Tati, Caine, & Riggs: Three films I saw at BAMPFA

Over Sunday and Monday, I saw three very different films at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive…also known as BAMPFA.

Here they are, in the order I saw them:

Traffic

After tearing down architecture in Playtime, Jacques Tati finds the humor in the not-quite-open road. Traffic isn’t his best, but is still very, very funny.  This time around, his onscreen persona, Monsieur Hulot, designs cars. But when the film starts, the design work is pretty much over. Hulot and co-workers must bring a new car camper to a car show.  Of course, almost everything goes wrong – especially with the police. As one would expect from Tati, the gags are mostly visual, lowkey, and hilarious.


Traffic

The DCP looked terrific, but I was surprised to discover the movie was pillarboxed to the old 1.37×1 aspect ratio – which died almost 20 years after Traffic was made. Every resource I checked said that 1.37×1 is the film’s correct shape, but I don’t know why. I give the film an A-.

This is the last BAMPFA screening of Traffic this year. But two more Tati comedies will screen this month: M. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime. These are all part of the series Jacques Tati: Comedy as Choreography.

Alfie

The 1966 drama that made Michael Caine a star hasn’t aged well. It’s a dreary movie about a dreary man who has no trouble getting women (after all, he looks like a young Michael Caine). He often talks directly to the camera, but he usually doesn’t have anything worth saying. His life is awful because he’s awful, treating the women in his life like dirt. There are a few good scenes, especially one where Shelley Winters gives him a taste of his own medicine. There’s a hint near the end that he’s maturing, but not much.


Alfie

Alfie was shot in Techniscope, a low-budget widescreen format that produced a grainy image. The archival print screened at BAMPFA showed Techniscope’s failings more than other films I’ve seen. It was also showed occasional scratches.

This was all part of the series Looking Back at the British New Wave. I give Alfie a D+.

Tongues Untied

Marlon Riggs’ last film, made while he was dying of AIDS, is like no other documentary I’ve ever seen. The first-person narration, by Riggs himself and other gay, black men, isn’t just talk. It’s poetry, and it tells us of being black and gay in in a society where the black community is homophobic and the gay community racist. Visually, you see people talking to the camera, sometimes against a black background and other times in real places. Or you see marches or just city streets. But it’s the poetic language, and the exciting editing, that makes this very short feature (55 minutes) extremely powerful.

I give Tongues Untied an A. The screening I attended was presented as part of UC Berkeley’s Arts + Design Mondays. It was also the last screening in the BAMPFA series No Regrets: A Celebration of Marlon Riggs. The DCP looked very good. You can stream this powerful film on Kanopy.

After the film, BAMPFA’s Kate MacKay lead a discussion with three UC professors: Ken Light, Darieck B. Scott, and Leila Weefur. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • This screening was like bringing Riggs back home. He taught here at UC right up until his death. Tongues was created on facilities at UC.
  • Some 500 people came to his funeral. Many churches refused to hold it.
  • If this work is anything, it is sensual.
  • The film has double layers. The visual images are soft, but the discussions are very hard.
  • This is a key foundational text. It’s also a document of black literary history and a very literary film work.
  • He gave me permission to explore my masculinity.
  • The black male body is the center of the film.

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