NEW YEAR’S NOTE: At the beginning of each year I tend to devise a cinematic “personal project” of some kind, where I try to focus in-depth on an aspect of film I’d like to know more about (in 2018 it was French cinema, 2019 sought out female auteurs). In 2020 I’m taking on one of my most embarrassing cinematic blind spots: the national cinemas of East Asia. I’ll be starting my exploration with Japanese cinema and expanding from there.

A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

A PAGE OF MADNESS (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926) [01/27/20, Amazon Video]
Astonishing, both visually and historically, even in its currently compromised state. Frequently compared to German Expressionist classic Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, both certainly employ striking, exaggerated visuals in their dramatization of insanity, even if they do so in very different ways: where Wiene’s iconic film evokes a lugubrious dream, Kinugasa’s editing and superimpositions are frantic, often to the point of manic. More than any of its direct contemporaries that I’ve seen, it seems more directly aligned with experimental cinema of much later eras (Peter Tscherkassky’s nightmarish Outer Space (1991) is what specifically came to my mind). With future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata contributing the story and an early script treatment, it was produced by an avant-garde group of artists associated with the Shinkankakuha (School of New Perceptions) who were interested in subverting the type of naturalistic representation that was already starting to dominate filmmaking in Japan–and across the world. If it hadn’t been lost for nearly half a century–it was only in 1971 that Kinugasa rediscovered a print–it might now be regarded as one of the essential films of the silent era, but not helping matters is its incomplete form (approximately 1/3 remains missing) and its lack of intertitles to help clarify the extremely intricate plot (it was intended to be accompanied by a benshi‘s live narration, and now it’s essential to always keep a plot synopsis on hand at all times). I’ve seen it described several times as “fascinating but ultimately boring,” and that does sum up the current situation well: the pleasurable shock power of its visuals manages to carry it a long way, but it’s hard not to grow weary after a certain point if attempting to follow the story. Here’s hoping a full print will still be discovered someday and we’ll be able to appreciate it again in its full glory. Until then I’ll happily treasure and admire what we do still have.

CONVERSATIONS WITH WILLARD VAN DYKE (Amalie R. Rothschild, 1981) [01/26/20, Kanopy]
The most conventional and so in many ways the least interesting of the three of Rothschild’s films that I currently have access to (I reviewed both Nana, Mom and Me and Woo Who? May Wilson in my December 2019 post), though the personalized touches of the type that made those earlier films so special do occasionally surface. And it’s a compelling topic besides: an overview of the life of a promising young photographer who started making social realist documentary filmmaking during the 1930’s before becoming the director of the film department at MoMA before returning to his original passion for photography in old age. Van Dyke is an endlessly insightful, very witty subject with interesting things to say on just about every topic, from own career and creative vision to the larger social and cultural context in which he lived and worked. But what Rothschild is best at is capturing interactions between people, and it was in such moments of interaction–with herself, with former collaborators and friends–that this documentary felt most alive.

KWAIDAN (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) [01/24/20, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing. A beautiful and elegantly unnerving adaptation of four traditional Japanese folk tales by Lafcadio Hearn, it’s one of the supreme examples of this type of atmospheric ghost stories which I am currently in the mood for. The full version of Kwaidan clocks in at just over three hours, and “Hoichi the Earless,” the third installment that runs nearly an hour on its own, probably deserves its status as the film’s most celebrated installment: the extra running time allows the story to indulge in a slow boil  until the violent act alluded to in the title erupts with great shock and emotional force. I also am quite taken with the concept of the fourth section, which grapples with the implications of adapting a literary text left unfinished. But I think my favorite is the second, the chilly and ultimately heartbreaking “Woman of the Snow,” which most eloquently conveys a particularly ambiguous merging of the physical and spiritual realms. Ironically, this was the segment cut out for its initial American theatrical release, though it still ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film (ultimately losing to Czech classic The Shop on Main Street).

UGETSU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) [01/21/20, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing. I agree with Robin Wood that the understated but great force of Mizoguchi’s beloved masterpiece is achieved through “the complete eschewal of all camera trickery and special effects” that would differentiate between the physical and supernatural realms, instead “restricting his eerie effects to what decor and lighting can achieve and the camera record.” My first viewing of this film had left me largely unmoved and a bit mystified by its reputation as one of cinema’s supreme achievements, and if I’d still hesitate to go quite that far, this time it did manage to cast its powerful spell over me. As Wood astutely recognizes, what is so deeply unnerving is the lack of clear differentiation between the living and the dead, which allows them to interact freely with only the slightest visual clues indicating any shift between the two. And if we also fail to notice these subtle signals, how are we supposed to fault the main characters for similar lapses in discernment? In the silent, sad tears of the wronged Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), glimpsed only by the viewer (and if you’re like me, you share), the unsettled past and future finally fall together together into a unified, continuing, and–at least for a moment–peaceful present. It’s a most subtle but deeply moving coda.

Machiko Kyō in GATE OF HELL (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

GATE OF HELL (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953) [01/20/20, Criterion Channel]
A major personal discovery, and a new favorite. The rich, Autochrome-like colors immediately signal to the viewer that they have been dropped in some distant past, albeit in the midst of utter chaos: a frenzied attack is already well underway. Peace is quickly restored, but the turmoil has merely transferred to the psychological realm after a samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) becomes smitten with the married lady-in-waiting (Machiko Kyō) he helped protect. The story is rather simple, but it’s a most effective scaffolding upon which to hang all other aspects of the production: the acting, direction, and, most obviously, its extreme pictorial beauty. One of Japan’s first color films and the first to be released internationally, the Eastmancolor is vivid and voluptuous (that we nearly lost it forever due to the instability of the format is truly horrifying–see Stephen Prince’s excellent essay for a description of the recovery process), and that we nearly lost it forever due to the instability of the format is genuinely horrifying. As the tragic Lady Kesa, Kyō does extraordinary things through her stillness, conveying the depths of her sadness just through her eyes (I think it’s an even more powerful performance than her more widely heralded turn in Ugetsu, from the same year). But I was so impressed with Kinugasa’s graceful coordination of contrasts: frenzied social acts (war, horse races) alternate with hushed domestic scenes, loyalty clashes with lust, masculine exploits must confront heroic feminine sacrifice, and, above everything, the ostentatious use of color, which seems to be trying to stand in for all the things that must, in the end, remain unsaid.

ONIBABA (Kaneto Shindô, 1964) [01/15/20, Criterion Channel]
In its opening moments Shindô’s film drops the viewer into a field of pampas grass, the wind wildly whipping the leaves into swirls and ripples like the chaotic waves of the ocean in the throes of a storm. It quickly becomes clear: this might technically be a wide open space, but the human figures suspended in it are drowning, and there’s little hope for escape. So we watch, for well over an hour, as they thrash against their situation (abject poverty exacerbated by civil war) and then each other, especially once sex becomes a wedge viciously wielded in turn. I admit that as the film reached its last half hour I was confused–wasn’t this famous for being a ghost film? And then the supernatural(?) suddenly does intercede, and the film feels like it has fallen down one of the caves that make disquieting appearances regularly through the film–it suddenly feels like it has entered a whole new dimension and become a very different film. All hell seems to (literally) break loose, and the effect is genuinely unnerving. While generally lacking the eerie poetry I responded to so strongly in Kuroneko, once again the stark black and white nighttime cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda is truly exceptional, and the use of sets and setting is truly a technical feat in and of itself. I look forward to returning to it sometime in the future: I liked it quite a bit, but suspect that knowing what I’m getting into will make me much more attuned and receptive to what it’s actually doing, and not getting sidetracked by my expectations.

KURONEKO (Kaneto Shindô, 1968)

KURONEKO (Kaneto Shindô, 1968) [01/13/20, Criterion Channel]
Eerie and poetic, a favorite combination of mine. From beyond the grave a mother and daughter-in-law duo seduce and take brutal revenge upon local samurais, but must contend with their eternal oaths of vengeance when their son/husband reappears, himself now a newly minted samurai. What is sometimes lacking in plotting and narrative flow—the mechanisms of revenge for long stretches feel caught in a repetitive loop—ends up having a certain poignancy, as the eventual mundanity of open-ended retribution begins to press down on the viewer as much as on the characters. The sense of atmosphere and mood elevates the film from what could easily have become schlock, a great deal which can be credited to Kiyomi Kuroda and Norimichi Igawa’s truly magnificent nighttime black and white cinematography; the lo-fi visual effects are surprisingly effective as well.

LITTLE WOMEN (Greta Gerwig, 2019) [01/12/20, Movie Theater]
Genuinely revelatory. This is partly due to the drastic restructuring of the familiar, frequently remade Alcott novel which Gerwig rips apart and reassembles like a patchwork quilt. In this newly kaleidoscopic pattern, new inflections and interpretations are allowed to emerge; as a lifelong Alcott fan I particularly appreciated how it emphasizes her often overlooked skill as a writer: through deft cross-cutting and flashback sequencing Gerwig locates so many unexpected connections, echoes, and continuities from the original text emerge. In her characteristically incisive review, Stephanie Zacharek points out how “the shifting structure joggles you out of the complacency of knowing what’s going to happen next” and that is exactly right: Gerwig hasn’t added all that much original material to make this Little Women “new,” she has simply rearranged what has become familiar so we are able to experience it anew. And what a pleasure it is!

But make no mistake, this is not all for the sake of a cerebral aesthetic exercise. Countering the narrative pyrotechnics is the sense of generosity and warmth that made Gerwig’s previous film (and solo directorial debut) Lady Bird such a special accomplishment, and now seems like one of her defining auteurist characteristics. But even more than her own film, however, the classic Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) was what came most frequently to my mind, and not just because of similarities in general time period, or the extremely clever use of social dancing as emotional catharsis, but in the representation of the unique dynamics of families dominated by sisters, and the scrupulousness of her overall filmmaking practice. Every aspect of the production design feels carefully considered and selected, but the individual objects and images make less overall impact than the way everything (costumes, lighting, sets, even the score) coalesce into a exquisitely calibrated, integrated whole. The same principle carries over to the acting, which at once features beautiful ensemble work even as it constantly finds moments for almost all the characters, even the most minor ones, to contribute unexpectedly lovely grace notes. Saoirse Ronan and especially Florence Pugh have been rightly singled out for praise and Oscar nominations, but Timothée Chalamet is also wonderful utilized in all his exuberance and endearing awkwardness (Gerwig has described Laurie in interviews as the fifth March sister, and I think that’s such a wonderfully unexpected interpretation of the character). Chris Cooper also gives an unexpectedly vivid performance in what is usually a throwaway role.

The single flaw is the several times the script overplays its hand, elevating the story’s latent feminism into literal talking points (about nineteenth century gender roles, the economic nature of marriage, etc). It’s not that these sentiments feel out of place as they have already been implicitly—and more resonantly—made. Still, a most minor blemish on an otherwise remarkable achievement.

JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933) [01/10/20, Criterion Channel]
I couldn’t have commenced my study of Japanese cinema on a lovelier note. Shimizu’s late silent film, just 72 minutes long, would be a rather inane little melodrama if it wasn’t so shot through with a sense of intense melancholy and regret. The type of story where a single incident sets a series of characters on different life course which inevitably entails a lockstep march toward moral degradation–and topped with a generous slathering of Christian moralism(!!) besides–it’s Shimizu’s direction and Tarô Sasaki’s naturalistic cinematography that reshape this mediocre material into something poetic and even occasionally profound as the camera often lingers on empty streets and hallways, and dissolves make characters suddenly evaporate into thin air, visually underlining the fact that after a certain point these characters are little more than walking ghosts, doomed to enact their fates. Given the title I wish their had been a little more emphasis on the central friendship of the two young women and their eventual estrangement and complex reconciliation, but Michiko Oikawa and Yukiko Inoue do wonderful things with their eyes and facial expressions to convey the underlying genuine affection and care that keeps their lives forever intertwined.

WONDER BOYS (Curtis Hanson, 2000) [01/06/20, Amazon Prime]
Very much NOT my thing, at least at this phase in my life. It’s the source material more than anything that I object to, as I just can’t muster up much patience for this class and rarified milieu (which I freely admit I once craved for myself). The performances, however, are all very good, and Tobey Maguire in particular is excellent.


REGAN (RAIN) (Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken, 1929)

REGAN (RAIN) (Joris Ivens & Mannus Franken, 1929) [12/29/19, YouTube]
Rewatched on a wet San Francisco Sunday morning. I can’t think of another film that so precisely evokes the specific exaltation of walking deserted city streets in the rain. (See full review in September 2019 post). A wonderful film to close out the year.

NANA, MOM AND ME (Amalie R. Rothschild, 1974) [12/30/19, Kanopy]
Ostensibly a family documentary–a triptych portrait of the relationships between director, her mother, and her grandmother–Rothschild’s self-reflexive documentary quickly makes clear how personal histories are just the individual threads that make up the larger social tapestry and then “history” writ large. The DIY quality heightens the sense of intimacy while also emphasizing the prickly, constantly-fluctuating negotiation of the catharsis of exposure with the inherent right to privacy (neither matriarch is particularly keen on participating, but want to be supportive of their grand/daughter’s endeavors). Su Friedrich, Chantal Akerman, and a whole generation of female filmmakers would soon go on to dissect their complex matriarchal inheritances through more analytical cinematic methods; in contrast Rothschild’s approach feels distinctive because her terms of engagement are explicitly emotional, and radiate a sense of intimacy and warmth. It just felt so nice to spend time with this film, which feels like such an odd thing to say, but is exactly how I felt.

Woo Who May Wilson (Amalie Rothschild)

WOO WHO? MAY WILSON (Amalie R. Rothschild, 1970) [12/30/19, Kanopy]
Avant garde artist and New York City bohemian icon Wilson is such a fascinating individual that she could effortlessly carry even an incompetently made documentary, but this is far from incompetently made. Working in a mode now generally described as cinéma vérité or simply “observational,” Wilson, who moved to NYC and moved into the Chelsea Hotel at the age of 61 after her husband left her, is allowed to narrate her life experiences and artistic process directly to the camera, which Rothschild positions as if it was just another of the friends and acquaintances that wander in and out of her spectacular studio. Already important as a historical record, how lucky that Woo Who? May Wilson is also a delight to watch as well. Now even more eager to watch Rothschild’s documentary on photographer Willard Van Dyke, also currently available on Kanopy.

NUTCRACKER: THE MOTION PICTURE (Carroll Ballard, 1986) [12/24/19,]
Growing up we had a television broadcast of this recorded on a VHS tape and my sisters and I watched it constantly, and now as an adult I revisit it every few holiday seasons. Often motivated by nostalgia, each time I’m impressed all over again what a truly lovely, often genuinely thrilling cinematic experience it is. Pauline Kael gets it exactly right when she states that the film “has an enchantment that’s distinct from that of the stage versions,” locating the magic in both Black Beauty director Ballard’s visual sensibility as well as in the decision to emphasize the darker, sexually ambiguous elements of Hoffman’s tale typically glossed over in family-oriented holiday productions of the Tchaikovsky ballet (Maurice Sendak apparently only agreed to take on duties of designing the original production for the Pacific Northwest Ballet after being assured he could indulge in a Freudian approach to the material). The results are spectacular, sumptuous and slightly unsettling. This time around I found myself particularly admiring how beautifully Ballard balances long shots showcasing the company dancing with brief closeups of faces to underline the individual emotions propelling each character’s actions.

Lion Witch and the Wardrobe (Melendez, 1979)

THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (Bill Melendez, 1979) [YouTube, 12/17/19]
Despite the book series and the BBC series being prominent parts of my childhood, I was completely unaware of the existence of this Emmy-winning British animated television program until just a few days ago. It’s very, very good. Melendez is best known as the animator Charles Schultz entrusted to bring Peanuts to life, and, considering how  attuned he was to the underlying melancholy of Charlie Brown & co., it should comes as no surprise that what particularly stands out is how well it captures the spirit and tone of the C.S. Lewis classic. Attuned to to both its fancifulness and the bracing thrill of adventure, it never for a moment losing sight of the high stakes involved when evil forces threaten to overtake one’s entire world–and one feels compelled to do something about it.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952) [12/07/19, Amazon Video]
Many viewings. Literally inspired by a dramatic downpour that left us soaking wet and opting to stay indoors for the rest of the afternoon, it is always a pleasure to watch, though I’ve never held onto it as a favorite. There’s almost something too polished about it, and there’s a certain self-satisfaction about its craft and skill that isn’t exactly unwarranted but skates the line of smugness: if cinema was a high school, Singin’ in the Rain would be the affable jock voted “Most Popular” his senior year. What most interests me now is gauging what aspects work for first-time viewer (Jean Hagan’s deliciously vicious Lina Lamont, the Hollywood satire) and what doesn’t (“that was stressful” my boyfriend declared upon the completion of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’em Laugh,” and has “The Broadway Melody” never not felt interminably long?). But it deserves reemphasizing again: Hagen’s burlesque of a silent film diva is truly one of cinema’s great comedic performances.


CHRISTMAS U.S.A. (Gregory Markopoulos, 1949)

CHRISTMAS U.S.A. (Gregory Markopoulos, 1949) [11/30/19, YouTube]

Remarkable, but I’m not sure if I have anything particularly coherent to say after a first viewing: like a dream, it moves through its series of gorgeously evocative sequences and images that accumulate and deliquesce, ebb and flow–a beautiful way to convey communication difficulties, one of the topics the film is clearly grappling with. While not as explicitly (homo)sexual as Anger’s Fireworks, one still senses how the frisson of sexual difference gives the images an extra charge, which all culminate in a private and highly symbolic encounter that might be a religious experience or maybe a sexual rendezvous–or perhaps both? Michael Koresky’s entry on the film in his essential Queer and Now series, is, well, essential reading, and makes me excited to return to it again ASAP.

A CANTERBURY TALE (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944) [11/29/19, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing. I’ve been meaning to revisit for years and years–not only did I have a very compromised first experience (a barely watchable VHS dupe, as I recall), but had literally forgotten all details about its plot. And yet traces of it clearly stuck with me, and over the years shivers of memories of its final scene would surface whenever I found myself in grand spaces intended to inspire and awe, and cathedrals in particular. Upon this return I admit it doesn’t exactly work for me, but recognize the qualities that provoke such strong reactions in others–this is very much the type of film that can cast a spell of enchantment, superseding what is actually going on on the screen and alighting upon something almost ineffable. In their film debuts Sheila Sim (a theater actress) and John Sweet (a non-professional American soldier) are both absolutely wonderful, bringing an unaffected quality to their performances as outsiders finding themselves stranded in a tiny rural English town due to the war, and instead of plot Powell and Pressburger focus on the type of evocative details that vividly capture an entire way of life in the process of disappearing forever. Lightly impressed upon this tale of the everyday is Chaucer’s immortal Canterbury Tales, allowing for the delicate interplay of history with the imperiled present–Peter von Bagh describes it as “mythical neorealism,” which is just perfect)–which all finally crescendos in the famous climactic sequence in nearby Canterbury Cathedral. Okay, as I’ve been writing about it now I feel like I’m convincing myself I actually liked it much more than I initially thought I did. Perhaps it’s the type of film that comes most alive while in the memory…

Illustrated Auschwitz (Jackie Farkas, 1992)

THE ILLUSTRATED AUSCHWITZ (Jackie Farkas, 1992) [11/27/19, Vimeo]
The concept–playing the oral testimony of Auschwitz survivor Zsuzsi Weinstock over a series of brightly colored, random-seeming images shot on flickering Super 8 film–at first seems much to flimsy to support a discussion of such emotional and historical enormity as the Holocaust. But the lack of imagery that has now become so closely associated with the Holocaust (deportation trains, camps, emaciated bodies) quickly has the effect of jolting the viewer out of preconceived notions of how to process the information we are experiencing, allowing us receive the full shock of the testimony. Then, in an utterly unexpected move, the quivering images begin focusing on something familiar: the face of young Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, a film also deeply aware of complexities of longing for a lost home and an unrecoupable past self. The familiar, iconic images of Oz are made strange through Farkas’s manipulation of the image, and Weinstock’s words immediately begin to draw upon the intense emotional inflections of the beloved film and its musical score, and suddenly the film bursts in uncontrollable emotional affect. A tremendous achievement, and all in under thirteen minutes. I can’t believe I’ve only just heard of it (via Deb Verhoeven’s ballot for BBC’s [meh] poll of the 100 Greatest Films Directed by Women).

Farkas has generously made the film available on her Vimeo account.

ATLANTICS (Mati Diop, 2019) [11/26/19, Movie Theater]

I knew only of the buzz coming out of Cannes (where it won the Grand Prix) + my admiration of Diop’s stoic performance in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum and I’m glad I didn’t know anything more, because this just completely knocked me out. Just several minutes in I fell under its hypnotic spell almost immediately, a bravura long shot establishing a palpable sense of tension and feeling of despair that permeates everything that follows. Centered around Ada, a young woman torn between the wealthy man she is engaged to and the working class man she is attracted to,the film quietly follows as she copes with the news that the latter left one night without a word, deciding to try his chances at stealing away to Spain by boat and try to build a better life for himself. Ada’s world is turned upside down and the film itself is similarly upended, beginning to turn inside out and then transforming into a whole new film. I hesitate to say much more, but the effect startled me and then left me exhilarated. No new release I’ve seen this year has come close to touching what Diop miraculously pulls of here; more than just an excellent film, I left the theater with a renewed excitement for the possibilities of contemporary cinema.

BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY (Dava Whisenant, 2018) [11/18/19, Netflix]
I love watching documentaries solely focused on a person’s esoteric interests and hobbies. Such docs are rarely more than functional in regard to form–and that is the case here–but it is riveting to watch one man (longtime Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young) expound on his indefatigable passion for, of all things, obscure industrial musicals, the mostly forgotten genre of original entertainment revues specifically made for the employees and stakeholders of corporations from the 50’s into the early 80’s. A nice introduction to a fascinatingly niche historical phenomenon.

Judex Georges Franju 1963

JUDEX (Georges Franju, 1963) [11/05/19, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing. And with just two viewings, Franju’s magisterial distillation of the Feuillade classic (which unfortunately I still have not seen) has established itself as one of my all-time favorite films. Teaming with Feuillade’s own grandson, screenwriter Jacques Chapreux, Franju pares down the original five hour serial to a series of vivid set pieces tenuously strung together by the most delicate dream logic; the elisions in narrative actually allows for a extravagantly languorous and unhurried wander through what Raymond Durgnat perceptively describes as a world “tenderly aware of its own unreality.” The director is clearly more invested in the seductive glamour of villainy than the meting out of moral justice, for even as stoic and handsome Channing Pollack traipses his way through the film with physical grace, he is often (and sometimes literally) sidelined by Francine Bergé, who dons the respectable uniforms of governess and nun before stripping down to an Irma Vep-esque black catsuit to lithely slink across rooftops and through windows. It takes two other female characters clothed in white—ethereal Edith Scob in gauzy flounces and Sylva Koscina in a tight acrobat’s leotard—to counterbalance the heady pleasure of witnessing Bergé’s insatiable and erotically-charged appetite for treachery.

That said, what elevates this film from “mere” clever pastiche or affectionate homage to something legitimately great on its own terms is the exquisite integration of actors into the overall mise-en-scène. The manner in which bodies are choreographed within the frame or almost surrealistically posed and arranged create some of the most unforgettable images to be found in all of cinema: the incredible bird masks at the engagement ball, black-clad bodies improbably scaling walls, guard dogs noiselessly rescuing their imperiled mistress, a fabulously over-the-top nun’s contrasted against the blank expanses of the French countryside, the eerie reflections of a surveillance mirror, a rooftop wrestling match, etc. The luminous black and white cinematography, compliments of Marcel Fradetal, conjures up a heightened, slightly uncanny state that feels like a waking dream. And what is cinema, after all, than some kind of waking dream?


Seventh Victim Robson (1943)

SEVENTH VICTIM (Mark Robson, 1943) [10/29/19, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing, and an intense pleasure to revisit: Val Lewton, Robson, & co. elegantly stuff more into these quick 71 minutes than most films afforded twice the running time. I think this is my very favorite of the lauded Lewton cycle of RKO horror films–edging out, though just barely, Curse of the Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. What specifically draws me to Seventh Victim is its depiction of existential terror as just another unexceptional strand tenebrously threaded through modern urban existence. When it is revealed, quite early on, that earnest young Kim Hunter (offering such a delicately shaded performance for her film debut) is up against none other than a group of sophisticated Satanists in the search for her missing elder sister, one would expect the lines to separating the good and bad characters to become quickly and clearly demarcated: but no, as she traverses Greenwich Village nobody she encounters seems willing to reveal their true shades but disconcertingly dodge in and out of shadows, both literal and otherwise (there are certainly reasons why the film is sometimes read as a representation of urban homosexual subcultural communities in the post-war era). If Victim is a bit less oneiric than Curse and Zombie, it is more than compensated for by the insistence that city spaces can be just as ethereal and incomprehensible as any dream.

JOJO RABBIT (Taika Waititi, 2019) [10/27/19, Movie Theater]
I couldn’t have been more hesitant walking into this screening, but concede it works much, much better than I thought possible. Even if it is supposed to represent the skewed perspective of childhood, I still have deep reservations regarding the ethics of depicting Nazi Germany like a Wes Anderson film (whimsical and insular and populated by a collection of delightfully idiosyncratic personalities). But the acting carries it a long way: the two young boys (Roman Griffin Davis and Archie Yates) are genuinely funny, but it is the two main female performances that manage to locate some degree of depth and resonance within this–let’s be frank–exceedingly thin material. Both Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson demonstrate how dark comedy are sometimes the only weapons one has at their disposal to combat the deepest terror. Johansson in particular is very good.

PARASITE (Bong Joon Ho, 2019) [10/22/19, Movie Theater]
I fully and unequivocally admit to the mastery of its vision and success in carrying out exactly what it sets out to accomplish, but this just was not the film for me. And the reasons it is has little do with the film itself and everything to do with my subjective preferences and taste as a film viewer.

PAIN AND GLORY (Pedro Almodóvar, 2019) [10/19/19, Movie Theater]
On the Almodóvar scale this is quite understated, even serene. The element of surprise is kept more on a narrative level–though all of the Spanish director’s pet preoccupations are present and accounted for, the film constantly spins in directions I didn’t at all expect. And truly nobody has an eye for unconventional beauty in men like Almodóvar does. The climactic scene between Bandaras (who is just wonderful) and Leonardo Sbaraglia immediately became one of my favorites in all recent cinema.

The Grand Bizarre Jodie Mack 2018

THE GRAND BIZARRE (Jodie Mack, 2018) [10/19/19, SFMOMA]
My first–and long awaited–experience with the singular cinematic vision of Jodie Mack, and I was not disappointed. A 60 minute non-narrative stop motion documentary(?) of the filmmaker’s world travels almost exclusively conveyed through colorful, artfully arranged (and rearranged and rearranged) local textiles? I was slightly concerned about sensory overload, but within the first few minutes knew I had nothing to worry about: Mack has an impeccable sense of timing and rhythm, and it had an effect I associate more with music than with the visual arts (yes, I know there is nothing more cliché than describing an experimental film in such terms). But this is not to imply in any way that The Grand Bizarre is not first and foremost a profound and sumptuous celebration of the visual, because that is exactly what it is. It’s just that Mack’s work operates in the same realm as Nathaniel Dorsky, who has explicitly said that he edits his (silent) films in a way to evoke visual music. Anyway, a thrilling, exuberant experience from the first moment to the very last. Mack herself held a Q&A afterward and she is just as dynamic as her work, which I hope I get a chance to see more of ASAP.

ARCHIPELAGO (Joanna Hogg, 2010)

(Joanna Hogg, 2010) [Criterion Channel]
Literally nothing happens, and I found that absolutely riveting. I described the film to a friend as To the Lighthouse but without the access Woolf provides into the rich interior lives of her characters. For without the dramatization of interiority, what exactly are we left with? Well, a family and several guests cloistered together in a vacation home by the sea, lost in their thoughts and struggling to communicate with one another. This is my first exposure to Hogg’s highly acclaimed body of work, and I was utterly mesmerized by the unflappability and control on display here: not for a moment does the film ever flinch or falter in its intentions or aesthetic vision. This is a film that places as much weight on silence as on articulation, and we’ve come to expect that this type of “quietness” in cinema will ultimately culminate in some type of dramatic revelation or eruption of violence, but Hogg clearly has other intentions. I overuse the word exquisite in my reviewing, but this is an absolutely exquisite film and in its quiet, ostensibly understated way a great accomplishment.

DANCE IN THE SUN (Shirley Clarke, 1953) [10/12/19, Criterion Channel]
Clarke’s first film, a dance film beautifully shot and masterfully edited. Distinctions of time and space begin to break down, as the “magic” of cinema dancer allows dancer Daniel Nagrin to begin a leap within his indoor studio and land on a beachside sand dune and back again. Clarke apparently considered her greatest strength as a filmmaker to be her editing abilities, and this film certainly makes quite a convincing case (though it is also wonderfully directed as well).

SHIRLEY CLARKE: THE ARTIST WITH THE LENS [10/29/19, Criterion Channel]
A short (30 minute) overview of Clarke’s revolutionary filmmaking career; while a little biographical context is given the emphasis is primarily on her artistic practice, which I appreciated. Even well-meaning analyses of women artists often have a tendency to foreground their lives over the work itself.

JUDY (Rupert Goold, 2019) [10/06/19, Movie Theater]
As a longtime “Judy gay” I went in with low expectations, and walked out pleasantly surprised. I was deeply skeptical of the casting of Renée Zellweger, who has many interesting qualities as an actress, but in no way possesses the kind of larger-than-life presence that defines Judy Garland’s star image. The strategy the film takes, then, is to go in the opposite direction and dramatize the fragility and vulnerability of Garland’s final years, and that is something Zellweger is not only capable of, but excels at. And she sells it, against the odds. There are other nice individual aspects of the film, most particularly Jessie Buckley’s harried assistant, most, but this is clearly the type of biopic where all other aspects of the film, no matter their actual quality, become diminished in its tilting toward the central performance. What I most appreciated was the extended scene with two of her homosexual fans: while it’s undeniably fan fiction and overplays its hand–there’s nothing subtle about it–but it eloquently demonstrates the pride of place Garland occupied in the pre-Stonewall gay imagination, and why grief over her funeral is sometimes cited as one of the facts that sparked the Stonewall riots. And watching that scene, us young queers can get a sense of the reason why. [ADDENDUM: by the time Renée won her Oscar (after winning just about every possible award leading up to it), I have to admit that the performance faded in my memory much more quickly than I had expected it to. Except for the specific scene described above, almost everything about this film has evaporated from my mind.]


NOVICIAT (Noel Burch 1965)NOVICIAT (Noël Burch, 1965) [09/26/19, Online Streaming]
The renowned film theorist’s first foray into filmmaking; deeply kinky, and rather unusual in its placement of its (straight male) “hero,” a peeping tom, as the masochistic recipient of increasingly escalating degradation at the hands of a glamorous leader of a women’s self defense class (Frédérique Franchini). And then Annette Michelson, one of the original grande dames of film writing, shows as an imperious dominatrix in leather boots and gloves to match (seen above)–to what extent are we supposed to read this as an intertext between film world colleague peers? This film, however, helped clarify what makes me so uneasy about Robbe-Grillet’s later films, which compels the viewer to align with the gaze of the director-as-sadist; it’s much more fascinating to be offered–and decide to accept, even if tentatively–a masochistic viewing position instead.

LA CARTOMANCIENNE (Jerome Hill, 1932) [09/26/19, YouTube]
Had been hoping cartomancy was a more prominent aspect of this short, silent art film, but it’s used more as a shorthand plot mechanism and means to evoke a dreamy, trance-like mood. What’s most notable is how it feels closer to nineteenth century photography tradition of the tableaux vivant than anything having to do with Great Depression America. I do wish there was just a little something more to it beyond the beauty of its visual and conceptual esotericism.

ALL YOU CAN EAT (Michael Brynntrup, 1993) [09/26/19, Online Streaming]
A “mock pornographic film”* consisting of faces spliced together from vintage gay porn: out of context, it is so difficult to discern between pain, pleasure, and pure performance (ie faking it for the camera). The rapturous upturned face of Bernini’s statue of Saint Teresa of Avila came to mind frequently: ecstasy is ecstasy, whatever the source.

*Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema (2000)

HUSTLERS (Lorene Scafaria, 2019) [09/21/19, Theatrical Screening]
Hugely enjoyable, and makes me wish glossy, glamorous, female-driven star vehicles were still a Hollywood staple and not some kind of anomaly whose very existence is notable in and of itself. While its riffing on Scorsese-esque crime caper tropes has received the majority of commentary what I most responded to is its depiction of bonds between women and female solidarity; one early scene set in an overcrowded strip club dressing room reminded me of some of my favorite moments in Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937), of women being able to be alone together, laughing and offering their frank appraisals of the male-focused sex and dating rituals they are forced to participate in. Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart are an electric quartet and their interactions are among the highlights of the film, but the focus that has been put on Lopez’s performance in particular is more than deserved: it’s been forever since we’ve had such a dazzling star turn. The film briefly loses its sure footing during the third act when the hustling scheme has clearly started crossing certain lines and the audience is receiving such mixed signals that it’s not sure how to react, but luckily it pulled itself together by the end. A thoroughly enjoyable crowdpleaser; now we just need more!

A long overdue viewing; I had somehow never seen this queer classic before. It’s fascinating to register just how much of its sensibility has managed to permeate into the contemporary queer consciousness, primarily via RuPaul’s Drag Race, of course (the now-immortal proclamation “ladies, start your engines!” for a start). Somehow it’s a smaller film than I expected, smaller in scope too (did the grandiosity of the title give me a vague impression otherwise?), but that’s also a great part of its charm. It’s also very… chaotic too, even frantic, but that has its own charm too, even if I was left more than a bit exhausted by the end. But it’s carried the whole way through by the uniformly excellent three lead performances, and its irrepressible sweetness and optimism in light of any hurdles prejudice and homophobia throws its ways.

THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (Ida Lupino, 1966) [08/14-15/29, Criterion Channel]
Lupino’s last time directing a feature film; after its completion Hollywood’s only female director during the 1950’s would spend the remainder of her landmark career working (and succeeding) in television. A comedy set at an all-girl Catholic boarding school intended as a star vehicle to help transition Haley Mills out of juvenile roles, it’s certainly pleasant enough on those terms, and Rosalind Russell is great fun as a kind of Auntie Mame in a nun’s habit. But the real interest is in Lupino’s deceptively modest directorial style, which has a brisk efficiency that undercuts sentimentality at every turn; for a film aimed toward children, there’s remarkably little of the cloying hijinks typical of this genre (and films involving nuns generally). The rather beautiful spareness and careful orchestration of the filmmaking is counterbalanced by the complex representation of female relationships and camaraderie, which is handled with delicacy, sensitivity, and great warmth.

BOOKSMART (Olivia Wilde, 2019) [09/09/19, Amazon Video]
Almost inevitably destined to become a classic of a kind. And it deserves to be–it’s that good. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever pull off the rare feat of making it feel like their friendship has a genuine history the predates the moment we first see them on the screen. While structured as a buddy movie, what makes the film truly sing is the harmoniousness of the ensemble work: perhaps making a comparison to Robert Altman risks overstatement, but it’s been a long, long time since I’ve encountered a film so densely populated with minor characters I would have been more than happy to follow down alternative narrative trajectories (but never begrudging the paths the film actually does). It’s a testament to Wilde’s graceful direction that the frequent cameos by familiar faces never overshadow the work of the young unknowns. Also, Billie Lourd needs to be recognized as the major talent she is immediately, and given starring roles accordingly.

Carol Kane and Lee Grant in THE MAFU CAGE (Karen Arthur, 1978)THE MAFU CAGE (Karen Arthur, 1978) [09/08/19, DL]
Very much one of those “woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown” psychological thrillers very much in vogue during this period, but every individual aspect of the setting and plot is exceedingly–and I truly can’t emphasize this enough–weird. WEIRD. But in the very best way. Independently financed it takes up the familiar tropes of the exploitation genre, and every possible taboo is at least hinted at if not fully manifested in some aspect of the story. Yet somehow it never feels tacky or unnecessarily salacious, which clearly must be credited to Arthur’s beautifully modulated direction of Don Chastain’s unabashedly perverse script, an adaptation of a French play. Together they manage to conjure up a truly vivid sense of languorous decay and barely-contained menace–the emphasis is clearly more on atmosphere and mood than narrative coherence (which frankly is my horror film preference).  Lee Grant is appropriately brittle but the off-kilter energy Carol Kane brings to this performance is both deeply memorably and genuinely unsettling.

8 FEMMES (François Ozon, 2002) [09/07/19, DL]

Second viewing. Surely a taste for kitsch, artificiality, and pastiche is something a requirement, but I find few films as consistently delightful and deeply amusing.

DAYBREAK EXPRESS (D.A. Pennebaker, 1953) [09/04/19, Criterion Channel]
The way it captures color and a particular type of early morning light is rather extraordinary. And has had off-screen ramifications: every morning, waiting for the 29 bus, I now make sure to pause and take a good look at the sunrise unfolding before me, and noting what type of light is beginning my day.

REGAN (RAIN) (Joris Ivens & Mannus Franken, 1929) [09/04/19, YouTube]
A city symphony with an aqueous twist, a portrait of how the first drops of rain cause the urban landscape to stir and then dispassionately transform itself: without missing a beat coat collars are turned up, windows fastened, sidewalks cleared, umbrellas unfurled. And then, upon the completion of the , the city now glories in its newly cleansed, shimmering state. But the rain also provokes a subtle mutation of the city symphony genre as well: whereas Vertov, Ruttmann, Strand et al. tend to emphasize a vision of aggressive technological sleekness and glittering industrial modernity, the rain gives Ivens and Franken’s film a softness and quiet lyricism as every surface suddenly becomes reflective, and every raindrop causes the world to shiver and ripple like a mirage. A beautiful visual evocation of the transience and mutability that lurks just behind ostensible urban permanence.

CANDLESHOE (Norman Tokar, 1977) [09/02/19, Amazon]
Hadn’t seen this since childhood, but have always regarded it as my favorite of this era’s live action Disney films (aside from the formative Parent Trap, which is in a category all its own). Was rather thrilled to discover it holds up quite well when viewed through adult eyes. A great deal of this be attributed to young Jodie Foster, a brash, street-smart American girl unexpectedly transplanted deep into the English nobility; she gives a very nuanced and sophisticated performance that never seems labored or overthought. Of course there’s the manic slapstick antics and accelerated plotting expected of a kid’s film, but for adults there is the pleasure of seeing so many familiar faces–David Niven, Vivian Pickles, Leo McKern, and Helen Hayes, in her last film role–mugging affably for the cameras, clearly having a good time on the way to picking up a paycheck.

Esther Eng and colleagues in Golden Gate Girls (S. Louisa Wei, 2013)
A stunning reminder that there is so much film history that has simply been forgotten and is in desperate need of rediscovery. Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Eng (1914 – 1970) is now recognized as the first female director of a Chinese-language film in America, directing in total four feature films here and five in Hong Kong. Considering the depressing treatment of both women and people of color throughout Hollywood’s history, Eng’s accomplishments are inherently notable in and of themselves, but what is even more remarkable is that she was as open about her lesbian identity as her era allowed, donning the type of aggressively masculine haircut and sartorial style of her contemporary Dorothy Arzner. Wei’s film is first and foremost a recovery project, literally structured around her search for even the most basic information about Eng’s life and career. Sadly the early films that made Eng’s reputation are currently considered lost (only Golden Gate Girls from 1941 and a co-directing effort from 1961 have survived), and she is never able to track down any footage or audio depicting Eng to include in the documentry. Instead those few left who knew her speak of her in admiring tones, and several notable film scholars attest to the deep implications the rediscovery of her career holds to the longstanding narratives of film history. Here’s hoping this (admittedly unexceptional) documentary isn’t the final word on Eng and her many impressive achievements, but just a necessary starting point.

HOMECOMING: A FILM BY BEYONCÉ (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, 2019) [09/01/19, Netflix)
All hail the Virgo queen upon her birthday season. It’s not the formidable artistic achievement in the way Lemonade is, but that’s not exactly a fair standard to hold it to anyway. I wasn’t always convinced by some of the stylistic choices–it feels indebted to Instagram aesthetics rather than setting them, as Bey has capably done on multiple occasions–but what it absolutely succeeds at is showcasing the vision and thoughtfulness behind not just her iconic, history-making 2018 Coachella performances, but the extreme effort and dedication that brought it to fruition. I have no time for people (usually white males, of course), who refuse to acknowledge Knowles-Carter as one of contemporary music’s great visionaries, insisting she’s not a “real musician” but merely a voice and pop culture image. This self-portrait should be more than enough to convince anymore who needs to be convinced otherwise.

GENTE DEL PO (PEOPLE OF THE PO VALLEY) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1947) [09/01/19, Criterion Channel]
Thoughtful, soberly mounted short documentary, and already of interest just to see the director negotiating working class subjects instead of the bourgeois milieus by which he later made his name. With retrospective knowledge of the career yet to come, it’s the several shots of lone figures crossing empty, De Chirico-esque town squares that immediately caught my eye: it feels like glimpse into a revolutionary cinematic vision just beginning to germinate.

COMBAT DE BOX (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1927) [09/01/19, YouTube]
WITTE VLAM (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1927) [09/01/19, YouTube]
Visually interesting but undeniably minor run-ups to Dekeukeleire’s masterpiece, Impatience (reviewed 08/20).


Impatience Charles Dekeukeleire

IMPATIENCE (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1928) [08/29/19, YouTube]
In her pioneering (and as far as I can tell still-definitive) essay on the Belgian director, Kristin Thompson describes this 35 minute experimental film a “remarkable work,” and I’m inclined to agree. I can’t hope to match her meticulous description of its intricate structure and form, which is grueling even by the standards of the non-narrative avant-garde. But I quickly found its rigid, repetitious editing style hypnotic–it brought to mind Cubism, of trying to “get” at something by presenting it from as many angles as possible. There is also, as Thompson notes, an undeniable, underlying eroticism to the film; I’d go even further and posit the pulsating, fetishistic charge is only barely constrained by the strict form. Enigmatic and intriguing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (James Whale, 1932) [08/25/19, Kanopy]
Second viewing, and while its odd fusion of horror and camp humor still doesn’t quite gel for me, it sure is a pleasurably frenzied 70 minutes. Whale is such a master at orchestrating slyly suggestive gestures and visual cues (fragmented mirrors, shadowplay, knife wielding, double meanings, fluttering hand gestures, removed shoes, gender ambiguity, etc), and the decrepit mansion of the title is a wonderfully queer space in all senses of the term: non-normative, liminal, unapologetically nonsensical. Seeming to operate by the spatial logic of M.C. Escher, literally anything seems possible from one moment to the next at the Femm Manor, and one by one each member of the family is revealed to be much less, err, straightforward than they initially seem. And seeing the film today, there is the undeniable thrill in seeing Gloria Stuart–so iconic to my generation as old Rose in Titanic–in the full bloom of youth.

Bernadette Lafont Maman et la putain (Eustache)

THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (Jean Eustache, 1973) [08/23/19, Pacific Film Archive]
Second viewing. I first saw this exactly fifteen years ago in London, during my undergrad semester abroad. Frankly, the details of the screening–a morning start time, and what felt like three of us in a cavernous screening room–has lingered longer than anything about the film itself, and I’ve been long wanting to revisit as I’ve suspected that having more life experience under my belt would make the film more resonant. It did.

Today I find the general premise slightly queasy (“charmingly” chauvinistic Parisian male romantic hijinks), but this is quickly neutralized and then overpowered by the immensity of the project. The women quickly, mercifully crowd out Léaud. Lebrun is impressive but has the flashier role; what has continued to stick with me is the deserted Lafont putting on a record and lying on the bed, we then proceed to listen to the entirety of Piaf’s whirligig “Les Amants de Paris.” It feels like we watch her live a whole lifetime in just those several minutes. I’ve lived those types of minutes too.

THE HOUSE WITH NO STEPS (William Ungerer, 1979) [08/20/19, Kanopy]
Watched on a complete whim and with no foreknowledge of what it was (a rare experience for me), and though distributed through Canyon Cinema it’s less experimental than an independently produced drama made in an observational mode. As we’re introduced to a number of townspeople in rural Vermont it’s interesting for a while in the way something like Winesburg, Ohio is interesting, and it does indeed capture the type of social claustrophobia particular to small town life in rural America. But in the end all the interesting characters and plot points never seem to quite coalesce into anything beyond their individual elements.

THE QUEEN (Frank Simon, 1968) [08/19/19, DCP, Castro Theatre]
Second viewing. For such a towering monument of queer cinema, it’s a rather slight film–thought admittedly that’s a major source of its poignance and charm. Beautifully restored and becoming widely available at long last, the time for its ascension finally seems upon us.

Celeste Yarnall in Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)

THE VELVET VAMPIRE (Stephanie Rothman, 1971) [08/13/19, Amazon Prime]
An elegant art film masquerading as a salacious softcore skinflick; Daughters of Darkness (a great favorite of mine) is the most obvious comparison. Rothman cleverly frames the limitations of her actors as a kind of dreamy, Antonioni-esque ennui, everything seems trapped in a suspended state. The surname of Yarnall’s character, LeFanu, clearly connects the film to Sheridan LeFanu’s female-centric, diurnal vampire classic Carmilla, and similarly undermines genre expectations at every turn. Never given a chance to graduate from Roger Corman productions into mainstream productions–a tragedy–Rothman was later told by a studio that they had hired a neophyte director to make a vampire film “sort of like Velvet Vampire,” which turned out to be The Hunger by Tony Scott. The lineage is obvious.

MURIEL’S WEDDING (P.J. Hogan, 1994) [08/10/19, Home viewing screening]
A perfect example of a how a film doesn’t have to deal with anything obviously “queer” to be a queer film classic. The intense queer resonances are instead social, emotional, and the sense of being marked as different–and demanding happiness despite it. The breakneck character arcs, dialogue exchanges, and plot rhythms are the stuff of 1930’s screwball comedy, and as she gamely endures the endless little humiliations on her way to triumph, Toni Collette earns a place alongside the genre’s most iconic heroines.

SUNSET BLVD. (Billy Wilder, 1950) [08/10/19, Stanford Theatre)
Multiple viewings. Endlessly rewatchable, and indisputably one of Hollywood’s great achievements; I can never manage to muster up much affection for it, however, and have never regarded it as a favorite. For all its individual moments of humor–and the camp pleasure of Norma’s histrionics–it takes conscious effort to avoid getting swallowed up by its sadness, and it’s impossible not to walk away feeling more than a bit dirtied by the contact. With each subsequent viewing it sure is beginning to seem like von Stroheim is the actual center of the film, giving the tragedy moral weight.

MUR 19 (Mark Rappaport, 1966) [08/06/19, Kanopy]
The type of first film that seems to lay out all of a director’s specific cinematic preoccupations and concerns yet to come.

MOONSTRUCK (Norman Jewison, 1987) [08/03/19, Amazon Prime]
Made me realize how much I miss this type of unpretentious, cheerfully professional Hollywood filmmaking. For a while everything is good-natured ethnic cliché and slightly musty screwball comedy plot mechanisms, but quickly real people and emotions emerge out of the narrative contrivances. The sense of melancholy Cher gives brash Brooklynite Loretta Castorini is deeply touching, and she and Nicolas Cage–truly a most unexpected romantic pairing–are simply electric together.

Viewings: July 2019

Talia Shaire in Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury 1979)

OLD BOYFRIENDS (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979) [07/30/19, Kanopy]
The casual, improvisatory spirit of Tewkesbury’s directorial style (obviously influenced by her collaborations with Robert Altman) often feels directly at odds with the over-determined screenplay provided by Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard. I would have preferred much more of the former than the latter–one can sense Tewkesbury straining to cut her characters loose and abandon themselves to the ambiguities and unsettling absurdities of the contrived plot. Talia Shire is appropriately brittle but ultimately limited, unable to really convey the underlying emotional turmoil that would motivate a woman to seek out a string of disappointing paramours from her past; there is a certain disquieting quality to her blankness, however. Everyone else gives small but incredibly vivid performances: Keith Carradine is surprisingly affecting, and John Houseman’s slow revelation of his bitter contempt makes the hair on the neck stand on edge. It’s always an awful situation trying to grade a film on what it could have been rather than what it actually is, but it seems clear a superior film would have resulted if the director had been given more creative control over her project. When another opportunity never came she decamped to television and never looked back. Our loss.

SCOTTY & THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD (Matt Tyrnauer, 2017) [07/20/19, Kanopy]
Perfunctory and somewhat aesthetically/ethically sloppy treatment of an endlessly compelling subject. I couldn’t help but wish there was a bit less emphasis on the thrill of name dropping and the “big reveal” of sexual secrets and more focus upon the mundane, everyday operations of male/male sex work in the pre-Stonewall era. (Perhaps Bowers’s controversial memoir does a better job of this?)

EDWARD HOPPER (Ron Peck, 1981) [07/16/19, Online download]
An elegantly handled hour-long essay film (though that doesn’t mean Peck demurs from broaching some of the more tangly aspects of Hopper’s personality and legacy). The closeups of details within the paintings themselves are cannily selected and often revelatory, and I appreciated the attention placed upon Hopper’s lifelong fascination with representing light, truly a most cinematic concern. Also wonderful is the connection, made just near the end, between Hopper’s silent scenes and the narrative distillation of Hollywood promotional film stills. In the last third or so biography and commentary mostly drop away, letting the art speak for itself.

EASY RIDER (Dennis Hopper, 1969) [07/15 – 16/19, Criterion Channel]
While acknowledging its importance as a “generational statement” (Hoberman), completely agree with Dennis Grunes‘ assessment that “today, it is a hollow antique” (though wouldn’t go nearly as far as his hyperbolic declaration it is one of the ten or twelve worst films ever made). Part of the problem is undoubtedly me: I find buddy movies numbingly dull, and was deeply bored within the first 15 minutes. There’s also something about this particular approach to social disavowal that seems vaguely distasteful—and rings hollow—during our particular historical moment of 2019. While the direction and editing is famously indebted to the French New Wave, it lacks that movement’s sense of joy in trying to turn the medium inside out. Was waiting the whole time for Karen Black and the spark her presence brings to any film, and she does indeed initiate the its most effective sequence—not just stylistically, but because it finally feels like it has hit upon something wild, primal, and genuinely terrifying.

GIRLFRIENDS (Claudia Weill, 1978) [07/10/19, Criterion Channel]
Genuinely revelatory in its understated way. Melanie Mayron is pitch-perfect as a young aspiring photographer attempting to find herself and a creative niche amid the cruel indifference of breakneck contemporary urban life. Weill has a keen understanding of the casual rhythms of the everyday, and there’s a sense of generosity–toward the characters, and also toward the viewer–that feels extremely special. Perhaps the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

BRUMES D’AUTOMNE (AUTUMN MIST) (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1929) [07/08/19, YouTube]
The introductory title card announcing “un poème cinégraphique” is apt, as it does indeed function by a logic traditionally associated with poetry. The visual rhyming is extraordinary: raindrops/tears/falling leaves; mist/smoke/rippling water/vision blurred by tears, etc, and there are literal “turns” (via reflection on water, the camera literally spinning). Such linkages are far from novel, but possess incredible visual force nonetheless. And then there are Nadia Sibirskaïa’s wide, otherworldly eyes—truly one of the undersung glories of cinema.

Nadia Sibirskaïa in "Brumes d'Automne" (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1929)

My Favorite Films – 2017 Version

Any “favorite films” list is in reality a snapshot of one’s tastes at a particular moment in time. This is the list I put together in November 2017, posted here as a record of my cinematic sensibilities, attitude, and taste when I made it.

My most current list, updated December 2019, can be found here.

01) BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, USA, 2004)
02) L’ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, France, 1961)
03) HOLIDAY (George Cukor, USA, 1938)
04) LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (Jacques Demy, France, 1967)
05) L’ECLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1962)
06) GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (Howard Hawks, USA, 1953)
07) HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais, France/Japan, 1959)
08) IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
09) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944)
10) VENDREDI SOIR (Claire Denis, France, 2002)

11) VAMPYR (Carl Th. Dreyer, Germany/France, 1932)
12) NASHVILLE (Robert Altman, USA, 1975)
13) LOOKING FOR LANGSTON (Isaac Julien, UK, 1989)
14) PAPAGENO (Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1935)
15) 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2004)
16) CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Richard Brooks, USA, 1958)
17) SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1932)
18) MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (Maya Deren, USA, 1943)
19) LE MÉPRIS [CONTEMPT] (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1963)
20) THE BIG SLEEP (Howard Hawks, USA, 1946)
22) CÉLINE ET JULIE VONT EN BATEAU (Jacques Rivette, France, 1974)
23) GILDA (Charles Vidor, USA, 1946)
24) LA CHARM DISCRET DE LA BOURGEOISIE (Luis Buñuel, France, 1972)
25) FIREWORKS (Kenneth Anger, USA, 1947)

26) THE NEW WORLD (Terence Malick, USA, 2005)
27) THE BIRDS (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1961)
28) HAPPY TOGETHER (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 1997)
29) LE TEMPS RETROUVÉ [TIME REGAINED] (Raul Ruiz, France, 1999)
30) ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (Howard Hawks, USA, 1939)
31) LES CHANSONS D’AMOUR (Christophe Honoré, France, 2007)
32) LE SANG D’UN POÈTE (Jean Cocteau, France, 1930)
33) DAISIES (Vera Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
34) LE BONHEUR (Agnès Varda, France, 1965)
35) INDIA SONG (Marguerite Duras, France, 1975)
36) JUDEX (Georges Franju, France, 1963)
37) ONE HOUR WITH YOU (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1932)
38) THE PLACE BETWEEN OUR BODIES (Michael Wallin, USA, 1975)
39) L’HEURE D’ÉTÉ [SUMMER HOURS] (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)
40) MACAO (Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1952)

At a certain point rankings become meaningless, so the rest are presented in alphabetical order:

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926)
ALONE. LIFE WASTES ANDY HARDY (Martin Arnold, Austria, 1998)
L’AVVENTURA (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960)
AUGUST AND AFTER (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA, 2012)
BONJOUR TRISTESSE (Otto Preminger, USA, 1958)
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (Herk Harvey, USA, 1962)
UN CHANT D’AMOUR (Jean Genet, France, 1950)
THE CHASE (Arthur Ripley, USA, 1946)
CHRISTOPHER STRONG (Dorothy Arzner, USA, 1933)
CLÉO DE 5 À 7 (Agnès Varda, France, 1962)
THE CLOCK (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1945)
CRONACA DI UN AMORE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1950)
DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (Harry Kümel, Belgium/France, 1971)
THE DEATH OF MARIA MALIBRAN (Werner Schroeter, West Germany, 1972)
ÉLOGE DE L’AMOUR [IN PRAISE OF LOVE] (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 2001)
EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1999)
FLESH AND THE DEVIL (Clarence Brown, USA, 1927)
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (Lech Majewski, UK/Italy/Poland, 2004)
THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINI (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1970)
GERTRUD (Carl Th. Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)
LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE (Agnès Varda, France, 2000)
L’IMMORTELLE (Alain Robbe-Grillet, France, 1963)
INNOCENCE (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Belgium/France, 2004)
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23, QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (Chantal Akerman, Belgium, 1975)
JOURNAL D’UN CURÉ DE CAMPAGNE (Robert Bresson, France, 1951)
LOADS (Curt McDowell, USA, 1985)
THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies, UK, 1992)
THE MAGIC FLUTE (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1975)
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)
MEETING OF TWO QUEENS (Cecilia Barriga, Spain, 1991)
MISTÉRIOS DE LISBOA (Raul Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2011)
MODEL SHOP (Jacques Demy, USA, 1969)
MUSEUM HOURS (Jem Cohen, Austria/USA, 2012)
NO SKIN OFF MY ASS (Bruce LaBruce, Canada, 1993)
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Jim Jarmusch, Germany/France, 2013)
OUTER SPACE (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 2000)
PATHER PANCHALI (Satyajit Ray, India, 1955)
LA PEAU DOUCE (François Truffaut, France, 1964)
PINK NARCISSUS (James Bidgood, USA, 1972)
PORTRAIT OF JASON (Shirley Clarke, USA, 1967)
POTO AND CABENGO (Jean-Pierre Gorin, USA, 1980)
QUERELLE (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany/France, 1982)
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
ROSE HOBART (Joseph Cornell, USA, 1936)
SALOMÉ (Charles Bryant & Alla Nazimova, USA, 1923)
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (Mark Robson, USA, 1943)
SOMEWHERE (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010)
STAGE DOOR (Gregory La Cava, USA,1937)
THE TEMPEST (Derek Jarman, UK, 1979)
TEOREMA (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy, 1968)
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1948)
THE TREE OF LIFE (Terence Malick, USA, 2011)
THE WATERMELON WOMAN (Cheryl Dunye, USA, 1996)
THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Jean Renoir, USA, 1947)
VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
WEEKEND (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2011)

30 Days of Fandor: Completed!

A few thoughts upon the completion of my 30 Days of Fandor Films project:

First things first: I did it! Not exactly in the month allotted (indeed, it  ended up taking just over two), but watching 21 films and writing a review about them in a single month? Considering that one of my original motivations was to counter a particularly pernicious creative slump, I think that’s pretty damn good. I had also figured I’d be reviewing a lot of short films—something Fandor conveniently specializes in—but as the month went on I actually found myself prioritizing more and more feature length films, and actually caught up with several particularly embarrassing oversights in my film viewing.

The sheer eclecticism of the films I watched also turned out to be a not unexpected but still deeply satisfying aspect of this project: short films and features, avant-garde and glossy classic Hollywood fare, obscure and canonical, documentaries and musicals and arthouse and silent films and everything in between; I also specifically tried to watch films from geographical locations I am more unfamiliar with than I like to admit (basically, most non-Western filmmaking traditions). I also wanted to prioritize films by female filmmakers, and while there’s always room from improvement, eight of 30 isn’t bad—and the films themselves were particularly good, considering that seven of them appear on the list I compiled below listening my favorite of everything I watched.

And frankly, I thought it would very quickly end up being difficult to watch more or less a film a day, a viewing schedule I haven’t kept up since my undergraduate years when I had a whole lot more time on my hands. And while I did struggle to finish the project after the initial month-long momentum had subsided, it really was a pleasure to rediscover how gratifying it is to have cinema in one’s everyday life.

So 30 films now off my Fandor queue… onward to those other 450+!

Twelve Favorites (in approximate order of preference):

01) LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)
02) WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, USA, 1986)
03) LA JALOUSIE (JEALOUSY) (Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)
04) JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)
05) THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2015)
06) THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)
07) ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL (M. de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)
08) VISION (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany, 2009)
09) NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
10) THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)
11) ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)
12) HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (Bromberg & Medrea, France, 2009)


Jealousy la jalousie philippe garrel

 Day 30: LA JALOUSIE (JEALOUSY) (Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)

There’s a density to the images of a Philippe Garrel film that I’m increasingly convinced are exceptional to the medium; rarely fussy or even overtly composed, typically it’s just actors talking and interacting in a series of underfurnished interior rooms connected by transitory public spaces like streets and parks. And yet, somehow, each moment seems imbued with a kind of mythic aura I tend to associate more with Greek tragedy than the cinema. La jalousie replays a story of triangulated romantic complications of the type Garrel explores in many of his films, with the autobiographical overtones taking on additional layers of meaning with the casting of his son, Louis, as his stand-in (his daughter, Esther, has a major role as Louis’s character’s brother—so many layers of familial implication braided into this film!).

The magnificent Anna Mouglalis, who I think has definitely confirmed her place as my favorite contemporary French actress (sorry Isabelle and Juliette), is the world-weary actress Louis leaves his wife for in the film’s opening sequence, and just as one assumes they know what kind of “jealously” the title refers to yet another subtle variation surfaces, and by the end it’s clear a whole typography of jealous impulses—romantic, familial, professional, etc—have been delicately excavated and examined. And none of this conveys that immense beauty of the images themselves, the work of Willy Kurant (who lensed for Varda, Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Marker, Gainsbourg and others in the sixties and seventies). The oversaturated black and white suspends 2010’s Paris in a space beyond the trappings of any specific year (it feels like 1963 just as much as 2013). In the most condensed of running times—this one clocks in at a characteristically succinct 77 minutes—Garrel is able to articulate and convey more than most films twice as long.

[Watch La jalousie on Fandor here.]