My rep fortunes were significantly improved by moving from Syracuse to Ithaca this summer. Granted, I didn't see too many films (classic or otherwise) after November 21, but that's okay with me. As it happens, most of what I saw I didn’t care for all that much (including disappointments like Masculine Feminine and Days of Being Wild) , hence this unusually sparse list. Only truly sad misses were the Owen Land retro (in Syracuse, at a really bad time) and the aforementioned Michael Powells. (I actually went to see Colonel Blimp but there was no parking anywhere, and so I had to go back home. Shit, etc.)
In chronological order, not ranked:
Mr. Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati, France, 1953)
One of the last Tatis I hadn't seen, and although I don't think I'll ever consider anything he did to be the equal of Playtime (one of my all-time faves), this one manages to affect some of the same kinds of dislocations on a tiny scale. Recreation, Tati seems to say, is hard work, especially when done the suburban way (bring your prefab lifestyle into "nature").
Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, Belgium / France, 1973)
Holy shit. Most of the time when I finally see a film like this, one that has eluded me for years and years, after having read about it exhaustively, the actual seeing of the film cannot live up to the imaginary film in my head. This time, it was exceeded tenfold. The cramped modular frames, especially the kitchen area, confined the most natural of activities and made them eerie, wrong. Gus Van Sant did not even come close to capturing what makes Dielman such a mesmerizing, unnerving experience. (Then again, Michael Pitt is no Delphine Seyrig.) It really does function like a structural film, with the slow decay of repetitions providing the “drama.” Alas, the soundhead on the projector broke for the last ten minutes. Anal film-geek purism be damned! I saw Jeanne Dielman, and it's now easily among my all-time top twenty.
Dyn Amo (Stephen Dwoskin, U.K., 1972)
This is a toughie. I programmed this for a college course sight-unseen, because everything I’d read about it made it sound like it directly engaged the subject matter. (The course was called “The Gaze Reconsidered.”) Well, yeah. My site lists this is a walkout, but in reality I felt I had to turn the film off about fifteen minutes before the end, for ethical and possibly legal reasons. I feared that showing this film to students without proper warning could, by certain arguments, constitute harassment. Anyway, this film is grueling and brilliant, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Irreversible looks like The Sound of frickin’ Music next to Dyn Amo. What Dwoskin is doing is using avant-garde techniques to interrogate the camera’s subjection of women, not by avoiding it (cf. Riddles of the Sphinx) but by plunging into its heart of darkness. It takes place in a strip club, and woman after woman performs joyless striptease routines, glaring into the camera like prisoners – “Please help me get out of this film.” Eventually the men in the club up the stakes and begin physically abusing the women, and the camera gets involved (in a way) by passively recording what it sees. Honestly, no film I have ever seen has so directly and powerfully analyzed the ethics of cinematic spectatorship. I regret that I know how it ends only from written descriptions, so in a way I’m right back where I was before I ever selected it.
The Fatal Glass of Beer (Clyde Bruckman, U.S., 1933) [s]
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod, U.S., 1934)
This was my first exposure to the comedy of W.C. Fields, which really is as advanced and proto-po-mo as I’d been led to believe. Could this guy be a star today? Nasty, drunk, muttering contemptuous comments under his breath, endlessly unlikable . . . only TV’s comedy of embarrassment (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” both “The Office”s) comes close, but that stuff’s of a different ilk. Fields’ character was never clueless, just supremely nonchalant about not giving a shit. Although Fatal Glass is the superior film, with its sightgags and flagrant half-assedness (I’m assuming it is a parody of those Canadian wilderness films that have recently been trotted out at TIFF under “Canadian Vault”), It’s a Gift does a lot with a little, even approaching narrative coherence.
Mindfall, Parts I & VII (Hollis Frampton, U.S., 1980) [m]
The best and most revelatory of the bunch of Frampton “Magellan” films I caught with McCloud at SF Cinematheque, Mindfall is a series of images and color fields that are edited into a syncopated rhythm, with a staccato beeping sound on the audio track. Despite my piss-poor description of it, rest assured it’s very funny. In a way it resembles a more tightly composed riff on the second part of Michael Snow’s Presents. Not that that helps anybody. Oh well, trust me, the “Magellan” cycle requires immediate critical resuscitation. We have not yet begun to parse the contents of Frampton’s head.
Douro, Faina Fluvial (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 1931) [m]
Didn’t really want to include this one, since I honestly wasn’t that impressed with it. But considering it’s an off-year, and the 35mm screening at Toronto was very rare, it’s worth a mention. One gets the sense that MdO’s heart isn’t entirely in this whole city-symphony thing, since the whole travelogue effect stops cold in its tracks for a mini-narrative involving a man run down by a horse-drawn carriage. Nevertheless, there is the appropriate silhouetted photography of bridges and causeways, the stark, heroic face of modernity. And the images are nicely assembled, even if Oliveira’s rhythms never approach the musicality of Walter Ruttmann, much less Vertov.
Dry Summer (Metin Erksan, Turkey, 1964)
Super-weird Turkish film #1. This is an overplayed melodrama about two brothers (a good one and a bad one) whose romantic and economic rivalry threatens an entire village. Baddie has Goodie take the blame for a murder Baddie commits, and while Goodie is doing time, Baddie forces himself on Goodie’s super-hot but virtuous wife. Meanwhile Baddie cuts off the village’s water supply in order to charge the other farmers exorbitant fees. Water / drought as a metaphor for sexual repression is conveyed without a shred of subtlety, and the whole thing – with its mustache twirling and its jarring, high-contrast compositions – recalls an exotic mash-up of Sam Fuller and Russ Meyer. It’s high-camp primitivism that wins you over as it floats over the top and beyond.
Sürü (The Herd) (Zeki Ökten [for Yilmaz Güney], Turkey, 1978)
Super-weird Turkish film #2. Only this time, there’s no primitivism. It’s Güney (via his directorial surrogate, Ökten) in precise control of his tones and themes. The film begins in a rural village, with the patriarch blaming the tribe’s bad luck on the fact of his son having married a woman from a rival tribe. Superstition abounds, with longstanding family feuds giving way to magical thinking. She has had several stillbirths, and the tribe blames her, assuming that she has infiltrated the clan so as to end the family line. The old man wants to beat his daughter-in-law to death, and even claims the right to do so. As it happens, the family must drive their sheep herd to the city, and the son insists that his sick wife accompany them so that she can seek medical attention. All concerned make grievous judgment errors, which are blamed on the “cursed” woman. The Herd is a frustrating film, seemingly trapped in a misguided, backwards wordlview and unable to step beyond it. But – and this is Güney’s genius move – upon arrival in Ankara, the tribal thinking is recontextualized and critiqued. Granted, the impersonal bustle of the capitalist city bears its own dangers. But Güney’s strategy is to fully occupy (and, to an extent, pay respect to) rural belief systems, only to subject them to materialist criticism. The final scene, in which Güney takes the side of modernity in no uncertain terms, is a stunner.