La Lettre du cinéma no. 31; Winter 2005.

La Lettre du cinéma shut shop after this piece.

What a strange case Michael Powell’s is!

He is attributed the exclusive paternity to his films, even though they are co-signed, for the most part, by Emeric Pressburger under the banner of their company, The Archers, or by Tim Whelan, William Cameron Menzies, Ludwig Berger (The Thief of Bagdad, 1940), Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrien Brunel (The Lion Has Wings) and sometimes directed by others. I’m thinking of the ballet in The Red Shoes (1948), the only portion of the film which can have its defenders and which is the work of Leopold Massine. It’s obvious that The Thief of Bagdad is more in the line of Korda (producer of The Jungle Book and The Four Feathers) than in the supposed line of Powell. The work on colour, in his major films, seems to owe predominantly to Jack Cardiff (I’ll come back to this); Kevin Brownlow cited editor David Lean as one of the strongest elements of 49th Parallel. Is Powell the “thief of London”? I think it is posterity that’s responsible for this aggressive exploitation (it’s like lauding Paolo Taviani while ignoring Vittorio). So is alphabetical order. If his name were “Towell” (which would suit him better) instead of “Powell”, he would’ve featured after “Pressburger” in the credits, and the latter perhaps would’ve won all the plaudits. We also know that it’s better to put a disyllabic name in front instead of a trisyllabic one. It sounds better, especially when the first sounds very national and the second very foreign. Powell’s gift of the gab matters too.

What also counts is the fact that, before the beginning of their collaboration, Powell had directed twenty-nine films whereas Pressburger was happy writing scripts. Finally, the existence of a fashionable—and, as it happens, highly overrated—film, Peeping Tom (1959), signed by him alone.

Powell could at best be one link in the production chain, and perhaps a useful one at that. It’s an image that fits well within the British tradition of collective or two-author films—Launder and Gilliat, the Boulting brothers, Lean and Coward, Laurence Olivier and Stuart Burge, Reisz and Richardson—and marks the limits of this cinema: an operation by an industrial group rather than a truly personal cinema, a little like the terrible Russian cinema of the years 1955-65 and its numerous couples.

Moreover, it’s impossible to define Powell’s themes, except for a predilection for ballet films (The Tales of Hoffmann, Oh… Rosalinda!!, Honeymoon) deriving from the commercial success of The Red Shoes, love in Scotland (The Edge of the World, I Know Where I’m Going, The Spy in Black), death achieved during artistic work (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom), the red attires of fox-hunters (Black Narcissus, Gone to Earth).

We could suppose that Pressburger was the positive element of the couple, given that he was a scriptwriter by profession and that it’s the basic plot idea that gives the films of P&P their interest. The idea behind Colonel Blimp (the long saga of a disgruntled veteran) is solid, but the direction remains rather lacklustre. It’s the idea behind I Know Where I’m Going (1945)—a girl who knows where she wants to go and wanders around, just like the film—that makes the work charming, but this wandering soon becomes very boring. The same could be said of Peeping Tom. I rushed to the film on the first day at dawn, enticed by an unusual plotline: an amateur filmmaker who summons his acquaintances one by one, only to kill them with the pointed end of his tripod while filming them. Unfortunately, this solid idea, repeated endlessly through the film, only causes weariness. It would’ve been better had the exact cause of the crimes not been revealed right away. It wasn’t until the remarkable M-88 (Jacques Bral, 1972) that the idea finally materialized. A cinema of departures and no arrivals. Powell the director scuttles the possibilities of a basic idea. A weak-willed cinema. Powell is a misdirector (démetteur en scène).

The most surprising thing is that this spinelessness has found support among thematically-strong directors like Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier, twin filmmakers whose work uses the possibilities of film grammar to the maximum, while P. P. wander perpetually in their ill-dressed pictures. The support is understandable in the case of Tavernier, always in the Truffauldian search for forgotten genius (but it would’ve been better to laud—to stick with Albion—Jack Gold, Guy Green or Launder and Gilliat), but it’s less so with Scorsese, unless we make reference to American bad taste, which The Red Shoes gets close to.

P. P. are not actors’ directors: in Gone to Earth, Jennifer Jones plays a savage girl, like in Vidor’s Ruby Gentry and Duel in the Sun. But with Powell, her acting remains conventional, whereas she sets the screen on fire with Vidor. The comparison is overwhelming for P. P. We understand Selznick’s anger at the bad treatment meted out to his wife by the two Britishers.

The big question that arises about Powell is this: whodunit? Who is guilty? Who made Powell pass for a filmmaker? It’s probably the Portuguese who are responsible for this canard: in a publication collecting various lists of hundred best European films, Powell has as many votes as Hitchcock and Eisenstein and outclasses Gance, Becker, Barnet, Fassbinder, Cottafavi, Ferreri etc. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyone guilty. It’s like in Murder on the Orient Express: each one makes his little stab.

It’s incredible that someone whose first twenty-three and last ten films (except Peeping Tom, which has its fans) are universally deemed unworthy of interest could be taken seriously. P. P. could be classified among parenthetical filmmakers, an ambitious parenthesis that spans from 1940 to 1951 and which calls to mind the case of Yves Allégret and Vittorio De Sica.

What remains at the end of the day? The Edge of the World (1937) is a series of “arty” shots. The Spy in Black is highly banal. A Canterbury Tale (1944) has little going for it except the audacious darkness of the first reel (maybe it was a bad print). The collective film The Thief of Bagdad contains some ravishing special effects thanks to Menzies, 49th Parallel remains a decent action film based on a small, isolated group. But there’s nothing there that rises above the level of a Hathaway, an Andrew Stone or a Terence Young in form.

The Red Shoes pushes the myth of the egocentric and dictatorial artist to a repetitious and excessive degree, and offers, like The Tales of Hoffmann, an obvious, overstuffed, shape-shifting, gaudy pictorial composition without unity.

Black Narcissus (1947) presents an almost unique case. On the level of characters and plot, it’s one of the most idiotic films in the history of cinema and it’s a masterpiece of colour composition: the principle here is to look for a colour that’s always in movement, always changing. But the film is also a conventional and ridiculous melodrama in which P. P. seem to believe, though they are the only ones. The film can’t resort to irony as defence, as can Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People or Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. There is such a disparity between the film and its photography that we are tempted to attribute the good parts and the bad parts of the film to different people, the latter to P. P and the former to Jack Cardiff, the magnificent cameraman of Boulting’s The Magic Box. Only Almendros’ and Malick’s Days of Heaven and Nutten’s and Fleisher’s Zoo Zero contain a comparable dichotomy. In all, the Archers always miss their target: if they were to film William Tell, his son would surely be dead…

Finally, the only P. P. which holds up is A Matter of Life and Death (1946). I’m all the more objective when I say that because it’s not at all my cup of tea, and because I hate the dainty brand of art so common to certain Britishers (Jarman, Ken Russell, Greenaway, Branagh, Lindsay Anderson or the Boorman of Excalibur) who think they are the shit, in contrast to the constipated British vein (Lean & Reed).

A Matter of Life and Death is as erratic as the other films of P. P. The central character is, in fact, a pretext, a sidekick, the real star being the setting, the limbo with the large staircase. But we can also appreciate its mockery of national idiosyncrasies and its cosmic introduction. The film really finds its feet only in the final trial, whose viewers are like puppets in a parade.

A film without a centre. But the centred films of P. P are often based on a very disappointing central character (Peeping Tom, Gone to Earth, Colonel Blimp), with P. P not being interested in humans, but only in the settings and the colour. Their films are better off without a centre (A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going).

Why criticize P. P. when I’m defending A Matter of Life and Death? You are likely to hold this contradiction against me. It’s simply that, when you turn out fifty films in your life, it’d be goddamn surprising if you don’t make at least one good one. Look at Schlöndorff and The Tin Drum, Cavani and The Skin, Cayatte and The Crossing of the Rhine.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais)

To lead a more affordable life, filmmaker Frank Beauvais moved away from Paris and settled down in a remote village in the Alsace region with his then partner. In the seven years that followed, he lost his father, who had lived with him during his final days, broke up and went into a period of intense isolation and anxiety, watching over 400 films between April and October 2016. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is a record of these seven months constructed solely through images from these 400 films strung together with Beauvais fast-paced voiceover. With detachment, but not without stretches of indulgent melancholia, Beauvais talks about this life of poverty, his relation to his mother living in the region, his panic attacks, his political indecisiveness caught between a feeling for revolution and a renunciation of all action. It’s an agonising life, the straightforward dramatization of which would’ve resulted in a significantly lesser film. The stasis and claustrophobia of the existence described is given a vital momentum by the lively images, rife with movement and action, and the snappy narration. The relation between word and image is linear literal times, and only intuitive at others. But the surfeit of images sweeps you along, not just in its volume but also in the striking detail Beauvais picks out: predominantly close up of actions, almost no faces and a generous amount of violence and decay.

In this, Just Don’t Think is the preeminent film about cinephilia, the life in films that Truffaut called a disease and which Beauvais christens “cinéfolie”. Early on, he tells us that films are not a window to the world but mirrors, that is to say a way of life that encourages self-absorption and isolation from others, which the filmmaker is happy to do, surrounded as he is by the village’s infuriating conservatism and national pride. Hearing about the attack in Nice, he unfeelingly goes back to sleep with a cynical reasoning. Like all cinephiles—in fact, like all monomanes—Beauvais absolves this unhealthy cultural consumption by turning it into a talking point, a means to a so-called higher end. He is fully aware of this self-deception and he calls out his “Machiavellian construction” to justify this “bulimia”. He muses about the vanity of a narrative in first person, the potential collapsing of a distance from the subject that the project needs. (He can’t, of course, entirely get rid of the disingenuousness of the undertaking because, for all the talk about the malaise of cinephilia, it’s clear that he’s been using it to plan this film along the way.) Despite its contradictions and predetermined construction, Just Don’t Think is an accomplishment in the way it transforms a subject of low artistic value—one man’s emergence from a rut—into a lively, fruitful meditation on a subculture.

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

Fourteen traces the friendship between two young women, Mara and Jo, living in New York. They seem to naturally complement each other. The round-faced Mara (Tallie Medel) is petite, introspective and stands cross-legged. In a long shot midway, we see that she is among the last people exiting a train station upstate. Jo (Norma Kuhling) is lanky, slack-armed, constantly eating or smoking, and doesn’t think twice before correcting her friend on a turn of phrase. Jo calls Mara every time she’s in panic mode, Mara cancels her plans only to find Jo indifferent to her arrival. It’s clearly a parasitic relationship, but Mara feels compelled to fend for Jo for a reason that harks back to when they were fourteen. Both Mara and Jo hold temporary jobs and write on the side. Most of their interaction is about work; Mara fills application forms for the social worker Jo, while her own search for a permanent teaching position is a struggle. Fourteen contains some of the most realistic shop talk I’ve seen in films. It makes interesting what sounds unbearable in real life. The dialogue, in line with the Mumblecore tradition, seems improvised, which makes for some refreshing expressions (“stressball”, “cutting”, “eyeteeth”).

At several points, Fourteen jumps forward in time without warning and these blunt ellipses register the harsh blows of passing time even more strongly. The women change jobs, apartments and boyfriends. Mara’s fortunes improve, but Jo seems to be stagnant. Jealousy, resentment and guilt are hinted at but kept in check by the admirable performances. After a tense night of confrontation—the only tense passage in a film that’s otherwise entirely on a soft scale—the friendship gives in. Sallitt’s film is clear-eyed about the bounded nature of friendships and there’s only so much space individuals can dedicate for non-romantic relationships. It understands the way friendships wither and ossify irrevocably into a distant admiration. The understated quality of this almost Ozuvian look at non-blood ties is perhaps the reason I found the multi-tonal final sequence superfluous, ties as it does the difficult loose ends that all finished friendships invariably leave behind. Sallitt employs an unusual grammar to compose his scenes. Conversations don’t always unfold in shot-reverse shot patterns and the camera lingers long on faces, while voices emanate from off-screen. Like Bresson, Sallitt begins a shot before characters enter the field and cuts away after they’ve left. The film contains hardly any outdoor shots in its first half and opens up as it proceeds, the passage from claustrophobic NYC interiors to more open spaces paralleling the relationship between the women.

Wilcox (Denis Côté)

Denis Côté’s Wilcox begins and ends with a brief summary of individuals who moved away from civilization into the wilderness, sometimes undertaking odyssey-like journeys across vast and unforgiving landscapes: Everett Ruess, Carl McCunn, Dae Aabye, Christopher McCandless, Christopher Knight, Lilian Alling. Never mind that the lives of these figures only have a tenuous connection with each other, they nevertheless form a mythical backdrop to Côté’s film, which depicts the journey of Wilcox (Guillaume Tremblay) across the Canadian countryside. When we first see him, Wilcox is literally at the margins of a community paddling event. Lugging his large backpack, he wanders from one unnamed small town to another, taking shelter in deserted houses or buses, but never staying for more than one night anywhere. He meets and spends time with various old men living alone, but never forges friendships. He helps stuck dirt bikers, gives water to a dying mouse and survives on packaged supermarket food heated over a portable flame. The world seems welcoming and wholly accessible to him: he picks vegetables from fields, rides away on a borrowed bicycle and sleeps in the cellar of some unlocked house. There’s also a scene of an old man making potato wedges and tea.

Wilcox charts the same trajectory as Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, from the protagonist’s episodic encounters with people on his way out from civilization to his final spiritual revelation. But Côté abstracts out the McCandless story and empties it of its philosophical and emotional content. Most of the film has no real sound, which is replaced by a muffled, drone-heavy sound palette resembling a high-altitude ear block. We don’t know why Wilcox is on this quest, or why he attracts the hospitality and affection of the people he meets. The film assumes this is understood. Like in Ghost Town Anthology, Côté’s other film this year, there’s no sense of progress to the narrative, which could theoretically go on forever. As a result, Wilcox’s journey—distilled into a metanarrative of all those who leave society behind—becomes a means for the filmmaker to describe specific areas of Canadian landscape and culture. So we have generous views of the wooden strip houses so characteristic of Côté’s films, Wilcox pensively posing in and moving through springtime woods. Several passages are shot through a prism, making the periphery of the frame fuzzy. Equally mystifying is the choice to insert archival clips from the early part of last century—a surgeon trying prosthetic parts for WWI soldiers who have been disfigured and a series of shots of animals and birds forced together as though for a kiss—which are probably oblique references to the problems of modernity.

Monsters. (Marius Olteanu)

The most assured debut feature of the year, Romania’s Monsters is a three-part examination of a marriage in crisis. In the first section, Dana (Judith State), a thirty-something HR employee, skips her work trip and hires a taxi for the entire night. The taxi driver, whom she insistently picked, has had a terrible day, but he recognizes that the moody Dana suspects her husband of having an affair. In the second section, we see her husband Andrei (Cristian Popa) lying lonely and desolate in his swanky apartment, reaching out to Dana over phone. While Dana forges a fleeting emotional connection with the taxi driver, Andrei has a tryst ‘upwards’, unsatisfactorily hooking up with an upper-class businessman. The third part of the film presents them as a couple interacting with various members of their social circle. Monsters offers no easy answers: Andrei is gay, but is emotionally dependent on Dana, who can’t find intimacy outside their necessarily unsatisfactory marriage either. They playact happy coupledom for the world, but are also putting up a front to each other. Olteanu’s film forces us to constantly rework our perception of the characters, of them second-guessing each other and behaving the way they think the other would like them to behave, only to cause more misery.

Monsters models itself loosely after Godard’s Contempt, in its languid camera movement connecting people in different rooms, in its blue-red colour scheme, in its longueurs and in the centrality of jealousy in a relationship. At the backdrop of the marriage is a portrait of contemporary Romanian mores, its cultural conservatism, the nosiness of acquaintances, the hatred of the elites for their country, the pan-social anti-Roma prejudice, income inequality and housing problem. The success of the film is that these varied ideas only enrich the central story without ever overwhelming it. Olteanu demonstrates an ability to craft evocative atmosphere. Several passages unfold in real time and offscreen, the rhythm is consistently measured and the emotional beats genuine. The long scene of Andrei’s hook-up mixes the banal and the unusual to great effect. A large part of the film is in 1:1 ratio, which opens up to widescreen when the couple comes together in the third section, before closing in again. Despite being an unsubtle, theoretical choice, the device doesn’t come across as all that brash. The box produces exquisite closeups, helps Olteanu separate characters across shots and registers the cramped nature of the relationship. Monsters is a complex portrait of a marriage that can’t hold not just because of societal pressures, but because of the fundamental incompleteness of individuals.

Missing the Small Picture

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 458; 20 October 1958.

Carné has often been criticized for being only a director and not an auteur of films. Doesn’t matter, Carné is taking revenge on his critics today by tackling one of the most endearing problems of our time, that of unbalanced youth. Here, it’s rich or idle Parisian students who party all day and profess a pseudo-philosophy of anarchism, which in truth is only an exact negation of bourgeois philosophy. They cheat in this: their system constrains them to reject all emotion and all sincerity. Unavowed and unavowable, a love ends in suicide.

A very interesting subject, but whose handling seems as questionable sociologically as morally. To be sure, the milieu described really exists—although it belongs to the world of five or ten years ago—but the film needs to be a lot more organized or coherent. Even though it’s about intellectuals, it can’t be said, like Carné does, that their thought precedes and justifies their action. It’s perhaps true for some, but they constitute a minority within another minority. Their presence is out of place in a movie that claims to paint of picture of modern student mores, as the diversity of typical characters proves: a bourgeois boy and a daddy’s girl, a bohemian couple, a blackmailer, a cinematheque rat, a homosexual etc. This particularization reveals an outlook quite common to middle-aged people such as Carné: the young generation is, if not lost, at least astray because it has only known a disordered world since the war of 1939. It’s not surprising that the only lucid character in the story, played by R. Lesaffre, the director’s mouthpiece in some ways, is ten years older than his sister, the heroine of the film. Tradition of pessimism so dear to Carné, where man’s happiness is at loggerheads with the laws of the milieu he lives in (see the film’s terrible, tacked-on ending), that’s refuted by reality.

Contrary to the oldest generation, which condemns the excesses of these young ones irrevocably, Carné explains and excuses them: they are victims of events; one of them was abandoned by his mother at the age of five. How convenient is the determinism to which our cinema sacrifices so much! We don’t worry about present-day action anymore, but about the past that justifies it. And the film becomes a series of filmed dialogues. Written by a Jacques Sigurd jealous of Michel Audiard’s laurels, these dialogues are rich in facile effects and prefer a vulgarity completely foreign to the story’s hero over truth.

The rather repulsively paternalistic and bourgeois tone of Young Sinners is the same one we find in reports published by mainstream dailies and magazines on the subject, piles of commonplaces of no interest. Carné resolves a problem as delicate as youth according to his gentlemanly logic. When do we see a film by Carné resolving problems of the atomic bomb or of devaluation, topics evoked here in passing? What we needed was the testimony of a young person, a specialist or a friend of youth. Rebel Without a Cause, Rendezvous in July and Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres—even the laconic Une vie, dealing with a more burning reality than Young Sinners—were able to bring out the positive aspects of this apparently immoral way of life. Is there really a particular problem here? Isn’t it rather an eternal question, coined here in a new way in order to pull the wool over our eyes? Sad, emotional smooth-talking is a new theme.

Honest mise en scène, but not at all commensurate with the ambitions. Effects are fortunately fewer than in Carné’s previous film. Those that remain (close-ups and dramatic crescendos, a night-time chase constructed through editing) are totally ineffective. But it’s only the best of Clouzot here. The performances are disappointing: only Pascale Petit, the only seasoned actress of the film, discovered by Astruc, comes out unscathed; Laurent Terzieff, in particular, struggles to convincingly play the impossible character of the evil genius-philosopher, a new incarnation of Fate once personified by Le Vigan, Vilar, Lesaffre.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Cynical

Arts no. 715; 25 March 1959.

Like Lucchini in Bonitzer’s Nothing about Robert, I probably didn’t see the film I’m talking about (or maybe one reel, or the trailer, I don’t know)

NB: Fess Parker was rechristened “Fier” Parker in France1.

Alas, the censors are guilty of authorizing this execrably psychoanalytical, misanthropic and incurably zoophilic hagiography for mutts. Cinema is dogs, says Disney, in agreement with De Sica, painter of the bitchiness of life. The SPA2 must get such movies banned because if, coming out of Cinéma Avenue, I’d found some pup at my feet, I assure you that it would’ve gone through hell as a reward for such nonsense instead and in place of its fellow dogs, of Robert Stevenson, an usurper who has nothing to do with the master of adventure, of Dorothy McGuire, worse than the dog, of Fess Parker, a little too “Fier” in our country. Go for it, dogs and even cynephiles. But cinephiles, stay away.

 

1[Translator’s note] Presumably because Fess sounds like fesses (buttocks). Fier: proud.

2[Translator’s note] La Société protectrice des animaux, the society for animal protection.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Doesnt Measure Up to the Subject

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 436; 25 May 1958.

This article was written just for its last line. Radio Cinéma was a very catholic weekly. But the bigots didn’t know that an American shot inevitably framed Eve from head to thighs.

The triple interest of such a film faithful to the book of Genesis in all respects: attract a crowd of believers, lure in fans of Christiane Martel, ex-Miss Cinémonde and Miss Universe, and finally, cut rate production. There is no need whatsoever for several settings, extras or even sound: the subject lends itself particularly to budget cuts. That takes care of commercial interest.

The skill and hypocrisy of Alberto Gout, producer, writer and director, earlier the maker of the rather successful Saint François of Assisi and Adventuress (!)—a Mexican Maurice Cloche of kinds—prevail over sincerity and creativity. A subject with so much nudity should’ve forced the filmmaker to be creative: but no! Perhaps to please both his audiences, Gout has made a film of unbearable dryness. It’s with great difficulty that we find here and there some nice shots of Christiane Martel, our charming compatriot; but our director was much better inspired by Ninon Sevilla.

The only originality that breaks this naïve monotony midway: the passage from medium shots to American shots.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

Karl Valentin’s The New Writing Desk

Bref no. 71; March 2006

This film, Valentin’s third, runs for nine minutes and thirty-one seconds; six minutes and twenty seconds in the copy projected, not at the original speed, but at twenty-four frames/second. This makes our assessment difficult: the acceleration gives too much prominence to stylization. We notice an idea of acting rather than a body language rooted in reality. Impossible to know whether, at the normal speed, Valentin’s acting remains as rapid.

He plays a scribe, may be an accountant (Valentin also wrote the one-act play The New Accountant in 1937) or a transcriber of official documents, happily living through life’s ups and downs, who orders a new writing desk to be able to write on. He realizes the desk is much taller than his chair. He saws the legs of the desk, but imprecisely and a little too much since the desk soon turns out to be wobbly and shorter than the chair, which Valentin then shortens with blows of hammer before sawing the desk again, still too high, and using a drill to further lower the chair even though it’s on ground level. He ends up drilling through the floor and falls on the customer of a barbershop below.

It’s a very simple scenario, based on the logical and the absurd. We are reminded of Ferreri’s Break Up: all Valentin had to do was to take exact measurements so that the desk is at the correct height. But Karl Valentin (1882-1948) milks all imaginable possibilities of a thin scenario, complicating things to the maximum (he sits on the chair by stepping across) and playing ‘village idiots’ (in 1936, in The Chequered Jacket, he unintentionally sells the jacket in which his rent money was tucked away).

Valentin, or tragic misunderstanding, through the comic gloom of poverty and everyday minimalism.

Valentin’s film is based on three acts: outdoors with the delivery men, then indoors—a single long act—with the delivery men and then alone, and finally the “punchline”1 at the barbershop, where the barber is shaving his costumer with a snow-white shaving cream, both men wearing white aprons; proper white suddenly invaded by the dirty white of the dust that falls from the drilled ceiling.

You will have noticed here a theme proper to Mitteleuropa or to Eastern Europe: this scribe is the little cousin to the government officers described by Kafka and Gogol. We clearly see Germany’s mediocrity in the 1900s, reduced to the piddling existence of an impoverished petite bourgeoisie, which we will encounter notably in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. The inanity of the protagonist has to do with that of the slaves of the bureaucratic system.

 

The art of the fugue

But it’s especially Bruegel that the portrait of these physically-deformed beings evokes: the “too big/too small” dialectic that we will later find sublimated in a film made in 1936, The Inheritance (where a couple discards all its furniture before inhering those of distant relatives who turn out to be dwarfs, with beds, chairs and wardrobes of their height, which the couple have to make do with, being completely broke). Next to the tall and skinny Valentin, one of the delivery men is fat and strong, the other seems to be a midget or a kid—an alternation visible right from the first shot in the street, containing extras of similarly contrasting and extreme appearance.

The crux of the film is based on a comic succession of Valentin’s efforts to resolve problems of size. Notice that he’s almost always dressed up in a false or a clown’s nose, which tends to diminish the illusion of reality. He plays with his instruments—saw, measuring tape, hammer, drill—with an assured virtuosity in harnessing clumsiness. Valentin is a practical man, carpenter by training, who lived frugally from this profession in his last years. Objects carry a secondary meaning: crouched or perched on his chair, with a quill over his ear, he evokes an owl on a tree. He plays with his saw as though it were a lyre, a bow to launch arrows with, all of this in a record time that lets us fully appreciate the effect without it being obvious: the art of the fugue. As Isou would say, the chiselling here is as much worked on as the discrepant. All objects are off-screen. He looks for them with a gesture of the hand: this invisible and immediate proximity gives the scene a highly enjoyable, unreal dimension.

The central static shot here is, in fact, made of many successive, similar-looking takes: same axis, same lens and with the same single character. He becomes an indispensable entity, a straitjacket that we can’t escape from any more than from the rigid monotony of the empire of Wilhelm II. The character works his way at the edge of the frame, which doesn’t grow bigger or smaller with respect to him or follow his movements. There are small jumps in continuity, which makes us suspect a positive or a negative damaged over time. But now, these are normal jump cuts that play on contrasts—for example, a woman in evening dress cut to the same woman, now naked—noticeable thanks to the similarity in their contents.

It’s completely against the grammar: Breathless half a century before there was Breathless. The presence of this device can be explained by the fact that there was no cinematic tradition in Germany at that time. The first, mediocre films date from 1910. One could hence do whatever one wanted. Valentin, who started in 1912, is a pioneer and the first auteur of German cinema. And it works just fine. That encourages us to reflect on the value of classical American continuity editing: does it have an ontological value? Or does it turn out to be the simple reflection of a dominant style based on a superficial order and harmony. I lean towards the second hypothesis. We have as proof Japan, whose films constantly cut across the 180-degree line forbidden by the Yankees. Had Germany and Japan won the war, film technique would have been upside-down. Film education, also in the clutches of Wall Street, needs a complete overhaul.

It’s surprising to discover a film so dense and accomplished, so modern and revealing of its time, only four years after the beginning of German cinema. And to think that it must’ve been shot in a day or two. There is even an assistant who enters the frame for a split second; it only shows the amateurism of the shoot.

 

Clown from the cabaret

Valentin’s film art was forgotten or despised for a long time, especially by all the histories of cinema. Valentin is, in fact, one of the great German filmmakers along with Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, Fassbinder, Syberberg and Schroeter, and better than Pabst, who made one good film out of eight, than Riefenstahl, too pompous, than Wenders, who hasn’t stopped declining in the last twenty years.

He was forgotten because he came from cabaret and theatre, where he had a crazy success. So for many, he wasn’t a real filmmaker, even if only a few of his films are based on his plays, fourteen out of fifty-one, if I’m not mistaken. The same judgment was pronounced on Pagnol and Guitry—Chapin escaped this criticism because there’s no trace of his activity in London. Notice, however, that there isn’t a word written or said in The New Writing Desk:  we just see Valentin opening his mouth frequently for inaudible monologues. The final appearance of the floor below proves that it wasn’t a sketch written for the theatre, where a collapse into another setting would’ve been ruled out. Valentin’s future work—his career extends from 1912 to 1941—certainly gives prominence to dialogue: one thinks of Beckett.

Specificity my ass. What matters is not that Valentin shuttles indifferently from cinema to theatre, with the latter preceding only by five years. What matters is the achievement of a body of work that makes us laugh, that touches us, moves us, overwhelms us, like that of Chaplin (whom he perhaps influenced), through its innovation in acting, its verve, its sense of the absurd and of repetition, its darkness and its bitter outlook towards the human condition and towards the average couple, which he created with his wife, Liesl Karlstadt. He was forgotten because he was “into” short films: fifty in all, of which twenty-nine seem to have been lost. He is the only cinema genius (outside of animation and documentary) to have limited himself to short films, with the exception of The Eccentric (1928).

His sketches for the theatre, à la Davos, à la Dubillard, à la Bedos-Robin, never cross forty pages (The Dance Hall remains the longest). Brevity is often the synonym of concision and perfection, like in poetry. The cinema often attains the highest summits (Puissance de la parole) since it frequently spans the shortest durations, which remains a form of respect towards the viewer, expressing the politeness and the humility that you mustn’t make him waste his time.

Valentin was forgotten because he worked not in noble drama, but in comedy. And the Germanics don’t have a sense of humour. Since Valentin’s retirement in 1941, there has only been one good German comedy, Satan’s Brew, made by Fassbinder. Excepting Lubitsch and Wilder, the defectors, who fall into the category of Jewish humour2, we notice the lack of humour among the “great” Germans. There is no comedy by Lang. Murnau failed with his The Finances of the Grand Duke. A country too cold for laughter, like Scandinavia, which turns out to be slightly better (Dreyer’s Once Upon a Time, Bergman’s All These Women). If the Germans had had a sense of humour, the laughable Hitler would’ve been a fiasco and there would’ve been fifty million fewer deaths.

 

1[Translator’s note] A play on two meanings of the word chute (referring to both a fall and the punchline of a story or a joke).

2Isn’t the Holocaust also the hatred towards laughter, towards a civilization based on life-sustaining humour?

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

It must take a peculiar artistic temperament to follow up one of the decade’s best films with one of the year’s worst. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has no reason to exist except as the by-product of an old pals’ reunion. Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’ Ass Murray play cops Peterson (!), Morrison and Robertson respectively. They are the entire police force in charge of keeping order in Centerville, a town of less than 1000 inhabitants with an overpopulated juvenile penitentiary and cemetery. The officers don’t have much to do, except investigate missing chicken and keep an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. That’s only until the town is beset by strange incidents. A practice called polar fracking has reoriented the earth’s magnetic axis, resulting in exceptionally long days or nights. Animals go missing and the dead rise from their grave. Totally ill-equipped to handle the situation, the residents succumb to the zombies one by one. The linear simplicity of structure and composition that begins the film makes way for crippling hipster irony devoid of purpose or pleasure.

Besides this airless self-referencing, The Dead Don’t Die is also strewn with plugs to other films high and low. It’s clearly Jarmusch’s “take” on the now-buried B-movie tradition: the dialogue is expressly tacky (“Next to her dead body?”), the situations derivative, and the gore overdone. The actors are conscious of being in a Jarmusch movie—a stillborn idea that’s exhaustingly reiterated. But the film is invested in nothing, not even its own existence. The subtexts of Romero’s films are spelled out to intentionally keep them at arm’s length. Climate change is played out as a never-ending joke, as is a stilted redneck character played by Steve Buscemi. The zombies are of the most unimaginative kind, roaming around chanting ‘coffee’ (yes, coffee), ‘candy’, ‘drugs’, ‘wifi’ and other easy pickings like that. Jarmusch manages to make every element a grating presence, from the theme song to Swinton’s antics as a Japanophile mortician. Only Sevigny, with her completely misplaced sincerity and a subtle sense of self-deprecating comedy, livens things up in an otherwise dead undertaking.

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

In The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio recreates the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss from Palermo who turned government informant, leading to the arrest of hundreds of other members of the crime syndicate. The film opens in 1980, the year Buscetta was allowed to flee to Brazil where he’d be later picked up to be coerced into collaboration, and follows him through his “betrayal” over the next twenty years. Bellocchio and co-writers focus on the self-perception of the protagonist as an honourable man, whom Pierfrancesco Favino portrays with solemn dignity. While the mafioso and their workers take him to be a traitor, Buscetta sees himself as the true guardian of the Cosa Nostra tradition and the people he’s denouncing as the true traitors. This self-narrativization, the film underscores, is based on a notion of masculine honour above all else: Buscetta admittedly has a weakness for women (allowing the film to include gratuitous sex scenes); he resists aging and resents his wife supporting him financially in the US, where he’s put under witness protection. He spends his old age in the obscurity of suburban middle-class life, in constant fear of a retribution that never comes.

The 79-year-old filmmaker employs his characteristic, cocky style to dramatize mafia wars. A ticker of the body count flashes on the screen with every murder. Bold, brash texts filling the screen announce important dates and events. The arrest of a boss is rapidly intercut with a trapped hyena. An impressive bombing scene unfolds as a single shot from the back of the victim’s car. But Bellocchio is most attuned to scenes with a theatrical flourish: Buscetta’s deposition and subsequent cross-examinations that were televised. Unfolding in a vast courtroom with Buscetta at its centre and peripheral cells holding the denounced, the trials are filmed in wide-angle shots and echoing sound. Like the opening of Vincere, Buscetta’s composure is contrasted with the agitated, crazy reactions of his rivals. As the denunciations become a regular affair and the public interest vanes, the trials grow modest and the judges less scared of the accused. Despite its baroque touches, The Traitor remains a by-the-numbers biopic, choosing to tread close to history at the expense of insight. There’s another character whose collaboration runs parallel to Buscetta’s, and it is offered in elaborate detail for no other reason than to blink at the audience’s knowledge of the events.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin)

If Lars von Trier’s serial killer movie tempered the gratuity of its graphic descriptions with a dialectical organization, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove drops another layer from the wall separating art and snuff. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) between 1970 and 1975, when he murdered and decapitated women in his Hamburg apartment. Unlike The House that Jack Built, The Golden Glove makes no claims to explaining Honka: barely any detail about his childhood, upbringing or inner life. Whatever we glean about this character comes from the faithful reconstruction of his apartment from photographs: the furniture and linen hint at a lived-in homeliness while posters of naked models coexist with chubby, matronly dolls. Instead, we are presented with shots of Honka binge drinking, forcing the women he picks up on street into violent sex, killing them and parcelling their bodies. Akin films the gruesome acts of rape and murder so that the architecture distances us from the events by partially blocking our view. This considered reserve, which sometimes increases the perversity of the crimes, vanishes as the film proceeds and we are treated to Honka’s fits of rage in full intimacy.

What takes the place of individual psychology is social description. Set in the seventies in West Germany, the film—likely following the book—portrays Honka as a product of his environment. Honka is at the bottom of the social pyramid: he works dead end jobs at malls and construction sites, lives in a cubbyhole and spends his money on alcohol. His face deformed after an accident, Honka is ruled out of the dating market as well. His only social life is at the Golden Glove, a seedy joint for freaks and outcasts (any of whom could be the protagonist of the story) whom Akin describes elaborately without affection. The corpulent, old women Honka lures with the promise of alcohol are also outliers of the free market economy with no social support or means of sustenance except through abject slavery. Seeing them showing no will to live and their old bodies being manipulated and mutilated like inanimate objects is the most distressing and repulsive aspect of The Golden Glove. Consequently, it’s liberating to witness the lucky few who escape this fate, thanks either to a Christian missionary trying to “save” the Golden Glove regulars or to sheer accident: a sentiment that the film structures itself around. The uplifting image of a blonde teen whom Honka idealizes unwittingly escaping Honka closes the film.

 

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar lets go of the generic framework that imparted a sense of mystery and thrill to his narratives. The film is instead simply the story of a filmmaker reminiscing about his past, patching up broken friendships and coming to terms with his creative and corporeal disintegration. Weakened and frazzled, Antonio Banderas is exquisite in his role as Salvador, a successful movie director who has quit working and chooses to fritter away his time in his swanky apartment. Salvador suffers from a number of ailments stemming from his partially paralyzed back. On the occasion of the restoration of one of his older productions, he reaches out to the film’s lead actor from whom he’s been estranged for thirty years. This contact inducts him into a heroin addiction, which Salvador gladly chooses over resuming filmmaking. His heroin-induced stupor provokes memories of his pre-teen years: the suffering and hardship of his poor parents, his mother’s loneliness and resourcefulness faced with the absence of her husband and the precocious awakening of his sexuality in his relation with an older labourer he teaches. Back in the present, he meets an old lover, whom he unsuccessfully tried to save from drugs, and recounts to his doting secretary-friend his relation with his mother in her final years.

None of this information is offered as a revelation or a piece of a puzzle. Neither are they woven into a causal narrative. This lends the film a transparency and directness that critics, perhaps with justification, are quick to read as confession. The film is populated with references to the filmmaker’s life but also details so particular—his mother breaking a slab of chocolate to make a sandwich, mending a sock with an egg as support, Salvador placing a pillow on floor before bending down to access a safe—that they could’ve come from nowhere except experience. But Almodóvar avoids sentimentalism and undercuts the obvious emotions with counter-intuitive musical cues. When Salvador meets his old lover, there’s a cut across the 180° line that positions this film as a sequel of sorts to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, heterosexual domesticity being the implied horror connecting both encounters. For the most part, though, the attention is on Salvador’s pain and physical degradation. The film opens with him suspended under water as though in a womb, and the presence of water bodies throughout the film suggests a time before birth. In that, it’s clearly an autumnal reflection on aging that appears to be favourite theme of the year.