Thursday, December 27, 2012

End of the Year / 20

While thinking of possible approaches to take towards a year-end something-of-a-summary post for my 2012 film viewing, my mind kept returning to this post on Girish's blog from May. Girish talks about his personal process for archiving film viewings/impressions, and then goes on to say: "I'm shocked by the discrepancy between how forcefully a film and its elements can sometimes register with me immediately after I've seen it, and how quickly these impressions (so vivid and strong the day of the viewing) can evaporate from memory.....I find this aspect of the film experience - a movement from strong registration and impact to fogginess and oblivion - to be positively frightening. I suppose that recording and archiving my immediate impressions is a small gesture against this terrifying ephemerality."

That post struck a very strong chord with me initially because it was the first time I had seen put into words a very troubling undercurrent experienced but never quite fully acknowledged in my own movie watching history, and its resonance only increased exponentially as I sat down to peruse my viewing logs from the past year and realized fully and bluntly and with much frustration that out of the 400+ first time viewings I had in 2012, in far more instances than not what I am left with today is merely an impression of an impression - that is, I can remember fairly quickly whether I liked or disliked a given film with far more clarity than I can why I liked or disliked a given film.

I am not good these days about taking notes and recording observations. Occasionally I will be struck by something in a certain way that leads to a post here on the blog; more often than not it doesn't work out that way. Last year I operated almost exclusively off of these faint memory impressions to divide my favorite discoveries of the year into a post made up of fairly arbitrary categories. This year, rather than categories or equally arbitrary numerical ratings, I've decided to compose something intended as, in the words of Girish, "a small gesture against this terrifying ephemerality." I've chosen to highlight 20 moments (20 being the number I settled on for uninteresting/practical reasons) from older films that I watched for the first time in 2012 - moments that, for one reason or another, left an unusually strong impression on me and have remained in my brain as something of an intact shard amid what is in many cases an otherwise half-faded tangle. There was no rhyme or reason to the films and/or moments that were selected; it was simply whatever popped off the page and triggered something as I ran down the list of all that I'd watched. Hence, it was not even a necessity that I like every movie making an appearance below, though that did largely wind up being the case, coincidentally or (I suspect) not.

It's a method that can be limiting in some obvious ways. For one, it was almost inevitable that the chosen moments would invariably come from narrative-based cinema, which due to the relatively blocky tendencies of more conventional plots and forms tends to give itself over to the retroactive isolation and crystallization of individual scenes far easier than much experimental cinema, which I also spent a good deal of time with this year and which I tend often to experience as - and this is more than a bit reductive, but illustrates the point - either intensely visceral/sensorial total objects, or intellectually provocative thought experiments worked through in a manner by which the parts are inexorably linked to their sum.

Another problem with this approach is the matter of context. I've tried to summon it where I can, and in some cases I've gone back to review the specific scene as a refresher; some I didn't revisit at all. It can be tricky to situate a fragment meaningfully outside of its whole, and there's some vaguely inadequate feeling that comes along with attempts to do so. Nonetheless, even with these built-in flaws I feel like this exercise is ultimately more productive personally, and, for anyone who winds up reading this, a more honest representation of my relationship with movies in 2012. The list below is alphabetized by movie title.

Note: For those wary of such things, the endings to some of these films are discussed.


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The Bridesmaid (Claude Chabrol, 2004)

For those who take their Chabrol with two parts Lang and one part Hitchcock, as opposed to the other way around. (I'd put myself in the first category.) What I remember here are the narrow, twisted, empty spaces, thick with menace; the inanimate objects that are spoken to; the doors that open by themselves. The last detail specifically, which is returned to multiple times in various manners (the detached observation of a character's entrance in an icy, off-center static shot early on; a roving, subjective penetration by the camera itself a little later) seems to stand as a pure image of the film's overall sense of dread-as-a-pass, of crossing a threshold into a dark unknown. For me, the mysterious qualities of Chabrol's best work can feel as fertile and bottomless as anything created by any of his New Wave brethren. The Bridesmaid deserves to be talked about in the same breath as his greatest and most chilling films.

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The Horse Soldiers (John Ford, 1959)

As mere character drama, Ford's The Horse Soldiers doesn't work out too well, and as a moralising war actioner it is only marginally more successful. As a visual monument to southern landscape and ambiance, however, it is maybe as perfect a film as I've ever come across. There is one particularly sublime scene about an hour in with the Wayne-led Union cavalry hiding in brush as a unit of Confederate soldiers trace a horizontal path on the far side of a near river. Obscured by trees and singing a war tune that sounds more like some kind of distant, echoed incantation, the Confederates here are pure memory-in-motion, and the depth of feeling and mastery of this scene comes from the manner in which Ford snips at this event from various similar angles, all of which distribute primacy evenly between his receding mythical lines, the portraitured suspense of the foregrounded soldiers in hiding, and the vast sensual and structural beauty of the steady nature which both separates and binds them.

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Japon (Carlos Reygadas, 2002)

The jury is still out on Reygadas for me. That final apocalyptic tracking shot in Japon, however, is somethin' else.

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Lady of Burlesque (William A. Wellman, 1943)

Stanwyck delivers a smush-lipped zippy one-liner and a slapstick blow to her on-stage partner (Michael O'Shea) to the delight of the packed burlesque house crowd; the lights go out, the police raid the joint and all hell breaks loose.

I'm still not sure why I find this seemingly innocuous sequence from Wellman's post code pre-coder so interesting. I saw stronger Wellman pictures with Bigger Moments this year to be sure, but there's something incredibly impressive here in the way the frenzy is organized and graded from mass to personal chaos. The initial moments of the police raid are filmed in long shot, capturing a total picture of urgency as the spectators flee outwards and the performers rush backstage; Wellman frames the stricter physical confines of the backstage pandemonium in medium-longshots, then moves in for close-ups of eccentric precaution - a couple dressed in animal costumes hide in a car; a man closes himself off in a large bird cage and covers his eyes - before finally arriving at a backwards dolly of Stanwyck descending some stairs as a pre-giallo pair of hands plunge out of the darkness behind her in an attempted strangulation. The stark tonal shift of this sequence from ebullience to fear - and, with the Stanwyck character, the accompanying rapid emotional flux from power of the stage performer to a complete, dark vulnerability - feels fairly radical.

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The Late Show (Robert Benton, 1977)

This one is a little bit of a cheat, in the sense that it's not highlighting a single moment, but rather an individual performance, probably my favorite from everything I watched this year: Art Carney's weary, sweaty private eye, guts eating him from the inside, gun and glass (of either booze or alka-seltzer) occupying one or both hands at any given time. It's equal parts Ride the High Country (genre elegy) and El Dorado (index of bodily maladies), and what I remember admiring most about the film is the way it lays out nearly its entire grid of characters early on, the narrative in turn functioning not so much as a working through of mystery plot convolutions, but as a constant refinement of the personalities on display.

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Le Orme (Luigi Bazzoni, 1975)

If the brilliant giallos of Luigi Bazzoni can be said to share something of a united thematic front, it would be an urge to paint clustered visions of personal worlds immediately guided by the dreams and visions of an unknowable, unshakable past. Le Orme, perhaps his most potent statement, takes as its clinging past faint memories of an obscure science-fiction film seen at a young age by its grown protagonist (Florinda Bolkan), a professional translator who begins experiencing unaccountable amnesia while images and dialogues from the mysterious movie - starring Klaus Kinski as an ostensibly sinister scientist conducting experiments on astronauts - continue to assert an increasingly corrosive presence in both her waking and dreaming lives. What ultimately makes Le Orme so intriguing isn't Bazzoni's unique method of bypassing genre tropes whilst remaining firmly rooted in what makes the genre tick on its deepest levels, nor the penchant for elegant explorations of architecture-as-mind-space, but rather it's the peculiar confessional quality conjured up by the deployment of these unsettling, half-remembered scraps of film-within-a-film: that of an artist haunted by the inability to either shake off entirely the ghosts of cinema or to situate them into any kind of logical system.

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The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Aldrich, 1968)

Within their shared gothic attitude towards the Dream Factory as a destructive and possessive mechanism, the most direct line between Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the Legend of Lylah Clare? Dog food commercials. In the former film, the televised advertisement (brand: Iliad) is spoken by an on-air personality and presents itself as a normatively annoying interruption of a broadcasted remnant from Blanch Hudson's long faded acting career. In the latter picture - a vast critical and financial failure - the commercial (brand: Barkwell's) is revealed through two layers of invasion: firstly by disrupting a televised awards ceremony where the film maudit that's been at the center of the plot is being celebrated, and secondly by rupturing the very film the viewer is watching. The sanitized televisual images of an aesthetic home owner lovingly feeding her pet take over the diegesis entirely as the scenario quickly descends into madness with a ceaseless stream of savage canines crashing the party and bringing forth some kind of cannibalistic apocalypse. Aldrich's Hollywood devours itself from the inside out in this brutally distilled ending, which could be argued for as the piece de resistance of the great director's career.

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Les Amants de Pont-Neuf (Leos Carax, 1991)

Fireworks. 'Nuff said.

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Lightning (Mikio Naruse, 1952)

One of my viewing highlights of the year was a couple of weeks spent with the haunting, understated films of Mikio Naruse. Though I have plenty left to delve into and reappraise, my favorites coming out of this were Late Chrysanthemums and Lightning, the ending of the latter film sticking with me in particular as one of the most movingly lucid and economically rendered of cinematic epiphanies. The sounds - distant piano music, pained pleading and sobbing; the images - two figures, close in proximity within Naruse's slightly skewed geometric compositions but distant in every other way, a despondent gaze into a stormy sky, a bolt of lightning that releases the tension through a granting of clarity and emotional order.

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Living on Velvet (Frank Borzage, 1935)

Living on Velvet wasn't my favorite Borzage discovery in 2012 (that would be the remarkable Little Man, What Now?), but it did contain at least two beautiful and quintessentially Borzagian moments that stand firm in the memory: the first meeting, at a stuffy social gathering, between free spirits Kay Francis and George Brent, their fixed, mutual gaze linked through a series of rhyming crosscuts and elegant pans, and then the final, ascenting backwards crane shot - pictured above - which utilizes snow and figural placement to give the impression of the couple as unified centerpiece within a private snowglobe.

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Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)

The only Clarence Brown films I'd seen before were a couple of Garbo vehicles that didn't do a whole lot for me. I watched Possessed because of this really awesome scene from it that Zizek analyzes towards the beginning of The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, with Joan Crawford watching a train slowly pass right in front of her, each cart giving a glimpse of the individual mini-worlds contained within. The train scene was of course awesome (very, very much so), but, surprisingly, so was the movie. The emotional content is fairly sophisticated for its day, and visually I remember Brown doing some nifty things with deep focus towards the beginning and, in the political rally at the film's finale, pulling off a couple of tricks that seem to anticipate, of all things, key moments from Clouzot's Le Corbeau. Anyway, Warner Archive has put this out on disc; the train scene alone is worth the purchase price.

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Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

"This is not a dream..."

Co-owner of the Haunting Ending (Horror) crown (along with Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Carpenter almost always sees fit to send things out on a black, hanging note. It's arguable that an apotheosis is found in PoD's penultimate scene, where a collective nightmare is revealed to be a posited offscreen future, one desperately and (it's suggested) futilely attempting to correct its past (the film's present). Thus, PoD reveals itself as a doomed object viewed through a looking glass - a narrative equivalent to Carpenter's throbbing, dreadful score.

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Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)

/A comet streaks by with all its speed!/

Death of a dream gives way to death in a dream.

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Rich and Strange (Alfred Hitchcock, 1931)

I enjoyed reading this Criticwire survey on underrated Hitchcock films. Hitch's oeuvre is, like that of a Ford or a Mizoguchi, of such volume and depth and consistency in quality that "underrated" as an entry point into discourse seems to take on less a fanciful function and more a utilitarian one. I'd have to think long and hard about my choice (on most days I might lean with Jake Cole and Glenn Kenny towards Under Capricorn), but this tough-to-pin-down entry from his British period - morality tale on the top layer, something seething and unknowable on the bottom - had a peculiar lasting power with me after first viewing it earlier this year, and I'm sure some kind of (strong) case could be made for it.

A climactic moment with the central married pair (Joan Barry, Harry Kendall) trapped in a sinking ship plays as an eerie negative image to a similar scene from Borzage's History is Made at Night, to come six years later: the Borzage couple, above water on a deck next to an abstract iceberg, huddle in ethereal fog and the director's typically intense framing and thwart their doom with the quick accumulation of shared intimate details; Hitch's couple is resigned, underlit and underwater in a cabin, panting as much as speaking, the last image they see before slipping into what should be their last sleep being ocean water sloshing intrusively in through the bottom of the door.

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Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952)

Tag Gallagher on Vidor: "In no other filmmaker (not even in Alexandr Dovzhenko) is there such an emphasis on the land - on spiritual truth as inherent in nature."

In addition to the examples provided by Gallagher in his phenomenal piece, many would point (rightfully so) to the rapturous irrigation climax of Our Daily Bread; I would submit the beautifully poetic moment from the very lovely Ruby Gentry in which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) and Boake (Charlton Heston) sit in a car parked outside of Boake's home, looking out over his acres of salt marsh while a brand new nitrate pump intended to make the land financially viable rhythmically throbs over the soundtrack. "Sounds like a big heart beatin'" says Ruby, locked in embrace. "It is. It's my heart." replies Boake. The sensuality of nature and of physical passion commune in an instant - earth commanding flesh and blood and desire, and vice versa.

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Slattery's Hurricane (Andre de Toth, 1949)

Fred Camper highlights in his typically superb Chicago Reader capsule the single moment here that hit me the hardest, and he describes its emotional heft via formal function better than I could. So read that, and then read more of Camper's writing while your at it.

On the film as a whole, I will say this: it's probably my favorite of the de Toth's that I've seen to date (all of which I've at least really liked), and may even be some kind of masterpiece. It's also one of those odd cases where the limits and subtleties imposed by the Production Code actually work towards a richer mode of expression. In large part a tale of heroin addiction (this coupled with its aviation milieu would make Hurricane an interesting double bill alongside this year's Flight), de Toth was denied access to pretty much all of the obvious and possibly sensationalist manifestations of the condition as present in Herman Wouk's original story. The result is a depiction reliant on slippery and muted signifiers, on vacant and erratic behaviors and expressions; in other words, a particularly truthful (if unintentional) representation of the slyly insidious manner in which addiction may evince itself in the presence of disengaged company. All the while the eponymous tumult accumulates force in the air of de Toth's modestly studious compositions, and the entire work seems to tremble with a barely suppressed pain.

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The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)

That face Myrna Loy makes.

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Tiger Shark (Howard Hawks, 1932)

This year I caught up with a good bit of what today might be considered some of Howard Hawks' more fringe work. He's a favorite of mine, so it feels a little strange to choose for this list something from the film that was probably my least favorite of all these first time Hawks viewings, and it feels particularly perverse from an auteurist standpoint to highlight a scene that the director reportedly didn't even direct. Nonetheless, the 6+ minute documentary detour into the daily grind of sea fishermen that halts the late game narrative vapors of Tiger Shark is more than worthy of being singled out for praise, and is easily one of the most thrilling pieces of filmmaking I encountered in 2012.

Beautifully composed pictorially yet shocking in its raw physicality: a half dozen men stand bracingly with rods and reels against the ocean (horizon at head level) on a narrow, flimsily railed boat edge, swinging in with their tools a seemingly endless supply of giant, twitching tunas and sharks, bodies of all sorts lurching and rising and dipping while the splash/crash music of the waves cuts no one an easy break. Other than the fascinations of viewing a tough job carried out with equal parts proficiency and temerity, what's most striking here is the real sense of danger that it feels like the actors are in -- at one point someone actually does fall over the railing and into the ocean, and it's perfectly unclear whether it's a staged incident or captured accident.

The idea of authorship at play here gives me an excuse to post a quote that I like a whole bunch from Jonathan Rosenbaum, taken from his Criterion essay on Germany Year Zero: "But selection clearly plays as important a role in defining an auteur as any sort of pure "creation", especially when some form of documentary truth is what's ultimately at stake."

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The Uncertainty Principle (Manoel de Oliveira, 2002)

I don't want to say too much about the scene I've chosen here - pictured in the screencap above - as part of the great pleasure offered from de Oliveira's Bessa-Luis adaptation is in 1) the way the titular scientific rule is dramatically teased out through the story's circuit of fluid character relations, and 2) observing the unique way the director's theatrical aesthetic navigates such an uncharacteristic milieu: the modern club scene. The more de Oliveira you've seen, the more this moment will shock you with its directness and aggressiveness.

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Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985)

The most purely joyful movie moment I experienced all year: Sandrine Bonnaire's young drifter sharing spirits and laughs with the elderly Aunt Lydia (Marthe Jarnias, whose history with Varda as a bit player in an early short is recounted in a slim but compelling extra on Criterion's Vagabond disc.)


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As far as the new films that I saw in 2012.........

I liked very much (with some reservations) the following: Haywire (Steven Soderbergh), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine/Taylor), The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo), The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr), The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard), Looper (Rian Johnson), Killer Joe (William Friedkin), Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos), The Comedy (Rock Alverson), The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry), Flight (Robert Zemeckis) ; I loved the following: Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (Heidecker, Wareheim), 4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara), This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Mirtahasebi), Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), Holy Motors (Leos Carax). And my favorite movie of the year is Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.

6 comments:

Jon said...

I like your approach here Drew. I was inspired to recap my year last year when you did your year-end recap. I'll be doing mine again in about a week. You of course see way more films than I did...about 100 less than you. You've also covered many films here that I've never seen. I need to see more Borzage...and in fact I've probably only seen one film of his. This needs to be corrected. I LOVE Vagabond. It's a devastating work and filled with a lot of truth. As far as new films go, I thought Killing Them Softly was maybe my biggest disappointment. I loved Jesse James, but this film didn't work for me.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks, Jon. I can't recommend enough jumping into Borzage, he's one of the greats. Look forward to reading your year-end post.

Andrew Gilbert said...

Excellent piece. I love this approach as I feel there is something to be said about such personal recollections of moments, and a much needed break from the overhead recaps of entire films. I haven't seen most of these and very much want to now.

I feel the same way about Reygadas. There are some very moving parts in the films of his I've seen, but I can't shake the feeling that its mostly vapid.

And Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance is one of the most underrated (or perhaps under discussed) films of the year for me.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks a lot, Andrew.

I just found out that in April the High Museum here in Atlanta will be hosting a Reygadas retrospective capped off with a screening of the new one and a Q&A w/Reygadas in person, so I'm definitely looking forward to that as a prime opportunity to maybe clarify some feelings. I think he's able to conjure up some potent emotional energies and beautiful imagery, but there's a certain grandstanding quality to it all that I struggle with.

GR:SoV is definitely one I'm looking forward to watching again and digging into a little more; my one viewing was in the theater in 3-D and I remember it as an invigorating visual experience.

Carson Lund said...

Just wanted to stop in and say I'm floored by the level of writing here, as well as the general brilliance of the concept. Unfortunately, I need to see a lot of these so I can't comment much more. I hope it wouldn't be unlawful for me to assimilate this approach into my own year-end round-up at some point.

Drew McIntosh said...

Carson, thanks so much for the kind words. By all means, assimilate away! I'd love to read it.