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July 16 2017

Coffee Break

THE_ITALIAN_CONNECTION.jpg
Mario Adorf and Femi Benussi in The Italian Connection (Fernando Di Leo - 1972)

July 14 2017

Movie Poster of the Week: The Posters of Mario Bava

Above: US one sheet for Black Sunday (Mario Bava, Italy, 1960).
Earlier this week I featured Francine Spiegel and Dylan Haley’s terrific new poster for the re-release of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby...Kill!, which has been playing at New York’s Quad Cinema in a 50th anniversary, 2K restoration. (Full disclosure: this week I started working for the film’s distributor, Kino Lorber, although I can take no credit for that design.) Today, the Quad follows up that run with Mondo Bava: 20-film retrospective of Bava’s films with many of the films on 35mm.
Though Bava made over 30 films in various genres over the course of more than two decades, he is best known as perhaps the greatest stylist in horror, the maestro of the macabre. The posters for his horror films may not always convey Bava’s sense of style (notable exceptions being the French posters for The Evil Eye and Danger: Diabolik) but they are always impressively lurid and confrontational. Where I can I’ve tried to feature one European and one American poster for each film. Whereas the European posters are torrid and colorful and painterly, the American posters tend to go for the jugular with exhortations and warnings to the audience: “Stare into these eyes!”, “Not since ‘Frankenstein’ have you seen such horror!”, “Every ticket holder must pass through the final warning station. We must warn you face-to-face!”, and my favorite: “Guaranteed! The 8 Greatest Shocks Ever Filmed!” I’ll be counting them.
Above: Italian 2-fogli for Black Sunday (Mario Bava, Italy, 1960). Art by Enzo Nistri.
Above: French grande for Black Sabbath (Mario Bava, Italy, 1963). Art by Boris Grinsson.
Above: US three-sheet for Black Sabbath (Mario Bava, Italy, 1963).
Above: French grande for The Evil Eye aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Mario Bava, Italy, 1963). Art by Constantin Belinsky.
Above: US one sheet for The Evil Eye aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Mario Bava, Italy, 1963).
Above: French grande for The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, Italy, 1963). Art by Constantin Belinsky.
Above: US one sheet for The Whip and the Body aka What (Mario Bava, Italy, 1963).
Above: French grande for Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, Italy, 1964). Art by Constantin Belinsky.
Above: Italian 2-fogli for Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, Italy, 1964).
Above: US one sheet for Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, Italy, 1964).
Above: Italian 4-fogli for Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, Italy/Spain, 1965).
Above: US one sheet for Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, Italy/Spain, 1965).
Above: Italian 2-fogli for Kill, Baby…Kill! (Mario Bava, Italy, 1966).   
Above: US three-sheet Kill, Baby…Kill! (Mario Bava, Italy, 1966).
Above: French grande for Danger: Diabolik (Mario Bava, Italy/France, 1968).
Above: Italian 2-fogli for Five Dolls for an August Moon (Mario Bava, Italy, 1970).
Above: US one sheet for A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava, Italy, 1970).
Above: French grande for Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) (Mario Bava, Italy, 1971). Art by Jano.
Above: US one sheet for Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, Italy, 1971).
Above: Italian 2-fogli for Baron Blood (Mario Bava, Italy, 1972).
Above: US one sheet for Baron Blood (Mario Bava, Italy, 1972).
Above: French grande for Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, Italy/W. Germany/Spain, 1973).
Above: US one sheet for Lisa and the Devil aka The House of Exorcism (Mario Bava, Italy/West Germany/Spain, 1973).
Above: Italian poster for Shock aka Beyond the Door II (Mario Bava, Italy, 1977).
Above: US one sheet for Shock aka Beyond the Door II (Mario Bava, Italy, 1977).
Mondo Bava runs through July 25 at the Quad.
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Posteritati and CineMaterial.

July 12 2017

An Interview with Jarkko Lahti a.k.a. Olli Mäki

Juho Kuosmanen's The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016) is playing July 1 - August 1, 2017 exclusively on MUBI in the United States. 
It was our great pleasure to welcome Jarkko Lahti, the lead of Juho Kuosmanen's feature debut, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, to our office to talk about his experience making the film.

Locarno 2017. Lineup

Ben & Joshua Safdie's Good Time
The lineup for the 2017 festival has been revealed, including new films by Wang Bing, Radu Jude, Raúl Ruiz and others, alongside retrospectives and tributes dedicated to Jean-Marie Straub, Jacques Tourneur and much more.
PIAZZA GRANDE
Amori che non sonno stare al mondo (Francesca Comencini, Italy)
Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, USA)
Chien (Samuel Benchetrit, France/Belgium)
Demain et tous les autres jours (Noémie Lvovsky, France)
Drei Zinnen (Jan Zabeil, Germany/Italy)
Good Time (Ben & Joshua Safdie, USA)
Gotthard - One Life, One Soul (Kevin Merz, Switzerland)
I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, USA)
Iceman (Felix Randau, Germany/Italy/Austria)
Laissez bronzer les cadavres (Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Belgium/France)
Lola Pater (Nadir Moknèche, France/Belgium)
Sicilia! (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, Italy/France/Germany)
Sparring (Samuel Jouy, France)
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, USA)
The Song of Scorpions (Anup Singh, Switzerland/France/Singapore)
What Happed to Monday (Tommy Wirkola, UK)

CONCORSO INTERNAZIONALE
9 Doigts (F.J. Ossang, France)
As Boas Maneiras (Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra, Brazil/France)
Charlseton (Andreï Cretulescu, Romania/France)
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, USA)
En el Séptimo Día (Jim McKay, USA)
Freiheit (Jan Speckenbach, Germany/Slovaquie)
Gemini (Aaron Katz, USA)
Gli Asteroidi (Germano Maccioni, Italy)
Goliath (Dominick Locher, Switzerland)
Good Luck (Ben Russell, France/Germany)
La Telenovela Errante (Raúl Ruiz & Valéria Sarmiento, Chile)
Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, USA)
Madame Hyde (Serge Bozon, France/Belgium)
Mrs. Fang (Wang Bing, France/China/Germany)
Qing Ting Zhi Yan (Xu Bing, China/USA)
Ta peau si lisse (Denis Côté, Canada/Switzerland)
Vinterbrødre (Hlynur Pálmason, Denmark/Iceland)
Wajib (Annemarie Jacir, Palestine/France/Germany/Colombia/Norway)

CONCORSO CINEASTI DEL PRESENTE
3/4 (Ilian Metev, Bulgaria/Germany)
Abschied von den Eltern (Astrid Johanna Ofner, Austria)
Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, USA)
Cho-Haeng (Kim Dea-hwan, South Korea)
Dene wos guet geit (Cyril Schäublin, Switzerland)
Distant Constellation (Shevaun Mizrahi, USA/Turkey/Netherlands)
Easy (Andrea Magnani, Italy/Ukraine)
Edaha no koto (Ninomiya Ryutaro, Japan)
Il Monte delle Formiche (Ricardo Palladino, Italy)
Le Fort des Fous (Narimane Mari, France/Qatar/Greece/Germany)
Meteorlar (Gürcan Keltek, Netherlands/Turkey)
Milla (Valerie Massadian, France/Portugal)
Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa, USA)
Sashishi Deda (Ana Urushadze, Georgia/Estonia)
Severina (Felipe Hirsch, Brazil/Uruguay)
Verão Danado (Pedro Cabeleira, Portugal)

SIGNS OF LIFE
Aliens (Luis López Carrasco, Spain)
Cocote (Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, Dominican Republic/Argentina/Germany)
Era uma vez Brasíla (Adirley Quierós, Brazil)
Filmus (Clément Safra, France)
In Praise of Nothing (Boris Mitic, Serbia/France/Croatia)
Ouroboros (Basma Alsharif, France/Palestine/USA)
Panoptic (Rana Eid, Lebanon/United Arab Emirates)
Phantasiesätze (Dane Komljen, Germany/Denmark)
Surbiles (Giovanni Columbu, Italy)
Zirdziņ, Hallo! (Laila Pakalniņa, Latvia)
Țara moartă (Radu Jude, 2017)

PARDI DI DOMANI - CONCORSO INTERNAZIONALE
Agvarim shel Ella (Oren Adaf, Israel)
António e Catarina (Cristina Hanes, Portugal)
Armageddon 2 (Corey Hughes, Cuba)
Boomerang (David Bouttin, France)
British by the Grace of God (Sean Robert Dunn, UK/USA/United Arab Emirates)
Crossing River (Han Yumeng, China)
Das satanische Dickicht - DREI (Willy Hans, Germany)
Douggy (Matvey Fiks, USA/Russia)
Edge of Alchemy (Stacey Steers, USA)
Fine di un amore (Alberto Tamburelli, Italy)
Haine negre (Octav Chelaru, Romania)
Harbour (Stefanie Kolk, Netherlands)
Jeunes Hommes à la fenêtre (Loukianos Moshonas, France)
Kapitalistis (Pablo Muñoz Gomez, Belgium/France)
Loop (Matija Gluscevic, Serbia)
Los perros de Amundsen (Rafael Ramírez, Cuba)
Negah (Farnoosh Samadi, Iran)
Nikog nema (Jelena Gavrilović, Serbia)
Palenque (Sebastián Pinzón Silva, Colombia/USA)
Plus Ultra (Helena Girón & Samuel M. Delgado, Spain)
Shmama (Miki Polonski, Israel)
Signature (Chikaura Kei, Japan)
Silica (Pia Borg, Australia/UK)
Song X (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand)
Vypusk '97 (Pavlo Ostrikov, Ukraine)
Wateland no. 1: Ardent, Verdant (Jodie Mack, USA)
Zhizn' moego druga (Alexander Zolotukhin, Russia)

PARDI DI DOMANI - CONCORSO NAZIONALE
59 Secondes (Mauro Carraro, Switzerland/France)
A Song From the Future (Tomasso Donati, Switzerland)
Kuckuck (Aline Höchli, Switzerland)
La femme canon (David Toutevoix & Albertine Zullo, Switzerland/France/Canada)
Les histoires vraies (Lucien Monot, Switzerland)
Les Intranquilles (Magdalena Froger, Switzerland)
Parades (Sarah Arnold, France/Switzerland)
Resistance (Laurence Favre, Switzerland)
Rewind Forward (Justin Stoneham, Switzerland)
und alles fällt (Nadine Schwitter, Germany)
Villa Ventura (Roman Hüben, Switzerland)

FUORI CONCORSO - FEATURES
Acta Non Verba (Yvann Yagchi, Switzerland/UK)
Anatomia del miracolo (Alessandre Celesia, France/Italy)
Azmaish (Sabiha Sumar, Pakistan)
Choisir à vingt ans (Villi Hermann, Switzerland/Algeria)
Contes des juillet (Guillaume Brac, France)
Filles du feu (Stéphane Breton, France)
Grandeur et décadence d'un peit commerce de cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)
Ibi (Andrea Serge, Italy)
Le Venerable W. (Barbet Schroeder, France/Switzerland)
Zazidanie (Boris Yukhananov & Aleksandr Shein, Russia)
Nothingwood (Sonia Kronlund, France/Germany)
Nous sommes jeunes et nos jours sont longs (Léa Forest & Cosme Castro, France)
Piazza Grande (Misha Györik & Michael Beltrami, Switzerland)
Pietra tenera (Aurélie Mertenat, Switzerland)
Prototype (Blake Williams, Canada/USA)
Sand und Blut (Matthias Krepp & Angelika Spangel, Austria)
The Reagan Show (Pacho Velez & Sierra Pettengill,USA)
Willkommen in der Schweiz (Sabine Gisiger, Switzerland)
Immortality For All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism (Anton Vidokle, Kazakhstan/Germany/Russia/USA)

FUORI CONCORSO - SHORTS
A manifesto for the un-communal (Syllas Tzoumerkas, Germany/Israel)
Arrière-saison (Jean-Claude Rousseau, France/Japan)
Granma (Alfie Nze & Daniele Gaglianone, Italy)
O Homem de Trás-os-Montes (Miguel Moraes Cabral, Portugal)
Per una rosa (Marco Bellocchio, Italy)
Scaffold (Kazik Radwanski, Canada)
Si loin, si proche (Jean-Claude Rousseau, France/Japan)
Tshweesh (Feyrouz Serhal, Lebanon/Germany/Spain/Qatar)

HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA
Pardo d'onore Manor Jean-Marie Straub
Cézanne, Dialogue avec Joachim Gasquet
Dalla nube all resistenza
Klassenverhältnisse
Kommunisten
Une visite au Louvre
Von heute auf morgen
Premio Raimondo Rezzonico Michel Merkt
Frost (Sharunas Bartas, Lithuania/France/Poland/Ukraine)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/Germany/France/USA)
Strong Island (Yance Ford, USA/Denmark)
Premio Cinema Ticino Esmé Sciaroni
La pazza gioia (Paolo Virzì, Italy/France)
Omaggio Nastassja Kinski
Cat People (Paul Schrader, USA)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, UK/France/Federal Republic of Germany)
Leopard Club Award Adrien Brody
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK)
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, USA)
Cinéma suisse redécouvert
Der Kongress der Pinguine (Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf, Switzerland)
Kleine Freiheit (Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf, Switzerland)
Pardo d'onore Manor Jean-Marie Straub Shorts
Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter
En rachâchant
Incantati
L'Aguarium et la nation
La Guerre d'Algérie!

July 11 2017

Stripping Down Deceptions: Radu Jude and "The Dead Nation"

The Dead Nation
A few years after the beginning of what has been labeled the "New Romanian Cinema" the aesthetic and moral agenda of filmmakers working under this banner threatened to become a mere cliché. Too often corruption was filmed with static long shots, too many colors vanished from the images and too much emphasis was placed on the same actors acting in similar roles. The director Radu Jude, who worked as an assistant for Cristi Puiu on the movement's seminal The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), made some strong short films like Shadow of a Cloud (2013), none of which insinuated that he would be the one taking the (not only social) realism of Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu and friends to a new level.  
His latest documentary The Dead Nation shows a filmmaker who has discovered a special way of looking at and behind images. That alone does not qualify for a different approach in Romanian cinema, since offering a doubt in what one can see lies very much at the core of the great Romanian films of the last ten years. However, Jude combined this political motivation with an awareness for abstraction and a greater freedom in style, especially in his last three films, which I would consider a trilogy of buried history. In these films a gap opens between the formative beauty and idyll of images of the past and what they hide. An image with Jude always looks at itself. There is no reality his gaze takes for granted. Additionally, between his Aferim! (2015), Scarred Hearts (2016) and The Dead Nation ideas of racism are at stake: Ideas that feel as relevant today in Romania as elsewhere.
Whereas with Puiu, who undoubtedly is the most gifted and important Romanian filmmaker, a lot happens in the positioning of the camera, Jude uses the camera and even more the sensuality and look of his images to open a gap between what we can see and what we can’t see. With Jude the style becomes a form of deception until he slowly strips down the strategies of deception and we can see what lurks behind. I think, for example, about the stunning postcard-look of Scarred Hearts turning into a realism of banal indifference in the last shots of the film. Sometimes a character might hide in an image we have been looking at for quite some time, as in Aferim!, and sometimes an image hides something just because it exists. Such is the case with The Dead Nation, a documentary entirely consisting of photographs and a soundtrack composed in large parts from excerpts of the diary of Jewish doctor Emil Dorian living in the same time the images were taken. Most of the film takes place between 1937 and 1944, which makes The Dead Nation again a work where Jude digs out stories from before the Communist regime.
Immediately it becomes clear that what we can see in the photographs, which originate from the Costică Acsinte collection, differs a great deal from what we can hear on the voiceover. Emil Dorian’s literary output was banned by the anti-semitic regime that ruled in Romania at the beginning of the 1940s. After Max Blecher in Scarred Hearts, another Jewish writer gets an important voice by Jude. What we hear is brutal and hard to bear. It is the stories of anti-semitism in Romania. What we see is nice and reassuring. Images of family life, smiling winter faces. Jude makes a strong point in accepting the redundancy of his dramaturgy. As we move through the years the images don’t really change, only the reports of crimes against Jews become crueler and in their sheer amount, unbearable. It becomes apparent that The Dead Nation is not a film about showing something that was buried, it is about burying something that was shown. I was told that the photographs of Costică Acsinte are very popular in the perception of a rosy view of the Romanian past. Their aesthetic purity and innocence is radically questioned by the film.
The Dead Nation
Nevertheless, Jude resists a didactic approach. He leaves it to the viewer to decide whether to look at the images or listen to the voiceover. Some may want to enjoy the beauty of those romantic and beautiful images, others will not be able to see them at all, and others, such as myself, will find themselves in a gap where the act of seeing gets questioned as such. One really is looking at missing pictures.  
This gap not only opens between seeing and hearing, it is also between the ordinary life of people and the weight of history. The attention to detail of the photographs mirrors the mise en scène Jude chose for his latest films. His style does not necessarily exist to stress moral or dramatic ideas. Instead, it works against those ideas as it offers a glimpse at the sensuality history books are not interested in. From these films by Radu June a conflicted view at a troubled history opens.

Die Beute wird geteilt

Die Nacht als Versprechen: John Altons fiebrige Kamera  in  THE BIG COMBO .

Im November letzten Jahres habe ich auf Facebook um Empfehlungen gebeten in Sachen Gangster- Unterwelts- und Nachtfilme abseits des Kanons. Das Echo war groß, und weil die Liste schön ist, und einige Überraschungen enthält, möchte ich sie mit Verspätung auch hier öffentlich machen. Viele der Filme kannte ich schon, einige habe ich inzwischen gesehen, von manchen hatte ich noch nie gehört, alle machen mich neugierig (und den Einen oder Anderen unter den Parallelfilm-Lesern vielleicht auch).

MISS MEND (Boris Barnet, UdSSR 1926)
VORUNTERSUCHUNG (Robert Siodmak. Deutschland 1931)
RAZZIA IN ST. PAULI (Werner Hochbaum, Deutschland 1932)
PICTURE SNATCHER (Lloyd Bacon, USA 1933)
THE BLACK CAT (Edgar Ulmer, USA 1934)
MAD LOVE (Karl Freund, USA 1935)
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (Boris Ingster, USA 1940)
BLUEBIRD (Edgar Ulmer, USA 1944)
HANGOVER SQUARE (John Brahm, USA 1945)
CROSSFIRE (Edward Dmytryk, USA 1947)
ODD MAN OUT (Carol Reed, GB 1947)
NON COUPABLE (Henri Decoin, Frankreich 1947)
BORN TO KILL (Robert Wise, USA 1947)
APENAS UN DELINCUENTE (Hugo Fregonese, Argentinien 1949)
DER FALL RABANSER (Kurt Hoffmann, Deutschland 1950)
HE RAN ALL THE WAY (John Berry, USA 1951)
TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (Jacques Becker, Frankreich 1954)
THE BIG COMBO (Joseph H. Lewis, USA 1955)
RAZZIA SUR LA CHNOUF (Henri Decoin, Frankreich 1955)
VIELE KAMEN VORBEI (Peter Pewas, Deutschland 1956)
NIGHTFALL (Jacques Tourneur, USA 1956)
MURDER BY CONTRACT (Irving Lerner, USA 1958)
AM TAG ALS DER REGEN KAM (Gerd Oswald, Deutschland 1959)
INTIMIDATION (Koreyoshi Kurahara, Japan 1960)
BLAST OF SILENCE (Allen Baron, USA 1961)
ALIAS GARDELITO (Lautaro Murúa, Argentinien 1961)
TOKYO DRIFTER (Seijun Suzuki, Japan 1966)
CASH CALLS HELL (Hideo Gosha, Japan 1966)
HEISSES PFLASTER KÖLN (Ernst Hofbauer, Deutschland 1967)
ST. PAULI ZWISCHEN NACHT UND MORGEN (José Bénazéraf, Deutschland 1967)
THE INCIDENT (Larry Peerce, USA 1967)
JOE CALIGULA – DU SUIF CHEZ LES DABES (José Bénazéraf, Frankreich 1969)
INVASIÓN (Hugo Santiago, Argentinien 1969)
THE WOLVES (Hideo Gosha, Japan 1971)
BLUTIGER FREITAG (Rolf Olsen, Deutschland 1972)
MILANO KALIBER 9 (Fernando di Leo, Italien 1972)
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (Peter Yates, USA 1973)
BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY (Kinji Fukasaku, Japan 1973-1976)
THE NICKEL RIDE (Robert Mulligan, USA 1974)
GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (Kinji Fukasaku, Japan 1975)
MIKEY AND NICKY (Elaine May, USA 1976)
THE SQUEEZE (Michael Apted, GB 1977)
VENGEANCE IS MINE (Shohei Imamura, Japan 1979)
GESCHICHTE DER NACHT (Clemens Klopfenstein, Schweiz 1979)
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (John Mackenzie, GB 1980)
MANILA BY NIGHT (Ishmael Bernal, Philippinen 1980)
VICE SQUAD (Gary Sherman, USA 1982)
MONA LISA (Neil Jordan, GB 1986)
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (John McNaughton, USA 1986)
AT CLOSE RANGE (James Foley, USA 1986)
SCHATTENBOXER (Lars Becker, Deutschland 1992)
LIFE ACCORDING TO AGFA (Assi Dayan, Israel 1992)
LIGHT SLEEPER (Paul Schrader, USA 1992)
C’EST ARRIVÉ PRÈS DE CHEZ VOUS (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Belgien 1992)
THE GENERAL (John Boorman, GB 1998)
CROUPIER (Mike Hodges, GB 1998)
SECRET DÉFENSE (Jacques Rivette, Frankreich 1998)
THE LONGEST NITE (Patrick Yau, Hongkong 1998)
NUEVE REINAS (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentinien 2000)
FRIEND (Kyung-taek Kwak, Südkorea 2001)
GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (Takashi Miike, Japan 2002)
UN OSO ROJO (Adrián Caetano, Argentinien 2002)
PUBLIC ENEMY (Woo-Suk Kang, Südkorea 2002)
PTU (Johnnie To, Hongkong 2003)
ONE NITE IN MONGKOK (Derek Yee, Hongkong 2004)
THE PASSENGER (François Rotger, Frankreich/Japan 2005)
A BITTERSWEET LIFE (Jee-woon Kim, Südkorea 2005)
EL AURA (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentinien 2005)
A DIRTY CARNEVAL (Yoo Ha, Südkorea 2006)
MR 73 (Olivier Marchal, Frankreich 2008)
KINATAY (Brillante Mendoza, Philippinen 2009)
THE YELLOW SEA (Hong-jin Na, Südkorea 2010)
VALLANZASCA - GLI ANGELI DEL MALE (Michele Placido, Italien 2010)
CARNE DE NEÓN (Paco Cabezas, Spanien 2010)
NAMELESS GANGSTER (Jong-bin Yun, Südkorea 2012)
NEW WORLD (Hoon-jung Park, Südkorea 2013)
NIGHTCRAWLER (Dan Gilroy, USA 2014)
Reposted by02mydafsoup-01 02mydafsoup-01

Japanese War Bride

japanese war bride 1.jpg

King Vidor - 1952
Nostalgia Family DVD

While I was a student at New York University, I also had the opportunity to be a student volunteer at the Film Study Center of the Museum of Modern Art. One of the perks was having free museum membership which allowed me to see films at the museum. In the Fall of 1972, there was a retrospective devoted to King Vidor. I didn't see everything, with school and other films occasionally taking priority. And then there was the word that one film that could have been included was specifically not be shown. I never found out his reasons, but Donald Richie made the request that Japanese War Bride not be part of what would have been the most complete retrospective of King Vidor's films. For those who might not be familiar with him, Richie is the one credited for his books that introduced Japanese film to English speaking cineastes. And credit is deserving, although it took me years to discover several worthy filmmakers that he chose either to disparage or completely ignore. As far as Japanese War Bride goes, it never appeared at any New York City revival house, nor appeared on any late night television broadcast. I finally shelled out a few dollars to get a somewhat passable DVD, a couple degrees better than what's often available for films that have fallen into public domain.

The title is misleading in that the film is about the Japanese wife of a an American soldier who was fighting in Korea. Tae and Jim meet in the hospital where Tae is a nurse, and Jim is recovering from his unspecified wounds. The two marry, and move to Salinas, California, where Jim's family has a farm. The drama comes from the varying degrees of acceptance of Tae to the family and the community, with Jim's sister-in-law the cause of much of the trouble.

japanese war bride 2.jpg

While Donald Richie would undoubtedly be more sensitive to how Japan and the Japanese would be presented, I still could not be certain what caused his objections. Jim is shown to have some cultural awareness by knowing to remove his shoes before entering the home of Tae's grandfather. The grandfather threatening to kill a couple of monkeys, claiming they are part of a religious ritual, deliberately plays on the assumed cultural ignorance of Jim and by extension, a western audience. Considering how badly Asians have been presented in Hollywood films, Japanese War Bride mostly works to demolish stereotypes. If anyone looks bad, it's the white people, especially the always foolish Woody, played by a character actor with the unfortunate name of George Wallace, and Fran, Jim's sister-in-law, played by eternal bad girl Marie Windsor.

In his book on Vidor, Raymond Durgnat explains that Vidor took up Japanese War Bride when another planned project, also with a rural setting fell through. Even setting aside the racial elements to the story, Japanese War Bride can be seen as comfortably fitting in with other Vidor films, beginning with Beyond the Forest (1949) and Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), and ending with Ruby Gentry (1952). All four films take place in rural or country settings, and revolve around women who act as a disrupting force within a small community.

I have no idea if Japanese War Bride even played in southern theaters. Laws barring interracial marriages were in place in some states prior to Loving vs. Virginia. The rules imposed by the Motion Picture Production code regarding miscegenation specified relations between black and white actors, although it was also the reasoning behind having white actors in yellow face. Don Taylor and Shirley Yamaguchi not only kiss twice, but are seen doing so very clearly in close up which probably caused a stir for some people at the time. On the other hand, the characters are very indirect when discussing World War II, the internment camps, and racial laws that were directed to Japanse-Americans.

Durgnat has described Japanese War Bride as impersonal compared to other films directed by Vidor. And this may not stand as one of King Vidor's better films, but I'm glad I saw it, if for one near perfect shot. Following a family argument for which she feels responsible, Tae takes a walk away from the farm to a relatively open field. Jim catches up with her. To the left of the screen is a single tree that is shaped like a giant bonsai tree. It's as if the all the ideas about different cultures were encapsulated in a single image.

japanese war bride 3.jpg

"Twin Peaks," Episode 9 Recap: Whatever This Is

Twin Peaks Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering David Lynch and Mark Frost's limited, 18-episode continuation of the Twin Peaks television series.
There's a brief, very beautiful moment in Part 7 of the new Twin Peaks, during the scene in which hotelier Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) and his secretary Beverly Paige (Ashley Judd) are investigating a strange sound emanating from the walls of the Great Northern. Ben points in the direction that he thinks the soft, soothing tone is coming from, and for a second he seems to be pointing right at the camera—past it, really…toward our world, at those of us on the other side of the fiction/fact divide. A blink-and-you'll-miss-it breach, but it lays some subtle groundwork for what follows: The aesthetically and thematically provocative Part 8 fitted the Twin Peaks mythos into our very real history of atomic destruction. And this week's Part 9—a return to the uncanny banal in which cowriter-director David Lynch specializes—reverses that by bringing an important element of Peaks' make-believe universe squarely into our own. (More on that below.)
Back to Ben and Beverly, who, toward the end of Part 9, are still investigating that "mesmerizing tone," which Ben likens to a monastery bell. This time there's another breach, but it's between the two characters as they accidentally (though not so much) bump into each other, then pause as if readying to move in for a mutual, long-delayed kiss. Ben can't do it. "I don't know why that is," he says, spellbound. "You're a good man, Ben," Beverly replies—which anyone familiar with the series, and even Ben himself, knows is far from the case. Yet in this context there's something achingly true about Beverly's insight, as well as redemptive in the way the two tenderly hold hands, then bow their heads as if in prayer. We're different things with (and to) different people.
A number of scenes in Part 9 revolve around quiet interactions of this sort, between characters so familiar with each other's quirks that they seem to be communicating in shorthand. These exchanges can be comical, as in the way FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (Lynch) longingly—and longly—eyes a cigarette held by Diane Evans (Laura Dern), much to the chagrin of Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell). Or they can be squirmy and horrific: Witness the episode-ending conversation at the Roadhouse between a pair of new characters, the strung-out Ella (Sky Ferreira) and her friend Chloe (Karolina Wydra), who speak cryptically yet knowingly of a "zebra" and a "penguin," all while Ella scratches furiously at a rash that's forming on her body.
The sense of unease that Lynch so effortlessly conjures is infecting people's flesh, but still everyone communicates in their own private language. (Maybe that's preferable to dealing with the troubling bigger picture.) Bad Cooper a.k.a. Mr. C. (Kyle MacLachlan)—freshly risen from the grave thanks to the unearthly Black Lodge Woodsmen—has some arcane exchanges with his two henchmen, Chantal Hutchens (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Gary "Hutch" Hutchens (Peaks newbie Tim Roth, humorously going full redneck). Guns and other weaponry are referred to as "puppies and biscuits," and a bag of Cheetos changes hands as if it were some kind of holy object. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Good Cooper (also MacLachlan)—still trapped in the outwardly half-witted mind and body of insurance agent Dougie Jones—stares blankly at the U.S. flag (as an instrumental rendition of "America the Beautiful" slowly crescendoes), then loses himself in the beauty of a woman's red high heels and, finally, the terror of an electrical outlet (a reminder of that surreal otherworld to which he is inextricably connected).
Dern's Diane gets an enigmatic text ("Around the dinner table the conversation is lively") from Mr. C. Is she in cahoots with him or merely being taunted? And in Twin Peaks, Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy Brennan (Kimmy Robertson) have a hilariously perplexing argument over which color chair and ottoman ("red" or "beige") to buy online. Here as elsewhere, it's unclear which of them really has the upper hand, and—in macro terms—over whom or what. Life is being lived on the ground, though the heavens are (maybe) threatening to fall. 
My personal favorite of these moments out of time: Coroner Constance Talbot (Jane Adams) and FBI forensics specialist Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) teasingly conferring over the headless body of the late Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), after Team Cole make an unplanned stop at the Buckhorn, South Dakota morgue. There are plenty of goo-goo eyed looks between the two, but what resonates most is the sense that Constance and Albert recognize, one in the other, a kindred spirit. "When did he lose his marbles?" asks Albert in response to one of Constance's observations. "When the dog got his cat's-eyes," she says. Yet another coded exchange in a series rife with them. But though those of us watching from a distance may not understand every in and out of the pair's interaction (may not explicitly "get it"), we implicitly do. Even Cole, standing just to the side of his ever-loyal subordinate, recognizes and appreciates the intellectual flirtiness on display. It's life-giving.
Then there are the interactions we don't see, but are told about secondhand—all of them having to do with Major Garland Briggs. The Major's now law-abiding/law-enforcing son Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), alongside Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) and Deputy Sheriff Tommy "Hawk" Hill (Michael Horse), approaches his mother Betty (Charlotte Stewart) with questions about his deceased father's last contact, twenty-five years prior, with Agent Cooper. Betty quickly interrupts them, pensively noting that Garland told her long ago that this day would come. "'When they come to ask you about Agent Cooper, you give them this,'" she says, repeating her husband's prophetic words. She then leads the three men over to the living room. "This is the chair," she says, pointing to a weathered piece of furniture, before flipping a switch and opening a hidden compartment.
Inside is a small cylinder that Betty holds contemplatively for a moment. She turns to Bobby and, in one of new Peaks' loveliest exchanges, marvels at the gulf her son has traversed from his delinquent teen years until now, a journey in which Major Briggs was integral. "Somehow, he knew that it would all turn out well. … Your father never lost faith in you," she says as Bobby starts to tear up. For loyal viewers this harks back to one of the original series' best scenes in which Major Briggs tells Bobby of a dream he had about his son's eventual success in life. It was beautiful then and it's even more powerful now in light of this sequence borne out of a natural passage of time. That the bulk of the dialogue here is delivered by Stewart—a Lynch stock company member since her role as Jack Nance's manic girlfriend in Eraserhead—only deepens the emotional heft.
Later, when Truman and Hawk are at a loss as to how to open the cylinder, Bobby steps forward. He knows exactly how to do so (it requires two hard-throws against the ground, the second timed around the cylinder's tuning-fork-like sound—another "mesmerizing tone"). And once the contents are revealed, Bobby knows exactly what the mystifying message, with two dates (10/1 and 10/2), a time (the Black Lodge-specific 2:53) and mentions of a "Jack Rabbit's Palace" refer to, since his father basically planted all of the answers, piecemeal, in his son throughout childhood and adolescence, knowing they'd bloom when the time was right. Truman is in awe of Major Briggs's prescience: "He saw all this," he says, "Whatever this is."
It's another story, for one. And stories (which can be spread across multiple pages or contained in a mere glance) help us make sense of the most inscrutable things. That's surely one of the reasons, as we find out in this episode, that former school principal William Hastings (Matthew Lillard) wrote a personal blog, with the aid of his deceased librarian lover Ruth Davenport, that details the existence of an alternate dimension known as The Zone. The cinephilically inclined might flash on Andrei Tarkovsky's great Stalker (1979), in which a mythic land (also called The Zone) purportedly bends to the will of the people traversing it. And this brings us to that fourth-wall-shattering plot point I mentioned above: Head on over to "The Search For The Zone" to see Hastings' website (and preorder some new-Peaks merch!), which exists in our own space and time, even if its very '90s look and feel seems laughably antiquated in the modern period in which the 2017 series is supposed to take place.
The dissonance is surely intentional. Lynch and his co-collaborator Mark Frost love mixing and melding era-specific signposts, as well as futzing with our expectations about what makes sense in a given context. Time, as we traditionally know it, has no meaning here. Even this serial TV narrative, it seems, cannot be held within the box containing it (where have we seen that before?). And the very lengthy scene in which Agent Preston questions a more-frazzled-than-ever Hastings about his final site entry, in which he claims to have "met The Major," upends things further. Through some raw, raggedly emotional fits and starts, Hastings tells Agent Preston about his journey into The Zone: How he and Ruth Davenport brought Major Briggs a series of "coordinates" that allowed for interdimensional travel. How Briggs' last words to them were "Cooper…Cooper," which mimics the deep-space transmission (a salient portion of which is typed on a second piece of paper in Bobby Briggs' cylinder) that the Major uncovered in the original series. And how the whole experience was "like something no one had ever seen before. I've never seen anything like it. I've never read anything like it. … It was beautiful." 
Hastings' awe quickly gives way to fear as he recalls how, almost immediately after this transcendental experience, he found Ruth dead and his life in shambles. Then Lynch, Frost and Lillard dare to go for laughs as Hastings blathers, quite exaggeratedly, about how he and Ruth "were gonna go to the Bahamas…soak up the sun…go scuba diving!" Initially, it seems like a pathetic pipe dream, especially compared to the duo's journey into The Zone, the substance of which Hastings' words, even in their fervor, can't help but convey inadequately. Yet the longer he talks, the more deeply the tragedy of his and Ruth's aborted vacation hits. Both the capital-P "Paradise" they found and the little heaven they conjured on Earth proved fleeting. How quickly bliss can be consumed by agony and the abyss.
MORE SLICES OF PIE
• I suspect Lynch and Frost were just delighted after they came up with Cole's line about Mr. C's prison escape: "Cooper flew the coop!"
• Mr. C. calls in to his perpetually on-edge Las Vegas contact Duncan Todd (Patrick Fischler) for an update, likely (since they speak in the usual evasive tones) about the many abortive assassination attempts on Good Coop/Dougie. "Better be done next time I call," says Mr. C., which makes Todd's eyes widen anxiously.
• Mr. C. tasks Chantal and Hutch with killing Warden Murphy (James Morrison)—"He'll sing for me," says Chantal with lusty, psychopathic glee—then hints at a double job for them in Las Vegas, details to be revealed. It'll be a perverse pleasure watching Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh wreak havoc together.
• The Detectives Fusco (Larry Clarke, Eric Edelstein and David Koechner) return for some more silly, Three Stooges-like sublimity. They stoically brush off the concerns of Dougie's boss Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray). They trick Dougie and Janey-E (Naomi Watts) into giving them evidence via a fingerprinted coffee cup. And they have a goofy aside about a broken tail light that seems to exist just so it can spotlight Edelstein's infectious laugh. That inimitable guffaw also comes to the fore when the trio later take poor, palmless dwarf assassin Ike "The Spike" Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek) into custody. "We have your palm print…As a matter of fact we have your whole palm." Tee-hee.
• Dern power! Detective Macklay (Brent Briscoe), clearly not knowing who he's up against, informs Diane she can't smoke in the Buckhorn cold storage waiting room. "It's a fucking morgue!" she retorts. Bless that woman.
• Macklay's then-this-happened briefing of Cole and company about the William Hastings-Ruth Davenport case leads to one of Albert's pithiest and pointed quips: "What happens in Season 2?" 
• Poor Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly)—still stoned out of his gourd, lost in the woods, and shouting, in sheer horror, at his own appendage. "I am not your foot!" says his foot. Doesn't even feel weird to type that. This show's working wonders with my sense of reality.
• More Hornes back in the house: Feeble-minded Johnny Horne (Erik Rondell, the third actor to play the role after Robert Davenport in the Pilot episode and Robert Bauer in the rest of the series until now) and his mother/Ben Horne's skittish spouse Sylvia Horne (Jan D'Arcy), who attends to her son after he runs headfirst into a wall. The way Lynch and Peter Deming film the pair, so that only the sides or back of their heads are visible, is further evidence of how the new series continually tinkers with and frustrates the idea of fan service.
• More fun with Deputy Chad Broxford (John Pirruccello) as he's scolded and kicked out of the conference room by Sheriff Truman for eating his lunch where he shouldn't. That bullet-to-the-head (there is one coming, right Dave and Mark?) can't happen soon enough—a more than appropriate fate for a regular reader, as revealed here, of "Lock & Load" magazine.
• Two Roadhouse musical guests this week: Scottish DJ, composer and Kanye West collaborator Hudson Mohawke, playing his wonky "Human," and returning dream-poppers Au Revoir Simone with "A Violent Yet Flammable World," off their 2007 album The Bird of Music.
• One other music note: Thus far, series composer Angelo Badalamenti's score has tended toward near-subliminal drone, or recycled familiar Peaks cues at potent moments. (The jaunty riff from the early Chris Isaak-Kiefer Sutherland sections of Fire Walk with Me reappears here over the Detectives Fusco sequence, as they learn about the location of Ike "The Spike.") The scene with Betty Briggs, on the other hand, is one of the first times (maybe the first) where, though the melody is familiar (harking back to the accompaniment over Major Briggs's revelatory diner conversation with Bobby in the original series), the music is noticeably new. I wouldn't be surprised if this is an intentional gambit on Lynch, Frost and Badalamenti's part to ease us back into the melodramatically florid stylings of old Peaks, though I'm more inclined to think it's another way of upending our expectations about what's to come.
• I'll end this recap with a question: Is Hawk moving backwards in one shot of the Betty Briggs scene? This has happened a few times throughout new Peaks (see also the end of the Gordon Cole-Denise Bryson conversation from Part 4) where the Black Lodge tendency to walk and talk as if you were in reverse has briefly bled into the show's real world (such as it is).

July 10 2017

We do film, dammit: Charlie Keil interviews us

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DB here:

The Society of Cinema and Media Studies has established an online series of interviews with film scholars. In these conversations, distinguished contributors to academic film history, theory, and criticism review their careers and sum up their main ideas.

Thanks to Charlie Keil’s initiative, we participated in one such session here at Madison, back in May. The result is here.

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Under Charlie’s guidance we discuss how we got interested in studying film, how we conceived and wrote Film Art: An Introduction, and how we developed later research projects, including The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Narration in the Fiction Film, Breaking the Glass Armor, Making Meaning, The Frodo Franchise, and other books.

We talk about “neoformalism” and its relation to continental structuralism, as well as strategies of film analysis, the importance of norms, the roles of institutions in shaping film history, and cognitive film theory. We touch on the history of Wisconsin film studies and the central role of Tino Balio, Douglas Gomery, and Janet Staiger in shaping our thinking. We also talk about “overachieving” textbooks and our efforts to reach out beyond academic readers, especially via the Net.

Charlie skillfully fits what we tried to do into broader trends in academic film studies. He highlights our frequent returns to studying Hollywood as an artistic and industrial reference point. He even brings up Kristin’s Egyptological research.

There wasn’t enough time to survey all our interests, of course. There’s probably too little on our most recent work; if you want to dig more into our ideas, the published work and our writing on the blog are more informative. And there aren’t enough jokes, at least deliberate ones. Still, we hope some of you will find this discussion of interest.


Thanks not only to Charlie Keil and the SCMS people coordinating the Fieldnotes series, but also to Madison’s own Eric Hoyt, Chelsea McCracken, and Erica Moulton for shooting the interview.

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July 09 2017

Coffee Break

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Ivo Garrani in Caliber 9 (Fernando Di Leo - 1972)

July 07 2017

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017: By Candlelight, James Whale, 1933

At the same time true to its stage play source and completely cinematic, especially in its use of doors as sluices controlling both visual spectacle and erotic energy. The master / servant dynamic is very funny, especially because of Paul Lukas's natural air of superiority towards his boss, but like the magnificent The Kiss Before the Mirror, this is ultimately all about learning / unlearning the automatisms of romance. Although this time around it's set in a much lighter mood.

The key to the film (and to Whale's authorship) might be the only scene not set in enclosed space, though:  a short sequence at a country fair. While I still don't really know what to make of these strange images, one thing is clear: no one could mistake them for "good honest people having fun". Instead (and completely unrelated to the plot) they have a ritualistic feel about them. The most important element of Whale's fair are clearly the masks. And the reason for the strangeness of the scene might be that the usual links between mask and identity do not apply. The people neither wear masks to hide their (real) identity, nor to reveale their (true) self. Rather, masking is a state of being in its own right, a sign of pure difference, free from all (bodily, social, sexual) restraints.

Lidschlag


Der Lidschlag wird manchmal als 'natürliches Äquivalent' des Filmschnitts bezeichnet und wirklich blinzeln wir oft in Momenten des „Einstellungswechsels”, oder unterbrechen eine Sehphase, um unser Auge zu erfrischen. Man könnte daraus eine - etwas wackelige - Theorie der Auflösung ableiten:  Jede neue Einstellung soll den Gegenstand von einer anderen Perspektive zeigen, etwas Neues offenbaren, und zwar nicht, weil Abwechslung ein Wert an sich wäre, sondern weil wir das Sehen als einen fortwährenden Ergänzungsprozess verstehen müssen, der auf ein möglichst vollständiges, das heißt wahrheitsgetreues Abbild aus ist.

(Das Bild stammt meiner Sequenzanalyse zu Hitchcocks THE WRONG MAN.)
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July 06 2017

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017: Les amours de minuit, Augusto Genina, Marc Allegret, 1931

Two escaped men meet on a train. One - young, nervous, curious - escaped from his boring day job, the other - lean, lanky, sleazy - from a penal colony.  The train would bring the young guy directly to the harbour and to his ship bound  for South America. The other one persuades him to dismount one stop earlier by promising him a night in town with lots of erotic attractions. For the young man, the train is transformed from a mere means of transportation into a machine that grants worlds, options, adventures. A sense of anarchic, but also modernist freedom which for me is strongly associated with early sound cinema, right now my favorite period in film history - by far.

The storyline might be rather straightforward, but the film isn't really interested in plot mechanics. Every scene is self-sufficent, every place a whole world in itself. Especially the nightclub: Several dance routines are filmed in their entirety, the buzz of the place is, for the most part, much more important than the conspiracy the young man might be caught in. A beautiful tracking shot floating alongside the bar counter: in the first row, men and a few women eating sanwiches, drinking beer; but there's a second row, comprised almost exclusively by women trying to snatch a quick bite or a drink for free.

Another great moment: the other guy, the bad, lanky one, and his mistress meeting in a revolving door. Her slight hesitation in joining him in the inside - her realizing that instead of meeting him she could just succumb to the dynamics of the door, rotate with it and get thrown out into the world.

July 05 2017

Ritrovato 2017: Many faces, many places

Varda and JR

Agnès Varda and JR, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 1 July. Photo: DB.

DB here:

This final post from Il Cinema Ritrovato is no less a miscellany than the others. With over 500 films screened, Kristin and I invariably missed things that others raved about. Still, we saw enough powerful cinema to make us want to flag some key items for you.

 

Silents, please

Kristin has already mentioned one of the most startling items we saw, Le Coupable (1917) by André Antoine. I’m still processing the audacity of this film. The prosecutor in a murder trial abruptly claims the defendant as his son. We then get the familiar flashback format, shifting from the courtroom to the events leading up to the crime and the arrest. But the shifts between present and past are so quick, and the bits we see of the trial are given in such intense, stark singles, that they gain an astonishingly modern pulse.

Prosec 300     Defendant 300

Add in marvelous use of locations, real alleys and corridors and cafes, and you have a very impressive movie.

Hallway 300     Cafe 300

Once more, 1917 proves to be dynamite.

From the same year came Furcht (Fear), by Robert Wiene. Count Grevin wanders anxiously through his castle for about sixteen minutes of screen time before we realize, thanks to a flashback, that he’s haunted by his theft of a precious Indian statue, stolen from a temple. Soon a priest materializes, either on the castle grounds or in Grevin’s imagination, to declare that he has only seven years to enjoy life before vengeance strikes. Which it does, of course. Conrad Veidt plays the priest with the smoldering glare, and ambitious superimpositions show how committed German cinema was to special effects. Dr. Caligari was three years off.

Secrets 250Not that other years should be slighted. Le Collier de la danseuse (The Dancer’s Necklace, 1912) was an agreeably preposterous crime movie. (The thief has a jacket with fake hands dangling from the sleeves, just the thing for escaping handcuffs.) The film boasted the low, almost Ozuesque, camera height typical of other Pathé productions of the year.

Borzage’s Secrets (1924) traces a marriage through three large flashbacks, with the first emphasizing romantic comedy, the second suspense, and the third family melodrama. Norma Talmadge, who savored a split-personality role in De Luxe Annie (1918), gets to play a woman at three ages here. The central section, devoted to a Griffithian siege on a lonely frontier cabin, showed Borzage’s ability to whip up enormous excitement, with an unexpectedly sad twist. The whole movie has over 11oo shots, indicating just how committed American filmmakers had become to fine-grained scene breakdowns.

All in all, the silent films on display this year were as revelatory as ever.

 

Cinematic geometries

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The Abe Clan (1938).

For some years Ritrovato has included a Japanese sidebar curated by Alexander Jacoby  and Johan Nordström. This year the theme was socially critical jidai-geki, or historical films. Some of them were fairly familiar to Western cinephiles because copies were circulated by the Japan Film Library Council from the 1970s onward. Examples include The Abe Clan (1938) and Fallen Blossoms (1938), both very good films. Along with these, the Bologna series gave the Yamanaka Sadao classic Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) another well-deserved airing.

Some of these are fairly intimate dramas, others use a lot of spectacle. The image from Abe Clan above is fairly typical of the monumental turn some jidai-geki took in the late 1930s. Several of the films starred members of the left-wing Zenshinza kabuki troupe, perhaps best known to aficionados from Mizoguchi’s staggering Genroku Chushingura (1941-1942).

Three of the other films showed the range of this genre during Japan’s “dark valley,” its turn to authoritarian rule and imperial warfare. The Rise of Bandits (1937), by Takizawa Eisuke, was a rousing but melancholy Robin Hood tale. A lord’s honest son tries to save a shipment of gold from marauders, but he’s framed by his duplicitous brother. So he becomes the outlaws’ leader, at the cost of his wife’s life and his father’s trust. Some superb action sequences, including a fiery final assault on the castle, alternate with semicomic scenes among the bandits, with the hero’s cynical sidekick twisting not-too-bright thugs around his finger.

Night Before 300

Hagiwara Ryo’s The Night Before (1939, production still above) was based on a Yamanaka script, and like Humanity and Paper Balloons, it braids together several characters’ fates. As rival samurai factions struggle during the Meiji restoration, ordinary people–an artist, a family running an inn, a young man wanting to make his name as a warrior, a bitter and disenchanted samurai–try to get by. One of the innkeeper’s daughters is attracted to the youth, another daughter who works as a geisha eyes the artist, and the old man seems to escape into endless games of shogi with a neighbor. The film has a panic-stricken climax, in which the factions collide in darkness along the riverside and innocents get swept up in the violence. As with many films in the series, the critique of mindless militarism isn’t far below the surface.

The Man Who Disappeared Yesterday (1941), by the great Makino Masashiro, is a murder mystery. An unpleasant landlord is the victim, and there are plenty of suspects. The scattered clues didn’t seem to me to play entirely fair, but the investigation is largely a pretext to explore adjacent households and obfuscate what turns out to be complicated post-murder maneuvers. At the climax, all the suspects are seated in a single line to hear the magistrate’s solution, just as if they were in Nero Wolfe’s office.

Makino’s style accentuates the spatial layout through a remarkable ten zoom-ins that yank us to one or another suspect as the explanation is given, sometimes with flashbacks. Camera zooms (as opposed to optical-printer ones, as in Citizen Kane) are rare in any national cinema of this period, and Makino uses them almost in the spirit of Hong Sangsoo, more to perk up our attention than to enlarge anything for closer scrutiny. (Admittedly, the last one rivets us on the guilty party.) The same geometrical impulse encloses the tale: an opening crane shot down, a closing one upward. As often in Japanese cinema, The Man Who Disappeared Yesterday marks and repeats film techniques to give a decorative flourish to the story.

Technique also comes to the fore, of course, in Divine (1935), a French production directed by Max Ophüls. The attraction isn’t just the dizzying camera movements, swimming through a tangle of backstage paraphernalia and crawling up stairways. Max is more than a master of the tracking shot. In one witty passage, framing and cutting coordinate to stretch the distance between a couple who can’t tear themselves away from each other. (In my last frame, the milkman’s head slides almost out of frame.)

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The plot centers on a country girl who becomes a follies performer and is framed as a drug dealer by a Lothario and a lesbian. This contraption seems more or less a pretext for Ophüls to indulge his endless fascination with women striking poses for men while asserting their own demands. The abrupt and unexplained happy ending is the logical wrapup for a film less concerned with a plausible plot than a display of Woman in all her dazzling divinity. There. How’s that for a Sarris sentence?

 

Bigger than life

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Although there were some repeats on Sunday, the final big event of the festival was the screening, to some 3000 people on the Piazza Maggiore, of the new film by Agnès Varda and JR. Kelley Conway reviewed its Cannes premiere for us earlier, and now that we’ve seen it, we like it a lot.

Varda has the ability to take a whimsical, borderline-cutesy idea and turn it into something poignant, as in Daguerreotypes and Opéra-mouffe. (Nursery-rhyming titles, like Mur Murs and Sans toit ni loi, encapsulate her attitude.) Her latest, an associational documentary along the lines of The Gleaners and I, depends on the premise of traveling through France and making enormous photographic portraits of ordinary people. These are then mounted on buildings in their home town–hence the title Visages Villages.

The result is both intimate and monumental. A postal clerk or a woman truck driver take on the billboard proportions of politicians and pop stars.  Without any sense of slumming, Varda and JR can memorialize a woman living in a building about to be demolished, and can spare time for a haggard hermit who has dropped out of the system. It’s as powerful a populism as any you’ll see, but done with humor, genuine curiosity, and respect for the integrity of each subject. A playful approach to art can yield serious emotional effect.

As Visages Villages goes on, it turns introspective. Varda recalls episodes from her life and tries to incorporate one of her photos, a casual shot of Guy Bourdin, into a skewed tipsy WWII bunker rusting on a beach. She recalls young days with Godard and Karina, so that now when Godard dodges a meeting, she becomes rueful (“The rat!”). This lady gleaner is always gathering fragments, and we’re lucky she shares them with us.

 

Again Bologna gave excellent, overwhelming value. The surprises never stopped. Dropping into a film I hadn’t seen in three decades, Rancho Notorious, I not only had fun but realized once more Lang’s diabolical genius. A peculiar insert of a boot slipped into a stirrup puzzled me, but after an hour I got it. (Forgive me, Fritzie, for I knew not what I did.) Long may this festival flourish.


Thanks as ever to the vast and dedicated staff of Il Cinema Ritrovato, particularly Guy Borlée, Gian Luca Farinelli, and Mariann Lewinsky.

I discuss the trend toward monumental jidai-geki in chapters 12 and 15 of Poetics of Cinema. More detailed analysis can be found in Darrell William Davis’s book Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Cinema.

Visages Villages (aka Faces, Places) is distributed by the Cohen Media Group.

Agnes JR

Agnés Varda and JR. Photo: DB.

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017: Lac aux dames, Marc Allegret, 1934

A Ritrovato moment to stay with me for a long time, probably: Simone Simon and Jean-Pierre Aumont rolling around in a barn, bedded on a pile of grain, joined in a flowing movement of not-quite-lovemaking, which somehow is even more erotic than actual sex. All scenes with Simon's Puck and Aumont's Eric in the barn (a magic fairytale wonderland which might also be a fishing lodge) are absolutely marvellous, elevating an already freewheeling, joyfully frivolous youth melodrama into pure cine-ecstasy.

Lac aux dames is a film of unpretentious, un-selfconscious, but at the same time completely unhinged extravagance. Aumont - who's a swimming teacher working at a strange, almost sci-fi-like public bath - isn't caught between, but both blessed and marked by three women: Or maybe it's one woman split in three, into the imaginary (Simon), the symbolic (Rosin Derean), and the real (Illa Meery). But that's just one among several possible layers, and Aumont himself is more spirit than human most of the time in this.

The Forgotten: James Whale's "By Candlelight" (1933) and "The Road Back" (1937)

One of the quirks of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna's annual jamboree celebrating restored or rediscovered movies, is that expensive products of the Hollywood studio system can be just as obscure and hard-to-see as low-budget oddities, foreign arthouse affairs and forgotten silents from a hundred years ago. Dave Kehr's retrospective of neglected items from Universal's vaults demonstrates this clearly.
James Whale always liked to say By Candlelight was his favorite of his own films, bypassing the more celebrated Frankenstein films. It's a romantic comedy of confused identities and it's no surprise that P.G. Wodehouse had a hand in the stage source.
But in this movie, when a butler impersonates his master in order to seduce a wealthy lady who turns out to be a maid impersonating her mistress, all the irony of Wodehouse's inversion of traditional ideas about class has gone. All right, so George Orwell argued persuasively that Wodehouse was in no sense subversive: the central joke about Jeeves & Wooster, that the manservant is the intellectual superior of the man, depends on us recognizing this situation as absurd. But in Whale's film, while the servants are able to fool one another simply by putting on different clothes, the superior class instantly see through these impostures. Blood will tell.
(Similarly, Whale's Remember Last Night?, screened as part of last year's Universal sampling, features some cruel lampooning of Arthur Treacher's butler by the spoiled upper-class heroes. We have to accept this as a built-in part of the Whale persona: of comparatively humble origins himself, he's compelled to side with the aristocrats to shore up his hidden insecurity about his own social status and, ugh, "breeding.")
This is definitely not Whale's best film. Paul Lukas, a fine actor, is somehow too heavy and ponderous for light comedy (the more practice he got with English, the lighter he became), though the sultry Nils Asther fares better as his princely employer and Elissa Landi is very lovely and it's nice to see her get to be funny for once. She's furiously telegraphing her inferior status from the off, eager to scoop up all the possible laughs, oblivious to any narrative advantages in holding the information back as a surprise for later. And we salute this triumph of enthusiasm over plotting.
The music is a fascinating mess: in this year of King Kong, when the film score finally came into its own, W. Franke Harling has been allowed to widdle all over the soundtrack, mickeymousing every movement and responding in over-literal, hamfisted ways to every dialogue cue: if someone mentions the opera, we get an instrumental version of a well-known aria. It's a striking example of a movie that doesn't know what music is for yet, but has realized you can have a fucking lot of it. Soon, Franz Waxman's majestic Bride of Frankenstein score would show the way.
The film is very elegant and sumptuous, photographed by John J. Mescall who also lit Bride. Masked partygoers at a village fair bring in the sole touch of the macabre: on the whole, it gives us an insight into Whale's sense of humor with the grotesque elements left out.
The Road Back weaves comedy deftly into a far more serious subject. A quasi-sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, it shows a group of soldiers returning from the war and finding disillusionment and betrayal in the town they left behind. Slim Summerville repeats his role from Lewis Milestone's earlier classic, and R.C. Sheriff & Charles Kenyon adapt Erich Maria Remarque's source book. Sherrif is a crucial figure: he wrote Journey's End, the play which made Whale's name and became his first film and he had worked on all Whale's post-Franenstein horrors.
The script is deft and clever, seamlessly interweaving mordant wit and stark tragedy. In the handling of the actors, Whale, surprisingly, proves less skilled, hampered by John 'Dusty' King as a handsome but stilted lead. Generally, he encourages everyone to be as on-the-nose as possible, which works fine for funny characters like Summerville and Andy Devine and Spring Byington, but eradicates nuance in the dramatic scenes. And when you have a nasty prosecutor played by Lionel Atwill... you really don't need to give him a monocle, James.
But on the visual side, the film is remarkable: Charles D. Hall's set design creates an almost entirely interior world, its no-man's-land resembling the blasted studio hillsides of Frankenstein. Whale cranes over his German village as riots erupt, creating the most sweeping and epic scenes of his career.
This new restoration returns the film to the form of its original release: in 1939, a bowdlerized cut, caricaturing German militarism and excising the film's overt pacifist message, was released, and became the only version that could be seen (and even it was pretty hard to find).
A missed chance: as a mortally wounded comrade watches his buddies troop off homewards, the film fades to black on a wide shot, instead of on his POV, which would have been devastating. A seized chance: all these WWI movies feature spectral superimposed images of fallen warriors, a motif popular even before All Quiet's marching soldiers in the sky. Here, the effect is far more powerful: as the little group of conquered heroes stands isolated in an empty parade ground, Whale dissolves in the figures of those who will not be returning, filling the entire frame with spectres at attention. Sublime.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

July 04 2017

Shalako

shalako poster painting.jpg

Edward Dmytryk - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Shalako is an odd western as is pointed out in the commentary by Alex Cox. Most famous for his film, Sid and Nancy, Cox has also written a book on Italian westerns, highly recommended, 10,000 Ways to Die. Shalako is definitely not an Italian western, but it was filmed in Almeria, Spain, the same location as many Italian and Spanish westerns, in this case standing in for New Mexico. The film was produced at the same time as Italian westerns were at their commercial zenith, and a handful of Hollywood filmmakers were looking at trying to infuse new life in the well-worn genre. While some of the violence is a bit more graphic, as Cox mentions several times, Shalako is not the film it could have been had it been filmed with a bit more imagination.

Based on a novel by Louis L'Amour, the inspiration is from the historically noted hunting parties taken by European royalty and celebrities, exploring the western frontier. A group of European royals and a former United States senator and his wife are led into Apache territory by their guide. Former Army colonel Shalako has run into them on the trail. As they have violated a treaty, the hunting party is advised to get out the next morning or risk an Indian attack. Not only is the hunting party attacked, but the guide and his men take food, ammunition and horses, abandoning this aristocratic bunch. Shalako returns to lead the group safely through the desert.

Sean Connery took a million dollar payday to play a cowboy hero. He reportedly showed up with a mustache which was ordered to be shaven, the producers having memories of the 1950 classic, The Gunfighter, not doing well commercially with the blame placed on Gregory Peck's choice to have facial hair as appropriate for the era. The largely European cast included Brigitte Bardot, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd and Honor Blackman. Boyd gets to sport a mustache, possibly to alert viewers that he's the film's villainous white man. Also on hand are John Ford regular Woody Strode, as an Apache warrior, and former Red Ryder star Donald Barry. Not only was Connery reunited with his Goldfinger costar, but another Bond alumni, Charles Gray, provided the voice for Jack Hawkins, unable to speak his own lines due to the removal of his larynx. Unfortunately for producer Euan Lloyd, this all-star cast was unable to bring in the expected box office gold. Lloyd did continue with two other adaptations of L'Amour novels, and had better box office success with another Bond star, Roger Moore, in The Wild Geese.

The film does start promisingly with a mountain lion trapped in a crevice, unable to climb to safety. Taunted by Stephen Boyd and his crew, we see the barrel of a rifle poking in from the left of the screen, shooting the mountain lion. The shooter is Brigitte Bardot, and with her, the hunting party, all seen wearing top hats. While the hunting party is united by class, there are tensions between the married couples, as well as Peter van Eyck's German aristo unsuccessfully pursuing Bardot's countess. The sense of class and entitlement is displayed by the treatment towards Stephen Boyd and his gang. There's no subtlety involved when everyone is reduced to the same level, and are led through the desert by a man whose real first name is Moses.

The blu-ray was derived from what appears to be a perfect print. This is a film that requires viewing on a big screen to follow some of the action, with the characters quite small, seen faintly in the distance. Some may enjoy Shalako on its own merits. Edward Dymytryk has expressed embarrassment over his work here, and it certainly lacks the visual panache of his black and white thrillers from the Forties and early Fifties. The treatment of the Indians tries to play it both ways, justifying their attacks on the hunting party due to Boyd's trespassing, but also letting the viewers know that the Apache's are hardly gentlemanly with white women. Alex Cox's commentary track is of interest, pointing out how one of the sets was also featured in a couple of other Italian westerns, his own experience in Almeria shooting Straight to Hell (1987), discussing the accuracy of the presentation of the Indians, and thoughts on how Shalako could have been a better film.

What remains unanswered is in a film that hinges on the characters' deprivation of food, water and bullets, how does Brigitte Bardot manage to maintain a seemingly endless supply of eye liner?

shalako polish poster.jpg

July 02 2017

Coffee Break

Ricky.jpg
Alexandra Lamy in Ricky (Francois Ozon - 2009)

July 01 2017

Ritrovato 2017: An embarrassment of riches

Concorde new

Place de la Concorde (somewhere between 1888 and 1904)

KT here:

David’s recent entry stressed the world-wide scope of offerings here at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The time period covered is even broader–this year as broad as it could possibly be. The final night’s film in the Piazza Maggiorre will be Agnès Varda and JR’s prize-winning documentary straight from this year’s Cannes festival, Visages Villages, with Varda here to introduce it. Yesterday we saw a work that may have been created before the cinema itself had been properly invented.

 

The earliest years

American Mutoscope & Biograph

Somewhere in the time period 1888 to 1904, French scientist Etiennes-Jules Marey created a huge photographic format, a filmstrip 88 mm wide and 31 mm high. He exposed a series of images along this broad strip but never intended to project them as a film. As with much of Marey’s work, these high-quality photographs were tools to allow him to analyze movements, in this case those of humans and horses in the Place de la Concorde.

The National Technical Museum in Prague has scanned this series of frames to create a digital copy that can be projected in motion. The results, lasting only 45 seconds, has a clarity and detail that seems to rival that of Imax film. (The image at the top only hints at the effect.) We watched the piece four times and would have been glad to see it at least as many more.

A major thread running through the festival is the year 1897, which, although only the second year of the established film industry, already saw the making of many beautiful and intriguing films. Among the ones shown here were films made by the American Mutoscope Company (later known under the more familiar name, American Mutoscope and Biograph) and British Mutoscope and Biograph. These films, made to be shown in both peepshow machines and projected onto screens, utilized a 68 mm format.

Such films have mainly been seen in poor prints that give an impression of primitive crudeness. Thanks to preservation work on collections in the EYE Filmmuseum and the BFI-National Archive, the richness and clarity of these films have become evident, and they look anything but primitive. One American film (above) is Jumbo, Horseless Fire Engine, credited to William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson himself, provides what must have been an exciting variant on the many films featuring horse-drawn fire engines racing along streets.

One of the Lumière company’s most prolific traveling cameramen was Alexandre Promio. I was naturally intrigued by series he filmed in Egypt in 1897. One thing that struck me about 28 films in the program was how few featured famous tourist attractions and truly picturesque images. True, Les Pyramides (vue générale) shows one of the most familiar ancient sites in the world, the Sphinx against the great pyramid of Khufu.

Promio Sphinx film 1897

Most of the rest of these brief films are remarkably mundane, however. Place de la Citadelle shows an open space with a nondescript building in the distance rather than the two main attractions of the Citadel, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali and the spectacular view out over the city. Village de Sakkarah (cavaliers sur ânes) shows fellahin riding donkeys in modern Mit Rahina, but in the background the colossal quartzite statue of Ramesses II lies on the ground (where it still lies today, covered by a shelter). It is a beautiful statue, visited by nearly all tourists, and yet in the film it is merely a distant, vague shape, identifiable only to those who are familiar with it.

Numerous other views are moving, taken either from trains and showing ordinary industrial buildings or from boats, showing mainly palm trees. The collection leads one to speculate what prompted Promio to choose his subjects.

I believe the tradition of showing films in the open air of the Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini (the courtyard of the Cineteca di Bologna) on carbon-arc projectors began in 2013, which I reported on it. This popular feature has expanded, with three programs this year. The first centered around Addio, Giovenezza!, which David described in his entry. The second was particularly special, with a five early shorts ranging from 1902 to 1907 shown on a vintage 1900 projector, hand-cranked by Nikolaus Wostry of the Filmarchiv Austria. The films were charming, but the star of the show was the projector. It looked like a magic lantern dressed up with special attachments that allowed for moving pictures, including a shutter sitting in front of the lens rather than within the body of the lantern. Indeed, the thing looks like a magic lantern converted into a film projector.

Projector 1900

This projector cast a much smaller image than the later carbon-arc projector used for the second part of the show. The image had rounded corners and it flickered distinctly. At times, despite Wostry’s obvious expertise at hand-cranking, the image would briefly go to black. Watching this presentation, it became easy to grasp how early audiences might have been constantly aware of the artifice, the machine, creating these images and have marveled at any sort of moving photographs that were cast on the screen before them. It was a magical few minutes, making almost real the section of the program entitled “The Time Machine.”

 

Classics of 1917

The Girl from Stormycroft

Although there was some thought of ending the Cento Anni Fa programs once the feature film became established, that has fortunately not been done. Instead, a mixture of shorts and features continues to celebrate the cinema of a century ago. Some of the Italian films David wrote about came from that year.

I had the chance to see two masterpieces from that year back to back: André Antoine’s Le coupable and Victor Sjöström’s The Girl from Stormycroft. Both center around the subject of women seduced and left pregnant by their selfish lovers.

I had never seen Le coupable.  Antoine is often referred to as a naturalist theatrical director, but going by Le coupable and La terre (1921), he is equally a major film director in the realist tradition, though his output consisted of only nine films from the brief period 1917 to 1922.

While La terre was filmed largely in the countryside, Le coupable was shot in the streets of Paris, and many of its interiors seem to be set in real rooms. Antoine manages to combine the gritty realism of his lower-class milieux with beautiful cinematography (see bottom image). The story takes the unusual form (for its day) of a lengthy series of flashbacks framed by a trial of a young thief and murderer. The past does not unroll from witnesses’ testimony, however, but from one of the presiding judges’ lengthy confession that he is the father of the accused  and had abandoned the boy’s mother. The situation is pure melodrama, but Antoine’s light touch and feel for the settings of the action make it a masterpiece.

The Girl from Stormycroft has the distinction of being the first adaptation of a novel by internationally popular author Selma Lagerlöf, whose work was to be the basis for several classics of the Swedish silent cinema, including The Phantom Carriage and Stiller’s The Saga of Gõsta Berling (1924). It is set in the countryside, in a group of small villages. Helga, the heroine, has been seduced by a married man who refuses to acknowledge her child as his own. In a key trial scene, she gives up her suit against him to prevent his committing a sin by swearing to a lie on the Bible. This gains the admiration of a well-off and kind young man, Gudmund, who persuades his mother to take Helga on as a maid. When his fiancée and her parents visit Gudmund’s family, they express disgust at her presence and depart (above), leaving Gudmund is left with doubts about his upcoming marriage.

 

Early sound films

El-compadre-Mendoza-2

Il Cinema Ritrovato’s programs offer an opportunity to sample early sound films from a much wider range of countries than usual. Gustav Machaty, best known for Ecstasy (1933), made From Saturday to Sunday in 1931. It follows a pair of working girls who go out to a ritzy nightclub with two wealthy men, intending to exploit the two for a lavish night out while avoiding their sexual demands.

This proves more difficult than they expected, and we end up following one of the pair as she is stranded late at night in the pouring rain. As the title suggests, the action is a slice of life, lasting less than 24 hours. Machaty manages to blend the visual style of the late 1920s with a firm grasp of sound technology. The result is an entertaining if rather conventional tale.

From Saturday to Sunday, Machaty

Mexican filmmakers seem to have proved equally adept at taking up sound. The program notes for the program “Rivoluzione e avventura: Il Cinema Messicano dell-Epoca d’Oro” point out that  Mexican production burgeoned in the 1930s, going from one feature in 1931 to 21 in 1933.

The earliest film in this thread, El Compadre Mendoza (1933), is a technically and stylistically impressive film, looking like a Hollywood film of the same era. It’s part of a trilogy about the Mexican Revolution, coming between director Fernando de Fuentes’ El prisionero 13 (1933) and Vámonos con Pancho Villa (1935), though it is quite comprehensible and enjoyable on its own.

The irony of the title is that the protagonist, a jovial, sociable plantation owner, is professing loyalty to both sides, and for years he manages to live a pleasant life with his family and staff on their large hacienda. The film is remarkable in portraying the Revolution almost entirely offscreen. The narrative sticks mostly to Mendoza’s house, and we gauge the progress of the fighting purely through a series of sequences in which either revolutionary or government troops ride up the long, tree-lined road to the house. There Mendoza and his household provide a bit of socializing, putting up an effective façade of loyalty to whichever army is present at the time.

Mendoza develops a particular friendship with Felipe, a Revolutionary general (above), who also attracts Mendoza’s young wife in what develops into a lengthy unconsummated romance. Inevitably Mendoza’s juggling of the two sides collapses as he is forced to help one of them against his will.

For me the most unexpected discovery of the festival was the second Mexican film, Two Monks (1934). It is considered the first in the Mexican Gothic genre. It was inspired by the Spanish-language version of Dracula (directed in 1931 by George Melford for Universal), as well as by German Expressionist films.

There are no monsters in the film. Instead, a frame story set in a monastery that looks straight out of Murnau’s Faust (1926) introduces a young monk, Javier, who has gone mad. He attacks another monk, Juan, with a crucifix and confesses to the prior that he did so because Juan had committed a terrible crime. A lengthy flashback lays out the story of Javier’s love for Ana and his eventual rivalry with Juan. In the second half, Juan also confesses, and the story is repeated from his point of view. Scenes we saw earlier are replayed, often starting at an earlier point or ending at a later way, in a way that alters our understanding of the two monks’ past relationship. The result is not a Rashomon-type situation, for the two men agree on the events they describe, disagreeing only on the implications of those events.

It’s a remarkable narrational technique for this early in film history. The atmosphere claustrophobia created by the small cast (no passers-by are seen in the brief street scenes and no servants appear in the houses) and of dread created by the sets and the dissonant music of the climactic scene would bear comparison with the horror films of Universal and Hammer.

Dos monjes 3

 

Restorations that make me feel old

West Indies

Film restoration has been around for decades, but at some point within the several years I noticed that an increasing number of films were being restored were ones that I had seen when they first came out or shortly thereafter. Modern classics restoration wasn’t just for silent films and movies from the golden studio era. Now they’re for modern classics: The Graduate, Belle du jour, Women in Love, Blow-Up, and Day for Night (not to mention the restorations shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in past years).

Hondo 300My first thought is, why do such recent films need restoration? Answer: maybe they’re not as recent as they seem to me. My second thought is, haven’t the studios realized that they need to take care of their films? Answer: Yes, to some extent, given the vital work done by studio archivists like Grover Crisp and Shawn Belston. Still, will There Will Be Blood be neglected until it needs restoration in twenty years’ time?

Among the relatively recent films presented in restoration here is Med Hondo’s West Indies (1979). The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project undertook to restore a number of films by Hondo, an Algierian actor and director and one  of the most important directors from the African continent.

West Indies is a remarkable film, a musical on the history of French slave-owning in its Caribbean colonies. Inside an empty factory Hondo built a large set depicting the upper and lower decks of a slave ship. The various sections of this ship provide stages upon which scenes, anything from a 1968 demonstration in the streets of Paris to a slave auction hundreds of years before. Five actors representing colonial interests, including a black man who cooperates in order to maintain his position as a figurehead governor, take similar roles throughout the action.

It’s a lively, entertaining film, done in color and widescreen, as well as a maddening look at French complacency and casual cruelty. Most of the muscial numbers are dances rather than songs, with Hondo himself having choreographed several of them.

Hondo, now 83 and reportedly seeking backing for another film, was present at the festival and introduced the screening of West Indies that we attended. He was visibly moved by the chance to show this little-known work to an appreciative audience and thoroughly won us over during his brief presentation. With luck we will see a tenth film from him.


Thanks to Guy Borlée for his assistance with this blog, and to the programmers and staff of Ritrovato for another dazzling year. You can download the entire festival catalogue here.

Kelley Conway’s reviewed Visages Villages at Cannes for our blog.

 

Le coupable 1

Le coupable (1917)

June 30 2017

E uno plura: Close-Up on James N. Kienitz Wilkins' "The Republic"

MUBI is presenting the world premiere of James N. Kientiz Wilkins' The Republic from July 4 - August 3, 2017.
The Republic
The cinema of James N. Kienitz Wilkins occupies an unusual space in the contemporary art scene.  Most of his films are the result of some sort of conceptual procedure, a decision either to treat his original footage according to some abstract system or to apply his own logic to found material. And yet, there is a plainspoken quality to Kienitz Wilkins’ work that smooths out any potential “art damage” or intimidation factor. Kienitz Wilkins has successfully adapted some of the most critical weapons in the arsenal of experimental cinema to produce a stark poetry of the everyday.
Kienitz Wilkins’ newest “film,” The Republic, is quite possibly his most radical effort to date. For starters, you will notice that I put the word “film” in quotation marks, since it is no easy matter to discern just exactly what medium The Republic really belongs to. Making its debut on MUBI, The Republic will be experienced on laptops and iPads, HDTVs and classroom projection systems. But I suspect it will also eventually find its way into art galleries, as well as onto public radio. But how can this be? Is The Republic an experimental film? A James Turrell-style light sculpture? A radio play?
As the old Saturday Night Live sketch put it, relax: The Republic is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. A three-hour-and-thirty-minute narrative film, The Republic is imposing, and not just in terms of its length. It is also the densest, most text-intensive project the artist has created to date. This is notable, because if you are at all familiar with Kienitz Wilkins’ work, you know that he can be quite the talker. His films are unique in the avant-garde realm for their reliance on storytelling, something not always welcome in a subculture that tends to prize the visual above all else. He frequently adopts a dark, sardonic tone in his tales, aided and abetted by an arch, hard-boiled delivery.
For example, Kienitz Wilkins’ “Andre Trilogy” finds the filmmaker applying his two key strategies—conceptual artistry and storytelling—in tandem. The first film, Special Features (2014), involves a young man being interviewed about a mishap during a catering gig involving a fellow employee named Andre. We faintly hear Kienitz Wilkins asking questions off-camera, and soon, strange jump-cuts begin disrupting the vérité atmosphere of the recording. When another man, and then another, replaces our original interlocutor, we know we’ve been played. 
The second film, TESTER (2015), consists of Kienitz Wilkins telling a rapid-fire story from the perspective of a private eye, while found footage from a recording test in a video lab plays on the image track. While we hear Kienitz Wilkins, an improbable Philip Marlow manqué, delivers his rat-a-tat monologue about his appreciation of the inexplicable Euro-American ambiance of Panera Bread, video technicians futz with cords, seemingly unaware of their self-surveillance. TESTER offers a few surprises, as does the final “Andre” film, B-ROLL with Andre (2015), another story-based film, this time apparently providing the true story of the elusive Andre from a guy who did time with him in the joint. While Kienitz Wilkins seems to be conducting an interview with a young man whose identity is obscured, we eventually figure out that this interview, much like the ones in Special Features, is not what it appears to be. But while Kienitz Wilkins again employs found footage to make B-ROLL seem like a coherent narrative, what is incontestably real is the insight and intricacy of the film’s script. In it, Kienitz Wilkins successfully creates a character, Andre, who has deep philosophical convictions and some wild ideas about video equipment. “The Andre Trilogy” is a well-constructed suite of experimental films, but it is as a writer that Kienitz Wilkins truly shines.
Kienitz Wilkins’ next two films expanded on the promise of the “Andre Trilogy,” expanding the connections between appropriated visual materials and the filmmaker’s own unique voice. Indefinite Pitch (2016) is a short film consisting entirely of still black-and-white images. Where the “Andre” films bore family resemblances to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson and Travis Wilkerson, this film harks back to the great Chris Marker and his La jetée. A film he made for the Berlinale, Kienitz Wilkins frames the narration as though he were pitching a film set in Berlin. Soon, he reveals that he means Berlin, New Hampshire (budgets being what they are), and that the photographs are of the Androscoggin River. Needless to say, by this point not everything is as it seems. But Kienitz Wilkins’ narration is a Gordian knot of puns and misdirections, repetitions and double-backs. (The film is accompanied, Wavelength-style, by an ever-escalating tone, an “indefinite pitch.”) If brevity is the soul of wit, Kienitz Wilkins hit the jackpot with this one.
More politically serious and formally adventurous, his feature film Common Carrier (2017) is a kind of labor-conscious version of Max Ophüls’ La ronde, wherein a group of friends and acquaintances in New York are struggling with what it means to be artists in the age of neoliberal capital. Kienitz Wilkins sets his inquiry against the backdrop of a strike by Verizon mobile employees, and the omnipresence of data technology, cell phones, and especially wi-fi serve as a metaphor for the all-pervading pressure that capitalism inflicts on our daily lives. It must be said, Common Carrier is not an easy film to watch, nor was it intended to be. It exhibits a kind of negativity of which I suspect Theodor Adorno would have approved. There are always at least two competing sound streams, and every narrative event is superimposed over an alternate angle of the same subjects and locations, not doing the exact same thing—not two simultaneous images in Cubist time, but an undecidable ‘before’ or ‘after’ to the main event.
In light of this progression, The Republic should not come as much of a shock, but still one has to wonder: how far can the definitions of the moving picture medium be pushed? Simultaneously an example of the “slow cinema” that is in critical vogue at the moment, and the most verbose, mile-a-minute polylogue Kienitz Wilkins has ever produced, The Republic is both serious as a heart attack and a kind of dialectical joke. There are real stakes involved in the work, to be sure. With a script by Robin Schavoir and performed by fifteen actors (including Kienitz Wilkins himself), The Republic is a five-act play about libertarian utopianism and its folly. The piece involves a group of semi-separatists who have formed their own barter-and-contract based “nation” in isolation, declaring themselves a nation of free men and women. Due to a betrayal by a charter member of the group, the community must contend with Linda (Nour Mobarak), a rich young woman whose money they might need in order to survive the winter. 
The play is tough to listen to. For one thing, libertarians are weird. Schavoir’s script capitalizes on this, emphasizing the men’s distrust of emotion, discomfort with sexuality, and naïve belief that all human difference can be negotiated away through contract law. In explaining that they don’t really believe in hospitals, Linda asks main character / future paramour Gavin (Anthony Aroya) what would happen if he were attacked by a bear. His answer? “Well, I wasn’t careful. I made a bad choice.” (Lest we forget, hardcore libertarians want to dismantle all government oversight. USDA? Nah, if enough kids die from meat tainted with e-coli, the market will correct it . . . eventually.)  
So The Republic is extremely abstract in parts, and it is sometimes hard to keep track of all its characters. That’s not to say that it isn’t worth the effort, but in a sort of comic analogue to the characters’ unadorned stoicism and anti-aesthetic biases, the visual track of The Republic is a black screen which, over the 215-minute running time, very gradually turns to white. Your screen will span the entire gray scale while you listen to a piece of five-act readers’ theatre about economic responsibility and individualism. I can’t help but wonder if this is what going on a date with Ayn Rand felt like.
Kienitz Wilkins isn’t just playing a joke here. Nor is he simply visualizing the libertarians’ absolutist thinking as an ironic journey across many shades of gray. The Republic makes an implicit comparison between the idealist theories that underpin libertarianism (Mill, Locke, Hayek) and the methodologies of modernism in the visual arts. One could easily imagine Frank Stella or Barnett Newman titling one of their canvases “The Republic,” because modern art of the Clement Greenberg variety assumes a centered, self-sufficient, universal subject—the same subject deemed fit to engage in the trucking, trading, and bartering of the libertarian utopia.  
The Republic is a film that finds Kienitz Wilkins exposing a crisis at the center of 20th century thought. The universal subject, that rational being whose perspective is so “natural” that his existence (always "his") goes without saying, necessarily requires an endless string of verbiage to explain himself. But then, when confronted with such beings, we ask them to explain themselves and their universal concepts, and more often than not we are met with stony silence. So in a way, The Republic answers the question posed by desperate comedians everywhere: “Are you an audience or an oil painting?”
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