Monday, March 28, 2016

#768: The French Lieutenant's Woman

(Karel Reisz, 1981)

The French Lieutenant's Woman has to be one of the biggest surprises for me in the Collection in some time. When it first appeared in the coming soon section, my response was "uhh, ok." I've been putting it off because I assumed it was classy award-bait, a film that lacked real heft propped up by the presence of Meryl Streep and a strong pedigree from a popular novel. I had seen Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (which would be a great addition to the Collection) but I had never even heard of this movie.

I loved this movie. It's approach to the adaptation (written by Harold Pinter) is brilliant, one of the best techniques I've ever seen to take a novel's structural device and translate it into cinematic grammar without losing the thematic thrust of the original text. It reminded me a bit of Adaptation, but where that movie drifted completely away from the source material to examine the process of creation, Pinter's script is consistently true to the book (at least as far as I can gather from what I've read). The cuts back and forth between the Victorian setting and modern day are seamless and provocative, highlighting the struggle of Streep's characters to assert themselves in very different ways throughout.

What's funny about my unexpected response to the film is that the movie still kind of is that film I had expected to dismiss. As would be expected from this cast, the performances are great, and both Streep and Irons deliver surprises and deep emotion without stressing the flashiness of the roles they have been given. Similarly, the film's Victorian story is somewhat straightforward, and the movie generally does have a sort of staid Oscar feel to it, even when its structure eschews convention. But this would rank with the best of Victorian-set films for me even without the inclusion of the modern day components. Both Pinter and Streep lost to On Golden Pond, and while it's nice to have another Oscar for Kathrine Hepburn this film is significantly better than that one, and miles ahead of Chariots of Fire which won the Best Picture Oscar that year (this wasn't nominated for the big one). These losses likely contribute greatly to the film's lower profile, but I'm very happy to have seen it

A note on the cover - I love the concept behind the artwork, discussed in a post on Criterion's site, but the lack of color and subtle appearance of the type online has likely hurt this film's profile in the Collection. I'd love to see more talk about this one, as it might be the most underrated release of 2015 and one of the best.

#782: The Apu Trilogy

 (Satyajit Ray, 1955-59)

After more than 800 spine numbers and nearly twenty years, there are few titles that can compete with The Apu Trilogy for the title of most significant achievement in the Criterion Collection. As the spectacular (but brief) documentary on the supplements explains, the three films' negatives were heavily damaged in a fire, leaving Criterion and its partners with a painstaking task of restoring the damaged film and/or reconstructing a master print from various prints sprinkled throughout the world (the process used most generally for Apur Sansar). The finished versions of the films we see on these blu-rays are absolutely stunning, especially Pather Panchali, the crown jewel of the set. This film - certainly one of the ten or fifteen most important works in cinema history - has been transformed from a barely functional relic of a forgotten era to a pristine jewel in cinema's rich history. There have been glorious transfers in Criterion's day. But it is quite clear that nothing compares to this.

But what's most amazing about the story behind these restorations is that the stature of the films themselves is equal to this remarkable product. These are living breathing artifacts of a crucial turning point in cinema, monuments to a new era yet every bit as relevant today as they were when they were released. Quite simply, if you are receptive to the average Criterion film, The Apu Trilogy will have an enormous impact on you. It's the kind of movie experience that brings to mind only a handful of comparisons that can compete with its humanism, its cinematic sophistication, and its importance to one of the five major centers of filmmaking. You owe it to yourself to watch these movies.

Links to individual reviews:

783. Pather Panchali
784. Aparajito
785. Apur Sansar

Sunday, March 27, 2016

#785: Apur Sansar

(Satyajit Ray, 1959)

The final chapter of The Apu Trilogy is the most affecting. This is partially because of the commitment already put in to this character, the emotional stakes that come with four prior hours spent with a human and watching him grow from his first moments to a grown man. But the film also features the biggest gut punch of a death in an already formidable line of gut-punch deaths. Compounded by the fate of the relationship between Apu and his new son, the film's central turning point is quite overwhelming. But even as the film turns toward a poetic third act and a hopeful ending, the emotions of the thing never feel forced or manipulative. Apur Sansar is heartbreaking and uplifting. This trilogy is, like Yi Yi, the story of what encapsulates all of human experience in the era of cinema - family, modernity, art in an age of technology, love, education, belief, and most of the all the individual struggling with all of this to grasp at meaning in existence.

As the father of a boy who is about to turn five, Apur Sansar is a complex emotional ride. On the one hand, I've watched Apu's whole life - I've seen the loss that has come from being close to people, and I've seen his struggle to define himself as an individual. Through this experience, the impact of his wife's death hits so hard that it isn't a surprise that he walks away from the son he hasn't met - nor is it a move that turns me against him. Yet I know the joy and rewarding existential moments he is missing by rejecting his child. I also know the dependence of a child on their parents and the bond between a father and a son, so his logical decision is nevertheless tragic. I cried through the second half of this movie, both for Apu and for his son.

Apu says that he abandons his son because he couldn't bear to be reminded that he lived because his mother died. It goes much deeper than this, of course, back to his home village and the death of his sister, through to the moment when he had no one and nothing and decided to do something he deemed honorable in a naïve and romantic moment of foolishness. It's impossible for virtually anyone reading this post or watching this Criterion release to fully understand Apu's motivation, yet Ray has lent his life such a universal humanism that it's impossible not to relate. The final moment does not feel forced because we know this human, we know it is inevitable he will open his heart to this boy, and we root for them as they walk off into the distance even though there is almost certainly more heartbreak to be had.

Friday, March 25, 2016

#791: Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance

(Toshiya Fujita, 1974)

The main thing I kept thinking throughout Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance was how impressive Zatoichi was. Over the course of eleven years, 25 Zatoichi films were made centered around the same character and every single one of them is better than this mess of a film. The sequel pulls double duty as a study in contrasts when considering the drop in quality from the original, which looks even more impressive after replicating its tight structure and freewheeling style proved so difficult.

The film fails on multiple fronts, but the worst crime it commits is useless voiceover. The first third or so of the movie includes this vapid narration used to explain things that we mostly already know and illustrate things that were are simultaneously watching. It's awkward, lazy, and unbefitting the original film's inspired delirium. The other flaws in the film are less fatal, but leave it wounded beyond repair: the political story is admirable and interesting, but requires too much exposition to make for a good story for this character; the fight scenes are significantly less creative here, and no one in the film is much of a match for Snowblood, leaving the outcome preordained; the attempt to expand Snowblood's character beyond her simple original plan for revenge is not earned, so we're left to just assume that she would turn to the light and use her powers for justice.

There are some redeeming qualities of Lady Snowblood 2. The music stands out most - though not as focused and perfect as the theme from the original, the score here is consistently impressive and extremely reminiscent of RZA's work in Ghost Dog. Similarly, Fujita has moments of inspiration and is constantly attempting to do something with the material. There's just not enough to carry his enthusiasm in either story or performances. These sorts of forced sequels are extremely common now, but it wasn't always that way. As a spine number, then, Lady Snowblood 2 represents an early failure in this regard, and the best that can be said about it is that they didn't take the easy way out and remake the first movie - though in this case that might have been what sunk them from the beginning.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

#784: Aparajito

(Satyajit Ray, 1956)

Aparajito is the middle film in the Apu Trilogy, but like Pather Panchali before it, it was not assumed there would be a follow-up. This makes the film different from the majority of second films in a trilogy, even though it also has a bit of the abrupt ending that many middle films have. One similarity it does share with such movies is the leap in technical skill on display that often come from maturity, larger budgets, and a confidence to take risks borne of success. I mentioned the talent and sophistication Ray brought to Pather Panchali in my thoughts on that film, but a small budget and the enormous challenge of doing the shoot in the village where it was set meant some things were destined to be compromised. Aparajito has significantly fewer barriers, and as a result it is a slicker and more complex film - though not necessarily a better or more important one.

The pacing of Aparajito is particularly noteworthy. The film starts out with Apu not much older than he was in the final moments of the first film, still spending his days exploring and getting into harmless trouble. However, this time it's in the streets of a well-populated town where his father has moved the family to make a better living. The first half hour or so of the film is spent establishing his new life and that of his mother's while building up the signifiers and thematic underpinnings of what is to come both in this movie and the next. (Many of these signifiers needed explanation for me, provided by the solid short special feature on the disc.)

The movie takes a dramatic shift when (spoiler etc.) Apu's father dies, and this is really where the momentum for the rest of the trilogy gets going. Apu's journey into adulthood through education and independence is a story of modernity and the toll it takes on humanity, something that comes into focus even more in the evolving relationship with trains in the third film. But it's also a humanist story of a cultural awakening in the midst of a changing society. This is the core strength of Aparajito on its own, and the film would be quite impressive separated from its beginning and ending chapters simply because it depicts this evolution so gracefully.

Monday, March 21, 2016

#801: I Knew Her Well

(Antonio Pietrangeli, 1965)

Italy was in a very dark place in the 1960s. Despite the hair, the short skirts, the tailored suits and slim ties, the go-go-influenced pop, the exploding construction industry stretching high rises across the country, the Italian soul was corroding in the sun. Just a quick look at the 25 or so Italian films from the 60s that are in the Collection puts the country's attitude front and center: Antonioni's modernist trilogy. Fists in the Pocket. Il Sorpasso. Seduced and Abandoned. Rosi's two political masterpieces, Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City. Dillinger Is Dead. Fellini's work is in a category all its own, but even the king of Italian cinema spent the decade dabbling in sharp socio-political commentary with Juliet of the Spirits, 8 1/2, and the iconic La Dolce Vita. These are angry films attacking both the status quo in Italian culture and the modern "solutions" to traditional social barriers.

Masculinity is particularly skewered across these films, though Antonioni's work in particular puts Vitti and company front and center more often than not. None of these films come close to the almost complete focus on the protagonist in I Knew Her Well, a lesser-known Italian entry from the swinging 60s that was released by Criterion last month. But the shift to issues of femininity and the struggles of beauty and youth does not soften the tone. I Knew Her Well can easily sit next to those other films in the dark Italian 60s, even before the film's upending final moment.

I Knew Her Well is a dark comedy, but for the first half or so it's mostly just comedy. Adriana's early dalliances are harmless enough - a great early joke is when she is filing a woman's nails at a beauty salon where she works and unconsciously shifts to her own nails as the customer looks on in disbelief. Later moments are more profoundly sad if thought about, but can be treated as playful easily enough if you ignore the ending. When Adriana wakes up in the hotel where her one-night stand has abandoned her, she must pay for the night with a bracelet he gave her - which later turns out to have been stolen. It's not funny ha ha, but funny ouch.

I was also reminded of Scorsese's work in the later sequences, particularly the party scene, which has to be the saddest and cruelest tap dancing sequence ever. Pietrangelli places him just at the edge of the table so we don't know if he's going to topple over, further embarrassing himself. The dance is cruel enough though. The scene might be more difficult to watch than most of Salò, but it's reminiscent of the ball-busting sequences in Goodfellas, moments that underscore the poisonous culture that emerge from the social acceptance of the characters' more sinister actions. This sequence is interesting because Adriana is absent from the scene, instead being interviewed as a set up for her own later humiliation.

The parallel is hard to miss, and most of the metaphors in the film are similarly heavy handed. But what makes these moments more complex is the realization at the end of the movie that Adriana's final fate is still shocking despite the preceding two hours of humiliation and empty human interactions. We are so accepting of the portrayal of young and beautiful women as empty vessels bouncing from thrill to thrill that the idea that they could have inner lives (especially in movies) is barely considered until it's too late.

Although I had no serious issues with the portrayal of Adriana in the film, I was somewhat annoyed by the framing of Pietrangelli in the extras as a "director who loved women." I think it's great that he was especially concerned with the female experience, and this is a very sensitive and complex take on a woman's psychology that never feels like it's pretending to be coming from any place other than the male gaze - the title even gives it away, explaining the misguided perception of the omniscient man certain he's figured Adriana out right until the final moment when she takes over and we finally get a POV. But I can't help but think it comes across as "surely a woman herself couldn't make a movie, so it's a good thing we have men who are sensitive to women." Women and people of color are not horses or super heroes or children or dead historical figures - they can make movies about themselves if given the opportunity. I Knew Her Well shouldn't be at fault for that - Pietrangelli never pretends he is inside Adriana's mind, and his purpose is often precisely the opposite of what can be achieved by gaining insight into characters that can only come from relatable personal experience. But I think it's important to note what we've missed all these years and wonder what a movie about this same character could have been like if it was made by a woman, particularly in Italy.

Friday, March 18, 2016

#793: The American Friend

(Wim Wenders, 1977)

Patricia Highsmith looms large in cinema when it comes to 20th century novelists. Her greatest contribution to the medium was Hitchcock's 1951 masterpiece Strangers on a Train, but Purple Noon (which is in the Collection) and Talented Mr Ripley are also significant works, both based on the same novel with different takes. Just last year, Todd Haynes delivered Carol, which was just hastily voted the best LGBT movie of all time in a BFI poll (the film's portrayal of lesbians stands in contrast to Strangers on a Train's homoerotic portrayal of the evil Bruno, a Freudian and outdated psychosis that mars an otherwise near-perfect film).

The American Friend is a loose adaptation of one of Highsmith's other Ripley books, one that hadn't even been published by the time Wenders bought the rights and decided to adapt it for the big screen. Unsurprisingly, Wenders did not stick to the novel closely, and The American Friend is consequently closer in style to Wenders's other films than to Highsmith's other adaptations. That said, there remains a bit of homoerotic subtext and many of the tragic undertones of ordinary people caught up in a story that propels them toward ruin that are present in most of Highsmith's work. The movie is a much richer noir tribute because of it.

Wenders makes movies that seem to exist in their own realities, a trend that culminated in his greatest film, Wings of Desire, which straddled the border between waking state and dreamworld, this life and the one after, cinema and transcendence. The American Friend is no different, though it desperately wants to belong to the long tradition of American noir and lost 60s idealism of Hopper's own films. Although Hopper was not Wenders's first choice for Ripley, he matches the tone of the film perfectly, and I don't think it would be as meaningful with a pure actor in the role. There's very little in the way of suspense here, though the two murder sequences are tautly constructed, and Wenders is instead more interested in the layering of emotional connections and the quiet descent into noir-styled fatalism. Many noir films unfurl like dreams, which has often led to surreal entries in the genre. Wenders opts for gritty and deliberate realism, which elevates the drama to mythical levels anyway.

The American Friend is most notable as a Wenders film, but it's still an excellent thriller with existential charm. It's a minor entry in his catalog that sets the stage for the recently announced Road Trilogy and likely more Wenders in the coming years. (The State of Things? Until the End of the World? There have been rumors of Buena Vista Social Club.) Hopefully that set will match the towering charms of Wings and Paris, Texas, but for now this will do as a holdover.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

#762: A Master Builder

(Jonathan Demme, 2014)

I have no business writing anything on this movie, so instead I'll talk about the boxset that was released at the same time, which lacks a spine number. Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films includes three very different movies from three separate decades that come from a collaboration between two very talented actors focused primarily on the theater and ways in which its structure can inform life. Two of the films included in the collection were directed by Louis Malle, while Jonathan Demme directed this third installment, released to festivals in 2013, making it one of the more recent films in the Collection.

Of the three films, there is no question that My Dinner with Andre is the one that I like best. I'll quite easily admit that part of this is my general disinterest in theater, though there are some theater-focused films in the Collection that I like very much. Both Vanya and A Master Builder are older plays that have been tweaked or updated for their respective film adaptations, but Vanya takes a significantly more radical approach that at least let the film stand out from the average filmed play that many traditional stage-to-screen adaptations are.

My Dinner with Andre similarly flouts conventional filmmaking, but it does so in way that to me is highly cinematic - though I haven't seen it in years, it's one of my favorite Malle films. The conversation the two actors have is extremely engaging, and the way Malle shoots it underscores the simple drama of an enlightening human-scale interaction. It's a film like Waking Life or the documentary The Power of Myth that gets creative gears turning and makes you think about the potential of art and human creation. It's also just a fun experience, like sitting alone eavesdropping on people who are far more interesting than whoever didn't show up to have dinner with you.

This isn't a box for me - I don't like theater as I've made clear on this blog before - but for people who do like this sort of thing, A Master Builder is deserving of its place next to the other two films, even if it's clearly the weakest of the bunch. Shawn in particular is such an engaging and unpredictable actor that even I was occasionally entranced by his performance. With one straight classic, one extremely strong swan song from one of the most important directors in the Collection, and a final film from another major director to round out the journey, this is an admirable set, and one that could mean a lot to a certain kind of fan of acting and the process.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

#802: Paris Belongs to Us

(Jacques Rivette, 1961)

It's impossible for anyone my age to understand the impact of World War II, but it seems to me like people have spent far too little time putting the French New Wave in the context of postwar Paris. This might be because of the core group of filmmakers that helped define the New Wave, only Resnais directly grappled with the thing in two of his films in the collection, Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and even those aren't about the French experience. The surrealists who were surely the most famous Parisian artist movement until Godard and Co. were famously influenced by the horror of World War I, yet the New Wave does not have the same immediate connection to World War II despite the war's arguably more severe impact on France in general and Paris specifically. This may be because the filmmakers had other more apparent influences, most notoriously the American (though often by way of Europe) filmmakers of the 30s and 40s but also the modernist artists of the time and the political revolution of the 60s. Of course, all three of these things were also directly influenced by World War II, so even the movement's deepest origins come back to the war.

This is not to say that the shadow of World War II is never connected to the New Wave. Godard in particular is frequently linked to the political effects and philosophical ramifications of the war; the filmmaker himself has often referred to World War II (quite obviously correctly) as the key event of the 20th century. But I'm less interested in how these filmmakers handled the war in their art than I am with how it informed their desire to make art and their decisions about what kind of art they would make. Some of this was likely conscious (see Resnais again), but a lot of it was surely subconscious, an involuntary reaction to the world they had witnessed and were inheriting from the previous generation. What is it like to live in a city that for hundreds of years dominated the world's urban attention, and yet for one brief moment of history was itself nearly consumed by that same world? How does that inform your being, your worldview, your voice? The setting becomes even more complicated when you consider the post-war politics of France, where the more political faction of the New Wave was practically a declared enemy of the de Gaulle government that had been the de facto leader of the resistance.

In this context, Rivette's first film, Paris Belongs to Us, makes significantly more sense - it's no surprise that even the Criterion description of the film mentions "post-WWII disillusionment," as this seems to be the driving force. The conspiracy element of the film that springs directly from this disillusionment apparently runs throughout much of Rivette's work in the 1960s (I have yet to see any of his other films from the era) and parallels the same spontaneous generation in Thomas Pynchon's work of the era. In some ways, Pynchon's postmodern prose plays the same role in his web that Rivette's interest in the theater rehearsal process plays in his films, pulling back the curtains on the gears that make reality turn. I'm far from the first person to compare Rivette with Pynchon, but I do find it interesting that both artists are more commonly identified with the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s when so much of what they are talking about is a direct result of the past generation's more literal battles. Like so many social and political movements, the context and groundwork is often sacrificed in order to deliver a cleaner story.

There's much to like about Paris Belongs to Us as a film. It's not as flashy as the other debut films of the New Wave, but it's packed with fully formed characters and smart dialog as much as it is open plot threads, missing pieces. Betty Schneider holds the film together as Anne - just as Rivette's style walks the line between familiar and fractured, her performance is often relatable even as I continued to feel like I didn't know her two hours into the running time. This blog is (mostly) intended to reflect my initial feelings about a movie after watching it for the first time, but films like Paris Belongs to Us are not intended to be understood on first viewing. I don't know if I'll be ready to go back into this one for some time, but I do look forward to diving into the rest of Rivette's catalog to see how his worldview evolved as the war grew more distant in both his own memory and that of the city he called home.

Monday, March 7, 2016

#766: Here Is Your Life

(Jan Troell, 1966)

How you respond to Here Is Your Life will largely depend on how much you believe film should reflect the natural rhythms of reality. As a conventional piece of cinematic storytelling, Here Is Your Life is a crushing bore. But that's primarily because the film is more interested in the simple and identifiable (not through other cinema but through IRL) experiences of growing up, struggling to find a calling, and awakening to the responsibilities and conflicts of adulthood. It's a pretty fascinating approach considering the film was the debut feature from its director.

The two Criterions that came to mind while watching the film are extremely different, but get at the respective flaws and strengths here. Berlin Alexanderplatz is another direct adaptation of a novel that features a great deal of internal dialog that is lost in translation, resulting in an aimless and undistinguished plot. It's very easy for nothing to happen in a book because the prose and characters' internal thoughts can make anything interesting if done well enough. In film, the routine and unremarkable nature of everyday life becomes excruciatingly dull. Though Here Is Your Life is thankfully one fifth the running time of Berlin, it still drags on for a difficult three hours that will be brutal for any but the most dedicated of slow cinema fans. The beautiful imagery (especially in the opening logging sequence) can go a long way, but at a certain point the returns on the investment of time become negligible.

The other film that Here Is Your Life reminded me of is I Am Curious (Yellow), one of the worst films in the Collection. Made a year after this infinitely superior film, I Am Curious (Yellow) followed a similar coming of age political and sexual awakening, though the later film gained notoriety because it was about a(n occasionally naked) woman, while this film languished in obscurity until Criterion released it last year. Both movies however represent a conscious cinematic jump from earlier Swedish film, though Here Is Your Life does so in a more subtle and appealing way.

I wish I liked Here Is Your Life more than I did and can certainly respect viewers who are blown away by the film's leisurely pace and quiet confidence. I actually quite liked Everlasting Moments, the first Troell film in the Collection that snuck in thanks to the IFC deal, and I'm very much looking forward to The Emigrants. But Here Is Your Life felt more like a movie to be endured than an epic to savor.