Sunday, March 25, 2012

#601: Letter Never Sent

(Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959)

Like its predecessor, The Cranes Are Flying, Mikhail Kalatozov's Letter Never Sent is one of the most visually stunning films in the Criterion Collection. In terms of story, the film is a simple tale of survival and (no surprise from the USSR) sacrifice for the common good. But the film stands out because of its visuals, created by Kalatozov and his cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, with whom Kalatozov worked on both The Cranes Are Flying and the later masterpiece I Am Cuba, arguably Kalatozov's best film.

Unlike those films, however, the elemental story allows style to completely overtake substance. When the style is this compelling, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; there are moments in this film which are so strikingly beautiful that it makes you forget there isn't much here to make a connection to. Certainly, there's a direct visual line between Letter Never Sent and Tarkovsky's masterpiece debut Ivan's Childhood made a few years later. And much of what Urusevsky was able to accomplish here was expanded upon in I Am Cuba. This makes Letter Never Sent a near classic despite its storytelling shortcomings, and certainly places it alongside the other two Kalatozov/Urusevsky films as must-see examples of the outer boundaries of cinema's potential.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

#236: Mamma Roma

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)

Staring at me as I knock out the last hundred or so Criterion titles is Salo, Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film, and arguably the most notorious film in the Criterion Collection. The movie features moments so grotesque that viewers have been known to vomit during screenings. I haven't watched it yet. I'm thinking about watching it. I might not watch it.

Pasolini's career before Salo has been overwhelmed by that film, but he did make a number of other well-regarded movies, including this one, a sort of anti-Neo-Realist Neo-Realist film. Mamma Roma tells the story of a former prostitute freed by her pimp's marriage to reconnect with her son, make a nice life for them, and work towards giving him the chances she never had. Although Mamma Roma is by no means Salo, I think it's pretty obvious that this doesn't end well.

For me - despite some fascinating cinematography and interesting direction, mostly with relation to blocking and editing choices - the beginning and end of Mamma Roma is Anna Magnani's performance. Magnani is probably most famous for being the pregnant woman gunned down in the street in Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (in fact, Pasolini dedicated this film to Rossellini), though she had a rich and lengthy career, including an Oscar win for her role in The Rose Tattoo. She's not especially beautiful, but she has a classically Italian appearance and her presence is extremely powerful, almost entrancing. Here, she manages to balance the grit and grace of her character. For all her shortcomings, you want the best for her, which means wanting the best for her shitty son who is clearly destined to amount to little. It's a nearly iconic performance.

Beyond Magnani, Mamma Roma seems hesitant to commit to its own argument. The film's dark slant is barreling towards a rejection of the neo-realist "the people are the answer" solution, but its empathy (and, I suspect, Pasolini's own internal struggle with this answer) prevents it from fully hitting the tipping point. Magnani remains the lasting element.

Monday, March 19, 2012

#613: Summer Interlude

(Ingmar Bergman, 1951)

Summer Interlude is Bergman Beta, a rough approximation of the deeply spiritual and personal films the director would make later in the 50s and throughout the rest of his career. But that's not to say that the film isn't successful on its own merits. The story, which surrounds an aging ballet dancer and the love affair she had when she was a teenager, is simple but moving. There are certainly a lot of brief sketches of emotion that rely on long-standing film cliches to stand in for genuine emotion (as can be the case with any young filmmaker) but Bergman was beginning to come into his own as a director, and consequently the camera's gentle but confident presence shows a maturity somewhat lacking in the writing.

The most obvious comparison between Summer Interlude and Bergman's later, well-known work is Wild Strawberries. Both films focus on people reflecting on their past life and love, though of course Marie is at the end of her career rather than the end of her life. There's even a literal connection to the later film's title, as the two lovers in this film first begin to fall for each other over a field of wild strawberries. But the emotional pull her is less compelling, and the influence of Hollywood melodrama on Bergman's technique is still very apparent here, especially when compared to a film like Wild Strawberries, which seems so unique and even revolutionary. There's a hint of the "absence of God" theme of Bergman's later work towards the end of Summer Interlude, but it seems more specific to the moment than tied to the thematic thrust of the film as a whole.

After all, Bergman's clear goal here is to entertain, something that was always at the forefront of his films but seems much more obvious here - especially with the early humor in the film and the sweeping score. It's something often forgotten about many of the directors now considered "serious" or "intellectual" (Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut in particular do not hold up to this rejection). It's what makes early work like this so important for understanding a career as a whole. When it's also enjoyable on its own, that's the icing on the cake.

#401:Night on Earth

(Jim Jarmusch, 1991)

I realized the other day that now that I have seen this film, I've seen every Jim Jarmusch movie except his most recent, The Limits of Control (which was very poorly received). This was a bit surprising to me, as I don't consider myself to be a huge fan of the director. In fact, Night on Earth is probably my favorite of his films, one of a number of movies in his career which features a series of short pieces loosely connected through place or theme (I watched another, Mystery Train, earlier this year). Night on Earth's gimmick is that every episode revolves around a taxi driver and a fare they pick up. They also all happen at the exact same moment in five different cities across the world: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki.

It's inevitable with films like this that the viewer will compare the quality of each segment, but it's only the films that hold together that are able to transcend this game. Night on Earth did that for me, not just because I enjoyed all five of the segments but because their tones are all so different that they are able to exist as pieces of a whole instead of just vaguely connected vignettes (as was certainly the case with Jarmusch's fun but wildly uneven Coffee and Cigarettes). Though I liked the Los Angeles segment less than the others, each piece balanced the quirkiness of Jarmusch's POV with a well-earned emotional kick - whether it was comedic as in the Rome segment (where Roberto Benigni is actually funny!) or tragic as in the Helsinki finale. Though the ending of the Paris segment in particular is somewhat gimmicky, each story relies almost entirely on the ability of its inhabitants to connect with each other within the confines of the cab in simple and unassuming ways. The randomness of the contact these characters experience within each story serves to conversely reinforce the strength of the connection between all of the characters in the film, regardless of their location. Though this might seem to expand beyond the scope of the film's unambitious reach, the message is one of true humanism, binding all inhabitants of the night.

Jarmusch's work can certainly be like that: quietly impactful. But I think what surprised me most about having seen virtually his entire catalog was the idea that all these little movies I had caught here or there added up to such a staggering presence in American independent cinema. Jarmusch's films remind me that American film doesn't just rely on the overblown ridiculousness of Hollywood and the flashy artistic statements of auteurs like Tarantino and PT Anderson. It's actually not impossible to amass a body of work about human-level characters doing quiet things that, taken as a whole, speaks to the broad potential of the moving picture just as well as any ambitious epic.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

#581:Les Cousins

(Claude Chabrol, 1959)

Chabrol's second film is a sort of mirror image of his first. Instead of a city dweller arriving in a small town where he spends some time with his old friend, a small town boy comes to the big city to study and spend some time with his cousin. The tragic redemption of that film's finale is replaced here with tragic irony, as (spoiler btw) the protagonist's single bullet intended to kill his cousin is turned on him.

I definitely liked Le Beau Serge more than Les Cousins, but there were some really interesting things about this film. It serves as a bridge between Chabrol's debut and his subsequent career, where he was focused primarily on thrillers, but it's also much more recognizable as a work of the French New Wave, both technically (where it is much flashier) and thematically, where the quirks of modern life are juxtaposed with the grandiosity of the cinema. Les Cousins is at its most contemporary in the film's pivotal party sequence, where the ominous gun is introduced and Charles falls for Florence. The characters in this sequence are delightfully modern, evoking Fellini's bombastic upper-class partygoers of La Dolce Vita a year before that film was made, and the nihilism of "kids today" shines through. The movie's almost love triangle, too, is reminiscent of a later film: in this case Jules et Jim, Truffaut's tragic love story. But Les Cousins doesn't reach nearly the heights of either of these films. It's a good story told by a smart filmmaker who had yet to find his voice.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

#580: Le beau Serge

(Claude Chabrol, 1958)

Quick: what's the first French New Wave feature? If you said The 400 Blows, close, but not quite. If you said La Pointe Courte, I like you, but technically wrong again. But if you said Le beau Serge, well, it's probably because you read the title of this post and could see where I was going with this.

Claude Chabrol was the first Caheirs du Cinema critic to step behind the camera, and for his debut he picked this quiet story about a man returning home to the small village where he grew up and becoming enmeshed in his old friend's complicated and tragic family situation. Unlike The 400 Blows, which would be completed later the same year, Le beau Serge doesn't flaunt its revolutionary choices. Its themes are more conservative than those of Truffaut's film, as well, and - as Terrence Rafferty points out in the essay accompanying Criterion's release - the story would have seemed right at home in French cinema at the time with just a few commercial tweaks. Because its revolution is so much more subtle, Chabrol's film has largely served as a footnote to the global one-two punch of The 400 Blows and Breathless, and Chabrol himself has similarly fallen into the shadow of his peers Truffaut and Godard (this is, at #580, the first Chabrol film in the collection - hopefully Criterion is in pursuit of his late-60s, early-70s thrillers).

Ironically, despite Chabrol's ties to the French New Wave, Le beau Serge most reminded me of Bresson's films, particularly - though not exclusively - Mouchette. The religious themes of Bresson's work carry over here, and the tragic and lonely characters Chabrol presents would be right at home in Bresson's oeuvre. The film's technique is not at all flashy, but the story aims for universal conclusions about people and their relationships, so the film is mature enough to have a light touch but green enough to think this small story can have a huge impact. The former is undoubtedly part of the reason Chabrol's debut never reached the level of notoriety of Truffaut's or Godard's, but the fact that the latter goal is not entirely successful probably played a bigger role in its legacy. All three films believe in the power of cinema, but Le beau Serge doesn't convince us that that power is all-consuming.