Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cannes Film Festival 2015: Part Two

In 1981, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira filmed Visit, or Memories and Confessions, a last will and testament disguised as a kind of home movie. Oliveira, 73 years old at the time, had recently completed work on the 19th-century–set Francisca, an Agustina Bessa-Luís adaptation that in many ways represents the culmination of the director’s second phase after his initial break from full-time filmmaking during the Salazar regime—an era in which he was forced to dedicate his time to other vocational pursuits, namely in the arenas of architecture and agriculture. Perhaps sensing that his career was approaching its conclusion, Oliveira produced Visit, or Memories and Confessions with the express purpose of withholding it from public view until after his death. As is well documented, he would go on to live another 33 years and produce another 25 features; when he died this April, he effectively closed the circle on the greatest third act the cinema has ever seen.

Film Capsule: Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man for Himself (1980)

Every Man for Himself (1980)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Released in 1980, the French iconoclast’s “second first film” ably fulfilled the promise of such a proclamation, returning the filmmaker to the realm of narrative cinema after a decade-plus exploring avant-garde video and activist art. But it also announced a newly liberated approach to narrative influenced by the interceding years of experimentation. Told in three chapters, the narrative initially follows frustrated television director Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), caught between an ex-wife and an estranged girlfriend, as he halfheartedly attempts to connect with his teenage daughter. Meanwhile, Paul’s fling with a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) prompts a shift in perspective for both the character and the film, conceding the discreet trials of Paul’s domestic life for a more troubling look at intimacy. By some measure Godard’s most severe dissection of sexual politics and social expectations, as well as one of his most self-effacing works, this nominal return to commercialism is a radical statement all its own. (June 16, 4pm, 7:30pm at FIAF’s retrospective of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière) [The L]

Monday, June 8, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952)

Limelight's opening, on-screen summation as a "story of a ballerina and a clown" may be the most modest commencement statement for what is certainly one of cinema's great romantic tragedies. Released in 1952, Charlie Chaplin's follow-up to the hostilely received Monsieur Verdoux is indeed the story of a young ballerina whose unlikely relationship with an aging stage comedian summons between them a codependent creative rejuvenation. But this threadbare outline is but a frame for Chaplin to carefully ponder matters concerning his past, his passions, and, more generally, his life and the circumstances which had brought him into the twilight of his career. The result is a beautiful, melancholy meditation on aging and inspiration, and a personal film that, on account of Chaplin's own diminishing popularity and prospects stemming from accusations of supposed communist sympathies, exudes a very real weight in each of its rich, elegant images.

Film Capsule: Spencer Williams's The Blood of Jesus (1941)

The Blood of Jesus (1941)
Directed by Spencer Williams

A key document in the evolution of the race film, this epochal sophomore feature by pioneering actor-turned-filmmaker Spencer Williams is just as equally an important piece of early independent filmmaking proficiency. Starring the director himself as a spiritually wayward Southerner who accidentally shoots his devoted wife Martha (Cathryn Caviness), the film takes as its subject nothing less than the transmutation of the spirit and the journey, even after death, of the soul from purgatory to eternal sanctity. Integrating a variety of forward-thinking visual effects—from superimpositions to sourced footage from obscure religious films—to animate the series of trials and temptations Martha undergoes as she approaches the afterlife, Williams pushes accepted aesthetic values even as he prompts provocative questions regarding not just mortality, but of the price of redemption and the rich, complex history of religion in black culture. (June 3, 6:45pm; June 6, 2:30pm at MoMA’s “A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration”) [The L]

Cannes Film Festival 2015: Part One

With no less than four non-American directors making their English-language debuts in competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the strain from the unfortunate state of worldwide film funding has been felt more than ever at this year’s festival. Of the first time English-language crossovers which have premiered over the first week of the festival, there’s Italian director Matteo Garrone’s stylistically ambitious yet thematically muddled Giambattista Basile adaptation Tale of Tales, as well as the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster, which continues the Greek provocateur’s streak of conceptual narrative conceits but fails to provide any sort of rationale for its allegorical missive—if indeed there is one at all.

Cannes Review: Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days (2015)

In 1996 director Arnaud Desplechin made his international breakthrough with My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. A sprawling three-hour relationship drama starring Mathieu Almaric as Paul Dedalus, a wayward post-collegiate intellectual caught between grad school, his longtime girlfriend Esther (Emmanuelle Devos) and a host of mistresses each pulling at the seams of his unraveling personal and professional lives, the now-veteran French filmmaker’s third feature simultaneously expanded upon and solidified his nuanced, literary-minded approach to narrative.

Nineteen years later, following the premiere of the widely dismissed Jimmy P (2013), Desplechin returns to these most indelible of characters with My Golden Days, a prequel of sorts to My Sex Life… featuring Almaric as a middle-aged Paul Dedalus reflecting on his childhood and the youthful adventures which would ultimately bring him and Esther into their inexorable yet crucial romantic partnership.

Film Capsule: Masaki Kobayashi's Black River (1956)

Black River (1956)
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Bleak and brazenly lurid, this mid-fifties Shochiku production announced with clarion impenitence a sea change in both the conception and perception of modern Japanese cinema. Set in and around a debilitated tenement building on the outskirts of an American military base, and centered on a naïve university student (Fumio Watanabe) whose ideals are challenged when his passion for a young woman (Ineko Arima) with a sordid secret gets caught in the crossfire of an unforgiving crime syndicate led by a brash, live-wire yakuza boss (Tatsuya Nakadai), the film is dark and deliciously cynical, its tone appropriately reflective of the post-war Japanese cultural condition. In his first collaboration with Nakadai, the then-upstart director Kobayashi is equally bold in his narrative and stylistic conceits, mixing genre elements and subverting social niceties in a manner which would soon become synonymous with the nascent Japanese New Wave. (May 17, 5pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Kobayashi/Nakadai series) [The L]

In the Evening of the Day: Thom Andersen's The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015)

“Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once we had
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.”

—Christina Rossetti, Remember (1862)

An opening title card from director Thom Andesen’s new feature film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, directly identifies the cinematic writings of philosopher Gilles Deleuze as the project's primary subject and inspiration. Deleuze’s two volumes on film, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985), are today synonymous with a certain modernist school of thought that, while integrated in academia to such a degree as to be all but understood, remains quite radical. Unquestionably dense and provocatively pedantic, the French empiricist’s filmic texts integrate an array of theories and conceptualizations into a fairly delineated taxonomy, and are therefore fairly conducive to Andersen’s established approach to essay filmmaking—and particularly to the director's latest, which finds him deliberating on Deleuzian dogma while charting an alternate, personal path through film history.