Wednesday, March 12, 2014

And Then There Were None



By sheer coincidence I watched two westerns recently that, while being very different from one another in many important ways, both happened to turn on the age-old plot strategy of establishing a group of characters in a dire situation, and then systematically whittling this group down to a lone scrappy party, whose survival functions both to crystallise a key thematic as well as to taper the narrative off with some degree of triumph. The history of this general premise in literature and genre cinema - my mind associates it most strongly with mystery in the former and horror in the latter - seems almost tied to the hip with the effect of suspense produced, but in the two westerns I watched, this wasn't really the case - events in both play out more as the logical outcome of dubious choices and suboptimal means. But it occurred to me in all of this that the western is a particularly apt canvas to play with this sort of approach: a more classically hermetic setting such as a mysterious old mansion or isolated island will inevitably plunge into a hotbed of hysteria and paranoia, whereas the expanse of the western landscape, loaded with eternal connotations, would seem to provide ample room for experimentation with throwing these dynamics into all sorts of relief.

The first western I watched was Posse from Hell (1961), a late Universal-International production directed by Hitchcock collaborator Herbert Coleman. It's almost proto-Peckinpah in the forcefulness of its violence and in the grim complexities flirted with in Audie Murphy's loner posse leader, and this is one of those darker roles that makes good use of Murphy's troubled intensity and low boil menace, one of those roles that Universal unfortunately only began throwing at Audie in the latter half of his career. Coleman seems to be a curious case, having only two directed features to his name, the other also starring Audie and also made in 1961, a war film for Fox called Battle at Bloody Beach. The second western I watched was Thomas Arslan's latest, Gold (2013). It seems that a lot of critics don't know quite what to do with this one, and that's not surprising considering that, like his previous film In the Shadows (2010) it is a deeply serious piece of genre filmmaking beholden to a deeply alien sensibility. Speaking strictly of those two, the only ones I've seen from him, Arslan is like Siegel mixed with Dumont: a terse, dynamic formal craftsman on one layer, and on the other a neo-Bressonian that uses his flat affect to play with audience expectation and build inexorable moods with swift, discomforting actions. Perhaps the crime film, by its very nature (socially "on the fringes") absorbs eccentricity more easily than the western (historically "on the front lines"), and that this may partly explain why Gold hasn't quite stuck its landing the way Shadows did. But I sense a deep regard invested by Arslan in both films, and the occasional awkwardness of Gold feels productive to me, as though its confronting us with the challenge of reconciling its earnestness with the various lines of tradition that pass through it. (Contrary to some of the fine pieces written, I'm not sure how much interest Arslan has in turning anything "inside out".) In any case, both westerns are recommended, and In the Shadows is recommended twice - a stunning, extremely great film.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Letterboxd

I didn't use MUBI all that often, though I did enjoy logging on once in awhile and keeping some activity going. Since things aren't looking very optimistic at that site right now, and since many folks, as far as I can tell, seem to be flocking to Letterboxd, I've created an account over there and have rated a dozen recent viewings. I can't promise any kind of regular updating, but if you'd like to follow me (and in turn give me someone to follow) then you can find my account here: http://letterboxd.com/dmc/

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

End of the Road

La marge (Walerian Borowczyk, 1976)

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

The similarities in this instance not being solely limited to the image, but extending to facial ticks, presumed state of mind, presumed fate, and placement within the duration of the film. Because La marge could not innacurately be described as a somnambulistic Joe Dallesandro leaving his family to wander around nighttime Paris and have strange sex, it's drawn comparison in some quarters to Eyes Wide Shut, which I think holds a little more water on paper than it does during the actual act of watching. What was evoked for me was Lynch at times (though it often feels like he's destined to live in the back of my eyes forever) as well as, in its occasional status as a piece of erotica that seemingly can't wait to shake off its flesh, Jean Rollin. And the non-condescending, detailed interludes of brothel lifestyle, with their casual immediacy and ellipses, gives a hint of what Pialat's L'Apollonide might have looked like. (If La marge is great, and it might be, it is so because of these sequences.) But none of that quite gets at the movie's own peculiarities of style and attention, the odd appropriateness of its disarming musical choices, the manner in which its play of ideals and their oblivion accumulates a gravity that should be next to impossible to wring from its initial eye-rolling portrayals of the former.

As my first dip into the work of Borowczyk I am without auteurist context here, but I did watch Touch of Evil again last night, so maybe the best way to leave it is to say that La marge is some kind of a movie.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

First Impressions: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Real (2013)



I liked Real a good bit, though it is a departure for Kurosawa in significant ways that have fought off a few qualities I value in his art - namely, it seems that working from source material has flattened him narratively and thematically (gone are those idiosyncratic airs of anomalous tone and plot construction; here the mysteries of thought and behavior are approached as mere puzzles to be unlocked instead of regarded as symptoms) and visually it is almost too good looking, with the rough-hewn edges that have defined so many of his previous visual conceptions almost entirely smoothed over, with sleek architecture and rich foliage sitting in for dilapidation (the one decaying location portrayed is explicitly lamented for and, thus, benign).

Still, Kurosawa, one of the great "protractor-and-metronome" directors (as Ray Durgnat once referred to Lang and Murnau) is able to flex his mastery of rhythm and the ability to conjure unease, and what is most interesting about Real is that this takes place within what is essentially the director's crack at the 'virtual sandbox' subgenre, here taking the idea of intrusion into another's mind and, through its depiction of space, agency and challenge, renders something analogous to the open-air video game experience. Kurosawa is of course no member of any video game generation, and so what we get is not, obviously, the kind of breakneck thing that, say, Neveldine/Taylor or the Harold and Kumar movies (the latter being more unconscious experiments in sandbox realization) offer up, but instead something more composed and curious/suspicious, an "old man's" video game movie, like Cronenberg's eXistenZ (eternally underrated). What these two movies have in common (and some of Phil Solomon's experimental work deals with this also) is an attention to and patience with the vacant details of their environments, a mise-en-scene that forges a dialectic between the attractive freedoms and the inherent artificiality and loneliness of these experiences. Real may lose its footing a bit in a last act that would maybe seem more at home in a Bong Joon-ho picture, but there is a strong feel of mournful investigation here that's hangs in my memory above most of the weaknesses.

Real (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)

Real (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fin


Movies didn't occupy as much of my time in 2013 as they have in previous years - hence both the limited attention I've been giving this blog of late, as well as the more direct nature of this post, at least as compared with previous year-end posts I've done here. Here are, in vaguely preferential order and with a few footnotes, twenty five important first-time viewings I had in 2013:

* Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)
The Wonderful Country (Robert Parrish, 1959)
% The Raid (Hugo Fregonese, 1954)
Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960)
This Island Earth (Joseph Newman, 1955)
Make way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)
^ La Tete contre les murs (Georges Franju, 1959)
Passe ton bac d'abord (Maurice Pialat, 1978)
# Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
Tomahawk (George Sherman, 1951)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2011)
Union Depot (Alfred E. Green, 1932)
Kid Auto Races at Venice (Lehrman/Chaplin, 1914)
Man Without a Star (King Vidor, 1955)
Smilin' Through (Frank Borzage, 1941)
~ The Westerner (Sam Peckinpah, 1960)
The River (Tsai Ming-liang, 1997)
Blood for Dracula (Paul Morrissey, 1974)
The Marquise of O (Eric Rohmer, 1976)
! Twilight's Last Gleaming (Robert Aldrich, 1977)
Red Sundown (Jack Arnold, 1956)
$ Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
Quai des orfevres (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947)
@ Star in the Night (Don Siegel, 1945)


* (Time Machines, or The Curses and Blessings of Cinephilia in the Digital Era as a Splash of Cold Water in the Face) An inexcusable blind spot from a favorite director, one I was more than pleased to have the opportunity to correct via a beautiful 35mm print shown at Emory University in Atlanta. (Emory's bi-annual Cinematheque Series screenings, one of the few movie-going bright spots left in the area, are wonderfully programmed and open to the public for free (!) and if you live anywhere in the vicinity and care about movies then they should be a big deal to you). What to say about the movie? Not much here, only that it's one thing to speak of Lubitch's mythical enduring freshness in hallowed hushes and nodding approvals, and it's another thing entirely to experience it directly - that is, to experience Lubitsch in 2013 the way he was meant to be experienced (or so I imagine), a concept that factors in, among other things I would say, a particular type of motley audience, one alien to our modern segmented film culture, one varied across the board in age and expectation (it was made clear to me at the screening that a not insignificant number of attendees were students whose presence was mandatory) and the attending exuberant surprise and sense of participation as a special picture faultlessly does its job within such an atmosphere (sidenote: how many American moviegoers in the 30s went into the theater on any given day expecting something singular?) I'd never heard this amount of, or more importantly, this kind of laughter and joy from an audience before, have never felt near this degree of shared, positive energy from any kind of movie screening, and walking out it was quite hard to not notice the buzzing and be struck with the notion that I had been part of a serious event, in the Thomas Elsaesser sense of the word, as a film experience which carves out its singularity upon recollection not only from the direct experience of the film itself but also from the strands of unique human experience which invariably tangle up with and tint our perception. Needless to say, for the modern cinephile, one accustomed to mathematically dispersed multiplex crowds and 700MB .avi rips, this can be potentially a rather startling experience to have, as well as a nourishing one, and a sad one, sad in the way that getting merely a taste of something distant and overwhelming and alluring can be. I don't pretend that none of this contributes to Trouble being my favorite film viewing in 2013, but for what it's worth, I've watched it again since, on my couch, and it lost next to nothing.

% "Never trust a person who can't acknowledge their debts" said someone, somewhere. While I have trouble envisioning viewing methods less structured and more vulnerable to whims than my own, I nevertheless found myself regularly referencing the following items when the craving for guidance of some sort came along: Jaime Christley's decade-by-decade lists of essentials at TheFilmsaurus, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, Phil Hardy's The Western, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage's two-volume American Directors, Glenn Kenny's Blu-Ray Consumer Guide column, and Dan Sallitt's lists of favorite films. The last of those of which turned me on to the Fregonese masterpiece placed here. In addition to his neat color-coded lists and valuable writing on film, Dan is also a filmmaker, and if you didn't know, his latest work The Unspeakable Act is quite excellent. (And it is in at least my opinion that his 2000 film All the Ships at Sea, included as an extra on the Cinema Guild dvd release of Act, is just as good.)

^ At 46 years of age, and having already mastered a particular subversive, poetic approach to the documentary short, Franju gives us one of those most fascinating of all film objects: the first feature that is also - in the long-settled calm of its vision, in its elemental tone - an autumnal one. Further exploration of Franju's oeuvre was a big highlight for me this year; the missing link between Feuillade and Lynch, this spot could have just as easily gone to Pleins Feux sur l'Assassin or Premiere Nuit (either of which could reasonably be called Les vampires), or Therese Desqueyroux (which could reasonably append the subtitle 'A Woman in Trouble').

# Quick confession that I'm not proud of: after a miserably unsatisfying viewing of Le Samourai some years back, I pretty much gave up on Melville. I didn't get it, at all, and there was not much there I was tempted to pursue. Earlier this year I stumbled upon a cheap used dvd of Le Doulos, watched it almost grudgingly, was shocked at how much I liked it, and subsequently ran through the entirety of Melville's work (minus Samourai) in awe. Feeling that surely the boat would come back around this time, I watched Le Samourai again, and was once again left tepid. What is it about certain directors pushing certain elements or tendencies to certain extremes that can provoke these types of responses? I find myself in a similar position with His Girl Friday, another highly regarded work by a favorite director that I have every bit of trouble in the world connecting with. And yet Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge seem to occupy the same room in the same house. If anyone can crack that one then please give me a call, because I can't. 

~ Not a film of course, but the 13 episode 1960 television series, starring Brian Keith, created and produced by Peckinpah, and directed by a stable which includes Peckinpah and Andre de Toth. It's a shame that this brilliant show has never received any sort of home release. 

! Olive Films continues to quietly be one of the physical media-hoarding cinephile's best friends, and their release of this forgotten masterpiece is essential. What to say about the movie? Not much here, only that I'd like to briefly indulge in one of those auteurist parlour games and propose an unofficial Aldrich trilogy, made up of three back-to-back films, The Longest Yard, Hustle, and Twilight's Last Gleaming....we'll call it the 'Touchdown' trilogy, a trilogy where football is first taken as a prime subject and then with each subsequent film allowed to recede slowly into the margins (perhaps the 'Safety' trilogy would be more apropos?) What's interesting in this respect about the latter two examples is the way the presence of the sport is merely incorporated into initial and non-essential background maneuverings, only to take on a reincarnated weight in the form of the conflicts at the center of the drama - in other words yet another and particularly gradated assertion of Aldrich's world as one of a pure struggle. This sensitivity to the phenomenon of the sporting event and its place in even the most quotidian of social circumstances - and this could only come from a true sports fan I think; Aldrich played football in college - seems to me one of the unique properties of his cinema. Let's also remember that Aldrich's first and last movies were sports films: Big Leaguer (pleasant, minor) and ...All the Marbles (passionate, major). 

$ "Never trust a person who can't change their mind about art" said someone, somewhere. Quick confession: I've seen Fat Girl, once, many years ago, and didn't care much for it. I watched it again this year, and it wasn't the same movie I watched all that time ago. Or, more likely, it was a different person watching the same movie. Either way, it may as well have been that I had never seen it before, and so I feel little qualm including it here. I'm still a bit on the fence with Breillat  (my newfound enthusiasm for this one sent me down a path with a few other previously unseen Breillat films with mixed results) but I can no longer deny the brilliance of Fat Girl. I'm still trying to sew back together my nerve-endings from that final act, an urtext of the New French Car Anxiety, alongside Cedric Kahn's Red Lights from 2004. 

@ I'm not saying that It's a Wonderful Life isn't a great film - it is. But I get everything I get from that movie here, force intact, and I don't have to spend three hours in front of the television. Just sayin'. Siegel's first directed job is a small miracle I think, and it's fascinating to see his natural talents put towards a profoundly tender mode of expression that would find little use in his later work. Not that I'm complaining about the Siegel that we got. 

***********************************************


As far as new films go, for me this year there was Shane Carruth's Upstream Color and then everything else.....the best of which would include, in vaguely preferential order: Alain Guiraudie's L'inconnu du lac; Brian De Palma's Passion; Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers; Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess; Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act, Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love; Claire Denis' Bastards; Timo Tjahjonto and Gareth Huw Evans' segment "Safe Haven" from V/H/S 2; and select sequences from A Field in England, the latest picture from Ben Wheatley, who continues to mount a compelling case for himself as the most frustrating of all working directors, the chasm between his genuinely exciting and bold ideas and their oft-haphazard realization seemingly growing wider with every new work. And winning the 'C'mon, It's Not THAT Bad' award is Brad Furman's Runner, Runner, a nothing-special picture to be sure, but one that often presents a reasonably pleasing facsimile of certain fleet narrative tendencies found in the fifties B-pictures. And Ben Affleck is actually pretty great in it.