Tuesday, February 11, 2020

letterboxd backup (9)

Une corde, un colt..., Robert Hossein, 1969

The last half hour, when everything gets reduced to Hossein and the two women heading into pure nothingness, with bearded men dropping like flies aroung them, is pure bliss. Still, I don't think the genre serves Hossein well. There's just too much clutter in the way in terms of plot, and, despite the unusually strong female presence, an overabundance of macho posturing.

La nuit des espions, Robert Hossein, 1959

This might be Hossein's most eccentric, experimental film, at the very least it probably is his most abstract and minimalist work: A man (Hossein) and a woman (Vlady) meet in a cabin (so many of his films are set in cabins, or in cabin-like settings...), she might or might not be a German spy, he might or might not be a Nazi officer. In fact, they soon establish, neither is German, both are British double agents instead and therefore free to have dinner (the women are almost always hungry in Hossein's films) and sex.

But with the afterglow, suspicion creeps back in.

This is not a film about two people tricking each other, but about two people doubting each other. It is a game, but Hossein and Vlady are not the players, they are the ones being played, by a welding of love and war. A classic double bind situation, only even more harrowing. Not: You are my enemy but I also love you. But: You might not be my enemy, but you also might not really love me. Like figures on a chessboard, or, how Vlady put it during a q&a after the film, like dancers in a ballett performance, the two protagonists are being moved around constantly, never allowed a fixed and secured vantage point.

At the same time Hossein the director never establishes (unlike in the more openly avant-garde, but ultimately a bit more conventional POINTE DE CHUTE) a fixed stylistic vantage point of his own. At times, he completely identifies with his characters, but there are also moments of disruption, with the filmic turning into a purely external force, almost like in an essay film, for example when the two lovers freeze in a half-embrace, with the camera first travelling away from them and then closing in again, accompanied by a heroic marching song.

So, are these, in the end, psychological characters, or statuesque emblems for broken subjectivities in times of war?

Once again, what makes the film special isn't the mystery aspect itself, but rather the limbo-like atmosphere it helps establishing and sustaining for a while. Hossein's cinema strives for a somehow enhanced state of being, removed from ordinary life and therefore only possible in isolated, cabin-like settings, but still running on well-known, sensuary realities (a cinema of sex and food).

Le jeu de la verite, Robert Hossein, 1961

Almost reassuring that not every film Hossein directed during the most prolific phase in his career turned out to be a (near) masterpiece. This is stylish enough, but strictly by the numbers, a whodunit that, almost deliberately (but what would be the point in doing so?) enhances the main weakness of the form: It's preference to cram way too many people in a single room, who then keep on standing next to each other and try to figure out a rather bloodless mystery. This is basically 80 minutes of that: Again and again, the camera scans the mostly immobile characters and the minor changes in their constellation. The only major change: After the murder, the previously intermingling genders are strictly seperated. The men to the right, the women to the left.

There's some kind of perversity running through the whole thing, but not of the kind I love to indulge in in other Hossein films.

Les yeux cernes, Robert Hossein, 1964

Another low-key wacky para-noir by Hossein, this time set in the Austrian alps. There's a constant back and forth between the meticulous, claustrophobic indoor scenes I by now expect from a Hossein film and great use of outdoor settings: Franz (Hossein) and Klara (Marie-France Pisier) rolling through the grass for what feels like a few hundred yards, a long tracking shot of Franz and Florence (Michele Morgan) walking alongside a gorge, with the deadly depth generating an almost magnetic pull.

Hossein's direction might be a bit too gimmicky at times (with people constantly walking into or over the camera), but it never feels oppressive, because the cast gets to have fun, too. Morgan is great as the high-strung protagonist, never taking off her high heels, neither when squirming in terror on the hotel bed, nor when venturing outside, on muddy forrest roads. The real star is Pisier, though, a sassy waitress sluggishly serving soup (shown several times throughout the film, once as a POV shot), slouching on tree trunks, laughing off the (imagined) affair of her lover ("I don't want to sleep with you anyway, thinking of money is enough, tonight").

Der Kongress tanzt, Erik Charell, 1931

No one turns the whole world into music like Erik Charell.

Us, Jordan Peele, 2019

A baroque horror extravaganza like this will find studio backing only under very special circumstances, especially these days. So before everything else, I’m just glad it exists. And that there’s so much joy in it, of course.

Immer nur Du, Karl Anton, 1941

The operetta in thrall to the modern media environment. Radio technology is closing in on the stage (in fact, from the very start of the film), the artists vie for screentime, battling out their jealousies not directly, face to face, but through their publicity staff.

The whole thing is breezy enough, with Fita Benkhoff reliably providing the best scenes. I still can’t deal with Heester’s cocky arrogance, though, which is not at all justified by any form of elegance or poise. Dora Komar left me cold at first, too, but just like the music in general (it stays a bit on the bland side throughout, admittedly), she grew on me. There’s a clumsy, juvenile energy in her, especially evident in a gymnastic scene that has her twisting her body in a particularly ruthless way.

As far as nazi entertainment films go, this is probably more watchable than most. Still, there’s a strand of masochistic darkness running through it. Because Heesters insists that his wife must stop working after marriage, the fact that the couple finally embraces marital bliss in the final scene also means that the operetta production the whole preceding film deals with will close down after the first and only performance. Just another one of those infernal happy ends of nazi cinema - in a way, german audiences had to root, again and again, against their own enjoyment.

Die blonde Carmen, Victor Janson, 1935

A singer tired of playing a flower girl on stage plays a flower girl in real life in order to trick a snobbish composer. Who works on a new operetta that will in the end, of course, be her comeback performance.

An excellent operetta film that, unike most of the music films of Nazi era cinema, still very much feels like the German musical comedies of the early thirties. Maybe the isolated country hotel setting helps - the whole film plays out like a retreat into joyous playacting. Every place can be a stage, and every filmic image can be musicalized. The kind of escapism that almost spills over into utopia.

The only weak spot is Wolfgang Liebeneiner as the decidedly uncharismatic, uptight male lead. But this only leaves even more room for the magnificent Martha Eggerth, who completely dominates the film, switching back and forth between a slightly melancholic glamour perforance and an exquisit comedic turn involving faux naivete and a hilarious fantasy accent.

Un couteau dans la coeur, Yann Gonzalez, 2018

Exploitation reimaginings made by and for the art-school crowd bore me even more than the ones made by and for overeager nerds. When everyone is in on every joke from the start, there just isn't any tension left. (A 35mm print might make a difference, though)

The Drums of Jeopardy, George B. Seitz, 1931

Very entertaining low budget horror film that in fact plays out more like a morbid adventure story. Even when, in the second half, almost everyone is trapped in a house and things threaten to get a bit talky, Seitz continues to find new angles to the situation (there's not only a trap door, but also a trap hatch - and then there's even a trap window inside the trap hatch).
Also, the villain has both a relatively elaborate backstory and rather weird ideas. It's more about trickiness for its own sake than about sadism for him.
The xenophobia angle, meanwhile, is a bit more explicit than usually in films like this. Aunt Abbie makes it perfectly clear that, if she could decide, foreigners who aren't aristocratic and at least half american anyway should rather stay at home.

Million Dollar Mermaid, Mervyn LeRoy, 1952

If she had stayed on land, she never would've learned even to walk on her own two feet. Since her first contact with it, she is drawn to the water not because she wants to get lost in it, but because she wants to assert herself in it, become visible through it. Later, in London, she enters the water in foggy, lonely darkness, but when she steps out of it, 25 miles later, she is the bright center of everyone's attention. This is a lesson she won't forget. Even when only walking towards the water - on a beach in 19th century puritanical Boston - she can cause havoc, with men literally crawling after her proud stride. (1952 seems to have been the year in which LeRoy dicovered the magnetic power of vigourous, muscular female legs and especially their rhythmic movement; see also Ann Miller's dance scene in LOVELY TO LOOK AT).

The water is not "the deep", but on the contrary: the water is up there, on a pedestal, it's always already a stage. To become a creature of the water means becoming, by way of the one piece bathing suit, pure visibility. The Busby Berkeley water-ballet numbers are the culmination of this: liquid explosions of colour and sportive femininity... and once again, the choreography strives upwards, not downwards.

To leave the water would mean, she realizes rather early in the film: to "settle down". When she, in the end, does have to do just this, she looks out of the window, towards the water, towards the spectacular, and she realizes that now she, too, is on the other side.

Ich und die Kaiserin, Friedrich Hollaender, 1933

Hollaender's only feature film (filmed in three language versions, though) isn't as smooth, elegant and organic as Charell's work, but it is a fascinating, exciting oddity nonetheless. There's UFA studio splendour of the most decadent sort (including one of the most beautiful staircases I encountered in a while), but also a playful, extremely self-reflective Walter Reisch script and suggestive Jacques Offenbach songs. Hollaender's direction is often crass, even bumpy (Harvey's buffoon performance especially is a marked contrast with her spirit-like presence in DER KONGRESS TANZT), but the scenes with Veidt are handled carefully, almost tenderly. There's a lot going on in this...

La flor, Mariano Llinas, 2018

In Locarno I had seen only parts 1 & 3 (mummy & spy). Finally catching up with the whole thing, those (especially part 3 that, when viewed in isolation, might be the best film about the end of history I’ve seen so far) remain my favorites, maybe because they are more straightforward, or maybe just because I knew what to expect and was able to concentrate on the stuff Llinas does with images. In the end, this might be more about the instability of cinematic visuality than about the instability of narrative.

(The obsession with blurring and colour manipulation might also be one element pointing beyond the "last hurrah of classic cinephilia" feel of the whole thing, although I have to think about this some more).

Partie de campagne, Jean Renoir, 1936

Watching this immediately after LA FLOR, the organic richness of Renoir’s world struck me all the more. Not only Llinas’s strange reimagination (what seems to have him impressed the most is, of all things, Rodolphe’s mustache), but most of contemporary cinema feels thoroughly sealed off and vacuumed compared to this.

Polizeiruf 110: Kreise, Christian Petzold, 2015

Big Boys Don’t Cry.

A police procedural of minimalist, otherworldly elegance (bordering on pure abstraction) and a romantic journey into the night perfectly blending into each other, guided by a number of popcultural artefacts, which shine through the film like lighthouse beacons over a quiet sea (lighthouse beacons aren’t all that necessary when the sea is quiet? But that’s when they’re allowed to be pure beauty!). Also: a glimpse into Justus von Dohnanyi’s soul.

Easily in my Petzold top 3.

Polizeiruf 110: Tatorte, Christian Petzold, 2018

Like a bizarro version of KREISE, right down to the cutaway from the main plot to a short burst of action about 20 minutes before the end. Love replaced by non-love, night by day, jukeboxes by coffee machines. Meuffels and Constanze almost always communicate by - different kinds of - proxy, but the true center of the film is Nadja.

I’m not even sure if Petzold realized just how much she is the center of the film; maybe if he did, he wouldn’t have treated her just this bad. Her scenes with Meuffels (and those amount to two thirds of the film, at least it feels like it) play out like the nihilist zombie version of a screwball comedy. Language as a weapon that always already turns against the speaker itself. Each word an act of autoaggression.

Like its two predecessors, this is clearly a work of genius, though this time bordering on evil genius. The rare film by Petzold I can admire but cannot love. At the same time it makes clear once again, in its own, perverted way, that Petzold isn’t the smarter than thou discourse filmmaker some of his distractors make him out to be, but rather a romantic extremist, who would sell his grandmother (the German expression is more telling: "über Leichen gehen", to step over corpses) for the right kind of melodramatic payoff.

Transit, Chrstian Petzold, 2018

TRANSIT is both deceptively simple in its sober style, with the narrative drive, unusual for Petzold, especially in the first half subdued in favor of pure accumulation of detail, and deceptively complex: the temporal dissonance, the voice-over, the identity theft plot aren't distancing devices, but they rather work, just as the role-playing in PHOENIX, like so many layers of clothing - they allow me to navigate a dangerous, hostile world, but they are also ready to be stripped away in a second when the right hand touches me. Only always momentarily, though. Exile is categorically out of reach, we're stuck here, playing games.

En guerre, Stephane Brize, 2018

Brize's proclivity for typecasting bugged me in UNE VIE, and while in principle it might be a bit more forgivable in a straightforward union-vs-managment drama, I once again couldn't stand the way everyone falls into his/her proper place without any friction.

Apart from this the film is a bit more interesting than I thought it would be. If one goes beyond the agitprop leanings (the use of music is really terrible) this might provide some insights into the (conditions of) uselessness of collective action when the deck is stacked against it. The final move is not only the "shocking call to action" the agitprop part of the film builds it up to be, but also as uncollective an action as it gets.

Der Räuber, Benjamin Heisenberg, 2010

The action scenes are solid but hardly as spectacular as we all believed them to be in 2010. Andreas Lust, on the other hand, really is awesome, and there are a lot of nice touches like the car crash in front of the opera and the somber darkness in Erika's apartment.

Pet Sematary, Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, 2019

A bit on the bland side, especially when John Lithgow isn't around, but the well-built world and the uncompromising focus on oldschool, straight-forward horror machinations (while eliminating most of the weirder parts of the story) lends it enough drive.

Greta, Neil Jordan, 2018

Yes, Huppert makes for a fine monster and Jordan is as decent a metteur en scene as ever, but the only moment that really sticks with me is Moretz at the movies, the reflection of the screen lighting up her 3d-glasses, her face dissolving into uncentered (non-subjective) affect. A one-shot requiem for stereoscopic cinema's transhumanistic utopia. We still are not ready.

Pet Sematary, Mary Lambert, 1989

Unlike the remake this has no sense of place, but the weirdness and messiness of it all more than makes up for it.

Dumbo, Tim Burton, 2019

I'd preferred a more thorough exploration of dreamworld over the generic mayhem towards the end, and Farrell is a bit boring as the human anchor of the story. The affect images at the center of the film are well calibrated and never overplayed, though, the gloss balanced with the matter-of-fact cruelty of circus life.

Pink elephants made up from soap reflected in the eye of a big-eared elephant made up from code.

Dumbo, diverse, 1941

Elephants in Technicolor, cleaned with their own tears.

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