a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Eleven Favorite/Best Non-2006 Films Seen For the First Time in 2006

Sadly, I watched each of these on DVD in my home, unless otherwise noted. Doesn’t that just suck?

01. Out 1 (1971, Jacques Rivette) - Museum of the Moving Image, 9 Dec thru 10 Dec

(Warning: I wound up typing away quite a bit longer than I thought I would about this movie. If you’re just here for titles and arbitrary rankings, I will not hate you if you skip past the following few bulky paragraphs of prose to the first sighting of in-boldness.)

I enjoyed a couple movies this year more than I did Jacques Rivette’s 12 1/2 hour epic. (For instance, number two.) But you could only count the number of people who’ve seen Out 1 on a couple hundred hands, so it gets some bonus points. Luckily, it has more going for it than just rareness. Filmed between his stylistic awakening (L’Amour fou) and his most popular outing (Céline and Julie Go Boating), Rivette’s rarely-screened film* often summons up comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, basically because it’s a) long, long, long and b) largely devoted to improvised madness that can be a bit difficult to parse. But there’s a clear, tight design to the whole thing wholly at odds with the apparent directionless of what’s on screen.

In fact, that directionless contributes to what appears to be the dominant theme: the slow (and, just to reiterate, I mean, slow) disintegration of one’s ideals, plans and ambitions. Out 1 doesn’t have a plot to speak of, but its characters -- a pair of theater troupes putting on an Aeschylus play each; and two con-artists (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto, the latter my new crush) -- each fit that trajectory. The theater troupes, which eventually reveal themselves to be the disparate shards of one massive theater troupe that split once upon a time due to creative differences, are shown doing nothing but rehearsing. And not even that: they’re doing acting exercises -- warm-ups, improvisational scenes, and post-exercise discussions over cigarettes. Future Bond villain Michel/Michael Lonsdale, who heads up the troupe that’s putting on Prometheus, is often found saying that his group is trying to “find” the play, and later talks of being on the verge of “breaking through.” But over the 750-some minutes, the play never comes close to fruition; we never hear so much as a single line from the source.

Likewise, Léaud -- a deaf-mute whose shtick involves going to cafés and annoying customers with din-like harmonica playing until they give him money -- soon stumbles onto what appears to be a cryptic plot involving world domination found on a stay piece of paper. After much banging of head on the walls and such, he decides it has something to do with the Balzac novel The Story of the Thirteen, with a touch of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. (Handily, Léaud has not only several stacks of books along his one wall, but an actual blackboard -- a bizarre touch that gave me an idea about what to do with my next apartment.) Of course, Léaud is pretty much literally grasping at straws, as well as very nicely demonstrating the Heisenberg Principle. As with the theater troupes, his quest too never amounts to anything.

Out 1 was filmed in the shadows of the May 1968 riots, and like Regular Lovers did 35 years ago, it takes a pessimistic but melancholic view of idealism. Much of the film is very funny; Léaud has never worked the ham quite so well and who knew that Eric Rohmer, playing a Balzac expert Léaud annoys early on, had great, off-kilter timing? But by the final stretch, the film has snowballed into something that’s very affecting and upsetting, especially for anyone whose own youthful ideals have decayed before their eyes. (I almost balled like a little girl during the final hour of Regular Lovers.) But then the damnedest thing happens: the final shot, which I can’t quite reveal, suggests that whatever overreaching theory you have on the whole film might not be very accurate or germane. Either way, it sent the entire theater of beleaguered cinephiles into uproarious laughter. Greatest final shot ever? I think so.

(Note: not a month and a half later, I was lucky to see Out 1: Spectre, the 4 1/2 hour cut of the film, in Philly during I-House’s much welcome “Early Rivette” series. It’s not quite the complete reimagining of its eight-hour-longer cousin (father?), but it is significantly different. For one, much of the third act is different: Léaud no longer goes insane; Berto never dies; and Lonsdale is never shown falling into an ambiguous laughing/crying fit on the beach. It’s less funny, too, but also nowhere near as moving. The scenes are understandably shorn down (most sadly, the hilarious Rohmer one), but the film really makes its length felt while the original breezes by, at least once your mind adjusts to the fact that every scene will be long in the ass. I greatly enjoyed it, but I think I either needed to see this one first or at least not so soon after seeing it. I know: Yeah, like I had the option, ha ha.)

02. Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr) - MOMA, 16 Jan

I’ve spoken too much about this film, and yet I’ve really never gotten into why it’s bewitched me so. This article does a pretty good job of summing up the film’s many pointers, but the grand one, at least for me, was a feeling I sometimes turn my nose up at: escapism. Not, mind you, the kind that you typically want to “escape” to when you watch a movie -- unless you’re the kind of sicko who likes being trapped for seven and a half hours in the squalor of a failed farming community in bumfuck post-Communist Hungary. What envelopes you is a) the fascination of wandering around this microcosm, however unpleasant it may be; and b) as you may have heard, this movie is shot like fucking balls. Tarr’s slow, lengthy steadicam shots envelope you, taking you away to a world that’s part grim, gritty realism and part sci-fi. The village of Sátántangó is as fascinating and transportive as any George Lucas production, and Tarr’s fractured time-line (outdoing Pulp Fiction, the same year it premiered, no less) and dark sense of humor make it easy to become obsessive. (The latter aspect really hits you when you view the earlier parts of the Tarr catalogue, namely his initial neo-Cassavetes actorly exercises and the all-out bleakness of ’tango’s predecessor, the bluntly-(and aptly-)titled Damnation.)

03. Cold Water (1994, Olivier Assayas) - 09 Apr

Point when I realized Assayas’s film was more than just a well-observed gritty piece of neo-realism that had mutated into a hypnotic party movie: halfway through a spin of CCR’s “Up Around the Bend,” the needle is heard being lifted, only to be placed right back at the beginning. Of course, I had no idea what act three would bring. Good job, Sundance Channel, on finally bringing this to Amerika.

04. Army of Shadows (1969, Jean-Pierre Melville)

Some folks are putting this on their 2006 Top Ten List by virtue of it having never played theatrically in America till this year. Fuck dat shit. I actually, and for reasons I can’t remember now (and couldn’t begin to excuse anyway), never saw it projected. Thanks to nebbishy print distribution, the critic’s screening was scheduled after my paper’s print date, meaning I had to contend with a (perfectly watchable) screener. I look forward to seeing Melville’s heartbreakingly frigid portrayal of the French Resistance ad. inf. whenever I get around to ordering it from the U.K., and not just for the typically moody Melville lighting. Though Melville superficially retains the taciturn-badass approach of Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, he winds up turning it on its head. Unsentimental to its core, Shadows presents characters forced to do unspeakable deeds, exude a moral certitude in a world that doesn’t have it and fight a fight whose impact we never get to see. Should Ken Loach's Cannes-fêted The Wind That Shakes the Barley possess even a minute fraction of this one's world-scarred honesty, then we're all in for a good scare.

05. Luc Moullet Retrospective - 5 Jan thru 6 Jan, International House

In February, Philly’s Repertory scene suffered another significant, possibly fatal blow: the departure of its lone full-time programmer, I-House’s Michael Chaiken, to New York. (Albert Maysles nabbed him, and is no doubt the better off.) Luckily, he went out with a bang, curating this four feature/one short retro on depressingly obscure Nouvelle Vague director Luc Moullet. Chaiken screened what’s possibly Moullet’s only known film, 1968’s The Smugglers, a couple years back, and the film’s relentless absurdism, political gamesmanship and playful stylistics had me craving more. The series, which spanned from 1966’s Brigitte and Brigitte to 1988’s The Comedy of Work, did not disappoint, convincing me that Moullet is if not one of the finest then at least the most unique comic sensibility in filmdom. B&B, for instance, essentially outdoes Band of Outsiders in terms of nutty Paris-set whimsy. (If only either of its Brigittes were an Anna Karina. Alas.) A Girl is a Gun (aka Une Aventure de Billy the Kid) features Jean-Pierre Léaud hilariously miscast as William Bonney -- and even more hilariously, heard via an intentionally atrocious English dub job, à la the unintentionally atrocious French dub jobs with which Moullet first acquainted himself with American westerns. Anatomy of a Relationship features Moullet and a girl standing in for his real-life then-girlfriend in the buff. And I’m not sure who the nearly-ZAZ-esque The Comedy of Work is for -- an alien species, perhaps. Happily, Moullet has made it to disc. Unhappily, he’s made it to disc via Facets. Fuck Facets.

06. Michael Haneke’s Glaciation Trilogy: The Seventh Continent (1989); 20 May; Benny’s Video (1992); 3 Jun; and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), 5 Jun

For most of us confined to North America, Haneke’s “glaciation trilogy” has been a thing of legend, if not the kind of tales you tell around a campfire. (“What happens in Benny’s Video?!”) Luckily, when Kino released the films (plus Funny Games) last year, Haneke didn’t suffer some artistic rebirth between the all-out assault of Funny Games (which Jacques Rivette called a “disgrace,” “a piece of shit” and “vile,” but not “in the same way as John Woo”) and the thoughtful Code Unknown. Haneke can be found waxing fascinatingly (and with much giggling) on each of the film’s discs, but the film’s speak pretty well for themselves, as well as deepen Haneke’s skill. For one thing, they reveal his iciness to be even more of a mask than you’d think if all you saw were The Piano Teacher or Caché. The Seventh Continent is an upsetting depiction of one three-person family’s group suicide, finding empathy amidst the accumulation of ritualistic montages. (Still, what does it say about me that the section I remember the most months later is the notorious long take of money being flushed down a toilet.) In between its attention grabbing first act twist and potentially glib surprise ending, Benny’s Video manages more than a modicum of feeling for its lead character, a sociopath in the making. (Why anyone bothered with Hannibal Rising, both in book and movie form, is beyond me. This pretty much does the job, and no doubt with infinitely sharper formal chops.) And 71 Fragments may be a dry run for Code Unknown’s reams of ellipses, but it still sends the mind running in about as many directions. Bring on Funny Games U.S.A., in my opinion.

07. I Finally See Me Some Budd Boetticher: Seven Men From Now (1956), 22 Jan; Comanche Station (1960), 07 Feb; The Tall T (1957), 23 Dec

As far as a filmmaker repeating themself/adhering to a strict, narrow template goes, Yasujiro Ozu may hold the trophy, but director Boetticher is more than nipping at his coattails. Insanely succinct, richly ambiguous, sharply acted, masterfully composed, resourceful -- Boetticher is possibly even better at the western than John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann. If only we had a chance to find out for sure. So far, only Seven Men From Now, which pairs Randolph Scott with a never-better Lee Marvin, is on any kind of purchaseable video. But keep a sharp eye, and you may just stumble onto any of the other six films in what is casually dubbed the RANOWN cycle (so named for the presence of Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown). They're all good. After all, they'd probably have to be.

08. Love Me Tonight (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) - 15 Mar

Rouben Mamoulian was one of the first filmmakers to keep up the stylistics after the conversion to sound; his 1929 musical Applause is usually shown to students to prove that early talkies aren’t all stiff and dull. The Chevalier-MacDonald vehicle Love Me Tonight, which finds Mamoulian treading on Ernst Lubitsch’s territory, is among the most playful musicals I’ve ever seen. Mamoulian's often chided for subscribing to the style-over-substance school, but he's at least a thoughtful stylist. On one extreme, you have the opening number, “Isn’t It Romantic?,” which finds the song passed from person to person, from city to countryside, like a disease. But on the other extreme, there's one song (forget which) that's entirely a shot of Chevalier's head asleep on a pillow, a smile suggesting that a kickass number is going on in his dreams. (No doubt this sequence was the inspiration for Andy Warhol's Sleep.) Who's Lubitsch again?

09. Early Peter Greenaway Shorts - 16 Apr thru 17 Apr

Greenaway was one of my first favorite avant-gardeists, thanks to a freshman year obsession with The Cook, the Thief, et al.. So it’s been more than a touch bewildering to watch as he’s been dragged across the coals over the last decade, the mainstream punishing him for being too out there and the avant garde punishing him for having crossed the aisles in the first place. (Not that I’ve never joined in on the pummeling; my first major piece of hatemail involved my pejorative dropping of a four-letter word w/r/t The Baby of Macon.) Perhaps finally realizing he has to help manage his body of work, Greenaway finally unleashed his early shorts and his masterly epic faux-doc The Falls onto North America, stressing that, though he may have the cred to film Ewan McGregor’s uncircumcised penis, his heart still lies with experiments with organization. Vertical Features Remake. A Walk Through H. H is for House. My.

10. Chimes at Midnight (1966, Orson Welles) - 07 Sep

Because every year should reveal an Orson masterpiece. Note to self: finally finish up Criterion’s Mr. Arkadin box.

11. The Holy Mountain (1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky) - 30 Jul

I’ve always been a bit cool on El Topo, but Jodorowsky’s bigger, badder follow-up -- bankrolled by Topo-heads John and Yoko -- made me a convert. He’s still full of shit (and this was before he invented a form of New Age therapy called “psychomagic”), but implied bullshit ideas go down better with a bigger budget, in ‘scope, and with a propensity for more out-there ideas -- when there’s more to distract you from the inherent silliness of the ideas, that is. The middle section’s introductions, in particular, all but blew my mind.

Now go see Children of Men a couple times. I mean jesus.

* Indeed, the screening I was lucky to get into was not only the film’s American premiere, but only the fifth time it had been publicly exhibited. (There was a NY critic’s screening held a couple days beforehand, so that freed up a handful of seats to us non-NY cineastes.) And as for these previous showings, it’s hard to tell if they went as swimmingly as this one. Claire Denis, who worked with Rivette back in the day and in 1990 made the terrific TV doc Jacques Rivette, the Watchman, was quoted in the NYT as saying most of those at the premiere were stoned out of their gourds, while supreme J.R.-head David Thomson once claimed the film has “never shown properly without technical breakdown.” Moreover, the print, which was a very clean 16mm struck in the ‘90s, was the only known complete one in existence. Surprise surprise: it didn’t sport English subtitles. Ergo, a series of very brave folks from the French Embassy had to work what is known as “soft-titles,” wherein the entire translation is projected manually, line by line, from a computer and onto the bottom of the screen. As you can imagine, this can be quite maddening and carpal tunnel-syndrome-causing, even with each episode only lasting between 95 and 105 minutes. More than a couple times lines were missed or there were long breaks where the same one would stay on the screen. Not once did the audience, which breed is typically very demanding and tsk-tsk-y when it comes to projection matters, so much as audibly sigh or shift in the seats or fake-cough or anything that would have conveyed irritation. I should also mention the film took two days to show: 6 1/2 hours one day; 6 the next. The lengthy break made it doubly weird when, not terribly shagged out on day two, I realized at one point that I was ten hours into the same goddam movie. Very surreal.

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