March 26, 2017

Coffee Break

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Isabelle Huppert in Elle (Paul Verhoeven - 2016)

March 23, 2017

Tower

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Keith Maitland - 2016
Kino Lorber BD Region A

I originally saw Tower last November or December as one of the end of the year screeners I receive for awards consideration. The emotional impact was wrenching, enough so that I could not bring myself to view the film a second time. But I did see all of the extras. For those unfamiliar, the title refers to the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, where a sniper, Charles Whitman, shot fourteen people and wounding thirty-one others, on August 1, 1966. Seeing several of the survivors from add to the testimony is still a moving experience. The other reason for seeing the extras is for the Q & A session that followed the screening of Tower at the SXSW Festival in Austin.

Tower has been acclaimed as a documentary. The inspiration was from a magazine article from several witnesses and survivors. But the work brings up questions regarding what qualifies this as a documentary. Similar to Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir from 2008, Maitland has chosen to recreate the past with animation. One of the extras in Tower shows this process, with staged, film re-enactments based on witness narratives, redone as animated images. Maitland states that he chose this method of presentation so that the film would connect better with a younger audience. What may be disputed is whether a film might still be considered a documentary if what is viewed are recreations of events, either by actors, or by animation, or a combination of the two techniques?

What also could be a point of contention is that Charles Whitman remains virtually unknown here, a killer with no known motivation. What Tower does not mention is that prior to planting himself on the tower, Whitman had murdered his wife and mother, grew up learning how to shoot, and had been cited for his marksmanship as a Marine. An autopsy of Whitman also indicated that he had a brain tumor, although whether that contributed to his emotional state at the time is only speculative. Even though the victims were people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, Whitman's presence on the campus was not a random event. Also not mentioned is that Whitman was a student at the university.

What can not be denied is the power of Maitland's film, irrespective of some of the questions it may bring up. This was for me, one of the best film of last year, and very much worth seeing. I can't imagine anyone viewing Tower and not in some way being unmoved.

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March 21, 2017

Mondo Weirdo

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Mondo Weirdo / Jungfrau am Abgrund
Carl Andersen - 1990
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC

Vampiros Sexos / I was a Teenage Zabbadoing
Carl Andersen - 1988
Cult Epics DVD

There isn't much written about Carl Andersen, and virtually nothing substantial in English. It turns out that the Austrian born filmmaker was originally named Karl Brazda. As indicated by the titles, Andersen's work has been inspired by the less critically reputable films from Hollywood and Europe. Mondo Weirdo carries a dedication to Jean-Luc Godard and Jesus Franco. Anyone who finds that odd is forgetting that Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures, and that Godard and Franco have a few collaborators in common, including screen writer Jean-Claude Carriere and actor Howard Vernon. I would place Andersen as part of a list of so-called experimental filmmakers like the Kuchar Brothers and Ron Rice, whose films would serve as homages and parodies of the kind of films frequently dismissed as schlock. This is a subject may be in need of some deeper research, as the relationship to commercial cinema was not entirely one way: Ron Rice was able to make his film, The Flower Thief with 16mm film cartridges contributed by Monogram alumni, schlockmeister Sam Katzmann.

Neither of these films are truly narrative, but more of series of images of transgressive sex and violence, no budget cinema in 16mm black and white. Andersen even reveals that prior to making Vampiros Sexos, he was supporting himself working in an insurance office, while keeping his dream of making films alive. And the film themselves might be described best as dream-like, in that dreams are made up of a continuity of images that connect with each other even when there is no other logic to those images.

Vampiros Sexos benefits from having English subtitles, so there is some sense of what people are saying to each other. It's starting off point is that there is some contaminated olive oil that turns people into vampires. The title is clearly taken from Franco's Vampiros Lesbos, but the sex here gets even raunchier and more explicit. Unlike Franco, it's not just a combination of women or men and women, but also two guys very much together. The ending is quite funny and self-referential with the cast and crew declaring the filmmaking concluded.

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Mondo Weirdo

I would think that what Andersen took from Godard was the sense of permission to shoot film out on the street of Vienna, at least that's what struck me a mostly Godardian. Mondo Weirdo might also be dubbed "Alice in Sappholand as a young woman, Odile, falls down a rabbit hole featuring a lesbian couple performing in a bar, and encounters with Elizabeth Bathory. Odile is played by an actress billed as Jessica Franco Manera, one of several creative pseudonyms used by some of Andersen's cast, although my favorite is the actor known as Pal-Secam. Andersen makes interesting use of dividing the screen into three parts with three different images simultaneously.

The most substantial writing on Andersen that I found was from a German retrospective. The Cult Epic collection, which includes an Andersen short, What's so Dirty about It?, also has parts of filmed interviews Andersen made with Anneliese Holles in 2012, prior to his death. Also included here is a CD of music by Modell Doo, the band contributing most of the soundtrack to the two films. While some of the music is quite melodic, there are also industrial sounds. The band's website has this wonderful cartoon of a couple dancing on the street to the sound of jackhammers, which says it all.

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Vampiros Sexos

March 19, 2017

Coffee Break

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Denis Podalydes in The Conquest (Xavier Derringer - 2011)

March 14, 2017

The Lovers on the Bridge

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Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
Leos Carax - 1991
Kino Classics BD Region A

At one point in The Lovers on the Bridge, Michele, a painter suffering from a degenerative eye disease describes what she sees as flashing blurry light. Sometimes I feel like I'm only seeing the surface of a movie, the images, the basic narrative, but I'm missing the deeper meanings.

For some, it may be enough that Leos Carax's film in available as a blu-ray disc, it the correct aspect ratio. But it's helpful also to read Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's essay, and the video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez. The video essay opens with a quote from Jean Vigo's L'Atalante about seeing the face of one's true love in the water. The quote refers to the moment of mutual recognition of the feelings that Alex and Michele have for each other, almost drowning while gazing in each others' eyes in the Seine, and rescued by a passing barge, similar to that of Vigo's film. The association with Vigo's film was so strong for me that I kept thinking that Michel Simon should be making a cameo appearance.

Somehow, not mentioned by anyone is that the eye doctor who cures Michele is named Destouches. Maybe any discussion of Louis-Ferdinand Celine is likely to open a particularly messy can of worms. But the final shots in The Lovers on the Bridge do evoke the last lines from Journey to the End of the Night especially - Far away, the tugboat hooted; calling across the bridge, the arches one by one, a lock, another bridge, further, further away.

The last name of Michele also happens to be Stalens, the last name of Juliette Binoche's mother.

Not much is known about Alex, the shambling mess of a young man, addicted to drugs and alcohol, who calls the aged Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris his home. Michele is an artist, plagued by memories of a lost love, rapidly losing her eyesight. These two are more battered and injured than the bridge, itself due for repairs. The story of the making of the film might be an even greater example of l'amour fou, with Carax first envisioning an intimate film shot in 8mm, only to take almost three years with star Denis Lavant injuring himself, filming taking place both on the real bridge and on an elaborate set, and production held up by uncertain financing.

What might be remembered most about The Lovers on the Bridge are some of the striking images - a lateral tracking shot of Binoche and Levant racing down the street against the soundtrack of David Bowie's "Time will Crawl", Levant's breathing fire while performing a cartwheel, and Lavant and Binoche and a sky full of fireworks.

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March 12, 2017

Coffee Break

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Yonit Tobi and Nelly Tagar in Zero Motivation (Talya Lavie - 2014)

March 07, 2017

Vera Cruz

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Robert Aldrich - 1954
MGM Home Video BD Region A

Several cinephile friends and acquaintances have been discussing the television series, Feud, based on the rivalry of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. While also a character in the series, the director of that film, Robert Aldrich, seems to have been pushed to the background. I haven't seen any episodes of Feud yet, but it is important to note that it was Aldrich who had the idea of getting Davis and Crawford together. Not only did Aldrich have to persuade the two actresses, but also studio head Jack Warner, as well. Aldrich had worked with Crawford previously on Autumn Leaves, in which we are to believe that mentally fragile Cliff Robertson finds happiness with Joan, after his previous wife has been seduced by Robertson's father, played by the older by eight years Lorne Greene. And keep in mind that Joan Crawford was older than both men. Jack Warner had a much longer history with Davis and Crawford when both were contract stars at Warner Brothers, and had doubts about any box office potential of two "old broads".

While several critics have pointed out to several classic films starring Davis and Crawford to get a better sense of what the actresses were like during the years that cemented their respective stardom, I propose that Robert Aldrich should be given is due. In thinking about his career, well before Baby Jane, Aldrich had also worked with several demanding male stars who also made a point of throwing their weight around. And the first was Burt Lancaster, for whom Aldrich directed two films, that Lancaster produced.

I had seen Vera Cruz once, quite a while ago on a black and white telecast. My interest in seeing it again was piqued by Alex Cox's book on Italian westerns, citing Aldrich's film as an inspiration with a plot that involved a series of double crosses, and Burt Lancaster, often seen dressed completely in black, as the charismatic mercenary, first seen selling Gary Cooper a stolen horse. Lancaster did make a point of making a couple of films with older actors he admired, Cooper here, and Clark Gable in Run Silent, Run Deep. And according to accounts, Cooper also made some demands known to Aldrich regarding what his character would or would not do. I'm not aware of Cooper and Lancaster having problems working together, unlike Gable and Lancaster four years later. What is also notable that Gable and Cooper were still considered viable movie stars well into their fifties, unlike Davis and Crawford.

While a widescreen Technicolor western that takes place largely in the rough terrain of Mexico is in terms of genre a world away from a black and white film taking place within an old mansion, Aldrich has several films with either a pair of characters, or a group, that may be at odds with each other, but more frequently will set aside their own agendas, at least temporarily, for a common goal. Baby Jane is about a relationship too severed to be overcome, with a feeling of regret for the sibling rivalry at the end, suggesting what have been had there been no automobile accident that defined the remaining lives of the Hudson sisters.

More than sixty years later, Vera Cruz will probably be of more interest to contemporary viewers for anticipating some the changes to be seen in future westerns, as well as glimpsing early performances by two actors who became iconic later in life. Certainly, Gary Cooper mowing down a Mexican army anticipates, among other films, a similar scene in The Wild Bunch. The plot of Americans loose in Mexico, hired to take sides in a revolution, has been visited several times. While historically correct, but an anomaly for a big budget western, Lancaster's gang includes the black actor-dancer, Archie Savage, a talent certainly underutilized on the big screen. When not blinded by the sight of Burt Lancaster flashing his famous, toothy smile, Ernest Borgnine and the actor formerly known as Charles Buchinsky can also be seen as part of Lancaster's gang. Aldrich uses his signature overhead shot to catch a glimpse of Denise Darcel's cleavage. That Aldrich later explored lesbian relationships in Killing of Sister George seems less surprising with a scene of Borgnine and Jack Elam dancing together, as well as a later scene with the seemingly most sophisticated, and well-dressed gang member dancing with someone wearing a full mask, only to be revealed as a short, gap toothed man. Hopefully, interest in Feud will generate renewed interest in Robert Aldrich and his films. Andrew Sarris describes the relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as combustible. I would say that this describes what goes on in almost every Robert Aldrich film.

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