Criterion had a pretty good week, what with the release of three righteous movies about people getting pulled over a waterfall by their desire. Everybody knows about Visconti’s Senso and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, but Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is the one that’s been rattling around my head since Saturday night—it’s so good it made my teeth hurt. It’s a quasi-realistic look at a 15-year old girl’s emotionally flattened life in a housing project on the wrong side of the Thames, and what happens when her trashy mother’s latest pickup (Michael Fassbender) exudes both the fatherly support and the hotblooded sexiness that she’s been craving. Arnold likes to use the natural world to contextualize her characters (two of her early shorts are called “Dog” and “Wasp”), but unlike Malick she does it in a literary, and occasionally too-explicable, way. Fish Tank has a lingering, observant style, filled with long silences and pointed visuals which call up incredibly stormy emotions; in the long sequence where Mia does something so ill-considered that it threatens to wipe out the little bit of security she has in the world, I felt like I was watching a friend deliberately throw her life away. It’s gotten a lot of comparison to Loach because of the downtrodden Brit factor, but it’s much closer to the subtler humanist groove of Mouchette, A Nos Amours, Vagabond, and Rosette. And though I adore practically all of those movies, my reaction to Fish Tank was still an oddly personal one. (All of the tenderness I was already feeling for young Katie Jarvis was capped off by this.)
Archive for February, 2011
When I stuck this trailer for Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions in my post about Memories of Matsuko about a month ago, I had no idea how much I’d like the actual film. The trailer gives a true measure of both the movie’s plot and its style: it really is that seamless and dynamic for practically all of its 107 minutes, and if Matsuko was too over-the-top for me to totally embrace it, the porridge here is just right. Confessions sinks its teeth into such cheery topics as shame, emotional dependency, loneliness, and adolescent cruelty, yet it’s invigorating to watch thanks to its resourceful, surefooted direction. It resists a thousand opportunities to lapse into misanthropy or pure style, and its central device—a replowing of events we’ve already witnessed with new information that explodes our previous understanding of them—keeps stirring in fresh associations and layers of meaning. It also has a tremendous performance by the young Yukito Nishii as “Student A”—a direct descendent of the kidnapper in Kurosawa’s High and Low.
Movie posters don’t really aspire to art—they’re just signage, something to flash on the monitor behind whoever it is that anchors Access Hollywood these days—but romantic comedy posters remain particularly uninspired. Even the classy productions get eyesores that work on the level of hog-calls:
Feel better, single ladies. Your time will come!
Then there’s the teeth. The big…white…flesh-tearing…teeth. Please don’t drink my blood, Kate Hudson!
Do you know that boyfriends make good mules?
Then there’s the inane and the inexplicable. Did they really make a movie about Sandra Bullock pooing in her miniskirt?
And every so often the posters just come out and admit that their movies are suicide-hotlines for the romantically forlorn. “Don’t open your veins! Come see me instead!”
Anyway, what brought all this on was this poster, which jumped out at me the very first time I saw it:
That was at least two months ago, and even now I find it pulling my eyes to one side as I come slogging out of the subway every night. I have to admire its craft even as I hate, well, pretty much everything else about it. There’s Portman’s carefully calibrated freshly-fucked tousledness, it confirms that Ashton Kutcher becomes less objectionable if he just points his face away from the camera, and without the text it could pass for a Van Heusen shirt ad. I’ll probably never see the movie, but I appreciate the difference between two-bit fantasy-flogging and actual advertising.
Last night I checked out the Blu-Ray disc of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, a film which over the last decade or two has quietly made its way from cause célèbre to one almost needing rediscovery. (Of the twenty-somethings I’ve talked to who’d even heard of it, none had actually seen it. Odd thing is, their generation may be better prepared to enjoy Bertolucci’s cinematic in-jokes—ranging from the jabs at Godard to the casting of neorealist icons in a couple of important secondary roles—than the audiences of 1973.) It doesn’t help that MGM treats Last Tango like a Showgirls for people with opposable thumbs. The DVD case promises “THE PASSION IS EVEN HOTTER ON BLU-RAY” (along with the anal rape, presumably), though the additional puffery offers no serious indication that the film was a milestone in its day. A Blu-Ray release clearly signaled the time had come for a making-of documentary or (at the very least) a commentary track by a smart critic or two, but MGM considered its work done by merely remastering the film—the threadbare minimum.
The premiere of Last Tango in Paris at the New York Film Festival—that would be the same premiere which Pauline Kael compared in impact to the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—occurred on October 14, 1972, which happens to have been my eighteenth birthday. We’ll get into why that matters in a sec, but let’s just say for right now that by the time the movie opened wide a few months later, it was a full-blown media event, with a level of mainstream buzz and anticipation reserved today for Super Bowls and Batman movies.
For a Marlon Brando sex movie! I was a part of that buzz, most definitely, even if I can’t totally pinpoint today just why I was so eager to see it. It wasn’t just the sex: I’d let Therese and Isabelle and I Am Curious (Yellow) blow through town without taking a flyer on either of them. I adored Brando but earlier that year I’d been only mildly curious to see him playing a Mafia don, and while I knew who Bertolucci was, I’d missed The Conformist, his ultra-stylish warm-up to Last Tango, when it was in the theaters. And, of course, like everyone else in the world, I’d never even heard of Maria Schneider.
Last Tango was given a prestige release when it finally arrived. Tickets—available only by mail-order—ran a scandalous five bucks a pop. In Houston’s Bellaire Theater on opening night, I plopped down in my reserved seat only to notice that the head directly in front of me was topped by a familiar snow-white toupee. It belonged to Marvin Zindler, the obnoxious consumer-affairs reporter for a local TV station; Zindler, who had a foghorn for a voice, ended every report by booming into his microphone “MAR-R-R-VIN ZIND-LER! EYE-WIT-NESS NEWS!” The presence of Zindler, a well-known do-gooder and spoilsport, had people eying the exits, wondering if they were about to be swept up in a vice raid; in just a few months he’d make such a public fuss about La Grange’s “Chicken Ranch”—a/k/a The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas—that it would have to shutter its doors after 60 years of business.
Last Tango is often called an “erotic” movie, but there’s really only one stretch of it that I’d call sexy: the 15-minute long scene which Schneider plays wearing only a pair of jeans. With a post-coital mood hovering over them like a cloud, it’s the closest Paul and Jeanne come to acting like a normal couple, one whose relationship doesn’t feel driven by Paul’s rage. As Jeanne prowls the darkened living room, Paul plays a harmonica and tells a story—perhaps from Brando’s actual past—about getting cow-shit on his shoes. Jeanne chides him for talking about himself, and the teasing leads to their X-rated spoof of Little Red Riding Hood. Suddenly Paul remembers his dead wife and, disengaging, moves to another room; left alone, Jeanne masturbates and, weakened after she comes, pulls herself by inches up the wall. With her back to the camera, her arms stretched apart and her jeans just hanging from her hips, she looks like Fay Wray tied to the altar on Skull Island—a slave-girl waiting to be sacrificed.
Well, here we are in 2011, and Maria Schneider died a couple weeks ago, at 58. Her obituaries dutifully recounted her troubling relationships with Bertolucci and Brando, her resentment over being pigeon-holed as a sex kitten, her breakdown and drug abuse and the girlfriend-in-the-asylum mess. (Google the details if you must, but none of them are as interesting as the movie is.) Only one obit bothered to mention that she was any good in Last Tango, though it stopped well short of pointing out how she held her own against the acting phenomenon of her time, when he was twice her age and giving the performance of his career, or that she did it in the face of Bertolucci’s mind-games and while playing a third of her scenes fully nude. She was also all of 20 years old at the time. Finally, as if to add insult to, well, death, God thought it’d be funny to take, exactly one day later, the life of Lena Nyman, the star of Curious (Yellow), again yoking Schneider to the image of a date-stamped sex-object, which is the lasting impression of a world that never really bothered to look at her (or Nyman) in the first place.
I won’t try to kid you: for the longest time I was one of those people, mainly because I may be the only person on Earth who was more screwed up by Last Tango in Paris than Maria Schneider. Social Conservatives have a suspect reason for everything they do in their lives, up to and including brushing their teeth in the morning, but they come closest to making sense when talking about the need for two stable role models in a family. The number isn’t important, of course: one will do fine, just so long as that one person is sane. But when you come from a family whose every suppertime is like the third act of a Eugene O’Neill play, and your only parent has deeply, deeply ambivalent feelings about love and sex and the opposite gender—well, that shit tends to rub off on you. By the time I saw Brando screwing a ridiculously sexy Schneider before speaking a word to her, I knew so little about women and the world and I’d had so few sexual experiences that I naturally supposed that meet-cutes like Paul and Jeanne’s were the stuff of everyday life. I didn’t see Paul as a man agonized by his wife’s suicide when he abused Jeanne during their dusky afternoons together. I thought most everything he did—the callous jokes, the rough sex, the willful comings and goings—just a slight exaggeration of the things any man might do while courting a woman, and (and this is the kicker) that these were all things women secretly want, or at least secretly expect, their men to provide.
I won’t go into all the gory details; let’s just say it was a case of world-class cluelessness, and a disastrous way to go. It pretty much ruined me in my 20s and early 30s, as one failed relationship led to another drunken binge to another failed relationship, and some of the collateral damage—meaning most of the women I dated or lived with back then—won’t speak to me to this day. Why I had to choose Last Tango over any stray episode of McMillan and Wife is a question that’s long plagued me; all I can say now is that it’s what seemed most “adult” at the time, and if I’d come of age in ’85 I probably would’ve taken my sexual cues from Frank Booth.
What I do know is that no other work of art in the history of time had its way with me the way Last Tango in Paris did. It’s always been easy for me to see Brando’s part in all this; I just hope the fact that it took Schneider’s death for me to finally take a real look at her is a symbol of only limited meaning. Near the end of Last Tango Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing her boyfriend, drapes a ship’s lifesaver around her waist and proposes marriage to her—a union that would almost certainly be doomed by his cinema-fueled fantasy world. The couple banters the question back and forth in an almost bickering tone before Jeanne accepts, then she petulantly throws the lifesaver into a nearby canal. The legend on it reads “L’Atalante”—another in-joke, the title of Jean Vigo’s tribute to enduring love—but we barely have time to read the word before the lifesaver sinks like a rock.
Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us is set in 1976 Philadelphia—a specificity aligning it with Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer as stories whose time and place aren’t a mere backdrop, but a bedrock for their characters’ interactions. A former Black Panther named Marcus returns to his old neighborhood for the first time in years; his father has died, but Marcus is almost immediately consumed by the living network of friends and neighbors who once made up his life. Practically none of these people are happy to see him, blaming him as they do for the police assassination, years earlier, of his closest friend in the Panthers. The only exceptions—the dead man’s widow (Kerry Washington) and her young daughter—have surprisingly tangled personal reasons for taking Marcus into their home.
A lot of the ’60s-era revolutionaries gained in interest only after it was apparent how little they were actually going to change the world. The fragmentation of the left after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the FBI’s counterintelligence work against leftist groups, and the natural passage of time all worked to undo the “revolution”, leaving most of its participants free and clear to cut their hair and start raising families of their own—which more than a few of them had in mind all along. A few ideologues hung in there, but most of these were little more than human barometers, forever scouting the political heavens for signs of a favorable pressure system that would never come. And then a few—a very few—had to hang in there simply because they’d climbed too far out on the limb of those heady times.
Night Catches Us is about the unresolved anger of the ’60s, and the need to find a way forward when the Promised Land has, despite all assurances, failed to materialize—as fundamentally American a theme as one can think of. The dilemma is most achingly expressed by Jimmy, a young man whose rage against white oppression sparks in him the most self-destructive version of Black Power. Hamilton’s movie may be a noticeably un-slick and sober affair, but it’s far from flat or boring; starting from a deliberately remote vantage point, it tracks in closer and closer to its characters until we can see the exact dimensions of the social web holding them in place. If that sounds familiar, fans of The Wire will appreciate seeing Wendell Pierce a/k/a “Bunk Moreland” as a callous police detective and Jamie Hector playing a stormy-tempered bar-owner. (Hector, several pounds heavier than he was as Marlo Stanfield and sporting a full beard, is simply on fire in this thing.)
It’s a given that Night Catches Us wouldn’t catch on with rock-headed American audiences, but it still deserves more than the measly $72,000 it’s grossed to date. It deserves respect. As it is, the movie lost a shot at finding some just last Friday, when The New York Times, in an article explicitly devoted to the paucity of films about African-Americans, failed to mention it at all. Yeah, that’s right. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott were so busy running down their checklist of old Hattie McDaniel yarns that, in a story citing thirty-plus movies, they didn’t mention Night Catches Us a single time, despite referencing Anthony Mackie—its star. It’s nice to know that the Times cares and all, but damn, people. At least try to act like you know which way up your ass goes.
Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes is a valentine written in poisoned ink—the cinematic equivalent of Tough Love. It sinks its teeth down to the acrid core of its characters, yet chews them with real affection. A critical and popular misfire in France in 1960, Femmes wasn’t even shown in the United States until 1966, by which time it was already overshadowed by the French New Wave’s more famous efforts. Now revived by Kino International, it leaves one wondering how so many people could have gotten it so, so wrong.
Les Bonnes Femmes covers three days in the lives of four Parisian shopgirls, following them through a night’s debauch, a long, drab day on the job, another night of celebration, and part of the following day. The women are in no way remarkable, but they’re types we’ve lived beside all our lives: a party girl; a mouse who’s ready to sacrifice what little identity she has in order to secure a husband; an aspiring singer whose insecurity causes her to hide her ambitions from her friends; and a daydreamer yearning for the white knight who will rescue her from her dead-end existence. The women live in a world that mocks them, uses them, heartlessly exposes their hopes as desperate fantasies. Worse yet, they’ve been so pulverized by longing that they don’t even have each other to cling to; they’re all too busy drowning to think of saving one another.
The keynote is struck during the opening titles as scores of vehicles race through a traffic concourse in a million different directions yet somehow just manage to avoid hitting each other. The film’s sequences haven’t been formed to reach a point-making climax; rather, they start, and then just go on until they stop. These women (and their men) act out their lives with a maximum of movement and noise, until we realize that their behavior is a direct if grotesque outgrowth of their brittle emotional lives. Amongst themselves they are always fretting, laughing, banging on tables; they grow quiet only when fully engaged in their dreams or when their anxieties have deflated them.
Femmes turns the world into a nightmarish expression of what the women suspect is the truth of their own existence. Their would-be swains are funhouse-mirror caricatures whose enfeebled notions of masculinity are reflected in their clown disguises and beanie-style bathing caps, in the way they grovel before their mothers or gracelessly press their hands into a woman’s skirt, in their poses as wimps and louts and outsized pranksters. But the men’s very absurdity calls into question the women’s appearance as well. When we look at the women, we only see an idealized version of themselves, their collective dream; everything else in the movie is their collective nightmare. Even the climactic act of violence swims into the movie like a daydream grown inexorably sour.
All four stars—Bernadette Lafont, Clothilde Joano, Stephane Audran, and Lucile Saint-Simon—fill out their roles, but Lafont and Joano linger in the mind afterwards. As Jane, the adolescent caught in a body that’s bursting with sexuality, the eye-popping Lafont (The Mother and the Whore) nails a sensibility that can’t be calmed down. Not even at dawn, when her carryings-on have left her just enough time to slap some perfume into her armpits before heading off to work, does Jane have any inkling of the toll her lifestyle is taking on her. Joano, as the diehard romantic who’s being pursued by a mysterious stranger, shows how Jacqueline’s yearning has put her into a walking coma. Near the end, when her dream lover has miraculously materialized, she lights to earth in bodily form; for the only time in the movie, we see one of the characters as she truly is, undistorted by fear or desire.
Claude Chabrol sometimes thought about his material so much that it reached the screen a little flattened by the process, but in Femmes he blazed a shortcut between his brain and what he actually got onto film. Its images are raw and undigested—they haven’t had the chaos polished out of them. The great cinematographer Henri Decae (Bob le Flambeur, Plein Soleil), working in a dingy black and white, turns the French capital into a maze of shadowy streets that extend in every direction. More than most movies Femmes is a vivid reflection of its time, giving us a precious insider’s view of the decor and manners of mid-century Paris.
Les Bonnes Femmes has its moments of irritation and excess, but it also contains bursts of filmmaking as vibrant and satisfying as anything produced by the New Wave. The strip-club sequence, a freewheeling montage of faces and bodies inflamed by lust and alcohol, appears to have influenced the best scenes in films as different as Lenny and Schindler’s List. A quiet, searching conversation in a restaurant uses as its background music the carefully modulated tinkling of the customers’ silverware. And the film’s final five minutes are a masterful blend of choreographed camera movements and impeccably controlled sound effects, culminating in an image that puts a universal face on these lives of noisy desperation.
Animals Are Passing From Our Lives
It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.
BAILBONDSMAN (acting like a shitheel): Girl, you either find yoah daddy or I’m taking over yoah house.
GIRL: You gots to help me, Cousin Pearline!
PEARLINE: Y’all’s git off mah porch afore I sick mah hawgs on ye.
UNCA TEARDROP (a total psycho): Fuck you, ya little bitch!
GIRL: That’s a cute name—“Teardrop”. It makes me kinder sympathetic to ya, in a funny subliminal kinder way.
PEARLINE: I thought I tolds you to git off’n mah porch!
(slaps Girl around some)
PEARLINE: Now git in that rowboat!
GIRL: What th—Why’s do I got to wear this hood? It bein’ pitch dark in a swamp an’ all.
PEARLINE: If you don’t shet up, we ain’t gonna let you cut your Daddy’s hands off in a symbolic maturity ritual.
GIRL: Oh, give me the freaking saw already.
PEARLINE: Now take yer Daddy’s hands and git!
GIRL: Gee, thanks, I guess.
UNCA TEARDROP: See there? We’ze nice folks after all! Want a chaw?
GIRL: I knew it! I seen you on Deadwood, Mister!
BAILBONDSMAN: Hey, I’m a nice guy, too. Here’s a lot of money to prove it.
UNCA TEARDROP: Bet you didn’t see that comin’.
BAILBONDSMAN (proudly): That’s what you call a dee-us ex machine-a.
GIRL: God, I hope it’s enough to move to Joplin…