Friday, January 24, 2020

letterboxd backup (4)

Three Godfathers, John Ford, 1948

My favorite part comes when, towards the end of the film, shortly before he arrives in this film's version of Jerusalem, John Wayne stumbles through a canyon, thirsty and depleted. As in other scenes before, exhaustion is treated not as a bodily condition but as a prerequistion for the state of grace. Wayne, however, doesn't fall into a soft, cloud-like death, but instead becomes something like a mad saint, he starts hallucinating, and the world around him transforms itself into a cinematic echo chamber, complete with ghost voices, superimpositions, and a donkey miracle. In a way, the whole film works like this: While Ford's other westerns of the period (probably even the intimate WAGON MASTER, which I'll have to revisit soon) are deeply invested in making sense of the emerging post war world, 3 GODFATHERS often feels like a private fantasy: John Ford, hanging out in his own cinematic echo chamber.

Of course this isn't a surprise, given that 3 GODFATHERS is a remake of Ford's own 1919 film MARKED MEN and also a tribute to its star, Harry Carey. The true miracle is that, despite its openly, even proudly anachronistic setup, the film never once feels claustrophobic. One reason for this might be, that the two main structural levels of the film - the genre exercise and the religious allegory - never completely collapse into each other. No matter how deliriously christian things get, Ford at the same time always stays true to the simple chase narrative (which twice in the film is sketched as a spatialized diagram). Thereby, 3 GODFATHERS permanently sidesteps the notion of mythical closure which always seems to lurk behind the next corner.

More important, probably, are single scenes, evelated shots which seem to come out of nowhere (the one with Wayne shielding his dying friend from the sun), singular intensities. This, more than the naive storyline, connects the film to early cinema, to the cinema of attractions. Of course, every single one of these moments is also a triumph of craft. The sandstorm, for example, is a triumph of Hollywood studio artifice, on par with the storm in THE HURRICANE. But the best special effect is much more basic: the baby itself, the faux christ found in the desert, and fed with cactus water. Each time the bundle in which the infant is wrapped in is opened, the film seems to discover the wonders of life anew, as if for the first time. Here, in the spiritual center of the film, glorious artifice suddenly breaks through into pure realism: The tiny hands grabbing Wayne's tanned, life-worn fingers, the mouth sucking, by way of pure reflex, on the improvised milk bottle.

The Long Gray Line, John Ford, 1955

When you watch the parade passing by you can't be part of it yourself. Not only a film about a life almost completely lived by proxy and the growing invisibility of history (in the age of cinemascope), but also about the specific melancholy of cinema.

Also: Maureen O'Hara as the last great silent movie comedian. Her love on first sight scene with Tyrone Powers might be one of the most beautiful slapstick routines ever.

The Other Sister, Garry Marshall, 1999

Whatever obscenity there might be in Lewis and Ribisi playing disabled characters is completely diminished by the objective obscenity of the uber-waspy upperclass setting. Not to speak of the obscenity of Marshall's musical cues.

This is (not unlike the other rather few Marshalls I've seen) a completely shameless film. But also an interesting one, with a lot of quirky ideas. The close-ups of isolated flying objects during the first wedding, the sex cutaway to the fish bowl (and brass music!), those friendly weirdos Ribisi meets during his getaway.

You probably need to be in tune with a certain kind of perversity to enjoy mainstream monstrosities like this. But, well, I certainly am.

Sergeant Rutledge, John Ford, 1960

One detail in the train scene early in the film: While getting to know each other, Constance Towers's Mary and Jeffrey Hunter's Tom are standing in the middle of one of the compartments of this rather un-trainlike looking train. They are facing each other while being aligned perpendicular towards the direction and movement of the machine. When the train suddenly breaks they should, according to the laws of physics, stumble parallel to the movement of the train, and also parallel to each other. However, they stumble towards each other instead, resulting in Mary falling into Tom's arms.

On the one hand this is a precise definition of movie magic: Cinema has the power to alter ficticious force, to refract it by 90 degrees (these 90 degrees might also be thought of as the romantic bias of cinema). On the other hand, the very strangeness and exposed antinaturalism of the scene fits this particular film perfectly. In SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, the chains of cause and effect aren't exactly broken, but they work in peculiar, almost absurd ways. The extremely beautiful, and despite its strangeness extremely moving film is first and foremost concerned with celebrating and mythologizing the „buffalo soldier“, with inscribing the faces of black americans on the iconography and texture of the hollywood western / of Ford's cinema... but it does this through a convoluted, meandering plot, structured around an investigation which, for most of the film's running time, seems to move not towards, but away from the crime it is supposed to solve. Only to be thrust back to it in the end by way of a rather bizarre deus ex machina development, resulting in an almost ecstatically overacted confession scene.

Viva, Anna Biller, 2007

Rewatching Biller's films on film makes me ecstatic and sad at the same time. Ecstatic for obvious reasons, sad because I realize that there are no real reasons (only fucking pragmatic ones) for the switch to digital. All films could look like this one! And especially: All filmed bodies could look like the ones in VIVA, completely exposed and yet protected by a material gaze affectionately registering their uniqueness.

Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero, 1978

Argento cut. Which feels less different than I thought it would. But altogether, the changes do amount to a certain streamlining.

Storia di Piera, Marco Ferreri, 1983

A film in which Hanna Schygulla fights off ten (!) rapists with a hammer and which also has Isabelle Huppert doing weird pantomime / facial tick stuff has no right to be that much of a drag in almost all other scenes.

The Return of Mr. Moto, Ernest Morris, 1965

To shoot 1965, in the age of Bond, a bare-bones, 70 minutes, black and white Mr. Moto film is obviously a rather crazy idea, especially with a main actor who is almost the polar opposite of Peter Lorre both physically and in terms of flexibility. Still, for the first ten minutes, consisting mostly of a minimalist, almost abstract chase scene, manic closeups lost in empty studio space, I thought this might be an accidental masterpiece. When the plot mechanics kick in, the limitations of the everyone involved (and especially of the budget) become obvious, but the film never quite loses its strange, somnambulic charme.

A Song to Remember, Charles Vidor, 1955

It's easy to understand why Ayn Rand hated this: the George Sand character easily could've been based on herself (or rather, her public image), not only in terms of her philiosophy, but also in terms of her lifestyle. The film's repudiation of Sand / Rand in the end, in favour of Paul Muni's fuzzy populism, clearly and quite openly not only targets (in a problematic way, to say the least, although one has to remember that this was produced during World War 2) Rand's hyperbolic individualism, but also this very anti-bourgeois lifestyle. Which is, once again quite openly, alligned with feminism, if not the female experience per se. Muni's character also targets style per se: Oberlon's always extremely well-dressed Sand is the only colourful, extravagant element in an otherwise drab colour palette. Without her, this wouldn't even be a technicolor film!

In the end, Rand's dismissal of the film might be completely wrongheaded (and pointing to her not really having a sense of humour). Oberlon / Sand / Rand might lose the battle for Chopin's heart and life, but she clearly wins the mise en scene.

Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence, 2018

Comes alive for a precious few minutes during Mary-Louise Parker's unhinged drunk performance. Jennifer Lawrence's performance is all right, but feels too conceptual. The rest is either too stupid or not stupid enough. On a side note: minor stylists like Francis Lawrence seem to have been hit the hardest by the switch to digital. Everything's way too clean and static, like a barely animated storyboard. Style has been replaced by the idea of style.

Allonsanfan, Taviani brothers, 1974

The desire to dance together is the death of revolution. The yearning for an imaginary wholeness, for a magical becoming one with the revolutionary subject will lead bourgeois idealists into doom. This is such a powerful rejection of leftist romanticism (and probably one of the most thought-through post-68 films), because it evokes its very textures: a world almost entirely made up of homosocial camaraderie, rousing music, color cues, proud but sexy and willing women.

Of course, for the Tavianis in 1974 this systematic denunciation of leftist naivete wasn't an end in itself, but pointed towards a more analytical marxist perspective. When the security of an all-encompassing macro-perspective like that is gone, too, the film suddenly feels much more bitter...

What is left today is still not pure cynicism, though, but a fascinating film constantly switching between conceptual denseness and a more loose, novelistic tone. Only the protagonist himself feels a little overwrote sometimes - Mastroianni doesn't need all this psychological and sociological burden, he works best, when he is just a soft cypher, a vaguely incongruous, overwhelmed body thrown into history. Because he so clearly is someone not made to fight, but to be petted, adored and caressed.

Watching ALLONSANFAN today is a nostalgic experience. What I'm longing for isn't the politics of the 70s, though, but a time when aesthtics still could be mobilized, more or less wholesale, for abstract ideas.

Tonight or Never, Mervyn LeRoy, 1931

Just another proof that the early 30s were the most glorious era in film history. As if cinema, in a few years, invented all of its forms once again, but not from scratch, but driven by an already established belief in the power of the medium.

TONIGHT OR NEVER is, to me, the perfect meshing of precode sexiness and silent movie sensuality. Gloria Swanson is finally able to verbalize her desires, but she still has ample room to act it out through gestures and glances, too. The way she caresses furniture... This must be an axiom of cinema: put Gloria Swanson on a sofa and something magical will happen.

The film is also proof of LeRoys supreme craftmanship. To pull of, so early in his career, a film like this, so different in tone and especially rhythm than the stuff he did at Warner Brothers at the time, shows that his films are much more than the products of their environment. Although he made just a handful of silents (I haven't been able to see a single one, so far), he manages to make TONIGHT OR NEVER look like the work of a silent master creatively retooling his work for the sound era. The cigarette butts under Swanson's window, a few Lubitsch-style cascades of movements and gazes, and, of course, Swanson's acting... Melvyn Douglas is also already pretty lubitschy.

At the same time, certain limitations are obvious, too, especially in some of the more lightweigh Warner comedies: LeRoy never tries to overcome weaknesses in the script, he always chooses to work around them instead, investing his energy in the stuff that interests him. In his lesser films, this results in piecemeal, but never completely uninspired work.

Here, the main problem is the rather stupid resoultion. Although in a way even the clumsy ending (the somewhat unearned forming of the couple) is interesting, because it lays open a tension in the script between the older narrative of romantic conquest the film still sticks to, and the emerging, more egalitarian form of the remarriage comedy.

Five Star Final, Mervyn LeRoy, 1931

Edgar G. Robinson as a hard-nosed, but in the end of course only almost completely cynical newspaperman trying to cash in on a long-forgotten murder. The temporal difference is essential, because this basically is two films in one: On the one hand, a decidedly modern thriller-as-farce about capitalist pressure in the world of mass media (and the psychological side-effects which go along with it). On the other hand, a 19th century melodrama about a woman`s tarnished reputation.

LeRoy doesn`t try to bridge the gap, instead, he accentuates it. The fluid, fast-talking newspaper scenes form a harsh contrast to the theatrical, almost a bit zombie-like scenes set at the home of the "tarnished woman". Interestingly, the only link between both worlds is Karloff - who is, not at all surprisingly, much more believable as the faux priest of victorian melodrama than as the supposedly authentic nihilist reporter T. Vernon Isopod (the name alone… so many beautiful details in this).

One might take this sensationalist defense of journalistic ethics as just another example of commercial cinema having its cake and eating it, too. But LeRoy is much more interested in structure, gadgets (the split-screen scene!) and runaway performances (George E. Stone! One of those actors who only need five minutes) than in morals. Plus, if nothing else, the theme of female solidarity rings true, like so often in his films. In the end, the true center of the film isn`t Robinson, but Aline MacMahon (in her first role!), in charge of the newspaper phone lines, throwing knowing looks at everyone who enters the scene. She's the one introspective, reflexive element in a world otherwise completely made up of manic, selfish activity.

Show Girl in Hollywood, Mervyn LeRoy, 1930

I`m still not sure quite how much and why I like Alice White, but she does have a supreme sense of style and one thing I do adore even more is her dancing. Her elegant, but relaxed, almost a bit negligent movements are far removed from the athletic style of precision dancing which dominants most american musicals. White`s dancing always feels like a by-product of her subjectivity first, and part of a choreography second (if at all).

The third of LeRoy`s Alice-White-films I`ve seen. Another making-it-in-show-business-plot, but this time set in early talkies Hollywood (complete with cameos by Al Jolson and Loretta Young), and much more ambitious. LeRoy manages to squeeze every part of film production, from casting to editing, into this (there`s even a scene set in a projection room), and especially the scenes at the producer`s office are pitch perfect. The mechanics of yes-manism.

While the loss of the technicolor version is a shame (the last reel feels static today, because the colors where supposed to provide the movement), there are so many other great and strange ideas in this, starting with the back projection tourist-bus ride when White enters Hollywood for the first time (shades of Lupino`s THE BIGAMIST; LeRoy himself uses the same idea in THE WORLD CHANGES). Another great bit is the guy who scratches the names off the office doors of fired studio employees, at the same time blotting out a career and all other voices on the sound track.

And then there`s Griffith actress Blanche Sweet as a "aging" (33 years old) former star who forms a bond with White`s newcomer. Female friendship is one of the main themes in LeRoys early films, and it`s never just a given, but it has to be tested, and in can be lost, as it almost happens here. The Sweet storyline basically is a film in itself, a rousing, bitter mini melodrama which puts SUNSET BOULEVARD to shame and comes complete with over-the-top silent movie acting and tear-eyed chiaroscuro. The greatest moment of the film, though, comes, when during the first long conversation of both women, Sweet suddenly starts to sing. Not only is something like this completely out of the ordinary in the backstage musicals of the time, but the singing has nothing to do with showmanship, but stays completely true to character as an effort of resigned, graceful self-expression. A truly magical moment.

Disco Fieber, Hubert Frank, 1979

Hubert Frank's gloriously delirious DISCO FIEBER is the german GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. Or at least, the closest german cinema could ever, after germany's own 1933, come to GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. When GOLD DIGGERS can be described as a film which acknowledes the reality of the depression, and by way of this very acknowledgement somehow overcomes it, DISCO FIEBER manages to do the same with and for (west-)german provinciality.

And it does so, again just like GOLD DIGGERS, by way of a textual bifurcation. For the most part, the film plays out like a standard, juvenile sex farce of the time, chronicling the escapades of a few wannabe-studs who try out gestures and chat-up-lines taken more or less directly from american youth films (LEMON POPSICLE clearly was a big influence, too). The jokes are stale and the slapstick-hide-in-the-closet-the-nuns-are-coming-routines are even staler, but that doesn't matter, because it's all about attitude, anyway, about celebrating the art of carelessly entering the classroom, about slouching on the bench with buttoned-downed shirts, about the right amount of disgracing oneself in an agreeable way.

Most of this works perfectly, despite itself. By now, Hubert Frank is, without a doubt, my favorite german sexploitation director. He may not be as distinctive as Jürgen Enz, as unconditionally perverted as Hans Billian, as rigorous a stylist as Ernst Hofbauer, but he is the most inspired of them all. Frank may just be the only truly instinctive filmmaker of German erotic cinema. He finds something special in every single scene. The low angles he uses for a football game, the way he glamourizes a female teacher, a bizarro dance montage involving several disguises, magnificent sport cars popping up out of nowhere in southern german no-man's-land - this is a film thoroughly infused with pleasures of the cheap, but powerful kind.

Frank's films always have charme and style, even when, or maybe especially when he has next to nothing to start from - like in this case: a film structured around Boney M, but without Boney M actually showing up on set for principal photography. When they do appear, they inhabit not only a different space than the rest of the cast, but a different layer of reality, and indeed a different medium: all the scenes with Boney M and other Frank Farian acts were shot by Klaus Überall (the name itself is a hint: "überall" is german for "everywhere") - on video.

These music video-like performances are the real piece du resistance of DISCO FIEBER, and also the sequences which align the film once and for all with GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. Just like Berkeley's exuberant production designs and body sculptures in motion, Überall's crude video intrusions (complete with oldschool video effects - miniature people dancing on their own hands, whispering in their own ears) transcend the diegetic space in order to become objects of pure cinema. And, just like in GOLD DIGGERS, it's impossible to decide if these intrusions of the musical-spectacular represent the inner truth of the more prosaic world the rest of the film inhabits, or pure, unreachable externality.

I Spy, Allan Dwan, 1934

Not nearly good enough to be the missing link between A MODERN MUSKETEER and TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES, but it is in the same vein: an absurdist, fast-moving comedy informed by the kind of popcultural knowingness and ironic detachement usually attributed to postmodernism. Dwan is perfectly suited for material like this - it's all about engineering and when he manages to boil down the story to pure mechanics (Ben Lyon bouncing around between two tough guys in one moment, and basically being thrown into an airplane into the next), it works beautifully. Some parts of it have a nice silent comedy feel to it and Lyon gives a wonderful deadpan performance. There is enough energy here, but not quite enough ideas to sustain it for 62 minutes.

Die Sexabenteuer der drei Musketiere, Erwin C. Dietrich, 1971

A succession of atrocious sex jokes, filmed as awkwardly (and slowly) as possible. the complete absence of even the faintest notion of craft leaves room, though, not only for formalist humour (the repeated pans over pastoral landscapes), but also for a number of small beauties: a man almost elegantly sliding into a duel scene because the floor is slippery, the lingering shot of a woman stretched out in the hay a few feet apart from a pining, but inactive man, several naked men walking in line through a dark, vaguely medieval room, trying way too hard to coordinate their movements. the one really beautiful scene that somehow managed to slip in - involving a frog sitting on ingrid steeger's breast - is worth more than anything someone like Inarritu has ever done. the dialectics of film history.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette, 2018

While I don't particularly like this as stand-up, I know that reactions to performances like this are highly subjective, and NANETTE sure is a neat piece of storytelling and audience control, so the rating is more about its reception than about the thing itself. I just don't buy into the idea that something which triggers dozens of almost identical think pieces in just a few weeks can be a "watershed moment" or a "game changer". The vocabulary to describe this obviously already was there, as this is, point for point, tailor-made for its think piece producing target audience. Anyway, burdening popular culture with promises of salvation (while rejecting its most interesting part: its paradoxes) almost always is a bad idea.

Admittedly I'm a big fan of stand-up without actually having experienced a lot of it. But still I think it isn't a big risk to claim that a random evening in a headliner-free NYC comedy club contains more friction and energy than this.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, J. A. Bayona, 2018

I enjoyed FALLEN KINGDOM more than I thought I would, but its pleasures are completely detached from the core of the film series. I was completely on board with all scenes involving Maisie. A girl of unnatural ancestry, unloved by humans and surrounded by strange beasts, exploring (and conquering) her hostile and baroque surroundings by means of the service elevator - I can't think of many characters in big budget films over the last ten years who are even remotely as interesting as Maisie. In a few scenes, Bayona manages to create a style of heighened artificiality (I especially liked the strange color burst in the museum scene) which fits her storyline perfectly.

In theory, it might be possible to combine Maisie's adventures with big budget dinosaur mayhem in a meaningful way. However, in this regard the film just feels tired. First and foremost, FALLEN KINGDOM desperately needed at least one or two stand-out open-air set pieces. Instead, the film spends way too much time in a generic underground facility (and doesn't even manage to evoke a sense of claustrophobia; the action really is a letdown, even compared with Trevorrow's film).

One scene encapsulating my frustration: After some inventive shadowplay in Maisies bedroom, threatening, ancient Jaws crawl near the frightened girl - and then Chris Pratt busts through the door and starts blasting away in the most prosaic manner. Pratt himself isn't as annoying as in JURASSIC WORLD, but just as boring. While Bryce Dallas Howard - clearly, whether you like her role or not, the most interesting part of the first film - has almost nothing to do. Same goes for most of the new cast members. It's really all about Maisie, this time.

Fascination Amour, Herman Yau, 1999

For once, one of these choice-moments-of-a-love-story-set-to-a-pop-tune montage sequences, ubiquitous in hong kong cinema, does make sense - because the film preceding it feels so disjointed and slapdash that I really was surprised to rediscover the solid thread of memorable, intimate scenes running through it. My favorite moment: Andy Lau histrionically slouching away from the camera and from Hikari Ishida, after being accused by his boss of being a playboy,

The first part is a bare-bones romantic comedy (the hot-tub scene is good) set on a luxury vessel with Hotel Bonaventure style postmodern interiors. There are so many allusions to TITANIC that, at one point, I really was waiting for the iceberg to appear. But obviously even the most basic of shipwreck scenes would have exceeded the budget tenfold. Therefore, Lau and Ishida spend the second half in Puerto Rico. Here, the film falls apart completely while at the same time becoming more interesting. There are two extended, borderline surrealistic street dancing scenes and the considerable charms of the two leads have more opportunities to shine through the chaos.

So there's life after all, even though, ultimately, this is one of the rather few Herman Yau projects which were indeed beyond saving.

The First Auto, Roy Del Ruth, 1927

A gimmick film. Not only is it chock full of gimmicks, but it's also, in a way, about a society enthralled by gimmicks. About a society encountering modernity in the form of gimmicks. Maybe also about the gimmicky nature of modernity in general. A film about people constantly trying to showcase something or other, to attract attention to something, to play tricks on each other. The introduction of the car is just a convenient occasion to free one's inner narcissistic showman. Fortunately, the basic mood is still optimistic, even hedonistical. Progress is a given, something which is about to happen anyway, so we might just enjoy it.

The gimmicks really take over (almost) everything. There filmic realisation stems from Del Ruth's Sennett days (i just encountered a variation of the joke with the funnel in his THE HEART SNATCHER), and the technologically newer sound effects are used just in the same way: A laughter, applause and even single words are used as distinct gimmicks vamping up the otherwise silent image. Some of the effects are truly astonishing, especially a series of different, stylized voices used to depict town chatter. It's a pity this transitional phase didn't last longer (and, of course, that most of the films produced with sound effects are lost).

There's also an old man who doesn't believe in gimmicks. He sticks to his horse, an animal which almost automatically triggers, with each of its appearances, a mode of melodrama completely absent from the rest of the film, because it clearly belongs to an older era. The last shot belongs not to the car, but to the horse - which has been transformed into a kind of sentimental gimmick. So in a way, this is also a film about the invention of nostalgia. Vernacular dialectics.

Drunken Tai-Chi, Yuen Woo-ping, 1984

The only small problem might be that DRUNKEN TAI CHI climaxes rather early - there's just no way to top the magnificent fireworks scene. After that, the film settles for a parade of smaller scale set pieces, all of them performed with a lot of energy, directed with speed and inventiveness and infused with the right kind of vulgarity. The narrative is threadbare and by the numbers but treated with enough respect and attention to detail (the repercussions of the great Lydia Shum fight scene, the domestic dynamics between Shum and Yuen and so on) to keep a base level of interest in the characters.

The 80s electro beats and allusions to basketball and breakdance add an extra level of craziness, but in a way the crosscultural spectacle feels completely natural, probably because the youthful Donnie Yen really is a force of nature in this film, transforming every impuls into movement, instantly and without discrimination. Still, my personal highlight in the cast is Yuen Shun-Yee with another really out-there bad-guy-performance (he may even function as some sort of auteurist signature in his brother's films). Just like in DREADNAUGHT, he displays a fundamental, grotesque oddity which reaches far beyond the usual villain routines by tapping into a source of private craziness. Which in this case somehow is connected to him being a really great, loving dad. The scene in which he assembles a decidedly weird-looking hobby horse by pounding in the nails with his bare flesh is the kind of throwaway greatness only 80s Hong Kong cinema can provide. I will never get tired of stuff like this.

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