VIEWINGS: AUGUST 2019

Impatience Charles Dekeukeleire

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

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

Bernadette Lafont Maman et la putain (Eustache)

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

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

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

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

Celeste Yarnall in Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)

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

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

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

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

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

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Viewings: July 2019

Talia Shaire in Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury 1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 17: GRANDMA’S BOY (1922)

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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.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 11: WITTGENSTEIN (1993)

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Day 11: WITTGENSTEIN (Derek Jarman, UK, 1993)

Jarman’s penultimate film, an imaginative biopic of the great Austrian-born philosopher. I can’t make any definite claims as to accuracy in terms of historical facticity or the representation of actual philosophical ideas—but who really wants realism when an artist as endlessly inventive as Jarman is involved? The project originated with a script by Terry Eagleton but was deftly reshaped to fit the distinctive Jarman mold, as well as address the restrictions of a tiny budget and minimal production time (less than two weeks for actual shooting, as well as the additional pressure posed by the filmmaker’s rapidly deteriorating vision and health due to AIDS-related complications). In a brilliant move, the director and his collaborators decided to flaunt all logistical constraints, creating instead an aura of resonant symbolism; the resulting film, just over 70 minutes long, races through Wittgenstein’s life by stringing together some 53 sequences entailing anecdotes, personal events, fantasies, and glimpses into his immediate social circle. In the end the production limitations turned out to be a great boon, as the interplay of an inventive narrative structure (a precocious, bespectacled young Wittgenstein serves as both narrator and guide, drolly interjecting himself throughout the film) as well as the distinctive visual design that distills the mise-en-scène down to a limited number of meaningful items and articles of clothing ultimately seems a most fitting manner through which to convey the life of a man who devoted his life to logically paring down reality into its most fundamental forms. Like everything Jarman created, it doubtlessly deserves—and will reward—multiple viewings.

[Watch Wittgenstein on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 9: MEET MARLON BRANDO (1966)

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Day 9: MEET MARLON BRANDO (Albert Maysles & David Maysles, USA, 1966)

A fascinating look into the chirpy artificiality of “candid” celebrity encounters: we watch as Brando bridles under the expectation to don a smile and purr innocuous platitudes into the Maysles’s watchful camera. At times his actions might be interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic—“have you actually seen it??” he pointedly queries anyone who begins gushing about the “terrific” film he is supposed to promote, which ended up being a major flop—but there are obviously more intricate dynamics at play here as well. Brando displays a great knack for pivoting conversations away from himself at a moment’s notice through witty adlibbing, often asking the interviewer a direct question about her/himself. A certain tension and nervous energy is generated as each of the various interviewers manage these maneuvers, and while some simply counter with tight-smiled deflections (“oh, but really Mr. Brando, our viewers would just love to hear your thoughts!”), just as many take the bait and enter into the riskier zone of genuine exchange—or at least a closer approximation to it. The highlights of the film tend to be anytime Brando successfully derails a reporter’s agenda: one discusses his hobby of playing classical guitar, one woman’s face lights up after Brando compliments her sonorous speaking voice, and another young woman suddenly finds herself being cross-examined when it’s revealed she’s a former Miss USA, and they begin discussing her specialty topic of juvenile education. But even these moments are complicated, as nearly all interactions with women immediately turn into flirtatious exchanges which read today as casual sexual harassment, adding an additional layer of uneasiness to the interactions (even—or especially—when with the women appear flattered by the sudden turn of events). Brando’s eagerness to take on and hold forth with great eloquence on controversial social issues—racism, and most particularly the plight of Native Americans—might also be read as part of the source of the great actor’s impatience with superficial chitchat. Marlon Brando playing “Marlon Brando” as performance art, and it’s a rather impressive performance indeed.

[Watch Meet Marlon Brando on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 8: HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (2009)

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Day 8: L’ENFER D’HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT
(Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009)

A documentary resurrecting an abandoned film project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, originally envisioned as a stylistic tour-de-force to catapult the “French Hitchcock” back to the forefront of 1960’s French cinema which was then in the throes of all things Nouvelle vague. During his frequent bouts of insomnia Clouzot formulated a story that charts a man’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia over his beautiful wife’s perceived infidelity; the sad irony is that the process of undertaking such an ambitious film ultimately led the director down a similar path, and, already prone to depression, he collapsed on set and filming never resumed. Bromberg and Medrea’s film thus navigates two linked trajectories, reconstructing the unfinished film through surviving footage and script reenactments while simultaneously piecing together the filmmaking process through interviews with original participants as well as the numerous visual experiments that took place before shooting began. To my mind, the footage that Clouzot actually managed to capture is mesmerizing: an extended scene involving Romy Schneider crisscrossing a lake on water skis while in the distance her husband (Serge Reggiani) madly sprints the walled circumference of the lake is a thrilling orchestration of physical space and oppositional movement, but admittedly the real showstoppers are the endless “screen tests” that were undertaken, encompassing everything from costume and makeup evaluations (that blue lipstick!), color checks, lingering closeups of faces and body parts, and an impressive amount of psychedelic optical experiments. But as tantalizing as all this visual material is, the inevitable question must be asked: are all of these image fragments and individual sequences more impressive on their own than they ever could have been when contextualized into an overall narrative structure? The answer, in the end, seems to be an implicit yes, the surviving artifacts evoking a magnificence that reality could not possibly have managed to ever live up to.

[Watch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno on Fandor here.]

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