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)

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 30: LA JALOUSIE (2013)

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 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.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 29: THE SACRIFICE (1986)

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Day 29: THE SACRIFICE (OFFRET) (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden/UK/France, 1986)

I remain… intrigued but ultimately unconvinced regarding The Sacrifice, the Russian master filmmaker’s final film; somehow his work almost always ends up being a bridge too far for me. Nonetheless, I found myself deeply engaged for about the first 2/3, in large part due to the exquisite visual sensibility—Sven Nykvist’s melancholy color palette, austere interior spaces, and expansive exterior shots constantly bringing to my mind favorite paintings by Whistler and Wyatt—and, as is often the case with Tarkovsky’s cinema, the nuanced, enigmatic approach to sound design. Also appreciated the voluptuous atmospheric ambiguity: long stretches seem to be playing out in some distant past, and then a radio or TV appears, a jolting re-recognition of (the film’s) contemporary present.

But then the lurking creepy psychosexual stuff inevitably takes over the narrative in the second half (this is Tarkovsky), and I was pretty much done: I already find Erland Josephson’s approach to acting rather tedious to begin with, so by the time the (admittedly awesome) technical feat that comprises the final sequence arrived my patience had long been spent. And so Tarkovsky continues to remain a major cinematic figure I find myself largely indifferent to; Nostalghia (also available on Fandor) remains his one film I genuinely like and most deeply respond to.

[Watch The Sacrifice on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

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 Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)

A great humanist classic—I can think of few other films that so directly appeals to the viewer to enter into a thoughtful and respectful engagement with a foreign culture and generate what feels like a genuine connection to an unknown “Other”—even as the ethnographic form inherently creates representational and ethical dilemmas. To be fair, Flaherty, an explorer and prospector-turned-filmmaker, made his film before “documentary” was distinguished from any other type of filmmaking practice, and the fact that elements that are passed off as reality are in fact staged and/or scripted wouldn’t have given him or original audiences pause in the way it does for us today. Some of these fabrications are relatively benign, such as Nanook’s feigned amazement over banal Western objects or the depiction of him using traditional hunting weapons instead of his gun, while others are more disquieting, such as the fact that Nanook’s “wives” were apparently nothing of the sort, but Flaherty’s own common-law wives(!). But then there is the film itself, which all these years later still manages to slice through all surrounding discourse with a startling immediacy and vitality—as is often noted, Nanook (real name: Allakariallak) is in every sense of the term a true movie star, exhibiting a charisma and photographic magnetism that would make many a manicured Hollywood star green with envy; Andrew Sarris declares the scene when he pops his head out of a just-constructed igloo and smiles directly at the camera as nothing less than “one of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema.”

The film follows Nanook and his (purported) family as they navigate the desolate expanses of the arctic tundra of northernmost Quebec, always, it seems, just on the knife-edge of starvation and at the mercy of the sub-zero temperatures—as we watch them fish, hunt for walrus and polar bears, travel in sleds drawn by packs of Huskies, and construct canoes out of seal hides what becomes so clear is how every aspect of their existence requires the greatest effort, often repeated daily without any reprieve. But the clear hardships are balanced by depictions of humor, and Flaherty has a lovely, understated way of staging sequences that unexpectedly turn into sight gags. The film that kept coming to mind was Patricio Guzmán’s recent documentary The Pearl Button (also, happily, currently available on Fandor and which I highly recommend), which is partly devoted to capturing the memories of the several remaining indigenous people of South America’s Patagonia region, a culture which now only exists in a small number of photographs and recollections that are quickly fading; if Nanook of the North fails as a factual document of Allakariallak’s lived life, it at least tangibly captures an evocation of a people group and a heritage that had already been permanently altered and about to be displaced. Such documentation, even in this compromised state, thus contains an aura of preciousness. But overall a tremendous achievement, and a work of great visual accomplishment made despite some of the most punishing circumstances imaginable and working with the most primitive of film technology. I was expecting an Important Film, more historically interesting than compelling: how very wrong I was.

[Watch Nanook of the North on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 26: NOTHING SACRED (1937)

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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.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 25: DAKAN (1997)

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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.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 24: THE GENERAL (1926)

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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.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 23: LA CAPTIVE (2000)

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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.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 21: AS TEARS GO BY (1988)

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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.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 20: WORKING GIRLS (1986)

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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.]