Favorite leftist films

Election Day is nigh. A few selections are less obvious than others. Holiday, about which I’ve written a couple times, subverts the idea of the nuclear family, substituting queer arrangements as a bulwark against the polite but bullish capitalism represented by Edward Seton.

I’ve put these in chronological order:

Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, USA, 1934)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir, France, 1936)
Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1936)
Holiday (George Cukor, USA, 1938)
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1963)
La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967)
The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, Italy, 1966)
The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1970)
The Confession (Costa-Gavras, Greece, 1970)
Distant Thunder (Satyajit Ray, India, 1973)
Xala (Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, 1975)
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, USA, 1977)
Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, USA, 1979)
Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1981)
The Official Story (Luis Puenzo, Argentina, 1986)
Malcolm X (Spike Lee, USA, 1992)
In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, England, 2006)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden, 2013)
I Am Not Your Negro (Raul Peck, USA, 2016)
BPM (Beats Per Minute (Robin Campillo, France, 2017)

Burt Reynolds – RIP

He lived on the sofas of late night talk shows as comfortably as the late John McCain, from which he told jokes on himself and mused on the roles he wished Hollywood would offer him if he didn’t waste time on late night talk show sofas telling jokes on himself. That circular reasoning makes assessing Burt Reynolds’ career difficult. A Cary Grant aspirant, he turned into a punch line that the movie biz turned on itself. For a few years he was the top box office star in America.  Continue reading

Movie Love #2

Here are things I’ve watched in the last two weeks, the sequel to May 1’s inaugural edition. A * denotes repeat viewing

Swamp Water, dir. Jean Renoir (1942).

Dana Andrews, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, and an unexpectedly menacing Walter Brennan wearing his teeth dress like backwoods yokels living on the edge of the Okeefonokee Swamp in Jean Renoir’s first Hollywood film even though the cast isn’t speaking English either but an approximation of hickspeak (“Ya swallered dat water!”). One studies these kinds of films in search of auteurist fingerprints: here, a wordless sequence of Andrews wandering the swamp, with cutaways to fat alligators and other beasts.

GRADE: B

The Sky is Yours, dir. Jean Grémillon (1944).

Made during the Occupation, this account of how the wife (Madeleine Renaud) of a mechanic decides she has to fly airplanes has a fresh-air naturalism; it’s one of those films in which the audience feels the warmth of a marriage and the couple’s relation to the rest of their town southwestern France

GRADE: A-

* Under the Volcano, dir. John Huston (1984).

On the evidence John Huston gave not a damn about an intelligible adaptatoin of Malcom Lowry’s revered cult favorite: he wanted an excuse to shoot in Mexican locations. A confused Anthony Andrews and Jacqueline Bisset wander through bodegas and town squares while consul Albert Finney approximates the sodden babble of a terminal alcholic of modest intelligence. Periodically Huston will cut to a mask or a menacing local as if to say SYMBOLISM.

GRADE: C+

* Downfall, dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel (2004).

Solicitous to the help and kind to children — that Adolf Hitler sure was moody. Bruno Ganz’s impersonation of the dictator’s final ten days in a Berlin bunker before killing himself and new bride Eva Braun overwhelms a watchable film during which we root for the people onscreen to die too.

GRADE: B+

The Wall, dir. Doug Liman (2017).

Reviewed here.

The Dinner, dir. Oren Moverman

Reviewed here.

A Quiet Passion, dir. Terence Davies (2017).

Reviewed here.

Best films of 1981 and 1982

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1981

Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg)
Blow Out (Brian De Palma)
My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle)
Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix)
Excalibur (John Boorman)
Pixote (Héctor Babenco)
Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer)
Modern Romance (Albert Brooks)
Southern Comfort (Walter Hill)

1982

Tootsie (Sydney Pollack)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg)
Shoot the Moon (Alan Parker)
Burden of Dreams (Les Blank)
Diner (Barry Levinson)
Moonlighting (Jerzy Skolimowski)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling)
Personal Best (Robert Towne)
Mephisto (Istvan Szabo)

Best films of 1983 and 1984

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I’d include Purple Rain‘s concert sequences and almost every frame of Molly Ringwald’s work in Sixteen Candles, but I couldn’t include the movies in the 1984 list.

1983

The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman)
L’Argent (Robert Bresson)
Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
Rumblefish (Francis Ford Coppola)
Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer)
Local Hero (Bill Forsythe)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode)
The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura)
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark)

1984

Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)
Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme)
Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman)
The Terminator (James Cameron)
The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein)
Love Streams (John Cassavetes)
Choose Me (Alan Rudolph)
Top Secret! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg)

‘Election’ 17 years later and Election 2016

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I squirmed watching Election in the late spring of 1999. As sharp as a rapier and in some ways Alexander Payne’s most satisfying film, I understand why it unnerves Maureen O’Connor experiencing it anew in election year 2016:

When I watched the movie in previous years, I responded to the comedic value of Reese Witherspoon’s tightly wound and grimly crazed performance. It wasn’t until this year that I picked up on the brief, but heartbreaking, moments depicting the idealistic teenager’s wounded confusion when she does everything she is supposed to do, but discovers that everyone hates her anyway.

My friend Ryan Maffei, who posted O’Connor’s article on Facebook, tolerated my posts. Below are expanded and revised notes:

1. Payne’s shifting points of views gets him off the hook. Study my screen grab. Note the expressions on the boys. Are we supposed to regard Tracy with their bored contempt? She knows the answers and they don’t. The scene, however, is refracted through Mr. McAllister’s point of view; it’s clear his own boredom with her smarts borders on contempt. While Payne is just smart enough to let the audience know that McCallister’s contempt has a sexual undertone, it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to laugh at what a martinet she imagines her to be in bed or at the quasi-pedophile creep for imagining she’s a martinet in bed.

2. As usual with Payne he has no fucking clue what to do with women: think Kathy Bates in About Schmidt made into a cartoon because she’s fat and horny. But what does Tracy do wrong besides lust for power for its own sake? This is hardly the most mortal of sins. She played by the rules of power that guys like McCallister wrote — and he wants to change them! That’s why she’s sympathetic.

3. Weak for snark but not yet succumbing as he would in About Schmidt and Nebraska, Election is ambiguous Tracy Flick. In a review I wrote for my college paper, I mentioned how moving the scene is where she breaks down in her room after losing the election: her mom comforting her, Tracy devastated that what she’s been taught has failed her. Tracy may or may not be Poppy Bush or a sociopath, but Chris Klein is the dumbfuck manipulated into running.

4. I like(d) Election in part because it can’t control what it unleashes: Thanks to Reese Witherspoon, Tracy Flick is the stereotype that’s humanized by the end of the story while Matthew Broderick is the obsessive teacher we all recognize who took pettiness to, yeah, sociopathic levels. These days the most recognizable type is the little Torquemada of a student government aide who insists he counted all the ballots — and he’s right. He played by the rules that adults made, and his adult teacher wants to change them.

5. Tracy’s a hard worker. I don’t doubt she’ll be a good president based on the standards of high school SGA presidents.

6. No one emerges sympathetic, but it doesn’t mean it has villains; everyone has his or her reasons.

7. I want to watch it again.

Best films of 1985 and 1986

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1985

Vagabond (Agnès Varda)
The Official Story (Luis Puenzo)
Lost in America (Albert Brooks)
Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)
What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Pedro Almodovar)
Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen)
Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann)
To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin)

1986

Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
Aliens (James Cameron)
The Fly (David Cronenberg)
The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer)
She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee)
Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan)
Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox)
Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears)
Blue Velvet (David Lynch)

Best films 2000-2002

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2000

The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)
Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
Time Regained (Raul Ruiz)
The House of Mirth (Terence Davies)
Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh)
Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch)
Yi-Yi (Edward Yang)
You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan)
The Gleaners & I (Agnès Varda)
Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel)
George Washington (David Gordon Green)

2001

The Captive (Chantal Ackerman)
Gosford Park (Robert Altman)
In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
Waking Life (Richard Linklater)
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)
The Circle (Jafar Panahi)
The Pledge (Sean Penn)

2002

What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang)
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)
Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
I’m Going Home (Manuel de Oliveira)

Farewell to an idea

Learning today that The Dissolve had joined the growing list of online publications whose ad revenue probably didn’t match its contributor enthusiasm was a blow. I started reading it seriously only a few months ago, and while the site leaned too heavily on recognizable Hollywood blockbusters and semi-popular hits its writers often scrutinized them with clarity and precision. Good criticism points to moments we’ve noticed but never said aloud. In a recent segment of the Movie of the Week forum, Genevieve Koski and editor Keith Phipps single out this scene from John Huston’s 1946 The Treasure of the Sierra for praise:

In Sierra Madre’s opening scenes, before Dobbs meets up with Curtin, I think some of Bogart’s inherent coolness still comes through; he’s down on his luck, but he still looks damn good down there. But I think the moment where his character crosses over from a potential antihero to pathetic specimen he turns out to be is the scene where he and Curtin beat the living hell out of McCormick, the shifty contractor who bilks them out of the wages he promised them. That’s an incredibly rough and violent beatdown even by modern standards, and a lot of that has to do with the way Huston stages it, with wide shots and no soundtrack except the smack of flesh hitting flesh. Even though McCormick is a slimy cheat, it’s hard not to come out of that scene feeling like the punishment may have exceeded the crime. It gives you a sense of what Dobbs is capable of when he’s been cheated, and that plays out across his descent into gold-madness.

All I can say is: yes! Watching it twenty-five years ago, I thought the fight stomach-churning, particularly the pathetic whinnies that come out of McCormack’s mouth when he’s hit.

The Dissolve was often this offhandedly good. In May, Tim Grierson wrote an appreciation of Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glenn Ross that is also a lament for the recessive, intelligent character actor Spacey was before he won his first Oscar. I also loved Phipps’ conference-worthy “The Long Shadow of M,” almost all of the Performance Review and Essential essays. Demotic and learned, The Dissolve is every bar chat you’ve enjoyed with a friend knowledgeable about movies and performances. Good luck, ladies and gentlemen.

A Summer’s Tale

It’s hard to distinguish a good Eric Rohmer film from a decent one. Garrulous but with sentences that hint at wit, his characters treat expectations like trial balloons: they make declarations of principles which demand acceptance but sulk when they’re taken seriously. The good Rohmer films, which include My Night at Maud’s, Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach, The Green Ray, and A Winter’s Tale, trace how the chatter intersects with the tick-tick inevitability of his plos. Climaxes realize or contradict these declarations of principle, and often the suspense comes in watching as Rohmer catches, one by one, every ball as the conclusion approaches. A Summer’s Tale is one of the good ones. For Rohmer exposition in A Summer’s Tale is like building a sea wall and in the final stretch allowing the tides of inevitability to erode it.

Unseen in this country except on home video (I checked it out of the library in 2000), A Summer’s Tale is the penultimate entry in his Tales of Four Seasons. It’s also the most frustrating and charming in equal measure. Rohmer likes creating men and women about whom it’s difficult for an audience to get their measure. The first six minutes collude with Gaspard: a sequence in which the camera follows him as he arrives by ferry at a resort town near Saint Malo, checks into his hotel, unpacks his tapes and books, and sets up his guitar. With his unruly locks, darting eyes, gaunt sun-blemished cheeks, and almost malnourished figure, Gaspard projects an asceticism so severe that he makes Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Jansenist in My Night at Maud‘s look like the Marquis De Sade. Future French star Melvil Poupaud plays him as a young man without a trace of self-consciousness. On meeting Margot (Amanda Langlet), the cheerful waitress at a crepe shop he raises diffidence to a high art. Yet he isn’t unlikeable — an impossible trick, even when this so-called musician says things like, “Two of the big trends at the moment are Celtic rock and sailor rock.” But he’s a math major. She’s an ethnologist (these revelations aren’t developed but they’re cute).

Rohmer plays with the usual thing. Gaspard rebuffs Margot’s tentative pass; it’s like she’s testing him. His girlfriend Lena is coming soon, he says. Satisfied, she suggests he try someone else while he waits — her friend Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), say. Long-haired and coquettish, the opposite of Margot, she also gets him more het up, enough, at any rate, for Gaspard to risk copping a feel and making out, despite his caressing her like he’s rubbing garlic on a roast. On a boating trip he even consents to her uncle’s accordion arrangement of a sea shanty he’s struggling with called “The Corsair’s Daughter.” But he calls off a fateful trip to Ouessant — Lena has arrived. Whom does he choose?

Judging by the relaxed amble of A Summer’s Tale, it doesn’t matter to Rohmer. Ambles matter. Lots of ambling: on beaches, through slimy tide pools and forest trails, to the crepe store. Gaspard’s thoughts take their cue from his shuffling gait. “Since no one loves me, I don’t love anyone,” he declares in the first third. This trio of available, intelligent women like him. Will he like them? Poupaud starts as an actor who projects contempt for the camera but within five seconds establishes a furtive rapport; by the end of the movie he establishes himself as one of the most original of modern screen lovers, passive only when forced to make decisions he hasn’t himself accepted as good ideas (in Ozon’s A Time to Leave ten years later he’s sneering and insolent and just as effective). Amanda Langlet, the Pauline from Rohmer’s 1983 film, lacks the assurance of a trained actress — her voice is wobbly — but she’s so guileless about believing in this guy that her belief transferred to me.

As for the question, “Whom does Gaspard choose?” Rohmer finds an ingenious answer. Like all ingenious answers, it’s simple and inevitable. Like A Summer’s Tale. A movie taking thematic cues from sea spray and sand in hair is a rarity.

Mark Harris: “Oscar voters in general want to feel like they’re in the position of adjudicating an accusation of child molestation”

Mark Harris, Grantland film writer and author of the essential Pictures at a Revolution, gets interiewed by The New Republicon “left-wing attacks on Hollywood films.” He speaks at length about criticizing what’s in a movie “instead of what you wish were there or what you ideologically feel should have been there”:

IC: It is a slippery slope. Spielberg got criticized for making a Holocaust movie about a gentile.

MH: Right, so I find it more objectionable to say that Dallas Buyers Club chooses to make a movie about the early years of the AIDS crisis and either picks a straight guy as a hero or makes the hero into a straight guy. I think for one thing, you know, any population that feels insufficiently represented is going to be more sensitive to being omitted from its own history. And the fact is, there have been a hundred Holocaust movies. There haven’t been a hundred AIDS movies. So when you finally make an AIDS movie, what you choose to make it about carries more baggage.

IC: Right, it’s sort of like this micro-macro problem where at one level the specific filmmakers don’t have the responsibility of every AIDS movie. At another level, you’ve got to question the macro assumptions about why Hollywood makes these larger choices.

MH: Yes, I think the second thing is really fair to do and I think when the first thing feels to you like an actual distortion of historical reality then it’s also fair game to interrogate that. However, when political criticism is done badly, that becomes manifest really quickly. Remember that the dumbest critiques of Zero Dark Thirty last year sort of boiled down to shrill statements that, you know, Kathryn Bigelow is pro-torture. And when something gets into that off with her head territory, I believe that the idea will die of its own stupidity fairly quickly. But if they were to look at Zero Dark Thirtyand ask Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, Exactly what do you mean by depicting this series of events and in this world are you implying causation? What do you think you’re saying about torture? Those are completely fair questions. And the discussion of Zero Dark Thirty was better because those questions were asked. It’s not enough for the other side to simply say, you know, thinking about that stuff is not a filmmaker’s problem or responsibility. That to me is just this nonsensical way of walling off politics and ethics and morals from art as if those are gross, yucky things that real artists aren’t ever supposed to think about or deal with rather than, you know, some of the most fascinating things that art can grapple with.

The debate over Zero Dark Thirty was dispiriting because its partisans took an all-or-nothing position: attacking the film’s attitude towards torture meant you didn’t support an artist’s right to shape material or an artist’s independence (Leni Riefenstahl came up a lot, as if it mattered).

On the other hand, Isaac Chotiner thinks Mississippi Burningis a good movie.