Godard, Warhol, and the cinema of attractions

Earlier this week I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, finally playing here in Boston.  It’s a masterful film, one that resembles Godard’s other late-period work in its density and difficulty but that experiments with form in ways that feel refreshingly playful and comic.  It may be the most vital film Godard has made in many, many years—certainly his best since the completion of Histoire(s) du Cinema in 1998.  (I’ve gone back and added it to my list of favorite films from 2014.) 


Asian cinema in 1999

After Life (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda): Until now my only experience with Kore-eda had been seeing I Wish—a film of which I was not exactly fond—back in 2012.  So I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle grace of After Life, a fantasy set at a country house where the recently deceased spend a week choosing a single memory to take with them into eternity.  I knew the premise of this film going in (I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review when it first came out in 1999) but I wasn’t prepared for its quiet profundity.  The film’s vision of an afterlife in which we continue to endure waiting rooms, power outages, workplace quarrels and romantic longing is almost comic in its banality.  It’s about cinema, too: once the memories have been chosen, they are re-enacted and filmed.  Kore-eda suggests both that memory functions like cinematic spectatorship and that movies are themselves preserved objects of personal or cultural memory.  The most ingenious thing about After Life is that it takes a potentially grating “high concept” premise and grounds it in a gentle and touching naturalism.

The Hole (dir. Tsai Ming-liang): This was another pleasant surprise, though “pleasant” might be the wrong word for this film, which might be better described as insane, surreal, brilliant, outrageous.  It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Taiwan where, amid ceaseless rain, a lonely bachelor proceeds to torment his downstairs neighbor via the hole that connects his floor and her ceiling.  Tsai’s dark sense of humor recalls Jeunet and Gilliam and his comic use of spaces and objects suggests Jacques Tati.  The film is also a musical in which the action is periodically interrupted by song-and-dance numbers in which his lead actress, Yang Kuei-mei, lip-synchs to old Mandarin pop songs.  But Tsai brings an erotic absurdity to bear on these other genres in a way that feels entirely original.  The Hole is one big, wet, gaping sex joke.        

Taboo (dir. Nagisa Oshima): If The Hole was sexier and funnier than I had expected, Taboo turned out to be duller and blander, especially given Oshima’s track record for making truly audacious fare.  This historical drama set among a unit of samurai, nearly all of whom find themselves hot and bothered by the arrival of a beautiful new recruit, is bloodier than it is erotic, and ultimately is more concerned with intrigue than with sex.  It’s certainly not the “gorgeously filmed study of homosexual lust” described on the back of the DVD case; it does look beautiful, but it doesn’t have the intensity or the madness of a masterpiece like Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses—or, for that matter, The Hole.  The late nineties found old masters like Oshima in decline (Taboo would be his last film) and new masters like Tsai on the rise.


Missing Mike Nichols

The esteemed Mike Nichols died late last year at the age of 83.  At the time I didn’t write anything about it.  Nichols left behind a body of work that most anybody in show business would kill for: this is a man who came out of the gate in the late 1960s with the one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, ended his career in the early 2000s having helped make HBO Films a major player, and won an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys and nine Tonys along the way.  Even so, he was always a filmmaker that I respected more than I loved, and while I was sorry to hear of his passing I wasn’t moved to reflect on it.   

This week, watching Nichols’ Primary Colors (1998) for the first time, it struck me just how much his loss means.  This film—which is one of those that I’d been meaning to watch for years and had never gotten around to seeing until now—is a particularly fine example of Nichols’ genius for directing actors (Emma Thompson and Kathy Bates in particular, but also great bit players like Caroline Aaron and Larry Hagman and Alison Janney); for honoring a crackerjack script (it helps when the script is by Elaine May); and for handling the whole production with a professionalism and an intelligence that have come to feel old-fashioned.  Primary Colors may not be visionary cinema, but it’s the kind of well-made film that doesn’t get made much anymore, perhaps because Nichols roots were in the theater, where it's harder than it is in the movies to pass off something that's not well-made for something that is.  You can virtually feel the intelligence of the people on the production team coming through the screen, and you’re aware of how many smart decisions those people have made in order for the movie to work as well as it does.  Nichols’ style may look invisible, but it’s there in the economy and poise and elegance of the films.  Like Billy Wilder, he made comedy look easy.  I miss him already.


Spike Lee's battle royale

Watching He Got Game (dir. Spike Lee, 1998) it’s impossible not to think of the first chapter of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s nightmarish account of a “battle royale” in which black teenagers are made to fight each other for the spectatorial pleasure of rich white men (“they were all there—bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants”).  The fighters are taunted with “a magnificent blonde—stark naked,” and the winner is awarded a scholarship to college.  Lee doesn’t stage this scene exactly; instead, He Got Game could be described as a meditation on that scene, updated for the late-twentieth-century.  I can’t say that Lee’s approach is more “realistic” than Ellison’s, because the film is frequently as grand, stylized, and surreal as the novel.  Both He Got Game and Invisible Man work in broad, bold, loud strokes.

In her own words

This week I watched Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, a self-portrait of the Belgian filmmaker done in 1997 for the European television series Cinema, de notre temps.  I would not have sought this film out had I not seen it listed by J. Hoberman as one of his choices for the ten best films of that year.  And, as luck would have it, my university library happened to have a DVD copy.  I can’t say that I see in it what Hoberman sees, but it does make for thought-provoking viewing whether or not one is new to Akerman.  It runs sixty-four minutes and consists mostly of excerpts from Akerman’s films, presented non-chronologically and absent of any context.  In addition to giving us a potent sampling of Akerman’s work—what it looks like, how it feels, its political edge, its dark comedy, its poetry—Akerman orders the footage suggestively in ways that draw our attention to the themes and continuities that have run through the first three decades of her career.  The clips are bookended by brief scenes of Akerman at home, addressing us through the camera.  As an introduction or a retrospective, it’s compelling and intelligent; but I’m not sure its sixty-four minutes wouldn’t be better spent watching one of Akerman’s films in its entirety (or working through the first third of Jeanne Dielman).


James and misinterpretation

The late 1990s saw a surge in adaptations of Henry James for the big screen.  Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady was released in 1996, Iain Softley’s Wings of the Dove followed the following year, and James Ivory’s The Golden Bowl appeared in 2000.  The most successful of these is probably The Wings of the Dove, which straightens out some of the kinks of James’ novel but retains many of its ambiguities and subtleties.  (Campion’s film is just the opposite—it takes more audacious interpretive risks but only succeeds half the time.)  It’s easy to see how Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square (1997) got lost in the shuffle of these higher-profile adaptations.  Holland’s choices are less bold than Campion’s, and the film is also less dramatically satisfying than Softley’s.  The irony of the novel’s dramatic reversals gets lost in Holland’s adaptation, which falls prey to the kind of overwrought sentimentality that one never, ever finds in James.  It can’t hold a candle to The Heiress (1949), William Wyler’s more appropriately devastating setting of the same story.  The Heiress may take significant liberty with the source material, but Wyler understands the acts of cruelty on which James’ fiction turns in ways that Holland doesn’t.  As the young lovers in Holland’s film, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Chaplin feel miscast.  Better are Albert Finney as the imperious Dr. Sloper and Maggie Smith as the fluttery Mrs. Penniman.   


The Films of 2015: Maps to the Stars

Satire has never been David Cronenberg’s strong suit.  He is not without a keen sense of humor, and nearly all of his films have some tinge of black comedy to them, but Cronenberg’s comedy derives from the absurdity and irrationality of individual desire rather than the mechanisms of systems and institutions.  So his latest, Maps to the Stars, doesn’t really succeed as a satire of Hollywood.  It does succeed as a Hollywood horror movie in the tradition of Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, Sunset Boulevard, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and pitilessly dark, it’s his best film since Eastern Promises.   


Leigh's "Girls"

Pictured: Katrin Cartlidge, Lynda Steadman, and Kate Byers in Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997).  It’s a film that’s mostly been forgotten, sandwiched as it is in Leigh’s filmography between the higher-profile successes Secrets and Lies (1996) and Topsy-Turvy (1999).  That’s a shame, really; Career Girls may be second-rate Leigh, but it’s by no means a bad film.  In its incisive portrayal of female friendship, it looks ahead to such later films as Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year.  Cartlidge and Steadman play a pair of spazzers who share a flat together during their university days in the ’80s (Steadman is a psychology student with dermatitis and a shock of red hair; Cartlidge reads English and looks to her dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights for answers to life’s questions).  A decade or so later, now professionals in their thirties, they share a bittersweet weekend reunion.  The film’s bifurcated structure cuts back and forth between past and present, revealing continuities and discontinuities in the women’s lives.  Leigh’s ironic Marxism informs his scenes of a modern-day London riven by class inequalities.  An old university flame who mooched off—and two-timed—both women is revealed to have become a pretentious yuppie realtor; meanwhile, the women re-encounter another old boyfriend on a street corner, homeless and babbling.  Not even Cartlidge and Steadman have made it out clean.  While they retain traces of their university selves, they’ve settled into bourgeois office jobs and have traded in their punk-rock wardrobes and haircuts for sensible work-wear.  Such is the nature of capitalism, Leigh seems to say: no matter how radical we may be in college, we all become career girls in the end.    


Thinking like Pauline

Ray Sawhill: What were your favorite movies of ’97?
Pauline Kael: Two I really liked were [Robert] Duvall’s The Apostle and Bertrand Blier’s Mon Homme.  The Blier is really a Shavian play of ideas, but with the eroticism that Shaw left out.  As for The Apostle, the friends I’ve sent to see it have been almost as enthusiastic as I was.

The above exchange is from a frustratingly brief interview with Kael done in 1998 for a special edition of Newsweek to commemorate the first hundred years of cinema.  Kael doesn’t elaborate on why she liked The Apostle; this was after she had retired from writing reviews.  Nor does the film come up in her conversations with Francis Davis from 2000 (which were later published as Afterglow).  Watching The Apostle with the knowledge that it was one of the last films for which Kael went to bat during her lifetime, one can’t help wondering about why she had responded to it, and what her review might have looked like. 

Placing "Kundun"

When Kundun came out in 1997 I had already seen a handful of Martin Scorsese’s films—Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull—and I knew that he was regarded as one of the most important contemporary American filmmakers.  I knew that his name meant something important.  Even with this somewhat limited knowledge, I understood as a young teenager reading about Kundun in Entertainment Weekly and Premiere (my main sources for film news in those early days of the Internet) that it was something of an anomaly both in terms of its subject and its quality.  Didn’t Scorsese make movies about crime and cities and Italian guys beating each other up?  What happened to Robert de Niro?  And weren’t his movies supposed to be, like, good?  How come the reviews for this one were so middling?