Sunday, July 29, 2012

#446: An Autumn Afternoon

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)

So, can I just watch An Autumn Afternoon every day for the rest of my life. Actually, can I just be inserted into An Autumn Afternoon so I can live inside of it?

This movie is SO GREAT. I love pretty much everything about it. The performances are beautiful and moving. The cinematography is impeccable. The story is both sociologically fascinating and emotionally engaging. The music is great, it's funny - I could go on. But what I love the most about the film is how much it feels like an Ozu film, yet how subtly but profoundly Ozu was able to ease himself into the modern era. An Autumn Afternoon still has the visual iconography of Ozu's prime, but it also has his most overtly sexual humor, his most complex exploration of the Japanese family culture, and a truly profound thread of reflection about Japan's modern transition from imperial aggressor (and defeated empire) to modern economic powerhouse. Along the way, Ozu covers nearly all of the themes he explored in his best movies - the generation gap, the parent-child relationship, the evolving modernity of Japan, the shifting capitalistic attitudes, the passage of time, the balance of technology and industry with nature and humanity.

As noted in Criterion's essay, Ozu didn't intend for An Autumn Afternoon to be his last film. But it's hard to think of a better final film from any master. Unquestionably a masterpiece, An Autumn Afternoon might even rival Ozu's better-known classics for me as the pinnacle of his career. Essential viewing.

#510: In Vanda's Room

(Pedro Costa, 2000)

If I was going to make a list of Criterion movies that would be most likely to infuriate the average American moviegoer, In Vanda's Room might even top it. I'm not talking about movies that might immediately come to mind as likely to be perceived as shocking, annoying, or even, really, boring. Instead, In Vanda's Room is something far more difficult: a movie that essentially disconnects itself in every way from conventional filmmaking.

After his deeply affecting experience making Ossos in the Fontainhas of Lisbon, Pedro Costa decided to return to the neighborhood (as it was being torn down) to make a different kind of film. It was a conscious decision by a director who had begun to question his own relationship with his subjects and the real-life squalor he was capturing in his fictional narratives. Rather than do what most socially conscious directors would do - which is basically what he did already with Ossos - Costa instead chose to reinvent narrative cinema. In Vanda's Room is filmed with a crew of one: Costa himself with a digital camera, shooting thousands of hours of footage with entirely atmospheric light. He uses people who live in the places he shoots them in, doing the things that they normally do. But this is not a documentary.

In Vanda's Room lacks any notable change in its characters. In fact, it often feels like it doesn't have characters - more background fillers, people filling space that is being torn down around them both within the narrative and in real life. The scenes in the film are slow, the interactions subtle, the tone dark and drab. This is not a film for most people - it's not really a film for me.

Still, I do feel the need to say how impressive of an accomplishment it is. This is most clear in the compositions and lighting, which - even without knowing that they were done by one man without any equipment - are astonishing, and demand attention even as the film around it becomes more and more challenging. There are scenes in this film that left me mesmerized. But at over three hours, the movie was simply too high a mountain for me to climb. Maybe I'll come back to this one and find something to grab onto, but a first viewing left me still at a distance.

#626: Les visiteurs du soir

(Marcel Carné, 1942)

Though he has other widely well-regarded films, Marcel Carné is famous for one film, 1945's Children of Paradise. That film, released just after the Occupation in WWII, has long been in the Collection, is often cited as the greatest French film ever made (I'm not a huge fan - it's a mime thing), and will almost certainly receive a blu-ray release from Criterion in the next year or so (a restored version of the film has been touring the US). Carné also has another film in the Collection, along with a fourth in the Essential Art House series, which I have yet to see. So when Les visiteurs du Soir is released later this year, it won't be the first film by this legendary director to have the C grace its cover.

However, this film is the first Carné with a spine number that was made during the Occupation, making it immediately rich with subtext (whether Carné admits it or not). Like Clouzot's best film under the Occupation, Carné's work isn't explicitly intended as a condemnation of their oppressors, but instead has the contemporary relevancy at the core of its story. It obviously doesn't take much of a stretch to equate the devil here with Hitler, and the final idea of statues with their hearts still beating is a beautiful metaphor for the French under Vichy rule.

But if you step away from historical context, Les visiteurs du soir is a quaint, unambitious love story/fable. It's hard to ignore Carné's flashes, though, most notably the moment when the room is frozen and the condemned walk freely around posed figures. It's moments like this that make the movie clearly Carné's, and while it might not be entirely my kind of film, it's nice to see a director who has been somewhat forgotten in the US (at least in comparison to fellow Frenchmen like Renoir, Clouzot, and Bresson) gain another high profile release.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

#452: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

(Martin Ritt, 1965)

I have never read a John Le Carre book and I had never seen a movie based on his work before, so The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was somewhat of a surprise for me. I guess I had always assumed that his work was apolitical or leaned towards positive representations of the military and intelligence community a la Tom Clancy. But this film is just about as angrily opposed to war - both hot and cold - as you can get. It's kind of amazing to think someone could pen a work like this while working at MI6.

Of course, I should have known this wouldn't be James Bond in black and white just from the fact that Martin Ritt directed the film. Ritt was blacklisted in the 50s and spent his career afterwards almost exclusively tackling socially relevant subjects, most famously in the quintessential American union movie Norma Rae, but also in underrated films like The Front, which was about the blacklist and features what is almost certainly Woody Allen's best performance when he wasn't behind the camera. But this is probably the best film of his that I've seen - certainly the most beautiful, in a dreary kind of way. The beauty of the movie helped draw me in before I was engaged with the plot, which ended up being extremely engaging but was somewhat difficult to approach.

I've saved the man most crucial to the success of the film for last. As good as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is as a story and a visual spectacle, Richard Burton is that much better as its central character. Burton gave great performances throughout his career, but here he is the center of a film that rises and falls with him. This means it almost exclusively rises, as Burton manages to combine the seething moral fiber of his character with his defeated bureaucrat façade. It's the kind of performance that would be able to sustain even the most mediocre of films surrounding it, but here it turns a really excellent movie into a great one.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

#342: Six Moral Tales

(Eric Rohmer, 1963-72)

Six Moral Tales is not meant to be a wide-ranging anthology encompassing all moral guidelines, as its title might imply. Instead, they are variations on a theme, best described as stories about a man who has given himself to one woman (either explicitly or mentally) who is tempted by another. All of these men (occasionally through arguably not their own choice) eventually reject these temptations and return to their original object of affection. The similarities between the films do not end there - Rohmer's protagonists certainly share a typical masculine narcissism, though they manifest it in different ways, while his women often attempt to demand their own identities, even as they are being objectified by men who are using them to define themselves. But the movies each present a unique take on these themes, and the feel and intellectual thrust of each is notably and refreshingly original.

Of the six films, I think My Night at Maud's is unquestionably the most impressive. But I think Claire's Knee is also a major work, and La Collectionneuse is very underrated. This is one of Criterion's great boxsets, and hopefully they will be able to produce similar collections of Rohmer's other series in the future - I would at least like to see any of his other films represented! For now, though, this set is a great introduction to his work and one of the great results of France's New Wave.

Links to individual reviews:

The Bakery Girl of Monceau
Suzanne's Career
My Night at Maud's
La collectionnuese
Claire's Knee
Love in the Afternoon

Monday, July 23, 2012

#348: Love in the Afternoon

(Eric Rohmer, 1972)

Love in the Afternoon feels a lot like a film from a different New Wave series, Truffaut's Bed and Board. The two films take a similarly light approach to the question of marriage gone routine and the temptations that come with it, though Rohmer's character, of course, ultimately chooses not to indulge his desires. There is a lot of comedy here, but it often comes in small, subtle doses - Rohmer was never one to match Truffaut's or Godard's winking, playful tones. There is one more overt moment, however, when Frederic fantasizes about approaching women on the street. The scene itself is whimsical and funny, but it is given an added touch of knowing humor by the inclusion of many of the women from the earlier films in the series as objects of his desire (in fact, the sequence itself harkens back to The Bakery Girl of Monceau and My Night at Maud's where the protagonists actually do run up to a woman on the street). Although the moment isn't as moving as, say, the final scene of the Three Colors trilogy or as clever as the Breathless joke in A Woman is a Woman, it's always satisfying to see a filmmaker acknowledging and rewarding the commitment of a multi-film arc by tossing in elements like that.

Beyond the humor, Rohmer's final film in the series is a touching and memorable conclusion, and perhaps the least obtuse "moral tale" of the lot. The challenge for Frederic is clear from the beginning: should he stray from his marriage or not? What nearly took me off the rails in this film, however, was just how pathetically unlikable Frederic was. Although all of the protagonists in the Six Moral Tales have some degree of disagreeability in their personalities, Frederic was harder to handle for me simply because he was so desperate and seemingly devoid of backbone. The film's redemption comes when he finally makes the decision to stay loyal to his wife, but by then it's been a somewhat difficult journey.

Two more notes on this final Moral Tale: I found the depiction of Chloe in the film to be an especially interesting portrayal of a woman for the series, both in the way her character acts and responds to the world and in the way she was viewed entirely through Frederic's eyes. Molly Haskell wrote an interesting essay for Claire's Knee about the way women are depicted in Six Moral Tales - a fundamentally male-centric work of art - but I would imagine there is a fascinating book either waiting to be written or having already been written on the subject. Finally, I wouldn't mind seeing the other Love in the Afternoon in the Criterion Collection - it might be middle-of-the-pack from Wilder, but it's a fine mid-50s Hollywood romance with two great stars.

#347: Claire's Knee

(Eric Rohmer, 1970)

Speaking strictly of plot, Claire's Knee is the most complex of the six moral tales. It has the most moving parts. Rather than the typical disembodied narration, Rohmer gives Jerome a confidant in the form of Aurora to bounce his moralistic ideas off of - he even argues that her own literary curiosity is his only drive to begin a flirtation with two semi-sisters, Laura and Claire, though this seems unlikely. There is certainly a connection beyond platonic friendship between the two, but she is not the woman from whom Jerome is being tempted to stray - that is his fiancée, who for the first and only time in the series is completely offscreen. The fact that Jerome is tempted by two women rather than just one similarly breaks the mold. But Jerome's attention (and that of the viewer) quickly turns to Claire as the solitary challenge for the protagonist, and the film begins to turn on a much simpler premise.

Essentially, Jerome is a creepy older guy, justifying his flirtation with underage girls by labeling it an experiment. The climactic moment comes when Claire begins to cry and his game is now real. Claire's knee is representative of the stormy waters between friendship and romance and the occasionally blurred lines between mentor and lover. Jerome certainly condescends to Claire in this scene, but it's implied that he is doing it out of jealousy, that he can't bear to see a younger, more appropriate boy get the better of him. What's more unclear is whether or not he consciously makes the decision to stop at her knee, turning his conquest into comfort, or if he uses morality for justification of his failure (and whether that failure came from within or from a perception of rejection). Either way, it makes for a fascinating quandary.

One more thing to note about the film: the costumes, as in La Collectionnuese, are impeccable (if clearly of their time). I didn't make a note of who it was in the film and I can't find a credit online, but I'm very impressed and I wonder if the person continued to work with Rohmer and/or had a bigger career.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#346: La collectionneuse

(Eric Rohmer, 1967)

Although La Collectionneuse is the fourth film in Rohmer's Six Moral Tales series, it was shot and released third and is consequently the first feature film the director made in the series. It's also the first film he made with the great Nestor Almendros. (Almendros also made his feature debut as a cinematographer here; he'd eventually amass a body of work nearly unparalleled in modern cinema, including Days of Heaven, probably one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) Because of this, Rohmer was trying a number of things out in the film, which has a looser and more experimental feel than the three features which followed it.

In fact, the film serves as a more appropriate bridge between the shorts and features in the series than My Night at Maud's. It is perhaps the most literate of all the entries, complete with prologues - little short stories introducing the three main characters - and a heavy dose of first-person narration looking back on the action as it unfolds in real time. But it's also not as rigidly structured as the other three features. Like the shorts, it feels like a work in progress, a further refining of the techniques and themes that would fully blossom in the coming features.

On the other hand, La Collectionneuse is a wholly satisfying work. Adrien is perhaps the most repulsive protagonist in the series, a mostly empty, sexist narcissist who rarely exhibits flashes of appealing characteristics. The elaborate plan he constructs for Haydee in his meandering voice-overs is so deluded and convoluted that he can almost convince the viewer that there is some grand conspiracy at play for him to give in to this "lesser" creature. For her own part, Haydee manages to oscillate between appealingly sexually liberated and almost tragically beholden to her social worth. When these characters come together, Rohmer and his actors construct such rich dialogues and sexual chemistry that the results are fascinating and gripping on a level such small stories rarely reach. I ended up enjoying the movie almost as much as its much higher-profile companion My Night at Maud's, certainly a high compliment.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

#345: My Night at Maud's

(Eric Rohmer, 1969)

Eric Rohmer's third moral tale (and third feature film) is actually the fourth film in the series, since La Collectioneuse was filmed first while Rohmer waited for his star for this film to have an opening in his schedule. It's also arguably the best, having benefited from the experience of shooting and editing its predecessor (successor). Certainly, My Night at Maud's is the most widely well-regarded film in the series - and in Rohmer's career - having been the film that catapulted him to international stardom and placed him alongside his fellow Cahiers vets Truffaut and Godard as a major voice in the New Wave. Criterion calls it "one of the most influential and talked-about films of the decade" - though unlike The 400 Blows, its importance apparently does not so outweigh the other installments in its series that it would necessitate a stand-alone release.

The biggest shift Rohmer made between shorts and features in the series (practiced in La Collectioneuse but perfected here) was a move from long stretches of narration that depicts the inner thoughts of the protagonist to huge dialogs, often between a man and a woman who are balanced precariously on the threshold of a sexual encounter, but occasionally between friends. The bulk of My Night at Maud's is taken up by these huge conversations, first between protagonist Jean-Louie and his old friend Vidal, then by Jean-Louis and Maud, and finally Jean-Louis and the object of his true affection, Françoise. The abundance of these conversations pushes the narration into the background; it disappears for so long in the middle of the film that, when it finally comes rushing back in the final moments, its reemerging thought has that much more notable of an impact. Similarly, the conversations themselves are absorbing and thought-provoking; there is a great deal to ponder in My Night at Maud's.

Jean-Louis is also notable because he is the first protagonist in the series (both chronologically and numerically) who is generally likable. Sure, he's self-absorbed, a bit overly simplistic in his worldview, and perhaps a bit selfish. But he's a big step up from people like Barbet Shroeder in The Bakery Girl of Monceau, who similarly chased after a woman in the street he had only seen from afar but was confident he would marry. Jean-Louis never misleads Maud - though one could argue he only avoids doing so because Maud is so aware of the situation that she prevents him from misleading her. Françoise seems unlikely to succumb to his nearly forced destiny, but his persistence pays off in the end - Jean-Louis might be the best case for The Secret in cinema.

Perhaps most interestingly, My Night At Maud's final morality lesson comes at the very end of the film and for the first time directly related to the constant woman in Jean-Louis's life (as opposed to the fleeting temptress, the counterpoint to each of the series' protagonist's true love). Jean-Louis makes the decision to lie for his wife, letting her off the hook so they can continue on with their happy lives. It's probably the case that Jean-Louis is proud of himself in this moment, and there's certainly the case to be made that this final moral quandary was a core reason why the film hit it big in the heart of the sexual liberation. But I think Rohmer's fundamental conservatism was actually the real appeal of the film for an audience that had taken the dive and knew what treacherous waters they would have to navigate. For them, the dance Jean-Louis performs with Maud must have felt very real, and the questions raised throughout the film - not just in the final moments - cut as deep then as they do today.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

#344: Suzanne's Career

(Eric Rohmer, 1963)

Made a year later, Suzanne's Career is like a reverse Jules and Jim, where two men compete over who gets to reject a woman the fastest. It's a painful and depressing undertaking that is ultimately only redeemed by Rohmer's sure hand and a passably satisfying conclusion.

Although Suzanne's Career is twice as long as its predecessor, The Bakery Girl of Monceau, it's still under an hour. Along with its non-feature status, it shares a number of more relevant attributes with the earlier film: both are narration heavy and center around extremely self-absorbed and unlikable protagonists who entertain the attention of a woman they have no interest in. But the little narrative touches in the earlier film - the ritual of the cookies, the documentary-style depiction of Paris that interacts with the plot, shaping the men and women of the film in such a way that it becomes a character itself - have been expanded into deeper plot points. This is most notable in the case of the missing money, which becomes a sort of third-act MacGuffin that is mostly there to indicate how shallow and useless the relationships that our protagonist has established are. This makes Suzanne's Career a slightly more committed look at where Rohmer's later installments in his series would end up, but the details have yet to become fully formed.

Fortunately for both the series and the viewer, once Rohmer made the jump into features the characters become a lot more interesting and - even if they aren't exactly the Dude - a lot more likable. The length of Suzanne's Career allows for a bit more leeway in this regard, and it prevents the film from descending too deeply into the dark corners of the mating game.

#625: Eating Raoul

(Paul Bartel, 1982)

Providing you have a healthy dark side to your sense of humor, Eating Raoul is one of the most enjoyably entertaining films to enter the collection in recent years. In fact, for a film about two people who pose as sex workers in order to murder depraved people and take their money, Eating Raoul is as light as can be. Think of it as the counterpoint to Onibaba.

Set in Los Angeles in the early 80s, Eating Raoul focuses on the decadence both moral and commercial that is degrading society - a thesis made clear in the over-the-top intro that borders on Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker territory. We're then introduced to Paul and Mary Bland, an innocent couple saving up to open their dream restaurant. What makes Eating Raoul so successful is its tone, which draws on John Waters and Andy Warhol camp but has a naivete that multiple filmmakers would draw on in their future social satire. I see David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands somewhere in here, but smaller films like Bob Balaban's Parents and even Joe Dante's The Burbs come to mind.

Although Criterion has a number of Lubitsch and Sturges comedies in their catalog, modern American comedy until recently was extremely rare. Eating Raoul joins recent additions like Something Wild, Being John Malkovich, and Broadcast News that have helped round out a collection that - like similar groupings of works in the "canon" - is overly weighted towards serious dramatic fare. In the case of Criterion, this is (as with TV series) most likely primarily a consequence of financial considerations: comedies simply have a better shelf life on DVD, where people are less likely to come back to serious (read:depressing) movies when they stay in for the night. It's therefore a lot harder for them to license recent titles that studios believe they can make money from. But too often truly great comedies are dismissed as being lesser works when compared to "distinguished" films. Only a handful of comedies have won Best Picture, while Sight and Sound's famed poll has featured just one comedy (the much-deserving Rules of the Game) in its last three lists (although Singing in the Rain is kind of a comedy). Eating Raoul isn't that good, of course - I wouldn't even call it a five star film. But it's an important film in underground 80s cinema, and it's well-deserving of its soon-to-be place in the Collection. I'd love to see more comedies follow suit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

#370: The Emperor Jones

(Dudley Murphy, 1933)

For the modern viewer, watching The Emperor Jones is a startling experience. Here is a film from the early years of talkies that not only stars a black man, but is almost entirely cast with black people. Robeson's Jones goes to nightclubs and casinos filled with them, he goes to a Black church and eventually takes over a predominantly Black country. Obviously, I was aware all of these things existed in 1933. But growing up on movies from the 30s and 40s accustomed me to seeing black actors as being perceived at the time as only fit for specific roles - servants, slaves, occasionally musicians. This was the time in which Al Jolson put on black face to usher in the sound era, while Orson Welles played Othello on Broadway. So seeing a predominantly black cast with a black star (albeit playing a corrupt and fatally flawed character) is both shocking and invigorating - a reminder of the scope of film history and the stretch of its depiction of society.

If you haven't noticed from the cover, The Emperor Jones is part of the Paul Robeson boxset that Criterion issued a few years ago. It's the film that brought Robeson international fame, and it's based on the Eugene O'Neill play that Robeson also starred in - but only after the original actor was fired after he insisted on removing the frequent use of the word "nigger" from the play. What's so interesting about this origin story is how it lends complexity to Robeson's own journey, as depicted in the documentary of his life also included on this disc, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Robeson was perhaps most famous for his rendition of "Ol' Man River," a casually racist song from the musical Show Boat, but as he got older and he became more socially and politically active he began to change the lyrics. A song primarily about passive and accepted struggle was turned into a defiant and unyielding call to arms.

For me, this story of Robeson's personal journey was much more interesting than the severely dated film attached to it. Apart from the obvious racism of the film, the acting and directing styles were extremely stagy, and while Robeson is a powerful presence onscreen, he isn't enough to make the film as a whole especially worthwhile. It's still a worthwhile watch, though, if only for the history lesson.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

#405: The Threepenny Opera

(G. W. Pabst, 1931)

As I've mentioned before, musicals are not my thing, so it takes a lot for me to really connect with one. Unfortunately, despite its many charms and obviously impressive visual qualities, The Threepenny Opera did not reach this threshold.

I'm not really sure why this is the case. I enjoyed Pabst's other Criterion entry, Pandora's Box, much more than I expected to, while the German expressionistic style was put to great use in the early talkie years with films like M. Both Pabst's personal style and the larger aesthetic of German filmmaking are apparent here, in a film based on the hit opera that spawned the jazz standard "Mack the Knife." And there's great sly humor here from the corrupt mayor, the bitter father, and the various criminal underlings. But the film takes some time to get rolling, and the sets felt small and stagy. It's also weird to hear people talking in German about being English, but it's not like American films haven't sufficiently avenged this quirk. It's just not for me, I guess.

#585: Identification of a Woman

(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1982)

Someone on the Criterion site flippantly referred to Identification of a Woman as Antonioni's Skinemax film, and while that might be a bit of an exaggeration, I can see his point. There's a certain dirtiness hanging in the air, reflected in the scene depicted on Criterion's cover, and the way Antonioni uses his actresses seems to veer on exploitation. Much of Antonioni's later work veered towards the erotic, and this film seems to be the beginning of that journey.

Still, the movie is not especially sexy. The protagonist seems as lost as he's depicted as being on the cover, and even the ostensible story - in which the director searches for the ideal woman for his next movie - is hardly at the center of the film. Similar to Antonioni's masterpiece, Identification of a Woman is far more concerned with where its characters find their place among each other and the world than with the resolution of any plot.

But the film is so different visually and stylistically (if not thematically) from the early 60s work that brought Antonioni international fame (and controversy) that it might be forgotten that just two decades separated those films. And while Identification of a Woman is often regarded as late-era Antonioni, the director would continue make short movies (and one feature-length collaboration) for another two decades plus. This makes Identification of a Woman less a swan song than a turning point in both a life and career. For me, this makes the left-field ending much more interesting, because Antonioni is not leaving us with an (almost literally) alienated dead end to this artistic explorations, but is instead offering an escape from the core conflicts of his career. It's a path forward for the twilight of a life that struggled with its place in history.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

#343: The Bakery Girl of Monceau

(Eric Rohmer, 1963)

At just under 23 minutes, The Bakery Girl of Monceau might be the shortest film in the Criterion Collection with a spine number all to itself. This is a bit misleading, though, since the only reason it has its spine number is that it is the first of six films in the boxset collecting Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. Rohmer, who died a few years ago after one of the more personal and idiosyncratic careers in the French New Wave, was most famous for the three series he made (along with Six Moral Tales, he made one based on proverbs and a final series based on the seasons, which he finished in 1999). This collection represents his only entries in the Collection, which is both a pleasure since it is unquestionably his most-praised work and a disappointment since he made far more films worthy of inclusion.

But this is all beside the point here, which is what to make of this short film. Rohmer's protagonist is played by Barbet Schroeder who would go on to direct a handful of Criterion films of his own. Here, he's almost unbearable as the self-absorbed and scheming center of the movie, passing the time flirting with a young woman at a bakery while planning his rendezvous with the true object of his affection. The film is narration heavy and often shot like a documentary on the streets of Paris, but the story itself is vintage New Wave, a shift away from the conventional heroes and structures of the old guard, merging a realistic and dynamic visual style with a personal and honest storytelling perspective.

Rohmer's six moral tales do not refer to specific and established concepts of morality, but are instead centered around the characters' unique choices and how they choose to rationalize them. Here, Schroeder's character makes clear that what might typically be viewed as a selfish and cruel decision is not just acceptable but his only moral option - choosing to stand up his momentary dalliance in order to reconnect with his mystery woman. It's not a cut and dry decision, but it's one we tend to judge as the audience not because we disagree with him but because we have been exposed to his inner-shithead for the last 20 minutes. This raises another moral question: should motives be taken into account when moral choices are made - is selflessness a prerequisite for morality or a mere potential byproduct?

I've seen a few of Rohmer's tales already (Claire's Knee was an early favorite New Wave film of mine), but I plan on watching them all again because it has been so long and it's nice to see them in context. The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a good primer for the journey, even if on its own it wouldn't amount to much more than a curiosity with some great potential behind it.

#410: Under the Volcano

(John Huston, 1984)

If Wise Blood is Huston late-era artistic manifesto and The Dead is his passing of the torch, Under the Volcano is his catharsis, the final unloading of the themes that had bound him for five decades as a filmmaker. Fittingly, he chose Mexico for his grand statement, the site of arguably his greatest movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. But equally perfect is his choice to cast Albert Finney in the lead role. Finney is both the perfect stand in for Huston's father's characters from his earlier films and a great actor - one of the greatest, if I may say so. His performance here is flawless, which says a lot considering the fact that he is onscreen for nearly all of the film's running time and drunk - probably the most difficult physical state to play convincingly - for even more of it.

Like Huston's other two literary adaptations in the final years of his career, Under the Volcano was long considered unadaptable because of the vast stretches of inner-dialog. Yet these are almost always the most interesting adaptations to see because a lack of any clear path to the screen forces a screenwriter and director to make conscious cinematic decisions to steer the film away from its original prose. Under the Volcano is partially appealing in this regard because of its economy of scale, as the film slices out characters and more complex themes from the source text. But it's mostly notable because of the way the novel has been finessed into Huston's oeuvre and made his own. The obvious metaphor of the titular volcano is the brewing global crisis of World War II, but here the spectre is more clearly death, particularly self-destruction. As Finney's character hurtles towards his fate, the themes of the film and his final moments become one, and the burden of a career wrestling with the greatest questions in cinema is unloaded in the rain.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

#301: An Angel at My Table

(Jane Campion, 1990)

Jane Campion's career is a study in the cinematic gender divide. Campion made two films, Sweetie and this miniseries-turned-epic, that established her reputation before rising to international acclaim with The Piano, a beautiful if somewhat overwrought near-masterpiece that established her as one of the major filmmakers of her generation. However, Campion followed up the film with a couple of pictures - the striking visual statement of The Portrait of a Lady and the oddball Holy Smoke - that veered from the conventional path for a rising filmmaker by maintaining an intimate scope and continuing to depict understated women in personal journeys. Needless to say, by the 00s, when Campion's work became less impressive, most viewers had already moved on. Campion's current project - a TV miniseries for Australian and UK television starring Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss - looks extremely promising but has received little buzz in the film nerd community.

All of this is a shame because - as An Angel at My Table shows - Campion truly deserved the attention she received. Her eye is both unique and refined, making the film a complete pleasure to look at. Apart from her visually engaging style, Campion has a light touch with storytelling, constantly allowing her characters to move at their own pace. Here, Campion tells the story of author Janet Frame in a narrative that feels less like a conventional biopic and more like a series of points that form a line when viewed from afar. Frame is often deathly shy in the film, making a nearly three hour look into a life best explained by prose seem like an odd choice for a film, but her blossoming personality and the knowledge that her offscreen talents were able to save her from her onscreen setbacks make the film gradually rewarding. In the meantime, Campion's visuals ensure a rapt attention. It's impossible to watch An Angel at My Table and not come away thinking that this is a filmmaker with a massive talent. While I didn't like Sweetie, both films are welcome additions to the collection not just because they were helmed by the rare female director but because they are distinctly feminine, a characteristic often undervalued in film. It's a case for a reevaluation of her whole career, and it reminds me to stick with her future work for unforeseen rewards.