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.]
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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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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 6: FATA MORGANA (1971)

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Day 6: FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1971)

Yesterday was Herzog’s 74th birthday so it seemed only appropriate to commemorate by picking a selection from his vast body of work. This is, by nearly all accounts, something of an outlier in a filmography that already likes to keep to the peripheries, a pseudo-documentary/speculative essay film that in typical Herzogian fashion whirls about in unexpected and often perplexing directions. For me the central conceit of the “fata morgana”—a specific type of mirage where edifices seem to emerge upon the horizon—immediately became crucial in keeping me engaged: if moment-to-moment I couldn’t quite string together what was going on, I nevertheless found myself entranced by the idiosyncratic manner in which images, sounds, songs, and ideas are compressed into beguiling if elusive configurations. I’m admittedly not much of a partisan of this much-loved filmmaker, and not quite willing to attribute the profundity I’ve seen attributed to this particular experiment either, but it’s undeniably the product of a singular creative vision. If I’m being honest, I most appreciated the opportunity to hear the great Lotte Eisner’s grave, gravelly voice.

[Watch Fata Morgana on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 5: FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975)

Day 4: FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (Dick Richards, USA, 1975)

It is blatantly obvious that this Raymond Chandler adaptation, a throwback to classic film noir but lensed through the honeyed golden hues of nostalgia, was a rather crass attempt to cash in on the success of Chinatown, and while it’s not at all the genre game-changer that Polanski’s film was, it’s nonetheless very, very good. Robert Mitchum, at this time a grizzled but still-handsome 57 years old, brings an appropriate world-weariness to the iconic character of Philip Marlowe, but for some reason the film insistently sidesteps ever deeply exploring the dynamics of having an older man in the role. As is usually the case when it comes to Chandler the plot is fundamentally incoherent, practically an endless chain of disposable red herrings; the compensating pleasures are instead how the character of Marlowe gives access to the wide variety of SoCal spaces, encountering fascinating characters around every corner. On this count Farewell, My Lovely is a great success, filling every scene with vivid character performances: wizened John Ireland, smartass Harry Dean Stanton, a fresh-faced, pre-fame Sylvester Stallone, a poignant turn by Sylvia Miles that earned her an Oscar nomination, and most particularly Kate Murtagh, whose butch Los Angeles madame ruthlessly lording over a harem of beautiful young women seems straight out of the Hope Emerson playbook. Young Charlotte Rampling plays the requisite femme fatale and the severity of 1940’s glamour suits her angular beauty like a glove; her withering stare is enough to rival any great noir siren but unfortunately there’s not enough to her role to make a deep impression. I’ve long heard the follow-up adaptation of The Big Sleep is an unmitigated disaster, but this stands as a worthy late entry to the canon of classic detective films.

[Watch Farewell, My Lovely on Fandor here.]

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