the possibilities in limitation

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The Limits of Control (2009, USA/Japan, Jim Jarmusch), is a film made up of all the “non-moments” of a conventional thriller, strung together to form an anti-narrative narrative. Or, maybe it’s just easier to think of it as a “thriller” with all the “thrilling” moments stripped from it.  Which pretty much describes both the film’s greatest strengths and it’s inevitable weaknesses–I personally found, for most of the film, the film’s lack-of-mystery to be an engrossing enough mystery in and off itself, as there does seem to be, for a while at least, a traditional mystery/thriller unfolding parallel to the film that is always kept just outside of camera’s carefully controlled gaze (the first scene where a suspicious-looking, sunglasses-clad group of men are glimpsed; the helicopter circling constantly overhead, etc).

And while I went with this willingly for the duration of the film, it also means I was ultimately left a bit disappointed, as it caused me to anticipate something along the lines of what Robbe-Grillet accomplishes in his novel La Jalousie, when all of the rigorous “external” observation finally reveals, or at least begins to hint at, some kind of explanation or rationalization of the non-mystery.  And that just doesn’t happen here… Jarmusch (admirably in a sense, I admit), sticks to his guns, and follows his conceit through to the very end, giving no answers when the camera tilts slightly and Isaach De Bankolé’s enigma steps around the corner and out of sight.

The narrative opacity is in turn counterbalanced by Jarmusch’s images–and what images they are! Each frame is immaculately composed, displaying an almost Antonioni-esque obsession for the architectural and in tracking objects–be they human figures or cups of coffee–as they move through physical spaces. limitsBut the question must ultimately be posed, as to whether or not the endless visual pleasure provided by the film is enough to justify such a rigorous viewing experience. And I have to admit I’m leaning towards yes, if not necessarily for the reasons I initially thought.  For there was something that kept piquing at me, a barely-perceptible dissonance that took most of the film’s running time to pinpoint, that kept the film from ever becoming too rigidly controlled, air-tight, dead.  And I have to admit I was surprised when I finally did identify the source of subtle agitation–it was, oddly enough, De Bankolé’s manner of walking. One would imagine that it would be smooth, effortless, a poetic glide straight out of a Wong Kar-Wai film, but instead it’s rather awkward, as if his four appendages are just a split-second out of sync with each other.  I have no idea if this was an intentional effect or not, but it was the antithesis of what I thought I “knew” of this collected, perpetually self-possessed character, and this unconsciously-sensed element that humanized the human enigma for me.  And in a weird way, it kind of made the entire film for me.

Memories of a Movie:

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

Limits of Control

 

soft-core cinematic art

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I waited a long time to see one of the difficult-to-find films directed by French author-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, so I was excited to finally watch La belle captive, the 1983 film adaptation of his own novel by the same name.  A fusion of Robbe-Grillet’s groundbreaking nouveau roman narrative techniques and René Magritte’s paintings (the original novel is illustrated with some 77 paintings by the surrealist master), Robbe-Grillet the director is obviously attempting a visual tone drawn directly from the famed Belgian surrealist―enigmatic, haunting, and vaguely, indefinably disturbing―but unfortunately ends up with a rather silly concoction of metaphysical pronouncements and rather insubstantially airy concoction of archetypal images and figures.  One can sense a desire to tap into a mythic quality in the film’s vampiric ghosts, fetish figures, detective film overtones, erotic interludes, and invocations of sadism, but it all plays like an outlandishly “arty” (and now amusingly dated) Emmanuelle film, almost evoking a soft-core porn parody of Last Year at Marienbad, whose Oscar-nominated screenplay remains Robbe-Grillet’s most enduring and well known cinematic achievement.

That’s not to say that La belle captive is completely without merit.  Considering the character she plays–some kind of mysterious combination of angel, ghost and vampire–the lovely Gabrielle Lazure makes the most of a figure that functions as little more than a male erotic fantasy; leather-clad, motorcycle-riding Cyrielle Clair cuts a striking figure, but is given even less to do than Lazure, and becomes little more than an object of fetishization. belle-captiveThe film’s closed off, artificial atmosphere does manage to conjure up a sense of languid, erotically overheated hypnosis and is the film’s primarily source of merit, though the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure eventually become oppressive.  When it comes down to it, I found a lot of words and color and images but very little of the poetry I expected.  A disappointment, though I remain intrigued by Robbe-Grillet’s overall aesthetic project, and remain eager to further explore this iconoclastic figure’s work.

girl power, MGM style

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The Harvey Girls (1946, USA, Sidney) is one of those pseudo-great musicals from the Hollywood studio system era that isn’t particularly interesting or even that good while watching it, but because it contains several impressive sequences inevitably anthologized in one of the That’s Entertainment! installments, it’s easily to start remembering it as a much, much better film than it really is.

Or maybe evaluating the potential greatness of The Harvey Girls requires an entirely different type of rubric altogether. The single greatest pleasure of the film is seeing Judy Garland so healthy and happy-looking; as soon as she steps out of the train halfway into the Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number, she takes a potentially tacky (and overworked ) number and transforms it to one of the Hollywood musical’s most magical sequences. And I am particularly fond of the “It’s a Great Big World” number performed by Garland, a young Cyd Charisse, and crackerjack comedienne Virginia O’Brien. great big worldThe rueful and relentlessly sad lyrics function as a confessional-style litany of failures (“I thought by learning each social grace/ Some likely chap will forget my face”), but the cruel harshness of the words are offset by the the accompanying choreography, which emphasizes the women huddling together conspiratorially or resolutely linking arms together. As such, what begins as a meditation on the self-perceived shortcomings of being a young, unmarried woman in 19th century America is elevated through heartfelt vocal and physical performances into a stance of solidarity against the inequity of the relentless cruelty and coldness of the “great, big world.” It might not be as virtuosic as the big “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number, but to my mind it is just as memorable, trading in scale and flash for an intimate and intense emotional potency.

Indeed, the note of female solidarity sounded by the “Great Big World” number characterizes the female-centric nature of the entire film, and all of the best elements of the film have to do with its female performers. harvey girlsAs well as all of the individual performances and scenes already mentioned, the young Angela Lansbury is not given nearly enough screen time as the brash saloon girl that starts out as Garland’s archenemy, gravel-voiced Marjorie Main is always a welcome presence, and all of the best individual scenes uniformly center around the motley group of waitresses of the film’s title banding together to counter the misogynistic social forces that resent their “refining presence” in the knockabout, male-dominated wilderness town.

Which is why the tacked-on Garland/John Hodiak forbidden romance subplot is almost insulting in its perfunctoriness–if there’s a love story to be found in this film, it’s strictly of a sororal sort (that Hodiak is just an inherently bland, romance-adverse screen presence doesn’t help matters a bit). Ad there’s certainly lots else to potentially criticize: Ray Bolger’s fey comedy shtick is of a frantic type that hasn’t aged well at all, the untamed “Wild West” doesn’t seem to have a speck of dust out of place (and why exactly do the men of the town have color-coordinated neckties in pastel tones?), to say nothing of the maddeningly wholesome good cheeriness of it all. But as I began gesturing toward in my opening comments, this is a film where greatness–and there’s an awful lot I’d argue is just as great as anything found in any number of the more celebrated studio-era musicals–must be carefully picked apart from the surrounding dross, and savored carefully on its own.

a weekend of silent cinema

There’s a reason why the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is considered one of the premiere film festivals in the city (and the world, for that matter), what with its procurement of luminous 35mm prints from international archives, presentations of commissioned restorations, live musical accompaniment, handsomely produced festival booklets, etc, etc. But with individual ticket prices ranging from $15-$20 each, it is, sadly, no friend to a student budget, and I was only able to afford two tickets this year, alas.

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It was with the awareness that Allan Dwan is currently undergoing something of a critical renaissance (a large retrospective in NYC, a massive new 400-page biography by Frederic Lombardi, the release of an equally substantial free(!) e-book of collected essays and reviews, etc) that we bought tickets for The Half-Breed (1916), an early Douglas Fairbanks vehicle that is also one of the prolific director’s earliest feature films. Fairbanks plays the titular character, a man named Lo whose mixed heritage–his Native American mother was cruelly abandoned by his unknown father white–is not fully embraced by either community and so instead makes the wilderness his home. His personal charisma, athletic prowess, and intimate knowledge of nature, however, make him a magnet for the women of a small wilderness town, and the town’s “respectable” men employ racist social conventions as a cover of their utter loathing of his existence and justify their violent plans to excise him from

Expensively made and ambitious in scope, it was a box office flop, and according to the introductory lecture at the screening, Fairbanks in particular tracked all incoming receipts, and from that point forward always made sure to carefully cater his performances to public expectations. half breed doug fairbanksBecause this is not at all the Doug Fairbanks of the wide grin and broad gestures, but a characterization marked by cross-armed stoicism (Lombardi says its the actor “at his most dour,” which I think is a rather unfortunate and unfair choice of words). Either way, audiences in 1916 weren’t interested in this Fairbanks persona, but it makes for a very naturalistic and extremely dignified performance when viewed today, and all the more interesting because the impassiveness prevents the characterization from ever descending into gross stereotypes. Endlessly utilized by the film as a means through which to point out racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and individual and social prejudices of all kinds, Fairbank’s good humor and indignation toward a variety of injustices prevents this from being a one-dimensional portrait of the familiar “noble savage” figure, and instead creates a multi-faceted portrait of a misunderstood man. 

But even more than Fairbanks, The Half-Breed features two excellent female performances, by Jewel Carmen and, particularly, the tragic Alma Rubens, both who shine in contrasting roles that are atypically well-rounded for the era–perhaps the result of Anita Loos’s contribution as co-writer of the screenplay. Also worthy of note is Victor Fleming’s work as cinematographer, with the location shooting taking full advantage of the soaring vistas of the Sequoia National Forest. Despite all of these laudable elements, the financial failure of the film upon its initial led to it being frantically recut, and a number of shorter, re-edited versions ended up circulating for years; a reconstruction has been made drawing from all surviving material, and the restoration work on the image is uniformly gorgeous. It’s not exactly a find that’s going to rewrite cinema history or anything, but I hope it is made widely available, because it’s definitely an interesting film well worth seeing (35mm).

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Another powerful–but extremely different–rendering of complex human emotions and interactions playing against the vast backdrop of nature is Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). The plot is basic: a man who was compelled by circumstances to commit a criminal act is forced into a life of hiding in the bleak expanses of rural Iceland. Eventually he takes on a manual labor position at a farm of a rich and generous widow, and judging from the title alone, it’s not hard to figure out the trajectory of their relationship. Things get more interesting when the man’s past inevitably comes back to haunt him, forcing him to return to hiding, only this time around with his new wife in tow. Sjöström plays the role of the outlaw himself, and it is rather startling to see the man who is most familiar to American audiences as the frail elderly gentleman of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries here appear as a robust (and extremely handsome) young man who gets a job because he can effortlessly sling a large wooden chest over his shoulder and carry it up a ladder. It is also worth noting that the actress who plays the wife, Edith Erastoff, would in several years become Sjöström’s own.

But if I’ve focused almost solely on the acting and storyline, the most impressive and memorable element of the film is the landscape itself, which constantly dwarfs the human figures both in its scale and its unrelenting harshness, imagesand the interplay between humans and the natural world creates its own sub-narrative to the overall plot. Also crucial to the experience was the musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble of the original score composed for the film, and I particularly liked how it emphasized the ethereal qualities of Sjöström’s image’s, and stretches of the film subsequently began to play like a dream. The opening presenter went out of his way to note that it’s a superior score to the one included on the widely available Kino DVD, and I absolutely believe it. Overall I never found the film to quite reach the heights Sjöström achieved several years later with The Phantom Carriage (1921), but it’s an excellent film nonetheless (35mm).

in-flight shenanigans

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I wanted to enjoy I’m So Excited! (Los amantes pasajeros) (2013, Spain), Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, and so that’s exactly what I did. To be clear though: mileage will vary from viewer to viewer. This seems to be something of an attempt on the iconoclastic Spanish director’s part to fuse the scathingly humorous social and cultural subversiveness and critique that defined his earlier career with a more recent obsession with glossy and slick melodramatics that draw liberally from Sirk, Minnelli, and Latin telenovelas. The resulting film is a colorful feast for the eyes, though the plot–which is wafer-thin but heavy on dialogue–is broadly played, and a taste for camp seems pretty necessary, though the fact the cast is almost entirely made up of actors who have previously appeared in his films creates additional layers of fun self-reflexivity.

I found it all mostly amusing, my boyfriend found a lot of it rather tedious, and we are waiting to hear from friends who are fluent Spanish speakers to confirm (or refute) our suspicion that a lot of the nuance and humor becomes garbled in the translation to English. Film still from I'm So Excited by Pedro AlmodovarIt’s not a great achievement or anything–one gets the sense that if it was directed by anybody but Almodóvar there’s not a chance it would have procured an American release–but for me it made for a pleasant enough night at the movies (Theatrical Digital Projection).

detour into terror


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This was my second viewing of Detour (1945, USA, Ulmer), yet I was still taken by surprise when confronted once again with how truly vicious the film is. It takes a bit too long to get going, and everything feels like endless exposition as if waiting for the moment petulant, ever-scowling Ann Savage saunters into the film, causing what had been Tom Neal’s innocent-man-on-the-lam story to make a final–and fatal–narrative detour. Savage’s exercise in bitter, sadistic emotional manipulation (“Shutup! I don’t like you! I’m not getting sore… but just remember who’s boss around here”) is a performance that still feels unlike anything else that came out of 1940’s cinema, and, for me, the way she goes from peacefully sleeping in the seat of the car to a saucer-eyed, shrieking Gorgon in the span of several seconds is one of the greatest and most terrifying moments in all of noir (and it’s all the more potent when encountered on the big screen).

Ulmer’s tight, endlessly creative direction creates an ever-tightening noose around the viewer’s emotions in the same way that the film’s plot slowly entwines itself around the neck of hapless, lugheaded Neal as he pines for perky (and meagerly talented) Claudia Drake detourinstead of confronting the destructive force of nature he has inadvertently crossed paths with. The overt stylistic flourishes derived wholesale from German Expressionism should come off as familiar and tired clichés, but somehow Ulmer always manages to make it seem like nothing less than an exercise in inspired aesthetic improvisation. In his hands the threadbare aspects of the story, sets, and performances are transformed into assets, and the hackneyed gradually takes on the quality of a surrealistic nightmare state. The film absolutely deserves its reputation as the crown jewel of the Poverty Row B-film cycle, and it is without a doubt one of the great noirs (Digital Project of a 35mm print, which unfortunately had a lot of technical glitches).

of spectres and spectatorship

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The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) (1921, Sweden, Sjöström) had a lot to live up to, both critically (it is reportedly one Ingmar Bergman’s formative filmmaking influences) and in regards to enthusiastic recommendations from friends, and I’m happy to report that it managed to even surpass expectations. Which is not to say that it was really at all what I expected–I thought I was in for some eerie atmospherics a la Dreyer’s Vampyr, which means I was not at all anticipating the emphasis placed on Griffith-esque domestic melodramatics, complete with a Lillian Gish lookalike (perhaps not so much in a physical sense, but more in the way the camera venerates her, creating an ethereal, haloed quality I associate with Gish’s silent films).

And while the roving carriage of the title allows for a striking and much-celebrated sequence involving an intricate use of superimposition that remains truly eerie, it is counterpointed by intimate candlelit interior scenes where several phantom carriage imageintersecting storylines play themselves out in a heartbreaking manner. This film dares to plumb some truly horrific psychic spaces, and there were point in the final third that I was getting so emotionally riled up that I was honestly considering shutting it off and return later in a more composed mental state. I stuck it out, but only out of consideration for viewing companions. The finale, which ties everything up in a neat didactic bow, is a an inevitably letdown, but can’t detract from the fact that this is surely one of the great achievements of the silent era, and its nice to see that it is finally getting its due, thanks to its (relatively) recent release on the Criterion Collection (Home Video Projected Blu-ray).

new york city nostalgia

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In his capsule review for The New York Times Stephen Holden calls New York in the 50’s (Blankenbaker, USA, 2000) a “documentary scrapbook,” and that’s a neat way of summing up both the appeal and the limitations of this brief, CliffsNotes-like introduction to the New York City/Greenwich Village arts and culture scene during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Writer Dan Wakefield is extended screenplay credit, and the film is based on his book by the same name, though it’s unclear how much of the film is actually based on the book (which I have not read, but is characterized as a memoir featuring firsthand accounts from others).  Wakefield is the most regular interviewee among what seem to be a bevy of his personal friends and acquaintances who end up serving as a collection of chatty talking heads, including but not limited to Joan Didion (who, unsurprisingly, provides several of the film’s sharpest and most memorable anecdotes), Gay Talese, John Gregory Dunne, Robert Redford, David Amram, Bruce Jay Friedman, and a number of others, all whose testimony and remembrances more or less comprise the bulk of the running time as well as provide the chief pleasures of the film.  Because there’s scant else to it, and the distinct lack of archival footage makes New York in the 50’s come off as a nostalgia act simply coasting on the strength of the interview footage.  Quite honestly, it feels and plays like a program that one would expect to find broadcast on PBS as filler for a slow weekend afternoon.  It’s fine for what it is, I suppose, but it’s basically a rather forgettable treatment of a memorable topic.

portrait of the artist and her family

Several minutes into Alice Neel (USA, 2007), director Andrew Neel makes his connection to his subject explicit: he is in fact the grandson of the celebrated American portraitist.  The possible implications of a family member being the main presence behind the camera immediately begin to present themselves: Neel will undoubtedly enjoy access and intimacy into the life of his subject–indeed, his father, uncle and other relatives serve as the film’s main sources of information and there’s lot of home video footage and family photos–but to what extent can such a cinematic portrait be trusted?  Will it become some kind of laudatory, familial propaganda?  Or will it become too introverted, too in-crowd, possibly even an exercise in navel-gazing?

Neel confronts these issues head on, and actually goes so far as to implicitly structure his entire film around these issues, so much so that it would be more precise to regard Alice Neel as a portrait of the Neel family, and an examination of how a life–particularly an unconventional one–is not autonomous, but reverberates in countless ways throughout the lives of others.  On the one hand Alice Neel commemorates the great accomplishments of the eponymous artist; on the other it traces at what personal costs those same accomplishments entailed.  We become acquainted with the headstrong young woman who eschewed traditional gender roles to devote her life to art and who defied the post-War ascension of Abstract expressionism and continued her exploration of figural painting and portraiture.  As is noted in the film, this essentially amounted to “career suicide,” as her work systematically ignored until “rediscovered” by the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and rightly proclaimed as a pioneering feminist icon, which in turn flowered into a flurry of late-life fame (including several major retrospectives, honorary doctorates, college lecture tours, initiation into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, memorable appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, etc, etc) before she passed away in 1984.  But we also get to know the woman who ceded complete custody of her first daughter to her first husband’s affluent Cuban family, and who could be justly accused of devoting more attention to her art than to her family’s financial or emotional stability.  A complicated portrait of a complex woman and an equally complex family situation quickly emerges.

Documentaries of these types tend to give in to the impulse to be nostalgia acts about bygone eras, and so it is a bit shocking when Alice’s son Richard looks directly into the camera and bluntly states “I don’t like bohemian culture, frankly; I think a lot of innocent people are hurt by it.  I think I was hurt by it,” and admissions revealed in the film make clear this was not intended as some kind of a rhetorical statement.  Another sequence turns tense when a conversation between Neel and his father, Alice’s other son, begin to argue over certain painful questions; the camera is averted but the audio is covertly allowed to continue rolling, and the ensuing exchange is as poignant as it is revealing.  In other words, what initially seems like Neel’s tremendous advantage in making this film suddenly threatens to become a huge liability as his proximity to the subjects threatens to derail–or at least overshadow–the life and the art the film is ostensibly supposed to be about.

Which it never quite does.  Even if Alice’s sons chose to become a lawyer and a doctor (the exact antithesis of their bohemian upbringing), both remain emphatic about the importance of their mother’s art, and understand that it was only possible through the life decisions that she ultimately did make, even if it hurt them (and others).  And the footage that is included, both personal home videos and material from Michel Auder’s earlier documentary Portrait of Alice Neel–reveals a warm and smiling woman quick to laugh, and one with an impeccable eye capable of seeing art in everything, whether it the face of a famous celebrity she is painting or a violent cacophony of fluttering pigeons outside her apartment window.  The film concludes with a nice crescendo because, happily, Alice’s life did in fact follow that trajectory, her work receiving the much-delayed accolades while she could still enjoy them.  Come for the art–for it is, indeed, breathtaking and often quite haunting–and stay for a fascinating film.

week in review – 07/10 – 07/15/12

Theatrical Viewing

Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (Fellini, Italy, 1957) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Ted (MacFarlane, USA, 2012) – Century Theater, Digital Projection

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre:

The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (Schwarz, Germany, 1929) – 35mm

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928) – 35mm

Stella Dallas (H. King, USA, 1925) – 35mm

Le voyage dans la lune (The Voyage to the Moon) (Restored Color Version) (Méliès, France, 1902 – Digital Projection; 3rd viewing

The Cameraman (Keaton, USA, 1928) – 35mm

Home Viewing

Ulysse (Varda, France, 1982) – Digital Projection, Fandor; 2nd viewing

The Extraordinary Voyage (Bromberg & Lange, France, 2011) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Alice Neel (Neel, USA, 2007) – Netflix Instant (expired)

Upcoming Possibilities

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, USA, 2012)

Sandra (Visconti, Italy, 1965) – PFA, 07/25