Thursday, February 13, 2020

letterboxd backup (11)

After, Jenny Gage, 2019

When you're undecided between a business and a literature major, Peter Gallagher has the perfect solution: why don't you check out the business side of literature? In fact, I can get you an internship at Verso...

The scene at the lake is beautiful.

Meine 16 Söhne, Hans Domnick, 1956

Lil Dagover, no longer just a german, but a trans-european mater dolorosa, has gained 16 sons from four countries. She reigns supreme over a music competition - four string quartets from Berlin, Dresden, Switzerland and France are supposed to compete against each other in order to obtain a grant.

But there are problems! Rules and regulations, what else? The grant can only be won by German musicians, the regulations read. What follows is a drama of bureaucracy and companionship, a very German mixture indeed. The young men adore their mistress, and when they decide to bend the rules by way of denationalizing the quartets, they bend the rules for her, to ease her pain. And she does suffer! Wailing she roams the large hanseatic merchant estate most of the film is set in.

Solidarity is the tenderness of nations, or something like that. If this is a film about international reconciliation, what exactly is this reconciliation supposed to reconciliate? The cold war aspect at least is decidedly muted. When the head of the Dresden quartet develops an arrogant and dictatorial streak, I thought that finally some honest to goodness anti-communism might come into play. But his sickness isn't stalinism, but related to the bombing of Dresden, which is the only historical event alluded to by the film. Again and again, there's even a model of the old Semperoper being passed around. One would never guess, from this film only, that the actions of Germany had anything to do with Dresden being attacked, though. Instead, in a rather bold turn of events, it is implied that the two German quartets are generously inviting in the foreigners (who can neither know nor understand anything about their pain), thereby somehow forgiving the french and the swiss (!) quartet for the bombings.

Is MEINE 16 SÖHNE itself the atrocity it claims the bombing of Dresden to be? Yes, probably, but in a rather charming way, at least when seen today. The main thing it has going for it is a perfect fit of form and content: the film believes just as much in its uplifting "internationalist" message (which is completely compatible with the blandest of stereotypes, of course, like the french violinist who's constantly wooing Dagover's daughter) as Dagover believes in her stupid competition. This unwavering conviction is evident in all aspects of the film, most clearly and most exhaustingly in the high-pitched performance of the Berlin cellist blathering away non-stop, with no regards for anyone's sanity, least of all his own.

The Red Kimona, Walter Lang, 1925

Social problems film with a good cast (I’d especially like to see Bonner and von Eltz in a more upbeat film), but a lot of static suffering. It only truly comes alive in the scenes dealing with a socialite who’s exploiting the very same kind of static suffering.

Confession, Joe May, 1937

After discovering Jane Bryan for the first time in KID GALLAHAD, here she is again - and once more, she’s the best thing in a film that still would’ve been very good without her. It’s not about her "stealing" the films from Bette Davis (in KID GALLAHAD) or Kay Francis (here). Her brillance isn’t aggressive at all. Her own presence isn’t a substitution, but an addition, something separate. As if I enter a house and find an extra room I didn’t expect.

In the case of CONFESSION, her role changes the dynamics of the plot. The film is a (mostly) shot for shot remake of Willi Forst’s MAZURKA, and she plays the younger of two women who fall in love with a philandering star pianist. In Forst’s film, this role is strictly secondary, mostly used as a build-up for Pola Negri’s grand entrance as the older woman. In CONFESSION, though, Bryan carves out her own space, mostly through gestures and glances (although she gets a few extra lines and even an extra scene; Joe May clearly realized what he had in her). Most beautifully in the scene before the first kiss, her nervousness when hanging her coat, her reluctance even during the embrace...


CONFESSION isn’t as organic as MAZURKA - especially the more baroque elements feel much more natural in the older film -, but still I can’t decide which version I like more. It’s amazing how May manages, despite his obsession to recreate Forst’s shots as closely as possible, to lend his images a completely different, much more tender and introspective tone.

Mazurka, Willi Forst, 1935

I watched this immediately after CONFESSION. The original is, expectedly, more explicit when it comes to sex, but also much harsher. While I can understand the appeal of Basil Rathbone at least a little bit, Albrecht Schoenhals is just a bully emitting downright rapey vibes. Pola Negri is wonderful, though, and better than Francis in the remake.

Teppanyaki, Michael Hui, 1984

Probably the purest Michael Hui film, in its undivided focus on the man himself and the series of slapstick routines he takes on, but also in its clearly delineated psychodynamics: stuck between the fantasy of the calendar girl and the reality of the massive wife (there’s always either too little or too much woman), Michael is doomed from the start. Every escape route turns out to be just another walk of shame.

The setting is perfect for this: His rare cooking performances are an outlet for his delusions of grandeur, but even there, humilation is always waiting around the corner. The humour is the sort of go-for-broke slapstick madness no one would dare engaging in today, including several excursions into decidedly murky waters. But you just have to admit that even when it comes to blackface and rape jokes, inventiveness and timing do make a difference.

I completely surrendered to the genius of Michael as early as the tennis scene. Still, as far as food-centered Hui comedies go, I probably prefer CHICKEN AND DUCK TALK, mostly because of Ricky’s involvement.

I Wish I Knew, Jia Zhang-ke, 2010

I haven't seen it since it came out, but I remember being bugged by 24 CITY's tendency towards monumentalisation, and this feels like an even less interesting extension of it, a dead end of static, almost stately detachment Jia thankfully escaped from three years later with A TOUCH OF SIN. There are beautiful moments in some of the interviews, especially when the showbiz anecdotes take over, but somehow a film dealing with violent transformation (at heart, this is more about the watershed moment of 1949 than about Shanghai) shouldn't feel this calm itself.

Rumble Fish, Francis Ford Coppola, 1983

It’s not sufficent to describe Dillon and Rourke as mythical, godlike creatures, because that still implies a notion of selfsameness, of personification Coppola leaves behind here. It’s more about two energy states trying to find a balance, about two unstable chemical elements involved in a slow-burning but uncontrolled, uncontrollable reaction.

Of course, there are differences between the two of them. Rourke has broken his connection to the world of cause and effect from the start, while Dillon still clings to the social realm (which continues to coexists with the abstract, transhumanist world of pure style; without this grounding, Dillon’s disintegration would have no force at all). He needs the help of a magic realist metaphor in order to free himself, to float, to see the world the way Burum’s camera sees it from the start: not as a stage predesigned for the theater of life, but as a multidimensional sequence of layerings, which are, to a degree, navigable, but not inhabitable.

The Highwaymen, John Lee Hancock, 2019

The casting alone makes it worthwhile - Costner and Harrelson should be in films like this every year. Contemporary cinema cheated us out of the joy of properly following up on the seasoning of Costner’s neck and the transformation of Harrelson’s naivete into embodied wisdom. Even aside from that, THE HIGHWAYMEN, while not quite dense enough, works well on a mythopoetical level as yet another late western - in a way, modern westerns can’t do much more than negotiate their own lateness, and I clearly prefer a pragmatic, procedural approach like Hancock’s over whiny "revisionism" like in the terrible THE SISTERS BROTHERS. (If you really want to make a woke western, you have to put in real effort, like Larry Clark did with CUTTING HORSE.)

On the other hand, Hancock’s clumsy insistence that this is also a film about the great depression is truly frustrating. Again and again he indifferently drapes poor people on the landscape like props on a stage - and then, not only the camera, but also Harrelson gazes at them as if they represent some hidden truth.


A better point of comparison than Penn’s film might be Louis King’s PERSONS IN HIDING, the first of the films inspired by the historical Bonnie & Clyde that tries to focus on the law enforcement perspective (although Patricia Morison ended up completely dominating the film in the Bonnie role). Interestingly, PIH, partly based on a book by J. Edgar Hoover, celebrates the same modern, abstract crime fighting techniques THE HIGHWAYMEN openly despises.

One From the Heart, Francis Ford Coppola, 1981

Beautiful and exhausting. It builds on the disconnect between the highly specific, thoroughly unromantic love story on one side and the textures of a deindividualized cultural industry based on the notion of romance it is trenched in on the other. The hypnotic, glittery, hybrid sound- and colorscapes around them clearly are not just extensions of Frannie’s and Hank’s states of mind. But at the same time, with the possible exception of their own bodies, there also is no outside they can escape to. So, this is neither about the cultural industry taking over subjectivity (= Cinema du Look), nor about alienated subjectivity "lost" in a vapid world of surface sensations (= arthouse boredom). Instead, not unlike RUMBLE FISH, ONE FROM THE HEART is a materialist film about the (im)possibility of inhabiting the modern world.

Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt, Geza von Bolvary, 1930

Behind the criminally catchy songs and the rumpel-slapstick routines this is also - like apparently almost every film Willi Forst is involved in - a psycho- (or krypto-?)sexual comedy about delay of gratification.

77 Heartbreaks, Herman Yau, 2017

As long as it sticks to its main hook - a recently ended relationship unfolding in flashbacks and thereby disrupting the attempts of both parties to move forward - 77 HEARTBREAKS has a conceptual and filmic density to it that films like this seldom have: the things and gestures of love being inseperabale from the things and gestures of love's unmaking. The main cast is good, Michelle Wai especially adds a fresh touch to it. Her more joyfull but also more vulnerable presence balances out the rather pragmatic approaches to their own feelings of Choi and Chau.

However, the NT storyline bugged me from the start, and towards the end, there are a few miscalculated scenes (the marriage, especially) that threw me out of the film almost completely. The side plot concerned with the diary itself is also pretty much useless, a crude shot for the kind of romcom reflexivity better left to directors like Johnnie To.

...und das ist die Hauptsache, Joe May, 1931

Starts with a party that seems to have no bounds, neither spatial, nor temporal, a bustling totality of lametta, intoxication and erotic attractions. All kinds of limbs thrown around all kinds of body parts.

But from the beginning, there's an outside to this totality. A kind of inner outside, though: Nora Gregor visits the party, too, but she can't become part of it, she's stuck in her body, her subjectivity. So she separates herself, and this very act of separation makes her vulnerable. The man who joins her (Robert Thoelen, a wonderful actor who didn't seem to have much of a career) knows that he has to attack her from the inside, not from the outside.

Heimkehr, Joe May, 1928

While they play house in russian war captivity, the barren room two German soldiers live in is doubled, in their conversations, by another, imaginary room: they describe, in minute detail, the house in which the wife of one of the soldiers is waiting for him. When the "wrong" soldier makes it home (his friend still being imprisoned, or so he thinks), he decides to visit the room he has fantasized about. Of course, there's also the woman inside the room... She has become part of the mutual fantasy, too. The soldier knows about the birthmark on her chest, and he also knows, that in the martial bed, she always sleeps near the wall. Naturally, when he meets her, he must see the birthmark - which isn't that big of a deal, just a harmless flirtation. What about the thing with the bed, though...


All of this leads neither to sexy farce nor to bloody melodrama, but to an epic treatise on self-denial, played out in hypnotic slow motion. Three bodies in despair, one pretending to sleep, one lying hunched on the coach, one waiting in silent panic next door. A film sick to the bone, but also great stuff.

Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhang-ke, 2015

A strange film, ambitious but also kind of clumsy, and not only in the Australia scenes. From the beginning, the characters seem to float in a deliberately underdeveloped space given a minimum of stability by a handfull of gestures, places and metaphorical objects, repeating themselves in sometimes rather arbitrary patterns (Jingshen's fixation on guns, for example).

In the first act, the central love triangle seems to be lost in low-fi digital artefacts more than in early chinese capitalism. The second act tightens the reign and puts all kinds of narrative pressure on Zhao Tao, while the third one, on the contrary, loosens all connections. Names, occupations, even language and especially social relationships are up for grabs (Am I supposed to be your sister? Your teacher? Your girlfriend?). Jia makes it clear, in rather unsubtely ways, that this is to be thought of as an effect of capitalism, but in the end, MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is of interest more as a narrative experiment than as allegory.

The Sin of Nora Moran, Phil Goldstone, 1933

Intriguing. The first half plays out like a darker version of one of those extremely fast moving Warner precodes, complete with bizarro Berkeley imagery. And then, about 30 minutes in, it jumps head-on into a narrative abyss it doesn't even try to escape from afterwards.

The Rainmaker, Francis Ford Coppola, 1997

Gets a bit better when the courtroom scenes start (institutional mechanics > moralistic grandstanding), but still this is the kind of self-righteous quality filmmaking that just sucks the brain out of me. To me, the nice touches Coppola adds here and there (the hints at intimicy in the early scenes with Damon and Danes, the autumnal atmosphere, also the sometimes extremely beautiful Bernstein score) just make the whole thing even uglier.

Apocalypse Now, Fracis Ford Coppola, 1979

Inspired and conflicted on so many levels, not the least structurally. The neverending journey upriver builds expectations for the final meeting with Kurz so high, they just have to be at least partially disappointed. On the other hand, all other solutions (Kurz is dead, not to be found, a harmless lunatic etc) obviously would have been cop-outs. Therefore, the film is transformed into its own allegory: Just as Willard really has to find and kill Kurz, Coppola really needs to show him and his monstrosity, no matter the cost.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Brian de Palma, 1990

As misguided as this is on many levels, it's also fast-moving and funny and De Palma's courage to mobilize all his gadgets and energy in order to create for once a completely different kind of fucked-up system (sociocultural rather than libidinous) is admirable. He goes all in, whatever he does.

Might be interesting to screen this alongside Bozon's TIP TOP.

Peggy Sue Got Married, Francis Ford Coppola, 1986

The period aspect feels a bit by the numbers, Coppola probably went down this particular road a few times too many in the 80s. Still, a thoroughly enchanting concept - a reflexive working through of one’s own life, resulting in an instant melodramatising of everyday life - executed by a great cast. Kathleen Turner explores new ways of being affected in almost every scene.

Passion, Brian de Palma, 2012

Caligarizing the work-life balance.

Mandy, Panos Cosmatos, 2018

Not really my cup of tea, but both the Caspar David Friedrich pomp in the beginning and the various tonal freak-outs that follow attest to a genuine craziness i cannot help but to admire. You don’t have to feel at home at every party.

Ball im Savoy, Steven Sekely, 1935

Pure bliss. One of those "German cinema without Germany" exile films made between 33 and 38, at first mostly in Austria, later mostly in Hungary. The plot is even more flimsy than usually, and some of the routines are almost the very definition of tired, but as pretext to the show numbers, it works very well. Gitta Alpar has a natural proclivity for standing center-stage in glamourous dresses (she enjoys being photogenic in a completely uncunning way) and, of course, for enchanting us with her voice. Any film featuring her has the moral responsibility to throw as few hurdles as possible in her way. Rosy Borsody, on the other hand, doesn’t have a natural proclivity for the limelight. When she enters it anyway, things get even more spectacular. Then there’s Felix Bressart, king of the delayed joke. How can one not succumb to all of this.

High Tide, John Reinhardt, 1947

B noir that delivers its twists with a cool detachment that marks a nice contrast with the high-strung melodrama of the more expensive studio thrillers. Moral compromising not as earth-shattering scandal, but as everyday reality. Both Tracy and Castle are very good, especially their voices have the right kind of jaded cynicism to them.
I’d like to see this in better quality someday.

Operette, Willi Forst, 1940

Forst's insistence that OPERETTE and its two follow-ups were acts of resistance against nazi cinema is bogus on many levels; but the film indeed doesn't feel compromised, artistically. A complete vision of bittersweet lightness trying to escape from the traps of history and melodrama. In the end, Forst the actor might be the main reason for Forst the director not turning into a Systemregisseur. His soft, malleable corporeality is completely uncompatible with ns visions of masculinity.

Still, right now, I can't admire this as much as many of the much more shoddy German musicals of the early 30s. I may come around to absolutely loving it some day, though...

The beautiful superimposition in the final shot recalls the ending of John M. Stahl's BACK STREET.

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