soft-core cinematic art

belle captive banner

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

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

girl power, MGM style

harvey girls banner

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

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

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

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

in-flight shenanigans

i'm so excited banner

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

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

detour into terror


detour poster

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

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

of spectres and spectatorship

Phantom Carriage Banner

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

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

new york city nostalgia

new york in the 50s banner

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

portrait of the artist and her family

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

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

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

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

rite(s) of passage

U.S. Go Home (France, 1993), an hour long contribution to the fabled French television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, was one of the great coups of the Pacific Film Archive’s Claire Denis retrospective, as it has become practically impossible to see (legally), particularly on this side of the Atlantic.  And it really is a shame that it is so completely unavailable–there’s a sweetness and charm to it that doesn’t really appear elsewhere in her work (the possible exception being Vendredi Soir, though that’s of a much more of an adult fantasy).  A wisp of a narrative co-written by Denis and Anne Wiazemsky and featuring Alice Houri and Grégoire Colin as siblings several years before they would do the same in Nénette et Boni, one the surface the film is a rather overfamiliar sexual coming-of-age story set in the 1960’s, but it is elevated by the tenderness of its observation.  There’s a wonderful, extended sequence early on involving Colin, where, alone his bedroom, a despondent feeling of restlessness slowly gives way to a spontaneous, ebullient catharsis as he tentatively begins to dance to a record of The Animals’s rollicking “Hey Gyp.”  Mumbling along with a few English phrases, epileptically keeping time to the beat, it’s the type of private moment usually experienced alone behind locked doors, which makes it all the more remarkable to witness on a screen (also, one can’t help but feel the enigmatic conclusion to Beau Travail starting to germinate here).

The bulk of the film, however, takes place during a boozy, dimly lit house party and the drama takes place in fleeting facial expressions and awkward gestures on an impromptu dance floor in a darkened living room which begins to take on larger mental and emotional dimensions as it becomes a site of initiation into adulthood for Houri in particular.  And while I’m not exactly sure what the exact circumstances are that have has made this film so completely unavailable, it wouldn’t surprise me if the soundtrack, which is chock full of English language music from the period (not just The Animals, but Nico, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Prince Buster, among others), poses substantial rights issues.  Which is unfortunate, because it really is itself an important rite of passage exercise in Denis’s overall filmmaking trajectory; admirable on its own, but even more impressive when considered within the context of her ever-expanding body of work.

out and about in 1960’s paris

In light of Marie-France Pisier’s tragic, unexpected passing last year, we pulled out Antoine et Colette (François Truffaut, 1962), which I had not seen.  It’s a lovely, wryly observed little film, though clearly the emphasis is on Antoine at the expense of the kohl-eyed Colette, who remains an enigma to both Antoine and the viewer.  This is Léaud at his most beautiful but also Antoine at his most unformed, and it was enlightening to see the awkward transition phase the character undergoes between Les quatres cent coup and Baisers vóles.  But if it’s primarily remembered as an essential moment in the Antoine Doinel mythology, it’s also an exquisitely rendered portrait of certain time and place–Paris, early 1960’s–and the spaces both public (theater lobbies), private (the shabby hotel rooms Antoine holes up in) and those suspended somewhere in between (the supremely funny moments around the family dinner table at Colette’s house) that the pre-political, pre-68′ Parisian youth culture inhabited and came of age in.  A wonderful little transitional moment in Truffaut’s career–I’m not sure if any other films exhibit such a low-key, spontaneous charm.

great illusionary delusions

There’s precious little I can say about La grande illusion (Renoir, France, 1936) that hasn’t been said before and likely many times over, so I won’t even try. Like the other Renoir masterpiece Le règle de jeu from a few years later, Illusion is a one of those films perennially at play at the “best ever made” cinephile games; both are films I ended up liking/appreciating more upon reviewings but have yet to genuinely warm up to (this is more or less the case with Renoir in general, unfortunately).

Not that I wasn’t immune to the magisterial depiction of the slow crack-up of the European class system(s) under the weight of the First World War–the film remains the benchmark of how to elegantly delineate the intricate intersections of class status, language, patriotism, illusions (and the inevitable, accompanying disillusions), sacrifice, friendship, and fraternité in a manner that is lucid but never lacks in complexity.  The wary pas de deux between Maréchal and Boleidieu, together lamenting the passing of a centuries-old way of life and their privileged place within it, remain the highlight of the film, so much so that it’s rather impressive Renoir avoided the impulse in making the entire film into some kind of poignant, nostalgic elegy.

But at the same time Renoir also resists turning Jean Gabin (& co.) into idealistic symbols of emerging European populism–even as they trek across shimmering expanses of untrodden snow that seem to beckon a bright new future, it is disquieting how the tensions that occasionally emerge between Gabin (of the French/European working class) and Marcel Dalio (of the prosperous Jewish merchant class) seem to prophetically hint at dark chapters of history soon to unfold.

And while it might be an early depiction of such a situation, from a contemporary standpoint the appearance of haloed Dita Parlo as the shy but sympathetic German hausfrau can’t help but feel a bit like a musty cliché (such was my boyfriend’s criticism), but for me it did end up taking the film to a different dimension of emotional engagement it never quite manages to reach otherwise. Also of note: Rialto’s 75th anniversary restoration is gorgeous–it’s traveling across the country all summer; prioritize it if it’s going to being crossing your path.

[Seen at the Castro Theatre, 06/01/12]