Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

My first book review, of Ray Carney’s Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer (1989) at Offscreen. Thanks as always to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.


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An awkward blend of tough guy posturing and homosocial sentimentality (complete with adult male tickle fights), John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) is so determined to make its protagonist sympathetic that he’s never allowed to be interesting or believable, even before he resolves to go straight. (The movie’s Chinese title means “True Colours of a Hero.”) As the film opens, Sung Tse-ho (Ti Lung) is part of an international counterfeiting ring yet he’s somehow managed to keep this a secret from his younger brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), who wants to be a cop. Tse-ho may be a crook but he’s unwaveringly loyal to his friends—unlike his associate, Shing (Waise Lee), who betrays Tse-ho so that he can take his place—though the movie might’ve been more interesting if he weren’t; at least it would’ve been more realistic. Perhaps it’s best to approach the story as merely a pretext for the film’s action scenes which cheerfully abandon continuity and logic. At one point, half a dozen taxi drivers appear out of thin air so that Shing’s henchmen have more people to fight, and Tse-ho’s confrère, Mark (Chow Yun-fat), has a sixth sense that tells him when a bad guy pops up behind him during a shootout. This is watchable enough but James Gray’s We Own the Night (2007) told a similar story more persuasively and with stronger action scenes.

Although one conservative blogger has described Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958) as a defense of the aristocracy as selfless patrons of the arts¹, it strikes me as being pretty ambivalent about its central character, a faded nobleman whose “dangerous addiction” to music winds up destroying him. When the story begins, Biswambhar Roy (Chabbi Biswas) is already broke, but in Bengal in the early part of the twentieth century, the idea that an aristocrat would lower himself by getting a job wouldn’t occur to Roy or anyone else (it’s not like he has any skills), making his downfall all but inevitable. But while the movie characterizes Roy as a decadent layabout who spends his days idly huffing on a hookah pipe, he’s still portrayed in a far more flattering light than his upwardly mobile neighbor, Mahim Ganguli (Gangapanda Bose), a moneylender who spurs Roy to throw ever more lavish musical recitals; Roy may ruin himself to keep up appearances but he has refinement while Ganguli is the embodiment of nouveau riche vulgarity. (In one scene, he brags to Roy that all his furniture comes from the best English shops in Calcutta.) Near the end of the film, Roy gives a speech to one of his servants explaining that Ganguli couldn’t beat him because of his noble blood, and depending on one’s biases, this monologue can either be taken at face value (there’s no doubt he’s the better man) or as proof that he’s finally lost it (with his wide eyes and excited speech, Roy comes off as slightly mad), and his subsequent demise is at once tragic and pitiful.

1. Morton, Victor J., “I Wish I Were Indian.” Right-Wing Film Geek. WordPress. Originally posted on December 1, 2011. Accessed on January 10, 2013.

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A delightfully silly slapstick comedy by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, La Fée (2011) is as rigorous as it is goofy. Once upon a time in Le Havre, Dom (Abel) is working the night shift at an Edward Hopper hotel when a strange woman (Gordon) walks through the door, calmly informs him that she’s a fairy, and offers to grant him three wishes. The plot essentially consists of a string of whimsical deadpan gags that are unified by the film’s narrow focus on a small cast of characters — including an English tourist (Philippe Martz) and his dog, a comically near-sighted bartender (Romy), and a trio of illegal immigrants — in a handful of locations within close proximity to the hotel over a short period of time (a series of consecutive days and nights), and by the repetition of the same camera set-ups, such as the identically framed shots of smokers standing outside a hospital in a carefully arranged planimetric tableau. Endearingly daffy, it’s the kind of movie where the hero can fall down several flights of stairs, get up, pull the cactus out of his face, and keep going as if nothing had happened. I haven’t laughed so much in months.

Hellas pour moi

Watching the films of Theo Angelopoulos, one gets the feeling that it’s always chilly in Greece. Many of his movies are about dour figures in heavy coats (which they wear even when they’re inside) traveling through damp, colourless landscapes and decrepit, conspicuously underpopulated towns on their way to ruin and despair. The Beekeeper (1986) tells the story of an uncommunicative gloomy Gus (Marcello Mastroianni, rocking a Stalin-esque ‘stache) driving a truck full of bees to nowhere in particular. Along the way, he picks up a flirtatious teenage runaway (Nadia Mourouzi) who inspires in him a particularly bad case of the seven-year itch. Though less demanding than Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), this isn’t likely to win over many new converts while viewers familiar with the directors’ other films may feel like they’ve seen it all before. However, the hero’s increasingly enigmatic behavior and the movie’s graceful long take style kept me interested throughout.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

The spectator’s identification can’t go any deeper than with the character of the orphan, the child alone in the darkness.—Leos Carax

It’s a hard world for little things.—Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955)

It’s well known that Gloria (1980) wasn’t a film that John Cassavetes had much interest in making. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Cassavetes wrote the script for MGM thinking some one else would direct it; he wound up directing it himself for Columbia only because his wife, Gena Rowlands, was the star and the studio asked him to.” Rosenbaum quotes Cassavetes as saying, “I was bored [shooting the movie] because I knew the answer to the picture the minute we began. […] All my best work comes from not knowing.” However, looking at the finished film, I can’t imagine any other director doing a better job. Although the plot isn’t very original, the seedy locations and unglamorous performances (which reflect Cassavetes’ profound aversion to any sort of studio gloss) help to situate the narrative in a bleak universe in which the familiar story becomes uncommonly harrowing.

The film begins with a young woman, Jerri (Julie Carmen), and her husband, Jack (Buck Henry), frantically packing their bags while gangsters assemble in the lobby of the dumpy apartment building where they live in the Bronx. Gloria (Rowlands), a single woman who lives down the hall, drops by to ask for some sugar and winds up taking in the couple’s seven-year-old son, Phil (John Adames). Gloria is reluctant at first (“I don’t like kids, especially yours”), but Jerri explains that her husband is an accountant for the mob who informed on his former employers to the FBI, and that there are men downstairs who are coming to kill them. Before he dies, Jack gives Phil a notebook in which he’s written down everything he knows about the mob. It’s a familiar situation: a child on the run from gangsters bonding with an unlikely parental figure. But I think one reason it’s been done so many times is that viewers instinctively respond to the idea of a child in danger, even if he is a bit of a brat. (At one point Phil says to Gloria, “You’re not my mother! My mother is beautiful!”)

Necessarily, the world that Phil inhabits is a pretty grim place in which every adult character but Jerri is morally compromised by their connection to organized crime. It’s purposefully never explained why Jack betrayed the mob, and ultimately, all he achieves by this is to get himself and most of his family killed. On the other hand, while Gloria can’t bring herself to turn over a little kid to the gangsters for execution, she’s hardly an anti-mob crusader. Early in the film, she explains to Phil that she can’t take him to the police because the people who killed his family are “friends” of hers. Later, after reading the notebook given to Phil by his father, Gloria’s advice is to burn it, and in the end, she willingly hands it over to the mob boss who used to be her sugar daddy. In other words, the movie lacks a truly heroic character to oppose the gangsters. Adding to the film’s sombre tone are the drab settings in which everything looks shabby and worn out—including Gloria, whose makeup gives her a slightly haggard look. If the environment were less dreary, and if Gloria were a less dubious heroine, I’d have little reason to doubt that everything was going to turn out fine for the characters, but here, that she and Phil might be killed seems like a very real possibility.

The most suspenseful scenes in the film are those in which Phil is completely on his own. In one sequence, Gloria abruptly decides that she and Phil should split up and walks into a dive bar to have a drink; a few minutes later, she has a change of heart and gets into a cab to go looking for him. What makes this sequence so agonizing is its avoidance of crosscutting, so that (like Gloria) we don’t know where Phil is or what’s happened to him. Later, when Gloria goes to the mob boss’ apartment, the movie cuts back and forth between her and Phil, who boards a train to Pittsburgh. On her way out, Gloria gets into a shootout with the gangsters and it’s not clear if she survives. (The last thing we see is the gangsters firing down an elevator shaft at Gloria, who’s concealed from view by the elevator’s ceiling.) In Pittsburgh, Phil concludes that Gloria must be dead and takes a cab to a cemetery (recalling an earlier scene in which Gloria took him to a different graveyard to say goodbye to his family, who hadn’t yet been buried.) Since they arranged to meet at the train station, it seems unlikely that Gloria would be able to find him even if she were alive—and indeed, the film doesn’t explain how she was able to track him down so that it’s a surprise when she steps out of a black car. What’s more, between the car arriving at the cemetery and Gloria getting out, there’s a period of dreadful uncertainty in which it looks like the gangsters may have caught up with Phil. When the movie was over, I felt the same sense of relief that one has upon waking from a nightmare.

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If I were making a list of the best newish films that I saw in 2011, I’d have to include a bunch of movies that I’ve already written about on this blog—notably, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty the Borrower (2010), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010), and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). However, since I have nothing more to say about these films, instead of repeating myself, what I’d rather do is turn my attention to a number of films that I greatly admire but haven’t been able to write about (either because I’ve been too busy with other things, or was too intimidated by them, or both). I don’t claim that all of my picks are masterpieces, but I like them all enough to look forward to seeing them again.

Copie conforme (Abbas Kiarostami) A rather puzzling two-part narrative about a pair of strangers pretending to be a couple, or a couple pretending to be strangers. (Or both, or maybe neither.) The verisimilitude of the film’s style is itself a fabrication, yet Kiarostami is such a master illusionist that it seems effortless.

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo) Another two-part narrative experiment belied by the realism of the director’s mise en scène. The delightfully improbable plot is full of amusing surprises, making this the best, and funniest, South Korean movie I’ve seen since Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008).

Des Hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois) Further evidence, along with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (also 2010), that classical Hollywood cinema is alive and kicking—in Europe. Largely eschewing close-ups in favor of group stagings in medium and long shot, this moving film demonstrates how much can be achieved with simplicity and restraint.

Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes) In terms of form and style, this five-part miniseries is the straightest movie Haynes has ever made, but it’s also the most political. The middle-class heroine’s sense of shame at having to work for a living is so powerfully felt that the first three episodes are almost unbearably agonizing to watch.

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Poromboiu) A cop movie where the victim is the criminal (a teenage drug dealer) and the villain is Romania’s puritanical legal code, which is enforced as thoughtlessly and as severely as the rules of grammar. The lengthy shots of our sullen hero standing around in front of grey, concrete buildings are so sensationally drab they’d make Jim Jarmusch feel jealous.

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux) A muscular European art film thinly disguised as a trashy American genre piece (making it the inverse of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive [2011]), this surrealist road movie explodes narrative conventions faster than its exterminating axle explodes heads.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) I’m generally averse to serial killer movies, but this gripping Australian drama is distinguished in part by its uncommon seriousness. Although it doesn’t linger on the gory details, the unrelieved grimness of the film’s subject matter and mise en scène is often hard to bear.

The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee (Elia Suleiman) Beginning with the creation of the state of Israel and continuing up to the present, this deadpan tragicomedy about three generations of Palestinian Christians is as stylistically rigorous as it is historically resonant. Incidentally, it’s also funny.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) A fairy tale for grownups (for better or worse), Malick’s fifth is dramatically shapeless, but the rhythmic, graphically discontinuous editing, and its combinations of music and images, go straight to the heart.

White Material (Claire Denis) Centering on a protagonist with a clear goal, this powerful film about a colonial plantation owner attempting to go about business as usual in the midst of a civil war is the closest Denis has come to making a normal movie—as if she were deliberately attempting to court a wider audience. In any case, it’s easily the most suspenseful film she’s ever made.

Needless to say, this list isn’t exhaustive. I’d also recommend Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust of Time (2009) for its magisterial camera movements; Jia Zhang-ke’s fascinating but unfocussed I Wish I Knew (2010); Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010) for the director’s god-like control over mise en scène; Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) for its narrative ambiguities and the clinical precision of Leigh’s mise en scène and framing, which both suggest the influence of Michael Haneke; and Duncan Jones’ Source Code (2011) for the way that it doles out exposition in small doses while the action moves relentlessly forward, so that (like the hero) we only gradually begin to grasp the situation.

Finally, if I were choosing he best films that I saw for the first time in 2011 regardless of when they were made—along with Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), which I’ve already written about—my picks would be a quartet of French masterpieces: Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Alain Resnais’ Mélo (1986), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). While Renoir’s proletarian comedy is plainly the most beguiling and optimistic movie on my list, Eustache’s bohemian psychodrama is the most emotionally devastating, and the director’s stripped down mise en scène puts particular emphasis on the performances. On the other hand, the style of Resnais’ film is flamboyantly theatrical, yet the story is no less moving for it. Indeed, along with La Maman et la putain, this was the most powerfully acted movie that I saw all year. Lastly, Godard’s eight-part series on video (the only avant-garde item on my list) has a reputation for being esoteric, but it strikes me as more accessible than any of his recent features precisely because it doesn’t tell a story. Thus, one can groove on the sounds and images without having to worry about processing the experience in terms of narrative. Like The Tree of Life, it’s a movie that sings rather than speaking.

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