Resnais and Stroheim at the Pacific Film Archive

Friday night, I attended two very different screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. The first, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, is a widely-acknowledged masterpiece. The other, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, is the uncompleted final work of great but controversial filmmaker.

It was my first experience seeing either film.

Hiroshima mon amour

Why did it take me so long to see Alain Resnais’ first feature film? Simple. For more than 40 years, I’ve actively hated his second feature, Last Year at Marienbad. But finally, I decided to give his first feature a chance.

I’m glad I did.

Hiroshima mon amour starts with a couple in bed, presumably naked, locked in love’s embrace. But their talk is not about love–or even sex. They’re talking about the bomb and Hiroshima. He wants to make sure that she has seen everything of importance in that victimized city and understands what it means. (The film was made in 1959. The end of World War II was as close then as 9/11 is to us today.)

Soon we get to know these lovers. The woman is a French actress (Emmanuèle Riva), working on location in Hiroshima. He’s a Japanese architect, and Hiroshima is his home–it always has been. He was in the army, serving elsewhere when the bomb hit. But his family was there.

They’re very much in love, but it’s not that simple. Not only are they of different cultures (he, conveniently, speaks fluent French), but both of them are already married. She will be gone soon, and presumably they will never see each other again.

But sex can lead to other forms of intimacy, and soon they’re telling each other their secrets. Actually, she tells more than he does, about the German lover she had during the occupation and the punishment she endured for “betraying France.”

Hiroshima mon amour is an intimate, hopeless love story set against the ruins of a massively horrific war that scarred everyone involved (mentally or physically). My one complaint: I would have liked to know more about the man’s past. The flashbacks were all the woman’s.

The film has just been restored, and was screened off a DCP. It looked fantastic.

I give it an A-.

Queen Kelly

How could this be anything except a disaster? Joseph Kennedy, without any real movie experience, financed Queen Kelly as a vehicle for his mistress, Gloria Swanson. He hired Erich von Stroheim to write and direct it–despite Stroheim’s reputation as an overspending, uncommercial, and uncontrollable egomaniac. (He was all those things, as well as a brilliant artist.)

It’s no surprise that Queen Kelly, made at the very end of the silent era, was never completed. Swanson and Kelly fired Stroheim, shelved the film, unshelved it, pieced it together, shot additional scenes, and eventually released it in various forms.

It’s probably remembered best today for a couple of scenes that appeared in Sunset Boulevard.

The film today, at least in the 1983 restoration screened Friday night, is of little but historical interest. The plot–or what’s left of it–is silly. The characters are cardboard. Its attempts at being kinky are just kind of annoying. The whole last part of the film is a series of intertitles–with a few photographs–that tell the audience what would have happened had Stroheim been able to complete his vision.

But then, of all the brilliant and daring auteurs who fought the Hollywood studio heads to have their visions brought to the screen, only Erich von Stroheim makes me feel sorry for the studio heads.

The 35mm print had serious focus issues, presumably because the sources were several generations away from the original negative. Although this was a silent movie, it was shown at the PFA with a recorded musical soundtrack–probably from a very early release. By the time the film came to paying audiences, movie theaters had laid off their musicians and the American silent cinema was dead.

And if it hadn’t been dead, this film might have killed it. I give Queen Kelly a D.

Genius in decline: My review of Mr. Holmes

B+ Drama

  • Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Directed by Bill Condon

Anyone who loves fiction’s most famous detective knows that Sherlock Holmes eventually retired from detective work and moved to Sussex, where he took up beekeeping. And that’s where this story, set in 1947, mostly takes place. Set long after Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his last story, the movie deals with a Holmes whose famous mental facilities are sliding into senility.

In other words, this film shows us a Sherlock Holmes we haven’t seen before—aged, walking with a cane, and more interested in bees than crime. For anyone who loves the original stories and the many adaptations, it’s movie not to be missed. For everyone else, it’s merely a very enjoyable movie that entertains not through action, comedy, or special effects, but by providing us with interesting characters slightly larger than life.

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Ian McKellen plays this Holmes as a very old man. In flashbacks, he plays a younger Holmes, but still older than we’re used to seeing him. In the film’s main story, he’s in a race against time. He always objected to the way Watson had romanticized their cases, turning them into adventure stories. The stories made him a celebrity, which he finds annoying and occasionally comical. Now Holmes wants to write the true story of his last case, correcting the record in at least this one situation. But he’s worried that his mind will fade before he’s finished.

He doesn’t live by himself. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and she has a young son (Milo Parker). Remember that this is 1947; World War II left a lot of widows and fatherless children. Of course the boy clings to the one man in the house, even if it’s the cold and remote Sherlock. But the boy wants to learn beekeeping, and Holmes can’t help but react positively to that. They bond, of course.

But there are other things going on in Holmes’ life. He travels to Japan hoping to find an herb that will preserve his mental powers for a little longer. The bees are strangely dying off. And the housekeeper wants to take her son and move on to a hotel job where she isn’t dependent on one eccentric client. And yes, Holmes gets a moment to do "that think you do" where he looks at a person and deduces what only he can fathom.

This is one of those well-acted, well-directed, well-photographed films that come out of England on a regular basis. Every actor is spot on. McKellen’s makeup is a wonder, and not only in the aging. Even in the flashbacks, his nose and cheekbones offer a vague suggestion of the original Sidney Paget drawings, while allowing McKellen’s own wonderful face to shine through. But the makeup had one strange effect on me. Every so often, he look like John Gielgud.

For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.

Tangerine: A Christmas in July cinematic gift

A Drama

Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch

Directed by Sean Baker

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be, and delights and excites you with the ever-growing possibilities of cinema. New attitudes, new concepts, and new technologies combine with a visionary filmmaker, and the result is a rare form of magic.

Sean Baker’s Tangerine has just that sort of magic, making it easily the most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. It doesn’t look like any other movie. It doesn’t sound like any other movie. And yet it’s alive with an electric charge of urban humanity and desperate sexuality.

The world of Tangerine is the outskirts of Hollywood on Christmas Eve–a Christmas without carols, Dickens, ornaments, or snow. It could be any time of year, and aside from the strange, wide, ugly streets of LA, it could be any city.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day stretch in prison. We’re never told what for, but as she’s a streetwalker, we can guess. Her close friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), like Sin-Dee a transgender prostitute, tells her what’s up. Sin-Dee’s boyfriend Chester (who also pimps both of them) may have cheated on her while she was locked up. It’s only a rumor, but it turns Sin-Dee into a single-minded, wrathful avenger out to find the woman who stole her man.

All Alexandra can do is run after Sin-Dee, try to calm her down, and walk away to prepare herself for her singing debut later that night.

But there’s a subplot. Taxi-driver Ramzik (Karren Karagulian) drives people through Los Angeles, talks to his riders, and has to deal with the vomit in his backseat. He’s a husband and father, but he indulges in trans prostitutes like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. He’s the sort of john prostitutes like; he’s gentle, polite, and treats them as friends.

The Ramzik subplot provides us with one of the best sex scenes in cinema, and it’s in no way, shape, or form explicit. Shot from the cab’s back seat, it allows us to imagine what’s going on in the front seat as we watch the through-the-windshield spectacle of a drive-through carwash.

Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, largely I suspect because it was shot entirely on iPhone 5s, using an experimental anamorphic lens to give it a 2.35×1 scope aspect ratio. The colors are intense and super-saturated. And while it lacks the resolution of today’s best digital cameras (not to mention 35mm film), it captures the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood in a way that a more conventional (and expensive) approach couldn’t approach.

The film often feels speeded up, just a little too fast, with occasional, tiny jump cuts that suggest lost frames. Since these effects happened only in a few scenes (mostly near the beginning), I’m going to guess that this was intentional.

Maybe it was done to match the music. Music Supervisor Matthew Smith lays down some exciting rap beats to move Sin-Dee’s quest forward. He also lays down some equally exciting Beethoven.

Tangerine is not to be missed. It’s an exceptional and extraordinary work. It’s also an exciting and very entertaining.

And no, I have no idea why it’s called Tangerine. The film opens Friday.

Finally Catching Up with Apu

I finally saw Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy in its entirety this week. And yes, I loved it.

Epic in scope, the trilogy follows the life of poverty-born Apu from birth through young adulthood. None of the three films has a plot in any conventional sense, but they all brim with drama, laughter, joy, suspense, and heart-breaking tragedy. In other words, they’re about life in all of its complexity.

Except that it’s specifically about life in India in the first third of the 20th century. That means a very precarious life, in a society where dying of old age is rare. Almost everyone whom Apu loves dies too soon, and always of natural causes.

And it’s also, even more specifically, about the life of one man and his family.

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The films have been newly restored from some very damaged elements. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1993. But L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna did the seemingly impossible, physically restoring much of the burnt negative to the point where they could be scanned. What they couldn’t recover they scanned from other sources, and you can see the quality difference. The restoration is a miracle.

I saw the films on consecutive nights at the Shattuck.

Like all great filmmakers, Ray didn’t work alone. Much of the film’s power comes from the musical score by Ravi Shankar (not yet famous in the West). I’m not enough of an expert to know for sure, but I think that Shankar’s music showed greater western influence in the last film, The World of Apu. That makes sense, because Apu’s world becomes slightly more westernized as the story progresses.

Subrata Mitra’s atmospheric photography brings a great deal to the films–especially the first one, Pather Panchali. Set in a rural village, the light plays with trees in ways that are both beautiful and dramatic. I don’t know if Mitra was influenced by Kazuo Miyagawa’s work on Rashomon, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

And of course there’s the cast. Four actors played Apu at different ages throughout the trilogy, and they all seem to be the same person (not that the transitions are as smooth as those in Boyhood, but Ray couldn’t wait that long). Kanu Banerjee and Karuna Banerjee give excellent performances as Apu’s parents, and Sharmila Tagore as his wife.

Ray’s eye for unusual faces rival’s Kurosawa’s. He finds people who seem grotesque, but deeply human and therefore beautiful. Consider Chunibala Devi–the 83-year-old actress who plays the only major character who gets to grow old. (Of course, there are plenty of attractive people in the cast, as well.)

Okay, a quick rundown of the films themselves:

Pather Panchali
Our hero is born early in this film, which then skips a few years so we can know him as a curious and mischievous child. Upbeat in nature, Apu seems to delight in the world around him–despite considerable hardship. His rural family lives in desperate poverty, and his educated but dreamy father’s unrealistic optimism doesn’t help. Apu’s mother is far more level-headed, and that makes her far more scared. Meanwhile, Apu and his older sister Durga play and fight and avoid their responsibilities. There’s a great deal of joy in this film, but a greater deal of tragedy.

I’m very tempted to give Pather Panchali an A+, but I think I need to see it a few more times before I can be sure it deserves that grade. So consider it a very high A.

Aparajito
As is so often with trilogies, the middle film is the weakest, but it’s far from weak. Apu grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. He excels in school and becomes excited by science. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might be going places.

But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. His now widowed mother can’t bear to lose Apu to the world.

I give it an A-.

The World of Apu
The adult Apu leaves college, but seems reluctant to grow up. Like his father, he’s a dreamer, and assumes that good things will come his way. His best friend from college does much better, but then, he came from a rich family. One good thing does come his way: He marries, almost by accident, and finds happiness and true love. But tragedy is never far away in Apu’s world.

As with Pather Panchali, I’ll hold off the temptation to give it anything higher than an A until I’ve had a chance to revisit it.

Death and families: Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Blu-ray review)

No horror movie can come close to the fear, dread, and dark hatreds of Ingmar Bergman’s great chamber drama, Cries and Whispers. To watch it is to face the end of a slow and painful death by cancer. But that’s not all. This film, centered around four women and set almost entirely in one house, forces you to face the neglect and out-and-out cruelties with which we treat those who should be closest to us.

This is not escapist entertainment.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is in the last stages of a long decline. She’s weak, terrified, and often in horrible pain. Her two sisters–who can barely stand to be in the same room with each other–have come to the family home to help ease her passing. How do you face the death of someone you love? Or worse yet, someone that you think you should love, but there’s very little love in your soul.

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One suspects that life has been easy for the stunningly beautiful sister Maria (Liv Ullmann). So easy, in fact, that she doesn’t know how to react in a crisis. When she watches someone’s suffering, she doesn’t rush forward to help, but holds back and cries. A respectable, upper-class wife and mother in late 19th century Sweden, she’s as immature and flirtatious as a teenager.

The other sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), is almost her polar opposite. She’s cold and remote. She does what she has to do, and behaves properly. But she can’t stand impropriety or physical contact.

The fourth woman is the household maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). She’s been with the family for years, and spent many of those years nursing Agnes through her long illness. Unlike Maria and Karin, Anne truly loves Agnes. When Agnes complains of being cold, Anne crawls into her bed to keep her warm. Were they lovers? Hard to say. When Anne cuddles Agnes, the image is closer to a mother comforting a small child.

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The confined story appears to happen over a few days. Flashbacks provide some backstory, and introduce us to Maria’s and Karin’s husbands. But even these take place in the family estate.

You can recognize the interior of the house easily; everything is red–walls, carpet, curtains, and furniture. At the end of a scene, the film fades not to black, but to red. It’s a strange choice, but the right one. All of that red produces a sense of blood, of passion, and of the womb.

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Thank cinematographer and long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist for those reds. He allows the crimson to dominate the image, without it ever looking false or getting out of control. Nykvist clearly deserved the Oscar he won for this picture.

imageAs you would expect, Bergman drew brilliant, loving, yet horrifying performances out of the four leads. When we first meet Agnes in an extended close-up, Andersson’s eyes look directly into the camera with a fear that we all must experience when we face our mortality. When Maria attempts to seduce a former lover (Erland Josephson), her face shows a combination of lust, fear, and pride, confidence, and a deep uncertainty.

I’d have a hard time naming another drama as intense or emotionally realistic as Cries and Whispers. And yet it flies by like an action movie, and has scenes that could have come out of a horror film.

First Impression

Cries and Whispers comes in the usual transparent Criterion case. The cover shows imagea close-up of Andersson–in black and white tinted red (of course.)

When you open the case, you’ll find, along with the disc, a fold-out dominated with an article by Cambridge professor Emma Wilson named–believe it or not–Love and Death. When you’re dealing with such dark matters,the comic reference is appreciated.

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the disc comes with a timeline so you can bookmark favorite scenes. When you insert the disc into a player on which you played that disc in before, you’ll have the option to get back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Nykvist didn’t win that Oscar for photographing pretty pictures. Or sharp ones. Cries and Whispers uses defused light and soft focus. In other words, this isn’t the movie you use to show off your cool HDTV.

But the transfer does its job. Those ubiquitous reds are deep and rich, yet never bloom out of control. The atmospheric lighting, usually replicating sunlight or oil lamps, does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Neither Bergman nor Nykvist lived long enough to approve of this transfer, but I suspect that they would.

How It Sounds

I have no complaints about the uncompressed PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. It’s the mix that Bergman approved, and it probably sounds as good here as it did in the projection room. It certainly sounds better than it would on a 35mm print with a 1973 optical soundtrack.

It also comes with an optional English-dubbed track. I didn’t listen to it. The newly-translated English subtitles are just fine.

And the Extras

No commentary track, but still plenty of supplements.

  • Introduction by Ingmar Bergman:1080i; 7 minutes. A subtitled interview from 2003. It’s rather long for an introduction, but it contains some interesting stuff.
  • Harriet Andersson: 1080p; 20 minutes. The actress in conversation with film historian Peter Cowie, recorded in 2012. Quite wonderful, especially the behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew goofing off while making this extremely serious film.
  • On-Set Footage: 1080i; 34 minutes. More of that footage, this time with commentary by Peter Cowie. An interesting overview of the film’s production.
  • Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson: 1080i; 52 minutes. Interview with director and star from Swedish TV,1999. As I have not yet watched this one.
  • On Solace: 1080p; 13 minutes. 2014 video essay by cinema theorist  ::kogonada. Disappointing. His dull, monotone voice suggested a profundity that simply wasn’t there.

Criterion has done justice to one of Bergman’s best films.

French Girls in the hood in Girlhood (my review)

B+ Coming of age drama

  • Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

When we first meet Marieme (Karidja Touré), she’s part of a school all-girl football team. Soon afterwards, an unseen counselor tells her that her grades aren’t good enough to get her into high school. (Apparently high school has requirements in France.) she’s failed the same year twice , and the counselor thinks that a vocational school would be better for her.

Marieme goes through many other joyful and wrenching experiences over the course of the film. Only 16 years old, her options in life are horrifically limited. She tests these options, and finds acceptance and community only young women who rob, steal, and fight. She lacks the maturity to see this as a dead-end lifestyle. Although Girlhood has many scenes of love, affection, and real happiness, the overall effect is deeply disturbing.

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Don’t let the title fool you. This French drama has nothing to do with last year’s indie hit, Boyhood. It’s not set in Texas and it wasn’t shot over a period of 12 years. The original title is Bande de filles. When I asked UC linguistics professor Eve E. Sweetser for a translation, she suggested "Band/troop/gang of girls," pointing out that "Bande doesn’t mean musical band (or dance troupe), but would cover, for example, robber bands?" I’m guessing that Strand Releasing renamed the film Girlhood so that people would associate it with Richard Linklater’s work.

Considering Marieme’s family situation, it’s no surprise she’s doing badly. Her mother works long hours and is rarely home. There’s no mention of a father. Her older brother, apparently a gang member, is often abusive and violent. She takes on much of the responsibility of raising her two younger sisters, whom she clearly loves.

The neighborhood she lives in–within commuting distance from Paris–looks like what we in America call the "projects." Everything is ugly, and drugs and crime are everywhere.

So Marieme joins up with three girls whose lives seem far more exciting than hers. They wear cool clothing. They strut with confidence. They rent a nice hotel room and party through the night. They fight with other girls. They take what they want, often with the threat of violence. Marieme, now calling herself Vic, starts carrying a switchblade.

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And yet, she’s still a very loving person. You see it in the way she cares for her sisters, and also with her new-found friends. They’re all cheering each other down a very bad road, but the love and concern they have for each other is deep and genuine.

Vic also finds another kind of love in her romance with Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté). He clearly adores her, and the two are very sweet together. Nothing in the film suggests that he’s anything other than a decent young man.

Writer/Director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies–another worthwhile look at adolescence) tells the story with an unblinking but sympathetic eye. She examines the various micro-communities that Marieme/Vic wanders through, finds the parts that make them attractive, and shows decent people in all of them. But she also lets us see the rot beneath both them and the overall society that makes them possible.

I would have very much liked to have seen Marieme find a happy place in the world, but Girlhood isn’t a fairy tale. It is, however, very much worth seeing.

Divorce Israeli Style. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A Courtroom drama

  • Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn husband won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama from Israel.

The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, inexpensive, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber, with a few scenes in an adjoining waiting room. As in a stage play, the characters’ lives outside of that room are only alluded to in dialog. Although the protagonist, Viviane, has a life and runs her own successful business, the limited settings emphasize that in a very real way, she’s trapped.

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Let me explain: Despite the fact that most Israelis are secular, Orthodox rabbis own a monopoly on Jewish matrimony. You can’t get married or divorced without their approval. And by their rules, only the husband can grant a divorce (gett in Hebrew). If the husband has been particularly cruel, the rabbis can put pressure on him, and even jail him. But only he can set his wife free.

And so the hearings continue. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) explains the nightmare of her marriage. Her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) proclaims to be a good man and good husband. Witnesses speak on both sides. And little by little, we learn about their lives.

He’s deeply religious and keeps kosher. She grew up that way, and was Orthodox when they married, but now wants to leave religion behind her. And here she is, trying to win the sympathies of three Orthodox rabbis who may hopefully force Elisha’s hands.

Elisha is not a violent man, but he’s cold, self-centered, and horrifically stubborn. You can easily see what a nightmare it would be to be married to such a man. Even the rabbis–who one would assume are pre-disposed to favor an Orthodox man over a secular woman–hate him. But they can’t grant a divorce without him.

Over the years (scenes are separately by intertitles that tell us how many months have gone by), Viviane’s look and demeanor show her growing secular leanings. Her clothes get less modest and more modern over the course of the film.

The picture doesn’t tell us everything about Viviane’s life. For instance, we don’t know if she’s sexually active–quite possibly because she doesn’t want the rabbis to see her as an adulteress. But there are fleeting moments that suggest she has something to hide. And a few glances between her and her very handsome counsel (Menashe Noy) suggest a mutual, although probably not acted on, attraction.

There’s no question that Gett is a didactic film. It’s clearly meant as an indictment of the Israeli system of marriage and divorce. But it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere so claustrophobic that we only see the outside world twice–and both times through a window. And only twice, outside of the opening and closing credits, do we hear music.

Daring in its stripped-down style, Gett never makes you wish for a more expansive canvas. It may make you thankful for the first amendment.

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