Here are some of the films I watched or re-watched in late May and early June:
The Mule (2018, Clint Eastwood)
Picking on a late octogenarian’s umpteenth attempt to find common ground between parochial if not racist white people and befuddled brown-skinned minorities is like expecting Donald Trump to quote Hegel at a rally. The politics as usual are a muddle, and the plot developments — any sequences with his ex (Dianne Wiest) and daughters — disgracefully third-rate in a Saturday afternoon Hallmark Channel way, but this adaptation of a NYT article about the Sinaloa cartel has trenchancy whenever it shows Eastwood and the cartel minions broken by work. They live to work, a slave to their respective systems. And Eastwood in his cut-this-crap approach to framing and editing probes his character’s identity and privilege. The Mule, itself a product of a mercenary system, offers something for everyone. It made more than a $170 million at the box office o a budget of $50 million — this is why Eastwood gets to work.
American Gigolo (1980, Paul Schrader)
Finally clicked on my third viewing. I can imagine John Travolta bringing sweetness to the role, and it might’ve worked, but Gere’s lacquered shallowness is just right — boy, does he know how to move in those clothes and thus in character. A scene I’d forgotten about set in a leather bar has less leering from the director than Cruising (he still leers though). Lauren Hutton doesn’t shake the sense that she’s miscast, but her projection of a pathos that comes from her and not her character works in a Kim Novak way. Although American Gigolo‘s casual homophobia clashes with the milieu — is it believable that Gere would not have and will not sleep with men? — it remains Paul Schrader’s most integrated work before Light Sleeper (1992) and First Reformed (2018). John Bailey’s camera captures the bleakness of sun-blasted North Palm Drive.
The New Land (1972, Jan Troell)
Released as a Criterion two-fer in 2015, the DVD and Blu-ray of Jan Troell’s magnificent diptych restores a depiction of a Swedish family’s unstinting labor making a go of it in the Minnesota of the 1850s. The Emigrants (1972), only the third foreign film at the time nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, is fine; the sequel is even better. This is no Poetry of Daily Life stuff: Troell shows how winter, uncooperative cattle, and superstitious neighbors conspire to grind Karl Oskar, wife Kristina, and their children into the soil. The most ostentatious sequence shows Karal Oskar’s brother and the brother’s best friend succumbing to thirst and yellow fever dementia on the California gold rush; by eliminating the sound, Troell underscores its nightmarishness. As the couple, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann give performances quite different from their work with Ingmar Bergman.
The Fountainhead (1949, King Vidor)
“I play the stock market of the spirit, and I sell short,” declares a pompous ass in the uproarious Truman-era adaptation of Ayn Rand’s too-ponderous-for-camp classic. But if you wanted to knife every pompous ass in The Fountainhead, what’s left would be empty frames. Gary Cooper, shot and lit by King Vidor as if he were a skyscraper, plays Howard Roark, wedded to his ambition, not his heart, but if you stare at his crotch he might consider giving you a taste of his selfishness. Patricia Neal, holding her nose reciting her drivel, can’t stop staring at him.