Hail Bretaigne, yeah

Cine Manifest – Judy Irola’s lively, likable 2006 documentary about the San Francisco-based Marxist filmmaking collective Cine Manifest, which existed from about ’72 to ’78. (Its most famous member today is probably Rob Nilsson, of Signal Seven fame.) Along the way the group had to contend with internal rivalries, sexual politics (Irola was its only female member), and hangers-on (at one point the crew found itself in the unexpected position of having to “evict” an aging, ravaged Nicholas Ray from their Folsom Street warehouse), yet they managed to churn out a stream of shorts and two features, the second of which drew enough attention at Cannes and elsewhere to provide what they didn’t realize was their 15 minutes of fame. Irola’s portrait often feels like an easy-listening version of The Weather Underground, as its members, now scattered and grey (or bald), lace their reminiscences with obvious love, and more than a little rue: a regular feature of the group was the “Criticism/Self-Criticism” sessions in which they’d take each other to task for various perceived failings, and which often went too far in ways that only the young and very idealistic pursue. Only one member, who as a cameraman shot Don Ho specials and other Leninist works for ABC, brought in any real income over the years, making things like Irola’s subscription to Ms. an unaffordable luxury. Worst of all, one member was unanimously, and unceremoniously, deposed as the director of a feature film, one which happened to be not just his idea but based on his actual life–an event that wrecked some friendships for good. Cine Manifest definitely had its good times, though, as evidenced by the myriad “birthday movies” they made for each other (a couple of them are included on the DVD), and they look looser and goofier than the stick-up-the-butt Marxists I knew in Houston back in the Seventies. Even if they never affected anyone beyond themselves, it’s still nice to know where their spot on the map was.

The Enforcer – Inoffensive 1955 riff on Tom Dewey, Abe Reles and Murder, Inc. Bogart plays the prosecutor who’s much confused by these new terms “hit” and “contract” he keeps hearing on the street, and it’s never made clear that the murder-for-hire business is actually the enforcement arm of a larger, and very ethnic, organization; the movie treats the killers as guys you might go to if your neighbor complained about your music one time too many. Bogart looks too old to still be roughing up tough guys—you can see he needs a breather here and there. Still, there’s a rather decent climax on a street at lunch-hour, with the D.A. and the gunsels trying to beat each other to a key witness who’s lost in the large crowd. Directed by Bretaigne Windust, who surely had the best old-timey director’s name this side of Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast.

Hotel du Nord (1938) – Marcel Carné in a minor key, focusing on the denizens of a crumbling hotel on the Seine. (The hotel was real; you can Google Map the building.) A despairing young couple takes a room to commit suicide together, but the guy gets cold feet after shooting (but just wounding) his girlfriend, and runs away. (And I feel guilty about some of my relationships.) To be honest, the movie is no great shakes, but it does have meaty parts for Louis Jouvet and Annabella, and Arletty’s wandering around too. That should be enough for anybody.

Warning Shadows: A Nocturnal Hallucination – A 1923 German silent from Arthur Robison, its story is just an excuse to play with the medium. A countess throws a dinner for a group of her “admirers,” as they used to put it, ticking off her husband more than a little; an entertainer arrives and performs a series of fantastic shadow plays culminating in a what-if tragedy that brings everyone to their senses. A little slow but visually inventive enough that not a single intertitle card was needed. All kinds of weird lighting effects play out here: the tails on the coats of two of the would-be suitors are turned up so that when they stand sideways their shadows resemble pig tails, and when the husband’s imagination is running riot with fantasies of his wife’s infidelities, he looks up to find his shadow on the wall crowned by the antlers hanging there. He gets the joke, and he doesn’t appreciate it.

Wuthering Heights – A lineup of Wyler, Hecht, MacArthur, Toland, Olivier and Brontë would have intimidated the ’27 Yankees, but sadly, their manager was Sam (“Wyler only directed it”) Goldwyn. I spent most of its running-time staring in awe at the shape of Olivier’s head.

The Exterminating Angels – The director, Jean-Claude Brisseau, was sued after asking actresses to masturbate on camera during auditions for his previous movie, and this 2006 film is a fictionalized version of what happened then. Brisseau, who is 65 and a not particularly attractive man, has replaced himself with a 40-something actor who’s handsome and agreeably aloof. This fake Brisseau is planning a film about “the secret erotic life of women,” but for once this fancy Emmanuelle-type palaver has more on its mind than soft-focus cock-teasing; the director winds up with three (gorgeous) women who are eager to perform, solo and together, for his camera. The Exterminating Angels gets one key point perfectly right: that the women most likely to accept such an offer would be young and unstable, but it’s this very insight that renders the movie’s conclusions moot. The fictionalized Brisseau is right in stating that eroticism has too successfully resisted cinema, and the sex scenes are actually decent-looking porn that’s about four-fifths of the way to being hardcore. A couple of the scenes are, in fact, intensely horny-making, and not just because they involve beautiful women fingering themselves; it’s because it’s done right, and because the actresses really do look like they’re dropping their guard. There’s no getting around the fact that the last 15-20 minutes amount to garbage, giving in to the antique moralizing which we’d earlier been told to reject, and the moment in which the director-figure is made into a victim is, to be clear about it, revolting bullshit. And yet, with that all said, Brisseau’s ideas deserve more than a shrug. The man’s onto something.

Soldier of Fortune (Dmytryk 1955) – That dolt Susan Hayward has lost her husband again—this time the filthy Reds have whisked him away to the Chinese mainland—so she screws Clark Gable because some things are just meant to be. Just like she did in Garden of Evil, Hayward falls for the guy she’s hired to rescue her hubby, and the movie becomes a waiting game to see how she’ll jump studs without making the censor swallow his dentures; in Garden the writers simply killed the bugger off, but whoever wrote this thing must’ve been watching his Noel Coward because things end in a very civilized (and very off-screen) divorce. The movie is mostly talk, much of it awful, but half a dozen Graham Greene lowlifes—an aging whore, a down-at-the-heels ex-general—are loitering in the corners, it looks smashing (it was shot largely in Hong Kong), and the thing moves right along.

1962 saw the release of three quality films about the shrinking effect that the closing of the Western frontier had on the American character, a fact that arouses all kinds of nostalgia in a time when the alignment of Hollywood’s celestial stars is more likely to produce Armageddon and Deep Impact within six weeks of each other. Compared to the giants Ride the High Country and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, however, Lonely Are the Brave is just a skinny guy who keeps getting sand kicked in his face. It has only itself to blame. Dalton Trumbo outdoes even himself, for one thing—does the final instrument of destruction really have to be a truckload of toilets?—and this is one of those Kirk Douglas performances where his bravado comes across like an irritating form of mental illness. (The extras stare dumbly at him as he reels off his wisecracks, just like they did in Ace in the Hole.) Nor does it help that Douglas delivers a gassy speech about being a loner, especially since he uses it to escape the clutches of a young Gena Rowlands, looking as beautiful as a desert rose. Walter Matthau has two pointless scenes built around a dog pissing on a fire-hydrant, while his deputies are painted as a tribe of morons. (And if that’s not enough, one of them—George Kennedy, at his smirkmouth worst—is also a sadist.) Crossing the Gobi on foot would be easier than sitting through undignified, mock-serious movies like this one. It does, however, feature a glamorous, scene-stealing horse—there’s a  fine scene of Douglas trying to coax the beast over a mountain slope that’s covered in loose gravel.

Alain Tanner’s Le milieu du monde alerts us up front that it’s set at a particular point in time and space, and indeed, it’s firmly fixed in a handful of towns sprinkled across the Swiss outback over 112 days in the winter of 1973-1974. Philippe Léotard, who was so good as the targeted pimp in Bob Swain’s La Balance, is an engineer whose bosses decide that his personal qualities—he’s a nice-looking family man, etc.—make him an ideal candidate for a seat in Parliament. During his campaign tour of the region, he’s smitten by a young Italian truck-stop waitress (Olimpia Carlisi), and they jump into an affair so reckless that the whole canton, or whatever it’s called, quickly finds out about it. And so the forces, internal and external, begin working against them…It’s a beautiful, solid film.

And Cassavetes’ Love Streams, an absolutely incredible two hours followed by 20 minutes of hall-of-fame level fucking up. Worst of all, it’s arty and pretentious in an Alan Rudolph kind of way, a way that you’d think Cassavetes’ style couldn’t attach itself to. It does, though, thanks perhaps to his co-screenwriter, who also wrote the play which the screenplay was based on. There’s one scene where I just felt sorry for Rowlands—it’s like nobody took that crucial step back to see just how badly she was coming off. Enough about that part of it, though—it’s still worth seeing for that first two hours, which are so rich and double-edged tragi-funny that I would’ve sat there forever had it kept on in that vein.

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