Márta Mészáros & John Ford: Two evenings at the BAMPFA

Two evenings. Two movies. Two brilliant auteurs at the BAMPFA.

Márta Mészáros

Last Saturday night, I discovered Márta Mészáros, a new, brilliant auteur. Well, not really new. she turned 90 last year. But she’s new to me.

Before the movie, curator Kathy Geritz told us a bit about Mészáros. She made her first film, The Girl, in 1968. Geritz pointed out that along with the characters and story, her films show you how life was lived behind the Iron Curtain. Mészáros was the first Hungarian woman to direct a film, and the first woman from anywhere to win the Berlin International Film Festival‘s Golden Bear Award. And the film she won that prize for was Adoption – the movie shown at the BAMPFA Saturday night.

A 42-year-old woman decides she wants a baby. Her boyfriend isn’t keen on this. So, she decides to adopt one, but she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Then she becomes a surrogate mother to an adolescent girl. The girl hates her real parents so much she’d rather live in an orphanage, and the older woman tries to help her. There’s also a teenage boy involved. There are legal problems because of the lovers’ youth.

Judging on only one film, Mészáros seems to have an incredible and unique sense of cinema. The film is made up almost entirely in closeups, and not just of faces. The story is told largely, and magnificently, by closeups of hands, tools, and even a shower. I give this film an A.

I want to catch more of Mészáros’ films. Luckily, BAMPFA is running a series of The Films of Márta Mészáros through July 2022. The film was projected digitally by DCP.

John Ford

Sunday evening, I went to the BAMPFA for a movie I already know and love: John Ford’s My Darling Clementine…one of the greatest of all westerns. Although I’ve seen the film many times, I can’t remember the last time I saw it in a theater.

Once again, Kathy Geritz came up to the podium, where she introduced experimental filmmaker Jerome Hiler. Since this presentation is part of the series Indelible Moments: May I Have This Dance, Hiler started with the famous dancing sequence in Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West – the one that turned into a meme a few years ago.

After the comedy, Hiler told us that he believes that Ford chose to make a western for his first film after his years in the Navy during World War II, because he wanted something he knew well. I respectively disagree. When he made Clementine, he had made only one western (Stagecoach) in twenty years.

By all rules of the western genre, My Darling Clementine shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle section of the movie – so you can see the time and place. And yet it’s one of the greatest horse operas ever made. An extremely fictious version of the shootout of the O.K. Corral, the film becomes myth through a stunningly photographed Monument Valley. Even though the story feels like a legend, the characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions.

My Darling Clementine is great on TV, but in the theatrical experience, it felt like an epic. Thanks to the towering buttes of Monument Valley, the striking clouds, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald’s low angles, it seems as if the gods are looking down on you. A woman behind me in the audience was obviously seeing the movie for the first time. Her shushed responses made it all the more wonderful.

BAMPFA showed a 35mm print of a rare cut of the film. Longer than the official release, this version is probably closer to what Ford wanted. You’ll find more in my Blu-ray review.