Coming attractions at the Clark
“Documenting Modern Artists: More Portraits in Film” picks up where the Clark's prior film series left off in June, offering feature length profiles of artists of the 20th century, sweeping from beginning to end, from two heroes of modernism to two antiheroes of postmodernism. Different styles of documentary filmmaking are explored as well as different styles of art. Screenings are Fridays at 4:00, with a repeat at 7:30.
September 28: The Mystery of Picasso. (1956, 75 min.) Unrivaled for immediacy, Henri-Georges Clouzot brings to this portrait of the fabled painter the same drive and dynamism that fueled his classic thrillers. It’s a bullfight! It’s an act of love! It’s a bravura performance! It’s Pablo painting. Nothing else is required to rivet your attention.
October 5: Homage to Chagall. (1977, 88 min.) Harry Rasky brings a more traditional approach to a film portrait of the artist and his work. Both life and work are admirable, demonstrating “The Colours of Love,” as the subtitle has it. The elderly Chagall and his wife make engaging interlocutors as well.
October 19: Crumb. (1994, 119 min.) Terry Zwigoff digs deep into the psyche of Robert Crumb, the underground cartoonist and obsessive draftsman, and elicits startling testimony from his brothers, wives, and other family, along the border between madness and genius, with equal attention to both sides.
October 26: How to Draw a Bunny. (2002, 90 min.) John W. Waters explores that same border in this inquest into the life and death of Ray Johnson, a denizen of the downtown New York scene who retreats to Long Island and obsession, with many major contemporary artists testifying to his importance.
The first part of Lindsay Anderson’s film was so vivid, it was as if I had seen it just last month. The group portrait of English public school boys was indelible -- not just re-seeing Malcolm McDowell in his debut (after recently seeing him as Ari’s ex-boss on Entourage.) Equally impressive was the delineation of the school’s class structure, as an epitome of British society as a whole. And the film certainly took me back to the days when the “Missa Luba” was one of my most-played records, even though the music plays a surprisingly small role in the picture itself. But in total the movie is a sum of disparate parts that adds up to less than a whole. The line between reality and fantasy -- and between satire and violence -- is too wobbly. I guess you could blame the concluding but inconclusive hail of gunfire on the year of the film’s release, when insurrection and revolution seemed like live and not altogether unwelcome options. Here youthful anarchy has a different tone than in Vigo’s Zero de Conduite. Definitely worth seeing for the good parts, this is not a film I would recommend as a classic, despite the deluxe two-disk Criterion Collection treatment. (1968, dvd, r.) *7-*
David Fincher and serial killers are not two of my film favorites, and yet this movie held my interest throughout its protracted running time (destined to be even longer, and probably better, when the director’s cut comes out next year.) With good characters played by good actors -- led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, along with Robert Downey Jr., Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, and a host of familiar faces -- the film offers more than frissons of real-life horror. The sense of period and location is strong -- i.e. San Francisco and other California locales from the late Sixties on -- and so is the subtext of movie history, in this chronicle of the case of the Zodiac killer, who effectively played the newspapers and media to launch a prolonged reign of terror without ever being caught. Gyllenhaal is a newspaper cartoonist and Ruffalo a police detective, who retain the irrepressible urge to solve the case, even after decades, obsessively revisiting the scene of the crime just as the film does. It’s an impressive mix of gruesome thriller, police procedural, and newsroom drama, presented with a realism uncharacteristic of the director or the genre. (2007, dvd, n.) *7+* (MC-78.)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
I was disappointed by this film, either from inflated expectations or by post-midnight lapses in attention. Ken Loach is on my shortlist of great contemporary directors (and indeed I enjoyed the dvd-extra hour-long profile of him and his working methods more than the feature itself) and this film comes festooned with the Palme d’Or from Cannes, but I failed to engage with it deeply. I’m also a fan of Cillian Murphy going back to the BBC adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and an inveterate watcher of films on Irish themes (going back to my long collaboration with Kevin O’Hara on his book of Irish travels, Last of the Donkey Pilgrims.) There’s also a distinct contemporary relevance to this look at the Irish struggle for independence around 1920 (the same era covered in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins) -- as guerrilla struggle against an occupying army leads from sectarian strife to internecine violence. There are some shocking scenes of Black & Tan brutality, as well as Republican retaliation, which have an honest sense of chaos and fear. So why did this film fail to click for me? It’s well-shot and well-acted, but strangely hollow, reminding me of the old Russian saying, “The tears of other people are only water.” We are meant to identify with the tragedy of Murphy’s character, destined to be a doctor but derailed from healing into death-dealing by both sides of a reign of terror, but I couldn’t help thinking all the way through -- he should have known better. My own views are virtually as socialist as Loach’s but far more pacifist. (2006, dvd, n.) *6+* (MC-82.)
I must say, in contrast, that my screening of The Impressionists at the Clark exceeded expectations. Though I did’t expect to watch the 3-episode docudrama from the BBC all the way through again, I was riveted and enjoyed it along with a large and enthusiastic audience. I’m still bothered by the total absence of Pissarro on one hand, and Cassatt and Morisot on the other, but otherwise the film conveys a sense of authenticity, both in the stories of the individual painters and paintings, and in the dynamics of the movement. Well-acted, highly plausible, and visually spectacular, this is art history at its most painless.
This film about Beatrix Potter will cap my winter film series at the Clark, on literature and landscape in pastoral Britain. When I found that one of the Thomas Hardy films I was considering (Far from the Madding Crowd) was currently unavailable on DVD, I needed to come up with something new and this release from the very end of 2006 seemed a candidate. Unfortunately it had been at the top of my Netflix queue for months, with the unvarying report, “very long wait.” It was also unavailable at any local video store. (I suspect some nefarious Harvey Weinstein scheme -- same with Factory Girl.) So I had to catch it on pay-per-view, which I had never used and never will again, the widescreen film being shown in the abominably misnamed “full screen” format. Nonetheless I wanted to like the film, and I did. Director Chris Noonan (of Babe fame) re-pairs Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor from the retro ’50s romantic comedy Down With Love, this time as the bestselling children’s author and her publisher-suitor in the late Victorian era. Emily Watson is his sister and her best friend. Why did such a film receive a lukewarm critical response and indifferent distribution? I found it delightful from start to finish, when in the end Beatrix surmounts tragedy by using the money from her Peter Rabbit books to acquire and preserve large plots of the Lake District, an especially telling link between literature and landscape in a series that begins with a film about Wordsworth and Coleridge (i.e. Pandaemonium, followed by Sense and Sensibility and Tess.) So anyway, I look forward to seeing Miss Potter again in true widescreen, and to seeing whether my audience responds as favorably as I. (2006, PPV, n.) *8-* (MC-57.)
There are some superbly pictorial moments in John Ford’s last film, and if you dropped the risible elements and straightened out the meanders in the overblown production you might have something. Some respect is accorded to the Cheyenne, but there are clear limits to authenticity when the chief is played by Ricardo Montalban and the impetuous brave is Sal Mineo. Richard Widmark has some grit but mails in his performance as army captain, and Carroll Baker (“Baby Doll” herself!) is a hoot as the Quaker schoolmarm. Some of the cavalry action is stirring, but the ultimate battle scene is staged with all the verisimilitude of a high school play. The Cheyenne break out of the fort where they have sought refuge -- from the rigors of the long trek from the reservation they were assigned in arid Oklahoma back to their ancestral lands near Yellowstone --and the action is incoherent and implausible. Karl Malden is a Prussian officer supposedly sympathetic to the Indians who follows orders to imprison them till they agree to return to the reservation. Then there is the pathetic climax when Secretary of the Interior Edward G. Robinson rides out to make peace with the remaining Cheyenne, shot against back projection that looks superbad in Super Panavision. Not to mention an utterly inane narration, and a ludicrous comic interlude with James Stewart as Wyatt Earp. Despite the Remington paintings come to life in widescreen glory, I can’t justify showing this in my “John Ford and the American West” film series next spring at the Clark. (1964, dvd, n.) *5+*
P.S. -- Then I watched My Darling Clementine (1946) -- which I may never have seen before -- and it secured the final slot in the series. Henry Fonda is a decidedly more credible Wyatt Earp, and the film holds together much better. (Even though there was some push and pull over it, with the DVD having John Ford’s rediscovered original cut on one side and producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s release cut on the other.) So the lineup is set: Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers. I’ll try to give Ford a fresh assessment at the time of the series, but I suspect he’ll never be a favorite of mine.
This flamboyant goof was groomed to be the next big MGM hit musical, starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, directed by Vincent Minnelli, with songs by Cole Porter. Apparently it flopped, just too queer for the day. Latterly it has become a cult film of sorts, with a gay aesthetic now out of the closet. I rather enjoyed the over-the-top-ness of it all -- the riot of color in a fantasy Caribbean, Judy’s on-the-edge emoting, Gene’s all-out hoofing -- but you definitely have to be in the right mindset not to dismiss it as ludicrous. (1948, dvd, n.) *6*
The Bourne Ultimatum
Now that’s what I call an action film -- nonstop, relentless action, from opening shot to closing credits. It’s a genre I would usually avoid, but for me Paul Greengrass is a must-see director. This film might have been called “Shattered Glass” if the title weren’t already taken. Not only is broken glass a recurring motif in the film, but its very style is composed of visual shards in dynamic mosaic. It’s really a lesson in how far humans have come in the ability to rapidly process fragmentary visual information. Oh yeah, there’s a story of sorts, an excuse for the chases and mayhem, and Greengrass is a serious man so amidst the frenzy there are some provocative implications about the surveillance state, but the game afoot is just to keep moving, which the film does admirably. Matt Damon (along with his stunt doubles) is very effective in the title role, and strong support is offered by the likes of David Straithairn and Albert Finney, Joan Allen and Julia Styles. I’m counting on Paul Greengrass to cash in this franchise success on some truly personal films. (2007, Regal at mall, n.) *7+* (MC-78.)
I have been doggedly making my way through all the best-reviewed films of 2006 (aside from certain genres, usually bloody) to match my own ratings -- and other critical compilations -- against the Indiewire critics poll rankings, and the summation will be a forthcoming blogpost. The capstone was supposed to be the just-released-on-dvd Inland Empire, which came in at #4 in the Indiewire poll. Well, I watched enough to get a sense of it, though there was precious little sense to be made of it. I’m no fan of David Lynch, the only film of his I really love is the most uncharacteristic, The Straight Story. And if I couldn’t be bothered to try to figure out Mulholland Drive, then I certainly didn’t have the patience for the self-indulgent, shot-on-DV, three endless hours of Inland Empire. If ever there was an artistic movement or sensibility that leaves me cold, it would be surrealism. Rather than “Oh wow!” I go “Oh puh-lease!” (*NR* MC-72.)
In the same boat sinks The Science of Sleep -- I jumped ship once I saw that Michel Gondry minus Charlie Kaufman does not equal another Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I like Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg enough to have finished the film sometime, but it was due back at the library, and c’est la vie -- so many movies, so little time. (*NR* MC-70.)
And though I really liked Nine Queens, it took me three tries to get through Fabien Bielinsky’s follow-up -- and final -- film, The Aura. Mostly set in the woods of Patagonia, this Argentine film is certainly pleasant enough to look at, but as a quirky thriller it is so far off beat as to lose me. Ricardo Darin is an epileptic taxidermist with a mental hobby of masterminding imaginary heists, who after killing someone in a hunting accident, finds himself in the middle of a real deal going down. But the film is slow and enigmatic rather than swift and propulsive. If you’re fond of puzzlers, you may like this more than I did -- many do. (*6-* MC-76.)
I also join the minority on Deepa Mehta’s Water, which again was lovely to look at but troubling to think about. The attempt to combine Bollywood-style romance with a serious exploration of the practice of widow sequestration -- which was controversial enough to have Hindu fundamentalists shut down the film so it had to be finished in Sri Lanka -- leads to wobbles in tone and impact. We follow a bewildered 8-year-old, widowed before she even realized she was married, as she is deposited at a group home for widows, who are forbidden to remarry and in effect outcast. There’s a monstrous madam who runs the joint, whose power is mitigated by a wiser and kindlier woman. And there’s the ridiculously beautiful young widow, who is prostituted for the home’s upkeep. She is espied by an oh-so-hunky young man who is espousing Gandhian principles, and wishes to espouse the lovely widow, until he learns the details of her life. Gandhi himself arrives on the scene, just released from a British prison in 1938, as a deus ex machina. There’s no actual dancing, but plenty of music, and the glossy drama of the model-beautiful couple muddles the feminist message of the film. If you’re not bothered by the film’s failure to coalesce, you may find it pretty enough to view favorably. (*6-* MC-77.)
Perfume: the Story of a Murderer
This film is visually exciting and intermittently interesting, but finally too long and too cold. Director Tom Tykwer invests the suspenseless murder story with some of the kinetic energy of Run Lola Run, but the effort to squeeze in too much of the Patrick Suskind novel bogs down the proceedings. The depiction of 18th century Paris is picturesquely squalid, the worst smelling place on the planet, more miserable than Victor Hugo could imagine. The main character was born under a fishmonger’s table to a mother who abandoned him there and was subsequently hung for the offense. Besides an incredible instinct for survival, the babe has a preternatural sense of smell, and the film’s most distinctive aspect is the attempt to visualize smells and the act of smelling. After a childhood more Dickensian than the dickens, he goes to Paris and for the first time catches the scents of perfume and of young women, and then in his wild child ways, mishap leads to murder, and thence to a calling. The frail but indomitable Ben Whishaw apprentices himself to parfumeur Dustin Hoffman (in a perfume-y performance whose fragrance may tickle your nose but won’t linger.) From there the film follows him to Provence to complete his education in scent, and mingles the gorgeous with the macabre. Alan Rickman is a local noble who tries to protect his beautiful young daughter from the fate of other beautiful young women who are being murdered serially. With no satisfactory conclusion to the unsavory doings, the film wanders through some spectacular scenes to a vaporous ending. (2006, dvd, n.) *6-* (MC-56.)