Friday, August 28, 2015

Swept Away (1974) A Film by Lina Wertmüller

After a prelude aboard a ship full of Italian literati quarreling about politics somewhere in the gleaming Mediterranean, Swept Away takes the path not travelled by L’Avventura, imagining Antonioni’s narrative absence—the vanished beauty—as the focal point. Whatever ambiguities the earlier film left dangling with regard to the relative value of the privileged classes are swiftly bulldozed over by director Lina Wertmüller’s gambit of teaming up the materialistic heroine (Mariangela Melato’s Raffaella) with the working-class ruffian (Giancarlo Giannini’s Gennarino) tasked with manning her personal motorized rowboat—a trip intended as an easygoing afternoon sojourn that goes awry when they lose track of their home base. It’s a facile setup—capitalism and communism forced to collaborate!—that Wertmüller takes glee in probing from all sides, then picking apart until the central dichotomy evaporates and reveals sedimentary layers of power relationships. Right off the bat, Raffaella’s shrillness as a bourgeois caricature makes it easy to side with Gennarino’s barked indictments of her cultural ignorance, as well as to applaud his reflexive ability to enter survival mode against her preference for hysterics and constant cosmetic self-interest. But when the duo stations on an island, the rocky geography of which offers Wertmüller ample opportunity to encode power shifts as high-low spatial dynamics, Gennarino’s rhetoric and behavior abruptly veer toward the sadistically authoritarian—his perceived righteous vengeance for the accumulated sins of the upper-middle-class enacted on the Good People of Italy.

Swept Away’s action gets progressively thornier (Gennarino’s revenge fantasy goes unchecked, basically), and with it the angle of the film’s attack deepens. What begins as a takedown of materialism evolves into an expose on the horrific means and ends of masculine power, then a broader critique of the perils of having authority in general, then ultimately the deduction that the implicit codes of society itself are the greatest evil. As Gennarino wills Raffaella under a spell of carnal lust and the two arrive at a perverted but strangely effective co-dependence, Wertmüller’s implication is that the pair has devolved back to a nascent, animalistic state, composed in part of Adam and Eve’s spiritual purity and Neanderthalian barbarity. (A lengthy close-up of the impassioned lovers framed against the roaring glow of a fire in the background christens the mythical mood accordingly.) But even in this newfound harmony, Gennarino’s glaring misogyny persists, while Raffaella never gets a comparable chance to own any persona other than subservience. If Wertmüller’s recurrent staging of Gennarino looking down on Raffaella either mid-coitus or from atop a rocky perch are meant to taken ironically, there’s no leavening impression of Raffaella ever gaining agency as an individual (the closest the film gets to elevating her out of servility is the suggestion, wrung out in a series of high-angle shots of the characters wrestling in sand, that both characters have become equally debased).

In the uncivilized utopia that Swept Away posits as an alternative to the corrupted societal infrastructure, women still play second fiddle to men, a strange proposition coming from a female filmmaker but one that seems aligned to the more regressive extremes of the era’s radical politics. It’s possible that the final sequence—which finds Gennarino, now rescued and reunited with his wife, attempting to escape again with Raffaella only to be thwarted by her last-minute departure by helicopter—is meant as an indication of the victory of the female over the oppressiveness of the male (as well as an amusing comment on the luxuries of the capitalist, always able to just phone in expensive transportation to ascend above a situation literally and figuratively). But that reading is dissolved by Wertmüller’s decision to spend the last few minutes of the movie with the mopey and reproachful Gennarino, a misplacement of empathy that lands the final blow to this adroitly cynical but ultimately wrongheaded experiment in allegorical melodrama.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Navajo Joe (1966) A Film by Sergio Corbucci

"In no small part because of Reynolds's centrality, Navajo Joe feels like the first installment of a no-nonsense action franchise that never materialized. It's got a big-name star whose presence supersedes his fictional character, a theme song that renders its title and central character a jingle, and a barebones plot with broadly sketched good guys and bad guys. It's easy to imagine the central conceit—bandits slaughter members of Joe's tribe, and Joe seeks revenge on them—accommodating theoretically endless and interchangeable iterations. Perhaps Joe, after ridding the southwest of the unruly Mexicans in Mervyn 'Vee' Duncan's (Aldo Sambrell) gang (there's more than a hint of conservative border-policing implicit in the scenario), would attempt to seek peace with his people up north, only to encounter more amoral outgrowths of manifest destiny. The thematic root of Navajo Joe—righteous Native American indignation at the seizure of their land and the killing of their people—is a simple enough narrative engine to generate countless grindhouse plots of merciless pursuit and vengeance." Reviewed a new Blu-Ray of Navajo Joe from Kino Lorber for Slant Magazine.

Monday, August 17, 2015

She's Funny That Way (2014) A Film by Peter Bogdanovich

"Peter Bogdanovich's She's Funny That Way, like They All Laughed before it, is set in a hermetic Manhattan where charming extroverts are always just steps away from hailing a taxi, their budgets for doing so seemingly without ceilings, and no more than a few minutes away from any given destination among a small cluster of self-curated urban hangouts. In one comic set piece that plays like an insider callback to an almost identical scene in the prior film, the entire ensemble ends up, serendipitously, in the same upscale bistro for dinner, having all decided on their own to attend after parting from the same Broadway audition. While it's tempting to fixate on the facets of modern Big Apple life that are missing from this decidedly concentrated portrait (racial diversity, cost-of-living stress, the hassles of urban time management, the subway system), it's more fulfilling to look at what is there: a vision of the privileged class as a comically insular world, and its recognition of the idea that the paths taken by the privileged to reach their seemingly perfectly upheld lives haven't necessarily been any less fraught with self-denied compromise and regret than those of less fortunate city dwellers." Full review at Slant.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Front Page (1931) A Film by Lewis Milestone

"Key to the 1930s newspaper comedy is the disjuncture between the hermetic bubble of the press room, where typists fire away at their machines and local stories get barked back and forth, and the vast, abstracted, presumably filthy world that lies outside it. The Front Page, the film that many credit as the subgenre's catalyst, puts this internal/external split front and center. Lewis Milestone's direction emphasizes the closed-off quarters of the Chicago news office to such a stifling degree that the camera almost never leaves. On the rare occasion that it does, a preponderance of frames within frames—shots through car windows, compositions that place concrete walls all around the subjects—underline the idea that the newspapermen who work in this 'round-the-clock industry can never really escape it. In a telling shot that gets repeated throughout, the team of fast-talking reporters reacts to something on the street below their elevated office and Milestone tracks from inside to outside, at which point the men are seen boxed in by the window frames." Full review of a new Kino Classics Blu-Ray of The Front Page available at Slant.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Meru (2015) A Film by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

"What drives a man to embark on the dangerous quest of climbing the most complicatedly vertiginous Himalayan peak in the world, all the while filling their loved ones with unimaginable emotional anxiety? It's a fundamental question that Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Meru, a chronicle of three climbers' enduring mission to conquer the titular mountain, is oddly disinterested in. Instead, Chin and Vasarhelyi prefer to focus on concretes: the discipline that such a mission requires, the angular shape and varied terrain of the mountain itself, the tragedies that befell the climbers in between their two expeditions, and the various forms of calculated and uncalculated risk involved in big wall climbing." Full review at Slant.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014) A Film by Roger Allers

"As a screen star, especially in his recent action renaissance, Liam Neeson has proven to be as much a voice as a body or a face. His low, slightly gravelly intonation and terse dialogue delivery is as unmistakable a component of his persona as the pistol whips and lumbering physicality. So, as the voice for the title character in Roger Allers's animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran's slim but iconic collection of prose poems, The Prophet, he instantly stands out. The titular prophet, an endlessly generating fount of wisdom for his unenlightened peers, is an incarcerated poet named Mustafa, who launches into humbling oratories on the interconnected nature of the human race and the natural world whenever given the slightest of opportunities, digressions that take form as non-narrative animated segments set to Neeson's voiceover. Because of this frequent separation of the actor's voice and his character drawing, it's hard to escape the impression of a metatext: The Prophet basically amounts to a series of instances of Neeson—the Bronson-esque badass repackaged as a smooth-talking life coach—schooling the audience in pop-transcendentalist philosophy, indulged as excuses for Allers and his distinguished team of artists to unleash torrents of abstract animation."

Friday, July 24, 2015

Phoenix (2014) A Film by Christian Petzold

In Christian Petzold’s Holocaust drama Phoenix, dignity is a question of positioning within the expansive 2:35:1 cinema frame. Nelly (Nina Hoss), the film’s heroine, a concentration camp survivor requiring facial reconstruction surgery to reintegrate into the bombed-out wasteland of postwar Europe, is more or less kept in the center of Petzold’s compositions throughout, even when she’s on the move. When we meet her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have rat her out to the Nazis and who jumps at the opportunity for an inheritance when he finds this seeming doppelganger of his presumed-dead wife at a Berlin nightclub where he’s working, he’s charging left and right, the camera unable to neatly contain the movements of his brawny frame. This being a movie by Christian Petzold, who directs as if trying to curry all attention away from what the camera’s doing, such pictorial schemas don’t come right out and announce their presence. They’re ingrained in the thematics of the story to such a degree that there’s nothing to show off.

Nelly’s centrality in Petzold’s compositions is vital. Phoenix is set in a historical context in which consciousness of the death-shrouded past is paradoxically the key to progressing into the future. In her suicide letter, Nelly’s friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) puts this dynamic in existential terms, stating that her heart is with the dead and that she can’t go on with the living. Her point is that she’d rather die than live in a compromised world where her fellow Germans can’t acknowledge recent traumas, preferring instead to “live” in denial. Nelly lacks this firm stance, but her character arc is one of gradual realization, of a shifting of priorities from a longing to reclaim her pre-war comforts to an understanding that such recuperations can only be illusory after being subject to dehumanizing treatment.

Thus, Phoenix’s script is fundamentally didactic; at its core is a lecture on the dangers of historical repression. What’s remarkable about the film, though, is the ways in which it subsumes its point-making into visual drama, a subtly evolving interplay between appearances and motivations. After receiving her facial surgery, Nelly finds herself in a series of situations in which keeping up a stoic front is imperative—first as a matter of survival, then of submission, and finally of deception. It’s only in the bulldozer of a closing scene that she is able to emerge from beneath an artificial shell and outwardly express a personal objective.

And yet, because of Hoss’ totally psychologically invested performance, the ripples of internal transformation become apparent, if only through barely discernible fluctuations in her facial muscles. When Johnny, trying to mold this woman into the seamless image of his wife (which, of course, means Nelly herself), asks her to mimic her own penmanship, he’s taken aback by the exactitude. Nelly, sensing he might arrive at an acknowledgment of her identity, lets out a hint of smile, though it lasts less than a second before her face reverts back to its default blankness. The patient cutting of Petzold and his editor Bettina Böhler—everything’s boiled down to the Nelly’s reactive energy, not necessarily the patterns in the dialogue—is sensitive to these modest eruptions of feeling across largely fixed surfaces, and the sparseness of the compositions, with Hoss’ face looming large amongst nondescript negative space, encourages us to see them too.

The closest Phoenix gets to expository instructions on how to read its narrative is a scene when Nelly’s friend verbally chides her for attempting to reunite with her husband, who she knows betrayed her. A series of photographs she shows to Nelly corroborates this certainty, and from this point Nelly, who’s already advanced beyond the bandaged blank slate of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, undergoes a shift from the Madeleine of Vertigo to Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, or from a woman complicit in her own distortion at the will of a man to a woman cleverly exploiting those masculine perversions to meet her own ends. Just before a key scene when Nelly interrogates Johnny on the disintegration of his relationship with his “wife”—a metaphysical moment staged on a fast-moving bicycle, with both characters facing forward as the world blurs behind them—Nelly is seen wearing a black sunhat and a netted veil, the iconic get-up of Fassbinder’s classic postwar heroine. Without calling obvious attention to the references (the emergence of the “new” Nelly out of darkness in Johnny’s apartment, suggesting Hitchcock’s sensational reveal, being the nearest to a direct quotation), Petzold has shuttled Hoss’ malleable figure through a series of feminine representations from the history of postwar art cinema, each one more human, more whole, and with more agency than the last.

Barbara and Beats Being Dead, Petzold’s last two films, withheld expression—performative as well as aesthetic—to the point of flatlining-sine-wave blankness. For me at least (though I do intend to rewatch them), they felt locked within their character’s environmentally motivated restraint, unwilling to open a door for the viewer while willingly cultivating a stuffy room. Phoenix is more seductive than either film, beginning with a ludicrous pulp plot and only then tunneling into behavioral nuance. Stefan Will’s uncluttered upright bass and piano score establishes the ambiance of a detective film, while Hans Fromm’s voluptuous cinematography—juxtaposing the shadowy alleyways of dilapidated Berlin against the garish neon of the night clubs in the American sector, then introducing the olive greens and morning dew of the German countryside—extends this aura. To watch Phoenix is to be put in the position of an investigator analyzing the psychological import of the most microscopic of gestures. Historical insight and cinematic sophistication, coexisting in a tight bind that puts neither on a platform, rarely synchronize with such tremendous grace.