February 19, 2019

So Dark the Night

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Joseph H. Lewis - 1946
Arrow Academy BD Region A

For the benefit of those who may be less familiar with the filmmaker, Joseph H. Lewis was nicknamed "Wagon wheel Joe" for his composition of shots through wagon wheels in his westerns. While there are some wagon wheels as props in So Dark the Night, Lewis finds other ways of inserting frames within the camera frame. There are shots through fences, tree branches, a fireplace, a clothes line, and lots of windows. The final minutes of the film might even be read as a visual pun, Lewis' joke on his own visual style, on shots and frames.

A famous Parisian detective, Cassin, takes his first vacation in eleven years. He goes to a small, provincial village where he attracts the attention of the hotel proprietor's daughter, Nanette. Not everyone is pleased, especially the farmer who has claimed engagement to the woman since childhood. There is also the significant difference in age. The detective's vacation is interrupted when the woman and the farmer are found murdered.

So Dark the Night must have been experienced as "So Strange the Movie" by an audience that had no idea what to expect. The very chipper Inspector Cassin is walking down a very sunny Paris street, exchanging pleasantries with a shoeshine boy and a girl selling flowers. The scene is introduced with tracking shots of Cassin's legs. The lightness of tone continues with Cassin's visit to the police station prior to leaving Paris, and Nanette admiring the chauffeured limousine that brings Cassin to the hotel. At this point, Lewis gives a brief stylistic shout-out to Sergei Eisenstein with a montage of close-ups of parts of the limo. Lewis returns to lateral tracking shots plus dolly shots with the camera moving in on a character for emphasis. But the film that began cheerfully becomes an increasingly creepy murder mystery.

So obscure the cast! If the names of most of the actors in So Dark the Night are unknown, you aren't alone. Steven Geray usually belongs in the category of "that guy, who was in that movie". As Cassin, this was Geray's only starring role, scrunched in between brief appearances in Gilda, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and To Catch a Thief among the more famous titles, as well as a slew of television episodes through the Fifties and Sixties. If Geray did get a screen credit, it was usually at the lower end of the credit roll. Michiline Cheirel, Nanette, had brief supporting roles in Carnival in Flanders and Hold Back the Dawn. Coincidentally, both actors were in William Castle's The Crime Doctor's Gamble a year later. Much of the casting seems to have been a roundup of European emigres on the Columbia Pictures lot, so the accented English might not be French, but it is honest. The cult performance artist, Brother Theodore, billed here with his real name of Theodore Gottlieb, shows up as the town's hunchback. There is no particular reason for the character to be a hunchback, as if he strayed off the set of another movie.

In case it matters to anyone, I've corresponded with three of the four people involved with the supplements. The only person who remains innocent is Imogen Sara Smith who provides an overview on Lewis' career at Columbia Pictures. I'm more familiar with Smith's commentary tracks on several films, with Desert Fury on deck for next week. As usual, she's very informative about Lewis and the production of So Dark the Night. The other Smith, whom I've exchanged notes with from the days when this blog began percolating, Farran Smith Nehme shares the commentary track with Glenn Kenny. Kenny goes over Lewis' early career in poverty row westerns and the critical reevaluation of Lewis' career, while Nehme is extremely helpful in identifying several of the cast members. While their commentary is casual, it is also well-prepared. The booklet notes by David Cairns offer an entertaining examination of Lewis' visual style here. The blu-ray is from a 2K restoration and looks dazzling enough to easily belie the modest budget, probably no more than the $175,000 the previous year's My Name is Julia Ross.

February 12, 2019

Blue Movie

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Wim Verstappen - 1971
Cult Epics two-disc all region DVD/BD set

There is this shot repeated in Blue Movie that neatly sums up viewing the film almost fifty years after its production. The cinematography is by Jan de Bont, early in his career. The camera is completely overhead, looking straight down, on two couples having sex. They are seen on a green surface, within a circular frame. The effect is as if viewing some form of life under a microscope. Voyeurism is a theme that pops up in the films by Dutch filmmakers Wim Verstappen and Pim de la Parra, that of both their films characters, and by implication, the audience.

Known collectively as Pim and Wim, the two set out to prove that Dutch filmmakers could succeed in the international market back in the late Sixties. Blue Movie was one of the films Verstappen co-wrote as well as directed, a 16mm production designed to compete with soft core films of the time. What temporarily got in the way of the film's initial release was that the Netherlands had an older rating system that had not caught up with the more liberalized standards and self-imposed adult only ratings in the U.S. and some other western countries. Blue Movie changed how films were rated in the Netherlands. That it made over a million dollars helped pave the way for other erotically charged Dutch films, especially those by newcomer Paul Verhoeven.

Those who saw Blue Movie weren't there for the nonsensical story. Michael, just out on parole, moves into an apartment in a huge, anonymous building. Michael's crime was having sex with an underage girl. Lonely, Michael gets to know some of his female neighbors by "borrowing" a cup of sugar (a plot device that was creaky even then). Michael becomes very popular with several of the women in the building, but finds himself falling in love with a young single mother. His parole officer, whose attention to Michael borders on the homoerotic, shows up at inopportune times. Initially not putting any effort in gainful employment, Michael becomes an entrepreneur of sex shows and films.

Whether one finds the antics in Blue Movie erotic is up to the eye of the individual viewer. Most of the scenes of sex are played for fun. For myself, I think I have seen more than enough of star Hugo Metsers nude. It may be to the film's credit that the actresses have an everyday kind of attractiveness, neither glamorized or artificially enhanced.

Putting Blue Movie into historical context are the generous supplements. The first is an interview with Wim Verstappen prior to the film's release in 1971. Producer Pim de la Parra speaks about making Blue Movie as part of the introduction to the series of Dutch films shown at the Cinematheque Francaise in 2018. An interview with Hugo Metsers, Jr. includes an anecdote of the son discovering Blue Movie by accident when he was ten years old. There is also a brief documentary on the Eye Film Institute, responsible for the restoration of several vintage Dutch films. The three supplements from 2018 were produced by Cult Epic's Nico B, who has made several of these almost forgotten Dutch films available for a wider audience.

February 01, 2019

Piercing

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Nicolas Pesce - 2019
Universal Pictures

Piercing is based on a novel by the Japanese author Ryu Murakami. While the name is more familiar to those with an interest in contemporary Japanese literature, more may be know his name through the most famous, or perhaps infamous, film adaptation of his novel, Audition. As a filmmaker of body horror, Nicolas Pesce is not as extreme as Takashi Miike, but there is enough going here to make most viewers feel uncomfortable once the two main characters meet.

Pesce, who also wrote the screenplay, transposes the action from a contemporary Japanese city of 1994 to a fictionalized New York City that appears to be mid 1970s. The first giveaway is the close-up of the push-button phone. There is also the double-breasted suit worn by Christopher Abbott, and telephone booth across the street from a hospital to serve as reminders of a past time. Pesce also announces the influence of giallo with the use of Italian composer Bruno Nicolai's music during the opening credits. For the most part Piercing takes place in a dark hotel room and an equally dimly lit apartment, with designer and the prostitute having a tenuous relationship to the outside world.

Much of the novel consists of interior monologues, including disassociation, of the two characters, only sliver appears in the film. Like Audition, this is about a man whose plan for a specific kind of relationship with a woman is upended by the woman. The man and woman in Murakami's novel both have childhood traumas that are both complimentary but also literally tear the two apart. The motivations in the film are not given that kind of clear explanation. While Murakami takes a look at class and culture in Japan, Pesce's film might be best described as an exercise in mood and style, about two people trying to control themselves and each other, most explicitly through psycho-sexual games.

Mia Wasikowska might not have been considered as a Hitchcock blonde, especially with her short, Dutch boy style hair. It may not have been intentional on Pesce's part, but by having her character as a blonde, she recalls the Hitchcock film about childhood trauma, Marnie. The difference is that the prostitute, Jackie, refuses to let herself be a victim to the men who are her clients, even when hired to be submissive. While Marnie is disturbed by the color red, Jackie is immersed in a color that might even be described as Deep Red, the interior of her apartment, with the theme by Goblin also part of the soundtrack.

Pesce is an admitted fan of horror films. The tracking shot in that long, dark hotel corridor recalls Dario Argento, while the use of split screens was probably influenced by Brian De Palma. While the buildup slowly builds up the feeling of impending dread, the entire films runs slightly more than eighty minutes. There is also some witty use of several familiar pop songs, especially the mopey "Bluer than Blue", as part of the soundtrack. Ultimately, the worst of horrors are that which adults inflict on children, while those between adults are only skin deep.

January 30, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Crystal Swan

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Khrustal
Darya Zhuk - 2018
Unfound Content

I have an acquaintance who has been part of the committee responsible for the Foreign Language section of the Oscars. He has a theory that the least interesting film among the final five is usually the film that gets the award. My own feeling is that often the films that fall outside the shortlist or final five are the more challenging films for a stateside viewer because they are more specific to the country of origin, and in their stories more intimate.

Crystal Swan is too bittersweet to be described as a screwball comedy, but it is about the misadventures of a young woman from Minsk, and the few days where everything goes wrong. The film takes place in 1996. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but for many, no functioning infrastructure is in its place. Velya works in a museum dedicated to Belarusian military efforts during World War II, but would rather be a DJ playing "house music" in Chicago. In an effort to gain a visa for travel to the U.S., she obtains letterhead stationary on the black market, typing in a fake work history that would be deemed more financially stable. The only problem is that the phone number for the company is not completely legible, and Velya is in a panic once its confirmed that the U.S. Embassy is going to call for verification. The phone number belongs to a family in a small town called Crystal, where Velya goes to intercept the expected phone call.

Maybe it's not deliberate, but the set-up of Crystal Swan reminds me of the screwball comedies of the 1930s with the main character running away from home for whatever reason, and finding themselves involved in unexpected situations with an eccentric group of strangers. Velya finds herself involved with a family preparing for a wedding, in a town named after its only industry, crystal artifacts. For those that live in Crystal, Minsk is as foreign as Los Angeles or Chicago. Even vaguer is Velya's notion freedom to be found in America. For Velya's mother and the people of Crystal, there's a sense of security in holding onto Soviet style thoughts and traditions. For all of her troubles, Velya does inspire one of the son's of the family that reluctantly hosts her.

Some of my favorite visual moments - a small group of Russian soldiers high stepping in a subway station, a house party in a warehouse filled with statues of Soviet heroes, a tracking shot of the Crystal family setting up tables for the backyard wedding reception, and a group of school children joyfully abandoning their chairs as soon as the VHS tape of Belarusian history malfunctions. With her round face and mop of blonde hair, lead actress Alina Nasibullina reminded me somewhat of a younger version of R. W. Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla. Crystal Swan is Darya Zhuk's first feature after several short films. This was also the first film from Belarus in over twenty years to be submitted for Oscar consideration.

January 29, 2019

Slamdance 2019: The Dons of Disco

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Jonathan Sutak - 2018
Discotheque Studio

While watching the opening minutes of The Dons of Disco, I was remembering a conversation I had with my mother around twenty years ago or so. She had moved to Jerusalem and was talking about some singer who had been the big Eurovision or San Remo winner. I had no idea who she was talking about. But that very brief conversation pointed to the gaps that exist in popular culture between Europe and the U.S.

The Dons of Disco is about the legacy of a very popular singer in the genre called Italo Disco, who was revealed to have mimed his hit records, and the studio musician who cowrote the songs and provided the voice on most of the records. And if you're old enough to think to yourself, "Hey, this reminds me of Milli Vanilli", as it turns out, Rob and Fab were basically the tip of that particular iceberg.

Even though I find the music occasionally catchy, but ultimately forgettable, Jonathan Sutak's documentary is still fascinating in its portrait of the machinations of the music industry thirty years ago. The disco star, Den Harrow (say his name quickly with a silent H, sounds like De Niro), was invented as the face of a group of studio musicians and songwriters, a young man who could sing in perfect English. Spotted on the floor of a disco, blond and pretty Stefano Zandri was enlisted to mime in front of an audience as Den Harrow. The fiction extended to making him an Italian-American from Boston, which meant that publicly Zandri had to limit his speaking to badly accented Italian, and disguise that he did not know more than a few words of English.

The real voice on most of the records, Tom Hooker is shown trying to establish that he was the real voice of Den Harrow, and should be credited as such. Hooker even goes on tour briefly in several U.S. cities as the opening act for Boney M. What makes the rivalry between the voice and the face a bit odd is that both men have had overcome any setbacks to live quite comfortable lives. Hooker changed his last name to Barbey, and is now a very successful photographer based in Las Vegas. Zandri, living in Milan, continued as an actor and television celebrity.

Zandri makes the assertion that the audience responds to the face and not the voice in his claim to be recognized as the real Den Harrow. His example is Robert De Niro and the actor who provides his voice in dubbed films for Italian audiences. While it is mildly amusing to see De Niro's famous "You talkin' to me" scene from Taxi Driver with the voice of Ferruccio Amendola, I don't think this is the best analogy. The illusion of some record companies that an audience will accept that the singer on stage is voiced by someone else is difficult to sustain. The film does not touch on the controversy of singers who lip-synch to their own voices in live performances.

Unknown as he was on this side of the Atlantic, Den Harrow's popularity was such that he topped the likes of Michael Jackson and Falco (hey, even I have a soft-spot for "Der Kommissar"). Several of the other behind the scenes talent in the creation of Den Harrow, fans and discophiles also appear in this film. Perhaps the best point of The Dons of Disco is the reminder that while we may see one face on the record cover, there is often a sizable, and unseen, team providing support.

For a humorous overview of Italo Disco and its influence, there is this article from Pitchfork.

January 28, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Impetus

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Jennifer Alleyn - 2019
La Distributrice de Films

While checking on the credits for Impetus, I noticed that the Internet Movie Database wrongly categorized the film as a documentary. Jennifer Alleyn makes it clear in the closing credits that her film is a work of fiction. It is easy to see why there might be some confusion because of the way Alleyn has constructed her film.

The work might be best summarized as a meditation on love and loss. There is no conventional structure here. Partially first person documentary, partially dramatic narrative, partially abstract montages of nature, an intuitive kind of filmmaking. Just as Alleyn plays with notions of visual language, the film is bilingual switching between French and English. Alleyn herself appears as a filmmaker attempting to complete a film, dealing with her own personal loss of a loved one, followed by the loss of an actor who leaves in mid-production for a more lucrative gig.

One of the sources of inspiration of Alleyn was Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault. Now something of a visual cliche, but Brault was a pioneer in the use of hand-held cinematography, part of what was a new style of documentary introduced in the late 1950s as Direct Cinema. Alleyn does her own version, on the streets and subways of New York City. Alleyn appears to have a particular joy in filming the various street performers, a Sinatra style chanteur in a small park, people spontaneously dancing to a musician in a subway station, a young man using a subway pole for a performance.

There are also more formally composed moments. The film opens with the overwhelming whiteness of winter in Montreal. It is as if there is nothing but ice and snow. There are a series of renaissance era portraits and paintings. Alleyn frequently makes use of reflected surfaces within a shot. One of my favorite moments is of actress Pascale Bussieres performing a solo dance, a response to a boogie by John Reissner. Bussieres is effectively doubled as the camera observes her from a distance so that she is also seen on the glass surface of a wall on the right side of the frame.

It may be fitting that I saw Impetus a day after the death of Jonas Mekas. Above all, Mekas championed what could be described as personal filmmaking. I would hardly expect that those who watch Impetus will respond to the film in whole or in part in quite the same way. Just as the film is a hybrid of narrative and non-narrative filmmaking, it is by turns disorienting, comic, frustrating, and beautiful.

January 27, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Boni Bonita

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Daniel Barosa - 2019
Nimboo's

Boni Bonita follows the relationship between Beatriz and Rogerio over the course of nine years, from 2007 through 2016, in four chapters. The film is divided into periods of a day or two when they are together. Beatriz is first seen as a high school girl, reportedly expelled for being caught having sex with another student, and kicked out of her house. The heavy-set Rogerio is a rock musician who hasn't quite realized that his best days are behind him. Most of the film takes place in and around Rogerio's family home by a reservoir outside of Rio de Janeiro.

The relationship is not clearly defined for the viewer, by turns romantic, sexual, and even paternal on Rogerio's part. For most of the film, Daniel Barosa keeps the camera immobile and at a distance. Beatriz and Rogerio are usually framed in full, and sometimes from a distance, with their actions and dialogue quietly observed. There are no explanations or judgments regarding Beatriz' self-inflicted cuttings and cigarette burns. Meanwhile, Rogerio's fading celebrity is based less on his own musicianship than on being the grandson of a still revered singer from an earlier generation.

Barosa produced his film over the course of three years. Film formats used were 16mm, Super 16 and digital. The 16mm footage is full of scratches as if the film had been run through too many projectors with careless use. The aspect ratio changes from wide screen to square with some of the images around the reservoir, resembling postcard nature photography. The time difference is most visible with the last scene of Beatriz, actress Ailin Salas. Barosa has stated that his initial inspiration came from following the indie rock scene of Sao Paulo, Brazil, both as a young enthusiast and amateur musician, and than looking back over a decade later. Among stated cinematic influences are Eric Rohmer and John Cassavetes - what is most similar is the sometimes affectionate look at characters who are allowed to be impulsive and sometimes foolish in their choices and relationships.

I had forgotten that I had seen Ailin Salas previously. The Argentinian actress also appears in two early films by Lucia Puenzo, XXY and The Fish Child. Salas is like Beatriz, an Argentinian in Brazil. One might also equate the visual distance in the cinematography of Boni Bonita as that of the outsider or foreigner. Barosa own background is of having been born in Maryland, moving with his family to Brazil, and studying film in Argentina. A personal history as that would lend itself to a story about two people, one of whom is always at home, while for the other, home is something transient.