Day 21: AS TEARS GO BY (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong, 1988)
Having watched Wong Kar Wai’s kinetic debut I have now seen all of the feature films the revered Hong Kong director has made to date; I certainly can’t claim that I saved the best for last—indeed, through long stretches I wasn’t even enjoying it all that much—but in the several days that have since passed I have found a number of moments, images, and aural effects have lodged themselves firmly in the back of my mind, reasserting themselves evocatively in unexpected moments (this situation is, of course, par for the course when it comes to Wong’s eclectic, uniquely restless brand of cinema). Intended as a demonstration that the longtime scriptwriter was capable of taking over full creative control, As Tears Go By is on one hand a genre film replete with the expected action sequences, visceral fight scenes, incoherent double-crossings, and requisite homosocial bonding between groups of men, but they are all constantly interrupted by moody and melancholy narrative tangents depicting emotional nomads desperately attempting to connect with each other. Wong has admitted his two major sources of inspiration was Mean Streets and Stranger Than Paradise, and the film really does seem to function on some levels as a Scorsese/Jarmusch mash-up, but even the most derivative-feeling moments are quickly upended, as suddenly everything will spin in an unexpected direction and unveils something startling and fresh.
I will admit that the violence, often quite explicit and extreme, frequently tempered my reaction to the film, though in retrospect I recognize that the bursts of physical brutality give shape and weight to the wistful longing and ambiguous wanderings that culminate in Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung’s tentative courtship. Cheung’s awful hairstyle and awkward clothing can’t obscure the fact she’s one of cinema’s most luminous presences that the camera unreservedly adores, but what is particularly striking—and was a bit surprising—is what seems to be the presence of a rather overt queer eye: this is very much a film interested, even preoccupied with, male beauty. Alongside the groups of muscular men brooding in tight tank tops, Lau’s presence is endlessly savored, his body unashamedly showcased in a way that seems to directly point to Happy Together a decade later (which until now has always felt like a bit of a mystery in the context of Wong’s career—where did this spectacular classic of queer cinema come from?—but now those dynamics feel more fully accounted for). Ultimately a great part of the pleasure of watching As Tears Go By is the sense of witnessing origination: so many of the motifs, techniques, moods, actors, images, and sounds that went on to establish themselves as hallmarks of Wong’s immediately recognizable cinematic style are already so visible, and it’s often thrilling to experience even when the film itself isn’t completely successful, pointing instead to the greater things to come.
[Watch As Tears Go By on Fandor here.]
Day 20 – WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, USA, 1986)
Not to be confused with the feel-good corporate comedy released two years later, this Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is something quite different, a dramatization of a single day inside a New York City apartment that serves as a covert brothel for a group of middle class sex workers. Co-written, directed, and edited by the ever-underappreciated Lizzie Borden (the multitalented force behind the ever-undervalued feminist dystopian classic Born in Flames), it is a no-nonsense look into the banal rituals and inevitable complexities of sex work. Considering the amount of nudity and frank depictions of various sexual behaviors and fetishes, it is a remarkably untitillating film, which can be attributed to the fact all sex acts are shown from the perspective of the woman involved, drastically undercutting the possibility for voyeuristic thrills. The film opens from the perspective of Molly (Louise Smith, who rather resembles Molly Ringwald) who is seen in bed comfortably entwined with her sleeping female partner just minutes before she’s off to work, signaling the film’s overarching investment in observing how little separates “the world’s oldest profession” from any other corporate office job Molly could very capably be holding down; as we watch a typical day unfold in the apartment it quickly becomes apparent that it functions like almost any other corporate office. A disquieting question is thus implied: is any corporate or service job not in its own way a form of prostitution?
But that makes Working Girls sound didactic and that’s not right at all: it’s often quite funny in the face of its disquieting implications. Indeed, the film that came most often to my mind is the 1937 classic Stage Door, with its large cast of vividly sketched female characters passing their days bantering, gossiping, jockeying for jobs, and complaining about the various men they have to put up with—but for all the surface cattiness, when it comes down to it there’s a very real sense of solidarity and mutual support in the face of social practices and labor systems that actively work to undervalue them all. At the same time it’s not a screwball comedy either, leavened by the type of stark observational style exemplified by Chantal Akerman’s towering Jeanne Dielman (obviously there are clear affinities in regards to content too). While the acting could be charitably called “amateurish”—all major roles appear to have been played by non-professionals—a number of the women nonetheless give vibrant, nuanced performances. I still don’t feel like I’ve done a very good job at all of capturing how quietly masterful of a film this is, as the more I think about it the more I’m impressed by its ability to broach such a diverse range of difficult topics—including race, class, gender roles, sexual orientation, fantasy, deception, agency, discrimination, exploitation—and do it with such clarity, grace, and unflagging generosity. It’s obvious why academia has accorded it a certain pride of place, but it really deserves to be more widely known and seen than it is. A truly great film.
[Watch Working Girls on Fandor here.]
Day 19 – THE CHESS PLAYERS (Satyajit Ray, India, 1977)
A leisurely and sumptuous period drama by the great Satyajit Ray, a rather gentle satire of two chess enthusiasts so enraptured by their beloved board game battles that they fail to notice that not only are their personal lives in shambles, but political turmoil is beginning to rage literally on their doorstep. A common criticism seems to be that the film isn’t quite “Satyajit Ray” enough, more overstuffed Merchant-Ivory costume drama than neorealist poetry of the type that made the revered Indian director’s international reputation. As there are obviously parallels to be drawn between the movement of chess pieces around a playing board and the narrative’s intricate maneuverings, I suspect that there would be even more resonance for a viewer with a deeper knowledge of the mid-nineteenth century British annexation of the Indian State of Oudh and all of the bureaucratic intricacies surrounding the situation; for the rest of us, however, it functions quite effectively as a cautionary tale regarding needless distraction in the face of grave personal and political peril. Part of the issue might be that not only was Ray working in unfamiliar stylistic terrain, but The Chess Players also entailed a number of other “firsts” as well: working with established and well-known actors, his first time venturing into an unfamiliar culture (Lucknow) and employing a language (Urdu) he himself did not fluently speak, and he had his largest budget ever at his disposal. Whether or not all of these things ultimately proved to be an advantage or a hindrance depends a great deal on the preferences of the individual viewer, but overall I found The Chess Players to be a richly textured cinematic tapestry, a glimpse into an important moment of history and a culture that I had been previously unaware of, all beautifully explicated by a master filmmaker.
[Watch The Chess Players on Fandor here.]
Day 18: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)
An exquisite little urban idyll of a film, made when its esteemed director was over 100 years old (and he’d make several more before passing away last year at the age of 106). What’s so captivating about watching a late-period Oliveira film is how they feel like they have somehow managed to elude time, or, more precisely, convey the unique perspective of someone who has personally witnessed a span of ten successive decades and is thus attuned to whole different levels of embodied history and life’s underlying rhythms. To the uninitiated Oliveira’s style can come off as stilted and inert, easily dismissed as hopelessly old fashioned. But after viewing several films—which only scratches the surface of his sprawling oeuvre—I’ve come to recognize that he simply approaches his material in a manner contrary to the current trend of making characters in period films seem like “one of us” living today; rather, when using period material as his source—this particular one is adapted from a 1902 short story by the great realist Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós—he suspends his stories within a vaguely recognizable present while the characters function according to antiquated modes of behavior that feel utterly alien to contemporary life. I’m not sure what the opposite of a “bodice ripper” would be, but that’s exactly what Eccentricities is: though it’s central concerns are about love, desire, and grand, instantaneous passion of the type that ruins and redirects the course of whole lives, it is conveyed through the slightest nuances of gesture, facial expressions, and the presence of charmingly anachronistic fetish objects (such as a ubiquitous antique fan). In short, Oliveira films are the type where a character can utter something like “you cannot imagine how happy I am” with an utterly blank face, forcing the viewer to decipher the statement and probe it for obscured meanings.
Catarina Wallenstein is perfectly cast as the titular character (and won a Portuguese Golden Globe for her performance), as her bedroom eyes make instantaneous, irrevocable adoration seem not only plausible, but probable. Sabine Lancelin’s gorgeous cinematography, masterfully capturing various gradations of light, renders Lisbon a luminous physical presence, while Oliveira’s characteristically elegant utilization of windows, doors, and passageways of all kinds to visually signal depths and dimensions beyond and behind the film’s frame is virtually unparalleled. I won’t claim this is easy or readily accessible, but as is the case with most of Oliveira’s films, it’s unlike almost anything else you’ll ever watch.
[Watch Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl on Fandor here.]
Day 17: GRANDMA’S BOY (Fred C. Newmeyer, USA, 1922)
Though I often wish I was better versed in silent comedy than I am, I’ve definitely seen more than a few films by both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; this, however, serves as my introduction to the work of Harold Lloyd, often considered the “third genius” of the silent film era. And I have to say I found Lloyd’s so-called “Glasses Character” tremendously likable—quite unlike Keaton’s almost otherworldly gravity and Chaplin’s intense need to ingratiate, Lloyd’s presence feels more immediately accessible, and somehow more contemporary too (the distinctive round eyeglasses undoubtedly help, as they’re currently in fashion; when his suit shrinks during a gag, the results look oddly fashionable). Grandma’s Boy doesn’t seem to be considered one of Lloyd’s top-tier films, but its commercial success helped extend the length of comedy films toward the feature length mark, making it historically important. What’ I inevitably found most interesting is the film’s representation of masculinity: the title character begins as a hopeless sissy, not only unable to stick up for himself but hapless to a fault. A final humiliation by his romantic rival sends him into a crisis, and his doting grandmother bequeaths to him the “magic charm” that transformed his cowardly grandfather, also played by Lloyd in an extended flashback, into a war hero. Of course, the talisman turns out to be nothing of the sort, and the brash virility and masculine swagger is revealed to be an attitude, a state of mind—a performance, if you will. Of course this type of character trajectory is painfully commonplace, and I tend not to respond to valorizations of masculinity at the expense of male femininity, but there’s a certain something about Lloyd’s specific take of machismo that remains appealing; even at his most cocky he can’t fully suppress a certain sensitivity, almost like his first impulse after he knocks you down is to immediately apologize and help you back up. He’s very much the boy you’d be willing to take home to mom—or grandma, for that matter.
[Watch Grandma’s Boy on Fandor here.]
Day 16: ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)
This lyrical documentary, directed by Venezuelan feminist filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. But while Resnais’s film would be immediately hailed as cinematic landmark that changed the course of cinema, Benacerraf’s film never received widespread distribution, and was subsequently forgotten. Happily, a gorgeous restoration appeared in 2009 to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, and today we can properly appreciate this mesmerizing examination of a way of life that was disappearing even at the very moment of the film being made. The film depicts the grueling lives of people who extract salt from the ocean off of the Araya peninsula of Venezuela, documenting the backbreaking traditional labor methods that were passed from one generation to the next, over the course of 400+ years. And it would be one thing if only the labor itself was punishing; what Benacerraf’s camera documents, however, is that every facet of life for these people involves gargantuan effort—water must be shipped in each morning to the village, brought bucket-to-bucket to each house, fish caught daily (hopefully providing enough to feed the local population) as no vegetation grows in the region, etc, etc. The families are enormous—one specifically mentioned is 16 and counting—because even the most basic aspects of daily life require a manual task that has to be undertaken, day after day after day.
The toil and strain on display is in direct tension with the sheer beauty of the film’s images, the arid desert and salt mountains immaculately framed like proto-Antonionian landscapes, throwing into sharp, rather noble relief the people themselves. But rather disquietingly they never speak, silent (or silenced by?) a poetic voiceover emphasizing the sheer repetitiousness of this way of life, from the gestures of work to the strict scheduling of each day. Which leads directly to the underlying, rather disquieting ambivalence of the film, the crux that each viewer must contend with: despite the great splendor evoked by the images and commentary, IS it a way of life that should be glorified, let alone maintained? Or is this the rare situation where modernity’s displacement of an indigenous culture might actually be a genuine improvement for everyone involved? The film itself refuses to provide any answers. Indeed, Benacerraf has claimed she wasn’t attempting a documentary at all, but rather intended to make a cinematic “tone poem” as a testament to this particular place and the people who daily contend with it. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with such a neat evasion, for just as it is with Hiroshima mon amour, it would be easy—too easy—to simply get carried away by the magisterial aura evoked by the sensuous interplay of image and sound, and ignore the complex dissonance of ideas and implications churning just beneath the surface. But however one feels, this is an unjustly neglected landmark, and it deserves to finally find an appreciative audience after all these years.
[Watch Araya on Fandor here.]
(Waylaid by a few days of feeling under the weather, but on we go:)
Day 15 – ZOU ZOU (Marc Allégret, France, 1934)
The iconic Josephine Baker’s first sound film is a star vehicle that appears to shoehorn every known cliché into an already-ragged “a star is born” storyline, but is saved by a certain weirdness underlying the hackneyed plot points—and Baker herself, of course. The Josephine Baker we generally remember today—the “banana dress,” exposed breasts, frenzied dancing, stylized posing—are generally absent here, as by the 1930’s the American-born dancer had transitioned into a chic European superstar, more cosmopolitan grand dame than zany expatriate flapper. The story stars Baker and Jean Gabin playing characters who were raised as twins(!) and whose sibling affection morphs into something more romantic in adulthood(!!) that entangles them in a love triangle with Baker’s coworker and best friend(!!!).
Along the way is the transparent buildup to Baker’s eventual discovery by a local theater revue. Ultimately the pleasure is not in the nonsensical plot, but the individual elements encountered along the way. The casual nudity, as well as the frank discussion of sexual exchange—there is no pretense involved in discussing a number of “kept” individuals of both genders, and a lot of banter about what certain characters are like in bed—is quite startling, and there are interesting glimpses into contemporary working class life. Indeed, I found myself more entranced by the elaborate social and labor rituals displayed by the use of cast irons at the local launderette than I ever was by the gargantuan musical numbers (though those were charming too in their implausible scale and obvious desperation to equivocate Hollywood). This film caught Gabin right before he became a major star himself, which pretty much hands the film over to Baker, whose charmingly goofball performance rather took me by surprise; she seems far more eager to play the clown than the diva or even sex goddess.
But perhaps what’s most interesting, when viewed from today, is Baker’s seemingly uncomplicated status as a sex symbol within the film: tropes of exoticism are certainly at play, but it’s interesting to witness how she traipses through all of these lily-white spaces as a black woman (and obviously so) and no one ever bats an eye… certainly this film should not be taken as a realistic reflection of racial relations in interwar Europe, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider it must have been assumed an audience would accept on some level the possibility of cross-racial romance (the film was a success in Europe, but, tellingly, didn’t make a mark in America). Perhaps one might wish for such a historically important film to add up to a bit more in the end, but it’s all worth it to glimpse a legend in the flesh.
[Watch Zou Zou on Fandor here.]
Day 14: THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2015)
The initial question of what this actually is—a documentary? fiction staged as a documentary? something else altogether?—ultimately is revealed to be utterly beside the point. The film’s investment in the protean is quietly thrilling, especially as it seems to transform itself from one sequence to the next, constantly spinning out into unanticipated directions (or digressions? I would seem so—at least at first). This project slowly emerged after Guerín received an invitation from Professor Raffaele Pinto to film one of his classes on classical Italian literature at the University of Barcelona; the specific topic under consideration centers around the classical muses and their possible role within the contemporary world. The seminar is primarily attended by women, many who chafe at the patriarchal baggage attached to the mythological entity they are having to so extensively consider, and ripples of dissension subsequently set various subplots into motion as students begin meeting up with each other after class, meet with Pinto to discuss the issue further, etc. Perhaps most moving is Pinto’s discussions with his wife Rosa Delor Muns, a professor of Catalan literature, their philosophical sparring increasingly revealed to be a coded means of discussing more immediately pertinent issues. These as well as many other conversations are often staged through windows, causing the image to be overlaid with reflections of a world bustling with activity—it’s a striking visual reminder that no matter how lofty or abstracted the topic of discussion at hand ever becomes, it is nonetheless has grounding within the “real” world and dynamics of everyday life. At a certain point the hypothetical begins to manifest itself in the actual—as such things tend to do—and the film begins to force constant reconsideration of everything that has proceeded. At the same time, I wish to emphasize what an exceedingly serene cinematic experience Guerín has somehow conjured up; I’m even tempted to describe the experience as somehow restful, even pastoral, despite the fact the majority of the film takes place in distinctly urban settings. A film of so much more intricacy and nuance than I’ve managed to convey here, and absolutely one of the highlights of this project so far.
[Watch The Academy of Muses on Fandor here.]
Day 13: SING SINNER SING (Howard Christie, USA, 1933)
The film itself never quite manages to live up to its sexy, attention-seeking title, but that isn’t uncommon with a number of these Pre-code, B-grade flicks churned out by the “Poverty Row” studios. Which isn’t a knock at all, especially since everything rolls along pleasantly enough as long as little attention is paid to the hackneyed plot, which was loosely inspired by a major contemporary scandal surrounding notorious torch singer Libby Holman and the mysterious death of a millionaire she had eloped with (two later films, including Jean Harlow’s Reckless, would be more directly based on the highly publicized incident). In the central role is the likable Leila Hyams, a top star of the early talkie era whose reputation now primarily rests on her appearance in several classic horror films, most particularly Tod Browning’s immortal Freaks; while she has an appealing screen presence it’s pretty obvious she lacks that indefinable “something” that launched some of her immediate contemporaries to screen immortality. She’s also given a somewhat tricky role, having to embody at once a seductive siren who men swarm despite themselves, but then seem believably virtuous once marriage transforms her into an honest woman and her reputation is at stake. Unfortunately Ruth Donnelly’s broad, vaudevillian humor wearies quickly; much more fun are the various spunky sexpots, all slinky garments and stylized voices, that regularly turn up as Hyams’s rivals (all are quickly disposed of though). Not an undiscovered treasure by any means, but enjoyable enough.
[Watch Sing Sinner Sing on Fandor here.]
Day 12: THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)
A long overdue first viewing of a crucial touchstone of avant-garde, documentary, and feminist filmmaking. On the most obvious level it’s an intimate and emotionally searing cross-examination of the director’s mother regarding her experiences growing up in an anti-Nazi family during the Second World War, but a number of related issues quickly begin to intersect the main narrative, including the director’s own work as an anti-nuclear activist and, more implicitly, the complex networks of emotions that bind mother to daughter, parent to child, and one generation to another. The mother’s story is moving in and of itself and could easily have justified a straightforward Q&A-style documentary film, but Friedrich is interested in undertaking a slightly different project, utilizing a variety of experimental techniques that mimic not only the fragmentation of memory but of perception itself—even as the soundtrack is dominated by her voice, the mother is seen onscreen only in flashes. As the conversation continues the questions seem increasingly difficult to answer (for example, she came from the same town as the Scholl siblings and knew of them, but she never herself joined the White Rose group despite experiencing hardship, including spending time at a forced labor camp, for her own anti-Nazi views. There’s an ambiguous timbre—regret? sadness? shame? reproach?—to her voice as she acknowledges she was unwilling to take that step toward a more active resistance, and that despite her own suffering there were others endured so much more).
Friedrich admirably navigates a kind of high-wire act, never pushing a personal agenda of either exoneration or condemnation, instead forcing the viewer to make their own moral and ethical judgments with each new piece of information that is presented. This develops what was for me the film’s greatest accomplishment: invoking the psychic binds of ethnicity and heritage. For those such as myself with German ancestry the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable as it forces a kind of reckoning of… what? Guilt? Embarrassment? A sense of inherited culpability? I’m not even sure—I’m still trying to come to terms with what this film made me feel. The moment when her mother admits that she will regret that she is German until the day she dies was startling—but also chillingly familiar too. Fandor carries a number of Friedrich’s films, and this will probably not be the only film of hers I end up watching for this project.
[Watch The Ties That Bind on Fandor here.]