Capsules: September 2018

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A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

Such an expansive, disorienting, mesmerizing blend of elements that I had to sleep on its ending before concluding that yes, this is indeed some kind of masterpiece. The martial arts plot at the center is familiar intrigue and superheroics. But framing it from the point of view of a definitive non-superhero and finishing it on acid turn this action film into a haunting spiritual journey. Tidy? God no. But its elemental, mysterious nature is forever.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1942)

Clouzot’s debut is a charming whodunnit with a morbid sense of humor and only the frivolity of its genre to quell a nagging dissatisfaction at how the plot wraps up. But already you can see signs of a pungent cynicism, a distrust of people both as individuals and as groups, coloring the caper and pointing the way to his future hits Diabolique and The Wages of Fear and his masterpiece Le Corbeau. So much fun that when he stopped being charming, it was clearly a choice.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

Cheers to Pathé for restoring this gem and to the Aero for showing it! You know the racket: a plan, a gang of thieves, and the mistakes and chaotic X factors that can foul up any “perfect crime”. But this one does everything right, giving the double-crosses and misunderstandings the ironic wit they deserve. Essential for people who’ve exhausted Melville, so hopefully it will get more play. Don’t discount the women, and remember to use the hidden exit.

✬✬✬✬✩

State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

Mamet-the-writer is more distinctive than Mamet-the-director, but he manages a fine comic juggling act whose appeal isn’t so much an attack on Hollywood but a failed breakup with it. Pointing out that the Hollywood system produces immoral out-of-touch assholes is old hat and easy—more intriguing are the twists, nuances, ambiguities, and self-reflexive contrivances that allow the film’s Mamet surrogate to enter the Hollywood system, get everything he wants, and somehow stay clean.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

I was once asked by a European to explain the appeal of baseball. I failed, naturally, because baseball is as much a part of the quintessentially American mythos as George Washington and the cherry tree, only a lot more fun. The further down the rungs you get from the majors, the closer you are to the heart of it. Which is why this perspective from the minor leagues is so meaningful, and executed with such bittersweet, humorous regard for what it means to be a success.

✬✬✬✬✩

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

The immortally suppressed desire of In the Mood For Love erupts into a dangerously seductive erotic fantasia—and though this B-side to that 21st century arthouse staple takes a different, even opposing approach, it lets you realize that the two stories can’t exist without the other. As a fable about failed attempts to replace impossibly idealized love, it couldn’t be simpler. But it luxuriates in details, characters, and meta games, as if Wong’s ambitions ballooned to where reality alone couldn’t contain them.

✬✬✬✬✬

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies I either saw for the first time or revisited after many years.

Short Cuts: FIRST REFORMED

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Yes, video stores still exist in LA, and they have a purpose, both as a repository for films abandoned by the streaming boom and a forum of ideas for the geeky, the devout, and the reprobate. At one of them, I mentioned to the clerk that, with First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader seemed to be having a moment again for the first time in years. He agreed, then asked me about Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. “Did you see Winter LightFirst Reformed is basically 70% Winter Light.”

Having seen both, that number sounds correct, and I’d add that a lot of the remaining 30% belongs to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. (Schrader, in his life as a critic, literally wrote the book on Bresson, before writing the script for Taxi Driver and having a directing career of his own). Schrader’s own country priest takes the form of Ethan Hawke, who enters humbly as the reverend of a dwindling church in upstate New York. He is a sickly, solitary individual who hides most of his thoughts from others, as if he’s determined that his convictions must require loneliness. And his crisis of faith—not in god so much as in mankind—intensifies when one of his parishioners, distraught over environmental pollution, loses the will to live and leaves behind a widow. (In Bergman’s telling, it was fear of the atomic bomb).

There is a certain audacious reverence in lifting so much, particularly in a year when Bergman retrospectives have been touring American rep houses. But then, America makes a fertile and rewarding place to move the religious traditions of arthouse past, where Schrader’s anti-hero can serve as a soulful, Bressonian counterweight to megachurches and so much Christian kitsch. The past isn’t dead, especially not at movie theaters. And in a year when Wes Anderson remixed Kurosawa with stop-motion dogs for the inner-children of twenty-somethings everywhere, the un-hip, anachronistic man-and-god sincerity of First Reformed not only has its own distinct power, but is something to be treasured. Schrader is a terrific storyteller, and don’t miss how much his style can contribute: the look of the film plays a muted color scheme, shot in the Academy ratio and lit like Dreyer (another Schrader touchstone), against unnatural neon colors that feel sickly and toxic in comparison—like the sight of a cloud of Pepto Bismol in a glass of liquor.

Hawke is terrific and against-type, though so recognizable that you can see why Bresson wanted unfamiliar faces to play his modern-day pilgrims. I’m not sure Schrader sells the environmental theme as more than a plot device—but then, committing suicide over nuclear anxiety always struck me as a bit histrionic, and Winter Light is safely considered a classic. The part of First Reformed bound to be most divisive is the ending, which deserves controversy not over whether it’s too bloody, too shocking, or too lurid, but whether it comes across as silly. (Surely a doomsday sign that the world is more jaded now than it was in Bergman’s 1960s, or even Taxi Driver‘s 1970s). But it’s the film’s own, and it sells—or, to use a more deservedly pure word, it offers—an idea worth pondering: that in the face of spiritual and psychological despair, desperation and carnality are what keep you going. And what’s more, they may not even be betrayals or sins. A theme that Bergman would have appreciated.

✬✬✬✬✩

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First Reformed is currently available on home video and video-on-demand. For what it’s worth, the clerk liked it too.

Short Cuts: BLACKKKLANSMAN

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Cinematically, 2018 began with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, whose runaway success occasioned think-pieces, analysis, praise, and/or criticism from everyone from Slavoj Žižek to random bloggers (including an after-the-fact one by yours truly). It’s certainly worth considering what that movie and its phenomenon mean, because Black Panther is not a film with radical politics. Little of its essence risks true confrontation, and that’s part of its reason for existing. It just wanted, and triumphantly scored, a seat at the establishment’s table.

For Spike Lee, however, confrontation has historically been not only desirable but on-brand. And while it would be reductive to ignore the less inherently political trademarks of “a Spike Lee joint”—film school cinephilia, theater, sexuality, a hometown boy’s love of New York City—it would also not be unfair to argue that for the last decade or so, Lee has gotten more attention for the media-fueled public tiffs he’s landed in than for the actual movies he’s made.

BlacKkKlansman, about a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is being hailed as a career highlight and return to form, and rightly so. It is a fittingly brash approach to docudrama, part comedy and part cop movie, with focused, attentive storytelling, a mash of tones, and a cast worth using. John David Washington plays the cop, Detective Ron Stallworth. Adam Driver plays the white partner who serves as his in-person front. And, in a nice casting touch, an appropriately milquetoast, non-ubermensch Topher Grace plays Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

But I fear that it isn’t just that Lee and his collaborators, including producer Jordan Peele, have been inspired to make a terrific film, but that mainstream American political life has given them the context in which to do so. This is 2018: our public discourse has long since blown passed preaching to the choir and is focused on galvanizing it instead. Into this rabid media landscape comes Lee, with a younger man’s passion and, crucially, an older man’s wariness. And it seems to me that of all the unsubtle statements for our unsubtle time, BlacKkKlansman has the distinction of being one of the subtler—or at least, one with some of the richest ideas. It’s not a masterpiece, for those keeping score. Yet no other American film so far this year is as worth talking about.

It certainly doesn’t hold back on topicality. And, as a (white liberal) cinephile, I have less use for the villains’ explicit Trumpisms—”America First”, returning the country to “greatness”—than I do for the comparatively nuanced dialectic between the hero and his radical student girlfriend, who end the film in an unresolved and unresolvable argument about whether or not the system can be peaceably reformed from within. (It is one of her scenes that references the term “super-predators”, a racially-charged quote that you may remember haunted a 2016 candidate—and it wasn’t Donald Trump). Those are the politics, but then there’s the method and the scope; this is all “based on a true story,” and not often does that phrase so shrewdly contextualize itself.

That is, in addition to being a comedy, a cop movie, and the best script Lee has gotten his hands on in years, BlacKkKlansman is something else. It is, explicitly, a movie about movies, from the rose-tinted Confederate nostalgia of Gone With the Wind to the racist frenzy of Birth of a Nation to the liberating but complex legacy of blaxploitation. As comedy or cop drama, it’s solid through and through, entertaining and thoughtful. As a pastiche of where pop culture and politics overlap, it achieves a lucid agitation, mixing the Old Hollywood canon, contemporary documentary footage, period-piece artifice, an Alec Baldwin comedy sketch (hello, Trump-era Left), a debate about Shaft and Superfly, and a haunting Harry Belafonte monolog into a provocative clash of history lesson and self-concious cinematic fictionalization. This is the America screen as a hall of mirrors, some seemingly clear, some proudly idealized, and some grotesquely distorted, with the insistence that each reflection be taken seriously.

So the best way to view BlacKkKlansman is as a movie that knows it’s a movie, and that certain pleasures and dangers are its heritage. It embellishes its true story with cinematic suspense and scenes of crowd-pleasing comic triumph, which, tellingly, have both drawn criticism and got applause from the theater I saw it at in West LA. But the whole experience, particularly the controversy-inviting ending, asks you to be careful where you try to draw the line between what’s “just a movie” and what’s something more. BlacKkKlansman is structured literally as connective tissue between Hollywood myth and your newsfeed, and the deceptive mechanisms of commercial cinema are its weapon of choice.

What is BlacKkKlansman‘s agenda? Not having Trump in the White House would be nice, but the film is under no illusions that the problem began with his political career or will end with it. For a film with such direct attacks on a current sitting President, it is expansive rather than myopic: its subject is a continuum larger than Trump, Stallworth, David Duke, the black power movement, the modern police force, and cinema itself. It starts already close to the edge of what’s comfortable for laughter or suspense (or even choir-preaching), and by the end has gone so far beyond that you should feel shaken, nauseous, and a bit conflicted at how the movie got you there. If its tactics rub you the wrong way, run with that feeling, because dismissing it would be even worse. This is a frontal assault on apathy, ugly and beautiful in the right places. Its value as cinema is to make visceral what might otherwise be safely removed into history or theory. It’s rousing because it never gives in to empty fatalism but sure as shit won’t offer easy answers. And it says, among other things, that laughing at an Alec Baldwin skit won’t do a thing. A clarion call for its audience if there ever was one.

✬✬✬✬✩

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BlacKkKlansman is currently in theaters around the country. Amidst uncertainty and conflict, a dance scene is sublime.

Short Cuts: LET THE SUNSHINE IN

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Claire Denis’ new film, Let the Sunshine In, is irritating. I don’t mean that as a criticism—at least not entirely—but rather as a simple statement of fact, because I gather that a certain degree of irritation or frustration is what it’s going for. The story follows a middle-aged French artist (Juliette Binoche) as men come in and out of her life in a pattern of hope, sex, love, and caprice. In one scene she’ll be happy with someone, the next scene she won’t. She’ll insist she isn’t looking for a fling, then immediately dive into one. She’ll deny that something bothers her, then turn around and say that it does. Most of all, she deserves better: of the men on her platter, none are particularly vivid or different from one another. Anyone who’s been in the dating world and is over thirty (hell, twenty-five) might recognize that this all sounds very true to life, even profound—at least, in theory. In practice, it can be a 90 minute slog in the company of characters whose behavior wavers between complex, which is good, and incoherent, which isn’t. This means that, even while it offers the surface pleasures of Mme. Binoche (as glowing as ever) and cinematographer Agnès Godard (making the city glow with her), theory is still where its principle appeal lies.

So if you’re familiar with Claire Denis’ films, you could be forgiven for looking at the first act and thinking that she’s actually given in and made an expected kind of straightforward bourgeois art film. Let the Sunshine In is neither elliptically edited (like Beau Travail or The Intruder) nor transgressive (like Trouble Every Day or Bastards). But it reveals itself as a structurally mischievous work, a film of such circularity and loose ends that it’s a middle without a beginning or an end. The film’s saving joke is its last one, where we suddenly dip into the lives of new characters who’ve had their own unseen version of the movie running parallel the whole time, and where the whole farrago of romantic confusion continues even as the credits roll, as if this routine can outlast not only your patience but even its own movie. These ideas still rolled around in my head the day after, alongside magnificent sights like Binoche, Denis, and Godard venturing out onto the dance floor. So after some irritation and a good night’s sleep, I can safely say that I’m glad I saw it, and that if you follow the festival circuit, I think you will be, too. Theoretically.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Let the Sunshine In played at Cannes in 2017 and opened in American theaters this spring. If you’re new to Denis, please start with Beau Travail.