Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
Day 26: NOTHING SACRED (William A. Wellman, USA, 1937)
Anyone fretting that contemporary mass culture has devolved into a hopeless mess of selfies and pseudo-celebrities might change their opinion slightly after taking a look at this cynical screwball comedy, which pits the luminous Carole Lombard as a smalltown gal suddenly launched to national attention after a down-on-his-luck journalist (Frederic March) learns that she is tragically dying of radium poisoning and does a big write-up in a major New York City newspaper. Soon she has been handed a key to the city, is being serenaded by children’s choirs, and getting tipsy on champagne at the swankest Manhattan nightclubs as showgirls on horseback salute her touching bravery in the face of oncoming death. The problem is that she has since found at that she had been misdiagnosed and there is, in fact, not a thing wrong with her… but for millions she has become a beloved symbol of New Deal fortitude, and now that the media machine has been activated there’s almost nothing that can be done to halt the frenzy.
Clocking in at under 80 minutes Nothing Sacred is too brief to really delve into the most disquieting dimensions of unearned celebrity, capricious public expectations, and the media’s interminable circlejerk of corruption, but screenwriter Ben Hecht nonetheless manages to satirize just about everything that chances within the film’s purview, from“idyllic” rural living to the self-congratulating altruism of urban social elites. Helping neutralize the acidity of the story is the rich splendor of the film’s creamy Technicolor tones, and, most particularly, the presence of Lombard; at first she seems too innately intelligent an actress to embody the naive, rather dim Hazel Flagg, but as James Harvey has astutely noted, the “odd” miscasting actually “seems to focus the Lombard character and temperament in a kind of permanent, intoxicating radiance.” Her high spiritedness feels crucial in helping the film maintain its dexterity in tone, keeping things from ever getting too base or mean. A bit less amusing when seen today is some strange moments foregrounding race, as well as a climactic domestic fistfight, a literal “battle of the sexes” which comes off as quite a bit less charming and exuberant than I presume it would have in the 1930’s. The film originally took a loss at the box office—just pulling themselves out of the Great Depression, American audiences might not have been ready to feel personally implicated in social issues such as these—but it eventually established a reputation as a classic of the screwball genre; I can’t claim to have been completely won over myself, but of course one should take up every and all opportunities to witness Lombard in her glorious prime.
[Watching Nothing Sacred on Fandor here.]
DAY 25: DAKAN (DESTINY) (Muhammad Camara, Guinea/France, 1997)
Heralded as the first West African film to deal explicitly with the topic of homosexuality, whatever its actual quality Muhammad Camara’s debut automatically has an assured spot in the queer canon and film history in general. And while most reviews I’ve come across do tend to shrug it off as “important, but unexceptional” I thought that the familiar-seeming doomed romance premise had a tendency to keep wandering off into interesting, unexpected directions. The film boldly signals its intentions in the first scene with two men passionately exchanging kisses in a car—how many contemporary “out and proud” American films would dare do the same without first carefully priming its audience?—indeed, Dakan is actually a very “out” film in general, dispensing with most of the usual sexual coming-of-age tropes and within minutes we’re watching the two young men directly confronting their respective parents regarding their feelings for each other and intentions of going off to start their life together. As expected this does not at all go over well, and so the inevitable series of complications begin, and the parents plot to separate the men, calling into question both their loyalty to each other and as well as their understanding of themselves and who they are. One of their mother consults a local witch doctor for a “cure” and is willing to undergo anything necessary, while the other’s father, an ambitious local merchant, simply packs his son off to a faraway university.
From there things get interesting, as the film seems less interested in embarking on a specific story than observing series of events unfold, and the narrative grows increasingly elliptical and diffuse in favor of evoking sensations both emotional and physical in nature. Longtime actor—and, interestingly, heterosexual family man— Camara aligns himself with the kind of “tactile” cinema most closely identified with Claire Denis, exhibiting a sophisticated attunement to mood and nocturnal environments, with emphasis often placed on the surfaces of things and skin in particular. And then suddenly Cécile Bois, a spunky, charismatic young white woman bounces into the film and everything seems to pivot toward another direction entirely; in truth, despite the film ostensibly being about the two men they never become a whole lot more than sympathetic ciphers, and it is the female characters which are much more vividly rendered. Despite its relatively intimate scale, ultimately Dakan becomes a much more expansive consideration of how the men’s relationship affects a much larger web of family, friendship, and community. As far as I’m concerned a complicated if quiet little film lurks beneath the conferred mantle of Great Historical Importance.
[Watching Dakan on Fandor here.]
Day 24: THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)
One doesn’t have to search very far for declarations that Keaton’s feature-length film remains, nearly a century after the fact, cinema’s greatest comedic achievement; it is certainly astonishing (and was until now one of the most embarrassing gaps in my film viewing). I’ve seen enough of Keaton’s work to recognize what makes it rather singular in his oeuvre and thus somewhat divisive—instead of a quick-paced series of exciting individual gags and physical stunts, The General is more deliberately paced, tightly weaving Keaton’s physical comedy into the overall fabric of the narrative. Based on an actual Civil War event that became known as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” Keaton plays a train engineer who is prevented from enlisting in the army and subsequently rejected by his suitor (Marion Mack) as an unpatriotic coward; the dejected Keaton eventually, wonderfully, blunders his way into the middle of an unfolding enemy plot and seizes upon the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his beloved.
It all takes a bit too long to get going, but like the slow initial ascent of a rollercoaster, once momentum tips toward mayhem all unwinds breathlessly, thrillingly, careening toward a resolution that always seems just around the corner but is constantly delayed. The handling of scale is immaculate, with moments of startling visual grandeur (the use of actual trains, full scale army camp recreations, actual derailments and destruction) counterbalanced with beautiful moments of emotional intimacy (the cigarette-burn iris effect, Keaton’s slumped shoulders and turned back in wide shot of the deserted road) that are all linked together by a camera constantly on the go, trying to keep up with the forward motion of the titular train. The film unfortunately places the viewer in the rather uncomfortable position of rooting for Confederate success which is all the more annoying because the actual historical entailed the opposite situation, but in the end the War Between the States is treated more like a generic battle milieu than a specific period of time with much deeper issues at stake. It’s a sad fact of history that this, of all films, is the one that effectively ended Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker, its inflated budget combined with a lackluster box office performance necessitating a contract with MGM that quickly proved disastrous. I now eagerly await the opportunity to see it in its full glory on a big screen.
[Watch The General on Fandor here.]
Day 23: LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Chantal Akerman’s untimely passing; it only seemed appropriate to salute the memory of the great filmmaker by watching one of her films. La Captive often comes up in discussion of great literary adaptations—it’s based on Proust’s La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time—but sadly I can’t speak personally to that aspect of the film; no matter, as there are so many other embedded layers worthy of analysis. This is one of the great films on the act of watching, with much of the running time devoted to observing one man’s obsessive surveillance of a striking young woman; the exact nature of their relationship is one of the film’s central enigmas that is never quite resolved nor fully explained. Simon (Stanislas Merhar) stalks through art galleries, into hotels, and follows in his car to silently pursue Ariane (Sylvie Testud) as Rachmaninov’s brooding—and referentially resonant—symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” throbs Herrmann-like on the soundtrack, revealing Vertigo to be just as significant a point of reference as Proust. The second half of La Captive abandons a sense of Hitchcockian mystery, however, opting instead to dramatize Simon’s increasingly frantic quest to understand the very nature of desire—and specifically the complex desires concealed by Ariane’s impassive face and vague but unfailingly acquiescent answers to his distressed questions.
The pieces finally beginning to fall into place for both Simon and the viewer after he witnesses Ariane engaging a female neighbor in an impromptu rendition of a duet from Mozart’s Così fan tutte from their opposite courtyard balconies, and it feels just as incriminating as if he had stumbled across the objection of his affection in flagrante delicto (Melissa Anderson has characterized it as the most erotic scene of the film, and I unhesitatingly agree). Increasingly desperate, he pays a night visit to a young female couple played by Bérénice Bejo and Anna Mouglalis—how lovely to suddenly have two of my favorite French actresses suddenly, unexpectedly materialize together in the middle of a film!—who try to answer his questions on female sexuality, lesbian relationships, and emotional connection, but like two sibyls they can ultimately offer only further riddles. Not quite as austere as the towering Jeanne Dielman and some of her other films, La Captive displays the characteristic visual and technical rigor of Akerman’s signature minimalist, objective style—immaculately arranged mise-en-scène, an exquisite perception of space and to the passage of time, an incredibly precise attunement to the aural possibilities of cinema, an awareness of life’s unabashed weirdness—balanced by the gorgeous, quietly sumptuous cinematography of the great Sabine Lancelin (this is the second film lensed by her I’ve seen this last week—and both are two of the most visually magnificent films I’ve seen for this project). I’ve really only scratched the surface of Akerman’s oeuvre at this point; this undoubtedly is a situation that needs to change immediately.
[Watch La Captive on Fandor here.]
Day 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)
“When you show it all you reveal very little.” So pronounces Jane Birkin as she sits perched on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, the Eiffel Tower just behind her, the contents of an iconic Birkin bag strewn around her. And much like the jumble of paper, photos, and other ephemera strewn about Birkin’s feet, Varda’s image creates a striking moment of converging symbols—involving stardom, identity, nationality, race, social status, cultural currency, and material privilege—that she mingles together, briefly allowing us to savor their evocative juxtaposition in a single frame. For definite meaning, as is usually the case with Varda, proves elusive, left open for expansive consideration and interpretation. Birkin herself is a fascinating phenomenon—a model whose distinctive image epitomized her generation before transforming herself in a singer, actress, muse, mother, and political activist—and Varda is clearly intrigued by all of these various personas and public perceptions; in that way “Jane B” unexpectedly resonates with Cléo de 5 à 7, continuing and expanding the earlier film’s interest in the performance of identity and the slippery divisions between public and private selves. In many ways “Jane B” is an even more conceptually intricate than the now-classic Nouvelle vague film, with the title’s “par [by] Agnès V” foregrounding not only the filmmaker’s literal presence within the film, but with the acknowledgement that Varda herself is generating yet another “Jane Birkin” (or two or more) to Jane Birkin’s already-expansive collection of selves. But it becomes clear Varda is less interested in locating a “true” or “real” Birkin and is instead eager to enter into a more ambiguous—and potentially fraught—space of active collaboration. “I’m filming your self-portrait” Varda intones near the beginning of the film, “but you won’t be alone.” “I might appear in the mirror in the background” she continues, and then in a beautifully coordinated pan she does exactly that and materializes in the mirror behind Birkin, immediately complicating the stable-seeming concept of “self-portrait” (to say nothing of authorship, subjecthood, the gaze, etc).
Getting so wrapped up in the theoretical intricacies of the film only accounts for one aspect of it, however, and perhaps does a disservice to other, even more immediate pleasures. This is absolutely one of Varda’s most visually gorgeous films—something showcased by its recent restoration—both in regards to her elaborate tableaux vivant as well as location work and the fictional/fantasy sequences. The film also serves as a lovely showcase for Birkin herself, who Varda clearly admires as a unique presence—she’s required to do a lot of acting, and like her singing it can’t exactly be called “good” in a technical sense, yet it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her just electrifying to watch and listen to. Varda recognizes that Birkin is at her very best whenever she presents simply as herself, talking about her family or her past or her ideas or even her insecurities of undertaking a project such as this. In a way she’s ideally suited for Varda’s cinematic sensibility which is inclined toward the tangential and whimsical and unexpected. I’ve yet to see the women’s other collaboration Kung Fu Master, also long unavailable and recently restored, but I’m more eager than ever to watch it now (it’s also on Fandor!).
[Watch Jane B. par Agnès V. on Fandor here.]
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.]