Coitus interruptus

Fernando Rey and Carole Bouquet in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Delayed gratification runs throughout the films of Luis Buñuel like a spasmodic nerve.  In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), the characters keep sitting down to a dinner that they never get to eat; in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1956), the main character is a would-be serial killer whose attempts to commit murder are perpetually getting bungled.  The plot of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) is driven by the ceaseless efforts of Mathieu, a middle-aged gentleman of means, to bed the coy, elusive—and supposedly virginal—Conchita, a Spanish dancer who lives in genteel poverty with her widowed mother.  The film is told in flashback, as Mathieu recounts his years-long pursuit of Conchita, who taunts, goads, and thwarts him at every turn, at one point deliberately making love with another man in the garden of the villa she has just convinced Mathieu to buy for her while he watches, tormented, from behind the bars of a locked gate.  (Mathieu is played with devilish urbanity by Fernando Rey, one of Buñuel’s favorite actors; Conchita is played, in a surreal twist typical of Buñuel, by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.)

The other Conchita: Angela Molina.

That Obscure Object of Desire was Buñuel’s last film, and it’s one of his best, a kind of summa of his pet themes and obsessions, made with the sure hand of an artist having come to the end of a long and successful career.  Even visually, the film is crisp, sunny, bright, and sharp.  (Pauline Kael referred to the “cutting light” of Seville, where much of it was shot.)  But, as elsewhere in Buñuel, the pleasant, innocuous surfaces of That Obscure Object stand in tension with the sinuous perversity of its characters, who are busily engaged with each other in maniacal games of sadism and masochism.  The film is based on a French novel, Le Femme et le pantin, from 1898; unread by me, it sounds as if it bears some resemblance to Sacher-Masoch’s classic Venus in Furs (1870), in which a Galician nobleman is routinely humiliated by his female lover’s dalliances with other men—a routine that arouses as much as it enrages him. 

Captivated: Mathieu watches Conchita and her lover from behind the gate.

I see Mathieu as a masochist in the purest sense of the word, a connoisseur of exquisite pain whose attraction toward Conchita is intensified by the constant threat of being cuckolded by her.  In many ways, the Buñuel protagonist he most closely resembles is the hero of Èl (1953), Francisco, whose insane jealousy of his wife begins to look less and less like a source of torment and more and more like a source of perverse pleasure as the film goes on.  It would seem that Francisco, like Mathieu, enjoys making himself miserable by imagining his wife cheating on him.  And if one enjoys making oneself feel miserable, can that feeling really be called misery?  In Buñuel’s topsy-turvy world of kinks and fetishes Mathieu’s final humiliation—Conchita douses him with a bucket of water in front of a train-car full of people—may be the real consummation that he’s been desiring all along.      

Mathieu's final humiliation consummated.


The Films of 2016: Paterson

The title of Jim Jarmusch's new film Paterson refers to the last name of the main character, a bus driver in his early thirties played by Adam Driver.  He's a meditative type, personable but wary, his eyes always registering the people and things around him.  He has a poet's eye, and a poet's soul; he spends his lunch break writing down the poems that he composes in his head while he drives.  Paterson is also the city where he lives and works, and if the film is primarily a character study it doubles as a tribute to the modest beauty of this particular place and the people who make their lives there.  Furthermore, Paterson shares its title with a book by the mid-century poet William Carlos Williams, who is in effect one of the patron saints of the bus driver, the city, and Jarmusch himself, insofar as the latter shares Williams' penchant for observing the stuff of the everyday.

Still frame

Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door (dir. Fritz Lang, 1948).


Another world: Inside "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"

Re-watching Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) this week—the film recently made its Blu-ray debut, courtesy of Criterion—it occurred to me just how many of the great films are about the transportation of the viewer to some fabulously realized other place: the convent in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus, the wintry Venice of Don’t Look Now, the wilds of 19th-century New Zealand in The Piano, the verdant and enigmatic nowhere-space of Stalker.  McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the most atmospheric of any of Altman’s films and probably the most subtle in its tonality, is set in a world of animal skins and kerosene lamps, ice and rain—to whit, Presbyterian Church, a frontier shanty town attempting to take root in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.  It’s a world that’s punishing, cold, damp.  But there is an unlikely poetry there, and Altman regards it with the same blissed-out haziness of focus exhibited by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) herself when, at the very end of the film, she’s revealed to be strung out in the town’s opium den, transfixed by an iridescent vase that she turns over and over in her hand. 

That haziness of focus could be said to be the defining feature of McCabe and Mrs. Miller: it governs nearly every aspect of the film, from Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffuse lighting to Leonard Cohen’s plangent, haunting song score.  Like so many of Altman’s films, McCabe is less about plot than it is about the creation of a whole living environment, and less about individual characters than about communities of people.  True, it’s hard to watch the movie and not come away remembering Warren Beatty’s rakish smile or Julie Christie coyly peeking out from the edge of a bedsheet.  But you also come away remembering everyone else with whom these two movie stars share the spaces of Presbyterian Church.  You remember the barkeep who’s debating whether or not to shave off his whiskers, and the wide eyes of Shelley Duvall as a widowed mail-order bride, and the winsomeness of Keith Carradine, with his beanpole frame and beautiful gormless smile, as the cowboy who enjoys a spree at Mrs. Miller’s whorehouse before getting shot and dying in the frozen river like a dog.  And the flickering of Julie Christie’s eyes in the candlelight of the saloon and Carradine padding about the parlor of the brothel in his long-johns and the scowling, sneering faces of the whores and the men dragging their heavy bearskin coats through the snow.  And that sagging rope bridge and the skeletal frame of the still-being-built church that almost succumbs to fire.  Watching McCabe and Mrs. Miller you feel like Pauline Kael was onto something when she said that Altman was the only filmmaker who could have adapted the novels of William Faulkner, because he would have been sensitive to their material texture, their ugliness and their poetry.  McCabe isn’t a film; it’s a world.   



The Films of 2016: 20th Century Women

In Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women Annette Bening gives what may be the crowning performance of her career as Dorothea Fields, a free-spirited but principled single mom raising her teenage son in 1970s Santa Barbara (Jimmy Carter on the TV, The Talking Heads on the stereo, clouds of cigarette smoke in the air).  Although it’s fleshed out by a wide range of supporting players, many of them warmly and humorously rendered, the film really exists as a frame for Dorothea as a character (she’s based on Mills’ own mother) and for Bening’s sensitive interpretation of her.  I look forward to what I hope will be a rich and fruitful late phase of Bening’s career as she heads into her sixties, but for now this is probably the finest thing she’s ever done, better than her work in The Grifters or American Beauty or The Kids Are All Right.  In a film that, like Mills’ previous effort Beginners, sometimes resorts to hand-waving in an attempt to hide its own basic insubstantiality, she cuts a striking figure.


A sense of history

Burt Lancaster in The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963).

Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) is one of the best movies ever made about the moment at which the history of an entire nation shifts irrevocably, as felt by a single person, in this case the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster).  “We were the leopards, the lions,” he soliloquizes near the end of the film.  “Those who replace us will be the jackals, the hyenas.  And all of us, leopards, lions, jackals, sheep, will continue to think we’re the salt of the earth.”  He’s referring to giving way of Sicily to an emergent middle class of plebeians and politicians represented by the nouveau riche Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa) (you know his character is vulgar because he’s always talking about how much things cost).  Don Fabrizio, meanwhile, represents the last gasp of Sicily’s ancien régime—proud, noble, gracious, given to bouts of arrogant strutting but ultimately soft-hearted, and inevitably resigned to handing over his power and influence to young democrats like his energetic and dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon).  Visconti underscores this in a shot that’s framed like an optical illusion: Don Fabrizio stands at his mirror shaving, but it’s Tancredi’s face that appears in place of his reflection.

Don Fabrizio's face replaced by that of Tancredi (Alain Delon).

In addition to being a sumptuously appointed and languorously paced historical epic, The Leopard is a quietly devastating character study—with an emphasis on “quietly.”  The extraordinary final act of the film, which runs some fifty minutes, unfolds at a ball that, seen through the eyes of Don Fabrizio, feels heavy with portent.  It is as if he is already mourning the death of such aristocratic rituals, which are soon to be nothing but the vestiges of a bygone era.  He wanders from room to room in a kind of stupor, gazing at the revelers as if from behind a death mask.  There is a heartbreaking quality to the film that goes beyond its historical subject: as much as The Leopard is about a very specific moment in modern Italian history, Don Fabrizio’s fate is that of all old men who must at some point relinquish control to the next generation.  It’s a fate that is effectively sealed at the moment when he dances with Don Calogero’s daughter (and Tancredi’s betrothed) Anjelica (played by the radiant Claudia Cardinale), his wistful smile clashing against his wet eyes.  His is the face of every person who realizes that they no longer have a claim on the future—that it belongs to the young, and that they have grown old.     

The ball: mise en scene and emotion.

The ball is one of the finest sequences in all of Visconti, maybe in all of Italian cinema, one in which the opulence of the mise en scene serves an emotional function instead of being merely decorative.  Nothing and everything seems to happen at that ball.  And Lancaster seems to do nothing and everything in his absolutely beautiful performance as Don Fabrizio.  He has almost no dialogue in the last fifty minutes of the film and still manages to break the heart of any viewer sensitive to the tragedy and the pathos of history’s sway. 


From the archives: "Mad, brilliant genius"

There was a time—from roughly 2001 to 2005—when I was really getting something out of Wes Anderson; I was turned on by their whimsical tone and by the vibrant aesthetic of Anderson’s filmmaking.  I’ve since cooled to Anderson’s work considerably (though I do retain some affection for Rushmore, which is still one of his breeziest, most relaxed movies).  So it feels a bit weird to re-read my laudatory review of The Royal Tenenbaums, which I wrote in the winter of 2002.  I was heavily influenced by Pauline Kael at the time and that shows in the writing.  With its purple prose, mixed metaphors, and fuzzy logic (the movie is a Greek tragedy that’s really a comedy?) it reads like a fairly pathetic attempt to gush in the way that Kael gushed about the movies of the 1960s and ’70s that she loved.  What can I say?  I was seventeen.  Better is my appreciation of Anjelica Huston’s performance as the Tenenbaum family matriarch.

Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

“The film is structured like a literary masterpiece.  The joke is that it feels based on a novel that’s not real—it even opens up at the beginning like a book, and scenes are divided into chapters like they were in Hannah and Her Sisters.  The opening sequence, which bombards us like a hail of bullets, is a blow to the face.  Anderson snakes and cuts backward and forward, filling us in on Richie’s nervous breakdown and Margot’s many loves (the funniest: an early marriage to a Jamaican folk singer).  There’s narration (by Alec Baldwin), a hilarious explanation for Margot’s missing finger, a surreal suicide that’s a bath of blood of hair.  It’s Tolstoy crossed with Salinger and a smidgen of Franzen’s Corrections […] The Royal Tenenbaums is Russian in its scope but with the edginess, the zany, otherworldly romanticism that could come only from Manhattan.  There are just enough characters—they all have their bits, we know them all, and Anderson juggles them masterfully.  At the end of the game he arranges them in perfect Shakespearean fashion, matching them off and marching them home, and by the final scene (which arrives just as we expect it and yet still manages to hook us) they’ve all gotten close to us.  Especially as it nears its finale, the film has the uncanny scope of a Greek tragedy that really isn’t tragic at all—it’s a fine human comedy with the usual frailty and melodrama exaggerated to the point of mad, brilliant genius. […]

Anjelica Huston with Danny Glover.

“As Etheline, Anjelica Huston is as magnetic and sensual as ever, hiding behind a scientist’s objectivity.  She examines everyone and everything as though it were a specimen speared at the end of a mounting pin, and she couldn’t be more attractive for it. […] Her hair has just the slightest tinge of frostiness to it, and with a pencil pinning it up, walking with her large shoulders fully broadened and speaking in that milky purr, she’s exactly feline, a panther.  Woody Allen mentioned her bigness, her sheer physical presence […] Just watching her move is breathtaking.”  


The homosexual in the text: Tim Streeter as Walt in "Mala Noche" (1985)

I’m prepping to teach a course on love and sexuality in film this spring, so I was due to re-watch Gus van Sant’s Mala Noche (1985)—one of my favorite of the New Queer films, and still seems to me one of the most effortless and lyrical things van Sant has ever done—even though I had already carved out a place for it on my syllabus.  It’s a beautifully rough and bittersweet gay love story, a triangulated romance between the white hipster Walt (Tim Streeter); Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), the Mexican street hustler with whom he is besotted; and Johnny’s friend Roberto (Ray Monge), with whom Walt enters into a relationship of sorts, though it’s doomed by their cultural difference and Roberto’s marginalized status as an undocumented immigrant. 

A very natural thing: Tim Streeter as Walt in Mala Noche.

Walt.  A version of Walt Curtis, the Portland-based author of the autobiographical novel on which the film is based.  He cuts an ambiguous figure.  A queer cousin to the straight slacker dudes that populate the films of Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater, he spends his afternoons gently shooing away the homeless folks who wander into his convenience store and his evenings scouring the streets for his beloved Johnny.  Walt’s affability and generosity keep running up against his entitlement as a white guy cruising for men of color; determined to get into Johnny’s pants, he offers him $15, and his casual racism comes out in a later scene when, having been fucked (and robbed) by Roberto, he expresses humiliation, imagining himself the victim of an act of ethnic aggression.  Walt’s acts of goodwill toward Roberto and Johnny, however well intentioned, are always colored by self-interest.  And yet as he moves through the film his very un-self-consciousness is powerfully sexy.  Laconic and scruffy, bumming around Portland in his flannel shirts, jeans, and trenchcoat, sick with love, Walt doesn’t really look or act like any other gay character in film.  He’s perhaps the closest thing in the movies to the kind of queer Romanticism espoused by Beat Poets like Ginsberg.  Freed of the affectations of earlier gay “types” (the sissy, the martyr, the closet case, the basket case), Walt’s homosexuality is simply a matter of fact—or, to quote the title of another touchstone in the history of gay cinema, a very natural thing. 

Posing: Doug Cooeyate as Johnny.

Johnny.  The street angel.  The obscure object of Walt’s desire.  He poses in the mirror like Brando.  Is he sixteen or eighteen?  Is he gay or straight, Roberto’s lover or only his friend?  He barely speaks at all in the film and when he does his voice is dubbed by that of another actor.  Impulsive and reckless, he drives like a maniac and carries a gun in the pocket of his jean jacket.  His boyish smile is as broad and pure as the sun.  He is a lost boy, his fate at the end of the film—glimpsed on the street from the window of Walt’s passing car—another one of the enigmas that attend him.

Roberto.  How many homosexuals are in this text?  It’s a trick question.  Walt tells us that Roberto goes through the motions when they have sex, that he has girlfriends even though the two men live together in a queer, squalid domesticity that carries its own Romantic caché.  His homosexuality may be situational, his relationship with Walt an act of self-preservation akin to prostitution (a profession at which he also considers trying his hand).  And the scene in which he first fucks Walt may be either a scene of love or the act of ethnic aggression Walt imagines it to be—an opportunity to fuck the gringo puto who wanted to fuck his friend who is also maybe his lover.  In any case that scene is surely one of the most evocative of gay love scenes, as shadow and light play out over the bodies of two men whose fates are now, for better or worse, locked together. 


The Films of 2016: Silence

To anyone who has been paying attention to the unfolding of Martin Scorsese’s career over the last forty-plus years Silence should not feel particularly idiosyncratic.  True, the new film (his twenty-fourth narrative feature) does not sport gangsters or hustlers and is set on the other side of the world from his native New York.  But at its core Silence concerns itself with the same rituals of violence, punishment, and guilt once enacted by Robert de Niro and Harvey KeitelThe film’s knot of suffering, religious fealty, and moral ambiguity has structured Scorsese’s work since the beginning.  In 1973 he wrote, “you don’t make up for your sins in church.  You do it in the streets.”  Now, in 2016, he has written a film about Portuguese missionaries taking their faith out of the church and into the mean streets of seventeenth-century Japan, where they face persecution, imprisonment, and torture at the hands of anti-Catholic natives.


How not to watch "The Decalogue"

Father and daughter?  Janusz Gajos and Adrianna Biedrzynska in Episode Four of Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1988).

This last week and a half I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece The Decalogue (1988), now out in a deluxe box set by Criterion.  It’s as intelligent and demanding as I remember from the last time I saw it (in 2003 or thereabouts).  But watching it this time it seems to me that this film—or more accurately this cycle of ten films, each about sixty minutes long—continues to be mismarketed in ways that do some disservice to Kiselowski’s talent as a filmmaker.  The Decalogue is often described as a ten-part film inspired by the Ten Commandments, with each part corresponding to a particular commandment.  The first episode, for example, in which a young boy drowns in a nearby pond after consulting his father’s computer to see whether it was safe to go ice skating there, is often interpreted in light of the commandment “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have any other gods before me.”  (A previous DVD release by Facets actually went so far as to label each episode with a relevant commandment.)        

Katarzyna Piwowarczyk and Maja Barelkowska in Episode Seven.

Watching the film(s) this time I’m less convinced that The Decalogue works this way; in fact I would argue that the film works best if viewers forget about trying to map each episode onto a specific moral imperative.  For one thing, Kieslowski’s approach to morality is far more complex and subtle than such a transparent gimmick would suggest.  What’s more, the films rarely line up in such a neat way as to suggest a one-to-one relationship with the commandments.  The seventh episode, for example, in which a college student “kidnaps” her six-year-old daughter from her parents (who had been raising the child as their own), refers not only to the dictum “thou shalt not steal” but also “honor thy father and thy mother” and, to a slightly lesser extent, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”—and complicates all of them with a trenchant irony typical in Kieslowski’s cinema.  The sixth episode, in which a mild-mannered young postal worker becomes obsessed with spying on a beautiful neighbor who lives across the courtyard, engages with the ethics of love and sexuality but has nothing to do in any literal way with the prohibition against adultery; it is, in fact, one of the few episodes in the cycle that doesn’t revolve around an extramarital affair.  The more I think about Episode One, the more I feel that thinking about the drowning of the boy strictly in terms of “thou shalt not have any other gods before me”—seeing his death as some sort of cosmic punishment for his and his atheist father’s interest in computer science—sets up an interpretation that is as didactic and cruel as it is misleading, since Kieslowski is never didactic nor cruel. 

Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on his neighbor in Episode Six.

Like all of the episodes in The Decalogue, Episode One is far more compelling as a film about the presence and absence of faith and the existence or non-existence of souls than as some sort of cheap cautionary tale.  Kieslowski more closely resembles the ethics professor in Episode Eight, who encourages her students to think through complicated ethical scenarios, than he does a priest or a judge.  Far from being a cycle of films “about the Ten Commandments,” The Decalogue problematizes the question of ethics in modern Western culture, specifically in a nation haunted by the ghosts of the Holocaust and riven with economic depression and despair under Communism. “Chaos and disorder ruled Poland in the mid-1980s,” Kieslowski later said.  “Tensions, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious.”  What better moment at which to revisit The Decalogue than right now?

A figure for Kieslowski?  The ethics professor (Maria Koscialkowska) in Episode Eight.


The Films of 2016: Fences

A movie need not reinvent the medium in order to be great, and a filmmaker need not dazzle us with visual flair in order to achieve his effects.  For every Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock busily rearranging the building blocks of film grammar there is a William Wyler, a Mike Nichols, a Mia Hansen-Løve or an Andrew Haigh, working steadily and quietly to observe the simple movements of everyday people and places.  Denzel Washington is a director who belongs in the latter camp; his new film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-winning play Fences is one of the finest accomplishments of this year, even if it looks modest and unassuming.  At a time when well-written realistic dramas about and for adult people are almost nowhere to be found at the box office, the mere existence of this film is extraordinary.  Washington’s Fences is a graceful and effortless mounting of a superb and eloquently humane text, achieved without any needless dressing-up or vulgar concessions to the perceived tastes of the movie-going public.  Its strength lies in its simplicity, its solidity, and its conviction. 


From the archives: "Stitch by stitch"

When Alejandro Inarritu’s Amores Perros came out in 2001 it was on my radar but wasn’t a film I was particularly invested in seeing, until it began appearing on the end-of-the-year critics’ lists and then became an Oscar contender (for Best Foreign Film).  So I eventually felt compelled to check it out on Pay-Per-View (the only video-on-demand option that existed in 2002).  I ended up liking the film quite a bit more than I had expected to, as my review (probably written in January of 2002) indicates.  With its three interlocking stories and funny-shocking tone, it struck me as something of a rip-off of Tarantino; there were a lot of those going around in those days.  But I was particularly impressed with the middle segment, the story of a beautiful model left disfigured by a car accident, which reminded me of something out of Tales from the Crypt (later, when I re-watched the film in college, it struck me as almost Buñuelian):

Alvaro Guerrero and Goya Toledo try to rescue the dog under the floor in Amores Perros (2001).

“The car crash leaves her confined, at least temporarily, to a wheelchair, and she’s stuck in her brand-new apartment all afternoon with Richie, her frou-frou dog, while the boyfriend is at the office.  The hardwood floor of the apartment is in rough shape; there’s a gaping hole that Richie falls into and can’t get out of.  He disappears beneath the floor of the apartment, which is infested with rats.  Valeria and Daniel call him and lure him with chocolates, but nothing works—they hear him at night, scratching and clawing while they’re trying to sleep.  In the meanwhile, the lovers, once so blissful, turn bitter—as though Valeria’s accident has brought about all of this nightmare.  They scream at each other; she notices that she’s getting phone calls at home that are like the ones she used to make to his house when he was still married.  Is he having another affair?  She gets bad news that her modeling contract is being taken back now that she’s hurt.  And all the while, as days go by, the dog remains under the floor of the apartment, somewhere, clicking and whining in the night.  The tight, thirty-minute story is completely bizarre and totally suspenseful—watching it, I had no idea where it would go, but I knew that it wasn’t going to end happily.  [...]  ‘Valeria and Daniel’ feels almost Gothic in the way that it takes the happy rich and slowly rips their universe apart, stitch by stitch.  We feel tremendously uneasy as the tension mounts.  The uneasiness comes because we can feel something awful in the air, but we can’t place what it will be.  Its cruel ‘just desserts’-style twist has echoes of the ‘Eyes’ section from Night Gallery, and a scene of Daniel furiously ripping up the floorboards is like the final scene from The Conversation, with Gene Hackman tearing his apartment into pieces in search of the bug that he never finds.  It’s a miniature masterpiece of the unusual, and the best thing about the film.” 

"Almost Buñuelian": model in wheelchair and neck brace.