Monday, November 18, 2013

#682: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

(Elio Petri, 1970)

Note: There's a chance that if you've seen a movie I'll reference I am about to ruin the ending of this movie, so if you care about that sort of thing, stop reading.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a direct precursor to American Psycho, to the degree that I'm shocked at how little this connection is discussed. Basically, the movie is to fascism what that movie was to capitalism, and it's just as biting, hilarious, and challenging intellectually. Of course, this movie came out thirty years before that one and nearly two decades before the book upon which that was based, so there's a pretty good case for the film as a cutting-edge satire ahead of its time.

Of course, the film fits perfectly into its era of Italian filmmaking, and makes a nice double feature with Marco Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead from the previous year. Both films are major send-ups of Italian masculinity, and derive much of their pleasure from the unexpected actions of their main character and how they subvert expectations of their characters. Petri's film is more immediately engaging, no doubt, because the narrative is structured in such an engaging way. I guess it's a bit like Absolute Power, where a murder is shown in great detail but we don't know who the perpetrator is until the big reveal afterwards (is that too obscure of a reference now?). Either way, it starts the film off right and sets the tone for what is one of the most entertaining recent Criterion releases - and one of the best.

Friday, November 15, 2013

#681: Frances Ha

(Noah Baumbach, 2013)

The rumblings below Criterion posts about Frances Ha on social media are reminiscent of the outright avalanche of anger unleashed with the Tiny Furniture release. In one way, this is not surprising, and even makes sense; like Tiny Furniture, Frances Ha is a contemporary film (nearly always controversial for inclusion in the Collection) about a self-absorbed New Yorker (certainly not a broad crowd pleaser of a genre).

But in a much more sinister way, the backlash is indicative of a serious strain of sexism that is very present in the film nerd community. I have little doubt that Frances Ha would receive none of the complaints that have been voiced if the film was about a male character. Likewise, the comparisons to Tiny Furniture would not seem as obvious, simply because there are tons of movies about neurotic men in New York - in fact, one of the greatest directors in our lifetimes built an entire career on them. This portion of the Criterion audience makes me very uncomfortable, especially because women filmmakers are so underrepresented in Criterion and in film in general.

I would defend Frances Ha from these attacks regardless of how I felt about the movie itself. But this is actually one of Baumbach's best movie, certainly my favorite since Squid and the Whale. Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the movie, gives the kind of performance we don't get to see anymore in Hollywood films. While I somewhat agree with the criticism that she has yet to stretch out beyond her lone persona as an actress, her work here is extremely impressive. She's in virtually every scene, and she carries the film on her back.

Although Tiny Furniture is a fair comparison, it's that other neurotic I mentioned that comes to mind first here. It's impossible to film New York in black and white and not have people immediately compare what you are trying to do to Manhattan, and the film shares many overlapping themes with that one. But ultimately Frances Ha is less of an exploration of self-absorbed lives against the backdrop of a tragicomic opera of a city and more about adulthood and letting go of what is safe to find your landing place. It doesn't always succeed, but Gerwig's performance and the brilliant dialog from her and Baumbach's sparkling script means it's constantly enjoyable and over before you want it to be.

Two notes here: great fucking cover that is perfectly evocative of what's great about the movie but also what is true to its themes and story. Really, it's perfect. Second: this movie has one of my new all-time favorite lines in "He's the kind of guy who would like buy a black leather couch and be like 'I love it.'"

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

#690: The Housemaid

(Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

The Housemaid is a strange convergence of cultures. The film is vaguely erotic but structured like a morality tale. It's got plenty of the outrageous melodrama that Korean films have come to be known for in the modern era but it also has subtle moments of psychological intrigue and complex emotion. The movie's jazz soundtrack is reminiscent of Western films of the era (Criterion movies like Elevator to the Gallows and Anatomy of a Murder spring to mind) but the aesthetic and technique of the film is notably more Asian.

All these battling elements might make for a total mess of a film, but The Housemaid is a pretty tight ship. In fact, what makes the film so good - and, I would guess, so highly regarded - isn't that it is an especially remarkable story or tells such an impressive story (really, it does neither) but simply that it's executed so well. The way the story is told is rather cunning, and I was left guessing even who the housemaid would be early in the film, and then how the husband would extricate himself from the situation as the climax approached.

One thing that is especially interesting about The Housemaid, particularly in the context of this boxset, is that the film was so clearly a product of a studio system that mirrored Hollywood. Obviously there are elements here that wouldn't work in the US (the ending standing out as a clear example), but the way the film is presented and structured is obviously professional and somewhat workmanlike, a clear style that separates studio work from something like Touki Bouki, which was so obviously the work of an artist, or Redes, which clearly developed outside of an assembly-line mentality. It's a reminder that even if the US has the towering center of commercial film, there are plenty of studios spread out across the globe that are producing film with the same balancing act between art and commerce. Often one can learn just as much about a culture from what they produce when money is on the line than from what they do for the love of it. The Housemaid is an excellent example of this, and it makes a fine addition to the Collection and this box.

Friday, November 8, 2013

#685: Touki Bouki

(Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

The second of two African films in the Martin Scorsese World Cinema collection, Touki Bouki is also the more innovative and foreign in the truest sense of the word. Mambety's style is both elemental and post-modern, indebted to Soviet cinema of the 50s as much as Goddard movies of the 60s. It's also a bit of a slog at home, where it was never meant to be seen.

The story revolves around two Senegalese youngsters who dream of a new life in Paris but seem stuck repeating silly mistakes in their home country. The details of the story are of little concern, and what sticks out in Touki Bouki are the surreal fantasy sequences and the grounded portrayal of Senegal. Both are given equal weight and yet never forced on the viewer - this is a movie only a native could make, the difference between Charles Burnett - a virtual native of Los Angeles - producing Killer of Sheep and Billy Wilder making Double Indemnity. It's not just the subject matters and social intentions that separate those two approaches to a place, and Touki Bouki follows the in-the-know pattern. This is one major place where it separates from its obvious spiritual cousin, Breathless, which is not especially tied to Paris (though this seems quite intentional by Goddard). It's these casual portrayals of Senegal that are most appealing about the film, but the use of sound and visual cues in rhythmic editing from Mabety run a close second, and make the case for the film as one of the more innovative of the 70s.

The problem with the movie, however, is that it's dreadfully slow. There are long stretches without dialogue, the plot is minimal, and you never really get involved with any of the characters beyond a surface level. Considering the talent on display here, my guess is that the experience of seeing the film on the big screen would be notably more enjoyable, and I'd be less likely to drift in and out of the film's current.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

#686: Redes

(Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann, 1936)

The first half of Redes left me a little cold. It was obvious how huge the influence of the film had been on future Latino cinema and other socially conscious cinema - especially films about labor and worker's rights. But having seen so many of the films that followed in its wake lessened the impact of the story, and while the footage itself was impressive and worth watching, I didn't see the spark of cinematic innovation that made the film historically important and timelessly impressive.

The last few sequences of the movie did away with this dispassionate stance. Redes final half is beautiful, lyrical, and moving. It's an angry but hopeful work, like all great political cinema must be, and even if things haven't changed as much as its filmmakers probably hoped they would, it's easy to see what films like this have done in the ensuing 75 years - and just what they can be capable of.

I've never fished for a living in Mexico in the 1930s, but Redes shows me what that might be like. Better yet, it does this with both a documentarian approach (which was the film's original intention) and an impressionistic touch. The quick cut montage at the end of the film is both high art and deeply grounded in the world of its characters. Seeing moments like this in films from the 30s is a humbling experience - seeing it come not just outside Hollywood but outside any studio system is a reminder that great art is rarely driven by commerce. In 2013 just as in 1936, it is an outsider's responsibility to tell stories that aren't being told. But it is their prerogative to tell them in a way that has never been done before.

#689: Trances

(Ahmed Maânouni, 1981)

Along with being one of the first films selected for Martin Scorsese's World Cinema project, Trances is a major positive step for Criterion for one big reason: it is one of two films in this boxset made in Africa. After nearly 700 spine numbers, Criterion has totally neglected what was formerly referred to in the West as the dark continent. Considering the rich history of cinema in places like Senegal and Morocco, where this film was made, this is one of the great holes in Criterion's catalog. Movies like Black Girl and The Iron Gate are great candidates worthy of full standalone releases, but there are most likely hundreds of other films worthy of spine numbers that I've never heard of and would love to see presented.

Anyway, Trances itself is an interesting and somewhat unconventional portrait of an excellent Moroccan band called Nass El Giwhane - if you enjoy the music here, I highly recommend their record Disque D'Or. The movie spends a lot of time watching them perform and rehearse, but there is also a lot about the culture and city surrounding them, especially the politics of the group. Based on the title, I was misguidedly expecting a psychedelic experience, like a North African Head. But what the movie turned out to be was less engaging cinematically but more fascinating in terms of who the band is. It's always interesting to see what pop is defined by in other parts of the world because there are so many differences while still retaining much of what is at the core of the musical experience.