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Politist, adjectiv (2009)
Corneliu Porumboiu's black comedy is impressive in that it is a decidedly philosophical film that still manages to feel like it is about actual human beings. It is also, occasionally at least, quite funny.
This tale of seemingly pointless police surveillance is intentionally plodding in pace, in part to show how the life of a cop mostly consists of tedium. It is tedious for the audience too, of course. I am rather infamous amongst my friends for my love of slow-moving movies, but even I was taxed by some of the film's scenes. Yet this deliberately challenging pace is broken up by some dry, but sharp humor that reveals Porumboiu to be a screen-writer of humanistic insight. (Rarely do films of this pace try to be funny. This one tries and succeeds.)
The humanity on display here is also unique in that this is first and foremost a philosophical film. It's outlook could, I suppose, be described as "post-structuralist" in that it's theme is that there is nothing beyond linguistic definitions shaping the law in the broadest sense, even laws of behavior that one might be tempted to ascribe to "human nature." Ultimately, all we know how to do, Prumboiu implies, is follow rules. This dreary conclusion is made all the more troubling by how human and multi-dimensional the characters come to seem.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
While I've enjoyed several of Powell & Pressburger's films, this is decidedly my favorite of those that I've seen and the first to fully convince me that they were worthy of the level of praise heaped on them by their ardent supporters. No one but the Archers could have made a film like this utterly unique and beautiful picture.
While Powell & Pressburger's use of color, when implemented, is always impressive, the color scenes in Matter of Life and Death take this aspect of their work to a new level. These are some of the most impressive hues I've seen in any film. The opening scenes, featuring a terrifying, doomed plane ride to a hauntingly framed beach that seems a revelation of the beauty of being-in-the-world, assert a flesh and blood Eden. Life as full color masterpiece.
The black and white scenes of a possibly real, possibly imagined afterlife, imply a universe ruled not by Divine Wisdom but by bureaucratic absolutism, overconfidence, and occasionally incompetence. This isn't a bleak vision of Eternity, as much as an unimpressed one.
The last act, featuring a trial in the Heavens by a court composed of all who ever lived and died, gets more than a bit hamfisted before its over. But even these scenes are distinctive in the ways they recount the historical crimes of the Archers' native England.
While Powell & Pressburger's films were distinctive, they were also testaments to how much cinema is a collective art form. This film wouldn't be what it is without not only the work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, but also the sets of Alfred Junge and the costumes of Hein Heckroth.
Lo straniero (1967)
About as direct an adaptation from book to movie as you can get, this film version of Camus' famous novel by director Luchino Visconti raises interesting questions about the inherent difference between page and screen.
As much as Camus's first-person prose is included in the film in the form of voice-over, the fact remains that a movie can't get us inside the head of a character like a book can. This is highlighted all the more by the fact that Marcello Mastroianni is outstanding as Camus' Meursault, one couldn't ask for a better performance. Nonetheless, the sense one gets here of understanding (or not) Meursault's perspective pales to that of the novel.
On the other hand, even the most vivid prose cannot transport us to the physical reality of a time and place like a well made film. This version of The Stranger is as much about occupied Algeria in the early twentieth century as it is about Meursault or any of the philosophical questions that Camus was wrestling with in his novel. This version is more overtly political, literally showing the ways in which racism and colonialism shape the interactions of the characters.
The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
This release is an attempt to reconstruct Orson Wells' uncompleted final film. It still feels a bit stitched together, but manages to be a rewarding cinematic experience nonetheless.
Shot in the early 1970s, it shows Wells influenced by the work of the great, younger filmmakers he so influenced. Particularly resonant are the influences of Fellini and Godard. This is also an attempt by an older man to respond to the counter-culture of the 1960s.
Other Side of the Wind is the only film by Wells that I know of that could be called derivative. If you thought Woody Allen shamelessly borrowed from 8 1/2 in Stardust Memories this goes even further in that regard. The difference is that Woody's film was an inferior (not)remake, where as this is, I think, superior to Fellini's vaunted film. (It should be acknowledged, however, that I am not one to ask for accolades for Fellini.)
If nothing else, Wells proves he was an aesthetic genius until the end of his days. The film is divided between an intentionally ugly-looking mock-documentary about the screening of a great director's last film and that last film itself, which is visually sublime. With the loosening of sexual mores since Wells's heyday, the director also gets to let his inner freak out. The film within a film is probably the most visually ambitious soft-porn ever made.
There's a lot of rage and regret here. Given how Hollywood, and the world to some degree, treated Wells in his lifetime that's understandable. There's also a fair amount of ugly machismo from an old man who knows he can get away with it. Ultimately, this is an expression by an artist at the end of his life who gave everything for his work and now, in part at least, wants it all back.
Mia aioniotita kai mia mera (1998)
This is my favorite of the four films by Theo Angelopoulos that I've seen. It is the only of the four to directly address poetry, which is essential to the director both because of his deep affinity for his native Greek culture and because Angelopoulos himself only turned to filmmaking after giving up on writing poetry.
As a screenwriter, Angelopoulos's penchant for "poetic" dialog sometimes mares his work and makes it seem exceptionally artificial and pretentious. Certainly, this is why the director's ill-advised attempt at an English language film, the unfortunate Ulysses's Gaze, was so embarrassing. (The dialog was, in effect, clumsy poetry written in a foreign tongue the writer did not inhabit well enough.) But here, as the main character is a revered poet trying to finish some works before his imminent death, Angelopoulos's writing style fits perfectly.
The imagery here is characteristically super-ambitious. I sometimes feel that Angelopoulos's seemingly constant need to show how he can move the camera in ways that seem to defy the laws of physics takes away from his greater goal. Surely, we have to let a narrative play itself out occasionally without trying to dazzle and confuse with cinematic choreography every second. And here, too, this film seems a bit more mature than the other films I've seen by the director. Moments of visual awe are interspersed by relatively quiet, meditative scenes.
Lastly, it must be said that this movie is enhanced by being viewed in our current historical moment. As much as it is about poetry and mortality, this is also a tale of immigration, refuge and the perils faced by nomads. Angelopoulos's epic sense of morality feels less pretentious and artificial in an epoch in which so many seem so absolutely at the mercy of the whims of power.
The Serpent's Egg (1977)
This, Ingmar Bergman's only film for Hollywood, is perhaps a bit unjustly maligned. It is, however, awkwardly torn between the autuer's creative impulses and those of this film's corporate benefactors.
First off, it looks amazing. It's hard to believe nowadays, but in the mid to late 1970s, Hollywood studio money was being offered to European autuer's to bring their artistic prestige to Tinseltown. The film features lavish sets of Weimar Germany that are at least as impressive as those of, say, Cabaret. And damn, does cinematographer and frequent Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist have a field day with a way bigger budget than he's used to. Swirling crane shots take in the many intricate spaces of this set-world with colors that are simultaneously garishly bright and menacing.
The acting is problematic in that the quality disparity between the two lead performances is so large. Liv Ullman does a characteristically outstanding job while David Carradine is clownishly inept at providing what Bergman asks of him.
In general, I'd say this is a good movie until its final twenty minutes when the inertia between European and American tastes present throughout the work take a bizarre and disastrous turn. The filmmakers felt a need to force this narrative into an acceptable genre tropes. Being the 1970s, the paranoia/conspiracy thriller was an "acceptable" studio genre what with such notable films as The Conversation, The Parralex View and Three Days of the Condor. The Serpent's Egg is suddenly hijacked to fulfill the demands of that genre, resulting in one of the most bizarrely inappropriate and abrupt movie endings of all time.
Die dritte Generation (1979)
I found this to be one of the more strictly, and simplistically, satiric of the films I've seen by Fassbinder. The Third Generation lacks the emotional complexity and uniqueness of tone of the director's best work. Here, we are allowed to know how to feel as long as we catch the film's BIG MESSAGE. West German radicals tried to burn the print of this movie when it was released in 1979 and its not hard to see why it pissed them off so much. Fassbinder is telling us that the no-longer young "New Left" has, in West Germany at least, not so much "sold out" to the establishment as been co-opted by it. Revolutionary violence is only another tool of the capitalist state to justify its increasingly mechanistic systems of surveillance and control. This theme and the film's plot could have the potential to be a wonderful downer. But Fassbinder's misanthropy makes it difficult for the viewer to care that the main characters are caught in a trap. One has the sense that Fassbinder is shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Society is a cesspool and can't be otherwise because humans are irredeemable assholes." This might be true, but it's not an attitude that elicits narrative or thematic connection on the part of the audience. The quality of the film making, however, is quite high. The movie was made on a very small budget, and Fassbinder served as his own DP. This was a relatively late work in the director's brief career and by this time he had a very fine eye, with some memorably bizarre imagery particularly late in the film, and a wonderfully subterranean soundtrack.
Le jeune Karl Marx (2017)
Given my interests, it would be very difficult for me not to have enjoyed this film, so I may not be the most neutral judge of its merit. I would say that this is a good biopic, though also the least interesting film I've seen by director Raul Peck.
If Hollywood were to make a biopic of Marx and Engels, which it would never do, it would probably look a bit like this: good set-pieces, solid acting. There's a bit too much focus on the two men's love lives. (We need out watershed thinkers to be sexy!) As in almost any biopic of a creative person, there are some ham-fisted moments that attempt to depict major moments in the subject's creative development, including a rather laugh inducing one concerning the most famous quote from the Thesis on Feuerbach.
On that note, the way in which it seems to me that this does stray from a Hollywood treatment is its attempt to, superficially at least, explicate some of Marx's early philosophy.
Les cousins (1959)
The first two thirds of this film struck me as merely boring depictions of the white European borguasie partyin' down, reminiscent of the worst few moments from Antonioni's ouevre and a predecessor, perhaps, to most of Fellini's work post-"La Strada".
The last third of the movie, however reveals this to be the beginning of Chabrol's transformation into the French Hitchcock. By the end, the autuer I think most philosophically informed by this work is Woody Allen: "Luck is everything!"
Fassbinder reminds me a bit of Michael Haneke. There is a frosty bit of misanthropy in all of both director's works. At their best, these filmmakers use that negative energy to deliver blisteringly honest depictions of human beings and their frailties that are not always fun to watch but are ultimately very worth while. Every once in a while, though, I think both Fassbinder and Haneke simply use their medium to bear their teeth at the world, and make it feel bad about itself for no constructive reason. This film, it seems to me, is an example of Fassbinder doing just that. True, the quality of the filmmaking is solid and Fassbinder draws an excellent lead performance from Margit Carstensen. But all in all, I found this a pointlessly nasty piece of work.
This is an above average action film, but what makes it unique is the intensity of its anti-American sentiment. The patriotic, white soldiers of the early USA are depicted as savage, racism-driven monsters fit only for destruction. Indeed, the only decent white character in this movie is a British noble trying to form an alliance with the Mohawk tribe against the genocidal forces of Yankeedom. I think the fact that this film got made at all demonstrates that the USA is being better understood as having been a racist, murderous colonial project from its inception.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
The quality of the filmmaking here is stirring. I can't remember an Elia Kazan film impressing me with its visuals as much as this one does. Kazan and DP Joseph MacDonald (of My Darling Clementine fame) create complex tracking shots with layers of different light and shadow through which the performers are brilliantly choreographed. This is also good, tense storytelling.
Panic in the Streets was made shortly before it's director would testify to the House Unamerican Activities Committee, ruining careers and lives. One can take this particular film's politics one of two ways. We are asked to identify with an agent of the state who is trying to get a city to respond to a very real heath crisis with reason and discipline. Is this a leftist tale, calling for a strong government safety-net and adherence to scientific reason? Or are we witnessing a prelude to Kazan's "On the Waterfront"- "tell the authorities everything you know, only this way will you escape the plague"?
Late in life, after finding success in Hollywood, Fritz Lang returned to Germany after the "economic miracle" had unfolded and the US had rebuilt West Germany into a "modern capitalist democracy." This film, the director's last, is at first glance a standard, if effective, thriller. But a remotely less cursory viewing show it to be a critique of the filmmaker's home-country as he found it upon his return.
Most of the action takes place in a hotel that has retained its Nazi-era capacity for complete surveillance of its inhabitants. This technology falls into the hands of a faceless master-criminal currently thought dead who once tried to take over the world. To even call this allegory is perhaps a step far. Lang clearly sees in the "new Germany" a social apparatus waiting to be usurped by a resurgent fascism, one that has only become dormant, not dead.
The only non-radical note in the movie is that the handsome protagonist is an American industrialist, a necessary concession, perhaps, as it was this class of person who financed this film.
The location and language is not the only way in which Lang here returns to his roots. The set pieces of the hotel clearly call to mind the Expressionism of his early years.
Comizi d'amore (1964)
Few filmmakers could do what Passolini does here: make a Cine-Verte that is at once humanistically bemused, acerbic, and poetic.
Interviewing a wide and random array of Italians of all ages and classes about various aspects of sexuality and gender relations, the director portrays a nation made utterly incapable of addressing the most fundamental aspects of existence due to a kind of addiction to religious reification. Yet, while occasionally admitting anger and contempt towards some of the interviewees, the film's ultimate attitude is one of affirmation for Italy. Indeed, the film troublingly asks, if one does not delude oneself with some kind of spiritual sophistry, is love even possible?
The Phenix City Story (1955)
Interesting and distinctive merging of documentary and docudrama concerning a once infamous, now largely forgotten case in which an Alabama town had been ruled by a crime syndicate for generations.
The extreme racism exhibited by many characters is implicitly condemned by the filmmakers. But it, which includes the graphic depiction of a murdered Black child, is also acknowledged in such a casual tone that its presentation seems creepily prosaic to a contemporary audience.
At least I hope it does.
La fille inconnue (2016)
This is my favorite film of the Dardenne Brothers since their wonderful, but perhaps excessively dark "Lorna's Silence". The two films between that one and this, "The Kid on the Bike" and "Two Days, One Night" had seen the understatedly humanist autuers hovering towards Hollywood level uplift.
"The Unknown Girl" does not totally reverse that course. Indeed, I think it ties the narrative threads together a tad too tightly at the end. But this is a powerful plea for acknowledgement for anonymous immigrants to western Europe. Adele Haenel gives a beautifully subtle, gentle performance.
Antonio Gaudí (1984)
This is a gorgeous visual meditation on the work of the great Catalan architect. But I think it is also, more subtly, a study of Spain from a foreign (in this case Japanese) admirer, the accomplished New Wave director Hiroshi Teshigahara.
The film begins with centuries old wall paintings depicting the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Then, magnificent shots of Guadi's work are interwoven with those of modern Barcelona and its people. The film concludes with a sequence devoted to an awesome, still unfinished cathedral that Gaudi was working on when he died.
By focusing on the humanistic energy of this church's icons, Teshigahara seems to be positing Gaudi as a Christ-like figure, liberating Spain's national religious art from it's oppressive past and making religion a celebration, rather than condemnation, of humanity.
I know there are those who hold this film to be a bona fide masterpiece. I wouldn't go that far. Many of its characterizations are hokey and it includes what might be the most troublingly nonchalant reference to sexual assault in all of cinema.
Having said that, it is a memorable and unique picture. The opening scene is, admittedly, as aesthetically great as cinema gets. A luscious, mysterious credit sequence lays the groundwork for a series of dissolves between intricate shots, one more impressive than the other. It's not hyperbole to say that first scene is worthy of Wells or Tarkovsky. After that, the filmmaking comes down to earth, but there are other impressively shot scenes.
The narrative is a strangely constructed anti-Noir that affirms humanity's difficult, perilous freedom. I wonder if Jean-Paul Sartre ever watched this movie. Bet he would have approved.
Lady in the Lake (1946)
An experiment by director and lead actor Robert Montgomery in which every shot is a POV representing the perspective of the anti-hero/ star. Since the star is also the director this literalizes the sense that any movie is the manipulative perspective of the filmmakers. The naricisstic implications of this come to as full a fruition as you could ask for in this strange film, with Montgomery's particularly repulsive embodiment of Philip Marlowe receiving lustful gazes from all of the film's many beautiful women. It's hard to imagine when a film seemed more literally masterbatory. That it still manages to be entertaining is an impressive accomplishment.
Montgomery's next film as director-star was Ride the Pink Horse, another Noir. But in it, Montgomery's tough guy becomes increasingly marginalized as the narrative progresses, to the point where he seems to almost will himself off the screen. Taken together, the two movies can be viewed as an allegory of Montgomery getting over himself.
La voie lactée (1969)
This is my favorite of all the films I've seen by Louis Bunuel. One of his least compromising films, it somehow manages to be simultaneously one of his most entertaining.
An ambitious cine-essay on the history of heresy within Catholicism, it's intellectual ambition in no way get in the way of its ability to affect the viewer as a work of cinema. Indeed, it might be the most cinematic film in Bunuel's oeuvre. The cinematography by Christian Matras (of Grand Illusion fame) is uncharacteristically beautiful for a Bunuel film, and although this is allegory at it's most ambitious, it is also a film about life on the road.
This was a late career movie for Bunuel, and he was already in his late 60s when he made it. But few of his films seem to me to be possessed by such youthful rigor. Perhaps Bunuel, working in France at the time, was inspired by the rebellious whiper-snapper directors of the then still new French New Wave, particularly Godard, whose Weekend this film sometimes resembles.
The final, particularly blasphemous scenes present Christ not as a unifier but a figure whose words, and they are taken directly from the Gospels, are meant to create a vicious anarchy of interpretation.
This represents a cross between two distinct, though often confused genres: Film Noir and the crime film. Both deal with the seedy side of urbanity in post-war America, but Noir is about criminals. Such films examine the ways that the unspoken angst of the era led "normal" citizens to do very anti-social things. The crime film, also popular at the time, was about law enforcement and the process by which it rooted out and punished transgressors.
This film is ultimately more of the latter. Although he is not on screen much, the cop who delivers justice and, above all, truth is here actually the main protagonist.
However, the cop character remains a voice-over narrator long enough for the film to seem like it's about characters planning a murder, and it must be said that the narrative is unpredictable and entertaining.
However, this fusion of the two genres ultimately brings out the worst of both their ideological tendencies: the misogyny of Noir, with the authority-worship of the Crime Film.
Scarlet Street (1945)
It is extremely fascinating to view this Fritz Lang movie side by side with Jean Renoir's La Chienne, adapted from the same French novel as this film. While I have not read the book, it would seem that both films follow the novel rather devoutly since in terms of narrative content, the two works are extremely similar. Yet, they are completely different works with entirely different visions of the world.
Lang produced some very interesting, distinctive work in the USA, and even in the major studios. And there are impressive moments in Scarlet Street. The sets of Greenwich Village are wonderfully moody and indicative of Lang's roots in German Expressionist silent film. The scene where the main character fends off a woman's attacker in a dark, urban night is, I think, more beautiful than it's equivalent in Renoir's version.
All in all, however, Scarlet Street finds Lang impelled to make what is ultimately a very Hollywood film from a very European source. Every character here is motivated by PSYCHOLOGY- they are impelled by an inner drive towards one particular thing and their actions can only have one possible out come. The meaning of the world of Lang's movie is written in stone, and so is its sense of justice and morality. Perhaps more blatantly than most Hollywood films, the message for the viewer of this sad tale is to accept their place in the social order.
Renoir's work is ultimately a comedy about the unpredictability of life. The bizarre coincidences that characterize both versions of the story here seem entirely at home in this world, whereas in the American film they come to seem like simply sloppy story-telling. There is no meaning or morality in Renoir's great movie. There is only the ecstatic anarchy of being. Deleuze would have had a field day comparing the two films. I wonder if he ever did so....
Les amants (1958)
I mostly enjoyed this film a lot. Certainly it's camera movement and use of deep focus is exemplary. Interestingly, it is only the focal point of the narrative that I found disappointing and over-played. The use of Brahms here strikes me as heavy handed as the use of Satie in Malle's soon-following The Fire Within seemed natural and complimentary.
Most scenes struck me as subtly satiric, and I wondered if it wasn't something of an inspiration for The Graduate.
Deux hommes dans Manhattan (1959)
At first, one has a sense that this is almost a mid-career home movie by Jean-Pierre Melville, but by the end it was one of the most satisfying films I've seen by this director.
It should surprise no one that Melville would be in love with urban America. His Paris longs to be New York, or really the Great American City of Noir, with every turn of the street corner being a potential site for conspiracy and betrayal. For the first half of this film, Melville seems overwhelmed by the experience of being in Manhattan, and much of the early scenes feel like a man on vacation in his dream locale. Indeed, many of the shots seem intended to frame Melville, who plays the lead, in front of some iconically "New York" site.
But gradually the director finds his barrings and this becomes actually one of his more understated narratives: a character study of two men, a journalist and a photographer who at first seem similar, then very different, and perhaps ultimately similar again, as they wrestle with a simple, but decisive ethical choice.
Ai no bôrei (1978)
As lushly beautiful looking as any film I've seen by Oshima, and that's saying something. Otherwise, this seems like his most conventional movie, at least on the surface. This is one of the director's few films that could be described as a genre work- in this case the tradition of the Japanese ghost story. Yet I also read it as a take on American Film Noir, what with sexual obsession driving a single man and a married woman to murdering the latter's husband. But it reverses that genre's gender tropes, making the young man the figure of sexual power who leaves the otherwise decent woman astray. Oshima is, I think, playing with the audience's patriarchal expectations, making them squirm a bit at the notion of a woman being so overcome by lust as to abandon her principles. "Isn't it man who is supposed to be virtuous yet corrupted by beauty???!!!" At one point, it is implied that the film is only a depiction of hearsay, even within it's own narrational space. This makes the work more true to Oshima's style- implying a vision of Japanese society as one characterized by hypocritical sexual repression, rumor, and superstition.