Monday, December 21, 2015

#727: The Innocents

(Jack Clayton, 1961)

Much like its characters, The Innocents seems to exist between worlds; England and Hollywood; code cinema and modern authenticity; reserved mystery and psychological horror; proper literature and exploitative pulp; art film and studio product. It straddles these worlds in such a way that makes the film feel even more off-kilter and terrifying, underscoring the strengths of the story rather than weighing it down. It's certainly one of the most significant horror films in the Collection.

The movie is immediately surprising for a Fox film from 1961. It opens without any picture as a young girl sings a folk song without accompaniment. This continues even over the 20th Century Fox logo (rare enough for it to be striking) and leads into a brief shot of a woman praying before moving to the opening scene of the plot in which Kerr is hired as the governess. The opening sets the creepy, old-fashioned tone for the film but is largely forgotten until the song pops up again, and finally is explained as the end doubles back on the moment, leaving one to wonder how much of what's happened was a flashback, a dream, or a psychotic fictionalization of what happened.

The original story of Henry James's Turn of the Screw, on which the play was based that was then adapted into the film, is able to create a larger mystery because when the governess sees ghosts they are simply from her perspective. A film cannot show a ghost to a character without the viewer seeing it, unless the ghost is always offscreen, which even then would prove as suspicious as seeing the ghost is assuring. This means the mystery of whether of not the governess is a reliable narrator is deeper and the book is consequently more psychological. Still, there is something about Kerr here that feels off, and I don't think it's impossible to argue that her own actions are a bit unhinged, even if it is easier to take everything literally. In a way, the movie is more appealing if there are no ghosts, because the story of the evil couple that possessed the children is so puritanical and superstitious.

My favorite thing about the film was unquestionably the cinematography, and it's this aspect of the movie that makes the mystery richer. There's an explanation of why the film was shot with a blurred border in the Criterion set, but the end effect is satisfying on its own. The movie seems to exist in a beautiful fever dream, with the characters isolated from each other and reality. I thought of two Kubrick films while watching The Innocents. The first, The Shining, came up for obvious reasons - a woman stuck in an isolated giant building haunted by ghosts. But the film I was most reminded of was Barry Lyndon, another candlelit masterpiece with stunningly beautiful (albeit color) photography. Both films use their natural lighting to heighten reality and set the mood for the time period. The Innocents delivers candles that seem to create the photography on their own, resulting in the soft edges and mysterious glow of the film's nighttime scenes.

Although there were a handful of "creepy children" films before The Innocents, this is the oldest film I've seen that uses most of the elements of this subgenre in the modern way (children singing simple songs, music boxes, possessions, creepy dialogue that has multiple meanings, etc). This doesn't necessarily make it a better film (though all of these elements are executed better than in most subsequent films) but it does help its case as an important step in the evolution of horror.

If I was going to hesitate to canonize The Innocents (and I am), it would be because of the somewhat creaky plot machinations of Kerr's character. It's not entirely clear why her character seems to know with great certainty every step needed to free the children of her curse - though of course this makes the case for her insanity - and the way she goes about explaining it all to Mrs. Grose is the kind of exposition that hurts the film rather than helping the viewer. Kerr's performance is difficult to pick apart considering it was done in 1961, but she can occasionally come across as inauthentic and dated in today's eyes, something I've always thought about her and was hoping to avoid with this performance. That said, these are minor quibbles that do not overshadow the remarkable accomplishments of The Innocents, and it's worth underscoring just how vital the film feels to modern horror and supernatural filmmaking. I'd put it on the shortlist for any director interested in learning more about horror technique, and I look forward to watching it again to see how it's all put together.

One other interesting note about The Innocents: I decided to watch this now basically at random - it was the next film by spine that I don't own and isn't on Hulu - unaware that it was written by Truman Capote. Of course, In Cold Blood was just released in the past few months and covered by David Blakeslee over at Criterion Reflections, where I expressed mixed feelings about that much more famous and based-on-a-true-story thriller. Interestingly, Capote wrote the script for The Innocents while researching In Cold Blood, further tying the two to each other. Putting The Innocents in this context might make my positive response to a movie that ends (spoiler alert) with a dead child seem a bit hypocritical (despite the obvious excuse that the film is purely fictional). But I think it's important to put the entertainment value of horror in the context of the themes its intending to explore and expose for the viewer.

Monday, December 14, 2015

#798: Death By Hanging

(Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

When it is released next year, Oshima's Death by Hanging will join an Eclipse set and three main line titles, In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in the Collection. Interestingly, the director's two most generally well-regarded films, The Ceremony and Boy, are available on Criterion's Hulu page but remain unreleased on disc. Although there is an obvious excuse for this, which is that it's likely this film was simply ready for blu-release before those two films, Death By Hanging also represents a drastic departure from his films already in the mainline collection, making it a valuable additional facet of Oshima's oeuvre.

What's most interesting about Death By Hanging is its tone, which swerves from straight-faced documentary to vicious satire to broad farce to biting social commentary, finally settling on a haunting ending that implicates the viewer in the crimes of the film. This wide range might initially feel like it's drowning the film in metastructure. It's worth noting that every review I could find on the film (including ones by Donald Richie and Vincent Canby, both of whom gave the film a slightly negative review) mentions Godard. In fact, Richie's first sentence is a direct comparison between Oshima's role in Japanese cinema and Godard's similar role in France. This connection is significantly less likely to be noticed when viewing Oshima's later films already in the collection, while the tone, overt politics, and surreal structure of Death By Hanging makes the comparison almost obligatory.

Despite its complexity as both a narrative and a political statement, the movie can be roughly divided into two sections. The first focuses on the crime and punishment expected by the title of the film. The convicted murderer, named simply R, is set to be executed, but the hanging does not go as planned and he survives. Oshima uses a documentary style as he leads up to the execution, mimicking the supposed removed and somber role the state plays in implementing the death penalty. This makes the failure of the execution stand out and gives the swing toward chaos even greater heft: when we switch from documentary to farce, it's as if the whole movie - and therefore the world it depicts - has fallen apart. The scenes where the men argue over what to do in order to avoid trouble (they seem less concerned with the right thing to do) are often laugh-out-loud funny, and this stretch of the movie plants a flag firmly in the dark comedy camp.

But once the deeper reenactments begin, as the men attempt to reconnect R with his past to get him to acknowledge his crimes, the film takes its tongue out of its cheek and begins to tear down more than just the question of whether or not the state should kill a person. Much as it would be impossible to ignore the relationship between black people and the American death penalty, Oshima confronts the larger issue of race in Japan, weaving in R's experience as a Korean raised in Japan. This second half is not as tightly plotted as the first - and it often suffers from dated intellectual signposts like Freud and Brecht, two other figures inevitably cited in reviews of the film - but it opens up Oshima's statement and in many ways makes the film harder to ignore.

There have been countless films against the death penalty over the years, just as there were countless intellectual films in the 60s that flirted with radical structure and politics. The value in Oshima's film is its willingness to go where the material takes it and avoid settling into an easy opposition to the status quo. For me, this makes Oshima less of a parallel Godard and more of a clear compatriot of Masaki Kobayashi and Kaneto Shindo, a rebel even among these iconoclastic legends. Godard's form certainly began to be tied directly to his politics, especially from Pierrot Le Fou on, but Oshima's form was from his very first film inseparable from his politics. Although he never lacked for technical skill, none of Oshima's work seems to love movies the way Godard's early films do. He is intently focused on what is on screen, using cinema as a tool rather than an art itself. Death By Hanging makes this relationship clearer than Oshima's later films, and it's what makes the movie both an admirable condemnation of state-sponsored murder and a vital addition to Oshima's Criterion films.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

#758: The Merchant of Four Seasons

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)

Goddamn I hated this movie. Ugh, it was so bad. Who the hell wants to watch this asshole for even 80 minutes? I don't get the point of this movie beyond its technical proficiency in storytelling and framing (though it even lacks many of the impressive traits of Fassbinder's later work). Yes, we get insights into Hans in novel and often unexpected ways. But there's little redeeming value in these insights, and Hans's behavior even with his friends - let alone with his wife and child - is absolutely atrocious.

Can someone explain why Hanna Schygulla's character defends Hans in this film? Can someone tell me why we should care at all about what happens to him, or even really what happens to his wife? What is the point of Fassbinder's obsession with his daughter? Where does any of this go?

Fassbinder has replaced Godard as the director that elicits the widest range of reaction from me. Something like World on a Wire or The Marriage of Maria Braun would be a strong candidate for inclusion on my best-of list for the 70s, while this or the unbearable Berlin Alexanderplatz immediately come to mind as the most difficult slogs in the Collection.

It's also interesting how much I disliked this movie considering how recent of a release it is. Most of the movies I have a strong dislike for were released early in Criterion's run. The last movie in terms of spine numbers I both didn't like and really didn't think should be in the Collection was probably The Four Feathers, way back at #583 (though The Canterbury Tales is a pretty bad middle chapter in Pasolini's Trilogy of Life). So maybe I'm just missing something here, I don't know. All I can say is that even at 80 minutes I was more than happy to see the final card even if it came at a most random and unsatisfying time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

#772: Blind Chance

(Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1981)

Blind Chance is a very enjoyable movie and it's well made if a tad dated. But what ultimately makes it essential viewing is that it is in many ways a dry run for the rest of Kieślowski's career, most notably his masterpiece, The Three Colors Trilogy. But the film's use of alternate realities recalls his great film The Double Life of Veronique, while the issues of moral obligation and politics call to mind the Decalogue - encompassing nearly all of his late-career output. The three projects can be seen as their own alternate paths taken from this seminal moment, and many of the grand ideas of those films - from issues of identity and personal responsibility to social protest and the unavoidable fact that we are all in this together - are explored here first.

The movie opens in an immediately gripping but untethered manner, as we are treated to a clue of the final reveal, followed by brief flashes of the protagonist as he grows up. I went into the movie cold, so I didn't know the significance of the train station scene until the film doubled back to it. In fact, for the first hour I wasn't quite sure I knew what was going on, though as is usually the case I eventually realized I'd been following it all along. This can sometimes make for a stressful viewing, but here it felt like part of the fun as so much of what is appealing about the movie is how out of control Witek is.

Despite really enjoying the film, I don't think it approaches its follow-ups in terms of standing on its own as a major cinematic work. Each subsequent iteration of Witek's journey seems less developed, and I found the relationship in each to be a bit overplotted and awkward. The final moment was also a tad predictable, even if (or more likely because) it made total sense within the context of the film. But there are also real philosophical questions explored here, and I found some of the narrative choices to be interesting if a bit heavy handed. This is especially true when looking at the overarching message of the film, which is that Witek would have survived had he picked a side, and remaining neutral - which might bring him happiness - would mean his certain downfall. Perhaps because Kieślowski abandoned specific political issues (to a certain degree) in his later films he was able to free himself of such obvious metaphors, and I think his later films are much better for it.

#740: The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a master class in filmmaking and film loving alike. Fassbinder and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who went on the work with Scorsese on two of his most beautiful films, The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas) use every opportunity within the walled world of the story to display their cinematic technique. It saves the film from the drudgery of some of Fassbinder's most difficult films, and while this is by no means an easy watch, by the end I rather enjoyed it and would put it on the upper end of the Fassbinder films I've seen to date.

The stated influence on the film is Douglas Sirk, but the director I was reminded of most often was Bergman, whose similar background in modern theater helped him produce many of his 60s masterpieces, and the comparison to Persona is hard to avoid. In fact, as you would expect after viewing the film, Fassbinder originally produced it as a play. Both the story of the film and the direction of the acting also called to mind another European master, Carl Dreyer, and his final film, the singular Gertrud, where another independently minded woman is bogged down by romantic entanglements and the inability of anyone in her universe to look at another person while talking.

But the cinematic style on display overwhelms the theatricality of the performances, particularly after the slow first act of the film before Karin is introduced. Once the conflict kicks in, the camera swoops and glides, and the blocking becomes so precise and artful, that the modernity of Fassbinder's eye takes over. It's also impossible to avoid talking about the impeccable use of music, which rivals and perhaps even bests the strongest of subsequent filmmakers in this regard like Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Even as the story becomes more interesting, it's these moments behind the camera that gripped me. The movie is stunningly beautiful and might be even more enjoyable on mute, but the moments when the film and music line up and hit the perfect emotional note are the ones where you know you are in the hands of a rare kind of filmmaker.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

#783: Pather Panchali

(Satyajit Ray, 1955)

I watched Pather Panchali a few years ago in a version that was so bad that I decided to wait for the restoration to watch the next two films in the series. The quality of the film's image - which was worse than many budget restorations of silent films I have seen - was so bad that it was difficult to get into the story even. So when I blind bought the trilogy at the most recent B&N 50% sale, I decided I had to rewatch Pather to get the full effect. I was absolutely right - this viewing was a revelation of the kind you rarely get, and Pather Panchali is certainly one of the great films of cinema.

Pather Panchali begins before its supposed protagonist is born, and in many ways the film is a passing of the torch from one Ray child, the sister who steals fruit from an orchard that once belonged to her family, to another, Apu, a young boy whose watchful eye and innocent perspective are a stand-in for that of the viewer's own lens. Although my own children are younger than this pair and reversed in gender order, the relationship is immediately recognizable, comprising both battle-weary enemies and siblings with an unbreakable bond of love. The sad deaths that consume the final third of the film are of the gut-wrenching variety, though the simple poetic framing of Ray's camera gives us the big picture and never lets us forget the larger story at work.

The fact that Ray didn't initially plan on making the other two films in the trilogy lend the final moments an ambivalence that the knowledge of subsequent films has replaced with hope and a sense of beginnings. Apu only knew this world for a short time and it will be difficult for him to recall many of the things that shaped him. As a complete story, however, the film's structure shifts away from establishing details to a portrait of a family struggling to free themselves from poverty. Until Apu finds the necklace, the true protagonist of the film is the mother, desperate to transcend the shame her daughter and husband have brought upon her and struggling to make a life in difficult circumstances. She is a remarkable character only because Ray chooses to make her remarkable, and it lends the film its humanist qualities, a trait that defined world cinema post-Rome, Open City and pre-Breathless.

But even in the context of a thriving international film community, Pather Panchali is striking. The movie stands out immediately just by nature of its subject matter, swimming in a wave of European and Japanese films that crashed into American arthouse theaters in the 50s. But the film distinguishes itself actively rather than through its mere existence. Perhaps the two things that stand out most to me are the sophistication of Ray's technique and the intimacy of his depiction of rural India. Although they are linked, it is worth addressing each separately.

Ray's technical proficiency was by no means predestined. Though he came from a distinguished family with a tradition of artists, he had never made a film when he began work on Pather Panchali, using his own money in initial shooting. The fact that India was almost non-existent on the international film scene further underscores the uphill battle Ray faced. Although Indian cinema began producing neorealist work after independence, Ray's film was the first to generate any notable attention in the West, meaning he no roadmap for this kind of success (which is not to imply he was expecting it or crafting the film with this in mind). His crew had little experience, his actors were mainly amateurs, and his funding meant that many techniques and multiple takes were often unavailable. Still, the film manages to deliver a style that was both elementary and intellectual. The way Ray blocks his characters and the moments he chooses to move the camera have rarely been improved upon in the ensuing 60 years. Many of his shots in the fields and the forest are stunning displays of black and white cinematography. I was particularly struck by his balance of Japanese formalism, often with minimal cinematic flourishes when in intimate household moments with the family, and Western naturalism, both in his scenic shots and in the way that the village sinks into the forest and water around it. The camera is both the documentarian and poet

Ray was famously inspired by Bicycle Thieves to make movies, and this is clear in his depiction of the family's struggles in his debut film. Yet the jump for De Sica from his stature in Italian society (he was raised in poverty in Lazio outside of Rome) to the world of Antonio and his son in Bicycle Thieves is not hard to contemplate. Although it was certainly impossible for Ray to ignore poverty in his own country, the jump from his own bubble to the world of Apu is extraordinary. That Ray was able to enter this world without presenting it as "separate" from that of the viewer is even more impressive. Part of this is the proximity of such living conditions - Ray only needed to go a few miles outside of the city to shoot Pather Panchali, something that would be difficult to achieve in Europe or America. But most of it stems from his gentle hand with the camera and his dedication to the universality of his characters' struggle. Pather Panchali is not about a poor Indian family any more than Home Alone is about the difficulties of life in the wealthy Chicago suburbs. Yes, this is a world very different from our own (and from Ray's), but it is also about people who love, work, gossip, mourn. They are petty or angry sometimes and elated and entertained others. The way Ray reserves judgement allows us to see these emotions through their eyes instead of through our own or Ray's. When Apu goes to see the train, we begin to feel what it must have been like to see a train for the very first time anywhere in the world, what power and beauty one could experience with the revelation of industry. It frees the moment from a contrast in societies and allows it to simply stand. It's consequently one of the great scenes I've ever seen.

I won't be watching these in close viewings - I've decided to space them out over a few weeks to give each film time to breathe. But I am certainly looking forward to the next two films, and I remain grateful that Criterion and its partners put so much love into the finished product. Pather Panchali's place in history can be hard to overstate and seeing it look this beautiful reminds even the most jaded cineaste that there are still treasures to be uncovered and rediscovered.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#788: Speedy

(Ted Wilde, 1928)

I've long been a staunch defender of Buster Keaton as the grandmaster of silent comedy over the sentimental and dated Chaplin. But here comes Harold Lloyd, the wild card exploding the idea of any binary perspective on an era's worth of the medium's humor. Lloyd is every bit as funny as the two more famous stars - as modern and clever as Keaton and as likable and charismatic as Chaplin. Perhaps because he didn't direct his own films the actor never got the recognition he deserved in the auteur age, but hopefully these Criterion releases will help spur a reevaluation of his work.

After Safety Last and The Freshman, two classics that deserve to be placed alongside the great comedies of any era, Speedy seems slight in comparison. But that doesn't take away from its energy or sheer entertainment value. The film revolves around a timeless comedic conflict - an old man's outdated business (in this case a horse-drawn trolley in New York) is trying to be gobbled up by a greedy corrupt businessman who wants to create a conglomeration to make even more money. Lloyd is charged with getting the man the compensation he deserves, mainly because he wants to marry the man's granddaughter. Hilarity (and suspense) expectedly ensue.

Along the way, the film occasionally descends into a strong of bits, most notably when the couple takes a largely unnecessary jaunt to Coney Island. Yet even in this stretch there are moments of incredible comedic sophistication. The most notable for me was the sequence in which Lloyd eats more than it seems like he really should. The film cuts to Lloyd's back and we see he is bent over and heaving, presumably from vomiting, while his fiance comforts him. Just as it seems like the shot is going on too long the camera pans back to reveal Lloyd has been blowing into a hose that tests his lungs at the carnival. There's another later bit that uses viewer obstruction involving a dog's tail - both times it's as surprising as it is funny, a masterful use of the young medium. It's also worth noting the cameo of Babe Ruth, a reminder that celebrity appearances in comedies are not a new trend and further cementing the film's appeal as a forward-looking comedy trying to deliver fresh ideas as much as it wants to make you laugh.

The other star of the film is of course New York City, and this might be what makes Speedy so special. We get a number of great looks at the Big Apple of 1928, but the most sustained exhibit is the final horse race through the streets. Lloyd rushes by the public library, slams into an elevated train post, and rushes under the Washington Square Arch and by the fountain. 1928 was the thick of change for the city, when cars were completely taking over and the Depression had yet to wreak havoc. It's a city that doesn't feel so different from the one now, albeit with more independent craft stores (including a nice stereotypical Chinese laundry owner!) and subways running overhead. It's even more thrilling than the city depicted in Lonesome, and Speedy's slick technique and artful comedy weave in and out of the city so effortlessly that the whole film buzzes with the energy of the city. I wouldn't go so far as to call Speedy a classic - its structure isn't as elegant as the other Lloyd films in the Collection - but it is a must-see for fans of silent comedy and New Yorkers interested in the city's past.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

#737: Les Blank: Always for Pleasure

(Les Blank, 1968-1995)

The best parts of Les Blank's films are when no one is talking. In these moments, people cook, dance, sing, smile, play instruments, walk through nature. The buildings hum with their unique histories, bound by their American essence; a run down house with a man playing guitar on the porch stoop; a simple roadside tavern ignited by a neon sign advertising the music within; farms and tents; kitchens and living rooms; an occasional store selling records or repairing instruments or making sausage. Parades go by. Meals are prepared by the pound. The omniscient narrator (who never learns to talk) is distracted by another song or good soup on the stove.

The themes of music and food are consistent throughout Blank's 14 films collected on Always for Pleasure (along with a handful of shorts and some extras covering his career). Even in a film like Gap-Toothed Women, which explores conventional ideas of beauty, Blank can't help but home in on an apple or an artist's portrait of musicians. But Blank is most at home filming the musicians themselves, who make up the vast majority of individuals he profiles here and even crop up in films that are ostensibly about something else like garlic or gumbo. He no doubt does this because of his own interest in music (and it's worth noting his connection to the Lomax family, as John's son and Alan's brother John Jr. introduced him to Lightnin' Hopkins and Alan's daughter Anna helped edit on a few of his films), but it's also a conscious decision to make the various elements of each culture he explores inextricably linked, thereby creating a fuller picture of the specific element he's highlighting. Other elements, such as fashion, marriage, work, and friendship, come up frequently as well. But the two constants throughout are music and food.

Blank's films get more conventional as the set goes on, with his last few films featuring significantly more talking and something that approaches mainstream documentary storytelling. Yet there are unique charms to each of his films, while they all retain Blank's singular perspective. A relatively lyrical film like A Well-Spent Life crackles with the same energy as In Heaven There Is No Beer?, which could be a (still fairly quirky) PBS special, and both are equally enjoyable, even as the silences begin to come less frequently and with more action to fill up the space.

The biggest issue here is, of course, the cultural tourism label that has also dogged the Lomax family as their legacy has grown. Blank comes from a well-off family in Florida, but the bulk of his subjects, particularly in his early films, are poor country people, often black, dotting the backwaters of Louisiana. As someone who is unfamiliar with that world, it's impossible to know how "right" Blank got it, but his work here never feels disrespectful and always seems aware of his outsider status. Certainly a film made by someone of each culture would deliver a richer and truer portrait of its subject in both form and content. But this doesn't make Blank's perspective any less valuable, because for the vast majority of people his camera is the placeholder for our own forays into the world he is filming. We would dwell on the pig being slaughtered just as Blank does; we might delight in the tall tales and idealize the easy (hard) living of the Cajuns ourselves; we get caught up in the colors and sounds of Carnival in New Orleans to an even greater degree than Blank's camera.

Ultimately, Blank's career was spent documenting isolated American cultures at the dawn of mass media. While the pockets Blank highlights remain, their window to the outside world has grown larger and their choice to remain separate from the greater culture has become more conscious. The moments depicted in Blank's film already seem mournful and urgent, begging for a few more minutes with this time that might never come back. Just as he filmed a broad range of musicians at the twilights of their careers and lives, the music played and the food cooked feels short for this Earth, even as it seems like it has existed forever. America's future is homogeneous and bright, so it's best to get a good look before the past and present are gone.

Friday, November 6, 2015

#715: Bay of Angels

(Jacques Demy, 1963)

Demy's second film is more out of step with his subsequent musical rampage than Lola, though it shares a broad range of qualities with that debut. Like Lola, Bay of Angels is shot in black and white, sharply dividing it from the rest of director's catalog that is primarily known for its vibrant colors. But the film also features a milquetoast lead doomed to love a seductive woman who loves another - though in this case it's not a person. French coastal towns are seen. A happy ending is paired with the almost certain knowledge that it will not remain that way forever.

The similarities may end there, however, as Bay of Angels is a deeply sad film intently focused on two individuals. A third character sets the protagonist off on his path - and pops up again briefly just to assure us all that he was not a figment of our imagination - but other than that there are just a handful of characters with even one full scene. The only cycles in Bay of Angels are psychological, mistakes made over and over again to feed a sickness that overwhelms everything around it.

I'm not a gambler. It's perhaps the thing I know most about myself. I never make bets, I don't like going to casinos, I even feel uncomfortable putting my money in mutual funds. So the addiction of gambling is completely foreign to me. I've never been addicted to anything, but I've done drugs and can see the danger of getting sucked into the vortex, even with something as simple as coffee. My personal tendencies toward addiction are more harmless things like collecting (could you guess?), so seeing someone become addicted to gambling is, for me, a little like if someone told me they couldn't stop eating nails.

In a way, this made Bay of Angels even more sad. When you see someone succumb to a pleasure you understand, there's an immediate relatability. Outside of that appeal, you only see the disease, the empty routine of addiction. Jeanne Moreau's Jackie is a tragic figure whose life has disintegrated around her yet continues her descent. She's accepted her illness and seems unwilling to change it until the very final moment, which only feels unearned until you consider the dependency that addiction demands. Like Lola, Jackie knows what she wants and rejects the male protagonist's attempts to alter her desires. But Jackie's empowerment is empty, masking her weakness. Casting one of the all-time great movie stars in the role was a gamble in itself - we may immediately understand Jean's infatuation with Jackie but would we be able to see the fatalism through the bleached blonde glamour? Like Catherine in Jules et Jim, Jackie is trapped, but Moreau plays both characters without the rage that other women might have brought to the roles. Her tragedy is unknown to herself, even in self-reflective moments, because she seems to have so much control over herself. This is partially the character that Demy wrote, but it's mostly Moreau's dominance of the camera and complete confidence as an actress.

Her counterpoint in Claude Mann is less memorable, and here is where the film fails to live up to its predecessor. Mann has been in other strong movies (most notably Army of Shadows) and he looks a bit like a young Dominic West, but he lacks any real magnetism as a leading man. As I mentioned, Demy has created his second-straight boring young white guy protagonist here, but without the colorful secondary characters and plot complications of Lola, Bay of Angels suffers much more for it. The straightforward narrative here demands two memorable leads, and the lack of balance means Jackie as a character is significantly more notable than the film itself.

That being said, Bay of Angels is an entertaining movie even if it is pretty sad and at times hard to watch, though again that speaks to the strength of Moreau's performance. This Demy box is shaping up to be a real treasure.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

#714: Lola

(Jacques Demy, 1961)

Lola is the first film both in Criterion's boxset of Jacques Demy's core early films and of the director's overall filmography. Built with overlapping stories of relationships both emotional and fleeting, the film straddles the many worlds of French cinema. At times it seems like a quaint relic of the French system, a light and occasionally Soapy romance of criss-crossed lovers. Other moments feel like kin to the New Wave classics being made at the same time, in love with movies and reality in equal measures. The film recalls Ophuls (to whom it is dedicated) as often as it predicts Jeunet. It hints at the darkness of his next film, Bay of Angels, as easily as it predicts his technicolor-splashed later work. It manages to feel playful without resorting to comedy and tragic without delivering bad endings for its characters. I think it's an undersung masterpiece.

The story of Lola isn't much of one at all, as simple coincidences give way to poignant exchanges of love both sexual and familial. Characters remind characters of other characters, cities pop up in the past, future, and fantasies of various people who are unaware of the connections they share. The nature of the city of Nantes is reflected in the various players, constantly coming and going - when they are there, they want to leave, when they are away they wonder when they will return. The movie is at once as fantastical as a David Lynch movie (is Cecile perhaps literally Lola, whose real name is after all Cecile?) and as humanistic as a Marcel Carne melodrama. Frankie, one of the sailors that defines Nantes as a constant state of flux, sleeps with Lola but bonds with Cecile, who reminds him of his sister. Roland pines for Lola, whose heart belongs to Michel, but desires to flee to an island in the South Pacific, where unbeknownst to everyone Michel has made a fortune. The plot doubles back on itself frequently and revolves around a cafe where Roland lounges with a painter - it's apparent that the film had a huge influence on Amelie.

All of these elements make Lola a joy to watch. There's a certain feeling of serendipity and a charmed melancholy that Demy is able to deliver here that is almost never present in a director's debut. His work is not as stylized as Wes Anderson's - though simultaneously more about movies than the younger director - but the combination of a breezy tone and deep sadness is shared by the two filmmakers. It's much more in line with Truffaut's elemental 400 Blows than the aggressive newness and removed cool of Breathless, but it has none of the animosity toward conventional (or maybe safe) filmmaking that both directors had in their earliest work. A casual viewing of Lola would do fine, which ironically is perhaps what has made its place in history less noted than its contemporaries.

But dig a little deeper and what's here delivers elements that reward investigation and reflection. Lola is a powerful woman, perhaps saddled with the cliche dancer/seductress role so overused in film but defiant in her self-sufficiency. Anouk Aimee is both perfectly cast and perfect as Lola, to the point where she seems as inseparable from the character as the character feels separated from the world of the movie. Demy's deliberate technical flaws are also gems waiting to be reevaluated for their influence on future filmmakers, their own small ripple in the torrent of New Wave's storm. Then there is Nantes itself, shot as sleepy and wild, a temporary town of fairs and dances and markets where scheming smugglers hide, as mysterious as Casablanca but without the wartime tension, so people and things and ideas and love flow freely through its ports. The city is just as much the star of Lola as Lola, and it makes the movie feel just as alive and magical now as it must have felt fifty years ago.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

#704: Riot in Cell Block 11

(Don Siegel, 1954)

What a find. Riot in Cell Block 11 is a certain kind of film Criterion puts out rarely, but always with impressive confidence and great value to the marketplace. Created as a b-level social picture in the wake of a series of prison riots in the early 1950s that stemmed from poor treatment of the prisoners, this is a lesser-known early picture from Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Criterion release The Killers before producing the higher profile Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. It's not the best-acted movie I've ever seen, and it can often feel a bit preachy in its consistent social message. But it also rings just as true today as it did in its time.

The style of the film is a reminder that throughout film history movies that were considered lesser or even exploitative often had more to say about the ills of society than the prestige pictures of their era. The movie that won best picture the year Riot in Cell Block 11 was released was another future Criterion film, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, and while I'm not here to discount that masterpiece, I do think the message of Siegel's film is more complicated and more relevant in today's America.

The scenes with the warden are generally didactic, but it's the final scene, in which the warden explains to the leader of the riot that he has been betrayed, where the message is most loud and clear. It's the truth no one wants to believe but everyone should see as obvious: riots work. They work because people are afraid of society crumbling, and part of the way society stays afloat is that the people with less and who are forced to stay that way agree to keep the peace (at least generally speaking). That detente is broken only when things get so bad that the system needs a virus to run through its body and clear out all the toxins. In Riot in Cell Block 11 (as in the US of the early 50s), the oppressed community was prisoners, growing up in LA it was black people in the early 90s. As the movie shows, riots don't solve everything, but they do bring the kind of attention to oppression that only violence can bring.

People who think prisoners should rot in jail for whatever they did to get there will probably be able to ignore the message of Riot in Cell Block 11. For people like me, the film is preaching to the choir. Yet there is a whole middle of the population that simply hasn't considered these kinds of issues because they didn't need to. These are the people Cell Block 11 was made for, and just as the political message of riots had to be draped in violence, so too does a message such as this need to be drenched in noir and simmering with pulpy aggression. Does Riot in Cell Block 11 raise to the level of many of the classics in the Collection? Of course not. But it doesn't need to - it does what it was meant to do, now just as well as in 1954. This is a vital thread of film history in the American system, and this particular film represents one of the best, making it a great addition.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

#697: Tess

(Roman Polanski, 1979)

Look, I'm not the audience for Tess. I knew that going in. I held out some hope mainly because I do generally like Roman Polanski movies and one of the few costume dramas I do like was another Henry James adaptation, Wings of the Dove (a movie that had no business working as well as it did considering it was bookended by Hackers and K-Pax in its director's catalog). Was I worried about the nearly three-hour running time? Of course, but I prepped myself.

I might as well get the good thing out of the way first and just say the cinematography in the film - particularly the outdoor shots - are spectacular, and while they aren't as flashy as those in Days of Heaven, they rival them in their technical proficiency and sheer pleasure. Sadly, these scenes were mostly shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, who died in the middle of shooting the film (he also shot 2001), leading to another cinematographer taking his place for the rest of the shoot (they shared an Oscar for the film). This really is the best part of the movie, and I probably could have gotten along watching it on mute for most of the time.

Of course, it wasn't on mute, and that's were things get pretty depressing. I'm not one to entirely reject out of hand a nice tragedy, but I am fairly wary of the ones that revolve around a young woman and her sexual experiences (particularly when set in the past). When you add on top of the subject matter the awkward fact that the film was directed by Roman Polanski and it was 1) his first film since fleeing the US after pleading guilty to rape and 2) a movie he dedicated to his dead wife, who, after giving him the Henry James novel to make into a movie starring her, was promptly murdered by the Manson Family, well, things get a little complicated. I don't think the way the Alec is portrayed is problematic - he's a pretty straightforwardly bad guy - but I did find it a little uncomfortable how picturesque the scene was set for the rape sequence, however consciously this was meant to contrast with her experience. Overall, though, it was mainly how dour Tess's story was that got me down. I never really cared that much about her, so in a way it was even more tiresome to see her beaten down over the course of nearly three hours.

I do also have to say that regardless of how the Criterion essay felt about it, I didn't think Natassja Kinski's accent made her stronger in the role. She seemed out of place from the beginning and I didn't feel like Polanski picked her for any other reason than that she's a pretty lady.

It's funny, I was always a huge Roman Polanski fan growing up. Knife in the Water, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and especially Chinatown were huge films in my development as a cinephile. As I got older, I discovered Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden, and I even really really like The Ninth Gate in a trashy kind of way. But both Cul-de-Sac and this I found underwhelming, and I haven't liked any of his movies since The Ninth Gate (The Pianist is beautiful, but slight in its genre and certainly undeserving of the weird statement Oscar he received). Maybe if I had a different disposition Tess wouldn't have rubbed me the wrong way, and I'll be the first to admit that once those frills come out, it's hard for me to turn off the 12-year-old in me that just wants to put on Die Hard or whatever. But at the moment Tess just seems like another "life is hard for women, even if they're beautiful" movie, and I've seen enough of those.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#749: The Soft Skin

(Francois Truffaut, 1964)

A few weeks ago, a fellow Criterion completist posted a quote from Truffaut that basically invalidates my whole blog. As revenge, I thought it fitting that I should queue up Truffaut's follow-up to the masterpiece Jules et Jim, The Soft Skin, the only film of his in the Collection that I have yet to see (Day for Night was released after this one, but I have seen that film a couple of times, though it was years ago at this point). The film was poorly received when it was released, and despite some vocal proponents it remains a lesser entry in the director's catalog. I've had it in my Hulu queue since it appeared there and I was pleased when it received a proper release because it would force me to watch it sooner rather than later.

The Soft Skin is an odd film. On the surface it's a French morality tale that nods to the country's history of domestic melodramas. Yet this might be Truffaut's most technically sophisticated and rich cinematic display to this point in his career. Though the film provides little of the flash and overt style of earlier films like The 400 Blows or Shoot the Piano Player, the way Truffaut uses the basics of framing, shot selection, pacing, and the underrated POV makes it his most assured and neatly composed film.

Because of the narrow focus of the story and its traditional arc, Truffaut could focus entirely on these technical elements; Molly Haskell notes in the Criterion essay that Truffaut was working on his Hitchcock book at the time and it certainly shows. Look at the way Truffaut shoots the scene where the two lovers stop for gas and Françoise Dorléac sneaks away to change into a skirt - although the stakes seem as small as possible, the tension in the way Truffaut cuts back and forth from the characters to the car to the road to the meter on the pump is more reminiscent of the final sequence in Fat Girl than of a typical trip to the gas station. There are plenty of moments like this elsewhere: the claustrophobic style of the dinner Desailly finds himself trapped at while his mistress waits in the hotel room, the extended build of tension from the moment we see the gun to the final explosive act, even the way Desailly is filmed once he realizes he's been caught in a lie by his wife - all of these sequences are treated as high suspense when even the gun would barely register in other hands as anything other than a domestic detail.

The Soft Skin reminded me immediately of Tarantino's films. The way pulp is elevated by style and technique in QT's work makes the act of movie watching interactive and expectation-defying. Here, Truffaut's dedication to the story extends beyond his deft hand behind the camera by consistently damning Desailly's celebrity professor through his actions. But it even extends beyond the scope of the movie, as Truffaut himself would go on to leave his wife shortly after the film's release. In fact, a close look at Lachenay makes his similarities to the director (who was himself a celebrity who initially stood on the shoulders of artists before him to catapult to fame) seem hardly more obscured than those of Fellini or Allen to their respective alter-egos in 8 and 1/2 and Stardust Memories. The more Desailly seems like a stand-in for Truffaut, the more the film feels like a self-loathing confession and punishment, though just as Godard would long to be Belmondo in Breathless, so too would Truffaut be thrilled to die in a hail of bullets, sacrificed for the tragic passion of an ill-fated affair.

Despite the impressive execution of The Soft Skin, I have to wonder if this effort wouldn't have been better served with a stronger story. I don't think Truffaut earns Franca's choice to take up arms, just as Nicole's immediate turn on Lachenay (and his implied contempt toward her) felt more like a plot device than a realistic depiction of the end of an affair. Similarly, the depiction of Lachenay's adolescent impulses and his evolution as a husband and lover doesn't break any new ground. An A+ presentation of a B- story can't save the overall impression from being one of a missed opportunity, and The Soft Skin becomes a mid-level Truffaut film, a must-see for fans of the director but well behind the timeless masterpieces he made before and after.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

#743: La Cienaga

(Lucrecia Martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a well-crafted melodrama in the grand tradition of Central and South American cinema (and television). Martel's abilities as a filmmaker can often conceal this classification, and its the strongest moments in the movie - most notably the surreal and oddly disturbing opening sequence - that have brought the film to the Collection. But ultimately, I don't know that it is able to overcome this DNA, which has been baked into the acting, backstories of the characters, and ultimately the tragic and overbearing ending.

This is disappointing when you consider this is the first not just Argentinian film but South American film in the Collection - a massive hole in a 700+ film catalog. With Africa entering through the Scorsese boxset, that leaves just Antartica as the missing continent (Happy Feet?), but the absence of more South American film at Criterion points to a lack of high-profile directors from even the more established filmmaking communities (how many American filmgoers can name a South American movie other than City of God?).

Martel herself made her debut in this film, though you wouldn't know it from her sure hand behind the camera. There were many moments here that reminded me of directors with maturity and confident style like Pedro Costa, Buñuel, and Lynne Ramsay, but that South American brand lack of subtlety prevented the movie from fully coming together for me. I don't think this is objectively a bad thing, I think I just haven't gotten the hang of it. The film is dreary and rough going for a lot of its running time, and though it runs just 100 minutes it feels twice as long, simply because Martel takes her time getting from place to place and isn't especially interested in making sure you're coming with her to the next stop.

One thing I should note before I make it seem like I've totally written the movie off: this probably has a much different impact on people from Argentina. There's so much detail and dwelling on the small things that its surreal specificity must speak to people who are in the know. It can be very odd to watch a movie like this that is so specific to its very foreign locale, it feels like visiting an alternate universe. It's hard to remember in the US sometimes that more of the world looks like this portrait of Argentina than anything I've experienced living in four of the biggest cities here. Regardless of how I feel about the execution of any story, it's always one of film's strengths to provide this window into another world. I hope to see more South American films in the future both for this reason and for the simple fact that ignoring an entire continent's worth of output means you are certainly missing out on a lot of good films.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

#695: Blue Is the Warmest Color

(Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

I am not a lesbian. This is probably obvious to anyone who has read this blog before, but it's worth noting here because it's especially essential to understanding where I'm coming from in this response to Blue Is the Warmest Color, one of the more fascinating, controversial, and enigmatic recent entries into the Criterion Collection.

By its very nature, film is an interaction with the Other, most literally with the past, but often with different cultures, locations, people, realities. It might seem like a (kind of) lesbian love story should be no different than a Japanese domestic drama or a Swedish medieval parable - as a white straight American male, there is always the risk of translating the themes and politics of a film poorly, of valuing its "otherness" as a fetishized progressive ideal instead of meeting its humanity head-on with balanced perspective.

Yet some films are especially hard to evaluate, even for viewers who identify as belonging to the world the film is attempting to depict. Blue Is the Warmest Color has an unfair weight placed on it simply because there are so few films with which to compare it. The number of lesbian love stories in mainstream cinema in any country is almost criminally small, while the number of those films which attempt to depict sexuality in explicit and authentic terms is, well, seemingly non-existent. When something like this happens, there's nowhere for a film to hide, nothing to place beside it. Some reviewers clumsily stumble toward The L Word, a show with a deeply conflicted fanbase, saddled with a flawed show that is nevertheless the only thing they have to point to in the culture at large.

It is not Blue Is the Warmest Color's fault that it must carry this weight, but there are other strikes against the film that make it difficult to love. I begin with the rareness of Blue's subject matter because it is a tragic state of affairs, a black mark on cinema that raises the larger issue of the dominance of male voices in the medium - particularly straight white ones. This stems entirely from the enormous amount of money required to produce a film, which places more prejudices in play - a gay woman can sit down to pen a comic book memoir quite easily, but it takes many wealthy men making big decisions to greenlight the same story's big-screen adaptation. The easiest response to the criticism that Kechiche shouldn't have taken on content that would almost certainly have been better produced by a woman is to say "look around at who gets funding - if he didn't do it, who would?"

The other strikes I mention are perhaps just as complicated, but more common and certainly not singular. There are three basic areas of controversy surrounding Blue Is the Warmest Color, though all have deep roots in gender politics: the treatment of the actresses on set (and how it relates to Kechiche's general approach to filmmaking), the depiction of women in the film (both in the technical tradition of "the male gaze" and in the specific presentation of Adéle), and the more specific depiction of lesbian sex (few critics have complained about the general depiction of lesbians beyond these explicit scenes, so the controversy extends beyond the bedroom only insofar as these intimate moments inform one's viewing of the larger picture). Many articles on the movie have confused the two latter topics, preferring to think of the film as inherently about lesbians rather than women. I think this is a mistake that damages an investigation of the first topic, which is to say that assuming the film is a mere attempt at a lesbian love story (or even one at all) gives short shrift to all three issues and misses both the conscious and subconscious point of the film.

I'll begin with the controversy surrounding the making of the film, both because it is the easiest to dismiss and because it informs the way anyone sees the other issues. Although there were some serious labor allegations already brewing, the bulk of the controversy came out of an interview in The Daily Beast shortly after the Cannes win (where the actresses shared the Palmes D'Or with the director, a move that speaks to the uncomfortable politics wrapped up in the film's power dynamics), where the two leads discussed their negative experiences on the set of the film. Initially much of the criticism seems to come from their (understandable) embarrassment over the emotionally raw and explicit sex scenes, but it quickly opens up into more serious descriptions of abuse that depict working conditions that sound certainly toxic if not borderline criminal.

As a leader of an actor's guild, an activist focused on developing healthy gender-safe working conditions, or perhaps a studio executive considering bankrolling the next Kechiche film, these testimonials would merit more concern. As a filmgoer, I'm not sure they are worth very much. Obviously the limits of cinematic exploitation exist, and there's a line at which the story behind the making of a film can overrule any of the artistic value of the finished product (the most extreme being snuff films, but really any film in which intentional physical suffering with long-term damage is difficult if not impossible to accept). But these stories seem more like the psychological scorn heaped on Shelly Duvall by Stanley Kubrick in the making of The Shining than anything approaching dangerous. Without evidence of wrongdoing that goes beyond someone being a terrible person who treats everyone like garbage, wholesale dismissal of a movie seems understandable but hardly mandatory. The grand example of hating the artist but loving the art is either Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, and in both cases the flaws are so baked into the work itself that it's impossible to avoid. Blue Is the Warmest Color may be fatally masculine in its perspective, but it would be harder (though not impossible) to argue that the film is misogynistic.

So if the film is to be taken for what is on the screen and nothing else, what is to be made of the three-hour personal epic that is Blue Is the Warmest Color? The first thing to note about the film is something everyone notes about it: Adéle Exarchopoulos is a movie star of the highest order. Though this isn't the grandest performance (she's still very young), she's in nearly every scene and it's impossible to look away - nor do you want to. Adéle has that incredible pull in front of the camera that is only tangentially related to beauty, an excitement about what she'll do next that feels dangerous and exciting at the same time. It's fitting that she's making a movie with Sean Penn, who shares the same talent as an actor, and she's the one piece of Blue that needn't be debated.

The next thing everyone notes about the film is that, despite the hype, the sex scenes take up about ten percent of a three hour movie. That means there's a whole (pretty long) movie here that has no sex whatsoever. Once the first blush of the love affair has faded, there's about an hour and a half of the film without any sex at all (though it features a handful of gratuitous ass shots that Manohla Dargis rightly took offense to). I think this is most important because the movie's most complex gender issues are revealed outside of the bedroom, as are the true intentions of the film. The movie certainly wouldn't have received as much attention if it was not for the lengthy sex scene that is the center of the controversy surrounding the movie, but if the film treated this aspect of their love story in an honest way that asserted the importance of sex in the role of relationships, is it the movie's fault that countless other films have had the same opportunity but, fearing the backlash and pigeonholing that comes with explicit sex, have timidly faded to the morning after?

There is no denying the significance of the sex scene, though, and here is where the movie gets into hot water. As someone with no lesbian-sex experience (yet!), I can't tell you how "authentic" the sex is. I can say, however, that the scene felt pretty fucking awkward. In fact, the scene it reminded me of most was the horrible, wonderful waterfall sex scene in Showgirls, which is so special that if you haven't seen it you should really do yourself a favor. That film's sex scenes were odd because it frequently felt like the movie had been made by ten-year-old boys who not only had never had sex before, but had never seen anyone have sex, had never been to Las Vegas, and seemingly believed a "showgirl" was someone who got aggressive about french fries. Needless to say, the fact that I was reminded of this while watching Blue Is the Warmest Color is not good - I guess what I'm saying is that intrinsically I felt this wasn't how any real person had sex. I don't think that's just because the movie is depicting such an unusually passionate encounter - I've seen In the Realm of the Senses, and while the sexual scenes in that film were certainly umm.... interesting? and significantly more plentiful than they are here, they never felt inauthentic.

That said, I have a really hard time making any sort of universal judgment about the scene, because this is where I think many of my straight while male co-conspirators have gotten into hot water. I'm not about to bust out the "mansplaining" headlines, but I tend to think that if you are in a position of privilege and someone calls out a depiction of their gender, race, or other oppressed class as potentially troublesome, it's a good idea to shut up and listen, instead of thrilling at the opportunity to shoot down their concern. Is the sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color unrealistic, pornographic, doomed by "the male gaze"? Perhaps. But the only way I could come to a better conclusion on that is to engage, to discuss, and to read pieces like the wonderful and provocative one by Manohla Dargis.

What's most disappointing about the debate over the sex scene is that it obscures what I see as the more significant problem with Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is its depiction of women, like Dargis points out, not as they are but as they are seen. There are a number of revealing moments throughout the movie that give me pause, but the one that is most apparent - and has been discussed most frequently elsewhere - is the scene in which an art director explains that he believes the female orgasm is magical, that women can experience much more pleasure than a man, and essentially describes the role of the director in the very sex scene that just happened in the film.

It's telling that the secret theme of a film that features two lead women with a focus that almost never strays from their relationship is delivered by a male character we hardly know and never see again. This stand in for Kechiche has just given away the game, and his sly insertion into the love story at hand is most troubling because it is done so consciously, like a gleeful criminal daring us to catch him.

The uncomfortable male gaze of the film doesn't stop there, it's infused in nearly every frame of the movie, from Adéle's casually drooping cigarettes to the camera's remarkable ability to be where her body is going before she gets there. Even as I dismissed the backstory of the filming, it's impossible to overlook the fact that Kechiche has a history of casting beautiful young women in his films. When combined with the pure physical passion of Adéle's character, this fact sticks out in my mind, and the eroticism of her story threatens to overthrow her humanity at every turn. Even a beautiful scene like the art party, infused with empathy and authenticity, artfully paced and shot, can be ruined by a boorish speech or a juxtaposition of Adéle's jealous stares at her girlfriend flirting with an ex and a man she has just met doing the same to her, fascinated by her unattainable status as "Lesbian." The men in the film, constantly sexualizing Adéle, might feel more like critical commentary on the state of men if the film didn't seem so fascinated with the same things they are (and if the implication of the ending wasn't that Adéle would eventually end up with one of them).

These concerns have been obscured by the sex debate, so that moments that have troubling implications and reinforce one of the oldest, most disturbing power dynamics in cinema are overlooked by defenders who dismiss critics as prudish, close-minded, overly sensitive. This is especially a mistake because the lesbian nature of the sex scene obscures the fact that the movie itself is neither about a lesbian (Adéle is bisexual, or at the very least confused about her sexuality) nor is it a lesbian film - which is to say that it is not presenting a lesbian or queer perspective and, illustratively, its director does not consider the movie to be about lesbians. By fixating on the idea that the movie is about lesbians, the conversation has overlooked the larger question of femininity and its role in male-dominated cinema.

I've written a lot here because I am fascinated by the absence of female voices in cinema and dedicated to re-engaging with film in a way that challenges conventional notions of what women should look like on film. Blue Is the Warmest Color stirs up these issues both intentionally and unintentionally, and in many ways its difficult to determine where the film lands on these ideas. There is real truth in many of the moments between Adéle and her lover, and Kechiche's dedication to perfection is apparent throughout the film. Immediately after watching the film, I thought it was a worthy inclusion in the Collection and a noteworthy - if flawed - film in cinema history. After reading about the movie and writing this piece, I'm not sure that the film's most notable achievement isn't that it was able to deliver 20th century gender politics with a 21st century façade.

Friday, August 28, 2015

#771: Two Days, One Night

(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

I end up saying this a lot on this blog, but here we go again: Two Days, One Night is the kind of film that would never be made in Hollywood. What's most interesting about that statement here, however, is that Hollywood really should be making films like this, and in fact often used to.

The basic premise of the film is that a woman who has been on medical leave from her job finds out that her boss had the other workers vote on whether they would get a bonus or have her come back to work. Now she must go around to all of her co-workers to convince them to forgo their bonus so she can keep her job. It's the kind of small, human-scale premise that is never made in Hollywood anymore, but its build to the vote and her quiet desperation lend the film a suspense and emotional connection that is totally lacking in what is actually produced these days.

The film lives or dies with Marion Cotillard. She's in every scene and even rarely off camera, and because we don't really get a chance to meet her before she is thrown into her challenge (another thing Hollywood would never allow) Cotillard needs to spend the rest of the film building up her character's backstory and giving her actions more than just a surface "I just want my job back" air. The film might have been more successful with a less glamorous actress - Cotillard's star quality and beauty makes it hard to see her as anything other than the protagonist in the film, like Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button (while both are great performances, Pitt's was more acceptable with the context of Fincher's hyperreal fable). Still, it's easy to forgive this casting when the technique both in front of and behind the camera is so impressive. The movie's episodic nature almost turns it into a mystery thriller, with each co-worker another piece of the puzzle, but the Dardennes' humanism makes Cotillard's journey more realistic and even urgent than any whodunit could ever be.

I don't know if Two Days, One Night rises to the level of the best films by the Dardenne brothers, but I can confidently say that cinema needs more films like this. Cotillard's journey recalls that in The Bicycle Thief but lacks the melodrama of that era, instead reaching for a technique that approaches verite, a reminder that, even for these former documentary filmmakers, fiction often resembles life more than the real thing.

#684: Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project


Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project is a vital project with distinctly Western mindset. The notion that six films as diverse and distinct as these could be grouped together under any banner other than "cinema" is reductionist. Yet the care given to each and the spotlight shone on them by Scorsese's name and organization is impossible to dismiss as exoticism. The films in this collection (an assumed first in a series considering the 1 on its cover) are all unique and deserving of their restorations, and if the "world cinema" label ghettoizes them it is done while simultaneously elevating the value of perspectives different from what we typically see in film. Like world music, the title hopefully becomes a call for more diverse voices in cinema (in this case cinema history) and a tacit admission that the accepted canon is not definitive but instead sorely lacking perspective.

All six of these films (with the possible exception of The Housemaid) put their respective cultures at the center of their themes and subject matters in a way only rarely seen in the US. The similarity of the films stop there, however, as the stories range from music documentaries to experimental dramas to studio suspense. Of the bunch, Dry Summer stood out for me as the masterpiece. I was hooked on the story from the beginning, and the technique on display was more compelling than Hitchcock's Marnie, made the same year. But overall this box is a great release worth digging into, and the thought and effort put into preserving these films and giving them a wider audience is arguably the best thing Scorsese has done since Goodfellas.

Links to the individual films:

685. Touki Bouki
686. Redes
687. A river Called Titas
688. Dry Summer
689. Trances
690. The Housemaid

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

#687: A River Called Titas

(Ritwik Ghatak, 1973)

If there is a standard criticism of the most famous masters of the East, most notably Akira Kurasawa and Satyajit Ray, it is that they are deeply affected by the presence of the West. There is a sense that these directors have either been so deeply influenced by the Western concept of cinema or are so conscious of the Western gaze that their work is not truly representative of not just their national cinema but of their countries at large.

I tend to reject such criticism - unwrapping the influences and flowing ideas of international cinema is as difficult as separating the contributions of R&B and country to rock's creation. But watching a film like A River Called Titas makes it harder to ignore the idea that there are films that have a stronger national identity. Ritwik Ghatak's film documenting the lives of a small group of people living along the river Titas is a definitively Indian experience, as unconcerned with conforming to outside aesthetic rules as it is dedicated to its subjects' quiet lives and stark landscapes.

The most remarkable films of this nature can be invigorating, but even the greatest can be difficult to approach from a Western perspective. Without cultural touchstones, films can be as indecipherable as the language their protagonists speak. Consequently, A River Called Titas is not easy to fall in love with on first viewing. What can be appreciated, however, is Ghatak's love of his subject, the beautiful care with which he treats the manmade and natural surroundings he captures. Halfway through the film I grew tired of the melodrama of the story and spent most of my time simply living in the world A River Called Titas depicted. This is an underrated power of cinema; underutilized because viewers are so rarely exposed to films of this nature and resisted because of preconceived ideas about what movies should provide.

I didn't fully stay with A River Called Titas, but I took away from it a profound sense of place. It's the idea that each film I see makes the world a bigger and more complex living organism that draws me to a film like A River Called Titas, even when I have difficulty translating its appeal to fit my Western expectations.

Friday, May 29, 2015

#748: Watership Down

(Martin Rosen, 1978)

It took 700 films for Criterion to release its first full-length feature animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which slipped through thanks to Criterion's close relationship with Wes Anderson. This is partially because of the difficulty of licensing the most important animation, the bulk of which is behind the Disney paywall or obscure Japanese agreements (occasionally the two combine to make it even more difficult to obtain animated features - note that none of Miyazaki's best work is available digitally). Mainly, however, the lack of animation in Criterion's stables stems from two things: the unfair perception among cinephiles that animated work is inherently artistically inferior and the skew toward family appeal in the genre. This latter element is a barrier both artistically (as the bulk of animation is slight) and financially (as the home video market for family entertainment is much more robust than that of foreign film).

With these barriers in mind, it's not much of a surprise that the first truly animated (i.e. hand drawn) feature to arrive in the Collection is Watership Down. Wielding both the literary heft and adult-focused themes that separate it from the typical animated film, Watership is the perfect fit for Criterion on paper. The good news is that in practice it's also fully worthy of the label and a deserving "first" representation within the catalog.

Before the beautiful and trippy intro of the film is over, it's already clear that Watership is a unique animated film. The talking animal trope is as old as animated film itself, yet rarely has it been used in such a serious and adult-themed context. The rabbits of Watership Down are no less anthropomorphized than Thumper - in fact, the concept has been taken to its extreme, with the full weight of what it means to be human behind it. Here are animals with their own creation mythology, socio-political dynamics, and the full scale of human emotion. It's a stark reminder of what has been lost in the accepted (Western) truth that animation is inherently for kids.

The story of Watership Down is very engaging, and I found myself wrapped up in this dark tale of a group of rabbits struggling for survival. Although the animation is not perfect, it's also beautiful and carefully detailed. Rosen made another animated film based on a Richard Adams novel after this, but his career outside of these two films was also filled with literary adaptations (albeit live action). His care for the written word can often overpower his own artistic interpretations here, making the film a little by the numbers, but the imagination behind the story is so vivid that it never seems routine.

Although there are countless animated films that would certainly make the Collection if Criterion had free reign, most will never see the light of day. Still, there are many films that I'd love to see included that could conceivably make their way into the Collection: The Adventures of Prince Achmed is currently out of print, The Secret of Nimh is currently a clearance blu ray, while any of Bill Plympton's work would make for a great adult installment in the series. Regardless, Watership Down is a film any fan of animated film should see, and it's hopefully the beginning of a bigger trend.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

#761: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

(Jaromil Jires, 1970)

In the four months since I last posted here, I moved into a new house and settled into life as a parent of two children. I've probably watched a total of three films in that span, the driest spell in my adult life, probably in my life after two years old or so.

I mention this because Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is not the ideal movie to jump back into Criterion specifically and cinema in general. It's a difficult (though admittedly playful) surrealist playground of new wave cinema, hippie mysticism, and Christian philosophy that doesn't settle into any recognizable groove over it brief running time. There were moments I enjoyed, and the film has some memorable visuals and a handful of technical tricks that make it a worthwhile viewing. But I think even if I had been in the right mindset for this one it would demand multiple viewings before a cohesive viewpoint could be generated. As it stands, I'm not close to that place, and as Stuart Smalley says, that's ok.