Thursday, September 23, 2021

This summer in letterboxd (1): Il cinema ritrovato et al

The Fate of the Furious, F. Gary Gray, 2017

I wasn't all that eager to keep up with the series after its complete surrender to the chasing supervillains around the globe formula. It's still probably the best non-Snyder blockbuster filmmaking around, though, if only because it's driven by stars rather than IP, resulting in a much more honest relationship to its own attractions. Because it's a film series made in our times, it isn't allowed to break away from identity politics, of course, but the desire for representation is directly represented by concrete bodies, not filtered through preexisting cultural objects. FAST & FURIOUS is about tough guys & a few girls competing for visibility, in a completely unsubtle but comparatively honest (because always already technologically mediated) way. This way, the films avoid the kind of empty symbolic posturing of most of the recent Disney output.

Anyway, this one unfortunately is a bit short on melodrama, but it's generally well made and the zombie car scene is one of the very few action set-pieces of recent year that really feels like a fresh experience.

Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel, 1967

On desire and its elusive object. Always one step removed. Even if there wasn't a massive amount of writing about this already out there I guess I wouldn't feel any need to add much, because it's all in the film anyway. Bunuel is simply the best.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, David Leitch, 2019

Leitch clearly has an eye for large-scale mayhem, which in a film like this should go a longer way than it actual does, especially given that he has The Rock and Statham at his disposal, too. Unfortunately, their banter very soon starts to sound like two bots stuck in a loop and the whole thing feels much more cynical than usually. The way to go probably would've been to focus on Elba's villain, the only interesting antagonist in the whole franchise so far. But this would mean sidestepping the blockbuster formula at least a tiny bit, something Leitch clearly isn't prepared to do. As a result, everything in here is forgotten the second it leaves the screen.

Teachers of Sexual Play: Modelling Vessels with the Female Body, Sion Sono, 2000

Name your desire and then mold it. Repeat.

F9, Justin Lin, 2021

Finds its beat late, in the last act, when Diesel and Cena shoot melancholic gazes at each other while around them just another vista of insubstantial mayhem unfolds. The whole prodigal son storyline is a pretty ideal vessel for the series' better impulses. There's always an empty chair at the table.

Still ... everyone's clearly past his prime, here. Lin always was one of the longer shots for vulgar auteurism admiration (one might even argue that he's the least interesting among all F&F directors), and this one has the worst action since part 4. Plus, except for the Vin and Cena storyline, absolutely nothing sticks. Also, for a film so eager to highlight diversity, it has a hard time making even casual attempts at female agency. Poor Michelle Rodriguez (in the absence of The Rock and Statham the only action natural left) desperately holds on to the steering wheel because she once again gets nothing else to do, Anna Sawai struggles to at least register on camera, and even Charlize Theron's villain only ever acts by proxy.

Internes Can't take Money, Alfred Santell, 1937

Compartmentalized professionalism in a hospital, every patient-doctor interaction has its own cubicle, separated by sheets, and traversed by a curious, not at all showy travelling shot, a long take of streamlined caregiving that still tries to account for every individual's fate.

Stanwyck, the biggest star, is a patient, in need of various kinds of therapy. She gets treated to a glass of milk right away, but after she finishes it, we first follow the doctors, young men living solely for their job up there in the slightly otherworldly clinic. One gets fired, and now he can have a beer in a barroom, standing at the counter, frail and slim, looking into the abyss of his future life. Stanwyck shows up in the bar, too, and only here, in a space much more democratic and earth-bound than the hospital, things start moving.

A highly perceptive film, attuned to the extraordinary level of anxiety running through everyone and everything. Even the gangsters are fundamentally insecure. People crouch on claustrophobic staircases or get imprisoned in a mirror's tiny reflection, while a close-up of a shoe signals Stanwyck selling sex for money.

Sensual Game, Adachi & Wakamatsu, 1969

Somewhat interesting as a late 60s leftist hipster hangout joint, at times this almost feels like a behind the scenes featurette about one of Wakamatsu's own, much more stylized - and frankly: much more exciting - features. In the end, though, it's really not much more than a bunch of assholes using half-assed politics as an outlet for a particularly annoying brand of juvenile misogyny.

City for Conquest, Anatole Litvak, 1940

A film that uses every trick in the book. Any chance for a montage sequence, every lovely Cagney quirk, every single New York cliche that doesn't hide fast enough... it's a bit like watching an encyclopedia of Hollywood rhetorics instead of a movie, but both Litvak and Cagney are versatile enough to make it work anyway.

A few years later, a lot of this would've been filmed on site, in the De Rochemont semi-documentary style. This, though, is still a film from 1940, so Warner tries to get away with as little location footage as possible. They want both the energy of the city and the control of the studio, resulting in quiet a few moments of weird diorama beauty, like Cagney and Sheridan in front of a back-projection of NY's skyline, two souls protected by the power of the purely pictorial.

Haunted Castle, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969

The ultimate in cat horror, clawing away at the image, until there's nothing left but a bunch of lonely figures surrounded by black, isolated and exposed, make yourself visible and you're already lost ... so who will save us from cat/woman? pure light! light not reflected by bodies or matter but expanding, taking over the whole screen, leaving behind ghost horror approaching space horror.

Liebe ist ja nur ein Märchen, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1955

Pure ideology transcended by Eva Crüwell's intense performance and Rabenalt's interest in sexuality. A longing that doesn't quite know it's object, a cinema that doesn't quite know it's driving force.

The Strangers: Prey at Night, Johannes Roberts, 2018

Not as good as Roberts's shark movies, maybe because with human enemies a lazy narrative setup isn't quite as excusable. Still, impressive for what it is, making the most of an on first sight way too limited playing field. Even the - still a bit stupid - hook of film of killing purely as an exercise in pop aesthetics kind of makes sense once the pool scene arrives, because here Roberts's direction finally fully commits to the same guiding principle.

Bailee Madison is very good, too.

The Calling of a Bus Driver, Patrick Kong, 2020

Beautiful film in the tradition of Hong Kong neorealismo rosa with a genre bent (Herman Yau, Ann Hui). Fueled by political anger that doesn't quite dare to go beyond this mainland bitch is evil; and a sense of quiet depression - in the end, we'll all have to take our businesses online.

Die Mörder sind unter uns, Wolfgang Staudte, 1946

Still not quite sure if I'd seen this before. I guess it doesn't really matter because I definitely had seen Knef's gaze (especially in the beginning, arriving by train - from a conentration camp, a fact the film seems to all but forget while the redemption narrative moves along) and this is what'll stay after everything else is said and done. Aside from that a strange, conflicted film that doesn't really benefit from the fact that GERMANIA ANNO ZERO also exists. Have to think more about it.

The Cardinal, Otto Preminger, 1963

That beautiful out of nowhere freeze frame of Romy in the first Vienna chapter. For all the admirable scope, the true genius of Preminger always hides in the details.

Zwischengleis, Wolfgang Staudte, 1978

Post-war Germany doesn't throw you under the moving train anymore, it just makes you want to drop yourself. Don't make eye contact at the grocery.

Uski Roti, Mani Kaul, 1969

The clarity of images and the contingency of their conjunction. Basically mise en scene vs montage, the simplest of oppositions, and still this film renders it in a way that feels new. Maybe because in the end both the image and the cut are inextricably linked to an interiority that never quite declares itself.

Million Dollar Legs, Edward F. Cline, 1932

If this would be three two-reelers (it certainly feels like that), only the first one would be a masterpiece: a faux ethnography of Klopstokia, land of theatrical strong-arming. Still, lots of great hat humor throughout and the brooming in love scene with Oakie and Fleming should be a classic. I could watch a whole festival full of stuff like this.

Alice Adams, George Stevens, 1935

Playacting as a matter of life and death. There is no authentic self hidden under Hepburns artifice, no truth to be uncovered, just a series of projections of self that only truly come alive in close-ups.

The dark twin of SYLVIA SCARLET: the Hepburn spectacular as a tool not for perpetual change but for self-imprisonment. A masterpiece dealing with the always already broken promises of upward mobility. Making one's way necessarily means growing into a racist and sexist society. Being aspirational means forcing rock-hard caviar cookies down your father's throat.

Two Tars, James Parrott, 1928

The car stuff is genius but I like the beginning even more: Two guys and two girls picking each other up (the women are extremely straightforward here), but then all energy is spent on a strange, kryptosexual gumball machine.

The Khayal Saga, Kumar Shahani, 1989

A treasure chamber I didn't really find a way into, so I was left with a bunch of random impressions from afar... insects on bodies, the interplay of music and architecture, a slow but irreversible drift into transcendence.

Emigrantes, Aldo Fabrizi, 1948

The whole family leaves, only the dog has to stay, jumping up and down behind a closed door, the shadow of his head periodically bumping into an elegiac long shot of the deserted apartment. On the map, Italy is tiny, but this probably is just part of the conspiracy. It certainly looms large over the family in their new home in Argentine - on the new continent, Roma vs Napoli is still the guiding division. To mourn for the lost homeland is a mother's prerogative, but a beyond awesome impromptu duet already prefigures the successful adaptation to another Italy, abroad.

Penny Serenade, George Stevens, 1941

Expertly executed melodrama of impossible motherhood, with every single scene designed for maximum impact and nothing else. A film that knows that the withholding of an expected emotional close-up can be even more devastating than the thing itself, and that death eternally prefigured and delayed would make the actual image of death look banal and redundant. Stevens allows affect only as long as it is completely manifactured, an effect of cinematic communication; which is, I guess, a comparatively honest approach.

A film I adore but cannot really love - the prison of family ideology is just a bit too airtight this time, maybe also because a close-up of Irene Dunne (as great as she is, here and elsewhere) is in the end still only an intensification of Irene Dunne, not something entirely different, like with Katherine Hepburn in ALICE ADAMS.

Avanti c'è posto..., Mario Bonnard, 1942

Nice Fabrizi comedy that tilts towards the sentimental - which, however, turns out to be completely compatible with the claims of the fascist war apparatus. On the margins, though, there's quite a bit of anarchical energy, especially in the scenes with Virgilio Riento as Fabrizi's boss, a living compendium of contextless idioms. Language divorced from both functionality and subjectivity, eternally performing itself.

Prima comunione, Alessandro Blasetti, 1950

Domesticity as a web of microtransgressions, internal coercion balanced with external mobility, although it's better to keep two windows and a courtyard between yourself and the pretty neighbor. If you do step out of your house there's no telling what might make happen. The actual mixes with the potential, the gaze with the voice, and the young, overwhelmed housekeeper keeps on hiding the shades of a broken vase, forever chasing a joke that never quite manages to track down its butt.

A masterpiece.

Kaiheki, Karzuo Kuroki, 1959

Japanese modernism, not yet quite sure of itself. The scope is wide, from the depths of the oceans to the totality of the crowded cityscape, but even at the end of the film the power plant isn't finished. A sign of things to come.

Guardie e ladri, Mario Monicelli & Steno, 1951

Toto and Fabrizi as two competing principles of dealing with modernity: nifty avoidance vs clumsy adaption. The excluded third is, of course, modernity itself, as an antihumanist principle that can never be confronted head-on (if one still believes in human grace, that is), but must be turned into a game, that amounts to a negotiation a society conducts with itself.

The problem is that, when all is said and done, one side has to win, just like any chase scene, no matter how elaborately prolonged and slowed down, has to result in either escape or capture. In the end, the decision has to be a moral one, for better or worse.

Man of the World, Richard Wallace, 1931

Precode Paris ennui with unremarkable direction, but that doesn't matter one bit because this is all about the way Powell keeps on pulling his hat on his face; and about the way Carol Lombard uses the english language, lending it a clarity and musicality it seldomly reaches anywhere else.

Dancers in the Dark, David Burton, 1932

A not necessarily well-rounded though always engaging pre-code curiosity. The unusual Oakie performance is probably the most interesting thing about it: At first he appears to be his usual glowing and grinning self, making even the blandest jokes work by playing them completely straight; later on, though, his naivete acquires another, darker dimension, turning his signature all-american cheerfulness act in an armour used to keep the world at a distance. Just another desperately lonely show-biz professional.

Miriam Hopkins, meanwhile, is magnificent when she sings the St. Louis Blues for George Raft, but unfortunately the script has her falling for who just has to be the dullest guy hanging around the Paramount lot.


"Why can't I / satisfy / all of my whims"
"The customer is always right."

Das Lamm, Wolfgang Staudte, 1964

A boy and his lamb, adrift in the Ruhr area, traversing vastly different locales, social stratums and modes of filmmaking. In a way, a panorama of German cinema at the time, stuck between the remnants of an older genre system, the didacticism of early New German Cinema and the sensuality of the young outsider filmmakers. Its main mode of operation is a deep sense of non-belonging, though - at least until the ill-advised optimistic ending arrives.

Elke Aberle as a tomboyish teenager joining boy and lamb for parts of their way is one of those great promises not kept that are scattered throughout German film history.

Vivere in pace, Luigi Zampa, 1947

In the first half a rather gentle comedy of occupation and collaboration; the war is obviously still on everyone's memory,, the scars are way too deep and fresh, so the focus clearly is on moving on, not on settling of scores. At one point, though, everyone starts going crazy, the film wholeheartedly embraces everyone's madness and for about half an hour, all ideological negotiations are swept away by the anarchic joy of survival.

Cikani, Karl Anton, 1922

What starts out, in an atmospheric Venice prolog, like a straightforward romantic melodrama, develops into something both more interesting and frustrating when everyone retreats into the Czech woods. Intersecting mysteries, an unstable present always already overwhelmed by a bottomless past, a constant threat of violence hanging over almost every image - quite engaging at times but after a while things start to drag quite a bit, especially given the rather dull cast.

I remember Mama, George Stevens, 1948

I Remember Mama in our crowded house at the busy city street, sitting at the kitchen table with her hair braided around her head, a blonde orbital, a maternal triple-helix, a perfect centering of a world inside of a world ... and the rest of the house is not so much a separate, external reality, but rather a bodily continuation of her, mother Irene Dunne: the claustrophobic staircase; the window upstairs with the grand city view, a place for writing in the shadow of mama; the porch that functions as a stage for self-expression more than as a true threshold; and above all the tiny figurine hanging from the ceiling, the kind of random detail that brings alive a vision of the familial past of matriarchy that might just as easily become the cruelest of prisons.

Heimlichkeiten, Wolgang Staudte, 1968

Wolf Wirth's slightly pervy long-lense fotography and Staudte's sociological interests coalescing into a surprisingly relaxed holiday movie. The beach always already is a theater of gendered gazes and identity play, so one might just go with the flow.

Seen from a beautiful print that really should be scanned for some kind of home video release pronto. All those uncanny emotions shouldn't be hidden from view any longer. (Same goes for DAS LAMM, of course.)

We Were Young, Binka Zhelyazkova, 1961

History illuminated by the sensual beams of flashlights, circles of light traversing the darkness of fascism; impressions of a resistance more aesthetic than ideological - resulting in a visionary though decidedly unheroic partisan film, or maybe it isn't even a true partisan film, because those boys and girls are only aspiring to be partisans, they know about the necessity of the struggle but might still be overwhelmed by the beauty of a ballet performance.

In the end this is the only question that matters: Can a romantic be a partisan? In the land of the flashlights, he probably can.

Alias Nick Beal, John Farro, 1949

One of those thoroughly integrated allegories in which the allegorical core completely vanishes into the flow of storytelling. So in the end we don't care at all about all of those sanctimonious thoughts about morality and the mechanics of corruption the script tries to push. Instead, we follow, breathlessly, the shenanigans of master manipulator Ray Milland in one of the best spiritual bad guy performances this side of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER; we empathize, raptly, with Audrey Totter, fallen angel in a radiating white lace dress, her hairdo slowly desintegrating as she continues to fall prey to Milland; we marvel, deliriously, in the interior design of the love nest Milland builds for Totter and poor sap Thomas Mitchell, especially the wallpaper art, demonic decorative modernism, a bit like Dali, but in good.

Rose Bernd, Wolfgang Staudte, 1957

Still my favorite Staudte, a rural melodrama of agfa-colored imprisonment and proto-fassbinderesque political despair, with all that trite Germanness thoroughly offset by a ravenous Maria Schell performance. The way she handles animals...

La famiglia Passaguai, Aldo Fabrizi, 1951

Beachside watermelon madness with Aldo Fabrizi. Pretty much exactly what may be missing in your life.