite impressive. The movement and stark, minimal stage design is immediately modernist, but the pure emotion of both the performances and the music prevent it from feeling dated. Though modern dance has obviously moved even further away from ballet than what is seen here (something Criterion is making more apparent by releasing Pina), this work still feels hyper-relevant and revelatory. Of the two pieces, I definitely liked Appalachian Spring more, both because of Copeland's now-classic score and the lighter (relatively) touch of the story and dancing.

The disc in general is impeccably put-together. Along with the three collaborations Graham did with Kroll, there are a host of extras, most impressively a documentary on Martha Graham made for American Masters and modern-day interviews with many of the dancers who are featured in the films. These people have excellent insights and are a joy to listen to, but they are primarily a reminder of how happy you can be when you follow your bliss. Their demeanors and general nature make it totally apparent. I'm not the audience for this set, so if I can get wrapped up in what's happening, I feel pretty confident that anyone with a passing interest in dance would be enthralled by this underrated and forgotten spine number.

#649: Ministry of Fear

(Fritz Lang, 1944)

Hot damn, what a fun piece of top-notch pop art this movie is! I had actually never heard of this film before Criterion announced it, and had always assumed The Big Heat was Lang's best film after coming to America. But this is some Nazi-fighting, spy-loving goodness. Lang does his best Hitchcock impersonation as an average guy gets mistaken for a Nazi spy, throwing his life into disarray. There are some really beautiful touches here - not just the obvious ones like the cake and the trademark Lang lighting, but great stuff like dialing the phone with the scissors (a prop that's used in three amazing ways within a matter of minutes) and the artfully designed seance scene.

Though I wouldn't go so far as to say this approaches the near perfection of The Lady Vanishes, I actually liked it quite a bit more than Night Train to Munich, a much better-known film. As I pointed out in my comments on the latter film, the entire idea of an adventure movie being made during World War II about the war is simply not something that would happen now. (There was obviously a little bit of it in the Cold War, but these battles were entirely fabricated, often coming not from the Soviet leadership but from rogue villains, making the appeal less immediate.) This is partially because we have moved beyond conventional propaganda being an effective tool, but it's also a product of the grey wars that have been fought over the last sixty years, making a cut and dry villain much less believable. But there's something simplistically pleasurable about the concept, even if we know it's reductionist, and as Tarantino showed with Inglorious Basterds, there's nothing that can get a crowd going like mowing down some Nazis.

I've strayed from the film a bit here, which relies much more on human-level intrigue and suspense than political machinations or war-time stakes. Lang's success with Ministry of Fear is to wrap you up in his protagonist's journey (an achievement made even more impressive by the fact that his lead is Ray Milland, one of the more mediocre stars of the 40s) and keep you constantly excited about where it will go next. Do not let this one pass you by when it's released.

#652: Monsieur Verdoux

(Charles Chaplin, 1947)

This late-era Chaplin is a bit of an odd beast. The star/director plays a typical anti-hero, the refined and principled murderer, making it a much darker film than he is best known for (of course, The Great Dictator is fairly bleak). It's also simply not as funny, entertaining, or biting as the similar serial killer movie from across the pond made a few years later, Kind Hearts and Coronets. But the movie manages to hold together, mainly thanks to Chaplin's performance, which the film was destined to live or die on anyway seeing as he takes up the vast majority of the film.

I've never been a huge Chaplin fan, but the recent spate of his films in Collection is still welcomed. Monsieur Verdoux is the least well-known of the four films - with good reason, since it's also easily the most forgettable and least impressive. That being said, late-era Chaplin is often forgotten, and the director's importance in history means giving these films a higher profile is worthwhile.

In truth, I'm probably underselling the movie - it really is a lot of fun. But if you are expecting another Chaplin classic, you might be disappointed. And if dark humor is your thing, I'd urge you to pick up Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Friday, December 21, 2012

#481: Made in U.S.A.

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Some thoughts on Godard upon my viewing of Made in U.S.A., the last of his films in the Collection that I had yet to see:

-- Has anyone ever cared about the story in a Godard film? I mean, sure, you can get wrapped up in the human dynamics of Contempt or the love story in Breathless. But the movies seem so far separated from reality that I have a hard time believing anyone could take enough time inside of the world of the film to forget you are watching a movie and get wrapped up in what is happening. I don't know that I've ever really cared much for his characters, either. This might make his movies hollow - and they certainly would be in the hands of any other director. But Godard has a way of turning this weakness into a strength, and even a genre film like Made in U.S.A. feels constantly fresh rather than confusing and dull.

--Is it impossible to appreciate Godard's films outside of their cultural context? This is especially aimed at his work from the 60s and 70s, particularly his work where things like Vietnam and the student protests in France began to seep into his work. But Godard's early career wasn't just about politics, and his modernist twists on film were as much comments, perhaps love letters, to earlier work. WIthout knowing that work - which would have been much harder for people seeing the films in their initial release - the movies would certainly seem even more strange than they already are. Does this make Godard and weaker or a stronger director? The answer seems to depend on how deeply you value standalone work and how open you are to criticism and cultural reappropriation in your movies. There is no definite answer as to its value, but I do think appreciating his films without any context would not only be difficult, but missing the point.

-- At one point in Made in U.S.A., Godard's semi-ode to the jumbled American noir he loved so much, his muse Anna Karina tells someone, "You can fool the movie audience, but you can't fool me." How tired this line would be today, yet how invigorating it is to see it in 1966! Jokes like this are everywhere in Godard's work throughout the 60s, and it's hard to tell how seriously he took a joke like this (and by extension how seriously he took his films). Much of this comes down to intention, something difficult to pin down with the elusive Godard. I don't think anyone would argue that Godard wasn't an ambitious filmmaker, but his tour through genres and consistent self-commentary makes him look a lot more like an intellectual explorer than a self-serious filmmaker. A referential line like that serves as a cultural in-joke, which takes you out of the movie somewhat, just as its structure and sentiment echo countless lines from the genre pics with which the film claims to belong.

-- Sometimes it can be funny how highly regarded Godard is when his films are so impish and slight in tone. Compared to similarly towering figures like Tarkovsky or Kurosawa, the director seems like a teenager lashing out at mom and dad - albeit an extremely talented teenager. Of course, it could certainly be argued that despite his sly side Godard was more sophisticated and complex than either one of those two filmmakers. In fact, the way he chooses to present his movies often seems designed to challenge the way we watch movies - he's more Brakhage than Hawks, even when going brightly noir. It's what makes his movies so significant, both technically and philosophically.

-- I read a great piece recently about the Godard paradox - the idea that his movies are inherently of their time, infused with references to the past, but constantly looking towards the future. But interestingly enough, what it immediately reminded me of was commercials. It's a format that is constantly addressing the future (i.e. when you finally get the product), which roots it in the present. This comparison becomes even more relevant when considering Godard's use of typography and graphics. I'm not sure where this leads - it's just a thought I had about his work.

-- Having seen 15 or 20 of Godard's films at this point, it's hard to think of another filmmaker that has generated such different reactions depending on the film (I'm excepting hacks like Rob Reiner and Barry Sonnenfeld, who have stumbled into classics but mostly make garbage). Rather than lower my opinion of the director, it makes me like him even more. I doubt Godard, ever the provocateur, would have it any other way.


#184: By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One

(Stan Brakhage, 1954-2001)

By Brakhage is, depending on your definition of "experimental," the highest profile experimental release in the Collection. Putting aside the dissection of definition, the set's broad range of styles and subjects makes it one of the most interesting and different spine numbers in the Collection. This wouldn't mean much if the films themselves weren't fascinating, but they are truly unique and invigorating. This is not a collection for everyone, to be sure, but for those who are open to it, there are few better discoveries in all of Criteriondom.

To be sure, there is a lot here I couldn't wrap my head around. The long piece is Dog Star Man, which I found somewhat boring and oblique. And some of the earlier films like Desistfilm and Cat's Cradle seemed more like interesting, um, experiments, than fully formed artistic statements. But Brakhage's later, intensely abstract work is beautiful, hypnotic, and hugely influential - The Dante Quartet and Black Ice in particular are stunners.

The film here that really blew me away though was Window Water Baby Moving, about the birth of his first child. Interestingly, the film was heavily criticized by feminists and other avant filmmakers at the time for coopting a uniquely feminine process. Without knowing this background going in, I had a completely different experience, and can say without a doubt that this film is the closest I've ever seen to my experience of being present when my son was born. After having read a little bit about the background of the film, I have some objections with how it was made, but the finished product is so moving and realistic that I think every dad should see it.

by Brakhage is an invaluable entry in the Criterion Collection because it shines a light on a thriving and hugely influential galaxy in the film universe that is often overlooked. Unlike animation, the only major arm of the medium that is totally absent from the Collection, avant garde film does not have a higher profile elsewhere in home video, where the work can be preserved and receive a high profile. That makes a release like this so important - there are probably thousands and thousands of people who have watched a Brakhage film for the first time simply because of Criterion, including myself. I'm grateful to have been exposed to this kind of a visionary, even if - or more likely especially if - his work is so far removed from the film I typically value.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

#646: The Kid With a Bike

(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, 2011)

I wouldn't necessarily say that The Kid With a Bike, the latest film from the Dardennes brothers, is better than Rosetta, certainly the most highly praised of their three movies in the collection. But this one is my favorite nevertheless, mainly because it moved me more than any movie I've watched recently.

I think a big part of the reason the film affected me so much is my personal situation. Fortunately, I have never had anywhere near the problems Cyril has had, and my son will hopefully grow up comfortable in the knowledge that his father will always be there for him. But because I have a young son, I identified so strongly with Cyril that I saw my son in him - even if he is 10 years older than him and half a world away. On its surface, The Kid With a Bike is about the need for the love of a father, and seeing a boy come to grips with his rejection was no different than watching a young boy being hurt or even killed - its impact was this visceral.

The Kid With a Bike is in a deeper sense a guide through Raising Cain, an exploration of the process of a boy discovering his emotions and struggling to express them in a broken society. It's not just Cyril that struggles with it here - there's also the criminal who befriends him, Samantha's boyfriend who must stick up for his honor to a young boy, and finally the son of the newspaper man that Cyril attacked. The men in The Kid With a Bike paint a dim portrait of masculinity and self-esteem. It might be said that Samantha saves Cyril from this cycle of violence and neglect, but I prefer to think Cyril saves himself. One of the most striking moments in the film comes after Cyril has attempted to give the money to his father, who has - perhaps reluctantly - rejected it. As he bikes home in silence, the camera tracks alongside him and we begin to understand his turning point has come - he's ready to accept Samantha's love over the chance to prove himself as a man.

One thing I really love about the Dardennes's films is how accessible they are. These are heavy, deeply textured films that require emotional strength and challenge assumptions about humanity. But they are also tightly constructed, economical in both plotting and direction, and thematically focused. It makes them a pleasure to watch even though they are intense and occasionally exhausting. A non-Criterion title, The Son, is often cited as their best film - I've almost watched it for years now, but after seeing the films in the collection, I'm really looking forward to grabbing the three films they made in the 00s and getting wrapped up in the lives of the vivid characters they create.

Update: I just realized how much this movie reminded me of an article that came out a few months ago on the DC Sniper. Obviously no comparison in terms of what Cyril is asked to do - and it's only one of the many dynamics in the movie - but it's a fascinating read and speaks to the male psyche at a young age.

Monday, December 17, 2012

#456: The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

(Roberto Rossellini, 1966)

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV was originally made for television, which would make a lot of sense today, but seems less logical in 1966. Indeed, this is the kind of nuanced, detailed drama that has begun to thrive on television in America post-Sopranos - it might be better than The Tudors or The Borgias, but it's not far off in intention or execution.

This might be seen as condemnation of the film, and it certainly prevents it from rising to the level of Rossellini's earlier masterpieces. But TV is so good these days (or at least good TV is) that it's hardly the mediocre dying grounds it used to be, and that this film would fit in with the best is a testament to its intelligence and entertainment value. It's also a pretty interesting history lesson and philosophical exploration of power and its virtues and vices. This is slight work, to be sure, but it happens to be really really well made slight work that has a deeper message that shouldn't be overlooked.

#577: Cul-de-sac

(Roman Polanski, 1966)

I've been thinking a lot about Cul-de-sac ever since I saw it, which was a few weeks ago (I'm a bit behind on posts). It's certainly a remarkable piece of filmmaking from a young director who would go on to make a handful of great movies and one masterpiece (Chinatown). The problem is I don't really like what the movie is saying. I hesitate to make the comparison, both because it is obvious and too damning-by-association by a longshot, but the film's closest relative is Straw Dogs both in story and general approach to the human condition. It's not as purely despicable as that film, but in some ways it's more misguided.

The most obvious difference between the two films is that the couple here has their intruders forced upon them, but the two crucial dynamics are the same. The two men here represent masculinity and intellectualism, while the woman is the jealous, manipulative bitch all directors apparently believe them to be. Thankfully, Polanski avoids the sexual violence of Straw Dogs - she ain't this criminal's type, after all - but he still manages to inject plenty of pseudo-psycho homophobia and sexism into the proceedings. The film lacks the complex and elemental appeal of Polanski's vaguely similar Knife on the Water in this regard, and this is what makes it lean more towards the brusque garishness of Straw Dogs. As a harmless bit of filmmaking, Cul-de-sac is rather energetic and lyrical, but if it's to have any greatness in it, this human-nature statement is demanded - and that's where the film falls short.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

#544: Head

(Bob Rafelson, 1968)

Head is either the least funny, most disastrous comedy ever made or the weirdest, biggest "fuck you" to the mainstream ever released. I like to think it's the latter, but ultimately it doesn't make a difference because the film is such non-stop fun. It belongs next to House and Zazie dans le metro in the "what the fuck did I just watch?" Criterion hall of fame, even if it doesn't reach the clear-eyed genius of those two films.

Certainly what's most shocking about Head isn't that it was made  by a Hollywood studio, but that it was made about the Monkees. Imagine this movie being made today by the cast of Glee and you get a pretty good idea how crazy this is. In the 60s, this was simply much easier to do because the gulf between the powerful men with the checkbooks had to rely on producers and directors to tell them what was going to work with the youth market they desperately wanted to reach but had no idea how to understand. Today, the people running development and marketing are far more likely to have a foot in both worlds - The Conquest of Cool model in action.

Head isn't as accomplished or perfect as its direct inspiration A Hard Day's Night, but it's still a hugely entertaining movie that is chockfull of ideas and jokes. I'd probably put it up against any other movie in the collection for pure crowd-pleasing cinematic fun, and my suspicion is that its rewatch value ain't too shabby either.

Friday, December 14, 2012

#548: A Safe Place

(Henry Jaglom, 1971)

A Safe Place is one of the worst movies in the Criterion Collection - not in the sense of a movie like Armageddon which was probably doomed to awfulness from the start, but just an experiment by a bunch of talented people that didn't work in pretty much every way. At every stage of the production and post-production, there were probably moments where the movie seemed like it was going pretty well, and taken on their own most scenes here could be the weakest scene in a much better but still mostly improvised, abstractly constructed film. But when they are all combined, it's a practically insufferable mess. Of course, I'd rather have ten of these than one Armageddon, just because one of those ten is probably going to be both great and potentially revolutionary - which is pretty much what happened with BBS, only they had a much more impressive track record. (Of course, the counter-argument is that one Armageddon would ideally pay for ten of those movies - a better argument ten years ago when Hollywood still wanted to make interesting movies alongside their shitty blockbusters, and an even better one when considering why BBS wasn't able to continue the ride.)

Having watched all the films in the BBS set now (the set as a whole didn't get a spine number for some reason, so I won't be posting on it), this really is a great set. With the exception of the two movies included on this disc, every other film is worth multiple viewings. The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, while Head, Five Easy Pieces, and The King of Marvin Gardens represent one of the most underrated beginnings to a directing career I can think of in Hollywood. (Sadly, both Rafelson and Bogdanovich failed to live up to their promise in their later careers.) Though the set doesn't touch on all of the things that made New Hollywood great (and obviously some of the major movies in the movement aren't here), the framing of BBS allows Criterion to grab at least a handful of the most significant ones, and wrap them up in a nice neat bow.

By the way, as annoying as I found her in this movie, someone really ought to put Tuesday Weld in a movie. She's only 69 and I'm pretty sure she hasn't forgotten how to act, which she does pretty well. In fact, she was damn near great in the now little-seen Didion adaptation Play It as It Lays. I realize she was never that huge of a star like Jack or anything, but it's just another prime example of how easily women are forgotten in Hollywood that she hasn't made a movie in nearly ten years and a relevant movie in nearly twenty.

I don't have much else to say beyond: really, Orson Welles?


#621: Rosetta

(Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, 1999)

Rosetta is a devastatingly simple film. We begin and end on the titular character, and rarely stray from her. She is in fact in every scene - even a couple where it seems like she's dragged into them so the movie can keep the streak alive - and nearly all of the action happens because of things she does. This would be difficult enough to construct a film around, but Rosetta also happens to be a character who is not especially likable, even if you do sympathize with her and root for her. This is the most obvious difference between this film and the previous movie by the Dardennes brothers, La Promesse, but really Rosetta is just an intense crystallization of the ethos behind that movie. It's hard to think of a more empathetic movie that still manages to feel so brutally realistic. For fans of socially conscious film, Rosetta might be the perfect example of the style - for this reason, I'm not surprised some people consider it one of the greatest movies of the past few decades.

I think what struck me most about the film, though, was its pure simplicity. The story lacks any major catharsis, the film ends abruptly, and Rosetta is never really afforded anything but the basic thing she most desires (or is it?): a low paying, unstable job. The film is almost distracting in its dogged determination to avoid straying from its purpose as a document of this lonely, desperate girl's life. The movie it most reminded me of, actually, was not La Promesse, but Bresson's Mouchette. However surprising it is to say about a Bresson film, though, Rosetta is actually the simpler of the two movies, and feels less episodic. Certainly his work was more lyrical than the Dardennes', but both took a humanist approach to their film, and ultimately Rosetta is the more satisfying of the two because its protagonist is more active and authentic - less a sacrificial lamb in the Cabiria tradition.

It's the simplicity of the film, however, that made me hesitant to fall head over heels for it. When combined with a protagonist that is very difficult to like it becomes much harder to find a way in. I think multiple viewings would improve my opinion of the movie, and unlike some other films I have felt that way about, Rosetta was impressive enough the first time that I am certainly willing to put in the time, even if the emotional toll the film takes can be exhausting.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

#266: The King of Kings

(Cecil B. DeMille, 1927)

I mean, look. You aren't coming here to hear about Jesus, and this movie was all a little much for me. If you ask me to pull out a Jesus movie to watch, like any good athiest I'm going to pick The Last Temptation of Christ 99 out of 100 times. The other time I'll watch the South Park where Jesus and Santa team up in an action spectacular. The King of Kings had no better chance of being my kind of movie than The Magic Flute did - it's not the quality of the film but the very reason for its existence that eliminates my interest.

That said, The King of Kings is really quite the spectacle. I think there might be more people in this movie than there are in Heaven's Gate, which I actually thought was impossible. Watching a movie like this reminds you what a joke big crowd scenes are in movies today, where they take one dude and replicate him 500,000 times so people think they got a bunch of people to be in the movie. Yeah, I get it, it's not supposed to be about the scope of the production, it's about the scope of the story. But still, when you are paying upwards of 10 cents for your ticket, you want to know they shelled out the stops and pulled out all the big bucks.

There's definitely some cool stuff here, and I hate to imply that the movie is worthless, because it's not. I do wonder, however, how different this movie really is from something like, say, Armageddon, other than that it came first. Other than the Jesus stuff (which really isn't that different from the America stuff) it's mostly just big spectacle and special effects, right? The Jesus stuff isn't that big of a deal, is it?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#550: The King of Marvin Gardens

(Bob Rafelson, 1972)

The King of Marvin Gardens defies reviewing. It's not a significant enough work to demand evaluation, but it's so carefully constructed and lovingly finished that it contains intricate details that might otherwise go unnoticed. It simply has to be seen to be understood, which isn't true of even many movies far greater than it. It's a crushingly sad movie about lost people that never really feels worth it. I loved it nevertheless.

The film opens with Jack Nicholson in a darkened room without context telling the story of how he and his brother allowed his grandfather to choke to death on a fishbone. Only when he is finished with the story do we discover that he is on the radio, telling his story to his listeners. Only when he gets home do we realize he lives with his grandfather.

The scene is significant for two reasons. First, Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest living actors, and it's apparent right from the beginning here. The scene is a great reminder of his talent, something that might be forgotten as he, like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, turns into a parody of himself in his twilight years. Nicholson's face and voice are enough to captivate you alone, something proved by this cold open. Second, the film's key relationship - between Nicholson and his brother, played just as impressively by the underrated Bruce Dern - hinges upon the true-life dynamic between the two and the ever-present push and pull between reality and fantasy, truth and lies.

One interesting choice Rafelson and his screenwriter made was to make Nicholson's character the younger brother. Typically, you would expect to see him as the older brother, constantly needing to save Dern from his fantasies. By making him the younger brother, the film sets Nicholson up as willingly playing along with his brother's games, desperate for his stories to be true in order to confirm the reverence he has for his older brother. It's a beautifully sad dynamic, and it makes the film much richer.

There are some real flaws here, though, and a lot of how one feels about the movie will depend on how forced the quirkiness seems. Moments like the fake beauty pageant and the horses on the beach could seem overly precious, like a prototype for another movie set in New Jersey, the far more conventional and forced Garden State. And there is a legitimate case to be made that the climactic moment is not earned - even if it is it remains surprising. The movie is messier than its predecessor, the much-better-known Five Easy Pieces, but I liked it more because it manages to take that film's tone and give it a further surreal edge.

Rafelson's career stalled after this film, and though he continued to direct, it was at a much slower clip with very little success. His rhythms were certainly of a particular moment, but it's a shame he didn't get more work as he matured. Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens represent some of the strongest personal dramas of the early New Hollywood period, and their inclusion in the BBS boxset makes them welcome additions to the Collection.

#623: Lonesome

(Paul Fejos, 1928)

Lonesome is a film stuck between two worlds in more ways than one. Most obviously, the movie balances on the most significant pivot in film history, the move from silent cinema to talkies. By including three scenes in which the characters talk (rather stiltedly, I might add), Fejos nodded to the fad of the time without having to reconstruct the entire film. I had forgotten about this aspect of the film while watching it, so when the sound clicked on, the music stopped, and the characters began to speak, it was truly jarring - really, this must have been what it was like in the 1920s to hear sound synced up with images - although the limitless possibility of the time has turned into actual impressive accomplishments over the ensuing 80 years.

The use of color in the Coney Island sequence is similarly forward-looking, but less jarring than it is impressive and perfectly incorporated into the film. Color had been around for decades already by the time of Lonesome - some studios would hand paint each frame in the first years of the 20th century - so this was less novelty than a conscious artistic decision to deliver the maximum impact of the impressive sight of this beach retreat which at the time would have been just as exotic to most Americans as Paris or London.

But what's more interesting about Lonesome is the balance between avant flourishes and a wholly conventional plot. Fejos manages to incorporate enough artistic style into the film that this seems miles away from the typical romance of the time, despite the fact that the film's story is little more than a simple boy-meets-girl set-up with a twist that is less satisfying than it is acceptable. His use of superimposition, panning, cross cutting, and the above-mentioned color and sound makes the film seemed packed with forward-thinking ideas that are much more impressive than anything in comparable modern cinema. This makes Lonesome either a uniquely impressive balancing act that stands out from the crowd or an exciting representation of the kind of experimentation still acceptable in mainstream film's nascent period. I can't say I've watched quite enough silent film to be able to distinguish, but either way Lonesome is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the potential of narrative cinema to speak through form just as clearly as content.

#388: The Two of Us

(Claude Berri, 1967)

The Two of Us not only would not be made in Hollywood today, it would be laughed out of development offices everywhere. "Where's the third act?" they would say, adding that "it's like having a gun in the first act and not using it in the third," or some other misguidedly rendered cliche about what makes a proper movie. Indeed, the film does lack its crucial turn, the sole reason for its existence within a conventional narrative framework. The fundamental question is this: how can a boy who is Jewish go to live with a man who hates Jews under the pretense that he is not Jewish and have that lie stand beyond the final credits? Without this reveal, the movie loses its confrontational moment, the one that would elucidate its themes and lead to the inevitable conclusion of its characters arcs. Yet by ignoring this imperative, the movie becomes all the more revolutionary, a movie about average people who are never called on to rise above their place or sink to new depths. Its finally a movie about racism and its unavoidable complexity and compartmentalization.

The center of the film is Michel Simon, an actor that was by the time he took the role one of the great actors in French cinema, with a career that stretched back to the legendary L'Atalante. His character is an early prototype Archie Bunker, a man with a firmly entrenched world view that is quickly and loudly dying out around him. He's a conservative without power outside his "castle," just as Archie is. And like Archie, once you get past his antiquated, potentially dangerous worldview, he's a gentle and warm person, a decent person. It's the gap that is most profound here, mainly because the strain of racism Simon's character represents, anti-semitism in particular, was one of the most destructive in history. Despite his distance from the actual tragedy, his acceptance of the culture makes him a difficult character for French audiences in 1967, still struggling with the history of the Vichy government. Berri was apparently so concerned with this that he put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film essentially saying "oh, the silly innocence of a child." It's an unnecessary addition today, but indicates how unique the film was at the time. Today, it's unique for a different reason, that absence of shattered perceptions mentioned above. The addition of this realization - and what Simon's Grandpa would have done with it - might have made the film more conventionally satisfying, maybe even more emotionally powerful. But without, the film is much more realistic, which ultimately makes it more valuable and moving.

Friday, December 7, 2012

#463: Il Generale Della Rovere

(Roberto Rossellini, 1959)

Il Generale Della Rovere belongs to the mini-genre of films about flawed, nihilistic characters who come to see the light and stick their necks out for the greater good. A disproportionate number of these movies are set during World War II, the war still often held up as the shining and untouchable example of a necessary and just fight. As far as those films go, this is one of the better ones, mainly because of two people: Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Just that these two towering figures would collaborate makes the film relevant, but they are both close to the top of their game. De Sica's performance is pitch perfect, making his character's arc extremely believable and earned, while Rossellini balances between docudrama-style preciseness and poetic beauty. The end of Il Generale Della Rovere comes abruptly, but it is well-earned and moving. This is a beautiful movie about the soul of Italy at one of its darkest moments, just 15 years after the fact.

Monday, December 3, 2012

#547: Drive, He Said

(Jack Nicholson, 1970)

Drive, He Said is the third (fourth - I've also seen the dated Easy Rider) film in the BBS box set Criterion released a few years ago that I have seen - I've watched The Last Picture Show, the most famous film in the set, five or six times over the years, and I saw Five Easy Pieces years ago. The former is one of my favorite movies and one of the great films of the 70s - both are certainly deserving of a standalone release, but they probably won't get one because of licensing issues.

The Last Picture Show is also notable in this set as the only film Jack Nicholson didn't have a direct hand in. The only other film he doesn't perform in is this one - which he directed. In fact, the movie is the first film directed by the actor, one of just three that he made. It was filmed between two of Nicholson's greatest roles, his work in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge. Both of those movies are much more worthwhile than this one, an occasionally interesting but entirely forgettable piece of quirky film history that never really stops being an experiment.

Nicholson, of course, is well known now as the highest profile Lakers fan, and Drive, He Said confirms his interest in the sport is not a recent development. More importantly, the parallel between the sport of the protagonist and the political struggle of his roommate feels especially insightful as a metaphor for the generational gap that was readily apparent as the 60s bled into the 70s. But I don't know that the insights of the film delve any deeper than this initial observation. Furthermore, the story drags and feels half-baked, like they created the screenplay as they were going. The camera work and acting is similarly amateurish, making the film seem even more tossed together on the side, but without any of the crackling energy of the best projects of this nature.

I don't expect any other film in this set to be so slight (though there's probably a reason why it shares a disc with A Safe Place, while the other movies all get their own). Obviously Nicholson looms large in these films, so including Drive, He Said seems logical and worthwhile. But the film itself is a handful of interesting ideas strung together into a feature that doesn't amount to very much.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

#629: Sunday Bloody Sunday

(John Schlesinger, 1971)

John Schlesinger is undoubtedly best-known for his Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, a moderately enjoyable, severely dated film. That's a shame because Billy Liar is one of the best coming of age movies I've watched in the Collection (and there are a lot of them), while this film, which caused a minor stir when it was released for featuring a kiss between two men, is a moving and extremely mature (i.e. grown-up, not porn) look at relationships and compromise.

There are three great performances at the center of the film, and that's what is most important about it. The best comes from Peter Finch, who is better here than even his much flashier Oscar-winning role in Network, which was his last movie. Finch chooses to approach his character, stuck in the closet with his Jewish family, reserved in his medical practice, finally unable to accept the notion that he could be fully happy in his romantic and personal life because of it, without piling on psychological hang ups that are unnecessary. His character has been forced into his position exclusively by society - he is desperate for happiness but aware of his limitations, resigned to them. Glenda Jackson's character, meanwhile, is desperate for happiness but certain she deserves it. She's worried life is passing her by - Finch knows the train left long ago. They are two memorable and realistic characters intended as two sides of a coin flipped by Murray Head's character, who flies through the film without the slightest awareness he's in it. All three roles are written and executed with such mature and thoughtful care that it's almost infuriating to think how impossible it would be for the film to be made today.

The kiss is worth discussing, because it's rather innocuous. Though shocking in its time, it is perhaps most surprising now because 1971 feels early, not because of anything on screen. I don't know if I should be asd that this simple gesture between a couple would ever have been controversial, or if I should be angry that quiet character-focused scenes like this just aren't made in mainstream film anymore, regardless of whether or not it's between two men. The sex in the film might have made it an anomaly in 1971. Today, its quality does.

#639: The Qatsi Trilogy

(Godfrey Reggio, 1983-2002)

When it comes out in two weeks, The Qatsi Trilogy will be the second "trilogy of life" that Criterion releases in as many months. The two trilogies are of course totally different, but represent the impressive scope of the Collection - a provocative sex series sits just a handful of films away from a wordless and often human-less documentary set with roughly the same title.

They are hardly worth comparing, but in case anyone was wondering this is certainly the more essential set. In fact, despite its weaker third film and the need to see all three on as big of a screen as possible, this just might be the most essential thing Criterion has released this year - only Godard's Weekend really comes close in terms of pure significance and accomplishment.

Of course, Koyaanisqatsi is the stand-out here, and, while I realize I'm getting all proclaimy up in here, I think it deserves to be considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It certainly joins Hoop Dreams, Harlan County U.S.A., and Night and Fog as exemplary offerings from the genre in the Collection. But unlike some other sets where it's a shame that one of the movies is not available on its own, this is a great series to have together. Even if Naqoyqatsi is less effective, it's still an interesting experience, and Powaqqatsi is maybe the most breathtakingly beautiful of the three.

Bottom line if you're considering this set, if you have a great system at home and don't mind sensory experiences outside the conventional narrative framework, this is a no-brainer. Within the larger context of Criterion, this should be a stand-out release in their collection for years to come.

Links to individual reviews:

Koyaanisqatsi
Powaqqatsi
Naqoyqatsi


#642: Naqoyqatsi

(Godfrey Reggio, 2002)

Naqoyqatsi is not worthy of its predecessors, but it's still a beautifully shot and hypnotic film that, like the first two films in the series, couldn't really be more obvious with the point it is making. Created just as Hollywood was shifting into the current CGI-dominated blockbuster age, the film takes a virtual approach to what had previously been a hyper-realistic portrait of our world. This makes the film's subjects quite literally less organic, but also makes the journey less so figuratively. The connection between the three parts feels looser, while the evolution towards the escalation of war in our modern age - and human competition in general - makes the film feel significantly smaller than Reggio's first two films.

Seeing the film now and knowing when it was released, it's impossible not to assume the film was a direct response to 9/11 and the war America waged in its wake (just one at that point, though everyone knew Iraq was coming). However, Reggio had been in production on Naqoyqatsi for some time when the attacks occurred, and their offices were coincidentally located in Manhattan. These events didn't impact the film in any significant ways beyond making it that much more relevant (though there are brief shots of some of the players in American politics), and I don't think the film should be too tightly entwined with the attacks. Like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, the film is clearly intended to be a broad critique of civilization and our view of our place in the world.

What really hurts Naqoyqatsi isn't the potentially stale topicality of the film, but the certainly stale technology. No one would be surprised that Koyaanisqatsi was made in the 1980s, but Noaqoyqatsi could have only been made in 2002, at the midway moment when CGI seemed like it was realistic but had not actually reached an acceptable level yet. The movie feels passable during most sequences, but becomes a tech-heavy drag at others where moments in previous installments were left to gaze at the wonder of creation (it doesn't help that Philip Glass's score here is undoubtedly his least invigorating in the series). The most beautiful shots here are not of the Earth - and they certainly aren't of animation - but of humans, Olympic athletes leaping through the air and performing feats of strength. These are impressively filmed, but not what I expect or hope for from a Qatsi film.

I ultimately still enjoyed Naqoyqatsi, but it prevents the trilogy as a whole from being perfect. It might not be as bad as, say, The Godfather III, but that might just be because it doesn't have Sofia Coppola in it, and it has the generally same effect on the series.

Monday, November 26, 2012

#515: The Fugitive Kind

(Sidney Lumet, 1960)

Sidney Lumet made a lot of great movies, including one of my favorite movies ever, written by another great American playwright, The Verdict. This movie, made four decades earlier and starring the greatest movie star actor of all time, isn't one of them. Unlike Lumet's debut, the classic 12 Angry Men (also now a Criterion film), this movie fails to transcend its theatrical roots - the dialog is over dramatized and the camera feels oddly static even when Lumet puts it somewhere interesting. The movie often feels like a teleplay rather than a film.

There is one reason to see The Fugitive Kind: Marlon Brando, who gives one of his many spectacular performances. Though it's not as great and obviously not as iconic as his performance in Tennessee Williams's better and better-known A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando's work here is subtle and stirring. It's another reminder of just how great he was, how easy it was for him to transcend his material without removing himself from it. As we move farther away from Brando's late-era physical collapse and poor film selection in the last two decades of his career (save The Freshman, which looks prescient now that DeNiro has turned himself into a parody), the actor's true place in history will be restored more and more. Quite simply, we wouldn't have film acting as we know it without Marlon Brando. Seeing him in a movie that is so obviously unable to avoid the pitfalls of theatrical adaptation makes the gap between him and everyone else even more clear.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

#641: Powaqqatsi

(Godfrey Reggio, 1988)

Powaqqatsi is not as much of a cinematic event as its predecessor, but it's every bit as visually stunning and hypnotic. Some of the cinematography is so impressive that it's a wonder how they were able to capture these images so effectively. I watched the film in a fairly strong transfer and one thing is clear: this is going to look INSANE in a Criterion blu-ray release.

Thematically, Powaqqatsi is just as obvious as Koyaanisqatsi, only here the film addresses technology's imposition on traditional cultures in the southern hemisphere. Without Koyaanisqatsi, the film could easily be criticized as exoticizing the native cultures and peoples it depicts. In fact, some of the ideas explored here and the ways in which kids and performers are presented can arguably cross this line anyway. But the care with which Americans were presented in the first film helps inoculate Reggio from many of the criticisms that might make viewing the film more uncomfortable - or at least less innocent.

Ironically, though, just as the comparison exonerates Powaqqatsi, it condemns it as well. The basic shift from a battle between nature and society to one between culture and technology implies a subtle but dangerous equivalency between nature and natives. I think a pretty good case could be made that the film is not able to overcome this fundamental assumption, but I tend to give Reggio credit as a broad thinker who doesn't intend to imply a connection between the two films' explorations of change. I'm also biased because the film is so beautiful and lovingly conveyed that it would seem counterintuitive to come away with anything but the impression that Reggio has the utmost respect for the cultures he depicts here. Perhaps the better case can be made against Reggio's characterization of the chasm between these cultures and "Western" or "Modern" culture than against the dichotomy of nature and man's impact on the world. But that doesn't make the film itself any less impressive - and it might just make it even more thought-provoking.

#609: ¡Alambrista!

(Robert M. Young, 1977)

The most obvious comparison to make within the Criterion Collection to ¡Alambrista! is of course El Norte, a film that, according to the essay that accompanies this release, was influenced by this film. The basic premise of people crossing the border illegally to live in the United States is similar, but almost everything else about the two films is different. Most obviously, the protagonist here, Roberto, is from Mexico, and leaves simply to make enough money to send home that he can support his new family for a brief period, while the brother and sister of El Norte are from Guatemala and flee the country to save their lives, without hope of ever returning. This is one of the most notable ways - but surely not the only one - in which ¡Alambrista! intends to be a broad and universal portrait of the undocumented immigrant experience, while El Norte isolates a particularly compelling case to make the argument that much stronger.

This means El Norte is certainly the more conventional of the two films, which goes a long way towards explaining why that film got so much more attention than this one (including an Oscar nomination and a wide theatrical release, two things this film did not get - it was originally aired on PBS). But I also think El Norte is the better of the two films - not necessarily because it tells the more compelling story, but because it is more impressively made and notably more affecting. Still, ¡Alambrista! might be the more interesting film, both as a political and sociological exploration of the major American immigrant issue of the last fifty years and as a work of cinema that walks the line between documentary and fictional narrative.

Of the many thoughts the film provoked within me, two have lingered most powerfully. The first is the unconventional way in which Roberto's journey is treated when compared with El Norte and most recent films about undocumented immigrants. Roberto's choice at the beginning - though made quickly in the course of the film - is not without controversy within his family and is far from preordained. When he arrives in America, he is far from a saint - while not as stupid as his friend that meets a gruesome fate, he does end up having an affair and flirting with the life he eventually discovers his father had chosen for himself. Perhaps more importantly, unlike those later films, Roberto eventually rejects his fate as an American farmworker and returns to Mexico. (Self-deportation in action!) This conclusion made the film all the more interesting for me because it meant ¡Alambrista! was not about the man who has no choice but to leave his homeland to find work and make a life for himself, law be damned. It's a film about a just as real phenomenon of economics 101 in action - workers going where the money is and facing a real opportunity cost scenario which asks them to choose between money and a life without social acceptance or any real physical comfort and a life with economic struggle in a home they know and already have accepted. This is the true reality of most undocumented immigrants in this country, and it's one that will be impossible to overcome with laws, walls, or denied benefits.

The second thing which came to mind was the balance between documentary filmmaking and narrative work. While any socially conscious movie takes at least some steps towards making the film feel especially realistic, movies like ¡Alambrista! go the extra mile, usually by using non-actors in crucial roles, using typically documentary-style techniques, or letting the narrative hang loose a little bit to encompass various other stories that might provide some insight into the overall world the film is presenting. Young does all three of these things here, and it makes the film feel much more "authentic" than a commercial film like El Norte. Yet it also makes the film feel smaller and, counterintuitively, more difficult to buy into. Sometimes breaking down the conventions of narrative cinema does little more than highlight the gap between film and reality - which makes sense when you consider that most of those conventions were created to make you forget you are watching a film.

¡Alambrista! is a great addition to the Collection, and just because the movie might not be as strong as movies like El Norte or John Sayles's great Lone Star, as one of the first American films to address Mexican and Central American immigration it is a vital document for understanding the work that came after it. It's also a well-made conscious film that explores the line between the urgency of documentary filmmaking and the far-reaching effectiveness of the narrative, one of film's great battles as a medium. It might not be perfect, but it's recommended for anyone interested in these issues.

Friday, November 23, 2012

#640: Koyaanisqatsi

(Godfrey Reggio, 1983)

Koyaanisqatsi is not a subtle film. Anyone who watches it with just a passing interest will get what Reggio is trying to say. But assuming that Koyaanisqatsi is intended to deliver some sort of complex case for a more harmonious relationship with the planet seems to me to miss the greatest accomplishments of the film, which has to be one of the most beautiful, innovative, and awe-inspiring documentaries ever made.

The irony of explaining in words a film that has none is self-apparent - dancing and architecture come to mind. But the film as a cinematic experience can be discussed without much attention paid to its intended political message. Its success in this regard is pretty simple. First, the cinematography is stunning, particularly the time-lapse photography. Try to watch this film casually and not be mesmerized by what's happening on scene. This is inevitably aided by the music, which is perfect and certainly Philip Glass's greatest accomplishment in film. Finally, what Reggio has done with the footage in the editing room is the true work of art that holds the film together. It's pretty much astonishing that this film was created by three people who had never made a feature film before, as this is a master class in shot selection, pacing, editing rhythm, and visual impact.

The only downside of Koyaanisqatsi being released on Criterion is that this film would no doubt be that much more impressive on the big screen. Still, in the age of blu-ray and 46-inch TVs, having this film reach a wider audience will be worth sacrificing a bit of the cinematic impact. This is now one of the essential films in the Collection.

#566: Insignificance

(Nicholas Roeg, 1985)

Roeg's only(?) adaptation of a play is most interesting for the things he does to move away from the original text to create a true cinematic experience. This is most obvious in the final moments - as Einstein's imagination turns his hotel room into a nuclear holocaust with Marilyn Monroe at the center of it - but Roeg does a lot to tweak the film's source material in interesting ways. Unfortunately, the movie remains stubbornly static in the majority of its running time, making it the least essential Roeg film in the Collection.

The play's premise is very intriguing: take four iconic figures from mid-century America and shake them all together in a fictional bottle and see what bubbles up. The best scenes, unsurprisingly, are the ones with Monroe and Einstein (they aren't actually identified as these figures, but instead the actress and the professor). But Teresa Russell's Monroe impersonation can be distracting (the role was played on stage by Judy Davis, which must have been pretty special), and Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio generally just sulks around, I assume because he was so miscast.

Then there's the 80s problem, which makes this 1950s-set think piece feel almost surreal in its aesthetic. Roeg's films always feel out of history, but here the impression feels unintentional, making it more awkward. Insignificance is far from a bad movie - and the final sequence in particular is downright masterful - but the combination of all of these flaws makes the movie less interesting than its script might have been, and probably was in its original incarnation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

#451: Fanfan la Tulipe

(Christian-Jaque, 1952)

Fellow French New Wave fans, I have seen the enemy. I have looked it in the eyes and I have seen its tired soul. It's name is Fanfan la Tulipe and, well, it's really not that bad.

Fanfan la Tulipe is a rip-roaring swashbuckler with plenty of romantic intrigue and physical wackiness - only its wry narration satirizing war sets it apart from similar bloated entertainments coming out of Hollywood at the time. It's cheesy and pretty routine, but the structure and tone are cliché for a reason: they work pretty well to give you a good time.

What's mainstream and popular in one era probably doesn't entirely work in another, and, much like Gone with the Wind, this movie isn't going to work for the modern equivalent of the people who made this a commercial success sixty years ago. The plot drags, the action is sped up Benny Hill-style, and the ending is preposterously happy.

Films like Fanfan la Tulipe are crafts rather than art, and while the skill is just as impressive, it lacks any long-lasting relevance. Like The Rock fifty years from now, it's still objectively well-done, but basically an historical document of what put asses in the seats when it was released.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

#569: People on Sunday

(Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930)

There's something hovering over People on Sunday that was entirely unintentional: the coming storm in Germany that would send a generation into darkness and forever transform the country. When the film was made in 1930, Germany had already been on the losing end of a major war, but a decade later Berlin had mostly moved on. This is not the Germany we were taught in school, the between-wars desperation of a populace that led to a weakening of moral strength that allowed Hitler to come to power. This is a middle-class Germany, a world of young working people (yuppies?) who steal away moments of leisure and do what young people do - flirt, lounge, consume popular culture. Upon release, it was a confection designed to reinforce the appeal of its audience's lifestyle - threatened by the market crash and looming Great Depression. With hindsight, it's a bit terrifying - like seeing movies set at the World Trade Center in New York.

The movie itself is perhaps more interesting as a social document than a piece of entertainment. The story couldn't be simpler, and it's augmented by documentary footage of people going about their business in Berlin, 1930, which is just as if not more interesting than the tale of four youngsters out in the country. Probably most famous for the talent associated with it (along with the two directors, the film was co-written by Billy Wilder with camerawork by future director Fred Zinnemann), the movie is a unique look at a moment in history with a few clever plot threads. But it doesn't amount to much more than a snapshot of a very unique moment in history.

Friday, November 16, 2012

#223: Maitresse

(Barbet Schroeder, 1976)

The fact that Maîtresse is a love story will be cold comfort to viewers watching a woman nail a man's penis to a 2x4. But it's true: Maîtresse at its heart is about two people falling in love and their desperate attempts to merge their worlds and come to terms with their differences - which it turns out in the end might not be all that great. Like In the Realm of the Senses, made just a few years later, Maîtresse focuses on two people almost exclusively as they become obsessed with one another. But where that film's couple took their obsession down a dangerous path, the two lovers here lead a very conventional life both in bed and out. You know, other than the pull-away coffee table in her living room that leads into the S&M dungeon where she abuses high-end clients by whipping them, keeping them in cages, and, yes, nailing their penises to boards.

Other than that one truly excruciating scene, the sadomasochism in Maîtresse is actually pretty mesmerizing and entertaining (though fair warning: there is also a very gruesome scene of a horse being shot and then bled out). This is perhaps most true when the couple arrives at a chateau in the countryside where a butler - who is clearly in reality the owner of the chateau - greets them and proceeds to take an enormous amount of shit from the woman, including having a cigarette put out in his hand. The scene shows how unique Maîtresse is, and how willing and even excited Schroeder is to open his viewer up to a seedy underworld all around us. The fact that the film doesn't feel the least bit exploitative about its subject speaks to the care with which he made the film.

I enjoyed Maîtresse a great deal despite its quite difficult-to-watch moments. But I'm not sure the movie says much of anything beyond presenting the novelty of its subject, one that is rarely approached in a serious way in popular culture. Gerard Depardieu, in a very early role for him, is also excellent here, another thing that makes the movie worth watching. Even though Criterion maintains their level of quality in releases like this, though, there does seem to be a weird undercurrent of films about sex that merit more consideration from them than they might otherwise get. I'm not saying Maîtresse doesn't deserve its release - this is probably a near-classic movie. I just wonder if there's something more to it - perhaps they see films like this, their recent Trilogy of Life boxset, and In the Realm of the Senses as works that might not otherwise get the serious consideration they deserve because they are overshadowed by their reputations as sex films.

By the way - what gives on the date here? Criterion has it pegged as 1973 on its website but their own essay says the film was shot in 1976, the year it was distributed internationally, while IMDB has it as 1975. Anyone have any idea when it was actually made?

a

#573: The Music Room

(Satyajit Ray, 1958)

India is famous for being one of the most prolific filmmaking countries in the world, often making over 1000 feature length films in a year. It's also home to over a billion people, and is increasingly developing into an economic powerhouse. Yet Criterion features just two Indian movies in their 600+ spine numbers: Monsoon Wedding (made by Mira Nair, who lives in the US) and this one, the recently released The Music Room. (China, just as relevant as an economic power if not as a cinematic one, technically has just one, In the Mood for Love, since The Last Emperor was an international production and, of the other four Chinese films in the Collection, three were made in Hong Kong before it reverted back to Chinese hands and one was made on the disputed island of Taiwan.)

Part of the reason for the lack of Indian films in the collection (along with all the licensing issues associated with any difficult-to-reach corner of the film world) is that most of the films made in India are not very good. Like music, film in India has an entirely different grammar and set of building blocks to construct a movie out of - only unlike music, these elements were borne out of populist success and cultural limitations. This makes the majority of film from the country bogged down in meaningless dance sequences (nevertheless set to awesome music) and love stories that lack even kissing. This goes a long way towards explaining why Satyajit Ray - unquestionably the most highly regarded Indian filmmaker in the world - never got a particularly strong reception in his home country, unlike Kurosawa who was frequently criticized as having a Western slant but remained justifiably revered in Japan until his late-career skid.

But Ray's film isn't in the Criterion Collection because they needed more Indian films, and it wasn't selected because it felt more Western. In many ways, The Music Room is a response to the culture of Indian film at the time; it may have even been intended as a way forward for an industry that had yet to gain respect on a grand stage. It's also not, as some have argued, a consolation prize for the assumed impending Apu Trilogy Criterion release. The Music Room stands on its own as a powerful depiction of a dying class and one man within it. It's also beautiful and haunting, a great film that deserves this release on quality alone.

I think what I liked most about The Music Room was the house Ray used and the way he used it. His protagonist floats through it like a ghost, already resigned to his fate as a disappeared creature, the last of his kind. No one wants to be the one to close up shop, and the slowly decaying house around him is constant reminder of these final days. Small touches like the spider on the portrait, the cobwebs and dwindling candles in the chandelier, and the slowly cracking walls are just perfect for the film's elegiacal tone. The technical work of The Music Room is perhaps not as sophisticated as what was coming out of Europe at the time (nor is it as overblown as what was coming out of Hollywood), but Ray is obviously a powerful force behind the camera, and I'm looking forward to the Apu trilogy, whether or not we get that dream Criterion set that would help make amends for their sins of omission to this point when it comes to virtually every country from the Asian mainland, but India in particular.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

#130: The Shop on Main Street

(Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Along with Closely Watched TrainsThe Shop on Main Street is one of two Czech films Criterion released in tandem early in Criterion's DVD run that primarily revolved around the country's role in World War II two decades earlier. The two films were made a year apart and, along with a number of other 60s films, signaled the emergence of the Czech New Wave, a movement which has since been represented in a well-regarded Eclipse box set.

Beyond these similarities - which are by no means superficial - the films share little in common. Closely Watched Trains had a light and wry tone, and even in dark moments the film never felt heavy or especially serious. Conversely, The Shop on Main Street is one of the most intense films you are likely to see - about the Holocaust or anything. It doesn't necessarily start out that way, but as the film descends into conflict and the protagonist takes his stand, there are few more disturbing and emotional climaxes in the Collection.

This isn't what makes The Shop on Main Street a masterpiece, though. That's a combination of the beautiful and skillful direction, mainly by Kadar, and the lead performance by Jozef Kroner. Kroner's work, in fact, threatens to overtake everything else about the film - he's that good in this role, which requires a wide range of emotion and physical and mental states. This alone would guarantee the movie a place in history, but the direction is so intricate without being overbearing that this is a masterclass in filmmaking from a lesser-known director. When compared to the simplistic work in Closely Watched Trains, it's a good reminder that just because Czechoslovakia was blooming as an international cinematic voice doesn't mean they weren't already a diverse and talented group with very different aesthetic takes and levels of sophistication.

The Shop on Main Street, I should also point out, is the best indication yet that I am not "scraping the bottom of the barrel" as I near the end of the Criterion Collection. I put this film off for so long mainly because it is not available on Hulu or Netflix, meaning I would have to rent it in order to watch it, unlike most of the other Czech films in the Collection. While the film isn't as high profile as even some of those films, and certainly not as well-known as, say, Breathless or Seven Samurai, this is one of the best films Criterion has released, and, I think, essential viewing for anyone interested in film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#508: Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa

(Pedro Costa, 1997-2006)

Letters from Fontainhas is the kind of set only Criterion would release. Without a company like this, these three films would be issued in bare-bones, poorly designed separate discs - if they were released Stateside at all. To the market's credit, there's a pretty good case for this fate - there aren't many people who would want this box set, and even those people probably wouldn't argue that they watch it on a regular basis (it's only found in 200 or so collections on the Criterion site right now - 500+ is more typical).

So why is this informal trilogy worth releasing? On quality, these are vital films that say something desperately unique about the nature of cinema at the turn of the century. They demand attention from film historians and makers alike, and even if they are difficult - and they are certainly that - there is something invigorating about their grammar. As a product, Criterion is not in the business of releasing (only) films that will sell well or are guaranteed to generate a huge response from cinephiles. It's in Criterion's best interest as a company to release films that reinforce their brand as a continued arbiter of significant film. Letters from Fontainhas easily satisfies this motivation - it's a stunning collection from a lesser-known but extremely well-respected director from an under-exposed film industry.

But as a contribution to the home-viewing film audience, this release's worth is self-explanatory. Costa has received so little attention that even Manohla Darghis, in her NYT review of Colossal Youth, admitted that she had not seen any of Costa's previous films. This is exactly the kind of unsexy release that Criterion almost seems to have an obligation to produce - a beautifully rendered, impeccably packaged collection of movies that never would otherwise receive the kind of loving high-profile release they deserve, put out simply because it is good and worthy of that release.

Watching the films in order is even more rewarding than the individual films. As a triptych, they represent the evolution of an artist's approach to an otherworldly setting. All three have similar difficult pacing and deliberate camera work, but each film is clearly distinct. Ossos is certainly the most conventional. In Vanda's Room is a conscious rejection of this conventionality, exploding into a messy but intoxicatingly ambitious statement. Colossal Youth is the culmination of this journey and the most fully realized of the three, the moment when Costa emerged from his experimentation with a fully formed and wholly original cinematic grammar.

I want to see all three of these movies again, but I think I will wait until I can see them on the big screen. Despite the digital nature of the last two, these are big films meant to be shared in the darkness, and demand attention to deliver their rewards. In Vanda's Room in particular is a difficult viewing at home (and probably would be in theaters), but so are Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Thin Red Line. What's so impressive about Costa is that he manages to project the same epic potential with seemingly intimate and quietly ambitious subjects.

Ultimately, this box set sells itself - either you are the kind of person likely to pick this up and fall in love with Costa's voice, or you are part of the large majority of even Criterion loyalists who will pass over it for something a little more willing to give up its secrets. Both groups are right, which is what makes Criterion's release so welcome and impressive.

Links to individual reviews:

Ossos
In Vanda's Room
Colossal Youth

#511: Colossal Youth

(Pedro Costa, 2006)

Colossal Youth is a breakthrough in Costa's loosely defined Fontainhas trilogy: the first movie that feels intimately bonded to its characters and pulls the viewer in instead of keeping them at arm's length. Despite this new relationship with its subjects, however, the film remains nearly as challenging as the previous films - certainly more than Ossos, though nothing can match In Vanda's Room for a pure cinematic viewing gauntlet.

The film's story also falls between the two films in both the tightness of its narrative and its conventionality. Set after the projects have been demolished and many of the displaced residents are moving into new towers, the film follows one man as he bounces back and forth between the two worlds, one bright and gleaming mirage and one dank and dark forgotten hallucination. Unlike In Vanda's Room, most of the scenes here actually consist of people doing things, playing cards, moving through spaces, primarily telling stories. This makes the film feel less intrusive, but it doesn't provide any real throughline for the dialog - the stories here make Slacker look like a conventional romantic comedy.

It's easy to joke about Colossal Youth and Costa's work, simply because it's so unconventional - calling this movie cliche is like calling a David Lynch film predictable. But this is a deeply serious movie, made with the kind of humanistic care often ignored or taken for granted in even the most socially conscious cinema. Costa was working towards Colossal Youth for a decade. It took him this long to understand these characters and this world, thereby allowing us to feel like we've been in their shoes. It's not the best film in the trilogy - that label would belong to In Vanda's Room if I had my say - but it's the most successful at bringing you into the world it inhabits, something equally impressive.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#182: Straw Dogs

(Sam Peckinpah, 1971)

Straw Dogs is a hateful, despicable movie. It's often cited by its detractors as a prime example of exploitative schlock masquerading as challenging high-art, designed to get away with the very outrageous violence and misogyny it claims to be shining a light on in order to unsettle our unsuspecting but complicit sensibilities. In reality, it's much less effective than that. It's a sincere attempt at the latter, honorable intention - but one that fails on virtually every level. It might deserve the hate and vitriol thrown at it if it wasn't such a ham-fisted, cliche, almost lazy attempt to attack an extremely difficult subject.

The film focuses on a couple on the verge of collapsing, making a last ditch attempt to maintain their marriage by returning to the wife's hometown/country so the husband can finish his studies and they can have a nice quiet life. Of course, the backwards fucked up townies will have something to say about that, as they promptly begin to hang their cat, rape the woman (who of course decides she kind of enjoys it) and then lay siege to the house, willing to lay down their lives just to ruin Dustin Hoffman's day because he doesn't know how to do work around the house.

The film's intention is to make us all accomplices in this crime against humanity, which is to say Peckinpah sees only shittiness in humanity and sees it as his mission to make us realize our own shittiness. Art is not successful if its pure intention is to make you feel good about yourself, but the reverse is true as well. There is no complexity in Straw Dogs, and Susan George's character would come across as misogynistic if you aren't paying close enough attention to Dustin Hoffman, who is equally weak-willed and deplorable. It shouldn't be surprising that the film was remade during the recent torture porn revival - these are the empty bodies ready to receive violence and hate upon them and give back only blood and tears that have been so decried and fetishized through modern horror. Compare Straw Dogs to the far superior Wes Craven film The Hills Have Eyes (loosely based on Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and it's clear whose sensibility has taken over - Peckinpah's nihilism reigns supreme.

Many reviewers have defended the film against these many complaints. It should be noted that Hoffman justifiably receives praise - he does all he can with the role and it's one of his strongest performances. And like always, Peckinpah's direction and skill at manipulation is expert, if a bit dated. But the movie falls apart in the simplest of ways, and its worst elements are the ones designed to be ignored by the larger questions raised by the shocking moments that receive most of the attention in glowing reviews. These critics have forgiven the film its basic structural flaws in order to exalt its excesses. This is why people thrill over Peckinpah's elaborate use of jump cuts during the rape while ignoring the clumsy machinations necessary to set up the final showdown. They pass over the poorly defined villains, who come across just as ludicrous and Three Stooges-like as the Pesci/Stern duo they inspired in Home Alone, in order to dissect Peckinpah's depiction of George as a sexual creature first and foremost. Because Peckinpah's previous films are so brilliant (particularly The Wild Bunch, surely one of the most iconoclastic films in history), we are expected to forgive Hoffman's illogical character arc, which takes him from being run off the road by the thugs to hunting with them to taking a stand without much motivation. Straw Dogs is forced to become an "intellectually challenging exploration of human psychology" because, well, as a movie, it's pretty dreadful.

It all might be forgiven if the movie felt like it was making an original point, as ugly as that point might be. I could argue that Irreversible or Fat Girl or Requiem for a Dream was something we hadn't seen before, and maybe if I lived in 1971 I would feel differently about Straw Dogs. But all Straw Dogs feels like to me is an empty case against logical pacifism designed to terrorize rather than educate. It's the equivalent of the ticking time bomb argument for torture, and the plot here is just as convoluted and contrived as that scenario would demand. There is a case for violence, but this movie's argument is a poorly made house of cards caught up in a distracting and destructive hurricane. Don't let it get you caught up in its fury.

Monday, November 12, 2012

#631: The Trilogy of Life

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971-1974)

The Trilogy of Life is the first of two big box sets Criterion will be releasing for the Holiday season, and it's arguably the higher-profile one. This would no doubt be endlessly amusing to Pasolini, as he imagines Americans all over the country exchanging his most sexual works in plastic-wrapped high-end packaging under the Christmas tree. This is not the most typical gift for the season that I can think of, but it is certainly one of the most awkward.

Of the three films, I certainly liked Arabian Nights the most, although The Decameron is probably the most entertaining and accessible film in the bunch. Those two films are head-and-shoulders above The Canterbury Tales, which is so disappointing that I'm sure it would not have received a Criterion release had it not been tied to the other two, Pasolini or not.

I am beginning to appreciate Pasolini as an iconoclast, but I have yet to be truly impressed with any of his movies. I doubt I will start with Salo, but I'll try as best I can to keep an open mind...

Links to individual reviews:

The Decameron
The Canterbury Tales
Arabian Nights