Saturday, December 10, 2016

Review - Three Days and a Child (1967)

A jewel of the blink-and-you-missed-it Israeli New Wave, Uri Zohar's stylish, charmingly desultory feature follows Eli (Oded Kotler), a shiftless graduate student living in Jerusalem who agrees to babysit the three year-old son of a former lover. Over a hectic late-summer weekend, he entertains the boy, contemplates abandoning him, rescues him from danger, and considers whether the child may in fact be his, an unsettling prospect for Eli that prompts him to reexamine his past, and question the specious comforts of perpetual bachelorhood. While he undoubtedly draws on early works from the likes of Truffaut, Varda and Rozier for visual inspirationZohar's weighty themes are decidedly personal, and spring largely from biography. The protagonist is defined not just by his youthful urbanity, but also by stints of compulsory military service, and time spent in a kibbutz, or farming cooperative. This specificity of characterization - along with the unusually frank examination of issues like masculinity, sex and familial responsibilities - set this effort apart from others works of a similar mold. As a photographic document, Zohar's film presents striking views of Jerusalem in the time of the Six-Day War. Shot in crisp, high-contrast black and white, it offers surprisingly nuanced depictions of an individual, an incipient nation and an era.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review - Imagine the Sound (1981)

In this delightfully intimate documentary shot in the early 1980's, four figures formerly at the vanguard of the 60's free-jazz explosion recall the pivotal era, and in an act of cinematic conjuring, invoke the exploratory spirit that animated their early groundbreaking works. Pianists Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, trumpeter Bill Dixon and saxophonist Archie Shepp - as diverse and articulate a panel of artists one could ever hope to cross-examine on the subject at hand - give candid interviews that touch on their beginnings on the avant-garde scene, the considerable challenge of earning a living while continuously pushing creative boundaries, and their enduring love for their craft. The testimony, alternately funny, impassioned and thought-provoking, is intercut with footage of the musicians playing in different configurations, from extended solo improvisations (by Taylor and Bley), to pieces for trio and quartet (by Dixon and Shepp, respectively). As enlightening as the anecdotes are, the extemporaneous performances offer the deepest insight. Captured with a rapt gaze by director Ron Mann, they manifest that which the interviewees can only allude to, or express in intellectual terms that prove inadequate: the insatiable yearning for new and hitherto unheard sounds that drove them to experiment in the heyday of "the new thing," and continues to drive them presently. For those rating the players, Mr. Taylor steals the show handily, with his moonstruck musings, sequined sweatsuit, and impossibly energetic, violently percussive pianism.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Review - Out of the Blue (1980)

Nearly a decade after the debacle of 'The Last Movie,' a critical and commercial flop so ruinous that he was effectively banished from Hollywood for making it, Dennis Hopper helmed this minor masterwork, possibly the finest moment of his turbulent directorial career. It's a portrait of a broken family, torn apart by a tragic accident then reunited years later, only to be shattered irrevocably by seemingly inescapable circumstance. Patriarch Don (Hopper, all manic energy and howling sorrow) is released from prison after serving a five-year sentence for crashing his truck into a school bus full of children. In his absence, wife Kathy (Sharon Farrell) has taken up with her boss at the local luncheonette and developed a nasty drug habit, shooting up and ignoring her teenage daughter Cindy (Linda Manz). The neglected Cebe (as the girl is affectionally known) gravitates to the burgeoning punk rock scene, puffing cigarettes, swilling beer, tattooing herself and running away from home in open rebellion against her derelict mother and absentee father. Don's return precipitates a catastrophic chain of events, old wounds and deep-seated dysfunctions reemerge, and any chance the family had for happiness, or completeness, is dashed.

Hopper stumbled into the low-budget directing assignment, replacing the film's screenwriter at the last moment, but his signature preoccupations and iconoclastic spirit are evident in all its aspects - from the patchwork rock soundtrack that recalls 'Easy Rider,' to the alienated protagonists like those that appear throughout his oeuvre, usually portrayed by Hopper himself. The conflicted Don Barnes mirrors the director especially closely; both are aging troublemakers, returned from exile and forced to wrestle with their obsolescence in the face of the latest counter-cultural wave. ("I'm a punk," Don sneers at the sight of his daughter's band posters.) What separates this from the filmmaker's earlier, self-indulgent efforts is a newfound restraint, and a masterly control of resources. The brutally honest performances, stoked to their feverish limits, evoke the cinema of John Cassavetes, and are matched by the dynamic photography of cinematographer Marc Champion. His camera stalks nimbly, changes direction suddenly, and circles its subjects as if ensnaring them, only stopping to rest on the most haunting, indelible images. Another telling sign of Hopper's maturation: he cedes the spotlight to young actress Linda Manz, whose soulful, defiant yet deeply vulnerable turn as CeBe is one that is not easily forgotten.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review - Ghost Dance (1983)

Part cine-philosophical tract, part free-form fiction, Ken McMullen's audacious feature blends 'Celine and Julie Go Boating' style feminist romp with graduate-level dialectics, though not particularly successfully. Pascale (Pascale Ogier) and Marianne (Leonie Mellinger) travel the shadowy streets of Paris and London in search of "ghosts," not the spirits of the deceased, but traces of people and events from the past that echo endlessly throughout our lives. They consider various phenomena that dredge up those figures and ideas - recordings, photographs, oral histories, the cinema - and how these phantoms invariably reappear and influence, or "haunt" the present. Along the way, the pair encounter several Carroll-esque characters (a phone-chewing electronics salesman and a weather obsessed drummer), consult a preeminent philosopher (Jacques Derrida, whose sagely observations and fourth wall prodding may be the highlight of the film), channel ancient warriors and visit a ruined future world.

Sadly, what could have been a fanciful inquiry into an intriguing subject is confounded by didactic passages that clash with the storyline, and slow the overall pace to a crawl. McMullen interjects opaque narration, interpretive performance pieces and other pretentious asides that try desperately to emulate film essayists like Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard, but fail to capture their eccentric poetry, or sense of wonderment. The high-flown discourse and dreamlike plot never coalesce either, making for a wildly uneven viewing experience. Still, it is worth seeing, if only for a number of provocative images that mystify, and reveal ethereal connections. The opening and closing shots, which are repeated, resonate especially clearly; on a wintry beach, Marianne tries futilely to throw a large, poster-sized photograph of Pascale into the ocean, but the tide repeatedly washes it back in. Actress Pascale Ogier (whose mother was Rivette regular and 'Celine and Julie' co-star Bulle Ogier) would tragically die soon after the release of the film from a heart attack. By means of associations seen and unseen, in the past and yet to occur, Marianne's task is transformed into a symbolic burial, a prophetic ritual that illuminates the interconnectedness of generations. If only the director let the images speak for themselves more often.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review - The Left Handed Woman (1978)

Novelist Peter Handke's humane, gently inspiring directorial debut (which he adapted from his short novel) follows Marianne (Édith Clever), a German expatriate and housewife living a sleepy life in a Parisian suburb with her husband Bruno (Bruno Ganz) and their son Stefan. The morning after welcoming Bruno back from a business trip and spending the night at a hotel, Marianne suddenly and plainly demands that he move out of their home at once, and leave her to raise the boy alone. Ignoring the bewildered protestations of her husband, she rearranges her house, resumes her career as a translator, and shakily at first, but with increased resolve as the film wears on, re-learns how to live for herself.

For his first feature, Handke leans heavily on two of his cinematic idols for inspiration, close collaborator Wim Wenders and Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. From Wenders, he borrows regular actors Ganz and Rüdiger Vogler (in a charming cameo as himself), the longstanding cinematographer/ editor tandem of Robby Müller and Peter Przygodda, and the continental European milieu the two directors belonged to in the 1970's. Like the loners that populate Wenders' efforts of the period, Handke's protagonist is trapped between cultures, taken to bouts of silent introspection and wandering in search of some elusive place of belonging. Ozu, still a cult figure at the time, is lovingly referenced, twice overtly (Marianne sees his silent feature 'Tokyo Chorus' in a cinema, and a portrait of his face adorns her living room wall) and more subtly throughout the film (in the placid transitional shots, pervasiveness of trains, and the understated familial themes).

Homage aside, Handke proves himself a gifted visual storyteller with a painterly eye for tableaux, and a singular, almost rhythmic editing style. He bathes the still interiors and chilled, early-spring townscapes in golden sunlight and ponderous shadows, and utilizes clattering trains and brusque cuts like punctuation to underscore his heroine's ordeal. In its best stretches, the author turned filmmaker achieves a wordless beauty, refreshingly free of elucidation or psychology, that belies his literary calling.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review - Notes for a Film About Jazz (1965)

This all-too-brief account of the 1965 Bologna International Jazz Festival succeeds on dual levels; as a straightforward document of the supremely hip groups who assembled and their performances, but also as testament to the singular, unifying power of music. As framed by director Gianni Amico, the multinational gathering is transformed into a utopian bubble in which the racial and cultural differences of the invitees, even their linguistic barriers, are transcended by sheer enthusiasm for the music being played. Amico stealthily captures a number of genuinely warm moments, in rehearsals and during downtime, that bolster this benevolent vision. Saxmen with no more than a handful of common words between them compare instruments, a group goes over their setlist by singing the themes instead of naming songs, and a pair of scat singers, a black man and a white woman, harmonize together, beaming like old friends. At the center of this love-fest, fittingly, is zen-like trumpeter Don Cherry, whose then-newly formed quintet features sidemen from Italy, Argentina, France and Germany. Like an embodiment of the festival's spirit, Cherry is goofy, effusive, seemingly color-blind, and quite often, awestruck by the music. Amico, too, is reverent, fixing his camera on the soloists for long, uninterrupted shots of fiery playing. It's in these performance scenes (and in an incongruously solemn exchange with pianist Mal Waldron that touches on Black Muslims and the assassination of Malcolm X) that the pathos intrinsically at the heart of jazz shows through. The seriousness is offset by a grinning Ted Curson, who extols the festival's atmosphere of amiability and acceptance in an interview given while visiting a carnival with his bandmates. Moving from the ferris wheel to the shooting gallery to the go-carts, the young trumpet-player seems to have forgotten the troubles at home, even if only for a short time.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review - The Cool World (1963)

Set amidst the unsavory street corners and Babylonian din of early 60's Harlem, Shirley Clarke's vivid, rough-edged drama tells the story of the Royal Pythons, a scrappy teen-aged gang trying to make a name for themselves. 15-year old Duke, a Python warlord (played with affecting stoicism by first-time actor Rony Clanton), aspires to become the club's president and have a reputation as a killer - for both he requires a gun. He arranges to buy a pearl-handled Colt from a local gangster, and spends the duration of the film frantically hustling to pay for it, violently clashing with a rival gang, ascending the ranks of his own crew, and reaping all that comes along with the top spot.

As she does in better known works like 'The Connection' and 'Portrait of Jason,' Clarke freely blends scripted narrative with elements of cinéma vérité. She forgoes set pieces for a series of authentic city locales, into which she disperses her players; bustling boulevards uptown, deserted playgrounds at dusk, a dreamily rendered Coney Island worthy of Morris Engel. The voyeuristic framework, exoticized setting, casting of non-actors and poor sound dubbing recall the ethnographic fictions of Jean Rouch, who's pioneering works shot in Africa are probably this film's closest antecedents. Like Rouch, Clarke presents a somewhat naive diagnosis of the community that she documents, in this case a relentless death-drive that compels the young African American protagonists to murder each other and pursue their own demise with little rationale. Fortunately for the filmmaker, the vitality and sheer energy of the inner-city neighborhood and its residents shine through.

While the simplistic superimposed storyline hangs a bit loosely from the dynamic imagery, the jazz score by the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet is tight and tensile, nimbly shadowing the onscreen action. The legendary trumpeter gets top billing, but it's Mal Waldron's kinetic compositions that constitute the film's greatest triumph. Waldron, who would go on to craft under-appreciated scores for 'Sweet Love, Bitter' and 'Three Rooms in Manhattan,' provides a masterful selection of moody themes and probing piano cues that complement the narrative in a number of inventive ways. On the boardwalk in Brooklyn, he incorporates a carnival organ that is playful yet ominous, and in one desperately needed scene of tenderness, a music box tinkles while Duke gives an impromptu geography lesson to LuAnne, a childlike teenage prostitute.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Notes on... Muhammed Ali, The Greatest (1974)

In the wake of Muhammed Ali's passing earlier this year, many of the films that immortalized the boxer's legacy in and out of the ring have been revisited, in print and on the repertory circuit. Leon Gast's polished Oscar-winner 'When We Were Kings' an account of Ali's 1974 title bout with George Foreman in Zaire, reappeared at movie-houses across the country, as did Bill Siegel's illuminating 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali,' focused on the fighter's legal travails at the end of the 1960's. Some lesser known titles have wisely been reevaluated (William Greaves' gritty, unembellished 'The Fighters,' reassessed by Richard Brody), while other, more questionable works have remained obscure (Tom Gries' hokey hagiography 'The Greatest,' featuring among many other missteps, James Earl Jones portraying Malcolm X).

Worthy of a fresh look but excluded from recent conversation is William Klein's 'Muhammed Ali, The Greatest.' Likely due to a confusing release history (its first section was put out as a standalone feature with a different title in 1969), as well as an emerging distaste among American audiences and critics for Klein's blatantly anti-U.S. stripe, his artful documentary was and is still rarely shown. It's a shame, as it is a sharply realized portrait of the complex fighter, one that is far more ingenious in conception than any of the aforementioned titles. The film boasts two rather bold formalistic innovations, the most striking of which is a bipartite narrative structure. Its first half, shot in 1964 in black and white, chronicles Ali's quest for the heavyweight championship, trailing him as he trains, whips up media frenzy and upsets the fearsome Sonny Liston twice. The young Ali, then still going by his birth name of Cassius Clay, is pompous yet introspective, confident of his greatness but increasingly aware of the glass ceiling he will inevitably crash into as a black athlete in the stifling racial climate of 60's America. Klein then jumps ahead to 1974 in full color, to the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with Foreman, where a slightly ripened, but no less flamboyant or dominant Ali regains the title in another shocker.

The elision of the intervening decade - in which Clay joined the Nation of Islam, became Ali, refused to serve in Vietnam, and lost his public and professional stature - exemplifies the filmmaker's oblique storytelling slant. Rather than have one of his subjects speak his views on the state of racial affairs in 1964, Klein shows the stakes. He contrasts ghoulish, cigar-smoking stakeholders conferring about boxers as if they were livestock (distorted with the director's signature fish-eye lens) with stoic undercard fighters, grimly awaiting a grueling punishment that will likely be their moment in the sun. In Lewiston, Maine, the site of the second contest with Liston, the radicalization effect is not discussed but acted out by a group of black teenagers performing a psychodrama at the behest of a white teacher. It begins as a playful recreation of an pre-fight press conference (one student plays a cocky, shirtless Ali, another a journalist) and ends with spirited calls for black power and equality. Ten years later in Africa, the earthy, inspirational image of Ali is juxtaposed with the false magnanimity and authoritarian ubiquity of Zairean President Mobutu, who one cannot help but liken to the parasitic American fight promotors shown earlier. The strong insinuation is that no matter the color of their skin, a champion of the people will always run counter to the oppressor, and ultimately upstage him.

The most audacious of Klein's allusive tactics (and the second of the stylistic contrivances that distinguish his film) is the omission of any footage from the three featured fights. Usage was likely was not allowed due to copyright issues, but the director uses the restriction to his advantage, eschewing the ready-made climax of the title bout. He imaginatively fills in the gaps where the fight would have been shown, with iconic still photographs, flickering ringside montage that imitates flashbulbs but obscures the melee, even boastful, morning-after recollections from the fighter himself. More than a creative way of reframing the traditional sports documentary that demands action, Klein shifts focus to the profound depths of Muhammed Ali as a man, struggling against particularly difficult odds and times. The effect makes the viewer wonder if the film's title refers to Ali's pugilistic prowess, or something else altogether.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review - Memories of Underdevelopment (1968)

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's fine cinematic adaptation of Edmundo Desnoes' novella is many things at once: conflicted character study, invaluable time capsule, tasteful agitprop and timely political allegory. It centers on Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a lethargic, intellectually inclined Cuban bourgeois kicking around Havana after his family and friends leave the country in the early days of the Castro regime. "Neither revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary," he has stayed put simply because he doesn't know what else to do. He's not particularly cut out for any of the paths open to him in a nascent communist society, and while he does feel a certain pained pride in his country's hard-fought independence, he secretly hopes that his comfortable lifestyle will not have to be sacrificed for the greater good. (It had been subsidized by rental income from private property, since disallowed by the new government.) Admittedly "Europeanized" by his American education, Sergio regards his countrymen as if through glass, generally preferring to survey them with binoculars from the veranda of his lavish top-floor apartment. In this manner, he watches as the nation transitions into autonomy, well aware that, once again, he stands to be left behind.

Shot in 1968 but set in the time between the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Missile Crisis of 1962, Alea's work is technically a period piece. Viewers will likely be too busy cherishing the sights and sounds of late 60's Cuba to notice though. Not yet frozen in time by the trade embargo and decades of isolation, Havana is a vibrant metropolis in which the protagonist and his fellow denizens go about the business of living - flirting, dancing, fighting and marching against a tropical backdrop papered with propaganda and punctuated by violence. It's far from Paris, or even Prague, but that does not stop the director from enlivening his loose narrative with unconventional elements - still photography, comic strips, candid street scenes, reportage - as well as feather-light editing and restless camerawork that could easily qualify it as the first movie of the Cuban New-Wave. Facile tags aside, the film has much to say about the place of the sedate intellectual in a fast-changing world, and of modern man's need to strike a balance between First World learnedness and Third World conviction. It's thoroughly intelligent, effortlessly stylish, and undoubtedly a landmark of Latin American cinema.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review - China Is Near (1967)

Marco Bellocchio's second film, the follow-up to his wholly original dysfunctional family tale 'Fists in the Pocket,' is another polemic against the provincial Italian bourgeois society the director obviously knows so well. More political in nature than his first effort (and far more comedic in tone), it concerns three siblings of aristocratic lineage who dwell in a stuffy mansion filled with leather-bound books, moth-eaten finery and at least one tribute bestowed by a deceased Pope. The eldest brother Vittorio (portrayed with magnificent bluster by Glauco Mauri) is the picture of effete, impotent intellectualism, inanely spouting verse to dazzle his secretary Giovanna, then pathetically pawing at her when she ignores his advances. Sister Elena (to the mortification of Vittorio) mainly busies herself by bedding men from town then refusing to marry any of them for fear of losing her elite status, while youngest brother Camillo is a Catholic church acolyte by day and a Maoist radical by night. Because of his patina of respectability, the utterly unqualified Vittorio is chosen to run for office as the head of the local Socialist chapter, exasperating party hopeful Carlo, who happens to be Giovanna's lover, and who is hired by the candidate to help orchestrate his campaign. The working-class couple are corrupted, gradually transforming into conniving social climbers and pairing off with the brother and sister with designs to marry into their wealth. Meanwhile, the overzealous Camillo does everything he can to disrupt his brother's election efforts, going as far as to sic a pack of dogs on him as he delivers a speech, and planting a bomb in the Socialists' headquarters.

Of a pair with Bernardo Bertolucci's 'Before the Revolution,' another study of conflicted Italian bourgeoisie in the years leading up to the upheavals of 1968, Bellocchio's sardonic satire is patently autobiographical, drawing on the filmmaker's rural upbringing and leftist affiliations. Also, like Bertolucci's film it's less concerned with the resolution of the plot than with the novelistic recreation of a stifling milieu, filled with empty societal rituals, religious ineptitude, sexual frustration and an overhanging pall of political unrest that implicates members of every class, and forces them into conflict. The loose, episodic narrative is tiresome for stretches as one waits for familial intrigues to unfold, but several farcical scenes keep it going, almost all of which center on Vittorio; he harangues his pious old aunts at dinner for not voting for him, is fallen upon and beaten by toothless proletariat at his first public appearance, and gleefully bounces a ball like a child. There's also the bumbling exploits of Camillo and his sorry communist cell, whose immature ideologies, absurd seriousness and petty vandalisms (painting the film's title on a wall) recall Godard's 'La Chinoise' in small, subplot scale. Visually, Bellocchio retains the uncontrived look of his debut, to which cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli adds an appropriately decadent sheen. Composer Ennio Morricone contributes a brisk, almost martial theme.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Review - Cocksucker Blues (1972)

Still barred from any wide or home release some 40-odd years later, Robert Frank and Daniel Seymour's raucous Rolling Stones tour film plays like a spiritually exhausted sequel to 'Gimme Shelter,' the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's chronicle of the calamitous concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969. In the earlier feature, the filmmakers framed the fateful convergence of hippies, radicals, bikers and rockers as the end of the 60's in miniature. The deadly violence that erupted was presented less as a tragedy than as the inevitable detonation of a combustible mixture, the moment the American counterculture movement went over the cliff. Frank and Seymour's film, blocked from being shown by the band immediately after its completion, surveys the aftermath of this great disillusionment, trailing the Stones as they return to the U.S. for the first time since that event, even more popular than before but far less hopeful. The positive slogans and communal spirit of '69 have been replaced with bawdy blues and dead-eyed debauchery that doesn't look like fun for one moment. Primarily partaken of by the band's innumerable entourage, there is gratuitous drug use (of just about every sort of narcotic you can imagine), as well as a number of sex acts with a rotating cast of groupies, performed proudly in front of the camera, often with the crew joining in. Bad behavior in a rock documentary is hardly surprising, but the endless carousing becomes tiresome, not for the general lack of decency but because it all seems so empty. Frank leavens these gloomy rituals in a number of ways - with skittish, free-flowing montage, off-color but consistently funny incidental dialogue, and of course, a number of electric musical performances (of which, a worn out rendition of "Midnight Rambler" and the Stevie Wonder-assisted "Uptight/ Satisfaction" medley top the list). He also includes a number of idiosyncratic, poignant little moments that recall his still photography, particularly his seminal study of the Beat-era United States, The Americans. The most memorable sequences involve surreal scenarios that attest to the peculiar, mundane, lonely and flat-out absurd nature of life on the road. These scenes include the group shooting pool with the elderly black patrons of a southern bar, Mick Jagger yielding a camera of his own, lovingly photographing his young bride, and the perpetually-blitzed Keith Richards, practically unable to stand, tinkling a tender melody on a friend's piano.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Notes on... L'été (1968)

[This is the first entry in a four-part post on Marcel Hanoun's 'Les Saisons' tetralogy]

To the dismay of the already initiated, the remarkably original filmmaker Marcel Hanoun (1929-2012) remains almost completely unknown, even to the average so-called "film buff." A contemporary and sometimes-collaborator of the French New Wave, his debut 'Un Simple Histoire' (1959) won the Eurovision prize at Cannes, the follow-up 'Le Huitième Jour' (1960) starred Emmanuelle Riva of 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' fame, and 'L'authentique Procès de Carl-Emmanuel Jung' (1966) was partially funded by Jean-Luc Godard, and featured a cameo from Jean Eustache. Even with the support and regard of his voguish peers, his films had little traction with audiences or critics, and by 1968 he had all but vanished into obscurity. At present, the name Marcel Hanoun is much more likely to draw blank stares than wide-eyed admiration. Almost single-handedly leading the charge to rectify this gross undervaluation is Re:Voir, Paris-based distributor and purveyor of experimental cinema, which is promptly releasing his texts (in French), as well as his notoriously hard to find features. After a first-rate 'Carl-Emmanuel Jung' DVD in 2015, this April they issued a veritable holy grail: his 'Les Saisons' tetralogy in a four-disc set, restored and subtitled in English. Made between 1968 to 1972, the films contained within constitute the director's greatest artistic achievements, and they expound a filmic philosophy on par with the brightest cinematic minds of his generation. One can only hope that that the angelic example of Re:Voir is followed by other distributors. Even on a small scale, more home releases from his extensive filmography will lead to more critical attention, and inevitably, an improved standing for Hanoun among forward-thinking filmmakers of the 60's, 70's and beyond.

The first entry in Hanoun's film cycle based on the seasons, 'L'été' (1968) follows a woman (Graziella Buci, in her only acting role) who escapes to a friend's farmhouse in Normandy from Paris following the events of May '68. Craving a break from the political turmoil, she stays there alone for a number of days, debating whether she should reunite with a lover, Jean-Luc, with whom she took part in the demonstrations. She idles her time away, listening to music, reading, exploring the surrounding countryside and corresponding with a pen-pal abroad. Like Rimbaud's Season in Hell, her Summer sojourn is a sort of limbo; trapped between the aura of failed revolution in the city, the fleetingness of her idyllic interlude and an unforeseeable future, she clings increasingly to idea of the messianic Jean-Luc, who may or may not be coming to rescue her.

'L'été' can be interpreted in a number of ways, all critical to understanding the artistic trajectory of Hanoun in this period. From a political viewpoint, it can be seen as the director's rather poetic statement on the aftermath of May '68. As his colleague Jean Eustache would poignantly recall some years later in his elegiac masterwork 'La Maman et la Putain' (1973), the time following the occupation of Paris by students and workers (and the successful, albeit brief ousting of de Gaulle) was one of great disillusionment, a collective come-down for the men and women in the street when they realized that the social structures they had shaken so were not going to topple. Unlike Eustache, whose temporal distance from the events allowed for more thoughtful reflection (as well as a measure of self-deprecating humor that leavened the melancholic mood), Hanoun made his film a scant three months later, in August. Enough time had passed that protesters could perceivably see the fault in their naive logic, but their ideological defeat was still quite fresh. Accordingly, the female protagonist's reaction to the encroachment of current affairs on her getaway (represented by images of protest graffiti in Paris, radio reportage of the Soviet reaction to the Prague Spring and mentions of armed struggles in Vietnam and Biafra) is not galvanization, but weariness, and a curious detachment from the ongoings. The rural, almost-utopian backdrop of her idyll (suggestive of a farming cooperative) does little to comfort her either, and when her lover (functioning as a sort of revolutionary savior) fails to appear, she realizes that her peace of mind lies in a deeper introspection.

Similarly, with 'L'été' and his seasons tetralogy, Hanoun's art would turn inward, transitioning from the social and political to issues more personal and philosophical in nature. Much like his protagonist, he would abandon the more popular themes in pursuit of an artistic ideal, and an original style would emerge. His first feature 'Un Simple Histoire' was a tale of a single mother desperately searching for a job that drew notably from Italian neo-realism, 'Le Huitième Jour,' a kitchen-sink style social drama and 'L'authentique Procès de Carl-Emmanuel Jung,' a wordy, Brechtian dissertation on the Nazi horror (made in a style eerily prescient of Straub-Huillet). Thematically, 'L'été' sees this sort of topical concern replaced by meditation and self-absorption, and stylistically, it announces the director's newly-matured methodology. Hanoun's works would subsequently center on thinly-veiled autobiographical characters who grapple with the nature of art, specifically the cinema. They do so by means of cerebral dialogue, but also through pious contemplation of the high-arts, particularly European paintings, religious iconography and classical music. Indeed, when the unnamed woman exalts her latest musical discovery (Bach's Ich Habe Genug cantata) in a letter, it's almost as if she were suggesting it as a viable alternative to politics, religion, and other systems of belief.

'L'été' also introduces Hanoun's completely singular editing style, an audio-visual patchwork that characterizes and unifies the four Season films. Like a musical fugue (a comparison the director would plainly make at the beginning of 'L'hiver'), motifs are woven throughout the cinematic composition, reappearing often and in varied forms. The image that dominates this film is that of the face. The mysterious countenance of the lead actress is shown from every imaginable angle, close up and mid-range, in motion and in still photographs. Similar to Bresson (who he was favorably compared to by Godard in his review of 'Un Simple Histoire'), Hanoun's fascination with faces is almost purely aesthetic, likely derived from his own work as a photographer. Other recurring visual elements include the protagonist's nude body displayed in various poses, repetitious running shots, and bucolic nature scenes. As he does with images, snippets of dialogue, sounds and music are removed from their diegetic context and repeated, overlain in an intricate, almost mathematical design that suggests fine filigree or an orchestral arrangement, even more so when punctuated by the measured, but brisk cuts. The rhythmic quality of the editing, seemingly at odds with the non-action Hanoun trains his camera on, produces a hypnotic effect that works independently of the narrative. The mastery of montage is the director's first step towards a cinema that is, through its inherent poetry and rigour, an end in itself.

Like the titular season, 'L'été' is brief but eventful, filled with intimations of endings and beginnings. For Hanoun, it marked the end of his devotion to the puerile political causes of May '68 (a creative and intellectual dead-end, he felt), as well as the beginning of a meaningful, very personal cinematic dialectic, the culmination of which would be his defining works. In between these revelations, as is expected in the Summer months, is a fair amount of soul searching, much biding of time, and more than a little ambivalence about it all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review - Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène's debut feature - notably the first full-length film from a native African filmmaker - is the tragic story of Diouana, a young woman who travels from her home in Senegal to Antibes to serve as nanny for a bourgeois French couple. Instead of stepping into the cosmopolitan European existence she always dreamed of, she finds herself imprisoned in their high-rise apartment, cut off from family and the outside world, demeaned and treated as a lowly maid, a fate she refuses to accept.

The important issues of neocolonialism, paternalism and immigrant labor are not treated as political talking points or morality cues, as they might have been by directors with less proximity. For Sembène, a former soldier in the French army and migrant dock worker, these deeply ingrained institutions were a part of everyday life, and his familiarity with them (and the psychology behind them) is evident in the nuanced characterization of his female lead. Neither helpless lamb nor fiery dissident, Diouana is more complex; headstrong and impulsive, she's naive enough to be seduced by her patroness's promises of luxury, but smart enough to realize almost immediately why she was sent for. She's also fiercely independent, rejecting oppression in all forms, not just from her employers but also from a suitor who attempts to weigh in on her future. Portrayed with dignified bearing by first-time actress Mbissine Thérèse Diop, the gravity of her performance anchors the film, and ensures that it transcends mere allegory.

Sembène presents a refreshingly unsensationalized depiction of the Senegalse capital of Dakar, but when the story shifts to the French high-rise he takes poetic liberties with the mise en scène, rendering the the sparse, harshly lit apartment as uninhabitable as the surface of the moon. Framed against this arid, lifeless backdrop, the ebony-skinned heroine might as well be a fish out of water.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review - She and He (1963)

Susumu Hani's little-seen 60's gem begins and ends, quite tellingly, with identical scenes; a pretty young woman lolls in bed next to her spouse, but rather than doze blissfully, she lies awake, visibly anxious. She is Naoko, a thoughtful (if somewhat naive) housewife living in the suburbs of Tokyo who is increasingly out of sync with her picturesque domestic surroundings. While her salaryman husband commutes to the city to make a respectable living and afford the finer things, she perfunctorily performs her household duties, secretly craving another existence, one dictated by her passionate nature and curiosity, not rigid societal norms. Shaking up her routine (and rattling her neighbors), she befriends and adopts two inhabitants of a nearby shantytown as a sort of surrogate family, a blind orphan girl and a gold-toothed ragpicker who was, in a past life, a college classmate of her husband. They may be downtrodden, but they possess a freedom and self-determination that Naoko lacks, and an ingenuousness that she relates to. Her attempt to reconcile her innocent worldview with their very real lives, however, is unsuccessful, and following a tragic final act, she plods back to the status quo.

While it functions as a critique of modern consumerist society on one level (and as a psuedo-neorealist document, complete with handheld camera work, on another), Hani's film feels personally invested, and he regards his heroine with a tender gaze that borders on adoration. When photographing locales, he displays an expressionist touch, portraying the sprawling apartment complex where the story takes place as chic and appealing in early scenes, then alien and maze-like when Naoko's angst reaches a fever pitch later. Much has been made of the stylistic similarities to the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, and while there are parallels in theme (a woman at odds with her environment) and aesthetics (the disdain for modern architecture), the Italian director scarcely depicted his female protagonists with this much warmth or compassion. Hani seems to want more for his wide-eyed leading lady, and though she basically ends up where she started, her ordeal is not trivialized. The time we spend following her, like the brief time Naoko spends with her surrogate family, is not wasted because things don't end well; it just requires a charmed outlook like hers to make any sense of it.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Notes on... The Short Films of Wim Wenders, 1967-1982

Despite the restoration of almost all of Wim Wenders' early works in 2015 and a recent spate of retrospectives across the globe, as I write this in June of 2016, most of the director's short films are not available commercially. Only two are purchasable or otherwise legally viewable: 'Same Player Shoots Again' (1967) and 'Silver City Revisited' (1969). These became available just days ago, as bonus features on Criterion's essential Road Trilogy box set. I had the pleasure of seeing all of the shorts discussed here at the Burns Film Center in March, where they played only once, on a Sunday morning to an audience of about a dozen curious spectators. As Wenders continues to grow in estimation (and transition from aging wunderkind to full-fledged cinematic icon in his own right), it's increasingly important that we revisit his earliest filmic exercises, which as it turned out, presciently plotted his career and many of its motifs.

The earliest extant short from Wenders' film school days in Munich, 'Same Player Shoots Again' is the sort of subversive formal experiment that aspiring filmmakers at similar institutions lined up to make in the 1960's. It's a deconstructionist take on a gangster film that plays very loosely with genre tropes; seedy hotel rooms, phone booths, a tough bleeding in the back seat of an American car, the central image of a wounded man trudging along a street holding a rifle. This conventional imagery (the cinematic language of B-movies) is divorced from familiar context and scrambled in an attempt to disrupt the predictable ritual of filmgoing. The looping of the gunman scene may confound and frustrate, but it also forces the viewer to think about what they're seeing, rather than settling in for another gangster story. Something can certainly be inferred from the armed figure, who, with his long, military-style coat and assault rifle, evokes a Nazi solider as much as an archetypal criminal. By denying any exposition or context for this image, Wenders may implicitly offer a commentary on the psyche of the young, post-war German cinéaste; while weaned on genre films, they had no interest in replicating formulae, and were even less interested in rehashing the national trauma. Subtly hidden in ‘Same Player’ are two winking allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, who Wenders idolized (and "interviewed" for his 1982 short documentary 'Room 666'). The pinball theme (the main sequence is shown five times and tinted a different color each time, a reference to the multicolored balls allotted to a pinball player; also, the title) recalls the ever-present arcade machines in 60’s Godard, particularly ‘Vivre Sa Vie.’ Another of the French director's oft-utilized images accompanies the "Tilt' screen that functions as the end credit as well: the Coca-Cola logo.

'Silver City Revisited,' while just as experimental as 'Same Player,' offers more in the way of insight into the director's headspace. Made while studying at Munich in 1968, it's a series of static, three-minutes shots, run back to back with no camera movement or deviation. The images, mostly street scenes, function like a photo album or set of post cards, documenting the director's stay in the southern German city. Wenders, whose work is generally defined by an insatiable wanderlust, is surprisingly still and present, and his vignettes effectively capture the poetry and melancholic beauty of the cityscape. Trees blow in the breeze, sun glints off of steel edifices and traffic lazily flows. The most obvious precursor would be the contemplative "pillow shots" of Yasujiro Ozu (Wenders was an avowed fanatic, dedicating 1985's 'Tokyo-Ga' to the Japanese director), but the urban art of Edward Hopper is also echoed in the architectural use of composition and the scarcity of human figures. (Wenders would draw inspiration from the painter's work for the look of 1977's 'The American Friend' and recreate Hopper's 'Morning Sun' in the 1982 short 'Reverse Angle,' covered below.) Across the ocean and of the same era, contemporaries like Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow were making films that were superficially similar, but the more one watches Wenders' exercise, the less comparable it is to the lyrical home movies of the former, or the rigorous structuralism of the latter. More traditional in its reference points, 'Silver City' is more akin to the actualités of the Lumière brothers, and still photography (which the director would practice for the duration of his career, publishing multiple collections). It would be Wenders' last purely formal experiment, and with his next short he moved onto firmer narrative ground, and for good.

1968's 'Police Film' is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it constitutes perhaps the only overtly political statement of the director's entire career. Shot during that tumultuous summer, when student demonstrations erupted into riots across the globe, it is a direct criticism (albeit a silly one) of Munich police and their surreptitious psychological tactics. Wenders was heavily involved in student activism, so such a statement is not surprising. What's surprising, and what strikes the viewer most when watching the comical short is how shamelessly it imitates the style of Jean-Luc Godard. From its rambling, whispered narration and subversion of Disney comics to its grotesque view of modern architecture and fashionable leftist politics, even in its very format (the Godardian faux-documentary, epitomized by 1967's '2 or 3 Things I Know About Her'), there is no doubt who's work it's modeled after. 'Same Player' slyly paid homage, but this is unequivocal pastiche. Wenders' countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder committed a similar plagiarism with his 1966 short 'Das kleine Chaos', but at the very least some of his incipient cinematic philosophy comes across. Little of the Wenders' thoughtful character is evident in 'Police Film,' making it the least memorable entry of his student period.

Visually and thematically, 'Alabama (2000 Light Years From Home)' picks up where 'Same Player' left off. It's another gangster story, this time containing a sequence of events that is fairly easy to follow: A trench-coated man enters a bar full of scruffy bohemians and accepts a mission to assassinate a figure that is never seen. He is shown driving to his destination, then back to the bar, apparently wounded. He slumps into the darkened establishment, where all of the patrons have been massacred, and puts a song on the jukebox. The camera then cuts back to the car as the man flees the city, fading to black before revealing his fate. What the short lacks in exposition, it makes up for with its unique use of music, which is playing in some form in every scene. The soundtrack (diegetic and non-diegetic) fills in the narrative gaps, providing emotional cues and even clues as to what's happening on screen. John Coltrane's ominous Alabama accompanies the street scenes where the man arrives at the bar, a portent of the events to come. Upon entering the first time, the lazy blues of The Wind Cries Mary by Jimi Hendrix plays, denoting an unsuspecting calm, while in the second scene, after everything has gone awry, the man selects another song by Hendrix on the jukebox, his raucous take of All Along the Watchtower. "There must be some kind of way outta here... the hour's getting late," he sings, the lyrics seeming to register with the man as he realizes that he must soon make his escape. Here, music is not a secondary consideration, subservient to the visuals or the story; it is equally as important as the other two components. In fact, it precipitates the images, evidenced by the film's title (a compound of song titles, of the Coltrane composition and another by The Rolling Stones). The importance of music to Wenders, as a creative catalyst, subject and cinematic tool, cannot be understated. He would go on to become a musical authority among directors, curating a number of noteworthy soundtracks, shooting several successful documentaries on musicians and setting some of his most memorable scenes around and during musical performances. 'Alabama' marks several firsts for the filmmaker. It was his first time working with cinematographer Robby Müller, who would lend his polished aesthetic and unique pallet to most of Wenders' films through the late 80's. Also, the clientele that loiters in the bar is the first significant look at contemporary Germans. They're just the sort of characters - misfits, hippies and artists - that weren't being depicted in national cinema before the advent of the New German Film, and that would populate the director's early 70's works (personified by actor Rüdiger Vogler). Lastly, the final shot is the first of many long takes from a moving car that Wenders would utilize throughout his career. A progression of the tableaux of 'Silver City,' he would expand upon the traveling shot in his next short, and it would later become a distinctive feature of his road movies.

'3 American LPs,' Wenders penultimate student exercise, is the director's first "filmed diary," as he would later refer to this sub-category of works that would include 'Reverse Angle' (covered below), 'Tokyo-Ga,' 'Notebook on Cities and Clothes' and (to an extent) 'Lightning Over Water.' Shot on grainy 16mm, it follows as he and an unseen companion (first time co-writer Peter Handke) drive from one unnamed German city to another, listening to songs and conversing about their love of American music as they go. The first segment takes place in a high-rise where one of the narrators peruses a record collection, a solemn redheaded woman smokes a cigarette on the terrace, and Van Morrison's 'Slim Slow Slider' plays. Next, Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Lody' accompanies travel shots (taken from the car window) as the pair move from one city en route to another. Finally, after arriving at their destination, there is a final driving shot, a slow creep at dusk scored by Harvey Mandel's instrumental version of 'Wade In The Water.' Wenders is briefly glimpsed driving the car in the crepuscular light just before the credits appear. As simple as it seems, this film is loaded with hints as to where his career would go and how far it would range. It anticipates his diary films, which would all be narrated in the first-person, poetically shot (so as to avoid qualifying as pure documentary) and have an ostensible subject (though their true subject, as with a written diary, is inevitably the author). '3 American LPs' may also be considered his first road movie. Granted, he and Handke are not invented characters, but the central predicament is the same as in those narrative films: the reconciliation of one's actual surroundings (drab post-war Germany) with an idealized, almost fantastical place they wish to reach (America, the land of Hollywood and rock and roll). Lastly, this film represents the earliest union of Wenders' inseparable, twin obsessions, music and the open road, which would constitute a sort of dual philosophy for the director (introspection via art/outward searching), and characterize his entire body of work. Handke would go on to co-write Wenders' first feature, 1972's 'The Goalkeeper's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick' (his first traditional road-movie, adapted from Handke's novel), as well as 1975's 'Wrong Move' and the 1987 masterpiece 'Wings of Desire.' Wenders completed one more film while in Munich, his 1970 full-length thesis 'Summer in the City' (named after a song by The Lovin' Spoonful and dedicated to another American band, The Fugs). He would return very sparingly to the short film format in the years to come, doing so mostly for television.

Some thirteen years after '3 American LPs,' Wenders would pick up the thread of the diary film again with 'Reverse Angle: NYC March '82.' He shot it in New York while completing post-production for 'Hammett,' his disastrous Hollywood debut, which was finished, then allegedly taken over and reshot by producer Francis Ford Coppola. The frustrations experienced by the filmmaker, his estrangement as a European director working in America and many other impressions are documented in this intimate, free-form film. Wenders wanders the city, taking in the carnivalesque sites and musing philosophically, in a style that recalls the less-political works of Chris Marker, particularly 'Sans Soleil.' As he would in a proper journal, he arbitrarily rattles off his current interests: Edward Hopper's New York portraits, reading Emmanuel Bove's Mes Amis on the subway, the music of burgeoning no-wave band The Del-Byzanteens. It seems it's all he can do to ward himself from an increasingly volatile situation. Wenders would use the diary film quite effectively as a stopgap between features in the 1980's, either as a diversion during a difficult period ('Reverse Angle') or while he made preparations to mount a large production ('Notebook on Cities and Clothes,' shot while orchestrating 'Until the End of the World'). In the 1990's, he transitioned to making smaller features and more traditional documentaries, a balance he maintains to this day. Though 'Reverse Angle' appears to have little in common with the student projects in the late 60's, when viewed alongside those shorts, it further illustrates the director's clearly defined themes and singular narrative voice.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review - Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970)

In 1969, fresh from reimagining the Greek myth of Medea, Pier Paolo Pasolini traveled to East Africa in search of his next adaptation. His audacious project: a radical reworking of Aeschylus' Oresteia set in modern-day Africa that would draw parallels between ancient Greece's inchoate democracy and the newly emergent, post-colonial African state. That film was never made, for reasons revealed in this intriguing cinematic journal that follows Pasolini as he scouts for locations, rhapsodizes about the exotic landscape, and doggedly pursues his black Orestes. The director's concept, not surprisingly, is paradoxical. Grounded in antiquated notions of the African continent but set in it's protean contemporary reality, based on ancient tragedy but suffused with a particularly ephemeral brand of Western Marxism, the elements of the proposed film never quite align. Still, he treks on, photographing the beautiful faces and vistas of Uganda and Tanzania in an attempt to convince the viewer (and possibly himself) that his venture will not collapse under the weight of it's inherent fallacies.

For his part, Pasolini comes off as intelligent and loquacious, brimming with a childlike quixotism. Despite the touchy subject matter, he's never offensive, even in a scene when he debates a group of African students studying in Rome who politely, but firmly disagree with his ideas. It's a later scene, however, that best demonstrates why the project ultimately failed. In an experimental aside, Pasolini orchestrates a run through of a dramatic episode in the style of free-jazz opera, a format he briefly considers. A very hip trio led by a shrieking Gato Barbieri on saxophone bash away as two tone-deaf singers comically howl their lines. Separately, (and in the hands of more capable vocalists,) the musical and operatic interpretations might have succeeded, but mashed together they're almost intolerable. "No, no," Cassandra wails, warning Agamemnon of his grave fate if he continues. Pasolini was wise to heed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review - From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979)

As with their earlier feature 'History Lessons,' Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's 'From the Clouds to the Resistance' is made up of historical and modern set pieces that are juxtaposed to reveal unseen truths. Unlike the former film, in which the sequences are intermixed, here they are split into two neat halves. The first part comprises six dialogues between Greek mythological figures, each concerning humanity's disillusionment with the gods. Mankind is weary of the neglect, the cruel and arbitrary intervention, and the senseless sacrifices, and it is implied that that weariness may turn to revolutionary anger. The second part, set in contemporary Italy, depicts a man's homecoming after fleeing the fascists during the Second World War. Upon returning decades later, he finds his home and it's people irrevocably changed by the traumas of armed resistance.

The segments, though seemingly unrelated, serve to illuminate one another. The mythical conflict between man and god is infused with strands of Marxist ideology, with major parallels drawn to the class struggle. The efforts of the Italian partisans, on the other hand, acquire the weight and solemnity of legend, and take on a primal urgency; their fight is an ancient fight against tyranny, as old as the rule of the gods. The filmmakers are careful to highlight that no solution is perfect, not even that of the communist partisans, but they seem to imply that the battle is still worth waging. Viewed as a whole, 'From the Clouds' demonstrates the trickle-down trajectory of historical discourse. Not unlike the terraced hills prominently featured in the film's rural Italian setting, the combined events of our history feed and shape our current circumstances, in turn influencing our beliefs and how we, in our flawed, human way, take up the good fight.