Day 19 – THE CHESS PLAYERS (Satyajit Ray, India, 1977)
A leisurely and sumptuous period drama by the great Satyajit Ray, a rather gentle satire of two chess enthusiasts so enraptured by their beloved board game battles that they fail to notice that not only are their personal lives in shambles, but political turmoil is beginning to rage literally on their doorstep. A common criticism seems to be that the film isn’t quite “Satyajit Ray” enough, more overstuffed Merchant-Ivory costume drama than neorealist poetry of the type that made the revered Indian director’s international reputation. As there are obviously parallels to be drawn between the movement of chess pieces around a playing board and the narrative’s intricate maneuverings, I suspect that there would be even more resonance for a viewer with a deeper knowledge of the mid-nineteenth century British annexation of the Indian State of Oudh and all of the bureaucratic intricacies surrounding the situation; for the rest of us, however, it functions quite effectively as a cautionary tale regarding needless distraction in the face of grave personal and political peril. Part of the issue might be that not only was Ray working in unfamiliar stylistic terrain, but The Chess Players also entailed a number of other “firsts” as well: working with established and well-known actors, his first time venturing into an unfamiliar culture (Lucknow) and employing a language (Urdu) he himself did not fluently speak, and he had his largest budget ever at his disposal. Whether or not all of these things ultimately proved to be an advantage or a hindrance depends a great deal on the preferences of the individual viewer, but overall I found The Chess Players to be a richly textured cinematic tapestry, a glimpse into an important moment of history and a culture that I had been previously unaware of, all beautifully explicated by a master filmmaker.
[Watch The Chess Players on Fandor here.]
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.]
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 here; At Land is also available to view]
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. The 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.