Monday, February 29, 2016

#763: The Bridge

(Bernhard Wicki, 1959)

The Bridge is reminiscent of two very different Criterion World War II films from other key players in the war: Twenty-Four Eyes from Japan and Ballad of a Soldier from Russia. But it might be most similar to a movie from America that was used for entirely different purposes. I'll address them separately.

Like Twenty-Four Eyes, The Bridge is about a class of boys who would have to go off to fight in a war that was not their making, but that they believed in nonetheless. The teacher in each is a pacifist, but this does them little good - in fact, you could argue the teacher here inadvertently leads the boys down their path to ruin, though his plan seemed pretty sturdy when he first puts it into motion. Unlike Twenty-Four Eyes, however, which is about the death of soldiers only in as much as these deaths are felt by the women who stay at home, The Bridge is very much focused on the soldiers themselves. Or rather, these children, who aren't soldiers at all but are instead collateral damage in the German suicide mission that is the tail end of a war whose tide has turned.

Ballad of a Soldier was told from the winning side, though the USSR's losses in the war were enough to question that characterization. It differs substantially from the other two films in that it is a propaganda piece, designed as a universal parable. The Bridge occasionally reminded me of that film in its depiction of the boys, but ultimately it was the elemental and poetic style Wicki utilizes that reminded me of Soviet imagery of the era. The grammar here is basic, which is what the movie demands, allowing the boys' stories to unfold gradually and naturally, which leaves the final sequence that much more heartbreaking.

This is where the final film comes in, The Sullivans from 1944. Based on a famous American tragedy during World War II, the film concerns five brothers who were stationed on the same boat when it sank in the Pacific, killing them all (the event is referenced in Saving Private Ryan, where the mission to return home the only surviving son is a response to this tragedy). I'll refrain from spoiling the film's final moments, which are remarkably powerful regardless of your feelings about war, since this isn't a post about that movie and I urge anyone reading this to seek it out, as it's both a pretty good movie and an important political moment in American film (its release was a cathartic sensation and there were reports of people literally falling into the aisles crying). But I will say that the structure of that film mirrors this one, and while the two films are at odds with each other over the value of battle, they both want you to feel deeply the sacrifice of war and the tragedy of life ended too soon.

The final stake in the heart that is the card at the end of the film underscores the insignificance of what just happened. But it also raises an interesting question about the purpose of the film and the autobiographical novel it was based on. Obviously the fact that this is (roughly) a true story means it doesn't have to have a direct Animal Farm-style metaphor at its core. But the significance of the film in German history (and its success outside of the German borders) indicates it hit a pretty raw nerve. The simplest parallel is between the uselessness of the war in retrospect and how many men (and boys) were lost to a cause that was not just misguided (as it is here) but evil. But one could also see the film as a larger condemnation of masculine rhetoric around the honor of being a soldier. The kids in The Bridge are never taken seriously - by anyone in the film or by the film itself. Though they are teenagers, they often come across like they are much younger. When they find a liquor stash it doesn't seem certain that any of them know what to do with it. Their views on the war are expectedly simplistic, and the film never hesitates to condemn their attitudes - the same attitude that seals their fate in the final attack.

The Bridge could have very easily been a very sad film, but I think think it's mostly an angry one. The final card is meant to stir up that anger, the idea among what was undoubtedly a huge percentage of Germany that they had been had, with the consequence of sending their sons to the slaughter while their daughters burned in fire bombings. It's hard to feel bad for the country that perpetrated the greatest crime of the 20th century, but The Bridge at least effectively struggles with Germany's own scars. I don't think this is a great film, but it's an important one for film history and with so few obscure titles being pulled up by Criterion these days, it's easy to be thankful for its inclusion in the Collection.

Friday, February 26, 2016

#760: State of Siege

(Costa-Gavras, 1972)

The three films that catapulted Costa-Gavras onto the international film scene in the late 60s and early 70s are all political statements about the use of violence and authoritarian power. Technically, however, they range greatly. Z, the best of the three and the most successful, was shot it a documentary style that put the viewer on the street as events were happening. The Confession was more composed and painterly, lending the story a deep sense of tragedy through its timeless qualities.

State of Seige, on the other hand, is more subdued than both and settles into the territory between the two extremes. The way it shifts smoothly between the various players and lets its story unfold with minimal hand-holding is reminiscent of the best crime thrillers of the past few decades, but ironically the film is perhaps less of a thriller than either of the other two Costa-Gavras films from this period. This is both because we find out the end of the story within a few minutes and because as the final moments suggest so little of what we are seeing is of any real significance. There's an illusion of suspense that Costa-Gavras purposely exposes by eliminating the question of whether or not Montand will survive in order to emphasize the futility of the rebels' fight.

The role of the US in South America politics is something that I've spent an enormous amount of time reading and thinking about, whether it's the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled Allende's government in Chile (where, in a sad coincidence, this movie was filmed prior to the coup and which would later become the topic of another Costa-Gavras masterpiece, Missing) or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who faced off against a contra force financed in part by the CIA's illicit drug trade. The topic is also well-worn territory within the Criterion Collection, both in docudrama form and surrealist commentary. Outside of slavery, there are few more difficult sections of America's history to reckon with as an informed citizen than our systematic destabilization and promotion of authoritarian dictatorships throughout South America, and one of the great tragedies of American education is that this history is essentially unknown by the vast majority of the country.

With this personal history - both intentional and unintentional - I can only look at State of Siege through the eyes of an American, which is important because the film is so unconcerned with this perspective. In a typical well-meaning American film on the same topic, there would be substantially more humanizing of the Americans, and the only voices of Americans we heard for any notable amount of time would not be limited to the central figure played by Montand. Similarly, there would be substantially more explanation of the situation, even in a nameless country like the one used here. Costa-Gavras is unconcerned with these things because he is not trying to stop America from doing the things it's doing - he know that will never happen. State of Siege is entirely about the movement to fight against these invasions - what is sacrificed, what is deserved, and what it means to fight against an invisible and unending power.

The essay that accompanies the film from Criterion sees the ending as hopeful. There will always be a determined underground resistance ready to fight the new boss, same as the old boss. I see it as defeating and tragic. These men have given up their souls for what they believed could save innocent lives, only to see that there is a never-ending supply of evil and oppression. Costa-Gavras realizes the futility of the fight and the charade of a clear, graspable enemy. Despite a central villain in Montand, the title's state of siege refers to a mentality and a literal state, an amorphous government impossible to destroy because it is always out of reach. Its many heads can be chopped off, but a new one will grow in its place.

Watching movies made for other people about your people is not a typical experience for an American white male. The fact that State of Siege was made in the middle of when these events were happening (though you can argue similar events are still taking place in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia) makes the document even more difficult to handle. We don't do much reckoning with history in this country, but what makes State of Siege so disturbing is its lack of interest in holding our hand through its world, the dark side of American international affairs. We don't see the boss behind the curtain pulling the strings and tearing apart both sides because it's us.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

#747: Fellini Satyricon

(Federico Fellini, 1969)

When I watched Amarcord, I thought it was an enjoyable distillation of Fellini's unmistakeable style, the concept of "Felliniesque" taken to its logical conclusion. One of the reasons I didn't truly love the film was that I thought his excesses of style and aesthetics were taken to such an extreme that the movie lost its grounded intentions amidst the surreal and flamboyant visuals. I assumed Fellini would be well-served (as he had been in his masterpieces from the late 50s and early 60s) by taking it down a notch.

Little did I know that Amarcord had already come down a substantial notch from the pinnacle of Fellini's Felliniesque period two films earlier. In fact, Fellini Satyricon likely represents a stratosphere several notches above Amarcord, at a height where only Fellini would dare to Fellini. I said in my post on Juliet of the Spirits (a film I have come to regard very highly since my mixed initial response) that that may be the most Fellini movie Fellini ever made. I was deeply, deeply mistaken. Here is Fellini in all his Fellini glory, when a director has produced so many masterpieces and establish such an identifiable style that he becomes a brand, applicable to whichever genre he deems Felliniable.

How you feel about Fellini Satyricon will largely depend on how nice of a TV you have. Ideally, you don't own a TV but have a really great repertory theater near you that will play whatever you want; get them to run this one through their projector. Fellini Satyricon is a visually awesome experience. The sets, production design, and cinematography are gorgeous and surreal. They reminded me strongly of Jodorowsky's work of the same era both in terms of basic beauty and surreal depth (though El Topo is probably one of the few films I've seen that would make this movie seem downright commercial).

The story of Fellini Satyricon is less exciting. As a serial, I found it fairly uneven, with a success rate of about 40% and no strong connection to carry me through the stories that were less compelling. I think seeing this movie in a theater would improve its value tremendously, but I don't know if even this extra effort would propel the movie, as style-heavy as it is, into the upper tier of Fellini's work.

Monday, February 22, 2016

#787: Jellyfish Eyes

(Takashi Murakami, 2014)

Jellyfish Eyes is one of the few unique films in the collection, a pop-tribute guerrilla blockbuster that hovers between so many worlds it's almost impossible to pin down. My interest in the film overshadows my affection for it, as some of the filmmaking falls very short of the excellence typically seen in a Criterion film. Still, it's a fascinating risk on the part of Janus - and therefore Criterion - and it will be interesting to see if it pays off.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's start with the basics. Jellyfish Eyes is built out of four main influences: the Japanese kaiju tradition, pop anime like Pokemon, the family friendly blockbusters of Spielberg and Hollywood, and the high-art world of director Takashi Murakami's day job. All four are almost equally present in the film, but the most obvious to any film fan that approaches the film without any information will be the kaiju grounding of the film's structure. Although it establishes the creation of the monster in a decidedly anime fashion, melding secret society visuals with pop-spiritual mumbo jumbo, and frames the story around a child, the connections to Gojira are immediately apparent, even before the lumbering giant monster appears on the scene ready to destroy the city. The Fukashima disaster stands in for the atomic bomb, while Mr. Potato Head stands in for Godzilla, and there's a palpable sense of loss in both films, not just for an individual (in this case a dead father, an approximation of the absent father in E.T.) but for a way of life.

This kaiju connection is quite easily tied to the basic framework and visual aesthetic of the Pokemon franchise (and other similar Japanese anime and video games), which is similarly easily linked to "kids with buddies" films like E.T. (and less fantastical films like Shiloh or other kid/animal movies). The idea that Jellyfish Eyes was conceived as a live-action anime is not novel, and in fact the film was originally conceived as an animated movie before Murakami shifted to live action. Indeed, the movie cribs camera angles, sound effects, and quick cutting techniques in the action sequences almost directly from the low-rent anime he is intending to mimic. These connections are almost as obvious to even a casual viewer of the genre as the clear influence of the Pokemon creatures on the F.R.I.E.N.D.s of the story. In fact they are even more specific, considering the idea that each protagonist would have a protector or kindred spirit is a timeless archetype of literature and film, from the spirit animal of Native Americans to the patronus of the Harry Potter books.

The biggest problem with the use of this style is that, from a technical and critical perspective, it isn't especially good - particularly when incorporated into a real-life (low-budget) format. A good comparison film here is the Wachowskis' hideously underrated Speed Racer, where a similar transference from cheap Japanese anime to live-action kids movie met with success purely because they were able to pour lots and lots of money into the outcome. Without this opportunity to deliver anime-perfect compositions in a real-world playground, part of the presumed ambition of the film collapses before it can even get off the ground.

Despite this fatal flaw in the film, there's a really good argument to be made that all of this was intentional - that Murakami didn't especially care that his film was not shot well and came across as a bit stilted and underbaked. This is where the director's art career comes into play and debating the merits of the film must be done on several levels. Is Murakami as conscious and in command of his style behind the camera as he is in front of the canvas? Is the low art of Jellyfish Eyes intended to match disjointedly with the sophisticated social commentary of the film's politics? If you believe Murakami that he was indeed making a kids movie, does this negate any attempt to judge the film on a deeper level - especially if that level demands a rejection of the movie's effectiveness on its most basic surface?

These issues may have all been considered when Janus purchased the North American rights to Jellyfish Eyes, but I could just as easily see someone in the company respecting the film as an oddity impossible to deconstructThe essay Criterion includes in its package for the film spends a great deal of time talking about Murakami as an artist, and less time evaluating the film itself. This doesn't mean that Criterion doesn't value the movie on its own, but I think it's safe to say they wouldn't have given it a second thought had Murakami not been attached. Still, its mere inclusion in the Collection demands a higher level of examination than it may get otherwise, and I do think there's a good case to be made that this isn't just a genre exercise.

Along with the tsunami references, the elements that hint that Murakami might have had something deeper and more subversive in mind here primarily stem from the iPhone-like devices each child is given when they receive their F.R.I.E.N.D. and the ominous Christian cult Saki's mother belongs to. The former is perhaps more congruent with the presumed intention of producing a movie accessible to kids, but it's impossible to let the latter slip by without pointing it out. This aspect of the story will supposedly play a bigger role in the future films, which indicates its importance in the larger story, a profile that seems totally incongruous with the family movie genre. The satire of this element is at the very least a nod to the adults dragged along to the movie, but it seems much more likely that it is just the most obvious aspect of the film that keys in viewers to the larger plan, that the movie was made more for adults who like these kinds of movies than for the kids these kinds of movies are ostensibly for.

So what to make of the devices and the religious material? After a first watch, I don't know if the themes are that compelling, and like a lot of the movie, their executions feel underbaked. Like so much of Jellyfish Eyes, the conceptual underpinning is very strong, but what ends up on screen feels a bit like some smart talented kids dicking around. The devices are not developed beyond their initial introduction, and only serve to highlight the division between Masashi and the other kids. Similarly, the church seems like the most basic of contrasts with the main conflict, and any potential social satire that might come in subsequent installments would not have much to build on here.

Of course, the one immediately appealing aspect of the film is one I have yet to discuss: Murakami's creature designs. Although the film doesn't exactly impress in the effects department, the basic designs of the creatures and their personalities are highly appealing and enjoyable. Although I am partial to Saki's Ludo-like F.R.I.E.N.D., the smaller Pokemon-style majority is also a step above most of what we see in this kind of film, and it makes the movie pretty consistently fun to look at.

Still, you can't help coming away from the movie with the idea that there wasn't anyone who knew how to make a movie in a position of power. According to many stores about the movie there were massive reworkings after an initial screening for friends was deemed incomprehensible, and I dont know that they turned it around in subsequent versions. In a lot of ways, this feels very much like an experiment from a talented artist that lacks the technical know-how to implement his vision. Most movies of this nature are seen by only a handful of people, and almost never seen by the wide and discerning audience Criterion has at their disposal. But because Murakami is not the average just-starting-out filmmaker, that circle of potential viewers expanded significantly, and the movie's reputation has suffered because of it.

There are a lot of arguments for why Criterion shouldn't have released Jellyfish Eyes, and unlike Tiny Furniture I definitely don't have a spectacular reason for dismissing all of them. As I mentioned in that post, I'm not one to argue that Criterion shouldn't release a film because they could have released other better films (though recent releases slates have me concerned for lesser-known older foreign films). That's like arguing the Academy got every Best Picture wrong because the best movie of that year wasn't even nominated - there are always amazing, better movies out there to be discovered. And I don't think every movie they release needs to be a masterpiece - only about a quarter of the films I've posted about here would I consider to be five-star masterpieces, yet I could count on both hands the films I would say don't deserve to be Criterion films with room to spare.

I do, however, think that Jellyfish Eyes feels more like a pick made out of aspiration and association. Murakami might very well turn out to be an impressive filmmaker with a uniquely odd eye for family cinema. Similarly, this might be the best chance Criterion gets to bring anime into the family, considering how difficult it is to license the best of that genre (Akira was released on Laserdisc, but will almost certainly never see the light of day on Criterion blu). These two facets of the film certainly have the potential to improve with sequels and other projects from Murakami, which makes this a bit of a bet on future returns. That's a risky proposition, and it's likely there were some detractors within the company on this choice - the film currently sits at 18% on Rotten Tomatoes (though it has just 11 reviews) - and their concerns were certainly echoed by the vast majority of Criterion fans, making this one of the most controversial releases of last year (though for my money Mister Johnson is far more unwarranted). But I think the best reason for this movie to be included in the Collection is more simple than the tangential connection to anime or high art: there's simply nothing else like it in the Collection.

#741: My Winnipeg

(Guy Maddin, 2007)

Guy Maddin's films occupy a seldom-discussed corner of the Criterion universe. Brand Upon the Brain was one of the last films in the collection to get a DVD-only release, while My Winnipeg was released last year to little fanfare. Of the contemporary directors in the Collection, Maddin is arguably the least well-known (maybe the Dardennes brothers or Whit Stillman compete) and certainly the most controversial. IFC also owns the rights to The Saddest Music in the World, which may be Maddin's most accessible film (at least of the ones I've seen), but it's unclear if Criterion is simply spacing them out or if the (assumed) lack of sales from these two releases has stalled their Maddin love affair.

Criterion representatives have often discussed the need for someone in the company to champion a film in order for it to be selected for release, and Maddin's films seem like one of the great examples of this. Few directors in the modern era have such a distinctive style, and even fewer elicit such a love/hate response. This dynamic mirrors that of Criterion's king of modern cinema, Wes Anderson, albeit on a much smaller scale. Anderson's films are significantly more accessible and while they both share a love of film and a sly sense of humor, Maddin pulls his inspiration from significantly less canonical material, veering frequently into experimental and camp territory without concern for the blurred line between mainstream vintage cinema and cult underground art films.

My Winnipeg is more of the same from Maddin, but its combination of autobiographical content, historical oddities, and off-kilter surrealism that blends together in ways that make them indistinguishable from each other fits his technical style to a T. Many of Maddin's other films (including Brand Upon a Brain) could probably exist in more conventional forms, their stories shaved down to make their square shape fit into the round hole of conventional cinema. My Winnipeg could exist in no other form, its fever-dream aesthetic matches perfectly with Maddin's story. Although there are stretches here that drag on a bit, and occasional moments that are so over the top that it's hard to hang on, there are also some wonderful ideas, like the Winnipeg TV series about a man who gets on a ledge and threatens to jump every episode, or the horses frozen in the river that are depicted on the excellent cover for the release.

Like any other Maddin film, My Winnipeg will have a substantial portion of the audience running for the exit. Although I don't think Maddin is a director that can be dismissed completely if you didn't like one of his films, his style is so consuming that even a "better" Maddin movie for many people will be something they don't mind missing. Conversely, there are people on the other side of the divide who would likely go to bat for even his most obscure and affected material. While the Criterion essay for the film is in a style of prose that I find insufferable, I do think it is representative of the kind of free-wheeling, intellectual counter-culture work his films represent, something I greatly prefer in film rather than literature. I don't expect Criterion to put out movies that are going to be approved of by 100% of their buyers, though, and I do think Maddin's love of film and singular approach warrants his inclusion in the Collection. While I've only seen a handful of his many films over the last three decades, My Winnipeg may be my favorite, and a great addition to Criterion's modern and avant ranks.

Friday, February 19, 2016

#759: The Confession

(Costa-Gavras, 1970)

This is usually not the place to discuss current entertainment news, let alone political news. But watching Costa-Gavras's deeply disturbing and intense film has clear implications for what's happening in the world today both generally and within the United States. The now decades-long debate in this country over torture and its benefits or lack thereof represents an extreme abandoning of the lessons of the past and America's dedication to at least ostensibly projecting an image of moral authority in the world.

Like any good film that attempts to tell the complex and unflinching truth, what you take from The Confession will likely be informed by your worldview. For conservatives, this is likely to be seen as a takedown of the socialist satellites of the USSR and by extension a rejection of the underpinning communist philosophy. As a work of art, this would be a largely useless piece of propaganda that would have outlived its usefulness three decades ago. For people who are more generally cautious of institutional power (a group to which Costa-Cavras himself undoubtedly belongs considering his decades-long stretch of career choices), The Confession is much more universal, and presents a harrowing argument against coercion as a tool in law enforcement. That said, I do think there is a strong anti-communist message here, though it's one that isn't necessarily shared by the director. Costa-Gavras simply tells the truth in The Confession, but his final moments end on a call for Lenin to rescue his movement from the evils that transpired in its wake. I'm not sure Lenin (or anyone) could help, for the very nature of the system created in Russia guaranteed corruption of power - after all, it's not capitalism or communism or any other political system that owns the darker side of human instinct, and only an open society can root out the ill-willed forces that would threaten to destroy it.

It's this larger point that goes beyond interrogation methods and torture that seems more important to me at this stage in history. Maybe I just thought of the comparison because the news is happening right now, but The Confession reminded me most of the battle Apple is currently fighting to keep its operating system secure. Although smart phones may be just a momentary blip in technological terms, their current dominance means that they represent the greatest threat to authoritarian governments today. Giving these governments access to any phone they wanted would mean that criminals would also have access to them, for sure, but even more importantly it would mean that dissidents and political fighters would need to go elsewhere for security. The Confession does not have any direct implications in this regard (even home computers were unheard of when it was made) but it does highlight the damage that can be inflicted on people when their government is given total control over their lives. Although the torture sequence that takes up the bulk of the first half of the movie is intense enough, it's the second half that highlights this terrifying truth, making it equally if not more disturbing.

Of course, I haven't discussed the movie much, but instigating political discussion (and ideally action) is largely the purpose of Costa-Gavras's films. Though he is a very cinematic and technically sound director, his main focus is using the medium to get a political response. The Confession was added to the Collection along with its follow-up State of Siege, which I have yet to see. But it also joins two masterpieces already included, Z and Missing, similarly political thrillers. While I don't think The Confession is quite as good as those two films, it's more universal than either, ironically because the journey is so personal and hyper-specific. I don't know that I've ever seen a better indictment of torture, and the film's complex depiction of the state's manipulation will sadly resonate even as the USSR grows more distant in the rearview mirror of history.

#778: A Special Day

(Ettore Scola, 1977)

Don't read a goddamn thing about this movie before you see it.

A Special Day is a stunningly beautiful movie starring two stunningly beautiful people. The cover Criterion chose for the film is accurate, but it's also a bit misleading. This is not a Sirkian melodrama or a doomed romance - although in some ways it stands in for these subgenres. It's not a movie about Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni - although you never forget these are the people you are watching. It's not even a sepia-toned period piece about the faded nostalgia of misremembered good old days - though again, the film's cinematography is unique and sumptuous.

This is a movie about Italy. I've mentioned briefly before the country's unwillingness to confront its complicity with Nazi Germany, but Rome, Open City was about much more than that, whereas A Special Day confronts this issue head-on. By 1977, Italy had been celebrating Liberation Day, a remarkable national agreement to present its history as a sunny lie, for 30 years. It's still intense in America in 2016 to see the six minutes that open this film in which Italy welcomes Hitler and the Nazi leadership into Rome, but to Italians in the late 70s it must have been a slap in the face. It's especially remarkable considering the fact that Scola was one of the most significant comedic filmmakers of his generation (though by this point he had turned to outright political drama) and these are arguably the two biggest stars in Italian cinema history. Yet here is a film that begins with documentary footage using contemporary broadcasts describing the jubilation upon Hitler's welcome, with little more than some credits beforehand to assure viewers they were at the right theater.

This theme is not just established at the beginning and then forgotten as the personal drama plays out - a loud radio playing the parade along with planes flying overhead keeps the pressure of the impending war pressing down on the couple throughout the film. It's hard as an American to understand what this means or would feel like to most viewers of the movie, people who were either alive during the time the film was set or were raised by people who lived their prime during the time.

The story between the two leads is radical as well, particularly Mastroianni's sexuality. There have been some objections to the couple's consummation of their relationship considering his sexual orientation, but I think the film handles it in a very moving and respectful way. The emotional connection between the two characters is earned, and even though the film often dips into melodrama, it has enough nuance and complexity to avoid falling off the deep end.

I really loved A Special Day and think this is a great choice from Criterion. Although the cast alone would be enough to make it a no-brainer in the Collection, the cinematography and vital take on the politics of Italy in both the 1930s and 1970s is what elevates it to an essential release.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

#744: Every Man for Himself

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1980)

Godard's celestial position in film history belies his challenging body of work. In comparison to even the other pillars of the Criterion Collection - Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, and Ozu - Godard's catalog lacks any movie that would be easy viewing for the average modern filmgoer. Even relatively lighter films like A Woman is a Woman or Alphaville are dense, analytical statements that require multiple viewings to absorb. Breathless, his masterpiece and perhaps the most important movie in film history, has many moments that point the way into the narrative, but in comparison to the most famous films by those other directors like Seven Samurai, 8 and 1/2, and even Seventh Seal or Tokyo Story Godard's debut remains a shock to the Hollywood-fed system (ironic of course because Breathless is so obviously indebted to the earlier incarnation of that system).

Having said all that, Godard's first ten years of filmmaking produced relatively straightforward films when compared to his subsequent career, which began with radical political video in the 1970s before transitioning into experimental (though comparably more conventional) features in the 80s where Godard's politics reattached to his commentary on the nature of his chosen medium. This new Godard 2.0, which began with Every Man for Himself, which Godard called his "second first film," was less interested in film as a driver of change than as a tool with which to illuminate that change already taking place. That Godard viewed the film as a return to beginnings is not surprising considering what he had been doing for the past decade. But it also feels true. Though there are connections to his earlier work here, it is closer in style to In Praise of Love than Vivre Sa Vie.

Godard is not just challenging on a technical level, however. His films are usually angry, often dark, and walk the line between exploitative and radically confrontational. His obsession with prostitution is perhaps the most challenging aspect of his films for me, and I often wonder if he crosses the line from investigating the nature of misogyny to exploiting and perpetuating it. The "outrageous" sex circle that a john creates late in this film seems as empty thematically as it is emotionally, and it's moments like this where Godard's ostensible feminism seems overly confident that the average viewer will catch his gist. The whole Isabelle Huppert segment here was much less interesting to me because of Godard's hooker thing, but I don't know that I can say I "enjoyed" the couple's stories either. These are distasteful people for the most part, and I think a reason why Godard's later films have never been able to generate a strong reception the way his earlier work did (though I have yet to see his most recent film, which was a relative success) is that everything after his time in the wilderness lacks the cinematic glee of his first decade, which went a long way toward making the bitter pill go down. By this point in his career, Godard no longer believed in the movies, something even his angriest films like Weekend and Contempt had going for them. Godard of the last 45 years has implicated himself in film's shortcomings, which leaves us all vulnerable.

#789: Burroughs: The Movie

(Howard Brookner, 1983)

Burroughs: The Movie spent nearly three decades in the wilderness, waiting to be found by director Howard Brookner's nephew 20 years after his death. This of course adds to its off-kilter central figure and the film's loose structure, giving the film more underground cred, the key to a successful portrait of Burroughs. The author was one of the great subversives in American culture in the 20th century, and Burroughs: The Movie does an admirable job of serving as a companion piece to his writing by presenting Burroughs the character.

I've never read any of Burroughs's books in full, though I have read excerpts here and there. I'm not a huge fiction prose guy, but I do respect the work that Burroughs has done and the doors he opened for other writers who were similarly interested in exploring themes and subjects that had been suppressed by the mainstream. Unlike something like Bergman Island, however, I don't think you have to appreciate the author's work to enjoy the documentary - this is a film about a person and a movement that is certainly going to be welcomed by his fans, who will get a deeper understanding of the artist here, but it's also a well-made documentary about a unique character in American intellectual history.

What struck me most about Burroughs was this status as a true character. I think there are two kinds of artists in the world: people who practically sweat their work out of their pores and walk to a different beat than the rest of us and people who work really hard to attempt to be the first kind of person. Talent doesn't really enter into either of these things. There are very talented artists who are normal people who are simply able to translate their observations and skills into beautiful timeless material, while true artists languish in obscurity because they aren't able to translate their idiosyncratic vision into meaningful work. Burroughs is quite obviously a capital A Artist, which makes watching his documentary so fascinating and why a similar work on someone like, say, Paul McCartney or Tom Wolfe would be insufferable.

Because of the quirkiness of his character, the most direct comparison in the Collection is certainly Grey Gardens. Although Burroughs is nowhere near as clueless (and mentally unstable) as the Beales, Brookner takes a Maysles-style approach to the characters, and we enter a world that seems foreign to modern mainstream society (although most of that world in this movie is already gone by the time the cameras arrive on the scene, and we hear about it only in interviews). The cover Criterion created for the edition fits in with this theme - obviously there was no other choice but to put Burroughs front and center, but the use of black and white and the close up of Burroughs in his middle America uniform makes it seem like it would fit right in as a cover for Salesman. This balance of upstanding style and dark themes was, as Luc Sante points out in the accompanying essay, central to Burroughs's success as a writer, and it makes Burroughs a fun watch and a worthy oddity in the Collection.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#774: Mister Johnson

(Bruce Beresford, 1990)

Mister Johnson is a halfway decent movie. It's often beautiful with impressive production design, and most of the performances (I'll get to that in a minute) are well-balanced and more nuanced than the page demands. The story it tells has potential as both a complementary piece to Beresford's classic Breaker Morant that sits next to it in the Collection and as a unique commentary on colonialism and its impact on Africa. In some stretches, usually when focused exclusively on the Africans, it nearly fulfills this promise.

But alas, it's not meant to be, and Mister Johnson ends up as a mediocre and forgettable film that is wholly undeserving of its place in the Collection. This is not a bad movie, but merely an unsuccessful one. The script is obvious and nearly literal when it should be poetic and complex. The characters are often overdrawn and ham-handed, and the film centers around a character who is unlikable and often rings false. This character, the titular Mister Johnson, is played by Maynard Eziashi, who admittedly has a very tough role to play here. But while his choices for the character feel right, his abilities fail to match the complexity that his character demands. Someone who should be struggling with his balance between two worlds at all times instead vacillates between the two as the script (often too obviously) demands. This is an especially big problem because none of the other characters in the film are given enough complexity to carry some of the weight. The closest anyone really comes is the racist drunk general store owner, which is probably not a good sign.

But the worst thing about Mister Johnson is that all of its complexity as a portrait of colonialism on Africa is lost in the simplicity of the white absolution of guilt for the actions taken on their behalf. Though I do not doubt that people similar to Mister Johnson appeared to exist to the white adventurer in the early 20th century, I also doubt that this simplistic and condescending representation of the character is authentic to the experience. The essay Criterion includes in their release ends with a reference to the great novel Things Fall Apart, and the direct comparison is a reminder that this approach to the issues of colonialism smacks of the same cultural subjugation as the invasion itself. In the essay they mention that Walter Huston was initially considered for the director chair here before his death, and while Huston is the (infinitely) better director, I wonder if this poisonous tree could have borne edible fruit with anyone at the helm.

Bruce Beresford has made two good movies in his career, Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies, and one Best Picture winner in the also mediocre Driving Miss Daisy. That film took a similar approach to racial politics, but its identifiable characters and universal relationships helped endear it to the Academy of old white people. Since then, he's made films ranging from total dreck to passable studio schlock. As a companion piece to Breaker Morant, perhaps as other Criterion fans have suggested as a bonus film on that disc, Mister Johnson is an interesting investigation of Beresford approaching a different angle of the British Empire, illuminating his limitations in this regard. As a standalone disc, however, Mister Johnson is worse than the bad movies like Armageddon and I Am Curious in the Collection; again, it's not a horrifically bad movie, just one that lacks anything at all of note in film history or in the way of understanding the medium. I'd be surprised if anyone could make a convincing case for its inclusion in the Collection beyond Beresford telling them they could only take Breaker Morant on a date if they let its ugly little brother tag along. Even then, they should have let it out of the car on the way to the theater.

#750: Ride the Pink Horse

(Robert Montgomery, 1947)

Ride the Pink Horse is the kind of movie that falls through the cracks in Criterion's release slate, but represents one of the best things the company has to offer. This is not an iconic work of world cinema, nor is it even a five-star or cult classic. But it is a decidedly quirky picture that carves out a relevant niche in noir history.

That it is noir is of relevance to Criterion, as they have dug particularly deep on this genre with pictures like Blast of Silence and a surprisingly wide range of Dassin's American films. Noir is obviously one of the definitive genres of the medium, and its intertwined history with the New Wave filmmakers like Godard who pushed for the recognition of the genre and incorporated its signifiers into their works makes it Criterion friendly. These were also often B movies, making their value in home video less apparent and therefore available to Criterion - which is also why unlike other major genres Criterion has almost none of the core definitive classics of the genre like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, or Out of the Past (though they do have Kiss Me Deadly and recently added the sort-of-noir Gilda, plus a wide range of foreign films that were either influences on the genre or inspired by it).

Ride the Pink Horse is similar to the other American noirs in the Collection in that it didn't have an especially high profile before its Criterion release, and really doesn't have much of one now, either. As a director, Robert Montgomery is probably best remembered for his debut, the Chandler-based noir The Lady of the Lake, one of the few movies to sustain a first-person POV for the entire film (Montgomery plays the famous Philip Marlowe in the movie, whom we see only through mirrors). It's a novelty that grows tiresome quickly, and I only made it through the film out of pure devotion to the idea of experiencing Chandler's work with such an unusual concept (one that Chandler himself didn't care for, unsurprisingly). Ride the Pink Horse, on the other hand, held my attention throughout, and while I don't think it's an unheralded masterpiece or anything, I have a hard time imagining any fan of noir having any serious problem with the movie.

One of my favorite things about the film is the opening. The credits roll over a desert scene matched with music that would be at home in any Western of the era. When combined with the horse in the title, it is a confusing opening for anyone convinced of the film's noir bonafides. Yet as the credits end a Greyhound bus comes roaring in and the camera pans into a town in the contemporary West. It starts the film off by subverting your expectations, a trick that comes in handy as the plot unfurls and people are not always what they seem.

Montgomery is not the best director in the world, but he was a solid leading man and he had a ton of top shelf help here, from the great Russell Metty behind the camera (who would go on to shoot the similar but significantly superior border noir Touch of Evil for Orson Welles) to a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, two of the greatest writers in film history. The dialog is spectacular - really, I could watch this movie ten times just to take it all in and savor the great lines.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ride the Pink Horse, though, is its depiction of Mexicans. Montgomery has an unfulfilled love affair with a younger woman who attempts to bridge the social divide (played in brownface with a Speedy Gonzalez accent by a white lady), but the stand out character is Pancho (the actor was, according to Criterion, the first Latino ever nominated for an Academy Award for this performance). Pancho carries plenty of the stereotypes of Mexicans, living the poor-but-happy life of an alcoholic who falls asleep under his sombrero. But he's also a stand-up guy with loyalty that survives intense and violent testing. Mexican characters don't often fare well in early border pictures (think even Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil, one of the more regrettable elements of that classic), so even though Pancho often lacks the full three dimensions of humanity it's nice to see a lovable and honorable character like this in a film from the 1940s.

Ride the Pink Horse is unlikely to become anyone's favorite noir, but many of its defects are the very reasons why it would be easy to fall in love with it. The various stylistic choices (the wordless opening, the merry-go-round rough-up, etc) seem disjointed, in need of a steady hand to connect them that isn't really there. Similarly, the quirky bits of character and asides that are unrelated to the core plot hurt the momentum of the suspense, but are the exact moments that separate the movie from its noir cousins. There's a lot of talk about what the best or worst releases from Criterion are, but Ride the Pink Horse is unlikely to come up in either conversation. Instead, this little-seen previously unavailable blu-ray says a lot about Criterion's continued devotion not only to the classics or contemporary film, but to the history less traveled in order to give a better, fuller picture of what cinema is all about.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

#809: Phoenix

(Christian Petzold, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 1, 2016

#728: Sundays and Cybèle

(Serge Bourguignon, 1962)

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

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

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

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