Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Favorite Classics Seen for the First Time in 2007, Part 1: Reissues and Retrospectives

Note: Many of the blurbs below are recycled from pre-existing pieces. Because if you can't steal from yourself, who can you steal from?

Night on Bald Mountain (1933, Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker)

I've seen some real corkers this year, but none has stuck with me quite like the 1933 animated short NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN. Directed by husband-and-wife team Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker, this short made excellent use of Modeste Mussorgsky's composition, beating Fantasia to the punch by seven years. While Alexeieff and Parker lacked Disney's resources, the film is nonetheless one of the most visually ravishing animated films I've ever seen. But while one can appreciate NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN without knowing anything about it, knowing about Alexeieff and Parker's animation technique makes the film feel like something of a miracle.

Other notable shorts: The Sixth Face of the Pentagon (1968, Chris Marker and François Reichenbach), Serene Velocity (1970, Ernie Gehr), Outer Space (1999, Peter Tscherkassky), Living (1971, Frans Zwartjes)

2. Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Th. Dreyer)

"Probably the least of the Dreyers I've seen," I said to Chris right after it was over. But then it began to really seep into my brain on the drive home- the strange sensuality of the dialogue between Anne and Martin, the elegant spareness of the storytelling, the sheer perfection of the ending- and I changed my tune. As with a Hattori Hanzo sword, you don't compare a Dreyer film to other Dreyer films, but to other films that weren't directed by Dreyer. What makes his work a little hard to parse right away is how stylized the worlds he creates are- while he wants DAY OF WRATH to walk and talk like a naturalistic period piece, in actuality he doesn't aim for realism here anymore than he did with VAMPYR or he later would with ORDET. No less than ORDET, DAY OF WRATH is a parable, albeit a much bleaker one.

3. Privilege (1967, Peter Watkins)

But even more startling than the film’s direct influences is the story’s almost prophetic nature. It’s hard not to see Steven Shorter in the reluctant, self-destructive pop stars of today, Britney Spears being the obvious example. The efforts by Shorter’s handlers to re-fashion their client’s image clearly anticipates shape-shifters like Madonna. But strangely enough, the person I thought of most while watching PRIVILEGE isn’t a musician at all, but Oprah Winfrey — another pop-culture titan whose image is used not only to sell consumer products and spirituality but a whole lifestyle. That Oprah presumably does this of her own free will, rather than being led into it as Shorter is, merely feels like the logical progression of events.

4. Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett)

KILLER OF SHEEP isn't a plot movie, but that's why it's a masterpiece, I think. It's a portrait of lives from which there is no escape- with a plot there has to be resolution, and resolution would magically clear up the troubles from which Burnett's characters suffer. It's the difference between the games the kids in the film play and the lives of their parents. When something happens to a kid, he'll walk away, cry it out, and then continue like nothing happened- problem resolved. But the problems facing the adults linger. The gangsters who try to bring Stan in on a crime will eventually be replaced by other gangsters, the white woman who runs the liquor store will keep trying to sweet-talk him into working for her (and screwing her on the side)... Anyone who has ever worked paycheck to paycheck, or has despaired that life seems like nothing but a long string of jobs interrupted occasionally by sleep, or has simply gazed at a loved one and wanted to cheer him but had no idea how, will find something in KILLER OF SHEEP that speaks to them, no matter what color he is.

5. L'Amour Fou (1968, Jacques Rivette)
One of the things I love most about Rivette, especially in his early work, is the way he was so willing to let the seams show. Consider how he uses 16mm and 35mm footage in this one- he doesn't try to smooth out the 16mm grain to make it look more like 35, and when he cuts back and forth between the two, the quality of the sound changes as does the aspect ratio. In addition, the soundtrack itself contrasts with more conventional films, full of half-heard dialogue and incidental noises that occasionally overpower the stuff we're "supposed" to hear- think the Coke bottles being set down on the rehearsal table with a bang. All of which I guess is a roundabout way of saying that part of what makes Rivette fascinating is that he keeps the spontaneous on-the-fly stuff in here, rather than smoothing out all the rough edges, which makes his work jarring in the best of ways. L'AMOUR FOU is not a film that one can watch complacently, settling into a comfortable moviegoing experience. The film can't even be boiled down to a synopsis, or even a thematic through-line- for a while it looks like it'll turn into a May '68-era meditation on the limits of freedom and the consequences of trying for it- but the characters and Rivette's style are much too prickly for that.

6. War and Peace (1968, Sergei Bondarchuk)

If nothing else, WAR AND PEACE is the biggest, grandest epic of all, boasting tens of thousands of actual soldiers in the battle scenes, some of the most opulent sets ever committed to film, and an awe-inspiring re-creation of the siege and burning of Moscow by Napoleon's army. But Bondarchuk's epic vision didn't stop with the size of the production. Instead, every frame of WAR AND PEACE represents the director's tribute to the irrepressible spirit of the Russian people, which managed to survive even the threats posed to it by Napoleon. Each of the film's larger-than-life performers reflects this idea, none more so than the incandescent Ludmilla Savelyeva, a ballerina who turned out to be the most perfect choice imaginable for the film's pivotal role of Natasha. WAR AND PEACE is huge but not plodding, a thrilling, emotionally satisfying populist drama that just happens to be seven hours long. It is that rarest of cinematic creatures — a film that actually does credit to the literary masterpiece that inspired it while standing as a masterpiece in its own right.

7. 50 Years of Janus Films retrospective:

The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov)

Emotionally overwhelming on the big screen, and not just because of Kalatozov and ace cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky's use of closeups. Amid all the bravura direction, the emotional timbre of this feels almost like Jacques Demy, trading in the same kind of sad irony as a film like

Cria Cuervos... (1976, Carlos Saura)

This is one of the most bracingly unsentimental portraits of a young girl dealing with the presence of death in her life I've ever seen. Little Ana has been present for the deaths of her mother and father, but she doesn't know how to process it in a mature way, and as such the concept of death becomes almost trivial to her (for example, how casual she is about trying to poison those she dislikes). I also liked the ambiguousness of the scene with her father's handgun. I doubt she actually intends to use it, and I'm not even sure she knows it's loaded, but what would an 8-year-old want with a gun? To be honest though, I don't think this would have been nearly so effective if not for the perfect pairing of Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin- there's one scene in particular in which Torrent is photographed from below and her facial structure matches Chaplin's so well that it's almost eerie.

Lola (1981, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Fassbinder's talent as a visual stylist doesn't get nearly enough press- most of the stuff I see about his work tends to focus on his pet themes (sexual power dymanics, recent German history, etc.) and how the film relates to Fassbinder's own life. But any filmmaker who does work that's even remotely "personal"- even visually-impaired dudes like Kevin Smith who might as well be directing for radio- has his own bunch of pet themes and obsessions. But Fassbinder is visually gifted, and versatile to boot, which may have been why his talent as a stylist are overlooked. Of the Fassbinders I've seen, LOLA has to be the most visually ravishing. Fassbinder's use of color and lighting is stunning, especially in scenes where he washes different actors in different hues, even within the same shot. I'm so glad I saw this for the first time on the big screen, since the directorial niceties wouldn't have hit me nearly as hard on DVD.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971, Dusan Makavejev)

In many ways, this feels like a "you had to be there" sort of experience- distant as we've grown from the world of the Iron Curtain and Vietnam, there's something vaguely alien about a movie that takes on both of these targets, and more besides, but doesn't so much take them down as tickle them for 80-odd minutes. One gets the impression that Makavejev put just enough controversial stuff in his movies to get the censors steamed, without actually compelling them to cut him down, which is no small feat considering the environment he was working in. Plus it's really goddamn funny, which shouldn't be ignored.

8. The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)

2007 marked the year I caught up with many of Mizoguchi's classics for the first time, and exploration of a number of his greatest films revealed him to be one of the great directors of melodrama. So it is with his classic THE LIFE OF OHARU, which follows a woman in feudal Japan over the course of several decades as she descends from a noble upbringing to a life as a courtesan, then a prostitute. Life is harsh in Mizoguchi's world- to children, to women, to idealists- and especially to those who step outside the path life has chosen for them. But Mizoguchi never condemns those who follow their own heart. Rather, he despairs for them, and for their independent spirits which have no place in a world that exists to grind them down. The marvel is that Mizoguchi's best films are as exhilarating as they are, a tribute to how fresh and exciting his filmmaking is even today.

9. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964, Billy Wilder)

One of Wilder's biggest assets was his understanding that placing characters at cross purposes is positively ripe with comedic potential. And so it is here, as Ray Walston's Orville Spooner is so at war with his impulses- his jealousy over his wife Zelda, his desire to make it as a songwriter, etc.- that he ends up painting himself into the proverbial corner, and half the fun of the film is watching him trying to get out. But if he's the comedic crux of the film, Kim Novak's Polly is its heart. On the surface, the character seems like your garden variety tart-with-a-heart, but Novak gives the character a touching vulnerability, with her head cold and her attempts at domesticity. One of the most magical moments in the film comes when Orville realizes that he genuinely cares about Polly as well- not as a husband or a lover, so much as a protector of the honor she mostly lost years ago. The film isn't so much an flat-out farce a la ONE, TWO, THREE as a classic comedy of remarriage, but what sets it apart is that both husband and wife end up getting their hands dirty before coming back together (more so in the European version than in the American).

10. Muppets™, Music and Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy / Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas (1977, Jim Henson)

Another Henson trademark that never went away was his sense of humor. Some of his best gags involved deflating the stuffed shirts of the world, whether it was Kermit interviewing Muppet versions of David Brinkley and Chet Huntley on Henson’s first series, SAM AND FRIENDS (the bit feels like a direct inspiration for Robert Smigel’s “Fun With RealAudio”), or the pompous recurring character Sam the Eagle on THE MUPPET SHOW. But while sometimes the characters ribbed each other to comedic effect, it was never mean-spirited. How else to explain how the comedy-inept Fozzie Bear became one of Henson’s most endearing creations — and a personal favorite of mine?


Victor said...

Well, I wouldn't say DAY OF WRATH is the least of Dreyer's films, but I would definitely say it's his most conventional or least stylistically eccentric, at least among his five final films, the ones on which his canonization rests.

WRATH makes much more "sense" and is much more unified in terms of space and coherence than VAMPYR or PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. ("Stylistically calmer" was Bordwell's phrase.) At the same time, it's not as static and "stagy" as ORDET and GERTRUD and has far more obvious plot-related interest. ("Melodramatic appeal" sez Bordwell.)

If some novice film-geek were to come to me, five Criterion DVDs of Dreyer in hand (let's imagine they've gotten around to VAMPYR by this time), and say "Victor, where should I start," I would advise WRATH.

Now, I'm not saying you're a willful obscurantist, Paul ... but I do think that WRATH is the "easiest" of Dreyer's films, and thus often underestimated by highbrow cinephiles.

Paul C. said...

And really, that's what I'm saying here. Much of the "difficulty" I had expected from Dreyer was absent from DAY OF WRATH, so my initial reaction was that it was a minor work. But the more I thought about it, the less I found this to be true. Just because it's "easier" doesn't make it a lesser film- just a piece written in a different key.