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 28: PUSSYCATS PARADISE (1960)

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Day 28: PUSSYCATS PARADISE (aka The Nudist Story) (Ramsey Herrington, UK, 1960)

A hilarious relic of its era, but quite pleasantly surprised to find a extremely watchable little flick as well. A blurb floating around trumpets it as “the Citizen Kane of nudist films” but I have no context to judge the merit of such a pronouncement; it strikes me as basically a revision of a 1950’s B-grade musical, for despite all the boobs and butts on display—nether regions are discreetly edited out or hilariously obstructed from view—it’s just as relentlessly chipper and saccharine and contrived as any June Allyson or Jane Powell vehicle from that period, which I suppose is exactly the point, a demonstration that “naturism” is a wholesome, healthy mode of living for the whole family. Two musical performances, multiple dance numbers(!), and a synchronized swimming sequence(!!) pad out the slight plot. There’s not much to say about this one because, quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot to it outside of historical interest. But very sweet, and actually rather fun.

[Watch Pussycats Paradise 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 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 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 16: ARAYA (1959)

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Day 16: ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)

This lyrical documentary, directed by Venezuelan feminist filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. But while Resnais’s film would be immediately hailed as cinematic landmark that changed the course of cinema, Benacerraf’s film never received widespread distribution, and was subsequently forgotten. Happily, a gorgeous restoration appeared in 2009 to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, and today we can properly appreciate this mesmerizing examination of a way of life that was disappearing even at the very moment of the film being made. The film depicts the grueling lives of people who extract salt from the ocean off of the Araya peninsula of Venezuela, documenting the backbreaking traditional labor methods that were passed from one generation to the next, over the course of 400+ years. And it would be one thing if only the labor itself was punishing; what Benacerraf’s camera documents, however, is that every facet of life for these people involves gargantuan effort—water must be shipped in each morning to the village, brought bucket-to-bucket to each house, fish caught daily (hopefully providing enough to feed the local population) as no vegetation grows in the region, etc, etc. The families are enormous—one specifically mentioned is 16 and counting—because even the most basic aspects of daily life require a manual task that has to be undertaken, day after day after day.

The toil and strain on display is in direct tension with the sheer beauty of the film’s images, the arid desert and salt mountains immaculately framed like proto-Antonionian landscapes, throwing into sharp, rather noble relief the people themselves. But rather disquietingly they never speak, silent (or silenced by?) a poetic voiceover emphasizing the sheer repetitiousness of this way of life, from the gestures of work to the strict scheduling of each day. Which leads directly to the underlying, rather disquieting ambivalence of the film, the crux that each viewer must contend with: despite the great splendor evoked by the images and commentary, IS it a way of life that should be glorified, let alone maintained? Or is this the rare situation where modernity’s displacement of an indigenous culture might actually be a genuine improvement for everyone involved? The film itself refuses to provide any answers. Indeed, Benacerraf has claimed she wasn’t attempting a documentary at all, but rather intended to make a cinematic “tone poem” as a testament to this particular place and the people who daily contend with it. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with such a neat evasion, for just as it is with Hiroshima mon amour, it would be easy—too easy—to simply get carried away by the magisterial aura evoked by the sensuous interplay of image and sound, and ignore the complex dissonance of ideas and implications churning just beneath the surface. But however one feels, this is an unjustly neglected landmark, and it deserves to finally find an appreciative audience after all these years.

[Watch Araya on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 14: THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (2015)

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Day 14: THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2015)

The initial question of what this actually is—a documentary? fiction staged as a documentary? something else altogether?—ultimately is revealed to be utterly beside the point. The film’s investment in the protean is quietly thrilling, especially as it seems to transform itself from one sequence to the next, constantly spinning out into unanticipated directions (or digressions? I would seem so—at least at first). This project slowly emerged after Guerín received an invitation from Professor Raffaele Pinto to film one of his classes on classical Italian literature at the University of Barcelona; the specific topic under consideration centers around the classical muses and their possible role within the contemporary world. The seminar is primarily attended by women, many who chafe at the patriarchal baggage attached to the mythological entity they are having to so extensively consider, and ripples of dissension subsequently set various subplots into motion as students begin meeting up with each other after class, meet with Pinto to discuss the issue further, etc. Perhaps most moving is Pinto’s discussions with his wife Rosa Delor Muns, a professor of Catalan literature, their philosophical sparring increasingly revealed to be a coded means of discussing more immediately pertinent issues. These as well as many other conversations are often staged through windows, causing the image to be overlaid with reflections of a world bustling with activity—it’s a striking visual reminder that no matter how lofty or abstracted the topic of discussion at hand ever becomes, it is nonetheless has grounding within the “real” world and dynamics of everyday life. At a certain point the hypothetical begins to manifest itself in the actual—as such things tend to do—and the film begins to force constant reconsideration of everything that has proceeded. At the same time, I wish to emphasize what an exceedingly serene cinematic experience Guerín has somehow conjured up; I’m even tempted to describe the experience as somehow restful, even pastoral, despite the fact the majority of the film takes place in distinctly urban settings. A film of so much more intricacy and nuance than I’ve managed to convey here, and absolutely one of the highlights of this project so far.

[Watch The Academy of Muses on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 13: SING SINNER SING (1933)

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Day 13: SING SINNER SING (Howard Christie, USA, 1933)

The film itself never quite manages to live up to its sexy, attention-seeking title, but that isn’t uncommon with a number of these Pre-code, B-grade flicks churned out by the “Poverty Row” studios. Which isn’t a knock at all, especially since everything rolls along pleasantly enough as long as little attention is paid to the hackneyed plot, which was loosely inspired by a major contemporary scandal surrounding notorious torch singer Libby Holman and the mysterious death of a millionaire she had eloped with (two later films, including Jean Harlow’s Reckless, would be more directly based on the highly publicized incident). In the central role is the likable Leila Hyams, a top star of the early talkie era whose reputation now primarily rests on her appearance in several classic horror films, most particularly Tod Browning’s immortal Freaks; while she has an appealing screen presence it’s pretty obvious she lacks that indefinable “something” that launched some of her immediate contemporaries to screen immortality. She’s also given a somewhat tricky role, having to embody at once a seductive siren who men swarm despite themselves, but then seem believably virtuous once marriage transforms her into an honest woman and her reputation is at stake. Unfortunately Ruth Donnelly’s broad, vaudevillian humor wearies quickly; much more fun are the various spunky sexpots, all slinky garments and stylized voices, that regularly turn up as Hyams’s rivals (all are quickly disposed of though). Not an undiscovered treasure by any means, but enjoyable enough.

[Watch Sing Sinner Sing on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 12: THE TIES THAT BIND (1985)

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Day 12: THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)

A long overdue first viewing of a crucial touchstone of avant-garde, documentary, and feminist filmmaking. On the most obvious level it’s an intimate and emotionally searing cross-examination of the director’s mother regarding her experiences growing up in an anti-Nazi family during the Second World War, but a number of related issues quickly begin to intersect the main narrative, including the director’s own work as an anti-nuclear activist and, more implicitly, the complex networks of emotions that bind mother to daughter, parent to child, and one generation to another. The mother’s story is moving in and of itself and could easily have justified a straightforward Q&A-style documentary film, but Friedrich is interested in undertaking a slightly different project, utilizing a variety of experimental techniques that mimic not only the fragmentation of memory but of perception itself—even as the soundtrack is dominated by her voice, the mother is seen onscreen only in flashes. As the conversation continues the questions seem increasingly difficult to answer (for example, she came from the same town as the Scholl siblings and knew of them, but she never herself joined the White Rose group despite experiencing hardship, including spending time at a forced labor camp, for her own anti-Nazi views. There’s an ambiguous timbre—regret? sadness? shame? reproach?—to her voice as she acknowledges she was unwilling to take that step toward a more active resistance, and that despite her own suffering there were others endured so much more).

Friedrich admirably navigates a kind of high-wire act, never pushing a personal agenda of either exoneration or condemnation, instead forcing the viewer to make their own moral and ethical judgments with each new piece of information that is presented. This develops what was for me the film’s greatest accomplishment: invoking the psychic binds of ethnicity and heritage. For those such as myself with German ancestry the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable as it forces a kind of reckoning of… what? Guilt? Embarrassment? A sense of inherited culpability? I’m not even sure—I’m still trying to come to terms with what this film made me feel. The moment when her mother admits that she will regret that she is German until the day she dies was startling—but also chillingly familiar too. Fandor carries a number of Friedrich’s films, and this will probably not be the only film of hers I end up watching for this project.

[Watch The Ties That Bind on Fandor here.]