Friday, February 21, 2020

letterboxd backup (15)

The Devil at 4 O´Clock, Mervyn LeRoy, 1961

Another film probably not all that many people will like as much as I did. The first part does feel a bit formless, maybe because LeRoy had to accomodate both Tracy and Sinatra with enough chances to shine, while also trying to properly introduce as many secondary characters as possible (some of them are a bit boring, unfortunately). However, this also lends the film a relaxed, pleasant feel, that somehow isn't comepletely lost once the mayhem begins. There isn't any real sense of urgency in most scenes. Some will die and some will live. When Sinatra rushes into the quicksand to help his sinking friend, he doesn't even come close to him. The special effects are great in their artificiality, and the ending is absolutely marvellous. In fact it makes clear that the whole film was built around its last 20 seconds.

Daily Chicken, Lilly Grote, 1997

What it means to be 16 in provincial northern Germany: learning how to inhabit decay.

A beautifully shot Heimatfilm update concentrating on the darker underpinnings of the genre, but in an unobstrusive, relaxed manner. The starting point is texture (both natural and social), not narrative, heimat as a place and a moment in time, shot through with different kinds of affects and genres, from slacker comedy to swamp horror. The two main actresses (both without any film or tv credits afterwards) open up two different perspectives on the world, one anti- and one prosocial, but the film, in contrast to Forsyth's HOUSEKEEPING, which might be a distant cousin of DAILY CHICKEN, doesn't privilege over the other.

Femme Fatale, Brian De Palma, 2002

Unhinged... and in some moments I do miss the hinges, the groundings in 80s sleaze for example that make BLOW OUT and BODY DOUBLE so special. This one is set in De Palma's mind, and nowhere else. In a way, the confrontation of the two leads during the fake kidnapping scene makes up for it, though, an erotic excess of the eternal tease, a mode of being where there's no discrimination any more between talking and fucking and that disperses its energy throughout the surrounding film.

A Majority of One, Mervyn LeRoy, 1961

That this is quite touching at times despite both the miscasting of practically every role (except for the rude japanese house servant, by far my favorite character in the film) and the inexcusably excessive running time is a small marvel. However, Guinness's performance as japanese businessman fully in touch with all kinds of eastern philosophy is way too cringeworthy even for someone like me who normally is not bothered by stuff like that. I think it's the way they made up his eyes.

Hanne, Dominik Graf, 2018

Shot before Roeg's death, so the DON'T LOOK NOW reference is just the kind of coincidence that comes natural to a filmmaker like Graf.

Gypsy, Mervyn LeRoy, 1962

If you wanna bump it / bump it with a trumpet

I've never seen a stage production of this, but the film version feels pretty definite: Rosalind Russell as the Mother Courage of vaudeville, forever trailing the rearguard of the entertainment industry, from one artificial backdrop to the next (only "backstage" looks realistic here); the dialogical flexibility of the classical hollywood musical being transformed into a series of monologic, narcisist self-expressions; the fluidity of its mise-en-scene calcifyied into mechanised formulas that fit any given theme and always deliver the expected patriotic payoff...

Still, there's melodrama: Natalie Wood, after years of resistance, finally giving in to the all-encompassing narcissism - sitting in front of the mirror, she realizes: I really am Natalie Wood! Crucially, this is also the moment she loses control over the film, which beforehand was grounded, by way of her voice-over, in her talentlessness - to not have a gimmick is the only form of freedom available here. Now, she is just one of the automatons...

Paterson, Jim Jarmusch, 2016

Some interesting patterns, but I couldn't get over the regressive cuteness of it all.

The Untouchables, Brian De Palma, 1987

De Palma imagemaking applied to a quality genre script. The problem is not the quality, but the applied to part: instead of interrogating the script visually, De Palma just executes its predetermined breaking-points. The excess only starts with Connery's death scene, with the split diopter opera shot announcing that a new regime of images has taken over. Everything feels a bit too secure.

Still, there are other pleasures. It's the closest De Palma ever came to directing a Western, and he clearly enjoys it, the border scene especially has beautiful and inventive cinemascope compositions and a great sense of outdoors claustrophobia. Also, Kostner is marvellous in this, like a young god. He really would've been one of the greatest, had he been born a few decades earlier.

It Happened One Night, Frank Capra, 1934

Romance means that each night is a marriage.

Plätze in Städten, Angela Schanelec, 1998

Just beautiful. Mimmi is extremely uncommunicative and withdrawn even compared to other Schanelec characters. But by focussing solely on her life as it establishes itself in the frame, without any attempts to define it from the outside, Schanelec establishes an intimate bond, a push and pull relationship of almost frightening intensity.

His Gorl Friday, Howard Hawks, 1940

Those people know how to telephone.

Moonrise, Frank Borzage, 1948

A series of embraces, some more reluctant than others, all of them pitted against an unknown future. Except for the last one, but that might not be a true embrace anymore. In the final scene, Clark and Russell neither kiss nor lock each other up in their arms, but turn their heads to the side, both looking ahead. They have won a future, but might not recognize each other any more, not because they changed, but because they no longer try. They have won the world, but they might've lost their world.

The redemption storyline might feel heavyhanded, but it is only a pretext for the romantic conversations and bodily negotiations of Clark and Russell anyway, a weight pressing on them, at times pushing them towards each other, at times trying to keep them apart. Therefore, even the seemingly atavistic symbolism is emotionally true: compared to love, everything else is heavyhanded, an expressionistic nightmare. Love, on the other hand, is an escape, but only toward a ferris wheel or toward a haunted mansion, you never really get away, you just might acquire a different line of sight for a while. (Which also means that the language of love can't free itself from society and its pressures, it's just that from the vantage point of love, society sounds strange; therefore, Gail Russell's playacting in front of the huge portrait in the mansion is the strangest moment in the film.) It ends with an open question: Is there a chance for love on the inside of society?

Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma, 1980

De Palma: the Dennis Franz years. Here, the latter is at his sleazy best, smooth and extremely well-dressed, in a garish sort of way, of course. Franz is born to play big city cops, because with this role, he doesn't need to delve into crass caricature. He's just doing his job, while particularly enjoying the seedy side of it. He's also important for the film as a whole: without his joyfull fuckedupness this might have turned out to be a bit too academic, too much focused on its intricate conversation with PSYCHO.

Angie Dickinson is fantastic, too, she projects, almost without dialogue, a different temporality, a different world, one in which there still is a connection, albeit a fragile one, between inner and outer life. Then the 70s get killed and the 80s take over. Nancy Allen does dream, too, but only in the terms and images of slasher movies.

The Mortal Storm, Frank Borzage, 1940

Borzage realizes that fascism is always also an aesthetic force, uniformizing, dehumanizing and, finally, depopulating the screen. As both the first and the last image make clear, under the threat of nazism, transcendence is only possible without any human beings present.

The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma, 2006

A fascinating mess, born out of a mismatch of sensibilities that stays stubbornly unresolved until the end. One way to put the problem might be: while De Palma's protagonists usually are obsessed, here they are supposed to be tortured. This is also the difference between Hitchcock and noir, of course, and it points towards fundamentally different concepts of interiority and externalization. Obsessions are realized by fixations on objects, and by nothing else. They do not have a reality outside of these objects. In BODY DOUBLE, when Gloria dies, Skully immediately afterwards discovers his ersatz body, and he gets reactivated without any hesitation or doubt. The transference of Bucky's desire from Elizabeth short to Madeleine doesn't work like this at all, it's just a symptom among many others pointing towards a damaged subjectivity.

The overabundance of plot is, like in classic noir, just a mirror of an overabundance of interiority. De Palma tries to somehow counter this equivalency with the help of an obnoxious voice-over that is just one hackneyed phrase after the other (one weird thing about this: judging from what I've read of him, Ellroy is also much better with obsessive characters than with tortured ones) and an overabundance of baroque noir visuals, overcrowded sets bathed in jellylike lighting and oppressive color grading shot through with splashes of otherworldly beauty.

So, maybe this indeed is about hollowing out noir tropes in a similar way as other De Palma films are about literalizing Hitchcock. But the trick doesn't work this time. If someone is tortured, I just cannot not ask why, and even when this being tortured turns out to be a ruse, it has to be convincing in the first place. More specifically, in this case, I cannot not be bothered by the lazy / nonsensical way a lot of the characters, especially the Aaron Echhart one, are set up. I cannot just go with the flow like in BODY DOUBLE, because this is not about flow, but about the mapping of a world.

Anyway, maybe all of this is just me seeing this immediately after the De Palma films I adore the most. I used to like THE BLACK DAHLIA quite a bit back then, during its original run. This time, I really was dragged down by the combination of Ellroy posturing and De Palma's for once really self-indulgent virtuosity. At least during the first hour. Once again, it grew on me, the lurid last 30 minutes make up for a lot of what comes before. Johansson, Swank and Hartnett are a wonderful De Palma triangle, and when the film finally comes around to focussing on their mutual games of seduction and projection, all the clutter starts to wither away.

Mary, Mary, Mervyn LeRoy, 1963

Another uber-stagy late LeRoy, this time a remarriage comedy in slow motion. After his MGM phase, LeRoy seems to be a producer first, a director second, and while this sometimes results in an admirable totality of vision (GYPSY, HOME BEFORE DARK, THE FBI STORY), more often he just mechanically executes concepts that have been succesfully tried out elsewhere, usually on the stage. Still, Reynolds is very good, and there are some nice touches like the inspired use of the sofa.

La Femme d'à côté, Francois Truffaut, 1981

Love as destiny (Depardieu / Ardant) vs love as lived reality (Baumgartner / Garcin) vs love as discourse (Silver); or: what it means to encounter the real thing when one is used to make do with a reduced model, scale 1:25. Feels a bit too conceptual at times, but the actors make it work.

Marseilles, Angela Schanelec, 2004

As the whole first part in Marseille is beautiful, it might be only natural I had forgotten that at least half of it is set in Germany. The Berlin scenes are dense with self-centered, passive-aggressive, bourgeois fuckedupness, so much so that I, for once, kind of understand why some people have a problem with Schanelec’s films. On the other hand: This might be the very reason for the escape to Marseille, so everything does make sense after all. Still, I clearly would’ve preferred drifting with Eggert through the french mise en scene of layered sounds and unattached desires the whole time.

Little Big Shot, Michael Curtiz, 1935

Warner keeping busy some of its best supporting actors (Horton and Naish being the MVP’s, this time), while also making use of Curtiz’s dependably smooth execution. The way this switches in the last 10 minutes from cute farce into murder mystery, complete with surprisingly violent gunfights, is just marvellous. Sybil Jason, on the other hand, is an aquired taste, even compared with other child stars of the time, and she is given a grotesquely long musical number while Farrell, despite being on the poster, has virtually nothing to do.

Mission: Impossible, Brian De Palma, 1996

35mm screenings of 90s blockbusters are almost always a revelation: It’s amazing just how beautiful big budget filmmaking could look in the days before the Digital Intermediate (and you would never know this from most DVD/BluRay versions, which usually are very bad when it comes to colour; I might be wrong, but I think the problem is generally way worse with 90s cinema than with films from the 70s and 80s, there seems to be even less inhibitions in bringing those films in line with recent, digitally levelled aesthetics). Here, the first set piece especially blew me away. The colours and textures of old Europe repurposed for De Palma’s pulpy, fractured picture book, the phantasm of total vision vanishing, step by step, into an impenetrable fog...

The Prague scene ends with a death of the image that seems to coincides with physical death, or so one thinks, but several of the presumed dead do reemerge, spectrelike, and soon we are off towards a new target, the center of global visibility itself. In a way, the CIA vault might be thought of as an eyeball, on which Tom Cruise is performing a surgery without knowing if it will result in healing or complete blindness.

The third set piece might not be all that smart, conceptually, but it packs a lot of punch: Cruise glued to the train windshield, like an insect or a piece of dirt, about to be cleared away by the helicopter blades.

Nachmittag, Angela Schanelec, 2007

Close-ups closing us up.

Sisters, Brian De Palma, 1972

While De Palma’s cinema does gain a lot once he has access to full-blown hollywood glamour and celebrity trash culture, this completely go for broke b-movie madness suggests that it might have lost something, too. The tonal shifts, for example, are much more jarring than in his later films, and the expressionistic edge also is much more pronounced. In the end, this turns out to be more DR. CALIGARI than REAR WINDOW.

Jennifer Salt is great in this.

Hollow Triumph, Steve Sekely, 1948

Not hollow, but also not a total triumph. It probably would have needed a bit more directorial control to counter the decidedly crazy script, but on the other hand, if you have John Alton, Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett at your disposal, it’s probably not the worst idea to just let them loose.

They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson, 2018

Harrowing stuff that makes me appreciate the time and place I was born into.

Both color and 3d are used in a gimmicky way, but that might be the very point: the closer the soldiers come to the battlefield, the more classic historiography makes way for sensuous and technological pyrotechnics - for the simple reason that there just doesn’t exist a lot of actual combat footage from World War 1. This is one of the paradoxes the film is built on: technically, it would have made much more sense, to use the postproduction power on the much more extensive and varied homefront / exercise material in the beginning. But Jackson wants to immerse himself into the war itself, so everything builds towards images that, in the end, turn out to still not be there. During the ultimative mayhem, every indexical chord is cut (most evident in the openly false montage scenes connecting random living slow-motion-soldiers with random corpses), to be replaced by an affective, purely imaginary connection.

Snake Eyes, Brian De Palma, 1998

Replaces the elegance of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with a chaotic, joyous immersion into not one, but several garbage dumps of the cultural industry and 90s image culture. I never bought into the De Palma as cynical gravedigger of american capitalism argument - he clearly loves the technological, consumerist modernity in all its contradictions. Here, he ends with an honest to goodness love letter to both Atlantic City and the american working class.

Cage moves through the film like a fish through water - he finally has found his equal, if only (and unfortunately) for just one single film.

L´enfant sauvage, Francois Truffaut, 1970

A milestone on the way of becoming a member of human civilization: "Today he cried for the first time".

I still haven’t seen much Truffaut, but this, while not necessarily my favorite, feels pretty definite, like a purer version of not only LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS, but also of L’HISTOIRE D’ADELE H. and TIREZ SUR LE PIANISTE: the struggle of freedom against imprinting, never to be fully resolved. In a way, it might also be the better LA NUIT AMERICAINE, because here, Truffaut openly acknowledges his own position: as a film director he is always, by default closer to Jean Itard than to Victor.

Moment to Moment, Mervyn LeRoy, 1965

Not the worst ending for LeRoy’s filmography and my journey through it, but I admit I had hoped for more from a Jean-Seberg-melodrama set in the south of France - maybe an update of BONJOUR TRISTESSE with Cecile now wasting away her time as a frustrated housewife?

MOMENT TO MOMENT does have its charmes, the lush Stradling cinematography and the hypnotic, low-key demented Mancini score alone would make this worthy of a decent digital release in order to replace the abysmal vhs rip out there. Honor Blackman is very nice as the annoying neighbor, too... the main plot about Seberg getting romanced by a sailor is done without much conviction, though. There’s a not completely unexpected but still rather crazy plot twist a half hour before the end, but this also doesn’t help much, because LeRoy decides to play the ensuing complications for suspense rather than melodrama.

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