Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
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.]
Day 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)
“When you show it all you reveal very little.” So pronounces Jane Birkin as she sits perched on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, the Eiffel Tower just behind her, the contents of an iconic Birkin bag strewn around her. And much like the jumble of paper, photos, and other ephemera strewn about Birkin’s feet, Varda’s image creates a striking moment of converging symbols—involving stardom, identity, nationality, race, social status, cultural currency, and material privilege—that she mingles together, briefly allowing us to savor their evocative juxtaposition in a single frame. For definite meaning, as is usually the case with Varda, proves elusive, left open for expansive consideration and interpretation. Birkin herself is a fascinating phenomenon—a model whose distinctive image epitomized her generation before transforming herself in a singer, actress, muse, mother, and political activist—and Varda is clearly intrigued by all of these various personas and public perceptions; in that way “Jane B” unexpectedly resonates with Cléo de 5 à 7, continuing and expanding the earlier film’s interest in the performance of identity and the slippery divisions between public and private selves. In many ways “Jane B” is an even more conceptually intricate than the now-classic Nouvelle vague film, with the title’s “par [by] Agnès V” foregrounding not only the filmmaker’s literal presence within the film, but with the acknowledgement that Varda herself is generating yet another “Jane Birkin” (or two or more) to Jane Birkin’s already-expansive collection of selves. But it becomes clear Varda is less interested in locating a “true” or “real” Birkin and is instead eager to enter into a more ambiguous—and potentially fraught—space of active collaboration. “I’m filming your self-portrait” Varda intones near the beginning of the film, “but you won’t be alone.” “I might appear in the mirror in the background” she continues, and then in a beautifully coordinated pan she does exactly that and materializes in the mirror behind Birkin, immediately complicating the stable-seeming concept of “self-portrait” (to say nothing of authorship, subjecthood, the gaze, etc).
Getting so wrapped up in the theoretical intricacies of the film only accounts for one aspect of it, however, and perhaps does a disservice to other, even more immediate pleasures. This is absolutely one of Varda’s most visually gorgeous films—something showcased by its recent restoration—both in regards to her elaborate tableaux vivant as well as location work and the fictional/fantasy sequences. The film also serves as a lovely showcase for Birkin herself, who Varda clearly admires as a unique presence—she’s required to do a lot of acting, and like her singing it can’t exactly be called “good” in a technical sense, yet it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her just electrifying to watch and listen to. Varda recognizes that Birkin is at her very best whenever she presents simply as herself, talking about her family or her past or her ideas or even her insecurities of undertaking a project such as this. In a way she’s ideally suited for Varda’s cinematic sensibility which is inclined toward the tangential and whimsical and unexpected. I’ve yet to see the women’s other collaboration Kung Fu Master, also long unavailable and recently restored, but I’m more eager than ever to watch it now (it’s also on Fandor!).
[Watch Jane B. par Agnès V. on Fandor here.]
Day 21: AS TEARS GO BY (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong, 1988)
Having watched Wong Kar Wai’s kinetic debut I have now seen all of the feature films the revered Hong Kong director has made to date; I certainly can’t claim that I saved the best for last—indeed, through long stretches I wasn’t even enjoying it all that much—but in the several days that have since passed I have found a number of moments, images, and aural effects have lodged themselves firmly in the back of my mind, reasserting themselves evocatively in unexpected moments (this situation is, of course, par for the course when it comes to Wong’s eclectic, uniquely restless brand of cinema). Intended as a demonstration that the longtime scriptwriter was capable of taking over full creative control, As Tears Go By is on one hand a genre film replete with the expected action sequences, visceral fight scenes, incoherent double-crossings, and requisite homosocial bonding between groups of men, but they are all constantly interrupted by moody and melancholy narrative tangents depicting emotional nomads desperately attempting to connect with each other. Wong has admitted his two major sources of inspiration was Mean Streets and Stranger Than Paradise, and the film really does seem to function on some levels as a Scorsese/Jarmusch mash-up, but even the most derivative-feeling moments are quickly upended, as suddenly everything will spin in an unexpected direction and unveils something startling and fresh.
I will admit that the violence, often quite explicit and extreme, frequently tempered my reaction to the film, though in retrospect I recognize that the bursts of physical brutality give shape and weight to the wistful longing and ambiguous wanderings that culminate in Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung’s tentative courtship. Cheung’s awful hairstyle and awkward clothing can’t obscure the fact she’s one of cinema’s most luminous presences that the camera unreservedly adores, but what is particularly striking—and was a bit surprising—is what seems to be the presence of a rather overt queer eye: this is very much a film interested, even preoccupied with, male beauty. Alongside the groups of muscular men brooding in tight tank tops, Lau’s presence is endlessly savored, his body unashamedly showcased in a way that seems to directly point to Happy Together a decade later (which until now has always felt like a bit of a mystery in the context of Wong’s career—where did this spectacular classic of queer cinema come from?—but now those dynamics feel more fully accounted for). Ultimately a great part of the pleasure of watching As Tears Go By is the sense of witnessing origination: so many of the motifs, techniques, moods, actors, images, and sounds that went on to establish themselves as hallmarks of Wong’s immediately recognizable cinematic style are already so visible, and it’s often thrilling to experience even when the film itself isn’t completely successful, pointing instead to the greater things to come.
[Watch As Tears Go By on Fandor here.]
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 18: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)
An exquisite little urban idyll of a film, made when its esteemed director was over 100 years old (and he’d make several more before passing away last year at the age of 106). What’s so captivating about watching a late-period Oliveira film is how they feel like they have somehow managed to elude time, or, more precisely, convey the unique perspective of someone who has personally witnessed a span of ten successive decades and is thus attuned to whole different levels of embodied history and life’s underlying rhythms. To the uninitiated Oliveira’s style can come off as stilted and inert, easily dismissed as hopelessly old fashioned. But after viewing several films—which only scratches the surface of his sprawling oeuvre—I’ve come to recognize that he simply approaches his material in a manner contrary to the current trend of making characters in period films seem like “one of us” living today; rather, when using period material as his source—this particular one is adapted from a 1902 short story by the great realist Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós—he suspends his stories within a vaguely recognizable present while the characters function according to antiquated modes of behavior that feel utterly alien to contemporary life. I’m not sure what the opposite of a “bodice ripper” would be, but that’s exactly what Eccentricities is: though it’s central concerns are about love, desire, and grand, instantaneous passion of the type that ruins and redirects the course of whole lives, it is conveyed through the slightest nuances of gesture, facial expressions, and the presence of charmingly anachronistic fetish objects (such as a ubiquitous antique fan). In short, Oliveira films are the type where a character can utter something like “you cannot imagine how happy I am” with an utterly blank face, forcing the viewer to decipher the statement and probe it for obscured meanings.
Catarina Wallenstein is perfectly cast as the titular character (and won a Portuguese Golden Globe for her performance), as her bedroom eyes make instantaneous, irrevocable adoration seem not only plausible, but probable. Sabine Lancelin’s gorgeous cinematography, masterfully capturing various gradations of light, renders Lisbon a luminous physical presence, while Oliveira’s characteristically elegant utilization of windows, doors, and passageways of all kinds to visually signal depths and dimensions beyond and behind the film’s frame is virtually unparalleled. I won’t claim this is easy or readily accessible, but as is the case with most of Oliveira’s films, it’s unlike almost anything else you’ll ever watch.
[Watch Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl on Fandor here.]
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.]
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.]
(Waylaid by a few days of feeling under the weather, but on we go:)
Day 15 – ZOU ZOU (Marc Allégret, France, 1934)
The iconic Josephine Baker’s first sound film is a star vehicle that appears to shoehorn every known cliché into an already-ragged “a star is born” storyline, but is saved by a certain weirdness underlying the hackneyed plot points—and Baker herself, of course. The Josephine Baker we generally remember today—the “banana dress,” exposed breasts, frenzied dancing, stylized posing—are generally absent here, as by the 1930’s the American-born dancer had transitioned into a chic European superstar, more cosmopolitan grand dame than zany expatriate flapper. The story stars Baker and Jean Gabin playing characters who were raised as twins(!) and whose sibling affection morphs into something more romantic in adulthood(!!) that entangles them in a love triangle with Baker’s coworker and best friend(!!!).
Along the way is the transparent buildup to Baker’s eventual discovery by a local theater revue. Ultimately the pleasure is not in the nonsensical plot, but the individual elements encountered along the way. The casual nudity, as well as the frank discussion of sexual exchange—there is no pretense involved in discussing a number of “kept” individuals of both genders, and a lot of banter about what certain characters are like in bed—is quite startling, and there are interesting glimpses into contemporary working class life. Indeed, I found myself more entranced by the elaborate social and labor rituals displayed by the use of cast irons at the local launderette than I ever was by the gargantuan musical numbers (though those were charming too in their implausible scale and obvious desperation to equivocate Hollywood). This film caught Gabin right before he became a major star himself, which pretty much hands the film over to Baker, whose charmingly goofball performance rather took me by surprise; she seems far more eager to play the clown than the diva or even sex goddess.
But perhaps what’s most interesting, when viewed from today, is Baker’s seemingly uncomplicated status as a sex symbol within the film: tropes of exoticism are certainly at play, but it’s interesting to witness how she traipses through all of these lily-white spaces as a black woman (and obviously so) and no one ever bats an eye… certainly this film should not be taken as a realistic reflection of racial relations in interwar Europe, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider it must have been assumed an audience would accept on some level the possibility of cross-racial romance (the film was a success in Europe, but, tellingly, didn’t make a mark in America). Perhaps one might wish for such a historically important film to add up to a bit more in the end, but it’s all worth it to glimpse a legend in the flesh.
[Watch Zou Zou on Fandor here.]
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.]