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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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 1: ALICE UNDERGROUND (1984)

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Day 2: ALICE UNDERGROUND (Kate Kline May, USA, 1984)

Reading an oversized book as she waits for BART, Alice is minding her own business when she notices a group of odd figures milling about the platform (who hasn’t?); once on the train a man in costume dashes by and she takes chase, first through several BART trains and then across the cavernous corridors of Civic Center Station. So begins Bay Area photographer Kate Kline May’s appropriately anarchic adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which casts 1980’s San Francisco as a surrealistic space just as unpredictable—and full of possibility—as the one encountered in Lewis Carroll’s famous book for children. Shot on grainy black and white 16mm film and flaunting an infectiously inventive, DIY attitude, for a half hour the film follows Alice as she stumbles through a series of vignettes inspired by the original book (the most wonderful being a rowdy croquet match presided over by Sigrid Wurschmidt as the Queen of Hearts, who seems at once to be channeling Joan Collins and the great silent film vamps).

May dispenses with the gentle, child-appropriate whimsy of the original material and draws instead from the gritty aesthetics and sensibility of the “underground” film and performance art communities of the 1960’s and 1970’s for her evocation of a modern day wonderland; the improvisatory films of Warhol and Jack Smith often come to mind, as do the fantastical dimensions of the everyday as glimpsed in the work of Rivette. But it’s the spirit and artistic vision of Maya Deren that seems to hover most dominantly over the proceedings—there are moments, particularly in the sense of unsteady spatial dislocation, where the film almost feels like a reimagining of the classic At Land.

In the end what is most irresistible about this playful adaptation is the sense of comradery it evokes, the tangible excitement generated by a group of friends who as artistic individuals band together to create something and have a marvelous time doing it. It’s no wonder that once Alice returns to “real life” she frantically descends back down the escalator into Civic Center Station once again, as if desperate to begin the cycle all over again. An undersung Bay Area gem.

[Watch Alice Underground on Fandor hereAt Land is also available to view]

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soft-core cinematic art

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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.

entomological absurdities

Wladyslaws Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (Russia, 1912) is a 12 minute short that a century on still bristles with a vitality and life so modern–or to be more precisely, so timeless–that someone could have shown it to me and I could have been convinced it was, say, the latest YouTube sensation currently trending on Twitter.


The story itself isn’t much: a rather banal, très French romantic farce regarding the sexual hijinks of a bourgeois married couple.  But the wonderful, unique twist: the characters are preserved insects brought to life through the wonders of stop-motion animation.  There are many elements to savor–the casual depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle’s marital infidelity, the intricate mise-en-scène, the sophisticated sight gags, a prophetic proto-paparazzi depiction, the complex commentary on both the filmmaking process and the act of film watching–but the most dazzling accomplishment of The Cameraman’s Revenge is the way Starwicz is able to so uncannily anthropomorphize these most inhuman of creatures.   This is made possible through a highly attuned sense of movement and gesture, demonstrating a precision that is unexpectedly graceful, and at moments surprisingly moving.

While watching it I couldn’t help but think of it as a the perfect counterbalance to that great artistic meditation of humanity-as-insect that is practically the film’s exact contemporary: Kafka’s classic short story The Metamorphosis, first published in 1915.  But rather than Kafka’s existential depiction of deteriorating, debased humanity, Starewicz relishes in the comical foibles and absurdities of life and love, and instead discovers within the inanimate insect form the means to explore a flipside of the human condition: its surrealistic humor.

[Watch The Cameraman’s Revenge online at Fandor or Ubu Web.]

introducing visions of a city

Fandor‘s selection of Larry Jordan’s luminous Visions of a City (USA, 1978) as one of its “Featured Films of the Week” reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to start on this blog for a while now: a semi-regular series of posts showcasing cinematic San Francisco.  And what better name could there possibly be for such a series than the title of Jordan’s own film?

As the emphasis is on visual representation, I don’t usually intend these posts to contain reviews, but a few contextual notes seemed called for in this particular case.  Visions of a City is comprised of footage shot in 1957 but not edited until 1978, for in Jordan’s own words: “I found that it was one of those rare films that I have always deplored the scarcity of: documents of how it really looked in a certain place in a certain year.”  It is also serves as what he calls a “filmic portait” of the poet Michael McClure as a young man.

By focusing his camera on reflective surfaces such as windows, mirrors, and even bottles and car bumpers, Jordan captures glimpses of a vibrant cityscape that become layered in complex and strikingly beautiful ways that resemble dissolves.  San Francisco, then, is at once represented as simultaneously a tangible location and a fleeting, dreamlike mirage.  And the screen captures presented below hardly do justice to the film, as it is often in the intricate camera movement that the true wonder of Jordan’s images are revealed, so check out the entire film–it’s a painless and rewarding 6 minutes–either on Fandor or Ubu Web.